Author Topic: Message in a Bullet  (Read 811 times)

Dubble_g

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Message in a Bullet
« on: 02 September 2017, 10:54:05 »
PROLOGUE: RAFAEL BRAVO TWO

Harmony City, Schedar

Word of Blake Protectorate

3 August 3072


“Ever been to New Avalon?”

“Yeah, once. While back.”

“What did you think?”

Avalon City, New Avalon

16 April 3067 (Five years earlier)


“Go, go, go!”

“Covering fire.”

Machine gun on his right arm yammering. Somewhere, the crack-smash of a rail gun. The thud of autocannon. An armored figure dashing across the road until it is caught in a blast, lifted off its feet and thrown onto its back.

“Damn.”

“Parker!”

“Medic! MEDIC!”

“Put some fire on that building.”

Shifting his aim, yellow tracers hosing into the buildings on the far side of the intersection, blowing out walls and windows. Parker howling in agony. The ground trembling

“MEDIIIIIIC!”

“Oh shit. Ohshitohshitohshit.”

“Some fracking rescue op this is.”

“Bravo-Mike, heavyweight, ten o’clock.”

“Get down, get down.”

The air pulsing as a particle bolt screams overhead, detonating into a 10-story office building. Glass falling like frozen rain.

“Rescue? We’re the ones that need a fracking rescue!”

“Michelangelo Home, this is Rafael Bravo Actual. Fire mission, grid tango one-niner. Target is one Bravo-Mike. ComGuards Helios, six-zero tonnage.”

“Solid copy Bravo Actual. Alpha-Sierras inbound. Zero two mikes.”

“Two minutes? That thing is going to pulp Parker in about 10 seconds.”

“LT, we’ve gotta move!”

“Which building is the target in?”

“That one.”

“What?”

“THE TARGET IS IN THAT—”

The zip of a laser, a blinding flash, his visor darkening to compensate. The man beside him vanishing in an explosion of blood, brain and bone.

“LT? LT?”

“Unity.” Looking down, his armor splattered in red. “Unity.”

3 August 3072

“Little noisy for my taste.”

“You went downtown?”

“Mmhmm. Saw some of the old business district, before it was demolished.”

16 April 3067

Firing jump jets, gravity like a giant hand pressing down on his whole body. Landing on the roof, teeth-rattling impact. Then sprinting, heading for the next building, 20 meter gap. Quick glance at the display, metal monster in the road below pausing, turning to track him. Away from Parker.

Leaping, kicked forward by the suit’s thrusters, just as a score of missiles slam into the top of the building. Roof he was on obliterated, just vanishing, slabs of ferrocrete hurtling through the air like meteorites. Roof on the other side coming up fast. Off-balance, the blast wave smacking into his back. Landing hard, forward shoulder roll, then up and running again. The ’Mech lumbering, tracking him, turning in a tight circle.

Flashes of laser fire from the squad’s position. Pinpricks, scratching the thing’s armor. The pilot hesitating, swinging back towards the squad. Laser and particle cannon fire from the thing’s arms lighting up their position. Screech of static over the taccom. Hope they’re okay.

Now.

Jets fire, he is airborne. Coming down. Right on top of the thing’s head. Scrabbling for a handhold, stop himself from falling off. Machinegun pointing down, blazing away at the ferroglass canopy. The thing twisting left and right, trying to shake him. Its own shoulder-mounted missile pod getting in the way of the hand trying to swat him.

Keep firing. Ammo counter in the bottom left of his HUD dropping, down into double digits. There, a sensor cluster. Switching his aim, blasting free a fist-sized lump of electronics. The Mech jarring, bumping now, running. Towards the nearest building. Crashing straight into the façade.

“Shiiii—” And he is airborne again.

3 August 3072

“Business or pleasure?”

“Business. Had to see a guy about a girl.”

16 April 3067

Groggily opening his eyes. Lying on his back in the middle of the road. The ’Mech pulling itself out of the ruined building, triggering small landslides of rubble. Walking back towards him, ground thumping with each step. Raising one foot over his head.

Can’t even think of anything clever to say. “Frack you,” he tells the foot. It doesn’t seem impressed.

The rolling boom of fighter engines. The air screaming as pulses of energy hammer into the Helios, staggering it. The foot crashing down, inches from his head. A dark blur as the fighter passes overhead, the boom peaking then dropping into a fading Doppler-roar. The ‘Mech turning, just as the scream of the second fighter becomes audible, laser blasts punching into the rear of the Helios, transfixing it, crucifying it. The head engulfed in flames, blowing open, pilot rocketing up, still flaming, then coming down again like a human star shell. The machine sinking first to its knees, then keeling slowly over to one side.

Back on his feet now, the way forward clear, sprinting, past the screaming still-burning MechWarrior, jumping, through the windows on the 20th story, glass giving way, showering across the floor. Office floor, rows of desks, chairs, terminals, all shoved away from the windows. Comes down next to a soldier with a gyrojet rifle, uniform so dirty and torn no insignia is visible, just standing, looking puzzled.

Opening his mouth: “Whose side are you—”

The suit’s punch shattering the man’s ribcage, flinging him through the air, impacting against the far wall hard enough to go straight through, leaving vaguely man-sized hole rimmed in red.

Other soldiers on the floor reacting, bullets pinging off his armor like hailstones. Picking up one of the desks and hurling it, sideways, plowing into two men, knocking them through the windows, screaming as they fall. Machinegun on his right arm hammering now, bullet comet trails piercing armor, flesh and bone.

Running again, straight through the wall, plaster bursting apart all around him. Big room, office, everything in dark wood and leather. Empty. Hearing the thwoop-thwoop of approaching VTOLs. The roof. Firing the jump jets straight up, straight through the ceiling, through the next, the next, the next.

Punching straight through the floor of the rooftop helipad, vague impression someone being blown off their feet and over the edge by the force of his mini-eruption. A VTOL circling the tower. Another one just touching down on the roof, man and a woman ducking, man with one hand around the woman’s arm, both shielding their eyes from the downdraft. Woman turning, the look on her face, not terrified, not hopeful, but resigned. The man looking back now too, looking frightened, then calming himself, assured.

Holding a gun to the woman’s head, pulling the trigger.

Back of her head blown out. Body falling. Man throwing away the gun, raising his hands. Smiling.

“I surr—”

No thought. Machinegun firing, punching fist-sized holes in him, decapitating him, blowing the body apart.

Looking down at the woman’s body.

“Rafael Bravo, this is Bravo Two, target is down … Repeat target is down, need a medic ASAP … Rafael Bravo respond … Rafael Bravo come in … Rafael Bravo, this is Bravo Two, respond please …”

A burr of sound as one of the VTOLs fires. His arm.

His arm.

7 August 3072

“Sounds memorable.”

“Absolutely.” Looking down at his left arm. Smartalloy material, synthskin over metal and myomer. “It’ll always be a part of me.”​
« Last Edit: 02 September 2017, 10:55:47 by Dubble_g »

snakespinner

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #1 on: 02 September 2017, 21:03:14 »
Message in a Bullet, I like it very catchy.
Vodka flavoured or Bourbon. >:D O0
I wish I could get a good grip on reality, then I would choke it.
Growing old is inevitable,
Growing up is optional.

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #2 on: 03 September 2017, 07:16:51 »
@snakespinner: Is Bullet a brand in the US? Anyway, to know where I stand on vodka vs. bourbon, just read my motto.

* * *

1. FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE

Harmony City, Schedar

Word of Blake Protectorate

9 August 3072


The message cylinder gleamed like a brass bullet casing.

He held it between thumb and forefinger, twisting it so that it caught the artificial light in the concourse outside the HPG station. He’d seen a lot of brass casings on a lot of worlds, over the years, and thought perhaps he was done with them. Evidently not.

The concourse was one of the few above-ground structures in the claustrophobic, subterranean city, its high ceiling giving it a rare sense of space. The floor was tiled, each tile etched with a sunburst symbol, though the Word of Blake had a gang of blue-coveralled prisoners ripping them up in one corner, replacing them with coarse, plain black ones. A row of green down the middle of the concourse separated the flow of people moving in each direction, lined with artificial bushes and trees. There hadn’t been enough sunlight for plants to grow in over a century. Behind the man, a short flight of broad steps led up to the gilded doors of the HPG station, guarded by militia in dark red fatigues. Directly in front of him there was a fountain, delicate arches carved from crystal. Water was too precious to waste on such displays.

Outside, a ribbon of the planet’s ultradense smog smeared itself against the concourse windows in an oily rainbow.

Doorways at either end of the concourse irised open and closed like artificial aorta, pumping crowds of people around him. Most with their heads down, trying to avoid catching the eyes of the Word of Blake militia who stood in restless clumps across the concourse.

Retro-future Japonisme seemed to be the fashion, the men smooth-shaven with neon-dyed rooster hairstyles, the women in little-girl dresses and ribbons on everything. Not that he followed fashion. He just knew it was different from the faux-3D tattoos of last year, the ones that looked like they were moving when you looked at them from different angles. He supposed people liked to change the little things when they felt the big things were beyond their control. He had tattoos, too, across his chest, on his shoulders and down his back, though his were done with a needle and pen-ink and very definitely did not change with the angle.

He was a tall man, powerfully built, with very short blond hair and a neatly-trimmed beard, dressed in the latest iteration of the ancient M1 bomber jacket over a black-and-white T-Shirt. Everything about his stance and dress spoke of calm competence and precision. The impression was only spoiled by the left hand, the one that held the message cylinder, whose skin was clearly a different color than the rest of him.

He tossed the cylinder loosely in his palm, feeling the weight, or more precisely, the lack of it. Such a little thing. And yet, the wonder of the modern age. Hyperpulse Generators—HPG—squirt bursts of pure data through hyperspace, tunneling through tiny wormholes in the fabric of the universe to leap between planets in an instant. The message on the roll of paper inside had outrun light itself, zipping through a dimension beyond human conception or understanding. A marvel, a majestic middle finger to Einsteinian physics.

Energy is mass times the speed of light squared, Einstein said, and while the cylinder weighed less than 20 grams, how much energy did it contain after travelling millions of times faster than light, crossing 50 light years in seconds? And what would happen, he wondered, when that energy was released?

Someone jostled his arm and stumbled back a half-step. Eyes blinking in surprise at the polymer hardness beneath the jacket. A half-mumbled apology, followed by a hasty retreat.

He stuffed the cylinder into a jacket pocket. Read it later.

“Is there a problem, citizen?”

One of the Word of Blake guards from the HPG station entrance. He’d been standing too long.

Turned slowly, blinked a few times. Maybe that was overdoing it. Ah well. The guard seemed nervous, sweaty. Blunderbuss-like needler rifle gripped in both hands.

It was an ugly thing, despite the name functionally more like a shotgun or flamethrower than a rifle, only instead of buckshot it filled the air with a hornet swarm of angry, razor-sharp flechettes. It was to marksmanship what a spray gun was to calligraphy, brutal and amateurish, a gun for half-trained troops facing unarmored opponents. An odd weapon for crowd control, unless your idea of crowd control was running people through a paper shredder, though knowing the Word, that probably was their idea of crowd control.

Behind the guard, at the doors to the station, a new figure stood. The light that glinting from his mirrored, prosthetic eyes was cold and hard.

He tilted his head towards the figure “That one of, you know, them?”

The guard twitched, then ignored the question. His voice went up a little, squeaky with nerves. “I said, is there a problem?”

Shook his head, nice and slow. Smiled easily. “Nope.”

“HPG station is a restricted area,” said the guard, waving him away. “No loitering. Bad for your health, citizen.”

