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[The Defense of Memphos]
[Commander Vadym Yaroslav of the 51st Genehanced Guards Assault Brigade of Sanctii]

The sounds of battle were distant but, concerningly, they were creeping closer. Vadym adjusted the heavy collar of his carapace armor, tugging it out from his chest as he shifted in the relentless Gyptian heat. Around him members of Memphos’ internal guard went about their duties at speed, men ran reports from one table to another, cogitators printed out long sheets of data ceaselessly, and the voxbanks filled the air with relentless calls for reinforcements or notices of retreat. The defense of Memphos was going terribly.

He took a step forward and leaned his hands against a holotable, the vivid colors of friend and foe crashing together in the center and in most places, the blood red of the enemy seemed to sweep aside the sky blue of the defenders entirely. He studied a spot that seemed to be holding well, a collection of bastion houses placed atop a small hill. He scrutinized the map for a moment before pushing off the table and making straight for the armorglass windows of the command center. He took a few steps to his right to clear away for a trio of officers speaking hurriedly in their native tongue, and brought his magnoculars to his face.

Off across the city he could already spot the bastion houses atop their hill, a deluge of fire was pouring from its redoubts and it seemed just as much hurt was being hurled back at them. The bastions themselves seemed to not yet be the focus of the siegers, instead bringing their might to bear on the circle of bunkers about halfway up the hill, but Vadym knew that couldn’t last.

A chirp at his waist tore him from the magnoculars as he scooped up a dataslate and tapped at the screen.

“What now?” asked Andriy Skliar, Major and second-in-command of the 51st Assault Brigade.

“A message from the Administrator,” Vadym began as he read, “Central believes that Memphos will fall before nightfall,” he shrugged, not worrying to keep his voice down around the Gyptian officers as he spoke in his home tongue of Rus.

Adriy pondered the information, a hand raising his own magnoculars to his face as he did.

“Seems that the Administrator is likely right,” he agreed as he motioned with his free hand for Vadym to join him in the spectator sport. Vadym quickly took up his own magnoculars and focused again on the bastions from earlier.

The redoubts circling the bastion were awash in flame on the Northern side of the hill, a number of them simply gone, nothing but smoking craters left where once a hail of gunfire and las had leapt at the invaders.

“So it would seem,” Vadym echoed in amazement as he watched brutes the size of his own genehanced guardsmen appear through the dense smoke. He zoomed in, focusing the picture as warriors of the invaders waded directly into the bastion houses’ gunsights.

A fury of weapons fire met the advancing barbarians, washing out his magnoculars for a moment before the system automatically filtered out the most intense of the light. He was astonished to see the massive warriors already against the walls of the bastion houses, a number of them working at the walls as fire from the defenders continued to pour into the area beyond the bastions themselves.

“The Emperor’s Thunder Warriors,” Andriy practically spat the word as he too watched on in amazement, “the fools blinded themselves with the opening salvo, they must have just walked right under it,” he added in disgust at such an oversight.

Vadym tapped away with one hand at his dataslate as he watched. “Cronies of another crazed warlord. Still, they’re formidable,” he said as the Thunder Warriors finally finished what they were doing against the bastion wall. A flash filled his sight and not a moment later did the Thunder Warriors disappear into a freshly blown hole in the defensive structure.

“What does the Administrator think of this?” Andriy asked without taking his eyes from the spectacle.

Vadym reluctantly tore his eyes away from the combat to read over his dataslate as text streamed across its screen.

“Deep Winter believes it is time we take our leave. Quietly,” Vadym said as he read, “we have gathered sufficient data, and apparently risk our exit staying any longer.”

Andriy laughed, a callous thing devoid of emotion, “No shit?”

Vadym brought his eyes back to the magnoculars and let out a mirthless laugh with his second-in-command.

