The Most Impressive Planet: Reflections

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The Most Impressive Planet: Reflections

[This article has been translated into Galactic Standard by the Axanda Corporation]
[Terms have been edited to preserve intent and promote ease of understanding]
[Axanda: Bringing the Galaxy Together]
Europa City News Network: Traffic update!


A streetcar was involved in an accident on Gandrem Line near the QualTech Technology Park and the road is currently closed from Zeus Avenue to Sheing Street. Commuters can take detours via the Ring Road. Expect delays throughout the dome, particularly on Victoria Street. To deal with the increased traffic, Duke Line has been closed off to all non-priority vehicles. Please do not attempt to access Gandrem Line until ConSec Emergency Services has removed the victims of the accident. Please drive carefully. Updates will come as soon as they are made known.

The cool breeze finally subsided as the MRI machine spun down and Alia let out a breath as the patient table began to slide out of the claustrophobic tube. Doctor Thaun was patiently waiting outside the room with her clothes in a bag as Alia’s shook the pins and needles out of her limbs. Sitting still for an hour while hundreds of pounds of metal spun at high speeds around you was hardly an enjoyable experience.


‘I’ll let you know what the results are when I have a chance to review your x-rays and scans later today,’ Thaun said, taking the noise-cancelling headset from Alia, ‘But judging by the way you are moving, I doubt you broke any bones. Most likely just some bruising.’


‘That’s good to know,’ Alia said, slipping her feet back into her shoes.


‘Now tell me, what did we learn today?’ Thaun said, holding up the small pendant Otric had given Alia just out of her reach.


‘Don’t wear anything beneath your armor or undersuit, or you could end up with broken ribs,’ Alia said with embarrassment, holding out her hand. Satisfied, Thaun dropped the pendant into her hands.


‘And if you ever forget it I will be ready to remind you a dozen more times,’ Thaun said with a smile. ‘My skills at patching up Oualans are rusty, to be honest, and I would rather not have to brush up on them.’


‘You got it doc,’ Alia said, walking out of the infirmary just as Delouix walked in, a bandage wrapped around his shoulder. Alia nodded at the Grave Hound as she slipped into one of the changing rooms, discarding the thin hospital gown she had been wearing. It had been a busy day for everyone after capturing the Filter. Thaun had been working overtime to give each member of the three teams their mandatory post-op checks while Hiroto was toiling away in the armory, repairing everyone’s armor and weapons.


Alia took a moment to look at her old jacket before putting it on. The logo of the Canticle City Police department had almost faded after years of wear and tear but the blues and greens remained as vibrant as ever. Alia really should have gotten rid of it a long time ago. It was just a reminder of her old home and all the baggage that came with it. Shrugging the jacket on, Alia looked in the mirror and almost didn’t recognize the person she saw there.


Stress and lack of sleep from Alex’s gruelling training regimes had taken their toll. Her eyes were bloodshot and sunken, while her fur was messy after not being groomed for several days. Another few feathers had fallen out of the crest running down her head. It was not enough for anyone except her to notice, but there they weren’t. As if she needed another reminder that she couldn’t match the pace of her human comrades. Sighing, Alia stepped out of the change room to find Yansa waiting for her.


‘I hope you have something better than that to wear,’ Yansa said, looking Alia up and down.


‘Uhh, no?’ Alia said, confused. She couldn’t recall Yansa ever giving much care to what other people were wearing. ‘How come?’


‘We’ve been invited to a ball,’ Yansa said through gritted teeth. ‘With a very strict dress code, that certainly does not include sweatpants, because nothing gets the rich more agitated than someone not looking the correct kind of fashionable. Starts at seven tomorrow, so you really should do something about getting yourself presentable.’


‘Seriously?’ Alia said, raising an eyebrow. ‘Is it really that important?’


‘Unfortunately,’ Yansa said, tossing Alia a small silver object. ‘We’re not getting out of it.’


‘Darn,’ Alia said. ‘Well, it can’t be that bad, can it?’