“Keep that in mind.” The man nodded his head at the tentacle of smog-slick spreading greasily across the windows. “You have a nice day now.”

DOC_Agren

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #3 on: 03 September 2017, 20:36:36 »
Interesting read about an "Spec Force" BA pilot

and there is Bulleit Bourbon https://www.bulleit.com/
"For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast, And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed:And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill, And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!"

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #4 on: 04 September 2017, 07:47:43 »
@DOC: Ah, as I thought, though it's nice to have it confirmed by a qualified surgeon.

* * *

2. OBJECTS IN MIRROR

The Demi-Precentor watches him go. The Demi-Precentor’s eyes are smooth, featureless, mirror-bright, and each can look into a world invisible to ordinary eyes. He clenches the muscles about his eyes slightly, switching from visible light to thermal vision, and sees the roiling body heat rising from the hurried crowd, the cool greens and blues of the floor tiles, the dark purple of the guards’ boron-carbide body armor. In this view, the man’s prosthetic myomer left arm leaps out, a well of black against the mountains of red around it.

The Demi-Precentor purses his lips, thoughtful, as the man walks away. He is here to hunt, and the man with the prosthetic arm is not his prey, but he has not survived this long by ignoring details. He mentally files the image away.

“Is something wrong, Demi-Precentor Yeager?” An Adept beside him shifts slightly from foot to foot. In thermal vision, the man’s face is so red it is almost pink. The man named Yeager looks at the Adept silently, knowing the Adept will see himself reflected there, knowing how uncomfortable that will make him.

This is an easy game for him to play, now. Almost too easy. “I don’t know. Is there, Adept?” Making people wriggle on your hook, with that stunned mullet look.

“N-no, sir.”

“No?” He turns fully to face the Adept. “Then you have found this woman? She has not evaded your security? She is now in your custody? There is no danger she will escape? I have wasted my time coming here?”

“Yes, I mean, no sir,” hands clasped behind his back now, doubtless to stop them from trembling. “We caught the smuggler who brought her here, sir.”

“And where is he now?”

Oh dear, the man really was pink now. The Demi-Precentor wonders if he is about to have a heart attack. Annoying. If he dies, Yeager will have to start over again with the man’s replacement.

“D-didn’t survive the interrogation, sir.”

A long-suffering sigh. “Is there anything about this operation you fools have managed not to completely bungle?”

“No sir, I mean yes sir. We’ll find her sir. It’s just a matter of time. Sir.”

“That is the one thing we do not have, Adept.” Yeager shakes his head. “They will be planning her escape, even now. Every day we flounder is another day they have to plan and prepare.” He rubs his chin absently in thought. “They cannot get her off-planet without outside help. You will begin by extracting a record of every message received during the last five days. No exceptions.”

The Adept salutes, pivots and not-quite runs back into the station. Yeager remains outside the station, statue-still. Sometimes, the hunt is as much about the wait as it is about the chase.

Such contradictions amuse Yeager, whose sense of these things has been honed by his time among the Word of Blake. The organization is itself a contradiction. A religious order that abjures the numinous and divine, and instead worships technology. Filled with technologically illiterate recruits from backwards, barbaric backwater planets for whom the lightbulb is a kind of magic. An order devoted to the unification of mankind, knee-deep in the bloodiest holy war the galaxy has ever seen. Up to its eyeballs in it, he chuckles to himself. United in devotion to the teachings of the Blessed Jerome Blake and his successor, Conrad Toyama, but utterly divided on what those teachings actually were.

And so he stands here, at the edge of the Word of Blake Protectorate, an angry tumor of over 100 worlds wrapped around the heart of human-colonized space, knowing these contradictions mean the organization will never achieve its vision, that it will never unite mankind, knowing that in so doing, it may achieve a still greater purpose. This too, is a contradiction, one that makes him smile again.

The Adept returns with a data crystal held in outstretched, shaking hands. “As you ordered, sir.”

Yeager takes it without comment. Holds it up to the light, in conscious mimicry of that earlier figure he’d watched, the man with the prosthetic arm. What had he seen?

And that is when the bomb goes off, rips through the HPG station with a ravenous, demonic roar, the sound hitting them just as the blast wave slams them down with titanic force, filling the air with boiling grey smoke and a murderous storm of ferrocrete and glass. The green, plastic plants are flattened or picked up and flung through the air before impacting against the far wall of the concourse. The crystal fountain shatters in tiny rainbow detonations.

There is a moment of silence after the blast, like the eye of a hurricane, broken only by the crunch of crystal as it falls to the floor. Then people begin to scream.

The Demi-Precentor staggers back to his feet. He ignores the frenzied crowd in the concourse, some rushing to escape, others running forward, calling names, searching among the smoking wreckage. He looks down at his own shredded clothes, turning his hands and arms this way and that, marking the cuts and burns with clinical dispassion.

He had been burned and broken once, five years ago, but the Word of Blake found him, remade him, gave him these eyes, lungs that didn’t choke, skin that didn’t burn.

He is not like these frail people.

The mirror eyes watch the body of the Adept cool, from red to yellow, then blue.

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #5 on: 05 September 2017, 08:19:52 »
3. AN ENDLESS LOOP

Leftenant Theresa Sortek, heiress to the Barony of Thinveil, formerly of the Fourth Deneb Light Cavalry, more recently one of the most wanted fugitives in the Protectorate, sat on the narrow bed, rested her chin on her knees and looked out over the city. Not Harmony City, of course. There were no windows, not 30 stories underground. You could get feeds from surface cameras, but visibility most days was less than 30 meters so usually all you could see was a brownish-orange haze. No, the holoscreen that covered one wall in the apartment could be set to shown any one of a score of Word-approved cities on Terra: Rome, Jerusalem, Amritsar, Mecca, Varanasi, Lhasa, San Antonio, Riga, Waco, Jonestown. It wasn’t a live feed. You watched long enough, like she was doing now, you’d see the traffic and pedestrians repeat, stuck in an endless loop.

There wasn’t much else to do in the small apartment. That was okay without being especially okay. Just, she was getting used to small spaces.

A week ago, she’d crawled out of the shipping container they’d smuggled her in, and he’d been there. The big, quiet one, false arm and the real one crossed across his chest. The prosthetic was like something trying to crawl up the sides of the uncanny valley. You didn’t notice it at first glance, but the skin, the covering, whatever you called it, was a slightly different color than the rest of him, and completely hairless.

Her knees had been weak and shaky after two weeks spent mostly in a box barely big enough to lie down in. She could hardly stand. He’d frowned at her. “You okay there?”

“Yeah.” On cue, both knees had folded and she’d landed hard on the ground. “Just peachy.”

A slight twitch at the corner of his mouth that might have been a smile. “Sure.” Offered a hand to help her stand. His real one.

He’d lead her from the warehouse through darkened, disused maintenance corridors, talking over his shoulder as she stumbled in his wake. “My place, for a day or two. Until she can get you set up on your own,” he’d ducked under a pipe. “Euphoria.”

Euphoria? She’d wondered if she’d misheard, or was still suffering from Transit Disorientation Syndrome—TDS. “Joy,” she’d agreed.

He’d laughed softly. “Nah, not that. Euphoria Everclear.”

Definitely TDS. “Neat?”

The first two nights on Schedar, she’d stayed at his apartment. She’d been woken from a dark, turgid tar-dream by strange sucking sounds. A narrow strip of yellow light visible beneath the bathroom door. She’d crept over and pushed it open. Seen his broad back, covered in black and purple designs. A statuesque woman holding a bow in the center. Over one shoulder a castle with a woman standing on its highest tower, over the other, a snow-capped mountain. Surrounded by skulls: some human, some animal. The sucking sound had been him taking off the prosthesis, nerve connectors tearing free with plastic pops, causing the false fingers to twitch. He’d turned and looked at her then, not surprised. She guessed he’d heard her, knew she was watching, and the look was just to let her know he knew.

It had been a relief when they’d moved her into her own place, a safehouse on the lower levels of the Amity Undertower, sort of an upside-down apartment complex buried underground.

‘Euphoria Everclear’ turned out to be a tall, wiry woman who came to take her from the apartment to the safehouse. Eurasian features, a sharp chin, dark red hair cut boyishly short and eyes that could cut through steel. Theresa had to repress the urge to stand at attention whenever she came into the room.

“Euphoria Everclear,” the woman had saluted, noting Theresa’s frown. “Parents were Tri-Millennial Alcohol Adventists,” Euphoria rolled her eyes. “Salvation through inebriation. Hate the name. Call me EE.”

“Leftenant Theresa Sortek,” Theresa had returned the salute. “He mentioned your name.”

“Who, Nix?” a small shake of the head. “He talks too much.”

“Mm,” Theresa had said. “Very chatty.”

“Let’s get you some less conspicuous clothes and,” a glance around the man’s apartment, nose slightly wrinkled, “a more comfortable place.”

Comfort turned out to be relative. The new place was bigger, with the cityscape holoscreen, but otherwise much the same. A UV strip over the bed to stop you from getting Vitamin D deficiency. Small stand-up shower with a trickle of multiply-recycled water that Euphoria had advised against drinking.

Same feeling. Like she’d never quite gotten out of that smuggler’s storage box.

“Stay inside, sit tight and lay low, Baroness,” Euphoria had said. “We’ll get you out of here.”

Like she was one of those people in the holoscreen, still stuck in an endless loop.

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #6 on: 06 September 2017, 07:55:41 »
4. CORROSIVE ATMOSPHERE

The man Euphoria called Nix strolled back from the HPG station along the underground corridor. Half the lights were either missing or dead, drenching the crowd beneath in shadows. The shelves in the stores that lined the corridor were mostly bare, trade now restricted to war-essential supplies and a faint trickle of food, water and other necessities from other worlds in the Protectorate. Air filters, dust-clogged from neglect, wheezed overhead. A disaster waiting to happen, right there. With a city of several million all breathing the same recycled air, all it would take to wipe them out would be one bad case of Fomalhaut Flu. He tucked his neck turtle-like into the collar of his jacket and hurried on. Tried to avoid standing under the filters for too long.

The atmosphere of Schedar had always been thick, hugged tight to the surface in the planet’s high gravity, allowing the byproducts and emissions from centuries of industrial mining to slowly congeal in the air, forming a thick, permanent, mildly acidic blanket across the planet. You couldn’t go outside without a mask, and unprotected skin would blister in an hour. Three or four hours would almost certainly be fatal.

So people lived like moles, abandoning the surface cities, turning their backs on the problem and tunneling underground. The result was Harmony City, and dozens more like it; clumps of surface buildings linked together by a labyrinth of enclosed tunnels, above a network of upside-down skyscrapers burrowing over a kilometer down into the ground.

Nix descended the steps into Friendship Square maglev station.

It was often said—by those who had no experience of it—that the one good thing about oppressive rule was that it got the trains to run on time. Evidently, the Word of Blake had never heard of this saying, for during the three years of their occupation the Harmony Hyperline had gone from unreliable to erratic to positively senile.

People adapted. Mainly by getting better at waiting in lines. At getting by with less. At squeezing onto maglev cars. Nix didn’t mind crowds. His size, the way he held himself, usually ensured he got a little extra space. He swiped his new Word-issued ‘Freedom Card’—an ID card that doubled as a credit chip, and incidentally allowed the planet’s central computer to monitor everything you did—across the reader at the station gate. The display showed his name, Nicholas Rei, his photo and his remaining credit balance.

