Wednesday, 26 December 2018

2. The Shimayan Job (Part Two)

As the Church-Militant Battle Suit assumed an overwatch position outside the Vault, the Crew considered their next move. Fighting their way out was not an option that led to a long and healthy retirement; a subtler approach would be needed. After a brief moment, the door to the fortified storage bunker opened wide and the crew strode out, the smaller pilfered artefacts securely stowed and the foot-long shape of the artefact they’d been sent to secure tucked firmly under Algol’s desert suit. They walked as though they belonged there, with Algol and Sparks loudly discussing academic matters in a way they hoped was plausible. As they left the Vault, the Battle Suit registered their presence and sensor clusters oriented towards the movement, threat assessment algorithms cycling within its slaved urbot cortex. Registering no immediate threat, the armoured form made no move to block their way and resumed its overwatch protocols. As the crew heaved a collective sigh of relief, a hot wind blew through the camp, causing dusty tarps to whip and billow. The same wind caught the edge of Algol’s duster, lifting it up and clearly showing the priceless artefact held beneath. The Church-Militant warrior immediately came to life and it turned towards the crew, burst cannons cycling and flechette launchers auto-loading. Targeting lasers ranged over the crew and a metallic voice boomed across the dig site: ‘Intruders! Halt or be destroyed!’.

At that moment, a cowled Dar burst out of the Vault door, trailing a surprised Javierra in his wake. Ignoring the armoured figure, Dar strode over to Algol and Sparks and began to berate them in guttural Luxan, casting frequent apologetic glances back towards the Church-Militant warrior. For its part, the warrior held its fire, curious as to what was happening. Casting sidelong glances at each other, Algol and Sparks played along with Dar’s ruse, trying to look suitably crestfallen and cowed. Finishing his tirade with a final burst of Luxan expletives, Dar turned back to the huge armoured form. In a combination of harshly-accented Standard Galac from Dar, and fluent academic flummery from Javierra, the two of them apologised for not displaying the relevant permits for removing the artefact immediately on leaving the Vault due to the stupidity of their underlings. After a brief moment, the harsh targeting lasers blinked off and the suit resumed its overwatch protocols, its external vox emitting a brief, metallic ‘Be on your way’ as its weapons switched to standby.

As the crew released breaths they hadn’t realised the’d been holding, they moved rapidly back to their loaned grav-loader and headed back to the SysCop checkpoint that they had passed through earlier. As they approached, Javierra pulled out a sheaf of permits etched into thin ceramic sheets; paper or plas would have been rapidly rendered unreadable in Shimaya’s harsh desert environment. Fortunately, as part of their planning for the job, Sparks had sent his stealthed drone to locate Javierra and bring her up to speed with their plans; powering the drone’s stealth field had drained its power cells, but it had done its job. Javierra had been able to prepare a set of the necessary documents to exit the dig site; they weren’t valid, and wouldn’t pass more than a cursory inspection, but they were sufficient to fool the sort of low-grade SysCops who ran security details. Combined with the good impression they’d made earlier, the forged passes were sufficient to get them waved through with minimal delay.

Once out of sight of the SysCop checkpoint, Sparks opened up the throttle on the grav-loader, heading for the ‘Susan’s berth at Gar Kulon. Routes on Shimaya were not marked by roads as these would quickly be swallowed up by the ever-shifting sands. Instead, routes were marked out by a trail of transponders that interfaced with the primitive urbot minds of vehicles. Losing the transponder signal could be tantamount to a death sentence, so travellers were careful to stay on designated routes. Still, the crew tried to stay off the simplest route to avoid any unnecessary entanglements; at one point, a heavily-armed and armoured SysCop transport floated past, heading in the direction of the dig site. Nervously the crew watched it pass, noting the large and not doubt potent weapons pods studding its flanks. If the alarm had been raised at the Vault, those weapons would make short work of their basic grav-loader. As the AFV disappeared into the heat haze, the crew let go a  collective sigh of relief and signalled Sparks to gun the engine and get them to the ship ASAP.

Within a short time the Lazy Susan blasted off from Gar Kulon, the crew glad to throw off their desert survival gear. There was little time to savour their successful extraction however, as their agreement with the Sah’iir stipulated they needed to take Javierra Gallia to the industrial facilities orbiting Indri, requiring a trip through the Brekk Jump Gate. In common with all Gates, the Legion maintained a heavy military presence both for purposes of defence and control; in the Brekk system, this presence took the form of a heavily-armed installation, holding station ahead of the Gate where it could monitor all incoming and outgoing system traffic. As the Susan took its place in the queue to enter the Gate, the crew noted that traffic was slowing up as more vessels than usual were being boarded and checked. This could only mean one thing; the alarm had been raised at the Shimayan dig site and the word was out to find the  missing xenoarchaeologist and artefact.

The crew had anticipated this and made what they hoped were sufficient preparations. One set of their false ident-codes and transponders showed them as licensed extraction specialists, or ‘bounty hunters’, so they made sure that everything about the Susan fitted that role. As long as the Susan wasn’t boarded, the fiction should be enough to get them through the checkpoint. As an extra safeguard, Sparks had engaged a digital intrusion specialist to hack into the Legion database and alter the records appended to Javierra’s identity as well as reduce the likelihood of the Susan tripping any Legion alerts. Unfortunately, as Dar responded to Legion hails, it became clear that the hacker hadn’t been sufficiently competent: if the ship was boarded and searched, the fugitive would be recognised the moment she was seen. In fact, a Legion shuttle was on an intercept course at that moment! Furthermore, their scans showed that another vessel was shadowing their movements in the ship queue; not close enough to be an immediate threat, but clearly someone who had more than a passing interest in them or their cargo. Who they were, however, remained a mystery for now.

Cursing in a number of languages, the crew leaped into action. Bundling Javierra into a vac-suit, they shoved her unceremoniously into the unpressurised smuggling compartment along with the artefact. However, if the Legion took too long there was a strong chance that her oxygen might run out. Bolting the scan-proof panels in place, the last sight they had of Javierra was of her panicked eyes, staring out of the suit’s vis-panel.

The Legion officer supervising the two-man scan team proved to be an older man, clearly passed over for promotion many times as he remained a lowly sur-levenbrech even after many years. As his subordinates moved through the ship, Sparks sounded the officer out for his openness to a mutually beneficial ‘business arrangement’, or (as it could be more vulgarly termed), a bribe. Luckily for them (and for Javierra), the officer was saving for his retirement. After a brief exchange of ‘goodwill’ (which would reduce their take at the end of the job), the sur-levenbrech summoned his team and left the Susan to go about its business. Again with a sense of relief, the Susan moved to the Gate and activated their drives, throwing the ship forward and into the impossibility of hyperspace.