‘That’s where you’re wrong. You’ll be trapped in a room full of bloodsucking politicians and moguls who are ready to pick you apart if you make so much as a single mistake. At least on a battlefield you’ll get a chance to see the bastard who guts you. Here, you say one wrong one word and suddenly no one wants anything to do with you. Happened to me before. I can only hope that Healthy Growth doesn’t actually want something from us.’


‘We’re being invited by Healthy Growth?’


Yansa nodded, and Alia turned the small object over in her hands. It was a leaf with her name on one side, delicately engraved into the metal. Looking closer it was obvious that it was a modified version of the Nyn logo. A personal invite from one of the most powerful people in the solar system! ‘I can’t believe it.’


‘I can. The Council has eyes and ears everywhere, so they were bound to pick up on us at some point,’ Yansa said, loathing for the AI seeping through her voice. ‘75 Grave Hounds don’t just leave a profitable Lamp World to run security in Sol.’


‘How are the new implants so far?’ Alia said, shifting the topic to something that was hopefully less inflammatory.


‘I had the foresight to expect losing my hearing at some point, so they were already made to my spec,’ Yansa said. Alia couldn’t even see the scars from the small beads that Thaun had inserted into her ears just three hour before, and she had seen the operation as it was happening. ‘Still require a bit of fine tuning, the bass is weak, but they are excellent. As expected.’


‘That’s good to hear,’ Alia said, before realizing what she had just said. ‘Oh I’m so sorry, was-‘


‘Yes,’ Yansa said flatly. ‘That was a very tone deaf statement. Now, go find yourself something for the ball before Alex wakes up from all the sedatives we’ve put her under. Save the receipt, Stonewall will reimburse you.’


Smiling at Yansa’s deadpan delivery, Alia nodded and hurried out of the ship. She had a lot to do before tomorrow night. It was not every day one got to meet someone who could change the fate of a star system with a single sentence.

Why a simple communication booth needed an expensive marble facade was a mystery to Harker, but Europa was not known for having any sense of restraint when it came to finances- especially when the money came from other people. Satisfied that no one was following him, Harker shut the door to the booth. The noise of the crowd died away immediately as the anechoic chamber was closed. He slipped a small chip from his pocket into the receptacle and the virus immediately went to work.


After a small delay, the advertisements on the screen vanished. For a brief moment the sword-and-shield logo of TSIG flashed on the screen, and at last Harker found himself facing Bishop Huang.


‘Rook Harker,’ Huang said with a heavy sigh, barely glancing away from whatever he was working on. ‘I appreciate you continuing to provide reports, but I am rather busy.’


‘This is important,’ Harker said before Huang could disconnect. ‘Yansa and Malik did it, they captured the Filter.’


The Bishop’s head immediately snapped up, eyes wide. That got Huang’s attention. ‘Bullshit. TSIG has been trying for years to crack that nut and you expect me to believe some no-name mercs managed to do it within eight days of arriving in Sol?’


‘I’ve got proof: helmet camera footage and the man himself. We’ve got Dumah.’


‘Shit…’ Huang breathed out, leaning back in his chair. With him taking up less of the screen Harker could notice the stacks of paper on the desk behind him, and the numerous screenboards monitoring dozens of different metrics. The low quality of the video feed did nothing to disguise the silently pulsing red alerts.


‘Is something going on? I haven’t been receiving any updates lately.’


‘Everything is happening at once,’ Huang said, frustration clear to hear. ‘Bishop Fey has managed to successfully put Otric under review after an incident during an interrogation which means command has temporarily transferred to Valla, but she’s gone and vanished to who-knows-where. Fey’s trying to throw his weight around but only Tocho is actually listening to him. As if internal struggles were not enough, I just got word that the Council is bringing in two whole Subjugators and a shitload of more troops. Our defenses are good, but not that good. I have received word from Zhou that the fleet Otric wanted is essentially complete, which is the only good news I have heard so far. If war broke out now we would be in a poor position.’


‘Then I have bad news. Alexandria Remus killed a dozen ConSec soldiers while chasing Dumah yesterday. If the Council wants war, this is their excuse.’


