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Shengshi


10MP/17FP


A day had passed since Ashalla’s visit, and the Jiangzhou had moved into the Giant’s Bath, drifting lazily in circles around the centre of the pool. The lush overgrowth of the jungle below had, with time, crawled up along the crater side, clawing to the stone banks of the Bath itself in the form of verdant shrubs and plump trees. Lillies and lotus littered the shore, and mudworms were frolicking on the tiny, ring-like beach encircling the pool adjacent to the crater edge. A few Servants had gathered on the beach to say their farewells to this world, and a host of Talemonesians from Biashara had come to marvel at the presence of divinity, forming a praying crowd on the eastern side of the crater. The snake sat atop his tower, plucking at the strings of his harp absent-mindedly. A small flock of birds perched atop the roof of his castle tower, singing joyously along with the harp.

“How go the final preparations?” mumbled the snake in no particular directions. Out of the shadows, almost, He Bo came out and kowtowed.

“They proceed as planned, Your Lordship. All will be ready within the hour.”

The snake blasted a puff of air through the nose. “Within the hour… To think…”

“My Lord?” He Bo offered.

The snake shook his head while still facing away from the servant. “Nevermind. See to it that there are no delays. We leave when the preparations are completed. See to it that everyone is aboard - those that are not, will be left behind.”

“As His Lordship commands,” He Bo affirmed dutifully and disappeared back into the palace. The snake let out a sigh and continued to survey the landscape to the song of the birds and the harp.

The water overboard splashed in tune.

Or perhaps not entirely in tune, for, while there was a rhythm to its rushing, it was not so much musical as the prosaic sound of something paddling, one sweep after another. It came closer, until a thud sounded from the lower side of the keel, followed by grumbling and a scrabbling sound. Something black and wormlike emerged from beyond the parapet; then, a misshapen iron clutch that grasped its edge, then another, and, finally, a head with more than one mouth too many.

One of the hands saluted by rising in a clenched fist, which almost sent the figure flying back down. By some miracle, however, it held on.

”Superintendant Vrog, reporting to His Lordship for audience!” it gargled, loud enough to spook away the singing birds. In a lower tone, another mouth added, ”Permission to speak freely,” and a third, “And to come on board, it’s a spitting bother to hang here.”

The snake spun around in a haste, knocking his harp over and causing it to partially crack. “Ugh! Foul creature! Who are you?! What are you doing here?!” He gave the air a sniff and grimaced. “Did Narzhak send you?”

”Heh, thanks.” The various mouths bristled with the smiles of sharp and unclean teeth. ”I’m the big one below’s special-works gutface. You could say he’s sent me to do scrap, but here? I got a thing as brought me that’s just between you and me.” He picked at one row of teeth with a finger. ”Bit hard to talk when I’m swinging here, though.”

The snake blinked bepuzzled, but quickly reclaimed his furious expression. “No - no! Forget I asked. I care not who you are or what your business is. Now begone from my ship, lest I will make you!” As if to stress his point, the snake pointed angrily in a direction leading away from his ship, which, in all fairness, could have been any.

There was a collective grunt from under Vrog’s helmet. ”Always like this, ain’t it,” he wheezed, ”Always the same spit. Soon as I turn up, it’s on with the get outs and gut offs. Nobody cares what I got, if maybe I just want to have a cup-” one of the black tongues dipped out of sight and came back with a brightly polished steel flask, ”-because it gets spitting dull crawling around with ghouls for company, or what. Nope! Always the threats! Is it cause I look like a slagheap? Didn’t get asked, if you want to know. And now you too. Gut it, Shengshi, you’ve drunk with the boss himself, and you know he ain’t better than me in a thing. So what’s up now? What’s happened to ya?”

The snake smacked his lips uncomfortably. “I, uh… Well.” With a huff, he curled up his tail and sat down upon it. “... I apologise. I failed to realise that you, too, are an outcast. Forgive me - I was rash and uncouth. It has been a, a rough week.” He gestured to the floorboards before him. “Have a seat, if you wish… And are able to sit still.”

”Hrah, ‘s good. Gut knows I don’t help my case sometimes.” With a series of dimly nauseous sounds, Vrog hauled himself on board, landing with a squelching crash. He rapidly picked himself up and shuffled closer, crouching in the indicated spot. For once, he only left a few faint traces of filth as he passed, no doubt thanks to his watery arrival.

”So, fore we get down to talks,” he held out a hand, and the flask landed on it as if he had just tossed it up, ”wasn’t spitting about the drink. Helps in scrapping times, I can tell ya.” A hooked finger snapped off the lid, releasing a strong waft of sweet and spirits, and slid the container over to Shengshi’s coils. The snake sighed and took a swig with a cringing expression.

“Where did you get this filth? The Cauldron?”

”All my work,” Vrog rapped his belly with his finger with pride, though it was hard to say if it was sincere. ”Got the idea from a friend. I ain’t much for the flavour, so it’s yours. Reward a slave you hate if it’s not for you either.” Another flask, much less shiny, materialised in his hand, and he took a gargling sip. ”Speaking of which,” he continued, ”I feel you got a scrap-pile to do, so I won’t hold you long. You know whatsaface, K’nell been out for a while now, right?”

The snake sheepishly put the bottle down and pursed his lips. “Yes, he has. Were you a… A friend of his, by chance?”

”You could say that. Not really his his, but…” he made a few gestures which could have been supposed to point at himself and someone absent, if in a rather roundabout way, ”Sort of his his. You know what I mean. I’d been trying to get to sort of him, catch up about some scrap, but you can guess, no luck. I got it you were in with him - real him, so it been the same spit for you too?”

“If by the “same spit”, you are referring to leaving this world to mortal hands, then yes - it has been quite the same spit,” the snake conceded. “What is it to you, though? Has Narzhak sent you to stop me?”

Vrog’s mouths gaped briefly in befuddlement. ”Is a gutted pandemic with you people,” one of them muttered, before they gathered themselves together. ”Not really what I meant, but gut me if I can blame you. Place’s always been a spithole, and’s only been getting worse. Narzhak, though…” A mouth made a poor attempt to whistle with its ragged excuse for lips. ”You’re lucky he doesn’t know. The way he’d already lost his spit when he found out about K’nell was slagged something. He ain’t keen on desertion.”

The noisome being rubbed his fingers together. ”Me, though, I’m not messing with that. You want to go, you go. Been thinking ‘bout that myself. That’s why I’m here, actually.” He snapped a finger up to point at Shengshi. ”So, this thing here, it stays our little secret, you and me. Boss’s not gotta know. Just gotta tell me, though, where K’nell’s gone gutted off to.”

“Your discretion is most appreciated,” the snake replied politely. With a few wrinkles of his nose as he eyed the creature before him up and down, he drummed his finger tips together and hummed pensively. “You speak much of what I, too, believe in, so I reckon we are, deep down, brothers of the same view - that this world is no longer meant for us. However, I must ask - if I were to give you the key to the gates of heaven, what would you do there? I have never met you before, but your…” He once more stared down at the remains of puss and filth riddling the form, as well as scraps of crusted blood and rotting guts between its multitude of teeth. “... Form seems catered to a narrow selection of purposes, most revolving around murder - and I would be doing my beloved brother a very disrespectful dishonour if I let a killer into his peaceful realm.”

”That’s the thing, isn’t it?” A few of Vrog’s mouths struggled to put on a melancholy smile, though their efforts were marred, besides their deformity, by the macabre residue around them. ”Ripping things up, gutting, killing, that’s all I’m made for. Been doing a good bit of it all around, you ain’t wrong. But it’s the same spit as my looks. I’m slagged sure not the one who’s asked for this. I kill ‘cause I’m told to, break things ‘cause I’m told to. Be good to try something different for once, you know? Just, I dunno, go around, taste things, maybe get better at…” he motioned at the clean flask, ”making ‘stead of breaking, yeah? No gutted way to do it here, not with them four eyes always over the shoulder. But another place, that’s another thing. If you’s leaving, you get that, no?”

The snake looked sympathetically upon the abhorrent heap of guts and metal, flicking his tongue at the pungent odour emitted from it. “So you are saying you wish to make an effort to change, is that it?” The snake snorted a giggle, then it evolved into a cackle. He slapped his tail a multitude of times and wheezed for air he didn’t truly need. Eventually, his laughter died down and he wiped a tear or two with a clawed finger. “My… First laugh I have had for a while. Such humouristic irony is difficult to come by these days.”

Vrog splayed his asymmetric hands out with a range of grins over his face. ”Feel that, that’s already something else I can do. Wouldna call it this much as calling the hits myself for a change, but you get the gist. Maybe they’d like me over there much like some people here’d want me to get out.”

The snake smirked. “To think a creature such as you, molded and conditioned to murder and slay, can devote yourself to such deep, foundational reformation - yet I, a holy entity of creation, cannot even change myself along my own moral guidelines. Oh, you… Vrog, was it? You amuse me.”

”Ain’t really that hard if you think of it.” Vrog scratched the back of his head, without moving the arm itself more than an inch. ”Just gotta be smelling something that makes that worth it. Me, I want to get out of this slagyard, so get to it. You… I dunno what them morals got going for them, but it’s gotta be hard finding spit you can’t have straight up if you’re a god. Maybe it’s that.” He poked at his drink with a tongue. ”Listen to that, when’d I start philosophying? Gut me if I know what I put in this stuff.”

