Chapter 1 – The First Clue
— Sunday, September 25, AD 2129 —
“…go, roku… kyuu… juichi, juni, jusan…”
A middle-aged man with light skin peered through a pair of binoculars, staring through the underbrush around him as he quietly counted under his breath. Several seconds passed before he finally put the binoculars down, moving slowly so as to not give away his position. Then he reached up to his ear piece and tapped it once, activating his communicator before speaking quietly, “I count fifteen. Travis, Thatcher, can you verify?”
A moment of silence passed. Then a male voice responded over the communicator. «Yes sir, I count fifteen bogeys.»
«As do I,» a woman’s voice chimed in.
“Good. Travis, you and Thatcher keep a look out. Tell me if they move, or if more appear.”
«Got it, Colonel. Keep in touch.»
The man exhaled warily. He then slowly crawled backwards, down the gradual slope of the hill he was laying on. Once he was sure it was safe, he climbed to his feet and crouch-walked his way through several meters of heavy underbrush, his hands clutching at his gun the whole time. As he navigated through the bushes and trees, he passed by a small puddle, stopping momentarily to investigate his reflection and fix his tousled black hair. He frowned as he noticed the developing wrinkles around his eyes, but quickly shook the concern from his mind. He was Colonel Kaji Saito, after all — the commanding officer of Chaotic Support Fireteam 1. He had more important things to worry about.
About half a minute after returning to walking through the underbrush, Saito emerged in a small cleared-out area, in which five other soldiers sat, each of them dressed in full field gear: fatigues with forest camouflage, gauss rifles, pistols, and a set of high-tech gauntlets and greaves that generated personal energy shields for protection. Once they realized the Colonel had returned, all but one of them immediately stood at attention.
“Colonel!” A tall woman with a dark complexion saluted. A camouflaged baseball cap covered most of her black hair, which was tied back in a short ponytail. Over her right breast pocket was a small patch that listed her name: Rachel Hackett.
“Major.” Saito nodded toward her in acknowledgment, and then turned toward the one man who hadn’t stood up. “…Lazy as ever, Miles?”
“Ha,” the dark-skinned man snorted in response as he finally got to his feet. At just over six feet tall, he towered over everyone present, and his broad build simply made him appear even larger. Coupled with the shotgun he carried in place of a pistol and the numerous extra magazines clipped to his vest, he almost seemed to be an army all on his own. His chest patches described him as Colonel Miles Johnson, the leader of Fireteam Alpha — but he wore a casual demeanor that barely seemed fit for a combat operation. “Nice to see you back in one piece, Kaji.”
“This isn’t my first mission, you know. If anything, I should be the one worrying about you and your team.”
“He says to the most heavily armed man on the mission. Ha!” Johnson smirked.
“Sirs,” another man spoke up from the side, his expression one of exasperation. The patches on his uniform identified him as Major Viral Anand, though despite being of lower rank than the Colonels, he looked prepared to admonish them. “Is now really the time for this?”
“Anand’s right.” Major Hackett nodded in agreement. “We have a mission to complete, remember?”
“Relax, Hackett.” Saito waved for her and everyone else to crouch down as he did so himself. “Those Drakkars aren’t going anywhere any time soon, and if they do, then Travis will let us know.”
“How many are there?”
Saito sighed warily. “…Fifteen.”
“Fifteen? We can totally take on fifteen of those bastards!” A man with a helmet and a light complexion spoke up from the Colonel’s left. He wore on his face a youthful, eager grin, and on his chest a couple of patches that labeled him as Captain Li Feng. “Right, Colonel?” He elbowed Johnson eagerly.
“Don’t be overconfident,” Anand quickly admonished him. “Fifteen of any kind of combatant is a serious risk to face when there are only eight of us. And one of us isn’t even proper military!”
Everyone present reflexively glanced toward the remaining individual in the small clearing: a short young woman with pale skin, glasses, and shoulder-length brown hair covered in a large helmet. She carried no rifle, instead tightly grasping onto backpack straps that barely covered the patches on her chest, naming her as Researcher Kirstin MacTavish. “Uh…” She wilted under the gazes of the five soldiers in her presence. “I-I’m sorry?…”
Saito turned back to face Anand. “I’ll have you know that MacTavish has earned her place on this team. She’s faced more Drakkars in battle than you have!”
