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If you read one of my short stories (hosted on Google Drive), please send me a PM and tell me what you think!

> Proximal Anxiety



Circ's Characters

Plots:
- No God's Sky
+ Unsolicited Invasion ₮ ϟ
- The Sorceress' Nemesis ϟ
+ Sleep, Grand Automaton, That We May Plunder
+ Gaslands

Participating:
+ Glasslands
+ The Meatspin ₮ϟ
- The Darkness Encroaches
- Into The Abyss

Watching:
- Expanding Horizons
- Sea of Ignominy ϟ
- Cataclysmic Ending ϟ
- Awake
+ Cat, got your togue
+ Ever Mut has its Dog Day

Key:
+ = active
- = inactive
ϟ = Val'Gara
₮ = Earth-F67X | Discord
☫ = Cizr Empr

Most Recent Posts

Allure City, Xepabul District—formerly Salamanca

The telephoto receiver opacified, then diminished to a black point that occluded his vision half a moment before it was completely imperceptible. Twenty minutes to prepare for a meeting among Allure's highest echelon of power, Vericlatigan recollected. Plenty of time to mingle with the natives. Feh. Plenty of time to deal with the prison issues, too, he hoped, particularly the escapes of troublesome miscreats like Ckøst and Reaex, assuming they could even be located. At least now the power was back on and the majority of his convicts were accounted for and sealed in their cells.

Vericlatigan straightened the chrome-fiber tie worn by the dominated and decapitated syrinx whose neck stump he, himself, sealed in a jar, perched upon. From the back of a chair, he plucked a stunning ruby-sequined smoking jacket, robed his transport, and made his way to the elevator. As he ambulated, the crisp white linen of his pants and shirt delicately emitted subtle whiffs of tobacco and cotton into his olfactory intake valves.

First, the club. It was on his way down from his penthouse, which was mainly a decoy. Everything important transpired in the secure subterranean command center. With a delicate chime, the elevator opened and revealed a lavish alabaster interior illuminated by scintillating orbs of vermilion, orchid, emerald, and amber light. The main draw, however, was the massive cylindrical aquarium at the center. All sorts of alien aquatic species lived there, among which was the club's sovereign, a beautiful woman clad in a sensuous long dress fashioned from the tendrils of a massive jellyfish. Her arms draped over the edge of the tank, one occupied by a liquid imbibement of some provenance he dared not contemplate. Her attention was fixated on one of his wealthier club members who presumed to take charge, poorly at that, of the strained atmosphere. Strained why? Of course. The soldiers from whatever filthy world to which they now belonged, weapons at the ready. Patrons on their hands and knees. The lack of music. The lack of discourse.

All seven of his eyes rolled, then he strode toward the bandstand and signaled them to play the Allurean anthem. Soon, the distinct and powerful music poured from their instruments, loud enough for certain clarity, but not to the point where it would inhibit conversation.

That got the attention of what he presumed was the leader of Earth's forces, at least, within the limits of the building. Vericlatigan was unsure of their rank or even their gender. Neither mattered. After a few moments of being barked at incoherently, his universal translator gleaned enough context for communication to commence.

"My name is Fimiendel Vericlatigan X. I am a member of this city's parliament and am en-route to an emergency session of our government to discuss our terms of surrender. I also own this building. Please, enjoy the club or accompany me to my meeting. Whichever you prefer. Nobody here has any enmity toward you and yours. We are peaceful libertines and merely wish to enjoy our leisure."

Whilst speaking, he made his way over to the mermaid in the tank.

"D'cthur, my dear, are you well?" he inquired.

She glanced up and her unusually large sapphire eyes shimmered. They always mesmerized him, particularly when she was worried. Right now, they were crossed by dark green strands of hair. With a frown, she crooned, "Oh, Fimmy, it is so horrible what is happening. Have you heard? We're not on Fortis, anymore! We're on some terrible back-water planet called Earth. And these strange aliens with weapons are here threatening us! It is terrible."

"Yes, yes, yes. I know. For now, we must endure. Offer them free drinks, food, and entertainment. On my tab. Put them at ease. Nobody else here was armed, except the security. I see they've already relinquished their shock batons. But tell me, have you seen Paritanko?"

"Left once the word got out that we were occupied!" she rasped.

He nodded. It made sense. Paritanko was probably already down below, hopefully not fighting it out with some of Earth's finest. He sighed inwardly, glanced at the soldier at his flank, and made his way back to the elevator. Fortunately, there was no bloodshed. So far, anyway. The soldier shouted some orders and then rushed in after him. He entered his special access code and soon the lift descended to twenty levels beneath the surface. The doors opened and, of course, there was a stand-off.

"I see your soldiers have managed to penetrate every layer of security of my building," Vericlatigan said, his voice laced with annoyance. Then his eyes found Paritanko and he said, "Stand down, we're going to cooperate. In the meantime, can you provide me a status on the prisoners?" He glanced at the soldier next to him and explained, "I'm the head warden and responsible for the welfare and containment of the prisoners in this city."

"We've subdued several already," came the reply from his captor-cum-escort. Pitched, even if firm. Likely female. "Escapees from several massive breaches in your prison systems."

His transportation body shrugged and brought him over to a large safe door. He keyed in a complicated code, glanced back, and said, "The area beyond this door is secure. If your government hasn't cleared you for access, I'll wait. I assume you're in communication with them. That said, there is a limited window before our emergency session. Roughly six minutes to go."

The soldier put her hand to the side of her head and began muttering into a headset. She frowned, replied, and frowned some more.

He nodded to Paritanko. His goons put down their weapons and surrendered to Earth's soldiers. Then his head of security informed him, "We've recaptured Ckøst and some of the other high-value prisoners. Reaex was last seen leaving the city, jumping into the ocean. It is a hot mess, Sir. Half of the escapees went wild. Got themselves killed by the invading forces. Sir, do you really intend to capitulate?"

"A disaster, but not as horrible as it could be. Remind me to thank Näsr V'ind later. And yes, surrender really is our best option. I just hope the rest of parliament agrees."

"Warden, I've been instructed to implant this drone in your body. Everything you say and do will be monitored by our intelligence services from there on out. You'll proceed alone into your meeting," the soldier interrupted.

"Very well. In that case, please consider Paritanko as your liaison and access to all matters related to this building while I am otherwise occupied," he resigned himself, accepted the drone, and keyed in the remainder of the code. The door swung open, he navigated through, and then it automatically closed behind him.

Two minutes to go.

The room went dark. He stood on the appropriate sigil. Suddenly, he was transported to the virtual meeting.

There was Margaret. Others poured in. The three demons, but no Merse Granstrum. Even when Margaret began speaking. Then, finally, she got to the point. What were his dealings with Merse? If anything, it meant either he was unaccounted for or captured. Most certainly, it meant he was the tits deep in this whole fiasco.

Knowing his whereabouts would definitely be helpful, so Vericlatigan parried, "Where is Granstrum?"

The question wouldn't have caught Margaret off-guard, even if it weren't so painfully obvious; still, with Tristan somewhere, likely listening, as such was not beyond the realm of possibility, it seemed prudent to be as nebulous as possible. Thus, she answered, "Last I saw, he was in Earth's military custody."

Her answer elicited a groan. Then she paused, as though her mind was elsewhere focused, and momentarily clarified, "Dissected, but alive in a state of suspended animation. Organs removed to various facilities under the auspices of Earth's military. Never fear, he cannot escape, much less survive, with his brain and brawn on opposite sides of the planet. You may feel confident in divulging everything without fear of retaliation."

Vericlatigan nodded approvingly. Given the circumstances, he assumed she was being honest. Whether the same could be said for Earth's government, who were clearly hooked in to this meeting somehow, was another matter. Still, it was a safe bet to put himself out there.

