LL.II

 As for those who would impose their will from before

Their power is not so easily ignored

Yet, as with the First Guardian, and other tales of yore,

The depth of their strength bears with a roar

The failings of old, an age done and past.

Learn from their mistakes, and this shall be the last.

Prologue – A Beginning From New Revelations

“Welcome all, citizens of Earth and her colonies. I stand before you today to unveil news that may well change the course of our entire civilization…”

A deep, mighty voice echoed through the halls of SERRCom Headquarters and the streets beyond; it echoed through reporters’ microphones and cameras; it echoed through television sets, computer speakers, and mobile devices the world over. Public addresses from the General of the Space Forces — from the leader of SERRCom, Earth’s interstellar military — were far from common, and they were never mundane. Few knew what the General planned to unveil, but everyone knew that SERRCom was solely responsible for the rest of the galaxy beginning to take Earth seriously. No one wanted to miss the organization’s newest announcement.

“I realize that my claim may seem grand, or overly bold. But I give you my word that it is not.”

In a small room adjacent to the press room of SERRCom HQ, six individuals stood, listening to the General’s speech with varied levels of apprehension.

“History has always held in high regard those who proved the status quo wrong. After all, everyone is aware of the scientific greats — of Newton, of Galileo, of Einstein.”

A man of average height and light complexion stood near the entrance to the press room, his back to the wall and his arms casually crossed as he listened to the speech. He wore a navy blue suit, adorned with a black tie and a variety of colorful medals and insignia attached to his left breast. His short black hair was covered by a black beret, his trousers featured a long vertical stripe on the outside of his legs, and on his shoulders were the winged insignia that indicated his rank of Colonel. The beginnings of wrinkles showed around his eyes as he casually glanced around the room, displaying a level of combined boredom and impatience.

“Today will be no different. Today, we will challenge an assumption that has held us back for almost thirty years.”

Next to the man stood a tall woman with a dark complexion. Her uniform was much the same as his, with the exception of her rank insignia, which displayed a silver four-pointed star — indicating that she was a Major. Her long black hair was tied back into a pony tail under her navy and golden peaked cap, and she clasped her hands behind her back as she stood at attention, appearing to match the formality of her uniform to a far greater degree than the Colonel beside her.

“Today, we will challenge the assumption that allows the rest of the galaxy to look down on us with condescension.”

Across the room from the woman stood a tall young man, with olive skin and black hair that was long in front, but short in back. His green military uniform, with its black trim and heavy-duty boots, stood out as a unique design from the conventional suit worn by the Colonel and the Major. The green uniform appeared rather formal in its own right, but the jacket wrapped farther around his torso than a normal suit jacket, with the left side of the jacket crossing most of his chest. The jacket also featured a high collar and a short tail that wrapped partway around his waist, partly obscuring the top of the forest green chaps that covered his gray trousers. Worn over the jacket was a leather belt and sash, and over the sash on the man’s shoulder was a large patch with an emblazoned “EV” and an image of Earth. The uniform appeared to be fairly thick, but the man wearing it did not seem to be bothered at all as he stood at attention — albeit with his eyes closed, and lips pursed.

“Today, we will prove that we Earthians are just as capable of seizing upon the power of Chaos Energy as any other!”

To the man’s right was another young man with a similar complexion and hair color. His hair was cut short all around, and he wore the same uniform as the man next to him — but his sheer size was incredible, as he stood well over six feet tall and possessed a broad chest. His thick uniform did much to obscure his body’s silhouette, but it was still plainly obvious that he was incredibly strong and built like a brick. And yet, his stature conflicted with his appearance, as his calm expression and demeanor radiated an aura of gentleness.

“We have already made great strides in this regard, with the technology gained from the renowned spaceship known as Genesis. Its technology has allowed us to compete, and even lead, where we otherwise would have been left in the dust.”

To the right of him stood a young woman of average height, featuring the same skin and hair color as the men standing to her left. Her hair was tied loosely back into a low ponytail, though long bangs remained to hang loosely and frame her soft face. Her uniform appeared nearly identical to the men she stood with, but she would occasionally tug at it uncomfortably, as though unfamiliar with the garments. Otherwise, she quietly bounced in place, glancing around the small room in curiosity as she attempted to contain her natural energy.

“But today, I offer a grander revelation. I offer the potential to grant the latent dreams of the men and women here on Earth.”

To the right of her was the sixth and final room inhabitant: another woman, nearly reaching six feet in height. She shared the olive complexion of the three to her left, but her hair was a bright blond, tied back into a ponytail and covered partially by a red bandanna. Her uniform was much the same as the others as well, though she had rolled up her sleeves to her elbows, giving her uniform a more casual appearance. Additionally, she wore on her legs a pair of extravagantly designed red and golden greaves in place of regular boots, with each greave possessing a small, faintly glowing red orb inset just below her silver knee guards. Her hands were planted on her hips and she wore on her face a scowl of irritation, tapping her foot impatiently as she glared around the room.

“For thirty years, we have thought that the dream of superpowers was out of our reach. That a citizen of Earth would never be able to match the superhuman feats of flight, super strength, control of the elements, and myriad other abilities displayed by certain members of the other races in the galaxy.”

The man dressed in green to the far left slowly opened his eyes as sparks wreathed his arms. He glanced to his right, toward the others dressed in green; they each glanced back and nodded in acknowledgment, with the exception of the blond-haired woman, who simply made a face at him. He opened his mouth to respond, but a moment later, closed it without saying anything.

“But today, I will dispel that belief! Today, I will prove that Earthians can be Chaotics!”

The Colonel uncrossed his arms and pushed off of the wall, ignoring the increased fervor from the press in the room next to him. He looked everyone in the room in the eyes before gesturing for the four dressed in green to approach the entrance to the press room. As the first man passed, the Colonel grabbed his shoulder, and they met eyes; the Colonel offered a reassuring smirk, and then nodded to the entrance. The man with the sparks simply nodded back and then squared his shoulders, taking a deep breath as he did so in preparation for what came next.

“And so, may I introduce to you, citizens of Earth: Earth’s first Chaotics—”

The man stepped through the entrance, beholding the world outside as he led his compatriots into the light.

“— The Eximius Vir!”

 

Chapter 1 – The First Clue

Sunday, September 25, AD 2129

“…go, roku… kyuu… juichi, juni, jusan…”

A middle-aged man with light skin peered through a pair of binoculars, staring through the underbrush around him as he quietly counted under his breath. Several seconds passed before he finally put the binoculars down, moving slowly so as to not give away his position. Then he reached up to his ear piece and tapped it once, activating his communicator before speaking quietly, “I count fifteen. Travis, Thatcher, can you verify?”

A moment of silence passed. Then a male voice responded over the communicator. «Yes sir, I count fifteen bogeys.»

«As do I,» a woman’s voice chimed in.

“Good. Travis, you and Thatcher keep a look out. Tell me if they move, or if more appear.”

«Got it, Colonel. Keep in touch.»

The man exhaled warily. He then slowly crawled backwards, down the gradual slope of the hill he was laying on. Once he was sure it was safe, he climbed to his feet and crouch-walked his way through several meters of heavy underbrush, his hands clutching at his gun the whole time. As he navigated through the bushes and trees, he passed by a small puddle, stopping momentarily to investigate his reflection and fix his tousled black hair. He frowned as he noticed the developing wrinkles around his eyes, but quickly shook the concern from his mind. He was Colonel Kaji Saito, after all — the commanding officer of Chaotic Support Fireteam 1. He had more important things to worry about.

About half a minute after returning to walking through the underbrush, Saito emerged in a small cleared-out area, in which five other soldiers sat, each of them dressed in full field gear: fatigues with forest camouflage, gauss rifles, pistols, and a set of high-tech gauntlets and greaves that generated personal energy shields for protection. Once they realized the Colonel had returned, all but one of them immediately stood at attention.

“Colonel!” A tall woman with a dark complexion saluted. A camouflaged baseball cap covered most of her black hair, which was tied back in a short ponytail. Over her right breast pocket was a small patch that listed her name: Rachel Hackett.

“Major.” Saito nodded toward her in acknowledgment, and then turned toward the one man who hadn’t stood up. “…Lazy as ever, Miles?”

“Ha,” the dark-skinned man snorted in response as he finally got to his feet. At just over six feet tall, he towered over everyone present, and his broad build simply made him appear even larger. Coupled with the shotgun he carried in place of a pistol and the numerous extra magazines clipped to his vest, he almost seemed to be an army all on his own. His chest patches described him as Colonel Miles Johnson, the leader of Fireteam Alpha — but he wore a casual demeanor that barely seemed fit for a combat operation. “Nice to see you back in one piece, Kaji.”

“This isn’t my first mission, you know. If anything, I should be the one worrying about you and your team.”

“He says to the most heavily armed man on the mission. Ha!” Johnson smirked.

“Sirs,” another man spoke up from the side, his expression one of exasperation. The patches on his uniform identified him as Major Viral Anand, though despite being of lower rank than the Colonels, he looked prepared to admonish them. “Is now really the time for this?”

“Anand’s right.” Major Hackett nodded in agreement. “We have a mission to complete, remember?”

“Relax, Hackett.” Saito waved for her and everyone else to crouch down as he did so himself. “Those Drakkars aren’t going anywhere any time soon, and if they do, then Travis will let us know.”

“How many are there?”

Saito sighed warily. “…Fifteen.”

“Fifteen? We can totally take on fifteen of those bastards!” A man with a helmet and a light complexion spoke up from the Colonel’s left. He wore on his face a youthful, eager grin, and on his chest a couple of patches that labeled him as Captain Li Feng. “Right, Colonel?” He elbowed Johnson eagerly.

“Don’t be overconfident,” Anand quickly admonished him. “Fifteen of any kind of combatant is a serious risk to face when there are only eight of us. And one of us isn’t even proper military!”

Everyone present reflexively glanced toward the remaining individual in the small clearing: a short young woman with pale skin, glasses, and shoulder-length brown hair covered in a large helmet. She carried no rifle, instead tightly grasping onto backpack straps that barely covered the patches on her chest, naming her as Researcher Kirstin MacTavish. “Uh…” She wilted under the gazes of the five soldiers in her presence. “I-I’m sorry?…”

Saito turned back to face Anand. “I’ll have you know that MacTavish has earned her place on this team. She’s faced more Drakkars in battle than you have!”

Anand responded with an incredulous stare as MacTavish continued to shrink away from the rest of the team.

“…Anyways, you’re right.” Saito sighed. “Fifteen Drakkars is a lot to take on.”

“You think it’s too much for us to take?” Johnson questioned, his previous casual demeanor replaced with a serious expression.

“We do have the element of surprise on our side, at least. And they seemed awfully absorbed in whatever it was they found, some kind of… overgrown structure. At least that part of the intel is correct.”

“We— we can’t leave,” MacTavish spontaneously protested, and then immediately shrunk again when attention returned to her. “I-I mean, th-the science team b-before us, th-they said there was, uh, a-an Aldredian artifact here. W-we can’t let the Drakkars get it!”

Saito pursed his lips in frustration. “You realize that this mission was kicked off by a vision, right?”

“Not just any vision, sir. Emerson’s vision,” Hackett interjected. “You know Mote as well as I do, Colonel, and he’d never come forward with something like this if he wasn’t sure of it.”

“Would’ve been nice for him to tag along, then,” Johnson remarked.

“I’m sure he’d like to be here as well, but the General had other plans.” Saito then shook his head to clear his thoughts. “We’re getting off track. MacTavish, are you sure this ‘artifact’ is worth facing off against fifteen Drakkars?”

“U-uh, w-well…” MacTavish looked away uneasily. “P-probably? I-I mean, if they’re interested, it h-has to be important… r-right?”

“Besides, it’s like you said, Colonel!” Feng spoke up eagerly, “we’ve got the element of surprise on our side! Plus, I’ve heard that Drakkars are real pushovers in ground combat. This should be a piece of cake!”

“Settle down, Captain, or you’ll just get yourself killed. Or worse,” Saito declared. “…But if MacTavish thinks it’s worth it, then we’re going through with this. Which means we need a plan.” He reached up and tapped his ear piece to reactivate his communicator. “Travis, Thatcher, you still there?”

«Yeah, still here,» a male voice replied over the communicators of everyone present. «So are the Drakkars. Doesn’t seem like they’ve noticed us.»

“Good. Are you in position for covering fire, Travis?”

«As much as you can call sniping ‘covering fire’, sure. The rookie’s shown herself to be a real good spotter, too.»

«I am not a rookie,» a female voice interjected.

«Regardless, we’re good to go, sir,» Travis declared. «You want me to start pickin’ ‘em off?»

“No, that’ll just cause them to bunker down and hole up. We need to draw them out first.”

Johnson grinned as he brandished his shotgun. “Sounds like a job for me an’ my team.”

“Yeah!” Feng exclaimed, “you can count on us, Colonel!”

“If you really knew what you were up against, you wouldn’t be so eager,” Saito retorted. He then glanced over at Johnson. “But it’s as good a plan as any. The Drakkars prefer to close into close combat whenever they can, so they can use their Ciei Theft ability. And when it comes to close range combat — I don’t think I know anyone who can use a Railshot quite like you can, Miles.”

“Glad to hear you think that,” Johnson replied with a smirk. “So, I’ll take Anand and Feng with me and pull the Drakkars out of position, then Travis’ll start takin’ ‘em out from afar. That right?”

“Right. I’ll stick with your team, as well. And once the Drakkars are distracted, Hackett and MacTavish can sneak in and grab what we came here for.” Saito nodded toward the two women. “Then we get the hell out of here.”

“Y-you want me t-to sneak behind th-the Drakkars…?” MacTavish questioned uneasily. “I, I don’t—”

“Relax, I’ll be there with you.” Hackett threw her arm around MacTavish’s shoulders in a reassuring gesture. “Just keep calm and quiet, and do everything I tell you, and you’ll be fine.”

“B-but—!”

“MacTavish, you’re the one who said we can’t let the Drakkars get their hands on this artifact,” Saito stated. “You’re also the only one who knows what to look for. Suck it up, you’ll be fine.”

The Researcher gulped and glanced down at the ground, but didn’t offer a verbal response.

“Alright…” The Colonel looked at his watch and then back at the forest behind him. “Hackett, you and MacTavish need to get into position first. There should be a blind spot about northeast from here; the Drakkars should never see you coming. Signal once you’re in position, and we’ll start the diversion. Understood?”

“Understood, sir.” Hackett saluted and then grasped her gauss rifle as she gestured for MacTavish to follow her. “We’ll be there ASAP.”

“Good.” Saito nodded as he watched the two women slink off into the underbrush. “Travis, you catch all that?”

«Loud and clear, Colonel,» the male voice replied over the communicator. «Don’t open fire ‘til y’all have drawn ‘em out, right?»

“That’s right, Captain,” Saito replied. He then looked over at Johnson, Anand, and Feng and gestured to his left. “We had better get in position as well. Let’s get to it.”

*     *     *

 

10 Minutes Later

“Captains, update.”

«Nothin’ new, sir,» Travis replied. «Don’t think they’re onto us. Haven’t even spotted Hackett or MacTavish.»

“I’ll take that as a good sign,” Saito muttered as he peered through a pair of binoculars. Nearly half a kilometer away stood an old, crumbling building with a geometric architecture consisting of sharp lines and angles. The building itself stood no more than three stories tall, but its purpose was just as alien to Saito as its appearance; it seemed to resemble a modern art piece more than a military or research outpost. But the building wasn’t what truly interested the Colonel — his attention was focused on the several dark-skinned armored creatures standing all around it. Their heads and general body shape seemed similar to that of humans, but the similarities stopped there; these creatures’ bodies were significantly more lithe and frail in appearance, yet their demeanor was that of a predator, rather than prey. Their dark, beady eyes kept careful watch of their surroundings and contributed to their unsettling appearance, which was heavily exacerbated by their lack of mouths, noses, or ears. Combined with their digitigrade legs, prehensile tails, and a large number of thick, hair-like spines that extended back from their heads down to the middle of their backs, they truly appeared to be more beast than sapient creature. But Saito knew better — he had fought against the Drakkars before, and heard many more tales of others’ encounters. They weren’t to be underestimated.

What he remained wary about, however, was the white tattoo-like markings that each Drakkar bore on their skin. Between the markings and the fact that they had tails, Saito knew that these Drakkars were part of the Prolatio Drakkar faction — which was the faction seen least often outside of Drakkar space. Of the six Drakkar factions, the Prolatio were regarded as the most isolationist, and they rarely involved themselves in matters outside of their own territory. So what where they doing here…?

“Keep up the overwatch, Captain,” Saito eventually ordered. “I want to know the moment the situation changes. Got that, Travis?”

«That’ll be a piece of cake, Colonel, so long as you keep checkin’ in as often as you have.»

“Shut the hell up. Saito out.”

Johnson chuckled as he watched his fellow Colonel continue to stare through his binoculars. “Little on edge, huh?”

“I’m not ‘on edge,’ I’m being cautious. As you should be. We’re facing Drakkars, after all.”

“What’s so bad about Drakkars?” Feng questioned from the left of the two Colonels. “I’ve always heard that they’re pushovers in ground combat.”

“And where exactly did you hear that, Captain?” Anand interjected with a roll of his eyes. “You actually talk to someone who’s fought the Drakkars? Or did you just read that on the Relaynet?”

“…Well…”

“The Captain isn’t completely incorrect,” Saito commented, “Drakkar foot soldiers aren’t exactly known for their martial ability. But they make up for it with advanced technology and numbers, and they can adapt to new situations quickly. Especially if they manage to lay their nasty little hands on one of their attackers.”

“You talkin’ about that weird soul-suckin’ thing they can do?” Johnson asked.

“I am. The official term is ‘Ciei Theft.’ Lay one hand on your chest or head, and they can steal your intelligence, thought patterns, creativity, the whole works. Pretty much the only thing they don’t get is your memories.”

Anand snorted. “Sounds ridiculous.”

“Sure it does, but it’s real.” Saito passed the Major a solemn glance. “If they lay their hands on just one member of an opposing force, then they can work out all of their enemy’s tactics and strategies in under a day. That kind of ability can cripple a war effort.”

“But we aren’t a battalion or anything, we’re just a strike force,” Feng countered. “That ‘Ciei’ thing doesn’t sound too dangerous to us.”

Saito turned to stare at Feng before glancing over at Johnson. “Miles, you sure you picked out these two yourself?”

“They just aren’t used to fightin’ Drakkars, that’s all,” Johnson replied before turning toward Feng. “Listen, son. Imagine having to live life without feelin’ anything on the inside. No emotions, no smarts, hell, not even the ability to actually imagine anything. Like you are now!”

“…Yes, sir?”

“Well that’s what would happen to you if the Drakkars did their Ciei Theft thing on you. It’d turn you into a shell of your former self. Some might call that a fate worse than death.”

“Yeah, but if you aren’t dead then you can still recover,” Feng argued.

“Not from this,” Saito declared. “The only way to get your Ciei back is to kill the Drakkar that stole it, and good luck doing that when you just lost the ability to even think for yourself.”

“It still seems like a ridiculous thing to worry about,” Anand interjected. “For a Drakkar to be able to steal this ‘Ciei’, they’d have to be right next to you, and your armor’s shielding would have to be down. In that kind of situation, you’re as good as dead, anyways.”

Johnson glanced toward Saito. “He’s got a point.”

“Even so…” Saito returned to peering through his binoculars. “As I said earlier, the Drakkars have advanced tech. That includes weapons. Letting your guard down will only put yourself and the mission at risk.”

“Ah yes, the mission.” Anand rolled his eyes. “You mean the mission that we’ve embarked on because some kid had a vision?”

“Watch your tone.”

“Sorry, sir. But I still find the mission premise ridiculous.”

“It’s a little late to say that, Major. Besides, this mission comes straight from Director Hamasaki herself. And on top of that, MacTavish had a point: whatever’s here, the Drakkars seem to want it, so taking it from them could be well worth the risk.”

“Respectfully, sir, your use of the word ‘could’ is my entire problem.”

“Aw, c’mon, Major, it’s not that bad,” Feng spoke up. “We’ve got CSF-1 on our side! We can’t lose!”

“And normally, we’d have the Eximius Vir, as well.” Anand passed Saito a questioning glance. “Considering that they’re the reason we’re even on this mission, it seems ridiculous that they didn’t come with us. Just one of them could have wiped out all of those Drakkars by now.”

“The General wants them to stay on Earth, for now,” Saito slowly replied. “He also thought that this could be a good chance to try fighting the Drakkars without any Chaotic assistance. We can’t always rely on the Eximius Vir.”

“Yeah, we can totally handle this on our own,” Feng declared. “Stop being such a downer, Major! You’re always so pessimistic about everything.”

“A pessimist is what an optimist calls a realist,” Anand shot back. “You’re the one who’s too carefree, Captain. One day, that attitude is going to get you killed.”

“You always say that, but I’ve been a part of Fireteam Alpha for over a year now, and I’m still in one piece!”

“If we’re pulling veterency, then I’ve been a part of this team for over twice as long as you have. I think I know better than you.”

“Alright, how’s about a bet, then? If this mission goes off without a hitch, then you owe me a beer.”

“That’s bad luck to bet against the success of the mission,” Johnson interjected. “Tell you boys what. How’s about we settle this argument with a little kill contest?”

“I should’ve known you’d suggest this, Colonel,” Anand deadpanned.

“I’m totally down for it!” Feng grinned as he glanced back at Anand. “You just watch, Major! I’ll kill twice as many of those bastards as you!”

