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    No Exit

    drj
    drj
    Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh


    Posts : 4330
    Coins : 33239
    Reputation : 24133
    Join date : 2010-11-07
    Age : 24

    Character sheet
    Level: 1
    Class: Scout
    EXP:
    No Exit Left_bar_bleue0/0No Exit Empty_bar_bleue  (0/0)

    No Exit Empty No Exit

    Post by drj Sat Dec 04, 2021 8:47 pm



    Last edited by drj on Sat Dec 04, 2021 8:48 pm; edited 1 time in total
    drj
    drj
    Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh


    Posts : 4330
    Coins : 33239
    Reputation : 24133
    Join date : 2010-11-07
    Age : 24

    Character sheet
    Level: 1
    Class: Scout
    EXP:
    No Exit Left_bar_bleue0/0No Exit Empty_bar_bleue  (0/0)

    No Exit Empty Re: No Exit

    Post by drj Sat Dec 04, 2021 8:47 pm

    Chapter 1: Dreams of Innocence

    She had been there too many times to count over the years, but no matter how hard she tried, Arc Vekhta didn’t think she was ever going to get used to the lab. ‘Lab’ didn’t even feel like the right word, even if it was the one its owner insisted on. It was more of a labyrinth, one made up of a seemingly endless array of lab equipment and cages containing various small lifeforms from throughout the galaxy - and again, looking at some of them, ‘lifeforms’ didn’t feel like the right word. A first-time visitor could easily make the mistake of thinking all of it had simply been left to rot there, but Vekhta knew better, mostly because every time she’d gone there, they’d been rearranged, forcing her to find a new path to the centre. The only constant was that she always had to tread carefully, as you never knew what exactly had been left to rust or writhe away on the floor. Unsurprisingly, the smell was often horrific.

    After what felt to the Arc like hours - but in reality had probably only been a few minutes - she finally reached the centre of the room. There, sitting in a chair and looking idly at a screen, was her superior, who seemed totally oblivious to her presence. Not that that was difficult; if one could ignore the mess, or the cries of many of the caged lifeforms, or the smell - especially the smell - one could probably ignore anything.

    “You asked to see me, Arc Serecio,” she said, in the hopes of calling attention to herself.

    Arc Serecio slowly rose from the chair and turned to face her. He cut an imposing figure - he had two feet, or maybe even a bit more, on Vekhta, and he was seemingly perpetually clad in golden and green armour that only made him stand out more. At the same time, two bright lights mounted on the ceiling switched on - one right above each of them - much to Vekhta’s relief. It wasn’t that she had any trouble seeing in the dark - the New Order had long since taken care of that particular problem for her - but it still made the place feel a bit less repellent.

    “Yes, my apprentice,” he finally said. He airily waved a hand, and a holographic projector immediately rose from the ground between them. Two very familiar faces appeared in the air, in front of the Arcs, and Serecio continued. “These men left Shangri-La yesterday. Arc Keylana’s intelligence indicates they are headed for a planet designated G11-6x6-704-Kappa, in neutral space just outside the borders of the FSA. We believe they’re planning to betray the New Order.”

    Vekhta stared dumbfounded at the hologram. “My lord… not them, surely not…” she managed before Serecio interrupted her.

    “What they may have once been is unimportant. They have made sure of that by straying from the path of the Emperor, though they should have known better. You will rendez-vous with Arc Kakamu on the dark side of G11-6x6-704-Kappa’s third moon, and then prevent this… defection by any means necessary. Is that clear?”

    “Yes, my lord.” Vekhta nodded.

    Serecio took a few steps forward, the light above him following him. Vekhta being an open book to him, he’d of course noticed her expression had clearly brightened for a second at the mention of Kakamu, but chose not to say anything. He had other concerns. “How have you been sleeping?” he asked. “Any more nightmares?”

    “Not since we last spoke, my lord. It’s definitely been better these last few nights.”

    “Excellent, excellent. If they return, let me know at once and we’ll try something new. I cannot have my best fighter unable to sleep at night.” he chuckled. “Go, now. Bring the traitors back alive for the Emperor if you can, but should it prove too difficult… I doubt she’ll lose much sleep over it. Just like you won’t.”

    -----

    Though he was young, Kristoffer Lake had already seen many things. None of them, however, could compare to the Akari Shingen Memorial Park. To the natives, it was just another park at this point, but to one who had grown up in the urban jungles of Malchior IV, it was paradise. A seemingly endless green field, full of every conceivable type of tree, and many Kristoffer in fact hadn’t conceived of, at the centre of what looked like the cleanest, calmest city in the galaxy. Kristoffer knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a mere by-product of the most dangerous thing he’d done in his life so far, and that only made the experience sweeter.

    Though, even with all that, it probably wouldn’t have been the same without the company. Aster was some distance ahead of him, unable to get enough of the park. If the beauty of Yamato was a world away from Malchior IV, Malchior itself was a world away from Aster’s descriptions of the borderline dystopian cities of the Tanari Confederation’s outer worlds. They’d barely exchanged a word since setting foot in the park as a result - in theory, Kristoffer could easily have kept up, but that somehow didn’t feel appropriate given his surroundings - but that was fine. Ever since they’d met, they’d shared some of the most dangerous experiences of their lives, including the one that had, in the end, brought them here - helping to get the Emperor Sefer Yetzirah herself out of the clutches of Edward Allman. Silence, for once, was welcome - so long as they were sharing it.