As they did so, the mystics on the crew sensed a fluctuation in the usual Way-flows around a Gate; the presence of the three Ur artefacts on board seeming to act as a beacon to the Way creatures that often congregated around the Ur portals. One of the creatures separated from the mass and seemed to meld with the Susan’s hull. But for now, the crew were glad to have completed their first job; now for the next one...

Friday, 21 December 2018

7. A-Watch, Sector 13: Revolting residents!

The music pounded incessantly, the sea of black-clad juve bodies moving up and down in time to the insane rhythm. Music fads, as with all crazes in the Big Meg, came and went with alarming speed. But this was one craze that appeared to have staying power, and that worried the behavioural experts over at the Justice Department’s Public Surveillance Unit. A craze that distracted the populace from its essentially meaningless existence was all well and good, even one that espoused such overtly antisocial beliefs as this one. As long as the crime rate stayed within three standard deviations from the mean, all was well according to the PSU. But this one had some Psych-Judges worried. ‘Black Spug’ was that rare thing: a music fad that seemed to remain popular. True, the crime figures seemed to be in control, but still there was something about its borderline (anti-) hero worship of the Dark Judges and the Sisters of Death.
All of these thoughts ran through the heads of the two Judges standing unmoved at the back of the hall. Pushing his way over to the sound desk, the younger of the two Judges grabbed a microphone from a hunched sound tech and held it near to a monitor, causing a howling burst of feedback to pierce the already ear-destroying volume. It actually took the audience some time to realise that this wasn’t part of the performance; the band on stage, ‘Cryptic Goat’, were renowned for their experimental approach to deafening their audience. Even cocooned from the noise by the noise suppressors in his helmet, Muller felt his teeth itch at the squeal. Grinning at his partner’s discomfort, the younger Judge yelled into the microphone. ‘I am Judge Hart. This assembly is now unlawful. Any person remaining in this venue in 120 seconds will be deemed a lawbreaker, and will be dealt with accordingly!’ Hart grinned even more broadly; he knew it would be impossible for this crowd to disperse in that time. Muller looked on without expression; although Hart’s actions were within the letter of the law, it could be argued that its application was somewhat severe in this situation. Hart had rankled and riled Muller ever since they were assigned this task, the younger Judge looking upon Muller as an old man (at 26 years old!) and making his opinions known at every opportunity. As the seconds ticked down and the crowd had failed to disperse, Muller sighed and unclipped his daystick from his belt almost in unison with Hart. As they waded into the crowd as one, Muller had to admit the younger Judge at least had style…
The call came through from Control as the Med-teks dealt with the injured and sentenced juves were hauled off to the cubes or med-bays as befitted their condition. ’99 Code Red: Judge in immediate need of assistance!’ Recognising Tac-Team Wily’s ident-code appended to the priority message, Muller summoned Hart with a terse ‘On me’ as he turned to sprint to his Lawmaster. As he gunned the engine, Muller noted that Hart was unhurriedly approaching his own bike. He’d learn. It didn’t matter whose genes you had or how good you were; out on the Slab, you relied on your fellow Judges if you wanted to survive to take the Long Walk.
‘Muller’s on his way!’ yelled Wily as he and Kowalski struggled to hold the door shut against whatever monstrosity was howling and clawing to get to them from the other side. Kowalski was injured and losing blood fast, but she gritted her teeth and nodded wordlessly as she summoned what strength she had left. As he searched her face for signs of the onset of shock, he saw her eyes widen. ‘There’s another one, Grud-dammit!’ she snarled. Stealing a glance over his shoulder, he saw another one of the creatures sliding out from a doorway opposite. Something about the way it moved set his teeth on edge. It seemed as though its joints were bending in a way that wasn’t quite human. Of course, he’d seen more that his fair share of mutants, but this was something else. He was shaken out of his musing by a fresh assault on the other side of the door. If support didn’t get here soon, they’d really be in trouble…
Almost as if it had been scripted, Muller and the younger Judge they’d seen him with back at the Sector House burst through the door from Jennifer’s apartments in a textbook hab assault pattern. Assessing the situation in an instant, Muller drew a bead on the creature moving to the south of the room: ‘Armour Piercing’, he growled. Hart, meanwhile, saw the smouldering remains of the first attacker on the floor and determined that an incendiary round was the appropriate response: ‘Duck and cover!’ he yelled.  Wily and Kowalski looked at each other disbelievingly as everything seemed to go into slow motion. As one, they dived away as they seemed to see the shell leave Hart’s lawgiver and impact on the door restraining whatever lay beyond it. The incendiary burst with a gratifying ‘fooom!’ and sprayed Kowalski and Muller with burning gobbets. Luckily, their street uniforms were sufficiently fire-retardant to prevent the flames taking hold, but that didn’t stop Kowalski from glaring murderously at the grinning younger Judge. Whatever might have been said between them was mercifully lost, however, as the now-burning doors were pulled apart by a vision from the Dark Dimensions. Dagger-like talons slid through the crack in the doors, followed by a face that was only marginally human. Wily was particularly struck by the fact that its jaw opened far wider than it had any right to, and seemed to contain row after row of blackened, razor-edged teeth. Catching sight of what had been frustrating its attempts to open the doors, the creature’s lips parted even further in what could only be described as a predatory grin of delight.
To an observer, the remainder of the encounter would have been characterised by darkness pierced by flashes of bright gunfire, imprinting the after-images of combat briefly on the observer’s retina. Kowalski and Wily standing shoulder to shoulder, dodging sharp talons as they poured shot after shot into their assailant. Hart and Muller, blowing huge chunks from their target before thrusting a daystick through the resulting penetrating wound and hurling it against a rockcrete column, finally bursting its chest in two.
The noise was what would be expected in such a situation: gunfire, hissing  and yelled or muted curses from the Judges depending on their nature. In the midst of the fight, even Hart showed a crack in his normally holier-than-thou demeanour as he uttered a curse proscribed under Justice Department regulations. Realising his error, Hart looked around; none of his colleagues seemed to have noticed, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He would of course admit his offence at his next review, but his worst fear was that he would betray his lineage in the eyes of his fellow Judges. But he didn’t see Muller stealing a glance at him in the darkness; he’d heard, all right. Nothing to be said now, of course, but that was one to be stored away for a rainy day…
Finally, the beasts were all put down, and not before time. All of the Judges bore wounds, but Kowalski was in the worst shape. She leant against a wall, gasping and clutching a series of puncture wounds from the creature’s talons. Whilst the stoic Judge fought to stay upright, the other three Tac-Team members searched the remainder of the unfinished hab, section by section as per Departmental procedure. Apart from a series of rooms filled with foul detritus and with walls bearing occult graffiti, their search uncovered the grisly remains of two citizens. It was clear that the skins of the unfortunate victims were in the process of being used to create some sort of garment, although it was impossible to tell what. By the time the Team had cleared the rooms, the remainder of the promised back-up appeared. Whilst a team of heavily-armed Judges fanned out according to protocol, Kowalski received treatment from a Med-Judge and a Meat Wagon crew began the task of clearing the rooms as Tek-Judges took detailed scans of the crime scene. Recognising the leader of the backup crew as his old sparring partner, Judge Ronaldo, Muller spared him a thin-lipped smile as he strode past: ‘better late than never, Ronaldo’.
After the minimum allowable period of downtime at the Sector House, Tac Team Wily assembled for a debriefing session prior to the morning briefing. The A-Watch Commander, Judge Kemp, ran his hands through his thinning hair as he scanned the dataslate in front of him. ‘Well,’ he began, ‘it seems you’ve solved some of our Missing Persons cases whilst uncovering quite a few more. DNA shows the two unfortunates you found in there were Loogi Beezlebrotz the spacer and Eunice Glover the missing KK Blocker. Med-Div has determined that the skin used in the part-finished garment had been recently tattooed with some so-called ‘occult’ symbols before removal’. Grimacing, he ploughed on. ‘Although Tek-Div found plenty of Jennifer Radley’s DNA throughout the hidden location, none of the assailants you put down have proved to be her. In fact, the distribution of her DNA seems to indicate that she was the one responsible for creating the flesh garment’.  He looked up to the Judges’ faces, a heavy frown creasing his already lined face. ‘The three assailants you took down have been shown by DNA scan to have been part of ‘Racked’s clientele. Although they had been heavily modified, there was no way that the abilities you’ve described were due to what were essentially cosmetic implants. Neither did they possess any mutations, at least in the conventional sense. Instead, Psi-Div has determined that all three were heavily contaminated with thanaton particles’. Noting the blank expressions on her colleagues’ faces, Kowalski reminded them that these particles were almost always found in proximity to a breach between their reality and the Death Dimensions.
Judge Kemp continued: ‘Psi-Judge Dryden has theorised that their abilities may be due to the presence of these particles, but the mechanism remains unclear. More worryingly still, Radley’s nine remaining customers were also not present and have been posted as missing’. Wily sat back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. ‘So there could be nine more of those drokkers plus Radley still out on the streets?’ The Tac-Team looked at each other whilst Kemp outlined the actions being taken, ticking them off on his fingers one by one: ‘Judge Hart has requested that PSU conduct a risk assessment of the current upsurge in the popularity of Spug Rock, as there seems to be a connection. Also, Agnes Radley has revealed that her daughter became obsessed with death after becoming lost in a rad-zone near to KK Block some three years ago: we’ve got Tek-Div looking into that now. We’ve also got the Sector on high alert for reports of sightings of these creatures. So for now, that’s all that can be done. Meanwhile, we’ve still got a city to protect and I’ve got a briefing to run’.
An hour later, Tac-Team Wily headed out on their assigned case, Lawmasters rumbling beneath them. The surveillance on the suspected Stookie Glanders in Dust-Zone B3 was still being collated, so in the meantime they’d been assigned to investigate a suspected mutie smuggling ring in a run-down part of the Sector known as ‘Shoddy Lane’. Perhaps this would prove to be a more straightforward case than those they’d dealt with recently, although somehow they doubted it…

