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Wowee, a fire. Limen had mistaken it for some criminal mischief at first, but normally you’d run away from the scene in such a situation, arsonist and bystander alike. These mad fellows were barging straight in.

Now, perhaps there was someone trapped in the building. At this time of the night, in an out-of-the-way neighbourhood like this, the fire brigade would take a long while to respond. Such heroics could easily save lives. The thing is, you don’t need swords and sniper rifles to do any of that. No doubt about it, they were Devil Hunters — the same sort of people who had tried to shoot him down over Baikonur when he’d hitched a ride up to geosynchronous orbit on a Soyuz a few years ago, and again as he returned home alongside the Perseids just a couple months back. Persistent and diligent workers, they were. They’d forced him to splash down and take refuge in the Mariana Trench for a week before finally giving up the chase. The amount of plastic waste down there would make an environmentalist sad; the critters were quite intriguing, though.

Where there are Devil Hunters, there are devils. That was why that lot were all over yonder, while Limen the perfectly natural non-devilish being was watching from the other side of the road. Nothing to see here! Across the street-cum-border, a girl was slewing through the roof, while some bird had dived in looking for a bust of Pallas to perch on. Limen waved hello to the vagrant oniisan with a fancy rock that reminded him of the amateurishly-made body he had first inhabited, a rock was also strangely alluring for a mere paper weight… ahem. No robbing the homeless.

Well, the survival of whoever was getting eaten in that warehouse was hardly his business. The unnatural forces being thrown around were not quite his taste, although the sense of repulsion was matched, if not surpassed by this odd attraction to something inside the place. The cause was evident; it was the same compulsion he had felt looking at the blue-haired bum’s rock. One answer led to the next question — why did that rock have such an effect?

Perhaps it was a lure of some variety. It would explain all the yuurei, and by extension the Devil Hunters here. But for whom, and by whom was it placed? Either way, it probably meant nothing good.

Not that that would stop Limen from trying to find out more. The first step: acquiring a sample. Now, going in would be a death sentence at the moment, be it at the hands of devil or hunter. Nor was there a guarantee that the rocks would survive this battle, or that there would be any left after all the Devils and Hunters had their fill. Plus, the Hunters were being destructive to no end. It was bad for entropy. They had to go, and one of the easiest ways to make the DHA scramble is to let some mundane fellows in on the secret. Honestly, wouldn’t a little cooperation with fellow humans be easier?

Even the bird or the homeless man would share their rocks (probably) if things didn’t work out!

There was a lonely payphone nearby, within walking distance. Slotting in a dust-covered coin which had been left on top of the bright green machine — mistake, or charity? He had to tiptoe a bit to reach it, but Limen, penniless, was appreciative either way — he dialled 110. It was a pity he didn’t know any reporters.

The wonders of modern engineering were on full display as the long-disused receiver sputtered and crackled to life once more.

Limen would leave out the gunshots, and also the big biologically-impossible talking tree. (With fungus on it. Symbiotic?) The Hunters ought to have a chance to preserve the masquerade, and it was more credible anyways. Just a member of the public, a young boy with a sense of duty, carrying out his civic responsibilities.

”Hello, is this the police? I’d like to report a huge fire at this address…”

At the rate they were going, it seemed like a very real possibility that the Devil Hunters would be finished before the authorities not-in-the-know arrived. Whether that would mean leaving an empty warehouse a little more ruined than usual or a massive, uncontrolled inferno tearing across the neighbourhood for the poor firemen to deal with — that wasn’t for Limen to decide. Better the former than the latter, he thought, as unlikely as it became with each passing moment.
Updated.

So demons are obligate man-eaters? I don’t suppose they could survive off other demons or animals or something. Okay, let me make amendments.

He may have been more conceptual at birth, but has since become a regular devil. He is now so closely linked to his human body that he cannot leave it without some kind of exorcism. If the body dies by natural means, he will remain, trapped in the corpse until some supernatural force like a demon or a devil hunter kills him, or he starves to death. And if he were ejected from the body, he would be something like a ghost, with a defined spiritual form open to attack.