The bastion was ablaze with the flashes of internal gunfire. A number of defenders atop the bastion seemed to be firing down the stairwell to the roof, and Vadym watched with piqued interest as a massive figure, perhaps this one even larger than a Thunder Warrior, burst into the middle of the group of Gyptians. Bodies flew from the rooftop, mists of blood and limbs flew every way as the huge warrior moved almost too quickly to follow as he made quick work of the defenders.

Vadym felt his breath catch in his chest as this warrior of the self-proclaimed emperor stopped atop the roof and turned to face him. The light broke through the dense smoke flowing over the city now, and the warrior was suddenly ablaze in his golden armor. Certainly he couldn’t be looking at him? Vadym knew better than to think that, they were nearly eight kilometers distant from the bastion houses, and behind mirrored armorglass no less. And yet, he couldn't shake the feeling as the warrior lifted some form of archaic halberd in his direction. He breathed a sigh of relief as the warrior turned and disappeared from the roof.

“Time to go Andriy,” he stated as he turned and made for the protected hangars of the Memphos command center, their Gun Cutter’s engines ready to leave the moment they stepped aboard.

Rain pattered off the armor glass of the enclosed patio, except, the man noted as he sipped at his still-too-hot cup of tea, that it wasn’t actually rain leaving streaks of ashen gray on the glass but the condensed byproducts of the castram-city’s stifling manufactorums. He placed the tea down and swept his view across the datapad in his lap, quickly skimming the contents of the proposal on the screen before raising his head up from the screen to once more direct his gaze to the entrance of the parlor.

He’d been here for nearly fifteen minutes now, five of that past the proposed time for the meeting, and yet he still sat alone. The parlor was one of many in the city, and of those that were open, not even the finest. He sighed at the thought that he was relegated to such minor meetings as this, an anonymous request for a shipment requiring the utmost discretion, smuggling he knew as he wondered when he’d finally get his break, the job that would place him on the up and up he so deserved.

He took another sip of his tea as around him the only moderately rich and powerful of Albyon made small talk as they drank too hot expensive teas and nibbled infuriatingly small biscuits and pastries with smug grins and arrogant laughter, as if they meant anything in Albyon at all.

The doors parted, a pair of people stepping through at once -- both were clad in thick, grey, hazardous materials gear, their faces hidden behind worn gas masks. Hardly an unusual sight, in a city so oft-plagued by DNA-ravaging pollution, but a sure indicator of at least somewhat substantial wealth. One by one, the pair removed their masks to reveal pale, androgynous, ashy faces, mostly unworn by the ravages of manual labour, little smatterings of freckles and ginger hair visible beneath their rubbery clothing.

For a brief few moments, they appeared to talk to one another -- the rightmost figure, slightly taller than their opposite, headed toward the cafe’s counter to order something, while the other swiftly proceeded toward his table, swiftly sitting down with a friendly, all-too-familiar smile.

“Terribly sorry for our lateness,” they began, wiping droplets of sweat from their face. “You know how I am -- always losing my keys on my way out. I can never keep track of the damned things!”

Allowing himself an uncomfortable laugh, Elijah Gallows; intermediate functionary of House Hastings; smiled.

“No of course, I know the feeling all too well…” he pulled the dataslate off the table and back into his lap as he spoke, “besides, you’re just in time for a fresh batch of kreps, they’ve the most delightful selection of toppings this side of the wire,” he offered as he flagged down a server and took a helping of the thin cakes.

“Whipped cream? I’m told it’s only 15% synthetic here.”

“Kreps, and mostly-real whipped cream?” They chuckled, shaking their head as they moved to sit. “Well, I suppose we'll have to see if they're as good as the ones in Franc. I've heard that's where Kreps are originally from, actually!" "But, yeah -- I'd love some."

“Of course,” Elijah smiled as he motioned for another of the plates of the cakes to be brought over. He waited a moment for the server to be out of earshot before he leaned forward to his new table mate.