“Right. I’m sure you will.”

“Shush,” Saito cut in, drawing the attention of the other three men. “Chit-chat’s over. Hackett’s given her signal.”

The three promptly flattened themselves further against the hill bank they were laying on. While Anand and Feng brought their weapons to bear and began scanning the horizon, Johnson quietly whispered to Saito, “alright, how do you want to do this?”

Saito glanced over at Johnson’s shotgun, stating, “you’ve got the loudest gun.” Whereas most of the team’s weapons were gauss guns, Johnson’s shotgun was a railgun, allowing it to have a higher projectile momentum. Coupled with a larger bullet size, the projectiles of the so-called ‘Railshot’ would explosively impact their targets through sheer kinetic energy alone.

Johnson grinned. “I was hoping you’d say that.” He then glanced down at himself, and the armor pieces on his wrists, ankles, and chest. “Well, time to see how these personal shields hold up, huh?”

Saito watched the other Colonel slowly climb to his feet before gesturing for Anand and Feng to spread out. The two men promptly began sneaking through the forest underbrush as Johnson took aim with his Railshot. He stood a full half kilometer away from the Drakkar-infested building, but it was close enough — one pull of the trigger later, a small explosion could be seen in the distance, launching one of the Drakkars through the air.

“Ha ha!” Johnson whooped. “…I’d taunt ‘em, but I guess they wouldn’t hear me from here, huh?”

“You get way too much fun out of being a distraction,” Saito muttered, but quickly stood up and opened fire with his gauss rifle. Within moments, the Drakkars returned fire, bathing the environment around the two Colonels in a hail of laser fire.

Johnson grunted as a laser exploded against his chest, causing a shield of light to momentarily flicker into existence mere millimeters from his skin and clothing. He staggered backwards under the force of the blow, but when he glanced down at himself and saw no lasting damage, he grinned broadly.

“Don’t get carried away,” Saito barked. “The Drakkars have shield tech of their own. Try not to get hit!”

“As if you need to tell me that,” Johnson retorted as he took cover behind a nearby tree. Laser fire erupted against the ground and foliage around him as several of the Drakkars began to advance across the battlefield, taking unpredictable zig-zagging paths through the underbrush as the SERRCom officers continued to fire on them.

They took the bait. Good, Saito thought to himself as Johnson momentarily peeked out of cover to take aim with his Railshot, firing a single shot that obliterated a small tree one Drakkar was using for cover. Then — in an attempt to draw the Drakkars to a single point — Saito rushed forward, taking advantage of Anand and Feng opening fire from somewhere to the west to move while the Drakkars were distracted. He quickly took cover behind a thick tree and then opened fire again, raining bullets down on the Drakkars from afar and pulling their attention toward him. Several of them began to move in a wide flanking arc — but then one of the Drakkars was laid flat by an impact from the east. Startled, the flanking Drakkars scattered to avoid the new angle of fire, but not before another one fell to an unexpected bullet. Saito smirked to himself as he quickly reloaded his gun; Captain Travis’s sniping skills were second to none.

He then turned his attention back to Johnson, who stood nearly twenty meters away as he took cover behind a different tree and took potshots at the Drakkars, successfully flooring three of them with just as many trigger pulls. A few seconds later, the tree he was hiding behind exploded from an incoming laser blast, sending Johnson tumbling backwards along the ground. Saito promptly began laying down cover fire while the other Colonel recovered from the blow and crawled along the dirt to hide under a bush and reload his gun. Out the corner of his eye, Saito could see Anand and Feng exchanging fire with some Drakkars on the west side of the building, but most of the Drakkar force seemed to be concerned with either seeking out Travis’s sniping position or neutralizing Johnson’s Railshot — and to that end, they were steadily advancing on Saito and Johnson’s position.

“Guess I should’ve expected that their shields could take more than one hit from the Railshot, huh?” Johnson shouted to Saito.

“I warned you!” Saito shouted back over the sounds of battle and gunfire. He recoiled backward as a laser exploded against his left shoulder, disorienting him and throwing off his aim. As he moved to recover, he spotted a Drakkar rushing through the underbrush straight toward him — and then being launched several meters to the side as Johnson fired on it. He then fired one more time at the downed Drakkar, obliterating it through the sheer physical momentum of the bullets alone.

“Seems like five or six shots’ll do it, though,” Johnson commented with a grin.

«Colonels!»

“Travis?” Saito questioned as he took cover behind a different tree, “what is it?”

«I’ve lost track of two of ‘em,» Travis replied over the communicator, «you should watch out.»

“You sure we didn’t just kill them?” Johnson asked.

«I count four down, but I’m pretty sure the ones I’ve lost sight of aren’t dead. They ain’t near me, either. Nothin’ on the motion sensor, and Thatcher says they still haven’t figured out where we are. Which means—»

“They’re right on top of us!!” Johnson roared as two Drakkars sprung out of the underbrush at him. He fired his Railshot at one of them, laying it flat along the ground, but the other managed to close into melee distance and grab Johnson’s gun. Saito promptly unloaded an entire magazine into the Drakkar, but its energy shielding simply deflected all of the bullets as it struggled with Johnson to gain control of his Railshot. Saito began to reload, but paused when he noticed that the first Drakkar was climbing back to its feet, its shields apparently still intact enough to have protected it against Johnson’s Railshot blast. With little time to act, Saito tossed his gauss rifle aside and whipped out his gauss pistol, opening fire on the two Drakkars as he approached to give Johnson a hand. Just as he closed to within a couple meters, however, the Drakkar who was struggling with Johnson over his gun suddenly let go and then pulled both its fists back, its gauntlets glistening with energy.

“Miles! DUCK!” Saito shouted as he focused his fire on the Drakkar, but before Johnson could respond, the Drakkar thrust both of its fists forward, slamming them into Johnson’s upper chest. He dropped his gun and staggered backward as the impact areas shimmered brightly — and then disappeared in a bright static fuzz, signaling that Johnson’s shields were down. The Drakkar then pulled its right fist back again, preparing to thrust its arm forward; Saito took aim with his pistol and attempted to distract the Drakkar, but was suddenly thrown backwards by a laser blast and then attacked by the second Drakkar. It prepared to do to Saito what had just been done to Johnson, but just before it could throw its punch, the loud metallic static sound of a high-momentum bullet hitting an energy shield filled Saito’s ears as the Drakkar was thrown away from him. The Colonel quickly jumped up to his feet just in time to see a similar fate befall the Drakkar that was attacking Johnson; the latter Colonel promptly gripped his Railshot and shoved the barrel into the Drakkar’s face before opening fire, completely overloading its shields and annihilating its head with a single railgun slug. Saito quickly felled the other Drakkar with the remainder of his pistol ammunition, leaving both Colonels momentarily clear of danger.

«I think you both owe me a drink, Colonels,» Travis taunted over the communicator.

“Yeah, yeah…” Saito muttered, “you can rub your skill in later. Keep hitting the Drakkars for us.” The Colonel then turned his attention to Johnson, who was panting heavily as he took cover behind a fallen tree. “You alright?”

“Been better,” Johnson responded uneasily. “…My shields are down. Damn! Why didn’t you tell me those bastards could knock out shielding in a single punch?!”

“I’ve never seen or heard of them doing that before…” Saito scowled. “Did you see those gauntlets? I haven’t seen or heard of Drakkars using tech like that before. Damn. We might need to pull back—”

“Argh!!”

“Anand?!” Johnson whipped his attention around to the west, and Saito followed. Several tens of meters away, Anand lay on the ground, having been knocked back by a laser blast. Approaching him was one of the Drakkars, but this one had a distinctly different appearance from the rest: it stood half a head taller and wore elaborate white and silver robing in place of armor. Its tail swished behind it lazily as it advanced on the fallen Major — but each time Anand attempted to stand and flee, the Drakkar’s tail stretched like a rubber band and whipped around to swipe Anand’s feet out from under him.

“Shit, that can’t be…?” Saito muttered uneasily, and then brought his pistol to bear again. “Everyone, open fire on that Drakkar!!”

“Don’t have to tell me twice!” Johnson roared as he grabbed his Railshot off of the ground and turned toward the robed Drakkar. As soon as the Drakkar fell within his sights he opened fire, launching a metal slug at hypersonic speeds straight at the Drakkar’s chest — where the Drakkar staggered under the blow. It turned its attention toward Johnson and Saito, its eyes narrowing, but as the two Colonels continued to fire on it, they noticed a peculiar fact: the Drakkar’s robing was getting ripped to shreds by the incoming fire, indicating that it had no energy shield protection, and yet — its body sustained no injuries whatsoever.

A few moments later, the Drakkar simply turned its back on the Colonels and began again to approach Anand, ignoring the continued weapons fire as though the bullets were little worse than raindrops on its back. It stopped again within a couple meters of Anand, at which point its tail shot out one more time — only to be intercepted by Feng.

“Major, get back!” Feng shouted as he grasped the Drakkar’s tail with both hands.

“What? Feng, the hell are you—?!” Anand began to respond, but was interrupted as the Drakkar’s tail shot out of Feng’s hands with enough force to yank him forward. The Captain began to wildly wave his arms in a reflexive attempt to regain his balance, but then the Drakkar’s tail slapped him across the face with enough force to completely overload his shields. The Drakkar then wrapped its tail around Feng’s leg and hoisted him into the air, holding him upside-down as it pulled him close and hovered its hand over his chest.

((Cease fire immediately if you value your friend’s life!))

“What the…?” Johnson winced. “It’s in my head?!”

“Keep calm, Miles, it’s just how Drakkars talk,” Saito urged. “It can’t do anything to you.”

((Not just from talking, no. But I would suggest that you not underestimate me as a threat.))

The Colonels eyed the Drakkar warily, who had turned to face them head-on. It had no mouth, and so could not speak conventionally — instead, its raspy voice seemed to originate within the heads of its listeners.

Saito eyed the creature uneasily, and then glanced to the side. Anand had climbed back up to his feet and backed off, but he was otherwise unsure of how to proceed — an uncertainty that was reinforced as the remaining Drakkar soldiers surrounded Anand and the Colonels, their weapons ready.

“Colonels! Don’t listen to it!” Feng shouted from his position next to the Drakkar. “Just kill it alre—ack!”

The Drakkar’s tail extended, wrapping around the rest of Feng’s body to immobilize, muffle, and partially strangle him. The Drakkar itself simply glanced at him through the corner of its eye before turning its attention back to Saito and Johnson. ((You must not know who I am, if you think you can kill me.))

“And why not? The rest of you bastards have gone down easily enough,” Johnson retorted.

“Miles, don’t antagonize him…” Saito muttered. “…We’re out of our depth here.”

((Oh?)) The Drakkar turned toward Saito. Without a mouth or a nose, it was difficult to make heads or tails of its expression, but the corners of its eyes lifted in the same manner that a human’s would when smiling. ((I see at least one of you recognizes me.))

“And just who the hell is that?” Johnson questioned as he glanced back at Saito.

“…Prosusicivious,” Saito responded uneasily. “The leader of the Prolatio Drakkars.”

Johnson stared at Saito, his incredulous expression gradually collapsing into dismay as the Drakkar broke into laughter.

((It is a pleasant experience, to know that my reputation precedes me.)) Prosusicivious crossed his arms, ignoring Feng as he struggled against his bonds. ((I suppose this must be how Exdominor and Surdeus feel on a regular basis. But I am afraid that you have me at a disadvantage; I do not recognize any of you. Not your uniforms, nor your technology. Who are you?))

“No one you need to worry about,” Johnson retorted.

((Need I remind you that I hold your friend’s life in my hands?))

“Looks more like a tail to me.”

“Miles,” Saito hissed.

((…I admit, I am not used to such… bravado.)) Prosusicivious began to survey his surroundings. ((This means one of two things. Either you think you have caught me in a trap… or you are truly unaware of the power we Faction Leaders wield. I can scarcely think of anyone who is so unfamiliar with the Drakkars that the latter would be true, but then again, I do not recognize your weapons, either. They have a sort of… primitive element to them, that has not been present in any battles I have fought in a long, long time. And furthermore, you decided to attack my forces without a single Chaotic to aid you. A most unconventional choice, indeed. Hmm…)) The Drakkar turned back to eye Saito and Johnson with curiosity. ((Could it be… that you all are Earthians?))

“…And if we are?”

((Now this is interesting)) Prosusicivious glanced down at Feng, still held in the air by his tail. ((…I have heard of you Earthians. The youngest race on the galactic stage, the most recent to have achieved interstellar travel, and the race with the lowest Chaotic potential of them all…))

“Why do you care so much about who we are?” Johnson questioned.

((The unknown is interesting, as are new experiences. After all, I have never before had the opportunity to seize the Ciei of an Earthian.))

Prosusicivious turned his attention back to the Colonels, making eye contact as they both reflexively tensed up. Out the corner of his eye, Saito could see Anand grip his rifle and begin to lift it, and at the same moment Johnson grasped his Railshot and began to bring it to bear. But before either could fully act, Prosusicivious had drawn back his hand — and slammed it into Feng’s chest.

Barely a second after touching Feng, Prosusicivious was blown back by a sniper rifle round to the head. He promptly released Feng and used his tail to deflect two more incoming rifle shots as Johnson and Saito dove for cover and opened fire on the Drakkars. Anand seized the opening to grab Feng and drag him toward cover, but as the Drakkar foot soldiers and the Colonels exchanged fire, Prosusicivious simply stood back… and burst into laughter.

((Ah ha ha ha ha haa!! Oh, how wonderful! How exciting! How interesting! To finally learn something new!)) The Drakkar Faction Leader slowly turned to face Saito, continually blocking incoming sniper fire with his tail as he continued, ((consider this a fair trade of information, Earthians. I’ve learned so much about you and SERRCom, so in exchange, I will allow you to claim the Aldredian artifact I left behind. But beware, Colonel Kaji Saito of Chaotic Support Fireteam 1!))

“…What?” Saito paused momentarily. “…How does he know—?”

((You have embarked down a perilous path! The future of this galaxy may well hang on the decisions of yourself and your comrades. Whether that bodes ill or well for you, remains to be seen. But either way, this will not be the last time our paths cross.)) The Drakkar thrust his fist into the air and then extended his fingers. ((Until we meet again!))

And then, with a brilliant flash of light… all of the Drakkars disappeared.

“…Well.” Johnson slowly lowered his Railshot as he stared at where the Drakkars had just been standing. “…Did they just beam away?”

Saito immediately activated his comm line with Captain Travis. “Captain, any sign of the Drakkars?”

«Negative, sir. Thatcher and I don’t see any around. There’s nothin’ on the motion sensors, either.»

“So they did just pack up and leave,” Saito muttered warily. “But… why…?”

“Colonels!!”

“Anand!” Johnson snapped his attention toward his two subordinates and promptly rushed over to their side with Saito in tow. The Major was kneeling on the ground beside Feng, who was slowly pulling himself into a sitting position.

“Colonel, he—!” Anand started, but Johnson held up a hand to quiet him.

The Colonel then turned toward Feng and looked him in the eye. The Captain returned the gesture, but his expression was blank, and his eyes lacked a certain spark.

“Shit…” Saito muttered.

“Captain!” Johnson grabbed Feng by his shoulders. “Are you alright? What happened?”

Feng stared back at Johnson and nodded wordlessly.

“Hey, I asked a second question, you know.”

“I am not certain what happened.”

“What…?” Johnson scowled. “Since when did you talk like that?”

“Miles…” Saito placed a hand on Johnson’s shoulder. The latter turned to look Saito in the eye, a gesture that Saito uneasily returned. “…I think you know just as well as I do what happened to him.”

“No… no, that’s ridiculous,” Anand interjected, “Ciei is… the whole concept is stupid. There’s no way—!” He whipped around toward Feng, who slowly turned to face him. “Damn it… Captain, I killed more Drakkars than you, you know. That means you have to listen to me more often. Right?”

Feng simply stared back for a few moments before slowly nodding his head. “Okay.”

“What…? No, wait, what? You never listen to me. This is—! Ah, this is a joke, right? You’re just kidding around.”

“If you… say so,” Feng responded flatly.

Anand simply stared at Feng, his mouth agape, as Johnson and Saito exchanged uneasy glances. Johnson then scowled and punched the ground in frustration. “Damn it! Damn it all!”

“Sirs…?”

Saito turned to his right, where he spotted Hackett and MacTavish slowly approaching. MacTavish seemed absorbed in fiddling around with some kind of rhomboid device, but Hackett’s attention was focused entirely on Anand and Feng as the Major continued to attempt to provoke responses out of the Captain.

“Is this…” She turned to face Saito. “Colonel, did he—?”

“Did you get the artifact?” Saito questioned.

Hackett glanced at MacTavish before looking back at Saito. “…Yes, sir, we did.”

“Th-there was, um, something else there, th-though,” MacTavish spoke up, her attention still focused primarily on the object in her hands. “S-some kind of, uh, a book? I-it was really th-thick, but, th-the Drakkars took it…”

“Right… well.” Saito sighed warily as he turned back toward Anand and Feng. “…We’ll have to worry about that later. For now, we’ve achieved the mission objective. Everyone, make sure you don’t leave anything behind. It’s time to head back to Earth.”

 

Chapter 2 – Ancient Secrets

Monday, September 26, AD 2129

D-minus.

“Aw, what?! C’mon! That was at least ‘C’ material!”

Your ability to concentrate is still too abysmal for such a generous grade. You can’t even hold two spheres of water still for a minute!

“Well yeah, ‘cause controllin’ water ain’t my actual power!”

No, but your power is to copy the abilities of others, and if what you and your friends tell me is correct, then Twy has been able to do what I’m asking of you since the day after she discovered her powers. You have no excuse, being unable to do something so basic over two weeks since discovering your abilities, even if you’re only copying her powers.

“Tch…” The tall, lanky, pale-skinned man glanced away in irritation. His disheveled black hair contrasted strongly with his military training uniform; when coupled with his clean-shaven face, save for a couple tufts of hair under his lip and on his chin, he appeared to be no older than 20. The patch sewn onto his left breast pocket identified him as Austin Travis.

Standing just across from him was an even taller man with a thin, yet still muscular build. His dark hair was long in front but short in back, partially obscuring his olive-skinned face; the rest of his body was covered by a thick green military uniform with black trim. He held the demeanor of an aged veteran, but the distinct lack of blemishes on his otherwise generic face made it clear that he was no older than 22 or 23. A large patch sewn onto a flap attached to a strap on his shoulder named him as 1st Lieutenant Mote Emerson, the leader of the Eximius Vir.

It would seem that I’m going to have to take a different approach with you, Mote muttered. He crossed his arms and pursed his lips as he looked down at his compatriot. …I have no idea how you’re Captain Travis’s nephew.

“Oh please, like he’s any better at pickin’ up new shit— ack!” Austin yelped as a tiny streak of lightning leaped from Mote’s fingers to his own.

There will be no disrespect toward your superiors, Mote declared, his stare unflinching as Austin recoiled away from him. Understood?

“Tch… fine.”

…I can’t believe I’m stuck teaching you…

“Ain’t like I wanna be here either, you know.” Austin glanced back and forth at the empty room. “…How’s about we just call it quits and pretend like we trained—?”

Absolutely not! Mote’s gaze narrowed into a glare as several sparks briefly wreathed his arms. Like it or not, we have a duty here. You, to learn; I, to teach. And given your slow pace, I think I’m going to have to give you personal lessons. Otherwise you’ll just slow down the others. Or try to slack off.

Austin scowled, but just as he made to respond, the door to the room slammed open.

MOTE! You in here?

Both men turned their heads to face the newcomer: a woman, with skin the same olive tone as Mote’s, and a height barely shorter than Austin’s six feet. She wore the same thick green military uniform as Mote, with the exception of two armored greaves that covered her entire lower legs and possessed extravagant red and golden designs, topped by a faintly glowing red orb inset just below the silver knee guard on each greave. She appeared to be Mote’s age, and sported messy blond hair tied back in a pony tail and covered by a red bandanna. Her wide stance gave off an aura of brazen confidence, and as she planted her hands on her hips and surveyed the training room, Mote could read the patch on her upper chest that named her: 2nd Lieutenant Katherine Faulkner, one of the four Chaotics of the Eximius Vir.

When she spotted Mote, she began to raise her hand to wave, but then her gaze switched to Austin and her face scrounged up in disgust. Fuck, you’re hanging out with the trash again.

Austin responded with an incredulous expression. “Uh, what?”

Kate, what are you doing here? Mote placed a hand on his brow in frustration. I thought I told you to leave me alone when I’m training the recruits.

Yeah, but the General wants you for a debriefing, and his word is higher than yours, so. Kate shrugged before pointing at Austin and then gesturing behind her. You, get the fuck out, you’re done here.

Mote put his arm out in front of Austin. I decide when your training is over. He then glanced back at Kate. …The General wants me for a debriefing? What for?

Saito and the rest just got back from a mission, duh. You know, the wild goose chase based on your stupid little dream? She cast a glare toward Austin. Don’t fucking tell me that hanging out with the trash has given you brain damage already.

“I am not trash,” Austin retorted.

Oh please, I’ve heard plenty enough about your lack of ability. Having no Chaotics would be better than having you fuck-wits around.

Katherine, Mote cut in harshly. Kate drew back slightly, as if startled, and then pursed her lips and cast her gaze to the side. Now… Mote turned back toward Austin. …It would seem that I’m going to have to cut today’s one-on-one lesson short.

Austin’s face brightened and he opened his mouth to speak, but Mote cut him off.

Your training still isn’t over, he continued. Go join your friends with Mark, he’ll oversee the rest of your training for today.

