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Orleans Space
Federation Frontier Station Pathway
Hangar Bay



“Ambassador Rev - I must again express my gratitude on behalf of my most humble soldiers that someone of your rank and stature would reach out to us. Truly, we are thankful,” burbled the Petalos female Yaenton Praetarei, CEO of SkullCorp™© Specialised Forces. Before them, in the vast hangar hall of the space station, stood a small force of a thousand human soldiers, armoured with titanium-reinforced kevlar over dark purple hyperfiber shirts. Apart from that, though, their look was far from uniform, helmets and hairstyles being completely optional. The weapon was of a single model, however - the Prrp & Sterlington Model 98 laser rifle, arguably the finest handheld weapon ever produced by that squid and ape. The soldiers gave the ambassador a proper salute despite their seemingly casual take on order and style.

“The pleasure is all mine, Ms. Praetarei.” Ambassador Rev said, dressed in a fine ebony colored suit, flanked by two guards. “Let’s discuss further details of your contract in my office, your men in the meantime can make free use of this station’s amenities.”

“Wonderful, wonderful. Force Commander - come here, please.”

The lady standing at the front of the battalion, a seemingly young human with side cuts underneath a long length of purple hair running down the right side of her head that matched her hyperfiber suit. She stomped one combat boot to the floor, marched forward until she arrived before the ambassador and the CEO, and saluted. “Yes, Ms. Praetarei?”

“Ambassador Rev, this is Force Commander Erina Thatch - she will serve as our primary representative to you once the contract has been signed, if it pleases. Commander Thatch, the ambassador has given you and your soldiers permission to use the amenities aboard the station as you see fit.”

Thatch turned so her body faced the ambassador and once again saluted. “Thank you, ambassador. It shall be a pleasure to relax after such a long jump.”

The ambassador gave a nod of acknowledge to Commander Thatch. “I’ll leave you to that, Commander.” He said, turning his attention back to the CEO. “This way, please.” A short time passes as both the Ambasaador Rev and Ms. Praetarei traversed the glistening corridors of Pathway station, passing by station personnel, all giving nods or salutes to the pair. Before long they would finally arrive to the Ambassador’s office, the doors sliding wide open to reveal a lavishly designed office space. The Ambassador took his seat near the edge of the room, a ray-shield window display right behind him. Rev leaned forward on his desk as he got comfortable. “Please, take a seat, make yourself comfortable.”

“Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador,” Ms. Praetarei said with a smile and sat down in a chair. She tapped the Raygon band on her left wrist and blinked at the brightness of the holographic display popping up before her. After lowering the brightness a little and tapping out of the ads not even her special subscription could subdue, she opened up a document on the screen, enlarged it and showed it to the ambassador. “Here we are. Everything is as we discussed pre-arrival, with one exception - after a second opinion from our arms supplier, we have decided to switch to hardier lithium-ion battery packs. That will add an additional… Let’s see here… Ah, yes, an additional five hundred thousand ITC credits to the already agreed amount. Is this agreeable still?”

“A bit steep, but acceptable.” The Ambassador said. He looked down to his desk as he pressed down a button. “Bring in the payment.” Within a few moments, a service android, one of those new models with their life-like humanoid faces, entered the room with a rather heavy briefcase. The Android approached the desk as it placed down the briefcase, unlocking it to unveil the previously agreed upon amount of credits. “Your additional payment will be transferred in a later date. I hope this will suffice for now.”

Ms. Praetarei graciously accepted the briefcase and whistled as she weighed it in her arms, looking rather strained doing so. “Oh, this will--... ‘Scuse me,” she said and deposited the briefcase back in the droid’s arms, huffing a little, “this will do wonderfully. Well, then - SkullCorp’s Fourth Battalion is yours to command, Ambassador. Is there anything else you would like to discuss? You mentioned further details?”

“Ah, yes. I did say that.” The Ambassador said. Rev leaned backed against his chair as he clasped his talons over his knees. “This isn’t public knowledge as of yet, technically hasn’t even happened yet.” Rev paused as he stood up from his chair and walked over to his wine cabinet, grabbing a glass and cracking open a bottle of Parravon wine. ”The Federation is planning to support the Orleans Invasion of Duro One. We simply await the official directive from the Madam Chancellor herself.” He paused once more, pouring the wine in his glass. “Oh, I apologize, would you like some? It’s simply exquisite.”

“Oh, why, yes, please,” Ms. Praetarei burbled happily and accepted a glass. She gave it a whiff, raised it to the ambassador and took a sip. “Oh my, that is fantastic. Mmm! But yes, if I am understanding you correctly, the Fourth should remain invisible for the time being, yes?”

The Ambassador nodded. “Correct, for now they are to remain on standby on this station. Once the Federation announces its support of the Orleans invasion and deploys its task force, the fourth will rendezvous with our forces near the planet’s orbit.”

Ms. Praetarei hummed to herself and took another sip of wine. “Understood. The message will be relayed to Commander Thatch. Does the station have combat simulation facilities? Holodecks or the like would suffice.”

Rev took a moment to sip of the wine. “The best we can offer are holodecks, your men can make use of them to their hearts desire.”

“Do these accept type 3 memory cartridges? Oh, sorry, that’s the standard in Raygon space. They’re the skinny ones, you know? Those that you put into the machine to set up a simulation?” She tried to mimic its shape with her hands. It looked square. “For legal reasons, we prefer to use our patented simulations, you understand.”
“Of course, of course.” Rev said. “Might put a bit of a strain on the system, but our holodecks are up to spec for the most part.”

“Fantastic. That should be no issue, in that case. We have to keep them in shape for the actual fighting.” She had some more wine. “Do you have any other questions, ambassador?”

“Oh no, you’re free to go Ms. Praetarei.” Rev said.” Only that I ask that this conversation stays between us. The Federation’s activities in the frontier is a…sensitive matter, I’m sure you understand.”

“Client discretion and secrecy are paramount to our company, mr. Ambassador. This conversation never happened and we’ve never been here.” Ms. Praetarei winked, downed the rest of her glass and stood up. She opened the display on her wrist, tapped out of the ads and eyed the time. “Well, then - I should be returning to Raygon. I’m certain our competitors will be tracing our ship, as usual. By the way, be on the lookout for additional offers - if the Desperados make contact, ignore them at all cost. They’ll rob you blind.”

“Duly noted” Rev nodded. “Regardless, the Federation only seeks the services of SkullCorp, your expertise is most useful in what we have planned.”

“We certainly hope to satisfy. As discussed, the Fourth thrive especially well when unseen. The model 98 fires laser beams soundlessly that can cut through ten inches of steel, so they are as useful in assassinations as they are in sabotage. Use them as you see fit, of course, but their assets will be best utilised in the shadows. They commonly operate far beyond the frontlines - separated into squads, naturally. What radio encryption does the Federation use again? Commander Thatch might need a copy of it to sync their relays.”

“Ah, my apologies, I’ll get that done.” Rev said as he took a seat once more as a holo-screen materialized before him. Pressing down several keys before a loud “bing” sound rung. “There, Federation Radio Encryptions have been uploaded into your wrist-comm. Your soldiers should have little trouble assessing fed-comms.”

“Fantastic. That should be all on my part, then. I wish you the best of luck in the coming conflict and certainly hope our soldiers live up to your expectations.” She spun around, took a step and stopped. “Oh, by the way, would it be too much to ask if you could fill out this customer satisfaction survey for today’s service?” Another “bing” sounded from the Ambassador’s screen. “It takes two minutes at the most. Thank you in advance. It has been a joy to do business with you, Ambassador Rev.”

Rev nodded. “The honor was mine, and farewell Ms. Praetarei.”
Location:
Raygon 8 - Leisure District, aka. New Macau.

BT-Block K221-008-002 “Bolt Avenue” - Nearest security office: 147m.

Security and safety brought to you by Gala-Grid©™ - the galactic standard.



Subject:
George Christian Wellsley, aka. G.C. Willy.

Age: 27 cycles around Raygon 0.

Residence: BT-Block L102-071-010, “Moonlit Gardens” flat 10.

Occupation: Drone Mechanic.




So I ended up taking the job, after all. Shit, I couldn’t believe it either, honestly - not at first. Lil’ ol’ Wellsley, about to take on a motherfucking Gala-Grid drone security station.

Fuck, why am I doing this?!

The debt’s already settled - they called this morning. I haven’t seen Shawn’s guards at all - I’m not being followed. Is it greed? It’s greed, isn’t it? Christ, George, why’re you like this? Is it just to see if you can do it at this point? Are you really that curious?

Alright, alright - calm down, G.C.. Pray to God that you’re not rusty. You’ve got this. You’ve totally got this.

George knuckled his way through the dark, passing behind some sleeping Raygonian bums. A distant cackle broke through the soundscape and George dove for cover.

“Won again, bitches!” the voice continued to a choir of groans. George permitted himself a peek out of the shadows. There, across the street, in the light of an exhausted LED, a Qurok, Raygonian and Putt sat playing some kind of game - George couldn’t quite make it out. To his chagrin, though, he noticed that the way to the drone station was opposite of the group - worse yet, they were sitting in an open street. His eyes scanned the area in desperate search of some manner of cover. The shadows could do, perhaps.

“Bah! Ourm, you’re cheating!”

The putt put a hand on his chest and gasped. “Now, now - I’m a businessman, mr. Hippi, but cheat? You’re woundin’ me, man.”

The Raygonian presumably known as Mr. Hippi’s fist hammered the tabletop. “I JUST drew that card! How do you have it?” Ourm shrugged.

“I didn’t do anything, though! Jerry, did you see me do anything?”

The Qurok growled a deep ‘no’. The Putt gestured to him. “See?”

“Shut up, Jerry, you’re losing anyway!”

‘Oh’, was all the response Jerry could muster, looking somberly down at his cards. All of a sudden, there came the bang of metal. All three of them turned towards the sound.

“Who’s there?” Mr. Hippi spat. He rose from his chair and grabbed a bat he had hidden under the table; Ourm unholstered a rusty pistol; Jerry flexed and unflexed his fingers, on which he clearly had been wearing knuckle irons. “Come on out!” Mr. Hippi called again and golfed a rusty can into a distant wall.

“Under there,” Ourm snapped and fired a shot. It ricocheted off the reinforced concrete behind a pile of garbage and scrap, illiciting a panicked ‘ook’. A shadow knuckled its way out from behind the garbage, tailed by a few more shots. “A god damn Simmie, holy moley.”

“You’re a shit fucking shot, Ourm,” Mr. Hippi muttered.

“Hey, it’s not like I use this thing that often.” They looked at one another. “Should we go after it?” Ourm asked.

‘Hungry,’ Jerry growled.

“Yeah, I’m with Jerry on this one, and you have all our money. I could go for a bite or two.”

“Jesus, guys, we’re not actually going to eat him?”

“No, jackass, we’re robbing him so we can get something to eat, duh!”

Jerry hung his head. ‘Oh.’

Both Ourm and Mr. Hippi frowned at him. “Alright, calm down, big guy. HappyBurger will have to do, alright? We, we don’t eat people.”

‘Ok…’

“Well, should we, y’know, give chase?”

“Yeah, sure.”




George had no idea how long he had been running - all he knew was that he had already passed the drone station by a long shot. He’d have to go back, and that meant sneaking past his pursuers. Christ, today of all days. Would they believe him if he said he had no money? Doubt they would.

“Come ooooout! My boys are starving, man - have some compassion and give us your money. We’ll tone down the pain if you do it right now. The longer you wait, though…” Another clang as a brick struck the very same garbage container George was hiding behind, causing him to freeze up. “... The worse it’ll be for you.”

The rip of thin plastic and subsequent cacophony of diverse falling garbage filled the soundscape, followed by two groans and a sigh. “God damn it, Jerry, look what you’ve done to yourself!”

‘Bag was older than I thought…’

“That’s always the case, though,” Ourm explained. “Nobody double bags down here. Jesus Christ, you smell even worse now.”

“We’ll pitch in. Get you a shower later, okay? This monkey better be fucking loaded.”

George’s quivering hands slowly reached down into his pocket, from where they extracted a butterfly knife. As quietly as he could, he locked it into blade mode and drew a number of panicked gasps through his teeth, praying to whatever deity was out there that they wouldn’t hear his heart jumping out of his chest.

“Oh shit.”

George held his breath.

“Yo, what’s up?”

“Sshh! Bobby incomin’.”

George’s eyes widened.

“A bobby? Fuck, of course it’d show up right now. A’ight, spread out, look busy.”

The rustle of plastic and floored garbage indicated his three pursuers went to hide or disguise themselves as upstanding citizens not in the middle of robbing someone. Sure enough, the rustling was soon drowned out by the slow, metallic clanks of robotic feet stepping through the street. Some more fierce whispering jumped between the three, sounding specifically aimed at the Qurok for some reason.

“CITIZEN. IDENTIFY YOURSELF.”

Oh, that was why.

“Uhm,” Jerry rumbled. “J-Jerry Lokamopolous Ruip III - citizen number, uh… “

“JERRY LOKAMOPOLOUS RUIP ONE-ONE-ONE.
CITIZEN NUMBER: BTC-051-143-223-768-132.
RESIDENCE: BT-BLOCK Y001-902-333.
OCCUPATION: UNEMPLOYED--”

“Don’t have to rub it in…”

“CRIMINAL RECORD:
  • THEFT: 65 REPORTED CASES.
  • ASSAULT: 13 REPORTED CASES.
  • MURDER: 4 REPORTED CASES.


CURRENT ACTIVITY: LOITERING ON PRIVATE PROPERTY.”

“Private?”

George swallowed and looked around. As far as he could see, there weren’t any signs denoting property ownership. As quietly as he could, he opened his wristband panel, immediately breaking the quiet soundscape in the otherwise largely empty street with deafening ads. He tried as quickly as he could to close the screen down again, but the ads naturally had blockers over the exit buttons for the first five seconds of playing.

“SOUND DETECTED. CITIZEN BTC-051-143-223-768-132, DO YOU HAVE ACCOMPLICES?”

Jerry swallowed. “Nah, must be the ape.” In the distance, George could hear one of Jerry’s friends hushing violently.

