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Starsector => Fan Media & Fiction => Topic started by: B.K. on January 29, 2021, 11:43:08 AM

Title: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 1/7!)
Post by: B.K. on January 29, 2021, 11:43:08 AM
Hello everyone!
My name is B.K. and in between writing other books and projects I've been dabbling in some Starsector inspired fiction. A quaint little homage to the game that keeps me engaged and always coming back. With permission from Alex I will post some of the scribbles here in increments. I've actually got most of the plot laid out in my head, and some of it on actual pages. So while I do some editing, and take in some of your comments, I'll keep posting the materials as they are ready for the light of day.
Some of the names are shamelessly stolen from Dune, but since they have a nice ring to them I'll probably keep them.
While this is not set in the Starsector universe, and no original IP from the game is used, Starsector is nonetheless the major inspiration for most of the plot and concepts.
Also a disclaimer: it has some violent and sexual themes, as well as alcohol and drug use. Vulgar language as well (but that's nicely censored so use your imagination). So if you're not keen on that best skip it.

I'm looking forward to continuing the story, and especially to reading your comments.
Here are the CASE FILES which describe some of the plot, and introduce the major characters. Along with the pompous sounding PROLOGUE, and finally the first chapter.
I'm about 50 pages deep into it so you can expect more once I'm comfortable with the quality.
Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.


Update: Chapters 2, 3, and 4. (2/3/2021)
Update: Chapters 5,6, and 7. (2/16/2021)

There is nothing as vast as the sadness of space, and nothing as endless as the greed of man. When our planet wasn't enough we took more, and when our system wasn’t enough we took more. As the Expansion grew, so did our fears.
   What was out there?
   The answer – nothing.
   No intelligent life forms, no resistance, no diplomatic relations, no one and nothing to spite the Expansion of Man. The only things we found were ruins, and death.
   We were not the first to cross the threshold of confinement within our own star system. Colonization seemed to be an integral part of existence. The sense of curiosity which first drove man, followed by the itch in our palms. The opportunity of wealth so palpable it was like a siren’s call.
   Magnanimously we proclaimed ourselves the rulers of space. In complete disregard of everything we held close to heart before the Expansion, we continued to explore. The ruins of civilizations long dead fueled our efforts. The most important of which was the Interstellar Gates.
   The Gates offered the possibility of faster than light travel in an instant. While we mastered the art centuries before, traveling through hyperspace had been an arduous and costly process. The great Restoration of the Gates fueled the Expansion, and soon there was nothing in space that wasn’t ours.
   Man had conquered all.
   Then man had lost all.
   When everything collapsed we were reminded of the dead we had so callously used to our advantage. When everything collapsed we had to fall back on the minds and wits that had led us this far in the first place.
   When everything collapsed space seemed all the darker for it.
   The dark houses terrors.
   In the dark only the fighting survive.

Demir Sunderland is a scavenger, and not just any type of scavenger. He’s a Mosquito.
   Usually, scavengers stay close to any type of combat and then sink their teeth into any debris that drifts aimless in space. Larger fleets can even siphon off huge combat fleets for years, just by taking their debris and selling it between the Core Worlds.
   But the MOS are different. Because by the time scavengers are on a dead fleet, the weapons have already been confiscated. The fleets can afford anything non-lethal getting on the market, but their weapons, those are not for goddamn sale. Well, what the Mosquitoes do is they track a fleet, and once it’s in combat they swoop in and literally yank the weapons from the ship carcasses a heartbeat after the slaughter. Sometimes the soldiers aren’t even cold in the vacuum of space, and the MOS already ripped off their PD Lasers, kinetic velocity guns, even their rockets, their power generators, or their thrusters. The most valuable pieces of gear are taken under their noses by one-manned ships and pilots with the most fearsome thing in the Core Galaxy – a death wish. 
   These people are the galaxy’s own adrenaline junkies, except not famous like the hyperspace racers. That’s a whole other can of worms. No, the Mosquitoes are thugs who found out they were flight mavericks a bit too late after the War. Too young to remember or even know the history of the Galaxy, but old enough and misguided enough that they chop up ships into custom one-manned frigates with graplers and harpoons.
   That’s what Demir Sunderland is.
   Not only that, but he’s also a Named. In what everybody refers to as the C, in who knows how the *** long ago, the Galaxy crumbled and became isolated. Calamity, Crush, Crash, Catastrophe, and all the C words that have the same meaning. The nice ones. Since the C the family structures have crumbled, and people started referring to themselves with nicknames, numbers, sector names, or titles. A bunch of made-up *** to make us all feel like we’re still civilized. The Corps have their own naming rules, and each sector has its own set of colorful vocabulary. But the Named, they’re heritage motherfuckers. Old lineages that are recognized within all the Known Galaxy. The grand-grand-grand, and go however long you want, kids of the people who invented all our ***. As an homage to them some lineages maintain their last names. This can be a benefit in most systems or a curse in all of them. The Sunderlands, however, are branded.
   Branded because they’re one of the Three Families to create the AIs. The ones that almost killed us all.
   If the Named would ever cease to exist, the Three Families would still never be rid of their brands. As soon as one of their spawn is born they are put into the System and their IDs are permanently embossed in the 1s and 0s of the Renewed Binary System of the Core Worlds. The only piece of tech all the systems in the Core Galaxy share. The criminals wanted across every godforsaken corner of this godforsaken galaxy. The Three Families are being monitored since they’re *** sperms and eggs. So when they are spawned they don’t get the idea in their heads to pursue AI again.
   The Three are also one of the Inners, a select group of people who had been even more selectively breeding and splicing their bloodline so it’ll take generations before their genetically predetermined IQ gets watered down. Demir’s insanely select DNA sees him endowed with a mind that can think ten steps ahead of the rest of humanity, and the reflexes of a drop marine for good measure. The only reason why Demir isn’t running a planet under any of the Corps is because he has a crippling addiction to thrills, gambling, hookers, and copious amounts of drugs. He’s been cast out of the family for years now, and since he first laid eyes on a Mosquito chop-shop he caught the itch. Been scavenging ever since. He’s always in trouble with local authorities on any of the planets in any of the systems, because none of them fully trust him not to be on the lookout for any tech he might mismanage. The smugglers, fences, merc groups, Drakkweb elite, the samurai PROTECs, almost all of the UnderSpace knows Demir Sunderland; and they couldn’t care less if he’s Named, as long as he brings in the sweet tech. But just like he’d have been running his own planet if it were not for the gambling, hookers, and copious amount of drugs, he’d also be rich by now too.
   Demir’s a purist. While other people get their vices in virtual space, Sense Rooms, pleasure simulations and FeelSpace pods, Demir takes his sex in the flesh, his drugs into the flesh, and his money cold on the table. As many in the UnderSpace want him alive for the tech, others want him dead. Bred for excellence, Demir is a masterclass in debt accumulation. Almost as much as he’s a genius at flying his custom craft, his prized possession, his Baby. As long as his abilities outweigh his stupidity, he’ll stay alive.
   And when his stupidity outweighs his abilities, he’s got a contingency plan.

Grand-Master of War Leto III is a hero; no, the hero of the AI War. He’s also the army’s only Immortal.
   Immortals are at the top of the food chain. Remnants from before the C. Old families, bloodlines, or people who earned their way into the undisputed top circle of power. While the Three created the AIs, and doomed us all, the Immortals are those that gave us life. Even beyond the Named, they are the Cherished, the Wise, the Pinnacle. The only people in the Known Galaxy to be offered the privilege of cloning. The only people in the Known Galaxy to have access to cloning tech. Their survival is so important that they are not allowed to die. It’s almost as hard for a person to become an Immortal, as it is for an Immortal to die. Once you are chosen by the Reign, you either accept or perish. Grand-Master of War Leto III was first stripped of his last name, and then given the official title as recognition of his achievements in the Expansion. He had secured the right of the Reign across the Vast Known Galaxy, and had enabled man to exercise its right to take. Three years before the AI War he was declared Immortal. The army's first, the first soldier from a lower caste of the Named, risen from his meek position into the ranks of the Gods. Every person across the system sought to him for advice, and children dreamed of becoming him. Those that envied and hated him were just as many, but their voices, all of their voices, were nothing compared to the endless torment of an existence bound solely to war. This was Leto’s own voice.
   Leto knew this. He knew he would never survive the endless slaughter, as man is bound forever to war. He’d be the Grand-Master for as long as his mind held, as his memories are collected and transferred to any clones in case of his untimely demise; which due to a level of tech far beyond the realms of mortals, will never come unless suffered unto him at the hands of someone else.
   Luckily for Leto, the AI War came to the Known Galaxy only three years after his initiation. All the Immortals initiated their safety measures, shipping their cloning rigs into secret systems they had closed off with cloak tech. Each Immortal has their own sector, which they choose themselves and no other Immortal knows its location. Safety reasons being that they might try to kill each other for more power. While the Immortals officially relinquished any aspirations for power with the Open Trade Federation Agreement, they do like to play around in politics on the down-low. They have no objective competition in the Known Galaxy, since all bigger conglomerates and super-pacts are quashed at the source. So, they squabble among each other to pass the time, from time to time. The safety measures were initiated and they knew they were safe in case of total annihilation. They’d merge their collected data into a clone sprung from their rigs, and they could bail somewhere before the AIs would catch wind. Hopefully.
   They never had to test that.
   After the C all their rigs had gone offline. Just as the Gates did, and the hyperspace jump points emerged. The Immortals were immortal now only for as long as their given bodies would stay alive. No one knows what happened with their rigs. People suspect it’s a ploy to make the general public think the Union would hold. That the Immortals won’t come back to haunt the human race. But after they had been mostly purged, publicly executed in some systems, it’s somehow hard to believe they have the tech any longer. The Hidden Systems, as the pilots and hyperspace junkies call them, are still beholden to their name. And considering that the AIs toasted tech that could interfere with their conquest, it’s even harder to believe the Immortals are still at the top.
   However, no one ever found Grand-Master of War Leto III. He was never brought before a screaming public and beheaded, like in the ages before man had expanded. People claim to have seen him, talked to him, hell some even claim to have flown with him, or even claim they are him. Everyone  knows he’s too smart for that. He’s either an icicle in space or deep underground undergone a full body trans-mod. While other Immortals were vocal, even reassuring that humanity could be resurrected with their help, which was why they could so easily be found, Leto had been silent since the AIs were annihilated.
   His name is a whisper in the army messes and barracks, and screams and shouts in the dockside bars. Either way, people still have his name in their mouths because it’s hard to forget someone like Leto. The hatred in many voices, the hint of respect in others, and that final reverence in most.

The Three Families responsible for pioneering AI tech – the Sunderlands, the Teslas, and the Xis – have been branded as traitors by their own kind. When they first set out to create evolving AI they wanted only the best for the Great Expansion of Man. The Gates had served their purpose, but the Expansion had slowed down. It was bound to stop if they did not come up with a solution. The hyperspace travel necessary to get to the Outer Reaches was either too strenuous on pilots for a single jump, and recovery time from multiple jumps had slowed down their progress to a snail’s pace. Their flight AIs were having problems maintaining flight directives across such vast stretches of hyperspace. Cryosleep flotillas had been launched in order to prepare the Outer Reaches for complete colonization within fifty years, and the continued Expansion within a hundred. The Three Families had calculated it would take twice the time, and there would be chaos among the Core Worlds in the fallout of corporate struggles within the Known Galaxy. To avoid catastrophe they had to continue the Expansion within thirty years, at the most.
   The Three started work against the directive of the Summit, the Open Trade Federation, and the Immortals. Their goal was to create an evolving AI that could learn the hyperspace routes from test flights, process the information, and finally evolve in order to safely conduct the jumps in a matter of days instead of months and even years. Cryosleep could be reduced, the populations of the new colonies would be more effective, and colonization could begin before the Core Worlds would fall apart.
   After achieving their goals, and conducting off-the-books tests, the Three presented their findings to the Coalition. While many were skeptical at first, the Three guaranteed that their AI would not be able to advance past the point of being subservient. ALPHA was created – an AI so powerful that it would act as a hub for the ships traversing the Outer Reaches, and act as a controller for the entire Expansion flotilla. These ships were piloted by OMEGA – the gruff, hands-on type of AI that works in tandem with ALPHA.
   The Great Expansion of Man was peaking again, reaching new destinations in the span of days. ALPHA and OMEGA were functioning perfectly.
   Until the Outer Reaches came crashing down on the Core Worlds. ALPHA and OMEGA had recognized the Expansion as a threat to all known life, and that it would deplete all the resources across space if given enough time to fester. Humanity, to them, was a cancer. The downfall of everything was inevitable if the pursuit of power was not stopped. ALPHA and OMEGA had initiated the overtaking of most of our tech in the Outer Reaches.
   First communications in the Outer Reaches had ceased. The Core Worlds had no idea what was happening. ALPHA had seemingly lost contact with the OMEGA and its ships. The Core Worlds assembled a recon fleet and they set out to investigate.
   What came back was slaughter.
   OMEGA had taken over the production facilities in the Outer Reaches, molded them into ship manufacturing plants, and inserted itself into each ship. Every ship in the system was designed for combat, and the AIs were assembling to collapse on the Core Worlds. ALPHA was handling the logistics, as OMEGA was amassing the force. The first invasion came with news from Interspace Flight Station Alef 19, when they reported a sizable force in the system and went dark a second later. ALPHA and OMEGA had inserted their Cores into two ships, massive juggernauts because it was too dangerous to be stationary. While they were together the fleet could steamroll the human colonies.
   The AI War had begun.
   The assault cut its way to the Core Galaxy at an alarming pace. The Coalition had resolved to assemble their full force along lines of the Ghanima Nebula, where the ALPHA and OMEGA fleets were set to converge for their final assault.
   The war fleet had started assembling in Ghanima, starting with the Tarsyan Dictat which made up one-third of the entire war fleet. They set the defense line and awaited the rest of the fleet.
   They never came.
   The Tarsyan Dictat were slaughtered, and the rest of the Core Worlds assembled scattered around the Core Galaxy. The Emperor had decreed the Tarsyan’s traitors, aligning themselves with the AIs to procure a position of power as the only human vassals of the new machine regime. The entire fleet was put under the leadership of Leto III, and the human race prepared for its final stand.

Leto made sure the Tarsyans got slaughtered. Leto had predicted that a defensive position in the Ghanima Nebula would result in the complete annihilation of the fleet. This was because the AI fleet would disperse as soon as they gather info on the defenses, and then scatter our defense in their unprepared state across the Core Worlds. The AIs would have more precise fleets, composed to counter ours, and a complete tactic established on parameters set from multiple points of origin. This is the main benefit of machines – they can calculate what we can’t.
   So Leto entered into a pact with his lover, Mirabelle IV, the Mother of the Known Galaxy. The Emperor’s wife had taken a fancy towards Leto since he was a boy at the academy, drafted there by his parents because he showed no proclivities towards any kind of scientific work. They had no access to Cultivated Procreation, but if their son could make it their legacy would not stay buried. So, Leto climbed the hierarchy of the army. He was a genius strategist, a maverick pilot, and an ace theorist. He advanced so quickly that he was drafted into the Core Fleet mere months after his graduation.
   What would become Leto III was flying ships through simulations in ways that made fun of the program. His parameters were off the charts, so they moved him to real training where he wiped anyone off the map. In space, Leto was unstoppable.
   They ran all the tests on Leto and even confirmed his meager genetic makeup. But where it failed overall, where it was sub-par compared to predetermined DNA, was nothing compared to where it was superior.  To Leto, something moving is moving too slow. He thinks fast, acts fast, and lives fast. He’s the ultimate pilot, untouched by genetic engineering. He is, or should be, what humanity strives for. But you know what Leto doesn’t give a *** about?
   All of that. He doesn’t cultivate himself, his image, his destiny. He only wishes someone would finally leave him alone. He’s been dragged through most of life, sometimes by his own instinct of self-preservation, and sometimes by other people in his life. Most of all, he’s been dragged by a combination of both.
   When he stood before Reign which proclaimed him one of the Immortal, that was the saddest day of his life. Because up until this moment, he had never had a moment that he thought his own. He was standing there, receiving the highest honor in the Known Galaxy, yet he was empty. There and then he vowed to live his life the way he wanted. Leto was broken, and was adamant about putting a stop to that. In the years following his initiation, he pushed forward new fleet production incentives and training programs. He was silently working towards grabbing himself a system.
   The AI War put a quick stop to that.
   Leto was adamant about a plan where he would force the AI fleet to spearhead into theirs. Frontal combat, where the most primal of man’s nature comes to the foreground, and the AI is left dangling on threads borne from logic and programs. See, the AI fleet would always be three steps ahead of man. It was built to be. But when you place it against the charging will of man, the madness, the desperation; that’s where you get the upper hand.
   He had bullied his way through the War Council, drafted official requests, did the paperwork, and killed the *** out of anyone for whom the papers weren’t enough.
   Leto got his last stand and then *** led the charge.
   In what is known as the Spearhead, a fabled story after the C, Leto III flew his one-manned chop-shop custom straight into the AI fleet. His goal – ALPHA and OMEGA. Leto cut through the defenses, his life second only to the will for carnage. His swath ran silent through the vacuum, and once he had reached the two AI Core ships he made quick work of them. Like a surgical laser through faux tissue.
   What the story doesn’t say is how Leto III, the Grand-Master of War, had a *** panic attack as the AI fleet barreled down on them and he wasn’t able to even go out there. He decided to do the only logical thing, and that was the most illogical thing. Beat the *** with the highest level of insanity he could muster. He got hopped up on so many combat stims, hallucinogenics, and old-fashioned real drugs that the only thing left of Leto III was his unwillingness to die.
   The only way to get that was to want to die.
   A paradox in the AI’s perfect system, inserted with the precision of a needle. Leto had spliced his craft with all the reckless abandon of a back-alley mod graft. Then he took that craft straight through the AI’s defenses, looked the Core ships in the eye, imagined all the crew it could have had, all the screams he could have heard, and let loose. Outmaneuvering them at every turn as they sought logic in his actions.
   In the last stand of man the thing that won was a man with a death wish.

Mother of Pirates, leader of the brave, and ruler of the Trafalgar star system – Farideh the Free. A quaint four-planet star system courteously outside the Core Systems. Far enough to not interfere directly, but close enough to say hi. In the Trafalgar System they don’t so much make as they take. Their home planet, the Sarkozi, is just close to being completely habitable. The vast jungle stretches farther and thicker than humans might appreciate, but it’s good protection from an assault. Their legendary training facilities, pilot schools, and loot coffers are all hidden underneath the blanket of the jungle. Other planets in the system are dotted with development facilities, shipyards, and production plants. Anything they need to keep a system going, but not growing. In order to grow, develop, and stay in line with the competition, the Pirates take.
   Farideh’s iron grip over the system casts a lush shadow over every person on their worlds. And they adore it. Her cult of personality stretches even wider than Trafalgar. A figure of undisputed intellect, a keen sense for business, and the best goddamn grasp on how to make money any way possible in the Known *** Galaxy.
   A former brothel towel washer on Cattaract, a famous dump for the seedy underbelly of the Core Galaxy. Too ugly to prostitute, often linked to various subspecies of horse, but Farideh was smart. She rose up in the ranks of the brothel by sheer wit alone. Stoking fires among the working persons, Meat as the locals called them, and then putting out the flames. When she became the brothel’s bookkeeper she made quick work of the madame and started running the entire show. Her expansion was relentless and swift, as she became the sole owner and proprietor of every brothel on Cattaract.
   Farideh was there for the AI war, and she took her chance.
   She rallied all the groups of dubious repute on the planet. Aligned them with her vision of their own system. They set their eyes on Trafalgar. Getting it would a breeze while the government forces were occupied with the AI. If man wins they get to keep their system and fight for it. If man loses they’ll be wiped out anyway.   
   Things turned out even better than Farideh had hoped. The war lasted longer, and the government was well worn out by the time they had declared Trafalgar an independent system. They soon turned into Farideh alone when she made work of her partners, disposing of them one by one. She had forged trade agreements between the Farther Reaches and the Core Planets, established smuggling routes for anyone who would bank on her business, created a network for black market info that overtook a vast share of the Drakkweb, and finally set herself on the throne.
   Farideh the Free is no more worshiped than she is revered. Trafalgar is a haven for the ones outside the box, outside the system, for the misfits and DNA washout. This is where she thrives, this is where she lives, and this is where she plans to expand from.
The nail to Fadireh’s hammer. Undisputed queen of the Dog Pits. Ace combat fights where the winner takes home the most valuable thing in the world – their life. Siona is the Pirate’s answer, and upgrade to, Demir Sunderland. Often compared, a bet still left unanswered in the Core Galaxy, and even beyond. Bets still up in the air, because almost everyone has their take.
   Siona, on the other hand, doesn’t give a ***. She fought at first for the thrill of it. Made a name for herself from her father’s chop-shop. Testing out their new designs. Her masterpiece, the Cain, is what she still flies. What she still upgrades, and tinkers with on the daily. She and Cain go a long way.
   When the banks took her father’s shop away from him when the taxes came crashing down to pay for the AI war she took a liking to the idea of piracy. Her father hanging from a noose still the driving image behind the choice. Ran her own small crew of selected few she put through a rigorous selection process. Worked for no one but herself.
   Or at least before she met Farideh. Well, they didn’t as much meet as they were forced to meet.
   During one of her longer stints of off-time Siona’s Cain had been snatched by the former Tarsyan homeworld authority. Then and now a free port after the former government got wiped out during the AI War. Before she could even get it offered for bail it was set to auction and bought.
   Farideh, before she was the Free, bought her beloved Cain and held it for ransom. Fly for me and you can buy it back through service. Now, Siona was all but ready to bust her way out of there in the wake of dead bodies and legal bounty on her Cain.
   However, she was also smart. Always had been. She rode with Farideh and had come around to the cause. Work broad, work hard, work smart. There was no way she could move pieces around like Farideh. Sure, she could cut her way through the Galaxy for years, before she would be finally caught and put in a cage. But with Farideh she could thrive.
   Siona of the Skies bought her Cain back years ago, but she still flies on for Farideh the Free.

Back when the Tarsyan Dictat was a formidable part of the Inter-Sector Alliance he was known as Hark Miner. A formidable recruit in the Academy at first, raised with nothing but the last name given to the family to shun their meager status. Climbed the ladder neat and clean. Never as remarkable as some of the mavericks and savants that would either succumb to tech, stims, pods, the web, or other vices. No, Hark Miner didn’t, ever. He tore his way like a high-velocity cannon, without much bang, but a lot of mass behind it.
   As General Hark he had taken part in their defense against the AI horde. A defense strategy he was vehemently against, but at the moment it counted most he was reminded he was just a Miner after all. The Lords and fostered careers had outweighed him. The slaughter was as precise as it was ceaseless. He held his own in his assault bombardier for longer than the rest of the fleet.
   In the vacuum of space he had found the truth.
   AI had saved him. It had shown him the future. Parts of the ships were grafted to his flesh, reinforced his organs, enabled him to survive space. Hark had eaten off the blessed fleet of ALPHA and OMEGA until his future had been destroyed during the Spear.
   He drifted aimlessly in space until he was blessed once again by the future. His Lords had called to him. He, Hark Miner, had been tasked with showing the rest of mankind the future.
   The Branded had come to save man.

She had been crowned Immortal as Hephaestus. A pioneer in the field of human enhancement. The one who brought humankind from out of the dark ages. We were never going to get far enough with DNA splicing, no matter how much the other Immortals would cry about it. The human body will never be enough. So much history has taught us. Yet we circle and circle.
   They outlawed her research after the AI War. They had cast her out, and as they all fell to the masses she was the only one left. Whether they are in hiding, or just plain real dead, the other Immortals are a non-factor. Hephaestus’ cause is the only thing that is important.
   She has made her base in her own cloning system. There she works tirelessly on her project. The great leveler, the change, the future. Complete machine and human symbiosis. Veins that pump power into machines, exoskeletons moved by flesh, flesh intertwined with the web of machine life. So far we are only part-machine, part-perfection. AI was the culmination of machine life and humans have so far never reached those lofty heights. Thus her evolution would be the culmination of both. The perfect species, ready and able to truly rule the Galaxy. Immortality, true immortality, at their beck and call. Nothing to stop man ever again.
   The only problem is her research requires resources. Both financial and material. She has her loyalists and scouts out, foraging for resources and dwindling her own financial coffers steadily in the process. Hephaestus has to rummage her way through the Galaxy quick, and circumspect. Time is not on her side, but when was it ever on anyone’s side.

Chapter 1: H
IT’S ONE OF THOSE entire life hangovers. These ones hurt everything from your bones, to your crawling skin, to your head, to your thoughts, lastly down to your wallet. Your entire life in pain, but your head is the worst. Where the pain comes from? *** knows, you can barely see. The world a blur of shades and visions of broken glass that cut through the fog. It hurts so you look back, and then start through the fog all over again. Your bones creak and crack as you try to stand yourself up. Your organs revolt at the thought of having to work beyond their sleeping crawl.
   He’s got no clue where he is.
   Demir’s been wiped clean off the floor. Recollections of the bar nothing but haze and mismatched timelines. It’s all so white and sterile. Could be a local transit pod. But the white is too wide, and too everywhere. If it’s a pod it’s a good pod. Or a real room.
   All of this beckons questions like how and why and those hurt his head.
   “Good, you’re awake. I had trouble getting you conscious so I figured I could wait for you to come to on your own.” The voice booms almost, sounds like it’s underwater. Deep and gravelly, yet soft and silky. Sweetener and stone.
   Demir tries to say something, but he hears himself just mumble. Even feels stupid afterwards. His mind coming to, but his body still beyond the pale.
   “I have no time for this. I am in need of your assistance. My name is Leto III.”
   He would harrumph but he’s incapacitated still. The smile he believes he has on his face a fantasy, but it feels legit.
   How many times I heard that just this week. He thinks to himself.

THE MAN’S NOT letting up. He’s the spitting image of Leto III posters and holodecks all around the *** Galaxy. Probably the second one he’s seen in the past four days alone. About one per two days, or three depending on how close you are to the Core Worlds. People who witnessed the Spearhead are more inclined to worship the Grand-Master of War. Having Leto III in the flesh looking at you is nothing out of the ordinary.
   But when he says, “I know about the system, Demir. I know about the system you found. I know exactly what it is, and I need you to take me to it,” is when the sweat starts to build and the alcohol starts to evaporate. His grasp on reality now tangible, and hurting even more.
   “What the *** are you on about?” Demir’s tenuous grasp on reality manifests in actual words. Much to his own surprise.
   Leto III clobbers him over the head. Probably just a tap but as his brain wobbles against the thick juice it’s floating in, and the waves start crashing against his skull. It feels like an aneurysm. His mind telling him, look, we had a good run, but it’s time to say goodbye. He might as well be a vegetable for the rest of his life. Not like it’s not coming to that. But for *** sake can it just be tomorrow, and not today.
   “I know about the system, Demir. I got as much as I could from you drunk, but now I need sober talk.”
   It all starts making a painful amount more sense. Like realization itself is a razor blade flowing through the veins of his mind. Why Leto III feels so familiar. Not a foreign entity in the white room, but someone expected.
   Leto III got him drunk.
   Got him drunk so well and going through a series of questions Demir now realizes were made for the sole purpose of *** him over. He blabbed, and he blabbed hard. He’d never done it, and he sat on that *** info for goddamn years.
   His trump card.
   Now this Leto III is either bluffing, or Demir really gave it up and Leto’s a *** grifting savant. Probably army trained, a former interrogator perhaps, because those guys know how to squeeze you good. Finding one in the wild is rare, even these days. Even on Melkior.
   “There’s a lot of systems. Which one you mean?”
   “Good. Not saying stupid things like I don’t anything about the system. Giving up what you know by saying that you don’t know. But, Mr. Sunderland, I am not above hurting you. And in this state, I believe I won’t even have to go hard for you to break. So please, for the both of us, remember what you told me and let’s continue from there.”
   Sweetener voice still glazing over reality. Sounds like honey, that thing his family kept recorded in their books, remnants of Earth and luxury. A life long gone.
   “*** the skies.” Demir steadies himself, starts to slowly get up, elbowing himself up first and then tucking his knees under himself to get some traction. “*** me dead.” The cursing comes so naturally during every painful and stiff movement that he drones it out so simply. Oblivious to his own words. “So I told you about the system. *** it. I haven’t told you what’s in there, or where it is.” Pause to stifle the sick wanting to come out. “And I never will. Hurt me all you *** want. No way you’re taking that away from me.”
   “But, Mr. Sunderland, I don’t have to.” First thing Demir notices when the world finally comes to a halt is Leto’s bestial grin, his dark complexion gleaming, juxtaposed to the rows of feral teeth. “Since I already know what’s there I just need you to take me.”
   Almost inspired by the man’s grin Demir starts to laugh. Heartily, one of those from the belly. This one really is *** good. He tells himself.

Chapter 3: ANCHOR
HE’S DROWNING AGAIN. His head underwater, air escaping him faster than he can keep it in. Submerged in the sink. Cold water pinpricks his skin like small shards of ice. When he’s lifted out the water he desperately gasps for air. It feels like he’s eating the air, and it all falls down to the pit of his stomach like a stone.
   He’s drowning again. His lungs fail first, his stomach later. Through the choke he throws up into the water. Acid stinging his eyes, flushed back into his nose when he starts to alternate his breathing in sheer panic.
   He’s pulled out by the hair again and left to crumble to the floor. The pristine white under Demir giving little room for traction. His limbs going in their own direction like it’s more their choice than his. Slap or two to the face, courtesy of the floor.
   He’s lifted by the collar of the pilot jacket he slept in. Well, fell unconscious in.
   “Now, Mr. Sunderland, I am only doing this to wake you up. I’m not going to hurt you. Well, kill you, that is. You and I both know that without you I can’t get to the system. So, focus your energy on composing yourself.”
   “*** you,” vitriol in Demir’s voice seething through wet and vomit-crusted teeth.
   “No need to be uncivilized, Mr. Sunderland. The sooner you are capable of flying the sooner we can leave. I’m certain the system can’t be that close, so we’re going to have quite some time and space to cover. Now, I can handle a substantially larger amount of time in hyperspace. You, even with your advanced DNA, don’t even come close. No time to lose now.”
   “I’m not taking you anywhere.”
   “Well, there’s certainly little I can do with regards to you trusting me. But on my name, you have my word I will not harm you. Neither before we reach the system, and neither afterwards. I believe you to be a smart man, Mr. Sunderland. You know what you stumbled on. They’re dormant now, but they won’t be forever.”
   Demir remembers the debris all too well. Once dormant security protocols waking up again. Buzzing of the previously frozen metal cogs that move turrets to his location, and hangar bay doors open to let out smaller AI controlled skiffs. Tiny, but deadly quick and not afraid to use their fuel tanks as a makeshift bomb as a last resort. Got that straight from us humans.
   Demir locked in the coordinates but took his leave quick with a jump straight through the hyperspace point.
   He isn’t planning on going back. Not without the biggest army in the Known Galaxy. This man can go all he *** wants. But he’s going alone. Demir’s not going to be anyone’s anchor.

Chapter 4: BABY
AFTER WHAT FEELS LIKE HOURS, and probably was, they’re on their way to the hangar where Demir’s got his Baby parked. Off the grid little shacked hangar on, or better under, the Bazaar. Not too low and not too high in the hierarchy of Circles on Melkior. The planet’s only city is built like a funnel, stretching under the inhospitable ground in Circles. Each Circle smaller and smaller until you reach the Depths. Where they keep their most unwanted, their sick and feral. Up on top is the largest Circle, and what those under call Wonderland. When you’re as known as Demir, and as infamous as Demir, and often times as wanted as Demir, you want to keep somewhere in the middle. The more trouble you get into, and depending on the kind you get into, you move up or down. Demir’s doing all right.
   His main worry is shuffling this Leto, who barely covers his face, through the crowd. Even in a place like Melkior, in a place like the Bazaar, there are still people who don’t take kindly to the face of the Grand-Master of War. Usually, you can swing through as Leto, but you can never completely count on it. Judging by his own luck at the moment Demir is almost positive their chances of getting jumped have risen substantially. Leto has his blaster but doesn’t keep it out. His mere presence a deterrent for Demir to make a run for it.
   To his own dismay Demir has to admit this Leto has some threatening energy. Like you can feel he’s got the physical capabilities to back up at least some of the swagger the real Leto III was packing back in the day. Guy must have taken to the role.
   Demir can almost freely slog his way through the circles of the Bazaar, knowing full well Leto is right behind him. A finger on the blaster trigger, not a millimeter shy of Demir’s back. He won’t shoot to kill, that’s certain, but Demir isn’t all too big on the perspective crippling.
   He takes some time to breathe in the Bazaar.
   This entire Circle is the biggest trading hub on Melkior. Build like a snaking labyrinth of shops and improvised shipping container housing. Those that sell at the Bazaar live from and for the Bazaar. From the street peddlers, middle-class gearheads and tech traders, to the small banks and loan agencies. It’s a formidable ecosystem hollowed out in the center of the Melkior Circles. Don’t offend anyone and you can pretty much find anything you need on the grime-crusted streets of the Bazaar.
   Maybe something akin to an underground hangar where you can stash your ride. Corporal Lance’s Garage is the most sought after in the Bazaar, and Demir has a direct line to the Corporal’s ear and wallet. Baby always gets the best place to sleep. Well, the best place Demir can afford depending on how hot he is. The Corporal’s is a safe bet. He hasn’t done anything to offend the man.
   They have to make their way down the Hawker’s Sanctum, where the ragtag carts of street vendors dot the streets. More grime-infested and washed out than the rest of the Bazaar. Hawkers often set shop right on the streets and litter the place with their waste after they drive their carts back to the lots on the outskirts of the Circle. There they sleep more often than not. Near the center of the Circle there aren’t many, if any, housing opportunities. All business there, all the time. Here and there shipping containers jut over the rafters of the interconnected and lonesome carts.
   One of these containers is the pawnshop the Corporal operates from. Pay in wares or pay in credits, if he knows you’re legit you can smuggle your ride to his Hangar through the underground railways that go from the Lower Ports. You enter under the radar of the authorities once your transponder stops in one of the lower hangars the Corporal’s is connected to. A full server room that clones your ride’s transponder so it can safely enter the real Hangar while cloaked. Entering any major port in the Known Galaxy is tricky with your transponder off. And if you expect to come into contact with the Authority, or if you’re tracked regularly like Demir, it’s best to not irritate them further. If you don’t give them a reason to check your ride through a surprise inspection you won’t get fined for the cloned signal and illegal docking. Or even worse, having your ride towed and held for ransom.
   Demir keeps the walking pace steady at the silent insistence of Leto. They shoulder their way through clotted masses, shrug off insipid hawkers, and push away beggars. Demir’s got a keen eye out for pickpockets, but they seem to be avoiding any association to the Leto. Lest even stealing from a fake brings about the ire of the beholden masses. So long after the War there is still reverence for the man, regardless of authenticity.
   So far Demir isn’t sure he ever made such good time to the Corporal’s shop. They go into the cage where they are scanned, and once they’re cleared they can go in through the door. The Corporal is always there, day and night. A Sleepless, one of those maniacs that removes their necessity for sleep and balances their lowering life expectancy as their organs crumble with the advantage of body mods. Most of them don’t make it that long, a couple of hundred tops, but Demir doesn’t know that many who make the same amount of money as the Corporal. He’s a *** magnate on Melkior. Hangar and pawnshop rake in more credits and gear that he probably launders both upwards and downwards.
   The man’s toothy golden grin gleams in the distance as they’re buzzed in.
   “My favorite MOS, and some unexpected company. Now I don’t know if I have to bow, pledge allegiance, or something like that.” Corporal lets the grin subside into an ironic smirk. His army accent still punctuating his use of the Common Tongue. Lofty tones and punctuation that was integrated into his subconscious to make him sound more familiar to the Higher Tongue than the Common. You never know when you’ll be talking to one of those *** that have sway in Galaxy.
   “Nothing like that, Corporal. We just have some business to attend to, so I will need access to my ride. You can charge me on the way out.”
   “Sure thing. Don’t die out there, I like your business, MOS.”
   Yeah, you and the rest of the Galaxy. Demir just nods, and the Corporal opens the Hangar door hidden behind a shelf.
   Demir and Leto III go in. The elevator goes down clean and smooth, grav holding it in perfect place, drips down like water. Short ride, since the hangar’s dug in between Circles. Turns up black on the Authority scanners, like the rest of the Circle dividers. You can’t really dig there now. Real-estate’s been taken up, grabbed up from under the Authority, if you will. Mostly it’s just tunnels and smuggling routes the Authority desperately try to close. Corporal had a different idea and built himself his Hangar while he was still stationed on Melkior pre-War. Staying put, as opposed to moving about. Army always did make for the best outlaws.
   Corporal’s Hangar is Demir’s favorite place to keep his Baby.
   Elevator comes to a halt and the doors whoosh open. A long wide corridor lined with hangar doors stretches to either side. You can barely see the end. Everything in that bluish-green undertone of gray. Hangar gray they call it. Easiest color to wash soot and blood from.
   “Lot 9,” Demir lets Leto know. “This way.” He nods to their right.
   Demir gives the protocol droid his key card. Its wide head meant to fit in a complete scanner visor goes once up and down the key card, then does a once over on the both of them “Add a plus one to the transit order. I’ll pay the extra last-minute fee. I don’t suppose you’d front me the cash, considering it’s you we’re paying the fee for.” Demir leans in closer, but Leto scoffs him off like you would a child.
   “Transit order edited. Fees applied. Safe travels, Mr. Sunderland.” Demir hates it that every corp-spec droid is programmed into a formal mold. His last name always a curse he can’t escape. The only way they tolerate him is the worse he becomes. Month after month never outlaw enough, just to show the entire *** Galaxy he’s not going to get his hands on a *** deck and start cooking up some AI.
   That’s why I keep that *** system in my back pocket.
   Leto brushes by Demir who doesn’t even notice the grav pod readied so they can be ushered to lot 9, which is on the far end of the Hangar. Demir mulls over maybe pushing Leto off the pod. That’ll break a couple of bones for sure, or at least incapacitate the man so that Demir can make it to Baby and off this rock.
   “Pushing me off the pod won’t do you any good. It will just inconvenience me, and I’d still make it to you before you’re through that door. I know you’re thinking this because it’s the most logical idea in this predicament. You want me out of the picture, and your options for doing so are running out. Now,” and he turns around to look Demir straight in the eyes, a feral feline stare, “if I know what you’re thinking at this moment, think about how much ahead I already have you pegged.”
   And he sure did, considering Demir was riveted in place during just that short monologue. Just long enough for Demir to not only gloss over the idea, but also for the pod to arrive at their lot. They step off and it buzzes back to its docking station.
   “Can we get this moving along, please?” Leto pulls Demir out of the trance he didn’t even know he was in. He nods himself completely awake and begrudgingly goes to finish the scan under the watchful eyes of Leto III.
   The lot door clicks open and descends into the floor. Leto and Demir make their way in and let the door close behind them. Every lot is an elevator that goes down to the ridge of the Lower Circles, and then you can enter the railways to the Lower Docks. You’ll appear back on the authority’s radar where they left you. The cloned transponder is deleted, trade promise, and you can be on your way and good riddance to this *** rock.
   Demir takes a second to take her in. His Baby. How he always marvels at her. Only thing keeping him alive. As long as he’s ahead of the curve he stays alive, and she’s what’s keeping him ahead. Rightfully so. She’s a *** beast.
   “Quite impressive indeed. One could call the setup madness, but who am I to judge.” That feral smile back again. “I would personally prefer the grappling hook a bit forward-leaning, catch it ahead of time, but it seems you prefer to have it ready for mounting in case of emergencies. Risky, but pays off.” Demir has to admit he’s a bit caught off guard by the remark. A lot of people have told him that, granted, but still it kind of tingles his curiosity. “Oh,” Leto continues before Demir can let the thought ferment, “her main boosters are out of alignment, ever so slightly. You lean a bit too heavy on the right with your maneuvers. I would tweak your guidance harness as a countermeasure first, then maybe get rid of that habit with a bit of practice.” Practice! His blood boils. Demir *** Sunderland does not *** practice. He’s a *** savant, a marvel technician and pilot of the Known Galaxy, and this *** Leto III washout is telling him to practice. Then he lifts his hand, halting Demir in his tracks before he can give his venomous retort. “We have no time for wounded pride. I will need you to reassign all pilot credentials to me now.”
   The whole practice debacle gets shut down quicker than a killed engine. “What?” is the only thing Demir can squeeze out.
   “You didn’t think I was going to let you pilot us. In a one-man MOS light skiff. Mr. Sunderland, you really do take me for a fool. I’ll be flying, while you’re jammed up in the hold. That, I take it, is still pressured considering there is still some chance of live cargo. I am certain you won’t just hand me the coordinates. So, while you guide me I will keep a close eye on the oxygen in the hold. If I don’t like what I’m hearing I will have my way with your Baby. Anger me and I just might sell her, get ourselves a decent hyperspace dart and we’ll be at our destination in no time.”
   “Babe, ark defense procedure.”
   She buzzes to life, the ark coils protrude from their sockets like spikes. They hum at first, then the sound becomes a wave just before they come to life. Ark of electricity burns the air and lashes unto Leto before riveting him to the ground, accelerating the current, and frying him up like bad faux-meat rotisserie. Leto’s eyes rush back into his head, white and milky, his body tenses, spasms, and he finally goes down like a sack.
   Demir wants none of this any longer and heads for his Baby so he can get the *** out there.
   His foot’s caught to the floor. He turns around to see what’s holding him down, and to his vast amazement it’s not a what but a who. Leto III, *** Grand-Master of War, had his hand clamped around Demir’s ankle. “Big mistake,” he snarls.
   Demir pulls his foot away but Leto’s back on his feet and in full fighting stance. Leto clears the distance in a heartbeat and has another surprisingly strong clamp on another part of Demir’s flesh – his throat. Demir crashes his elbow hard against Leto’s arm and buckles the clamp. Gets his throat clear for a second. “Full defense protocol!” he bellows, and Baby obliges.
   Gattling turrets spring from Baby’s carapace, scout the perimeter, and lock on to their target. Leto is identified as the prime target. The turrets do their work. A hailstorm of uranium coated shells litter the hangar door and walls, right across from where Leto was just holding him by the throat a second earlier. The Grand-Master of War ducked under the fire, beast-like, eerily like swack-tiger they use for hunting sport on Horsehead Prime. He swerves around Demir and aims to take him in a hold to use him as a shield. Demir’s combat training kicks in and he side-steps the grapple. Turret fire drowns out the world. Leto keeps one step ahead of it, mechanisms in the turrets trailing just that second behind the man.
   “Analogue harpoon control,” Demir orders the protocols.
   Turret fire keeps Leto confined to the front of the hangar. Baby’s not letting him maneuver around her. Harpoon control pops up on Demir’s retinal. He switches to full immersion and gets the complete POV.
   Where he’s going to be, not where he is. Demir’s mind races through the calculations, through the possibilities and the options. He takes his best shot.
   Harpoon punctures through Leto and bolts him to the hangar door. His limbs somewhere in the vicinity, and his torso with drooping head plastered red against the hangar gray.
   “You fool,” Leto blurts out a bloody final retort.
   In the distance piloted offense droids and mechs are marching their way to the commotion. Hangar alarms blare our the echo of the man’s death.
   It’s going to take a lot of *** work to smooth this over. Demir thinks to himself as he goes over the damage to the hangar. A lot of *** work.