    And then, the silence stopped. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Aster cried from somewhere off to the side. As soon as Kristoffer turned to face her, he found the entire landscape before him on fire.

    “Isn’t it beautiful?” the words echoed around him, followed by a dark cackle. This time, the voice was not just Aster’s. It was also Sefer’s, and President Howard’s, and the Nish’Gek’s, and Abneris’, and Edward Allman’s, and David Robert Jones’, and Nathaniel’s, and Coro’s, and his mother’s and father’s, and Uteriach and Figlio di Armechio’s. People he’d gone up against, people he’d failed, and people he still had time to fail. As one, they all mocked him, while everything around him burned. Somewhere in the distance, a bell tolled insistently. He fell to his knees, powerless to do anything whatsoever about any of it.

    -----

    Kristoffer Lake woke up with a start, and looked around to get his bearings. He wasn’t in the Akari Shingen Memorial Park on Yamato, but in his quarters on the Malchior, the creatively named cruiser provided to the President of the Malchiorian Protectorate, heading towards the small planet of New Lerwick to meet with its government’s official candidate for secretary-general of the FSA, Duke Silverwood. Nothing was on fire, except metaphorically - after all, when one was President, everything was on fire. There was no one around to mock him, let alone people he hadn’t seen in close to a decade, and indeed he was now keenly aware that his bed was very empty apart from him. And there was no bell, unless you counted the incredibly annoying beep coming from his personal communications system that could only mean one thing - a Priority One encrypted message. Kristoffer hated that sound. It wasn’t actually chanting ‘no, you don’t have time to change’ at him in a sing-song voice, but right now, he could have sworn it was.

    “View,” he muttered just loudly enough for the infernal machine to hear and respond in the most awkward way possible; by projecting a hologram of a dark-skinned human male in a black T-shirt, who looked like he hadn’t shaved in a good few days, right into the middle of his quarters.

    “Mr. President, this is Colonel Halen Karsso, Corrantian Intelligence. I’m very sorry to wake you, but this really couldn’t wait.” the man said.

    Kristoffer tried to rub the sleep from his eyes without it being too noticeable, but failed. At least he could content himself with the fact that neither of them looked particularly presentable at the moment. “Don’t worry, Colonel. What’s the matter?”

    “Well, my team and I were conducting a routine survey of Planet G11-6x6-704-Kappa in preparation for placing a monitoring station here,” Halen visibly struggled to get through the planet’s designation. “When we took some prisoners. New Order prisoners. And way above our pay grade, Mr. President.”

    Kristoffer was starting to get a little annoyed. “Defectors? That’s nice to hear, but I don’t see what it has to do with me personally…”

    “Well, that’s what we thought too, Mr. President. But they insisted they would only explain themselves to you.”

    “Oh, did they now?”

    “Just look, Mr. President.” Halen stepped to the side and began turning the holo-projector on his end slightly to the side. Kristoffer almost jumped out of his skin as he was suddenly confronted with two very familiar faces that he hadn’t really expected to see ever again.

    “Hello, old friend.” said Canaan Jones, member of Emperor Sefer Yetzirah’s personal guard, with whom he’d fought many an Allmanite soldier. Beside him was Long Shortman, the Prime Minister of the Takemikazuchi Empire. At least, those were the positions they held the last time Kristoffer had heard from them. News from Shangri-La had been sparse at best for the last few years. Soon after the end of Allman’s War, Sefer had proclaimed something called the New Order, and with a single decree, what had once been an insular, but nevertheless relatively open society had at once been turned into a hermit kingdom, with a questionably obtained new substantial hinterland. Occasional updates from those refugees who were traumatised enough to try and flee the New Order, but not traumatised enough to refuse to speak to government officials unless forced to, or defecting minor officials willing to say anything that would get them asylum, were no substitute for up-to-date intelligence.

    “I’m so glad to see you,” Canaan continued. “I don’t think we ever thought we would again. Congratulations on becoming President, by the way!”

    “Thanks,” Kristoffer smiled awkwardly, still not quite knowing how to react.

    “Listen, Mr. President,” Long cut in, evidently having decided to get down to business. “Sefer’s planning something, and the entire galaxy is in terrible danger. We need to talk, in person, as soon as possible.”

    Duke Silverwood, it seemed, would have to wait.

    -----

    The Heyerdahl Corporation of Ordon V was responsible for many wonders - and 'wonders' - of technology, most of which tended to be taken for granted. Components for ships that ferried millions, and weapons that either kept them safe or saw them to an early grave. The most important of them, however, was the Virtual Interface technology - in short, a small device that could be implanted into a humanoid's brain, allowing them instant secure access to information and private communication. While many feared the VI could be used to control or manipulate people, and called for operational control of it to be taken over by the FSA, in practice the wealth and swagger that characterised most of Ordon - a once-barren planet whose terraforming and colonisation had been entirely spearheaded by the Heyerdahl Corporation - was proof enough of the Corporation's success.