Anand responded with an incredulous stare as MacTavish continued to shrink away from the rest of the team.
“…Anyways, you’re right.” Saito sighed. “Fifteen Drakkars is a lot to take on.”
“You think it’s too much for us to take?” Johnson questioned, his previous casual demeanor replaced with a serious expression.
“We do have the element of surprise on our side, at least. And they seemed awfully absorbed in whatever it was they found, some kind of… overgrown structure. At least that part of the intel is correct.”
“We— we can’t leave,” MacTavish spontaneously protested, and then immediately shrunk again when attention returned to her. “I-I mean, th-the science team b-before us, th-they said there was, uh, a-an Aldredian artifact here. W-we can’t let the Drakkars get it!”
Saito pursed his lips in frustration. “You realize that this mission was kicked off by a vision, right?”
“Not just any vision, sir. Emerson’s vision,” Hackett interjected. “You know Mote as well as I do, Colonel, and he’d never come forward with something like this if he wasn’t sure of it.”
“Would’ve been nice for him to tag along, then,” Johnson remarked.
“I’m sure he’d like to be here as well, but the General had other plans.” Saito then shook his head to clear his thoughts. “We’re getting off track. MacTavish, are you sure this ‘artifact’ is worth facing off against fifteen Drakkars?”
“U-uh, w-well…” MacTavish looked away uneasily. “P-probably? I-I mean, if they’re interested, it h-has to be important… r-right?”
“Besides, it’s like you said, Colonel!” Feng spoke up eagerly, “we’ve got the element of surprise on our side! Plus, I’ve heard that Drakkars are real pushovers in ground combat. This should be a piece of cake!”
“Settle down, Captain, or you’ll just get yourself killed. Or worse,” Saito declared. “…But if MacTavish thinks it’s worth it, then we’re going through with this. Which means we need a plan.” He reached up and tapped his ear piece to reactivate his communicator. “Travis, Thatcher, you still there?”
«Yeah, still here,» a male voice replied over the communicators of everyone present. «So are the Drakkars. Doesn’t seem like they’ve noticed us.»
“Good. Are you in position for covering fire, Travis?”
«As much as you can call sniping ‘covering fire’, sure. The rookie’s shown herself to be a real good spotter, too.»
«I am not a rookie,» a female voice interjected.
«Regardless, we’re good to go, sir,» Travis declared. «You want me to start pickin’ ‘em off?»
“No, that’ll just cause them to bunker down and hole up. We need to draw them out first.”
Johnson grinned as he brandished his shotgun. “Sounds like a job for me an’ my team.”
“Yeah!” Feng exclaimed, “you can count on us, Colonel!”
“If you really knew what you were up against, you wouldn’t be so eager,” Saito retorted. He then glanced over at Johnson. “But it’s as good a plan as any. The Drakkars prefer to close into close combat whenever they can, so they can use their Ciei Theft ability. And when it comes to close range combat — I don’t think I know anyone who can use a Railshot quite like you can, Miles.”
“Glad to hear you think that,” Johnson replied with a smirk. “So, I’ll take Anand and Feng with me and pull the Drakkars out of position, then Travis’ll start takin’ ‘em out from afar. That right?”
“Right. I’ll stick with your team, as well. And once the Drakkars are distracted, Hackett and MacTavish can sneak in and grab what we came here for.” Saito nodded toward the two women. “Then we get the hell out of here.”
“Y-you want me t-to sneak behind th-the Drakkars…?” MacTavish questioned uneasily. “I, I don’t—”
“Relax, I’ll be there with you.” Hackett threw her arm around MacTavish’s shoulders in a reassuring gesture. “Just keep calm and quiet, and do everything I tell you, and you’ll be fine.”
“MacTavish, you’re the one who said we can’t let the Drakkars get their hands on this artifact,” Saito stated. “You’re also the only one who knows what to look for. Suck it up, you’ll be fine.”
The Researcher gulped and glanced down at the ground, but didn’t offer a verbal response.