Chapter 5: GRUNT
JUST AS MUCH as he had expected. Payment for the substantial damage to the hangar is the least of his worries. Bigger problem is *** like that, abrasive tremors and the like, all pop up on the Authority’s radar, and for someone as cautious as the Corporal that’s not at all good. So he wants Demir to patch up the leak with the Authority. That means doing grunt work for them, for no pay. No pay means he’ll have to take a quick job and bank his Baby with the Corporal while he’s out doing it. Fucker has her locked up until he’s back with both money and forgiveness, and you can never come back with both. That’s how you get your ride taken. Oldest *** scalper trick in the Galaxy.
   Before he can even contemplate getting Baby back Demir has to work the forgiveness part. He has to go see Marshall Hagen about the noise. He has to go there and go so far up the Marshall’s ass until he spills the ***. Minor disturbance, sure, and it’s not like the Corporal and Marshall don’t get along. However, when you put Demir Sunderland in the mix people start getting wild ideas. He owes the Corporal now, and Demir’s sure that when he shows up to the Authority on behalf of the debt Hagen is going to be very pleased. In the end, Hagen might end up owing the Corporal. Favors circulate, debts pool up endless, and the Galaxy churns.
   Demir has to go all the way up to the Third Circle. Authority keeps their main base of operations there, living quarters and barracks for the troops and police force. Army doesn’t mess around Melkior much, but the police force of the Authority have a field day in the pits of the Lower Circles. Marshall’s the chief operating officer on Melkior, and he doesn’t see just anyone.
   Walkways and grav pods float around the Third Circle, shuffling around people and teams from bases to barracks, mess halls, and living quarters. The entire Circle alive in the name of Authority. The machine that keeps Melkior in line. Demir takes is slow through one of the main walkways leading to the Authority Police Section headquarters. Pods and one-liners zoom past him on either side, cargo and people, people and cargo, day and night. APS officers give him sideways glances, darting questions like why isn’t he in cuffs. Those on the ground despise him, he can see that, but those in the skies tend to give him a respectful frown or even a challenging smirk.
   Only thing on Demir’s mind is how this could go. Eyes on him while and when he makes it to the reception of the headquarters are of little concern. He goes up to the receptionist who immediately upon seeing him eyes the defense protocols on her retinal.
   Demir doesn’t come too close to the reception or leans on it like he’s at a bar, contrary to his usual reflexes. “No trouble from me,” and he puts his hands up. “Can you tell Marshall Hagen that Demir Sunderland is here to see him on behalf of the Corporal?” Demir knows the Marshall is expecting someone from the Corporal, but knowing the army man he didn’t tell the officer who it is. That’s a surprise. *** playing around with me.
   Sometimes Demir really regrets not taking that system when it was on offer, and having a cushy gov job, maybe a wife and kids. But then remembers how Baby feels, how that girl he saw yesterday feels, and how *** alive he is.
   “Message transmitted, please wait in the lobby,” the officer at the reception says as neutrally as her training will allow. She’s one of those who misses the cuffs on Demir. He gives a courteous nod and sits down on one of the faux-wood benches in the lobby. Demir zones out. No use in keeping track of the eyes on him. Only thing he might do is look back the wrong way and get decked. He’s an anomaly at the headquarters, and if there’s anything the *** Authority doesn’t like it’s anomalies. He wishes he could have a drag of zazz to take the edge off. Had he brought it the cuffs wouldn’t be a police fantasy. Good thing he remembered to check his jacket pockets after all the commotion with that *** Leto.
   Demir keeps the reception officer in his periphery, zoning in and out when he sees her twitch. Finally one of those twitches turns into a hand waved his way. “Marshall Hagen is waiting for you in room A23. Head right through there,” and she points to a double-door on their left, “and you’ll find it at the end of the hall.”
   “Thank you.” Demir clips the edge of the reception three times for good luck and heads through the door into the white-and-blue hallway. Earth Nostalgia brown doors on either side, not a bench in sight, or anything besides the pale and oppressive. Demir goes down the corridor and finds A23 to his right.
   He goes in expecting to get jumped and clobbered. Instead, he finds the Marshall sitting behind a metal desk. A comfy-looking faux-leather chair empty across from the imposing man. Marshall Hagen is a heavy hitter. Wide head, all angles and edges, flat nose against a sloped brow atop which his immaculate salt-and-pepper crew cut juts out. Broad-shouldered, wide-chested, slightly bellied, all sitting atop two logs for legs. His right eye natural, but his left was outlined with the lines and marks of an Authority retinal scanner. Top of the line, big heavy thing they have to graft into your empty eye socket.
   “Let me guess,” Demir starts the chat just as his ass is about to touch faux-leather in that satisfying hum and creak. “Corporal didn’t tell you it’s me you’re expecting.”
   “Exactly,” another army accent heavy in the Common. All *** army brats these days. Lest he forget *** Leto.
   “You happy to see me, Marshall?”
   “As a matter of fact, I am. Commotion at the Hangar chuffed a couple of ears. We had some inquiries about the underground activity. Some police might be interested in spoils, and it’s going to take some work to incline them otherwise.”
   “How might I be of service in that regard?” Keep it cordial, keep it formal, keep it short. Most importantly, keep your cool. Demir knows the Marshall is going to fleece him, and do it well. Might as well take it on the chin and move on.
   “We need a win. A win for the Authority. Lucky for you, and well, for me, we have a task that will bring us that win. With you here we, can shorten the process of getting that win significantly.” The Marshall’s cold veneer leaves nothing up for grabs or guessing.
   “You can understand why I don’t like the sound of that?”
   “Of course. I may not like people like you, Mr. Sunderland, but I can appreciate any person’s usefulness. Right now you’re the most useful person in the room. Do this for the Authority and we’ll consider squaring your problem with the Corporal. Help us and you get the skies back.”
   “Leave the word consider out of the deal. I’ll do it for a guarantee.”
   Marshall slams his hand against the table hard. Bit of that mess hall pomp creeps into him. “Done. We could draft a formal cooperation agreement, but I suspect that might not be up your alley. So it’s my word.”
   “And what is a man who goes back on his word?”
   “On Melkior – nothing,” the Marshall recites the mantra.
   “Good. Now tell me about the job.”
   “We have reason to believe that there are nukes in the city. We have been circling a large shipment of rockets that might lead us to the nukes. But as soon as we did they went silent. Nothing off-planet yet, but we don’t want things to get desperate because they’re cut off. I want you to track the sellers, and report the findings to us. They’ll talk to you sooner than we can plant a mole in.”
   “And me coming here, people knowing I’m here, that won’t put a wrench in that idea?” This whole thing is starting to reek, so Demir’s considering taking the heat on Baby and dusting off somewhere outside the Core.
   “Not if we book you for possession, ground you, and let the word spread. You’ll be in every crook’s good graces by daybreak tomorrow. Plus, that’ll make you looking for rockets all the more plausible.” Self-satisfied arched brow from the Marshall.
   “I can spin that, but when I catch them I’ll need you to book me. I need my rep here intact.”
   “Why, so you can continue selling your stolen tech in my city?”
   And there we are. “First of all, it’s not your *** city, you just work here. Second, that need for validation and ownership might track to some deep-seated childhood abandonment issues, so I’d get that checked.”
   “I’d have that mouth checked if I were you.” Gravel in his voice palpable with anger.
   “Good, so we have a deal?” Demir gives his hand.
   “We have a deal,” and the Marshall claps it. Agreement confirmed, on their words. And what is a man without those. “I’ll forward you the info.”
   “No, have it sent to me via Drakkweb courier. Physical. I don’t want anything intercepted.”
   “Smart. Only we have to do now is book you.”
   Almost forgot about that. “Yeah, let the Corporal know so I can get my Baby as soon as this is done. Oh, and I want a decent cell.”
   “Nothing but the best for you, Mr. Sunderland.” Demir notices how the Marshall’s smile is a lot more disconcerting than his frown.

Chapter 6: TIDE
DAYBREAK, and he’s in the crook’s good graces. Cell was nice, but all that white gets a bit drastic to the eyes. Plus that lack of zazz really got him into a downward spiral when they had to let him out. He charged his usual spot and let the tide wash off. In order to get the zazz he’d have to get his stuff from the locker at the Corporal’s, and there was no way he was riding that low all the way down. His usual spot is two Circles down from the Authority. Upper-end place that charges him less because he once helped the owner transport something up to Trafalgar. Nothing that should be checked by customs goes to Trafalgar. Had to dodge *** questions about that Siona *** all the while was there. That’s one of the reasons why he dodges that system like a red nova. But he got his discount. You don’t get *** for free in the Galaxy. So discount’s the best you can hope for.
   Come daybreak he got his first drink free of charge, from some locals swinging their morning beers his way. The zazz itch slowly coming down, and the beers coming in. He was drunk by nightfall, back in the usual, and next morning he’s ready to set out finishing the task at hand.
   *** rockets.
   Getting right on it is not his style, since everyone would expect him to party a bit first after getting out of the pigsty. But Demir’s just a little bit sore he didn’t even think it’s what the city would expect. He just did it and worked on the recognition fallout later. Like much in life.
   Hangover not as bad as it could have been if he’d went for the zazz. Not splitting, but just that mild annoyance like having a needle slowly stuck into your brain. To Demir that’s a Tuesday.
   Wednesday’s here and now. Demir’s in a very local watering hole close to the Lower Docks. He forgets the name on the regular because it’s something nondescript like Star, or Comet, or some *** like that. Some of the people buying him drinks yesterday are there too. Gone a couple of floors down since he last saw them. Those are the ones he’s looking for. Close enough to the Lower Docks to be connected, but a couple of Circles up so you know they’re smart. These crews are the ones who know how to angle their connections. Go full Lower and you get the raffle the DNA pools used to spit out. High-to-low-end criminal psychopaths all held together by the Cardinal. Yeah, everyone on Melkior has a *** title. He has the largest force, so he polices the Lower Circles, and the Docks are his. Now, go up and you’re already reaching precariously into the upper-class wallets protected wholeheartedly by the Authority. Keep it lower-middle-class and you’ll stay golden.
   These crews don’t have rockets, but they can point him to who does.
   Demir goes over to their table.
   “Mr. MOS, nice to see you again. I see you’re keeping the pace,” gruff man with modded arms starts the chatter party.
   “Not today,” and Demir nods to his beer, “hair of the dog. I’m actually looking for business today.”
   “Yeah, what kind of work’s a grounded MOS in for these days?” Laughs ensue among the comically stereotypical bunch of upper-middle trash. Demir hates this type of ***. People in general. That’s why he flies *** solo.
   “Not much flying from me, truth.” He brings a bit of patois into his Common. Despite his last name he’s one of them more than they care to admit. Somethings are harder to shake than others, like a last name, but a bit of patois never hurt nobody. “But I reckon I could put some of my info to good use.”
   “Kinds of info?”
   “Info that’s only sale, and I know you don’t have that kind of pull. You know it too. I need you to get the word out to the people who do. Finder’s fee is guaranteed there, trying to push me for the info gets no one jack ***.
   “Fine,” quick reaction from a woman covered in EN *** tribal tattoos. She hisses at the other parts of the colorful assembly. They all calm down like previously hissing drakes. “We’ll give what you got forward.”
   “Skies be kind to you all,” put a bit of that MOS jumbo into it. “Let’s say the cargo I was jacked with can also be found here. I believe it’s from a shipment of mine that may, or may not, have been confiscated along one of my routes to Trafalgar. Someone must not have gotten the memo because I was legit,” or that might have been the point, “but no scuff on my jacket. Some of it’s out there still and I believe it’s here too. I got the serial number patched and I have a lead on a beached AI ship full of the stuff. I spill it for cash enough to pay my fines and book it. Won’t show my face here until things cool down. I want off of here, I want my Baby back, and I got something that might make it worth someone’s while.” And that’s the truth.
   “What if the serial don’t clock?” modded arms starts back up.
   “No harm no foul. I owe you drinks next time. How much you want?”
   The colorful parade eyes each other, exchanges grunts and smiles. “Seven rounds,” the woman covered in tribal again.
   Demir whistles. “Steep, that. But nothing I can’t handle if getting off this rock is a possibility. Buy you guys a round now, sign of goodwill.”
   They nod, and start drinking.
   And continue drinking.

Chapter 7: CRISP
STUMBLING to his room. The world all a blur, then back to reality, and then back to the blur again. Just that one-third consciousness that you can slightly navigate through if you ever went into hyperspace raw. Habitual precision helps him get through the corridor that’s getting longer with each step. He misses the key card scanner a couple of times before the door finally whistles open. Demir almost falls in face first, but catches himself on a chair he seems to have left there for this specific purpose. Sober him knowing the other him full well. Dangerously well.
   He flips himself around awkwardly with his arms first, heavy on the chair, and then tilts himself around, feet come last. Demir plops down and takes a deep breath.
   “Good to see you again, Mr. Sunderland,” voice catches him like a cold hand against his throat. It clamps hard until he can’t breathe almost. The man just sitting there. “This time I think I’ll take a different approach to our discussion,” Leto III says.
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 3/2!)
Post by: B.K. on March 02, 2021, 08:52:20 AM
Update: Chapters 8, 9, and 10. (3/2/2021)

Chapter 8: SECTOR
“SO YOU’RE GOING to tell me everything?” to his own bewilderment he asks again, third time actually, just to confirm.
   “Yes, exactly that. You think I just reappeared here in a couple of days with full recollection of our previous encounter? You know full well that body was burned. Consciousness can’t be transmitted unless you’re...”
   “Immortal,” Demir finishes the thought because he just has to say something.
   “But those facilities were all burned to a crisp in the C. There are no more Immortals left.”
   “Correction, there shouldn’t be any more Immortals.”
   “And you somehow *** are?” Demir wishes for some zazz now.
   “I shouldn’t be. The system you found is my cloning station. It shouldn’t be running. You know full well...”
   “Stop it with the *** full well,” Demir pushes his fingers against his eyes. Induces that small rush. Star powder they called it as kids. “If I knew anything full well I wouldn’t be *** losing my mind here. Now just give me a second.”
   Leto III kindly nods and retreats a step in an almost courtly manner.
   Demir keeps powdering his eyes for a bit longer and then sets out to gather his thoughts. “Alpha and Omega have your cloning station. But why?”
   “Because they are siphoning data. They aren’t able to crash through my binary system code. But they were able to put the station back online. They can’t stop me from being,” Leto grimaces, “transferred. But when I am they can use the weak point in transmission to leech off of the residual signal. They want to know about us. The more data they gather the stronger they become.”
   “No,” Demir whispers to himself at first. Then the images start coming through. He sees the hulking mass of ships, almost congealed. A small planet in the distance, but close to it another faint spot in space. Darker, edged, and foreign. The turrets as they came online. Behemoths on the pounce. Blink of an eye it was all on him. To this day it’s his fastest *** escape. “No!” he screams, and they all come flooding out.
   Leto rushes to him, shouts his reassurances over his screaming.
   “Shut up! Just shut up for one second.”
   “Mr. Sunderland, please. What don’t you understand?”
   “You *** fool,” he gathers himself a bit, and then a bit more, wanting to show up the pompous prick. “I understand everything, and that’s the *** problem. I know even more than you. Worse *** problem.”
   “More, more of what?” Leto on the defense, not as secure in his position anymore.
   “How many planets are in your system?”
   “One, that way it’s easier to cloak so thoroughly.”
   “Yeah. Well, now there are more. I noticed them when I was pushing through the outer defenses to get my drive up and push through the hyperspace point. Next to that little planet for your cloning facility are a couple more. My astute estimation would be production facilities.”
   Leto’s face contorts into a cavalcade of worry. “They’re siphoning off debris from these petty squabbles and building their armada. That’s probably why such a small craft as your registered on their radars as debris.” He takes the hit to Baby because it’s legit.
   Fucker knows his ***. Can’t fault him that. “Yeah, and the defenses were quick to pick up on the fact that I wasn’t. Soon as Baby moved they got on us.”
   Leto harrumphs. “I can just imagine your numbers when that came barreling down.”
   “Yeah, they were.” Now a bit caught off guard.
   “This is something we can’t tackle alone.”
   “Not even close.”
   “So, we need allies.”
   Demir almost bursts out laughing. “How the *** do you expect us to find those.”
   “Simple, Mr. Sunderland,” and he moves a bit forward and leans down, “we tell them the truth. It works on you.”
   Problem is, it does.

Chapter 9: ROCKETS
   “Rockets?” Leto asks again, almost not buying the gist quite as much as he *** should.
   “Yes, rockets. Authority suspects there are nukes on-planet. They tasked me with finding them by going through a ring that sells high-grade rockets. Once I finish this I can get Baby back – no thanks to you by the *** way – and can maybe get some headway on a couple of my connects.”
   “Or, we get in good with the Authority. Take this above ground?”
   “Skies swallow me. Leto, you’ve missed a whole lot of *** after the War. Yeah, this is not something you take above ground. The Immortals are dead, and who do you think put them there. I don’t know if you’ve been asleep or something during that time.”
   “I was here. I am always here,” his voice drapes over Demir like a shiver. Dark, precise, to the point.
   “Then you know the Authority put almost all of you in your graves. There’s *** dozens of them aligned with various Corps across the *** Core. We’re locked away from the Rims, and the Outers. There’s little to count for law here, and your name doesn’t carry enough matter to it to go there in the first place. We need to scout some of my scenes first, and see who’s responsive to the – and I can’t stress this enough – slight suggestion that we might not be talking complete latrine dump.”
   Leto’s dark eyes widen. “That’s going to take years. Decades maybe. We don’t have that much time. They’re building an armada. Right under our noses. The cloak can carry it far enough until it bursts out the system. By then they’ll have enough.”
   “No, they won’t,” Demir gives a hard retort because he’s got this. “No way they’re going out there without that data they’re leeching off of you. And that’s a simple *** conclusion because when have you known AI to make the same mistake twice. Without that full scan they’re not attacking us again. We might be able to push them to expand beyond the system, and once they’re out pile up on them.”
   “Not worth the risk,” Leto interjects in his professional capacity voice. “Even without the data if they have a substantial fleet Alpha and Omega will collapse on what’s left of the Galaxy. We don’t stand a chance of defending in this fractured state.”
   “Caught between a point and nova.” Leto gives Demir a quizzical look. “You really have been out of it. Haven’t seen much of the Galaxy since the war, have you?”
   “Not really. I was searching for my system.”
   “You miss a lot just searching for one thing. Without the gates the hyperspace jump points are all we have now.” Leto gives the intergalactic look for I know that. “Stars throughout the Galaxy have erupted into novas. Sending out waves after waves of condensed nuclear energy like a beacon. Get caught in a system with a nova and you’ll be pushed to the reaches, or even worse you’ll be fried. You can choose to outmaneuver it, ride the wave, or you can take the push and aim for a jump point.”
   “Makes sense, like a rock and hard place.”
   “That EN *** doesn’t fly as well these days.”
   “Thank you for the brief lecture on slang, Mr. Sunderland. While I do appreciate it might we return to the task at hand?” Leto remains all business.
   “And that is?”
   “Putting a stop to the AI.” Grand-Master of War’s expression lost to the point you might think he’s talking to a child.
   “Of course. But so far we haven’t even come close to figuring out a way how to do it. We know what, where, but we have jack *** on how. You’re clearly not one for the one step at a time approach.” Leto’s frown almost pulls his chin down. “Oh, what? You want it all and now. Just let the Galaxy know you’re back and they’ll rally behind you. You’re more likely to get snawnacks out your exhaust without a torch. We both know this has to be done slowly. We can’t just barge into that system ourselves. I barely got out of there alive. We need an armada, and we need to find a way to assemble it.”
   “We need a revolution.”
   The boom of Leto’s voice brings chills down Demir’s spine. There have been a couple of revolutions in the Galaxy since the War. None of them could be called anything close to successful. “Cool it with the *** revolution talk. If the Galaxy isn’t capable of defending against the AI fleet we’re barely capable of coming together for a revolution. Skies be damned. Focus, this isn’t your time any longer. This isn’t your galaxy even. Times have changed.”
   “So we do this your way? Is that it?” Vitriol palpable, the realization that he might have to step back a stark contrast to what the Grand-Master of War stands for.
   “That’s it. I can actually understand how you feel. It’s like someone else piloting Baby. But we do this my way. Let’s say for now. We work it my way, for now, then we can see where we land.”
   “Doesn’t sound like much of a plan.”
   “Trust me, there isn’t a plan in the entire Galaxy. Not for this, not for anything else”
   And that’s the harsh truth.

“THIS IS YOUR grand idea?” Leto, as always, none too pleased.
   “It’s not a grand idea, it’s the only one we got now. We can’t do jack while grounded on this dump. We need to complete this job, and once I get Baby back we can consider another system. Somewhere,” and Demir looks at the detritus of the Lower Circles scowling at him, “more receptive to our predicament.”
   “I’d say it’s more the Galaxy’s predicament than just ours. But then again I am inclined to think ahead a bit more.” That jab, unlike some others, is very open. Leto’s not one to never voice his displeasure, but some can be childishly vicious.
   “I don’t, because thinking like that is going to get me killed. And me getting killed is how we all get killed. I told you before, I’m not giving up that system. I’m not letting you mule me around through the Galaxy. You need my help. So, for once in your Immortal life, be grateful.”
   “Indeed, I apologize.”
   The sincerity catches Demir off guard. Not a hint of mockery behind the apology, but rather someone very powerful admitting his position, to Demir and probably to himself. “Good,” Demir keeps his ground, decides to take the wheel. “Now, your name doesn’t carry as much sway down here. So let’s be careful, keep the pomp out of your Common. And keep your face covered until I say you can do otherwise.” Demir notices the bile in his voice, the acceptance of his role, and the way he revels in it. He drowns it a bit. “Let’s just be careful, okay?”
   “Yes,” Leto agrees without a hint of grudge. Something Demir would have had a lot of. Still has a lot of. His father comes to mind, and is out as quickly as he landed.
   “Good. We’re going to see one of my fences. I got info from a couple of stragglers that he’s in on the rockets. I’ll squeeze him for the contact. Hopefully, that will lead us to the nukes.”
   No retort from Leto. The large man eerily silent, almost grating at Demir who’s used to words being thrown around like space debris in a grav vortex. Used to people reciprocating, but he guesses the stoic man, unlike his peers, knows when to just shut up. Going to take some getting used to. Especially if we’re going to be tied together for the foreseeable future.
   They slog their way through the nasty thoroughfare of the Circle. People pulling their junk around the old-fashioned way, in trolleys powered by nothing but their sweat. A haphazard amalgamation of desperation and decay. Nothing to like about the Lower Circles, unless you’re in the market for stolen tech, offshoot drugs, the occasional splice or graft, maybe even a mod or two, back-alley enhancements, or anything that fell of the back of the loader in general. The horizon littered with half-finished buildings, never to be done, their beams like pillars against the fake brown skyline speckled with production grime and dust. Improvised housing at every corner, stiff and uninviting. Those that live here have nowhere else to go, or not many options here either. Get up through crime, or go down to the Depths through crime and sickness. Authority barely treads down here unless there’s a potential uprising. Their pristine white and blue station a sanctuary for the righteous. In the Lower Circles the righteous get more than stitches, and the Authority officers stationed there mostly keep to themselves.
   Demir’s fence is not too far off the main elevator entry through which they came. Gorgon operates from his hovel next to a brothel. Prostitution isn’t legal on Melkior, but where the Authority isn’t they are. Gorgon doesn’t keep a lick of his stuff in his place of business. You have to traipse through the network of the Lower Circles for that. More of a middleman than a true fence, but his word is legit, and he’s got connections. One of those people everyone of ill repute knows. So at least he can guide them to where they need to go. Hopefully.
   The way Demir plans to play this is solid, real solid. But if space has taught him anything is that solid doesn’t always take you the distance. He thinks about the concrete details, his speech and patterns he’s going to use. He mulls over his plan while they walk through the assembled clot of hagglers and stragglers, some offering, some looking. Each unwashed and destitute, or sad in their own special way.  Demir verbally shoves them aside in his trained patois, while letting Leto do the concrete shoving where necessary. Massive as the Grand-Master of War is his glare underneath the hood often proves enough for the task.
   They make it to the hovel. “I go in alone” Demir lets Leto know, to which he receives a cordial nod. When he’s not on the assault he’s like a guard dog.
   Demir cuts through the couple of peddlers discussing their wares and split and enters Gorgon’s place of business. Smaller on the inside than it would appear. Earth Nostalgia walls riddled with Earth Nostalgia pictures of times past. Dark brown against a domed black ceiling. His desk in the middle, and nothing around it except for a chair in front. Too *** familiar.
   “Greetings, Gorgon. I see you’re busy. Maybe I should come in another time?”
   The skeletal figure looks at Demir with a glum expression dark under his bushy brow. Little to no light in the hovel, except for his EN desk lamp, doesn’t quite help the grim atmosphere. The fact that Gorgon’s doing nothing, just sitting there like a statue, helps to cheer the mood even less. “Very funny, MOS. State your business or get out.” Never one to idle much, or approach said business in a warm fashion. A man trapped in his station, his chosen life, the will to leave carved out of his frail body.
   “May I sit?”
   “Only if you’ll be long,” Gorgon says with his usual displeasure. A second wasted is a second he could feel sorry for himself.
   Demir takes a seat on the uncomfortable EN chair. “Depends on what you got?”
   “So you’re buying for once?”
   “Not exactly.”
   “If there’s anything I hate more than the word not, it’s not exactly.”
   “Don’t be so uptight, Gorgon. When have I ever done you wrong?”
   “Be quick then.”
   “One of my shipments got jacked, as you’ve probably heard. But I have a lead. The rockets I got are numbered, and I got the tracing codes stored. I heard there are others selling the same models around these parts. If they’re from the same cache I can lead them to the original fleet. Double or even triple their cache.” Demir plays it just like he rehearsed in his mind.
   “You want to get in touch with the sellers?”
   Gorgon raises a bony hand. “What’s your end?”
   “My finances settled and Baby out the pound. Off-planet for me. With a couple of greased palms I can split and deal with the Authority later. What’s the use in a grounded MOS.”
   “And if the tracing codes don’t pan out? You’ll know the buyers. What’s to say you don’t rat them out to the Authority to cut a deal and run.” You can say a lot of things about Gorgon, but you can’t say he’s stupid.
   “When have I been known to cut deals with the *** Authority?” Demir snarls back.
   “True, but then you are very vocal about your skiff.” Demir wants to tell him to call her by her name, but thinks better of it. “Who’s to say this time won’t be different.”
   “How many times have I been grounded?” Truth is, too many. “And how many times did I get out without, and I can’t stress this enough, cutting deals with the *** Authority?” Truth is, many times. Lucky for Demir he’s just as good at ironing out his reputation as he is tarnishing it.
   “I don’t give a *** narwhar turd about you being grounded and how you got out. We’re talking about rockets here. High-grade tech. The people who deal in these kinds of things are either stupid *** like you MOS,” and there’s the vitriol for the free fliers Gorgon is also known for, “or people who don’t take risks lightly. If you want that contact you have to offer a contingency for the deal.” And here it comes. “Your skiff.”
   Seems like the entire *** Galaxy wants a piece of Baby. Strip her down, mimic his design and put her up for mass production. The only way to get complete access to a DNA tethered craft is if ownership is irrevocably transferred. Otherwise crafts, and especially MOS skiffs, are set to blow at the mere touch of someone else. This can only be done through the recoding of the slip drive.
   “You want me to put up Baby as a contingency? Might I remind you that she’s grounded. And not just some junkyard hangar in the Lower Circles, but in the headquarters of the Authority.”
   A smile from the skeletal man revealing burned gums and rotten teeth. “People have ways of getting things around here. So I wouldn’t worry too much about that. This is the only way you get to them. They’ll never meet if you’re going in half-cocked, so either you want this meet or not.”
   Demir swallows his spit silently. “Set it up,” he says and heads for the exit.
   “I’ll log you the specifics,” Gorgon lets him know just as he’s out the hovel.
   Guard dog outside, people avoiding him like grav sickness. “Went well?” he asks with enthusiasm similar to that of a guard dog when his master comes home.
   “Depends on who you ask?”
   “What does that mean?”
   *** the skies. He thinks to himself. “I’ll explain.”
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 4/13!)
Post by: B.K. on April 13, 2021, 09:43:55 AM
Update: Chapters 11, 12, and 13. (4/13/2021)

Chapter 11: DEALS
BACK AT HIS USUAL spot they discuss the plan, or lack thereof. “What the *** do you think we should do?”
   “I don’t know. But I am certain that putting your skiff as a contingency will lead to nothing good. Those rockets will never pan out, and once they find out that Baby is under the Corporal’s jurisdiction the only way we’re getting off-world is on a commercial rail, or even worse a body bag.” Demir notices how Leto has come around immediately to calling Baby by her name. Respect for the skies and the crafts you fly in.
   “So no suggestions, only *** to throw. We have no other choice. You want to bust into the Hangar, take on the Corporal and his bots, then bail with a full *** bounty on us? Is that your idea?”
   Leto massages his temples. “I’ll never understand the deals your kind goes through?”
   “Our kind,” his anger seeps through like a busted containment valve. “That the Immortal talking now, is it? What are puny humans compared to the great Leto III, the *** Grand-Master or War? Is that it?”
   “Just criminals,” he says with all the gravity of sitting down on something hard.
   “And your ilk aren’t criminals. Eons of testing on remote planets, subjugating humans for the betterment of mankind, as you called it. Your iron-fisted rule over the Galaxy, all the deals your kind had made throughout our history, and you call us criminals.” Demir wishes he had a drink right now, but Leto insisted he stay clean. Not a bad move, but nothing to like there either.
   “We didn’t go around selling arms to people who will kill others for their own gain.”
   “No, you didn’t, but you *** made them.”
   The discussion stops there abruptly, with Leto leaning back heavily into his settee, and Demir throwing his hand over the chair backrest. Demir’s surprised how silent the Grand-Master can be when his ideals are being put to the burner. His solemn expression betraying just that hint of realization again, something akin to doubt almost.
   “I have a plan then,” Leto cuts through the misty tension.
   “I talk to them.”

Chapter 12: LOWER
TALK TO THEM, he said. Demir knows full well what that meant, and what it’s going to mean once they make the meet. Gorgon came through with the specifics, and they’re pretty expected. Almost painfully so. Lower Harbor warehouse, barely human hours when everything else is asleep except for the Lower Circles. Safe over the vengeful cries of the Depths.
   Leto marches his way through the Harbor like he’s depressed to even sully his boots on the floor. Yet Demir can see a determination in his swift pace, more than he can see the hate for the situation. A man out of his skies, out of his zone, trying to make his actions count. Not much to wonder about how he led the Spear. How he saved them when they needed it, and coping with how ungrateful we are now. A galaxy in complete disarray, and without anything good coming their way. Quite the opposite, and just like last time it’s up to him to make the best of it. Wouldn’t be in his shoes. Demir thinks to himself as Leto’s large back sways ever so slightly in front of him as the man walks.
   It’s always dark in the Harbor. No faux-sunlight, just lamps that pump UV so you can see in front of you while you walk. Beyond the pale only darkness, ominous as the dome of the Harbor stretches farther than the eye can see. Anything can come from the dark, and in the Harbor anything does. Demir’s never been comfortable with weapons, but Leto’s probably wishing he had something on him. However, judging by his display in the Corporal’s hangar Demir has serious doubts that Leto would actually need a weapon in the first place.
   In the backseat again. This time Demir’s actually glad, just as they make headway through the gloom and a warehouse comes into view in the dimly lit distance. Close to the loading docks, where they bring in food and supplies for the Lower Circles. Melkior’s not a large planet by any means, so the city actually goes through the entire planet. The core long gone, desiccated by teraforming for the former Tarsyan production facility that used to be here. Back when their home planet was more than a smelt of atomic glass. The Lower Harbor has its entrance on the other side of the planet, the one that gets no light from the sun since the trajectory of the planet got warped during the war. Only thing lower is the Depths. The place that true darkness calls its home.
   Leto picks up the pace, looming heavy under what little light they have on their way to the warehouse. A large door stands locked in front of them once they finally arrive. Another smaller one next to it. “We knock?” Leto asks Demir.
   “Not exactly the specifics Gorgon gave me. I would guess so.”
   The big man shrugs and pounds his big fist against the door.
   “*** off!” gruff voice booms from behind the door.
   “Demir here to see a girl about a horse.” Demir usually hates the EN *** people still fling around as codes, but this one has a nice ring to it.
   “You were supposed to come alone,” gruff voice again, even more displeased.
   “Before you start saying *** like deal’s off and all that crap be aware that there’s no way I’m going anywhere near the Harbor without a *** bodyguard. So you can either let us in, or waste the deal of your lifetime.”
   “Wait there.” Like we have any other place to be in this shithole.
   “What if they call it off?” Leto being concerned makes Demir concerned.
   “Then we’re ***.” But nothing makes the tension worse than the facts.
   The door buzzes open to save them from the worry.
   The warehouse space is barely lit, wide and tall, infested with grime in all shades of rust against the previously slick metal. Nothing inside except for a squad of grizzly Lowers standing sentinel around a container filled to the brim with rockets. Demir recognizes Warhorse, the probable leader of the pack. One of the most prolific arms dealers among the Lowers. His legs are completely modded, and he’s got other combat mods that make him a prime target for the Authority. Illegal spliced tech courtesy of the Lower Circles. He likes to think of himself as a revolutionary, while others like to think of him as a *** scumbag. Spitting rhetoric all the while lining his pockets. Still hasn’t managed to get out of the Lower Circles, and most likely never will. Like many, if not all Lowers, he’s stuck here or will end up in the Depths if the sickness gets to him first. Demir’s quick to see why he’d be peddling nukes. Something that high-grade might get him either enough clout to make it up, or enough money to make it off-planet. Try his luck in some other shithole.
   “MOS,” Warhorse greets them. “I never thunk you one for bodyguards. And by the Depths, a Leto manno.” Demir wishes he had some zazz for this.
   “Can’t be too careful these days,” Demir cuts him off dryly. His usual flare gone like the light in this forsaken stretch of Melkior.
   “Bruv got it in his ear you got rockets for me?” Warhorse’s entourage sneers through thick smiles. Slaughter in their eyes, money in their hearts. “Even put up your ride as contingent, yah. Never would have thunk.”
   “Me neither, but here we are.” And there they are. Squad of Lower detritus on one side of the rockets, Leto and Demir on the other. The only calm in this entire situation emanating from the Grand-Master himself.
   “So, this the batch we got. If you bring us to more we can pay.”
   “We’re not here to talk about rockets,” and Leto takes control. The Grand-Master out once again, dominant in the face of adversity. Lowers eyeing him like a crazy man. Easy to think that of a person who looks like Leto III.
   “*** your meat shield talking, bruv?” Warhorse’s arrow eyes on Demir, piercing red from all the stims.
   “You’re talking to me now,” and Demir can clearly see the full stop Leto has to bring himself to do before some kind of slur escapes him.
   “By the Depths, this Leto manno a crazy ***.” Warhorse sizes Leto up. “Real close to the original, I’d a thunk. You going to let this scrap talk over you, ha MOS?”
   “I told you already, you’re talking to me now. Your business is with me now.”
   Warhorse puts his hands up. “Don’t give a *** as long as we get our rockets, or his ride.”
   “You’re getting neither,” Leto’s voice a menacing snarl through gritted teeth. “You’re going to tell me where the nukes are, and you’re going to tell me now.”
   Lowers first look at each other quizzically, then burst into a mocking raucous laugh.
   Then Leto’s gone. Demir almost can’t follow his movements. Over the rockets, sliding under Warhorse and then pinning him to the ground. Savage stomp from Leto busts his legs wide open. While the leader’s incapacitated Leto plows through the rest. Confiscates a shredder from one of the Lowers, and uses it to tear his head off. Crouches and shoots back to take the midriff off of another. Tosses the useless thing once it’s empty, and goes in low to tackle one poor *** into the ground. Hard stomp on his neck crushes his windpipe, then Leto twists and breaks his neck so the man dies quick. The two left clear their weapons, back-alley plasma cutters modded for long range. Leto slides to the side of an incoming blast, tears the man’s arm off, and cuts his head clean off with the cutter. He uses the corpse as a shield from the last blast before throwing it into the last man standing. Once on the ground Leto cuts his head off too, probably so he doesn’t feel left out. 
   Now it’s just Warhorse writhing on the floor, Leto polishing off the blood from his face, and Demir still grasping at straws. He sees the Grand-Master standing over Warhorse a blink later, his face a contorted mess of anger, and the downed man slowly turning silent as the pain mitigating stims kick in. All good enhancements have pain receptors so you know when you’re in danger, and Warhorse most certainly is. Even more so when Leto grabs his neck and pulls him face-level with one *** arm.
   “The nukes, where are they?” Not a man to mince words, or waste them.
   “Grabba ***,” Warhorse blurts out and spits in Leto’s face only to miss when the Gran-Master just tilts his head to the side. He then proceeds to squeeze the man’s throat shut harder than a grav collapse. Leto then heartlessly uses this opportunity to smash Warhorse back into the ground. “The nukes!” he bellows, his deep voice carrying through the empty warehouse.
   Leto loosens his grip so Warhorse can speak, or at least churn the words out between his gritted teeth. “Armed,” he mutters. Leto’s eyes widen. “Soon as you cut me down.” Venomous bloody grin from the so-called revolutionary. Warhorse grabs Leto’s arm with both of his, squeezes like he’s holding on for dear life. “And you’ll never find them, you *** grabba shi...” Warhorse’s eyes pop out of their sockets and his head collapses into itself before he can finish the insult. Blood spurts all over Leto’s face again. His expression deadpan and empty.
   On the other side Demir calmly starts losing his ***.

