How I stopped gambling and turned my life around ...

Detective Stories #2 - Tomorrow Knight, Part One

DC Next presents:


Issue Two: Tomorrow Knight, Part One
Written by AdamantAce
Edited by Dwright5252
<< First Issue | Next Issue > Coming in November
Recommended Reading:
Dick Grayson stirred in his bed, cold and stressed. He had tried his best to roll out the red carpet to welcome Stephanie into Wayne Manor - bringing her in much as Bruce had once done with him - in order to honour the promise Dick had made to her father Arthur Brown *, the henchman Dick had gotten killed while trying to take down the Penguin. However, Stephanie seemed determined to make things difficult. She was suspicious of the family, of why a young billionaire bachelor like himself would take in a working class orphan, to the point of accusing them of adopting her as a publicity stunt. Dick wanted nothing more than to set her straight, to tell her who really lived in Wayne Manor, but he knew he couldn’t. Not unless he wanted her to put on a mask and swear her revenge on Penguin.
After enough discomfort, Dick gave up trying to sleep and sat upright in his bed. His back panged with a stiffness he had never felt before as his eyes adjusted to the darkness ahead of him. The sun must have been up by now, and Dick was more than used to the early morning sunbeams piercing his blinds and rousing him from sleep, the joys of sleeping in a room facing the sunrise. But, curiously, there was no such disturbance.
Seconds later, Dick’s eyes scanned through the blue-grey darkness, and he realised something was wrong. He sat in bed in the far end of an unfamiliar room, a modern, low-ceiling bedroom; a far cry from the ancestral home of the Waynes. This was not his bed, this was not Wayne Manor. Dick pulled himself to his feet, his knees clicking as he dropped his weight onto the wood panel flooring. He searched for his cell phone and found nothing. He looked down at himself and searched for puncture marks across his body in the dark, wondering if he had been drugged, but other than a killer headache and a sore back, he was entirely healthy and unharmed, dressed only in a pair of loose boxer shorts. He furrowed his brow. What was going on?
Slowly, Dick emerged through the bedroom door and crept into an open plan apartment. Large, lavish. In fact, the more Dick searched the place, the more he realised he recognised it. Though heavily renovated, it was Bruce’s old penthouse in Wayne Tower, where he’d lived for a while after Dick left for college. But who would bring Dick here?
Dick searched some more, pushing through the kitchenette and into the lounge area, still with all the lights off. He couldn’t risk tipping off that he was awake and sneaking around if someone was here holding him captive. There, Dick found a cell phone resting on the coffee table, though he was certain it wasn’t his, along with a plain gold band. He picked up the phone, but before he could look at it closer, he was struck by the sunlit vista pouring in through the floor-to-ceiling window, dully lighting the blue hued room. The sun shimmered off of the lakes of Grant Park, visible below, and peered around the corner of the GCPD building. Except… it wasn’t the GCPD building. Not the one Dick knew. Gone was the limestone municipal building. In its place… a fortress with searchlights and spires, looking more like Blackgate Penitentiary than what Dick was expecting, behind it a towering white wall stretching far across the width of Old Gotham. In that moment, a fear crept into Dick’s mind just as a sharp chill crept down his spine. How long had he been asleep?
Dick held the unfamiliar cell phone in his hand. It was smooth and black, nothing unsurprising there, but as thin as a sheet of glass to the point where he was afraid he’d crush it if he gripped it too hard. He pressed the screen, and the phone lit up. The time, 0600, glowed in white, but behind it shone a photo that only gave Dick more questions: a young boy with raven black hair and the cracked, 50-something-year-old face of a smiling Barbara Gordon. Solemnly, he looked back down to the coffee table and took the gold ring in his hands, realising what it was. Quickly, Dick put the fear of his potential kidnapper out of his mind, more fearful of his grip on reality slipping, and searched the apartment from head to toe. He was alone, though photographs of Babs and this boy, along with ones of an old and infirm Jim Gordon and an elderly woman Dick didn’t recognise littered the place, without a single image of Bruce, Jason, Helena, Tim, Kate or even Alfred to be seen. That was when he found the mirror hanging in the bathroom.
Though Dick looked down at himself and saw the scar-littered body he was used to, in the mirror he found the visage of a Dick Grayson many years his senior, with tanned, leathery skin, a scraggly black goatee and ashy, greying hair. It was as if one minute he was in bed at Wayne Manor, and the next he was in an apartment on the other side of Gotham filled with photos of his wife and son, thirty years in the future. In his shock, his mouth fell agape as he spoke two words. “Oh, boy…”
He swiped across the phone screen and was prompted for a four digit PIN. Easy, the month and day Bruce took him in. No. The date he first became Robin. No. When he first formed the Titans? No. The date Bruce died? No.
Dick hung his head in his hands. If he couldn’t get in contact with someone fast, he was going to fall to pieces. His heart was racing, his every hair raised. He looked back at the phone and read the passcode hint printed in thin black letters.
‘clark’s birthday’
Dick shook his head. Why would his phone’s passcode be Superman’s birthday? Clark Kent’s death affected Dick greatly, but presumably decades had passed since then.
The penny dropped. Clark had always been an inspiration to Dick: an uncle, a mentor, a friend. The Blue to Dick’s Red, back in his days as Robin. ‘Clark’ was the name of his and Barbara’s son. Suddenly he had a name, and suddenly he became infinitely more real. Dick had always dreamed of being a father: starting a family, passing on his wisdoms, teaching them acrobatics and then watching them fly. In the burgeoning sun, Dick searched the eyes of the raven-haired Clark Grayson and choked back tears. This was their home, so where was he?
Then, as Dick pawed helplessly at the locked cell phone, it began to blare. Clark and Babs’ picture was gone, replaced with the text “Incoming Call”. Dick pressed the green button and threw the phone up to his ear.
“Hello? Who is this?” Dick spoke hurriedly, swallowing the frog in his throat.
The voice of a younger man replied, one Dick didn’t recognise. “Sorry to bother you, Commissioner, but we’ve tracked Dent to a location in Chinatown. The sarge thought you’d want to be there for the arrest.”
Commissioner? What more had Dick missed?
He wanted to shout back down the phone, begging for an explanation, for answers, for any kind of help, but Dick didn’t know what his relationship with this officer was, whether he could trust him. Instead, he played along. “Thank you, I’ll see you at the GCPD.”
“GCPD?” the voice replied. “You still call it that?”
Dick said nothing, lost for a response. He’d seen a lot growing up in the Age of Heroes, but this situation was new.
But, as it happened, he didn’t need to speak. Instead, the officer on the phone bleated nervously. “Forgive me, Commissioner. Your daughter’s waiting with a car outside Fort Gotham.”
♦ ♦ 🦇 ♦ ♦
Dick fastened his necktie as he crossed the street, the trench coat he had found in his wardrobe pulled tight over his shoulders to beat the chill. He knew the streets of Gotham - especially Old Gotham - to be crowded, hectic and loud, but today, in whatever year it was, that couldn’t have been further from the case. As he made his way to what used to be the GCPD headquarters, now apparently known as Fort Gotham, Dick saw that the streets of Old Gotham were basically empty, with only the odd car passing through, and mostly police cruisers at that.
After barely a minute’s walk, Dick reached the foot of Fort Gotham, and there saw a black and silver car parked waiting for him, and a woman in a white blouse and a violet leather jacket waiting beside it. His daughter? No, she only looked about ten years younger than the Dick Grayson he had found in the mirror. Then, as Dick approached, two things happened. First, the woman’s eyes lit up in recognition and she flagged Dick down. Second, Dick realised who she was. Her golden blonde hair, her firm stance, her blue eyes.
“S-Stephanie?” said Dick as he reached her side of the street.
“Oh no, am I in trouble?” she laughed. A golden police badge hung around her neck, suspended by a silver bead chain.
Dick cocked his head, which still throbbed. “Sorry?”
“You haven’t called me Stephanie since way back when you first adopted me.”
Dick laughed, playing it off. “What would you rather I call you?”
She shook her head. “‘Steph’?” she shrugged, “Or, in front of the men, ‘Sergeant’?”
“Ha!” Dick nodded, “Right.” Clearly this Stephanie, or Steph, had already spent decades warming up to Dick and his choice to take her in. She was so much more at ease with him, so much happier. And the cop on the phone had described her as Dick’s daughter. Was that their relationship here? If it was, Dick thought, he couldn’t help but think it was incredibly unearned.
“Now come on, old man,” Steph pulled the passenger door of the car open. “We got a villain to take in.”
From this close, Dick had a much better look at Steph’s black and silver vehicle. It was streamlined, low to the ground, but well armoured, with silver panels strategically placed. If Dick didn’t know better, he’d say it was the Batmobile. For all he knew, it was.
Moments later, Steph bolted the car along the wide, open streets of Old Gotham, Dick at her side, on their way to apprehend Harvey Dent, Two Face. All the while, Dick shuffled restlessly in his seat, desperate to figure out what was going on. But, yet again, regardless of how she was with him, Dick didn’t know if he could trust the younger woman beside him. Instead, Dick silently weighed up his options. Option one: he was dreaming. The human mind could play terrible tricks in the right circumstances, Dick learned that after Bruce told him of fearfully vivid hallucinations he had suffered while participating in a study into the effects of isolation, of an alien world, of living statues, and of failing to save Dick’s life. Option two: he had been drugged. Dick had seen substances like Crane’s fear toxin warp the minds of the most sane men - hell - he’d suffered the effects of fear toxin himself enough times. But no, this was nothing like what he had suffered then.
Then, Dick considered option three: he was being manipulated by some metahuman or alien creature, like the Black Mercy plant Superman had been subjected to years ago, the one that had him trapped in a world of his wildest desires. Was something similar happening here? As they moved through the streets of Old Gotham, Dick couldn’t help but notice how still the city was, how peaceful it had become. He and Babs had a son, Stephanie trusted him, and Gotham was peaceful? As terrified and lost as Dick was, he had to admit things were looking up in this time period.
Then there was option four: time travel. He knew it was possible, if not risky, Max Crandall - the Flash - had pulled it off when he really needed to. But Dick definitely didn’t have super speed, or a time machine. So how would he have gotten here? And how was Dick walking around in the body of his older self?
Finally, Dick considered the most terrifying possibility of them all. Five: what if this was all real? What if Dick had lived this life, raised this family, worked his way up to Commissioner, and then lost his memory? Then what? What could he trust if not his own mind?
“Dick?” Steph looked across to him from the driver’s seat. “Everything okay?”
Dick shook his head, breaking out of his descending fear. “Y-Yeah. Just an off day.”
“A big day,” Steph looked ahead to the road. “We helped Dent. Shut down Arkham, got him real help, rehabilitated him. Even gave him a seat of power in the city hall district. That took a lot. And now here we are.”
“Two-Face,” Dick grumbled. Back when Dick could recall, Two-Face was still firmly behind bars, resisting all forms of treatment. Yet he’d apparently missed Harvey’s recovery, redemption, and subsequent return to villainy.
The car turned a corner, and they turned onto Broome Street, the bridge across to the Somerset borough dead ahead of them. It was then that Dick realised Gotham was more different than he realised. He recalled the towering white wall he had seen erected behind the GCPD building and saw an identical wall lining the riverfront. They came to the foot of the bridge, the edge of the wall, and stopped at a highly militarised checkpoint. Men wielding rifles and clad in armour reminiscent of Luke Fox’s Batwing gear approached the vehicle and quickly waved them through, and as they traversed the Broome Street bridge, Dick saw yet another wall on the other side of the river, stretching along the length of it. Then, they came to another checkpoint. Though this checkpoint wasn’t staffed by men in suits of armour. Instead, two figures in waistcoats with dark tribal masks pulled over their faces approached the car.
“What do you want, pigs?” one of them groaned dismissively.
Steph didn’t even turn her head, keeping her eyes forward. “We’re passing through to Chinatown. Roman’s more than aware.”
The masked man paused, inching back a step, and looked sheepishly to his masked colleague.
“The boss?” the other figure asked.
Steph said nothing. A beat later and the two masked guards ushered them through into the East End.
Dick was dumbfounded. “What was that?” he asked.
“Roman’s men aren’t happy about it, but they know better than to try and turn away the cops,” Steph replied coldly.
The car took a corner around the perimeter of Robinson Park and into the East End proper, and it became quickly apparent that not all of Gotham was afforded the same tranquility Dick found on the other side of the river. The roads were packed tight with cars, old cars that blustered black fumes. Windows along the streets were shattered and boarded up, and men and women going about their daily business clutched at firearms slung and their hips.
“Where are the police?” Dick asked.
“On every street corner,” Steph replied, the car continuing along. “It was my idea to have them all plainclothes. That way they can keep Roman’s thugs in check without seeming too intrusive.”
Along Oldman Avenue, they then came to another checkpoint at another towering wall. Two bald men, one with a heart tattooed on his cheek, and the other with a diamond, approached the car and waved them through with little resistance. It was like Gotham had been carved up piecemeal, and if Black Mask loomed over the East End, Dick supposed they were now entering Mad Hatter’s domain. Steph picked up in speed as they did, blitzing across four blocks. All the while, Dick could count all the people he saw on one hand. Then, along Cooke Avenue, they passed a final wall and arrived at Chinatown. And instantly Dick was grateful he wore his coat, as an icy chill swept over him.
“Freeze,” Dick chattered his teeth.
“We told her it’s not appropriate,” Steph replied. “That people can’t live like this. But Nora likes it cold.”
“Gotham’s in pieces,” Dick hung his head. This was no paradise.
“Blame old Commissioner Forbes,” Steph replied. “He thought dividing Gotham would stop the riots. And it did. He thought giving the villains domains to roam free would give them an outlet… and keep the people in line, and it did. But…”
“But it’s chaos,” Dick interjected.
“Of a different breed, yes.” Steph nodded.
“It can’t stay like this,” Dick spat.
“It won’t. Not with your plan. The people depend on the police to protect them from the villains, but that doesn’t mean they appreciate us,” Steph explained. “You’re right: we have to earn their trust before we can free them, otherwise we’re back to the mass anarchy Forbes tried to get rid of.”
“So, Dent,” Dick replied, remembering why they were here.
“We’ve got Dent. Once we’ve made an example of him for all of Gotham to see, we can put our plan in motion to free it.”
The car came to stop by a warehouse on Grant Street. Outside was parked a dozen other cars like Steph’s. She and Dick stepped out of the car, and moments later the warehouse door swung open. Two men emerged and threw an aged Harvey Dent onto the pavement. His face - or rather his faces - were bloodied and bruised. Then, as Dent attempted to scurry away, a dozen more police officers piled out of the doors and surrounded him. Steph approached and dragged him back onto his feet, ready for the first two officers to cuff him. Dick moved closer, getting a good look at Harvey’s visage. His scars, they were different. Gone was the half-melted face, purple and raw, the bulging, exposed eye. In fact, Harvey looked better than ever, the right side of his face reconstructed with skin grafts far beyond what was commonplace back when Dick could remember. However, he was indeed still a man of two faces. Intent on returning to his old ways, Harvey had clearly taken a knife to his fixed face and carved it to pieces, allowing infection to set in to hue it a sickly green. There was no going back.
“Heh,” Two-Face spluttered and spoke with a voice as if he had been gargling glass. “Took you long enough. We had a bet going that you weren’t coming.”
Steph ignored him and turned to face Dick, beckoning him closer. “You want to do the honours?”
Dick hesitated then stepped forward and began to read him his rights. “Harvey Dent, you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you do say--”
“Is this a joke?” Harvey cut him off, speaking a deep and smooth voice. “Are you the Joker all of a sudden?”
Dick stopped and looked to Steph, then ahead once more. In a brief look, he caught several of the other officers present staring at him. “What are you gawking at?” he coughed.
One of the other officers shook her head and wiped the look of surprise off of her face. “Sorry, Commissioner.”
Steph interjected, ending the awkward silence. “Get him out of here,” she spoke to the two officers binding Dent.
