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The Ambling Sapient
The roar of the crowd hauled my awareness out of the abyss and into my prone form. My limbs were sluggish to respond as I shimmied and stretched myself awake, but something at the back of my mind told me to treat things with a sense of urgency. Wait... roar of the crowd? I cracked an eyelid and confirmed that I was nowhere near my bed. Scratch that, I'm not even near the living room couch. Scuffed metal plates and rusted grating. What the hell? I opened both eyes, and a booming voice nearly caused me to jump out of my skin. "Look at that folks! Our competitor rejoins us in the world of the living! For now..." The roaring ambience redoubled at the commentary. Whatever this is, it's filmed in front of a live studio audience. The speakers started out blaring gibberish, but it was quickly cut over by English. Must be some sort of translator in here. I hauled myself into a sitting position and looked around with bleary eyes. This has gotta be a dream, right? "Ah and now it moves! This, [ladies and gentlemen] is a bilaterally symmetrical [warm-blooded] pack omnivore from a little [yellow-sunned] backwater in the [Orion-Cygnus arm]. Let's hear a big round of applause for the retrieval crew folks. This particular specimen had a vicious quadrupedal guard-symbiont inhabiting its lair, and I am told the casualties were... significant." If you did anything to my fucking dog I swear I'll... "Alas, their sacrifices were not to be in vain. This will be quite a show, [people]. Remember folks, this species is from a truly out of the way system. We're going to be learning about this organism in real time alongside you. The science team tells me this thing is a true generalist, within a standard deviation of the average for intelligence, speed and strength. A lack of natural weapons is somewhat disappointing, but we're excited to see the ways in which it compensates. That's great news for the fans. Our experts estimate this specimen will be in the 80th percentile for time-to-kill, which means incredible bang for your buck, folks. Really. People are going to be furious that they paid full price for next cycle's show when they see how long this one runs for. What a treat." Time-to-kill? Fuck that, it's time to get some answers. I looked around, but I was alone in here. Announcer must be working from a booth somewhere. I addressed the rough centre of my cell. "Hey, uh, announcer dude?" Just as I began to worry that 'dude' might be sufficiently gender-specific to cause offense, the voice begins again. "Your [audio senses] do not deceive you, folks. Our next contestant speaks! Greetings, biped. Welcome to the Arena. You're a hapless primitive, so this is no doubt the single most impressive place you've ever seen." So far as I can tell Roman architects had these guys beat 4000 years ago, let alone the guys who design the space casinos in New Vegas, but I'm just a hapless primitive so what the fuck do I know. It would just be snarky to interrupt him when he's on a roll. "You have been granted the tremendous honour of being selected as a contestant for this cycle's iteration of The Ambling Sapient!" Contestant? No way, pal. I didn't sign the release, and I am most certainly suing you the moment I can get in touch with my lawyer. "Well, consider me... tremendously... honoured... by that, but what exactly does 'The Ambling Sapient' entail?" The announcer chuckled disdainfully at that. I don't know where exactly one is supposed to punch disembodied voices, but his tone made me want to find out. "Oh, you quaint little thing. The Ambling Sapient is the most thrilling, most visceral, most state-sponsored form of entertainment this side of the galaxy! Each cycle we take a smattering of primitives like you from undeveloped worlds across the [Skryrn Empire], bolster their ranks with the incarcerated, the destitute, and other dregs of society, and turn the whole lot of you loose in the Arena's urban simulator to contend with an army of our murderous bounty hunters. Last sapient standing wins! Unless it's a bounty hunter, which it usually is, in which case the Empire wins!" The crowd went nuts again. Fuck. I managed to sleepwalk my way into organized, alien bloodsport. My therapist is gonna have a fuckin' field day with this. Maybe I'll omit the 'drunken blackout' factor in my retelling. "I didn't agree to this." The smug bastard actually guffawed at this, like it was a goddamn affront I'd take issue with being drafted into playing the most dangerous game for some jagoff xeno emperor. "Well no, you wouldn't have. If we cared what you thought you'd be a citizen of the Empire and you'd have actual rights and freedoms. We don't, because you're a shithead primitive from a civilization that can't even crack lightspeed, and we are like unto Gods to your puny backwater minds. See folks, this is half of the fun for an old windbag like me. This little monkey is still coming to terms with the realization that any sense of agency it ever enjoyed was a condescending illusion. There are greater forces at work in the galaxy, contestant, and you should be thankful to be borne along in their wake. This is an opportunity to transcend your ignominious existence and provide [minutes] of precious entertainment to a being so grand the very stars are shaped at his behest." I was starting to get a pretty good idea of the sort of asshole I was dealing with, so I chose my next words very carefully. "Gee, thanks. I'm humbled." "Now I understand that this is simply an artifact of your flailing attempts at proto-language, but my auto-interpreter just tagged that with 'ambiguous tone'. Do you mind reaffirming for the cameras just how humbled you feel to have been selected for Lord Pha'Gouad?" I hope the windbag's auto-interpreter caught the meaning of my smirk before I spat out my reply. "Hell no. This sucks sweaty taint, and you people are fucking barbarians. The last 'enlightened' human civilization to practice bloodsport also openly practiced pedophilia. Tell Lord Fuckwad he can eat my ass, right after I win your stupid game show." I could hear the gears failing to catch in the announcer's head as he struggled to process my little tirade. "I... excuse me? Why you insufferable little... Lord... what does [copulation-gobbet] even mean?" I couldn't help but chuckle as the smug douche went into fits. That'll teach the folks at home to watch with the kiddos. "It's what I'm going to blow, in your mom, after I'm done winning this thing and skullfucking your boss." "Cease this insolence AT ONCE!" I'd better cool it with the snark lest they execute me before it even begins. "You will remain silent whether you like it or not, contestant. I have cut your feed. I had intended to excite the audience for your brief tenure in the Arena, but now we're all united in hoping for your swift, painful death." Sure, buddy. I bet half the people in here hope I stick it to your smug alien ass. Something tells me this Lord Fuckwad isn't exactly the pinnacle of statesmanship. "We will begin ignoring you now. You will receive a final briefing from the holoscreen in your cell." I flipped off the centre of the chamber and started stretching. There was no telling when the contest was going to start and I wanted to hit the ground running. The holoscreen flared to life, projecting what was unmistakably one of those dry, HR-produced training videos into the air in a lattice of dancing light. "Welcome, contestant. Please pay careful attention to maximize the entertainment provided to the good spectators of The Ambling Sapient." I swear to God, these buffoons. They seriously added an echo and a thunderclap sound bite to emphasize the name of their stupid bloodsport. In their defense, whoever did the voiceover's monotone is bad enough that it might kill me via boredom before the door to my cell ever opens. "Your containment cell will be lifted and deposited via field-friction directly into the Arena, where it will open in synchronicity with the cells of all other contestants. Bounty hunters will be waiting for you, and a second wave will be released an indeterminate amount of time after the contest commences. You must use your environment, and your own natural gifts to evade the bounty hunters and eliminate rival contestants." I am not looking forward to killing other unwilling participants in this nightmare gameshow. Can't blame them for trying to off me though... I'll have to try and avoid everyone. Endurance is my most obvious natural gift, surely I can win this if I turn it into a war of attrition? "This cycle's theme is [Marathon]. In each contestant's cell there is a totem. Any contestant who can deliver their totem to a totem-specific receptacle hidden around the Arena will be released from the competition. Contestants who do so forego any other potential contest rewards, and count as eliminated for the purpose of determining the contest's winner. They will be granted Proletariat-class membership in the [Skryrn Empire]. The totem will periodically emit light to help usher the contestant in the direction of the receptacle. The minimum distance-to-travel is a staggering [5500 metres], with some totem-receptacle pairs requiring as much as [7000 metres] of foot travel, thus ensuring that contestants who attempt to exit the contest are not able to do so trivially." I try to maintain a cool exterior as inside my head I frantically celebrate being abducted by the laziest fucking aliens in the galaxy. I haven't had the wide-open space to run that I'd like to since I took that job starside, but my treadmill with elevation settings has done an admirable job of simulating the ground. I'm not 22 anymore, unless I want to identify as the number of alcoholic beverages I consume every weekend, but 5-7K is still a warm up and not a workout unto itself. "That concludes our The Ambling Sapient tutorial video. Good luck, contestant." The fucking thunderclaps. Good luck to you too, narrator, because if I get out of here I'm finding you and tearing out whatever passes for a larynx for your species, and I'm starting to get pretty darn confident that I'm getting out of here. At least the windbag with the audience had some theatrical flair. The cell lurched suddenly and I tumbled to the ground. I suppose the tutorial ending should have been a clue, but I'm processing a lot right now. I can forgive myself for a small lapse in foresight. I braced myself so as not to slide across the floor as an undignified heap, but besides the inertia of their friction-fields or whatever grabbing my cell it was a relatively smooth ride. I glanced around and spotted the totem. I think it must have been unlit before, or else I'm really not very perceptive while my brain is still waking up, because it was pretty much the cell's only obvious feature apart from the windows. It was a small baton, maybe a third of a metre in length and about as big around as a broom handle. It looked sturdy enough to hit someone with, I noted hopefully. If they arm me for my little warmup jog this will go down as the easiest life-or-death struggle in human history. Eventually the sensation of motion stopped, and I only stumbled a little as my balance adjusted. I hefted the totem and, sure enough, it would make for a great bludgeon in a pinch. I wasn't sure what sort of electronics they packed into the thing, but resolved only to risk breaking my ticket out of here if the alternative was death. The cell doors opened with a soft hiss. Swallowing the bubbling, subversive anxiety that was churning my guts, I stepped out into the streets of the Arena. The air smelled pretty much like a city's should. Dirty, artificially hot and packed with all the creatively diverse pollutants that any arrogant society is willing to lace their atmosphere with in the name of prosperity and advancement. I was reasonably sure the ambient light level was increasing, which meant I had maybe half an hour before the sun first peeked over the Arena's artifical horizon. The totem lit up just once, projecting a faint beam of light off into the city streets. Well, I thought, it's now or never. Time to show these assholes who they're messing with.