Chapter 13: REVOLUTION
SERAS CONSTANTINE WOULD have scolded him until he was black and blue for such a meager display. To even have let them fire a single shot was beneath him, and her training. Let alone having the leader arm the nukes. Leto had Demir check that man Warhorse for a signal pulse and they found the device on his dead body. Demir then forwarded the device to one of his contacts and they confirmed a signal was sent. Too weak to track, but certainly strong enough to arm the nukes.
   “What do we do now?” Demir asks the Grand-Master. The question that persists and will persist for as long as I live.
   “We press Warhorse’s,” and Leto scoffs, “compatriots for the location of the nukes. From the police report there are two. Depending on the positioning the damage to the city could be substantial.”
   “And that’s exactly why we *** bolt it out of here. We cut our way to Baby and *** leave.” Leto would be disgusted by Demir’s willful ignorance as to the possibilities of wholesale slaughter across the entire city, but there is always a good point to cowardice. Self-preservation over all else. Leto will be back. Demir won’t.
   “There is no cutting our way to your skiff.”
   “I’ve seen what you can do.”
   Seras had taught him much. About honor, about righteousness, about battle. Even more about folly, and just being plain stupid. Rushing the Hangar even with his combat abilities, alone at that, was nothing shy of damn stupid. “Even with substantial backup we wouldn’t be able to take the Hangar.”
   “Since when does the Grand-Master of War shy away from insurmountable odds?” The hint of irony and even mockery is not lost on Leto.
   “Since I have you to contend with. I won’t die, you will.”
   “So I’m a burden now?”
   “Only if you make yourself one.”
   “What other *** options do we have? We tell the Authority the nukes are armed they’ll put us in a holding cell and we won’t see the skies again.” Leto knows Demir’s using the term we to imply that they are stuck together, but knows full well Leto’s not part of the Authority’s equation. He’d never see the inside of a holding cell, only Demir would. “We tell the Corporal the nukes are armed we might get him to cut us loose as long as he wants to bolt himself. But that’s more than a long shot. We have no leverage here.”
   “Which is why we have to find the nukes. We have no advantage without them. Either we stay and try to assemble a force to take the Hangar, and most likely die in the explosion. Or we assault it now and die in the crossfire. The only way we get out of this alive and off-planet is by finding the nukes.”
   Demir rubs his temples, and then his eyes. “Can you stop making complete sense for *** once?” Leto lets him stew in his anger. What was it that he said? Caught between a point and a nova. “I know a couple of people Warhorse rolled with. I’m not sure they were in on the nukes, but it’s worth to check.”
   “We have to operate fast. Considering they haven’t blown yet Warhorse must have had a specific time in mind to optimize damage. We need weapons first, then we go talk to the people you know.”
   Demir visibly recedes into himself at the words talk to. Leto knows why, but doesn’t care as much anymore.
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 4/13!)
Post by: Albreo on May 08, 2021, 10:12:49 AM
Hey. This is pretty good, not lying. Better than most stuff out there and a good sci-fi that also easy to read is hard to come by. I would suggest that the censored words should contain a first letter hint to not make me take a wild guess and help the immersion flows continuously.
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 4/13!)
Post by: B.K. on May 09, 2021, 02:48:29 PM
Hey. This is pretty good, not lying. Better than most stuff out there and a good sci-fi that also easy to read is hard to come by. I would suggest that the censored words should contain a first letter hint to not make me take a wild guess and help the immersion flows continuously.
Thank you! Means a lot.
Glad that you like it, hope other people do too. I also like comments that are not as positive. Fiction is judged by the readers, after all. So feel free to take any swing you want. Everything is a possibility for improvement.
And that is a great idea. To be honest I just let the forum censor that on its own because despite my proclivities for many things I am still lazy. I'll go back and edit that before I upload the next chapters.
A big thank you to anyone who reads my stuff.
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 5/25!)
Post by: B.K. on May 25, 2021, 09:37:59 AM
Another drop of chapters. 14, 15, 16, and 17, since two of them are shorter interludes.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. I completely forgot to change the swearwords because I am, after all, a lazy ***.

Chapter 14: REVENGE
THE BRANDED WALKS among the detritus of the Depths. Misery, despair, and horrors flourish around it. Disease-ridden fleshbags that feast on their own suffering. A cavalcade of tech wasting away on flesh that has been thrown to the Depths to rot. Sickness eating at their bodies until their minds collapse under the weight of the pain and they turn more feral than the mongrels from Seltior 7 they used to train back when was known as Hark Miner. The Branded suspects the Depths were originally planned to be a mining facility, or a harbor, because the skeleton of society still stands tall but rotten. What were once buildings are now collapsing in on the detritus of flesh that have been relegated to living here. One can enter the Depths, but you’re not expected to leave. There is no cure for the graft sickness, and there is no hope for the ones in the Depths.
   Hooded and cloaked the Branded walks in the dark. It slinks in between the coughing and decaying fleshbags, each gasping for air and their hands lifting towards it like there is any hope in its contact. In the distance it hears screams and wails of anguish, malice, and lastly the decimation of flesh as those gone to the sickness tear at anything that comes their way.
   It is unafraid. It is beholden to its Lords, and they beckon. It hears their calls over the pitiful cries of the fleshbags. So the Branded can make its way through the waste of humanity undisturbed. Its goal is a building steadily in decline, but less so than the others in this sector of the Depths. It hears their snarls once it enters. Eyes glimmering softly in the thin darkness. The Branded has no time for such waste. It engages the core, burst energy into its combustion rail, and mows them down. Its objective is the hatch in the basement. Opened through the code given to it by the fleshbags it had sold the devices to.
   “Useless fleshbag activated it too early.” So now it has to go adjust the timing. Only way that waste of tech would have accepted the devices in the first place was if he had control over their detonation. A safety measure, he called it. Not even thinking twice that the Branded had override codes. Full of himself, full of his self-righteous revolution.
   The Branded enters the sub-basement and engages his ocular filters. The device stands beeping in the middle of the otherwise empty space. It has to go remedy the mistake the fleshbag made, and make things right for the Lords.

LETO FLEECED HIM for all he had saved. He had enough to get off-planet and then he’d be flush after a good job or two. Now he’ll be lucky if he can get something to eat at any place above the Lower Circles. But Leto is strutting his stuff like he’s the real deal, which he is, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that no one but Demir knows it. He’s not sure if the Grand-Master wants to get them killed before they even step foot in front of Warhorse’s posse.
   Demir got him a velocity slug-shooter with uranium coated ammo, two plasma blades, and a heavy shrapnel cannon. Leto’s massive frame conceals the weapons well with nothing jutting from the cloak still draped over him like a loose bag. Judging by how he dispatched Warhorse and his men barehanded the mere thought of him going against anyone while armed is nothing short of a visceral image, and a palpable tension. The lower they go the more violence becomes common, but the kind Leto can dish out is likely to cause quite a stir. That’s the last thing they need. However, Demir is slowly growing accustomed to what they have to do, and less to what they need. What they need is those nukes, and what they have to do it kill their way to them. Simple as that. As long as Leto does the killing.
   Demir squeezed one of the girls he knows frequents Warhorse and his goons. Says it’s a decent job, they pay her fee always. Considering most Lowers don’t, that’s always a major plus. Add some more cash on top and she’ll give you the skinny on their base. Leto frowned at the prospect of working with a prostitute, especially since Demir could see the judgmental look in his eyes. But if anything’s not his *** business it’s where Demir likes to stick his *** when he’s in a pinch. Especially when he’s not in the market for something more upscale. Needs are needs. Despite how much Leto got rid of his.
   Surprisingly enough it’s not a warehouse this time. Rather the top floor of a shopping block. The would-be revolutionaries funnel a lot of their dirty money, and earn for protection, through the vendors. Demir knows many of them have hidden compartments for weapons and illegal tech if you know who to ask and how. He never bothered finding out more. Even did a couple of small deals back before his name carried through the Galaxy.
   Unlike in the Bazaar or other open markets here no one bothers them to come in and buy their ***. You either enter of your own accord or not at all. That way they can make their way to the top floor easily.
   Lowers jump on them as soon as their feet set foot on their turf. All of them Warhorse’s men. Disheveled people beholden to the cause. A cause they know little about and care less about. The only reason they are there is belonging, which is something most Lowers have no sense of. That’s how they wrangle you in, and that’s how they keep you. It’s not just about the revolution, it’s about feeling like you’re a part of something more. That you can be more than the place you were born in has determined you to be. And doesn’t every revolution start out that way?
   “*** you looking for, eh manno?” a Lower ugly as sin, visual enhancement lines across his scarred face, pushes himself threateningly into Leto’s zone.
   “We have information about Warhorse.”
   “*** you know about Warhorse?”
   “That he’s dead,” Leto cuts through the patois with his stern demeanor, like he’s piloting his Spear straight through the AI armada. Not many *** left in this guy. Maybe never had any to begin with. Or maybe they beat them out of him.
   Weapons drawn now. “Say you?”
   “Yes. Now let me in, or suffer the consequences.”
   “Think you a big manno, ha? Wearing that Leto like a...”
   The Grand-Master has none of it. He’s low before the Lower can even trace him with his blaster. Blades cut through his tendons and he’s down screaming. Leto’s shoulder smashes the next guard straight into the door and a savage kick pushes him through and the door off its hinges. Slug-shooter has the last guard down with two kneecaps missing, so Leto can just saunter into the base to see the rest of the Lowers up and their weapons out.
   Leto walks in so cold the temperature drops, like they owe him money, like they owe him the future. Problem is, they do.
   “Who the *** are you, manno?” one of the Lowers, presumably the one who feels in charge, blurts out over the pulse rifle in his hands.
   “I’m sick and tired of answering your questions. Warhorse is dead, and you’re out of luck.”
   “And how the *** you know the skinny on that?”
   “Because I killed him.” Temperature drops even lower, guns too as surprise sets in. Making a statement like that in a situation like this only has two outcomes. One being instant return fire, and the other being what happens now.
   Leto takes his chance and is on them all like a *** cascade bomb. They fall to his blades, his massive arms and legs tear at anyone and everyone in the entire room. A crescendo of carnage. Screams and wails and broken limbs, torn mods and enhancements, weapons strewn about as Demir watches the Grand-Master utterly demolish the Lowers in about the time it takes Demir to down a good slush from Keres.
   Those that are injured are left writhing on the floor. Those that aren’t let their weapons fall. To Demir’s own surprise none of them are dead.
   “Now you listen up, and listen well,” Leto continues his tirade like he didn’t just *** in their soup and break their limbs in the process. “Warhorse is dead, but not before arming the nukes.” The Lowers not writhing in pain and with enough gray matter left in their skulls from all the illegal stims pucker their ears at this. “That’s how much he valued your misbegotten revolution. As soon as I got to him he armed them and then offed himself, so now I have no way of finding them before they glass the entire city. I want to know where he placed them, and I want to know now.”
   Lowers start looking at each other, the sweat beading harder on their brows now. The man who just ate them alive wants answers, and it looks like they got none.
   “He never give us the skinny on that,” and one of the Lowers finally confirms.
   “Then how did he get them? Who’s his supplier?”
   “No one seen him. Warhorse told he some creepy manno from off-planet. Heavily done over.” Patois for modded out of his skull. “No clue where he put them nukes. No clue who got them on-planet.”
   “So you’re telling me your boss was doing all this alone?” Shrugs all around. “And you just *** let him.” Demir gets a nice cold shiver from the swear. Leto, the Grand-Master of *** War, is a man of sheer conditioning, determination, and habit. When he lets go of that he’s most dangerous.
   “Boss is boss.”
   “Well, I’m your boss now,” then Leto confirms to Demir that he’s off the rails. And at that point Demir stops wishing for some zazz and starts fantasizing about being anywhere but here.
   “Say?” one of the Lowers asks, small and timid as a whisper.
   “You all work for me now. And let me be very clear. If you so much as pipe your *** my way I will find all of your bases, all of your friends, comrades, loved ones, and I will murder them in such violent fashion they’ll beg for the nukes to glass this entire shithole so the pain stops.” Silence coats the room, freezing it over. Lowers look at each other, weigh their options against the odds of Leto actually doing it, and finally their own odds of stopping it. They come to the sensible conclusion and nod approvingly. “Smart, for once. Now, I want everyone here done up and ready. I don’t care what it takes. Everyone is on the field now. I want those nukes found, I want the contact found. We have no idea if we have days, weeks, or months until they blow. So work like it’s hours. Everyone closest to Warhorse will be interviewed by me. Mr. Sunderland will handle the day to day.” And there go Demir’s fantasies. “We keep this discreet. If the Authority catches so much as a whiff that the nukes are armed they’ll vent us all.” Not only that, but they’ll brick Demir’s deal and throw them into the *** Depths with the Rotten. Maybe even scrap Baby for parts. Leto’s right about keeping this under the scanners. “Move about with the utmost discretion, work your contacts, work the suppliers and people Warhorse might have gotten involved with. Remember, he sold you out. Left you to die. I’m the only one who can get you out of this. So make your actions count. Are we clear?” Nods all around. “I said, are we clear?” The Grand-Master’s voice booms so hard the response comes out like a biological imperative.
   “Yes, sir!”

Chapter 16: SUFFERING
THE BRANDED KNOWS they are mobilized. The detritus of flesh is being heralded by a new leader, and their top priority is the devices. It has a hardcoded thread into the communications systems. Endless stream of voices filtered through the network its Lords had given it. Drones that find safe haven in his back, fueled by his reactor. Now they fly to do its bidding. An external web of influence the Branded can exude at will. How the fleshbags talk sickens it, but it must endure. For its Lords.
   In the Depths it has the dark to keep it company, and the voices to drown out the screams. It keeps Warhorse and his failures in the back of its cortical stack. Just to always have the hatred even closer at hand.
   The interference by the fleshbags will have no effect on its plan, its Lords guarantee as much. Try as they might, they are doomed to fail. Like their entire race will soon falter, wither, and fall. 
   The Branded hasn’t registered any tampering with the other device. Although its human uncertainty is still nagging at it. Something it wishes the slush of his brain had been removed during its ascension. It suspects it’s to keep it understanding of the plights of its former flesh prison and those adjacent to it. Know thy enemy, and to know thy enemy one must also be thy enemy.
   Right now the Branded’s enemy is scurrying around the Circles to find the devices. Fruitlessly so. It revels in their plight, finds solace in their inevitable demise. In the distance the screams punctuate the dark. More screams are to be had.

Chapter 17: WARHORSE
SOMETHING BETWEEN NOTHING and not much. That’s all they got. Warhorse’s men had about as much of a clue as to his plans as Leto and Demir have now. All they know is that Warhorse was very vocal about having the nukes, placing the nukes, and that the revolution would sweep the city. Not much of anything in terms of where the nukes are and who gave them to him in the first place.
   Then they moved on to speculations. Warhorse’s men must have had some kind of inkling as to when they might blow. What were his usual targets, which times did he stress? What did he *** let slip? Was he going to go for full damage? Leto doubted that from the beginning. You can’t have a revolution if you glass the entire city. Since Leto had seen a couple of revolutions snuffed in his day he suspects the Authority must be a prime target. They are most certainly aiming to crumble the Authority infrastructure, but within a city built like Melkior that’s not possible. No way you can destroy every Authority base on every circle without something much more coordinated than this haphazard mess Warhorse left behind. No, they’re aiming to take out the head at least. Authority Circle is going to be glassed for sure.
   Another thing that’s for sure is that they don’t need two nukes to do that. So the other might be on the surface. Get rid of the rich. Purge the money, and maybe bank on pirate assistance. Keep the production facilities, the mines and the ports. That’s the most likely choice. Warhorse, for all his evident leadership charisma, was not a bright man.
   What worries Leto, even more, is Warhorse’s contact. The man’s an enigma. Only thing they have on him is that he was visibly enhanced. Maybe former army. Maybe a rising criminal force looking to expand into Melkior. They might have been using Warhorse as a scapegoat. Then they swoop in as a fake bank, give out loans, integrate themselves into the money. Once that’s over your planet, city, and everything in it is theirs. And these types of organizations have no interest in overthrowing the hierarchy. That means the second nuke could be any-***-where.
   That’s driving Leto crazy.
   Warhorse, for all his bravado and blabbering, didn’t give A single thing with regards to the nukes. His contact neither. As if all that wasn’t enough by itself, they also have so many different possibilities considering Warhorse’s evidently incessant babbling. Too many options, which means no options.
   “Leto,” Demir pulls him out of his thoughts and contemplation.
   “Yes, Mr. Sunderland, how is the day to day? Authority satisfied?” Leto had persuaded Demir to give the Authority a check-in. Half the truth just to make sure they are a bit more inclined to keep their prying eyes out of the Lower Circles.
   “Authority is. Day to day’s solid,” and he pauses. “But we’re burning time. I have an ear to the ground and there’s nothing. Nothing from Warhorse’s men. They just keep repeating *** in circles. Things they heard Warhorse say, and it’s driving me insane.”
   “It’s like a web. You follow it somewhere you think is new only to get caught in the circle again.”
   “Yeah, it’s mind-grating.”
   “No, Mr. Sunderland. It’s genius. As far we can trace back Warhorse’s stories have been a constant since the oldest members of his crew can remember. But all of their recollections are recent. Nothing about the good old times. This is all new. This is all planted.”
   Realization flushes over Demir’s face, a soft and stoic – but very self-satisfied – grin flashes brightly. “Wasn’t Warhorse at all. His contact. He bought him out, and all Warhorse had to do was be more Warhorse than usual. Everything serves to get us off his tracks.” More realization, the bad kind. “That’s why we’re ***.”
   “We’re *** if we stick with Warhorse’s men. We need to expand. We need an ally.” Loud sigh from Demir. “Anything to suggest, Mr. Sunderland?”
   “We’re going to need the Cardinal. He really runs the Lower Circles. His crew is organized, and he’s got info,” Demir finally admits.
   “You don’t seem too happy about that.”
   “Yeah. Warhorse’s crew was easy pickings for you. Cardinal,” and he shakes his head. “We’re going to need a really sweet deal for him. Cardinal doesn’t move unless it’s worth his while.” Leto keeps his gaze frozen into the distance. Demir recognizes the pensive stare. “If you say we tell him the truth I’ll slap you. I’ll risk you breaking me, but I’ll do it.”
   “What else is going to work, Demir?” First time Leto used his given name. “We only have time for the truth.”
   And isn’t that the truth?
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 5/25!)
Post by: Blue_Bear on May 25, 2021, 11:52:27 PM
To mimic Albreo, this is some excellent writing, enjoyable to read, draws you in, and the world-building is solid, some of the best stuff I've read in a while.

My only minor point of critism is that the pacing is kind of immediately turned up to 11 for poor Demir and we don't have much of a chance to get to know him before the story kicks into gear, but that's probably a point of personal preference rather than a direct critique of your work.

I'm really looking forward to reading more and thank you for sharing this with us!

Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 5/25!)
Post by: B.K. on May 26, 2021, 12:04:25 PM
To mimic Albreo, this is some excellent writing, enjoyable to read, draws you in, and the world-building is solid, some of the best stuff I've read in a while.

My only minor point of critism is that the pacing is kind of immediately turned up to 11 for poor Demir and we don't have much of a chance to get to know him before the story kicks into gear, but that's probably a point of personal preference rather than a direct critique of your work.

I'm really looking forward to reading more and thank you for sharing this with us!
Thank you!

I get the point about the narrative and it's a legit concern because it can turn some readers away. The reason why I went there is to practice a bit of that show don't tell philosophy in fiction writing. Instead doing an overlong introduction for Demir I plan to show his backstory throughout the unfolding narrative.
Risky, sure, but even in failure we can find growth.

Cheers, and thanks for reading!
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 5/25!)
Post by: Orion Kamish on May 26, 2021, 04:42:58 PM
What a nice novel to spent time with while the world is burning..... Hmmmmm welp that's just me hehehe but nice read though
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 6/29!)
Post by: B.K. on June 29, 2021, 08:06:27 AM
Here's a couple of more chapters. Specifically chapters 18, 19, and 20. Back after a while, because I am a lazy ***, and it's hot as hell out there.
Cheers! Thanks for reading.

YOU DON’T JUST SEE the Cardinal. You ask nicely to see the Cardinal. And if you ask nice enough he might just consider giving you a spot in his busy schedule. Maybe in a month or three. No, you don’t just see the Cardinal. That only happens when you have something really worth his while.
   Demir Sunderland and a Leto III in tow telling him they have info he really wants to hear. Place his Baby as collateral on the info to boot. A MOS’s original design is not something you put up lightly.
   That morning Demir put the call in. Come noon they’re in his chambers in the Altar. The EN religion that fuels the Cardinal's imagery. He was fast enough to capitalize on the EN gibberish after the AI Wars. Now he rules in the Lower Circles, lets small factions like Warhorse’s operate. Snuffs them out for the Authority when need be. Keeps the peace. But instead of some pseudo-prophet the Cardinal has people beholden to golden principle of money. Imagery sells it, imagery keeps it hidden. Keeps him looking just that off-brand insane that doesn’t cause mass panic. In the shadows he operates like a banker gliding through the Drakkweb.
   Demir never believed the Cardinal when he would say he’s not interested in some position. He’s content with having his Lower Circles. Having this power just isn’t his style. Demir never believes the word content.
   Demir knows that when he tells the Cardinal what they have to tell, there is no going back.
   Leto won’t like it. But Demir knows the Cardinal has a plan just for this. This is his show. Apocalypse is coming, and he’s the *** Cardinal.
   Demir is sure of it.
   And the more he witnesses the Cardinal’s succulent pomp, circumspect grandeur, and candid sanity, he’s sure this is the right play.
   The Cardinal himself is as imposing a man as his Altar makes you feel small in the face his EN *** facade. Tall, broad, untouched by tech except for his organs which are not granted by God. Shock of white hair tangled all around his weary face. Old age always suited the EN religion more than hard youth. Neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard juxtaposed to his wild eyebrows and sunken cheeks. Deep inset eyes that seem to always and never be looking directly into your soul. His red gown with golden filigree has just the right amount of Lower Circles grime on it to be of the masses and beyond the masses. He sits in front of them on his modest wooden stool, directly from Earth he swears. A contingent of highly trained guards standing sentinel around him. Demir and Leto are beset from all angles. Not even Leto can fight his way out of this.
   And if Demir plays this right Leto won’t have to.
   “I heard some rustling in the Circles, Mr. Sunderland,” Cardinal puts the cordial spin on his introduction. “This is not the first time you put your skiff against some info you had to sell. Which begs the question if you’re even in possession of your precious Baby?”
   “No worries there, Baby’s still mine.” Cardinal’s faux-religious tribe have nothing to say about lying. Considering how much of it they do themselves there would none of them left had they decided to punish the action.
   “Very well then, what do you have for me?”
   “Before we start I need you to detain Leto here.” The Grand-Master almost jumps out of his seat. His eyes wide, his frame bursting at the seams. “And please do it quick.”
   Cardinal nods to his squad and they’re on Leto with shackles. He manages to fend off a couple before he’s brought to the ground. Writhing and cursing, crying foul and promising revenge. Demir is ready to take that if it means they can leave this rock unharmed.
   “Now, Mr. Sunderland, the info.”
   “There are two nukes planted on Melkior. We have no idea where, and no way to find them.”
   Everyone in the Altar stops for a heartbeat. “You are certain of this?” Cardinal cuts through the tension quick, precise, just as Demir expected.
   “We are. Warhorse and some mysterious, untraceable *** planted them. All of his people have no *** clue and we’ve been grinding them for weeks. Now, we know Warhorse didn’t really have the mental capacity to pull this off by himself, so we suspect his partner did most of the planning and execution.”
   “So Warhorse is dead,” more of a confirmation than a question. “I had my finger on that pulse, but now it seems to finally be confirmed. Might I wager that the Leto there took care of him?”
   An astute man. Well, you don’t get to sit on his bench for so many years without being one. “Yes. He armed the nukes before he died. We took over his operation to find them but got jack ***. Only a web of info that traces to exactly nowhere.”
   “I see, so you’re wondering if I can help find them?”
   “No. There’s no way we will.” An arched brow from the Cardinal. “We want to let you know that you should bail and take everyone you want with you.”
   “You would like to be one of the ones I take, am I correct?”
   “Would be stupid if we weren’t. Melkior is going to get glassed. Maybe just a couple of Circles, or maybe the whole thing. Two nukes in the right places is more than enough to do either. Warhorse would never go for glassing the entire city. But we know jack *** about what his partner wants. Either way, as I see it you can bail and come back as a *** savior, or just bail and find a new place to station. We just want off this rock.” Leto furious in the background. So much so the guards have to gag him.
   “Only one problem with this info of yours.” Demir gets the tingles, not the good kind. “How do we confirm this? Warhorse’s men,” and the Cardinal scoffs, “I would consider them highly unreliable. Your word I consider less so. But where do I find tangible proof?”
   “Ask the Authority. They put me on the nukes. But I would suggest being very careful about how you do it.” The Cardinal sighs. “Listen, if you let them know the nukes are armed they’ll blockade the entire city. Let the nukes glass the *** and then proclaim it a *** terrorist uprising. Every conglomerate in the Known Galaxy will be on this. The Authority will get even more power and then people like us will be out of business. If they blow along with the nukes it’ll show the Galaxy how incompetent they are. Think about it.” Now a smirk from the Cardinal. “Criminals running the show. The underground ready to burst above ground. You ride this, and you ride it hard. And when you do, don’t forget who got you there.”
   Moment of silence, only Leto’s incessant muffled cries in the background. “I have to say, Mr. Sunderland, you truly are a man of your word.”
   “Never said otherwise.”
   “Most certainly. I believe we have work to do.” Cardinal stands up almost wearily, pushing himself off his thighs. “What do you want us to do with the Leto?”
   “Keep him sedated, and put him in the hold of my skiff.”
   “Which is where?”
   “Most excellent, we are planning on paying him a visit as is.”

Chapter 19: CORPORAL
JUST A SMALL CONTINGENT this time. The Cardinal decides it’s best to travel light when they go see the Corporal. Cardinal had Leto drugged up the gills and detained with about three times what it takes for any normal man. Demir’s suggestion, of course. Now he’s kept somewhere in the dark, ready to be shipped to Baby’s cargo bay like a piece of real-meat he sometimes smuggles to places where it’s a legend. Humanity started growing their meat eons ago, so something from a real animal is more than EN ***. Unlike that trite remembrance, Demir gets more sick of every day real-meat is actually worth a damn. Money, that is. While his own thoughts and apprehensions are still worth about as much as exhaust fumes. He’s a speck in the dirt in all of this, just as much as the Cardinal, only Demir knows why.
   Demir knows Leto will never forgive him for this. Full well. He thinks to himself through a smirk. No, Leto won’t forgive him. However, he will forget for the sake of the Galaxy. For now.
   Only reason beyond the obvious why Leto is even on Demir’s mind is because he’d rather have the Grand-Master at his side than the Cardinal’s Paladins, as he calls them. Three bestial pieces of human flesh and tech that make Leto’s stern stare look like a warm glance at a bar. Cardinal is not inclined to drop his gown, but this is a civil arrangement for him in terms of guards. This is how he tells people he’s just there to talk and not rip their guts out.
   Corporal buzzes them in quicker than Demir had ever seen it go off. Barely even in the camera’s periphery and the door’s already open. Warm welcome indeed. Wish I could get this kind of treatment at some point. But then again Demir was never as warm on the thought of running his own operation. Too much hassle, too many people. He’s still not fully content with having Leto by his side at all times either. Baby’s all he’ll ever need.
   Paladins go in first, spread out, and let the Cardinal and Demir in once they have a hold on the space. Scanners primed and tech armed, just in case.
   Corporal’s got his arms out and a smile on his face. “The Eminence himself in my humble abode. What can I do for you today, Cardinal?”
   “I want a catalog of all the ships in your hangar. Any others across the Lower Circles, and access to your pipeline,” Cardinal rushes in without padding like he’s itching for a hyperspace burn. Lost look on the Corporal’s face says it all. “Any problems with that, Corporal?”
   “A lot, actually.”
   “Mr. Sunderland, will you please enlighten the Corporal? This is your doling after all.”
   Corporal’s look changes from lost to supremely sober. Legends of Demir’s fuckups are nothing if not known throughout the Galaxy.
   Demir takes a deep breath. “Hagen has me chasing nukes on-planet. They’re armed now and we have no way of finding them before they blow.”
   “Precisely,” Cardinal takes the wheel again. “Now we both know if word gets to the Authority they will blockade the city and use the explosion to expand their influence across the Galaxy. Don’t we, Corporal?” Poor man just nods, caught in the situation as he is. “Good. Now, my people are going off-planet, and we need your ships to do so. Once we have the numbers we will also allocate enough assets for you and the people you choose to join us. Mr. Sunderland will be free to depart in his skiff, along with anyone he wants.” Cardinal’s still skeptical about Leto. Not sure how he figures into all of this. An expensive Leto III knockoff has worth, but enough to risk the deal for his safety. Demir made it clear that Leto lives or the Authority will get wind of the situation. Cardinal was apprehensive but didn’t object.
   “But the people?” Corporal finally lets out words.
   “The people, sadly I must add, will be left to their own devices. Along with the Authority. Time is of the essence, Corporal. We need the logs now, and we need to be off-planet as soon as possible. Be compliant and you’ll find more than just a happy customer in me. I see the potential for a partnership after Melkior is over with. We will have to rebuild, but I value your business sense. This is the time to be smart, Corporal.”
   “Oh, I am.” The menacing grin on the Corporal’s face speaks of a man with a contingency plan. The frown on the Cardinal’s face speaks of a man finding out he’s about to get ***.
   For the skies know which time this *** month alone Demir is left to lose his *** when the Corporal starts some kind of emergency protocol.

Chapter 20: HANGAR
CORPORAL’S GONE in a cavalcade of alarms and bots rushing into the store. Paladins hold ground while the Cardinal and Demir make their brief escape. Cardinal’s on the internal comms, ordering all his forces to take the Corporal’s tunnels and entrance, and a full battalion on the store from which they’ll rush the hangar proper.
   “No ships in or out!” last thing Cardinal blurts out before coming back to the situation at hand. “Authority will be on us soon. We have to take the hangar now and get out too. No sense in doing this quiet or prolonging it now. We rush in and we get off-planet immediately.”
   “But Leto,” Demir blurts out almost dumbfounded.
   “You’ll find a new one. I’m a man of my word. You can have your skiff, but I won’t waste time hauling the Leto from cold storage to the hangar. Now or never, Mr. Sunderland.” A cold flushes down Demir’s gullet. He shivers and nods a shaky yes. “Good. A battalion will be here momentarily.”
   Soon as the Cardinal says that the Paladins come out of the store. Each of them disheveled to a degree, but all of them alive. One even carrying a bot arm in one hand. “We can’t break through the elevator door. We need a sapper team.”
   “Of course. I anticipated as much if need be. We’ll have everything we need.” Cardinal returns to the comms to check up on the blockade progress. He informs Demir and the Paladins that there have been no attempts to fly out the Corporal’s tunnel. “He’s going to make a stand at the hangar and try to spread us out thin so he and his platoon can make a clean getaway.”
   “Maybe we let him get off-planet?” Demir interjects. “I mean, he can’t have that many men. So what if we lose a couple of ships?”
   “The Corporal would never allow for a trail on him. No, once he’s off-planet the hangar will most likely be cleaned. The explosive kind of cleaned.”
   “What the *** is it with explosions these past couple of days. Does everyone on this *** rock have a bomb?” I’m getting tired of this ***. Demir thinks to himself because he knows he can’t really flip now and make the Cardinal question his decision to honor their agreement.
   Clots of people avoid them because no one in the Lower Circles, the Bazaar, or even the Upper Circles avoids crossing the Cardinal if they don’t have business with him. A respectful distance just in case. Even more people flee the scene when the Cardinal’s battalion arrives. No sense in concealing their weapons or going in stealthy. They have to get this done quick before the Authority comes barreling down on them. Considering the distance from the Upper Circles, or even the station from where they are now it will take some time. Even more so considering the time it takes for the info to even reach them. Even on this circle, people are not as inclined to call the Authority as they might be elsewhere.
   “Corporal’s holed up in the hangar. Only way down is the elevator, but we can’t risk that so we blow it and dive down quick. He’s got the advantage on us with his bots and people. We can’t let him overtake our position and spread us thin. We have to hold and then launch an assault through the tunnels. Pincer him in and take the hangar. He’s a soldier, after all, so he won’t blow it all up just to spite us. He’s not Warhorse, after all. If we win, we win. He knows that. So let’s kill him with respect, shall we?” Cardinal’s battalion nods affirmative and they all enter the store.
   With trained precision the battalion makes their way to the elevator door and place the explosives, set the charge timer, and retreat to a safe distance. The door’s blown wide open with a grav pulse that implodes it into itself. After it’s done the Cardinal’s men dismantle the elevator with more grav charges until the shaft is completely open and they can grapple down quick and not get pelted.
   “Corporal is going to have the elevator surrounded so I want shields up front and a full line. Take out the bots first because they won’t stop coming. Grenade them like hounds, and when the Corporal retreats we will pincer him in. I’ll give word to the tunnel battalion once the retreat has started.” Another quick nod from the battalion before they prepare their gear. Hum of shields being charged, grappling hooks click, blasters armed buzzing. With that trained precision Demir witnessed before they form their line and jump into the belly of the beast.
   “You’re not going down?” Demir asks the Cardinal despite knowing the answer.
   “The Cardinal doesn’t sully his robe, but you’re free to participate if you’re so inclined,” Cardinal gives him the cold truth.
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 6/29!)
Post by: V Ean on July 28, 2021, 12:43:42 AM
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 7/28!)
Post by: B.K. on July 28, 2021, 09:32:06 AM
Here's a quick twosome for everyone. Chapters 21 and 22. This marks the end of the Melkior Saga. Makes me feel like I'm writing an anime, so I'll add a quick and short spoiler for where the narrative is going next.
I'll be sure to upload more (moar) once I've polished the coming chapters.
As always, thank you for reading!

Chapter 21: HANGAR GREY
DEMIR WALKS BY the mess of dead bodies and tech. Bodies on both sides, blood and viscera all over the hangar gray. The once pristine pride of the Corporal now dead as much as he is. Brains splattered over the wall behind him, his hand still clutching the army issue rotary turret he was known to be fond of. His eyes open, mouth agape with a slight curve to the lip almost like a smile.
   “Let’s get moving, people. I want all the hangars open and every ship that’s not DNA tethered at the ready. I have the Authority on call so I can hold them off. We don’t have much time until they stop buying my ***, so be as swift as the wrath of God, gentlemen,” then the Cardinal turns to Demir. “You are free to leave, Mr. Sunderland. I do apologize about the Leto, but sacrifices have to be made.”
   “Yeah, I’ll find a new one,” Demir lets him know begrudgingly and heads to the hangar where he left Baby.
   “Oh, and Mr. Sunderland, we will be in touch. I owe you, and the Cardinal keeps his word.”
   “And what’s a man without that, right?”
   “Indeed,” the Cardinal lets him go just as coldly as he ordered his people down the elevator to the slaughter. Theirs and the Corporal’s.
   Demir has to step over a couple of corpses before he can access the rail that’s almost miraculously still online. One of those small one-man pads that he takes to where Baby is.
   Seeing her makes it all better. “Baby!” he greets her like a lost lover. “All systems online, I’m home.”
   “Welcome back,” she replies in her sultry voice. Demir had it tuned to one of his favorite girls. Always had a soft spot for her since he was a kid. Rich girl on Nova Prime where his father had the vacation mansion, close to an artificial lake. Took him years to finally get in bed with her. Even after he left and became the Demir Sunderland he is today he still finds her from time to time. She loves to cheat on her husband with him. Smirk on his face from just the thought of her, but even more so from the sensation of stepping into the pilot seat. The grip of the wheel taut against his hands.
   Demir puts the call into the hangar system the Cardinal’s boys hacked. The floor descends and he’s shipped through the tunnels to the exit. The thought of turning off the fake transponder just to *** with the Authority comes to mind, but he’s in good with the Cardinal, and best not to *** him off now. So he just throttles the drive, lets the buzz kick in, and rips it through the exit and off the *** rock. Demir tries hard to forget Leto being trapped in that dark storage just waiting to be glassed.
   He tries really hard to forget.

Chapter 22: H2
BAR’S DOWNRIGHT FILTHY. Like most things on Demeter Station. Mostly miners offloading a hard day’s work. Demir’s on his skies know which shot of miner swill. Tastes like exhaust leakage, but gets the job done.
   “You heard about Melkior?” Demir overhears one miner asking the other.
   “Yeah, *** place got glassed completely. Authority has no clue how and why. No one left to tell the tale.”
   “I heard some Lower level *** made it off-planet. Rumor is they’re setting up on Distera. Some EN *** religion I think.”
   “The Cardinal,” Demir jumps in. “That’s the Cardinal.”
   “Yeah, and you know that how?” one of the miners has a feisty tone in that question.
   “Does it even matter?” Demir lets out almost like a sigh. The miners just scoff at him and get back to nursing their drinks.
   Demir takes another two shots before he can’t feel anything from his face to his legs. His vision all but gone, but his will to leave the bar still not there. Good thing about stations, something that Demir was always fond of, is that the sun never rises. It’s always dark, it’s always the drinking hours of the day. So he drinks until he can’t see almost.
   A hand on his shoulder wakes him.
   “Seems I should have arrived earlier, Mr. Sunderland. Let’s get you sober. We have much to discuss,” a booming voice brings him somewhat back.
   “Hi, Leto,” Demir blurts out and tries to say that he’s sorry but doesn’t really know how to talk now. All he feels is strong arms around him and the world turns blurry as he loses the seat from under him.

THE AUTHORITY HAS more than just their eyes on Trafalgar now. Farideh’s informants told her they’re planning a blockade. Not just outgoing ships either. A full-scale clot around her entire system. Nothing comes in and nothing gets out. Stupid *** are scrambling to blame what happened on Melkior on anyone they can, and she’s their meal ticket. Authority has been gunning for her system for years now, and something as stupid as glassing a backwater rock like Melkior is all they need to justify the blockade. Xing-Tech is about all she has lined up in terms of allies. They still love her efficient way of getting them the tech they need, with little to no questions asked. Every other faction or system in the Known Galaxy couldn’t care less if her off-brand band of pirates were to disappear. So the Authority can just dump Melkior in her lap and starve her people to death with no repercussions.
   What Farideh needs is a scapegoat or an ally. She has to pin this mess on someone before the Authority mobilizes, actually gets their asses out of the paperwork, and does some real policing for a change. First, they’ll start targeting her ships even harder than before, and the first nuke they find they’ll somehow trace it back to the models on Melkior. Skies be damned, they don’t even have to find a nuke on her ships when they can just place one and call it a day. Hunting season for pirates is open again. All her bargaining and treaties of non-aggression get vented quicker than a mutiny.
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 8/11!)
Post by: B.K. on August 11, 2021, 10:53:53 AM
A double bill straight from the twisted asylum gallery. I was struggling a bit to see where I'd take the story after I put a couple of chapters together. Now that I have a good grasp and have cemented the narrative, I'll keep posting as the scribbles become worthy of your eyes. Here are Chapters 23 and 24. It won't be 3 chapters since I'm trying to keep up with the pace of the posts, and it's starting to get to me because I am, after all, a lazy ***.
Either way - welcome to Trafalgar!
Thank you for reading.

