Chapter 9 – Approach

5 Days Later

“Five minutes until we reach our destination!”

“Understood.” Chief Captain Krick nodded once before pressing a button on the armrest of his Captain’s chair, activating the ship-wide intercom. “Listen up! We’re about to drop out of Subspace. Secure your asses and any crap that’s still loose. If I hear about any microgravity accidents then so help me god, I will find who caused it and roast their asses! Captain out!” He then strapped himself into his chair before swiveling it around to face Colonel Saito and Commander Rabine, who both stood toward the back of the bridge. “You two had better strap in, or at least grab something. Last thing I need is floating bodies catapulting around my bridge.”

“The soles of my boots are magnetized,” Rabine replied, “I’ll be fine as is.”

“I’ll just rely on my grip,” Saito remarked as he casually grabbed a handlebar connected to the back of Krick’s chair.

The Captain glared at Saito’s hand and then passed him the stink eye. “You better hold on for your goddamn life then, Colonel. What I said about microgravity accidents applies to your ass, too!”

“Relax, I’ll be fine.” Saito simply waved off Krick’s concern before turning his attention to the large bridge window. Outside was the fuzzy grayscale gradient of Subspace, an alternate plane of spacetime that allowed spacecraft to travel at speeds far faster than light. Visually, it appeared not unlike the static on old analog televisions, except less energetic and with a heavy softening filter. But beyond that, Saito didn’t know much about Subspace, nor did he truly care to know; he was in charge of a ground team after all, so Subspace wasn’t his wheelhouse. Yet as he thought over the mission he was about to embark on, a simple question popped into his mind. “Is there Chaos Energy in Subspace?”

“You’d have to ask one of the nerds back at HQ,” Krick replied dismissively.

Captain Tang passed Krick an annoyed glance from her seat on the side of the bridge, and then looked back at Saito. “There has to be. Our Chaos Energy-based equipment functions perfectly well in Subspace.”

“I see…” Saito glanced over at Rabine. “You’re a Chaotic, right? Can you use your powers in Subspace?”

She shook her head. “I’ve never tried, and I don’t plan to. Historically speaking, Spacetechnics that attempted to teleport around a ship while traveling faster than light have… regretted it.”

“…Oh.”

“Amazing story. Now cut the chatter, we’re here,” Krick declared, just as the grayscale environment outside of the bridge window gave way to the deep black of real space. To the upper right was a planet that appeared to be visually similar to Earth, featuring the same blue oceans, green landmasses, and white wispy clouds.

Saito felt his body grow weightless as the ship’s anti-gravity systems shut down in the absence of Chaos Energy. He noticed several of the holographic displays toward the front of the bridge growing dark as well, as various sensor systems went offline, and the ship’s primary reactors adjusted their output to deal with the lack of Chaos Energy.

“Activate whatever stealth systems we still have!” Krick barked. “Even if we can’t use the goddamn ACS, I want something, damn it!”

“The RADAR dampeners are active,” Tang replied, “but it looks like that’s all we have.”

The Chief Captain scowled. “Damn. At least it’s something. Are the sensors picking up anything in local space?”

Origin dropped out of Subspace shortly after we did. They’re twenty kilometers away, and matching our course. The sensors aren’t picking up any other spacecraft.”

“Good. Then get to scanning that damned planet up there. Get Origin to hook into our sensors and boost the whole array. As we’re doing that, set us on a course for geosynchronous orbit. I want to be in and out of this shithole before the day is over!”

At this point, Saito checked out of listening to the bridge operations. He gave Krick’s chair a gentle push, sending him slowly floating toward the back of the bridge as he twisted around to look at Rabine. She responded with a raised eyebrow, but otherwise remained standing where she was, her boots magnetized to the floor and her arms crossed.

“So.” Saito offered her a small wave. “You ever run a mission in Dead Space before?”

“A handful of times,” she replied.

“Even though you’re a Chaotic?”

Rabine adopted a pained expression, the kind that Saito could only assume meant that she had heard his question before countless times. “Black Suns soldiers are trained for all manner of field duties, not just those that they excel at.”

“Is that so,” Saito responded as he grabbed a guardrail attached to the back of the bridge. “You know, I’ve never had the chance to ask. What’s it like, working for the Black Suns?”

“Should we not be focused on the mission?”

Saito made to respond, but then he caught the impatient look Rabine was giving him. It was at that point that he realized her question wasn’t sincere — she was just trying to shut him up. The hell’s up with her? he thought to himself warily, she seemed reasonable enough the last time we met

“Colonel! Get your ass over here!”

“What is it?” Saito questioned as he pushed off of the bridge wall to approach Krick. “You find something?”

“Much as I hate to say it,” the Captain growled, “…looks like that goddamned coordinate of yours panned out. We’ve picked up an old structure located in some foothills.”

Rabine slowly stepped up to Krick as well, taking each step slowly and deliberately to prevent herself from flying off. “You found something that quickly? We only just arrived.”

“That’s what I fuckin’ thought! Turns out, this stubborn son of a bitch is still active.”

“Still active?”

“That’s what I just goddamn said. The structure. Is still active. As in, we can see the goddamn infrared from its power systems, plain as day.”

“Is it Aldredian?” Saito asked.

“That’s for you to find out, not me.” Krick gestured toward the bridge holograms, prompting a map of the planet’s surface to appear. Two marks then manifested on the map. “The base looks like it’s 50 kilos out from the planet’s Interstellar Gate. We aren’t picking up any life signs anywhere, not matching any sapient life we know of at least. There’s only one big fucking issue with all this.”

“…Which is?”

“The building is covered in a beam-jamming field,” Tang replied.

“The whole fucking building, and a good two goddamned kilometers around it!” Krick scowled. “What a pain in the ass.”

“We are capable of walking that distance,” Rabine stated, and then passed Saito a challenging glance. “At least, my soldiers are.”

“Oh please. I could handle a two kilometer hike in my sleep,” Saito retorted, and then turned back to Krick. “Just beam us down outside the jamming field. We can investigate from there — after all, it’s just as you said. This is our job.”

“Tch…” Krick stared at the map for a few more moments before looking back at Saito. “Just know that if you run into trouble, then neither I nor Mendoza will be able to save your asses. You’ll be on your goddamned own.”

“You said that there’s no sapient life signs, right? And there’s no ships around here, either. That means no Drakkars.” Saito patted Krick’s shoulder. “Relax, we’ll be fine.”

“Even if there were Drakkars, they would be handicapped in exactly the same ways that we are,” Rabine commented as Krick swatted Saito’s hand away. “We should easily be able to handle them.”

“If you say so. It’s your asses.” Krick then gestured at the holograms again, at which point the giant map disappeared. “Get your teams together, Colonel, Commander. You should set up a secondary team to secure the Gate, too. Don’t want those damn blank-faced bastards sneaking up on you.”

Saito smirked. “It almost sounds like you care about us, Krick.”

“What I care about is Genesis’s spotless mission record. I’ll be damned if my first mission failure is because of some other dumbass’s decision! Now get going already, the less time I have to spend in goddamned Dead Space, the better!”

“Riiiight. Understood.” Saito rolled his eyes before pushing off of Krick’s chair toward the bridge exit and gesturing for Rabine to follow. “Well, let’s go see what fantastic artifacts await us this time, shall we?”

*     *     *

1 Hour Later

“And here we are. I believe that’s our victory, Colonel.”

“Pah…” Saito grunted as he stepped past the tree line and massaged his shoulder. He glanced back at the rest of his team, who were just behind him, and then turned toward Commander Rabine. Three other Black Suns soldiers stood with her, all four of them having beaten Saito and CSF-1 out of the forest from their planetfall location. “…Looks like it is, Commander,” Saito eventually replied. “It was close, though. We were right behind you the whole way!”

“But still, nevertheless, behind us.”

“In our defense…” Captain Travis raised his hand. “Your stuff seems a lot lighter than ours…”

“Let’s not start with the excuses already, Travis,” Saito responded, and then turned his back on the tree line, hands on his hips, to look at what lay in front of him. “We still have an ancient alien outpost to explore!”

Everyone present turned to look in the direction Saito was facing: toward the mysterious uninhabited structure detected from orbit. The massive building stood in the middle of a rocky clearing, slightly sunken into the ground compared to the forest around it. The remnants of an overgrown and heavily worn metal barrier surrounded the structure, though there appeared to be more collapsed or eroded sections than there were sections that remained standing — yet, the building itself seemed comparatively pristine. Its blackish silver walls bore no decorations nor painted designs as far as Saito could tell, but they were also completely clear of rust, overgrown plants, or any other signs of a long-abandoned building. In the center of the structure — which itself was vaguely circular and over a kilometer in diameter — was a massive tower, stretching nearly a kilometer into the sky. As with the rest of the structure, the tower was constructed out of a blackish silver material, but was otherwise unremarkable apart from its height. It was simply a massive cylinder, apparently stacked on top of a large disc of a building which itself seemed to be three or four stories tall.

Rabine stared up at the top of the tower for several moments. “…I don’t see any windows,” she eventually stated, “which seems rather odd for such a tall tower.”

“There’s a distinct lack of overgrowth on the building itself, considering the state of the surrounding wall…” Hackett passed Saito an apprehensive glance. “Did someone beat us here?”

“Neither the Genesis nor the Origin picked up any life signs, so that seems unlikely,” Travis replied.

“However, we’re currently in Dead Space. By your own Captain’s admission, the lack of Chaos Energy hampers your ships’ sensors.” Rabine gripped her gun as she looked back at the Earthians. “It’s possible that someone is here, and we simply haven’t detected them.”

“I agree.” Saito stepped up next to Rabine as he continued to look over the structure from afar. “…Hell, we don’t even know if this building is actually Aldredian. It’d have to have a hell of a maintenance system to last this long…”

“Which means that we must proceed with caution.”

“But we also can’t afford to be slow. We don’t want to keep our ships hanging around in Dead Space for longer than necessary.” Saito turned toward Rabine as he brandished his own rifle. “We should split up. Once we’re inside, I’ll take my team clockwise. You take your team the other way.”

Rabine nodded once. “Understood. Keep in constant contact while we’re in there.”

“Was just about to say the same to you.” Saito glanced back at the rest of CSF-1 and gestured toward the structure. “Alright, everyone. Let’s check this place out.”

1 Hour Later

“This place is givin’ me the creeps…”

“What’s the matter, Captain?” Hackett replied with a smirk, “haven’t found a good hidey hole to snipe from yet?”

“Hmph, I wish,” Travis retorted. “I prefer to be far in the back lines, watchin’ y’alls’ backs, providin’ cover fire… not sneakin’ around abandoned buildings. The Colonel wouldn’t even let me take a sniper rifle!”

“We’re searching a building,” Saito responded incredulously as he slowly approached a hallway intersection. He stopped in the middle and shined a flashlight down each corridor, illuminating the pitch-black areas. It was an abandoned building with no windows, after all — the flashlights each member of CSF-1 possessed served as their sole sources of light.

“I know, I know…” Travis sighed, as if reminiscing over a long-lost love. “Still… when you need someone shot from several kilos away, I’m your guy. But when you want to check out a creepy, abandoned, supposedly one hundred thousand year old building…? Well, I would pass, but I guess I wouldn’t get paid that way, huh?”

“You’re on CSF-1, Captain. I’d hope that you’re here for more than just the paycheck,” Hackett countered.

“The paycheck isn’t even all that great,” Saito added. “…But you had a good point with your second thought, Travis. The Aldredas disappeared over a hundred thousand years ago, right? So how the hell could this building belong to them?” When Hackett and Travis responded with shrugs, Saito turned his flashlight on MacTavish, who reflexively flinched away and shielded her eyes. “You’ve been pretty quiet,” Saito remarked, “any thoughts?”

“U-uh…” MacTavish turned toward the nearby walls, sweeping the beam of her flashlight across the surfaces and revealing nothing except more blackish silver material. “…I-I’m not sure… s-some kind of, um, uh… s-self-maintaining system?…”

“Over a hundred thousand years, though?”

“I-I don’t know…” She cast her eyes downward as she shrunk away from Saito. “…I-if we found a, um, a c-control room, th-then maybe…”

“Yeah, that could help a lot in figuring out what the hell this place is,” Travis commented. “Er, assumin’ it still works, of course.”

“On one hand, I’d be incredibly surprised if we were that lucky. I mean, a hundred thousand years? By all rights, this building should have collapsed and had all its traces wiped away by nature long ago,” Hackett replied. “On the other hand, Mote did find a set of working powered armor on the last planet we visited. So who knows, I guess.”

“Are we even sure that any of what we’ve found is actually Aldredian?” Travis questioned.

“Um, th-the first device we found had Al-Aldredian numerals,” MacTavish responded uneasily. “A-and th-the armor was, um, i-it was behind a door locked with, um, with Aldredian text.”

Travis frowned. “Still… the entire galaxy knows how to translate the Aldredian language, right? How do we know some prankster didn’t just set all this up long after the Aldredas disappeared?”

“We don’t. Not yet,” Saito answered. “But we might be about to find out.”

The other three members of CSF-1 all turned their attention toward the Colonel, and then to the room he had just stopped in front of. The room was pitch-black, just like the rest of the structure, so it was difficult to tell exactly what was contained inside — but a quick survey with their flashlights was enough to give everyone an idea of what they had just found.

“There’s consoles everywhere…” Hackett cautiously stepped into the room as she continued inspecting everything with her flashlight. “…Is this… the control room?”

“Or at least a room with a bunch of hardware.” Saito approached the far wall and pointed his flashlight at a massive lever. Above the lever was a series of symbols that he didn’t recognize. “…Hey, MacTavish, do you recognize this?”

The researcher scurried over to his side and adjusted her glasses before squinting and staring at the symbols above the lever. “…I-it’s Aldredian…”

“Can you read it?”

“Uh…”

Saito watched her fiddle with her glasses before they suddenly lit up brightly. Her normal glasses were simply a pair of regular vision-correcting lenses, but for the sake of their current mission, Saito had managed to requisition her an old pair of AR glasses with an Aldredian language cipher. The task was more difficult than he had expected, largely because the rest of the galaxy had moved toward widespread ocular implants instead of AR glasses, but as he watched MacTavish slowly scan the symbols on the wall, he was glad that he had bothered to do so. Otherwise we’d have to rely too much on the Black Suns, he thought to himself. The more we can do on our own… the better.

“I-it’s an activation switch…”

“Whoa, really?” Travis approached behind Saito and MacTavish. “What for?”

MacTavish squinted at the symbols above the lever again before frowning. “I-I don’t know…”

“Krick said the power systems were still active, so if we’re lucky, this will turn on the lights and the computers.” Saito grabbed the lever and began attempting to pull, but was met with incredible resistance. “Damn… this thing won’t budge!” He glanced toward Travis. “Captain, a hand?”

Travis stepped up to the lever next to Saito and grabbed hold. The two men began tugging it, futilely at first, but after a few moments a loud snap reverberated through the room and the lever slammed downward, prompting a brief shriek from MacTavish and sending Saito and Travis stumbling back.

“Colonel! Captain!” Hackett immediately pointed her flashlight toward the lever. “Are you alright?!”

“Uh, let’s see…” Travis began to pat down his body, and then glanced upwards as an electrical whirring began to fill the room. “…Uh… is that a good thing…?”

Almost immediately after his question, the room’s lights flickered on. Everyone reflexively shielded their eyes, but after getting used to the new light level and turning off his flashlight, Saito took another look around the room. It was a circle, with a slightly raised platform in the center and three long, curved consoles  standing around it. The room seemed to be around ten or eleven meters in diameter, with the raised platform itself having a diameter of three meters; the surrounding consoles stood another meter back. Along the walls were a number of switches and levers, similar to the large lever Saito and Travis had just pulled. Each of them were accompanied by a number of small lights, which Saito assumed to be status indicators of some sort. What status, he had no idea, but they were all slowly transitioning from a sort of dull gray to green, so he assumed that they were indicating an all-fine status.

«Colonel? Colonel, come in.»

Saito tapped his earpiece, activating his communicator in response to Commander Rabine’s voice. “Saito here. Something wrong, Commander?”

«The lights just came on where we are. Has anything happened for you?»

Just as she asked, the three consoles lit up, and a white holographic sphere appeared over the platform in the center of the room. The sphere then transformed into a map — on closer inspection, it appeared to be a three-dimensional map of the same facility in which they stood. “…You could say that,” Saito quipped. “We found what looks like some kind of control room. We pulled an activation lever, and it turned on the lights. Some of the computers, too.”

«You should have consulted me before pulling that lever.»

Saito rolled his eyes. He glanced over at MacTavish as she stared at the center hologram and then stepped up to one of the consoles, her eyes wide in wonder as she began scanning over the readouts that appeared; he then looked at Travis and Hackett, who were busy inspecting the hologram. “It’ll be fine,” the Colonel eventually responded. “We won’t be able to find out much about this place if we don’t turn shit on.”

Silence. Then, «very well. My team and I will continue our investigation of the rest of the base.»

“Sounds good to me. I’ll let you know if we find anything interesting.”

«As will I. Rabine, out.»

The Colonel sighed wearily as soon as the communication was cut.

“Something wrong, sir?” Hackett questioned.

Saito shook his head. “Oh, nothing. The Black Suns are continuing their investigation on the far side of the building. In the meantime, it looks like we’ve got a treasure trove right here…” He looked at MacTavish again, who was completely oblivious to him as she readily tinkered with the console controls. She then dumped her backpack on the floor and fished out a laptop, which she dropped on the console, opened up, and began rapidly typing away. Then she froze as she noticed Saito looking at her, her eyes wide, not unlike a deer in headlights.

“Uh… sir…?”

Saito shook his head and smirked inwardly. MacTavish may have been terrible with people, but Saito knew few others who were better at handling technology — particularly alien technology. “Nothing,” he eventually responded, “keep at it, MacTavish.”

“O-oh… okay…”

“In the meantime…” Saito rolled his shoulders before gesturing toward Travis and grabbing his gun. “Captain, you stay here with the Researcher. See what you can find from this computer. Major, you’re with me; let’s see if we can find anything else here—”

“W-wait, sir…” MacTavish continued typing for a moment before looking up timidly. “Um, i-if you’re going to, um, explore, th-then, uh… I-I think I can, um, download a c-copy of the, the map…”

“Oh. That sounds like it could be incredibly useful, let’s do that.”

“O-okay…” She dropped her eyes back to her laptop, her fingers flying across the keyboard.

“A map, huh…” Travis eyed the hologram in the center of the room with interest. “…Too bad it’s labeled in Aldredian, huh?”

“Ah, I-I can, um, ch-change that…”

A second passed; then, the map hologram in the center of the room disappeared, only to reappear a moment later with its labels translated into English.

“Wow, cool!” Travis remarked. “How’d you do that?”

“I-it isn’t, uh, too hard…” MacTavish muttered. “It’s mostly, uh, just the a-adapter hardware…”

“What’s here, anyways?” Hackett questioned as she approached the hologram to take a closer look. “Hmm… it looks like some kind of weapons-manufacturing facility.”

“Is that so?” Saito replied, “what kind of weapons? Anything useful?”

“…Looks like drones, sir. Automated ones. Might explain why the building is still intact, if it was maintained by a bunch of automated robots…” The Major then pointed toward the center of the complex. “I think this is the command core.”

“It’s pretty far from the power generators,” Travis commented, standing opposite the hologram from Hackett. “Though I guess this map confirms that the base runs on geothermal power, huh? Man, look at those magma chambers! …Hey, what’s this big opening below the command core—?”

In the middle of his sentence, the hologram flickered, and then disappeared. In its place appeared a generic sphere, over which a text box was displayed, containing Aldredian script.

“What just happened?” Hackett questioned warily, reflexively grasping her weapon as she began looking around the room.

“Uh oh… s-sir…”

“Hmm?” The Colonel turned toward MacTavish. “What is it?”

She looked up at him, her eyes wide — but this time, they were filled with worry. “I-it, um, i-it’s rejecting the, uh, the adapter. I-it wants a password…”

“Can’t you just hack around it?” Travis questioned.

MacTavish simply gave him a blank stare. “…Uh… n-no…? I-it doesn’t work like that…”

“See if you can find a way around it, or just brute force through it,” Saito suggested as he began approaching the room’s exit. “There has to be a way to—”

“There’s a t-timer!”

The Colonel stopped in his tracks before snapping his attention back to MacTavish again. “A timer? What for? How much time is on it?”

“U-uh…” The Researcher looked down and squinted at the console for a few moments. “…F-five seconds?”

“Five seconds?!” Travis exclaimed, “…well, hey, it’s probably just a simple lockout timer, right?”

As soon as the words left his mouth, half of the lights in the room shut off and the center hologram turned purple. A box with multiple lines of Aldredian letters appeared over the hologram, facing MacTavish, as all of the tiny lights next to the levers and switches on the walls slowly transitioned to purple and red.

“…Something tells me that you’re wrong, Captain,” Hackett muttered.

“MacTavish, what’s going on?” Saito questioned as he approached her side. He then looked at the hologram. “What’s it say?”

“U-uh oh…” MacTavish’s face drained of color as her eyes slowly swept across the holographic message. “Th-this is b-bad… r-really, really bad…”

What’s bad?”

“…I-it acti-activated a, u-um, d-defense protocol…” MacTavish slowly turned toward Saito, her eyes wide with fear. “I-it th-thinks that we’re in-intruders!”

Chapter 10 – Progression

8 Years Ago

“Alright, up again! One more time!”

A young teenaged boy pursed his lips in response to the command, but nonetheless pulled himself back to his feet. He wiped the sweat from his brow and began running, pounding his feet against the dirt beneath him as he ran along the forest path.

Aw, this is boring…

The boy glanced to his right, where a girl his age was easily keeping stride next to him, without even breaking a sweat.

She spun around and began jogging backwards as she gestured toward the middle-aged man standing by the path’s starting point. When do you think he’ll let us focus on the cool stuff?

Whenever we’re ready for it, the boy replied. You should take this training seriously, Danielle.

Aw, c’mon, she complained, turning back around to run the right way. You know physical training doesn’t give me anything, Mote! I mean, c’mon, whenever I need muscles I can just turn into a version of me that has them. And you’re pretty strong already, too. This whole thing is a waste of time.

This isn’t just about the physicality, Mote countered. Drills are supposed to teach discipline, as well. Discipline that you’re spurning.

Who needs discipline when you can transform into basically anyone or anything you want?

That kind of thinking is exactly why you need discipline. He cautiously looked about himself as the two rounded a sharp bend, but he never once broke his steady pace. Being able to use your powers isn’t all that matters.

Says you…

Because I’m right.

I bet you don’t even know why you’re right.

Mote scowled. …Look. This training is important. If it helps, just pretend that you’re also training your Transtechnism.

That’s what I’ve been doing, Danielle replied. …You know, I bet Saito only trains us like this ‘cause he doesn’t know how to train Chaotics.

Who does? We’re the first ones Earth has seen.

So? We could go train with the Nimalians, or something, right?

You know we can’t do that. Not until we’re older, at least.

Aw…

Mote rolled his eyes. Fine. How about this, then — after we’re done with Saito’s drills, we can meet up in the forest behind the base and have a few sparring matches.

Danielle immediately broke into an eager grin. Yeah! That sounds fantastic!

But we have to keep a limit on our powers. No breaking anything, and if anyone sees us or tells us to stop, we stop.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know…

Good. And I’ll be grading you, as always.

Aw, you always say that. You need to focus on improving yourself, too, you know!

Not as much as you do. I don’t complain about our training drills.

Yeah, but you do talk during them.

Tch… Mote pursed his lips and stared straight forward as they rounded one final bend, the end of the path coming into view nearly a hundred meters away. He remained silent for the rest of the run, doing his level best to ignore Danielle’s cheeky grin as they once more caught up to Saito.

*     *     *

Present Day

Saturday, October 8, AD 2129

Steady… steady…

“Ngh…”

You’re wavering… you’re drifting… stop drifting!

“I’m… trying…!”

Alright, that’s enough. Mote stepped forward to grab Austin’s outstretched arm and push it down, cutting off the arc of lightning between Austin’s fingers and a metal target against the wall two meters away. He sighed and shook his head; Austin had progressed to the point of being able to copy the basics of Mote’s electricity powers, and could even create a steady arc of lightning… for less than ten seconds at a time. Furthermore, his accuracy and precision both left much to be desired — the path Austin traced with his lightning arc ran haphazard all across the face of the metal target, and not a single part of the path intersected with the center-most area. There’s still a lot of progress to make here, Mote thought to himself in irritation, I could make steady arcs within two weeks of discovering my powers, there’s hardly any excuse for him to be so far behind…

“Well? How’d I do?”

Mote turned toward Austin, who was staring at him expectantly. …I’d give that a D, Mote eventually commented. You’re making progress, I’ll give you that. But… He looked to his left; in the other half of the training room, Austin’s friends were also practicing their powers with the aid of Mark. Mote had decided that today’s training session would be what he referred to as “consistency training”, that being the ability to consistently use one’s power over extended periods of time. So Sky was igniting fires in her palms and holding them for up to a minute at a time, Spike was materializing massive shields and then bearing their weight for as long as he could, and Twy was focusing on holding a fist-sized bubble of water steady between her hands. Mark was overseeing their training while Mote tended to Austin, though Mote could still tell that all of Austin’s friends were managing to consistently use their powers for at least a minute — which was several times longer than anything Austin had accomplished.

Austin noticed Mote’s gaze lingering on his friends and sighed. “Look, man, I’m tryin’ my best.”

It still isn’t enough, Mote replied as he turned his attention back to Austin. Your friends are outperforming you handily; surely even you can see that.

“Well yeah, but that’s ‘cause they’re usin’ their own powers! They can practice whenever they want, but I can only use lightning when I’m, like, right next to you.”

Even so, your baseline progress is abysmal. It’s my understanding that a Simulator Psychotechnic should be able to quickly pick up on the basics of any ability that they’re simulating.

“Your understanding? You’ve never even met a Simulator aside from me, have you?”

Whether or not I have is beside the point. Simulating my lightning is still well within the purview of consistency training: we’re training your ability to consistently simulate someone else’s ability.

“And there’s a whole two layers there! I have to both copy your ability and be good at usin’ it, that’s barely fair! At least let me copy Twy or Sky, I have more chances to practice with their abilities than with yours.”

Yet I know my own powers best, and thus have a better reference to compare you to.

“And that ain’t fair either! I’ve heard about the shit you can do, and it’s fuckin’ nuts! There’s no way you can hold me to that standard!”

You would be able to do the same as I, if only you focused and properly trained, instead of distracting us both with pointless arguments.

“You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me… well, at least let me do this ‘consistency training’ with my Imperator powers. I’ve got a lot more practice with those!”

…Fine. But on your own time, you have to practice both of your powers equally, so don’t forget to train your Simulator skills too. I’ll be testing those later.

“Alright, alright…” Austin rolled his eyes and then held up his hands. “Well, you better get your timer ready.”

What? Mote gave Austin an incredulous look. I haven’t even given you anything for you to control.

Austin smirked. “I don’t need anything when I’ve got me! Just watch this.” He clapped his hands together; a brief moment later, his body lifted up into the air, such that he was levitating a few inches off of the ground.

Mote raised an eyebrow in surprise. Three seconds… five seconds… ten seconds later, and Austin was still hovering in the air. …Alright, Mote eventually commented, I must admit. I wasn’t aware you could do this.

Austin didn’t respond; he didn’t even look at Mote. In fact, his eyes were clenched shut as his attention seemed to be entirely focused on holding himself in the air.

And this is where the lack of training comes in, Mote thought idly. He can’t focus on anything BUT levitating, can he? He truly is a novice. Austin. …Austin!

Still no response.

Impatient, Mote arced a small streak of lightning toward Austin, startling him and breaking his concentration. He immediately dropped to the ground and stumbled, though managed to prevent himself from completely falling over.

“Hey!” Austin turned toward Mote irately. “The hell was that for?!”

You weren’t responding to me, Mote replied. As neat as that trick was, it’s worthless if you can’t concentrate on anything but levitating.

“…You were talkin’ to me?”

Yes, I was.

“Oh.” Austin frowned. “…Aw. But, that’s weird… this seemed so much easier when I was fightin’ EA…”

Wait, you could do this since your fight with EA? Mote drew back as genuine surprise momentarily crossed his face. How did I not know this?

“You keep focusin’ on my Simulator powers, that’s why.” Austin crossed his arms in irritation. “Every damn trainin’ session, it’s ‘copy Twy’ or ‘copy me’ or ‘copy this’ or ‘copy that’. It’s like you forgot about my Imperator abilities altogether!”

…Well, either way. You did better than I expected, but still not as well as I hoped.

“Man, your standards are ridiculous. You should go read the stupid report I had to write about my fight with EA, you’d see that I did some impressive shit then!”

A Chaotic’s abilities will always be moderately heightened in a true combat scenario, thanks to adrenaline. But combat showings, especially for novices, can be inconsistent. The only way to reduce that inconsistency is to train your abilities in a controlled environment… like we are now. And your constant complaining is continuing to cut into our time.

“Well if you hadn’t fucking shocked me, then I would be training!”

Tch. Mote pursed his lips with frustration. Alright, get back to levitating, then. Try not to use all of your concentration just to stay in one place this time, though.

“Yeah, yeah…” Austin rolled his eyes again; Mote wasn’t pleased with the attitude, but they had wasted enough time bickering as is. Austin was finally willing to actually engage in training, so Mote was going to milk this opportunity for everything he could.

Austin clapped his hands again and lifted up into the air, his attention once more directed at his hands. Mote observed with his hands on his hips for several seconds; Austin’s position in the air remained fairly steady, but his concentration again seemed to be dedicated entirely to doing so. Getting him to an acceptable level of skill is going to take forever, Mote thought bitterly. Can’t someone else take care of training him and his friends?

How’s it going?

Hm? Mote glanced back to see Mark approaching. He then looked beyond Mark to Sky, Twy, and Spike, all of whom were still focusing on their powers. It’s… going, Mote replied quietly as he turned his attention back to Mark. Not as well as the others, but it’s going.

Mark looked up at Austin, who was still absorbed with the task of holding himself in the air. Looks like he’s doing fine to me.

Really, Mote deadpanned, and then turned toward Austin. Austin. Austin! When the Imperator Psychotechnic failed to respond, Mote glanced back at Mark with mild frustration.

…I see. Mark nodded slowly. …Well, the fact that he can even concentrate that hard is progress on its own.

Mmm… I suppose so.

You ‘suppose’? Mark stared at Mote incredulously. Don’t you think you’re being a little hard on him?

It’s the only way to get through to him.

I don’t think ‘tough love’ is backed by any credible research. Not that I’ve heard, at least.

Mote threw Mark an irritated glance. Did you just come here to question if I know what I’m doing?

Do you know what you’re doing?

Mote faltered for a moment. He looked over at Austin, who was still levitating in the air, before turning back to Mark and lowering his voice to a near-whisper. Honestly? No, I don’t. I’ve never trained anyone aside from myself before. I don’t know how to train Chaotics. It isn’t my job!

I’ll give you that, Mark responded in hushed tones. You could look up training regimens online, maybe. There’s stuff on the Relaynet you could look at.

Chaotic training regimens? Nonsense. Chaotics are military resources, which means that their training regimens would be military secrets. There’s no way you’d find anything credible online.

That’s not entirely true, actually. I’ve heard that there are some private Nimalian schools for Chaotics, and some of them publish their curriculum on the Relaynet. You should check them out.

Private schools? For Chaotics? That post their curriculum online? What kind of fantasy land do you live in?

Seriously, Mote. Look up the Nimalian Schools of Chaos, it’s literally as simple as a single query.

Even so. The whole point behind training up these novices is to reduce our reliance on the other civilizations in the galaxy. Stealing their training regimens would run counter to the goal.

Reducing our dependence on our allies doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from them. In fact, it would be incredibly ignorant and arrogant both to believe as much.

Tch…

I’m just saying, Mote. The Nimalians have a lot more experience with training Chaotics than we do, so why not borrow their knowledge? No need to reinvent the wheel.

…I’ll consider it, Mote responded, just as a loud growl emanated from Austin’s stomach. The levitating Chaotic promptly dropped to the floor, where he stumbled and then fell over on his rear, thoroughly disoriented.

“Ow…” he muttered painfully, “aw…”

I see you finally lost concentration, Mote commented, his arms crossed.

“Only ‘cause I got hungry,” Austin muttered, and then looked up at Mote and Mark. “Is it lunchtime yet? I haven’t eaten since breakfast!”

That is usually the case with lunchtime.

“Ah, you know what I fuckin’ meant.” Austin pulled himself up to his feet and dusted himself off. “So how’d I do?”

…Not bad, Mote conceded. Your level of concentration is… surprising. If only you’d apply that to the rest of your training. He glanced over his shoulder at the other three recruits, and then at the wall behind Austin, on which a clock was mounted. It currently read out a time of twelve o’clock, on the dot.

Seems like lunchtime to me, Mark commented as he followed Mote’s gaze to the clock.

Yes… Mote nodded. Austin immediately sighed of relief and started toward the room’s exit, but Mote stopped him. We aren’t done training today. In one hour, you need to be back right here for our afternoon session. Understood?

“Jesus, you’re gonna fuckin’ drive me into the ground. And on a Saturday, too…” Austin muttered.

Sparks began to wreath Mote’s arms. What did I tell you about attitude?

“Alright, alright, no need for the fuckin’ shocks…” Austin held up his hands and shied away. “I’ll be back on time. Promise.”

Mote nodded and glanced over at Mark, who was dismissing the other recruits for lunch. He then turned back toward Austin. Good. Though you’d better eat a good, healthy lunch, because you’re going to need it. Now, dismissed.

*     *     *

1 Hour Later

“A mock battle?!”

That’s right. Mote nodded once as he looked over Austin, Spike, Sky, and Twy. The four of you against me.

“Four on one? Ha!” Sky grinned as she planted her fists on her hips. “Not to mention, a chance to finally beat you up? I’ll take that!”

Don’t be so cocky, Mote warned. As you are now, none of you could even dream of taking me down in an even fight, even if you worked together perfectly.

Austin scowled. “Then what’s the point of a mock battle? Do you just wanna beat us up for no damn reason?”

No, and if you stopped to listen, then I could tell you the parameters of our mock battle.

Austin and Sky quieted down, though they both wore expressions of mixed incredulity and impatience. From what Mote could tell, Spike and Twy were feeling much the same, though also with a hint of resignation. With temperaments like these… I almost wonder if it’s too soon for a mock battle, Mote thought to himself, and then glanced over at Mark, who stood at the side of the room. …No. Even if they fail miserably, they should be far enough along that I can turn it into a decent teaching moment. I hope…

Thank you, Mote eventually continued, in response to the recruits’ silence. Now. The goal of this mock battle is simple: one of you, any of you, needs to lay your hands on me before two minutes are up. I will not attack any of you, and will use my powers only in a defensive manner.

“If you can use your powers, then I assume that means we can use ours, too?” Spike questioned.

Yes. Maintain proper restraint; you don’t want to injure yourself, your friends, or the room. But otherwise, I encourage you to pour as much power into your attacks and movements as you can. Trust me, you’ll need it.

“Are you sure that’s safe?” Twy asked with a wary frown.

Mote scoffed. Nothing any of you can do can hurt me. And if any of you start to get out of control, then I’ll simply activate the room’s CENT field. I know what I’m doing.

