Soon after Louis’ announcement, Reed’s VI ‘pinged’ with an encrypted text message from, of all people, Olivia Horwath.
I know you have no reason to trust me, Reed, but this is getting serious, it read. You know there’s only one person in the whole Confederation who could have signed off on this nonsense. We need to talk about this. For Tanar. Call me back. Horwath.
David Robert Jones sat on his bed, lost in thought. He’d been trying to write a diary entry, but words failed him when trying to describe the extent to which events had gotten away from him. He felt useless and defeated, effectively imprisoned and forced to watch as his beloved Tanar was effectively carved up between a regime likely backed by the New Order, and the Vrai, the old enemy.
Suddenly, the wall across from him exploded, revealing a hover-skiff behind it, with two figures sitting on it. “Quick, get on!” one of them cried.
“What? Who the hell are you?” Jones yelled, trying to make himself heard over the din of the engines.
“I’m Wolf, and this is my sister Alice!” the figure replied. “We work for someone who wants to help you! Please, hurry!”
Oh, what the hell, Jones thought. It can’t be worse than here. He scribbled a few words on a page in his diary, then tore it out and left it by the bed before clambering onto the hover-skiff. He wasn’t really sure why he’d done it, but it seemed important to let Donovan know that he wasn’t done yet.
As guards ran up to Jones’ room, alerted by the noise, all they found was a massive hole in the wall and a note with the words ‘YOU FAILED’ written on it.
<Yari III, Homecoming Church>
“Aren’t we just,” Aster muttered. While she was still a little uneasy about the Vrai offer, given how convenient it was, she was certainly enjoying Rain’s even greater discomfort. The irony of the isolationist Vrai offering her military guarantees, while her supposed allies in the FSA sent only an annoying minder, was not lost on her.
Listen to yourself, Aster, she suddenly thought to herself. You’re acting like this is your decision to make. Her job was to help put together the coalition necessary to put Lundby into office, nothing more, and one speech, even if it was well-received, didn’t change that.
Aster silently looked Brian in the eye. She did, of course, remember him - she’d encountered him in the resistance years ago, and observed him from a distance. The loss of their loved ones at the hands of the Tanari state had profoundly shaped both Shifters, but where it had instilled a cold streak of pragmatism in Aster, a desire to make sure no such thing could ever happen to anyone else again, it had seemingly instilled something much darker and more short-termist in Brian, which Aster could sense hadn’t left him when she looked him in the eye. She assumed he’d died during or soon after the war, and frankly, she’d have felt better if that were the case.
“Yes, of course, I remember you. It’s good to see you made it through the war, Brian.” She smiled, and awkwardly slapped him on the back. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m afraid I’m on a tight schedule. Stay out of trouble, young man!”
Aster turned, and hurriedly followed the others up to Karol’s ship.
<Yari III, Old Saskana>
While Peter could barely conceal his surprise at Shield-Man Jones’ appearance, as well as his contempt for the man, Shae’s expression betrayed no emotion. Despite their respective career paths, there could be no doubt which of them was, in practice, the better politician.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Peter said, and headed out for a walk in the park to clear his head.
Skydda was, of course, entirely correct about how the Eachans had felt about him. To Silver, he was an unreliable loudmouth who didn’t fit with the image he wanted to project, and to Shae, he was a war criminal and a racist, who she did her best to steer her husband away from. By the time Silver had decided he knew better than her and swung to the right, the damage had been done to any potential relationship they might have had. Perhaps that was for the best, as otherwise Skydda might have simply have found himself in Van Smoot’s place.
“The past is the past, Jones.” Shae poured a glass of wine and offered it to Skydda, then poured herself another. Even if she knew she didn’t actually mean it and was just using him as a blunt object, she still needed a drink before flattering the man as she needed to. “But history’s still being written. Look around. The NatCons and Von Budberg are flailing. ‘NatCon’ will probably be a dirty word within a few months, if they’re lucky. The New Order is just waiting to step in, the FSA doesn’t care, and I’m sure the Shifter Radicals are planning something that I don’t even want to think about. It’s only a matter of time before something goes badly wrong. We need leaders with both brains and balls to step in and save the Trilateral, and maybe even take over the Confederation when the time comes. And right now, you’re about the only person with either of those things I can see on the right.”
