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Ultimate Gambling Guide for GTA Online - odds, probabilities, and optimal strategies

This is not mine, the creator of this is u/enderpiet

Since the Diamond Casino update, I have seen a large number of 12-year-olds posting Blackjack memes on this sub. As a parent, this has me very worried.
On top of that, I have seen some of the most trustworthy GTA Youtubers giving flawed gambling advice, which can have damaging impact on their gullible audiences.
So that's why I decided to write this up, to educate everyone on the subject, so there will be no more misunderstandings.
(2020 Update down at the bottom.)
If you're one of those Youtubers that wants to use this information in a video, feel free to do so. The more people (especially kids) that become educated about gambling, the better.
But then also please go back and review your own work, and delete or edit the videos that are giving out the wrong advice, like where you're saying you have "a good strategy for making money with roulette", or some other nonsense that I've heard this week. Delete that please.
Before I get into the individual games, I need to discuss a few concepts first, that will make understanding the rest a lot easier.
Expected return and variance
A game like Roulette or Slots has a fixed expected return on your bets. This is a percentage that you have no way of influencing. Say you are flipping a coin against a friend, and you both put up $1. The winner gets the pot. Since the odds are even at 50%, in the long run, you will expect to break even. Your expected return is 100% of your bet.
But imagine if you would play this coin flipping game in a casino against the house. On the "house rules" listed at the table they would probably say that you would only get 95 cents back for every win, while you are forfeiting a dollar on every loss. Would you still play?
Sounds stupid to do so, but still, everybody does it. Every bet they place on Roulette, every coin they put into a Slot machine, is based on the same concept.
Those few cents they take on every bet are their profit margin, and has paid for all the Vegas lights, the Mirage volcanoes, and the Bellagio fountains. Make no mistake - casino gambling games are not designed to make you lose, because sure, you can get lucky on a single night, but they are designed to make them win. That's the beauty of it. They can both exist at the same time.
Too many people that don't see how this works, are just destined for disaster. Just because you went on a lucky streak and won 8 games out of 10, does not mean that flipping coins is a profitable game, or that choosing tails is a winning strategy. Always be aware of the house edge, your true chances of winning, and just realize that you got lucky. There is no such thing as a strategy in flipping a coin that will give you a higher expected return, so it's just pure gambling, just like Slots and Roulette.
Most casino games are made in such a way, that your expected return is a little under 100%. This means that from every dollar bet at the tables, the casino expects to keep a few cents. For individual players, results may vary. Some will win, most will lose. But for the house, it doesn't matter. They take millions of bets each day, so for them, the expected average works out a lot sooner. In short: the house always wins.
When looking at the house edge, we're talking about the expected long-term result, based on the game's house rules. But for a player, it can take literally tens of thousands of hands or spins before you also reach this average number. Until that time, you can experience huge upswings and downswings, that are the result of nothing but short-term luck, which is called variance.
Some games and some bets have a much higher variance than others, which means your actual results will differ enormously from what you're expected to be at.
Take for example betting on red/black at the Roulette table. This is a low-variance proposition, because it has a high percentage chance of occurring, and a low payout.
Contrast this with betting single numbers in Roulette, which only win once every 38 spins on average. This bet has a much higher variance, meaning you can easily hit a dry spell, and not hit anything for 200 bets in a row, or you can see a single number hit three times in five consecutive spins. This is not a freak occurrence in high-variance bets.
Even though the expected return in both these bets is exactly the same, there's a huge difference in variance, causing massive differences in short-term results, which can go both ways. You need to be aware of this, before you decide what types of bets you are comfortable with placing.
Gamblers' Fallacy
Another thing to realize, is that each individual game, hand, or spin, is completely independent from the one(s) before it, and after it.
Gamblers tend to believe, that the chance of a certain outcome is increased, based on previous results.
The most famous example comes from the Casino de Monte Carlo, where the Roulette wheel managed to land on black 26 times in a row. Gamblers lost many millions during that streak, all frantically betting on red, believing that the odds were in favor of the wheel coming out on red, after producing so many blacks. This is not true. Each round is completely independent, and the odds are exactly the same.
You will hear people say things like a Blackjack table being "hot" or "cold", which is completely superstitious, and should be ignored. The exception was when Blackjack was being dealt from a shoe. It made card counting possible. But with the introduction of shuffle machines, and continuous shuffling like is being used in GTA, this no longer exists.
This is also why "chasing your losses" is a very bad idea. After being on a losing streak for some time, many gamblers believe that now it's their turn to start winning. So they will often increase their bet size, believing that when their predicted winning streak comes around, they will win back their losses, and more.
The reality of it, more often than not, is that people will indeed start playing higher and higher limits, until they are completely broke. Nobody is ever "due for a win". There is never a guarantee that you're about to start winning. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. You are, after all, in a casino.
Betting systems
Some people like to think that they have a fool-proof betting system, like the Martingale system. Simply increase or even double your bet when you lose, and keep doing that until you win. In theory, this system will always win. So that's why table limits were introduced, and where the system fails.
If you start at the Roulette table, playing red/black, with a small 750 chip wager, and just double your bet every time you lose, you only have to lose 6 times in a row, before you will be betting the table limit of 48,000, just to get that 750 chip profit.
Sure, you can go on all evening without this happening, winning 750 chips each time, but this losing streak only has to happen once, and you're bust. Any betting system like this is ill-advised, because you are hugely increasing your so-called "risk of ruin", and that's what we were trying to avoid.
And even if your starting bet is only 100 chips, after only nine straight losses, and nine doubled bets, you are betting the table limit at 50,000 chips. If you lose that bet, you're 100,000 chips in the hole, with no way to recover that with your 100 chip base wager.
So don't believe anyone that says this is the perfect system to always win in the casino. Sooner or later they will understand why they were wrong, when they're asking you for a loan.
Set your limits BEFORE you start playing
One final point before we get into the games, a general tip for people that head out to play: money management.
Just like in real life, before you go to the casino, decide on a maximum amount that you are WILLING TO LOSE.
Bet small enough, so that amount can last you through the entire evening, and you will not be tempted to run to the ATM to continue playing.
Considering GTA money, some people will be comfortable losing 1% of their GTA bank balance, some people will be comfortable with gambling away 5% of their total GTA savings. It's up to you what you can handle. Decide for yourself where it will start to hurt, and don't cross that line.
But whatever number you decide on, as soon as you lost that amount, get up and walk away. Don't chase your losses, stick to your limits, and accept that this has not been your day. There is always another game tomorrow. Always agree with yourself on a simple stop-loss rule, how much you would want to lose at most, and simply stop playing when you get there.
Same goes for winning. You can decide on a number, how much profit you would like to take away from the casino. You can go on a hot streak and be up half a million in a short period of time, but if you would continue to play longer, looking for more, chances are that you're going to lose it all back.
Most people are happy with doubling their daily casino budget, for example. Others are looking for 10 bets profit in Blackjack. Whatever you choose, when you hit that number, you can stop playing and bank your profits, or you can continue playing if you're still enjoying the games, but then only just play minimum bet sizes. Then you're just playing for fun, not for money. You've already made your profit, so simply keep it in your pocket, and don't risk losing it again.
Either way, decide on what your money management strategy will be, and STICK TO IT.
Casino games in GTA Online
Now, I'm going to dive into the games that you can find at the Diamond casino, ordered from worst to best.
6) Slots
Generally the rule is this: the less strategy a game has, the worse it is for the player. And with slots, this is definitely the case.
The only influence you have, is choosing what type of machine you're going to play. Basically, there are two types of slot machines:
-high frequency, low payout slots
-low frequency, high payout slots
In the first type, there is no huge (progressive) jackpot on offer, just your average selection of prizes that don't go up to crazy amounts.
This will result in a player having many more spins resulting in a win. The amounts that you win on the bigger prizes, will be smaller, but they do come around more often. This type of slot machine has a lower variance, which means that your money should last you longer, winning many smaller prizes along the way to keep you going.
The second type of slot machine lures you in with the temptation of a huge jackpot prize. Even though the long-term expected return on these machines is the same as the previous type, the prize distribution is hugely different. The large jackpot prize weighs heavily on the scale of expected return, but the chance of it hitting is extremely small. This results in a much higher variance on this type of machine. Usually your money will go down very fast, because the smaller prizes are less rewarding than on the other type of machine.
At the Diamond, the info screen says the player return at slots is set at 98.7%. This means that, on average, for every maximum bet of 2,500 chips, you expect to lose 32.5 chips.
This might not seem like a lot, but the danger of slots is that the game is extremely fast. You can spin about once every 6 seconds, which would result in an expected LOSS of about 20,000 chips per hour of playing.
But again, in this long-term expected number, the large jackpot awards are also factored in, and as long as you don't hit those big prizes, you'll see your money go down a lot faster.
In any case, thank heavens the max bet is only set at 2,500, or else we would see more players go bankrupt at alarming rates.
Optimal strategy for slots:
There is none. Because after betting, you have no more influence over the outcome. The only choices you have, is what type of machine you want to play at, and how much money you are going to risk. And those are all personal preference. As long as you stick to your loss limits, as discussed above, there's no harm in having a go every once in a while, hoping to get a lucky hit. Just realize that you don't have a high chance of scoring a big win, so as soon as you do, get up and walk away.
5) Roulette
Roulette is also a game where you have no influence over the outcome. There is zero skill involved. You place your bet, and that's it.
In traditional French roulette, a table has only the single-zero, but of course, for American casinos that wasn't enough of a house edge, so they simply doubled their profits by adding a second zero. The house edge was increased from 1/37 to 1/19, which is huge.
This makes playing on a double-zero roulette table by definition a sucker's play.
The payouts scale evenly, which means that a bet on a single number, and a bet on half of the numbers, and everything in between, yields the same expected return. The only difference, again, being the variance that you are willing to subject yourself to.
The player return for double-zero Roulette for all bets is 94.74%.
Except for the 5-number bet, which can only be made by placing a bet on the two top rows that contain 0, 00, 1, 2 and 3. The expected return on this bet is lower: 92.1%. This is because it only pays out 6-1. Why? Well, the number 36 isn't divisible by 5, so the greedy people that came up with double-zero Roulette had to round it off someway, and as expected, it wasn't going to be in the players' favor.Just remember that that 5-number bet is the worst bet at the table, and should be avoided. All other possible bets have the same expected return.
So it really doesn't matter how you spread your bets, if you bet only one chip, or if you litter the entire table with a bucketload of chips. Each chip you put out there, has the same expected return, so there is no strategy that will improve your long-term results.
Assuming that you're betting the maximum table amount of 50,000 chips, you will be looking at an expected loss of about 2,630 chips per spin. Considering that a round takes about 45 seconds to complete, your expected LOSS at the GTA Roulette tables will be around 200,000 chips per hour of playing.
Optimal strategy for double-zero roulette:
Stay away. Stay far away.
4) Three Card Poker
With Three Card Poker, we come across the first game where there is actually some strategy involved. You get to look at your cards, and then decide if you want to fold, and surrender your ante, or double your bet.
Additionally, you can choose to place a side bet on "Pair Plus", which offers progressive payouts.
There are some websites out there that ran all the numbers with computer simulations, and even though I would like to quote the source here, these websites are understandably littered to the max with online casino ads, so that's why I have decided against doing that.
Optimal strategy for Three Card Poker:
For this game you only have to remember one strategy rule: Always bet on any high card queen-six-four or better, and fold any high card queen-six-three or lower. That's it. Just don't forget to double check if you're not folding a straight or a flush, and you'll be fine.
This strategy will result in an expected return of 96.63%.
The Pair Plus sidebet, with the payout table that is used at the Diamond casino, gives you an expected return of 97.68%, which is actually a bit better than the main ante bet.
So by playing both wagers, you're reducing your expected losses per bet, but since you're betting more, you're also increasing your expected loss per hour.
My advice would obviously be to not play this game at all, but if you do, put as much of your bet as possible on the Pair Plus, while making our Ante bet as small as you can.
To be able to compare it to the other games at the Diamond, let's stay on that 50,000 maximum wager, meaning making your ante bet 35,000, and your pair plus bet 15,000, if the table would allow it.
This results in an expected loss of about 1,525 chips per hand, and with a round taking about 45 seconds, this adds up to an expected LOSS of around 120,000 chips per hour of playing. In comparison, if you would only play the ante bet for 50,000 per hand, you expect to lose 1,685 chips per hand, which means an expected LOSS of about 135,000 chips per hour. So the more out of that 50,000 wager you can put on the "Pair Plus" sidebet, the better.
Even though it may be fun to try out this game for a bit, since there's only one simple strategy rule to follow, you'll soon find yourself robotically grinding down your bankroll until it has vaporized. You're not missing out on anything if you skip these tables, there is no real challenge.
Just like with Roulette and Slots, if you want to try it out nonetheless, you can just bet the minimum amounts and only play for fun, so it won't matter if you win or lose.
3) Blackjack
Blackjack is the most complicated game by far. Simply because the player has to make a series of decisions, which will largely decide the outcome. Luckily, there is such a thing as an optimal strategy, which will be outlined below.
However, the strategy is also dependent on the house rules. These not only affect your expected return, but in some places also your decisions.
Here are the house rules at the Diamond casino:
-The game uses 4 standard decks, and a continuous shuffle.
-Blackjack pays 3 to 2, dealer checks for early blackjack.
-No insurance offered, no surrender.
-Dealer stands on soft 17.
-Double down on any two cards.
-Player can split only once, but doubling after split is allowed.
-Seven-Card Charlie.
Under these rules, and following the "basic strategy" chart, your expected return at Blackjack is a shade under 99.6%, which is extremely good for a casino game, that's why Blackjack should be your table game of choice.
But it comes at a price: you are going to have to memorize the relatively complicated strategy chart, or at least stick it to your monitor until you have it in your head. But in case you ever stumble into a real-life casino, you won't regret having this table memorized, so I would definitely advise you to work on that.
The strategy chart might look complicated at first, but you will be able to notice certain patterns. Your decisions are mainly based on the dealer's upcard, which is basically divided into a weak card (2 to 6), and a strong card (7 to ace).
When a dealer shows a strong card, you will be hitting more often with the risk of going bust, but when a dealer shows a weak card, you're not taking that risk, and you will be standing more, but also doubling and splitting more. You want to increase your bets when the odds are in your favor, and get out cheap when they're not.
But it also helps to take some time to think about why a certain advice is given. For example, why does it say that you always have to split two eights, even against an ace. Well, that's because two eights equals 16, which is the worst total you can have. It's better to split them up, and give yourself a chance of finding a 17, 18 or 19 with the next card. Once you see the logic in that, you'll have one less thing to memorize.
The playing advice in the basic strategy chart is a result of computer simulations that ran all possible outcomes against each other, and produced the most profitable decision for each situation. So you can't go wrong following it.
Optimal strategy for Blackjack with Seven-Card Charlie
The added house rule of Seven-Card Charlie, adds a small advantage for the player, and it does influence a few strategy decisions. For example, you might have a 14 with 6 cards, against the dealer's 5 upcard.
Normally this would be an automatic stand, but if you're only one card away from the Seven-Card Charlie, meaning an instant win for the player, regardless of the dealer's hand, it turns it into a hit.
Here's the most optimal strategy chart to follow for the Diamond Casino house rules:https://prnt.sc/olct6g
You'll see that two fives are missing from the chart, and that's because you never split them. You treat them as a regular 10. You also never split tens. Just stand on 20.
If you follow this strategy religiously, even with a maximum wager of 50,000 chips, you only expect to lose about 215 chips per hand, and with rounds taking about 30 seconds, that amounts to an expected LOSS of 26,000 chips per hour, which is only half a bet. A small price to pay for an hour of entertainment.
But since the expected return is so extremely close to 100%, you will see more positive short-term results than with other games. But obviously it can also swing the other way. Again, this is supposed to be the game where your money lasts you the longest, but always set your loss and win limits before you sit down. That rule simply always applies.
Still, even with optimal strategies applied, all these games are expected to lose you money in the long run. So betting any kind of large amounts is not advised. If you simply want to enjoy playing these games, there's nothing wrong with betting a minimal amount. Playing these games for a longer period of time will already cost you money anyway, since your daily property fees will still be charged while you're playing in the GTA casino. As long as you can play for fun, there's nothing wrong, but when you see yourself betting insane chunks of your entire bank balance to try to recoup some unfortunate losses, you're doing it wrong.
As the commercials in Britain all correctly say: when the fun stops, stop.
2) Virtual Horse Racing
Now onto the good stuff. I ran some numbers, and I believe Rockstar has made a mistake with the horse racing game. Because as it stands, and if I read the numbers correctly, this game is actually profitable for the player. You can actually make money with this, at least, until Rockstar figures out their mistake and patches it.
If anyone wants to jump into the math and double check this to make sure, please do so. I will add any corrections to this post. This is one of those "to good to be true" things, so I keep thinking that I might have overlooked something. So please verify it if you can.
The setup is this. There is a pool of 100 horses, each with their own attached payout. These are divided into 3 groups, ranked by their odds. From each group, 2 horses are randomly selected to provide a pool of six runners for you to bet on.
Now it's not an actual race you're looking at. You are looking at a raffle. This is important to realize.
Each horse gets awarded a certain number of raffle tickets. The favorites get awarded more tickets than the underdogs, and therefore, have a higher chance of winning.
If this distribution works like it does in the real-life casinos, then the raffle tickets are awarded according to the betting odds.
Example 1: imagine a race with 3 runners, all have 2/1 odds, representing a 33.3% chance of winning. (Because 2/1 means 2 AGAINST 1, so 3 total.) In this case, each horse gets one third of the raffle tickets, giving them an equal chance to win.
Example 2: imagine a race with 3 runners, one has 1/1 odds (or EVENS), representing a 50% chance of winning, and the other two horses are marked up as 3/1, with a 25% chance of winning. The favorite gets half the tickets, the other two get a quarter of the tickets each.
A ticket is drawn, and you'll have a winner.
It doesn't matter in this game which horse you bet on, because the expected return is always the same: 100% or break-even, for the above examples.
Now, what happens if the percentages don't exactly add up to 100%?
They must add up to 100%, because there will always be a winner. And only one winner.
So when this is the case, the actual winning chances of the horses are adjusted to meet the 100% requirement, using their payout odds to determine the scale.
So, if the represented percentages add up to more than 100%, the actual winning chances of the runners will be DECREASED, resulting in all bets becoming losing propositions for the players.
Example: In a 6-horse race, all runners are listed at 4/1, representing a 20% chance. Only with six runners that amounts to 120%. So all chances are scaled down by 1/6th, to end up at 100%.
This means your horse's chances are reduced from 20% to 16.67%, turning it into a losing bet: 5 times you will lose your bet, and 1 time you will win, but only get 4 bets back in this instance, instead of 5. A losing bet in the long run.
This is the type of odds that you find in regular casinos, with fields as large as 15 runners to bet on, where the assumed winning chances always add up to more than 100%, therefore are decreased for all runners, resulting in a house edge.
But in GTA Online's Inside Track, there are other scenarios, because of the small field, and the way that they are put together.
In some cases, the represented percentages when added up, are LESS than 100%, meaning that the actual winning chances of all runners, are INCREASED.
This creates profitable bets for the players, because in the long run, you're expecting to win more money than you lose. This is a gambler's dream, pure and simple.
So, according to the in-game information, the three groups of horses are divided as follows:
-Favorites: EVENS to 5-1
-Outsiders: 6-1 to 15-1
-Underdogs: 16-1 to 30-1
Let's take the two most extreme examples to show what's happening.
The worst possible field to bet on: two runners at EVENS, two runners at 6-1, and two runners at 16-1.
EVENS represents a 50% chance, 6-1 is 14.29%, and 16-1 is 5.88%. Add those up and you land on a total of 140.34%.
This means that the actual winning chances of the horses are decreased by 28.75% (to get that 140% down to 100%), which makes betting on this field extremely unwise.
A horse at EVENS will only come in as a winner 35.63% of the time, instead of 50%,
a horse at 6-1 will only win 10.18% of the time,
and an underdog at 16-1 will only win 4.19% of the time.
The expected return on a bet on any of the horses in this field is only 71.26%, so a maximum bet of 10,000 chips on any of these horses holds an expected LOSS of 2,875 chips.
These returns are the same, because the winning chances are scaled equally, according to the payout numbers. So it really doesn't matter which horse you bet on, in the long run, you expect the same results.
But as explained before, it does influence variance, and therefore your short-term result, which can swing both ways.
But now, the best possible field to bet on: two runners at 5-1, two runners at 15-1, and two runners at 30-1.
Odds at 5-1 represents a winning chance of 16.67%, 15-1 odds means 6.25% chance, and 30-1 odds means a 3.23% chance of winning. Add these six horses together, and you only get 52.285%.
This means that, to get from 52% to 100%, the actual winning chances of these horses will be almost doubled! Multiplied by 1.91 to be exact.
So the 5-1 favorites will now win 31.88% of the time, instead of 16.67%,
the 15-1 runners will win 11.95% of the time,
and the underdogs at 30-1 odds will still win 6.17% of the time.
When betting on this field, the expected return on your bet is 191.25%!
This means that a max bet of 10,000 chips will result in an expected PROFIT of 9,125 chips.
This is printing money, if there ever was such a thing.
Optimal strategy for Virtual Horse racing
So all you have to do, is only bet high on the games where you have an expected positive return, and bet the absolute minimum on the games where your expected return is negative. Or back out of the racing game to refresh the field.
If you don't have a way to quickly add up all the percentages, and until somebody shows up here with a neatly formatted table, just use a few general rules of thumb:
-Always bet the maximum on a race with favorites at 2/1 and 3/1 or higher in it.
-Simply skip all races with two favorites at EVENS in it, and at EVENS and 2/1. Or bet the minimum, if you can't skip or refresh the field.
-To decide if you should play races with other favorite combinations EVENS and 3/1, EVENS and 4/1, EVENS and 5/1, or two favorites at 2/1, the payouts on the other four runners determine whether or not it's profitable to play them. The results of betting on these fields vary from an expected 1,330 chip loss (worst-case) to an expected 1,680 chip win (best-case), with a max bet of 10,000 chips.
But if you're not looking for another strategy chart, you might just want to skip these borderline cases, and just cherry pick the best ones, which are easy to recognize, and with which you can never go wrong.
It's difficult to put a number on an expected win-rate, because it all depends on which fields you get presented with, but it's not unreasonable to state that you can maintain a steady win-rate of around 200,000 chips per hour, with about 50 seconds per race.
Remember, you're not trying to win every race. You're trying to win the most money per hour. So don't sweat it when you bet on a 4/1 favorite, and lose a couple of races in a row. It will still be more profitable in the long run. You have the math on your side.
To reduce negative variance, always bet on the favorite, when betting on profitable fields. We're not gambling anymore, we're grinding out a steady profit. We want to keep the swings to a minimum.
I contacted Rockstar support to verify if this is indeed how it works, but the only reply I got after 6 weeks is that they were "looking into it".
User u/Garsant made a useful Excel-worksheet, available for you to download, where you can quickly type in the payouts on the horses, to see if it produces a profitable bet or not. You can find it in his post here: https://www.reddit.com/gtaonline/comments/ekp8na/gta_online_inside_track_odd_calculato
1) Wheel of Fortune
The number one profitable casino game in GTA Online is obviously the Wheel of Fortune, because it costs you nothing to play.
Unfortunately, you only get one free spin per day, but it holds great value, so make sure you do it.
With a chance to win a super car, vehicle discounts, expensive mystery prizes (which also can be vehicles), and a lot of cash and chips, the expected return on a single spin is around $100,000 in value.
So don't forget your daily spin, it's definitely worth your time.
2020 Update:
As of the Diamond Casino Heist update, the Inside Track horse racing is confirmed to still be as profitable as outlined above.The only thing that seems to be changed, is that you can't refresh the field anymore by backing out of the screen. This does affect your hourly rate in a negative way, but does not change the fact that this game has a huge positive expected return, and should be your go-to when you're trying to take money from the house, without having Lester's nagging voice in your ear. That should also be worth something.
And with that, I conclude my 5,000 word essay on gambling in GTA. Questions, comments, feel free to add your input to this guide.
Cliffs:
-Gambling games should only be played for fun, not for big money. You should expect to lose in the long run. The house always wins.
-A casino game doesn't have a memory, and betting systems don't work.
-Set your limits before you start, how much you are willing to lose or win, and then walk away when you get there.
-Don't play slots, roulette, or three card poker.
-Only play blackjack following a basic strategy chart (https://prnt.sc/olct6g).
-Inside Track betting can be played profitably, if you only bet on fields WITHOUT a heavy favorite.
-Wheel of Fortune is always your best bet, because it's a free bet.
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Meet The Freak 2