"He provided intel on some of my prisoners and arena contestants in exchange for an accurate inventory of all the equipment in my junk yards. Certain items, anything with even the slightest hint of magic, really, he reserved for himself. I'll submit a list after the meeting adjourns."

. . .


Allure City—City Center

Reasonably suspicious of his alien and, inasmuch as caution dictated, hostile host, Tristan relied on his own loose leaf manuka rather than brew and imbibe her unknown concoction. Even of the tap water he was dubious. Still, Tethys, the artificial intelligence embedded in his combat armor, assured him such, along with cast iron tea pot, were perfectly safe. While Margaret called her confederates, he waited for perfection, his attention divided three ways between his tea, his host, and the otherworldly environs that loomed beyond the window.

Tethys, what is a ribbon world?

>> An inhabitable spacial body, much like a planet in its atmospheric environment, different in that they take the form of ribbons. This one appears to be inside some sort of translucent cosmic annelid; that is to say, a worm. New Roswell claims this one is named Ximbic-8 and was brought here to protect Earth. They even supplied a wikipedia article on the subject.

Brought here? Who could do such a -- wait, Entity Æ?, Tristan wondered while he skimmed the incredible article. It wasn't merely a ribbon world, but a universe unto itself, replete with trillions of manifestations of life, at least a hundred of which were considered intelligent.

>> Unauthorized.

The cast iron pot whistled its readiness. A few minutes later, his tea was satisfactorily steeped and the result poured into a secure container in his armor, filtered with a variety of sterilization mechanisms, and piped into his mouth at the perfect temperature. Just then, Margaret stepped under an arch and was immediately bathed in variegated bands of light from numerous angles that captured her every feature. "Oh this, one of the ..." she began.

Mission resumed, he deployed several nano-drones to the arch. These synchronized first with Tethys, then with a handful of much larger receivers in orbit around the tower, and finally with New Roswell. A picture-in-picture square materialized in front of his left eye and he beheld a black amphitheater and an assortment of odd characters within. Margaret was still speaking, but by now the experts at New Roswell were busy analyzing the characteristics and body language of the parties involved.

>> Received word from New Roswell. Mission parameters modified. First, patrol the fixed-orbit Citysphere Central, then take the light rail to Earth, and then head back to Tel Aviv for debriefing.

Invisible from the moment of his arrival, Margaret would likely not be able to tell if he was physically present or not anyway. Even if she could, it wouldn't change much. New Roswell's drones were on and around Margaret's person should there be a need to communicate. Without a word, he silently left.

"Hello and welcome to Derelict's Dalliances, the hottest wavelength next to Maasym! I'm your host, Jeravik Malaki-Meems, and with me today is a very special guest, our would-be first Prefect, should the citizens so decide, Sureivalhi Jaya!" announced Jeravik, his spittle moist on the mic. Limited by his seated posture and the necessary inclination of his voice, his movements were nevertheless adroit and abrupt as he plucked the latest political periodical from his desk, such as both were, and focused his dilated black pupils on his guest.

"Thank you for having me, Jeravik," Sureivalhi replied, the timbre of her voice somehow simultaneously smooth and guttural. Although this was technically a radio broadcast, there were still video feeds available for those who still presumed to have the attention span to watch such things. In that knowledge, she sat upright in her gold-trimmed iridescent lehenga choli, eyes just as intensely dark as the publicity jockey who presently shared air with her.

"Always a pleasure, I hope, Sureivalhi Jaya. Such a musical name. For the sake of brevity, if you don't mind the slight of ceremony, may I drop a few notes and call you Suri?"

"Certainly."

"My gratitude. Now, to let our viewers in on a little secret, you're with us today, Suri, in an act of shameless self-promotion in your campaign to be Prefect of the Maasym System; is that right?"

"Absolutely right, Jer -- you don't mind if I truncate your name, do you?" -- she smiled beneficently, then continued without awaiting an answer -- "As I have always believed, the best government stems from an informed vote of my fellow servant-citizens, so I am here to today to share with them my views as to how we can improve life in the Maasym System. I, as every servant-citizen has, offered my particular dues to Origin in service as a combat medic and eventually retired at the rank of major; however, I feel it is my experience as a life-long Spacer that makes me uniquely qualified to serve a system where the only extra-stellar body has more in common with a space station than a planet."

"Well," Jeravik cut in, "there are lots of Spacer colonies, but wouldn't you agree Maasym is unique and comes with its own challenges?"

"Naturally. Take, for example, the lack of quality psychological wellness framework. Derelict's negative influence on the minds of those who have made this their home is an issue that has touched everyone. Friends and family lost to doomsday cults, machine god cults, and their ilk."

Jeravik interjected, "Derelict has made everyone more, well, religious, if you ask me. We don't whisper 'Sleep, Grand Automaton' for nothing."

"True, although I wouldn't frame that as religious," Suri gently retorted, her crossed hands nearly concealed beneath a large sabraxian jet opal, the dilithic circuitry of which shimmered like a nebula, "A healthy respect of an alien artifact such as Derelict is natural and inherently human. But when it is worshiped and ridiculous phrases such as 'Wake, Grand Automaton, and enslave us, enthrall us, assimilate us,' and so on, are uttered, common cause with our species is abandoned. That, I believe, is where we encounter great danger."

"Surely the cultists are harmless, Suri?" Jeravik tactfully opined, his voice soft, his jowls conspicuously stilled from their apoplectic frenzy, as though he were actually suddenly shaken from his firm belief in the premise that lurked behind his half-question.

"And yet," Sureivalhi accepted the proffered bait, "their numbers grow, people and supplies go unaccounted for, and the psychotherapy med-booths are overwhelmed. Even the most dedicated servant-citizen understandably accrues doubts when they observe another human, particularly someone close to them, relinquish individuality and personhood in exchange for -- for what we do not know. Hopefully nothing. Still, we must recognize that they are victims in all this, even as the threat of their numbers and ideology grows, which is why I intend to build out the infrastructure around Maasym to make sure everyone gets the care they deserve. To make sure everyone has the resources to help their friends and family get the care they deserve."

"A noble cause, Suri," Jeravik concluded as the feed transitioned into an advertisement for ferro-conductive paste and pressure-sensitive ejaculators -- able to plug any hole and keep air exactly where you want it: inside with you!

. . .


One thing at a time. First, step inside the shuttle. Next, seal the hatch. Next, activate the autopilot. Then stand, magboots live, safely bound to the durbar-plate deck by the immutable properties of physics. Wait. Don't think, don't see, don't feel. Just wait. Don't wonder just how mutable those properties really are. Embrace the silence.

A minute outside The Throat, Feurtes noticed his hands trembled in his gauntlets. As with a wave, he inhaled deep and let the lack of control crash through him. By the time the shuttle docked at their facility on Maasym Orbital Station, they hung at his side, as stoic as his haggard but otherwise expressionless visage. On the way, he struggled with the question of whether to sleep or divert his thoughts. By the time he was at the top, he knew he would rather pass out with his mind on something other than Derelict.

Off the shuttle, the airlock sealed behind him. Clumsy with anticipation, he stripped and stumbled nude under a spray of chemical sanitization; warm, pleasant, although a touch acerbic. Above, the med-spanner lurked, its splined and nibbed digits retracted into alabaster sheaths and its articulating arm collapsed: a menace to which he was blind as, an instant earlier, it pinched his eyelids together and adhered them with xerophobic adhesive. The gel would evaporate as soon as he entered a low-moisture environment. Roundabout, the clear plastic surface of the Class III biocontainment channel warped iridescent and fogged at the internal differential in heat and humidity. Then the shower ceased, the walls cleared, his eyes opened, and he became vaguely aware of Sophia's presence on the other side.