“Aw…” Austin heaved a sigh and turned toward the room’s exit. As he passed Kate, they exchanged a glare — and then Kate snapped her fingers in his face, causing him to flinch away. She promptly decked him in the face, sending him crumpling to the ground as she grinned in self-satisfaction.

“Ow! Fuck!” Austin exclaimed, tenderly holding his cheek with both hands. “The fuck was that for?!”

You flinched! Kate retorted, you flinch, you get hit!

Damn it, Kate, Mote responded in irritation as he rushed over to Austin’s side and helped him up. We’ve been over this. You can’t just punch people for no damned reason.

I literally just gave the reason, dumbass. If it helps get your panties out of a bunch, then just think of it like part of his training!

Austin and Mote both stared incredulously at Kate. Mote then shook his head before shooing Austin away. I apologize on her behalf. Now get going.

“With pleasure,” Austin remarked. He scurried out of the room, glanced over his shoulder to glare at Kate one last time, and then disappeared down the hallway to the left.

Mote shook his head again before turning to give Kate an admonishing look. You can’t just assault people like that.

Kate pulled a face. Oh fuck off. Like I said, just think of it as part of his training. I didn’t even hit him that hard, he’ll be fine. And if he’s not, then we can just kick his baby ass outta here.

Do I really need to get the Colonel involved again?

Really? You’re gonna tattle on me?

Mote let out a disgruntled sigh as he closed his eyes and held his hand to his forehead. Just… don’t do it again.

I’ll try, but wimps like him just look so damn punchable, you know?

No, I don’t. And you should stop calling the recruits ‘wimps’ or ‘trash’. It’s unprofessional.

Fucking what?! You complain about having to deal with them all the damn time! Besides, it’s no secret that they’re a literal drain on resources. If not for them, you and Mark would be free to go on missions like normal! Hell, you probably could’ve handled CSF-1’s last mission all on your own, but noooo, the General wants to expand his precious little Chaotic force. As if we aren’t enough to handle any and all threats, already.

Mote simply pursed his lips and shook his head. He then started toward the room’s exit. Right. Anyways, you said that I’m wanted at a debriefing, right? I should get going.

We should get going, actually. Kate rushed up and fell into step beside him as they began walking down the hallways of the base. The General wanted me, too.

What? …Did CSF-1 and Fireteam Alpha actually find something?

Guess so. Why the hell else would the General call on me? Kate rubbed her hands together eagerly. I hope it’s some new tech. I’ve been getting bored in the lab with our own worthless shit.

Mote frowned. You should’ve just gone straight to the debriefing, then. You don’t need to find me in person when you can just send an alert.

Meh. Danielle and I just got back from some lame-ass relief mission, I would’ve been through this area anyways.

What…? Oh, you mean the dam collapse in China?

I thought it was in Japan.

The mission brief said China.

Oh… could’ve sworn we were in Japan. Ah, whatever, it’s all Asia anyways.

Mote passed Kate a glance of disapproval. I hope you don’t talk to civilians with that attitude. Or anyone, for that matter.

Lighten the hell up, would you? Who cares if I get two little nations mixed up.

Ah yes, China, the ‘little nation’ that contains well over ten percent of Earth’s population. And Japan, the ‘little’ nation that both our direct superior officer and the Director of the EIIC call home. And both ‘little nations’ are in the top ten worldwide by GDP, Mote drawled. But yes, clearly they’re both simply inconsequential ‘little’ nations.

Alright, alright, I get the fucking point…

Seriously, you need to watch what you say. Talk like that could easily piss off… well, most reasonable people I know.

Stop lecturing me already, damn. I let Danielle do all the talking in the field anyways, everyone loves her. I was just on the dam mission to blow shit up and clear debris.

A momentary wave of unease washed over Mote. Kate was both an Intellitechnic and an Explosives Formtechnic — meaning that she possessed both supernatural intelligence and the ability to create explosives out of thin air. Mote knew well that her intelligence and experience made her extremely capable with her explosives, but her gung-ho ignore-the-details attitude — as so clearly demonstrated by their conversation just now — would often give him pause all the same. I trust you ‘blew shit up’ responsibly?

Kate made an exaggerated show of rolling her eyes. Yes, dad. God. You ever think of pulling that stick outta your ass and using that as a weapon? Would probably do you better than that big-ass fucking hammer of yours.

And neither would be more effective against potential enemies than your lousy attitude.

Please. My rough edges are part of my charm. She punched Mote playfully in the shoulder. Admit it, you like my foul mouth.

I’d like it better if you kept it shut more often.

Tch! Well then fuck you, too! I guess someone’s Chaos Armor is only getting a half-assed tune-up.

Mote simply shook his head and sighed in resignation as he and Kate continued down the base’s halls toward the briefing room.

*     *     *

10 Minutes Later

“Ah, Lieutenants. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Apologies for our tardiness, sir! Mote saluted stiffly as he entered the base’s briefing room. The room itself was modestly decorated, with generic office art on the walls and a long table in the center of the room. On the far side of the table, across from Mote, sat Colonel Saito and Kirstin MacTavish, the latter of which held some sort of rhomboid device in her hands; on the near side of the table sat Colonel Johnson, his arms crossed and expression sullen. And at the head of the table sat a large man with a wide build and light skin. His graying hair, dignified mustache, and spotless uniform rounded out the physical traits well known of General of the Space Forces Matthew Lead, the commander of the entirety of Space Exploration, Reconnaissance, and Response Command — otherwise known as SERRCom.

The General beckoned toward the table. “Apology accepted. Now take a seat, please.”

Mote quickly sat down in the chair next to Colonel Johnson, his posture stiff and his hands clasped in his lap as Kate lazily collapsed into the chair next to him, her right ankle resting on her left knee. Mote caught her gaze lingering on the device in Kirstin’s hands, but just as she began to reach toward it, the General spoke up.

“Now, Colonels…” Lead glanced between Saito and Johnson. “…From the start. Just what happened, out there?”

“The mission started as expected…” Saito leaned forward to clasp his hands over the table. “I led CSF-1 and Fireteam Alpha to the ruins, then sent off Captain Travis and Lieutenant Thatcher to keep watch and provide cover, if necessary. The Drakkars were there, just like we expected. We counted and confirmed fifteen of them, so I had Major Hackett take MacTavish here around the back. Then Miles, his team, and I opened fire on the Drakkars to draw them out from the ruins, allowing Hackett and MacTavish to sneak in and steal the device the research team was talking about.”

The General glanced toward the device in Kirstin’s hands. “I take it that’s the device?”

Kirstin nodded rapidly. “Y-yes, sir!”

Lead turned back to Saito. “Then it sounds like the mission was a success. What went wrong?”

“We got ambushed, sir,” Johnson replied with a scowl. “In the middle of our distraction, one of them damned Faction Leaders showed up!”

A Faction Leader?! Kate exclaimed, you can’t be serious. Really? In the middle of fucking nowhere?

“He’s right,” Saito commented warily. “He called himself Prosusicivious, the leader of the Prolatio Drakkars. His physical description lined up with what we know about the Prolatio Faction Leader, as well.”

He could’ve been fucking with you.

“He took a Railshot blast to the chest and a sniper round to the head and walked both off without any sign of injury.” Johnson spun his chair around to glare at Kate. “We know what we were up against. I don’t need you questioning my judgment, Lieutenant.”

Kate made a face and opened her mouth to retort, but Mote held up a hand to stop her. He then turned back to face Johnson. Sorry, Colonel. Please continue.

“Actually, I think Lieutenant Faulkner has a point,” General Lead spoke up. “How do you know that this was truly Prosusicivious that you encountered?”

“Well, like Miles said,” Saito reiterated, “he walked off all kinds of gunfire, including Railshot and sniper rounds. I know we hit him, too, because he staggered under the force of the bullets. And he wasn’t wearing any kind of armor, either. Not as far as I could tell, at least. He just… didn’t actually get injured.”

“Thank God there’s only six of the bastards…” Johnson muttered.

“Hmm…” The General nodded solemnly. “…I take it, then, that Prosusicivious is to blame for Captain Feng’s current condition?”

“Yes, sir.”

Uh, what? The hell happened to Feng? Kate questioned, wait… did he get his Ciei stolen?

Johnson held a hand to his forehead in frustration as Saito responded, “yes, he did.”

Shit… Mote muttered, and then raised his voice to address Lead. General, permission to speak freely?

Lead nodded once. “Granted.”

I should’ve been on this mission, sir. If not for me, Saito and Johnson’s teams never would have encountered Prosusicivious in the first place.

“Don’t remind me…” Johnson growled.

But it’s true, Mote insisted. I’m the one who had a vague dream about some Aldredas ruins. I never would have even told anyone about it, if not for all of the nonsense around the recent Chaos Quake and the new recruits. And now it just resulted in a SERRCom officer getting injured…

“I-I mean, we still got this d-device!” Kirstin spoke up warily. “Th-that’s, that’s worth something, r-right…?”

It’s not worth the casualties, Mote countered. …Captain Feng may not be dead, but with his Ciei stolen — by a Faction Leader, no less — he might as well be.

Can’t we just hunt down the Drakkar bastard and kill him? After all, that’s how you get a person’s Ciei back, by killing the Drakkar that stole it, Kate pointed out.

“I thought Faction Leaders were unkillable,” Saito commented. “That’s what the rest of the galaxy claims, at least.”

Well the rest of the galaxy haven’t met the Eximius Vir, then!

“No, Saito is correct,” General Lead interjected. “Faulkner, the other nations of this galaxy have been contending with the Drakkars for several millennia, and over that time countless attempts have been made on the lives of the Drakkar Faction Leaders. Chaotics, orbital strikes, glassing, spacing… from what I understand, every play in the book has been attempted, and still the Faction Leaders live. As powerful as you and the other members of the Eximius Vir may be, I doubt that you’ll find success where thousands of years of attempts have failed. If you or Emerson had gone on this mission, then for all we know, there could have been more casualties.”

Mote frowned. I’m not sure I follow, sir.

“Given what I know about the Faction Leaders, they tend to be incredibly sadistic. I think it’s highly likely that the only reason Prosusicivious let you all live is because he knew there was no chance you could hurt him, and he took a perverse pleasure out of watching your reactions to his treatment of Feng. However, if he was forced to face off with someone as powerful as Emerson, then I doubt he would have been so merciful.” Lead glanced at Saito, and then at Johnson. “Do you disagree, Colonels?”

Saito sighed in irritation. “No, sir. That sounds about right, given what he told us…”

“Damn…” Johnson scowled. “…I hate feeling this helpless. Is there really nothing we could have done for Feng?”

“Your encounter with a Drakkar Faction Leader was an unseen and highly unfortunate event, Colonel,” Lead responded. “Given the circumstances, I believe that you and Saito did about as well as you could have.”

“But, uh, s-something was odd about that…” Kirstin spoke up, and then shrunk against the back of her chair when everyone in the room turned their attention to her. “U-um, I-I mean, I-I could be, uh, wrong…”

“What are you talking about, MacTavish?” Saito questioned.

“…W-well… when th-the Drakkar stole, uh, st-stole the Captain’s Ciei, he… w-well, it just seemed like, um, like he got some, er, m-memories, too…”

The General frowned. “Memories?”

“Oh, that’s right…” Saito nodded. “I remember Prosusicivious referring to me and SERRCom by name after he took Feng’s Ciei, even though we never told him our names. It’s like he got Feng’s memories, along with his Ciei…”

“I thought Ciei didn’t include memories.”

Normally, no, Kate declared, but I remember reading some reports that claimed that the Faction Leaders are better at Ciei theft than the normal cannon fodder Drakkars. She shrugged. Maybe they can take memories, too, in addition to all that emotions and imagination crap.

“This has serious security implications,” the General commented, “if Prosusicivious truly did have access to Feng’s memories, then that means that he could know everything that Feng did, including SERRCom fortifications data, base locations, access keys… Director Hamasaki won’t be pleased to hear this at all.” He then glanced toward Kirstin and nodded toward the device in her hands. “Please tell me that all of this was at least worth something.”

“O-oh. W-well, uh…” Kirstin was momentarily distracted as Kate snatched the rhomboid device out of her hands, but eventually she returned her attention to the General. “Uh, it, w-well… i-it’s Aldredian, th-that much I can tell, but… uh…” She squirmed and cast her eyes down uneasily. “I-I h-haven’t been able to, uh, f-figure out much else.”

Really? Kate responded incredulously, you seemed so sure that bringing back this piece of crap was worth what happened to Feng, and all you can tell is that it’s Aldredian?

“I-I-I, I, w-well…”

“Kate, don’t antagonize her,” Saito admonished.

Kate simply rolled her eyes before returning her attention to the device. Still, it’s an ancient Aldredian device, from a surface outpost, no less. Even if it’s only half as dead as it looks, there’s no fucking way we’re getting anything out of this thing. And that’s even assuming that it’s actually a device. For all we know it could just be some piece of shit art piece.

“Aren’t the Aldredas over a hundred thousand years old?” Johnson questioned, “how the hell could an ‘art piece’ last that long?”

Look, that was just an example, okay? I’m just saying, this is more likely to be worthless bullshit than anything of value. This is an artifact that we should toss over to some thirsty archaeologist, not waste time in the research lab on.

“B-but,” Kirstin responded, “I haven’t had a, um, a p-proper chance to analyze it…”

And I analyzed it just now. By looking at it. It’s fucking worthless.

“N-no it’s not! Y-you can’t just d-decide that b-by looking at it…”

As Kate and Kirstin began exchanging shots about the value of the object, Mote found himself simply staring at it. The rhomboid object was about the size of a football, and looked to be made out of some kind of blackish silver metallic alloy. Its surface was clearly aged; any intricate designs it may have had were wiped away by time, leaving behind a blank slate of a rhomboid. But despite this, as Mote continued to look it over, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he recognized it from somewhere.

A series of images promptly flashed through his mind: a star map location, a large subterranean cavern, a field of battle, a woman with red hair.

A month ago, just before the week-long Chaos Energy Quake at the end of August, Mote had had a vision — and these four images were the only parts that remained in his memory. The first image, the star map location, was what had pointed SERRCom to the planet where the rhomboid device was recovered. Mote still had no idea what the other three images were. None of them featured the mystery device, but looking at it gave him a vague sense of nostalgia all the same. Maybe I just saw it in the parts of my vision I don’t remember?… That must be. There’s no other way I would recognize it…

Uh, Earth to Mote? Hello?

What—? Mote jerked back, startled, as Kate waved her hand in his face.

Look, staring intently at weird new devices is my thing, not yours, she retorted.

Mote simply responded with an unamused glance before gesturing at the object. Let me see it.

“Hmm? Do you recognize it, Emerson?” the General questioned.

I… think so, sir. He carefully grasped the rhomboid after Kate unceremoniously dropped it in his lap. I think… I saw it in my vision—!

He paused and drew back in surprise as the device began to glow. It pulsed a soft blue for a couple seconds before letting off a bright white flash, prompting everyone in the room to reflexively flinch away.

“The hell are you doing, Mote?!” Saito demanded, “warn us before you blind us!”

That wasn’t me! Mote exclaimed, at least, not on purpose! All I did was touch the thing!

Well, whatever the hell you did, Kate muttered, …looks like you activated some kind of… message?

Mote glanced down at the device in his hands. Sure enough, it was now projecting a series of symbols into the air, like a hologram. The symbols were completely foreign to Mote, and yet — much like the device itself — something about them seemed familiar.

“…I-it’s Aldredian n-numerals.”

Huh? Mote looked over at Kirstin, who herself was staring at the device in his hands. …Numerals?

Kirstin nodded. “Mm hmm. I-I can’t read them myself, but, uh… I-I rec-recognize them from some p-papers I’ve read…”

“Well, great.” Johnson scowled. “If we can’t read the damn thing, then it’s still as good as useless.”

And that’s where you’re wrong, Kate countered. The galaxy has been studying Aldredian ruins for countless years. A cipher for their language has existed since before we puny Earthians hit the middle ages. Translating these numerals will be easier than convincing Mote to have fun more than once a month!

And easier than convincing you to stop running your mouth, I’m sure, Mote shot back. Besides, you were the one complaining about how useless this thing was until I activated it. Maybe if you had focused more on the device instead of complaining, we’d be done with the debriefing by now!

Excuse me?! Don’t pin this on me, dumbass! You’re the one with the weird vision and everything, maybe it’s just attracted to stupid weirdos!

“Lieutenants!” Lead spoke sharply, prompting both to immediately quiet down and turn to face him. “…Thank you. Now, that said, Faulkner may be on to something. It’s possible, Emerson, that you having a vision and then being the one to activate the device are connected.”

“Tch,” Johnson snorted. “First I had to deal with that bullshit Ciei nonsense, and now we got visions and ancient artifacts that favor one person over other people? You’re telling me Feng got fucked for this?”

“I understand how you feel, Colonel,” Lead commented, “but from what I understand of the Aldredas, they heavily based much of their technology around Chaos Energy and Chaotics. It doesn’t seem far-fetched for them to have created some sort of time capsule that would only respond to Chaotics.”

Then why didn’t it respond to me? Kate questioned.

“I don’t know. That’s for you and MacTavish to figure out.”

Kirstin glanced uneasily at Kate and then back at the General. “Uh, s-sir…?”

“You heard me,” Lead replied. “MacTavish, Faulkner, I want the two of you to study that device and figure out what those numerals mean. Bring Scott or Sarah in if you have to, but the moment you figure it out, I want a report in my inbox. Understood?”

Ugh, I gotta work with Kirstin and Sarah? Kate huffed. They’ll just slow me down—

“I said, understood?

Kate sighed impatiently. Yes, sir.

“Good.” Lead glanced between Colonels Saito and Johnson, and then at Mote. “Well, I believe that’s everything. So unless anyone has anything to add…?” He paused momentarily, waiting for a reply; when he received none, he nodded and stood up, prompting everyone else to do the same. “Very well. Colonels, Lieutenants, Researcher. Dismissed!”

Chapter 3 – Responsibility

1 Day Later

“Hmm… hm hm… hmmm…”

Colonel Saito hummed quietly to himself as he navigated the hallways of SERRCom headquarters. Hands in pockets, he casually strolled through the hallways, barely acknowledging the other soldiers and office workers he passed as he idly swept his eyes across the tiled flooring and warmly lit walls. Every several meters or so, a wooden facade would appear on the walls on either side of him, ending in an arch overhead. Saito traced one of the arches with his eyes, and then found himself looking at the lighting along the walls. The inner walls stopped short of the ceiling, giving way to a shelf of sorts in which the hallway’s lights sat. The lights then shone up on the ceiling, thereby lighting the hallway indirectly without exposing any naked bulbs to eyesight.

Weird aesthetic for a military headquarters, he thought to himself idly before rounding a corner and stopping in his tracks. Before him was a pair of double-doors, constructed out of the sort of partially translucent glass one might install in a bathroom. And above the doors was an austere, yet large sign that read out a single word: “infirmary”.

Saito stared at the sign for several moments and then glanced around himself. The time was late afternoon, but he found himself alone in front of the infirmary, left to stew in the oppressive silence. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then finally reached for the doors and pushed his way through.

Once in the infirmary, Saito found himself surrounded by sterile white tiling and clean, blank walls. He glanced toward the main desk to his left; behind a large pile of folders and two laptops sat a nurse, busy typing away as their attention constantly snapped between the two computers and the pile of folders. They briefly acknowledged Saito with a glance before returning to their work, at which point the Colonel simply continued onward. As part of SERRCom’s Headquarters facilities — which featured a campus nearly the size of the USA’s Pentagon — the infirmary was more similar in size to a small hospital than the simple handful of beds that the name “infirmary” might imply. Even so, Saito was easily able to find his way around to his destination. Today wasn’t his first recent visit, after all; he had also dropped by yesterday.

Rounding one final corner, he then stopped in his tracks, his eyes falling on the one occupied bed on the floor — and the large, dark-skinned man who sat next to it. The man’s back was facing Saito, but he could still easily discern the man’s identity: Colonel Miles Johnson, here to visit the incapacitated Captain Feng.

Just as Saito was.

Saito briefly considered turning around and returning later. Feng was part of Johnson’s squad, not Saito’s, and as such he couldn’t help but feel like he would just be getting in the way. But before he could decide whether to stay or to leave, Johnson looked behind himself, immediately spotting Saito. As he turned, his wide torso stopped blocking Saito’s view of Feng’s head — and his blank expression. The Captain was clearly awake, and even glanced to the side to make eye-contact with Saito… but the emptiness behind his eyes gave the Colonel pause. The fact that Feng wasn’t energetically running his mouth was sign enough that something was wrong, and his stoic expression merely compounded the issue.

“…Oh. Kaji.” Johnson nodded toward his fellow Colonel. “Here to check on Li?”

“That was the plan,” Saito remarked as he glanced between Johnson and Feng. “Am I interrupting…?”

Johnson heaved a sigh. “Not really.” He then waved Saito over. “C’mon. Li, you remember Colonel Saito?”

Saito approached, hands still in pockets, and stood next to Johnson. Now that he was closer, he could tell that — physically — Feng appeared perfectly fine. Nothing about the Captain’s appearance indicated that he was sick in any notable meaning of the word, and yet, the robotic smoothness with which he moved his body and head made him appear obviously unwell.

“Yes, I remember.” Feng locked eyes with Saito, his stare empty, but unwavering.

“How’re you holding up?” Saito asked.

“I’m not holding anything.”