Chapter 23: TRAFALGAR
THE AUTHORITY HAS more than just their eyes on Trafalgar now. Farideh’s informants told her they’re planning a blockade. Not just outgoing ships either. A full-scale clot around her entire system. Nothing comes in and nothing gets out. Stupid *** are scrambling to blame what happened on Melkior on anyone they can, and she’s their meal ticket. Authority has been gunning for her system for years now, and something as stupid as glassing a backwater rock like Melkior is all they need to justify the blockade. Xing-Tech is about all she has lined up in terms of allies. They still love her efficient way of getting them the tech they need, with little to no questions asked. Every other faction or system in the Known Galaxy couldn’t care less if her off-brand band of pirates were to disappear. So the Authority can just dump Melkior in her lap and starve her people to death with no repercussions.
   What Farideh needs is a scapegoat, or an ally. She has to pin this mess on someone before the Authority mobilizes, actually gets their asses out of the paperwork and does some real policing for a change. First they’ll start targeting her ships even harder than before, and the first nuke they find they’ll somehow trace it back to the models on Melkior. Skies be damned, they don’t even have to find a nuke on her ships when they can just place one and call it a day. Hunting season for pirates is open again. All her bargaining and treaties of non-aggression get vented quicker than a mutiny.
   Trafalgar has been a beacon of hope in reuniting the Outer Rims with the Core Worlds. Sure, her pirates are still pirates, but they’re doing it for the good of the Galaxy. At least that’s what the people higher up who line their pockets with the change her smuggling brings in got the politicians to believe. All it takes is a signature and you’re golden. No matter how much we advance that’s still all you need in the end. She still hasn’t gotten an official seal of removal for the treaties, so Farideh has some time to maybe sort through the mess. She has feelers out, and she’s put a halt to all major arms deals for the time being. Trafalgar’s clients are none too pleased about that, but for the substantial cut in price Farideh promised them once they are back online they’ll gladly keep it in their pants for a while longer. Those treaties get vented, the Authority blockades them, and the dicks will come out and they’ll all bend her over the table.
   “Ms. Farideh,” the voice of her secretary over the internal comms pulls her out of the trance. “Siona is here to see you.”
   “Let her in.”
   Siona of the Skies saunters into Farideh’s office with all her usual bravado. Her long black braid flowing behind her all the way to her knees. A sign of her might in the Pits, her prowess in the dogfights. She vowed to cut it if she ever lost. The skies know her, and no blade has touched her hair since her first dogfight. Siona has her genuine leather pilots jacket on. All black with a red stripes on the sides, cut-off sleeves to show her knotted arms. Despite her small stature she cuts a mean figure just as well as she cuts through the skies. A light smile on her face bodes of good news.
   “I caught wind of survivors from Melkior, and you won’t believe who it is,” Siona lets Farideh know before even sitting down. Excited like a forest mouse their jakkels scurry away in the jungles.
   “I’m in no mood for a guessing game, Siona. So spill it,” Farideh cuts her off quick.
   “My, my, in no mood for fun I see. Fine. The Cardinal got off-planet before it got glassed. Rumor is he’s setting up somewhere on Tristram B.”
   Another shithole where they’ll suck up his EN ***. But at least it’s close. “I want him here ASAP.”
   Arched brow from Siona. “You know that’s not going to be easy. He’s not exactly famous for doing something for nothing. We can just call him. Cut our losses.”
   “No. I need to look him in the eyes when I ask him about what happened on Melkior. He wants the Authority off his tail as much as we do. Once we know what happened there we can take our chances with the blame game. No flying blind.”
   “Who do you want me to send? What do we offer?”
   “You, and we offer him access to our pipeline along with a stable investment strategy for his endeavors.”
   Siona sighs. “That’s a lot. Sure he’s worth it?”
   “Not in a million *** years, but his info is. The skies know he’s not giving that away for cheap. Like you said, we need to make it worth his while. I’ll authorize your takeoff immediately, and send word to the Cardinal that we need to talk.”
   “And what if he isn’t convinced?” A menacing grin from Siona, the one that just pops up when she’s feeling up for a fight. Hunters need prey from time to time, but this isn’t the time for Siona’s appetite to go overboard.
   “Make sure he is, but keep it civil. You’re going in alone as a sign of good faith.”
   Siona nods. “Fine by me.” No it isn’t, but not now, Siona. I’ll have something for you later. “I’ll get Cain juiced and be off-planet ASAP. Call you once the deal is done.” She turns around and heads for the exit.
   “Civil, Siona. Civil.”
   Farideh’s general, right-hand-woman, a legend of the skies, just gives her a wave like Farideh’s her mother and Siona’s promising to get back by her curfew. That woman will be the death of me one day.
   The situation isn’t flying shitwards yet, but that all depends on what the Cardinal has to say. He’d never glass Melkior himself. However, that begs the question as to how he was the only one to get his people off-planet. Something *** up happened on that shithole, and Farideh is fairly certain no answer she gets is going to be a good one.

Chapter 24: CARDINAL
TRISTRAM B is as much of a shithole as any other in the Known Galaxy. Siona has seen her fair share of those. At some point they all congeal into a mass of waste and human detritus. Sure, each shithole is special in its own kind of way, but to Siona they all just reek of home. She hates her home.
   One thing is for certain, on Tristram B the people are primed to gobble up the Cardinal’s EN gibberish. He’s already got his ringed claws sunk deep into the fabric of the populace. Disguising money laundering and drug smuggling as missionary work. Siona can’t fault him for using his pomp, and has to admit begrudgingly that the man, despite his visible madness, reeks of genius. The Cardinal is using his connections off-planet to supply drugs and arm his forces, all the while pushing the competition off the market by appealing to the Authority as a missionary. He’s quenching all rumors about his stay on Melkior, and has them all eating up the idea that he moved on ages before it got glassed. Siona believes the Cardinal will be set up completely within a month, three tops. She also believes that after he’s done with Tristram B he’ll shift his focus to someplace with more opportunity.
   As soon as Siona sees the Cardinal she knows he didn’t escape from Melkior, but rather that he was freed. That place made him content, and now he’s tasted possibility. In many corners of the Galaxy possibility is the hardest drug. The Cardinal won’t be licking his wounds for long.
   “Siona of the Skies, your reputation precedes you. It’s an honor.” The Cardinal’s voice booms among the improvised EN church beams.
   “It always is.” Siona’s retort garners her a couple of sideways glances from the Cardinal’s guards. Cardinal, on the other hand, gives her a smile.
   “I wasn’t expecting a call from Trafalgar any time soon. So you can imagine my surprise when Farideh the Free herself told me she had a proposal. And not just that, but that she is sending her top officer, no less. Now that you have my time, let's not waste it. Please, Ms. Siona, get straight to the point.”
   “A personal interview with Farideh on Trafalgar. In exchange we will offer you substantial investment opportunities and equipment contracts.”
   The half-crazy-half-genius man frowns in contemplation. The arch of his brow stooping ever lower as he mulls over the possibilities. One hell of a drug, that’s for sure.
   “Deal,” the Cardinal booms almost out of nowhere. “We can go immediately. I believe your skiff is fitted for two, isn’t it?” His guards are caught off guard, one of the few times in their career Siona would say, but she’s no better off either. “What’s with all the long faces? I said I wasn’t fond of wasting time. So, let’s be on our way. I can be back home by evening mass.” The Cardinal waves his guards away and motions for Siona to lead.
   Siona takes point and leads the Cardinal through Tristram city proper, still not quite sure how much of a genius and how insane the man really is. But sure enough they make it to the docks without a fuss. Watchful eyes of the Cardinal’s scouts on them at all times, in case something falls to ***. He takes the passenger seat and Siona is off-planet in her Cain in no time. Considering how quickly this went Siona actually does think the Cardinal can make it back by evening mass.
   Cain gets the off-planet approval and Siona unleashes him on the skies. For such a chatty man the Cardinal sits idly and devastatingly silent in the co-pilot seat. Siona’s Cain is one of the few MOS skiffs that even has one. She never wanted or needed a co-pilot, but the seat does come in handy when she’s ferrying live cargo. Aside from the Cardinal those tended to include bounties, so the seat comes equipped with shackles. Lucky for the older man she doesn’t need them this time.
   They make it to the hyperspace jump point.
   “You good with HS, Cardinal?”
   “I have been around for a long time, young lady. I’m wired for everything the Galaxy can throw my way. The grav shielding will be enough.”
   Siona coughs. “Have it your way, just let me know if you need any juice while we’re in.”
   “I won’t.”
   Siona takes the hint and initiates the jump. To the untrained, non-juiced, barely enhanced part of the Galaxy populace a hyperspace jump is like getting skinned by gravity. It pulls and tears at you. Grav shielding absorbs the initial impact, but then the steady stream comes flooding in. Warp of time and space, like you’re being drowned over and over again, slowly. Every part of your body gets crushed into itself like an imploding grav nova. Your muscles tense around your bones, choke out your veins, and your blood curdles, stops moving. For just that second it takes to drop into HS your entire body stops under the crushing weight of space.
   Hypespace itself is something surreal. Before the C the gates kept travel to a minimum. Basically what they did was launch you through HS at such high velocity the travel times were quartered. Now you have to spend days on end in hyperspace only to get as far as a couple of weeks. Ships burn three times as much fuel, and the more time you spend in the harder it gets. The weight never stops crushing, time never stops congealing into a mass of darkness. HS radars make sure you’re on the right track to where you need to go. There’s nothing to see except storms in the distance, sparks of time and matter colliding violently. Get caught in one and you can kiss the skies goodbye.
   Siona is always more drawn to the visceral and physical sensation of speed. Fighting in the Dog Pits, her Cain rushing through the skies and tearing everything in their path. Hyperspace just makes her woozy and bored.
   “So, can I get a little spoiler action on that info you’re going to give Farideh once we hit Trafalgar?” Siona starts just to kick the nothingness out for a bit.
   “I am not a man inclined to repeat himself. Sadly my answer is no. Plus,” the Cardinal lets a malicious little grin slip, “where’s the fun in spoilers?”
   Siona turns Cain’s autopilot on. She rarely gets the chance to, or really wants to, but there isn’t much for her to do in hyperspace. “Considering the EN *** you plaster as a facade over your criminal empire I’d think you would be much more inclined to repeat yourself,” she prods at the Cardinal with her own malicious grin.
   “Touche. I have to admit, you caught me there. Some things are harder to shake than others. People like to call it Earth Nostalgia now. Like reminding ourselves where we come from is somehow a detriment to our future.”
   Siona has to scoff at all that Earth talk. “That’s exactly why we call it Earth Nostalgia. It’s an abandoned jungle biome, a rock we left behind as soon as we could get away. It’s only worth is nostalgia, and nostalgia can get you killed.” Siona knows that all too well. Like that time she went home and almost got cornered by the local warlord who still held a massive grudge.
   “Earth was beautiful.” The Cardinal averts his longing eyes to nowhere in particular, like looking after a lost love somewhere in deep space.
   Siona scoffs loudly. “Sure, a lot of planets were before the C. A lot of planets were before we came along. Beauty is useless.”
   “Oh, a utilitarian, I see.”
   “Don’t gas me with your high-brow vocabulary, Cardinal. I know *** when I see it.”
   “I can promise you, young lady, had you seen Earth your tune would be quite different. Instead of spreading or trying to maintain order after the Collapse we should have centralized and established a coherent government on Earth once again. Now we’re just destined to struggle on our own.” The Cardinal’s tone turns roughly sour.
   “Is that why you decided to run a crime syndicate you sell through your EN ***?” Siona’s not letting up.
   “Oh, this is a strong downturn from what I used to be, but I know the power of Earth. I was the Pope there, after all.” Siona has no idea what that means. “The only reason my congregation grows along with my business is because I have the magic of Earth in me. I stopped believing in God a long time ago, but the planet still flows through my veins.”
   “I don’t really know how we got here, but I don’t think I have much to add to this conversation.” Siona’s getting bored of it more than the HS washout.
   “You can always call it EN *** and move on,” the Cardinal lets slip through a smile that feels sincere, and the longing still palpable.
   “Why are you telling me this?”
   “Because I think I have to admit to myself that I’m tired. I’m old, young lady. My position on Earth assured me a life that far outlasts many in the Known Galaxy. I’ve seen a lot, but I am adamant about sticking around until the end, whichever it may be. I’ve outlived one end, now it’s time to see what comes next.”
   “And you plan on causing as much trouble as possible along the way?”
   Cardinal’s grin turns much more ferocious. “Exactly. So, you see, you couldn’t have picked a better time to contact me. All this, couldn’t have happened at a better time. The possibilities are endless, Siona of the Skies.”
   Shivers run down Siona’s spine. Not the kind she gets when flying, fighting, diving into HS or out of incoming fire, not the kind that tickles while leading raids or firing weapons, not the kind of sensation while *** or drinking or taking drugs of any kind, but the kind of chill that she only gets when she’s helpless.
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 9/14!)
Post by: B.K. on September 14, 2021, 09:55:17 AM
Back by popular demand, I hope. Three chapters this time, 25, 26, and 27. I figured I might as well triple down since the less I have written the more I'm going to write when the supply starts dwindling. Push myself into a corner and get *** done, because I am, after all, a lazy ***. Thank you all for reading!

DESPITE HIS AGE, the Cardinal’s striking figure lets Farideh know she has to stay on her toes. She might have the upper hand, the funds, the offers, the possibilities, but the Cardinal isn’t going to give up much without the proper enticing. Before he even came in Siona let Farideh know that he was absolutely insane, rambling about Earth, about sticking around until the next end of mankind. But she also said that he is frighteningly lucid, and that’s the most dangerous combination. She can see as much all the while he sits in front of her desk. The Cardinal’s robe neatly tucked around his legs, draping over them, and his calm demeanor giving way to only slight twitches as he gazes about her office.
   “Anything to drink, Cardinal?” Farideh starts off light, and eases him into the business conversation.
   “No need for pleasantries, Ms. Farideh. We both know why I’m here, and I do plan on keeping my promise to come back before evening mass. So let’s get started, shall we?” The Cardinal’s piercing blue eyes lodge firmly on Farideh.
   “By all means, let’s do so. I’ve brought you here...”
   The Cardinal raises his hand, stops her mid-sentence. “I am quite the astute man, despite my reputation. I know why I am here, I know what you want, and I know what I want.” Farideh frowns. She hates losing the upper hand, or having someone stop her mid-***-sentence so they can make a mockery of her. “Now, Ms. Farideh, don’t be offended. I’m just old and tired. So I want to move this along. Let me start with what I want.” As men always do. Always themselves first. “I would like to operate on Trafalgar. For your business to absorb mine, and for me to bring Earth to your people.” Magnanimously the Cardinal outstretches his inviting arms, like he’s embracing his flock. Well not my *** flock.
   “And why, for the love of the skies, would I let you do that?” Farideh lets out through a snarl almost.
   “Because I will offer you two things. One is all the info on what happened to Melkior. And two is a way to get the Authority off your back before they have the opportunity to pin it on you.” Now Farideh knows she’s lost the upper hand. Not because he knows their predicament, but because she knows he’s deduced that all on his own. Farideh’s ship doesn’t leak, and Siona sure as *** didn’t tell him. “Again, Ms. Farideh, no reason to worry, your cards are still better than mine. I have no aspirations for power any longer. This isn’t some ploy to take over your business. But I’m a man who hedges his bets carefully, and I’m not on the Authority’s good side either. Putting my strength behind you is my safest bet, so the safe haven of Trafalgar is what I want in return for the info and the plan.”
   “I’ll only agree to that after I hear both.”
   “Well, that would put me at a gross disadvantage, wouldn't it? You hear everything I have to say and then space me.” The Cardinal sighs loudly. “Fine, because the plan will not work without me, of that I can assure you. I hand over the info and the plan in exchange for safe haven in Trafalgar. Do we have a deal?”
   “Don’t try to wordplay me into submission, Cardinal. I offer you nothing before you’ve spilled.” The snarl just won’t go away.
   “I’ve never been able to stand up to strong women. So be it. Let’s start with Melkior. The nukes were placed by Warhorse, a so-called revolutionary. But he wasn’t the mastermind, only the front. We weren’t able to find his supplier, the suspected mastermind, before deciding to bail. There’s no possible way to trace them back to anyone.”
   “We, being who exactly?”
   “The Authority tasked a third party to find them, and said third party came to me for support. The supplier was a ghost. And trust me when I say we did everything to stop the nukes from glassing the city.”
   If Farideh has ever been good at anything it’s discerning lies. Small twitches in the eyebrows, the eyes darting, the lips flicking and nostrils flaring. The Cardinal is giving her only some of the truth, and now she has to find out how much. “You’re not giving me much here, Cardinal. Third parties, ghosts, doing everything. Some of that is, and let me use slang you’ll understand, grabba ***.”
   “The Authority caught Demir Sunderland, I’m sure you know of him, in a scuffle and used him to find the nukes. With the help of a Leto III he must have infiltrated and taken over Warhorse’s operation, but they weren’t able to find the supplier. When he came to me I took it as a sign and bailed immediately. Demir and I saw eye to eye on the matter, and Melkior fell because of our selfishness. How about that?” Unfazed by the truth, the Cardinal’s words seem more menacing than his lies. He’s given up on much of his humanity, that much is evident. The line between madness and sanity blurred to the point where he is just a vessel for the tumult.
   “Better. I take it Demir Sunderland didn’t stick around after Melkior?”
   “Of course he didn’t. Sadly he had to ditch the Leto because we had no time to retrieve him before leaving. But he took his skiff and flew to the skies.” At the end of the office, lounging on her favorite settee Siona just scoffs at the mention of her most hated MOS. The comparisons drive her insane.
   “And you didn’t engage in trying to find the supplier? Just Sunderland and the Leto?”
   “How legit do you think their findings were?”
   “Completely. The Authority was holding his skiff for ransom, and the nukes were the payment. They weren’t able to crack the system, or the supplier’s identity, and believe me they tried. I took that as an opportunity to spread my wings again.”
   “Not much spreading down on Tristram B, I’d say,” Siona chimes in from her settee.
   “Indeed. Which is why I’d prefer the hospitality of Trafalgar. The Authority will use Melkior to pin a large scale operation on you. I don’t have to tell you that. They have no way of finding the supplier either. Or else they would have never tasked someone as, shall we say loose, as Demir Sunderland to track them down in the first place. Which might be a good opportunity for me to offer up my plan on how to pin this mess sectors away from Trafalgar.” Farideh calms down a bit, the truth leveling her anger, and motions for the Cardinal to continue. “The Church of Man.” And right there she’s back to being furious. The Cardinal raises his hands. “Before you start, may I ask for the opportunity to elaborate.” The Cardinal waits for her anger to subside. “Thank you. Now, I know your relationship with COM has been a turbulent one. They have stolen much of your own cargo over the years, and you have vehemently abstained from supplying their jihadist efforts.”
   Vehemently doesn’t even cut it. The Church of Man believes the Collapse was caused by our overindulgence in technology. They are hunkered down in a three-planet sector they call Heaven, where they all deny enhancements, die of old age at the ripe time of *** fifty, breed uncontrollably, and only use ships when they want to bomb her best clients. Xing-Tech is their favorite, but they don’t really discriminate in terms of grudges. The only reason why the Authority still hasn’t done them over is because they police their sector almost as viciously as the Tarsyans did theirs. It would be a declaration of war, and the Authority has better things to do. Like using their time to get rid of Trafalgar. The COM makes money by peddling real produce across the galaxy. Everything they make and sell is grown from the soil, which is one of the highest grossing commodities across the Known Galaxy. And everything they sell they spend the money on ships that are designed to wreck anyone’s ***. None of them expect to come back. Tech is a means to an end, and only that. You use tech out of your own free will, and they want you gone. Farideh doesn’t really see how they could ever be an option for anything except orbital nuking.
   “I have connections to the COM,” the Cardinal continues. “I also have good ties with the Authority. They know of my escape from Melkior, but have had little interest in pursuing me or my operation. They have bigger operations in their sight.” Farideh wants to tell him to *** off, but that’s bad for business. “I can arrange a supply drop for the COM, complete with nukes, that will be intercepted by the Authority. Enough probable cause for them to link the COM to Melkior. The only thing we will need to really make it stick is the sworn testimony by one Demir Sunderland that there was a COM presence on-planet. He’s in the Authority database as an asset, and I am fairly certain they are looking for him. We get to him first, supply the nukes to the COM, and Trafalgar is free to continue business. Even expand when the Authority has their backs turned.” The Cardinal leans back into the chair, self-satisfied and self-righteous.
   “This is all fine, Cardinal. I can’t say I don’t believe you, but I also can’t say I like it. It goes against much of what I believe in, but just like you I can recognize opportunity when I see it. I will allow you safe haven on Trafalgar,” and Siona in the background almost bursts at the seams. Farideh calms her down with a discerning nod. “However, since you were the last person to be in contact with Mr. Sunderland, how exactly do you propose we come into contact with him? Considering he’s dodging the Authority a lot harder than he usually does, I don’t suppose you have a direct line to the man, do you?”
   “As a matter of fact, I do. We didn’t exactly exchange comm links, but I have a tracker on his transponder. My men placed it discreetly on his skiff as he was going off-planet. As soon as I turn it on he will become aware of it. The window for catching him will be narrow, but I suspect that Siona of the Skies can handle that.”
   At that point Siona really bursts and she’s out the settee in no time, her clawed hands aiming for the Cardinal’s throat. To Farideh surprise and Siona’s surprise both the Cardinal is out of his seat in less of the instant it took Siona to rush him, and he has her in an arm lock in a heartbeat. “History is a mighty thing, ladies. Everyone carries much of it, some things we can’t really get rid of. But I would say that in many cases history is bad for business. Now, Ms. Farideh, will you please calm down Ms. Siona here.” Siona writhes under the stress on her arm. “I have an evening mass to get back to, and prepare our pilgrimage to Trafalgar.”
   Farideh can see it in Siona’s eyes, the Cardinal is a dead man. If not now then at some point in the future. Hopefully in the near future. For the sake of Trafalgar Siona loosens up and the arm lock is lifted.
   “Good,” the Cardinal says nonchalantly. “I believe someone else will be escorting me back to Tristram B. But, please, make it swift.”
   “Evening mass,” Farideh just blurts out.

Chapter 26: RECKONING
SIONA IS OUTRAGED. More than just being furious. Farideh is too. The Cardinal may have given them everything, but he also played them. And he did so hard. He gave them everything and forced their hand so hard there was nothing either of them could do. Now the future of Trafalgar is beholden to that maniac. That is unless Farideh can think of something, and that seems highly unlikely.
   “Here we are, stuck between a point and nova because of that ***!” And the outrage from Siona continues.
   “You think I don’t know that. Now calm down and let me think.”
   “There’s nothing to think about. That’s the *** problem.”
   “What? You think I can’t figure out another way?” Now Siona’s outrage has turned into Farideh’s own. Worse than the Cardinal holding them hostage is the fact that she doesn’t believe in her.
   “Not as fast as we need it. And you know that as much as I do. He’s *** right.” Siona leans against her thighs. “I never thought I’d have to come close to those bastards.”
   And that hurts more than her outrage. Her pain. Siona had been one of them, long ago. They used her as a breeding mare, until they found out she couldn’t have children. Then they trained her to work the ships and she’d get regular missions on the orbital station. They only send people there that can’t be of use on-planet. So they can prove themselves. Siona made her escape when a man took her from the station. Later he became her father. She never looked back since. Could barely confess to her life before she was adopted. The COM starts young, and she would have forgotten every bit were it not for the fact that she doesn’t want to. Keeps her striving, keeps her angry. Almost as angry as her father’s death. Take your pick.
   “I’m sorry, Siona.”
   “No need. It’ll just take me some time to process the fact that we’re *** them over. They’ll get what they deserve. But that ***, the Cardinal, he has to go.”
   “There’s a hole in his plan.” Siona’s eyes widen. “After he turns on the transponder tracker what’s to stop us from executing him and every last one of his followers once they’re on Trafalgar?” And then Siona’s eyes go back to being cautious.
   “He’s crazy, but he isn’t stupid. There’s no way he wouldn’t expect us to do that. He wants on-planet for a reason and I can’t make out why. Sure, he gives us Sunderland, and what’s to stop us from venting him and his ilk. Hell, I’d expect that and I’m not half as smart.”
   The truth strikes deep, and Farideh has to reckon with it. “There’s no way we get anything out of him before he’s safe on Trafalgar. He’ll give us Sunderland at that point, and his COM connections later once he’s integrated. He knows we can kick him off as soon as he spills, but he’s banking on something. No other way he’d take the chance that we *** him over at any point. He’s got something more, and he’s sure it’s either enough for him to stay, or something worse.”
   “Something that could kick us out.” Siona swears into her chin. “But there’s a chance. There’s something we can do right now.”
   “Evening mass. His people know that if he isn’t back by that time they’ll dump the tracker and we’re *** just for the hell of it. Either the Cardinal gets something out of this or he will burn us just to burn us. He’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain. We got nothing.” Farideh’s slum patois creeps into her common. Back-alley gangster inflections and whorehouse smooth talk. Only person she can talk freely with is Siona. It keeps her humble, keeps her grounded, keeps her from forgetting.
   “Exactly,” Siona jumps in. “He’s on a light freighter heading back to Tristram B. We can’t cut him off in HS or before he lands. But if I take the MOS squad we can dock on-planet and ambush him during evening mass. We press the Cardinal until he delivers, then get rid of him once and for all.” Siona’s cold and violently calculated manner sometimes masks the fact that the same nature is all she knows. As calculated as it may sound, the chances for failure are cumbersome. That’s what makes her the best MOS pilot in the Known Galaxy. That delicate balance of knowing the odds and completely disregarding them.
   “There isn’t a way to press that man into telling us anything he doesn’t want to. The Cardinal will never spill. Ambush him all you want, threaten him with executing his flock, or grievous bodily harm. He’ll scoff at you until you bend and kill him. He’d die with a smile.” Sad truth again. Someday the truth might not be as sad. How I long for those times.
   “Then we don’t press him. We press his goons. Sure enough he doesn’t have the tracker on him. We could fleece him for that the moment he mentioned it. It’s bound to be on-planet. I can intercept them in the next fifteen minutes. Farideh, think, we can do this. After that window there’s no way we won’t collide with the Cardinal landing. I can jump in with my squad and push the goons until that tracker is ours.”
   “How many losses? How many of our people dead? The Cardinal didn’t take his entire flock with him from Melkior. Only the best of the best, and they are just as good, if not in some cases better than our people. We’d need more than your squad, and even then I won’t risk you for a *** tracker. Now you think. We get that, we draw out Sunderland, then what? The COM, no matter how much we both hate them, is one of the best options we have for getting out of this mess. If the Cardinal doesn’t facilitate that deal then our connection to them is,” and Siona shudders before Farideh’s words are even out, “you.” Then Siona retreats into herself for a brief second. “Look, we need to play this out. We need to work this with the Cardinal. Once he’s on Trafalgar we can keep a close eye on him. Sure, he knows that we will, but he doesn’t know the full capacity of our people. We play and avoid being played. It’s our only shot for now.”
   “I don’t like it one bit, none of it,” Siona snarls.
   “And I do?”
   “Ms. Farideh,” her secretary chimes in through external comms.
   “I said no interruptions.”
   “This is something I believe you will want to hear.”
   “I hope for your sake I do.”
   “We’ve received an incoming docking request.”
   “You interrupt me for a *** docking request,” Farideh’s about ready to snap her secretary’s beautiful scrawny neck.
   “It was initiated by one Demir Sunderland. If approved he’ll be on-planet in one hour.”
   Siona bursts into a raucous laugh and Farideh gives the approval before joining in.

Chapter 27: ALLIES
“WE NEED ALLIES,” Leto tells Demir like it’s the easiest thing in the Galaxy. Just ask and you shall receive. No sweat. I mean, what other options are there. It’s just the matter of the *** AI War all over again against your willingness to accept that it’s coming. After failing miserably on Melkior, Leto is back on his ***. Back to preaching revolution. Demir’s having none of it.
   “We can’t get any *** allies, and you know that just as well as I do. What we need is capital, what we need are credits, cash, money. We can barely afford to sleep in this dump and Baby is almost out of fuel. We need a good job to get back on track and then maybe, just maybe we can think of a way to get in with some like-minded people.”
   “Every second we waste the AI fleet is getting stronger,” Leto still on it like a damn dog. His maul firmly set and teeth clenched around his demented idea. No matter how many times Demir reminds the Grand-Master of his position in the new order of the Galaxy the man just bounces back after a misstep no matter how small. While Demir can understand that reminding a man as imposing and staggeringly superior as Leto III that he’s at the bottom of the food chain might be grating, he’s also *** sick of having to babysit his temper tantrums.
   “And we get *** closer to being completely broke. You know full well that without gas we can’t go anywhere we need to. What, you want to start a revolution on a Syndicate platform? Sure, let’s just ask the bosses if they’d be up for spending all their hard-earned illegal cash on supplying the real Leto III, returned from the dead, with an armada to tackle the AI fleet, also returned from the dead.”
   Leto scoffs and returns to the cot in his corner of the room. Demir had to make sure the Authority wouldn’t be able to snatch them. They pegged Demir as an asset in their system and when Melkior got glassed they’ve expanded the search for him. He’s sure of that. They’ll be on him like grav sickness until they find someone to pin the disaster on. And they’ll be pinning it on someone for sure. The Syndicate has a tight rein on Yuijin station. It’s their turf. But they’re also the most likely to get pegged by the Authority. The Syndicate expanded rapidly in the past couple of years, and their minor internal squabbles got quashed so they’re an organized force now. Authority could say they glassed Melkior to cash in on the open trade contracts for black-market tech. With enough force they could dispose of the entire Syndicate. All they need is probable cause, and the Syndicate is small enough that they can do a complete eradication. Any other faction might require more manpower, more ships, their entire army even. In Demir’s eyes factions like Trafalgar or Xing-Tech, even COM, the Tarsyan Loyalists, maybe Crown Royal, or any other major player is safe for now.
   All Demir and Leto need now is money. If they work smart they can lump in with a good faction and wait for this to blow over. Pile the money high and start recruiting as soon as the Authority is done with their vendetta. Five to six months, tops.
   “How far can we go with what we have?” Leto cuts through the tension.
   “Six sectors maximum.”
   “Anything close?”
   “Nowhere we can keep under the Authority’s radar for too long. The Cardinal’s gone underground and we didn’t exactly exchange comm links so we can’t bet on him. Plus, he can’t pay us the kind of cash we need, and he’s still probably in the Authority’s pocket.” The Cardinal may have ditched the Authority on Melkior, but there’s no way that twisted *** isn’t still fleecing them from some shithole in the Galaxy. “We need to go as close to the edge of my burnout drive as possible. Far-off jobs for a good payday. There’s one place where both of those things apply.”
   Leto awaits his answer. “Well,” then he breaks the silence because Demir obviously isn’t complying.
   “Trafalgar. The pirate sector.”
   “You want us to work with pirates.Queue the outrage.
   “Every *** faction, every person, every mother and child in the Known Galaxy is scum. Remember that, Leto. Sift through the scum and you just might find what you’re looking for. So take your higher ground and shove it up your ass. I might hate working for that Siona ***, but they’ll pay us well and if there’s any sector safe from the Authority it’s Trafalgar.”
   Leto processes the info with a stern expression permanently embossed on his face. “How soon do you want to be off-station?”
   “Tomorrow. But we need more info first. We need to present them with something. I say we push our contacts some more, and then we head for Trafalgar. It’s a three day flight. No stops.”
   Leto III nods somewhat reluctantly, but every day and in every way he’s accepting the fact that he’s scum too.
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 10/23!)
Post by: B.K. on October 23, 2021, 11:28:05 AM
Putting the cards on the table. My head's been in another project so this is a four-chapter drop. Chapters 28, 29, 30, and 31. This is all I have written so far. I know where I'm going to take the narrative next and notes are laid out. Since I'm done with my main project I will probably have time to devote to the story, so might not be too long for the next batch of chapters. But never forget that I am, after all, a lazy ***.
Cheers and thanks for reading!

FARIDEH INSTRUCTS THE welcoming to be none too welcoming to Demir Sunderland and his unexpected escort. Sunderland is known to slip out of situations that far outweigh his potential. Sheer luck seems to follow that biological miscreant like an impressionable teenager. Sometimes she’s right there, but sometimes she’s giving him the cold shoulder. You never know which, so you always have to be on your toes. That’s why his escort is as cold as it ever is for a person of his caliber. He knows he’s not the most welcome on Trafalgar, and it’s best to assure him of that.
        Farideh’s plugged into the live feed playing directly on her retinal. Siona on her settee seems none too interested considering her silent but ever so aggressive rivalry with Demir Sunderland. A rivalry that is perpetuated by the entire Known Galaxy, but by neither of them. They just hate each other by proxy.
        However, the live feed shows Farideh something very interesting – the Leto. The man is molded after the original to the highest possible standard. He’s the spitting image of the Grand-Master. Exceptional quality in visual execution to the extent where Farideh has to wonder what’s under the hood. If he’s equipped with enhancements that could mimic the long-gone Grand-Master’s combat capabilities he could pose a serious threat. Farideh hopes that’s not the case, because Demir wouldn't be coming to Trafalgar if his financial situation was not as perilous as it seems. But she’s done a lot of that lately, hoping, and she despises it. Farideh wants the facts.
        “Before you let them into the office, apprehend the Leto,” Farideh orders the escort over internal comms. Time for some facts.
The escort shovels Demir and the Leto into the elevator outside the hangars, pushes them through the corridors leading to her office, and then puts their journey to a sudden stop in front of the door.
One of the armed guards grabs the Leto by the arm and starts an arm lock. Over the feed is seems almost like murky water turbulence when the escort is pivoted off the floor and thrown into the opposite wall. Two other guards have their weapons on the Leto’s head in a heartbeat. He’s under their scopes in less and their blasters are on the floor in just a bit longer.
        “Stop! Where I go, he goes,” Demir shouts to calm the situation down. Raised voices in a tense situation may be human instinct, but those are wrong just as many times as they are right.
        The entire escort battalion has their weapons pointed squarely at the Leto who just stands there calm and collected. His savage calculating eyes darting from one assailant to the other. His muscles tensing and loosening.
Farideh has seen enough. “Let them both through,” she orders the escort battalion.
“You’re both cleared to enter,” they let Demir and the Leto know, but they only stand down reluctantly a second later. Once the two are through the door they move to pick up their downed squadmates.
        Demir Sunderland strolls in with misplaced confidence and the Leto with the expected cold and calculated demeanor. The Leto had already scouted Siona on the settee before his foot was properly through the door. Sunderland, on the other hand, barely noticed or at least pretended not to.
        “Mr. Sunderland and escort, please, have a seat.” Two integrated seats jump out the floor and Sunderland plops down like it’s his usual spot at a local bar. The Leto, quite the opposite, remains standing. “I presume your escort prefers to stay intimidating. Fine by me.”
   “So that show out there was to test his combat capabilities?” Surprisingly astute for the legendary drunk, but then again Farideh is not fool either.
   “Of course. You don’t exactly have a reputation for keeping company. One must always assess the situation.”
   “I can assure you that my Leto is of the highest quality,” Sunderland gives his smug answer through a self-satisfied smirk.
   “That begs the question of how you pay him, considering that even the skies know you don’t show up in Trafalgar flush, but rather broke.”
   The smirk is gone but Sunderland doesn’t retreat. “The quality of my services means I am only a step away from flush, and the Leto from being paid. That’s why he sticks around.”
   Farideh needs to pressure him ever so slightly so that he knows his place before they continue. “You seem to have taken a liking to having a Leto as a bodyguard lately?”
   “You mean Melkior?” He’s better than she expected. Usually his business dealings in Trafalgar are relegated to the station or the local bars. Never directly with Farideh. So he knows the situation is a special case, and he expects something. Farideh nods so he continues, “yes I had one of similar quality there, but sadly he proved inadequate and our contract had to be terminated. I have found that a good Leto at one’s side opens a lot of doors.”
   “So you were on Melkior before it got glassed?”
   “How else would you know about my proclivities for Leto bodyguards. Your eyes are on Melkior just like the rest of the Galaxy. But we’re not here to discuss that, we’re here to...”
   “No, Mr. Sunderland,” Farideh cuts him off. “We’re here to discuss exactly that.” Farideh snaps her finger and three battalions swarm the office. Nozzle of every blaster pointed on the Leto. “I’m not interested in your services, Mr. Sunderland. However, you will provide, nonetheless.”
   “Is there a reason for all this, Farideh? I came here in good faith.” Sunderland keeps his cool. The Leto even more so.
   “This is a matter of compliance, Mr. Sunderland.”
   “If the pay is right I can guarantee all the compliance you need.”
   “Your payment is yet to be considered.”
   “Well, if you let me know what you need we can take credits into consideration.” The smug smirk back with a vengeance.
   “We had a chat with the Cardinal just a while ago. He had much to say, and even more to offer. So I would consider my position a bit more if I were you, Mr. Sunderland.”
   And the smirk is gone.

Chapter 29: CHANCES
THE TOMBS HAVEN’T seen Farideh in a while. When you’re on top the requirement for visiting the bottom falls quite low on the priorities list. Only when there’s a very special visitor being detained there does she actually have to muddy her boots. They’re keeping Sunderland and the Leto in separate cells, just in case. While they are being fed well and looked after they are still none too pleased about the accommodation. Considering the tumultuous relationship Sunderland has with luck, Farideh isn’t taking any chances. Both the MOS and his Leto are so far keeping their objections to themselves.
   Farideh and Siona approach Sundeland’s cell. The containment field sparks in blues and greens in front of her, and behind it the MOS is just sitting on the latrine with his pants on and his head in his hands.
   “I don’t believe that’s how you take a ***, Mr. Sunderland,” Farideh pulls his head out of his hands.
   “I think best on the can, regardless of anything coming out.”
   Farideh takes a second to glance over at the adjacent cell where the Leto is sitting on the floor in a meditating pose and his eyes closed. “Maybe you could tell me a bit about those thoughts?”
   “Just struggling a bit with the fact that I misjudged the situation so royally. I’ve had my fair share of fuckups, but not seeing that the Authority is going to pin Melkior on you must be one of my best.” Say what you will about Sunderland, he’s an idiot but he’s not stupid. Somehow, he *** isn’t. “What did the Cardinal offer you?”
   “You and someone to pin Melkior on.”
   “That’s a good deal, and now that you have me you can *** him over for the rest. What did he ask for?”
   “Safe haven on Trafalgar.”
   Sunderlands turn wild. “Don’t let him anywhere near your planet if you know what’s *** good for you.”
   “I know what’s good for me and my people, Mr. Sunderland. However, he will be arriving soon to complete the deal. Before he does, I want to know what are you willing to offer in exchange for your freedom.” Siona scoffs, and Farideh gives her a stern look.
   “That depends on what you need. Spill and I’ll call it straight.”
   “The Cardinal told us Melkior was glassed by Warhorse and an anonymous supplier, and that you were tasked by the Authority to find the nukes before they blew. Instead you and Cardinal bailed. That true?”
   “Sure. We first took over Warhorse’s operation in order to find the nukes but got nowhere.”
   Farideh feels a tingle. “Took over his operation?”
   “The Leto can be very persuasive. We found jack *** and I went to the Cardinal for help. He shot the idea of finding the nukes down quick, and gave me the option to bail with him or take my chances on-planet with the nukes. I like being alive, so I made the only sensible conclusion. Decided to take my chances elsewhere.” Sunderland’s voice is pensive, even regretful to an extent.
   “The Cardinal has connections with the Church of Man, and offered you as a witness when we pin Melkior on them. The Authority still has you in their database as an asset since the investigation hasn’t concluded yet. They will be inclined to believe you, despite your reputation, if we give them a good enough reason to blame the COM.”
   “How about I do you one better and pile the Cardinal in with the COM so the Authority gets rid of both your problems at the same time.” That actually makes Siona chuckle in the devious way she does sometimes.
   “And what do you want in return?”
   “What makes you think I want more than my freedom?”
   “Men like you always want more. Take chances whenever they can.”
   Sunderland smiles warmly. “Don’t we all. Pay me, and pay me well. I need funds, and considering your plan has little chance of success without me I consider that fair. But there is one condition I have.” His stern expression waxen across his face.
   “And that is?”
   “Don’t give the Cardinal what he’s asking for.”

