18 September, 2097
The Skarr, Republic of Australia
Gravel crunched against the boots of the soldiers as they marched down the ruined street, their faces hidden behind visored helmets. All around them, people stopped scavenging in the mud and turned to face the troops with mouths hanging open like thirsty dogs. Some vanished into crumbling buildings, others hit their knees and began weeping, but most just stared. Nobody from Northton ever went into the Skarr.
Briat North wished it could have stayed that way, but unfortunately the universe simply hated him. Put in charge of a ruined city that had destroyed his reputation and then some, followed shortly after by a young brat squashing his already beaten ego into the dust.
He sighed underneath the dark visor of his helmet as his entourage continued down the street, attracting more and more eyes as they went.
He really couldn’t wait for this place to die.
A few minutes later and they’d reached their destination, a ruined building that matched all the other ruined buildings in the slum. Nevertheless, it was where they needed to be. With a nod from him, one of Briat’s men stepped forward and opened the door sharply, cracking it against the door frame.
A second later, an ancient man came tumbling out, so frail he was almost transparent. Loose robes hung off his body, and what was left of his hair was chopped short. Briat snorted as the man raised his eyes to the guards and began weeping uncontrollably, his wrinkled hands raised in praise.
Old Man: “By the Imperium, by the Imperium! The court of Northton has descended unto our hovel in all their glory! I didn’t think I would- “
Guard: “That’s enough old-timer.”
Old Man: “My apologies, glorious ones! I did not mean to offend…”
Briat: “What he meant to say was ‘shut your trap’! We don’t need to hear this, I just need you to listen to what I have to say. Can you do that?”
The old man cried even harder as if those words were the most beautiful things he’d ever heard. It made Briat sick just watching the joy that welled up, but he sighed and continued. Solomon Cross and his ‘Black Network’ wanted loyal troops to help in the fight against the punk known as Uek Ferris.
And though he hated to admit it, there were few more loyal than a Skarr Zealot.
Briat: “Alright, let’s start with your name, and whatever title this group of morons have given to you.”
Old Man: “Your grace, my name does not matter to you. I am the dust beneath your boot, the sand beneath your feet, the stone beneath you-“
Briat: “Name. Title. Now.”
Old Man: “Your humble servants have called me the Great Teacher, glorious ones. But if that does not please yo-”
Briat: “It’s fine. Now, I know you Zealots have a lot of pull in the Skarr. I want you to spread the word, pass it on to all the sects and hovels in this place. All of the rats in the sewers, every worker and peasant you can find. I need the most loyal of you morons, the ones that would die for Northton, for a mission. When I ask for the lot of you, you’ll be ready. Think you can handle that, weasel?”
The old man doubled over with his head in his hands, the sobs raking against Briat’s ears. He nodded several times in between tears, and raised his hands again. Cries of thanks and gratitude spewed from his bleeding gums, but Briat had already begun walking away, sick of the whole exchange.
Honestly, he really had no time for these people, especially people like that. But from what he heard from his people in the Skarr, the old coot was ranked the highest of the Zealots. He’d get them ready for whatever plan it was that Solomon Cross had been cooking up.
That was, if the pompous idiot ever told him what the plan was.
03 October, 2097
Beldrake Smith slid open the door with a smooth and practiced motion, stepping into the room beyond. His eyes quickly took in the scene before him, noting down the details as they flew into his brain. Weapons were everywhere, all neatly organised in boxes and crates by both model and type.
His mind did the calculations and estimates almost by instinct alone. 30,000 credits worth of Skelton D-16’s, 45,000 credits worth of Kronnig 12’s and 24’s and at least 23,000 credits worth of Axel Hydralinth’s.
Not a bad shipment, especially after recent events. The War of Etrion earlier in the year hadn’t been ideal for the gang, with the Archmage’s cronies watching over the planet like the watchdogs from Hades.
Teresa Matlock stood in the dead centre of the room, her watchful gaze overseeing the few crew members packing the crates, carefully checking off the crate numbers as she went. Drake walked over and cleared his throat to announce himself. She turned and smiled as she met his eyes.
Teresa: “Yes Drake, what is it?”