Sunday, 16 December 2018

19. Freezeday to Waterday/ Illusion Week/ Sea Season: The Battle of the Broken Tower.

At the next clan meet, find a warrior.  A scarred warrior who has seen battle many times. Take them away from their fireside boasting, their tall stories of havoc and heroism. Take them aside and ask them "what is battle really like?” They will say many things and there will be more boasts and brags but each one will eventually lower their voice to a whisper and tell of a moment; a moment in the heart of a battle where the Gods of War themselves draw breath and an eerie silence falls across the field, foes at each other's throats all simultaneously pause, the clash of bronze, the war cries and screaming all fade and stop. All warriors have seen this happen, have stood wondering and looked about them, a moment of strange clarity in the chaos.
Such a silence fell in the midst of the Battle of the Broken Tower. 
At the breach in the tower wall, the surviving Enthralled gathered. Exhausted, they wearily formed a ragged shield wall: wood interlocked with wood, desperate glances were exchanged. As they peered over this scant protection they could see the mass of the Broo. They too had fallen silent, only the odd hate-filled bray broke the quiet. Further away, beyond vision, there were faint screams and a low grinding rumble, more felt than heard, as if there was a long, slow landslide occurring: at the margins of the Battle Idrima was crashing through ranks of chaos creatures leaving destruction in her wake. But she was too far from the Tower to offer aid now.
Randel, Sandene and Yrsa - along with Magana and Eirissa - had left Terrastal in the care of Jenest after he had collapsed following his attempt to arouse Idrima. Now they stood side by side in the shield wall. Ahead, the ranks of Broo were shoved aside. Something they feared was coming. Yrsa muttered to herself "If we run, we will die. If we fight, we will die. Better to fight". Magana and Sandene had a grim, flinty light in their eyes and their hands adjusted the grip on their axes: they would fight too. Randel stood resolute, eyes flicking from the terror ahead to Eirissa, the comfort he took from her presence made him swear a silent vow to Issaries: whatever happened next he would protect her.
All of this passed in these few moments of silence, now shattered by the renewed screaming of the Broo as a hideous, misshapen thing shouldered through their ranks to face the last defenders of the Tower.
Eight feet tall, white furred and with the glaring red eyes of a corrupted albino, a giant Broo faced the shield wall. Knowing only the slaughter of its foes lay ahead, it roared its triumph. With horror and disgust, the defenders noticed the thing had two heads, the one spitting and roaring and the other lying limp on the end of a scrawny neck; blank-eyed and drooling it swung in ghastly unison to the Broo Lord's movements. Clad in scavenged armour, brandishing its filth-caked sword the thing coughed out harsh words, barely identifiable as Tradetalk. “Food things! Which of you will fight me? Which of you will die on my sword?” Arms outstretched, it beckoned to the defenders to send forward a champion. Fear ran along the wall like a sudden breeze, chilling blood and taking breath. Sandene and Magana stood unmoved.
As the Broo Lord roared its challenge, Sandene knew why Babeester Gor had welcomed her back into the fold. Here, defending the newly awaken Earth spirit Idrima; here would be a good place to meet her Third Death.
Sandene paused to make sure that Magana would not claim the right to solo combat, she placed her hands on Magana’s shoulders and looked into her eyes: “This one is for me, Sister” Sandene said, “I still seek our God’s good grace and I will gladly die here and now if that is what She wills”. Magana looked at Sandene, a strange mix of pride and jealousy in her face. “Go then” the Axe Sister said, “I will protect the others”.
Gleefully, Sandene stepped forward out of the wall, crying as she did so "I will defeat you first, but then I will slay all who follow you". Her lips already moving in prayers calling on the Goddess to sanctify the fight to come and strengthen both Sandene’s will and axe arm. The massed ranks of Broo howled at her approach. Undaunted, Sandene broke into her war dance but it had been so long she tripped and stumbled forward, startling her opponent.
Behind Sandene, Randel and Yrsa hurriedly tried to reform the shield wall, a futile act in the face of such odds but one that felt oddly right. All eyes were now on the towering figure of Broo Lord and the small, tensed woman marching directly toward it. There was a sense of power in the air: rancid, rotten green threads of power seemed to crawl across the Broo’s body. “Come fight me, food!” the Broo Lord snarled, the green tendrils of chaotic power clinging close to its body as it called upon the power of Thed. In turn, Sandene meditated upon the Earth and entered the Axe Trance, as she had done so long in the past. Her prayers to her Goddess answered the sharper-eyed of the Enthralled saw Sandene’s axe blade blur and shift, flickering between this world and the spirit plane.
Throwing back its head and casting its arms wide, the Broo Lord screamed as foul tendrils of green power leapt from its body toward Sandene. Such was the colour of this power that it induced nausea in all who saw it, it writhed and boiled, enveloping Sandene but nothing now existed for Sandene but her axe, and her target; and the Chaos Rune magic was shoved aside aside. Reduced to tatters the magic faded into the air.
The Broo Lord screamed once more and charged forward. Sandene almost gagged on the stench the creature gave off, her vision momentarily blurred with tears, she shook her head and charged to meet her foe. Leaping forward like a true Axe Maiden, Sandene struck hard, and the desperate parry of the Broo was all that saved it from losing its leg.
It was a mighty clash. This was a Rune Lord, it would not be defeated so easily. Its plate armour and broadsword were caked in filth, it was surrounded by a fetid miasma that had been enough to fell many opponents in the past, it struck back, sparks ringing from Sandene's shield. In return Sandene’s axe seemed almost a living thing, striking as swift as any serpent, blurring and flickering and seemingly in five or six places at once.
Again, the creature called on Thed, and this time dark flames began to erupt around Sandene. It seemed she would be consumed, but then the Death rune on her face pulsed and a cold aura like a winter whirlwind surrounded her where even flames could not live.  At the heart of this whirlwind Sandene’s face was grim and expressionless, her focus total. Sandene's unnatural axe shot out once again, striking again at the wounded leg and severing it at the knee. The Broo collapsed and Sandene prepared for the onrush of its allies. But Chaos is not so easily defeated; the Broo wrenched its maimed limb back into place as tumour-like growths -suffused in the putrid glow of Chaos- knitted the severed limb back into place with unnerving speed.
Cries of dismay rose from the shield wall but no emotion disturbed Sandene's face and, as her enemy got back to its feet, she once again cut the creature, this time across the chest. The combatants charged and axe, shield and sword clashed again and again.
In the shield wall men and women, Uz and Durulz watched with trepidation: if Sandene fell surely the wall would fall just heartbeats later? Megana suddenly tensed, eyes rolled back into her head. “They are coming” she moaned. “They are coming”. Almost imperceptibly, a faint vibration, not yet a sound, could be briefly felt by the defenders but it was quickly lost in the howling of their foes. Sandene and the Broo came together yet again with a clash of arms, springing apart and then re-joining. Powerful magics twisted in the air as the Gods themselves leaned in to the fight.   
