Chapter 4 – Black Ops

2 Days Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ha! I think you’ll be disappointed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“U-uh… r-right…” Kirstin muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

10 Minutes Later

“Who the hell do you think you are?!”

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

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

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

“Tch…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s classified information,” Triiant declared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes sir! Mote saluted.

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

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

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

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

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

“We are not—!”

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

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

Mote sighed and rolled his eyes. Kate, really?

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

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

You guys literally fucking invaded our territory!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m aware. But even so…”

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

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

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

We won’t know until we’ve tried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read Aldredian? Mote questioned.

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

…What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“’Kai’.”

…That’s simpler than I was expecting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ow! Fuck!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A woman with red hair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is what I just said, Mote retorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose so…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mote stared at her incredulously. Thinking it? What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A second passed — and then two. Nothing happened.

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

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

Me? Doing something wrong—?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some suggestion, Kate snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over a hundred thousand years’ worth of generations?

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

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

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

Why the hell are you complaining about this?

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

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

 

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