[SecSan] Lapse Alpha

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Booted Vulture
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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Booted Vulture » Tue Sep 27, 2011 8:58 pm

Siege wrote:Seventh instance is up, and it's familiar faces all 'round.
By all 'round. You mean Sarah's there? :P I was expecting the rest of the 303rd at least when you said that. Damn domestic issues! :P
Ah Brother! It's been too long!

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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Siege » Mon Oct 03, 2011 12:47 pm

Lapse Alpha (Cont.)


ν (nu)

The CTI safe-house is a burning ruin. The top three dozen floors of the starscraper are gone, vanished in a drumfire holocaust that has strewn flaming debris across half of downtown Nikeovast. Someone got to Bateau's people before I could and now they're dead, and so is everybody else who happened to be anywhere near that building top when it went up. A missile, or maybe simple explosives, I can't tell from this distance and I don't fancy getting any closer. Sirens flare in the night, all aspects of High Inhofer's civil protection mobilized to deal with the inferno raging two kilometers in the sky. Emergency Management drones circle the building top, colossal crablike things the size of small mountains, dispersing fire-retardant foam from a bewildering myriad telescoping appendages. If nothing else, the sight of those alien tentacle forests convinces me that something's going on. Somebody out there has broken out the big guns, and it's a fair bet they're gunning for me.


I cringe at the wailing of the sirens and prop up my jacket collar in an attempt to blend into the crowds. I'm looking out at where the safe-house used to be from the skywalk clinging to the side of a nearby arcology, a promenade coming up out of the depths of the mammoth structure and looping its way around before linking with a spiderweb such galleries and monorail lines bridging the angles of the world-city. In the dazzling spaces between mountainous edifices festooned with glum neon, drones and repulsorlift vehicles flash by, covered in urban camo but flashing Citidef holos. Throngs of people now litter the skywalk promenades, disaster tourists unsatisfied with computer-corrected holos and come to see the spectacle for themselves. An enterprising merchant in an apron has set up a doughnut stand and is offering his baked goodness to any passers-by.

I'm not hungry. Combat stims are still clearing the alcohol from my body. Artificial adrenalin is keeping my senses clear. The usual five anyway. I don't fancy using the rest. I haven't used my skills in years, not since Kaeleron. I don't want to sink into the trance. High Inhofer made it easier; the telepathic susurrus of its million million people is an ocean beneath which I could sink those parts of myself I wished gone, at least until they rose to the surface of my dreams at night. For years I have pushed that part of myself as far under as I could manage, tried to drown it in the maelstrom of random thought, vainly hoping that someday I'd wake up actually feeling like myself.

It was hard enough to disentangle from the trance when I was a field operative. Now, I'm an insane drunk. Dissociative identity at its worst: I barely know who I am at the best of times. If I let go of what little grasp I have on myself, chances are I'm not going to be able to find my way back. Frankly, I'm scared out of my wits just thinking about what might happen.

No weapon. No armor. No bag of tricks, and no backup. And someone just blew up half a building to get at me. I feel exposed and defenseless. I turn away from the inferno in the middle distance, prepare to slink away. There's a loud thump-crashing sound behind me. I turn. The doughnut man and his stand have vanished, gruesomely pancaked by a giant in a hulking suit of military powered armor. From the look of it, the thing has come falling out of the goddamn sky. The suit – at least I think it's a suit, could be a drone for all I know – has to be at least eight foot high, all bonded ceramic plates and smooth buckycarbon curves, broad as a LARC with the proportions of an absurdly armored ape. The giant steps forward with a sound of metal grinding over metal, cocks its head as armored sensor globes regards me, then produces what looks an awful lot like a pulse-cycle laser. With a weirdly fluid motion he aims it at my chest.

Oh, fuck.

For a moment I think I'll freeze. Then ancient reflexes kick in. I drop flat a millisecond before the whine of charging capacitors reaches its crescendo. A hot-red beam scythes overhead, catching innocent bystanders by complete surprise and instantly killing a half-score of them. Pandemonium. The world turns red with vaporized gore. Bodies drop. Blood gushes from severed limbs and badly cauterized wounds. The penetrating scent of blood and ozone fills my nostrils, awful and familiar. It's eerily quiet. Things are happening so fast, nobody's had the chance to scream yet. I roll, half-avoiding half-pushing away bodies that threatens to slump over me. I catch a glimpses of terrible wounds, horribly straight and partially cauterized; of eyes glazed over in death or dying; welters of blood and innards. The air is a red haze. Bodies litter the sidewalk. I crawl away on hands and knees, staining my hands crimson.

Only now does the screaming start, the wail of the wounded and the terrified hollering of survivors. Flocks of panicking people scatter all over the skywalk and the promenade and I can't see my attacker.

That's good though. He can't know if he got me, and chances are if I can't see him he can't see me, either. That gives me a moment to get clear. But where to? Free of the carnage I crawl to my feet and start running, heedless of direction as long as I get the hell away from that awful gun. In the distance behind the burning starscraper the Tyvek-Corion space elevator is a pillar of light, reaching into the sky.

Off-world. I have to get off this planet.

A thought strikes me. Why? A little over an hour ago I was ready to give up on life. But the smell of seared human flesh lingers in my nose. Life sucks, but that's not how I want to go.

There's yelling behind me, and it's not the hollering of the terrified or the dying. Somebody knows I'm not a corpse yet. Somebody's after me. The thunder-crash of power-suited footsteps chases me. Crap. I need to get clear, fast. And I need a weapon, preferably even faster.

The skywalks are a complex multilevel spiderweb hanging between the dazzling towers of High Inhofer, brightly lit by hovering glow-globes. Vaulting around them at equal distances are safety casters, complex ring-like devices that simultaneously keep the walkways suspended in mid-air and project low-level force screens that prevent anyone from plunging toward the ground, two or more kilometers below. Below many of the skywalks run electromote lines, monorails similarly suspended. Red alarm lights flicker atop all of the casters, warning the populace that something untoward is going on. The skywalks are emptying fast, leaving me awfully exposed as I run across one of these steel beams as fast as my legs can carry me.

Logic says Citidef is going to be here in only a few moments. Logic is such a liar.

I risk a glance over my shoulder, just in time to see a half dozen or more men come onto the promenade where the massacre took place. They wear dark blue musclesuits and wield pulse guns and other weapons. They're shooting whatever civilians get in their way. Looks like they don't want any witnesses, though I can't imagine what for – the technates are bound to have satellite surveillance up already... For all the good that will do. Just ahead of the murderers is the giant in powered armor, bounding after me onto the skywalk. He barely fits under the casters. Whenever his movement drives him near the safety screens there's a flashing of otherworldly colors – bremsstrahlung produced by the complex interaction of fundamental forces. So he's got a force shield on that damned suit. Poser. I don't even have a gun. But the thought that whoever's inside that thing felt it necessary makes me feel a little better about myself.

There's no more time for self-congratulatory thoughts though; my enemies – whoever the hell they are – are on the skywalk too, lead by the armored giant who is just as eager to do me in as he was before. I make it to an intersection just in time and toss myself down an escalator to the lower level even as he fires again. The red beam tears through the space my body occupied just a moment before. I can feel the heat lashing blisters onto the exposed skin of my back as the laser strikes the caster field. The force screen flashes blue, violet, then red and finally with an audible thump and a flash of multihued sparks the generator burns out. A section of the safety field vanishes, leaving the wind free to blow onto the now-open skywalk. I fall flat on the escalator, impacting painfully on the moving skirt plates. That's going to leave bruises, if I have enough time left to bruise. Moving automatically downward, I get up and bound down the escalator two, three steps at a time. Somewhere behind me men are yelling, I think at the asshole with the portable laser. I can't make out what they're saying over the wind. Hopefully they're cussing the asshole in the suit because they want me alive, but I don't intend to stick around to find out. At the bottom of the escalator is a small plaza lined with little shops, all of them closed and shuttered. Red alarms are still flashing even though here, too, the security fields are out, and the high-altitude winds are powerful enough it feels like someone's trying to blow my clothes off. It's damned cold. I dodge left onto another walkway.