“Alright…” The Colonel looked at his watch and then back at the forest behind him. “Hackett, you and MacTavish need to get into position first. There should be a blind spot about northeast from here; the Drakkars should never see you coming. Signal once you’re in position, and we’ll start the diversion. Understood?”
“Understood, sir.” Hackett saluted and then grasped her gauss rifle as she gestured for MacTavish to follow her. “We’ll be there ASAP.”
“Good.” Saito nodded as he watched the two women slink off into the underbrush. “Travis, you catch all that?”
«Loud and clear, Colonel,» the male voice replied over the communicator. «Don’t open fire ‘til y’all have drawn ‘em out, right?»
“That’s right, Captain,” Saito replied. He then looked over at Johnson, Anand, and Feng and gestured to his left. “We had better get in position as well. Let’s get to it.”
* * *
10 Minutes Later
«Nothin’ new, sir,» Travis replied. «Don’t think they’re onto us. Haven’t even spotted Hackett or MacTavish.»
“I’ll take that as a good sign,” Saito muttered as he peered through a pair of binoculars. Nearly half a kilometer away stood an old, crumbling building with a geometric architecture consisting of sharp lines and angles. The building itself stood no more than three stories tall, but its purpose was just as alien to Saito as its appearance; it seemed to resemble a modern art piece more than a military or research outpost. But the building wasn’t what truly interested the Colonel — his attention was focused on the several dark-skinned armored creatures standing all around it. Their heads and general body shape seemed similar to that of humans, but the similarities stopped there; these creatures’ bodies were significantly more lithe and frail in appearance, yet their demeanor was that of a predator, rather than prey. Their dark, beady eyes kept careful watch of their surroundings and contributed to their unsettling appearance, which was heavily exacerbated by their lack of mouths, noses, or ears. Combined with their digitigrade legs, prehensile tails, and a large number of thick, hair-like spines that extended back from their heads down to the middle of their backs, they truly appeared to be more beast than sapient creature. But Saito knew better — he had fought against the Drakkars before, and heard many more tales of others’ encounters. They weren’t to be underestimated.
What he remained wary about, however, was the white tattoo-like markings that each Drakkar bore on their skin. Between the markings and the fact that they had tails, Saito knew that these Drakkars were part of the Prolatio Drakkar faction — which was the faction seen least often outside of Drakkar space. Of the six Drakkar factions, the Prolatio were regarded as the most isolationist, and they rarely involved themselves in matters outside of their own territory. So what where they doing here…?
“Keep up the overwatch, Captain,” Saito eventually ordered. “I want to know the moment the situation changes. Got that, Travis?”
«That’ll be a piece of cake, Colonel, so long as you keep checkin’ in as often as you have.»
“Shut the hell up. Saito out.”
Johnson chuckled as he watched his fellow Colonel continue to stare through his binoculars. “Little on edge, huh?”
“I’m not ‘on edge,’ I’m being cautious. As you should be. We’re facing Drakkars, after all.”
“What’s so bad about Drakkars?” Feng questioned from the left of the two Colonels. “I’ve always heard that they’re pushovers in ground combat.”
“And where exactly did you hear that, Captain?” Anand interjected with a roll of his eyes. “You actually talk to someone who’s fought the Drakkars? Or did you just read that on the Relaynet?”
“The Captain isn’t completely incorrect,” Saito commented, “Drakkar foot soldiers aren’t exactly known for their martial ability. But they make up for it with advanced technology and numbers, and they can adapt to new situations quickly. Especially if they manage to lay their nasty little hands on one of their attackers.”
“You talkin’ about that weird soul-suckin’ thing they can do?” Johnson asked.
“I am. The official term is ‘Ciei Theft.’ Lay one hand on your chest or head, and they can steal your intelligence, thought patterns, creativity, the whole works. Pretty much the only thing they don’t get is your memories.”
Anand snorted. “Sounds ridiculous.”
“Sure it does, but it’s real.” Saito passed the Major a solemn glance. “If they lay their hands on just one member of an opposing force, then they can work out all of their enemy’s tactics and strategies in under a day. That kind of ability can cripple a war effort.”
“But we aren’t a battalion or anything, we’re just a strike force,” Feng countered. “That ‘Ciei’ thing doesn’t sound too dangerous to us.”
