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Author Topic: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 1/14!)  (Read 9583 times)


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Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 12/3!)
« Reply #30 on: December 03, 2022, 06:53:47 AM »

Chapter 72: KURREKESH
THE FLAMES OF WAR sing their mortal song across Kurrekesh for three days. Citizens have taken up arms to aid the army led by General Mutemba and the future Pasha Osakwe. Scores of the poor and dispossessed, entire battalions of disenchanted soldiers, and millions of middle-class citizenry, all fight in the name of the rightful Pasha Osakwe Ginzego. Mutemba finds it almost comical how a nation can result to religious-like fanaticism and messiah wish-fulfillment when the straits are dire enough. Even a society steeped in semi-religious rituals as Kurrekesh falls victim to this innate reflex. But Mutemba cannot fault them for seeking hope in the most egregious of ways. He only has to make sure the notion doesn’t fester after the coup is accomplished.
   The Royal Palace stands proud before them, even in the face of an overwhelming assault. The outer walls of the palace strike high into the sky, so much so that Mutemba has to crane his neck back to even see the battlements. Once red like the rivers of blood that paved the way for the Ginzego rule over Kurrekesh. Bleached over time by sand and storms, and washed away like their enemies.
   Air assault troops have so far rid the battlements of enemy forces, enabling Mutemba and the heavy battalions to occupy the main gate. Fighting on the inside is rampant and deadly, but as of yet still undecided. Mutemba relegated the initial assault to volunteers. Let them fight for their freedom. The lower classes always loved a martyr, and they can all be one. Mutemba isn’t going to risk his main assault force to breach the gate when he knows Abdu’s Royal Guard is waiting for them. In the entire history of the Ginzego dynasty on Kurrekesh, and throughout two wars, the Royal Guard have never turned on their Pasha. They are bred exclusively to obey, and the voice of their Pasha is the only voice they hear. Literally. The Royal Guard is modded and reprogrammed to only hear the voice of the current lord. Even going so far as having a direct auditory feed to the Pasha’s heartbeat. Day in and day out the only thing the Royal Guard hear is the drumming of their Pasha’s heart, and the occasional word thrown their way. Otherwise it’s just an echo of his voice bouncing off the massive stone walls of the throne room; the Pasha addressing his subordinates at one point or another. When the Pasha’s heart stops beating before his time, the Royal Guard’s have failed. Without a voice to follow they commit ritual suicide on the spot. A waste of truly remarkable soldiers. Mutemba thinks.
   Osakwe will see to it that this tradition is halted. Mutemba will make sure.
   Mutemba then hears shouting from atop the battlements. “We’re taking the courtyard! The outer palace is ours!”
   Soldiers chant from everywhere. A thunderous and raucous collective jubilation, underscoring the raging bombers and on-planet crafts still littering the skies in search of reinforcements.
   Mutemba had carefully cultivated this assault. At first it was a matter of cutting the palace off from the rest of the planet. In order to do so Mutemba placed his loyalists across all the army bases and production facilities planet-wide. Sowing the seed of the revolution. The royal palace is carved into the mountainside of Ramhalla, and the vast stretches of Ramhalla City fan out. The city is a fetid pool of labor forces dedicated solely to the upkeep of the economic capital of the planet and overall system. Mutemba knew that with enough persistent propaganda, guerilla tactics, and a decent amount of uproar in the army bases, the masses of people would cascade upon the palace at his behest. A tidal wave of unrest, violence, and slaughter. From there on out it was just a matter of managing the dirigibles with the ground forces and not bombard his own people. Mutemba’s main assault force is more than capable of cutting through the throngs and making their way to the inner courtyard and throne room after the airborne battalions take over the walls.
   As they did less than ten minutes ago, and are now opening the front gate.
   Massive doors of nigh-impregnable metal grate against the marble floor. Mutemba has seen the gate closed only for the Eye of Darkness Festival. A yearly eclipse where the people of Kurrekesh engage in a collective act of complete silence to honor the Forces of the Galaxy that will aid them in another successful year. The first settlers, and thus indigenous peoples, of Kurrekesh believed the eclipse to be the end of the year. As history would have it, some things become canon, and to this day they celebrate the Eye of Darkness Festival. Because after darkness comes the sun. The gates of the palace are opened, and a new year will prosper.
   Everything Mutemba missed so dearly is flooding back to him. His blood is in the sand, and Kurrekesh belongs to him as much as he belongs to it.
   “Flood them!” General Mutemba Ginzego orders his troops.


   They guaranteed him that the gate would not be lost. Then they guaranteed him that his *** runt brothers won’t make it through the courtyard.
Now they’re guaranteeing that his brothers won’t make it into the palace proper.
   Truth is, they can’t evacuate because the assault has them locked. The curs made sure to cut off the escape tunnels through the mountain. Not that Abdu would expect Mutemba to mess this up.
   Abdu also isn’t moronic enough to believe that his retinue of generals and advisors has any vested interest in his well being beyond the fact that they have aligned themselves with him for too long now. Turning themselves over to Mutemba and the cur Osakwe will only bring them certain death. After all, the royal coffers have kept them prosperous. Abdu had along with his retinue recognized that a docile nation was a good nation. An obedient nation was a beholden nation. Such a nation could be molded, and Abdu could expand Kurrekesh into an empire. However, Abdu isn’t moronic enough to not recognize that his retinue had lined their pockets since day one.
   In truth, that’s why they stand by Abdu.
   If the current Pasha is dethroned, the coming will break the shackles and let loose the dogs on them. They are banking on reinforcements from off-planet. Mutemba obviously put all his efforts into the ground assault, they told him. As such, if we can hold down the palace for long enough we can pincer him in. The only thing Abdu doesn’t like is the continuous use of the word if.
But his retinue knows full well that the money goes if Abdu goes.
   It’s not even that they’re afraid of death. Abdu knows. It’s that they’re afraid of not having power. Dying powerless.
   If the money goes, so does the power.
   Only thing Abdu can be certain of is that his generals and advisors won’t betray him because they have no other option. And his Royal Guard won’t betray him because they simply can’t.
   They just have to hold the palace proper.


   The inner courtyard and gardens quake in screams of war. Remaining forces have secured the gate and outer courtyard. Dirigible patrols have sky-walled the city. Mutemba’s soldiers  have taken over every major production facility and outpost, and are making headway taking down loyalist stragglers.
   Now Mutemba and his squad of best soldiers have to make it to the throne room.
   His own people, beholden to him since his exile. Trained, sharpened, and honed by him over the years. Master operatives in the field of espionage, and unmatched in the art of war. As precise as the family heritage falchion that is proudly displayed above the throne. A mortal reminder of the perils of ruling. The blade itself kept diamond sharp for ages. Mutemba’s squad is all they need to slice their way to the throne room.
   Blaster fire, explosions, shouts and screams, all snake through the hallways of the inner courtyard. Mutemba knows this part of the palace like the back of his hand. The servant walkways lining the outer rims of the palace walls were his childhood sneaking ground. He would listen in on the servants and giggle. At least he giggled before he overheard some of them talking about how much they hated his father, and how they would gladly poison his supper. Afraid for his father’s safety Mutemba spilled to the head of security. The next day the three servants were gone. Mutemba stopped giggling when he listened to the servants as his routine excursions to the walkways became training for his future career as a spy. Mutemba’s father had cut him out of the line for Pasha, and he never forgave him for that. Despite his sick love for his father.
   At least now he’s putting his years of skulking through these dank corridors to good use.
   The servant walkways are dug through the thick outer walls of the palace. Reaching up to the highest floor, as well as down to the basements. Hidden from the naked eye, but enabling servants to traverse the palace unseen. As it can be considered unseemly for them to trample royal ground with their unclean feet. Another tradition Mutemba will vehemently let Osakwe know should be terminated.
   While Mutemba has no false hope of pushing through to the throne room itself from here, he is certain he can make it around the main battle chokepoints and cut through the loyalist forces from the back. Cleansing the inner courtyard and opening a sluice gate for his soldiers into the palace proper.
   Mutemba and his squad wade their way through the dimly lit walkways, out and around the inner courtyard. Over comms he receives updates on the gardens overtake, and it’s going according to plan. Mutemba has briefed his troops on the garden layout, and his own secret routes through the maze of hedges and more servant walksways. The inner courtyard, however, is much more open and precarious. He has to man that offensive himself.
   They move with haste, and make it round the bend of the outer wall.
   Mutemba’s squad has one more bend to clear before they’re out and into the courtyard. Fighting can be heard, funneled hard and loud, decibels careening into the walkway.
   “Centipede formation. Shields and hovers. Shell and shot, rotate. I take point,” Mutemba lets them know. His soldiers nod, and ready their gear. “Go,” he orders.
   They burst out with a vengeance, cascading death.
   Two soldiers in hover-boots with massive phasma-shields click into place, shoulder to shoulder almost with Mutemba. He puts the scope of his railgun to his eye, and starts clipping heads in the distance. Loyalists lined on top of the balustrades like a sick game at the Trafalgar carnival. Blood starts raining down on the loyalists pinned by opposing forces assaulting them from all sides now.
   Centipede formation does the trick. Mutemba has his main contingent lined on all sides with soldiers on hover-boots and packing shields. Like a moving palace they form the outer wall. Inside there is a rotating line of long range railgunners, and short range shredder blasters. Mutemba and three more are packed tightly up front, picking off targets in the distance. As one soldier has to reload they switch to their shredder and retreat back into the center mass. There they peek out from behind the shields and cut through assailants at close range. A soldier with an empty shredder switches to their railgun and moves forward. A continuous circle of railguns, shredders, and reloading, all done with the precision of an assembly line.
   The centipede makes its way through the cloister-like halls of the inner courtyard, legs upon legs of soldiers switching with one another, in perpetual forward motion, mowing down everything in its path. Hovers are mobile, and the shields provide ample defense. Plus, the mobility enables them to trail off into sections, disperse like a river delta, and then retreat back to the fold.
   Mutemba veers off with two hovers and two shooters, one rail one shredder. The small contingent makes their way left around the pillars lined with viyar bushes. They skirt around and ambush a contingent of loyalists seeking to flank the main force. Mutemba splatters the head of one in the distance, making sure he doesn’t alert his comrades before they can get the drop on them. He can see on his retinal the feed from the second railgunner in his contingent, taking down active reinforcements farther down the vaulted pathways leading to the gardens. Meanwhile the shredder makes sure offshoot goons die in a hail of blood and bones as they try to assault them from the sides.
   The river of his troops cuts a crimson swath through the enemy.
   Soon enough the inner courtyard is theirs, and Mutemba makes his way to the gardens.


   They can fight their way out the escape tunnels. That’s what they say. Abdu’s retinue desperately bicker and fight. Among themselves at first, then with their own Pasha. As the palace rumbles and morale crumbles the only thing everyone is looking for is someone to blame.
When Abdu first put Kurrekesh on this path he truly did see a reign for himself as the leader of the strongest faction in the Mid-Straits. His people had grown restless after the arms contract with the Authority fell through. Limbani Ginzego, Abdu’s proud father, the same one who paved his son’s way to the throne, had told him so before he died. The way forward for Kurrekesh was paved in blood.
   As Abdu watches his retinue lose their collective *** he is brought back to his days in the palace as a child roaming the halls. He always wanted to play hide and seek with Mutemba, but his older brother would just disappear. When they would sup later in the day Mutemba would be distant, and as the years went on he became completely cold. Still disappearing within the palace at night as the years went on, until he finally disappeared completely.
   When Abdu took the throne he exiled his brother the same day Mutemba came back from almost a lifetime away from Kurrekesh. Abdu never knew his brother, but he knew that he hated him. There would be no home for Mutemba Ginzego on Kurrekesh. While Abdu had Osakwe as a political hostage there was no way Mutemba would come back to haunt him.
Because Abdu never knew his brother, he never knew how the ghost of Mutemba Giznego never ceases to haunt its target.
   They have taken the gardens, from what Abdu can hear.
   They have breached the palace proper.
   If they can hold the throne room, there still might be a chance. Those less hopeful flee into the escape tunnels to get mowed down within the narrow pathways. Or even worse, simply buried alive.
   If they can hold the throne room, there is still a chance.


   Golden doors smash open when the explosives tear down the hinges. Mutemba and his battalion of Kurrekesh  revolutionaries infiltrate the throne room.
   At the top of a set of stairs laden with gold and carpeted by white fur, sits Abdu on his throne. Around him, nothing except the dead bodies of the Royal Guard. Kill switch. A last, pathetic attempt at taking something with him. Pasha of Kurrekesh, alone on the throne, the falchion above him sharp as a diamond. Mutemba orders his troops to halt and take up defensive positions in case of an ambush. Better safe than sorry.
   Mutemba highly doubts aid is coming though.
   He walks up to the throne, his brother Abdu stoic as if stone.
   None of that gold that gleams from the reflective lighting can hide the fact that Abdu has put on his funeral mask. His face is waxen and pale, and his fingertips turn yellow as he grips the throne. Small muscles in his jaw protrude, and Mutemba thinks his teeth might break from the pressure his lockjaw puts on them.
   The Pasha’s ornamental crown of sand suits Abdu well, Mutemba must confess. It highlights the best features of the Ginzgego family in him. The high cheekbones, strong jaw, deep inset eyes many call mysterious, all squaring a wide mouth and full lips. Eyes the color of gold.
   As his wretched father would say - the eyes that see a golden future.
   Mutemba’s black eyes are set on his brother.
   “You want me to beg?” Abdu spews out through his clenched teeth. Awaiting the pull of the trigger any second. Caught in the moment of death. Expecting and tightening with every second he is alive. Death blocks the mind from accepting that this is your final moment. This waiting game until the curtains drop. It’s endless. A torture almost beyond compare. No one can relax. You can’t relax. The moment you relax is the moment you don’t see it coming. Since your brain is now hardwired to only see death, you have to see it coming. The tenser you get, the more it hurts. Mutemba has seen it countless times. Has turned his heart to stone. The sensation of seeing it unfold in front of him nothing more than a fleeting moment. Unlike that of his victims.
   Abdu is trembling from the circle of death wheeling freely within his mind. Pulling and tugging at every single part of his life.
   “No, brother, I want you to understand,” Mutemba tells him. Abdu looks up, directly into Mutemba’s black eyes. “Had you been a Pasha worthy of it, I would be on one knee now. I accepted my exile, only because I knew I could be of more use outside the fold. Brother, I believed that was your plan all along. Until I saw you fail.”
   “*** you.” Abdu cuts in, spittle flying and bile spewing.
   Mutemba scoffs. “You failed, brother. And you failed without compare. Had you not sold the army to your generals and commanders and advisors, Kurrekesh could have been the dominant force in the Mid-Straits. That is what father would have wanted. Why I hated him. Because he only sought use in people.” Abdu turns away slightly. Mutemba understands, as the memories waltz through his own mind. The mere mention of father. “I understood when I first saw you speak. The throne was yours, and mine were the skies. So be it. All you had to do was succeed, and you failed.” Mutemba checks the charges in his railgun. Two left. Abdu sees the brief twitch of Mutemba’s eyes, and frowns. Shaking even more violently. “Now we have to play farmers. Farmers, Abdu, *** farmers. Just in order to get by. But not before we take up a position within the Mid-Straits. One of many things I will do that you couldn’t. From there I will start the legacy of Osakwe Mutemba, and stabilize the Golden Triangle. Just to make sure you know, brother, how much you have failed us.” Mutemba points the blaster at his brother’s forehead. Tears run down Abdu’s eyes as they bulge, craters and riverbanks of bursting capilares paint the white sky around his golden eyes red. “All you had to do was succeed, and you failed.”
   Mutemba pulls the trigger.

Chapter 73: PYRE
   Mere days after Osakwe had been proclaimed the new Pasha of Kurrekesh, the War Council had been elected. Well, even Mutemba has to put some salt on the word elected. All it is, is a feigned temporary government Mutemba will use to secure enough support for the upcoming developments. Afterwards they can have their people’s cabinet. Mutemba knows exactly how these things work. He has seen, and seen to, the downfalls of many such militaristic governments. No one can escape the people’s rule in the end. The Reign didn’t, and they thought they had it all figured out. That’s exactly why he knows that the government doesn't mean ***. Mutemba knows where and how to lead Kurrekesh forward.
   “Council, I trust we have made our stance on the matter clear.” The council nod to Mutemba. “Very well. Meeting adjourned. Please, allow me some time with my brother, alone.”
   The council make their way out.
   Only Mutemba and Osakwe are left. The domed ceiling of the cabinet meeting room evokes the feeling of being but a small drop in the sand. Mutemba’s father wanted it that way. The throne room is vast, open, and magnanimous. That is where the Pasha sits. Where one comes to see him in his glory, and beg. In the meeting rooms you are confined by walls, but the sky is vast, and so, oh so far away. Here, you are trapped with him, and he has you, because the skies are his. Mutemba knows because this is where he and his father would have their regular meetings to update the Pasha on servant matters. If the weak have the courage to talk, then they will soon have the courage to fight. Is what his father told Mutemba. This is why his mission was so important.
   Only mistake Mutemba ever made was moving on his father too late. By the time Mutemba had poisoned his father, the dreaded earworm had already been planted in Abdu. His brother had inherited the word and worldview of their father. Mutemba himself even believed that his father was the savant he always proclaimed to be. That his father saw the future before his eyes, as plain as day stretched heavy and golden across the barren deserts of Kurrekesh. Mutemba believed.
   At least until he met Farideh the Free.
   But Mutemba has no time for regrets now.
   “We will not parade our dead brother through the streets like a cur. He was a proud Pasha, and a member of the Ginzego family. Despite his failure, he was still one of us, and people would be well advised to remember that. We will give him a Pasha’s burial, to note the passing of the old, and the coming of the new. And we will do so with respect.” It’s important for the people to never get it into their heads that they can disrespect any of us. Once is enough for the thought to blossom that it could be done again.
   “I disagree, brother. That makes us look weak. It will seem like we support him, even in death. We must make sure the people know his tyrannical reign is over.”
   Mutemba takes a deep breath. So hopeful, yet so naive. “Osakwe, it’s time for you to understand,” He says and approaches his brother. Osakwe looks at him with his green eyes freckled in golden dust. By all accounts still an optimist, a believer at heart. A believer in the worst of all things - the good in people. He doesn’t say anything back, just listens. “The only reason you are Pasha is because the people hate me.” Mutemba sees Osakwe preparing his brief speech about how the people still love him deep down inside. He stops his brother in his tracks. “No. It’s true. They hate me because I was the spymaster, and I will forever stay the spymaster. Hard to blame them for that, considering how many I put to death myself. The death blow might not have been by my hand, but it was my hand that brought them there. My exile made sure there was no love left for me on Kurrekesh.” And yet they all cheered on as I led Osakwe to the throne. Masses are quick to forget. But Mutemba is sure they won’t forgive. His exile was the hardest thing he ever had to endure. As spymaster he could see how his father deteriorated, but still he wanted to believe that his father could not be wrong. He poisoned his father to pave the way for a new regime before everything good they ever did could be undone by his delusions. Still, Mutemba believed there was something underneath the oncoming madness. Even something in Abdu. Only to find himself torn from the bosom of his home, and left to rot in the open skies. Still he believed there was something underneath it all. His father had never instructed him wrong. His father had never led Mutemba astray. Then how could he destroy everything he built. He couldn't, he wouldn't.
   But his father did, if not by his own hand then through Abdu.
   If Muteba had been there, if his father hadn’t polluted Abdu’s mind, he could have told his brother not to sell off shares of the Kurrekesh military economy to his advisors in exchange for bolstering production. He would have told his brother not to privatize factories, and establish a trade union in Ramhalla. He would have told him to expand first, then divide production between sectors to create more secure trade routes. A centralized production and distribution complex is easier to manipulate. Abdu’s retinue did just that. Now what is left of Kurrekesh has to pick up where his brother left off.
   Osakwe needs to know.
   “I cannot sit on the throne, Osakwe, but I can lead us.”
   “What are you saying, brother?” Osakwe grasps at the straws handed to him. Slowly drowning as realization washes over him.
   “How were your late night discussions with Saanvi? I would say rather fruitful, ever since the day you met.” Black irises widen like a sinkhole in a swamp. Osakwe clenches his teeth, muscles in his cheeks protrude, but he stays silent. Lack of information, lack of chances to strike. “I see you took to the idea of the eco-proletariat society like a desert mouse to sand.”
   “You,” finally Osakwe utters an exacerbated, and tired monosyllable.
   “Oh, come now, brother. No need to hate me as well. I told you a mere minute ago. The people hate me. I cannot sit on the throne. Not just because I was the spymaster, but because I’m old. They all had enough time to build up their hate of me. The people associate me with subterfuge and death. Far as I can go is general, and that’s fine with me.” Mutemba leans in closer. “It’s fine with me as long as you obey, brother.” Osakwe breathes heavier. The dreams in his eyes sink, as the freckles of gold fall into tears like stars from the sky. “Every idea you ever had, has been mine. And I need you to know that, brother. Not because I don’t believe you could have had your own. But because you’re not ready. You’ve spent your entire life on Kurrekesh, just like Abdu, just like our father. See where it brought us. See where we are now. You are not ready, brother. So, hate me now all you want. One day, that might change. Just remember to obey.” Mutemba lets it sink in. He wants to hold his brother’s hand but he retreats. “Now, please leave me. I’m expecting important company,” Mutemba orders his brother away.
   Osakwe stands up. Tears flow down his cheeks in rivulets. Mutemba notices him brushing them off with the sleeves of his royal gown as he walks out the room.
   Mutemba will have to talk to Saanvi after Osakwe is done berating his bride to be. Of that he is certain. He will also have to smooth things over with the turncoats who will undoubtedly be requesting amnesty for their crimes. Mutemba made quick work of the Abdu’s retinue, but there are those outside that small circle who feign innocence and lick boots. He hates those kinds the most. In due time they will all be disposed of. Nobody except the War Council is afraid of Mutemba as of yet. Only the few have tasted his wrath. Quick and from the shadows, as is befitting of the best spymaster Kurrekesh has ever seen. Let them frolic, and let them think Osakwe is the Pasha. Let them all think they are safe.
   Safety makes a person weak.
   “General Mutemba,” a message over comms. “The SIN liaison is here to see you.”
   “Let them in.”
   An unassuming young woman enters the room. Dressed in the traditional servant’s garb of Ramhalla palace. Her hair covered by a cloak, and her body draped over in orange fabric flowing straight down to the floor. It swishes and skirts as she walks up to Mutemba. She has a face he’s seen a hundred times, and never looked at it twice in passing. She’s perfect. Mutemba thinks. Then the spymaster inside him kicks like a steppe-mule. She can be anywhere, at any time, listening in, always informed, always pushing info back to SIN. He can see where this is going before it’s even taken the first step. He can see how deadly of a bargain he struck with SIN.
   “Congratulations on your successful acquisition of the throne,” and she gives a courtly nod. “I trust Pasha Osakwe is settling into his role contently?” Her voice is subtle and meek. Barely any resonance to it. Not a whisper, but just air that stays floating long enough to hear the words, then disappears. Just like Mutemba imagines her disappearing into the palace.
   “Not content as of yet, but he will adapt.”
   “That’s good to hear. My employer will be satisfied with the news.” Mutemba notes the more subtle ways the SIN liaison expresses herself. The miniscule, almost unnoticeable facial expressions. Lack of emotional conduct, like staring at a waxen mask. As one spy to another, Mutemba is certain he will have to engage her head-on.
   “Since you will be, undoubtedly, informing Mr. Sunderland regularly, you can start by telling him that Kurrekesh will be assembling its military and taking over the Stromyeh and Bazaltran sectors.”
   The liaison arches her eyebrow. Not impervious after all. “The justification thereof being, what exactly?” And not as experienced. Mutemba knows right away that she’s not just there to witness and report back. Sunderland has given this liaison a level of autonomy. She’s scared.
   “During our brief, but pointed negotiation, as well as the following contractual agreement, it has never been stipulated that expansion is prohibited. Furthermore, one of the main obligations within the contract is to hold a firm defensive military. Kurrekesh can achieve this with one sector, that is certain. But consider this,” and Mutemba looks at her sternly, pulling her into his own arena. “Farideh has effectively taken control of the Mid-Straits. Soon enough that entire stretch of the Galaxy will align with her. What’s to stop her from barreling down on us. So let me make one thing clear, liaison, I haven’t come this far to fail. SIN will receive everything according to the contractual obligations, but not by breaking the back of my kingdom. Kurrekesh will stand, and it will pay what it is owed. In order to stand, we first need to take.”
   The liaison stands there in silence. Unmoving, her dark skin glistening under the domed sunlight filtering through. “If you seek to proceed with this acquisition, I would suggest moving with haste. If Stromyeh and Bazaltran get wind of this, they will blockade. A prolonged war would have to be snuffed out, lest it jeopardize the endeavor.”
   “I concur.”
   “Good,” the liaison says and walks out the room. Mutemba isn’t sure he’ll see her anytime soon. Or at least he won’t if she’s good enough.
   Mutemba turns on the holodeck map, and mulls over the statistics and routes. He thinks of his father, and how he wishes he were still alive to see this. Preferably from the dungeons.