At this point I'm beginning to realize I'm properly screwed. There are only so many skywalks, and all the ones in my immediate vicinity hang between the three nearby arcologies. One is the building I just escaped from, the way back to which is now cut off by my pursuers. Another is the one where the safehouse used to be, and the explosion that erased the CTI compound from the face of the galaxy has also blown the skywalks clear off the building, reducing what's left to ruined and half-molten steel appendages dangling into empty space. That leaves only one way for me to go, and it's obvious my pursuers realize this too. I'm still at least a full klick away from the relative safety of the third arco, a glittery glass egg that towers multiple kilometers above all of this but they – whoever 'they' are – are already moving onto the other walkways, boxing me in and trying to cut me off. The wanton high-rise of High Inhofer twinkles in the neon-lit near distance, tauntingly near and yet so far away those giant structures might as well be on the friggin' moon for all the good it'll do me right now.

Drones and LARCs whirl overhead, but somehow none of them are sporting the Citidef colors I hope to see. What I can see is other figures emerge from the third arcology, men in deep blue musclesuits, waving pulse guns like they mean business. I don't think those guys are the police. There's a loud crashing sound as the powersuit muscles its way down an escalator that's far too small to accommodate it, tearing it to pieces in the process. This isn't going well. I'm getting boxed in, and there's no way off these damned walkways.

Or maybe there is.

No time for second thoughts. I dash right at the nearest intersection, heading toward the burning upper levels of the third arco. My feet pound the metal of the empty skybridge, but my pursuers are getting closer. I can feel my heart batter my chest cavity. My lungs are burning; so are my legs. I'm way the hell out of shape, and they are not. I can hear the rapidly approaching pounding of power-assisted movement. They're almost onto me, but I still manage to beat them to the edge of the ravaged skybridge. The wind rushes past the hole where the caster shield abruptly ends; the walkway itself extends several meters beyond the shield, mangled and bent steel mezzanines extending precariously into nothingness. The whirlwind gale tugs at my jacket when I step onto that ledge, only a single step from the edge. It's a two hundred meter leap to the edge of the burning arcology in the distance. The tortured metal creaks and groans dangerously under my weight. Sparks are shooting from severed power conduits. I turn around.

The armored giant stands at the edge of the caster shield, only a handful of meters away. His steel-plated feet are denting the metal of the skywalk. The laser mounted on his left arm is pointing at my heart. On his right is some kind of micro-missile battery. I can see g-thrusters mounted on the legs and back of the suit. At least that explains how the hell he managed to drop from the sky like that. Muscle-suited minions are lining up behind it with military precision, a respectful distance away.

Silence for a moment. The suit looks at me, sensor globes and millimeter wave dishes trained in my direction. I bet he can tell I'm unarmed. I look at the giant, waiting for the sound of the laser cycling up. It doesn't come. There's a hiss of hydraulics, and the upper torso begins to fold open, layers of armor and laser-shielding puckering away on internal hinges to let the man inside look down on me with his own eyes. He's of average height and average build; his hair is brown and of average length – in fact, pretty much everything is average about him, everything except his eyes. I recognize him instantly, and by his smile I can tell he knows I do.

Well, well. How's this for a twist? “Fontaine,” I greet him and I furiously try to keep myself from breathing too hard. I'm not doing too good a job at that. I force my hands into my jacket pockets to keep them from shaking. “You're supposed to be dead.”

My old enemy looks amused. There's not even a scar on him. “And you're supposed to be an easy target. Guess that means at least one of us is right, hey Renner?”

I look at him with an expression that hopefully appears more confident than I feel. “That remains to be seen.” This close and with the torso opened I can see just how obscene that suit of armor he's wearing really is. Cambered sheaves of density-enhanced buckycarbon and diamondoid materials alternate with elastic and heat-dissipating layers, all of it bonded to a tungsten alloy backing plate. I haven't kept up with the latest in death-dealing tech, but I'm guessing this is a top-of-the-line warsuit. Carnage Marines would've killed to get their hands on this thing. If his sudden case of un-dead-ness or the way he dealt with Bateau's men weren't enough, that thing alone would be sufficient to establish that Fontaine's got connections. I bet that suit would hold up to anti-tank fire.

“Yes, I suppose you're right.” His voice drips with fake politeness. He's enjoying himself immensely. “C'mon, Renner. Ask me what I want.”

“In case you forgot, I've never cared about what you want, Fontaine.” I'm getting my breathing back under control, now. “This really doesn't look like the place to start.”

A motion, and the giant suit inches the laser a little closer. “Oh, but it does.”

As far as arguments go, having a pulse-cycle laser pointed at your face is fairly compelling, so I roll my eyes and comply with the insane maniac. “Fine. What do you want?”

“What do you think I want?” Suddenly he's barking. “I want the same thing I've always wanted! I want Backslide!”

Backslide. A rumor of numbers, blackbook accounting. A deep space shipyard destroyed, an entire Underfleet gone missing. It's a myth. It has to be. I mean, how can an entire battlefleet go missing, right?


I can't help myself. I laugh in his face. “Backslide? Jesus, Fontaine. Why the hell are you asking me about this? What makes you think I know anything? Does it look like I know anything?”

I expect him to get angry. Hell, I expect him to just shoot me. He doesn't do either. Instead he just smiles. It's a handsome smile, the smile of someone you can trust – ONI engineered him that way. But with those eyes, somehow it only serves to make him look even more fucking deranged.
“Oh don't worry. I'm sure you don't know a damned thing, Renner.” He lifts his suit's right hand, points two oversized robotic fingers at his temple. “Which is why I want what else is in your head.”

What else- “What do you mean?”

His smile widens. “You're not alone in there, are you Annamaria? Ye-es, I know a thing or two about that. And here I am thinking... You might not know, sure. But she might.”

I cringe involuntarily. “It doesn't work that way.”

“Maybe not.” He shrugs. “Or maybe you're lying. Or maybe you don't know what you have. Either way you've got nowhere to go. Give me what I want and I'll consider letting you live.”

“Why do I doubt that?”

A shrug, translating sluggishly through the powersuit's armored shoulders. “Doesn't look like you have much of a choice.”

“You say that...” I treat him to the best number two sneer I can muster. Then I grit my teeth. I'm about to do something spectacularly stupid. Insane, even. Then again, I am, am I not? “... even though I learned this one from you.”

From the look on his face I can tell Fontaine realizes what I'm about to do. His armor closes up automatically and he begins to lunge, thrusters flaring, but that handful of meters is enough to assure he won't get to me in time.


I step back and let myself fall, feet-first, into the emptiness.

For a moment I simply plummet. The air rushes by, incredibly cold this high up. I look down and immediately regret it. Two kilometers to the ground is a long way when there's nothing between you and it but the soles of your shoes. I desperately grasp for the ledge. For a panicked second I think I've missed it, then my fingers grab hold of cold steel and a painful shock jolts down my spine and shoulders as my full falling weight comes to an abrupt halt. The broken monorail beam hangs some ten meters below the ledge I've just dropped off, and extends only centimeters beyond it.

Right. So now I'm hanging off a line of ruined rail above the abyss. From the frying pan, into the fire. I'm scared out of my wits, but I'm even more scared of what Fontaine intends to do if he gets hold of me. So I fight to control my vertigo and swing my legs up, wrapping them around the beam before hauling myself up onto it.