“ELABORATE.”

“Chasing an ape,” Jerry muttered. George suddenly noticed a scramble of plastic nearby.

“‘CHASING AN APE’ NOTED IN CONFESSION. VIOLATION OF PRIVATE CITIZEN NAP ADDED TO LIST OF CRIMES. YOUR PUNISHMENT FOR TRANSGRESSING ON PRIVATE PROPERTY IS--”

“Wait, whose property is this?!” came suddenly Ourm’s voice in protest.

“CURRENT LOCATION: BT-BLOCK K221-015-004 “LIPGLOSS LANE”. OWNER: MAGNIFICO COSMETICS INCORPORATED. CITIZEN, IDENTIFY YOURSELF…”

Meanwhile, George was growing increasingly wary of the approaching sound. He tried to slide further away along the garbage contained, but shortly thereafter, he saw a thick fist grab onto the side of the contained. It pulled to itself a fat, grinning face with tiny, beady eyes.

“Hello, little monkey,” Mr. Hippi murmured sadistically. George choked on a scream and picked up a nearby clump of hardened sludge, chucking it at Mr. Hippi’s face. The Raygonian couldn’t dodge in time and snarled.

“UGH! Fuck, you’re fucking DEAD!” Mr. Hippi roared and began clawing his way towards George through the piles of garbage around them. George, meanwhile tried desperately to scramble to his feet, but found his tracks frozen by the approaching clanks of metal.

“COMMOTION DETECTED. EVERYONE - REMAIN CALM.” A red-coated robot fist the size of George’s whole torso grabbed the garbage contained and turned it over, revealing the Prrp & Sterlington Model 7B “Bobby” Peacekeeper Mech in all its frightening stature. Its thousand glass eyes analysed the scene, one Simmie holding a knife frozen in a crawling pose with a Raygonian grip about one of its feet. Mr. Hippi looked equally terrified.

“ASSAULT DETECTED. CALCULATING PUNISHMENT.”

“Jerry, help me!” Mr. Hippi squealed. The Qurok’s eyes darted around before he suddenly gave the robot a mighty push. The alien’s strength was actually considerable enough to cause the robot to stagger. However, the moment Jerry had shoved it, George saw that it dawned on his face what he had just done.

“Jerry, what the fu--” was all Ourm managed to get out before both he and Jerry were immediately peppered to bloody mush by the Bobby’s shoulder-mounted machine gun. Mr. Hippi drew a hacking gasp.

“G-guys?! GUYS?!”

“ASSAULT ON OFFICER OF THE LAW - PUNISHMENT CALCULATED: EXECUTION.” The machine then turned back to George and Mr. Hippi, only - Mr. Hippi had gone over to check on the mutilated corpses with teary eyes.

“CITIZEN, DO NOT MOVE. MOVING WILL BE CONSIDERED AN ATTEMPT TO FLEE THE CRIME SCENE.”

“Fuck you, Bobby! You killed my, my… Oh, God…”

George, meanwhile, tried to sneak its way up behind the Bobby. By now, the streets were slowly filling up with curious citizens looking for some entertainment.

“EVERYONE - STAY BACK. TO INTERFERE WITH BUSINESS OF THE LAW IS PUNISHABLE BY DEATH,” the Bobby droned mercilessly and began stomping over to Mr. Hippi. However, just as it was about to take its first step, it stopped and droned some more, this stuff unintelligible. It stood frozen, and all the spectators eyed it curiously. Mr. Hippi mouthed some silent curses of disbelief. After a moment, a melody played.

“REBOOT COMPLETE. ADMINISTRATIVE CONTROLS GIVEN TO: USERNAME_CAESAR.”

George hopped out from behind the robot, holding a duct-taped and modified touch pad in his arms. He pointed at Mr. Hippi, whose eyes went wide with realisation, and screamed a loud “YAAAAH!”

“AFFIRMATIVE,” went the Bobby and immediately reduced the Raygonian to a carcass with more holes than Federation Cheese. The crowds, understanding what had just happened, suddenly went screaming for the hills. George took a moment to realise what he had just done, before also realising the attention he had drawn to himself. Without a moment to lose, he knuckled his way back the way he came, his trusty Bobby following along faithfully.




Technically, I did the job perfectly after that. Sure, the original plan was to -sneak- in and hack the place - knock out some circuits, fuck up the charging stations, same old, same old. Still, those three a-assholes put that plan in jeopardy. Like, fuck, I got seen - I’m fucking dead. I had the Bobby level everything - the station, every camera spot along the way. Fuck, was that the right thing to do? Have I drawn more attention to myself?

For all they know, it could’a just been a Bobby that went rogue. Yeah, that’s right. Just a rampant Bobby. Happens all the time, right? Giant robot cops with machine guns and fists that could crush concrete blocks like fuckin’ pop rocks. I made sure to delete the OS, too - can’t be too careful. Anyway, jobs’ done, right? Better lay low until Shawn gets back to me.
Location:
Raygon 8, the Commercial District, aka. the Oasis.

CT-Block I366-104-007 “Sunshine Park” - 30m from nearest Cosmart.

Cosmart’s special offer: 67% off on everything ArcadiaCorp! Limited time offer! Only at Cosmart!

Cosmart - Your store, no matter the system.




Subject:
Name: Lobutos Zigg

Age: 41 cycles around Raygon 0.

Residence: CT-Block I366-104-007 “Sunshine Park”.

Occupation: Advertisement Designer.

Workplace: Gurrpi’s Golly Gunships, a CruiserCorp subsidiary.







Routine. That was probably the most appropriate word to describe the morning activities of the family known as the Ziggs. Mrs. Zigg would always rise first, no matter how tired she was, and then proceed to whip her husband out of bed - God knows the alarm couldn’t do it. Once Mr. Zigg finally rose, Mrs. Zigg would promptly move to their second-(or was it third) hand Gala-Grid Model N7 AutoRobe©™, which by this point barely had the necessary dexterity, or even parts, to dress a still-standing mannequin. The Ziggs usually dressed themselves nowadays, no matter how insistent the machine was about allowing itself to help them. Propping up the doors was always the hardest, for the AutoRobe©™ came with special locks and codes on the doors to prevent thieving. Since Mrs. Zigg was the first to rise, she always had to break the now mutilated lock up with a crowbar. She had made her complaints to Mr. Zigg numerous times before - saying they had to get it replaced soon, preferably with a newer model, like the N9x. Mr. Zigg had promised her an upgrade for her last three birthdays, as well as for Commercial Christmas, Black Week and Daylight Savings Day. However, the price tags had always been a bit too juicy for them - every time.

As soon as the missus was dressed and had left the room to wake up their son and daughter, Mr. Zigg would finally get dressed, too. His outfit was always the same - after all, he owned seven uniforms, and you did -not- want to get caught without your uniform at work. It was a standard issue Gala-Grid Model 61 “Old John”©™ penguin-like black suit over a white shirt, adjusted from its original human proportions to fit the barrel-like form of a Raygonian. Despite the flat, round trunks the Raygonians used as feet, Mr. Zigg still put on a pair of synthetic leather shoes that resembled those a human would wear, with a long, oblong sole (this one filled with cotton to simulate the foot that wasn’t there). It hadn’t really struck Mr. Zigg as particularly odd to wear there, he confessed - such had been the fashion for longer than he’d walked Raygon, and so would likely be the fashion for another, uh… Long time.

Finally, the man in the house exited his and his wife’s six square metre bedroom into their ten square metre living room. The last four square metres of the apartment were devoted to the toilet - the children slept in the living room. Believe it or not - they lived a fantastic life for anyone in the centre. 20 square metres for the price they paid was a one in a billion chance. His children already sat around the dining table (which was part of the floor when not in use), eating breakfast. Mrs. Zigg stood by the retractable stove top, stirring the contents of a smoking bowl with a plastic spatula. Mr. Zigg growled a guttural yawn and smacked his lips. Mrs. Zigg set a plate down on the table at his spot - it consisted of two pieces of toasted carbo-bread smeared thickly with RocketEngine©™ protein butter, a few slices of Happy Belly©™ fruit gum roll and rehydrated compound spinach. Mr. Zigg hummed and spooned a mouthful of spinach into his mouth. He frowned and turned to his wife.

“Honey? This spinach, what brand is it? It tastes different than usual.”

Mrs. Zigg placed her own plate down on the table and sat down. She put a spoonful in her own mouth and hardened her eyes at the plastic back on the kitchen counter. “Can’t quite see it from here, sweety. Think it was some Cosmart brand.”

“Happy Belly? Yum-Bo? Pepperridge?”

“Okay, relax, I’ll check,” she huffed and rose up. Their children, Sambel and Lobona Zigg, sat eyeing their food, occasionally stabbing fruit gums with their forks. Mrs. Zigg took the bag in her hand and offered it to her husband. “Remmizipp Farms, apparently.”

“Remmizipp?” Mr. Zigg mumbled and eyed the brand logo. “... Hang on, I know this one. Isn’t this one at least forty credits more expensive than Happy Belly’s?”

Mrs. Zigg looked away. “We-well… You know the bonus I got last month? I just thought we could--”

Mr. Zigg growled and rubbed his face into his palm. “Christ, Clora, that was supposed to go to our savings.”

“I just wanted one nice breakfast for once, Lobutos!” she shouted back. “Is it too much to ask that we can just have actual spinach for once?!”

“Mom, dad - please don’t fight,” Sambel protested. Mr. Zigg impaled a soggy, sloppy leaf of spinach on his fork and put it into his mouth.

“Son, if there’s one thing any of us can teach you, it’s that the only way out of here is to save up - no matter what the ads tell you. That’s why you eat as cheaply as you can in the hopes that at least your children can eat well in the top tier some day. Your mother here, on the other hand--”

“Oh, -I’m- the bad guy, of course,” Mrs. Zigg snapped and rose from the table. She turned and grabbed her jacket and bag.

“Honey, I’m just trying to teach our kids a--”

“I don’t want to hear it! I’m going to work, and if you don’t clean up those plates after you’re done, I -swear- I will…” She pressed the button for the door to open and nothing happened.

Mr. Zigg frowned. “Will what?”

“Ugh!” she screamed and kept pressing the button. Finally, it opened, briefly letting in the cacophony of advertisements echoing between the walls and she left without a word. The room fell silent again, save for some sad sniffing coming from Lobona. Mr. Zigg groaned and put another forkful of spinach into his mouth.

“Dad? Why did you get angry at mom for what she bought?” Sambel asked after a long reign of silence. Mr. Zigg sighed again.

“Like I said earlier, son, we gotta save every credit we can. It’s the only way you two can get a better life.” He impaled a slice of fruit gum on his fork.

“But, but… What about the ads? They’re telling us to buy, aren’t they?”

“They are - which is much of the reason why we’re, well, stuck here. Listen, it’s easy to get hooked on the sales and the bonuses and the subscription services, but we gotta--”

“Stevonbee’s parents have the unlimited hot water sub,” Lobona muttered quietly. Mr. Zigg grit his teeth.

“And Stevonbee’s dad is in huge debt with the mob -and- Adamantium! He fell for the trap, which I’m telling BOTH of you not to do.” The two children looked down and sniffed. Mr. Zigg took the moment to steal a glance at the small digital clock on the stove. His heartrate skyrocketed. “Aw, Christ, I’m late for work! Sambel, son, mind cleaning up after your old man?” Mr. Zigg had already risen from his seat and jogged over to the door.

Sambel frowned. “Sure, dad, but what about school? Our lessons are starting soo--”

As if by act of God, two SmartyPants©™ education touchpads lying in a dank corner of the room to charge, gave chirrup-like rings followed by a sweet tune. In unison and with broken mechanical voices, they echoed, “Children. It is. Time. To start your lessons in. Maths. Social. Sciences. And economics. Please touch. The touchscreen when. Ready.”

“And there it is,” Sambel muttered, “dad, we really gotta--”
“Yeah, I understand, son. Have fun with school! Just - make sure it’s clean before mom comes home, okay?”

Sambel returned an unenthusiastic thumb-up. Mr. Zigg winked back and donned his hat, pressing the opening button on the door at least nine times before it responded and lead him into the apartment complex hallway.

“... Only 599 credits! You cannot miss it! Only five nine nine credits for a brand new…” the nearest advertisement speaker blasted. Mr. Zigg had always been surly about the fact that they had received the room with an ad blaster right above the door - this one with a motion sensor, too. Down the hallway, he spotted the seventeen other speakers that seemed to turn to him like hungry wolves. As he passed them, one hand on his small suitcase and the other covering one ear hole, they each boomed their message, often backed up by a non-copyrighted track.

“Howdy there - you look like the type who could use a small break…”

“TANG SODA! EXCLUSIVE LIMITED TIME SALE ON TANG SODA AT COSMART! ONLY 39,99 CREDITS FOR A CASE OF TEN -- YES, YOU HEARD US RIGHT…!”

“... It ain’t just the air and soil of Sage 4 that makes proper, healthy grain… It’s love and care…”

“Flyer got wrecked by your neighbour? Did the boss violate your contract again? Call Oatman&Steve Attorneys…”

“Shalom! Be blessed by Elahim, shimshon. If you’re in need of a lil’...”

“In need of a loan? Adamantium Bank’s your ticket out of poverty! Drop by our nearest office today and…”

Mr. Zigg wiped the annoyed sweat off his brow as the advertisements became so overlapped that each message was indistinguishable from the rest. It was all just one audible, bubbling soup of words - taunting him and his family’s wealth (or lack thereof, rather). At long last, he reached the door, which thankfully was on the bottom floor. In the door, he met about seventy others: Raygonians, mostly, their barrel-like shapes wagging from side to side with their every step; sprinkled in between was a Putt or two, their shorter forms nearly drowning between their larger peers; finally, Mr. Zigg swore he could see one or two Shas, too - he had no idea any lived in his building.

“Mornin’, Mr. Zigg,” came a rumble from behind him. Mr. Zigg looked over his shoulder and tipped his hat.

“Morning, Mrs. Imhotr. Heading to work?”