Saito glanced uneasily at Johnson before looking back at Feng. “…Right. I meant, how are you doing? How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

The Colonel removed his hands from his pockets and crossed his arms as he passed Feng an incredulous look. “You do remember what happened two days ago… right?”

Feng nodded once. “Yes.”

“So the Drakkar didn’t take your memories?”

“He did not.”

“…But he still stole your Ciei?”

“It would appear so.”

“Kaji…” Johnson placed a hand on Saito’s shoulder. “Maybe we shouldn’t remind the poor boy about what happened.”

“…Right. Sorry.” Saito bowed his head toward Feng. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”

The Captain responded with a blank stare.

“…Am… I bothering you?” Saito questioned uneasily.

“No.”

The Colonel’s expression clouded. Feng’s curt responses left little path for conversation, and yet his body language didn’t reflect that of someone who wished to be left alone. In fact, Saito had a difficult time reading Feng at all; he felt like he was talking to a robot replica of Feng, as opposed to the actual man himself. Feng’s skin, hair, eyes, face — they all clearly belonged to a human, but as he spoke, he didn’t emote at all. The utter lack of emotion nearly pushed him backwards into the uncanny valley, a feat that Saito never expected to see from a flesh and blood human.

“Captain…” Saito finally addressed Feng again after a couple moments of silence. “Johnson and I can leave you alone, if you want.”

Feng blinked once before replying, “I do not want anything.”

“So you’d be fine if we stayed here?”

“Yes.”

“But you’d also be fine if we just left.”

“Yes.”

Saito exchanged a glance with Johnson before continuing, “do you want to talk to us?”

Still with a blank expression, Feng responded, “I have no desire either way.”

“Alright…” Johnson spoke up, standing from his stool and giving Saito an apprehensive look. He then turned his attention back to Feng and forced a smile. “I think it’s time Saito and I called it a day. I’ll check on you again tomorrow, Li. Hope you have a good night.”

As Johnson turned around and began to leave, Saito remained for a moment, his eyes locked with Feng. The Captain simply returned the gaze, completely silent and expressionless. Eventually Saito turned away, involuntarily shuddering as he followed Johnson out of the infirmary.

“Colonels?”

After closing the infirmary doors behind him, Saito turned around to find Major Rachel Hackett standing before him. By her side was a man with a pale complexion and short blond hair. He slouched slightly, leaving him a few inches shorter than Hackett’s six foot height — but still a little taller than Saito. He wore the same uniform as both Hackett and Saito, even down to the ‘CSF-1’ squad patch attached to his shoulders.

“…Hackett, Travis,” Saito nodded toward the two of them as he straightened his posture.

“Didn’t expect to find the two of you here, sirs,” Travis replied. “…Though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, huh?”

“The two of you here to see Captain Feng?” Johnson questioned.

Hackett and Travis exchanged an uneasy glance. “…We thought it would be best to pay him a visit, yes,” Hackett responded.

“Seemed like the right thing to do,” Travis added. “I’m sure he’s feeling, uh… bad.”

“Well, that’s the problem.” Johnson scowled. “He isn’t feeling anything.”

“…Say again, sir?”

The Colonel stared hard at both Hackett and Travis, and then glanced down at Saito. “…You guys really haven’t ever seen what this… ‘Ciei theft’ looks like, huh? Even though you run missions against Drakkars all the time?”

Hackett pursed her lips. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to say, sir.”

“CSF-1 has gone up against the Drakkars a dozen times. Haven’t you? And never before have one of you lost this ‘Ciei’ shit to a Drakkar… only when my team tags along do we see the first casualty.”

“That’s because we usually have help,” Saito countered. “This last mission was our first time going up against the Drakkars without having the Eximius Vir to back us up.”

“Oh. Right. Of course.” Johnson snorted and turned his attention away from the other three. “Gotta get yourselves saved by those kids now, huh?”

“Respectfully, sir, the Eximius Vir aren’t kids,” Hackett insisted.

“Aren’t they? Making them ranking officers ain’t gonna change the fact that most soldiers their age are only Privates,” Johnson countered. “I’ve read the briefs. They’ve been Lieutenants ever since they joined four years ago, when they were eighteen. Now you tell me: since when do eighteen-year-olds deserve the rank of Lieutenant?”

Travis shrugged. “Since they were Chaotics?”

“Is that all it takes?” Johnson turned his frustrated gaze on Saito. “They got special powers, so SERRCom bends all the rules and gives ‘em special treatment? That doesn’t mesh with what the General decided with those new Chaotics. So what, then, Kaji? You’ve been with them from the beginning. What’s so special about them, that they deserve this treatment right out the gate?”

Saito crossed his arms, his lips pursed in irritation. “You know I can’t talk about that, Miles.”

“Sure, sure, classified top secret.” Johnson shook his head. “Still don’t explain anything. Doesn’t explain why the Eximius Vir didn’t back us up, when we knew there were Drakkars there.”

“All due respect, sir, I think we had a pretty good handle on the Drakkars,” Travis spoke up. “That Faction Leader guy poppin’ up is what screwed the pooch, and having the Eximius Vir around when that happened wouldn’t have helped much, would it?”

Johnson turned to give Travis an incredulous stare. “You’re tellin’ me that not a single one of ‘em could have saved Feng from that bastard?”

Travis opened his mouth to respond, paused for a moment to think, and then closed his mouth and glanced to the side.

“And they should have been there, too. Not Fireteam Alpha. But since the General wants his Chaotics so bad…”

“Miles,” Saito muttered warningly.

Johnson looked over at Saito and then snorted derisively. “Right. Right. Out of line and all that.”

“Even so, Colonel,” Hackett commented, “I… well, I’ve never personally seen the results of Ciei theft, and I haven’t had the chance to talk with Captain Feng much since the mission… so I don’t really know what his condition is like. I’m sure it’s bad, but… respectfully, sir, that’s just a possibility we have to face every time we go into the field, isn’t it? The possibility that we won’t return.”

The Colonel stared at her for a few moments before heaving a great sigh. “Right. You’re right…” He then vigorously shook his head and slapped himself across the cheek. After regaining his bearings, he glanced between Saito, Hackett, and Travis. “Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to bad mouth anyone, this situation just…”

“I understand, Miles,” Saito responded quietly.

“Good. Now if you don’t mind me, it’s getting late, and I haven’t seen my kids in a while.” Johnson stepped past Hackett and Travis and then continued down the hallway, offering the group a simple wave as he left.

Saito silently watched him leave before taking a step forward, drawing the attention of Hackett and Travis.

Travis chuckled uneasily. “Bad timing, huh, sir?”

Saito shook his head. “No, it’s fine. I don’t even entirely disagree with most of what Miles said.”

“What do you mean…?” Hackett questioned.

“Mostly about the special treatment the Eximius Vir get. Now, we’ve seen them in action, and we know how powerful they are, but even so…” Saito frowned. “I can’t help but shake the feeling that SERRCom is too willing to bend the rules for the sake of power.”

Travis sighed uneasily. “You mean Austin and his friends?”

Saito nodded. “I know he’s your nephew, so this whole thing has to be hard on you.”

“Yeah, well…” The Captain shrugged. “It’s the job… I guess.”

“I agree that it isn’t the… ethically best decision, so to speak,” Hackett commented, “but you said it yourself, Colonel. The Eximius Vir are powerful. If these new recruits have even a fraction of the power of Mote, then—”

“—Then they’d be valuable assets to SERRCom, I know,” Saito cut in. “That’s General Lead’s entire reasoning behind conscripting them. I don’t disagree, and leaving them out in the wild untrained could be even worse in the long run anyways. But this is a damned slippery slope that we’re on here.”

“Sure, but it ain’t a very long one either,” Travis pointed out. “It ain’t like we’re suddenly discovering tens or hundreds of Chaotics around Earth. So far it’s just been my nephew and his friends.”

Saito shook his head. “I meant more generally than that. I don’t mean to pull the age card here, but I’ve been with SERRCom for over a decade longer than either of you. Hell, I’ve been here since nearly the beginning. I can even remember First Contact with the CSA 30 years ago. Ever since then, ever since its formation, SERRCom has been acting under the belief that it’s the underdog. Against both the nations here on Earth, and the forces out there in the galaxy — and for the most part, it’s true. But I was around for the beginning of ‘SERRCom Hegemony’ on Earth, and I know that we basically bullied our way into our current position, all under the justification that a more powerful SERRCom would better protect Earth from the threats out among the stars. Part of that’s true, for now. But that justification has to stop somewhere. It isn’t enough to let us do just anything we want.”

Hackett and Travis exchanged uneasy glances. “Sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot, sir,” Hackett commented.

“Yeah, well… it’s inevitable for a man in my position.”

“Speaking of position,” Travis spoke up, “sir, you might just be a Colonel, but you’ve got a direct line to Matthew Lead, the General of the Space Forces! The man in charge of the entirety of SERRCom! If you think what we’re doing is wrong, then why not just say so?”

Saito stared at Travis for a moment before looking away. “I never took a hard line for the Eximius Vir. Treating the new recruits differently would just be a betrayal to them.”

“For someone who believes that, you sure went a long way toward minimizing the suffering of my nephew and his friends,” Travis countered. “Don’t forget that I was there when you negotiated the terms of their conscription with the General, sir. I know that if it weren’t for you, then they’d all be split up and way worse off than they are now. So why can’t you take it a step farther?”

“I think that’s enough, Captain,” Hackett interjected, prompting Travis to recoil and then stiffen up.

“Sorry, Colonel,” he apologized. “I didn’t mean to speak out of line.”

“…I’ll overlook it for now.” Saito sighed and turned his attention down the empty hallway, past both Hackett and Travis. But just as he opened his mouth to speak again, he felt his watch vibrate and reflexively checked it.

“…Something wrong, sir?” Hackett questioned as Saito took a moment to read through the message.

“No. Just the opposite, in fact,” he eventually replied. “Sounds like MacTavish worked out what the message on the device we retrieved means. It’s a set of Gate coordinates.”

Chapter 4 – Black Ops

2 Days Later

“Sir! 5 minutes until arrival at our destination coordinates.”

“Ah! About time,” a broad-shouldered middle-aged man remarked in response to his subordinate’s declaration. He then pressed a button on the armrest of his chair, activating the intercoms of the spacecraft in which he sat. “Attention ladies and gentlemen, Captain of Out of Hand speaking. We are now five minutes out from arrival. As we prepare for our Subspace exit, please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position, and that your seat belt is securely fastened. Gracias!”

“…S-seatbelt…?” Kirstin glanced toward Colonel Saito uneasily. “Where…?”

“It’s a joke, señorita. A joke!” The Captain spun around in his Captain’s chair to face Colonel Saito, Kirstin, and Mote, showcasing the name patch on his chest that labeled him as Commander Antonio Huerta, the Captain of the SERRCom Frigate FG-24 ESC Out of Hand.

“I’d think that parroting a cruise ship Captain would be a better analogue for spacecraft travel than an airliner,” Saito remarked.

Huerta passed him an incredulous look. “Colonel, I sincerely hope the rest of your team has a better sense of humor than you.”

“Ha! I think you’ll be disappointed.”

Mote glanced between the two officers with impatience. He hadn’t spent almost half a day cooped up on a tiny SERRCom Frigate just to listen to the banter of two superior officers who seemed intent on not taking the mission seriously. From what he understood, they were about to investigate a set of coordinates that Kirstin managed to extract from the rhomboid device, but he had also heard that the coordinates were a set of Interstellar Gate coordinates — which meant that CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir could have arrived at their destination over half a day earlier. Yet the departure schedule for Earth’s Interstellar Gate was completely booked, and SERRCom wasn’t willing to move around any of its own reservations, so Mote was stuck with a twelve-hour trip on a ship barely larger than a commercial airliner — which wasn’t the worst situation to be in, but Mote hated feeling so cooped up all the same.

He bristled with irritation as he commented, sirs, should we not be preparing for the mission?

“Ah, there’s barely anything to prepare for,” Commander Huerta responded airily. “Those coords you gave us point to an uninhabited world right in Earth’s proverbial back yard. It’ll support life, but there’s nothing interesting there.”

“B-but…” Kirstin spoke up timidly, “th-those coordi—”

“Sí, something about Aldredian artifacts, I know. But a survey team checked this planet out a decade back and found nothing of interest, besides being a potential colony site. I mean, this place is so worthless, SERRCom didn’t even bother clearing out a slot in the Gate schedule for you!”

Mote frowned. Our mission isn’t to dismiss the target out of hand.

Huerta rolled his eyes. “I am well aware, my friend. My crew and I are well-prepared to help if the shit hits the fan, so to speak. But I sincerely doubt it will. Like I said, this planet is right in Earth’s proverbial back yard. If something interesting was happening, we’d be able to pick it up on long range scanners.”

“Relax, Mote.” Saito placed a reassuring hand on Mote’s shoulder. “The Commander’s right. Besides, being on edge all the time won’t help matters at all.”

Huerta nodded in agreement and then turned his chair around before Mote could respond. “Anyways, we’re here now. Time to see if this trip was a waste of time or not, eh?”

A moment after the Commander’s statement, the fuzzy gray atmosphere outside of the bridge window dissipated as the ship exited Subspace, giving way to the deep black of true space. To the left was a planet, slightly smaller than Earth in size but still featuring a surface covered in blue, green, and white — the colors well known to be associated with life.

“Sí, it’s a planet alright,” Huerta remarked, and turned toward one of the other officers on the bridge. “Begin a surface scan.” He then glanced back at Kirstin. “Let’s see if we can find our ancient mystery, eh, señorita?”

“U-uh… r-right…” Kirstin muttered.

Hmm… Mote stepped forward to approach the bridge window as he stared at the planet. …It looks livable. And it’s even a short half-day trip from Earth. Why haven’t we started a colony here, yet?

“Good question, señor,” Huerta responded. “But the answer is a little boring. The planet just isn’t interesting enough.”

Mote turned to give the Commander a confused look. What?

“There’s a number of criteria that SERRCom looks for when they start a new colony,” Saito spoke up. “We’re still a relatively young organization, by galactic standards, and Earth can’t support starting a whole lot of colonies all at once. So the guys over at the Colonial Government Bureau prioritize planets with plentiful resources that are easy to access, and this planet has neither.”

“A-according to a b-basic survey, at least,” Kirstin added quietly.

Huerta sighed. “If it’s a full survey you want, then you’ve picked the wrong crew, señorita. Out of Hand is a combat and scouting ship, not a survey one. Besides, like I said—”

“Sir!” One of the bridge crew turned toward the Commander. “We’ve found something!”

“Oh?” He straightened up in interest. “Put it up on the bridge display.”

A moment later, a hologram of the planet appeared at the front of the bridge. It then zoomed in to a forested area in the southern hemisphere, marked as being located nearly fifty kilometers away from the planet’s Interstellar Gate. The tree cover made it difficult to see anything underneath, but then the hologram was overlaid with readings from the infrared sensors — and the presence of man-made structures became clear as day.

“…Well, it would seem I owe you an apology,” Huerta commented as he glanced back at Kirstin. He then turned back to the hologram and raised his voice to address the other bridge officers. “Can we tell who set up this site? And what its purpose is?”

“Yes sir, it seems to be some kind of excavation site,” another officer replied. “There isn’t much comm chatter, but what little signals we’ve picked up seem to match the communications protocols of the Black Suns PMC.”

“Black Suns?” Saito scowled. “The hell are they doing so close to Earth? This is SERRCom territory.”

“And they sure didn’t want us to know they were here, either,” Huerta commented after reading some of the information on the bridge display. “They’ve got some basic cloaking systems with them. No wonder HQ never picked this up.”

“Colonel…” Mote glanced at Saito uneasily. “What do we do?”

“…Well, there’s only one thing to do right now.” The Colonel sighed. “…Huerta, prepare to beam down myself, MacTavish, and Lieutenants Emerson and Faulkner. Let’s see what they’re up to before they figure out we’re here.”

*     *     *

10 Minutes Later

“Who the hell do you think you are?!”

“I should ask the same of you. Where the hell do you think you are?”

“This planet is under the protection of Sector 3 of the Black Suns. This is an official Black Suns excavation site!”

“Is that so? Because I was under the impression that this planet fell within the bounds of the Earthian Territories, as enforced by Space Exploration, Reconnaissance, and Response Command, and officially recognized by both the Core Space Alliance and the Nimalian Union.”

“Tch…”

Mote eyed the scene before him with irritation. Colonel Saito, backed by himself, Kate, and Kirstin, was standing on top of a small hill overlooking a dig site. Excavation machinery and felled trees dotted the landscape, as did nearly two dozen humanoid individuals, all wearing the same uniform: a black zipped-up vest over a gray short-sleeve shirt, black cargo pants that were tucked halfway down their lower legs into black and navy boots, and a silver belt that also held up two thick blue pads that drooped from the sides of their hips down to the middle of their thighs. This uniform was the signature appearance of soldiers in the Black Suns Private Military Corporation, the largest and most renowned PMC in the entire galaxy. The Black Suns specialized in ground combat, particularly revolving around Chaotics, and also possessed divisions that focused on galaxy-leading research and development of technologies like infantry weapons and powered armor — armor that came in the form of black and navy greaves, gauntlets, and small chest plates, which all of the currently present Black Suns soldiers were wearing. Black Suns powered armor was commonly regarded to be the best in the galaxy; even their cheaper, less advanced tiers of armor were hardy enough to be in high demand the galaxy over. CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir were lucky enough to possess powered armor of their own, and were wearing said sets at the moment — but theirs were merely sets gifted to them by the Nimalians. And while Nimalian armor was leagues more impressive than anything the Earthians could construct, it still could not hold a candle to the ultimate defense offered by Black Suns armor and energy shielding technology.

Mote then shifted his attention to the large individual with light skin and short black hair who stood opposite of Saito. He had a square sort of face with a strong jawline, which when combined with his clean shave and broad shoulders made him appear to be the very stereotype of an overly masculine military man. He wore a similar black, navy blue, and silver uniform as the rest of the Black Suns soldiers dotting the dig site, but he also possessed two silver strips of cloth that hung from his belt — indicating that he was in charge of the whole operation. But even more notable than all of that was the fact that the man’s legs had two knees each.

Mote caught himself staring at the man’s legs for a moment. They weren’t quite digitigrade, as with the hind legs of a dog or a cat — the man had fully shaped feet just like Mote or Saito or any of the Earthians. In fact, from his face, to his arms, to his torso — if Mote ignored the man’s legs, he looked practically indistinguishable from an Earthian. But his legs had an entire additional joint, bending in the opposite direction of his “normal” knee, such that his legs naturally rested in a sort of thunderbolt shape. This leg shape was the signature appearance of both the Siions and the Dra’kis, two of the three member races of the Core Space Alliance. Judging by the fact that the man had five fingers instead of four, Mote was able to further deduce that he was Siion.

Standing just behind the man was a woman with pale skin, an angular face, and silver, shoulder-length hair. She stood about as tall as Saito and had her hands clasped behind her back as she stood at attention. Unlike the man, her legs possessed only one knee each, and as such she appeared physically indistinguishable from the Earthians — as did most of the Black Suns soldiers. But Mote knew that the Black Suns didn’t accept Earthian applicants. That meant that the woman had to be either a Citan — the third of the three CSA races — or a Nimalian, the race that SERRCom considered its closest ally.

Beyond their appearances, Mote had no idea of how to discern the identity of the man or the woman. They didn’t wear name patches, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be in a language that he could read. As is, he could only understand them (and they him) due to Real-time Translation Audio implants; there existed a visual counterpart to the implants, but SERRCom couldn’t afford widespread use of the technology.

Regardless, there wasn’t much for Mote to add to the confrontation. Colonel Saito had taken charge the moment they encountered the Black Suns, and had been arguing with the Black Suns commander ever since. Mote felt a level of animosity toward them — they were blatantly infringing on SERRCom’s territory, after all — but this wasn’t his argument to have.

“I hope I don’t have to bring in some CSA regulators.”

“Hmph…” The Siion scowled in response to Saito’s comment. “I hope you don’t think you can threaten the Black Suns.”

“Sir,” the woman behind him spoke up, “he has a point. I don’t think we should be trying to antagonize them.”

Ha! Kate snorted. You mean like how you stepped foot on our land and started digging up our shit?

“There was no sign of SERRCom ownership when we first investigated this planet,” the Siion countered, “our claim here is valid. More so than yours.”

“This planet is half a day from our Homeworld!” Saito exclaimed incredulously, “everyone knows that CSA regulations give automatic claim of all territory within a day’s travel of a civilization’s Homeworld to said civilization.”

Mote passed the Colonel an uneasy glance. He wasn’t familiar with such a regulation, and even if it did exist, Earth and SERRCom weren’t part of the CSA. Is the Colonel trying to bluff his way through this…?

“Maybe so,” the Siion responded, “but those regulations were written before you bastards got your grubby little hands on FTL tech orders of magnitude faster than what existed at the time!”

Sir,” the woman interjected again, “I think that it would be best if you took a moment to cool off.”

The man glanced back at her, his face scrounged up in frustration, but then he took a deep breath and clasped his hands behind him. “…She’s right,” he eventually stated, “…I believe we may have started off on the wrong foot. I am Colonel Brackath Triiant, Black Suns, Sector 3. And this,” he gestured toward the woman behind him, “is Commander Sela Rabine. Also Sector 3, and my second in command.”

“Greetings.” She bowed her head toward the Earthians.

“Ah. Well.” Saito took a moment to adjust his uniform. “I’m Colonel Kaji Saito, the commanding officer of CSF-1. With me is Researcher Kirstin MacTavish, Lieutenant Mote Emerson, and Lieutenant Katherine Faulkner.”