Balancing on a beam thirty centimeters wide is harder than it looks, especially when you've a troposphere hurricane doing its best to blow you off and your body's still working overtime to clear a hefty dose of alcohol from your bloodstream. I anemically wrap-pull-crawl along the monorail until I reach the relative safety of the functioning caster field, where the wind can only blows at my back.

Then Fontaine finally decides to show up. There's a shrill flaring of thrusters as he drops down toward the monorail beam, maneuvering deftly on a field of anti-gravity. So apart from everything else he can fly too. I'm beginning to hate that ridiculous suit of his more with every passing second. Fontaine's laughter is a maniac electronic buzz. I look over my shoulder just in time to see him slide through mid-air onto the ledge to which I'm clinging. “Nice try, but you can't hide from me Renner.” He cuts his thrusters to land on the beam.

That is a mistake.

I don't know how much that warsuit weighs, but with all that armor and the way it dented the skywalk earlier it's got to be tens of tons at least, probably more. As he cuts the thrusters all that weight comes to rest solely on two steel-shod feet, which in turn land heavily on the beam. Too heavily. The tortured metal of the monorail line promptly shears and gives way under his bulk. Fontaine manages a surprised yelp before three meters of frazzled metal and he go plummeting into the depths.

I can't help it. I suppress a snicker, which promptly turns into a panicked choke as the steel beam groans beneath me, acutely reminding me that this is not a safe place. Besides, Fontaine isn't going to just fall to his second death. I'm not that lucky – he'll be back sooner rather than later. That means I have only a very brief moment to get out of here alive. Time to get going then. I push myself up to my feet, take a moment to find my balance, and start running again.

It's an utterly weird sensation. There's nothing around me but the narrow metal ledge that stretches ahead and the web of larger walkways that hangs somewhere above me. The caster fields that surround the monorail are all but invisible: unlike those up on the skywalk these fields are designed solely to stop the wind from rocking the electromote carriages running along the monorails. Since people aren't supposed to be able to exit an electromote when it's still moving, the fields won't stop anyone from falling straight through them. I try my damned best not to think too much about that as I run over the slippery rail as fast as I dare. I used to do this kind of thing for a living. But back then I had hardsuit armor, a condensor with plenty power and most of all, brass balls and an overabundance of faith in myself. All that's long gone. Now I'm running over a steel beam in nothing but jeans, shirt and a leather jacket. If this goes wrong, I'm going to have all the time in the world to reflect on my stupidity before I hit the ground.

Still better than being cut in half with a laser though. And if I can make it to the next station I might just have a chance.

But luck only gets you so far. I'm grossly out of shape and tiring fast, my body took a nasty hit from the drop. I can feel my muscles tensing and locking up. My legs feel like they're filled with up with lead, and it's becoming increasingly more difficult just to put one foot in front of the next. My lungs are burning, and I realize that with every second I'm slowing down, Fontaine is getting closer again, and who knows what the hell his goons are doing.

Then, the inevitable. I trip and lose my balance. For a second I'm poised at the edge of the abyss, ready to tumble over.

Patterned reflexes kick in. A part of me I haven't trusted for a very long time grinds into motion and psychogenically corrects the misstep, pushing off of nothingness in order to restore my balance. It's an instinct, I don't think about it.

Just like riding a bike.

For a singular moment I keep running. Then suddenly the world goes blurry and I fear I might trip and fall-

Oh no, no no no. Not this, not again not now-

A crumbled, granular ledge on some forgotten planet. The rays of a hot alien sun beat down on the rocky valley below. Dust cakes to my suit, blows over my visor, chokes my rebreather. Barely any oxygen is coming through the busted filter anymore. The auto-cleaning malfunctions, and I can't afford to waste any power trying to repair it. The Ark might spot the thermals of active microbots and besides, I'm going to need the remaining juice to power my optics.

I've been perched up on this verge for three weeks. The suit is remarkably efficient at recycling fluids but these craggy basalt highlands are scorching hot, and I've noticed there's less and less water in the drinking tube after each cycle. Pretty soon I won't have any left and then I'll die of thirst, just as the fifteen million colonists the Ark subjugated. The ISA retreated off-planet after only a brief skirmish – 'tactical regroup', they called it. I was supposed to leave with them, but then six divisions worth of Quli mech-infantry rolled up the evac sites, there was a fairish amount of pandemonium and, well, here I am. As far as I know I might be the last GI left alive on Tartarus. Which isn't an entirely enticing prospect but hey, it's war. What can one girl do?

Spread-eagle on a mountain for three weeks, obviously.

-the world whirls into perspective. I'm back on the beam, on one knee, breathing heavily. Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god. That memory isn't mine. I was never on Tartarus. And yet a part of me vehemently insists I was. Memories blur, slipping between me and not-me without disjuncture-

The Ark base below me covers most of the valley, a warren of landing fields, prefab barracks, parabolic communications lasers on elevated perches, towers, turrets and walls and thousands of swarming aliens. I've identified at least a half dozen different races, all of them Ark, all of them armed to the teeth. Colorful banners of dozens of different kindreds fly over the command bunker at the heart of the base. This place is important; I can tell not just from the funny cuneiform flags but also by the way the ever-present sand storms brush off the powerfield that protects the place. Shielded against tactical atomics. That means there's somebody important down there. And that means I have to stay up here.

I don't recall the last time I've eaten, but I haven't moved an inch in two weeks and after a few days the hunger just kind of faded, so that's less of an immediate problem. Comms are full of static. There's nobody human left alive in a hundred miles. Chances are everybody back with the Alliance thinks I'm dead. Well, I'm not. My finger sits where it has for nine days straight: on the trigger of the bulky rifle. If these Ark fucks think they can just take this world they've got another thing coming.

Hold on. Something's happening.

There's a surge of activity in the Ark base. Columns of alien warriors are moving up toward the landing strip. Comms dishes are gyrating towards the heavens. A dropship plunges down from the skies on an anti-g field. There's a brief blue flicker as the shield drops, then the ship is on the ground and the powerfield re-establishes itself. I pull myself out of the half-waking trance and press an eye against the scope to see what's going on. The alien warriors have formed picture-perfect parade lines between the command bunker and the dropship. Between them a handful of individuals are marching purposefully toward the recently arrived ship.

This I have to see.

“- no, no, no, no, I can't have this, not now-”

A minute movement of my index finger and the scope zooms in on the small group, slowly taking in each of them.

The alien in the middle I recognize instantly. He is Warmaster Pauqué Duhr, supreme commander of all Ark forces on this miserable planet, the architect of its conquest and the deaths of millions of innocent ISA citizens that used to live on it. He is walking toward the dropship, and I realize that this is the time.

I am - literally – only going to have one shot at this. Muscles tighten almost imperceptibly, clutching the hypervelocity rifle's pistol grip just that little more tightly. This is it.

The aliens board and armored doors slide shut. The tactical shield drops and the dropship begins its ascent against gravity. My scope tracks it like a dream, its focal point maybe a second ahead of its actual position. I'm so transfixed by the steady rise of the gnarled alien ship I don't even realize I've already pulled the trigger until the rifle hammers against the elastic impact zone on my shoulder.

I count the moments 'till impact. The dropship continues to rise, oblivious to its imminent doom. Then the miracle of ballistics: my slug strikes reinforced armor and touches off a nuclear apocalypse. In a single moment the tiny sub-kiloton ramjet round punches through and annihilates the ship's suspensor strips.

By extension the small projectile seals the fate of Tartarus. Warmaster Pauqué Duhr spends his final moments screaming in terror as his dropship, suddenly bereft of its anti-gravity field, plunges haplessly from the sky. I feel a flush of intense satisfaction as the d-ship crashes, burning and out of control, back toward the planet, detonating on top of the command center in a spectacular ball of flame and fire. A munitions dump, poorly secured under the perceived safety of the shield, goes up and scatters secondary explosions all across the base. The inferno spreads rapidly, a blue-hot blaze consuming everything that will burn. The Ark base erupts, ant hive like, into chaos and utter confusion.