“Yes, Sarge,” the first nodded. The pair then walked Two-Face two dozen paces along the street and then tossed him onto the road. A handful of the other officers on the scene then leapt up to him and began kicking him while he was down, making an example for the many onlooking civilians wrapped up tight in fur-lined coats.
Dick was bewildered, and pushed past Steph to shoot to Dent’s side. “Get off of him!” he barked with an unfound confidence. And, instantly, the officers leapt back as if God himself had decreed it, terrified, and falling into line. So this was justice in Gotham these days? And from the look of utter surprise on all of their faces, it was clear that Commissioner Dick Grayson was party to it.
Dick stood there, his fear turned to rage, and Steph slowly approached him from behind, laying a tender hand on his shoulder.
“Come on, Commish,” she spoke. “Let’s drive somewhere nicer.”
Reluctantly, Dick stepped away, confident the officers wouldn’t be stupid enough to defy the Commissioner and continue to brutalise Dent. He threw himself back into the passenger seat of Steph’s car, to be joined by her moments later. But then, as they set off back towards Old Gotham, the police district, Dick’s paper-thin cell phone rang once more. Steph quietened down, and Dick held the phone to his ear.
“Dick,” spoke the panicked voice of Barbara Gordon, his wife.
“Babs?” he replied.
“Dick, it’s Clark. He’s run away, left a note saying he has business in Gotham.” She spoke with absolute fear in her voice.
Dick was lost, but had to stay calm for her. “Okay, take a deep breath. Do you know where he is?”
“He left Metropolis in the night,” Barbara explained, trying her best to wrestle against her rapid breaths, “Took the car. He should already be in Gotham. Please, Dick, tell me your men found him when he tried to get into the city. Tell me our son is safe.”
They lived in Metropolis. Dick quickly surmised why his apartment was so empty, why he was alone, why his wedding band wasn’t on his finger when he woke up there. “I’ve heard nothing,” Dick replied.
Barbara took a sharp breath in. “If the police didn’t pick him up when he crossed the border, it could only mean one thing.”
“What is it?” Dick looked to his left as he spoke. Steph had begun to show concern, having no idea what was happening. “Babs?”
“Dick, promise me. You can’t tell anyone else in the police. Not even Steph,” Barbara warned. Dick looked to Steph and then back to the road ahead. “If they knew, they’d put him away for a long time.”
“Babs, what is it?”
Barbara lost her temper and snapped down the phone. “You know damn well, goddamn it!” she cried. “People don’t get in or out of Gotham without the police knowing unless they’re working with the Bat-Mob.”
The line was dead.
“Dick, what’s wrong?” Steph asked.
A million thoughts were swirling in Dick’s mind. He had a son, and now his son was in danger. Working with the Bat-Mob? Who was the Bat-Mob? And why was it so important the police didn’t find out? This was terrible. This was awful. This was hell.
“I have something to see to,” Dick replied. He looked to Steph, who looked back in genuine concern. This was a Stephanie he had lived to grow to trust, one who trusted him deeply, and now once again he had to keep the truth from her. “I have to go back to the station.”
“What?” she replied.
“Just take me to Fort Gotham!” Dick snapped.
♦ ♦ 🕰️ ♦ ♦
Dick pushed through the doors atop the steps of Fort Gotham, the maximum security fortress that stood at the site of the old GCPD building. Quickly, he passed through three, five, ten security checks and measures and into a wide open office space with ebony black walls, illuminated with white and blue light. If Dick had woken up here, he would have assumed he was back in Steppenwolf’s Fathership, not some future police station. He didn’t like that he had snapped at Steph, but he knew he didn’t have much time if his son was in danger, and he didn’t have the knowledge of this timeline to navigate an intimate conversation and still conceal the truth.
From what he had gathered, Gotham City had been divided into several territories, each separated by giant, looming walls. Each territory had been ‘entrusted’ to one of Gotham’s worst and most iconic criminals, giving them illusions of power while the police - massive in number - kept everyone safe and pulled all the real strings. This was to keep the Gotham public dependent on the police, keeping the ever present threat of costumed crime stoked and burning and keeping the police as the only force saving them from total destruction. It was disgusting, and something Dick’s future self clearly had plans in motion to correct. But, of course, to have the police as the sole protectors of the city, there was no role for Batman, or any of the Gotham Knights. Dick supposed that that was why the ‘Bat-Mob’ were so maligned, why the police could never find out that Clark was working with them. Dick cursed that he couldn’t get into his cell phone and use it to track down Tim, Jason, Kate or Helena directly, or even use it to research this Bat-Mob. Instead, Dick had to use the Fort Gotham library.
He paced back and forth through the aisles of bookshelves, surprised that books still had a place in this time period, but the majority of the books were outdated, historical accounts and textbooks. To research newer information, Dick had to use one of the many computer terminals littered about the floor. He approached one, which quickly prompted him for his police ID. Dick reached into his coat and retrieved his wallet, catching a glimpse of yet another photograph of young Clark, as well as a photo of Tim, himself and Luke Fox. No Jason? He pulled out a thin plastic ID card and swiped it across the computer terminal screen, but immediately after, Dick drove his fist into the desk in frustration. He read the screen:
’Enter Passcode.’
“Oh frakk!” a voice chimed up behind him. Dick turned around, taking a second to search for the source of the voice before following the angered gazes of the rest of the library’s patrons to a blond man in an amber coat. Dick recognised the voice but couldn’t quite place the face.
Dick joined in shooting a glare at the man, searching his face intensely to try and identify him, all the more so as the man began quickly dancing past tables to reach to Dick’s side.
“Oh man, you have really gone off the rails,” the man continued in a more hushed tone as he arrived by Dick. “You are not making this easy.”
Already, Dick knew this man was different. He spoke with an insubordination Commissioner Dick Grayson hadn’t seen since he woke up this morning. He may have been in the police library, but he was clearly no cop, which begged the question: How did he make it past all of the security checks?
“Who are you?” Dick grabbed the man by the forearm and pulled him close, speaking in a harsh whisper. “What are you talking about?”
The man rolled his eyes and pulled his arm free. “World’s Greatest Detective?” he sighed, “Not yet, you aren’t.” He moved back, rolled his hands up and put them together like binoculars, or perhaps goggles. He raised his hands and placed them over his eyes, miming a mask. Then, Dick recognised him. They met briefly during the Incursion, and he hadn’t aged a day since.
“Booster Gold?” Dick called out.
“Hey!” Booster shushed him. “Not so loud! There might be guys here that know that name… maybe.”
Dick took him by the arm and marched him out of the library and out onto the street. “Did you do this to me?”
“Yes,” Booster nodded, able to speak more at volume now. “Well, Rip did, my… associate.”
“Well, put me back,” Dick barked.
“Sure, and abandon your kid?”
“This is just a possible future, right?” Dick replied. “It isn’t real.”
“It’s real as long as it is, and until it isn’t,” Booster replied back with a furrowed brow.
Dick took a deep breath, deeply frustrated with the man’s babblings. “What is this? Why am I here?”
Booster sighed. “Rip’s looking to do some recruiting. Looking for new Time Masters,” he explained. “And with your ‘highly variable effect on the timeline’, he thought you were a good candidate. Judging by how you’re doing so far, I’d say he’s pretty off the mark.”
“Highly variable?” Dick shook his head. “Well, count me out. I don’t want to be a Time Master, whatever that is.”
“Yet,” Booster continued. “Look, I’m just doing as I’m told. Rip thinks you’d up to the job specs, so we used experimental time tech to drop your consciousness into the body of your future self in a possible future.”
Dick hung his head, taking it all in. So was Clark, his family, this Gotham real? Did Clark’s fate matter? Did this Gotham City even need saving? How likely was this future to even come to pass?
“It’s… basically Quantum Leap,” Booster added. “If you’ve seen that.”
“Yes, I’ve seen Quantum Leap,” Dick snapped. “Look, just tell me what I need to do to get home.”
“Well...” Booster rolled up his sleeve to expose the golden gauntlet underneath. He began poking around at it’s interface, reviewing his data. “It’s not a precise science, but you should be put back exactly where and when we nabbed you once you--” Booster squinted as he read off of the hard light display, “-- fulfill your purpose here.”
“And what is my purpose?” Dick asked, steadying his breath.
“I don’t know. You tell me, Circus Boy.”
Dick grumbled and looked off across the city. If he were Bruce, it would be saving this fractured Gotham, liberating it from it’s awful circumstances. But he wasn’t Bruce. Clark Grayson was in danger, and regardless of if this future was going to come to pass at all, Dick had a duty to find him and protect him.
Dick turned to Booster Gold. “Do you have any information on the ‘Bat-Mob’? Who are they and where can I find them?”
Booster smiled and a small airborne drone appeared beside him, emerging from being cloaked. The floating metal ball bobbed up and down, the red line of its visor shifting back and forth . “Greetings Richard Grayson,” spoke Skeets, Booster’s robot companion, “Your reputation precedes you. It is always a pleasure to work with competent heroes for a change.”
“I had my boy Skeets gather what info he could from the library while I was busy causing a scene,” Booster explained, ignoring the robot’s implied insult. “So, come on, Skeets, what’s the Bat-Mob, and where can we find them?”
“The Bat-Mob is an organisation recognised by the GCPD as a terrorist group born out of the now-defunct Bat Family,” Skeets replied. “Though vigilantism was outlawed in Gotham City following the historic Joker-Batman conflict in 2021, the Bat-Mob was assembled from the remains of the Gotham Knights and anti-GCPD resistance fighters and was subsequently driven underground. Their base of operations is known to be in the catacombs below the condemned Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.”
“Easy,” Booster grinned. “So we go underground, take your boy back from your old family and save the day. Then you get to be a Time Master and I get to find someplace a bit sunnier than Orwell’s Gotham City.”
“I have no interest in being a Time Master, Booster,” Dick stayed firm. “Just help me set things right, then we can all go home.”
♦ ♦ 🦇 ♦ ♦
Dick had learned that many in the GCPD had tried to penetrate the well stocked and fortified catacombs the Bat-Mob called home, all having failed. Many attempted to storm the asylum, which itself was defended by the Mob’s fiercest resistance fighters. Others, such as former-Commissioner Forbes attacked by the sewers. But, with limited paths in and out of the decrepit tombs and tunnels, the Bat-Mob could focus their limited manpower to best thwart even the best the police could throw at them. Instead, the police had elected to allow the Mob to remain bunkered down in their headquarters, instead preparing to snuff them out should they ever make a move outside its safety.
However, one thing puzzled Dick. All of Bruce’s past acolytes had an exhaustive knowledge of the city’s history and geography, including the well kept secrets of the other hidden entrances. Once such was via the cave systems beneath Gotham that Bruce used as his city-side Batcaves. As Commissioner, Dick would have been more than able to provide his police colleagues this information, and use it to root out the Bat-Mob. Perhaps, Dick supposed, his future self was turning a blind eye intentionally. But not anymore.
Dick led Booster Gold and his robot Skeets along the dry and shadowy tunnels, each wall lined with the bones of those that died within Arkham’s custody ages ago. So far, they had met no resistance at all.
“Any idea why your kid would run all the way from Metropolis to hang out here?” Booster jested. “From what Skeets downloaded, Metropolis is a utopia in this future.They don’t even need a Superman anymore.”
“What’s the Joker-Batman conflict?” Dick stopped and turned to Booster, the phrase having bugged him their entire journey this far. “The one in 2021.”
“Um,” Booster twitched nervously. Ahead of them, Skeets came to a slow halt, a beam of light from its front face lighting the path ahead. Booster continued, “Depending on your choices, it may very well be part of your future after we get you home. Maybe it’s best I don’t tell you too much about your own future.”
Depending on my choices this future might end up happening,” Dick replied indignantly. “If something awful might happen, I deserve a chance to at least try and change things.”
Skeets turned to face the pair, blinding both as it neglected to deactivate its flashlight. “It is unwise to give you further information on future proceedings. I overstepped earlier by mentioning the conflict at all, for which I apologise.”
“Joker’s dead,” Dick spat back. “Batman’s dead.”
“So everyone thought,” Booster replied.
“Booster, I really think--”
“Some kid Joker showed up and caused chaos, turned Gotham against itself,” Booster cut Skeets off. “And, sure enough, Batman rose to fight him. A meaner Batman, one determined to make sure Gotham was never brave enough to revolt again.”
“Fascism,” Dick grumbled.
“Until the real Joker showed up,” Booster hung his head. “And this new Batman? He was no match. KIA.”
“Who?” Dick asked plainly.
“I think you know,” Booster replied grimly, thinking back to the relentless methods of the young vigilante he had fought alongside against Steppenwolf’s terraformer. Jason. “That’s why Forbes and the police came down as hard as they did. Gotham relied on a Batman that was unjust and corrupt. Then, when he died, they were defenseless. They had to make sure they never needed Batman ever again.”
Dick took a deep breath, the air catching along his through as a chill cut through him. He couldn’t allow any of this to come to pass. For Gotham’s sake. For Jason’s.
“Hands up!!” a voice boomed along the tunnel. Instantly, Skeets leapt back and Booster threw his hands in the air, but Dick barely flinched.
Nameless, faceless figures in jet black armour, much like that of the police, like Luke Fox’s Batwing gear, led Dick, Booster and Skeets further along the tunnel, their rifles levelled at them. Silently, they marched them into an opening, a large round chamber joining four adjacent tunnels.
Free standing work lights illuminated the chamber, with long shadows framing the central stone floor. Crates of ammunition littered the ground, along with numerous camping cots. In this chamber alone, twenty figures stood, all in black Batwing-esque gear. All wore sleek, bat-eared helmets. All except three.
“Yeah, take a long look,” snapped Luke Fox, his hair thinning and now with a thick beard, having caught Dick staring at the geared out soldiers. “You blue bastards stole my tech, we stole it back. I even made some improvements.”
“I really hoped you’d stay away, Dick,” spoke Tim Drake, with a shaved head, a five o’clock shadow, and his face wrought with exhaustion, “This is our turf.”
“I’m glad he’s here,” added Kate Kane. Her short red hair was scraped back, her skin as pale as snow and her eyes sunken and bruised, burning with rage. “It’s long overdue we made you pay.”
“I’m just here for Clark,” Dick replied. It pained him to see the people he cared about harbour such resentment for him. He had to remind himself it wasn’t him for whom it was for.
“Clark?” Tim cocked his head. Dick watched him looking at him with such disdain… Dick knew he hadn’t been a good brother to his Tim since Tim’s father dragged him away from Gotham. Dick had to change that if he got out of this alive.
“My son,” Dick added.
“We know who Clark is,” Kate spat. “He’s family. Unlike you, you traitor.”
“Where is he?” Dick persisted.
Booster looked around the room, they were completely surrounded by Bat-Mobbers. ”Hey, Grayson, you might want to try some more diplomacy,” he laughed nervously. “These guys aren’t the henchmen you beat up for info on the street.”
But Dick ignored him. “Where is my son!?”
Kate moved to scream back, but caught herself. Instead, she smothered that energy and pulled back. He wasn’t worth it.
The older Tim sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “He’s up in Otisburg. Running recon.”
“Oh frakk,” Booster came to an awful realisation.
“What?” Dick turned to him. “What’s ‘oh frakk’?”
Booster said nothing.
“Who has Otisburg?” Dick cried, “Which one of them is it?”
Solemnly, it was Skeets that replied. “Otisburg, much like the vast majority of the Burnley island, was conquered by the one known as the Joker.”
Dick’s face went stone white. “He’s only just joined up… and you sent him into Joker territory...?”
“It’s a routine job,” Kate explained. “We sent a squad with him, they know those streets, how to navigate them.”
“You fed my son right to the Joker!” Dick roared.
“He’s not yours, Dick,” Luke shook his head. “Not anymore. He’s Bat-Mob.”
“I’m going after him,” Dick turned over his shoulder. “Booster, come on.”
But Booster looked once again at the many figures surrounding then. “I, uh…”
“You won’t make it,” Luke continued. “There are no cops in Joker territory. They’ll hunt you like animals.”
“They can try.”
The Bat-Mobbers levelled their guns once more, and Kate cried “Well, you’ll have to escape us first.”
Next: Things go south in Booster Gold #15 - Coming September 16th
submitted by AdamantAce to DCNext [link] [comments]

