Ghosts of the Federation

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IndustrialRobot
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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby IndustrialRobot » Tue Aug 11, 2015 11:48 am

Kieve wrote:I have zero criticism. This is absolutely my favorite thread in this subforum (possibly on the whole board) and I have a little joygasm every time I see you've updated it. The writing is outstanding.

Omigosh, I have to read this now.
I was thinking about a while ago, but never actually got around to doing so.
SmoothPapaJ
Posts: 48
Joined: Mon Jan 20, 2014 1:56 am

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Fri Sep 25, 2015 12:15 am

Faithful readers,

The next chapter of Ghosts is at 2.5k and trundling along at a decent clip. It should be ready in a week or two.

While we wait, I hope it will not damage your opinion of me if I shamelessly plug one of the projects that has kept updates for this delayed:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/579951

On Monday, a book that I wrote with one of my buddies is becoming available online. The genre is different and there's less in the way of strange alien cultures, but you can sample the first 20% for free and see if it's your thing. If you like it enough to throw the price of a Whopper at it, then I hope you find it as satisfying as a Whopper (which, I grant, is stiff competition). If not, then the Kestrel should be reaching the system hub shortly.
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DarkPhoenix141
Posts: 261
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Location: Command & Operations Deck, PFV Sentinel

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby DarkPhoenix141 » Thu Oct 01, 2015 3:11 am

Please take your time.

You not posting a chapter is the sole reason my fanfic is still generating views.
This is no easy mission...

BUT YOU SON. YOU WERE BORN FOR IT.

And remember:

GODS WILL BE WATCHING
SmoothPapaJ
Posts: 48
Joined: Mon Jan 20, 2014 1:56 am

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Wed Nov 04, 2015 3:03 am

There was no funeral. In keeping with her wishes, Katarek's body was jettisoned out of an airlock, with no one but Brant herself in attendance. The tens of billions of mantis in the galaxy had as many customs and philosophies as Brant's people, but they were generally an unsentimental species, with Katarek no exception. After Mickelson's funeral, Katarek had made it clear that she didn't want anyone messing with her inanimate remains, saying anything sappy, or generally making a scene. The crew had gathered in the recreation room, toasted her memory with the preferred intoxicants of their species, and then gotten back to work. They had to.

They were in jump for ten hours, and between treating her arm and helping 78 check the ship for any further sabotage, Brant had had only a few hours to sleep, and she needed what she could get. She woke an hour before their expected ETA at the long-range hub, and she promptly made her way down to the weapons room.

Ahab and 78 were sitting together. Ahab was stark naked, fussing with a needle and thread over the wreck of his ostentatious coat. There was nothing uncomfortable about this; since ascending beyond strictly biological forms, the Zoltan anatomy had become very sparse, devoid of hair, pores, sex organs, or any other noteworthy feature, leaving only the frail, glowing notion of a humanoid body. He had a holoscreen up on his weapons' console, but he wasn't looking at it. He and 78 were both watching the vid projecting on the wall instead.

"What the hell are those?" Brant asked as she looked closer at the projection. A single mantis stood in the middle of a large sandy ring, surrounded by fifty brutish, knobby creatures, half-covered in spiky quills and the other half dripping with mucus and slime. Hideous growths of flesh bulged out of their chests and crotches. Some had awkward shrouds of cloth draped over their shoulders or stitched into what could only loosely be called “pants.”

78 thrummed with laughter. “Must understand. ‘Deathsong of Chaka Harakat,’ filmed over two hundred standard years ago. Contact with human race by mantis race still very sparse – humanity still only a rumored threat at edge of mantis space. Little reliable information on anatomy or culture.”

Brant raised her eyebrows. “Those are humans?”

“Stage automata built to resemble humans, at least. Or what most mantis thought humans looked like,” Ahab said. Brant looked closer and realized the clubs bore some faint resemblance to old plasma rifle designs, and the portrayal suddenly brought to mind modern human stereotypes.

“I find this highly offensive. Why in God’s name are we considered the ‘slimy race’ over the slugs? There is no justice in the universe.”

“’Slimy’ less than optimal word choice. Human species more accurately considered…” 78 looked around at Ahab for help. “Drippy?”

“I would say greasy, more than anything,” Ahab said. “Or just generally wet.”

“Come on! But the slugs…” Brant started.

“Slug epidermis constantly secretes light layer of mucus, yes. Human eye secretes discharge in response to emotional duress, human nose secretes mucus in response to nasal infection and cold atmosphere, human skin secretes oil and perspiration constantly,” 78 said, counting the different discharges off on his metal fingers. “Tastefully omitting all solid and liquid wastes, digestive system regurgitation, and reproductive processes.”

“What can you expect of an organic race from a water planet, though? I say, relish in the vast variety of life in the cosmos, however greasy some of it is,” Ahab said.

The mantis had gotten very busy on the screen, butchering the “humans” as they charged left and right, each exploding with blood and viscera like a burst melon at every glancing blow from the mantis.

“Ahh – I do see what she liked about this,” Ahab said, putting his stitching aside and pausing the vid. “Though I suspect you did not come to enjoy a gladiator drama, captain.”

“Well…if it’s for Kat, then maybe. But for now, no. We’re getting to the long-range hub, and I wanted to see what you’ve learned from the captives so far.”

“Oh, nothing at all. I have not asked them so much as their full names yet,” Ahab said. He turned in his chair to face the holoscreen behind him, and Brant noted it was a live feed of their cell in the brig. The two male prisoners were lying on their cots, one with a load of gauze over his eyes and one clutching painfully at a bandage over his stomach. McRee was pacing back and forth in front of the bars.

Brant did not bother to note that she’d told him to prep them for interrogation. He would not so brazenly ignore an order, especially one right up his alley like this. She just waited for him to go on.

“They are clearly well-trained, and I’m sure they’ve been trained to resist interrogation. If we press them immediately, they will think we need the information they have immediately, and they will resist that much harder. No, I think they will be more pliant if we let them languish for a bit. Let them think we don’t care.”

“But…do need information immediately,” 78 said. “Need to know who sent them, what they know about us, whether they know what it is we’re carrying,”

Brant thought of the heavily-encrypted intel packet they were carrying back to Federation command and thought Because I’d sure like to know.

“Much of that we can infer or learn at the hub. If there is no bounty posted for us, then we know our cargo is important enough that the Rebels do not want anyone else getting hold of it,” Ahab said. “Which in turn means our friends in the brig are likely trusted operatives, not mere rank and file. All the more reason to employ advanced techniques – you note how only the female was fully treated in our medbay?” He pointed at McRee.