“Philosophising, and yes, I would frankly not have expected it from one of your form - although, Narzhak was deceptively wise for his, so I suppose the lesson here is to never judge the scroll by its cover.” The snake shrugged. “But, one question remains - and that is whether you the qualities necessary for me to trust that you wish to turn your life around as you say.” The snake squinted. “How do I know you are not lying?”

The finger scraped the head again. ”Beats me how, less you got a power like that,” Vrog mused, ”I’d not advise poking into my head, or he might know. ‘Sides, I don’t know it matters. K’nell’s got to be gone to a place he knows good. He’s boss there. I get in and start scrapping stuff up, I’ll be first to get the smackdown.”

The snake hissed. “True. Very true. Tendlepog can be paradise to those who treat it well - and purgatory to those who seek to ruin it.” The snake snapped his fingers. “Very well. I will tell you the secret to enter heaven. Swear that you will not harm its residents and the key is yours.”

”Good by me.” The mouths sneered again, and Vrog’s left hand closed a second time in the fist salute. ”I swear it on my head I won’t bring pain to any there.” He relaxed the hand. ”That do it?”

The snake smirked. “Yes, that will suffice.” He gestured for Vrog to lean in. “Now, the key to enter heaven, or Moksha, as it goes by, is to meditate upon it.”

Insofar as it was possible to discern, Vrog looked pensive. ”That’s another one I haven’t tried before. How’s that work?”

The snake tapped his temple. “It should not be too hard. Simply take in its beauty, its energies, and have them fill your mind with its wisdom and peace. Once your mind harmonises with Moksha’s spirit, a copy of your soul shall enter it on your behalf, while your mortal form disintegrates and joins the Pyres.” He then shrugged. “Perhaps your divine origins could even help you along to achieve this outcome faster?”

”Could be. I’d already been one of the first in once. Maybe I’ll even find a better use for this mound of spit than that - as helps somebody, I don’t know - but that’s for me to figure.” A few tongues prodded skywards like curious snakes. ”Full of peace, that’s gonna be a first,” he smirked, ”I owe you one, Sheng. You’ve been a friend. ‘Fore I go, I’ll make sure he” a finger pointed downward, ”remembers you like that, no strings to it. Least I can do for this.”

The snake nodded. “Your visit proved to be everything I had not expected - pleasant, most of all. Thank you for coming, Vrog… And thank you for being a friend in a dark time.” The snake bowed seated. “I pray Moksha will accept you as it accepted my brother, my children… And my better half.”

”I’d better hope it does.” Vrog nodded and rose from his crouch. However, he did not move further. ”You get me thinking, though. If that many of yours are there already and you know the way, why’ve you not gone there too? Not like they ran from you to get in.”

The snake shrugged. “I likely will some day. I just felt it would be appropriate to move my belongings into my realm and seal its gates first,” he said with a wink. “I reckon time in heaven passes much quicker than here, so perhaps we shall all be reunited there within the week?”

”Who knows, maybe we’ll be. Not the first time I’d have weird run-ins in that kinda places. You’re right about closing gates, never know what spitters could get in.” With heavy steps, Vrog shambled back to the edge of the deck. ”Well, got some scrap left to do myself ‘fore I disappear. Hand in my resignation and all. Been good smelling you.” In a cumberous half-vault, he was balancing, rather precariously, on the parapet.

“Farewell, Vrog! May you find your way into Moksha!” The snake gave the mass of sludge and filth a wave and a shake of the head.

Vrog raised a claw in a waving motion, then, in what was either a dive or losing his balance, toppled overboard. There was a loud splash and a string of muffled cursing before the rushing sweeps came again, this time fading more and more until they became one with the sound of the waves.

The snake cast a final glance after his new friend and chuckled to himself. As if divinely ordained, He Bo came out of the shadows once more, making a quick kowtow.

“All is prepared, My Lord.”

“Good. The wait is over, worthy servant. Soon, we will have peace eternal.”

The servant gave an affirmative hum. “Yes, My Lord.” He then rose and disappeared back into the palace. The snake took a deep breath and raised his arms. The centre of the pool began to bubble violently before the familiar arc, which hadn’t opened since the intruder dammed up his realm all those years ago, rose out of the waters, the dew dripping from its top hinting at the mirage of Fengshui Fuyou on the other side.

The snake hesitated. He cast a look behind himself, gazing across his jungle one final time. He would miss it - it and its beasts, its inhabitants - perhaps more than anything. As the ship slowly drifted forward towards the portal, he cast a look towards Moksha, too.

“I should have taken your offer, my friend. I hope it remains open.”

Then Shengshi, Lord of the Thousand Streams and King of the Harvest, left Galbar forever.




A thousand miles away in the empty oceans south of Kalgrun, there drifted a lonely stone turtle. Lonely? No, for atop its back lived a buzzing village of Dreamers, hardy and committed to their work day in and out. They had been content knowing that no one would come for them and that their hardworking life on chaotic Galbar would be rewarded with an eternity in Moksha’s glory. Like so, life had continued for decades.

Today, however, would be no day of work. Ill tidings had spread from the palace, the same that had spread three years ago. The emperor had taken ill, and the last child of Hermes and Xiaoli was lying on his deathbed. The crimson shadows of the red silk curtains couldn’t bring colour to the dying man’s face. Surrounded was the bed by as many of his people as his room could hold, with even more waiting in the hallways outside. His cold hand was held closely by his weeping daughter Bei, her shoulders each held warm by the hands of two of her brothers, Tian and De. Next to them sat Yang, painting a sheet of rice paper with the will of his father, and Mei, Ping and Anhe all knelt praying on the opposite side of the bed. Wenbo smiled weakly at all eight of them.

“... And for my youngest daughter, Anhe… Oh, Anhe…”

The woman, now in her later thirties, shuffled a little closer. “Y-yes, father?” she sniffed.

“... You were a beam of light from heaven above to all of us… You should have our jewel box from the mountains of Atokhekwoi.”

Gifts couldn’t make any of them truly happy at this point, but she smiled politely nonetheless. “Yes… Thank you, father. I’m honoured.”

Wenbo laid his head down on his pillow and sighed. “Good. Good… I just hope it’s enough. To think I--” He suddenly coughed violently, keeling upwards in ways he hadn’t moved for days. His children immediately tried to lay him back down and give him some water.

“Don’t strain yourself, father!” Tian cautioned. Wenbo snickered.

“To have children like you all - is that not a piece of Moksha in itself?”

The eight of them teared up even more, as did the rest of the people in the room. A considerably more scarred and bruised general Ming struggled to keep her composure. Somber pops rolled around the hall from saddened cloudlings. The emperor took a deep breath.

“I would say, ‘do not weep’, but not all tears are of evil. The greatest regret of any father is to leave his children behind in a world worse off than the way it was to him. I pulled you all along for this… This ‘adventure’...” He gave a sniff and squeezed Bei’s hand as tightly as he could. “Because of me, all of you were born in this mortal world. Can… Can you ever forgive me?”

The children looked at one another, and Bei gave a sobbing grin. “Father, c’mon. There’s nothing to forgive.” Wenbo pressed his lips together.

“Adventure is, is in our blood, dad,” Tian added with as big a smile as he could muster. “We’ll all be united in Moksha anyway, right?”

“Yes… In Moksha,” mumbled the Dreamer King. “Ai…”

“You’ll see her soon, father,” Yang said soothingly as he tried to not get tears on his paper.

“... Yes… Soon.”

The king breathed his final sigh. The desperate calls of his children and people faded away into nothingness. He was pulled out of his body, floating above the disappearing crowd closing tighter in around his corpse. He soared far above, above Chuanwang, who almost seemed to look up and give him a wink. Wenbo felt the pull upwards accelerate, and in the sky far above, he saw glowing flickers of flame, licking menacingly at the nothingness surrounding them. So, these were the pyres.

However, just as he exited the upper atmosphere, he was once more tugged away - or rather, he felt as though he was being pulled in two different directions. The feeling disappeared, then returned, then disappeared again. Finally, his vision blurred over from an unfathomably bright light, and all sensations went haywire. He felt burning heat and brittle cold simultaneously, and the colourful void that filled his vision blasted his ears bloody with sound all while remaining dreadfully silent. His mind felt pulled and pushed, kneaded like dough by the experience. It went on forever, and it was over instantaneously.

A sweet familiar smell woke him up. He was staring up at a blue, feather-clouded sky, with red grass crowding the edges of his vision. The ground was soft, silken almost, and the wind was gentle to the skin. A number of grunts and crunches caught his ear - as did curious little pops on the wind. A shadow blocked out the light of the sky and Wenbo’s eyes needed time to adjust.

An unseen hand grabbed his and he heard a voice swathed in an accent that he hadn't heard in a lifetime, "Welcome home, brother."




The Underhall Clan - Turn 0


There! Light of day! Another cave-in had shut them inside the ancient tunnel network of Dvergadypi for the second time this month. Thorfinn Underhall grit his teeth furiously. Oh, how he vowed to have those puny excuses for builders whipped! To call yourself a Brownbeard and yet failing to reinforce a simple tunnel? They shamed the whole clan, they did!

A few strikes of pickaxes later and there had formed a small hole for the tiniest of the dwarves to crawl through. A few of them did, keeping an eye on the situation outside in case there awaited another rockslide there.

“Clear!” came a muffled shout from the outside. Thorfinn nodded at his miners. “Break us through,” he commanded and the miners dug through stone and shoveled gravel with blood-pumping intensity. They were tired - that much was clear as the outside day. However, every dwarf in the tunnel knew that the larders already were scraped bare, so there was but a question of time before the population would begin to starve.

