Chapter 18 – Cultural Exchange
15 Years Ago
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.
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.
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!”
“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.
“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…
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?”
“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.”
“’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.”
“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?”
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”