Apologies for the long delay. Life happened. First / Previous Only an alien would think leaving a bunch of teen and tween girls loose on a spaceship with nothing to do was a good idea, thought Kay. Surveying the damage, she figured it could have been worse. She had already disabled the cargo airlock and was now sitting on a crate by the working personnel airlock practicing her spiel in Galactic Standard hoping Soimt would not freak out too much upon seeing the mess. Mentally cataloging the sounds of destruction echoing through the ship as various groups played or took things apart to see how they worked, she focused on conveying her message in Galactic Standard. “It’s not as bad as it is. No. It’s not as bad as it looked. No! It’s not as bad as it looks. Yes! It’s not as bad as it looks, and we can destroy— No. It’s not as bad as it looks and we can fix most of it us-selves. No! It’s not as bad as it looks, and we—” “Destroyed my ship!” yelled Soimt. The sound of the airlock opening had been masked by a falling shipping container. Kay leapt to her feet and spun to face the airlock. Soimt flinched in anticipation of an attack. And the two other humans pushing him through the door alternated between laughing and gaping at the wreckage in the hold. Busted pipes from early attempts to find suitable gymnastics equipment had long since stopped spewing fire-suppressant foam, yet the foam seemed to be spreading still. It was all over the ship and everything in it. Kate’s eyes went wide as she realized the problem. “Soimt! You idiot! Is that standard fire suppressant? It’s a hallucinogen and inhibition blocker for humans!” Ducking down, she aimed her shoulder for Kay’s hips and scooped her up in a fireman’s carry with the scout still practicing her speech in Galactic. “JT! Get him out! Now!” Carrying the scout out to the relatively fresh air of the docking bay, Kay trusted JT to follow orders. Setting her charge down several meters from the open airlock, Kay said, “Deep breaths. Lots of deep breaths. Need you to focus, hon. How many? How long? How bad? Breathe. How many? Breathe. How long? Breathe. How bad?” JT dumped a protesting Soimt on the deck next to the scout and silenced the stream of invectives with a simple smile. A wide smile that showed every tooth it possibly could. Soimt’s hindbrain kicked in and he sat mutely waiting to see if he was about to be eaten. “How many, hon?” Kate repeated. “Sixteen.” “Does that include you?” “Seventeen.” “How long were they exposed to the foam?” “I don’t know. Right after he left.” “How bad is it in there?” “I don’t know. Things broke. It was funny at first, then…” Kate hugged her and said, “JT, watch for runners. We don’t know their mental state and can’t let them run loose on the station. Soimt! Get off your ass. There are five humans working the docks here. Find them. Bring them to me. If they argue, tell them I know their tabs to the credit and they’ll be cut off from the only good booze on the station if they don’t get their asses over here now.” Soimt scrambled back away from JT, turned and fled. “Well, babe. You said you were bored. We’ve got seventeen young girls stoned out of their minds, no protective gear, and a ship filled with foam that breaks down into some really nasty [excrement]. We don’t know if they’ll be dangerous drunks or good ones like our little friend here. What’s your take?” “Can I go back to serving watered-down hooch?” “Sure. After all of our young friends are safe and sound on the deck with us, but I think you’d regret it. Hon, what’s your name? I’m Kate.” “Kay.” “No, hon, Kate. With a T. What’s your name?” “Kay with a Y.” JT quipped, “Oh, no. This won’t cause confusion.” Kate sighed and said, “My given name is Katelyn. I want you to look at JT behind me here, and I swear if you tell me he so much as smirks, every meal he eats from here on in will have to be from paste tubes.” Kay stared at JT and said, “He’s terrified of you.” “Damned straight!” said JT. “She used to ride with PJs — pararescue and race into burning downed aircraft to pull people out while rounds were cooking off all around them.” Katelyn smiled, “See, hon? Dreams can come true. How’s your head?” “Call me Kayla. I still feel kind of foggy, but better. Deep breaths. Lots of deep breaths. Fifteen scouts and my brother on board still. I have to get them out!” Katelyn rocked Kayla gently and said, “No. Hon, if you go in, you’re going to succumb right away again. That stuff is nasty. What model is the ship? Is it a standard layout?” “I don’t know. First time in a space ship.” “Okay, hon. I’m going to let you go, but I need you to stay here and stay calm, okay?” JT interjected, “Two runners!” Katelyn replied, “Fetch!” “No!” shouted Kayla. “Jenn! Keiko! Get your butts over here! Now!” JT’s attempt to adhere to both commands left him face down on the deck as his sudden start turned into a far more sudden stop. The two girls approached, clearly sizing both adults up for a fight. “Release Kay now!” Katelyn slowly unwrapped her arms from Kayla and said, “Please take some nice, deep breaths. You’ve been breathing poison on that ship for a while. You need to get it out of your systems. JT, don’t move.” She then sat down on the deck. Looking to Kayla for their cues, one girl placed her shoe on JT’s neck while the other took a position behind Katelyn. Smiling slightly and giving JT a barely perceptible shake of her head, Kayla said, “I think they’re okay. That foam messed with us. My head is starting to clear up. Don’t hurt them. I think we’ll need ‘em. Just breathe deeply and find something to focus on. Do you know where the others are and how they’re doing?” “Jeff tried to hit on Jessica. It didn’t go well for him. He’s tied up in one of the passages. I think he might like it,” giggled Jenn. “Summer was still looking for a gym last I saw her.” Keiko pondered this and said, “I heard some girls in the Engineering section.” “Oh, [excrement],” muttered Katelyn. Glancing back to Katelyn, Kayla asked, “How bad can it be?” “Depends. But I need to know how to get to them fast.” “Hey!” shouted a burly guy running up to the group. Jenn tensed and her foot pressed harder against JT’s neck as the newcomer continued, “Get the hell off—” Katelyn yelled, “Shut up, Barry! Calm down. They got dosed with fire foam. Keep cool and don’t get too close!” At the mention of the dreaded foam, Barry backed off in a hurry. “What do you need?” “There are fourteen more on the ship,” Katelyn said, nodding toward the right airlock. “We need to get them off. Get them sober. Get them cleaned up.” Barry shook his head slowly. “You can threaten all you want to about banning us at the bar, but we can’t go in there. It’s not just airborne. That foam gets into everything and as it hardens and breaks down. The fine powder it turns into contains chemicals that are absorbed through our pores. We’d be likely as not to go ape and hurt whoever’s still on there.” Katelyn looked at the dried foam flaking off Kayla’s uniform and her own sleeves, then sighed. “I’ve been exposed, but not too bad yet. Can we cycle the air quickly?” “Only if we do an exchange between this bay and the ship. That would get us all funked. We’d have to vent the bay right after then do a scrub,” replied Barry. “Kayla, will the girls come out if we ask?” “We can try.” “Okay, Barry. Get the dock workers organized. Send someone to medical and get help finding anti-hallucinogens. Or a damned sedative. A lot of sedatives. Find some protective gear and rig up decon showers. Make sure there are clean clothes waiting. I swear, any asshat trying to sneak a peek won’t have eyes when I’m done.” “I’ve got kids back home. They’ll be safe.” “Okay,” Katelyn replied and started to stand up. She froze when JT grunted as more pressure was applied to his neck. “Kayla?” Kayla nodded to Jenn and Keiko who backed off. “Okay, get up, and let’s see about getting everyone off safely.” Rubbing his neck and rolling into a sitting position, JT snickered. Until he saw the look Katelyn gave him. “Soimt!” barked Katelyn as she pulled her tablet out and pressed it against his chest none too gingerly. “I need a map. Pull up what you can from your files, the shipyard, or wherever the hell else you have to. Just remember: The longer I’m stumbling around in that toxic crap, the less sane I’ll be when I get out. You want me to know the layout. The whole layout. Now.” Turning to JT, she continued, “Babe, when I get out, you take me down fast. If I’m rational, I’ll forgive you. If I’m not and you don’t disable me before I hurt people—” “I’m not contaminated yet. No powder, barely a whiff in the hold. I’ll do the run,” JT said, hopping to his feet and moving toward Katelyn. “Stop! You get any closer and you will be — it’ll be the Holturian trader incident all over again. You have [excrement] for tolerance. Besides, Jenn didn’t take the time to wash her sneakers before stepping on your neck, so you might just find some of the little shoe print ridges on your neck have foam in them. You have to decon right away. Anyway, I can do this, you can’t. I’m a former scout.” “Hey, I did my 19D!” JT snarked. “No, dear. I’m a former Girl Scout. Part of the pack. You did a little recon before you re-upped and re-specced. You’d go in trying to be slow, which gives the foam more time to work you over, and stealthy, which is predatory. The pack would tear you apart to protect each other. You and your muscle mass, threatening. Sweet little me, non-threatening,” she said, noting his disbelieving expression. “Has to be me. Kayla! Do they all know the official songs? Specifically, the marching cadences.” “Most of them. Not many new girls came with us. The rest are covering back at Encampment.” “Will they all know Funky Chicken?” In unison, Kayla, Jenn, and Keiko all sang out, “What’s that you say?” “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ then.” “Yes. It’s still a fave when we can’t bust out the unofficials and still used for a lot of large groups. Why not go with the Scout Marching Song? It’s the first one everyone learns.” “The scouts go marching one-by-one, the little ones stops to shoot their guns,” rattled Katelyn. “I don’t want to put thoughts of violence in over a dozen drugged minds. That turns a ship into an urban battlefield. The best place for urban warfare is not in a ship, it’s in vacuum. Funky Chicken is fun and nonsensical. Soimt! Where’s my layout?” Taking her datapad back, Katelyn sighed and said, “Okay, here’s the plan…” The earlier excitement of a handful of humans and grey marketeer were quickly forgotten by the rest of the people running around the cargo bay. This station was busy and nobody had time to sit back and watch the primitives running around. This might change when they achieved FTL and the first traders to reach the planet could legally rob them blind. For now, there was no profit in voyeurism and many ships were waiting to dock. After the one loud human marched into the ship [twenty minutes] ago, the humans were of no interest. The Skytrs, however, were freaking out. With their large, arachnoid bodies, stumpy humanoid torsos, and strong arms, they often found employment in docks. Their natural leaping abilities were useful for moving light parcels to and from high shelving units quickly. They were getting steadily more anxious because the entire deck seemed to be pulsing once per [second] like someone was using it as a drum. “— me see your Funky Chicken!” The Tuhkhans were the first to notice the strange noises coming from a small trader ship on the docking port green-eleven of the primary outer ring. Descended from herbivorous stock on a planet with lots of dense jungles, hearing had been key to survival. The addition of advanced reasoning skills did not eliminate all the threats on their home world, merely ensuring better use thereof. Many Tuhkhans became auditors or dock masters. Their sharp hearing often provided a boost to the local tax coffers when ill-advised comments were made, even at incredible distances, about illicit goods or unreported trades. “What's that you say?” “I said:” A number of Tuhkhans paused mid-argument with various captains and quartermasters. All thoughts of lucrative tax opportunities went on hold as their hindbrains picked up electric guitars and waited expectantly. “Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo One more time now!” The rhythmic pounding of feet along with the chanted cadence plucked a nervous chord from the Tuhkhans ancestral memory buried deep in their genetics. These descendants of tens of thousands of generations of survivors knew only one lyric that went with that chord: RUN! “Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo Back in line now!” Puzzled crews and station stevedores watched in confusion as tablets clattered to the ground and every Tuhkhan disappeared seemingly chased by the Skytrs. “Left, Left, Left, Right, Left” As the chanting and coordinated footfalls grew rapidly louder, representatives of more species experienced their flight or flight moments with no genetic coding for fight. Some grabbed their crewmates and pulled them back to their ships which began emergency launch prep. Others ran or flew deeper into the station. The Sorc dock workers, finding the rhythm oddly comforting, started nodding to the rhythm of the pounding feet as that translated from the docked ship to the bay. Soon their own steps began to echo ever so slightly behind the beat enhancing everyone else’s panic. “Left, Left, Left, Right, Left” An exception to all the evolutionary rules was Captain Mindar, from a Dominion military cruiser. As a Timmintar, he stood half again as high as a human and looked rather like the product of a buffalo being savaged by a randy Irish wolfhound. Mindar picked up the abandoned tablet at his feet and strode purposefully toward the human dock workers with his Quartermaster nervously in tow. He was unaccustomed to waiting. Even the most ornery Dock Master, no matter how annoyed they were with military ships jumping the queue to dock and not having to vacate in a timely manner, rarely felt comfortable arguing with that much pure muscle staring them down. This was part of his reasoning for assisting the Quartermaster “Let me see your Dracula!” Mindar was surprised when he approached the knot of dock workers who simply ignored him. Clearing his throat in a manner that implied just making room to swallow you whole, he was immediately met with … no response. Just the hiss of the jury-rigged field shower units. Sorc, not the fastest thinkers, yet selectively quick on certain types of uptake, stopped nodding to the rhythm of the marching cadence and suddenly realized they almost certainly were needed in Purple section, the exact opposite edge of the docking ring Unfortunately, this is where their selective cognition failed them and they took off in random directions eager to have the brewing fight well behind them. “What’s that you say?” Mindar pushed the tablet into the side of one of the humans expecting his needs to be serviced immediately. Momentarily distracted but not enough to look away from the open docking port, JT said, “You should get that throat looked at. Medical. Two rings in. One ring up. Tell them JT sent you. If you go now, they can help you get back to your ship quickly.” Mindar pushed the tablet against the fleshy human again with greater emphasis, and grunted, “You’ll help me n—” “You see, friend,” said JT, “If you don’t get the hell away from here and wait until it’s your turn, two things will happen.” Mindar, unaccustomed to such treatment and well-aware that his Quartermaster would spread whatever happened here throughout the ship, blustered on, “Human! You will—” “Let me see your Dracula!” JT sighed, turned to face the Captain, and continued, “Buddy, you’re about as quick as molasses. If you don’t back off, I won’t be in position to prevent over a dozen drugged humans from tearing you and this [vigorous reproductive act] station apart. There’s a peculiar kind of [nonsensical reproductive act technology] at work here and you do not want to mess with it.” Mindar froze. This future stain on the deck had just mouthed off to him. This could not happen. His frontal lobes tried to process the event and failed. Shaking with rage and frozen with confusion, he barely realized his Quartermaster, a young Timmintar fresh from the academy, was speaking. “What’s that you say?” “What’s the other thing that will happen?” asked the junior officer. “I said:” JT grinned, showing off every tooth he could, “Then, buddy, you won’t have to tell the medical staff I was the one who sent you two up there. They’ll know when you get dumped on the floor. Now back the [sexual act] off and wait by your ship. We’ll have someone come by once the situation has been defused.” “Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo One more time now!” Mindar dropped the tablet and launched himself at JT. JT stepped to the side allowing the Captain to faceplant into the support pillar he had been leaning against. Mindar’s upper skull plate rang against the metal support like a bell, and his left horn snapped off. “Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo Back in line now!” Glancing briefly at the Quartermaster, JT yelled, “Sit!” and watched the young one’s legs obediently collapse. Behind JT, so did Soimt’s. A chorus of call-and-response lefts and rights peppered the background as the fight went on. Focusing on the dazed Captain, JT muttered, “This is a bad idea. So far, I haven’t had to lay a hand on ya, and you’re already hurt. Come at me in this state and anything I do is self-defense. One of your horns is off. Go to Medical. Now. They can probably reattach it. The rest of you, watch the ship. Tell me when they come out. I’ve got this. Just another kind of drunk, and I’ve been a bouncer for [years].” This last was directed at the rest of the humans. The girls went back to watching for their friends. The dock workers started betting on the fight. The Captain chose poorly. Head still ringing and vision a bit wonky, he ducked his head and tried to gore the human with his remaining horn. JT stepped aside, grabbed