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Junebug watched in amazement as the door irised open before them. Inside was a strange swirling opalescence like the surface of a soap bubble but opaque to the eye. She looked dubiously at the holographic line that her helmet had projected as the limit of the shield. She moved forward cautiously while the Terrans hunkered down pointing weapons at the building, though what threat they thought would emerge from it she had no idea.

Reaching the projected limit of the shield she took a small ultraviolet marking beacon, a flat cylinder the size of her palm and tumbed it on before tossing it like a discus. The plastic unit bounced off the wall of the newly risen building and fell to the snow. A continual strobe of ultraviolet light pulsed from the unit, clearly visible to her helmet which was set to carrot such things.

“Looks like the tech shield is down entirely,” she called back to the Terrans and without another word stepped across the threshold. Absolutely nothing happened, whether temporarily or permanently, it seemed that the defences that had protected this place were down. She trudged the thirty meters to the wall and retrieved the beacon, turning it off and clipping it to her belt. The rest of the party was moving cautiously forward, even Sven who had more reason to fear technological disruption than the rest of them.

Junebug moved to the portal and unslung her Terran plasma rifle. Holding it by the grip like a vast pistol she slid it into the opalescent portal so that the rubberized eyepiece of the optical sight was on the outside but the end of the lens was on the inside. Rather than crouching down to look through the sight directly, she touched a button on the stock of the weapon that remoted the sight picture to her helmet. It was a technique which was occasionally useful for shooting from positions where you didn’t dare stick your head up, but more frequently used by command staff to view what their troopers were seeing. The sight picture opened in her helmet in a small window in the upper right corner.

“Whoa,” she breathed and stepped through the portal vanishing from sight.

Junebug stood at the edge of a vast city of bone white monoliths. At least her mind told her it was a city even though none of the ‘buildings’ had any recognisable function. The portal still shimmered behind her, set into a large lintel of the same cream white material. Here and there ancient and twisted trees coiled towards the sky in odd spiral shapes, their bark curiously rough in a place where everything was so smooth. The air above her head was filled with hundreds, or thousands of what appeared to be floating leaves of pale blue, though they bore no resemblance to the foliage of the trees and were completely independent of any kind of support. The volume of space here couldn’t possibly fit into the entryway she had come through. Looking up she saw that the sky above was completely black, lacking any visible stars.

Curiously she flicked her helmet selector to through its various modes, thermal revealed nothing other than that the place was of an unusually uniform 25.3 degrees but the return on the lidar was so chaotic and fragmented that the helmet display crashed back to regular viewing with a trailing stream of red error messages. The movements sensors too were going crazy. Although the blue leaves, or whatever they were, appeared stationary they must have been moving enough to trip the motion detection program. The atmosphere sensors reported breathable, if slightly too oxygen rich, air so she pulled off her helmet.

There was a slight movement behind her as one of the Terran commandos stepped halfway through the portal. The man, Rosenant she thought his name was, paused halfway through the portal, giving the distinct impression of being cut in half. He stuck his head back through the portal and then stepped fully through. A moment later York appeared, snowflakes still decorating his hair and an irritated expression on his face.

“Captain Cyckali, did it occur to you that the environment here might be animical to human life?” he asked acidly. Junebug shrugged her shoulders.

“The bunker wasn’t and nothing in the old records suggested humans and ancients had different metabolic requirements,” she said her smile hardening as she continued to speak. No doubt the Terrans had drones and other such equipment which they would have used before sending anyone through the doors.

“Besides you can fuck around on your own time, the sooner we are done with this the sooner my crew and I can be on our way.”

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"You are on our time until we see your service through." York reminded her.

Neil poked his head through next, looking like a body-less head floating in the iridescent portal. York thought it looked very much like Mr. Edwards on the chopping block, and judging by the way the Captain Cykali had been angered earlier, he did not know if it was an echo of things to come. Neil moved his hand through next, and then his entire body. He grinned at himself, feeling, knowing he was completely fine. He poked his head back out to tell Taya and the others, and soon the rest of them stepped through.

Tentatively, they moved forward, spreading out in a loose, skirmish formation as they lowered themselves into the sloping 'jungle' of whatever these constructs or materials were. Even Saxon stepped with caution. His race was older than that of the human's, and though they did not know the Ancient Ones well, they were recorded in their histories from antiquity, rather than being cordoned off as myth by the younger races. He was now stepping back in time, to those who had integrated and mentored his Ancestor Gods.

Neil watched Sven run his hand over one of the monoliths, a very human gesture, though no doubt filled with calculations beyond measure. "Harder than steel," he croaked, examining the material. "Less ductile, and lighter, if my scans are correct. But far harder, and able to..." He stopped, and blinked, as if he what he was going to say, but he had run into a mechanism that blocked something harmful or overwhelming to his senses.

"Now what?" Woods asked, her gun up and ready. Her team's locations were on the HUD of her tactical helmet, spreading out further as they explored the vast room. There had to be an end to it, but it already defied physics judging from the space they now traversed. What if there was no end?

"Mr. Edwards, if you would kindly step forward with me." York said, hailing Neil to him. Taya stuck close to York and Sayeeda already, and Neil moved from his examination of the monolith with Sven to report for duty. Though as he approached the center lane, his hand began to pulsate feebly, and he felt strange. A sensation he had felt before but...not like this. He suddenly felt as if he had a biological need to move forward, not by York's orders. But something greater. Deeper. Like a hunger, or even a sexual appetite.

He moved forward then, his irises growing larger in his dark eyes, unable to pull himself from the teasing call he received in his mind. York began to speak to him, and then attempted to halt him. But Neil could no longer hear him. Instead he moved forward, enthralled to the call that flowed through his very being, the catalyst of which was his hand.

It was at that moment, that Woods noticed two of her men had disappeared from the HUD.
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"Cambre? Khan? Report," Woods called, every member of the small team paused and scanned as if expecting to see the two men even though they had vanished from sensors more advanced than human eyes by an order of magnitude. Woods scrolled back throught the sensor logs before looking at York with a worried expression.

"Nothing, it looks like they were there one minute and gone the next..."

Junebug moved closer to Taya, as though by her presence might protect the girl. Taya wore borried body armor but it clearly had been intended for medics or other support personnel rather than front line troops. A side arm was belted to her hip but right now all she was holding was a multiphase scanner unit many times more powerful than those that the helmets used.

"I dont see anything but there is an odd... disturbance in the air flow," Taya reported glancing skywards at the odd floating leaves. Junebug tracked the glance with her rifle but saw nothing to alarm her.

"It looks as if they should be moving, but they are not..."

"Sir," Woods called, "We need to search for our people." York looked around as though vexed.

"Ok everyone stay in visual range, skirmish line with five meter intervals, keep everyone in visual," he commanded. The soldiers spread out as best they could into a ragged line.

"Are we just going to wander blindly or..." Junebug began but York cut her off.

"Previous ancient sites we have surveyed tend to be organized around a central hub. The curve of the wall here can be used to suggest the center," York explained. Junebug couln't imagine he was much of an archaeologist but he had clearly read the field reports of those who did have the specialist knowledge.

"Mr Edwards will lead us with his magic hand," York added as he fell into his own position with the line. A directional line appeared on Junebug's helmet, leading deeper into the strange cityscape. She gudied Taya next to Neil, reasoning his presence was the best gaurntee of safety they had.

"Lets move out!"
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Neil moved forward inexorably, no longer aware of his companions around him. Taya, having noticed that nothing witty or silly had come out of Neil's mouth for more than a minute, waved her hand in front of his face. He gave no indication that he saw her, still walking forward with his hand out, as if to grasp something that was always just beyond reach. Woods squinted and looked at Neil, noticing Taya's concern. "Pretty boy?"

"Captain," Taya said, drawing Junebug's attention. "I think there's something wrong with Neil..."

Junebug looked at him, shaking his shoulder. When he didn't respond, she barked. "Edwards! Front and Center!" But it was to no avail. York shrugged, only glad the pilot was still walking. Junebug sighed, shaking her head at their predicament. Saxon and Sven walked behind them, silently moving and observing, with little interest other than what lay ahead.