Suddenly the howls of the Broo changed: the cries of triumph were replaced by surprise and even fear. A fresh, joyous wind straight from Orlanth himself swept the field. The defenders watched amazed as a wedge of Orlanthi cavalry smashed into the rear of the Broo warband. Always a disorderly foe, the Broo now lost their shape entirely, screaming and clawing over each other to escape the trampling hooves and sharp spears of these new attackers. Much death was delivered and the ground became mud as Broo blood saturated it. But even in this wild melee the stronger among the Broo began to rally. The men and women (and Uz and Durulz) in the shield wall stirred, but what to do?
Yrsa had never been more scared: fighting bandits or predators of her herd she understood: in fights like that her size and strength counted for something but in such battle they counted for nought.  Surviving carnage like this needed something different, something she thought she did not have. But what she did know was that Sandene – Yrsa’s loyal companion and a brave warrior – was ahead, among the carnage and in trouble. Yrsa turned to the remnants of the shield wall “The horses! The horses! Redalda is with us! Redalda is with us this day! Steed of the defender of Orlanth’s stead comes to slay our foes!” With this fierce cry ringing in their ears the shield wall stiffened, and bristling with spears and new hope, began to slowly march toward the enemy.
Even as they marched forward Yrsa, still half in terror and half in anger, knew she had to face her fear and help Sandene. Mustering every ounce of courage, she left the wall and charged toward the Broo Lord.
Randel, with noble Eirissa to his left and the grim handed Magana – now recovered -  to his right, watched Yrsa leave the wall and hastily gestured the Enthralled to fill the gap and maintain their line. Randel’s quick eyes and even quicker wits assessed the field before him. The Broo had been thrown into confusion by the cavalry but even now the vile things were starting to regroup. The cavalry had delivered a blow but it was not a fatal one: they were becoming bogged down in the carnage, their horses whickering as the Broo closed in. Randel was amazed to see a small pony among the great horses of the Colymar tribe and, perched on the pony’s back, the welcome sight of a somewhat ill-at-ease Bofrost furiously adding to the assault with his whirling sling.
Randel was certain that movement was the only way to win this battle. Drawing on the swift thinking and the knowledge of terrain and travel that Issaries had given him, Randel saw a way to end this battle. Again, his searching eyes roamed the field, locking with those of Drenyan who was leading the cavalry. With gestures and glances a shared understanding was reached and Randel put his plan into action.
Randel knew that if the shield wall remained static it would be overwhelmed altogether and if it scattered they would be overwhelmed one by one. The way to win was to keep the wall together but help them move and reform swiftly. Randel shouted instructions along the wall. “Watch the cavalry, watch for when and where they strike. We will respond to them. They are the hammer, we are the anvil. Where their blow falls we will be there and our foes will be crushed between us!” Given purpose by Randel’s tactics and reassured by his and his companion’s inspired presence, the wall began to move quickly and surely, forming when required as the cavalry drove the Broo against them.
Randel watched Drenyan intently. When the cavalry captain indicated where the next charge would be Randel swiftly moved the shield wall, and the Broo were caught between the crushing hooves of the horses and the bristling spears of the shield wall. Time and again Randel with his wits, his swift words and quick actions formed the wall exactly where it was needed and the Broo, having no answer to this deft tactic, died in great numbers.
Randel was grimly satisfied until Eirissa, driven by her love of the Earth and a fury at Broo, those hideous mockeries of the beauty of Ernalda’s gifts of fertility, leapt from the wall spear in hand only to be wounded. Randel leapt to her aid, eyes filling with tears.
Meanwhile, cross the field, Yrsa - swallowing her terror and sprinting as fast as she could - crashed into the Broo Lord. Her powerful spear thrust split its shield asunder and, finding a weak point in the creature’s armour, drove deep into the sinews of its right arm. The thing screamed in pain. Deep in her Trance, Sandene the Babeester Gor warrior showed no gratitude, but coldly sized up the new situation. With its shield gone the Broo surely could not defend against her axe, and Sandene was a blur of motion as she struck again and again, to the arm, the body and finally in a devastating upward slash that started at the creature's thigh and kept going upwards. Hovering at the edge of this skirmish Bofrost added his magic to the fight. The Broo Lord reeled and fell but even as it did so its misshapen lips slobbered out a prayer to its vile god but this time no help came. At last the Broo lay still, but Sandene would not stop, hacking off both the monster's heads before inexorably moving towards the remaining desperate Chaos spawn.
Their leader defeated, outnumbered by Bofrost’s arrival and out-thought by Randel, the Broo scattered into the woods and hills. The dead and the dying screamed and crawled and slumped and died. Emerging from the carnage, the massive form of Idrima rumbled back toward the Tower, her lower half caked in blood and worse. And in her wake came an even more terrifying sight: Sandene, her notched axe held aloft, covered from head to foot in gore, uttered a hideous, victorious shriek before finally being freed of her trance and seeing her companions for seemingly the first time in days.
After the battle was complete, and Babeester Gor released her from her Trance, then Sandene would celebrate her reunion with her goddess - but also mourn her failure. She had not been able to defend the Shrine alone, and others had been dragged in. Many of the Enthralled lay dead, and brave Yrsa looked haunted and hollow eyed after her decisive intervention. Though Sandene had welcomed her as a Sister, it was not enough.
Yet again, Chaos had intruded into the human world, and only a warrior sworn to Death could keep the Earth safe. Alone but for her Sisters, misunderstood and reviled for their lack of social niceties and brutality in battle.
“By the Gods” Sandene said to herself “but it’s good to be back...”
Back in the Tower a fire had been lit and healing was done. Jenest led song of the Earth, a song of strength and renewal, and the surviving Enthralled lent their voices to this prayer: the booming bass of the Uz and the surprisingly deep baritone of the Durulz entwining with the high, clear, beautiful voices of Jenest and Eirissa beneath the starry dome.
The morning after great funeral pyres of Broo were burned with Jenest’s sacred fire. Gathering the surviving Enthralled – now numbering only twenty - as well as Jenest and Terrestal and returned to what was becoming widely known as Randel’s Stead. On the way, Bofrost told the tale of how he realised his companion were in trouble: he had fallen asleep over the book he had been studying and, when he awoke, it felt that “something had cast a shadow on his heart”. Randel, intrigued by this, tried to question him further but Bofrost would not be drawn.
The battle had left many dead and wounded and few unmarked. Yrsa in particular, after her first horrific experience of a pitched battle against Chaos, seemed distant, sometimes staring wildly about her, sometimes falling into sullen silence and sometimes heard to be asking other warriors “is this what battle is like?”. Sandene talked to her, expressed gratitude for her bravery, even called her sister but to no avail. It was beyond words and maybe beyond Chalana Arroy herself to heal such soul-wounds. Perhaps solace would be found at the stead…..