Nix shuffled with the crowd inside, under the watchful eyes of the militia, perched on little platforms so they could see over everyone’s heads. Each team with a bristleback held gingerly on a leash—a non-native species a bit like lean, long-legged, porcupine-quilled hounds.

Nix waited on the platform, hands stuffed in his jacket pockets, looking up at the announcement board. Newsflashes of Word of Blake victories on Benjamin and Arc-Royal. Recruitment videos. Wanted ads—Clark Fenlon, Victor Bradford, Theresa Sortek. The number of minutes the train was delayed steadily increased.

Line maintenance, the board claimed. Probably the tunnel wall had cracked, Schedar’s corrosive atmosphere not so much leaking as oozing into the tunnel. Might be hours, depending on how long it took to find the leak.

Angry shouting. The low hum of the crowd fell silent, tense. The Wobbies waded into the crowd, stunsticks crackling. Bristlebacks keening eagerly. The militiamen zeroed in on a man holding a sign over his head, photos of a boy and girl, under the caption, ‘Justice for the children.’ Everyone carefully not looking at the man or the sign. The shouts cut short as the sticks lashed out, and the jerking, unconscious body was dragged away. After a few seconds silence, the murmur of the crowd resumed, but now with an edge to it. Like a guitar string wound too tight.

When the train finally did arrive, the doors hissed open and a kind of tug-of-war began, the crowd eddying back and forth as those on tried to push their way off, and those off, on. Nix shouldered his way into a corner at the back of the car and closed his eyes. The press of the people kept him upright.

Stations passed. Friendship Valley, site of the city’s largest detention and re-education center. Three Sisters. Concordia. Amity Palace, where the megaservers of the planetary computer network were stored. The Hollow. Union Valley. Harmony Spaceport.

It was another struggle to get off at his station, but a thumb applied to the back at just the right location got the orneriest passenger rethinking their policy of standing in his way. He sighed with relief when he pushed free of the car and stood on the platform, an hour since he’d been at the HPG station. There was a tremor in the train as he stepped off, the massive magnets keeping it floating above the track flickering, letting the cars dip a little before restoring them to the proper position.

Behind him, there was a ripple of despair as the conductor announced another delay.

Nav_Alpha

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #7 on: 06 September 2017, 19:24:12 »
You write VERY well. This is damn good stuff and I look forward to more.


"Hold your position, conserve ammo... and wait for the Dragoons to go Feral"
- last words of unknown merc, Harlech, 3067

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #8 on: 07 September 2017, 07:43:37 »
@ Nav_Alpha: That's damn kind of you to say so. I'll do my best not to let you down.

* * *

5. CIGARETTES WILL KILL YOU

Nix worked at the spaceport, loading and unloading cargo from the DropShips, once their landing pad had been lowered from the surface on colossal telescoping pedestals, and the worst of the planet’s pollution had been pumped out again. It wasn’t hard work, the industrial exoskeleton did most of the heavy lifting. Kept him busy.

Since the occupation, it could be dangerous, too. Schedar couldn’t feed itself, the algae and fungi they could grow underground would barely have been enough for population half the current size, so most of the food came through the port. Hunger and poverty were common enough to tempt people to try stealing. One night a kid had broken into a warehouse, twitching on something industrially psychoactive. Holding a vibroknife that sliced through a warehouse door, a shipping container, and very nearly Nix’s neck.

Kid had taken a swing at Nix when he saw him coming. Nix caught the wrist, pulled the kid towards him, off-balance. Kid’s neck snapped forward, bringing his jaw smacking into Nix’s prosthetic fist coming the other way. Nix followed up with an elbow to the solar plexus, dropping the kid to the floor, then stamped down hard on his neck. Blade when skittering across the floor and cut straight through a pallet loaded with cases of some orange kids’ drink. Bright, sticky orange spilling everywhere. Broken switch. The weapon couldn’t be turned off.

Best thing about the job was, it gave him an excuse to meet Jonas and Creed. Ex-military, both of them. Jonas Klimt was a Schedar native, short, pale and built like a bulldozer. Had spent time in the Light Guards. Creed was taller, vaguely afro-hispanic, something you couldn’t quite pin down. Never gave a first name or a unit, which probably meant he was ex-Clan. Big but not Elemental-big. A freebirth maybe. Nix didn’t push it.

Both were part of the cell.

Nix walked through the employees’ security checkpoint 30 minutes before his shift, waved to the woman behind the bulletproof glass.

“Hey Rei,” she said. “Bomb in Friendship Square.” She nodded at the holoscreen mounted behind the her. ‘Terrorist strike kills innocents.’ ‘Demi-Precentor Yeager calls for vigilance.’ ‘Harmony City united in defiance.’ “Crazy, huh?”

“What is the world coming to,” he murmured.

“Unity, Rei, that’s cold.”

A small shrug. “I’ve seen worse.” Done worse, he thought.

Creed was watching Sortek at the safehouse. Jonas was in the back, feet up on the long, narrow break table in the center of the room, his back to a row of employee lockers, watching something on a handheld compad. Cigarette held loosely in the other hand. His face lit up with oranges and reds by the screen. Probably watching an illegal feed of the bombing, Nix figured.

Nix threw the message cylinder onto the table. Landed with a clink. Jonas glanced up, switching off the compad.

“Nix,” he rumbled.

“Jonas,” Nix cracked open his locker, fished out his work gloves and hardhat. Pointed at the glowing stub in Jonas’s hand. “Cigarettes will kill you, my friend.”

Jonas shrugged, a muscular micro-earthquake beneath his work overalls. “If cancer wants to kill me, it can get in line.” He crushed the cigarette in an ashtray, then picked up the cylinder, toothpick-small in his hand. “This it? That was quick.”

Nix thought about sharing his musings on Einstein, mass and energy. Nah. One of those things that sounded better in your own head than out loud. “The wonder of the modern age,” he said instead.

Jonas snorted. “Used to talk about the same petty, pointless bull people have been writing about since forever. ‘We are pleased to announce’. ‘We regret to inform you’.”

“’Please blow up this building.’”

“Indeed,” the big man waved at the compad. “Bit of a commotion at our local intergalactic phone booth, quite soon after you left.”

“Don’t look at me, I only said the place could do with some redecorating,” Nix replied. “Although I did see one of their custom jobbies at the station. He might have been the target.” Manei Domini, they were called, ‘the hands of the Master.’ Cybernetically augmented soldiers, assassins and spies, the elite of the Word of Blake military and intelligence agencies. Bad news. “Glass-eyed bugger, shit-eating grin.”

“Might be eating dust now. Think he’s here for her?”

“No Jonas, I’m sure him showing up just after she arrived is all a massive, crazy coincidence.”

“I’ll bet,” Jonas tapped the cylinder. “Read it?”

“Not yet.” Checked his timepiece. “We’re on in fifteen.”

Jonas pulled out the long, thin scroll of paper stored within the cylinder, smoothed it out on the table. He scanned it slowly, carefully. Satisfied, he crumpled the paper into a ball, held a lighter under it, watched it burn until the flames nearly reached his fingers. Threw the blackened corner into an ashtray.

“A touch melodramatic,” remarked Nix, pulling on his gloves. “Garbage disposal is over there.” Tucked his hardhat under one arm. “And?”

“JumpShip in ten days.”

Nix nodded. “I’ll tell EE tomorrow. Zero Squared.”

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #9 on: 08 September 2017, 08:36:17 »
6. ASKING FOR IT

10 August 3072

“Lean forward,” said Euphoria, holding something that looked like a staple gun in her hand.

Theresa obligingly tilted her head down, felt the cool metal of the whatever-it-was press against the base of her neck. Then a quick jab, making her wince. “What is it?”

“Subdermal chip,” Euphoria patted Theresa’s neck, an artist admiring her handiwork. “Tracker. Make sure we don’t lose you.”

Her neck stung a little, a dull throb, like after you got a vaccine injection. “That seems unlikely. I never go anywhere, and you’ve got someone here twenty-four seven.” The dour one called Creed was parked on the sofa in the living room now, watching the news. She didn’t watch much, herself. Got tired, and not a little paranoid, seeing her own wanted bulletin every 30 minutes. She’d stick to the cityscape holos.

Euphoria grunted, putting the thing that wasn’t a staple gun into a shoulder pouch. “Something like 80 percent of the city is covered by video cameras, and all that data gets stored in one place. If you, or even someone who looks a bit like you, shows up in that data, the Wobbies will know in a microsecond.” She took apart the phone, placed a tiny audio receiver inside, then undid a panel at the side of the holoscreen and repeated the process.

So much for privacy. Theresa watched Euphoria work absently, then turned back to the holoscreen. She’d set it to Ise, Japan. The elegantly curved wooden roofs of the shrine complex barely visible among a towering forest of cedars. She knew the Wobbies had chosen the cities deliberately, to create the impression of the Word as the defenders of the cradle of humanity, of its holiest sites.

There was a kind of commonality to religious architecture, she’d found after days of flipping through the simulated cityscapes. Spires, towers, minarets. Patterns that repeated, over and over, in civilizations across the world, across the ages. Faced with the unknowable, the incomprehensible, people kept building the same kinds of structures, as though instinctively reaching for the heavens, straining for the stars.

There were churches and temples on New Avalon, too. Done in plasteel and ferrocrete, old forms in new materials. Humanity had reached the stars, but still kept looking up, still kept looking for answers to the same old questions. Kept repeating the same old mistakes.

Neo-feudalism was part of that. The title she was heir to, the title that had swaddled and cradled her throughout her youth, the title that had made her a fugitive, had already been old two millennia ago. People trying to mimic what they saw as the natural order—on earth as it is in heaven, she thought. Who gets to lead? Who has to follow? Same old questions, same old answers. Same old mistakes, repeated cyclically, over and over.

Her only problem was she’d been born at the wrong point in the cycle. A century ago, she would have cashed in on the family name, enjoyed a cushy posting in some rear-area unit like the Guards Brigade, had a handsome, well-connected husband and the expected number of children, lived her life in comfort. Now? History had a way of balancing its accounts, and the bill for her family’s decades of power and position had come due. Fanatics baying for the blood of any aristocrat they could find.

For a moment she could picture it in her eye, a cosmic set of scales, her own life weighed in the balance against hundreds of years of privilege. But the idea was too big, too big to matter on the scale of the merely human. In the end, she was just the wrong person at the wrong time. It wasn’t fair.

“Not fair,” she mumbled, mostly to herself.

Euphoria tutted. “Lot of lives depending on this,” she said. “You know our faces. You get taken, we all die.”

The cedars in Ise nodded in agreement.

“I didn’t ask for this.” Theresa heard the petulance in her voice, hating it but unable to stop it. Looked up at Euphoria, whose mouth was set in a thin line, biting back a reply.

Instead, Euphoria let her breath go, and just shrugged. “Who does?”

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #10 on: 08 September 2017, 10:33:47 »
7. FULL STERILIZATION

Demi-Precentor Yeager sits in the security control room, in front of a wall of video monitors. The Adepts and Acolytes of the ROM section crowd behind him, standing. ROM is the Word of Blake’s security and intelligence branch, though the meaning of the acronym ‘ROM’ has long been forgotten. Yeager finds this forgetfulness entirely in keeping with his evaluation of the branch as a whole.

The bombing has been a disaster. The HPG itself is badly damaged, and there is no way to signal for replacement parts. A ship will have to be sent, taking a round trip of two weeks. Ground to space communications have also been wrecked. Oh, and a few dozen are dead. All because of one man.