‘Damn it,’ Huang sighed again. ‘It hasn’t made it onto the news channels yet, which suggests that they are stalling for some time. Or they could just be waiting for the right moment. Hell if I know. Thank you for contacting me, Rook Harker. Keep me informed.’


Harker removed the small chip and Huang’s face was replaced by the insufferably perfect smile of Healthy Growth lecturing a news anchor on the benefits of humans giving in to all the Council’s demands. Things were looking grim.

In hindsight, expecting to find an Oualan Pack Weaver in Europa City was perhaps wishful thinking. It seemed as though the Europan definition of “multicultural” extended only to human cultures. Which was fair, considering how the Council and galaxy at large had been treating humanity, Alia thought. Still, it made her life a lot more difficult.


Despite attending a few formal events during her time in the police force, none of them were anything more than medal ceremonies where everyone was standing perfectly still, trying not to crease their uniforms. Alia had never had to actually dress up in her life. Even in school she avoided the parties in favour of devoting herself to her studies. It had paid off, but at the cost of not having close friends until joining the force.


Alia shook her head, trying to banish the old memories. Focus on the now and drink in the sights that Europa City had to offer. The avenue she was on now was an eclectic mishmash of dozens of styles; all of it lit up by lanterns dangling from cords strung across the buildings of the street, rather than the vast array of artificial sun lamps on the roof of the dome. This particular section of Europa City adhered to the idea of a day-night cycle -even if its citizens did not- and night time was as energetic as day. Crowds of humans laughed and jostled as they streamed through the avenue, but that died down whenever Alia came near. Even the ConSec soldiers on patrol gave her sideways looks.


The feelings behind the glares were obvious even to someone who spent her entire life surrounded by the blunt straightforwardness of enlisted service. Disgust, distrust, suspicion, and hate. She may not be wearing the haloed sun of the Council, or the pearly white armor of their soldiers, but she wasn’t human and that was enough. Alia was a symbol of every misfortune that had befallen the humans since first contact. In a way, she was more responsible then they realized.


It is because of me that the Council is here, Alia thought morosely. I am deserving of their hate. Maybe it was a mistake to broadcast the truth behind Terra Nova, but I can’t change that now. I can only try my best to improve the current situation.


Some biologists suggested that the Zo could see glimpses of the future, thanks to their connection to the Ether. Alia had no idea how true that was, but she wished she could have a glimpse of her own. The only direction was forward, and she had no idea if the path would eventually lead out of the darkness. At this moment she was willing to spend every credit she would ever earn for just a small confirmation that there could still be a happy ending.


But first things first; Alia needed to figure out what she would do for tomorrow. Which meant finding something nice to wear. Which meant actually finding out where in the tangled mess of side streets she actually was. Alia sighed as she came to another intersection. This was a human world and she was woefully out of place here. She glanced at the street signs and for a brief moment a flash of recollection crossed her mind.


Pulling a crumpled business card out of her pocket, Alia took one look at where she was and hurried off down the street. She rushed past store after store, building after building, until finally reaching the address on the card. The apartment was tall but modest by Europan standards. Only the first floor had a marble façade. Sure enough, there was an intercom by the entrance. Alia pressed one of the buttons and waited for a response.


‘Hello?’ came the familiar voice. ‘Who is it?’


‘James? It’s me, Iyal Alia. From the Filter. Can we talk?’

The dress shirt was purple, the same colour as the Plyne family crest. If Julius was going to be dragged to their charity ball, the least he could do was show sympathy for the family’s loss. Yawning, Julius set aside the outfit he had been planning and slumped in his chair. The suite that served as his office and apartment was far too quiet ever since Beelzebub left.


To say Julius liked the Black Room agent would be inaccurate, but they had worked exceptionally well together and now that he was gone things were too… ordinary. For a brief few moments, Julius had been shown behind the curtain to see how the magic was done and now he had to take a seat back in the audience and pretend to be amazed when the performer pulled the rabbit from the hat. He knew that the Council was playing their own game and he even managed to sneak a look at a few of their cards with Beelzebub’s help, but now he was back in the dark. It was painful to know that there was something coming and being unable to do anything but react.