As for the barriers. Each barrier is anchored to a reference location, either himself or a massive body like the Earth. If a particle hits a barrier that it cannot pass through, it will reflect off elastically. His barriers offer zero protection against spiritual or magical attacks, and hold up poorly in the face of such supernatural things. A blessed pebble would pass through and destroy a barrier without shifting in trajectory, but an artillery shell would just ricochet. In other words, someone shanking him from behind with the right knife is more of a threat than launching him into the Sun.

Using the barriers offensively is possible by placing one in front of someone moving too fast to brake. But a barrier will be stopped upon contact with a stationary solid because of the lack of motion in the solid, so it cannot be used like a sword. As for non-combat uses, he can split molecules and atoms apart, and assemble complex structures atom-by-atom over a very long span of time using elements in the environment.

The upper limit in size is around that of a domed stadium for a single contiguous barrier, which is very taxing to maintain for more than a minute. He can also make numerous minuscule barriers, even at sizes not visible to the human eye, but the smaller and more intricate the barriers are, the harder it is to maintain. Barriers the size of human cells would only be able to cover a small door at most. Also, he can only create barriers within his field of vision or around his body, though he can maintain them without looking.

I will tone things down if need be.

Is this what the life of a working adult is like? No wonder weekends are celebrated so much.

The mission-related matters had been settled at last, and Ariel set free from worrying about everyone’s possible imminent doom at the hands of some patrolling cruiser’s plasma cannons. Now absolved of any responsibility, she could finally go back to doing something actually enjoyable and age-appropriate — and, thanks to Narvia’s invitation, it seemed that that meant cooking.

“Mhm! Let’s make something to celebrate our first day as freedom fighters.”

Although Ariel had been immersed in research and ‘work’ for a while now, she had still noticed and half-followed the dramatic scene unfolding in the less business-oriented part of the room. Pretty much everyone on the ship had had much tougher upbringings than hers. It was hardly unexpected that even Narvia would start to feel the pressure of years of broken dreams and unfulfilled wishes. In more stable parts of the world, there were probably former child soldiers like them leading very different lives. The Rau’ve didn’t put in much effort into explicitly rehabilitating and reintegrating the young veterans, but at least some ended up in good hands. Family, communities, education, work, support. Such things were considered important for a weapon of war to become a child again.

Well, the Star Marines onboard could be said to have ‘work’ down, at least. It was a line of work that would horrify most occupational therapists, but finances were no longer much of an issue thanks to that. It would be good to develop skills besides fighting and killing all the same.

“Phi didn’t get to eat just now. Something that she’d like would be good. And let’s thank Amy for Mister Cuddleton here with a taste of Earth cuisine. The rest of the crew, too, for taking us in.” How many portions would that be? Half a dozen or so?

Well, no harm in making extra. The kitchen was large enough to accommodate, after all.

“Kebabs are like sate, right?” Hm, didn’t everyone have a bunch of that back in the shuttle? Surely it wasn’t so good that they were craving it again already. Ah, but Seraphina had missed out on all that. Was she the sweets-and-confectionery type à la Iris, or more a fan of savoury dishes and MSG? “Meat’s not my forte, so I’ll prepare some side dishes. But not too much grease, Navi.”

Narvia was a skinny chef, but one worthy of trust. Her cooking usually had both nutrition and flavour in mind. As long as she was reminded, the kebabs would turn out well-moderated in all aspects. Probably.

“And let’s get some eggs and vegetables in there too. Variety and spice, plus it’d make for a more balanced meal. Otherwise, a certain someone’ll end up addicted to both sugar and fats.”

Opening up the drawers and cupboards around the kitchen, it suddenly occured to Ariel that perhaps the enterprising cooks had put the cart before the horse. It was a spartan sight — only the most basic of condiments and spices to be found. How were they going to marinate anything like this? And most of this stuff didn’t look particularly fresh, either.

Unacceptable. Only the best ingredients were allowed — for today, at least.

“It’s a bit… bare. Maybe we should take a look at the cargo hold for ingredients. The Rau’ve lady earlier gave us some stuff that’d probably be useful.” Plus, it would be rather fitting to reward Seraphina with the very foodstuffs that she had been guarding at the expense of her lunch. Like returning someone’s lost wallet, and receiving the cash in it as a thank-you. Although — the girl had snuck out at some point, and Ariel wasn’t too sure where she’d wandered off to.