Judgmental b-cun, he groused inwardly, then snorted in an act of repressed levity at his own ridiculous hypocrisy.

Clean, he departed the channel and walked his bare ass to his locker, thick black hair wet and matted against his frame from head to toes. On the way, he offered a nonchalant nod and obligatory "Doctor" to Sophia as he sauntered on by, the act barely an acknowledgment. He wasn't sure if she said anything. He didn't care. He needed to get Derelict out of his mind. So he eased into an olive green jump suit, slipped on a fresh pair of magboots, and left her to her thoughts.

A thousand steps later, Feurtes hung in a virtual stimulation booth, every centimeter of his body in contact with at least one of the suit's twenty-thousand haptic feedback pads. As far as his deceived parietal and occipital lobes could tell, Maasym Orbital Station and Derelict, more importantly, were 370 light years away. Instead, he surveyed a vast verdant plain. Distant yet still prominently juxtaposed against a bright azure sky, Squaretop Mountain stood sentinel over some unseen vale, roots dipped in the dark green shimmer of opaque lake-light. Meanwhile, he lazed on a a porch, eyelids drooped, satisfied in the sensation of cool peat and dry grass between his toes and against the soles of his feet. Against his rump, the alder planks that formed the deck creaked and reassured him that they belonged to a home well-lived. Somewhat more capriciously, the intermittent breeze teased away the mid-day perspiration on his arms and face.

Simple. Serene. Silent, save for the whine of the windmill as its rusty old vanes turned.

Feurtes' gaze drifted to the barn, then in a fluid motion he stood, stretched, and scratched his balls through his worn denim overalls.

"Time to let off some steam, I think," his drawled epigram swallowed by the big open sky.

It felt good to stretch his legs and walk barefoot on his own property, unbothered by interlopers. When he exchanged the heat of the sun for the shade of the barn, that felt good too. Inside was plain and typical of a barn. Except the silhouette with pointed ears. Breath held in for a moment while his pupils dilated, he soon beheld a brief bipedal vixen. Fleek, he somehow recalled her name. Small and weak, she still boasted curves where it mattered. Quietly and with no minor amount of amusement, he watched as she lifted and cantilevered her big fluffy tail to offset the weight of the hay she forked from a bail onto a loose pile. Tail raised and torso extended, her puffy labia were exposed in all their glory. Within that glorious gash, tentacles twitched expectantly, eager to seize any invasive force. Up to the challenge, Feurtes grinned like an idiotic horndog and unconsciously grasped his shaft through the denim. No indication that she heard him as he sidled up behind her. Then, suddenly, he snatched the fork from her hand, tossed it aside, and pushed her snout-first into the hay pile.

"Woooooo-eee, gonna have us some fun time!" he hooted.

Solitary shoulder strap of his overalls unclasped, he relished the sensation of the course material's interaction with his hairy legs as it pooled down around his ankles. Fleek gasped in muffled surprise. As she struggled to upright herself, Feurtes pulled one foot free and planted it atop the small of her back. With the little vixen restrained, he curled his toes in the soft warm fur between her shoulder-blades and scratched that hard-to-reach spot on her behalf.

She squealed at first, but then purred as he continued his ministrations. One savage beast tamed, he insisted, "Shhh. Hold still. You're going to like what I do next," and prepared to tame another.

Semi in his hand, he emptied his bladder all over her backside. "What the!" Fleek protested, but was soon muffled as Feurtes shifted forward. Urine, his own, splashed his foot and ankle. Invigorated by the hot spray, the tactile disunity between one foot and the other, he watched attentively as soft and fluffy became sodden. Fragrant. The last few drops dripped out, he gave it a final shake, then he settled down on top of her. First his face, with a big exultant whiff, then his crouch pushed against her recently-christened nethers.

He plowed away until he passed out, still inside, his prong clasped tight by coiled tentacles and a hundred modes of suction.

Pre-pay consumed, the booth beeped persistently and jolted Feurtes into partial wakefulness. Not nearly time enough to feel rested, but purpose served. He made his way back to his own quarters in the team's shared facility. Sophia was there, doing whatever. Psychoanalysis, probably. The same brief salutation as before offered, he vanished behind the privacy blinds of his bunk and settled in for some much-needed sleep.
Mount Diaba, Guerrilla Territory

Dussan didn't know the flesh menagerie was still alive when he dragged it through the blast doors of Mount Diaba, its exposed kyphosis-twisted spine thrashing spasmodically from when he, on a routine patrol, stumbled across the fiend and with his two good hands ripped it in twine. He'd neither heard of nor even contemplated concepts such as swarm intelligence and adaptive bioteleiosis. Thus, he was justifiably proud of his victory over the demon. He didn't grasp the novel circumstances of the moment, perverted such that it instead portended the likely downfall of the Arcelisk to the Va'sall flesh horde.

All for the incomplete execution of a mere scout to an enemy army he didn't know existed.

As it had done so many months before, the electronic voice chimed from a speaker and greeted Dussan as he entered the subterranean complex, << What did you find today, Dussan? >>

He glared at the carcass clutched in his left hand, his fingertips lost amid the morass of exposed tendons and musculature of what he presumed was its neck, and grunted, "An isolo(1). Wicked, weak. Preys on children like umdala(2) say. I kill."

A group of spectators gathered, although they kept their distance. They were impressed by his victory over the demon, he could tell. Hushed whispers. His face lit up with pride at his accomplishment. Not smart, he knew, but Dussan was still a great warrior. The strongest in Diaba! Even with only half of its remains, the fiend was hideous, its semblance the flayed offspring of mosquito and man afflicted with gigantism. Its claws were sharp and wet with a viscous green substance, like smoothed malachite. It reeked of necrosis.

<< Please take it to ... >> the voice paused, atypically indecisive, then implored, << ... the incinerator. >>

He took a step, then the doors all sealed shut, trapping him and the others inside the bay.

<< Belay that, Dussan. Don't move, don't put it down. Contamination protocol. Head Doctor Mpondo is on her way. >>

Suddenly, although he wasn't quite sure why, Dussan didn't feel heroic. Shame tinged his ebony cheeks with crimson, but he nevertheless held his head up like the proud warrior he knew himself to be, even as the agitated crowd pressed back against the walls and maintained as safe a distance from him as possible. After several minutes, a harried Mpondo draped in yellow plastic burst through one of the theretofore locked doors, a flamethrower heavy under her arm.

"Everyone, please head outside and prepare to camp for the night. I am going to sterilize this area," Mpondo breathlessly exclaimed while she inclined her bulbous head down toward her expediently selected utensil of purification, "and then we will provide tents, food, and water to you all for the night. Dussan, stay here and use this pack of syringes and so forth to extract blood and tissue samples from, uh, that thing."

She set the pack on the floor and slid it over to Dussan.

"It is an isolo," Dussan insisted.

She paused, briefly transfixed by the abomination caught in the big guy's grasp.

"It very well may be an isolo," she eventually agreed. Then, to those who still stood shocked roundabout her, she insisted, "Get going, get going. This is a precaution. The Mwongozo(3) does not know what this creature is so it suggested these steps to keep us safe. They worked very well in other countries to prevent sickness."

She almost said after contact with the Val'Gara, but didn't want to alarm people with the thought that this, too, could be such an alien horror. Thus the hushed murmurs were difficult to ignore as people collected their things and filtered from the compound. Finally, when the last of them were gone, Diaba's AI -- what she referred to as The Mwongozo -- reassured her, "Their reaction to you was very positive. As it should be, you were there when many of them were brought into the world and they trust you. As such, you have prevented a panic. Statistically, that is of the utmost importance in these situations."