Julius replayed the last message he had received from Beelzebub over and over in his head, the vague statement a half promise of something more. It remained to be seen if the light at the end of the tunnel was the sun or a train or just a mirage.


“Drone found a dead world in the habitable zone of a star. Atmosphere stripped away by meteoritic mass extinction event. Hundreds of impact craters, oddly dispersed, all roughly the same age: 142 years. Massive tectonic upheaval. Absolutely totalled world. Very little minerals of value. Could have been a terraforming candidate at one point.” A simple message relayed via quantum entanglement array to a secure computer that only Julius could access.


Dead world. Habitable zone. Hundreds of craters. Minerals were dry. A century and a half ago. Bad luck? Even the slimmest chance of such an event occurring was enough when there were 400 billion stars in the galaxy, each with God only knows how many planets. However, as far as Julius and Beelzebub cared, bad luck didn’t exist.


143 years ago, the 3rd Automated Fleet, commanded by War-Conductor Dargendan went on a routine expedition beyond the galactic borders of Council space. Beyond the AI, there were only two other sentient beings in the entire fleet; Admiral Heliaus and Varkatan, the latter the personal understudy of Zatacotora. 141 years ago, the fleet returned with half its number missing and the other half suffering severe damage. Dargendan’s logs showed that a poor Ether jump put the fleet in the middle of a dense section of a gas giant’s ring system. 24 ships were claimed lost in the initial arrival, with the other 19 destroyed attempting to maneuver out of the asteroid field. The logs also showed the fleet had expended significant stores of ammo destroying the larger asteroids. The quality of the records were suspect, but it was explained away as a side effect of the damage to the fleet. Unlikely, but possible.


Heliaus would later find herself an influential position in the War Secretary’s cabinet, and was a strong voice for strengthening the Council’s borders until her passing 20 years later. Varkatan rejoined the Iron Core and was not heard from since, which was no surprise given Zatacotora’s legendary paranoia. For his loss of so many ships, Dargendan was relieved of command. One year later he was reinstated and given his old position back. None of them spoke about their expedition beyond vague non-committal half-answers.


None of that sat right with either Beelzebub or Julius, so when the Black Room agent began his own expedition he followed the alleged path of the 3rd fleet. Neither of them truly expected him to uncover anything, but when the message came in Julius had felt his heart skip a beat.


Maybe Beelzebub’s insane theory was right. Maybe there is another civilization lurking beyond the borders of the Council. Maybe that was why the majority of the Council’s expansion efforts were focussed on the opposite side of the galaxy, away from Earth, while their armed forces continued to patrol “uninhabited” territory. Or maybe there was another civilization. A dead garden world, and a damaged fleet. Was there anyone left to contact? Or was an entire species buried in a mass grave of paperwork?


It was hard to say and the odds were not good that Beelzebub would find the mysterious civilization. Even if he did, the likelihood of them being willing to join forces with humanity against the Council were even slimmer. They had no chance and no choice. If Beelzebub failed, then it fell to Julius to make sure that humanity would be able to escape some of the damage the Council would cause. Which meant he needed to take every chance he had to ensure that Healthy Growth, Tyrk Ynt, and Zan’le played by the rules. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Julius went back to planning for the charity ball.

‘So you’re a mercenary hunting down a secret society of super humans who can come back from the dead and your plan is to somehow destroy this sect even though the entire military arm of the Council can’t do it? And you also hope to take down a second secret society of super humans who somehow control all of Earth? And you have my psychopathic boss locked up in your ship?’ James asked as they walked down the street, the empty coffee cup held lightly in his hand.


‘When you put it that way it does sound a bit…’ Alia trailed off. At James recommendation they had stopped by a small café while Alia explained her story. She had found the taste of the coffee awful and couldn’t even choke down half her cup.


‘Crazy? Insane? Impossible? Unbelievable? They all fit,’ James said.


‘It’s true though!’


‘It’s one thing to claim that there is a spy cabal pulling the strings, it is another thing entirely to claim this cabal are a bunch of immortals who can shoot lightning from their hands.’


‘He didn’t shoot lightning from his hands, it was more like an electric discharge from an eel.’


