The Heplion Contingency – part 7

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Chapter 7: A New Job

 

A sharp ray of sunlight pierced the office when Jekh tugged down on the blinds to look outside. They squinted at the harsh spotlight shining on their eyes from just above the horizon. Go figure, they thought. They get to live in a place where they know where the sun is all the time… and they still choose to face it. Hiding the sun with their free hand, they looked down on the city. A neat grid of perpendicular lines, all diagonal to the sunlight. Looking toward the night, they confirmed what they had already noticed about this city – no windows facing the sun. None but this fool, they thought. Is this crew as bad as the last?

“I like the sunlight,” said a voice coming from the door. Jekh turned to see a dark-skinned human with a thick mane of black hair crowning her head like a halo. “Most people hide from it, but I like to be able to face it. Bring everything in here into light. Plus, it reminds me of home.” She extended a hand. “I’m Dorella Moranthil, head of recruitment here at the USIC.” More

The Heplion Contingency – part 6

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Chapter 6: The Contact

 

“Gelondan Midnight,” Root said, slapping a credit plate on the counter.

The barman, an older, dark-skinned fellow, examined the plate for a bit. A. NAMKRATIPAR, it read, right under the First Bank of Kaldur account number. He picked it up and disappeared into the back of the bar, wordlessly.

Minutes later, as the young woman was sipping her drink – a pitch-black concoction clouded with thin wisps of white – a stocky, tan-skinned man, chain-link armor peeking out from under his overcoat, sat beside her. She couldn’t see past his forearm, as her hood was up and her head was down… but she didn’t really have to.

“Any trouble?” he said, with a deep voice, just loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the loopball game blaring on the holocaster in the middle of the bar. More

The Heplion Contingency – part 5

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Chapter 5: At the Security Office

 

“Dang! Where’s he off to now?” The middle-aged security guard, clad in light armor, squinted at a round crystal screen mounted on a swiveling base.

“Dunno… they’re both moving way too fast to keep up!” his younger but higher-ranked colleague said, as he turned the screen around to adjust the field of view.

“There, boss! They’re standing still now!” the guard pointed excitedly.

“Got it!” He adjusted the screen, putting their target near its center, and turned a knob to zoom in. The two figures on the screen were talking, although no sound was transmitted to the device.

“I wonder what they’re… whoa! What was that?” The older man was wide-eyed, leaning closer to the screen for a better look. More

The Heplion Contingency – part 4

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Chapter 4: The Interview

 

The emptiness of the space around Nimban was unnerving. This was no mere darkness like the alcove where it had been previously hidden; in fact, there was some visual input, a faint rainbow shimmer coming from all directions at once. No, what was around the artificial brain was much worse than darkness; it was nothing. Nothing to be seen besides the background glow, nothing to be heard, and while Nimban didn’t bother trying its other senses, it knew they’d come up empty as well, because nothing else existed in this hyperspatial pocket it had been stuffed into. Rather clever, actually, it pondered. I’ve no way to connect to a mind that’s in another dimension entirely, which means she’s safe from me… for now. Out of options for the moment, Nimban carefully pondered its predicament, and the many possible configurations of conditions that could have made it happen.

About an hour later on the outside (and less on the inside; Nimban had a good grasp of the temporal distortion involved), a rift opened above the thinking device. It rapidly extended its telepathic senses outward, but found nothing. Then, as if to answer the question of what had opened that aperture, something flew into view with a loud buzz, obscuring the lamp-light shining in from outside. As the newcomer squeezed into the opening and descended into the hyperspace pocket, Nimban had a good look at it: an oval brass chassis, with a few psychically-active crystals inside for power, six clockwork legs, two pairs of silken wings supported by articulated brass stalks, and a pair of thin brass covers for the wings, giving it the look of a large mechanical beetle. A drone, most likely, remotely controlled via psychic link. More

The Heplion Contingency – part 3

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Chapter 3: Beneath a Red Sun

 

Jekh struggled against the discomfort, trying in vain to catch some rest. Their bunk wasn’t bad at all – psychically-generated insta-barracks tended to come well-furnished – but the armor chafed against their rocky skin at odd angles. Their chest and hip plates were neatly stacked on the ground, but arms and legs took longer to armor up than the customary three minutes’ readiness, so they stayed covered up, and ached.

God damn that fool to the shadows, they thought. It was Colonel Athadon’s idea, outfitting all the troops in the same standard-issue platemail, all neatly patterned like a proper army. In Jekh’s long experience with deniable-assets mercenary work, Athadon’s company, Evrand’s Chosen, was the only one that didn’t let soldiers pick their own gear, resulting in a haphazard battalion that looked like a band of raiders or pirates. And if that wasn’t enough, whatever ignorant clods that were in charge of inventory thought human-standard armor was just fine for an eblian such as Jekh. Sure, the general size and shape were more or less the same, but when it got to details – slightly different proportions, muscles in all the wrong places, and dear God, why do humans have such skinny arms – wearing that thing was a nightmare. More

At Border Control

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“Papers, please.” The border officer, a young lady with light-blue skin and iridescent hair, held her hand out without looking up at the next entrant.

The passport that a rubbery, deep-red hand with double-ended digits gave her was crudely-made – just a sheaf of coarse paper sheets with no cover to speak of – and the entry form was empty. Oh joy, another mouth-breathing savage, she thought with a sigh, and raised her eyes to size up her latest torment.

The traveler was a tall and imposing humanoid, clad in primitive armor made from the hide of some scaly animal. His pointy head was marked by two broad tentacles that sprouted from the sides of his chin and rested on his shoulders, with another, smaller pair coming out of his cheeks. His mouth was a line of jagged teeth, a chevron-shaped flap of skin – actually a vestigial fifth tentacle – stood in for a nose, and a pair of sickly-yellow eyes studded the sides of his face.

