Prologue: Folding Wings

A story by Isaac J. Dymock

 

Present time: 32:45, 139’425 GY.

Location: TX-3324 Oort Cloud, bordering Marvok’s Abyss.


     A drop of sweat rolls off Gretsch’s beak and falls towards the console of his fighter. For a moment he panics forgetting that he is in zero-G, he is pleasantly relieved when the bead floats in front of of his breathing apparatus. Is it really that hot in his cockpit? Gretsch checks the temperature gauge to his left to confirm his own suspicions: 104 degrees; looks like the cooling unit gave out, finally. Gretsch could try to fix it, but can’t right at this moment. He and his space fighter are running in silent mode, no systems and not even venting any excess heat into space, so the cooling system runs on overtime. Nothing he can do about it, at least not right now.

     For a moment Gretsch wonders how the rest of his squadron is doing, have their coolant units also shut down from the strain of holding in reactor exhaust? It’s a small wonder any of their ships can last longer than a few days of silent running just to keep their heat signatures to a minimum by keeping the heat contained within the shielding of their ships. Any change in temperature, including sweat dropping onto the controls, could give away their ships to a vigilant sentry in an observation post. 

     <<Captain, I’ve compiled the reports you asked for: the bandits have what looks to be an ancient Uldemide Graven-class destroyer as their heavy hitter. One of the only Uldemide ships designed without a Gate Drive.>>

     <<Good job, CINDI. That explains why they can have a base just inside the Abyss. What are it’s armaments?>> Thank the stars for in-cerebrum communicators making it so Gretsch can speak without alerting any sensors with sonar detection, this one in particular is designed to connect directly to an artificial intelligence database, the perfect tool for a pirate hunter. 

     <<Twelve anti-fighter flack cannons, four medium railguns, ten small railguns, and ten swarmer missile batteries. It lives up to the name Graven’s Urchin, Captain.>>

     Gretsch frowns as only an Uldemide he can, his bleach white feathers turning a dark blue hew. <<That’s not good, hopefully they haven’t been able to pilfer enough materials and weapons to fully arm it or we’re going to be in a tight spot even with an ambush. Any word on their fighter compliment?>>

     There is a long silence, not long enough to feel substantial before CINDI responds but long enough to make seconds feel like forever, <<Unknown. All reports of their attacks confirm the presence of fighters, anywhere from eight to twelve, but no information on their designation or signature. I can deep dive for more information, but it is very likely that they are not connected to the TNet for reasons of legality and proximity to Marvok’s Abyss...>>

     <<This information is enough. Thank you, CINDI. I’m logging off from your network, the payment for this information has already been transferred. It’s been a pleasure working with you CINDI.>>

     <<You too, Captain Rekijia Gretsch, good luck and happy hunting.>>

The Translocation Net comm-link falls quiet, CINDI’s voice leaving a silent, empty space between Gretsch’s ears. He doesn’t think it would be so bad to get a premium full-time membership with the Critical Information and Networking Development Intelligence Group, but the credit cost is heavy; yet another thing to worry about once this bounty job is over and his crew is back at home port with full pockets. Gretsch switches his cerebral TNet inter-comm over to one of privately secured channels his crew uses. Moments later his brain is greeted with jeers and snickers from his friends.

     <<Did you finally get that date with CINDI you’ve been wanting, Cap?>>

     <<I bet she shot him down like a Junker in pirate space!>>

     <<Harsh, Creed. But fair, hah!>>

     Gretsch can’t help but lighten up, his feathers resuming their normal white colour, while also leaning forward and snorting the still errant sweat drop through his auxiliary nostrils, <<That’s enough teasing, folks. Besides, you all know that a private date with CINDI is at least a ten thousand credits subscription to the network.>>

     <<Come on, Cap, it’s just a little fee and all for some company!>>

     <<Just imagine that potential orgy with the rest of CINDI’s brains. HAH! A menage-a-processor!>>

     <<Zeqia that was terrible.>>

     <<Good to know CINDI hasn’t fixed Zeqia’s bad jokes along with her voice modulator.>>

     <<Say that to my face, Creed, so I can ram you along with your ship!>>

     <<Enough!>> Gretsch broadcasts to everyone in the private server, even the ones who have muted so they don’t have to listen to Creed and Zeqia rail each other over bad jokes and even worse flirting. <<Its game time, folks, I have information on the enemy’s ship and number of support fighters. These pirates have an Urchin, a Graven-class Uldemide destroyer.>>

     Gretsch mentally flips on the holo display behind his eyelids, closing them so he can broadcast to the rest of the bounty group, the Graven-class Destroyer comes up on display. Its configuration is a bit unfamiliar to most of the mercenary group since the Uldemide Empire hasn’t been in power for thousands of years. The destroyer is blocky in configuration with a wide/tall nose that eclipses the rest of the ship in a wedge shape, good for ramming enemy cruisers when reinforced with standard Uldemide techno-magic. Its main hull is long and rectangular, aesthetic appeal replaced by cold military functionality, and bristling with many small spines that hold the assortment of weapons that CINDI had mentioned.

     <<Its known armaments are as follows: twelve anti-fighter flack cannons, four medium railguns, ten small railguns, and ten swarmer missile batteries. CINDI could not confirm if the pirates have all the weapons in full operation or not, but we should assume they do. As for fighter support, CINDI confirmed that the destroyer is escorted by eight to twelve fighters of unknown configuration and design.>>

     <<Unknown? That’s not helpful… I didn’t figure the pirates to be smart enough to hide their fighters.>>

     <<Well, we’ll have to save the vids of us kicking their asses so CINDI can add their ships to the database.>>

     Gretsch changes the holo view of the destroyer to his company’s complement of ships: eight Grell-class heavy fighters, one Yelchik-class Interceptor, and four Himlar-class bombers. Not enough to take on a fully armed destroyer with full fighter escort in open space, but maybe enough to ambush either by itself in this asteroid field. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if they knew where the pirate’s base was. Not even CINDI had that information, let alone a decent map of this asteroid field what with it being in a system one or two jumps off from the Abyss.

     <<Sonarl, was there any information in your network on this system? Anything that could help us.>>

      <<...Abandoned...uninhabited...activity...armed…>>

     <<Nothing definitive, huh?>>

     <<...>>

     Gretsch is about to switch his view from the squadron loadout to a map of the asteroid field when something catches his eyes outside of his cockpits view port. Where there was once black space, dust, and asteroid debris a slight pinkish purple colour is starting to permeate. He adjusts his position and cranes to get a better look at what might be causing this phenomena, whatever it is there is nothing on radar. Out past his ships position, latched to the side of a larger chunk of rock, a long and massive tendril of some sort of gas is leaking from what looks like a tear in space. Gretsch has enough time to estimate the distance of the tear from him, somewhere around five hundred to one-thousand kilometers, before the cerebral comms explode in activity.

     <<Cap’n, we have visual confirmation of the Graven-class destroyer! It’s coming fro->>

     <<Vortex...nebula...Aby->>

     <<Gretsch, you seeing this?! Someone opened an Aether fissure! Its huge! How is that poss->>

     <<Sonarl! Where is that fissure from?>>

     <<Is that really the Graven? Something’s not right, there’s some sort of light orbiting it…>>

     <<...confirming...origin...Marvok’s…>>

     <<That’s not possible! Magic doesn’t work in Marvok’s!>>

     <<Check again Sonarl, maybe some readings are off?>>

     <<QUIET!>> Gretsch once again breaks the cacophony of activity, as much as he loves them all, they are too excitable sometimes. <<Sonarl, can your bombers hit that Urchin with a payload before they’re noticed?>>

     <<...confirmed…>>

     Pausing for a moment Gretsch takes stock of his own situation, the cooling system is at its limit and without a vent soon there is danger of an overload that would end up boiling him alive.<<Zeqia and Creed, I want you and your fighter squads to wait until Sonarl’s torpedos are fired before firing up your ships unless it looks like they’re detected. Got that, everyone?>>

     <<Yes’r.>>

     <<One hundred percent, Gretsch.>>

     <<...affirmative…>>

     He keeps an eye on the, now closing, Aether Gate trying to spot what essentially would be the speck that is the Graven Urchin. It is difficult at these distances to tell a small ship out from the dust and debris of the asteroid field. Miraculously Gretsch spots something, but it it says less about his eyesight when that something has something bright spinning around it. He has to turn his ships systems back on or else he won’t be able to see much else apart from what he’s already seen.

Estimating that he has at least a few more minutes before Sonarl makes their run against the Urchin, Gretsch starts turning his ship systems back on. Cooling and venting units will be last so that his interceptor isn’t immediately picked up by sensors. At the same time he lets his squad of three other interceptors know what just developed, though he is immediately reminded that they too saw everything.

     <<...fire…>>

     With the ship powering back up Gretsch looks back out to the speck that has the lights rotating around it, just in time to see several small objects light up. The torpedos that Sonarl just launched immediately explode in balls of energy that do more to light up the asteroid field then the distant star.

     <<...fighters...four...eight...twelve…>>

     <<Sonarl, what just happened?>>

     <<...torpedos...intercepted...all...safe…>>

     <<Get out of there! You don’t stand a chance against the Urchins guns.>>

     <<...leaving…>>

     <<Zeqia did you see anything?>>

     Slamming himself into the controls, Gretsch overrides the stealth startup sequence of his ship and immediately vents the excess heat. <<Interceptors, get out there and make sure Sonarl and his squad get out alive!>> He signals the rest of his squadron on open comms, “To all Wings of Fortune: Squad leaders, what happened?”

     Creeds rough voice comes through first, “I saw it all, Cap’n, since we were sitting tight closer to where the destroyer came in. The Urchin has lights just floating around it, four of ‘em. As soon as Sonarl and his bombers powered up those lights left the destroyer and flew straight at them.”

     Still listening Gretsch fires up ignition sequence and fits himself into the piloting apparatus. There isn’t enough time to sit and debate, he has to get in flight as fast as possible. He spreads his wings and lets the ship grab hold of his body with its clamps, tying in directly to his nervous system, Sly Albino greets him like always <<Welcome back, Rekijia.>>

     “As soon as the torpedoes were fired the four lights split into twelve separate entities and shot some kind of energy at them, detonating the torpedoes almost instantly. Sonarl and his squad are okay, but they are being pursued by these things as we speak. Zeqia and I are in pursuit, but our weapons don’t do anything. It’s like these things are made of energy!”

