Hard Reset

Spacious Skies

"It's crowded in here."

Mars has it’s own unique sights at first light. The rusty flavor of red illuminates everything and sunlight that hits Mars has very little to do other than soak or reflect off the mostly shadowless face of the plain looking planet. The giant silver spires that reached to the skies from the different cities and the skyhook dot the surface along with the occasional breaks, canyons, mesas, and raging dust clouds.

With the surface of the planet widening a sole city pinned in the center grows larger. The five mega-domes that make up the body of the city draws closer. All the way down through one of the shabbier domes, through a pin hole of a crack that hisses at passing, and down into a dusty neighborhood through a window into the room of one Nicholas Cord.

Nicholas Cord was a broken man. A throw back to society completely stripped of all sense of personhood – once a proud father, a successful husband, long ago when Mars was still a developing colonist way station; when the Ranger job mattered and payed the bills. There was a time before the Fall when shiny buttons and the fresh holster of a weapon meant something. About the time Cord lost it all when the TITANs shocked the planet. He could see his family waving to him in the back of his mind with smiles plastered to their faces – well, what was left of them after he’d psycho-surgeoned all of the painful memories away. During better times when he cared about combing his hair; about shaving his face.

Tonto, Cord’s muse, woke him at the appropriate hour that he was adjusted too. The breakfast blueprints randomized at the wall-fabber from across the room as the window wall to his right opened to reveal the dawn of Sol. Like the sunlight pouring into the room his eyes opened to the never-ending stream of data that was the Mesh.

Trumpets and horns of an old western film signaled a victory through his endoptic info-box registering 5127 old stale notes, 47 currently rotating dialogues, and 1 fresh new message. Remaining in bed scratching at his unclean body reading through some of the circulated messages until reaching the bottom, to new message number 1 Nicholas groaned through the dark. The new mail looked so official as to be gold-wrapped through the VR tag attached to it through his endo. He reached out through the mesh to pick it up. Upon pulling it into view the envelope rendered invisible as the note self opened to a dense message. A new ego to hunt.

Tonto cross referenced information and began firing boxes loaded with info at Cord’s face. The memes included very important information including parties that referenced the original bounty and who that bounty had circulated through since posting. The tags went back for almost two years.

The Blonksy-ee Brothers Kemosabe. They get word from above. A new person we must find.

“This thing has prints all over it. Nobodies caught this guy?”

Bounty dropped from above by Tharsis Terraforming Office. They say this man. He is no good. He is crooked. He is a thief. Steals data and then dispenses it amongst anarchist networks. This man his bounty is posted by the TTO as twenty thousand creds.

“Sounds fresh. Got any leads?”

Mesh is broken around this man Kemosabe. He is a good cleaner, at covering his tracks. This will be hard to follow, but I will see in to it. Researching.

“Let me know,” as the fabber along the wall dinged ready. Cord could see the slop pile from across the room – it’s steamy scent traveling through the air to his nostrils. With mouth salivating he dressed himself rewarding inertia with food. Traveling down to the garage level where his bike stayed he took off through the tall parking garage into the over-crowded streets of Valles-New Shanghai ’s “Little Shanghai”.

The streets were dense from newly sitting souks that weren’t there just an hour ago. Random stops along the path were walled off by sitting eateries, hole in the wall artisans, and desperate gypsies hoping to turn a profit. The mechanical hum of robotics that made up the clanking masses was like a crowded room. Robotic sounds moved freely through the streets and smells dabbled along the air from every open pot, shabby alley, and hollow souk. Driving down the road dodging through traffic and clankers Tonto opened up a channel into Cage’s mesh endoptics.

Kemosabe! I have stumbled across a TTO open source about the terminal problems in New Shanghai being hacked all the time. There is an open source issue about patching in progress to route the data trails through more walls, but for now there are weak spots in the system. I see there in this network of information, many places that go unseen. This hacker who is taking from them he is able to program self-corrupting data. This is why no one can ever track him. But Kemosabe! I have found a public interface terminal where there is currently a hack in progress! No alerts signaled because the system was never tripped! This man, his ID reads Ju Nu Pai, and he is in the downtown center of New Shanghai’s corporate district right now.

“Good job Tonto. Start trying to run camera feeds in the area to see if we can track him that way. I want to know whats up.”