Another dot on the radar disappeared. Woods spun, her gun trained on where O'Bannon had just disappeared. She could see nothing. Only the ghost-like monoliths standing erect and silent. York spoke over the comm. "I ordered all eyes on everyone" he lectured. "What is happening, Lieutenant?"

Woods shook her head, full lips parted and blue eyes searching for any sign of the soldier. "Everyone close in." she ordered, and the men began to form up in an archaic, closed formation one might expect from a las-lock world where soldiers used single shot volleys against locals. The leaves still hung above them, silent yet somehow exuding a sense of watching the group as they moved. At the fore, Neil suddenly halted, and his fingers began to twiddle in midair.

Taya shook her head, confused. It took a moment, but a holograph began to form. It took the shape of a console, smooth and advanced, with dimensions that seemed somehow off. A certain wrongness to it that annoyed the eye, and yet remained elusive to its shape. Neil's hands intricately pressed the various buttons on the console, as if writing a 'code' or an algorithm as he often did on the Highlander.

Without warning, the monoliths began to shift. Stone-like material grinded against the smooth structures as they began to turn, lifting up to lay horizontally rather than standing vertically scant seconds before. Somehow, the room seemed even more silent than it had been when they had first entered, as if the very movement of the monoliths caused a silence before the storm. Junebug grabbed Neil, shaking him. "Neil! Wake up!" she called to him.

Hesitantly, Woods approached one of the monoliths. She wanted to help Neil, but she was married to her job first, and she needed to admit she had a rapt fascination with what these structures could possibly be for. Her gun pointing upwards, she lay a strong hand on the smooth metal, suddenly realizing there was a small pressure button near the top of this particular piece. Her slim fingers merely brushing it set it off, and a small portion of the metal 'slipped' open at the top.

She gasped, stepping back, unable to process what she had seen through the glass opening. Junebug noticed and approached too, stepping forward and peeking over to see a Xenos, though one unlike any she had ever seen. Its head was tall and nearly pointed, with large eyes and two slits that no doubt served as a nose. The mouth was covered by a mouthpeice, and its skin was leathery. If it lay in the monolith, it must be tall, albeit lithe.

"What in Gideon..."
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The monoliths continued to rotate flat even as the humans peered at the odd xenos in what appeared to be some sort of ancient sarcophagus. Junebugs tried turning her helmet on again to get a better sense of the thing but was rewarded only with the same chaotic mass of conflicting inputs as before.

“It’s dead,” Taya said, her hand held scanner evidently much better able to cut through the weird sensor anomalies. Junebug turned slowly her rifle at high porte taking in the vast landscape of monoliths. If they all contained corpses then the necropolis was vast indeed. In the direction of the center of the domed space stood an oddly asymmetric pyramid, visible now only because the forest of monoliths had flattened. The range finders were as useless as everything else, but the naked eye suggested that it was two or three hundred meters away. Sayeeda glanced at Sven, if the cyborg was struggling with the odd sensor anomalies he gave no sign, his face its usual impassive mask.

“Look this isn’t my rodeo but we have men missing, Neil acting weird, we should pull…”

“No,” York declared, not loud but firm, “If Captain Tiberius can't out maneuver the Chalcedons they will reduce this place to magma.”

“Seems like another good reason not to …” there was a sudden odd keening noise and everyone spun to face the corpse of the xenos. One of the soldiers pulled his hand away guiltily. Woods opened her mouth to shout something but with the suddenness of a bomb blast the discs spun into motion, slicing the offending marine into blood soaked ribbons. Pandemonium errupted as the humans opened fire at the tide of razor sharp discs. Sayeeda fired one handed, reducing several of the alien artifacts to powder with a short burst. Saxon raised and arm and spurted flame from his cannon, showering the ground with clattering casings.

“The exit has closed,” Sven observed as he batted a darting disc aside with his knife, sending it smashing into another of the flat monolith/sarcophagui. Sayeeda grabbed Neil by the back of his tunic and gave him a shove in the direction of the pyramid, the pilot made a few stumbling steps before returning to a stop. The whole sky seemed to be alive with buzzing discs as they descended in torrents, consuming another marine in a heartbeat. Sayeeda pulled a grenade from her belt with one hand and seized Taya with the other, throwing the girl bodily towards the pyramid.

“Fire in the hole!” she screamed and hurled the grenade into the thickest concentration of discs, turning in the same motion to throw herself over Taya, protecting the younger womans face and ears. The primer charge went off with a pop that sprayed a mist of hydrocarbon based fuel into the air a heart beat before the igniter charge kicked off the fuel air explosion. The shockwave tossed the humans sprawling and sucked all the available air from the atmosphere in a minature mushroom cloud. Sayeeda’s eardrums were saved only by her helmet but the shock was still literally stunning. As soon as she could make her limbs move she scooped up Taya who seemed dazed but unharmed. A few marines still fires sporadically but that was panic fire rather than anything particularly aimed.

“Pick him up!” Junebug shouted to Saxon, indicating Neil who had been knocked sprawling, he had been a little further from the blast and seemed to be ok if still inactive. The reptile shook his head, though possibly it was more in confusion than in refusal. York grabbed Neil and through him over his shoulder in a pack strap carry and bounded away in the direction of the pyramid, he must have been immensely strong to manage such a feat and he showed more good sense than the rest of them. In the sky more discs were descending to fill the smoking void that the grenade had cleared, it looked to Sayeeda like water gouts bursting from a dam about to fail.

“Move!” she screamed at the remaining marines but they were already moving back, Woods and her people falling back into a rough semicircle which surrounded York and Neil. Sayeeda half pushed, half carried the stunned Taya, continuing to fire into the approaching storm. One of the marines had what must have been a heavy breaching shotgun that boomed with the rhythmic percussion of a vast drum smashing half a dozen discs from the sky with each report. The air stank of something that smells vaguely like burning lavender mixing with the sweet stink of cordite and the tang of ozone.

“I’m ok!” Taya screamed pulling free of Junebugs grip and freeing her arm to bring her rifle up to her shoulder. She squeezed the trigger on full automatic emptying her magazine and stripping the clip before slotting home another. One of the marines stumbled over a sarcophagus and lost a hand to one of the darting disc, he opened his mouth to scream a heart beat before three more slice him to offal.

York, in addition to being inhumanly strong, seemed inhumanly fast having covered half the distance to the pyramid already, even burdened with the weakly struggling Neil. He leaped from sarcophagus to sarcophagus with the grace of a nanny goat. Sayeeda tossed another grenade into the mass of discs and followed, moving further the the flank as the circle around York shrank as more and more discs hurtled towards them. Woods shouted orders to her men but it was only discipline and skill that kept them in a remotely survivable formation. A disc slashed across Sayeeda’s chest and she was pitched backwards by the force of it. Flecks of ceramic splashed in all directions scaring a deep trough in her breastplate. For a moment she thought she was finished but Saxon grabbed her by the collar and yanked her back into the line, turning the air in front of her into varicoloured dust with a long burst of his cannon.

“There is an opening!” Taya shouted, audible only over the comm net, even though she was only a few feet away. York pitched Neil through like a sack of flour and turned like a duelist, his elegant pistol in his hand. He fired twenty rounds in an eyeblink each one smashing one of the discs to ruin. Sayeeda followed Taya through opening, a black hole about two meters tall and fringed by lintels of the same color as the monolith. Two more marines followed her before Sven and Woods, the final two survivors leaped into the gap, Woods’ sub machine gun still spitting on full automatic. She pulled a metal half cylinder fom her belt and slapped it to the ground. There was a momentary whine and then the doorway shimmered with a bluish purple light. Sayeeda had just enough time to recognise a breaching force shield before discs began to slam into the barrier, ricocheting off with weird warbling sounds.