Finally, the rubble was cleared from the entrance and Thorfinn stepped outside. While the people that had followed him to the entrance exclaimed their praises and celebrations, running around hugging frozen trees and kissing the snow, Thorfinn took a deep breath of sorely missed fresh air and turned to inspect the gates to his underlands. Once, they had been proud and towering, like those of a castle, with pillars of stone carved to resemble dwarven workers holding up the mountain, and an arching dome for a roof which integrity never threatened collapse.

Now, one would be lucky to even see the remains of those statues’ feet. To think that such a mighty and ancient kingdom could have fallen into such disarray in only a few generations. It was almost as if…

“Yarl Thorfinn!” cried an approaching entourage. The patriarch turned to see battered farmers from the lower villages come running and limping on occasion.

“Halfdan, cousin! Is that you?!” Thorfinn exclaimed back and approached. Their condition brought the attention of the others dwarves as well, and quickly a few ran into the tunnels to fetch bandages, medicine and stretchers. There were a total of six, led by the correctly identified Halfdan Macdoug-Underhall, thane of the farmer’s settlement Dougsdahl. He had been wounded in the arm, but was bruised in comparison to some of his followers.

“They were too many,” he explained, “we were overrun a day ago. A few of us tried to escape back to the tunnels, but we were cut off.”

“Who attacked you?” Thorfinn asked. “Have the ancient horrours of the woods returned?”

Halfdan shook his head. “We saw them not in the dark. They were like ghosts.” He extracted a small jewel from his pocket. “... It may be due to this.” He dropped it into Thorfinn’s palm and the yarl gave it a lookover.

“What is it?”

Halfdan shrugged. “We do not know. All we know is that the warrior who dropped this seemed terribly eager to get it back.” He pointed to the sky, where the fractured moon barely still hung. “Our scribe suggested that it may be remnants of the Moonfall ten years ago.”

“Oh, that horrible business?” Thorfinn mumbled and turned the jewel around in his hand some more. “What does it do?”

Halfdan shrugged again. “Nobody knows. It could be some sort of family heirloom or currency? Why else would the warrior want it back?”

“Could it be a weapon?” a third dwarf suggested. It was Donald Deepstone-Underhall, warchief of the Underhall battleborn. Thorfinn pursed his lips. There was something about the stone - something about it whispering in his mind.

“Wouldn’t say that,” Halfdan mumbled, “they never hit us with it.”

“But it could be magical, no?” Donald suggested.

While the two of them discussed the properties of the stone, Thorfinn walked back over to the gate to Dvergadypi. He eyed the foot of a long-crumbled statue and cast a glance over his shoulder. A few were curious as to what he was doing, but most were following the increasingly heated conversation between the thane and the warchief. Thorfinn placed his hand on the statue and imagined as much as he could a statue of a mighty dwarf holding up the roof of the tunnel entrance.

In a flash, the stone in his hand became dust, and the stone around the statue became like a soup. Thorfinn stepped back, and all the dwarves turned to see what the source of the suggest commotion was. Rock and stone smashed together and sand twisted itself around it like a cloud, polishing and carving details into its shape. Before long, there stood a proud, mighty dwarf of stone in place of the crumbled pillar, beautifully holding up one side of the neglected gate.

The dwarves were all speechless. Donald and Halfdan came running over to Thorfinn and each grabbed him by a handfull of his furred shirt. “What did you just do?!” they demanded in unison.

Thorfinn blinked and pushed them away. He looked around for the stone, but found only dust under where his hand had been when he cast the spell. “It was magical… A stone of wishes!”

“A what?”

“Do you not see?! I wished for there to be a statue here, and the stone granted the wish! That’s why you couldn’t see the assassins in the night - they wished to be invisible!” Now it was Thorfinn’s turn to grab the other two by the neck of their shirts. “We need to find more! Dvergadypi shall be restored to its almighty glory - for the honour of Gereg the Stoneshaper!”



Shengshi


5MP/9FP


Ashalla

Goddess of Oceans, Storms and Ice




It felt like millennia since he had sailed the Nanhe - or was it perhaps that he had sailed it so often that even the slightest change in environment was enough to mark itself as a significant and lasting memory in his mind? The snake confessed ignorance, though he most certainly felt something other than nostalgia. An orb of pain pumped in his heart, pulsing intermittently with a rift of regret in his mind. They were at the very headwater of Nanhe, gazing the short distance up to the divinely bottomless Bath. His holy ears heard the bicker of mortals from the trade town of Biashara, settled on the foot of Urhu’s ancient crater. Some would see him, no doubt, but for once, he hoped none would approach.

He hadn’t the heart to talk to mortals.

Footsteps approached from the entrance to his veranda, and he turned to see the four shattered expressions of Zhu Rongyuan, Qiang Quan, Yong Cai and Fu Lai’an, all of them kneeling despite their grief.

“These servants have returned, as His Lordship commanded,” Zhu Rongyuan offered somberly. The snake nodded.

“Good. Descend into the belly of the ship and wait there for further instructions. Before long, we will sail into Fengshui Fuyou, where we will remain until the end of time and space.”

The four servants drew quivering breaths, before Fu Lai’an spoke the single word, “Why?!” The snake raised a brow.

“Why, Lord, must we go? We were faithfully serving King Anu without issue! We had just defeated the greatest threat to Talemon and now is the time for the kingdom to truly prosper! Why leave now?!” She stood panting after her yelling, and the three others were huddling to her to keep her kowtowing.

“Forgive her, Lord! She is-- she is quite upset and not herself!” Zhu Rongyuan pleaded. The snake lifted a hand.

“No, no, you deserve to know.” His expression darkened. “In the days since we left the Temple, I have been thinking: This world, a divine world, has become a plane of mortality. It is no longer the slate of gods that it used to be. This world is now for the mortals to rule.”

Zhu Rongyuan blinked skeptically. “B-but… Mortality is still loyal and dependent on the gods! What made His Lordship think this way? What has mortality done to cause such dismay?”

“It is not the work of mortality that has brought these thoughts to mind,” the snake clarified. “It is the culmination of thought and philosophy that I have pondered in the time since Tendlepog retreated into Moksha.”

“B-but what about prosperity?! The dream of the Flow?!” Zhu Rongyuan pleaded. The snake sighed.

“Asteria, Talemon, the Synod - all have shown such varieties of prosperity and values. This diversity in goals - does it not cloud my own ideas of the true goal of life? Are a full belly and wealth truly the keys to a life of fortune? In my view, yes - and certainly in the Asterian view. However, the Talemonese also include prowess in war as an aspect of prosperity, and the Synod speaks of piety.”

“Y-yes, variations exist,” Fu Lai’an tried to reason, “but do these truly shatter His Lordship’s goals?”

The snake closed his eyes and furrowed his brow. “Perhaps not, but my morale, after millennia of divine disputes, godly wars and mortal squabbles, certainly has been.”

Qiang Quan growled angrily. “So… This is about you?” The three others gasped and looked at him like he was a ghost. The snake’s eyes opened again and shifted to the warrior, reptilian slits replacing rounded pupils. “We were prepared to die for King Anu,” the warrior continued, “yet we were drawn back to join you on your final journey - all because we are, deep down, your subjects?!”

The snake hissed. “Where did you learn to talk that way? To your Lord of all creatures?”

The warrior stood stalwartly despite his colleagues’ attempts to drag him down to his knees. “This servant-- No… -This one- has done its duties flawlessly to its King - its only King. This one thought you were drawing us back for a reason, but this… This is no reason - least of all one to abandon our TRUE King!”

The snake unclenched a fist and Qiang Quan was lifted off the floorboards. The warrior suddenly reached for his throat, choking for the first time in his entire life. The three others crawled over to the snake and tugged at his tail.

“Lord! Lord, please! Let him go!” the three of them pleaded, but the snake glared fire at them.

“Insubordination will not be tolerated. Anu may have been your king, but he is MY son, meaning whatever is his is also mine. Especially that which I have given to him.”

Qiang Quan, despite his breathing issues, cast a defiant look at the snake and whispered, “Talemon.” The snake hissed and closed his fist again. The next second, nothing remained of Qiang Quan but sand, clothes and water. Fu Lai’an and Yong Cai both screamed and crawled over to the pile. Zhu Rongyuan shifted between the snake and the sand, unwilling to believe what he was seeing.

“H-His… His Lordship murdered him…”

“Since when would you, Zhu Rongyuan, see punishment of the insubordinate as murder?” the snake hissed accusingly. The scholar drew a breath before putting on the same expression as his passed colleague.

“... Qiang Quan was never insubordinate. The man was more loyal to his master until the very end.”

The snake closed his eyes. He placed his hand on the scholar’s shoulder and Zhu Rongyuan become sand and water, as well. Fu Lai’an and Yong Cai looked over, their horrified expressions sizing up their creator. The snake offered both of them a hand.

“Are there any of you who still see me as the true master?” A moment passed before Yong Cai stood up. She wiped the tears from her water eyes and went over to take the snake’s hand. The snake smiled, but Yong Cai was glaring back.

“Talemon,” she whispered, and the snake returned the glare. After Yong Cai collapsed, the reptilian eyes shifted to Fu Lai’an, who had huddled up against the veranda fence, clutching her head desperately.

“Fu Lai’an, do you still consider yourself a subject of Shengshi?”