As Ariel went off to hunt down some better-quality ingredients, she began making a wish list aloud. “Mm-hmm. Onions and garlic, and lemongrass. Coriander, turmeric, oh! We need sticks too. Were those there? Vegetables, we’ll have to see what’s in the crates. Peanuts, hopefully, though peanut butter should work — I hope no one’s allergic…”
Cigarettes acquired.

“Thank you, doctor.” Into Ariel’s backpack they went, as secure a container as any. “I hope to be able to visit your room one day, doctor. So, please keep your health in mind.”

Moonstrike One’s long-awaited briefing was short, but full of surprises. Mission time! Though with wages like that, weren’t they more like mercenaries than your typical freedom fighter? That had to be the biggest deviation from the films. Even the well-funded rebels usually spent their money on equipment, not salaries and rewards. Ariel wouldn’t complain either way.

Another question popped into her head, and out of her mouth. “Why wouldn’t they take the shorter path?” Efficiency and speed determined shipping routes. No sane company or trader would go the long way around unless there was profit to be made, or if circumstances forced them to. There had to be a reason behind this. There were two possible approaches here: find out why the longer route was favoured, or find out why the shorter route was disfavoured. Push and pull factors. It was geography all over again.

Time to do some research.

Ariel had just booted up her omnitool — it was a little sluggish, what with the decoding and all going on — when a man came stumbling in.

Another…

…she had to admit that it was hardly a surprising situation for a rebel organisation. The war had left many with traumatic experiences, and such harmful substances were always free-flowing and affordable relief. ‘The addict is a product of their environment.’ If that was so, then Ariel could only try and change the environment. Already, significant neurological impairment could be seen in the man’s speech and motor skills: the way he was slurring and staggering, he could have passed for a stroke victim were it not for the bottle of alcohol in his hand. Which, Ariel would note, he was still holding on to even now. And, goodness, he was drinking—!

Fortunately, Trajan finally set the bottle down before Ariel could pry it away from him. At the rate he had been going, it wouldn’t have been long until he began vomiting, or blacking out, or vomiting after blacking out. She didn’t want to be the one trying to get stomach juice out of his trachea as he choked on regurgitated alcohol.

“Not another drop, mister.” Ariel confiscated the bottle too. In the meantime, it seemed that Seraphina had sent some promising leads over.

“Hmm. I’d say there’s potential.”

Ariel was hardly a shipping expert, but from what she could tell, there weren’t many compelling reasons to pick the currently most-popular route over the shorter one. Even if there were such pull factors, it would hardly reduce traffic to the near-zero levels seen with the Garden Route. There had to be a hard factor, forcing trade to the alternative route.

“It’s detective time. Thanks for the tip, Phi!”

A search of the Ascendancy’s hottest social media platforms for posts made in the vicinity of Maiden’s Reach unearthed a fall in the usual photographs of the planet’s famous flora and fauna uploaded by tourists and other leisure-seekers.

Instead, Ariel found several glamorous shots of space fleets and military might, with careful, perhaps professional-level framing and lighting. The surprising thing? These posts came from the local government’s official accounts. “Several of the Ascendancy of Man’s finest warships entered the orbit of Maiden’s Reach today, marking the beginning of poacher clearance operations in the sector. The public is warned to stay clear of the designated area until further notice,” said the caption. Succinct and authoritative in tone, with nothing revealing or OPSEC-violating — it was just PR, after all. A few conservationists had replied with enthusiasm and support. Either way, it seemed that the Ascendancy’s fleets had ramped up their presence there.

The local news didn’t offer much more in details, but they sufficed all the same as jumping points. Cross-referencing with government sites unearthed a notice to spacemen, which confirmed that a temporary no-fly zone around the area of the Garden Route had been in place for some time now. Enforceable by deadly force too. Unfortunately, the restriction wouldn’t be lifted any time soon.

And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. Time to present the results.

“I think I’ve found out why the Garden Route has been abandoned.” A swipe or two later, a holographic projection emerged from Ariel’s omnitool, showing off her findings. Sending down warships seemed excessive, but then again, rangers and poachers have been all but fighting small-scale wars since the 20th or 21st century. “It looks like the military has cordoned off part of it. Anti-poaching efforts, apparently. If we take the short path, we’d have to bluff, sneak, or fight our way past the government patrols. At least the pirates and poachers will keep their distance.”