    While the Corporation had, over time, given away some authority over the day-to-day operations of Ordon V to a semi-democratic legislature to prevent embarrassing protests, no one who had seen the imposing building that was the Corporation’s headquarters, which easily dwarfed anything else in the capital city of New Harpenden, could have any illusions whatsoever about who was really in charge. The young blonde who had just walked in, however, did not seem particularly impressed as she walked through the busy sandstone atrium and up to the reception desk. “Hello, I’m here to speak to Graff Heyerdahl.” she said. “It’s really important.”

    The receptionist, who was engrossed in something on his VI and so appeared, to the untrained eye, to be simply staring off into space, scoffed. The CEO of the Heyerdahl Corporation had many admirers, some of whom sometimes hoped to get to him hoping for something or other. Clearly this woman was just one of those, he thought. “Just checked. I don’t see any appointments for Mr. Heyerdahl. Nice try, lady, go home.” he said.

    The blonde was clearly not deterred. “My name is Lilith Heyerdahl,” she smirked. “I think that’ll do for an appointment.”

    The atrium was quite busy, but at that moment, one could have heard a pin drop.

    -----

    “It’s really her, isn’t it?” said Pavinder Patel, as a 2D holographic projector in front of her showed Lilith marching down a nearby corridor, surrounded by armed guards. “The wife of the Empress Sefer Yetzirah herself.”

    “I prefer to think of her as ‘my niece’,” Graff Heyerdahl told his PA brusquely, as he often did. The CEO of the Heyerdahl Corporation was often described in the galactic business press as a no-nonsense professional. Pavinder certainly wouldn’t have agreed with that description – the simply disastrous state of his desk (which remained so despite the fact that he could simply have uploaded the same documents into his VI and enjoyed the benefits of a clean work area) and his often rough language told its own story – but it was true that he always insisted on cutting through the bullshit and telling it as he saw it, and she’d come to appreciate it. You always knew where you stood with Graff.

    “Can you get us both some coffee?” Graff asked. “One with two sugars, one black.”

    “Certainly,” Pavinder nodded. “Shall I call in a Code Mu?”

    “She’s my niece, Pavinder.”

    “Who you haven’t seen in over a decade, because she’s spent all that time with Sefer Yetzirah."

    Graff sighed. “Code Mu it is. Just keep it quiet.”

    Without a word, Pavinder went off to retrieve the requested coffee, and then, seemingly without actually going through any immediately obvious point of exit, made herself scarce just in time for the ornate wooden double door at the other end of the office to automatically swing open, its sensors having detected an authorised and registered visitor. For the first time in a decade, Graff and Lilith Heyerdahl had come face to face.

    -----

    The Malchior roared out of FTL on the dark side of G11-6x6-704-Kappa’s moon as fast as it could without actually losing control and probably crashing. Despite requiring very intense deceleration, it did at least have the merit of minimising the time the ship would have spent on any radar screen, which is why it was standard Malchiorian operating procedure, much to the derision of some other species. It was probably a bit ill-advised when carrying the President, though. Thankfully for the pilot, Kristoffer didn’t mind too much. He’d done this more than enough times already, and had a strong stomach anyway.

    G11-6x6-704-Kappa was uninhabited, save for the usual flora and fauna. There were, however, signs that life had existed there at some point, even if it had just been passing by. Chief among them was the abandoned temple the FSA scouting party had come across and chosen as a temporary base of operations. Built on a large plain, it offered plenty of space for ships, such as Kristoffer’s personal shuttle, to set down, and, thanks to its bell tower, plenty of opportunities to see any attackers advancing over land coming.

    All of Kristoffer’s staff had tried to talk him out of going to G11-6x6-704-Kappa. They insisted it would have been much safer to simply divert a ship to take Shortman and Jones to FSA space, and they were completely right. However, it would also have taken more time than simply diverting the Malchior itself - or so Kristoffer said. He was keen to see Shortman and Jones in person as soon as he possibly could, as he still couldn’t quite believe it. Abneris and Jefferson Bethlehem had suggested that perhaps the President was simply putting himself in danger out of sheer boredom, and that he was acting like a sentimental fool. Kristoffer had huffily dismissed them there and then, and insisted he could handle himself, but he had to admit that he was maybe bored, and definitely tired of not giving into sentiment.

    Stepping out of his shuttle into the fresh air, Kristoffer was immediately welcomed by Halen Karsso, who was accompanied by two other men. One of them was a pale, lanky man dressed similarly to Halen, while the other was a younger man dressed in combat fatigues.

    “Welcome, Mr. President,” Halen said, saluting. “Meet Sylen Kurze and Ross Palermo, my Tanari and Malchiorian counterparts.”

    “At ease, Colonel,” Kristoffer replied. “A Corrantian, a Tanari, and a Malchiorian. Sounds like the set-up to a joke. Shepherd bless the FSA.”

    The three intelligence officers laughed awkwardly. While it had been almost a decade since the end of Allman’s War, that hadn’t been enough time to forget, and it had taken some time before the three of them had managed to set aside their inter-species hostility and break the ice.