Yeager watches the man in the video push a hover sled laden with four round, grey, black-lidded plastic tubs. Two HPG station guards halt him, examine a digital invoice presented on a noteputer. A bristleback watches the man with unblinking, alien eyes. The first guard jerks a thumb at the tubs while the other holds the bristleback’s leash and shifts his needler rifle. The man obligingly opens the tubs, then steps back when waved away by the needler. One guard peers in all four tubs, waving an electronic sniffer over the surface of each, checking the reading. Satisfied, the guard places a thumb-print on the invoice, then waves the man away.

The feed switches as the tubs are pushed into the kitchen beside the mess hall, where they sit unattended for twenty minutes, before erupting into a massive fireball that washes out the feed. It ends in static.

There are more feeds, of the man boarding a train, exiting, riding various elevators as he descends further into the bowels of the city, but Yeager is already bored. No challenge here. Schedar is almost uniquely built to be the perfect police state—its inhabitants trapped together in an enclosed, controllable environment, their every movement watched and recorded. No challenge, and no sign of his prey. A distraction, one he wishes to remove immediately.

“Adept,” Yeager beckons. A man leans forward over his shoulder.

“Yes, Demi-Precentor?”

“You have identified the man?”

“Yes sir. He is—”

“I don’t care who he is. You have his location, those of his family, his associates?”

A brief rustle as the man refers to a noteputer. “He and his family live in the Concordia Cordial Cooperative—”

“Is there any evidence he is linked to Theresa Sortek?”

“Not at the moment sir. But—”

“Lock down the Cooperative. Full sterilization. Agent CT in the ventilation system. Liquidate any survivors.”

The Adept swallows audibly. “I, uh, I mean, doesn’t that seem a little …”

Yeager twists his head to regard the man with both metal eyes, dropping his voice a register. “Is there some reason you are not immediately carrying out my orders, Adept?” The man shakes his head, mutely.

One of the other Adepts speaks up. A red-haired woman, Yeager can’t be bothered remembering their names. “Perhaps it would be wiser to keep him under surveillance, sir, until we can determine—”

“Fagh,” Yeager waves away her objections. “This attack was as amateurish as it was stupid. He would never have been a threat to any semi-competent security force. Further observation will tell us nothing new.” He sighs heavily.

“Never mind, I’ll take care of it myself. What else? Oh yes; If the two men on duty survived, I want them arrested for incompetence and shot,” Yeager rolls on. “If their commanding officer is alive, I want him arrested for treason and shot. If anybody refuses to shoot them, I want them shot. If you find any of this objectionable, please save both of us some time and just shoot yourself.” He rises from the chair and turns to face the assembled men and women. “Are there any further questions or comments?” An Acolyte’s mouth opens. “Think carefully.” He closes it. “That is all.”

Yeager sweeps past the security team, knowing they are looking at him, at each other, eyes round in mute astonishment. The fools. It is so hard to find good help, he thinks theatrically.

Although, on that front, he has an idea.

mikecj

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #11 on: 08 September 2017, 22:13:43 »
He's adopted the Vader Philosophy of Underling Management.
There are no fish in my pond.
"First, one brief announcement. I just want to mention, for those who have asked, that absolutely nothing what so ever happened today in sector 83x9x12. I repeat, nothing happened. Please remain calm." Susan Ivanova
"Solve a man's problems with violence, help him for a day. Teach a man to solve his problems with violence, help him for a lifetime." - Belkar Bitterleaf
Romo Lampkin could have got Stefan Amaris off with a warning.

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #12 on: 09 September 2017, 02:28:30 »
@mikecj: Sounds good to me -- VP of a company that employed thousands, offered his son a job, didn't discriminate based on race, offered meals to his guests.

* * *

8. A DREAM OF TWO FACES

Every night, Adept Salome dreams of two faces.

Both faces are from Tortuga, the planet she was born on, so far from the core that ‘civilization’ was a thing you heard about rather than experienced. Where she’d been sold, at the age of six, into servitude at the local bandit lord’s household. Where she’d been tattooed on each temple, a wheel to symbolize servitude, a star to symbolize the lord’s wealth. Where she’d been beaten, starved, treated like an animal.

It is his face she sees first, his face as he beats her, first with hands and feet, with a belt or cane later. He smiled, when he hit. It is his face she sees, when at age 12 she climbs the compound wall and flees into the night, knowing there were worse things than beatings to come.

The second face she sees is that of the Adept who found her, shivering, starving, on the shadow of the HPG station. The woman who took her in, fed her, clothed her, gave her a name. In the lord’s house she never had one, unless it was salope, but the Adept told her this was an insult, and she would never, ever be salope again. Salome, the Adept had said, and she’d smiled. Her name would be Salome.

It meant ‘peace.’

When Salome is roused awake she is thinking of those two faces, those two smiles, the kind one and the cruel.

The lights are on in the barracks, and her squad is being assembled. Some shuffle out of bed slowly, as though dragged down by the planet’s gravity, but she springs readily to her feet. She stands at attention at the foot of her bed, the rest of the squad lined up down the room.

The Demi-Precentor strides into the barracks, and he gives them their orders. He smiles.



Later, when the doors to the Cooperative are opened again and Salome and her men are sent in to search, she will find the body of a girl, perhaps 12 years old, huddled alone in a closet. She will remember the Demi-Precentor’s smile, then.

And she will think: she has seen that smile before.

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #13 on: 09 September 2017, 10:11:38 »
9. TIME TO GET BIBLICAL

Zero Squared was not so much a dive as a belly flop. A dark smear of dirty plasteel and concrete reached down a flight of sticky, unsavory steps, under a faintly glowing sign. A squared-off zero with an upside-down ‘2’ in superscript. It was a black joke for a diseased world: meant the opposite of oxygen, O2.

The owner was a dreadlocked Lyran from Tamar who went by ‘Noah.’ Nonspecifically criminal, nothing sexy like the yaks or triads, but connected: he hinted at access to drugs, alcohol, black market electronics. Nix didn’t know how Noah managed it; Nix had never managed to catch anything funny happening down at the port. In any event, Noah was young, fashion-model handsome, and completely mute, communicating by lip-reading, written notes or sign language. They weren’t sure if this was by genetics, by accident or by choice. Euphoria liked to call him her ‘Megaserver’, when she wasn’t making flood jokes.

The theme of the bar was Ecstatic Nihilism, the atmosphere a party at the end of the universe, for people whose idea of a good time was to have the worst time practicable. The music helped on that score. It just sounded loud, screeching and repetitive to Nix, but he understood that in some way the awfulness was the point. It was something to be enjoyed ironically or not at all. He plumped for ‘Not’.

There were just six tables, thin metal rusted things like disused office furniture from a previous millennium, two dozen chairs, no two exactly alike (because, like, furniture, what’s the point?), a small bar with a smaller holoscreen perched above it (because, like, entertainment, what’s the point?), in the corner of the ceiling. The walls were covered with nihilist slogans scrawled in neon glitter: ‘Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ ‘The point is there ain’t no point.’ It was a blind spot in the planet’s surveillance blanket, there were almost never any other customers and Euphoria had swept the place for listening devices. It came up clean. It was about as safe as you got, on an unsafe world.

Nix and Creed ducked in. Jonas was back at the house. Euphoria was already at a table in the far corner, three fingers around the long neck of Amity Amber Ale. “Boys,” she nodded, and held up three fingers for Noah. “Keep the liquids coming, boat boy. Let’s get Biblical in here.”

Noah popped the tops of the bottles off on the edge of the metal table before setting them down in the center.

They clinked the sweaty bottles together and drank in silence for a minute until Noah had retreated back behind the bar. Finally, Euphoria set her beer down. “We get word?”

Nix nodded. “There will be a merchant ship in ten days. Captain is one of ours. Officially headed for Mirach, but it will actually jump to Logandale, in the Federated Suns.”

“Alright,” Euphoria nodded. “Guess it’s up to figure a way to get the Jackpot on it.” Jackpot was her nickname for Sortek; the Leftenant had won the jackpot just by being born.

“Bomb’s going to make that tough,” said Nix. “One of ours?”

Euphoria hesitated, then shook her head. “Locals, maybe.”

“Sure about that?” Nix gave her a long look. She met it evenly for a moment, before looking away.

“Well, upside is communication with anything at the system jump points or other planets just got slowed right down to zero,” Nix continued. “Might make getting her to the JumpShip easier. Downside is planetside security will be dialed up to 11.”

“This guy can get booze and drugs in,” Creed suggested, looking in Noah’s direction. “Why not see if he can get the Jackpot out?”

“And have him sell her straight to the Wobbies?” Euphoria asked dryly. “Let’s think of a plan that doesn’t rely on a criminal’s ability to resist temptation.” She drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “Besides, we smuggled her in, they’ll be looking for us to try to smuggle her out. We could put her on a DropShip as passenger or crew, but that data is digitally analyzed for anyone on the Word’s blacklist. Not just names, but biometrics, height, weight, previous travel history, everything. Anything anomalous is going to get red-flagged faster than Katherine Steiner-Davion’s psyche evaluation.”

“Any way we can hack into the database?” Nix asked, though they knew by ‘we’ he meant ‘Euphoria.’ They didn’t know where she worked; just that it was something to do with the megaservers of the planet’s central computer network.

Euphoria looked thoughtful. “Could be tough. Security on the servers is serious. Like, Atlas serious.”

“But is it possible?”

She took a long pull of beer. “Possible? Maybe yeah, possible. Risky, but possible.”

Creed was shaking his head. “Why even bother? Who is the Jackpot?”

“Grand-niece of Ardan Sortek, the former Prince’s Champion.” Euphoria recited, sing-song. “Second cousin to Bishop Sortek, legendary commander of the Guards Brigade. Scion of one of the greatest, most glorious families in the entire Federated Suns.”

“I did not ask who she is related to,” Creed swished his beer around his mouth before swallowing, as though to get rid of a bad taste. “Has the woman herself accomplished anything? Is she a great warrior? A noted strategist?”

“The Wobbies want her, that’s reason enough not to let them have her,” Nix cut in. “Our job is to make life here as uncomfortable for them as possible. Keeping her out of their hands qualifies.”

Creed’s mouth turned down a little at the corners, as though to express sad disappointment in a galaxy where one’s birth mattered more than one’s achievements. “Making my life uncomfortable,” he muttered.

“Hold up guys,” said Euphoria. Pointed at the holoscreen. “Turn it up, Noah.”

A head-and-shoulders shot of a hooded figure with glassy eyes filled the screen, labeled ‘Demi-Precentor Allan Yeager.’

“That’s him,” said Nix. “Guy from the station the other day.”

The man was speaking.

“—found to have been knowingly sheltered by residents of the Concordia Cordial Cooperative. We have had no choice but to institute an immediate and total quarantine of the area. To ensure the safety and security of innocent civilians, we have employed a tranquilizing agent before our brave men and women proceed to search—”

“Tranquilizing agent my ass,” Euphoria spat. “Frackers gassed the whole neighborhood.”

“You sure?” asked Nix.

“Count on it,” she replied. “Word doesn’t have any ‘tranquilizing agent.’ Only gas they have on-planet is CT. Nerve agent. Puts you out, alright. Just, you never wake up again.”

Nix watched the face on the screen. A faint smile as the man condemned thousands to death. Cold bastard.

They watched to the end of the broadcast in silence. Noah turned off the screen.

Euphoria was right, Nix figured. Maybe it was time to get Biblical.

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #14 on: 12 September 2017, 10:13:40 »
10. DEAL

11 August 3072

Theresa watched the news, and tried to figure out how she felt about it.