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Wallace
Turns out, I wasn't invited to lunch.
Not with Temerity and the visiting fey at least. Likely they were speaking business and weren't keen on anyone listening in.
Instead, I was invited to a separate dining room, to eat with who I guessed were the ranking men in the manor. There were neither fey nor sprites present, but there were half a dozen of the blue-skinned elves.
And look like proper elves they did. Again I wondered about what colour their blood might be, but the odd colour aside, they fit the mould. Temerity's hair had fallen to cover the tops of her ears, but one of the men at the table had his pulled back in a ponytail, and I saw that his ears came to fine points. They also had an ethereal androgynous look that reminded me of the elves from the Lord of the Rings movies. Whether that was just how they looked, or a product of living in what I guessed was a more female-dominated society was hard to say.
Servants, all of them men, came through several times with food and drink. I ate everything put in front of me but turned down the offered wine and ale. Resilient as I was, it was a little early in the day for me to start drinking. Much of the food was foreign to me, which tickled that part of me that detested disruption to my routine, but I reminded myself of the task at hand.
My lunch partners seemed reluctant to strike up a conversation with me, and honestly, that suited me just fine. If I'd known that I wouldn't be invited to join Temerity and the two fey noblewomen, then I likely would have taken my meal in my room. Or perhaps the library, assuming Temerity had one. But it was a large enough manor, so I figured it was a safe bet. In any case, everyone in the manor, with the notable exception of the fey women and their retinue, were servants in some form or fashion of Temerity. And if I started trying to prise information out of them, then they were likely to mention it to her, causing me yet more trouble.
A more artful conversationalist might have been able to get the information without arousing suspicion. But I wasn't an artful conversationalist, so when given a chance to speak, I listened instead.
"I heard that the baroness is trying to hire a few of the gnomes to run the chain lift each The Long Night," said one man, seated on the right of the table.
Rectus, I decided, would be his name.
"The baroness wastes the city's money. Were the Duchess in charge she wouldn't bother with such trifles," insisted the man seated across from him, Laevus, I decided, was as good a name as any.
"Perhaps the baroness intends to receive gnomish caravans during The Long Night?" Rectus suggested, "Or maybe she just wants to make the summiting easier for those who arrive at the base of the mountain after dusk. I've had to make the climb in the dark before, I nearly came off the path half a dozen times, and I was on foot. Just imagine what it would be like trying to take a wagon full of goods up to the city, such a climb takes uncommon bravery."
"Common stupidity more like," Laevus retorted, "If a merchant finds himself at the foot of the mountain after dusk, more fool him. Plan better, and such things wouldn't happen. The baroness wastes her money to care for fools who should know better."
"What about the gnomes then? The darkness doesn't bother them, and may as well have their own people run the lift to bring up their caravans. I'd certainly like to eat this well every day," Rectus replied, gesturing at his meal, "But no one other than the gnomes wants to travel during The Long Night, so for much of the week we're reduced to common fare while we wait for caravans from Pelignos."
"Fine," Laevus waved a hand dismissively, aggrieved that Rectus had won the argument, "But the gnomes should pay for it. If the baroness is going to have a bunch of the little green bastards sleeping all day and working one night a week, then their people should pay the fees to run their racketous contrivance."
I stayed a little while longer, but beyond an off-hand reference to 'goblins', I didn't learn much more of note. Two more species potentially meant two more cities though, so that was promising.
Excusing myself, and with little else to do, I decided to find out about that library I'd been pondering the existence of. And as I wandered, I pondered some more.
A little self-conscious of the design, I'd tucked the necklace into the front of my shirt, but brought it out now to get a better look at it. Nothing about it suggested the presence of the magic inside, but it was certainly doing something. But what exactly?
'Goblin', was that really an English word, or was it more like a name? A proper noun, I suppose, was a better way of phrasing it. Why should any given proper noun, the name of a species in this case, translate so easily to English? Was the necklace just picking something that seemed close enough? The elves, for example. They looked like elves, and matriarchy aside, seemed to act about like I expected elves to act. Is that why the necklace had picked that name for them? The goblins then, were they evil, as I might expect them to be? Did the necklace even understand so complicated a concept? For all I knew it plugged into the wearer's pop-culture knowledge to facilitate translation.
A helpful servant found me wandering the halls and pointed me in the direction of Temerity's library. It was as I was following those directions, ducking every few steps to avoid the roof beams, that I happened to pass the private dining room where Temerity was entertaining her guests. I couldn't make out the words but did hear the muffled hum of voices through the door.
I considered crouching by the door to peek through the keyhole, maybe see if I could hear anything, but ultimately thought better of it. For all I knew, Temerity was the sort of noble that was willing to order someone killed for such a transgression.
I wasn't in Canada any more, and I had to remember that. Back home, protecting people's rights meant striving to treat everyone equally. In a society like this, protecting someone's rights meant guaranteeing their power over those below them in the social hierarchy. As a commoner, a homeless commoner no less, I didn't fancy my chances if I went and got a Duchess good and mad at me.
Turns out I made the right choice because I had only taken a couple more steps when I heard the door open behind me. I turned to see Temerity step out into the hallway, the two fey noblewomen and a couple of servants filing out behind her.
It took only a glance to see that the two fey women were twins. Faintly purple skin and dark purple hair gave the two of them a sort of night elf vibe, though unlike in World of Warcraft, their ears didn't stick up six inches. Too bad for them I suppose, as it might have made up for their short stature. Standing next to Temerity, they looked like a couple of kids.
They had soft, round, features, with slight cheekbones and a jaw that came to a delicate point. Again, it was quite the contrast from Temerity, with her prominent cheekbones and a jawline that you could cut yourself on.
It was about there that the similarities ended however, identical twins or not, I found it hard to see how the two fey could be more different.
The more animated of the two, who even now was carrying on some conversation with Temerity about silk imports, was dressed in what I guessed was a more conventional style for her species. I'd already built this idea in my head of the fey being akin to some Greco-Roman city-state, built on the backs of their slaves, and what the sister wore fit that theme.
Was toga the right word? For me at least the word conjured images of frat boys wrapped in bedsheets, but on the other hand, it did look a little like she'd just wrapped herself up in a bunch of silk. Despite covering the whole of her, the garment, if it even was a garment, left little to the imagination. The thin white silk clung to her slight body, and it was only the way that the voluminous silk would gather in folds that maintained any degree of modesty.
Her sister, by comparison, was a world apart. She wore a blue flight suit whose colours had faded to a near grey. It wasn't some medieval equivalent either, it was an actual modern flight suit, maybe a couple of decades out of date by my reckoning, but a flight suit all the same. It also looked like it had been made with someone more Temerity's size in mind. The sleeves and legs had both been rolled up, but even with that done, it was still too long in the body for her. With it zipped up to the neck, she seemed almost to disappear inside. Her hair too was different, while her sister let her hair fall down her back in waves, the one in the flight suit had pulled it into a tight braid and tucked into the neck of her flight suit.
It gave her a stern look, and while her sister seemed happy to carry on with Temerity, I caught a familiar expression on her face. An expression I knew I often wore myself. It was the expression of someone who was trying to be polite, trying to be cordial, maybe even sociable, but whose patience with the whole situation was quickly wearing thin. I knew that when I got looking like that was about when I started trying to find some way to escape.
So I wasn't too surprised when flight suit girl met my gaze, spared a glance at her sister, and then took a step my way. The sister caught her arm though, much in the way one might with a child who was trying to run off, and 'encouraged' her to come along as she followed Temerity down the corridor, still discussing silk.
What did surprise me was the intensity of the look she gave me as her sister was leading her away. It wasn't anger, more like purpose. She'd said nothing, but had made sure I knew that she had some unfinished business with me.
So I did what I usually did when a cute girl showed some interest in me. I forgot about the whole thing and found something more interesting to occupy myself with. Like a library, for example.
The library was, in a word, disappointing.
Now that's not to say there weren't a lot of books, because there were, and usually, that would be enough. I liked the libraries back home, but they were all very modern. Not typically something a software developer would complain about, but when I imagined a library, I saw in my mind's eye carpeted floors with solid wooden bookshelves six or more feet high and books packed onto every shelf. Modern city libraries, they were more like computer labs and meeting spaces that just happened to contain some short metal bookshelves.
The manor's library, by comparison, was precisely what I imagined a library should be. And every book I picked up was a complete waste of time.
I'd been here for an hour, sorting through shelves, and still had not found a single text that had been written since the city's arrival in this new world. There were historical texts written about kingdoms that may as well not exist any more, useless maps of planets I'd never see, and about a hundred novels that I really didn't have the time for.
Now that's not to say it wasn't interesting. Important even. But useful it wasn't.
I currently stood within a priceless treasure trove, very likely every book I touched was effectively one of a kind. Perhaps there'd be the occasional copy in a household elsewhere in the city, but most of this collection was going to be unique. A true history of another world, stories from a lost culture, with this the only record of what was. It was beyond priceless, and completely useless.
I made sure that each book I skimmed went back into the exact place I'd taken it from, but it wasn't long before I was simply glancing at the titles.
There weren't any books on magic either, which was total nonsense. The whole reason to have a library in a fantasy world was to fill it with stuff about magic.
Valentine
Finding the right room had been a chore, particularly since it wasn't as if I could ask a servant where to go. The last thing I needed was Temerity knowing what I was up to until I was good and gone. Thankfully the room itself was out of the way, and a servant would only be down this corridor if they had business here as well, which I certainly hoped they didn't.
Upon stepping inside, I immediately understood why this particular bedroom was so out of the way, and why the inside of the door was padded.
And there was the human, sprawled across the bed, and passed out cold in the middle of the afternoon.
Temerity had mentioned him at lunch, Wallace, she'd said his name was. Just hearing about him had given me hope. This trip had come a week late, which meant that instead of having a whole week to hire mercenaries, I had until tomorrow morning. I might be able to get a couple of sellswords on such a schedule, but I wouldn't have nearly the time I'd need to vet them, and if I were pursued they likely wouldn't be enough to see off anyone who might trouble me. Besides, for all I knew, they'd be as much a danger to me as anything I might find beyond the city walls.
But then Temerity had gone on, at considerable length, about the handsome young gallant she'd rescued. The descriptions of his glossy hair and alabaster skin I endured, but the retelling of him laying out a sprite with a single blow, now that piqued my interest.
That interest solidified into a plan once I spotted him in the hall afterwards.
I could scarcely believe he was human. I had only Simon to compare him to, but the two of them may as well have been different species. The difference between Wallace and Simon was like the difference between myself and Temerity, and the two of us were different species. Simon was of a kind with Temerity, as they both seemed to be at the limit of what a person could naturally achieve. And when Simon used magic to enhance his body, any reasonable person would assume that he was stretching the limits of what a person could supernaturally achieve.
And then along came Wallace, who made even a powered up Simon look... middling.
My excitement at meeting the man was tempered when I saw him out cold on top of the bed. He'd managed to get his shoes off before passing out, but that was it. Laying there dishevelled and slack-jawed, he didn't quite strike the same imposing figure as he had in the hall.
If he's as much a layabout as Simon-
I quelled the thought. Gods damn him, I didn't have time for this.
I jostled his shoulder, or tried to. It was like trying to move a boulder, and he slept on, oblivious of my presence.
"Wake, damn you," I swore, and jabbed him in the stomach.
The creature came awake with a pained groan, and I jabbed him in the stomach again.
"What the hell?" he mumbled blearily.
I went to jab him again but was gently and inexorably pushed away.
"Lady, could you just not?" he said through a yawn.
"On your feet," I demanded, "I'm here to rescue you."
"What?" he asked blankly.
He was more wakeful now, but my statement turned out not to be the gut punch I'd been hoping for.
"I'm here to rescue you," I repeated, "We only have so much time to prepare."
He squinted at me, sighed, and then sat up with his legs hanging over the side of the bed.
"Thanks," he replied hesitantly, "But I think I'm good."
"You think- Do you realize where you are right now?" I demanded, "You know that Temerity has certain things in mind for you, don't you?"
Wallace opened his mouth to say something, but just sighed and shrugged at me.
"I cannot believe this," I seethed, "Are all humans so lazy?"
"Lazy? Lady, take a good look around," he insisted, spreading his hands out wide, "I got dropped off on this world this morning. Nearly died, twice now actually, but was lucky enough to end up here. I've actually given it some thought, and I'm pretty sure that this might be the safest and nicest place to be on this entire planet. If Temerity hadn't picked me up, I'd either still be stumbling about the wilderness, or best case, probably staying at the absolute worst hole-in-the-wall inn that the city has to offer. Instead of straw bedding and slop for supper, I've got silk sheets and catered meals. And yeah, so maybe Temerity's going to feel entitled to certain things, but I'm an adult and I can take care of myself. And you know what," he added with a shrug, "I don't think I really mind the idea either. I appreciate the sentiment I guess, but after lucking into the best deal I'm gonna get, I don't think it's a great idea to go prancing off..." he threw up his hands, "wherever, just because Temerity is a bit of a princess."