Chapter 74: PARTON
CASSIOPEIA IS BEAUTIFUL. Her home just the same. Jolene never stops missing it, even when she’s being lavishly housed in some corpo complex deep in the mountains of Sur. Compared to the staggering wealth of their family, Jolene’s da and ma have never let themselves get carried away. A humble life raises a prudent mind. Her da would always say. So Jolene enjoys the humble cabin by the lake. Her ma is up in the house, not much larger than the cabin itself. Da is out fishing in the lake, while Jolene sets the table on the porch and takes her time to breathe in the fresh Cassiopeia air.
   After setting the table Jolene just sits there, doing nothing for a change. Not even crunching any numbers, or thinking of business. She just is, there at that moment and beyond, just being. Suspended within the lake of her own mind, floating unobstructed. For a while she feels free.
   In the distance her da’s coming up to the cabin with a bucket he hauls with considerable strain. “Da, stop, let me hello you,” Jolene shouts.
   “Sit there and enjoy the day, sunshine. I’ve been hauling fish up this hill for years.” Always was a man set in his ways. Well, set in his ways in everything but business.
   Dean Parton was an innovator since he first sat behind the mixing board. Releasing classic albums first as an engineer, then a producer, and finally as a record label mogul to end all record label moguls. The recording industry, Musicians Guild, and distribution framework, are all under the Parton umbrella. Needless to say, Jolene’s da owns all that. Sits on top of an empire that spans the *** Galaxy, and she couldn’t be more proud to be a Parton. Couldn’t be more proud of her da, and her ma, who’s been with him since day one. One built the castle, while the other keeps it standing.
   And Dean Parton still finds the time, no, makes the time to haul large buckets of fresh fish from the lake up to the cabin for a well-earned and homemade supper. Jolene even knows what to expect for the meal. Her da knows she’s hankering for fish wrapped in sweet tea leaves imported from the COM. He likes to salt the fish, and fill it with citrus slices, so when it finishes steaming it’s tender, sweet and sour with just that bit of tang to make her lips pucker. Jolene loved that since she was a child.
   Some things never change. She thinks to herself while watching her da bring firewood into the cabin. Unchanging is also something she can easily apply to her da as well. Dean has always been a twig. Arms sinewy, almost starved, and collar bones poking above the shoulders that just slope down like a cliff face. All of that connected to a scrawny neck, reminding in a way of a construction hull of gurney and pulleys somehow moving it all in unison. Twig legs prop Dean up and Jolene is sometimes amazed by the weight the man can simply hoist and haul wherever it needs hoisting and hauling. Her da built the cabin himself, over years and years. Back then he spent more time on Columbia, where the Parton headquarters are. Only sparingly taking the time to continue his construction work. Now he spends more time home, enjoying his life together with her ma Virginia. I’ve got assistants for that, Dean likes to answer when someone asks him about business. Jolene loves the warmth on her father’s face. Ruby cheeks plump and incongruous with the rest of his body. Long silver hair tucked away into a warrior knot, strands slipping out here and there poking out in the wind. A plump nose arches over slim lips and a pointed chin. Bushy eyebrows, slick and silver, are like balustrades that shadow his inset blue eyes. And he never slips into a frown, even when carrying firewood into the cabin and not allowing Jolene to even touch a single piece.
   Her da finally brings all the wood he needs into the cabin, and then disappears for the length of time it takes him to wrap the fish and start the fire. After that’s done he comes out and sits next to Jolene.
   Her da hands Jolene a lemonade. “I’m old enough to drink for real, da. Got any beers or something?” She knows he loves EN style beer. Keeps them handy in a fridge just above the freezer where he stores excess meat and fish.
   “Look at me, forgetting I’m talking to a woman and not a girl.” He stands up and Jolene regrets her question when she sees him pushing himself off the chair. Groaning all the while. Seems like when he stops he finds it harder to start back up again. The way old people tend to get at a certain age. Her da sees it in her eyes, and brushes it off with a smile. He goes in and comes back with the beers.
   They clink their bottles and Jolene takes a big cold swig that prickles all the way from her nose to the bottom of her belly.
   “So, what you up to, sunshine?” Her da always had a nose for Jolene’s machinations.
   “What, I can’t just show up for a nice relaxing day at the cabin with my da?”
   “Not what I’m asking, and you know it.” Her da shoots Jolene a sly grin. Just because he’s not constantly on Columbia doesn’t mean he’s not in the loop. Skies know he’s got the skinny on SIN. Jolene told him quite some time ago that she was running with them. It’s not so much a question out of concern, but sheer catlike curiosity. Maybe a tang of self-preservation. Dean and Virginia Parton have seen companies, enterprises, conglomerates, and even entire governments crumble. But the music keeps playing.
   “I recently became the COO of SIN,” Jolene finally tells him. She wanted to do it in person.
   “Sunshine, that’s amazing!” Her da raises his bottle and almost spills their beers when he clinks them as hard as he can. “Too busy to send your da a beep about that, ha?” He sips his beer, all the while glancing at his daughter at an angle. Gleeful shimmer in his eyes.
   “Didn’t want to. Doing it in person feels right.”
   “Oh, so good news and bad news.”
   “No bad news, da. Just need to give you a bit of a heads- up. SIN is going to be buying out people for a decent percentage of the Parton stocks. We’ll also be in touch with the Musicians Guild.”
   Dean Parton built an empire on a singular idea that skyrocketed over the course of decades into a music conglomerate that is now ubiquitous. Her da had the idea that every song would cost one credit. The full album is ten. That means up to thirteen songs for ten credits, or each song for one if you’re going that way. All in one, or bit by bit. So, you can listen to the singles from the Parton Network for free before the release. Check out if you like it, and order the full thing ahead of release. Or you can just stick with what you like, buy them during the first draft, and be off. Dean was certain that the pre-orders would be the biggest money maker. Considering that if you bought five songs for five credits, the full album doesn’t discount the previously spent tracks if you purchase it after release. Four songs is the limit. Bank that, bag your discount, and bag the full album. It was a surefire way to be certain that people bought the entire album. Reality turned out to be quite the opposite. People started spending mid-range. Six credits for the best songs out of the twelve to thirteen. Double-albums of twenty songs laid down purchases of nine to twelve songs. It was a goldmine. The Partons revolutionized the music industry. Ostensibly the big earners were whole time-spanning big market-pieces of commercial prog, and the hit makers who only sold singular songs at mass quantities. Dean Parton turned their production company into a distribution hub, and it hasn’t slowed down since.
   The music never stops playing. Jolene thinks while she’s waiting for her da to give a retort. Instead the old man just sips his beer, deep in thought.
   “Just one thing then,” and he pauses. Her da always had a flare for suspense. “What’s it all for?”
   “We’re taking SIN corpo. Not just any kind of corpo, we plan to take over the entire market. That’s serious bank, da.”
   Her da chuckles. “Look at you. Never heard you throw around that corpo slang. SIN must be doing you good. But that’s not what I mean, sunshine. What’s it all for, to you?”
   Jolene has to take some time.
   “It’s not the power. I mean, of course it is, but it’s not the main reason. Not the money, we have enough of that.” He da scoffs. “It’s not even the prestige. None of the things that everyone seems to covet. I think, even close to being certain, that it’s about freedom.”
   “You think power won’t be shackling you down, sunshine? Usually does.”
   Her da knows from experience. Always said that Columbia was his first love, then his prison. At least before he met Virginia, and finally decided to symbolically retire.
   “Skies know it does, da. But enough of it can break the chains. Not just for me, but for a lot of other people. Forget what you heard about SIN. We’re going to do good, da. We’re going to open up the market.”
   “I thought you were going to control it?”
   “Expand, control, then open. That’s the plan.”
   “Way past the expand part as far as I can see.”
   “Only things left are control and open. We’ll give people options, da. A way for everyone to get a shot at something more.”
   Her da sighs. “Sunshine, there’s always more out there. Always has been. More to life, more to people, more to the Galaxy. It’s everywhere. There’s always more. More to be earned, more to be taken, more to be had. Always.” He takes a sip. “But there isn’t more of you. And when you have that power, to determine how much more everyone else needs, think about what it is that you need. There is always more, sunshine, so think about it carefully. Think about what is more for you.”
   “Know what would be more I could use of now?” Jolene jiggles her empty beer bottle. “And skies be damned, da, play some music.”
   Her da harrumphs, swigs the rest of his beer and burps all delighted in himself. “I’ll bring you a beer, but I’m not playing that washed-up microtonal orchestral-layered prog ***.”
   Jolene has to grin. Her da always had an affinity for the fastest, loudest, most aggressive music in the Galaxy. Anarcho-punks, street-ragers, dynamo-techno, industro-noise, and whatever new genre makes the music most akin to being stuck in a flux capacitor during a burnout. Jolene knows the sound quite well from her drift sessions with Demir. Just cruising hard through the skies in Baby. Jolene, on the other hand, likes her music long and complex. Layered like a lavish cake. Music where the point is obscured like a treasure hunt in a hedge-grove labyrinth, making finding it all the more worthwhile.
   “Play any of that trash noise and I’ll pour my bear all over that precious EN record player of yours.”
   “That’s why I’m not letting you in.”
   Her da goes into the cabin for the beers.
   Jolene doesn’t want to tell him that before peace comes the flood. That once they go corpo, SIN will bankroll investments that will at first cripple the economy. Tank the stock of major tech corporations, Xing at the forefront. She won’t tell him that once they open the market to the Sons tech they will have a full-scale tech and patent race on their hands. She doesn’t want her da to know that SIN will be the target of major espionage, and the rightful villain in everyone’s book. At least until it all stabilizes, and the gates can finally be opened. Jolene doesn’t want her da to know that for her, more power is the more she’s looking for. Jolene wants to rule. That’s more for her. That’s freedom to her, and power is *** freedom.
   She tells him none of that while they drink their beers, listen to some middle-ground popular music that her da wants Jolene to listen to before he signs them. She tells him even less as the day turns to night, and they eat supper on the porch.
   The only thing Jolene tells her da is that the fish is fantastic after finishing her portion.
   And that she could go for more.
« Last Edit: December 03, 2022, 09:04:38 AM by B.K. »


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Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 12/3!)
« Reply #31 on: January 05, 2023, 10:24:56 AM »

“Ladies, gentlemen, criminals!” Demir booms. “The war is over, long live war!”

6 chapters coming tomorrow.
Not today, because I am, after all, a lazy ***.


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Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 1/6!)
« Reply #32 on: January 06, 2023, 08:29:51 AM »

Time to get your gangster on.
Fueled by the delectable combo of Junior Reid - One Blood / The Game - It's Okay (One Blood).
Now, I'm not just throwing these characters out there to die in obscurity.
As Rammstein would say:
"Ich habe Pläne, große Pläne
Ich baue dir ein Haus
Jeder Stein ist eine Träne"

And I do have plans, big plans.

Chapter 75: SIMPLE
CHAYENNE HAD IS ALL FIGURED OUT. Had it figured out until he came in.
   First time Chayenne had it all figured out was when she and her brother, Spring, lived on one of the trash piles on Verleihen. Dust planet, but good for mining and throwing away the scrap metal on trash piles that stretched for kilometers. Chay - as Spring called her - was the bruiser because she had to walk through doors sideways. Spring was the feet, quick on them since he could walk, tiny and lanky like a mouse, he was. The two were the best scavengers on the trash pile. Come delivery time, what they called a new freighter of fresh scrap gracing the pile with new spoils, and the two would be on it. So Chay would hold off runners twice her size with her oversized back and shoulders, just pushing people away until they caught a haymaker that ripped jaws apart from the rest of their respective skulls. Meanwhile Spring would clear out the most valuable scrap. He’d be off with that small *** like empty capacitors, transference-rods, grav-chips, and all some such nonsense the scrapper would tell Chayenne when she’d sell it to him. Once they bumped up in credits Chay got herself a shield, and Spring got himself a whip to zip around with.
   Chayenne had it figured out on the Gizzard Market too. Mean bastard by the name of King Gizzard ran the market. Trash piles didn’t get fresh food, instead the people thrown away to live there had to scavenge for a meal too, or buy it off of much more powerful people. Cadaver piles were the second kind of pile on Verleihen, and unlike trash piles were small and could easily be held by a singular force. King Gizzard ran the Gizzard Market for trash pile 1807-A, where Chay and Spring were royalty.
   The Gizzard Market was their stomping ground. Chay and Spring would blow off righteous credits for the freshest gizzards, which was the only item on the menu. Nothing worth eating was thrown away by the hive-factories. Those that lived on the trash piles were not worth the usual gizzard processing plants that supplied protein bars for gen-pop in the lower levels of the hive-factories. No, people living on the trach piles had to make due with the stuff that couldn’t even be processed. Every pile had its own kind of Gizzard Market. Half-dead people eating dead meat even the dead wouldn’t eat. Varleihen was a dust planet too, so some needed to cross the half-frozen wastelands of storms and sands to get to another trash pile in search of better fortunes. Migrant hordes sometimes traced paths of dead bodies and mass graves across the dunes.
   1807-A was where Chay and Spring grew up and became the best scavengers controlling the top of the *** pile.
   King Gizzard gave them the royal treatment. My best customers, he’d call them.
   Until people heard about the good givings up on pile 1807-A. Strong people who didn’t care that Chay had a shield and Spring a whip. They came in with jack-fists, stun batons, plasma shields, and all kinds of improvised maiming tools.
   Second time Chay had it figured out was when she decided they would split, and finally leave 1807-A behind. They could just get away from it for the first time in their lives. Had enough to get good equipment for a cross. Make it safe, and make sure they don’t end up with the rest of the dried up bones and flash-frozen mummified corpses littering the dunes. Start out somewhere fresh, and work the mid tier scavenger circles. Got too big on 1807-A, was all. So people came in to take them on. They were going to leave the next day, and could hold up with King Gizzard until then. Man did good by them even then.
   Chayenne couldn’t predict that Spring would go for one final quick rip and run. Heard there was a promising shipment coming in from the Core Worlds. Not only that, but Spring had been scouting the sewers to the docks for a sting like this for ages. Perfect timing came about there and then, and that meant good timings for a heist. He was quick on his feet, zipped with his whip. Spring could do a mean rip and run.
   Chayenne had to scrape her brother off the four quadrants of the trash pile after he landed. Took the officers on board little time to find him. Just far enough into the skies, they were. Threw him out at max atmospheric altitude. Chayenne knew enough to know he was awake the entire time.
   Third time she had it all figured out was when she knew she’d get the *** who did her brother in like that. Skies be damned, she would have them. She would work them all. Chay got herself a piece of prime-grade metal plate, and a mil-tech enhancement rod. She fashioned herself a cleaver and sharpened it every night over the stones that struck out from beneath the cloth she slept on. Still had the dirty cloth just because the bugs do bite, and she needed at least bugs out of her nightmares.
   Scrape, scrape, scrape.
   King Gizzard got her the transponder code and plate number of the vehicle registered for off-planet departure at the time her brother dropped. Cost her a mean sum, but she got it. She kept her shield and cleaver at the ready at all times.
   Chay then found her own way through the sewers to the docks. And night after night, around the time her brother dropped, she’d wait for the ship.
   Scrape, scrape, scrape.
   Wait, wait, wait.
   Until it came. Just seeing it made her drowsy. Chay was barely sure it was not a hallucination from cheap gizzards, the worst polluted bits of scum, or just another type of hallucination from sheer exhaustion. But it was there. Plate number and all. *** was real.
   Fourth time Chay had it all figured out was when she skulked on board the ship. Made her way to a safe position guarded on two sides by walls. And when the crew found her, sounded the alarm, and came to her funneled in single file, she mowed them all down. She gave herself fully to the inner voice telling her that if she bathed in their blood she could finally sleep.
   After the slaughter it was too late to turn the ship around. Skies be damned, Chay could only blow it up, if even that. Never seen a console in her life. The ship was already out of orbit, and just floating around empty space like debris. Chayenne figured as much because days after she slaughtered the crew no one was coming to check on the ship. She also figured it was a quick hop planned through the Gates, considering their food supply was minimal.
   Chayenne drifted around in the skies aimlessly.
   Then she drifted off into a soundless lunacy where she tried desperately to get a hang of the console to just send a message out or something. The console never answered her. She had eaten through the supplies, and the only thing she could talk to at that point was her belly coiling around her spine from malnourishment.
   At one point, she remembered that she was raised on gizzards.
   Any kind of real meat, no matter its condition, was a delicacy compared to that.
   Leto, way back when he was a mere corporal, found Chayenne half-dead on rotten human meat. She told Leto everything, like he was magical. She could never lie to him. Chay could hardly believe her eyes, just looking at the man. Stunning in every way. Power, manifested as a man right in front of her. When she started talking she couldn’t stop.
   Fifth time Chayenne had it all figured out was when Leto told her she’d be pardoned if she joined the Reign Strike Troops. Chayenne decided she was going anywhere he was going.
   When she held the line during the C was the sixth time she had it all figured out. She would die if Leto died, because she would go anywhere he was going.
   For Chayenne there was no seventh time. Nothin after the C. No lucky final time and no lucky number. Leto was dead and she lived. Exactly the opposite of what she wanted.
   So now she throws dice that make decisions for her. Gives her something at least. A kind of rush, not having it all figured out. Sweet death always a possibility. No good way to go, so she might as well just go.
   Chay heard there was a job on Ygdra that paid well, so she threw the dice.
   Nine, eleven, and a three. Never did take to even numbers, Chay did. Even numbers meant family, friends, lovers, all in twos. The power of two. Chay never had no luck with that. So if the dice were odd, she’d go for the job.
   It was at least something. Giving oneself to the unknown, throwing dice to see when she could finally die. Throwing dice and hoping for odd numbers. Years turning into decades. Chay went to see what this job was all about.
   At the meeting he looked into her eyes and said, “Chay, nice to see you again.”
   It was like a bed of needles in her stomach. His voice was the same, his mannerisms, facial expressions or even lack thereof, were all there. Power made manifest. It was all as it was before the C. The bed of needles turned into a net of butterflies.
   Seventh time Chayenne had it all figured out was when Leto asked her if she would do the job.