“Not your fault,” Euphoria said, standing behind her, as the newscaster spoke in oblique, censor-approved phrases of the deaths of 3,000 men, women and children in the Concordia Cordial Cooperative.

Part of it was relief, at knowing it wasn’t her fault, part of it was guilt, at feeling relieved when innocent people were dead. Part of it was revulsion, anger, and more than a little dread, seeing what the Wobbies were prepared to do, indeed did not hesitate at all to do.

“They weren’t after you.”

That part heard what Euphoria said and added, ‘this time’ on the end. Yes, dread was a big part of it. But maybe the biggest part of it was shame, shame that she was sitting here in this apartment, guarded around the clock, doing nothing at all to stop what was happening.

“No? The bomb in the HPG Station that sparked this, that have anything to do with me being here?”

“Look, Theresa, a lot of people are going to do things, on their side and ours, because of whose daughter you are or what your name is. There might be a lot of cargo that comes with that, but feeling good or bad about it won’t change anything. It’s just the way people work, the way the galaxy is.”

The next item was a report on the militia pulling down a statue of Hanse and Melissa Davion. The new ticker at the bottom said ‘cheering crowd’ but the sound was out of sync with the desultory clapping.

Theresa killed the screen. Sat back on the sofa, with her guilt, her dread and her shame. Shivered a little, and hugged herself. “What next?”

“We’re working on it.”

Theresa thought about that, and how that fit with what she’d just heard. “If I get out of here, they’re going to want a scapegoat. More people are going to die, aren’t they?”

“That’s on them,” Euphoria said quickly, not bothering to contradict her. “Don’t even think it. Nobody forcing them to kill anyone.”

Theresa knew that, and knew it didn’t make it feel any better. “Promise me something?”

“Shoot.”

“I want in,” she said. “Whatever you’re planning, I need to be a part of that. If people are dying because of me, then let it be because of the choices I made.”

Euphoria came around the sofa, looked down at her. Something new in her eyes, maybe something like respect. “Deal,” she said.

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #15 on: 12 September 2017, 10:14:28 »
11. PRECENTOR I

The planetary Precentor sits at his desk and rubs his temples. The hair that grows there was black until recently, now turned quite grey. There is a bottle of bourbon on his desk, a quarter empty. His job as planetary governor is to keep this corner of the Protectorate quiet, so that attention can be focused elsewhere. It should be a simple assignment, perhaps even a lucrative one, trading favors to merchants and businessmen in return for ‘gifts’ of appreciation.

How did it come to this? The HPG facility is a smoking wreck, the planet cut off from the rest of the Protectorate or even from other ships in the system. A noted fugitive smuggled onto the planet, probably fomenting unrest. Which naturally, naturally, means it’s time for the new Manei Domini agent to start massacring civilians and otherwise doing everything he can to provoke a revolt.

And now the man claims to have some clever scheme to recruit local agents to help track down the fugitive. The Precentor shakes his head and wishes he had jurisdiction over the man, but the Master has been quite clear: they’re the apple of his eye, and allowed free reign. It would take something truly drastic to dislodge this one from his position.

The Precentor sighs and takes another sip of bourbon. Something drastic? He should be so lucky, he thinks mournfully.

mikecj

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #16 on: 12 September 2017, 22:03:14 »
He's going to need another bottle.
There are no fish in my pond.
"First, one brief announcement. I just want to mention, for those who have asked, that absolutely nothing what so ever happened today in sector 83x9x12. I repeat, nothing happened. Please remain calm." Susan Ivanova
"Solve a man's problems with violence, help him for a day. Teach a man to solve his problems with violence, help him for a lifetime." - Belkar Bitterleaf
Romo Lampkin could have got Stefan Amaris off with a warning.

snakespinner

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #17 on: 13 September 2017, 03:30:15 »
Or 3. >:D
I wish I could get a good grip on reality, then I would choke it.
Growing old is inevitable,
Growing up is optional.

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #18 on: 13 September 2017, 08:02:50 »
@ snakespinner and mikecj: Originally it was going to be a running joke about his hair, but I added the bourbon to capitalize on the bullet/Bulleit thing. My "Snakes on a Plane" moment for the story. So it's all your fault, see?

* * *

12. WRESTLERS IN QUICKSAND

11 August 3072

Abandoning the surface cities hadn’t happened overnight. At first, there was just garden-variety industrial smog, dangerous to the elderly and young, but nothing you couldn’t endure without a basic mask on. All the same, people started to move out of the valleys, where it was worst, up into the hills. Then the air up there started to turn brown, too, and people started digging. Basements, sub-basements. Some people moved into the planet’s natural cave systems, setting up air locks at each exit.

When even the young, the healthy and rich started to die, the planetary government finally moved, working to link the ad-hoc collection of private underground dwellings, expanding on them, digging deeper and further.

Some of the hill-top refuges remained, unconnected to the ant-tunnels that made up the planet’s cities. In one of these abandoned basements, on a hill overlooking the flat domes of Harmony City, stood a suit of battle armor. It was an Achileus, a stealth model, looking like a gorilla dressed to play American football, with dark grey armor, jump jets housed in its bulbous shoulders and weapons pods jutting from either forearm.

A trapdoor in the ceiling banged open, providing entrance to a swirling dervish of dust and the mummified figure of Nix, goggled, masked and wrapped against the caustic air. He wrenched the door shut against a howling wind outside, then crouched at the top of the stairs, scanning the room, compact pulse laser pistol held easily in his hand. Satisfied, he tucked the pistol into the back of his waistband, and came down the stairs, peeling off his goggles and pulling down the mask from his face.

His team had three suits, their aces in the hole for the day something big needed to happen. Jonas and Creed had their own battle armor too, stored somewhere, he didn’t want to know where. Better that way.

He left the dust-clogged clothes in a pile, stripped to a black body suit, and cracked open the back of the Achileus. Holding on to the back plate he swung himself feet-first into the legs of the suit, then fit his arms and head inside. The backplate closed behind him automatically. Sensors came online, illuminating his face.

“Voice authentication required,” the system said.

He cleared his throat. “Cutesy authentication phrases are for self-satisfied idiots who like nothing better than to hear themselves talk.”

A beat. “Voice authentication confirmed. Welcome back, Nix.”

“Combat simulation, Word of Blake augmented infantry company,” he told it.

The system began to paint a virtual city-scape populated with the sensor-illusions of foot soldiers all around him, registering ‘hits’ and ‘damage’ as they fired. He ducked, rolled and twisted the suit around the empty basement, ‘firing’ virtual weapons back to blow the enemies away in multicolored fountains of pixels.

He didn’t hate the Wobbies, not the rank and file anyway. They came in two flavors, he noticed. One was the Believer, usually some kid from a backwater planet or the Periphery, for whom Blake mean security, science and civilization. Who followed orders unquestioningly, no matter how brutal, secure in the knowledge that it was all in the cause of building the brighter future Blake had long ago foreseen.

He spotted a squad setting up a field cannon behind him, rolled forward on one shoulder, came up firing the arm-mounted laser. The screen showed a hit, the squad derezzing as their bodies hit the ground.

The other flavor was the Opportunist. Often from war-wracked border worlds, who felt betrayed by a social and political system that guaranteed the privileges of the nobility while ensuring five centuries of nearly uninterrupted bloodshed across the galaxy. Who—oof, that *** with the sniper laser had tagged him good—had watched friends, neighbors, family die, from war, disease or malnutrition while others lived in comfort. Who felt angry, powerless and ignored, who wanted nothing more than the chance to strike back at a galaxy they felt had abandoned them.

Thing was, the way Nix saw it, the Opportunist had a point.

He twisted, letting a virtual missile fly past him, then swung back and blasted the gunner. He was getting rusty. Time was, he’d have seen the man before he could fire.

After four Succession Wars, countless brush conflicts and an invasion of genetically engineered super-soldiers, the prince and princesses and dukes and warlords and whatever else were still at it, like wrestlers in quicksand, still trying to throttle one another even as they sank, suffocating, into the ground, dragging everyone else with them. The whole top-heavy edifice was crushing itself under its own weight.

Peace? Peace was impossible when they only saw it as an opening for a fresh round of killer king-of-the-hill. Case in point: the victory over the Clans had been immediately followed by a five-year civil war between two leaders on the winning side.

He’d been part of that, but hadn’t understood it. Fighting people he’d called friend or brother, for ground neither wanted, on the word of some entitled aristocrat neither had even met. It was sick. A million deaths was these people’s idea of a family squabble. They would launch wars on a whim, then call it off when the right or wrong person was killed or captured or just dropped dead, rendering the struggle, valor, cowardice, sacrifice, blood of those who fought under them grotesquely superfluous.

After New Avalon, they’d given him a shiny silver medal and a new arm and he’d given them his resignation, vowed never to be the tool of power-hungry madmen ever again.

Climax of the simulation now. Six Purifier Adaptive battle suits, all charging him at once. Memetic armor made them hard to see, nearly invisible, only a slight blurring when they moved. Had to fight smart.

The Wobbies wanted to overthrow the ruling noble houses? More power to them. If they’d stopped there, he might have walked away, washed his hands of the whole thing. Given them the benefit of the doubt; maybe they were what they claimed to be, the cure for the cancer that had ravaged the Inner Sphere for all these centuries.

In the sim, his laser sliced a leg from one of the Purifiers. Bet that would have hurt.

But they hadn’t stopped there, of course, because there were Believers, Believers who saw no problem with gassing an entire city block, Believers who felt justified in dropping nuclear bombs, in poisoning whole worlds. They weren’t the cure, just another, more virulent and aggressive strain of cancer, just another group of power-hungry madmen.

The system blinked red, shutting down movement and weapons to simulate a killing hit. Still, he’d gotten five of the six. Just have to do better next time.

snakespinner

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #19 on: 13 September 2017, 23:46:07 »
Cheers ;D O0
I wish I could get a good grip on reality, then I would choke it.
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Growing up is optional.

mikecj

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #20 on: 14 September 2017, 09:36:16 »
Nice!  Interesting analysis on the Blakies
There are no fish in my pond.
"First, one brief announcement. I just want to mention, for those who have asked, that absolutely nothing what so ever happened today in sector 83x9x12. I repeat, nothing happened. Please remain calm." Susan Ivanova
"Solve a man's problems with violence, help him for a day. Teach a man to solve his problems with violence, help him for a lifetime." - Belkar Bitterleaf
Romo Lampkin could have got Stefan Amaris off with a warning.

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #21 on: 14 September 2017, 20:39:35 »
@snakespinner: Next round is on you!

@mikecj: I set out to do a couple of things with this story (write a story set in the Jihad, write about battle armor, have multiple viewpoint characters, have a story with foreshadowing--so careful readers can guess what's coming) but one of the biggest was to have "villains" with understandable (if not sympathetic) motivations, and characters that express opinions about the world and setting they find themselves in.

My inspiration here are things like the Watchmen and the Dark Knight, which take a fairly silly premise (caped superheroes in their case, giant stompy robots in this) and then take it seriously, really commit to the concept and try to explore it from a more realistic angle. Not saying I'm anywhere close to that level, but I just wanted to write the kind of story I enjoy reading.

The Jihad is a challenge there because, to me at least, much of what the WoB does is often excused in the sourcebooks as "because fanatacism," which leaves me unsatisfied. That's why I've emphasized the presence of the neo-feudal social order in BTech: when you consider they were overthrowing hereditary monarchies that had singularly failed to provide citizens with peace and security, the WoB becomes more sympathetic. What they set up in its place was even worse, of course, but you can see why people would find their message attractive.

Hm, end rant. Will pick up the story in the next post.