‘I didn’t know you had eels on your homeworld.’


‘We don’t.’


‘Alright then.’


‘You don’t believe me,’ Alia said, stopping at the roundabout. A towering obsidian statue of some primal deity was chained to a massive granite monolith, his glistening innards spilling out of a tear in his abdomen. A fierce bird of prey was perched atop the mountain, entrails dangling from its beak.


‘I would like to, but it’s hard,’ James said, staring up at the statue with Alia. ‘Sure, I’ll buy that my employer may not have been all he appeared, but resurrection? Superpowers?’


‘To be honest, I didn’t see those bits with my own eyes either,’ Alia said, turning down another side street. Stores selling everything from groceries to mechanical augments lined the road, employees hawking their wares from open windows. ‘But I trust the people who did.’


‘How did you fall in with them anyway?’ James said, taking a moment to stare at some old mechanical puzzles sitting on a table. ‘Most humans wouldn’t want anything to do with an ex-cop even before the Council decided to start shoving themselves into our lives.’


‘It’s a long story.’


‘Another one?’


‘Extra short version: I was fired from the precinct after punching a superior. The asshole had authorized a bad operation to try and take down a local gang,’ Alia explained. She still remembered the shocked look on Sha’wan’s face when she hit him. That bastard deserved far worse. ‘Some people close to me had gotten killed in the raid. Then that same superior tries to outsource the operation to some humans. I found out, told those humans what happened and offered my assistance. I’ve been with them ever since.’


‘And now they are dragging you to some fancy dress party.’


‘Yeah. Funny how that works.’


‘Hardy har har. So, what kind of things do Oualans wear to those events?’


‘Lots of heavy robes covered in trinkets to commemorate your past experiences,’ Alia said. ‘Long ago, when the various Packs were the only authorities on the plains of Ylai, the robes were a symbol of peaceful conduct between members of rival Packs. Traditionally, they were weighed down with stones so that the wearer would be unable to attack the other party. The tokens and icons adorning the robes were another tradition, a way to show the speaker’s accomplishments in a non-violent display of force. Most people just wear things that represent their Pack, family, or home.’


‘And you think you can find some traditional Oualan clothing here in Europa City, the heart of human culture,’ James deadpanned.


‘Probably not, but you never know,’ Alia shrugged. ‘I need to find something. I can’t exactly hitch a ride back to my homeworld and see if I can rummage through my old storage locker.’


‘Do you miss it? Your homeworld?’ James asked, handing a few coins to the clerk and picking up one of the puzzles.


Alia stopped mid-stride to consider that. She hadn’t returned to Canticle Point since she had left and hadn’t seen her mother or brother’s widow for even longer. The last time she had spoken to either of them was after Yaea’s funeral. The majority of her friends had been in her squad- and they were all gone because of Sha’wan’s stupidity. What few acquaintances she had beyond that were all tied to the force and faded quickly after she had been discharged. Her only connection to her old home were the cheques she was sending to her family.


‘No, not really,’ Alia said at last. ‘Turns out there wasn’t much keeping me there. It was easy to leave.’


‘Doesn’t sound like much of a home.’


‘In the end, it wasn’t.’


‘So it would be fair to say your home is with those humans? The mercenaries?’


Another question Alia had never considered before. ‘Alex didn’t have to offer me job, Magnus didn’t have to teach me how to speak English without a translator, Francis didn’t have to show me how to maintain an engine, but they all did,’ Alia said. ‘When I was at my lowest they gave me a chance, and for that I am forever grateful. So yes, I guess so.’


‘Sounds to me like you are closer to those humans than any of your own kind,’ James said as they continued their languid walk down the street. ‘Is it rude to say “your own kind” like that? I feel like that’s rude.’


‘It’s not rude.’


‘That’s good to know. But here’s my thought: embrace it.’


‘Embrace what?’


‘The fact that you are closer to humans than Oualan. Why not show it off? You already wear human armor.’


Alia paused in her step, thinking it over. She had never considered how much she had adopted human culture during her time with Alex, Magnus, Francis, and even Yansa and Elias later.