The Servant sniffed and shifted between the three piles of sand and wet clothes. When the snake slithered over to give her a hand, Fu Lai’an reluctantly accepted. However, as she rose, she looked down and then back up.

“This servant prays, Your Lordship, that whomever judges You in the afterlife will be more merciful and forgiving than Yourself.” As the snake’s smile disappeared, Fu Lai’an reached into a small bag on her waist and extracted a vial of salt. She opened her mouth and swallowed its contents. Immediately, she started to choke and her skin began to drizzle off. As her hand melted away in Shengshi’s palm, the last of the King’s Council became a pile of sand.

The snake looked around. He then stared at the small heap of sand in his hand before closing it tightly. “Even in my final days on this planet, I still cannot act the leader I tell everyone to be…”

That moment, the clouds began to tumble and roll. A certain presence was in the air, and the snake scowled upon identifying it. The sky darkened, wind howled across the plains and picked up loose items on the deck of the Jiangzhou, and rain pelted the ground. A great shape rose out of the Giant’s Bath which a single flash of lightning outlined as the watery form of Ashalla staring down at Jiangzhou.

“There you are, Shengshi,” rumbled the voice of the storm.

“Forgive me if I am not myself in welcoming you, dear sister, but I am in a foul mood,” the snake hissed somberly in no particular direction.

“As am I.” Ashalla leaned forwards. A large watery limb gripped the bow of the Jiangzhou, causing it to rock precariously. Ashalla’s head stretched forwards until it was within arm’s reach of Shengshi, her face as large as the snake. “When you cursed Li’Kalla’s island to rot, did you consider where that rot would go?”

“Oh, is THAT why you are here,” muttered the snake and rolled his eyes. “Not to say hello, not to visit - noooo, it is always because -something- dirtied your oceans or did not go quite along with your plan. Now, did I consider in the moment that I punished Li’Kalla’s people for her insolent behaviour, that rot, like most liquids, runs towards the sea? No, I did not, and I am sorry for that.” He sighed. “There, is that better?”

The boat creaked and groaned as Ashalla shifted her weight. “I thought you to be one who cared for the cleanliness of water. I thought I could trust you not to pollute me.” The Jiangzhou shifted suddenly as Ashalla shoved it a few metres downriver, away from her. “The environmental damage has long since been rectified, but you have wounded my trust.”

The snake hissed. His crew on the deck below looked busy trying to rebalance themselves with the ship’s movement. “Of course I care for water purity; however, again, that was not quite the thought running through my head in the act, now was it? Certainly, it is a shame that this has caused this rift between us - it truly is - but know that the rot leaking into the ocean was not an intended effect. I do not know if intention is something you even consider in this case, but there it is.” He sighed again. “Are we finished?”

“Careless. Negligent.” Ashalla’s turbulent water seethed for a few more moments as her gaze bored into Shengshi. “Do not let it happen again.”

“Oh, I would not worry about that. I reckon very few such events will happen again by my hand, indeed.” The boat rocked one final time as Ashalla loosened her grip on the vessel and straightened back up to a more natural posture.

Shengshi’s gaze shifted to the Giant’s Bath. He then looked down to the deck at the unsteadily kowtowing servants, all of whom were facing Ashalla in the distance. The kowtowing servants had not escaped Ashalla’s notice either. But Ashalla still had more to say.

“None, not very few.”

“A figure of speech, sister - there will indeed be nothing at all.”

“Good.” The storm above seemed to ease, although Ashalla still stood in the Giant’s Bath.

The snake blinked lazily in her direction. “You are still here…”

“Unless you had matters to raise with me, I can leave,” said Ashalla in a voice like a running creek.

The snake pursed his lips and gave a somber hum. “... Do you ever think about K’nell?”

The storm calmed further, with the wind stopping and the rain reduced to a light drizzle. “I do.”

“What do you think about when you do? Anything in particular?”

“His music and artistry,” Ashalla said in the soft patter of rain, “Why do you ask?”

The snake sighed. “See, of late, I am beginning to think that he had the right idea. To leave, I mean.”

Somewhere in the depths of Ashalla, a bubble surfaced and popped. “Oh. Are you leaving too?”

The snake nodded at the Bath below Ashalla. “I will make some final preparations before I do, but yes. I will return into Fengshui Fuyou, where the infinity of rivers will make me impossible to find. Away from all this, this chaos of bloodthirsty gods, of ungrateful mortals, of my own doing. Peace from it all.”

“And what will you do then?”

The snake shrugged. “Maybe I will fade away with time - finally finish that book I am writing. Maybe I will return at the end of all things, broken after millennia of loneliness, and dry up every river and choke every seed. Honestly, Ashalla, I do not know. All I know is that I am tired of this life.”

“Orvus said the same thing,” Ashalla said. Her gaze seemed to freeze over, her thoughts elsewhere.

“Oh, I can imagine. He likely has more reason to be tired than me - than anyone.”

“He did,” Ashalla said. Then the rain dripping onto Shengshi’s shoulders spoke in a whisper only he could hear, “Is this how a god dies? Reality obeys our will, yet if we lose the will to live, then do we cease to be?”

“Immortal in every way, except in the heart. I wonder if the Architect ever considered this?” The snake straightened himself up and stared outward across his jungle. The distant bicker of Biashara had faded, no doubt due to the weather. “Do you ever think about giving up?”

“Such a thing is unthinkable to me. I will persist so long as there is water in this world,” said the whisper.

“Must be nice,” the snake hummed. “Yet I thought prosperity would be enough to bear me for eternity. Now look at me.” He shook his head. “My rule has been riddled with conflict and disputes. How would this world have fared if I had given up sooner, I wonder?” He gave Ashalla a raised brow. “I reckon Li’Kalla’s island would have been doing much better.”

“Li’Kalla’s island is recovering. I even gained some worshippers from cleaning up the blight,” Ashalla said, her voice returning to normal volume. “You did good in this world, Shengshi. These three rivers and the life in and around them, along with many other rivers. The cleansing of the river of Seihdhara’s ichor. The Wuhdige tribe. Hermes and Xiaoli and the Dreamers. My Kraken met Chuanwang with the city you had made for the Dreamers - a clever idea.”

“A handful of accomplishments in an aeon of existence. I am glad they happened, but looking at Asteria, at the island, at Kalgrun - many wrongs have been committed. It is almost a balance, it is. Maybe that can be written on my epitaph…” He smiled in no particular direction. “... Shengshi, a god of the balance between good and evil.”

Ashalla was quiet for a few moments, then she looked at Shengshi and said, “This is what you will. I shall not stop you. May you find the peace which you search for, Shengshi.”

The snake nodded. “Thank you, dearest sister.”

Ashalla’s watery form began to shrink, but before it disappeared she spoke again. “You may keep the painting. Let it remind you of the good you did on Galbar, and of me.”

The snake chuckled. “Yeah… I will.”


Location:
Raygon 8 - Leisure District, aka. New Macau.

BT-Block Z000-000-102 “Junk Yard”

Warning: Citizen Wristband connection unstable - please move closer to a Cognito™© ClusterNet transmitter.







The sickly, chipped metal of the surrounding acid-burnt buildings drifts lazily on the industrial winds in this part of the city. The crusted sewage smears up against the foundations of structures much taller and much older than what could ever be considered safe, and the air is so polluted that one couldn’t see further ahead than one’s own outstretched arm. Crumbly asphalt, or what had once been it, roughly outlines what had once been a road network, down here, but now one can barely walk straight along it, let alone drive on it. An endless network of pipes and roofings forms a low skydome over the area - in every sense, this part of the Bottom tier is essentially a network of tunnels underneath a grander city. The temperature is unbearable down here, being deep underground and overclogged with hot fumes.

Yet despite all these factors that should approximately equate this area with the surface of a gas giant, it is vibrant with life. Lackluster life, yes, but life nonetheless - millions of outcasts from various societies gathering in one place to live out their misery as a single group. These people are weakened by harsh lives and a harsher environment, starved with little to no access to even the most basic necessities. Members of every race, human and xenos, all gather around relief centres, religious communes and soup kitchens to live another day.

This weakness makes them apt targets for kidnappers and flesh traders.

Grigo Pizarro flicked on the infrared vision on his gas mask. Behind him sat squatting a bunch of equally equipped thugs wearing black suits and wielding stun guns. Pizarro scanned the open street through the fog - infrared wasn’t an ideal spectrum to use when scanning down here, considering the heat of the air. Still, it was the best they had, and these cooled suits their buyer had offered them made this work so much easier. His eyes fixed on a crowd surrounding what looked to be a rabbi holding a sermon before an improvised synagogue altar. His crowd appeared sufficiently large, and their security was nonexistent.

With a quiet signal, Pizarro and his thugs snuck their way over through the smog. Their approach was completely unseen, and it wasn’t as though anyone would warn the praying crowd if they saw them, either. The first thugs to break through to the crowd opened fire on whoever was in range. A panic immediately broke out, making them all the more easy to round up. Before long, Pizarro and his thugs had caught most of them and were tossing them into the back of a truck. A few more trips like this, and then they could return to their buyer with a proper offer.




The Mykola Gogol docked at the southern surface port of Raygon’s leisure district, before several smaller flyers broke off from it to go down into it’s vile depths. It was a rather large rectangular prism pattern of vessel, the geometric nature of the ship easily marking it out as originating in the Councillary Confederation of Neohumanity. Anyone acquainted with the CCN would know that prisms were typically transport vessels. This one was of an intermediate size, clearly not carrying something in true bulk like loads of cheap consumer goods but at the same time it wasn’t to be carrying just a few luxury baubles.