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #22 on: 14 September 2017, 20:46:34 »
13. SUNSET ITCH

12 August 3072


Nix pictured his mind as having two modes, a bit like a light switch, On and Off. On, it was focused; Off, it wandered.

Today, focus was proving elusive. He pushed the sofa into a corner and did one-arm push-ups in the center of the living room in the safehouse. Tried to concentrate on the mathematics of it, of the addition of muscle to will, the multiplication of effort, the division of time into repetitive motions.

And yet. His mind wandered.

He’d had a dream. In the dream, he was standing on top of an office tower—since New Avalon, all his dreams involved a tower—in the middle of a helipad, great orange ‘H’ stretched beneath his feet, wind whipping his clothes about him. On the pad was a tilt-rotor aircraft, though polished to a silvery shine that hurt his eyes so bad he had to squint. Standing on the ramp was Theresa Sortek, hair blown about her face like a dark halo. She waved to him and he waved back, with both arms, with two flesh and blood arms, and that was when he realized he was dreaming. She turned and boarded the VTOL, alone, and he could see her face at one of the windows.

She had looked so lonely.

He waved and waved as the aircraft took off, lifting gently and noiselessly into the air, up and up and up into an overcast sky, until he couldn’t see even a speck. He kept waving.

‘Who are you waving to?’ a voice had asked.

He’d looked down and found Theresa standing next to him on the helipad, looking puzzled.

He’d lain in bed a long time after that, just looking at nothing, until the chime of his timepiece had reminded him it was time to go.

In the safehouse, he shook his head. Got to focus.

Theresa lay half on the bed, one leg dangling over the edge. The air conditioning in the undertower was malfunctioning again, the room a toasty 30 degrees Celsius that made it too hot to do anything but lie still. On the screen by the bed, it was dusk in Rome, the domes and columns burnished to gold in the last rays of the sun. Earlier it had been Mecca, the great glass-and-steel towers overlooking the Kaaba, but Nix had taken one look and asked her to change it. She could hear Nix in the living room, hear his rhythmic huffing as he worked through his exercise regimen.

If she’d thought about espionage before, she would have pictured stylish secret agents trading barbed wit with smirking villains in dimly-lit casinos. She would not have pictured quite so much waiting. Euphoria said she was working on a plan, so in the meantime there was nothing to do but wait.

She thought of the blue skies of her home, New Avalon, tried to picture her parents there. She’d heard memories last a lifetime, but they didn’t. Not even close. What ones she could recall seemed vague and fuzzy, as though abraded by the passage of time. A few images came to her at random, mostly of water. Diving into the cool azure pool at the summer estate. Sheltering under a store roof when caught in a sudden summer squall. Sharing a shower with that cadet, the Duke of Galax’s second son, the one with the long fingers.

What she’d give for a decent bath. Or a man with long fingers.

“Nix,” she called. “Hey, Nix.”

The huffing stopped, and his head appeared around the doorway. “Get you something?”

“You married, Nix? Got a girlfriend?”

He frowned a little. “You’ve been to my place. I look like I’m married?” The frown deepened. “Why you asking?”

“I, just. I, ah, never mind.”

Shaking his head, Nix went back to the living room. He could guess what she had meant. It was something he’d thought about too, though he tried hard not to. Not that he had any right to be choosy at this point in his life. But they were at opposite ends of the social pyramid, her at the apex, him a nothing nobody from nowhere. It was just this animal itch, coupled with boredom and proximity.

There had been a series of women, when he was younger. Or putting it more accurately, there had been a younger him for a series of women. He’d been fit, athletic, outdoorsy, okay-looking, in a military full of smart, ambitious women who knew what they wanted and didn’t feel like waiting for it. That had been taken from him, along with half of his left arm, in one instant on New Avalon. It reminded the women too much of how close they lived to the edge, he guessed.

There were those who were into myomer arms and that kind of thing, he’d heard, but the prospect was too depressing to contemplate.

Got to focus.

Theresa had been thinking of sex, too, despite or maybe because of it all. There was little for her to do but sit and think, and one of the thoughts was that if she was going to die she’d like to be held again, one last time. Creed seemed angry and resentful of her, so that was a non-starter. Jonas was kind, body a little more V-shaped that she liked, but he had a nice smile, and when you were locked in an apartment for a week a nice smile went a long way. Nix was easy on the eyes until he took his shirt off, and then those tattoos were the absolute, total, polar opposite of easy.

It had been a stupid thought, best forgotten.

Nix stuck his head back around the corner. “Have you ever seen a Schedar sunset?

She rolled to face the doorway and propped her head up on one hand. “A what?”

“Like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

Two hours later, she was seated at the top of a low, isolated hill of fractured volcanic rock, swaddled from head to toe in a dust suit, her knees drawn up in front of her, looking up into the swirling, ochre sky. Nix sat beside her, his figure similarly blurred in layers of wrappings, face hidden behind a mask and goggles. The wind was quieter here, allowing her to hear the hiss of air as her mask labored to filter the air. It still smelled like burnt rubber.

When the silence got too loud, she asked, “Can I ask a question?”

He sighed. “The arm or the tattoos?”

“What?” A startled laugh. “No, neither. I was wondering: What brought this on?”

“You’ll laugh.”

“Promise not to.”

“A dream.”

She laughed.

“Liar,” he accused, without any heat.

“Sorry. You have this way of catching me off-guard every time you open your mouth,” she confessed. “But that has to be the strangest thing I’ve heard since I came here.”

“Reminded me of. Ah, this one time. Nothing. Anyway, made me realize how hard this must be for you.”

“Thanks for the very clear explanation,” she replied, mildly sarcastic. “That dream must’ve been a good one. All I get is weird shit, like King Kong carrying me up a skyscraper, only it’s like this hollow tube and we’re on the inside, and there’s this other giant ape chasing after us.”

He tapped the side of his head. “Oh yeah, that’s totally nuts.”

“Shut up.”

“I’m kidding. Pretty straightforward, given the situation. Pursuit, monsters, enclosed spaces.” He held up a hand. “Okay now, I think it’s starting.”

He was right. It was like nothing she’d ever seen.

There were pretty sunsets on New Avalon or Deneb Kaitos, dusting the horizon in orange and magenta, and she’d imagined it would be the same here. It wasn’t, not at all. They sunsets she knew were static, slow-moving things. Sunsets on Schedar were alive. It started slow, bright flickers she caught out of the corner of her eye, gone like will-o-the-wisps when she turned her head. Then they came faster, longer, gradually coalescing into great comet trails of cherry and violet fire that fanned and spread across the sky. The trails shimmered and merged and grew, until the air over her head seemed to be burning, close enough for her to touch. She unconsciously reached up a gloved hand, fingers trailing through the air, as though to feel the heat.

“It’s like alchemy,” said Nix, his face titled upwards too. “Lead into gold. Pollution into poetry. All this junk in the air blocks the light, depending on which way the wind is blowing and what’s up there in the stratosphere, and this is the result.”

She nodded, absently. “That sounds rehearsed. You bring all your fugitives up here?”

His goggles glinted as he glanced at her. “Only the Baronesses.”

“Get a lot of those, do you?”

“One so far, but who’s counting?”

There was a chance, here, for something to take shape between them. But then she was who she was, he was who he was. Where they were. Everything. Their chance would be like a sunset—pretty but quickly over, followed by darkness. Unconsciously, she spread her fingers, as though letting something go.

After a quarter of an hour the light began to fade, darkness gathering at the edges of the sky. She saw a thick, writhing knot of blackness begin to slither across the horizon.

“What’s that?” she pointed.

“Squid-storm,” he said. “Hydrocarbons precipitating out of the atmosphere as it cools. Bit like an airborne oil spill. We’d better head back.”

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #23 on: 14 September 2017, 20:50:14 »
14. FLIGHT PATTERN

13 August 3072

Euphoria was livid.

They were all seated or standing around the safehouse’s kitchen table: Euphoria, Theresa, Jonas, Creed and Nix. Euphoria was winding up a 30-minute tirade in which she reminded Nix of the danger of Theresa going outside and being caught on surveillance video, of the even greater danger of going out into a skin-eating dust storm, and of the many intellectual failings required to ignore both of those two factors in favor of a pretty lightshow.

“Theresa’s not a piece of hardware, EE, she’s a human being,” protested Nix. “Can’t lock someone up for weeks like that without them going a little crazy.”

“We talking about her or you, Nix?” Euphoria asked.

“It was my decision, my responsibility,” Theresa interrupted. “I could have said ‘No.’ I didn’t. If that put you in jeopardy, then I am sorry. I promise I’ll keep a low profile from now on.”

“The best solution would be to get her off-world as soon as possible,” said Creed. “Do we have a plan?”

Euphoria continued to look at Nix for a moment, then sighed and looked back to Creed. “We do.”

There were three layers of security at the spaceport. First, an initial ID check outside the gates, where everyone had to swipe their Freedom Card. Next, the crew and passenger registry, documentation and baggage check, including chemical sniffers, X-ray scans as well as a physical pat-down. Then the final boarding inspection, again using the Freedom Card and travel documentation.

“I nearly hit on it the other night at Zero Squared. We can’t put her on a DopShip crew. But we can put me on.” Euphoria pointed to Nix and Jonas. “Get her a ground crew uniform. You guys take her through the maintenance tunnel to the cargo area, the same one we used when we brought her in. She blends in with the work crew, you guys run interference if anyone tries to ask her questions. I enter by the normal route, then slip her my ID before the final security checkpoint.”

Jonas snapped his fingers. “I get it. Switch you two at the last minute?”

“But we look nothing alike,” Theresa protested, pointing to her own dark mass of hair.

“Cut your hair, dye it, you’ll be surprised. It won’t have to hold up to close scrutiny. Just get you onto that ship.

Communications array is still offline, so even if they figure out what we did a day or two later, it’ll be too late.” Euphoria looked at Creed. “Might help if we staged a diversionary attack on the detention facility or server farm, draw their attention there.”

“They’ll go back and check the records,” said Theresa. “They’ll see it was you, EE. This means blowing your cover, maybe everyone’s.”

Creed was shaking his head. “It is not going to work, EE.”

Euphoria crossed her arms. “Look, Creed, I know it’s a risk but—”

“I have a life here, one I am fighting to keep,” Creed cut her off. He waved a hand at Theresa, lip curling. “I will not throw it away for this … byproduct of incestuous inbreeding.”

“What?!” Theresa, pale, indignant.

Nix put a hand on Creed’s shoulder. His left one. “Creed—”

Creed tried to shrug the hand off, unsuccessfully. “Take your hand off. Before, I have respected you. But clearly you are not thinking with your brain here.”

Nix smiled, tightly. Very tightly. Let go the shoulder and took a step closer to Creed. “Creed, I’ll ignore that, out of respect for what you’ve done for us. But let’s be clear: I wouldn’t care if she was Stefan Amaris’s daughter—nobody, nobody deserves to be hunted just for whose name they carry. So we’re going to fight for her. If that frightens you, then maybe we can find something a little less scary for you to do.”

“This isn’t cowardice,” Creed shot back. “I would have fought for you, or for Jonas. Fought and died, if need be. But not for this. Not for her. You cannot ask this of me.”

“Resistance isn’t a democracy, Creed,” warned Euphoria, eyes narrowing. “I need to know we can trust you. Can we trust you?”

Creed took a deep breath, tore his eyes from Nix to look at Euphoria. Tried to hold her gaze, but couldn't. “I will guard the house. No more. Whatever else you do is your affair.”