The Qurok adjusted her hardhat, broadened to fit her skull size, and smirked. “Where else’d I go? Sewage pipes gotta be cleaned, lest this whole block’ll stink worse than it already does.” She lit herself a thick cigarette and took an unfathomably long drag. The whole group of workers had exited the apartment building and were moving through the loud streets, hoverers and flyers soaring over them and cars rumbling far below. Advertisements were just as deafening here as inside - perhaps even more so.

“Always wondered - don’t we have cybes to fix our plumbing these days?”

“We do,” Mrs. Imhotr replied curtly.

Mr. Zigg shrugged. “How’s the competition?”

She exhaled a thick, smouldering plume of smoke, her wrinkly features somehow even more pronounced in its shadow. “Eh, it’s manageable. Thankfully, the alloys they use in cybes down here’re still not strong enough to handle the acidity of the sewers. Still, they’ve pretty much outshined us in the finer pipes.” She shook her head. “Worst part isn’t even the competition - our boss’s squeezin’ out every penny he can get from every assignment. The micromanagement’s off the rails, I’m tellin’ ya.”

Mr. Zigg frowned. “Really sorry to hear that, Mrs. Imhotr. Hope the paychecks aren’t too affected. How’s the wife, by the way?”

Mrs. Imhotr groaned. “Ugh, she’s been a wreck lately.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Yeah. Found Vidrio in her drawer the other day. I think she’s reboundin’, man.” She took another long drag of her cigarette, almost draining it dry. They neared the station, which was packed to the brim as always with all manner of workers heading to their respective workplaces. The hiss of train breaks and hum of battery-driven engines nearly drowned out the blare of advertisements. Mrs. Imhotr shook her head. “I dunno what to do, man. I can’t afford to put her in rehab again, and I can’t afford to lose her. Not again.”

“H-hey, look, it’ll be alright, no? Just… Set some spending parametres on her wristband and get rid of the product she’s gotten so far. Where is she now?”

“I told her sister about it and we agreed she’d take care of her for a week or two while I clean the apartment. Her sister’s a good person - she won’t get in trouble there.”

“Well, as long as she’s safe. Hey, when do you get off work today?”

“Seven as always. Why?”

Mr. Zigg thumbed over his shoulder. “Actually, my wife’s pretty fed up with me, too. Want to head to Johnny’s after work?”

“You had a falling out with your wife and your solution is drinking?” she asked with a snicker. Mr. Zigg shrugged.

“In truth, our fight was so stupid. She’d bought some expensive lettuce, or was it spinach? Anyway, I got angry, but only because she can’t save cash for the life of her, Jesus…”

“Hey, HEY. You know how I feel about blasphemy, right?”

“Right, sorry, sorry. Gotta ask, how much big’s the church subscription these days? 99 a week?”

“79, actually,” she replied with a grin as she ducked under the slightly too low doorway into their part of the station. “They reduced it in time for the season.”

“Christ, seventy-nine a week to go to church…”

“Mr. Zigg.”

“Right, sorry. Blasphemy.”

Mrs. Imhotr rolled her eyes and sighed. “No, it’s alright. So, about your wife?”

“Oh, right.” They had arrived at the platform of their train, the time table predicting the arrival of the next train in three minutes. Mr. Zigg sighed. “Yeah, so things are pretty tight nowadays, and the wife decided to blow her bonus on some more expensive food… We got into a fight and bada-bing, bada-boom, I’m sleeping on the couch, I reckon.”

“You have a couch?”

“No…”

Mrs. Imhotr snickered. “Well, that sucks. On one hand, I don’t see what the problem is - a little good food every now and then should be a right; on the other hand, now… Well, I’m actually feeling it pretty hard.”

“Right? Like, what if we had needed the money to, to send the kids to the doctor, or, or--”

“Go to church?”

“Uh, I dunno, maybe? Point is - we can’t afford to buy on impulse, and my wife’s having a hard time realising that.”

“How big was her bonus, anyway?”

“Like, one-sixty? Not a lot, but a credit earned is a credit saved.” The train approached from their right and hissed gently as it slowed down. The doors were lifted up to unleash a river of alien flesh onto the platform, prickled with the occasional human. When the cart was almost emptied, Mr. Zigg and Mrs. Imhotr started wrestling their way inside, taking a standing spot before being figuratively locked in place by the rest of the commuters.

“But, like, it couldn’t have cost that much, right? Unless she bought, like, Remmizipp or something.”

“Exactly what she did.”

Mrs. Imhotr whistled sheepishly. “Ouch. One bag of that’s almost a hundred.”

“Right? And it has less in it.”

“Did it taste good, at least?”

“Oh, it was amazing, but not as amazing as those extra credits would’ve looked in our savings account.” Zigg cupped his face in his hand. “Ugh, talking about this leaves my mouth dry.”

“Did you bring your cup?”

“We’ll see,” Mr. Zigg mumbled and opened his suitcase. He rummaged about as deftly as he could, considering he could barely move. “... Crap, I forgot my cup.”

“Hang on,” Mrs. Imhotr mumbled as she dug around in her backpack. Shortly after starting, she had pulled forth a small, but thick, metallic thermos, which she handed to Zigg. “Here. It’s got the, the, uh, the dark roast sub.”

“The three credit one or the twenty credit one?”

“Three, I think.”

Mr. Zigg frowned and tapped his wristband against the cup. It went ‘beep!’ and said, “Three credits deducted from your account.” The cup then begun to vibrate violently for a few seconds before it gave a gentle sucking sound and sounded a ‘pling!’. Mr. Zigg uncorked it and gave it a whiff, cringing slightly.

“If the band hadn’t already told me, I could’ve guessed this was three credit coffee, yup.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied sourly with a half-grin. Mr. Zigg gave the thermos a slurp and then handed it back to the Qurok, who also gave it a swig. The train began to slow down, the next station approaching. Mrs. Imhotr let out a ‘nn!’ and corked the thermos. “Right, this is my stop. So… Seven, right?”

“Yeah, if you’re still up.”

She shrugged and tapped her wristband. “I’ll let you know if there’s a change of plans. If not, I’ll see you there. Laters!” She then proceeded to wrestle her way back out of the train, her two and a half metre tall frame wading through the masses as if they were water. Mr. Zigg made a half grin and leaned up against the wall of the train to close his eyes for a few moments, the rest of the passengers keeping him comfortably from falling over.




“So that’s the story, sir. So therefore, I wondering…” Mr. Zigg gestured a bit with his stubby hands.

Opposite a large desk made of plastic resembling mahogany sat a guppy mecha-suit, within which dome floated a frowning guppy, specifically Mr. Gurrpi, CEO of Gurrpi’s Golly Gunships. "Mr. Zigg, we're a small company, sure, but I still have 694 million employees here, and you know I like you all, but if I was to give everyone who asked for it a bonus, we'd be bankrupt within the hour."

"But!"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Zigg, but no. If you give it your all for the rest of the year, I'll consider it around Commercial Christmas, alright? Omni, make a note of that."

"Yes, Mr. Gurrpi. Note made to: Consider providing Mr. Lobutos Zigg, employee ID 459-993-101, with a Commercial Christmas bonus amounting to [unspecified] based on the sum of his merits," the robotic voice from Mr. Gurrpi's mecha-suit replied monotonously.

Mr. Gurrpi's suit gave a shrug. "I'm sorry, Mr. Zigg, this is all I can do for now. If you can make yourself worth it, I'll set the bonus to, uh, let’s say 15% of your December-2 paycheck.”

“Note edited: Commercial Christmas bonus set to: fifteen percent of December-dash-2 paycheck,” said Omni.

Mr. Zigg’s eyes glistened with surprised. “R-really? You’d do that for me?” And through the thick glass dome of the Guppy mecha suit, the Raygonian could see Mr. Gurrpi grin wholeheartedly.

“Of course! I appreciate all my workers, Mr. Zigg, and reward those who do a good job. Now, I think you oughta get to it if you hope to snatch the bonus for yourself.”

Mr. Zigg was already halfway out the door. “Don’t have to tell me twice! Thank you, sir!” The mecha-suit gave him a thumb up while the guppy inside had returned its attention to the display on its desk. The Raygonian closed the door behind him and giggled to himself. Yes! He would get a bonus and could make up for his wife’s dent in their savings! This was perfect! A beer with a friend later would put the cherry on top, so when the clock struck half past six and Mr. Zigg was skipping down the street from his office building, it seemed only fitting that all should come crashing down at the hands of an armed robbery in an alley. The masked thieves beat Mr. Zigg to a pulp and left him face down in a puddle of filth, hacking into his wristband to steal his money. They then disappeared into the night.

When Zigg woke up, he was at the last place he wanted to be. He would rather be in the grave, the alley or even the bottom tiers over a place like this. The walls were completely white - as were his sheets and the armless robe he wore. Next to him stood a Petalos dressed in a white coat, holding a touch pad. It gave it a few additional taps before noticing that the patient had awoken. Putting on as good as smile as she could, the Petalos faced Lobutos.

“Ah, you’re finally awake.” She adjusted her silver-rimmed glasses. “Mr. Zigg, is it?”

Mr. Zigg’s eyes darted around. “Who called the ambulance? Which hospital is this?”

“The caller never said their name. As for where you are, you are at Polygon Emergency Hospital, CT-Block A090-001-001, “Gala-Grid Heights”. How are you feeling?”

Mr. Zigg’s heart rate shot up considerably. “Polygon?! Fuck! FUCK!”

The doctor put a hand on his shoulder. “Sir, if you would please calm down--!”

“My insurance doesn’t cover this hospital! Doctor, how long have I been here?! What treatment did you give me?!”

Immediately, the doctor distanced herself from Mr. Zigg and eyed the touchpad with skeptical pursed lips. “... Oh, is that so. Well, I had hoped we could’ve waited with this until later, but since you’re so eager.” She gave the pad a few additional taps. “Your grand total for a two day stay with the addition of a cast for your broken arm and a cybe replacement for your ruptured kidney--”

“Ruptured kidney?!”

“You had been stabbed, sir. It was either a replacement or removal.”

“Christ, you should’ve just removed.” He buried his face in his hands. “... I can’t pay for anti-rejection drugs, lady. I can hardly pay my family’s rent.”

“Well, shouldn’t have gotten stabbed, in that case. Health authorities always recommend staying out of the street at all times to avoid such unfortunate events.”

Mr. Zigg scowled at her. “I have no choice, doctor! I don’t own a hoverer!”

“Again, not my problem, sir. Your grand total is 13 999 credits.”

“Thirteen--” was all Mr. Zigg squeezed out before he clutched his chest, taking deep breaths. The doctor sighed and tapped a few more times on the pad.

“Adding a possible heart surgery to that, making the grand total--”

“NO! No.” Mr. Zigg slowly set his feet down on the floor. “I’m fine. How long do I have to pay?”

“Thirty days, sir, if you don’t plan on doing it right here and now.”

“I’m telling you, doctor, I don’t have the money.”

“Then thirty days it is,” replied the doctor and tapped the screen. A hologram of the bill was sent into Mr. Zigg’s wristband, where it gave the screen a blue-ish hue. “Make certain the amount is paid by this day next month or we will get in touch with the Adamantium Bank. Your clothes and such are in the closet over there. I would get the nurse to help you dress on account of the cast and all, but I take it you wouldn’t want to add more to that bill, huh?”

“Please leave,” Mr. Zigg growled.

The doctor smiled smugly. “Well, then. Have a good day, Mr. Zigg.” She then exited through the automatic slider door. Mr. Zigg stood up, shaking a little to regain his balance. He tapped his wristband and scanned the screen that popped up. His inbox had blown up and he had fifty-eight unanswered calls, mostly from his wife. He buried his face in his palm again.

“Christ.”
Location:
Raygon 8-2, the Resort - Aboard the Fantasia, sailing the Silverstar Sea.

Le Petit Chou-Fleur private Orleans restaurant - Mi-Self Rating: 4.8/5.




Subject:
”Lord” Zhang Lintao

Age: 57 cycles around Raygon 0.

Residence: “The Palace of Stars” mansion complex, Gala-Grid Enclosure, the Resort.

Occupation: CEO of Gala-Grid.







“Mmm… MMM! Oh, my, Rexxy, that is an absolutely wonderful wine. Which one is it?” Mrs. Zhang nigh bellowed as she took the bottle and inspected the label.

The mountain of Raygonian fat on the opposite side of the table thundered a chuckle and raised his own glass, which seemed to disappear in his enormous fist. “Why, that’d be the Parravon Red, m’dear - had them crack open the cask this very afternoon.” He parted his car tire-like lips and gulped down a slurp. He smacked his lips together to savour the flavour and growled in satisfaction. “Ah… Worth every credit, every time.”

“Certainly, mr. Og’slough, its flavour is… Beyond exquisite. Tell me, who is your merchant? I would very much like to get in touch with them,” came the voice of Gala-Grid’s chief lawyer, a Petalos named Optima Lux.

Once more, there came a rumble of laughter from Arrto “Rex” Og’slough, CEO of Og’slough Bros. Asteroid Mining. A cybe waiter refilled his glass. “I couldn’t do that, good sir - everybody knows that as soon as I tell anyone about where I get my wine, people’ll stop coming over!”

A wave of laughter washed across the table, ranging from enthusiastic to polite in nature. Rex dabbed his forehead with a cloth and wheezed out the last of his guffaw. His beady eyes shifted to one particular face, this one directly opposite of him. It was one dressed with a small, black mustache, well trimmed brows and a haircut worth six million credits. It wore glasses augmented with constant feeds from every social network, news network and company statistics - or at least, so it was rumoured. The glasses were engineered so only the user actually could see those panels, encrypted with DNA, it was said. The face gave the wine a whiff, wagged the glass around a bit and tilted it to his lips. A small hum followed the nip, further followed by a smile and a nod.

“Truly, mr. Og’slough, your merchant merits nothing less than a mansion on this very moon, if you ask me.”

Some giggles flowed between the guests. Rex himself looked as though a weight the mass of Raygon had been lifted off of him. He dabbed his forehead again as discreetly as he could and raised his glass. “Cheers, my lord - I’ll drink to that.”