Saito turned to stare at Feng before glancing over at Johnson. “Miles, you sure you picked out these two yourself?”
“They just aren’t used to fightin’ Drakkars, that’s all,” Johnson replied before turning toward Feng. “Listen, son. Imagine having to live life without feelin’ anything on the inside. No emotions, no smarts, hell, not even the ability to actually imagine anything. Like you are now!”
“Well that’s what would happen to you if the Drakkars did their Ciei Theft thing on you. It’d turn you into a shell of your former self. Some might call that a fate worse than death.”
“Yeah, but if you aren’t dead then you can still recover,” Feng argued.
“Not from this,” Saito declared. “The only way to get your Ciei back is to kill the Drakkar that stole it, and good luck doing that when you just lost the ability to even think for yourself.”
“It still seems like a ridiculous thing to worry about,” Anand interjected. “For a Drakkar to be able to steal this ‘Ciei’, they’d have to be right next to you, and your armor’s shielding would have to be down. In that kind of situation, you’re as good as dead, anyways.”
Johnson glanced toward Saito. “He’s got a point.”
“Even so…” Saito returned to peering through his binoculars. “As I said earlier, the Drakkars have advanced tech. That includes weapons. Letting your guard down will only put yourself and the mission at risk.”
“Ah yes, the mission.” Anand rolled his eyes. “You mean the mission that we’ve embarked on because some kid had a vision?”
“Watch your tone.”
“Sorry, sir. But I still find the mission premise ridiculous.”
“It’s a little late to say that, Major. Besides, this mission comes straight from Director Hamasaki herself. And on top of that, MacTavish had a point: whatever’s here, the Drakkars seem to want it, so taking it from them could be well worth the risk.”
“Respectfully, sir, your use of the word ‘could’ is my entire problem.”
“Aw, c’mon, Major, it’s not that bad,” Feng spoke up. “We’ve got CSF-1 on our side! We can’t lose!”
“And normally, we’d have the Eximius Vir, as well.” Anand passed Saito a questioning glance. “Considering that they’re the reason we’re even on this mission, it seems ridiculous that they didn’t come with us. Just one of them could have wiped out all of those Drakkars by now.”
“The General wants them to stay on Earth, for now,” Saito slowly replied. “He also thought that this could be a good chance to try fighting the Drakkars without any Chaotic assistance. We can’t always rely on the Eximius Vir.”
“Yeah, we can totally handle this on our own,” Feng declared. “Stop being such a downer, Major! You’re always so pessimistic about everything.”
“A pessimist is what an optimist calls a realist,” Anand shot back. “You’re the one who’s too carefree, Captain. One day, that attitude is going to get you killed.”
“You always say that, but I’ve been a part of Fireteam Alpha for over a year now, and I’m still in one piece!”
“If we’re pulling veterency, then I’ve been a part of this team for over twice as long as you have. I think I know better than you.”
“Alright, how’s about a bet, then? If this mission goes off without a hitch, then you owe me a beer.”
“That’s bad luck to bet against the success of the mission,” Johnson interjected. “Tell you boys what. How’s about we settle this argument with a little kill contest?”
“I should’ve known you’d suggest this, Colonel,” Anand deadpanned.
“I’m totally down for it!” Feng grinned as he glanced back at Anand. “You just watch, Major! I’ll kill twice as many of those bastards as you!”
“Right. I’m sure you will.”
“Shush,” Saito cut in, drawing the attention of the other three men. “Chit-chat’s over. Hackett’s given her signal.”
The three promptly flattened themselves further against the hill bank they were laying on. While Anand and Feng brought their weapons to bear and began scanning the horizon, Johnson quietly whispered to Saito, “alright, how do you want to do this?”
Saito glanced over at Johnson’s shotgun, stating, “you’ve got the loudest gun.” Whereas most of the team’s weapons were gauss guns, Johnson’s shotgun was a railgun, allowing it to have a higher projectile momentum. Coupled with a larger bullet size, the projectiles of the so-called ‘Railshot’ would explosively impact their targets through sheer kinetic energy alone.
Johnson grinned. “I was hoping you’d say that.” He then glanced down at himself, and the armor pieces on his wrists, ankles, and chest. “Well, time to see how these personal shields hold up, huh?”