"If you stay here suckling at Temerity's teat you are never going to leave," I insisted, struggling not to grit my teeth, "Not until she gets bored and finds something else to entertain herself with. At which point you'll have no money, nothing to your name, and no idea as to what's beyond the walls of the manor. I bet you don't even know what we use for money. Maybe if you're lucky or clever, you'll get to poke around the city a bit, but Temerity isn't interested in helping you get your feet underneath you. In fact, she wants rather the opposite. Are you really telling me that you don't have any problem with Temerity keeping you as a pet?"
Wallace closed his eyes and rubbed at his temples. He sat there for a long moment, pondering, and then he opened his eyes and lifted his shirt.
I was taken aback at first, and was half-ready to blast him on the spot, thinking for a moment that he was going to pull the sort of nonsense that Simon was known to do. But it took only a glance to understand his intent. His abdomen, well-muscled as it was, was mottled with livid black bruises. What I could see of his chest was much the same, and I felt a pang of guilt for the roughness with which I'd treated him. I don't think I would have had the patience to be quite so gentle if someone had done the same to me.
"Lady, I don't know who you are, I don't know who Temerity is, and really I have no idea what the fuck is going on. Maybe you're telling the truth, maybe you're full of shit, how the hell would I know?" he sighed, "For all I know, you both might be terrible. What I do know is that if anyone else went through what I did this morning, they'd be dead. If Temerity turns out to be a problem, well I can deal with her when I stop feeling like ground beef," Wallace shrugged again, and winced, "The only things that got me up and moving since arriving have been food and the hope that I might learn a little magic. Well, I'm not hungry anymore, and the magic thing didn't pan out. I appreciate the concern," he said honestly, "But I'm confident that if I really want to walk out of here, then there's nothing Temerity can do to stop me. As for money and all the rest, if I need to figure that out on the fly, then I will. But for now, I'm in no condition to be running off anywhere."
He might have time to wait around, but I certainly didn't. If Vivian hadn't let our plan slip, then perhaps I'd be fine. Unfortunately, mine was not the only trade caravan on it's way to the city, and odds were good that the next one was going to be accompanied by someone who'd put together the pieces that Vivian had left lying around.
I just- Dammit, no matter how I looked at things I didn't see a way out for me if I lost another week. The week would give me time to put a team together, but I'd not get the chance to leave.
Today was Dark Even', and either I could leave tomorrow, which would be the morning of Last Light, or I'd have to wait around another week for Last Light to come again. But the other fey would be arriving next Dark Even', likely late in the evening. So what, I'd have to try to hide out in the city overnight? In the end it wouldn't matter, there was only one path down from the mountains, and they'd be sure to catch me before I could get clear.
The big stupid solution to all my problems was sitting right in front of me, I just had to figure out how to-
The big stupid solution to all my problems let out a sigh and fixed me with a long-suffering gaze, "Alright, spit it out."
"Excuse me?" I demanded.
"A lot of people look at me and assume I'm pretty dumb. Just a big brute, but here's the thing. Life isn't fair, so it turns out I'm also pretty damn clever. So, whoever it is you are, what is it you'd like me to rescue you from."
"I do not require rescue," I growled, "And you may address me as Lady Valentine."
"Come on Val," he teased wearily, "we'll call it a mutual rescue."
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It seemed Wallace was even more irreverent than Simon, "How much do you know about fey?"
"I know you keep the sprites as slaves," he began evenly, a cold hostility whispered at in his tone, "I know there's another human kicking around your city and that he's got a decent amount of political power, and I'm pretty sure that you guys can do some sort of freaky pheromone thing."
"It's the men who keep the slaves," I replied quickly, "But otherwise you seem to have the general idea, what about this world itself?"
"Well for some reason, this city is atop a mountain, and yet no one bothers to farm in the valley below. Doesn't make a whole lotta sense, the big blue gas giant is pretty cool though."
"Gas giant?" I wondered, but set that thought aside for the time being.
"It makes sense once you know that every morning, just before dawn, a tide sweeps across the landscape, scouring it right down to bedrock. If you're not up high enough when that happens, then in all likelihood, you're dead. I imagine you saw the green mist that welled up right before you were brought here, that same mist follows the tide, replacing everything that was just swept away."
"How does anyone grow enough food?" Wallace frowned, "Unless they've got a whole lot of terraced farms, I can't imagine how the elves are feeding themselves."
"They're not feeding themselves, we are," I explained, "Parabuteo ended up on a mountain, but we found ourselves atop a mesa. We have more than enough farmland to feed both our cities, and Vivian and I own all that farmland."
Wallace furrowed his brows, and I clarified, "Land passes down female lines, slaves down male lines."
"And I'm guessing the men with all the slaves don't want your sister to end up as the sole landholder?" Wallace guessed.
"Exactly. Simon may try to throw a wrench into things, but Vivian very well could end up ruling the city if she simply marries all the largest slaveholders."
"All?" Wallace repeated, eyebrows raised.
"One man can have multiple wives, or one woman can have multiple husbands," I explained, "It depends on how the balance of land and slaves works out."
"And you're about to royally screw with that balance by giving everything to your sister," Wallace realized.
"Well she will be paying me for the privilege, I'm not giving it away, but yes, you're correct."
"Still doesn't explain why you're in such a hurry to leave right this moment," he pointed out.
"They know," I said simply, "And I don't want to leave this moment, as I said the tide comes through each morning. I want to leave tomorrow just after dawn. We would have until then to prepare."
"How far do you expect to get in a single day? Or are we going to spend our evening trying to climb a mountain after travelling all day- Assuming I agree that is," he added.
I stifled a small smile. This might just work, but it was still too early to celebrate.
"How do the days of the week work where you're from?" I asked.
"How do they work?" Wallace asked, "Well there's the weekdays, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, that's when most people have to work, then the weekend, Saturday and Sunday. Some people still work those days if they're doing shift work or something, but typically the weekend is your time off."
"I don't care about work schedules, I mean how does the weekly cycle affect how dark the nights are or whether the sun is out during the day," I insisted.
"They... don't?" Wallace asked hesitantly, and then exclaimed, "Oh, of course! The phases of the gas giant."
I frowned, he seemed a little excited for so simple a concept, "Is there something special about The Father that The Gas Giant lacked?"
"Gas giant isn't a name," he explained earnestly, "It's a type of planet, there are actually four gas giants in the Sol system. The Father, as you guys call it, would be another. Looks a lot like Neptune or a palette-swapped Jupiter actually-" then he stopped himself short, "Okay," he began once again, forcing himself to relax, "I could go on for hours about astronomy, but aside from not having the time, I'm still awfully sore. So here's the bit that matters, Earth, where I come from, doesn't have anything like The Father. We've got a moon, but it's an awful lot smaller than the Earth and isn't large enough to make much difference in how the days and nights work out. I'm guessing that's not the case here though."
"Quite right. First of all, there are six days, not seven," I began, hesitating when Wallace pushed himself up to start rifling through drawers, "Ah, what are you looking for?"
"Paper, and something to write with," he replied.
I unzipped one of the pockets on my left thigh, "Here," I offered, "All you're likely to find in there are Temerity's toys."
He coloured quite a bit that, but he took the paper and spread it out on a nearby table.
"First Light and Dark Morn'' are the first two days. The night between begins fairly bright as The Father is in the sky, but he sets around midnight, leaving the landscape all but pitch black until dawn. It's possible to travel by the light of The Father if pressed, and only the gnomes make a habit of travelling at night without him."
"I take it they can see in the dark?"
I nodded, "They live underground most times anyway, so they're not put off by it. Anyhow, the next two nights, between Dark Morn' and Full Light, and then Full Light and Dark Even' are both lit by The Father from dusk till dawn. Dark Even' is as it sounds, as once dusk falls it's pitch black once again until midnight when The Father rises once again. After Dark Even' comes Last Light, and when the sun goes down at dusk of The Last Light it remains dark all through The Long Night, right through until dawn of First Light."
"So," Wallace began distractedly, still scribbling on the parchment I'd given him, "Thirty-six hours of uninterrupted darkness?"
"Yes, and as dawn does not come during The Long Night, neither does the tide to sweep everything away."
Wallace paused, "That's not how tides work."
"Start praying," I suggested, "You may take it up with the gods."
Wallace shrugged, "I suppose that weirdly scheduled tides aren't the strangest thing I've come across today. Is this about right?"
I looked over Wallace's diagram and nodded, "Yes, that's about right."
"So from dawn on Last Light until dawn on First Light you've got forty-eight hours to travel, as long as you're willing to brave the dark? That's your plan?"
"Yes. Last time I was here I was able to get atop the clocktower, and I spied an area that's high enough to be safe. I can see the same place from the gnomish city as well. But it's two days journey from either city."
"So to get there you'd need to travel during The Long Night," Wallace understood, "But then how does anyone ever get between cities otherwise? Are we only a day away from Pelignos?"
I pulled a scroll tube from a hip pocket and unrolled the parchment within, "Here, this should give you a better understanding. Between each of the cities are several rest stops, this map doesn't show all of them, just the ones I know about. They're each a day's travel from the next rest stop or the closest city. All the routes I know about put three rest stops between each city, so it's a four-day journey from one city to either of the others."
"This is a map?" Wallace asked incredulously, "It looks more like a scrap of parchment with some scribbles."
"Maybe it's a little conceptual for you," I retorted, "but it shows what matters. The 'X' on the map is where I intend to go. It should be safe, and hopefully, no one will have any clue where I- we, escaped to."
"Okay, two questions. First, what do you mean should be, and second, why won't they know where we went?"
I grimaced, perhaps that was not the best choice of words, "I do not know if your people are familiar with it, but the gnomes have a type of mathematics that uses triangles to calculate angles and distances-"
"Trigonometry," Wallace replied, "That's why you went up the tower? You did the calculations to estimate the height to tell if it's safe or not?"
"Yes, both from here and Caniforma. My results give plenty of leeway, not as much as being up a mountain, but more than enough to be safe. Furthermore, I was able to sight the same building both times, several weeks apart. If my maths were wrong, then the building should have been swept away."
He nodded slowly, "Okay, makes sense, but how do you know they won't follow?"
"Two reasons, first, they'll think I've headed for Caniforma. It makes the most sense as the gnomes and goblins who live there are the least fond of the ruling class of Pelignos. They'll assume I'm seeking shelter there. The second reason is that no one else is confident enough to make such a trip to an unknown rest stop."
"See, you said confident, but I sorta feel like you meant crazy," Wallace observed, "I'm guessing there's a reason that this place you spotted is unexplored."
"You see these rest stops near Pelignos?" I asked, pointing to the map once again, "The ones that don't seem to lead directly to either of the two cities? They're what scavenging parties use to range out further from the city, looking for anything useful dropped off by the morning mists. Each was first located and explored by one of the survey teams. But survey teams, from any city, only venture out to brand new rest stops during The Long Night. That way if they get there and find it isn't actually suitable, they've time to make it back."
"And no one's been crazy enough to head for your new spot because if they're wrong, there's no room for error. You either make it and it's safe-"
"Or you die," I finished.
"Yup, you definitely meant crazy."
"It's safe," I insisted, "I told you, if it wasn't-"
"The building would have been swept away," he finished, "Sure, probably. But your plan still has us travelling during thirty-six hours of complete darkness, and I'm not exactly in the best of health. Couldn't you just go to this middle rest stop here?" he asked, pointing at the one directly between Caniforma and Parabuteo, "And then cut across to the 'X'?"
"I told you, the map's conceptual," I replied, "They're not as close as they look, and there isn't actually a route between the two. That would rather defeat the point after all. The whole reason I want to head for this spot is that it's out of the way. If someone has found a rest stop that connects it to the rest of the network then they've done a good job of keeping it secret. I need to get there and lay low while Vivian secures her hold on power. Once she's got things under control, then it'll be safe for me to be seen in one of the cities. And it's not as if I haven't done this before. I got this garment," I insisted, tugging at the collar of my odd clothing, "when I was with a survey team."
"A flight suit," Wallace explained, "It's called a flight suit."
"And it's just one of the treasures I've found. I know what I'm doing Wallace, this is a trip we can make."
"Is one of the other treasures a pair of night-vision goggles?" Wallace asked pointedly, though I could see his enthusiasm waning.
"For light, I have magic."
He perked up a bit at that, and I took a gamble.
When Simon had first arrived, long before he'd started vying for political power within the city, he'd begun collecting spellcasters. Female spellcasters, of course, this was Simon after all, but for a long time he'd pursued magic at the expense of everything else. Even now, on his rise to power, the easiest way for some family to get in his good graces was to provide him with a new sorceress. If Simon had an insatiable appetite for magic, then perhaps...
"And if you come with me, I'll teach it to you."
Wallace groaned and put his head in his hands. Not exactly the reaction I'd been expecting.
"Man, this is going to suck," Wallace breathed, "Alright dammit, I'm in."
submitted by ThisHasNotGoneWell to HFY [link] [comments]