“Lord” Zhang Lintao’s half smile was joined by a sharp snicker. He turned his head to the right and patted his wife on the shoulder. Mrs. Zhang at his side nodded to her husband and stood up, clapping her hands. The table fell silent. The lady, twenty-five years Lintao’s junior flashed everyone her most sincere smile and beckoned one of the cybe waiters over, who came with a colourful box on a tray.

“Soooo… As you all know, there is a certain someone here whose birthday is todaaay!” The cybe made its way over to Rex, whose forehead once more began to moisten. Whoops and applause broke out in batches around the table.

“O-oh! S-such an honour, my lord, misses Zhang— my lady, I mean…” Rex dabbed his forehead again and faked a chuckle. His eyes shifted around as if looking for exits. The cybe was next to him now - it bowed forward and held out the box. Most of the onlookers either smiled or forced themselves to. Rex looked nervously at Lord Zhang. “R-right here, my lord? In front of all the guests?”

Lord Zhang merely nodded once, his smile as small as ever. Rex once more blinked down at the box: It was a custom-made giftbox — it was crimson red and speckled with dots of gold; the metallic sheen revealed that the box likely was more of a contraption than a mere container (although one could never tell with the Zhangs). Rex tapped the top of the box carefully, holding his breath. The box slowly unlidded itself, then unpacked itself, revealing on the cybe’s tray a small pedestal which held up a holographic display of the asteroid belt of the Wosmo system, the most profitable piece of Og’slough property. Rex blinked in surprise and took the pedestal in his hand, turning it around to savour the display.

“Why, this… This is splendid, my lord.” Rex tried as he could to bow, though his body didn’t have it in itself anymore to move too much. Zhang Lintao simply nodded politely.

“A small gift is the least we can provide on a dear friend’s birthday.” The man’s eyes scanned the faces of the other guests, all of whom appeared considerably relieved. “So, shall we have the appetiser?”

Rex smiled as genuinely as he could. “Of course. I hope you all are starving - we have ten courses to get through today!”

“Oh, that will do a number on my figure,” Mrs. Zhang whispered anxiously as she sat back down next to her husband. Lord Zhang shot her a strict scowl.

“You know what to do if it comes to that, dear.”

The young woman swallowed and nodded. Cybe waiters came around the table to place down silver plates, upon which lay perched a delicate, mouth-sized, square cake, topped with a mound of pink cream and splattered rustically with a fragrant sauce. They waited until everyone had received their plate before slowly starting to eat.




Dinner had lasted for a total of six hours, during which jokes were told, stories were shared and litres upon litres of wine were drunk. The alcohol really only bothered those who let it affect them, though - at this level, it was uncommon not to have at the very least augmented one’s liver and kidneys to break down any and all forms of damaging substances. Some adjusted the settings so that list didn’t include alcohol - some kept it on the list. Lord Zhang was among those, needing to be at peak performance at all times. To the trained eye, perhaps, it would’ve been obvious that whenever Lord Zhang had spoken to anyone but his wife at the dinner party, it had not been to anybody in the room. In truth, he had been attending sixteen different company meetings through his glasses. He hadn’t been the only one, naturally - everyone had opted out of the party at least four times to attend to their respectively businesses.

Lord Zhang, however, had barely even been present. Sixteen meetings were no simple affair, and even then, he had had to decline two - all costing his company a grand total of six billion credits. The loss had made him furious, and some of the guests at dinner had noticed that his grip about the wineglass was but a muscle twitch away from snapping it.

Even now, after dinner, his step hammered against the carpet-covered marble floor with the rage of an open flame. Following him dutifully and fearfully was his wife, her eyes fixed on the ground. Whatever was foolish enough to come down the hallway in their direction immediately stepped out of the way.

At last, Lord Zhang and his wife came upon their presidential suite. The doors automatically parted to reveal their one hundred square metre chambre, complete with a large jacuzzi, a drone-manned bar, two bathrooms, a dining area and a mini golf course with interchangeable parts. The wall on the southern side, to the left of the door, was covered from floor to roof, wall to wall with wardrobes, each one propped with Mrs. Zhang’s clothes. The doors opening incited also a small growl, and a small, slim, green feline reptilian with a wide, triangular head pawed its way over and rubbed itself against Mrs. Zhang’s leg. The lady smiled and picked it up, holding it affectionately in her arms.

“N’aaw, you’re always so sweet, Bubby… You always know when to come over and cuddle, huh… Yes, you do. Yesh, yew dew. Boo-boo-boo.” Mrs. Zhang affectionately rubbed her nose against Bubby’s and the little animal licked her back before pawing her hair. Mrs. Zhang grinned and turned to her husband. “She’s always so nice to me!”

“Of course, she is. I had her genetically modified to react to you as she would her own children,” Lord Zhang replied groggily and emotionlessly and hung his velvet suit jacket on a hanger that popped out of the floor at his motion. Mrs. Zhang’s smile faded and she forced herself not to frown.

“Y-yes, of course. So you’ve told me.” The creature began licking clean the parts of Mrs. Zhang’s dress that it could reach, seeming a little upset at the flavour of the colour-changing nanobot exterior. The door closed behind them and Mrs. Zhang went to deposit her pet on the king and queen-sized bed in the centre of the chambre. Lord Zhang had already made his way to the bar, hunkering over the counter as if he had had a few too man already. The holographic bartender was already mixing him a local speciality: the Hardworking - a mixture of Arcadia Corp. special brand, dark roasted coffee, Baileys mixed with FSC quality cream, and the finest cocaine in the cluster. In a fell swig, the man downed the shot in a gulp and drew a deep breath. Mrs. Zhang had begun undressing, mechanical hands helping her with her dress’ backzipper. She stole a glance at her husband fiddling with something in his breast pocket. “Aren’t you coming to bed, honey?”

Lord Zhang extracted a small vial finally, uncorked it and revealed the cork to contain a pipette. He squeezed it inside the bottle and watched it fill with a familiar, brown liquid. He dripped one drop in each eye and sucked in a breath through the teeth. Blinking vigourously for a few seconds, he eventually turned to look at Mrs. Zhang with pitch black eyes. Though she had seen him like this many times, she couldn’t help but look away. “... You’re busy, aren’t you?”

“Mr. Polnareff will be up any minute,” Lord Zhang replied with a sniff and a rub of his right eye. He cleared his throat. “If Sustynance decides to cooperate, we may be looking at a grand total of three trillion. That is - if he makes up his damn mind and buys the model seven.” His eyes gradually returned to normal, and any trace of the surly, exhausted man from earlier disappeared. He snapped his fingers and his suit pants switched colour from velvet to gold. A new jacket, this one a blazer in the colour gold, was wrapped about his torso. He took a look in a mirror materialising before him in the form of nanobots and hummed before tapping the side of his glasses, the glass shifting to black shades. Satisfied, he sat down in a velvet sofa and held out his hand. A metallic hand coated with a holographic display giving it some more human characteristics offered him a glass of New Eden bourbon, complete with the perfectly shaped cube of ice. He casually tapped the side of his glasses again and let out a, “Yes, mr. Polnareff - good morning.”

By the bed, Mrs. Zhang sat by her lonesome, caressing somberly the back of little Bubby. He gave her husband another brief glance before tossing aside the velvet bed covers and sticking her legs underneath. The light in her part of the room dimmed, nanobots forming a dark shell around the bed to keep out the outside lighting. She sighed and closed her eyes.

She would be sleeping alone tonight, as well.




&



Shengshi

5MP/11FP





Bright day shone in Western Atokhekwoi, in the unnamed region of the Ihokhetlani, Nebulites, and Vallamir. The Temples stood tall far above the treeline as the population was hard at work, from the Ihemol to the Orvar.

In the west, the southern banks of the Ihemol, near its meeting with the Orvar, were enveloped in a flurry of activity. Although long deforested to make way for agricultural and domestic development, the region was now being flooded with lumber. More specifically many were taking time to build canoes on which to traverse the rivers of the land. Instead of carrying a great number of trips over land, the river’s offered a speedway to transport goods and people. So having only recently been given direction on their construction, they were in great demand at the moment. Priests worked to guide the general population in the proper construction and use, even as the river flowed with what few had been constructed already.

Even of greater importance, was transport to and from the river Orvar. Although the Ihemol had long been resident to the mixed villas and homes of Nebulites and Vallamir, the Orvar had the twin sites of the Obelisk and the Temple. Which now as a great many thought to set new homes and villages closer to the holy places, especially as children continued to grow and one had to think to the future homes as well. As well, the northern banks of the Ihemol grew more in importance as its resources became more accessible with easier travel across the river. Additional prime farmland, although few had moved across it had become a point of interest to many others as well.

Noticeably most workers were Ihokhetlani, although many Nebulites and Vallamir could be found with their children in attempting to teach them some trades or playing with them generally. Without a period of childhood comparable to the other two races and the need for labor, in addition to their physical prowess, the Ihokhetlani found themselves as the majority of the builders. Many even looked forward to when they would be able to carry better stone down from the beginnings of the Orvar and Ihemol by the river rather than what could be found locally or carried overland.
A number of the ferrymen found, however, a very odd addition to the lake at the edge of the Orvar and Ihemol. A mirage, it was speculated at first, for it was enormous and shaped much like the ferries they sailed, if not considerably brighter and golden. Stories attracted more attention as rumours of gold- and clay-skinned humanoids dressed in silk swam ashore, yet appeared nothing like the Ihokhetlani. It wasn’t until one of the ferrymen made contact with the strangers that the first riddle was answered. A token was brought to the Holy Synod - it was clay pot the size of a Vallamir’s head. Upon it was written a character in black ink.

The Holy Synod was more than a little unprepared for the strange arrival, a great deal of their numbers were further west, supervising the work on construction. Those that remained at the Temple proper were mostly supervising the construction of buildings near the Temple and while more easily recalled still faced the issue of communication with those distant in the west, even with a fast boat in good conditions to get across the Orvar and up the Ihemol could take many days. Let alone return with the other members of the Holy Synod.

More startling than the appearance of a strange vessel with strange people was the possibility that this was the work of Shengshi, brother of Ohannakeloi and the Supreme Lord and Master of rivers. Especially compounded by the identification of the character by Valdemerl, priest-supervisor of the Shengshi cult, as the Shengshese character for ‘wine’. As the lack of direct appearance of Shengshi, and the less than direct contact initiated, it was considered that the Divinity may be waiting for an invitation. Or perhaps may be demanding wine, having given some in expectance reciprocating arrangement, interpretation of the Divine will was always difficult.

A path of action was decided upon, Hase, Valdemerl, Nebuli, and whatever members of the Shengshi cult that could be quickly found would proceed to approach the vessel and its people and offer an invitation to the Temple proper, using the Scepter of Understanding if necessary. In the meantime, the remaining occupants of the Temple and the nearby workers would attempt to get a reception together as quickly as possible, and send word to the rest of the Holy Synod.

The waterfolk already waited by the shore when the delegation arrived. They fell to their knees in greeting, and the one clad in the finest dress ushered forth a flowered speech in their song-like language, complete with warm, dance-like movement and multiple stages of bowing and kowtowing. Those behind the leader mimicked the movements like they were of one mind. The speech finished and the leader looked upon the delegation with an expectant smile.

Hase felt rather bad that they had let them go through that whole apparent speech without informing them that they had no idea what they were saying. Although they had bowed in the beginning, most of it was completely lost on the group as a whole. Hase spoke, even if understanding was not in the words they might understand the issue better that way. He began in the grinding dialect of the Ihokhetlani.

“We do truly wish to greet you, and welcome you and all of your blessed group to the lands of the Ihemol and Orvar, however I must inform you that I have no idea what you just said. I would recommend you grab a hold of this.”

With that he leaned forward, as if offering the Scepter of Understanding to the evident leader, his Soul-Eye remaining fixed on that person. The leader, while a little reddened in the cheeks, gave an understanding nod and grabbed hold of the sceptre.

“Forgive this servant for asking, but is it right in assuming that this artifact is one with the power to break down the lingual barrier?” he asked.

Hase replied in the same language, “It is that same artifact, the Scepter of Understanding as it were. I would wish to apologize for not bringing it up earlier, it can only teach two mortals eachother’s language not translate it for them.”

“Please, it was this servant’s overeagerness that led it to so frivolously forget that world hosts a multitude of different cultures. It gladdens His Lordship to see so many living in such harmony. Have You come with a message for the Regent of Rivers and King of Crops?”

“On behalf of the full Holy Synod of Recorders, Archivists, and Explorers, of the Temple, I would like to offer an invitation to a reception for His Supreme Fluvial Lordship at the Supreme Temple of Ohannakeloi on the eastern bank of the Orvar river. While we regret we cannot offer more at this time due to the significant work along the Ihemol, we wish to offer our service and recognition of the Divine power, wisdom and influence of the Beloved Brother of Ohannakeloi.”

The leader smiled. “His Lordship understands the abruptness of His arrival may cause some rushed planning. His Lordship wishes to assure the people of the Holy Synod that no contempt will fester in His impression of Your great people as a result of wanting tributes. Your people’s invitation alone is already most appreciated by the great Lord. We shall return to inform Him to sail the sacred vessel to the river of Orvar post-haste.”

“Before such a thing I would like to ask a further request, but on this Servant of the Holy Lord Shengshi rather than that of the Grand Divinity Himself. I would be most pleased to know your name.”

The Servant blinked and bowed. “Naturally. Forgive this rude servant’s lack of proper manners. This servant is called He Bo.”

Hase bowed back. “And I am Hase. Now, to our mutual business.”




The two groups split apart and went on their respective ways to the Temple, the Jiangzhou was much faster than any mortal vessel present here under the conditions and so arrived much sooner as well. The first thing seen of the Temple was the supreme height of it, far above the height of the trees and nearly thrice as tall as the Jiangzhou itself. The many decorations and writings on the Temple gradually came into view as did the final preparations at the Temple, evidently set off in greater speed upon the spotting of the Jiangzhou. A stone pathway had been made from the river bank to the central Temple stairs, evidently drawn from the constructions nearby. Additionally, firepits had been constructed, some still in the process of cooking or heating food in ceramic containers.

As the Jiangzhou grew close, priests began descending from the Temple to present themselves nearer the river bank, as crowds of workers came to stand off to the sides. A call from a hollow horn rang out and the masses present raggedly but as one threw themselves to the ground and calling out.