I permit myself a grim smile. Vengeance is mine. Then I suddenly can't help but wonder: how the hell am I going to get out of here alive?

-there's a stirring in the depths of my mind, a coiling of thought and awareness. Feels like there's something else in here, lurking behind my eyes, sharing the moment with me. My head's two sizes too small. I can feel foreign memories, for once not overwhelming but remote, like reflections in distant windows. The sounds of High Inhofer are very far away. My heart is beating heavily against my chest and I dizzily look down.

The person that reflects off the beam isn't me.

How can I be dead if I'm here?

A sun-burnt and lightly freckled face, pretty were it not for the hard lines and the jawline scar of the combat veteran. Strands of blond hair from under an army green beret, adorned with a vaguely familiar silver cap badge. She mouths,

“What's going on?”

It's my voice speaking but those words aren't mine. They sound dazed and confused and a little lonely. I grip the beam just a little big tighter. The wind whips my hair around. What's going on? That's the million dollar question. I desperately want to figure this out, but there's a whine of thrusters and a clunking sound of metal on metal. Then an electronic buzzing behind me.

“Ahh... There you are, agent Renner. Talking to ourselves, are we?”

I whip my head around, look at Fontaine. My mouth is dry. “What did you do to me?”

He waves dismissively, a gesture that looks utterly bizarre coming from a giant suit of powered armor. “Me? Nothing. I'm pretty sure you realize I'm not in your league, right? I must've told you that before. I'm just helping you along. A little stress goes a long way to getting the synthese going. Feels weird hey? Yes, you might say I speak from experience.” I can't help but suspect he's grinning again. It doesn't make me feel better. My head feels like a bottle of champagne that's been shaken one too many times. Foreign images and visions and thoughts are rising and fizzing and sparkling, battlefields and family scenes, names and faces I've never seen before but can somehow remember.

I shake my head, out of noncomprehension as much as out of an attempt to get my mind right. “Synthese?”

He cackles madly. “Wakey wakey, agent Renner!” He takes a step closer. The beam creaks under the bulk of his mass, but he's using his g-thrusters now to keep most of his weight suspended. “You've something in there that belongs to me, agent, and you're going to give it to me before this day is through.”

He says something else and laughs, but I'm not listening anymore. I'm too busy getting angry. Really angry. With myself. With the assholes who pulled me from the Ocrana v-chambers to drill me as a living weapon. With the jackasses amongst the brass that tried to cover up their own incompetence at Tartarus by throwing me under the bus. With the ONI handlers that sent me to Kaeleron. With my dad, who had to be so goddamn circumspect about everything he had to politicize his own family. With the universe itself, the grand karmic conspiracy to end me up on this goddamn ledge with nothing to show for it but years of nightmares and a head full of shit. I got shafted by everything and everyone, and I'm fucking angry about it. Not enough not to realize half of the things I'm getting angry about don't even make sense, but right now I don't give a hoot. I just want to make someone pay for all the shit that's been heaped on to me, and right now Fontaine seems like an excellent target to vent some frustration on.

“You know what,” I rumble. “I've spent the better part of eight years fighting me, so you don't impress me all that much.” I turn around and face Fontaine, point at him with two fingers. With a snap-crackle the air around my hand comes alight with tendrils of purple energy. “So Fontaine? Fuck you!”

And then I charge at him.

He knows I can't hurt him. I may be a few classes above him in terms of psychic strength but that armored suit does a lot to alleviate that particular problem, and the portable shield he's mounted means I'm pretty much shit out of luck. Fontaine knows it, too. Still, he's smarter than to stand around laughing about it like some B-holo villain. He knows as well as I do that no matter how much of a position of strength you perceive yourself to be in, when a trained ONI assassin is charging at you it's better to take a step back and ready your defenses. So he does exactly that: steps back and reinforces his shield to full opacity.

That's what I was hoping for.

He brings up his gun arm and time appears to slow just as I dive. A beam of some sort passes narrowly overhead, close enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and then I hit the beam. I wrap one arm and leg around it as I begin to slide, transforming my forward momentum into a corkscrewing 180-degree turn, bringing up a crackling cyan cy-blade. I may not be able to dent his suit, but I bet the beam isn't nearly as strong.

As it turns out, I'm right. I can feel the shock as the blade of psychogenic force slices through the reinforced steel, searing not just through the beam itself but also the superconducting power relays hidden inside. With an audible whine and a flaring of warning klaxons the suspensor units further up the beam cut out; the section Fontaine is standing on shudders, and then abruptly plummets into the depths. Again. To his credit he doesn't yelp this time.

With some effort I clamber back on top of the beam and spare a single look into the dizzying deepness below. “Rumor has it he'll be back,” I mumble. Somehow that phrase is familiar even though I can't quite place it. I shrug, and run down the remaining length of the beam as fast as I can, heading toward the nearest monorail cradle. Fontaine won't be far behind me, and I bet he'll be pissed.

No you can't hide
What you intend
It glows in the dark
Once we've become
The thing we dread
There's no way to stop
And the more I try to hurt you
The more it backfires
The more it backfires
The more that it backfires

ε (epsilon)

I tell the suit to edit out the wild sensation of air rushing past and try to ignore the frankly alarming rate at which the planet below me grows larger. I also try to ignore the flaming debris of what used to be a multi-klick freighter tumbling past. Some of those metal chunks are the size of houses: if one of them hits me, it's game-over. It'd be real nice if one of them hit Fontaine, but I'm never that lucky.

We're still falling towards a high-rise city of some kind, gargantuan buildings rising up toward us like sticks in a punji-pit. A minute has passed since the demise of the Joyride Madonna and already we're inside the outer envelope of the planetary atmosphere. I can feel the heat of re-entry washing over my shields. I can see it too, as the friction of our passage begins to ignite the very air around the envelope of force that protects me. At this rate I'm going to burn out the remainder of the Chaudhri Loop in less than ten minutes, but that's not of immediate concern. At the speeds we're falling we'll have long since cratered by then.

I can see Fontaine falling ahead of me. Every few seconds there's a series of blue flashes in the distance. There's some sort of rocket pack built into that suit of his that allows him to steer his re-entry. I'm gaining on him, but not as fast as I'd like. I fire the Scattergun again, but despite all the effort of my trainers I've never been good with guns and besides, trying to shoot a small moving target under these circumstances is a little like trying to paint a masterpiece in the middle of a hurricane. Predictably, the disruptor burst goes miles wide. But Fontaine takes notice: I can see him looking over his shoulder, an insane grin on his face.

And then he waves at me.

He waves at me? Alright, that's fucking it. Why won't this asshole just die? I reinforce my grip on the gun and for a single moment I have a bead on him, but my concentration is interrupted by the eruption, amidst the bustling buildings on the surface below, of a pinprick of light that with freight train speed expands into a spear of glowing energy. I react on reflexes, shields deforming into what passes for a somewhat aerodynamic shape and friction against the atmosphere sends me tumbling sideways, out of the way of the autolaser beam. The lance of coruscating energy slides by, seemingly in slow-motion and seemingly only a handful of meters away, utterly blinding. For a moment I tumble helplessly, unable to tell up from down, stars dancing before my eyes.

I can feel the huge chunk of metal coming before I have a chance to clear my vision. Its bow-wake pushes through the atmosphere and touches my shields seconds before the huge chunk of steel actually reaches me, giving me a vanishingly small window of opportunity to avoid being squished by its fall. I turn my back to the world below, furiously trying to blink the tears out of my eyes. I need to see if I'm going to make it through the next ten seconds alive and in one piece.