the horn, and said, “I guess you don’t want to keep this.” Jerking the horn up and down sharply, he snapped it off around its midpoint then dropped it as the Captain, balance thrown off, stumbled into the pillar again causing another dull chime to peal across the dock. JT, realizing the Timmintar was likely no longer thinking, made one last effort to break through, “Captain, I don’t have time for this [excrement]. You are setting a bad example for your young officer. Calm down before I have to put you down.” Mindar wobbled slightly then charged again. JT stepped to the side, grabbed his attacker’s arm as it passed, then flipped the massive creature up and over so it landed on its back. Diving down shoulder-first into Mindar’s midsection, he forced all the air out of the Captain’s lungs. “Let me see your Flight Attendant!” With the brawler trying to recover from this double assault, JT grabbed a leftover roll of duct tape (well, the closest they’d been able to synthesize on the local printers), and started taping the hairy legs together. “What’s that you say?” As JT flipped him over, Mindar, now on his stomach, lashed out groggily with his dominant arm. JT neatly jumped over it, landed, dropped the duct tape, and said, “Naughty, naughty.” grabbing the arm with both hands, JT popped it out of socket then repeated the process on the other arm to the bellows of the Captain. “Let me see your Flight Attendant!” Seeing the Quartermaster trying to get to his feet, JT yelled, “Sit!” but it didn’t work a second time. “Get your hands off my Captain!” “What’s that you say?” “Kid, calm the [excrement] down. He attacked me. An unarmed civilian. I defended myself. He’s experienced and nearly twice your size. I took him down without getting bloodied. I could have killed him. I could have broken his arms, but I just dislocated them so he can’t keep attacking me and getting hurt. THINK! If I have to take you down too, then who is going to carry him to Medical? I bet he doesn’t want the crew to see him like this.” “I said:” The junior officer sank back down. “Good,” JT said. Now, I’m just going to finish taping him up. We’ll put him on a cargo lifter and you can cart him to Medical. Then he can cool off for a bit. Nod if you understand.” The Quartermaster nodded. “Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo One more time now!” “Alrighty. I won’t ask you to help tape him up, but we’re short on time. This is going to look rough, but he won’t be hurt any worse as long as he doesn’t fight.” That said, JT nodded to a couple of the dock workers who picked up the groggy officer and rotated him in a series of flips. After JT and his helpers went through two rolls of duct tape, they tossed Mindar on a cargo lift and gave the young officer directions to the Medical unit as they watched a string of scouts follow Katelyn out of the ship. “Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo, Ahhh - Ahhh - Ahhh, Oooo Back in line now!” JT gestured toward the decon zone, and Katelyn used the next round of left-right cadence to lead the girls into the strong showers. “Let me see your wet dog!” “What’s that you —“ The normal response broke down into “what”s and “huh”s as the girls realized they didn’t know that one. Katelyn, approaching the end of the shower array, shook herself wildly like a dog trying to dry off and started laughing. As the girls mimicked her, more of the dreaded foam got washed off. “Headcount!” she yelled. JT shouted, “You got twelve out. With the three from before, that’s two unaccounted for.” “[Excrement!],” Switching to English, Katelyn yelled, “Girls, get that gunk off you. In a minute, we’ll get some strong soap in here, get rid of the contaminated uniforms, and you can scrub that toxic [excrement] off! We’ll have fresh clothes for you and your friends who already went through will make certain nobody looks. Kayla! I’ll have them sound off, you tell me who’s missing! You!” Katelyn pointed at the first girl behind her, “Name!” The surprised girl belted out, “Missy!” Going down the line, the girls sounded off in turn as Katelyn pointed. When they were done, Katelyn told them to keep scrubbing and stepped out. Turning to Kayla, she asked, “Who did I miss?” Kayla, biting her manicured nails, replied, “Jessica and my brother Jeff.” Katelyn sighed, “Oh, for [reproductive act’s] sake. What’s with all the middle-of-the alphabet names? Was there a shortage of early and late consonants? Okay, I’ll go back in and see if I can find them. I picked these troops up doing a loop of the main corridors. Any idea where those two might have gotten to? Oh, no. That’s the boy and the girl he was hitting on, right? I didn’t see him trussed up in the main passages.” Kayla nodded nervously. Katelyn took a couple of deep breaths, started moving toward the ship double time, and was tackled from behind. “What the bloody—” JT, arms and legs pinning her as best he could, said, “You’re not thinking clearly. Your skin is wet. That foam remnant powder in there will go right through you. Either I go in, or we wait for a bit while you dry off.” Allowing her weariness to creep into her voice, Katelyn asked, “JT, hon… You, who just tackled a wet woman and warned her she can’t go into the ship until she’s dry, think it’s safe for you now? The guy who hijacked a transport to go catch space fish when he was last exposed to this stuff?” JT rolled off her and looked at his wet clothes. “So we wait?” “Looks like… I’m going to go get a good shower. Make sure we’ve got plenty of towels and dry clothes ready.” Jessica was confused. She wasn’t sure whose idea the barbeque was, where they’d gotten the meat, or where everybody else had gone. Ever since that pipe broke in the cargo hold, everything was just fuzzy. Cargo hold, she thought. I’m on a space ship. Looking around the room, she saw the meat on the spit staring at her with the fire pulsing below. Something wasn’t right, though. “What was I just…” Shaking her head to clear it, she had a realization. “I forgot to get more wood for the fire!” Bustling around the campsite, she picked up the strange sticks and carried them back to the fire. Tossing a couple more in, she watched the flame rise and fall. “Weird,” she commented, “the animal looks worried. What is it? A wild pig? How did we catch that? Wait! Did we spit it without killing it?” It made some strangled noises and she felt horrible. “I’m so sorry. I’d never be cruel to an animal! I don’t know how we forgot to kill you before putting you on the spit! Hang on! I’ll put you out of your misery!” Searching for her backpack, she could hear the animal thrashing on the spit. But her pack wasn’t here in the campsite. She must have left it… in the cargo hold! “I’m on a ship! I’m on a spaceship! Backpack. Cargo hold. Backpack. Cargo hold.” Barbeque forgotten, she wandered off in search of her backpack. The Tuhkhans Quartermaster had returned once his Captain was safely sedated in the medical bay. While the orders he had received were quite explicit, he was fairly certain they were not legal. He cautiously approached the knot of humans in hopes of learning what was going on. “I see her!” shouted Kayla. “Jess! Over here!” The lost scout, wandering around the cargo bay searching for her pack, looked up at the sound of her name. Jeff strained against the paracord and thought, Just a few hours ago, I might have admitted that the idea of being tied up by a girl — especially this one — excited me. Now? Hells no! How did things get so screwed up? Pushing as much of the sock gag as he could into his cheek, he slipped his tongue under the rest and tried to pull his lips in a bit so he could lick the adhesive off the duct tape. That stuff is evil. Why does it seem like someone always has a damned roll? All I did was hit on her, and she — okay, *maybe** I should have stopped when she said to. Calling me a pig is one thing, but trying to roast me alive is going a bit too far! Yes! * Jeff could feel the tape giving way slightly. Just … a … bit ... more… He curled his lips further between his teeth. Unfortunately, this pushed the sock further back in his mouth and triggered his gag reflex. Jeff panicked briefly then struggled to suppress the gag reflex as a bit of stomach acid got into his mouth. Can’t let that happen! I’d choke! Ever so carefully, he slid the sock forward toward his teeth, safely away from the danger zone. Ever since Jeff got knocked down and tied up, his life had consisted of one adrenaline-fueled moment after another. If he hadn’t taken a solid hit off his inhaler just before this all went wrong, he would likely have had an asthma attack and died by now. That thought sobered him slightly. Now the idea of being unable to take another hit off the inhaler in his pocket ranked equally with the dangers of the “fire” below him. When he saw the “fire” comprised of various things with flashing yellow and red lights being built under him, he would have laughed with relief had he been able. But that changed when he saw the teepee “fire” being built up under him with all sorts of slender, pointy tools. Each tool Jess had added to the fire made him more nervous. Even if she didn’t like the attention, this was going too far! Why did they all go crazy at the same time? Why didn’t I? Did I? he thought. If she came back and kept building her “fire,” the rickety spit would eventually fail and he would become a space pincushion. If she didn’t, he’d eventually have an asthma attack, struggle, and likely become a pincushion anyway. Torn, Jeff thought he would at least like to see the girl he lusted after since his sister joined her troop before he died. If he could just get the gag out, maybe he could talk her down… “My name is Haddin,” the returning Quartermaster said, trying to infuse as much confidence in this one thing he knew to be true at the moment. “What is going on here?” A human female looked him up and down. “Are going to be a problem, too?” she asked. “NO!” he exclaimed. “What started all this? I … I have to fill out a report…” Several of the nearby humans erupted into strange barking sounds interspersed with comments like “Paperwork! Militaries are all the same!” and “Accompanied Captain to port. Learned not to [engage in sexual intercourse] with humans. Accompanied Captain to med bay.” Each comment caused the barking sounds to get longer and louder. Eyes widening in horror, Haddin stammered, “That was a sexual act? Your species— you engage in sexual acts that put people in med bay?? You—” While the other humans kept barking even louder until they struggled to breathe (Mental note: Humans have a weakness if we can just disrupt their breathing…), the stone-faced female he initially addressed just inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. She then said, “No, it’s a term with multiple meanings and was used as an invective in this case. And no we don’t…” she paused, eyes looking toward the ceiling as her head bobbed side-to-side. “Okay, we usually don’t engage in sexual activities that lead to trips to the med bay. There are exceptions, but it’s been a while.” At this, one of the human males changed color! He went from a mottled white/pink to a solid red while the other males pointed at him and convulsed with their barking. “But that’s an entirely different discussion for another time, if ever,” she continued. “My name is Katelyn. Seventeen humans on a vessel were exposed to fire suppressant. We were attempting to address the issue before things got out of control. Your narcissistic Captain interfered, and he became aggressive when told to wait. All actions taken by humans were for the protection of the station and all those aboard.” Eyeing her suspiciously, Haddin asked, “Who cares about fire suppressant? We are always exposed during drills. It’s hardly a threat to the station.” Katelyn asked, “Have you ever wondered what happened to the Void Suppressor? That Kelros Empire battleship that disappeared about nine cycles ago…?” “They encountered a freak spatial anomaly near the event horizon of a black hole, their engines were damaged, and they were unable to escape. Everyone knows that.” Scooping up one of the tablets dropped by fleeing dock workers, Katelyn pushed a video to it from her own tablet and said, “Yes, that’s what everyone knows.” Pressing the spare tablet into Haddin’s chest firmly, she looked him in the eyes and said, “Everyone knows a lie.” The Quartermaster found he was unable to push back enough on her arm without breaking the tablet, so he held it while he took a step back before realizing that this was a sign of weakness in front of a fleshy little human. Raising the tablet to obscure his face as the thought struck him, he watched the queued video. It was a bloodbath. What appeared to be three humans destroyed the entire crew of an Imperial battle cruiser. Those held over six hundred crew and usually at least five hundred troops. They simply slaughtered their way to the bridge, took over control, and vented the rest of the ship into space. He had heard tales of boarding actions against these vessels and even with double the troops, casualties were horrendous. There was no love lost for the Imperials, but still… Just three humans… “This is fake!” “No,” Katelyn smiled, not bothering to hide her teeth. “This is one thing that can happen when humans are exposed to fire suppressant. Needless to say, we don’t like the video getting out. And the Empire doesn't want anyone to know how easily their battleship was lost. It was far easier to send another ship to tow it to a black hole and sabotage the tug’s engines so they thought all witnesses would be gone.” Grabbing the tablet back, she chucked it at JT and said “Slag it.” Turning back to Haddin, she continued, “You want to be really careful with that knowledge. If you ever encounter humans, you should make certain they are well cared for and not exposed to that suppressant [excrement]. And your command leaks info like a sieve, so I wouldn’t go telling everyone what really happened or you’ll learn how effective the Empire’s assassins are.” “But I have to repor—” “What you have to do is tell your superiors that when your Captain interfered with a bunch of humans attempting to care for their young who had been exposed to a toxic mess, the errors of his ways were explained to him. If you want to get creative, you can…” she trailed off. “Can what?” “Kid, I like you,” Katelyn suddenly grinned at the junior officer. “Do you think you can handle a human who is completely tied up? Bear in mind, if you injure him...” Swallowing hard, Haddin replied, “I … I suppose so.” Thinking back to the video, he asked, “Completely tied up?” “Yup. Can barely wiggle. If you go in that ship, retrieve our lost child, and return him safely to us, well… I think we can all agree on a version of the story where you and your Captain valiantly assisted us in protecting our young from a toxic spill and your brave Captain was hurt while the rescue operation was in progress. I think your superiors will like that version more, don’t you?” Edit: Formatting
Clear number 1 ranked team in the world after winning the biggest tournament in Siege history.
They will also remain atop as the current title holder for an extended period of time entering into the covid era.
Have Canadian, top 3 earnetournament prize earnings in Siege history (behind Pengu and Fabian). Also one of the best leaders in the game
Rampy: top 3 player in the world in terms of mechanical aiming skill, with Canadian on drones for him as well, its a deadly entry combo
Bosco, the only 2 time SI winner to win on both Xbox and PC. He is widely considered one of the most clutch players in the entire world, and has consistently shocked winning 1vX's at alarming rates. Even Bosco has been referred to as a top 5 player in the world throughout his career.
ThinkingNade as a great flank watch, especially on LAN.
Fultz coming alive, especially as the teams best player in the grand final. Fultz saved SSG by being their only consistent player throughout the insane SSG vs NIP match. Without his integral performance in the finals, NA would be approaching a 4 year Major drought, and Latam would be hoisting their first ever World Championship.
At the helm Lycan; assembling the superteam after seasons and seasons and seasons of roster shifts, the team finally had what felt like what it needed to win the big one. Now 9 months of progress with the same roster, SSG are cemented in the number 1 spot.
Started 2020 out with a blaze, and have been right there with SSG as the top Bo3 team in NA
Have an insane amount of mechanical gun skill rivaling any team in the world.
Their core of Achieved, Merc, and Beaulo is arguably the best frag/entry/flex combo in all of siege
Have consistently impressed over the last year; and continue to better themselves with chemistry over time
Ninjas In Pyjamas
NIP looked insane at SI, and even with everything loaded against them in terms of advantages in the grand final, they still somehow managed to bring SSG to the brink.
They have some of the best ceiling potential in the world (meaning when they are in peak form, they are unstoppable)
Of the Latam teams, they have seemed to be a bit more consistent as of late, and have made some great runs the last year or so
Their mechanical skill is one of the only ones that can rival the top dogs in the world
This one is surely based on historical achievement, along with having such potent individual talents on their roster.
On paper, the current G2 roster looks unstoppable if the roles can fit with everyone
Although, they are great on paper, and the potential is otherworldly with them currently, having them all the way at 4 must have more to do with their past accomplishments still keeping them floating in top 5 territory
Always in the thick of things atop the NA region; and recently on the world stage as well
Over the last year have broke through with a 2nd place runner up finish at the Tokoname Finals, as well as an impressive deep run at SI2020, including their marquee win over tournament betting favorite Empire to win what was considered one of the "Groups of Death" heading into the World Championship.