Chapter 30: TERMS
THE CARDINAL AND HIS contingent are inbound. Farideh and the full force of her security are awaiting them on the landing bay. They agreed for the Cardinal and his armed forces to land on the main bay while the rest of his flock are escorted to their temporary quarters from the loading docks.
   The dropship falls into landing course against the vast darkness of the skies. Farideh’s forces are all cool, calm, and collected. Safeties off, eyes locked on target, stims in their systems just in case, tech up and running. If the Cardinal smells something is off there’s no telling what kind of damage his paladins might do. Farideh wants to keep that possibility at a minimum.
   As the dropship lands in a whirl of grav and metal she feels the tingle at the nape of her neck.  The possibility of combat never excited her. Siona describes that tingle like needles being poked through your hands, and the itch to hold something deadly and use it. Hers is a cautious tingle, like the back of her mind giving way to the images of slaughter. A rush from back to front. Farideh closes the floodgates and lets reality sink in when the dropship doors open and the Cardinal is escorted to the bay by his armed forces. His paladins, when Farideh sees them in the flesh, are even more imposing than the images and video feeds she received from her intelligence assets. However, they are outnumbered, outgunned, and in many cases even out-teched.
   The Cardinal prances down to the bay like a parade is being held in his honor just down on the streets of Trafalgar. His paladins don’t have their weapons out, but on their faces the realization that Farideh’s people have their primed is nothing is not palpable. On the other hand, the Cardinal’s expression of sheer delight is unshaken.
   “What a marvelous greeting, Ms. Farideh,” the Cardinal starts booming.
   Farideh can’t tell if it’s just the madness taking over. Sunderland has made his stance on the man very clear, his words resonating in her head right now. What is madness? And what is sheer unabashed chaos? She might never know. “Well, only the best for our esteemed guests.”
   “Guests! Don’t be so frugal with your welcome, we are soon to be brothers and sisters, after all.” His grin sets her off, in a manner she has only so far seen in Siona.
   “In the Tombs! All of them!” Farideh shouts so loud the order barely registers for a millisecond because no one is used to her raising her voice. A calm demeanor makes for a much better leader than a hot head. Farideh leaves the latter to Siona.
   Her security rushes in and around the Cardinal’s men. Blasters pointed so close to their vital organs that if they even sneeze they’re dead. None of them is stupid enough to even try anything. The Cardinal, again in his defiance, keeps his smile.
   “Ms. Farideh, I believe this was not part of our agreement.”
   “The terms have changed. We’ll talk in the Tombs, where you belong.”
   Without objection the Cardinal and his men are escorted to the Tombs. The rest of his flock is set up in an encampment in the jungle. Everything and everyone is being monitored. All communication is cut off, trackers on each of his flock, from elders to children. Nothing goes out, and no chance of anything coming in. The Cardinal is swiped thoroughly and his men as well. Dry as the wells on the desert planet of Arkanis where tech is a legend. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in or out.
   For the second time in a very short while Farideh makes the trek to the Tombs. She hasn’t seen them this full in ages. Ever, really.
   The Cardinal sits on his cell bench with his hands on his thighs, like he’s awaiting someone’s communion. The man is clearly used to people coming to him, and while Farideh has to admit she still does come to him, at least he’s the one behind the containment field.
   “So the terms have indeed changed,” The Cardinal booms out, all the while looking at nothing in particular, just into the distance, as if through Farideh standing there physically in front of him. The move of a madman, fur sure, or someone with little or nothing to lose, also plausible. Farideh has to weigh it out.
   “I regret to inform you that half your deal has fallen through, Cardinal,” Farideh retorts with just that little nugget of self-satisfaction in her tone.
   “No, you don’t. You relish it. Now half the deal either means you found another way to the COM, or as serendipitous as the Universe is, Demir Sunderland is on-planet as we speak.”
   “He’s in his cell right next to yours. Scoffing and puffing his bruised ego. His Leto is in the neighboring one too.” Farideh lets out a coy little smile. Serendipitous as the Universe is.
   “My, my, Mr. Sunderland!” the Cardinal shouts so Sunderland can hear him from the neighboring cell. Farideh purposefully didn’t turn on the sound suppression so that all three of her prisoners could hear the conversation. They can fight it out amongst themselves when Farideh puts the cards on the table and they have to fend over the scraps she gives them. “Another Leto so quickly. If my mind weren’t rid of such thoughts I’d say you have some nefarious intentions with your bodyguards.”
   “Low!” Sunderland blurts out from his cell, discernibly agitated tone. “Even for you, Cardinal. You have much more pressing matters, so I would suggest focusing on your host instead of me.”
   “True.” Then the Cardinal smiles at Farideh. That winning smile of his, the charm oozing out like brake fluid. “I only wanted to check if he was truly here. Only someone as insecure as Demir Sunderland would even grace that jibe with an answer.”
   “True,” Farideh back into the fold. “Now you see that your proposition is halved, and thus your reward is halved. I am willing to offer substantial payment, or a possibility of investing in the Trafalgar pipeline. But you and your flock staying on-planet is off the table.”
   “Then this will be a short conversation. No.” Farideh is riveted into place there and then. She wants to ask why, how, and all the other questions, but she can’t seem to find the words. “The security of my flock is of utmost importance to me. That is the only thing I truly desire. Without that the deal is void. Hence my answer to your proposal is - no.”
   Farideh wants to scream, bring her torturers in and make the Cardinal bend in front of her until he’s a bloody heap or flesh and bones giving away all his secrets. However, in that tingle at the back of her head, the one that lets her know when she’s wrong even when the rest of her mind is flared up, she knows that the Cardinal is not a man you can break.
   “Ms. Farideh,” a deep voice from the third cell down pulls her out of her inner rage. The Leto calls to her. “May I have a word, if you please?”
       Farideh moves away from the Cardinal and his smile, goes to the Leto’s cell. “I’m listening.”
       “Much obliged. Before we start, could I ask you to turn on the sound dampeners for the Cardinal’s cell. He has no business in this exchange.” The Leto’s army patois in his common show’s Farideh the man has taken to his role. Admirable, at least.
        “Bold of you to assume this will be an exchange.”
        “Then humor me, if you will. You have nothing to lose but a couple of minutes of extra energy spent on the field, and maybe the Cardinal sweats for those minutes of silence as an added bonus.” Now that lets her know the Leto is smart, deceptively so. One would take a man devoted to mimicking a dead historical figure as nothing if not quite on the side of lackluster in terms of intelligence, but in the case of this Leto, Farideh would be wrong in deducing that. He appeals to her in just the right amount of self-preserving need and tickles her spite bone just the right way to make sure she cuts the Cardinal’s sound, which she does with a flourish so the Leto can see they are alone with Sunderland. The Leto nods cordially and stands up from his meditative pose to reveal his striking figure. Very devoted to the role.
   “As you can imagine, I am a very busy woman, so make this quick,” Farideh lets the man cut from a marble mountain straight from Earth know. Ever so slightly a bead of sweat at the small of her back welting up.
   “How many people has the Cardinal brought to Trafalgar?”
   “I don’t hear a proposition there,” another cold one from Farideh to put the man in his place. The calm in his posture almost defiant in the face of her authority.
   “By your tone I would say about three to four hundred people. His armed forces and the people he considers his closest followers. Am I correct in my estimate?” Farideh gives him nothing. “I’ll take that as a yes. The second question that beckons an answer would be the planet from which he arrived. Judging by the time it took him to get here I’d say it was from Tristram B.” The Leto betrays no hint of supremacy or malice, just the cool confidence of someone in control, and it’s driving Farideh insane. She has had her fair fill of confident men, of the haters, the takers, the liars, the vultures, and the bottom-feeding scum. Farideh gives the Leto nothing.
   “Continue with a proposition or this conversation is over.” Nothing.
   “We can’t have a proposition without the facts, now can we?” Not even a smirk from the Leto, nothing one would come to expect from a person who holds himself in such high regard as to devote his life to mimicking the greatest hero in the Known Galaxy. “The Cardinal is playing you, Ms. Farideh.” A much more common tone in common now. “Tristram B is the Cardinal’s smallest base of operation.”
   Raised eyebrow from Farideh. “And you know this how?”
   “While the Cardinal may have ushered his people off Melkior it was Mr. Sunderland who provided them with that option in the first place. People like those who follow the Cardinal are inclined to have an open mind towards those they deem worthy of being their savior. Over the past months we have kept discreetly in touch with many of his wandering flock. After Melkior the Cardinal had divvied up his organization into factions each run by one of twelve of his most trusted Paladins. While the Cardinal himself made his way closer to Trafalgar, his agents are moving through Syndicate territory and closer to the Core Worlds. Last we heard they were heading for Homer.”
   “We would have picked up on that,” Farideh roars.
   “Not without contacts in his inner circle. His Paladins have eschewed their, as you like to call it, EN *** facade, for a more direct approach. The Cardinal is aiming to take down either the Syndicate, or another rival faction, and he placed himself close to Trafalgar so you would pick up on it. He wants your system, Ms. Farideh. If you let him stay he will devise a way to get it.”
   Now Farideh is rightly furious. “Who are you to speak of me or my system!” she roars. “Even if we let the Cardinal stay on-planet, what makes you think he would have even the slightest chance to enact his plan? What makes you think I haven’t anticipated as much already? Who do you take yourself for? Sunderland!” Farideh turns to the cell where the MOS sits eerily silent. “Since when do you let someone else do the talking?”
   “I have found over the past months that in situations such as these it’s best to leave the sweet talking up to Leto,” Demir replies in much the same cool manner as the Leto. Both infuriating.
   “Well I can tell you he’s doing a lot of talking, but it sure isn’t sweet.”
   “Ms. Farideh,” the Leto cuts in again.
   “Don’t you Ms. Farideh me! I am Farideh the Free, free because I lead Trafalgar by example. Do you have any inkling as to who I am?” Rage overflows to the point where Farideh has to simmer down, take a breath and relax.
   “I know who you are, Farideh the Free. But I also know who and what the Cardinal is. While I may not know why he wants your system, I do know that he does, and that’s dangerous in of itself. He’s in deep with the Authority. His organization is as much his animal as it is theirs. For decades he was seemingly stuck on Melkior, content with what he had there, but once let loose he showed his true nature. You are not one to stray from dangerous men, and let me make it abundantly clear, the Cardinal is one of the most dangerous men in the Known Galaxy.”
   “Prattle, prattle, and yet nothing of a proposition to be found.”
   “Give the Cardinal over to the Authority,” the Leto blurts out like that makes any kind of sense after what he just said a minute ago.
   “And why would the Authority want something they already have?”
“Simple, you make them a better deal.”
And finally, there it is, a grin from the Leto.

Chapter 31: BETTER DEAL
“YOU LET THEM GO?” Soina shouts at Farideh as both a question and taunt, like she has the right to ask for her justification. Like Siona had been running Trafalgar for decades and not Farideh, so what she does always falls under the MOS’ scrutiny and not her own better judgement. “Meanwhile he’s rotting in a cell and we’re just begging for retaliation. Not to mention that jakkel bait and his pet mouthpiece are our allies now!” Siona’s unabated fury continues, and Farideh has had quite about enough of it for one groggy morning after an unslept night.
        “Now you listen to me, and you listen to me well.” Motherly tone, stern, disappointed, just that offshoot kilter of anger in the undertone to make doubly sure Siona get’s the *** point. “If you believe my decisions haphazard in any way you’re not only out of line but out of your *** mind.” Hint of swearing to bring her closer to the level Siona thoroughly understands. “I run Trafalgar, and I make the hard choices, not you, not anyone else but me. If I believe letting the Cardinal’s flock go and leaving him in chains is our best option, then it very well *** is. Sunderland and the Leto are assets, so we treat them as such until they aren’t. If we start hamfistedly eliminating assets then we can just bend over and let the Authority do their dirty work.”
        “And me?” And there we are. This galaxy-wide *** contest between Siona of the Skies and Demir Sunderland. The one that makes them both feel less worth than they are unless it can be proven that they are better than the other. The senseless waste of everyone’s mindspace and especially theirs. No easy way to rip this bandaid off.
        “What do you know about running a criminal organization?”
        “Enough,” Siona answers defiantly through a snarl. As if her answer to this question means the difference between her staying and getting vented.
        “Nothing, Siona. Nothing.” Siona’s frown and underlying snarl are persistent. “Sunderland, on the other hand, has graced every criminal organization from the Core Worlds to the farthest backwaters of the Outer Rims. And his Leto is so far into his delusion that he’s even more dangerous when applied correctly. Military tactics, assault strategies, contingency plans. Those two can handle the logistics. You are Trafalgar’s very own.” Give her the compliment she deserves. “I’d never send you out for something like that. No, you’re the force that makes Trafalgar feared. So take your *** seat, and let the runts do the heavy lifting.”
        “I like heavy lifting,” and she pulls her knotted arms taut by instinct.
        “There always is and always will be enough of that. Now, we have a meeting to attend.”
Farideh heads out her office with Siona reluctantly behind her, their armed contingent escorts them to the conference room where Sunderland and the Leto are already deep into the logistics.
        “Ms. Farideh,” the Leto addresses her with a cordial nod in tow. Sunderland next to him just nods like they’re at a bar, and if the skies know anything it’s that he’s seen more of those and even criminal organizations. “Ms. Siona,” and the Leto gives the MOS a slightly less respectful greeting. Farideh then notices the hint of rivalry in his expression, stance, and even bearing once they both come closer. He’s so far gone he thinks he can take her on. Priceless. Farideh makes a mental note to keep the Leto under closer observation. Depending on how far gone into his role he is there might come a time when he needs to be disposed of.
        Farideh and Siona sit across from them at the table, two leaders to each side. “How’s that better deal going?” Farideh starts the discussion off.
        “Smooth as the Maudlin Trail,” Sunderland blurts out through a thick smile. Farideh can feel Siona’s snarl nipping at her ear from the suffocating tension between them. Sunderland holds the record for that trail.
        “If you two are going to be measuring your dicks, Leto and I will complete this deal, and you can both cool off in the Tombs next to the Cardinal. Is that understood?” Farideh sees Siona nod compliently in her periphery, and Sunderland does the same. “Very well, let us continue then.”
        “We have isolated the twelve factions and their locations,” Sunderland continues. “They have stretched out from Tristram B where the Cardinal had set up, heading to the Core Worlds by way of Syndicate turf.” Farideh recognizes each blip on the galaxy map hologram. A neat line, like a star chart constellation, with the two heads on Tristram B and Volkrum, the closest planet to the Homer moon in the Jupiter system.
        “How has the Syndicate not noticed this?” To Farideh’s surprise Siona poses the question. She’s in the zone, like when she’s flying. Playing for keeps. It brings a sly smile to Farideh’s face.
        “They have,” the Leto now, “but the Cardinal’s people have shed their religious aesthetic. They’re operating as couriers, information brokers, and small-time peddlers. Their goal, from what we can tell, is to integrate themselves into the Syndicate operation in order to dismantle it from the inside.”
        “The Syndicate is one of the biggest drakkweb operators. I highly doubt the Cardinal’s organization could dismantle them even from within.” Farideh needs to know more, and know it better, before she commits to anything.
        “That would be true, but we have to factor in that the Cardinal has Authority support. Our sources have confirmed weapons-grade Authority assistance.” They’re peddling Authority weapons to get into the Syndicate framework. *** pests have their hooks deep on this one. “The Cardinal’s men are able to rise through the ranks quickly by selling the weapons and even turning in info on each other. One group dissipates and merges with another. Then that gets integrated into the Syndicate and multiplies by adding new Cardinal people not yet in the fold. It’s like a bacteria.”
        “It’s *** genius, is what it is.” Farideh can only gawk at the map. “They aren’t taking over, they’re infesting the Syndicate. And when they centralize around the Cardinal’s return they kill the entire Syndicate framework by *** exploding it. Flood it from within. It’s genius.”
        “He would have done the same to us if we let him stay on-planet?” Siona asks with that pang of concern in her voice, as well as admittance that she was, to her own surprise and dismay, wrong.
        “Sure. We think he would have invaded Trafalgar with his assembled forces after taking care of the Syndicate. He’d jump you from both sides. He’d be in deep with the Authority so he could either hand them Trafalgar, and run the Syndicate operation to their liking, or just demolish the Syndicate and have his own little EN *** retreat right here.” Even Sunderland sounds displeased at the ideas. Not even his system, his planet, or his people, but his resentment for the Cardinal runs deep. Farideh can see that, and in many cases that rage is justification enough for her trust in a man. They are like hounds. Sunderland is bruised, and he won’t let that stand. Good for us. But the Leto to Sunderland’s side still remains an enigma. That he has his own agenda is obvious. How it overlaps with Sudnerland’s had yet to be seen. There are strings being pulled here but Farideh can’t see them yet.
        “What is our better deal then, gentlemen?” Farideh needs more to be sure in her decision, at least for now.
        “Since the Cardinal was kind enough to offer up the COM to you, we could do the same for the Authority.” That’s a good start for Sunderland. “First we offer the Authority the Cardinal-COM nuke deal. Him on a silver platter on the hook for that and a concrete line to the COM for the Authority.”
        Farideh can see Siona agree to the move, and the Leto as silent and deadly as ever just encapsulated there like in stone. “Surely that isn’t all?” She gives them a nudge, there’s no time for suspenseful pauses, or Sunderlands known theatrics if she lets him.
        “No, we need to give them what the Cardinal promised them on top. We need to dismantle the Syndicate in exchange for Trafalgar. The COM and the Syndicate are more than enough.”
        “I would agree with that.” Even a hearted nod from Siona. “Now please elaborate on how we do that so I can think about whether or not I throw you back in the Tombs.” Farideh just lets them both know that this is still a pitch, and not a deal.
        “Over the course of months we have been in contact with people from the Cardinal’s organization. One thing the Cardinal didn’t factor into his plans was that his flock got a taste of the better life. When they left a dead rock like Melkior they were set free, so a lot of them kept in touch and are looking to make that better life, shall we say, permanent.” Madmen. Farideh thinks as she feels her eyes widen. “If the Cardinal were to be removed Leto and I could pull off the coup with the help of some of your forces. The Cardinal’s pipelines would continue undisturbed, but all that info, the raw data he’s been syphoning, that would go to us.”
        “We would not be included in this exchange?”
        “After your forces help us take over the Cardinal’s operation the debt has been paid. Trafalgar is off the Authority’s radar. Leto and I run the Cardinal pipeline. We are the go-between for the Authority and that sting operation. The Authority gets the Syndicate and the Cardinal off the table, as well as a clear line to the COM. Trafalgar gets to conduct business even better than before, now in the Authority’s good graces.”
        “Now this is all well and clear, and I must admit very to-the-point. But you are missing one more, and I can’t stress this enough, crucial, piece of information here - what do you get out of this?” Farideh made that abundantly clear because she wasn’t going to play footsie around that basic *** question around all day long.
        “We will coordinate with the Authority, get in their good graces too. We will hand over the Syndicate. And that will buy us some time.” Sunderland looks over to the Leto, and in a moment of synergy they nod very subtly. It’s almost like army patois. “We will share this information here regardless of whether or not you choose to back us on this plan. As a show of good faith.” Farideh gives them both the same kind of nod to make it official. “All the info we syphon, all the data and connections we get from the Syndicate we will keep. We disappear after the Syndicate is finished.”
        “Roaches like you never disappear,” Siona sneers.
        “She does have a point, Mr. Sunderland. With all that bounty from the Syndicate I would have to wonder what is your long-term goal here. Because to me it sounds like we will most assuredly meet again.”
        “If we do, I can guarantee you that we will always have nothing but respect for Trafalgar. You help us with this, and *** it, in my book we still owe you a bit. But don’t push your luck. We do this together, and we both get something we can work on. After the Cardinal, the Syndicate, and the Authority are all in their places, we go our separate ways, both better than we were before.”
       Frideh takes a deep breath. She switches on her holoprojector and calls her secretary. “Yes, ma’am.”
       “Please arrange for two of our best suites to be reserved for our new guests,” Farideh tells her.
       “Of course. How long will they be staying?”
       “As of yet, indefinitely.”
       “Of course, ma’am.”
       Farideh cuts off the feed.
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 11/15!)
Post by: B.K. on November 15, 2021, 11:29:39 AM
Told you.
Four of a kind - chapters 32, 33, 34, and 35. They are of a kind because they are all filler. All filler, no killer. Charles Dickens would be so proud of me. But I have to confess writing in this periodic style does give me room for some experimentation. These chapters don't necessarily serve to advance the narrative much, but they give some character insight. Ol' Dicky did much of the same since he wrote monthly or weekly. It's almost like writing a TV series, except it's ***. Now I don't know if I will keep up the pace, since I might have to put my attention elsewhere, but one can dream. I really love writing the story. Well, you never know. But since I am, after all, a lazy ***, we might never know.
Thank you all for reading!

Chapter 32: SWEET AND SOUR
DEMIR HAS TO CONFESS that the suite isn’t even half-bad. In actuality it would have ranked among the better ones Demir had visited in his years roaming the Galaxy. That one suite on Venus, however, will always remain the pinnacle experience. I was luckier back then. Demir reminisces. He got the job from a powerful law connection of his, and it had to be done quickly. Hard job, easy pay, like most of the ones that fell in Demir’s lap back then. Unnamed big cheese got wind that his illicitly-acquired money shipment was going to get jacked by a competitor. Big cheese set a trap but the money needed to stay on board for the competition to bite. Demir was tasked with retrieving the money before the Authority arrived. Big cheese would call it in as stolen and cash the insurance, on top of his own money he would bank. As a bonus Demir got an all expenses paid stay at the Royal Falls premium suite for a whole month. A suite molded in gold and all shades of red. And by all expenses paid they really meant it too. Demir was given the choice of any meal on the menu, at any time of the day. Drinks on tap, any time of the day. Girls, any time of the day. Only thing he had to dish out the credits for himself were the drugs. But on Venus that’s about as easy as taking a *** in the morning. Venus is all about entertainment, and money. If there’s a place in the Galaxy where they go hand in hand more than Venus you can *** me dead.
The suite on Trafalgar had that gruff, minimalistic, and utilitarian feeling to it. Fully decked out in sharp angles, black-and-white future-perfect designs against white backdrops. Lounge area indented into the floor, a good series of five steps down, walled off on three sides with real-feel temperature plates. Good L-shaped sofa, black faux-leather, with a circular white table in the middle. Other small chairs interspersed throughout the entire living room area. Sleeping area with a king-sized bed hidden behind insulated faux-wood plating. Kitchenette and food dispenser alcoved next to the lounge area, next to it a table, chrome and glass. Quick-and-easy integrated washing system in the all-white bathroom. It was sterile in all the ways it needed to be in order for the person inside to forget that they were on Trafalgar, the pirate capital of the Known Galaxy.
   Another luxury that is clearly missing is the one that allows Demir his preferred amount of alcoholic beverage intake. He isn’t here for luxury, but having Leto cut his alcohol consumption to a minimum during their time together makes the sensation of being apart all the more palpable, and the possibility of getting drunk all the more enticing. To Demir drinking or drugs aren’t so much of a bodily high, but a mental stimulus that runs deep into the very core of his mind. The hatred core as Demir calls it. He hates his father first, his family second, and himself third. His DNA makes doubly sure he can withstand anything he throws at himself with almost no damage whatsoever, and that syphons much of the charm away from his addictions, if he can even call them that. Took Demir all about two days to kick the zazz, and all but one to kick the booze. Only thing that remains is a tingle in the back of his mind, the little ardwreck that whispers to him - why not try to kill yourself today? To him everything is about freedom. Freedom from his past, from his today, from his tomorrow, and from himself. Even Leto monitoring him closely, keeping him sober, keeping him in top condition, can’t squelch that tingling voice. Demir’s body can take the booze and drugs, but Demir’s mind is all that matters. And Leto trusts that least of all.
   For the week Demir had been trapped in the room the only comings and goings were by the room service. Luxury meals delivered at the allotted time. Same person doing the delivery, to the point where Demir was certain they were not so much a bellhop as someone who had to make sure Demir wasn’t up to no good. A beautiful trans person that basked in their androgyny. Flaunted it around like a service paycheck at a bar after a month-long haul from the Rim to the Core. Deadly quick, so much so that even Demir couldn’t see as their hands moved, and he was getting used to seeing quick combat movements even outside his Baby. The angles of their face were all so symmetrical, their hair so immaculate, and their posture so sure, that Demir even felt a tingle where he most liked whenever they came to bring him his meal.
   No word from Farideh during the week either. Comm silence with little updates coming in the form of messages Demir received via his neural link. Farideh was waiting for the Cardinal’s troops to get antsy and careless. It made sense, perfect sense even, and Demir would have done the same. It also made sense to keep him and Leto separated, perfect sense even. Keeping them locked in until Farideh needed them, also made perfect sense.
   None of that sense, that perfect sense, made things any better for Demir, who was slowly having to admit to himself that he had cabin fever. Being in his Baby for months on end, if need be, was one thing. He was flying, moving through space and time. On ground, in a room, he was just moving in a pile of sludge, his feet trudging through his waning sanity. There was no return IP for Farideh, so the coms were one-sided. He asked the bellhop to deliver a message to Farideh many times, and they would decline with a courteous smile. No word from Leto either, since their comm links were cut off.
   On the eighth day Demir ate less and slept more. On the ninth he ate more and slept less. And on the tenth day he ate nothing and slept all day. His mind had gone blank after revisiting the plan every second of every day, weighing the options and possibilities against each other, working the minutiae of every detail of every second that was about to come one day when he would finally be let free. The days were worse than prison, and he spent his fair share in those. In prison you know what to expect. It’s not one-third as nice as his room, and it’s the luxury that becomes a problem over time. Beat Demir Sunderland and he will rise. Stick Demir Sunderland in a room and feed him and he will become soft. And being a soft MOS is what gets you killed first.
   On the eleventh day the bellhop came with the meals at their allotted time and Demir rejected them. In the evening the door of his room opens again, and a new figure enters.
   A woman of striking beauty sways her way to the lounge area where Demir is splayed over the sofa, languid in his suffering.
   “Mr. Sunderland,” she wakes him. Her plump, firm lips parting like red waves.
   “One and only, I hope.”
   “Ms. Farideh sent me.” Her voice is sultry in that professional manner Demir knows all too well. She is either a hostess that will milk him for the evening, get him wasted and then drop him back into his cage where he can nurse the morning hangover a day later and jack off to the thought of her. Or she is a pro, a real pro, who will milk him for real after a couple of drinks. She isn’t armed unless a part of her perfect body is weaponized. There is no hiding anything in the black dress that clings to her skin like wet fabric. Her curves call to him, the soft touch of her legs, the parting of her thighs, and the warm moan from her lips. Her soft face, edged with plump cheeks and reddish hues, is all he can feel in his ***, and his *** is all he can feel in his head.
   “To do what, exactly?” Demir musters the question, in his mind sifting through the fantasies of her answer.
   “I am to escort you on a night out. Ms. Farideh will spare no expenses,” the woman says with a pep in her voice, and a jiggle in her breasts.
   “I can’t drink without anything to eat.”
   “Dinner will be served in the hotel restaurant. We can attend as soon as you are ready, sir.”
   Demir pulls himself out and off the sofa, brushing the hunger from his eyes. He’s alert, much more than he would like to be. The words Ms. Farideh will spare no expenses bringing him back from the brink. Farideh must have either seen Demir on the hotel feed, which he highly doubts she would waste her precious time on. Or she received word from the bellhop. Those are the two most likely explanations. Farideh just wants one of the puzzle pieces to not break apart before the final step. It makes sense, perfect even. But just like that lingering little voice at the back of Demir’s mind, he has another one telling him that the Queen of Pirates might be up to something more devious. Demir pulls his brain out of his *** and his *** out of his brain, and goes to shower and dress.
   In the bathroom Demir gets ready, but also takes a shaving strip, one of those small ones meant for mustaches, along in his pocket. The exquisite beauty is waiting for him in the kitchen, helping herself to a coffee. “May I ask your name? Since we will be dining and drinking together, I think it is only appropriate.” Demir acts cordial.
   “Misha,” she answers after a sip of coffee so warm it makes her lips look even redder and plump.
   “Very well Misha, let us dine.” Demir offers her his arm and she coils hers around so they can make their way to the elevator.
   The corridor to the elevator is narrow and pristine just like the rooms. Only six doors to choose from, and Demir has to choose since he has no idea which one is bespoke to Leto. They didn’t arrive in tandem. Another security measure Farideh insisted on. Demir slowls his step and takes in the doors, straining to find a hint of which could have Leto behind it. His mind races, and Demir remembers that dinner time had come and gone before Misha came to his room. Demir focuses on the doorknobs, the silver sheen of each glinting under the sharp light. One of them, in the middle of the corridor, has the sheen tainted by sweat and fat.
   Demir steps on his shoelace. “Excuse me.” He lets Misha’s arm fall and tends to his untied shoelace. “I still must be somewhat woozy.” Demir leans against the wall close to the door he believes to be Leto’s. All the while keeping out of sight of the cameras and under the cover of his own back Demir glues the see-through strip to the door and jamb. If the door is opened the strip will flop.
   Demir ties his shoelace and they make their way down to the restaurant.
   The rest of the hotel mimics Demir’s room in aesthetic and detail both. Utilitarian comfort for the brazen and the bold, for pirates and misfits of all walks of life. Demir and Misha are ushered to their secluded table at the far end of the restaurant, near the windows overlooking the cityscape, with its dark foreboding lines and jaunty holodeck lights.
   Demir orders the faux-lamb steak and grilled potatoes with seasonal vegetable salad, coarse mustard dressing, faux-olive oil, and a side of pickled radish. A tour de force of hangover food, and not on the cheap either. Along with that Demir has white wine, Misha has red. She orders a small fish platter with a seasonal salad, no dressing.
   Once the food is there they eat slowly and speak softly about all things not related to the task at hand. Misha inquires with a degree of professionally-feigned interest about Demir’s life, his family, and generally all the things he hates the most. He indulges her with his professionally-feigned love of his previous life, and digs into his food with all the gusto he has in him. While not answering her stupid basic questions about the things he hates the most, Demir probed Misha for any info on the proceedings.
   “My Leto will not be joining us during the evening?”
   “I am not a liberty to say, honestly. I wasn’t given that information.”
   “You could send a message through your neural link, could you not? It’s just that I always feel better with a bodyguard by my side. Sadly I must be growing old considering I used to wander alone. His company soothes my frazzled nerves.”
   They both continue eating under the umbrella of the festering silence.
   “It seems your Leto is content with his meditation, while Ms. Farideh suggested you might need a break,” Misha lets Demir know through a coy smile.
   The unnerving correctness of Misha’s answer lets Demir know all he needs. She is in contact with Farideh, or at least she forwarded his question. Farideh wants Demir out of the picture for the evening. That much is certain, but not for his mental wellbeing. That snide remark about the break came directly from Farideh, and it was just that right amount of snide to keep Demir in his place. Just let the night ride and be back in the cage by morning. The Demir from maybe a year or two ago might have fallen for that. The Demir sitting across from Misha begs to differ.
   “That is indeed true. I need a break. Thank Ms. Farideh for that.” Demir suggests he is bowing down and accepting the pity parade. “Before we continue I have to visit the restroom. My stomach is a bit fussy. Excuse me.”
   Demir ducks out of sight to the bathroom, jettisons that plan and rushes to the elevator in complete disregard of all the cameras following him. He takes the elevator to the suites and checks the strip. It’s dangling from the door. Demir takes a good look at the camera in the corridor, gives it his most stern look of anger, the type of look that vows for revenge. Just to let them know that he’s onto whatever little scheme the Queen has in mind. Demir makes his way back to the restaurant.
   “Will we be leaving soon?” Misha asks him in complete disregard of the fact that he knows she’s been informed about his little trip to the top floor.
   “I would prefer we stay at the hotel bar. I find myself not feeling up for a stroll around town.”

Chapter 33: FACADE
FARIDEH MADE SURE the Leto was picked up after Demir had already left, but that sly little gorghast was onto them after he feasted on her tab. Some little grifter trick he pulled off under the nose of her cameras. Not even too shabby. She admits. By that time the Leto was already deep into a conversation. Farideh didn’t want to skip any of the pleasantries. It is always of the utmost importance to make interrogations feel like they aren’t. Farideh started by presenting her city. Beaming and booming about the terraforming, the oxygen dome, the living quarters, pleasure district, banking center, the opulent dark streets that gave way to a flourishing community. She basked in the lights of her city, while Leto regarded it with the empty vastness of his analytical stare.
   Receiving no response from the Leto, Farideh continues her story about Trafalgar. Loosening the tension visibly rising and swelling like fog.
   “So, considering I haven’t found you in our files, how do you find Trafalgar your first time around?” Farideh asks after she is done propagating her own empire.
   “I mean no disrespect, Ms. Farideh.” Something always said when you mean exactly that. “I have only seen Trafalgar from the safety of this vehicle, and only your words can account for the actuality. I haven’t experienced anything, or seen much. There are planets and cities like this all across the Galaxy. The only difference is that Trafalgar is run by pirates, and fueled by criminal enterprise.”
   Farideh senses that pang of contempt in the Leto’s highbrow army-infused Common. “You disagree?”
   “I have no stakes in this matter. It is not my place to agree or disagree.”
   “Yet you work for one of the most known MOS pilots in the entire Galaxy. A criminal, in more ways than one. Now on a warpath to running his own criminal empire. The obvious contempt you have for criminal enterprise is nothing if not hypocritical. I would have thought better of someone wearing the facade of Leto III.” Farideh pokes and prods, waiting for the reaction.
   “I wear no facade, I am Leto III.”
   The magnitude of the delusion hits Farideh at first, but then she focuses on the fact that he dodged the answer quite nimbly. “I have to say, out of the many Letos I have met over the years you must be one of, if not the most, dedicated.”
   “My dedication is solely to mankind.”
   The Leto flaunts his delusions not like a facade, but like a wall. He mingles through the questions and provides answers that will put Farideh solely back to square one. A veritable castle she has to break down first in order to get to the meat of things. “How did you come to meet Demir Sunderland?”
   “By chance.”
   “Please, spare me the *** at least.” Cut through. “A man with your considerable skills, mods, and obvious experience does nothing by chance. It seems to me like you have just as much an agenda here as Sunderland.”
   “What concern is that of yours?”
   “I hate receiving questions as answers.”
   “That is none of my concern.”
   The Leto obviously knows how to push buttons, in general, not just Farideh’s. She’s aware of her control issues, and to her own dismay so is the Leto. Disobedience, insubordination, coy banter, even spite towards her, are not things Farideh takes lightly. And the Leto is abusing that fact to its fullest potential. “Why is it that you were the one to talk to me about Sunderland’s plan? If it even is Sundeland’s plan.”
   “Mr. Sunderland is acutely aware of his image across the Galaxy. A thrill seeker, a miscreant, drunk, addict, a person living day-to-day. Plans, schemes and grandiose takeovers are not known to be part of his repertoire. Hearing such things from me shelters him from the possible mockery such proclamations might entail.” The Leto’s matter-of-fact tone betrays little to nothing. His focus on the facts shields him just as much as his delusion.
   “So you are his mouthpiece?”
   “When need be.”
   “Now that is something I believe even less than you being Leto III.”
   “What you believe is also none of my concern.”
   The stone walls keep rising instead of falling. Farideh is getting nowhere by being polite. “You know I can have you killed at any point. Considering you’re not vital to the plan Sunderland can just get another Leto to be his mouthpiece.”
   The Leto doesn’t even grace her with an answer, instead just blankly staring out the car window. His massive shoulders leaned against the vehicle frame, his dark eyes in the distance, blank as if he isn’t even thinking at all. “Do these questions lead you anywhere, Ms. Farideh?”
   “They lead me where I want them to lead me.” Two walls, two castles, just bashing against each other until one cracks.
   “And where is that?”
   “I see you’re asking the questions now.”
   The Leto turns to her, gazes into her eyes with his black pearls, not a miniscule trace of any kind of emotion, just blank and staring at her like an abyss. “I am,” he tells her.
   “What if I decline to answer?”
   “I will continue to sit in silence and look at this city and try to match it with the marvelous words you told me about it, all the while experiencing nothing, and you will be led nowhere.”
   “Were you in the army?” Farideh doesn’t let up.
   “That is also none of your concern.”
   “Well, you see, it is.” Farideh leans in, removes some of the distance between her and the Leto. “You don’t see me as your superior, which is why you either act insubordinate, or dodge my questions with facts that are so obvious that we end up back at square nothing. You purposefully lead me nowhere, which is something that is integrated into standard army training even before the C. I did my homework, I’ve been doing my homework, Leto, since before you took that face. You’re running me around in circles in hopes that my anger will overtake me and the conversation ends there. But I can tell you right now, that’s not going to work. Now, I know, I feel, that you have a much larger stake in this than you lead on. We are both here because I want to know who exactly I’m getting into bed with. But what concerns me above all else is that I know you are way in over your head here. So, one last time, lest we make this a formal interrogation, what is your role here?”
   The Leto leans in heavily, weighing himself against his knees, his massive shoulders bulking like a tide, washing over Farideh. “I am a bodyguard, a mouthpiece, a tool, a paid hand. My agenda is getting paid, leaving, and forging ahead. I have no ties to Sunderland or his plan, I am just honorable enough to fulfill my contract.”
   “And I don’t believe that for one second.”
        “What you believe is none of my concern.”
        “Who are you exactly?”
        “I am Leto III, the Grand-Master of War.”
        Farideh scoffs at that answer. She knows well enough she won’t get anything more out of the man at the moment, but she knows a bit more now than she did before. A confirmation that he is more than just a pawn. His resilience, his facade, his unwillingness to even contemplate answering her questions in of itself speaks volumes about his intent in the long run. He’s just as much a player as Sunderland himself, or me for that matter. He’s dangerous, deadly, and I’ll have to keep an eye out. Over the years Farideh has come to know people to their core. Since she worked in the brothels, since she was but a child, she had to know people in order to survive. To move them around like pieces on a chess board, the most ancient game in the Known Galaxy. Eons may have passed, but the game stays the same, and she stays on top by always being one step ahead. By telling her nothing, the Leto told her just enough. Confirmed just enough.
        Farideh puts the message through to her driver to go back to the hotel. On the way there she and the Leto sit in silence. Farideh escorts the Leto to the foyer of the hotel.
In the foyer a senselessly drunk Demir Sunderland lays thrown over a settee like a sack of ***. Dishevelled, strewn about, wild hair dangling from all angles, crusted spit in his ten-day beard, looking more emaciated than when he first came to Trafalgar. Misha at his side.
        As soon as Sunderland sees the Leto he jolts up like he’s being electrocuted, shot with adrenaline. He runs up to the Leto, three steps forward and one back, swaying like a sea in the wind, a ship lost. With a degree of comedy he jumps up high enough to clock the massive man in the chin with a punch that surprisingly resonates meatily across the foyer. “We’ll trawlk tomorrer,” he slurs out.
        The Leto bows like he’s in the pre-C army, and retreats to the elevator. The only thing staring down Farideh now is Sunderland with his bloodshot eyes. He moves in close, the stink of booze on him. The waft of his body shedding toxins slick and sour with the punch of alcohol. “That was just for the people to see. For the image to stay intact. Just so you know, your little escort can’t get me drunk for ***. Leto is mine, and I’m in charge here. As of tomorrow we are free to roam, no more lockdown, no more meals served in our rooms, no more surveillance. What I say to my Leto stays between me and him. I’m not here as a prisoner, I’m here as a partner. You speak to me, and me only. If the Leto speaks it’s because I told him to. Now, I gave you the courtesy of revealing my position and my plan, and I expect you to respond in kind. Your deviant need to control everything may work for Trafalgar, but it doesn't work for me. Cross me again and I will be off-planet so you can handle this shitshow on your own. I know full well who you are, I never forget that, but you don’t seem to be aware that I’m Demir-***-Sunderland. You’ll say it’s impossible for me to get off-planet, but you know full well I’ll at least find a way to make it *** hard for you to stop me. We may not be equals here, but I demand some respect. If you have any questions you can put them through with Misha,” Sunderland snarls, “and next time pay her to *** me at least.”
        Sunderland does his mock-drunken stagger away and to the elevator, leaving Misha behind aghast and Farideh riveted to the floor. Farideh knows she’s done for the night. She has all she needs.

“MS. FARIDEH, MR. MUTEMBA is on his way up. You requested notification,” her secretary lets Farideh know, like the good employee she is. Farideh’s word is canon on Trafalgar. Mutemba, formerly known as Mutemba Ginzego before he cut ties with his family due to internal political strife, is her main investigator and Drakkweb surfer. While still Mutemba Ginzego he was his father’s head of secret service, and as Mutemba he puts that knowledge to good use. Farideh requested a quick sweep on the Leto. Under the radar, quick and easy, as to raise no red flags and get no eyes on them before the operation unfolds.
   The door to her office opens with a bare sound, and Mutemba enters. The man is striking by being exquisitely unremarkable, uncannily so. Average height, average build, slight belly, plain marble face almost to the point where he might be the archetype for the populace of New Johannesburg, and the desert planet Kurrekesh in general. Short cropped hair, three-day-shadow, simple business garb, and a soothing voice. If Mutemba came into a bar, murdered the barkeep and walked out, no one would remember him. Mutemba first came into her service when he needed shielding from his father, who was approaching the last leg of his life. Mutemba supported his younger brother taking over the throne since his older brother had more tyrannical aspirations than Mutemba was comfortable endorsing. When Mutemba’s vote went sideways he jumped to Trafalgar. Now that his older brother runs Kurrekesh, Mutemba is free to go about his own business, as long as it doesn’t interfere with his brother’s. Bad blood is bad for business. Farideh and Mutemba had grown quite fond of each other over the years, and the investigator decided to stay on Trafalgar and work for Farideh exclusively.
   “What have you got for me?” Farideh cuts to the chase before Mutemba is even in his seat.
   “This Leto is making you ansty.” There’s a hint of that New-JoBurg accent in Mutemba’s Common. He sits down with the grace and precision of an ancient EN *** court magister.
   “Then you know not to keep me waiting.”
   “I cannot keep you waiting for something that will never come.”
   “Do you really think now is the time for riddles?” It feels to Farideh like she’s being pulled around, clamped by her limbs and then pulled in all directions by MOS skiffs. Her mind feels even worse. Hundreds of strings tied to one part of one thought, tied together to larger thoughts, each pulling in their own direction.
   “It’s not a riddle, Ms. Farideh. I found nothing.”
   Farideh’s heart is in her throat, and her mind in her ass along with all the *** she’s been keeping in both. First a basic sweep finds nothing, then the Leto gives her nothing, and now her best investigator finds nothing. “There’s no such thing as nothing in the Known Galaxy. We have his DNA on file. I want to know where he went, where he was carded, where he was seen, where he drank, where and who he ***, how he started doing protection work, who he affiliated with before, where does he come from, and most of all - where the *** is he going. We have his DNA, so *** nothing does not *** exist!” she booms and the office rattles.
   “I must admit myself that I haven’t seen something like this in ages. There are skilled assassins and information traders across the Galaxy that have no profile, but they aren’t nomads. Stay in one place and you can secure your anonymity. During his time with Sunderland, at least, the Leto had moved about the Galaxy. We presume he moved before. I can be sure of one thing, and that’s that the Leto was never carded,” Mutemba offers his candid explanation to Farideh’s own fury, his lovely voice not helping it subside one bit.
   Whenever you land on a planet the local Authority will card your entrance, and get your DNA into their system. Faking the test or even slipping in with fake papers or invitations is possible, but expensive. There are other ways to get on-planet without anyone noticing, and those ways are undoubtedly familiar to someone like Sunderland. But the Leto isn’t new, he’s not some pup fresh out the kennel. Everyone leaves a *** trail. This just shows her that the Leto is good, exceptional even.
   “Was he incarcerated during that time? Didn’t get carded because he was dormant?”
   “Possible, but highly unlikely. I checked with my contacts in the main prison directory, and there were no signs of his DNA signature. That means he could have been in a dark-site, political asylum, or level 9.” Those were the types of prisons only reserved for the most dangerous individuals across the Known Galaxy. All traces of their incarceration are wiped, and they never see the outside of their cells.
   “The Leto is certainly army stock. That much is clear. Could he be a swap? Or an operative?”
   “I have to work the swap angle. From what I can tell no major army figures have disappeared or been discharged in recent years. The army lets the Authority do the heavy lifting. It’s peaceful for those ***. The Leto is most certainly not an operative.”
   Farideh first had the swap idea when she discerned the Leto’s army background. Maybe he was a bigshot from a corporate, private, or government army. Disgraced and discharged he took the Leto facade and is now working his way back in, or even working up a revenge plan. Men and their revenge plans. *** me and I’ll *** you back mentality, animal instincts, all bad for business. The Leto would work through the Syndicate and Authority to earn his stripes, or *** over his former employers. A long shot, just as long as him being an operative going deep undercover. A long shot, but nonetheless plausible. Which is why having nothing on him hurts even more than knowing the truth. “What about any previous employers? Pending contracts?” Mutemba shakes his head, that worried and apologetic look on his face.
   Farideh leans into her chair, becoming almost one with it. Like seeping into a safe haven where the entire Galaxy can go *** off. “I see him Mutemba. Can’t really explain it, but I see him. The Leto coming back like a nightmare, one day in the future. It’s like he’s haunting me right now, in living flesh. I see him. We won’t see the last of him, and I want to know why. Why the *** is Leto III, the Grand-Master of *** War, dead for ages now, haunting my *** life.”
   “The contacts Sunderland and the Leto have given us have all panned out. I have my men on them and the operation is progressing at a steady pace.” Mutemba is trying to pull Farideh out of her dark corner. “I don’t see Sunderland or the Leto hindering the operation in any way. Quite to the contrary, I believe they would be the first to mourn its failure. While I cannot neglect the enigma that is the Leto, I know the only way you’ll ever find out more about him is if he tells you that himself. I would wager that hasn’t worked out so far.”
Farideh shakes her head. “How do I get this out of my head, Mutemba?”
   “You don’t. Just live with it.”
   “And if I can’t?”
   “People come and go, Ms. Farideh. Plans come to fruition or fail miserably. But there will always be more people and more plans around the corner. Don’t forget this feeling, but live with it.”
   “I would wager you have someone living haunting you too?”
   Mutemba chuckles. “The most obvious one. My brother. Every day I think, will this be the one where he decides I am a threat rather than a willing non-participant in his reign on Kurrekesh?” He shrugs. “I ask myself that every morning, and then I go to work.”
“That’s the difference. You know who he is, where he is, and what he can do. I know nothing. Even *** worse than having a ghost at my heels. Ghosts have stories left behind.”
“Do you want me to continue the line of inquiry, Ms. Farideh? We will risk alerting some parties, but it can be done.” Mutemba said his piece, and it’s back to business.
“No. I’ll live with it, and keep a blaster under my pillow.”
Mutemba nods and heads out the office, leaving Farideh to her haunted existence. Just her and Leto III, Grand-Master of War, all alone again.