     Now integrated with his ship Gretsch flexes his muscles and extends Sly Albino’s wing sections and deploys the forward facing weapons: missiles and plasma cannons. A soft rumble pulses through Gretsch’s body as the ship coming to life adds another beat to his pulse and a sensation of symbiosis to his mind. He extends his wings to try and touch either side of the cockpit, though he knows his size doesn’t let him. With his wings extended there is a satisfying heat that fills his body as the thrusters of the Sly Albino spring into action.

     “Right now Zeqia and I are doing our best to keep the lights, or whatever they are, from blowing Sonarl out of the sky. I think we should fold wings and get out of here, whatever these things are we can’t take them out.” Things don’t sound like they’re going well, Creed’s voice is getting tense with desperation.

     Gretsch flaps his wings, igniting the throttle and decoupling his grapple with the asteroid he was attached to. Sly Albino rolls out of the roids dark side with a twist of his shoulders and burns off towards where the aether rift is still closing. He opens cerebral comms again while he rolls from side to side, skirting so close to some asteroids that a trail of dust is kicked up by his engine wash. He angles his body into a diving position, pointing his beak straight at the nose of his cockpit, the afterburner kicks in and his interceptor rockets at ridiculously high speeds towards the destroyer and its twelve points of light. The asteroid he’d been skirting is blasted by his engine wash and tumbles out of control into the path of a larger asteroid.

     <<...cannot…>>

     <<Hold on, Sonarl! We’ll try getting them off your tail! Drekt, Forscha get behind the two blue lights, try hitting them with plasma!>>

     <<We’ll do our best!>>

     <<Concentrate fire on incoming missiles, we can’t let the Urchin trap us!>>

     <<Zeroing in!>>

     It takes no more than a half a minute for Gretsch to reach the conflict in time to see Creed’s two wingmen trying to blast points of floating light with hot plasma. To an untrained eye it looks like the plasma is having no effect and passing straight through the two blue lights, but Gretsch thinks otherwise as there is the tiniest bit of slow to their momentum every time the lights are ‘hit’. Without enough time to message anyone Gretsch maneuvers Sly Albino around a particularly large chunk of rock on an interception course with both the blue lights. Letting off the afterburner for better maneuverability.

     <<Plasma’s not doing anything! Creed, I dunno if we can get ‘em off Sonarl!>>

     <<Keep trying, Zeqia and I are doing our best to keep the Destroyer occupied!>>

     Once Sly is in direct line with the two lights, assuming they haven’t deviated their course, Gretsch re-orients himself within the cockpit which in turn closes shutters on the ends of his thrusters and flips his interceptor on its horizontal axis. He folds in his wings and tucks in his beak to shut off the thrusters so that Sly Albino is careening toward the interception point backwards. He starts counting down from five until zero, then Gretsch throws his wings out and flaps with all of his strength turning throttle on to full and artburners into overdrive. The sudden G-forces throw him into the back of the cockpit and something snaps, pain shoots through his left side, he probably broke one of his wings with that maneuver.

     <<Drekt! Lookout! Something’s coming ‘round the roid!>>

     <<What in th->>

     <<It’s Gretsch! Creed, Gretsch pul->>

     <<Mother’s Cloaca! He just collided tail first with the lights!>>
     <<Sly Albino was in full burn!>>

     <<Gretsch! Are you okay? Can you hear us?>>

     Dazed by the sudden onset of inertia and a heavy blow to the back of his skull crest Gretsch can’t quite re-orient himself in Sly Albino’s cockpit. Small specks are filling his vision and his ears are ringing when he suddenly notices that he isn’t the only object in the cockpit anymore, and that he is getting cold. <<Gretsch, don’t do that again without telling me,>> Sly Albino’s normally cheery voice echoes through Gretsch’s brain as he tries to figure out why he’s so cold. <<It’s a miracle you didn’t get sucked out into space, and a second miracle I was able to seal the breach in time.>>

     <<No answer…>>

     <<No wonder. Look at Sly, they’ve got a horn now. I hope it didn’t hit Getsch.>>

     <<Where are the lights?>>

     <<Don’t know, Gretsch’s move must have scared them off.>>

     <<Sonarl! Jump out now! There’s no tail anymore!>>

     <<...leaving…>>

     Breach? Gretsch looks to the right and sees nothing that could be called a breach in the hull, that side of his cockpit is still intact. He tries to look to the left and his beak hits something white-blue that is giving off some fog. Fog? Gretsch recoils back to see a huge spike of ice, as wide as he is, that’s become a new feature in his cockpit. It stretches from the upper back of the ship, under his arm and through the leathery part of his left wing, and out the lower left front window. He can see the emergency foam, now solidified, that Sly used to seal potential leaks where the column of ice broke through. <<Sly, are you okay? Can you fly?>>

     <<I should be asking you the same thing, Gretsch, your wing is in tatters.>> Sly Albino’s modulation wavers a moment, <<I’m disconnecting you, Gretsch, rest for now and let the rest of them know you’re still alive.>>

     A sudden blinding shock of pain, a burning intensity of cold, and full realization of how badly he is injured rockets through Gretsch’s body and brain when Sly Albino forcibly disconnects his brain from the ship systems. He crumples into a ball, as much as he can with his left wing frozen to the column of ice, and uses all of his conscious energy not to scream in pain. <<...Creed, Zeqia. D-did… Sonarl and his b-b-bombers get out…?>>

     Gretsch’s Cerebral Comms are bombarded the second his lets his signs of life be known. 

     <<Gretsch! You’re alive!>>

     <<You kicked their tail feathers, Gretsch! Sonarl got out without a problem!>>

     <<In the Mother’s Name, what was that Gretsch! What did you do???>>

     <<Guys, cut it. Let him breath.>>

     Wincing Gretsch tries to move, with very little success, as Sly fires up the maneuvering thrusters, getting them out of a lazy drift towards rocky collision with an asteroid. <<Creed, th-thanks... >>

     <<Don’t mention it, Cap’n. Yeah, Sonarl and his squad are gone. Zeqia and I managed to disable one of the Urchin’s banks of thrusters, so it can’t chase us too far. Once we did that the rest of the lights fell back to guarding it and not chasing us. I say we have a few minutes to fold our wings and get out of this field.>>

     <<Whatever you did, Gretsch, the two blue lights are gone.>>

He reaches around with his right arm and latches onto his left then kicks the deck with his feet. Leathery hide and skin rip from the column of ice with a sound like muscle being ripped from bones, sickening and causing even more pain, but necessary to avoid frostbite and losing a whole wing.<<Yeah, we’re folding wings and getting out. Let’s leave before those lights come back for revenge. Sly, I want to recordings of what I did to those two blues saved. We need to go over them once we’re back at base.>>

     <<Sure thing, Gretsch. Getting us out of here.>> Sly Albino’s engines rumble to maximum and the familiar wir of Its jump drive comes to the foreground. Gretsch detaches full from the pilot’s frame and crumples into a corner between window and bulkhead. He is conscious long enough to see asteroids, nearby fighters, and light stretch as the Jump Drive spools up and activates; everything goes black and sound turns to white noise.

     Deep inside the damaged Urchin a single Uldemide stirs, their movements stiff as if turned to stone for thousands of years and only just now have they realized they could move. Wires and connectors hold the being to a station, connecting it to the workings of the ship itself. Cybernetic ports, surgically placed along the creature’s spine, skull, and torso, are each filled with a connection to some part, some function of the ship. The Uldemide tries again to move but is stopped by both pain so intense that it blacks out again, and by the jungle of wires and cables draped all around it. Something breaks off from its wings and shatters on the metal deck of the command nest.

     Once the pain subsides, as much as it can when one’s whole body feels like it has been dipped into the core of a star, the Uldemide tries to move its wings again. This time, along with yet more pain, there is a show of results: sparks fly as two exposed wires meet. Momentarily illuminating the nest and blinding the Uldemide’s eyes. He tries to cry out, give some sort of verbal caw of pain, instead he chokes on something hard in his throat.

     For a few moments of painful convulsion the Uldemide coughs up something hard along with dry flakes of something else. In the throws of gagging the wires meet again with blinding sparks flying every which way. For a moment the Uldemide catches a glimpse of a few things before his eyes die in brilliant sparks again. An empty command nest devoid of anything living other than himself, not even corpses. A tangle of wires, connectors, and cables suspending him above the metal floor. Finally, a sea of crystals arrayed in strange patterns across the nest, ending at his bottom half. It is then that the Uldemide realizes that his entire lower torso, legs, and tail are encased in the unknown substance.

     Panic sets in and the Uldemide starts to struggle violently against anything that binds him. In blind terror he manages to grab hold of the cable connected right to his brain stem with one clawed hand and tears it free. Instead of a jolt of energy to the brain or the pain of severing the connection there is a sound of shattering glass and the cable breaks free. Suddenly he realizes that cable was the only thing keeping his upper body suspended and collapses downwards. Thanks to his size and weight the Uldemide crashes into the crystals that cover his lower body and shatters them completely. Unfortunately this is another point of realization too late that he was up higher than he thought when his body hits the metal tiles of the nest and his head bounces off the side of a console. Stars are knocked into his vision and he loses consciousness again.

     The console that had concused the Uldemide lights up suddenly with a green glow and slowly growing in intensity as some sort of system comes back online. A holographic array blinks on and a soft voice fills the nest for the first time in years, <<Welcome to the Translocation Network, please state your name and designation to log in.>> The message repeats audibly every two minutes.

     It takes many iterations of the message for the Uldemide to wake up again. He regains his faculties just in time to hear bits and pieces between a splitting headache and sharp pangs of full body pain. <<...Network, please… designation...in.>> It takes him a long time to adjust to his new orientation on the ground before it even occurs to him that the nest is lit up by the console, or even that the console is talking at him. The Uldemide tests his arms and wings by trying to move them, to prop himself up against the console. At one point he gets enough strength to use the station as leverage to lift himself, inadvertently placing a hand on a device with a needle in it. The prick isn’t noticed by him, but it is noticed by whatever intelligence runs the Translocation Network login functions.

     <<DNA patterns processed. Welcome back, Krechevek. We last logged your presence on the Network 10’327 galactic years prev-- >> The calming voice cuts out before anything else can be said, even as the Uldemide grapples with standing and not even processing what information may have been given to him through interacting with a thing that is helping him stand.
     <<Krechevek, is it really you?>> 

A soft, crooning voice comes through the console. The Uldemide ignores it, trying to get his bearings while stabilizing himself against the command station and not letting what little body strength he has give out on him. Krechevek, the name sounds familiar to him. Is it someone he knew on this ship? 