Their orchestra of support staff, as well as the talented lineup clicking heads have proved to challenge the best the worlds had to offer the last year
****Please note that these ranking are from before the start of Season 1 Stage 1 of the new Face-It League.
Chapter 23 Prae I stand before the Hearttree. My mother stands to one side, my brother to the other. My mother is one of the most respected former Primes, revered might be more appropriate. Gathered around us are the Emerald. All of them. They crowd into the clearing around the tree, they gather at the edge of the forest where there is no space, they stand in silence and look up. “I, Prasinius Feram, son of Caelia Filios, have broken ancient traditions of our kind.” I begin, my voice carrying through the gathering, they remain silent. “I brought a human to a sacred Hearttree. I sang to the Emerald while he stood here. I called upon all Emerald to aid in war, that which we have sought to avoid.” They grumble among themselves, sounds that resonate in their chests and fill the space. “These actions were taken willingly, knowingly, and with full awareness of the consequences. I, therefore, am stripped of the status of Prime. Is this accepted?” There is no hesitation among the gathered Emerald. “It is.” They rumble, as one voice. I lower my head to them and step back to the Hearttree. We are a unique breed, the position of Prime is not coveted as it is among other dragons. Citrine plot to seek leadership, Onyx fight, Sapphire covet wisdom and knowledge, Rubies their vast hoards. We do not. Those among the Emerald may now step forward to offer candidates they feel would bear the burden of leadership with honor, as they once did for me. There is a long stretch of silence where it is contemplated among the Emerald, there was little warning and they must consider carefully who they might select. Then, from the back, a young Emerald comes. While the elder Emerald gathered to the front, the young are welcome to speak but must come forward to do so. They part, each Emerald showing their throats in respect of the moment. I smell a nervous but determined scent to this child, only a few hundred years old. At the bottom of the hill, this youngling shows her throat to us, then takes a deep breath and turns to face the gathering. “I, Rosaceae Audensius, would speak. Would you hear?” “We will hear.” The gathered say as one. We have many traditions. I know that in our history one such gathering lasted for nearly two months, impassioned speeches made to the cause of various Emeralds. My mother earned the honor then, before I was hatched. I listen, the young have much to teach us just as we have much to teach them. This is the Emerald way. “I am young.” She begins. “Some here have lived my lifetime a dozen times. Some have watched the humans grow, some have helped, some have hindered. Forests have grown, lakes have dried, mountains themselves have been laid low in your lives. Thousands of years of tradition have been laid before today and in a single day, with a single choice, a Prime has shattered that tradition.” There are murmurs of discontent, and agreement, but they fall silent. It is her right to speak whether they approve the words or not. “Prasinius Feram has been Prime for my lifetime. I remember no other. But I have heard the stories. I have heard of how the great Caelia broke tradition to save a single human life. My father told me of Narcissia, she that broke tradition and sang a song of war to drive the humans from a path of destruction.” I do not know where this youngling is going but she speaks with growing passion, rapturous enough that even the eldest among us listens in earnest. “I humbly suggest that the Emerald stand on tradition as a shield. Tradition protects us from decisions that we do not wish to make, from changes in this world that we may not wish to face. Tradition is the barrier between our discomfort of difficult decisions and the comfort of a life lived in the trees, lakes, dunes, or ice. I humbly suggest that traditions are meant to be shattered, new ones forged from the remnants. I suggest that the humans are no longer creatures we must live in proximity to but beings we must coexist with.” The murmurs begin again, this time with more fervor. Rosaceae continues, ignoring it. “Times are not changing, they have already done so! Prasinius Feram has bonded with a human, the rumors are no longer simply whispers in the shadows from the trees, they are true! Do we not owe it to all living things to seek the light instead of cowering in the dark?” There is an uproar among the Emerald. Elder dragons begin to shout, forgetting themselves. My mother watches, amused. She always did find the traditions stifling, some of the elders too resistant to seeking life outside their caverns and trees. She is just too practiced in the politics of our kind to speak this openly. Rosaceae plunges ahead, voice rising over the gathered. “We should not hide our heads and ignore what is happening! We must change too! The continent will descend into war and destruction if we do not!” “We cannot bring peace by spilling blood!” One of the elders roars, others agree. “The human conflict is not ours, no matter how heartfelt Prasinius’ feelings are! What are two human lives?” “You speak of peace but you truly desire cowardice and ignorance! It is my right to speak, elder! If the young can hold their tongues so should you!” Rosaceae roars, baring her teeth. My mother smiles again, watching an elder Emerald shrink from the words for the barest of moments. And with that, he is silenced, shamed. “Traditions are meant to change, they can be remembered but they should not define every moment, they were born of a time that is not this one! Emerald, I put to you that we should shatter tradition fully.” They erupt as one, two sides immediately defined. She is not finished though. She speaks above the din and her words are followed by a deafening silence. “To that end, I vote Prasinius Feram as Prime among Emerald and I choose to follow him to war!” They all look at me. I cannot contain my surprise at this. Tradition dictates that a Prime can not be nominated again, such is the price of their choices. This is not law, though. “Can she do that?” I hear from the Emerald. “Weren’t you listening?” The voice is shouted down. Young dragons from the trees begin to shout, shortly joined by some of the elders. I hear their words but I cannot process them. They are confusing to me. “I vote Prasinius Feram as Prime among Emerald!” They shout, a dozen, two, three, four. I stand in confusion when my mother leans closer to me. She reeks of amusement now. “I like her.” She whispers. Then she straightens and casts her vote. My brother does the same. It is for me. In the end, there is silence among the Emerald. Two others come forward, nominating candidates. One is the elder that shouted down Rosaceae, Sentius. Another is a young Emerald, Cedran, who seems uncomfortable with the idea. This is good, an Emerald should not desire Prime. Then the voting must take place in the proper way. Those who are nominated may not vote. I must stay silent while Emerald come to the Hearttree and whisper to it, their heads placed against the mighty trunk of the living world itself. Then they will pluck a single leaf from the lowest branches and place it under a stone, of which three have been placed beneath the tree. Then Cor, the eldest of us, will lift the stones. One by one, hours pass us by and we remain, watching. The youngest is the last to vote, a hatchling of no more than fifty years. All Emerald have the opportunity to vote, it is our way. Then it is over. Cor speaks. “Come forward.” I step to the Hearttree, Cedran and Sentius with me. We stand in the shade of the leaves and listen to the wind, it sings to us of our nature and the world that we care for. Of change. I close my eyes and listen, feeling myself swept away in the moment. A beating heart of the continent, connected to all life. It is wondrous. The whispers of the wind stop. I open my eyes and Cor looks at me. They all look at me. Cor has lifted the stones. I was placed in the center, Cedran to my left and Sentius to my right. Cor holds the leaves in place with a single claw, pierced through their center. It is unanimous. “Emeralds have chosen!” Cor raises his voice. “Prasinius Feram, by the new traditions of our people, you are Prime among Emerald.” Cor’s eyes spark with green fire when he speaks and then he shows me his throat. Cedran follows, so too Sentius. They will accept the will of the Emerald. They rejoin the gathering around the Hearttree. One by one, the gathered Emerald accept this. Of course they do, they voted for it. I cannot help but feel a trembling chill run down my spine. Someone begins to sing. Rosaceae. It is my song. Others join. Soon the clearing is filled with the sound once more. And so, the Emerald have chosen. “Brother.” Aquilos stands near to me, solemn and whispering into my ears. “Your army awaits.” “I just wanted to keep them safe.” I say. “That time has passed.” He says, chuckling in his chest, a wry noise. “Now is the time to give them an empire.” Epilogue I hate the cold. I pull my cloak tighter, shuffle my feet inside the fur lined boots, wiggle my fingers inside thick leather gloves. My breath frosts in the air before me, my beard decorated with ice. Wood docks creak with the waves, icy water lapping up at the supports and heaving the tenders against their ropes. A frozen wind whips in from the ocean and across the city, crashing into the thick stone walls and into the multitude of wooden shutters. These people are hard as the ice, a life in the cold and on the sea makes them so. While they embrace the warmth of a hearth and a roaring fire, they are as comfortable in this weather as I am uncomfortable in it. Only the richest quarters have the steam vents that keep the streets almost tropical even in the dead of winter. This is not a rich quarter. I wait in the darkness of an alley, concealed perfectly from any passers by. It helps that they’re all stinking drunk on imported beer and local spirits that may well be made from the seething rage remaining in a dead northman’s bones. I lean against the stone wall until the cold seeps through my layers, my many, many layers, then I shift. I watch for the night watchmen with their lit torches and thick, short spears and rounded shields. Broad swords hang from their waists and chainmail drapes their bodies, which is why I wish to avoid them. Any fool wearing metal in this is more dangerous than I’d like to consider. I’ve kept watch for what must be three days, or maybe three hours, when finally my target exits the tavern’s back door. Light spills out from the open door, music with it and the sounds of off-key singing and calls for a brawl. I’ve been told that a good night in a northern tavern involves at least one broken chair and the chairs are made from the same sturdy timbers as their ships and docks and sometimes their walls. So that’s impressive. I watch, my target warily eying the streets. I sink back into the shadows even further, I cannot risk being spotted now. Satisfied, he pulls his own cloak up and paces off into the street, his cloak billowing behind him in a delightfully theatrical way. Mine does not billow as I follow, carefully, watching his turns and stops to see if he is being followed. It is simple tradecraft but he is no spy, no assassin. He’s trying his best but I needn’t have worried, his best wouldn’t have passed my first classes. He takes a right turn and I wait the requisite fifteen seconds to ensure he has walked far enough that I don’t risk stumbling into him, flitting to a darkened doorway and looking down the street that he should be on. Except he isn’t. Oh, sneaky bastard. I curse, under my breath. I take a few steps into the open street and look but he is nowhere. Not in a doorway, there are no alleys to hide in here, just a stone street leading up towards the governor’s palatial estate atop the hill that overlooks this whole forsaken city of cold, ice, and stone. Damn it. Damn it! I hear voices from behind me. The glow of a torch, three, maybe four. Guards. Damn it, again! Where could he have gone? Where did he disappear to? Where? Where?! Then my eyes find it. The small, rounded metal disc that seals off the city sewers from the street. It isn’t askew but it must be the answer, it can be the only answer. I pry at it but my gloves make the work impossible. I use my teeth to pull them off, tucking them into a pocket and working furiously while my fingers nearly fall off in the frigid air. The guards come closer, their boots thudding on the stone. Another thirty seconds and I will be in their light, I will have to explain myself and that is precious time. I work more furiously and then…finally! It lifts, I tilt the cover and slip my feet down, hoping I find the metal ladder rungs that should lead down into the tunnels. What luck! I find them. I close the grate as quietly as I can, and as quickly. I hold my breath, hands pressed to the metal and I listen. I hear the muffled voices come closer, closer, closer, further, further, further. I let out the breath. In the darkness I feel with my feet until I find the next rung, and again and again until my foot finds a stone floor beneath it. I think that half my palm skin came free in the descent, stuck to the cold metal, and I curse this place once more. I fish my gloves out and tug them back on, grumbling. I hate the cold. Let it never be said in hushed circles that Ashur Rama, Spymaster by default, let the cold stop him from his duty. But, I really, really hate the cold. I only have the faintest glow of light to follow through the winding tunnels beneath the city. I stop to listen for the telltale sound of footsteps in the dark or heavy breathing, even as my eyes adjust to the darkness I can’t see more than a few feet through the moonlight that finds its way through the grates above. There are no torches or lanterns down here. Only criminals sulk down here in the dark. I have heard that every year there is a purge of these tunnels. All for show, I assume. I’m sure the criminal element under the streets pays their dues to the guard and the governor, theater is always important though. It makes the people feel better. And what is the guard and governor for if not to make people feel better? I hurry and am remotely thankful that the tunnels keep out the wind, though the stench is something to be less than grateful for. What I wouldn’t give for a hot bath, warm meal, and to be a thousand miles from this stupid land of ice and angry, bearded men. I hear voices ahead and slow my steps. I can walk as silent as the whispering wind should the need arise, and the need has arisen. Aroused? Arisen, probably. I creep forward, pressing my back against the stone. “-they know?” This is a man’s voice, thick and gravelly. “How could they, Dunkan?” A woman. I do so enjoy when conspirators use their names. It makes my job so much easier. “Don’t say my name, Bella.” Dunkan hisses. “Then why would you say mine?” She whines. Surely, I am up against the greatest criminal minds that have ever been seen. “Stop it, both of you!” Another woman, this one does not whine, she has presence. Dunkan and Bella fall silent, but I hear the sound of someone being slapped. Children, I have been tasked with hunting a criminal ring of children. “They couldn’t know.” My target speaks, I have heard his voice before, since I followed him from that doomed city. Last I heard a flood washed the entire thing away, a Sapphire wrought flood. Damnedest thing I ever did hear. “All these years and no one has ever suspected anything. Our plan is secure.” “Was it the plan to destroy my town?” Dunkan says, raising his voice. Ah. That Dunkan. Suspected slaver and retired Legionnaire turned bandit, ferrying slaves from the eastern coast to ships that carried them away to unknown fates. Six spies had infiltrated the corridor, six spies had never reported back. We suspected Dunkan hid out near Watersford, which would seem to be confirmed. “Yes, Dunkan, the plan was to destroy the hub of our trade and cripple the routes that we use. Exactly the plan.” Bella says, “Then it was a bad plan.” Dunkan announces, to silence. I can almost hear the slow blinks from here. “It wasn’t the plan! You great hulking moron!” This is another voice. That makes five, at least, conspirators. “Don’t call me a moron, Niles!” Ah. Niles. Captain Niles von Krescher. Trader to distant, mysterious lands. Explorer. Slaver. “Enough!” My target speaks harshly. Governor Wolff, guardian of the Northern Provinces, does not have time to waste on this nonsense. He certainly has time to sulk off into taverns and alleys, disappear down sewers though. A governor, a bandit, a ship’s captain, someone named Bella, and a woman that has not slipped her name into conversation yet. “Enough.” The Governor controls himself. “They cannot know that one of them is turned. Watersford was unexpected but the Emperor’s movements were unexpected. Marching legions over the mountains?” “Insanity.” Bella says. “Is it crazy if it works?” Niles says. “Shut up, both of you.” Governor Wolff continues on. “This was not the plan but the plan is adaptable for that reason. We knew that it was impossible to predict anything, a dragon harboring the children?! Nonsense. We adapt. Our friends will arrive on schedule, the Emperor fights a civil war, our man with this Knight Gardiner keeps us appraised of their movements. By the time they realize what has happened, it will be too late.” Interesting. This is about more than slaves. “What about the one that was captured?” Niles speaks again. “You will take the captive on your ship, he may be useful to us yet.” Governor Wolff says. “Silence.” The woman with presence says. Her voice drops to a harsh