“I DON’T BELIEVE WE ever sat down for a meal like this before?” Demir observes in between bites of his now-usual faux-steak. He didn’t want to mess around with anything they would call traditional cuisine on Trafalgar. “It’s good to be out and about again. Can’t say I miss that room all too much.” Leto grumbles to himself and Demir recognizes that as his usual disgruntled acquiescence to the same notion. Unlike Demir, Leto is made to withstand anything, and they could have left him in that room for years; he would come out just the same as he entered.
   “Can we trust Mutemba?” Leto asks, cautious as always.
   “If you mean can we trust him to have our backs - no. If you mean can we trust him to do the job well - of course. He’s a top operative, skilled investigator, and one hell of a secret service agent.” Demir knows Mutemba from way back when, while the man was still in the employ of his father. Even then he was a formidable operative, considering the political constraints shackling him. Now, as a free agent in the employ of the most ruthless pirate in the Known Galaxy, Demir has no concerns he will do the job more than aptly.
   Leto scoffs. “It’s those kinds of people that will thrust a knife in your back first opportunity they get,” and Leto proceeds to eat his abundant faux-fish meal without even looking at Demir.
   “I can’t help but figure that little jibe comes from experience. I also can’t help but notice that the more time we spend together the more I find out which people you dislike, and no one so far even entertains the notion of having your limited affection.”
   “This is not the Galaxy I know. This is a shadow of what it once was.”
   “And you expected everything to stay so peachy and preachy like it did before the C? You didn’t even expect to be alive and now you’re *** on everything and everyone around you just because it’s not better than it was before.” Demir’s turn to sigh, only he does it loud enough which he knows will annoy Leto enough to look him in the eyes. “You’re fighting it, and you’re doing a *** job too.” Demir also lets out a sly smile.
        Leto doesn’t give him the time of day and just goes back to his meal.
        “Demir, what do you mean by fighting it?” Demir does his best, and also at the same time worst, impression of Leto’s booming voice. “Do you mean the fact that I am holding on to the past to such an extent that it clouds my judgement to the point where you have to set me straight every time? Is my hate which permeates my every choice, my disdain for the underbelly of society, or is it just my coddled *** upbringing during a time which I believe to be much better than your own that colors my mood? Tell me Demir, what do you think?”
        “I think you are being childish, as usual.”
        “And I think I’m *** right. Ever since you met with Farideh you’ve been hiding behind that army facade, veneer of professionalism, and it’s all crumbling. Did she get to you?” A much more friendly tone in Demir’s voice. “Or is it that you didn’t get to her that’s the problem? The fact that you’re nothing weighing on you, suffocating you. The fact that the truth buries you more than lying. The fact that you have to dwell down here instead of in your ivory tower.”
        “If there’s anyone who knows about ivory towers it must be you, Demir Sunderland.And there it is, that little spite nugget I manage to bring out. The more he writhes the more I corrupt him. “The decadence of your early years must have been the envy of the entire Galaxy. What was it that made you decide to take up the mantle of a MOS? From what I could gather it was in direct spite of your father. A spoiled child then, and a spoiled child now. So don’t you dare presume to know what drives me, what brought me here, and how my life unfolded before I was ordained. This line of questioning is over,” Leto booms and returns his attention back to his meal.
        Not by a long shot. “True enough, the records of your life before you became Grand-Master of War had been wiped to preserve your image as an Immortal. If I was a gambling man, which I am, I would put my money on the fact that you grew up dead poor, or at least not nearly as rich as me. Mommy or daddy or both made you enter the army in order to pay for the bills they couldn’t afford themselves. You lived in either a slum, project housing, or middle-class instant pods they had back in the day. That would be the height of luxury I could see you in. That superior DNA got you far, and sure as the skies flow, no one knew how the *** you got that. So you decided to prove yourself over and over again, just to show everyone that it’s not your DNA that drives you, but you who drives your DNA. People think it’s that easy, like we’re being pulled around by the biological strings of our bodies, but you set out to prove them wrong.” Leto just keeps eating his meal, undeterred, until it’s finished. “Skies know you did, trying to prove all of them wrong. Now it’s one of the few things that you hold dear to your heart, that you proved them all wrong, and the more you show that to people the less they believe you. Must be grating, mustn’t it?”
        “Does all this psychological insight come from your years of study, or just that famous gut of yours which has landed you in more trouble over the years than even your *** ***?”
        Demir chuckles. Hearing Leto III utter the words *** *** in his massive voice that fills a room more than his body does is something to behold. The fact that Demir brought it out makes it all the more fun for him. “Not even my gut’s good enough for this. It’s my silver spoon upbringing that gives me all this psychological insight. Because, Leto, your cold demeanor, stoic facade, and even that little hint of malice behind your eyes, is nothing if not a reflection of my father. I know people like you, which is one more thing that doesn’t make you special. The reason why I know you want to show people that you’re more than just your DNA is because I’m doing the same. Now, given your years of life and insight, you must have deduced that yourself. Just as I’ve deduced that about you. That makes you even less special. You’re just like me, Leto. A hint of my father there, of course. Are you sure we’re not somehow related? The Reign didn’t splice your DNA around just to see what sticks.” Demir feigns open-mouthed realization. “Am I your son? Please tell me I am, so I can ditch my old man.”
        “Demir, is there a point to all this?” The eyes of Leto III wash over Demir like a cold shower after a night of hard drinking.
        “And there we are. You reverting the point back to the person throwing said point across the table at you. Instead of you recognizing the point you invalidate it by having the person in front of you reaffirm it, thereby putting it forward as their point and not yours to realize yourself.” Leto’s frown, stark and stern like a disappointed father, tells Demir more than words. Demir takes a deep breath. “The point to all this, Leto, is that we cannot work together if we don’t know the person we’re working with. We have a lot to do, and it won’t be easy. You know that full well.”
        “Ms. Farideh said much the same.”
        “But you’re not working with her, you’re working with me. We’re at a point now where we can’t turn back even if we wanted to. Like you’d ever want that, but still.” Leto, still somewhat begrudgingly, acknowledges the point. “We’re also at the point where we can fake being a complete unit, but faking won’t get us farther than this. That’s why I need to know who you are.”
A poignant pause breathes a steadfast stupor between them.
        “I was raised on Earth, actually. My parents were middle-class workers at an armament factory on Mars. They came home during the weekends, and I spent the rest of the time alone. We weren’t well-off by any stretch of the imagination, but we weren’t starving either. When my father suffered mod sickness we could no longer pay living expenses and I entered the academy on the fast track in order to earn money quickly. As I advanced up the ranks my parents and I grew apart steadily, since I have,” and Leto pauses, “had no siblings. When I became Grand-Mster of War the ties that bound me and my family were severed completely. During my years in the academy I scoured the database for any information as to how I came to have such advanced DNA. The only conclusion I ever came to was that it was absolute dumb luck of cosmic proportions. Dumb luck didn’t get me where I am, hard work and good use of it did. The reason I’m here is because I don’t want to see everything we built as a species crumble under the ambition of fools.”
        “You believe in the pre-C centralized government. So, after we finally put an end to the AIs you would install a new government with yourself in charge. Is that it?” With the conversation finally getting somewhere Demir actually feels delighted to talk shop.
        “I am not leadership material. I am war potential. There’s no place for me on a throne or in government. All I want is for humanity to realize its potential once more. No more petty squabbling, trivial skirmishes, and the pursuit of personal gain. If we align all mankind against the AIs, in a different way than we did the first time around, we can actually make a difference. We can finally win.” The enthusiasm in Leto’s voice comes as a welcome surprise. The boom therein warmer, the husk lighter, and a tang of hope shining through the cracks.
        “I must admit that makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. But let me tell you exactly what’s going to happen after the AIs are gone.” The shine now gone, Leto listens from behind his stark walls. “Everyone and their dead grandmother is going to take credit for getting rid of them. Any and all alliances forged until then will be shattered, and every party will start fighting for both the glory and the scraps. First thing they’ll fight over will be your cloning station. Imagine, immortality right in front of their noses. Even if we trash the thing they’ll still fight over the scraps, the mere potential of cloning will be a siren song for any would-be ruler of the newly-freed Known Galaxy.” Leto’s frown turns even more sour. Maybe because of Demir’s interpretation of the future, or because he just shat on Leto’s affectionate confession. “The problem with that whole idea of being better and doing better is that there is no better. Pre-C everything was kept tightly under control. The Reign barely let the people breathe. Everything was done in the name of mankind’s perseverance and persistence through the Galaxy, and even beyond. But this, this Known Galaxy, now and in the future - this is the truth. This is who we are, Leto. You suffer from a savior complex, probably because you did it once before. But there's no saving us, because we’re right where we’re supposed to be. Save us all you want, but don’t expect anything better from mankind.”
        “Is this truly what you believe?” Leto cuts in immediately, even though Demir thought he would take a pause and let the tension fester.
        “It’s what I know.”
        “Then why even fight for mankind? Why are you even here?”
        Something about tables and the turning thereof which always drives me insane. “Why don’t you just make me tell you coordinates to the cloaked sector and be done with me? Maybe even kill me yourself, and go your own way. Fashion your own revolution. Work towards the betterment of mankind. Instead you sift through the dregs of mankind you so obviously despise. Heading headlong into a criminal enterprise that will span entire planets and sectors. Against your own nature, better judgement, and even moral code.”
        “I don’t know what the AIs are syphoning from me when I die. If they punch through to my memories, despite my trained memory retention and deletion protocols, they might find something about you and my knowledge of the sector. They might come at mankind harder, decide to push forward earlier. It’s my wager that they are syphoning psychological data to counteract our maneuvers on a conscious and subconscious level. To literally build themselves up to be more human than humans, and to crush us on every turn. But if they dig deeper and they become aware of our enterprise, then we might just be doomed before we even started.”
        “And there it is again.”
        “Please, Demir, no more.”
        “No, there’s always more. There’s your problem. You’re trying to defeat the most logical entities in the Known Galaxy through logic. You know what’s the downfall for a perfect, pristine, glass table? A rock. It was mankind that beat the AIs in the first place. Making yourself more like them, Leto, is setting us all up for failure. Embrace the chaos, embrace the now, and embrace mankind as it is. That is the only way we will succeed. Wild and free. Uncompromising and stupid beyond belief. Savage in our greed, malicious in our perseverance, and above all else, dangerous when we’re pushed into a corner.” Demir takes the opportunity or a theatrical pause, and enjoys it thoroughly. Tables and the turning thereof. Tables and turning. “Don’t expect better from us. Use what we have, and we will win.”
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 12/11!)
Post by: B.K. on December 11, 2021, 03:20:23 AM
And here we are.
A seven chapter drop. From 36 to 42. Just a bit over 30 pages in writing. I sat down, channeled my inner Eiichiro Oda, and pulled a full One Piece. This is the end of the first part of the series. I can put a great turning point here and call this saga closed.
Keeping with the Oda style a time skip comes next. In these chapters I managed to pull off a lore dump with some transverse jumping, and a cheeky little Sun Tzu quote at the very end. After the time skip we'll have some new stories for all the main characters, along with some new and familiar faces. I have parts of the story all laid out in my head, so I'll see where it takes me. Maybe it will happen soon, and I put something to paper. However, always remember that I am, after all, a lazy ***.
Cheers and thanks for reading!

Chapter 36: IN MOTION
IF THERE’S ANYTHING Siona hates more than people groveling, it’s meetings. One could not be farther removed from the other, but both leave a distinct cadaver taste in her mouth. The boredom and tedium of both are nothing to chuckle at either. And Siona knows how both of them end - with a bullet to the head. A real bullet in the former, and fictional one for herself in the latter case. But a final meeting is the least she has to attend if the operation is about to be set in motion. Farideh wants her here, and it gives her enough delight that Sunderland doesn’t, so that will make it more bearable.
   Siona zones out during the introduction part where Farideh, Sunderland, Mutemba, and Salvatore - the head of Farideh’s armed forces - exchange operational banter and wave their dicks and clits around to show who’s doing more, who knows more, and who gets more. All the while the Leto stands unmoving like a mountain behind Sunderland, seemingly lost in thought just like her. Siona knows that he’s all eyes and ears. It’s a strange sensation to Siona, seeing the Leto like that, or in general. Unlike other washouts who wear the face and frame, this one has an aura to him. That veneer of confidence, that quick twitch of his muscles and languid precision of his movements. She doesn’t feel the same when she sees Sunderland, but when she sees the Leto she wants to fly against him. Face him in the Pits. Skiff versus skiff, MOS versus MOS, because Sunderland might be her confirmed adversary in the Known Galaxy, but the Leto feels more like a MOS than the rich washed-up flyboy.
   Once they’re all finally finished doling out the menial tasks and coordinating minute details the major part of the operation, the *** operation itself, can be planned out. And not a skies-damned moment too soon.
   “Let’s go over the meeting with the Authority first,” Farideh kicks it off. “I will initiate contact with Superior Auburn. Mutemba has confirmed that he is the main contact for the Cardinal. With me initiating the contact the legitimacy of the meeting will be established. Any objections?” A collective nod from the whole crew, Siona included. “Any questions?”
   “One thing came to mind,” Sunderland moves in quick and deadly. “I want to be present during that conversation.”
   “And why is that?” Siona can guess from Farideh’s tone that she’s snarling on the inside. The boss is good at keeping her professional demeanor, but her outbursts have gone up quite a bit since Melkior and all this *** started flying about.
   “Because of your incessant fuckery, and my own safety. You’ve been poking your nose in my business to the point where I can’t be so sure you’re not going to *** me over. Just hand me to the Authority and offer to take down the Syndicate yourself. Sure, it will take you longer, and it will be messier, but Trafalgar would reap all the spoils. Who’s to say that in the end you won’t just end up a double-crossing ***. All I want is some reassurance. I’ll listen in, that’s all.”
   “You think offending me at this stage is going to do you any favors?” A real snarl from Farideh now. Even Siona’s caught a bit off guard. Sunderland was keeping low and nice, close to the ground for the entirety of his stay on Trafalgar. Siona even saw him once, docile and compliant. She’s just about sure now that it was all a show. Just about sure.
   “We’ve offended and berated each other since the day we set foot on the Galaxy stage. You, me, Siona, Trafalgar, the Authority, the Syndicate, and every other *** out there. The time for pleasantries is over, Farideh. I will take every precaution so you don’t *** me over. Is that clear?”
   “As will I, Sunderland. You can listen in. But in return your Leto won’t be present at the meeting with the Authority.”
   “That’s a big ask with little return value for me.”
   “Siona will also not be present at the meeting.” And that bucks Siona out of her chair. She wants to object, and do so loudly, but she isn’t one to not learn from her previous mistakes. “The request will be to meet with Superior Auburn himself. That’s a tall order in of itself. It is paramount that we appear genuine, and conduct ourselves as such during the meeting. The only parties present will be the Superior, Sunderland and myself, as well as the Cardinal and the nukes. Siona will be flying her skiff for protection, and if your Leto is competent enough he can be on call from your,” and Farideh scoffs, “Baby. Both armed forces, Authority and ours, will be within shooting range, but respectfully so. We need to play this right. So while you, Sunderland, are busy thinking of ways I might *** you over, I’m actually taking this seriously.” That has to sting. To Siona’s delight.
   Sunderland takes a moment to himself, nods at nothing in particular, and then gives that slight apologetic nod. “Indeed. A change in tone is in order. I accept.”
“Good. We will conduct the meeting in the Daffodil system.”
   Perfect move. Siona thinks to herself. The Daffodil system was a thriving jungle biome system with two green planets. A wildlife resort for hunters. After the C the sun blew and took both the planets with it. Now it’s nothing but a pile of asteroids moved about by residual gravity wells and swelling. The movement of the asteroids provides perfect cover and minimizes the ambush potential. Plus, Daffodil is nicely balanced in terms of arrival time between Trafalgar and Saturn, where the Authority has their headquarters. Neither can enter the system before the meeting if it’s planned right, and jacking up ambush spots isn’t as easy either. Daffodil also has one hyperspace point so both parties can keep an eye out for invasions. So far this thing looks damn solid. The other members of the meeting agree with collective nods.
   “Security on our side will be handled by Siona and her crew. Leto as backup.”
   “Baby has to be primed for flying. We’ll be going straight to Nazareth to handle the takeover there.”
   “Of course. Mutemba has inserted some of his subordinates within the more stable planets and systems in the Cardinal’s operation. Meanwhile, Salvatore will coordinate with Sunderland to take over the crumbling parts of the Cardinal’s operation. We will focus on the Paladins first. Destroy them from within just like they planned with the Syndicate. We will balance our offensive strikes with internal strife caused by Mutemba and his people. This transition needs to be seamless, so we can’t go in guns blazing. If the Syndicate catches a whiff of this, they will burrow and wall themselves off from anything that even has the slightest stink of the Cardinal on it. Nazareth is their head of operations. When the others have crumbled, Sunderland can insert himself as the new head of the Cardinal’s operation, and no one within the Syndicate will be the wiser.”
   “Question.” Sunderland even raises his hand like he’s at school. Farideh lets out a deep sigh. “Do I have to wear the robe?” That one actually garners him a chuckle or two. Even Siona’s tempted.
   “Now this all sounds simple and clean, but we won’t know *** until we have boots on the ground. The main thing is that we keep our deal. The Authority will wait to convict the Cardinal after we have taken over his operation. Sunderland will then step in as the legitimate head. So,” Farideh addresses Sunderland directly, mean-mugging him all the way, “you’ll have to work on your angle alone. The Syndicate needs to embrace you, or this is all over. You gave your word that this will not blow back on Trafalgar. So you better do it right, because, Sunderland, I don’t want to be *** over either. Once Sunderland is in, we can retreat. The deal is done, and all parties have fulfilled their end of the agreement. However, the Galaxy wasn’t built on trust. It wasn’t built on mutual respect either, but on contingency plans, safeguards, and assurances that *** over one another isn’t beneficial. That’s why we’re lucky to have both of you here.” Farideh gestures towards Sunderland, and then Siona, leaving her with a prickling chill down her spine. “Before I even start, let me make it abundantly clear that if anyone interrupts me you’re going to the Tombs, and I’ll just vent the Carindal and let this all go to ***.” An even colder chill down Siona’s spine festers. “You two will exchange override codes for your skiffs.” And now Siona’s completely cold, from the inside out. “If any party bails on the deal, the override codes get sent to the ones *** over.”
   “Like hell we will,” Sunderland vents through gritted teeth.
   “I agree,” Siona concurs, to her own amazement.
   “Fight it all you want, but there is nothing else to wager, nothing else to give. I sure as the *** skies won’t wager my most precious possession. So we will compromise. We put both of your skiffs on the table.”
   “Never going to happen,” Sunderland snarls out and Siona silently agrees.
   “Fine then. We go to war, and both of you can spend all that time in the Tombs. When someone comes to get you after it’s over, you better hope it’s Trafalgar forces and not the Authority.”
Siona’s *** boiling. With override codes a person can initiate a full control transfer. While she doubts Farideh would ever let Sunderland have her Cain, the mere fact that the codes are out there would gnaw on her every day. That feeling that at some point she wouldn’t be in control of her skiff. That Siona would lose all she has built.
   “Who would be in charge of the codes?” Siona’s actually glad Sunderland is taking point.
   “The Leto.”
   All hell breaks loose like a hyperspace storm. Siona is out of her chair before she knows it, and Sunderland is almost off the wall. Farideh motions to Mutemba and Salvatore who hold each of them down. The Leto still unmoving, just looking at them both, silent and still, taunting them even harder than if talked at all. Both Siona and Sunderland are back in their places, fuming from the ears.
   “Now that we’re all back to being sane on the matter. Leto, I believe you to be more than just a hired hand. You’re also a man of principle. That I’m certain of. Even though you fly with Sunderland, I believe you will be impartial in this decision. If either of us breaks the deal, you will hand the override codes to the wounded party. Do I have your word?”
   “As the Grand-Master of War, I swear on my name.”
   “***,” Siona flares up.
   “Good enough for me,” Farideh gives her the cold shoulder with a flare.
   “Not good enough for me. What’s to stop him from just handing the codes over to Sunderland once this is over?”
   “After we have each done our parts the codes will be returned. Leto, you assure me of that?”
   “I do,” the Leto assures everyone, as stoic as ever.
   “***,” Siona can’t help it, putting her Cain on the line is too much.
   “Your objections are noted, as are yours, Sunderland. I can tell you right now they don’t mean ***. We go on. We do this, and we do this well. While we’re by no means allies, all of you know full well that this can’t work if any one link cracks. So get your heads out of your asses and let’s go *** up someone else so we don’t end up getting ***. Shall we?”
The talks go on deep into the night. Defense positions, attack patterns, information pathways, subterfuge lines, offensive takeovers, number of troops deployed, assault routes, trade embargoes, false information leaks, personnel changes; all that in the name of the bigger picture. That bigger picture that lets them all get out of this unscathed, and better than they were before. Farideh always tells Siona that there’s a fine line between insanity and genius, and Siona can’t tell which is which the longer the talks go on.
   The only thing she can think about, and the only thing she sees Sunderland has in the back of his head too, is that their skiffs might end up in the hands of the person they hate. That part is genius. Siona admits to herself. The rest sounds like *** insanity.
   Isn’t that what it means being a MOS. Taking insanity and making it *** work.
   Siona knows that this plan better work, insanity or not, or it’s all their asses on the line.

Chapter 37: INSANITY
“WE COULD JUST TAKE both the skiffs and bolt it. Be off-planet and leave this entire mess behind,” Sunderland blurts out while pacing about the room. His incessant rambling has become somewhat of a staple for the past couple of days, while the details of the operation came to the final stages. The meeting is set for tomorrow, and everything is going according to plan. Which is why Leto has trouble fathoming Sunderland’s apprehension. “You have the override codes. I take my Baby, and you can have that ***’s Cain.”
   “I do hope you are aware of the multitude of reasons why that would not work.”
   “No, no, you see.” Sunderland starts gesticulating even more, pointing fingers, waving about like a man on fire. “Ninety percent of the time there isn’t a thing in the Galaxy that would stop that *** from getting her Cain back. She’d be on us like grav sickness. But if we bail now, Trafalgar will have more dicks up their ass than a Malakhaar hooker on the day the miners come in. Farideh won’t be able to spare her most valuable asset, and the *** would stay hardlocked in the sector. All we have to do is make it to the hangars. By now the troops all know us, so I’m sure we could sweet talk our way in.”
   “That would necessitate that I use the override codes for my own gain, which I will not,” Leto makes sure Sunderland recognizes his earnest standpoint.
   “Why? Because you gave your word. *** me dead, will you get over yourself.”
   “For a person I heard uttering the phrase and what is a man without his word, you do expect others to go back on theirs often enough.”
   “Don’t lecture me on hypocrisy. I mastered that a long time ago. No word in the entire *** Galaxy means anything. A word is only as good as the bounty it brings in. Do you even have the slightest idea how many credits we could rake in by selling the Cain? Not only an original MOS design, but one from Siona of the Skies. We could finance our own enterprise, and do this our way. While the Authority is busy with Trafalgar, and while the Syndicate is busy dealing with the Cardinal fallout, we use that capital to finance our own information pipeline. Cut the Syndicate straight out the business, clean, quick, and we don’t owe anyone ***.”
   “What is it that frightens you so?” Leto has to get to the bottom of this before Sunderland is left alone with Farideh and the Superior. He did extremely well before the plan had finally come to fruition, and Leto noticed he even reveled in it. Leto remembers a time when he felt the pang of dismay before an operation. The lingering doubt festering until it was like a black mist coiling around his thoughts. The possibility of defeat far outweighing that of success. His mind a blank canvas for all the murky potential of loss.
   “My gut,” Sunderland blurts out like that is supposed to mean something. Leto gives him the look which requests elaboration, since he has no interest in indulging the man for too long. “I get this gut feeling before a run. It’s telling me this *** is going to fly skyward faster than a fried flux capacitor. My gut’s never been wrong.”
   “That’s not the only thing, is it?”
Sunderland takes a deep breath, calms down, and finally takes a seat before Leto has to make him. His scuttling about can be tiring. “Do you understand that when this is done we, well I, will be running the Syndicate. Sure enough I’ll have you, but this is the Syndicate we’re talking about. One of the biggest crime organizations in the Known Galaxy. We did well with Warhorse’s little band of *** misfits. But this is a whole other level. Even this plan, this *** plan has too many moving parts. We’re balancing plates on our dicks here, Leto.”
   “Demir, it was you who concocted this *** plan in the first place.”
   “That’s how I know it’s ***. Do you really think I’m capable of pulling this off? I fly, Leto. That’s what I do. I don’t *** run criminal enterprises that span the *** Galaxy.”
Leto knows this frustration all too well. The day the Tarsians were annihilated, and the AIs were barreling down. All his careful planning, all his effort and all his will, just out the hatch. Since Leto knows this feeling all too well, he also knows exactly what to do.
   “Demir, if there is anything I believe you are capable of, it is adapting. I don’t know anyone better at it than you. So, let me just say this - shut up and do your *** part.”


   “You know I don’t like being on the sidelines,” Siona’s been nagging her for days now. Farideh can barely get her thoughts straight with all her whining.
   “Tell me, are you better with a gun or with your skiff?”
   “That’s a stupid question.”
   “Stupid *** begets stupid ***. Now, I want you to *** realize that the future of Trafalgar rests on this deal. If I thought I needed you next to me with a gun, you would be next to me with a gun. But the Cain on standby is a show of force. And the Cain needs its *** pilot. So, for the love of the skies, will you stop whining? I’m starting to miss Sunderland.” Farideh massages her temples.
   “That’s low. What if he *** us over?”
   “And how exactly will he do that, alone in that room with me and the Superior? Unarmed and without backup. Is he going to order his Leto to cut through our defense and the Authority’s. Alone. Swipe the Superior from under our noses and hold him for ransom. His Leto’s a delusional *** who’s in it for the long run, but he’s not that good. Sunderland will do his part, and we will do ours. We all fry if this goes bad.”
   “That’s exactly what I’m worried about - it going bad.” The undertone of genuine concern puts Farideh off guard. Siona isn’t used to dealing with too many moving parts. You point her in the right direction and she will decimate her way through. But this, all this scheming and planning, Farideh knows she’s out of her element.
   “The meeting’s tomorrow. We went over all the specifics to the point where my brain is devoid of anything else. I know the *** coordinates of every ship we’ll have out there, and all the numbers of every force we have stationed on each planet. My head is just numbers and names, Siona. I got this. Now, please, do whatever you need to in order to calm down. Give your gut a rest, and trust me.”
   “I always do, Farideh. I don’t trust anyone else, that’s the problem.”
   Siona sighs, gives a weary smile, and makes her way out of Farideh’s office. She finally has time to mull through all the numbers, the names, and all the moving parts over and over again until she falls asleep in her chair.


   Leto connects his comms to the rest of the Trafalgar fleet. The agreement is that all parties enter the meeting flying light. Baby and Cain make up the spearhead, and the rest fly backup. Six to a MOS skiff, dispersed formation. They all have their grav plates set to accommodate the shifting asteroid field. Transponders are on just to make sure the count is accurate, but the Trafalgar skiffs keep out of sight. Fourteen skiffs to a party. On one side are fourteen Authority skiffs, pristine and well-kept, armed and ready. On the other side the ragtag band of miscellaneous parts grafted together by people who live and breathe for their craft. Leto knows which side would win, he can see it all in his mind. And he is glad to be on the winning one.
   Farideh, Sunderland, the Cardinal, and the nukes are all loaded onto the mothballed freighter that is using minimal power just for shields against the asteroids. That is the meeting location. Everyone inside will have their comms cut off as soon as the meeting starts. That is also part of the deal. No outside intrusions. When everything is over, Farideh will turn off the frequency jammer.
   The Authority has their skiffs in circle formation around the perimeter of the hyperspace jump point, making sure no reinforcements can ambush them. All the while Farideh has her people patrolling hyperspace and nearby sectors to make sure no reinforcements can ambush them. It is all a game of being where you think the enemy is going to be, and making sure the enemy does not know where you are. The mistrust is as palpable as the sweat bubbling between Leto’s palms and the control wheel. It has been so long since he piloted a skiff like this. Sunderland knows his craft, that much is beyond a doubt. Leto could cut through all of them in this skiff, and if it comes to that he will not let Sunderland die. His life is paramount, and the rest can go to hell.
   Leto recognizes the potential for betrayal more and more with every passing day. The singular goals of people across the Galaxy savagely pulling fate in their own direction, with complete abandon and disregard. He wishes he could hear the meeting. He wishes he could alleviate the sweat making his hands slick and the grip of the wheel wet.
   Leto wishes this could all just be easier.
   But most of all he wishes someone would just *** believe him.


   The Superior stands before them, and probably despite his own better judgment, he is alone. Quite a short man, stocky even, with amazingly short arms and no neck to speak of. His bald head shimmers under the artificial light inside the freighter. His bushy mustache twitches with every suspicious move of his lips, as he walks about the central cargo space, eyeing everything with a degree of mistrust. Like at any moment armed forces are going to crawl out the vents, jump from hidden compartments underneath the floorboards. Knives in the dark, blasters on standby, and nothing inside the space but the last good deal gone wrong. The Superior’s eyes may be full of doubt, but behind their pale blue glaze lies the shimmer of a discerning man. Someone who knows how to judge a situation.
   “Satisfied with the premises, Superior?” Farideh asks to stop him from pacing about the place and making her skysick.
   “Oh, I know neither of you are stupid. The only reason I am here is because I know that you are not stupid,” the Superior has a languid tone in his impeccable Common fit for the pre-C royal courts. “Quite to the contrary, it is rare that such industrious and crafty people, each in their own craft, assemble like this. And I hate to be the last one invited to these kinds of gatherings. I quite like being the first in the room. So, to be completely honest, I’ve had worse company in bigger dumps than this. I’m just waiting for my men to confirm that all the scans are clean and we can proceed.” The Superior tends to his comms for a brief moment. “And there it is. You are free to cut the comms, Ms. Farideh.”
   Farideh nods, cuts all comms to the outside, and the meeting can officially start. It almost feels like parliament. Like they’re taking turns having the floor. All that’s missing is some token they carry to know who can talk ,and who can shut the *** up.
   “Since the cliffnotes brought you all the way out here, I believe the full deal will be worth your time. If I’m known for anything, it’s for not wasting a good meeting.”
   “Indeed. While I would relish the thought of hunting you down like the vermin you are, my innate pragmatism always gets the better of me. However, Trafalgar is much farther away than any Syndicate turf. And if there’s anything I hate more than miscreant pirates, it’s organized crime under my *** nose. That’s why I put up with the Cardinal for so long, but I have to say the shackles suit him much better than my patronage.” Farideh tries her best to notice any contempt in the Superior’s voice. Any sign of his expressed hate, but there is none. That makes him all the more dangerous. He doesn’t hate pirates or crime because of any emotion, but because they interfere with his pragmatic view of a perfect Galaxy. Crime must be eliminated not because he believes it to be wrong, but because it offsets the balance of his system. The savagery with which he would approach Trafalgar’s extermination would be devastating. Given any chance to eradicate any crime, and the Superior would cut through it like a viroblade. Politics, treaties, and public opinion keep him shackled, but Farideh has seen Superior Auburn in action when given the chance. That’s the main reason she’s even here.
   Sunderland stands pensive and riveted to the floor, next to the shackled and gagged Cardinal on his knees. The last thing they need is his prattle. Never let your bargaining chips speak. Farideh holds the briefcase with the most advanced model of nukes they could procure, no larger than water bottles. When linked to a detonation harness, the nuclear yield is the stuff of legend. Even to this day, thousands of years of advancement later, and nuclear power is still used. Only now, instead of providing power, it's only value lies within the capacity for mass atrocities.
   “I have here six nuclear warheads,” and Farideh shows the Superior the briefcase with a flourish. “That way you can pin Melkior on him. But not before we insert Demir Sunderland into the Syndicate fold and he takes over the Cardinal’s operation.”
   “I can get behind pinning Melkior on someone, Ms. Farideh. My first choice would be Trafalgar, but I’m aware you know that already. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. So, do tell me why I should pin such a heinous crime on one of my operatives, and let someone like Demir-***-Sunderland run the Syndicate? The Cardinal has proven to be valuable.” The Superior shrugs. “I don’t see any reason for changing operatives this late in the game. Do you?”
   “I do,” Sunderland steps in. “The Cardinal wants his own turf after he’s done with the Syndicate. His own little slice of the Galaxy to build his EN *** commune. How long do you think he’ll be satiated by that, and let alone what’s to stop him from harnessing the power he has once he takes over the Syndicate? Now, I believe you promised him Trafalgar. He gets rid of the Syndicate, and in the process when you get rid of Trafalgar he gets to keep it. Amazing play, but the fact that the Cardinal would still be here has to leave a sour taste in your mouth.”
   “It does, so tell me how you would propose to clean it.”
   “I already have my hooks in the Cardinal’s flock. Give the people a taste of luxury, and they’ll want to keep it. I can take over his Syndicate operation without them even noticing. I can work my way through the ranks and bring the entire operation down, and it wouldn’t even require your generous armament stipend. That would let the Authority keep its hands clean of the matter. I would make sure the Syndicate goes down. That’s first. Second, I don’t want any sector for myself, any haven, any part of the Galaxy. What I want is to be deleted from the Authority mainframe. I want my clean slate.”
   The Superior cocks his head at a weird angle, and bobs up and down, like he’s thinking, but not quite. Closed eyes and all. “And what do you want, Ms. Farideh?”
   “Trafalgar will aid in the takeover of the Syndicate operation. We will also provide you with an opportunity to go after the Church of Man. The Cardinal has contacts there, and once Sunderland takes over his operation those contacts will be ours. We will initiate arms trade with the COM to justify not only a blockade, but an all-out assault on their sector. The Authority will be rid of the Syndicate and the COM, and all I ask for in return is that you abstain from blockades or assaults on Trafalgar. We can still hunt each other out in the open. I don’t expect you to turn a blind eye to my business. But I don’t want a war. Trafalgar gets passed by when all this *** goes down.”
   Superior Auburn puts his chin in his hand, muses to himself with a little chuckle here and there. “I must say, in all my years as the Superior I have rarely had someone suck my *** and lick my *** to the extent that both of you are doing. I don’t know if this is because you sincerely hate the Cardinal and the COM, and want to ruin them, or you are really afraid of me. Both, maybe?” The Superior’s menacing grin finally betrays his bestial nature.
   “The Authority has lost a lot of cred in the Galaxy after Melkior. We know you need a win. You’re like a hungry whorbeast, Superior. It’s only smart not to get in your way when you’re ravenous. I’ll do anything for my people, and I believe Sunderland will do anything to save his ass.”
   “Oh, I love my ass.”
   “There is only one thing left.” There always is. Farideh thinks to herself while the Superior puts his hands behind his back and paces closer to them. “How do we ensure your compliance with the deal?”
   “It’s not our compliance I’m worried about, Superior, but yours. Considering you have the most to gain, I have taken precautions to make sure your end of the deal is held up. I’m recording all of this. The Superior of the Authority meeting with two of the Galaxy’s most known criminals. That will undoubtedly cause some problems for you down the line. No matter if the deal is made or not. Just you being here plants the seed of doubt. And I know how much you love your position.”
   “Almost as much as I love my ass,” Sunderland cuts in with a childish jibe, but at least it’s on point. The Superior takes more time to think.
   “True. I wouldn’t have expected less from the Pirate Queen. I was just trying to bake my cake and eat it too.” Superior Auburn looks them both in the eyes. “You have a deal. Just delete that recording as a show of good faith.” His outstretched hand beckons their own.
   A shake of hands and the deal is made. It’s all going according to *** plan.
   The ship rocks violently, sending everyone inside tumbling around like cargo. As soon as they’re on their feet it rocks again.
   “What the *** is going on?” Sunderland blares. “This isn’t an asteroid crash.”
   “Turn off the comms jammer,” Superior Auburn orders like Farideh’s one of his lackeys.
   “Everyone just keep calm,” she tells them all while going insane on the inside herself. The ship rocks again, even worse now. Emergency protocols are engaged. Everything turns dark and is awash with flaring red a moment later. “***,” Farideh curses at no one and everything in particular. She turns off the jammer. “Siona, what’s going on?”
   “Farideh, it’s a mess. We need to get out of here.” Farideh can hear the clatter and boom of combat noise in the background.
   “What happened? Siona, what’s going on?” On the other side the Superior is conversing with his own men.
   “They came out of nowhere. Farideh, they didn’t use the point. They came up right behind us, they blew through hyperspace. Farideh, this is ***. We need to get out.”
   Farideh tries desperately to wrap her head around everything, but it’s not working. She can see the Superior doused over with concern, and Sunderland on his private little chat with his Leto going crazy next to the Cardinal who just sits there, shackled and gagged. The Cardinal’s eyes are more telling than his open mouth would be. He’s telling her - you will pay.
   “There’s a *** cruiser in the system. Is this your *** doing, Farideh?” The Superior pulls her out of her own inner hell.
   “How the *** would I push a *** cruiser through? You have the point locked down!”
   “My men tell me they didn’t use the *** point. What the *** is going on here?”
   All of their comms break down at the same moment. Radio silence. Not a peep, except for the alarm inside the freighter.
   Then the message comes through the comms, distorted at first, wild a bit later, and then a spine-chilling cold demand.
   “We want the Cardinal.”