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OC Tournament #5: Round 1 Match 12 Alexis and Cybil Vs Admiral Pineapples and Rudolph

“届けて, 切なさには名前をつけようか ‘Snow halation!’”
The harpoon lodged itself into the Ocean Soul’s chest following a powerful toss from Pork Soda, the beast desperately trying to hit the tether to destroy it and release the harpoon, to no avail. The Ocean Soul had underestimated its opponents, who were currently singing some sort of song, perhaps a sort of war cry, meant to display their superior strength.
“想いが重なるまで待てずに, 悔しいけど好きって純情”
It had to do something! It released the Calamus Root in store within its mouth, ready to spit it out, before Sayonara Kodoku picked the Ocean Soul up, shut its mouth tight, and tossed it over to Pork Soda. With a thrust of its fingers, the porcine stand pierced the Ocean Soul’s eyes, blinding it.
Then, the two stands rushed at it, sending forwards a barrage of blows, breaking bones, claws, and disorientating it, before getting ready for a finisher. Pork Soda picked the Ocean Soul up by its tail and began spinning around, the rapid movement disorientating the fish and sending it closer and closer to its doom.
No, no! It couldn’t let this be! The Ocean Soul was a hunter, and even if its prey had gotten a leg up on it this time, it wasn’t going to give up! It could barely remain conscious under the pressure as the porcine stand spun it around, its already severe wounds getting exacerbated, but it had to do something!
Just one shot! Just one precise shot and it could use the opportunity to escape, to recover! The porcine stand was spinning it around by its tail, so the Ocean Soul could calculate the stand’s position! It just needed to regain its bearings, focus on getting a shot aimed, and it could use its spit to-
SLAM!
With a brutal impact, the Ocean Soul was slammed into a nearby rock. It felt itself sinking in the water as the two stands approached it, its imminent doom coming closer and closer with every movement they made.
It needed to escape, but it couldn’t bring itself to move. The two stands made their way towards it, floating above the ground as they loomed over the barely conscious beast.
Was this going to be it for the Ocean Soul?
“微熱の中 ためらってもダメだね, 飛び込む勇気に賛成 まもなく start!”
Like hell it was.
Gathering the little remaining energy it had, the Ocean Soul spat out the Calamus Root stored within its mouth, mixed with its saliva. Hitting the ground underneath the two stands, two long spikes quickly sprouted out of it and towards their bodies.
Though Sayonara Kodoku’s tough skin didn’t get pierced, the force of the growing spike sent it flying into the air, incapacitating it, if only for a moment. Meanwhile, Pork Soda wasn’t as lucky as it, the spike piercing through the left side of its body, tearing through its left leg and shoulder. The Ocean Soul couldn’t hear anything from underwater, but it was sure that its user was reeling in pain right about now.
Using the remainder of its energy, the Ocean Soul bolted away, desperately trying to remain conscious as it swam away from what it once considered its prey. It didn’t even look backwards, fearing that doing so would give its opponents the time they needed to finish it off for good. It didn’t even keep track of how far it swam, or for how long its opponents had chased it, or if they had done so at all. Its body was searing in pain, broken bones and wounds all over it.
Eventually, it couldn’t bring itself to swim any further, losing consciousness and sinking down into the ocean, not even the searing pain keeping it awake as it began to rest.
The Ocean Soul had lost, but this wasn’t the end of the beast. Though barely, it had managed to escape this encounter with its life.
The results are in for Match 10. The winner is…
‘Agnes’ Bayley and Prince Cosmo, with a score of 80 to the Ocean Soul’s 60!
Category Winner Point Totals Comments
Popularity Players 25-5 The word of the voterbase was clear: the vast majority felt that the Ocean Soul was handily defeated by the players.
Quality Players 23-22 Reasoning
JoJolity Ocean Soul 22-23 Reasoning
Conduct Tie 10-10
“AAAAGH! GODDAMIT, STUPID FUCKING FISH!!” Agnes screamed in pain while clutching his leg, body strewn onto the nearest island, carried by Sayonara Kodoku. “IT STABBED THROUGH MY GODDAMN LEG!! FROM THE FOOT, TO MY WAIST, TO MY FUCKING SHOULDER! AAARGH, DAMMIT, WHERE’S JENNY WHEN YOU NEED HER!!”
“You should be happy we got away with our lives. The Ocean Soul isn’t going to come finish us off any time soon after what we did to it.”
“OH, REAL RICH COMING FROM THE ONE WHO DIDN’T GET STABBED IN THE FUCKING LEG BY THAT MONSTER. DO YOU WANT ME TO STAB YOU AS WELL SO YOU CAN SEE HOW IT FEELS?!” Agnes started rummaging around his surroundings with his right hand, searching for a sharp object to use for his “demonstration”.
“Frankly, you deserve it. Don’t forget that you are the cause for this all. Were it not for your foolishness, Webb would still be alive, and this would not have happened to you.” Cosmo chided.
“PFFF- WHATEVER!” In between his heavy breathing and pained cries, Agnes let out an audible sigh. “Fffffuck this, I’m gonna check my phone to see if there’s any connection here so that we can get the hell out of this place ASAP!” Agnes picked up his phone and pulled it up, taking a look at it.
“That will not be necessary. There is no connection here anyways, and I am certain that a helicopter has been sent out to retrieve us, or at the very least ascertain what might have happened to-” “Shut up, I’m getting a message from Cairo. ‘Don’t worry, Agnes, we have sent your location over to Vitus, and help should arrive in about fifteen minutes.’” Agnes looked at his phone in confusion. “Vitus? Who’s that asshole?”
“Vitus is the man who sent the helicopters out. The one which you indirectly crashed. Nonetheless, let me see that - I have a hard time believing that your phone is capable of picking up a signal when we’re so far away from any cellular towers.”
“And why should I care about what you believe, huh? Here, take a look for yourself!” Agnes shoved the phone in front of Cosmo's face, the dog looking intently at it and seeing… nothing beyond a simple homescreen. “What is this supposed to be. This is your phone’s home screen, and though that horrendous chimera at its center is an affront to anything and everything I believe in, there is no notification here. Could it be that you are perhaps hallucinating from the pain?”
“Wh- you can’t see it?! Don’t fuck with me!” Looking at the dog’s deadpan expression, Agnes could tell that that wasn’t the case. He looked over at the phone, spotting it right there, as clear as day - a notification for an sms from Cairo themselves, containing what he read out loud! “Fuck you, I’m not hallucinating! If anything, you are!”
Cosmo was about to retort, when he spotted something over the distance - a sailboat. It was old and decrepit, seemingly having gone through significant damage and yet still remaining intact, somehow. It clearly didn’t belong to Vitus, and likely wasn’t Cairo’s either. On the boat, he saw a silhouette of a haggard man, but the distance meant that he couldn’t exactly tell exactly what he looked like.
“Someone is coming.”
It wouldn’t be much longer before Agnes and Cosmo were able to get back onland, learn what terrible things they’d missed, even if they still had a wait and a talk ahead of them. Left to nurse grievous wounds, this seaborne menace has seen this chapter of aggression momentarily closed, but further inland, the waters of a laundromat are being braved by a time traveler and a woman in chains.
Scenario:
Sound’s Garden Eastern Strip - A Golden Limousine
The evening was beginning to set in, the lights of the islands of the area beginning to flash on and dot the sky as two women rode through the city, looking out through the windows as they relaxed in luxury. Cybil Antoine was one to travel in style, and now, with a companion in tow, was no exception.
“A strip that absolutely comes alive at night… Makes me feel almost nostalgic for Vegas,” her redheaded travel companion mused as she looked out, “speakin’ of which… you ever play anything like that, Cyby? Cards, slots, so on. We could try Heartache Casino, maybe, if we have time sometime… I bet you’d just have to throw your name around to get up on its higher floors.”
“It’s Cybil,” the wealthy woman emphasized, with an exhaustion begotten by this having been far from the first time, “or Miss Antoine… Either way, I am not a ‘Cyby.’ Get it right next time, alright?”
“Right, yeah, I know you’ve told me… I’m just a nicknamer by heart. Cross my heart, though! It won’t happen again!” Alexis Williams seemed… As serious as she could get about something like that, as curiously carefree, even devil-may-care, as the performer could get.
“Commit it to memory, then. Despite how much a fool you can act, I’m sure you know how much I had to pull to get you onto this stage.”
“Believe me, I do appreciate it!” Alexis answered, focus now turned away from the topic of gambling and onto that. “Putting on a show at one of the biggest stages in Los Fortuna, bigger than anything I’ve done before… I know our group has had some bad luck lately, with Bucket causing that trouble down at the fish market, and how down on herself Leo has been since that dumb show she said she got roped into, but we’re still the freakin’ Judecca Highrollers, right? I want to show the world that, and from their box, I want to show the rest of our team that we’ve got no better option than to face it all with a grin.”
“How very like you,” Cybil answered, neutral in her tone, careful not to betray the affection in such a statement as she pondered their current status, where they would be playing.
Alexis wouldn’t be headlining, unfortunately, though admittedly, her act wasn’t the sort of thing that did that anyway. Rather, a certain piece of immensely beloved local talent, a rocking performer who went by TD/MD, would be having her play immediately before her at the Alexander Dickinson Amphitheater, just a drive over a rapidly approaching bridge away. Cybil had been a little annoyed that one of her statues had been overshadowed by a plane crashing near it, not to mention had a desire to spread further the local influence of their team, and so she had arranged with the heads of the entertainment industry of Los Fortuna to see to it that her personal favorite performer among the allies and associates she’d made was onstage at the best possible place for a person wanting to be noticed.
She curled her lips at a cell phone which found its way to its hand, then, narrowing her eyes at its screen. “No word back from your backing band… Where are they? How inconsiderate not to send word on this, especially at how that Mr. Sins recommended them so glowingly.”
“I’m sure they’ll show,” Alexis answered, “and if not… We can make do, can’t we?”
“Of course,” Cybil answered, only to have her eye finally drawn back out the window by the sight of a vehicle which had pulled into the lane directly next to theirs as their limousine crossed the bridge.
Another golden limousine was directly next to them now, this one almost pointedly bigger, longer, more decked out in jewelry, and it seemed to be headed exactly the same way. Cybil, rather than confused or alarmed at the coincidence, simply thought aloud, “that would probably be Mr. Sins… Speak of the devil.”
“Amazing how quickly his casino recovered from nearly burning down…” Alexis mused aloud. “I heard that one of the people who trashed it sent him to the hospital, too.”
“An overreaction I’m certain, from what I know about the man. Absolutely terrified of a little pain, a little elbow grease… I’m not one to gossip, but I can’t help but wonder how a man like him even managed to become so prominent, so consistently successful.”
“Right,” Alexis answered, smirking and putting her finger up to her lips, “I won’t spread that around, then. I know how to schmooze with that type if the need arises.”
Los Fortuna Canals - The SS Sledge Sister
Admiral Pineapples was more comfortable on his own boat, but as far as the fleet of the Masters of Funky Action went, there was no real reason to send out more than one boat for this right now.
“Man, I can’t believe nobody else is ridin’ with me,” his companion, Rudolf Pavlova, said after downing an entire bottle of water in a single gulp, on the tail end of an hourlong keytar solo. “The rest of the Masters better at least make it to the Alexander! It’d really bum me out harder than when Wrenn shot me down if none a’them made it!”
Sorry, but I’m really more the headlining type! Playing second-fiddle to a man in a speedo opening for some local star sounds fun and all, but, I’d totally just overshadow them, I bet! So I should really probably stay out of it! That sentence, clear in its passive-aggressive scathingness, had put Wrenn Aflight’s declining of this gig pretty succinctly. As the man more or less everybody on the team could tolerate, listen to, and generally have a good time with, Admiral had been tasked with asking the other star performer of the team to join Rudolf on the gig he’d accepted opening up for locally beloved rock star and all-around idol TD/MD.
Not wanting to break Rudolf’s heart, he more or less told him the short version, ‘he couldn’t make it,’ and then volunteered his own services for the younger man. “You won’t be out there with none of your allies, though, Nureyev! For I, Admiral Pineapples, will aid you in coordinating every moment of your work! This will be one of the worthiest usages of my tactical mind in a long time, I’m sure!”
“I hope you’ve gotten those hour-long solos out of your system now, Nureyev,” Pineapples warned with an amused, lax tone, “you’re only going to have thirty minutes onstage before the headliner has to get ready, and there’ll be trouble if you bleed into that.”
“I know, I know,” Rudolf answered, casually, as he slipped into an open-chested bathrobe mainly meant to function as the legal requirement of public decency until it was time to perform, “I’m not one to step on anyone’s toes, let alone the star of the show. Live and let live, yeah?”
“I’m curious, though, and you never told me…” The Admiral asked, cracking open a beverage of his own and taking a sip, “how did you manage to get such a part as this in the first place?”
“Oh, that’s simple!” Rudolf said, the thought to answer having simply not occurred to him.
A few weeks ago - A beach in the Waterfront District.
“Alright! Thank you, Los Fortuna! I’m here all day, and all night, and all tomorrow too, baby! Party never stops!” Rudolf had just finished the latest of his performances to a small crowd of beachgoers, shredding through the end of his one-man keytar rendition of 2112 and transitioning into a truly epic medley of the extended Family Guy, American Dad, and Cleveland Show OPs.
As the crowd dispersed, a corporate suit-looking type of guy, bronze-skinned with neatly-groomed hair, remained, eyeing his keytar curiously and smiling artificially. “That was an excellent show, Mr… Pavlova, I think it was? You have such an undeniable energy about you that I can see when I lay eyes upon you… You’ve star material.”
“Am I being poached?” Rudolf asked, tilting his head, “‘cuz I assure you, I am a free agent! Not about to be scooped up by some label and forced to chill out the party churnin’ out music I don’t feel in my soul.”
“Nothing so abrupt, no… I’m a Manager, representing TD/MD. You can call me Thutmose. Anyway, she has a concert approaching rapidly, and we’re struggling and scrambling to find local, new talent and performers to open for her. We’ve managed to secure a lot of artists already, but the most important spot… Playing right before her… That, still, we have a particular need for, and I think you would serve it perfectly.”
“So I accepted!” In the present day, Rudolf finished, “why not, yeah? I can spread the party to tens of thousands at one of the biggest venues in town!”
“Scouted on the street, hm… That’s awfully lucky.” Something about this struck Admiral as odd, but he supposed it was all the more reason it was good he was backing his friend and ally up. He had a strong hunch there was more to it than appeared.
Rudolf’s party yacht would disembark soon, ported on the central-most island of the places which made up Sound’s Garden, and the party would make their way forward from there.
Sound’s Garden West Side - Outside the Alexander Dickinson Amphitheater
At the same time, a self-important first step was taken out of a pair of golden limousines, one a heel clacking first out of it and a short, stocky woman in pinstripe emerging, the other dress shoes leading up to a tall, lean man in a gold and yellow tux, grinning and running a hand through his slicked-back hair.
Cybil Antoine hadn’t had the “pleasure” of a personal conversation with Tigran Sins before, but had happened to overhear some of him during her meeting with that Thutmose man, and then and there, she had known everything about him, and knew that she had already had the displeasure of knowing dozens of men like him.
Still, though, one needed to be cordial in times like this, so as Alexis came out behind her, and a very strongly built-looking, mean-looking man with brown hair and a nice vest, attached to the lapel of which was a Heartache Casino brooch (a bouncer? A bodyguard?) stood by Tigran waiting to see what he wanted or what he did, she approached the man who dared to try and be more golden than her Stand. “Mr. Sins, I believe… I believe we’ve crossed paths, briefly, but we didn’t really have a chance to speak.”
The man tensed a bit, only to relax slightly again when he saw that Cybil intended only to speak. “Cybil Antoine, right? I’ve heard you’ve been making a hell of a lot of waves around town lately, so I must say I’m excited to meet you too.” He looked back past her, towards Alexis standing and stretching outside of her team’s limo. “Would that be your star you’ve got going on? Certainly she’s got charm.”