“Alright. Seems simple enough,” Spike remarked as he began rolling his shoulders and stretching. He then looked over at Mark. “I guess he’ll be timin’ us, huh?”

And acting as referee! Mark shouted from across the room.

Mote glanced toward Mark before looking over the training room again. It was the size of a basketball court; in fact, it used to be one before being converted into a Chaotic training room. Many of the old markings on the floor remained, giving Mote a decent set of distance references. Should be plenty of space in here to move around. Let’s just hope that the recruits have enough control over their powers to not wreck the room. Now… Mote spoke up as he turned back to face the recruits. Any questions before we begin?

“We just have to tag you to win, right?” Austin questioned.

That’s correct.

“Then we’re ready to go!” Sky exclaimed, bouncing eagerly on the balls of her feet. “C’mon! I’m tired of waiting!”

Alright, then. Mote held up his hand toward Mark, gesturing for him to ready his stopwatch. He then positioned himself halfway down the room from the four recruits. When I say ‘begin’, we start. Three… two… one… begin!

As soon as the word left his mouth, a bubble of water began to form around him, while Austin and Spike simultaneously rushed forward. Mote immediately crouched down and instantaneously altered the magnetic charge of the floor and the soles of his shoes, giving them both the same magnetic charge — and so flinging him up into the air, just in time to escape being trapped in a bubble of water. Sky and Spike both reacted by launching projectiles at Mote — a fireball from Sky, and a fabricated shield from Spike — but the fireball intercepted the shield and knocked both off course, allowing Mote to safely ignore them as he fell back to the ground. He turned his attention to Austin, who had managed to close the distance between them and was now reaching toward Mote; Mote quickly acted to impart a magnetic charge to both himself and Austin so as to propel them away from each other, but despite sensing his own change in magnetic charge, Austin continued to approach ever closer.

What the hell—? Mote grit his teeth and cut off his surprised thoughts to choose another course of action. Just as Austin’s hand reached to within an inch of Mote’s shoulder, the Electrotechnic dropped to the floor and rolled to the side. He then sprung back to his feet and magnetically launched himself toward the far wall, at which point he whipped around to eye Austin with irritation. Ah, that’s right. Chaotics are immune to direct manipulation from other Chaotics of the same type, and as long as I’m within Austin’s simulation range, he has my type. Annoying… I can’t believe I let that catch me off guard. But there will be no more surprises! Mote then turned his attention to Sky, who was using her flames to propel herself through the air, straight toward him. After a quick glance to the side, Mote reached out with his hand toward Spike’s discarded shield from earlier and imparted a massive magnetic charge to it, at the same time that he gave his hand the opposite charge. The shield zipped through the air, reaching him just before Sky did; Mote grabbed the object out of the air and shoved it in Sky’s face while simultaneously charging it with just enough electricity to stun her. He then chucked the shield at Spike to force him to evade before launching himself into the air again, this time toward the half-court line.

As for the recruits, it’s just as I expected… Mote thought to himself as he glanced at Austin and Twy to his right, and Spike and Sky to his left. They aren’t coordinating at all. They’ll never win like this…

The sound of roaring flames and rushing water brought Mote back into the moment. From his right approached a massive wall of water; from his left, a wall of fire. Immediately, Mote magnetically launched himself into the air, clearing both elemental walls as they crashed into each other and exploded into a massive steam cloud. As he fell back to the ground, he couldn’t help but smirk; he wasn’t sure if either of the twins had actually planned to create a smokescreen, but it was nevertheless a useful play on their part. Too bad for them that I don’t have to rely on my eyes to see.

The moment Mote touched back down on the ground, he began focusing on the passive electrical fields around him. The human body generated a minute electrical field on its own — the nervous system worked through electrical pulses, after all — and Mote could sense those fields to determine the locations of other living beings around him. Through this sense, he quickly picked up on the fact that Spike was charging at him, and had actually managed to close to within several meters. Mote felt his body involuntarily tense; Spike was a formidable combatant in melee, not just because of his size or his super strength, but also because he had been formally trained through martial arts. None of the Eximius Vir had the luxury of melee training, aside from simple CQC taught by SERRCom instructors — so while Mote would never admit it out loud, he had no choice but to acknowledge that Spike could likely defeat him in a powerless melee fight.

But this battle wasn’t powerless, and neither was it restricted to melee.

Mote ducked backwards from Spike’s incoming fist, successfully dodging as he backed further into the steam cloud. He then moved to launch himself toward the far wall, but tripped as a tentacle of water slammed into his ankle. Caught by surprise, he tumbled to the ground and then continued rolling to evade Spike once more. Mote then leaped to his feet and launched himself at the ceiling, which he immediately clung to with his magnetism before turning to survey the room. The steam cloud was rapidly dissipating, allowing Mote to see the entire room again — as well as Twy and Sky launching themselves through the air at him using their respective elements. He prepared to drop to the ground to evade the twins, but just as he did so, he noticed Austin flying up at him from below. A pincer attack, huh? Finally, some sort of coordination! Mote then reached his arm out toward the shield from earlier that was still lying around, magnetically charging it to draw it toward him. He grabbed the shield out of the air, allowing its momentum to spin him around and knock away both Twy and Sky before thrusting the shield downward to block Austin — only to suddenly lose control of the shield as it zipped away lateral to his position.

Shit, Austin’s Imperator powers—! Mote scowled as Austin’s hand inched closer to his own, closing to within less than a meter. Recalling his earlier close call, Mote skipped trying to change Austin’s magnetic charge and instead applied opposing magnetic charges to himself and one of the far walls, causing him to zip out of Austin’s reach. The Electrotechnic caught himself against the wall and allowed himself to drop to the ground, easily catching himself with a single roll. Caught by surprise again, he thought bitterly as he turned back to face the action, damn it! I need to stop underestimating Austin—!

His thoughts were cut off as a large shield slammed into his chest like a giant metal frisbee and catapulted him across the room. With an irate scowl, Mote quickly recovered and jumped to his feet just in time to duck under a second airborne shield — and to see Spike charging straight toward him. Mote immediately imparted magnetic charges to both of the now-discarded shields and began manipulating them through the air, using his electromagnetic manipulation powers as a sort of telekinesis as he bashed the shields into Spike from afar to keep him away. Spike’s superior strength and durability allowed him to punch and tear the shields to pieces, but the distraction was enough to allow Mote to focus on Austin and Sky — with the former charging at him, and the latter standing farther back as she summoned a hail of fireballs and then launched them in Mote’s general direction.

The hail of fireballs presented little danger to Mote; he had more than enough time to evade, and even if he hadn’t, he had taken far more serious attacks to the face and walked it off. However one aspect of the situation stood out to him: Austin stood directly in the path of the fireballs. Shit. Sky’s getting carried away!

As the fireballs flew ever closer, Mote took a split second to analyze his options. He didn’t know the exact range of Austin’s Simulator powers, so attempting to magnetically repel him out of the path of the fireballs wasn’t guaranteed to work. Mote’s eyes then flicked over to Spike; he was a Forcetechnic, and Mote knew that Forcetechnics were far more durable than any other Chaotic. And since that increased durability was part of Forcetechnism itself, if Spike were to enter Austin’s simulation range, then Austin would passively pick up Spike’s increased durability and be able to survive a storm of fire. Spike himself seemed to have realized this and had pivoted to charge directly at Austin, but Mote could tell that he wouldn’t make it in time all on his own. This won’t be pretty, but there are few other options! As the fireballs approached to within a handful of meters of Austin, Mote acted to give the floor near Austin a north magnetic charge, and then apply a massive south charge to Spike, so as to yank Spike into Austin’s simulation range.

Only, Spike’s magnetic charge remained completely unchanged.

What the hell?! Mote reflexively scowled. I can’t alter Spike’s charge either? How does that—? Shit! In the split second between attempting his plan and failing, the fireballs were now nearly on top of Austin, who by now had realized the danger he was in and was attempting to flee in a panic. But Mote knew that it was too little, too late; Austin hadn’t yet had enough training to react to this kind of situation quickly enough to save himself. The Electrotechnic quickly crouched down and then launched himself forward in an effort to intercept the fireballs, but he was no Velocitechnic. The chances of him actually reaching Austin in time were practically nil. Damn it! I knew these damn recruits would be nothing but trouble—!

Just as the fireballs came close to licking the hairs on the back of Austin’s neck, however, they all fizzled away. Mote immediately drew back, confused, until he snapped his attention toward Mark at the side of the room — and the now-flipped CENT field activation switch. Ah, right! Good thinking, Mark!

Time out! Mark promptly shouted, drawing the confused attention of the four recruits. Round over!

“Aw, what?!” Sky exclaimed, “that wasn’t two minutes!”

No, it wasn’t. And you have only yourself to blame for that, Mote countered, his brow furrowed in frustration as he approached Austin to ensure that he was fine. Before he could properly check, however, the Psychotechnic had jumped to his feet and spun around to glare at his Pyrotechnic friend.

“The hell was that fireball shit?!” Austin shouted irately, “you almost fuckin’ incinerated me!”

“I—!” Sky drew back in surprise. “I… I totally had that under control!”

I seriously doubt that, Mote responded as he glanced around the room at each of Austin, Spike, Sky, and Twy. You can’t get carried away. In a real-life battle, you could seriously injure yourself or an ally. Using high-power attacks is absolutely pointless if you can’t control them to ensure the safety of your allies.

You’re the one who said we should use our powers!”

I also told you to maintain restraint. Which you most certainly were not doing.

“But I—!”

“Sky, cut it out,” Twy interjected. “You almost seriously injured Austin. You could have even killed him!”

“That’s…” Sky glanced uneasily between Twy, Austin, and Mote, who all regarded her with varying levels of irritation. “…Okay. Fine. You’re right… I’m sorry, Austin.”

“Just don’t let it happen again,” Austin replied. He then gingerly patted the back of his neck. “…Oof, I feel like I can still feel the heat. That was way too close…”

I’ll say. Mote sighed. If only the lot of you were more capable Chaotics, then this never would have happened.

“We can’t get better without trainin’ first,” Spike pointed out. “We are still new at this. I don’t think you should blame anyone just yet.”

You’re right, you all are still incredibly new, and it shows. All four of you have contributed to loosing marks in this mock battle.

“I bet Sky’s getting an F,” Austin retorted.

“Hey, I apologized!” Sky shot back.

“Let’s all settle down, now…” Twy addressed her friends, and then turned toward Mote. “So… how did we do?”

Mote sighed wearily as he raised a hand to massage his temples. He gestured for everyone to get closer so that he wouldn’t have to shout over half a basketball court and then replied, I’d give that performance a D.

“A what?!” Austin exclaimed incredulously.

“Yeah, we didn’t do that bad,” Spike insisted, “aside from what Sky did, I guess. We could totally have followed up to that, anyways. Twy and I were about to corner you!”

You really weren’t, Mote countered. Spike, you were already too far away to do anything to me. Furthermore, if I didn’t have to be concerned about Austin’s safety, then I could easily have escaped Sky’s haphazard storm of fireballs. But that isn’t all; you all started the round on the wrong foot. I didn’t see any signs of teamwork until that steam cloud. He turned toward the twins. Was that intentional?

“Yes,” Twy replied with a nod.

“Nope!” Sky responded with a shake of her head, at the same time as Twy. She and Twy then exchanged a glance; Sky’s of surprise, and Twy’s of irritation.

Mote simply sighed again. I wondered as much. Now, I will admit — there were the beginnings of some teamwork in the actions you all took. But I want you all to think about it more, and I especially want you all to be aware of your surroundings when you put any plans you come up with into effect. He then turned to Spike. That said, you’ve got a point to learn all on your own.

“Huh?” Spike frowned in confusion — and then jumped in surprise as Mote grabbed Spike’s shield and magnetically ripped it out of his hands.

When you fight another Chaotic, you must always keep in mind their ability when you decide what to do, Mote declared, before charging the shield and launching it across the room at Mark, who caught it easily. The shields you fabricated — while they may have benefited you at first, they all became far more useful to me for most of the battle. Without them, I would’ve had a more difficult time escaping your attacks.

“Oh… right. I see…”

“Wait, question!” Austin raised his hand to gain Mote’s attention, and then planted his hands on his hips in frustration. “The hell was that just now? The CENT fields are up, ain’t they? How the hell can you still use your powers when we can’t?”

That question is immaterial to your training, Mote replied. Don’t distract yourself from improving yourself. We still aren’t done with today’s training.

“Oh yeah? Well what’s next, then?” Sky questioned. “Are you gonna have us play keep away again?”

Yes, in fact, I am, Mote shot back. We’ll keep doing this until either an hour passes, or you manage to actually win. He scowled as he noted each of the recruits react with groans, sighs, or eye rolls. Just for that, we’ll be going for two hours. Now line up at the far side of the room! Spike, you see that switch for the CENT field? Flip it! We begin again on my mark!

“Fuckin’ slave driver…” Austin muttered as he trudged to the far side along with the others.

Mote simply watched them impatiently before glancing down at his hand. With little effort, he generated a number of small sparks across his fingertips — and then generated a larger, single spark just as Spike flipped the switch to deactivate the room’s CENT fields. …Why CAN I use my powers in a CENT field? he wondered to himself, and not just me, but Mark, and Danielle, and Kate as well. What exactly is going on there…? He shook his head to clear his thoughts and returned his attention to the recruits, but just as he was about to address them, Mark approached him.

Mote, we’ve got a problem, he whispered.

What? Mote responded in a low voice, what is it? Can it wait until we’re done here?

Not really, no. I just got word from Danielle… Mark glanced at the recruits before turning back to Mote, his expression one of concern. There’s just been an attack on a SERRCom facility.

Chapter 11 – Abandoned Guardians

“Colonel, behind you!”

“Tch!” Saito whipped around and opened fire with his gauss rifle, tearing into a floating drone that had just rounded the corner behind him. He then lunged for cover just as another two drones blasted his position with lasers, creating a spectacular explosion of energy and throwing Saito to the ground. “Shit,” he muttered as he scrambled back to his feet. Barely five minutes had passed since MacTavish warned him of the password protection, but now CSF-1 was under attack from all sides by automated drones — and if the state of communications was any indication, the Black Suns team seemed to be under fire as well.

The Colonel glanced down at his chest plate; the electricity-based powered armor he was wearing now was less powerful than his usual Chaos Armor, but it had still protected him against a number of laser blasts so far. The only question was how many more it could take…

“Colonel!” Hackett shouted from across the room as she fired down the opposite hallway. “I don’t know how much longer we can hold this position!”

“It’ll be easier to fight them off here than in the hallways!” Saito yelled back. “At least here we have cover!”

“Can’t our armor take a few hits?” Travis questioned as he peeked over a console and fired into the hallway. He then ducked down next to MacTavish — who was cowering with her head in her hands — and looked over at Saito. “I say we make a break for it!”

“There’s no telling if our armor can take that much punishment.” The Colonel paused for a moment to peek out from cover again and fire at one of the opposing drones, emptying several bullets into it and eventually taking it down. “And even if it could, there’s nothing stopping these damn drones from following us out of the base!”

“Well turnin’ on the power turned them on, can’t we just turn ‘em back off?!”

“They’re autonomous drones, Captain!” Hackett countered. “They clearly have their own internal power sources! Turning off the base won’t turn off the drones!”

“There has to be a way to deal with them all at once…” Saito scowled, and then glanced toward MacTavish. “MacTavish! Did you see anything in the computer that could help before you were locked out?”

“Uh, uh, uh…!” She stared at him in panic. “W-well, I-I mean, m-maybe?!”

“That’s good enough—!” Saito stopped as a large drone floated into the room and immediately fired. A blast of energy exploded against Saito’s chest, flinging him across the room and into one of the consoles. Travis immediately sniped the drone’s weapons off before it could fire again, at which point Hackett unloaded into the bot, destroying it. She then rushed over to Saito’s side as Travis offered covering fire.

“Sir?!”

“I’m fine, damn it, I’m fine!” Saito waved her off as he rolled over onto all fours. His armor’s energy shielding had saved him again, but as far as he could tell, the armor could only protect him from a handful more similar blows. He scowled in frustration and gestured for Hackett to return to her position, at which point he rushed back to the other side of the room — where he had stood previously — and opened fire down the hallway, obliterating four out of the half dozen drones flying in the air. “Damn,” he muttered, and then glanced back at MacTavish. “MacTavish! Tell me what you saw, now!”

“Uh, uh, r-right?!” she responded in panic, “um, th-there’s s-some kind of, of c-command core! I-in the center of th-the base— eek!” She immediately ducked as Travis jumped out of cover to fire his gun.

“We saw that on the map. So it does control the drones?” Hackett pressed.

“Uh, m-maybe?”

“Damn. Well, it’s all we have to go on.” Saito glanced back at MacTavish before finishing his reload and firing into the hallway, managing to clear out the drones that remained. “…Sounds like shutting the power off might do the job, then!”

“Er, n-not really…” MacTavish responded warily. “I-I d-didn’t get t-to see much, but, uh, I-I th-think the c-command core has it’s, um, i-it’s own b-backup generator.”

“Then we just go after the backup generator. Simple!” Travis exclaimed.

“And then we get slaughtered as all of the drones converge on our location to protect the most important generator in the base,” Saito countered. “…I have a plan. Rabine! Commander Rabine!” he shouted into his communicator, “Commander, do you read me?”

A moment of silence passed. Then, «yes, Colonel, we’re here. Though if this keeps up, we may not last much longer!»

“I know. Same here. Listen, I think I know how to deal with this. My team was lucky and managed to figure out where the base’s command core is before we got locked out.”

«And you want to destroy it?»

“Yep. But I’m sure there’s tons of these damn drones protecting the core, so we need to give them a reason to leave it alone.”

«Let’s get to the point, Colonel. You want to create a diversion.»

Saito paused for a moment to shoot across the room at a drone that was threatening Hackett, destroying it. “Exactly. I figure attacking the main power generators should do the trick. Are you up to it?”

«My troops can certainly handle that much. But I’m coming with you to attack the core, Colonel!»

“How would you even find the core? We knew roughly where the main generators were before we landed, but the only reason my team knows where the core is is because we found a map!”

His communicator remained conspicuously silent for several moments, allowing him to focus on firing on another three drones that were approaching down the hallway. «…My team also found a map,» Rabine eventually responded. «We were just about to download a copy when the systems locked us out and sent drones after us.»

Saito scowled. “What happened to letting me know when you found something interesting?”

«I don’t recall you informing me about your map, either.»

“Tch. Fine! If you think you can find your way to the core on your own, then be my guest! I’ll meet you there!” The Colonel then turned toward the other members of CSF-1 as a momentary lull came over the room. “Hackett, Travis, MacTavish. I’m sending the three of you after the main generators. Team up with the Black Suns and make as much noise as you can!”

“Sir?” Hackett gave him an incredulous look. “You can’t seriously intend to go after the command core all on your own?”

“I’ll still be with you for the first stretch, but the drones already know we’re here.” Saito ran across the room over to the activation switch before looking back at the rest of his team. “For the diversion to work, they need to think that we’re going after the main generators, which won’t work if we, you know, don’t.” He looked Hackett and Travis in the eye, noticing that they both obviously had doubts about his plan. “…Don’t worry,” he added, “if we turn this switch off, it should turn primary power back off, which should include any base-wide sensors. Then when I split off from the three of you, the drones won’t be able to track me. Not to mention that I’ll be meeting up with Commander Rabine at the core.”

“This still sounds dangerous,” Travis pointed out.

“I never said it wasn’t. But I don’t suppose you have a better plan for dealing with these drones?”

The Captain stared at Saito for a moment before looking away in defeat.

“We can’t afford to just sit around here and chat, anyways.” Saito grasped the handle of the activation lever as Hackett opened fire on another pair of drones. “The moment I pull this lever, burst fire all of the drones down Hackett’s hallway to oblivion. Then we charge! Now, on my mark!” He watched Travis quickly move over to the doorway next to Hackett, across the hallway from her, as MacTavish crawled along the ground to keep by his side. “…Three! Two! One…!” Saito grabbed the lever with both hands and pulled it as hard as he could, barely moving it at first — but then, a moment later, the lever snapped into the off position. “Mark!!”

The electrical whining of firing gauss rifles filled the room as Hackett and Travis leaned out into the hallway and unloaded a full magazine of bullets each into the approaching drones. One, three, seven, twelve — they rapidly fell out of the air under the onslaught, with only a handful of them managing to fire back. Travis recoiled as a laser blast exploded across his shoulder, but he managed to recover and continue firing until the hallway was clear of drones.

“Go, go, go!” Saito shouted as he charged into the hallway. Hackett immediately took off after him, followed by Travis, and then MacTavish. The Colonel rushed down the hall at full speed, not even slowing his pace as he lifted his gun to shoot down two drones that drifted into sight from a side hallway. As he passed the two short-circuiting wrecks, he grabbed one and held it up to use as makeshift cover, absorbing the laser blasts of another two drones that appeared at the end of the hallway. From behind him, Travis fired on the drones and successfully destroyed them, just in time for CSF-1 to reach the end of the hallway themselves. Saito inspected both the left and right hallways before backing off and allowing Hackett to take point, at which point he dropped to the back next to MacTavish. “MacTavish. You know where the command core is, right?”

She nodded wordlessly; Saito couldn’t quite tell if her lack of words was due to panic, or exhaustion.

“Good. How do I get there?”

“Uh, um…” She gulped once and took a deep breath before continuing, “r-right here, th-the next left… a-and then, um, a-another left, th-then two rights… a-and a left. …I-I think.”

“You think?

“I-I d-didn’t have time t-to study th-the map! Th-this, this all happened s-so fast!!”

“It’ll have to do, then,” Saito muttered. “Alright. Right, left, left, right, right, left. Got it.” He glanced over at Hackett and Travis, who returned the gesture. “We’re about to split up. Hackett, you’re in charge!”

“Yes sir!” The Major nodded once and then whipped around the right corner, her gun up and ready. Due to the power being shut off, the hallways had returned to being pitch black — but between her flashlight, and the fact that the attacking drones had small indicator lights all over them, she could tell that a handful of drones were approaching from several tens of meters out. She immediately opened fire on the drones, attracting their attention while Saito and Travis dived across the hallway and quietly rushed up the side through the cover of darkness. When they reached another branching hallway — this one to the left — Travis took cover and opened fire, allowing Hackett to move up… and Saito to break off.

The Colonel jogged down the dark hallway, trying his best to control his footfalls to produce as little noise as possible. As he did so, he quickly reloaded, taking note of the fact that he was down to only two more magazines, including the one he had just inserted into his gun. Good thing mags are small for gauss rifles. If we were using regular firearms, I would’ve run out of ammo halfway down the last hallway… but I still need to be conservative now.

He cautiously held up his gun along with his flashlight, though he covered part of the flashlight beam in an effort to reduce the chances of his detection. The heavily reduced lighting made navigating the dark hallways difficult, but as Saito reached the end of the hallway and took a left, he noticed that he wasn’t running into any drones. Good. Either we’ve burned through most of them or they fell for the distraction; either way, it looks like smooth sailing—?

In the middle of his thoughts, a drone drifted into view from a side room. The drone itself was nearly invisible in the pitch-black darkness, but he recognized the faint blue lights on its gun and sensor unit; he immediately stopped running and took careful aim in an attempt to reduce his bullet usage. In the second it took for him to aim, the drone seemed to notice him and began to fire its gun, but Saito domed it with two bullets and put it out of commission — resulting in only a half-power laser blast against his thigh, which his shielding easily absorbed. A light on his chest plate blinked thrice immediately afterward, indicating that his armor’s shielding was down to ten percent power. Great. It can only take another one or two blows now… MAYBE three, maximum. I’ve got to be careful…

Saito broke into a run, taking a right when the hallway ended, and then immediately another right when that hallway ended as well. As he continued onward, he grew more and more concerned; while MacTavish had given him the directions on what turns to take, it occurred to him that she hadn’t specified when to take those turns, or at what intersections. As he thought that, however, he noticed that the hallway he was running down seemed to curve ever so slightly to the left. Several of the other hallways he had been through curved in a similar manner, leading him to wonder if these hallways were concentric. The facility itself was circular, after all — in which case the location of the command core, relative to him, was obvious.

The Colonel took the next left that he could, taking him down a straight hallway. He needed to get to the center of the base; even if the command core wasn’t there, something else of equal importance was sure to be. So when he reached the end of the hallway — and thus, the end of MacTavish’s instructions — and all he found was more hallways, he remained undeterred. Picking the right, he dashed down the halls, prepared to find the center all on his own—

Suddenly, his world briefly went white. He immediately found himself tumbling along the ground, completely disoriented as his gun flew out of his hands. He then slammed into a wall, bringing him to a painful stop, but allowing him to finally get a bearing on his position. With a groan, he began to pick himself up and look around, where he noticed a particularly large drone floating in the air just next to him, its indicator lights illuminating its sensor dome and twin laser cannons.

“…Shit,” he muttered.

But he had little time to further respond as the drone seemed to spontaneously explode, launching fragments across the hallway. Saito took the opportunity to lunge for his gun, grabbing it off of the floor and swinging it back around to face the drone’s former location — where he found none other than a certain silver-haired Commander, laser gun in hand.

“…Colonel.” Rabine acknowledged him with a nod. “Having trouble?”

“I was about to,” Saito remarked. “I guess that was the thing that hit me… really did a number on my shields, too.” He glanced at a readout on his gauntlets, indicating that his armor only had around five percent power left. “…Guess I owe you, huh?”

“I suppose you do,” the Commander responded. “But we don’t have time to discuss this now. My team should be dealing with the main generators as we speak.”

“As should mine. You’re right, let’s get going.” Saito turned on his heel and began rushing down the hallway, with Rabine following closely behind.

“Do you know where the core is?” she questioned.

“Not exactly. But it’s around here somewhere, most likely in the center of base.”

The Commander responded with a simple nod, briefly quickening her pace to fall into step beside Saito. He passed her a quick glance; she seemed to be keeping up with him rather well, which surprised him. She was a Chaotic, after all, and it was Saito’s understanding that Chaotics often became dependent on their powers for even basic daily activities. For Rabine to remain so able and competent while in Dead Space was an impressive feat in Saito’s book — though he had to admit that he didn’t have many reference points. Either I’ve overestimated the impact of Dead Space on Chaotics, or the Black Suns have a quality training regimen. Huh, interesting…

“I believe this is it.”

Saito swung around to face in the same direction as Rabine, allowing the light from his flashlight to fall on a tall pillar stood inside of a large chamber. The chamber itself was dimly lit, allowing the two to see inside without much issue — as well as spot the two drones that were slowly circling the pillar like guard dogs.

The Colonel and Commander both immediately ducked behind the doorway to avoid being spotted. Rabine glanced toward Saito and held up two fingers; Saito nodded back. She then let go of her gun, allowing it to hang from her armor by a strap as she held up one finger and pointed at herself, while simultaneously holding up one finger with her other hand and pointing at Saito. The Colonel wasn’t completely certain what she was trying to indicate, but it seemed to him as though she were saying that they should each take out one drone, simultaneously — which sounded like a poor plan to him. As far as he was concerned, there was a good chance that the drones could communicate with each other throughout the base, so destroying two of them in what appeared to be the command core would just draw in the rest.

Just as Saito made to respond, however, a low rumbling rolled through the entire base. Is that from the main generators—? Saito began to wonder, but then he noticed Rabine whip around out of cover, her gun to bear. What? No, damn it—!

She fired her laser gun, nailing one of the drones and dropping it to the floor. She then turned to fire her gun at the second drone, but missed, instead causing a small energy blast against the far wall. Just as she made to fire a third time, Saito destroyed the remaining drone with two well-placed bullets.

He then turned to Rabine in frustration. “The hell was that? All of the drones throughout the entire damn base likely know we’re here now!”

“If you had taken out the second drone at the same time I took out mine, then we could have prevented that,” Rabine shot back. “Besides. Once we destroy the command core, it won’t matter.”

Saito scowled, but elected not to continue the argument — this was hardly the place for it. Instead, he stormed into the room, carefully inspecting the place to ensure there were no more drones. As soon as he was sure that he and Rabine were alone, he turned toward the center pillar to get a closer look. The circular column stood nearly five meters wide at its base and gradually tapered to a narrower diameter near its top, which Saito estimated as being nearly ten meters up. Indicator lights and glowing blue lines covered the pillar, all of them tracing down to two terminals built into its base. The room itself was fairly barren, with featureless walls that surrounded a space approximately fifteen meters in diameter.

“At least we’ve found the core,” Saito muttered, and then glanced over at Rabine. “You can read Aldredian, right? Any of these terminals say anything interesting?”

The Commander paused to inspect the pillar herself before shaking her head. “They confirm that this is the command core, but otherwise the systems appear to be locked. Just like the rest of the base.”

“Figures,” Saito snorted as he grabbed a chunk of C-4 out of his pockets. He planted a trigger mechanism on top and then stuck the chunk to the side of the pillar, at the same time that Rabine attached a small metallic dome to one of the terminals. “What’s that?” he questioned as he nodded toward the dome.

“An explosive,” Rabine replied, and then gestured toward the C-4. “And yours?”

“Same.” The Colonel backed away from the pillar — and then swung his gun around to face the entrance just as three drones zipped inside. He immediately fired on the three, managing to drop two of them with six bullets as Rabine destroyed the third with a laser blast. “Damn…” Saito scowled and then gestured for Rabine to follow him. “Let’s get clear and blow this thing already—”

«Colonel!»

Saito paused for a moment in frustration before speaking into his communicator. “What is it, Captain?”

«Kirstin wanted me to tell you not to blow up the command core itself,» Travis replied over the connection.

“She what?” Saito responded incredulously, and then turned to face Rabine as he switched his communicator into open-mic mode. “You want us to not blow up the command core?”

«That’s what she says, sir. She says that if we blow up the core, there’s a chance we won’t be able to access any of the other systems. We’d lose everything.»

“If we don’t stop the drones, then we’ll still lose everything,” Rabine countered.

«Er, that’s not all she said, either.» Travis paused for a moment; Saito thought he could hear bits and pieces of MacTavish’s stuttering before Travis continued, «Kirstin says that if you blow up the core, or the generator that powers it, then you could end up just blowing us all up.»

“And just why the hell is that?” Saito questioned, and then passed Rabine a wary glance as she raised her gun. He snapped his attention to where she was pointing as a half-dozen drones entered the room and immediately opened fire. Saito and Rabine both took multiple glancing hits as they dove for cover behind the pillar and then began returning fire.

«Apparently this base runs on geothermal power,» Travis responded as Saito continued to exchange fire with the drones. «That’s how it was able to keep power for so long, there’s a whole damn magma chamber less than a mile below the base. Those Black Suns guys blew up the main generators, but now Kirstin’s worried that blowin’ up the core or its backup generator would…» The Captain trailed off again, just as Saito dispatched the final drone.

“Would what?” Saito pressed.

«…Uh… destabilize the magma chamber.»

“You’re telling me we could cause a volcanic eruption?

«That’s what’s Kirstin is sayin’, sir.»

The Colonel sighed in frustration as he glanced over at Rabine, who returned his impatient expression. “Well what the hell would she have us do, then?”

«…Apparently… if you just take out the power conduit between the core and its backup generator, then we’ll be fine.»

“Are you sure?”

«I mean, I guess? I’m sorry, sir, but between the Black Suns’ half-assed map and Kirstin bein’ in a panic, it’s kind of hard to tell.»

“Well where’s this power conduit?”

«It’s, uh… in the ceiling, just above the command core.»

“The ceiling?!” Saito and Rabine both stared upward. Sure enough, there appeared to be some kind of service hatch in the ceiling… but at ten meters up, Saito wasn’t sure how either he or Rabine were going to reach it.

“If only this wasn’t Dead Space,” Rabine muttered.

«Ah, sorry, Colonel!» Travis spoke again, «we’ve got more drones here! Travis, out!»

“As if they’re the only ones with drone problems,” Saito grumbled as another dozen drones flew into the room. He immediately took careful aim and managed to shoot down two of them, but as they rapidly rounded the pillar and began firing on him and Rabine, he realized that he no longer had the luxury of caution. As he circled the pillar with Rabine in an effort to keep it in between them and the drones, he began simply aiming in the drones’ general locations and releasing a hail of bullets, successfully managing to take out another three. Rabine destroyed another five, leaving only two more — but just as Saito and Rabine took aim, the two drones suddenly dived, causing both of them to miss. The drones then fired their laser cannons, hitting both officers and launching them across the room. Saito hit the far wall with a painful thud, accompanied by the high-pitched electrical screech of his shields failing. “Shit…!” He immediately rolled to the side just as his former position exploded under another laser blast; he then pointed his gun in the general direction of the two drones and unleashed the rest of his magazine, downing one — just as the other fell to Rabine’s lasers.

“We need to do something about that conduit,” the Commander stated as she climbed back to her feet.

“You don’t say,” Saito retorted as he ejected his empty magazine and slammed his final mag into the gun. “…My shields are down. I don’t know if I can take another firefight like that.”

“My shields aren’t doing well, either, but I can still take a few blows…” Rabine glanced toward the room’s entrance, where another group of drones had appeared. “Shit! Colonel, use me as cover!”

“Tch—!” Saito had little time to argue as the drones opened fire on the two officers. Several of the initial blasts erupted across Rabine’s armor, leaving her and Saito to return fire and wipe out the incoming wave. They managed to destroy all but three of the drones before they fired again, coordinating their laser blasts to all hit Rabine at once, the force immediately overpowering her shields and launching her across the room. Saito quickly shot the final three drones out of the air, at which point he glanced back at Rabine in apprehension… and then turned his attention upward. “…Well, don’t have much choice,” he muttered as he carefully aimed at the hatch in the ceiling and fired. The first bullet missed, but the second one hit the latch, destroying it and allowing the hatch to drop open — revealing what appeared to be a series of lights and wires. That has to be it, the Colonel thought impatiently, I swear, if that isn’t it, then…! He took aim once more, and fired.

Click. Click click click.

“Out of ammo…?!” Saito glared at his gun and then tossed it aside. As he pulled out his pistol, he glanced over at Rabine, who had just now managed to pull herself back to her feet — and then he turned toward the room’s entrance, where nearly twenty more drones had appeared. He stared at them in a mixture of disbelief and apprehension, simply watching as they moved in and took aim at himself and Rabine. “…Shit,” he muttered, and smirked despite himself. “…What a fuckin’ way to go—”

“Colonel!!”

The sounds of gauss rifle fire filled the air as a hail of bullets tore through the incoming swarm of drones. Apparently just as surprised as Saito, the drones were slow to react to the source of the fire, allowing Major Hackett to charge into the room and obliterate over fifteen of the drones, with Rabine and Saito managing to finish off the remaining units.

“Damn, am I glad to see you, Major!” Saito shouted.

“I figured you could use the help, sir!” she replied, “what’s the situation?”

“Both of our shields are down,” Rabine reported.

“And I’m out of ammo,” Saito stated. He then pointed upward. “The conduit we need to destroy is right there, but—!”

Before he could finish his sentence, even more drones began to flood into the room, immediately focusing their weapons on the three. Saito and Rabine dove back into cover as Hackett readily opened fire.

“Get down, sir!” Hackett shouted as she rushed forward, “I’ll draw their fire!”