“I do. The others are stabilized as ordered, correct?” Brant asked.

“Stabilized, but still in bad shape. I am providing the female with medical supplies and rations for her comrades, and as planned, she has been quite diligent in changing bandages and administering all necessary care. You see, your species takes care of its young for many years, and your bodies evolved to compensate you for the effort with emotional dividends. It is in your nature to develop attachments to those you nurture closely.” The zoltan eyed the screen and smiled one of his more disconcerting smiles. “I can work with that.”

“Ahab, you are a scary little dude,” Brant said. “But do what you have to. I’m going aboard the hub in force, just in case things get dicey. The ship’s yours until we get back.”

“Very good, captain.” Ahab held the coat up to his face to inspect the stitch he’d just completed, and he clucked disapprovingly. “If you happen to find a tailor…oh, never mind. I shall persevere.”

“Hang in there, big guy,” Brant said. “8, you’re with me.”

The engi followed her out, and they walked briskly down the corridor together.

“How are you doing?” Brant asked quietly.

78’s face blinked blue and red. “Fine. Refreshing familiarity with shield systems. Allocating grief processes to background until I can spare processing power to fully address.”

Once, Brant might have thought about how inhuman and detached this sounded, but she knew better now. “Yeah, me too. Can’t afford to slow down yet. What’s our intel on the Tefinix hub?”

“Sparse. Tefinix Cloud has dangerous reputation and few habitable worlds, but for those merchant nations that do operate here, the Hub is the only civilized outpost on this side of the nebula. It is slug-operated and primarily caters to trade and military vessels crossing the Cloud.”

“Which means it caters mainly to rough costumers.”

“Accurate assessment. Chance to encounter cheerful folk with ships full of pastries and baby animals: near zero. Hub operators have decent reputations, at least.”

“They’re slugs. That means they’ll be honest about how they’re going to screw us in any deal we make.”

“Essentially. And they’ll shoot us in front instead of back if negotiations collapse.”

The bridge door slid open at their approach. Brant sat in the captain’s chair and 78 braced himself behind her. Toh sat ahead of them, his wounds packed with ceramic bandages. He was talking to Karl, who was sitting there in the only other chair in the room.

That would be Brant’s chair.

“There’s a lot of overlap between our theologies and yours, but that’s one place where we differ,” Toh was saying.

“So no afterlife at all?” Karl asked. Toh had glanced up briefly at the captain, but Karl couldn’t see the door and had apparently no idea they’d entered.

“If the Shaper plans to reward the righteous in death, then he hasn’t said anything about it. Righteousness is its own reward; anyone who can’t see that is never going to achieve it anyway.”

“Old Job couldn’t have said it any better,” Brant said. Karl started a little at her voice, then stood and faced them.

“Hello, captain. Commander. Uh…I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you. We’re managing,” Brant said.

“Condolences appreciated. Mission continues,” 78 said. His face glittered green very briefly; Brant doubted anyone else would have noticed, much less that anyone else would have taken it as a sign of mischief. “Side note – protocol under this command does not require crew to stand at attention when captain enters the bridge.”

“Oh. Uh…thanks for telling me.” Karl sat back down.

“Protocol does, however, require that you get out of my goddam chair,” Brant added. Karl stood so fast he nearly tripped.

“I…I didn’t realize…”

“At ease,” Brant said, taking her seat. “I’ll just assume you were warming it up for me. Now stay here, we’re going to need you in a few minutes.”

“We’re approaching the hub, captain,” said Toh.

“Brace for transition,” she said over the intercom, realizing that everyone was in the room with her but Ahab and the prisoners.

The ship entered reality again, and without the interference of the nebula, the ship’s digital telescopes came fully online for the first time in at least a week. The ship’s aft display showed only the Cloud, a vast violet expanse of gas and storms. Charlotte, the colonial girl who wanted to see the vastness of the universe, couldn’t help but think how beautiful it was. Captain Brant of the Federation knew that the beauty was hiding pirates, attack drones, and a whole fracking fleet of Rebel cruisers in steady pursuit.

The view from the front was much emptier. Stars by the million in the distance and one bright sun in the foreground, with any attendant planets too distant to spot immediately.

“Hub on screen,” Toh said, and they zoomed in much further to a bulbous slug space station, all purple domes and antennae sticking out like quills. It looked pretty much like Brant would have expected, except for one detail. “Shaper…looks like we’re late for a party.”

Whether floating nearby or docked, at least a hundred fifty ships were crowded around the hub. Brant noted cargo ships, mass transit jets, and one or two luxury yachts.

Brant turned to 78. “I thought you said this place didn’t see much traffic.”

“Very strange…” The engi’s face blinked with confused static. “Very strange. Mostly civilian craft, minimal shielding and armament...suicide to cross nebula so poorly equipped.”

Karl stroked his chin a little as he studied the visual. “God, it must stink in there.” He looked around at the stares of the others. “What? Little station like that, not used to much traffic, and probably a damp slug atmosphere at that – the life support systems must be straining just to provide enough air for everyone, never mind filtering it.”

“Well, think pleasant-smelling thoughts, then, because we’re going aboard. Toh?”

“Hailing them now, captain. How should I identify us?”

“Probably not a great idea to advertise we’re Federation right off the bat, not if we’re trying to see if there’s a bounty on us. 8, any ideas?”

The engi whirred in thought. “Tell them we’re lesser mercantile house. Federation sometimes sold decommissioned craft to houses looking for well-equipped transports.” The engi glanced at Karl. “Merchant husband and wife, and eclectic alien crew.”

“Uh…well, ok,” Karl said, slightly confused. “I mean…I did some acting in elementary school. Let’s give it a shot.”

Brant nodded to Toh. “Go with it. Call us House…” She searched her mind, but only one thing came. “…Katarexis.”

An audio channel opened with a crackle. A female voice, sounding bored as can be, came on over the speakers.

“Yes?” This was far enough from the usual protocol that it caught Brant off-balance. “What is it?”

“We…seek audience with the hub director,” Brant said.

“We’re…oh, frack my soul, here’s your information. House ‘Katarexis’? I have never heard of it,” the voice said. Brant would guess she was talking to a zoltan. She’d never heard any other race stoop to a phrase as stupid as “frack my soul.”

“No? Oh, heck,” Brant said. “Big time socialites like you, I’m sure you’re up on all the lesser houses. We must have made it up, then.”