I see this man he is very smart. Most security sensors in the area have been re-programmed with a self-scrubbing system already. He will no longer exist in a few minutes as he is deleting all evidence of him being there! We must ride hard to catch him!

“On it,” as the accelerator to the engine hummed into a higher frequency and Cord’s bike chugged off into New Shanghai’s professional looking soiree of buildings. The towers that occupied the area blocked all sight after moving into them. The vague shapes of people and vehicles blurred by as Cord made his way via mesh-mapping. The revving of the bike’s engine geared down to a cooler locomotion with the pass down Zhongshan Road into corporate HQ districts.

Passing through the corporate area was different from Little Shanghai and it’s clanker populace. The diversity of biomorphs wandering through it could be anyone from anywhere. Cord drove by several buildings with a full army entourage guarding the front doors. Through the mesh feed all sorts of confessor, weird and corporate auto-boxes popped out of peoples chests, through guardian robots eye’s, even out of some of the windows that ran the great lengths of the buildings – their information vague or expressive, even cautionary. The center city of New Shanghai was wealthy and didn’t mind showing it with toppling greenery and life-signs. Knowing the layout by a grid in his HUD Cord parked to hoof it the rest of the way there.

At the Tharsis Terraforming Office’s building was where the public terminal was marked on the mesh-map. This particular public terminal was designed for privacy and so most work done on the mesh had zero records to show for it. Wandering straight up to it Cord found the terminal empty – he stared about accessing public sensory data only to find most information that he was sifting through to simply disappear at his fingertips.

Scouting the area Cord found a small cafe catty-corner to his location. Jumping into the cafe security system, Tonto right behind in his indian garb and a stone knife at hand, was a small matter. Accessing the simple security features of the system they punched through to the security feeds and found a camera optimized to look straight out the front door across the street where the terminal was facing the cafe. In the few brief moments he had to sift through data Cord snapped a picture of the lone man IDed as Ju Nu Pai.

Cord stared at the data feed to see his target through a brief moment at the terminal. When the man turned to walk away his face was washed in white with the detail fragmenting, the software cooked up the facial blueprint of what was left barely recognizing the geography of a face before the information self-annihilated. The hacker had donned a Sylph sleeve to blend in with his surroundings. Ju Nu Pai had taken a left after he’d finished his work at the terminal. Soon the data faded from the server and was gone.

Cord brought the software recognition blueprint of Pai onto his HUD and began to walk in the direction his bounty had left in. He crossed many people, but none of them matched the facial pattern of his target.

Moving down the road past many a corporate building the assortments of people and places began to shift. The sleeves started getting less and less corporate to more and more Martian. The walk took Cord down a particular street, where with the help of his optics and Tonto he marked a face that matched Ju Nu Pai. Keeping the pace was difficult with the population on the street as thick as it was.

Ju Nu Pai meandered into the slummier parts of the New Shanghai where souks formed and clankers dwelled. The Sylph moved gracefully between the alleys all the way to a ripper doc deep in the souk network. The front door was guarded by a couple of heavy looking biomorphs. Nicholas stopped outside to weigh his options; He took his chances and attempted to get in.

“Excuse me?” Nicholas asked the door guards, “I need a doctor. I want to have something implanted. Right now.”

“Theres a list, unless you can afford to pay more.”

“I got some cred but I can’t wait.”

“Then let me see if the doc can pass some patients up.”

The talking guard turned to walk inside. From the doorway Cord could see the interior for a brief moment. Pai was standing in the middle of the room in conversation with what he could only assume was the doc who ran this little outfit. It took a few moments for the guard to return asking for payment before entry. Cord payed the fee and entered, only to find at this point his target’s conversation was at an end. The sylph handed the doc some sort of parcel. Pai moved for the exit right past Nicholas with no eye contact as he moved towards the door.

The doctor approached his newest patient and was about to start up a whole diagnostics procedure when Nicholas threw out, “Here’s the deal. I really need a biomod, but I forgot I have something very important back at my vehicle. I’ll be back.”

And with that Cord left the bewildered ripper doc’s office in hot pursuit of his bounty. He didn’t have to go far to find that the Sylph was still moseying down the street. Tonto registered some interesting information as they parted the crowds and made after Ju Nu Pai. There were three members of a Martian Hypercorp Ego Hunter crew dubbed “The Red Men” standing some ways down the street, proudly displaying their IDs on top of their heads like cops. They all seemed to have their eyes locked on none other than Ju Nu Pai, who remained naive of their presence.