‘You know, that sounds like a good idea,’ Alia said.

The atrium of the Burj Khalifa was in excellent condition despite having been buried under radioactive sand for centuries. It had been a long, painstaking venture to remove it from Earth and transport it piece by piece to Europa City where it was renovated and repaired. It was not a perfect restoration; the top 40 floors had to be omitted due to the height of the dome. However, historical accuracy was not what was important to the citizens of the city. Rather it was the legacy of being in a building older than every non-Earth colony. The prestige of walking where countless others had trod in simpler times.


With that in mind, the architects and artists had spared no expense in updating the ancient structure to more modern standards. Soaring marble statues carved in the likeness of the honourable dead held up the roof on their backs. Holographic curtains replaced the broken windows to keep the lobby open to the dome’s artificial breeze. Miniature antigravity projectors held up tables and even a few private dining pods were suspended in midair. Art that cost more than most people would earn over their entire lifetime covered the walls.


All in all, it was the perfect place for the charity ball even if Healthy Growth ignored the other psychological benefits it would offer him in the negotiations with Yansa. It had taken an astounding amount of digging to piece together more of the enigmatic Hound’s past, made all the more difficult by Zatacotora’s steadfast refusal to offer him even the most basic assistance.


‘I think it looks very nice, especially considering the last minute change of venues,’ People Person said, pulling up a chair next to him. Her three short legs dangled in the air. The other AI had modelled her body after her initial programmer, a Bwente. Several large whiskers containing miniature sensor packages twitched in the breeze, and her five eyes were on a constant swivel to admire the massive lobby.


‘Is that your personal opinion, or is the opinion of a focus group?’ Healthy Growth valued each and he needed to know the distinction.


‘Both,’ People Person said, tapping on a patch of scales on her arm. ‘Personality algorithms suggest the majority of the guest list place a high social value on legacy and wealth. Beyond that, the desire to appear generous and influential are also prominent in the guests. We should be ticking all those boxes by holding this charity ball in memory of the first Councillor Plyne and inviting General Zan’le and Ms. Yiela.’


‘Have they accepted their invitations?’ He could look it up himself without moving a single artificial muscle in his body, but Healthy Growth would rather rehearse proper social interactions for dealing with organics.


‘Yiela has. Zan’le declined, and is sending Colonel Trrghid in his stead.’


Healthy Growth nodded. It would be good enough. Smarter, too, for Zan’le to decline. It was inadvisable to have any more than two of the high command in the same area at once. ‘Tell me, People Person, what do you think of Zatacotora?’


‘Sir? Are you sure you want to talk about it?’ People Person asked, glancing at the few workers preparing for the party as though any one of them could be a spy.


‘Would you trust it?’ A dangerous question to ask about the leader of the Iron Core.


‘I don’t know, I have never talked with it. Probably yes. Zatacotora is always talking about loyalty, I expect it would be willing to offer assistance to us. Why do you ask?’


‘No reason,’ Healthy Growth said. It was a paper thin lie but People Person wouldn’t press it. No one in their right mind got involved with the Iron Core, much less Zatacotora.


But the question still remained: why wasn’t Zatacotora helping him? It had no reason not to, especially after all the work Healthy Growth had done ensuring that the Sol system wouldn’t collapse into a war at the slightest provocation. Covering up the murder of the ConSec soldiers had been more difficult, but Healthy Growth wasn’t going to announce anything until he had some solid answers from Yansa about what exactly had happened. There needed to be trust between them. The HRAR could not function if the leaders couldn’t even share information between each other.

Elias had other matters he wanted to discuss with Yansa, but when he walked into her room all those were forgotten. Only one question sprung into his head when he registered what he was looking at. ‘Why are you rummaging through a freezer full of Zo corpses?’


‘I need one,’ Yansa said, dropping the body of the predatory alien onto her desk. It was one of the smaller Zo they had killed during the hunts, with a torso barely a metre long. Large mandibles lined with wicked teeth were frozen open in a soundless death rattle. Yansa made short work of the Zo’s eight limbs, chopping each off with a single swing from a heavy cleaver and shoved them back into the freezer.