A long-suffering sigh came out of the speaker. “My apologies, my lady. What service can we provide for you?”

“We’re here to trade for munitions and intelligence. Scan us all you like – you’ll see we’ve got goods for trade, and then some. Or is there some backwater bumpkin convention going on, and we need an invitation?”

There was a brief pause. “Ah, indeed no, your scans check out. Ignore the crowd – refugees, mostly. I think you will find us amenable to some very agreeable commerce. You may come aboard.”

“Excellent. Give us half an hour to get our ship in order.” Brant closed the channel and stood. “All right – we’re a scrappy, down-on-our luck merchant family with servants. Let’s get a wardrobe change with that in mind, and meet at the shuttle in twenty minutes.”

“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” Toh said. He reached up to the Federation insignia affixed to his shoulder, the only ornament or clothing that he wore, and took it off. “K. I’m good.”

78 clucked. “No imagination,” he whirred as he turned and shuffled off the bridge.

“Captain, uh…” Karl began.

She looked him up and down. He was wearing a dirty white shirt and stained beige pants; he had a few other clothes taken from Mickelson’s old belongings, but none any better than this. He could use a shave, but she didn’t object to a little stubble. Besides… “Well, we’re going for scrappy. You’re fine.”





Half an hour later, the Kestrel shuttle attached itself to the assigned docking gate, and the crew stood ready to board. Brant had swapped her uniform for nondescript trousers and blouse with a long brown coat; nothing fancy, but then a merchant family that bought used Federal craft wouldn’t be fancy. She’d taken off her eye patch and put on dark glasses, in case there was someone hunting for a one-eyed captain. 78 had put on a nice sash of platinum links and covered his claws with fitted gloves of white velvet.

The airlock opened, and Brant fought off a momentary urge to wretch as a brutal smell attacked them. Thick, warm, and wet, the air stank of sweat, sewage, mildew, and an aggressively fruity antiseptic that only accented and worsened the reek. Karl gagged.

“God damn!” he said. “Yeah. Told you so.”

A zoltan was approaching the airlock, walking uncertainly and glowing an ugly brownish-green. Next to the zoltan walked a heavily-armed rock and a mantis in heavily dented armor.

“You are the merchant family, then?” asked the zoltan. Again, something about the voice suggested a woman to Brant; while the species had long since abandoned sex, they had not entirely eschewed gender.

“We are the Lord and Lady Katarexis,” Brant said. She patted Karl on the back affectionately. “Plus entourage.”

“And, uh, who might you be?” Karl asked.

Brant looked over at 78 with a disapproving look. The engi whined quietly, then reached over and slapped Karl upside the head.

“Speak when spoken to, servitor,” 78 said. He whispered none-too-quietly to Brant. “Really, dear: too indulgent with the help.”

Brant rolled her eye, hidden behind her shades. “And who might you be?” she asked.

“Zaramabra, Senior Assistant to the hub director,” said the zoltan, who looked thoroughly unamused by the exchange. “This way, please. Keep your weapons away, and avoid any speech or action which could be construed as aggressive. Ozzog is happy to talk to you, but the situation on the hub is somewhat brittle at the moment.”

Toh and the rock bodyguard exchanged silent glares, and the mantis sized up the group.

“Very good. A question, though,” 78 said. “You called this a refugee situation. If possible to ask…”

The zoltan’s head swayed a bit as she looked back at 78. Brant heard a bit of a drunken slur as she spoke this time. “Can you imagine what Ozzog would do to me, master engi, if I started giving perfectly saleable information away to his clients for free? This way, if you please.”

The escort led them through the corridors of the station. Armed guards patrolled regularly, and occasionally Brant caught views through open hatches of crowded tent cities filling up cargo bays. She’d expected a refugee situation, but nothing like this.

God. What had the Rebels done?

They arrived finally at a heavy blast door. The zoltan waved at a panel next to the door, and it slid open to reveal a dimly lit, richly appointed lounge. A number of well-cushioned booths lined the wall to their left, with an ornate bar carved out of hard, red fungus – the highest of high end slug carpentry. A thin white mist hung in the air around their ankles, partly to help keep the climate optimal for slugs but mostly for ambience. The air had not even a faint note of the crowds outside, instead smelling faintly of pickles for some reason.

On instinct, Brant immediately took stock of their surroundings. The only exit was through the blast door, and they were slightly outnumbered in the room. An engi stood behind the bar in an apron, cleaning a row of elegant drug pipes. Three rocks sat in an extra-large booth, designed for their race, eyeing the new arrivals suspiciously. A bearded man with small, dark glasses sat with a mantis female decked in jewelry, arguing in hushed tones over a data slate. And alone in the middle of the room sat a slug, his skin dry and wrinkled with age, swirling a hand in a small bowl of brown nutrient liquid. The bodyguards led them up to the slug’s table, and the slug slowly shifted his attention up to them.

“Thank you, Mabra,” said the slug. “I am Ozzog. Whom should I be addressssing?”

Brant stepped forward and extended a hand. “Ozzog, I am Elizia of House Katarexis, and this is my husband, KE-198. I hope we may arrive at some mutually beneficial trade.”

“Ahhh. That would be nice. I am very old, though, and I have lost my taste for petty deceits and dissembling. You cannot possibly think a telepath would accept such a fiction.”

“Of course not,” Brant said. “But it did get us to the trading table with armed protection.”

“Ah. Ssso it did,” Ozzog said approvingly. “Mabra, some drinks for us, species appropriate, of course. Something for yourself too, yes, there’s a good girl. Now how may humble Ozzog be of assisssstance?”

Brant eyed the Zoltan slouching over to the bar, but Toh was already staring her down closely. She turned back to the slug. “We are plotting a course though the Rebel cordon in the Magna Sector. We need armaments and information on their forces. We can pay richly with scrap and supplies.”

“I would be delighted to help you for a modest fee, captain. Ah, bless you, Mabra.” The zoltan had returned with a tray of drinks and a long, slender drug pipe. She started passing glasses to everyone but the slug. “Unfortunately, what you ask is impossible.”

Brant looked around the bar suspiciously. There was only the one human, the one arguing with the mantis, but she supposed the Rebels could have struck a bargain. “Oh? And why is that?”

“Even that information will cost you,” Ozzog said. “In fact, since it is clear you have been in the Cloud for quite some time and are very far out of the loop at present, I recommend you consider my flat rate intelligence package rather than negotiate piecemeal for individual scraps of information. Mabra?”