“Tch…!” Saito scowled as he watched Hackett virtually dance between the drones, managing to dodge some of their lasers as she systematically destroyed them, but still taking hits all the same. Rabine aided by peeking out of cover when she could and dropping drones here and there, but as Saito looked further out into the hallway, he was dismayed to see what appeared to be an endless stream of drones. “So much for that distraction,” he muttered as he turned his pistol on the hatch above him and opened fire, emptying the entirety of his magazine into the distant conduits. The bullets ripped into the wires and tore out several of the lights, but the room and the command core itself remained powered. Without missing a beat, he ejected the pistol’s empty magazine and slammed in a new one before opening fire again on the hatch; he repeated this once more, completely exhausting all of his ammunition as he filled the hatch and the surrounding ceiling with almost a hundred bullets… and still, power ran freely.

As the Colonel stared up at the still surprisingly intact conduits, he realized that he was out of options. His weapons were useless to him, and if the number of drones and the intensity of weapons fire in the room was any indication, he couldn’t afford to distract either Rabine or Hackett to order them to shoot the hatch — and even if he did, it had already taken ninety shots from his pistol. If guns weren’t the solution, then what was?

Saito’s attention was drawn to the fire fight with the drones. Hackett had managed to destroy most of the drones inside the room, allowing her and Rabine to take cover behind the doorway as they continued exchanging bullets and lasers with the greater swarm — but Saito could tell that Hackett’s shields were depleting rapidly, and Rabine was finding fewer and fewer safe openings to peek out and shoot at the drones. It wouldn’t be long before their position was completely overrun, and they had no where else to retreat to. If only I had a grenade launcher, but all I brought with me is that damn C-4…!

The Colonel paused for a moment, and then snapped his attention to the C-4 he had attached to the core when he first arrived. An idea formed in his head; he immediately grimaced when he realized just how poor it was, but he had few other options. He yanked the C-4 off of the core, pulled the detonator out of his pocket, looked upward… and then wound his arm and chucked the plastic explosive at the ceiling.

“Fire in the hole!” he shouted as he dove away from the pillar. Before he even hit the ground, he slammed his thumb across the detonator’s trigger — and a moment later, an explosion sounded from on high. He curled up and shielded his neck with his hands as wiring and metal debris rained down on the room for several moments, and then…

Silence.

Saito cautiously opened his eyes and began wriggling his fingers. Once confident that he was still alive, he slowly turned to look up at the ceiling. The command core itself appeared largely intact, but a massive chunk of the upper core — as well as much of the ceiling around where the hatch had once been — no longer existed in one piece. The Colonel then looked down at Rabine and Hackett, both of whom were glancing between the broken ceiling, Saito, and the dozens of drones floating outside the room… that now fell completely dormant.

Saito grinned and sighed of relief. He knew that his mission wasn’t over yet, but that didn’t matter; he flopped over onto his back and closed his eyes, barely acknowledging Hackett and Rabine with a thumbs up as he stopped to rest. What mattered was that everyone was safe; investigating what remained of the Aldredian outpost could come later.

Chapter 12 – Negated Mysteries

Several Hours Later

When I heard that a SERRCom facility was under attack… I didn’t think that anyone was referring to a dam.

Well maybe you just shouldn’t be so close-minded, then, Kate retorted.

That’s not what I meant. Mote shot her an impatient glance. How the hell is a dam on Earth a ‘SERRCom facility’?

The dam uses SERRCom tech, so it’s being overseen by SERRCom. It is, therefore, a SERRCom facility. Duh.

Right… Mote simply nodded along, not fully convinced by Kate’s explanation. He then turned his attention back to the environment around him: a large dam over three miles long, currently under construction across the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. Over forty years ago, during the Chaos Energy Quake of 2088, Earth was rocked by a number of devastating natural disasters — including two massive earthquakes along the west cost of North America. San Francisco was hardly the only city impacted by the quakes, but the incredible geological event actually depressed the land around the bay; when combined with collapsing flood barriers and rising sea levels due to climate change, over half of the peninsula and much of the other land that bordered the bay became permanently submerged. The San Francisco Bay Area Reclamation Project was an attempt to change that, by damming the mouth of the bay and then slowly draining water over time so as to recover lost land. It wasn’t quite a financially feasible project given regular Earthian technology and the state of the global economy, but SERRCom’s anti-gravity technology made the construction process significantly cheaper and easier, and their beaming technology could easily streamline the draining process, allowing SERRCom to swoop in, save the project, and curry favor with the American public — all at minimal financial cost. Mote himself had visited the dam a couple times as part of SERRCom publicity stunts, so he was familiar with its existence… but to refer to it as a ‘SERRCom facility’ seemed to him to be a major misnomer.

As he continued to walk along the top of the under-construction dam with Kate and Danielle in tow, he found himself looking out west. The sun nearly touched the ocean horizon, resulting in a fantastic display of nigh-sunset color that tinted the whole area orange. Mote regarded the sunset as a pleasant sight, but nevertheless scowled as he beheld it. He had first heard of an attack on the dam at noon on the east coast, yet it had taken almost half a day for him to receive clearance to investigate with the Eximius Vir. Furthermore, everything he had heard during that time pointed to EA being the instigator — and that robots had been dropped all over the Bay Area, not just at the dam. On top of that, most of the robot forces seemed to have been eliminated by an unknown force. Mote remained utterly baffled as to why it took so long to get mission clearance given those circumstances, and he was further frustrated that he was sent to investigate the dam instead of the robots that were actually attacking civilians, or the unknown force that defeated most of them. Still, orders were orders, so investigate the dam he would. At least it was cleared of construction workers and guard staff, so that he and the others could conduct their work in peace.

Man, this is fucking boring.

…In relative peace, that is.

Mote cast toward Kate a frustrated glare. Don’t you have any inventing to do right now?

Nah, she replied airily. I’ve been in the lab all week anyways, I was getting bored. And it’s been a while since I saw some action, so I thought, why the hell not tag along?! She then looked over at Danielle. …Though that was when I thought it was just gonna be me and Danielle. Then your sorry ass had to show up.

I’m the leader of the team, Mote responded in exasperation. And it hasn’t even been a week since our last mission!

Yeah, that’s not what you told me, anyways, Kate, Danielle spoke up. You said that you wanted to see Mote—

I said I wanted to see the armor, Kate interjected. It’s not my fault that only dumbass here can wear it.

Mote looked down at himself and the armor he was wearing. While Kate and Danielle wore the Chaos Energy-based Powered Armor that was normal for the Eximius Vir, Mote currently had on the ancient Aldredian armor. He frowned; the armor itself was a decent fit, but the robing that covered it all over made him uncomfortable — not to mention the fact that the armor was supposedly an ancient artifact. Simply taking it out for a spin as a normal set of armor seemed incredibly short-sighted.

I suppose it was your fault that the General ordered me to wear this thing, then? Mote questioned as he turned toward Kate.

Well, yeah. Kate crossed her arms. It’s not like you were ever gonna wear it on your own. This way, I get to actually see the damn thing in action! Maybe something cool will happen!

Like what? Danielle asked eagerly.

Like, I dunno. Maybe some secret weapons whip out when Mote needs them most, or maybe it’s got flying thrusters, or invisibility tech, you know… stuff like that.

Maybe it’ll manifest the ability to make other people shut up at will, Mote replied flatly.

Kate simply flipped Mote off in response as Danielle giggled.

Mote then turned around to focus on the path in front of him as the three continued along the top of the dam. They had covered over a mile at this point from their starting point on the peninsula, leaving them almost at the halfway point of the dam’s length. Signs of battle damage or any intruders had been nonexistent, which utterly baffled Mote — according to every report he had heard so far, at least a dozen robots had been dropped on the dam, and a further two dozen throughout the Bay Area. With the exception of EA’s battle with Austin and his friends back in Texas, all of EA’s attacks had been ultimately ineffectual, and his attack now in the Bay Area seemed as though it would have the same result. Something about that didn’t sit right with Mote, however; why would EA mobilize three dozen robots, and then do nothing with them? Furthermore, he hadn’t even claimed responsibility for the attack. Mote hadn’t the slightest idea what EA was after, and attempting to work out reasons in his head yielded only frustration.

The Electrotechnic’s thoughts eventually drifted back to his armor. It did seem to be special in some capacity, considering that someone had set up a special ‘tomb’ of sorts to preserve it for thousands of years. But the actual qualities that made it unique escaped Mote; aside from its dramatic and mysteriously familiar appearance, what made it different from modern day armor? And now that he thought about it, isn’t this exactly what Kate was supposed to be determining when she so rudely interrupted his reading time a few days ago?

Hey, Kate, he eventually spoke up after a prolonged period of silence, from what you said earlier, it sounds like you don’t know much about this armor. Is that right?

Mote was facing forward as he spoke, with Kate out of sight behind him — but he could still hear the scowl on her face as she replied, are you trying to say that I don’t know what I’m doing? I’ll have you know—!

No, that’s not what I meant, Mote countered. But I thought you were studying the armor already. Don’t tell me you haven’t been able to learn anything.

Of course I’ve learned stuff. I’m not a fucking idiot, it’s just, you know… it’s, er, mildly difficult to interface with the armor’s computer systems. Lots of weird and unfamiliar protocols. There isn’t really a hardware port, either. Not as far as I could tell, at least. See, on normal armor you can plug a wire right into the—

Mote stopped walking and turned around to face Kate, his arms crossed in impatience. I know how regular armor works. What I want to know is how this armor is different.

It looks cooler, Danielle offered. Like a sci-fi mage, or something!

’It looks cool’ isn’t a primary driver of armor design, though.

Actually, that’s not entirely true, Kate countered, buuuut I won’t talk your ear off about that. Some of those Black Suns designs are pretty damn slick, though!

Mote sighed. This armor, Kate. He gestured down at himself. I’m asking about this one.

Don’t talk down to me like that, she huffed. But I guess you should know that it runs on Chaos Energy.

That’s not any different from our usual armor.

No, I mean it runs solely on Chaos Energy. There’s no electrical batteries or capacitors anywhere. If that thing ends up in a CENT field then it just shuts down completely.

Then why the hell am I wearing it on an active mission?

Oh c’mon, we don’t run into CENT fields that often. Besides, everyone knows that tech that runs solely on Chaos Energy is, like, super fucking powerful. Just look at the Genesis as an example of that!

Alright, just how powerful is this armor, then?

Kate glanced away conspicuously. I, uh… well, it’s really hard to tell.

She doesn’t know, Danielle whispered loudly.

But it’s not my fault I don’t know! Kate quickly added. As I said, it’s pretty hard to interface with that fucking armor! Sarah and Kirstin couldn’t pull out the specs either, so it’s not like I’m fucking slacking off or something.

Mote simply rolled his eyes as he turned around and continued walking. Right, I’m sure. So you didn’t figure out anything else, huh?

I didn’t say that.

Really. What else do you know, then?

Well, you said that the armor had a helmet when you first found it, right?

Mote paused momentarily as he thought back to the moment he first discovered the armor. …It did, he eventually replied. It had an upside-down version of the sword emblem you see on the chest plate… why do you ask?

Well you’re obviously not wearing the helmet now, so where’d it go?

The Electrotechnic glanced back at Kate, who met his eyes with a questioning expression. He then glanced down; it hadn’t even occurred to him that every time he put the armor on after finding it, the helmet was gone.

Figures you didn’t realize, Kate continued with a roll of her eyes. I think it’s got something to do with that weird-ass storage mechanism. The whole weird ‘materializing’ and ‘de-materializing’ thing. Kind of like our special weapons, now that I think about it…

What does that have to do with the helmet? Danielle questioned.

It implies that the armor is modular… I think, Kate responded. I mean, clearly Mote can summon the thing without the helmet. Maybe there’s other parts that he can choose to summon and disappear at will.

Mote immediately glanced down at himself as he willed the armor’s robing away. Dismissing the armor and returning it to its storage device required only a single thought, so clearly removing the robing would be similarly easy… except that it remained. He tugged at the cloth articles in irritation before looking back to Kate.

She shrugged. Hey, it was just a suggestion.

Some suggestion—

Sssshhh!

Mote and Kate both turned their attention toward Danielle, who was holding up a finger as she stared into the distance. Her eyes were narrowed, and the shape of her pupils was deformed, resembling that of a hawk. She then turned her head and cupped her hand around her ear. As she did so, Mote quietly summoned his battlehammer; he was well aware of Danielle’s quirks, and of her ability to transform parts of her body to enhance her senses. If she thought she sensed something, then more likely than not, trouble was afoot.

…I hear fighting, she whispered after a few moments of silence. It sounds like robots… like EA’s robots.

EA? Kate’s face scrounged up in incredulity. That weird evil twin of the wimpy newbie? Is he really behind all this shit? I thought he got his ass beat.

No. The recruits destroyed his mech, but he himself managed to escape. Furthermore, according to the reports, the appearance of the robots that were spotted in the area match the other robots we’ve seen EA using, so it’s likely that he’s behind everything. And as much as I hate to say it, his tech — wherever the hell it came from — is a credible threat to SERRCom, so whatever he’s doing… Mote scowled. Danielle! Rapid entry!

Got it! she responded as she leaped into the air and transformed into a small fighter jet. Two mechanical arms extended out of the jet’s underside to grab Mote and Kate before Danielle shot off along the top of the dam, covering half a mile in the blink of an eye before releasing Mote and Kate and transforming back into her normal self. As the three tumbled through the air, Mote used his magnetic manipulation powers to slow their descent, allowing them to hit the ground at a measly speed of under a hundred meters per second. Kate stumbled and ended up sprawled on her back, but both Mote and Danielle gracefully rolled to a stop, with Mote leaping out of the roll in preparation to attack… only to discover a fairly confusing scene.

In front of them was one of the wider finished areas of the dam, nearly a hundred meters across. All along the edges were construction equipment and tethered supplies… as well as the wrecked remains of three robots. Closer inspection revealed that the robots were of a similar make to the ones EA used to attack SERRCom bases several weeks ago, but that wasn’t the part Mote was concerned about. Several meters over, along the edge of the dam facing the ocean, was a dark-clothed man who was dragging a fourth robot over the edge.

Hey! Mote shouted toward him, who are you? What happened here?

The man snapped his gaze toward the three members of the Eximius Vir, revealing that his face was covered by a demon mask. Mote narrowed his eyes, but before he could open his mouth to speak again, the man spun on his heel and launched himself through the air at Mach speeds.

Shit—! Danielle!

On it! she yelled in reply, and then transformed back into a jet. She grabbed Mote as she took off through the air, rapidly accelerating to supersonic speeds to intercept the fleeing man. Within the span of mere seconds, she had caught up to him and maneuvered to be just below him as he fell back to the ground; she then rolled over, allowing Mote to spot the man and grab him out of the air. A second mechanical arm extended from the jet to secure the man as Danielle looped up through the air and then back to the dam, where they left Kate. As she flew over, she released Mote and the mystery man, allowing them to fall to the ground as she looped back around herself.

As Mote and the unknown man tumbled to the ground, Kate jumped back and fabricated a variety of explosives to block the dam pathway. Mote quickly created a lightning storm behind him to block it off in the opposite direction — and then, for good measure, when Danielle returned to the group, she transformed into a massive barricade to help Kate block her side of the dam.

The masked man jumped to his feet after recovering from the tumble and quickly glanced about him. Judging from his quick launch earlier and his rapid movements now, Mote deduced that the man was most likely a Velocitechnic — a Chaotic whose power was super speed. He also seemed to be around six feet tall, with a slim, athletic build… but the rest of the man’s body was obscured by his demon mask and dark clothing. He clearly didn’t want people to know who he was, but Mote wasn’t about to let that stop him.

You’re surrounded! Mote shouted, prompting the man to turn towards him. You should first know that we speak on behalf of SERRCom. Evading us counts as evading the highest law in the Earthian Territories!

“Oh fuck off,” the man countered. “That isn’t even close to true. Everyone knows that SERRCom shouldn’t have authority on Earth itself.”

You’re trespassing on SERRCom property, dumbass, Kate retorted.

And we found you disposing of criminal evidence, as well, Mote added.

“Are you— are you serious?” The man turned to look at Mote, though his mask hid any expression he might be making. “I’m just cleaning up after myself. It’s common decency, you know.”

Mote’s expression hardened with irritation. This isn’t your place to clean up.

“Like hell it isn’t! I live here, dude, and it’s because of your stupid dam that these robots were marching all over the Bay! You had hours to deal with it — it was all over the damn news, but you didn’t even show up until now. So much for being Earth’s ‘heroes’, huh? I’ve done a way better job of it than you.”

Mote scowled — it wasn’t his fault that he had been prevented from addressing the attacks sooner, but he had a feeling that the masked man wouldn’t accept that explanation. At least I know he’s Earthian, if he really does live around here and knows about the Eximius Vir. But this also means that there are more unaccounted-for Chaotics on the loose… Wait. Could he be the unknown force responsible for defeating all those robots in the city?The Electrotechnic then raised his voice, questioning, when did you discover your abilities? Are you a friend of Austin Travis?

The man paused for a moment before replying, “who’s Austin? …Wait, do you mean that dude who’s evil twin blew up Dallas, or some shit? And who you arrested for no damn reason?”

I’d think blowing up a city is a fantastic reason for arresting someone! Kate countered.

Even so, he didn’t ‘blow up Dallas.’ The damage from that battle was confined to a single neighborhood, Mote corrected. And the arrest occurred before then, but was still justified.

“Yeah, because SERRCom can’t help but abduct regular people when it’s in their best interests, right?” the masked man retorted.

It isn’t just our best interest. Leaving untrained Chaotics on the streets is a massive liability.

“Ha! Yeah fucking right. And you wonder why I decided to run the moment you showed up.”

Mote… Danielle’s head appeared on the barricade, allowing her to speak. I think you’re getting distracted here…

I’d say I’m perfectly on topic, Mote responded sharply, his attention never once leaving the unknown man. We’ve just discovered evidence that there are more Earthian Chaotics. On top of that, he might be the ‘unknown force’ mentioned in the earlier reports. This is immensely pertinent to SERRCom’s operations.

But it’s not what I came here for, damn it! Kate crossed her arms and stomped the ground impatiently. I heard there was a fight, I came here for a fucking fight! And then we get here and this fucking stupid-looking dumbass already did our jobs!

Keep a lid on it! You chose to come on this mission, don’t complain when it doesn’t go your way!

“Holy shit, is this really what passes for ‘heroes’ in SERRCom?” the masked man remarked.

Tch… Mote glared at the man before pointing at Danielle. Apprehend him. I’m sure the Director can get him to be more cooperative.

“Like hell I’m going with you guys,” the man countered. He then spun on his heel; Mote immediately reacted to strike him with lightning, but the bolt failed to manifest just short of the man — at the same moment he tripped and went sprawling across the pavement.

Shit…! Mote rapidly began inspecting his surroundings. Only one thing could nullify an attack like that: a CENT field. And while Mote himself could use his powers inside of a CENT field, his ability to manipulate electricity or magnetism still dropped off sharply with distance when he had no access to Chaos Energy. But that field wasn’t there before, it only showed up just now. So where—?

In the middle of his thought, two robots appeared in the air directly over the masked man. Mote noted that they faded into existence in much the same way that the Battlecruiser Genesis did when deactivating her ACS, but even more notable than that were the robots’ appearances. They looked incredibly similar to the other robots EA had used against SERRCom, but these two appeared to be somewhat more lithe, and sported massive mechanical wings on their backs that looked similar to those of a bird’s. Both robots wore silverish-blue armor and had large black orbs in the upper center of their chests, which Mote guessed to be an optical sensor of sorts. Just below their sensors was an insignia that Mote hadn’t seen before: a blue circle with two horizontal black bars and two vertical black bars, interwoven with each other and the circle.

Before Mote could study the robots further, however, one of them swooped down and grabbed the masked man. Mote immediately moved to strike it down, but the other robot fired a cannon at him, striking him squarely in the forehead and launching him backwards. Momentarily disoriented, the Electrotechnic could barely regain his bearings before the two robots took to the air over the eastern waters.

Fucking finally! A goddamn fight! Kate grinned as she fabricated a rocket launcher out of thin air and took aim. Just before she could fire, however, a bolt of lightning struck the rocket’s warhead, causing it to explode in her face. Her armor’s energy shielding easily absorbed the blow, but she still stumbled backwards, coughing, and then turned toward Mote in fury. What the hell was that—?!

Those robots are using CENT fields, you idiot! Mote interjected. Other Chaotics don’t hold on to their powers in a CENT field like we do. If you hit that robot with an explosive while it was holding that man then you could have killed him!

Oh yeah? Well what are you going to fucking do, then?!

Go after them! He began running toward the dam’s edge. Danielle! Air formation!

Got it! Danielle replied eagerly. As Mote leaped over the dam’s edge, she launched her barricade self into the air by transforming her bottom half into a springboard; then, mid-air, she latched on to Mote’s back and transformed into a large jetpack with a shoulder-mounted railgun.

Mote! Damn it, Mote! Kate shouted after him, your armor doesn’t work in CENT fields, dumbass!!

I hardly need the armor against a couple robots, anyways! Mote shot back. He could see Kate shaking her fist at him and moving her mouth in some kind of response, but he was already well out of hearing range by then. He turned his attention toward the two flying robots as they sped off across the bay waters. …Alright, Danielle. Leave the one holding the suspect to me. Do whatever you want to the other one!

Understood! One pin-cushioned robot, coming right up! she replied through a speaker manifested on the side of the jetpack. The shoulder-mounted railgun then began taking aim on its own as Mote focused on maneuvering through the air. This was hardly the first time he had engaged in aerial combat with Danielle in the form of a jetpack, but it had still been a while — and the last time, he hadn’t been fighting CENT field-wielding robots that also held a hostage.

I almost prefer fighting Drakkars, he thought to himself in frustration. At least then I don’t have to hold back, or worry about CENT field nonsense!

The shoulder railgun fired, bringing Mote’s attention to the robots. The projectile impacted the trailing robot, knocking it off course; Mote immediately followed by lashing out with a bolt of lightning, yet while the bolt managed to successfully connect, he could tell that it was weaker than he intended. With a scowl, he straightened himself and tightened his form to increase his speed through the air, rapidly gaining on the two robots as he summoned his massive battlehammer. Danielle fired twice more on the trailing robot as Mote passed it; the first shot hit, but the robot dove out of the way of the second bullet before ascending upwards and straight into Mote. It snatched him out of the air and held him close as the second robot spun around and took aim with its gun; Mote immediately blasted the robot that was holding him with an intense electrical charge, launching himself downward just as the second robot fired, thereby hitting the first robot instead. Danielle then corrected Mote’s course and zoomed off toward the robot holding onto the masked man, exchanging railgun shots with the other robot as she did so. Mote readily pumped extra electricity into Danielle’s railgun each time it fired, increasing its power several times over until they closed to within a few meters of the hostage-holding robot. The Electrotechnic tightened his grasp on his battlehammer as he prepared to smash it into the robot’s wings, but just as he moved to attack, it swung around in the air and thrust the masked man toward him.

What—? Shit!! Mote quickly dismissed his hammer to prevent himself from accidentally crushing the hostage, while in the same moment Danielle activated the jetpack’s reverse thrusters to yank them away from the robot. Just as she did so, however, the robot lunged toward them — and then chucked the masked man through the air before using its now free hands to grab Mote. The other robot caught the hostage mid-air, leaving the first one to deal with the Electrotechnic. A hatch on its chest opened up, revealing some kind of cannon; Mote quickly began raising the voltage in his body in preparation to deal an incredible blow to the robot, but as he did so, he felt an odd draining sensation across his body. Is this robot stealing my energy? How the hell?! His brow furrowed in confusion and anger, Mote engaged a massive electrical blast against the robot — at the same time that both Danielle and the robot fired. The robot’s cannon turned out to be a laser as a blast of energy exploded across Mote’s chest; almost immediately afterward, a round from Danielle’s railgun pierced through the laser cannon, thoroughly destroying it — though the robot itself remained intact as it released Mote, dove through the air, and then sped off toward the other robot.

Mote watched the robot in mild confusion for a moment. He had thought that the robot was responsible for the draining sensation that he felt, but when its laser cannon fired on him, he found himself protected by an energy shield — by his armor. The same armor that was supposedly completely useless inside of a CENT field.

…Damn it, I just don’t know what’s happening anymore. But I can sort this out later, there’s more important things to worry about now! He sent himself into a dive, rapidly gathering speed before leveling out and rocketing forward — with the aid of a literal rocket engine that Danielle momentarily manifested from the jetpack. Within seconds, they were upon the two robots again; Danielle promptly transformed the rocket engine into a second railgun and began unloading into the robot that Mote had already damaged while he himself began firing lightning strike after lightning strike toward the robot now carrying the hostage. The strikes weakened just before reaching the robot due to its CENT field, but they were enough to momentarily lock up its systems, allowing Mote to rapidly gain on it and eventually reach it. He reached out with his hand and slapped the robot’s optical sensor on the way past, imparting an incredible electric shock as he did, thereby obliterating the sensor. The other robot immediately began firing on Mote with a wrist-mounted laser cannon, but Mote simply ignored the blasts as they exploded across his armor’s energy shielding and he summoned his battlehammer once again. With one powerful swing — aided by Danielle engaging her thrusters at just the perfect moments — Mote slammed his hammer down on the robot’s shoulder and completely sheared off its arm, but just before he did, the robot managed to toss the hostage through the air toward the other robot.

Mote scowled and began to fly toward the other robot, but just as he took off, the damaged robot behind him reached out with its good hand and grabbed one of Danielle’s railguns. Danielle promptly fired the gun, unloading a round straight into the robot’s knee — but it then ripped the gun off of the jetpack and tossed it aside. Mote immediately spun around in the air and slammed his hammer into the robot again, fighting the draining sensation he felt as he managed to smash his hammer across the robot’s chest and send it flying backwards. He then turned back around and sped off toward the hostage-holding robot. Damn it! Danielle, are you alright?

Perfectly fine! she responded cheerfully. Jetpacks can’t feel pain, you know?

They also don’t normally talk or automatically fire railguns, Mote thought to himself, but the battlefield was no place for banter. The robot holding the masked man was flying in a straight line to the south, at an altitude of over three kilometers; Mote rapidly closed the distance, ignoring just how high above the water he was as he prepared to transfer his forward momentum into a powerful hammer strike. Just as he was upon the robot, it swung around to thrust the masked man in the way of Mote’s hammer — but he anticipated the maneuver and simply dismissed his hammer as he harmlessly rocketed past the robot. Now behind it, Mote fired up Danielle’s reverse thrusters at full power and whipped around to slam his palm across the robot’s back, imparting enough of an electric shock to momentarily lock up its systems. He huffed as the draining sensation overtook him again, but he managed to fight it as he summoned his battlehammer once more and sheared off the robot’s wings with one mighty swing, sending it careening to the ground below… until the other robot zoomed into the scene and grabbed the falling one.

It’s still active? Damn it! Mote scowled in irritation as he dived toward the two robots. The wingless robot was still clutching to the masked man, but since it was being carried by the other robot, its ability to maneuver and use the hostage as a shield was greatly diminished — a fact that Mote eagerly took advantage of as he prepared to slam his hammer down on the winged robot from above. Just as he closed to within mere meters, however, the robot holding the masked man simply chucked him toward the bay waters below.

The hell?! The action distracted Mote for only a fraction of a second, but it was enough for the winged robot to dodge out of the way of his hammer. Danielle managed to land a shot on its torso with her railgun, causing even more damage to its already wrecked frame, but the robots continued flying on as Mote turned his attention to the falling man.

Go save him, Mote! Danielle shouted, I’ll keep the robots distracted!

Alright. I’m counting on you, Mote replied, and then threw himself into a head-long dive. He could see the masked man flailing in the distance as he rapidly approached the bay waters below.

1500 meters, 1400 meters…

Mote recalled that a fall from this height into water was just as bad as hitting solid ground. If the masked man was truly a Velocitechnic as Mote had surmised, then he ought to be able to survive the fall just fine, but even so…

1200 meters, 1000 meters…

Can’t risk that, though. Not with these surprise CENT-field wielding robots around. I have to reach him…!

Mote felt the jetpack railgun fire once, and then once again, followed by a projectile screaming past him — and then a laser blast exploding across his back. He tumbled out of control, momentarily disoriented as the world around him spun into a gradient of dusk-covered darkness, but within moments Danielle had managed to correct his course. Without wasting the time to thank her, he immediately scanned his surroundings to locate the masked man again, at which point he dove after him. Thanks to Danielle’s jetpack thrusters, Mote was able to rapidly close the vertical distance as Danielle continued to exchange weapons fire with the robots behind him; he then quickly slowed his descent speed to match the falling man before grabbing hold of his arms and engaging the jetpack thrusters to further slow their falling speed. By the time Mote thought to take another look ground-ward, he realized that it was now practically impossible to tell how high he was. The sun had now set, and as he was currently falling over the waters of the bay, there were no nearby lights nor landmarks to keep track of. As far as he could tell, he — along with Danielle and the masked man — were simply descending into a deep black abyss.

Shit! This stop won’t be pleasant. Good thing this guy is a Velocitechnic! Mote immediately pumped a massive electrical charge into Danielle’s jetpack thrusters as he engaged them all at full-burn, slowing his descent speed from near terminal velocity to zero over the span of a second. He paused momentarily to regain his bearings, at which point he noticed that the light from the jetpack thrusters was reflecting off of the water barely five meters below his feet.

Mote! Here they come!

The Electrotechnic snapped his attention upward to the two robots. It was difficult to make out any details in the constantly darkening dusk, but it seemed as though they both were missing more limbs than he recalled. Must be Danielle’s work, but they’re still active? This is ridiculous—! Mid-complaint, a realization dawned on Mote: he was hovering mere meters above the waters of an ocean-connected bay, and the robots were rapidly closing the distance on him.

Two laser blasts exploded against Mote’s energy shielding, sending him recoiling through the air, but he wasn’t focused on that. Instead, he slowly lowered himself toward the water’s surface as he rapidly increased the voltage through both his body and the waters below to incredible levels, all while ensuring that none of the current transfered into Danielle or the masked man. A second later, several sparks began to manifest under the water’s surface as the voltage in the environment continued to rise, at which point the robots seemed to realize what Mote was attempting and turned to leave — but it was too late. Not even half a second later, a bright streak of lightning leaped up from the waters and struck the two robots with such incredible energy that their armor plating exploded off of their frames, accompanied by a deafening crack of thunder that momentarily depressed the waters and then continued to sweep across the bay. Mote could feel the masked man recoiling from the noise as he held him, but the Electrotechnic simply watched the two wrecked robots with a smirk as they collapsed into the water, their circuits utterly fried and destroyed.

However, his moment of triumph did not last for long — he soon felt his altitude lowering even further as the jetpack thrusters faltered. Shit, that blast must’ve interfered with Danielle somehow. Well, I’m tired of the water anyways — time to get back to land. Mote hefted the masked man up into his arms proper, carrying him princess-style just as his feet began to dip into the water. He then leaned forward as he manipulated the electric currents in the water around his feet to form two virtual rails on either side of him, propelling himself forward like the projectile of a virtual railgun. Within seconds, he could see the shore, at which point he began to slow himself… but he misjudged the distance and hit the muddy shore while still at speed. He involuntarily let go of the masked man as they both tumbled along the ground and rolled unceremoniously to a stop.

As Mote laid on the ground, he couldn’t help but simply stop for a moment to catch his breath. He felt Danielle release him and saw her transform back into her normal body in his peripheral vision, but he simply laid on his back and looked skyward. No stars were visible; it wasn’t quite late enough in the day, and even if it was, the light pollution in the area would prevent him from seeing all but the brightest constellations. Even so, he didn’t often get this chance to simply gaze at the sky… and after that fight, he felt he deserved it.

“Fucking hell… what the hell just happened…?”

Mote turned his head to the side, where the masked man had recovered and gotten back to his feet. His clothes were covered in mud, and he had lost his demon mask in the chaos of the encounter, revealing a disheveled balaclava that failed to cover all of his hair — Mote made sure to note its color as dirty blond. I just saved you, that’s what happened, Mote eventually replied as he slowly sat up.

“Hmph. I could’ve saved myself…”

Really? How? Danielle questioned.

The masked man passed her an annoyed glance. “Look, don’t you assholes get all high-and-mighty on me. The only reason you saved me is because you could use your powers while I couldn’t. …Now that I think about it, how does that even work? That’s hella unfair.”

What? No, I wasn’t… Danielle looked over at Mote, confused, before turning back to the masked man. I was just curious…

There are lots of things that I’m curious about, as well, Mote stated as he climbed back to his feet. And now that the distraction is out of the way, how about we get back to our previous conversation?

The masked man scowled. “Oh fuck you, dude. I’m outta here!”

Wait—! Mote began, but the man disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving behind only the chunks of mud that his high speed flung into the air.

Danielle began a partial transformation into a jet, but paused when Mote didn’t say anything. Uh… are we going after him?

The Electrotechnic stared into the distance. Catching the man on the dam had been easy, since there was only one direction for him to go — but now they stood on the southeastern shores of the San Francisco Bay. There were suburbs and city blocks in every direction, and when coupled with the rapidly approaching dark of night…

Mote slowly shook his head. No. He managed to escape us this time.

Oh… Danielle appeared crestfallen as she undid her partial transformation. She then forced a smile as she added, well, at least we figured out what was going on at the dam, right?

More EA activity… but we already knew that much, Mote muttered as he turned to gaze out over the bay. And then two robots that were more trouble than they’re worth, as well as yet another Earthian Chaotic. Damn it, we found more questions than we did answers. I’d have almost preferred to find nothing.

Yeah… Danielle sighed and looked down.

…Hey, during that fight… Mote passed Danielle a questioning glance as she turned to meet his gaze. …Did it ever feel like… you were being drained of energy?

Huh? Uh, no…? Why?

Mm… Mote looked away. …It’s a question best saved for later. Probably for Kate.

Speaking of Kate, we should probably get back to her. Danielle grimaced. Oof, she really won’t like that she missed out on this fight, huh?

Mote snorted in amusement. She really won’t. I bet she’ll have some… choice words for me.

You did blow up a rocket in her face.

Oh please, she’s survived bigger explosions than that, even without her armor.

And I can easily live without ever eating, but I’ll still be disappointed if someone steals my cake.

Mote passed her an incredulous glance, opened his mouth to respond, and then simply settled on an amused smirk and a shake of his head. Well if it’s cake that you want, then I suppose we had better head back soon.

Right! Danielle exclaimed, and then leaped onto Mote’s back as she transformed into a jetpack again. Especially since you’ll have to write up a mission report before you can do anything else, she continued through a speaker on the side.

Tch. You know, every member of a mission is supposed to write a report.

Yeah, but no one expects a good write-up from me or Kate. You’re the one who actually takes the time to work on it!

The same effort that we should all be putting into it…

Ah, it’s fine, it’s fine!…

The two continued bantering back and forth as they flew across the waters of the bay, more than ready to retrieve Kate and head on home.

Chapter 13 – Gated Discoveries

7 Years Ago

 

“…1st Lieutenant, huh?”

“Yessir, that’s me. 1st Lieutenant Luke Travis, at your service.”

“1st Lieutenant. Tch. Really scraping the bottom of the barrel, now, huh…”

“Sorry, sir.”

“No, it’s not your fault. But do you know who I am?”