   Leto has her heading up her own unit. Chay makes due with a couple of people she ran with before, and Leto brings in some of his choice people. A ragtag band of misfits, all told. But Leto tells her that Chay’s squad will rendezvous with another strike team later on. Their only goal is to infiltrate the Hotel Istanbul warehouse, and do away with a target. We need him alive. Leto told her, and Chay will oblige. Always was good at doing as she was ordered to.
   ***, thinking on her own got her looking to dice for answers. Never could think for herself, even when she was all alone.
   Chayenne throws the dice one more time before she kicks the habit. For old time’s sake.
   Odd numbers thrice in a row. A decent seven, three and nine. Must be something in the air. She thinks to herself. In the pit of her stomach she feels the pins moving about. The very depths of a person where desperation gathers and festers. What if Leto just leaves me? Why isn’t he here? What if I die and don’t get to see him again? Chay goes through all the desperate questions. Nothing about her life, and whether she’ll come out of this intact. Turns out, the only thing she’s afraid of is not being afraid to die. Being afraid to die is like being dead already. Shake it off, Chay. *** shake it off.
   The lev-truck hits turbulence and wobbles for a second. Chay hates lev-tech. Just buzzing overhead on grav pads, levitating above her when she walks the streets of Ygdra City, like they’re all recording the population’s every move. Her squad sequestered a delivery type so they can drop on the warehouse while Hotel Istanbul are busy with their delivery. Leto told her the squad is to avoid contact with the delivery personnel at all costs. A strict smash and grab. He told her. Much like the old times. Chay couldn’t help but think.
   Chay loads her retinal with the coordinates and floor plan of the warehouse. Goes over it one time as their ETA looms closer.
   The warehouse they’re targeting is on the western Cliff-side Ports on Deck 6. Ygdra is a stroke of genius like that. A dead planet, so the core’s frozen over. Eons ago the Reign cut off a piece of the planet, and took advantage of the askew gravity to focus on a twenty hour day and four hour night cycle. They cut into the side and made entire docking sections, Decks as they’re called, that make up an entire half of the planet. All business, all the time. One of the biggest free ports in the Galaxy. It’s nighttime on the western Ports, so Chayenne’s team can go in silent.
She gives her gear a once-over. Until they reach their destination Chay has to focus solely on not throwing the dice at least one more time.
   Shake it off, Chay.
   Chayenne’s taking point, so she’s up as soon as her retinal sounds the arrival alarm. The lev-truck doors open on either side like massive wings, and kick back until they’re out of the way. Her squad secures their zip lines, and repel down.
   No chatter over comms during the ride, or during the descent. Just as Chay likes it. After the C she didn’t stay around any place long enough, and if she took a shine to a single place, she’d never taken a shine to no crew. Not really. Rolled with a lot of them. Seen scores die in front of her, yet Chay always had enough luck in her throw she guessed. Must have been. Got out of everywhere skies know how. But got out she did. So as Chay’s repelling down to the warehouse, she makes a clear resolution to stay off the dice, and quit waiting for things to happen.
   Entire team lands on the roof of the warehouse with nothing more than a bug’s fart to account for noise. Chay signals for everyone to go in fully cloaked. The stealth suit is *** uncomfortable, but Chay knows the benefits of having it on full well. If they don’t have major eye tracking tech on at least four to five of their squad, then Hotel Istanbul will go down simple and clean.
   Sides of the warehouse aren’t rigged with defensive mesh, and the upper windows are barely even bullet-proof polymer coated. No possible issues with infil. Exfil’s only going to be an issue if they get ganged on by reinforcements. Leto says there won’t be any incoming. Main contingent of Istanbul muscle is in the warehouse. Important shipment for the second most important member is coming in - Abdulah Akdu Jabbaar. AA.J, as his muscle calls him. Leto gave Chay strict orders to get AA.J out of there alive. That’s her G. Her only goal. Any good soldier need a *** good G in order to stay alive. She thinks to herself. Rest of the squad has been briefed on effective enemy suppression, while Chay has to go in quick and get out quicker.
   Entire squad’s got grav boots and are dispersing along the rim of the roof. They engage the boots on Chay’s command, and take the step.
   It’s never comfortable, at least not for Chay. No matter how many times she does it. It takes only a second, but it’s still one full second of falling. One step that you’re just suspended in space and time, a free fall, and that’s exactly one second until the grav boots kick in and you fall back down like a comet. Out one second, back the other. Feels like doing a trust fall with a blind person, to Chay at least.
   Her squad are all in position, feet stuck to the walls, cloaked torsos sticking out of the walls, invisible in the night.
   Chay engages the retinal overview and individual live feed. So every member of her squad can see what the other is doing, scroll through the feeds and make decisions on their own.
   Thermal scan goes over the warehouse and Chay checks the feed.
   Truckers are on their way out.
   Hotel Istanbul contingent is busy moving the shipment into the warehouse.
   Now’s the time.
   Chay wishes she’d thrown at least one more set of dice.


   AA.J knows that if he handles this shipment his name will ring out even more. Sure, he’s safe in the number two spot. But he wants at least control over the western Docks. He has this spot down tight. AA.J has been taking on more weight from this warehouse for almost a month now. Under the noses of both Salazar and Magellan. Hotel is even in talks with Mortimer Street about forming an offensive. Since AA.J has this spot locked down tight, he figures he’s got a chance at getting a piece of that expanded pie once they kick Salazar and Megellan off-planet. Hotel and Street on the same front means pressure, and pressure means bank. AA.J has to keep his numbers up, and then ask for more before Hotel and Street have the final sitdown. This shipment has to go through simple and clean.
   Trucker by the name of EDDguy just offloaded the cargo. Mean son of a *** with a beard down to his knees and a snarling maul like a rabid canine. But he’s one of the best. Brought in a full dozen mechs, cases of army-grade tech and weapons, and finally some old EN stock rocket launchers. Hotel has a certain affinity for the classics. It’s almost like their calling card. AA.J even started it. His name will ring out even more when he starts taking over.
   The shipment has to go through simple and clean.
   Then the windows break.
   An EMP scrambles everything.
   Blasters start blasting.
   Simple and clean.


   Chay’s on it like grav sickness. EMP scrambles the wires of every goon not laced with PROtonne, and no one takes that *** unless they have to. Chay hates taking the ***. *** concoction that basically pumps your blood with led particles that chaf the EMP signal. Feels like pumping ice into your veins. But nothing gets through if you’re on it, so your tech can work through the blast. Only thing is you have to *** the chaf out later.
   While the Hotel Istanbul goons are busy recalibrating, Chay’s squad has them pincered in. Chay has to make her way round the outer southern bend, and into AA.J’s office at the back. The telltale noises of combat echo her way. She has the combat data fully mapped out on her retinal. No need to look around, just keep her head in the game and eyes on the target. Like Leto taught her.
   Chay makes her way through the dark labyrinthian aisles of the warehouse. In between the stationed mechs, crates of weapons, and tons of drugs. Enough to start a small-scale war, and with some help make it into a large-scale one. Chay’s been around long enough to know when *** like territory disputes turn into dead people in the streets on the daily. Ygdra’s becoming a mess and Chay stayed on-planet to cash in.
   *** like this - quickly in, do damage, and get out - she does with her eyes closed.
   Only has to open them once she’s crashing through the office door, putting thermal rounds through the heads of everyone who’s not her target, and clocking AA.J over the head with the butt of her gun. Outside the office the wet and splattered noises of a massacre die down.
   “Cover me on exfil,” Chay orders her squad. Been a while since she talked. At all. Just herself and the dice. Chay heaves AA.J over her shoulder, and takes out her sidearm. A pulse-blaster she has loaded with uranium-coated shells. Thing can tear through armor like nobody’s business. “Roll out. EVAC, what's your ETA?”
   “Down in three.”
   Simple and clean. Chay thinks to herself.

Chapter 76: CLEAN
FINALLY LETO COMES TO HIM. Davidsohn kept one keen eye on Strike Force, and the other on the door. Waiting for Leto to come to him. When Strike Force disappeared off the map Davidsohn was certain Leto would come through the door. He knew Leto was the real deal when he first saw him on a news feed about the Sons and Strike Force. Skies be damned, Davidsohn was in charge of logistics during the C. He knows how people move, where and why. It’s like a heartbeat, a rhythm that Davidsohn works around, matches consecutive heartbeats to one another to make sure in the end everything is operating in unison. That’s the beauty of logistics. And the heartbeat he saw then and there belonged to Leto III, the Grand-Master of War.
   One important thing that Davidsohn holds close is that he doesn’t have to go out and pollute his body with the pestilent air on Throskell. A perc of the job. Only good thing about the planet is the access to data crosswebs. Davidsohn has legit access to all data nodes, which power his live-transmitter relay. That way he’s always in sync and always live.
Important people come to Davidsohn for logistics.
   But he waited for Leto.
   Davidsohn wasn’t going out into that putrid air. Not even for him.
   Then Leto came to him.


   Ex-Army and pre-C veterans cost grand bank. Credits up the ass. Which means someone high up on the food chain wants Mortimer Street off the street. Crystal Ball doesn’t usually take remote-operated jobs. But when he heard Davidsohn was doing the operation, he jumped at the chance. Man’s old pre-C Leto stock, just like Crystal Ball. Hasn’t done a combat op in *** decades. So if he’s doing it now it must be worth it. Skies be damned, Davidsohn helped him adjust his predictive retinal interception net way back when. Crystal Ball got his name because Davidsohn helped him sync the net up to max. Like a crystal ball he could see where the enemy was going, and shot them down like lame fowls.
   Mortimer Street has a mean shipment coming in on Deck 5. Outer Southern end. However, sunrise is quick on the south side. So Crystal Ball knows they have to handle this just as quick, while there's still night to blacken out the blood and silence to muffle the screams.
   Davidsohn told Crystal Ball that his sole objective was to apprehend the Mortimer Street second in command, Bandiera Rossa. A mean woman who washes her white shirts in the blood of her enemies. A walking red flag. Only reason she can’t ever go higher than number two is because she can’t count past three. But she’s rabid and craven, and based on what Crystal Ball read, Salazar killed her old man. They thought her old man was with Mortimer for harboring a cousin during his stint with the gang. Rossa’s out looking for blood. Magellan wouldn’t have her crazy ass, and neither would Hotel Istanbul. But Mortimer Street, they’re all just crazy enough for her. Bandiera Rossa carved Mortimer Street into Ygdra with blood.
   Not going down easy. That’s for sure. Crystal Ball thinks to himself. His order is to bring her in alive. Doesn’t say anything about broken, maimed, or just plain half-dead. Considering Rossa’s modded out of her skull and operating on prime combat stims at all times, looks to Crystal Ball like the only way she’s going down is rough.
   Not a problem. Crystal Ball hasn’t been in a decent brawl for ages. Bruisers like Rossa like a tight boxed fight when they can get it. Crystal Ball knows because he likes just the same. Shredders for the way there, and dozer gloves for the finisher. Reign Army Corps gave Crystal Ball a hefty set of chrome hydraulics in his arms and back. Ripped the ganic straight out. Dozer gloves is all he needs to steamroll a *** like Bandiera Rossa. Might as well have some fun while he’s doing it.

   People like to think the Known Galaxy’s circular. That’s a load of ***. Head south until you hit Orion, and then it’s either stop or fall off into the Vast Nothing. Systems and nebulas have a limit, and the Galaxy is far emptier than we’d like to think. Davidsohn made it his business to know just that. The Known Galaxy is more fan-shaped, and spreads out north to north-east more than anything. Like a birthmark crawling unsure across a body since birth. Logistics is about finding the right paths for the right things. Countless lines of trade going through every fiber of the Known Galaxy. A surgeon, in a way, Davidsohn has to map out how the veins will connect, and how the blood will flow.
   First he had to work through the Trucker’s awful scribbled nonsense. But he does appreciate the dedication to old-school navigation the people have. What Davidsohn doesn’t appreciate is how much of a hassle it is to work that kind of info. He got it done either way. Leto asked, after all.
   Then Leto asked Davidsohn if he’d like to lead an op. Get back on-planet, so to speak. Feel the weight of his boots on the soil, figuratively at least. All that sanctimonious undercurrent Leto always had in his tone. Always some kind of good behind everything. Some kind of good he can do, and just maybe if Davidsohn joined in he might also do some good too.
   That’s why Davidsohn said yes to the entire thing.
   He just wants to see how murdering a contingent of gang members will do some good in the end. He just has to see it for himself. Because last time - last *** time - Davidsohn did what Leto asked for the Tarsyan Dictat got wiped off the face of the Galaxy.


   Looks like they have to go in loud and heavy. Not that Crystal Ball minds. Mortimer Street really dished out on the security features. Fence is wired, cameras and prox triggers have a bead all around the warehouse, and the roof is pressure-plated. Crystal Ball would wager his score on the fact that Mortimer Street is ready to put more pressure on Salazar. They’re gearing up.
   Which is why getting into the warehouse requires some finesse.
First thing to get through is the ganic scanner. Everything made of flesh makes a noise once scanned. Minimizes the possibility of an ambush. Crystal Ball’s also fairly certain that they scan for explosives and remote-tech. No use leaving the door open for remote controlled mechs or a classic bomb run. No way to shield themselves from the scans. Mortimer Street will just deny the shipment, send it back, and the Truckers take *** for it.
   There’s no way they’re getting in with a truck. At least not silently.
   That’s exactly why Davidsohn crossed shipments, and the Mortimer Street warehouse has two freighters coming in. Simple as *** *** on the outside, but he’s sure Davidsohn had to do some logistical kamasutra to work it all out and make it look legit. Old school as only someone just as old school as Crystal Ball could appreciate.
   First freighter’s already being docked. Crystal Ball and his three backup guys are all tuned into the outer camera feed. They even got to see the two truckers fighting on who will go first and why. Throwing around colorful curses and even more colorful reasons why they should be first. The other truck, the one with the legit cargo, gets to go first.
It’s all part of the plan.
   Claiming to be as busy as the truckers are, they force the Mortimer Street gang to let them both in one after the other. Offload the two shipments, double time, and the truckers can be on their way.
   Both freighters chug along. First one makes it through the scanners.
   Crystal Ball is up next.
   Wait for it. Wait for it.
   They have to rush them once the freighter makes it to the scanners. Just the tip. Cockpit in, and before the scanners reach the soldiers inside.
   Every second is like an itch getting worse and worse. A phantom itch no one can scratch. A snaking bead of sweat.
   Crystal Ball just has to wait for it, and that’s getting harder with age.


   Bandiera Rossa isn’t the smartest, she knows that. But she sure as hell isn’t as stupid as others say she is. She knows this shipment is going to tip Mortimer Street over. This will get those Hotel Istanbul *** to take notice. Yeah, and once they’re at the table begging for Mortimer Street scraps, Rossa will be there. Yeah, and once they take over more Ygdra turf thanks to her, she’ll ask for her own slice. Mortimer Street owes Bandiera Rossa, and she knows that.
   That’s why this *** with the two trucks is more than just a pain in the ass. Both of them have legit cargo coming in, but the wires must have gotten crossed and they got sent to Rossa instead of two different warehouses. Can’t make the detour now since the other warehouses are stacked to the brim. She can hold more, that’s a fact. But Rossa needs the explosives and mechs out on main tomorrow.
   The first freighter is coming in now. She’ll have her crew assemble the mechs and prepare the explosives asap, and then ship them both out tomorrow. That way they can leave the containers and offload them when they eventually get to it. The streets are more important now.
   Rossa’s overseeing the shipment with a pep in her step. She’s expecting something special for herself.
First freighter’s just in, so she wants to set eyes on the hardware soon. Yeah, it’s like that EN *** of being the first to see the bride. She’s had more ganic cut out so she can finally have her own custom mech-suit. The Mortimer Street coffers got plundered real nice for that one, but it’s going to be worth it once her crimson flag paints the streets with Salazar meat. Rossa’s even thinking about giving it a name.
   Something like Shrike.
   Or Wyrm.
   The alarms go off.
   Organized chaos falls over the warehouse. Mortimer Street troops man their battle stations. Soldiers come in rushing around the docked freighter. Rossa’s forces are divided into two. The *** want to cut through them quickly and assemble at the tip of the freighter. Rest will be pinned against the outside walls, or funneled out to retreat. Rossa knows this much.
   Bandiera Rossa has to cut through them first.
   She arms her predator-suit. A leaner version of a mech-suit used for portable stability, durability, and strength. Rossa’s gear connects to her enhancements, so she’s just as quick as a mech. Firepower’s still on the lean side, which is why she wants a real mech.
   Rossa enters the carnage.
   First line of Mortimer Street defense crumbles immediately. The incoming soldiers cut through them in trained squadron formation. They go in boxed, and then disperse like a shelled shrapnel round. Their tech is better and their tactics are smoother. Rossa realizes when one of her men gets capped right next to her before she can even go in. His head just explodes, meat and bone and brain matter all over her red shirt. Rossa doesn’t mind the blood, but the organic matter is just a hassle.
   Bandiera Rossa jumps in headfirst, ready to unleash hell.
   A haymaker comes in, mean and wide thing out of nowhere, almost cuts her head clean off. Rossa has to duck under it. Her knee is scraping against the floor as she slides. Not a good position. Leaves her open to another attack to the head.
   She has to catch the knee coming in. Rossa tilts her head down and puts her hands against her forehead. Hardest piece of the skull. She catches the brunt of the force and lets it dissipate. Rossa goes for a leg grapple, but the *** squirms out  and leaps over her back. He kicks her in the skull on the way down. She’s dazed. Alarms are going off on her retinal. Rossa engages the stim package.
   If there’s anything she hates it’s *** acrobatics.
   Bandiera Rossa is on him like grav sickness.


   She’s quick, Crystal Ball will give her that. She’s also ferocious, he’ll give her that too. But she’s wild, untrained, and *** cocky.
   Crystal Ball has his squad form a barrier around them, and engage the enemy in a circular fashion. Soon enough the Mortimer Street troops will be pinned against the outer walls and shot as if by firing squad. By then Rossa will be picking her teeth, or even more, off the ground.
   Cocky as the *** is, she goes in lean and mean. Straight off the ground from a crouch, feline and raw. A wide kick that would have busted Crystal Ball’s skull in, were it not for the fact that he’s had her pegged by then.
   Crystal Ball brushes off the kick and flicks her foot off the ground. He locks her leg in and pins Rossa into the ground. But she isn’t stupid, so she boxes up. Arms in front of her head, orthodox boxing style. Appreciation for the classics won’t get her out of this. Crystal Ball starts twisting her foot, and he keeps twisting until she screams and throws her arms out. It’s instinctual, basic, raw, and innate. That reflex that gets us all dead in the end. The one that we can’t stop when it tells us to open our only line of defense and stick our chin out.    
   All of Crystal Ball’s weight is behind the punch. He goes in straight to her front lobe and down the nose. Less chances of slipping. Go in for a cross and he’ll slide off the chin and into the concrete. Straight jab yoyos her head against the pavement instead. Brain scrambles like a beaten egg.
   Rossa’s head smashes clean against the pavement and comes back up before it cracks back down again.
   Rossa’s arms snake around his, and she grips him into a vice. She pushes her legs out and locks Crystal Ball in. Dangling off him almost as he tries to get up.
   She’s smart, Crystal Ball has to give her that. The stims are kicking in hard. So hard in fact, that they knocked her out of a knockout. Adrenaline protocols that would cause a normal heart to rupture. Instead it fires Rossa up so hard she’s going in for a last stand. Either she keeps the hold and locks his arm and breaks it clean off, or he gets to lift her up and smash her into the *** ground.
   Crystal Ball’s got all his grav potential in his legs. He centers himself low, gets the initial liftoff with his legs, and then just propels Rossa into the air by using everything he has in his back. Tendon by tendon, muscle by muscle, he lifts her up.
   And then slams her back into the ground.
   Rossa curls up like a chip when her spine cracks against the pavement and her head bounces off like a dead doll. All rolled up and ready to be delivered.
Crystal Ball has to roll his shoulder. It’s stiff and bruised, almost dislocated. He has to smile too. Damn *** was really close.
   Around Crystal Ball the troops are following Davidsohn’s orders. It’s precise carnage. Worth all the credits their bank had to spend on the manpower. Worth their weight in gold. Crystal Ball remembers the ancient saying. In here though, more like worth their weight in bodies.
   They have to pile the bodies up, let the truckers out, and burn it all to the ground.
   After that, from what Davidsohn is pumping over comms, all they need to do is follow the signal.