Just call me Kate, I hate ‘Katherine’, Kate interjected.

“…Right. Well, now that we’ve properly introduced ourselves…” Saito crossed his arms as he surveyed the dig site. “Want to let us know what you’re doing in Earthian territory?”

“We’ve discovered some… artifacts,” Triiant answered.

“W-were they—?” Kirstin started, but Saito held up a hand to stop her.

He then turned back toward the Siion Colonel. “And what, exactly, led to you ‘discovering artifacts’ so close to Earth?”

“That’s classified information,” Triiant declared.

“Colonel, I don’t think you understand the situation here.” Saito’s gaze hardened as he took a step toward Triiant. The Earthian Colonel squared off his shoulders and straightened his back, but the Siion still stood a half-foot taller, even without fully extending his legs. Nevertheless, Saito stood his ground and maintained steady eye contact with Triiant. “We have a ship in orbit,” he continued, “you don’t. We have beaming technology. Last I checked, you don’t. And this planet is in our territory. Not yours. We have the upper hand here in every meaningful way.”

“Ha! You can’t intimidate me.” Triiant let out an amused chortle. “The Black Suns, Sector 3 included, count many Chaotics among our ranks. Over half of the soldiers here are Chaotics. And the last time I checked, none of you Earthians are Chaotics.”

Mote couldn’t help but smirk as he allowed lightning to dramatically wreath his body; just next to him, Kate materialized a grenade out of thin air and began casually tossing it to herself like a baseball. I think you need to check again, Colonel, Mote commented.

“Wait. You…” The Siion Colonel narrowed his eyes as he studied Mote and Kate. A moment later he drew back, as if recoiling from a snake. “You—! You’re the Eximius Vir!”

Both Mote and Kate stopped showcasing their powers as they stared back in surprise. How the hell do you know us? Kate questioned.

“The Black Suns have our eyes on all notable Chaotics in the galaxy. And Earthian Chaotics are highly notable indeed, given how rare you are.”

“Oh? So what happened to that ‘none of you Earthians are Chaotics’ business?” Saito pressed.

Triiant turned to glare at Saito before planting his hands on his hips. “…Very well, Colonel. You’ve made your case. I’ll allow you to access the dig site, but you are to be supervised at all times.”

“What? No. You’re going to leave, and you’re going to like it.”

“We will do no such thing. We located this dig site first, and as such we are entitled to its contents.”

“’Finders keepers’ isn’t a valid philosophy in the world of grown-ups.”

“That isn’t all. You seem to be a rational and knowledgeable man, Colonel. You’re right that the CSA would side with you on this issue… usually. But I’m sure you also know their attitude toward Aldredas artifacts.”

“Y-you did find some!” Kirstin exclaimed.

The Siion nodded. “Yes, we did. And if we let the CSA know what we have here, then they’ll snatch it from both of us, and there won’t be anything that either of us can do about it.”

“If you do that, then you won’t have access to it, either,” Saito countered.

“No, not at first. But the Black Suns have more influence with the CSA than you Earthians; even if they seize it, there’s a chance we’ll get it back eventually.”

Saito scowled. “You’d really hurt yourself, just to spite us?”

“Only if you chase us off. If you allow us to continue, then I’ll allow you to have access to all of the data we recover.” Triiant spread his arms, palms up, as if to show that he meant no harm. “I’m sure that we would both rather not deal with the bureaucratic hellhole that is the CSA. So it’s in both of our best interests to work together.”

“Right. Working together,” Saito deadpanned. “…Fine. We’ll play this your way… for now. But if I catch you or any of your soldiers trying to leave with any artifacts, then we will forcefully remove you. You hear that, Mote, Kate?”

Gladly, Mote replied, his gaze directed squarely at the Siion Colonel.

“And I’d like to say the same to you,” Triiant declared. “I would suggest that you not underestimate the Black Suns.”

“I’ll be sure to make a note of that,” Saito commented. He then turned toward Mote, Kate, and Kirstin. “You three stay here and check out the dig site. I’ll report the situation to Huerta and get more people down here.”

Yes sir! Mote saluted.

“W-wait, C-Colonel!!” Kirstin frantically rushed to Saito’s side while glancing uneasily back at Colonel Triiant and Commander Rabine. “Y-you’re just going t-to leave me here?!”

“Relax. I won’t be gone long. Besides, you’ll have Mote and Kate to keep you safe.”

The Researcher looked back at Mote, who returned the glance. He then pursed his lips as he watched the Colonel finally shake her off and then get into radio contact with Out of Hand. Despite her being a member of CSF-1, whose job was to supervise and support the Eximius Vir, Mote refrained from interacting with Kirstin any more than was necessary. Being left to babysit her while investigating an alien excavation site was not his idea of a good time… but if that’s what Saito ordered, then he’d put up with it. That was his job, after all.

“Hmph.” Triiant watched Saito leave before turning toward Rabine. “Commander, I leave you in charge of showing these three around. Make sure they don’t do anything to the dig site.”

Yeah, it’d be a real damn shame if we did something to a bunch of artifact thieves, Kate retorted.

“We are not—!”

“It’s alright, Colonel, I can take it from here,” Rabine interjected, interposing herself between Triiant and the Earthians as she did so. “You should get back to work, sir.”

“…Right.” Triiant paused one more time to stare down the three Earthians before turning around and stomping off, just missing Kate as she flipped him off with both hands.

Mote sighed and rolled his eyes. Kate, really?

Oh c’mon, the dude’s a jackass and you know it, Kate retorted.

“I do apologize for his attitude,” Rabine commented, “but Triiant isn’t a ‘jackass’. Stubborn, sure, but sometimes you have to be in this galaxy of ours.”

You guys literally fucking invaded our territory!

“I don’t think it’s productive to retread the same argument that our superior officers just concluded. Now, do you want to see the dig site, or not?”

Yes, Mote replied, cutting off Kate. He passed her a reprimanding glare and then turned to look at Kirstin, who was standing several meters away. “Kirstin, come on. We’re about to look at the dig site.”

“A-ah?? Uh, r-right…” The researcher scurried over to Mote and Kate, but kept back a meter or two. Kate simply snorted and turned to follow Rabine; Mote did the same.

“Now, as you can probably see,” Rabine began as she led the trio down the hill, “the site isn’t all that large. We haven’t been here long. In fact, we’ve only really found one item of significance so far.”

Only one, huh? Kate questioned as she surveyed the site. There was a large tent behind some trees on the far side of the site, but the rest of the operation seemed to be contained to an area barely twenty meters on a side. Well, if clearing land is your big problem, then just give me a crack at it! I’ll excavate the whole forest in a day or two!

I don’t think blowing up forests is the best way to recover intact artifacts, Mote retorted.

“A-actually…” Kirstin spoke up timidly, “Aldredian arti-artifacts tend to be, um, sh-shielded…”

Exactly! Which is why blowing shit up is the best solution! Kate materialized another grenade into her hand and made to toss it.

“I don’t think so,” Rabine countered, pointing at the grenade — at which point it disappeared into thin air.

What the—? Kate stared at the Commander with surprise. You’re a Chaotic?

“I’m a Commander in a Black Suns field team. Of course I’m a Chaotic.” Rabine passed Kate an irritated glance, as if the answer to her question was patently obvious. “I’m a Spacetechnic. I can teleport things.”

Then why don’t you just teleport away all of the ground, huh?

Kate, stop antagonizing her, Mote cut in. Don’t make me say this again, either.

What—?! Tch… Kate scowled and turned away from Mote, but nonetheless kept her mouth shut.

“Well, anyways…” Rabine continued, “you’re right that Aldredian artifacts are usually shielded, but most of the time those shields are on the brink of failure. Explosives could just overload them and then destroy whatever they were protecting. And in the case of the artifact we found here… teleportation hasn’t exactly helped in recovering it, either.”

What…? Mote responded, confused. What do you mean?

“It might be better to show you.” The Commander stopped just in front of the large tent that Mote saw from the hilltop. She nodded toward the two soldiers standing in front of it, at which point they stepped aside, allowing her and the Earthians to enter. “This is the one thing we found,” she remarked as she ducked into the tent. “It’s… confounding.”

Mote followed her into the tent, finding inside a few stand lights to keep the place illuminated… and then what appeared to be a large doorway that led into a short hallway, that then disappeared into the hillside. The door itself appeared to be old and weathered, yet inexplicably clean — and also seemingly constructed out of a blackish silver metallic alloy. Wait… why does this seem… familiar…? Mote furrowed his brow in thought. Was this another part of my vision…?

“It’s quite odd, isn’t it?” Rabine commented, drawing Mote’s attention back to her. She then stepped up to the doorway and knocked on the door, only for her fist to stop just short of the door’s surface, eliciting the brief golden glow of an energy shield. “It’s clearly a doorway to something, and as with most planet-bound Aldredian artifact discoveries, it’s protected by an energy shield. But this shield is far stronger than any we’ve encountered before. Most of our explosives couldn’t get through it.”

What?! Kate exclaimed, didn’t you just get pissed at me for trying to blow shit up?!

“Yes, because we’ve already tried it. Further explosives merely have the potential of blowing up any other undiscovered artifacts in the area,” Rabine countered. “Furthermore, I can’t teleport inside. That would indicate that there’s an active CENT generator inside, which could further indicate that there is some kind of advanced and long-lasting power source hidden behind this door.”

“Have you t-tried to, uh, sc-scan the inside?” Kirstin suggested.

“We have, but with no success. The energy shield seems to block sensors as well as physical forces.”

Have you tried overloading the shield through other means? Mote questioned.

“We don’t have an Electrotechnic here, if that’s what you mean,” Rabine replied. “Electrically overpowering the shield could destroy the power source though, and I’d very much like to recover it intact.”

You’ll never recover it if you can’t even reach the damn thing, Kate pointed out.

“I’m aware. But even so…”

“Th-there’s p-probably more here than j-just, um, an en-energy source,” Kirstin commented.

She’s right, Mote agreed. I don’t think anyone would build such a long-lasting energy source if it wasn’t meant to actually protect something.

“Suppose that you’re right,” Rabine responded, “even then, do you really think you can generate enough power to overload this shield? Like I said, we’ve already tried a lot to take it down. It’s incredibly hardy.”

We won’t know until we’ve tried.

Kate passed Mote an odd glance. You’re being really insistent about this. Usually I’m the one who wants to blow shit up, not you!

…This is different, Mote replied as he began to approach the doorway. Whatever is behind this door is clearly important, so—!

He stopped mid-sentence as a holographic display suddenly appeared in front of the door, startling him. He reflexively jumped back before refocusing his attention on the display, only to find that it featured a series of symbols that he couldn’t recognize — and at the same time, seemed distinctly familiar.

“I-it’s Aldredian!” Kirstin exclaimed.

“I know… that’s odd.” Rabine glanced at Mote curiously. “What did you do?”

Nothing, Mote muttered, his attention still focused on the display. …I just stepped up to it, that’s all.

Well look at you, mister popular, Kate remarked with an annoyed smirk, first that stupid device, now a door. Seems like the Aldredas really like you, huh?

“What’s this about a device?” Rabine questioned.

It’s what led us here… but that’s not important right now. Mote turned toward Rabine and Kirstin. Can either of you read this?

“U-uh, well…” Kirstin began fumbling with her backpack as she attempted to pull out a journal, but Rabine simply stepped closer to the display and stared intently at it. Mote almost thought that her eyes lit up with literal light before she turned back to face him.

“…It seems to have recognized you as an ‘authorized user’,” she declared. “It’s asking if you want to open the door.”

You can read Aldredian? Mote questioned.

“Not natively, no. But I have a copy of the Aldredas language’s cipher stored in my RTV implants.”

…What?

She means she can look at it and have her eyes translate the text in real-time, dumbass, Kate retorted.

But the Aldredas died out long before anyone in the modern galaxy ever had the chance to meet them. How do we have an automated cipher for their language?

“You Earthians might have only reached into space a few decades ago,” Rabine commented, “but the rest of us have had multiple millennia to study Aldredian artifacts. Their language is so extensively studied, we could easily revive it if we so desired.” Then she shook her head and gestured toward the door. “But that’s irrelevant right now. It seems like we have an opportunity to open this door without destroying anything, so we should take it.”

I would agree, Mote responded uneasily as he turned back to face the door, but just because I triggered a hologram doesn’t mean that I know how to open this thing.

“It’s looking for input. Yes or no. But, well, in Aldredian.”

Alright, then how do I say ‘yes’ in Aldredian?

“’Kai’.”

…That’s simpler than I was expecting.

Kate snorted. The hell were you expecting? ‘Yes’ in most languages is, like, one whole fucking syllable.

Alright, alright… Mote took a deep breath and straightened his posture as he faced down the door. …Well, uh… ‘kai’.

A moment after Mote spoke the word, the holographic display disappeared. Silence followed for another brief moment before giving way to the hissing sound of air rushing through a small aperture. The door itself began to disappear into the ground, gradually exposing a short, dark corridor on the other side. Mote tentatively stepped inside; the moment he set foot past the doorway, a small light in the ceiling activated, dimly illuminating the area immediately around him.

“I can barely believe that all of these systems are still active,” Rabine remarked. “A fully functional structure, on the surface of a planet… this is a novel discovery. There must be some incredible preservation technology inside.”

Finally, something actually fucking exciting! Kate rubbed her hands together eagerly and began approaching the doorway. That stupid little diamond trinket we recovered earlier gave me some real blue balls, but this—! Oof—! The fuck?!

Mote stopped and turned around, finding that Kate had backed away from the doorway and was glaring at it as though it had personally offended her. What’s wrong?

Rabine stepped up to the doorway herself and gently reached out with her hand, only to be physically stopped by the doorway’s energy shield. “It looks like the shield’s back up,” she replied. “We can’t get through.”

What? That doesn’t sound right… Mote turned around and re-approached the doorway. The only significant changes in the electrical circuits that I could sense were the lights turning on. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not even sure that the shield turned off in the first place…

So, what? Kate crossed her arms in irritation. Are you saying that you just walked your stupid ass through an active energy shield?

Mote responded by reaching his arm through the doorway, meeting no physical resistance in the process. Kate promptly threw a punch toward his hand, prompting him to draw back — at which point Kate’s fist impacted the energy shield and rebounded.

Ow! Fuck!

Looks like I did, in fact, just ‘walk my stupid ass through an active energy shield’, Mote countered as Kate began to massage her hand. He then looked around himself at the doorway, the surrounding walls, and then the still-dark room deeper inside. …But this is weird. Why me?

“The answer to that might be deeper inside,” Rabine replied. “As well as a way to turn off this shield. You should investigate.”

I don’t know what to look for, though…

“Just go in and describe what you see. I can guide you after that.”

Mote glanced back at Rabine, and then turned toward the dark hallway. …I don’t know. I think we should alert Colonel Saito first—

Oh stop being a pussy already, Kate huffed, it’s just a dark little hallway, the fuck are you scared of?

Watch your tone, Mote shot back, but slowly began to advance down the short hallway anyways. Another light turned on as he reached the end a few meters down, revealing a doorway to his right into a dark room. He waved his hand in front of the doorway in an effort to activate the room’s lighting from outside, but the effort failed; with a wary sigh, he took one step into the room, hoping that whatever he found wouldn’t prove to be harmful.

Just as with the lights in the hallway, the room’s lighting promptly activated the moment Mote entered. The room proved to be small — more like a closet than an actual room. To the right of the doorway appeared to be some kind of small computer system, but what caught Mote’s attention was the item stood against the far wall. It was an ornate set of powered armor, swathed in crimson, gold, and black geometric designs. Parts of the armor, particularly the waist and the legs, were covered in elaborate robing that seemed to integrate into the armor itself — and on the chest plate was an insignia of a sword, pointed upward, in front of a circle. The insignia appeared again on the face of the helmet, except upside down, such that the sword’s cross guard covered about where the wearer’s eyes would be. What stood out most about the armor, however, was the fact that it seemed to be designed to cover the entire body in a sealed environment. Most powered armor in the modern galaxy consisted of only a few pieces of actual armor, most commonly a set of greaves, gauntlets, a chest plate, and a cod piece. The separate pieces would then coordinate to form an energy shield around the wearer, which served as the actual barrier of protection. As far as Mote was aware, modern armor was designed this way due to the fact that Chaotics and modern weaponry were capable of outputting far greater forces than material armor could protect against; so either this armor standing in front of him was from a time before the Aldredas had developed weaponry capable of obliterating most materials, or it was specifically constructed to be able to stand up to incredible physical forces.

…Or maybe it’s just decorative, Mote thought to himself. The armor certainly appeared to be more decorative than practical, judging purely by the elaborate geometric designs that covered it. And yet, it was protected by an energy shield that was mysteriously selective in who it permitted to pass, and was also surprisingly intact for something supposedly created over a hundred thousand years ago. In fact, it looked like it was a simple polish and laundry day away from appearing brand new. Part of Mote doubted that the armor was even Aldredian at all — and another part of him felt a tug of familiarity, not unlike what he had felt when he held the rhomboid device several days ago.

A woman with red hair.

The final image of Mote’s vision momentarily flashed in his mind, except this time, he noticed a detail that didn’t seem to be present before: the woman’s armor. It appeared to be identical to the set that now stood before him. The hell? How…?

Reflexively, Mote reached out toward the sword insignia inscribed into the armor’s breastplate. The armor was cool to the touch, with a texture like polished and painted metal. It felt similar to the modern powered armors that he was used to, which led him to believe that the set before him didn’t have any new or odd material properties — only an odd appearance. Still… with an appearance like this, and having appeared in my vision, too… He shook his head. No. My mind must be playing tricks on me. Human memories are easily manipulated, after all—

The sword insignia on the armor’s breastplate suddenly lit up in a soft blue color, drawing Mote’s attention. But just as he moved to back away, a bright white light engulfed the entire armor — which then disappeared into thin air. In its place momentarily hovered a small rhomboid object before it dropped out of the air; Mote reflexively caught it before it could hit the ground, but just as he began to process what was happening, another bright light enveloped his entire body —

— and the armor appeared over his clothes, replacing the armor he had previously been wearing.

The hell?! He scowled and quickly looked himself all over; the suddenness of this new occurrence reeked of a trap to him, but as he inspected his body and the armor he was now wearing, he found that it fit him perfectly. …What the hell is this? How did—?

Mote! Kate’s voice echoed from outside. What the hell’s going on in there?

“Yes, we just saw a flash of light,” Rabine added. “Are you alright?”

…Good question, Mote replied crossly. …I found a set of armor in here, but then, well… He stepped outside of the small room and into sight of the three women standing outside, at which point he gestured down at himself. Then this happened.

Kate stared at him for a moment before snorting and smirking in derision. Holy shit, what the hell are you wearing?

“Is that… some kind of armor?” Rabine questioned, leaning forward in an attempt to get a closer look. “Did you find that inside?”

That is what I just said, Mote retorted.

“And you decided to put it on? An ancient artifact?”

Hey, I didn’t decide anything. Mote cautiously stepped toward the energy barrier, looking himself over the whole time before turning his attention back to Kate and Rabine. That flash of light you saw was the armor just suddenly appearing on my body. I didn’t do anything to trigger it!

“I-it appeared on your b-body…?” Kirstin echoed.

Yeah, a likely story, Kate responded with a roll of her eyes.

Cut the crap, Mote insisted. You know how long it takes to put armor on. How the hell else would I have put something like this on in a second?

“The Lieutenant has a point,” Rabine commented, her attention locked solely onto the armor — as it had been ever since Mote stepped into view. “It may sound ridiculous, but little else explains how he’s suddenly wearing it. This is Aldredas technology we’re talking about, here; they may have discovered a way to quickly don and doff armors.”

Some technology, if it just suddenly activates with no damn warning…

“What happened before it appeared on you? Did you do anything? Did anything happen?”

Well… Mote paused for a moment to think. …I suppose I did touch it.

You touched a fucking ancient artifact?! Kate exclaimed, you dumbass!

How was I supposed to know that this would happen? I thought everything around here would be dead!

“That clearly isn’t the case, which may be an incredible boon to us.” Rabine glanced over at Kate before returning her attention to Mote. “Normally I would agree with your comrade here. Artifacts should be handled with care, even if they’re dead — especially if they’re dead.”

Mote scowled and looked away. Look, I don’t know why I touched it. It was just—

“I said ‘normally’,” Rabine interjected. “In this instance, I would have done as you did, and I wouldn’t have regretted it.” Her eyes dropped as she scanned the armor from head to toe; Mote shifted uncomfortably under her focused gaze, but she paid his discomfort no heed as she continued, “with a find like this… anyone would want to discover its secrets as soon as possible.”

I suppose so…

“Anyways, did you find a way to turn off this shield?”

Oh, uh… Mote glanced back at the entrance to the small room that had contained the armor. Not that I could tell. Aside from a small computer, this armor was the only thing in that room.

“Really?” Rabine questioned, confused. “All of this, just for a set of powered armor…?”

Just goes to show that the Aldredas were fucking weirdos, Kate retorted, and then stepped up to bang her fist on the shield and gesture for Mote to come out. But still, they were smart fucking weirdos, I’ll give ‘em that, so hurry the fuck up out here and let me see that goddamn armor!

Don’t order me around, Mote countered, but nonetheless stepped forward to stand outside of the shield. Kate immediately moved in to take a closer look, but he shoved her away irately. Hey! Weren’t you just about to get mad at me for touching this?

Yeah yeah, but that was then, and this is now! I mean, fuck, this is working Aldredas tech! Let me get a fucking look already!