The zoltan took a data slate off the table, pushed at it, and presented it to Brant. She looked it over quizzically before handing it to 78.

“So you want food? We can do that, but these numbers…”

“I have several dozen ships docked in this hub which lack sufficient fuel, armament, or resolve to traverse the Cloud as you have, and as such we have many hundreds of refugees. There is high supply and low demand for ship equipment, but nourishment and medicine are other matters entirely. Judging by your looks, your stores are well-stocked. Shall you admit you can afford my price comfortably, or must we dicker? Oh, wait – forgive my bluntness again, but were you the ones who killed Slokkran?”

That certainly was blunt, especially for a slug. 78 and Brant looked at each other, and Karl and Toh eyed the rest of the room. The zoltan, meanwhile, inhaled deeply of the drug pipe. “Why would you ask such a thing?” Brant asked.

Mabra slowly exhaled a stream of drug vapor over Ozzog’s head and torso, and the slug luxuriated in the cloud. “Ohhh my…that is nicccce. Ah….as I sssaid, I dislike dodges and vagaries, and when I asssk a question, I prefer an ansswer. But if it will facilitate an honest ressponsse: I have sscanned your ship and matched the ssignature on ssseveral of your weapons to systems that Slokkran had in his inventory. Slokkran was like a ssson to me. I mentored him. I worked with him. He had negotiated a prosperous reproductive arrangement with my daughter.” Mabra blew another puff of smoke onto Ozzog’s body, and the slug again wiggled with delight. Brant found it obscene in the extreme. “And now I hear that his ship was found blown to pieces in the Cloud. Did you kill him?”

“Did business with him a week ago,” 78 said. “News to us that he is dead.”

“Yeah, we just robbed him and left him defenseless in a bad part of space,” said Brant, figuring it’d be better to err on the side of honesty rather than have the slug assume something worse or pluck the truth from her mind. “We didn’t actually kill him, if that makes things better.”

“I’m afraid it doess not. There is now a blood vendetta between us, and honor requires me to charge you an additional 10% on all of our transactions.”

Brant narrowed her eye. “5%.”

“9.”

“6.5.”

“7.5.”

Brant gave the slug a cautious, sidelong glare. “Done,” she said.

“Excellent,” Ozzog declared. He reached over and tapped the data slate, and the final bill went up accordingly. Brant passed it to 78 to peruse. “Let us start fresh then. I know more about your actual identities then you may suspect, but there are gaps in what I’ve heard and what I can read. Forgive me – I never remember the rules of propriety with your species, but I simply must ask: are you actually screwing the engi?”

Brant smirked. 78’s screen flashed slightly red at the suggestion as he passed her the slate; Brant wondered if that was a reaction native to the engi or if 78 had learned it from humans. “That information would cost you, Ozzog. Do we continue with the bargain as we’ve struck it, or must we dicker further?”

Ozzog laughed aloud. “Indeed! Ah, I like you, Captain Brant. Yes, yes, we have had some visitors asking after a Federation captain of your description, so your identity is not hard to surmise. We have not been notified to post any sort of bounty, and those Rebels who ask after you and your crew invariably pretend to be your comrades; they think I am an absolute idiot, I swear. I must wonder what it is you have on them to inspire such a secretive and determined manhunt, but I will not ask. I should think that your pursuers would go even so far as the Magna Sector to hunt you down.”

“Why wouldn’t they? The Magna Sector is all Rebels; they’ve used it as a staging ground for their cordon around the Federation core worlds,” Brant said. Toh nudged her, and she realized that everyone in the room was staring at them now. “What? What’s happened?”

“My apologies, captain. My guests are no doubt simply surprised to hear you spout such ignorance of current events. Alas that news is so hard to come by in the Cloud,” Ozzog said. “The Magna Sector is abandoned.”

Brant’s heart leapt for a moment. That could mean hope. It could mean a hole in the Rebel blockade and a change in the Federation’s fortunes. But the dozens of ship outside, the thousands crammed into this station, told her there was something more sinister afoot.

“Abandoned?” 78 asked.

“Oh I’m sure there were those who could not leave. Some of them may yet be alive. But all who could leave have left – the Rebels consolidating inward toward your beloved Federation, and civilians fleeing in any other direction. They say that, uh…” Ozzog reached across the table and gently took the data slate away.

Brant narrowed her eye. “Yes?”

Ozzog leaned across the table to Brant. She could smell the medicinal stink of drug vapor around him. “You must understand that I am a sensible trader. The sort of stories coming out of the Sector of late...if not for their consistency, their frequency, and the evidence of my own eyes, I would never stoop to pawn such old sailor nonsense off as actual news. But…they say that ancient evil has stirred in the abyss. They say that demons swim in the void, devouring ships and choking the life from innocents a mere glance. They say…”

Karl burst out laughing. Brant stood up angrily, 78 following quickly.

“Oh, no no. I will not be made a fool of,” Brant threatened, shoving a finger in Ozzog’s face. “If you think I’m trading good supplies for stories of space monsters, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“Shall I lie, then? What reason for the flight of an entire sector would you find more agreeable, hm?” Ozzog asked, indignant. “Do you not think I reacted the same, the first time I heard the stories? But what can I think, when ship after terrified ship comes with the same harrowing tale on their lips?”

Toh sat utterly still. He spoke for the first time in that exchange, and even in his uninflected voice, Brant could clearly hear terror. “What…do they call this evil?”

The table of rocks in the corner turned and stared intently at Toh. The largest of them spoke. “You know what they are called, brother.”

Ozzog’s rock bodyguard nodded. “If you keep to scripture, then you know what is written.”

“Oh, Shaper…” Toh muttered.

Mabra sipped at a tall glass of a thick, white zoltan intoxicant, a drink with the consistency of concrete. “Another hit, sir?” she asked with a more pronounced slur.

“Oh, I think it’s that sort of night, yes,” said Ozzog. “I’ve heard this sermon before. Shall you favor us with it, master rock?”

“Toh? What are they talking about?” Brant asked.

“Our scriptures…they say that a long time ago, before any of our people had learned space travel, the galaxy was ruled by the crystal folk. The Shaper and Preserver favored them more than any other creature, but they made war without end against each other. He gave them reason, and language, and the use of tools, but each blessing they used in the service of war. Finally, he gave them his greatest blessing, the secrets of the jump drive, but still they failed to find the Peaceful Way and put an end to their violence…so…he gave the keys of the cosmos over to the Breaker and Destroyer, who unlocked the nine doors of the abyss…and out of the abyss, he summoned the Lanius.”