The flyers that descended were cargo carriers each and every one, the security of the LZ being assumed. Nevertheless they kept radio silence and activated their quasi-stealth protocols. It was just in case, for one never really knew what sort of nastiness was around the corner. Besides, the CCN wasn’t particularly keen on any journalists one way or another happening upon the trade here. Although any economic relationship with Raygon was by definition immoral in the median sensibility of Eden, people only really paid attention to things like human trafficking to cause scandal. To Neohumans, this was somewhat puzzling, for the calculated suffering produced by things like buying simple toasters from Raygon was projected to be far higher than the place being drained of a few of its lowest wretches. Really, the outdateds were so unreasonable!

Still, they were the main population of Eden and their sensibilities dictated what had to be hidden and what could be done publicly and though they didn’t like it, the Confederates stuck to following this duality. All of this raced through the head of Vilho Bulow as his craft made touchdown. Today he was getting a very, very valuable cargo. The CCN always needed more people, exponential growth being one of the defining traits of the state. But mommy cyborg and daddy cyborg could only do so much, and even the mass kidnappings, adoptions, and willing immigration was still not enough to satisfy the demand for the population in the Sol system. Besides, Raygon’s people had thanks to natural selection developed quite some interesting genetic traits. Oh, it wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy, but it was still a matter of scientific interest and would make the sum Neohuman population a little more genetically diverse. In return, the gangers of Raygon would get something very juicy, oh yes. The scum of the planet would be very surprised to see other scum use the fancy toys brought here. As vehicles that carried the shipment of cryoguns, radcannons, sonic emanators and other esoteric weapons made by Neohumanity came behind Vilho, he checked the time and coordinates to make sure he was in the right place. He wanted to finish the transaction as fast as possible and begone. He could easily breathe the toxic air and bear the extreme heat of this place, but that didn’t mean he liked it. It was dark, but from soft but deep red glows in Vilho's irises the Raygonians would be able to see him.

“Eyo, mekanikk kopeng. Dis fine day fo’ lil’ trade, yah?” A skinny, lanky man, a mere ant compared to the wonderous fusion of machine and flesh that was Vilho, came out of the smog with gloved hands extended out to the side. “Mi called Grigo Pizarro. Welcohme to de Jank Ya’d.”

The red irises focused on the fellow identifying as Grigo, scanning him for weapons and analyzing heat signature, as well as facial expression and other factors to determine if this was friend, or foe. "It is… a pleasure to meet you." Vilho said, his voice smooth and silky but possibly synthetic. Save for the irises he was fairly human looking, although this was perhaps a little misleading. Save for his brain and skin grafts to hide and protect the cybernetics beneath Vilho was entirely machine. "You may call me Vilho. Do you have the product?" he asked, except, not quite. The universal translator implanted in him would have done the work of perfectly expressing his intended meaning in whatever the dialect that Grigo used was.

“Oya, kopeng Vilho, you kno’ Pizarro oh’ways delivah, yah. Right in dat dere trukka, yah. Fifty-six ‘a dem, drengens ‘n pikas, yah - ol’ ‘n youngs.” He gave an impatient whistle and waved over an approaching truck, flanked on the sides with thugs equipped with improvised and home-engineered guns, wearing the same cooled black suits as Pizarro along with shabby gas masks.

Pizarro cursed under his breath. “Oya, oya, oya - hurry de fuck up, yah! Kopeng here busy man, yah!” The truck stopped a few metres away from them, backdoors facing Vilho and him. A pair of guards each grabbed a door handle and pulled it open. A crowd of terrified civilians, both human and xenos, screamed and tried to escape, but froze in their steps upon seeing the rest of the guards aiming pipe guns and rusty pistols at them.

“Oya, stay de fuck down, yah,” one of the thugs warned a teenage human as she attempted to jump out of the truck. Pizarro rolled his eyes behind his mask and thumbed at the crowd while facing Vilho. “Dis wha’chu want, yah? Proppa’ flesh, dis - best mi find down ‘ere.”

“Yes, yes I’m sure he does.” Vilho said, sighing as he walked over to the truck. As it opened he looked inside to examine the contents of it. He took about a tenth of a second to count and recount all fifty six to make sure he wasn’t being gypped, and satisfied he went on to take a look at the individuals.

One he picked up by the neck with a hand, raising the poor fellow to Vilho’s towering eye level of two hundred centimetres. In a flash several surgical tools sprouted from his back which took off the man’s head, then cut a small circle in his scalp to throw aside and remove his brain with. Like a cashier’s barcode scanner wide lasers came from the eyes of the Neohuman to analyze it. “The usual contaminants. We can deal with that though.” he muttered, and another small mechanical limb came from Vilho’s back to seal the brain in a plastic-like material, before yet another cooled it. Another Neohuman came from the lander with a box in which the remains of the dismembered fellow along with the sealed brain were placed, and then he went back inside.

Vilho took yet another look at them, scratching his chin with one of the cybernetic limbs. “The mean phenotype is semitic and expressed stronger than usual. I take it they’re largely from the same place?” he asked, picking up yet another by the neck to turn this way and that, before dropping her. “For the future it’s better if they’re different. The more different, the better.”

“Yah, mi keep dat in thinka’, kopeng,” Pizarro promised faithfully. “Mo’ not de same, de betta’, yah.”

He hopped up on the truck, noticing one of the aliens. “This one is a xeno. We’ll take it, but it’ll fetch you less. For the future, it’s better if you grind down any xenos you bring us, they’re easier to transport that way.” The Neohuman might surprise even the Raygonians who had seen his kind before when he A) demonstrated the sheer amount of his hidden limbs when one emerged for every single xeno and B) demonstrated the strength in the otherwise thin and frail looking cybernetic tentacles holding the aliens up in the air well above him.

“Still, this is a good batch.” the transport cars that were behind Vilho opened and in either hand he place rather large and very strange looking weapons. “Your pay is here. It can be tested, if required.”

“Oya, kopeng, you too kind, yah,” Pizarro said and accepted one of the weapons. He aimed at a nearby pile of trash and unleashed a cone of ice that instantly turned the garbage into fragile blocks of frozen sludge. The thug let out a crazed cackle and cocked the weapon. “Oh, shazza! Dis gon’ wreck dem Hermanos Pendejos, yah! Aight, both’a dem for dis batch, keh?”

“Yes.” Vilho said. “There’s also a few radcannons and sonic emanators. I hope I don’t need to tell you: ‘don’t point them towards your face.’ Ideally, the radcannons and sonic emanators you shouldn’t be using without protective suits or power armour, but if you’re careful you can make sure the last thing the enemy hears is rock music just a little bit too loud without your own ears bleeding. What I’m saying is be careful. I don’t want such good partners to accidentally bake themselves alive; it would be very, very unfortunate.”

The several Neohumans stepped out of the lander to carry the weapons out of the cargo cars before sending a signal for the vehicles to change their functionality to instead store live people now. While the exchange of products happened Vilho looked back to Grigo. “So, when might we meet again? We’re always happy to take a few souls and hand over these toys.”

Through his gas mask, Grigo was grinning from ear to ear. His thugs were already grabbing and marvelling at their new weapons, showing them off to each other with mad laughter. The bandit leader stretched out an open hand and let out a flattered laugh. “Oya, kopeng, don’chu worry ‘bout us. We seen ‘nuff radiashan ta know when git out, yah. ‘Bout dem new batches, mi give ya comm a lil’ ring-ring when we ready, yah? Should be some time next month, ke. For now gotta lay low - let dem bilgeas come outta dem homes again, roam de streets, yah. Makes dem easy peasy roundy uppies, yah.”

“Right, notify our representatives at your leisure then. Oh, and make sure to let us know when your little friends get accustomed to your new weapons. We’ll make sure to bring in something else then, chem dispersers and arc weapons. We may well want to one day put this partnership on an even larger scale, if that becomes possible.”

Grigo snickered. “Sure t’ing, bossmang.”

Location:
Raygon 8 - Leisure District, aka. New Macau.

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

Get 4ℭ off your next HyperMeal™ with coupon code “CoMas” - Merry Commercial Christmas!



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.





“Wow, that really was quite the spectacle, mr. Wellsley! You could hear the gunshots all the way over here. Almost had me thinking your enthusiasm had caused a little tier-in.” He raised his glass to his companions, one of whom was still the Cala from before, while the human had been replaced with a Misle. They clinked their glasses with Shawn’s with supportive chuckles. The bar was the same as before - deafening music, dim lighting, a faint tinge of urea on the air - however, the guests seemed for some reason to keep to themselves even more than before. More specifically, George felt an eerie lack of stares in their particular direction, despite the fact that Shawn and his companions were being quite rowdy. The Qurok bodyguards were nowhere to be seen.

Desperately, George crossed his arms and chopped them forward at the air, ooking in an anxious whisper. Shawn’s laughter dimmed slightly and he sighed. “Oh, mr. Wellsley, where’s your sense of celebration? You’ve finished your mission, you’re no longer deep in debt, and!” He tapped his wristband and brushed away the ads, opening a videofeed and flicking it over towards George. “... Congratulations. You’re famous.”

The video appeared as a small flat ray-shield hovering above George’s wristband. It displayed, very clearly, his three assailants, the Raygonian, Putt and Qurok, being absolutely annihilated by the Bobby he had hacked. Granted, the Putt and the Qurok had been killed before he hacked it, but it still appeared as though George somehow manipulated it, especially when the very, very visible remote control appeared in his hands midway through the clip.