Euphoria glanced to Theresa, who was carefully studying her feet. Then back to Creed. “Alright, Creed. You sit this one out. Not like we have much choice. Jonas, maybe you can handle the strike?”

“Hey, you all know I’m a better fighter than Creed anyway,” Jonas grinned and cracked his knuckles. “Be glad to.”

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #24 on: 16 September 2017, 11:32:07 »
15. THE WRONG PLACE

14 August 3072

Nix dreamed of falling. Falling from the sky, without a suit or parachute, plunging helplessly straight down, and as the ground rushed up he saw he saw he was falling towards an office tower (of course, there would be a tower), falling straight towards the helipad on its top, falling straight towards a man and a woman standing there. He tucked in his legs and hugged them to his chest. The roof came rising to meet him in a rush, the there was a smash as he impacted, then went through the roof. On the other side was air. He was falling, still falling straight towards a familiar office tower helipad, two people standing there, hurtling up towards him. Impact, resistance, weightlessness. And the falling, falling towards an office tower helipad…

He was pulled from the dream by the sound of someone hammering on the door. Rhythmic cracks, slamming heavily into the plasteel. Not a social call then. He had been half-expecting this for three years now, ever since the invasion. He got out of bed, went to the kitchen, opened the small silver fridge, and pulled out a beer. Tortured, tearing sounds as the door began to tear free of the brackets holding it to the wall. Nix sat down on one of his two plain, plastic chairs, and positioned it so he could see the front door from where he sat. He twisted off the cap with his prosthetic hand, and took a long drink.

The door flew off its hinges, revealing a squad of Word of Blake militiamen holding a pneumatic battering ram. They dropped the ram and came storming into the apartment, guns ready. Several people were shouting at him variously to freeze, to get on the ground, to raise his hands and to stay where he was.

He liked that advice the best, so he followed it. “Door was open,” he said, mildly.

Two remained in the kitchen, their guns leveled at his chest, while he heard the other four banging doors and shouting orders to his empty bedroom and bathroom. He took another drink. The four returned, empty-handed, squeezed into the far end of the room, out of arm’s reach.

“At ease,” said a new voice, one Nix had heard before, quite recently. The militiamen lowered their needlers. A hooded figure entered the apartment, and threw back its cowl as it stepped into the kitchen. A face with flat, silver eyes and a tight, cold smile. A gloved hand reached over and took the top of the other chair, dragged it protesting squeakily across the floor until it faced Nix.

“Make yourself at home,” Nix said into his beer as the other sat down stiffly on the chair.

“Forgive their over-enthusiasm. You can’t be too careful these days. But there I go, nattering on about things you already know very well,” the man continued, pulling off his gloves and folding them neatly in his lap. “You’re something of an expert in caution, aren’t you Mister … Rei?”

“You have me at a disadvantage,” his eyes flicked to the militiamen. “And at gunpoint.”

“That’s the funny thing: I’m not sure I do.” The other man smiled. “You know, the Word of Blake has captured a number of Federated Suns databases over the years, yet until our occupation I can’t find a single record of a man named Nicholas Rei.” The head tilted slightly to one side. “Why would that be, do you think?”

Nix shrugged. “Looking in the wrong places, I guess.” He set down the beer. “Look, it’s Yeager, isn’t it? Yeager, old buddy, I hate to be rude to a guest, but does this visit have a point?”

“Of course, you’re a busy man, aren’t you? All those days lifting potatoes or whatever it is.” Yeager’s smiled disappeared.

“Tell me, where did a dock worker lose an arm, Mister Rei?”

“Odd choice of words.”

“Which?”

“’Lost’,” he said. “Like it’s just going to turn up one day at the bottom of a box of MechWarrior trading cards and old porn holos.” He looked down at the unnaturally smooth surface of the arm. The skin tone didn’t match any more, not after years of living underground on Schedar. “New Avalon, ’67, the year I quit the AFFC. Not sure what it was, to be honest. Gauss slug or autocannon, maybe.”

“Another thing we have in common, Mister Rei. I have my own … memories of New Avalon. Although, I confess to being a little disappointed. How far the mighty have fallen,” Yeager shook his head. “Dock worker? You could do so much better.”

Nix arched an eyebrow. “For instance?”

Yeager leaned forward. “A man of your talents, not to mention enhancements, would always have a place with us.”

Nix threw back his head and laughed. “You’re offering me a job?”

“That was not a joke. Here, with that arm, you’ll always be a cripple, an outcast, a freak. Among the Word of Blake, you would be an equal, a comrade, perhaps one day a leader. We know that cybernetics are, if not the future, then certainly a future. The least you could do is consider what I’m saying seriously.”

Nix nodded absently a moment, as though in thought. “Tell you what,” he said at last. “You get one of those fine folks from the Cordial Cooperative down here and ask me nice, and maybe I’ll think about it.”

Yeager sat back in his chair, which creaked uneasily. “Gentlemen,” he said loudly, to the militiamen. “If I might have a word with Mister Rei in private.” The men glanced at each other, then retreated into the hallway outside the door. Satisfied, Yeager turned back to Nix. “They are dead. On my orders. As you—and any semi-intelligent citizen—are perfectly aware.”

“That sounds an awful lot like an admission of a war crime, Yeager old chum.”

“You wonder about our methods? The purpose of our terror?”

“Yeah, sure. In a what-the-hell kind of way.”

“Bombing, gassing, massacring people so they will unite behind us. Ludicrous, isn’t it?”

Nix waved his hand in a well-you-know kind of way. “One way of putting it.”

“Any reasonable person would put it that way. Luckily, our followers, even our leaders, have bid a fond farewell to reason in favor of fanaticism.” Yeager flicked a speck of dust from his robe, as though to brush his compatriots from his clothes like dirt. “Let me be clear: They are fools, all of them.”

That caught Nix’s attention, as the man had probably known it would. “Then why?”

“Because the Inner Sphere is a jail,” Yeager held up his hands and made two fists, wrists together like a prisoner.

“Keeping us locked together, fighting with the same weapons, over the same scarred ground, until we wipe ourselves out. There will never be peace in the Inner Sphere. Too much time has passed, too much blood has been spilled. As long as we stay, we will never evolve as a race, never move forward. A dead end, destined for extinction.”

“’Destroy the village in order to save it’, that’s your answer?”

“Yes! Yes, exactly! Cut away the cancer to save the body,” Yeager beamed, sweeping his hands apart, as though breaking invisible chains. “What is the purpose of terror? The purpose of terror is terror, because only terror can set people free. Like birds that have lived too long in cages, they will never voluntarily leave the prison of the Inner Sphere. So we must make them abandon their homes, their cities, their worlds, and flee for their lives. Many will die, yes, so the rest may live. Sacrifice billions, hundreds of billions, so that millions may live. We must scatter humanity to the far reaches of space. Only then will we adapt, evolve, find new ways of being, move forward. Cybernetics, selective breeding, genetic engineering, hive minds, cloning, every path must be explored, because a species with only one path is on a path to extinction. Only destruction provides a path to the future”

Nix looked down at his prosthetic arm, feeling the fingers as they flexed. It didn’t feel much like the future. “You know, I bet the fella who took my arm off felt exactly the same way,” he paused, mouth half-open, aware that whatever he said next might be the last words he ever did. What the hell. “He thought he was cutting the cancer away, saving people from themselves, just like you. He was okay with a few people dying, if that’s what it took, just like you. Only, I’ve noticed, when people like you and him say ‘people will die,’ what you mean is ‘people who aren’t me.’ Funny how the people talking always figure they’re the ones who are going to be part of the righteous or the genetic elite or the cybernetic pioneers Which got me thinking. Maybe. Maybe people who say ‘cut away the cancer’ are the cancer. Maybe what’s holding us back, if there is anything, is the folks who think they’ve got it figured, and what they’ve figured is that all they need to do is kill enough of the rest of us and it will all work out.”

Yeager was silent, his mouth pressed into a thin line. Finally: “Well, I hope that’s not your final answer.”

Nix snorted. “If that makes you feel better. Now, maybe you can take your pals here back to the station and let me get some sleep. Unless this was one of those ‘join us or die’ deals, in which case you’ll be taking them to the morgue.”

Yeager seemed to consider that. “There are six of them, you know. Hardly seems like a fair fight.”

“Feel free to call for reinforcements.”

That produced a chuckle. “Now, now, Mister Rei. There’s confidence, then there’s arrogance.” Yeager stood, pulling his gloves back on. “Think about it, Mister Rei. This isn’t about which lord gets to park his posterior on some imaginary throne for a season or two before the next one knocks him off. This is about the future of the human race.” Yeager walked back to the doorway, looked down at the shattered remains of the door on the floor. “Pity about the door. Consider it a gentle reminder. We’ll be in touch.”

The militiamen fell into step behind him, footsteps echoing into silence as they marched away.

A delicate rain of plaster fell from the shattered door lintel.

“Arsehole,” Nix told the empty kitchen.

snakespinner

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #25 on: 16 September 2017, 19:31:18 »
Hasn't he heard of a door bell.
What an entrance just to make a job offer. ;D
I wish I could get a good grip on reality, then I would choke it.
Growing old is inevitable,
Growing up is optional.

Dubble_g

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #26 on: 17 September 2017, 08:56:49 »
@snakespinner: He knows the value of a grand entrance. Or maybe the doorbell is one of the things the btech universe never got around to inventing, much like wireless Internet.

* * *

16. FOR THERESA

Demi-Precentor Yeager sits in his office and plays the piano. Beethoven, Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor, popularly known as ‘Für Elise.’ Although the woman Beethoven wrote it for was probably not named Elise, but Theresa. A woman hidden behind another’s name. Yeager likes that, almost as much as he likes the quick, sharp movements the piece requires.

The floor is polished onyx and the piano brilliant white. Around the walls are floor-to-ceiling views of Schedar in infrared, low-light imaging, sonar, and monochrome. It is another of those contradictions that he loves, that those entering the office of the most feared (he likes to think) men on the planet, to find him sitting here, playing this gentle melody now twelve hundred years old.

Tonight’s conversation has left him disappointed, and uncharacteristically reflective. He tries to excise the poison through his fingertips, through the music, but calm is elusive. The mention of New Avalon has stirred his own memories, the chaos of battle, not really knowing who one was fighting, or why. The tangled lines of blood and fealty had wrapped around his unit and dragged them into the inferno. And then the literal blaze as his ’Mech caught fire, cooking him alive, and a short, desperate flight that left him blind, blistered, half-dead.

Losing his physical eyes had, he chuckles to himself, been an eye-opening experience. Only then had he seen how insatiably ravenous they were, these princes, chancellors, coordinators and archons, how their power was sustained like the ancient Aztec gods with the blood of regular human sacrifice. He had thought the Precentor Martial, Victor Steiner-Davion, had been different. He’d been a fool. Who was Victor? Heir to two of the most powerful families in the galaxy. Who were his generals? The sons of Dukes, the cousin of an Archon. It was Victor’s vanity that had cost Yeager his eyes, and would cost the species so much more.

The Master was a fool, too, the Sixth of June plotters all fools. The rebirth of the Star League would merely be an extension of the cycle, a step backwards for every human. Yeager had seen then that the old order must fall, and that humanity had to be set free lest it trap itself in the same patterns. He had hoped Rei would see that. Rei might be made to see yet, or there were other ways to deal with him.

There is a buzz of an incoming call. Yeager’s fingers slip on the piano keys and he halts. He pushes a button on an intercom mounted on top of the piano. “Yes?”

“Sorry for the interruption Demi-Precentor b—”

“You have a good reason, I trust?”

“A call sir, anonymous. Claims to have information on Theresa Sortek.”