When Pai turned a corner to take an alley Cord jumped into action and split from his spot down a souk to cut off the bounty on the other side. The Red Men followed the Sylph down the alleyway, and when Cord arrived on the other side he watched Ju Nu Pai cross the street to a motorbike and climb aboard. Without hesitation Nicholas drew his auto-pistol and jumped the back of the bike whilst holding the driver hostage.

“Drive. Now!”

“Wha?” was all Ju voiced when the Red Men at the mouth of the alleyway pulled their weapons on them. Tonto registered three hostiles within range of damage. A red outline was drawn around each of the Ego Hunters and they stood out amongst the souk clanker populace like sore thumbs. Cord whipped his gun arm around to let off a fury of rounds, his face framed in rock-n-roll rage.

In a moment with the start of a few gunshots the vicinity turned to chaos. People were screaming, loud noises boomed, and gunshots wailed through the Martian air. The bike sped off down the street away from the insanity with a few stray bullets popping off the side, barely missing some very vital limbs.

Past the border to New Shanghai the bike churned Martian dust into the open air beyond the city walls and Nicholas was free with his bounty. In flight Nicholas remembered seeing the Red Men tactically disperse from the scene. The open Martian desert was their destination. Cord had to get the bounty to safety, but he kept his weapon to Ju’s ribcage.

Nicholas strained to look back to see a dust trail kicking up right outside the New Shanghai dome. Their pace would not be able to match the other ego hunter’s bikes. Nicholas called in to the bounty broadcast network inside Valles-New Shanghai to register his score.

“Come in broadcast network. I am claiming a prize for the Tharsis Terraforming Office, come in, this is Nicholas Cord. I have bounty register number X-567AU9 New Shanghai office. I will be bringing him in myself, do you copy?”

“Be advised Nicholas Cord we have you on record as the captor for bounty X-567AU9.”

“Wait!” cried Ju, “I know things! Things you couldn’t possibly imagine!”

Suddenly a whiz of bullets fizzled past their ears as a pair of Red Men breached a small cliff and came down behind them. Cord jerked back to hammer one of the bikes, emptying the rest of his clip and thwarting the biker to a stop. Ju steered forward with fear in his lungs, the sound of gunfire and reloading so near.

As they sped out of a small canyon Nicholas managed to cock around and pop a vital mechanism on the second man’s bike, causing an explosion. The man crashed into the floor nearby. Driving from the scene Nicholas watched over the horizon to see a flying car hover into sight to aid the fallen man.

With a sigh of relief Nicholas faced forward only to find Tonto and his AR screen registering extreme danger and death threat warnings from collision and terrain disruption. Which was overlapped by local news feeds of something falling from the sky as reported by immediate emergency broadcasts pouring out of Valles-New Shanghai’s primary facility alert-station. His entoptic display became overloaded with impending doom and he was momentarily fixed on how he could possibly be in any imminent danger. The Sylph in front of him began screaming wildly like a wounded child.

Keeping his cool Cord wiped his AR/VR screen to see beyond to a humongous ship falling out of the sky right about where he was driving to, its “bow” turned to a raging fireball. He immediately kicked the bike to the ground and clutched his twenty-thousand credit reward as the the ship came crashing down a mile or so away in front of them. They skidded a few feet and stopped to the feeling of a shockwave of dirt jumping up around them, the concussion literally popping rocks into smaller pieces.

The shake of the boom was Mars-shattering. The thunder-clap of the bass rocked the deepest echoes of the most wrong turn alleys of the mind. There may have been other-worldly sights involved.

Martian dust hangs like curtains on the air, due to the low gravity. This was an act on a much larger scale, but the effect was the same. Dust-walls beyond sight as the air settled into its new color. When Cord sat up through the grainy balled clods and streams of red dirt that crumbled off of him he took a moment to adjust to the new ambiance of things.

Luckily Cord’s Alpiner was built to deal with this sort of environment, but the Sylph might start having respiratory issues. He pulled Ju Nu Pai out of the dirt and got the Sylph on it’s feet dusting him off. Ju Nu Pai slowly opened his eyes to look around, scared shitless.

Clearing his throat Nicholas said, “Alright, hands behind your back. I can’t have any accidents at this point. Your too valuable.”

“Please,” Ju begged, “Don’t turn me in to the authorities!”