You aren’t looking at anything until I figure out how to get this damn thing off me!

“M-maybe try, uh, th-thinking it…?” Kirstin suggested.

Mote stared at her incredulously. Thinking it? What?

“No… that’s an interesting suggestion, actually,” Rabine commented. “According to much of the history we’ve discovered regarding the Aldredas, they were no strangers to thought-activated technologies. As far as I’m aware, there haven’t been many actual discoveries of said technologies, but… it could be worth a shot, regardless.”

Right… Mote glanced uneasily at the Commander. …So I should just… think about taking it off?

Come the fuck on, Mote. Kate rolled her eyes impatiently. It’s not that hard, you fucking dumbass! Just do it!

Shut the hell up already, Mote snapped back, yet nonetheless paused for a moment to try and will the armor off of him. The idea seemed absurd, but just as he prepared to give up on it, the armor began to glow a brilliant white — and promptly disappeared, leaving behind his normal green and blue armor as well as a small blackish-silver rhomboid, that bore the same sword emblem as the armor. The rhomboid appeared just in front of his chest and then dropped to the floor.

“It seems to have worked,” Rabine observed as Kate immediately stooped over and snatched the rhomboid off of the ground.

Kate simply waved her off as she stared eagerly at the rhomboid device in her hands. …The hell is this? Did the whole fucking armor fit into this, somehow? How the hell?

Now that I think about it… Mote frowned warily. The armor did seem to turn into that rhombus before it appeared over me…

“Some k-kind of, uh, t-transformation, maybe…?” Kirstin suggested.

Well we’ll find out soon enough! Kate exclaimed, an eager grin plastered over her face as she turned the rhomboid over in her hands and inspected it from all sides. An ancient Aldredas armor, intact! Just imagine all the shit we could learn! This is fucking amazing!

Figures she says that once SHE gets a hold of it, Mote thought bitterly.

Alright, I’m gonna try putting it on. Here we fucking go!!

Kate held the rhomboid out in front of her and then closed her eyes, as if in concentration. Mote, Kirstin, and Rabine all watched her tentatively, waiting for the crimson, gold, and black armor to appear over her body.

A second passed — and then two. Nothing happened.

Slowly, Kate opened one eye to stare at the rhomboid. After another moment of nothing happening, her grin rapidly transformed into a scowl. What the hell, why won’t it fucking work?!

“Maybe you’re doing something wrong?” Rabine suggested.

Me? Doing something wrong—?!

“M-maybe it, um, ran o-out of power…” Kirstin commented.

Out of fucking power? After being attached to the human battery over here? Kate scoffed. Yeah fucking right! For all we know, he shorted it out and broke the damn thing!

Don’t try to pin this on me, Mote growled. I haven’t created any electricity since stepping foot in this room.

“Hmm… let me see it.” Rabine held out her hand toward Kate, who impetuously chucked the silverish-black device her way. Rabine quickly caught it and then inspected it closely.

Think you figure it out, smartass? Kate questioned, her arms crossed impatiently.

The Commander passed her an incredulous glance before returning her attention to the rhomboid. Mote saw her brow furrow momentarily, but then a moment later she sighed.

“I can’t get it to do anything, either,” she stated. “Maybe it is dead…”

“O-or maybe M-Mote is, um… th-the only one who can, uh, use it…?”

Mote, Kate, and Rabine all turned toward Kirstin, who quickly cast her eyes down and shrunk away. “I-I mean, th-that was j-just a sug-suggestion…”

Some suggestion, Kate snorted.

“No… I think there might be some merit to it,” Rabine refuted. She looked down at the rhomboid in her hand and then at the technological tomb just behind Mote, her expression one of realization. “Everything else here was only responding to the Lieutenant. The tomb door, the shield, the lights within… it’s very possible that the armor is programmed to only recognize the same thing that the rest of this technology does.”

Which is…? Mote questioned, flinching momentarily as Rabine tossed the rhomboid device toward him, but still managing to catch it with ease.

“Try to summon the armor again, first,” Rabine suggested. “Just to see that it’s not actually dead.”

Mote frowned with unease; he wasn’t fond of being left in the dark, much less so by a Black Suns officer. He couldn’t deny that access to a working piece of Aldredas equipment could be invaluable, given everything he had heard about Aldredian technology, but the fact that he was being fed this information by someone from the Black Suns tempered any potential eagerness with wariness.

Even so, there wasn’t much for him to gain by suddenly not playing along now. He turned his attention to the rhombus and — a single thought about activating the armor later — the crimson armor and robing once more appeared on his body.

“I see…” Rabine nodded to herself as she regarded the armor. “…And you did nothing else but think about putting it on?”

Yes. That’s what you told me to do, wasn’t it?

“It was, I was just checking. It seems like the Researcher was right.” Rabine glanced momentarily at Kirstin, who offered a brief uneasy smile before snapping her eyes to the ground. The Black Suns Commander then turned back to Mote. “…It seems likely, to me, that this technology was left behind for some important Aldredian, only they never made it back here to retrieve it.”

What? How does that translate to everything responding to me? Mote questioned.

“It’s a popular theory that the remnants of the Aldredas interbred with the ancient ancestors of the galaxy’s modern races,” Rabine answered. “That’s the prevailing theory behind why we’re all almost identical, in terms of physical appearance. If the theory is true, then perhaps one of your distant ancestors was an important Aldredas, and this technology was keyed to respond to their genes… which were then passed down to you.”

Over a hundred thousand years’ worth of generations?

“As I said, it’s just a theory. But if my assumptions are true, and this armor was intended for an important Aldredian, then it could have a lot of interesting and powerful features — features that, unfortunately, only you can activate.”

You can’t be fucking serious. Kate stomped the ground in frustration. You mean we’ve found a badass new piece of Aldredian tech, and I can’t even fucking use it? It’s locked to dumbass over here?!

That can’t be it, Mote commented with a frown. Why the hell would you lock a piece of hardware to a specific person’s genes? That’s ridiculous. What if they died, and someone else needed to use the armor? Who gains from something like this?

Why the hell are you complaining about this?

Because it’s an incredibly foolish design, if intentional. It seems more reasonable to assume that the hundred thousand year old piece of armor is simply defective, rather than some convoluted gene-locking nonsense.

“As I said, it’s just a theory,” Rabine reiterated, her attention seemingly focused elsewhere as her face clouded with frustration. “But we’ll have to continue this… discussion… later. I just received an alert from the Colonel — the Drakkars have discovered the dig site. They’re on their way as we speak.”

 

Chapter 5 – Black Chaos

“What the hell have you done?!”

“What have we done? We just got here!”

“Exactly. We’ve been here for months with no issue. The fact that the Drakkars have appeared now must be because of your arrival!”

Colonel Saito stared incredulously at Colonel Triiant, who had just stomped over from the Black Suns command tent. Saito had been conferring with Major Hackett, Captain Travis, Mark, and Danielle — the members of CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir who hadn’t gone ahead to investigate the dig site — in an attempt to plan for dealing with the incoming Drakkar threat before being interrupted by the Black Suns Colonel; the fact that Triiant seemed to be blaming the Earthians for the appearance of the Drakkars merely irritated Saito even further.

“I can think of a dozen reasons for the Drakkars showing up here that don’t revolve around us,” Saito countered. “The fact is, Colonel, you’re the ones who have been mucking around on this planet. It’s far more likely that the Drakkars picked up on the months of your activity than on the hours of ours.”

“And hours might just be all it takes,” Triiant shot back. “We have been traveling to and from this planet through the Interstellar Gate, and keeping a low profile as we did. You’re the ones who decide to traipse around the galaxy in spaceships all the time, instead of just taking the Gate like a normal, organized military!”

“Ships that have faster FTL drives and increased stealth abilities over the rest of the galaxy, you mean. The chance that the Drakkars detected the Out of Hand from their territory and is so minuscule as to be non-existent.”

“And so you think that they detected our outpost on its own, then? Might I remind you that you, yourself, were surprised to find us here? You, the ones whose Homeworld is so close?”

“You can’t honestly expect our sensor technology to be on par with the Drakkars. The CSA can’t even keep up with them!”

“Sirs,” Major Hackett interjected, “I don’t quite think that there’s time for this—”

“Of course there isn’t, because you brought down the Drakkars on all our heads!” Triiant snapped.

“Cut the attitude, Colonel. The Major’s right,” Saito countered. “According to our Frigate’s sensors, the Drakkars will arrive in under an hour. We need to come up with a plan to deal with this situation.”

We? And just what tactical knowledge about the Drakkars can you provide?”

“Oh for the love of…” Saito sighed in frustration and massaged his temples. As he was doing so, he noticed Commander Rabine suddenly appear in the air just next to Triiant.

She glanced between the two Colonels warily. “Sirs? What are you doing?”

“I was just about to tell the Earthian Colonel here to pack up and leave,” Triiant replied, his furious gaze fixated entirely on Saito. “They’re the ones who brought the Drakkars here.”

“You have to be kidding me,” Saito responded in exasperation. “We’re the ones with a ship! Just what the hell is your evac plan if we leave without you?”

“Lay low and wait the Drakkars out. We know they’re coming, after all; we just need to leave this site, flank around the Drakkars, and beat them back to the Gate.”

“And then when the Gate is still active and connected to a Drakkar world?”

“We wait until they leave. They don’t know we’re here.”

“Ah yes, I forgot. They’re here because they detected our ship. And so, in response, they send a ground team through the Interstellar Gate. A ground team that just so happens to have immediately started moving toward this exact location. But certainly, they don’t know you’re here at all.”

“You can’t—!”

“Sir,” Rabine interjected, stepping forward to put herself within Triiant’s line of sight, “we can argue about who attracted the Drakkars here later. For now, we need to focus on dealing with them.”

Triiant opened his mouth to respond, but then he closed it without saying anything and pursed his lips. A few moments passed as he and Saito continued glaring at each other, but eventually Triiant let out a frustrated sigh and snapped his gaze away. “I suppose you’re right.”

At least he listens to her, Saito thought bitterly, but knew better than to say as much out loud. Now that the Colonel’s second-in-command was present and he seemed slightly more likely to listen, it was time to address the actual matter at hand. “With that out of the way,” Saito began, “the Drakkars will be here in… probably around forty minutes, at this point. According to our Frigate’s scans, they have a few vehicles with them. The actual Drakkars number around thirty. Now, we have a ship on our side, but the Out of Hand isn’t outfitted for ground combat. And there’s only eight of us. How many combatants do you have with you?”

“…Only ten of my soldiers are Chaotics,” Triiant begrudgingly replied. “All twenty of us have received combat training and can fire weapons, but we’re Sector 3. My team’s primary purpose is research, not combat.”

Saito nodded as he began processing possible courses of action in his head. “Alright, so a fight is out of the question.”

Is it, though? Danielle spoke up from behind him, drawing the attention of both Colonels. If it’s just a bunch of Drakkars, well, we’ve handled that before. She then glanced at Mark. Right?

Yeah. Mark nodded. We can handle a few Drakkars.

“Even if you could, when the expedition team doesn’t return, the Drakkars will know to send a larger force, maybe even a ship,” Rabine pointed out. “This dig site isn’t worth escalating up to a Drakkar siege.”

“Speaking of the dig site…” Triiant looked around himself at the Earthians, and then back at Rabine. “What happened to those Earthians I told you to keep an eye on?”

Colonel!

Saito and Triiant both reflexively glanced off to the side, where Mote was approaching with Kate and MacTavish in tow. Both Colonels’ attentions then immediately dropped to the overly extravagant crimson, gold, and black armor that Mote was now wearing, with elaborate designs and flowing robes that seemed designed more to impress than to protect. It clashed heavily with both the Black Suns’ black, blue and silver armor, and the Earthians’ conservative blue and green armor — and neither group had nearly as much robing as Mote now wore.

“C-Colonel,” MacTavish began as she rushed to Saito’s side, “th-that armor—!”

“Where the hell did you get that?” Triiant interjected, his gaze fixated on Mote.

“It was stored in the tomb we discovered three months ago,” Rabine answered.

“WHAT?!” The Siion exploded in fury, prompting MacTavish to shrink away and hide behind Saito as Mote reflexively backed into a defensive stance. “Take that off, immediately!”

“Sir? Sir!” Rabine quickly interposed herself in between Triiant and Mote just as sparks began flickering around the latter’s arms. “He is wearing the armor under my advice. If you’ll allow me to explain—”

“There’s no explanations needed for this! They’ve shown their true colors. They were here to steal the artifacts from under our noses all along—!”

The low hum of electrical motors cut Triiant off as Out of Hand suddenly appeared in the sky just above the treetops. As a Frigate, she wasn’t a large ship — just slightly over 80 meters long, bow to stern — but her altitude was so low as to scrape the tops of the tallest trees and cast shade over most of the dig site.

“And now you’ve come to make your escape,” Triiant growled, glaring up at the hovering craft.

“Oh for the love of…” Saito simply shook his head in response before looking up at the Frigate and activating his communicator. “Commander Huerta, what’s going on?”

«Lo siento, sir,» Huerta responded, «but we had to act quickly. A Drakkar Cruiser just appeared in orbit.»

“A Cruiser?!”

«Sí señor, I do not lie. I believed it prudent to approach and activate our beam jamming field in order to prevent them from beaming any of you away.»

“Shit. Well you made the right choice—”

“We’re under attack!!”

“What the…?” Saito, and everyone else in the immediate vicinity, turned their attention in the direction of the shout: toward the far side of the dig site. Flashes of flames and weapons fire could be seen, as well as flickers of familiar silhouettes — silhouettes with lithe frames, digitigrade legs, and long hair-like spikes extending from their heads.

“Drakkars!?” Triiant exclaimed.

“Damn!” Saito scowled. “Did they beam down before Huerta could activate the jamming field…?”

Don’t worry, Colonel, Mote responded as he materialized his massive battle hammer, wreathed in extravagant blue and silver designs and possessing a faintly glowing blue orb inset on either side of the hammerhead. We can take care of the Drakkars while you get everyone on the Frigate.

“I don’t think so!” Triiant roared. “Not while you’re in that armor! Take it off and hand it over, now!”

We don’t have time to argue about this, Mote snarled back. In the distance, a couple explosions could be heard, followed by the loud creaking of falling trees. I’m going to deal with the Drakkars. Then we can talk about this armor—

“Hold on, Mote.”

Huh…? Mote stopped in his tracks, his attention focused on Saito as the Colonel stepped forward.

Oh c’mon! Kate complained as the sounds of combat began to draw nearer. Just let us fucking fight already! It’s been forever since I saw a decent fight!

“That depends on what Colonel Triiant has to say.” Saito turned toward the Black Suns Officer. “Listen. I’ve been trying to help, but so far, all of my attempts have been met with contempt.”

You’re the one who—!” Triiant started, but Saito held up a hand to stop him.

“I’m not done,” the Earthian Colonel insisted. “I tried to play nice, but that ship has sailed. So now you have two options, Triiant. You let us keep that armor, and we’ll kill those Drakkars, and then let you on our ship. Or, we hand the armor over, wipe our hands of this asinine situation, and leave you to deal with the Drakkars all on your own. Your choice.”

Saito maintained his gaze on the Siion Colonel, but in the lull that followed, he could feel the surprised stares on him from everyone present. Even Mote and Major Hackett, who Saito could see just out the corners of his eyes, seemed uneasy at the Colonel’s ultimatum. He was threatening to leave behind an unprepared group to fight a superior force all on their own, after all; he wasn’t directly violating any SERRCom rules or procedures in making the threat, but it was a questionable act all the same. In a way, he was glad that the rest of CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir were startled to hear him make these threats — it meant that none of them would stoop quite so low as he was now.

It also meant that his bluff was all that more successful.

A flash of light emerged from across the dig site, and a stray laser blast tore through a tent just a few meters away. Saito ignored the encroaching chaos and kept his attention focused on Triiant, who readily returned the glare — but through the corner of his eye, Saito could see the Black Suns forces fighting against the Drakkars. Waves of water and rock washed over the Drakkars, and blasts of weapons fire exploded across their shields; the Black Suns were fighting surprisingly effectively for a research team, and were doing a good job of keeping out of melee range with the Drakkars so as not to have their Ciei stolen. But their Chaotic attacks were unrefined, and their weapons fire was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Drakkars. The Black Suns were being forced back, with several of them already taking cover in excavated parts of the dig site itself.

On the other side of Saito, he spotted Mark tighten his grip on his halberd, and Mote leaning forward, as if preparing to enter the fight. But Saito simply held out his hand to signal that they should stay put. Triiant’s glare remained unbroken, but Saito could tell that he was tense. Part of Saito hated holding a non-hostile force hostage like this, but the other part of him knew the value of both Aldredian artifacts — particularly intact ones — and of the need to enforce SERRCom’s borders. Yielding to the Black Suns, the galaxy’s largest and most powerful PMC by far, could set a dangerous precedent for SERRCom sovereignty.

Eventually the conversational lull was broken by Commander Rabine, who’s attention was focused on the fighting by the dig site. “Sir,” she urged, “we need to act now.”

Triiant growled in response, his eyes still on Saito. “…You wouldn’t leave us behind.”

“I’d trust what the Colonel says,” Hackett interjected. “He’s no joker.”

Saito cast a glance toward the Major. ‘No joker,’ ha, he thought to himself as he fought the urge to smirk. She’s definitely seen through me.

The Siion bristled, but held his tongue. His eyes bore incredible fury, but he seemed to have grasped the situation and realized it better to cease his antagonistic attitude. “…Fine,” he eventually conceded. “…You can keep the armor.”

“Good!” Saito smiled and then turned toward the Eximius Vir. “You’re free to engage.”

About fucking time! Kate whooped as she materialized a pair of red and golden greaves around her feet and two large grenades in her hands, and then charged forward. Let’s murder us some Drakkars!!

Kate! Don’t get careless! Mote shouted after her. …Damn it. Danielle, make sure she doesn’t accidentally kill anyone she isn’t supposed to. Mark! You’re with me!

Got it! Mark and Danielle replied simultaneously. Mark then followed after Mote as Danielle transformed into a giant mech and dashed after Kate.

The four rapidly crossed the dig site and entered the battlefield, at which point an incredible bolt of lightning struck the ground around Mote, blowing away all of the trees within fifty meters of him and frying everything within twenty. Mark immediately bounded over him and slammed his halberd into a fallen tree trunk, imparting enough force to immediately split the entire trunk into two lengthwise halves. He grabbed one of the chunks, hoisted it into the air with one hand, and then hurled it through the air at a nearby Drakkar, nailing it in the head and sending it flying. Danielle, as a giant mech, snatched the Drakkar out of the air and then chucked it at the ground, completely overloading its energy shielding and splattering it in the process. She then stomped on another Drakkar nearby before opening fire with a 10mm rapid-fire gauss cannon mounted to her arm, tearing through the surrounding shrubbery and forcing the remaining Drakkars back under a hail of bullets. Mote seized the opportunity afforded by their distracted state to approach and remotely manipulate the voltage of the batteries in their armor, setting it to zero and therefore immediately shutting down all of their energy shields.

Fire in the hole!!

With little warning, a massive explosion erupted from deep within the forest, incinerating trees, dirt, and Drakkars alike within several dozen meters and flattening everything else within a hundred. Kate promptly came tumbling forward, thrust through the air by the blast wave; as she landed in a roll into a sprint, she fabricated half a dozen chunks of plastic explosive in her hands and began slapping them to the backs of the remaining Drakkars. Several of them attempted to grab her, but she managed to dodge all of them, save the last — which was then cleaved clean in two by Mark’s halberd.

Mote! Kate shouted toward the Electrotechnic, and then gestured toward the Drakkars she had tagged. Light ‘em up!!

Mote responded with a brief nod before holding his hand out toward the Drakkars. A streak of lightning jumped from his fingertips to each of the chunks of plastic explosive, detonating them and blowing the attached Drakkars to pieces. Danielle and Mark then rushed through the aftermath to chase down and deal with the remaining Drakkars.

From their location across the dig site, Triiant and Rabine watched the battle in awe.

“…I must admit, Colonel.” Rabine glanced toward Saito. “When I heard that you Earthians had a handful of Chaotics, I didn’t think they would be quite so… effective.”

“This isn’t even them at their best,” Saito responded airily. “I guess they’re using it as an excuse to let off steam. Normally a fight like this wouldn’t last two seconds.”

Triiant gave Saito an uneasy look. “…You’re bluffing.”

“Now now, Colonel,” Saito replied sagely, “I never bluff.”

“Hmph. I could believe some of what I’m seeing. But your Electrotechnic and Explosives Formtechnic are more powerful than they have any right to be.”

“You mean Mote and Kate? Ha! You just haven’t seen Mark and Danielle at their full potential, then.”

“I’m serious.” Triiant’s eyes narrowed again into a glare. “This level of power at their young age should only be possible with an Ayas.”

Saito frowned. “If you’re suggesting that they’re using any Ayas, then you’d be wrong. You as well as anyone should know that SERRCom only has one Ayas, and we sure as hell didn’t bring it with us here.”

“And even if they did, now isn’t the time to discuss the matter,” Rabine interjected as she turned away from the battle. “Colonel Saito, I understand that you’re willing to help us evacuate?”

“Our ship should have enough room for all of you,” Saito replied. “We can take you to the nearest Tier 5 world with a Gate and then send you on your way.”

“You have our thanks.” Rabine briefly bowed her head, and then glanced toward Triiant. “Right, sir?”

“…Yes,” the Siion begrudgingly admitted, and then turned around to leave. “…I’ll go gather my soldiers.”