Saito watched the other Colonel slowly climb to his feet before gesturing for Anand and Feng to spread out. The two men promptly began sneaking through the forest underbrush as Johnson took aim with his Railshot. He stood a full half kilometer away from the Drakkar-infested building, but it was close enough — one pull of the trigger later, a small explosion could be seen in the distance, launching one of the Drakkars through the air.
“Ha ha!” Johnson whooped. “…I’d taunt ‘em, but I guess they wouldn’t hear me from here, huh?”
“You get way too much fun out of being a distraction,” Saito muttered, but quickly stood up and opened fire with his gauss rifle. Within moments, the Drakkars returned fire, bathing the environment around the two Colonels in a hail of laser fire.
Johnson grunted as a laser exploded against his chest, causing a shield of light to momentarily flicker into existence mere millimeters from his skin and clothing. He staggered backwards under the force of the blow, but when he glanced down at himself and saw no lasting damage, he grinned broadly.
“Don’t get carried away,” Saito barked. “The Drakkars have shield tech of their own. Try not to get hit!”
“As if you need to tell me that,” Johnson retorted as he took cover behind a nearby tree. Laser fire erupted against the ground and foliage around him as several of the Drakkars began to advance across the battlefield, taking unpredictable zig-zagging paths through the underbrush as the SERRCom officers continued to fire on them.
They took the bait. Good, Saito thought to himself as Johnson momentarily peeked out of cover to take aim with his Railshot, firing a single shot that obliterated a small tree one Drakkar was using for cover. Then — in an attempt to draw the Drakkars to a single point — Saito rushed forward, taking advantage of Anand and Feng opening fire from somewhere to the west to move while the Drakkars were distracted. He quickly took cover behind a thick tree and then opened fire again, raining bullets down on the Drakkars from afar and pulling their attention toward him. Several of them began to move in a wide flanking arc — but then one of the Drakkars was laid flat by an impact from the east. Startled, the flanking Drakkars scattered to avoid the new angle of fire, but not before another one fell to an unexpected bullet. Saito smirked to himself as he quickly reloaded his gun; Captain Travis’s sniping skills were second to none.
He then turned his attention back to Johnson, who stood nearly twenty meters away as he took cover behind a different tree and took potshots at the Drakkars, successfully flooring three of them with just as many trigger pulls. A few seconds later, the tree he was hiding behind exploded from an incoming laser blast, sending Johnson tumbling backwards along the ground. Saito promptly began laying down cover fire while the other Colonel recovered from the blow and crawled along the dirt to hide under a bush and reload his gun. Out the corner of his eye, Saito could see Anand and Feng exchanging fire with some Drakkars on the west side of the building, but most of the Drakkar force seemed to be concerned with either seeking out Travis’s sniping position or neutralizing Johnson’s Railshot — and to that end, they were steadily advancing on Saito and Johnson’s position.
“Guess I should’ve expected that their shields could take more than one hit from the Railshot, huh?” Johnson shouted to Saito.
“I warned you!” Saito shouted back over the sounds of battle and gunfire. He recoiled backward as a laser exploded against his left shoulder, disorienting him and throwing off his aim. As he moved to recover, he spotted a Drakkar rushing through the underbrush straight toward him — and then being launched several meters to the side as Johnson fired on it. He then fired one more time at the downed Drakkar, obliterating it through the sheer physical momentum of the bullets alone.
“Seems like five or six shots’ll do it, though,” Johnson commented with a grin.
“Travis?” Saito questioned as he took cover behind a different tree, “what is it?”
«I’ve lost track of two of ‘em,» Travis replied over the communicator, «you should watch out.»
“You sure we didn’t just kill them?” Johnson asked.