“There are two ways this conversation ends, Jones. The first is that you don’t listen to me. Von Budberg may like the votes you bring, but he knows you’d probably outshine him, so on the off-chance he wins, he’ll probably let you rot on the backbenches. He needs to hand out jobs to all those turncoat Liberals now too, remember. You’ll go down with him, with nothing to show for it. In a hundred years, only a few military historians will have even heard of Jones Skydda. That’s not really the right way for a man like you to be remembered, is it?” Shae took another sip of wine and smirked to conceal her own amazement at the bullshit that was coming out of her mouth.
“The other one is that, as of now, I’m running your campaign.” she said flatly. “Together we’ll find a way to make sure that your… undeniable potential doesn’t go to waste, even if your side gets stomped on paper. You’ve seen what I did for Silver’s career when everyone was writing him off, so you know I’m not making empty promises. If you do what I tell you, and find enough CUSP candidates and military men who are... principled enough to follow you, you could be… hm, shall we say defence minister of a new Trilateral republic by the end of the week? Maybe even Prime Minister if that’s the way the chips fall. Then, when we take back the Confederation… who knows? A whole new chapter of Tanari history is about to be written here, and you could be one of the main characters. Von Budberg may fall by the wayside, but you’ll live to fight the MRF another day, and your name will carry more weight than ever before… I think that’s worth working with them for a while, don’t you?”
“Fucking hell,” Kirsten said as she looked out the window of Karol’s ship onto the grim urban landscape below. It’s not that there weren’t grim patches in Lyndon City, but from the air, Old Saskana seemed to be a whole town made up of nothing but those.
“It used to be worse.” Aster shrugged. “There’s a nice enough park now. And they’ve managed to clean up some of the worst slums since Allman was ousted, I guess.”
“You keep up with local politics a lot for someone who hasn’t been back for years.”
“I do want to know what happens in Sask. Just as long as I don’t actually have to be there. Bad things happen whenever I’m here.”
“You mean like a coup, a Malchiorian spy turning up, and the Vrai sticking their noses in?” Kirsten said. “I talked to the Malc, by the way. I… may have implied he would live to regret anything bad happening to you.”
“You didn’t!” Aster laughed. “Rain is harmless. I think. Just an annoyance sent by Klak and Nadle because they feel a bit guilty for how the last few years have gone.”
“He said his real name was Rain Sulrai. He’s an adamah, if you can believe it. He’s almost sympathetic… except he is what he is, you know.”
Kirsten raised an eyebrow. “And you’re sure he can be trusted?”
“Not even slightly.” Aster said. “But only because he’s Malchiorian. Here to ensure our loyalty, and offering absolutely nothing in exchange.”
The ship shook slightly as it set itself down. “They’re gonna be pissed if you stick with the Vrai deal, you know.”
“That’s not going to be my problem one way or the other.” Aster stepped up to the hatch that had just opened on the ceiling, and shortened her arms to make pulling herself up easier.
The Shifter stood on top of Karol’s ship, and looked out around her. They’d landed in the middle of the park she’d mentioned just a minute ago, and were now surrounded by a small but growing crowd of people wondering why a seemingly undamaged ship of unfamiliar configuration had suddenly appeared. Excellent, Aster thought.
“Right. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?” she called out to what had, unexpectedly to them, become her audience, and launched into another speech.
“Excellent,” ‘Siper’/Enrique said, surreptitiously reaching into his pocket to make sure he hadn’t forgotten something. “Glad we’ve sorted that out.”
As the pair exited the train station, they began to approach the municipal park, and noted the commotion therein. “The fuck?” Enrique said as he realised the figure standing on top of the ship at the centre of the crowd was in fact their target.
<Yari System, Shifter Rebel Warship Black Sky, Captain’s Office>
“Ah, my good friend. Enjoying your new command, I hope?” the hologram of Richard asked. “How can I help you?”
Vladimir Terrón sat back in what was now his armchair, looking as emotionless as ever. As Richard’s loyal right-hand man ever since their days fighting against Edward Allman together, he was a natural choice to command one of their newly-captured ships, which he’d already renamed the Black Sky - as a Shifter radical, he had absolutely no respect or use for the Tanari habit of ancestor worship. The two usually worked well together, but today, Vladimir had a bone to pick with Richard.
“Av-Kartin’s men just removed all the Stäbil officers from our brig. On your authority.” Vladimir said. “Or so they claim.”
“Yes, that’s right.” Richard shrugged. “I thought our allies deserved a little gift for their trouble.”
“Right, I see. And it didn’t occur to you that the thing they know most about is presumably the ships we’re currently using? That’s not information I’d be giving away so freely just yet if I were you, Richard. The New Order could still back out of the deal, and then we’re really boned.”