“Make it quick,” Saito shouted after him, “we need to leave before that Cruiser approaches to within firing range!”

Triiant raised a hand in acknowledgment, but otherwise remained facing forwards as he left.

“Alright…” Saito turned around toward the rest of CSF-1. “Pack your bags, everyone. It’s time to leave.”

“Barely had any time to see the sights,” Captain Travis remarked.

“I-I saw something im-important, though…” MacTavish commented quietly.

“What are you talking about?” Rabine questioned, stepping forward to approach the group.

MacTavish shied away from her, but continued anyways. “…Th-the armor that, um, th-that Mote is wearing. J-just before we g-got here, i-it showed him a-another set of c-coordinates.”

Rabine’s face scrounged up in confusion. “’Another’?”

“Mm-hmm. I-in Dead Space—”

“Alright, MacTavish, that’s enough for now,” Saito interjected as he passed a surreptitious glance toward the Black Suns Commander. Rabine herself seemed reasonable, but he had no desire to leak information to Triiant’s chain of command — or even the Black Suns as a whole. “Let’s save it for the debriefing, shall we?”

MacTavish backed away, startled. “O-oh… w-well… okay…”

“This isn’t the first time you mentioned something about prior knowledge,” Rabine commented, and then crossed her arms as she stared at MacTavish. “Just what do you know? What information lead you here?”

“Like I said, let’s save it for the debriefing,” Saito insisted as he activated his communicator. “For now, we need to get out of here. Colonel Saito to Out of Hand, come in! We’re preparing for evac, standby for further instructions…”

Chapter 6 – Ancient Mystery

15 Years Ago

Wow, way to go, stupid. Stupid idiot!

Am not! I did just fine.

Nuh uh. A little girl, with olive skin and long black hair, thrust a sheet of paper into the face of the boy she was talking to. See? I got perfect!

The boy scowled and shoved her away. So? I passed. I’m not stupid!

There are, like, five questions, stupid! And they’re so easy! Everyone else got perfect too, you know!

What? No! Danielle missed some, too!

Yeah, that’s ‘cause she’s stupid, too! The girl stuck her tongue out. Stupid Mote!

Stop it, Kate! Mote snapped at her. I did fine! The rest of the class scored like me, too!

“What’s going on in here?”

Mote and Kate looked to their left, where an older man had just entered the room. His face bore the beginnings of some wrinkles and his hair was graying, but he still stood with an impeccable posture and tidy clothes.

Mote’s being stupid, Mr. Wallen! Kate shouted as she pointed at Mote.

Am not! Mote immediately countered.

“Let’s keep it down in here, okay?” The man stepped forward and glanced sternly between the two children. “What’s this about being ‘stupid’, now?”

She thinks I’m stupid just because I didn’t get a perfect grade on our math quiz.

And you are, Kate retorted.

“Let me see.” The man approached the two, holding out his hand to accept the papers they were holding. He then looked them over, taking the time to absorb the information before giving Mote a stern look. “Well, Mote, I wouldn’t say that you’re stupid. But I do have a question about what you’ve done here. It almost seems like you intentionally got some of these wrong.”

Mote frowned. What?

“You showed your work, which is good. More than Kate can say.” The man passed her a reprimanding glance before turning back to Mote. “But the answers you wrote don’t match the work you showed.”

That’s because he’s stupid. Kate stuck her tongue out at him again.

Am not! And I didn’t do anything on purpose, either, Mote insisted.

“I don’t know. I’m seeing this a lot from you, lately,” the man replied. “Mote, you have some real potential in you, I’m sure. You could be matching Kate and Mark with your grades, but it’s like you’re holding yourself back.”

Kate proudly planted her fists on her hips. Yeah, you could be special, like me!

I don’t want to be special, Mote immediately countered.

“There’s nothing wrong with being special,” the man responded. “Being special means that you’re remembered. Everyone that is remembered by history was special in some way.”

What about normal people?

“They get forgotten. Nobody remembers what normal people do. If you want to be remembered, you have to rise above the rest.”

Mote scowled. But what if I don’t wanna?

“You should want to.” The man crossed his arms. “You have the potential, I know you do. You just have to realize it.”

No! I don’t.

“Yes, you do—”

No! I’m normal!

The man looked down on Mote with pursed lips. “Whether you like it or not, you already aren’t normal. If you were, you wouldn’t be here, with me. If you want to get out of this system, then you have to listen—”

No!! Mote shouted once more, his face scrounged up in anger — and small sparks appearing across his arms and hands.

Kate drew away in surprise, but the man didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he stepped closer, his eyes still on Mote. “Alright, I’ve had enough of this. I’ve tried to get through to you, but you just refuse to listen. Now come with me.” He reached down and grabbed Mote by the arm. Mote reflexively jerked back, and then — with no warning, and no thought — a blast of electricity jumped from Mote’s wrist to the man, throwing him against the far wall, where he slumped to the floor.

Mote stared at the man, wide-eyed. He couldn’t tell if he was alive, but his hand was smoking, and he wasn’t moving. Slowly, Mote looked down at his hands, and then over at Kate, who stared at him with a mixture of awe and fear from behind the door into the room. What… he muttered, what… just happened…?

*     *     *

Present Day, 1 Day Later

Friday, September 30, AD 2129

“Well, Colonel, short as your mission was, I think it’s safe to say that the intel you gathered is incredibly valuable.”

“Now if only all of my missions could achieve the same productivity to deployment time ratio,” Saito replied with a smirk.

General Lead didn’t smile back, or even change his facial expression much at all — but the barely audible sound of air rushing out his nose still managed to snap Mote out of his thoughts, at which point he turned his attention back to the other three individuals present in the briefing room: Major Hackett, Kate, and Kirstin. Hackett sat next to Saito, her posture impeccable and her hands clasped on top of the table as she kept steady eye contact with whoever was speaking at the moment; Kirstin, on the other hand, sat hunched in her chair with her head bowed to obscure her eyes with her bangs while she fiddled with her thumbs in her lap. Kate sat across from Hackett, and next to Mote, though she seemed barely interested in the meeting at all as she toyed around with a blackish-silver rhomboid device, sporting the same sword insignia that Mote saw on the Aldredian armor.

Thoughts of the armor, coupled with the context of the debriefing he was currently attending, brought Mote’s mind back to the previous day’s events. After clearing out the Drakkars in the immediate vicinity, the Frigate Out of Hand beamed aboard all of the Black Suns along with CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir and then fled the scene. A single Earthian Frigate was no match for a Drakkar Cruiser, after all, so Saito prioritized returning to Earth and informing the General about current events. After dropping off CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir, Out of Hand left to drop off the Black Suns at a low-tier world with an Interstellar Gate so that they could return to Black Suns space; meanwhile, the Earthians took the evening and the next morning to rest before meeting up with General Lead to properly debrief him. Saito had just now finished going over the actual events of the mission when Lead remarked on its value.

“Well then, let me begin by addressing the most pressing matter first,” General Lead began, drawing Mote’s attention back to the meeting. “Given the presence of a Drakkar ship so close to Earth, and so far from their own territory, I’ve raised the alert level of the fleets. Are you sure it was just the one Cruiser, Colonel?”

“I’m as certain as I can be,” Saito replied, “Commander Huerta of the Out of Hand assured me that it was the only ship their sensors picked up.”

“I see. Well I’ve dispatched a small strike group to the planet all the same; if the Cruiser is still there, they should be able to take it down, or at least chase it off. But one key issue still remains…” Lead paused to glance at each of the others present, prompting them all — even Kirstin and Kate — to center their attention on him. “Why did the Drakkars show up where they did, when they did? Given your report, Saito, they obviously knew about the location of the dig site ahead of time. But how?”

“We did run into Drakkars during our mission at the beginning of the week, sir,” Hackett pointed out. “Maybe they were able to figure out where we were going.”

No, that can’t be right, Kate immediately refuted. The Drakkars that we fought at the dig site were a different faction from the ones you guys ran into earlier. And everyone knows that the different factions don’t get along. There’s no way they’d share this kind of info.

How do you know they’re different factions? Mote questioned.

Are you kidding? Kate passed him an incredulous glance. The guy that took Captain Feng’s Ciei said he was Prosusicivious, the leader of the Prolatio Drakkars. You know, the ones with tails? But the ones we fought yesterday didn’t have any tails.

“Do you know which faction it was?” Lead asked.

Er… no. They were all wearing full-body armor, so we couldn’t get a look at their body markings. They at least weren’t from the Sursum faction, since their head spike thingies didn’t bend upwards.

“Obviously it’s unfortunate that we don’t know exactly which faction we’re dealing with here, but does it actually matter?” Saito pressed, “what does matter is that they somehow discovered the dig site and decided that whatever there was valuable enough to send a Cruiser after, even tens of thousands of light years out from their own territory.”

Lead nodded in agreement. “The Colonel’s right. Which is why, once we’re certain that there is no further Drakkar presence in the area, I’ll be assigning a permanent guard to watch over the planet. I’ve also asked Directors Riese and MacTavish to set up a research team to more thoroughly investigate the planet; it’s clear that our last survey was… insufficient.”

“M-MacTavish?!” Kirstin stared at the general, wide-eyed with fear, before finally settling back in her chair and sighing of relief. “O-oh… y-you mean my f-father…”

Mote frowned at the mention. Kirstin was no slouch when it came to field research, but it was rumored that she was only placed on CSF-1 due to the fact that her father, Scott MacTavish, was the Director of SERRCom’s research and development division, the Earthian Technological Advancement Agency — better known as the ETAA. Scott was responsible for much of SERRCom and Earth’s technological progression over the past two decades, and as such he held a lot of clout within SERRCom. Mote disliked the idea that nepotism could fly within the organization, but he couldn’t help but wonder, given Kirstin’s… quirks.

The General simply glanced at Kirstin, and then over at the rhomboid device in Kate’s possession. “Yes. Though there is another lead that you obtained on your previous mission… correct?” He looked back at Kirstin.

“…O-oh! Y-yes…” she stuttered out, unprepared to be directly addressed. “U-um, th-the coordinate… right…”

“I’m given to understand that you obtained it from the Aldredian armor that you recovered. Speaking of, where is that armor right now?”

Right here! Kate held up the rhomboid device. Pretty amazing, huh?

Lead frowned. “I’m not sure I follow.”

This device can be used to ‘summon’ the armor, for lack of a better word. She then shoved the rhomboid into Mote’s hands. Show him!

Don’t order me around, Mote countered.

Oh c’mon, you order me around all the fucking time. Just show the General the damn armor already!

Tch… Mote snorted in irritation, but nonetheless grasped the device in his hands and thought about recovering the armor. A moment later, a bright white light covered his body and quickly gave way to the spectacular designs of the Aldredian armor. He passed the General a quick glance of acknowledgment before dismissing the armor with a thought and tossing the rhomboid back at Kate. The ability to somehow store an entire armor within a hand-held object was incredibly useful — Mote didn’t deny that — but he didn’t like the idea of arbitrarily selective technology. Surely, it must just be broken. Or maybe Kate hasn’t tried hard enough to bring the armor out herself…

“Hmm…” Lead stared at the rhomboid for a moment before glancing toward Mote. “That armor… according to MacTavish’s post-mission notes, it only responds to Lieutenant Emerson, is that correct?”

Mote felt all eyes fall on him. It is, sir, he responded uneasily.

“Do you know why?”

I don’t. I didn’t even do anything special when interfacing with the technology back at the dig site.

The Black Suns Commander we were with seemed to think it had something to do with his genes, Kate commented, and then shrugged. Sounds like bullshit to me, but who knows? It’s got to be something unique to Mote, at least.

Lead’s brow furrowed. “What’s this about his genes? Are you suggesting that this technology only responds to a certain gene?”

It was just a guess on the part of the Black Suns Commander, sir, Mote insisted. The technology is ancient; it was probably just malfunctioning.

Oh bull-fucking-shit, Kate countered. It isn’t just the armor that likes you. It was also the force field, the tomb door, and also that other device CSF-1 found on a completely fucking different planet! This is beyond the realm of coincidence.

Mote scowled. But it doesn’t make any sense. There’s no way that technology designed to recognize only a certain gene would pick up that same damn gene thousands of generations later. And that’s even assuming that the Aldredas actually did breed with ancient humans!

“We may simply not have the proper understanding here, as the last time I checked, none of us present are geneticists,” Lead commented. “So leave the genetic testing hypothesizing to the ETAA. The coordinate obtained from the armor is more immediately important. Even if we assume that Emerson is the only one who could have activated the device recovered earlier this week, the fact still remains that the Drakkars found their way to the dig site around the same time as us. They may have other means of locating Aldredian technology, and as such they may already be on our trail. Or ahead of us, even.”

“I take it you want us to check out this new coordinate, sir?” Saito questioned.

“Respectfully, sir — is that really a good idea, after what happened last time?” Hackett asked.

“It is because of what happened last time that I want you to look into this,” Lead replied. “As Saito said earlier, the Drakkars clearly value this technology. And if I remember my galactic history lessons correctly, the Drakkars were around at the same time as the Aldredas, so they should know better than anyone just what Aldredian technology is capable of. If they want it, we want it, and we need to try our best to keep it out of their hands.”

“Never a moment’s rest with CSF-1, is there…” Saito sighed. “Alright, General. Where are we going next?”

“According to Researcher MacTavish’s report…” Lead glanced toward Kirstin; she promptly looked away and shrunk in her chair in response. “…The coordinate recovered from the armor is located in Dead Space. That makes things tricky.”

Mote nodded along absentmindedly. “Dead Space” referred to large regions of the galaxy that were completely devoid of Chaos Energy, making it impossible for Chaos Energy-based technology to function, or for Chaotics to use their abilities. Luckily, SERRCom didn’t have many Chaotics and generally didn’t make as much use of Chaos Energy-based technology as the rest of the galaxy, but they still preferred to avoid Dead Space whenever possible all the same.

“It at least means that the Drakkars shouldn’t be able to do their Ciei thing,” Hackett pointed out.

“It does,” Lead agreed, and then looked toward Mote and Kate. “But it means that the Eximius Vir won’t be able to use their abilities, either.”

Actually, about that, Kate interjected, we all know that we can use our powers in a CENT field, which is basically just Dead Space lite. Who’s to say that we can’t use our powers in actual Dead Space, as well?

“The vastness of Dead Space is on a very different scale than the meager few meters of CENT fields.”

Oh c’mon. I’m the Intellitechnic here, shouldn’t I be making these conclusions?

The General’s eyes narrowed into a glare. “Excuse me?”

…What? Kate scowled. Oh, come on! I’ve been trying to set up Dead Space tests for over a year, but I keep getting cock-blocked—!

“That’s enough,” Lead barked. “I appreciate your input, Lieutenant, but I will not accept the attitude.”

But—!

Katherine, Mote hissed, listen to him, and shut the hell up.

Tch…! She pursed her lips, her brow furrowed in anger, but she spoke no further — instead choosing to cross her arms and slouch back in her chair.

“Now, as for the actual mission…” Lead moved on, his attention pointedly turned toward Saito and Hackett. “The Eximius Vir will sit this one out. Colonel, you’re to take CSF-1 and embark on a joint exploration mission with Commander Sela Rabine of the Black Suns.”

“…We’re still running with the Suns?” Saito frowned. “If I may ask, sir… why?”

The General sighed in response. “They’ve extended the same ultimatum to me that they gave to you,” he eventually responded. “If we don’t share the information we gain from this armor, then they’ve threatened to inform the CSA of the artifacts that we’ve recovered.”

“Do you think the threat is credible?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time that the CSA seized Aldredian artifacts from non-member nations. The Nimalians have suffered such treatment many times over, and SERRCom wields even less power than them. So, unfortunately, it would seem that we have to play ball with the Black Suns.”

“Great.” Saito rolled his eyes. “I had hoped to never lay eyes on that one Colonel ever again…”

“You won’t have to,” Lead replied. “I’ve been informed that Commander Rabine is in charge of the team meant to work with you.”

“Oh. Good. She seemed to have a level head.”

“When do we leave, sir?” Hackett asked.

“I appreciate you wanting to get to the point, Major,” Lead commented, “but you won’t be leaving for another five days. It will take around that long for the Battlecruisers Genesis and Origin to be retrofitted for Dead Space operation.”

“If it’s going to take that long, why not just take the Gate?” Saito questioned, “there’s probably a Gate on this next planet, right?”

“Even if there is, we have no idea if there is already a Drakkar presence. If there is, then they will undoubtedly be watching the Gate, making it nigh impossible for a ground team to make it through successfully — all we would have achieved in that situation is informing the Drakkars that we’re onto them. To avoid that, I’m sending you by ship, and as is, the Flagship Strike Group — consisting of Genesis and Origin — are our most effective ships for this particular mission, even considering the necessary Dead Space retrofits.”

“Right… I see.”

“I’ll forward further mission details in the days to come,” Lead commented, and then turned toward the other members of the meeting. “Now, is there anything else to cover?”

Kate opened her mouth to speak, but Mote quickly cut her off. No, sir.

“Good.” The General glanced toward Kate momentarily. “…Watch your attitude in the future. I have little patience for it.” He then stood up without waiting for her response, prompting everyone else to stand as well. “If I have any further questions, I will ask the relevant persons privately. But for now, you’re all dismissed.”

Lead promptly retreated into his office, while Hackett simply nodded toward Saito and left on her own. Kate made to leave as well, but Mote grabbed her by the shoulder.

We need to talk about your attitude, Mote growled.

Oh fuck right off. Kate simply rolled her eyes and shook him off. You always say that. If you really mean it this time for whatever fucking reason, then sure, whatever, we can talk later. For now, I’ve got more important things to do. Like check out this sweet-ass new armor storage system! She promptly disappeared through the room’s exit and down the hallway.

“W-wait! Th-that armor…!” Kirstin quickly stumbled around the table and scurried after Kate, stuttering out an apology toward Colonel Saito along the way.

Tch… Mote scowled as he watched them leave, and then glanced toward Saito. …I’m really sorry about her, Colonel.

“I am, too,” Saito replied with a sigh. “But ultimately, neither of us are responsible for her actions. Don’t feel down about it, Mote. I’ll see if I can get Hackett or Sarah to talk to her.”

Sarah?

“Yeah. She works with Kate all the time on their big research projects, doesn’t she?” Saito shrugged. “I thought they were reasonably close.”

She’s one of the few people who can keep up with Kate, sure, but she’s got her own problems as the Director’s assistant. We shouldn’t have to drag her into this.

“I suppose. But we can talk about this later.” Saito wandered around the table and placed his arm on Mote’s back, guiding him out of the briefing room. “I have a few questions I wanted to run by you, actually.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s about lunchtime. You up for grabbing a bite to eat?”

Mote frowned in unease. Sir…?

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s nothing bad. If it’s your performance you’re worried about, then you’re doing fine. Mostly fine.”

Mostly…?

“Ah, me and my mouth…” Saito sighed and began walking down the hallway toward the mess hall. Mote promptly fell into stride beside him, his expression one of concern. “Let’s start there, then. It’s about the recruits,” Saito continued, “I’ve heard that you’re being somewhat… harsh with them.”

Would you not be harsh with a purposefully under-performing student? Mote countered.

“Sure, but I think that assuming that any of them are ‘purposefully’ under-performing is a bit much. Hell, I’d say that assuming that any of them are even under-performing in the first place is a bit much.”

Were you not equally, if not more harsh with them on their first day of training, sir?

Saito snorted. “I just pulled the drill sergeant routine out of my ass. It’s a useful first-time tool to force them into the right mindset, but I’m not sure I’d keep it up forever. Truthfully, I’ve never even trained recruits before. Not really my job.”

It isn’t mine, either.

“…Ah, so that’s what this is about. You don’t like being taken off of missions to work on training them.”

It’s a valid concern, sir! My powers are far more useful out there, in the field, than they are here, training a bunch of useless rookies. If not for them, I and the other Eximius Vir would have been with you on your Sunday mission, and Captain Feng wouldn’t be in the condition he’s in right now!

“We’ve already been over this. Feng’s Ciei was stolen by a Drakkar Faction Leader, one of the most powerful individuals in the whole damn galaxy. And literally invulnerable to all damage, might I add. There’s no guarantee that your presence would have changed anything.”

Still. Can’t we get someone else to train the recruits? It’s not your job, and it isn’t my job. So why do we have to do it?

“You’re looking at this the wrong way, Mote. It may not be our job to train recruits, but it is our job to deal with Chaotics and all Chaotic-related matters. Hell, it’s in the damn name of our team: Chaotic Support Fireteam 1.”

“I’ll take your concern into account though, and bring it up with the General. Maybe we can figure out a better way to handle the new recruits, so that they aren’t stealing time away from your team or mine.”

Thank you, sir.

“But for the time being, I’ll need to you keep working with them. Especially since you’re sitting out the next mission. Try to be a little softer on them; it’s not exactly fair to hold them to the same standard as yourself. You should know already that you and the other members of the Eximius Vir are atypical Chaotics.”

Mote frowned in frustration. The Colonel was right when he said that the Eximius Vir were atypical; they were able to use their powers in a CENT field after all, whereas normal Chaotics couldn’t. And that was just one aspect of their power oddities. Yet, even so, Mote couldn’t help but feel disappointed and frustrated with a perceived lack of progress with the new recruits — particularly Austin. Something about him simply rubbed Mote the wrong way… but if the Colonel wanted him to continue training the recruits, then he’d do it. Begrudgingly, but he’d do it.

…Understood, sir, Mote eventually replied, as he and Saito turned another corner down the hallways of the base.