Ford F150 One Click No Start (Multiple shops and dealer cant fix it).

Ford F150 One Click No Start (Multiple shops and dealer cant fix it).
So I walked out of work to my 2007 Ford F150 Lariat not starting.
I asked a coworker for a jump, no luck. Called a towtruck AAA to help.
The driver gets to me and says "let me check your battery." Proceeds to check it, and says "Your battery is great, let me try something else."
He then crawls under the passenger side of the engine, does something and the truck fires right up. Proceeds to crawl out and say "Its just too hot out (100+) this happens." I'm thinking well this is no good its hot all the time, so he says just take it into the shop and tell them and they will know what to do."
I take it in to Shop #1 and they replace the battery... and then remove my after market auto start Ive had on since 08. Its not that. I pick it up in the morning two days later, and its "cool" outside and it fires right up. Drive it to work and it gets hot out, wont start. They come and pick it up, have it for a week, say they "fixed So I take the truck back and drive it for a couple of days. It seems to be working fine.
Take it to Shop #2 because I get the feeling Shop #1 doesnt know what they are doing or are just robbing me. Shop took takes a look and says, I bet its your starter, they test the starter, and it works. I know this sounds crazy but I could start it every monring no issue, it sits outside in the sun all day at work and then wont start. So i take the truck back and drive it for a couple of days. Seems to be working fine.
About a month or two goes by. Ive started just parking in the shade, and opening the doors and airing the inside of the cab out if the truck wont start. Cools down inside and it fires right up.
Now we are getting into winter. Oh great it's too cold to start now. I saw in a movie that if you roll your car and then try and fire it up it will work. So here I am rolling it back and forward until i get some momentum then push forward into a roll in a suit every day to get to work and back. (Also I heard this only works for standards, but here I am in an automatic and its working so I keep doing it).
Finally I say to hell with it, Its time to take it to the Ford Dealership (last resort because my Father has told me my whole life they just rip you off).
Shop #3: the Ford Dealership.
Has it for 40 DAYS, They give me it back saying "well its running, but we dont know whats wrong with it" (Pays $900.00) for them to replace the ignition and replace the keys/ key new keys?" They end up saying "It MIGHT be your fuse box, that would be another $900.00 with labor, but it MIGHT be your CPU that would be about $2,000.00, but we cant check the CPU until you replace the Fuse Box."
Guys I feel incredibly taken advantage of, I took it to three different shops and just kept shelling out money.
It was working when I left the dealership, I drove it home to my parking garage where it would not fire back up immediately.
In the last 5 months it has just sat except one day where I had my brother jump me (it randomly started) and I took it to the car wash, filled up the tires, and filled up on some gas.
All I am seeing is when I turn the key, all the lights, the radio (which quit back in 2011) will sometimes even come back on, the windows roll up and down, the AC works, but it wont start. I am hearing ONE CLICK from what I am assuming is the Fuse Box/Relay on the passenger side of the cab.
Any and all help would be appreciated. I believe I have mentioned everything that has been tried.
Really SOS here guys.

UPDATE: 11-7-19 1:04PM
I have tried unplugging the MAF sensor per libertycars98 advice, Did not work.
I am also attaching the link to an image I took of my PRND Shifter under the panel. Probably 5 years ago I had an issue where my truck wouldn't start. A friend who knew a little about cars eventually deduced that the spring in my Shifter was weak. We popped the panel open pressed the white tab down and shove a gum wrapper in there to keep the spring semi loaded adding "strength". Would this have anything to do with the problem?

UPDATE: 11-7-19 4:29PM
I have removed the gum wrapper under my PRND Shifter and held down the tab to start the vehicle per Insertbluescreenhere. No change.
I also filmed the security light because Insertbluescreenhere asked about it. Here is the footage. It does behave oddly.
Viewing the Security Light while trying to start.
UPDATE: 11-7-19 5:11pm
Here is a picture of my fuse box. Noticing I am missing a relay R05? Picture is tilted 90 degrees. Top is where all the cords are.

Update: 11-8-19 6:20PM
I have replaced the Battery (just in case) - No change
I have switched all of the above relays in the fuse box based on a users suggestion from a Hoovies Garage video where he has a similar issue with a F150 Raptor. - No change leading me to belive Relays in the fuse box are good.
Checked the fuse terminal AAMP coming right off the battery. Still good - No change
Checked Fuse number 32 per a video referred by a user - Fuse replaced for good measure - No Change
Checked the PMC. Unplugged, turned key on, plugged back in. Mechanism (I forget which) close to grill kicked on proving PCM is in working condition per a youtube video. - No Change
Update: 11-10-19 6:13pm
Attempted to Reset PATS System - No Change
Will be checking the load on all relay and fuse ports in fuse/junction box
Will be accessing the Fuel Pump Control module hidden by spare tire.
Will be attempting (three different ways) to reset PATS System
Will be checking the wire bundles under the drivers side under cab. (if I can find a tool to remove the panel that is protecting them).
I want to say the car being dead for a month was a good enough reset for the ECM, but might try reseting that as well.
Checking the Sensor ring/ Transceiver Ring by ignition to see if that has lost power. (Two brand new keys keyed by dealer should still be good).Thanks for that tip insertbluescreenhere
Also thanks to deekster_caddy badasiandriver shakeyshades , and thegrotch for helping me in another sub.Tagging here on orginaial post
submitted by jhrogers32 to MechanicAdvice [link] [comments]