Doctor Mpondo didn't respond. The words hardly reassured her as she knew what her reaction would be to a forced excursion in the dark of night outside of Diaba's fortress-like walls. Not good at all. Especially when there could be more of these. Still, she went about her work. First she instructed Dussan on how to collect the samples. Then she unrolled a thin silver sheet, unfolded and unzipped it, and watched as Dussan dropped the corpse inside with special care to her instruction not to let anything touch the outside.

"Thank you, Dussan," she said as she sealed up the bag, "You go outside now and stand guard while I finish up, understood?"

He grunted, turned, and stalked out with that slow exaggerated lurch so typical of him. With the blast doors closed, she pocketed the samples, ignited the flamethrower, and scorched every inch of the place as well as the bag's exterior. Soaked with sweat inside her containment suit, she was grateful when the AI indicated it was safe to stop. She panted, one knee on the blackened concrete floor while things cooled down, then she grabbed the bag by the handle and dragged it toward the incinerator.

She imagined it was merely fatigue or paranoia when the screams reached her shortly after she dumped the thing in the massive kiln that served Diaba's crematorium and trash incinerator, bag and all, and observed through protective glass as it melted, blazed, and crumpled to soot.

----

1: demon
2: village elder
3: guide
As the screening ended, Mavriq voiced his thanks to Sophia. Her professionalism was worthy of emulation, if a bit reserved. More importantly the exam was, as far as he was aware and concerned, an uneventful episode. As expected. To him, a military scientist, health diagnostics were routine, particularly given the frequency of his exposure to occupational hazards, unintentionally or otherwise. If anything, his only surprise was just how unremarkable it was this particular time. Not that he was any expert. Not that he cared to be. Not that he gave Sophia sufficient time to delve very deep into his mental or physiological status. He already knew that if there were any issues with his health such would have manifested in his medical records well in advance of his deployment to Derelict. In the end, she would know what he already knew about himself. The unremarkable thing that surprised him was that in less than an hour he would be inside a planet-sized alien artifact and he yielded no signs of anxiety.

"Thank you for your efficiency, Doctor Hagiotheodorites," Mavriq remarked as he slipped his shirt back on.

He was just dressed when Cass graced them again with her presence.

"We're just about ready, Cass. Please suit up," he inclined his head toward her locker on the other side of the plastic containment barrier.

He glanced at his dataslate and frowned. The shuttle navigated its way unscathed up the grimly-named Derelict's Throat and soon would be available for use. Of course, that was a good thing. However, he recalled Feurtes' preliminary status report on the failure of the MRS mining drones. Unlike the Warrant Officer, his piloting skills, should manual override be necessary, were neither superb nor fresh. Better to be extra alert, he internally ventured, and strode toward the kitchen and filled his canteen with a blend of warm water, caffeinated powder, and adrenal enhancers premixed in a conveniently available carafe. He took a swig, sat down, and began typing a tersely worded message to his superior officer.

Lt. Colonel Gulnara:

Team assembled. No issues with moral or synergy, although introduction of MRS units unanticipated. So far they have proven useful, but the navigational failure of MRS mining drones is cause for concern. I've requisitioned a postmortem analysis from MRS. Facilities otherwise adequate. Warrant Officer on artifact with MRS units. I will be heading down with Cass, our tour guide, to relieve him.

Lieutenant Mavriq d'Agenais


He hit send, pocketed his dataslate, made his way to the other side of the containment barrier, and suited up. Compression undergarments and field uniform were already on, so on top of those he layered the hermetic flex armor and helmet. He was ready. So, it would seem, was the shuttle. The pressure seal just cycled from red back to green, indicative of a successful dock and seal.

. . .


A silver glint, then the shuttle receded from view. In the stead of that tangible tether to all things familiar, dread and abandonment encroached on Feurtes' psyche. Irrational vagaries yet outweighed by his optimism. He felt hope, for its departure indicated that his replacements would be here imminently and he would thence be on his way back to MOS. Once there he would relish in peace, quiet, and sleep. That in mind, he sat down on the ledge that projected into the chasm, dangled his feet over the edge, leaned back, and squinted through his polycarbonate stealth visor at the twisted hollow of Derelict's Throat. Much as any other corridor within the metallic labyrinth, all contorted metal that terminated in ominous alien darkness.

1200 seconds until transfer flashed on his HUD.

When Lieutenant d'Agenais arrived, he might remember to solicit a full report.

Feurtes sighed, peered at Aten and his pair of brutes, a trio that idled in anticipation of the exchange whence they would escort their next batch of flesh-and-blood to the recently-erected operational base. He perceived that they rather disliked the base being unoccupied at present and that their sentiment towards being idle was similarly inclined. Maybe dislike was the wrong word. Resented. Yet these were conditions on which he was adamant. The base was well-guarded by its automated active defenses and electrostatic energy barrier, they were all interlinked with a host of surveillance drones such that, should an incursion arise, they could swiftly and effectively respond, and, as he lastly noted, the effects of Derelict on artificial intelligence were not understood and, as such, warranted their supervision. It was the latter fact that, when intertwined with the almost emotional and heated expression of their preference, unsettled him more than the possibility of some easily-replaced equipment being stolen.

Dataslate withdrawn from a large pocket on his thigh and set upon his lap, he performed the ritual of cracked knuckles, a futile feat restricted by the dense vascular polymer of his gloves. Still, the gesture wiped clean the slate of his mind. Then, focused on the more vibrant or, in his opinion, relevant recollections of the past 19 hours, he began to type.

The landing was smooth, albeit awkward. Odd how intellect-instilled machines inflicted him with a tense turpitude of suspicious self-awareness he felt only once before when he, as an immature constable stationed at Keflavik Orbital Access, escorted a serial killer to and from tribunal. Being on Derelict was an order of magnitude worse. Hours later, he felt no better. Even the MRS units rose, in his mind, to a position of welcome familiarity and predictable orderliness. Yet, in spite of that, as they idled nearby he felt disquiet; that distinct and undeniable sensation of being prey, hackles erect and extraocular muscles taut.

Then there was the incident with the mining drones. He wasn't sure what to make of it. For all he knew, it was staged for his benefit so the MRS units could pretend to safeguard him, thus winning his confidence and soothing his suspicion. Just as disturbing was the possibility that it was caused by Derelict interfering with the drones' internal programming. All he knew was that machines weren't suppose to make mistakes, which meant the event happened by design, poor or otherwise.

It took less than an hour for him to pilot the excavation buggy from the shuttle and, with the help of the MRS units, load it with four tonnes of supplies. Four tonnes in standard g, anyway. Navigating that through Derelict was a rather tedious and time consuming affair of busting through walls, welding down ramps with the local shrapnel, and drifting somewhere between catatonia and focus -- an ironically fine line he became conspicuously conscious of when Aten asked him why they were stopped. That was three minutes after he thought he saw one of the A9s do something dubious, he noted from the timestamp on his HUD; what, in particular, he could not recall. Three minutes of lost time. It did not bode well for him, he knew. At the end of several hours, they were a kilometer deeper than before and yet still a safe distance from the mission's locus delicti. They established a perimeter, unloaded the equipment, activated the security systems, and then with everything more-or-less in place Feurtes underwent the frustrating process of persuading Aten and his A9s to return with him to the shuttle. Somehow, he succeeded. They were halfway back, all in the buggy, moving much faster given an actual path available, the reaped benefits of their labors, when Feurtes caught sight of something in one of the tributary tunnels. Aten noticed, too. The buggy slowed to a halt and an A9 silently hopped out.