“Lieutenant Colonel Kaji Saito, right?”

“That’s right. And do you know what it is I’m doing here?”

“Somethin’ really important to SERRCom, if General Lead’s to be believed.”

“But he didn’t actually tell you what.”

“No, sir.”

“Alright… why did you agree to the position?”

“Well, it was either this, or head back to the ESFC. And between you and me, sir, I like the pay of the EIIC a lot better.”

“…Right. Hmm. I recall your file saying something about an… ‘overly lackadaisical attitude’.”

“Oh, they actually wrote that? I mean, I guess it’s not wrong. I’m pretty good with guns though, sir. I imagine that’s why they keep me around.”

Every soldier thinks they’re good with a gun.”

“Yeah, but does every soldier have a ninety-nine percent accuracy rate with a Gauss-SR02 at four kilometers?”

“Well… no.”

“I’m pretty good with a Railrifle, too. I could hit a bullseye from just over five kilometers. I’m not quite as good with a regular Gauss-AR02, though.”

“That’s… impressive. Almost too much so to be believed.”

“Thank you, sir. I can demonstrate for you, if you’d like.”

“No no, that’s fine. But how did you get so good at shooting in the first place?”

“I like guns, sir. Of all kinds. Airsoft, paint ball, BB, real ones. I like to hunt and skeet shoot, too. Even a bit of archery every now and then.”

“I… see. I’m not sure how airsoft or paint ball guns would help with aiming a Gauss rifle, but okay. I suppose the team could use a sniper…”

“You weren’t aware of my skills, sir?”

“No, I was hoping for more of a disciplined babysitter type, not a marksman.”

“…Babysitter, sir?”

“It’s my understanding that you’ve got a nephew that you’re close to, right?”

“Yes sir, he’s 13. He’s like my little brother! Not sure what that has to do with this, though.”

“Lieutenant, does the acronym ‘CSF’ mean anything to you?”

“…Cerebrospinal fluid?”

“Very funny, Lieutenant, but no. Tch. Damn it, Lead, why do you always leave me to do the explaining…”

“This sounds like an… unconventional job, sir.”

“You don’t even know. You better sit tight, this new posting is a lot to take in. But first…” Saito extended his hand, and exchanged a firm shake with Travis. “Welcome to Chaotic Support Fireteam 1, Lieutenant.”

 

*     *     *

Present Day, 1 Day Later

Sunday, October 9, AD 2129

 

“Captain.”

“Huh? Oh, Colonel!” Captain Travis turned to face Saito as he approached and saluted. “Didn’t expect you back so soon, sir.”

“It was just a routine check-in. Was never going to take that long,” Saito replied, and then glanced around at the sights developing around him. Ever since he had disabled the outpost’s command core the previous day, the SERRCom and Black Suns forces had been working to restore limited power to certain systems, explore the parts of the outpost that were still unknown, and set up defenses in case of another attack — be it from an internal or external force. Most prominent on the outside of the base were three large mechs and three tanks that Genesis and Origin had beamed down. The mechs were 9 meter-tall humanoid machines with armor plating all over, intended to perform mechanized missions through rough or uneven terrain; Saito recalled that the particular models in front of him were MA-02 Halberds, SERRCom’s designated assault mechs. Sitting idle some distance from the mechs were three tanks, each sporting significantly heavier armor and arms than the mechs. These were MBT-02 Rhinos, SERRCom’s designated main battle tank, and featured impressive double-barreled 60mm railguns as their primary armaments. Despite SERRCom’s technological disadvantage compared to the rest of the galaxy, the Rhino’s main guns were nearly on par with the main battle tanks of the other galactic militaries — though the Rhino required a larger frame and actual treads to support its weapons, as opposed to the anti-gravity hovering systems that most armored vehicles used in the galaxy.

SERRCom’s mechs and tanks were usually operated by non-commissioned officers, but as members of an in-field special ops team, Saito and the other members of CSF-1 had received general training in the operation of all SERRCom vehicles. The Colonel knew that Hackett, Travis, and even MacTavish were all rather decent at controlling mechs, and Travis even seemed to enjoy it, but Saito himself was ambivalent — and he hoped that their skills wouldn’t be needed, regardless.

“They’re pretty cool, ain’t they?”

Saito glanced over at Travis, who himself was staring at the mechs standing near the outpost entrance. “If you say so, Captain,” the Colonel replied.

“Oh come on, sir. This is science fiction made real! You can’t deny that it’s at least a little cool.”

The Colonel simply smirked and shook his head, prompting Travis to shrug in resignation.

“Check-in went fine, I take it?” Travis questioned.

“It did. We sent one of the dormant drones back to Earth for the lab techs to take a look at, and we also got a fresh team to shore up the defenses around the Gate.”

“Good. Right now the Gate is our only ticket home, it’d be pretty bad if we lost it.” The Captain then passed Saito a curious glance. “Uh, respectfully, sir… was it really a good idea to let the Genesis and Origin leave us here?”

Saito looked to his left, where two Black Suns soldiers were patrolling the area. He then gestured for Travis to follow him as he approached the outpost entrance; once out of earshot of the Black Suns, he answered, “Genesis-class Battlecruisers are heavily dependent on Chaos Energy. Hell, all SERRCom ships are, but the Genesis and her sister ships especially. The longer they remain in Dead Space, the more structural damage they’ll accrue.”

“Oh… I thought Captain Krick was just exaggeratin’.”

“I can certainly see why you might think that,” Saito replied with a smirk as he and Travis stepped into the outpost. Due to the power generators having been destroyed, the primary lights were out — but before leaving, the two Battlecruisers had beamed down a variety of portable power generators and lights, allowing the ground forces to set up at least some level of lighting throughout the base. The loud hum of an electrical motor dominated the outpost entryway as a generator provided power to a number of lights throughout the hallway and beyond; Saito reflexively covered his ears until he and Travis were some distance away. “I see you all have been hard at work while I was gone,” the Colonel remarked.

“Real pain in the ass haulin’ those things around,” Travis muttered. “I’d rather take the mind-numbness of guard duty over bein’ a moving guy.”

“Don’t give me ideas, Captain.”

“Ah ha… right, sir.”

“Is everything in place, then? The generators, the lights…?”

“Yes sir, as far as I know. Kirstin even got the beaming jammer set up in the command core. Push one button, and no one’s leavin’ or enterin’… though I’m not sure why we’d want that.”

“It’s an anti-Drakkar precaution. They have beaming tech too, you know.”

“Oh. Right. And I guess they have really been on our asses so far. Wouldn’t be surprised if they showed up here, huh?”

“No, but let’s hope that they don’t.” Saito casually glanced around the dim and barren hallways as he slowly made his way toward the command core. “What of the remaining drones?”

“We’ve destroyed most of them at this point,” Travis replied. “Commander Rabine sent a couple back with her guys to send back to wherever the Black Suns send stuff, I assume for the same reason we sent one back, probably. The rest’ve been dismantled, but we still aren’t quite sure where they even came from…”

“We’ll find out soon. But until we can be sure we’ve taken care of all of them, the command core has to stay disconnected from power.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about that, sir. Rabine made it abundantly clear to both her folks and our own not to muck around in there.”

“Good. And I take it MacTavish has been looking through the handful of computer systems we managed to bring back online?”

“She was, but then she found something, I think. Hackett said that she was being really insistent on checking out one area of the base. Didn’t say what part, though…”

“Well let’s hope she really did find something. I’m still not entirely sure what the purpose of this outpost is—”

«Colonel! Colonel, do you read?»

Saito paused, momentarily startled by the sudden transmission, but he promptly activated his communicator and responded, “Major? What is it?”

«Ah, you are back. Sir, you should make your way to two floors below the command core. You’ll really want to see this.»

Saito and Travis exchanged confused glances. “Want to see what?” the Colonel questioned.

«Well, sir…» Hackett paused; Saito couldn’t quite tell why, but it sounded as though she were taking a deep breath before continuing, «I think we’ve stumbled across one of the most advanced Aldredian relics in the history of the galaxy: a fully intact Frigate!»

*     *     *

30 Minutes Later

 

“Well I’ll be damned. It really is a ship!”

“Of course it is,” Rabine retorted. “Do you really mistrust your subordinates’ judgment that much?”

Saito passed her an unamused glance before returning his attention to the environment around him. He currently stood on what he assumed to be the bridge of the Frigate, due to the prominent single seat stationed in the center of the room and the wide viewport windows along the front. Through the windows, the Colonel saw the walls of the subterranean docking bay that contained the ship, which itself was rather small. SERRCom Frigates were often around 80 meters in length, making them comparable in size to large commercial airliners, but this Frigate couldn’t have been more than 35 or 40 meters bow to stern — leaving it in a sort of awkward half-way point between fightercraft and true Frigates. Furthermore, the Aldredian Frigate’s interior was fairly small; what space it did have was organized such that the craft felt far from cramped, but based on the size of the crew facilities and the bridge, Saito guesstimated that the ship was designed to be crewed by less than ten people, perhaps even less than five. The bridge itself only had three dedicated seats, including the captain’s chair.

The Frigate’s aesthetic also left an impression on Saito, with its exterior decorated in the same sort of regal crimson, gold, and black geometric designs with sharp, angled lines that covered the armor they had found on their previous mission. The craft itself had a top-down silhouette that vaguely resembled a longsword, with a long fore section that tapered off at the bow, where the bridge was located. Near the middle of the craft, though further back than forward, extended two thick, slightly forward-swept wing-like protrusions that contained two engines on each side of the craft. Another two engines jetted backward from the stern of the craft, though these two engines were aligned in a vertical pair as opposed to the horizontal pairing of the wing engines. Around the stern of the Frigate, slightly ahead of the rear engines but still behind the wing engines, were four aircraft-like stabilizers, arranged in a sort of flattened ‘X’. Printed on the upper two stabilizers — as well as on several other points along the hull, and on the floor of the bridge — was a blue insignia of a longsword, on top of a thick black circle. It was the same insignia that appeared on Mote’s armor, so Saito was quick to assume that they were somehow connected. The only question then, was how?

The Colonel turned his attention back to the present. On the bridge stood himself, who leaned on the back of the captain’s chair; Commander Rabine, who stood in front of the massive window; Researcher MacTavish, who sat at one of the two consoles situated behind the captain’s chair as she attempted to interface her laptop with the ship; and Captain Travis, who stood at the back of the bridge as he stared around at the entire ship in awe. Major Hackett was currently watching over the Black Suns techs in the outpost’s main control room. Not unlike Rabine here keeping an eye on MacTavish, Saito thought warily. He then made to address the Commander’s jab at his supposed distrust in his subordinates.

“Relax, Commander, I trust Hackett just fine. But you’ll have to forgive me for being a little incredulous when I hear that there’s an intact one hundred thousand year old Frigate just laying around.”

“Mm…” Rabine stared at Saito for a moment before turning toward the bridge window. “I suppose you have a point.”

“But seriously, though. This thing can’t actually be a hundred thousand goddamn years old, can it?!” Travis exclaimed. “I mean, this thing looks like it was built yesterday!”

“You’re not wrong,” Rabine replied, “which I find somewhat suspicious. About the age of the ship, that is. How is it in such pristine condition?”

“St-stasis…”

Saito glanced over at MacTavish, who had momentarily stopped working on her laptop to look up at Saito and Rabine. “Stasis?” Saito echoed, confused.

“I, uh, th-think so…” The Researcher looked past Rabine out the bridge window before returning her attention to her laptop. “S-some pre-preliminary scans from the, um, th-the Origin show that, uh, th-the metals in the, uh, the base aren’t the same age as the, um, th-the f-forest around it.”

“That just sounds like the base was built recently,” Rabine countered. “How do you get ‘stasis’ from that?”

“W-well, when we got the, um, th-the base computers back online a-after the, uh, the attack, we f-found that, uh, th-the generators were running at, um, full load up un-until around a, uh, f-few weeks ago.”

“Few weeks ago…? You mean when the new Chaos Quake hit?” Travis questioned.

“Th-the logs weren’t f-fully in-intact, so it— it’s hard t-to say, but, um…” MacTavish nodded meekly. “…I-I think so…”

“So you think that the generators were being used to power some kind of stasis tech up until that point?”

“I-I th-think. Some of th-the teams exploring the, um, the base, th-they also found some tech th-that we don’t, uh, recognize, so th-those could be, um, th-the stasis field gener-generators.”

Rabine frowned. “Still sounds like a stretch to me.”

Saito passed her a questioning glance. “Do you have any better explanation?”

“Well… not at the moment. But even the best stasis technology we have at our disposal would never last more than a thousand years. A hundred thousand is absurd.”

“I thought it was already well-established that the Aldredas were more technologically advanced at the end of their civilization than we are now?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean that they could do anything.”

“We’re all just speculating right now, anyways.” The Colonel turned toward MacTavish again. “Are there any technologies around here that we actually have identified?”

The Researcher averted her eyes. “W-well… n-not really…”

“My teams haven’t found much, either,” Rabine responded.

“What?” Saito passed the Commander an incredulous glance. “It’s been a day. I know that’s not a lot of time, but how have we found out nothing?”

“I said we haven’t found much, not nothing,” Rabine shot back. “We had to destroy the main power generators to stop the drones, but we’ve been able to get a look at the tertiary generators that used to be connected to the command core. We might be able to pull out a few dynamo tech advances from that. Otherwise… well, we’re still exploring. If we can find out where all the drones came from, then we might get our hands on a few more to pick apart.”

“Or a few more that we’ll have to destroy,” Saito muttered under his breath. He then looked back to MacTavish. “You say we haven’t ID’d any tech, but is there anything else interesting you’ve found?”

She stared at him for a moment, her expression blank; Saito knew that this was just what she did when she was thinking hard, but it felt a little weird all the same. Just as he was about to move, however, her eyes lit up. “O-oh! Y-yeah! Uh, more proof that th-this base is older th-than it, um, looks!”

“…That being…?” Travis prompted after a few moments of silence.

“Er, um, right. Uh, w-well—”

“Can we get to the point, please?” Rabine cut in.

MacTavish stared at her, momentarily startled, before shrinking into her chair and averting her eyes. “S-sorry…”

“It’s fine, MacTavish,” Saito responded as he passed Rabine an irritated glance. The Commander returned the look, but simply pursed her lips instead of speaking further. Saito then turned back to the Researcher. “Now, what were you going to say?”

“U-uh, um…” She stared at the floor for a moment before continuing, “w-well, b-based on th-the, uh, lo-loca-location of th-this sy-system i-in the, uh, th-the g-galaxy, um, i-it wasn’t a-always in, uh, D-Dead Space.”

“…It wasn’t always in Dead Space?” Travis questioned cluelessly. “How’s that work?”

“Star systems move into and out of Dead Space as they revolve around the galactic core,” Rabine replied. “At least, that’s the current theory. No one’s been around for long enough to be sure, but it stands to reason: Dead Space is merely the area of lesser stellar density between the galactic arms, and solar systems move into and out of the arms periodically.”

“I thought Dead Space had to do with there being no Chaos Energy… what’s that got to do with the shape of the galaxy?”

“If I recall correctly, the current theory is that Chaos Energy is somehow affected by the density of regular matter, and will eventually clump around it. It’s the same reason that solar systems closer to the galactic core tend to have a higher concentration of Chaos Energy than those farther away, even if the difference is minimal.”

Saito glanced curiously at Rabine. “You sure know a lot about Dead Space, huh?”

Startled distress momentarily flashed across Rabine’s face before she regained her composure and returned to a neutral expression. “…I am a Chaotic. Knowing this information merely helps me perform my job to a better degree.”

“Hmm…” Saito nodded along to her response, though internally he was smirking. Sounds more like someone who was scared of something and did a bunch of research to try and allay their fears. She is a Chaotic, after all, it stands to reason that she wouldn’t like Dead Space. I bet that’s why she’s been so tense ever since we got here. He then shook his head to clear his thoughts before returning his attention to MacTavish. “Anyways, sorry for the interruption. You said something about this solar system not always being in Dead Space, right?”

“U-uh, r-right.” MacTavish nodded meekly. “When th-the Al-Aldredas were around, uh, th-this s-system w-would’ve had, um, Ch-Chaos Energy.”

“How does that show that the base is as old as the Aldredas?” Rabine questioned.

“W-well… i-if you look at th-the g-generators, a-and at p-parts of th-this ship, um… w-well, i-it looks like th-they were d-designed to, um, t-to use Chaos Energy.”

“Ah, I see…” Travis nodded. “And there’d be no point to do that if the system was already in Dead Space!”

“For how long has this system been in Dead Space?” Saito asked.

“Uh, w-well… o-over twenty th-thousand years, a-at least…”

“Sounds to me like this place was setup before any of the modern civilizations were around, then.” Saito passed Rabine a knowing glance. She pretended not to notice as she turned to look out the bridge window.

“That just leads to another question, though, doesn’t it?” Travis looked around at the other three in confusion. “Why would the Aldredas build an entire base with stasis generators, and then turn the things on? Plus, Kirstin, you said those generators were running up until a few weeks ago, right? Which means that they had to’ve been designed to work without Chaos Energy, as well… why the hell would the Aldredas do that?”

“Some kind of time capsule?” The Colonel shrugged. “Not really sure.”

“It’s well known that some kind of apocalypse befell the Aldredas, which caused their civilization to collapse,” Rabine commented. “The apocalypse also affected the Drakkars, which is why they didn’t manage to take over the entire galaxy in the time between the fall of the Aldredas and the modern age. Perhaps someone built this base to weather that storm, and meant to return to it eventually.”

“I thought you didn’t believe that this base was as old as the Aldredas.”

Commander Rabine responded with an irritated huff, prompting an amused smirk from Saito.

“Th-that idea a-actually m-makes sense… k-kinda…”

“Hmm?” Saito turned toward MacTavish. “How’s that?”

“W-well… none of th-the Frigate’s systems w-will activate, um, e-even though th-they seem in-intact. It, it’s like it’s w-waiting for some kind of, um, sp-special key or, uh, something…”

“So?” Travis shrugged. “Cars won’t start unless you have the key with you, either.”

“But spacecraft aren’t cars,” Saito countered. “You don’t need a key to start modern spacecraft.”

“R-right.” MacTavish nodded. “But, th-this ship is c-completely locked down with-without its, um, i-its key. But th-the location of this bay, a-as well as s-some of the, uh, active base systems, in-indicate that, um, th-this ship is the main reason for the, uh, th-the base to even exist…”

“Hmm…” Saito held a hand to his chin in thought. “…Well, it was that Aldredian armor that brought us here, after all. Maybe the armor is the key that you’re talking about.”

“Or maybe it’s Mote himself,” Travis suggested. “He has a knack for activatin’ old Aldredian devices that no one else can, right?”

“This is troublesome…” Rabine crossed her arms and glanced between Saito and Travis. “You Earthians took that armor with you. Can I assume that you haven’t ripped it to pieces, yet?”

“Relax, we have experience with reverse-engineering advanced tech,” Saito replied. “It was still in one piece the last I saw it. Convincing General Lead to let us take it here is another matter entirely, though…”

“Well, we can’t know unless we ask, right, sir?” Travis questioned.

“I suppose so. I’ll contact the teams at the Gate—”

«Colonel!»

“Well, speak of the devil.” Saito activated his communicator to respond to the call from the team guarding the Interstellar Gate. “This is Colonel Saito. What’s going on?”

«The Gate just activated, sir,» the soldier replied over the communicator. «We don’t know from where. We’ve attempted to communicate with the other side, but there’s no response.»

“An incoming connection…” The Colonel scowled and quickly switched himself over to the general broadcast channel. “Activate the beam jammer! Now!

“Colonel?” Rabine gave Saito a suspicious glance. “What are you doing?”

Saito turned to respond, but just as he opened his mouth, the sounds of gunfire erupted over the general broadcast channel, such that everyone on the bridge heard the sounds over their communicators. As MacTavish’s eyes went wide and Travis grabbed his gun, Saito turned his attention to his communicator as he shouted, “who’s firing? Report! Who’s firing, and at what?!”

The response came quickly, and as it did, Saito’s scowl merely deepened. «Eastern patrol team! We are under attack by Drakkars, repeat, the Drakkars are attacking!!»

 

 

Chapter 14 – Tests of Power

6 Years Ago

“Shit… they’re attacking the settlement.”

“What?!” Six individuals standing just behind a man with a pair of binoculars turned their attention in the direction he was looking. Down a steep hill, nearly half a kilometer away, was a small town of foreign appearance — and within the town were several small bursts of light, indicating some kind of fight.

We have to help, exclaimed a tall young boy, his skin tan and his hair dark. He began moving toward the town, but was stopped by another young boy of similar appearance.

We can’t, Mark, the boy commented. You know this.

“Mote’s right…” replied a pale-skinned, blond-haired man with a sniper rifle. “We’re on a Nimalian planet right now. Can you imagine the kind of shit storm we could kick up by goin’ down there and involvin’ ourselves in this fight?”

That’s no reason to sit idly by and watch innocent people be injured, or killed! Mark shot back.

“Listen to Travis,” said a tall woman with dark skin. “His point is sound. Our mission, right now, is reconnaissance. Capturing the criminals is a bonus, not a mandate.”

And revealing our presence to the Nimalians goes directly against the Director’s orders, Mote added.

You’ve got to be kidding, a blond-haired girl replied irately, her arms crossed. We’ve been tracking these assholes for almost a week! This is our chance! We can get them, right fucking now!

No, Mote countered. Kate, listen to your superior officers. Both Lieutenant Travis and Captain Hackett have explained why we can’t do anything right now.

It’s true that getting involved could be a headache for the Director, Mark responded, but that has to be worth it if we’re saving lives! Won’t the Nimalians overlook that?

“Only until they realize we’re on a Nimalian planet without their permission,” Hackett replied. “Besides, capturing the criminals will be even harder in the middle of a town brawl. Those bastards have raided three SERRCom outposts, we can’t afford to give them the slip here. Best to at least wait until they tire themselves out before we move in.”

…What about you, Saito? A young girl, the same age as the other three teenagers, turned toward the man with the binoculars. What do you think about this…?

Saito remained silent as he continued to survey the scene with his binoculars. Then, a moment later, he put the binoculars down and turned toward the group.

“Sir?” Hackett questioned.

He took a deep breath before rolling his shoulders and grabbing his gun. “Ready up. We’re moving out.”

What? Mote stared at him incredulously. But, sir—!

“Listen, Mote,” Saito interjected as he turned back toward the town. “The Director doesn’t always know best. Sometimes, your orders are crap, and they’re worth ignoring.”

…What…?

“Travis.” Saito glanced toward the man with the sniper rifle. “Stay here and cover us. If you get a clean shot, take it, as soon as you can! Prioritize saving the civilians, even if it means killing our targets.”

“But, sir—!” Hackett began to object.

“No buts,” Saito countered. “Didn’t you hear what I just told Mote? We’re moving out, full speed!” He then grasped his gun tightly and began descending the hill at a rapid pace. “CSF-1, Eximius Vir, on me! Move! Move! Move!…”

*     *     *

Present Day

Sunday, October 9, AD 2129

 

Flames rolled across the ground of the training room, roaring around Mote as he ducked around Spike’s fist and launched himself backwards. He was met by a wave of water as it crashed down on him from above, rushing into the incoming flames and exploding into a cloud of steam. Mote faltered momentarily, but immediately snapped his attention to the side as Austin lunged toward him through the steam, borrowing Spike’s hardened durability to improve his own resistance to the heat. But the recruit still missed his mark as Mote deftly evaded his hand and jumped toward the ceiling, where he clung with his magnetic powers and looked down at the steam cloud below him.

They’re doing better than yesterday… Mote thought to himself as he kept an eye on the four recruits by sensing their bodies’ electric fields. I suppose they may have actually learned a thing or two from Mark while I was away His thoughts then shifted to the previous day’s events that had dragged him away from the training session, as well as the resulting aftermath — or rather, the apparent lack of it. The morning news had credited Mote, Danielle, and Kate with putting a stop to EA’s attack on San Francisco, but none of the news reports made any mention of the actual confrontation in the skies over the Bay. It seemed to Mote that SERRCom had appropriated the rumors of EA’s robots being defeated by an “unknown force”, by claiming that the Eximius Vir were ultimately responsible — all while keeping quiet about Mote’s brief skirmish with the flying robots. The fight had occurred just after sunset and was almost entirely over the bay instead of the surrounding metropolitan area, so Mote could almost believe that no one had seen it happen, though he had a somewhat harder time believing that people would believe SERRCom’s other claims. This wasn’t the first time that the organization had withheld or manipulated the information they presented to the public, of this Mote was well aware; he had no qualms with this simple fact. But the way SERRCom was going about it seemed ineffective.

A whirling column of fire appeared around Mote, yanking his attention back to the environment around him as the steam cloud rapidly dispersed. Despite wearing no armor or energy shielding of any kind, Mote took no damage from the attack, though he could feel his uniform heating up as the flames licked away at him. Tch… well, I did tell them to bring everything that they have. Still, all of Sky’s attacks have been huge, sweeping affairs without an ounce of subtlety… Did she learn nothing from her close call yesterday? Not to mention we need to work on her precision. But for now… Mote looked down just as Spike leaped up at him from within the spinning pillar of fire. His bravado impressed Mote, but it wasn’t enough to stop him; the Electrotechnic disengaged his magnetic lock with the ceiling before summoning his giant battlehammer and blocking Spike’s fist with the long pole. Spike reacted with surprise, allowing Mote to knock him away with the pole of the hammer and then fall to the ground without issue. The moment he touched down he lunged backward out of the pillar of fire and then ducked to the side as Austin attempted to smack him upside the head; the flames promptly fizzled out as Austin tried to press the attack, but two more whiffs later, Mote simply rolled backwards and then launched himself through the air to the far side of the room.

As he landed with a roll and turned toward the four recruits, Mote’s thoughts were drawn back to the unknown Chaotic he had encountered yesterday, and to his similar escape attempt on top of the dam. Due to his mask and clothing, Mote had no idea what the mystery Chaotic truly looked like or how old he was, but he spoke like an area native — and as far as Mote could tell, his Real-Time Audio translation implants hadn’t been active at all that night, so the man had to have been speaking plain English. For all intents and purposes, this eliminated the possibility that the man was an alien invader; he had to have simply been another Earthian Chaotic. Which was a confusing conclusion all on its own — it had long been thought that Earthians simply couldn’t be Chaotics, and that the Eximius Vir were anomalies. But now, between the four recruits and this mysterious Chaotic encountered in California, Mote wasn’t sure if that was true anymore. Clearly, Earthians could be Chaotics; either that, or something else suspicious was going on.

Mote instinctively dodged left as a tendril of water shot out toward him, but momentarily stumbled as he was forced to abandon his thoughts and return his attention to the fight. Sky and Spike both quickly seized the new opening and practically threw themselves at Mote, Spike from ground level and Sky from above; Mote responded by catapulting himself forward, startling the two as he sailed just over Spike’s head and just under Sky. As he prepared to land, he noticed Austin and Twy attempting to corner him just as Spike and Sky had, but he was ready this time — with a small burst of electricity, Mote launched himself at the ceiling and then back down to the ground in the center of the training room.

They do seem to be getting better at cooperating, Mote observed with an inward smirk. I knew they’d get the hang of this eventually. Give them enough time, and they might even be able to work with us and CSF-1… At this, Mote frowned. He didn’t like being left behind while CSF-1 was off on a mission, particularly one inspired by his own actions. His frown then deepened into a scowl as his mind drifted to the Aldredian artifacts that SERRCom had discovered. First a tiny device, then a suit of armor, both discoveries kickstarted by a mysterious vision of his — and both items seemed to only respond to him. He was loathe to admit it, but it didn’t seem likely to be a mere coincidence that he was the one to have the vision that he did, or that the vision corresponded with a mysterious new Chaos Energy Quake that also seemed to create new Earthian Chaotics. If these events were truly all connected, then that could explain the recent appearance of all these new Earthian Chaotics… the only question then, was how were they connected? Mote briefly thought of the Aldredian armor again; he wasn’t fond of its appearance, but maybe it was the key to all of these mysteries. If only he could tag along with CSF-1 on their mission to explore the next coordinate, but it was in Dead Space. And Chaotics are useless in Dead Space.

His attention once again returned to the battle as Austin, Spike, Sky, and Twy all attempted to close in on him at once — Austin, Spike, and Twy along the ground, and Sky from the air. Twy and Sky both were readying to hit Mote with elemental attacks, and Austin seemed to be trying to gather up a bubble of water on his own while Spike simply charged forward from the center. Mote smirked; the pincer attack was a classic, and if executed properly, it was incredibly difficult to escape from. With that in mind, Mote simply magnetically launched himself toward the side wall and then rebounded around the recruits toward the end of the room, easily escaping their grasp. Good that they tried, but they’ve seen me use my abilities and should know that a simple straight-on attack won’t work. Especially not on flat, neutral terrain like this. Might have to deduct points for that… but at least they aren’t blasting each other and forcing me to turn on the CENT fields.

Mote’s gaze momentarily snapped to the CENT field activation switch on the side of the room, next to where Mark was watching over the battle. CENT fields were the primary method of neutralizing Chaotics and their abilities throughout the entire galaxy, yet Mote and the other members of the Eximius Vir had always been able to use their abilities inside of CENT fields anyways. This was no secret to anyone in SERRCom, and Mote had never questioned it; he just assumed that he and the others were able to overpower CENT fields while other Chaotics simply weren’t strong or skilled enough. Yet, twice yesterday he had encountered CENT fields and seen how immediately and completely they shut down the powers of other Chaotics. Mote knew he was powerful, but he couldn’t be that powerful, could he? Something else must be afoot, some other reason that he can use his powers in a CENT field… and if there was, then that might mean that he could use his abilities in Dead Space, as well.

Three tendrils of water entered Mote’s vision, prompting him to dodge out of the way. Just as he did so, Spike and Sky were upon him, similar to how they had pressed the attack barely a minute ago. Mote wasn’t sure if this was an intentional repeat on their part, but just in case it was, he opted to react differently and launched himself off to the side. Just as he moved out of reach of Spike and Sky, however, two water tendrils grabbed his ankles from behind and whipped him through the air. He quickly traced the tendrils to see their origin — and scowled when he noticed that they were two of the same tendrils that he had dodged initially. Damn it, can’t believe I fell for that…! He then snapped his attention toward where he was being dragged, and noticed that Austin was standing ready for him. The ten meters between them rapidly closed to seven, and then four — at which point Mote summoned his battlehammer again and slammed it down on the water tendrils, severing them. The water around his ankles loosened, but still maintained part of its grip as he tumbled along the ground and into Austin’s legs, toppling him. Mote managed to twist himself around so as to avoid coming into contact with any of Austin’s skin and thereby triggering his Imperator ability, but he was still barely able to recover as Twy rushed toward his location.

And… time!

Mote glanced toward Mark as he dropped his hand through the air — just as Twy slapped him on the shoulder. The Electrotechnic glanced down at her hand and then up at her eyes, an unamused expression on his face.

“Oh c’mon, that totally counts!” Austin exclaimed as he approached. He then threw Mark an annoyed glance. “I bet you called the time a second early on purpose!”

Don’t doubt Mark’s judgment, Mote immediately replied and offered a small shock toward Austin. He then jumped to his feet and crossed his arms. For questioning the referee’s judgment, that’s a reduction in points.

“Aw, what—!”

“Austin…” Twy sighed and shook her head. “Give it up. There’s no use arguing.”

“If anything, we should be proud that we got so close,” Spike remarked. He then looked over at Mote with a questioning look on his face. “…You weren’t goin’ easy on us, were you?”

Going easy on you? Mote echoed incredulously, what makes you say that?

“You seemed distracted, kinda. Like your mind wasn’t fully in it.”

Mote stared at Spike for a moment, and then glanced over at Mark. …He’s not wrong. But if it’s that obvious… Alright. I’m calling today’s practice session early.

“Again?” Sky scowled. “C’mon, I thought you said you wanted us to get better!”

And I do. But there’s something I need to take care of, Mote replied as he turned toward the exit and gestured for Mark to follow. Consider the rest of today to be self-study. But if I come back and anyone’s hurt, then there will be hell to pay!

“Wait! Aren’t you going to tell us how well we did?!” Twy exclaimed.

You should all reflect on the round and see what conclusions you come to on your own. Then we’ll compare that to my own assessment later. Consider it a test of your self-evaluation skills. Mote stopped in the doorway of the room, Mark just behind him, and offered a quick salute toward the recruits. Behave yourselves!

Once outside the room, Mark glanced between the door and Mote in confusion. Uh… what was that all about? What are we doing?

We’re going to go join CSF-1 on their mission.

What? Mote, you know we can’t. The mission’s in Dead Space.

And that’s what I aim to address. Mote took a deep breath before spinning on his heel and marching down the hallway. Now hurry up. Let’s go.

*     *     * 

2 Hours Later

 

“Absolutely not.”

What?! Kate slammed her hands down on the desk as she leaned forward. Well why the hell not?!

“You should watch your tone,” a middle-aged woman countered, sitting calmly behind her desk as she stared back at Kate with a polite — yet strained — smile. “I’ve already been gracious enough to hear you out after you so brashly charged into my office. I would advise you not to push your luck.”

Mote pursed his lips as he looked between Kate and Director Akane Hamasaki, the woman in charge of the EIIC. He then glanced over at Mark and Danielle, who both wore apprehensive expressions that mirrored Mote’s own feelings on the situation. Whereas Colonel Saito was on good terms with General Lead and could go directly to him for independent mission approval, Mote and the rest of the Eximius Vir had to go through Director Hamasaki instead. Both CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir were officially part of SERRCom’s main military branch — known as the Earthian Space Force Command, or ESFC for short — but that was just for the sake of public appearances. Both teams were still considered special ops at their core, and as such their missions were largely handled and approved by the Earthian Interstellar Intelligence Command (also known as the EIIC), which Director Akane Hamasaki presided over. Mote wasn’t a fan of the vague chain of command, both for the vagueness itself as well as the fact that it forced him to get approval from Hamasaki to act independently of CSF-1. On the outside, with her short height, pale skin, black bob cut, and perpetual polite smile, Hamasaki hardly appeared to be a threat — but under her benign facade was a shrewd mind who commanded the most powerful intelligence agency in Earthian space, and readily applied the duplicity and intelligence gathering skills of her role to all aspects of her life. Mote, on the other hand, greatly preferred things to be straight-forward; as such, he generally preferred not to interact with the Director.

However, he had little choice in the matter now. If he wanted to help CSF-1 on their current Dead Space mission, then he and the other members of the Eximius Vir would have to convince Hamasaki to let them.

With respect, ma’am, Mark spoke up, addressing the Director. Would you mind explaining to us why we can’t go?

“I believe you’ve already had this explained to you. Multiple times, in fact.” Hamasaki cast an aside glance at Kate before turning back to Mark. “CSF-1’s current mission is on a planet located in Dead Space. Dead Space completely nullifies Chaotic abilities, meaning that the four of you would be next to useless.”

Kate’s brow scrounged up in fury. Useless—?!

Respectfully, ma’am, I disagree with your assessment, Mote cut in. We’ve all received training in the use of small arms. I believe that, even without our powers, we could be of at least minimal aid to Colonel Saito and the others.

“I appreciate your opinion, Lieutenant Emerson,” Hamasaki replied coldly, “but we have already provided reinforcements a mere few hours ago. Your assistance in that regard is unnecessary.”