“We welcome you grand Divine Lord Shengshi, Divine of Rivers, Beloved Brother of Ohannakeloi!”

The ship halted on the river and a great staircase of water ascended up to the deck. The crimson snake extended his arms outwards to take in the praise and music. His mouth curved into a grinning crescent and his eyes smiled as much as his lips. Before him descended first a company of Servants, followed by a group of Vallamir whose demeanour betrayed a great lack of the cultured upbringing of the Servants. Still, they tried. The snake followed, and was trailed by another company of Servants and Vallamir.

“A loyal and worthy greeting such as this warrants a thousand years of amiable irrigation and fruitful crops, I say! What luck - what fortune I am blessed with, to come to a land so distant as this and still receive a welcome of divine class. Truly, oh truly, you ARE the people of my Blessed Brother - a thousand, ten thousand of the warmest blessings upon His Holy name and soul. Tell me, where is the one known as Hase, who represents this worthy union of priests and chroniclers known as the Holy Synod? I much desire to speak with him.”

An Ihokhetlani stepped forward from the rest of the priestly bunch, coming to a kneel just a few steps forward of the main group.

“He has not yet arrived back your Supreme Holiness, from the top of the Temple we have been watching their progress since they were spotted some time after your own Divine Vessel. They should arrive in not too long from now, there are other members of the Synod present if it pleases you to speak to them. If it pleases you to speak to Hase in particular, we have assembled some regional foods and other items of regional interest that you could peruse should you wish to wait.”

Having finished speaking the Ihokhetlani stayed where they were as they awaited a response.

“Ah, naturally. Forgive my impatience - of course, I would be faster.” He grinned. “The very fact that you have prepared hors d’oeuvres is absolutely marvellous. Forgive my rudeness, but would there be enough for the mortals in my company, as well? All are equally ravenous to taste what our superior hosts have prepared.”

“Of course, we have made much in ample supply, we regret to say we have few breads as the stockpiles for grains and such are further west with the majority of the population, I hope your own Blessed Divine self may understand our failings. The food is mostly locally hunted and gathered due to time constraints so we do not have a full variety of agricultural products.”

“Then these will be savoured at a later date, I am sure. For now, we are honoured to be invited to your tables. Please, lead the way, worthy mortal.” The Servants fanned out to the side and the Vallamir formed up behind the snake, who followed the Ihokhetlani to the food tables.

The crowds parted and the priestly group stood to lead back over to the set of tables that had been set out. It was clear that an abundance of wooden tables was not to be found, although there were a few with reasonable decorations, likely drawn from furniture from the interior of the Temple, most were stone slab that had been piled up for the use of tables. On top of the various tables were mostly communal dishes, black bread and stews, many kinds of cooked meats- some skewered on sticks, others with some cutting stones nearby. Meats seemed to predominate as did fairly simple cooking, not without spices but relatively easy to prepare. The fire pits were still in use as it seemed they were still attempting to make more food over the veritable feast.

Some of the priests lead groups of Vallamir to tables as others stayed with Shengshi to a particularly ornate wooden table that had been set up on some slabs of stone to keep it off the ground directly. There a broad variety of dishes filled the table and the first Ihokhetlani priest spoke again, “We wished to provide your Divine and puissant Lordship with everything that we had to offer at the current time.”

“Your tribute is most rich, worthy mortal. Tell me, what is your name? I can tell, you and your kin carry a particularly powerful scent similar to my brother’s. Are you to him what my Servants are to me?” the snake asked. The Vallamir showed their finest display of Shengshese manners, sitting down at the table and waiting for the snake to take his bite. Eamhair sat down next to old nan, itching the skin under her new robes.

“Your praise is golden to my humble self O Mighty and Wise Shengshi. I am called Azunon. I must profess that we, even of the Holy Synod, do not know much of your Servants and what they are to you O Holy One. I can say that the Blessed Divine Ohannakeloi made Ihokhe, and from Ihokhe came the Ihokhetlani and the priesthood.”

Azunon paused, looking around at some of the other priests present. “Recently we of the Holy Synod have been formed to guide the priesthood but also to preserve and find knowledge for all those under our management as sanctioned by that same Most Blessed One. I am capable and willing of answering more that is in my knowledge if my meager mortal offering has not saited your questions O Glorious Divinity.”

“A hub of knowledge, you say? My mind and my brother’s are as one, it would seem, for I, too, have united an order with the sole purpose of pursuing knowledge. Ah, how it warms the soul to see that curiosity runs deep in the veins and bones of mortalkind elsewhere, too. Tell me, if you would, what manner of knowledge it is that you seek. Is it exploratory? Scientific? Religious?” The snake picked himself a piece of meat and bit into it. “This is wonderful, by the way. My most sincere compliments to the chef.”

Azunon turned his head to see which dish the deity spoke of as he replied, “Your Blessed and Puissant Lordship, we of the Temple seek all forms and manners of knowledge. In the west we build boats to explore and use the blessed currents, made of your own will, in the waterways. In the Temple itself we have formulated what few passages we have at our disposal of the teachings of all Divines, very limited I must admit but we have a few attributed to your own Holy self. We record information of the mundane, all things pertinent to mortal life. In this we hope to gather knowledge so that we may gain wisdom in leading our people to a most prosperous and enlightened state as set forth by the Blessed Divine Ohannakeloi.”

He paused briefly giving a small bow, “If it would please the Divine and Judicious Lord, I would like to request a record of your own teachings that the Blessed Divine Ohannakeloi alluded to from his visitation to your most holy and commanding vessel.”

“Such spirit, such dedication -- my, worthy Azunon, your words set this old divine’s heart ablaze. A record of my teachings is the least I can grant you -- nay, it is much too little. For this meal,” he took another bite, “for this hospitality, a quality of which I, in all of my existence, have been so rarely exposed to, I shall bestow upon this jewel of a society any three gifts in addition to my literature. Any three are within limits -- if it can be imagined, so it shall appear before you.”

Azunon threw himself to the ground and many of the priests behind him did likewise or kneeled as space allowed on the sudden move. Azunon spoke, “Your most holy Lordship is more than generous a thousand times over to these poor mortal souls! If it would be allowed I would wish to wait on asking of such gifts until I have had time to discuss the matter with my fellow priests, especially such as Hase who should not long be beyond us.”

“Time, you shall have -- as much as you need. If we may, I would like to remain for a bit, see what the lands of my brother are like. Furthermore, the Vallamir in my company are unripe in the fields of knowledge. If you could share with them a few of your skills, trades and angles of philosophy, I would be most grateful, certainly.” A few of the Vallamir frowned at the remark, but none dared speak up.

Azunon nodded then spoke, “As your Blessed Divinity wishes. I would say when the people of this land first met they had much to learn and to teach one another, the Vallamir have always been a most resourceful and respectable people, they helped many Nebulites thrive in the early years as the Nebulites have taught them in kind. We have no issue in teaching should they have no issue in learning. However, I recognize it may be prudent to bring some of the local Vallamir here, as the strengths and tastes of Ihokhetlani are not that of the Nebulites or the Vallamir. They may learn best in such company as is closest to their own experience.”

“So they shall, then. Please summon forth a group each of the local Vallamir and Nebulites so that these mortals, and also I, may learn from what they have to say.” He turned to one of the servants. “Return to the ship and retrieve the first ten volumes of the Classic of Wisdom -- make certain the scrolls are intact.”

“At once, Your Lordship,” the servant replied and turned back to the ship with a following of few hundreds.

“We have several priests of each race that also hold much of the same knowledge gifted unto their minds. I hope such is satisfactory for the current time, as to bring ones with more practical experience may take a good many days before their arrival could come in good number O holy and Wise Divinity.”

“Bring whomever are suited to teach these people. Both they and I can wait. Much of a god’s life is spent doing exactly that, you know -- waiting. Tell me, if you would, the manner in which you worship those to whom these temples are dedicated. Does tribute come in the form of prayer, offerings? If the latter, what manner of offerings? Do you practice live sacrifice of any sort?”

“The Temple itself is dedicated to the Blessed Divine Ohannakeloi, your wise supremacy. He demands little beyond prayer and dedication of thought to his works and their meanings. There are plans for shrines to other deities as well as housing in this area for the general population but we have little in the way of knowledge about their preferred worship. If you would wish for any live sacrifice some might be obliged, we Ihokhetlani have managed to find little trouble with beasts outside of specific beasts and fairly mature Ahomauoi.”

“Oh, that is quite alright, young Azunon - live sacrifices are not quite my preference. Jewels, stones and other brilliant treasures would be appreciated, though. Tell me, who is this Ahomauoi? Another child of my brother?”

Behind Azunon it became apparent that some of what was being said was being carved into clay tablets by some of the priests. Azunon replied, “Apologies for my unclear speech O majestic Deity. Ahomauoi is not a person but rather a kind of creature, they share the form of Blessed Ohannakeloi is appearance, particularly of size when they are young. However, as they grow older they do not seem to stop growing in size, they were first encountered decades ago, long before we knew of such wonders as we do now, before my time in any case. The largest I have seen rival the size of our mortal constructions, although I’ve heard tales of ones that may be as large as your most Holy and Grand Vessel.”

“Interestingly, the Blessed Divine Ohannakeloi once said that they would obey commands from him or other mighty beings, if they could understand it of course. It eludes me what precise purpose they are to serve, but it is not for me to guess the mind of a deity. Perhaps they do something out east, thats where they seem to be most prevalent in any case.”

“Enormous landwalkers with unchecked growth? An interesting idea for a creature.” The snake hummed as he bit into another piece of meat. “East of here… Over the mountains. Are there other gatherings of mortals beyond this valley?”

“Yes, O mighty and wise Lord. Three of the First Ones of the Ihokhetlani led large groups to go settle the east, another One went South, One stayed here, Hase as you know, and the First of the First Ones is of unknown whereabouts to me at least. I know Hase has kept an attempt at tracking them. Blessed Ohannakeloi has spoken of other people in the far east, on the other side of the world, but they do not worship the Blessed Divine and so he has taken little interest in them, so we know little.”

“I see, I see. Yes, these other peoples of the far east know quite little about the world outside their little spheres of reality - in that respect, you are all quite enlightened. From the taste of the rivers here, I can tell that there must be an intimate connection between here and the World Spring - perhaps the flow will carry you see your comrades again in time? Do you miss them?”

“Your supreme excellence, I have little control over the fact that I miss those I held dear who decided to part ways. I know that we may meet again as long as the Pyres burn, I also know that we may never meet again. We Ihokhetlani live longer than most things we have found, but we know we are mortal. I have found it is best to enjoy today, not to forget the joys and sorrows of yesterday or the triumphs and fears of tomorrow, but to keep them and move forward knowing and acting from ones life. I try to tell my congregation this as a priest, the older ones understand, but most are of the newer bunch, in the last ten years. They do not yet know this, I hope they will learn for themselves without too many troubles but we go as we must.”

Azunon looked back to the group of priests behind him before continuing to speak, “We can only hope, and pray to enlightened and puissant Divines such as your own self, that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. I do not know what the future holds, perhaps in a few years I will go east and see if I can’t visit my old friends. Most that I knew left later following the the largest waves of movement in any case.”

The snake blinked, then gave Azunon a warm smile. “Young Azunon, nay… Wise Azunon - you are sagely and pious beyond any mortal I have ever met. Truly, my brother has fashioned nothing less than a masterwork upon creating you and your people, the Ihokhetlani. To live for such ages, yet be uncorrupted by temptations of power, greed or arrogance - it is remarkable.” He nodded. “Again, I must beseech you to pass on your manners, your wisdom and your skill to my company. The counsel of a sage such as yourself would be a blessing to any listener.”

“Your Divine Excellency is far and above a kind being, I know not which word could describe such boundless enthusiasm towards our humble mortal selves. I cannot stand in front of such a request and deny it, I will teach any who wish to learn such things.”

“Then you will.” The snake rose from the table. “When Hase returns, tell one of these Vallamir to walk to the river. Then I shall reappear. Until then, consider what three gifts you wish for me to bestow upon this valley and its people.” Shengshi bowed. “I am most grateful for the food. It was exquisitely prepared. Lady Eamhair.”

The Vallamir woman blinked back to reality. “Y-yes, Sh-- Your Lordship?!” she replied with as deep a sideways bow as she could manage sitting.

“You and your people will remain here and learn from the Itokhetlani, the Nebulites and your cousins. I will return to my vessel and add a few additional texts to the volumes I am leaving here for the Temple.”

Eamhair swallowed. “C-certainly, Your Lordship.”

The snake nodded at Azunon with a smile. “I assure you that they are good listeners - most of the time.”

Azunon bowed as he could, although it was more full a bending of his body given that Ihokhetlani don’t have exactly predetermined joints. “I shall take your assurance to heart your most excellent and holy Majesty. We will have done as you wish when Hase returns.”

Azunon bowed as he could, although it was more full a bending of his body given that Ihokhetlani don’t have exactly predetermined joints. “I shall take your assurance to heart your most excellent and holy Majesty. We will have done as you wish when Hase returns.”

Azunon turned and inclined his head towards Eamhair. The Vallamir looked up, then blinked away shyly. She mumbled a few words in her native tongue, then looked up expectantly as if to see whether she had been understood.

Azunon replied, if somewhat rustily, “I am sorry to say my hearing is not of the same divine standard that you may be used to from your voyages with the holy and noble Shengshi. You may have to speak louder to have others understand you here. You will find that most priests will be able to help you although I regret to say that the general population of Ihokhetlani are not as fluent in the full Vallamir language.”

The priests recording what was being said seemed to continue in the same script they had before, if one could see what they were writing besides a small notation of what language was being spoken, not much changed there.

“O-oh, is that so? Then I’m so-- I mean, forgive me.” Eamhair bowed her torso and stood up, then bowed more properly. “Sorry. This ‘cultured behaviour’, as His Lordship calls it, is all a bit new to us. If I’m not mistaken, His Lordship said you were wise beyond many mortals. We’ve recently lost our home and, and many of our elders with it. As such, we--”

“We have no one to teach our young,” old nan added from behind her and rose to her quivering feet. “We ain’t askin’ you to teach ‘em, but whatever wisdom our elders had has been lost. Everythin’ about the world, nature and so on. Is there anything about such that you can tell us? Anything you’ve learned here that we can pass on as the Lord brings us along to the Promised Land?”