"Definitely a person, probably one of those cultists I've heard so much about. Best to leave them alone," he opined, but not before the A9 tossed a micro-surveillance drone down the tunnel. It instantly illuminated the passage with harsh multispectral light, exposing dense kudzu eerily lit under a sheet of jaundiced vapor. Atmosphere. Feurtes wasn't about to attempt breathing it, no matter what the scientists claimed with respect to the trapped nitrogen and oxygen content on Derelict's lower levels. Just at the edge of the drone's illumination, he saw a robed figure retreating around a corner. "See? We leave them alone, they leave us alone," he insisted, "Now let's get a move on."

An awkward silence passed with Aten immobile at the wheel of the buggy.

"Target may have tampered with communication relays," Aten finally stated. "A916AA deployed to investigate."

"Belay that order," Feurtes insisted, "We stick together. All of us backtrack to the last relay, confirm it is sound, then proceed, checking each relay as we go."

Another awkward pause. Aten then replied, "Inefficient, but acceptable."

It turned out the relays were fine, but it added another hour to the trip back. Not that the Lieutenant seemed in any rush to get down there.

Report transferred and dataslate stashed, he leaned back, head on folded hands. The cloud of blood was gone, he noticed. Probably dissipated in the exhaust of one of the many scavenger shuttles going to and from Derelict with a cargobay filled to the brim with pilfered artifacts or empty with opportunity.
Saudade, Glasslands – former Tunis

Daggers of decaying sunlight cut across the ruins of Tunis' seaside district. Toppled sandstone walls, expunged of their kaleidoscopic arabesques and vibrant whitewashes, amorphously recompose to a post-apocalyptic sepia necropolis. It is desolate, but neither still nor silent. Rough-hewn balls of concrete dust and algae clatter laboriously along the heaved pavement, propelled by the salt-laden breeze. Aluminum sheets sway and groan, grit-streaked and perforated. The ocean's apoplectic tidal churn roars ubiquitous. Yet, on a particular block occupied by the Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul, other noises surge to the forefront -- splintering wood, predatory shrieking, and the beating of heavy wings.

Into this tumult Reaex prowled, its large head veiled by the broken light of the cathedral's ominous entrance. To his right, half a door, rotten and splintered, vaguely creaked on its rusted iron hinges. The other half should have hung to his left, but instead the sodden dust of its decomposition deformed under his excitedly vibrating forepaw to a reticulation of cleaving ridges and asymptotic slopes. Above him loomed the cathedral's vast skeleton, heavy and lifeless, like a rorqual's seafloor-interred carcass, prematurely rent from its splendor as an alabaster shrine ornamented with priceless porphyry, filled with song, and gilt with gold. Bereft and reduced to a veritable ruin, only one of its parapets ascended in the aftermath of the great wave. Sludge and soot blackened walls and murals irredeemably marred attested to its downfall.

He refocused. Atmosphere disinterested him, but hunger -- hunger could not be ignored. It was the justification for his trek to this queer place. For this he internalized his environment, refined his engagement opportunities, and immobile lingered with the anticipation of a stone gargoyle. Reflected in his dim sapphire eyes were the multitude of massive strigiformes. The biogenetic shimmer of their ferrous armor amplified his voracity. Several flew in through holes in the roof and perched high atop engaged columns at the back of their gratuitous nest, mordant demons that likewise obscured and corrupted a serene scene of triumphal ascent painted on the interior of the cracked apse. Necks rotated in profile and truncated jet beaks pressed to their breasts, they watched as their companion cornered its prey. That other was much nearer, its wings extended like a barricade.

Stealthily, Reaex leaned forward, arched his shoulders, impacted his spine, and funneled the energy of his posture down through the momentarily inflexible alloy of his inferior femurs and into his metatarsals. A flake of mortar drifted unawares through a band of dingy light. Within it, he saw his chance: the avian's two posterior red eyes in the nape of its neck briefly closed.

He lunged.

An microsecond latter, the needle-sharp contoured selenium blades that terminated his forelimbs gouged through the mirrored intersections of the beast's coracoid, scapula, and humerus bones, expressed sawtooth ridges, and oscillated viciously as he carved forward through its neck. Instinctively, it careened backward, but he was heavier and pinned it down. Mantis green blood mixed with the ruddy contents of its predigestion spurted from its trunk as a putrid geyser. All around thrummed the hammer of heavy wings as its flock erupted out of spectation. Dust so thickened the cathedral's interior that he tightened his visual spectrum analysis to a tighter frequency. Yet, although they vastly outnumbered him, the scent of death -- of one of their own -- overpowered their desire for flesh. Prey recognizes predator, and to them Reaex was novel and lethal. Shrill as an exorcism, a cloud of black wings erupted from the cathedral.

Content in his victory, Reaex bit down on his prize's wing, tore off a mouthful of feathers, and gorged.

"Puta que pariu o que você é?!" (1) Nuberu simultaneously coughed and muttered from the wreckage of pews and a confessional as he took in the unbelievable image of Reaex as he ripped pinions from the felled menace and noisily ground them to minuscule flakes in its vicious maw.

Fascinated, Reaex ceased to devour its prize and contemplated the language fragments detected by its translator. Filtered by its manifold subroutines and bicameral judgment processor, it deduced the animal was frightened and unsure of what graced its presence. Seconds passed as Reaex constructed a fuller model of the language so it could reply intelligently; meanwhile, the beast it was about to address remained frozen in what appeared to be fear, perhaps as a consequence of Reaex's lidless and steady gaze. It was, he surmised, a pathetic creature, defensively draped in olive-colored fabric, the few patches of skin it exposed ashen, dark, brittle, and flecked with green mica. It only possessed one eye, insufficient for binocular vision. There was a concavity where the other once was.

Finally, Reaex spoke, the projection of its audio akin to the patter of rain into the hollow of a glass bell: "Servo de carne, fui esculpido nas forjas de Panjiis Uor muito antes de sua civilização sair da lama. Meu nome é Reaex." (2)

Nuberu was stupefied. All he could do was watch as the machine or beast, whatever it was, devoured the postmortem nightmare owl. It didn't even look up at him as it asked, "Seu mundo inteiro é um terreno baldio?" (3), yet seemed to understand when he, still speechless, nodded, for its posture transformed to one of disappointment. Then he noticed how Reaex glanced up, fixed its gaze intently on the wall behind him, and heard it as it uttered, "Qual é o mistério que está aqui escondido? Uma maneira de escapar? Então devemos aproveitar ao máximo." (4)

With another mouthful of feathers ripped away, chewed, and swallowed, Reaex languidly stretched, grabbed the carcass in its massive jaws, enlarged the hole in the wall with a punctuated kick, and sauntered forward, its meal dragged along with it. When Nuberu turned, he saw the creature disappear through a portal and could practically smell the clean fresh air the other side promised. Present circumstances being what they were, Nuberu was more than motivated to get up and follow.

----

1: Holy shit, what are you?!
2: Servant of flesh, I was artificed in the forges of Panjiis Uor long before your civilization rose out of the mud. My name is Reaex.
4: Is your whole world a wasteland?
3: What is the mystery that is in here hidden? A way of escape? Then we should make the most of it.
Still somewhat disoriented by the environment, Feurtes braced himself against the hydraulic cylinder that enjoined the ramp to the shuttle, the toes of his anti-gravity boots barely at the ramp's terminus, a mere centimeter away from Derelict's actual surface. Suddenly, up above, he heard alert sirens blare and the din of metal shattering against metal. His visor turned upward and he, appalled, witnessed a number of MRS mining drones as they collided against the uneven walls of Derelict's primary exploitation shaft. There were shouts of Take cover! moments before a hail of debris formed and ricocheted downward throughout the low-g chasm. A few unlucky souls were too close for that to make any difference, their pressure suits and bodies ventilated by a million shards of shrapnel, grim fates alluded to in the form of crimson jets that flowed soundlessly into the above void. Self-preservation instinct kicked in and Feurtes dove into the protective interior of the shuttle. However, the MRS androids reacted even faster, to the extent he imagined they anticipated the event, an oddity he mentally filed away. Before he landed on the shuttle floor, they maneuvered into a defensive posture in front of the bay door and blocked any errant debris that attempted to penetrate his safe haven.