Karl was still snickering a little, but as he looked around the room and saw the looks on everyone’s faces, he shut right up.

“I do not believe that,” Ozzog said flatly. “I follow galactic events enough to say that we all probably deserve to be devoured by hungry avenging angels, but it pushes credulity. I fervently hope that a superior explanation for these phenomena emerges soon.”

Brant…sat there. This was certainly a change in the winds, and that was about all she could augur from it. “Thoughts, 8?”

“Oh, lots,” 78 said. “Not many of use. Except…Rebel presence in sector has advanced into Federation space?” Ozzog nodded. “Something troubling is happening in sector – that much is clear. But…time runs short.”

Toh’s eyes went wider and hotter than Brant had ever seen. Brant had a feeling she knew what was going through his head.

She turned to Ozzog. “I want to talk to some of your refugees, and I want the most up-to-date information you have. Charts, conditions, anything you have…” She swallowed, in which time she realized that every other sound in the room had gone quiet. “I don’t care if it’s the end of the universe and we’ve got to fight through demons of mythology. We’re getting to Federation space, and we’re getting there now.”
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stylesrj
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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby stylesrj » Wed Nov 04, 2015 3:35 am

Oooh the Lanius have surfaced!
Can't wait to find out how they'll handle them. I wonder if they'll be friendly?

Also, I like how Slugs treat blood feuds. "That'll be a 10% Killing My Family surcharge." "Can we haggle?" "Sure!"
Love those guys :)
SmoothPapaJ
Posts: 48
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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Sun Dec 20, 2015 4:42 am

Here's half of what I have written for the next chapter. I'll post the rest, which I'll hopefully have finished, in the next few days. Enjoy!
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Ozzog begged them to reconsider. Brant hadn’t even known slugs had tear ducts, let alone the capacity to weep in response to duress, until she saw the hub director tearing up over their departure. The Kestrel, he insisted, could profit richly from the refugee situation, and without compromising their moral fiber – many at the hub would gladly offer themselves into slavery to escape into civilized space. Brant and her crew would get rich, they’d help the unfortunate, Ozzog would take a cut, everybody would win. Diving into certain oblivion was one thing; wasting an obvious opportunity for profit, quite another.

Brant immediately rejected this offer. If she ever survived to write a memoir about all this, she’d of course have to say that duty surpassed all other concerns. Really, she just knew the Rebels would quickly find her and make a nasty debris field out of her and her ship if she veered off their current course at all. Brant had no speck of doubt that the pursuing fleet would destroy them if they ever caught up and cornered the Kestrel; even monsters out of alien eschatology gave them better odds, and so they gathered intel, capped off their fuel tanks and missile stores, and entered the long jump toward the Magna Sector.

They would have thirty hours in jump between sectors. It was time to tie up loose ends.

When she and 78 strode into the medbay, the freshly-bandaged Grisham and Angel were lying on the auto-doc beds, firmly bound to the beds with manacles around their wrists and ankles. McRee was sitting at a bare table, similarly restrained against the chair and facing her comrades. Ahab sat patiently next to her with his sewing supplies and his coat. Brant sat down across from Ahab and McRee, pushing her chair out enough to see Angel and Grisham on the beds too. She laid a data slate on the table, and 78 walked over to stand by the wall.

Brant let the moment breathe. She sat and focused on her breathing, looking calmly at her prisoners. Ahab barely looked up from his sewing. 78 didn’t move at all.

“Awkward silences are the worst, right?” McRee said. “It’s like, is it rude for me to force meself into the quiet and try to shake it up, or is it ruder for me to jus’ sit there and let the mood fester? Never had much in the way of social finesse.”

“No?” asked Ahab. “I’ve found you quite charming.”

“Oh, thank you. You hear that, Charlotte? The green one likes me,” McRee said. Brant looked at her for a moment, then let her gaze drift back to her men.

“Is she being real intimidating, Mac?” Angel asked. “I can’t see nothing through the bandages.”

“Oh, she’s being super intimidating. Not saying nothing at all. Practically soiling my britches,” McRee said. “Though word to the wise, love. If you’re trying to freak out your captives, engi and zoltan aren’t exactly nightmare material.”`

Brant brought up her data slate without looking at McRee. “I wanted to bring you folks up to date on our situation. We just came back from the Tefinix Hub, and we are now en route to the Magna Sector. I wanted to see if any of you know anything useful about the situation there, but I’m not going to pressure you.”

“Ha!” Grisham laughed. He cut his chuckle short with a pained expression, clenching his bandaged stomach.

“Here’s our intel for you,” Angel said. “You’re all gonna’ die out there.”

“Boys,” McRee said somewhat sharply. “Why don’t we just let me do the talking, right?”

Ahab stopped sewing to hold the mended sleeve out for inspection. “It would be droll of me to point out that if this ship is destroyed, your lives will end with it,” he said.

“If this ship is destroyed, then our lives end with the satisfaction of an accomplished mission,” McRee spat back. “And you’ve got to remember that, no matter what intel you might squeeze out of us. We’ve lost a lot of good men on this job already. We’ve got three lives left to pay to see it through to the end, and that’s cheap enough.

“So yeah, Charlotte – everything you heard about the Magna Sector is true, but so much worse. The Lanius are back, and they’ve got tech like we can’t even imagine. Nothing we do is going to matter because the old gods are back, and they’re hungry. Or…am I only telling you that so that you’ll panic and abandon your mission? That’s probably it. No, yeah, the Sector’s all secure, the whole Lanius thing was just mass hysteria caused by a few malfunctioning deep space probes and some irresponsible media reporting. Getting through will be a total cakewalk, unless I’m just trying to get your guard down. In that case…”

78 slammed his claw against the table and whined at an excruciating pitch. “Enough. Patience thin.”

“Oh, frack! An angry engi!” Angel shouted. “Oh, help us, Jesus! Don’t let the vicious engi hit us!”

The Rebels chuckled. 78’s face flashed red and orange, and Brant raised a hand at him to ease off.

“Like I said, I won’t pressure you. It would be too risky to base any decisions on your hearsay. I was just curious what you might say,” Brant said. “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me why there isn’t a bounty out for us, either.”

“Who said there wasn’t?” McRee asked. “Who says your buddies on the hub haven’t just signaled to our advance scouts and collected a hefty fee for it?”