The Big Yoink: A Smol Detective Story, Chapter 13

Standard Disclaimer: I do not take credit for the setting, this story is set in the They Are Smol universe, written by our very own u/tinyprancinghorse.
TPH has a Website, a Patreon, and also a Discord if you need more smol shenanigans.
The first Smol Detective story can be read starting Here.
There will be some spoilers/references of the first SD story in this one, so consider yourself duly warned.
First Chapter
Previous Chapter
Next Chapter
In the previous chapter:
Bgrarh gets some Contraband.
Oscar has a Nice Suit.
Two words: Conga Line.
In this chapter:
Resh'skk does some Acting.
Sssnnathor serves up some Snacks.
The Silken Feather does a Clever Girl.
The shuttle was due to depart in [six hours], which should give Bgrarh-of-Arhraz plenty of time. He checked for the hundredth time that his lab door was securely locked, then pulled out the unassigned terminal he'd managed to snag for this. The latter was just in case anyone tried to check the logs on his own 'official' machine. What he was doing was not strictly forbidden by the Inquisition, but it would be considered impolite and cause for censure.
If he got caught, Bgrarh figured he could spin a story of finding the media 'somewhere' and examining it merely to see if he could determine its origin. They wouldn't believe him, but they'd probably let his possession slide...especially if he let the hypothetical Inquisitor watch over his shoulder.
He took a steadying breath and popped in the first chip, then selected "Doctor No". Within a few scenes he'd gotten the gist of this [James Bond] character in spite of the poor quality and terrible dubbing. The Dorarizin had a similar fictional character, namely one Inquisitor Hrnarah. She traveled the galaxy with a blaster at her hip, ready to mete out justice and bed any comely males she came across.
But Hrnarah was also, well, a she. This [Sean Connery] person was as adorable as any [human], but he was also quite clearly male. And even though [Connery] walked with the standard wobbly, about-to-fall-over gait of a [human], there was a relentlessness to the way he moved that drew the eye.
The movie ended, and Bgrarh chose another at random. This had a different actor playing Bond, one who was less imposing but more debonair. The movie followed much the same formula as the first, which was something that [Bond] also had in common with Inquisitor Hrnarah.
As the movie played on, Bgrarh began to pick up on why [Oscar] suggested [Bond]. Whenever the man entered a room, whether it be a casino, a denpile, or a prison cell, [Bond] acted as if he owned that room.
Bgrarh stood and began walking about, picturing himself as a well-dressed secret agent who'd entered a dance competition as cover for some covert assignment...which honestly wasn't that far from the truth. As he did so, his nervousness about the upcoming performance began to fade and he knew he'd found the right personality to emulate.
Of course, there were certain things that Bgrarh was not going to emulate. He wasn't an expert on [human] mating customs, but he was pretty sure it wasn't proper to kiss [human] women without their consent.
Bgrarh chuckled. If he tried kissing the Captain without permission she'd bite his head off. Although now that he thought about it, the idea of kissing her with permission was very appealing. She was quite a handsome woman, after all. Yes, she was the pack leader and thus couldn't play favorites...but she was also a Dorarizin with needs.
Besides, Bgrarh knew his time of 'season' was approaching. Maybe this what the [humans] called a golden opportunity?
In one corner of the hangar deck, two long and sinewy bodies coiled about each other. Each of them held a long needle-like sword in one hand, with the other clamped to their opponent's weapon-arm. There was much pained grunting as each strained to be the first to stab. Finally one of them managed to wrest her sword-arm free with a triumphant shout.
With that line Hrathra'sstah lunged forward as her prop sword did its job and buried its holographic blade deep into Resh'skk's chest. The ex-soldier clutched at the sword-hilt sticking out of his chest (which kept it from falling off), then groaned and toppled backward. His own weapon fell to the deck with a clatter.
"" he gasped in mock agony. ""
With a wordless scream, Hrathra leaped onto him and pushed with both her hands at the pommel of the fake sword hilt, acting as if she was driving the nonexistent blade deeper into his chest. At that cue Resh'skk bit down on the capsule hidden in his cheek, then let a little emerald-hued stage blood trickle out of the corner of his mouth.
He gave another groan of pain. "" he said in a stage whisper. Then Resh'skk slumped flat on the deck, staring off sightlessly into space.
After a beat, there was the sound of two small pairs of hands slapping together. It was a gesture of appreciation that Jornissians performed as well, and the sound made Resh'skk feel better about this whole nonsense.
"[Bravo!]" called [Maria].
"[Yeah, that was awesome!]" added [Oscar].
Resh'skk stopped playing dead and picked his hood up off of the deck. ""
"" said Hrathra'sstah. She still lay sprawled on top of him in a position that he would have enjoyed in other circumstances.
Hrathra'sstah pressed a finger to his lips. ""
"[And the villain always has to give a big monologue when they die!]" said [Maria]. "[It's a tradition even in [human] drama.]"
"" Resh'skk made as if to get up, but Hrathra didn't budge from her perch on top of him. He felt her tail-tip coil about his own. Ordinarily, Jornissians were a little less fussy about touching tails; it was just a consequence of their body type. But this was a more familiar gesture, one that close friends engaged in.
He glanced over and saw the two humans bumbling off. [Maria] had her hand on [Oscar's] arm as she steered him away from the Jornissians. His [human] friend had clearly picked up on the opportunity and was giving him the private space.
Resh'skk turned his head back to look up into Hrathra's red, gleaming eyes. His old fears returned. How could someone so smart and capable find anything of value in a broken down ex-thug like himself? But he had to try. He'd faced down pirates trying to carve out his intestines, he could face down this.
She raised one corner of her hood. "" But she did pick herself up off of him. Resh'skk rose, coiling his lower half below him in the Jornissian version of parade rest. He clasped his hands before him, while Hrathra'sstah folded her arms.
"" she asked.
Her arms dropped to her sides as she stared at him in shock. ""
Resh'ssk nodded. ""
Her next words struck him to the heart, an icy feeling far crueler than any stab.
Not a trace of his inner pain showed on his face as his clasped hands clenched ever so slightly tighter. ""
Hrathra cut him off with waving hands. "" She slithered back and forth in front of him as her gesticulating grew ever more dramatic. ""
Now it was his turn to interrupt her with a gentle finger to her lips. ""
There was one long moment of mutual staring, then she lunged for him again in an attack that he accepted with literal open arms.
What with their long and muscled bodies, Jornissians are the gold-medal winners of the four Senate species when it comes to dealing out hugs. With these two Jornissians doing their very best to embrace each other, and on top of that doing their very best to kiss each other into oblivion, the resulting tangle was something that would make even Escher throw up his hands.
In the middle of Resh'ssk's bliss, he heard again the sound of a human applauding. He peered to the side and saw [Maria's] grinning face. The [human] stood just out of easy tail-slap range.
After a little bit of complicated tongue-de-tangling, Hrathra'sstah turned her head as well to regard her protege. "<[Maria]?>"
"[Yeah, boss?]"
"[You got it, boss.]" [Maria] gave a wink to Resh'skk before strolling away. At any other time he would have found the little alien's cockiness infuriating, but right now he was too happy to be angry. He clasped Hrathra anew to himself and kissed her snout.
"" he asked.
Hrathra'sstah rubbed her hood against his neck. "" She grinned up at him. ""
The sunlight fell like a velvet hammer onto Oscar as he stepped down from the shuttle. He felt sweat begin to pop out on his forehead, and wondered if his furred crewmates would suffer even more. He supposed that the heat made sense, given that a Jornissian owned this planet.
In front of the shuttle was a wedge-shaped formation of Dorarizin wearing full armor. Oscar had seen the pictures during the one time any Dorarizin set foot on Earth. Princess Gwe-Zgranzre-of-Ngrul's honor guard had been almost as armored-up as these guys. But where their armor had been brightly colored and ornate, this armor was sleek and functional.
The armor's visual effect was to turn the already-impressive figure of your average Dorarizin into what looked like a walking tank. The sleek, ovoid, and featureless chrome helmets of the retinue tilted down as one while they regarded Oscar. After a moment, the lead Dorarizin's helmet hinged up to reveal a white-furred face with deep purple eyes. He looked at Oscar for a few seconds, then over at the sphere of Junior which hovered next to the human's shoulder.
Oscar heard the noise behind him as the rest of the crew disembarked from the shuttle. He smiled as he tried his best to keep his heartrate down. Myyreh was at his back, but asking her to take out a werewolf in power armor would be too much even for her.
"Howdy, folks!" Oscar pointed at the lead Dorarizin's armored chest. "Um, are you expecting trouble?"
The lead Dorarizin smiled in response, showing a lot more teeth. "[Not at all. I know it looks like [overkill], but we have certain security protocols that have to be followed for all visitors. I'm Nerlharg-of-Aergh.]"
Oscar settled for a bow in lieu of shaking hands. "Oliver Ward, pleased to meetcha."
"[Likewise.]" Nerlharg looked up at the others. "[I bid you all welcome. Please, follow me. His Excellency was very insistent that he meet your group right away.]"
Oscar slung his bag over his shoulder. The concrete of the landing pad let to a loose gravel pathway lined with tall greenery which was nothing like trees. There was a clear lack of bark, plus the leaves had an odd earth-brown tinge to them. The plants did provide a good amount of shade, however, which gave Oscar some relief from the heat. Further inspection revealed a few tall rod-like structures scattered here and there among the growth; these rods emitted a fine mist of water which drifted over the pathway and provided further cooling.
Nerlharg noticed Oscar's inspection. "[His Excellency's species is better built to withstand heat, but he provides for his subjects.]"
"He sure does," replied Oscar. "I already get enough grief from my non-human comrades about my water usage, so I don't want to be sweating more than I need to."
Nerlharg gave his species' bone-buzzsaw version of a chuckle, but didn't otherwise comment.
The procession crested a rise, and Oscar saw a few buildings ahead. The architecture gave the impression of a high-tech Aztec city, with multiple stepped pyramids situated along either side of the central promenade. A profusion of more greenery overhung each 'step' on the buildings. Oscar wondered if this was proper Jornissian architecture or if Sssnnathor just had a thing for pyramids.
The prominade led forward to the largest pyramid by far, a huge building that rivaled that of any Egyptian tomb. A sloping ramp led up to an entrance that one could sling a starship through. The scale was such that even the giants around him looked small as they passed underneath that over-sized arch.
Oscar wondered about the point of such overkill. Was it to show off Ssssnnathor's wealth and power? The entire planet was proof of that. Perhaps it was more of a subtle warning to any who entered, a way to say 'however big you think you are, you're in the house of someone far more important'.
Whatever the reason for the grand entryway, the pyramid's interior space was even more grand. The walls were clad in white marble with gold trim; they followed the slope of the exterior, with a spiral ramp leading up towards the apex far above. More green vines hung from the edges of the ramp, giving the whole space the air of a slightly less tacky Las Vegas casino. Three large snake-like figures waited in the center of the space in front of a long table piled high with various dishes.
The middle Jornissian could only be Sssnnathor. Oscar half expected him to be clad in some sort of outrageous Ming-The-Merciless getup, but instead he wore a sober-looking 'suit' the hue of sun-bleached bone. The white color contrasted well with his black-and-blue scale pattern.
Sssnnathor's face was split in a wide smile, and he had his arms outstretched in welcome. The guards on either side, however, looked much less friendly, what with their armor. A normal Jornissian 'exo-suit' made them look like a long dakimakura-style pillow. But these guys were all hard edges and armor plating, fitting well with the look of the crew's Dorarizin escort.
Each Jornissian bodyguard cradled a massive rifle casually in one hand; Oscar figured he just might be able to pick one of them up if he used both hands and all his strength.
Sssnnathor's purr-hiss boomed over them all. "[Welcome! You are a pleasant surprise.]" He slithered forward, his silver eyes fixed on Oscar. The tyrant glanced over at Junior as he approached, and stopped at a respectful distance as he lowered himself to look the human in the eye.
"[I apologize for staring, but this is my first time seeing one of your kind,]" said Sssnnathor.
"No problem, Mr. Snape. I'm Oliver Ward." There was no way in hell Oscar was going to get anywhere near the strangled hiss-purr of Sssnnathor's true name. He hoped that the translator matrix was doing its job.
After another moment of fascinated staring, Sssnnathor nodded and rose higher. He gestured towards the table behind him. "[Please, eat and be welcome.]"
After the (fake-name) introductions and hand-shaking, Captain Rgrarshok found herself munching on a bit of grilled glrnada while inside she wondered if this had been the right course of action. Her unease wasn't helped by the fact that Sssnnathor was parked at her right elbow with a calculating smile.
"[It's always nice to have new entertainment, Captain Rgratz,]" said the tyrant. "[But I can't help but wonder why you chose to bless us with your presence. With two [humans] in your company you would have the pick of engagements, yet you come to an out-of-Senate-space backwater like this.]"
Rgrarshok swallowed her mouthful as she prepped the cover story they'd cooked up. "{This is hardly a backwater, but it's true we could name our price. If I'm honest, Excellency, we're not exactly welcome in Senate space at the moment. And it has to do with the [humans].}"
Sssnnathor tilted his hood in curiosity. "[Oh, really?]" He turned to regard the two [humans], who naturally tended to stick together and now conversed in low tones while getting covertly studied by every other person in the pyramid. "[You didn't kidnap them, I hope?]"
Rgrarshok laughed. "{Far from it. Their placement on our crew was done through legal channels...except for the fact that we submitted two applications, under two different names. My XO cooked up the scheme, and I agreed. We thought it would give us a better chance of success.}"
Sssnnathor hissed a laugh of his own. "[I suppose it makes sense from a mathematical viewpoint. After all, the odds of getting a [human] are astronomical enough as it is. Let me guess...both applications were awarded?]"
The Captain gave a weary nod and a sigh. "{The first one was a moment of utter joy for us. [Oliver] was a wonderful addition to our crew, we were so happy...and then we got word of [Masie] coming to join us. I can't tell you how much dancing we had to do so that the auditors never caught the scent that we already had another [human] on board. But we managed it, somehow. Only then to realize we were faced with quite a conundrum.}"
"[Namely, if you performed in Senate space the odds were good that the placement program auditors would find out about your [double-dipping]. Hmm, well I suppose your embarrassment of riches is also our good fortune. Otherwise it might have been centuries before my poor little planet was able to host a [human].]"
Rgrarshok performed a slight bow. "{With your kind permission, we plan to perform many times on your planet. Of course, we'll also provide you with a free private performance if desired.}"
Sssnnathor tapped a finger against his chin. "[Hmm, I don't think a private performance is necessary. I do have a gala planned in three [days] time, one where I will show off my latest acquisition. Would you do me the honor of performing there?]"
"{We'd be happy to.}"
Ngralh-of-Arzgar strolled through the sunlit bazaar. He had his paws clasped behind his back in a casual manner, but his eyes never stopped moving. Ngralh was enough of a student of history to know of the primitive conditions his species had once lived under, that era far back in the mists of time when they'd been bound to one planet.
His surroundings were not that primitive, but this was about as 'squalid' as one could get in a star-spanning civlization. The booths around him were formed of cheap and flimsy plastic, tinted with a hodgepodge of colors that stated louder than words that they'd been formed from castoff pieces. The wares emphasized hand-made tools and clothing, things that were just a little nicer than what one could get while on the dole.
The air was filled with the scent of grilling meat, something else that one couldn't get while on basic income. While the smell made his mouth water a little, he was going to have to give the food-sellers a pass. Dorarizin had pretty hardy metabolisms, but there was no need to risk food poisoning.
Due to the meeting with Sssnnathor, their investigation was now two-fold. First was the hunt for the 'Silken Feather', as they'd planned. But second was an attempt to find out exactly what the tyrant's 'latest acquisition' really was. Had the thief gone ahead and sold the Claw to him?
Either way, his job was to work towards the former goal. To that end, he was looking for someone to press ever-so-gently for information.
"[A pretty scarf for your lady friend, good sir?]" The chirping voice came from a hunched-over Karnakian who presided over a rainbow-colored waterfall of fabric. Ngralh gave her a cordial nod as he stopped strolling to look over her selection. Hmmm, that purple number might look good on Egwreh.
"{How much for this one?}" In the haggling that followed he allowed the seller to get a better deal than usual, figuring that this would put her in a better frame of mind for questioning.
"[Would there be anything else, sir?]" asked the Karnakian after he'd bought two.
"{Is this the only market around? I have some colleagues who might be interested in larger items.}"
"[This is the largest market in the capital, sir.]" She leaned forward as her crest rose. "[You're with the entertainers who just arrived, yes? The ones with the [humans]?]"
"{That's right. I'm surprised word's spread this fast.}"
"[There's always interest when [humans] are involved, good sir.]"
"{I understand. Do you get many off-world visitors? We're trying to determine how much new audience turnover we can expect.}"
"[A few every [month] or so. This planet is very welcoming to all, no matter their past.]"
Ngralh gave an embarrassed click. "{How, er, segregated is it around here? I only ask because some multi-species colonies can be rough; the locals can take it the wrong way if one goes walking through another species' section of town.}"
The seller waved one casual wing-arm. "[Oh, there's no such problems around here but I would be careful, since do have some minor criminals wandering about. The various races tend to cluster together to take advantage of any species-specific infrastructure such as plumbing requirements.]"
He smiled at her and gave a bob of his head to simulate a Karnakian farewell. "[Thanks, you've been very kind.]"
Thanks to a few more generous purchases and pointed questions, Ngralh found the Karnakian portion of town. If the "Silken Feather" was in civilization, chances are it was somewhere around here. It would be far easier for her to keep track of incoming and outgoing ships, plus she'd have a handy population of raptors to get lost in.
For sure she'd be wearing a disguise. Instead of scanning each individual Karnakian that passed, Ngralh set his implant to ping him if it detected anyone matching the body proportions of their quarry.
He spent another hour walking among the Karnakians, trying to look like nothing more than a ship-bound crew member anxious to stretch his legs. His scans of the crowd turned up empty, and after a while he started to wish somebody would try to mug him. At least it would break up the monotony.
Ngralh turned down a narrow and deserted alley with walls formed of the same cheap plastic sheeting used for the market booths. He'd made it halfway down when two feathered forms suddenly blocked the far end. He stopped and glanced over his shoulder...sure enough, two more blocked the way he'd came.
The front and rear pairs of Karnakians began to close in with slow menace towards him.
"[Four against one, furball,]" said one of them. "[Not good odds. Now why don't you just hand over everything in your pockets and we'll call it good, eh?]"
Ngralh shifted his weight so that he was balanced on his toes, then extended his claws. While he might not be death-on-foot like Myyreh, he was still an experienced peace officer. That fact evened the odds more than they realized. Once he'd given these guys a good thrashing, he could lean on them for some more detailed information. His ears swiveled back as he tracked the sounds of the two behind him. They'd probably rush him first, and so he kept his back invitingly open...
A strangled chirp-roar sounded from behind him. He spun himself sideways, careful to keep the front two in his peripheral vision. Both of the Karnakians behind him sprawled twitching on the ground, each wreathed in blue electric sparks. As he took in the sight there was a blur of motion behind to the other two...
They didn't even manage a sound before they too were down and out of any possible fight. Ngralh turned carefully back to face his would-be rescuer, a green-feathered Karnakian with a yellow band around her neck.
The Silken Feather.
She stood just out of easy leaping range. The thief had never laid eyes on Ngralh during her call to the Furious Call of Inquiry, so he figured he'd play ignorant and try to lure her closer. "{You have my thanks, friend. I don't have any money on me, but if you'll follow me back to my ship I'm sure my Captain would be happy to reward you.}"
The thief snorted. "[No games, friend. You know who I am and I know who you are. A mixed-race crew who also happen to have [humans] on board, showing up in a conveniently quick manner after I placed that call? The odds of that are astronomical. I guess you tracked me after all.]"
Ngralh took in a deep, irritated breath and then relaxed. "{All right.}" He glanced again at the sprawled, shuddering bodies around him. "{You still have my thanks.}"
"[Oh, it's my pleasure I assure you. I can't allow any of our brave Senate investigators to get hurt in the line of duty, now can I?]"