The rear end of what used to be the pusher engine section of the Joyride Madonna comes hurtling at me, a massive complex of adamant plaz-steel armor and titanic ceramic thrusters the size of a small mountain. Its surface glows a dull red from the atmospheric friction, a massive expanse of hot plated steel coming at me at speeds far in excess of the speed of sound.

I forget about Fontaine just like I forgot about the surface for a moment. I soak energy from the loop generator, propelling myself even faster into the atmosphere, and faster still, but the giant chunk of near-burning metal is still gaining on me – and then I match its speed, and my armored boots touch down lightly on its hot crimson surface.

All right then. Now I'm standing on a chunk of glowing wreckage, falling headfirst toward the planet even faster than I was before. At least I'm gaining on Fontaine again. And I'm on steady footing. Well, for given values of 'steady footing' I suppose. I look up – or down, as the case may be – and find that the planet has grown alarmingly, to the point where a single continent now fills my entire field of vision. The massive city sprawls across most of it. We're so close now, I can see starships float above the superstructures. I can imagine how alarms must be blaring down there, alerting whoever lives down there to the presence of giant pieces of flaming debris falling down on them like the wrath of a displeased deity.

Hold on. Where is Fontaine?

I catch a glimpse of movement at the edge of my peripheral vision and instinctively drop into a crouch. The plasma bolt goes wide, grazing the edges of my shields. Fontaine is standing perhaps thirty meters away, holding a gun he must've concealed in his suit somewhere. We're falling faster than sound so I wouldn't be able to hear him speak even if space between us wasn't hazy with burning air and melting armor, but I can still read his lips. Nice dodge he mouths.

“Fuck you!” I yell back, pointing the scattergun and firing at the same time. He twitches sideways and the disruptor burst misses him, atomizing a perfect concavity in the ruined mass of tangled steel behind him. He sneers and lets loose a ripping volley of plasma bolts, but I fall down on one hand and the toes of my boots and his fire passes through the space I occupied no moment before. Paying no need to the disconcerting way my hand sinks into what had once been perfectly rigid plaz-steel I vault back to my feet, dance out of the way of another bolt and shoot at him again. We spend five seconds dodging and weaving each others' fire with the jerky movements of psi-kata masters.

Jesus, I don't have time for this bullshit. I don't have the energy for it, either: warnings pop up on my HUD, telling me the loop is down to just four percent energy capacity. Fontaine's suit is much more bulky than mine, but that just means he probably has more power to waste. Plus there's still the nagging problem of imminent planetary impact at speeds well in excess of terminal velocity. It hadn't occurred to me before that I might not live to see the end of the day, but I'm beginning to suspect I might be royally fucked.

As if to illustrate that train of thought the autolasers open up once again, very close-by now. The beam of glittering energy strikes the middle of our hurtling white-hot dueling ring like a volcanic eruption in reverse, effortlessly atomizing vast swathes of it in a brilliant flare of exotic energies and bodily throwing the both of us backwards. I claw my way up, only to find the autolaser has bisected the collapsing wreckage and Fontaine is now falling away from me again. To make matters worse the weapons fire has sent what remains of my half of the engine section spinning wildly so that one moment I'm seeing space, then the city, space, city, space at dizzying speeds. I push off at random and find myself falling upward, away from the wreckage.

Suddenly there's something rigid and shiny and narrow passing at dizzying speed beside me. I glance sideways and see a woman caught in the middle of a ball of flame. It takes me a second to realize that's me. I'm looking at myself, reflected in the mirrorglass of a titanic building. There's a starscraper beside me. We're in-between the city buildings. I look down just in time to see a chunk of what used to be the Joyride Madonna graze the edges of another starscraper with spectacularly cataclysmic results. The impact gauges hundreds of meters out of the side of the structure, sending shockwaves of debris cascading into open space where the wreckage turns into a hailfire of short-lived comets that pelts nearby buildings, scoring craters and sending even more debris plunging down.

I have maybe a second to stare at the utter mayhem below me and then it's not below me anymore but I'm right in the middle, dodging and weaving to avoid collapsing gigantic girders and chunks of fibcrete the size of houses, the falling detritus of what was once holding up an arcology home to tens of thousands. I catch glimpses of tumbling everyday items, bodies too, but there's a building collapsing somewhere above me and I don't have time to pay attention. Somehow I'm glad for that.

The megastructures draw nearer to each other as the cloud of debris and I plunge deeper into the heart of the city. My fading shields flicker with arcs of lightning every time the fragments of collapsing buildings slam into it. Three percent battery capacity remaining, my suit dutifully reminds me, and I cannot stop a small voice inside my head from telling me I'm fucked, fucked, fucked. Something explodes up ahead. The rain of steel and fibcrete fragments hammers clouds of repulsorlift vehicles flitting fly-like between the starscrapers, swatting them out of the sky and sending their husks spiraling groundward in columns of garish smoke.

I continue to fall, more or less helplessly now. I tumble past a LARC and for a split-second I catch a glimpse of its terrified occupant; then a fist-sized chunk of debris shatters through its canopy and turns the insides of the vehicle into a red mist. A microsecond later the whole thing explodes in a ball of greasy flame, but I'm already beyond it.

Things get properly turbulent now. Debris is everywhere; vehicles are exploding all around me, and somewhere behind me I can sense the better part of a multi-kilometer structure is collapsing in on itself, still battered by whatever remains of the Joyride Madonna the autolasers failed to vaporize. I'm perilously close to the ground but I can't slow down. LARCs swerve all around me, trying to escape the apocalyptic chaos. It's about time, I realize, that I came up with a plan that would allow me to survive the next couple of seconds.

Right, well, okay. Here's an idea.

I angle my body until I'm falling horizontally. A mental command and my shields – what remains of them, anyway – expand and compress until they become a nearly flat plane of force that only narrowly encompasses my body but extends significantly outward. Now I'm falling in the middle of a horizontal force-disc that brakes my descent against the pressure of the atmosphere. It'll also deplete what energy I have left in less than a minute, but I'll be either a shallow crater or pancaked by the collapse by then anyway so it doesn't matter. I grit my teeth, struggle to maintain control of the mental fields against the sudden change in velocity, and strain my eyes trying to make out the remaining vehicles swerving and scattering in the near-distance ahead.

That one, I decide on a deep blue LARC whose trajectory is sending it careening away from the danger zone at ballistic speeds, but which is still within my envelope of descent. Or so I hope. We'll find out soon enough. I angle my fields (one percent energy remains my suit not-at-all-helpfully tells me) and aerodynamics sends me on a careening parabolic intercept course toward the unsuspecting vehicle.

Here's the thing with Low Altitude Repulsorlift Cars, or LARCs as they are commonly called. The things are basically fighter jets, only instead of ferrying weapons to an alien battlezone they carry commuters to their jobs. Otherwise, though, they have all the trappings of a starfighter: they are carried on fields of anti-gravity which allow them to fly, they can pull enough g's to reduce an ordinary human to an ugly smear on the upholstering, and consequently they are fitted with a device called an acceleration compensator, which is a fancy way of saying they come equipped with a force-effect bubble that allows the vehicle to do its thing without unduly inconveniencing - or killing - the occupant.

I hit that bubble about the moment I hit the vehicle's canopy. If you hit a compensator field like that at a full sprint you wouldn't even notice it was there but I'm going a hell of a lot faster than that, and it feels like slamming head-first into a brick wall. It hurts like hell but the function of the field is to bleed off excess velocity and that's exactly what it does. In the space of a second my armored boots shatter the vehicle's canopy into a million pieces, something snaps in my left leg, white hot pain shoots up my spine and then I'm crumpled in the passenger seat gasping raggedly for air as the LARC's automated collision avoidance systems jinks out of the way of a final piece of flaming debris and then clears the danger zone. I've hurt worse but I really can't remember when, but at least the pain means I'm still alive. I'm dimly aware of someone screaming beside me and crane my head toward the vehicle's owner. She's a tall, lanky brunette, about middle aged and she's clearly beside herself. For some reason I find that massively annoying. “Hey,” I grate. “What's your name.”