Well, what about the other parts of CSF-1’s mission? Danielle questioned, and then glanced over at Mote. Hasn’t Mote been the one to activate the relics we found on both of CSF-1’s previous missions? If they’re still looking into Aldredian artifacts, then I think Mote’s presence could help a lot!

“If CSF-1 has indeed found more relics, then they can simply return them to Earth, as they did on their first mission,” Hamasaki responded. “There is no pressing need for you to be there for the items’ discovery.”

And if the Drakkars attack? Mote pressed, the Drakkars appeared during both of CSF-1’s previous missions. It’s clear that they’re after the artifacts as well, and if they are, then CSF-1 could use all the help they can get!

“The Drakkars are unlikely to appear for the same reason that I am forbidding you from going. Their ‘Ciei Theft’, as I understand it, is just as reliant on Chaos Energy as any other Chaotic ability. Their defenses will be weakened as well, just as ours are, so even if they do show up, I have the utmost confidence that Saito and his team can handle them.” The Director then looked over all four members of the Eximius Vir, her polite smile replaced with a frown of disapproval. “Is this really all you have come to say to me? I’m disappointed, Lieutenants. Everything I’ve told you now should have been made abundantly clear to you already.”

Oh no, that ain’t it! We got a couple more things, Kate replied with an irritated smirk. For one, I know Saito’s team missed their scheduled check-in half an hour ago.

What?! Mote, Mark, and Danielle all stared at Kate incredulously. Mote then glanced over at the Director, only to notice that her lips had pursed in what looked like frustration — rather than incredulity. …She’s right?

“I see you’ve been sticking your nose in places it doesn’t belong,” Hamasaki replied icily.

Kate grinned spitefully. It’s what I do best. But clearly, we’re on a time crunch here. CSF-1 needs help; you know that, I know that. Which brings me to thing two. She nodded toward Mote. Mister special over there made a good point to us earlier today: we can use our powers in CENT fields. So what’s to say that we can’t also use our powers in Dead Space?

“Lieutenant, I believe we’ve already been over your requests for ‘Dead Space testing’ before. Don’t make me waste my time by formally rejecting you again.”

Bullshit! You always blocked those tests because you said they’d just be a waste of time, and not relevant to anything that SERRCom does. Well guess what kind of mission CSF-1 is on now, bit—?

What she means to say, Mote quickly cut in, is that we think your reasoning for blocking our, er, Dead Space testing should be reconsidered. And quickly, if CSF-1 is truly in danger.

“We still do not know why we cannot contact them,” Hamasaki countered. “We don’t know if they are actually under attack. We don’t know if it’s the Drakkars. It could be that they’re in hiding, and haven’t yet actually been discovered. And if that is the case, then the four of you traipsing through the Interstellar Gate will merely alert any attacking forces that there is something there of value. And if it turns out that your powers actually do not work in Dead Space, as with every other Chaotic in the galaxy, then all you will have managed to achieve is sabotaging the mission and throwing away your own lives.”

Those are some weird assumptions… Danielle commented.

But even so, let’s assume that your initial assumptions are correct, Mark spoke up. We don’t have to go straight to the planet CSF-1 is on. We could Gate to a different Dead Space planet, one that isn’t under attack, and test our powers there. If they work, then we can go on to aid CSF-1; if they don’t, then we can just return here.

Mote nodded and turned toward the Director. Sounds reasonable enough to me, ma’am. I don’t see much reason to not try this.

“It is still a rather arrogant assumption on your part to think that you might be able to use your abilities in Dead Space,” Hamasaki responded. “There is little doubt that, as the Eximius Vir, you are unique. But I hope you haven’t let that get to your heads.”

That’s… Mote trailed off uneasily. The Director made a good point — it was rather arrogant to assume that he was so special that all known rules of Chaotic abilities didn’t apply to him. Shit… maybe Kate’s been rubbing off on me too much…

Just as he prepared to turn and address the other members of the Eximius Vir, however, Kate slammed her fists into the desk again and glared at Hamasaki. This is about the fucking Black Suns, isn’t it?

Kate, Mote cut in sharply, don’t harass the Director—

I’m right, aren’t I? Kate pressed. This isn’t about wasting time, or being a danger to CSF-1. You want those fucking Aldredian artifacts just as much as we do, and, hell, I know you’d love to have Chaotics on hand who can do shit that no other Chaotic in the galaxy can do. You just want to keep us and the artifacts as aces up your sleeve, though, don’t you? You’d rather risk letting CSF-1 fucking die than let the Black Suns know that we can use our powers in Dead Space!

Katherine! Stand down! Mote snapped. What did I just say about harassing the Director?

Tch… Kate stepped back from Hamasaki’s desk and crossed her arms in a huff. …I’m not wrong, though. I’m stickin’ to my guns on this one!

…Is she right? Mark questioned, his attention on Hamasaki.

Mote glanced warily at Mark. He was always prepared to shut Kate down if she got out of hand, but Mark was the level-headed member of the group. If even he thought that Kate had a valid point… Mote turned to face the Director again. She simply stared at Kate, her arms crossed and lips pursed.

After several tense moments, Hamasaki eventually looked to the rest of the group. “Why is it that you want to run to Saito’s aid so badly? Why now?” she questioned, “aside from Lieutenant Faulkner, none of you knew that CSF-1 was potentially in danger. So what, exactly, was the purpose of your intrusion here?”

Mark, Danielle, and Kate all turned toward Mote, who shifted uncomfortably.

You’re the one who came up with this, Kate stated.

Yes, but… Mote frowned uneasily as he addressed the Director. It was just a… a gut feeling, I suppose. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about trying my abilities in Dead Space, but… He paused. 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 — the images of his vision momentarily flashed through his mind. …Well, ma’am, this whole mission chain began because of me, he eventually continued. I’m the one who had the vision that sent CSF-1 and Fireteam Alpha off on their first mission, and ended up with Captain Feng losing his Ciei… and now, I’m the one who activated that armor and found the coordinate that led CSF-1 to their current mission. If they’re in trouble now, it’s because of me, and I can’t stand the thought of more people getting hurt or killed because I wasn’t there to help on a mission that wouldn’t exist without me in the first place.

…I just kinda thought you wanted to see Dead Space, Danielle responded quietly as she stared wide-eyed at Mote. That other stuff didn’t really occur to me…

Leave it to Mote to think too much about shit, Kate retorted.

I’m being serious, here, Mote countered with a scowl. We should be with CSF-1, even if we can only help them a little bit. It’s our job to work together with them, after all.

Hamasaki simply stared at Mote, her legs crossed and her hand held to her face in thought. The Electrotechnic couldn’t see her mouth behind her hand, so he couldn’t tell what kind of expression she was making — but he felt uncomfortable under her gaze, regardless.

“…I must say, I’m surprised, Emerson,” the Director commented. “It’s not often that I hear about you acting on your gut.”

Mote frowned. Ah… sorry, ma’am.

“No, don’t apologize. Acting on hunches is half of gathering intelligence, and I’m sure the military types have plenty of their own pithy quotes about the value of gut feelings.” Hamasaki leaned forward and clasped her hands on top of her desk. “Very well. I will approve of this mission, but only because of the presumed imminent danger to CSF-1.” She glanced pointedly at Kate before addressing the entire group. “There is only one condition on this mission: minimize the exposure of your powers and active Aldredian artifacts to the Black Suns — assuming your powers actually work, that is. The Suns have already threatened not to play nice once; we cannot allow them to gather more intel to use against us.”

Ha, I was right—!

Understood, Mote interrupted Kate as he nodded curtly. Thank you, Director.

“Yes… and one more thing.” Hamasaki turned toward Kate again, her previous frustration wiped clean by a polite smile. “When you return from your mission, you and I are going to have a… discussion.

Huh?! Kate drew back and grimaced. She made to retort, but paused as she noticed Mote’s intense glare on her; instead, she simply responded with a forced smile. …Understood.

“Good!” Hamasaki nodded toward the door, still smiling. “Now, as you noted yourselves: CSF-1 might be in danger. You have permission to leave immediately. Dismissed!”

 

Chapter 15 – Regent’s Confrontation

Two distant trees and the shrubbery surrounding them exploded into pieces as a Rhino tank fired its main cannon. The approaching Drakkar soldiers seemed undeterred by the heavy weapon as they surged forward, hopping from cover to cover behind the forest flora as Saito and Rabine coordinated the defense against them.

Saito ducked behind an impromptu barricade set up by the Black Suns soldiers and fired into the tree line wherever he could see a Drakkar. Several meters off to his side sat one of the Rhino tanks, its treads still as it constantly swung its turret around to fire its secondary armaments on approaching Drakkar soldiers. As one of the largest targets on the field, the tank attracted a large percentage of enemy weapons fire, and Saito could easily see the laser blasts explode over the Rhino’s energy shielding. Its defenses seemed to hold for now, but Saito wasn’t sure how much more of this it could take.

He turned his attention back to the battlefield and surveyed the scene. The tree line was a good two hundred meters out from the outpost building, and the intermediate terrain was largely rock with only sparse vegetation — meaning little in the way of natural cover. The dilapidated outer walls of the outpost stood halfway between the building and the tree line, but they were in such pitiful condition that they made for poor cover. Even so, Commander Rabine had set up her troops behind this wall, farther forward than Saito and the Rhino as they fought to hold off the Drakkars. Saito knew that the Black Suns had more experience fighting Drakkars than any of the SERRCom soldiers and also had more potent powered armor shielding, so he was fine to let them take charge, but as is, it was impossible to tell just how numerous the Drakkar forces were. They had beamed in, so there had to be some kind of spacecraft in orbit… but what kind, and how large?

A blast of energy exploded against the barricade Saito was hiding behind, sending it flying and knocking him over backwards. He immediately rolled to the left and then stayed low to the ground as he crawled over to the tank in order to use it as cover. As soon as he was safe he peaked around the corner of the tank to find a dozen Drakkars rushing across the open field. They appeared to be undefended, but the leading Drakkar was holding out its front hand — and all of the small arms fire that was directed at the charging Drakkars was deflected by an invisible energy barrier. The Rhino Saito was hiding behind promptly turned its turret on the approaching Drakkars and fired with its main cannon; the two projectiles impacted the Drakkar shield nigh-instantly, hitting it with the force of two hypersonic 60mm slugs — and yet only managing to stagger the leading Drakkar. The Rhino fired twice more on the approaching Drakkars as they crossed the field, but the shield they ran behind remained unbroken as the charging Drakkars reached the dilapidated wall and scattered to take cover behind it.

“Commander, pull back!” Saito shouted into his communicator, “the Drakkars are on you. Repeat, the Drakkars are on you!”

He then ejected the empty magazine from his rifle and slammed a new one in before firing at any Drakkars that peeked their heads around the crumbling walls. The Black Suns soldiers began to retreat, planting portable barricades on the ground as they did so to give themselves cover. Eventually Rabine withdrew from the wall as well, running backwards as she fired her laser gun at the Drakkars. Saito could see several blasts of energy explode across the Drakkars’ bodies, but they still continued to fight.

“Damn energy shields,” he muttered as he continued firing into the Drakkars. His vision suddenly went white as a Drakkar laser found its mark on his shoulder, flinging him back across the ground. He tumbled painfully along the dirt but managed to recover a few moments later, due to his own energy shield that was protecting him. As he scrambled back into cover behind the tank, however, he noticed the Drakkars preparing for another charge with their massive invisible energy barrier. It being invisible meant that Saito had no idea as to its actual dimensions, but it had managed to withstand one volley from the Rhino’s main cannon — and as he watched on, it easily absorbed a second. The Drakkars continued charging across the grounds, absorbing all small arms fire as the Black Suns soldiers fired at them; if this kept up, then they could soon break through the defensive line and enter the building itself.

With that in mind, Saito quickly revised the defense plans. The Rhino clearly wasn’t helping by standing still — so it was time to move. “Rhino Beta, abandon plan shield,” he shouted into his communicator, “switch to plan sword! Repeat, switch to sword!”

«Understood, sir!» came the reply. The hum of the Rhino’s electrical motor increased in pitch and volume as the treads started to spin, accelerating the tank onto the field. Saito dove for a nearby barricade and resumed firing at the Drakkars after reloading his gun, watching as the Drakkars slowed their charge and turned their attention toward the moving tank. The leading Drakkar slowly turned to keep its front facing the tank as it circled around, leaving the ten Drakkars around it to continue exchanging weapons fire with the defenders.

It’s turning to face the tank, Saito observed, that must means that the shield only protects from one direction. Good. We can handle that—!

Just as the Colonel prepared to fire on the leading Drakkar, however, another one of the Drakkars in the group pulled a device off its back and then held it forward. The moment it did, all of the defenders’ weapons fire began being intercepted by a massive invisible energy barrier, just as with the first Drakkar.

Damn! Figures they’d have more than one. And it even managed to stand up to a tank’s primary weapon… still, we’re in Dead Space, so Chaos shielding is obviously out. Anything they’ve got on them has to be electrical only, and those only get to be so strong… meaning the first one should be about to wear out. After a moment of thought, Saito spoke into his communicator. “Rhino Beta, how’s about some roadkill?”

«Coming right up, sir!»

The Colonel stopped to reload his gun again while he watched the tank. It was currently a couple hundred meters to the right of both Saito and the Drakkar group, its main turret aimed directly at the Drakkars as its three secondary guns — a 10mm gauss rifle attached to the turret, and two 7.5mm gauss rifles attached to the cab — split their fire between the frontline group of Drakkars and any individual Drakkars that dared to approach from the tree line. A moment later, the Rhino spun its front around to face the shield-wielding Drakkars head on, and then accelerated, covering the ground between it and the Drakkars in a mere couple seconds before charging into them at 70 kilometers per hour. Many of the Drakkars dove out of the way, but the two wielding the massive barrier shields immediately turned their attention toward the tank in an effort to block it. To Saito’s surprise, the two shields held up against the tank rather well; its momentum shoved the Drakkars backward several meters, but then the tank slowed to a stop, despite its treads tearing into the ground at high speeds.

Then, the tank fired.

The Rhino’s main cannon, when extended straight forward, was about eye-level — whereas the two Drakkars were holding the shields at chest-level. As with the previous times the tank had fired, the shields managed to withstand the blow, but at this close range the impact force was incredible. The Drakkars staggered under the blow, unable to hold their shields completely vertical as the railgun slugs impacted above the shield handles, resulting in the invisible shields falling slanted. Immediately, the Rhino’s whirring treads launched it forward, pressing on the slanted shield to force the Drakkars down even further — until the shield was low enough for the tank to climb it like a ramp. As soon as part of the tank’s weight was on the shield, the two Drakkars were forced to the ground, at which point the tank simply ran them over and parked on top.

Saito grinned. The special shields may have been able to stand up to the impact force of the tank’s cannon, but the sustained weight of the tank when applied from above was still too much for the Drakkars to bear. This was Dead Space, after all; even if any of the Drakkars had super strength, it wouldn’t save them here.

The Colonel then joined the tank and the Black Suns soldiers in picking off the now-defenseless Drakkars in the middle of the rocky field. Seconds later, Saito had expended the last of his ammunition, but the frontline Drakkars had been defeated — and the Drakkars that had been charging forward from the tree line now seemed to be retreating.

“Regroup, regroup!” Saito shouted into his communicator. “The Drakkars are retreating for now, but they’ll be back. Shore up any defenses and reload!” He glanced over to his left; a few dozen meters over kneeled an inactive Halberd mech, the last of the three sent to help defend the outpost. In his rush to organize a defense, Saito hadn’t had time to board the mech, but now that there was a lull in the fighting, he began running toward it.

«Colonel,» Commander Rabine spoke over the communicator, «we should move up and reclaim our defensive line around the wall while we can.»

“No complaints here,” the Colonel replied as he reached the mech and began climbing the front of its leg to reach the cockpit. “Rhino Beta, move up to the wall and cover the Black Suns while they fortify it. When the Drakkars show up again, strafe them. Try to split their attention between you and the Suns.”

«Understood, sir!» the tank driver replied.

Saito nodded to himself. He then opened the mech’s cockpit and climbed inside before closing the hatch behind him. The interior of the cockpit was cold and dark, but he still managed to sit himself down in the chair and start the activation process. Dim lights slowly came on as a bright laser-like device scanned his head; he reflexively closed his eyes, and the moment he did, he could see the world outside. Blurry at first, then slightly sharper, and then sharper still, until eventually he saw the rocky field, the wall, and the trees beyond as well as he normally could — better, even. He glanced down, or tried to make the motion, at least; a split-second later, his field of vision dropped, allowing the body of the mech to come into view as if it were his own body.

Still haven’t worked out the latency in the neural dive tech, huh, he thought in frustration. Great. What’s the point of neural dive if the controls aren’t responsive? Ah, whatever. He moved to stand up, prompting the Halberd mech to do the same. As he slowly grabbed the mech-sized rifle off of his back, he thought about the current defense conditions of the outpost. He had sent the other two Rhino tanks and the other two Halberd mechs (piloted by Hackett and Travis), along with all of the SERRCom infantry, to protect the other two entrances to the outpost. This left only one tank, one mech, and a small group of eight Black Suns soldiers to protect this entrance — making for an overall light defense. Saito knew that they wouldn’t be able to hold out for long. Luckily, the Drakkars had attacked just before the Gate team was due to check in with SERRCom through the Gate, so SERRCom was likely to know that something was amiss due to the missed check-in. But if the outpost defenders hoped to survive long enough for rescue, then Saito figured that they would either need some kind of reinforcements, or a way off of the planet themselves. With that in mind, he opened up a communication line. “MacTavish, you there?”

The response came a moment later. «Y-yes, I-I’m here.»

“Can you get the outpost defenses back online? Any remaining drones would be pretty damn useful right now!”

«Uh, uh… p-probably not. Th-the command core’s p-power conduit is, um, i-it’s fried…»

“How long would that take to fix?”

«Uh…? A while? A-and I’d need tools that, um, th-that I don’t have…»

“Damn.” Saito surveyed the empty battlefield as the Black Suns quickly worked to drop their portable barricades along the dilapidated wall. “What about that Frigate? Can you get that online?”

«…I-I, I don’t know…»

“MacTavish, we need something here. We can’t hold off the Drakkars all day.”

«B-but, th-the Frigate refuses t-to activate wi-without some kind of, uh, key!»

“Then find a way around it! We don’t know what kind of ship the Drakkars have in orbit, which means we don’t know if they’re capable of orbital bombardment, which means that a run for the Gate could be suicide. We’ve lost all contact with the team that was guarding the Gate, besides. That Frigate is our only ticket off this planet right now!”

«Uh, um…?! I-I guess…?»

“Relax, MacTavish. If anyone can do it, you can—”

Saito was interrupted as a section of the collapsed wall suddenly exploded, knocking some of the nearby Black Suns to the ground. Immediately afterward, a hail of laser fire peppered the defenders, tearing into what remained of the wall and forcing the Black Suns soldiers into cover.

“Damn it! I’ll have to get back to you. Keep working!”

«B-but—!»

The Colonel put MacTavish’s voice out of mind as he focused completely on the battle in front of him. Energy blasts exploded on both sides of the battlefield as the Drakkars and Black Suns fired lasers at each other, while the Rhino strafed behind the wall and fired through the collapsed segments at the Drakkars hiding in the trees. Saito could spot a number of Drakkars approaching with their hands held out, presumably carrying the same kind of wide energy barrier as the two Drakkars earlier — but this time, the defenders had an active mech to aid them.

Saito began charging to the left, some distance away from the Black Suns and the Rhino. His Halberd mech stood 9 meters tall, and so easily drew the attention of the Drakkars as he crossed the rocky no mans land at nearly ninety kilometers an hour. The Colonel didn’t bother to aim his mech-sized assault rifle as he booked it along the ground, instead opening fire with the Halberd’s four head-mounted gauss rifles: two 7.5mm, and two 10mm, all four tearing into the trees and drawing Drakkar attention. A couple of the barrier-wielding Drakkars turned to face him in an attempt to block his bullets, but the Rhino simply fired on them from the right when they exposed their backs and sent them tumbling back into the forest.

With Saito’s Halberd flanking from the left, the Rhino firing from the right, and the Black Suns continually exchanging fire from the center, the Drakkars began to be pushed back — though even their retreat was cut off as Saito stormed into the trees and began firing near-point blank into the Drakkar ranks. He targeted the Drakkars that appeared to be wielding energy barriers first, successfully managing to take out three of them before the concentrated laser fire on his mech became too much to bear. Its shielding energy levels dropped dramatically, forcing the Colonel to retreat back to the left and use the tall forest trees for cover.

As he stopped for a brief moment to catch his breath, the Halberd’s sensors began blaring at him about two objects approaching rapidly from within the forest. He turned to try and get a look at them, at which point the sound of crashing trees resounded through the forest — at the same moment that a hovering aerial craft shot through the air and over the dilapidated wall, where it began to lower to the ground. Saito promptly whipped out the Halberd’s assault rifle and began carefully firing at the craft, managing to nail it with fifteen consecutive shots — that were all deflected by its energy shielding. However, even from nearly two hundred meters away, Saito could easily see how the impact from the fifteenth shot seemed to generate a bright static flash across the surface of the aerial craft, which he recognized to be the sign of its shields going down. Another two shots later, and the craft was sent crashing to the ground; the Colonel wasn’t sure if any Drakkars on board had survived, however, and made to check so as to ensure that the Black Suns wouldn’t end up surrounded. But just as he began to move, he realized that the thundering noise of cracking wood was still emanating from within the forest. The hell is that—?

Mid-thought, a massive impact against the Halberd’s torso toppled it over onto its side, destroying a number of trees in the process. Saito groaned as several alarms began shouting at him, ranging from the shields being down to less than ten percent, to the inertial dampeners being stressed by the sudden impact. The Colonel simply forced the sounds of the alarms out of mind as he checked the sensors for the location of nearby enemies, and then turned the Halberd’s head unit to face the Drakkar frontlines — where a massive Drakkarian tank had just crashed through the tree line. The tank looked to be significantly larger than the Rhino, and was covered in deep black angular armor with gray markings. From the front of the vehicle protruded a half-dozen long spikes, against which a number of uprooted trees were impaled; its turret sported what appeared to be a triple-barrel gun with exceedingly short barrels that fired intense laser blasts nearly once every five seconds.

Saito scowled; the Black Suns soldiers weren’t prepared to fight tanks, leaving only himself and the Rhino to deal with this new threat — and his Halberd had been reduced to critical shielding levels after a single shot from the enemy tank’s main cannon. As ridiculous as that thing looks, I can’t doubt its effectiveness, the Colonel thought to himself, and carefully pulled his mech back to its feet. In the distance, he could hear repeated laser blasts and explosions as the Rhino and the Drakkar tank exchanged fire, with the Rhino dashing between portions of the dilapidated wall for cover as the Drakkar tank simply parked in one spot and repeatedly fired, obliterating entire sections of the wall with each laser blast. Taking advantage of the enemy tank’s apparent distraction, Saito quickly discarded the Halberd’s assault rifle and carefully pulled out its secondary weapon: a missile launcher. He released some weapons fire from the head-mounted cannons into a group of nearby Drakkars before taking aim with the launcher, just as the Drakkar tank annihilated the last portion of wall in the area, exposing both the Rhino and the Black Suns soldiers — who seemed to be busy fighting off approaching Drakkars from the wreck of the aerial craft. Realizing that their position was about to be overrun, Saito took immediate brash action. With a swift flick of the mech’s fingers, he released the missile launcher’s safety limiter, allowing it to fire all five of its loaded missiles at once. Then, without even bothering to verify the mech’s firing solutions, he launched all five missiles straight at the Drakkar tank — just as it fired its laser once more at the Rhino, nearly toppling it and completely overloading its shields.

Barely a second later, the five missiles exploded across the fuselage of the Drakkar tank. Smoke, dirt, and debris momentarily obscured the battlefield, and an eerie silence befell both sides as seemingly every single combatant stopped to check on the status of the Drakkar tank. Slowly, the dirt settled, the smoke cleared… and Saito blanched as the Drakkar tank swiveled its turret around to face him.

Without even wasting the time to mutter expletives, the Colonel chucked the missile launcher directly at the tank at just the moment that it fired its main gun, successfully shielding himself from the laser as the launcher was blown to smithereens. Saito immediately ducked to grab the previously discarded assault rifle off of the the ground before dashing out of the forest, perpendicular to the Drakkar tank. Ichi… ni… san… shi… he mentally counted the seconds from the last time the tank fired, and the moment after he counted four, he slammed the Halberd’s feet into the ground to slow its forward momentum — just as a distant tree, in line with the Drakkar tank and where Saito’s position would have been had he kept running, exploded. The Colonel scowled; he hated fighting against laser weaponry. Lasers being light meant that they had a practically instantaneous travel time, and as such it was impossible to know that someone had fired a laser at you until the blast of energy exploded across your face. This also meant that laser weapons had little need to lead their target like projectile weapons, making them significantly easier to aim, and thusly harder to dodge. Laser weapons typically traded these advantages for being significantly less effective against energy shielding than the magnetic projectile weapons that SERRCom preferred to use, but that disadvantage meant little to Saito when his mech was already running with critically low shields.

Saito knew that he needed to make himself as difficult to hit as possible, and as the possibilities for doing so raced through his head, he realized that the tank’s turret was incredibly slow to turn by any standard. Filled with reckless determination, he spun his Halberd on its heel and charged straight at the Drakkar tank. He carefully counted the seconds as he crossed the field, throwing himself to the left just after counting to four as the tank’s barrel flashed. The Colonel closed the remaining distance and then leaped over the tank, landing with a tremendous thundering rumble on the other side. More alarms began blaring, indicating that the Halberd’s left leg was close to breaking point; mechs weren’t intended for high-speed acrobatics, but Saito had no time to worry about those limits. He spun the mech around again, watching the tank’s turret slowly turn toward him as he reached down and dug the Halberd’s hands under the tank’s treads. It immediately revved its engine and began moving, but not before Saito could start lifting — more alarms began screeching as the mech struggled under the incredible weight of the giant 12-meter long tank, but Saito managed to coax enough power out of the Halberd to flip the tank over on its side… just as the hydraulics in the Halberd’s right arm gave out.

Damn! Won’t be able to use the rifle anymore. The Colonel scowled, but the tank still wasn’t out. He immediately fired the rest of the Halberd’s head-mounted cannon ammunition into the tank, watching as the hundreds of rounds simply rebounded off of the tank’s still-active shield — and was then startled as an incredible blast of energy exploded from the far side of the tank, creating enough force to knock the vehicle back over on its treads. Saito stared at the tank, surprised both by the fact that it had managed to right itself with the pure power of its main cannon… as well as by the fact that the blow from its own cannon overloaded its shields. Well that was stupid, he thought in bewilderment, but immediately moved to seize the opportunity. With the Halberd’s one remaining good arm, he grabbed the metal-piercing knife attached to the mech’s leg and then slammed it down over the tank’s turret. Just as he did so, he saw the Rhino fire from the corner of his eye — and the Drakkar tank promptly exploded, sending Saito’s Halberd tumbling backward. Even more alarms began blaring, alerting the Colonel to the fact that the mech’s left leg had given out, and that the shields were down to five percent and lowering as the Drakkars still in the tree line began a fighting retreat.

“I managed to junk this one pretty bad, huh…” he muttered as he moved to disengage the Halberd’s neural dive. A second later, his view of the outside world disappeared, replaced by a field of black — and then, a moment later, by the flashing red lights of the mech’s cockpit. Saito simply punched the ‘open’ button and readied his own assault rifle as the hatches slowly opened outward. He cautiously peeked his head out to get a lay of the land: the wrecked remains of the Drakkar tank sat a mere forty or so meters away from him as the Rhino tank moved up to cover him from the retreating Drakkars. He then looked over to his left, where the Black Suns were picking off the last of the Drakkars hiding in the wreck of the aerial craft. The Colonel grasped his assault rifle and began climbing down the side of the Halberd, prepared to join the Black Suns. One enemy heavy tank was down, and for that Saito felt somewhat proud — but more than that, he felt wary. Taking down just one of those tanks had resulted in him wrecking his only mech; if another showed up, then the defenders were as good as dead.

Saito took aim with his rifle as he dashed toward the Black Suns team, firing as he ran. Two Drakkars dropped under his bullets, but just as he took aim at a third, he caught in his peripheral vision some movement near the wreck of the Drakkar tank. He slowed his pace to take a closer look, at which point he realized he was staring at a Drakkar — but this one stood different from the rest. It wore no armor; instead, its dark ebony skin was covered only by regal black and silver robing, and a number of gray markings appeared along its head and exposed hands. Confusion crossed Saito’s face, immediately followed by frustrated desperation. He had been in a moment like this before, with one unarmored Drakkar standing amongst its armored followers. Only one type of Drakkar would dare to be so bold.

“Shit…!” The Colonel scrambled for cover behind a nearby pile of rubble as he kept his attention on the lone Drakkar, watching as they stooped down to one of the tank’s turrets and ripped it off. Saito then glanced over at the Rhino tank; its turret was facing into the forest as it fired on the retreating Drakkars, seemingly unaware of the lone Drakkar nearby. Immediately, the Colonel shouted into his communicator. “Rhino Beta! Move! Move—!

A flash of light momentarily blinded the Colonel, followed by the deafening sound of a nearby energy blast — and the terrible wrenching noise of twisting metal. As Saito’s vision slowly returned to him, he snapped his attention to the Rhino, finding only a burning wreck in its place… and atop the wreck of the Drakkar tank stood the lone Drakkar, holding the tank’s turret over its shoulder like a rocket launcher. “Don’t tell me…!” He whipped out his assault rifle and fired at the Drakkar; from its close range, Saito was able to land every single one of the ten bullets remaining in his magazine, but even though he managed to knock the turret out of the Drakkar’s hand and nail it in both the head and chest, it remained standing and unharmed. “Shit… not another Faction Leader!”

The Drakkar snapped its attention to Saito. He froze for a moment, unsure exactly of how to react, but when the Drakkar jumped down from the wreck of the tank and began sprinting towards him, he immediately dropped his assault rifle and whipped out his pistol before unloading the entire magazine into the Drakkar — only for the bullets to bounce harmlessly off of its skin. Shit! It’s still invulnerable? Even here? In Dead Space?!

Time slowed as the Drakkar closed in on Saito. Ten meters, eight meters, five — the Colonel dropped his pistol and prepared to face the incoming threat. It seemed to be running only about as fast as a normal person could, so he bent his knees as the Drakkar approached to three meters, then two — and then Saito dove to the left, successfully dodging the Drakkar as it charged past. He rolled along the ground and sprang to his feet, pounding the rocks below as he booked it toward the Black Suns and shouted into his communicator, “Faction Leader, Faction Leader!!”

((You’re an awfully tenacious one, aren’t you?))

Saito reeled as a harsh female voice invaded his head, momentarily shattering his concentration. Images of his last encounter with a Faction Leader flashed through his mind — images of how easily Prosusicivious had fought off his attackers, grabbed Captain Feng, stole his Ciei — and all this from the one Faction Leader regarded as the least hostile of the six. The Colonel had read to great depth about the six Drakkar factions, and he knew what the gray markings and the female voice meant: the Drakkar chasing him was Telregina, the leader of the Telum Drakkars, and the most recklessly violent of the Faction Leaders. If she got a hold of him—

((HA!))

A sudden sound in Saito’s head startled him again, just as he felt a blow to his back, sending him tumbling to the ground. He attempted to regain his bearings as he scrambled back to his feet, but just before he could start running again, he felt someone grab him by the neck and hoist him into the air. In a panic, he grabbed at the arm that held him and began kicking with his feet, determined not to let Telregina break his shields and lay her hand on his chest — yet when he finally looked down at the face that lacked a mouth and a nose, her narrow black eyes seemed to glisten with dangerous glee.

((You must be the one who defeated my tank!)) she spoke into Saito’s mind, ((it’s been some time since I felt such a rush. And in Dead Space, no less!)) She glanced over at the Black Suns, who had by now recognized her and were scrambling for cover. ((…How lucky for you, then, that I cannot take your Ciei here. You’ll have the opportunity to live in terror for just a little while longer… and if you can provide me with sufficient entertainment here, then I may even allow you to live indefinitely!!))

As she finished her statement she chucked Saito through the air, sending him flying over ten meters before crashing down on top of one of the Black Suns soldiers. The Colonel and the soldier both scrambled back to their feet as Telregina charged at them, tackling the Black Suns soldier into the wall and ripping his gun out of his hand. She whipped around and swung the gun at Saito like a club, forcing him to duck — at which point she lashed out with her leg to fling him further across the ground. Disoriented, Saito was barely able to regain his bearings as the sound of laser fire reached his ears again; it seemed as though the bulk of the Black Suns soldiers were firing in a direction that wasn’t toward Telregina, which Saito guessed to mean that more Drakkars were attacking from the forest. There was little he could do about that, however, as the Telum Faction Leader dragged him up to his feet and threw him at a nearby pile of rubble.

((What happened to your will to fight?!)) Telregina shouted as she brandished her gun and fired it into the ground around Saito. ((You did so well against my tank. Is that really all you had in you?!))

The Colonel stumbled to his feet and made to retort, but stopped as he noticed Commander Rabine charging at Telregina from behind. Telregina noticed Saito’s gaze and began to turn, but not before Rabine smashed her right fist into the Drakkar’s head and dropped her to the ground. The Commander then whirled around and slammed her left palm into Telregina’s back, at which point a pulse of energy crushed Telregina into the ground. Rabine quickly backed away to approach Saito, but Telregina promptly pulled her arms out of the ground and lashed out, grabbing the Commander’s legs and yanking her to the ground. The Drakkar Faction Leader began climbing back to her feet as she maintained her hold on Rabine’s ankle and dragged her closer, but just before she could slam her fist into Rabine’s face, Saito tackled her back to the ground. As soon as they were down, the Colonel rolled away and jumped to his feet, spinning around on his heel to face the Drakkar as he and Rabine squared off on either side of her.

“Colonel, we need to keep her distracted,” Rabine shouted, passing a quick glance to the side.

Saito looked off to his left, where the other Black Suns soldiers were fighting off the rest of the Drakkars. The Commander wasn’t entirely wrong; if they could keep Telregina here, then the other soldiers could focus on fighting her troops — and by Telregina’s own admission, she couldn’t steal Ciei in Dead Space, so Saito was in no danger of that. Furthermore, his armor still had a decent amount of shield charge left, so he could take more punishment without worrying about sustaining an actual injury. All the same, trying to fight someone who can’t get hurt at all sounds like a bad time…

Telregina slowly climbed to her feet and shook her head, drawing Saito and Rabine’s attention. She turned to look at the Commander, and then at the Colonel… she had no mouth, but Saito could almost swear that she was grinning. ((This is more like it! Show me just how good of a fighter you think you are!))