whisper. No one speaks, there is a crushing silence. “Someone is listening.” That’s bad. That is so, so very bad. I move on my heels, as slowly and carefully as I can so as not to make a single, solitary, lonesome sound. My heart pounds. “You caught me.” The speaker is a man, older. I let out a breath that I did not know I was holding. My hands tremble in my gloves and not just from the cold. “It’s rude to eavesdrop.” The woman with presence says. “It’s rude to forgo the invitation to your benefactor, Soph.” The man says and I hear the sinister smile in his voice. It sends chills down my spine. He sounds like an accented snake, an accent I cannot recognize and I have traveled the entire continent at least three times and perfected a half dozen languages and accents. “I have to ensure that none of you are finding this…difficult.” He says, his voice moving around whatever room they are standing in. I find it hard to take them seriously standing at the intersection of a sewer but I am beginning to take them seriously nonetheless. “They hang slavers here. Traitors too. We are not finding this difficult.” Soph, the woman with presence, says. Her voice is clipped now, she does not like this man. I do not like this man and I have yet to see him. “They do, they do. Though they often perform, extraneous punishments prior to the hanging, for traitors.” This is true, I can attest to that. I have been witness to and in some cases performed those punishments. “Ask the Imperial spy listening in.” Shit. I do not try to move slowly this time. I whirl and sprint. I hear a great roaring shout and something metal strikes the stone, I feel the wind from the weapon brush against my neck. It might have even shaved a few neck hairs off. I drop to a knee and slide on the stone, turning my body and throwing two small orbs of a glossy white at a man who, I assume, is Dunkan. That’s an educated guess just from the size of him. I shield my eyes with my forearm immediately and open my mouth wide. The orbs explode in a brilliant white that fills the tunnel with a sudden shock of light. They burst with a concussive force that stuns the ears, unless one offsets the sudden pressure change, as I did. It still causes a hell of a ringing in them. I take off running again, leaving Dunkan behind screaming and pawing at his eyes. I chance a look over my shoulder and suck in a breath at the sight of the woman that is following me. Bella, of course. Former Knight Bella Dyanna. Not good, not good. I don’t have any more tricks. Wait, I’m a spy, I have a lot more tricks. I take a hard left, hoping that somewhere down this path will be another ladder up to the street level. It’s a sewer, seems a safe bet. Always have a secondary escape plan, mine is to run like the fires below are after me and get lucky. After the turn I fish out a small, swirling green orb and drop it behind me. It does not burst loudly or with a brilliant white flash, instead if explodes and instantly packs the tunnel with a thick green cloud of particulates and smoke. Former Knight Bella Dyanna skids to a stop, coughing and choking in breaths and sparing what little air she gets for curses hurled at my back. I make another hard turn, this time to the right, and slip on the wet stone. Something whips over my head as I slip, my gloves skidding on the stone as I try to right myself. It hisses angrily and turns in midair, which things should not be able to do. I find myself eye to eye with a dragon. A dragon? No, yellows are the smallest and they aren’t this small, I’ve never heard of one this size. It’s dog-sized. Impossible. Not to mention the fact that the damn thing isn’t covered in yellow scales. I scramble to my feet and feel a claw pull at my cloak. I throw an elbow and it lands, feels like slamming my elbow into a sheet of metal or a wall. The thing lets out a tinny scream as it’s tossed to the ground and I keep running. “Run, run and tell your story!” A loud voice booms behind me, echoing in the tunnels. It is followed by a laugh, a laugh at my expense. “Tell them the Brass Lord comes!” In my panic, in the dark, flailing, I find a cold metal rung. I ascend with speed I did not know my arms or legs possessed and throw my shoulder into the round metal cover of the sewer. I find myself under a dark sky, on a city street, with a cold wind whipping past and a dusting of snow falling down. I breathe hard and it mists above me, each gasping breath a reminder of how much I hate the cold. Then I am bathed in a warm, flickering, yellow light. Torches and faces appear over me. Watchmen. “Look lads.” One of them speaks, his thick beard coated in ice crystals and his grin a few teeth short of full. “Sewer rats are getting bigger.” “I can explain.” I say. “Arrest that thief!” I hear the voice from ahead in the street. Governor Wolff throws back his fur lined hood and points a thick finger at me. His beard is grander than any of these men and gone mostly gray. I can only hope that I look so healthy in my seventies. If I make it to them. I am on one knee when the swords are drawn and pointed at me. I hold up my hands slowly, watching the Governor approach. He will have me hanged, beheaded, anything that he wishes and no one will know his role in…whatever this conspiracy is. I need more information. “Make a move.” The one with more teeth than brains, and not so much of either, says, the tip of his sword resting on my shoulder. “If you insist.” I say. I have one trick left. Well, I have lots of tricks but I only have one that will work in this situation. In my hand I hold a single, matte black orb. I open my palm and drop it, preemptively wincing. Someone shouts to ‘catch it’, I do not recommend that but I also don’t offer that advice. Instead I steadily suck in breath until there is no space left in my lungs. The orb bursts and immediately my world turns to fire. Small particulates fill the air and where they touch skin it feels as if that skin is aflame with the fire of a thousand dragons. I keep my eyes closed tight and run, a mental picture of the watchmen in my head. They will have gasped in pain at the first touch, sucking in the particles and setting their lungs on fire. I avoid this, by being educated and instructed in the methods of the use of these spy tricks. I cannot open my eyes so I move, away from where Governor Wolff was. I hold my breath as long as I can and I sprint away, feeling the cold stones under my boots just as clearly as I feel the fire across my face. I count out the steps and hope, wish, pray that when I make my turn I don’t run face first into a wall. There. I make the turn and…I don’t hit a wall. I open my eyes and gasp cold air down, then regret that almost as surely as I would have regretted breathing in Dragon Dust. I keep running, hearing the shouts behind me, fading slowly. I weave into alleys, across streets, and I stop. A brightly lit tavern stands ahead, music and laughter still filtering out into the street. I am in a richer part of town, where the shops have glass windows to display their goods. There will be more watchmen here, they will come soon. Especially with the Governor on the case. Bells begin to ring from the great stone churches across the city, where the northerners pray to the ocean gods, gods of wind and stone and ice. Superstitious bastards. The bells wake the city to a threat, a spy in their midst. To me. They will shut the gates and they will board every ship, including mine that waits in the harbor with a crew of southern sailors, traders that ply their wares up and down the vast oceans. Not good. I stare at myself in one of the glass shops and sigh. It’s a sigh of relief. I was tired of being a northern man, not being myself. I miss my face. I blink and the face is gone. Gone is the light colored beard of a northerner, gone is the broad nose and wrinkled brow, the blue eyes. In that blink it is replaced with my own face, a dark black beard kept short and dark brown eyes. I must move quickly for the docks and reach my ship, I have names now and I have a target. I also have questions. Like who is the Brass Lord? And who do I tell that he is coming? It's all very ominous. I don’t like ominous, not in my line of work. Only one thing matters now, finding answers. That means it is time to go to work. It’s time to sail. I pull my cloak tighter. I hate the cold.
I've been waiting for this game - or one like it - for 25 years. I'll be 38 this summer, and I grew up on a much different Star Wars than many of you who will play this game, or will read this post. And for the TL,DR, it boils down to I want a game that will recapture the magic of playing TIE Fighter as a child, and I'm afraid I won't get anything like it. I drove to see "Phantom Menace" with my best friend my junior year of high school. I'd just gotten my drivers license the fall before. Prior to that, Star Wars was a much different animal. The "Expanded Universe", as it came to be known, existed, but a lot of it was garbage and we ignored it. So much that we take for granted in the legendarium and mythology simply didn't exist. The most significant addition to the story had taken place from 1991-1993 with the "Thrawn Trilogy". While Grand Admiral Thrawn has once again become canon, this is before any of that was even an issue. "Heir to the Empire" was the gold standard for anything beyond the movies. But how to put that into a visual medium, to see and experience just like watching the original films? Before midichlorians, before Jar Jar Binks, before hackneyed dialogue. But also before the glory of what we now know as the Sith, before the very good storytelling which has since come from some places. There simply wasn't much that existed to fill the Star Wars void. Growing up, one of my friend's father had what was, in 1993, a "cutting edge" gaming PC. I think it was a whopping 50 Mhz. He also had all the latest and coolest games. It was in his living room, on that PC, that I first played "X-Wing". To an 11 year old, I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. That is, until I was 12 and 1994 came along, and I played "TIE FIGHTER" in that same living room. I always sympathized with the Empire to begin with, and now there was a medium that showed what I always knew in my heart o be true: these are just guys doing their job, policing the galaxy, and trying to make the universe a safer place. Sure, Imperial pilots had to kill rebel scum, but they also intercepted illicit drugs, intervened in civil wars to stop the bloodshed, and protected private property and important research. This was, in a word, AMAZING. In 1996, I finally had my own PC, a scratch built clunker that another friend and I managed to piece together. It had a whopping 8 MB of RAM, 300MB hard drive, and was a 486DX 66 Mhz (if I recall correctly). One of the first games I got was TIE CD collector's edition, which had the expansions and was the ultimate TIE Fighter experience in one convenient package. I even found a group online (the internet was in its infancy then, compared to what it is now) which was a combination role-playing/social club where we'd create customized missions (there was a way to mod TIE and replace "Battle 1" with your own missions. Obviously no voice or otherwise, but it was serviceable). As I grew older, I played many games on many platforms. As I've gone well into adulthood, I still play games when I can. Obviously it's a lot different now. Ironically, I have more than enough money to buy any game that strikes my fancy - unlike in my childhood where I had to scrimp or save or hope someone paid attention to what I said I wanted come a birthday or Christmas. But I don't have the time anymore. At least, not to spend days and nights in front of a computer screen (or the TV). But I digress.... I've thought to myself for years, that if LucasArts, then EA (or whoever) wanted to capitalize on nostalgia from guys like me, all they had to do was give TIE a proper remaster. The 1998 version with "better" (I use that word loosely) graphics was most certainly not it. The original TIE Fighter, despite its blocky graphics and low resolution had some of the most magical little details. Take the "iMuse" system. I bet a lot of you kids are saying "What's an iMuse?". The music for TIE was all good old fashioned MIDI. And sometimes getting your sound to work properly was a nightmare. IRQ? Soundblaster? What's that? But once it worked, in game...wow. You see, the music actually responded to what you did. When a star destroyer arrived, you got this little leitmotif seamlessly woven into the background music. When you accomplished one of your secondary goals, same thing. The music changed perfectly based on what was happening in your battle. John Willams's music is incredible, don't get me wrong. But I preferred the original TIE reactive MIDI. Look it up online if you want to see what I'm talking about. It was a LucasArts thing of the 90s; I don't think anyone else has done it since. Then there were the missions themselves. Obviously dog-fighting was the core of the game, but there was so much more involved. There was no 3rd person nonsense - you were in the cockpit, period. You had buttons that allowed you to look out side or rear viewports, but they weren't really needed. But the variety...you weren't just shooting up other fighters. You might need to inspect cargo ships (you'd target them and fly really close to learn what was in their holds), then disable the ship and escort the assault transports when they came to seize the contraband cargo. Drugs? War materials? Rebel spies? I saw it all! You might need to take out the fighter screen in one battle, but in another the AI was doing that and your mission was to launch space bombs or heavy rockets at a platform. Which leads me to the next amazing feature: the number of craft. 5 different fighters? Hell, you saw twice that in the first mission! There were plenty of fighters: Z-95s, X-wings, B-Wings, Y-Wings, A-Wings, T/Fs, T/Is, T/Bs, T/Ds, then cooler stuff like Assault Gunboats (slow but heavily armed and armored), escort shuttles, and so on. Medium ships like different kinds of corvettes, frigates, cargo ships, Corellian YT freighters (like the Millennium Falcon) and of course a variety of capital ships: dreadnoughts, cruisers, carriers, several star destroyers. The list goes on and on and on. It was followed up with "X-Wing vs TIE Fighter", a strictly multiplayer version, then by "X-Wing Alliance" which had another (Rebel) campaign and custom mission capability. Neither game had the iMuse system, and they lost a lot of what made TIE so memorable. Then came games like Rogue Squadron, which was basically an arcade game as far as I'm concerned. 3rd person and no fighter simulation. Just a shoot 'em up. For those who came of age with this game, I'm sorry, but I just don't see the appeal. After a time, you couldn't even play TIE Fighter anymore, at least not without a lot of fiddling. I got DOSbox to properly do it...sort of. But every time I turned off my computer it would somehow forget all the settings and I'd have to reinstall it every time I wanted to play. It wasn't worth the trouble. Then GOG, then Steam, got the original versions. If I wanted to play TIE Fighter, I could. It was rejiggered to work with modern systems. And while I still enjoyed it, I confess it lost some of its allure. It's held up remarkably well, but it obviously shows its age. It's like looking at the Colosseum: still majestic, but also very, very run down. Eventually, we got Starfighter Assault, a mode for SWBF. Fun, but still not even close to the grandeur of playing the original TIE FIGHTER for the first time. Don't get me wrong, the graphics are amazing. The sound is realistic. But it's...just...not....the...same. For the last ten years, every once in a while I'd do a Google search to see if anyone was trying to remaster TIE Fighter. Once in a while I'd find some like minded person, but nothing you could bite into. And now, STAR WARS SQUADRONS appears. I've seen many subs on this talking about what people want to see. I read what the designers have had to say, and some of it is promising. But I have this feeling that it's just going to be a dog fighting simulation, and Star Wars has so much material to draw from now, that the variety and spice of TIE is going to be lost. There aren't going to be an assortment of craft, where you see a modified Nebulon frigate for the first time and go "Wow! That's different than the movies!" and rather than reaching for something like an assault gunboat, it's just going to be shoehorned variations of what's been in Rebels or any of the current tie-in canon stuff. It's going to be visually breath-taking, I'm sure. I'm afraid that with its need to tie (no pun intended!) into the more well known current media (Rebels, Clone Wars, etc) it's going to lose the sense of wild surprise that TIE had. And, it might try to appeal to everyone, and throw in all the things that make competitive online multiplayer so unappealing to me: button mashing, a unique meta where you can essentially "game" the system by playing a certain way, hacking/cheating ability (which you sadly see a lot more than you should in SWBF2), or certain "builds" which are just so superior to others in customization that you have no choice but to all play the same. And, it will just be a space shooter sim, without any variety to missions or anything else. (These five fighters play tug of war to destroy a capital ship. Rinse. Wash. Repeat). Maybe it won't. Obviously I don't know. I'm hopeful, I really am. I want to see a modern successor to what is, still to this day, one of the greatest PC games of all time. But there's a lot more to it than just putting a coat of Star Wars paint on a space shooter. Here's to hoping they realize that, and let 38 year old me be just as starstruck and amazed as 12 year old me.