The XO chuckled. "{I wasn't in that much danger. So. How easy do you want to make this? I can tell you right now the Captain is not going to allow any sale.]"
"[I would reply that it's not up to her, is it? I think the Matriarchs' opinions would carry greater weight in this case. In any case, just know that I know that you're here and that I'm watching you. I'll be in contact soon to set up the sale. Do you still have that Galnet node of mine?]"
"{Of course. It's evidence.}"
She grinned wide. "[Of course. You police must always play by the rules, eh? I'm rather surprised you don't try to tackle me right here and now.]"
Ngralh tapped the side of his nose. "{It wouldn't do any good. I smell nothing but these four bozos, which tells me I'm talking to a hard-light hologram.}"
The Silken Feather bowed her head. "[Excellent, it's always a pleasure to deal with competent adversaries. I bid you a good day, sir.]"
The green-and-yellow Karnakian vanished, leaving a small metal sphere hovering in the alleyway. The drone fizzed while its internals fried, then fell to the ground with a small thud.
Ngralh blew out a breath that any onlooker would have taken as one of frustration. But then he smiled and touched his ear. "{Egwreh, Myyreh, you're up.}"
The Silken Feather maneuvered down a neighboring alley, looking behind her constantly. It had been a risk to expose herself, but the chance to show these silly police that she was on top of things was too delicious to pass up. The following negotiations would have to be done with great delicacy; she had to conceal the fact that she no longer had the Claw, while keeping in reserve her knowledge of Sssnnathor's covert activities. The latter should act as insurance in the case that she wasn't able to retrieve the Claw.
And she would retrieve that which she'd rightfully stolen. Sssnnathor was not omnipotent, and her audacity would act as a shield. The aged fool would never imagine that she'd be bold enough to try breaking into his main palace. As her mind whirled, she peered around the corner and scanned her surroundings on instinct. She saw nothing, and so she continued on her way.
The Silken Feather trotted along while plotting and was still feeling quite pleased with herself when Myrreh-of-Relgreh's fist came out of thin air and connected solidly with her jaw.
The Silken Feather came to and almost on reflex reached out mentally with her implant to trigger the protective mode of her clothing. All she received was the lurch of an unsuccessful connection, which then made her realize she wasn't wearing her own clothes anymore. All she had was a simple shift made of plain fabric to protect her modesty. Locked tight around her feathered body was a cage of hard-light which allowed her to breathe comfortably...and that was about it for any movement she could perform.
As the Silken Feather blinked and shook her snout, a warbling voice intruded into her aching head.
"[Ah, you're finally awake! Sorry about taking liberties with your person, but you had way too many little goodies hidden in your clothes. We couldn't let you keep them.]"
The voice came from a small figure standing in front of her. Behind that alien was a much bigger form that she recognized as Captain Rgrarshok. The huge Dorarizin stood with folded arms and a steady, unblinking expression that was somehow more fearsome than a snarl.
The Silken Feather focused all four eyes on the small alien in front of her. It was the first time she'd laid eyes on a [human], and for a moment she stared in wonder. As all the reports said, the little-needs-protecting had a soul filled with starlight, almost like a hatchling's but much more complex.
Then her discipline reasserted itself as she took quick stock of her surroundings. She was pinned in the middle of what looked like a hangar deck of some sort. That meant she was in space and surrounded by enemies. Not to mention tied up and completely unarmed. It was a bad situation, but she'd been in worse. The most important thing for now was to appear as if she'd given up.
The Silken Feather smiled ruefully. "|I congratulate you on your plan. It was masterfully done.|"
The [human] shrugged. "[We got lucky. We didn't know if you'd realize that we were the Senate team, but we had [Ngralh] followed just in case you followed him. You didn't just follow, you actually made contact. [Ngralh] sends his regards, by the way, and thanks you again for your help.]"
The thief slumped in her bonds. "|It was my pleasure.|" She stared up at the Captain. "|Shall we make a deal, or are you just going to skip right to the torturing?|"
Rgrarshok grinned. "[Your interrogation will begin now. Go ahead, [Oscar].]"
The computer-generated cage around The Silken Feather shifted, moving her arms apart and exposing more of her keeled chest. She felt a moment of panic as the [human] wobbled towards her. Was he going to pull out a knife and start cutting on her?
The Silken Feather's shift didn't quite cover the front fluff of her chest, and as he reached her [Oscar] pushed aside some of the fabric to expose more feathers. The somewhat intimate act shocked her. She'd heard that [humans] would mate with just about anything, but surely he wouldn't resort to...that against her will?
Without a word, [Oscar] smashed himself face-first into her fluff like a nestling seeking warmth. The sensation created an automatic maternal response in The Silken Feather, causing her feathers to expand out.
"[Where's the Claw?]" asked Rgrarshok.
The thief tried to focus, but it was hard with a soft and warm little sapient doing his best to make a bed out of her chest fluff. "|Eh? Oh, that old thing? Who knows? Maybe I know, maybe I don't. You'll have to...oh...make it worth my while|"
"[Ah, you're expecting to make a deal with us?]"
The Silken Feather tried to focus, but [Oscar] was still squirming around against her chest. Her bound arms twitched...she wanted to hold the little alien in the worst way...
"|Wouldn't you, in my situation?|" she responded. "|After all, the [Claw's] location is the only bargaining chip I have right now. You must be mad if you think I'll give that up without at least an offer of amnesty.|"
{Oscar] let out a little warbling hum and reached out with both tiny hands to get a good grip on her chest fluff.
The act almost made The Silken Feather miss the Captain's next statement. "[And you must be mad if you think we'll let you go without having the Claw safe in our possession.]"
Any further strategy fled right out of her head. What was wrong with her? She was a ghost, a free soul, she was afraid of no one and wanted nothing more than lots of covert bank accounts stuffed full of credits. Now all that she could think of was the need to grasp this little being close to her, to build a nest and keep him safe and warm. The feeling was worse than any pain or injury.
"|I...well, that is...|" She shook herself and glared up at Rgrarshok. "|I have rights under Senate law! This treatment can't be legal!|"
Rgrarshok unsheathed a claw and held it up to her face. She inspected it closely as she spoke. "[What would you have to complain about? True, we have you bound at the moment but that is merely for our protection. Are we mistreating you in any way?]"
"|You know damn well what I mean...erg...can you tell him to stop squirming?|"
"[Tell him yourself.]"
The Silken Feather looked down at the little creature moving against her. "|I know what you're trying to do. It won't work.|"
"[What do you mean?]" asked [Oscar]. "[I'm tired and need a nap.]"
"|I just...please...|"
Rgrarshok chuckled. "[You know, if you wish to claim rights as a Senate citizen you'll need to tell us who you really are. It seems you've done quite an admirable job in throwing us off of your true scent.]"
The Silken Feather gritted her teeth. "|I will never tell you!|"
Rgrarshok waved her hand in a 'there it is' gesture. "[Then I guess you'll have to put up with [human] interaction. [Oscar], give me a call when you wake up and we'll continue.]" She started to lope away, only to be stopped by the Silken Feather's plea.
"|Please, no. I'll propose a deal. You release me and then I'll tell you where the Claw is.|"
"[You tell us where the Claw is and then we'll release you,]" replied the Captain.
The Silken Feather shook her crest. "|No. You can put an implant in me to track me if you like, but I won't tell you a thing until I'm out of your custody.|" She knew she was technically savvy enough to defeat any possible tracking they'd put in her, since they'd certainly try to capture her again after finding out the Claw was now in Sssnnathor's possession. After her release, she could then steal the Claw back from Sssnnathor as she'd planned. True, having the Senate team breathing on her tail would put a bit of a time constraint on things, but she was capable enough to pull it off.
[Oscar] abruptly let go of her floof and wobbled away back towards the Captain. "[She doesn't have the Claw. Not anymore.]"
Rgrarshok stroked a thoughtful claw along her chin. "[Agreed. She gave in far too easily.]"
"|What nonsense is this? Of course I have it! Not on me, obviously, but I have it stashed in a very safe location! One that you'll never discover unless I tell you. Release me and you can go get it yourself.|"
The pair of peace officers stared back at The Silken Feather for a moment.
"[If she'd sold it to [Sssnnathor], she would've been long gone with her money,]" said [Oscar].
"[True,]" replied Rgrarshok. "[So he must have found out somehow that she was here. The fact that she's alive means that he didn't get his claws on her directly. However he found out, the Claw is now in his custody.]" Her purple eyes stared steadily at The Silken Feather. [Isn't that right?]"
"|I'm not saying anything further,|" replied The Silken Feather. "|You may as well go ahead and torture me. Or whatever that was your [human] was doing.|"
[Oscar] gasped in mock horror. "[Me? Torture? No, I wouldn't dream of harming a single feather on your crest. But there are a few [Karnakians] on board whom you've wronged either directly or indirectly. I'm sure they'd be eager to...discuss...their grievances with you at great length.]"
"[Or we could just leave her tied up somewhere on the planet,]" said Rgarshok. "[Perhaps we should drop an anonymous note to [Sssnnathor] telling her where she is? Only in the interest of making sure she doesn't come to harm, of course.]"
"[Of course!]" said [Oscar].
The Silken Feather sagged once more, this time in real defeat. She had but one bit of leverage left to play. "|We can still make a deal for my release,|" she said.
"[With what information?]" asked Rgrarshok. "[If [Sssnnathor] has the Claw I'm sure you have no idea where he's hidden it. That's something we'll have to figure out.]" The Captain sighed. "[I'll bet this party of his is for showing off the Claw.]"
"[I'm not taking that bet,]" said [Oscar].
The thief shook her crest. "|I'm not talking about the Claw's location. I'm talking about [Sssnnathor] himself. He's up to something. Whatever it is involving cloning.|"
Rgrarshok placed a paw over her eyes. "[Of course he is. By the First Pack, I need a vacation.]"
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He hesitated some more. “I... I...”
“You want to see yourself? If that's what you really want, so be it.”
The white light warbled and then flickered like an old tube TV that shunted from one channel to the next. At first he did not understand what he was looking at. There was a dull gray box in the center of his vision. It was surrounded by cables on all sides, most of them plugged directly into the box. What stuck out the most to him was how wrong his sight seemed, everything was tinged in sepia.
“What's wrong with my eyes?”
“But it isn't normal.”
“That's the new normal.”
“The new normal? What am I looking at? I don't understand. A box?”
The chuckle seemed to be right on top of him now. “Look carefully, doesn't it remind you of anything?”
“I...” He looked again, the box wasn't a box. It was smooth, and rounded along the edges. It was roughly shaped like an obloid. There was a glow from various points of light along the top and several holes that had been drilled into it hold a panel in place along the top. The overall shape definitely seemed familiar, and then he realized what they were showing him "No, it can't be."
“Yes, it can be!" The chuckling turned into frantic laughter. "That's your brain inside of its new home.”
"Stop that immediately. Act like a professional."
“I get it now.” Sean said with some mirth. “This is just a dream. I must have hit my head after the accident. Does that mean I'm in a coma? Where's Cindy?”
“Again with Sin-D. They're trying to rationalize now. I wondered when that might start.”
“I can assure you, this is no dream. You're really here. We've really revived you, and that's really your brain inside of that housing unit.”
“Prove it...” Sean dared.
“If you insist.”
A hand (no, an instrument?) slipped into view along the bottom. It's “fingers” were long and needle sharp. One of them slipped into a port along the top of the box, and he felt a presence. It reminded him of someone standing a little too close behind him. Then his vision shifted, blurred. “See? With just a little bit of tuning, we can make your mind do what we want. Influence your senses.” His sight returned to its new, sepia-toned normality.
Sean suddenly gasped as he felt pain as the probe at the edge of the instrument prodded deep inside of the port.
“Inflict pain.”
Then the pain vanished and he shuddered as he felt a wave of pleasure, it reminded him of when he had been given some morphine after he had his appendix removed.
“Give you pleasure.”
“Whatever we wish, we can do so long as we have access to your brain case.”
The hand retracted and the presence went away.
“I still don't believe you.” He said indignantly. “The mind is great at playing tricks.”
There was the sound of air blowing over a microphone again. Was that meant to be a sigh?
“Shall we reveal ourselves?”
“I suppose so.”
His vision twisted around like someone had turned his head in their hands, blurring as it did so before coming to a sudden stop.
It was then that Sean noticed how shallow his depth of field was. He could barely make out what was directly in front of him, let alone the things in the distance. Sean was certain he was in a room though, a well lit one that was white. And he was also aware of the pair of bodies that stood before him.
“Knock it off." Sean said in a most disgusted tone.
The cold chuckling began again. "I always enjoy when they're confused." At last he understood that this sound was coming from his left. The... being standing there was the source of the noise. They were gun metal grey and stood at an indeterminable height. Sean lacked the perspective grasp such a thing at the moment. Their head was teardrop shaped, with three different sized red lenses built into the face. Below that was a grate, he conceived that this was some sort of mouth. It waved it's needle tipped appendage down at Sean before it answered, "We're human, just like you."
"Of course you are, but those are pretty good costumes. I bet they cost quite a bit of money."
"A disguise." The other one spoke up at last. Its mouth moved as the words were formed, but the metallic tinge to its speech undercut that this was just an affectation. It could speak just as well with its mouth closed. This one was a dark flesh tone, but what Sean could make out of its upperbody they were criss-crossed with lacerations that glowed. It raised a hand and reached out toward Sean's vision. Instead of five fingers, there was a dozen of little spindly ones that resembled the legs of a spider. Sean shuddered, or at least he would have if he could. He could hear a rapid tapping sound as the little spindly fingers began to thump up against something firm just above his head. Strange, he couldn't feel that. Once again his sight warped and warbled before settling. "I've enabled the facial expressive functionalities."
He tried talking again thinking that they have fixed his mouth, but no sound came. "I still can't speak." Sean paused and then tried again, nothing. "How are you able to hear me anyway?" He asked quizzically.
"We'll get to that, but to answer your question, there's a monitor over your housing unit that's automatically translating your vocalizations into text for us." The one to his right said. "Keep talking by the way, it'll make the neural net's job of training for translation easier." Unlike the one to his left, this one on the right gave Sean the impression that they styled themselves as something of a doctor. A very stern one with no bedside manner, but a doctor nonetheless.
The room was quite for a moment, aside from the sterile hum of electronics. "Say I believe you. Where am I then?"
"You're in the heart of the Metro. More specifically you're at Revivification Center 6 under lease by OMNICORP."
"OMNICORP..." He considered the word slowly. "I used to work for them. A few years ago."
"Sure you did." Tittered the Left.
"I'm going to start winding up the rest of the body. You mount the face and prepare the housing for transfer." Instructed the Right.
"Alrighty." The Left said in a warbled sing song voice.
The Right moved outside of his field of vision and the Left stepped up to him. Its needle like fingers grabbed onto something, and Sean's vision began to lower. Then there was a shake, a hiss, and a violent clack. He sighed, as he was now at waist level with Left. The body of Right was like a twisted band of noodles, just coils wrapped one over the other in a tight pack as if they were a squid. "That certainly is impressive looking."
One of the tendrils that made up his body rose up from the ground and tapped lightly at Sean. "You have no idea." Left ran the tendril down the side of Sean's vision. It was so odd that he couldn't feel any of this. Was this a symptom of being in a coma? Was this just an elaborate trick of some kind and he had been administered some sort of paralyzing agent? "I don't normally ask this, but what is your name little Thing?"
"Shaw-n." Left tested out the word. "You holdovers have such odd names."
"What's yours?" Sean tested, maybe he could ingratiate himself with these nightmare tormentors enough that they wouldn't kill him.
Two of the tendrils lifted up from the ground and made the universal sign for a shrug. "Does it matter? You may call me what you wish. They certainly do." The tendril on the right jabbed to the side outside of Sean's field of view.
"Stop lazing about and get to work." Right spoke up from somewhere unseen.
"Aye-aye, Captain." Left snickered and then lowered a hand into Sean's vision from the top. Its fingers sunk down into a panel in front of Sean, and there was a click and a whir. "Alright Shaw-n, I am going to be mounting your housing unit. Prepare yourself, it's going to get a little bumpy."
Two arms lowered from the ceiling and peeled open revealing fork like tongs. They were each fitted with a horribly long needle and they were coming straight for him. Sean began to panic, trying with all of his might to will his body into movement. "Wait! Stop! PLEASE STOP!" he gibbered as the arms grew closer and honed onto him with mechanical precision. "What're you doing!?"
"I just told you, I'm mounting your housing unit. I've got to inject your wetware with some progs first so it'll take." There was that sound that wasn't quite a sigh.
Sean's world shook again, and then there was pain. "Stop!" The pain was like a knife stabbing into him twice over. Then without mercy or warning, he began to feel himself being filled with cold. "You're killing me!"
"Killing you would be counterproductive." Piped in Right.
The cold and stabbing continued for an unbearable length of time and then without warning they stopped. In the absence of the stabbing and the cold, Sean's mind had begun to throb in pain. "Christ... Christ." Sean whined, practically sobbing. The arms pulled away from his head and retracted up into the ceiling.
Left twisted its hand inside of the panel, and it began to turn with the movement. To either side of Sean there was a several hisses that went off in rapid fire.
"Tethers are terminated. Hoist their housing unit."
Left twisted their wrist inhumanly on itself once more, rotating around another 180 degrees. Mechanical whirring sounded behind him and he felt himself rise. He couldn't see what was happening or feel it for that matter, but Sean was reasonably certain that something had grabbed onto him again. And now he was being lifted up into the air. Left's head came into view and they stopped there practically at eye level.
"Hello there, Shaw-n." Left's trio of lenses rotated on themselves, refocusing and narrowing their view on him. This had to be a nightmare, no costume was that good.
"You're not real." Sean stammered.
"Sorry, but if you're speaking, I can't hear you." The back of Left's horrible hand stroked the front of Sean's vision in a sickening gesture that could have meant to be tender. "Don't fret though, we're nearly done." Sean tried to shudder, to pull away, but still his body refused to react to his commands.
"The body is ready and powered up, as best as it is going to be anyway." Right said from behind him. "We're ready to commence the joining."
Two of Left's tendrils clapped together loudly. "Goody!" There was too much exuberance in their voice for Sean's liking.
Left began to pull away from Sean, but they weren't moving: he was. Left waved at him with one hand and lots of its smaller tentacle like arms. He desperately tried to turn his head about, to look around him, but his vision was fixed squarely ahead. He could not look away, to try and find the doom that he felt encroaching on him from behind.
Servos whined and then his field of view narrowed even further as darkness approached on either side of his vision. He stopped abruptly, and then nothing happened. Sean began to panic once more as Right stepped back in front of him. Now he was holding some sort of transparent tablet in his spindly hands. One finger out of a dozen hovered over a portion of it that Sean could see, but was unable to tell the color of thanks to the damnable sepia hue that now plagued him.
"This will hurt." That was all the warning he got as Right pressed down on the tablet and Sean heard a sound like a drill directly beneath him.
He heard his name being called, it was a voice that was familiar to him, it was sweet and he'd recognize it anywhere.
"Wake up."
Sean groaned as he fought his eyelids in a battle of wills, eventually he won and they began to flicker open. Standing over him was Cindy. She was still wearing her winter apparel, albeit it was slightly torn. Above her was the sky, it was grey and full of clouds. He exhaled and the air fogged with his warm in front of his mouth. "Cindy?"
"Who else would it be dummy?" She smiled
"What happened?" He croaked as he tried to shift his weight beneath him, but the pillowy snow sank with his movements. "Snow..."
"Yeah, we were in the gondola. Don't you remember?" Her face turned to concern before she rubbed her nose with her sleeve. "God it's cold out here."
Sean's hands gripped at the slush, and he heard it crunch in his fingers. The cold wetness began to eek through his gloves, and even through his insulated pants and jacket. "I remember we were falling."
"Yeah. That was pretty scary." She laughed t
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Grand Design, Part 12