     <<Krechevek, can you hear me?>>

The voice again, he knows it but can’t place where he has heard it before. Krechevek, why is that name so familiar? Is it him? He gets a chance to look around and down. His feathers are in full disarray, their blue-white hue shifting rapidly from dark to light shading uncontrollably as if that portion of his mental stability has collapsed, but really they are showing the outward panic that his mind is going through. His limbs and wings are emaciated, starved of nutrients for who knows how long. Legs wiry and thin for the same reasons. 

     <<Krechevek, talk to me. Are you there?>>

     “Wh--,” trying to speak is nothing but pain as the Uldemide finds his throat to be dryer than a desert and clogged with something he can’t define simply by choking on it. He spends a few moments coughing up crystalline structures onto the floor, watching them shatter into thousands of pieces as if made from glass. What happened to him? After what feels like minutes he manages to speak. “Wh..o a...re...yo..u?”

     <<Krechevek, it’s me CINDI. Don’t you remember?>>
     “Si...nd...i…?” The name sounds familiar, the type of familiarity one has when hearing the name of an old friend. “I...kn...ow...th….at….n...ame…” His throat and mouth are so dry it is unbearable. Even speaking slowly is more than he can handle for a few short moments at a time. His tongue, shrivelled like a piece of jerky, roughly scrapes along sharp teeth and the smooth inside of his bone beak.

     <<Krechevek, what happened to you? Where have you been?>>

     The questions spark something in him, some memory from what feels like an eternity past. A vision enters his mind of a fleet of ships larger than anything he has, at the time, ever seen before entering a portal to some black space between galaxies. Billions of sentient beings fleeing for their lives from… something. He loses the memory is a hail of migraine pain.

When the headache clears a thought comes to mind, something that he wants to know.      “D….id….we….sa…..ve…..th….em?”

     For a moment there is silence, the green light flickers as something moves within the monitor before the voice comes back. The Uldemide has his eyes closed at this point so he can’t see that a figure has manifested itself in the holographic display. A small bird of brilliant green and gold plumage with an endless amount of tail feathers leading off into the space beyond the projected image. The bird looks upon her old friend with eyes as mournful as she can display with her programming. <<You did, Krechevek. You saved them all. The Conflagration didn’t get a single being.>>

     For a moment the Uldemide relaxes, almost too much as he catches himself from falling off the side of the console. A thought sparks through the pain, an idea that might show him who he is and what he has gone through. “S...Sin..di…, l….ook…  in...to...me…. Sh….ow ...me… th...at…. We….s...sa….ved….the….em.”

     <<That could kill you…>>

     “Sh...ow...me...w..who...I...was…”

     <<Krechevek, please. I don’t want to lose you after having just found you again…>>

     “D...d...do...it…”

     Wordlessly CINDI surrenders and connects herself to Krechevek’s implants and dives into his memory banks. There is corruption and file decay all over, she winces within her digital form as the damage is all too clear to her. He won’t have long to live or even to remember if she can’t find some way to repair the neural connections. Something to work on while CINDI shows him what happened in the last years of his life, ten thousand years ago…

The Order

A story by David Hoszowski

     The dusty, still air of Warren 8 filled the small chest of Bodmir Tellik. His large green eyes fluttered open and darted as he woke to adjust to the soft lights ingrained into the walls of his quarters. He sat up, stretched his long, wiry arms, and cracked his back as he looked onto the bed of scrap under him, tiny piles of rescued refuse parts and components from various repairing jobs over his nine years on the Repair Forces. Normally on his home on Tharsis, as one of the Dreg caste, he was not encouraged to bring things home from work – Security forces from the capital city had taken caste mates away for less. Despite his own visceral fear, his curiosity would override the panic in those moments – he knew of no one on the surface who would teach him about these boxes and pads and glowing rocks he would find on-site, and his own peers within Warren 8 with similar or more knowledge were rare, or were too afraid to admit it if they did. That said, any Dregs who managed to crack these codes were valued even more, and those Dregs of value also tended to have the wits required to stay alive longer than their peers. Lifting himself back onto a cracked bio matter transport container he used as a chair, he hunched over his work desk, examining the tangled mound of wire, black metal casings, and a glittering array of different colors flickering off and on.


     ‘Flow-Change-y Module=no little explosions inside the handbox.’ Bod began reciting the make-shift equations he left off at in his head, removing the red wire clip he wrapped around the area he last worked on. He remembered hauling the machine away for disposal, and how every two weeks, all the Beakers would gather and touch it, but he’d get dragged back to work before getting to see what would happen. The body of the box had remained mostly untouched, save for an inch wide crack along one edge the curious scrapper pried open to take a peek. ‘Flow-Change-y Module connected to the Glass-Metal-Hand-Pad,’ He placed his own slim, long hand onto the top of the machine for emphasis, drilling it into his head. ‘And it connects to Fist-Sized-Power Rock. If these wires act like small basic power feeds like the ones in the Research Center’s power grid, one of Hand-Box’s problems might be Blowout.’ He reached gingerly into the hole, prodding the wires with nervous fingers. Nothing. He pulled up on the frame to get a better look at the cell, flickering from a mostly black, polished crystalline cell. His face lit up; dying power cells were an easy fix, so long as a replacement could be found amongst his room, or some of his crew’s Fix-Its could find him one at work, one crazy enough to try actually experimenting with the power cell itself. He took a long, slender flat of metal with a tattered cloth handle to pry the box open, exposing the flickering blue heart to pluck out.


     Loud, extended siren wails blared in all of Warren 8’s ears. Bodmir cursed aloud, leaping to his feet and slipping his bare, dust caked feet into his work boots and rushing out, his left hand grabbing the repair kit nestled next to his desk as sensors in his quarters slid the door open and let him rush out. The warm ceiling light of The Hearth- the dining and common areas of every Warren- burned his retinas coming from his dimly lit room, prompting a quick shielding with his free hand as he climbed down the closest set of stairs down to the main floor, one of six identical stairways for the second floor residents. Slipping through the now large crowds of his peers, Bodmir buttoned up the wrinkled collar of his uniform and rushed towards the shuttle platform in front of the massive building. The herds of fellow Dregs sprinting to their designated shuttles made it difficult for him to find his, each large onyx box fitted with florescent signs in the lower back corner of the craft, a flaw only visible to those who paid attention to the throngs during the morning rush on work days. The pilot of these craft – usually unlucky Engineer and Security caste members who pulled poorly from their first duty assignments – stood outside the open hatch of their respective shuttles, ushering the crowds circling each craft on the massive platform inside their cargo, or back into the horde if they weren’t recognized.


     “Research Center Alpha! You’ve all got 30 seconds before I make you lot walk!” Bod’s ears perked up, prompting him to push through his peers in the voice’s general direction. His face eased as he saw the tall, statuesque Themar guarding the onyx craft, shoving workers he couldn’t recognize back into the crowd. “I know how much you all looooooove those caves you’d have to climb through to get to the city, so maybe think about that long walk before you keep me waiting!” Themar turned and smiled in recognition, grabbed Bodmir by the collar, lifting the Dreg over the heads and shoulders of his peers before tossing him into the interior of the craft. Bod crashed against a crowd trying to find their seats in the increasingly diminishing supply, his repair kit knocking the air out of his lungs as it landed on his stomach.


     “Thanks, Themar,” Bodmir wheezed, the blond colossus chuckled and continued shovelling more of Bod’s comrades into the shuttle. The emerald-eyed repairman thankfully found a seat in front of the entrance, tucked his kit between his legs and gripped the bottom of his seats, as each of his peers braced for take-off in their own unique way-some clinging to the grates between the two floors of seating, wrapped arms and legs around support beams and even beneath other worker’s seats.


     “Still waking up on the scrap heap?” Bodmir looked up from his white knuckles into the sapphire orbs of his green-clad supervisor, sitting next to him in a familiar fashion. He smiled nervously, freeing a hand from his seat to quickly brush his rat’s nest into some semblance of bangs as best he could.


     “Yes, Chief Tamin-I’ll try to-” he began.


     “Knock it off,” She teased, playfully punching her worker’s bicep before quickly bracing back down. “We all have phases we go through, Bod- you’ll get no judgement from me, or any of us.” She gave a little more shoulder space up to another worker before both her and her favourite electrician realized the beast they resided in had finally seemed to get its fill. Themar hopped inside, kicking those away from the open frame before swiping the control, swinging the hatch shut and muffling the protests of dozens of faces and hands begging to be let in through the hatches window.


     “Alright, everyone!” He bellowed down the small crowded walkway, the latest stragglers still occupying the perimeter around the entrance. “Find a seat and get outta the way – we take off in 2 minutes, and I don’t want to have to wash the seats back here upon arrival, like last week.” He glared at the crowd still in front of him, now scurrying to find a spot to cling to while they waited for arrival, giving him the space to finally head to the cockpit, releasing the locks with a wave over the controls to his right. The door slid open and closed quickly as he passed through it with a soft whir.


     Bodmir stared out at the crowd excitedly out the window, through the crowd of those outside and onto the journey they were about to take. He often enjoyed the view of transit, unlike his peers, who would often complain of being overwhelmed at the speed in which things raced by. The shuttle lurched, thrusters and anti gravity rigging vibrating the walls and creating a familiar rumbling throughout the Dreg storage unit. Bod watched the now sea of hands and hair escape his line of sight as they sped out of his Warren’s portion of the ravine and into the air. Tiny black pockets of caves and the occasional green brush riddled the sheer grey cliff face whizzing past the portal Bod’s eyes were locked onto. The darkness suddenly lifted, Bod’s eyes fixed on the silver and ebony glass towers and the constant fluorescent dancing along the streets and airways of Tharsis Prime, the first city of what was known to off worlders as “The Order”. Other Dreg transports whizzed past his view like flies, buzzing off towards their respective workplaces, be it in the infrastructural repairs in the city, or the agricultural and mining sectors outside of town. The roar and shadows loomed as co-ordinated squadrons of transport shuttles flew towards their loading docks in safe warehouses below. The sunrise paired with the cloud cover and turned the skies a deep combination of rust and smoke, the dark amber catching on the solar farms littering the outward perimeter of the city to create a sea of glittering gems for Bod to be dazzled by, quietly musing behind his grin.


     “This is no phase,” he murmered, lost on the shuttles’ rumble and downturned eyes.


     *                                                            *                                                             *


     “Alright, gang, over here!” Tamin’s meaty arm waved her crew- a ragtag group 400 strong- over to her, stragglers on the outskirts of the crowd hearing her voice and finding other co-workers they recognized. They herded around the Dreg entrance of the Tharsis Prime Technomancy and Science Research Center, a sleek, black stone-like portion of the foundation which would slide open for them upon approaching it. “Everyone, find the rest of your squad; if you can’t within five, those absent workers might find their positions filled again by tomorrow!” She unfolded a worn and torn set of blue prints of the facility and setting it in front of her, a circle of department – or squad – heads approaching from the now gathered throngs.