TRADITION ONLY GETS YOU DEAD. Almost got Samsa dead too. He was supposed to be a big deal for the Church of Man. Just like Ichigo Abe is supposed to be a big deal for the Abe-Gumi. Next in line for the throne, after his father Kirin Abe kicks the bucket. The old man’s not kicking the bucket anytime soon though. But junior has eyes on him now. He’s old enough to get into the game himself. Things are expected of him, just like they were of Samsa. So they gave him Brava to occupy and keep.
   Sadly for him, Leto needs junior for a sitdown.
   Only reason why Samsa didn’t get dead when he should have was Leto. Samsa was supposed to be the next Prophet’s Vessel for the Church of Man. In order to study the enemy they station potential Vessels on the orbital station of Outer Heaven. Samsa’s mother was stationed with him. One day he got into a bad *** accident, and his mother had to splice him with mods in order to save him. Only taboo there is for the COM. He would be instantly dead had his mother not killed off most of the crew and vented the entire station. Wholesale slaughter, her included. She shipped Samsa out into space in an escape pod. Reign got hold of him. They saw no reason to harbor a COM fugitive. Leto saw no reason why not to. He said as the Prophet's Vessel that Samsa was uniquely trained. Pure in body and spirit. And Leto was right. After testing they found out that Samsa was a Prophet’s Vessel indeed. Not a Vessel for the COM’s Prophet, but that of The Prophet of Death. The Reign kept Samsa cryo-frozen for most of his life. But after the C he got out permanently. He’s learned to control himself a bit since then. He gets paid to kill now. Gets paid a lot. Kills a lot of everything that he doesn’t *** a lot. He’s just so good at it, that’s the problem. COM believed in the Prophet, and Samsa was the Prophet’s Vessel. So if his Prophet was Death, then he was its Vessel. In his mind it was just plain and simple.
   Except, he owes Leto. A full blood debt. Skies be damned, the fucker is still the same. All high-and-mighty like. Likes to make sure Samsa knows he owes him. Leto never liked the fact that Samsa was the Prophet’s Vessel. Samsa’s very own Prophet. Death incarnate, beholden only to the cycle of killing. Leto said on record that Samsa was erratic, delusional, and schi-something. So they froze him. And when he woke up Leto would be there. Every opportunity he would let Samsa know he owes him for letting him out. He had to work, and after work Leto would let him stay out a little while longer. Until they didn’t freeze him because Leto had taught Samsa enough. Samsa was no longer the Vessel of anything. He was just good at killing. Does it because it’s easy. Seen almost the entire Galaxy after the C, just killing along.
   Except, he owes Leto.
   Leto tells Samsa to go fetch Ichigo Abe, and Samsa will go fetch Ichigo Abe.
   Samsa doesn’t have much. Leto’s kind of family, in a way.


   It’s always about family and tradition with him. Abe-Gumi’s bleeding out, barely able to hold Brava, and he wants Ichigo to go meet the Kawada corp. representative in person. Kawada is an up-and-coming weapons manufacturer from Okishima. Barely a rock, but rich in ore Kawada is using to manufacture laser and grav weapons. Ahead of the curve type ***.
   Kawada as a company is steeped in tradition. Kirin Abe knows as much. But what his father doesn’t know is that they are even approaching Abe-Gumi because the same people who built the company are *** dead. Shogo Kawada runs the company now, and he pisses on tradition in the morning and *** it out before bedtime. That’s why Kawada corp. is selling their new tech to the highest bigger on the down low. Weapons funneled into an off-shoot war somewhere in the Galaxy will net them enough data to test run the tech before it goes live. It will also bring in enough capital to finance secondary testing and market assembly of finished models. That way they can grease a palm or two in the Patent Office to push a patent through and sell the tech off to major corpos. It’s the way of the Galaxy.
   The Kawada representative isn’t going to give a *** about shaking Ichigo’s hand. Just like they probably didn’t care for being hauled around the Galaxy in a *** freighter. Had to pay Truckers a decent chunk of change to keep it off comms.
   His father gave Ichigo Brava to test him. A final one before he can take over when the old man croaks. Not anytime soon, to Ichigo’s dismay. But more than anything Ichigo just wishes he could be left alone. He’s good with books. He’s made a killing with their legit business and funneled finances. Ichigo’s not built for this war ***. He never shot a man. Skies be damned, he never even fired a gun outside of VR. Only way he’s keeping Brava is because he’s lifting tactics from *** Syndicate history logs. Using archived tactics is like throwing *** against the wall and seeing what sticks. So far the sticking has been good. Just beginner's luck, Ichigo would guess. But that runs out just as quickly as it came about.
   Kawada could be a valuable asset, a turning point even. But the representative doesn’t need to shake Ichigo’s *** hand.
   Not to mention that it’s raining on Brava. That means a hurricane’s coming.
   At least the freighter is going through the scanner now.
   Everything checks out. Nothing unexpected on the scanner feed. The trucker offloads the small container and turns right around to continue his other shipments. Ichigo and a squad of his bodyguards form a perimeter around the container door. It starts opening with a loud hiss once Ichigo initiates the DNA unlock.
   The container opens.
   And it’s empty.
   Ichigo’s bodyguards sweep the inside.
   Smoke starts rising from within the container. The guards start evacuation procedures. Before Ichigo can even make heads or tails of anything his guards storm around him, form a barricade, take their weapons out, and escort him out of the warehouse.
   Two guards enter the hover-car with Ichigo. The driver peels off and Ichigo even feels a bit better being out of that dingy warehouse. It’s an obvious snuff from Kawada, but at least nothing blew up. Ichigo dips back into the upholstery of the back seat and relaxes.
   The divider between the backseats and front cockpit opens. A blaster slips out and blows the heads of Ichigo’s guards clean off. Ichigo starts to panic, pushing himself into the backseat like the upholstery can envelop and protect him. Like he can retreat beyond it, maybe even just disappear.
   A lanky figure with otherworldly flexibility slithers through the divider. A trained hand steadily holding a blaster to Ichigo’s face. The figure makes it out, and almost pours into the opposite seat. In between the two dead bodyguards it plops down without pomp.
   “Don’t worry junior. You’re lucky my boss wants you alive.” The figure’s face is obscured by a scrambler helmet, jet-black as a void staring back at Ichigo. Entirely the figure almost melts into any darkness around it. “Now, we’ll be off-planet soon. I just want to inform you so that you can answer me one thing, junior.” Ichigo nods. “Are you the smart or stupid kind?”
   “Smart.” Ichigo doesn’t take long to answer.
   “Good,” The figure says and puts away the blaster. Its lanky appendages stretch out in every direction, its arms resting on the shoulders of the dead bodyguards.
   Ichigo knows that he just confessed to not being able to resist. He’d confessed to being a ***. A death sentence in the circles his family is a proud part of. He knows as much, and he cares even less. Tradition and family brought him here, and tradition and family can *** get him out.

Chapter 78: VERDIN I
7STAR IS NONE TOO PLEASED ABOUT IT. None too pleased at *** all. She put all that behind her as soon as the last line of defense crumbled. 7Star was one of the bulwark. Leto’s prime defense front-liner. But she put it all behind her after the C.
   Back when 7Star was in the Academy it was known that Leto III had a habit of picking people up. Just strolling into a room and picking out a cadet and disappearing with them a second later. Coming by during field training and ushering a cadet away from the rest. Rest of the cadets rarely, if ever, saw their comrades again. Rumors around the academy blew up like a cluster bomb. From the tamest, that Leto was recruiting cadets for his special training programs. A chance at the big time for any aspiring cadet. To the more esoteric like a eugenics program or illegal sex ring. Just cadet imagination going wild, all the while hoping it was the better option of the many.
   7Star was picked up during an advanced field tactics class. Just like he did before, Leto came up and ushered her away in a copter. At an off-planet launch pad he gave 7Star the skinny. Just like she and the rest had hoped, it was an elite program. Leto was spearheading a special, and as he made abundantly clear - grueling - training program for the Reign Special Forces Initiative. He singled 7Star out for her defensive capabilities and innate reflexes.
   Always knew how to tinker, since she was a kid. Then at the Academy 7Star learned how to build. Mechs were her thing. Personal suits, full-body, fortress stag, tread-mechs, and homebrews were always her thing. Still are, and now she tinkers on a *** global scale. After the C 7Star went back to Verdin I. Got in deep with her older sister MeVerdin, who took over the family weapons trade from their dead father. 7Star started running protection, and now she builds mechs for her sister to trade and keep Verdin System out of the hands of those two incestuous *** WeVerdin. It’s becoming a shitshow with New Saigon, Kusa, and Varghess taking potshots from afar. WeVerdin are having a field day launching dropships on Verdin I, while maintaining a blockade that doesn’t let MeVerdin put any of 7Star’s mechs on their home turf. MeVerdin’s big on ground combat, and WeVerdin’s got the skies.
   A *** standstill.
   Just as MeVerdin was planning on asking Trafalgar for assistance, in exchange for an allegiance and access to 7Star’s mechs, Leto dropped by her workshop in the dead of night. Through her guards, through the gang’s security checkpoints, and her own security systems and alarms. He told 7Star that he needed her sister for a sitdown. Original plan was to take 7Star, and in exchange get MeVerdin off-planet that way. But Leto knew he could trust 7Star to do the right thing and get her sister to that sitdown by herself.
   Then he disappeared, just like after the C.
   7Star can protect her sister from WeVerdin and the other scum, but not from him. That’s why she’s none too *** pleased about the situation at all.
   Mostly because there’s no way MeVerdin’s going to accept a sitdown off-planet. Not at this point. 7Star is going to have to get creative.


   Not many ways to see MeVerdin alone, even as her sister. But every once in a while MeVerdin has to take a backseat, and just kick back. Especially when 7Star insists. Even promises to make her famous faux-fry.
   People might think it’d be easy to get your own sister, flesh and blood, over for dinner. Considering how many people want both of them dead, the notion doesn’t really apply. *** hasn't been the same since the Sons showed up. First they blocked Verdin off from Trafalgar, and then they blocked them off from the Outer Reaches. Soon enough Verdin I and II were isolated, and Verdin II started to get ideas. Before long Verdin I and II were warring, and as soon as the Sons gave just a bit of breathing room the carcass-eaters started to circle. It’s war now, and it’s been war for a while. Sure as *** MeVerdin’s got no time for some *** faux-fry. Even if her sister makes it.
   But when MeVerdin’s sister says she has to talk to the boss, as in talk-talk, then MeVerdin is well enough to *** oblige.
   7Star and MeVerdin are always on the run. Sometimes they sleep on floors on the daily, sometimes they stay in places for a week or two, but never longer. 7Star pulled this place out of a safehouse registry the gang keeps in their files. Whole apartment in the suburbs of Harlan, capital of Verdin I. Rich MeVerdin supporter who likes the influx to his real estate business. MeVerdin can make entire districts of the city inhospitable or ripe for gentrification within a *** month if need be. Real estate brokers jump on the land, and sell it at premium prices once the demand skyrockets. 7Star would wager it’s the oldest scam in history. A *** classic that never goes out of style. Skies be damned, it got them an entire apartment with an actual park in view at least for the night. It’s also *** pristine. 7Star is used to the grime of Harlan, or her off-planet workshop on an orbital-tethered asteroid. Lots of grime there too.
   Change of scenery might even do them both good, at least for a night.
   But one thing that never changes is MeVerdin being late.
   7Star’s already on the sauce. Been drinking since morning, if she’s honest with herself. That first shot in the morning with a hearty miner breakfast. That counts too. That’s where it starts, when it starts. 7Star knows she can handle it. Hasn’t really stopped drinking for a long time now, if she’s honest with herself. She starts early or late, but she always starts at some point. Doesn’t get proper sloshed on the daily, but 7Star does forget some nights. Occasional broken glass on the floor, or a stain on a wall. Only reason she’s drinking today is because it’s a *** day. Excuses come with the territory.
   Cooking doesn’t come around often either, and it’s one of the few joys 7Star has outside of mechs. Plus, faux-fry is easy as ***. Only thing it requires is restraint and a good eye for measurements. One thing 7Star is famously good at - measurements, and one thing she promises she’ll work on every time it fails - restraint. That’s why her faux-fry tastes so good - it’s loaded. Verdin I has actual crops, so the produce is genuine. The noodles, and the meat, on the other hand, are completely fake. Soylent protein, artificially grown fowl, and pea-fiber noodles. 7Star douses the ingredients with soy sauce and flavoring agents. Perfectly measured to be ideally overindulgent.
   Everything’s already chopped up when 7Star is four shots of hawke in. Local Verdin system hooch that gives miner swill a run for its money. *** is gross, causes severe headaches, and is the lead cause of babies on Verdin I and II. Dirt cheap, easy to make, easy to drink. Local market has every other spirit type under wraps, so when on Verdin you drink hawke.
   Usually it burns all the way down, but 7Star has gotten used to it to the point where she barely even feels it anymore.
   MeVerdin pops in by shot five, bottle of hawke in hand.
   “Figured since we’re in the suburbs,” she barges in and leaves 7Star to tend to the door and the mess she brought in.
   “At least take off your *** boots!” 7Star shouts at her sister who looks at her with childlike glee and kicks off her boots deep into the living room. Only thing they hear is two loud thuds, and will probably have a hard time finding them later.
   MeVerdin’t wearing her combat jacket with the Verdin I emblem emblazoned on it in red. The triumphant V with a I between the lines to form the Verdin Trident. The jacket itself has seen better days, having been endlessly mended after each succession of combat encounters or nights sleeping under a bridge. Just by her cheeks 7Star can see that MeVerdin has lost weight, and the bags under her purple bloodshot eyes are getting darker. Her usually shaved head now has a dark stubble.
   Her sister struts through the apartment, arms wide open, just spinning around. Tipsy on her legs, about four steps forward and a step back. 7Star knows she’s also hit the sauce, but despite her size her sister is a lightweight when it comes to hawke. When they were kids people would joke that MeVerdin would eat 7Star if the family was ever short on food. Now 7Star drinks her under the table.
   “Look at us, sis. Made it to the *** suburbs,” MeVerdin chants during her gradually more pendulous twirling.
   “I’ll drink to that.” 7Star takes a shot of her hawke and MeVerdin swigs a hefty one straight from the bottle.
   “Haven’t seen *** this white since you last took me to a legit hospital way back when. That one Army hospital up on…” MeVerdin can’t quite place it, which is understandable, at least to 7Star. History gets lost in war. A harrumph and wave of her hand and MeVerdin just tosses the thought aside with a, “*** it.” She continues to assess the apartment. “Think we could paint it up a bit, *** hurts my eyes?”
   “Don’t think the owner would open his doors for us again, or his *** wallet.”
   “True, true.” MeVerdin finally sits down at the kitchen bar where 7Star spends her time nursing her second bottle of hawke. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I have to ask you something.” Her sister lets 7Star stew in a bit of dramatic pause. Just sitting there with her sly eyes and fiendish smile, twirling the bottle in her hand before taking another swig. “You think WeVerdin are really ***?”
   7Star almost blows hawke out her nose. “The *** you care?”
   “See, I was thinking…”
   “Stop, that’s bad for you.”
   “*** off.” MeVerdin takes another swig. “I mean, we started the rumor, but they never disputed it. So I was thinking, maybe they really are ***.”
   “No, you stupid ***, I don’t think the WeVerdin twins are *** ***.”
   “Poetry right there, sis,” and MeVerdin launches into a shrill chuckle. She’s known for it across the system. A noise like scraping paint off metal.
   7Star lets the conversation simmer down a bit. They reminisce about old times. If she’s being honest with herself, they always do that. Whenever they’re alone is the only time they can talk like sisters. Only when they’re alone does the business, the strife and hardship truly leave the room. Just them two, shooting the *** while 7Star starts frying.
   In the white apartment, pristine and new, life just feels like it could be easy. MeVerdin’s walking about the place like she owns it. 7Star has to constantly shout at her sister to stop messing with the stuff, and to stop moving the furniture around just a smidgeon to freak out the owner when he comes back. Despite being the older one, MeVerdin could never be described as the mature one. Unless she’s chopping some goon into pieces, feeding them to her mongrels, and then sending the *** back to the goon’s mother. 7Star thinks to herself while she watches her sister proceed unbothered by the world at large. One thing she always had more of than 7Star - a sense of levity. MeVerdin could enter a room filled to the brim with hostages, and make it seem like they’re all there for a *** barbecue. Probably why people love her. Also why they don’t love 7Star. She doesn’t need them to, either. Respect is enough for 7Star. Has been since her Army days. Respect and fear. Then she wishes she hadn’t learned that from Leto.
   The meal is done to perfection.
   7Star whistles. “Come and get it you filthy animal.”
   All served up, the two sisters chow down on the faux-fry. MeVerdin slurps it up with gusto, but 7Star isn’t feeling it as much. Spiced up noodles fall down hard on a hawked-up stomach like a busted drive-crank. Goes poof until it blows out your *** worse than a nova blowout.
   “Once we touch base with Trafalgar, I want you off-planet,” MeVerdin chimes in between slurps. Out of the blue, like a *** to the face.
   “No *** way.”
   “Way. See, sis, Trafalgar needs something better than any other *** breathing down our neck can give them. You’ll go to Trafalgar to start mech production there in exchange for flyboys and ships. A full transport contingent to get your mechs on-planet. Might take a while, but once we touch down on Verdin II, we’ll demolish them.” MeVerdin nods to herself and turns her attention back to her meal in between swigs of hawke.
   “They can have my mech specs, but they can’t have me.”
   “Been decided, sis.”
   MeVerdin doesn’t really do orders, not in the traditional sense. She doesn’t raise her voice beyond her original tone that is genuinely louder than everyone else’s. But what drives 7Star crazy is that she never orders people directly, instead using the passive *** voice. MeVerdin just states, puts it out into the *** Galaxy, and it gets done. She barely ever uses the pronoun I, at least not when making decisions. Instead, she just leaves the decision up to the skies it would seem. Things are required, there are needs, it is necessary. Like now, like some *** entity beyond her own control just said so let it be done.
   “*** you if you think…”
   “You can’t stay on-planet. Getting too hot for you, sis. We can handle *** on-planet as long as it takes for you to finish up on Trafalgar.” MeVerdin pauses again, slurps her noodles to drown out the silence. “I can’t *** concentrate with you on-***-planet,” she finally admits.
   “*** you, I can handle myself even *** better than you.” 7Star starts to boil.
   “Sure as the skies you *** can. So what? What good is that to me when I can’t handle myself at a hundred with you around. So take the hint, and get lost 7. I mean it.”
   “I told you not to call me that.”
   “We’re *** alone here, 4.”
   “It’s MeVerdin, regardless of where I am and who I’m with.” 7Star bows her head. Some instincts always remain, like bowing out when scolded by your older sister. “We’ll be touching base with Trafalgar in a couple of days, a week tops. Assemble all the *** from your workshop, and you’re out of here as soon as it goes through.” 7Star knows why her sister doesn’t look at her, and didn’t even shoot a glance her way the entire time. MeVerdin wipes her mouth and stands up. “Need to take a ***.”
   7Star’s sister falls flat on the floor with a meaty thud.
   A trucker’s coming by their central warehouse for a drug shipment off-planet, and both 7Star and MeVerdin are expected to be on that freighter by the end of day. Lucky for 7Star she has a mech to carry her sister all that way. But before that she has to puke out all the hawke she’s been drinking for two days straight, and all the sedatives from the faux-fry before she collapses.

Chapter 79: VERDIN II
WEVERDIN HAS NO NUMBER TWO. The twins, Jaden and Jaden, are only to be addressed as WeVerdin when in public, and what anyone has to say to one of them they can say to the other. All things considered, they’re a package deal. No getting one off-planet without the other.
   It’s been more than a while since WeVerdin have seen the inside of a warehouse, safehouse, or any kind of shipment facility. From what NaNi can see in the file there’s about a zero percent chance to get them inside a freighter for a simple shipment. Aspirations of rule aside, NaNi doesn’t think she can dangle something good enough for them to actually take the risk of being ushered off-planet against their will. Sure as *** she can’t just fake a MeVerdin abduction and use that as leverage. And that’s the only thing they want. MeVerdin equals Verdin I, and Verdin I equals dominion over the system, and that means a possible expansion into New Saigon, Kusa, and Varghess. Just flaunting the rumor that anyone would ransom MeVerdin out to the twins would spread so wide the entirety of the Perseus Nebula would drop on Verdin II.
   Too risky.
   NaNi keeps scrolling through the file on her retinal.
   It’s an interesting case, all things considered. A bit tight on the deadline, but Leto always did test her limits. NaNi never thought he’d lived through the C. Didn’t really care much then, doesn’t much now. All about the pay, way back when all the way to today. When Leto contracted her as a counter-intelligence and acquisition specialist, she only asked him one thing - how much? All NaNi ever wanted was a lavish lifestyle. Sure enough, both Leto and the Reign were generous. Being contracted by the Reign had its benefits, the biggest of which being she didn’t have to live in a *** Army compound. But working for the Reign also meant that the grimiest jobs paid the most. Days, weeks, months and years on end being undercover in the dregs of uprisings and criminal organizations all across the Galaxy. NaNi had her grubby little fingers in many a downfall of people fighting against the Reign, or just surviving in the UnderSpace of society. Never bothered to complete her body count list though, all things considered. That was overtime, and the Reign didn’t pay for overtime. In between the ops she spent her time wherever she wanted, doing what she wanted. A more-than-decent contractual stipend in tow. However, the muck of the work far outweighed the privileges. At first NaNi was beside herself with joy when the C happened.
   As life turned out in the end, NaNi got the *** end of the stick.
   Being contracted by the Reign, especially within Intelligence, means you get no rep. No rep means your name doesn’t carry. When your name doesn’t carry it means you don’t get jobs. No *** jobs means no good *** life. At least not the lavish life she hoped for after the C. So NaNi started doing what she does best, subterfuge. Made a name for herself as a con artist. Now, instead of rummaging through the filth of failed uprisings, she scams rich idiots and is on the run far more than she isn’t.
   There’s no last score out there. No way to con your way to the top, and finally settle down. Dismayed enough, NaNi finally accepted that mediocrity was the best she could get.
   Just close enough would have to be enough.
   When NaNi was about to start a long con with a set of avidly stupid investment bankers, Leto popped in. In the flesh no less. Hard to forget the man, even though NaNi had to admit she despised him. She was certain he was the one stopping her ascension to the top rank of Intelligence Officer, and kept her on contract. That way the Reign could always dangle a new job in front of her, a bigger paycheck around the bend, and more time off accumulated. Again and again.
   NaNi knows she’s stupid like that, which is why she knows exactly how to work her targets.
   This time, however, Leto’s not in charge. He gave that away when he gave NaNi a SIN Passport. Anyone in the information business covets the Passport. It’s an all access paid entrance to the SIN database. Depending on the color of the passport you are privy to different levels of internal affairs. Leto handed her a black *** SIN Passport. No holds barred, all doors open, always in the black. Which means Leto is in deep with SIN.
   By doing this job well, which NaNi prides herself on always doing, she can climb over Leto and get in bed with SIN directly. She’s never had the capital for that so far.
   Until now.
   So NaNi pours over WeVerdin’s file as if in a trance. Only thing they want is Verdin I and MeVerdin.
   And who’s NaNi to deny them their wishes.