“I can't stay here, I have to return to the temple” said Erissa
“Why?” asked Randel “ Do you not like the house?”
“The house is a credit to it's owner, Randel”
 “Do you not like the bed?” persisted Randel “Intagarn's finest sleeping furs, chosen for comfort and warmth”
“The bed is most comfortable” sighed Eirissa
 “Then why leave it?”He slipped his arm around her pulling her closer, she raised herself on her elbows until her face was above his and placed a finger on his lips.
“We've already had this conversation, two weeks I have been here and Jacinta  already acts like she has replaced me”
“Don't be silly! Everyone knows Morganeth favours you, Jacinta is just covering until...'.
“Until I return, yes exactly, that is why I have to go, and anyway you have to go and put your charms to use on behalf of the Ring”  Eirissa rolled away and left the bed, quickly pulling on her dress,
“So I am charming?” Asked Randel, his tone making it clear what answer he’s like to hear.
“You can be” smiled Eirissa, “when you want something. Although no one is as charming as you think you are!”
“Not even Terrastal?” asked Randel, an exaggerated pout on his face.  
Eirissa laughed.  “Definitely not Terrastal!”
“Will you be here when I return from our mission?”
Eirissa looked briefly troubled, but answered as firmly as she could “No...well,  I'll be at the temple, come and see me there and we'll talk more”.
Randal heard the door shut. Getting up himself he pulled on his cloak and went over to the hearth. Turning to his statue of Issaries he thought, “Oh Lord why has your gift of communication deserted us?” It wasn't just Eirissa, he knew from the start she was ambitious, what could he offer her that could compete with becoming a Priestess? Not that he would stop her of course, even if they were married but Bofrost worried him too, while he was grateful for the help something wasn't right: he didn't think the scholar was lying he certainly wasn't giving the whole truth.
Randel broke his fast in a sullen mood, he had become used to sharing it with Eirissa, on warmer days they had eaten outside and chatted with the steadholders. Randel was pleased the Uz and the Durulz  had been accepted but he'd also be happy once they had moved on. No eating outside today as the sky reflected Randel's black mood. Hunching his shoulders into his cloak, he decided to go into town, he didn't want to spend too much time in the house alone.
Having stabled his horse Randel was walking to an inn when Sandene fell into step beside him, he shied away slightly, although he knew her to be a boon companion the axe maiden and her aura of death still bothered him. When he saw Eirissa step into the shield wall beside him at the tower the look in her eyes had made him wonder if she might leave the nurturing mother for the avenging daughter but fortunately, for him at least, the wounds she had received seemed to have cooled that passion somewhat.
Sandene greeted him warmly, well as warm as she ever got and said she had seen Eirissa hurrying into the Earth Temple. Randel much to his surprise found himself stuttering for the first time since he had joined the cult of the Goldentongue, 'M, M, Morganeth needs her'.
As Eirissa walked around the precincts of the earth Temple she was surprised to see Yrsa, her face drawn and downcast.
“Eirissa may I talk to you?” she asked, her voice lifeless.
“Of course Yrsa, what about?”
“I don’t know…comfort…companionship…. men perhaps” said Yrsa. Eirissa looked puzzled, as Yrsa continued, “what's my name?”.
 “Yrsa”, said Erissa, even more puzzled now.
 “No, I mean what do people call me behind my back?”
Erissa looked down and whispered “Horsebride”.
 “Yes, I lack your beauty, even the most drunken warrior barely looks at me twice and now I am scarred and torn by battle”.
Eirissa looked up “Do you want to find you a man? You are one of the heroes of the tower, there are songs about you, about us, that will count for something with the men”
“ I do not feel like a hero” muttered Yrsa “Heroes can seek comfort with anyone they choose particularly if we are beautiful like you or if they are a rich, charming merchant”
Eirissa’s  face hardened, “So that's what this is about? Has Randel sent you? Randel is free to lie with whoever he wants!”
“We have all been through terrible things, Eirissa” Yrsa said “The only person Randel wants is the person he has known since they were children, the person who locked shields with him in that awful wall at the Tower, the person he carried from the field of battle and took into his home to recover. I have no such solace. You should not throw it away so lightly”.
Eirissa looked angry and raised her voice, “I have my duties here!”
 At this point Morganeth emerged from the shadows where she had clearly been listening, “you assume you have neglected them?”
“Jacinta!” yelled Erissa rather embarrassingly loudly,
“Yes, Jacinta has been helping me while you recovered from your injuries” said Morganeth calmly “ and now it appears you have”.
At that moment Jenest appeared from another corridor where clearly she too had been listening. Gossip must be the main currency in the temple thought Yrsa.
Jenest spoke “While the temple provides lodging to those that need it, most of us choose to live with our husbands and families, don't forget the duty of a Priestess to be fruitful” she said placing her hand on her unborn child, “a difficult duty to achieve sharing a room with two other girls”. Eirissa looked close to tears.
Finally, the season is ending and, with the grace of the Gods, the companions might know a little peace before they begin to try and rally the clans. Randel will seek to cast off his gloom and woo Eirissa, Sandene has found her Goddess and who knows what duties she might ask of him? Yrsa seeks shelter from memories of battle and the melancholy in her soul in the comfort of her mother and her herd. But the respite will be brief as dark forces arrayed against their tribe never seem to rest…..