“Move it kid,” with a push.

The trudge through jumped soil was strenuous. Every few feet the Sylph would trip up under his own weight as he tried to acclimate to the new flooring. Nicholas kept an eye about but otherwise steered the bounty towards the downed ship.

After the short trek they were in front of a giant broken spacecraft – and not exactly the whole of it. Whatever part it had been connected to was missing, but they were greeted by a large chunk of hull and lots of engine with the tail end up in the sand. They approached the nearest porthole. Cord went on over-watch while Tonto engaged mesh overrides. After the electronic override failed Nicholas continued to rip a panel off the wall and wired the door open.

They stepped inside to a hallway where the heat made them sweat. Wandering through the small maze of corridors they encountered no one. Until they reached a room that had a single person inside, a man that was just finishing his own procedure – so that he could evacuate as soon as possible.

Just beyond where they were Jack Honzo wasted little time after the crash in pulling the corpse to the floor and cutting it out of it’s suit. He brandished a knife to use for the surgery. Feeling at the base of the spine where the stack was located he dug in deep and hard to pop the bulb from it’s socket – a spray of blood inked his chest and he was done. He could hear the sudden footsteps of people. Maybe someone had survived like he did? He threw the corpse away into the dark.

Across the room a door slid open. Jack pulled his handgun and watched for a moment. The shuffling of feet on the other side told him it was two people.

“Hello,” came the voice of a stranger as a head peered into the room with it’s own gun, “I’m a Hunter with an arrestee. I was transporting him back to the city till your ship dropped right on top of us. Mind if I enter? I have him in cuffs.”

As Honzo lowered his gun, “Sure. That’s fine. Where exactly on Mars are we?”

“A good few miles outside Valles-New Shangai,” Nicholas spoke up, “I have no way of moving any faster, but a group of hypercocked ego hunters are trying to get to this guy and I can’t let them do that.”

“Must be a nice price-tag on your ear,” Honzo shifted to telling Ju.

“Please,” pleaded the Sylph, “I can pay you much more than any bounty on me is worth. If you help me I will share profits with you and you can go on without turning me in! What is wrong with you!”

“What knowledge could you possibly have that I want?” asked Cord.

“I won’t say too much. An AGI somewhere nearby Mars. He’s managed to materialize his own base. It’s main intention is AGI research and development. It wants to make a new AGI to compete with itself, but that could lead to another Fall event! I will say no more on this matter.”

“Hmm,” Nicholas pondered.

“That sounds quite interesting,” interjected Jack, “and actually I’d say that sounds like it’d be worth way more than a crap bounty. I just crashed here and I haven’t been to Mars before and I’m not really sure what to expect. So I’m down to get the hell out before something happens that I don’t want to be around for. Something like…”

“Something like what?” asked Ju.

“Damn,” spat Nicholas, “I’m getting readings from radar that the ship is being surrounded. Probably scavengers. My muse and I will try talking to them.”

Nicholas stood still for a moment. Jack and Ju watched around the room. Their own AR overlays customized for different things in their subjective vision. Ju looked about for food and water tags as Jack passed through tech information about what was left of the ship. Some electronics such as doors were still activating and from the emergency readout of all the blowouts that did bring the ship down her engines seemed to be in working order.

“Theres three groups outside,” Nicholas said coming out of a trance, “They’re all Barsoomian. One group is claiming residence already, and the other two say they just want scavenging rights. Also I think an AV just landed on top because Im getting another reading of something larger almost directly above us. We’d better find a way out before they get in,” Cord kept on, “Also I thought I saw something blip off my radar a second ago, but hmm.”

“An AV landed?” asked Jack.

“I assume as much. I saw an AV come to assist one of those guys on the drive about.”

“Why don’t we steal their ride?”

“You up to it?”

“The ladders are this way.”

“Sounds good, but wait. I’m getting readings from all over. There are four individuals that just arrived on our deck in that direction, two more above near the roof,” as Nicholas pointed to a wall on one side of the room.

“That would be the ladder I’d use.”

“They’re splitting up. Two are coming straight for us. Get ready!”

They split into three spots in the room. Ju simply hid in a pile of trash. Jack took to the shadows and became the darkness with his active camo. Nicholas held in the center behind a crate in the middle of the room, ready to spring a trap.