The interior of the room was another oddly asymmetric hexagon with four hallways leading off from the sides which didn’t parallel a wall. Junebugs mind couldn’t quite figure out exactly how such a arrangement was set up inside the pyramid but it hardly mattered at the moment. The walls were covered with strange symbols which were obviously of a type with the tattoo on Niels hand and others they had seen in the bunker on the equator. There was no natural illumination but the weapons that Junebug and the marines carried glowed with the heat waste of extended firing, ranging from red to white in the case of the man with shotgun. The barrel of the weapon was visibly warped and Junebug wouldn’t have wanted to bet her life that the next round wouldn’t have catastrophically detonated the weapon. The marine obviously agreed with the assessment because he touched a stud and the barrel fell free, hitting the ground and deforming as the almost molten metal struck the floor. He took a spare barrel from a belt pack and slotted it into place. Junebug stripped the remainder of her own clip and replaced it with a fresh magazine, her own barrel was shimmering down from orange to a sullen red and she took a pair of chemical lights from her webbing, pulled the pins and tossed them to either end of the room against the moment when the heat light had completely faded.

“This shield wont hold…” Woods began but York was already pressing Neil’s hand to one of the designs on the wall. A heavy sheet of ceramic slid down, sealing the door with a boom. The sound of discs striking the panel continued for another two or three seconds and then ceased, leaving the survivors in silence save for laboured breathing and the whir of overheated electronics.
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The room seemed to quiet down, and everyone took a breather as the floating disks were no longer a threat for the moment. York smiled through his mustache, amused as usual. "Well, that was a bit more hazardous than I had hoped." he said. The next move from Neil was sudden. As if Neil's arm was being used by some unseen force, his elbow shot back and struck York in the chest, sending the man skidding across the ground.

Sparks shot out from Neil's tattoo, and he blinked, anyone in his line of sight could see that he had somewhat regained control of himself. "What?" he mouthed, confused as to what was occurring. He didn't have time to continue however, because suddenly his body began to spasm and contort, and he fell from his standing position to being curled up on the ground. The soldier's trained their guns on him, superstitious fear evident in their eyes.

"Hold fire!" York declared, gathering himself up and and dusting off his vest. Those that were physically closer to Neil could hear his seething breathes of pain. It was a new sound. He had been hit, thrown around, cut, and even shot, and he had never made these kinds of agonizing noises. It was as if something was touching and stretching his very nervous system. Sweat began beading off of his arms and what part of his face people could see through the thrashing, and a shoulder 'popped', though whether out of place or back into place, no one was certain.

And then the pilot slumped into the floor, limp and motionless. The marines held their rifles up, but they relaxed a bit after moments of no movement. Taya turned and buried her face into Sayeeda's shoulder, unable to process what where they were or what was happening. Saxon gave a guttural chuckle. "It looks like his luck had finally run out." he rumbled. Woods and Sven gave him a sideways glare, though for different reasons. Woods for romantic plans foiled, and Sven because logically, Neil was their best chance for escape.

It was fortunate for everyone that Neil groaned moments later, and a few gasps were heard as he drew himself up to a sitting position, looking more or less his old self. "Fuck," he breathed, scratching his head and blinking, as if to get used to light his eyes weren't used to. "That hurt more than I thought it would."

Woods and Junebug both looked relatively relieved, though it would only be if one looked close. Taya instead ran to him and gave him a hug. He hugged her back, appreciating that was always going to be the one with her heart on her sleeve. "I'm fine, I'm fine," he repeated to her questions of what happened and how she believed him to be dead. York cleared his throat and stepped forward, inclining his head. "It is good to have you back as yourself, my boy. What exactly did happen?"

"Just me having 2 million years of Alien knowledge uploaded into my brain." Neil said.

"Bullshit." Woods said, eyeing him.

"...Yeah it is. Well, mostly. I do know the layout of this place better, and its function." he said, getting to his feet and stretching. He continued to explain at York's insistence. The men lowered their weapons with a wave of Wood's hand. "I was being whispered to in my mind." Neil explained. "Echoes in my head... I did see images. Images I never thought I would see. Places in the universe I had never been to. Monsters I had never seen. Science beyond ours...I even saw early man. I don't know. But, what I mostly saw was the history of this facility. And I know it's a fail safe facility, against the God Machine near the equator."

"Where do we go now?" Junebug asked.

Neil pointed down the leftmost corridor. A lowlight hall with hexagonal dimensions that never quite closed into shape, defying the eye's expectations for what was meant to be and what was. Neil cleared his throat. "The rest of the facility is that way. The other three doors go to living stations, or have collapsed." He said. The air through that tunnel did smell more fresh than the stale, recycled air that permeated the room they were currently in.

"Let's move out!" Woods called, and the men hopped to, moving into Delta formation and keeping their rifles trained on their 9 and 12s, though they visibly blinked and shifted every time their eyes passed over the strange proportions of the hallways interior. Neil strode at the front, walking through and speaking about the things he garnered from his brief entrancement. "You know, it's pretty wild they developed their civilization two million years before we invented the written word. I think they began their first interplanetary travel with Muon-catalyzed fusion, like we did."

"Neil?" Junebug asked. He zipped his lip and looked at her, expectantly. "You said this place was a failsafe, as well as a research facility."

"Yeah." Neil said.

"Failsafe how?"

"By Decimation." a voice said behind them. They all turned in an instant, guns trained on something they least expected. One of the Old Ones stood there, though it was not flesh and blood. It was a hologram. Sven immediately scanned the apparition, and confirmed it as an A.I. system, albeit a bit rudimentary for the heights of technological advancement this race could usually achieve. The hologram continued. "The chosen one is correct, it is a failsafe. Something to be activated in only the most dire circumstances."

Junebug gave Neil a questioning look. He nodded. "In other words, we're standing on a star system sized bomb."
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Junebug swept the barrel of her rifle back and forth through the head of hologram experimentally. The picture shimmered slightly but showed no other sign of having noticed. York was looking at Neil with an expression she couldn’t read but didn’t seem to her to bode very well. Everyone else seemed frozen by the unexpected turn of events.

“What happened to the men who vanished?” Junebug asked, walking in a circle around the alien projection. No matter what angle she assumed it seemed to be facing directly at her but there was no transition whatsoever.

“All non essential querants are to be terminated,” the hologram responded. Junebug glanced to Woods who looked grim but clearly hadn’t expected any other answer.

“Are we in danger now?” Junebug asked.

“All non essential querants are to be terminated,” the hologram repeated.

“Can N...er ‘the chosen one’ deem us essential querants?” Junebug asked.

“That is not the function of the chosen one. That functionality is not essential.”

“Why do you…” the hologram flickered and vanished and the whole building shuddered. Dust rained down from the ceiling. A second later another hammerblow struck the structure.

“That’s orbital bombardment,” York noted, he rubbed at his chest and cast an irritated glance at Neil. The Chacedon ships must have either destroyed the November Sky or driven it back into the RIP long enough to resume their attack. The shield that had held the Terran’s off must have been immensely strong to prevent them from being instantly obliterated. Junebug didn’t want to think about what that meant for the Highlander right now.

“Neil, whatever the fuck you need to do we need to do it now,” she snapped grabbing Taya by the shoulder and pulling her away from the pilot. Seconds mattered right now and she couldn’t afford to waste valuable seconds calming the girl down.

“Wait just a min…” York began but Junebug had nonchalantly swung her weapon to bear on the spook. She didn’t make a point of it but it was obvious that the Terran recognised the threat.

“Not a discussion,” she said in a voice that held no more warmth than a blizzard. Woods and her surviving two marines shifted uncomfortably. Saxon raised his arm and Sven seemed to produce a knife from nowhere. It still wouldn’t have been great odds. Sayeeda was confident she could put down York but the angle would preclude her from taking any of the remaining three Terrans. It was possible that Saxon and Sven would put them down, but it was vanishingly unlikely they would manage it before the chamber was filled with an unsurvivable amount of gunfire. Another tremor shook the building, this one was worse than the last by orders of magnitude.

“Its not the Chacedons,” Neil said unexpectedly. Everyone paused and looked at the pilot whose eyes were very wide.

“Its starting to wake up.”
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The planet shuddered beneath them. Even so far underground, the tremors were undeniable, meaning it couldn't be local shockwaves in the surrounding area. "Wait, wait!" Neil said, holding his hands up to calm the situation down. He placed a hand on Junebug's rifle, looking her in the eye. Her gaze met his, and it took her many moments before she lowered her gun.