“…Well… here goes,” Saito muttered, and then charged at Telregina at the same moment as Rabine. Just as Saito was wondering how the hell he had convinced himself that it was a good idea to charge toward a Drakkar Faction Leader, Telregina ducked around both of them and dealt Saito a fierce kick, knocking him to the ground. She then whipped around and grabbed Rabine’s arm, yanking her off balance; the Drakkar then attempted to follow with an elbow-drop, but Saito dove into her and knocked her away from the Commander. He and Telregina rolled across the ground for a short distance as the Colonel grabbed her wrists and attempted to hold her still, but she easily ripped her arms free of his grasp and slammed her foot into his chest, sending him tumbling across the ground. By the time he recovered, Rabine had engaged Telregina in a fist fight, with the two rapidly exchanging blows and blocks — and continually wearing down Rabine’s energy shielding. Saito promptly rushed to the Commander’s aid, throwing his fists out to clock the Drakkar upside the head, though Telregina responded immediately by uppercutting Saito in the chin and kicking Rabine over. The Faction Leader then grabbed Saito by his neck and slammed him down to the ground, at which point she reached behind herself with her free hand and pulled out a small device that rapidly unfolded into a silver gauntlet. Saito’s eyes widened in recognition — it was the same kind of gauntlet that he had seen the Prolatio Drakkars use to instantly knock out Colonel Miles’ energy shielding.

((I see you recognize this,)) Telregina commented as she pulled her fist back. ((So you’ve fought other Drakkars and survived, hmm? Allow me to change that!)) The gauntlet began to glow brightly, blinding Saito due to its close proximity as the Drakkar threw her fist forward —

The next thing Saito knew, he was no longer being held. He reached up to rub his neck and then glanced around, where he spotted Commander Rabine a couple meters over, standing over Telregina as she held the Drakkar’s arms behind her back and forced her to the ground. She held her left palm against the back of the Drakkar’s head. “…Give it up,” Rabine demanded, “we may not be able to kill you, but we can still capture you.”

((Capture me…? Ha! Is that what you think you’ve done?))

Telregina then ripped her arms out of Rabine’s grasp and began pushing off of the ground to stand up. The Commander responded by firing some kind of energy pulse out of her palm into the back of the Drakkar’s head. In the moment afterward, Saito could see that the energy pulse had blown off some of the skin on Rabine’s hand, revealing a cybernetic prosthetic underneath — yet Telregina appeared completely unfazed as she threw Rabine off of her back and leaped to her feet.

Saito eyed the Drakkar warily and prepared to go in for another attack, but froze as the thundering noise of collapsing trees began to reach his ears. One glance at the distant tree line confirmed the fear that began welling in the pit of his stomach: the appearance of another gigantic tank, just as large and menacing as the first. And its turret was aimed directly at Rabine and Telregina.

“Shit…!” The Colonel immediately dashed toward Rabine and dove into her, tackling her to the ground — a mere moment before the dirt around Telregina and Rabine’s previous position erupted, flinging dirt, debris, and the two officers across the battlefield. Saito felt himself tumbling through the air and then along the ground, a sensation that felt significantly more painful than before due to the explosion overloading his shields. He groaned; he was getting tired of being thrown around like this, but there wasn’t exactly much he could do to stop it.

((Ha ha ha haaaa! What an interesting little fight we had!))

Saito rolled over off of his back and slowly pushed himself to his feet, noting that Rabine was doing the same a couple meters over. He then looked toward Telregina, who had jumped on top of the massive tank after it charged into the middle of the battlefield and focused its turret on Saito and Rabine.

((It’s not often that anyone actually attacks me head-on!)) Telregina shouted from on high, ((usually you stupid Aldredanoids are too cowardly to face me in straight battle. Though I suppose you probably would have behaved differently if we weren’t currently in Dead Space, wouldn’t you?))

“I’m just trying to survive, here…” Saito muttered. He glanced side to side; the Halberd mech was shot, the Rhino tank was destroyed, he and Rabine were out of energy shielding, and the Black Suns soldiers seemed to be tiring as well. Damn it… we’ve reached the end of our rope…!

((Well, even though you did fight me, it still wasn’t quite as exciting as I had hoped. Fighting without my powers isn’t all that fun… Dead Space really is worthless.)) The Drakkar glanced to her right at the Aldredian outpost. ((At least there’s something to gain from this. After I kill you all here, I can help myself to the technological marvels that the Aldredas left behind! Oh, the thought of wielding their own technology against my enemies… if only they were here now, so that I could bask in their helpless fury!))

The interiors of the Drakkar tank’s turret barrels began to glow.

((But oh well. That kind of scene would’ve required that we let the Aldredas live… and killing them all back then felt too good to not.)) Telregina’s eyes glistened. ((A little like right now. You fought decently enough, for a pair of fools! Farewell!))

Saito scowled, his whole body tense; even if he managed to dodge the tank now, it could still easily enough fire in another four to five seconds, and that was ignoring the encroaching Drakkar army. As far as he could tell, this was the end of the line. He eyed the tank with a sense of resignation — sometimes, even your best just isn’t good enough.

The turret flashed, indicating it was about to fire one more incredible laser blast…

…which was intercepted by a giant hammer?

Confusion crossed Saito’s face as the tank’s laser cannons fired, only for a massive blue and silver battlehammer to fly onto the scene and intercept the blast. And then, just as Saito realized that he recognized the hammer, Mote slammed into Telregina from above, grabbing her by her face before whirling around and chucking her at the ground. He then summoned an incredible lightning bolt directly into the tank he now stood upon, bathing the entire battlefield in bright white light as he channeled such a fierce electric strike into the tank that its shields instantly overloaded and the vehicle’s parts partially melted and fused together, as though Mote had applied a welding torch to its entire frame, both in and out — simultaneously.

Saito simply stared at Mote as he leaped off of the tank and summoned his hammer back to himself. Just a moment ago, he had been staring death in the face, but now…?

…Colonel? Colonel!

Saito realized that Mote was talking to him, at which point he shook his head and looked up at him. With a massive grin on his face, he heartily slapped Mote on the back. “Lieutenant! I have never been more happy to see someone in my entire life!”

It’s good to see that you’re alive, as well, Mote responded, and then glanced around the battlefield. What’s the situation—?

((That armor… and that weapon…))

Saito and Mote both turned to face Telregina, who was now standing a short ways away from the fused wreck of the tank. Mote glanced over at the massive hammer in his hands, and then at the armor he was wearing; it was only just now that Saito realized Mote was sporting the Aldredian armor.

((…I see… so this is where you went.)) The Drakkar crossed her arms as she glared at Mote. ((This… explains a lot.))

The hell are you talking about? Mote demanded as blue sparks wreathed his body.

((You don’t know? Interesting…)) Telregina took a step forward, her hand outstretched toward Mote. ((If you come with me, I vow to—))

Two missiles slammed into Telregina’s position and exploded spectacularly, obscuring her location in smoke and debris as a jet rocketed overhead — and then transformed into Danielle as she landed on the ground next to Mote. She leaped to her feet and summoned two pistols out of thin air, each with intricate white and silver designs, a sharp, curved blade attached to the barrel, and a faintly glowing gray orb set just above the grip. With a flourish, she assumed a battle stance next to Mote, and then nodded toward Saito and Rabine in acknowledgment.

A moment later, Telregina leaped out of the smoke, her robes and clothing torn to shreds but her body unharmed. She made to charge, but stopped herself when she noticed Danielle. Saito couldn’t quite tell what was going through the Drakkar’s head, but he could see her eyes widen, and then narrow — and then she whipped around and sprinted toward the tree line. ((This won’t be the last we see of each other!)) she shouted back, ((but the next we meet — if we meet — I will demonstrate just how much more powerful than the Aldredas we Drakkars are!))

Damn it! Mote scowled, and then nodded toward Danielle. C’mon—!

“Mote, wait.” Saito reached out and grabbed their shoulders before they could dash off.

What…? The Electrotechnic looked down at the Colonel’s hand, and then passed him a confused look. Sir…?

“We all know that the Faction Leaders are invulnerable, and Telregina seems to keep that trait even here, in Dead Space. Chasing after her won’t gain us anything,” the Colonel explained. He then glanced over at Rabine. “And on top of that… Commander, when have you ever known the Drakkars to retreat like this?”

“Only when they were preparing to bombard a planet from orbit,” she replied.

Uh oh… Danielle muttered.

Saito nodded. “Exactly. We aren’t in the clear just yet.” He passed a surreptitious glance toward the wreck of the Rhino tank, his lips pursed, and then he spun around and set off toward the entrance to the outpost at a hurried pace. “Let’s go. If we’re lucky, then MacTavish has our ticket out of here.”

 

Chapter 16 – Dead Chaos

«Wh-what?! B-but that’s, that’s impossible!»

“Impossible? MacTavish, this base is about to be obliterated from on high! You can’t tell me that we have to leave a damned intact Aldredian Frigate behind!”

A what? Mote passed Colonel Saito a surprised look as the group rushed through the dark hallways of the outpost. You found a Frigate?

The Colonel nodded. “Yeah. But if we can’t even leave with it…”

«I-I, I-I’ve tried to b-bring it online!» Kirstin responded over the communicator, «b-but, um, like I said e-earlier, i-it needs some kind of, um, some kind of key!»

“Then we need to find a way around it,” Commander Rabine pressed. “The path back to the Interstellar Gate won’t be safe. By the time we could reach the Gate, the Drakkars will likely be in position to bombard us into oblivion.”

We’ll still have time, though, right? Danielle questioned as she effortlessly kept pace with Saito, Rabine, Mote, and the Black Suns soldiers. Orbital Bombardment rounds take a while to actually travel between the ship and the planet, don’t they?

“If you use projectiles or missiles, yes. But the Drakkars use lasers,” Rabine countered. “The moment the Drakkars are in position, we’re dead!”

If it’s escaping we’re worried about, then we have that covered, Mote declared, and nodded toward Danielle. She can get us all out of here, easily.

Well, normally, yeah… Danielle frowned. I can still use my powers here, but it’s a lot more draining… I don’t know if I could manage something as big as a Frigate…

“That’s another subject entirely.” Rabine glanced between the three Earthians, an irritated look on her face. “For both of you to be able to use your powers in Dead Space, and for them to be so powerful, at that… you have to have an Ayas on you, or be using the Chaos State. But SERRCom’s only supposed to have one Ayas, so where the hell did you get the other one?”

Mote grimaced internally. Originally, upon learning that he and the other members of the Eximius Vir could still use their powers in Dead Space, he had every intention of following Director Hamasaki’s directive to not display said powers in front of the Black Suns — but when he arrived on the field of battle and found Saito staring down a Drakkar tank, he decided that saving the Colonel’s life was more important than keeping secrets. But now, it meant that he had drawn the Black Suns’ suspicion, and rightfully so.

But… we don’t have any Ayas, Danielle responded cluelessly. And… what’s the Chaos State?

Rabine looked back at Danielle in surprise. …Say that again. ‘Chaos State’, exactly like that.

Uh…? Chaos State…?

The Commander’s gaze hardened; Mote had no idea what was going through her mind at that moment. But before either she or Danielle could continue the conversation, Saito slowed to a stop and gestured upward. “Let’s save this discussion for later. We’re here.”

Mote glanced around the small subterranean bay they now stood in, and then looked up at the ship before him. She was much smaller than a typical Frigate, but she did appear to be some sort of spacecraft, considering the massive engines that adorned her aft section. What’s more is that she didn’t truly appear to be aerodynamic at all, and sported a fair amount of armor all over her ‘t’-shaped silhouette. But as Mote stared at the craft further, he realized that something about her seemed… familiar.

Hey, Mote! Danielle drew his attention as she pointed at a sword-shaped insignia painted on part of the ship. Look, that emblem! It’s the same as the one on your armor!

“It’s a good thing that you’re here,” Saito added. “MacTavish thinks that this ship needs a key to start, and the way I see it, you’re our best bet.”

What…? Mote stared at the Colonel incredulously. It was certainly true that Mote seemed to be the only one capable of interacting with any of the Aldredian artifacts that they had found so far, but to so quickly jump to the conclusion that he was necessary…?

Mote? MOTE!

He glanced over to the side, where he noticed Kate disembark from the ship and run over to him.

“Kate? You’re already here?” Saito questioned.

Yeah, Mark and I saved the asses of the other two groups and booked it here when we realized what was going on, she replied, and then turned toward Mote, her eyes glistening eagerly. Mote, you have to turn this thing on! Just think of all the shit we could find! Aldredian spacecraft design, engine design, FTL Drive design, weapons design, computers design—

“A way off this planet alive?” Rabine interjected.

Kate rolled her eyes. Yeah, sure, that too. But seriously, Mote! Move your ass and turn the damn thing on already!

Mote simply stared at her incredulously. What? And just why the hell do I have to—?

“You should do what she says, just this once,” Saito urged as he began moving toward the ship’s embarkation ramp. “Right now, it seems that this ship is our only ticket out of here. And we don’t know how long we have until the Drakkars obliterate this base, so let’s get moving!”

“Let’s go!” Rabine ordered sharply, prompting the Black Suns soldiers to follow her onto the ship after Saito. Danielle jogged after them, followed by Kate as she began dragging Mote by his arm.

Hey! I can walk, he snapped as he yanked his arm out of her grasp.

Then fucking act like it! she shouted back as she rushed toward the ramp. If we all die here before I get a chance to study all this sweet new tech, then I’ll fucking murder your ass!

Tch… Mote glared after her, but began jogging toward the ramp all the same. He knew that, objectively speaking, she and the Colonel were right. Given everything they knew, if anything could activate the ship, it was Mote. But even so, something about the overall situation and the craft itself put him on edge. …Or maybe it’s just this constant draining sensation I’ve been feeling, he thought uneasily. …It’s not unlike what I felt when I fought those two robots yesterday. But I’ve never felt this before when in a CENT field… I guess Dead Space is just that different.

As he finished his thoughts and ran aboard, he took a quick look around himself. The interior of the craft seemed surprisingly spacious given her exterior size, but it was also clear that the ship wasn’t built to ferry around more than a couple dozen individuals. Between the Black Suns, CSF-1, the other SERRCom soldiers that had been sent to reinforce the base, and the Eximius Vir, the craft looked to be filled to capacity.

Mote! In here!

He glanced to his right, through a small doorway. Through it, he could see what looked to be a bridge — at least, there was a massive window through which he could see the walls of the subterranean bay. He quickly approached and stepped into the room, glancing left and right to acknowledge Kirstin and Kate, who were sitting at two consoles toward the back of the bridge — and then his attention was drawn toward the center of the room as a giant blue sword emblem on the floor began to glow softly, and the chair located directly in the center of the bridge slowly turned to face him.

“I-it… it’s working!” Kirstin remarked in surprise.

Hurry up and sit your ass down! Kate exclaimed. We’ve burned enough time as is—!

As she spoke, the entire base shook tremendously, throwing Mote off his feet. His world went spinning, and as he attempted to reorient himself, he noticed an abundance of falling dust and collapsing debris through the bridge window. Damn it! We’re out of time! Quickly, he scrambled into the captain’s chair, bracing himself against another tremor as the chair slowly spun to face the front of the bridge — and then, without any action on Mote’s part, the helmet of his armor materialized over his head. The hell?! he exclaimed in confusion, but then began to notice info boxes and various other pieces of information appearing on the helmet’s heads-up display.

Mote! The hell are you doing?!

I don’t know, damn it— Mote froze suddenly as a stream of information began flowing into his mind. He couldn’t recognize most of it, as it was steeped in the Aldredian language — of which he had no knowledge. It passed through one ear and out the other, metaphorically speaking, and only served to irritate him as he found it difficult to focus on anything else. But then, an image appeared on his HUD, overlaid on the bridge window to make it seem like a screen.

An image of a woman with olive skin and red hair, wearing regal armor bearing the insignia of a sword.

That’s…! he muttered in awe, but trailed off as the image began moving, and the woman began to speak. Mote couldn’t understand a word out of her mouth, but as the video continued to play, he couldn’t help but watch. The woman didn’t appear to be much older than he was now, but still she carried herself with the air of an experienced general; her voice was smooth and calm, yet also steady and strong… even without knowing what she was saying, Mote felt himself mesmerized. Just who was this person…? And why did she appear in his vision?

Mote!!

Agh! Mote flinched as he felt something whack him upside the head. He glanced to his side, where he found Kate standing over him with her hand poised to strike him again. The hell are you doing?!he questioned irately.

You zoned out, dumbass! Kate retorted. We don’t have time for you to be sleeping on the job!

Oh. R-right…

God, what’s the matter with you? We’re all about to fucking die, here!

I know, I know! Mote snapped. He glanced back toward the video still playing on his HUD and made a motion to dismiss it, at which point it disappeared. The stream of information into his mind ceased as well, though one final piece of information somehow managed to stick despite the language barrier: the name and class of the ship. …We’re on a Corvette.

“A-a what…?” Kirstin questioned.

That’s… that’s what it says. This ship is a Blade of Raen-class Corvette, named the… ‘Raenaros’—

We don’t have time for the fucking name, dumbass! Kate snapped. You turned on the ship, great! But now we can see the sensors, and guess fucking what? There’s a fucking Drakkar Battleship in orbit! So how’s about we get a fucking move on, huh?!

Mote opened his mouth to retort, but another tremor cut him off — followed by a loud clang as a massive chunk of metal fell onto the ship from above and tumbled off past the bridge window. The Electrotechnic needed no further prodding at that point; he promptly focused on the task before him, that is, getting the ship to move. …But how do I even do that…? he wondered uneasily, and then — just as he did — his field of view went dark and was soon replaced with a view of the subterranean bay that contained the Corvette, and all of the rubble that was steadily falling into it. The hell? Am I seeing through the ship’s sensors, now? Is this some kind of neural dive interface…?

A sickening crack reverberated through the bay as the southern wall shattered and began to buckle. The loud sound of a metallic clang soon followed, as a massive hatch just above the ship began to open. Wait… I can see all of this happening at the same time. It’s like I can see everything surrounding the ship, simultaneously. This is weird… but I don’t have the time to marvel at this. How the hell do I get this thing to move?

The Corvette’s embarkation ramp and landing pads promptly retracted into the ship’s hull as she began hovering in place. Just as Mote noted that the ship seemed to have active anti-gravity systems, he felt a wave of weakness wash over his body, followed by a constant draining sensation. The feeling wasn’t new — in fact, Mote had felt constantly drained ever since setting foot in Dead Space. He had simply assumed that the sensation was associated with Dead Space itself, but as the strain on his body increased in proportion to the number of active systems on the Corvette, he began to have second thoughts. Somehow, the ship seemed to be siphoning energy from him.

An alarm sounded in the bridge, followed by an arrow indicator in Mote’s field of vision that pointed upward. It seemed as though the Corvette was being targeted — and with the knowledge that there was a Drakkar Battleship in orbit, Mote knew just how bad that was. He promptly activated the ship’s shielding, momentarily faltering as the strain on his body increased even further, and then engaged the ship’s engines. By this point, the giant hatch in the ceiling had mostly retracted, revealing a large shaft going straight up to the sky above, at which point Mote realized that there had actually been several hatches throughout the shaft — and most of them had been blown open.

Looks like laser damage, Kate remarked. Mote could tell from the direction of her voice that she was still on the bridge with him, but since his vision was currently decoupled from his body, he couldn’t help but feel intensely disoriented.

…I thought orbital bombardments were supposed to be more powerful than this, he responded as he slowly began to raise the ship through the shaft.

Lasers tend to be diffused, diffracted, or deflected by atmosphere, which is why most of the galaxy uses railguns or missiles for orbital bombardments. If the laser isn’t close enough to its target, or isn’t allowed to charge to full power before firing, then the resulting beam can be pretty damn weak. There was a pause from Kate; Mote couldn’t see what she was doing, but eventually she continued, seems like the Drakkars started firing their orbital strike laser before they were actually close enough to take out this outpost in a single blow. But they’re approaching that position soon, so this next strike—!

As soon as the words left her mouth, an incredible burst of energy exploded across the Corvette’s shields. The ship rocked violently under the blow; Mote could feel his body almost get thrown from the captain’s chair, and he could hear many of the soldiers in the compartment behind the bridge stumbling and attempting to keep their footing. An indicator appeared in Mote’s vision, showing him a sequence of symbols that he could only recognize as being a part of the Aldredian script. Shit. It’s probably telling me just how much shield charge we have left, but I can’t even read it! Even without being able to read the symbols, however, the multitude of blinking icons that appeared across his field of view was enough to indicate that the ship was in trouble.

Mote—!

I know! he shouted, cutting off Kate. Everyone, hold tight! We’re getting out of here! With but a thought, he began to reorient the ship. Until that moment, she had simply been raising through the air using her anti-gravity generators while still being parallel to the ground, but Mote rapidly flipped her around such that the engines were facing downward, and the bridge window facing up the shaft — the shaft that was beginning to collapse due to the damage sustained from the previous laser strike. The Corvette continued to raise through the air at a sluggish pace, but then, Mote engaged the engines.

A shock reverberated through the craft as the engines roared to life; Mote promptly began feeding more power into the inertial dampeners in an attempt to keep everyone aboard safe from the high g-forces of spacecraft acceleration, and as he did so, he recognized a peculiar facet of the Corvette’s design: despite being located in Dead Space, he was easily able to route his electricity powers through the craft. And immediately after that, he realized that he had figured out the location of the inertial dampener systems without even actually looking for them. …This ship has plenty of surprises, that’s for sure. Now let’s see how it handles in an actual flight!

Mote began pushing even more power into the engines, ignoring the further increase in bodily strain as the ship accelerated out of the shaft and into the clear skies above. As soon as he was clear of the shaft, an alarm began sounding in his ear, prompting him to bank hard to the right — just as the entire building below, as well as a large chunk of the forest surrounding it, was obliterated by an incredible blast of energy. The blast wave rocked the ship and knocked Mote off course, but he managed to adjust and swing the Corvette around to begin ascending again. Damn, that was close

A few moments later, an ‘X’ appeared in his vision over a part of the sky, surrounded by three triangles that slowly rotated around it. The hell…? Kate, can you see what I’m seeing?

Yeah, there’s some stuff showing up as holograms on the bridge window! Are you talking about the targeting reticle?

That’s what that is?

It’s a big fucking ‘X’ with shapes rotating around it, what the hell else would it be?!

What’s it targeting? The Battleship?

No, clearly it’s targeting your brain, because you sure seem to have lost it!

The hell are you—?

The ‘X’ promptly shifted in color to red and began flashing. Mote didn’t need a primer in the Aldredian language to realize what that could mean — so he promptly banked left just as a burst of energy hit the side of the Corvette. The symbols that had appeared after the first time the shields were struck shifted to red and began flashing, eliciting a scowl from Mote; the shields were obviously getting dangerously low, and the ship had increased the amount of energy she was siphoning off of Mote to recharge them. And then, just as he refocused on continuing the ship’s ascent out of the atmosphere — now nearly four kilometers over the ground — a large number of smaller ‘X’s began to appear in his field of vision, as though emerging from the large ‘X’.

Shit, Drakkar fighters! Kate exclaimed.

Just what we needed, Mote muttered.

Without knowing what kind of FTL Drive this ship has, you’ll need to get out of the atmosphere before we try engaging it, in order to not risk us fucking blowing up! Which means you’ll have to fight them off!

Of course I will. As if we could ever make a clean escape…!

Mote focused on all of the targets that now appeared on his HUD. He could neither read nor interpret any of the symbols, so he wasn’t quite sure how fast the Corvette was moving, or how quickly they were accelerating — but judging by how small the crater where the outpost once stood now looked, Mote guessed that they were at least a dozen kilometers high. The Drakkar Battleship and her fighters were still too far away to visually see, but as the Corvette continued to accelerate, Mote could tell that the distance was rapidly shrinking.

The targeting reticle over the large ‘X’ began flashing again, prompting Mote to quickly change directions. A moment later, the ‘X’ ceased flashing, though there was no other indication that the Battleship had fired on him. Mote scowled in frustration; he hated fighting against laser weaponry for this reason alone. If a laser missed you, there was basically no way to know that you had been targeted in the first place. On the other hand, he was currently up against a Battleship — and the high-caliber weaponry of large spacecraft were notorious for being incredibly inaccurate against small, fast-moving targets like fightercraft or Frigates. Now that the Corvette had reached a healthy speed, and was high enough in the sky to even see the curvature of the horizon, Mote was hopeful that the lasers from the Drakkar Battleship had become far less of a threat.

A dozen small energy blasts peppered the shields around the bow of the Corvette, drawing Mote’s attention to the Drakkar fighters — which now represented the main obstacles between him and escape. The fighters still weren’t close enough to visually see, but that they were managing to hit him with their lasers regardless was sign enough that a fight was imminent. Just what weapons does this ship even have, Mote wondered, and began rapidly looking over the craft for anything he could use. A moment later, conduits all across the outer hull of the craft began to glow and spark, while two turrets extended out of the horizontal engine banks on either side of the ship. Seeing that the Corvette did indeed have weapons, Mote began to turn the craft toward the incoming Drakkar fighters while still continuing his race to the edge of space.

By the time the deep blue sky had faded to a dark black, the smaller targeting reticles on Mote’s HUD began flashing, and turned blue. Without even the slightest clue as to what that meant, Mote simply hoped for the best and mentally commanded the ship’s guns to fire. Moments later, the two cannons on either side of the ship began to glow, drawing energy from both the ship and Mote for several seconds until finally letting lose with two deep blue beams of light.

Chaos Cannons! Kate exclaimed, just like the Genesis! But how the hell are they working in Dead Space?!

Mote continued to focus on the incoming fighters as the two turrets continually fired their beams of energy, gradually dissipating a few moments later. Once they had shut down, Mote quickly counted the number of remaining fighters — and scowled when he found that they were all still present. The range on those cannons is abysmal—! he muttered, but cut himself off as the opposing fighters finally fell into visual range.

Half a second later, two fighters whizzed past the Corvette; Mote was barely able to recognize their presence before they began turning through space to swing back at the Corvette. A handful of other fighters kept their distance, swooping down to approach the ship from the sides as they opened fire with their myriad laser cannons. Mote promptly pitched the bow down and then rolled to the left, hoping to give chase to some of the fighters. He momentarily recalled some of the vehicle operation training he had received a number of years ago; he knew some of the basics of piloting both air-breathing and space-based fightercraft, but nothing in-depth — and he was currently flying a Corvette, not an actual fighter. Well, it’s all I have to go on for now!

Ignoring the continued strain on his body, Mote forced more power into the Chaos Cannons, charging them in preparation for another attack. He then looked over the fighters in search of a target; there appeared to be over two dozen of them, swarming around and above and below the Corvette as they made passes to attack with their lasers. Mote could no longer make out the details of the outpost below or the forest surrounding it; instead he could only see the general green and brown of the planet’s landmasses, and the faint blue gradient of its atmosphere fading into space. He estimated that he had passed the planet’s equivalent of the Kármán line, and with that, he locked into the mindset of a spaceborne fighter. With a single thought, he cut power to all of the engines except the engine farthest over on the starboard side — and then, to his surprise, the respective engine on the opposite side of the craft spun around and began firing in the opposite direction, rapidly accelerating the craft into a yaw-wise spiral. So the two far engines can pitch and rotate on their own? Good! That’ll make fast maneuvering a lot easier! A moment later, Mote fired the Chaos Cannons, noting that the beams seemed to only reach about a hundred meters out as they tore into two nearby Drakkar fighters and completely obliterated them. Mote then cut power to all the engines, allowing the Corvette’s inertia to carry her up and into space as she spun around.

The swarm of Drakkar fighters began to adjust to the Corvette’s heading, and Mote noted that they were doing their best to stay out of the firing cone of the Chaos Cannons. He cut power to them, noticing that as he did, the conduits across the craft dimmed and ceased to spark. Curiosity nearly compelled him to investigate further, but a Drakkar fighter slamming head-first into the Corvette’s shield and a following screeching alert siren snapped his attention back to the battle. He spun the ship around to face her engines toward the planet and pushed them all to full burn for a few moments, so as to increase their steadily dropping upward speed, and then he snuffed out the four propulsion engines and engaged the two vectoring engines to spin the craft around toward a group of four approaching fighters. They immediately began to disperse, peeling off in an attempt to evade, but the Corvette proved to be faster — Mote fired the Chaos Cannons once again as he spun the bow in a small circle, sweeping the beams through space and intercepting all four Drakkar fighters. He then pitched the bow down and rolled the craft to target four other fighters that had been approaching from behind, and fired the Chaos Cannons once more, ripping through their engines and annihilating them. This is… much easier than I expected. Is the ship auto-targeting and maneuvering along with my inputs…?

By then, the rest of the Drakkar fighters were beginning to back off and out of the range of the Chaos Cannons entirely. Mote quickly maneuvered the bow of the craft around to tag as many fighters as he could, spinning the ship like a gyroscope and sweeping the beams of Chaos Energy across space to snipe another five fightercraft. The rest of the craft managed to escape his reach, however, and began swarming around the Corvette over half a kilometer out. Just as Mote began to weigh his options, the ‘X’ marking the Drakkar Battleship began again to flash. What—? Shit! He immediately spun the craft around, managing to minimize the Corvette’s cross section relative to the Battleship. A moment passed of nothing happening, and then two; then, the ‘X’ ceased blinking. Did it miss? Or did it not fire in the first place? Damn it, this is why I hate fighting against lasers!

Mote briefly turned his attention to the environment around him. Beyond the swarming fighters was the planet below, the curvature of which was readily apparent from the ship’s high altitude. This has to be high enough… good. Time to get the hell out of here! With but a thought, Mote made to activate the Corvette’s FTL Drive, prepared to jump into Subspace and escape the Drakkar onslaught.

Suddenly, a new alert appeared on his HUD. He had no idea what it said, but a wave of unease crashed over him as he heard Kate swear behind him.

What is it? he questioned warily.

What a fucking useless piece of shit! What the fuck!

Kate, what the hell is going on?

Mote could easily hear the scowl in her voice as she replied, this ship doesn’t have an FTL Drive!

…What?

I mean what I fucking said! No Chaos Drive, no Subspace Drive, nothing! This ship can’t enter FTL!

You must be kidding. How the hell did it get here, then?

I mean, it’s not the first time a spaceship’s been built without FTL capabilities. A lot of early SERRCom Frigates didn’t have FTL Drives either, and had to tether themselves to another ship to go anywhere… but still! Mote heard the impact of a fist against metal. To come this far…! Fucking damn it!

Just as Mote made to respond, the targeting reticle on the Drakkar Battleship began flashing again — at the same moment that all of the fighters, simultaneously, turned and accelerated directly at the Corvette. Shit! Hold on! Mote shouted as he spun the craft around again, this time re-engaging the propulsion engines to accelerate perpendicular to the Battleship’s trajectory, in line with the surface of the planet below. He then prepared to cut out the propulsion engines to start attacking the approaching fighters, but before he could, a spectacular flash of energy filled his vision as the Corvette rocked under a massive impact. The strain on Mote’s body spontaneously lightened, prompting an involuntary sigh of relief — and then a frustrated scowl as he realized why the strain had disappeared.

The Corvette’s shields were down.

Mote, the shields—!

I know, I know! He fought to regain control of the craft as the momentum from the laser blast she had just took sent her spiraling. Dozens of smaller lasers from the surrounding fighters found their mark against the Corvette’s hull in that time, scarring her armor and taking out the starboard propulsion engine in the process. Mote responded by throwing the Corvette into a controlled series of rolls and pitches, firing the Chaos Cannons at careful intervals to take out another eight fighters as they swarmed around him — but then, one of the Drakkar lasers hit the port-side vectoring engine’s anchor point, obliterating the joint and tearing the engine off of the Corvette. The ship quickly fell into an uncontrolled spiral that Mote struggled to correct, but with only one vectoring engine, the craft became extraordinarily sluggish.

And then, the targeting reticle marking the Drakkar Battleship began again to blink.

Damn it, not now…! Mote fought the Corvette’s inertia in an attempt to evade the next laser shot, but with two engines disabled — one of them a vectoring engine — he knew he would never be able to move the ship in time. He then looked off to the side; the remaining Drakkar fighters were swooping in for another laser run, presumably hoping to pick off whatever remained after the Battleship’s weapons fire. An exasperated sigh escaped Mote’s lips; there weren’t any further options for him at that point. There was nothing else he could do.

A flash of light momentarily distracted Mote, but he quickly realized that it couldn’t have been any Drakkar laser fire. One split-second later, an additional two targeting reticles appeared on his HUD as two large steel-gray spacecraft shot out of a tear in space and onto the scene. Mote stared at them in surprise as the nearest ship simply smashed through the incoming Drakkar fighters with her superior size and mass, and the other drew the fire of the Drakkar Battleship.

«This is Chief Captain Krick, of the ESC Genesis! Unknown ship, identify yourself!»

Mote’s vision still remained outside of the Corvette, so he couldn’t see any of the Corvette’s bridge or even his own body — yet he could still feel himself involuntarily smile and relax as the Captain’s voice reached his ears. He promptly opened up a line of communication with Genesis. This is Lieutenant Emerson, of the Raenaros! This ship is under my control!

«Oh, it’s you. Well, better you than those no-face bastards.»

What are you doing here? I thought the Genesis and Origin were headed back to Earth!

«Of course not, dumbass! Standard procedure is to park our asses just outside of Dead Space after we’ve spent any amount of time in it, and make sure our ships are fine. Colonel Saito just got fucking lucky that we were still there when a Drakkar ship showed up on our long range sensors! …Doesn’t explain why you’re here, now that I think about it. What the hell happened to the Colonel?»

He’s on board this ship, along with the rest of the SERRCom soldiers, the Eximius Vir, and the Black Suns.

«No, dumbass, I know that. But our life sign sensors say that all but four of you are fucking unconscious! The hell’s going on down there?»

…What…?

Mote heard rustling behind him, and then a sudden impact against his shoulder. The hell do you mean, ‘what’? Kate questioned incredulously, Mote, those moves you were pulling were so fucking high-g, I’m surprised anyone here is still fucking alive! You could feel those turns even through the fucking inertial dampeners! Shit, even I almost blacked out there. How the hell did you not realize that?!

Oh… shit. I can only see outside the Corvette, I didn’t know—

«Well as long as they aren’t dead,» Krick interjected in a huff. «We can go over the details later, but your goddamn ship — if you can even call it that — looks like it’s limping to a junk yard! Can you fly out of there on your own?»

It can fly, Kate replied, but this worthless trash heap doesn’t have its own FTL Drive!

«You’ve got to be god damn kidding me! Figures. We’ll clear out fighter bay one so you can dock up. Don’t you fucking blow up before then! Krick out!»

Mote sat in silence as he observed the two Earthian Battlecruisers engage with the Drakkar Battleship. Mere moments ago, he thought he had been staring death in the face — now that the cavalry had arrived and the enemy’s attention was off him, he finally realized that his body had grown so tense that his muscles all over were throbbing. Or maybe that’s just from the ship draining my energy…

His thoughts were interrupted as he felt another rap on his shoulder, this one softer than before. Hey, he heard Kate’s voice. For an untrained bastard flying a useless piece of shit, those moves weren’t half-bad.

…Not if I almost killed everyone on board without even realizing it.

Oh c’mon, I’m trying to compliment you. Suck it up and accept it! You’re so bad at this.

Some compliment, that you called me an ‘untrained bastard’.

Well you are. Literally. Well, who knows about the bastard part, but I’d be willing to bet we all classify.