Drake: “Call for you Madam, the Black Network. It appears Solomon Cross would like a word. Do you have a moment?”
The leader of the Matlock Mafia sighed to herself, ticked off another check on her datapad, and spoke again, addressing the members in the room.
Teresa: “That’ll be enough for the moment, I think. Take five, both of you. I need to make a call.”
The crew members nodded and strolled out of the room, making jokes and general comments about each other before the door slid shut behind them. Once they were gone, Teresa straightened and pumped up her smile even more than usual.
With a nod, Drake removed the black comlink from his pocket and dialled in the appropriate number. Seconds later, the image of Solomon Cross flickered into life, and Drake turned it to face Teresa. He spoke as soon as he was able.
Cross: “Good day to you Madam Matlock, I trust you’re well.”
Teresa: “Oh, as well as ever, thank you Solomon. To what do I owe the honour?”
Cross: “Unfortunately, more of an update than honour. Just letting you know the current status of the Network. North finally secured the last of the Zealots, they’ll fight for us when we need an army. Druki’s begun the smuggling process, as well as continuing his talks with the Brain. And as for myself, well, my company profits for the quarter have been on the rise, as you would know.”
Teresa: “Well, you’re paying us enough to undermine your competitors. But I suppose you want to know what the status of the Mafia is?”
Cross: “If you wouldn’t mind.”
Teresa nodded again and Drake spun the commlink back to face him, his brain already bringing back the figures and calculating the numbers.
Drake: “Well, our profits have increased by a margin of 38% since we last spoke, and we’ve gained 23 new properties on Etrion and Qoter combined. Membership has also increased, with 257 new operatives’ system-wide. The War was obviously a setback, as you know, but your investments have indeed helped.”
Cross: “Good, good…but what about the-“
Drake: “The Storm? Unfortunately, as Druki may have told you, his influence is still spreading. Rumours say that Vohilla’s crew have left his employ, but others are still banding with him, or smuggling for him. At least 3 more major gangs have joined his cause. But, as I said, our membership has increased, and with it, our influence. Soon we should outnumber the Storm, possibly even the Brain, so long as current figures remain exponential. Anything else?”
Cross: “…No, thank you Drake. That will be all. Madam Matlock, thank you once again for your efforts. I’ll be in touch soon. The pieces are beginning to fit together...”
Teresa farewelled the man and Drake ended the call with a single tap. He sighed and the two exchanged a glance, the concern visible on both of their faces. Drake had known Uek during the Core, had seen him grow into the force of nature that he was today. And while this alliance had been good for the Mafia, both he and Teresa knew the dangers of overconfidence.
Solomon Cross, however, was still keeping himself in the dark, convinced that Uek was merely a piece in his game, a piece he could remove with careful planning…
But, as Drake had said in their first meeting, Uek Ferris was not someone who could be taken lightly.
20 November, 2097
The Conduit Tower, Knightborn
Uek: "...and I can assure you that, whether or not this Act is passed, I will not be changing the rights I offer any Collective under my command."
Uek Ferris flashed a smile at the young reporter before him, willing trust into his words. It had been a long, long day of meetings and scheduling, as well as two different construction site visits, finally wrapped up by this interview. Silently, he cursed the Governor for making his life harder once again. Already, he'd been beseeched by reporters and online comments about his stance on the Collective Registration Act.
Though publicly he was a somewhat reluctant supporter, ensuring that he did not anger both sides, privately he didn't really give a damn. The Archmage was already his enemy, and the Governor was a player that would need to be removed eventually anyway. The whole thing was a colossal waste of time in his eyes.
Of course, he couldn't let anyone else know that. Commander Ferris had an image to uphold
The reporter nodded thoughtfully, a slight blush in her cheeks. Enid was her name, a name Uek had already used frequently throughout the interview. Ever the people person.
Enid: "Well that's good to hear. I'm sure that many of the Collective were afraid that things would change in their working lives once the Act is passed."
Uek: "Admittedly, I didn't have much of a choice. My bodyguard's a member of the Collective, one of the best I've known. If I'd kicked her out, well, I'd consider myself a dead man within the hour!"
Enid: "Ha ha! I wouldn't think so, Uek. You seem like you can handle yourself."