“I don’t know what route we’ll be taking through the Sector, but it’s the fastest way to Federation space. The Rebels don’t need someone to tell them that. What they need, Lilian, is someone who can stop us. So why isn’t there a bounty for someone to do just that?”

“Oh, I don’t think you need me to tell you that, either, Charlotte,” McRee said with a grin. “But I’m not sure why you’d trust my opinion there, either.”

“I really wouldn’t, you’re right. So I won’t pressure you there, either,” Brant said. She tapped the dataslate, placed it on the table, and pushed it over to McRee. “So let’s cut to the chase. Two months ago, our agents infiltrated a covert Rebel facility on the outer edge of the galaxy and stole a wealth of highly-classified intelligence. Our people only had time to transmit it to the Federation’s last base in the area before getting all blown up, and Admiral Ur-Curda only had time to throw it on his fastest ship before his base got all blown up. We would be that ship, of course, and our orders, in the continuing absence of a functional Federal comm network, are to deliver this intel to Admiral Tully and the High Command.”

Brant started flicking her finger across the dataslate, scrolling the screen through a variety of images – documents, blueprints, photographs, and others.

78 whirred with some pride. “Have decrypted most of it already. Not easy – Level-7 encryption, mostly. Fortunately, have had plenty of time.”

Brant nodded. “It’s all very sensitive stuff – detailed ship schematics, locations and staff of all research installations, the aliases and whereabouts of Rebel deep-cover agents, that sort of thing. The last bits we were able to extracts were internal affairs documents, detailed profiles of Rebel leaders with extensive evaluation of their vices, psychological hang-ups, and criminal histories. Did you know that Vice Admiral Geiss made her living smuggling psychotropic drugs before she joined the Rebellion?”

The two men smirked, and McRee chuckled. “That’s what we call an open secret there, love. You may have evidence to firmly link her to the stories, but everyone assumes they’re true anyway and no one gives a crap.”

“Yeah, and there it is. We’ve decrypted almost everything we stole, and none of it’s stuff you’d want our High Command to know about. But it wouldn’t turn the tide at this point. The Federation can hang on for one more year, tops; it has lost all its strength outside of its core worlds, and nothing we’ve discovered will change that.

“And that really begs the question, Lily: Why devote a whole fleet – not a couple of specialized spy hunters, mind you, a whole fracking fleet – to running down a couple of idiots in a bum ship with mostly harmless secrets?”

Brant leaned back and watched their captives. Ahab looked up curiously from his coat as a heavy silence fell over the room. Brant flipped at the dataslate a few more times, and the images and documents began to scramble.

“One data packet left,” 78 said. “Level-10 encryption. Unable to break.”

“One packet left. One secret. Whatever it is, your people have been willing to devote an absurd level of resources for an absurd amount of time to stop it from getting in the wrong hands. And we don’t even know what it is! The hardware and personnel at our primary base might be able to decrypt it, on the off chance that we ever get there, but the only thing that would work for sure is a high-level Rebel clearance.”

Brant nodded to Ahab, who calmly rose and put on his coat. The zoltan strolled over to the captives on their beds and pulled up a tray of surgical tools. “This is where we start pressuring you,” he said plainly, as if to start a dull lecture.
tremor3258
Posts: 15
Joined: Wed Nov 20, 2013 10:03 pm

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby tremor3258 » Tue Dec 29, 2015 6:32 pm

Always happy to see new parts on this!
SmoothPapaJ
Posts: 48
Joined: Mon Jan 20, 2014 1:56 am

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Wed Dec 30, 2015 4:14 am

tremor3258 wrote:Always happy to see new parts on this!


Thanks! Always happy to hear people are still reading :P
SmoothPapaJ
Posts: 48
Joined: Mon Jan 20, 2014 1:56 am

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Wed Dec 30, 2015 4:16 am

“God damn – how much did you have to bone Andrews for this promotion, love? Because you sure didn’t get it for your brains,” McRee said with apparently genuine frustration. “First off, I know we’re going to die soon, whether because you kill us or because someone blows this ship up, so you’ve lost a ton of leverage in this interrogation already. The end’s in sight for us one way or the other, which is especially good news since, heck, I’ve barely got more clearance than a mess hall pot washer. The sort of folk that have high-level clearance don’t usually get dispatched on grunt work missions like this. Mostly, ya know, to avoid exactly this sorta situation.”

“Ordinarily, no doubt true,” 78 said. He strode over to other side of the beds, opposite Ahab, and drew up the keyboard for the auto-doc console. “But these, strange circumstances.”

“See, what we’ve been thinking, Lily, is that whatever secret is in that last packet, it’s something huge. It was stolen it on a rumor that it’s big enough to shift the war against the Rebels, even this late in the game, and the scale of the Rebel response to its theft has reinforced that belief. We think the Rebels don’t put a bounty on us because they don’t want to risk this secret, whatever it is, getting into anyone else’s hands. I believe that all the Rebel ships they’ve sent out to shoot us up were ordinary rank and file, definitely, but your team was dispatched to board us and deal with us personally. It occurs to me that if they were going to send in a team like that, then there’s two choices: either you can execute the whole team once they report back in, just in case they stumbled on this massive secret during their mission. Or, and I’m hoping for all our sake that this is what happened, you can send in an agent who’s been cleared to handle this sort of intel.” Brant tapped on the slate, and a voice identification window popped up, lines bobbing up and down as they spoke. “So any time you feel like sharing your ID and access code with us, be my guest.”

McRee stared at Brant for a long moment. “Let me be clear: I don’t have that kind of rank. I can’t give ya’ what yer asking for. If you’re intent on torturing us until we unlock this stuff for you, you’re going to have to torture us to death.” She stared down Ahab and 78. “Come on, eh? Don’t do this. I’m not going to beg you, but you guys, at least, you must be rational guys. We can’t help you, and this….”

Ahab turned to McRee with a look of warmth and compassion. “Fear not, madam. We are soldiers in the service of the Federation, and even in these dark times, you need not worry for your men while they are in our care.”

Without ceremony, Ahab picked a scalpel up from his tray and drove it into Grisham’s stomach as hard as he could. The man bucked against his restraints, his face contorted with pain, but he did not cry out. Ahab pulled the blade out and drove it in several more times, humming idly to himself as Grisham cursed and struggled.

78 hit a key on the console, and Ahab backed away as the mechanical arms of the auto-doc swung into place, plucking the scalpel away and repairing the wounds with deft grace.

