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.”