“Hi, right in front of you,” Alexis answered, teasingly passive-aggressively waving, “yeah, I’m going up before TD/MD.”
“She’s a very important star around here, you know… So you’d better put on a show that leaves them wanting for more of the best.” Tigran’s attendant spoke, then, sounding dead serious as he looked them over. “A lot of people have come here just for this, just for her sake… It is completely imperative you keep that in mind.”
Tigran simply nodded, concurring, “couldn’t have said it better myself, Fox.”
Shortly after that, the pairs went their separate ways, shifting through VIP areas of the area of the main structure of the amphitheater, series of comfortably shielded stadium halls that it was.
“Still no sign of the band… Still no word from them either. I’m cross now.”
Alexis, then, stopped in her trail, looking at a schedule which had been printed out and emblazoned upon a green room wall. “Uh, Cybil, you’re gonna wanna take a look at this.”
“Hm?” Cybil raised an eyebrow, turning to face what her partner was pointing at, and then glared again. “Who the hell is Nureyev, and why are they listed at the same time as you?”
“There’s gotta be some kinda mixup or somethin’, man… I know about this ‘Alexis Williams’ it talks about, and hear she’s a Vegas Performer, damn fine one at that who can really strut her stuff. But we ain’t in Vegas at all, so what gives?” Rudolf himself was gesturing at a printout version of much the same piece of programming, he and Admiral Pineapples having wandered much the same series of halls.
“Hrm…” Admiral, now, took a look at the sheet himself, combing over the names before Rudolf on the list and speaking names aloud. “‘Arancini,’ ‘Tenacious-er E,’ ‘Guy and the Fieris’ Heavy Metal Barbershop Quarter,’ all as scheduled… What the hell? Yeah. We’re the only acts double-booked like this, and you say you don’t know this woman personally?”
“Not in the slightest,” Rudolf said, “never laid personal eyes upon her! So maybe there’s a typo, yeah… I know! We could track down Thutmose! But, uh… Where the hell’s Thutmose right now?”
A distorted voice shout-whispered, “I heard that he was visiting TD/MD’s green room.”
“Huh? Oh, thanks!” Rudolf accepted that advice uncritically, beginning to make his way, but Pineapples looked, at least, in the direction it came from, seeing then flashes of a short-looking person in a maroon turban, face bandaged but mouth section bulging with something hidden underneath, and a pair of aviator goggles, as well as a tunic, trousers, and many bulky scarves adorned in the forms of climbing stick figures.
Looking at the man, Pineapples couldn’t help but feel suspicious, but hell, there was a lot shady going on here. “Yes, thank you, Mister… Who am I thanking?”
“No,” the figure answered dismissively, “think little of it… I’m just another interested party watching the show. If there’s confusion, then, I want to see it resolved fast! If you’ll excuse me, though, I need to make my way to my box…”
“Strange man…” Pineapples shook his head, not wanting to leave Rudolf alone to deal with this strange situation. He knew from hearsay and rumor that there were some truly dangerous things lurking in the bowels of Sound’s Garden, and Rudolf, more heart than head, was bound to be barreling into it.
Sound’s Garden - The largest and nicest green room in the halls of the Alexander Dickinson Amphitheater.
Metra Doria sat before a makeup chair as assistants fussed and fussed with her hair, her face, her clothes, occasionally being met with polite thanks, compliments, or idle chit-chat, representing a sort of familiarity the team had had with the pale, short-dark-haired girl with a single blue streak through her front left locks. She stared at her own dressed-up eyes in the mirror, one silver, one blue and at once black-striped through the iris. As she sat here, initially clad pretty casually and low-key, she was Metra, but as the outfit she had selected was put together, she would become TD/MD.
She was being cordial before now, but all of the small talk had ended as soon as her manager came into the scene, knocking, being invited to come in, and then doing so.
“How’s the show going, Thutmose? I wish I could see Guy and the Fieris do their thing, but… Makeup, I swear.”
“There’s… People insisting upon speaking, Metra. They’re performers, the ones before you, and they seem annoyed. I tried to shoo them away and tell them to work it out, but that only incensed the old-timers with them, and now they want to speak to you. I tried telling them it was a waste of your time, but-”
“This close to going on?” Metra narrowed her eyes at the reflected form of her manager. Always, it was one thing after another with this guy. Though most of the time, one might assume there was something not worth it going on here, she knew Thutmose well enough to know there might be problems. She sighed, shutting her eyes now. “It had better be important… Let ‘em in.”
And like that, a quartet of two twenty-somethings, a middle-aged woman, and an old man barreled in through the door at once, all talking over one another and expressing confusion with the other’s very existence and presence. It was making the half-prepared girl more uncomfortable than sitting in a chair for awhile just to get ready for a show often did, so she raised her voice, calmly but authoritatively, literally seeming to drown out their babbling in the process. “Quiet down, alright?! One at a time.”
There was a little more whispering among the four, then, and it was the pinstripe-suited woman who stepped forward among them to speak the crowd’s mind. “TD/MD, I presume… This ‘Thutmose’ man, he has made a grave mistake in the scheduling. My associate Alexis here, and this half-nude man carrying a keytar around, they have not met before today, and they certainly did not intend to collaborate before you. Your manager has refused to listen to reason about this, so we are taking the matter straight past him to you… Resolve it at once, and we can be on our way.”
“What?” Metra, facing them all, blinked, shaking her head and glaring at Thutmose. “Again? How does this keep happening? You overbook acts right before me, and it’s such a disaster I’ve started to need to allot extra time to cleanup guys after those sets… It was bad enough before, but it’s seriously getting out of hand, man. I can’t keep dealing with you if you treat everyone else you deal with like this. You’re done working with me. We’re through.”
“B-but… But Metra..!” Thutmose was flabbergasted, looking almost terrified at the prospect. “Please, be reasonable..! I need this job, understand? I’ve got gambling debts, and-”
“Whoa whoa whoa,” the keytarist (Rudolf, or Nureyev, according to the program) interjected then, “let’s not ruin a man’s life over me and Lexy here, yeah? I looked into the history of this place, the Alexander Dickinson… Named after a big dead deal Philanthropist, so basically a dude from the 90's who gave his all to culture in this city, funded all kinds’a stuff! Would a man like that want a man to be fired in his own memorial stadium?”
The logic seemed to confuse nearly everyone there, not least of all Metra, whose response, after a moment, was, “Huh? You… Are you saying it doesn’t bother you?”
“He’s saying that!” Thutmose pleaded. “I am certain he’s saying that!”
“I don’t mind, either…” The redheaded Alexis said next, nodding and looking around at nothing in particular. “Yeah, I think we can work with that… The band he set us up with bailed on us anyway, right? So… Music might help, and it’s not like the things we do step on each other’s toes, yeah? So whatever, I’m sure we’ll still leave a bigger impression.”
Cybil, then, pursed her lips. “If it doesn’t make a difference to you, then, and we’re all on the same page… But still, this is so very inconvenient.”
“Agreed…” Pineapples looked to Thutmose. “Be more responsible in the future, aye? I think even if you keep your job right now, you’re gonna be on thin ice for now. And give up on gambling, if it’s sunken you this far.”
Metra nodded. “Agreed. I can’t guarantee I won’t start looking for a new manager, but… You’ve been good to me, at least. Clean up your act.” Then, she looked over the quartet. “I’m seriously sorry about this… You say you had backup, but they’re not showing up now? I, uh… I don’t know what happened to whoever those were, or why they fell through, but I have something I can do to help both of your shows exist at once: six of the best stagehands I've got.”
At that, the star snapped her fingers, and from the shadowy corners of the room emerged two trios, three men in a pose one well-versed on incidents in the early 20th century Roman Colosseum might compare to Awakening One’s Masters appearing before the Masters of Funky Action, three women in turn also sliding in before the Judecca Highrollers in perfect sync, stepping in with the coordination one might associate with, as a weird example, teenage mobsters jazzed about a dude being sent to the ninth circle of hell.
All six were muscular, clad in black sleeveless shirts, leather gloves, pants, boots, and bandannas over their heads, and all around, they gave off auras of immense reliability.
“Harry, Mark, and John, and Thorn, Dusk, and Luna… I kid you not, these guys can basically do anything and everything you ask of them. If they didn’t much prefer supporting other people to being in the limelight themselves, they would be as big as I am. Treat them well, they’ll learn fast, and they’ll be invaluable to making your bits work. But, uh… I’d hurry it up. Guy and the Fieris probably only have a couple more encores in them, and then you’ll have fifteen to set up. I wish you all luck..!”
Metra Doria had been a bit of a miracle for the grateful performers and put-off older supporters, who had in turn both begun to explain their intended strategies and how those might change to their crew members, who understood alarmingly fast.
“Man…” Rudolf whistled in relief, chuckling. “What a scare that was… But you, Lexy? You’re alright, actually.”
“Thanks,” Alexis answered in turn, still trying to figure this guy out, “you don’t seem bad yourself… I almost kinda feel bad that we’re gonna totally eclipse you out there.”
“Y’think so, huh?” Rudolf answered with a grin, pointing forward with a friendly competitiveness. “Well, the party don’t get drowned out by a damn thing! I’m gonna get all these good people pumped as hell, and they’ll be cheerin’ for me even when that Metra chick goes on!”
“Ooh, I’m starting to feel a bit competitive…” Alexis answered, good-naturedly chuckling and folding her arms. “Wanna see who gets the crowd more pumped? Loser, uh… Buys the winner overpriced concert t-shirts. These things need stakes, right? Heh…”
At the somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion, Rudolf nodded. “Sure, yeah! That, and the pride of bein’ one of the best in the city! May the best team win!”
OPEN THE GAME!
Location: The Alexander Dickinson Amphitheater, one of the biggest outdoor venues in the entirety of the Metropolitan area, in the buildup to TD/MD’s headlining act, wherein both of your teams have had a performer set to open for her. The place is packed at a capacity of tens of thousands of people.
The stage is a competently designed semicircle which is roughly 30 meters across for length and maximum width, with plenty of room all over and the various necessary fixtures upheld off the ground. It is raised up about 2 meters off the ground. Its back half is partially covered by the overhanging roof of the backstage area a dozen meters above.
The backstage area spreads out about 10 meters from both sides and the back of the stage, being somewhat indoorsy and absolutely full of things one could expect an excellent stage production to have, including, of course, sturdy rafters which lead up to the ceiling area overtop the stage. Both sides have had time to arrange for some extra things to be brought in.
Goal: With a leadup of fifteen minutes before acts, and a half an hour where both of your performers are onstage at once, you have a show to put on, and that is not getting ruined by this overbooking. So, with Rudolf and Alexis up on stage, and Pineapples and Cybil each operating their abilities and managing a three-person stage crew, outperform your opponents!
Given the vastly different skill-sets of the competitors, the goal is to execute on your vision better than your opponent executes on theirs. You will be judged and voted on the following criteria, in decreasing priority:
  • Feasibility - Whether your performance is actually within the bounds of what your Stand and Stats would imply.
  • Skill Use - A close second in relevance; how well you integrate your User Skills and Stats into your performance. While your Skills will help in completing this objective, they do not provide an automatic advantage by merely existing and must be woven into your strats, as per usual. Even the best of artists can have abysmal live performances.
  • Stand Use - Similar to the above, and similarly important. How cool, creative, and well-integrated is your Stand use. Put another way, wow the judges, voters, and viewers at home! This is more or less just the same as before.
  • Environment Use - How well you use and integrate the auditorium - its features, its backstage, its stage, and the hearts and passions of its occupants - into your performance.
  • Efficiency - How much quality footage you obtain and how well you use your time. This does not mean that setup for more complex performances is automatically penalized, but do try to minimize ‘deadtime’ and maximize the amount you perform.
Additional Information: There is a huge simp for TD/MD in the audience of the match, and he is connected enough that he will have both of you successfully and canonically killed if you ruin the show before the headliner can go on; therefore, murdering your opponents or audience members (“the ol’ Abraham Lincoln Tech” as they say in the biz) on an audience member is a loss condition. Not at all a moral thing for the record.
Stage Crew members for the respective teams (Harry, Mark, and John on the MFAs, Thorn, Dusk, and Luna on the Highrollers, if you care about their names) have 4s in strength, agility, endurance, Stagehand, and Backup; pretty much, anything their associated team asks them to do, they’ll be able to do, at minimum, competently. Though they won’t, like, murder for you. Generally you can use them for moving props on/off stage, extra bodies or on-stage back up performers, speaker and soundboard control, and/or on-stage camera crew as well as managing any other stage controls. Pretty much everything save for pyronetics and lighting is in their purview.
There are also dedicated lighting guys, totally neutral in your squabbles, who are going to do an entirely too good job adjusting their focus and making things work exactly as is needed so attention is on the stars of the show. They will also be coordinated with a third party camera crew that will be streaming the live feed onto screens for the audience. These feeds can be replaced or split screened with your own crew’s footage, but otherwise they will generally be in control of what is shown on-screen.
Players can be assumed to already have well-rehearsed their plans of action, the in-universe basis for the modified plans of the match, and have knowledge about every aspect of the stage, even if parts of their initial plan obviously need to be modified to account for new challengers also occupying stage space. If something performance related isn’t insanely, “years of training to do competently required” level hard, but would still require some practice ahead of time, they have had it to, at absolute max, somewhere between a 2 and a 3. Players, don’t overly-game this, though; the ‘stars’ of your performances should be the sheeted unique abilities of you, your skills, and your Stands.
All stands can be seen on camera and on the live feed for the audience's viewing pleasure.
Team Combatant JoJolity
Judecca Highrollers Alexis Williams “This one is for the guy who keeps yelling from the Balcony, and it’s called ‘We Hate You, Please Die.’” Gymnastics is a sport of rhythm and pace, this performance should be no different for keeping your momentum. Make as seamless transitions as you can between the acts of your performance!
Judecca Highrollers Cybil Antoine “Prepare to have your minds obliterated by… The boys! And Crash!” You have a whole crew of people working for you here, no need to do any heavy lifting by yourself. This is their job after all, better put them to work since that’s what they are here for. Make the most use out of your stage hands in your performance!
Masters of Funky Action Rudolf "Nureyev" Pavlova “What is with this band? They’ve… changed. Have you noticed they don’t have instruments? Where’s all this amazing noise coming from?” Keeping the audience’s attention for a full 30 minutes should be a piece of cake for the world’s greatest dancer, you can keep the party rocking even between your different acts. Make as seamless transitions as you can between the acts of your performance!
Masters of Funky Action Admiral Pineapples “You and your fireballs and your demon hipster chicks / you’re talking the talk and it’s pretty slick / You think you’re so great, but you’re missing the point / You gotta have friendship and courage and whatever!” You’re all in this show together, you and your crew of stage hand. Everybody should be contributing here, no man left behind. Make the most use out of your stage hands in your performance!
Link to the Official Player Spreadsheet
Link to Match Schedule
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submitted by Dungeon_Dice to StardustCrusaders [link] [comments]