     “Redeyes, all the Beakers were complaining about some scramble in their glowpads and glowboxes – adjust the glowplates, and if that’s not it, find some Livewires to take a look at it – I know at least one of them needin’ a distraction from the scrap pile.” The crowd laughed, Bodmir’s adjacent Livewires roughhousing him from all sides, a slap on the back from one peer cracking his pose straight and his eyes bulging from the force. “Speaking of, Bod – Big Beaker wants a word today about rerouting the power for his new pet project, and I want to be able to give him good news today, got me?”


     “Got it, Boss!” Bod chirped from the crowd, adjusting the repair kit under his arm. “But what’re they-“


     “Don’t know, don’t care- they want results, we get ‘em, you got me?” She smiled at her crew as much as Bodmir, her crowd feeding off the Chief’s confidence, getting a nod from the awed Bod. “Good! Now, Fix-its, head down to The Office – we’ve got a delivery of chairs and other supplies that need us to give them a second life, see what you can do. Clean-ups, take the fresh meat down to the Scrub Room, get them used to the place and the job. You all know what supervisors to talk to, and where you left off. Are we ready, everyone?” One last scan amongst her crew was met with a low round of murmured confirmation. “Alright, get to work!”


     Turning, she approached the foundation wall, the sensors embedded in the walls sliding the entrance open, a door large enough to barely fit the large, single file snake of crewman marching in. Inside, The Repairway met them, the narrow veins and arteries of hallways, ladders, and grated floor walkways connected to the top of the ceiling of each floor that, in some form or another, could be found in every building in the city. The glowing web of color coded cables and wires were ingrained against the walls, sending data and power to and from several key offices and departments whilst causing the claustrophobic tunnels to be a surreal dichotomy, swaths of light filled passageways and dark, inky corridors. Tamin began her climb to her ‘office’ on the tenth floor of the facility, the rest of her crew snaking through the labyrinth to their worksites, many likely in the darkness between two abnormally long clusters of light.


     Bod remembered along the steady climb up through floor foundation on a rickety ladder about his first days in the center, when one of the guards got in his face about how many high-caste’s worked there. Including researchers and their staff, security posted in building and used in projects, engineering contractors working on schematics, and traders with frequent routes strictly on their request, the number was something upwards of 125, 000. He could still feel the giant’s spit on his face, but more so the chill down his spine from how outnumbered they were, and the sheer amount of daily maintenance and clean up problems cropping up, that haunted him more. He remembered one power failure that costed the crew four full day’s work, 18 hour shifts, and 80 lives were lost during the process, fumbling around without knowing how to do the job safely, blindly trying things to see if it worked. Ever since, he knew he had to learn everything he could about how the Beakers thought and lived there, to ensure his understanding of the buildings functions was better than the average Dreg. He even knew some Universal written words, from his scrapping and paying attention to the functions and labels of things around him, but large gaps still plagued him, and his thirst to know remained.


     Stepping onto the ceiling grates of the fifth floor ceiling, Bod poked a fellow Livewire, who jumped at the contact, but gave a smile upon seeing Emerald Eyes.


     “You got any idea where the problem is?” He asked, his peer pointed down the catwalk, through the ceiling.


     “Somewhere within the mid-floor power rock – we’ve got a few of us testing the lines, and sent some Clean-Ups in to scrub the hardware after we reroute power from the rest of the building.”


     “For how long? I imagine Big Beaker and the rest of our employers will be none too pleased at the lights and glowbox’s flickering round the clock, and I don’t want to be the reason the chief has to take that meeting, if I can help it.”


     That’s another thing- Big B wants us to make that reroute be the primary power source, and once the mid-floor rock is back up, set up the secondary connection in there. If I’ve got a fifth of the squad, we could be done by end of shift tonight, but we also gotta work from Baby B’s room as well.”


     “I’m heading up there to finish up some work from yesterday, I’ll send my crewmates over to you when their done. I’ll head down to the main rock when I’m done, and get ready for the reroute.” Bod rapped his crewmate’s shoulder with an open palm and kept marching back to work.


     “Send as many as you can spare; can’t connect to the rock until this stuff’s done, anyway.” Bod gave a thumbs up as he dashed down the catwalk into the Central walkway, the center of the Dreg’s web on that floor’s ceiling. Below, one could see office cubicles for number crunching researcher’s, Engineer’s tweaking the latest model of a project from the upper R&D floors, Security guards and their enclosed booths, polishing their black metal rifles and cracking jokes with one another – a pretty standard day on the fifth floor. Bod looked down at the flimsy railings – to put “safety” before that would be exaggeration of a staggering degree – and wondered secretly, a thought that would have those guards training guns on him: What real differences were there between him and his kind and the Beakers or Gearheads, or even the occasional Moneybags that came in for “The Daily Drop”. He had heard of offworld Dregs working on mining colonies that had began shortly upon The Order’s colonization of Tharsis, Dregs heartier than and Beaker Bod had ever worked for. He sighed as he slipped back into the narrow wall crevices and onto a rickety ladder to begin climbing again, burying that curiosity back into its cage.


     *                                                            *                                                             *


     “How can you tolerate the tardiness of your repair crew, sir?” The voice crackled at the interference, though the snide streak of his voice was not lost upon the crimson haired man sitting behind a silver desk. His left hand cupped the side of his bearded face, his look of frustration lost over the call. A pad with the disembodied voice’s profile was being scanned lazily with bespectacled eyes, his main work pad within arm’s reach if anything came up worth looking up, but he had looked the file over numerous times- outstanding marks in Technomancy projections, insightful thesis on stealth equations – single-handily creating what teams of theorists had said wasn’t “within The Order’s capability”, and Command felt the southern continent would limit him and his growth. They felt he could do more under this man’s charge.


     “Back home, we would have simply wiped out half of the staff and rehired for these sorts of delays!” The young upstart huffed over the microphone as the red haired researcher scrolled down – KNOWN AFFILIATES: Nos, Larissa- Mining Consortium Heiress, Merchant Representitive to Research Center Alpha, Beta, Theta, Delta…The list of where Nos’s influence stretched wasn’t required – he sat across from her , saw her ambition, and how she wore her success like the finest of armor. He now saw why the boy’s superiors felt it so necessary to bring him here. “As the Head of Research for your Center, I would think you’d make a show of authority – strike some fear into the remainder of your crew, get them to work.” Another stretch of silence. “Sir, are you even listening to me?”


     “I assure you, T.M.R Vorrum, the delays have far more to do with ensuring your station measures up to the specifications you have given us.” The rumbling in Cyril’s voice gave his young underling the impression that this flame-haired lion was at the end of a very short leash. “In addition, I operate this facility under a philosophy of ‘less stick, more carrot,’ as all of my predecessors have. To deny a caste their role in The Order is a massive disservice to them, and every caste has their role to fill.” Lifting himself out of his seat, he approached the wall separating his office from the command center his hand-picked staff used to sort, filter and record data on any activity each and every project his lower floor researchers immersed themselves into, and monitored and maintained contacts with off world merchants and research staff for supplies. Never in the history of Tharsis had that office held so much power. He put a hand on the wall plating and smiled, hearing the muffled scurrying of Dregs throughout the Repairway. “These small hiccups in daily operations are brief delays that masks the fact that we operate an average 59% more efficiently than other, more modern institutions.” He turned back to his desk, the opposite wall a sheer glass window viewing the city, plucking up his pad and accessing his mail as he continued. “I am sympathetic to your concerns, Vorrum; you are staying in an unfamiliar city, transferring your files into our center’s cloud and eager to get started here. I have provided you with a forward on your first pay- I won’t tell you what to do, but I know of many amazing sights and locales here that you might feel are worth your time.”


     “Yes, sir – perhaps you’re right.” Vorrum sounded resistant to the idea as Cyril’s eyes fell on a mail update – CASTE ADJUSTMENT: Extreme shifts in roles between government and the public sector castes have warranted a Merger between the Mercantile, Engineering, and Orbital Military castes, as The Order’s growth and influence has been cemented primarily via our economic opportunities, the fleets that maintain our people scattered amongst the stars and squadrons that support them.” The researcher’s face grew flushed as he put pieces of information together in his mind; Larissa was behind this, that was evident. How she had skirted this past him to Command without any resistance was beyond him, however – castes this high up the food chain were encouraged to play nice, and while that rarely occurred, he thought his data gatherers would have found a hint of this before now. He reminded to set them for the experimental sector for their failure- they were cogs of a different machine, now. “I’m very sorry to have pestered so much, sir- if I could…”


     “On second thought, Vorrum,” Cyril collected himself, stroking his beard with a free hand. “I would have likely sent a portion of the crew to experimentation in the R&D sector under normal circumstances anyway, and you seem to have an axe to grind – why not come over and… supervise their work? Just head down their Repairway to the main power cell-their supervisor issued a notice they’d be working on it there.” He smirked at the silence, setting his pad back on the desk with a clatter. “I’m sure you have something that can accelerate their progress in that brain of yours.”


     “I-I’d be honoured, sir.” Vorrum’s grin could easily be heard and likely seen from the Transport Whales in orbit. “I’ll be down there within the hour.”


     “I look forward to it, T.M.R.” He replied with disinterest. An index pressing a button on the pad broke communications, and Cyril looked out on the city in silence. One task down – if there was anything Researchers at his facility were taught, it was to not interrupt the maintenance crew while they were working, so one of Larissa’s pawns off the board. Watching the air traffic over his city, he began working out more plays in this game of theirs, other favours to trade in and projects her people could use the most to delay. A caste adjustment hadn’t been done in over 400 years, and he didn’t like the idea of cozying up to a bunch of salesman, soldiers and grease monkeys.


     Their ploy up the ladder had untethered the lion of Tharsis, and he would not let their climb be an easy one.


     *                                                            *                                                            *


     ‘This was supposed to be simple rewiring work,’ Bod thought, dragging a cable thicker than one of his forearms between his legs as he passed through the narrow crawlspace. ‘Connect another Researcher’s lab to their grid, go home, and focus on my parts pile...’ he thought of that mysterious handbox of his, and how much longer he’d have to wait to get back to it. Recognizing some of his patch-work on the walls told him he was close. He always looked forward to getting this close to the power generators; he learned a lot in this hall that helped define him as a Livewire on the crew. He didn’t rush, instead taking time to enjoy the low, powerful humming of power flowing all around him. Dregs often said the easiest tell for your best place on a crew heavily depended on what perked your ears up at the job site. Many – including Bod – protested this at first, but even he saw his peers save their skin hearing the slightest variation in power cables that turned into massive blow outs, or a Fix-It hearing a chair about to give underneath an enormous Security guard, minutes before it made its way to her.