“That final warcry at the end, though… Mmm! Oh, that really just puts the cherry on top,” Shawn praised.

Wellsley paled so much that his fur appeared to whiten. He pointed at himself and slit his throat with his thumb, clicking his tongue hopelessly. Shawn’s smile gave way to a pair of pursed lips complementing his skyward glance.
“Nnnno, not necessarily. Yes, you attracted a bit more attention that we had planned for, and yes, there’s a fair chance that someone or something will come after you at some point, but hey, look on the bright side!”

George raised a miserable eyebrow. A hatch opened on the table before him and unveiled a rising platform carrying a small wrapped box and a shrouded bottle. The box unwrapped itself and opened to reveal a paper note. Upon it was written a number - one much larger than any George had seen outside of price tags. The bottle unshrouded itself and the label read Dom Perignon.

“This is your pay in advance for your next mission, and with it, you can probably buy yourself out of this little pickle, hmm?”

George nearly screamed, instead throwing his hands into the air and concentrating his every fiber on not exploding with energy. He tapped his wristband and tapped at the ads with such recklessness that he opened several to the cacophony of ad music, pitches and automated offers. Eventually, he had managed to tap into his bank to behold his balance: As the note had promised, the number was grander than any that had ever filled that account before. George popped the Dom Perignon open with the snap of his thumb, chugged down a couple of mouthfuls and slammed it to the tabletop with a deafening smack. Even Shawn recoiled a little. George flattened his left palm and struck his right index across it multiple times with rampant enthusiasm, ooking eagerly along. The Cala and Misle exchanged curious glances and Shawn leaned forward. He extracted his cigar tin, pulled out four rolls and offered one to each around the table. He then placed it on the table and activated the jammer function. Immediately, the wristband screens fizzed out.

“It’s good that you’re eager, mr. Wellsley. It’s a trait every employer wishes for in an employee. Of course, the proportionality of the payment should provide a hint as to what sort of mission you’ll be assigned next.”

George simmered down, his brow furrowing suspiciously. He once more crossed his left palm with his right index finger and Shawn extracted a metal tablet from his chest pocket. He tapped a button on its side, igniting the tablet’s screen, and passed it across the table to the Simmie. George analysed the picture of the screen and the Misle and Cala both took a few hip-swaying steps over to his side to look alongside him. The picture revealed a Simmie, a scarred and beaten male gorilla with a multitude of pointy braids down his elongated skull and a white, stained tank top over his torso. It was looking away, suggesting that the picture hadn’t exactly been taken with his consent. He wore blue, ragged jeans and had gold, silver and platinum jewelry around his enormous neck and on the knuckles of both his hands and feet. His enormous arms were heavily tattooed and branded with various markings and sigils belonging to a very popular gang over in the southern hemisphere Leisure district.

“Do you know this Simmie?” Shawn asked as he leaned back into the sofa. George shook his head. Shawn tapped the table twice and the bartender hologram appeared, though it was fuzzy on account of the jamming.

“Yezzzz--... -Awn?”

“Bring me a lighter, if you would. I seem to have misplaced mine. Oh, and some more fruit gums, too.”

“Ri-... -Way!” The hologram said and disappeared. The table soon opened its hatch in front of Shawn and delivered his order. Shawn unboxed a match and lit his cigar, taking a moment to taste the smoke before fixing his gaze on George once more.

“Hou Banhei, also known as Barry Ho or just North Star. He’s the second pillar of the Celestial Dragon triads, a captain of sorts.”

George frowned. He laid two fingers horisontally and lifted them up. Then, he took his two index finger and rubbed them against each other sideways while pointing upwards. Finally, he flexed his right index, placed it on his templed and pulled it away, flexing and unflexing his finger. Shawn shrugged.

“Apparently, the nickname comes from his time in the Silverback Company. He served a long time as private police in the mining colonies on Bick-3, especially in the north. As if that planet’s not a cold hellhole already. I guess he somehow got the nickname and it just sort of stuck. Honestly, it’s not the worst name to have pursuing, well, any sort of career.” George frowned back down at the picture. Barry Ho looked like ex-military, but from what George could see, there were no signs of mechanical implants or scars from any removal of such. He gave his temple a scratch and ooked ponderously. Again, Shawn shrugged.

“That’s among his secrets. All soldiers in the Silverback Company receive mechanical enhancements to boost their combat capabilities, but our friend here doesn’t appear to have any or even have had any. This has, of course, led a few circles to speculate that his supposed membership in the company may have been a lie, but no-no, their official records state that Barry here was a member all the way up until ‘53. He got laid off with the Crash.”

George nodded. A common fate around that time. He then looked at Shawn, placed his hands on his own right shoulder and then tapped the back of his left hand his with right fingers facing forward, pinky flexed upwards. Shawn snapped his fingers.

“Roxanne, dear, would you light mr. Wellsley’s cigar for him?” The Cala courtesied, took a match from Shawn’s matchbox, placed the cigar in George’s mouth and lit it with a feline smirk about her lips. George cleared his throat sheepishly. The Misle went back to sit next to Shawn and popped a fruit gum in their mouth. “Your mission, mr. Wellsley,” Shawn began, “is to make certain mr. Ho meets with the undertaker by the end of the week. Our client was very insistent that it be by then, lest their plans would sadly be in quite the bind.”

George wrinkled his nose disapprovingly. He had killed intentionally before, but there had always been a reason for it - self-defense, anger, thievery… It had never just been “because someone told me to.” Still, the money doesn’t lie, he thought to himself, and the guy was probably scum, anyway. Who wasn’t down here?

“Expect a reward similar to what you received today. I suggest you use a good chunk of that money to buy yourself some weapons and men - good men. From what I’ve heard, Barry is many things, and unprotected is not one of them. Bribe the local peacekeepers to keep the Bobbies away and, most importantly, prepare a get-away car. Model and price is not important; what -is- important is that it runs and that it runs fast.” Shawn’s voice had grown uncharacteristically serious by now. “Take it from me, mr. Wellsley - you’ll want to prepare for this one.”

George grew anxious at the shift in tone, but blew out a plume of smoke and nodded. The night went on a little longer, with the four of them politely enjoying each other’s company.




The same night, George went through shadowy alleys and climbed wires and pipes between the slums of the streets belong. More than once, he passed through small colonies of Simmie hobos in tree and scrap houses in the pipe and wire jungle above the street. George hadn’t had to move into one of these yet, but he had come close. With this job, though, he hoped that day would never come close again. Several of the hobos called out to him, but George ignored them all. He instead merely dove through the pipe-top towns and back into the chaotic sprawl below.

I’ve never been to this part of town before. It’s three hours away from home, but at least my card covers the whole of New Macau. Shawn said this was where I should go - Laopao Street. It’s not the biggest gun market in the New Macau, but it’s apparently pretty safe, he safe.

George hopped down an overcrowded set of stairs and found himself being dragged along by the crowd. The current eventually pushed him against the wall, where he grabbed onto a ledge and managed to drag himself out of the river of flesh, until he found that the ledge was a shop window, manned by a grinning Putt wearing a brown apron and a red fez.

“Goooooood evening, honoured customer! What brings you to my little hole in the wall?”

George looked left and right before shrugging with an ook. Trying his luck, he made a gun with his right hand and snapped his thumb up and down. The Putt nodded in understanding. “Say no more, fam - you’ll find no better piece than one bought at Jerpo and Son’s. What kind do you want? Kinetic? Energy? A combination, perhaps?”

Wellsley frowned. He made a gun with his hand again, then a circle with his opposite hand which he wiggled in front of the hand-gun’s barrel. The Putt nodded.

“Of course - we have a wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide selection of kinetics in stock. What will it be used for? Self-defense? Cold-blooded murder? Driveby?”

George blinked sheepishly and dragged his right hand around his left hand as if the left hand was a round sphere, raising his eyebrow. The Putt nodded.

“You’re right, sir - all-of-the-above is a most viable answer. Handheld? Or something a bit heavier, perhaps?”

George flexed his right hand.

“Handheld it is. Let me have a look.” The Putt walked behind a curtain in the back of his shop and for a while, the only sounds were the cacophony of the street behind George. After a minute or so, though, the Putt returned with a handheld pistol about twice the size of George’s fist. George furrowed his brow and grabbed the weapon by the handle, turning it around in his hand to get a good look. The Putt grinned.

“PS-12 Automatic Handgun. Modifiable however you may want, comes with fully automatic sub-machine gun fire options, scope, custom clips and suppressor extensions. I’ll give it to ya for two ninety-nine, because you’re such a great customer and we have a special business offer -for- you! Buy this one and the PS-32 submachine gun for, get this, only six ninety-nine. A steal, right?” The Putt hopped behind the curtain again and found a specimen of the second weapon. George hummed. He pressed his fingertips together into cones and pressed the cones against each other, twisting the right one upside-down. The Putt smirked.

“Since you asked so nicely - no, the extras are not included. Want me to include them?”

George frowned and nodded. The Putt slapped together some holographic abacus blocks that popped out of his wristband. “Right, so, extras such as scopes, suppressors and ammunition, plus the guns, will total you two grand six ninety-nine.”

Wellsley’s jaw nearly smacked into the ground. He thumbed downwards and the Putt smiled.

“Alright, alright - since you’re such a nice guy, I’ll give it all to ya for two grand four hundred, how’s that?”

Again, Wellsley thumbed down. “Okay, two grand, three fifty?”