The two ego hunters who entered didn’t have a chance. The door opened to no sound and an empty room. Then Cord was upon them, spraying a full auto-mag into their chests and felling the two of them. Their deaths weren’t guaranteed, but the scavengers would pick them clean. Nicholas focused back onto his radar, but the only movement on their level was registering from the three of them.

“Wait. It appears the other two on our deck are gone.”

“What?” asked Jack from the darkness, “I thought you said there were four?”

“I did. I saw four, but now we’re alone again. The other two that came in from the roof are somewhere behind us. No wait I have another reading pacing around in another room on the ship towards the front now. And the two above us are headed back to the AV! Ah screw it. Let’s move!”

They took the nearest ladder to the fifth floor where they made for the whereabouts of the hull breach the Red Men used. Jack paced on ahead intent to catch the AV invisible in the near light. At the hole he found to the roof there was a nine foot jump to the ceiling where Jack managed to cut off the escape of a Red Man about to jump up – were it not for the burst of ammunition that Jack let off into his chest just before hand.

Nicholas kept Ju close as he came up on the rear trying to keep pace with the echo of gunfire in the vicinity. The unknown blip on the radar had just appeared on the fifth floor towards the aft side of the ship. Engaging his T-ray emitter he swung around to sift through the walls to see a strange sight.

A bouncer of heavy modification was making it’s way towards the three of them. The mods it carried gave it an alien look and the large helmet it wore made the morph look even more crab-chimeraic. Sort of put off by the strange vision Nicholas kept an eye on him for a moment when suddenly the being stopped it’s movement and turned to stare back at Nicholas. This disturbed Cord even further as he realized they were making real eye contact through T-ray emission. Snapping a quick shot he meshed the info to Jack.

“What is that!” exclaimed Nicholas through the short wave communications.

“Where did you get that picture?”

“It’s following us to the roof.”

“That can’t be good. One sec I got a baddie.”

A voice rang out from above through the hole Jack was waiting under. When a head appeared Jack plugged it with bullets clearing the path to the AV. They assisted each other to push their way through the ceiling to the parked vehicle – only to find ascending the side of the Black Claw were a group of other scavengers that had arrived just at the moment of their departure. Rushing into the vehicle Jack set forth hacking the AV on, Ju piled into the back helpless, and Nicholas hung out the door with his auto-mag.

The group of hostiles that appeared in front of them came up in fives, all climbing a grappling-hooked rope from the floor level. Jack was able to get the AV started when the first bullets rang off the sides of the AV, so Nicholas blasted a high explosive round at the closest one propelling him from the lip. Enraged for their brother the four continued to fire on Cord. The wasted rounds popped off the Alpiner sleeve like toothpicks hitting a steel sheet.

When the engine began to purr like a kitten Nicholas stepped in to see the view change rapidly. Jack took them straight up for a brief moment. The boat was still but suddenly rocked under the weight of something clutching underneath the frame of the vehicle. Engaging his t-ray Nicholas spied the very same weird looking bouncer clinging to the underside of the air vehicle. Jack pressed the gears forward and the AV sped off into the Martian sky at a blazing pace.

Directing the AV to Valles-New Shanghai yielded a peculiar result. The meshing in the vehicle was tuned to the city. They could access and broadcast anything, except that the AVs projector popped up a message from the ID of Captain Chan Lee of the VNSPM.

His thick Chinese accent was apparent, “Meestah Cord? I presume.”

“Yes. I’m having trouble getting the bounty home but I assure you I have everything under control.”

With a sigh of vehemence the ranked officer on the VR comm looked about, “I do not expect to talk to you again Meestah Cord so let me just say that if you can bring him in still we’ll triple the reward. As of right now though we are responding to a code red from some of our contributors. You understand.”

“Oh I got that loud and clear chief.”

Cord ended the transmission with a blatant stop to the conversation, “Divert away from the city. We’ll drop in the desert close to a community and send the car out. Maybe they’ll waste time looking for it.”

“Sure,” and Jack steered away into the Hinterlands.

When the course was re-plotted the anchor of weight that was hanging to the bottom dropped. The AV righted and Nicholas was relieved that the strange Bouncer had disappeared from clutching to the bottom. The AV flew for a good few minutes before Jack brought it in low enough for everyone to jump out. The hacking Jack left with it’s auto-program had the flash of its blue reflection flying off into the distance.

“It’s this way,” Nicholas started to walk.