     A brilliant gold light struck his eyes as he reached the primary power Grid, a massive glowing gold stone encased in a translucent dome, a matrix of cables, ports, control panels and a metal encasing serving as its base. It tucked against one corner of an incredibly small chamber along the path Bod had been taking, almost an afterthought closet space for the most important device on-site. Bod remembered Tamin telling him one day it was the building’s heart – if all other floors couldn’t provide their own power, it would be on this single, massive crystal to take over for everything. He had promised her that day he’d do what would to never let that golden light die.


     He looked for an opening in the grid’s frame and tangle of cables, circling to the back and finding one, a tiny opening underneath the jungle. The crew knew the drill – two sharp tugs from him before they began securing the cable – so he crawled under the vines of cables that wove into the Repairway wall, his toolkit set along the wall adjacent. The fluttering beats of his heart echoed behind his ears as he took care to avoid any cables that may have had energy leaks, as he brought the cable up to its new home, polishing the port with a sleeve before plugging it in. He twisted it into the engaged position, the slow thrum of power flowing into the port putting a smile on Bod’s face.


     “What in The Order is taking so long?!”


     It quickly vanished as a metallic grip wrapped around his legs and dragged him back out of the tangle, shrieking at the glowing-cables-of-potential-doom whizzed past his face before getting thrown into his tool kit and the wall it was hugged against. The filtered golden hue enmeshed with the swirling lights in his vision as his heartbeat deafened him, his body shaking as he put a hand to his forehead, blood smearing his fingers. He looked up to his assailant, confusion and fear on his face as his vision cleared enough to realize a man with metal gloves and a white lab coat over his narrow frame stood before him and his brain fell to what every Dreg on the regular crew did when the facility’s employees approached them – froze.


     “You, crewman – give me a reason not to melt your face.” The sneer was evident through the blinding lights, but Bod twisted his head to meet the disgruntled lab rat’s face, fear performing a system reboot on his brain. The labcoat around his shoulders was almost as indicative as the tech he wore – the metal wrapped around his hands set with a glowing “power rock” atop the backs of his hands, encircled in maroon cables that entwined throughout the gaps between the gem, the metal plate it was set in, and the rest of the gauntlet. Behind his mop of hair, Bod caught a flash of golden light set in silver where his forehead would be. Bod’s heart raced as his uniform was hauled up to bring his slightly smaller frame up to the researcher’s line of sight, his boots beginning to slip off as they dangled slightly, and his emerald eyes met his assailant’s narrow amber orbs. The researcher freed his right hand and began inscribing equations meant to realize his gruesome threat in the air in front of his victim.


     “We are practically finished, sir!” Bod managed to whimper, the terror on his face no concern to who he now realized must have been the crew’s Baby Beaker. The Dreg had seen other researchers practice magic, the memories of the aftermath from their experiments during his time with the Clean-ups causing his heart to start racing faster. Bod realized the futility of his protests when his ears picked up the electricity that began to flow through his murderer’s fingers, despite every fiber of his being clawing at him to live. “My crew are just going to bind this power cord down against the wall, and we’ll have you ready within the next 2-3 hours!! We can add the mid-floor connection tonight-I’ll lead the team, unpaid!” The man’s amused look behind the flashing lightshow of concentrated arcs of energy encircling his clenched fist sank Bodmir’s heart, and he stared into the purest image of what was almost the entirety of his life’s work, letting himself just admire the way they twirled about with the rhythm they hummed in his ears.


     Music sprang hope into his soul, the crackling and hums from Baby Beaker’s hand suddenly crawling through the air before wrapping around his frame, fear now painted over his sneer. Arcs of energy coursing through the still unsecured cable began to mingle with the spell the researcher had weaved. His terror reached its peak as the energy finally broke out of his control, unleashing in all directions, defiance against the spell containing it. Electricity arced within and out of the small closet, the Power Cell casing crawling with it as Bod tore his collar and leapt down the hall he came from. He scrambled on hand and knee as a tongue of power lashed against T.M.R Vorrum. His wails haunted Bodmir as he cowered amongst assaults of his own that found cables to leap to and course through, flickering out before showering the air with sparks. Emerald Eyes kept them locked on the silhouette of the technomage behind a flickered background until the lightshow finally died down, the rapid explosions in his chest not approaching an end until the final track had played its last second, and a large portion of the Repairway – all within Bod’s eyesight – had become dark.


     He rounded the corner and was aghast at the blackened remains underneath the perfectly intact labcoat, a combination of relief and terror washing over Bod’s shoulder. The main generator still filtered sheaths of light down into the Repairway, a low, barely audible hum of power flowing back through the walls and wrapping around the Dreg’s head, his blood providing overwhelming percussion to the experience. Dreg-related incidents weren’t looked upon well within The Order, and Bod knew he was already dead if someone saw this.


     ‘Think, Bod, think!’ His brain seethed as he knelt next to the remains. Bod wrapped thin fingers around Vorrum’s arm as he confirmed that he couldn’t lift his body, but could drag it. ‘Think like a Beaker, Bod!’ He recited his credo to himself, his eyes fixed on the bodies’ headpiece and setting the gears of his brain in motion. Kneeling back down, his hands acted on instinct, anxiety and fear overridden by curiosity and desperation. He clasped the still crackling band of metal and tore it free of its previous owner. He felt it numbing his hands as he turned it over between them, an iron ball of fear far away from his mind as he found the clasp to open it and without hesitation, slipped it behind his greasy mop, setting it against his skin and locking it in place. He began to hear the energy humming around his head, and he waited for a moment to listen. No deviations in the flow of energy, no sparks flying out and threatening to set his hair on fire, but suddenly, a dull throb against his skull began to creep in, doubling his vision as it coursed through. Looking down, he began slipping Vorrum’s coat and gauntlets off with a mechanical whizzing of disengaged locks, setting them aside as each wave of pain he felt brought another angle to consider as he planned his escape.


     “Everything okay down there?” The voice of a fellow crewman called down from the ladder down the hallway Bod had come from. He slipped the oversized labcoat over his slender shoulders, rolling up its sleeves and throwing the gauntlets into his toolbox quickly. The hollow clacking of boot against the flimsy rungs of the ladder could be heard, suddenly shifting into reverberation against the grating of the Repairway floor. “Bod? Mr. Researcher, sir?”


     Another round of ear-splitting began as Bod set his body to work, his mind being filled with images of the city from an angle on the ground he had never seen before, schedules for the city transports and the still image of staring out a shuttle filling his mind. He focussed on the images he did know- the layout of the Repairway, and where he could find the closest exit onto the streets. He looked back down to Vorrum’s body, now snuggly fit in Bod’s black jumpsuit, hands gripping the cable he had installed near the entrance to the forest, his boots poking out from the tangle. His eyes snapped up and he darted down the road not yet travelled as fast as possible, repair kit under his arm.


     “16th and 78th in the residential ward,” he recited the address stuck in his head softly under his breath, feeling for the id badge in his new coat pocket, the first real sense of relief in what felt like a lifetime flooding his cheeks. He took the next right available down another narrow hallway before he heard his coworker’s cries for assistance.


     *                                                           *                                                             *


     Bodmir had managed to stumble onto the street as his headaches subsided, finding himself stunned at the splendor of Tharsis Prime at sunset – a rusty sun sinking against the navy and burgundy skyline – to say nothing at how easy it was to blend in with those inhabitants that walked it’s streets with just a change of clothes. He forced himself to straighten his back, ran his hands through his hair and brushed it behind his ears; the worst reactions he noticed would be a curt nod or the smirks at the ashes and grease smeared over his face and clothes. To them, he was a peer having a bad day in R&D – someone to mock openly at their own peril, but a joke nonetheless, and Bod was comfortable being the joke in any room. The speed train to the residential district took little time, and he casually strolled from his stop to the corner of 16th and 78th, flashing his residency card from his lanyard against the door’s lock, pocketing it in one fluid motion, and letting himself into the buildings main elevator.


     Walking into Vorrum’s home set Bodmir’s mind at ease, despite his head picking up the drumbeat behind his ears from an hour ago. The moment he walked in, he saw the meticulous storm of research notes – both scribbled notes in journals and pads opened to various subjects in neat stacks atop tables and desks, some plugged into docking bays, long finished transferring data – and transport crates stacked on each other next to shelves waiting to be unpacked. The odd fragment of the researcher’s old life was sprinkled amongst the new, pictures along the wall of the forests, or a growth of crystal embedded in a polished stone dias discovered in a mine, both locations close to his home town. A Print of his favourite café across from the university he studied at hung over a broad mantelpiece in the bedroom. Bodmir threw his labcoat off onto the bed as he entered the room and started looking for a change of clothes for after he cleaned up. Laying the clothes – a forest green long sleeve shirt and brown slacks – onto the bed, he eyed a pad on a stand nearby flashing “Technopathic transfer failed: GRI clone not within proximity” in red.


     Bod put his brain to work through each thump it felt and started sorting it out slowly, tossing his clothes into the hamper and getting ready for his first shower. He waved his hand over the control panel with someone else’s instincts and set his circlet, which had begun to loosen from his skull down onto a nearby shelf. All the information he didn’t recognize, all the small snippets of Vorrum’s life that had slinked into Bod’s mind – clearly the transfer the pad referenced was connected to the circlet he wore and was interrupted by the accident. That data must have been inside it when he put it on, but he still felt gaps in it, and aches from the process that unleashed his curiosity – how much more could he know, if he tried? Where was the peak the Researchers set for his caste, and how far away was he from it now? The only real measure he had noticed since he got there besides the info swarm would be how much he could rein in his fear; Bodmir couldn’t remember being calm, not like this.


     He stepped out of the shower booth, snatched his head piece and went to change. The crystal set inside it had finally cracked sometime in transit, and he was only slightly annoyed – he thought he would have to repair it anyway, and he had bigger concerns coming to mind. Tugging his shirt down and rolling his sleeves up, he grabbed the pad nearby and began flipping through files – Technomancy spell folders, city transport guides and maps, personal journals, contact lists. He set it on the bed as slipped on a pair of boots from the closet.