   Watching the twins move, talk, gesticulate, or just be, is nothing if not alien. All things considered, they did put a lot of work into that image. NaNi knows about this - body dysmorphia. When you believe that something is inherently wrong with the way you look. Anyone can change anything they want, as long as they have the money for it.
   Jaden and Jaden, WeVerdin, shared their dysmorphia. From what NaNi could gather based on their psychological profile the thing that hurt them the most is that one is male and the other female. Everything else is lavishly orchestrated and trained to perfection, all the way down to the twitch of their lips or the furrow of their brows. Like a biological imperative in the both of them. Always in unison.
   Being divided could not stand, so in order to become WeVerdin the twins got some snipping done. The male Jaden grew his hair and lasered off his beard, plumped his lips and cheekbones, as well as widened his hips and went on a strict diet. The female Jaden removed her breasts, sharpened her nose and implanted a more furrowed brow like her brother, along with broadening her shoulders and bulking up.
   Just looking at them NaNi can’t tell them apart, and it’s her *** job to do just that. She’s built her livelihood on noticing the details. WeVerdin, on the other hand, are *** with her royally. Both of them are wearing nondescript black coats that drape down to the floor, completely buttoned up and showing no skin. Their dark hair is kept to a slight bob, both immaculately groomed in face and posture, with a slight quickstep as they move about. Neither of them gesticulates, or talks out of order. They address each other as Jaden, and when talking to a third party they talk in turns, finishing off exactly where the other left off.
   NaNi has to blink herself back into the zone, and just get her head round the uncanny display. At least they’re here. She thinks to herself. That’s an achievement in of itself.
   She milked the SIN Passport for all its worth. Formulated a plan that would have WeVerdin salivating, and inserted herself into the position of being the only one who could provide the intended results. NaNi’s going to give them Verdin I on a silver platter.
   “Ms. Niymar, we do apologize for the rushed meeting, but we are, after all, otherwise occupied more often than not.” One of the twins starts. “We will have to insist that this meeting be conducted with haste,” the other finishes.
   “Of course. I take it you have poured over the data I sent you?”
   “Indeed we have. An intriguing proposal, we must say. How did you come by this information? But most importantly, why come to us?” Both the twins keep their eyes on NaNi at all times, discerning if any of her slightest movements is a tell. NaNi’s more than certain she has snipers trained on her, which is understandable, all things considered.
   “Let me be completely frank, I don’t care about Verdin I or II or the system.” Start with the truth, and work your way up. Rule number one. “What I care about is opportunity. The only reason I’m here is because MeVerdin doesn’t see eye to eye.”
   “So you have met with MeVerdin?”
   NaNi put a meeting between her and MeVerdin in the SIN pipeline under a dump-cache that would honeypot WeVerdin’s data-sniffers. “She is the better choice with regards to tech access. MeVerdin’s sister, 7Star, is somewhat renowned for her mechs. But 7Star also doesn’t work with anyone else, and MeVerdin likes to humor her sister despite the downsides.” NaNi appeals directly to their biases. Even though they know that MeVerdin would never be that stupid, they will still believe it because they want to believe it. Always play on their beliefs. Rule number two.
   “Our data miners and SIN connections have established that what you say is true. Kawada corp. has backed out of a deal with Abe-Gumi. The only thing we don’t really understand is why.”
   “Because I made them aware of how much Brava isn’t worth their time.” Not an arched brow from the twins. I expected as much. A Kawada representative was slated to land on Brava just yesterday, but there are no traces of the deal anywhere. Not even a deep probe NaNi spent an entire day decked into the drakkweb for turned up anything. Instead, NaNi led the WeVerdin sniffers to an investment slip Kawada had opened. A faked trail of shells that would lead the sniffers to a docked arms shipment waiting to be delivered. The unused promise of weapons and tech, just waiting to be picked up. NaNi inserted herself into the center of a bidding war, and she’s setting the stakes. “Brava is a shithole, all things considered. I have urged Kawada to instead invest in Verdin. A complete takeover of the system by any party strong enough could lead to a franchisement of Kawada corp. across the Perseus Nebula. Invest in a Syndicate remnant like Abe-Gumi on a rock like Brava and the only thing you’re left with is a bad taste in your mouth. Kawada corp. agreed, and I took it upon myself to make the introductions.” NaNi pulled up caches from previous Kawada shipments and cross-referenced them against the trucker database Leto provided her with so the sniffers would find the trail. The image has been created. One where the only thing standing between WeVerdin and owning the entire Verdin system is accepting NaNi’s proposal.
   “To be completely honest, Ms. Niymar, we are inherently mistrustful of outsiders.” One of the twins says. “Especially ones bearing such gifts. So we must ask, what’s in it for you?” The other continues. “You are not of Verdin, and you are, as you said yourself, not interested in who rules the system. So why bother with Verdin in the first place?”
   “Why the *** not?” Let them feel worthy of your time, but not too much. Never seem desperate. Rule number three. “I’m working my way up, which I’m certain your sniffers have found out.” NaNi put herself into the SIN registry under a red Passport just for show. She’s an information trader in this instance, all things considered. “Which means I’m not looking to make enemies before I have the capital for it. Verdin is isolated enough to insure me immunity, and connected enough to help me build up my base through the Kawada-Verdin deal.” Make them feel like you’re in the same boat. Rule number four.
   WeVerdin nod for her to continue.
   “With the Kawada weapons bump Verdin II can initiate a full-scale assault of Verdin I. The Kawada tech would ensure you take over the planet and system. In return Kawada would build a blacksite testing facility on-planet. As WeVerdin expands to the neighboring systems Kawada would test their tech in order to open it to the market. WeVerdin would be guaranteed a steady supply of weapons to maintain superiority, and small points off the top of sales. Kawada wants me to make sure you understand the points are to remain small. Consider it rent money.” Tell them exactly what they get, and what they need to give. Rule number five.
   “How would we initiate these discussions?” One of the twins asks.
   “I have a line on a trucker I trust. Bien is his name, you can check him, he’s legit. Kawada corp. had a bad shave with Abe-Gumi. Kawada showed up and Abe-Gumi flaked. They’re not coming to you, you’re going to them.”
   “We will not be going off-planet,” the other twin chimes in.
   “Then the next time we meet you’ll be dead and buried, and New Saigon or Kusa or Varghess will be *** on your graves.” Let them know what they stand to lose. Rule number six.
   “No need for obscenities, Ms. Niymar.”
   “The truth can be vile, I won’t apologize.”
   The twins look at each other. “When would be needed off-planet?”
   “Tomorrow. No delays.”
   Both the twins stand up. “Then we have much to prepare.” They extend their arms for a handshake, and NaNi graciously accepts.
   Seal the deal. Rule number seven.

LETO OVERSEES EVERYTHING FROM his command frigate. Truckers are flying their freighters into Kataoka Station from all corners of the Known Galaxy.
   Kataoka Station itself is built around a spire that is grav-tethered to the three moons in the Balkan II System. Dead since mankind first discovered it eons ago. No sun within the system, no planets, except for the three moons one could only describe as truly dead. Unmoving behemoths that exerted no gravity field. Balkan II is one of the few dead systems in the Known Galaxy, but the moons provide ample opportunities for an independent structure to make use of them. Instead of building Kataoka Station on the largest of the three moons, Eshato, modern human enterprise would not be limited by planetary space. If anything stands as a testament to the insatiable greed of mankind in this Galaxy, it’s Kataoka.
   As the Truckers Union expanded, grew, and became a force to be reckoned with, they needed a location from which they could corner the market across the Galaxy. Through early investments from the Public Transportation Union the tentative alliance between the two unions was formed. Set in steel, as they would say. Both Unions pooled their considerable resources to build the Kataoka Spire, which acted as the backbone to the expansive station.
   Basic amenities for truckers were provided within the Spire. A place for them to rest, restock, fuel both their freighters and their livers. At first there were no docking bays. Truckers would grav-tether their freighters to the moons like the seafaring ships of old. Continuous skipper-class transpo ran back and forth from the moons to the Spire. A veritable trucker’s paradise.
   With time the paradise expanded to include more than just weary and worn truckers.
   The Kataoka Spire was just the beginning.
   There is profit to be had. There is always profit to be had. Leto thinks to himself as he watches the massive hive that has become Kataoka Station take in the droves of truckers.
   Unlike other stations across the Known Galaxy, Kataoka is not a fused singular entity. Balkan II as a dead system offers a unique possibility for expansion. Outside investors, corporations, recruitment agencies, banking firms, tech firms, and every other profitable organization wanted a piece of Kataoka. They built their structures along the spire, and then tethered them to the floating Spire like the ridings of an interlocked raft cluster. It looks like a flower blossoming on all sides, wild and free as the structures expand outward. Grav-lances attach the new infrastructure to the Spire, in between the floating ridings blue grav-fields line the pendulous expanding structure. A maze of treacherous fields that can tear a craft to shreds. The Station now houses scores of professional transporters to navigate the maze, and truckers need to make their way through the station as a final test before they can join the union. Watching crafts of various sizes navigate in between the ridings, nothing but black specks like flies in the distance, is awe inspiring. The bustle never ceases within the hedgerow-like expanse of Kataoka Station.
   A comprehensive security protocol for attendees, is therefore, almost impossible. Leto became aware of that the day he saw the station. Demir wouldn’t even hear about transferring the meeting to another location. It’s a powerplay. Trucker home turf. Can’t really have it anywhere else. Think of the message, Leto. All Leto’s thinking about is how a guerilla force backed by any number SIN competitors, or anyone who is opposed to Demir’s rise in power - a growing number of people due to his current exposure - can just slither through the ridings for a full-scale assault.
   “Sohn, how are preparations commencing?” Leto relays the question over coded comms.
   “Forty percent of the packages are still en route. The forces assembled on Kataoka are following recon protocols as advised. Full control is expected by midday tomorrow, as planned,” Davidsohn says in his rapidfire fashion.
   “Keep me posted.”
   Leto switches off his comms and continues to gaze out the frigate window. Usually Leto would be more than content with things going as planned, but considering his previous experience with situations that were going exactly as planned he’s apprehensive to say the least. He would rather have reinforced a stable position within SIN’s scope of influence in the Mid-Straits. However, he has to think of the message. Obviously it’s a message that can’t be relayed through the massive force of his assembled battalions who have been his ilk since before the C. A combat force Leto had rejected for years. Pre-C veterans turned mercenaries, soldiers of fortune and misfortune alike, diluted by the plague of this Galaxy until very little of what made them outstanding remained. Leto prefers molding fresh steel to sharpening old. Sometimes a person just has to make due with what they have.
   Leto spent the entirety of his first life looking back, and his second looking to the future. Only to be thrust back to the past once more. Over and over again.
   In some ways, in a twisted sense of cosmic irony, Leto has to admit that the past might just be the way to the future. It is all going as planned, after all.


   Demir can hardly believe how well it’s all going. While Leto was busy forming his battalion of pre-C soldiers, Jolene was more than just hands on with the business side of things. Like a woman possessed she took over the entire operation when the logistics were all laid out. Jolene was nice enough to fill Demir in on the changes, even though her position of COO doesn’t require her to. Despite his initial misgivings he can’t fault his protege for her bubbling god complex. At one point Demir was even certain she was just showing off. Skies be damned, he let her loose to wreak havoc. Who’s he to deny her that now. Spouting fire and leaving nothing but scorched earth to build upon. A daunting prospect, but a necessary one nonetheless.
   Demir’s only gripe is that he actually likes some of the people involved.
   But at least all the people who have been so cordially invited are attending. A cornucopia of criminal enterprise. Before Demir has to enter the meeting room he wishes for just one instance that he could be here as a MOS and not the CEO of SIN. Just to take it all in as a criminal one last time.
   Jolene enters the meeting room first, and Demir follows.
   Darting eyes ranging from mistrust to outright hatred follow him as he saunters to the head of the morosely long table and sits down next to his COO. They are flanked by Livia and Jesus de Monte Kristo. Behind them Leto towers over the proceedings in full military garb of his own design. A black frock emblazoned with red trimmings over plain black trousers. Two of his soldiers at his sides. Demir recognizes one as Chayenne, standing to Leto’s left. The only woman Demir ever saw who could almost match the breadth of her commander’s shoulders. And Samsa to Leto’s right, a man so alien in every way that Demir would rather forget him.
   In front of them the vast criminal underworld of the Known Galaxy stretches out. Big players, mid-level players, and their respective number twos. All sitting down glaring at them with eyes that wish they were blasters. UnderSpace assembled right before my very eyes.
   First up is Cotlan Salazar and his mean-mugging number two Domenico. Both modded out of their skulls, mods literally sticking out their heads like torpedoes. A barrage of visor tech and armaments all across their body. Lucky for everyone they, as well as all the rest, had to go through a shutdown protocol that disables all weaponised tech. Across from them Albert Magellan and his number two Web Williamson keep giving them the stink eye, and then revert the stink back to Demir and his contingent. Demir blackmailed them directly into coming so it’s not unexpected. Just like he did with Magnus Magno the arms dealer, who tries to act tough by disregarding everyone. His immaculate blond hair tied in a warrior know, flowing graciously down his shoulders golden as *** ***. Demir never liked him, and Magno never liked Demir, but business is business.
   D.D. is up next, without a number two. Her blue eyes are affixed to the Abe-Gumi main men Ichigo and Kirin. Old bushido stock Demir knew from before he dismantled the Syndicate. Ichigo keeps looking ahead, no malice in his stare, just blank like he’s focusing on one point and dissociating from everything. Kirin, on the other hand, is tearing Demir apart in his mind. Both Abe men are immaculately groomed in a business-future fashion with an EN twist. Formal suits, emblems on their collars, but the traditional kimono sash offsets the formality with a hint of nostalgia. Hotel Istanbul’s Gino Yewdzewich and AA.J look like they’re squaring up against Mortimer Street’s Jack Mortimer and Bandiera Rossa. Each of them is a grimed up, chromed out, mean mess of anger and spite. But most of all they’re hungry. Salazar knows this, especially keeping Bandiera Rossa in the corner of his eye so she doesn’t think about jumping like a *** shark over the table and biting his throat off. Jack Mortimer, on the other hand, is far too calm for all this. A top hat on his head slightly askew, his weight leaning on a cane. Everything about him is EN chic, dusted and torn from years of street violence.
   Norte, unlike the rest, is a three-piece turf leader situation consisting of Miguel, Angel, and Felix. They’re here because the SS hate them, just like they hate the rest of the Galaxy. Demir bribed Norte with support for taking over the SS *** and wiping them off the map. They’re just here to watch. Demir’s glad that all the SS have to do is die. ChaZZ is also good with Norte, so they agreed to divide the SS stock as long as they can maintain peace. Shouldn’t be a problem considering ChaZZ got his stones on the streets of Qhechua. History goes a long way in crime. COM and Todoro can *** off for all Demir cares. Once they’re hit with the Trucker premiums their crops and drugs can rot until they’re worthless. SIN will just swoop in and buy everything off them on the cheap.
   Then there’s MeVerdin and her sister 7Star, who only has eyes for Leto. MeVerdin only has eyes for WeVerdin who are sitting across the table. Demir can almost hear her teeth scraping, while the twins remain impassive. In the back there’s Minh and Xuan from New Saigon, decked out in traditional colors all aglow in reds and gold. Callan, who’s famous for his knife skills, and his second in command Mustard Gas, who’s famous for his farts and use of combat poisons, are repping Kusa. Finally there’s the timid-looking Molly and her right-hand monster Malone down from Varghess.
   Even Dmitri Lavov’s here. Demir gave him an offer directly, but he said he wanted to be here for the spectacle. Core Worlds stock doesn’t get too involved in the petty squabbles of the rest of the Galaxy. Which is why he looks like he’s asleep. Elbow on the table, chin in his hand. You might even miss him were it not for his massive fur coat he must have killed at least three bears for.
   Never has the UnderSpace of the known Galaxy come together like this. I could let a tear rip from sheer joy. Demir thinks to himself, doing his best not to grin at all the hatred and violence steaming up the room.
   None of them is brave enough to start talking before Demir. They know they’re *** in one way or the other. A coordinated assault like this hasn’t been conducted since the Reign cracked down on organized crime back in the heyday of the Criminal Purges.
   “I would thank you all for coming, but you didn’t really have a choice now, did you? I would also say sorry, but I don’t give a ***. You’re all here because, like a concerned parent, we need to talk. First of all, Truckers are under SIN protection now. TU is merging with the PTU under the upcoming SINcorp umbrella. Which means that all of your *** contracts are up for grabs now.”
   Commotion starts building as the criminal underworld forgets how much they hate each other and focus on how much they hate Demir, SIN, and the *** Truckers. Insults are thrown about, fists hammered on the table, fingers pointed, just the scene Demir was expecting.
   Demir lets it play out. Words don’t hurt him, never did. It’s like watching children bicker, which in turn makes him laugh, which in turn makes the made men and women of the UnderSpace even more furious. He has to cut the commotion short by nodding to Leto. The Grand-Master and his two soldiers unholster their weapons and aim indiscriminately until everyone sits back down and shuts the *** up.
   “Anyone tries to mess with the Transportation Union’s contracts, or uses force against anyone in the Union, will be facing some,” Demir whistles, “well, you’ve seen what you’ll be facing. Now I hope you’re all business-oriented enough to know what that *** means.” He looks around the room for a second, grabs the attention a bit harder. “But it’s not all bad news. You can still pay the Truckers and Transpo Union members their due to keep their respective mouths shut. In essence, you regulate your own counter-offers.” More bickering, but much less vigorous this time. Demir’s able to stop it with a raised hand. “Look. You can all pay massive dividends on direct SIN counter-offers, or you can make direct deposits and make the people happy yourselves. Sure, not many of you can handle outright paying the Transpo Union enough to keep their mouths shut. But, maybe pool your resources together and go big, or just shuffle enough SIN info to make the market work for you. Either way, drakkweb’s going open, criminal enterprise is going corpo, UnderSpace is a business now, and corpo-corpo, the ones you’re all afraid of, are going *** up. So union up while you still can.” Demir snaps his finger. The door to the meeting room opens and a line of waiters enter with boxes in their hands. They place the boxes in front of each party and then disappear as quickly as they came in. “SIN has an offer for each of you. The boxes will open as soon as we leave the room. Consider your offers carefully, and use what you can gain wisely. Because mark my words, there is only one thing that is true in this moment, right now - you evolve, or you die.”
   Demir and Jolene stand up and head for the door. In their confusion Livia and Jesus, along with Leto and his soldiers, follow along once they are aligned with the situation.
   Once out the door Demir bolts it shut.
   Barely a minute later and from inside they hear blaster fire, screams and veils of dying and maiming, people letting themselves become one with their hatred.
   “What is going on, Demir?” Leto finally asks.
   “Jolene has been doing interviews with every number two you fished out, and with every other boss who would talk to us directly.” Leto looks at him somewhat confused. “What, you didn’t think I’d have you kidnaping *** number twos across the UnderSpace just to get the rest here? Come on, Leto. If I wanted them all here I would have dangled their open contracts and they’d be flying up here by the end of day. No, Jolene was busy vetting them and their, shall we say, views on the future. We made special offers to the people we know will use them to their full potential. Truth is, Leto, some people just don’t make the cut. We need to thin the herd before we can continue.”
   “They all think they’re gangsters,” Jolene chimes in. Leto’s almost aghast at the growl in her voice. “They think they’re gangsters because they kill each other for property and profit. Living off of scraps and ducking the Authority like worms in the dirt. Petty squabbles that cost more than they earn, and dispossessed people in their wake have to pick up the pieces of their lives. They think violence means power.” In the background the sounds of indiscriminate violence echo through the door and cascade into the corridor. “It’s time these thugs learn what power is. It’s time they learn that we’re the gangsters.
   Leto and the rest say nothing, instead averting their eyes from Jolene.
   And there she is. Demir thinks to himself with a degree of pride.
   The noise stops and a veil of tormented silence drapes itself over all of them. “Come on, let’s see what we end up with. I have some bets open on this ***,” Demir jokes, but he really does have some bets open with Jolene and one of Leto’s more colorful soldiers called Crystal Ball.
   They go back into the room to behold the carnage in front of them. 7Star turns around instinctually from just the creak of the door and trains her blaster on Leto, pulling the trigger to the click of an empty clip. MeVerdin’s standing over the bodies of the dead twins. Close to them Ichigo’s crying over the body of his dead father, blaster still in his hand. Mortimer is still sitting in his chair, grosely unbothered, Bandiera Rossa next to him with a hole in her head. Gino walks up to Mortimer to shake his hand, his long beard red from the blood of beating AA.J to death. Domenico’s being congratulated by Albert and Web on becoming the new Salazar. Molly’s wiping the blood off Malone who was busy tearing Minh, Xuan, Callan and Mustad apart. The rest, those on the sidelines, keep staring at the situation wondering how this will all come together.
   “Ladies, gentlemen, criminals!” Demir booms. “The war is over, long live war!”
« Last Edit: January 09, 2023, 02:52:03 PM by B.K. »


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Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 1/6!)
« Reply #33 on: January 12, 2023, 01:16:47 PM »

Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne, he travels the fastest who travels alone. - Rudyard Kipling

It's the final stretch and I'm going all in. Finishing up the end of the narrative.
All laid out, just have to write it, and iron it for presentation as best I can.
But my trigger finger's quick, and my mind's running on overdrive.
Won't be long now.
I'm always excited about finishing books. It's such a rush, so I'm really looking forward to this.