"We can do both." Neil said, snapping his gaze at York to make sure he would hold himself from drawing any weapon. Luckily, he seemed to not be making any sudden movements. Instead he motioned for Neil to continue impatiently. The pilot guessed he wanted as little bloodshed or chaos as possible at the moment.

"We need to leave. But you can grab whatever technology you wish on the way out. You have more to see." He explained. "But we need to hurry, so if we're done threatening each other, I can lead us the fuck out. Is that good for you guys?" He sounded as if he was talking to children or particularly slow learners. He realized that probably wasn't the smartest tone but he had just had his entire internal being violated by an alien presence.

Once they were underway, there was a palpable tension that could likely by cut by a blunt knife, but they still moved and stayed alert. Sven watched the walls of the corridor, analyzing the dimensions and finding an odd calculation. The dimensions were akin to the Pi equation, unending in figures. At least as far as Sven's processing power could tell, the figures have not ended yet.

The end of the corridor led into a chamber made of what seemed to be glassteel, with a large console on the left and blast doors to the left and forward. To the right was an exhibit, with what seemed to be stasis fields holding various certain beings in a floating suspension. It was an odd thing to see, for in the stasis chambers, there was what looked to be one of the Xenos that was in the monoliths earlier, along with a cro magnon man, three unknown Xenos of probable ancient origins, and a very slender version of an archaic Hexanagallion.

Saxon's visage was hard to determine, but he seemed both conflicted and in awe at viewing what was likely an ancient ancestor of his race, and what this meant. Woods and the other marines had a similar view on the situation. York and Sven on the other hand were interested in the console. "Neil, can you activate it?" York asked. "What does it contain?"

"Information," Neil said, stepping forward and moving on instinct and operating the console. "I can extract it for you so you can shut the hell up about it. But we need to open the forward door as well. I just need a minute of time and we can get out of here."
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Junebug waited, she was nervous, you would have to be insane not to be, but she was also a veteran. One of the many things you learned in a career as a professional killer was that you had to transmute your neves into something useful or you would drive yourself crazy. Rather than appearing jumpy, her breathing slowed and her motions became precise, her eyes and expression as cold and colorless as a snake. Looking up she saw Saxon watching her with unusual interest. There was no way for her to read the lizard like aliens expression, they deviated to far from human norms for that, but his long tongue flickered out as though tasting the air and the scales beneath his neck seemed to bulge and redden.

Another tremor rocked the structure, this one was bad enough that a thin crack appeared in the odd ancient ceramic. The bodies continued to float in status. York was scanning the room with some sort of handheld electronics, a short wand with a spherical attachment. Junebug guessed it was some sort of multispectral scanner that was recording everything that was going on though she couldn’t pretend she really cared. York watched over Neil’s shoulder engrossed in the strange glowing runes that flickered above it, filling the room with an unsteady orange light that reminded Junebug of distant fires.

Taya stood beside Junebug clearly unable to decide what to do and clearly terrified.

“How do you stay so calm,” the girl whispered. Junebug shrugged her shoulders, the armor she was wearing exaggerating the motion.

“Practice,” she replied, sounding nonchalant.

“Had much practice being killed by ancient space gods?” the girl all but chirped. Junebug smiled in spite of herself. Taya was young, but if she could manage to be sarcastic at a time like this, there might be a future for her. Junebug regretted she hadn’t had time to teach the former aristocrat more, but it wasn’t like they had enjoyed a lot of downtime in the past several months.

“I’ve seen alot of different types of death,” she said seriously.

“I can honestly think of worse ways to go than being incinerated when the planet tears itself appart.” There was a sudden sound like a torrent of water breaking a dam and the stream of symbols became a flood, lighting the chamber like noontime in the desert. Neil stared wide and unblinking into the sudden flood of symbols, his hand pulsing with its own inner light.

“What is happening?”
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Neil typed furiously, the lights on the console splayed across his visage, as well as York's and Sven's. The cyborg looked between Neil and the console, confused at how Neil was moving so fast that even a being as efficient as he was having a tough time keeping up. Honestly, even Neil didn't know how he knew the alien symbology or even where to begin with extracting various data files of information.

"How am I doing this?" he asked aloud, his fingers moving in a blur. The clacking of the keyboard audible, despite the fact it appeared to be a touchpad. He grinned for a moment and then looked away from the console, even taking one hand off of it as he gazed smugly over at Junebug and Taya. His left hand continued to operate the advanced machine with a million Yottabyte's of processing power. "Impressive, eh?" he asked them. When Woods glanced over, he flexed with his free arm. She shook her head but smiled nonetheless.

The fact that Sayeeda and Taya merely looked at him made him realize he should probably not push his luck, and when he went back to give the console his full attention, he confirmed his suspicions that he was still on track with extracting the information from the machine. Beside him, the AI appeared once more. "The information located in is to be transferred to the Terimas System and retransferred into the Helyaspontine Metric."

York raised an eyebrow, looking at Neil. The Pilot explained. "In the event of a cataclysm, the Ancient Ones wanted the information here to be moved to a more secure location where it could be put to better use. Likely another facility."

"Ah," York said, and spoke no more of it. Of course the transhuman was simply wishing to take the ancient knowledge of a highly advanced civilization for Terran use and damned to its original purpose. Neil simply wanted to extract it so they could get out of here.

"Got it!" Neil said. A small, delicate looking disk slipping out of the console. It was made of the same material as the monoliths in the previous room, which buggered the mind of exactly what the material was. Neil figured he could learn if he lived through this, and he handed the disk to York, who promptly placed it in his jacket pocket. The blast doors forward slid open, and Saxon, who was gazing at his predecessor in the stasis chamber, was the closest. Though it took him a moment to notice the doors had slid open. He was tall enough to glance through and see the walkway led into the forest.

Cold air rushed into the room to greet them, as well as even more tremors in the earth.

"Let's get the hell out of here." Neil said.
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It didn’t take them long to reach the surface. Whatever else had been communicated to Neil’s mind he clearly had an exit route planned. The coiled around several corridors, rushing through chambers the purpose of which Sayeeda couldn’t guess. All the while the tremors grew more frequent and more violent, until merely staying upright became a real challenge. At last they burst out onto the snowy polar tundra, having avoided the open dome with their deadly ceramic discs. The Highlander sat perhaps three hundred meters away, although slightly around the corner of the shield dome from their present location.

As soon as their boots touched the perma frosts all the Terrans tensed and York touched a finger to his ear. Junebug reengaged her helmets electronics suite with the flick of a switch and her helmet AI immediately tuned her into the commo net the Terran’s were using. It was a crackling static hash with only occasional understandable syllables but the computer did its best to correct the signal.

“...ty… have sustained heavy.... respond.... equitorial anoma….”

Though the signal was poor it was unmistakable slugged as the November Sky, which meant at least the vessel hadn’t been destroyed. York didn’t bother trying to respond, instead he lead the party at a run to the battered freighter. Junebug half carried Taya as they rushed up the ramp, Neil leaping up the ladder and into the cockpit a half second ahead of the mercenary. Without even a pretense of caution Neil lit all six thrusters at once and the ship tore into the sky, wind howling through the still closing landing ramp.

“How long have we got to get out of the system?” Sayeeda demanded as they climbed through the troposphre.

“Seven Garl’t,” Neil responded automatically, his hands flying over the controls.

“What the fuck is a Garl’t?” she demanded. The pilot shrugged helplessly.

“Damned if I know, it must be...” Neil trailed off as they broke the atmosphere. Towards the equator a vast silvery thing was tearing itself free of the earth. Sayeeda guessed that it must have been the size of a small city and it was bathed in a crackling electric discharge. The atmosphere above it ionized and there was a flash of nuclear detonation as a mass driver struck the thing on the side of the shoulder. The creature, whatever it was, didn’t pause, it merely raised a massive palm and a green beam of light, so bright that the Highlander’s optics blacked it out to save from burning the crews retinas, lashed skyward. One of the Chalcedon cruisers vanished from the sensor board.

“Get us to the November Sky,” Sayeeda said, her voice, normally calm, held an unexpected note of awe. She tapped a series of keys feeding Neil the vector information he needed. Below them the planet began to pulse, its mantle beginning to crack, the oceans boiling as the volcanic fury beneath bubbled up from mile long cracks in the planets skin.