Thursday, 6 December 2018

6. A-Watch, Sector 13: Something wicked this way comes...

Following next morning’s briefing, whilst the other A-Watch Judges dispersed to their various assignments, Kowalski and Wily grabbed a quick synthi-caff and considered their next move. As they stood scowling at the caustic black liquid in their cups masquerading as caff, Muller strode past them with a grin on his face; to what passed for delight in Muller’s world, he’d been assigned to crowd control duties at an outdoor ‘Black Spug’ concert. Fuelled by loud music and the inevitable availability of illegal narcotics, the juves at these gatherings often became violent and required stern management before being carted off to the ‘cubes. Or Resyk, depending on how stern the management proved to be. Tailing Muller’s purposeful stride was another, younger Judge who’d been newly-assigned to the Sector House named Hurst. He’d drawn attention to himself by sitting ramrod-straight throughout the morning briefing and asking a succession of questions, to the increasing exasperation of older Judges who just wanted to get out on the Slab and crack heads. ‘Academy Chrome’ they called it; they’d all had it when they first graduated, until time on the streets and the death of colleagues dulled its sheen and finally wore it away completely. Either to accelerate his integration into the Judge community, or to temper Muller’s wilder excesses in crowd management, Hurst had been assigned to Muller to be shown the ropes.

As the pair strode towards the Armoury, Wily and Kowalski conferred. Although Kowalski had arranged for spycam observation of the dust zone where the Stookie Glanders appeared to be operating, given the size of the zone it would probably take a few days before anything significant turned up. With that in mind, and with the words of their Watch Commander ringing in their ears, they decided to go and ruffle Agnes Radley’s feathers and see what happened. To increase the pressure on Radley, Wily contacted Judge-Auditor Gimlet, his Acc-Div contact. As usual, Gimlet was hunched over a vid-screen, navigating the bewildering flow of financial data with ease. When Wily suggested a field-audit of Radley’s business interests, Gimlet jumped at the chance. So it was that a small team of Acc-Div Judges gathered in the basement garage, loading equipment into a nearby H-Wagon. As the garage door swung open, even this wan sunlight made the Acc-Div Judges blink and showed just how pale and pasty they were. ‘Clearly don’t get out much’ grumbled Kowalski, climbing aboard her bike.

Once more astride their powerful Lawmasters, and with fully-replenished ammo pouches, the pair and their H-Wagon escort headed for Kimmi Kardashian Block. As on their last visit, KK Block was a shining example of shallow commercialism that the Big Meg could be proud of. However, fashion moved fast in the citizen population; instead of adverts for buttock-implants and bejewelled ‘bum-wheels’ , the huge vid screens extolled the virtues of synthetic neck inserts as the new ideal of beauty. Many of those on the bleeding-edge of fashion now sported what appeared to be huge goitres, and the most dedicated found that they were unable to talk due the size of their neck implants. As a consequence, they used sub-dermal electronic screens on their expanded necks that enabled them to communicate via a sequence of emojis.

The Judges were far past being surprised by how far citizens would go in pursuing a craze, so strode though the block entrance without a sideways glance.  Whilst the Acc-Div Judges set about commencing their audit, Wily and Kowalski headed straight for ‘Racked’, the beauty parlour owned by Jennifer Radley, Agnes’ daughter, and of which two of the missing persons had been customers.
The Judges heard ‘Racked’ before they saw it; as they approached, they could feel a dull bass thud of borderline code-violating volume through the soles of their Department-issue boots. The door to the beauty parlour was black, its handles fashioned from what appeared to be curved human spines. ‘Realistic, but fake’ whispered Kowalski, ‘but still grud-damn weird!’. As they pushed open the doors, the noise suppressors in their helmets kicked in, and Wily made a note to cite the Radleys for a noise violation alongside whatever else they were tied up in. The foyer of ‘Racked’ was decorated in a predictably gothic style; lots of dark synthi-wood, black drapes, skulls and faux occult symbolism. The human receptionist, one Mina Margolotta, looked up from her nails as the Judges strode in. As Wily used the full weight of his authority to demand to see Agnes Radley, Kowalski examined the décor in more detail. Amongst the purportedly occult scrawls, it was clear to her that someone with actual knowledge of the occult had been involved also. Given the City’s devastating encounters with extra-dimensional entities in the past, every Psi-Judge took a mandatory module on Occult Knowledge to allow them to at least spot the warning signs. It was even rumoured that there was a special team of Exorcist-Judges tasked with dealing with such activities, but the Department had denied this.