“Name?” Her voice carried as much annoyance as she could muster.

“You can read it there,” the man growled with a crackling voice, pointing at his travel documents.

“Yeah, and you could’ve written it here too, buster,” she waved the form around. “I need you to confirm all data. Name?

His facial tentacles writhed in anger. “Gallurak of the Bleak Fort,” he said after a while.

She cast him a sideways glance before moving forward. “I’ll go ahead and write ‘Bleakfort’ under ‘surname’. Nationality?”

“Nag-Quelthhu, Bane of Hope,” he said with a solemn tone.

Her supervisor, a couple booths away, perked up at the mention of that name. “Like, that doesn’t even sound like a country,” she said, rolling her eyes as she filled the form. “What the hell is up with that name, anyway?”

“It is a name one such as you is entirely unworthy of uttering… woman.” His tone of voice made it clear that he was thinking of some entirely different and much less civil word to call her.

“Hey, chill out, okay?” She splayed her hands in the most insincere apology possible. “I’m just trying to get through this form here, no one’s offending your gods or ancient spirits or whatever.”

“Only fools hold to such childish superstitions,” he snarled. “Unlike those fantasies, Nag-Quelthhu is real, much more so than your republics and governments.”

“Alright, alright, let’s move on. They’re waiting.” She pointed at the long line of people, of the most varied shapes, sizes and colors, snaking all the way back to the wormhole and beyond. “Occupation?”

“They can wait as long as they must,” he said. “Because, to answer your question, I am a Void Enforcer.”

She chuckled. “Del, ‘void enforcer’, that’s rich. What the hell do you guys do, check empty jars to make sure they’re still empty?” The supervisor, now wide-eyed, started making his way toward her booth.

Enough!” He slammed his fist onto her desk. Across the hall, the head of security motioned to a nearby guard, who started walking toward him as well. “I have suffered more than enough of your insolence, worm!” Gallurak bellowed.

“Sir, you will calm down right now,” she said firmly. “You may be a Grand Wizard Whatever back home, but here, you’re in Union territory and–”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” her supervisor barged in. “Has this lady offended you?” He gestured for the approaching guard to stop a couple paces away.

“She has displayed the vilest disrespect for the Bane of Hope and their direct representative!” the man yelled. “She must be punished at once for such insubordination!”

“She will be, I assure you,” the officer said, while his younger colleague looked at him in disbelief. “But first, let me help you through. I’m sure you’re on urgent business.”

“That I am,” Gallurak growled, snatching his passport from the young woman’s hand as he moved through.

“But he… the form…” The border officer tried to object, being quickly hushed by her boss.

“And welcome back to Bhadrapada Six!” The supervisor forced a smile at the traveler until he cleared the cluster of people leaving the booths, making a series of annoyed sounds as he shouldered his way past them.

“Whew,” he sighed. “We can, uh, just figure out how to fill the rest of that,” he said, examining the form.

“What the hell, Denker?” the lady said. “You saw him getting violent! We can’t have them thinking they can get away with that sort of behavior! You said it yourself, security protocol is…”

“Yeah, I know what I said,” the wearied man snapped back. “And it still holds, of course, but this case is… Delemmir’s sake, girl, that’s a Void Enforcer right there!”

“So freaking what?” she protested, writing whatever seemed appropriate on the remaining fields. “You guys are telling us all the time that the rules apply to everyone, that there’s no such thing as nobles or whatever when it comes to protocol!”

Denker let out another sigh. “Again, that’s still true… but in certain cases, you have to let common-sense take over, you know? I mean, do you even know who Nag-Quelthhu is?”

“What do you mean, ‘who’?” She looked up at him. “Isn’t that a country?”

“Gods… you don’t know, do you?” He rubbed his eyes. This girl’s lucky she was born a scion, or she’d be out there cleaning toilets, he thought. “Just… thing is, Void Enforcers are the very top brass at Nag-Quelthhu’s domain. They answer only to the big guy, and are considered their right-hand… well, tentacle men. You piss one of them off, you’ve got probably the most powerful vukhar in the whole planet raining hell on you, and you don’t want that. Nobody does… the government, least of all, so I’m sure they’ll understand if you bend the rules a little bit for him. Got it?”

“Vukhar? Oh… I see.” She looked over her shoulder, catching a last glance at the hulking red form moving toward the exit of the portal station. “Poor guy… for all his arrogance, he’s really a slave, isn’t he?”

“Slave? No, I don’t think that’s fair,” her supervisor mused. “That word implies a being in the same general category as their master. No matter how subjugated, a slave is a someone, not a something. Folks living under a vukhar? The very best they can aspire to be is a tool, like him.”

“And the worst?” A chill ran across her spine.

Denker shrugged. “I’d say ‘food’, but those actually get off easy. The worst, I’d say, are toys.”

The Heplion Contingency – part 2

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Chapter 2: In the Dark

Nimban woke up into total darkness. What was that? – it asked itself. It had been unconscious for a while, no way to know how long. How could something like that happen?

The last image recorded in its memory came to the fore: after its safe’s sudden opening, it had a light shone on it, and behind that, a young human woman. Nimban had barely had time to register this intruder before she activated a psionic plate. A psychic nullifier, to be sure – only that should be capable of disabling its artificial mind.

It extended its senses outward. Sight was useless there, of course, but a psionic brain such as Nimban had other resources to draw upon. Sonar input revealed it was inside a much thinner container than its usual safe, which was hardly surprising; it had obviously been stolen. It didn’t seem to be moving. Its telepathic probe wasn’t registering anyone nearby. It was deciding whether to activate its uplink to the Conglomerate database and consult it about the present situation, when it detected a mind approaching. More

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