«I count four down, but I’m pretty sure the ones I’ve lost sight of aren’t dead. They ain’t near me, either. Nothin’ on the motion sensor, and Thatcher says they still haven’t figured out where we are. Which means—»
“They’re right on top of us!!” Johnson roared as two Drakkars sprung out of the underbrush at him. He fired his Railshot at one of them, laying it flat along the ground, but the other managed to close into melee distance and grab Johnson’s gun. Saito promptly unloaded an entire magazine into the Drakkar, but its energy shielding simply deflected all of the bullets as it struggled with Johnson to gain control of his Railshot. Saito began to reload, but paused when he noticed that the first Drakkar was climbing back to its feet, its shields apparently still intact enough to have protected it against Johnson’s Railshot blast. With little time to act, Saito tossed his gauss rifle aside and whipped out his gauss pistol, opening fire on the two Drakkars as he approached to give Johnson a hand. Just as he closed to within a couple meters, however, the Drakkar who was struggling with Johnson over his gun suddenly let go and then pulled both its fists back, its gauntlets glistening with energy.
“Miles! DUCK!” Saito shouted as he focused his fire on the Drakkar, but before Johnson could respond, the Drakkar thrust both of its fists forward, slamming them into Johnson’s upper chest. He dropped his gun and staggered backward as the impact areas shimmered brightly — and then disappeared in a bright static fuzz, signaling that Johnson’s shields were down. The Drakkar then pulled its right fist back again, preparing to thrust its arm forward; Saito took aim with his pistol and attempted to distract the Drakkar, but was suddenly thrown backwards by a laser blast and then attacked by the second Drakkar. It prepared to do to Saito what had just been done to Johnson, but just before it could throw its punch, the loud metallic static sound of a high-momentum bullet hitting an energy shield filled Saito’s ears as the Drakkar was thrown away from him. The Colonel quickly jumped up to his feet just in time to see a similar fate befall the Drakkar that was attacking Johnson; the latter Colonel promptly gripped his Railshot and shoved the barrel into the Drakkar’s face before opening fire, completely overloading its shields and annihilating its head with a single railgun slug. Saito quickly felled the other Drakkar with the remainder of his pistol ammunition, leaving both Colonels momentarily clear of danger.
«I think you both owe me a drink, Colonels,» Travis taunted over the communicator.
“Yeah, yeah…” Saito muttered, “you can rub your skill in later. Keep hitting the Drakkars for us.” The Colonel then turned his attention to Johnson, who was panting heavily as he took cover behind a fallen tree. “You alright?”
“Been better,” Johnson responded uneasily. “…My shields are down. Damn! Why didn’t you tell me those bastards could knock out shielding in a single punch?!”
“I’ve never seen or heard of them doing that before…” Saito scowled. “Did you see those gauntlets? I haven’t seen or heard of Drakkars using tech like that before. Damn. We might need to pull back—”
“Anand?!” Johnson whipped his attention around to the west, and Saito followed. Several tens of meters away, Anand lay on the ground, having been knocked back by a laser blast. Approaching him was one of the Drakkars, but this one had a distinctly different appearance from the rest: it stood half a head taller and wore elaborate white and silver robing in place of armor. Its tail swished behind it lazily as it advanced on the fallen Major — but each time Anand attempted to stand and flee, the Drakkar’s tail stretched like a rubber band and whipped around to swipe Anand’s feet out from under him.
“Shit, that can’t be…?” Saito muttered uneasily, and then brought his pistol to bear again. “Everyone, open fire on that Drakkar!!”
“Don’t have to tell me twice!” Johnson roared as he grabbed his Railshot off of the ground and turned toward the robed Drakkar. As soon as the Drakkar fell within his sights he opened fire, launching a metal slug at hypersonic speeds straight at the Drakkar’s chest — where the Drakkar staggered under the blow. It turned its attention toward Johnson and Saito, its eyes narrowing, but as the two Colonels continued to fire on it, they noticed a peculiar fact: the Drakkar’s robing was getting ripped to shreds by the incoming fire, indicating that it had no energy shield protection, and yet — its body sustained no injuries whatsoever.
A few moments later, the Drakkar simply turned its back on the Colonels and began again to approach Anand, ignoring the continued weapons fire as though the bullets were little worse than raindrops on its back. It stopped again within a couple meters of Anand, at which point its tail shot out one more time — only to be intercepted by Feng.
“Major, get back!” Feng shouted as he grasped the Drakkar’s tail with both hands.