Here we are again. I apologize for the delay, but I was under-prepared: there was WAY more typing today than yesterday! Part 1 is here. Yesterday, we killed a man. In the dark rooms below the arena, a Legionnaire offered us the chance of freedom, and we accepted. The Mark of the Goddess he gave us would let us buy any good or service we wanted or needed until tomorrow, where we would need to present ourselves at the Entrance Plaza. We elected to pay our old master a visit one last time, for advice and maybe a little training. And we’re off! Crowds flow through the dirty streets around you, a tide of humanity threatening to burst its banks of stone towers and wooden shacks. Heady scents of blood, sweat, and excrement assault your senses. It is with relief that you turn down the narrow side alley. Several long strides bring you to an oak door set in a smooth marble wall, its surface marked with a lone rune, one familiar to you from your early days as a gladiator slave. You rap the door with the back of your hand. The door swings open a bare half-minute later. A burly, bearded Ezomyte stands framed in oak, his blonde hair hanging in plaits past his shoulders. With a roar, he gathers you in a crushing embrace. “Weylin! It’s been too long since you visited old Petyr.” You open your mouth to explain, but he cuts you off. “Yes, yes, I know, they have you locked up in that wretched arena. I hear of your exploits daily from the criers.” He ushers you in and closes the door. You’re standing in a simple, yet well-furnished chamber. Weapons hang in order from simple hooks along the walls, accompanied by several woodcut carvings of famous arena duels. The room is unchanged from the first time you visited almost a decade ago. Petyr claps his massive hands together. “Now, what is it I can do for my best student?” You show him the Mark of the Goddess. He surveys it, brow furrowed in concern. “Yes, this... Labyrinth. Many a wealthy family has approached me to train their sons and daughters, seeking to gain an edge in the trial. Some, I train; most, I discourage.” Petyr leads you further into the house. “But for you, Weylin, for you I offer something special.” You emerge into a central courtyard, a square expanse of sand surrounded by rack upon rack of weapons in every style. Muttering to himself, Petyr makes his way along the fearsome array until he halts at a rack of several slender blades and small, sturdy bucklers. “Yes… Yes, this is what we need. Not too heavy, yet still strong enough to pierce the toughest hide. Join me, Weylin!” You heft the proffered sword, a type known as an Estoc, marveling at its balance and lightness. The accompanying buckler slides into place on your other wrist. After several practice lunges, you look at Petyr and nod your approval. “Good, very good. You’ve grown even faster in that pit. Still, there’s room for an old warrior to teach you a few tricks…” Several hours later, you’re splayed out on the marble floor, sweat dripping down your sides. Petyr flops down next to you, hands clasped behind his head. “You have a chance now, Weylin,” he says, voice low. “A chance to give those Eternal bastards what they deserve. You don’t have to be the strongest, you don’t have to be the smartest, you just have to be first.” You gain +1 DEXTERITY for your rigorous training with Petyr and and ESTOC AND WAR BUCKLER. Petyr shows you to a comfortable guest room where you settle down for the night. At tomorrow’s break of dawn, you must attend the opening ceremony of the Lord’s Labyrinth. Turn to 333.* Dawn light flares off the giant copper statue of Justice. The goddess bears a shallow dish in each hand, the left thought to contain all of humanity’s sins, the right, all of its virtues. Beyond the statue, a set of grand double doors break the monotony of an otherwise endless wall. Several figures wait silently near the statue. The first to catch your eye is a stranger clad in the dull black of an assassin, and next to him, a weathered legionnaire you recognize all too well. Captain Reviro, a man responsible for the slaughter and torture of countless Ezomytes during the war. The thumping pulse of adrenaline begins to sing in your veins. You tear your eyes away and examine the remaining ascendants. One bears the distinctive patterns of a Maraketh raider, the other two the chiseled features of highborn Eternals. Surprisingly, one of the Eternals is a woman, raven-black hair spilling down her back like a midnight waterfall. The highborn man walks over to you, curly hair framing a clean-shaven face. His armor gleams with silver and gold, but you notice his smooth palms don’t match the worn handle of the ornate battle-axe on his back. “So you’re the newcomer, eh?” You shoot him a warning glance, letting him know you’re ready if he feels like starting the trial now. He leans back in mock surrender. “Whoa, it’s too early in the morning to face a look like that. I’m not planning on dying until after I enter this damned place. There’s something charming about this young man, so at ease in this weighty atmosphere, and you find yourself relaxing. He holds out a hand. After a moment’s hesitation, you clasp it with your own. “Chitus Perandus. Yes, those Peranduses. Perandusi? I’ve never been quite sure on the proper conjugation, no matter how many times my uncle’s beaten it into me. So, introductions made, how did you become an Ascendant?” You give him an overview of your time in the arena and the offer from Emperor Izaro. “A fighter? Useful for certain parts.” He leans in closer, conspiratorial. “Not so useful for other parts. There are many traps in this place, snares for the unwary. My family’s architects built most of them. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I feel bad that you’re not as informed as the rest of us. Honestly, what’s the point of a grandiose, emperor-electing Labyrinth when not all the contestants have a fair chance?” An odd half-smile darts across his face, but before you can wonder at it, he gestures at the other contestants. “And not all the traps are mechanical. Since you missed out on the Trials, my new friend, I can at least fill you in on the competition.” Here we have the opportunity to ask Chitus about each other contestant standing around us. Initially, I thought we would only have the chance to ask about one, but it turns out we can ask about each of them! To make it so we don’t waste 5 days of posts asking about each individually, I investigated each contestant at this point. HOWEVER , the more paranoid of you may not trust this Chitus Perandus, and the book understands! We also have the option of waiting in silent reflection and mental preparation until the event begins. However, that option is identical to whenever we are done asking Chitus about the competition. So, I will put their details here. Sim ahead if you want to skip their details, but as always, I recommend reading as much as you can - who knows what we may need later! [About the Man in Black] Chitus points to the man in black. Even the studs on his leather armour are wrought in black iron. Two curved swords rest in sheaths on his back and shoulder-length hair flows freely in the morning breeze. His expression is blank. “That’s Marconi of the Silent Brotherhood, considered the greatest assassin in the empire. You can bet your ass he’ll be looking to whittle down the competition as soon as possible. No one sees him coming, which is why he can charge so damned much for his services.” Chitus buffs his nails on his plate. “Bit too fond of the color black, though,” he finishes critically. The assassin’s expression doesn’t change, but you can feel his focus on you, the dead stare of a beetle collector ready to stick a new specimen with a pin. You feel the first familiar pangs of adrenaline making their way through your veins, your body instinctively reacting to a threat. Marconi gives you a thin smile and turns away. [Ask about Captain Reviro] The morning sunlight seems to cascade down Reviro’s burnished legionnaire armor and his floor-brushing red cloak. As you look at him, the knot of rage in your gut grows ever tighter. This man was the nightmare under your bed growing up, tales of the Butcher of Ezomyr passed from clan to clan in hushed whispers. Two hundred dead at the Weeping Hills. An entire village burned to the ground in the Silent Grove, over seventy Ezomyte forced back into the flames. A litany of brutal death and destruction, countless atrocities befallen your people at the hands of this man. A hand on your shoulder arrests your involuntary step forward. “Ahh, I see you know the good Captain Reviro. Somehow, I’m not surprised. How many of your people has he slaughtered over the past twenty years?” Reviro glares at you, madness swirling in his eyes. You glare back, straining against Chitus’ grasp, but he bears down harder, keeping you in place. “Not yet, my friend, not yet. In the Labyrinth you’ll have your chance, I promise. For now, listen and learn.” [Ask about the Maraketh woman] Chitus points out the tanned and scarred steppes-woman, who glances over at you and licks her lips. The raider has a wild shock of hair, and a long, curved sword almost as tall as you lying across her knees. Lightweight raider armour covers her body and limbs. “Sekhema Avira, a barbarian from the Vastiri Plains, ‘Sekhema’ being their title for chief. She claims to serve the empire, and the emperor may have lavished her with medals and accolades, but I’ve never trusted her. How can you trust a woman who sells out her people?” The woman grins at you, fierce and predatory, a gap from the missing upper tooth attesting to the violence survived. You have no doubt that she will prove a fierce combatant if encountered in the Labyrinth. [Ask about the Eternal woman] Chitus scowls as you point out the highborn lady leaning insouciantly against the Justice statue’s plinth, one hand resting on the hilt of her scimitar, her features almost a match for the goddess towering above. Ebony leather and plate cover her body, a golden imperial sigil on her left pauldron the only flash of color. “Yes,” Chitus says sourly. “Lady Krysana Phrecius, Izaro’s niece, and favorite for the throne. Oh-so-perfect, a goddess amongst us mere mortals. No doubt Izaro’s been training her specifically to win so he can flaunt his power and overturn the centuries of tradition that have kept the throne in the hands of men, where it belongs.” He looks at you and you can’t help but notice the ember of hatred in his eyes. “If I had to choose between you and that one, Ezomyte, I’d be toasting your coronation with goblets of Glargarryn Fire.” A lot to swallow, yes, but important characterization! In game, we have heard a lot of those names before, if only the surname. Now, on to the official beginning! [Done asking questions] Chitus nods his understanding. “I could do with a quiet moment or two myself before all damnation breaks loose. “ He moves off, leaving you some time to prepare yourself as the crowds gather. Bold ascendants marching up to their certain doom within the Labyrinth turns out to be just another spectacle in Sarn. Hundreds throng the edges of the plaza, yet they remain deathly quiet while you check your equipment and steel your nerves. At last, the eerie silence is broken by a booming voice that echoes out over the massive space. “Welcome, Ascendants!” A circular hole opens in front of the double doors and a platform rises into view, a thin, elderly man atop it. His bearing is regal, his white hair cropped close to his head, a trim beard covering his mouth and chin. Emperor Izaro. “Ascendants! You stand before the gates of the Lord’s Labyrinth. Within these walls, the Lady of Justice doth preside. She shall weigh your Mind in one hand, your Heart in the other. Should she find you wanting , death shall be your sentence. Should she find you worthy, you will be given the loyalty and love of an empire.” Izaro raises a hand to the sky. “The Lord’s Labyrinth awaits you. Choose wisely. Strike quickly. Trust completely. And may you find the ending that you deserve.” A small copper bowl emerges from the statue’s plinth, ghostly flames dancing along its edges, and you join the other contestants surrounding it. “Now, place your offering in the Goddess’ palm.” None seem eager to approach. With a shrug, you place your Mark of the Goddess into the bowl, and almost jump back when it vanishes in a flare of light. A small drawer opens lower in the plinth, revealing an iron key and a sigil with the number “two” on it. Izaro’s voice booms out once more. “Claim your gift at the rear of the statue, Ascendant.” You leave the others to place their Marks into the bowl and examine the back of the statue. In a now revealed hollow, you find the chest and try the key in its lock. It fits perfectly, and the iron-strapped box springs open, revealing a set of leather armour. You recognize it immediately from the drawings and carvings you have seen since childhood. This is ‘Briskwrap’, once worn by Taruk the Wild, a man whose exploits are retold in every alehouse in Ezomyr. A true Ezomyte hero. How it came to fall into Izaro’s hands, you shudder to think on, as you quickly buckle the leather across your chest. You have gained BRISKWRAP. Izaro’s voice sounds one last time. “The entrance order has been determined. May we all receive the justice we deserve” The double doors swing open, revealing a mass of greenery, and the crowd breaks their silence with a deafening roar of approval. You watch Marconi enter and quickly vanish from view. With a start, you realize it’s your turn to enter the Lord’s Labyrinth. Weapon at the ready, you pass through the gate. The sounds of the plaza fade away, trapped behind towering wall after wall of crawling vines and thick hedges, tiny white flowers popping in starbursts along their lengths. Curious, you prod at one of the hedges, but whoever grew them, grew them well. There’s no way you’re getting through unless you solve the maze. You set off along the packed dirt path, noticing a scuff mark here and there. Marconi’s tracks. From the distance between each step, you can tell he was in a hurry.You ponder setting an ambush for the next contestant, but the passage is too narrow. For now, making your way deeper is the best option. The path continues to wind its way through the hedges, the buzzing of small insects your only companion. You come to an intersection, packed dirt replacing the paved slabs of stone. Marconi’s tracks have disappeared. To the left, the stones are slightly uneven, the ground beneath not as level as you’d expect. Upon the middle path, you notice a couple animal’s droppings, most likely a dog’s, bleached white in the sun. On the right path, you see nothing but evenly laid slabs of stone. Clean and unblemished. To take the left path,turn to 270.To take the middle path,turn to 148.To take the right path,turn to 131. Whew! That was way more than I was expecting. A lot of exposition, but still nice. So now we have possibly the most important choice in the entire book! Left, middle, or right? I am a believer in the mantra "Lucky Left, Risky Right", but that doesn't have a third choice, so it's up to you guys! For those of you reading along later, the next post is here. View Poll
[Tales From the Terran Republic] Intermission: The Beginning of the End Pt 2