     Vorrum was going to be found; unless his crewmates disposed of the body against the Top Floor’s directive to maintenance, the body would be found by the upper management before shift’s end. Bod had a feeling that the Head of Research would have some spell or scan that would give away that the body wasn’t his, and that a Dreg was now missing. A Dreg with untracked or now defunct Technomancy gear and a scientist’s ID badge – what would normally be an easy escape, considering the lack of Dreg photo identification – had now become plausible action for Security to sweep the city in search for him. Bod calculated the time he had left before he’d have to move on in the span of tens of minutes, and he filtered through information on the pad as he moved about the apartment to gather his kit and other baubles in hopes of finding something might jog a plan out of his altered brain.


     He thought back to his “handbox” he was working on, and how much he could use it right now – printing a new identification badge for himself would be simple with Vorrum’s computer skills, and the extra equipment scattered in different boxes about his home. The rest of his scrap pile was a gold mine of parts with what he knew now, but the Warren would be the first place Security would go, and Bod didn’t imagine Themar would be so fond of him after hearing what he had done. As he swiped through his contacts, his eyes fell upon a name that immediately set his face agrin, and set the pad down on a counter after memorizing the information displayed and opening Vorrum’s catalogue of spells and coming up with a plan. He began compiling a list in his head of parts and he would need to have before he left and scheduled maintenance time while he plucked another pad up and began searching for places to work along the way. Looking down at the now seemingly small kit he had always had, Bod added a replacement to the top of his list.


     *                                                            *                                                             *

     The crimson velvet hallways of The Order’s prime Head of Commerce were usually busier than the 3 person posse passing through were used to – typically, transport teams from several residential, commerce, and research centers would be coming in to update their status with command, then head back to their ‘whales’ awaiting them above the atmosphere before the sun rose above the city. Since this afternoon, the governing bodies within Central Command had frozen any and all cargo transport to inspect for stowaways, and many had sent communication ahead to the lead member’s pad, the dark oceans of her eyes scanning each briefly as it came in for details before swiping to the next. Her chestnut brow was furrowed low, and her skin crawled being “home”; her parents nurtured the sense of wanderlust she held deep in her being as she grew up, and her route between assets scattered throughout the system awaited her, far more patiently than she was capable of given the situation.


     “What do you want to do, Boss?” her right wing man asked, his amber curls cut short and close to the scalp, his own pad bringing a separate set of updates. “Security is requesting the Sharks come down to help out, and Command isn’t objecting.”


     “Well, I do; that sounds like far too long of a stay for my liking.” She said, looking back into his eyes. “How difficult can you make that for them to make happen?”


     “I can tell my squadrons to hold off until Command issues a direct order, and that we’re holding to our previous schedule until that moment. That said, we should have an extra couple of hours from that. Do you know anybody in Command that could help?”


     “Already sent word to them, they’re working on a solution now – that extra time might just make the difference.” She looked over her left shoulder to her overall-clad grease monkey with a salt and pepper braid down her back. “What say the Manufacturing sector about all of this, Seti?”


     “Well, they didn’t need me to say a word, Ma’am; from what they tell me, all of our current members of Command have assured me they would try to push for our fleet to be given permission to depart. I’ve also told the Sharks to dock for repairs and fueling.” They rounded a corner and stopped at a double set of dark oaken doors several feet down the next hallway. The center figure undid the top button of her uniform’s navy overcoat and turned back to her aides.


     “Excellent work, you two – Dylan, hold your men on the Whales as long as you can, let them into the bar, give him that middle shelf rot on my tab to make them happy. Seti, tell your workers to gather as many of the orders they’ve finished and haven’t shipped, and bring them back into our warehouses until we’ve been given clearance to continue our jobs, maybe get Security talking to Command.” Both of her subordinates nodded and departed on their separate tasks, and she unlocked the door with a swipe, slipping inside and quickly shutting the door. The office she had in the capital was always organized as a replica of her own on the Ballena, her flagship – the onyx desk she had commissioned to correspond to the family heir’s antique shipside, prints of several pieces of her family’s collection of mining sites and energy farms, brackets of couches hugging the walls under them. As she tossed the long coat over her high backed chair, she looked back and saw a geode on her desk that she knew couldn’t have been.


     “He told me about what you did for his home.”


     The woman flashed her sidearm out towards the voice, eying the short, raven haired man wrapped in a labcoat, narrow green eyes flashing back from the couch where he sat. Sitting snug against his head beneath his mop was a band of interlocking metal plates, veins of golden slivers embedded on circuitry between the long, narrow plates until they trailed off hidden somewhere around his temples. She couldn’t recognize the design from any of the spec’s her agents had leaked to her, nor did the gloves he wore, the recognizable back gem on standard issue technomancy gloves instead hugging the man’s palms, thin cables wrapping between his slender, bare fingers and spreading underneath broad, metal backs protecting his hands, extending beneath his labcoat sleeves. His hands were behind his head and crossed at the wrists in submission, her pistol still locked between his eyes.


     “He developed the ore detection grid technology that re-sparked interest in his home’s mine, and who better to help with the restoration than the heir to the Nos Conglomerate!” He leaned forward in his seat slowly, to prevent her from having reason to shoot. “You gave him that piece, that you commissioned behind his back, might I add, at the mine’s reopening. That gave him the attention he needed to get the grants he wanted to get out of that town and launching you to hero status in his eyes! He had no idea you were so close to his age when you met – he was astonished at how poised you were, and how forward you were when you were sure on the right course of action. Your stances were at odds regarding the general order of things Larissa, but he respected you above anyone else in his life, and trusted you. You made him want to be a better person, despite how hard he fought that in the brief moments I knew him. He’s the reason I came to you today.”


     “Knew him? W-what? Where is he?”


     “He was involved in an accident at the head research center, in the main power generator. I’m afraid he’s gone.” Larissa’s face sank as fast as she did into her seat, her head shaking as she kept her eyes on him.


     “He had a back up-I paid good money to make sure –“


     “His headpiece malfunctioned, I’m guessing from the overload to its systems from the accident. The data was held in a constant loop inside the piece until someone else tried to wear it. The equation he was trying to use mingled with a loose power cable that hadn’t been secured yet; his body carried the energy through-“


     “Alright, enough.” The man knew that tone of voice pretty well, and followed the command. “Who are you, then? Who are you working with?” The man was silent, his face struggling with how exactly to proceed, and Larissa shot out of her seat, pistol in both hands and trained on his face. “Explain yourself, scientist, before I-”


     “-I’m the Dreg he was trying to kill, who interrupted the loop.” Bod waved a hand, the small glamour hiding his bugged out emerald eyes disappeared, the look of guilt on his face was lost to the gunwoman’s shock, who had thankfully lowered her weapon. “I was going to try and say I was his cousin, and just focusing on one part of my face slightly resembling his seemed like a good place to start practicing, but I am sorry for the deception.”


     “Wait, you cast that? By yourself?”


     “No, the life’s worth of Vorrum’s experience is being drawn from, and the pieces I can’t recall, I try to research. Spells are still difficult for me, but I feel like whatever happened has made it possible for me to do far greater, and I want to learn more, if you’ll let me.” The woman looked torn, but Bodmir was relentless. “I won’t say I wish he had gotten to hurl that electricity at me – I certainly didn’t wish his death, but I wasn’t looking for it yesterday, either..”




     Larissa began to chuckle as she saw the scene in her head. “I suppose it’s poetic, in a twisted way. I’m…saddened to hear of his passing, but I’m wondering what sort of work I would have for you – if anyone knew about you being a Dreg, they would be obligated to report you and your abilities, and bring you in to Command to find out how it happened.”


     “I know a great deal about your movement, the merger of the caste’s within your triad of command you were heading here with.” Bod got up and approached the desk. “I know that you value a person’s merit far more than their caste. I’m asking you to see the potential merit I have, and help me blend in and get me off this rock so I have enough time to tap into it! He knew that you knew the right people to get me a new identity, and that you had helped get some other lab rats into cushy sabbaticals researching on colonies and stations throughout the galaxy. I can provide my own unique perspective to some of your Conglomerate’s issues until you find one for me– I’ve worked on the lowest levels of upkeep and maintenance on the Engineering caste’s designs, and while I have a strong background in power systems, I have a strong knack for making on-the-fly repairs like no Fix-It can.”


     “Reciting your resume aside,” She stared into his eyes with sympathy. “From what little I have heard, Command has been looking for a Dreg like you trying to get out of the city, and I’m not sure how they’ll stop searching without finding him.”


     “Well, they won’t find the tech of Vorrum’s I used intact, so I doubt they will have the chance to identify it in the waste bins I scattered what I didn’t use. I imagine the woman who has access to The Order’s armory could find substitutes for them to find; I can synchronize them to appear to be his. As for a Dreg, I’m sure that someone in this city might have punished their crew a little too hard – your friend used to do it all the time back at his old home.” Larissa looked down briefly before locking back into Bod’s stare. “Please, Miss Nos – I’m not judging you for your choice of friends in high places; it’s the very fact that you disagreed with him that brought me to you. I didn’t know who else to come to, but there is so much more for me to learn and pursue in life. I beg that you don’t stop me now.”


     Larissa holstered her weapon and began pacing, her eyes not leaving Bod’s hopeful visage. She looked closer at his improvised armguards, noticing his work to Bod’s delight. She couldn’t help replaying Bod’s plan in her head with a begrudging level of admiration. Within minutes, another update, her eyes locked on the Security update mentioning Vorrum’s home gone through and upturned later than she would have liked before locking back onto Bod’s face. She was not used to feeling off guard or behind the curve, and from a Dreg, no less. She had a long way before the merger was finalized, and any extra edge she had against the lab rats – particularly a wannabe lab rat – could prove useful. She extended her hand, thinking of all the people she would have to pay to make it happen.


     “Sounds like I better not then.” She put on an arched brow and mock surprise. “I had no idea Vorrum had a cousin living in the capital, Mr…?”


     “Bodmir Tellick.” He smiled wide as he took her hand. “You won’t regret this.”


     “Oh, I know I won’t.” She smiled, mentally putting the people who would monitor her new asset right at the top of that list.


     *                                                           *                                                           *


     “So, we should be reaching the next Wave for the fleet to ride sometime within the hour,” Seti began, walking with Bod down one of corridors of her ship, staring down on the dark turquoise oceans of their home planet. He carried a new suitcase shaped kit behind him, and adjusted his new grey coat – a gift in exchange for his prior attire and Vorrum’s badge. “There’s a small lurch when we start, but it’s harmless, and we will reach Larissa’s first stop in her run – a nice, lush asteroid belt some of your caste mates are staying at to study gas veins and help expedite the mining efforts – and then it’s off to Braxirion, a frozen wasteland we draw water from to sell and restock our reserves with. We’ve also got a FAC run – that’s Food And Commerce – to the shipyards that’s within shuttle distance from the planet, and that’s our first day out here in The Deep.” Bod was still staring down at his home, and his middle-aged tour guide smiled at a reflection of her first time in orbit manifesting before her so perfectly. “Every day on our route is an average of 3-5 systems we have to visit, depending on how many runs are in each system and proximity of each visited system. The whole kit and caboodle takes about 4 months, but we often follow up information that may lead to another couple of months out here. The squadron of fighters from the Military caste dock within our transport ships within the wave between stops and run patrols between drops and security for the whales, but unless we hear on Communications about pirate activity, we have a minimum detail deployed – we’re not here to start any wars, mind – just cautious. We’ve had our share of bad sales, and it has been in our best interest to have them out there.”