“You see?” Ahab said. “We are not monsters. No matter what absurd level of violence we inflict on them, they will survive to endure more.”

McRee and Ahab stared each other down, no sound in the room except Grisham’s slowly calming breaths.

Ahab sighed. “You voiced a familiar stereotype earlier, that the engi and the zoltan are the ‘logical’ races. I have never understood that old chestnut. Organic races always seem to think that ‘evil,’ such as it is, is somehow a problem of the flesh, that a life form who has ascended beyond the flesh will be a gentler, or a more rational, or in some other way a better sort of being.” Ahab picked up a hypodermic needle and slid it into a bottle of rubbing alcohol, pulling the plunger back to fill it. “We were all organic once, all had to fight our way up from the primordial mud and become a planet’s dominant species. There are no gentle races, madam.” He slammed the needle into Grisham’s arm and pushed. The man started to buck furiously against his restraints and the autodoc beeped excitedly as it started trying to treat him. “We are all apex predators out here.”

78 entered a few commands at his console. The foot cushions on Angel’s bed began to bend upward slightly, lifting his feet up to level with his knees before locking firmly and beeping.

”Should note, ordinarily find such treatment distasteful in extreme,” 78 said. “Federal ethics codes very clear on subject of prisoner treatment, even if Justice Ministry known for turning blind eye. Have had to compromise heavily on moral parameters already – last remaining moral boundaries all the more precious as result.”

His face smoldered a dark, volcanic red. He struck a key on the console, and Angel’s bed beeped in warning.

“Override acknowledged,” said the bed, servos whining as it lifted Angel’s feet up and tried to bend his knees in the wrong direction.

Angel began to pant, his eyes going wide as a rabid dog’s. “Please, please don’t do this, we don’t know anything!”

78 pressed a key, his face glowing a brighter red now, and the bed stopped moving. Angel’s legs were straight and rigid, unable to stand any more strain. The engi bent down to Angel’s face. “Her name was Katarek,” he said. “Now you know something. Katarek. My friend. Killed my friend. Killed my friend.” He struck the console without looking back at it, keeping his face inches from Angel’s as the bed screeched back into motion. “KILLED. MY. FRIEND.”

Things popped. People screamed. Brant watched, tears flowing down her otherwise blank face. All of it – grief over Katarek, horror over what she and her gentle friend had come to, hope that McRee knew something and that they could stop this, hope that McRee knew nothing and they wouldn’t have to stop – all of it sloshed around in Brant’s heart, and it produced no reaction more meaningful than a few tears. Certainly, at least, she did nothing to stop it.

“Yes,” Brant said blankly. “You killed our friend.”

Angel had lost consciousness as the autodoc got to work on his ruined legs, and Grisham was incoherent as the machines tried to filter his blood. McRee was trying to keep a brave face, but Brant saw her jaw shaking and the redness in her eyes.

“All you have to do is give us an access code,” Brant said. “That’s it. Then this stops.”

McRee slowly, deliberately turned her gaze to Brant. She expected to see hate, and it was there. But there was also…pity.

“Yeah, we killed your friend. And nothing you can say or do will convince me we did wrong, and it’s not because she was mantis. It’s because she was Fed. Any time we manage to kill a Fed, I jump for joy and I thank the Lord, and if you want to know why, then look around, for God’s sake. I wouldn’t worry about the Lanius, captain – even if they’re all the legends say and worse, the real monsters are on this ship.”

A tear dropped off Brant’s cheek. “I don’t see it that way.”

That was apparently too much for McCree. She tried to stand in indignation, but her restraints kept her seated. “You don’t see it that way? That’s all you’ve got to say? Just ‘no, you’re wrong’? Jesus God, you’re…”

“The Lanius will kill us. And if they don’t, the fleet behind us will. And if they don’t, the blockade ahead of us will. We’re all dead, and so is our government.” A smirk flickered at the corners of Brant’s mouth. “I see us more as the Federation’s vengeful ghosts.”

McRee eyed Brant cautiously. Brant saw a tiny ember of fear in her eyes.

“Oh, what? The nice aliens weren’t as nice as you thought, so you thought you could appeal to my shame? To my humanity?” Brant said. She tried to keep her voice calm and clear, but there was a terrifying energy bubbling up out of her, and she shouted the last word. “Because you totally can! What we do to you today is going to leave me stained, dirtied, and damaged. I expect to weep in shame over it. When I die, my last thoughts might be about what I ordered done to you today and whether I’m going to go to hell for it. But I’ll do it all the same. And do you want to know the truth, Lily?”

Brant leaned heavily, almost comically over the table. The Rebel captain tried to recoil from her, but the restraints kept McRee in place as Brant slid up to within inches of her face. “This? All this? It’s not even for the Federation! There’s no way we’re going to make it back to Fed space alive, and they could probably decrypt it then anyway without any help from you guys! It’s not even for vengeance – hell, we killed five of your guys already, Kat would think that’s pretty good!”

She looked over her shoulder at 78 and Ahab. The zoltan looked mildly amused, even a little impressed. The commander blinked a confusing rainbow of emotions; she recognized fear and shame and encouragement. She gave what she hoped was a reassuring wink, to let them know this was at least partly an act, but then she realized – she only had the one eye. That insane energy came rolling out of her in hysterical chuckles, and she turned back to McRee.

“No, no, what really makes me feel like a bitch, Lily, is that I’m going to make you watch your men break over and over again, hour after hour, day after day, fully aware that you may not even have the right clearance, just because I’m so. Fracking. Curious. The last few months we’ve been on the run, we’ve lost people, we’ve killed people, and for WHAT?” Brant screamed the word and pounded the table repeatedly for emphasis. “What was it all about? What was the big secret? Would it have been worth all we’ve been through, all we’ve done, all we’ve had to become? Or did someone goof and it’s just the Fleet Admiral’s secret chili recipe?”

Brant cupped McRee’s cheeks in her hands and held their faces close. “I have to know. It’s not going to do us one lick of good, and it won’t bring Kat back. But for all that, I have to know. And as soon as your men wake up, I’m willing to do the most depraved, the most inhuman…”

“McRee, Lilian, ID-31315!”

Brant almost wasn’t sure McRee had said it, even though she was close enough that she felt the breath coming out of McRee’s mouth as she said it. Then the data slate chirped a few times, and announced, “ID Accepted. Decrypting. Please ensure proper security protocols are observed.”

“God have mercy on you, Charlotte Brant,” McRee hissed.