I'll be dropping it in three batches.
Here's a teaser, because if there's anything I love in life it's a good tease.

The names of the chapters so you can let your imagination run wild.
And a short spoiler.

Batch 1
Chapter 81: FUEL THREE
Chapter 82: ***-QUEEN
Chapter 84: SUNDERLAND
Chapter 85: AUTHORITY
Chapter 86: SLINGSHOT

Batch 2
Chapter 88: THE FREE
Chapter 89: 2020 VISION
Chapter 90: GOLDEN MEAN
Chapter 91: HEAT DEATH

Batch 3
Chapter 92: CEO

THERE IS DEATH TO BE HAD. It shall be the one to deal it. The Branded floats in hyperspace attached to a sheet of hull metal. Just another piece of debris in the vast nothingness of space between time. Merely a blip on the radar of the incoming convoy.
   The fleshbags are getting desperate, even this close to their cherished Core Worlds. A full contingent of three drone tenders, ten fighters, five frigates, and one destroyer in tow for a single tanker. The tanker itself is highly modified with outfield turrets, PD lasers, and a full-scale ballistic shield. It covets this tanker. It needs this tanker.
   For the Lords.
   The Branded waits for the armed contingent to fly over it, and then engages its thrusters until it reaches the under-hull of the tanker. The small outcropping of rigging and bays that house the bridge, crew quarters, engine room, and added defensive stations.
   It tethers itself to the hull and engages scrambler protocols. Its stomach opens to let out a swarm of drones that emit electric signals equivalent to that of a hyperspace storm, so the Branded can remain stealthed during infiltration. It uses the plasma cutter in its arm to open a hole in the hull and enter a small cargo bay. Drones obfuscate the infiltration by engaging further disruptive protocols that mimic turbulence, aggravating the sensory systems of the tanker so the fleshbags don’t notice the breach. Once the Branded has plugged the hole it can finally move about the tanker. It leaves the drones in hyperspace for later, continuing their scrambler protocols at sixty percent.
   The Branded initiates stealth camouflage, and scans its surroundings with invasive infra screening to pinpoint the fleshbags. The armed contingent cannot be alarmed before it has control of the tanker. Its target is the engine room.
   Scanners show the engine room above the south-western quadrant of the rigging. The Branded has to cross through a defensive station and then into a maintenance bay just under the engine proper. The massive antimatter-fuel guzzling machine that powers the immense tanker is inserted into the main hull of the tanker itself. This prevents it from being targeted from the outside. While the thrusters can be destroyed, the engine cannot be overheated or blown up from outside without taking the precious fuel cargo along with it. The added shielding and defensive capabilities of this tanker lower the possibility of that happening considerably.
   Which is why the Branded must have it.
   For the Lords.

First batch coming out Saturday or Sunday.
See you in the skies.
« Last Edit: January 13, 2023, 06:18:14 AM by B.K. »


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Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 1/14!)
« Reply #34 on: January 14, 2023, 05:30:07 AM »

I've promised you war, and war will be had!

Batch 1.

Chapter 81: FUEL THREE
THERE IS DEATH TO BE HAD. It shall be the one to deal it. The Branded floats in hyperspace attached to a sheet of hull metal. Just another piece of debris in the vast nothingness of space between time. Merely a blip on the radar of the incoming convoy.
   The fleshbags are getting desperate, even this close to their cherished Core Worlds. A full contingent of three drone tenders, ten fighters, five frigates, and one destroyer in tow for a single tanker. The tanker itself is highly modified with outfield turrets, PD lasers, and a full-scale ballistic shield. It covets this tanker. It needs this tanker.
   For the Lords.
   The Branded waits for the armed contingent to fly over it, and then engages its thrusters until it reaches the under-hull of the tanker. The small outcropping of rigging and bays that house the bridge, crew quarters, engine room, and added defensive stations.
   It tethers itself to the hull and engages scrambler protocols. Its stomach opens to let out a swarm of drones that emit electric signals equivalent to that of a hyperspace storm, so the Branded can remain stealthed during infiltration. It uses the plasma cutter in its arm to open a hole in the hull and enter a small cargo bay. Drones obfuscate the infiltration by engaging further disruptive protocols that mimic turbulence, aggravating the sensory systems of the tanker so the fleshbags don’t notice the breach. Once the Branded has plugged the hole it can finally move about the tanker. It leaves the drones in hyperspace for later, continuing their scrambler protocols at sixty percent.
   The Branded initiates stealth camouflage, and scans its surroundings with invasive infra screening to pinpoint the fleshbags. The armed contingent cannot be alarmed before it has control of the tanker. Its target is the engine room.
   Scanners show the engine room above the south-western quadrant of the rigging. The Branded has to cross through a defensive station and then into a maintenance bay just under the engine proper. The massive antimatter-fuel guzzling machine that powers the immense tanker is inserted into the main hull of the tanker itself. This prevents it from being targeted from the outside. While the thrusters can be destroyed, the engine cannot be overheated or blown up from outside without taking the precious fuel cargo along with it. The added shielding and defensive capabilities of this tanker lower the possibility of that happening considerably.
   Which is why the Branded must have it.
   For the Lords.
   No fleshbags are patrolling the corridors, but the defensive station is manned by force of ten, and the maintenance bay is staffed by fifteen. The Branded heads out the cargo bay, makes its way through the corridor, rounds the turn, and walks down to the defensive station. It hugs the wall, places a vibration-transmitter on the door, and listens in. Vibrations on airwaves are enhanced even through the sturdy airlock-safe door, so the Branded can hear the fleshbags cleary. Once the frequency has been aligned with its internal recording mods it initiates a feed sequence that captures the voices.
   As the fleshbags bicker the Branded switches its drones from scrambler to comms disruption protocols. It can hear the fleshbags start to chatter aggravatedly, asking for updates and trying to make sense of lost dialogue in the fugue of hyperspace.
   Its feed sequence has captured enough of the voices. Drones cut off comms feed completely. The Branded plugs into the card reader and jacks into the mainframe. It can’t risk offensive hacking beyond fuzzing the security camera feed with abrasive static. Then it hacks the door open. It bursts in like death from a broken hull and suppresses the fleshbags with a flash-grenade. While stunned the Branded subdues them with nanite gas rounds that cloud the entire room. Fleshbags fall to the floor coughing and wheezing. It can’t kill them in case they are locked in a procedure protocol that monitors all vital signs. Dead fleshbags raise alarms. The Branded puts AI-controlled micro-vocoder worms into their ears, and once they worm their way into the internal comm-links of the fleshbags they continue to transmit automated responses over comms. It jacks into the security deck, pulls up a reel from the security feed and loops it, completing the subterfuge.
   The Branded then makes its way to the maintenance bay. No need to be circumspect now. It cuts off all video and audio feed, hacks the door open, rushes in and shreds the fleshbags to pieces with its railgun. Shrapnel punches through the bay, flying debris cooks the wiring and decks through. All is silent once the screams have faded.
   It finally has access to the engine via a shaft in the ceiling.
   The engine room is massive in scale. A domed shell housing a monstrous work of magnificent machinery. The base of the engine disperses into tubes that funnel the combusted antimatter energy into the outside thrusters. Atop the engine sits a coil that disperses refuse energy into spires that line the walls of the dome. Energy then aggregates in the center of the dome, dispersing it back into space through valves that follow the ribbed mesh between the spires. A walkway leads to the central terminal which the Branded hacks to turn off the security overrides. It can’t take over the entire tanker through hacking due to security measures that are simple but effective in the way that each protocol of a craft is subdivided. Unless rigged for remote use, no craft in the Known Galaxy can be taken over by sheer technological force alone.
   A small hindrance for one that is with the Lords.
   Drones initiate takeover protocols. EMP pulses emanate through the armed contingent. The Branded overloads the engine, and climbs atop the coil.
   “For the Lords!”
   It grabs hold of the spire and lets the energy flow throw it. The staggering force is like a tidal wave ripping everything in its path open through sheer chaotic force alone. The Branded screams and disables its pain receptors, but the force is so overwhelming the pain doesn’t stop. It focuses, recalibrates, becomes one with the engine, one with the power, one with the tech. The Lords will it, and so it shall be. The Branded’s consciousness emanates through the tanker. Circuits sing the Branded’s will. The Lord’s will.
   Finally it is in complete control of the tanker. It is one with the machine.
   First it opens all bay doors and airlocks, flooding the tanker with death, and ridding the fleshbags of their misbegotten lives. Then it synchronizes the shield emissions with the EMP frequency of its drones, creating a loop of electromagnetic pulses that incapacitate the armed contingent. All crafts except for the tanker are nothing but mothballed tech dead in space. It engages defensive protocols and fires all artillery until every single fleshbag is dead.
   The Branded then sets coordinates for the rendezvous, and from the engine room pilots the tanker away from the carnage. 
   The time is coming, and it is ready. For the Lords have spoken, and the Branded will answer.
The Lords will rise, and terror will blot out the sun.

Chapter 82: ***-QUEEN
PAPERWORK IS THE BANE OF THE JOB, but Svyla Torkk knew it was when she became Superior of the Authority. Since the armed conflicts in the Northern Lights Nebula and Verdin system have seemingly calmed down she has to transfer troops to penal colonies in the Outer Reaches. Demand for fuel, ore, and tech in the Core Worlds has skyrocketed since the Sons started intercepting the shipments. Miners in the Outer Reaches are growing restless, with more and more people transferred to the Authority-run penal colonies due to rising tensions and continued violence. Just a week ago miners on Verleihen burned down the house of a supervisor with him and his family inside. Dozens had to be transferred to the penal colonies, and the most violent offenders on the penal colonies had to be transferred to prison asteroids around Kraken. Brazen piracy around the Core Worlds is causing tension between the bourgeoisie of old and the Authority. The Protectorate has reached dire straits. Svyla has conferences and long-distance holos with concerned donors just as much as she has paperwork.
   Which is why she has to allocate even more Authority personnel to the Core Worlds. This in turn makes the ground forces on all their controlled planets outside the Core Worlds restless. Trying to explain to her own forces, ones that were born and raised on the very planets they now seek to keep safe, why their backup and off-planet support is being funneled to safeguard people other than their own is nothing if not close to impossible. Svyla makes promises, and when those promises fail, or it becomes obvious she can’t keep them, she makes sure her people remember why they call her the ***-Queen.
   Overtime was slashed first. Then the investigations budget crippled. After that Svyla docked all personnel transport, and then she made every-***-one of her people aware of the fact that the money the Authority saves on not paying them can be used to pay mercenaries. With brutal efficiency she reinstated overtime in key areas, enabled prolonged investigations of critical cases, and returned the officers’ precious vehicles on a probationary basis. The reason she became Superior after Auburn kicked the bucket was precisely because only she can lead a sinking ship to shore in the worst of tides.
   Unlike that bloated carcass Auburn, whose name carried him farther than it ever should have, Svyla earned her title of ***-Queen the hard way. She went to the Army first when she was old enough to enlist and get away from her overbearing parents who wanted her to become a banker like them. Only thing Svyla can give them credit for is her ability to manage finances. When the Reign cracked down on crime with the Criminal Purges they required volunteers. It was essentially a legislation that allowed veritable hit squads with licenses to kill run rampant through the Known Galaxy. Svyla signed up just as quickly as she did for the Army. She hated criminals with a vengeance. More than anything she hated the criminals that got away, like her parents. Money magnates that fed off of shelved tax credits and daisy-chained investments. But she’d have to settle for small-time crooks that made the streets unsafe. She was angry back then, even more so than now.
   The Reign made it all about public safety, so the Purges began by incarcerating as many criminals as they could. Once the prisons and penal colonies were full, and the economy started to boom when the Outer Reaches became self-sufficient, there was no more reason to book the offenders. In a turn of events the criminals started fighting back, so to speak, by way of the Purge Strike Forces leaving weapons behind as evidence after they slaughtered them wholesale. Svyla rose through the ranks due to her brutal efficiency, and after the Purges she was in charge of Populace Management. A clean, news-safe word for new hit squads that quelled every formed rebellion or uprising throughout the Known Galaxy. Her name started to carry because she was never shy of doing the dirty work herself. She rubbed shoulders with Leto III numerous times, and even completed some investigations together. While his star rose to become the Grand-Master of War, and named men like James Auburn became Sergeant Majors, Svyla Torkk became the ***-Queen.
   Soon after the C the remnants of the Army, backed by corporations and Core Worlds coffers, had to reign in a fractured Galaxy by establishing the Authority. Sure as the skies James Auburn was named Superior, and Svyla could only go so high as Deputy Superior. Auburn made her eat *** and grovel, letting her know full well that the only way she’d ever become Superior was over his dead body. Unwashed and lowly murderers like her had no place at the top. Svyla bided her time, accumulated influence, and made sure that everyone *** remembered why she’s the ***-Queen.
   When Auburn actually croaked, and violently so from what she heard, she was beside herself with joy. She even had a drink, something she hadn’t done in ages.
But what Auburn left her was an Authority in shambles, far beyond what she was able to find out during her investigations. Pocketed investment capital instead of spent, pipelines and information trading crippled, logistics in a rut, overspending on o.t. for investigations into rival corpos, blackmailed officials hemorrhaging Authority coffers, new tech spending instead of equipment maintenance, and so much more. Svyla wanted to oust Auburn through a vote of no confidence, and was on the way there when the Sons hit.
   Now she has to pilot this sinking ship to safe shores before it all goes down the drain. If she doesn’t do this right, the Authority is going to be nothing more than another private military company operating at the behest of its overlords. The autonomy the Authority built its reputation and livelihood on is on the line. The entire Protectorate, the independence of sovereign systems whose protection is overseen by the Authority, is at stake. And it all traces back to the Core Worlds.
   So Svyla begrudgingly continues pouring over the documents and devises plans through which she can keep the Core Worlds satisfied without endangering the entirety of the Authority’s operations.
   “Superior Torkk,” her deputy blasts Svyla over comms.
   “Can you keep it *** down. What is it?”
   “It’s an emergency.” Svyla already feels the sweats coming on. “A tanker has been hijacked and its escort destroyed.”
   “Within reach of Mars. Inside the Core Worlds sector. Pirate activity has been reported around Neptune. Su…”
   Svyla cuts him off. She puts the call in to her logistics officer. “I want all available units on Soleris and in Alpha Centauri geared up and ready to ship to the Core Worlds ASAP,” she orders.
   “Now!” She bellows and cuts off comms. Shuts them down completely afterwards. Anyone wants to talk to her they can do so in *** person.
   She’ll bring the fight to them. They want to play fast with the ***-Queen. Well, let’s *** play. The Authority’s going to wipe out the Sons and those damned pirates once and for all.

IF HE DOESN’T DO SOMETHING SOON, Xing-Tech might as well sell everything. Xing does contemplate a solemn and more pastoral life for himself. Maybe somewhere like Nova Prime. Far out into the woods, away from the lake where the masses of rich folk crowd the banks. He could live off of his savings, and even just a one percent share in any corporation that buys out Xing-Tech would set him up for life. Xing could finally devote himself to his time dilation and hyperspace research. He could tinker and invent on a small scale. His inherent Xing DNA and eons of mod improvements would let him far outlive any corporation, and his return in a hundred, two hundred, skies-be-damned, three or more hundreds of years would be nothing if not assured.
   Retirement seems nothing if not plausible as Xing goes over the numbers.
   He then burst out laughing. Just for his own amusement, in the solitary confinement of his private research and pleasure facility on an asteroid circling Yao-Tzu.
   The Xing family didn’t absorb the Xis and outlive the Teslas and Sunderlands just to tuck tail and retire. The mere thought is a joke to Xing, and he does appreciate his own jest.
   What isn’t a joke are the numbers.
   The Patent Office has announced a strike, and from the SIN pipelines Xing gathered enough to ascertain that Sunderland and his ilk cracked down hard on universities and grants. Xing can’t push patents through fast enough to outscale the market. This will lower R&D profitability by at least ten percent in the first quarter. The competition, like newcomers Kawada, Surreal, Anders, and especially established names like Hanzo and Charkul, are quickly and steadily advancing on the market. Their stocks are rising considerably, with a forecasted increase in value of up to thirty percent. Xing-Tech is spending too much on large projects that take too long to develop. While Xing had a chokehold on the Patent Office he could afford that by delaying the competition’s product development through those patents and non-compete muzzles.
   Smaller companies, startups, and venture capital endeavors are getting cocky due to the shifting patent landscape. This also hinders Xing-Tech’s monopoly because more guts means more glory. Everyone has their eyes on the prize. These thorns in Xing’s eye are starting to invest in commodities, unions, and most of all - SIN.
   Xing’s been on SIN like grav sickness since that worm Sunderland took the Sons tech and forced him out. To mitigate the damage Xing had to buy out the counter-offers, seal his operations tight, and ban any and all SIN contracts in major Xing-Tech facilities. Spies abound, turncoats around every corner, and disloyal employees were sadly being fired or they had unexpected accidents at work. A foreman slipped on a wet floor and out of a window to a tragic death just a month ago.
   Tightening ship costs money. Buying out the counter-offers costs money. Streamlining R&D costs money. Shipping ore from the Outer Reaches costs money. And all the while Xing-Tech is losing market value, diminishing investment potential, and will have to spend even more money to make up for the diminishing returns of established products.
   Meanwhile, the competition is gearing up for a spending spree once Trafalgar opens its Sons tech stockpile. SIN made no effort to hide the fact that Xing-Tech would not be invited to the auction in any capacity.
   Final nail in the coffin kind of situation for Xing-Tech if Charkul or Hanzo get a hold of the legit Sons tech. They can push it through the Patent Office before Xing can even get a whiff of the tech. Afterwards they will be paying the patent holders for the blueprints, instead of them paying Xing. Like it’s always been, and should be. If that comes to pass Xing-Tech will ostensibly become a supplier and not a developer and manufacturer. No longer the market leader, but just another subsidiary pushing out another corporation’s designs.
   Judging by the numbers Xing predicts that after the Trafalgar auction goes through, Xing-Tech is liable to a fifty percent stock crash in the first two quarters, and a sales deficit of sixty percent within the first half year.
   Were these just the machinations of Charkul, Hanzo, his other rivals, and Trafalgar, Xing would have no problem bombaring that ***’s planet out of the Mid-Straits and the collective memory of the Known Galaxy. He would make Mutemba an offer, as well as the XIII Legion, and both Stronghold and the Golden Triangle would descend down on Trafalgar until Farideh was no longer the Free, but rather the Hanged.
   What angers Xing the most, an anger he hasn’t felt in a long time, is SIN’s development. Sunderland and his protege have secured the backing of major Unions across the Known Galaxy. Soon enough they will become a corporation in of themselves.
   SIN is bankrolling his competition, keeping Trafalgar safe, giving the *** the entire Mid-Straits, harboring the Sons tech, and sponsoring the auction. It angers Xing even more when he thinks that there’s no way for him to bring Sunderland, that treacherous Leto, the *** Farideh and her mongrel Siona, to his asteroid and torture them for sport. Not even research, just sport.
   He would start with the Leto, and extrapolate everything that accounts for his inhuman level of mod synchronization. The rest would watch as he would cut out the man’s mods bit by bit, leaving only the meat alive. Once he’s done he’d make sure the Leto stays alive to watch him have fun with the rest. One by one. Sunderland first. He’d cut out his tongue so that his muted and muffled screams and cries for help resembled that of a dying animal. He’d relish pushing a nettled needle through Sunderland’s ***, the very thing that makes him think he’s the new *** messiah of a broken *** Galaxy. Then he would cut open that Farideh *** and stuff her with Siona’s artificial arms, making her chow down on the metal until her teeth broke. Siona he would pull apart with grav, emulating a hyperspace storm. They would all watch as each of them was torn to shreds slowly and fastidiously.
   They would scream.
   They would all scream so heavenly.
   Xing calms himself and takes a deep breath.
   He goes over the numbers one more time, and it’s obvious.
   Xing, XVI of his name, the head of the biggest tech conglomerate in the Known Galaxy, a magnate and innovator, farseer of the evolution of mankind, knows exactly what to do.
   He puts the call in to Sunderland.