She stops screaming and looks at me, clearly startled to find that not only is she alive, but there's suddenly another person in the vehicle with her. “J- Jane,” she whimpers.

“Hi Jane. I'm with the government,” I say, and then she dies as a plasma bolt gorily explodes her chest. A moment later Fontaine lands feet-first on the nose of the LARC, sending the vehicle into a steep dive. He grins maniacally as he aims his bulky gun at me. Well, I won't have none of that, so I fire the scattergun from the hip. The disruptor burst atomizes part of the windshield and takes him in the shoulder. He yelps in pain and fires three sun-bright bolts that miss me but briefly set the upholstery of the vehicle on fire before the wind extinguishes the flames. I shoot back but miss and he drops into a crouch, out of sight. I can hear him curse and then laugh over the wind that howls through the ruined interior. “Ah, agent. I'm surprised you are still alive. You have proved very resourceful indeed.”

“Fuck you Fontaine,” I holler back from behind the dubious safety of the dashboard. The HUD tells me the loop generator has been depleted. It also tells me my left femur and tibia have both suffered serious fractures. The suit has dispensed a mass of tailored painkillers into my bloodstream so I don't feel a thing, but that's not going to help me stand up. “Give it up already!”

He cackles. “All this trouble, and you still have no idea why you have to kill me, do you?”

I catch a sense of movement behind our LARC. I try to push myself up into the seat to get a clean shot but my legs aren't cooperating. “So tell me then.”

“You ever hear of the Backslide Overfleet?”

I grit my teeth and finally pull myself up. I can't see Fontaine, but there's definitely something behind us. Against a dramatic backdrop of collapsing starscrapers a black unmarked LARC with tinted windows is following in our wake. What the fuck? “What the hell are you talking about?” I yell back. I cling to the scattergun. The black LARC swings forward. Its door slides open and I catch a momentary glimpse of a steely, scarred face, staring into a telescope mounted atop the biggest goddamn rifle I've ever seen. I can't help but gape for a moment.

Fontaine hasn't noticed them yet. “Why don't you look into General Gris-” he begins but there's a licking of blue electric flame in the door of the black LARC and Fontaine's voice is abruptly cut off. The sound of the gauss rifle discharge arrives a split-second later. Gray shit spatters over the windshield, over my ruined armor. My screwed-up vehicle veers up as if a weight has been lifted off the bonnet. I can imagine perfectly well what happened, the magnetically accelerated slug finding its mark in Fontaine's head, but I haven't got a clue why.

I look at the black vehicle and meet the eyes of Fontaine's assassin. He has a bulk to him, like cables pulled taut over a frame of steel, and for a moment his gray, emotion-free eyes bore into me, staring over the rim of that giant cannon, now pointed I'm fairly sure right at my forehead. Then he gives an ironic two-finger salute. The black LARC peels off and rockets away, leaving me alone in the ruined vehicle with the corpse of its erstwhile driver, wounded and exhausted and very much confused.

What the fuck just happened?

The Valkyrie Steel Talons are an elite force within an army that cherishes elites. Soldiers once, their organic components have been gradually whittled away 'til only machinery remains, controlled by a Ghost – a copy of mental patterns, uploaded into an adaptive computer core. By ISA standards they are no longer human: classified as 'air ordinance artifacts', the Talons are sent on fatal missions--then when the dust settles the brass claims with a straight face that 'no soldiers were harmed' because the Talons are not soldiers see, they're machines.

Well, maybe the brass are right. But unlike tanks or rifles or gunships the Valkyries have minds of their own. Some say they were the precursors to the Tyrax; others argue they are its successors – whatever the truth, these guys didn't much like their assigned role of expendable munitions in ISA's progressively more desperately insane operations. Maybe that's why so many of them ended up working for Samuel Grissom. Maybe they believed he might still muster empathy for people politicians and other generals alike would sacrifice like pawns on the chess board of war.

Hell. Maybe they were right.

∞ (interlude)

Easly reaches to grab his helmet, only to find a red sighting dot it. In fact, when he looks around, there are red sighting dots on everything. He looks over at Smith and his brother, who are both staring at the balcony above. Easly slowly looks up. Oh fuck, he mouths.

Chief Warmaster Trego stands with scores of Ark troops, all with plasma rifles pointing at them. “Hello, Colonel. Glad to see you again. Smith, Halcyon- it's a pleasure. I distinctly remember meeting Bateau for brief point in battle- yes, Leo, would you please get out of the suit? We wouldn't want to have to kill your wife...” With a gesture, one of his lieutenants brings forth a struggling woman, one who, by the way Bateau's blood pressure spikes, is definitely his wife.

Easly groans, puts his weapon on the floor, and looks around. Bateau is stiffly getting out of the Carnage mech. Caesar has a white-knuckled death-grip on his plasma rifle, a mixture of rage and surprise on his face. Halcyon has his hand on his saber, and is staring to the left and right of Trego, were two senior Deinonj have arrayed themselves. Smith has his hand resting on his BOB sidearm. But Easly notices that both Dusk and Longbow have slipped away. Keeping his smile to himself he turns back to Trego, looking over the Ark troops who are now rounding up the human rebels and pushing them into a clump in the center of the huge cavern, then encircling them. Trying to keep his voice casual, he asks slowly, "How did you find us, Trego?"

Trego smiles, or as much as his razor jaws could allow. It looks surprisingly human on the massive alien, and the Warmaster is all the more disconcerting for it. “Don't feel bad, Colonel, it wasn't you. You see, Commanders always establish telepathic links with their mounts,” he says, gesturing at the giant Nezdan serpent the Storm Commandos had just recently commandeered. “When Halcyon and the Agent captured her, Halcyon tried to sever the link. He did a good job, but missed one little strand. It's took me a long time to follow that strand. My arrival when you were just setting out to assassinate me is pure coincidence, trust me.”

Hood speaks up. “How did you get my wife, Trego?” His voice is strained, Easly can hear him grinding his teeth.

“Well, she was flying the family transport down to Mars to meet with a government official, and happened to get sucked in when passing a certain fleet jumping into the quickstream. We captured her vessel – it was sending out so many distress signals that we could have picked her up halfway across the galaxy. But that's merely how she says she got here. If it's the truth, we have no idea. The battle up there isn't going so well for you by the way. Granted, on the ground we're dead even, heavy losses on each side. But don't take my word f...” He trails off. “Where are the rest of your comrades? Sarah and Ian, the happy sniper and the quiet loudmouth. I believe the human term is 'oxymoron'. Find them!” He waves his hand, and the two Deinonj fan out, their heads swiveling back and forth like searchlights. Trego thumbs a switch, and a blue field that can barely be made out shimmers into view. To demonstrate, he grabs an atomizer from a small tentacle-squid-thing, and shoots himself. It causes ripples in the blue field, nothing more. Trego smiles. “No matter how this works out Colonel, you'll be glad to know I'll let two of you live. I always do. Can never be widely feared if your attacks leave no survivors, after a-”

At that moment the two Deinonj slide into a darkened corridor beyond the hall, focused on their prey, ready for the killing blow- entirely failing to notice the small metal cylinder rolling across the cavern floor out the tunnel exit, missing a tiny metal safeguard typically called a 'pin'.

The frag-grenade goes off right when the two alien creatures move over it. For a brief second, the exit is filled with reiving flames, a shockwave and a shower of vicious metal shards, then it was over.

“Rumor has it, they will be back,” Sarah states matter-of-factually.