First | Previous
“Okay, dropping in now,” Jesri called out, her hands dancing over the console. Outside the cockpit, the charged plasma of reentry was dissipating to show sparse fluffy clouds. Droplets of water hissed and boiled away from the hull as the ship cut through the thin air of the Ysleli stratosphere.
Anja stood behind her, again fully clad in a suit of Valkyrie powered armor. One massive hand curled its fingers around a bracing beam, the other cradling her rifle. Even with the armor on, her stance betrayed impatience. “Time?”, she asked, her voice grating flatly through the suit’s external speakers.
“Looks like… two minutes,” Jesri said, wrestling with the controls. She swore as the ship jolted violently, bucking in the airstream. They had taken the Huginn fast-attack craft rather than a shuttle, and while it offered better protection and armaments the FAC was not designed for graceful atmospheric maneuvering.
Below them, large stretches of farmland covered the terrain in a regular hexagonal patchwork. Jesri squinted at the display, adjusting course to keep their trajectory centered. They had been able to identify a distinct signature indicative of Terran power cores in the mountains of the largest continent. They couldn’t be sure the weapon was there, but it was their best bet.
As the flat farmland gave way to rolling foothills, Jesri leveled off their descent. It wasn’t long before she saw their target, a cluster of buildings nestled in a remote valley. Conveniently, there seemed to be a large airstrip for atmospheric flyers present. She angled her approach to line up parallel with the runway, coming to a stop in the air a few hundred meters above the facility.
She keyed the ship to descend vertically, releasing her restraints and jumping up to grab her tactical gear. Anja tromped backwards to the exit hatch as Jesri strapped on her helmet and body armor, slick grey fabric sliding over an articulated core of ceramic plating.
By the time their FAC’s skids had made contact with the ground, she was fully equipped with armor, tactical optics and a matte charcoal breaching rifle slung loosely over her shoulder. The atmosphere on Ysl was within reasonable parameters, so she opted for a tactical faceplate rather than a respirator. One of them needed to operate the shuttle, and while that precluded powered armor there were other quite serviceable options at hand - the armory in the Valkyrie sector had proven to be quite well-stocked.
Anja toggled the landing ramp, moving towards it as it opened with a rush of equalizing pressure. Crisp mountain air rushed into the cabin, infiltrating under Jesri’s faceplate with the tantalizing scent of vegetation and moisture. She paused for a second to relish it, thinking of the last time she had set foot on a planet with a breathable atmosphere. It had been a long time.
She was jolted out of her reverie by a loud crack as a kinetic slug caromed off Anja’s armor, harmlessly ricocheting back to embed itself in the surface of the runway with a spray of fragmented stone. Anja let out a low growl and brought her rifle up while Jesri moved quickly behind a support beam.
Peering out, she could see the response to their sudden incursion. Green-liveried soldiers crowded around the edge of the runway, hiding behind some spare crates and pallets. The Ysleli were tall with long, gangly arms and yellowed skin that clashed horrendously with their uniforms. Two forward-looking, predatory eyes sat high on their faces like black marbles over a gaping maw lined with tiny sharp teeth.
“These fellows look pleasant,” noted Anja, sighting down her rifle. Her metallic finger squeezed the trigger and one of the assembled soldiers exploded in a cloud of blood, bile and steam. His companions dove quickly back to cover over the dark smear where their comrade had stood. An answering spray of fire echoed through the valley and drew sparks where bullets pinged off of Anja’s armor.
Anja stepped further down, her suit moving the rifle precisely to track exposed limbs or thin spots in the crate barricade. More shots lanced through the soldiers’ cover, followed by wet pops and ululating wails of pain.
Jesri shook her head and moved back to the controls of the shuttle. “We don’t have time for this,” she grumbled, keying up the automated defenses. “Anja, I’m turning on the perimeter guns!”, she shouted.
“No fun,” Anja replied irritably, firing steadily at the soldiers. Jesri punched the control and turrets activated from the top and bottom of the Huginn, tracking targets around the ship. When the next fusillade came from the troops at the edge of the runway, the ship-mounted cannons chugged a few heavy blasts into the piled crates in response.
The crates disintegrated in a spray of fragments, peppering the troops clustered behind them with white-hot metal shards. The few survivors limping back from the blackened remnants of their cover took direct hits from the following salvo, their bodies providing only a mild and messy impediment to the cannon’s fire as it tore through them to gouge deep ruts in the soil.
“No fun at all,” groused Anja, moving all the way down the ramp. “Come on, sister, I have a lock on the signal source.” Jesri followed her down, her rifle held at eye level against her shoulder and her stance low. The ramp hissed up behind them, sealing the ship. As they moved across the field towards the installation’s cluster of buildings, Jesri toggled her communicator.
«I wonder how the boys are doing?», she sent, moving close behind Anja. Her sister pulled back a fist and slammed it through the door of the first building, sending it flying off its frame to crash into three soldiers waiting within.
«They just have to talk, it will be fine!», replied Anja distractedly, pulling her sword off her back and fastening it under her rifle. Bayonet thus affixed, she ducked past the door with a pulse of wordless satisfaction through the link. Jesri sighed and moved to follow her just as the first screams started from farther within. Hopefully Qktk and Rhuar could handle things up top for a few minutes.
Warmaster Reltryn growled low, the subsonic tremor of his anger causing his subordinates to flinch back. He was not unused to combat - in fact, the prospect of bloodshed was normally enough to brighten his mood considerably. The sudden appearance of a gargantuan warship over their capital, captained by a nightmarish alien monstrosity who howled at them in broken snippets of badly accented Yslel - that was a different thing entirely.
It wanted to fight, that much was obvious. He had come quickly in response to the customs agent’s panicked summons, forming up his picket patrol against the overwhelming bulk of the warship and attempting to negotiate the terms of combat. The horrid-looking alien warlord seemed to crave an honorable contest against the forces of Ysl, as was proper, but…
“INADEQUATE!”, it howled, its glossy mandibles jittering disconcertingly. “More required! Offer ours greater!” Spearbrother Syrir spoke placatingly to the demon beast, who shouted a few more enraged epithets before disconnecting abruptly. The spearbrother slumped, shaking his head, then looked up at Reltryn hopelessly.
“It demands greater forces be brought to bear,” he said, cringing away from the warmaster’s anger. “It does not consent to fight our patrol on the field of honor.”
Another growl rippled from the warmaster’s chest, and Syrir bared his throat in anticipation of death for his failure. It did not come, however, and he dared a glance back up to see Reltryn looking contemplative.
“Ordinarily,” hissed Reltryn, “I would demand my own satisfaction for such an insult. However, this shipmaster...” He looked out the viewport, seeing the bright sliver of the alien ship hanging distantly in the starry void. “This one may have cause to demand higher satisfaction than I can offer. His might is great.” He floated back to loom over his terrified subordinate. “Syrir, send a message to warfather Tarl. Inform him that our enemy has made a challenge to the honor of His Royal Majesty, long life and glory to the King.”
Syrir anchored his feet to bow low and pushed back towards his console, but Reltryn hooked a claw around his arm before he could depart. The terrified spearbrother met his gaze, shrinking back from the violent aura emanating from the warmaster’s every move. “Tell the warfather,” Reltryn growled, “that our enemy contests the honor of all warriors in his service.”
Syrir gulped and went to transmit the message, leaving Reltryn to drift weightlessly before the viewport and contemplate the bulk of their enemy’s great warship further. In his years of service he had seen much, and he thought himself knowledgeable about military matters. Yet this demon warlord was new. He brought a single ship to beggar navies and had knowledge of the Ysleli language and customs where Reltryn had none in return. Such a powerful and canny foe merited consideration, caution. Who could say what devilry such a being could wield?
Qktk slumped in the captain’s chair, legs shaking. “Mr. Rhuar,” he gasped, “I’m running out of things to say to them! How much longer until the ship can translate their language?”
Rhuar shook his head from the pilot’s station where he was communing with the ship via the jack. “Give it a few more minutes, Captain,” he said, “we’re tapped into their transmissions and are gathering as much source material as we can. You don’t want to use it before it’s ready, you’ll end up insulting their honorable grandmothers or something.”
Qktk clattered his mandibles in annoyance. “Right now I’m just screaming things I used to hear the Ysleli tradebrothers say when they were haggling,” he complained, waving his arms. “I don’t even know what half the words mean! In all probability they think I’m insane.”
“Insane is good,” snorted Rhuar. “I mean, not normally. If you’re insane on the bridge of a gigantic fuckin warship, though, it has an effect on people.” He stared into the distance, focusing on data from the sensor link. “It looks like that last exchange stirred them up a bit, so let’s wait for them to do whatever they’re doing. By the time they’re ready to talk more we should be able to speak in full sentences.”
He looked back towards the planet with the ship’s sensors. “If we’re lucky, the Huginn will be back up here with the weapon before these idiots are ready to fight.”
Anja barreled through the doorframe, sending chunks of the bunker wall tumbling down as her too-wide shoulders impacted on either side. The spray of stone chips and dust flew into the faces of the waiting soldiers, who swiped frantically at their eyes or fired blindly at the charging Valkyrie.
She was on them in seconds, her massive bayonet sweeping across the front rank and severing three soldiers at the torso. She speared a fourth through the gut, then fired her rifle to send his corpse blasting backwards off the sword into the remaining troops. They struggled to rise, dark blood coating them from head to toe, but before they could reorient they were cut down in the span of a second by precise bursts of rifle fire.
Jesri lowered her weapon and walked the rest of the way into the room. “Clear,” she said dispassionately. “Let’s move on.” They had pressed further into the complex only to discover an extensive warren of fortified tunnels below the surface buildings. No mere outpost, this was turning out to be a heavily fortified military research installation.
Not that it mattered much. Anja was forging a trail of destruction through the compound and it looked like the only weapons present were primitive kinetic slug rifles. Although they’d be a problem for Jesri if she got exposed to too much fire, Anja was entirely unaffected by their efforts. A few times they had tried to throw some form of explosive grenade - until Anja started batting them back towards the soldiers. They abandoned that tactic quickly.
They pushed through another line of soldiers who had fortified a security checkpoint, their weapons fire making quick work of the makeshift cover that had been pushed into the hallway. Anja gave a grunt of satisfaction as she passed the smoking remnants of the checkpoint and toggled her link to talk to Jesri over the din of battle.
«This looks like our target,» she noted. Jesri had to agree. The room they had entered was a large, low-ceilinged space with numerous pallets and shelves. On each were bits of technology scavenged from human installations - door controls, console displays, even a string of decorative fairy lights they’d found somewhere. The displays were labeled in angular lines of Yslel, neatly ordered in rows along the entirety of the room.
They advanced into the room, weapons ready, but encountered no enemies. Another door led to an extension of the warehouse and some token resistance. That room held more valuable prizes - rifles, armor, and other military technology. Some were strewn across tables in various stages of disassembly, groups of technicians fleeing in terror as Anja stalked towards them.
Jesri received a notice on her heads-up display that a data packet had been transmitted to them through the FAC. She found a niche to review it and saw with surprise that Qktk and Rhuar had managed to compile a translation data library for Yslel already, and had sent it forward to them. She looked up to watch Anja bodily throw a flailing soldier into the wall, staining the stone with a spatter of blood as he slumped lifelessly to the floor. Jesri sighed. It didn’t look like they’d have much opportunity to use the translator.
She moved through a shattered doorway to follow her sister, but stopped short when she came up against Anja staring fixedly at the contents of the next room. It was mostly empty, clean and spare except for the rubble around the doorway. A large table in the middle of the room was surrounded by a cluster of analytical and diagnostic equipment, and as Jesri moved around her sister’s hulking form she saw a cadre of frightened Ysleli scientists in lab dress quickly backing away from it.
On the table was a naked humanoid form, its skin dry and papery with age. The chest was sliced open, peeled apart to show the ribs and shriveled organs inside. Its head was turned to the side, facing away from Jesri, but the faded blonde hair was in full view. It had been plaited in a complex pattern, interleaved up to the crown of the head. Just like her sister Sophia used to wear it.
A low rumble suffused the air in the room, rising to a throaty growl as Anja stepped forward to confront the huddle of scientists. “You dare,” she thundered, stalking towards them. Her suit broadcast the words in Yslel as Anja spoke, bands of white-hot plasma rippling around her arms in a fiery mantle. “You fucking insects dare to touch my sister.” One of the scientists fainted.
“Please,” another shouted, “we only meant to study-”
“DEFILERS!”, she roared, the suit’s speakers augmenting her voice to bone-shaking volume. “THIEVES AND VERMIN!” She swept her sword across the group, slicing the Ysleli in half with a spray of blood. With a wordless scream, she leapt at the pile of dying aliens and began pounding them with gouts of plasma flaring from her fists, gore splattering around her with each thundering blow.
Jesri walked up to the table, laying her rifle next to her sister’s corpse. From the other side of the table, she could see that they had removed her eyes, blank sockets sightlessly looking out as Anja crushed the bloody remains of the scientists again and again into the ground. She stroked the corpse’s pleated hair gently, once, then turned to face her living sister.
“Anja,” Jesri said gently. The crash of the suit’s fists into the hardened floor drowned her voice in a wash of thunder. «Anja,» she said again through the link. «This isn’t why we’re here.»
“Our sister is dead!”, Anja screamed back, slamming her flame-wreathed fist through the wall. Stone dust settled lightly over the spatters of blood on her suit.
«And we’re going to avenge her,» Jesri countered, «by going after the one who did kill her. Not this trash.»
Anja straightened up, glaring down at the smashed remains at her feet for a few long seconds. “You are right, I was distracted,” she grated, “we need to find the weapon.” She raised her rifle and started towards the next area, pausing only once to look back at the examination table. “We will give no quarter to these grave robbers, however,” she growled, spitting the words out like poison, “if any more cross our path.”
Rhuar had to stop himself from pacing back and forth. The shipjack cable didn’t permit such things, as good as it would feel to walk off some of the building tension. “Uh, Captain,” he said, “there’s a lot of ships out there.”
Qktk shot him an irritated glare. “You said that,” he grumbled.
“Yeah, but I mean,” Rhuar tilted his head, causing a viewscreen to display a tactical map, “there are a lot of ships out there.” On the map, the blue bar representing the Grand Design sat centered in a sphere of graduated lines. The planet was visible, although growing less so every second as red dots continued to swarm up from the surface like angry bees.
“Jim’s moldy balls,” Qktk swore, “is each one of those a ship?”
Rhuar gulped. “Uh, no, each one of those is a fleet element. Ten ships on average.”
Qktk didn’t even bother to swear at that. “Do you have any thoughts on what to do if they attack?”, he asked plaintively, wringing his forelimbs. “I know this is a big ship with big guns, but…”
Rhuar shrugged. “Captain, I’m just banking on our asses running out of here as fast as we can after our fearless leaders come back.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “I hope they do come back.”
Qktk said nothing, but gave Rhuar a pained look and watched the dots gather into a red mass on the display.
Anja shouldered through another door, sending an echoing crash through the room beyond and raising a cloud of choking dust. Blood dripped from her armor and sword, dried flakes fluttering to the ground as she moved relentlessly through the bunker. They had not encountered any resistance past the laboratory with Sophia’s body, and Anja’s tension was bleeding over into her movements. Jesri had seldom seen her this angry, although she could scarcely blame her - the sight of Sophia’s eyeless gaze still haunted her vision as she advanced, lending a sinister aspect to every dark corner and obscured alcove.
They were moving through some sort of administrative area, consoles and primitive displays crowding desktops overflowing with charts and printouts. Offices lined the side of the hallway, but no movement came from within - this area seemed to have been abandoned or evacuated. Turning the corner they reached a sudden end to the hallway, a large double-door leading into a spacious office with soft lighting and luxurious furniture - and one occupant.
Anja slammed through the door to loom over the Ysleli sitting calmly behind his wooden desk, tossing a small reflective sphere between his spindly yellow hands. “Come in, come in,” he wheezed thinly, displaying needle-point teeth in a gruesome smile. “I’ve been waiting for you for some time.”
Anja stopped short, taken aback by the lack of reaction to her terrifying entrance. Her implacable advance had not spared much time for observation, but she now took the time to survey the room around her. Well-made furniture was placed in a loose ring around a low table in the center of the richly carpeted floor. Against the wall were several displays featuring restored Terran technology or curiosities - a jeweled music box sat on a lit pedestal, glittering prettily, while another rack held a matched set of three naval service rifles.
A sharp intake of breath from Jesri drew Anja’s attention to the back of the room, where a display occupied a place of honor among the collection. A nude humanoid figure in a delicate arabesque pose was lit gently from behind and below, a serene smile fixed on its prettily restored face. Auburn hair cascaded from its head in ringlets, shimmering in the display lights.
Jesri’s hands tightened on her gun until the material of her gloves creaked in protest. “Violet,” she whispered.
Anja whirled back towards the Ysleli, swiping her sword through the desk and reducing it to kindling. He was thrown into the corner, colliding with a display of vases and reducing them to shards that sprinkled over his slumped body.
“That’s annoying,” he said, levering himself into a sitting position. “Do you think you could refrain from further violence for a moment while we speak?”
Jesri stared at the slender alien - not only was he unharmed by a blow that should have sheared him in two, he was addressing them in English rather than Yslel. Her rifle came up and she squeezed a burst of fire at his head. The shots took him in the cheek, blasting the thin yellow skin to shreds and revealing an unblemished white-silver surface below. He gave her a reproachful look.
“Really, ladies, it was a simple request,” he muttered, straightening the remains of his chair and sitting down. The tatters of his face hung loosely down from his jaw, revealing the back rows of needle teeth set into shining metal bones.
“What are you?”, growled Anja, her free hand opening and closing menacingly.
The little alien gave her half of a wry smile. “Try to keep up,” he said, “I should think that’s obvious. Here they call me Administrator Trelir,” he said dismissively, a hand to his chest, “but more relevant to our discussion is my position as Emissary to Ysl.”
Jesri stared. “You’re the Gestalt,” she said accusingly, eliciting a wave of short, barking laughter from Trelir.
“Oh, goodness, no,” he chortled. “Merely a grain of sand on the beach, a pebble adorning the mountain. A representative. An Emissary, quite simply.”
“What are you doing here?”, Anja shot back, her frame vibrating with barely restrained violence.
“Just a bit of follow-through, some due diligence around the actions of your former employers,” he said lightly. “Nothing too important, but it’s good practice to tie up loose ends.” He tilted his head to the side, and a gigantic blast door slammed down to trap them in the room.
“Now,” Trelir said evenly, leaning forward across the ruins of his desk, “I have made my report to the greater Confluence. Please make yourselves comfortable while we await a response.”
The display flickered to life again, throwing odd reflections from Qktk’s shell as he drew himself up in the captain’s chair. The Ysleli who now appeared had mottled yellow-brown skin, thin scars tracing across his face. His dark eyes were hard and wary, possessed of an unmistakable competence - and exhaustion.
“You address Tarl,” he said gruffly, “warfather to His Royal Majesty Sitrl, long life and glory to the King.”
Qktk took a steadying breath and kept his eyes focused on the screen. “Warfather,” he said, relieved to hear the even tone of his voice, “I am shipmaster Qktk. I trust you can understand my words?”
Tarl inclined his head. “Yes, shipmaster. Your command of Yslel is impressive.”
Qktk didn’t feel like clarifying. His mind flicked back over a hundred tense hours spent in plush back rooms and noisy bars, cajoling and negotiating deals out of counterparts not inclined to take a Htt seriously. The watchword, as ever, was confidence. He had learned from the best how to deal with these prideful warriors, he reminded himself.
“Quite,” he said dismissively, gesturing to the side. “But beside the point. I see you have marshalled your forces, such as they are.”
Tarl’s face darkened. “It is not becoming of a shipmaster to sully honorable discourse with insults.” He leaned closer to the screen, looming in Qktk’s view. “I trust you will provide us satisfaction,” he growled menacingly.
Qktk stared back with studied nonchalance, even as his mind raced. Apologies were weakness, ignoring a challenge was weakness, so…
“The only insult, warfather,” he leered, contempt dripping from the title, “is the sad band of craven fools who appear before me. Do you believe that your assemblage of tin cans and pointed sticks can stand against my might?”
Rhuar glanced at Qktk in alarm as Tarl seemed to swell with rage. “You question the courage of a blooded warfather, insect?”, he hissed, his skin flushing a darker yellow.
“Oh, I should not impugn your courage, of course,” he said airily, “I would be terrified to face me in that ramshackle collection of plating you call a warship. One wonders what your unblooded grub of a fleetmaster is thinking, providing his esteemed warfather with such a laughable assortment of flotsam.”
Rhuar’s eyes were open wide, his exoskeletal arms waving in emphatic warning. Tarl was glaring at the viewscreen in an apoplectic rage. “You arrogant worm,” he growled, his voice low and dangerous. “You dare-!”
Qktk cut the feed and leaned back in his chair, breathing heavily. “I’m really not cut out for this,” he wheezed.
“Captain, what the fuck?”, Rhuar exclaimed, worry evident in his wide eyes. “You just insulted the largest military fleet ever! They’re going to murder us multiple times.”
Qktk shook his head. “The dockmaster at the old station gave me some tips on dealing with Ysleli traders once. Being rude demonstrates superiority and control, in their eyes. Insults keep them off-balance, but their sense of honor frowns on being provoked to physical violence by words. When they come back they’re distracted and you can get a better price out of them.”
Rhuar goggled at him. “Captain, we are not trying to save on a pallet of nutrient mix!”, he shouted. “These fuckin rage lizards started out wanting to murder us. Fuck knows what they’re thinking about doing after talking to the most infuriating version of you for an hour.”
“Trust me on this, Mr. Rhuar,” Qktk said sagely. “The dockmaster was very clear about their code. As long as you do not insult their children, their gods, or their king you will always have a chance to smooth it over. Our goal is to buy time until Anja and Jesri get back, and every second we keep them angry and distracted is another that they may use to complete their mission. If we can keep them from establishing the terms of combat with us, they will not fight.”
“If you say so,” said Rhuar doubtfully. “Seems to me like they’re about as angry as angry gets.”
Qktk chittered. “No, I think we’re still fine. They should be calling back any minute now. In fact-” He reached over and toggled the viewscreen, displaying their Ysleli contact.
Only it wasn’t Tarl. A massive Ysleli sat on the screen, lounging on an ornate throne some distance from the camera. His muscular bulk was draped in fine cloth and furs, but gleaming metal armor peeked out from underneath. His yellow skin was lined with age, eyes glinting with hard-won experience and a predatory savvy that lanced through the viewscreen to tickle all of Qktk’s long-buried flight instincts. One clawed hand drummed its fingers idly on a Ysleli skull, of which several were encrusted with jewels and affixed to his throne.
“You address the King,” he rumbled somewhat unnecessarily. “I am Sitrl, sovereign of Ysl, champion of Ysl, protector of Ysl.” His eyes flashed. “Word of you has reached my ears.”
Qktk was having a very hard time maintaining his calm facade. Rhuar was not trying.
Sitrl inspected one of his glossy, sharp claws. “My warfather says you named the fleetmaster an unblooded grub earlier,” he said casually, “which gives me pause because I am the fleetmaster.”
He looked back at the camera, his deep black eyes boring into Qktk. “Your powerful ship and hideous visage may cow my subordinates, but I am the King. You name me unblooded? A bold claim, to be sure, but one easily proven false.” His hand contracted, shattering the skull it rested on. “I will show you your own blood as the proof, every last drop of it. And then, shipmaster - we will discuss the punishment for spreading lies.”
The transmission terminated, and the cloud of red dots on the tactical display began to move slowly towards the Grand Design.
“Mr. Rhuar,” Qktk said weakly, “I will allow that I may have made a miscalculation.”
Hi! It’s Wednesday! I actually got around to advancing the plot in this one, so that was nice, but I fucked it all up with a double cliffhanger. I’ll make it better next week with an extra long chapter by way of apology. This installment makes the story longer than Hatchet - next time on Grand Design, Anja and Jesri escape to the woods and I’ll write ten chapters describing them foraging for berries. Up in space, meanwhile, Qktk and Rhuar will test their might in battle against the fearsome Ysleli! Come on, guys, LET ME SEE YOUR WAR FACE!
As always, thank you for your comments and for the time you spent reading. Have a good rest of your day!
submitted by TMarkos to HFY [link] [comments]