Uek: "Oh, I don't know about that. You should see me when it comes to snakes! Fall apart like a pile of leaves."
Enid: "Oh dear! Yeah, spiders are what get me every time. Can't stand them."
Uek: "True, but you could always stand on them."
Enid: "Ha! I suppose so."
Uek grinned as Enid straightened up, the cameraman moving closer to better capture Uek's face. Enid cleared her throat and waited for the cameraman's go before continuing.
Enid: "So, Uek, just one final question to wrap us up. What is your final word on the Registration Act as a whole? Ultimately, do you find yourself for or against the campaign?"
Uek filled his lungs and breathed out slowly, like he was deeply considering his words. Which was not the case. He'd had his answer planned from the start.
Uek: "Well Enid, ultimately I would say that I support the campaign, though it is with a somewhat heavy heart. The Collective are not defined by the few individuals who have used their power to kill, to destroy. As I've said, many Collective are within my employ, and they are some of the hardest workers I have. To them, this act IS an invasion of privacy, and we must accept that negative repercussions will occur, and we must deal with these repercussions fairly and justly. "
Uek: "However, the potential benefits the Act offers, in my eyes, cannot be ignored. As the Governor himself has stated, not all Collective members will require monitoring, only the select few most powerful. And of those few, fewer still are likely to pose any risk to us. Archmage Arathorn, for example, doesn't seem the type to attack innocent civilians."
Uek: "In the end, this is a debate with no clear winners, and there will be disagreements over this Act for days to come. But I feel that, so long as we do not treat the Collective any differently if the Act goes through, we can all move on as a safer, more united society."
Uek sighed as he finished with a slight flourish, and analysed the nods he got from Enid and the crew. Accepting, agreeing nods.
The reporter looked at the cameraman for a second as he whispered a flurry of words to quick for even Uek to hear. She nodded and turned back to Uek, another question on her lips.
Enid: "Well said Commander. However, before we go, I was wondering if I could have a word from your bodyguard. You said before that she was Collective?"
Uek: "Indeed I did. Jez'na, would you mind?"
The stone-faced woman stepped forward, her face locked in her trademarked scowl. She seemed to fill the room, and her words, though quiet and in broken English, carried more weight than Uek's ever could.
Which was exactly what he'd been counting on.
Enid: "So, Jez'na was it?"
Enid: "I'd just like to ask you quickly what your views on the Registration Act are. Do you feel that it's a violation of privacy?"
Jezn'na: "Asgoth's war killed millions. Other Collective could also do this; kill, destroy, annihilate. This planet was besieged by them, and cities everywhere...burned. I know I will not destroy, but I cannot speak for others. I am willing to register for the good of us all. Let them be registered too."
Jez'na stepped back and looked straight ahead, while Enid had another lightning fast conversation of whispers with the cameraman. Clearly, they hadn't expected Jez'na to support the Act. They'd probably been after some conflict, some drama or something similar.
Uek smiled. Too predictable, it would seem.
Slowly, Enid turned back to Uek, her grin back on her face as she wrapped up the interview.
Enid: "Well, thank you for that Jez'na. Always good to hear a... second opinion. And thank you very much for your time tonight Commander."
Uek: "Not at all Enid! Thank you for taking the time to see me! I know my thoughts are my own, but I hope that I've helped someone out there tonight. Thank you."
Enid: "No problem. Well, there you are folks, tonight's interview with special guest Commander Uek Ferris. Thank you for watching, and goodnight."
The room fell silent as the cameraman finished up with the recording, giving a quick nod when he’d finished. Uek yawned as he rose from his chair, his hand out as an offering for the young reporter. Enid quickly glanced at the crew packing up their gear before taking his hand and shaking it softly. Uek kept his touch light in response, so that she barely registered his calloused hands.
She’d been right, of course. Uek was more than capable of looking after himself.
Enid: “Well, thanks again for letting us come out tonight Uek. I know it’s hard to find time in a busy schedule.”
Uek: “No worries at all! Any time, Enid, any time. I enjoy a good debate as much as the next chap.”
Enid: “Yes, well the Act has certainly given us plenty of opportunities for that. You see the debate last week?