The biggest factor at play here was speed. Moonstrike was racing against the Ascendancy to reach the crash site first. That was why there had so far been a near-unanimous consensus to ignore the longer route.

“If time is of the essence, would it be possible for the rebels on Plenty to help? They could remove Realist from the crash site before we arrive, and hide him someplace the Ascendancy doesn’t know of. Then they’d have to search the whole planet instead of simply beelining for the wreckage. It would buy us some time.”

Ariel had so far been invested in the business side of things, busying herself with preparations and research for their upcoming mission. It was quite a shame to miss out on all the fun and bonding going on all around the little meeting room. Seraphina seemed to be enjoying her head pats; maybe that would be a good way of thanking her for the intel later.
Success! There was still quite an unreasonable timer on the omni-tool, but sometimes it takes baby steps to reach your ultimate goals. Narvia looked relieved (if a little red in the cheeks), and Ariel was content with that.

“It certainly is a step forward. Let’s give it a look later tonight.”

The arms shop was making bank from that discount, looking at the amount of gear and weaponry that the group was buying up. The blades and firearms and tools, both melee and ranged, conventional and exotic — was that an anti-materiel rifle? Really, Tarak? — totalled up to one hefty bill. Ariel wondered if it wasn’t a little excessive as the group of remilitarised Star Marines continued on their way to the Moonstrike vessel.

The Xuanzang looked not much different from a regular cargo transport. Ariel was hardly an expert, though; no doubt it had some surreptitious modifications, just hidden enough to pass casual inspection. Souped-up engines, concealed weapons, advanced cloaking systems and what not: or at least, that was what the space operas said. Judging by the fancy armoured car Natasha had sent out just now, it wasn’t too far-fetched an assumption to make.

Guided by said woman, the group’s entry into what looked like a meeting room marked the beginning of a whole round of greetings and introductions. As the others said their hellos, Ariel took the chance to have a good look at the ship and her captain.

Natasha looked like a bit like the rugged but free-spirited sort. Was it the haircut, or the eyes? Perhaps it was a combination of both, or the way she had wholeheartedly approved of and participated in Ashton’s unchecked trading spree earlier. The ship was practically immaculate, though that could very well be nothing more than the work of some automated drones, given the ship’s small crew. The captain deserved an ‘A’ for presentation all the same.

A little lull in the air indicated that it was time to speak. “Hello, nice to meet you all! My name is Ariel, Ariel Sin. Like Navi, I’m from the inner Solar System. I’m not as good at fighting or magic as everyone else, but I’ll be giving all I’ve got!”

An older man wandered in around then. From that coat, he must have been the ship’s medical officer…

“Ah.”

Even after inadvertently voicing her surprise, Ariel tried not to stare at the little coffin nail in the man’s hand, or the puffs of grey disease in particulate form wafting from his mouth. Staring would be rude, after all. It was easier said than done, though, and she found her disapproving gaze drawn to Dr Millard’s cigarette over and over again.

Seeing the doctor smoke kind of undermined his credibility a bit. Especially since it was one of the old-fashioned cigarettes — of all the myriad ways to feed an addiction, that had to be one of the worst. Even with nanomedicine mitigating the worst of the health effects, it was still unsightly at best. Sure, there were all the psychological and socioeconomic factors that contributed to the habit, but still…

Ariel stuck her hand out, palm open and facing upwards, as if expectantly waiting for the doctor to hand something over.
In retrospect, not very much time had passed. The incident had lasted maybe twenty minutes at the very most. When Ariel finally set down her stunner, however, the exhaustion she felt was as if she had just been in an hours-long standoff. Thank goodness Natasha and Abaddon had managed to convince the rogue militants to depart peacefully!

Natasha’s six-wheeler looked more familiar than Ariel would ever have expected, though. It would hardly have seemed out of place in a military garage or a boarding shuttle — Moonstrike must either have some excellent R&D teams, or a well-placed network of infiltrators among the ranks of the Ascendancy; or perhaps it was more likely to be both. Seems like they were more than just your typical ragtag rebels.