The right to die will bootstrap our "humanity for each other", TMBR

Greetings /TMBR!
I have previously posted about this idea on this sub before [1] and have expanded it into a long FAQ [2] with input from /changemyview, but now I need to fill in the gaps as to how it will begin. I am trying to argue many things in this post, but mainly:
If our "humanity for each other" is expressed:
However, our "humanity for each other" is not expressing itself very well, and I think the right to die can give it a cold-start.
The theme song for this post is: Ten Years After - I'd Love To Change The World


The projections of a negative future does not need repeating here, and we are looking for solutions. The socio/political option of a collective realization is shot down, for reasons including, but not limited to:
Having an 'attention action' horizon of at most a few years is deeply wired into us by evolutionary pressure, because that perspective has so far given us the best chance of survival. The problem is that the extinction of humans is not palpable, while poverty, hunger, police abuse, politicians corruption, among other things, are completely palpable. People feel those day to day, while in contrast to climate change and other similar issues, we may know it's going to get bad, but without knowing how, we have no idea how to react. We do not seem to be able to fix the problems that we created, leading us to draw the conclusion that evolution did not make us smart or ethical enough to solve the problems of our own thinking.
We can see issues of developing countries wanting what the West has [3], so, in my opinion, the lesson is that any change has to come from the top: in other words, the West will have to make the first move. As an example of the trend, here [4] is an instance of Cambodian farmers unable to reliably work the land so must contribute to being part of the problem of making other people being unable to work their lands in order for their own survival today, while having as much children as possible because they need cheap labour and to hedge their bets because they could die of famine/wadisease, which are more likely in the future with climate change.
If we can show that some action P leads to solving overpopulation/overconsumption/overproduction, and that one nation starts the ball rolling, maybe it could lead to other nations doing the same, because the citizens would call for it. I'm trying to show that there is a last hope that can work for P, which could lead us to try new emergent strategies to run society, and that is by bootstrapping our "humanity for each other", just as rugged individualism bootstraps our "survival spirit". What could possibly be used as a bootstrap? I'm arguing that the right to die can.
Nothing short of a global enemy like an alien species can unite the humans. Unfortunately our monkey brain isn't good at equating that things like climate change is the alien invasion. The good news is that I think there is a global enemy that we can choose to implement, and that would also unite us against the common enemy. It's a tricky paradox to unwrap, but I think the right to die can do this, and not because of mass suicide. What it should do is institute a predator, but also give us a balancing scale and a mirror, both of which are tools that we can use to measure the balance and identify the predator. The predator must be instituted for the plan to work though; I don't think it will be enough to have the balancing scale and the mirror.