Uek: “Certainly did. Those Followers sure have a way with words, don’t they? I can see why they’ve gotten so popular.”
Enid: “True. In fact, I’m a bit of a believer myself. Something about the solidity of it all.”
Uek: “Hey, no argument here.”
Enid: “Are you a religious man Commander?”
Another grin slipped onto Uek’s face, his mind ticking over at the best response.
Uek: “Oh, I dabble, I suppose. Is there something greater out there? Maybe, maybe not. But ultimately, I’ve got a life to live. Better to live as best I can then worry about anything else.”
A nod from Enid, a look of understanding in her eyes, and Uek knew he’d hooked her. She would spread the word now, to all her colleagues, to the news, to the media, that Commander Ferris was a good man. An understanding man, with good morals and a head in the right place.
Which was the main reason he’d agreed to the interview. Good publicity was always a bonus, and was currently one of the main pillars that supported his claim to leading Knightborn’s government.
With a few words of farewell from the reporter, the news crew made their way out of Uek’s office, their gear clinking and jostling with every step. He gave a little wave as they marched off, another yawn slipping from his lips.
He waiting until the sounds of the crew had dissipated before slumping into his office chair, a frown on his face. Jez’na, as if hearing the unsaid question, stepped up to his desk, cracking her knuckles as she spoke.
Jez’na: “Before you ask, yes. I do believe the Act is a good thing.”
Uek: “Look, I know I asked you to agree with me beforehand, but if you want to say something…”
Jez’na: “I have nothing more to say. The Collective are as dead to me as your father is to you. I do not care if they feel invaded by this Act. And if it stops more destruction, then I say go ahead.”
Uek nodded, but raised an eyebrow at the woman before him. Her stony face revealed little, but Uek had learned to read the little tells over his time working with her. He knew, right now, the memories of her past were beating on the walls of her skull. Just be the way she clenched her fist, he knew the pain that she hid so well was once again rising to the surface. A pain he could relate to.
Uek: “Fair enough, though I can’t say I’m fond of the idea of an Imperium official monitoring you should your power level register high enough.”
Jez’na: “If they’re looking for beings like the Archmage, I won’t be pushing the limit. Besides, couldn’t you change their network?”
Uek: “If I had to, yes. But it’s just another complication I could do without. This whole thing is a complication I could do without. I need the Collective workers on my side, or Knightborn’s going to remain a pile of rubble.”
Jez’na: “Yes, I suppose so…”
Uek: “There’s just… a lot to deal with right now, and the plan’s had enough snags as it is. The Collective War, One, this Act, not to mention Brickton and Donovan.”
His teeth ground as he said her name. The woman, and her companion, who had spat in his face by escaping his prison over a year ago now. The pair that, despite his best efforts, still continued to elude his presence. They’d been spotted in August, in Wheatview, as they’d rocketed away from the city aboard an aging shuttle.
If Commander Sian hadn’t kept their location a damned secret… well, it would’ve been one problem solved.
Jez’na inhaled, about to speak, when the door burst open as a figure ran through. Uek turned slightly to take in the figure of Almas Havok, puffing lightly. He’d clearly had quite the jog. His auburn hair gleamed with sweat, contrasting slightly with the white suit he wore. Uek’s mind instantly kicked into gear, whirring over the possibilities before the young man spoke.
Havok: “Uek, Jez’na. Good to see you.”
Uek: “Same to you Almas. What’s the matter?”
Havok stepped closer, his face uncertain and somewhat wary. After Vohilla had failed in her mission to deliver the massive restock of Ossillium, Uek’s project had been hurried along, trying to make use of what little of the rock they had left, along with whatever dribs and drabs that various gangs sent their way.
But Uek had done the calculations himself. Surely, they couldn’t be out yet…but the look on Havok’s face…
Great. More complications.
Havok: “Well, um, sir…you see…”
Uek: “We can’t be out of Ossillium yet, can we?”
Havok: “No, it’s not that. In fact, Andrew and Karol have finally nailed the X-17 level.”
Uek: “Okay…and what’s the bad news?”
A deep breath from the young man told Uek volumes.