    “Take me to the prisoners,” the President continued.

    Kristoffer was led into the temple, and looked around. Scenes of great battles followed by celebrations covered the ceiling and the windows. It was an odd choice for a temple, Kristoffer thought. Off to the side there was a spiral staircase, presumably leading up to the bell tower. Long Shortman and Canaan Jones were sitting in a pew right up against the altar, flanked by guards. A mere look had been enough to confirm what Kristoffer already knew - those really were his old comrades. “Leave us, please,” he ordered. The guards were taken aback for a second, but obeyed.

    -----

    Among the identically armoured, functionally anonymous troopers surrounding them, Arcs Vekhta and Kakamu couldn’t possibly have stood out more – the petite brown-skinned Yuzari tightly clutching her blade, as if to check if it still felt the same, on the one side, and on the other, the tall, red-skinned Tekkui, armour covering his body, a golden mask clamped over his face and a spear longer than he was tall strapped to his back.

    Once upon a time, Kakamu had been the healer of his small tribe, raising a son by himself after his wife's… departure and tinkering with a metal he’d discovered in the Tundral Wastes of his native moon, Nil’nara. It was a satisfactory existence, and not one that should have lead him to become a general of the largest empire in the galaxy. But one day, his tribesmen began vanishing one-by-one. Some of them returned, but their bodies – and often minds – had been changed forever in disturbing ways. The Tekkui had no solution to the mystery, and one day, it was Kakamu’s turn. The Arokazek – these purple, four-armed, scurrying things, jabbering away in their harsh, fast-paced tongue – used a beam of light to spirit him away.

    He was strapped to a table in a room made of metal, and despite his pleas of mercy – which he wasn’t even sure the Arokazek understood, not that they seemed like they would have cared either way – they did to him what they had done to his other tribesmen, and grafted piece after piece of metal armour onto him. They would leave him alone for long periods, then return and pick up where they’d left off. Though he had no way of telling time, he soon realised he had to have been there for far longer than the Arokazek had usually kept Tekkui. Though he did not understand why, he came to understand that, somehow, they considered Kakamu special. And then, one day, their deliberations came to an end, and he was simply thrown out into space, where he suffocated and died.

    That should have been the end of Kakamu’s story. But for whatever reason – he presumed it had something to do with the Arokazek’s modifications – he soon returned to life. It was only for a moment before he died again, but the cycle would recur countless times as he floated in the void. He had no idea how he remained even close to sane with nothing to anchor him, but he muddled through - in the most horrifying way possible - until, by sheer chance, a passing New Order ship took him in. Despite the language barrier, a psychic Arc, Keylana had managed to explain the situation to him. According to her, the New Order had encountered the Arokazek before, and had chased them out of many areas of space despite the willingness of what had once been the Galactic Government and was now the FSA to support their activities, but much more was to be done. She and Serecio, having determined they could not be removed safely, managed to fine-tune Kakamu's modifications in order to allow him to function properly. They then took him back to Nil'nara, where he'd planned to spread the word about the New Order to his tribe - and maybe the other Tekkui too, if they'd listen - only to find they'd all been taken by the Arokazek in the meantime. Grief-stricken, Kakamu swore revenge and left the planet, now fully committed to serving Sefer.

    Set against all that, Vekhta’s own recollections of her past were somewhat less detailed. She knew that she was the scion of House Aban of Bendu, the ruling family of her species, the Yuzari, that she and her sister Arkhan had spent much time honing their skills as swordsmen before going on to join and eventually lead the Yuzari armies. And that was when her memory of her former life cut off.

    She awoke in the ruins of what had once been Bendu's capital city, battered and alone. There was not a single other living Yuzari in sight, but nor was there any sign of what had killed them and levelled their great, if insular civilisation. She wandered the killing fields for days, slowly slipping into madness, before finally finding a functioning ship and making it off-world. She then spent years travelling throughout the galaxy, looking for any sign of what had befallen her race, but no matter what she did, was dismissed as a mad impostor. Anguished and penniless, she turned to the underworld, where she found that, under certain circumstances, a reputation as a madwoman - coupled with unmatched fighting skills, of course - could be a help as much as a hindrance. And there she stayed, until one day a New Order agent found her, offering her everything she'd wanted - understanding for her plight, someone to blame for it - the FSA and its desire to covertly eliminate rival sources of power - and a way to get her revenge.

    Given all this, it was perhaps inevitable that they would be drawn to one another. What had finally allowed them to break the ice was not, however, any dramatic revelation of each other’s past – it had taken both of them a long time before they’d gotten comfortable enough to share such details – but Vekhta jokingly asking him one question during an extended training exercise.

    “Hey,” she’d quipped. “Do you sleep in that thing?”

    Kakamu did, in fact, sleep in 'that thing', as she'd referred to his Mask of Clarity. It allowed him a deeper sleep, as without it, he'd usually been kept awake by nightmares involving the Arokazek or his tribe. It was an invaluable tool - not only did it help him sleep, it helped regulate his mechanical components, and by improving his reaction times and providing information on his foes' weak points it made him a menace on the battlefield. Vekhta envied it sometimes, even if Serecio had helped her to keep her own nightmares under control.