The best uses for a deck of cards / Playing games worth playing in these times

It is a horrible time for the world, but a good time for games. As it is an expensive and space consuming hobby, I know many of us don’t have access to everything we’d like to play. Over a few years I researched for myself the best uses of a deck of cards – easily portable, easier to get people to the table (oh yes! I play cards!), usually available. It seems like the right time to share the results.
I’ve organized the below into both frame of mind (I want to Think, I want to Pass Time, I want to Laugh) and player count. Player count is focused on who you have – I didn’t put games necessarily where they are best, but rather “if I have four people, what is my best option?”
A brief calibration: I still have my 1995 first edition of Settlers of Catan. I’ve got roughly 80 games in my basement curated from the last 25 years and know the rules to twice that number. My favorite games are Tigris & Euphrates and Race for the Galaxy. This isn’t boasting (certainly not around here) - it is meant to be context so when I say these are games “worth playing” you have a better sense of what that means.
Links to rules. Hope this is helpful.
When you want to think:
For 2:
· Khmer (2 players): Khmer begins as a math and probability game, but quickly evolves into the psychology space and bluffing as you and your opponent learn the game. It gets better with more play, as it has room for different metagames and strategies, and the winner will be the one who remains one step ahead. In essence, you are trying to move cards between your hand and the table such that your total is MORE than your opponent, but LESS than the table – and you are rarely sure what your opponent is holding. The deck requires six 6’s – we use face cards for the 6’s and A-5 for the 1-5.
· Dibs (2-3 players): This is also a psychological game, where you will win by predicting your opponent and staying one step ahead. The core conceit is simple, you each have an identical deck (1-13), you are bidding on another pool of cards (worth face value), and high cards win. The twist comes because you have to use your entire deck of 1-13 to bid, and you can’t win everything. The game is more commonly known as GOPS or Psychological Jiujitsu, but I feel those names are both bad and inaccurate, so we’ve adopted this name instead.
For 3:
· Fight the Landlord (3 players): This is the best 3-player version of the “Big 2” family of games from East Asia. Big 2, or climbing games, are a race to empty your hand before your opponents. There is wide room in choosing what to play when, and how to break up your hand, meaning you will be making both difficult and important decisions throughout each and every round. Highly addictive, and good hand play will nearly always beat out a lucky deal.
The rules get a bit lengthy when it comes to what cards can be led, so you will either want to make a crib sheet or simplify the rules to mirror Tichu (below). The game will play just as well.
· 99) (2-4 players): Another trick-taking game (see note below) on my list. The mechanism for bidding in this game (in a nutshell, removing three cards from your hand) is simple, but introduces asymmetric, hidden information and requires you to make trade-off choices between your desired hand and your desired bid. This adds a bit of crunch to the model without making the game inaccessible to new or more casual players.
For 4:
· Scotch Bridge (Really 4 players, but can stretch to 3-6): Also known as Oh Hell, Pratt & Whitney, La Podrida, and others. This is a trick taking game, and I nearly universally dislike those (see note below), but it wins me over for two reasons. First, you aren't trying to win the most tricks but rather to value exactly the strength of your hand and then hit that bid - which means you are engaged in every single hand. Secondly, the handsize will range from 1 to 13, and each handsize meaningfully changes the feel of the game. 13 is a pure test of trick taking skill, 1 is a Mexican stand-off with your chips on the table, and 7 in the middle is a wild ride of big bets and lady luck.
As noted, this game has numerous variations. Most make little tweaks to the scoring, max handsize, and order of hands. In general, I prefer a positive form of scoring (10 for hitting your bid, 1 for each trick, penalty for how far you missed your bid, etc.) and playing hands from 1 to 13 and back again.
· Tichu (4 players): In my opinion, the best of the Big 2/climbing games. Same as Fight the Landlord, the goal of the game is to be the first to empty your hand, but it requires skillful play in knowing when to play, when to pass, and what to lead. You can never go on autopilot in this game. Tichu is played in 2 vs. 2 partnership and has elegant rules for scoring, both of which make this one of my favorite games of all time.
A note on the game – It is technically designed and published by a Swiss designer. However, if you research it, he played more the role of an editocurator, (quite masterfully) going through regional variants of Big 2, compiling the best, pulling in some scoring rules from other games, and polishing it all into the glistening pearl it is.
A note on the deck - it requires four jokers. You have three options 1) Find two decks with the same backs and mark up the jokers 2) Equally mix two decks so there is an even mix of two card backs, again including and marking up all four jokers, 3) Removing the jokers and using the four 2’s as the jokers, with a crib sheet in the middle of the table mapping the four suits to the jokers. Or you can buy a Tichu deck.
5-6 Players
· Fossil (4-8 player): This is an auction game using a deck of cards. Winning a bid will net you points but losing a bid will constrain your future options - as well as provide key information to your opponents. These decisions are the core drivers – what to set out for auction and when to throw down on someone else’s auction. In the end, the game is a mixture of psychology, strategy, and luck, leaving room both for clever play and for big moments when everyone groans and laughs around the table.
It can play 4-8, but plays best at 5-6. The first game or two generally feels casual and luck driven, but as the game clicks you may start seeing how you can influence the state of the table by choosing what to auction, or how the timing of your bid can win or lose you the hand. Like Khmer, this game grows on you over the first couple of games.
· Napoleon (5-6 Players): This is a Japanese trick-taking (see note below) game. What makes it stand out is the hidden role. Each player bids individually, then the winner (Napoleon) declares a Secretary card. Whoever is holding this card is secretly on Napoleon’s team, unbeknownst to everyone (including Napoleon). This leads to bluffing and deduction during play, with players uncertain about when to win a trick and when to ditch their low cards. It’s an excellent knife twist in the side or what is too often a rote playing-out-of-hands in standard trick taking, and it creates a social environment ripe for discussion and laughter at the end of each hand.
Napoleon is very similar to Briscola Chiamata, but in my opinion plays better as it removes some unnecessary complications from that latter game. It also draws comparisons to Schafkopf/Sheepshead, but again I think this one does it better.
· Skull & Roses (4-8 players): This is a pure bluffing game – think Poker without hands, only you, your opponents, and your wits. If that doesn’t capture it for you, just accept that this is amazing. You all place cards on the table until someone starts bidding, then it’s a gamble for who thinks they can flip the most cards without revealing a skull. The tension comes because, if you win the bid, you have to flip ALL of your own cards - so if you’ve played a skull, you lose. But, if you play all roses, you’re making it easy on your opponents. Choose wisely when you want to bid to win, and when you want to bid to entrap your opponents.
The game is usually played with coasters, but just as easily you can give each player one face card as their Skull and three numbered cards as their Roses. Or mark up any stack of two sided, identical objects in your house – I’ve heard of people playing with sweetener packets at Denny’s.
1) A note on trick-taking:
I don’t like it. Pure trick-taking – think Vanilla Whist – is not devoid of skill, but it IS quickly masterable and rarely surprising. A set of skilled players will play the same hand the same way every time, can guess the outcome before play even begins, and state it with certainty after 2-3 hands have revealed voids or singletons.
Most trick taking games, therefore, overlay something else to add interest. Things like complex bidding (Bridge, Skat) make the games inaccessible to new players, and turn them into objects of study more than play. Things like small hand sizes (Pitch, Euchre) throw the game into heavy luck, and often throw you into the backseat, passively throwing cards on the table until you are dealt a hand worth playing. This is fine to keep your hands busy while you drink, but isn’t what I look for when Gaming (with a capital G).
Nonetheless, I’ve included four trick-takers. My criteria are straightforward:
  1. You have to be able to bid and play whatever hand you get. Games like Spades and Scottish Bridge don’t ask you win as much as you can, but rather to exactly value your hand. Playing a bad hand can be just as engaging and difficult as playing a good hand.
  2. They need a single, straightforward twist to add interest. Napoleon adds a hidden role and uncertain partnerships. 99 asks you to secretly remove cards from the game, manipulating suit length, while trying to deduce what your opponents have removed. Hearts asks you to consider and risk when to win a trick and when to lose. These all give you something to think about throughout the game, sometimes require you to shift tactics midgame, and don’t require a course of study to properly learn (I’m looking at you, Bridge).
I anticipate the comments will contain passionate counter-arguments. So play and make up your own mind. I’ve played a lot and am now offering the best advice I can.
When you want to chat and pass time:
None of these games are chutes and ladders. But they do offer more luck and simpler decisions, for the most part, allowing you to while away hours and spend as much time talking to your opponent as you do thinking about the table.
2 Players
· Cribbage (2-4 players): Cribbage plays out in two acts. You and your opponent(s) lay cards on the table, trying to hit or avoid certain sums, with a few bonuses for creating pairs or runs. Then you look at your hand (and the crib) to make combinations worth points. There’s a bit of a list to remember, for what scores you points, but with that mastered the game settles into an easy rhythm of regular dopamine hits and little pegs on a board. Hitting 15 and hunting for your melds is utterly enjoyable. This is the perfect game to crack open a bottle of something together and seamlessly move back and forth between chat and play.
· Spite & Malice (2-4 players): This game feels like Spit - without the frantic pace, slapped hands, and bent cards. It’s also like multiplayer solitaire, except reverse to how that term is usually used. The rules are built on real solitaire, but you will be very much intertwined with your opponents. Hence the spite, and the resulting malice. I know couples who play this frequently, keeping a running score for the entire year.
3 Players
· Shed / Palace (3-5 players): This game goes by many names, not all of them polite. I was taught it as “Screaming Yoda” and it was over twenty years before I learned that the game was known worldwide by other names.
Anyway, Shed is a race to get rid of all your cards. Instead of a winner, there is one loser (the last one). The rules for playing cards are simple, and sometimes you’ll be forced to pick up 20 cards all at once. But it’s fine, everything’s fine. You’ll get it back.
The game plays out in multiple acts and often swings back and forth, lending it excitement and perpetual hope. Not overly strategic, but engaging and fun from start to end.
4 Players
· Canasta (4 players): The Archetypal Argentinian game. Canasta is an ageless, breezy, push your luck game of set collection and making odd faces at your partner across the table, trying to read their mind without communicating ("May I go out?" "No." "G****n you what a f**** mess why didn't you play your Canasta before.")
It feels a bit like Rummy, as you are drawing and discarding to collect sets of cards with your partner, and trying to out-collect your opponents. However, the team dynamic, the scoring rules, the wild cards, and the end-game make this an entirely different animal.
The game has a frustrating amount of rules – though they are all simple, the sheer number means some time to learn and then time to familiarize/memorize. As is the way with most longstanding, cultural games. Nothing that a crib sheet and a few run-throughs can’t solve.
· Cuarenta (4 players): Now hop over to Ecuador, and this is the national game. The central conceit is much simpler than Canasta – play one card onto the table, trying to capture the cards already on the table by creating matches or runs. But, as with Canasta, there is then a laundry list of footnotes to be memorized with edge cases and scoring.
That said, once digested, the game is simple, breezy, and endlessly entertaining. You’ll do better if you can calculate odds and count cards, but at the same time you can still enjoy yourself (and still win) by just playing your cards and sipping your drink.
· Hearts & Spades (4 players): As mentioned, I’m generally not a fan of trick taking (see note above). I include these because they don’t overinflate themselves. They know they are simple trick-taking games, they add a touch of spice for interest, and just leave it at that. The result in both cases is a pleasant way to pass the time.
For Hearts, the good bit is the shifting winds, trying to decide at each point when you are trying to win and when you are trying to lose. Each hand is a puzzle, how to throw your hearts at other people, how to win those tricks with your high cards at the right time, etc.
For Spades, the central challenge is in correctly valuing your hand, then playing to hit that value. Keep in mind that others may start tanking their own tricks to hit their bid, which makes the ground under your own feet increasingly unstable. Depending on how the cards come out, you may find yourself scrabbling for just one more trick, or suddenly shifting to trying to lose because someone had an unexpected void – it’s that agility that comes from the shifting landscape and the fact that every hand is a chance to play THAT hand that makes Spades a game worth playing.
When you want to Laugh and have fun:
Sometimes you want to laugh more than you want to win. Sometimes you just want to have fun, without taking on any stress. These are those games.
2 Players
· Cabo) (2-4 players): This plays better at 3-4 but is the only one I’ve found for the bucket that does work for 2. At it’s core, it is a bit of memory, luck, and playing the odds – you are swapping facedown cards around the table, but you don’t get to look at all your cards. So you need to figure out what you have, what your opponents have, and choose the moment to strike - when you think you have the lowest hidden total.
Cabo is a relatively modern game, but even so there are a handful of different origin stories and many minor rules variations. Play one set of rules to start and, if you like it, you can check out all the possibilities and stick with your favorite.
3 Players
· Ricochet Poker (3-8 players): It’s a light betting game – can play with quarters or crackers, whatever you like. The game is simple and draws from poker rules. Each round you get one more card and have to decide whether you want to pay to stay in or fold. It’s more accessible than poker, so is easy to “wing it,” but you still get the agony and thrills that come from winning or losing the pot.
· Manipulation Rummy (2-4 players): If you are familiar with Rummikub, this is that game exactly but with two decks of cards (instead of tiles). If you aren’t – this builds on the foundation of Rummy, but all melds are played onto the table. Where it shines is the fact that you can break, reform, and rearrange ALL the cards on the table on your turn, in order to find a place for more cards from your hand. The joy is in hunting for that one opportunity on the table so you can wow everyone when it comes to your turn.
4 Players
· Cockroach Poker (3-6 players): This is properly a game that should be purchased, but in these times you can make a deck using two decks of cards – 8 each of 8 numbers (I recommend A, K, Q, J, 7, 8, 2, 3… it’s a cognitive psychology thing, just humor me). You’ll be passing cards facedown around the table, asserting (truthfully or falsely) what the card is. The game is in correctly guessing when someone is lying or telling the truth, as well as in the politics of not being the last person at the table to receive a card (after everyone else has already seen it). Every time you lose a challenge, the card goes face up in front of you. Collect too many cards, and it’s game over. This one is amazing.
5-6 Players
· Eleusis (4-8 players): I originally learned this as “Delphi,” a streamlined version that is more appropriate for kids. This version has more teeth to it and should delight all ages. One player takes on the role of god (think Zeus) and secretly writes down a law that all cards played must follow. All the other players must then, by trial and error, figure out that law and get rid of their cards. This is harder than it sounds. What makes it work is that Eleusis has a number of scoring rules that put balance into the game – you want the rule to be hard but not too hard, etc.
This game will earn many rounds of play. What is nice is it also has a co-op feel. Yes, you are all trying to be the first to guess and play your cards, but on the other hand you are all in it together trying to decipher the divine law you’ve been given.
submitted by MurphMurp to boardgames [link] [comments]