The others dragged along for miles as the stretch of sight went on and on. Then a small settlement seemingly appeared as if it were a mirage. Getting closer they were finally able to jump into the nearby community mesh of the village, but were stopped by counter-intrustionists that spotted them immediately and began threatening to boot them out if they didn’t identify themselves. Nicholas took over and assured them that they were friendly. When they were allowed to enter the village they noticed its tallest spire was a stationary surface-to-air rail-artillery, and the populace was casting messages from the village walls in friendly-memefied overtures to welcome the new visitors.

Guards at the gate instructed them of weapons procedures and sharing rules of the more-so autonomist Barsoomian life. After a short time the guards instructed the crew to visit the house of Sleis-mon, the village elder. They left to roam the small grounds.

Past the walls the idea of a small community was immediately evident. Although there was openness space was overly used within the walls, cluttered with debris from long-hauls, salvage operations, and general techno-refuse. Passing by a few of the high-end synths kept the three on guard as some of the populace remained stand-offish.

The friendliest Barsoomians were just a few junkers that happened to catch conversation between Jack and Nicholas’, “We’ve got to get new IDs because if we wander the waste and the wrong people catch up we’re done.”

“I agree, but I already have a good cover,” mentioned Jack, “and no one knows who I am anyway.”

“We can help,” one of a pair of junkers intruded on their conversation.

“Yes. We can make a trade,” the junky junker’s friend added.

“We are programmers,” the first junker continued.

“And we can help you blend into the city like sand in the desert,” ended the junker’s friend.

Cord and Honzo reached an agreement as to the specifics of the IDs to the men. The programmers assure the group that they are quality writers. After a decent trade in supplies for the programming effort Jack and Nicholas left with coordinates and time dates.

In the meantime the pair wandered to the dwelling of Sleis-mon. They had to travel down a corridor where sensory equipment pinged with alarms at their weapons, but all were cut short by some executive order. A few synths wandered through the area but the main house where Sleis-mon dwelled was mostly empty.

In a main dining area they found the Ruster sitting to himself. Garbed in a symbolic robe of utmost respect towards his proof of clan membership, his pride. Adorned at the skull by a cybernetic crown, a weird aura pulsed through them as they entered the room. Sleis-mon’s face was framed in utter dignity with a hint of happiness curling at the corners of his mouth, he stood at the end of a table – the tassels of beads and feathers, ringlets and chains, do-dads and keep-sakes, fetishes and gifts all chimed on his body as he moved about.

In French-African, “Welcome to my house strangers.”

Cord spoke up responding in the language as Honzo and Pai’s muses attempted translations, “Sleis-mon. We’ve come from the desert seeking refuge. I regret to inform you that we are however evading forces from the city.”

“The TTO is not welcome here. Nor that VNSPM with all it’s mockery. All their foolishness. They will all be turned away. They will not be allowed to enter. Barsoomian city is this that you have found yourself. The Outbound we call it. Tell me stranger, have you come from the city?”

With that Cord and Sleis-mon converse about the changes that have taken place on Mars since the Fall. Sleis-mon is very hospitable and assures them they are safe while they rest for their voyage back to town. The visit ends with Sleis-mon’s evading hand wave and the small confines of the village walls to comfort them the rest of the night.

The next day they rise to Barsoomian home-stock foods. Grown vegetables and freshly harvested vat-meats all whipped into a lovely community breakfast to start the day. They run in to Jort, a Ranger that happened to be staying with the Outbound.

“Eh boys, you lookin for some action?” Jort asked in a very slanged out Cantonese.

“We’re staying here another day or so for a package,” Jack informed him.

“What did you have in mind?” asked Cord.

“These people have a heavy hauler that beamed the community a distress a couple nights past. Few clicks from here. Their not really mercenary in here so I figured you all might stand to make a profit while you wait? Nothin but sand-ghosts out there anyhow.”

They agreed to meet at the Eastern doors after gearing up. Wandering about they found a few supplies they needed to take with them into the desert. Pai loaded up with cold gear and survival equipment, while Honzo found a few items and Cord rested mostly. They linked up to find Jort waiting at the door, his six-cylinder spinning about his trigger finger.

“I’ve got us tac-mapped and our feeds are encrypted so we can all see what each others sight,” Nicholas informed the crew as they adjusted to the new input inside their respective endos.

“Good,” said Jort, “Now we won’t lose each other if theres a storm. Alright we’re hoofin it. This way ladies.”