Chapter 84: SUNDERLAND
“XING-TECH IS ACQUIRING CHARKUL,” Jolene tells him, and none too calm at that. “Demir, didn’t you hear me? Xing-Tech is *** buying Charkul!” Really bellowing it out now.
   “I heard you the first time,” Demir finally answers.
   This *** them. This *** SIN. This *** Trafalgar and the Mid-Straits. This *** the Unions. This *** the Outer Reaches. This *** everything he’s been working towards. Demir knows that all too clearly.
   What he doesn’t know is how the *** Xing’s doing that. Schiboukai-Sakouya, Valiant and Dornstar Bank, other banks, and even venture capitals and hedge funds are in deep with SIN. They’re backing the Unions, backing SINcorp, SOME and SEX too.
   No way Xing could have funneled that kind of money by himself, or gotten a loan based on the dwindling market appeal of Xing-Tech.
   “Demir,” Jolene addresses him.
   Maybe the Core Worlds dug deep into the Protectorate coffers, and offered up a major slice of the tech market in exchange for Xing-Tech keeping them safe against the Sons. A merger between Xing-Tech and the *** Authority.
   “Demir.” Louder this time.
   It also couldn’t have been Mahbed, even if they pooled all their funds from the Outer Reaches. But if they did sponsor the raw materials for development, and leveraged that against a loan from either Schiboukai-Sakouya or Valiant and Dornstar, they could have scrounged enough capital to buy…
   “What!?” he shouts and then remembers to breathe before his capilares burst.
   “It’s Sunderland Venture Capital. Your father’s backing the merger.”
   Because of course he *** is.


   Sunderland Venture Capital had lingered in the shadows after Constantine Sunderland relinquished his AI research and retreated to Kepler A. His hedge fund became a gray eminence in the Protectorate, and built up a staggering portfolio of investments since the C. If the market was moving, then Constantine Sunderland likely had at least some miniscule profit from it. Percentages all across the Known Galaxy, trickling down into his bloodstained coffers one drop at a time. This propelled SVC to the top of the food chain, without leaving so much as a trace. Constantine Sunderland pioneered the daisy chain structure of shell banking after the C. Sequences of untraceable funds that he stockpiled like a greedy dragon from tales of ancient times in various locations he still had at his disposal since the Reign had assigned him as lead technician for AI development. He invested small, under the radar, then let it grow steadily by maneuvering his finances to lillipad up until he could buy out major stocks in big companies, sell them off, and then invest into smaller financial opportunities to disperse the cash flow before it got traced back to him and taxed. The web of SVC is as beautiful as it is devious, and Constantine knows this.
   When the Sons of Hephestus arrived on the scene, Constantine kept a finger on the pulse of the tech market and commodities exchange. SVC invested heavily in smaller players like Anders and their advanced shield tech, Kawada was bringing in las and grav, and Surreal was about to jump into the Pron-tech market. Small players made big by his backing. Then he siphoned that money into more substantial financial backing in the Outer Reaches. As soon as the Sons made off with a fuel shipment, Constantine Sunderland knew that the shortage would skyrocket the prices in the Core World.
   SVC began pumping Charkul stock once the Armitage III news broke, and buying shares in the company in bulk. All amassed through various shells that SVC had on hand.
Constantine bided his time, like he did for years since the C. From the shadows he waited until the time came. Neither the Protectorate, the Core Worlds that shunned him, Charkul, Trafalgar, or SIN would be able to stop him now.
   SVC is ready to sell off its shares of Charkul, effectively giving Xing-Tech a thirty percent stake in the company. Constantine Sunderland will also open SVC’s considerable coffers to buy out the rest, and merge Xing-Tech and Charkul into an unrivaled tech giant that will control the entire market for decades at the least.
   This will pressure the Core Worlds and the Protectorate into folding on Constantine’s exile. He will return triumphant, and the fools that dismissed him will eat his ***.
   Tomorrow the major shareholders of Charkul and Xing-Tech will meet on Kepler A to finalize the deal of a century.
   The return of Constantine Sunderland is assured.


   Demir wishes Kepler A got glassed during the C. Or at least burned to a crisp and made uninhabitable. He wishes his childhood home had burned to the ground.
   Even after all these years, returning back leaves a bad taste in his mouth, an itch in his throat, and a throttle in his bowels. He’s not even going to the Sunderland mansion in the outskirts of Kasparov City. At least not yet. The mere image in his mind of the lavish place he called home before dedicating himself to the MOS life arouses only nausea. One would think that being born with a platinum spoon in his mouth would leave nothing but sunshine and flowers as memories, but assumptions are how one gets ***.
   Demir kicks the sensations to the side, and focuses on the task at hand.
   Xing XVI and Constantine Sunderland are already waiting in the SVC headquarters. Demir and Avalosara Charkul are heading to the fifteenth floor via elevator. The rest of the shareholders are on call via holo.
   If Demir had a credit for every meeting room he sabotaged, every top floor penthouse suite he crashed, every negotiation he usurped, he’d have enough bank to buy out the entire Core Worlds. If he’s being honest with himself, he’s just tired. Tired of all the talking, scheming, and planning. But most of all he’s tired of Constantine Sunderland hanging over his head like a sword waiting to drop.
   Now Demir isn’t sure if his father or he are the sword. Because the blade is falling, and heads are going to roll.
   A final spite nugget left in Demir’s mind, or if he’s also being honest with himself about that as well, it’s more like a festering hatred he’s been carrying around his entire life.
   But the door opens to another meeting room, and another crashed negotiation.
   It would be deja vu were it not for the fact that Demir hasn’t seen his father for what feels like his entire life. Not even a memory of his face in his mind. Xing’s all aghast, paler than usual, looking like he’s in dire need of a heimlich maneuver. Standing next to Demir, Avalosara’s smirk is feline, malicious, and damn contagious.
   “What are you doing here?” Xing hisses.
   Holos of all the shareholders of both respective companies are assembled at the table, each with their own gradation of surprise on their face.
   “Honored shareholders, I came to inform you that as of now SIN has acquired Sunderland Venture Capital. All subsequent shares of Charkul have been sold back to Ms. Avalosara Charkul. Making her a fifty-five percent shareholder of Charkul. Feel free to discuss this amongst yourselves, but Xing-Tech will not be acquiring the company today.”
   “Or any other day for that matter,” Avalosara chimes in with a snide one, deep and precise.
   “You are free to disconnect,” Demir tells the riveted audience.
   No one knows what to do. Demir’s father can’t seem to move. Next to him Xing, on the other hand, looks like his eyes are about to burst out of their sockets. “Disconnect!” Xing shouts in a tone indistinctly deep for him, crushing to a point.
   The holos dissipate and the four of them are alone.
   “What did you do?” Xing stands up, towering above all of them, his malicious shadow engulfing Demir specifically.
   “You’re free to go, Xing. There’s nothing more for you here,” Demir tells him. As the lanky, alien man takes a step closer Avalosara takes a step back.
   Xing’s head shakes. His lips curl and his teeth scrape. Muscles in his jaw protrude as he bites down harder and harder, breathing through his teeth. “What did you do?”
   “Now, Xing, let’s no…”
   In a fit of rage Xing lunges at Demir. Mouth open, teeth bared like a wild animal, ready to clamp down on Demir’s neck, chew it off and spit it out. Arms out, hands clawed, center of gravity low, and descending into a tackle.
   Demir slips into Xing’s zone, goes in low and grabs his outstretched arm. He uses Xing’s momentum to lift him over himself, pull his center of gravity back in, topple the large man and drop him on his back like a *** sack. Xing smashes into the ground, gurgles the air out of his lungs, and writhes on the floor. Demir feels his own rage boiling. He mounts the downed Xing, opens his arms, looks his father square in the eyes, and starts beating Xing to a bloody pulp.
   Never removing eye contact.
   First fist connects, bouncing Xing’s head into the floor, and smashing the next fist into his face on the bounceback.
   Never removing eye contact.
   Xing’s teeth fly out like shrapnel from a busted hull. His capilares burst, lacerated eyebrows and broken cheekbones flooding the carpeted floor with blood with every consecutive punch.
   Never removing eye contact.
   Constantine doesn’t move. Just stands there riveted in place, looking his son straight in the eyes. His waxen face a pale mask disguising his fear. Beads of sweat bubbling to the surface of his skin.
   “Stop it,” two arms grab hold of Demir. “Stop it now!” Avalosara pulls Demir off Xing. “I will not be complicit in a *** murder.”
   Demir turns to the woman, takes the long sleeves of her robe and brushes the blood off his hands. At least as much as possible, the rest just smearing across his skin like honey, thick and still warm. Once he’s done he tells Avalosara, “then either haul him along with you, or call security to pick him up. Either way, get the *** out.”
   “You may have saved my company, but you will not talk to me th…”
   “You can expect a SIN representative shortly,” Demir cuts her off. “We need to prepare for the auction. And don’t you ever forget that you owe me. Now get the *** out.”
Avalosara frowns, then takes a deep breath and lets her shoulders fall. Relieved of the tension she nods and leaves the room.
   The only thing between Demir and his father is the unconscious Xing still bleeding from every orifice and open sore on his mangled face.
   “Am I next?” His fathers asks nonchalantly. Clearly recalibrated and focused, or pretending he’s unphased by what just occurred.
   “No need for that, you’re finished either way.”
   Constantine sits back down. “I see you finally found a way to hurt me even more, Demir.”
   “This isn’t about you, you arrogant ***,” Demir lashes out.
   “Buying my business out from under me, ruining my chances of ever returning to the Core Worlds. Dismantling the operation I spent my life building, and the name I gave my life to in shambles. How does that have nothing to do with me?”
   Demir sits down close to his father. He starts massaging his sore knuckles. “Did you even stop to wonder, just for one second, how I even managed to buy you out?”
   “That’s simple enough.” Constantine doesn’t even wait a heartbeat for his retort. Right back on the offensive, like he’s got another meeting in a minute and has to get this done quickly. “Your mother sold me out.”
   That much is true. SVC’s structure and clandestine chain of shell corporations weren’t all in Constantine’s name. Many of them were in his wife’s, Esmeralda. The obscene wealth and threat of pure and utter extinction kept her under his thumb since before the C. She couldn’t betray Constantine even if she wanted to, at least not if she wasn’t ready to die a miserable death.
   “Still, you never wonder why, do you?” Demir just wants him to admit it. He’s admitted it to himself that he needs it. He needs his father to say it.
   “Considering I gave her everything she ever wanted, I would wager you just made her a better offer. She always did turn a blind eye to your,” a pause, “shortcomings.”
   Demir bashes his fist on the table. Not a twitch from Constantine. “That’s your problem, right there.” Among all the other ones you hate-filled, self-centered, egomaniacal sack of ***. “You think you’re so much better than everyone else.”
   “Because I am, because we are.”
   When Demir was a boy, not even reaching puberty, his father would tell him stories of all the Sunderlands that came before. He would instill this message of superiority into Demir, like a mantra, but without the kindness. More like a creed, but without the ethereal higher power. Constantine would always tell his son how much better he was because he was a Sunderland. How much the Galaxy owed his family. How there was no man, not even in the Reign, that could ever match a Sunderland. Never did he tell his son about how he had to live up to those expectations. He didn’t have to. A Sunderland only had to know that he was better, and better he would be.
   Even after the Sunderlands were shunned because of their direct culpability in the Collapse, Constantine scorned the masses as ignorant savages. Unwashed masses could never understand how much they owed his family, or come to grasp the heights and possibilities only a Sunderland could ever hope to achieve.
   Demir never felt that way. He saw beauty and possibility in others, whereas his father only had scorn for anyone he trampled over. And there was no one he didn’t trample. From his own wife, to his son, to the very shame he discarded all those years ago.
   “You don’t even remember her name, do you?”
   “There’s nothing to remember,” Constantine brushes the question aside.
   Just like he did with her. “Scheherezade. Mother named her after the famed princess. You remember that, Constantine?”
   “Only the fighting survive. You know that better than anyone.”
   “Didn’t give her much of a chance now, did you? That’s why mother sold you out. No deals, no payments, just a way to finally live out her grief.”
   Constantine says nothing, for a change. Solemn silence stands between father and son like an uncrossable border.
   Sunderlands didn’t come to be where they are without tinkering with their DNA. A finessed bloodline that has carefully cultivated only the strongest features over generations, and engaged in DNA splicing as pioneers in the field. In Demir’s eyes he and his ilk are nothing more than a glorified breeding program. In his father’s eyes they are the pinnacle of what humans can achieve.
Giving birth to a - as Constantine called her - defective child, was therefore a stain on the Sunderland name that he could not afford. There are microscopic instances in the human body, the very essence of our DNA, that don’t allow for continued perfection. Sheherezade was born with developmental issues, clearly visible from the day she had come into this Galaxy crying and afraid. Demir’s memory of that day was suppressed when his father sent him away to a Reign training camp where he spent most of his days locked away in a sensory deprivation chamber to meditate on his disruptive actions. He acted out until he was kicked out. Days in the chamber had taken its toll on his memory of Sheherazade’s birth. The day he was about to leave was the day his mother had crumbled into a drunken mess, as she was known to do for years and Demir could never place why, and told him all about his lost sister. The Reign had assured Constantine that the news of his failed offspring would never reach the light of day, and she was sold for testing. A subject in the war against imperfection. Esmeralda never stopped drinking and drugging, and Demir never forgave his father or returned home.
   Until now. Now that he’s home his father can rot.
   “I own sixty percent of SVC. Now, you can continue to sit on the board and get blocked by me on every decision you ever make. Or you can take my money and live out your misbegotten life however you please.” Demir stands up. “I would prefer the latter, because I don’t want to see your face ever again. And just so you know, SIN’s keeping an eye on you. So venturing back into finance or tech is out of the question. Try that and no one will ever find your body.”
   “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you,” Constantine hisses out. Finally some emotions out of the old man. Hateful in defeat as he is in life.
   “No, Constantine, I’m not. Regardless of what you might think, I don’t regard myself as better than anyone, not even you. I don’t care if I’m a Sunderland. I don’t give a *** about the name, or the legacy. What you could never understand is that I am my own man. That every person in this Galaxy, rotten as it may be, is their own person. A name makes you no better than anyone else. DNA doesn't make you worth more. The only thing you’ve proven over the years you have plagued every space you ever inhabited, is that you are the lowest of scum. So you can die the same way you lived - alone.”
   Demir steps over Xing’s still-limp body. He turns around and heads for the door.
   “It’s lonely at the top,” Constantine shouts after Demir. “It holds true even eons later.” Demir doesn't turn around. “You did well, son.”
   He doesn’t look at his father before exiting, and hopes he doesn’t have to ever again.


   The Sunderland mansion is all but condemnable. The front porch hasn’t been power-washed in what seems like ages. Grimed and festered through with muck. Railings coiling around the porch are all but bitten through from time and neglect, and the columns holding up the portico are now marbled through with salted mold from the winds carrying the sea breeze across the entire planet. Windows in each wing of the mansion are either closed shut, dust and calcification cementing them in place, or just broken. Roof tiles litter the unkempt grass. Balustrades merely resemble their original curvature reminiscent of a period long forgotten. Balconies are clearly unsafe to tread upon. Demir can’t see the roof, but he’s certain it’s leaking. The once pristine white facade has turned milky in some places, and adopted a greenish sickly tint in others. No staff are around to tend to the mansion or its surroundings. No one inside or out who cares enough to keep up appearances. Constantine hasn’t lived here since before Demir left all those years ago. The outward appearance matches the soul of the sole occupant of the derelict space - Esmeralda Sunderland.
   Fleeting images of Demir’s childhood spent galavanting around the now withered and wilted front garden pass by in an instant. The image of his mother, beaming with joy and awash with sunshine, remains as he enters the mansion through the broken front door.
   Dust cascades from the rafters, particles floating in the breeze, illuminated by pillars of sunlight crashing down like spears through holes in the roof. The space is dark and massive, eerie in its silence. Remnants of a life lived inside the walls lingers faintly in the musky smell of the stale air.
   Demir thought he would be overwhelmed if he came here. Almost decided not to. But now that he’s here the only thing he feels is empty.
   He takes a right turn under the arches of the upper deck, and into the lounge. Esmeralda’s lying there on a couch, splayed out like an ancient work of art. Her surroundings still holding on to the sheen they once had, with white marbled walls and inset pillars holding up a domed roof adorned with a fresco that depicts the creation of mankind. Something Constantine was fond of. Small tables with a coat of dust blowing particles into the air like a smoldering fire litter the lounge almost at random. Red and brown settees, couches, and upholstered chairs stand sentinel around the room as if they are the only guards left. Demir’s mother gazes ahead, unfocused and unbothered, deep in a fantasy outside of her own being.
   Demir walks slowly up to her, does his best not to startle her when he says, “Mother, I’m here.”
   Esmeralda comes to sharply, like being pulled out of a trance by shaking her head. Her eyes are floating in a pool of her own tears, bloodshot at the edges and milky around the center. Irises enlarged, and the bags under her eyes breaking through the makeup. Her curly blond hair is kept neat, glossy, and tidy in a high bun. She’s wearing her formal evening wear consisting of a future-perfect white dress, high-buttoned collar, and plated shoulder pads aglow in gold. She shakes her head one more time and takes full notice of her son.
   “Demir,” she pushes herself off the couch and into his embrace. “Oh, oh,” she squeaks almost in her mousey voice. “If I had known I would have tidied up. My apologies.”
   “No need, mother. Why are you still here?” Demir gestures at everything around them. “How did it come to this?”
   “Oh, oh.” Esmeralda leans back into the couch and produces a glass of something bubbly and pink from out of nowhere. “I grew tired of the help making all that noise. So I told them to leave. Then the gardeners started making even more noise. So I told them to leave too. I just wanted some peace and quiet.” She takes a sip of her drink.
   “How long ago was this?”
   “Last time your father was here,” she says nonchalantly. “He tried to make me hire them back, but I told him I needed peace and quiet. He’s such a good man.” She takes another dainty sip, like it’s going to hurt so the glass barely touches her lips. “I’ve had my peace and quiet since he left. Once a week a courier comes by with food and the little helpers I order. Such a good boy. Never bothers me. So I have my peace and quiet.”
   It’s obvious to Demir that his mother is plastered out of her mind on stims and meds. Judging by the state of the mansion she’s been alone for decades. Slowly drinking and drugging herself to death. Demir can’t blame her considering he was doing the same not too long ago.
   “You can come with me now, mother. I bought your shares. Constantine’s finished. He can’t hurt you any longer.”
   “Why would he hurt me?” Esmeralda shakes her head quizzically. “He lets me have my peace and quiet. That’s all I ever wanted.”
   “Then why did you sell me your shares in SVC?” Demir can’t quite wrap his head around that.
   “Because you asked,” she tells him like it’s gospel.
   Demir takes some time to bask in the silence. The more he talks to his mother the more confused he feels. He’s talked to a lot of addicts over the years. From shooting galleries in slums to prime zazz parties in penthouses. Never could get a coherent conversation out of addicts, him being one of them for a long time. But none of those people were his mother.
   Esmeralda keeps sipping her drink almost like a cat, a drop at a time.
   “I’ve found her, mother. I managed to find Scheherezade, or, well, proof that she lived.” His mother says nothing. Demir takes out a holodeck and turns it on.
   Scheherezade Sunderland was visibly deformed. The left side of her face drooped so her left eye was closed due to skin overlap. Her right eye was bulging, and she was balding before she could even spout anything more than a few hairs on her scalp.
   The holodeck projection shows Scheherezade as a beautiful little girl with one eye smaller than the other, long blond hair, a slight awkward bend in her lip, and a smile as big as her heart.
   “Oh, oh, my baby,” Esmeralda gasps.
   “She died after one thousand and one nights,” Demir lies.
   In truth Sheherezade lived for fifteen long and hard years in a blacksite research facility the Reign had concealed from the general public. She was experimented on in ways Demir could never imagine. Once he took over SIN he launched a discovery mission to find her file, and if possible her remains as well. His people found all her records, but nothing left of the child herself. Demir didn’t read through them. Instead he deleted the proof, and kept her holodeck portraits. There was no one to give the proof to, no one that cared about the past. No one to hold accountable any longer. Only thing those documents could cause was more grief. He cherry picked a portrait of her around three years old and had it ironed out. The truth would only cause his mother more grief.
   He can see now that he made the right choice.
   Esmeralda reaches for her daughter only for her hands to sink through the projection. Demir turns the holo off and gives it to his mother. “Keep it. It’s the last living memory of her.”
   “Oh, oh, thank you, Demir.”
   She doesn’t call him son. He understands why. He did abandon her after all. He was afraid of his father, afraid of himself, and afraid of the possible realization that he couldn’t make it on his own. Demir never even contemplated taking his mother with him when he left. Not certain if she would be baggage he’d regret taking along, or if he would be the baggage in the end.
   “Mother, please, come with me,” he begs her this time.
   “Oh, oh, don’t worry dear. I have my peace and quiet here. The courier brings me food and little helpers every week.” She takes a sip. “I’ll be fine. All I need is peace and quiet. Now I even have Scheherezade to keep me company.”
   Esmeralda wiggles from the couch and places the holodeck on a small table to the side. She turns it on and Scheherezade’s smile lights up. A little girl perfect in her imperfections. She then returns back to her sprawled position and continues sipping her drink.
   “I’m sorry, mother. I’m truly sorry.” Demir can’t look at her.
   “Oh, oh, what are you sorry for, Demir? You were born to destroy. That’s the only thing you’re good at,” Esmeralda says with the same tone as if she just stated the sky is blue. Even a smile on her face. No malice behind it, no judgment, just the cold, hard, desperate truth.
   Demir stands up, kisses his mother on the cheek, and heads out the mansion. Esmeralda doesn’t say goodbye on the way out. Demir isn’t even sure she noticed he was leaving. Her eyes glued to the fake picture of the daughter she lost to a monster. Stuck in the memory that broke her.
   Well, Demir knows that him leaving is the thing that irrevocably broke her completely.
   Once outside he wants to drop to the ground, cry and bawl his eyes out. Scream and curse, wallow in the dust and soak it with his tears. Demir wants the skies to know his fury, his anger, his loss, and he wants most of all to confess his helplessness.
   Instead he hops on his hover-bike, and heads back to the city to be off-planet as soon as possible.
   He has a meeting to attend.