“Yeah,” murmured Dusk. They look at each other and shrug simultaneously, walking the last meters down the tunnel, through the smoke and subsiding fire of the grenade, appearing from the smog like the Deinonj had disappeared in it.

For a second, the two human soldiers and the cavern full of alien troopers eyeball eachother. Dusk can't help himself. “Hiya fellas,” he smirks. Another second, seeming like an eternity, passes without movement. Then, everything happened at the same time. Dusk jumps left, Longbow jumps right. Sarah takes in all the enemies in her immediate vicinity, plus the troopers carrying ranged weaponry further away. As the aliens leap onto her, she pulls the trigger of the silenced CSW. The weapon stutters, whiplashing out bullets at full-auto. She stops firing to land, scoops, rolls, gets onto her feet, and presses the trigger again, putting six rounds through the face of one of Trego's advancing bodyguards. From the corner of her eye, she sees two more Deinonj rushing toward her unarmed squadmates, their ethereal sabers raised high. Without a second's thought a Cryoban grenade flashes out, catching one of the creatures in the back, instantly freezing the pair of them as well as an unlucky grunt caught nearby. So that works too. Interesting.

"Fellas, if you're not too busy gaping in astonished admirement," Longbow huffs between the tossing of grenades, the evading of plasma bolts and the administering of death through abrupt lead-poisoning, "feel free to join in the fun and take a few names yourself, you know?" She let herself drop, narrowly avoiding the hissing energy blade of one of the swirling Deinonj.

"Thought you'd never ask!" Easly punches a three-meter tall Nahktar in the face with his robotic arm, turning the alien's features into a pulp that no plastic surgeon could fix.

Cause love, like a blow to the head, has left me stunned and i'm reeling - yeah, I'm reeling
And if you go, furious angels will bring you back to me

β (beta)

The ancestral pile of the MacDonnell clan may look foreboding from the outside, but within it's a veritable museum dedicated to the glories of Earth's long-lost past. Maps and paintings, busts and suits of armor, pictures of landmarks or simply of people doing everyday things on a planet long since fallen to ecological ruin. The hallways are paneled in antique woods, the floor covered in thick red carpets. Crystal chandeliers cast soft yellow light as I trudge up the vaulting stairs toward the first floor where my father has his office, locked in one of the towers like I imagine the ancient lords of the manor used to do.

This place is full of childhood memories. Antique furniture lines the manor halls, full of dusty books I never could be arsed to read. Alcoves where we used to play hide and seek. Tables and chairs we used to sit in when mum read stories to us. Hearths, their fires long since gone out. Every dozen or so meters there's a pedestal with on them vases of freshly plucked roses. They look oddly out of place, whimsical even. Maybe Dee put them there?

I knock on the study door more than a little apprehensive. Long seconds pass. Then a gravelly and intimately familiar voice calls, “come!” I put my hand on the doorknob. Its fake brass is warm to the touch, and recognizes my DNA. Locks click, and the door swings open on smoothly oiled hinges. The prickle of a tempest shield crawls across my skin as I cross the doorstep.

Stepping into the study is like stepping into the office of a long-gone Oxbridge dean. Plush, slightly worn carpets line wall to wall. Books sit in small towers atop wooden desks, their subjects myriad: philosophy, law, history and, to be sure, warfare. Two computers of outmoded makes and models stand forgotten in a niche, and even more old-fashioned white boards hang from the walls. A fireside is recessed between two groaning book shelves, this one alight with a small but pleasantly warm fire. Two couches of brown leather stand in the middle of the room, facing each other. On one of them is my father.

General Samuel 'Sam' Grissom-MacDonnell is out of uniform. That startles me. I haven't seen my father outside of his BDUs or dress uniform in years, yet here he is, wearing an olive green sweater. I've grown so used to the army I don't even know how to address him. General? Dad? I decide to settle for 'father'.

Something tightens in the corner of his eyes. He smiles, but it's a tired gesture. He has a beard again, a scruffy thing of gray with only a few remaining threads of the coppery red I remember. “Hello, Sarah,” he says. “Sit with me?”

I sit down on the couch opposite him, ramrod straight. This is ridiculous. I'm more nervous now than I ever was on Tartarus. In fact I'm pretty sure I haven't been this nervous since I was a cadet on my first day at the Academy. The beret is in my hands again. I have to stop myself from fiddling with the silver cap badge.


I raise my head to look at him.

“I've missed you.” The words seem to demand a physical toll of him.

My voice quavers as I reply. “I've missed you too.”

He actually flinches a little. “If you mean why I wasn't at the medal ceremony, I can-”

Call me crazy, but I don't want to hear my father make excuses. I might not see eye to eye with him, but he's still my dad. And my superior officer. Talk about awkward. “Dee explained,” I cut him off. “That's not what I- I just meant it. I've missed you.”

He looks at me, sighs relieved. “Oh. Good.”

I snort, almost despite myself. “I guess.”

His bearded chin splits in a wolfish grin. “Yeah.”

We chuckle a little, and for a brief moment we get over the awkwardness. It's weird. I've never seen a general be this human before. All the others I've met, it seemed they were just selling us out like pawns. I'd found a chessboard in Trego's quarters, back on New Cali. Maybe that's one way in which the Ark and ISA are the same: when push comes to shove, Darwinism wins out. Suddenly I wonder what it must be like from the other side of that medal. I don't think many of dad's colleagues have kids in my position. Or maybe they do, and they just don't care. Now there's a disturbing thought. “Tell me what happened on New Cali?” he asks.

I frown a little. “You must have read the reports.”

He nods. “I did. And I wouldn't be much of a general if I couldn't tell reports from the real stuff. Your report said you stayed on that ledge for a week?”

I actually blush. “Yea-ah.”

“It wasn't a week, was it?”


He just looks at me, a concerned look in his eye. “It was three,” I finally volunteer.

He closes his eyes, shakes his head. “Jesus, Sarah.”

I scowl at him. “What else was I gonna do?”

Dad shakes his head. “That's not what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean?” I realize my voice is suddenly defiant. Yes, I sprawled on that ledge for three weeks. I killed Pauqué Duhr, the Warmaster of Tartarus. In a way it was me that won ISA its first pale hint of a victory of the war. Alone. By myself. Long after everybody else had either left or died. And then I found out that I had to lie about what happened, and when I did the ISA shoved me off to New California on a suicide mission as a thank-you.

“Why did you lie about it?” he asks instead.

I look him in the eye, suddenly lost for words. Finally, I shrug. “They wouldn't have believed me.”

“Why not?” he presses.

“Because... Because my suit's life support is only rated for a week and a half in those conditions. Because I was supposed to be dead. Because just by being alive I embarrassed the people who abandoned every human on Tartarus to die, and I was told in no uncertain terms it would be bad for me to bother with such inconveniences as 'the truth'.” I try to shrug, but I'm furious.

The trick in that mess I was in was that there was no trick, no matter what the holos told me. No rules, no secret mantra, no road map. There are no designated heroes, there's no script-guaranteed survival in a warzone. It was never about how smart or how good I was. It was chaos and luck, and anyone who thought different was a fool, and probably a dead one at that. All I could do was hang on madly, as long and hard as I could. But god-damn, at least I knew how to do that. And that at least was something I expected a little credit for. But now there were people in high places who had the gall to hate me for doing my job, and theirs whilst I was at it, not once, but twice now. The next words come out more bitter than I'd expected. “Because I guess sticking-it-out doesn't fit the official narrative.”

My father nods slowly. “Exactly.”

Exactly? “What do you mean, exactly?”

He looks at me, staggeringly blue eyes boring into mine. “Do you think we're fighting this war the right way?”

I can't help snort all over again. I open my mouth to reply, and then I realize my father is also a general. I still remember what he said when I joined up. “I'm not sure what you mean,” I say cautiously, “sir.”