Their walk ranged far beyond the community into the Hinterlands. The spine of a road was passed several times as they over-lapped its underlay in their hurdling straight-line direction. The bounce of Martian gravity helped to pass the terrain up, some of it looking more hellish than normal. When they had clicked almost 16 kilometers away from base they stumbled across a site they weren’t expecting.

The hauler lay in the middle of the road looking a wasted heap. Surrounding it was a small host of scavengers, each of their helmets a fiery red color. Over the simple communication system handicapped to them Jort beamed the message, “Fire-Skulls: techno-scavengers.”

A lot of the scavengers were at the back where they could not be seen, a pair stood about at the front of the hauler, and one lone sentry stood at a tall rock spire off the road. Jack and Jort intended to split in order to attack from all sides. Jack slipped away in his camo to ambush the sentry, while Jort snuck around south to get a better view of the back, and Nicholas took Pai, who was weaponless, straight up the center.

Jack Honzo moved down a short path and checked the spire sentry every few meters after moving. He remained a ghost to the sight-bound sentry in the rough martian terrain. Sneaking around behind he spared little time dispatching the guard with the power and silence of his rail pistol, while drawing the body back before being seen.

With over-sight into the parameters of the scavengers operation the tac-net dispersed the information of the killing between Jort, Nicholas, and Ju. Creeping over the edge of the cliff Jack’s vision also worked to reveal the scavengers were working with about six other men on the back side of the hauler, plus a large gorilla-labor morph. The scavengers were working frantically to rewire some systems on the hauler and dump the trash heap collected in its bed.

Taking the initiative Nicholas took aim at the synths at the front of the hauler and opened fire. The shells whined out past his ear and their slugs smashed home into one of the synths, causing the other to jump for cover. Jort’s mag could also be heard firing away in the background, and Ju’s tac-vision stayed relatively still.

With the noise of gunfire ringing in the air Jack wasted no more time laying prone. His first action was to fire upon the gang leader, placing a well aimed hole in the rib area. The shot man fell to one knee and after a brief moment to engage some sort of pain-editor the scavenger leader jumped into the bed of the armored hauler, his men in shocked disarray.

The battle was swift. Nicholas wasted the first bad guy at the front of the truck, his clan buddy jumped for cover. At the rear the group of men with their Gorilla synth dispersed to take action, but not before a couple were blasted by Jack’s hidden fire. Raging at this point, the gang of scavengers pop some chems and are now ready to fight.

The lone ganger in Nicholas’ sights moved with the speed of a ferocious animal. Before Cord could draw a bead the amped speeder was already past him around the rocks; a frightened Ju’s hands could be seen up in a begging motion on the tac-net. Before Cord could reposition to fire a bullet the ganger had already erected a set of two foot long metal teeth from his knuckles hidden underneath the flesh of his forearm. With a blinding stroke Pai’s tac-vision blurred to a muddy red. Nicholas just managed to clear the top of the ledge to try to shoot down at the killer before he could finish Ju, but his mag suddenly crapped out with a presumptively loud click which prompted the gangers attention. Jumping up to ledge height the ganger lunged but wasn’t powerful enough to pierce Cord’s Alpiner skin. So Nicholas popped his emergency mag from his sleeve and shot the man down were he stood, the smoke of Cord’s pistol barrel enshrouding the air around him.

Meanwhile the group at the rear of the hauler had taken action. The gorilla-synth jumped to the height of the top of Jack’s ledge while another ganger swooped around to flank. Invisible to the naked eye Jack held his position as the enemies lured themselves in. The gorilla-synth looked about for hostiles, while the ganger got lucky and spied the edges of Jack’s silhouette. When the ganger fired a missed shot at Jack he spun about to shoot back at point blank – giving his position up to the gorilla – with a gory headshot. Before getting grappled Jack made a long jump for the next nearest rock spire like a ghost on the wind.

Cord jumped down to Pai’s aide and spent a brief moment trying to stabilize the wound, Pai’s sleeve wasn’t setup for massive damage and the trauma was likely to kill him if he went unassisted for too long. With Honzo distracted with his particulars, Cord would have missed the next opportunity had he not been paying attention when the engine of the hauler suddenly roared to life. Stepping out onto the road to meet the vehicle Cord aimed a straight line between the sights of his gun and the beginning of the gang leaders face, who was driving with a member in the shotgun. Nicholas pulled the trigger three times.