The grateful storeowners had offered the Star Marines (as they were now apparently called) a few pallets’ worth of free wares and generous discounts on their products. While the group was hardly lacking in funds, exploiting the 15% off would be saving money nonetheless. But Ariel would leave the shopping to the rest — her equipment was satisfactory enough, and only needed electricity to run, so it wasn’t like she needed ammunition either.

Ariel’s attention turned to Narvia, who was fiddling with her omnitool and sheepishly complaining about a… fourteen hour countdown?!

“Wow.”

With advances in computing, it took truly unique circumstances or massive scales to achieve such a long timer. That omnitool was military-issue, too, much like the majority of Narvia’s equipment. Her service history was rather unique, in that she was assigned to an autonomous fleet under Admiral Zahrin, one of very few such formations in the Ascendancy’s armed forces. Much like the Windsors’ fleets, such independent units had often been viewed with suspicion and wariness by both other military commanders and the civilian government, though it could hardly be called baseless — the Dragon’s Brigade had developed their own unique versions of a lot of tools and systems, and if they decided to defect one day, their odds of survival in the long term weren’t bad.

Must be one really bulky document. (Unless the estimate was simply off by an order of magnitude or two, which was still within the realm of possibility.) Narvia’s godfather had probably butchered the formatting or something to inflate it to a size like that. Fourteen hours? Unless she felt like staying up hideously late, it would probably be better to take a look at it the next day instead.

“Make sure it doesn’t overheat~”

Actually, perhaps the decryption would go faster if Ariel lent her omnitool’s processing power. It wasn’t like she had plans to use it in the immediate future or anything, so… no harm in trying!

“Navi, want to try linking our omnitools together and see if it deciphers any quicker? At this rate, it’s only going to finish tomorrow.”
Before Moonstrike could send the child soldiers out to for some Ascendancy-kicking action, it would seem that the action had come to them.

Restarters… the name rung a bell. A tiny little bell, but it was vaguely familiar to Ariel all the same. Their ultimate aim was pretty much the total genocide of humankind, although they had long been considered extremists or outright terrorists in practically all polite circles and weren’t known for being particularly well-organised. Even accounting for the sheer expanse of the Bazaar, though, the security forces’ response time for an incident of such gravity was atrociously slow. Stalling for time with such a violent group wouldn’t be a tenable strategy in the long run.

Although Ariel had drawn her stunner, it wouldn’t work against Mirrorshard — he was a Kaisoken, after all, and a little zap would hardly be of any effect. The same was unfortunately true for the baton, and her magic was not well-suited to a close combat situation such as this. Her time to shine would perhaps come later: right now, it was time for the others to take the limelight. A peaceful resolution — somehow, having someone with the moniker of ‘Kinslayer’ speak to their fellow Kaisoken was actually the most diplomatic approach — would of course be for the best, but if that didn’t play out as planned, then Tarak and Nero had thankfully come up with a plan.

Now she just needed to find a niche to slot herself into…

“I’ll stay on this shuttle and evacuate the civilians here to someplace safer. If they try to board us while you guys are over there, I’ll fend them off. And, if things go awry—“ heaven forbid, Ariel muttered silently to herself “—don’t forget that Flame, Iris, and I all have med-kits. Please get back in one piece, though.”

The shop’s proprietress was a Rau’ve, but her customers were of all species. There was no guarantee that they would all speak English, and on occasion even Basic. Fortunately, Ariel knew her fair share of alien and foreign tongues, more than enough to communicate.

Ariel spoke to the store owner first. “Madam, let’s move everyone to shelter. Do you have a room with metal doors or locks?” Leaving the area entirely would be best, but with so large a group it would be difficult to evade detection from the militants.

Next, she began to speak to the customers all around the shuttle, all in various stages of shock or disbelief, some already showing sign of panic. Managing crowds wasn’t Ariel’s specialty, but someone had to take control of the situation. “Everyone, please remain calm and listen to my instructions! We cannot exit the shuttle, so follow the owner and we’ll head to a safe room until security arrives. Keep calm, and don’t push!” She repeated this first in English, then Basic, Rau’ve, and any language she could muster until she was confident that no one was left confused.

Ariel wasn’t a police officer, but looking at all the regular people in the store whose lives were at stake now, she had only one objective — to serve and to protect these innocents.
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