The November Sky shuddered out of the rip, a mere two or three thousand kilometers away, having outrun the light of its departure. The bow of the ship was a mass of melted metal where it had suffered a mass driver hit from one of its opponents. The void shields had saved the ship, though it would be months or years in dock to repair the damage.

“Get us aboard,” York snapped but they were already moving towards the open launch bay.
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The ship shook as if it was trying to phase through a barrier that wasn't there. The very atmosphere of Savren now contorting and shuddering. It was all Neil could do to keep the ship steady as he punched all of the auxiliary power through the sublight thrusters. If they were lucky, they would have just enough power to make it to the November sky, and maybe a R.I.P. jump just in case. But other than that, the power modules had been damaged too much for Neil to be comfortable with the Highlander.

Beneath them, the God Machine rose up, and for a moment it was still, as if it was a monument to a bygone era. It had the likeness of a vaguely human shape, with a crest rising above its head, and it was noticeably without a nose of any kind. The helpless survivors of the bombarment upon the planet's equator could only watch in horror as the monstrosity, hundreds of kilometer's away, opened its mouth and let out a pierce bellow, much like a alarm horn of warning.

Suddenly, dark monoliths, unlike the ones they had found inside the facility, began to form along its chest and all to the ground, somehow landing at their base and forming by some otherwordly metric no one could begin to fathom. It raised its hands and began to decimate the Chalcedon's fleet with ion blasts that blinded all within two hundred kilometers of the beam's lights. Even now, the planet began to crack open like a great maw of magma, as if it were an even harsher beast of the void.

Neil could focus on little of that, trying to keep the Highlander from being ripped apart or caught in the ever volatile orbit. Woods and her crew were in the cargo bay, as was Saxon and Sven. Taya, York, and Junebug sat in the cockpit with Neil, the transhuman clutching his jacket where the disk was located. He seemed far from his usually amused self, now fully intent on getting the forbidden knowledge of the cosmos to the November Sky.

"So, once we reach the November Sky, we're to have our freedom and reward?" Junebug asked.

York raised an eyebrow and looked at her. "Of course. Though first we'll need to extract the data of the Ancient Ones from this file." he said, patting his breast. "T'will change the course of history forever. All will fall before the Imperium, and you will be free from all charges."

Neil banked left, curving an asteroid cluster and spinning the Highlander back into place as he approached the open hanger bay. Despite their previous journey, it really did not sit right with him that the Terrans would gain such a massive increase to their technological power after they had proven time and again to be ill fitted for rule.

Behind them, Savren exploded.

Neil couldn't see it on the back display, as it was brighter than a thousand suns. But he read the energy readings on the output of the explosion, and he knew that unless the November sky had a crack pilot, they wouldn't be able to land on it and have it enter the R.I.P. before they were consumed. The blast radius really was the entire system!

"Orders Captain?" Neil asked.

"We go to the November Sky!" York ordered out of turn.
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Sayeeda didn’t have the same sort of experience with starships that Neil did, but she did have strong survival instincts. Everything screamed to her that, if they didn’t get out of this system in the next few minutes, they weren’t getting out at all. The Highlander probably wouldn’t survive a RIP jump in any case, judging by the damage they had taken back on Saavran. Or the planet formerly known as Saavran. Junebug wondered if the sleeping thing would have woken up if the Chalcedon’s hadn’t bombarded it.

“Steer for the Sky,” she called to Neil to which York nodded emphatically. The Highlander curved gracefully into the hangar bay and the moment they cleared the magnetic shield the ship leaped into the RIP. Sayeeda’s mind filled momentarily with spiraling neon designs which extended to the infinite without losing resolution. For a moment she hovered on the edge of madness and then she was back in the Highlander as it set down on the deck. The captain had taken a risk jumping while they were still airborne. If Neil had gone into a spastic fit they might have wrecked the freighter, but even that would be a small price in the mind of the battered warships captain.

“You have done a great thing for humanity today,” York said smugly as they all walked shakily down the gangplank. A squad of marines in full combat gear was waiting for them and Sayeeda didn’t get the impression that they were an honor guard. York stepped over to them and turned with an apologetic smile.

“Unfortunately… we cannot allow Mr Edwards to depart, that tattoo of his might be the key to more knowledge than we can imagine.” Junebug stiffened at the words, although part of her had expected them, a mercenary always hopes that the contract will be honored, even when her guts told her otherwise.

“You are free to take the rest of your people and leave Mistress Cyckali, with the thanks of Terra and a hundred thousand credits in compensation,” York declared magnanimously. Woods stepped off to the side clearly intending to cover Junebug incase she decided to do anything stupid. Junebug glanced at the marine and lowered her rifle, Neil shot her a look of mute betrayal. Junebug sighed heavily. She didn’t know if Sven or Saxon would back her up and Taya looked terrified beyond words. The smart thing would be to leave Neil and go. She would have full rights to the Highlander then and she and Taya could probably pilot well enough until they could hire on another spacer as a helmsman.

“It is Captain Cyckali,” she said in a flat voice and she was suddenly moving. With her off hand she cast her plasma rifle at Woods as an improvised missile and whipped a hand out from behind her back Neil’s old style revolver in her fist. She had taken it from him when he started acting weird back in the temple in case he tried something when he wasn’t in his right mind. The marines were expecting something, but they were so shocked by so suicidal an action that they hesitated for a fraction of a second. She shot York in the chest, the bullet smashing the disk in his breast pocket. Taya screamed and threw herself back towards the boarding ramp as half a dozen weapons opened fire. Junebug dove towards Woods, placing a second shot into a bandolier of grenades one of the marines wore. The hangar erupted in white fire as the bullet punched into the flash bangs, gang firing the whole bandolier and sending the charred remains of the marine smashing into a nearby cargo container. Junebug hit Woods around the waist, sending the woman sprawling.

The Terran was no newcomer to hand to hand but there was literally nothing you could do when two hundred pounds of body armor hit you at full speed. The tumbled along the deck in a ruck. Junebug struck at Woods face with a flat palm but the Terran caught the blow and twisted into a throw. Gunfire chattered deafeningly as Sayeeda spun over Woods shoulder, catching a grip of her backpack and slamming the Marine into the ground. Junebug kicked her in the hip, using the motion to shove herself away from Woods, trying to clear enough space to use the pistol, but the other woman rolled with the blow, skidding behind one of the lowboys that transported heavy equipment. Even though she didn’t have a shot Junebug put a round into the vehicle before firing the remainder of the clip into the marines more or less at Random.

The soldiers were dragging the stricken body of York backwards towards one of the armored hatches. It was only the shock of attack and the flashbangs that had kept them alive so far. Junebug knew that in another heartbeat they would cut down the Highlander’s crew in flurry of rifle fire. Woods was rising from behind her cover to line up a kill shot on Junebug. Screaming a curse Junebug swung Neil’s pistol to bear and pulled the trigger. The final round cracked out and there was a sudden electrical discharge that painted the hangar with couscating static sparks. The bullet hit an invisible surface halfway between Junebug and Woods and dropped to the floor with a clang. Fire from a dozen weapons clattered into the same invisible barrier, limbing it with blue fire and revealing a cylindrical disc around the highlander. Junebug could only stare in wonder as bullets bounded to the deck and plasma bolts spattered impotently across the protective barrier. Taya had activated the Highlander’s void shield inside the hangar. That was an insanely dangerous choice that might have just as easily killed everyone in the hangar in a massive generator failure. Well as they said in the Armored - Any one you walk away from.

“HA!” Junebug crowed and turned to dash towards the Highlanders landing ramp. There was a hollow boom behind her as one of the soldiers fired a shoulder mounted rocket into the shield, though he needn’t have bothered, the Highlander’s shields were built to take fire from another ship and there wasn’t much a man could carry that packed that kind of firepower.

“Junebug we have maybe five seconds before the shield fails!” came Taya’s voice tinny and terrified.
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Neil reached for his gun right after Junebug shot York with his pistol, only realizing after the fact that she had his fucking gun. Well, it couldn't be helped. The pilot might not be nearly as well trained in hand to hand as Junebug or Woods, but he had basic training down and was scrappy, and while York was close to superhuman levels of physical capabilities, he had just been shot with a large caliber bullet. Neil spun acrobatically and launched out with both of his feet in a drop kick, hitting York in the chest to add insult to literal injury. The sophisticated man cried out in pain and clutched his chest from the blow that had been struck into the bullet wound.