Azunon spoke first to his fellow priests in the Ihokhetlani language, “Convene as many of the Synod as you can to think on the Holy Lordship’s gifts, need to be thoughtful about such things. Additionally, bring whichever Vallamir priests are nearby, I think they would be helpful here.”

He turned back to the Vallamir before him speaking their tongue again as the other priests began to disperse, one of the recording priests stayed. “I will first say that I am sorry to hear such a tragedy befell you. Although, I believe there is much we could assist with, both in the practical regard of action as well as general worldly information. I should ask what is known to your people so I bear not to speak of what you already know.”

“Well… We know of the great Kalmar, Arae, Li’Kalla and Roog, and the birth of our people. Then His Lordship offered us insight into the rest of the pantheon. He, he spoke warmly of the master of these lands, but… We have hardly ever seen anything outside our village. We know how to hunt and survive, but… Such mountains built by hand such as your temple are far beyond us; as is such recorded insight as you possess.” Old nan pointed to the recording priests. “We cannot even write - though His Lordship has given teachers to our youngest.”

“We must then ensure that such things would no longer be far beyond you, although I will admit that it may be difficult for Vallamir without the physical ability of Ihokhetlani. I must first clarify that we did not construct our temple ourselves, although we have the knowledge that should make such a construction possible, I believe Hase was looking into the possibility…”

Azunon faded off as another group approached, a group of four Vallamir, all four bowed to the group present. A young woman, two older men and a single person who was so covered in furs of various kinds it was a degree of luck that enough features could identify them as one of the Vallamir.

The young woman spoke as she rose, “Azunon, Honored Guests.” She nodded to each before turning to Azunon, “They request your presence for the Synod, Hase approaches and they wish to not delay the meeting greatly.”

Azunon nodded, he turned to Old Nan and Eamhair saying, “I believe you will be most well helped by Acolyte Vilhiga, Priests Faegurd and Beohird, as well as…?”

The Vallamir covered in furs spoke in a surprisingly deep voice, “Potter Sigeard, honorable Azunon.”

Azunon spoke, “A pleasure to make the acquaintance. They should be able to assist in teaching many practical arts, as well as answer any other questions you might have about such things.”




It had been a little over a week, far too short a time to teach much of anything but at least it allowed for more Vallamir to coalesce at the Temple and introduce much of the concepts of the technology lacked by the Vallamir formerly of Kalgrun. Acolyte Vilhiga was soon reassigned to other duties but the others and soon more of the Atokhekwoi Vallamir had come in that time. Many sought to not only assist in teaching but soon after to also then go with the Vallamir of Shengshi’s custodianship on their planned journey. They desired to leave for varying reasons, to leave behind broken relationships or to explore in a new land or interest in some Vallamir there, in any case, the knowledge would travel with them.

The Holy Synod had traveled to meet Hase before he reached the Temple area, traveling back with him to both discuss the events transpired but also what should be done with the gifts offered by Shengshi. Debates and decisions abounded but they had some measure of finality by the time they had arrived back at the main Temple area.

As Shengshi had said, they had one of the Vallamir he had brought with him walk to the river. Many supplies, mostly tools and such things, had been assembled for those leaving to take with them. Most of the Holy Synod that was available stood nearby, Hase stood slightly apart from the whole of the group.

As the Vallamir called out as she had been instructed, a distant gong rang as a response and before long, the colossal ship of Shengshi sailed up to the bank. Stairs of water climbed up to the deck and the snake slithered his way down smoothly, his arms wide open in greeting.

“Ah, worthy Hase,” he boomed in greeting on his way down, “it is a joy that you have made it back safely. I trust the journey was harmonious and pleasant, yes?”

“Indeed it was your most Impressive and Wise Lordship.” Hase spoke as he bent over in prostration before Shengshi, “I must tell you that it is a great honor that you have bestowed upon my people to grace us with your continued presence, and that of your well chosen followers of course.”

“Oh, it has truly been my deepest of pleasures. The company of these priests and your unrivaled civility and culture is nothing short of perfection among mortalkind. My stay here has been most exquisite thanks to you.” He tipped his head in gratitude. “So, if I may ask, have you come to a conclusion as to what you will wish for? Three wishes, you shall have - no more, no less - and it shall be my greatest joy to bestow them.”

“Your Lordship is far and above us poor mortals in such a field as kindness, only a Divine could be supremely strong in that attribute. I could not stop from thinking deeply on such an expansive and generous gift from the Supremely Wise Shengshi! It would honor me and all my people were you to grant our desires, that is good harvests for our crops along your great rivers, and to be taught both your own most holy script in full and any humble improvements that could be made to our poor mortal boats. To see your own grand and powerful vessel is to know one’s own limits, we have trouble building ones to transport great stones from the West, or any real number of Ihokhetlani.”

The other priests of the Holy Synod behind Hase threw themselves to the ground as he finished, speaking as one, “We humbly request that your puissant Lordship may consider granting these as gifts onto our people!”

The snake hummed and nodded. “I see, I see. If those are what you wish for, then they shall be granted in the most prosperous of ways!” He lifted one hand into the air. Along the rivers in the valley, across all the plants that drank from their waters, stalks bent under the weight of their fattened grain; fruit grew almost too plump for the branches; roots peeked out of the soil in the fields like curious meerkats.

The snake then lifted his other hand. From it spawned a star-like mist that spread to the heads of all the present onlookers and beyond. It buzzed around them like a curious swarm of fireflies before settling on their foreheads and then dissipating. The onlookers blinked, for they suddenly felt volumes upon volumes of text fill their minds - philosophy, statecraft, law, religion, morality: All of Shengshi’s edicts came together in a single, powerful thought that seemed to make itself at home in their memories.

Following the mist, the snake clapped his hands together. The thoughts of his writing subsided to unveil schematics: Rafts, boats, ships - everything was there. If wood could be harnessed, bent and shapen properly, a distant possibility presented itself: The priests could potentially build ships like Shengshi’s.

The snake lowered his hands again and smiled. “The fields will yield good harvests for as long as your faith is true. Never again shall the people of this valley starve come the hard seasons.” He looked at Hase and poked his own temple knowingly. “How do you feel?”

Hase replied quite carefully focusing beyond the feeling of rapid knowledge acquisition which was so distinct, “Your most Holy Lordship, I must admit having Divine knowledge granted onto one’s mind does become easier to deal with, although it never lessens in its abrupt influence.”

Shengshi chuckled. “So I have heard. I personally cannot imagine what it must be like to have months of reading thrust into one’s mind in an instant. I hope you do not find it invasive in anyway?”

“I could scarcely think so O Divine Shengshi. I am aware of what it is like and I have requested such from you, perhaps if one had no idea of it and the given knowledge was less than pleasant in of itself then I may suspect that would be closer to an invasive situation.”

The snake nodded. “Yes, I suppose there would be a contextual difference there - whether you request or are treaded upon. Either way, I am glad you see it as you do.” He turned back to his ship. “Worthy mortal Hase, my stay here has been of the utmost pleasure - I so wish I could remain for longer.” He gave the Vallamir in his company a quick glance. “However, it is about time I gave these refugees a proper home - a place where they may grow to be civil and prosperous.”

Hase went further into prostration, bringing his full body to the ground as he spoke, “O Mighty and Wise Shengshi, we are honored by your gifts and your very holy presence. I must make a request on you that I would be amiss in my duty to the people of the valley and of your Divine guidance were I to not make it. There are several priests, skilled workers and others of the Vallamir of the valley that wish to join your company and join with your Vallamir in the new home you seek for them. I would humbly beseech you to consider allowing them to do as they so strongly wish.”

The snake eyed the eager followers, all of whom, too, were prostrating before him. He hummed dramatically before allowing himself a benevolent nod. “Of course - all may come aboard my ship and sail to yonder lands. Beware, however, that no such trip is two-wayed; those that go, will never return.”

“O Powerful and Wise Shengshi, it has been ensured that they were adequately aware of the possibility. Such a journey was one way before when the Blessed Divine Ohannakeloi brought them from their northern lands, they are aware that such things may be as they were before. I must say that few families wish to leave, many of those who plan to leave are not bound by much beyond their compatriots here.” Hase paused allowing a silence of a brief moment before he continued, “Perhaps one day when mortal kind has advanced under Divine care, tutelage and assistance those of this Valley may once again meet their fair friends and all those of the most Holy and Divine Shengshi’s immortal graces.”

Once more, the snake nodded. A single snicker escaped him. “Let us hope so. Then they may come. Go to my ship, all who wish to join, and we shall be off in moments.” The crowds bowed and began heading to the massive ship. “Well, then, worthy mortal Hase… I reckon this is farewell for now.”

The stonemen kowtowed again. The snake nodded back and climbed aboard his ship. Soon, they were sailing far into the east, back home towards the Dragon’s Foot.






Location:

Raygon 8 - Leisure District, aka. New Macau.

BT-Block K376-001-019 “Laogui” Lane - 250m from nearest HappyBurger™.




Subject:

Name: George Christian Wellsley, aka. G.C. Willy.

Age: 27 cycles around Raygon 0.

Residence: BT-Block L102-071-010, “Moonlit Gardens” flat 10.

Occupation: Drone Mechanic.







The Bottom Tiers - the place where dreams come to die, rot and rise again as nightmarish spectres out for the blood of their makers. Among all adjectives in every language spoken on Raygon 8, there would probably only be about six that could describe this part of the city as even remotely pleasant - and even that would require vastly different contexts. Ancient sewer and water pipes still in use despite centuries of neglect line the walls, the roofs, the pavement - everywhere, bringing the piss and shit of every class both high and low to the waste processing centres riiiiiight over there. Not that it would matter much anyway where it went; most of it ends up on these streets from the looks of it.

However, if you can ignore the stink (or your nostrils have been seared shut by it already), it wouldn’t take long for you to notice what was living in the muck, anyway. For the muck isn’t even close to the worst - that would be whoever or whatever’s rolled so low with the dice of fate that they’d end up down here. That’s right, lining the streets are beggars by the millions, kneeling shoulder to shoulder with their code bricks presented, just in case someone feels generous enough to donate. Fool’s hope, if you ask me.

“Spending money” is a dream down here. Whoever’s got extra to spare after rent and subs would soon hear a knock on the door and be greeted by a pair of grinning mugs, flexing and unflexing their palms in a beckoning manner. I know a couple who’ve ended up sleeping in the gutter for saying no - they’re the lucky ones. The unlucky ones, well… Ever heard of corpse starch?

… But I’m getting off track. Where was I… Right, Hell - I mean, the Bottom Tiers. First rule down here is that there ain’t no rules - non, zip, nada. It’s every ape for himself down here, and to think otherwise is to wave goodbye to any ticket out of here. Only norms exist around here, and they’re for your own safety. First one: Don’t get close to anyone - and I do mean anyone. As soon as you form any kind of relationship, someone’s going to take advantage of it: Girlfriend? Woops, guess she just got snatched up by the mob, huh; family? Hit by a truck; even your employer might just get his head mounted on a lamp in the parking lot for trying to avoid his debt to big Addy. Boom! Out of work, out of love and maybe just out of will to live, too, huh.

Only money means anything down here - it’s your status, your power, your clothes, your house, your motherfucking ID. Not even joking, flashing the cops your card has more value than any interstellar passport. Money gets you love, protection, comfort - maybe even a ticket up. It’ll cost you, but from what I’ve heard, the centre’s actually liveable.

Laogui Lane… It ain’t my block, but it’s more home to me than Moonlit Gardens’ll ever be. Here, booze is cheap and won’t actually kill you from the inside (right away), and the ladies have at least a basic concept of hygiene. Still, I recommend going for Cybes above anything else - they usually got internal cleaning mechanisms that make them pretty safe. Sure, they don’t show much emotion during the act, but some like that, too. Not saying I do, but hey, I won’t judge.

Right, so who am I, exactly? Name’s George Christian Wellsley. I’m technically still a drone mechanic, but I haven’t been much at work lately. The reason? I’m in deep, deep shit.

Okay, so I may or may not have a pretty bad gambling problem. That’s not important right now. What -is- important is that I may or may not have spent my family’s savings down to the last credit. I tried to explain to my wife that I was really sure black was the winning colour, but she didn’t wanna hear it. Last I heard, she’s living with her sister over in block E somewhere. Haven’t seen her for a few years now, actually. Shit. But, uh, yeah, anyway, so I had to win it back somehow, right? Well, turns out borrowing money to win back your money at the casino is a bit of a gamble (get it?), and gambles can be, well, lost. Not saying I lost this one, but I may or may not owe some people a whole lot of credits.

So you might be asking… Yo, G.C., if you’re in such deep shit, why’re you in Laogui Lane drinking your credits away? Yeah? Well, to that I say…

“Ook!” George suddenly whooped angrily and raised his fist high into the air. A passed out Raygonian lifted his groggy face off the bar and scowled at the ape.

“The fuck you just call me, furball?”

George turned and scowled back, not because he was annoyed, but because the grog was making it difficult to see. The booming music didn’t help much either, the sound alone nearly knocking him out. The ape clapped his hands together, grunted, pointed in several directions and ooked again. The Raygonian snorted, his six nose rings dancing around his flaring nostrils.

“Fuck you mean ‘had a moment’? You on something bad, squirt?” he pursed his lips. “... Wouldn’t happen to have anymore, would ya?”

George frowned and shrugged, shaking his head. The Raygonian sighed through vibrating lips. “And here I was hoping for something fun tonight…” With that, he lifted his enormous body off the tortured bar stool and stomped off on his round, flat feet, tankard of grog in hand. George blinked a few times, then rubbed his eyes. How long had he been here, actually? He prodded the band on his arm and watched the familiar holographic display appear before him. After swiping away the ads, he saw the time: 03:49 AM. Jesus, he’d been here a long-ass time. He tapped the bar counter twice and another hologram appeared before him, this one of a beautiful human lady with mechanical augments, dressed in a loose white shirt and suit pants. She stood behind the counter and gave him a small smile.