    The two were close together now, holding hands as they muttered battle prayers in their respective languages - a little ritual they engaged in whenever they were on a mission together. It was a touching moment, one they almost wouldn’t have minded existing in, but it was interrupted by a soldier going around their dropship, passing out  black leather bands with luminous blue symbols carved across their length.

    "I wish we'd had these on Nil'nara for hunting," Kakamu said as he stretched out his arm and placed the band under his wrist, at which point it simply wrapped itself around it, as if it had a mind of its own. Vekhta did the same.

    "This game, you won't be eating," Vekhta smirked. "The Emperor won't like it, and neither would I." Kakamu let out an exaggerated scoff. She was silly. But nothing would stop them, together.

    -----

    Canaan ran up to Kristoffer, and the two warmly embraced for a moment before Kristoffer moved on to shake Long’s hand. Long’s already legendarily firm handshake had somehow gotten firmer in the intervening years – indeed, despite almost a decade passing, the former Prime Minister had somehow become even more muscular. The first thought that passed through Kristoffer’s head, as someone who had quickly discovered the difficulty of keeping up a regular fitness regimen while embarking on a high-level political career, was that Long’s career must have gone very wrong indeed. For a second, though, the three had forgotten what had brought them there, or who they were or had been on an institutional level – they were just old friends seeing each other again for the first time in many years.

    “Shepherd, it’s so good to see you two again,” Kristoffer said. “You’re looking good,” he added, gesturing to Long.

    “Yeah, I guess there are advantages to being on the outs,” Long chuckled. “I wish we were meeting under better circumstances.”

    “Where’s the rest of the team?” Canaan asked playfully. Kristoffer’s expression immediately darkened upon being reminded of Aster, Nathaniel, Bob, and Coro, and Canaan realised that, whatever had happened since they’d last met, now wasn’t a good time.

    An awkward silence was on the verge of falling, but thankfully, at least Long Shortman remembered they were all there for a reason. “I suppose we should get down to business. I don’t know how much you’ve been able to find out despite the blockade. What does the FSA know about why Sefer proclaimed the New Order?”

    “A defensive measure, at least as far as she’s concerned,” Kristoffer said, looking puzzled. Truth be told, they really didn’t know much. “I think Allman’s War convinced her the galaxy was too dangerous to keep running the Empire the way she had been. She needed a buffer zone, a remilitarised society...”

    “Close,” Long replied. “But there’s still a lot you don’t know.”

    “The Tanari War was terrible. But Sefer saw the enemy up close. There was nothing about Allman, as Allman, that would have frightened her that much.” Canaan explained. “A few months after the armistice, Sefer and Lilith left Shangri-La. They didn’t tell anyone where they were going, except that it had something to do with Malak Al-Maut. When they came back, they said they’d learned the truth about Allman and Ascheron.”

    “Allman is dead, and so’s his regime. Sefer made sure of that.” Kristoffer reasoned. “And Gabriel Ascheron and Figlio aren’t in a position to threaten anyone anymore. The galaxy was as safe as it had been in a very long time.”

    “She told us all that they were just pawns in someone else’s scheme, and that we needed to prepare for something called ‘a Crusade’. That’s when they decided to move in on the neutral worlds, and proclaim the New Order. Then a few years ago, they got even more paranoid,” Long continued. “It wasn’t just that they needed to shut the world out in case whatever they’re afraid of got the Takemikazuchi too. They had to start being proactive about it. They’ve been preparing for their own crusade, Kris. A crusade to unite this whole galaxy against this thing they’re convinced is coming, and destroy those they think are… too susceptible.”

    For a good few seconds, Kristoffer struggled to process what he was hearing. A war against the New Order would likely kill billions - and now he was hearing that it was inevitable and imminent. He felt sick to his very core. “You were Sefer’s prime minister,” he finally said, pointing to each of them in turn. “And you were part of her personal guard. What the hell have you been doing all these years? Why didn’t you convince her that this was madness?”

    “We tried, Kris, we really did,” Canaan shook his head. “We did what we could, but even asking questions counts as treason out there now. Sefer’s convinced she’s right, and after the war, the people have been convinced she’s their only defence against the outside world. Long here has spent the last few years under house arrest because he didn’t want to keep expanding the security state. He told me to stick it out in the Shinsengumi so there’d be at least one voice of reason, but she stopped listening to me too. And when I stepped too far out of line, she fired me too. So, after years of this, I decided ‘fuck it’.”

    “I was replaced by a man who’s thick as a plank,” Long snarled. “We didn’t want to do this, Kris. I believe in the Sefer who made poverty in Shangri-La history. The one who gave power back to the people and impaled that fascist Allman on her lance. But that’s not who she is anymore. Maybe it never was. That’s why we’re here. I don’t know for sure when, but soon, fleets and armies are going to come pouring out of the New Order. And they’re not gonna stop until they’ve done whatever it takes to unite this whole galaxy under Sefer.”