Finally, the immediate danger passed. He stepped out of his sanctuary, his mind again acclimated somewhat to the noise, and he articulated a response.

"No," Feurtes answered Aten's inquiry, "I will remain on Derelict until the Lieutenant remote-recalls the shuttle and comes down, at which point he will replace me as the Origin expedition supervisor. Until then, my objective is to assist you and your A9s in setting up a base of operations. Origin has a predefined location in mind that should likewise be of interest to MRS."

As he said this, he carefully walked to the ledge on which the shuttle was docked. Beyond the scratched transluminum shield of his pressure helmet, he glanced down and assessed that they were, more or less, at the bottom of the main artery. There was another tier beneath them, but it was overcrowded with scavenger ships. The only reason his team secured one so near the bottom was the threat Origin's navy posed to any who would interfere with their oversight and security roles. An upward look through a haze of fresh red mist and blackened metal particulates and, like a pinprick of inky solitude, he saw space. It was a mote of cosmic horror framed by the jagged interior of a massive vertical tunnel vaguely lit by thousands of variegated flood lights affixed to dozens of vessels. It reminded him of photographs from history class of decrepit sub-rail tunnels in the aftermath of the Earth's world-quake of 2850.

Involuntarily, the scene translated to a nervous impulse in his brain that cascaded shivers along his spine and deformed his skin to goose-flesh. For a moment, he felt lost in the cavernous broken spiral, but somehow pulled himself away. It was unimaginable to him how Cass managed to do this fifty-six times.

He turned around and saw the MRS droids already loaded up with equipment for their trek. Efficiency, it seemed, wasn't something they took lightly.

"Right now we're about 1 klick deep. We will need to be deeper, just above a depth called the impenetrable zone. Have you been briefed on it? An entire layer of Derelict stronger than even your MRS' Ferrous-Derrite." His equipment was already on him, so loaded up his dataslate and started walking along the designated route. "Also, how soon can you get a post-mortem on why your drones navigation systems failed?"

. . .


Alone in the team's quasi-military facility on MOS, Mavriq awoke to the silence to which he, after months of solitary travel, was inevitably accustomed. With Vivaldi's Farnace activated on the resonance amplifier, he washed his lethargy down the shower drain. Revitalized, he went about the work of setting up and organizing his laboratory, a task he completed midway before two of his prodigal team members arrived. Engrossed as he was, the metal door's abrupt hiss and the subsequent thud of feet startled him, but he concealed, successfully in his mind, his autonomic fear response as he fiddled with some apparatus. Satisfied, he set it down and acknowledged in a voice accented with bored disappointment, "Welcome to your new home," and only then lifted his face to gaze upon the duo.

Unexpectedly, there were more than two beings, although only two members of his team, and as such he raised a brow at Sophia's parade of metal servitors. Prudently, he declined to comment, and instead inquired of Vin, "Any word on Cass' whereabouts, Vin? It was a long day, yesterday, but I seem to recall leaving you and her at some drinking establishment or other?"

Of course, just as he finished speaking, Cass swaggered in, which was quite a feat for a woman with mechanical legs. Then again, Mavriq surmised, maybe that is a consequence of her mechanical legs.

"Thought I wasn't gonna make it, boss?" Cass grumbled from the entrance, effectively ended that avenue of discussion, and introduced herself to the room with a metallic stomp. It takes more than a few drinks to keep me down, that is for damn sure, she thought. After a brief survey given to her new accommodations, Cass huffed and plonked down on the nearest available chair.

"Right. Err, I mean no. Not at all. Regardless, now that all of us are together assembled, we can get on with our mission brief," Mavriq began, squinted through his glasses at his dataslate, and continued, "which is to say, the additional mission details that were omitted from the more public advertisement that effectively lured those of us here for whom presence wasn't otherwise compulsory."

Mavriq paused, glanced around the room, and saw that Vin was investigating the pantry, Sophia was delineating her space and setting up her own equipment, and Cass, while attentive, seemed bored. "Feel free to settle in as I iterate over the major points," he said as an allowance to the inevitable, then went on: "To be succinct, our primary objective is to determine what transpired with the expeditions and individuals who ventured as deep as any into Derelict and, as far as we are aware, disappeared. Confirmation of these disappearances is, of course, a matter of secrecy. At the moment, Origin has seen fit to maintain a rumor that such are not related to the artifact, but instead are the result of defections and mundane accidents. At any rate, the first time this is known to have befallen an expedition, they managed to get a signal out indicative of the discovery of an avenue through the impenetrable zone. Subsequent expeditions to the same region have met a similar fate. If you recall, the impenetrable zone is an artifact-encapsulating interior surface layer roughly 1.5 kilometers beneath the artifact's outermost circumference and composed of a substance our efforts have thus far been unable to penetrate. We haven't even been able to so much as scratch it with diamond saws, explosives, or lasers."

He again surveyed the facility. Nobody seemed rather surprised or particularly attentive, which wasn't to say they were outright ignoring him. For a moment, as his eyes narrowed on Vin who now cradled a cup of what Mavriq presumed was coffee, he wondered if they could hear him opposite the plastic sheet, then recalled Cass' sassy riposte to his unwanted and pseudo-sincere concern.

"So when do we go down?" Cass asked, her arms crossed beneath her bosom.

"You, Cass, along with Mister Marlowe and myself will descend to Derelict and relieve Officer Feurtes as soon as Doctor Hagiotheodorites has completed her preliminary examinations and established neurological, physiological, and genetic baselines for each member of the team," he answered.

"Oh, one other item of note. The ONSD has detected an alien signal. It didn't come from the direction of the artifact; rather, it emerged from deep space somewhere, but it is worth mentioning. After all, if this we don't know what this machine is capable of."
On the shuttle en-route to Derelict, Feurtes sat across from the androids and observed their interactions. They faced another, one perhaps slouched; such was difficult to ascertain. Unequipped to interpret what passed for their body language, he decided instead to stick to fact-based communication. So he ignored the fluff and niceties salted into their verbiage and focused on the concrete aspects of their statements. First was their mention of BH5, the mechanism MRS used to transport their equipment to Derelict and locus for their semi-autonomous machinery to charge and synchronize. He wasn’t briefed on precisely what services it provided to non-MRS property, but presumed such involved defensive cover via its small fleet of Harpies. Perhaps its shortcomings in firepower were balanced by an excess of agility and responsiveness.

He glanced out the aft window and saw the small sphere, half-encircled by a large MRS logo, the harsh glare of Maasym reflected off its polished surface. In contrast, its launched fleet of mining drones were barely visible. Beyond the opposite window loomed the larger and more ominous backdrop of Derelict, an object that seemed to inexplicably absorb much of the local star’s light. Even after just over a year, humanity barely punched a dent into its vast uneven surface. This was to be his third insertion into the alien artifact. No insanity yet. So far, so good.

“Transmit proposed operations center blueprint to my dataslate,” Feurtes remarked in his best effort to rid his voice of personality. Who knew what psychoanalytical subroutines MRS programmed into these bots? He certainly didn’t and, as was almost always the case with corporate property, trust wasn’t to be taken for granted. MRS and, as a consequence, its machinery, almost certainly came with a separate secret agenda.