Turning back to Wily, she noted that the receptionist’s will to resist had been effectively broken by his unique mix of charm, threats and appeals to her better nature. Wily was grimacing as Mina showed him a series of vid-captures of the sort of ‘enhancements’ that customers received. The ‘improvements’ were grotesque, adding spikes, pads and blades to the extent that customers became twisted and deformed in the extreme. Furthermore, he’d learned that Racked’s clientele only numbered twelve individuals, and that Eunice Glover and Hilary Swank had been customers before they’d fallen out with Agnes Radley’s daughter, Jennifer. As Kowalski reflected that the number thirteen was somewhat ominous, Wily checked in with Judge Gimlet’s team. She quickly confirmed that such a small pool of customers would not provide enough income to support the parlour; it was clearly being kept open for reasons other than profit. As they left to confront Agnes, the receptionist let slip that Jennifer’s mother seemed more afraid of her daughter than protective…

As may be expected, Agnes’ hab occupied much of the top floor of the block and commanded a breathtaking view of the city. Agnes herself was a surprisingly un-enhanced woman in late middle age; she was clearly in the business of defining fashion for others to follow (and for her to profit from) rather than following it herself. As Wily took the lead on a circuitous line of questioning intended to unsettle Radley, Kowalski again observed both Radley and her environment. She soon determined that Agnes was in fact frightened of her daughter, although she clearly still felt some protective instincts as her responses to Wily were evasive. As she examined the room, she also found jewellery decorated with actual occult symbols often associated with eternal life. Also suspicious…

Despite vigorous questioning, Agnes Radley wasn’t about to give anything further away voluntarily. Therefore, Wily placed Agnes in the care of the Acc-Div Judges with a view to further interrogation back at the Sector House. However, they were sure that Jennifer Radley was the spider at this particular web. With that in mind, they paid a visit to Jennifer’s hab before leaving. Although Jennifer lived on the same floor as her mother, it was apparent that the two living areas were placed as far apart as they could be whilst still being on the same level. Carefully opening the door to the hab, a swift and professional search showed that Jennifer was not at home. The décor was similar to ‘Racked’, and had clearly been designed by the same, twisted mind. As Kowalski toured the room, reaching out with her powerful mind, she realised that although the room bore all the signs of being inhabited, there was something too artful and staged about it all; as though someone was trying to make the room look as though it was lived in.

Finding nothing of interest, the Judges were about to head back to the Sector House when Kowalski stopped dead. Stepping back into the hab, Wily watched as Kowalski paced back and forth, mumbling under her breath and glowering at the walls. Eventually, she approached one innocuous-appearing wall and felt over the surface. Pressing on two points, Kowalski was rewarded with a muted click as the ‘wall’ swung open. Immediately, their nostrils were assaulted by an all-too-familiar stench: rotting human flesh. Engaging their respirators and checking their ammo status, the two Judges expertly entered the darkened space. Inside, the hidden room was revealed to be dusty and bare, as were all such block floors before being partitioned into habs. Moving further into the room, Kowalski leapt back as a shape dropped from the ceiling, just missing her head. As the form unfolded from the ground in front of her, Kowalski was faced with a horrifying sight. Although the creature had clearly once been human, it was now horribly misshapen. Huge, gangrenous wounds gaped on its skin, and blades and other, less identifiable things projected all over its body. Stunned, Kowalski whispered ‘Jennifer…?’ 

In response, the figure hissed and lashed out with its filthy claws at dazzling speed, driving the Judge backwards. Before she knew it, she’d taken several deep cuts to her upper body. Reaching a rapid decision, Wily fired an incendiary shell and caught the figure full on. Although it burst into flame, it continued to come for Kowalski until it was finally put down with repeated shots. Calling for backup from Control whilst Kowalski used one of her medkits, Wily threw a stumm grenade through a nearby door. Instantly, he heard an enraged howling from within. Grabbing the door handle, he shouted to Kowalski to help him as he felt a powerful wrench from the other side. Barely, he and Kowalski managed to hold the door shut. As Kowalski looked around for something to bar the door, she was rewarded by the sight of another of the creatures creeping out from a darkened alcove across the room. ‘Backup better get here soon’ she muttered.

Monday, 3 December 2018

1. The Shimayan Job (Part One)

(used without permission:

Bonto ‘Sparks’ Squam spat out a mouthful of dust as he passed the vis-enhancers to the hunched form next to him. Sourly, he looked down upon the small group of Shimayan System Police lounging around a rugged grav-loader. As the SysCops roared with laughter at some unheard joke, Sparks rubbed at the pale skin around the extensive cybernetic implants that covered much of his skull; the coarse sand of Shimaya’s deserts was already irritating his skin. Not for the first time, he reflected that this should have been a simple in-and-out job. But then again, weren’t they always?

Citani, their reclusive but reliable information broker, had contacted them whilst they were aboard the ‘Lazy Susan’ in high orbit above the world of Nightfall in the Brekk System. As they had gathered in the ship’s galley to hear Citani’s pitch, alternating bands of light and shadow played across the galley’s vision port, cast by some of the world’s many moons (the fabled ‘Thirteen Maidens’) against the glow of the main sequence star.

Citani’s pitch was straightforward: the reclusive aliens known as the Sah’iir had requested that the crew escort a xenoarchaeologist named Javierra Gallia from a dig on the desert world of Shimaya in the Brekk system to the planet Indri’s orbital facilities in the Iota system. The crew had already performed several jobs for the Sah’iir, and in return were starting to build a relationship with the nest-mate of the Sah’iir Prime in the Sector, known as Wi 13-Meti. Many found the ebon-skinned alien to be disturbing, particularly given that any verbal communication was conducted via an eyeless, vat-grown slave as was customary for the species. But their Sah’iir patron seemed to be impressed by the crew’s no-nonsense, streetwise approach; in fact, the xeno had assisted them in securing their ship, the ‘Lazy Susan’, although the . This aside, as the custodians of the only viable interstellar communications network, the Sah’iir were incredibly, unbelievably, obscenely wealthy. That fact alone earned them the crew’s attention.