Mote simply shook his head in mild amusement and leaned back in his chair. He sighed again in relief; he could still only see the exterior of the Corvette, but now that the tension of the battle had passed, it no longer felt as disorienting as it did at first. In fact, as he looked out over the green and blue planet below, and the soft blue gradient of its atmosphere, he felt a wave of post-adrenaline tranquility fall over him. Even the most beautiful of scenes can become a battlefield

A new message spontaneously appeared on his HUD, distracting him from his thoughts. The new message appeared in blue text, so Mote assumed it wasn’t urgent — that is, until he heard Kate gasp behind him. …Since when could you read Aldredian? he questioned.

I grabbed Kirstin’s AR glasses after she fell unconscious. But holy shit, Mote. This new coordinate is… just, holy fucking shit! Fucking jackpot, bitch!

What? What is it?

Literally all we could ever hope for when it comes to Aldredian tech! The gleeful grin on Kate’s face was obvious through just her voice alone. Mote, if this message is telling the truth — and it damn well better be! — then we’ve got a new coordinate. And this one leads straight to a whole fucking shipyard!

Chapter 17 – Escalation

1 Year Ago

“…Researcher Kirstin MacTavish?”

“Y-yes! Uh, uh, s-sir!”

“At ease, MacTavish, at ease.”

“Uh… y-yes…”

“You’re the daughter of the ETAA’s top boss, aren’t you?”

“…Th-that’s right…”

“The daughter of Scott MacTavish, the man responsible for reverse-engineering both the Subspace Drive, and our breaming tech… sounds like a stressful stick to measure yourself against. Going into the same type of career is bold of you.”

“…Um… r-right…”

“How old are you, exactly?”

“Um… n-nineteen, sir…”

“That’s even younger than Mote… shouldn’t you be in college right now?”

“I-I f-finished, sir.”

“Really? What’s your degree?”

“Um, w-well, uh… wh-which one?”

“You’ve got more than one? I’m supposed to believe you completed a double major by nineteen?”

“Er, w-well, n-not quite…”

“…Don’t tell me you’ve got a masters.”

“A-and a, um, P-Ph.D…”

“You’re kidding! You really are Scott’s kid, huh?”

“…”

“What’s your field training like? Are you a hidden prodigy there, too?”

“…F-field training, sir…?”

“You know, your physical ability and skills? Your tactical ability? Your gun skills?”

“…Uh…”

“You can fire a gun, right?”

“…Um…”

“You’re kidding.”

“I-I, uh, I-I know how t-to fire one…!”

“Alright. Well then, how’s your ability to focus in stressful situations?”

“U-um… o-okay… I-I think…?”

“…Figures. Damn it, Lead, the hell have you gotten me into this time…”

“I-I’m sorry sir, I-I can go—”

“Just answer me one question, MacTavish. Did you request this position yourself? Or did your old man thrust you into it?”

“…Um… uh… I-I, well…”

“You aren’t exactly filling me with confidence.”

“I-I, uh, I can just, you know, uh… quit…”

“No no… we can work through this. If you’re here, the General must’ve seen something in you. Fortunately for you, the Eximius Vir take care of most of our combat needs, so I’ve got the time and energy to take care of you. As long as we both realize why and how you got here, I’m sure we can get you the rest of the way to being an actual qualifying member of CSF-1.”

“…R-really…?”

“But I won’t lie, it’s gonna take a lot of effort from you. A lot a lot. But it should be fine for someone who got a Ph.D before they turned 20.”

“I-if you say so…”

“I do say so. We’ll make this work, MacTavish.” Saito extended his hand, firmly grasping MacTavish’s as she offered a weak handshake in response. “…Welcome to Chaotic Support Fireteam 1.”

*     *     *

Present Day, 3 Hours Later

Sunday, October 9th, AD 2129

 

“What a fucking day…”

Colonel Saito shook his head wearily as he meandered through the hallways of Genesis on his way to the mission debriefing. The Battlecruiser and her sister ship, Origin, had just dropped out of Subspace after leaving Dead Space to perform post-Dead Space maintenance checks; thankfully, as far as the Colonel could tell, neither ship had sustained significant damage, even through their brief encounter with a Drakkar Battleship.

“Not that I even remember any of it…” he muttered to himself. His memory of the time between taking off in the Aldredian ship and coming to on board Genesis was completely nonexistent. According to Kate, he — as well as the Black Suns, and the rest of the SERRCom soldiers — had blacked out due to the g-forces generated by Mote’s flying. A reasonable enough explanation, but it also drew attention to the abnormal physical constitution of the Eximius Vir. They truly did seem to maintain all of their powers and abilities while within Dead Space, and while Saito was certainly glad to have been rescued by Mote, he was also unsure of what to make of this new discovery.

Especially considering the fact that the Black Suns were privy to it as well.

Saito shook his head again; both Commander Rabine and Chief Captain Krick were certain to want answers, but the Colonel wasn’t sure he could provide them. He had been working with the Eximius Vir ever since the beginning, and was their oldest point of contact with SERRCom — so he considered himself to be fairly knowledgeable regarding their abilities. Mote controlled electricity and magnetism, Mark was super strong, Kate could materialize all kinds of explosives at will on top of being super intelligent, and Danielle could shapeshift into virtually anything she could imagine. Additionally, all four of them had bodies capable of withstanding far greater forces than normal people, Mark to a far greater extent than the other three. For the longest time, Saito thought their increased durability was par for the course for Chaotics, but he had eventually learned that it wasn’t — the Eximius Vir were simply incredibly hardy. And on top of that, they all possessed special weapons that they could summon at will: Mote, a giant battlehammer; Mark, a giant halberd; Kate, a pair of greaves; and Danielle, a pair of pistols. The four were clearly unique as Chaotics went, and this recent discovery regarding their powers in Dead Space was more evidence on the pile. What the Colonel still didn’t know, was how, and why?

As he mulled over these insights, his thoughts gradually turned to Telregina, the Drakkar Faction Leader he had had the misfortune of encountering. She claimed not to be able to use her regular abilities, but she clearly maintained her invulnerability, so there seemed to be some kind of precedent for Dead Space not completely nullifying a Chaotic’s powers. He then thought over the brief hand-to-hand battle he and Rabine had with the Drakkar, and how she seemed… somewhat weaker than he expected. Of course, she had still been matching Rabine and Saito both, but if not for her overwhelmingly powerful tanks, Saito and Rabine may have actually been able to beat her down and eventually capture her. But alas…

The Colonel briefly felt his mind drift along the tangent of “tanks” to think about the Rhino that Telregina destroyed, but he quickly pushed the thoughts away. He didn’t have time to mourn the loss of SERRCom soldiers, not now. There was a debriefing to be had, as well as what seemed to be a race against time and the Drakkars to find ancient Aldredian technology. Addressing the loss of SERRCom personnel would have to wait until he returned to Earth…

“C-Colonel…?”

“Huh?” The sound of someone calling out to him brought Saito’s thoughts back to the present. He realized that he had reached Genesis’s main briefing room while he had been absorbed in his thoughts, and currently sitting inside was MacTavish, who simply stared at him in surprise. Oh. Guess I’m early. Saito offered the Researcher a brief nod of greeting before maneuvering around the room and taking a seat at the table in the middle. “How’s it going?” he questioned, glancing over at MacTavish.

“…Uh… w-well…” She looked down at a tablet in her hands. “I-it’s fine, I guess…”

“How’s the head? I hear our launch from the planet wasn’t exactly pleasant.”

“Y-yeah… I-I’m fine…” MacTavish forced a small smile, but Saito could see the color drain from her face.

He sighed wearily. “You don’t have to say that you’re fine if you aren’t.”

“N-no, I— I am. Fine, th-that is.”

“…I see.” Saito passed her another glance before leaning back in his chair and clasping his hands behind his head. Inexperienced as MacTavish was — she was only 20, under half of Saito’s age — she appeared to do a decent job of putting up with everything her position threw at her. Saito had a strong feeling that she was merely putting on appearances, however, given the circumstances around her getting the job.

The Colonel briefly thought back to his first meeting with MacTavish, and all of the awkward realizations that followed. He wasn’t a fan of the idea that nepotism could fly in SERRCom, which is part of why he was willing to give MacTavish a chance — he wanted to prove to himself that even General Lead’s most puzzling decisions could work out in the end. And sure enough, to everyone’s surprise, it did. In the year following her assignment to CSF-1, MacTavish had proved to be incredibly useful, as well as surprisingly adept at picking up Saito’s teachings. She remained completely useless in an actual gunfight, and her social interaction skills leaved much to be desired, but she was able to work quickly under pressure — which was exactly what the Colonel had been hoping for. On top of that, her skill with sundry technological devices was virtually unmatched. She could easily disable or otherwise interface with foreign devices, spot and explain weaknesses in foreign technology, and could also tinker with the hardware of CSF-1’s armor and weapons to slightly improve their battery runtime and processing ability. Saito had no idea how she did it, but he now considered her a useful part of the team, despite all appearances. His opinion of her father, on the other hand…

He shoved the thoughts out of his mind. There was no use dwelling on negativity, or on things he couldn’t change. So instead, he turned back to face MacTavish. “How’s life?”

She stared at him, her eyes wide, startled by his sudden question. “Huh…?”

“You know, life. In general. How are things going back at home? Any personal projects, meet any people, had any fun…?”

“O-oh…” She averted her gaze; Saito couldn’t tell if it was out of unease, or if she was simply checking her tablet. “…N-not much. Just, um, s-some tinkering. I-I actually th-thought of a way to, um, to in-increase the strength of, uh, of our Chaos sh-shielding by, um, by several percent! I-I sent the idea t-to the, uh, the ETAA, but…” Her face clouded as she trailed off.

Saito wasn’t completely certain why, but he suspected it had something to do with her father — who was the head of the ETAA. As such, he decided to redirect the conversation. “You do anything with Travis or Hackett, lately?” he questioned.

“N-no…”

“Oh. Well, have you hung out with any friends, recently?”

She shrunk into her chair, her head bowed so far that her bangs obscured her face. “…No…”

“Ah…” Saito grimaced internally. “…Well, if you ever want to, I’m sure Travis or Hackett would love to spend some time with you. Or maybe you could talk to the new recruits; they’re all your age, I figure you’ll get along fine.”

“I-if you say so…”

“Yep.” The Colonel then glanced down at his watch uneasily. Well this got awkward… where the hell is everyone?

Just as the thought crossed his mind, Commander Rabine stepped into the room. She glanced between MacTavish and Saito, her expression neutral. “Researcher, Colonel.”

“Commander.” Saito nodded in acknowledgment. Not quite who I wanted to see, but at least it’s someone. “I see you’re doing well.”

“I suppose you could say that,” Rabine replied as she took a seat across the table from Saito. “My augmentations prevented any significant lasting injury from blacking out.”

The image of Rabine’s exposed cybernetic hand after blasting Telregina’s head momentarily flashed across Saito’s mind. “…Oh, right. You Black Suns use cybernetics a lot, don’t you?”

“You could say that. It’s my understanding that SERRCom doesn’t use cybernetics much at all… if so, I can only imagine how painful our escape must have been for you.”

Saito pursed his lips and resisted the urge to roll his eyes; he couldn’t quite tell if Rabine was being sincere or intentionally condescending, but the liftoff experience hadn’t been that bad. Not as far as he recalled, at least. “…I’m sure we’ll manage,” he eventually replied.

“Yes…” The Commander trailed off. Saito caught her passing a surreptitious glance toward MacTavish, who had shied away from both officers as she wholly directed her attention at the tablet before her. After a moment, Rabine spoke up again. “…Excuse me. Researcher… MacTavish, was it?”

“Uh, y-yes?!” MacTavish briefly made eye-contact before averting her eyes.

“After a bit of thought, I’ve realized that I was… unnecessarily short with you earlier today, when we were speaking aboard the Aldredian spacecraft.” Rabine bowed her head. “For that, I apologize. I did not mean to act so unprofessionally.”

“…O-oh… um…” MacTavish glanced uneasily at Saito, who simply shrugged. She then returned her attention to Rabine. “Uh… th-thanks…?”

The Commander lifted her head and turned to face Saito. “Now, that said. Colonel, I think I’m owed some answers.”

Saito sighed. “I know,” he responded, “but Commander, believe me when I say that I’d like to know the same answers as you. Let’s wait until the debriefing proper before we start grilling each other, shall we?”

Rabine’s brow furrowed, but she was then briefly distracted as Chief Captain Krick, followed soon by Mote, entered the room. “…Very well, Colonel,” she replied.

“Havin’ a chat already, are we?” Krick questioned as he approached the head of the table. He turned and pressed some buttons against the wall behind him, prompting a large screen on the far wall to activate.

Saito glanced toward the screen, sparing a moment to pass Mote a nod of acknowledgment. A moment later, an image appeared on the screen — an image of an aging woman with slightly tanned skin, a round face, sharp eyes, and black hair tied back in a bun. Her uniform readily identified her as Chief Captain Alicia Mendoza, the Captain of the Battlecruiser BC-2 ESC Origin, Genesis’s sister ship. Origin was the first Genesis-class Battlecruiser that SERRCom fully designed and constructed on its own, and was usually grouped together with Genesis to form the “Flagship Strike Group” — which naturally meant that Krick and Mendoza, as the Captains of Genesis and Origin, often worked together closely. Saito had interacted with both of them a handful of times over the course of his SERRCom career, even before they gained their current positions, and the one thing that remained constant was his preference for Mendoza’s generally calm demeanor over Krick’s antagonistic one.

«Captain Krick,» she spoke through the screen, and then looked at everyone else in the room. «I see that everyone’s here.»

“Some of you even got here fucking early!” Krick remarked as he took a seat at the head of the table. “Just that eager to start the damn meeting, huh?”

“You might say that,” Rabine commented.

Krick glanced at her before shaking his head. “Anyways. As you all know, we just dropped out of Subspace for our post-Dead Space maintenance checks. So far, everything looks fan-fucking-tastic, all things considered, so let’s get straight to the goddamn point.” He looked at each of the other debriefing attendees. “We all know what shit went on down there. The Drakkars attacked, the little kiddies showed up to save the goddamn day, we discovered a shiny-ass new piece of Aldredian tech, yadda yadda yadda. But what I want to fuckin’ know…” The Captain passed Saito and Mote suspicious glances. “…Is just how the hell the Eximius Vir can use their goddamn powers in Dead Space.”

“We’re starting with this already?” Saito frowned. “Not exactly a standard debriefing, now, is it?”

«I’m sorry, Colonel,» Captain Mendoza spoke up through the screen, «but — as much as I hate to admit it — I agree with Krick.»

“As do I,” Rabine interjected. “Colonel, I think you can understand our frustration when we learned that you were withholding this information from us.”

Saito stared at her in disbelief. “What—?”

In his defense, Mote spoke up, he didn’t know that our powers would work in Dead Space. Honestly, I didn’t know, either, not until we tried just earlier today.

The Commander eyed Mote incredulously. “You expect me to believe that?”

“Commander, we lost seven of our own soldiers during that Drakkar attack,” Saito responded sharply. “Four when the Drakkars overran the Gate, and another three when Telregina destroyed our tank. If I knew that the Eximius Vir could use their powers in Dead Space, then those men and women wouldn’t be fucking dead right now. I sincerely hope you aren’t trying to insinuate that I sacrifice the lives of my subordinates for no damn reason.”

“The Suns lost personnel as well,” Rabine countered. “Don’t forget that the Gate Defense Team was equal parts Earthian and Black Suns. That said, I apologize for implying that their deaths were at your hands; I meant no disrespect. However…” She cast a doubtful glance toward Mote. “…This doesn’t make any sense. Your ‘Eximius Vir’ being able to use their powers in Dead Space violates thousands of years of knowledge regarding Chaos Energy and Chaotics! It should not be possible for a Chaotic to use their abilities there without an Ayas, and yet…”

«It’s my understanding that the Drakkar Faction Leader you encountered also retained her invulnerability,» Mendoza commented. «Perhaps what you know about Dead Space isn’t entirely correct?»

“We’re talking about the collective understanding of the entire galaxy, here. Do you really want to suggest that the entire galaxy is incorrect?”

“As if it’s impossible for a large group of dumbasses to be wrong.” Krick snorted. “It wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t be the fuckin’ last.”

“Still…” Rabine looked Mote up and down. “…You don’t seem to be using the Chaos State, either. I suppose there are still things we don’t know…”

You said that earlier. ‘Chaos State’, Mote responded. What is that?

“You truly don’t know?” The Commander’s eyes widened in surprise. “It’s fairly standard knowledge for Chaotics, at this point. Especially after the Nanocreature War.”

“I’m afraid we’re a bit lacking in knowledge when it comes to Chaotics,” Saito replied. “Can you explain?”

“The Chaos State is a state of increased power that a Chaotic can choose to enter when in close proximity to an Ayas. The Chaotic then temporarily absorbs the Ayas, becoming more powerful and durable than any normal Chaotic could ever be.” Rabine glanced around the room, eying everyone with skeptical incredulity. “How have you never heard of this? The Nanocreature War occurred within all of our lifetimes, and its largest, most devastating battle was fought by a Chaos State Chaotic. An entire planet was destroyed!”

“You mean the Battle of Neticen? You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.” Krick scowled. “I’ve heard about that battle, but it always sounded like bullshit to me. Like the kind of exaggerated war story you always hear after bigass conflicts.”

«Krick… wasn’t your father Genesis’s Captain during the Nanocreature War?» Mendoza questioned. «Genesis herself even participated in the Battle of Neticen.»

“I fuckin’ know. Where the hell did you think I heard about it?” Krick rolled his eyes. “Still sounds like bullshit.”

“I can assure you that it’s complete truth,” Rabine insisted. “…You Earthians truly don’t know much about Chaotics, do you?”

“Is it that obvious?” Saito retorted. “But we’ve gotten away from the point of this debriefing.”

«The Colonel’s right.» Mendoza nodded, and then shifted her gaze through the screen to Mote. «Back on topic… Lieutenant Emerson, you weren’t assigned to this mission, and you weren’t there when Genesis and Origin left. When and why did you show up?»

We went to Director Hamasaki for permission to participate in the mission, Mote answered.

“You went right to the head bitch herself? You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that,” Krick remarked.

Saito pursed his lips. Part of him agreed with Krick, but all the same… “Captain, you should really avoid talking about Director-level staff like that.”

Krick scowled, but said nothing more as Mendoza continued, «anyways, Lieutenant. That doesn’t explain why you’re here. And from the sounds of it, it wasn’t even the Director who chose to send you… so, why?»

Mote shifted uncomfortably and averted his gaze. Just a… gut feeling.

“You came for the Aldredian ship, didn’t you?” Rabine questioned.

No, not really. I didn’t even know the ship was there until after I arrived, but… He trailed off for a moment, and then finished, you all only embarked on this mission because of me. I thought it would be best if I was here to assist.

“And assist, you did!” Saito replied cheerfully. “If not for you, and the rest of the Eximius Vir, I don’t think any of the ground team would’ve survived.”

“Yes…” Rabine eyed Mote warily. “It also seems rather… convenient that, once again, the Aldredian technology only responded to you.”

Look, I have no idea why that is, Mote countered defensively. I didn’t do anything special. I just walked on the bridge and sat down in the Captain’s chair.

«Really?» Mendoza pressed, «are you certain that nothing special happened?»

Mote paused for a moment, seemingly in thought. Then, he responded, no, ma’am, nothing that I can remember.

Saito frowned; he was certain that he had spotted a subtle spark of recollection in Mote’s eyes. Is he hiding something from us? I’m sure he has his reasons, but even so… The Colonel passed a surreptitious glance toward Commander Rabine. I’ll have to ask him when the Black Suns aren’t around…

«Well, this is a good segue into the next bullet point,» Mendoza commented. «The Aldredian Frigate. It’s currently inhabiting Genesis’s fighter bay one, but what, exactly, do we know about it?»

It’s actually a Corvette, ma’am, Mote corrected. The ship’s registry lists it as a Blade of Raen-class Corvette, named the Raenaros.

Krick stared at Mote incredulously. “And how the hell do you know that?”

I just said it was in the registry. …Sir.

“Sure. And since when could you read Aldredian?”

Mote faltered as unease briefly flashed across his face. …I can’t.

«Then how do you know the ship’s name and class?» Mendoza questioned.

I… I don’t know. The information just kind of popped into my head when I started flying it.

“Like your vision?” Saito suggested.

Mote shook his head. No, I’m pretty sure the information came directly from the Corvette, through its neural dive interface. But… I couldn’t understand anything else. Only the name and class.

“Wait, are you telling me that the only thing we know about that goddamned ship is its name?” Krick questioned incredulously.

Not quite. Mote glanced toward MacTavish. Kate and Kirstin were supposed to take a closer look.

“Uh—! R-right!” The Researcher bolted upright at the sound of her name. “Uh, um… wh-what?”

“The Aldredian ship,” Saito prompted. “What have you figured out about it?”

“O-oh… well…” MacTavish looked around the room and shrank back into her chair once she realized everyone was looking at her expectantly. She quickly snapped her attention down to her tablet and began fiddling with it as she continued, “u-um, well, w-we’ve only, um, scratched the surface, so we, uh, we don’t know t-too much, but, um… well, i-it seems heavily d-dependent on, um, on Chaos Energy.”

“The damn thing has Chaos Cannons, of course it’s dependent on goddamn Chaos Energy,” Krick retorted. “But how the hell did it use those cannons in Dead Space?”

“Uh… I-I think that has something to do with, um… w-with Mote,” MacTavish responded uneasily, passing him a glance before averting her eyes again. “Y-You… Kate said that you, um, f-felt like something was, uh… d-draining your energy, o-or something… right…?”

Mote frowned. …Yes, I did say that.

“Well, um, th-the Corvette has a, a lot of special c-conduits all around it, th-that seem like they, um, w-well… like th-they carry Chaos Energy i-itself.”

…Are you saying that the ship was siphoning energy off of me in order to power itself?

“Y-yes. I-in fact, i-it seems like, um, th-that all of its s-systems are powered by, um, by Ch-Chaos Energy. All b-but the most basic of c-computer systems.”

“A ship that runs entirely on Chaos Energy?” Rabine questioned. “That sounds… unwise.”

“Half of Genesis’s goddamn systems run on fucking Chaos Energy, and you don’t see me complaining about it,” Krick remarked. “I have no goddamn clue what the stuff even is, but there’s no doubt that it’s goddamn powerful.”

“True, but as I know you’re aware, it heavily limits your ability to act in Dead Space. It also makes the ship useless in the event that another Chaos Quake happens, seeing as all Chaos Energy in the entire galaxy becomes inaccessible.”

“And just how fucking often do Quakes even happen? I thought the big one forty years ago was the first one the whole goddamn galaxy had ever seen!”

«Dead Space is usually uninhabited, anyways,» Mendoza remarked. «To the point that we can usually ignore it when designing spacecraft and other technologies. A ship that runs entirely on Chaos Energy sounds feasible to me.»

The Raenaros isn’t meant to operate on its own, anyways. Not as far as I can tell, Mote pointed out. It doesn’t have an FTL Drive, so it would have to be ferried around by larger ships. It seems like it’s purely an attack craft — something more akin to a fighter than a proper ship. And if that’s true, then basing the entirety of its systems on Chaos Energy doesn’t seem like that bad of an idea.

“Does what he’s saying line up with your findings?” Saito questioned as he turned to MacTavish.

“Huh?! Uh, I-I mean… y-yes,” she responded uneasily. “Th-there’s still more, um, a-analysis to be done, but, uh… i-it seems to be built a-almost entirely around its, um, i-its weapon and piloting systems.”

Mote frowned. That doesn’t seem right, he said, as far as I could tell, the ship only has two Chaos Cannons. That isn’t exactly heavily armed…

MacTavish shook her head. “N-no, there’s more. Th-the… um, th-the conduits that cover th-the ship, they can also be used t-to, um, to channel a Ch-Chaotic’s actual power. O-or, at least, that’s what th-the registry claims…”

“Channel a Chaotic’s actual power?” Rabine echoed, “…what’s that mean?”

Is that why the hull of the ship started sparking every time I activated the weapons? Mote questioned.

“I… I think so.” MacTavish nodded. “I-it’s also why, um, why th-the ship uses a, um, a p-partial neural dive system. Th-the pilot is, um, i-is supposed to view th-the ship like th-their own body, a-and use the ship as a, uh, as a c-conduit to use their powers a-against other spacecraft.”

Wait… so you’re saying that, while flying that thing, I can launch lightning attacks from the ship, using my own powers?

“I th-think so…”

“I see…” Rabine nodded in approval. “It’s always been suspected that the Aldredas highly valued their Chaotics, far moreso than the modern galaxy. Creating a ship like this, that can help a Chaotic use their powers even in large-scale space conflicts… it sounds exactly like something they’d do.”

I mean… strictly speaking, I could use my powers against other spacecraft anyways, Mote pointed out. There’s nothing stopping me from standing on the bridge of the Genesis and firing lightning strikes at approaching spacecraft. Aside from the vacuum of space, that is.

“Forget the vacuum of space, I’ll fucking stop you,” Krick interjected. “I don’t need goddamn lightning storms on my bridge!”

…Right… Mote passed the Captain a wary glance before turning back to MacTavish. My point being, what’s so special about the Raenaros?

“W-well…” The Researcher paused for a moment as she fiddled with her tablet. She eventually continued, “i-it has to do with the, um, th-the neural dive system. The, uh, the ship’s sensors are tied in to give th-the pilot a, uh, a better view of th-their surroundings, um… a-and th-the conduits help, um, g-guide the pilot’s powers. I-it, um, I-I think it would be much, uh, easier t-to do stuff with the, um, th-the Corvette.”

Huh… I see…

“If everything you’re saying is true, then this ship could be an amazing find, indeed,” Rabine remarked. “More impressive than the armor that led us to it, to be sure. And if I understand correctly… then the ship also provided a coordinate to a ship yard?”

MacTavish stared at the Commander, dumbfounded. “H-how did you…?”

“Black Suns powered armor comes standard-issue with bodycams. Even if we black out… we can still see and hear everything,” Rabine responded, and then turned to Saito and Krick. “I think we should investigate this new coordinate immediately.”

«Now hold on,» Mendoza interjected, «don’t you think that’s a bit brash? You all only just ended your Dead Space mission, I think we should report back to Earth first.»

Krick snorted in derision. “Figures you’d want to take your damned time.”

«Excuse me?» Mendoza’s brow furrowed in irritation. «I didn’t know you had such disdain for protocol. Or rather, I suppose I did, but I’d hoped that you’d be reasonable just this once.»

“Reasonable my god damn ass! We just got the fucking coordinates to an entire goddamn Aldredian ship yard! Like hell I’m going to let some other dumbass cunt get the credit for discovering that!”

«Credit? Is that all you want? You’re Genesis’s Captain, damn it, why don’t you—»

“Alright, alright,” Saito cut in, hoping to stop the brewing argument early. Mendoza may be a generally calm woman, but anyone who worked with either her or Krick quickly realized that any disagreement between the two Captains could rapidly spiral into a nasty fight. “There are valid reasons for immediately pursuing the coordinate,” Saito continued, “namely, the fact that the Drakkars seem to be constantly on our tail.”

“The Colonel’s right,” Krick immediately replied. “I’ve read the fucking reports. All three missions CSF-1 went on in the past few weeks, they ran into goddamn Drakkars, who were fucking always looking for the same damn thing that Saito and his team were. If this trend keeps up, then if we just sit around on our asses, then the Drakkars’ll beat us to the damned ship yard! Do you want that?!”

«No, but it’s all the more reason to report back to Earth, first!» Mendoza countered. «If we’re dealing with Drakkars, then we can’t just wander around without a plan! At the very least, we should pick up a strike group, or another Battlecruiser task force.»

“What, you don’t think our ships can handle a few goddamn Drakkars?”

«I do, but I’m not confident that we’ll only run into a few. Not if the Drakkars know that we’ve always been one step ahead of them!»

“Unfortunately, she’s right about this one,” Rabine commented. “We ran into Telregina today, and somehow managed to force her to retreat. She is perhaps the most vengeful of the Faction Leaders, so she isn’t likely to go easy on us if we run into her again. That said…” The Commander frowned. “Something about this seems off. We only knew to look in Dead Space because we found the armor, and that armor could only be used by one person. How did the Drakkars know to look there?”

Krick scowled. “You aren’t trying to say that my ship’s been fucking bugged, are you?”

“No… that isn’t the way the Telum faction operates. Telregina is usually too shortsighted for something like that.” Rabine paused for a few moments, her lips pursed, before she eventually added, “…I think someone might be tipping her off.”

“I hope you don’t think it’s us,” Saito retorted.

“Of course not. But she’s getting this information somehow.”

«This just sounds like even more reason to report back to Earth first,» Mendoza commented. «We should make sure we don’t have an information leak.»

“On the contrary, I think this is even more reason to investigate the new coordinate immediately,” Rabine countered. “If there is an information leak, then Telregina might already know about the new coordinate, and we can’t let her get her hands on the ship yard. Just think, an entire Aldredian ship yard! If it really is intact, and the Drakkars reach it first, then that would be very bad for the rest of the galaxy.”

Saito passed the Commander a wary glance. He agreed with her spoken reasoning, but he wasn’t sure if she was arguing in good faith. She could just be concerned that we’d force her and her team to disembark, and then check out the ship yard all on our own…

Captain Mendoza, however, simply stared hard at Rabine in disapproval. Then she snapped her attention over to MacTavish, asking, «where is the new coordinate? I may be willing to acquiesce if it’s close.»

“U-um, a-about that…” The Researcher looked down at her tablet uneasily, and then over at Saito. “Th-the coordinate is, um… i-it’s over three days away, in… in S-Sursum space.”

“Sursum?!” Rabine exclaimed, “as in, the Sursum Drakkars?”

“Y-yes…”

«The Sursum faction is one of the two most powerful Drakkar factions, isn’t it?» Mendoza shifted her gaze to Krick. «You cannot seriously hope to invade Sursum space all on your own!»

Krick scowled. “Of course not! We’re not talking about a fucking invasion. But still… of all the god damned places it could be…”

“Why would there be an Aldredian ship yard in Drakkar space, anyways?” Saito questioned, “weren’t the Aldredas and Drakkars mortal enemies?”

“They were, but it’s possible that the coordinate was actually a part of Aldredas territory when they were still around,” Rabine explained. “Once they disappeared, there’s nothing stopping the Drakkars from moving in to claim the space.”

“Then how do we know that the Sursum Drakkars haven’t already claimed this ship yard?”

The room fell silent in response to Saito’s question. He hadn’t meant it to be rhetorical; he was genuinely seeking an answer, but as he glanced around at everyone else, the Colonel noticed significant doubt wrought across their faces.

Eventually, Captain Krick broke the silence. “Is the new coordinate in Dead Space?”

MacTavish shook her head. “N-no…”

“Alright, then.” Krick nodded. “I have a plan.”

«You still want to go through with this?!» Mendoza questioned incredulously.

“Damn right I do! You and I both know how Genesis revolutionized SERRCom’s tech. Just imagine the shit we could get from a fucking Aldredian ship yard! We could build ourselves a goddamn fleet of the most advanced fucking ships the galaxy’s ever seen!”

“I don’t think the CSA would take kindly to that,” Rabine interjected.

“Ah, who fucking cares what the CSA thinks,” Krick muttered. “But if this new coordinate is in good ol’ regular space, then that means that Genesis’s systems will actually fucking work. And that includes the goddamn ACS.”

«…You want to sneak into Drakkar space?» Mendoza responded incredulously. «Into Sursum space?!»

“Why the hell not? We know the ACS works against the Drakkars’ dumbass sensors. There’s absolutely no goddamn harm in dropping by and taking a fucking look. Then, if there is something there, we take as much as we can and get the fuck out!”

«And just where the hell is Origin during all this? You know that Genesis is the only ship SERRCom has with a proper ACS!»

“Excuse me, what’s ‘ACS’?” Rabine questioned.

“Absolute Cloaking System,” Krick replied. “We turn that motherfucker on, and there ain’t a goddamn sensor in the whole fucking galaxy that can pick us up! Not even visual ones!” He then turned toward Mendoza. “You won’t be with us, anyways. Not only would you give us away, you’d just fucking slow us down, with that slow-ass Subspace Drive of yours!”

«Don’t be a cocky bastard,» Mendoza retorted. «It’s Genesis that’s absurdly fast. Origin’s Drive is the fastest SERRCom has been able to build on our own. It’s the best recreation of Genesis’s drive that we have!»

“And it’s still slower than us, which is all that fucking matters. So you take your ship and go report back to Earth about the shit that happened here, and I’ll take my ship and go check out this sweetass Aldredian ship yard.”

«You can’t be serious!»

“Damn straight I’m serious. It’s not like I’m going to suicide charge into a fucking Drakkar fleet anyways, if we run into trouble then we’ll leave. I’m not a fucking dumbass!”

Mendoza remained silent for several moments as she glared at Krick. Then she shifted her gaze to Saito. «Colonel, do you really think this is a good idea?»

“I don’t know if I’d say ‘good’,” Saito replied, “but it’s reasonable enough. I’d rather find this ship yard before the Drakkars do, if they haven’t already. We can figure out how they’re constantly on our tail later.”

Finally, Origin’s Captain turned to Rabine. «And you?»

“I apologize, but I’m with them,” the Commander replied. “If this ‘ACS’ truly works as well as you say it does, then we should be fine.”

Mendoza continued staring at Rabine for a moment, and then sighed of frustration. «Fine! Fine. I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into, Krick.»

“Of course I fucking do,” Krick retorted. “As if I’d ever let the Drakkars touch my fucking ship!”

«When will you be leaving, then?»

“As soon as the maintenance checks are done. That’s the whole goddamn point of this plan, to not waste any time!”

“Well, I think that just about wraps this up,” Saito interjected, and then glanced around the room at everyone present. “Sounds like we all know what we’re doing, and when we’re doing it. I don’t think there’s anything else to discuss…?”

After a couple moments of silence, Krick stood up from his chair. “Fucking finally. I’m going to go take a goddamn nap until the maintenance checks are done. If you need me, go find Captain Tang instead. Otherwise, we’re done here. Fuckin’ dismissed!”

 

Chapter 18 – Cultural Exchange

15 Years Ago

Silence.

A large, gray room, devoid of furnishings save for a bland painting hung on the wall, an old couch, and two stiff wooden chairs. On the couch sat a young boy and girl, both with olive complexions and dark hair. The boy held the girl close, softly trying to calm her as quiet sobs escaped her throat. Sitting in the corner of the room was another young girl, sullenly staring into the corner as she held her arms crossed in front of her. And sitting across the room from the couch, on one of the two wooden chairs, was a fourth child — a young boy of similar complexion to the others, sitting silently with his eyes cast downward. He looked down at his hand, allowing a couple sparks to dance across his palm before dispelling them and squeezing his eyes shut.

Footsteps.

This wasn’t the first time the four had been alone. For as long as the boy could remember, they had been shunted from home to home, from foster family to foster family, never staying in one place for longer than a few months. With no parents to speak of — biologically or otherwise — and robbed of the ability to make lasting friends, the four children had little choice but to depend on each other. It was all they had in this world. But now, thanks to a few unexpected sparks, even that small comfort seemed as though it might disappear.

Creaking.

The boy looked to the door, which had just opened. In stepped two men — one tall and stoic, with a large frame and a strong jawline; the other somewhat stocky, and about average height.

“…So these are the ones?” asked the shorter man. When the taller one nodded, the shorter man slowly stepped forward.

The boy stood up from his chair and began backing away, his eyes focused entirely on the man.