Havok: “Well, erm, there was a…fight within the subjects. Three of them somehow got in contact with one another, managed to organise the others into attacking the droids. The system activated, and the threat was quelled but… well, many of them decided to take their own lives, rather than get put back in their cells.”
Uek froze, his eyes going hard as he considered the words. They’d just finished up with subject 209 a few days ago. A failure, but he had showed promise. They were close, so very close…but now…
Uek: “How many are we talking?”
Havok: “Well, of the remaining one hundred and four subjects…we lost sixty-seven.”
Havok said the words like they were poison, and seemed to shrink back the moment he’d uttered them. Jez’na, for her part, raised her eyebrows in surprise.
Sixty-seven subjects lost.
Uek raised his fingers to his brow and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to clear the frustration that was building. Sixty-seven, and any one of them could’ve been the ideal match for the project. True, it would make their supply of Ossillium last, so perhaps there was that…but still…sixty-seven.
A loud sigh escaped from Uek’s lips and he began rubbing his temple, his mind already thinking of solutions and ways around the problem.
Why was it that long days always turned into long nights?
28 November, 2097
The Haven, Regentis Shuttleport
Dustin: “Don’t worry Tank, we’ll be there.”
Tank: “Are you sure? I know it’s a pretty big ask…”
Dustin: “Hey, we get it. Losing your friend like that, especially after what happened with One.”
Risa: “Trust me Tank, we know what it’s like to lose friends. We’ll help you out.”
Tank: “Thanks…thanks guys. Really.”
Dustin: “All good mate. Keep us in the loop closer to the date and we’ll roll from there.”
Tank: “Okay, sounds good.”
Dustin tapped the comlink and the image of Chain Rockwell faded away, his relieved face the last thing to disappear. Dustin turned to Risa, meeting her eyes, knowing his thoughts were the same as hers.
What on earth had happened?
Tracks was gone, stolen by Eris, Eris of all people. And now Tank was recruiting a team to infiltrate the Spire. True, neither Dustin or Risa knew Eris or the Vindicators particularly well, but they had trusted her, trusted them, with their lives. It just seemed…wrong.
Dustin: “Tell me, do you think that was the right call?”
Risa shrugged, offering a quick grin as she took in his words. Dustin couldn’t help but smile back, a low smile tinged with uncertainty.
Risa: “I don’t know. We’re getting involved in something bigger than us, that’s for sure.”
Dustin: “Oh, we’re definitely in over our head. When’s that ever happened?”
A chuckle was Risa’s only response, so Dustin let his gaze wander, the thoughts in his head churning like waves. Absentmindedly, he took in the interior of the Haven. It wasn’t huge, but it had everything that they needed to get by. Though it was somewhat awkward for the pair of them when it came to showering, there was no place Dustin would rather be.
And it certainly beat sleeping in an alleyway.
A minute passed as the pair contemplated the plight of their friend, their thoughts going back to their last conversation with Tank. It hadn’t exactly ended on the best note.
Resurrecting the dead. That had been a new one.
Dustin could still remember Tank’s crestfallen face when he and Risa had disagreed with him, though Dustin had to admit that the offer had stood out to him. Thoughts of his Mama, dying in his arms, had fought their way to the surface. No doubt Risa had thought of Tane, or her old teammates. The possibilities of seeing them again, speaking to them, hearing their voice…it was almost intoxicating.
But Dustin had fought of the thoughts. He’d learned long ago that death had its place, just as life did, and disrupting that balance was just…unnatural. Not to mention his religious beliefs on the subject. No…as much as it pained him, the dead would always be the dead.
He and Risa had accepted that. Tank though...Dustin wasn't so sure.
Eventually Risa turned and faced Dustin, a look on her face that he now knew so well. Over the past few months, he'd learned an awful lot about the woman he'd thought he knew...about whatever past memories she held on to.
And that look, the slight sadness in her eyes, the hardness of her frown...that look had his ears open immediately.
Risa: "Dustin, look, I don't know what to say. Tank's our friend, and Eris...was our friend too. But we know Tank, know what he's had to go through. And Eris...Eris is still a mystery. All of the Vindicators are."
Dustin: "I know, I know...it's just...well...this whole thing feels like it's going to blow up in our faces, and the Registration Act hanging over our heads...if that's not a guillotine I don't know what is."