    -----

    The purpose of Graff's large, opulent office was to impress, overwhelm even, anyone visiting it. It was designed to hit one over the head with the sheer power and majesty of the Heyerdahl Corporation. This was a consideration that outweighed such things as style. Graff didn't have to like it - it was business after all, and if he felt he needed a nicer place to work for a bit, there were plenty of other places he could go. Lilith, however, was as unimpressed as she'd been with the rest of the building thus far. She'd always thought extravagance disguised as elegance was boring. This was a philosophy she happened to share with Sefer, and it was one of the reasons the Imperial Palace on Shangri-La had been abandoned years ago.

    Graff eyed Lilith nervously as she sat down in front of him. He was worried about her, and it wasn't just because he hadn't seen her for years. Sefer Yetzirah was a psychic - perhaps the most powerful living psychic in the galaxy. The dynamic between the two women had caused him to raise an eyebrow even before they had decided to cut off - to the extent that was possible - an entire interstellar empire from the rest of the galaxy, for the apparent purpose of building a totalitarian dictatorship in that enclave. Lilith's return, though, had given him hope. Maybe she had broken free. Maybe there was no need to worry any longer.

    She took a sip of coffee, and smirked. "It's good to see you again, Uncle," she said, reaching into her bag and pulling out something that looked like a snow globe, although filled with some sort of pink mist as opposed to fake snow. "Dendrobium. Straight from Shangri-La. Something to make your office a bit less… grim."

    Under any other circumstances, Graff would have been overjoyed to get his hands on a sample of the substance that had always been the former Takemikazuchi Empire's ace in the hole. But not this time. A man in his position had to be able to smell self-interested flattery from a light-year away. Lilith had clearly not broken free and come looking for help, he thought, but had come on Sefer's behalf, hoping to gain something. Truth be told, it hurt.

    He set the globe gently down on his desk. "What does Sefer want?" he said tersely.

    "So nothing has changed," Lilith sighed, realising her uncle still only thought of her as a pawn in Sefer's schemes. "Believe me, Sefer would much rather I didn't bother with this conversation. But something is coming from beyond the galactic rim. The most evil thing in all the cosmos. Unless we stand united, it will find accomplices and it will kill us all, just because it can. But we're not going to stand united. Allman proved as much. I've spent years trying to figure out some way for that to not be true, but there isn't one. I can prove it to you, if you'll let me. Unity will need to be forced, and you're the one man in the galaxy who can do that peacefully."

    Graff wanted nothing more than to grab Lilith by the shoulders, shake her, and scream at her to wake up. How could an intelligent girl - a Heyerdahl, after all - hear something that sounded so deranged come out of her mouth and not realise that someone had planted it in her head? He leaned back in his chair, and stayed silent for a second, trying to restrain himself. Somewhere off in the background, the tiniest squeak could be heard. Lilith paid it no mind.

    "She wants the fucking VI, doesn't she?"

    Lilith slammed the desk, causing the Dendrobium cloud on the desk to shake and several files to fall to the floor. "No, I want to save a shitton of people from dying senselessly!" she yelled. "Because otherwise, a hell of a lot of blood will have to be spilled just to get to the same place. Sefer's resigned to that already, but I'm not. For once in your life, Uncle, listen to me! Use all your fucking power for good… while you still can."

    "Don't threaten me, Lilith," Graff's tone became less and less calm as he went on. "Unlike that grey slut that's wormed into your head, I'm not in the business of rewiring brains to make people obey me. You want to grow your fascist cult? You'll have to do it yourself!"

    Lilith suddenly rose from her chair. "I'm warning you, Uncle…"

    Graff's eyes briefly darted to the side. "No, I'm warning you." Lilith heard a loud buzz near her ear - the distinctive sound of a plasma pistol charging up.

    "Hands in the air," said a faintly accented voice coming from behind her.

    "You know I mean you no harm," Lilith said, her tone full of resentment. She raised her hands and slowly turned around. The man now holding her at gunpoint had slicked, greying hair and a faint mustache, and wore aviator spectacles. She wasn't sure how he had actually entered the office - she supposed it had to do with the noise she'd ignored, but that hadn't been the same noise the door she'd walked in through made, and there were no other entrances she could see. Of course, it wasn't for her to know that Graff Heyerdahl's office had multiple secret passages, partly for this exact reason.

    Graff stood up, and walked around to stand next to the gunman. "Lilith, I'd like you to meet Magnus Nilmeister, my chief of security," he said. "Like me, he takes a very dim view of fascists making threats."

    "For the last time, Uncle…"

    "I don't want to hear it! Here's what's going to happen, Lilith. You're going to walk out that door slowly. No tricks. You will tell that little grey slut that I'm not going to brainwash anyone for her. Then you're going to tell her that I'm coming to Shangri-La, coming for her, and if she or anyone else tries to lead some god damn holy crusade, so will the entire free galaxy, and hell that makes Malak Al-Maut look like a toddler will follow."

    "You had a chance," Lilith turned and walked towards the exit. “Whatever you may think of me and Sefer, Uncle, when you’re horrified by what’s about to happen… I hope you’ll remember that you chose to let it happen.”