“I’m sure you’re aware of Hasting’s discretion, lest you wouldn’t be sitting here across from me,” he smiled as beneath the table he placed a second dataslate with scrolling lists of transport options and price selections on the lap of the stranger, “I’m sure you’ll find us quite… agreeable in terms of pricing and craft selection.”

He leaned back, a grin painting his face as he took a small bite from kreps, “Though, we do not need to know what it is we’re moving, we of course need to know where it must end up, just a fact of business of course.”

"Money is no object," they whispered, their expression stern and unmoving as their partner idly made their way over to the table, quietly seating themselves. "We need your fastest, most secure vessel -- and a pressurized one. It is imperative that our cargo is not intercepted, no matter the cost," they continued, narrowing their eyes at Elijah.

"Oh, heavens, is that so? That's ridiculous!" They blurted out, emitting a soft peal of laughter with a beaming smile.

"As for our destination," they continued, their expression fixed into a small, gently happy smile, as if conversing with an old friend, "the Himalazian Plateau."

Elijah had already begun to formulate costs in his mind, his fingers tapping in unison across the dataslate in his lap without even looking as he selected an appropriate ship as requested by the buyer.

“I may…” he paused, puzzled for a moment at the fact that money was no issue, “your cargo is living I take it? What sort of ride would you prefer? Comfortable, or cramped? Luxurious or utilitarian? Would you sacrifice discretion for speed?”

He hated to inquire more, but the request for a pressurized space made it clear he had to narrow down his option of flyers.

"Living, yes. Luxury is preferred, but discretion is our utmost priority." They explained. "The cargo is used to luxurious conditions, but getting to the Plateau safely is more than worth less suitable, even squalid conditions. Sharing the cargo space with non-trusted parties -- a passenger ship, for example -- is not an option."

Elijah gave a nod of understanding as they clarified their needs, his fingers dancing over the datapad as he did, the options narrowing down to only two craft. He took a moment to make the decision for the stranger.

“The Ambivalent Mortality offers speed and discretion, while I wouldn’t call it particularly luxurious, it certainly isn’t lacking in amenities,” he smiled as he reserved the venerable, and exceptionally expensive, Gun-Cutter for his strange friends.

He tapped a few buttons on the screen and smiled, “We need a port for your cargo, the Hymalazian’s are a big place, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

"The cargo," they continued, sucking in a slow, deliberate breath, "is intended for the warlord calling himself 'Emperor'."

His fingers stopped their tapping across the dataslate as Elijah looked incredulously upon his guest. He had been certain this was a minor smuggling request, moving some less than savory goods from one place to another, nothing new or entirely out of the ordinary though most definitely below the prestige of higher placed functionaries of the House.

“That is uhm…” he directed his gaze to the screen now, his fingers tapping across it as new menus and orders were prompted, “well it’s,” he tapped away as he continued to speak, “it’s an unusual request, of course, I’ll need to verify this with my superiors.”

He sat eyeing the stranger for no more than a handful of seconds before he saw the familiar amber rune for a priority message appear in the corner of the dataslate.

“They’ve already gotten back to me, should be simple enough,” he laughed awkwardly as he tapped the symbol.


Elijah stood almost immediately, fumbling with a handful of credits that he slapped onto the table before he spoke shakily to the stranger, “You must don your gear, we’re no longer secure here,” he stated as he haphazardly strapped his own rebreather to his face and started out of the parlor.

"Very well," they replied in unison, both of the strangers smoothly standing to their full height as they donned their rebreathers, all in one inhumanly precise motion. "Fear not -- we will protect you if necessary."

Elijah ignored the pair as he left the parlor in a hurry. Leading the strangers down a maze of twisting alleys and roads, his pace quickening as he navigated the familiar pathways as he noticed the distance between himself and the surreal strangers was increasing slowly.