The ape shook his head. The Putt began to tear up. “Look, here I am, trying to run a business, and I’m honestly, honestly, trying to give you the best price I can, okay?”

Wellsley thumbed down. The Putt gasped. “Shit, bro… I got a wife and son, you know that? What’re they supposed to eat? They already eat corpse starch! How low can you go, huh? You suggest a price.”

George frowned. He had gotten a lot of credits, but he should play it safe. He raised two fingers into the air. The Putt eyed them curiously.

“Two grand?”

George nodded.

“SOLD!” the Putt suddenly burst out loudly and George blinked. Before the Simmie could protest, the Putt had bagged the guns, ammo, scopes and suppressors, subtracted the amount from George’s wristband, shoved the bag into the ape’s arms and closed down the metal curtain over his shop window. Behind the metal curtain, George could hear the faint, celebratory cackles of the merchant. George opened the bag and stared at the contents. Could these be fake? He had never actually bought a gun before, so he had no idea what a “proper one” looked like. He strolled down the alley and found himself a comfortable garbage bag to sit on. He began counting the bullets he had bought, finding out that he had bought a total of three clips for both weapons. He grimaced - he would probably need more.

He clicked a clip into the handgun and fired at the opposite wall. The loud bang followed by the pling as the bullet bounced against the metallic wall both suggested that the gun was quite real, but Wellsley would have to wonder how durable it was if the merchant had celebrated over a 2 000 credit transaction.

Either way, that was the weaponry out of the way. Now George had to find some companions. He made his way down the overcrowded alleys, shouldering as discreetly as he could he newfound bag of weapons.

Now where would he find those?




“So, let me get this straight,” the bulky Raygonian across the table grumbled through pursed lips. The lighting in the Mercenary Recruitment Centre just down the street from the Laopao Street weapons market, was evidently not the focus of the company’s budget, leading everyone to wear a shadowed scowl regardless of actual facial expression. Behind the trench-coated Raygonian stood two more of its kind, plus a Qurok and an Ataraxian, all equally baffled at the request.

“You want us to join you in taking down Barry Ho.”

“Ook,” confirmed George.

“-The- Barry Ho.”

“Ook.”

“Of the Celestial Dragons.”

“Ook.”

The five mercenaries exchanged glances yet again. Their leader, who had introduced himself as Nop Slint, furrowed his brow and looked down at this twiddling thumbs. “Sir, with all due respect, we’re a respected establishment around here - pranking is not a nice thing to do, and frankly way below the belt--”

“Ook!” George protested and placed his index finger on his chin pointing upwards, then flicked it forward. Slint blinked.

“Sir, you keep saying you’re serious about this, but…”

“OOK!”

“Okay, okay! Ugh… Give us a minute to talk.”

The group huddled together and left George to scout out the dark, dank room. All around, tables with clients on one side and mercenary bands on the other were settling deals of honest pay for honest murder, all in the wonderful spirit of the Bottom Tier service economy. There were warriors from all over the cluster: deserters looking for a fresh start or just a place to hide; lifelong killing machines in search of somewhere to apply their talents; or just average cold-blooded Joes or Jennys in search of easy credits. The corner hosted a bar, as was tradition, and next to it was currently an arm-wrestling competition between a Krunt and a Qurok. It seemed the Krunt was winning.

“Right,” said Slint suddenly. George blinked.

“Ook?”

“Yeah, no… We won’t take this mission, sir.”

George hung his head. Slint frowned. “You know how it is, sir. Ho’s not an easy ape to kill, and I won’t risk my squad’s safety that badly just for a lousy five grand.”

George ooked hopelessly and Slint sighed. “Mr. Wellsley, we mean no disrespect, really. Hey, we actually got a tip for ya if you’re really feeling that suicidal. Yux?”

The Ataraxian fingered a note out of her breastpocket and placed it on the table in front of George. She then pointed to a darkened door at the far end of the room. “You take this note and walk over to that door. Knock five times, wait one second, and knock twice more. Then they’ll ask for a password, which is on that note. Read it as quietly as you can to the man behind the door and walk inside.”

George frowned suspiciously and shrugged. The Ataraxian shook her head. “No questions - just do it.” As if to hurry him along, she took him by the hand and led him off his chair and towards the door. George blinked anxiously at the affair, but couldn’t quite think of what to do before he had been placed before the door and the Ataraxian had disappeared back into the crowded establishment. George eyed the menacing rusty door, and considered for a minute to just look for a different mercenary employment business. He looked over his shoulder - the exit couldn’t be seen through the crowd. He eyed the door again. This definitely leads into some fucked up hole where I’ll get shot or something, he thought to himself anxiously as he hammered at the door the exact number of times instructed.

“Password?” came a voice behind the door. George fumbled the note open and started spelling it out with his hands. When done, he waited. Nothing happened.

“Uhm… Hello? Password?” came the voice again. George blinked and looked up. After a second, he smacked his face with his palm and groaned apeishly. There was no slit through which the man could see him spell. Instead, George tried his best to scan the words into his text-to-speech app on his wristband.

“A, L, G, O, R, E, B, R, O, M, A, N,” the mechanical voice mumbled at the metal. A moment passed before the voice went, “Are you a fucking cybe?”

“Ook!” George protested. Another pause passed.

“Oh, a Simmie? Well, I’ll be damned...” The door eventually swung open and a gray hand came out from the darkness behind it to pull George inside. The door shut close after. George didn’t even have time to scream before he was plopped down onto a chair in front of a table with one flickering light bulb. George looked around in panic, but his eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness yet. At least, not before a voice directed his gaze forward into the midst of a dark cowl with two red eyes glaring back.

“Sssssooo… In your hour of need, you’ve come to ussss… Forfeit hope, forfeit joy - avaunt be morrow, avaunt be yester! FEEEAAAR! FEEEEEEEEAAAAAAR--!”

“Jesus, boss, why you gotta be like this every god damn--”

“OH! OH! I’m sorry! Did you get us this fancy office with YOUR amazing bartering skills? No? Well, of course you didn’t - you suck!”

“This is the washroom, though--”

“SHUT!”

There came the tumble of aluminium pipes and heavy feet - presumably, someone had stepped in an empty bucket. A few stumbles later, the roof lightning switched on at the move of an unfortunate elbow, and George sat staring at a blinking, chubby Qurok in a white tanktop holding a broom, a frowning Jakai scratching her head with a claw, a Nerkin trying furiously to pull a bucket off three-taloned foot, and a small female Petalos with a black hood, looking about two inches from exploding with anger.
“This god-damn-- THING!” snarled the Nerkin and eventually just ripped the bucket in half. The room was silent for a second. George raised a quivering finger.

“Ook?”

The hooded Petalos seemed to calm somewhat, but rolled her eyes and glared daggers at her squadmates behind her. “Well, the moment’s gone, so you might as well show us what you’ve got. You need someone dead right?”

And so George explained the whole mission in as much detail as he had received himself. The four strangers occasionally exchanged glances of worry or interest, but no one said a word until George had explained in full, unless it was to ask questions. When the ape had finished, the Petalos gave a quiet “huh”.

“That sure is… Something else. Usually, we’d just get hired to settle domestic disputes, really,” the Jakai added. The Petalos gave her a glare and hushed. George frowned.

“What she meant to say was, we, uh… We DOMINATE disputes! Yes, beware, all who walk the sinful world of Raygon--”

The Qurok rolled his eyes. “Boss, please, you’re scaring the client again.” The Petalos gave George a suspicious glare, receiving some anxious ooks in return.

“... How much’d you bring?”

George held up five fingers and all four of the mercenaries frowned.

“Five grand for Barry Ho? No dice,” declined the Jakai. The Petalos hushed her again and pointed at George.

“You, turn around. We need some time to discuss.” While George did as he was told, the size of the room and his proximity to the others essentially meant that, no matter what he did, he could hear everything they said.

“So, I’m thinking--”

“There’s nothing -to- think, boss. Five grand is nothing when it comes to taking out a big shot like Ho,” the Jakai tried to explain.

“I’m with Sesley, boss. We handle small fights, not triad shit,” said the Qurok.

“Well, I say we fuck him UP!” the Nerkin protested and slammed the table, making George jump a little.

“Okay, so… Two against two?” the Qurok offered.

“This always happens - every time…” Sesley the Jakai muttered.

“Shush, all of you!” the Petalos commanded and raised a finger to the sky. “This place… This place was given to us for our great efforts - this mission--”

“No, boss, we were confined here for being a nuisance, remember? Jeff here couldn’t stop assaulting the Mosley Crew and--”

“They had it coming!” the Nerkin roared and, once again, slammed the table.

“Okay, but that only enhances my point,” said the Petalos loudly, her finger still pointing to the sky, or rather, the ceiling lamp. “If we do this - and succeed - we’ll be the biggest players on the market!”

A silence followed. The first to break it was the Nerkin Jeff, who said, “Boss, you’re insane.”

Sesley sighed. “Well, I suppose I would get shot on the street for existing anyway.”

There came a weak slap and another sigh. “It’s been an honour, people,” mumbled the Qurok. “I’m in.”

“Ape. You can turn around again.”

George did as he was told - a little annoyed at the name-calling, though, and eyed the Petalos. “We have been discussing intimately--”

“Ook!”

“Alright! Alright, we’re in,” she muttered back and extended her hand. “Since we’ll be working together, we should introduce ourselves. I’m the boss of the Fairy Dusters, Oxigania Toxica.” George shook it reluctantly. Oxigania gestured to the rest of her squad.