As the MRS androids initiated the operations center topic, he was not surprised that they complied with his request. He clicked approve on the authorization popup, watched the half-second load bar, and then swiped through the blueprints that appeared on his dataslate. After a few seconds, he concluded MRS’s notion of a base was overkill.

“We should strive toward nimbleness. The emplacement of a brig and medical center run contrary to that objective. Human threats internal and external will be incapacitated and confined at the command OSF vessel, nominally Thunderclap. All team members are trained in emergency triage sufficient to stabilize anyone who suffers harm, good enough to get the injured party on a shuttle and transported to the nearest available emergency care center. Housing is unnecessary, humans aren’t permitted to spend more than twenty-four hours on Derelict at a time before returning to the surface for debriefing and psychological screening. We will be making frequent use of the shuttle. Objections?”

From the corner of his eye, he saw the entire viewport filled by Derelict. Details manifested from the shadows, but the purpose of the shapes remained unknown. His dataslate flashed with an encrypted message from one of the apocalypse-class vessels.

> Intermittent subspace anomaly detected 27, 211, 54 degrees celestial meridian, unaligned with artifact. Inconsistent with known cosmic signatures. LOS void. OSF artifact scans non-reactive.

Just then, their shuttle disappeared down the cavernous exploitation shaft. Once a free shelf was isolated, the shuttle auto-docked. Feurtes almost crossed himself, an unconscious gesture that resulted in his fair share of ridicule his first time on Derelict. Instead, he settled for the shorter, less sacrosanct, version of the locally approved good luck litany, and, muffled by the oxygen mask he slipped over his face as the shuttle’s pressure seal opened, reverently intoned:

“Sleep, grand automaton.”

Before he emerged from the spacecraft, he felt the noise. Then, a second later, it vibrated through his mask and was audible. Even on his third insertion, the muffled cacophony revivified goosebumps on Feurtes’ swarthy flesh. His each and every hair, embattled against the suddenly course fabric of his fatigues, vied for his focus. While vexed, he knew better. He rationalized away his unease. Basically, it was like an old warehouse, or factory, or half-composed starship skeleton in the Kuipiter shipyards, and noisiness was its nature. The comparisons failed to inspire him, but did make the place feel slightly less alien. Neither loud nor near, Derelict’s sounds were ubiquitous, relentless, and insidious thrums, bangs, and hisses that syncopated into a constant drone; modulated dull thuds, metallic groans, and pitched whines that never quite transitioned to white noise. The low frequency din reverberated in his marrow. Every once in a while, an inconsonant crash threatened to void the contents of his bowels. Skeptics insisted that metallic expansion and contraction as the structure reacted to atmospheric pressure and temperature variances were adequately explanatory. He, on the other hand, felt reasonably sure it was the cause of insanity that was synonymous with Derelict.
Internally, Mavriq repeated and consigned to memory the proper pronunciation of Sophia’s surname: Hagiotheodorites. Outwardly, he unconsciously, but fortunately noiselessly, mouthed the multisyllabic monolithic tongue-twister of Byzantine provenance. As Feurtes and the trio of metallic intelligence departed on their mission, he drifted in the milieu of what remained of his team and feigned interest in their exchanges while he busily analyzed his dataslate for the latest information on Derelict. It wasn’t until they deliberated in front of a pub identified as Derelict’s Derelicts in harsh bright red script that he concluded the purpose of their journey.

Cass seemed of the opinion the place was a lavish and overpriced tourist attraction, a stance reversed as soon as Vin offered his credits for a team tab. As their senior officer, Mavriq believed it would be indecent if he joined with the rest of his team in what he assumed were part maudlin part celebratory frivolities. Thus, a polite excuse articulated, he expressed, “While I enjoy imbibing amongst affable company and atmosphere, my obligation to the ONSD takes priority,” and then retreated and proceeded on to the location and subsequent inspection of his and his team’s preassigned facilities.

Maasym Orbital Station proved for him an almost unnavigable labyrinth, but frequent use of his OSF dataslate, which included schematics of MOS, compensated for his directional inadequacies. Steadily the riffraff of the commercial sectors gave way to corporate and military order, the corridors narrowed, and the only colors were in the corporate logos impressed on the heavy hermetically-sealed vault-like doors. On these he saw the corporate emblems of MRS, Mercury, Terinhaul-Caskill, and other smaller franchises. Then came Origin—an allegedly democratically-elected and representative collection of pompous civilians bean-counters, regulators, and blow-hards—and, finally, Origin’s Stellar Fleet.

Security credentials accepted, the large door slid into the adjoining walls. A receptionist in a bullet-proof glass enclosure, also a lieutenant, sat opposite him on the other side of the opened entryway, her gaze stern, then leaned forward into a microphone and said, “Approach the biosig scanner and state your business.”

Mavriq approached the black X taped on the otherwise plain white tile floor and replied, “Lieutenant Mavriq d’Agenais with the Origin Navy Science Division here with a team on a scientific survey of the Maasym 4e artifact, uh, Derelict.”

He waited as a red laser light flashed him head to toe, after which the receptionist monotonously said, “Authorization granted. Welcome, Lieutenant.” There was a click and something slid from a narrow slit that formed beneath the bullet-proof glass barrier. Then she said, “Grab your identification tag. It tracks radiation, pathogen, and exposure to other harmful things. Wear it at all times. Take the elevator to your left down three levels, turn left, go down the hall six-hundred meters, turn right down another hall, ninth door on the right.”

The walk was sterile enough and he received not so much as a glance from the other military personnel he passed on his brief journey. If anything, his presence influenced their reticence. Finally, he flashed his badge at a door that corresponded to the termination point on the schematic on his dataslate, it slid open, and he stepped inside. He noted the 0-S3-9 designator marked on the door. This was the OSF’s lowest level on MOS. He was greeted by a whitewashed and antiseptic room deep as it was wide and separated by transparent plastic curtain with a built-in sterilization corridor, made obvious by the exposed pipes that ran along the ceiling and opened to spigots just above the pass. On his side of the see-through divide were living quarters with bunks and lockers built in the left-hand side, a kitchenette on the right-hand side, and a communal area in the center. Cameras in each corner were perhaps intentionally conspicuous. On the other side of the plastic barrier was a laboratory and storage area. Then, along the back wall, the pressure door that opened to the air lock that connected with the unit’s personal shuttle.

“No sanitation facilities,” he moaned.

“Welcome, Lieutenant. I am HELP. Warrant Officer Feurtes and the three MRS units took the team shuttle down to Derelict 3.8 minutes ago. The sanitation facility, as you call it, is located at 0-S2-4, adjacent to the medical triage unit. There you will find community toilets, showers, personal first aid, hygiene products dispensaries, non-prescription drugs dispensaries, weights, treadmills, a—”

“Thank you,” Mavriq interrupted. “Where are my personal quarters?”

“You have personal quarters aboard the OSF-Thunderclap. You also have a bunk in this team-oriented open-plan laboratory and residential unit.”

He rubbed his temples and sighed. At least the bunks had black-out curtains. Still, it was going to be a long trip.
@Nate1008 Yeah, I was working so I didn't see your post until now.

You'll have to talk to @apathy about the likelihood of NYUNDO and the Val'gasra teaming up against Xanathan. NYUNDO is his baby.

Anything else?
Marange, Nyundo

Somber silence settled on the hangar, just as dust settles on abandoned sarcophagi. Mixed light sources conspired to compound the chamber’s crypt-like brevity: the amber dance of small isolated flames, the monolithic quartz ceiling’s diffused aura, and the prismatic bands that streamed sharply from Najwa’s machete. Miraculously, this was not yet a chitunha and, as the Ibhumubi lilted body to body, Makemba wondered how it was so many survived the bedlam. As Najwa sprinted away and she knelt on the cold stone by Lydia’s supine and disfigured form, she checked her optimism.