“Put it through.”

He almost hopes it will be Rei, but is not entirely surprised when another’s voice fills the speaker.

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #27 on: 17 September 2017, 08:59:55 »
17. SEEING STARS

15 August 3072

Theresa awoke to find her hands had been tied together in front of her. Thin black loops around either wrist, felt like rubber, but strong as steel. A dark figure stood beside the bed, what looked like a squat flare gun held in one hand, pointed at her.

“Up,” it said.

“Creed?” she asked, trying to sink back into the mattress. Her head pounded like it had been caught in a vise. He must have used a stunner or drug on her while she slept, so she wouldn’t wake up when he fitted the restraints.

Creed reached down at the cord between her wrists, and jerked her to her feet. Her knees immediately folded, and she sat down heavily. Creed huffed in annoyance. “Do not make this harder than it has to be.”

“For who?” she asked bitterly, as he hauled the strap up again. It felt like he could rip her arms from their sockets. She stood.

Creed waved the gun under her nose. “This is a sonic stunner. If you try anything foolish, I will knock you out, then carry you. It will be easy for me, but unpleasant for you.”

“More unpleasant than being executed?” she sneered. “Unity, Creed, you know what’ll happen if you turn me in.”

Creed shrugged, took out what looked like a dog leash, clipped one end to the wire between her wrists, fastened the other around his own left wrist. Waved the stunner at the door. “Move.” Shoved her in the back.

She stumbled forward. “It’s the Word, Creed. You’re Clan. The Word fracking hates the Clans.”

“I’m a freebirth, you over-privileged idiot,” he grunted. “They hate the Clans? So do I. Trueborns, nobles, you are all the same. Parasites getting everything handed to you because of your name.” He shoved her again, hard, like being kicked in the back. “Now shut up and walk.”

He marched her down the dim corridor, past the doors of the other units on the level. She hoped, prayed, to see another face, but knew it was unlikely. They’d picked this place precisely because it was a neighborhood where it didn’t pay to be too nosy.

They reached the elevators and Creed stabbed the button repeatedly, impatient.

Doors chimed for their level and slid open. Jonas stepped out.

He blinked when he saw them, started to smile. “Hey Creed, just forgot my ciga—” Registered the ties around her wrists, the leash, the gun. “—the fu—”

Creed was bringing up the stunner and Theresa threw herself backwards against him, hard as she could. It was like bouncing off a brick wall. She staggered back, then folded when Creed buried a fist in her stomach. She collapsed, wheezing in agony, to the floor.

Creed was firing the stunner, faint keening barely audible at the top of her hearing, but she’d distracted him a little, his aim was off, and Jonas didn’t go down. He reeled, woozily, like a man drunk, but didn’t go down. He was fumbling at his back, bringing out a thin, compact pistol. Eyes unfocused, Jonas fired anyway, a thin red beam lancing over their heads and burning a trail across the ceiling.

Cursing, Creed dropped the stunner and the leash, lept at Jonas, arms wide, tackling him to the ground. There was a flurry of punches and kicks, too fast for her to follow, the men snarling like jungle cats wrestling.

Theresa tried to stand but her legs weren’t listening, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything but retch and heave. The stunner lay on the ground, where Creed had dropped it. She focused on it, tried to focus on reaching it. She could hear Creed and Jonas, yelling, cursing, and the crash of plaster as they threw one another against the walls.

A door opened a crack in the corridor and Theresa looked up, pleading, but it immediately slammed shut.

Finally, she got her knees under her, pushed herself across the corridor, her bound hands reaching for the stunner. Closed around the grip. Behind her, a laser shot. Two, three.

Bringing the stunner up.

To be kicked away, by what felt like a hammer, sending the stunner flying. Smashed against the wall, pieces bouncing off the floor and spiraling away. She felt the small, round muzzle of a pistol, pressed against the top of her head. Glanced up. Creed was standing over her, breathing hard, face bloody, going purple in places. Behind him, slumped against the wall, Jonas’s sightless, staring body, neat round holes burned above one eye, in the throat, in the chest.

She’d liked Jonas. A little star-struck, just to meet a Sortek. A little kid in a wrestler’s body. Dead now, because of her.

Creed dragged her to her feet and she didn’t have the strength, or maybe the will, to resist. She didn’t feel anything, except perhaps a sense of unreality, her brain refusing to process what was happening. She allowed Creed to march her into the elevator, then up and out the residential complex, in a kind of anesthetic daze.

The corridors on the top level were dark and empty. The few people they saw quickly turned and started walking the other way, or stood to the side, eyes firmly locked on the ground.

A few blocks away they were met by a squad of men in bulky armor, holding squat, ugly rifles. They kept them ready as Creed and Theresa approached. A tiny part of her brain still engaged with reality noticed the tallest soldier was actually a woman, biceps maybe as big as Creed’s, with tattoos on her face the way they still did, out in the Periphery.

A hooded man stepped forward. A hard-faced man with mirror eyes.

“Theresa Sortek,” he said. “So nice to finally meet you.”

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #28 on: 19 September 2017, 22:45:43 »
18. WOMEN AND WAYS OF BEING

Nix collapsed onto his unmade bed. Work at the spaceport was tiring but mindless. Gave him plenty of time to think about what Yeager had said. Nix’s still felt any dream built on so much death could never lead to anything but still more death, but then, couldn’t the same already be said for the Inner Sphere? Help overthrow a system at the cost of billions of lives, or help perpetuate a system that had already cost billions of lives. Sit back and watch billions die anyway. He concluded the human brain was not built for billions; he would help save one life. What more could he do?

By agreement with Euphoria, Nix hadn’t been back to the safehouse since the conversation. He was almost certainly being monitored now, so he was living as dull and ordinarily life as he could. He glanced at his timepiece. Jonas would just be getting off. Creed’s turn at the safehouse. Closed his eyes and dreamed of a tower.

A buzzing in his left arm. His eyes snapped open. Reached over with his right and dug a finger into the synthskin on the inside of his elbow, flipping out a small patch and sliding out a thin wafer that vibrated rhythmically. A microcommunicator, designed to clip directly to his ear. Euphoria had given it to him, three years ago, with strict instructions to never, ever use it. Any signal can be tapped, hacked and traced, she’d said.

One-time use, power cell designed to fuse and melt the electronics after one call. Strictly for emergencies only.

He fit it to his ear. “EE?”

“They got the Jackpot.” Fuzzy voice, low-bandwidth, lot of interference underground. Still, the word were like an electrical charge jolting him awake.

“You sure?”

“Chipped her. Yes, I’m sure,” the edge of her voice cutting through the static. “Bugged the place, too. Nix, listen. Creed is a traitor. I think Jonas is dead, too.”

“Dead?” That was a lot of process at once, so he didn’t. Nix’s mind had two modes, on and off. Off, he daydreamed too much, thought about towers and hyperspace, women and ways of being. On, he didn’t think about anything. Just moved. He’d been off for far, far too long. Creed’s betrayal, Jonas’s death might hurt, later. Right then, it was just more information. He was moving, off the bed, out of his work clothes, pulling on his black bodysuit. “Where’s she headed?”

“Friendship Square detention center.”

“Going to have to get her out of there.” He opened his closet, scooped up his sand goggles and breather mask from the bottom.

“Is that even possible?” Incredulous. “Place is a fortress.”

“Yeah, sure it’s possible,” he said, already out the door, pounding down the corridor at a dead run. Neighbors suddenly pressed themselves against the wall as he went barreling past. “Crazy, but possible.”

“You serious?”

“Serious as an Atlas.”

“What can I do?”

“Arrange extraction. Something fast. Have a feeling we’re going to need it.”

“See what I can do. Luck.”

Nix grunted and took the communicator from his ear, flinging it into a public garbage receptacle, noting its self-destructive firefly flare as he did. Five minutes later he was through an airlock, into the orange haze outside, a shadowy figure headed straight into in the storm.

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Re: Message in a Bullet
« Reply #29 on: 19 September 2017, 22:48:04 »
19. THAT DELICIOUS TASTE FOR REVENGE

The ceiling, walls and floor were polished, reflective black. A severe, white metal table stood in the center, with plain white chairs on either side. There was only one door. The smoked glass of surveillance camera domes dotted the ceiling. On the wall opposite the door hung two gigantic portraits, of bearded Jerome Blake and a smiling Conrad Toyama.

Theresa Sortek sat in the chair facing the door, with her back towards the portraits. Armed guards stood at stiff attention on either side of the door. Demi-Percentor Yeager sat across from her, his hands clasped on the table. Creed prowled the room, radiating nervous energy, and ice pack clasped to his face.

Yeager was looking at Creed. “The others?”

“Three others. Jonas is dead. Nix—Nicholas Rei—will either be home or at the port. No idea about the woman.”

Yeager looked delighted. “Nicholas Rei? Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. We’ll send teams to both places, but I suggest you get ready.”

Creed halted his pacing, lowering the ice pack and looking puzzled. “For what?”

“For Mister Rei.” It sounded like this was the fulfillment of a long-cherished hope. “He is almost undoubtedly on his way here.”

Creed’s face looked briefly troubled. “If he is, I’ll kill him, too.”

“You can certainly try. Take one of our Purifier suits, the weapons master can arrange it.”

The door closed behind Creed and Yeager returned to his seat in front of Theresa. She stiffened under his basilisk gaze.

“What’s going to happen to me?” she asked, voice quavering.

“What do you think?”

Her shoulders sagged, her body bowed forward. “Make it quick,” she whispered.

Yeager sighed. “I can think of few prospects that appeal to me less than listening to the screams of some idiot woman. Torturing you would be as boring as it would be pointless. Creed seems to know everything you do, if not more, and he’ll tell us all of it with considerably less moaning about it. Let us be frank, Miss Sortek: As a symbol, you mean everything, as a person, nothing. There will be a public trial, you will be found guilty of murdering the poor, innocent people of the Concordia Cordial Cooperative, and you will be executed. People will see us tearing apart the old, oppressive order, and at the same time we’ll satisfy that delicious taste for revenge.”

She sniffed, once, deeply. Her head, almost parallel above the table, just nodded.

“Unless,” he said. She sat very still.

“Unless,” Yeager went on, “unless you can help me deal with Mister Rei. For reasons I will not bore you with, I’ve grown rather fond of the man, but I fear when he arrives he won’t be in a talkative mood. We will confront him together, and you will help him listen to reason. Do that, and we can spare the trial and execution. Oh, you’ll spend the rest of your life on a penal colony or planetoid in some nameless system, but then, there will be rather more of the rest of your life than there will be otherwise.”

Yeager stared at the top of her bowed head while she seemed to think it over. Finally, without raising her head, she said, “I don’t think he works like that.”

Yeager nodded, absently. “Still seeing yourself as the princess here?” he sneered. “There’s no white knight coming you save you, you know.”

She looked up at that, her body still bent at the waist. “Why do you hate us so much?”

“I told you, you tedious bore: I don’t hate you, per se. I don’t hate the nobility, really, though I’ve plenty of reason to. It’s just that you represent the past, the shackles that must be broken if the human race is to escape.” He indicated the door Creed had gone through with a thumb. “As you see, I don’t even hate the Clans, either. I mean, their plan to re-establish the Star League is depressingly backward-looking, and their limitation of selective breeding to the warrior class represents a colossal failure of imagination, but hate? No. You are all tools, to be used or discarded, as the situation demands.”

Yeager stood and nodded to the two guards. “Take Miss Sortek to a maximum security cell on the lowest level. She may yet be a useful tool, if only as bait.”

 

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