As Citani relayed the details of the job, the crew stood, sat or lounged in the galley as befitted their individual characters. The pilot, Finn ‘Vapour’ Dyson sat quietly next to the ship’s mechanic, Sparks. Uncommonly for a pilot, Vapour was not a loudmouth braggart; instead, he was an introverted young human who only really came alive in the cockpit of his beloved ‘Lazy Susan’. Sparks was likewise a retiring individual, more comfortable when communing with machines than other beings. In his case, much of this reticence was hard-wired into him; the Hegemony categorised him and others like him as ‘Human (Non-Baseline)’, and as such he was often treated with disrespect by ‘Humans (Baseline)’. Still, he always earned their respect when he was all that stood between them and explosive decompression through shipboard systems failure.

Flanking the pair were two warriors who were seemed to be linked in some way yet forever separated. Both were trained in the Way, yet each approached this unknowable, dangerous power from different philosophical directions. Algol was a Baseline with an almost unnatural interest in the Way and the Ur artefacts that seemed to generate it. Although his unhealthy obsession had not yet changed him physically, as was often the case, talking to him was often an unsettling experience; as he spoke, his eyes often seemed to follow the progress of things that only he could see, and the crew sometimes heard him in conversation with things that weren’t there. Still, he was an effective warrior, and the presence of a Mystic aboard ship was often a blessing.

The second Mystic, the charismatic Ruslan ‘The Lion’ Haciyev, could not be more different. He claimed descent from an ancient line traced back to the ‘Families’, those colonists who first left the mythical Lost Earth behind to find a new life amongst the stars. When the Families left the cradle of humanity, they took with them many belief systems: The Lion was heir to an ancient religious order, who interacted with the Way through ecstatic rituals that tapped into what was seen as the Divine. Such views continued to be viewed with suspicion in the Hegemony, and his family had always existed on the fringes of society. This separation was intensified by the finely detailed and archaic robes he wore, said to contain threads from those of those actually worn by his ancestors on Lost Earth, carefully preserved and rewoven anew by his clan.

The final member of the crew stood apart, leaning against a bulkhead. As the only xeno on the crew, Dar knew that he stood out even more than even the Non-Baseline humans in the room. His whole species had been renowned for being able to perceive and manipulate Way forces, although few of them were particularly strong in this ability. However, this was enough to damn the Luxan species in the eyes of the Hegemony, and a crusade against them had been declared by the Church. Whole Chantries of Battle-Brothers and -Sisters had descended on his homeworld and all but a handful of clans had been wiped out. Dar’s clan had fled from the Core Systems to the relative backwater of Procyon, but even here they had not been safe. Although his kind could pass unmarked here amongst the hundreds of other xenos species, the Church maintained an outstanding bounty on the Luxans. As such, his tiny clan had been pursued and all but eradicated by a xeno bounty hunter named Chon-zek. It was whilst escaping from his last encounter with Chon-zek that he had run into the crew of the ‘Lazy Susan’. Sensing a kindred spirit, Dar and Algol convinced the others that Dar would be a useful addition. Since that time, he had proved time and again that their faith had been justified.

And so it was that the crew were spread out on a ridge in the Shimayan desert, looking down upon a group of SysCops that stood between them and their rendezvous with Javierra Gallia. ‘Damn Syscs’ muttered Vapour. The Sah’iir had arranged for the relevant landing permissions for the Susan at Gar Kulon, an out-of-the way landing field, as well as the use of a desert-hardened grav-loader to reach the dig site. The dig site was operated by a Hegemonic cult known as the Seekers; they saw it as their duty to discover new technologies and expand the reach of the Hegemon. 

On taking delivery of the grav-loader, Sparks had given it one look before opening up the grav-drive and making some rapid modifications. Although it was still a piece of junk, it was now a marginally faster piece of junk. Whilst this was happening, the rest of the crew had gone to the local watering hole and carefully pumped the locals for information on the dig site. Most of what they turned up was of little use, but one local haulier had revealed that the local SysCop security had been augmented by what could only be a Priory of Church-Militant warriors. The Church was known to be suspicious of the Seekers, even though they were nominally allies, so these warriors were most likely there to keep an eye on the Seekers as well as protect them. The crew fervently hoped the Church-Militant warriors were otherwise engaged during their mission, as they were known as tough, fanatical warriors with access to high-tech battle armour.

But the crew had a plan to bypass the SysCops; donning the guise of academics from the Khalud Academy on Shimaya, Sparks and Vapour drove up in the grav loader to request an audience with the dig Director. Whilst they distracted the guards and gained access with their vehicle, the rest of the crew would sneak around the perimeter and meet the ‘academics’ once inside. The ruse worked like a dream; so much so that the SysCops called ahead to the Director and arranged for a meeting in person later that afternoon! Thanking the guards, Vapour and Sparks fervently hoped they’d be long-gone before the time came for the meeting.

Rendezvousing with their companions, the crew made the arranged meeting with Javierra Gallia with time to spare. Gallia proved to be a short, intense woman wearing a worn field-suit. Quickly, she escorted them into the building containing the artefact vault, past  the SysCop guards at the entrance. As they entered, the SysCops gave them only a cursory inspection; they looked as though they should be there, and besides it was the middle of the day and they were most interested in staying out of the blazing sun.

On entering the secure building, it became clear that they would have to hack the locking mechanism to get access. Whilst Gallia stood nervously by, the rest of the crew kept watch whilst Sparks accessed the security software. After a short time, the door hissed open; unfortunately, the intrusion software he’d used had fried the system so that the door would no longer close, let alone lock!

The team rapidly entered the Vault and secured the large Ur artefact they’d been requested to extract along with Gallia. The shelves around them were packed with artefacts from the dig site, each of them encased in a seamless, resin-like substance to prevent casual contact. However, as Algol and Lion entered the room, they immediately felt the whisper of ancient voices enter their minds. Algol shook off the beguiling voices but selected one small object for later perusal. The Lion, however, found the lure of the voices to be too much; without conscious volition, he found his hands guided towards an unsettlingly organic-looking artefact that appeared to change shape each time you looked at it. Quickly, he grabbed it from the shelf and stuffed it inside his jacket, his eyes glazed…

Quickly, the crew finished their task inside the Vault and headed for the door. As they reached it, however, they saw a huge suit of white battle-armour stride up to stand directly outside the door. Although it didn’t appear to be looking for them, its presence certainly made things more interesting. Taking a collective deep breath, the crew of the Lazy Susan made ready to open the door the outside…(to be continued)