He turned a corner, the tight confines of the backroads and alleys suddenly opening into an empty square. He glanced at his chronometer, smiling under his rebreather at the timing to miss shift change, a low rumble growing in intensity as he surged forward into a sprint

The rumble transformed into the high pitched whine of jet turbine engines as a Stormbird; painted in the red and blue of House Hastings; swept over the cramped habblocks blowing loose shingles and items about the plaza as it came to a halt in front of the path of the two strangers, lascannons swiveling to aim at the pair as Elijah disappeared into the far alleyway.

A vox-amplified voice called out over the deluge of the Stormbirds engines as a host of House Hastings guards swept into the plaza on all sides.

“By order of The Sigillite, First Lord of Terra and Hand of The Emperor surrender yourselves,” the voice echoed off the habblock walls, “remove all weapons, rebreathers, and prepare for search,” the Stormbird hovered incredulously before them as a number of grav-enhanced House Hasting’s Guard jumped from it’s open assault ramp toward the strangers.

“You have five seconds to comply,” the vox-amplified voice boomed.

The emissaries complied instantly, far more quickly than any baseline human could -- twin pairs of cybernetic arms unfurled from beneath their heavy coats, sharpened claws -- evidently usable as blades -- glinting in the light of lumen-lamps. Their rebreathers, too, fell, as did the pairs of concealed pistols about their hips -- two volkites for the leftmost, and a set of blank, blocky laspistols for the other. Their pale faces stared out at the Stormbird, unfeeling and unafraid -- but their eyes rapidly, even violently, darted back and forth, constantly vigilant for any sign of attack.

The troops from the Stormbird swept up to the pair in perfect synch, two men splitting from the group as they hurried forward to the emissaries.

“Restraints,” one of the others barked, a leader of some kind.

The two nearest troops pulled two small discs, no larger than their palms from pouches and quickly slapped them to the cybernetic arms of the emissaries which fell limp to their sides only a moment later.

From behind another pair of House Guard brought the strangers to their knees, placing their arms into cuffs and slipping sensory deprivation hoods over their heads plunging the strangers into an utterly silent void.

The Stormbird rocked as it flew, the fully masked faces of the House Hasting Guards cast in hard shadows by the harsh lights of the interior troop bay.

A trooper removed both of the sensory deprivation hoods and motioned the strangers to Elijah just forward of where they sat.

“Apologies, you must understand,” he began as he scrolled nonchalantly through his dataslate, “but we have orders to ensure we bring no one to the Emperor without the utmost care and caution.”

He motioned to a wide screen against the wall, scrolling data and a map of Ierné’s plateau “You could have brought this higher, Ierné warrants our best, not smoke and mirrors,” he shrugged, “Though I appreciate that, made it easier to keep away from prying eyes and ears, until well,” he motioned to the Stormbird.

He laughed to himself at the insanity of the stunt in the plaza before turning back to the emissaries, “The Ambivalent Mortality is enroute now from Europa, and will be ready to pick up… Well we assume the Novator, within the hour. We have armed escort as well, not something to play around with,” he tapped his dataslate and the restraints on the emissaries' augmetic arms clattered to the floor, “I hope we have an understanding now, no harm intended of course.”

"The Novator will only travel under guard." The two said, speaking in perfect unison. "Ierné is aware of its value. She will be treated with due respect, as will her nation, or there will be no negotiation." They continued, staring blankly at Elijah. "Otherwise, yes, we have an understanding."

Elijah raised an eyebrow at the emissary's words, weighing his response a moment before he answered, “House Hastings has no intention of treating the Lady Novator in any way undeserving of her position. You must understand though, the Emperor demands caution and… great care in such situations as this. You are mere emissaries, had we left you for ash and slag in the plaza, The Emperor, Ierné, and House Hastings would have been no less positioned to try again than before we met,” he smiled.

“You two and myself are very similar in that regard, despite me being still human, we’re all expendable in this game. Your Lady Novator however, is not, her safety is our top priority and an audience is already being arranged with the proper authorities upon her arrival.”

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