Stage 2: Bootstrapping our "humanity for each other" with the right to die

It is often stated that a biological species without a natural predator will reproduce unchecked until its resource limits. A predator has the ability to "go in for the kill", and as humans, we seem to be the masters, the apex predators of this world, because of abilities that are sufficiently distinct from other animals. No other species has come close to these abilities, so we have remained on top of the food chain, and thus have great difficulty self-restraining our over-everything habits. If we want balance so that we are sustainable and "live in harmony" with the environment, then the right to die will insert a formidable foe.
This new predator will be like counterbalance, but what's difficult for me to explain is that an efficient/guaranteed/peaceful method of suicide should be allowed legally, but not "supported" socially. Then, there will be forces that are encouraging the suicide; here is an example:
Have you considered the implications of suicide in a for-profit healthcare system like Americas?
If suicide is a legal option, why would my health insurance pay for a lifetime of therapy and mental health medication when they could just lead me to kill myself and save them money?
Even if you want to exclude health insurance or assume there will be some kind of legislation preventing this, depression often comes with the feeling of being an unworthy burden. By legitimizing suicide as an option, wouldn't it be more likely these depressed people kill themselves to save their caretaker from the cost and hassle of dealing with them? I feel like this is already a factor in some peoples decision to commit suicide, but at least now suicide is clearly shunned both legally and socially.
There is a common trope about doing anything to save our loved ones, fight for the family, etc; I've recently heard it said by Rose in one of the Star Wars movies, “We’re going to win this war, not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.” Everyone has different things that they love, and if they love it, then they want to save it.
This force that I call our "humanity for each other" is a factor as to why suicide is shunned socially. In the above case, people who "feel like an unworthy burden" will experience others try to save them on a case-by-case basis, as they are currently. The difference (after the right to die) though, is that they must respect their right to die, so if people really had "humanity for each other" and want to save their loved ones, they have to look to the forces that are encouraging the suicide and "fix" those: in our case, going after for-profit healthcare and "feeling of being an unworthy burden". So then by "fixing" the encouraging forces, you won't just be saving this one individual but others as well.
As an analogy, the right to die will erect something like a scale in balance, and we can identify the forces that are encouraging suicide by the forces that are tipping the scale - something we can't do very well today. The forces that are tipping the scale are numerous: on the one hand, there will be forces that are encouraging people to kill themselves; on the other hand, there are forces that motivates people to say things like "the suicidal who survive their attempt usually regret it, so we don't want people to kill themselves" and even this variant I call our "humanity for each other". If "every life is precious", and the right to die is respected, then our "humanity for each other" should be going after the "genocidal murderers" so that no one kills themselves.
But suppose someone doesn't have this "humanity for each other", or has biases like, "I'm doing everything right, they have no reason to come after me", or "if it's not in front of me, then it's not a problem". They may believe that they are an apex predator with an impeccable survival instinct, but, if the right to die is respected, they will also have to contend with the new predator in the environment, so if they want to survive, they will have to face the encouraging "kill yourself" forces, and do something about those.
Now the issue is identifying the predator(s) - are for-profit healthcare and "feeling like an unworthy burden" really the murderers? A suicide opens up a can of worms, and reactions are all over the spectrum. Everyone looks at a suicide differently: some empathize, some accept, some reject, and some can't stand to look at it, and it is this quality that makes a suicide analogous to a reflection from a mirror. A mirror is "agnostic" though, meaning it reflects everything thrown back at it, so it's difficult to predict the end result of reflection. However, we can extract a general trend, and I'll take for-profit healthcare healthcare as an example, but it could be other things.
A common retort of criticisms is the pot calling the kettle black, and one eventually admits that they are part of the problem. For-profit healthcare is something consumed and in demand, and one "must have" it, never calling into question the systemic effects of our individual choice. "We can't do anything else" or "I don't want to be the first" are some justifications for not wanting to inconvenience ourselves of privileges, among others. So, given enough reflection, one is lead to say that we are "choosing" to keep the murderer alive.
What can one do against the predator when they don't want to inconvenience themselves? They can begin to think of removing the right to die, but this removes the scale and the mirror, the tools which we need to identify the predator and keep him in our sights, which would put us back at square one. So if the right to die is respected, one will have to deal with the predator, especially if they have a survival spirit or a semblance of a "humanity for each other". If they don't want to inconvenience themselves, they will have to do whatever it takes to make the predator not a threat. In essence, the mirror shows that we are our own worst enemy, and the predator will hopefully unite us against that common enemy, so that we will learn how to live with ourselves.

Stage 2 (Again): In other words

Wait, what?
How will it work? Once the predator is instituted, other parallel mechanics should also be put into motion, namely the mirror and the balancing scale. All that I expand on below should follow from the dynamics of the above three.
To be clear, it's not mass suicide that I'm arguing for; rather, that no further suicides are necessary because there is already a past history of suicides to reflect on, once our "humanity for each other" is alive and well. The discussion leading to (self-)reflection is the goal, not the act of suicide.
To understand the strength of the predator, you have to imagine it as if there were no lines drawn, so that it can swiftly go in for the kill, and human nature is free to react. If you draw a line at no one, suppose that were removed. Or if you draw a line for the terminally ill, suppose that were removed. Or if you draw a line for the 'curably depressed', suppose that were removed.
Against the predator that will take either you or your loved ones away, what strategies can you employ? Broadly, I categorize them into four: live with; kill; starve; and tame.
Living with the beast
This is what we are currently doing. The predator bootstraps our "survival spirit", so it stays alive and instead defers the consequences of its actions to the environment, as modeled here:
With the right to die, the predator will finally have teeth and test between the environment and humans, and see that humans are an easier kill:
By instituting the predator, it will begin to divert its attention from the environment and make moves into human life. This makes the threat more real than an abstract, future existential one. This turns the predator away from eating the environment to begin directly eating itself, biting the hand that feeds.
Now against the predator that is encouraging you to die, instinctual biological action is either "fight or flight" and if you do not choose flight, then you are left to fight:
Kill the beast
The first instinctual strategy is to fight to kill.
The predator will encourage the fighter to kill themselves, and due to the mirror, the fighter will also encourage the predator to kill themselves. I've already given the example of health care, but there are an innumerable amount of encouraging forces, both direct and indirect, including, but not limited to:
The predator is like a creeping evolutionary Red Queen, and due to the mirror, the fighter acts out the roles of both the rabbit and the fox:
"The rabbit runs faster than the fox, because the rabbit is running for his life while the fox is only running for his dinner." -Aesop
Starve the beast
The clever strategy against an indominatable predator if you can't kill it is to starve it.
The fighter is still fighting, whether due to their "survival spirit" or their "humanity for each other". By trying to cut off the predator, they are trying to find out who is sustaining it. Eventually, they come to find that the predator that is coming after them or their loved ones is kept alive because of the individual consumption habits because the fighter depends on the predator for their privileges and conveniences.
The Red Queen continues to exert pressure on everyone, and so the fighter continues their fight because of their "survival spirit" and/or "humanity for each other". As long as the material conveniences are available and still 'chosen', the strategy of starving the beast will leave one in this loop for many repetitive iterations.
Tame the beast
The looping done while attempting to starve the beast will lead the Red Queen to incrementally exert more and more pressure. If we can't kill or starve it, we are lead to tame it before it kills us.
Here we are, caged with and by this juggernaut of a beast, and we seem to be driving it so hard that it seems certain to either crash or break down, and yet nobody really knows why we are driving it so hard at all - where are we trying to get to? However, while we think we have a handle on the predator, it becomes clearer that we are just keeping the predator alive, and it's been argued that we aren't in the driver's seat after all [5]. The predator will see, "oh, is this what the market can bear?" and resist a new normal by asking, "how much more can it bear? It can bear more, right?" because it is just as clever as us because we support it. The Red Queen will want to break through any equilibrium because it has bootstrapped our 'survival spirit'. The situation isn't hopeless though: what I'm arguing that can tame it and give it a counter-balance is our "humanity for each other", but it is expressing itself quite coldly right now.
It may seem that there's no way out of the looping done in the previous starving strategy, but fortunately our "humanity for each other" is also concurrently bootstrapped. Since it might need a cold-start, the bootstrapping will likely be rather unprecedented (just like the rugged individualism of bootstrapping our "survival spirit"), but once expressed, it should hopefully lead everyone to self-reflect and to the realization that "we have seen the enemy, and it is us", leading to the question, "why am I fighting against myself?" Here is a linear representation:
Right to die -> increase in (awareness of (potential)) sucides -> looking for the root cause -> general societal self-reflection -> radical change in consumption/production habits
Nothing unites the human species like a common enemy (take an alien invasion as an example). With the right to die, the predator becomes the common enemy, and with our "humanity for each other" bootstrapped, we are then able to unite against it.
The balancing scale
As a more illustrative example of this tool, the right to die should work as a balancing scale as envy is to this primitive society [6]:
The mirror
The mirror is a machine that provides the means for reflection and self-reflection. A reflection is difficult to trace, not to mention the innumerable forces that encourage one to kill themselves, but I can offer an example of both types of reflection.
Consider the social norm of "so where's your house and two kids?" For rhetorical purposes, I will call this a "terrorism source". Currently, future parents are psychologically abused into wanting to breed, and no one seems to do anything about it because there doesn't seem to be a power to go against cultural norms. What I'm trying to say is that there is a power that can fight the terrorism: terrorism itself.
Think of this reflected force like this:
terrorism source -> parents
Some people see events in the world and take them as signs that they don't want to bring a new child into the world. What just happened here was self-reflection. Some people aren't like this, and so we arrive at:
terrorism source -> parents -> child
Now with the right to die, you can then add "child -> suicide" for some cases:
terrorism source -> parents -> child -> suicide
If the parents loved their child, they would immediately see the force reflected back:
terrorism source -> parents <- child <- suicide
which they may misinterpret as "blaming the parents"; indeed the terrorism source may also take that stance, but that's not what I'm trying to say. Hopefully, some parents, after self-reflection, may finally deflect and direct that force back:
terrorism source <- parents <- child <- suicide

Stage 3: A new operating system

Wait, so my punishment for my actions is that the others want to kill themselves? Great! More for me and my own!
The tragedy of the commons is frequently brought up as a final barrier. Although I haven't studied in this direction yet, from secondary interpretations [7], it's claimed, by Elinor Ostrom and her work with collective action theory, that people in real life can and do overcome the tragedy of the commons. The way you do it is by creating a system of rules (i.e. "institutions") that punish people for gaming the system. The main problem, though, is that the people in power don't want to give up that power or change their behavior. I'm proposing that the right to die, while not quite a direct punishment due to incorporating self-reflection, should qualify as sufficient as a single instituted rule.
Once our "humanity for each other" is bootstrapped, then we can install a new 'operating system' (to borrow a term from the "Exponential Altruism" proposal [8]) on top of it. But, this raises the obvious question: who will decide what direction? The right to die proposes a natural principle: since we cannot currently decide top-down, we experiment, in an emergent manner, ways to live. Then, if the citizen doesn't like the direction, they can be encouraged to off themselves, but if the experiment still cared, they would do anything to not encourage them to kill themselves. This is the metaphor of the balancing scale. If the people in power did not want to experiment, and still respected the right to die (this is a reason why it has to be instituted!), then if the citizen offed themselves, they would no longer have power over them. This is the metaphor of the predator, imploding itself alive.
If "every life is precious", then what kind of society would not encourage someone to kill themselves? I argue that this is a meaningful question, and I think its answer is along the lines of those espoused in "What must we do to live" [9]:
We have to want a future for someone we’ve never met on the opposite side of the world.

Stage 1: Instituting the right to die

If the predator will do as outlined in Stage 2 and 3, then just one action is sufficient to lead to a cascade of actions. All the questions about overpopulation, overconsumption, overproduction, etc, reduces down to an initial one: how to institute the predator?
There are several barriers that people have against supporting right to die, including the 'survival spirit' and 'humanity for each other'! Along with the other pro-choice arguments, I can offer a few more:
As well as my previous argument that it will affect overpopulation/overconsumption [2]. But in the context of the new predator, why also should one support?
Lastly, I haven't studied this angle yet, but I think it's relevant to the non-identity problem [10] and could be (part of) a solution to it.


There are a few initial problems that stand out on first glance:


We have thought of ourselves as apex predators for far too long; we should learn to fight with a predator that is just as capable as us. The main hurdle is of everyone realizing they are the problem and that we are all in this together, which I believe and have hopefully argued that the right to die can accomplish. Bootstrapping our 'humanity for each other' is not a complete solution, but it provides a base on to which to build a differently run society, one that answers the question: what kind of society would not encourage someone to kill themselves? The stamina for this challenge we already have; we just need the tools.
[2] /TimeToGo/comments/97wrjq/cmv_the_right_to_die_is_the_best_shot_we_have_at/
[3] /worldnews/comments/9q4fy8/teen_climate_activist_to_crowd_of_thousands_we/e86ub0m/
I use words like "should" to point out weak points for people to chip away at, and for me to find out what I need to defend more. As always, the devil is in the details, and I need help fleshing him out. I don't know much about collective action theory and the non-identity problem, so I'd be especially interested in pursuing these ways of framing the problem. Thanks!
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