Neil caught himself with his hands, landing apeishly into a crouch. He just barely dived into the shield in time before the lasbeams and bullets began to ricochet off the void fields. Neil hit the ground in another roll, only to slam into the trunk-like limbs of Saxon, who looked down at him as if he was a particularly large shit he had just stepped in. "Your doing, I imagine." he rumbled, and to Neil it truly did look like he was contemplating on stepping on the lithe pilot. Neil shook his head emphatically.

"Not this time." He assured him with a grin. "Other times, yes. But this time, I didn't shoot first."

The growling continued for a few moments before it fadded off, and then a very human-like sigh escaped his mandibles. The Hexanagallion then began to access the small console within his armor at the wrist, and a small compartment raised up from above his massive hand. Neil heard air being sucked into the strange compartment before it launched its payload; a wrist mounted rocket. It sailed out of the void shield and detonated at the feet of the marine's, killing four and wounding several others.

"Don't stick around too long big guy, we're needing to get the fuck out of here." Neil said, scrambling to his feet and sprinting into the open cargo bay door. Saxon didn't respond, but he retreated nonetheless as he launched a volley of fletchlette rounds into the marines, who were leaping into cover and still firing just in case a few rounds pierced the shield, however unlikely that was. Neil passed Sven, who was simply doing his best to fix the parts of the Highlander that needed patching up.

"I'm glad I don't have to do two things at once like usual." Neil said to himself as he vaulted over a workshop table and slid into the cockpit access corridor. He hit the pilot seat hard and began to set the systems to go, calculating and working furiously. Thank Gideon, Sven had fixed the ship at least well enough to where it wouldn't detonate on impact, but Neil needed to still get things just right because going into the R.I.P. while already into the R.I.P. was probably the most risky thing one wanted to do in a ship.

When he saw that all were aboard, Neil revved the engine up and set the coordinates. The screen of the hanger bay appeared, and he saw Woods checking York on the ground, helping him up. Neil took a moment to watch her, before he pushed the image away and groaned. "Another one bites the dust." he said, and he hit the launch sequence. Within moments, the ship would tear a hole through the fabric of reality at the far end of the hanger and disappear into the void.

Neil felt as if his soul and nervous system were being tugged in two opposite directions, and he screamed as the ship tore through anotherarea of the R.I.P. He didn't even have air to warn the others to strap in. They simply were gone, and flew into the unknown.
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The Highlander shuddered out of the RIP gracelessly. Junebug felt the hull torque as the insertion charge dispersed unevenly and she held her breath for long moments until it became clear that the freighter wasn’t going to break up entirely. This time at least she hardly noticed the discomfort of dropping out of the RIP.

“Alright someone tell me we aren’t all going to starve to death?” she said, her implant transmitting to all receivers that hadn’t made a point of blocking her. Currently Junebug was wedged into one of the access crawlspaces, wedged in tight with a nest of wiring conduits and junction boxes. The space was too tight for her helmet so she had borrowed, stolen really, a pair of glasses from Neils tool box. The glasses didn’t have the range of inputs her helmet had but they did allow her to link to the Highlander’s database and to read basic electronic information from the circuits she observed. She had been in the process of troubleshooting a sort that was preventing the power cells from draining evenly. The problem was that each burnt out chip she found only lead to another burnt out chip, each sequentially fried by the surge when the ship had hit the alien shield.

It had been three days since they fled the November Sky. Exiting a ship already in the RIP had been risky but the Highlander had managed to extract into real space long enough for them to jury rig the power cells and take star sights. The sights only gave them a forty percent likelihood of an accurate fix on their position even with Savran as a reference point. The best they had been able to do was point themselves vaguely in the direction of civilization and jump again before the Terran cruiser could return and snatch them up.

“Well it ain't exactly Gremadine, but I think it's settled,” Neil shouted, his voice unaided by communications gear. The thumping beat of his repulsive music echoed up the shaft from the cockpit. SHe had no idea what or where Gremadine was but she took his meaning. They hadn’t talked much since they made their escape, they hadn’t had time, even with all five of them working they had only just managed to keep the half crippled ship together long enough to take another star sight which suggested a likely settled world and make a last ditch jump. Sayeeda hadn’t been kidding, if this world was uninhabited and there was a very real possibility the Highlander would never be able to leave it.

Surprisingly Saxon had found his way into her company more frequently than Neil did. The lizard alien seemed to be making a point of it, though Sayeeda couldn’t imagine why. He made a few cryptic comments about her being cold which seemed a positive change from his usual threats against Neils life but the change still left her baffled. Junebug pulled a screwdriver from her belt and worked free the fried chip with a click. She removed a chip from her pouch and held it up in front of her goggles, allowing the computer to confirm it was the right unit for the job before slotting it into place. The chip flashed green as the built in ameteres registered the connection was good.

“Alright,” she said, wiping her sweaty face on the shoulder strap off her tank top and then slithering her way back to the access port above the cockpit. With lithe grace she dropped through the port and landed on both feet and one hand just behind the pilot's seat. Neil must have expected the movement because he didn’t jump or react other than to make a gesture at the forward view screen. The planet before them was largely arrid, mostly desert except for a few unenthusiastic strips of greenish gray near an unhealthy looking equatorial ocean.

“Sensors show habitation,” Taya chimed in from her customary seat.

“Lony says there are even ionization tracks that indicate starship landings, though it doesn't look like they get a ton of visitors.” As the girl spoke long curving arcs appeared on the view screen with estimated times of the tracks. The most recent vector was over two weeks old. There didn’t seem to Junebug to be any pattern to them other than they all ended in broad canyons that criss crossed the desert.

“Any radio traffic?” she asked Neil.

“This dirtball have a name?”
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Neil opened up the Galaxy map on the display monitor, moving without thinking. The past few days he had barely left the cockpit, living, eat, and breathing keeping the Highlander steady through the R.I.P., even with the automated navigational systems fully functional. That, and the fact that the R.I.P. was usually what pulled you along in the intended direction, not the other way around. He simply had done his best to keep them from being ripped apart or devoured by void beasts.

When the Galaxy map appeared, they looked to be in the outer ring of the Galaxy, in what was often called the 'eastern' section. "Hahn." Neil told the Captain, drawing up the world on the display monitor. "It's called Hahn, and from the looks of it, it's a breeding ground for mercenaries, thieves, and people wanting to get lost. Sounds too good to be true." He said, and there was little indication in his voice on whether or not he was being sarcastic.

"The planet has a desert biome," Lonney said, fully unaware of how redundant the statement was. "32.7% water, high in mineral deposits. Population is two million and eight hundred thousand, with 68% being human or near human. Very little else in known about the planet itself, other than it is often on Terra's 'to conquer' list." Neil snickered. That must mean it had many problematic people but little resources for the Imperium to bother going there.

"Well at least I can get a tan." Neil said, revving the sublight engines forward. "Taking her down Captain..."

The indicator showed the closest port was a settlement at the foot of the vast desert, west of it being a small ocean and east of it a vast mountain range that bladed into the sky. It almost looked like the aftermath of a massive shockwave. Neil suddenly had it in his head to say something to Junebug, opening his mouth...and then closing it. He'd talk to her after they landed. Taya stepped into the cockpit now, wiggling in excitement.

"Gods, I can't wait to set foot on a planet that isn't exploding." She exclaimed.

"You know you'd think that'd be a low bar, but with our luck..."
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Hahn wasn’t a world Sayeeda had ever heard of, though that wasn’t surprising. According to the navigational chart they were a staggering distance from Saavran, that too was unsurprising, the Terran cruiser was able to brave much stronger currents than the Highlander could have managed. If they had tried to enter the RIP stream themselves, the energy gradient would have ripped them to atoms. Once they were in they had plunged, unguided by the nav computer through the maelstrom of the RIP without any of the normal station holding navigational corrections. Junebug was just as glad to be far from the reach of the Terrans. Whatever bounty had been placed on them had gone up exponentially after they had gunned down York and half a dozen marines, not to mention destroying invaluable data.