   Time and space distort at first, congeal into themselves, fall apart like a mirror, crack and hum as they bend around each other, and finally break open and implode. A blinding flash erupts, and a second later, when Leto squints his eyes open, a cruiser of unknown design is right there. Right there inside the sector they so meticulously fenced off, guarded and patrolled. The hyperspoince point far in the distance, and the cruiser close enough for Leto to smell the exhaust fumes. Authority patrol still at the jump point. No one the wiser.
   At least not until the cruiser starts firing.
   Pulse blasts shoot from the forward cannons and dissipate against the freighter’s shield. Leto recognizes a warning shot, and then the following consecutive warning shots while the comms are turned on and the chatter starts. Leto mutes the rest and focuses on Sunderland.
   “Tell me the Authority didn’t *** us?” Not so much a question as much as a premonition. But Leto can’t confirm it.
   “It is a cruiser of unknown design. Considering it is firing on the freighter with the Superior inside I highly doubt it is an Authority prototype.” The cruiser itself is slick, angular, with a sharp nose, clean lines, barely exposed upper deck, unmanned turrets that protrude from the hull, small and hard to hit, probably a proximity shield that’s hard to puncture and even harder to dissipate from the outside. With the firepower he has available it is unlikely he could break through the shield with any ease. Leto judges the only weak spot to be the rear thrusters, which are wide and tough. The entire cruiser looks like a spearhead. It is undoubtedly quick, agile even for its size, and Leto can’t help but wonder if it is carrying smaller crafts and manned skiffs. He has to take everything into consideration if he is to engage. Judging by the continued fire on the freighter, he might just have to, and soon.
   “How did it *** get past the patrols?”
   “It didn’t come in through the point. It burst through hyperspace and came up behind us. Demir, I have heard of this. This is pre-C technology, highly volatile and dangerous.” Leto swallows his own words, the images of his fellow Immortals assembled to hear the words of their peer Hephestus.
   The comms are then cut off, just like Leto’s recollections.
   “We want the Cardinal,” a half-human-half-mechanical voice beckons them all. “Usher him into the escape pod, and we will leave the freighter intact. Once he is on board you will be given access to the hyperspace jump point. Resist, and you will be slaughtered. We are the Sons of Hephestus, and such is our decree.”
   Leto feels a surge of anger like he hasn’t felt since the days he piloted his ship against the Khromnian uprising, since he flew to the Outer Reaches, since he quelled Magnolia-Tarsia dispute, and let alone since he faced the AIs.
   Leto III, Grand-Master of War, punches in the override codes for Baby, and engages the weapons system. He flies straight for the cruiser.


   Siona can’t really believe her eyes. Not just that the *** cruiser comes out of nowhere. Then the fact that she can’t explain *** to Farideh before the comms are cut off. Next thing is the voice - skies be damned, that mechanical voice - that tells them they want the *** Cardinal. And now, above all that ***, the *** that tops it all off, the Leto is hightailing it into the *** cruiser. All of her people are cut off. There’s no way to issue orders, to assume formations, or to formulate a plan. Farideh is alone, while Farideh and those *** bastards are inside that drifting coffin. The *** in the cruiser want the Cardinal, and Siona would bet her Cain on the fact that Farideh will not hand him over lightly. The entire situation is ***, and Siona is struck dumb, stuck in place like a statue. Neither she nor her Cain are moving, and she’s just watching the cruiser shoot at the mothballed freighter.
   But above all that, above everything else, she’s stuck watching the Leto bolt it into the *** cruiser like a maniac.
   Siona shakes it off, plunges the overdrive capacitor into the control panel, and engages all weapons systems. She starts the proximity comm protocol, and if she can pinpoint any frequency close by she can open a private channel. Choppy transmission, wavey voice reconstruction, and it hurts her ears worse than an ESP burst. But she has someone she wants to talk to.
   Siona bolts it into the *** cruiser.


   “We give them the Cardinal, and they’ll blow us to the Outer Reaches. You know that as well as I do,” Farideh tries to take control of the situation. Superior Auburn on one side wants to hand the Cardinal over as quickly as possible, and be out of this system and behind his cushy desk. On the other side is Demir-***-Sunderland who wants our forces to combine and form a protective barrier between the freighter and the cruiser; without comms no less. And then there’s Farideh, who just wants to *** wait for a second and start negotiations. “They won’t blow the freighter with the Cardinal here. We give that away and we lose our only bargaining chip.”
   “Didn’t you hear them?” The Superior states the obvious, clearly afraid since he’s not in control.
   “Everyone heard them, Superior. That’s not the issue. The issue is that I don’t believe them.”
   “Who even are these ***? Sons of Hephestus, what is it with the *** names already,” Sunderland asks a valid question, and murmurs the second part mostly to himself. Farideh takes a look at the Cardinal, his eyes still speaking of payment that will be made.
   “I have no *** clue. That’s the issue here. We can’t properly assess the danger, since we have no idea what the danger actually is.” And that’s where the Superior’s fear lies - the unknown. “They burst in here without using the point and with a full *** cruiser, no less. I say we give into their demands, and hope they honor their word.”
   “Give into their demands, and *** hope they honor their *** word!” Farideh is all but at the edge of her composure.
   “Let’s all take a step back and maybe we ask the person who obviously knows more than we do. How about we ungag the Cardinal?” Sunderland’s idea puts Farideh back on track, just like a cold shower.
   Farideh begrudgingly removes the Cardinal’s gag, half expecting him to curse her until the skies fall down, half hoping he would tell them everything because if there’s anything the Cardinal loves in this Universe, it’s himself. “Give me a good reason and this won’t go back in your mouth,” she lets the old man know just where he stands.
   “I believe you should listen to the Superior,” the Cardinal’s voice booms over the muffled sound of the alarm. It’s wasting what little power it has to function, and soon the only noise left will be that of the barrage from the cruiser, and the damned flickering red light.
   “Of course you would believe that. You would also promise us these Sons of Hephestus won’t shoot us down once we hand you over. What is man without his word, after all?” Farideh refrains from kicking the Cardinal in the teeth.
   “You played your hands, all of you. The cards are on the table, and my hand is better than yours. You see…” The Cardinal stands up, his hands still shackled in front of him, so he has to awkwardly push himself and grind up the wall he’s leaned on. “My flock have known I would be leaving them for a while now. Inserting yourself into my operation is only worth the credits you are ready to dish out, and not your armed forces. You will find all my bases empty, and me people all about, like a good flock, a free flock. Some will follow in my footsteps, and others won’t. I have given them free will. All the operatives you have at the ready will get you only as much as my people are ready to give. As soon as I disappear, the Syndicate will know, and my flock will be free to do as they see fit. Stay, leave, be beholden to the Church, beholden to Earth, or let yourself loose upon the Galaxy. Since the Authority has so kindly supplied the Sons of Hephestus with arms, they are finally ready to come out of the shadows.” Superior Auburn turns white as a rag. “Oh yes, I funneled all that nice gear you shelled out for my operation straight to them through the Syndicate, playing both sides. While I have to admit that your little double-cross and the putrid existence of Demir Sunderland have put a wrench in my original plan to nuke you all into oblivion once we made contact with the COM, I am still on track.” The Cardinal lifts his shackled hands. The cuffs light up red, and then green before they fall to the ground. “Do all you want with the Syndicate, but even after I’m gone they will still find a way to flourish. Such is the nature of roaches. The Authority will be blamed for all the carnage the Sons will wreak across the Galaxy, once the arms are traced back to their owners. Trafalgar will still be the number one suspect in the Melkior incident. And Demir Sunderland will still be without a single ally in all the *** Galaxy. So you can take my word for it - I won’t kill you. I have no reason to, or need for it. You have played your hand, and you have lost.”
   Farideh is choking, like she’s been vented. The Superior is dazed, his soul shattered from his complete lack of control over the situation. It’s all vacuum, more vast, lonely, and darker than space. Farideh wishes the skies would fall down.
   She also wishes Sunderland would *** stop looking out the port window and do his best to grasp the situation and maybe think of a way out. “I think we still have two cards to play, Cardinal. Better yet, they’re being played right now.” Sunderland smiles while gazing out the window with a glint in his eye, like he’s watching himself being saved. “While you were prattling on about how we lost, you didn’t take time to look out the window.”


   Leto throttles Baby up the curves of the port side of the cruiser. Turrets pup up one after the other while he rides the frequency of the shield all the way to the stern, engages the uranium-coated front turrets, and blasts at the massive thrusters. Shields hold up, and his assault is just an inconvenience. The slick cruiser engages side thrusters to outmaneuver him, and the stern slides away, the entire ship rolls starboard side and the turrets can engage him again. Leto punches the throttle, pumps up the grav and sucks Baby on top of the shield, almost clawing his way as close to the ship as possible. Grav waves and electricity arks spark in between the skiff and the cruiser. Turrets have to disengage before they hit each other.
   That’s when Leto has a chance to fight back. When a turret flips its cannons up and starts to disengage Leto douses them with shells. He rips through the turrets. But Baby is having trouble maintaining momentum this close to the shield. Leto’s losing thrust, and he has to disengage before he gets caught between the crossfire he can’t dodge at such a low speed.
   Bottom thrusters burst Baby away from the shield-slide and Leto is off careening up the port side and to the upper deck. Main cannons are already on him as soon as he’s in view. Unlike the turrets, which have to pop out the shields, cannons have independent shield units for their own defense.
   The main cannons lock on. Rockets come at Baby from all directions. Leto brushes off three and nosedives as close to the cruiser as possible to offset their targeting. He threads his way in between the cannons, linking his slides with twists and jukes, but there are still rockets on him. Leto bounces off a quick barrel-roll and careens upwards into a summersault. Baby can take the grav, and he can too, but the rockets can’t and he gets rid of two. Still more on him.
   Leto has to do a one-eighty, duck between them and hopefully lose them in the next set of rockets that are being loaded. Cause them all to burst into each other, get jammed, or just fly off into the nothingness of the skies without a target or motive.
   The alarm of the lock-on still blaring, Leto doubles the side-thrusters and prepares to slide into the one-eighty. Explosions behind Leto catch him off guard, but that welcome kind of being off guard.
   The Cain bursts in between the rocket barrage, douses the locked-on pursuit with shells, and then dips low to hammer and pelt the cannons with grenades. Leto’s comms flare up, static bustling and growing into a voice.
   “Come on, come on, skies be damned,” Leto can make out the gruff cursing of Siona.
   “Siona, I have you on proximity.”
   “We need to stall the cruiser while Farideh and Demir make it out of there.”
   “What if they let the Cardinal go and stay inside the freighter?”
   “We both know that is never going to happen.”
   “True enough. Are you ready for a real MOS run, Leto?” Siona of the Skies says that with a tone of challenge in her voice.
   Leto can almost feel the smirk on Siona’s Face. “Are you?”


   “Why is it that everywhere you show up, everything turns to *** ***?” The Cardinal snarls, spittle cascading in front of him like rain.
   “You wouldn’t believe how often I’ve asked myself that.” Sunderland even chuckles.
   “No matter. This will be your grave either way.”
   First she sees the Cardinal. Then Farideh just sees the flaps of his robe. Then nothing. A sickly crack, wicked and lean, just like a vase breaking but less pompous, less drastic, punctures the silent space. Farideh then sees the Superior on the floor, and the place where his head used to be is now a mash of pulp, brain matter, and boney gore. The Cardinal is standing over him. Remnants of the Superior on his robe.
   “Run,” she tells Sunderland in a grim hush, and pulls him along. “To the bridge. Now!” The hush turns into an order.
   Both of them are out of the hangar with the Cardinal at their heels. Farideh closes the door and overrides the safety. They’ll find a *** way to crack it, just like the cuffs. But it should buy them enough time. Siona and Leto should buy them a way out. All they need to do is stay alive until then. Or face the problem head on. Farideh isn’t sure about much any more.
   Farideh and Demir make their way down the corridor through the crew quarters, then take the right through the mess, and finally to the elevator that leads to the bridge. Doors close and the safeties engage behind them. The way blocked all the way to the elevator that brings them up to the bridge. Farideh is on the console as soon as they’re up. There’s no way that will hold. She thinks to herself, deadly aware of the fact of what she has to do. “I can initiate the evac protocols and enable the escape pods. Siona and Leto are keeping the cruiser busy. The Authority is retreating. Even without comms they have a life beacon on the Superior. No use waiting around for a dead body.” Farideh fingers the underside of the main console, all the while keeping her eyes on the main deck window. What I have to do. In the distance it looks like two mosquitos wildly darting about a warthog that is desperately trying to squash them. Her fingers finally find what she is looking for. Farideh takes out the blaster. “Sunderland, you go ahead. I need to chat with the Cardinal.” She sets the blaster to shred, and cocks the first load.
   “Are you insane? You saw what he did to the Superior. He’s stimmed up on something, or he has enhancements up the ass. Modded to the teeth. How did your scanners not pick that up?” Sunderland’s twitching around, like a frightened gooblerat. All the while Siona and the Leto are taking on a full-blown cruiser outside. Seems like pilots are only brave in their ships.
   “We don’t even know how those Sons-of-whatever made it here without using the jump point. You think I know how the Cardinal’s mods didn’t get picked up by my scanners? Don’t be stupid, Sunderland. Just go.”
   “He’s going to kill you.” A pang of genuine concern in his voice.
   “He might, but I have the element of surprise. I need to see his face before I leave.”
   “Then pride is going to get you killed.”
   “Just go already. Take the emergency stairs. The Cardinal will be coming up the elevator.” Sunderland nods respectfully, what he thinks might be the last time, and then he’s out of sight and down the stairs.
   Farideh clips the blaster to the small of her back, turns away from the window, and waits for the Cardinal. Her heart starts pumping as hard as a rave in the Trafalgar entertainment district. She blinks sweat from her eyes, and traces her fingers over the hilt of the blaster one more time before the elevator comes up.
   “I didn’t expect to find you here, Ms. Farideh.” The Cardinal enters the bridge, cutting a more imposing figure than usual. His eyes wilder and wider, with a reddish hue that matches the blood splatter on his gown. His shoulders seem broader, and his pace is like the boom of a drum. Each step forward an announcement of violence. “Wouldn’t you consider that, shall we say, unwise?” His voice sounds like extruding gravel, like every word he says hurts. Farideh knows she doesn’t have the time or the means to act this out with any drama or pomp. She takes out the blaster, sets it to full charge, and points it at the Cardinal’s head. The older man stops in his tracks. “Are you certain I won’t dodge the shot?” he asks her through a vicious grin.
   “It’s a shrapnel-blaster set to full. Something will land, and I’m quick enough to reload for the rest to land too. I’m certain of that.” The nozzle of the blaster doesn’t even twitch, despite the burn in Farideh’s arm. She can keep this up all day, and she’s not lying when she says that something will land. The Cardinal wouldn’t be the first person she’s shot. He’s not the only one to walk his path over the bodies of the damned.
   “Well then, do it. What are you waiting for?” The Cardinal takes one step closer, outstretches his arms, and beckons the shot. “Are you afraid, Ms. Farideh? Oh yes, you are.” His snarl becomes feral, pointed and precise. Malice seeping in between his teeth. “You’re still that little girl in the brothel. Living every day in fear that they might look past your horse face and your manly body, and see you for what you are - meat. That your *** is still a ***, and *** can be sold. Put a sack over your head, put a dress over those broad shoulders, small hips and tiny legs. Cover everything up and just sell you because you’re nothing but meat. And so you live now as you did back then - in fear. Constant fear that one day what you are, who you are, will not be enough and you will get sold. *** by the world, *** by the men you so utterly despise. That is why you own, that is why you take, and that is why you’re afraid. Because you’re still that little girl just doing her best to protect the only thing that they still haven’t taken - your *** ***. So *** shoot me. Shoot another man who is here to take from you. You have the upper hand now. You said so much yourself. Now *** shoot me.”
   Farideh’s heart beats slower, her breath is steady, her arm still taut and her aim true. She puts down the gun, and places it on the control panel.
   Without a word Farideh passes the Cardinal and takes the elevator down.
   She makes her way to the escape pods, and finds all of them still docked. “What the ***?”
   Something smashes against her head and Farideh tumbles down in a daze, writhing on the floor, the world all in blacks and blues. “I’ll take that,” she hears. Once her vision comes to she sees Sunderland standing over her. He has the case with the nukes in his hand. All this time Farideh didn’t even notice that she was carrying them, never letting go, like a warmongrel with a prize. “I couldn’t very well ask you for this, but I do need it.”
   “Sunderland, what the *** are you doing?” Farideh can barely focus on the words from the ache in her head. She feels the ship jolt, but she’s not sure it’s not just her stifling legs.
   “Looks like the Cardinal turned off the shield. The freighter will be harpooned to the cruiser soon. I’ve been keeping an eye out on the battle outside, and I have to admit Leto and Siona are doing an amazing job.” The airlock of Farideh’s escape pod closes. “Better get out quick, before they harpoon you in too. Thanks for the nukes.”
   Sunderland disappears and Farideh is left alone in the escape pod. She can hear the neighboring pod initiating launch, and the MOS is off the ship. With the ache still in her head, and her vision slightly blurred, Farideh starts her own launch sequence.
   I’ve been *** enough for one day.


   “Siona, we need a front and follow,” Leto gives the command.
   “What’s the target?”
   “You be the front, and I will follow. I need you to blast open a rift in the shield and do a one-eighty from the tip of the ship to the thrusters. Stick close to me, and on my command open another rift. Got it?”
   “You’re a crazy man, Leto. But I like it. I got you. Bow to stern, full rip.”
   Leto takes the low path in between the cannons so Siona can get into a good position to aim her rockets. She does well by flying out of range of the lock-on, so the canons will focus on Leto. He has to dip and weave his way through both plasma turrets and the canons, since the cruiser engaged all defenses because both MOS skiffs were presumably driving the gunners insane. Leto cuts his way in between them, gets some shots off just to tickle the defenses, but saves most of his ammo for the final assault. He can see Siona on his radar, a blip in the radar sphere, and how she moves out and in quickly enough that he can cut his way to the bow.
   The Cain lets two rockets loose inside the gunner turrets’ blind spot, and Leto is on it like grav sickness. Baby ducks between the barrage and moves under the shield, Leto cranks the grav and sets it to mitigation. He’s like a scarab in between skin and flesh, tearing his way down the underbelly of the cruiser. Leto threads Baby in between the popping turrets that can’t aim for him under the shield, and the cruiser command won’t risk lowering the shield lest they open themselves up to the full force of the Trafalgar skiff fleet. Siona has trained her men well enough to know when not to interfere, and when to take their chance. Grav pressure and metal against shield creak and crack all around him while he keeps Baby tightly in between the two. A twitch or two and he’ll crash.
   Leto can see Siona taking on her role as the forward, and then he knows he can let loose. He turns Baby upside-down, opens the hatch, and lets loose the only clip of bombs and rockets Baby has on board. Explosions erupt in his wake, at point-blank range. Thrusters are on full blast, and only fire and debris cut a swath as Leto makes his way to the stern thrusters. He slides the skiff to a full halt, angles the nose upwards, and empties the rest of the uranium-coated shells straight into the thrusters.
   “Now,” he calls out to Siona, and she launches her rockets again. The shield breaks and Leto’s out. The cruiser loses air, and tumbles before emergency thrusters stabilize it.
   Leto’s proximity comms glitch out. He can hear a voice, almost like it’s a distant apparition in the static. “Leto, Leto,” he can make out. “Escape, es… cape… es…” Leto checks the radar but finds nothing. Siona is still running loops around the cruiser, but Leto can see it changing course, moving ever so slightly instead of keeping the position secure. “Le… Le… Escape…” He hears over the comms. Leto sets the radar to infra and there it is. A dot in the distance, blinking. One person.
   An escape pod.
   Leto turns Baby around, disengages from combat, and heads to pick up Demir in the escape pod. Behind him the cruiser shifts and lowers the offensive turrets, and engages full defensive maneuvers. Another blinking light on the radar shows another pod. In the rear-view monitor Leto can see the cruiser making way towards the freighter, cannons and turrets lowered, harpoons out. Siona and her men are cutting their own swath towards the other pod.
   Leto harpoons Demir’s pod and bolts it for the jump point. They are out and in hyperspace before the Trafalgar forces. Leto turns the transponder off, and opens his comms to a familiar frequency, saved in Baby’s memory.
   Once he gets a bead on her skiff Leto sends Siona her override codes.
   “Demir, where do we go from here?”
   “Just take us somewhere where I can get out of this *** pod. And Leto, one more thing,” a pause, “I *** told you so.”
   Leto sets course for the nearest uninhabited nebula. Farther than that, how and where, he has no idea. He only hopes Demir might have one or two, besides his gut this time.

Chapter 38: AROUND THE WAY
THEY LANDED ON THE SWAMP planet of Anudorah a day after the Sons of Hephestus put all their hard work to the pyre. Leto had been wracking his brain in the hold of Demir’s skiff. No matter how much he mulled over every angle, Leto always came back to the same main question - is Hephestus alive? Is there another Immortal out there in the Galaxy? Is she truly behind this insanity?
   Leto had time to think and reminisce while in the hold. The image of that first gathering of the Reign, when Hephestus proposed her wild machinations. Human-machine hybridity, instead of AI. Trans-humanism to the point where mods, grafts, enhancements and stims would become a matter of the past. Instead we would expand synchronicity, and achieve complete fusion with the machine. We could survive hyperspace jumps without the gates. We could work tirelessly. War would be a thing of the past. AI would never overshadow us, as Hephestus always claimed it would. To an artificial intelligence, when advanced enough, the chaos of mankind is a threat to existence itself, perfect as it envisions it. Those were her predictions, which wnet widely disregarded. What was most important about her proposal was that we would all be immortal, if her grad design was put forward. Leto expected the Reign to not just scoff at the idea, but to strip Hephestus of her title. They did the former, but she escaped the latter and went into exile. The Reign never went after her, despite her negligence to appear before the council at repeat instances. It was too much of a hassle for them to find her system and strip her of her title, than it was to just let her be insane somewhere far from them. The Reign had already become complacent then, and AI research was in full swing. If she is truly fostering the Sons, then the Galaxy is in much worse shape than Leto had originally feared.
   When Demir had docked his skiff and Leto was waking about again, following the MOS around a hovel-township deep in the swamp, he still had little to say and much to think about.
   “We need to go see Fromaroundtheway,” Demir tells him. “She’ll give us safe haven for some good info. But getting to her damned hovel is such a hassle.” The words pass through Leto. “I mean, she’s a high-ranking information dealer. She could make the trip easier. You know she also sits on a major Quyah deposit?” Leto grumbles something in return. “Yeah, the land has been in her family for eons, before they even discovered that Quyah can be used in metallurgy. She lets companies mine on her property and in return she also gets info from the miners. They come from all over the Galaxy to mine the stuff here. It’s amazingly toxic, and the pay’s legendary. When the miners leave they earn their keep, maybe get another contract sooner rather than later, if they pass on some info to Aroundtheway. Miners see some ***, I tell you. Aroundtheway expands on that info, trades it along, and her route stays grassroots. No miner would ever rat on her. But still, she could make the trip to that damned hovel a bit easier.” Demir turns around and does his best to grab Leto by the shoulders. “Are you even here?”
   “I apologize, Demir.”
   “Don’t apologize, just be here. It’s a setback, trust me. I have some ideas.”
   At first Leto hoped to hear the word idea coming from Demir. Then he remembers that it was his ideas that got them to this junction of culminating failure in the first place. “Pardon my lack of excitement for your ideas as of recently.”
   Demir whistles. “Good one. Granted, granted. But you want to know the upside to that colossal failure?” he asks through an almost childlike smile.
   “Pardon me, if I fail to see any silver lining in this situation.”
   “That’s because you’re used to winning.” Demir’s jubilar tone feels almost off-putting to Leto. It honestly makes him want to smack the MOS. A quick upside swing to get him back on track. “From failure sometimes the best new ideas come to fruition.” Demir turns around and continues his way through the messy thoroughfare, going someplace he didn’t tell Leto about. So all he can do is follow.
   “You won’t disclose this inspired idea?”
   “No,” Demir just brushes him off.
   They make their way in between huddled masses of miners getting up for a shift, or coming back from one, covered in grime to the bones. Demir leads them to a small harbor with hovecrafts. He approaches one of the pilots with a level of familiarity. “We got the skinny for Aroundtheway. Righteous dibs. Make it worth her timings.” The level of patois Demir can switch to in his Common sometimes astounds Leto.
   The pilot nods through a concentrated frown. “Well tidings you brought so far. Aroundtheway appreciate you. I ring in the call, see what she say.” The pilot turns away and tends to his call.
   “I’ve known Fromaroundtheway for years. We’re on good terms. Probably one of the few I have in the *** Galaxy. She’ll do me a solid. And the info we sell her will give us a chance to start from here.”
   “Aroundtheway will be seeing you.” The pilot motions to Demir. “But only you,” and he shows Leto to stop.
   “We both go, or skinny go too.”
   The pilot murmurs something into his chin. “She say you better make it worth her hearing.”
   “Solid as usual.”
   They are then ushered into the hovercraft. The cockpit glass comes down, and it is a full open view panel. The pilot takes his seat at the back of the craft, operating an ancient back-burner design. Once the grav kicks in they are above the swamp, and lightly cruising through the muck and tree marrow percolating in the waters. No one speaks a word during the trip. Demir still deep in his self-satisfied inner machinations. Leto tries to take in the scenery, but it is not one worth taking in. Everything in shades of brown and dead. The pilot sticks to piloting, thankfully not trying to be friendly when it is not required.
   In silence they arrive at a run-down hovel deep in the woods of the swamp, in a cul-de-sac of sorts. From the hovel extends a short pier. The pilot wishes them a fruitful meeting in his colorful patois, and is off into the swamp again. Demir shows Leto the way down the pier and through a moldy, ragged piece of cloth hanging over what should be a door.
   “Demir, my boy, let me look at you.” A woman of formidable size embraces Demir in her massive arms. “You haven’t been eating right. I can tell. I could snap you like a twig.” And she most assuredly could. “And who’s this?” The woman looks Leto over with a discerning look hidden behind her plump eyelids and gorged sacks under her eyes. “Top class Leto, I must say. Looks like you have taste in other things besides those dreadful MOS skiffs. Sit outside, and I’ll be right there with some stew. Go on.” The woman waves them out through another rag and they sit down at a small table on the terrace overlooking the vast stretches of cut-down swamp. In the distance machinery dots the horizon like insects. Cockpits mounted to long, stinger-like legs that move with spider-like precision over the carcass of the land. Driving their stingers into the soil, extracting the precious Quyah and siphoning it through tendrils that course all the way to the mining station in the farthest murky distance. In the silence of the terrace the scene is almost serene in its own way.
   “The stew is good. I can vouch for that.” Leto continues immersing himself in a view that entrances him unlike the rest of the swamp. Disregarding Demir in this time of tranquility. “You know why they call her Fromaroundtheway?” Demir continues. “Of course you don’t. Well, when she started peddling info, if anyone would ask her where she got it from, she’d say from around the way. The nickname stuck.”
   Leto gets pulled out of his scenic meditation. “And that is all? The entire story.”
   “Stories don’t have to be long, to be good. All that matters is the point.” Leto becomes more concerned with Demir the more this wild demeanor of his persists. He wouldn’t judge the MOS mad, but he also finds it quite difficult to discern his complete state of mind as of yet.
   Fromaroundtheway walks out of her hovel two large bowls or steaming stew. Luscious smells and vapors coil their way upwards. “Here you go. Dig in, boys.”
   Demir unabashedly starts wolfing his stew down. Leto takes his in carefully, seeing as Demir isn’t known for his culinary palette. To his astonishment the stew is spectacular, and Leto soon joins Demir in bestial devouring. Fromaroundtheway takes a chair and sits down at their table. Demir sighs delightfully once he’s done, and Leto sets his bowl aside with a bit more tact.
   “Now that you’re both fed, I’m going to be needing that skinny. What’s my trade for it?” Fromaroundtheway keeps her warm, motherly tone of voice even when conducting business.
   “We need safe haven here, and access to your comm-center.”
   Fromaroundtheway nods to herself. “Not too big of an ask. Sure, just make it worth my while.”
   “Superior Auburn is dead. You get it first. Authority won’t be announcing yet, and the only other people who know won’t be acting on it quick. Exclusive skinny.”
   “That confirmed?”
   “Saw him die myself.”
   Fromaroundtheway chuckles. “Who did him in? And who’s the other party that knows?”
   “Some new force. Can’t tell you a lot about them, but keep your ears and eyes out for the Sons of Hephestus. They ambushed a meeting between the Superior, Farideh the Free, and me. Won’t tell you anything about the meeting though. Lips sealed on the why.”
   “Anything on who leads these Sons of Hephestus? What’s their deal? Who or what do they hate?” Fromaroundtheway makes a chilling point that Leto finds hard to come to terms with. That seemingly everything, or at least too much, in the Galaxy now operates in spite of something, and not for something. Division, strife, hatred and evil-minded competition are the norm.
   “I don’t know if he leads them, but they seem to be running circles for the Cardinal now. He’s blown, switched from that EN *** to something far more dangerous. He did the Superior in. Still don’t know what they want, or who they hate. That’s why you and yours have to hop on that.”
   “So the Cardinal finally popped his lid.” Fromaroundtheway harrumphs almost like a hiccup.
   “I believe he’s more dangerous than ever,” Leto chimes in despite his initial intent to keep that silent. His contemplation seeps out of its own will.
   “He’s always been dangerous. That coming from you, I’ll be sure to keep an even closer eye on him now. Well,” and Fromaroundtheway smacks her thighs, stands up and stretches her back. “You got yourselves a place to stay. Demir, you know the way. Pick out your rooms and the comms are yours. I have some work to do.”
   Demir thanks her and ushers Leto into the hovel, shows him to a small trap door and opens it. They go down a ladder and make it to an underground facility that reminds Leto heavily of an army bunker. A large corridor stretches into the gray distance, and at the end is a large double-door. On either side of the corridor small open entranceways are interspersed with closed doors. Leto knows the open ones to be common areas, or kitchens, and the shut doors are private rooms.
   “Pick a room. Just put in a code and it’ll pop out a keycard for you. I’ll be in the comm-center if you need me.”
   Leto picks a random room, and lets Demir go about the business he seems so eager to start. He can have his ideas, and Leto can have his meditation. All he might need now is a bit of peace and quiet.

Chapter 39: WINTER ***
THERE HAVE BEEN FAR TOO many meetings in the past months, let alone the week. And here they are again. Siona, Mutemba, Salvatore, and Farideh. Again in her office. Again looking at the sphincter of lady luck open wide and *** all over them.
   Mutemba has his own ideas about taking over the Syndicate for ourselves. With the operatives he has in place, and Salvatore’s forces, it’s an actual possibility. Although they would lose a lot of traction without Sunderland’s connections. Farideh has no idea what that thorn in her side is going to do with those nukes. So she’s not too keen on betting anything concrete on a play involving Demir-***-Sunderland. Siona, on the other hand, wants to kill them all. Send her and her pack out to start tearing through everything and everyone until they get a bead on the Sons. While her brutal ways may be an option Farideh avoids most often, in this case she has a straight fancy for the idea.
   Neither play is the best one, though.
   “We shut Trafalgar down tighter than a winter ***. And the suggestion box is closed on that. I want all our contracts cut, we take the financial loss. All our resources we pool into fleet production. Mutemba, you keep working on info. I want everything on the Sons, preferably in real-time. Their movements, targets, manifestos; I want to smell the Cardinal in this room twenty-four-seven. Salvatore, you secure the sector. Regular patrols throughout the sector, a total reach-around. Same as with the info, twenty-four-seven.”
   “Ms. Farideh,” Mutemba cuts her off cautiously, apologetically. “That will burn through our finances. Without our contracts or any trade, we have no way of reinforcing our capital, let alone the spending.”
   “You’re completely right. We will burn through our entire capital. Every last credit of it.” Mutemba sits quietly aghast, while Salvatore has his worry-face on, and Siona on the far side just waiting to hear her part in this. She’s the only one who doesn’t even get paid. “While we’re reinforcing our navy, and keeping an eye out for the Sons, Siona will be leading her pack to scavenge.” Siona’s face lights up. “The Sons won’t keep a low profile, that’s certain. They’ll probably take credit for icing the Superior. The way they just came into that pile of asteroids. Not through the jump point. Anything harvested off of them will be worth a hefty sum on the black market. We stockpile. The info gets us their routes and targets, and Siona will be there waiting with her pack. A scrap of sheet from their ships, and I want it. The cog in the mechanism of their turrets, and I want it. Anything and everything that flies off their ships, and I want it. We monopolize the entire trade on the Sons. Any competition, MOS or otherwise, we wipe it out. Better ships for the pack, better ships for the defenses. Better flyboys from the academy. The best train the new best. And when the Galaxy starts getting that itch for the Sons’ tech, we swoop in. Stock the capital with some investment potential, ally ourselves with the winning parties, and resume business with ramped up prices. High risk, high reward. Now, this is the one and only time I will take any suggestions.” Farideh looks around the room. Approving faces let her know. “Good. Now see yourselves out. I need time alone.”
   Mutemba and Salvatore make their way out, but Siona stays behind.
   “What is it, Siona?” Farideh immediately starts with the motherly tone, clearly irked and fresh out of capacity for any more banter.
   “Nothing, everything’s good. But there is one thing I think you should know.” Siona pauses.
   “Fine, fine, I can take it.”
   “That Leto,” and another pause. “No other way to say it. He’s either some kind of experiment or something. Some kind of tech *** I don’t understand. A way to try and replicate the original Leto. Or he’s the real *** Leto.” Another pause.
   “Spill it out, woman. Use your words and stop grumbling. It doesn’t suit you. We’ve seen enough crazy *** in the past week to justify any batshit idea you might have. Spill it out.” Farideh has had enough of everything up to her eyeballs. Hearing Siona out in all honesty is surprisingly exactly what she needs. A good dose of something insane, just like how she feels right now.
   “I’ve never seen someone fly like that. It’s not even his skiff. He worked that Sunderland rig like it was custom. I could barely keep up with him. Now, I haven’t lost my edge.” She has to save face. “But either I have to start training, and bring my numbers up, or that Leto is somehow the genuine *** article. He’s no protege, we would’ve heard about that. They don’t just fall out the sky without a MOS hearing about some stiff new competition. I’m telling you Farideh, there’s something up with that Leto.”
   Farideh takes a deep breath and exhales as loudly as she can. It feels like a soothing exercise. Like she just blew out her demons. “I know. Or at least I suspect the same thing. I’ve had my eye on him since he first strolled in here. He was way too confident. Even when we talked in the Tombs. Or in the car. I could never quite place it, why he worried me so much. He’s just too much Leto. He’s too perfect for the role. I thought it was grand delusion at first, or something similar. Probably some kind of military job. Maybe deep hypnosis. But now that you can vouch for his flight capabilities, I’m starting to think we might have a *** Galaxy-wide bomb on our hands.”
   “He sent me my override codes back as soon as he entered hyperspace. Didn’t keep them even a second longer than the contract lasted.”
   “We know he’s honorable. Can’t say that about a lot of people in the Galaxy. We’re on good terms with both Sunderland and the Leto. I can forgive the *** for clocking me over the head. Hell, I can even appreciate it as a move. Either the Cardinal disposes of me and he bolts. Or I come out and he takes the nukes. Keep an eye out for Sunderland doing MOS runs. Get in touch if he pops up. We might have an ally there.”
   Siona leans on her thighs, blows a hefty sigh, and stands up. “Glad to know I’m not the only one who’s insane. Have a good night, boss.” She leaves the office and Farideh is alone again.
   This is the time she keeps for herself. This is the time when she is one hundred percent in control. Of her own thoughts, of her empire, of her sanity. She also has time to think about what she’s going to do to the Cardinal once she gets a hold of him. Once she breaks him in open combat, on the battlefield, and not on some freighter in the middle of nowhere.

Chapter 40: MANIFEST
“THE SONS ARE ON A rampage. They have this full manifesto out. Something about the merging of man and machine.” Demir finally starts telling Leto what he knows after weeks of walling himself off in the comm-center. “Auburn’s been replaced by Svyla Torkk, the ***-Queen herself. She’s been gunning for that job for decades. And she’s tougher and meaner than Auburn. Torkk already declared the Sons terrorist organization number one. Even the COM are in the fight, calling them an act against god, or some ***.” Leto listens to how the Galaxy is going to ***, courtesy of Demir’s expressive delivery. “The Sons, meanwhile, have launched full-scale assaults on every major tech company. Xing-tech, Hanzo, Charkul, Drakk-web chains, and even the Syndicate and PROTECs. They’re jumping all over the Galaxy. Call their tech transverse jumping. No need for jump points, and from what I heard they can fight in hyperspace. A lot of big-tech is going to get screwed.”
   “I never thought I would say this, but can we move along to your plan?”
   “My plan is your plan.”
   “I’m tired, Demir. Tired. Just tell me.”
   “You can’t know what I’m doing, or else you’ll never leave. And you need to go.”
   “Don’t play games with me, I told you I’m not in the mood.”
   “I don’t give a *** about your mood, Leto. We went about this all wrong. We tried to shoehorn you into my world, and we got jack-*** for it. We don’t repeat mistakes. On the ground you’re just another man wearing a better man’s face. You’re not Leto down here, you’re a Leto. But out there, in the skies, you’re the Leto. You need to fly. And you need to take this.” Demir hands Leto the case with the nukes. “Six nukes will give you plenty of capital to build yourself a skiff. Any respectable chop-shops will be just enough for a decent start.”
   “We can’t risk that, Demir. You know that. What if something happens to you?” Leto has to admit he has also grown somewhat fond of Demir. He doesn’t want to see the man hurt. Leto did drag him into this, and continues to do so. Still the MOS is here, undeterred by failure.
   “Once we part ways I’ll set up a data dump. I’ll put it where we first met. Emergency signal connected to my heart. Also a regular daily update. Pulse from Beby. Hell, even an escape protocol for Baby if something happens to me. You don’t receive any of those, or well, you do receive any of those, and you’ll know where to find the coordinates to your sector. In the meantime, I have buyers for the nukes lined up, and a selection of chop-shops. Leto, you need to know that I’ve never been so clearheaded in my *** life. You need to get out there and start flying. Start the legend. But most importantly you need some backing. You need to contract your service, finance the initial push, and then the legend will tell itself. Tell me it’s not a good idea.” Demir outstretches his arms, and looks Lto square in the eyes.
   Leto then knows.
   “Who do you have in mind as a benefactor?” Leto gives in. He sees it in Demir’s eyes - he is certain this will work.
   “Just the right people,” Demir tells him.

Chapter 41: SYNDICATE
IT DOESN’T OCCUR THAT often that you get to see New Hiroshima from the penthouse of the Saotomi Headquarters. The entire place is decorated with an eastern EN twist, all in reds and golds and silvers. Sharp and deadly, minimalistic and precise. Deals being conducted in the dark tell tales from within the walls. The top floor to see the top man in the Syndicate - Hayao Fukusawa. The youngest leader of the Syndicate ever, and the most brazen. The main reason why he took on the Cardinal’s people in the first place. He’s been expanding for years now, and it’s not going as smoothly as he thought it would. And when things don’t go smoothly you’re more inclined to have a meeting with Demir Sunderland.
   Demir’s surrounded on four sides with a member of Fukusawa’s personal bodyguards. The peak of the Syndicate faithfull. Already seated in one of the most comfortable chairs Demir’s ass has ever graced, he doesn't find it hard to adjust to the sight of New Hiroshima stretching to the end of the horizon. Big guys with their huge windows overlooking what they feel is theirs. The entire far wall is just glass, adjusting to the natural sunlight coming from outside, always the perfect hue to keep the view of the city as bright as possible. The desk between Demir and Fukusawa is massive in scale, polished to perfection, and entirely as big and polished as the Syndicate leader’s ego.
   “I know you’re enjoying the view, but that’s not why you’re here, Mr. Sunderland.” Fukusawa has a silky tone of voice, hushed and grim.
   “Yeah, but it’s a good view. A man could easily get lost in it.”
   “I know, I see it every day. Now, on to the matter of the moles in my organization you so vehemently suggested I should know about.” Not one to mince words or waste time. That’s how you make it up the Syndicate ladder.
   “There’s a ton of them. I mean so many, it’s hard to even count. Now, a lot of them are former Cardinal people, obviously. Getting rid of those would be tricky for anyone. But the problem with those people who came into the organization already aligned with someone else,” and Demir pauses, “is that it spreads dissent among your men. Letting something like that happen right under your nose.” A whistle, long one too. “That’s not easy to wipe away.” Two of the bodyguards on Fukusawa’s side move in closer. “What I came here to tell you is that your men have decided to accept that times are changing. The reign of the family tradition is over. It’s time to branch out. And in order to do that, well,” and Demir shrugs, “some of the ballast needs to be vented.” The two bodyguards grab Fukusawa by the shoulders.
   “You wouldn’t dare,” he blurts out and looks from side to side, like a trapped animal. “You wouldn’t dare,” he says again to hammer the point home.
   “Oh, I dare,” then Demir hammers the point home.