“This is Sesley Prox, master assassin.”

“I used to be a barista,” Sesley added through a cough.

“That’s Cody Mezzanusospolimos.”

“Just Cody’s fine,” the Qurok said with a smile.

“And that’s Jeff.”

Jeff offered George a razor-sharp claw. “Pleased to be acquainted, Mr. Ape. And you are?”

George frowned and spelled out his name with his hands. The four mercenaries nodded.

“George Wellsley, huh,” Oxigania mumbled. “We’re honoured to be of service.”

“Knowing you came to us, you didn’t have another choice, did you?” Sesley asked with a smirk. George shook his head and Oxigania glared at her colleague.

“Shush, Sesley. Don’t worry, Mr. Wellsley. Everything will go just like planned!”

There was a moment of silence, once again broken by Jeff.

“So!” he snapped, “What is the plan?!”





Location:
Raygon 8, the Commercial District, aka. the Oasis.

CT-Block I696-231-001 “Donny’s Pub”, a small establishment.

Remember - only 3 days left of the Super-Grid Mega-Sale! Up to 99% off on all commodities in your Gala-Grid™© stores!

This post and the products listed within have been brought to you by Gala-Grid™© - the galactic standard.




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.

Current Debt to the Adamantium Bank: 15 999 ITC Credits.







“By Allah, that’s quite a story, Lobby…” Mohammed Sahar gave his ayran a sheepish sip. “You, uh… You need a hug or something?”

“No, I don’t need a fuckin’--!” Zigg stopped himself mid-fit, dipping his lips into his cup of gutter ale and bubbling angrily. The small, copper hand of his colleague squeezed his shoulder supportively.

“Okay, soooo… How about we take this slowly, alright? How, uh, how do you plan on handling this? Hmm?”

Zigg kept growling into his drink. Mohammed turned his shoulder squeeze into a pat. “Buddy?”

Zigg finally withdrew the cup from his lips and sighed. “I don’t know, Mo… I just don’t fucking know. My options are… Pretty much nonexistent.”

“Okay, let’s take a deep breath and--” He shut up upon seeing Zigg’s surly expression. “Right, uh-hum. What’re your options, then?”

Zigg downed his ale. “Well, for started, I could go to the bank--”

“Oh, biiiiig no-no.”
“Exactly. Getting a loan to pay off a debt’s a death sentence. Which is why I thought of going to Laogui--”

“LAO--” Mohammed’s face darted around and he tried to the best of his ability to hook his arm around Zigg’s neck and pull him down to his face for a whisper, “The fucking triads?!”

Zigg wrestled himself loose and nearly knocked the small man off his bar stool. The man corrected his balance and furrowed his brow disapprovingly. “Lo, you can’t be serious.”

“Well, there’s always a third option.”

Mo gave his ayran another sip, grimacing slightly at the sourness. “And that is?”

“Hopping on the first ship to the Federation. Settle on some corner planet in the periphery there, make a new home and--...” Zigg quieted down at the sight of Mohammed’s expression and shake of the head. “... Yeah, I figured.”

“You’re already branded, man. AB’s got its eyes on you wherever you go. Your every transaction, your every paycheck, your every Allah-damned breath belongs to them now.”

“Well, how do I fix this, Mo?! Tell me!” Some heads turned in their direction. The bartender hologram gave them a glance before returning to polishing some abstract holographic cups. Zigg stared suspiciously back at the others before hunkering down to Mohammed’s level. “... Got any bright ideas, Mo?”

Mohammed tugged at his bushy black beard pensively, mumbling something to himself. “Well, uhm… Would you get enough if you sold your flat?”

“Well, I don’t -own- the flat. I rent it,” Zigg replied hopelessly. Mohammed nodded understandingly.

“I see, I see. Uhm, how much was the deposit for it?”

“Ten kay or so. What, you’re not honestly suggesting we move out, are you?”

Mohammed shrugged. “Well, it’s either that or the squad for you and your debt for your family.”

Zigg raised a finger in protest. “I might not get the squad.”

“Getting sent to Ripp-5 to mine uranium sands is essentially the squad, man.” The two of them deflated and said nothing for a while. Mohammed took another sip of ayran. He then tapped the bar counter twice and the bartender appeared before the two of them in an instant.

“Yes, mr. Sahar?” she cooed with mechanical enthusiasm.

“Another one for the large gentleman here. I’ll have a falafel plate.”

“I’d like a döner, too, actually,” Zigg added.

“Of course, gentlemen. Will you be paying for all of it, mr. Sahar?”

“I’ll cover the döner,” Zigg declared. Mohammed nodded.

“As you wish,” the hologram said with a smile and materialised the bill in her hand. The two of them touched the bill with their wristbands, making the little “boop!” ring out with its gentle, yet eerily annoying pitch. The bartender then blinked over to the other edge of the bar to simulate tapping another ale. Before a minute had passed, she had already appeared before them again, placing the ale down on the counter before Zigg just as a hatch opened on the counter surface, lifting up a tray with a pint of the goo-like yellow brew and a smoking piece of carbo-gluten pita stuffed with fried and hacked protein farse, some corn and cucumber gums, spinach and enough “white sauce” to make those ingredients nonexistent. Mohammed got something similar, only the protein farse had been replaced with greasy clumps of breaded soy bean mash - essentially the exact same thing as protein farse, but (supposedly) less recycled proteins.

Zigg picked up his overfilled vessel of food, half of which seemed to spill back onto the plate as he did his best to keep it in one piece. Mohammed took a piece of falafel, broke it in half and dipped one half in some of Zigg’s spilled sauce, mumbling a friendly “thaaaank you”. Zigg rolled his eyes and bit into the slab of food.

They ate their food in silence, both of them contemplating their exchange and what could be done about the situation. It didn’t help Zigg that Neo-Turkish döners also were incredibly rich and made talking a feat of strength. However, once they had finished eating, Mohammed sighed.

“I’ve heard there are -some- good places in the Bottom Tier--”

“Jesus Christ, Mo, you’re actually suggesting it.”

“I’m just saying, alright? Bring your belongings, get a good flat in the bottom tier. Rent’ll plummet and you’ll only live slightly worse off than you do now.”

“Not. Happening!”

“Well, why not?”

“I’ve been stabbed once already - if we move to the bottom tier, we’ll be lucky if that’s the worst that’ll happen to us.”

Mohammed picked at a sad piece of damp spinach on his plate. “O Allah… Okay, look, I’ll-- I’ll get in touch with some people, ask around. They might be able to shelter you for the time being, and--”

“Mo, you don’t have to. They’d just be putting themselves in danger. No, no, I’ll have to talk this over with the wife. She’ll-- ugh!” Zigg clutched his abdomen and keeled forward, slamming his face onto the bar counter. The holographic bartender appeared with a smile, which suddenly disappear. “Oh my, had too much to drink, sir?”

“Shit, get a doctor, lady!” Mohammed called out as the patrons of the bar slowly began to turn their eyes to them. The hologram simulated holding a smartphone.

“Of course, sir. Which insurance company do you--”

“NO! No, no more hospitals. M-Mo, in my pocket - the right one. A small packet.” Zigg tried to lean in a direction that made it easier for Mo to reach his pocket. Mohammed hopped off his stool, skipped to the other side of Zigg and reached into his pocket. Sure enough, there was a metallic packet there, labeled “Rejectionol: Kidneys” and offered it to Zigg. In a swift motion, Zigg fingered the box open and extracted a syringe, which he promptly stabbed through his shirt into his belly. A minute later, he lifted his head off the counter and began dabbing his sweaty face with the hem of his shirt. Mohammed frowned.

“So… That’s why you can’t go down there, huh.”

Zigg nodded and took some panting breaths. “Rejectol is impossible to get down there - well, the real stuff, anyway. Usually doesn’t get this bad, but my body’s not accepting this new cybe kidney. I know that’s a common thing among cybes, but shit… Never knew just how painful it is.”

“That, uh, rejectol. How much did it cost ya?”

“Remember how I said my debt to the hospital was fourteen grand?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m currently sixteen grand in overall debt.”

“Fuck…” Mohammed sat himself back on his stool. “Who the fuck lets companies manage the sale of critical medicine?”

“You know where you are, right?”

“Listen, I pay my zakat like any good Muslim - if I was richer, I’d buy a lifetime supply of Rejectol for all cybes and sub-cybes on the planet.” Mohammed raised his ayran cup proudly and chugged down the rest. “This world’s seen enough unfairness. Whatever happened to respect and common decency?”

“Again, you know where you are, right?” Zigg rolled his eyes with a smirk and gave his wristband a glance. “Shit, that time already, huh?”

Mohammed gave him a glance. “You heading home?”

Zigg got up from his chair and tugged his jacket on properly. “Yeah, gotta discuss what to do with the wife. Kids’ll want to know, too.”

Mohammed sighed and placed his hand over his heart. “Alright, Lo. Stay safe, okay?”

Zigg nodded and returned the gesture. “Yeah.” As he spun around to walk out, though, Mohammed called out.

“Oh, Lobby!”

“Hmm?” Zigg hummed and turned back.

“You should come over some time. Bring your family and I’ll have Ayiisha cook us some machboos.”

Zigg smiled. “Yeah, that’d be nice.”

Mohammed grinned back, though somewhat forced. “... Yeah. Please stay safe.”

“Sure.” Zigg then left the bar and walked into the blaring noisewall of advertisements and city chatter.
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.
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