“Yes, mr. Wellsley, would you like anything else?”

“Ook-ook,” George answered with a shrug and tapped his right middle and index finger against his thumb.

“Very good, mr. Wellsley,” the hologram answered and held her hand. A holographic bill materialised in it for Wellsley to take. The ape peered at the number at the bottom, grimacing a little. He reluctantly tapped the wristband on the bill, sounding a light ‘pling!’ The bartender smiled.

“Thank you for your patronage, mr. Wellsley. We hope to see you again soon.” With that, she disappeared again. George chugged down the rest of his grog and cringed at the consistency. Bottom-tier grog was ironically the most palatable drink down here - at least if you didn’t want to go blind the next day (never try the tequila). Sadly, it had an unfortunate habit of separating, making the bottom less of a drink consistency and more of a chewy gum. Still, at least it helped him forget that he actually lived down here. He hopped off his stool, allowed himself a few moments to stabilise and started heading towards the exit. His intoxicated eyes caught a number of sights on the way: a flock of hookers, a group of stoners surrounding a shisha, the mob…

Oh shit, the mob.

Before George could run, four heavybuilt Quroks had already surrounded him, their faces stern as always. Two of them made very certain to block any and all paths leading to the door. George swallowed - hiring Quroks to serve as your brawlers? That’s expensive as shit - just who had he caught the attention of?

“Heeey! George, right? George Wellsley?”

The sleazy voice was unfamiliar to him, but it couldn’t belong to a friend of his - he didn’t have any! Reluctantly, he turned around to face a human, or possibly a cybe, dressed in a stylish golden suit with a plastic rose in his right chest pocket. He wore star-shaped glasses which glass beamed an intense white light - antishades, as they were called. Those were pretty expensive down here. He sat in a couch, flanked on each side by ladies off different species - one at least fifty percent human and one Cala. The Cala winked playfully at George as she fed the man a gummy grape. Shit, candy? Man must’ve been rolling in dough.

“That’s your name, right? Or is your profile picture a little…” He eyed the holographic display over his wristband, which currently showed George’s Mi-Self page. “... Outdated?”

George frowned. “Ook,” he went and gave him a thumb-up. The man clapped his hands and beckoned him over.

“Oh, that’s great, that’s great! Hey, why don’t you take a seat right over here, mr. Wellsley - I do believe you and I’ve got some business to discuss.”

George stole a moment to eye the door. All he caught in his glance was the clenching and unclenching fist of one of the Quroks. He looked up at the owner, who gave him a challenging frown. He’d be sleeping deeper than the gutter if he tried to get out of this one. Reluctantly, George made his way over to the man’s table. One of the Quroks pulled out a chair for him and the ape sat down. The man extended a robotic hand, palm open in invitation.

“A pleasure to meet you, mr. Wellsley. I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while - shame time’s never been quite right.”

George shook the hand as politely as he could. A moment passed before he frowned, tapped the middle and index finger of his right hand against the same fingers on his left and pointed at the man. The man’s smile tightened into a slightly more polite expression.

“Oh, I’m simply known as Shawn. No need to be polite about it, though - just Shawn’s alright.”

Shawn. Had to be a new player in the game. George had no recollection of the same, and he liked to believe he frequented the exact kind of areas where he’d hear the name of this kind of character. Shawn tapped the right side of his glasses and the intense light dimmed considerably to fit the sorry excuse for lighting inside the bar.

“So,” he began, “I reckon you must be pretty curious as to why I called you over. Well, see, I’ve got a story for you. Would you like a drink, by the way?”

George was quick to wave his hands in denial, but Shawn just grinned. “Oh, come on, what’d I say about being so polite?” He tapped twice the tabletop between the couch and George’s chair. Instantly, the bartender’s hologram popped up next to the table, bowed politely and cocked her head playfully to the side.

“Good evening, Shawn. What would you like me to bring?”

Before George could protest, Shawn raised a finger to silence him, still wearing his eerie smile. “Bring us a flask of champagne extract - I’m thinking the Veuve. The ladies would also like another fruit gum plate.”

“A wonderful choice, Shawn,” the bartender praised with another bow and disappeared. George felt sweat moisten his forehead. Veuve fucking Clicquot?! A single bottle cost more than his whole debt. Even if it was extract, one could almost buy a shitty flat in the centre with the money earned from selling a few of those. Forget his business with him - all Shawn had to do now would be to leave George with the bill and the ape’d be screwed for life. A moment later, a hatch on the table slid aside slowly to reveal a rising plate carrying four champagne glasses, a wide plate of fruit gums, and a bottle labeled Veuve Clicquot. George knew it wasn’t the actual brand that had once existed back on Earth - the patent for the name had long since been given away. A mechanical arm attached to the table uncorked the bottle and poured the glasses half-full. The ladies each took a glass and smiled at each other; Shawn took one for himself and offered one to George, who accepted it with a quivering hand.

“Well, then - a toast?”

“Cheers!” the girls sang out together and clinked their glasses together with Shawn’s. George timidly raised his own and took a sip. Christ, that was good: The fizzy tickle of bubbles pricking the top of his mouth; the gentle sweetness and sour tanginess that lingered in his mouth before he swallowed; the satisfying aftertaste. He could never go back to grog after this.

“How is it?” Shawn asked with a smile. George raised a quivering thumb and Shawn chuckled. “Yeah, it’s not bad. That’s why I really like this bar - it has amazing drinks for being a bottom tier establishment. It preserves the soul of this society without losing the quality of its accomplishments - nothing like the endless noise and booming of the top tier clubs.”

George nearly spat out his drink. This guy was from, from, from the top?! Shawn flashed him another smile.

“Surprised? In truth, I don’t come down here very often, so I don’t blame you for not seeing it right away. For all you know, I could’ve just been really high up in the mob. What’s the name of the local gang? Shadow Moon Triads?”

It was Dark Sky Triads, actually, but his name had a better ring to it, George admitted.

“... I suppose I could’ve been. However, I am not. Can you take a guess as to what organisation I represent?”

The ape shook his head and shrugged. Shawn sighed through his smile.

“Really? Not even going to try? Come on, come on - make a guess.”

George finished his glass and set it down on the table. The mechanical hand filled it right back up. The ape made a fist with the thumb pointing upwards, then flattened his palm vertically with the thumb resting against its centre. Shawn chuckled.

“No, I’m not with Adamantium, you can relax. Come on, try again.”

George made a crescent with his right hand and hammered his chest with it. Shawn shook his head.

“I’m not a cop, either.” He snickered and drank some more champagne. He extracted a silver case from his chest pocket, opened it and took out a cigarillo. He cut off the tip with a cigar cutter, stuck the uncut end into his mouth and leaned over to the Cala lady, who sensually lit the cut end with a rusty lighter. Shawn inhaled, held his breath for a second and exhaled a plume of gray smoke that somehow smelled like smoked vanilla. “Alright, mr. Wellsley, I’ll stop playing around. I work for an organisation called Possible. My job, you see, is to make my clients’ wishes happen. In truth, I represent a client who for now would like to remain anonymous. Worry not, this particular client has no business with you, personally, but his wish requires a certain finesse that’s so hard to find around these parts.”

George couldn’t help but be curious. He grunted, shrugged with his hands out to the side, then tapped his forehead before moving that hand away from his skull, flexing the index finger. Shawn nodded.

“My client’s wish, mr. Wellsley, is rule this part of town by the end of the year. They are quite close already, but a little something remains. Can you guess what that is?”

George shrugged. Shawn huffed.

“Alright. My, still so polite. The remaining facility key to total takeover is the local security drone station - the one owned by Gala-Grid.”

George’s eyes blasted open - any trace of intoxication in his body vanished without a trace, replaced by pure adrenaline. He nearly fell out of his chair, and one of the Quroks reached down to reseat him properly. The ape knew where this was going - oh, did he know. Oh, sure, he knew drones inside and out, especially security bots. Hacking a bunch and overthrowing any station was in theory a piece of cake and happened on and off every year. Gala-Grid, though… No way. No way, no way, no way. It was way too big - the largest company in the country, perhaps even in the sector. If he hacked their bots, they’d know. They’d know, and he’d be a dead ape - no, even death couldn’t adequately describe what would happen to him if he got caught meddling with Gala-Grid’s business. In fact, even discussing this out loud could get him shot.

George looked over each shoulder, then down at his wristband - however, he noticed something seemed odd about it. Shawn waved a hand soothingly and blew another plume of smoke. “Relaaax, mr. Wellsley,” he said and extracted his cigarillo tin again. That’s when George noticed it had a slight dent on the top. Shawn put it back in his pocket and dabbed the cigarillo on an ashtray. “Fancy, right? A cigarillo tin that doubles as a band jammer. Incredible what custom orders can get you.” He drew another lungful of smoke. The two ladies had moved to the end of the couch to chat. “Mr. Wellsley, your reaction is understandable. Gala-Grid is perhaps a few magnitudes above the target of a usual heist…”

A FEW?!

“... But if I am not mistaken, you are in a bit of trouble already, are you not?”

There it was. George had been waiting for it. Nothing ever came for free down here, and whatever dirt someone had on you could and would be used against you. Reluctantly, George nodded.

“How much do you owe?” asked Shawn and tapped the cigarillo on the tray once more.

George swallowed and held up five fingers, then crossed his index and middle finger. Shawn nodded.

“Fifty grand, huh? Wow, you must’ve been confident in your dice.” Shawn snickered almost mockingly. George shrank down into his chair. However, Shawn noticed his expression and let out a single chuckle. “Hey, cheer up, old boy. If you decide to take on this little assignment, you can consider the debt paid.”

George blinked. ”Ook?!”

“Oh, yes. By tomorrow, at the latest. The transfer should be instantaneous, but you never know down here.”

George couldn’t believe his ears. He frowned, held up his palm next to the side of his head and, palm facing his skull, flexed his middle finger. Shawn lifted his champagne glass in a toast and deposited the cigarillo butt in the ashtray.

“Mr. Wellsley, I did say it’s my job to fulfill my clients’ wishes. Consider it an early investment into your future career. Who knows - maybe this will be the first of many jobs you will do for us?” He tapped the table again and the bartender reappeared.

“Yes, Shawn? Would you like anything else?”

“No, thank you, I believe we’re done here.”

The bartender smiled and bowed. “Of course, Shawn. That’ll be seventeen thousand, six-hundred and fifty-eight credits, please.” A holographic bill appeared in her palm as before. George didn’t even know her A.I. could pronounce such colossal numbers. Without even a hint of reluctance, Shawn tapped the bill with his wristband, which sounded the familiar ‘pling!’. The bill disappeared.

“Thank you, Shawn. Have a nice evening!” the bartender said and disappeared as well. Shawn rose to his feet and two of the Quroks approached him from his flanks. One dressed him in a thick coat with furry hems and a thick mane, all made from the hair of alien animals, no doubt; the other fastened a stylish mask to Shawn’s face, tapped a button on the side and stepped back. Shawn took a deep breath with closed eyes and exhaled, his voice autotuned due to the mask. He activated his light glasses again.

“Ah… Fresh air.” He looked back down at George. “I would like to point out, mr. Wellsley, that we do much more than simply pay off debts. If you prove to be a worthy asset to our organisation, then next might be a house in the centre? A personal ship, perhaps?” The man shrugged playfully. “Well, then. We expect much from you. Good luck, now!”

George sat in the bar for an extra period of time - he had no idea how long. He, he was cleared - cleared of debt. Or was he, actually? Could he trust Shawn? And what would actually happen if he refused? What if he chose not to sabotage the station? Would those Quroks come after him and leave him in some ditch?

And what if he chose to comply? How would he live after getting into trouble with Gala-Grid? Would Shawn get him some security? Doubt he would. Was it even possible to sack such a station without the owners noticing the perpetrator?

The risk was immense - and so was the payoff. George reached for the smoldering butt of the cigarillo. He brought it to his lips and took as deep a drag as he could, scowling into the air. As he exhaled, he pursed his lips.

He would need time to plan this.



Ribbigus Croak - The Embers of Ancient Hate




Spring of 998, Laojiu Lane, a slum by the docks of Shi...

Rosaries were difficult to get a hand of around these parts - the pearls and stones on the market here were never of the right kind. The stonegrounds around Shi had grown barren after decades of desperate exploitation by prayer-starved mucklings - but how could he blame them, though?

Finally the centre of the stone gave way to his improved rock hammer. With his spinkly, green fingers, he threaded the stone into his rosary and gave it a critical stare. Genuine pearls from local freshwater clams given to him by his old master, hung on a thread and spaced intermittently with polished pieces of charcoal, hardened fish scales and silvery rocks. It wasn’t perfect, but Croak hadn’t seen anything more beautiful in many, many years.

A sudden scratch of foot against wet mud broke his trance and the muckling ducked behind a heap of rotting fish.

“Fockin’ hell, bruv, what yer gods-damned step, would ya?”

More scratching and slipping followed, hastened by desperation and fright. A skimpier voice than the first one replied, “Bloody-- oof, sorry, mate. Was an accident, I swear.”

“Issat right?” the first voice replied again. A short whimper was heard, then the sound of an object, likely wooden, smashing against the old boards of the pier. Croak drew a silent sigh. Humans were always like this - always.

“O-oi! What was-- agh!”

“You talkin’ back, issat it?” The whimper grew smaller, replaced instead by gasps and coughing. Croak’s fingers anxiously fingered the pearls of his rosary. Would the black days never end in this purgatory of a city?

“Oi, lads! Got ourselves someone dyin’ for a swim,” the deep voice cackled maliciously. Distant cheers egged it on. The small whimpers had by now been entirely overtaken by struggling snarls coloured by fearful sobs. Croak could hear it try to whisper something before it was deafened out by a deep cackle.

“Feed yer family?! Hah! So you’ve got a wife, huh? Maybe I’ll pay ‘er a visit after ye’re sleepin’ in the Midland Sea, how’s that?”