His face twitches into an ugly grimace. “Lose the sir, Sarah. I'm your father. You're my daughter. We're home.”

I look at him, his beard, his green sweater. Then I look around the brooding study and I realize I need only five words to sum up my problems with this meeting, this mansion, this whole situation. “Is that what this is?”

He sighs, exasperatedly. “Sarah, please-

“No, you listen to me for once,” I'm suddenly very angry. “I'm tired of this 'Sarah' crap. I'm confused. You're my father so sure, you can call me Sarah. But you're also my commanding officer, and you never call me Lieutenant. In fact you barely call me anything. You've avoided me quite successfully ever since I first went to the Academy. You haven't called, you haven't talked to me in years. And now you summon me here, and you ask me this question, and hell, I don't even know what we are! Are you really my dad, or are you the man who threatened to have me posted as a toxic waste cleaner on some hell-world if I dared – dared – to join up without his permission, and then went AWOL from my life for years when I did it anyway? And now you give me this ambiguous shit and I can't be sure you're not trying to get me into a court martial or something. Because I'm tired, sir, of people trying to screw me out of some pretty god-damn hard-earned battle-honors.”

Sam Grissom looks at me with an appalled and, it appears, honestly bewildered look on his face. “Why would I do that?”

I'm lost for words for a moment. “Well, because it would get me out of the war,” I finally reply, and as the words cross my lips they sound lame even to me. Much as I have an issue with him I can't imagine my father, the other Hero of New California, denying anyone his or her glory, much less his own daughter, the only reason he was there in the first place. I could easily see him do the toxic waste thing, because lord knows he is that kind of man. But not this.

He chuckles sadly. “Sarah... Do you know when I told you about the war?”

“Yes.” I nod a little stiffly. “You told me not to sign up when I said I wanted to.”


“And I did anyway.”

“Yes.” He inclines his head. A tiny, rueful smile curves his lips. “You're just as stubborn as me.”

“You never talked to me again,” I remind him again. I don't think even I realized how much that bothered me until now. It's like an open wound in my soul: now that I know it's there I can't avoid the simple fact of its existence anymore.

“Do you know why?” he asks.

I open my mouth to speak, then remember what Dee said to me, about ONI and dad's enemies. “I thought I did,” I finally reply.

He sighs warily. “I was furious, Sarah. I won't deny that. Not because you didn't do what I said, but because I knew that war changes people. Your mother knows. And now, so do you. I can see it in your eyes. When you're in, you're in for life. I never wanted that for you, for any of you. And yes, I thought about having you assigned somewhere safe. But I didn't, because I felt I owed it to you to respect your choice. And then there was that whole clusterfuck on Tartarus, and we all thought you were dead...” His voice trails off, and suddenly my dad looks so old. It isn't like he suddenly grows wrinkles but there's a tightness in the way he sits that cuts at my heart. “I was so angry,” he whispers. “At myself, for not acting when I still could have. But even more at the bumbling fools who let it all happen, who let you...” He shakes his head. “I said things, did things... I made a lot of enemies in those days, and I didn't care. When it turned out you were still alive... It was the greatest news I ever got, but the things I'd set in motion couldn't be undone.” He falls silent for a moment, and from the empty look in his eyes I get the impression dad's recounting things he's far from proud of. Then he looks up at me. “I have a lot of enemies,” he says matter-of-factually. “In fact, you have a lot of enemies too. Some of them are your enemies because I am theirs.”

“And then would try to get at you by getting at me.”

“I wouldn't put it past them. Maybe they already did. It's what we've become, Sarah. ISA isn't what it used to be. Like I said, war changes people. Sometimes it's for the better... But most of the time it isn't. I hope that when all this is over, the Alliance will go back to what it was before. But I fear that it won't.”

I raise an eyebrow. “That's assuming the Ark don't win and we all die.”

“Sometimes, all things considered...” Sam Grissom says and glances out the window. “Sometimes, Sarah, I wonder if that wouldn't be a preferable outcome. These people... They are bad news, not just for us but for the entire galaxy. And if they come after you, you deserve to know why.” Then he fixes me with the most intent and piercing gaze I've ever seen from him. “There are a few of us left who still remember what democracy is supposed to be like. And we are drawing our contingencies in case the powers that be should feel less than properly obliged to return power to the people.”

My mouth's gone dry. What dad's hinting at sounds dangerously close to a coup d'etat. “These wouldn't be the plans you drew up when I went... you know... missing?”

“Some of them are.” He nods conspiratorially and leans over to me. “Tell me, Sarah... Have you ever heard of something called Backslide?”
"Nick Fury. Old-school cold warrior. The original black ops hardcase. Long before I stepped off a C-130 at Da Nang, Fury and his team had set fire to half of Asia." - Frank Castle

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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Siege » Mon Oct 03, 2011 12:51 pm

For some bizarre reason the forum software won't let me edit the rest into the first post, and trying to do so gives me a weird error I can't be arsed to look into, so I'm putting the next instances up here with links to refer my readers back and forth. It's not ideal, but it works. So, eight instance is up!
"Nick Fury. Old-school cold warrior. The original black ops hardcase. Long before I stepped off a C-130 at Da Nang, Fury and his team had set fire to half of Asia." - Frank Castle

It's a cowardly form of politics to use my spouse to beat me. Instead I shall drop the beat!

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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Siege » Mon Oct 10, 2011 3:52 pm

Ninth instance is up.
"Nick Fury. Old-school cold warrior. The original black ops hardcase. Long before I stepped off a C-130 at Da Nang, Fury and his team had set fire to half of Asia." - Frank Castle

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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Mobius 1 » Tue Oct 11, 2011 12:49 am

The question I have now, of course, is as to the identity of Fontaine's (original?) assassin.
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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Booted Vulture » Thu Oct 13, 2011 5:51 pm

Does General Grissom only get one Barrel? Isn't he a McDonnell?

And Ooo!! S.O.S revamp with added moral greyness!
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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Siege » Sun Oct 16, 2011 9:36 pm

Lapse Alpha continues with another interlude full of stuff you may remember from ye olden days!
"Nick Fury. Old-school cold warrior. The original black ops hardcase. Long before I stepped off a C-130 at Da Nang, Fury and his team had set fire to half of Asia." - Frank Castle

It's a cowardly form of politics to use my spouse to beat me. Instead I shall drop the beat!

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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Booted Vulture » Mon Oct 17, 2011 12:35 pm

Now that's Old school. No school like the old school
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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Siege » Tue Aug 21, 2012 12:39 pm

Took me a while to get back to this, but the 10th instance is up, right below the previous bits. It's not that long, but it took a good while to get properly right.
"Nick Fury. Old-school cold warrior. The original black ops hardcase. Long before I stepped off a C-130 at Da Nang, Fury and his team had set fire to half of Asia." - Frank Castle

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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Arkitek » Wed Aug 22, 2012 4:39 pm

So that's where the Tyrax is from. I thought you made it up for SDNW. xD

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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Booted Vulture » Wed Aug 22, 2012 6:54 pm

nice instance here siege. Daddy Longbow is well characterised and i like the very human reasons for his 'do as i say not as i do attitude' and why Sarah wouldn't like it.

And backslide again... the plot, as they say, she thickens.
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Re: [SecSan] Lapse Alpha

Post by Siege » Wed Aug 22, 2012 8:27 pm

I made several minor edits to the last chapter to smooth out the dialog and drop in some additional stuff with respect to motives.

Two more instances to go!
"Nick Fury. Old-school cold warrior. The original black ops hardcase. Long before I stepped off a C-130 at Da Nang, Fury and his team had set fire to half of Asia." - Frank Castle

It's a cowardly form of politics to use my spouse to beat me. Instead I shall drop the beat!

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