No good deed goes unpunished... severely... Caw lays down some knowledge and Karashel learns exactly the lesson that Caw intended. Just a little pointless side-story. It has absolutely no impact on the main plot lines... Nope... Just a little bit of world building... That's all... The rest of this series can be found here *** Caw and Karashel entered a fenced in open area where a small group of aat were clustered around a large circular bare patch of ground with shallow pits dug in it. In the circle were clusters of small spheres. One of the aats flicked its wrist sending another sphere rolling into the circle at high speed and into one of the clusters, scattering it, and sending several beautifully engraved spheres rolling into the holes. The sphere that he cast rolled out of the circle and he walked over and picked it up, remaining where it rolled. The other aats all made approving sounds, except for one standing on the other side of the circle. It didn’t look happy. “Clash of the titans!” Caw exclaimed happily. “We are in for a treat! Well, at least I am,” he said and rushed over to the circle. Karashel, now quite used to being confused, followed. “They are playing ‘Stones’,” Caw said quietly. “It’s a quite intriguing game, a combination of accuracy and strategy. Bujo”, he said nodding towards one of the players, “And Leeilee,” he said nodding towards the unhappy aat now readying a sphere, “are masters of the game.” Karashel watched as Leeilee sent her sphere skittering through the circle, clipping a sphere and sending both it and her sphere out of the circle. Leeilee then retrieved both. standing where her casting stone stopped. Bujo readied his sphere and sent it into the circle where it struck a blue sphere that broke stopping his stone. The crowd went wild as Bujo yelled in his native tongue. Karashel didn’t know what he yelled but it sounded profane. “A snare!” Caw shouted. “They are carefully made to fail when struck, a very dirty trick!” Leeilee chuckled and deftly struck Bujo’s stone, sending it into a pit as the spectators cheered. She proudly walked into the circle, picked it up, and put it into a pouch along with all the spheres in the pits. “You sneaky sneak!” Bujo shouted. “Beautiful trap! Me no see!” Leeilee pulled out his throwing sphere, kissed it, and put it back in her pouch. “Want play again?” she asked, “But what do you throw with?” “Oh go away dirty cheat,” Bujo laughed, hugging her. “Filthy dirty cheat cheat. You bring stone back. I take all your stones but no use snare.” “You no can make snare,” Leeilee laughed and then raised a bulging marble pouch. “Eats! Me pay!” she yelled as everyone cheered. As the crowd followed her back inside she turned to Bujo. “You come?” “Me talk to friend then come!” he yelled back. “Rotten luck,” Caw said as he shook Bujo’s hand. “Bad luck makes good luck,” Bujo replied. “She buy more than she win,” he chuckled. “She is going to pay with those spheres?” Karashel asked. “Yes!” Bujo exclaimed happily. “Those money stones!” “The aat use a very complicated bartering system on their homeworld,” Caw explained, “with many standardized rates of exchange. You need a spreadsheet to keep track of it all. Those money stones are worth a good couple of credits each.” “If you stupid stupid and trade them,” Bujo laughed. “Me sell them to stupid Xx who think they art.” Despite being numbed by the day Karashel still gasped in shock. Hugging an Xx was one thing. Calling them stupid to their face was another! “Who you call stupid, stupid?” Caw laughed. “Who stupider Xx not knowing art or aat not knowing snare stone?” “Stupider than Xx who think he can play stones?” “Stupider than aat who mix red and yellow bottle?” “You want keep playing stupid game in front of Fed? You know what I say next.” “You win,” Caw said with a screech. “I stupidest!” With a laugh, Caw turned to Karashel. “Bujo, this is Karashel. Karashel, this is Bujo, a very old and dear friend of mine.” “Nice to meetcha, Karashel,” Bujo said extending his hand. Karashel clasped his hand like he saw Caw do. “Likewise,” she replied. “How you know big meany?” Bujo asked. “We just met,” Caw said, “She decided to bother me with an honest question and I was so stunned that I am actually answering it.” “Wow,” Bujo replied. “You do good, Karashel! Caw no like Fed. What you ask?” “I asked why he hates us.” Bujo started laughing. “Dat question he love answer!” he squealed. “How long he talk?” “It’s been over an hour now...” “He just start then,” Bujo squealed and patted Karashel consolingly. Caw’s communicator started to ping. Grumbling he started to answer. “What?” he asked disdainfully,”… Well, let’s put on our thinking pants and puzzle this one out. Can you do that?… Splendid… If my assistant says that I’m not in the building then am I in the building?… Wow! Aren’t you the clever one! You are doing great! Now here’s the next puzzle. If I’m not in the building then do I have any intention of meeting with you?… Well because something far more worthwhile popped up, that’s why… I’m meeting with someone actually worth my time if you must know… I assume that you stating the amount of time you waited for your appointment has some relevance?… Well?… I asked you a question. Does the amount of time you waited for your appointment or the amount of time you have been sitting like an obedient companion-animal has the slightest importance?… Well, does it?… Councilor, the Federation is a free society. We are all free to write our own destinies so I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do next. If your desire is to speak with me privately then consult with my assistant… I have no idea. That’s why I have an assistant… A month?… The fact that you already knew that clearly indicates that you already knew the basics of this situation and decided to call me anyway simply to complain. I don’t appreciate my time being wasted, Councilor… The main difference between me wasting your time and you wasting mine is that when I block your number, refuse all future appointments, and cease efforts on certain trade agreement I won’t give a shit… Oh my dear councilor, I didn’t say ‘if’ I said ‘when’… Your number is now blocked, and… Oh? A month is fine? Splendid! I am ever so glad we could rectify the situation to our mutual satisfaction. The Federation is all about cooperation and compromise after all. Oh, and councilor, may I recommend a bit more tact in the future?… Apology accepted. Have a sunny day, Councilor.” Caw pressed a few icons on his communicator, blocking the number, and then looked up at his companions. “Sorry about that,” he said, “I swear, the nerve of that guy. Some people are so rude.” A giggle leaked out of Karashel. Bujo rolled his eyes. “As you deduced, I brought you here to meet my friend and the aats,” Caw said. “I wanted to show you an example of what we admire.” He paused as he looked at Karashel expectantly. “I would have expected a reaction.” “I admit that I am mystified,” Karashel replied. “Is it their reliance on their native technology?” “In part,” Caw replied with an approving nod. “Forgive my surprise, but you aren’t a complete idiot after all.” “Hey!” Bujo exclaimed, “Be nice. My place you be nice.” “But she councilor.” “Oh, this nice then.” Bujo laughed. “Actually,” Karashel said to Bujo, “I’m a little flustered. It’s the nicest thing he has ever said to me!” Bujo squealed with laughter. “Anyway,” Caw chuckled, “yes, they still have kept their native tech, something that we do find admirable but in all truth it is, much like your (ahem) medicine, answer by default. I’m not sure if you know this but aats have extreme difficulty reading and anything beyond simple arithmetic is quite simply impossible. They can’t just start copying. So, as much as we like that about them we can’t give them full points.” “Me try learn math,” Bujo said as his fur fluffed up. “Letters bad but I do. Numbers bad but I do. Letters and numbers?” he asked as he shuddered. “Yeah,” Caw said patting his friend’s shoulder. “That’s about as far as we got. To his credit it took months for him to admit defeat.” “Me no quit. Big tree you keep chopping. You no quit.” “Well put,” Caw said. “And that is one of the points I wish to illustrate. They don’t quit. They will doggedly keep at a problem hacking at it with stone and bronze until it yields. Full literacy takes years and countless aats, knowing full well that they are hopelessly bad at at, plug away at it even if it takes years to be able to read a simple book… You do know what a book is, right?” “Yes, Caw, I know what a fucking book is.” “Thank the Progenitors!” “It’s a collection of files and images collated into a single master document for ease of-” Caw facepalmed. “So close!” he cried out in agony. “If only you had stopped talking!” “(sigh) I’ll look it up… Wait… You mean a sharr!” “Sharr?” “Look it up,” Karashel quipped. With an amused flick of his crest Caw pulled out his tablet. He was starting to like the little slug. “Yes, a sharr,” Caw said after a few moments. “You still used scrolls? Huh… You do you I guess… (scroll scroll) No that would work!… Nice! (scroll!)… Wait!… With the development of printing you skipped right over plates and jumped straight to rollers! (scroll!!)… That means that you had to have already had bearings and precision machining back then? (scroll!)… What did you use to… Wait… How did you do multiple pages at once? (scroll scroll scroll)… Progenitor piss! How could you leave that out?!?… You had better have preserved one of those original presses or I swear…” Caw brought his tablet closer to his face, staring intently at it, and scrolling like mad. “Oh no, you show him something new,” Bujo said. “It gonna be while. I get drink. Alcohol safe?” “No, poison.” Karashel replied. “Pity. What about sre-water?” “What sre-water?” Karashel asked. Their way of speaking was crude but damned if it wasn’t efficient. “Boil sre grain and make water cold. Nice nice.” “We love simple carbohydrates. I have scanner! I look!” Karashel replied. Bujo disappeared into the building and returned with a glass filled with murky liquid. Karashel scanned it and finding no toxins, cautiously took a small sip. She let out a short blast of delight from her breathing hole. It was delicious! “You like?” Bjuo asked. “Me like!” she exclaimed. She had never thought of making a porridge this thin. Oh she was going to try this at home! Karashel and Bujo made small talk as Caw, completely lost in his tablet, continued to mutter and scroll. By the time Caw looked up Bujo and Karashel were over at the marble pit where he was teaching her how to play stones. “If he tells you that you are good enough to play for real he’s lying,” Caw chuckled as he walked up. “She already better than you,” Bujo snickered. “Quite interesting tidbit there, Kara,” Caw said finally putting away his tablet. “And you went from there to where you are now… tragic.” “Yeah, we suck,” Karashel replied as she handed Bujo his marbles. “Thanks, Bujo.” “Sorry for diving down that serpent’s burrow,” Caw said. “Where that one divergence from the normal technological path led your species is just fascinating!” “Glad we could entertain,” Karashel replied with just a touch of sarcasm. “Actually, this leads into the whole point of bringing you here,” Caw said. “The aat.” “Oh here he go,” Bujo muttered. “I go eat.” With that Bujo waved and headed into the building. “When we made contact with the aat, they handled it far better than almost any race,” Caw said. “They didn’t fall on their knees worshiping the sky gods or rally their armies in a panic. They just invited us in and posted a watch over their livestock. That was notable but not what really impressed us.” “So what was?” “Where almost every culture’s technological advancement grinds to a screeching halt theirs has exploded. They are making advancements in almost every area,” Caw said with almost a reverential tone. “But isn’t that only to be expected?” Karashel asked. “I mean they were so far behind.” “But Kara,” Caw replied. “They can’t read. They can’t copy the archives. They can’t even really understand them. When I say their technology advanced I mean it actually advanced. Are you familiar with a hair dryer?” “I’ll look it up,” she said in a resigned manner. “That one I don’t fault you for,” Caw chuckled. “You have neither fur nor feathers. It’s a basic consumer product that produces a stream of warm air that will efficiently dry waterlogged feathers. They are very handy for a creature like me or the aat. It took the aat about a week before one aat looked at a hair dryer and realized that it created a constant stream of air. He snatched his wife’s prized possession and hooked it up to his furnace. Their furnaces rely on combustion of solid fuel and the constant stream of air increased the combustion rate and increased the temperature significantly. This then prompted them to start putting stuff in the new hotter furnaces to see what would happen. They also started salvaging materials from broken consumer items and tossing them in the furnaces as well. This resulted in a new array of alloys one of which we now use. To be honest its primary use is decorative but it’s an actual alloy we didn’t have before.” Caw looked at her meaningfully. “That’s right. The simple aat gave us technology! All they needed was a hair dryer, Kara. With just one consumer item they contributed to our tech. The aat achieved more with that single advancement, that single contribution, than most of the Federation ever will. In fact, the aat have given us a lot more than that. The contributions they have made to our collective knowledge are immense.” “The aat?” “Yes, those little ‘stupid’ mop pushers have brought more to the table than most in the Federation. The aat are perhaps the single greatest living repository of neolithic and bronze-age technology there is. The kalent were likely better at neolithic technology once but that was long ago. We are still studying and recording the aat. They have provided us so much tech.” “But it’s all ancient stuff.” “But a lot of it is technology we didn’t have or that we lost along the way,” Caw replied. “And before you ask it’s very important. Knowledge begets knowledge. You might not know the significance of something for years, perhaps generations, but then… BAM! An association is made! Their method of shaping stone or their method of creating a certain cutting surface might have profound implications. Even we are not wise enough to know what we will need to know in the future. It’s the height of hubris and folly to proclaim ‘We will never need to know that.’ Here, look at this.” Caw reached into his jacket and pulled out a stone knife with a wickedly serrated blade. “Do you know what this is?” “Um...” Karashel said in confusion and then laughed. “Even we aren’t that dense. It’s a knife.” “Progenitors! You scared me there for a minute,” Caw laughed. “Yes, it’s a knife, crafted from stone and wood. This was one of the first gifts I received from Bujo and why he is now one of my dearest friends and why I bought the building he operates his business from.” “You bought him a building because he gave you a knife?” “No, Kara. I bought him a building because he taught me how to make it, the first of many of his gifts,” Caw replied. “And I didn’t ‘buy him the building’. He leases it. I would give it to him, of course, but aat have a real problem with getting things for free. It reeks of fuckery. Fuckery is a concept that many in the Federation should embrace. If an aat sees something too good to be true they immediately start sniffing it. It has kept them from falling into the traps that ensnare many first contact societies. No. Bujo leases the building from me and can call upon me for help dealing with any confusing “star-fuckery” that comes up but this is his business that he has built with his two little hands. Don’t be fooled by his broken Federation. That rat is one shrewd little fucker.” He handed the knife to Karashel. “Careful,” he said. “That is actually sharper than most blades you will handle. It, even though it’s ‘useless’ ancient stuff, has one additional very very special trait… It isn’t identifiable as a blade. In fact, worn properly it’s practically invisible to scanners.” “Wow!” “Very wow,” Caw chuckled. “And with the right rock and dare to dream a bit of horn or bone I can make one in a few hours and that’s just one of the things I’ve learned from them. Now in this regard they have a bit of an unfair advantage. They just happen to possess loads of lost technology that we want, but it’s their ability to develop their own tech that makes them so special. If they are completely bewildered by something they leave it alone, but if they understand it, even a little, you can bet their little paws will be very carefully reaching into it as soon as your back is turned.” “So they innovate? Is that it?” “Yep. They aren’t content to just beg for scraps like the rest of you,” Caw replied. “Where you ask ‘Can you give?’ they ask ‘How do you do that?’