Richard chuckled. “Don’t be silly, Vlad. The New Order are our allies, and I’m already negotiating their help in upgrading our future fleet. The only people who’ll run into trouble are the Stäbils. I promise.”
“I hope you’re right. Black Sky out.”
Vladimir sighed, and walked over to the former Tanari captain’s drinks cabinet, where he poured himself a glass of Aluic brandy. Even though Shifters were immune from many of the negative side-effects of alcohol, and as such could partake as much as they wanted, he’d never been much of a drinker, especially during an op. This time, however, it seemed appropriate. It was, after all, the spoils of war. He sat back down in his chair, and opened up the console on his desk, which instantly displayed a notification. The Black Sky was still connected to the Confederate Navy’s networks so as not to attract suspicion, and as such they were still receiving regular Tanari news blasts. Upon opening the news blast, he was instantly confronted with the annoying face of James P. Louis, a man he despised. While they were still Stäbils by any sane definition, the Vesa Qatorians were rarely treated much better than Shifters, and yet often still held themselves out to be superior, and, while Louis himself never publicly resorted to such rhetoric, on the local level TRUST activists sometimes campaigned on the basis that their constituents should not be treated the same way as Shifters.
As he watched the Vesa Qatorian’s speech, Vladimir became ever angrier. While the NatCon regime posed as a mere provisional government in a democracy, it regularly purged its political opponents and often made very little effort to disguise this fact - which meant that Louis had to be either very stupid, or very certain that he would not suffer any consequences for expressing such thoughts in public. Everything - Richard’s complete faith in the New Order and lack of concern about the difficulty of holding Yari, the NatCons’ blasé attitude to the Trilateral effectively declaring itself autonomous - suddenly clicked into place in the Shifter’s mind.
Vladimir’s hope was that the New Order would help the Shifters as they had Arc Zabaton’s Akkar, allowing them to put the Stäbils in their place and integrate the Confederation into the New Order under their leadership, but clearly, this was not to be. The NatCons - at least some of them - were working with Sefer, and Richard’s job was just to control the Radicals on their behalf. There would be no reversal of the hierarchy, or even an attempt at fragile equality - Shifters would serve as, at worst, a distraction, and at best, an auxiliary to whatever puppet regime was going to be set up on Tanari Prime. The whole concept of the National Guard, of Shifters being so ground down as to serve the likes of Timothy Morgan Veidt, William Douglas Reed or Olivia Horwath, made him sick to his core, and he had no intention of following suit.
“THAT TRAITOROUS SON OF A BITCH!” Terrón screamed, roughly slamming the console shut. On the wall opposite him was the insignia of the Confederate Navy. He hadn’t gotten around to removing it yet because it had been vandalised by a few Shifter privates during the mutiny, which made him smile, but now it just looked like it was mocking him. The house always wins.
The bald Shifter grabbed his sidearm off the desk, and fired repeatedly at the logo. He threw the gun back down onto the desk, and stormed out of his office and onto the bridge.
“You!” He pointed at one female officer and began yelling, the usually reserved commander’s tone coming as a shock. “What’s the status of the Agatha and the Gideons?”
“N-nothing out of the ordinary, sir.”
Vladimir was about to order her to open fire on the Agatha, but stopped as soon as he actually imagined himself saying the words. As much as he wanted to blow Richard’s ship out of the sky right that second, doing so right this second would achieve nothing for the cause or for himself. “Monitor all their communications and send everything to me immediately,” he finally ordered, more calmly this time. “And figure out where Enrique is. I need to speak to him ASAP.”
<Malchior IV, Nadle’s Office>
“Yes, I’m sure you do. You’re not here to sell out your people any more than I’m here to sell out mine. And I’m more than happy to give you, and Malchior, certain guarantees.” Blair smirked. The Malchiorian was trying to test him, but it wasn’t going to work. “But Veidt is popular, especially with the military, and he may be trying to deliver the confederacy into the arms of the New Order. So you can take as much time to analyse the information, consult your analysts, confer with your superiors as you want but you’ll still come to the same conclusions; that you never had a better option than me, and that the FSA is out of time. So we can start now, if you like, and you can have something concrete to tell President Vell. Tell me what you mean by ‘insurance’, and I’ll tell you if it’s politically possible.”
While Blair Morrison was speaking to Nadle, a storage closet opened in his office, and the journalist who had tried to ask Blair Morrison a difficult question on Jumano emerged, coughing slightly as she did. She was convinced there was more to the oligarch’s venture into politics than he let on, and had stowed away on his ship in the hopes of discovering anything.