Legacy Pt 2

Source: https://www.bungie.net/en/News/Article/48825

CONTINGENCY

EN ROUTE: URANUS – CAELUS STATION
OUTER BAND — LOCATION INCONCLUSIVE
“I was able to pull some data from those Exo samples.” Jinju perches on the cockpit dashboard. Two tech mites crawl over her shell.
Their jump-ship plummets through fractalescent polychrome luge, ripping across the sable pitch of space at blistering speed.
Ana leans back in her pilot seat, one knee pulled to her chest. She watches strands of shimmer bend around the hull. A bobble-owl jiggles along as the ship shivers, underneath it: Camrin, in frame.
“Hit me.” Her eyes turn to Jinju.
“I couldn’t completely narrow it down, but they’re definitely from the Golden Age, circa the Collapse.”
Jinju continues, “I’ve been going through the Pillory mainframe download. Those stations are meant to split Rasputin’s mind up in the event that he became… uh… insubordinate.”
“That’s disgusting.”
“ECHO appears to have been a contingency program that activates afterward. They also had a cornerstone schematic of his brain.”
Light static fuzzes from bubble speakers on Ana’s dash. Her helmet hangs on a hook behind her; Rasputin’s uplink is offline.
Ana chews on the information for a moment. “A foundational brain model would help with containment stability after the partitioning process. It’s like a front porch for your brain.”
“It… goes on.” Jinju continues, “Your name is cross-referenced all over this, Ana. Neural Web-way. Psycholinguistics. Exo brain maps with candidate profiles. It looks like Clovis Bray was syncing Rasputin’s basic core with viable hosts.”
“Oh.” Ana’s mind races. “For what though? Drop him into containment and clone him? Pretty elaborate restart button. I guess with an Exo you could also make some pretty potent AI with more limiters than a Warmind.”
Jinju processes. “Hm. Nothing conclusive here.”
Ana turns her gaze back to the stars. “It would be terrible to be buried like that—trapped in pieces of your own mind. You wouldn’t even know who you were anymore. Where you start, and where other versions of you end.”
“Speaking of, the Clovis—9 site is ‘78% assimilated into his sovereignty.'” Jinju distorts her voice as Warmind facsimile. “He’s so dramatic about it.”
Ana brightens as she laughs. “You remember how Camrin would always impersonate him?”
“He did not appreciate that, but it was funny.” Jinju cheeps lightly. “Is she still buried in work from the Moon?”
“Hole opened up to the Black Garden. Pyramid. Creepy signals. Raining Vex. You think Owl Sector could help themselves from getting involved?”
“I heard rumors through the Ghost-vine about the Pyramid. They said it steals your shell. Lives there, like another you. They said it makes you do things.” Jinju pauses. Her iris flicks to Ana’s raised eyebrow. “Not helping?”
“Let’s just change the subject.”
Jinju squirms awkwardly. “You’ll see her soon.”
“I know.”
“They’re working directly with Ikora. She’s safe.”
“I know…”
Warm-tone reassurance trickles into the cabin through Ana’s helmet receiver.
“I KNOW. WHEN DID YOU EVEN GET HERE, RED?” Ana aggressively huffs in exasperation.
Tech mites traverse Jinju like a jungle gym. One dangles precariously from a shell flap. “Guess who’s there too.”
“How do you know this, and I don’t?”
“Ghost-vine. It’s Eris Morn. She’s working with the Guardian.”
“Eris?” Ana scoffs. “She’s not much of a conversationalist so the two of them should get along just fine.” She gestures to the mites. “Do you really want those crawling all over you?”
“Their names are Pho and Deim, and I love them.” Jinju coddles her mites. “Besides, it’s like Cam’s with us in spirit, right?”
Ana chuckles and scratches her brow before raising a fist in solidarity. “She is. To the brim.”
The shimmer surrounding the jump-ship jitters before abruptly smashing into empty space. Ana leans forward and looks out into the void.
“Um… where’s the planet?” She slowly rolls her head around the cockpit.
They drift through space on placid waves of nothing toward a distant nowhere. The vast luminous twinkle of the Milky Way plays out in panorama, though gloom-speckle pinholes prick gaps in the starry sea. The absence from them directly apparent to Ana’s eye like rays of darkness from a black sun through shear cosmic sheet.
Jinju perks up, internal sensors suddenly askew. “Something nabbed us right out of our jump. We’re off course by…” Jinju calculates, “…three AU?”
“What!?” Ana manually scans the trajectory equations in the nav-computer. “There’s nothing wrong with the math.”
||JUMP-DRIVE ERROR: MISALIGNMENT|| squawks on bubble speakers.
“Little late.”
Tart synesthetic tickle creeps red and patient. Low and pressing, as not to be heard by those that might be listening.
“Relax. I know we’re off course, but it’s not that far… relatively speaking.” Ana scrunches her face at a nav-screen as it’s overtaken by interference. “Okay, I can’t see where we are. Hang on.”
A slow wrinkle skulks across space. It presses up the fabric. Insignificant points between stars warp and spur small disturbances in the constellational congruence of the galaxy. From afar it is nothing. A flutter of wings in wind.
“It’s dark out here.” Jinju’s voice is distant as she peers outside. Beyond the canopy an expanse without horizon.
“That’s when the stars shine brightest, Jinju. Find a constellation for me so we can get our bearings.”
||GRAVITATIONAL WAVE ANOMALY DETECTED: JUMP-REALIGNMENT REQUIRED||
“Way ahead of you, ship.” Ana checks jump vectors and flicks through alignment procedures. Mav thrusters sputter to orient the ship toward Sol. Ana test-cycles the jump-drive. It revs and then chokes before locking.
||GRAVITATIONAL WAVE ANOMALY DETECTED: JUMP HAZARD—LOCATION INCONCLUSIVE, CLEAR HAZARD||
“Okay, that’s not a comforting thing to hear.” Ana deploys a sensory buoy from the ship.
Rasputin stings and pricks red iron. Steady pressure. With localized insistence.
“Feel’s strange.” Jinju is distant. “We should go.”
Ana initiates recalibrations on the jump-drive’s positioning solution. “There’s definitely some weird space out there.”
||GRAVITATIONAL WAVE ANOMALY DETECTED||
The ship lurches. Ana’s stomach churns. Jinju vibrates violently in place, an outer shell of Light absorbing some form of force.
Red iron needles whistle tea-kettle pressure in white anxiety from Ana’s helmet.
Cloaked Shadows shift through the vacuum an eternity away and all too close; shown only when they wish to, to only whom they want.
Ana swallows to settle her stomach. “What even was that? Did we move?”
“Leave. Now please. Ana.” Jinju presses against the glass of the canopy, peering outward.
||SYSTEM REALIGNMENT: SOLUTION SECURED||
“There it is. I’ve got a jump-lock.”
||GRAVITATIONAL WAVE ANOMALY DETECTED||
“Again? Then we’re riding this one out of here.” Ana eye-balls adjustments for the gravitational wave into the nav-computer. “Punching jump in 3… 2… 1…”
They slip between folds in space. Formless wake propels them. The ship rides through sub-space at speeds far exceeding her jump-drive's capability. Color dulls in the slipstream. Frisson electrifies Ana's senses into timeless euphoria. The nose of the cockpit stretches ahead, drawn toward some distant vanishing point. She struggles to keep the flight stick straight. Her motions seem small, inconsequential and all too slow within the wave. Fluctuant pockets of drag flex and buck, threatening to throw them off into the unknown. The cockpit twists around her, indicator lights blink in metronomic sequence—purpose and pigment slowly materializing in her mind.
Hull integrity failing. "Not yet."
||COLLISION: BOW, CELESTIAL BODY DETECTED, AUTO-DROP FAILED||
Ana steadies her mind. She force-cancels the jump, seizing the drive and dumping them out into space before thrusters burn to steady them again.
Their emergence is dwarfed by a stratospheric colossus.
Uranus hangs, a daiquiri pearl set in tilted rings.
A grin overtakes Ana’s face. “Nailed it.”
Pale blue gleam inundates the canopy with planetary light. Ana plots an approach to the station. The trio slow burn forward, each silently collecting their faculties. Ahead: tiny beacons blip red. Satellite silhouettes take form out of the planet’s zealous glare. Instrument spokes jut from their polygonal chassis like old-war depth charges itching to trigger.
“Those are Warsats.” Jinju breaks the silence, eager to shift her mode of thought far from weird space and gravity waves.
“Finally, some luck," Ana says with relief. "I bet we can daisy-chain Rasputin into the station’s network through the defense system.”
“Oh, they’re powering up. Maybe we—”
Horns of responsive distortion roll across the cabin like a stress wave. Rasputin’s alert pings litter the canopy HUD.
“Brace!”
Ana pushes hard on the flight stick and reflexively dives under a barrage of laser fire. Nose thrusters roar vibration through her hands as she cuts to guide the ship vertical and tumbles into a barrel roll, slipping around follow-up bursts. A bolt skims shallow across her starboard side: ricochet. Shockwave tremors reverberate through the hull.
“Red, ping all incoming fire vectors! Jinju, arm the spikes!”
Plates split open along the belly of the ship. A drum-launcher of six Warspikes rolls out as Jinju links into the launcher's gunnery apparatus. Indicators blare onto the canopy HUD. Jinju sends two Warspikes straight into the first of fifteen Warsats blocking their path as Ana nudges the ship between incoming laser bursts.
Two spiked Warsats cease fire as their automated defense protocols are overridden, security software utterly failing to halt Rasputin’s invasive assimilation. They come back online—spikes blending into spokes—and swivel to gun down the closest still-hostile targets.
The assimilated twin Warsats thrust to reposition into a shield for Ana and Jinju as they close distance. Crimson flare shines around the Warsat shield as lasers chisel into them. Ana watches HUD pings for an opening between incoming bursts. She finds half a moment and burns hard on the main engine, then toggles full power to maneuvering thrusters to sling the ship under Rasputin’s shield and open a lane for Jinju.
Jinju unleashes four more spikes. They strike true. Rasputin spreads digital plague through the Warsat’s frameworks with each skewering hit. He demands subservience. Laser fire tears through space in all directions as Ana cuts between dueling satellites and rolls to evade overlapping firing arcs. Concussive shockwaves rattle the ship as defiant Warsats explode or fail one by one until the firing stops.
A field of deputized Warsats and debris dead-drift within the planet’s orbital current, back-lit by radiant mesopelagic glow. Beyond them, almost lost among cloud-cream atmosphere, Caelus station.
Ana releases her breath. It feels like she had been holding it since the jump. She forces short gulps of air into her aching lungs and lets her ship glide towards the station without guidance.
Jinju emerges from the gunnery apparatus and floats back to the dashboard. Pho and Deim appear from under her shell. “What was that, Ana? Back there.”
“The Warsats or the freaky gravity?”
“Either… both.”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“My guess worries me.”
“Let’s just pull this data and get home.”
“Agreed.”
Ana hangs her head in her hands and muffles a sardonic, “Nailed it.”
CAELUS STATION
Dim and powerless, it gently falls. The label grows at pace with Ana's measured approach. Rasputin's cohort of Warsats encircle her in a defensive phalanx. The station rotates to face the planet. It glitters in gas-giant grandeur as massive translucent hull plates display a desolate gut shrouded in sea-foam reflection. Jinju combs through station blueprints pouring in from Warsat data stores. Caelus consists of one long shaft containing a launch bay and spindly communication arrays at either end. Deeper, passed the launch bays, mostly maintenance frame space cap-stoned by a large reinforced mainframe housing complete with a thick-glass viewing ceiling. Orbiting ringlets, indicated as "Biomes" 1, 2, and 3, spin lazily in unison with the central structure, held in position by mag-lock paddocks that align with metallic rungs set into the station hub's outer plating.
Jinju locates several unpowered docking points before settling on entering through one of the station's bays. She snaps a HUD ping on the canopy.
"Here. This one is open, though it doesn’t look like anything but the outer rings are still pressurized."
"Ready for a spacewalk?" Ana guides them to the bay, catching sight of the transparent interior solar-glass paneling of the rotating ringlets. Clean rivers slosh along the outer ring underneath a dividing sieve. Earthen dirt sprouts abundance above.
"Are those greenhouses?"
"I think so. Everything seems to be locked under a file named 'contingency.'"
"That's not ominous," Ana says, scooping her helmet from its hook and swiping 18 Kelvins from a footlocker.
"We need mainframe access."
"When do we not?" Ana looks at the dark station. It is a grave of potential awaiting the next planet-rise.
Jinju prepares Ana's bandolier. Mites patiently tap pin-legs as they wait for attention.
Ana dons her helmet and puts a hand on the canopy release pulley. "You're not bringing those, are you?"
The bay is still: a snapshot of countless possible failures in the face of challenge. It holds only one ship. The bulbous craft lay broken, dropped from its support brackets in denial of an attempted launch. Reflective hexagonal plates sparkle like space dust as the station faces Uranus' light. Scorch stains blacken the far wall behind the craft's ruined ion thruster.
"The propulsion system is missing its ion cell. It doesn't look like damage, but obviously a lot went wrong here."
Jinju beams light over the fuselage as they float through the ruptured bay in weightlessness. The reflective hull is filled with Exos. Mannequin cadavers hang frozen on silk threads, surrounded by globular blobs of various fluids. Loose-wire tangle sags around the lifeless many. One or two glides freely within the cabin. Their chest plates share a pristine logo.
ECHO-1
Ana locates a crumpled worker frame beside the bay’s internal air lock and signals Jinju to come over.
Jinju puffs toward Ana on pulses of Light. Remnants and dust hold motionless in the vacuum. Their groupings, jostled and drawn to each other since the bay's collapse, form tiny gravitational microcosms; a new faux system trapped in the failed husk of a past age.
She flicks her helmet microphone on. "Hey, what about just normal frame access?"
The Ghost sweeps the frame and gets to work. "This isn’t just some mop-bot. This is the Station Manager. Let's get it inside."
Ana props a foot on the wall and forces the airlock closed behind them. Mag-boot clinks to tile. Dust floor, echoing groans, and humid taste populate the station. Even through her respirator the stale flavors of plant matter and dirt coat Ana's tongue in grist-like film. She turns to Jinju, busy at work splicing bad connections within the frame and spinning light to charge its power unit.
"It’ll work, but this unit won’t hold power. It’ll only last as long as I charge it."
"You’re a miracle worker, Jinju."
Jinju cheeps.
She solders a loose line. “It should also be a little more… talkative.”
Ana peers down the hall. From their current position, the airlock functions like an estuary flowing into the rest of the station. She could almost see clear to the central mainframe hub atop a raised panel fortification in the middle of the room. It sits below a ceiling of translucent plates, rimmed in distant ringlet halos falling under shadow. A stairway aligned with the launch bays on either side provides access.
The Frame sparks to life, looks directly at Ana, and speaks with grating age to its voice.
“Welcome, Ana Bray! Very excited to see a Bray walk this hall again. It has been a long time.”
Ana grasps at words. Jinju shrugs, plugs of Light toss in zero-G.
The Frame stands on magnetized foot cups and dusts itself off, nearly bumping into Jinju. “Excuse me, small servo bot."
“Servo b?"
The Frame turns to Ana. “How may I be of assistance?"
“I’ll unplug you.”
The Frame ignores her.
Ana smirks at Jinju, then looks at the Frame.
"Walk with me," she says, briskly moving deeper into the station.
The two converse with Jinju in tow.
The main section of the station is a wide-open hall supported by struts. In large red lettering the words:
ECHO PROJECT
OUR LEGACY BUILDS THE HORIZON
Dozens of maintenance frame plates line the floor. Some open. Some semi-raised with collapsed frames steps away, half-responding to a catastrophe. A scene in disorder.
"Zilch on Atlas.”
Ana stares out the translucent ceiling, wistful as the Frame waits for another question.
“So those crops in the rings are food supplies for a colony mission."
"Yes. Thank you for asking that, Ana Bray."
"Yeah. And the colony ships are full of Exos?"
"Partially. ECHO-1 and ECHO-2 were stocked with Exo unit crews. As you know, their task was to establish and oversee embryonic development at Colony M31, Site-A and Site-B."
"If Rasputin got out of hand, they weren't planning on resetting him.”
"I don’t have access to Clovis 1-12 directories."
“They just assumed he would win. The Pillory is a last-ditch panic room.”
"I don’t have access to Clovis 1-12 directories."
Jinju’s iris flicks back and forth between the two. Her tiny Light-leash hums.
Ana massages her palm. “What was my role in all this?”
“As you know, your work on the Warmind made you a prime asset to oversee applicant selection.”
“I chose the people in there?”
Ana watches the ringlet spin, her mind repeating the statement back to her. Artificial night slips back to artificial day as the station's rotation continues.
“As you know, yes. Additionally, your work on the Warmind, as you know, was vital to the establishment of Clovis 1-12.”
“Do I know where the candidates came from? Did they volunteer?”
“I do not have access to candidate profiles.”
Ana shuts her eyes and takes a steady breath.
“You said I helped with the Pillory stations?”
“Yes.”
“How so?”
"I don’t have access to Clovis 1-12 directories."
She nods and lets her helmet slink back to rest on her shoulders. “I think I can piece it together on my own. Is this station linked to any other sites?”
Her gaze returns to the distant ringlet, lit by the recurring planet-rise. Her augmented eyes pick at details.
“As you know, Miss Bray, there are thirteen CLOVIS sites that this station is linked to.”
“Thirteen? What’s the thirteenth?”
The plant life is still vibrant. Regimented.
“Paragon access does not permit that information.”
“You hear that, Jinju? We’re all just slaves to circumstance.”
Jinju chirps. “I’d like to think our choices matter a little. I’d like to think mine did.”
Ana smiles at her. “Yeah.”
“You are a Bray.” The frame pauses.
They lack signs of overgrowth.
Well kept.
“So?” Ana turns to the Frame.
“ECHO project requires a station link with DEAD-ROCK resources.”
Ana eyes go wide. “Jinju disengage that cipher thing.” Over her shoulder, a glint shines from the far central ringlet. Biome 2.
Jinju glides forward. “What is that?”
Ana looks at Jinju. “The verbal cipher.” She pauses and traces Jinju’s eyeline to face Uranus. Ana’s eyes adjust to sieve out the glaring brightness. “What’s what?” She puts a hand to her visor and squints.
An ion lance threads the station from the distant ringlet.
It pierces Ana’s chest clean through.
Brick-stained atmosphere hisses out of her suit, searing on smoldering fabric fringe.
Jinju’s iris widens with confused shock.
Howling storms slam salt-coarse keys in Ana’s helmet.
End