. Even more importantly they don’t just leave it at that. You give them something and they fucking run with it. A hair dryer turns into new alloys. A few hours long lecture on agriculture becomes increased crop yields across the whole planet, not from blindly copying but from experimenting based on what you told them. Their ‘scientific method’ is a bit… um… well the aat make it work, kinda… but they do generate advances at a startling rate… somehow…” Caw laughed. “Astonishingly nowhere near as many of their ‘scientists’ die than you would think, even if their greatest ‘tome’ of modern metallurgy comes from ‘Master Naked One-Eye’. In case you are wondering among his many discoveries was a very important observation concerning molten aluminum and water.” “But isn’t that dangerous? They could damage a reactor or something!” “They aren’t stupid,” Caw laughed. “They will destroy their wife’s hair dryer but they aren’t going to wreck the community’s irrigation pumps. Besides, what’s more dangerous, blowing the occasional thing up or an entire civilization stagnating and having absolutely nothing to offer, nothing to show for centuries of access to the single greatest repository of knowledge in the known galaxy?” Caw paused for emphasis. “And that is the big reason we loathe you so. Almost every single sophont that approaches us is grasping with an empty hand, begging for pre-packaged tech bringing nothing in return. That wouldn’t be so bad if they were asking for knowledge. They aren’t. They don’t want to know. They don’t want to understand. They just want the finished product, another fucking production instruction set. Sometimes they have the gall to skip even that and beg for actual devices!” Caw said his voice raising in anger. “Then… Then!… Then they have the gall to accuse us of hoarding our knowledge, refusing to share it. We did! We gave so much! We, with no expectation of gain, donated almost all of our knowledge! Almost all of our science, mathematics, history, art… all of it is in the fucking archives! All of it! All!” he screeched. “It’s all there! Given freely! Given! But do you little fuckers know that? Did you bother to look? You little shits claim you want knowledge! You don’t! You want fucking handouts! You want another set of designs you don’t understand to load into a machine you don’t understand!” he yelled. Unable to contain himself he started to pace. “Even then, we could understand. We could forgive. Because with all of the wonders you could build you could enrich the lives of your people… but you don’t! You just take and take and abuse and abuse. You could make system after system of people well provided for and safe but no… NO! That is not what you do! What do you do? Ask the z’uush! Ask the kaarst! Ask the vulxeen! And they have the absolute nerve to ask us for better tools to oppress either their own people or take advantage of others!” Caw shouted. “Even the best of you have absolutely nothing to be proud of. Your people, among the best as far as things are concerned, are slowly allowing more and more of your people to slip into poverty every year! Do you care? Clearly you don’t. And yet, race after race approaches and begs for ‘knowledge’ claiming it’s ‘for their people’. Seriously?!?! Fuck all of you!” he screeched. “And perhaps worst of all you actually had to ask why we hate you? Are you fucking blind? We like to say there are no stupid questions but damn, Kara… Damn...” Karashel looked down as Caw gasped for breath. He was right. Even her race was guilty of every single thing he said. The only defense they had was they weren’t as horrible as others. “Ok...” she said quietly. “I get it. I understand. Thank you.” Tear it all down... Caw flicked his crest. Was she being serious? “You thank me?” “I honestly didn’t know,” she said quietly. “I didn’t know so many things. Thank you. I really needed to hear this. We need to change. Not must the baleel, the whole Federation.” “Yeah, you do… we do,” Caw said patting her. “It has to happen. We need to change things before its too late.” Tear it all down... “Yes, Kara, things need to change,” Caw replied. “The big question is how. Figure that one out and you-” “By doing whatever we have to do, that’s how,” Karashel said with strange quiet voice. “Eeee!” Caw screeched. “Whoa!... Hold on right there! Stop!” “What?” “That phrase and its infamous sibling, ‘by any means necessary’ are the most dangerous thoughts in history! Do you have any idea how many people those words have killed across the galaxy? Numbers beyond counting! Never ever ever think that way! Seriously! ‘The greater good’, ‘by any means necessary’, ‘the ends justify the means’, these thoughts are horribly dangerous! They are poison that kills the soul and drives people to madness! Good people become monsters and monsters gain strength with those words. Nation after nation, planet after planet, empire after empire, have burned, the innocent littering the streets! Nothing justifies ‘any means necessary’! Nothing! Even if the end result seemed a utopia it would be built on the bones of the innocent and the end result is NEVER a utopia! NEVER!… never...” He thinks I’m dangerous? Karashel thought in amazement. He thinks I’m dangerous! A strange sense of power washed over her. She actually frightened an elder race with a single phrase! Were those words that powerful? Could a simple idea be that dangerous? “I’m fucking serious, Kara,” Caw said gravely. “The ends NEVER justify the means. Nothing is worth ‘by any means necessary’. Do yourself a favor. Study some history. See where that sort of thinking leads. Twentieth century Earth is a fantastic period to study. There are numerous examples of what that thinking produces. Promise me you will do that, Kara. Please. I’m asking you as a friend.” A friend? “Ok, Caw. I will, I promise. I will do it tonight.” “Great,” Caw smiled. “Let’s head back.” *** Most of the day was spent when they began their return to “civilization”. As the evening began Karashel looked glumly out of the window. The “night people” were starting to appear. Karashel looked at what was obviously a prostitute standing by the street. Instead of making a disapproving snort and looking away she really looked at her this time. While it was a different species, the misery that the poor whore exuded was universal. For the first time Karashel found herself wondering if they were there of their own volition. Tear it all down… She sighed as the scene was replaced by more run down streets and shadowy figures. She saw a bus stop and a creature step off and nervously look around before rushing off, trying to stay in the light. It’s afraid, she thought. It’s afraid to even be here. “You’re awfully quiet,” Caw said with a little chuckle. “I’m trying not to ask any more questions,” Karashel replied with a little snort. “I don’t think I could handle another answer right now.” “Heh, fair enough,” Caw replied. “Seriously though, don’t be too hard on yourself. The baleel really aren’t doing that badly, comparatively speaking.” “We are better than the kaarst,” Karashel replied grimly, “Yay us!” “You just need to make a few adjustments, that’s all,” Caw said in an attempt to reassure her. He felt a little bad. Karashel was a good little slug. He hoped he hadn’t been too hard on her. Tear it all down... “Just a few adjustments,” she snorted. “Now I’ll make a trillion credit bet with you. No matter what I say or do those little adjustments will never happen and in a few years six percent of the baleel will live in poverty. It’s pointless.” “You don’t know that,” Caw replied knowing that she was probably right. “But you aren’t taking the bet are you?” Caw looked away. “Thought so,” Karashel said quietly and returned to staring out of the window. By any means necessary... she quivered at the thought. That was a much better way of saying it… and those words were powerful. They made her feel funny. A distant alarm rang out, its piercing wail punctuating a rather grim car ride. Karashel found herself wondering if it was villainy or simple desperation that set it off. “Um… I appreciate you mentioning your ‘sharrs’,” Caw said trying to change the subject. “It’s amazing how that influenced the development of...” Karashel “smiled” politely and tried to pay attention but her heart really wasn’t in it. The last thing she wanted to hear was how interesting her race once was. Apparently they were very interesting indeed before they shut down and became bland little "homework copiers.” “… and that directly influenced the development of thorium as opposed to uranium for your fission technology! Quite fascinating! I am definitely going to find out if any of those ancient printing presses have been preserved! If so I will go to your homeworld to look at them myself!” “Be sure to bring some spare change for the beggars,” Karashel replied. “Progenitors!” Caw snapped in exasperation. “Quit beating yourself! That’s my job! You are taking the fun out of it!” Karashel chuckled. “Sorry, it’s just a lot to process, you know. I’ll be fine.” “Look, if you are really, truly serious about creating change,” Caw said, “I’ll help. The archives have detailed accounts of many, many social transitions both for good and for ill. History is a powerful tool for those who wish to influence policy, Kara. I can point you in the right direction, maybe answer a legitimate request for knowledge from time to time.” “You would do that, for one of ‘us’?” “No, not for one of you, for you,” Caw replied. “I hate wasting my time and more importantly our history has more than one example of us trying to help only for it to go horribly wrong. That being said, I think you just might not be a complete waste of my efforts. If you are serious, really serious, about helping your people then yes, I would be willing to advise provided you keep it to yourself!” Caw said firmly. “Word gets out and I get mobbed by assholes. That happens and the deal is off.” “I… I really appreciate that, Caw.” “Think nothing of it,” he replied. “I will look into a reading list for you but your first assignment is to take a long hard look at twentieth-century Earth as a cautionary tale. We need to nip that whole ‘by any means necessary’ nonsense in the bud right now. It is impossible to overstate how fucking dangerous that concept is. Before I do anything to help, you will understand that hazard.” “I’ll start tonight!” she said with real cheer in her voice. Caw smiled. He probably just signed up for far more effort than this was going to be worth but what the hell. What’s the worst that could happen? *** Karashel undulated into her apartment and just slumped, her muscles letting go. What a day! She set her lunchbox, still untouched, on the counter and went out to her balcony to tend to her beloved plants. As she did she looked out over the city, the shiny spotless, shining capital, the capital that they wanted you to see. It was breathtaking. Too bad it was a lie, just like the rest of the Federation. Tear it all down... She shook her head trying to clear that annoying thought from her mind. It was a silly idea. Caw would yell, or even worse laugh, at her for having it. He was right. It isn’t that simple. There are some very real realities that thwart even the elder races. It required a lot of- Tear it all down! She winced. Creators! She was as silly as Caw thought she was. Tear it all down? It was just an offhand comment, an expression of frustration. She didn’t know what a quark was but even she knew that it wasn’t a real suggestion. Maybe some tea would clear her head. She undulated over to her kitchen and pulled out her trusty tea maker, popped in a pod of grelelle tea, and pressed the touchpad… And nothing happened. “No...” she grumbled poking the touchpad again… Still nothing… “You Baleel piece of shit!” she grumbled giving the tea maker a shake. Of all the days for this to happen. She needed that tea! Wait! The aat simply boiled those grains to make that tasty beverage! Isn’t that what they used to do before we used tea makers? We just used hot water, right? She got her smallest pot, filled it with about a tea mug full of water, and with a little effort tore into one of the tea pods, promptly spilling the contents all across her counter. Scooping it up she swept it into the pot and put it on the cooktop. The water started to steam and quickly came to a boil. You can tell the cooktop isn’t Baleelan, she smirked to herself. She looked at the boiling water. It was starting to look like tea! She wasn’t sure how long she should boil it so she let it go for a minute or two and then poured it into her cup. “See, we aren’t so helpless after all!” she said proudly and took a sip… Of the foulest most bitter tea she had ever consumed. “Gah!” she snorted trying to spit out small fragments of tea leaves. “Great,” she muttered, “We’ve lost the ability to make our signature drink. Lovely...” Tear it all- “Oh be quiet,” she grumbled, “I can’t even make tea. I’m not tearing down anything.” The thought evaporated. As she was washing out her mouth she looked over at her data terminal. I bet I can find out how to make tea! she thought, or at least order a new tea maker. She undulated over to the terminal. As she powered it up she decided that she should ‘do her homework first’. “Let’s see, twentieth century Sol...” she mused as she started to expertly navigate through the archives. A lot of the titles were in Terran. She officially could speak it but she wasn’t that great. Time to cheat! She reached into her desk drawer, pulled out a small device and connected it to her terminal. It powered up and automatically synced with a neural implant she had connected directly into her sensory structures. Automatic translation function active… appeared in glowing letters across her vision. She selected a text that claimed to be an overview of the century and started plugging away. The translator was working perfectly! She activated the glossary function and auxiliary image associators that helpfully started pulling up associated information and additional documents. Even with all of the technology it was still pretty inaccessible and slow going. She needed a break. She smiled. She loved music and what better way to get a feel for a culture than through their music? This was a great idea! She started to disconnect the neural interface but stopped. It was already connected and the translation and image associators would come in handy. Besides, the “sound” was way better than her speakers and she could listen as “loud” as she wanted without bothering the neighbors! She pulled up “Twentieth-Century Music: Sol System: Adapted to Terran”. A list filled her mind. One of the titles was “Rage Against the Machine”. She was quite vexed with her tea maker. She wondered if the ancient humans had similar woes. She selected the folder and clicked play… *** At lunch the following day Caw saw Karashel at her lunch table and sauntered up. “Kara!” he called out happily. Karashel twitched oddly. “Hey, Caw,” she said looking up and him blearily. “You ok?” “Yeah… Yeah, I’m fine,” she said in an odd voice. “I just didn’t get much sleep last night.” “Oh?” Caw asked “Hitting the books?” “Yeah, all night,” Karashel said looking at him with just one eye. “Terran history… pretty crazy stuff, right?” “Yes, quite the ride,” Caw replied, “And the next century is even wilder! Definitely worth a read! So, did your studies start to put things in proper context?” “Oh yeah...” Karashel replied, “Context… so much fucking context… context...” “And what do you think about ‘by any means necessary’ now?” “...dangerous...” “So, any questions?” “Maybe later,” Karashel said. “Kinda tired right now.” “Yeah, you look beat,” Caw replied. “The quest for knowledge is addictive but be sure to at least sleep. A lot of Xx forget that part when they get their first taste. So… did you?” Caw asked excitedly, “Did you get your first taste?” “Oh fuck yeah,” Karashel replied lighting up. “And how does it feel?” “I can’t… I don’t know how to say it...” “Ah, I know exactly what you are feeling,” Caw said happily. I bet you a trillion credits you don’t... “I remember the first time I...” Caw started cheerfully sharing the first time something really engaged his mind. As she listened she looked out over the gardens and at all the fat complacent little councilors, engorged with the life blood of their victims, wallowing about like worms and smiled. Tear it down… Tear it all down... by any means necessary!
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