    "Why did you let her go, sir?" Magnus asked once the door had shut behind Lilith. "The FSA…"

    Graff walked back to his desk, but stopped just before sitting back down. "You fucking heard her talk, Magnus! Neither I nor the FSA will get anything out of a girl brainwashed into fanaticism, and Sefer wouldn't give anything up in exchange for her. Just send some battleships, if we're lucky." He picked up the Dendrobium globe. Even though that was almost certainly a bad idea, part of him wanted to smash it, tread on it until it was shards, throw it out the window. Instead, he handed it to Magnus. "Now, have this sent over to the eggheads. I doubt it, there's not much of this stuff in there, but maybe they’ll turn up something actually useful."

    Magnus nodded, and pocketed the globe. Just before leaving the office, he suddenly turned around again. "Sir," he asked. "Did you really mean what you said? About Shangri-La?"

    "Of course," Graff sighed. "Lilith's a Heyerdahl. I have to believe she's still in there somewhere, if you can kill it off at the source… and if not, then I have to avenge her."

    "I understand, sir. I hope I'd do the same."

    As soon as Magnus left, Graff sat back down behind his desk, and put his head in his hands.

    -----

    As Kristoffer spoke to Canaan and Long inside the temple, the scenes outside were starting to turn into a horror show.

    It started with one FSA trooper patrolling the nearby woods suddenly having his throat slit by something he’d never even seen coming. Then, they advanced, the tell-tale staccato sound of the AE86 battle rifle - the signature weapon first of the Takemikazuchi Empire, and then the New Order - being the only warning the FSA forces had before they were killed by enemies they couldn’t even see, let alone fire back at.

    The door of the temple swung open, and Sylen Kurze ran in, screaming as his clothes and body were engulfed by fire. A single gunshot rang out, and the dead Tanari fell to the floor right in front of them. The gunman, though, was still not visible. “Get down!” Kristoffer yelled, almost shoving Long Shortman to the floor as he stepped forward. He began to flick his wrists repeatedly, and purple light briefly flashed through the veins on his face and arms. Canaan thrust his palm forwards, revealing a palm-mounted device that glowed as he charged it.

    Outside, the gunfire stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Clearly, there were no more targets left to slay. At that moment, the air in front of the three began to visibly distort, as if it were getting hotter, and suddenly, where a moment ago they could not see anything, now Kristoffer, Canaan and Long could see a tall, red-skinned figure wearing a golden mask and jet-black armour, clutching a spear that was about a foot taller than him. At the same time, a woman wearing a stolen red beret and clutching a distinctly bloodied blade walked down the staircase, stopping halfway down. On noticing the Malchiorian President alongside her targets, she smirked. The opportunity to bring the head of the galaxy’s leading criminal back to the Emperor was a welcome surprise.

    “Arcs!” Canaan hissed. “Kakamu and Vekhta. The Emperor’s favourite circus freak power couple.”

    Canaan’s afro hair offered a rich seam of potential jokes about clowns for Vekhta to snipe back with, and she was tempted. Who was Canaan to mock them, after all? The Shinsengumi were weak, a relic of the time before the New Order. She looked to Kakamu, who was silent as ever during combat. A fireball was materialising in his hand, and he was preparing to throw it at their targets. The Tekkui was right, she thought. Why speak when one could kill?

    Kakamu threw the fireball, but it exploded against an invisible barrier created by Canaan’s palm device. The Shinsengumi gritted his teeth as he felt the device warm up as it absorbed the heat, burning his skin badly. The Tekkui held up his spear as if to throw it overarm at Canaan, and Kristoffer spotted an opportunity. He glanced at the staircase, then at Canaan and Long, then at the staircase again, hoping they’d understand what he had in mind. He would have to hope that neither of the Arcs had any tricks up their sleeve, and that the crew of the Malchior were listening. All that made for a lot of caveats, of course, but the only other option appeared to be surrender.

    Accessing his Virtual Interface, Kristoffer sent a simple text message to the Malchior with a thought, then began running forward. The spear had already left Kakamu’s hand, and was flying right at him. And then, Kristoffer sped up. He ran towards Kakamu at a superhuman speed, and in the blink of an eye, he was by the Tekkui, lashing out at him with a series of punches. The first, aimed at Kakamu’s gut, struck metal, but the next few shook his Mask of Clarity loose. The sudden loss of the Mask caused his vision to blur and his ears to ring, and as Kakamu struggled to keep his balance, Kristoffer continued to whale on him.

    Canaan realised what was expected of him very quickly. It was just like the old days, when they were fighting their way through secret Tanari facilities in the hopes of finding Sefer, joined at the hip. As soon as Kristoffer had charged at Kakamu, Vekhta launched forward to assist him. Canaan spun around to face her, and used his palm device to create another barrier, which the Arc ran face-first into. It didn’t take her long to recover from the shock, but it was enough to slow her down, and make her realise that she had to get past the Shinsengumi first. She sheathed her sword, and stretched forth her hand. A bolt of lightning shot out from her fingertips, creating a stunning light show as it collided against Canaan’s barrier, and leaving him screaming in pain as the device once again heated up.

    Leaving the beaten Kakamu on the floor, struggling to get back up or find his mask, Kristoffer ran back towards Long. The former Prime Minister was hiding among the pews, mishandling a pistol he’d managed to scavenge from Kurze’s still smouldering body. Unlike Kristoffer, this particular politician was not cut out for combat. Kristoffer dived in next to him, and prepared to lead him towards the staircase.