Her first order of business was to try and investigate his personal computer, but unsurprisingly, it was password-protected. As she walked around the office, looking for any sort of clues as to what the answer to his security question might be, she noted a picture of Blair Morrison hanging on the wall. At first, she had to suppress a chuckle; it didn’t surprise her at all that an obvious egomaniac like Morrison would have a picture of himself hanging in his office, but then she noticed something - the picture was crooked. What sort of person, she thought, was egotistical enough to hang a picture of themselves on the wall of their office but not egotistical enough to notice something like that?
Her first instinct was to try to adjust the picture, but it returned to its original position as soon as she let go of it. Disappointed, she dismissed it as just one of those things, but before she could move on to something else, an entire portion of the wall simply slid aside, revealing a secret chamber behind it.
Stunned and excited in equal measure, she tentatively entered the chamber. At one end of it, a very old-looking painting was hanging on the wall, flanked by several pods big enough to fit a grown human.
They were the last thing she saw before an alarm started blaring, and a pair of strong arms suddenly grabbed her from behind.
Three more holograms faced off against the Malchiorians and Vongolans - Asgarov, the Corrantian Admiral, being flanked by the respective commanders of the Vrai and Alpha Centaurian contingents.
“I can say for certain that the OPC have no quarrel with Malchior. If only Malchior was as sure of its own intentions.” the Vrai commander grumbled. “And as for the VPR… you are agents of the Riders. How do we know you aren’t looking to stab us all in the back? The New Order is coming here anyway; no one will know either way!”
Anna Luxon rubbed her temples. Diplomacy had never been her strong point, and yet now, she was somehow in the position of having to try and reconcile three different camps who all hated each other, and only Peter and Jinx seemed to be keeping their eye on the ball.
“Let me be perfectly clear,” Luxon said. She was no good at diplomacy, she decided, but she could lay down the law. “Some of you are here by our invitation, some of you have decided to drop in out of concern for our cause. The FTA welcomes all your help, but I’d also like to remind you that Lanorra isn’t a free-for-all. We have jurisdiction here, as well as the majority of the guns, and as long as this joint operation is ongoing, we are in command, and your mutual grievances, long-running, complicated, and annoying as they are, are extremely uninteresting to us. If you want to hash them out, do it another day, in another system. If anyone tries to cause trouble here, all the other factions represented here should feel free to turn their guns on them as they would on the New Order or any other threat to the security of Lanorra and this flotilla. Have I made myself clear?”
Anna had no real intention of starting a shoot-out with either the Malchiorians, the OPC or the VPR, but she nevertheless hoped raising the spectre would bring all assembled back to reality. In any case, it certainly succeeded in causing everyone to fall silent, so Anna pressed on. “Good. As Colonel Ardennes said, two Arcs are probably headed here… which means it’s an opportunity to destroy two Arcs in one fell swoop. I suggest we all keep our eyes on that prize. Lt. Commander Jarres, if you will.”
A large holographic map of the Lanorran system appeared in the centre of the room. At the same time, an FTA officer standing away from the meeting approached the commanders, and drew their attention to the system’s asteroid belt using a large pointer.
“Full disclosure: to level the odds, we’ve mined the Lanorran asteroid belt with a mixture of concealed nukes and EMP weapons. We’ve placed some closer to the planet as well.” Lt. Commander Romeo Jarres explained. “We don’t know where exactly the New Order ships will drop out of FTL, so we may need someone to lure them into the belt. Unless, of course, any of you have a better idea.”
“Oh, it was fine, really.” Ashton said, trying to maintain a poker face as Jeris squeezed his hand just a little too tightly. Amanda noticed his obvious struggle, and had to stop herself sniggering.
“Figures. Bloody anti-cyclopean racists! We have xenophobes on my homeworld too, but you know, at least we have an excuse for being short-sighted!” Pes complained. “It’s sad. You know, I can imagine some of these houses fitting right in on the streets of Retorian. But these days they’ll call you an Allmanite for even studying these things, let alone suggesting we take some inspiration! Trust me, I’ve tried!”
Pes followed the group, still ranting about Teruga Prime as he did so. Ashton tried to do the same, but suddenly found his path blocked by Amanda.
“You were going to kill him, weren’t you?” she said, having first confirmed the others were out of earshot, and stolen a quick glance at Regina specifically in the process. Ashton tried to get past her, but she grabbed him by the shoulder.
“You want to do this now? Really?”