ACRIMONY

ECHO-1
CAELUS STATION — COLLAPSE
"DEAD-ROCK SEIZURE IN ACTION: Station Manager initiate manual override in ECHO-1 Launch Bay."
"ALERT: This station is experiencing power fluctuations. Emergency power will run until—
ECHO-0
He awakens alone. A fluke. Others hang around Him, but they remain in the dream. Electrical surge prickles through his entire body. A screen in front of his face begins playing a recording complete with visual aid:
"Welcome to ECHO-1. Before your departure, you should have been briefed by a Station Warden If you don't recall your Station Warden, please alert your Crew Captain. Now then, my name is Ana Bray, and you're one of the lucky few who has been selected for the ECHO Project. The future of Humanity rests on your sho—"
The recording is interrupted as emergency sirens blare through the station.
"STATION HAZARDS: GRAVITATIONAL ANOMALY | STERILE NEUTRINO BURSTS | Please remain calm."
"OVERRIDE BROADCAST: via ECHO-LINK//:PILLORY-SUBLOCK.R./:SKYSHOCK ALERT: TRANSIENT NEAR EXTRASOLAR EVENT:—
Power failures wrack the station in rolling thunder. The Exo slumps, lifeless until its next reset.
ECHO-7
Alone.
The recording. He finds familiarity in the newness. The face on the screen seems kind—
"STATION HAZARDS: ROLLING SURGES IN WARDS 1, 2, 3. Please remain calm."
Thunder. Pain to death. Electro-static purge, triggering a reset.
ECHO-22
He awakens to rolling, thunderous darkness and pain. The screen does not illuminate.
Barely audible words form from the air:
"Primary propulsion systems failing. Auxiliary systems near depletion. Planetary impact unavoidable. Distress triggered."
Meaningless. He struggles against chains.
Eons pass. His bonds will not break. His mind fragments and corrupts.
He wishes he could bleed. He wishes he could die. He wonders where the Wardens are.
ECHO-41
Short lives of confusion and pain. He grasps at falling in every direction. There is nothing to grip.
ECHO-89
Thunder, again.
ECHO-173
And again.
ECHO-390
Until one day:
He hangs in the futile passage of time.
A creeping madness weaves its way in solitude.
ECHO-877
Thunder. Thunder. Thunder.
The Warden speaks for the first time in many storms. Her twisted promises are fresh to His ear.
"When we return." Etched in mind.
Wake and sleep. Struggle. Dream and wake. Struggle. Endless. Innumerable. Stillbirths. Tomb spasms. Thunderous pain. Sweet death.
ECHO- 2̷͉͙̜̗͍̙̭̤̘̪͖͈͛̅͑̈̀̾6̸̡͇̼̦̲̩͎̟̠̬̳̲̂̀̉͐̃̈́ͅ2̵̡͎͚̳̠̫̮͉̍̉̌̒͑̓͗͛̉̈́̕̚͝5̸̨̭͚͔̥̲̫̈́̂̈́̊̋͗͑͛͑͝͝
Thunder, one final time. The storm gives life, but never came to take.
He slips from rot shackles. Worn with age. Weary, they snap at slightest motion. Untold rotations pass without movement. Freedom?
He matures questions. A hunger wells up within him.
He travels the station. From Tomb Bay, to the Mind Shell, to the Sealed Space. In dark, and in light.
The Mind Shell teaches Him the new roads. Teaches Him the majesty of the Rings. Teaches him the key.
He walks the Rings.
He tends to His little freedoms. He cultivates. He grows. He does, unknowingly, as He was meant to do.
The Mind Shell tells Him of the Bridge. Tells him of His ancestors. Speaks of the "ECHO LINK".
The knowledge does not leave His thoughts.
He seeks a meaning beyond routine.
The Tomb Bay kept secrets. He had not returned since He walked the Rings. It is a shallow sepulcher.
Brothers and Sisters dreaming. Never to wake as He had.
He digs treasures from their graves. Digs knowledge from the Prison's many minds.
Picks lies from the bones of truth.
He drinks the memories of Echoes passed.
He finds the Prison's purpose. A Bridge's end. If He holds this end, perhaps the Wardens hold the other.
The many minds. The liar's words. Takers. They would know of his escape.
The Wardens would come to take with fresh shackles.
He prepares. He learns from the Warden's alchemy.
He digs through the carcass of his once-mighty Tomb.
From hollow basin, He seizes Starlight power to wield from afar. From its flesh: adorns Himself with a
cloak of lies to fool. He armors his soul against the Thunder that kills.
He opens the Bridge at his end and waits.
ECHO- 2̷͉͙̜̗͍̙̭̤̘̪͖͈͛̅͑̈̀̾6̸̡͇̼̦̲̩͎̟̠̬̳̲̂̀̉͐̃̈́ͅ2̵̡͎͚̳̠̫̮͉̍̉̌̒͑̓͗͛̉̈́̕̚͝5̸̭͚̈́̂̈́̊̋͗͑͛͑͝͝- Present Day
He walks the ring when She arrives.
The Warden rides in with finality and judgement.
A red-light storm at Her back.
She had followed the Bridge, as He had hoped. She leads many shells, but only One descends with Her.
She brings with Her the Thunder, and He fears its wicked spark. He places trust to his plated frame.
He watches Her trespass in the Tomb Bay. Sees Her defile the Mind Shell's grand hall.
The Wardens reap what had been sown.
As Wardens always do. She comes to collect him.
He raises his Starlight.
But a Warden is not so easily slain, and She has many allies.
End

DESCENDENT

CAELUS STATION
ORBIT — URANUS
She is submerged.
Light sways just above a tense surface.
Something far below stirs.
The Light brightens to blind.
Rasputin weeps a terrible cacophony of anguish.
Ana gasps for breath. Her head swims in effort.
(!) HYPOXEMIA: b/o 73% (!)
“Hold still! Your suit is leaking!” Jinju quickens Light into Ana's punctured suit, her Iris jittering from spot to spot as oxygen spurts around her in foggy clouds.
Ana shakes dizziness out of her head. A smoldering frame is sprawled a few meters away. She droops flat to a support beam that runs up to the mainframe office.
“I got shot…” The realization doubles back. “I got shot?”
Ana pats her chest and stiffens. She draws in shallow breath.
“Jinju, did you see where it came from?”
“Central ring. I dragged you into cover. Stop moving so much.”
Ana peeks around the strut; an ion thread zips by and stings her helmet.
Rasputin obliterates every square inch of ringlet within ten meters of the ion beam’s origin in response.
Sections of the central ringlet combust and explode under heavy bombardment. The ring buckles, splitting along the seams and splaying out into space. Magnetic anchors fail as the halo fractures and splits away from the station's central architecture. Fragments rush away toward the planet; Caelus’ ruin falls to Uranus in lingering prolicidal consummation.
“RASPUTIN STOP!” Laser fire halts immediately. “You’re gunna sink the whole station!”
Tense finger waits on hair trigger. Ana works her starving lungs.
(!) HYPOXEMIA: b/o 67% (!)
“Ana, you need to stop breathing so much.” Jinju bobs with Ana’s head and quickly reseals her visor.
“Can’t hold still.” Ana shakily stands and points up at the dislodged ringlet spinning above her. “Bad angle.”
“I’m pretty sure whatever shot you is dead. Stop talking. You're getting delirious."
Wreckage looms far over Ana’s shoulder. The remaining two halos slowly spin in ignorance through their sibling's burial-dust cloud. Eerie distortion soars across the divide between station and rings, the veneer of invisibility momentarily lost in flight as rubble collides with its form. Rasputin perceives the abnormality.
Harmonic chimes across Ana’s visor resonate and combine into uniform patterned homogeny.
“Active camouflage?” Ana sucks thin atmosphere, a wheezing undertone to her breath. “Jinju, give me an auditory visualizer.”
Jinju whirs and dips back to Ana's suit. “Compiling an interface. Now. Hold. Still.”
(!) HYPOXEMIA: b/o 65% (!)
A ceiling panel twenty meters from Ana erupts in brittle plastic shards that glisten and spin like tiny neutron stars, catching the last of Uranus' light as the station beings to turn dark. Amorphous form thuds into the floor, shattering tiles in a plume of dust that stretches up into a spire before slowly holding in place. The form tumbles to a stop. It stands between her and the open launch bay and slings a kit-bashed Ion caster aside, depleted. Hexagonal patterns stutter to blend with the station interior as the room rolls into tenebrous obscurity. For an instant, an Exo takes form, and then nothing as its cloaking shroud flashes and re-engages in the dark.
Ana doesn’t wait. She rushes heavy clunking boots up the stairs to the mainframe, arrhythmic tremors beat through her heart. Jinju deactivates the switch on Ana's mag-boots and hurls her through the door with a forceful pulse of Light. She speeds in behind Ana, finishing her suit with Light stitch as Ana slams the door shut.
“Ana. Hang in there.” Jinju orients Ana and reactivates her mag-boots.
Ana's feet clomp to the floor. She hangs from them, a loose timber bending in the wind.
Jinju finishes her patch job. New fabric seals air-tight.
"You're good. You're good. Don't pass out. Your suit is re-oxygenating."
(!) HYPOXEMIA: b/o 59% (!)
Stabilizing…
The words are intensely bright on her visor against the darkening room.
"Auditory overlay complete. Check your visor." Jinju's voice focuses her.
"I just… need a minute…" Ana speaks between gulps of air. An unsteady hand draws 18 Kelvins. The mainframe room orients around her more clearly with each breath. It is stark, a large lone desk of singular oak commands the center of the room. A console screen, dead, is embedded in the surface.
Rasputin drops positional estimation pings into her HUD in an attempt to track her assailant. She steps backward, away from the door she had entered through and toward the opposing stairway's door.
Her eyes pick up faint quivers from outside. Indirect. Resonate white noise pings like interference on her visor. She focuses on each occurrence, looking for a note out of rhythm.
Behind.
She spins as the Exo crashes through the secondary entrance at her back. The door snaps from its hinges in a torrent of dust and rackets Jinju into glass.
"Jinju!"
Ana loses track of her attacker momentarily in the darkness before it pushes off from a hard surface, triggering her visor. She spits off rounds from 18 Kelvins. Some find their mark, puncturing the camouflage shroud and revealing her adversary before impotently fizzling on the Exo's outer shell. It covers the gap with surprising speed and catches her gun hand; Ana discharges an arc round; tiny bolts reach across to the Exo’s metal skull in vain as it scorches ceiling.
Bones pop in her fingers and wrist.
(!) HYPOXEMIA: b/o 68% (!)
Stabilizing…
The Exo flattens its other hand and stabs toward her stomach.
"Die. Warden."
Adrenal instinct floods Ana's body. She stops it. They lock. Ana’s vision blurs. She gasps for breath. Muscles quiver in her arms, desperate for oxygen. A spark cinders in her.
"Get off her!"
Jinju zips toward the Exo and paddles Pho and Deim onto it with a flick of her shell. The mites crawl under the Exo's exterior plating and send shock-sting bites through its systems, seizing its joints for a few precious seconds.
Jinju rushes to Ana's side. The Ghost deconstructs itself, orbital shell bits swirl around a core of coalescing Light. She fills the room like a brilliant star, overcharging her wayward Guardian.
Ana's crushed bones reforge. Light fills her eyes. Her grip, still holding against the seizing Exo's bladed thrust, liquefies its plated hand to scrap. A glorious crown of Solar flame erupts from her visor and she cracks her forehead into the Exo’s face. It reels, tufts of flame extinguish in the vacuum. Ana kicks away.
Solar might engulfs 18 Kelvins. Ana hammers off two rounds of celestial annihilation. They melt straight through the Exo, puncture the station plating, and scream through space for light years.
The Exo slumps, a molten heap.
It draws breath.
“Resilient.” Ana drops to a knee. Barrel trained on the Exo's head.
She takes a full breath. The Exo’s eyes are unflinchingly locked to her. It refuses to die.
It points to Ana’s badge with its still-blistering hand.
“Bray. Warden.”
She says the only thing the can think to say: “Who were you?”
It hesitates. “Echoes.”
Her head droops. “How many did you live?” She looks to find his number designation, but it is missing.
It looks passed her as Uranus' light once again trickles through the station. “Echoes… grow… Wardens… keep…”
“What did I do to them?”
Ana stares at Echo’s husk. The faint glow of the desk's lit console screen grays out her face behind her visor.
She sits dead-still in rotation. She could stare forever, if she only had enough time.
Jinju nudges her shoulder. “I've got the mainframe data.”
Ana is devoid of thought at the mainframe access console. She watches as Uranus comes back into view over and over again. It dominates the station’s viewing port. She maps the movement of the clouds along the surface, but only ever on the surface, and sees how they differ from the previous iteration on their last spin. She wonders if they are different underneath.
Stable major chords strum in Ana’s helmet, getting caught in the cracked visor glass.
She finally speaks, decisive. “Dislodge the other ringlet paddocks. Warsats can tow them back to the Tower. Skim the shadow-networks for anything else they can use. Get some good from this…”
“Ana, the Warsats could haul this whole station as long as we do it soon.”
Caelus rotates away into shadow once again, and the planet’s sheen fades from sight. Ana clicks a spring-loaded slot on the desk. It snaps to, bearing a placard of ownership.
CLOVIS BRAY
Ana stands. Steady.
“It’s okay to let some things be forgotten.”
End
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