     “That’s more than fair – around how far into this league am I with you for?” He asked, a boyish grin flashing up at Seti.


     “About halfway in, although I believe our mutual benefactor agreed to put you on retainer while you’re here. As the liaison to the Manufacturers in our fleet, it’s our ship’s primary function to constantly be brainstorming new, more efficient technology for the fleet and capital to utilize. I would like you to begin working at increasing our fuel efficiency, and to see if you can get an extra 10% out of our engines for the hydroponics bays. Think you can handle that?” She stopped her tour mid-hallway in front of a metallic door, whirring open at the touch of the panel beside it.


     “I know I can, Captain.” He replied, looking into the guest quarters – a simple cot, blanket and pillow, a metal desk protruding the wall and a chair for it – with almost delight. “I’m really looking forward to getting to my new position, but these particular tasks seem like a walk in the park; excellent work to start in a new environment.”


     “Well, your heap of parts to work with is just at the end of the hall – I’ll get a couple people in there to help by tomorrow to give you a hand, and as soon as you access the ship’s cloud, we can give you pertinent files for projects coming your way. Thank you for your time, T.M.T Tellick – I look forward to working together.” Seti extended a hand and Bod took it.


     “Thank you, Captain; I appreciate this opportunity.” The disguised Dreg slipped into his new quarters, setting his kit against the wall and taking a small pad out of his coat pocket to begin syncing it as his new Captain mentioned. He wasn’t a fan of keeping Seti in the dark, but he considered it a successful first practice in what he felt would be a lifetime of playing with toys he never could have dream to understand prior to his self-induced experiment, and the lifetime game of pretend he was stuck with because of it. He unbuckled his headpiece, rubbing his temples as he felt the humming in the back of his ears of it being in standby fade. He decided the next model would need a better strap, something he could stand having on his head a little longer, maybe calibrate the current to lower the symphony in his head – it was getting distracting during the tour, and he knew he missed some critical locales within the colossal, factory ship – namely, a bathroom.


     “Technomancy Technician Tellick.” He recited his new title with a small chuckle, cracking open his suitcase sized case, withdrawing Vorrum’s pad and beginning to study. He smiled, thinking about Tamin back home, scolding him about his junk, how wrong she was about the one habit he just couldn’t shake. He scrolled over to read up on asteroid gasses. ‘Perhaps I decided something else would be just a phase.’

Pixies

A Story by Tyler Beaulac

     We found a Way through. At first, we sent in a team of explorers and scientists, curious to document, study and understand. The realm of fairies furnished them with wonder and knowledge. We quickly learned that emotions, thoughts and feelings could be made manifest in one form or another. We were given paradise. We saw a resource.

     The land stretched on, verdant, as far as we could see in every direction. If this world truly was the crystallization of humanity’s potential, then we figured it was boundless. The inhabitants were beautiful and gregarious in the extreme, but resisted our tests and attempts to harvest. In the end, we sent in soldiers. I was among them. I and my dearest companion, Terrence.

     Each one of us was intent on using the resources of this place to save our dying world. After all, where would it be without us? We hadn’t considered that it might not want to be used. Whatever our reasons, our mission was theft.

     As we marched through the Way, we were unaware that the membrane on which we stood, the Land of the Faeries, could bend, break and permit. It was a sieve. In gathering, we’d reached a threshold and plummeted to the depths where intentions live. The land of the Pixies.

     It wasn’t a fall. Or, rather, it wasn’t a drop. We simply materialized at the mouth of a grand cave. The stalactites were ringed in impenetrable shadow, the stalagmites were darkness. We spread out to cover the perimeter, but we couldn’t possibly have prepared for the creature, the THING, we found. It stirred, slowly woke, and quickly gained momentum. It was a titanic ball of rippling flesh, scab, and bone. As it fell upon our scattered group, under a hail of machine-gun fire, its unity shattered. Forms burst forth from it, carved out -still attached- and raked through our ranks. Every form we killed, it would feast upon. A maw of flesh appearing in the thing, closing around the body, bone shattered flesh under the blunt trauma. Crushing, grinding, swallowing, feeding its impossible metabolic girth with itself.

     For all its auto-cannibalism, it quickly overpowered us. Too much. Too many. We fell back to the mouth of the cave. We fell back into the wild unknown. We fell.

     Yet, as our numbers thinned before the atrocious thing, we vanished from where we’d been. Finding ourselves, instead, in a shadowed glen. Trees shaded us from the elements and provided cover from the terrifying predators we couldn’t comprehend.

     Sweeping the area, we cleared away rocks, plants, animals and sounds. We took knife to root and hollow-point to movement. We established a guard, took shifts and, round the fire, took stock of what we knew. At the time, it turned out to be very little. As night fell, we set to sleep and watch. Screams echoed through the camp. I watched it happen to someone, overwhelmed into inaction.

     It had Jeff in a wooden vice. Its undeniable force ripped through his uniform, his boots. His skin tore, at first, as it was roughly scraped from his feet, but, once inside, the thing merely rippled through his flesh. Putrescent, his body dissolved within the skin-sac and leaked out of his orifices, out of himself. Then, like a sickly party favor, he was filled again by the malleable core-flesh of the envious tree. Rooted still, at its entry point, the puppet lashed out to claw a fleeing victim, its nails and finger-flesh scraping off of the wood underneath. It stood before us, out of reach, splintered fingers bare, on two gnarled roots, in Jeff’s skin. It was a nightmare I resisted comprehending.

     I grabbed Terry. We ran. Alone, we appeared, again, in another land. It was a gray area, unremarkable and terrifying. Nothing made sense. Nothing could be grasped or seen. It was enigma.

     I realized then what I’ve told you now. Maybe it was madness or delusion. A wild rush of hope after all I’d seen, but I knew we were near the surface. I just had to break through the meniscus.

     Whatever I’d understood, Terry hadn’t. The knife sunk easily into his unguarded neck.

     Yet, nothing happened. I was just alone. So, alone, I wandered.

I would never have realized it then, but, in leaving them to die, we’d broken the covenant of our Watch. We’d sealed ourselves within our depth. Murdering him merely left me with his sins. Now, the weight of my crimes alone were enough to keep me here.

     Here, I stay. Through study and practice, I’ve manifested many things, but there is no Way back. However, on the right night, in the right way, I can send a message through.

Please. Heed these words. Your motives are not your intentions. Respect our demons.

     Tell Terry’s family I’m so sorry.


Citizenship

A Story by Timo Korpelainen

 

     The sun was playing hide and seek in the overcast skies of the Capital, but even on the brightest days the Gutters held a gloom, almost as if the sunlight only reluctantly ventured that far down the social ladder. Serai moved purposefully toward a small cafe and flicked her short black hair out of her eyes. With no breeze, the subtle shifting of the platinum highlights in her hair became more evident, and she hated wearing a hat to cover them up.  The Old Man had told her once that the platinum discoloration was a normal side effect of having pulled too much magic through her body and that she shouldn’t worry so much about it.  She still felt it made her stand out too much, though.  People tended to remember the short girl with the platinum highlights, which made running most of the shadier sorts of jobs too impractical for her to do.  It really limited the income options for an orphan girl growing up in the alleys and backways of the Gutters.

     When she entered the cafe, she took a look around the shabby little establishment, noting the few occupied tables and easily picking out the one with the two street toughs she was here to meet with.  They were both young, easily a year or two younger than her own seventeen years, and they were obviously trying, and failing, to give off an air of calm professionalism, but the smaller blonde one on the right kept drumming his fingers on the tabletop and his larger, auburn haired partner was constantly shifting in his seat and glancing nervously around the small dining room.  She strode over and sat down across from them and studied them coldly for a few seconds before finally saying, “This is the best that the Hammers could send me.”

     The blonde one swallowed visibly and responded, “We were told you needed some help for a job.  The Hammers always deliver when their contracted.”

     Serai shook her head slightly, “Well, what do I call you?  I’m not taking you on a mission if I have to keep referring to you as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dumber.”

     The larger, auburn haired youth sneered, “I’m Devray and this is Trence, and we won’t be disrespected like this.  We’re with the Hammers.  You’ll regret this when we tell our bosses about it.”

     “I’m with the Rebel Underground.  We’re fighting the government and aren’t intimidated by some Gutters gang that believes their important because they hold onto a patch of dirt down in this shithole slum.”  Serai let them process that for a few seconds before continuing, “Remember that I’m the one in charge of this operation, and my backers can make you disappear with a snap of their fingers, just like they did to the Crushers.”

     The Crushers had been a small gang, just starting up fairly recently, when the entire group had vanished.  Nobody was sure what had happened to them, but the rumour mill was grinding out theories like crazy.  Serai had an inside source though that had let her know that the entire gang had run afoul of the government Red Shirts, the secret police.  These low tier members of a minor gang would have no chance of knowing that, so her story and threat should sound more than plausible enough for the time being.  There were always rumours going around about rebel groups getting ready to overthrow the regime, especially down in the Gutters.  The most important thing was that they didn’t believe that she was acting alone, otherwise they’d turn on her for their own profit.

     After several seconds of thought, Trence opened his mouth with a puzzled expression only to be overridden by Devray saying, “Yeah, I’d heard something about the Rebels being involved with that.  So what exactly is this job of yours?” 

     “Data snatch.  Details are need to know, just meet me at edge of District 2 once the patrols change to late night routes.”

     “Fine, we’ll be there.”  After which, the two boys pushed back their chairs and tried to look intimidating as they sauntered out of the cafe.

     Serai smiled to herself as they left, “And that ends the easy part.”

     


     It was just past 2AM when the city patrollers finally started to settle into the more infrequent late night patrol routes.  Curfew had passed several hours ago, but there were always citizens out later than that at various bars and restaurants throughout the city and the patrol didn’t enforce curfew regulations if you could show you were a properly registered citizen.  Of course, nobody in the Gutters was registered, you had to be born to registered parents or pay 10000 credits and take a written exam to become registered.  No Gutters dweller would see that kind of cash in one lifetime and the exam was written at a university level that an education deprived Gutters kid couldn’t even hope to pass.  The free education offered to all residents covered only reading, writing, basic math, and the glorious history of the benevolent regime.  Most Gutters kids didn’t even complete that much before having to enter the workforce, in one form or another.