    “Kris! Long! Look out!” Canaan yelled from behind them. Both of them dropped to the floor on command, and the massive jet of flame that had erupted from the tip of the Guardian Fire Spear - now once again wielded by a recovered and very angry Kakamu - instead went harmlessly over their heads. The Tekkui thrust the spear downwards, trying to stab Kristoffer through the leg, but instead only nicked it. Long opened fire with his pistol, but the plasma only singed Kakamu’s armour.

    In the moment it took Canaan to notice Kakamu’s attack and call out to Kristoffer and Long, he lost his concentration. The barrier he was projecting went down briefly, and Vekhta’s lightning struck him directly, throwing him back several metres and burning through his clothing. Vekhta unsheathed her blade again and leapt towards him. Kristoffer and Long could only watch in horror as Canaan, too wounded and dazed to even register Vekhta’s movement let alone respond, was swiftly cut down.

    Outside the temple, the commotion was resuming. A ship of some sort seemed to be coming over the horizon, drowning out everything with the din of its engines, and as it got closer, the staccato sound of gunfire resumed, the New Order troopers outside hoping to do some damage. Though he was still shocked, Kristoffer came to his senses just enough to half-lead, half-drag Long, who was even less used to actually witnessing bloodshed himself, up the staircase.

    At the top of the stairs was an octagonal room with a large bell hanging from the ceiling at the centre. Each wall had a tall window looking out on the plain underneath, and beneath one of those windows lay a green-skinned, long-necked FSA trooper, who had been stabbed to death. Long already wanted to be sick, but now the urge was only getting worse. Kristoffer slammed the door behind them and locked it, hoping it would buy them a few seconds.

    “Now what, Kris?” Long asked, trying to breathe through his nausea.

    As if to answer his question, the Malchiorian shuttle of the same make as the one Kristoffer had used to reach the surface that had been flying over the field, taking small arms fire from the New Order troopers on the ground, moved as close to the bell tower as it could. The pilot lined up its hatch with one of the windows and opened it, revealing a tall black-skinned, jackal-headed alien who then threw a wide plasteel plank across the windowsill, to make it easier for Kristoffer and Long to climb on board.

    “Excellent timing, Abneris!” Kristoffer yelled, trying to be heard over the deafening roar of the engines and the noise of Vekhta and Kakamu trying to break down the door.

    “That’s my specialty, sir,” Abneris replied. It was a hell of a thing to notice in a situation like this, but Long couldn’t help but notice that his accent was oddly, even shockingly refined. “Climb on, Mr. Shortman.”

    Long climbed onto the windowsill and, every one of his limbs shaking, began trying to crawl across the plank and into the shuttle. He was almost home free when, with a loud slamming noise, the door finally gave way, and Kakamu and Vekhta burst into the room.

    Kristoffer took one step towards the Arcs. His eyes were glowing a deep purple now, obscuring even his pupils, and he began hovering slightly above ground. He snapped his fingers, and a wall of purple flame appeared, cutting the room in half and blocking their path.

    “Tell your Emperor,” he began. Even his voice was different now. “That dissidents from her New Order will be safe in the FSA, as they always have been. If she really thinks there’s a threat to the galaxy out there, then she knows where to find me if she wants to talk. But if she chooses to embark on her crusade instead, then she’ll join Allman in hell.”

    Still hovering above ground, he turned and simply flew into the shuttle. Abneris pulled the plank in, then closed the hatch, allowing the ship to fly away. As soon as the hatch closed, Long finally gave in, and was sick into the nearest non-essential looking orifice.

    -----

    The Malchior returned to Malchior IV, much to Duke Silverwood’s displeasure. Many days had passed, and Long felt like he’d already spent years being pumped for information on the New Order by representatives of the FSA’s many intelligence services - not that he’d expected any other treatment. It was what he’d hoped for, even. Part of him, though, almost wished he had died on G11. If they really were going to have to fight the New Order army, with all of Sefer’s Arcs and weapons of mass destruction, then Canaan would have been of much more use than another washed-up politician. Besides, the dawning realisation that he was possibly never going to see Shangri-La again gnawed on him.

    Kristoffer had pulled him out of the constant interrogation sessions and taken him into the study of the Malchiorian presidential palace. The Malchiorian president was working on a speech to announce what he’d learned about the New Order to the galaxy, and he’d decided Long’s involvement would help. The two were waiting for Kristoffer’s comms director to come in, and hadn’t gotten much work done thus far. Kristoffer had pulled out a bottle of Teruga Zin whisky - an inauguration gift from the Prime Minister of the Tanari Federal Republic - and they silently drank to Canaan’s memory.

    The door swung open, and a woman walked in. Kristoffer’s comms director was thin, almost skeletal, tall, and shockingly pale, which was only highlighted by her black clothing. “You asked to see me, sir?” she asked. When she spoke, one could briefly make out her almost vampiric fangs.

    “Yes, Treveya,” Kristoffer replied. “Please, sit with us.”

    -----

      Current date/time is Mon Jun 27, 2022 2:41 am