“What? Feng, the hell are you—?!” Anand began to respond, but was interrupted as the Drakkar’s tail shot out of Feng’s hands with enough force to yank him forward. The Captain began to wildly wave his arms in a reflexive attempt to regain his balance, but then the Drakkar’s tail slapped him across the face with enough force to completely overload his shields. The Drakkar then wrapped its tail around Feng’s leg and hoisted him into the air, holding him upside-down as it pulled him close and hovered its hand over his chest.
((Cease fire immediately if you value your friend’s life!))
“What the…?” Johnson winced. “It’s in my head?!”
“Keep calm, Miles, it’s just how Drakkars talk,” Saito urged. “It can’t do anything to you.”
((Not just from talking, no. But I would suggest that you not underestimate me as a threat.))
The Colonels eyed the Drakkar warily, who had turned to face them head-on. It had no mouth, and so could not speak conventionally — instead, its raspy voice seemed to originate within the heads of its listeners.
Saito eyed the creature uneasily, and then glanced to the side. Anand had climbed back up to his feet and backed off, but he was otherwise unsure of how to proceed — an uncertainty that was reinforced as the remaining Drakkar soldiers surrounded Anand and the Colonels, their weapons ready.
“Colonels! Don’t listen to it!” Feng shouted from his position next to the Drakkar. “Just kill it alre—ack!”
The Drakkar’s tail extended, wrapping around the rest of Feng’s body to immobilize, muffle, and partially strangle him. The Drakkar itself simply glanced at him through the corner of its eye before turning its attention back to Saito and Johnson. ((You must not know who I am, if you think you can kill me.))
“And why not? The rest of you bastards have gone down easily enough,” Johnson retorted.
“Miles, don’t antagonize him…” Saito muttered. “…We’re out of our depth here.”
((Oh?)) The Drakkar turned toward Saito. Without a mouth or a nose, it was difficult to make heads or tails of its expression, but the corners of its eyes lifted in the same manner that a human’s would when smiling. ((I see at least one of you recognizes me.))
“And just who the hell is that?” Johnson questioned as he glanced back at Saito.
“…Prosusicivious,” Saito responded uneasily. “The leader of the Prolatio Drakkars.”
Johnson stared at Saito, his incredulous expression gradually collapsing into dismay as the Drakkar broke into laughter.
((It is a pleasant experience, to know that my reputation precedes me.)) Prosusicivious crossed his arms, ignoring Feng as he struggled against his bonds. ((I suppose this must be how Exdominor and Surdeus feel on a regular basis. But I am afraid that you have me at a disadvantage; I do not recognize any of you. Not your uniforms, nor your technology. Who are you?))
“No one you need to worry about,” Johnson retorted.
((Need I remind you that I hold your friend’s life in my hands?))
“Looks more like a tail to me.”
“Miles,” Saito hissed.
((…I admit, I am not used to such… bravado.)) Prosusicivious began to survey his surroundings. ((This means one of two things. Either you think you have caught me in a trap… or you are truly unaware of the power we Faction Leaders wield. I can scarcely think of anyone who is so unfamiliar with the Drakkars that the latter would be true, but then again, I do not recognize your weapons, either. They have a sort of… primitive element to them, that has not been present in any battles I have fought in a long, long time. And furthermore, you decided to attack my forces without a single Chaotic to aid you. A most unconventional choice, indeed. Hmm…)) The Drakkar turned back to eye Saito and Johnson with curiosity. ((Could it be… that you all are Earthians?))
“…And if we are?”
((Now this is interesting…)) Prosusicivious glanced down at Feng, still held in the air by his tail. ((…I have heard of you Earthians. The youngest race on the galactic stage, the most recent to have achieved interstellar travel, and the race with the lowest Chaotic potential of them all…))
“Why do you care so much about who we are?” Johnson questioned.
((The unknown is interesting, as are new experiences. After all, I have never before had the opportunity to seize the Ciei of an Earthian.))
Prosusicivious turned his attention back to the Colonels, making eye contact as they both reflexively tensed up. Out the corner of his eye, Saito could see Anand grip his rifle and begin to lift it, and at the same moment Johnson grasped his Railshot and began to bring it to bear. But before either could fully act, Prosusicivious had drawn back his hand — and slammed it into Feng’s chest.