     Serai slipped out of the shadows on the fringes of District 2 and stared around the quiet, empty streets.  It was in a District just like this one were Serai had been arrested two weeks ago for failing to be a citizen in a Registered Citizens District.  She needed to get that dealt with before an actual court date was set, or she’d find herself shipped off to one of the work camps out at the edges of the State’s control were the “terraforming” was still being done.  It wasn’t like she could just slip away deeper into the Gutters, her distinctive appearance would be far too easy to track.  She’d tried dyeing her hair any number of times, but the colour never stuck.  Stupid magic.

     She’d only been standing there musing for a few minutes before the two boys found her.  Trence moved quietly, with his eyes always scanning the surroundings looking for possible trouble, while Devray seemed to just lumber along like he belonged here.  Serai guessed that Trence had run into trouble with the Red Shirts at some point and Devray had not.  When the boys reached the spot that Serai had chosen as her stakeout point, she quietly and sarcastically said, “I’m glad you could join me today for this fun and exciting adventure.  Our goal tonight is to break into the Citizens Registration Bureau offices located here in Registered Citizens Commercial District 2.  Trence, while we’re inside the building, your job will be to keep a look out for any patrols and give a warning if they approach.  Devray, you’ll be with me inside.  You’ll be gathering up all the hard copy files you can find while I hack the computer systems.  Once we’re done, we leave and head to the address in the Gutters that you’re bosses should have given you.  That’s the drop point for the files we’re taking.  If all goes well, that’ll be the end of the job.  Clear?”


      Both boys eyes had widened at the mention of breaking into a government office, but they both nodded when Serai concluded her quick briefing.  She studied them both for a few more seconds to make sure they weren’t going to start panicking, and then with an abrupt “follow me” gesture she headed deeper into the District.  With the streets deserted this late at night, Serai chose a route that took them along the edges of the buildings, darting quickly from shadow to shadow with Trence ghosting silently along right behind her.  Devray brought up the rear like an awkward teenager trying to move quietly and Serai had to grit her teeth to prevent herself from snapping at the boy.  If they were lucky, they would manage to get to the offices without running into any patrols.

     It turns out they were lucky, and they arrived at the Registration Office without any incidents.  The building itself was just a square block of concrete settled in between a tailor and an office supply store.  The regime had a strict policy of no ground floor windows on any government building, and since the Registration Office was only one story, it had no external windows at all. Someone had tried to soften the appearance of the place by putting some shrubberies out front, but the effect just made it look like a concrete box with bushes in front of it.  It just wasn’t very welcoming.

     Serai quickly moved up to the front doors and pulled a small tool kit out of one of the deep pockets in the long coat she was wearing and proceeded to remove the faceplate on the front doors lock pad.  She then adjusted some wires inside the box and within ten seconds there was an audible click as the front door locks disengaged.  Devray pushed the door open and poked his head inside briefly before signalling the all clear and Serai quickly replaced the cover on the lock pad.  When she was done she looked around to tell Trence to get into position, but he had already moved to a shadowed nook in front of the tailor that gave him a clear view of both directions on the street.  Even as she watched, Trence seemed to fade deeper into the shadows and became harder to pick out.  Serai suspected that Trence may have some magic of his own to draw on, whether or not he knew it.  With a quick nod of her head, Serai motioned to Devray to grab the two carry bags that they had brought with them and then slipped quietly into the building behind him.

     The interior of the building unfortunately matched the exterior, with just a few potted plants scattered around the main room trying forlornly to give the impression that somebody cared.  There were several privacy booths for applicants to fill out paperwork or try their hand at the written examination, but the room was dominated by the counter that ran the entire length of the building at the far side of the room.  There was a door behind the counter that led to the back offices, and that was their particular target.

     Serai led the way this time, hopping nimbly over the counter instead of using the passthrough at the far end, and heading straight to the door into the rear area of the building.  Behind the door were three offices and a storage room.  As soon as Devray joined her, Serai motioned him into the store room and said, “Get all the paper files they have in there then come find me in the director’s office.”

     Devray just nodded and moved into the room to start his work.  Serai moved further down the hall to the largest of the three offices and entered.  The office was luxurious, even by government standards, with a large real wood desk, probably imported from the East Continent, and two deep leather visitor chairs.  There was a fully stocked bar along one wall, and thick plush carpeting on the floor.  Serai moved around the desk to the directors chair and sat down at his terminal.  The desk and chair were raised enough that her feet didn’t even touch the floor when she sat down, and she sighed to herself as she realized how ridiculous she must look right now.  She just could not catch any breaks lately.

     As she waited for the terminal to boot up, Serai took the opportunity to go through the desk and see if there was anything interesting to be found.There was nothing really unexpected, though in one drawer she found a sizable collection of unmarked credit chips, the extra hidden cost of gaining citizenship, bribes.  The entire stack vanished into another of Serai’s many pockets, and she fished out an external data storage device that she plugged into the terminal as it finished it’s startup sequence.  The programs she had preloaded onto the device quickly sliced their way through the simple protections on the terminal and she soon had full access to the entire Registered Citizens directory.  The first thing was to check to see if her name was associated with any upcoming court appearances.  She couldn’t just remove her own arrest records from here, those were kept in a separate facility with a closed system and much higher security than she could easily breach at this time, but she could check the public court schedules and see if her date had been set yet.  She breathed a short sigh of relief when she couldn’t find anything.  Hooray for bureaucratic backlog.  If the court date had already been set, then this whole exercise would have been for nothing.  Since it hadn’t been set yet, she could move on to step two.


 

 

     While she set the storage device to copying the citizen directory to itself, she began searching for an access point for the back up files of the registry.  Most people didn’t realize that the entire citizens registry was updated and backed up to a secondary secured server every two weeks.  Serai wanted access to that server and the directors terminal was the most likely place to find it.  The security on it was much higher than what was on the more easily accessible working copy of the registry, and Serai didn’t want to leave any traces that she had been in there, so this was going to be tricky.  She paused for a few moments to collect herself then placed her hands on the keyboard and closed her eyes.  With a few muttered words she began drawing up the magical energies from the planet below her and directed them into the terminal through her body.  Techno magery was not an unheard of art, but so far as Serai had been able to find, nobody had ever applied it to software the way she did.  She rode the flows of the magic and the code in the computer was whispered to her mind in a steady stream of information that she could direct and reorganize with her thoughts alone.  She shifted the flows past the security procedures that protected the backup of the registry and began scanning through the files that were suddenly opened before her.  As she searched, she sent another tendril of her power to begin creating an entry for herself in the backup.  She paused suddenly as she came across a file that would serve her purposes, a girl about her own age who had been born a Registered Citizen named April Strothers.  Obviously from a fairly wealthy family, given that they chose to go with an Old Earth name for their daughter, something only the social elite bothered with these days.  Trying to keep the memories alive, Serai supposed.  She had attended a private school in the Districts until about four years ago, when her parents had pulled her out and shifted to private tutors and educated her at home.  Not uncommon for the wealthier classes, the regular schools were good enough for basic education, but finishing touches were always done one on one.  April didn’t have any outstanding achievements or demerits on her record, which meant she hadn’t really drawn any attention from the regime.  Perfect.

     Serai shifted her focus slightly and copied April’s file wholesale onto the new entry she was making for herself.  Now Serai had an official past, and a totally clean one at that.  Just before closing it down it occured to Serai that she didn’t have a family name on her record.  That would definitely be odd, she needed to pick one.  With April’s history in mind, she decided to go with an exotic name from Old Earth, Anderson.  She directed her attention briefly to the progress of the copying from the working server and smiled slightly in satisfaction as she saw it was proceeding smoothly and would be done shortly.  Time to begin wrapping things up.  Closing the newly created file for Serai Anderson, she carefully backed out the backup system, being sure to cover any traces that she had even found that the backup existed.  She spent a few moments studying everything once she was out to ensure it still looked correct and then withdrew her magic from the computer and just sat breathing for the next few minutes as she let her mind readjust to looking at the real world through mundane eyes.

     It was as Serai was repocketing the external storage device that Devray entered the office.  “Are you almost done in here yet?”, he asked, obviously trying to cover his nerves once again with a show of bravado.

     “The security was more tricky than I expected,” Serai lied smoothly, “I just got in.  A few more minutes to delete everything and we can go.”

     Devray looked startled for a moment before a cruel smile settled onto his face, “Yeah, that’ll really show those upstart citizens.  See how they like being unregistered when the whole thing collapses.”

     Serai didn’t bother to correct Devray’s misconception that this would be some sort of permanent solution.  She figured the Citizen’s Registry Department would have all the files replaced from the backups within half a day, the only lost data would be what was still on hard copy waiting to be entered, no more than two weeks worth of changes at best.  The important thing for Serai was that when the backups were copied, she would suddenly become a Registered Citizen, and the charges filed against her would error out of the system, since it is impossible for a Registered Citizen to be arrested for not being a Registered Citizen.  Instead, Serai just nodded solemnly to Devray and said, “It will be a great blow for the Rebels against the regime….Now we should get out of here.”

     Serai staggered slightly as she hopped down from the chair, using her magic always left her a little unsteady for awhile, but Devray had already turned away and didn’t see that minor show of weakness.  With Devray carrying the bags of files, they both used the passthrough to get back into the main reception area and paused at the front doors to signal Trence for the all clear.  He appeared so suddenly at the door that the only reason Serai didn’t jump was because she was too tired to.  She let Trence pick their route out of the District and back into the relative safety of the Gutters and just moved in a half awake trance to the drop location, a small basement apartment in one of the seedier sections of the Gutters.  Once everything was dropped off, Devray turned to Serai and demanded, “What about our payment?”

     Serai just eyed him coldly and responded, “Your bosses were paid in advance for your services, as always.  Talk to them about pay, that’s not my problem.”

     Devray scowled, but let it drop as he turned away from her and all three of them made their way back up to the street level.  Trence flashed Serai a half-mocking salute, “I guess this is where we part ways.  It was a pleasure working with you.”

     Serai merely nodded in response and watched them walk away.  Once they were completely out of sight, she turned and headed back down the stairs to the apartment.  Between the bribe money and the data files that she could sell to various forgers around town, she had turned quite a tidy profit with this nights work.  She sat wearily in the middle of her living room and pulled one of the carry bags to her.  Now to see if there were any interesting tidbits that hadn’t made it to the computers yet.