Brant had gotten so far into the performance that she found it hard to get out of it now. She shook her head a little, then abruptly stood and walked back and forth nervously. They’d done it. They had it.

She suspected, as she picked up the slate, that there may be no immediate gratification. Whatever was in the packet would require hours of reading to properly digest, but she couldn’t contain herself. She flicked through file directories, glanced at schematics and document headers, her eye darting about to absorb as much it could. It had to do with the flagship of Fleet Admiral Politis, the leader of the Rebellion and the military genius responsible for many of its most important victories. She could tell that much, but she could barely focus.

She waved 78 over. “Ahab, fully anesthetize and treat the prisoners. 8, what do you make of this?”

The engi walked over and peered at the slate. There was an uneasy twitching to his motions as his emotions settled down, but his face screen was blank as he stood next to her and took in the information on the slate.

“Strange…mix of capital ship schematics, experimental computing hardware, and…personal profile of Fleet Admiral? Connections implied, but…” He trailed off into muttering whistles as he kept reading, faster than Brant could follow. “Wait…wait…oh -” 78 let out a burst of excited and highly profane static.

“Well? Is it worth it?” McRee asked.

The engi lowered the slate and eyed McRee suspiciously. “Do you know about Fleet Admiral?”

“What does it say?” McRee asked dismissively, exhaustedly. “Is he a criminal? A pervert? You seem very shocked, but honestly, I could care less what the man may have done, as long as…”

“Not a man,” 78 said. Brant’s eyes bugged out as she saw what 78 had been reading and made the connection. Even Ahab, now at the console administering painkillers, paused and looked over.

“Not a man. Machine. Program.” 78 took the slate from Brant and eyed it more closely. “AI. Leader of Human Rebellion...is an AI.”
SmoothPapaJ
Posts: 48
Joined: Mon Jan 20, 2014 1:56 am

Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Fri Feb 05, 2016 4:09 am

A little mini-update to tide you over. Curious to know what you think; I'm glad people like this fic, but I'm not sure if this is the sort of thing they read it for. I know recent chapters have been awfully talky and this section is no exception, but I can promise action in the next update.

They’d gotten a bottle of Doohan 12-Year at the Hub. Brant considered this a good omen, as it was generally held to be one of the finest and smoothest of the dirt-cheap scotches available on the wider galactic market. Seated at the long table in the briefing room with a double on the rocks, she didn’t read it as such a good omen anymore.
She took another sip and screwed up her face. “This stuff’s nasty,” she muttered to 78.
“Warned you,” 78 said. “References on human culture all concur: scotch, very much an acquired taste.” His speech was garbled and faster than usual, but that wasn’t unexpected. He was mildly high on toxchips, tiny data drives containing engi intoxicant programs. As Brant understood them, they were basically computer viruses that interfered with 78’s social and cognitive functions until his antivirus systems could neutralize them. They’d been developed expressly for moments like these: getting intoxicated with someone was a popular bonding experience throughout the galactic community, and the engi had accordingly devised a way to buzzed.
They sat in silence for a minute after that, Brant taking intermittent sips, 78 occasionally picking up a chip from the small tray in front of him and placing it on his arm to interface.
It had been an act. Mostly. She hoped. She’d worked out the game plan with Ahab and 78 before they talked to the prisoners. It had apparently been a good game plan: she’d emphasized the fact that the Kestrel was doomed and so the intel wouldn’t even make a difference; that it was the men who would suffer than McRee herself; and that Brant was unstable and vicious enough to make them suffer brutally. It was seriously all an act.
Brant took another sip. The crew would join them later for a briefing on the whole situation, but they were both too shaken up. Brant had asked Ahab if he needed a breather, too, but the zoltan had just thanked her politely and gone off, whistling, to his post.
“Could offer scotch as gift to prisoners. Might…smooth things over?”
Brant cocked an eyebrow at this suggestion.
78 shrugged. “Yes…but, whole goal of Rebellion was a sovereign human state, casting off control of non-humans over human destiny. Realization that whole enterprise is controlled by non-human intelligence may have forced prisoners to reevaluate allegiance.”
“Yeah, that’s true. But, we also broke that guy’s knees.” Brant chased the memory away by gulping down the rest of the Doohan. “Ugh, God damn…no, she hates us worse than she’ll ever hate this AI. I mean, could you ever work with someone who did that to me?”
78 hummed softly, and sat there nodding to himself. “Probably.” He noticed the shock and hurt on Brant’s face and chuckled, his laughter glitching and looping with toxchip interference. “Not joking. Would have to take most sensible course, Charlotte. Play meek and unfeeling engi. Convince enemy of my subservience, get them used to my presence. Then…bide time.”
“Oh, man, you’ve thought about this.”
78 flashed red with embarrassment. “Full intoxicated confession: avenging an injury to you or coming to your rescue is occasional daydream of mine. Slow creeping vengeance as just described, or even better, fly in on shuttle, guns blazing, slay enemies in open combat. Then we fly off, or ideally, this happens planetside and we ride off together on tall white equid.”
Against her better judgment, Brant gave herself another pour of the Doohan. “Sheesh. You’ve really thought about this. Uh…what do we do then?”
“That, as far as daydream goes. But…probably go for frozen yogurt.”
Brant laughed hard at that. She punched 78 in the shoulder a little harder than she intended. “My fracking hero.”
A quiet moment passed then. By the time it passed, Brant found she’d taken 8’s claw in her hand and held on to it.
“When I daydream, you know what I think of?”
78 wheezed out a sigh. “I imagine you die in blaze of glory?”
“…yeah, actually.”
“Same in most of mine, too. Easy to focus on all the disasters that could strike, how we would react. When death seems so certain, ‘How to die best’ becomes pressing question.”
“Yeah. Yeah! Until we got this intel, I didn’t realize how much I saw this mission as just finding the best time to make a last stand. Now it’s like…damn, this really could win the war for us. We really have to find a way to pull this off…” She paused, searching for the words through the haze of scotch. “I didn’t realize how much it helped to write myself off as a goner until I realized I couldn’t anymore. Does that make sense?”
“Perfectly. Odds of survival are lower than ever, only with more pressure, fewer coping mechanisms. Still…not all bad.”
Another quiet moment. They looked at each other for a long breath, their hands linked. 78 blinked bright blue, whirred, and slid another chip off his tray.
“…still have intoxicants, after all!” he chirped.
“Amen, Mr. 78!” Brant raised her glass, and they proceeded to tie another on before the briefing.

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