“Ash, this… this isn’t sustainable. Look, I’ll grant you, Regina is a hell of a woman, but you’re obsessed with her. And Amy too. You were ready to kill Van Smoot back on Tanari Prime, and he ended up being our ticket out of there…”
“I’m pretty sure that Aster woman was our actual ticket out of there! And I didn’t actually do any of those things, did I?” Ashton snapped. “Amanda, we work together. Nothing more. I’ll thank you to stay the fuck out of my emotional life.”
“Your emotional life becomes my business when it means we’re constantly narrowly dodging disasters because of you. If you hadn’t copped the fuck on at the last minute, your great lost love would probably have left all of us on the Narayanastra, or worse. And you really think the Tanari would have just agreed to forget the whole embarrassing incident if you’d beaten one of their generals to death? As you are now, you’re a god damned liability, Ashton, and you need to realise that before something really bad happens.” Amanda sighed deeply. “Oh, who am I kidding? You’ll probably just go on as before, but you’ll add me to the list.”
Ashton spluttered. “But… I don’t…”
“Oh, at least that got your attention.” She rolled her eyes. “Good. Keep it that way.”
Amanda stormed off to join the group. Ashton followed more slowly, pondering her words.
<The Coldest Story Ever Told, Level 57-B>
Prush (and presumably Mavis too) were waiting on Level 57-B, not too far away from the storage area where they’d been told Sophie Vinderen was hiding, and considering their next move when Sally arrived (presumably with Oblique, Halo, and Nexus in tow).
“Ah, Sally! Just the person I needed to see.” Prush said a bit too excitedly, immediately leading Sally to suspect he wanted something from her. “Er, Vinderen has changed the key code somehow.”
“And? What does that have to do with me? You’re the big, strong security officer…” Sally snarked.
“Yeahhhh, but the engineers always complain so much when they have to put the door back on the hinges. And Antivaks is creepy, I don’t want to have to see him for another shoulder problem…”
“Oh my gods, you are such a baby!” Sally laughed. “Alright, everyone stand back!” The Shifter closed her eyes and began to focus. A second later, the door had been telekinetically forced open, and Prush, gun in hand, burst into the room, much to the surprise of Vinderen and her two goons. “Sophie Vinderen, you’re under arrest!” he yelled, as both goons drew their own weapons, preparing for a shootout.
<Malchior IV, FSA HQ>
Turel looked on blankly - something he was well-trained at - as Figlio explained his backup plan. There was no doubt in his mind that Ascheron’s victory would be better for the cause, while prior VPR recruitment campaigns had seen decidedly mixed results. However, Ascheron’s victory was now also very unlikely, partly thanks to what he saw as his superior’s miscalculation, while the recruitment campaign would strengthen his own position, potentially putting him in a position to do much more for the cause than ever before.
For possibly the first time ever, Turel recognised a potential contradiction between Figlio di Armechio and the cause he believed in. “Very well,” he finally said quietly. “Come what may, we stand united.”
Lazran Osvaldo Dahl smiled as the staffer tentatively confirmed he would have a place in a Malcovus Secretariat. ‘Deputy Secretary-General Dahl’ had a nice ring to it, he thought.
As the unmoderated caucus began, Lazran spoke to the delegations of a few states he’d identified as swing votes. All of them now seemed to be for Malcovus, which pleased him. With the vote seemingly in the bag, he moved on and walked up to Ambassador Gilclack and the rest of her delegation. They were clearly in no mood to speak to him, but he was in a gloating mood.
“Pulling out M’orv and the widow. Clever. Tricks and gambits like that do usually work in our gynocentric Zardoz world.” Lazran said to Gilclack, getting slightly too close to her in the process. “Not this time though, Madam Ambassador. Many governments throughout the free galaxy have great hopes for the next Sec-Gen… and I fervently hope Malchior isn’t going to become obstructive just because it didn’t get its way for once. Good day, Ambassador.”
He walked off, snatching a glass of claret one of the Malchiorian staffers was reaching for along the way off a waiter’s plate as he did so.
<Vongola, Kozin’s Camp>
“Stand down, Lieutenant. I’m just an Inquisidora.” Kora replied. “May we speak in private?” She rose, and began to walk out of the tent.
<Vongola, Refugee Escort Mission>
As the convoy set off into the wilderness, Walker soon noted that the ATV he’d gotten into was driven by Sergei himself, who was completely silent but nevertheless eyed him suspiciously from time to time.
“Walker, is it?” Sergei finally said. “What made you join the VRR, young man?”