The sector they were in was extremely poorly charted. Most worlds were little more than alphanumeric designations with a few keywords attached to them. Breathable atmosphere, fresh water, dangerous biota. Even places that had larger write ups were years out of date and compiled from the records of tramp freighters and free traders rather than anything like a regular courier service. It would take months to work their way back towards the galactic core, although Junebug didn't have any particular reason to do that. When she and Neil had bought the Highlander, she had a vague notion of making a living as a free trader, but beyond that her goals were vague and ephemeral. She was rootless after Andor’s Armored had disbanded and adventure in general was more important than any abstract goal.

“Lets hope that people don’t take one look at us and decide to put on a Xenos invasion or launch a coup in our honor,” Junebug said smiling wryly for what felt like the first time in days. There didn’t appear to be any orbital control or landing beacons of any kind. The only transmissions that the Highlander was picking up were low powered radio broadcasts meant for use within the atmosphere. Sayeeda touched a few holographic keys and accessed the navigational data from the atlas. As she suspected, the entry contained the landing coordinates of the last ship that had contributed to the charts, she imported it onto the navigational display and a slow pulsing green bead appeared on the display, at the terminus of one of the older ship tracks. Neil eased the Highlander onto the new course with uncharacteristic care.

As they descended into the atmosphere it became apparent that Hahn wasn’t quite as desolate as it appeared from orbit. The deserts were largely stoney rather than sandy and here and there green oasis appeared, ringed with plant life. Some of the swales too sported green fringes of tough looking succulents and twisted looking trees with broad spiny leaves. Here and there vast formations of orangey yellow rock thrust into the sky forming impressive mesa. There were no obvious roads though Junebug thought she spotted plumes of dust which must have been raised by human vehicles.

Their destination was a broad canyon that ran roughly south east. The canyon ran for hundreds of miles down towards the equatorial sea and it varied in width from a few dozen meters at its narrow choke points to several hundred meters at its widest. It was well over a hundred meters deep, making it difficult to view the interior until one was directly over it.The settlement wasn’t visible even to sensors until they were within a hundred clicks or so. It was built entirely within the canyon at one of the wider points, with only a few antennae projecting up over the lip. As Neil bought the Highlander into balance over the canyon they could see that the settlement, calling it a city stretched the point, was built up against the walls of the canyon with a broad boulevard that ran down the center of the chasm and twisting side streets meandering back towards the canyon walls. The buildings were of adobe and yellowish sandstone and most of them were low only one or two stories, save at the canyon wall where they grew higher to abutt the rock faces. Most of the buildings had flat roofs that were topped with greenery in roof gardens and the roads were lined with what looked to be Terran date palms. Large dericks were sunk into the central road at intervals and they rocked back and forth before gouting up water like fountains. The path of the canyon must have been drawn by an ancient river that had since vanished underground. In the center of town, surrounded by gardens and fountains were larger building with large domes and minarets that had been gilded with golden metal, though Sayeeda thought it was probably brass rather than pure gold.

To the southern end of the settlement the canyon flared to a width of nearly half a kilometer, several ships, many much the worse for wear, were landed on the dusty stone. Tarps of stone bleached canvas covered stalls and shops or just provided shelter for ships crews that wanted to be off their own vessels. Men and they were almost all men, milled about trading and buying food or other provisions from the vendors, many of which were nothing more than a cart with a canvas shade. There was nothing that even approached a shipyard but there were enough ship components scattered on rugs for inspection that Sayeeda could at least hope they could affect some meaningful repairs.

No one appeared to be particularly concerned by the hovering freighter although several people were pointing up at them as Neil set them gently down in the shade of the canyon wall. The whole crew let out a sigh of relief as they touched down and the engines shut off.
“Looks like there is a welcoming committee,” Junebug observed pointing to a group of men that were making their way towards the ship. Like most of the civilians their skin ranged from Junebugs olive to pure ebony. They were dressed in layers of cloth and turbans which was probably meant to be a uniform. Each of the men carried a long spear that ended in a shock rod and they carried a variety of antiquted firearms that seemed to follow no particular pattern. At their head was a paunchy man with drooping mustaches, set off by his bright red turban. There was a gold chased pistol at his hip, though even from this distance it looked more ceremonial than practical.

“Customs inspectors maybe?” Taya asked uncertainty. Junebug shrugged her shoulders. The newcomers looked bored rather than threatening which meant they probably didn’t anticipate trouble.

“Maybe,” she said noncommittally, eliciting a hissing grunt from Saxon.

“Lets get our party clothes on and go out and say hello.”
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Neil unstrapped his safety harness and stretched, needing to loosen his limbs to better handle walking. He didn't remember the last time he had gotten up that wasn't for using the lavatory. There were a few audible 'cracks' as he stretched, then as he went into the cargo bay he did a quick backflip to prove to himself nothing was stuck or a muscle wasn't tight. "Ah man, honestly even if they do open fire, at least I'll die outside where I can breathe." he said.

His fears were not founded, thankfully. Junebug had told Saxon and Sven to remain inside initially, to keep the newcomers from becoming too intimidated. Saxon seemed a bit annoyed, but Sven merely said nothing, continuing to tinker with various wires that spread along the corridors of the Highlander. Neil knew Sven knew his stuff, but he still had the smallest inkling of suspicion on what exactly he was doing with Neil's Junebug's ship.

They walked out in standard formation. Junebug front and center, with Taya flanking her on the left and Neil taking the right, hand cannon in easy reach behind his back and his customary smirk on his face. The wind blew lightly, and Neil had a feeling it would be far stronger outside of the canyon 'city'. It was a half a dozen people that greeted them, with two wearing helms and the rest with their faces concealed by cloth, until the middle one opened his to reveal a gangly face with sharp cheekbones and a nose to match.

"So, I will not pretend that most make appointments to enter our fair settlement. But still, I must beg the question on why you are here..." he said, his voice heavily accented. The man showed his teeth with his dead smile.

"To trade and repair our ship." Junebug said, her tone neutral. "Ran into some trouble in the middle rim and needed to make a quick jump. Ended up here. Is our business allowed?" Her voice implied that she expected to be accomadated, and within moments she saw she wasn't wrong. He smiled again, this time genuinely.

"Of course, of course. One cannot ever be too careful, you see? It is customary we approach ships in tis way, to show we are not to be bothered with politics or bribery. But traders? Of course, yes. Depending on what you have, you may find yourself a good housing complex here! We have a few vacancies as of late. Some of our fellows have decided to brave the Sea of Serpents and the Dragani Desert. None come back from either, generally."

The man whispered. "Jumbala!" to a subordinate. One of the ebony skinned men approached, a package in his arms. Neil looked between his Captain and the package, and he stepped forward to touch the thing lightly. "Huh..." Junebug shared a look with him, and opened the plain brown paper to reveal...a large pastry.

"A welcome gift!" the man cried.

Junebug didn't know what to make of it, and truth be told neither did Taya. Neil spoke for them.

"Cool." he said. "By the way, if people never really come back from the sea or the desert, why did they leave?"

The man waved a hand dismissively. "Old tales of riches. Simple common talk and rumor."
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The red turbaned man whistled and the guards took a step forward, though they weren't threatening, Neil and Sayeeda instinctively spread out to block access to the ship. The guards paused, glancing at their chief. The man made a brushing gesture, fluffing his mustache in what was clearly meant to be dismissive.

"We must search the ship, to assess your cargo for the Pasha's tribute," the officer said, his tone was still friendly but it had hardened a little with an avaricious look in his eyes. Sayeeda cast a glance over her shoulder at the Highlander. The freighter was clearly worse for wear. In addition to the crash damage, the emergency RIP jump had added further scars. The hull plating was cracked and heat worked and several of the external electronics blisters were cracked and burned.

"We are empty," Sayeeda said in a level voice that was flat enough that the nearest guard tensed and gripped his weapon. The turbaned man made an elaborate bow filled with mock obsequiousness.