“Omari, are there triage markers amongst your supplies?”

As she glanced at the doctor, she noticed how her question disrupted his fixated glare at the tunnel to the coliseum, as yet uncollapsed. He jerked his head briefly, murmured a despondent yes, and rushed into his supply hovel. Momentarily he emerged, dropped a pack of green tape beside her, and sighed, “Green for mind, yellow for body. Around the right wrist.”

With a nod, she pulled off a strip of green tape and extended it to Omari.

“No,” he insisted.

She acquiesced and peered down at her erstwhile victim. With a frown, she decided nothing could be done for the woman. Lydia’s memories—each brutal collision, each garish scene—already throbbed in her bosom and compounded with her own experiences. Still, it felt abstract; tolerable. She wrapped a strip of green tape around Lydia’s wrist and cupped her good cheek in her hand. It didn’t matter how gentle she was, Makemba realized as she eyed the shattered jaw’s ugly purple bruise, for she felt the damage was deserved and that brutal truth hollowed her act of tenderness.

Eyes shuttered briefly in a stolen moment of meditation, she steeled her mind and turned to her next charge, a boy propped against a hut with a blanket haphazardly thrown over him; not clutched for comfort, but clumsily cast to conceal. His abuse was plainly evidenced by his swollen, cracked and bloodied lips, the bruise that swept across his throat, and incessant sleep tremors accentuated by soft cries of hayi, hayi. She sat beside him, wrapped an arm around his shoulder, and placed her hand on his brow. Almost instantly, she sensed the child’s suffering ablate. Simultaneously, her eyes narrowed on Omari as he moved from patient to patient. Tears poisoned with fury stung her eyes as she felt him on top of her. Internally, she recoiled as his huge dark hands grasped and tore her clothes; the last of all her worldly possessions. Her favorite pants, her favorite blue and white Ørsted Energy t-shirt, her only pair of big boy underclothes. She struggled to breathe, but her throat was constricted by a frigid plastic hose. The ground was rough, the doctor was rough. Suddenly, she felt him on top of her. The absolute worst—the worst was the crazed mask of his face. Wide eyes, open mouth, close breath. Then it suddenly wasn’t when pain lanced into a place nobody was ever meant to touch her. It burned so much. She tried to cry for help, but her tenuous rasps for air were stifled when his tongue invaded her mouth and his nicotine-tinged saliva filled her throat. Urine soaked her loins and stung as acid upon her fresh wounds.

“Nceda moya omkhulu, hayi le,” she choked out as a hushed sob, for she now knew the truth of what transpired.

Unsteady, she pushed herself to her feet and pushed the unabashed tide of tears from her cheeks with the back of her fist. The cruel experience was too familiar to her own childhood and defiled innocence amongst Boko Haram, a memory deliberately buried. However, she could not stop: hundreds of others remained to be assuaged, thus she needed to be strong; not merely for NYUNDO, not merely for the people here, but for herself.

A deep moan interrupted her ruminations. Omari rocked back and forth on the floor, face in his hands, and sobbed, “Kakhulu, kakhulu. Ndifanelwe kukufa.”

Anger welled within her, but experience tempered her tongue’s edge. Without a word, she exhaled, stepped behind him, and placed her hands on his shoulders. While he rocked, she massaged away the tension and relieved him of his anamnesis; except it wasn’t another life, another person, or malevolent spirit who committed these atrocities. Omari raped J’sie. Makemba pummeled Lydia. Although their bodies acted on another’s volition, as marionettes in a sociopath’s puppet show, their hearts betrayed how it all made them feel. Even as he despised himself and longed for death, Omari exulted in and climaxed to the warmth of the boy’s soft, moist lips; the piquant nectar of his spit; and the provocative resistance of his tongue as it feebly wrestled back his own. He lavished in the tactile sensation of skin on skin, something put aside for too long in the pursuit of medicine. Almost forgotten, now awakened, his brain surged with dopamine at the touch of another’s body. The power he felt! The mightiness of his adult form atop a timid stripling! Then the ultimate release when he pushed through the boy’s defenses, his member engulfed tautly and fully by...

Makemba abruptly stepped back and impulsively shuddered. Bile rose in her throat, but she choked it down. It was enough—it had to be enough.

“What is the last thing you remember, Omari?”

“I—I am missing time. Resetting a dislocated wrist, maybe. What happened here?!”

“Time for that later. Focus on healing people now. They need help, Omari. Yellow triage markers for those you’ve healed.”

She needed to get away from him. She couldn’t so much as look at him anymore. Overwhelmed, she turned around and set herself to the task of extracting the wounds of the past from a victim. And so it went, victim and victimizer. In the end, she knew they were one and the same. Still, the sadistic delight, however well hidden, taken by these people—her people. It filled her heart with agony. Each mind she cured with her empathic siphon brought more pain into her bosom; numbness, meanwhile, remained an elusive hope. The mothers who murdered their babies; how much was she to taken from them? What lie could conceivably be spun to mend that open wound? Was she to entirely wipe their minds of their children’s existence? It hardly mattered as the implantation of false memories was beyond her capacity. Instead, she surgically ripped months of time away and prayed they never learned the truth.

Exhausted, she paused to catch her breath. Already, one roll of tape was spent. Three more remained in her pocket. She panned across the hangar wherein, finally, the destructive fires were quelled and peace again reigned. Omari’s efforts already surpassed her own. Nkosiyabo busily levitated bodies and cots toward a central staging area directly beneath Najwa’s machete, by then only somewhat faded. Amidst the stain of blood, chemiluminescent mold sprawled across the floor in a massive mandala that grasped all present. So focused were the people on their sexual violence toward another, a remarkable amount of infrastructure remained unscathed. Jeeps and convoys with their canvas enclosures sat in perfect rows. The dozen or so wood shanties, hastily-erected in preparation for Phalaborwa’s refugees, stood unspoiled. No, it wasn’t the sight that bothered her. It was the smell that clung to the motionless stale air. Fuel oil, dust, mildew, blood, urine, feces, sweat, fear, anger—death.

It smelled like death.

Resolved to continue, she moved on to the next dreamless sleeper. A corpse marked by Omari with red tape. She continued on. Time for prayers, mourning, and closure would come later. Explanations would come later. The lies, oh the numerous incredulous yet absolutely necessary lies.

Tears openly flowed over her crusted lashes and down her cheeks and throat by the time she reached Kamuanya, the shapeshifter girl; perhaps an hour later. Above, the light of Najwa’s weapon was nearly depleted, yet there were so many left to heal before she could beg Nkosiyabo to grant her relief in the form of slumber. Perhaps it would be compulsory, should fade the light that shielded them all from their worst impulses. Long ago, trepidation usurped the tenderness of her touch; now raw exhaustion gripped her. As skin touched skin, Makemba felt the girl’s terror pulse through her until it matched the beat of her heart. The sideshow mockery of the girl’s youth was tragic, but tragedies were bountiful in Marange that day. In contrast to the plights of others, this one’s recent pain was mild; a confusion ripe with terror, physical pain as her body contorted unnaturally into shapes beyond her ken, and regret at last at the damage her rampage caused. It was over for this young one, yet, as Makemba confusedly took in the hand that rested on Kamuanya’s brow, with its gnarled ancient flesh, melanomas and splotches, and arthritic bones deformed in a claw-like posture, a defeated horror flooded her bosom.

That is my hand, she thought and, stricken, collapsed.
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