Barely a second after touching Feng, Prosusicivious was blown back by a sniper rifle round to the head. He promptly released Feng and used his tail to deflect two more incoming rifle shots as Johnson and Saito dove for cover and opened fire on the Drakkars. Anand seized the opening to grab Feng and drag him toward cover, but as the Drakkar foot soldiers and the Colonels exchanged fire, Prosusicivious simply stood back… and burst into laughter.
((Ah ha ha ha ha haa!! Oh, how wonderful! How exciting! How interesting! To finally learn something new!)) The Drakkar Faction Leader slowly turned to face Saito, continually blocking incoming sniper fire with his tail as he continued, ((consider this a fair trade of information, Earthians. I’ve learned so much about you and SERRCom, so in exchange, I will allow you to claim the Aldredian artifact I left behind. But beware, Colonel Kaji Saito of Chaotic Support Fireteam 1!))
“…What?” Saito paused momentarily. “…How does he know—?”
((You have embarked down a perilous path! The future of this galaxy may well hang on the decisions of yourself and your comrades. Whether that bodes ill or well for you, remains to be seen. But either way, this will not be the last time our paths cross.)) The Drakkar thrust his fist into the air and then extended his fingers. ((Until we meet again!))
And then, with a brilliant flash of light… all of the Drakkars disappeared.
“…Well.” Johnson slowly lowered his Railshot as he stared at where the Drakkars had just been standing. “…Did they just beam away?”
Saito immediately activated his comm line with Captain Travis. “Captain, any sign of the Drakkars?”
«Negative, sir. Thatcher and I don’t see any around. There’s nothin’ on the motion sensors, either.»
“So they did just pack up and leave,” Saito muttered warily. “But… why…?”
“Anand!” Johnson snapped his attention toward his two subordinates and promptly rushed over to their side with Saito in tow. The Major was kneeling on the ground beside Feng, who was slowly pulling himself into a sitting position.
“Colonel, he—!” Anand started, but Johnson held up a hand to quiet him.
The Colonel then turned toward Feng and looked him in the eye. The Captain returned the gesture, but his expression was blank, and his eyes lacked a certain spark.
“Shit…” Saito muttered.
“Captain!” Johnson grabbed Feng by his shoulders. “Are you alright? What happened?”
Feng stared back at Johnson and nodded wordlessly.
“Hey, I asked a second question, you know.”
“I am not certain what happened.”
“What…?” Johnson scowled. “Since when did you talk like that?”
“Miles…” Saito placed a hand on Johnson’s shoulder. The latter turned to look Saito in the eye, a gesture that Saito uneasily returned. “…I think you know just as well as I do what happened to him.”
“No… no, that’s ridiculous,” Anand interjected, “Ciei is… the whole concept is stupid. There’s no way—!” He whipped around toward Feng, who slowly turned to face him. “Damn it… Captain, I killed more Drakkars than you, you know. That means you have to listen to me more often. Right?”
Feng simply stared back for a few moments before slowly nodding his head. “Okay.”
“What…? No, wait, what? You never listen to me. This is—! Ah, this is a joke, right? You’re just kidding around.”
“If you… say so,” Feng responded flatly.
Anand simply stared at Feng, his mouth agape, as Johnson and Saito exchanged uneasy glances. Johnson then scowled and punched the ground in frustration. “Damn it! Damn it all!”
Saito turned to his right, where he spotted Hackett and MacTavish slowly approaching. MacTavish seemed absorbed in fiddling around with some kind of rhomboid device, but Hackett’s attention was focused entirely on Anand and Feng as the Major continued to attempt to provoke responses out of the Captain.
“Is this…” She turned to face Saito. “Colonel, did he—?”
“Did you get the artifact?” Saito questioned.
Hackett glanced at MacTavish before looking back at Saito. “…Yes, sir, we did.”
“Th-there was, um, something else there, th-though,” MacTavish spoke up, her attention still focused primarily on the object in her hands. “S-some kind of, uh, a book? I-it was really th-thick, but, th-the Drakkars took it…”
“Right… well.” Saito sighed warily as he turned back toward Anand and Feng. “…We’ll have to worry about that later. For now, we’ve achieved the mission objective. Everyone, make sure you don’t leave anything behind. It’s time to head back to Earth.”