“Hey now! I’m not here to hurt you,” the man commented, holding his hands up in a disarming gesture.

But I might hurt you, the boy replied quietly, sparks unconsciously wreathing his arms.

The man paused for a moment, looking first at the boy, and then at the other three children, who all regarded him with cautious stares. He eventually turned back to the boy and stepped forward again before kneeling to the ground, putting him around eye level. “Don’t worry. I’m here to help.”

That’s what they all say, retorted the girl in the corner.

“…I suppose it is,” the man slowly replied. “I don’t expect you all to trust me right away. I know you’ve been through some… tough situations. I’m really sorry to hear that, but I want you to know that I am here to help. Here to both give you a home, and help you learn how to deal with your new abilities.”

The boy looked at the man warily. It wasn’t the first time he had heard these platitudes… but this time, something was different. The man’s tone almost seemed earnest.

“You’re Mote, right?”

Huh? The boy’s eyes widened, startled to be suddenly called by his name. Uh… yeah…

The man responded with a smile. To Mote, it appeared genuine — though behind the sparkle in the man’s eyes, Mote thought he could see a level of sadness. Whoever this man was, he seemed to understand the situation better than any foster family Mote had seen. He wasn’t overly optimistic, or curt, or dismissive… for whatever reason, he truly seemed interested in Mote’s well-being, and carried with him the pragmatism to back it.

“Well then, Mote,” the man eventually replied as he held his hand out, palm up, as if gesturing for Mote to grasp it. “I’m Kaji Saito. You can just call me Saito.” His smile deepened into a grin. “Nice to meet you!”

*     *     *

Present Day, 1 Day Later

Monday, October 10th, AD 2129

 

…What trash. And this was the best book I could find… I suppose there really is no accounting for taste.

Mote disdainfully tossed the book he was holding onto the nightstand next to the bed in his quarters. Genesis had completed her post-Dead Space maintenance checks early in the morning and then departed for their next coordinate, leaving Mote over three days of travel time to fill with activities of his own desire. Usually, he would gladly pass the time by reading whatever book he had on hand — but since he and the Eximius Vir had departed so quickly to back up CSF-1 and weren’t expecting to be gone longer than a day, Mote hadn’t brought any of his own reading material with him. As such, he was left to scavenge whatever he could from what already existed on-board Genesis, which — between dry instruction manuals for Genesis’s systems, cheaply-written pop romance, and military sci-fi that bordered on SERRCom propaganda — was a truly pitiful selection, indeed.

With a disappointed groan, Mote rolled out of the bottom bunk and took a seat in the one chair the room offered. The members of the Eximius Vir were allowed to bunk in officer quarters instead of general quarters, so Mote’s room contained only a single bunk bed for himself and Mark as opposed to the larger rooms with multiple bunks for most of the crew. Part of Mote disliked the fact that he received such special treatment purely because of his powers, but the invaluable alone time that it offered him was enough to keep him from complaining. There weren’t many other places on the ship where he could read in peace. Now, if only he could actually find something good to read…

Mote glanced toward the door, contemplating going on another reading material scavenging hunt, but he eventually decided against it. The more time he spent wandering the corridors, the more likely it became that he would run into someone like Kate, or Kirstin, or Saito, or Rabine — anyone who would want to seize his attention and waste his whole afternoon. Ever since docking Raenaros in Genesis’s fighter bay and disembarking, it seemed as though everyone around him wanted nothing more than to question him about his abilities, the Corvette, or his armor, and he was tired of it. He did nothing special to end up where he was now; why couldn’t anyone else see that?

As he continued his introspection, the corners of his mouth turned down in unease. It was true that he did nothing special in regards to anything, but even he could admit that something didn’t add up. For some reason, the Aldredas technology favored him. For some reason, he could use his powers in Dead Space. And for some reason… Telregina seemed to have recognized him.

 

((That armor… and that weapon… …I see… so this is where you went. This… explains a lot.))

The hell are you talking about?

((You don’t know? Interesting…))

 

The memory of his brief exchange with the Drakkar Faction Leader crossed Mote’s mind. Somehow, she seemed to recognize him — or at least, she thought she had. He could see how she might recognize his armor; it was Aldredian, after all, and the Drakkars had once been mortal enemies of the Aldredas. But that didn’t explain how she seemed to recognize him, or why she expected him to know what she was talking about. It must have something to do with the Aldredas, given Telregina’s remarks while retreating. And as much as Mote loathed to admit it, it was true that Aldredian technology seemed to be favoring him for some reason. But why? Could the reason Telregina recognized him have anything to do with his odd ability to control Aldredian technology? Damn it. Before the Quake a few weeks ago, everything was perfectly fine. Everything made sense, everything was normal. Now, ever since my damned vision… I have more questions and attention than ever before. I wish I had never said anything to the Director…

A sudden knock on his door ripped him out of his thoughts. Mote! came a female voice from the other side, are you in there?

Mote sighed wearily. He knew it was only a matter of time before someone came straight to his quarters to demand his attention, but at least this time it was only Danielle. Come in, he eventually called out.

Danielle promptly burst through the door, her waist cloak fluttering behind her. She snapped her head around the room, rapidly scanning for Mote before jumping over to him and nearly shoving her face into his while wearing a giant grin. Mote! Wanna play basketball?

Basket— what? Basketball? Mote responded incredulously as he impulsively drew back from Danielle.

Yeah! Major Hackett’s gonna show the Black Suns how to play basketball, but she needs some teammates, and that means us!

Us? Where the hell is the rest of CSF-1?

Saito and Luke are there, but Kirstin doesn’t wanna play. Neither does Kate… Danielle frowned as she trailed off, but then shook her head and resumed smiling. Mark and I volunteered, but I thought I’d see if you wanted to play, too!

I don’t.

Aw, c’mon, Mote! It’ll be fun!

I said no.

Danielle drooped her head, puffed out her lips, and gave Mote the best puppy-dog eyes she could muster. Pleeaase?

Mote scowled. Why the hell do you want to play with me? You know I’m not a sports guy.

Yeah, but… Danielle averted her eyes. …It’s just, you know, ever since the Quake a few weeks ago, everyone’s been so on edge. You especially. And, like, we haven’t had a lot of chances to spend time together, either. I mean, you, me, Mark, Kate, all together — the last time we hung out was, like, forever ago! I thought if I could make that happen again, it’d make everyone feel better…

Mote stared at her with pursed lips, remaining silent for several moments. Eventually, he replied, I… appreciate the thought. But even if I went along, you said yourself that Kate wouldn’t be there, so you still wouldn’t have everyone.

Oh. Well, actually… Danielle glanced around, as if looking for prying eyes, and then continued in a whisper, don’t tell her I said this, but what she actually said was— she momentarily transformed into a perfect clone of Kate — blond hair, red bandana, and all — as she quoted, ’if you can convince that special dumbass bastard to help me out with this stupid armor, then I’ll consider playing.’

Of course she said that… look, unless Saito orders me to, I’m not going anywhere near Kate’s research station.

Yeah, that’s what I thought… Danielle replied, her voice and appearance back to her black-haired self. …Is there anything I can do to convince you to come?

Mote shook his head. Not as long as we’re playing against the Black Suns. Certainly not against their Commander.

“Oh? I wasn’t aware I had left such a poor impression.”

What—! Mote snapped his gaze toward the room’s doorway, where Commander Rabine now stood, her arms crossed.

She nodded toward him. “Hi.”

What are you doing here? Mote exclaimed as he jumped to his feet.

Don’t worry, Mote, she just wants to play ball with the rest of us, Danielle commented cheerfully.

…She what?

“I also wanted to talk with you,” Rabine remarked. “SERRCom and the Black Suns are supposed to be working together on this mission, are we not? I simply wanted to get to know my fellow squad commanders better. You are the leader of a team in SERRCom, aren’t you?”

Tch…! Mote scowled in irritation. There are proper channels for ‘chats’, you know.

“And you’ve made yourself rather difficult to reach through all of them.”

I’d think that should be sign enough that I don’t want to talk.

“Just a quick chat… that’s all I’m asking. Then I will keep out of your way for the rest of the mission.”

The two stared at each other for a couple moments. Mote couldn’t help but feel suspicious of the Commander, if for no other reason than the fact that she was a member of a military that wasn’t officially allied with SERRCom — and had even attempted to steal artifacts from right under SERRCom’s nose. But he also knew that trying to dodge her attention, in addition to Kate and Saito, over the next two or three days could be more trouble than it was worth. Besides… this might actually be my best chance to learn more about the Black Suns, and perhaps even exactly what they’re after. If nothing else, I can at least get her off my back, once and for all…

Mote…?

He glanced over at Danielle, who offered him a worried look. …It’s fine, he commented slowly. Don’t worry about me. Go have fun with the others.

She looked at Rabine and then turned back to Mote. …Are you sure you don’t want to play with us?

Yes, Danielle, I’m sure.

Aw… She sighed, but then turned on her heel and bounced out of the room. Well, talk to you later, Mote!

Rabine and Mote both watched her leave before turning back to face each other. “Interesting team you have,” Rabine remarked.

You could say that… Mote shook his head wearily and then sat down in his chair. Alright. You said you wanted to talk. Is this about what happened in Dead Space, again?

“No. Not directly, at least.” The Commander moved to casually lean against the door, holding it open. “…If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”

…What?

“I’m just curious. You look young, is all.”

We aren’t even the same race. How would you know?

“Earthians and Citans aren’t that different,” Rabine countered. “We look the same. We have approximately the same life expectancy… relative to the difference between we Citans and the Siions or Dra’kis, at least.”

The last I checked, the modern life expectancy on Earth is around 100 years, Mote replied. But I have no idea what that translates to in Citan time.

“69 years or so, by the calendar of the Citan Homeworld. Or 121 years, if you go by SGT.”

SGT…?

“’Standardized Galactic Time’. 300 days in a year. Any interstellar communication in the CSA or Black Suns is done using SGT. You didn’t know that?”

No, I knew that, I was just… thrown off for a moment. SERRCom doesn’t use SGT, after all.

“Yes, I’m aware. But don’t think that I haven’t noticed that you still haven’t answered my original question.”

Mote scowled. So it’s going to be like this, huh? Hmph. I’m 22 years old. Earthian years, of course. And you?

“I’m 48, in SGT. Which works out to 40 years old on your calendar, I believe.”

Huh…? How did you work that out so quickly?

Rabine flashed a smirk. “I’m a Citan. We’re known for our mental acuity.”

Right…

“22, though, huh? That’d make you 26 in SGT. Not the youngest squad commander I’ve known, I suppose, but you’re still more powerful than most Chaotics I’ve seen. And you seem to have a decent amount of skill, at that.”

What’s your point? You aren’t here to offer me a job, are you?

Rabine shrugged. “Would you take it?”

Of course not, Mote replied curtly. I’m a member of SERRCom, first and foremost.

“The offer would apply after your current term is up, of course.”

Tch. The Black Suns don’t accept Earthians, anyways.

“Only because no Earthians have applied,” Rabine countered. “Or rather, no qualified Earthians have applied. But there’s no actual rule against Earthians joining us… you just have to prove that you’re valuable.”

So the Black Suns will take just anyone, then?

“If they’re qualified, yes. We don’t care about your background or your origins, so long as you have what it takes to get the job done. Loyalty is a bonus, but not entirely required.”

Aren’t the Black Suns primarily a Chaotic group? How does that even work, if every nation in the galaxy engages in Chaotic conscription?

“The Black Suns, as well as any other private military that wants to legally hire Chaotics, have to negotiate a charter with the CSA and the Nimalian Union that basically says that we are ultimately beholden to their decisions and loyalties, and in exchange, we’re allowed to hire Chaotics out of their militaries.”

How does that benefit the CSA in any way? I’d think they’d want to hold on to all their Chaotics…

“I don’t think you understand the value groups like the Black Suns offer to the governments of this galaxy,” Rabine remarked, her tone carrying a hint of cynicism. “As long as private militaries exist, the governments can contract us to discreetly do their dirty work and pretend they were never involved. And in terms of Chaotics… well, everyone knows that Chaotics are legally required to be on a military’s payroll. Allowing Chaotics to join up with PMCs like the Black Suns, Light Keepers, or Chaos Knights gives them the illusion of choice that prevents them from directing their ire at their own government, while still keeping them engaged with a trained military that can keep their powers under control.”

Mote eyed the Commander uneasily. …That sounds a lot like pure speculation.

“Of course it is. You’d never hear anyone from the CSA or Nimalian Union admit anything I just said. But it’s obvious to anyone who takes the time to examine galactic politics, or even just the history of the major PMCs. Almost every one of them was born out of a festering Chaotic rebellion, Black Suns included.”

That doesn’t exactly sound like a sustainable long-term solution.

Rabine smirked, but the look in her eyes conveyed a sense of frustration rather than amusement. “You would think that, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, Chaotic ‘education’ begins early. Before Chaotics even reach puberty, they’re shunted off to government boarding schools to learn how to ‘control their powers’. Citans, Siions, Dra’kis, Nimalians. Even the Syraus and Riaxen. Every last one of them.”

I take that to mean you went to such a school, as well?

“I did. A well-off school back on Citici, the Citan Homeworld. Then I did a few terms for the Citan military before being recruited by the Black Suns… and here I’ve been, ever since.”

Mote simply nodded along. …I thought she wanted to talk to me, but all she’s been doing is ranting about how the galaxy treats Chaotics. Why talk to me about that? Does she think I’d understand what she’s talking about, just because I’m also a Chaotic? …Now that I think about it, this is the first chance I’ve had in a long time to talk to a non-Earthian Chaotic. Hmm. Mark would say that this is a great learning opportunity. Maybe I should think like that…

“What about you?”

Huh? Me? Mote passed the Commander a surprised look. What do you mean?

“I meant, how do the Earthians handle their Chaotics?” Rabine clarified. “You’re clearly in the military, so that much is the same as the rest of us.”

There’s only a handful of us. Of course we’d be working for SERRCom. Mote looked down at his hand, allowing sparks to briefly run down his fingers. …Allowing this kind of power to simply walk the streets is dangerous, especially so when there’s less than ten of us. SERRCom is the only organization that can keep us in check.

The Commander pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes as she stared at Mote. “…Do you really believe that?”

Of course I do, Mote replied with a scowl. Why the hell would I say it if I didn’t?

Rabine stared at Mote for another couple moments; just as he began to feel uneasy, she glanced away and shrugged. “Fair enough. You’re certainly powerful, though. I take it you’ve been honing your abilities for a while?”

You could say that…

“Who taught you?”

If you’re asking if I had a Chaotic mentor or something like that, then I didn’t. As far as I know, the Eximius Vir were Earth’s first Chaotics.

“Really? What about your parents?”

Never knew them.

“Oh… that’s unfortunate.” Rabine looked off to the side as Mote regarded her with mild irritation. The awkward silence hung in the air for another couple moments before the Commander turned back to him and asked, “what about Colonel Saito? How long have you known him?”

…A while now… Mote looked down at his hands again, thinking back to his first meeting with Colonel Saito.

 

“Well then, Mote,” the man eventually replied as he held his hand out, palm up, as if gesturing for Mote to grasp it. “I’m Kaji Saito. You can just call me Saito.” His smile deepened into a grin. “Nice to meet you!”

 

The memory was brief, but enough to bring a slight smile to Mote’s face. At the time, he had no familiarity with either man who had entered the room on that fateful day; it wouldn’t be until later that he came to know them as Matthew Lead and Kaji Saito, the first man to offer Mote a sincere smile — and the first adult to remain in their lives for longer than a year. Mote couldn’t help but release an amused snort as it occurred to him that Saito had at one point been taller than all of the Eximius Vir. Nowadays, the entirety of his five feet and nine inches put him level with Danielle alone; Kate, Mark, and Mote were all taller.

But then Mote shook his head of the thoughts; he hadn’t the time nor the disposition to be reminiscing over events fifteen years in his past. Saito may have been his father figure at one point, but now he was his military commander. There was no room for sentimentality. Why do you ask? Mote questioned, turning his attention back to Rabine.

“Heartless though it may sound, you aren’t exactly alone in being a Chaotic orphan,” Rabine replied. “In fact, many Chaotics have accidentally caused the death of their parents through the course of discovering their powers. A lot of those Chaotics go on to develop attachments to their mentors in whatever military they wind up in.”

And you thought I’d done the same with the Colonel?

“I was curious, at least.”

That doesn’t sound like a very tactful question to ask someone you barely know.

Rabine shrugged. “Is it not? As I said, it’s not uncommon among Chaotics. It’s not exactly something to be ashamed of, or to keep secret.”

What a surprise, that our different cultures would consider different things to be tactful.

“Fair enough. Someone had to have taught you about being a Chaotic, though, surely?”

Saito helped at the start… a little. But the Eximius Vir and I ultimately had to learn on our own. We’ve had over five years to practice using our abilities in the field, anyways.

“Over five years? Hmm… how long have you had your powers, then? Chaotics everywhere else in the galaxy discover their powers before they reach puberty. Is it the same for Earthians?”

I… guess? Mote passed Rabine a confused glance. Look, as I said, the Eximius Vir were Earth’s first Chaotics, and there aren’t many of us in total. I don’t know the details about how this works.

Rabine responded with an incredulous stare. “Really? You don’t know if you developed your powers before puberty? I was under the impression that puberty was a fairly obvious process in every race, both physically and mentally. Are Earthians different?”

Well… no. When you put it like that, yes, I found out that I could control electricity before I was ten.

“I see. And just what did your education cover? You clearly know some of the basics, like how to handle CENT fields, and you’re rather good at controlling your powers. What about the more disastrous material? How did you handle your first berserk episode?”

…Berserk episode?

Rabine stared at Mote again, this time in surprise. “Have you never gone berserk?”

Mote frowned. He was familiar with the idea of Chaotics going berserk; he knew that it had something to do with the misuse of a Chaotic’s powers and that it could be incredibly devastating, but now that he thought about it — it occurred to him that neither he nor any of the other Eximius Vir had ever gone berserk. …No, I haven’t, he eventually replied. Why, is that strange?

“For someone with your level of power? Absolutely,” Rabine replied emphatically. “Most young, powerful Chaotics only get to be that powerful by experiencing repeated trauma in their childhoods, trauma that often drives them berserk. Chaotics who were never forced to their extremes rarely develop the level of power that you have. Not at your age, at least.”

Really…

“Now I have to ask. Do you even have an Overdrive?

Mote eyed Rabine warily. Overdrives were a special ability that a Chaotic could unlock and activate to generate unique effects or otherwise boost their power for a brief period of time. As Mote saw it, there was value in keeping the actual nature of one’s Overdrive secret — knowledge is power, after all. But activating an Overdrive required verbally calling out its name, and even a partial invocation carried with it a minor echo-like distortion to the user’s voice — as had just happened with Rabine’s voice. Either intentionally, or through carelessness, Rabine had just informed Mote that she had an Overdrive of her own, without ever explicitly saying as much. Why is she being so candid? Are Overdrives so common among the Black Suns that she simply assumed I thought she had one to start with?

“Well?” the Commander prodded, snapping Mote out of his thoughts, “do you?”

…I do, Mote cautiously replied.

“I see… interesting. What does it do?”

I’ll tell you if you tell me about yours.

“Ah…” Rabine smirked. “I suppose I should’ve expected this level of suspicion. It’s fairly common for inexperienced Chaotics to assume that keeping their Overdrive a secret would somehow give them an edge in a future battle.”

Inexperienced? Mote scowled. I didn’t agree to have this ‘chat’ just so you could talk down to me. What was even the point of this conversation, anyways? I thought you wanted to learn something about SERRCom, not just have idle chat about what it means to be a Chaotic.

“I did, and I have. Well… I do have a couple more questions.”

Which are?

“If I understand Earthian culture correctly, you don’t consider an adolescent to be an adult until they’ve reached 18 years of age, at which point they’re old enough to vote, join the military, pay taxes, hold a job, etc etc. Correct?”

Correct…

“And child labor and child soldiers both are taboo?”

…Not universally, but in most of the world, yes…

“I see. Now then… let’s imagine a hypothetical world in which four of SERRCom’s most powerful and well-known members were actually pressed into service as adolescents. I wonder how the people of Earth might react if they learned this information?”

Mote stared at Rabine, his mouth slightly agape. The past several minutes raced through his mind as he searched for a slip-up in any of his responses — for Rabine’s supposed hypothetical was, in fact, the truth, and the knowing smirk on her face suggested she knew as much. The Eximius Vir had been a part of SERRCom ever since they discovered their Chaotic abilities nearly fifteen years ago, and had even gone on secret missions with CSF-1 when they were as young as 15 years old. Much had changed about SERRCom in that time, including its leadership and the composition of CSF-1, but Saito and Hackett both had participated in the missions. Mote, Mark, Danielle, Kate, Saito, Hackett; they all refused to speak of their pre-age of majority missions, for a number of reasons — one of which being the scandal that could result from the public learning that SERRCom had readily conscripted minors and deployed them in the field. Shit! I let my guard down. Damn it, she even opened with asking how old I was! How did I not see this coming? Stupid, stupid, stupid!

“I suppose I’ll just leave you to think about that, then,” Rabine eventually commented when Mote failed to respond. She pushed off of the door and turned to leave. “I’ll be joining the joint exercise now. Care to join me? It’d be a shame for this exercise to be missing members from SERRCom’s flagship team.”

You…! Mote started, but wasn’t sure how to finish. The Commander’s comment sounded an awful lot like a threat, but at the same time, she was talking about a mere game of basketball. His frustration with himself clouded his ability to think — and his frustration turned into dread when he realized that he would have to inform Saito about his misstep. As it was, playing a game he didn’t like was the absolute least of his worries. …Fine, he admitted begrudgingly. I’ll play ball.

Rabine smiled. “Good! Team-building exercises always work best when the teams actually attend. Now let’s not keep everyone else waiting.”

Yes… Mote muttered as he followed Rabine out of the room. There was little he could do now but play along, whatever that could entail…

*     *     *

“Alright everyone, listen up! I’d prefer not to have to explain things twice!”

Mote watched from the sidelines as Major Hackett stepped up to the middle of one of Genesis’s sports gyms, casually spinning a basketball on her finger the whole time. The gym was just large enough for a basketball court, with a blank floor onto which holographic images of floor markings could be projected. As a sports gym, the crew of Genesis could use the room for a number of different athletic activities, some more fitting to the size than others — and Hackett’s go-to was always basketball.

A quick survey of the room resulted in a head count of fourteen: all four members of the Eximius Vir, Colonel Saito, Major Hackett, Captain Travis, Commander Rabine, and six other Black Suns soldiers. Mote couldn’t quite decide if the Black Suns looked more or less intimidating when out of their armor and wearing gym clothing — as their short sleeves and shorts made it obvious that many of them wore some kind of cybernetic prosthetic. He knew already that joining the Black Suns required replacing one of your arms with a general-purpose military-grade cybernetic prosthetic, but some of the soldiers had prosthetics on both of their arms, or an arm and a leg. A large Siion man in the back even seemed to have armor plating integrated directly into his body and grafted onto his skin, covering his shoulders and dual-knee legs in a manner than indicated that he was permanently prepared for the apocalypse to arrive at any moment. To the less discerning eye, the Black Suns might seem to be a team of disadvantaged war veterans… but the truth was that their prosthetics carried a number of hidden weapons, integrated energy shielding, advanced computers, and other technologies that made their artificial appendages function better than a biological one ever could, while also making the soldier a formidable combatant even without their standard weapons or armor.

Mote couldn’t help but stand on edge in the face of such blatant reminders that the Black Suns were always ready for war, but at least he didn’t have to bother playing the first round. According to Hackett, Basketball worked best with teams of five, and by the time Mote arrived the SERRCom team had already been filled by the members of CSF-1, Danielle, and Mark. Kate and himself stood off to the side, merely watching as Hackett dribbled her basketball a couple times and caught it in her hands.

“The basic rules are simple,” Hackett explained as she swept her eyes across the Black Suns team, which consisted of Commander Rabine, two other Citan soldiers, and two soldiers with the thick-legged two-knee stature representative of the Siions and Dra’kis. “The goal of this game is to get this ball through the hoop of the opposing team—” She gestured at the netted hoop attached to the wall behind her, and then at the other attached to the opposite wall behind the Black Suns. “—While keeping them from getting it through yours. You can throw the ball, you can jump and try to dunk it, whatever works. However, when you’re moving across the court, you can’t just hold the ball in your hands. That’s called ‘traveling’, and it’s against the rules! Instead, you have to dribble it along the ground, like so.” Hackett began dribbling the basketball, easily keeping it by her side as she casually jogged back and forth along the half-court line. “Simple enough, right?”

The Black Suns soldiers glanced amongst each other before returning their attention to Hackett and nodding with varying levels of enthusiasm. I wonder if Rabine forced them into this, as well Mote thought to himself.

Hackett ceased dribbling and held the ball in her hands as she continued, “alright. You can’t kick the ball, either; you can only handle it with your hands. And one last thing: try to keep physical contact with each other to a minimum! Hitting, or tackling, or anything like that counts as a foul, and the fouled player immediately gets the ball.” She paused for a moment, seemingly in thought. “…There’s more rules than that for an official game, but for a basic one, I think we’re fine. Now then!” The Major broke into a grin. “Who’s ready for the first ever SERRCom-Black Suns game of b-ball?”

“I assume our Chaotic abilities are off-limits, as well?” Rabine questioned.

“…Uh… well, yeah.” Hackett passed the Commander a dumbfounded look, as though she thought the answer obvious. She then passed the ball to Rabine, who caught it easily. “I’ll let you guys have the ball first. Just to give you a chance.”

“Just to give us a chance…?” The Commander raised a questioning eyebrow, and then glanced at the four soldiers standing behind her. From where Mote stood, he couldn’t see what expression she wore on her face when she turned around, but the rest of her team each nodded simultaneously. What is she up to…?

“Alright, then!” Hackett backed up a few steps and glanced back at Saito, Travis, Danielle, and Mark, each responding with a nod of acknowledgment. The Major then turned to face Rabine again and clapped her hands. “We’ll start on a count of three. One, two, three!”

The moment the word left her mouth, Rabine chucked the ball behind her, bouncing it on the ground once before being caught by the Siion soldier; then, just as Mote realized that both of his legs were prosthetic, he leaped into the air from the three-point line, sailed over the heads of Hackett, Saito, and Mark, and then slammed the ball into the net with little issue.

“How’s that for a ‘chance’?” Rabine questioned, a self-amused smirk plastered across her face.

“Oh c’mon, that’s clearly cheatin’,” Travis countered. “The Major said no Chaotic abilities!”

“I didn’t use any,” the Siion retorted as he shoved past Travis on his way back to Rabine. “That was pure Siion jumping power.”

Boosted by your dumbass prosthetics! Kate shouted from the sideline.

“That may be true,” Rabine replied, “but I don’t recall the rules outlawing augmentation boosts.”

Mote pursed his lips and shook his head. Now they’re rules lawyers? And we’re supposed to trust these guys?

“Alright, alright…” Hackett sighed. “…Is it possible for you to, uh… turn down your ‘augmentation boosts’?”

Rabine glanced back at her soldiers, holding her thumb out sideways and then pointing downward with her index finger. Each of the Black Suns soldiers nodded in response, at which point the Commander turned back to face Hackett. “Done.”

But you didn’t actually do anything…? Danielle questioned with a confused look on her face.

“Our prosthetics are linked to a neural interface. We don’t have to physically interact with them to change such a trivial setting.” Rabine then pointed at Danielle’s right arm. “I trust you’ve done the same?”

Danielle glanced down at her arm, which currently bore the appearance of a robotic prosthetic, as usual. Oh, this is just for show, Danielle replied as she momentarily transformed her arm into a normal biological one, and then transformed it back. No extra boosts here!

“I see.” The Commander then glanced at Hackett again. “Perhaps you should start with the ball this time?”

“Are you sure?” the Major responded, “this is our sport, after all. Hardly seems fair to have us start with the advantage on otherwise neutral ground.”

“Very well.” Rabine held out her hands as Hackett threw the ball her way. She caught it and dribbled it once before firmly grabbing hold. “Ready when you are.”

“Alright! On three, again. One, two… three!”

The Commander began moving forward, slowly bouncing the ball as Hackett and Travis advanced toward her. Just as Hackett closed to within a foot, Rabine spun around and passed the ball to one of the Citans behind her. He easily grabbed the ball and began running forward, dodging past Saito and moving toward the basket — only for Mark to move up on him. Confronted with the sight of a massive man well over six feet tall, the Citan doubled back and passed the ball through the air to the other Citan. Travis jumped to intercept the pass, snatching the ball out of midair and then rushing forward around the left side of the court, dribbling with his left hand in an attempt to keep the ball away from the Black Suns. As he moved up on the three-point line, he jumped and made a shot at the basket — which one of the Siions intercepted. She immediately chucked the ball at Rabine, who stood in center court, but just as Rabine turned toward the other half of the court, Hackett swooped in and deftly stole the ball mid-dribble. She dodged around one of the Citans and then passed the ball to Travis to evade the guarding Siion, but just as the Siion turned toward Travis, he threw the ball back to Hackett, bouncing it along the ground under the Siion’s crotch. Hackett grabbed the ball and immediately leaped toward the basket, aiming for a dunk — only for the Siion to fully extend her legs, boosting her height by almost two feet and simply snatching the ball out of Hackett’s grasp. Startled by the move, Travis and Hackett both were completely unable to react as the Siion threw the ball in a high arc to Rabine in the left-center court, who then immediately passed the ball to the other Siion, who stood next to Mark under the SERRCom basket. Mark quickly attempted to interdict, but the Siion simply extended his legs to bypass even Mark’s incredible height and easily deposit the ball in the basket.

“Aw, c’mon!” Travis complained, “that’s just not fair, man!”

“Ah, cut it out, Captain,” Saito responded airily. “Everyone knows height is an advantage in this game.”

Mote couldn’t help but snort in amusement; Saito may have been average height for an adult Earthian man, but he was still easily one of the shortest players on the court, tied only with Danielle and Rabine.

“Still, though…” Hackett retrieved the ball and returned to half court, where Rabine was standing. “For a game you guys only just learned how to play, that was pretty good.”

“Don’t give us too much credit,” Rabine countered. “The Siions have a similar game. The bouncing the ball part is a novel addition, but otherwise, this just feels like a modified version of Bombshell.”

Travis snorted. “Bombshell? The hell is that?”

“You hold a bomb,” one of the Siions spoke up. “You try to get bomb into hole of other team. Losing team explodes.”

“…Is the idea behind it,” the other Siion quickly added. “No one plays with actual bombs, of course. Not since Unification, at least.”

The Captain’s amused smirk disappeared. “…Oh.”

“Now that we all properly know what we’re up against…” Rabine looked toward Hackett. “Another round?”

“It wouldn’t be a game if we stopped so soon,” Hackett remarked with a grin, and then gestured toward Saito and Danielle. “Hey, Colonel, Danielle, why don’t you switch out with Mote and Kate?”

“That eager to be rid of me, eh, Major?” Saito quipped, but nonetheless moved toward the sidelines.

“Apologies, sir,” Hackett replied, “but you said it yourself; height matters.”

Great… Mote muttered under his breath as he tentatively stepped onto the court — and then winced as he felt a blow to his back. The hell—?

Quit your bitchin’! Kate jogged past him, having just heartily slapped him on the back. If I have to be here, then so do you, dumbass!

Mote simply sighed in response. He had no inclination for sports, but somehow, he found himself dragged into Hackett’s games far more often than he’d like. Just one round. After that, I should be able to leave without anyone complaining His gaze lingered momentarily on Commander Rabine. …I need to talk to Saito, soon…

“One, two, go!”

The echoing sound of a bouncing basketball ripped Mote out of his thoughts as Hackett rushed forward with the ball, dodging around Rabine and one of the Citan soldiers behind her. Mote cautiously began moving up, leaving Mark to guard the basket as he began searching for a hole in the Black Suns’ defenses. He tracked the ball across the court, as a Citan stole it from Hackett and passed it over to the male Siion, who brought it up the court past Kate and shot it toward the SERRCom basket — only for Mark to intercept. He then passed the ball around the Siion, sending it straight to Mote. Ah, crap Mote muttered internally as he grabbed the ball and began moving up the court, dribbling the ball slowly the whole way. One of the Citans made a pass at him, so he juked left and then bolted to the right, managing to evade him — and then get the ball stolen right out from under him by Rabine. She promptly passed to the Citan behind Mote, so he spun around and quickly moved to interpose himself between the Citan and the basket. Seeing that Mote was a fairly sizable blocking agent, the Citan moved to pass the ball back across the court; Mote immediately seized the opening to snatch the ball out of the air and break past both the Citan and Rabine. He then threw the ball over one of the Siions and into Travis’s hands, who managed to dodge past the other Citan soldier before running into the wall that was the Siion guarding the Black Suns basket. Travis moved to shoot anyways, and the Siion prepared to intercept, but instead Travis chucked the ball behind him and straight at Kate. She fumbled the receive, allowing Rabine to snatch the ball away from her and drive toward the opposite end of the court, only for Kate to dash up behind her and angrily smack the ball out of her hands.

“Watch it!” Hackett shouted from across the court, but Mote didn’t bother to stop. An opening was an opening, so he quickly grabbed the unclaimed ball and hurled it across the court at the Major. He could almost see her eyes widen in surprise from half the court away, but she still managed to deftly catch the ball and then shoot it into the Black Suns’ basket, cleanly sinking it before the Black Suns could react.

“Alright!” Travis whooped, “there we go!”

“Hmm…” Rabine passed a glance toward Kate. “…Aggressive play.”

Well it worked, didn’t it, bitch?! Kate retorted haughtily.

“Kate!” Hackett spoke sharply as she approached from the other side of the court. “Behave yourself! And show some sportsmanship.”

“It’s fine,” Rabine replied. “Competition in the Black Suns is common, and it can be far fiercer than this.”

Still, I prefer to keep my games friendly. Hackett began spinning the ball on her finger as she glanced back at the Black Suns. Up for more?

“Actually, Major, I’m afraid I’ll have to cut this short,” Saito interjected. He stepped up to Hackett and Rabine before passing Kate and Mote a glance. “Kate, Mote, a quick word.”

The hell…? Mote frowned as he followed the Colonel out of the room. Behind him, he heard Hackett trying to convince the Black Suns to stick around for a smaller four vs four game, but basketball was the least of his worries now. He glanced over at Kate; she caught his glance, and returned it with a shrug. Even she doesn’t know what’s going on, huh…

Once outside of the gym, Mote noticed that Kirstin was standing in the hallway with a worried look on her face — or at least, more worried than was usual. Saito waited for the doors to close before beckoning for Mote and Kate to come closer.

The hell is this all about? Kate questioned irately. Thanks for dragging me out of the game, but what’s with all the fucking cloak and dagger?

“Quiet,” Saito ordered, and then lowered his voice as he turned to Kirstin. “Alright. Tell them what you just told me.”

“…I-it…” Kirstin paused and glanced up and down the hallway, as if worried that the group might fall under fire at any moment. “It’s the, um, th-the Raenaros…”

What?… Mote’s frown transformed into a scowl. What is it? Don’t tell me you need my help again.

“N-no. Not quite… i-it’s just…” She stopped to take another breath before finally finishing, “…it’s… i-it’s eating the Genesis.”