The sobs intensified. Croak looked down at his rosary and swallowed. He rubbed one of the pieces of charcoal with his slimey, wet fingers and drew across his face the symbols he knew so well by now. As the voices faded away and the ordeal was completed with a distant splash, Croak whispered to himself a sorrowful song in the ancient art of croaksong. His master had taught him every word of the long dead art, explained that it was a most sacred rite to their people - here, in the dead of night, witnessing so close a death of the innocent, would be a most natural place to exercise it.

It started low, almost like a gurgle. His fibers vibrated with the guttural song; his bones quivered with the primal growl. A death necessitated a melancholic tune, as was tradition - at least in the beginning. However, Croak hadn’t know this man, and would therefore maintain the sorrowful undertone throughout the whole song, lest the spirits would be confused about his motivation for singing. After a series of sequences from the depths of his voice, he forgot himself for a moment and unleashed a wailing croak of the highest pitch. Momentarily, he felt a burning joy in his chest, almost intoxicating. He was singing - he was actually singing, expressing the song of his people in honour of the dead. Like the shamans of ancient times, he was--

“Blazes, where the fack is it?!” came a foul snarl not even twenty metres away. Croak shut himself up and immediately scrambled for the water.

“There it is! Get it!” A group of thundering footsteps slapped into wet mud and soft planks behind Croak. The muckling fell onto all fours to pick up speed. Up ahead was the edge of the docks. He reached the edge and jumped. A second later, the lukewarm water of the Midland Sea surrounded him and the voices were shut out. He swam a distance away, still underwater, and surfaced for air once the lights of the docks above had grown dimmer. In the distance, he heard curses and spitting. He slowly crawled ashore and sought refuge between some wrecked crates and barrels. Drawing some panting breaths, he tried to calm himself.

“Fackin’ mucklings,” came a voice from the other side of the barrel wreckage. Croak sucked in his breath and thought prayers to himself.

“... Where are you… Don’t think I didn’t see ya come up!” Feet dragged themselves across the wooden boards. Croak felt his lungs cry out for more air, but he couldn’t allow himself to breathe. A heap of wood struck the floors - the man had overturned the neighbouring barrel wreck. “Damn froggy rats… People are tryin’ to sleep!” Another heap slammed into the ground. Croak squeezed shut his eyes.

Then, however, the steps slowed and their owned clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “Waste of my bloody evenin’...” he muttered and the steps faded away into the distance. Croak finally could breathe again and he gasped for it. His people couldn’t sweat, but he wiped his brow almost instinctively anyway. A sensation felt unfamiliar in his hand and he eyed the rosary in it. A black bile of rage bubbled within him, aimed both at his stupidity and humanity - for in his escape, he had shattered one of the pearls given to him by his master. He hammered the floorboards below with his fist; then he did it again and again. As he struck the ground, his fury morphed into sorrow, and it did not take long before he put his aching hand over his eyes and whimpered.

He would sing again for another loss tonight, but it would be as he had done it every other night: On a distant spot with no one around within earshot - completely alone without even the spirits to keep him company.

Abandoned like his heritage.



Princess Taomei - A Stranger at the Door



Spring of 998, Summer Palace in Amarra, provincial capital of Red Clay, Eastern Gu-Wei...
@Slagar

“And hang those flowers up there. No, wait… No, there is much better.” The servant followed the princess’ finger from the centre to the corner of the room, where he promptly hung a large hammock-like bed of flowers from the roof. The princess hummed and pointed to the wall. “On second thought, hang them up on the walls - and make them symmetrical this time.”

The servant craned his head in obedience and did as he was told. Princess Taomei pursed her lips and scanned the hall. Everything would have to be perfect. Spring was nearing its end, and soon the summer heat would make Shi an unbearable place for her dear brother. He would finally come back to her - finally come back and fulfill all those promises he always made in his letters, and--

“Daughter of the Phoenix, princess Taomei,” came a call from the hall door and Taomei’s thoughts returned to reality. She blinked and spun around, her silk dress dancing through the air like a whirlwind of leaves.

“Yes? What is it, messenger?”

The messenger fell to his hands and knees before the princess and put his forehead to the floor, or at least as far down as his large helmet allowed him to. “The peacekeepers on the Narcaepian border have received word that a stranger has entered Red Clay. Further reports say he arrived in Amarra this morning. He says he brings word from the King of Muha!”

Taomei nearly dropped what he was holding, which was a sheet of paper outlining the interiour decoration plan. She looked shocked, almost, which she might as well have been, as she sat down on a nearby chair. The messenger dared look up anxiously for a moment before facing the floor again.

“Our… Our home has sent its ambassador to us?”

The messenger hesitated to answer for a moment. “Yes, Daughter of the Phoenix,” he eventually said. Taomei placed two fingers on her temple and shook her head in disbelief.

“Well, what are you waiting for?! Send word for him to be brought to the palace at once!”

The messenger looked up. “B-but Your Majesty - he could be a fraud!”

Taomei gasped. “How dare you insult one of our own like that?! I will have you drawn from behind a chariot if you even dare repeat such baseless accusations again, do you--”

“Sister Taomei, please,” came a calm, quiet voice behind them. It was the Emperor’s elder brother, Taozan. Taomei quieted down and stared daggers at her brother instead. The messenger appeared to be praying. Taozan put aside the calligraphy station he was using and rose to his feet, his oversized black robes falling to the ground around his feet like sacks of grain. “Messenger, return to the peacekeepers’ office. Have them escort our esteemed guest to the palace. I believe we can judge appropriately whether he is a fraud or not.”

The messenger nodded shiveringly and sprinted back out. The doors shut behind him and left the hall quiet except for the interiour decor workers. Taomei scowled at Taozan. “You let him off too easy. Death would be a kind fate for those who dare accuse our brethren of something so foul as fraud.”

Taozan sighed and intertwined his fingers behind his back. “He didn’t mean it that way. He was only worried for us. Family of the Emperor is just as valuable to criminals as gold and jewels.” He shuffled his way over to his sister and put a hand on her shoulder. “This can potentially be a momentous occasion. No need to sully it with blood and death.”

Taomei huffed. “I hate it when you’re right.” She picked up the interiour design plans and went back to ordering around the servant. Taozan wrinkled his nose in worry and smacked his lips thoughtfully together before returning back to his seat.



Prince Yanri - A Dagger Before Me



Spring of 998, Imperial Palace of Shi, capital of Gu-Wei, northern Gu-Wei...

It was midday - the sun’s angle indicated as much. Birds tweeted innocently in the garden trees, chatting up their neighbours and pecking for bugs under the bark. Insects buzzed idyllically around the flowers and danced to the strings of a guzheng in the distance. On the porch sat a prince, one nearly as beautiful as the garden by his side. With his hand, he pulled a black-tipped brush across a white, rice-paper page. His movements were soft, gentle, controlled; his breathing was similar, easing in and out his mouth in harmony with his strokes. The characters of guwen that formed on the paper were expertly written - each was a work of artistry without deviating too much from a standard font.

Soft footsteps approached. The prince knew so well the weight of these steps - the way the heel connected to the creaking floorboards and rolled over on a ball molested by foot binding, giving them an ever so slight limp. He did not avert his eyes from the paper, for he did not need them to see who was coming. Before long, a warm hand squeezed the shoulder of his free hand.

“My, what’re you writing, Yanri? A poem?” came her voice like silk and cream. She smelled of lavender again. The prince wiped clean the brush with a rag and set it aside.

“A letter, Mother,” he replied softly and sprinkled sawdust over the wet ink, allowing it to dry before rolling it up into a scroll and sealing it with a wax-marked band The queen hummed softly.

“Is that so? To whom, if I may ask?”

“To my brother. It is to wish him well in his coming campaign.” The prince held the letter out in an arbitrary direction. A servant came over, took it with a bow and left. The prince then gestured to the other side of the small table he was sitting by. “Would you join me, Mother?”

“Of course,” said the queen and sat down, her smile as warm as the sunlight itself. She made herself comfortable and the prince snapped his fingers. Some more servants came over and bowed.

“Bring my Mother and I some chopped fruit, biscuits and hot tea. No oranges.” The servants bowed with a quiet ‘as you wish, Your Majesty’ and hurried off, taking the writing itinerary with them. Silence reigned thereafter, broken only by occasional birdsong. The prince stared out to the garden. His mother stared at him, her eyes groggy with dreaminess, complemented by the smile about her lips. The prince gave her a quick glance and snickered.

“What?”

“You look so handsome in the sunlight, my dear,” the queen said softly. The prince snickered some more.

“I have my grandfather’s looks, after all - you’ve said so yourself.”

“Numerous times. All in hope that everyone will accept it as fact - even your father.”

As if destiny had elected for it to happen, a holler of laughter escaped a nearby part of the palace, a fairly distinct deep voice present among all the women. The queen flinched, her eyes scowling at the tabletop. Yanri scowled over his shoulder.

“... How can you let him treat you like this?” asked the prince venomously. The spite in his eyes was further reinforced by his hand massaging the pommel of a short sword on his hip. The other, he tightened into a fist on the tabletop. “He’s mocking you - mocking us!”

“I know, Yanri, I know…” replied the queen and reached out wrap his fist in her hands. “But you know the customs of your grandfather. I will have to endure it - just as I have for the past century.” She brought her son’s fist to her lips and kissed it. “... That’s why I’m so glad to have you by my side.”

The prince swallowed and slowly pulled his hand to himself. The queen blinked anxiously, her eyes full of questions.

“Not, not in public, Mother. You know, you--...” His voice became a whisper. “... You know I love you, but we cannot let others know that -you- are unfaithful. Father would have our mutilated corpses rotting on pikes above the Phoenix’ Nest for all to see.”

The queen blinked, her eyes shifting away with anxiety. “You… You’re right… You’re always right.” She snickered to herself. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking…” She rose to her feet. Yanri sighed.

“Mother, I--”

“It’s quite alright, Yanri. I’m… Happy you care so much for us.” She gave him a warm smile. “It’ll be our turn soon. I can feel it.” With that, she walked down the porch, her hand fingering the leaves of the many shrubs to her left along the way.

Yanri remained by the table, and as the servants came with snacks and tea, he requested that they bring back his writing equipment. As he sat by the table writing, he could hear the rowdier and rowdier noises from the room behind him. It affected his form, soft curves in his characters becoming erratic edges. His brush lost its smooth shape eventually, aggressive strokes ruining the tip. By the end, his letters were nothing but paper smudged with blots of ink.

The prince held up his letter to inspect it. The garden had grown dark as clouds blotted out the sun. Birds had deserted it, and the insects had moved to distant flowers. To the chorus of the voices, he read within him the hateful letter:

“Dear Emperor Yandi, son of Yanshen, founder of the Chu Dynasty,

You are the phoenix, o Emperor - son of fire and ash, master of life and death. You are the sun and the moon, the link ‘tween heaven and earth. Undoubtedly, you are a divine among mortals.

Such power, such immortality - the hubris within you overpowers them both. Water chokes flame, the seas was away ashes and embers. Life will leave you; death, consume you. The sun will set and so will the moon, and as the heavens reign flame upon your worthless spirit, the earth shall swallow your corpse and torment it forever.

Beware, Father - for even gods will perish before the fury of mortalkind.

Signed,
Prince Yanri, son of Yandi, your successor.”


Immediately upon reading it completely, Yanri froze. He ran inside the palace and found the first and nearest brazier, depositing the letter inside. He watched the paper crumble to ashes and felt the anxiety in his chest fade, but not disappear. What had made him write those words? Had he been caught by anyone, even someone so lowly as a passerby handmaiden, it would’ve been over for him. He smacked his cheek angrily.

“You fool,” he spat to himself. A small host of curious servants had gathered behind him, spearheaded by his little sister Wanmei. She approached him carefully, her round, somewhat misaligned eyes frowning slightly.

“Brother Yanri? Are you alright?”

Yanri turned and nodded slowly after a moment. “Y-yes… I’m fine. I just thought an insect had landed on my cheek.”

“Why are you by the fire? It’s hot outside,” Wanmei pointed out. The prince frowned.

“What, can’t a prince of Chu allow himself a moment by the fire? How about you, sister Wanmei? What are you doing following me like this? And you, servants? Have you nothing else to do but to stalk royalty like this?”

“W-with all due respect, Your Majesty,” went one of the servants. The prince took a moment to look around and colour drained from his face. “These are the kitchens, great Son of the Phoenix,” finished the servant. Cooks and waiters stared oddly at the prince from every angle. Prince Yanri blinked.

“Y-yes… Of course. Forgive me, I have been quite rash and rude. Back to work. I will take my leave.” The prince stormed out past his sister and the servants at the door, heading down the labyrinthian hallways.

“H-hey, wait up!” came a voice behind him. He didn’t turn around, for he knew who it was, and soon Wanmei had shown up by his side. “What’s the hurry?”

“What’re you doing here, Wanmei?” sighed Yanri.

“Why, following my awesome, lovely brother, of course! Why else would I be here?”

“-Why- are you following me?”

“Because I can tell you’re lonely - and that you need your beautiful sister to keep you company!” she giggled and took the hem of his robe in her hand. Yanri groaned and pulled his robe to him again. Wanmei huffed.

“What? Why are you so angry?”

“Can’t you tell?” Yanri replied back sharply. Wanmei stopped and put her hands on her hips.

“You’re always so mean! I just try to be nice to you and all you ever do is throw me aside like, like, like some…” Yanri slowed down and turned, his tired eyes showing her a shred of pity.

“Some, some… Ah!” Wanmei stopped mumbling as Yanri took her hand and knelt down before her. The young elf blushed and blinked. “Wh-what’re you doing?”

“Wanmei… Would you do anything for me?”

The princess swallowed. “O-of course, brother. A-anything.” Yanri packed his hands around hers even tighter.

“Do you mean that?”

The princess’ eyes took on a firm glow. “Yes!”

“Then… Could you do me a favour?” Yanri quickly extracted a letter from the inside of his robe. It was different than those he had written before - and the seal was not of the royal kind. She put it in Wanmei’s hands and smiled at her.

“You must bring this by yourself. Trust no one else with this letter. If you do…” His voice trailed off into silence. Wanmei swallowed.

“O-of course, but… To whom?”

“The Black Dragon Triads.”



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