"I wouldn't impune your honor mistress, but less honest people than your august selves have been known to claim that they are empty when their holds are full of slaves or precious items the seek to sell without the bother of the Pasha’s duties,” the official said with an oily smile. Junebug wasn’t sure if the half finished mechs, the arsenal of weapons, or the presence of her additional crew would cause a problem but she didn’t particularly wish to find out.

“I give you my word of honor that we have no cargo that would interest your Pasha,” she said raising her hand as though to shake. After a moment the official smiled shrewdly and reached out and shook her hand.

“Well then perhaps that shall be sufficient mistress, call on Ali son of Ali should you require any assistance,” he said with a smirk before turning to his guards.

“Ayalah, Imshe!” he called and the colom of men turned and headed back towards the fountains that marked the end of the main street, tramping up a cloud of dust as they made there way across the open air market. The official business completed, the hawkers began to press in, calling the virtues of their wares and their ludicrously low prices. There were no aliens that Junebug could see and most of the women were more conservatively dressed than either herself or Taya. Here and there a leather collar wrapped the neck of an individual marking them as slaves. Junebug frownd in distaste and looked around at the other ships landed in the broad bowl that served as the starport. Most of the ships were battle scarred and all were armed, she suspected that the only difference between a pirate and a trader in this distant sector was opportunity.

Once it became clear the the new arrival didn’t have any cargo to discharge or much interest in doing business the crowd began to recede back to their stalls, leaving the newcomers in relative peace. Junebug sighed and turned to Neil and Taya. As she did she saw Sven walk down the ramp and vanish into the crowd on some bussiness of his own. Saxon it seemed was content to stay on the ship. It seemed unlikely that the lizard would try to steal the Highlander, not least because it was in no condition to jump away.

“Well I don’t supposed a few hours one way or the other will make much difference,” she said unwilling to contemplate the damage to the ship after 3 days of nearly constant work.

“Let's find a drink.”

It had, Junebug realised, been an unusually long time since she had a drink. She wasn’t a lush by any stretch of the imagination but rare were they days she abstained from alcohol completely. Still, the last time she could remember drinking anything was at Aiden’s coronation party which seemed like a lifetime ago. The Terrans didn’t offer liquor aboard ship and their hadn’t been time on the Smugglers moon. The three of them sat at a table of smooth synthetic that had been finished to look like polished wood. The Akir Julan was a reasonably quiet establishment just on the edge of the settlement. It was open to the air on three side, though covered with a roof and sectioned off with a series of limestone bollards that were roped together with braided cabling. The single serving area was filled with small table and at the back there was a large open air hot plate upon which meat sizzled in oils and spices. Rows of carefully tended plants sectioned the place off into natural sections and also leant it a cool dry atmosphere that was very refreshing in such a sunbaked place. It wasn’t packed, it was the afternoon and the lunch rush had passed but there were enough people here to keep the kitchen busy. In one corner a group of old men played a board game Junebug didn’t recognise while they sipped at cups of rich coffee sweetened with molasses and cream. At another table a young women with beautiful golden skin and dark exotic eyes sat with an older man. The girl was reading something on a primitive hand held terminal while her companion, Junebug figured him for a bodyguard, merely looked board.

Sayeeda siped the spirit the serving boy bought her and felt it sting the back of her throat, even as its sweetness cloyed in her mouth. Taya took a much less cautious sip of her own drink and immediately began to choke her eyes watering. The boy giggled and then headed back to the hot pate, returning with three plates of heavily spiced meat in a herb gravy, heaped atop hard unleavened bread.

“Stars what is this stuff,” Taya croaked hoarsley. Junebug grinned with amusement. She was dressed, more or less per usual in a white cotton t-shirt with the logo of some half forgotten band splashed across the front of it, and her combat pants and boots. A utility belt, currently draped over the corner of her ornately carved, if rather battered chair, held a plasma pistol and a pouch of extra reloads. Her only concession to local fashion was a hooded cape she had bought from a street vendor on a whim. It was black with intricate swirling patterns of gold and silver laid into it with metallic thread.

“Palm wine I think, the have something like it most places that have Earth plants,” she explained. In her former career she had found that palm wine, a misnomer because it was more like a moonshine than a grape wine, was almost a universal constant.

“Its usually pretty roughly distilled so be careful drinking it unless you want a terrible hangover,” Junebug cautioned, though judging by the way the girl was eying the drink, that didn’t seem like much of a risk. The local fashion for tobacco seemed to be by water pipes or by cigars that were almost comically huge. Junebug split open her cigar with a neat cut of her knife and rerolled it at a more manageable size before holding it between her teeth and lighting it with the chemical igniter that the staff provided.

“You want caffeine lady?” the boy asked hopefully. Junebug shook her head and breathed a thin stream of smoke. It was rough stuff without the synthetic flavorings she was used to but it wasn’t unpleasant. Drawing a coin from a pouch she flicked it towards the child, who, with incredible reflexes, snatched it from the air and made it vanish in the same motion before heading off to his next table. Junebug picked up her cup and raised it to Neil in salute. She wasn’t exactly sure what she expected of the pilot, he had been through alot these past few days, and she hoped that his head wasn’t too scrambled from whatever had transpired on Saavran.

“Here is to the Highlander and her gallant crew, still alive if slightly worse for wear, and several million credits poorer,” she toasted ironically.

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Neil took the cup of wine in his hands without comment, feeling the sturdiness of the clay cup and somehow feeling a bit more secure from the texture. It let him know he was back on a backwater world, once of his favorite places to be. If you couldn't trade, you could steal, if you coudn't steal, you could guard to keep from stealing. A world of work to be had for your average mercenary, plenty of women, and more than likely very strong drinks.

Still, the past few days had taken its toll on him, and he looked far less springy than he usually did. The air was tinged with spice that cleared his sinuses, but he still felt as if his very veins were clogged, and there was still a distinct dullness to the air that only a desert biome could weigh upon you. It also didn't help that they had been betrayed, and that he couldn't even say goodbye to Woods. He was willing to bet she wasn't in on the betrayal, but he was also willing to bet she would have shot him if ordered to do so.

It also didn't help that every girl here had Junebug's exotic looks. Needless to say that he took a few very large gulps of his drink after accepting the toast, clacking his cup against Sayeeda's and giving a faux-enthusiastic "wooooo" to the pronouncement. Even in a sorry state, he wasn't above some theater. He and Junebug downed their drinks in a relatively short amount of time, calling for another round when Taya was only halfway finished with hers.

Despite the heavy drinking and the rough terrain of the so called settlement, the young girls and the serving boys seemed to be very polite, or at least they knew just when to be as mischievous as their ages would entail. When the meat was placed in front of them, Neil blinked to get the grogginess out of his eyes, the heavy spices flaring his nostrils. "You ever had anything like this?" Neil asked Junebug.

"A few times. It's far better than the grool I've had in the trenches." she reminded him, already cutting herself and Taya some. Neil shrugged and grabbed a bit himself. He also took out a cigar, one of the types that Sayeeda took advantage of and had her light his. All in all, he might feel like shit, but at least he didn't have to fly a dying starship anymore. "I kind of feel like sleeping out in a room around town, maybe." he said. They didn't need to join him but he wanted something new. "Lord knows where Sven's going, and I think Saxon could use the space from me." he said with a wink.

Behind him, there was a loud clanging and a squeal. Neil turned to see a rough looking traveler with wine staining his shoulder, and the serving boy that had brought them their food on the ground, fear across his youthful face. "S-Sorry sorry sir!" the boy stammered, trying to backtrack away on his feet and hands. The traveler had on a rebreather mask and a large tan duster, his voice echoing out of the large helm he wore.

"You will pay for my jacket, boy. Or you'll pay with your life." he warned, raising a large, gloved fist in a threatening gesture. The young girl that had been reading to the older gentlemen gasped and looked away, as did her friends that crowded around the table. Neil moved his hand without thinking, drawing his revolver and firing, so quick as he that the gun was back in his holster before anyone had the time to turn around. The bullet had gone straight through the man's chair leg, causing the flimsy wooden thing to collapse under his weight and letting the boy run off.

"What!?" the masked one exclaimed, trying to get off the ground and regain his composure. Taya giggled and Neil simple kept eating, acting as if he hadn't noticed a thing.
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