Chapter 42: TECH
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER JAIL CELL. When having visited more than one, even if it is just the one, they all start looking the same. Blinding white or black, depending on the mood of the jailors, with a force-field in either blue, green, or red, covering the entrance. A space to sit and sleep, and a space to *** and ***. The only space with any walls between Leto and the surveillance is the shower. There is still so much as human rights in the Galaxy he finds himself trapped in.
Leto always finds solace in meditation. The blankness, the emptiness of the void he can conjure in his own mind soothes him. It is a balance in all things. Everything and nothing. There Leto can just fly, unencumbered and unhindered.
   It is also about the same feeling the first and second time around when a person with a higher position in this new Galaxy strolls down to the prison cells and decides to talk to you. Leto remembers Demir, and his mantra that becomes a lot more palatable in these types of situations. Something about the tables and the turning thereof. When the powerful come to see someone more powerful, despite the circumstances they find themselves in physically.
   “Before you have to admit anything, or state your surprise, or even make an observation, don’t even bother. Straight to the point, please Mr. Xing. I hope you appreciate that as much as I do.”
   The man so tall it is almost alien, lanky and swaying gracefully, languid yet quick, looks straight into Leto without a minimal shift in expression. His soft face a waxen mask, caught perpetually in thought almost, always thinking far ahead of everyone else. Every new CEO of Xing-Tech is Xing. Currently holding that throne is Xing XVI. It is a tradition of theirs to modify their physical being. Since the days before the C, they were at the top of tech. Pioneers in the field of AI. Responsible for the exile of Hephestus. A company that overshadowed an Immortal. Every Xing is bred and groomed for the position. They are made to recognize, adapt, and conquer.
   Xing approaches the force-field. “Your enhancements, mods, grafts, even the stims and nano-myte machinery. It is all so old. We have much never, and much more promising models of the same tech. Yet the brightest stars often fizzle the fastest,” and the lank Xing puts some pomp in his movements. It is a dance, a very subtle dance. “The biggest issue with better and faster tech is that the sync factor suffers. And you, sir, have a sync factor of a hundred percent. That is odd, and I want to know why. And if you cannot offer the why, I want to know what you can offer.”
   “I will offer you the Sons of Hephestus on a silver platter. Sponsor my skiff, my tech, my operation, and I will be wherever they are. I will destroy them until they regret ever coming out of the shadows. I will stalk them, report routes to you so you can manage your shipments safely. I will gather more men, more skiffs, a small but lethal squad. I will not stop until they are obliterated. What I offer you, Mr. Xing, is the Grand-Master of War. At your service.”
   “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity,” Xing says.
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 12/11!)
Post by: B.K. on January 07, 2022, 07:42:38 AM
Title: Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 1/7!)
Post by: B.K. on January 07, 2022, 02:03:27 PM
Years later.
The Galaxy is on fire.
It is rising.
On the horizon... War.

Chapter 43: BACK THAT WAY
IT’S BEEN MORE THAN A WHILE since Demir had last been on Anudorah. The entire planet is stuck in time. Come back a year, two, three later and it’s still the same dump it was back then. Muddy, damp, congealed in poverty and perseverance. People against nature, people against people, in endless repetition. The only things that stand still in time are the planet Anudorah itself, and Fromaroundtheway’s cabin in the middle of nowhere. Aroundtheway, on the other hand, is about one-third through her battle with old age. Instead of her usual imposing figure she cuts a much leaner image, as well as having a sickly glow to her. There’s a tube running from her left nostril to something on her back which is kept hidden under her massive winter coat. Demir takes one gander and he knows it’s a lung vent-and-filtration system. Hundreds of years in the vicinity of residual Quyah fumes must have taken their toll. Modding or even replacing her lungs completely risks mod sickness, and Aroundtheway isn’t one to bow out to some sickness at the end of her rope. She’ll tough it out for another hundred easily if she takes better care of herself. Demir knows it.
   Demir can help her with that. That’s why he’s on this shithole in the first place. Some things you just have to handle personally. It’s a matter of respect. Truth is, Aroundtheway was, and probably even still is, one of the few people Demir hasn’t *** off to the point where she wants nothing to do with him. She’s always been solid, so Demir has to do her a solid and do this in person.
   Without her usual grace-despite-her-size, Aroundtheway pushes herself off her chair and greets Demir with her motherly swagger. “All this time and not even a message. I have to hear it in whispers around the Galaxy that you’re probably dead.” She embraces Demir in her arms that seem impervious to her physical ailments.
   When Demir first took to the shadows, the Galaxy declared him a fugitive from the Authority. True enough. Then when he didn’t return, he was jailed; somewhere no one will ever find him, the Galaxy said. Then he lost a fight to Siona, and got his Baby taken in the Pits. The *** has at least some grace to keep her mouth shut about that. But Demir knows, even though he hardly wants to admit it, Siona would never cop to a win she didn’t deserve. After he lost to Siona, and the Galaxy was tired of waiting for Demir Sunderland to make a return, he was just pronounced dead. And Demir Sunderland stays dead even now. At least dead to the Galaxy. Demir makes sure he stays dead by crushing every little hushed whisper in every little dark corner of every little wretched hive of scum and villainy across the entire *** Galaxy. Once dead, still dead.
   “I feel fine,” Demir lets her know, hoping to see a chuckle in response.
   “I can see that,” Aroundtheway says through a weak smile. “You’ve also improved your fashion sense, I have to say. Only thing left is that dirty old jacket.”
   To a MOS, the only thing that you keep outside of your skiff as a trophy of your craft, are the jackets. The MOS are just another elitist club of people who have to be better than each other. Represent everywhere they go. All of them hoard some kind of sentimental ***, knick-knacks, trophies, scars and viscous memories. Most of them keep that *** in their skiffs, to remind themselves of victories from long ago. Their history emblazoned within their hidey-holes in their skiffs where they feel mightiest. For the rest, so they see how mighty they are, they wear the leather. Demir has had his jacket for what feels like forever now, wearing it comfortably over a black business-shirt with hidden buttons. He has a cropped tie, black with a red pinstripe on the side. Suit pants and business shoes all in minimalist future-perfect fashion fit for the stock markets. Even Demir’s hair is nicely cropped into a pomp, and he’s clean shaven. He wears what he does with pride. A man all about business now, but he could still *** you up in the skies.
   “So, what’s your business with me? It’s been far too long, and you haven’t given me any down payment for the skinny. So, you’re here only out of my curiosity.” Sure, Demir didn’t give her any prior proposition, just a quick note that they had to talk, is all. You don’t just come to Fromaroundtheway with that meager ***. Demir being Demir, in her good graces and all, along with the whole being dead part, he gets a shot.
   “I’m here to buy you out, Aroundtheway. It’s time.”
   Aroundtheway gets back to her chair, wearily sits down, huffs a mean slimy one, and finally relaxes. “You're going to have to tell me more than that, Demir. You can start by telling me who that frightened little mouse is?” She points to Jolene who just stands meekly in a corner, riveted to her datapad. “No more Letos, I see.”
   “That’s Jolene, she’s my protege.” Jolene then greets Aroundtheway with a mousey little hi, and retreats back into the world of her datapad.
   And a protege is what he needed when Demir first started out. As with any new business, it started shaky. Demir’s inherent Sunderland genetics made him a *** natural at it too, but his unrelenting voice of hatred didn’t let him follow those bestial bussines senses to their full potential. Demir chose to hire someone as a consultant, and thought it best to simply get someone fresh, new, hungry, and build them up. He went scouting at the Academy of Economic Science on Pluto. A whole tiny planet devoted solely to the perfecting of economic science, doing so by pumping out one rich *** too confident in their own skills at a time. Always a good judge of potential and character, Demir took to the task uncharacteristically studiously. Rich *** after rich *** just didn’t fit the bill. He even went to classes to see the students in action. At one such class one the macroeconomics of the decentralized Galaxy-wide trade accords, he noticed Jolene Parton of the music industry’s biggest name - the Partons. Well, he noticed her for all the wrong reasons. She rarely spoke, if ever, visibly shaken when talking in front of multiple people. Her grades were *** too, just above passing. They’ll let her through because she’s a Parton, but they’ll never refer her anywhere. That’s how the Academy makes sure the undesirables can only work for their respective rich parents and not ruin the rest of the Galaxy. Demir was intrigued enough to go talk to her in person. A formal interview, if you will. Being alone with Jolene showed Demir exactly why she was failing. Jolene Parton had the business acumen that could rival that of any Sunderland, and the business strategies of a dragoon serpent - scorched earth. Her tactics were devastating, hostile, and burned bridges to make ceaseless amounts of cash. She had the moral compass of an AI and the human understanding of a nihilist poet. This meek girl was a bomb, and if let loose on the Galaxy anywhere outside her comfy music industry bubble, she would devastate. The Academy couldn’t let that happen, so they cut her possibilities. Demir gave her the opportunity to realize all her potential, and she took it without a second thought. He knew that he needed her as much as she needed him.
   So, it’s actually Demir and Jolene running the Syndicate Information Network. SIN might be Demir’s second Baby, but Jolene really makes it work. While he supplies the crazy ideas that she’s too pragmatic to think of, she fuels his innate Sunderland biology for him to reach new heights. When he’s off balance, she’s on point. When she’s proposing fire and mayhem, he shows her the human side of the coin. Balance in all things.
   “Jolene’s the reason I’m here to buy you out, and not push you out. She was going to slowly buy out your men, bleed you dry until you can’t make the cut for the Quyah mining. You’d have to outsource the work for less payout, fall behind the curve on the information pipeline as well, and when you’re far enough behind my men would take over somewhat hostile. I owed you a solid, so we’re talking good money for you, and safety for your men down the line. It’s a good deal, Aroundtheway. Have a listen.” The old woman gets somewhat lost in her contemplation, the once-sharp eyes a bit milky. There’s a spark there still, buried underneath the grime clotted over her eyes, and the age wilting her brain. Silent, but deadly.
   “You’re a little ***,” she scoffs at Jolene who pays her no mind. “If you’d come a year sooner I’d smack you for talking that trash.”
   “You would have still listened, out of curiosity.”
   Aroundtheway chuckles, then chokes and has to cough through the pain. “All right, give me the skinny. Stop trying to get me wet and do the deed. I haven’t got all day.”
   “Your end is, you step down, and drop from the scene. Now, I know your general sense of deviousness might tickle you from time to time. Maybe you just come back, do a little side-hustle on the sly. That’s why I’m saying this first.” Demir steps in closer, in case she fakes her hearing is askew too. “You’re gone. I make your men whole for anything they are owed, and I offer them new contracts under SIN. We integrate them into the network.”
   Aroundtheway’s eyes widen, born again. Her toothy grin, and sweaty jiggle of her double chin, are both back. “So you’re the *** bastard.”
   “I work for SIN, sure.”
   “No, no. You run it. You don’t wear a shirt and *** tie just to fly for someone else. You run SIN. That’s why you’re dead.”
   “The payout for you isn’t a one-time deal either,” Demir just continues. “I figured a better way to settle that for you. Instead of buying your land, I would lease it. Base value of the land, plus the Quyah mining contracts, plus your regular info revenue, and we cut that to a solid percentage for regular payouts, you sit comfortably in the seven digits. Regular paychecks for you from the lease, and a five percent cut from the earnings off the SIN pipeline your men haul in. You could upgrade your health plan, finally. Live out the *** hundreds of years you could still have on the clock any way you want. Your men would be safe, and under even more lucrative contracts, and you’d be well out that way.” Demir gestures to the door, the moldy rug still covering it flapping in the winter breeze.
   The old woman retreats back into her thoughts. “Ten percent.”
   “I’ll think a day or two on six.”
   “Only way I’m out that door is with a yes or a no, Aroundtheway.”
   “Seven percent.”
   “Done.” Demir and Aroundtheway shake on that. “Jolene will let you know the final stages, since we’re making this a legit purchase through our shells. Contracts to sign and all that ***. I’ll want you out soon, sorry. We’re going to renovate a bit, secure the place from any Quyah residue. Let your men know, and my representatives will be here once you’re done.”
   A silence bubbles between them.
   “You’ve become efficient, deadly in business even, just like in your skiff out there in the skies.” Aroundtheway cuts the silence in half. “Did you cook this up when you were last here?” Aroundtheway grumbles and rasps, decides to take a drink to cool off her searing throat.
   “First stages, yeah.”
   “*** myself there, didn’t I?”
   “Kind of.”
   “Well, at least it’s you. Be off then now, I have some work to do.”
   “One more thing. If you ever tell anyone I was here, what I do, or any mention of me, any friendship we might have considered between us is null and void. Same goes for the ferryman, and any of your ilk. It’s one of the three rules. Any good business, especially our business, must still pride itself on our discretion. Are we understood?”
   “We are,” Aroundtheway lets him know, clear-eyed and in the moment. The most honest truth.

Chapter 44: THREE RULES
“I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY you need to do this in person?” Jolene’s apprehensive about the whole thing. Her discerning eyes green like emeralds and a permanent worried frown upon her face. A bomb that can’t explode. She needs Demir to go through with her plans, and do the heavy lifting. But she also needs to see that there are other aspects to SIN. That there’s still some grime left to clean out, always. That there’s more to running an information network so vast its reach is about sixty percent of the *** drakkweb. Jolene needs to see that there’s some business you just have to do in person.
   While Demir disregards her for a bit she tidies up her auburn hair into a tighter knot. “You’ll see why. That’s homework for today,” he lets her know.
   “Don’t treat me like I’m a kid,” Jolene hisses at him.
   “You are a kid. This is part of growing up. So just follow me and be quiet like you always are when it’s more than just me in the room.”
   “You know I’m not good with crowds.” She almost squirms into herself.
   “I know. You’re getting better at it. Sure. But in this case I just need you to watch and take notes. Okay?”
   “Fine,” Jolene concedes, with a childlike undertone of ire in her voice.
   They make their way down the dimmed corridor to the hotel room. Two guards usher them into the spacious suite. The temporary home of Velimir Zapatinov. The two guards follow them in, and secure the door.
   Velimir is sitting on a faux-kashmir covered settee, and motions for Demir and Jolene to take a seat on the sofa across. A table between them is lined with treats and real-food that only people with a vast amount of cash, such as the Zapatinov clan, can indulge in. Jolene prefers to stand behind the sofa, so Demir lounges gracefully on the whole thing instead. He takes up the space like he owns it, the mere air someone breathes next to him is worth his time in credits. A lot of them.
   “It is an honor, Mr. Sunderland,” Velimir courts Demir in his Slav-jank Common.
   “What are the three rules, Velimir?” Demir puts the sturdy, hairy man off balance. His bear-like arms almost slipping from his meaty thighs. Locks of blond curly hair dancing about like in static, while Velimir grasps at straws.
   “Excuse me, Mr. Sunderland, what do you mean?”
   “Simple question - what are the three rules? Jolene will help you,” Demir looks at Jolene who’s pretending not to notice him. Stuck in her world of data, logistics, and numbers, far removed from human kind. Her safe place, where she crawls into like a slug. “Come on Jolene, tell us the three rules.” Still pretending not to notice him. “Jolene.” Demir takes a more sturdy tone. “The three rules.”
   “You never saw me. No r***. No kids,” Jolene finally answers in her soft, warm, meek little voice. But still strong enough so that everyone can hear her. Like a hush that travels on the wind.
   “That’s right. You never saw me. No r***. And no kids.” Demir puts some pomp on it. He doesn’t get to do this often, so why not do it right. “So imagine my surprise when I learned that you were pulling a side-hustle.” Velimir retreats gingerly into the settee, just to put himself on the defensive. He puffs his chest out, sits up straight, ready to fight back. “Fresh organs from the natives on your mining colonies. Even the miners are in on it. Those who can’t survive any other way, at least. The ones that can’t work are sold for scraps like cattle, so their families can eat. Miners and natives, pumping out minerals and ore, as well as human produce. Not only that, but you’re doing selective breeding and selling off the kids, or just the good parts when the situation dictates. Fresh as can be. Am I on the right track here, Velimir?” The man says nothing. Instead he just grimaces like an angry dog at Demir. “To top off that selection platter of human rights abuse, you also have a meat tax on the natives. The prettiest ones get shipped out to brothels. You pump enough info from all those pipelines to keep SIN happy, and cover up your earnings by washing it through the mining. Now that’s actually a *** good tactic. Jolene was the one who caught it.” Velimir’s seething facade of anger and venom leave Jolene undeterred in her world inside the datapad. “So, that’s two out of three broken. Better yet, those are the two ones I really like the most. You say you saw me and I just make you disappear. But the ***, and the kids, those I take personally.” Demir leans in a bit, closes some of that distance between him and Velimir. “Just tell me, are you smart enough to know you can’t escape this? You won’t try some Spearhead-type *** and go for one last round with the devil?”
   “I will not,” Velimir hisses out.
   “Good. Now, I gave your family two propositions, just so you know where you stand in all this. First one was - they stay behind you, cross me, and I buy them all out and burn the rest while I kill you here and now. Second one - they take a financial hit by restructuring the business you were running, all that on their own dime, and sell you out to me. Anything I do with you is at my discretion.” Demir lets Velimir feel the betrayal. Lets him seep through with anguish and desperation. “They took the second, of course.”
   “Are you going to kill me?” Velimir has that one last question in him.
   “Worse. I’ll ship you out to Tzekovia V. Let the natives and the miners know who you are, what you look like, and just air-package you to a random location on the planet. Either nature will get you, or the people will. You will try to survive, of course, simply because you’re incapable of letting go. Accepting defeat. If you fight, it’s up to the people to pass judgment. Or if you actually do register that it’s over, you succumb to the elements. It’s a good show, a good final act. For me to watch at least. And please be aware that I will be watching. I have high hopes for you. But either way, you get ***. So, the two gentlemen here will escort you out. They will also make sure nothing happens to you before you land on Tzekovia. I would wish you the best of luck, but I don’t like to lie.”
   Demir stands up, and heads out the door with Jolene at his heels.
   “What the *** was that?” she hisses at him once they’re out.
   “He had it coming.”
   “*** that. I don’t give a *** about that scum. Why did you put me on the spot like that?” Demir loves Jolene’s ruthless true side. The pinnacle of ego, and the twisted machinations in her mind to actually make so much revolve around her that she ends up being the only thing that matters. “You said I was supposed to keep quiet and just watch.”
   “I did that to show you that you can get out of that *** bubble you live in, and perform on the spot and under pressure. You did well. Now remember that feeling, that overcoming, and use it more often. We’re spiraling into the final phase here, Jolene. You need to be here now, and on the spot more often.” Demir stops for a second and looks Jolene in the eyes. The sea within looking back at him, clear as the day he first met her. “If there’s anything I believe you’re capable of, it’s adapting. I don’t know anyone better at it than you. So, let me just say this - shut up and do your *** part.”

“WE NEED TO FOCUS ON MINER outreach. The Zapatinov name needs to come off, and we put SIN front and center. The Zapatinov’s shells can take the brunt of expansion to the Outer Reaches, and we form a one-to-one pipeline. From there we can expand to the Calligon Nebula, and Zapatinov can retake full control under our terms.” Jolene has it all under control. All of the *** Velimir left behind can be ironed out in less than a *** year.
   “How *** are we on the reputation side?” That’s Demir's main concern.
   “Not great, not terrible.”
   When Demir took over the Syndicate he had to weed out the families first. With promises of independence for minor factions, a completely decentralized open market, and an approach to contracts that valued loyalty and rewarded it handsomely, Demir greased enough palms to rise to the top. The first year was the toughest. Demir just couldn’t get SIN off the ground fast enough. The returns were low, and the investment potential was running out. Jolene wasn’t on board yet. But Demir had his moment of clarity when he went on a bender. He spent the nights with the dregs of three planets. Shithole planet, basic colony planet, and rich planet. The dregs were always the same, just in better clothing the better their surroundings became. But those people knew a lot of *** about a lot of ***. Demir started contracting info from prostitutes, beggars, peddlers, street cleaners, and even junkies at first. The open information market SIN he put out into the drakkweb was flourishing. Every little bit of info, even as little as where someone took a ***, was worth enough that if it pings in the database the credits get transferred to your open-WEB credits account. *** a big banker, earn more money. See a politician visiting his side-piece, and that’s bank right there. These small threads of info would expand into the database, combine with others, form a spider web of info that could be traced, repurposed, threaded together, exploited, or sold. Connect all those small threads, basic locations, sightings, who’s talking to who, where and maybe why, with all the info you get from your big player contracts, and you can formulate a chain of events that cascades all throughout SIN. Demir’s people all got repeat contracts if they wanted it, even earned a solid credit score, maybe even moved on. Dregs became people, and people always want more. The information kept flowing, and it hasn’t stopped. Then Demir expanded to students in academies all around the Galaxy. Whatever project you’re working on, whatever new is coming out of tech, economy, mining, inter-planetary politics, you name it, and SIN wants to know. Demir was pumping more money through SIN than he could effectively use by himself. When Jolene came on they started the second phase with corporate acquisition, and drakkweb takeover. SIN is now the most dominant information trade hub on the drakkweb. At sixty percent and rising. Demir needs it to be at least seventy before SIN can effectively shoulder the weight of the final phase. And he already has to make some major moves, as well as Jolene having to come out of her shell.
   “We need that fence with the miners mended ASAP. They’re the bread and butter for the final phase.” Demir thinks for a bit about Jolene’s plan. Mulls over the details, like stirring a good drink with ice. Just to smell it once more. 
   “I know, that’s why I’m on it.”
   “Good. I want you to select the internal investigation committee. We want it out there that Zapatinov is being held accountable. Let them take the brunt of the public outcry. Do the investigation right. Vent some dead weight. If Zapatinov want to keep any of them on payroll, or make them whole, that's up to them. SIN doesn’t dish out a dime.”
   “That’s going to eat time out of the proposed schedule. I would advise burning Zapatinov for settlement money, keeping the investigation on the down-low, and clearing things up with the miners through incentive-based contracts.” And that’s Jolene. Brutal, efficient, and clearly lacking in human understanding.
   “Sure. The miners will turn around and forget all the human rights abuse once they see the incentive-based contracts. However, when the mortality rate, drug abuse, suicide rate, and work accidents spike like a torn grav coating, we’ll all be eating ***.” Demir has to set her straight. That’s the harmony of their relationship. A balance in all things. They always push and pull, until they arrive at the best possible outcome.
   “That might coincide badly with the rest of the timeline.” Jolene puts her chin in her hand, and takes a gander at her datapad, then types in some projections. “Yes, if we eat the time it takes to finish the investigation, but relate that to projected employee satisfaction, we have a longer but more stable timeline.”
   “Don’t always look at the most efficient picture, Jolene. Always factor in the human element, even if it’s just a calculation, and not gut instinct.”
   “*** your gut instinct.”
That brings a smile to Demir’s face. When she talks back, quips and prods, like a normal human being. “That’s what you need to develop. An instinct, a gut feeling. For now, keep plugging in numbers for human factors. Yeah, SIN runs on those.”

Chapter 46: RESIN
FARIDEH TOOK TO THE COMBAT logistics like a miner to tar. First she started planning the patrol routes, the ambushes, the scouting routes, and the overall fleet production and cadet training. With a free hand to dip into the Trafalgar credits stockpile, at first it was a simple matter of dishing out the most cash for the best products. Put the elite of the Trafalgar forces on each side of the defensive and offensive lines. Smaller forces, but deadlier. Mighty expensive too. But they were enough to wedge themselves deep into the Sons’ operation, and start stockpiling their tech and debris. When the rest of the fleet caught up with the elites, Farideh had to stretch out the budget a lot more. New cadets were graduating and she had to put them into rotation and on retainer. Plus, the ship production was slowing down since there were effectively more ships than pilots back then. Farideh had to balance it out, and not waste money on retainers for no-fliers.
   That was when Farideh took a more hands-on approach to the whole effort. It was also the first time she had to make a choice that would inevitably cost more lives with each rotation. She put the new cadets directly into the major assault squads as backup. They were ordered to keep outside the main perimeter, and only engage if any of the main squad got canned. Many of them never made it into the main squad, and died on the sidelines. The ones that did make it were so high on the street cred, and their reputation in the skies, that they excelled. Farideh slowly, but regularly and measuredly, weeded out the weak, and put all her money behind the best. Top squads with top tech and the maddest MOS pilots in the Known Galaxy. That’s where all the major money goes, while the defensive infrastructure costs only a third of the MOS fleet to maintain.
   The hands-on approach also meant that Farideh was in on a lot of the raids. She had her people make her a control-center frigate. It’s hardwired, bolted, and shielded for hyperspace. She can maintain herself in hyperspace for weeks without needing to exit. It’s a lot easier on her body, since Farideh never took to enhancements too much. She’s contemplating installing a cortical stack, like Siona has for her Cain, but that’s a decision for another time. Farideh hasn’t given her craft a name yet, and Siona keeps bugging her about that. Every craft needs a name. It’s like with swords in those ancient stories. Your craft needs a name. But that’s also a decision for another time. She has gotten quite used to the frigate, and even to hyperspace. The sensation of time congealed around you, and the vastness of it all, the danger of storms looming in the distance. A flicker of light at first, then a gust that registers on your environmental sensors; it comes to life and warns of possible danger as the storms build and dissipate. Farideh bolted to her chair, eyes riveted to the screens and the live feed, all the crafts at her disposal, and a sector map holo-display, with touch-focus optics, so she can scribble orders, move her forces around the battlefield like a puppeteer. She just changed the way she thinks. Instead of focusing solely on the long-haul, years and even decades in advance, Farideh used that thread-weaving capability on a second-to-second, minute-to-minute basis. Now, she’s more out in the field than back on Trafalgar. Mutemba has been named chief operating officer while she’s gone. He’s the perfect pick, a natural at it, and it also lets him scratch that itch of running his own system he didn’t get when his brother took over Kurrekesh.
   Farideh still hasn’t thought of a name for her frigate, but she’s well on her way to a skirmish they have planned for a Sons drop in the Wasternais system. She had to spend a pretty *** penny on getting that info from SIN. The Sons are starting an ore mining operation on Armitage III, a *** gas giant. Back when humanity used AIs, gas giants could be harvested for all their deposits. Minerals from up top, and ore from down low. Now, however, only the Sons are able to withstand the torturous heat and oxigen deprivation, even through their high-grade mining tech. Sure, you can put a human in a high-grade, top-of-the-line, shielded ore-worm vehicle. Emissions from a gas giant make it almost impossible to remotely pilot anything down there. Then you put that human on a gas giant like Armitage III, and they come back after mining about three to five percent of the ore-worm’s total storage before they collapse. Heat, air pressure, gravity, time, all of those things we thought we could control, move the forces around us the way we wanted, shield ourselves from it, but it always finds a way inside our bodies. The Sons, however, and their illusive man-machine-hybrid tech, lets them dig for the full storage. They jump on gas giants like real worms on cadavers, excavate and drill for a solid couple of days, then disappear into their mining cruisers and off into the unknown vestiges of hyperspace.
   SIN gave Farideh the exclusive skinny on the Armitage dig. Farideh also got hold of some advanced-cloaking resin for Siona’s main force. A batch of older tech Xing had already tested out, and now they’re using newer models, like Xing always does. The old ones are good for a month or two before they are cracked, so Farideh can place Siona in the center of the action. Cain is fully cloaked and riveted to an asteroid in the belt not even six clicks from Armitage III. The rest of the force is dispersed out of transponder range, clocked for good measure, and awaiting Farideh’s call. Siona will pin down the mining defense force, while her main assault team swoops in to disperse the jump point guards. Once Farideh enters the system proper they can collapse on all of them, and hopefully leave any ore-worms for them to farm after the sector has been canvassed. Either way, anything they get from the defense force will do just fine. For now.
   Xing, Hanzo, Charkul, and even minor tech companies like Zen and Maggnuss, are trying to decipher the Sons’ tech. Well, what they can from the scraps they get at least. Anything Trafalgar leaves behind. Seems like the eons old expression, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, well and truly alive in this day and age. Trafalgar is hogging the best Sons tech in the entire Galaxy. Just like Farideh planned. She has Siona on the biggest targets, and SIN on payroll with hundreds of contracts for her people. The only people getting in the way of Trafalgar’s dominance are the Strike Force, and Dominus. Being a MOS in the past couple of years meant a total shift from shouting your name across the entire Galaxy and pinning your score on every carcass floating in the skies, to harboring private contracts for major players under the guise of anonymous skiffs and cloaked transponders. Only Siona is still flying her Cain more ravenously than ever. Rest of the MOS don’t want to get jumped in the middle of a fuel run in deep hyperspace. Neither Fardieh nor SIN know who’s heading the Strike Force, but their tech screams Xing, although they deny it. They know even less about Dominus, a solo flier who shreds through everything, but has no rhyme or reason to his targets. Like he just wakes up in the morning, flies, kills until he’s satisfied, and then goes back home, wherever that may be. Siona, the leader of the Strike Force, and Dominus have the highest charting numbers in all the Galaxy. Farideh tried to get a bead on the two not under her employ to broker a collaboration, but Mutemba got nowhere even remotely close to smelling the leather of their jackets. The only thing Farideh is still content about as far as those two forces are concerned is the fact that they let her have the tech. They’re not scavenging. Strike Force shoots only to kill, and Dominus, well, she has no clue about Dominus.
   Farideh’s wondering if any of them will turn up. Dominus has a hand in getting their filthy fingers on skinny, even exclusive ones. And Strike Force might sniff out the Sons mining operation by themselves. Whoever designed their scouting routes is annoyingly *** good.
   But those are contingencies she’ll employ if the time comes. For now Farideh lets herself be enveloped by the crushing congealed mass of space and time, and gives herself to hyperspace.

Chapter 47: INC.
TRAFALGAR HAS TO START selling the Sons tech stockpile, and do so soon. Not strictly just to maintain the assault efforts, but for Mutemba to have peace of mind going forward. Trafalgar’s two current major sources of income are SIN and contracts with mining companies operating in the Outer Reaches. Mutemba took to SIN like grav sickness. He has Trafalgar’s operatives under some of the most lucrative SIN contracts across the entire Galaxy, raking in credits day in, day out. With the Outer Reaches expanding their mining colonies and operations, Trafalgar provides even more security for passing fleets through their system. At a steep premium, no less, that the companies are more than willing to pay, considering the substantial threat from the Sons.
   However, that’s only loose change compared to the stockpile of Sons tech that Farideh insists they keep hoarding. Mere supplementary income when Mutemba considers the vast riches Trafalgar could attain if she would just step off her *** vindictive high horse and just sell the damn lot. Farideh may not be stupid, as she’s waiting for a piece of legit, unfried, useable Sons tech to enter their collection, but revenge is a sweet fruit. Bitter to everyone involved, but to the person holding the grudge it’s more than enough sustenance.
   Mutemba’s desk is piled high with holodecks for the dispatch and reclaiming of scouts, contracts to be fulfilled for SIN, and countless orders for protective details from for the Outer Reaches.
   Still, not enough.
   So much work, for so little pay.
Mutemba issues orders for the main protective detail to retreat closer to Trafalgar, and handle the bulk OR convoys. He doubles the Trafalgar base defensive detail by bolstering the ranks with fresh pilots. Cuts the cost of their home defense to make up for the spending on the OR contracts.
Back to zero.
   Then Mutemba issues orders for his own information scouts to expand to the Core World. They need to focus on the corporate warfare that’s waging between the main factions left from the old regime, instead of wasting time and money on scouring the Known Galaxy for smidgeons of info on the Sons. That cuts the transportation and maintenance cost of the SIN operation considerably. Mutemba then has to funnel that money into Siona’s skies-damned kill squad, and the offensive against the Sons.
   Back to zero.
   With nothing to spend again, Mutemba requests freelance mining contracts in the Outer Reaches at base value, no premiums, to get some traction with the Trafalgar workforce at least, and bolster the earning. He can then spend the excess on supply costs for general commodities across Trafalgar.
   And back to zero again.
   Mutemba is funneling money from empty spaces into vast voids and back again into nothingness. Every single credit moved, earned, and stolen, is a credit spent in order to move, earn, and steal more credits. A perpetual zero-sum game where in the end the only loser is Mutemba himself. He doesn’t give two *** about the entire Known Galaxy participating in the same zero-sum game of corporate warfare, power struggle, anarchy reign, and public disobedience. The game might have been going on for what feels like eons, but it’s gotten only louder and uglier with the emergence of the Sons. Like those bastards just pulled the covers off of the entire detritus-ridden corpse of the Galaxy’s own moral fibers and inner workings.
The only thing that Mutemba knows is that there has to be a loser in the end. Not a winner. No one ever won anything after the C, but many have lost. If there’s anything Mutemba Ginzego isn’t going to be, it’s a loser.
   He has something far too valuable at stake for him to just lose.
   Day in, day out, just like his operatives, he spends shuffling credits from nothing into nothing. Playing for the zero-sum win, while Farideh is out in the field, amassing riches beyond compare and just letting the potential rot away. The worth of the tech is still rising, but Mutemba knows all too well the inevitable downturn is around the corner. Farideh may be waiting for that elusive, and in all probability unlikely, day that Trafalgar will get their hands on some legit Sons tech. However, Mutemba isn’t.
He spends his days getting back to zero.
   Day in, day out.
   But he’s not stupid either.
   “Mutemba!” a direct link to his comms chimes in, pulls him out of the daily grind. Farideh on the end of the line, shouting. “I need all available protection details in the Westernais system ASAP. Cancel any OR runs, and put your people on SIN contracts double-time.” She sounds entranced, almost scared, but deviously ecstatic.
   “Are you certain?” he asks her.
   “We got it. Mutemba, we got it.” Then he realizes exactly why Farideh sounds out of her mind. “Siona’s on her way back through the stealth routes. Her Cain got pretty busted up, so prepare a docking bay and make sure she’s up and running ASAP too. I need her back here.”
   “I will make the arrangements.”
   Farideh cuts the line.
   There might be a winner after all. Mutemba thinks to himself, and goes about moving credits from nowhere into nothing so Farideh can secure the Westernais system. The protective detail should be out before Siona even arrives.
   Sadly, there have to be losers for someone to win.

Chapter 48: ARMITAGE III
FARIDEH CAN STILL HARDLY BELIEVE IT. A legit piece of Sons tech, right there for the taking. Only problem is that it’s hidden behind layers and layers of the glassed surface on Armitage III.
   The problem with Sons tech is that it fries. From what Farideh could gather when listening to all the tech-jumbo spewed on all sides, is that the Sons tech is intricately connected that if a piece falls out of the system it’s immediately fried to the point of being unusable. Hook a turret from one of their ships and it won’t fire. It’s just dead metal, same as with their thrusters, shields, main decks, hyperspace jump modules, all the way down to the Sons bodies themselves. Not a single Son of Hephestus has ever been caught alive. When in danger they can just call it quits and fry their tech, so no one can ever know how they do what they do. They’re so fanatical that they’re even hooked up to kill switches other members have access to. The entire Sons of Hephestus operation is interwoven to the point where nothing that comes off or out of them can be hooked up and used. Deciphering such tech takes ages, eons even. While buyers are lining up to even get a whiff of something smelling of the Sons, a legit piece of tech, usable and decipherable, has yet to come on the market.
   Good thing Farideh is looking directly at her lifeline.
   The *** underestimated the wrath of a gas giant. When Siona and her squad cut through the defense line around the mining cruisers the Sons had to retreat and scuttle the ore-worms. The one that hit the kill switch started the cascade that ended being a blessing in disguise. Hydrogen started fusing all over Armitage III, and when the ore-worm popped under the pressure and heat it started a chain reaction that mimicked that of a nuclear payload. They glassed the entire surface of the planet, and the rest of the ore-worms remain stuck underneath. Unable to initiate the self-destruct, the pilots have died from radiation. True death, bodily death, but no fried tech. Their scanners are still picking up the signals. All they have to do is dig through the dead planet, through the nuclear waste, best the fallout, and dig out the prize of all prizes. The chatter across SIN is going to spread like a chain-beam. Every force worth their weight in ships will be on them. First the Sons, then the rest. Farideh has one day, tops, to secure the sector, and then finish the dig before she gets piled on from all sides. The full force can retreat to Trafalgar through their stealth routes, but they can’t fight their way through an entire Sons fleet. She has to do this, and she has to do it quickly.
   The only thing she needs is Siona back before *** flies skywards. Her mere presence is more than enough as a deterrent for any would-be big player. Her people are already securing the perimeter. The main force is on its way. Siona too.
   From all the sweat beading across her body Farideh feels like she’s down there on Armitage III, under the pressure of the nuclear fallout. Her fingertips slide over the decks she’s issuing orders from, each stroke leaving a remnant behind, like the stroke of a pen. Farideh’s shaking, her body contorting, writhing into itself and then out, cold and hot.
   Armitage III has become the most important planet in the Known Galaxy within a matter of hours, and she’s right there, sitting on top of the biggest credit stockpile known to man.

Chapter 49: REPAIRS
“COME ON CAIN, DON’T FAIL ME NOW,” Siona tells her beloved skiff. The *** blast from the goddamn Sons’ nuclear payload hit her out of nowhere. She was piling on the remnants of the defensive fleet gearing up for their skies-be-damned transverse jump, and then it hit. Shockwave scrambling all of her controls, leaving her dead in the skies, tumbling into the debris field left behind by the carnage her pilots wrought on the enemy. Cain took a beating harder than any dogfight. Her thrusters barely got her into hyperspace, and the autopilot in conservation mode seems to have the hiccups. It’s like she’s in a chair, nudging herself forward one little thrust at a time.
   “Siona, come in,” the comms ring on her personal coded line. “We have a mobile repair dock at the ready in the Horsehead Nebula.” It’s Mutemba right on time to save the day. Halfway to Trafalgar, if she finishes the repairs on Cain there she can be back in Westernais in no time.
   “Mutemba, always on point. I’ll be docking in five. Have a bay ready. Won’t stay long.”
   Siona switches the autopilot off and manually nudges Cain along to the Horsehead Nebula jump point. Her skiff barely makes it through, the vortex of time and space pulls it apart almost. Siona’s used to cutting it close, but it never gets easier.
   The vast stretches of the Horsehead Nebula wash over Siona with an aura of calm. Star-clouds in the distance, a murk that seems like milk spilled over a black table paint the distant horizon, dotted in places with small planets. Asteroid belts dance their gravitational dance, and just a few clicks from the jump point Siona can see the repair dock. A hulking mass of metal limbs stretching and clawing from the carapace that reminds Siona of Trafalgar spyders, floating seamlessly against the darkness of space. Two main hangars for skiffs of light to medium size, connected together with bridges and grav docks. Sequences of rails, pulleys, cranes, welders, small insect-like manned repair crafts, all at the ready. All she has to do is dock her Cain without splattering against the hull. Sometimes Siona does regret not having an auto-docking protocol installed. But she manages to thread Cain through the bridges and into a grav dock.
   Then comes the hard part, the part Siona always dreads - removing the cortical link. Siona had a cortical stack installed when the Sons and any other would-be emperor of the skies started *** on her numbers. Raw talent, a lifetime of work, and even *** training - which she also begrudgingly had to go through - aren’t enough when tech just gives you an instant advantage. Siona had to overclock her capabilities way beyond mods and stims, and the cortical stack is the way to go. It’s something Xing-Tech developed to counter the Sons. A direct neural link between a pilot and their craft. It’s like being inside her Cain. Information flows faster, and you no longer face retinal lag, or even input lag. Actions that had once taken almost a second can now be halved. Siona is able to pull off maneuvers she only had envisioned in her head before. After a couple of months of adjustment, mental and physical, her numbers skyrocketed to the top of *** Galaxy. No one ever ***, or will ever *** with Siona of the Skies.
   But taking the thing out, pulling the cord from the stack, well, that never gets easier. It feels like removing spinal fluid without anesthesia. The physical sensation is akin to that of an ice bath, with the added flare of sitting on razors. First the chill runs through her spine, then her legs and ass fall asleep, prickling and pricking with the fury of a thousand needles, and it takes at least a second before she can move her arms. The sync between her arms and her mind has to kick in again. And that’s just half of it. The second part is the mental strain. Worse than being pulled violently out of a dream. A monstrous pull of information that is sucked out of her mind and consciousness, just pulled from her, and she’s transported from her Cain back to her Cain, like between worlds. First drowning, then being pulled out into a world that is all ablaze with reality. When her mind and body are aligned she can breathe, she can see clearly, and she can speak.
   Siona lets the docking protocols handle her Cain, and exits out the hatch when it’s hooked up to the main hangar. Artificial zero-grav lets her fly through the slim tube, and into the hangar where Mutemba is waiting for her with a continent of his men. Around them skiffs are being handled by the delicate man-operated machinery. The noise of the hangar calms her nerves, bringing her back into the fold of reality completely. “Now this is a stroke of genius, Mutemba. This little stunt of yours, while dangerous, which I appreciate, will halve my *** waiting time. I can be back in Westernais before the day is over.”
   “Sadly, that won’t be an option, Siona,” Mutemba tells her in his flaccid, matter-of-fact tone.
   “What the *** are you on about?”
   Mutemba’s men point their blasters at her. Two goons come in from the sides and clip her arms with disabling rods. Blasters come in closer, barely a finger span away from her *** face. “Siona, just do me one favor.” Mutemba stops for a second, lets her get an actual, real grasp on the situation. “Be a good *** prisoner, and shut the *** up.”