Chapter 85: AUTHORITY
“YOU’VE GOT TO BE *** ME!” Farideh’s boiling over. A biological reaction it would seem to everything Demir ever says or does. Maybe even just his physical vicinity is enough. If he had more time Demir would study it further.
   But time is running out.
   Siona, uncharacteristically, says nothing. Leto and Jolene know the score. Which is why they’re on Trafalgar to triple-team Farideh and her mongrel into complying.
   “I don’t know if you told your little protege what happened last time we met with the *** Authority. But I think she can guess it didn’t *** end well,” Farideh continues.
   “Unforeseen circumstances, is all. We’re on top of it this time.”
   Farideh takes some time to mull over the prospect. “Why would they even meet with us? Aren’t they blockading the Core Worlds?”
   “That’s exactly why they’ll want to meet with us. Charming’s working with the Sons.” A twitch from Siona at that. “The Authority’s blockading the Core Worlds because they want to trap the Sons and Charming’s pirate gang inside, and flush them out. Sons took a massive fuel shipment close to Mars. Torkk sounded the alarms and it’s all hands on deck.”
   “What’s their perimeter setup?” Siona asks.
   “The Authority has dedicated hyperspace flotillas patrolling the borders of the Core World sector. From the info SIN could gather, they are reporting signs of success.” Leto details the skinny SIN was barely able to scrape together considering how tight the Authority has been keeping their ship since the Sons started their tyrannus assault on the Core Worlds’ supplies. “The Sons have shown considerable interest in crippling the Core Worlds, which is what they wanted to achieve by aligning themselves with Charming. The Authority is pushing for a conflict. It is inevitable.”
   Svyla Torkk’s smart, Demir knows. She’s making sure the battle takes place on her turf. By working through a wide hyperspace net she was able to minimize the Sons’ exfil potential. Ostensibly they’re stuck and have to fight. Charming’s already in the Core Worlds doing damage. Leto’s right on all accounts. The Authority’s funneling their target to them, and the Core World smell of open conflict. ***’s about to hit the fan.
   “Our concern isn’t what’s going on now, but what’s about to happen afterwards.” Demir nods to Jolene.
   “The Authority’s left their prisons, penal colonies, and Protectorate bases manned solely by skeleton crews. Unrest is continuously brewing in the Outer Reaches. Despite the sound tactical solution to the Sons problem, the Authority will experience heavy losses. Their facilities will remain understaffed, and their hold over the Outer Reaches is disputable.” Jolene lays out the facts. Demir even notices a slight drop in her timbre. Deeper, more determined in tone and delivery.
   “That’s where we come in,” Demir chimes in.
   Farideh sighs deeply and loudly. “If you say we make them a better deal. Skies be damned, Sunderland, I’m sick of deals. I’m sick of all of this. Can’t we just have some peace and quiet?”
   The two words run shivers down Demir’s spine. He stands up. “*** you and your peace and quiet.” Siona’s on the offensive. Legs riveted to the ground for torque, arms out for the pounce. “You’re not the head of some pirate sector any longer, Farideh. You’re in control of the gateway through the Mid-Straits. And you didn’t even hear the good news yet.” Farideh’s eyes widen. “All those shitheels around the Mid-Straits, like Salazar, Verdin, Ygdra, well, they’re all pretty eager to link up with you. Pimp Mafia and Porn Union are about to merge, and they’ll be knocking too. Transportation Union’s on the up and up, and they’ll be looking for a new partnership away from the Protectorate. Before the Authority wipes their ass with the Sons you’ll be in charge of the entire Mid-Straits, Farideh.”
   “I won’t be your plaything, Sunderland.” Farideh’s visibly distraught now. Like a shadow of obligation blotted out her otherwise staggering confidence. Demir sits back down to calm the mood. Siona, on the other hand, keeps her feet firmly planted just in case. If she gets the chance to clock Demir out, she’ll take it. Bet my life on it. “I’m not here for you to move me around like some pawn in a sick game only you know the rules to. You’re going to tell me everything, right now, or I’ll unload the Sons stockpile into the *** sun and block Trafalgar off from everything. So you can play your *** games by yourself.”
   “SIN is going to support and partially finance the independence of the Outer Reaches.” Demir tells Farideh straight up. He owes her that. “The time of the Protectorate, Authority, and corpos is over. The Mid-Straits under your rule will provide a buffer between the Outer Reaches and the Core Worlds. A somewhat precarious, but still plausible armistice. Or mutually assured destruction. There’s no way the Galaxy will ever again come together under one rule. The least we can do to assure some kind of peace is to divide it fairly. That’s why we need the Authority.”
   “That’s not everything,” Jolene comes in out of nowhere. Quick learner. “SIN had to buy out Sunderland Venture Capital at a steep price.” She’s laying it all on the table. “In order to recoup our losses, as well as replenish the Outer Reaches support budget, we’ll have to open up counter-offers. All counter-offers. A truly open drakkweb. That’s going to be a shitshow. We need the Authority for protection. We need them on our side. And we need them to recognize the Mid-Straits as an independent entity from the Protectorate. Now, they can leave peacefully, or Trafalgar will wipe them off the face of each planet they’re on. SIN would prefer the former.”
   Demir can see it in Farideh’s eyes. The glint of possibility. The promise of power. A golden sheen, an image of the Mid-Straits all her own. “And just how do you think you’ll get the Authority to agree to that?”
   Demir can’t help but smile. “We give them what they always wanted. If they leave the Mid-Straits, and you break off from the Protectorate under mutually agreed terms, the Authority gets an embassy on Trafalgar.”
   “Skies be *** damned, Sunderland. You really are pushing your luck here. Do you enjoy this, you ***?” Siona flares up.
   “What I enjoy, mongrel, is smoking some nice legit all-natural yerba from my main man Chuckles up on Nova Prime. All the while getting my *** sucked. If I’m feeling frisky maybe some zazz up my nose or in my eyes. Maybe I won’t even be sitting down, and instead have my ass eat…”
   “***, stop!” Siona turns away. “I don’t need that image in my head. *** you.”
   “Will you two *** children stop!” Farideh gets in between them.
   “I concur,” Leto chimes in.
   “Sunderland,” Farideh looks at Demir, all business now. “First of all, how the *** would that work? Second, why the *** would I agree to that? And third, why the *** would the Authority agree to that?”
   “Since the hostilities between the crime factions within the Mid-Straits have calmed down, you assure the Authority that you will keep the criminal enterprise contained within the Straits, and pivot to the Outer Reaches. That will keep the Core Worlds and Protectorate financiers happy, so the Authority can relinquish their bases over to Trafalgar forces. The embassy would serve as a go-between. The Authority presence on Trafalgar would assure the Protectorate that the Mid-Straits will not engage in any hostile action against them. The Authority will accept this because Charkul owes SIN big time, and we’ll make sure they sell the newly patented Sons tech to them at a discount. We’ll even give them choice dibs. Get them as close to first in line as possible. That way the Authority can focus on their precious Core Worlds and Protectorate, the Mid-Straits can become a transpo haven and tech development melting pot, and the Outer Reaches can have their bloody revolution.Trafalgar will become a true force to be reckoned with. A legitimate player in the field. The Mid-Straits all yours to rule. When all is said and done, it’s like a layer cake. Each one forming a beautiful piece of the grand pie. Satisfied?” Demir finished off with a smirk.
   “Only one problem, Sunderland - Kurrekesh.” Farideh’s quick on the defense.
   “No problem at all. And it’s not just Kurrekesh any longer. It’s the Golden Triangle since they’ve taken over Stromyeh and Bazaltran. Mutemba and Pasha Osakwe are ready to enter into an agreement.”
   “Like *** hell they will,” Siona snarls. “Like we’ll ever let that traitorous *** back on Trafalgar ever again. He sold us out like pigs.”
   “Farideh sold you out, Siona,” Demir hits her with the truth. “When Mutemba got a hold of you she was ready to sell the Trafalgar stockpile to Xing-Tech just to keep her system afloat.”
   “What?” Demir cuts her off. “Different. Please, don’t be naive. Mutemba was, and still is, looking after his own. Just like you are. Now you’ll have even more of your own to look after. The entirety of the Mid-Strats have heard and witnessed what Farideh the Free can achieve. What Trafalgar has done for the outliers and, let’s be honest, criminals. Now it’s *** high time to turn that around and make something of this stretch of war and misery. Like it or not, none of us is going anywhere if we don’t get the Authority on our side. The Protectorate is all about money, and the Mid-Straits will have enough of that to make sure they pipe up the goods running through your systems, and then pipe the *** down. All the Authority wants is stability. We show them we can provide that, and maybe this misbegotten Galaxy will have some kind of future ahead.”
   “What about burning Xing to the ground?” Farideh asks with a raised brow and slight condescending undertone.
   “Last time I saw Xing he was pinned down and I was bashing his skull in. The burning of the rest will happen naturally. Now, are we *** doing this, or not?”
   Farideh sighs loudly one more time. “I’m really getting tired of all these meetings, Sunderland.”
   “Tell me about it.”


   To think that the erstwhile most wanted criminals in the Known Galaxy could enter Alpha Centauri without being shot down on sight, let alone be expected on Soleris, would be unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Then again, Demir has always been fond of tables and the turning thereof.
   At first Svyla Torkk, the ***-Queen herself, lived up to her name. She was threatening warrants on Demir, Jolene, and Leto for their connections to illegal information trading when Demir first made his proposal. Afterwards she threatened a full blockade of Trafalgar, seizure of the Sons stockpile, and crippling of the Mid-Straits when Demir told her Farideh and Siona would be in the meeting too. Demir was more than certain Torkk would go through with it. Soon as the Sons were finished she’d set her eyes on SIN and Trafalgar until it was all burned to the ground. The ***-Queen is many things, but a person who doesn't keep her word is not one of them. So Demir sweetened the deal. He told her everything the Authority would get first, then how the Galaxy could reap the benefits, and lastly carefully omitted how he was going to *** her by supporting the Outer Reaches independence. But then again, a deal without at least one lie or omission can only be considered capitulation. Demir wasn’t capitulating anything, and with a heavy heart Svyla Torkk finally agreed to meet with them.
   Baby, Leto’s new and improved skiff the Spearhead, Cain and Ghrom, land on Soleris to a royal welcome. An armed company of Authority officers all pointing their blasters at them. Between the armed forces the Superior awaits them with a furrowed brow, deep frown, and contempt in her eyes. Rain crashing down and thunder booming in the distance on the storm planet of Soleris may be a veritable gem for the siphoning of energy for their planetary defense systems and orbital station, but to Demir it’s only *** annoying. With the wind picking up, and the officers not lowering their blasters, it feels like the Authority wants them to die of natural causes.
   “Either shoot us or let us in. I’m not staying in this rain a second longer,” Demir shouts over the howls of the wind, and starts walking.
   “Halt!” The commander of the company orders. “Halt or we will shoot.”
   “Yeah, yeah, tell that to someone who cares,” and Demir continues walking until he’s face to face with the Superior who, unlike her predecessor, towers over Demir by at least a head. Blasters on all sides trained on him.
   The Superior uniform suits her, Demir has to admit. An attractive woman, all things considered. Full luscious lips under a tight little snub-nose. Absolutely lavish eyelashes accentuate the darkness of her black obsidian-matte eyes. Large eyes that pierce the soul. Protruding cheekbones to cut yourself on flow like mountains over her inset cheeks. Her dark hair is pulled back into a warrior bun that is held together by two pins in the traditional style of a Reign Captain. Honoring both the tradition of the Authority, and its future. The uniform itself is somewhat similar to that of Leto’s own making. A double-breasted suit jacket adorned with red trimmings over an ironed beige pants and combat boots combo. Credentials of the Superior pinned over her left breast.
   “I’ll take being shot over being rained on to death,” Demir tells the Superior through a grin. “Your choice, Superior.”
   “Lower your weapons, and escort them inside.” Svyla Torkk turns on her heel and Demir and his companions follow the company inside the Authority hub.
   Demir spent enough time in Authority jails, stations, and even larger hubs around the Galaxy that the interior design leaves much to be desired in terms of diversity. All whites and blues. Boring to say the least. But at least they’re consistent, Demir has to give them that.
   While Demir feels more at home in here than at home Jolene’s tense as an icicle, Leto as stoic as ever, and both Farideh and Siona look like they're about to jump out of their skin. “Come on, if they wanted to kill or jail us they would’ve done so already. Relax, it’s going to be fine,” he tells the two dead women walking, judging by their colors turning paler by the second.
   “Easy for you to say,” Farideh retorts.
   “We’ll be out in no time. Trust me.”
   The entire building lights up in flaring reds, and the blaring alarm rings so shrill they all almost fall to their knees from the noise.
   “Armed forces are appearing out of nowhere!” An officer shouts. “The Sons are attacking the Core Worlds and Alpha Centauri!”
   “*** me dead,” Demir whispers  to himself.

Chapter 86: SLINGSHOT
IT’S ALL *** AND FANS, on and off-planet. Authority officers are running around the compound like it’s an anthill. Booted feet stomping all over the place. Shouts of what’s going on? What’s happening? What do we do? echo in and around the corridor Siona and the rest are stuck in. The ***-Queen and her retinue wave them off when Sunderland starts asking questions. Torkk turns around and heads deeper into the compound, leaving behind a selection of officers to escort their visitors out and leave them to their own devices.
   Then Siona sees something she hasn’t in ages. A display of sheer audacity and unabashed violent superiority. Leto bursts through the officers, pushing most of them into the walls with meaty slaps. Blasters clank to the ground and dazed Authority officers try to get their bearings while Leto walks through Torkk’s retinue, moves them aside like children, and grabs the Superior by the collar. He lifts her up to his staggering height, eye to *** eye.
   “I will murder every officer in here and cut your head off if you do not tell me what is happening right this instant. You have the three best pilots in Known Galaxy right here, and you are wasting time acting like you have a grasp on the situation,” Leto snarls into Torkk’s face from within spitting distance. The woman’s darting eyes are so wide they look like they’re about to burst. Her lower lip’s twitching, and her grip on Leto’s arms is waning. She’s scared out of her mind. Not by the alarm, or the assault, but by Leto. “Now, Superior!” he shouts. “Now!”
   “The Sons have breached our Core Worlds blockade,” Torkk swallows her spit audibly, even over the alarm. “They’re using fuel tankers to bombard my forces. We can barely keep the stalemate.” She’s shivering now. “They’re off-planet too. Zoning in on Soleris. We need to form a perimeter. I need to get to the command center. I need to guide my troops. We need to protect the Core Worlds.” Torkk looks around for her officers to help her, instead witnessing only startled faces aghast and legs twitching, everyone riveted in place like statues. Not a blaster drawn. “Skies be damned, we need to protect Soleris. Alpha Centauri can’t… mustn’t… we can’t lose.” Still looking around wildly and twitchy, not for help this time, but for solutions.
   Leto puts her down. “I will protect the Core Worlds,” he announces.
   “*** the Core Worlds!” Sunderland butts in. “We need to protect Soleris.”
   “If the Core Worlds fall, the entire Protectorate falls along with it.”
   “*** the Protectorate. We can make due with the Mid-Straits.”
   “No!” Leto’s voice booms so heavily it drowns out the alarms. Officers step back in a shiver. “The Core Worlds must stand. I will leave now, do what I can.”
   “What are you going to do? Ha, Leto. When you arrive there after a day. What exactly are you going to do, except maybe look for survivors? Get a grip. We need the Authority. We don’t need the Core Worlds.”
   “Both of you can *** off. Me and Farideh will go,” Siona’s had enough of them and their dicks and the measurements of their dicks.
   “Sure, go ahead. Get there a *** day late, probably two if you have to haul that command frigate through hyperspace. All of you just be *** reasonable. We take care of the Sons here.”
   “I’ll rubber-band and slingshot to the Core Worlds through hyperspace. Farideh can piggyback off my slipstream, and we’ll cut her arrival time to one hour, two tops. She can relieve command pressure from the Superior, while you take care of the situation here. Plus, I’ve got a score to settle with Charming and the Sons.” Siona looks back at Farideh who nods approvingly.
   “Is everyone *** insane?” Sunderland reaches his overdramatic self-important prattle stage again. “Just focus on the task at hand.”
   “Shut the *** up, Demir,” Leto cuts him down to size. “Siona, Farideh, use Soleris’ gravity field while the Sons are still occupied with the outer partols. Report back once you are in the Core Worlds. Torkk,” he addresses the dazed Superior. “I have known you to be many things, but a coward is not one of them. Head for the command center and inform the Core Worlds troops of Siona and Farideh’s arrival. Make sure they are prepared. Assemble a full defensive line around Soleris. Once Farideh alleviates the command pressure, form a net perimeter around Alpha Centauri. Limit the Sons’ exfiltration capabilities. Funnel them to us, and let Demir and myself handle the rest.” The Superior nods. “Good, now go, all of you.”
   Without a word they all man their stations. Siona has to admit she almost let out a sir, yes sir. She’s surprised the officers didn’t.


   Siona hasn’t done a decent slingshot in years. Last time was that race she had with Irving to test out her new Cain modifications. Even under controlled circumstances a slingshot’s damn dangerous.
   With an escalating conflict in the background it becomes a *** death wish. But Demir and Leto have given the green over comms. They’ll keep the Sons busy while Siona and Farideh prep the rubber-band.
   Slingshotting involves a craft orbiting a planet and accumulating gravitational tension, like a rubber band being pulled. Once the gravitational pull reaches critical mass the craft accelerates through a designated trajectory and flies at ungodly speed towards its proposed destination. Doing a slingshot through the open skies is one thing, but Siona needs to piggyback Farideh’s frigate and thread the needle through a jump point. Skies be damned, it’s lunacy. Siona thinks to herself while she fingers the controls. All through a wide grin, and a sense of childlike enthusiasm. They’ll sing this maneuver into the skies. And if they don’t, I’ll *** make them.
   “Farideh, we good?” she asks over comms.
   “Set your nav to auto, and follow me around the planet. Once we’re shot I’ll need you to switch to manual just we burst through the jump point, and just trust me. Auto can’t handle those kinds of calculations. Need to do it by hand. You good with that?”
   “Shut the *** up and fly.”
   My girl. “***, we’re cleared for takeoff. Ready for slingshot.”
   “Affirmative,” Leto gives the green.
   “You know what’ll happen if you hit a hyperspace storm, mongrel. It’ll tear you both to shreds,” Sunderland jabs in a snide remark. The truth, but still his tone’s as condescending as ever.
   “No it won’t, we’ll tear through anything at that speed. You’re just jealous because I’ll be the one to thread that needle through the point. Whole Galaxy will be sucking on this puss come tomorrow. Best believe,” Siona fires one back.
   Sunderland harrumphs.
   Siona initiates liftoff, and engages her grav stabilizers once in ideal orbit. Farideh’s freighter is right behind her Cain. Siona warms up the thrusters, pumps all of Cain’s energy into the drive.
   “Don’t die out there, Siona,” Sunderland over comms again, surprisingly sincere.
   “You too. At least not before I kill you myself.”
   “Not if I kill you first.”
   Siona laughs within the cockpit, all to herself. Her heart’s in her throat. Her palms would be sweaty if her hands were ganic. But still she feels a phantom kind of sweat, like the grip of the metal has turned slick.
   The laughter stops, and Siona punches in the drive code.
   They’re off and orbiting Soleris. During every roundabout Siona sees the fight becoming more vicious. In the distance explosions litter the black sky like fireworks. The dead piling up by the minute. Siona puts the image to the side, and refocuses on the rotations.
   Four rotations in and they’re close to critical mass. “Two more, Farideh. Then we release. Once we hit the point you need to switch to manual.”
   “Got it.”
   “Leto, open a path after two more rotations.”
   Sometimes Siona wishes there were a god. Just so she can ask something stronger than herself for aid in times like these. But then she remembers she is a *** god.
   Five rotations.
   Siona pushes more energy to her thrusters and prepares for the final launch.
   Six rotations.
   “Now!” she bellows over comms. Punches in the *** speed to max, and slingshots their way to the hyperspace point.
   It feels like time is clawing at her skin just by cruising through normal space. Hyperspace is going to be a real ***.
   Cain and Ghrom slice through the skies like the crimson swath of a viroblade taking out heads indiscriminately. The grav pressure feels like it’s crumbling Cain up as if it were a piece of paper.
   Closer to the point. No more than a second away.
   Siona pushes more energy to shields. Turns off essential life support, takes a deep breath, and reverts all energy to speed and protection. Thrusters and shields.
   All she needs.
   Around them crafts of all sizes engage in combat. A blur of violence gone in a heartbeat. Leto and Demir cut open a path.
   Siona just has to thread it. Farideh just has to kick into manual on time.
   All Siona has to do is something no one has ever done before.
   She escalates Cain’s overrides and overclocks the engine and shields, creating a slipstream wide enough for Ghrom to fit behind her.
   Siona of the Skies threads her Cain and Ghrom through the point via slingshot.
   They’re on their way to the Core Worlds. Siona’s itching for a fight with the Sons, and adding Charming to the equation is just the cherry on top.
   I didn’t kill you before, and I won’t make the same mistake twice. Siona assures herself as she slices through hyperspace. No storm will ever be able to stop her now.
« Last Edit: January 14, 2023, 05:48:06 AM by B.K. »


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Re: Second Rise of Man - a Starsector inspired story (NEW Update 1/14!)
« Reply #35 on: January 28, 2023, 05:44:03 PM »

Happy birthday to my body of work.
« Last Edit: January 29, 2023, 02:45:51 PM by B.K. »
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