Risa: "Yeah...but the Act...what do you think of it?"
Dustin sighed as a scowl slipped onto his face, his thoughts coiling and unravelling as they seemed to fight each other for supiriority. It was a while before he responded.
Dustin: "Honestly? It all seems a bit...sudden. This kind of thing would usually take weeks, months of debate before it was even considered, but the Governor just dropped it on everyone like a bomb. Of course I want people to be safe, and maybe registering would help, but I have no qualms with the Collective, with Eris... But, besides all of that...this Act seems to be doing a great job of tearing us and the Collective apart."
Risa: "Go on..."
Dustin: "Look, all I'm saying is that it's very familiar. It's exactly the kind of thing Uek would do."
Risa: "You think he has?"
Dustin: "...No...not this. It wouldn't benefit him, but it reeks of him nonetheless. Like you said, something bigger is at stake hear, something beyond our squabbles about Registration."
Dustin: "And besides, in the end, what does it even accompliosh! The guys being monitored are beings that could easily shatter those chains, and no amount of registering would stop them! In the end, it's the common people who lose...No, it feels...rotten...and, I don't know...I feel like siding with Tank will eventually come back to bite us."
Risa: "You think the Collective will see us as enemies?"
Dustin: "Yes, no...I don't know. All I want, right now, is for this to be over, for Tank to have his friend back, for Eris to see what she's doing."
Risa smiled as Dustin let the last of his words escape his lips, filling them with as much truth as he could. For they were true. He didn't want a fight with the Collective as a whole, not for something as stupid as this Act.
Slowly, Risa stepped closer and placed her hand on his shoulder. His blood warmed at her touch, and he met her gaze as she spoke.
Risa: "Look, for what it's worth, I agree. This whole thing...it smells like a ploy, but there's nothing you and I can do about it. All we can do is work on what we know, what we can change. We know Eris stole Tracks from Tank, and wasn't exactly kind about it. We know that she's holding him captive. And we know that Tank asked for our help."
Risa: "Dustin...I've always had a...hard time making friends. But I know that when a friend asks for your help, you help him. What's that book you're always reading talk about?"
Dustin: "It's a pretty big book..."
Risa: "Live for others is pretty prominent. And there's that bit, about the coat?"
Dustin: "Offer they cloak as well, yeah I get it."
Risa: "Exactly. Do as much as you can. Dustin, Tank lost his friend, and he's desperate. Do you think I'd stand idely by if some Collective being stole you from me."
Dustin: "Ha, very doubtful."
Risa: "Right, so lets get Tank his friend back, and roll with blows as they come, okay?"
Dustin grinned and nodded, his smile deepening as he absorbed her words.
Risa: "Good. Now get out of here. If we're going to the Spire, I'm going to need a few more bullets...and a long shower."
Dustin barked with laughter, but received his satchel nonetheless. It jangled beautifully as the credits rolled, the luxury of a very large Core savings account and very minimal living costs. He hit the button that opened the Haven's rear door and it lowered with a faint hiss of well-oiled hydraulics.
But before he stepped off, he spun and met his companion's eyes. Those pools of green seemed to twinkle in the dimming sunlight.
Dustin: "Um...Just so you know, I'd do the same for you."
Risa: "What's that?"
Dustin: "If anyone stole you away..."
Risa: "Well I should hope so. We've been through enough as it is."
Dustin: "True, true...and haven't I told you to stop snooping through my stuff?"
Risa: "What can I say, lot of good advice."
Dustin: "Sure is. Want me to get you a copy? I'm sure there's a vendor somewhere that sells them."
A slight tip of the head was all Dustin needed as he turned to stroll out of the shuttle, only a few thoughts on his mind.
That Tank needed his help.
That Tracks would be rescued.
And that, no matter what happened, he wouldn't let anything take Risa away from him.
Unless, of course, zombies were involved. And with resurrection on the table...well...who knew how that would play out.
Sorry it took a few days to find the time to read this. Fantastic episode! I like the way you managed to show both sides of the Act and have very well thought-out reasons for both. I also love it when people refer to other players' series, so the beginning of the tie-in with the cross-over is great! Good stuff! Your points have been added!