“And with that out of the way…” Saito passed a curious glance toward Mote. “What’s the deal with all these weird Aldredian artifacts only responding to you?”

Mote’s expression clouded. I don’t know, sir. I’ve already said as much…

“There’s nothing that comes to mind that could explain it? Nothing that you’ve done?”

Hmm… Mote looked away as he took a moment to wrack his mind for any possible explanation. He was certain that it had nothing to do with how he handled the objects — the rhomboid with the coordinates, the hologram at the dig site, the armor; he had done nothing special to any of them before they activated in his presence. But then, thinking back to the original rhomboid — the one that revealed the coordinates of the planet with the armor — Mote had an idea. It… might have something to do with the vision I had.

“The vision, right…” Saito nodded in thought. “I know that it gave you the coordinates for our mission on Sunday. Was that all you saw?”

It wasn’t… Mote passed the Colonel an uneasy glance. …The rest was just gibberish, though. Nothing better than a regular dream.

“A dream that started us on an Aldredian treasure hunt,” Saito corrected.

You can’t really be putting this much stock into a simple dream…

“A decade or two ago, I wouldn’t have. But after working with you and the other Eximius Vir, and seeing and hearing about some of the crazy stuff that happens out in the galaxy? I don’t know anymore.” Saito looked over toward Mote again. “You sure there was nothing else in that dream of yours?”

Mote’s brow furrowed. The dream in question had occurred several weeks ago, immediately prior to the beginning of the brief Chaos Quake. As such, he didn’t remember much of the details; but the fact that he still remembered some of them bothered him. A star map location, a large subterranean cavern, a field of battle, a woman with red hair wearing regal armor bearing the insignia of a sword — these four images were all he could recall, and yet, they made him feel… nostalgic, somehow. Which then only contributed to his frustration. Visions and dreams of foretelling fell squarely into the realm of fantasy. The future remained either undecided or undecipherable, and anyone who claimed otherwise was simply deluded into thinking as much due to their own dissatisfaction with the present — or so Mote thought. Yet, everyone around him was willing to place so much stock into these purported visions of his, and worst of all, the information contained within actually seemed to be valid.

“…Nothing, huh?”

Oh. Mote snapped out of his thoughts and turned his attention toward Saito. …No, nothing. Nothing that would help.

The Colonel sighed. “Well that’s a damn shame. And we don’t even know what triggered your vision, either… though I guess it’s safe to say that it’s tied to the Aldredas, somehow.”

Sir?

“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? You have a vision that leads us to an Aldredian artifact that only you can activate, which then leads us to another set of artifacts that — again — only you can activate. It’s almost like these were meant for you… or for an ancestor of yours, at least.”

Mote scowled. The gene thing again?

“Seems like a reasonable answer to me.” Saito elbowed Mote playfully. “You really don’t like the idea of being special, do you?”

I’m not special.

“Says one of only eight Earthian Chaotics.”

Tch… Mote’s scowl deepened as he turned away from the Colonel. I am where I am because of my own effort. There may have been some luck involved, but at the end of the day, I’m no more special than Mark, or Kate, or Danielle. They could do what I do just as easily as I. Hell, anyone who started where I did could just as easily end up where I am now. Even the new recruits should be able to one day match me. They just need the years of training and experience that I possess. He looked down at his right hand, clenching it as several small sparks wreathed his fingers. …Strength is earned. As is ability. And I’m no more deserving of either than anyone else. So either this new technology is broken, or everyone else isn’t trying hard enough to activate it.

Saito frowned. “You really believe that, don’t you?”

Respectfully, sir, the hell else am I supposed to believe? I never even knew my own damn parents, so this whole genealogy nonsense is a waste of time, anyways.

“…I suppose you’re right.” Saito sighed wearily and looked up at the ceiling. “…Still, though—”

We’re here, sir.

“Huh?…”

Mote and Saito stopped just outside of the doors to the mess hall. Inside was the loud commotion commonly associated with lunch hour, and a variety of smells — neither pleasant nor unpleasant, though intriguing all the same — wafted out into the hallway.

“Ah… right. Lunch.” The Colonel rubbed his stomach eagerly. “Well, time to grab some mediocre grub. C’mon.”

…Actually, sir, I think I’m fine for now, Mote replied slowly.

“Hmm?” Saito glanced back at him. “…You sure?”

Mote nodded once. I have some things I need to take care of. I’ll get lunch later.

“Well, if you say so. But I’m starving, so if you’ll excuse me.”

Mote watched the Colonel push through the doors to the mess hall, momentarily drowning the hallway with the sounds of a packed cafeteria. The Lieutenant then withdrew down the hallway, hands in pockets as he tried his level best to distract himself from the conversations he had just had. He wasn’t special — he knew this. And even if he was, it was only through his own work and training that he got to be where he was today, not through outside help, or luck, or vague visions of the future.

Anyone else in his position could have done the same.

Chapter 7 – Belligerent Captain

11 Years Ago

“Hmm, so who do we have here… Captain Rachel Hackett, is that it?”

“Yes, sir! I understand that you’re Major Kaji Saito?”

“That’d be me. So you’re supposed to be the new blood?”

“…This is CSF-1, right?”

“It is. Welcome aboard, Captain.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself?”

“…Haven’t you already read my file, sir?”

“Yes, I’ve read your file. It’s fantastic. Better service record than even I had at your age. But we’re going to be working together closely these next few years, and your file doesn’t tell me anything actually interesting about you. What are your hobbies? Any dreams?”

“…I like playing sports. Football and Basketball, mostly. Snowboarding, too, when I get the chance.”

“Oh! Fantastic. I enjoy sports, too, though I prefer Baseball and Soccer myself. Or hiking. Do you like hiking?”

“Somewhat…”

“Great! Great. Well, hmm… have any kids?”

“Uh… no, sir. My wife and I aren’t interested in having kids.”

“Relax, Captain, I’m not trying to hit on you. Still, though. You aren’t interested in having kids? Really?”

“No, sir. And this doesn’t seem particularly relevant to the job.”

“Is that what you think…?”

“Sir?…”

“Just how much do you know about this posting?”

“…I know that it exists because of Colonel Lead, sir. And that you’re in charge. I know that both of you are highly competent, if somewhat unconventional officers.”

“Right, right. Know anything else?”

“No, sir.”

“You don’t even know what ‘CSF’ stands for, do you?”

“No…”

“Then, if I might be so bold, why did you even accept this posting? Lead did give you a choice, didn’t he?”

“Yes, sir. But he said that the confidentiality of the posting meant that I wouldn’t know what it was until I accepted. He did assure me that it had the potential of being equally important to the discovery of the Genesis, however.”

“Of course… figures he’d string you along like this. I bet you also still think that Earthians can’t be Chaotics?

“…Is that not correct, sir?”

“Tch. I really am going to have to explain everything, aren’t I? You’d better take a seat, Captain.”

“Sir…?”

“This whole thing will take a while to explain. Also, I’d like you to hold all questions and comments until the end. But with that disclaimer out of the way…” Saito held out his hand toward Hackett, shaking hers as he smiled. “Welcome to Chaotic Support Fireteam 1.”

*     *     *

Present Day, 3 Days Later

Monday, October 3, AD 2129

“Colonel!”

“…Ah, Major.” Saito glanced over his shoulder as Hackett jogged to catch up with him and then fell into step beside him. “And here I was thinking I was going to beat you to a morning event for once.”

“Keep trying, sir, and I’m sure one day you’ll manage it,” Hackett replied with a smirk.

“Ha!” Saito snorted. “That would practically require me waking up before I even went to bed. I think I’ll pass.”

“Isn’t CSF-1 supposed to be a Spec Ops team?”

Saito rose an inquisitive eyebrow as he glanced up at Hackett. “The hell does that have to do with waking up early?”

“I’m just saying, sir, waking up early is small fries compared to any of the training we’ve been through.”

“Sure. And I can still wake up on a dime, eat half a live frog, and assemble a rifle under freezing rain like I could back then. But that’s in the field! When I’m on base, I want my beauty sleep, damn it.”

Hackett made a noise like coughing, covering her mouth with her hand as she turned away from Saito.

He passed her a suspicious glance. “What’s that, Major?”

“Nothing, sir. It’s nothing.” She shook her head before returning her attention forward, her lips pursed in — what appeared to Saito to be — an effort to suppress a smile.

Outwardly, the Colonel scowled; his subordinate was obviously having a laugh at his expense, after all. But inwardly, he felt somewhat pleased. SERRCom had enough stiff-nosed officers as it was, and he refused to become yet another; the fact that he could exchange friendly banter with Hackett and his other squadmates while still commanding the appropriate respect from them in the field was invaluable to Saito, though he’d be remiss to admit as much out loud.

“Though, for someone who likes his ‘beauty sleep’ so much,” Hackett continued, “you sure aren’t very keen on letting the new recruits have any.”

“Says who?” Saito countered, “this morning’s training session is at 8, that might as well be midday! They’ve had plenty of time for sleeping.”

“I heard that on their first day, you busted into Travis’s nephew’s room and made him do push-ups for not being up by 6.”

“It was the first day. It’s called shock training. Give them a good shock, and they become malleable enough for the following training to actually set in. …Not actual shocks, though. Ah, I forgot to mention that part to Mote…”

“Ah, right, ‘malleable’. If you’ll excuse me for asking, sir, where, exactly, did you hear this training theory?”

“My ass. Now just how long are you going to be grilling me like this, Major?”

“Just checking, sir. Your initial attitude toward the recruits seemed somewhat… uncharacteristic, is all.”

“That’s because I was just channeling the Drill Sergeant stereotype. I don’t actually know how to train recruits, much less Chaotic recruits. I got lucky enough with the Eximius Vir, as is. Both back then and now, I’m just making shit up as I go.”

Hackett cast a sidewards glance at Saito. “Is that why you asked me to help you today?”

“It’s exactly why I asked you to help me,” Saito replied, pointing at the Major as he did so for emphasis. “Now don’t you complain about this either, since I even volunteered to buy you breakfast.”

“Sir, you know that I’m married.”

Saito passed an unamused glance toward Hackett, who simply responded with an amused smirk.

“Not to mention that food on base comes with the paycheck,” the Major added.

“Look, Major, it’s the thought that counts.”

“Is it now, sir.”

Yes, it is,” Saito insisted as he rounded a corner and approached one of the entrances to the mess hall. “I could just send you to go set up for the training session in my stead, while I have a nice, lovely breakfast of… what’s for breakfast today?”

“I think today is oatmeal.”

“Say what?” Saito pulled a face before pushing through the entrance to the mess hall and immediately laying eyes on the serving line. “…Damn, you’re right. Isn’t this supposed to be HQ? Why the hell are we serving oatmeal?”

Hackett shrugged. “Can’t say, sir. I’m not in charge of that—”

“Wait, Saito? Saito!”

“Hmm?” Saito and Hackett both turned around to see who had just called out. At 7 in the morning, the hall was rather lively, but still sparsely populated enough for Saito to quickly spot the man who had just called out to him, and was now waving him over. He had a pale, broad face with a narrow chin, framed by scruffy black hair and a moderate mustache. His brown eyes and dark eyebrows were furrowed, accompanied by slight wrinkles and creases that indicated that the man seemed to keep his brow furrowed more often than not. Seated at the table next to him was a woman with a light complexion and narrow eyes, accompanied by shoulder-length black hair tied back in a loose ponytail. She wore on her face a stern and unamused expression; much like the man, something about it seemed rather normal for her.

Saito scowled the moment he recognized them: Chief Captain Michael Krick, the Captain of the Battlecruiser BC-1 ESC Genesis; and Captain Zhu Tang, Krick’s second in command. The Colonel promptly turned around to face the serving line as he whispered to Hackett, “quick, pretend you didn’t notice them—”

“Saito! Damn it, get over here already!”

“…I don’t think you’re getting out of this, sir,” Hackett commented as Saito let out a sigh of defeat. The Colonel then forced a small smile and turned around to approach Krick and Tang, seated as they were at one of the mess hall tables.

“Oh, Captain. Didn’t see you there,” Saito remarked.

“Didn’t see me my ass,” Krick growled. He crossed his arms and stiffened his back as he looked up at Saito, who stood across the table from him with his hands in his pockets. “You’ve been fucking ignoring my goddamn messages, haven’t you?”

“…Oh, you messaged me? Whoops, I didn’t realize!” Saito scratched the back of his head and let out a small chuckle. “Guess I should really check those more often, huh?”

Krick simply responded with a scowl and a glare; next to him, Tang also seemed unamused, though Saito couldn’t quite tell if it was due to him or her breakfast. Guess Krick saw through me, the Colonel thought to himself miserably.

“Is there something you wanted to tell us, sir?” Hackett questioned.

“You could say that,” Krick replied irately. “Colonel, do you realize just how much goddamned work goes into a fucking Dead Space mission?”

“5 days of retrofits,” Saito responded.

“5 days of retro—! Uh, er, yes.” Krick paused for a moment, surprised by Saito’s quick response, but he immediately launched back into ranting. “That’s right, 5 god damned days! And it’s not just the fucking retrofits that I’ll have to contend with now. We’ll have to do this whole goddamned process again when we get back, too! Do you know how much of a pain in my goddamn ass that is?!”

“I’m sure you’ll tell me exactly how much.”

“You trying to play a smart-ass, Colonel?”

“Don’t you get uppity with me, Chief Captain. My paycheck is just as big as yours.”

“Tch! You—!”

“All due respect, sir,” Hackett cut in, momentarily drawing Krick’s attention away from Saito, “I’m not a naval officer, but isn’t 5 days actually rather short, as retrofits go?”

Before Krick could say a word, Tang responded from beside him. “That would be correct.”

“What—!” Krick snapped his gaze toward his second in command. “The hell? You suddenly on their side, Tang?”

The Captain sighed as she finished her oatmeal. “I said no such thing,” she eventually replied, “I merely confirmed that 5 days is a fairly short time for a retrofit. I never said that I liked the idea of running a Dead Space mission.” She turned her attention toward Saito and Hackett, her expression stern as she continued, “there are a number of reasons to dislike the mission before us. The length of the retrofitting process, however, isn’t one of them.”

“True, true…” Krick nodded, and then returned his glare to Saito and Hackett. “Like the fact that goddamned Genesis is being used as a fucking ferry! Me, the Captain of the most advanced ship in the whole damn fleet, and the former flagship, and the source of most of our goddamned technology — and I’m being reduced to ferrying around a bunch of fucking ground teams?!”

Saito rolled his eyes. What Krick said was largely true — Genesis was indeed one of, if not the most advanced ship in the entire SERRCom fleet, but that was through no feat of Earthian science or engineering. Rather, Genesis simply appeared in space over one of SERRCom’s colonies twenty years ago, with no crew or origin to speak of. In fact, the state of the ship’s systems and hard drives at the time suggested that she hadn’t even existed for longer than a couple minutes before SERRCom discovered her — it was like she had simply materialized out of thin air. The ship’s construction style and aesthetic matched the few ships that SERRCom had at the time, but she was far larger than any other SERRCom ship as well as significantly more advanced than most ships in the galaxy, even outside of the Earthian Territories. Her FTL Drive was (and still is) the fastest in the galaxy, her beaming systems revolutionized planet-to-ship transportation, and her Absolute Cloaking System (known as ACS) made her completely imperceptible to every sensor technology in existence — and that was just a number of the advanced technologies the ship possessed. However, as Genesis wasn’t actually constructed by SERRCom, or by any other race in the known galaxy, SERRCom initially had no idea how to reproduce her systems and technology. In the two decades since, several of her systems had been retro-engineered to varying degrees, but the ship still stands as SERRCom’s most advanced, and is well-known across the entire galaxy for the technological revolution she kick-started. The position of Captain on board Genesis is one of the most competitive in all of SERRCom, and anyone who earned it was undoubtedly a top-notch naval officer… so Saito knew that Krick had to be competent in some fashion. Krick’s father had even been the very first Captain of Genesis, so it could be said that the position was in his blood. But even so…

“Krick…” Saito crossed his arms as he stared impatiently at the Battlecruiser Captain. “Has anyone told you what a royal pain in the ass you are?”

“All the damn time. But I get the goddamn job done, so in the end, who fucking cares?” Krick huffed. “What matters is that your stupid-ass Dead Space mission is going to end up crippling my ship. And that’s just from fucking existing! Can you imagine if we end up in combat?”

“That’s funny, I seem to recall a certain Captain claiming that the Genesis could single-handedly fight off five Drakkar Cruisers at once.”

“…Well, I mean… normally, yeah…”

“What the Captain means to say,” Tang cut in, “is that the ship will handle and need to be handled differently. Without Chaos Energy, our anti-gravity systems won’t work, so we can’t land on the planet’s surface, and our only stationary orbit option is geosynchronous. Our ACS won’t be functional, either, so stealth is out the window; and our sensors won’t be as accurate, so it’ll be just that much easier for the enemy to sneak up on us. Plus, the IFF recognition for the Shock Transmitters will be offline, making them unsafe to use. That is a drastic decrease in Genesis’s anti-missile and fightercraft defenses. And I don’t think I need to point out that the Chaos Cannons won’t work in Dead Space, either. That’s nearly fifty percent of our firepower, gone.”

Saito held up his hands to halt Tang’s barrage. “Alright, alright, I get it. Dead Space is bad news, and we shouldn’t get into fights.”

“Shouldn’t stick around too long, either!” Krick exclaimed. “Without anti-grav, the stress on the ship’s frame will be far greater than usual. If we spend more than one goddamned week in Dead Space, then Genesis might never be space-worthy again!”

“The Genesis survived the last Chaos Quake just fine, I’m sure it can take one more week.”

“The Quake put her out of commission for almost a fucking month! This damned mission will be the first one she’s seen since the Quake, and it’s a god damn Dead Space mission, at that!”

“You just never shut up about Dead Space, do you? At least Captain Mendoza didn’t blast me with a thousand messages about this shit.”

“So you did get my messages!”

“Tch…” Saito sighed and shook his head. “Look, Captain, if you’re gonna shove a stick up your ass and scream about this then at least do it to the General. I didn’t assign you to this damned mission.”

“No, but it’s because of your fucking kids that the mission exists in the first place.”

“Kids…?” Saito questioned, confused. Then recognition dawned on his features, followed by irritation. “The Eximius Vir aren’t kids. They’re 22!”

Krick snorted in derision. “Still counts.”

“You just have to be miserable about everything, don’t you?”

“From a mechanical and operations standpoint, Mote, Kate, and Danielle all could be extremely useful to the Genesis,” Hackett pointed out. “Sir, surely even you can realize how helpful their abilities could be?”

“Not nearly helpful enough to offset the cancer I’d catch from playing babysitter,” Krick spat.

“They wouldn’t be helpful on this mission, anyways,” Tang added. “For the same reason that Genesis will be crippled: Dead Space.”

“And those damned Black Suns will be equally useless.” Krick’s perpetual scowl deepened even further as he shoved a finger in Saito’s face. “That might just be the worst fucking part of this goddamned mission. Black Suns! On my ship! Goddamn mercenaries. You better watch your goddamn back, Colonel, I’d bet my ass that those for-hire military wannabes will find a way to screw you over, even in Dead Space!”

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Saito responded impatiently as he shoved Krick’s hand away. “Like you said: we’ll be in Dead Space, so they won’t be able to use their Chaotic abilities. We’ll be on a level playing field.”

“That’s not quite true, Colonel,” Tang countered. “Black Suns powered armor and infantry arms are stronger than anything SERRCom has, even in Dead Space. Your usual Chaos Armor won’t work, either, so you should talk to someone about getting your hands on regular electrical armor.”

“I appreciate the concern, but I’m already aware of that,” Saito replied. “Now is there anything else that the two of you want to shout about? Or can the Major and I have our breakfast in peace now?”

“I’ve said my piece.” Krick grabbed his cafeteria tray and stood up from the table, revealing that he was taller than Saito, but still slightly shorter than Hackett. “But you better fucking remember everything I said, Colonel, because I won’t fucking say it again!”

“I’m sure you won’t,” Saito deadpanned.

“Good!” Krick remarked, and then spun around and started off toward the exit of the mess hall. “Now come on, Tang. I want to make sure those dumb bastards up at the space station aren’t fucking up my ship!”

“Yes, sir,” Tang replied, but made no effort to hurry her pace. She neatly placed all of her eating utensils on her tray, grabbed it, and stood up with surprising grace before turning toward Saito and Hackett. “Colonel, Major.” She nodded in acknowledgment. “…I apologize for the Captain’s attitude. But I do agree with the core of his message.” She then turned around and headed off toward the exit, casually depositing her tray in the dirty bin and pushing through the doors after Krick.

“…Finally, some damned peace,” Saito muttered.

“Captain Krick is… quite a character, isn’t he?” Hackett remarked.

The Colonel passed her an unamused glance before turning back toward the serving line.

“Still, though,” Hackett continued as she followed him, “he wasn’t just complaining. He did try to offer us advice, in a rather roundabout way.”

“I don’t need advice from a child-hating space sailor,” Saito countered.

“He is the Captain of the Genesis, sir. There must be some value to what he said.”

“Yeah, yeah…”

The two fell into momentary silence as they grabbed trays and moved into the line for food.

“…That said, sir,” Hackett eventually spoke up, “…maybe you could look into getting us on the Origin instead. I hear Captain Mendoza isn’t nearly as bad as Krick.”

“Ha!” Saito let out a loud chuckle. “Not a bad idea, Major. I’ll see what I can do. But in the meantime, we’ve got some training sessions to prepare for. Now, here’s what I think we should focus on today…”