‘Aren’t those specimens supposed to be saved for your experiments?’ Elias asked as he shut the door behind him. Yansa’s room was far from typical as far as personal quarters went. More than three quarters of the space in the repurposed cargo hold were devoted to a genetic laboratory that Yansa had built up over the years; her bed and equipment storage were shoved into an out of the way corner.


Excluding the makeshift distillery that was even now producing a fresh batch of moonshine, the equipment sat dormant and unused the majority of the time. Only rarely did Yansa spin up the centrifuges, warm up the thermal cyclers, or wake up the growth chambers. Even then, she barely varied from the routine of manufacturing another chimera animal. The invaluable genetic cryptograms containing the needed data for her work were kept in a safe hidden beneath one of the machines, each one the prize after a long hunt through the ruins of Earth.


‘Call it a social experiment,’ Yansa said, pulling a pair of knives one of the drawers and activated the heating element of one. Ever so slowly, she began to drag the hot blade along the Zo, slowly skinning the creature. ‘The ebnesium in this specimen is worth almost a million credits. It’s a statement to Healthy Growth that we won’t be bullied or bought by him.’


‘I’m sure there are other, less time consuming ways to make that point,’ Elias remarked as Yansa sawed the knife back and forth, struggling with the mostly frozen body.


‘Obviously,’ Yansa said with a smile. ‘But I want to skin a Zo and I want to wear it to Healthy Growth’s little event and I want to see the look on his face when I tell him to fuck off. We run a billion dollar enterprise- I think the rich are allowed to be a bit eccentric.’


‘Ha!’ Elias laughed, leaning on the other side of the table to watch her work. It was mesmerizing how deftly she worked the knife, carving up the body of the Zo.


‘Do you need anything?’ Yansa asked.


‘What do you think we should do with Alex and Dumah?’ Elias said, staring into her eyes. ‘Austere is already taking the Filter apart, metaphorically, and the techs working there were quick to sell out Dumah. Like you said, right now Alex is a security risk. Personally, I don’t see why either of them are strictly necessary.


Yansa shrugged, placing the knife onto a charging pad and grabbing the second one. There was a slight sizzle and puff of steam as the heated blade boiled the thin layer of ice on the Zo. ‘I agree with you. Neither of them are necessary right now. But we can’t kill Dumah, and Alex has the motivation to continue going after the Black Room. I have my doubts about Magnus and Alia’s convictions, but Alex will drag them along. We can just give her some time to unwind with Dumah.’


‘That sounds fair,’ Elias said. Doctor Thaun could keep nearly anyone alive, and Dumah was a tough guy. ‘My only concern is that we might lose out on any intelligence that Dumah has.’


‘We have the Filter. We have Alex. I would trust the information they provide more than whatever Dumah says.’


‘We can’t afford any mistakes. You know that, right?’


‘Don’t worry one bit, Elias,’ Yansa said, patting his hand. Zo blood left bright crimson stains on his metal augment. ‘We’ve planned for this. It will be easy.’


‘I’m not worried Yansa. But let’s focus on what is right in front of us.’


‘Magnus goes with Alia and we leave Harker to watch over Alex?’


‘Read my mind. Think Magnus would be alright with going to a party?’


Yansa laughed out loud, but the knife didn’t slip. ‘I’ve known Magnus for a while, and he is an absolute sense freak. This is a Europa party, I’ll bet that there will be an entire table devoted to some recreational hallucinogens. He’ll love it.’


‘Really? I could have sworn that he was trying to cut down on that stuff,’ Elias said, thinking. ‘At the very least he wasn’t using combat stims during the Filter assault.’


‘Ehh, maybe. I haven’t asked. On the other hand, there will be some good food, good music, and interesting people. Plenty of stuff for him to enjoy.’


Elias nodded in agreement. After a moment of silence, he picked up a knife and got to work helping Yansa. ‘You look beautiful when you work.’


A smile played across Yansa’s face. ‘I just wanted to say thank you Elias. For everything. For seeing me as I am, and not what I was. I really mean it. You had no reason to give me a chance after everything I did to you, but you still did. I’m not proud of what I did in my past, and having you beside me as I try and atone for my mistakes means the world to me.’


‘I could say the same,’ Elias said, thinking back on what he had been before he had begun his venture with Yansa. They said the road to hell was paved with good intentions, and it had been a long, one-way road. ‘”I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er.” But we are in this together, and nothing is going to stop us.’

‘Thanks for the lift back,’ Alia said as she got out of the hover taxi. Another small marvel of Europa was how prominent anti-gravity technology was. It seemed almost all human colonies used some manner of it to adjust the gravity in the habitats to Earth normal levels, among other things.


‘And thank you for telling me the truth,’ James said, sliding over to the window. ‘If by some bizarre chance you ever need the help of an unemployed security guard during your quest to save humanity and the Council from evil, well, you know where to find me.’


‘Sure thing. You take care of yourself James!’ Alia said.


‘Likewise, because you look like you need a good night’s sleep,’ James said as he passed Alia the large canvas bag containing the spoils from her hunt. ‘I’ll see you around!’


Alia waved goodbye as the taxi floated up and sped out of the hangar, and back to the city. It had taken a while, but with James’s help Alia had finally found something she thought would look good for the big event tomorrow.


The Dawnbreaker was still sitting in the hangar, grounded. Alia was thankful that the Echo was still able to leave Europa City, but it was far too small to carry even a quarter of Yansa’s people. Plus, it lacked the many of the amenities of the larger vessels. Alia hurried up the ramp with a spring in her step, nearly bumping into Thaun who was just carrying a small box of medical supplies.


‘Hi Doc!’ Alia said, sidestepping around him. ‘How’s it going?’


‘Busier than I expected. Turns out Delouix has a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder and I have to get that out and take care of the rest of the squads before I can take a look at your scans.’


‘No problem, just focus on what’s more important,’ Alia said, hurrying past the doctor. She felt almost giddy with excitement at the chance to see what the upper echelons of human society were like. Not to mention the chance to see Healthy Growth himself! No matter what you thought of the AI or Nyn, he was one of the most famous publicists in the galaxy. People paid thousands of credits to be in the same photo as him- and he had invited Alia himself!


Making her way down the smooth white corridors of the Dawnbreaker Alia eventually came to the small temporary room that she was sharing with Magnus until Alex woke up and they could return to the Echo. The Grave Hound was already in there, meditating.


‘How was your shopping trip?’ Magnus asked without opening his eyes.


‘It went well, actually,’ Alia said, setting the bag at the foot of her bed. ‘I just wanted to say thank you.’


That got Magnus’s attention. ‘For what?’ he asked, looking at her. ‘Did I do something?’


‘Just in general. You didn’t have to teach me English, or help me improve my fighting, or even give me this job in the first place, but you did. You, Alex, and Francis; it is really great to have people who cared about me again.’


‘Is everything alright?’ Magnus said, giving her a peculiar look.


‘Everything is great. But before we met, I was in… a dark place. I had lost everything and all I could think of was trying to get back at those who took it from me. If you hadn’t come around when you did, I was probably going to go after the Yen gang by myself- even if it killed me. I was ready, you know? I was ready to just throw my life away,’ Alia said, laying down on her bed. ‘You guys saved me.’


Magnus gave her a long stare, and got up from where he had been sitting. ‘It’s funny, you know. All the years in the Grave Hounds had left me with plenty of issues, to put it simply, and when my cohort was destroyed I also lost everything and everyone I knew. I was about halfway through self-destructing when Alex came into my life and recruited me into this little outfit. The hole was too deep to climb out by myself, but you guys gave me the hand I needed.’


‘For someone who’s so stoic, Alex seems to have a weird talent for emotional support,’ Alia chuckled.


‘Maybe one of these days she will learn it is okay to express herself,’ Magnus said. ‘By the way, I got an invitation to the party as well.’


‘Really? Tha-‘


The knock on the door interrupted Alia before she could continue and Yansa let herself in before either of them even had a chance to stand up.


‘Alex is awake now,’ Yansa said. ‘You should probably speak to her.’


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