Jack landed with a thud. He thought he was safe for a moment when he turned back to see the synth staring in his direction, priming it’s stance for a leap. Hesitating Jack missed with his first mini-missile, the shrap digging in at the backside of the giant synth. The gorilla jumped right after that, tracing the smoke tail of the missile to land right on top of Jack. So Jack had to jump as well or face being crushed, which he did and aptly to the same spot he jumped from originally. The synth was in trouble now, as Jack aimed true a mini-missile into the chest of the hulking brute. It was still alive enough to jump all the way back to Jack’s spot again. Before Jack could dodge about the ape made a wild swing and caught Jack in the chest, knocking him off the spire onto his back on the floor. Where with a last attempt to defend himself he loosed another missile at the gorilla at the top of the rock. The missile dug straight through the chest cavity with an explosion big enough to shatter the sleeve into a hundred pieces. A brilliant sight!

The combat was over. The hauler sat idle covered in bullet holes and blood, a couple of corpses hanging out the windows. Their friend Jort Durkor returned from his fight behind the rocks and they all climbed aboard the Barsoomian hauler to take it home.

Back at the Outbound Station the weight of the people’s demeanor changed with the arrival of their lost fortune. The dirtied mercenaries handed over the hauler for little more than gratitude and peace of mind. The Outbound now saw them closer and more clearly as caring beings and reflected as much with new gestures of friendship.

A day later the junky ID writers and the Heroes of the Outbound met up to exchange package for trade. Honzo and Cord were going to leave here on a good note. They planned the leave for Jack’s downed Black Claw to see about hitching off the planet that night.

The drive from The Outbound to The Black Claw took a few days. Jort’s buggy ran out of fuel several times and the group had to sit about trying to relay radio information between several Barsoomian groups to barter for small quantities of fuel. Eventually they made it though. The Black Claw’s engines now flatly laying against the Martian floor, as if it had been shifted like a portrait.

The strange thing about their arrival was not so much that the whole of what was left of a ship had been moved, but that surrounding the Claw for miles were sparse camps of Barsoomians. They stood and sat about out in the open and obvious, though none dared approach past a certain point. Some hermits, some wandering tribes, some well established clans of the Barsoom movement. All were curious to know of what was to become of the hulking engines, and that was where the Scum came in. Four small ships had fallen out of space to land around the downed Claw. They were clearly the dominant force as the ships could be seen moving junk in and out, crew moving about, sentries on point. The lions of space kept the Barsoomians back like packs of hyenas.

Jack spoke up while they were in the car, “We can get in. Just keep driving. I’m pretty sure you all can come with me. I’ll make mesh contact asap and vouch for the group. They know me here.”

Jack sat back in Jort’s buggy and basically nodded off for a moment. His ID flipped through a VR phone booth and he was suddenly Mordin Kind. He was interfacing with the mesh of The Black Claw, it had been reactivated by the crew preparing to launch back in to space. The Mesh told him all of their plans down to dates. One month till the special fabbers aboard the space craft have built a launching platform big enough for the Black Claw’s engines. Another half a week after that the engines had to be propped up like an old school shuttle. Didn’t want to go through all that effort just to make a giant bullet. The day after the ship is prepped up it launches off the surface on an old school rocket sled to continue ship surgery in the zero-G of Mars’ orbit.

Once Mordin had gotten through to someone else in the camps on Mars around the Claw he was welcomed beyond the security patrols that had fended off Barsoomian scavengers at fence lines and trenches. Driving up through a series of barricades they were allowed in to the Black Claw stronghold. The engines were being reassembled by teams of workers, nano-swarms buzzed about on the air with utmost purpose. Drones rolled about, loaded down with tons upon tons of repair and retuning equipment. On every ledge there seemed to be a Transhuman with sparks flying out of them.

They parked for the day, having been traveling for so long. Jack, Nicholas, Jort and Ju stayed around a small camp on the north side of the Black claw, where a large contingency of Scum defense line had been erected. They were greeted by no one in person, nor were they bothered by anyone. Yet.

That night Nicholas dreamt of the old days of Mars. The nights with his wife were long and the days with his son golden memories. In the dream he had a wonderful ending in a park with the wife sipping tea on a bench, whilst Nicholas tossed a baseball between his son and himself. Then he woke up in the camp. Mordin came around to hand him a protein shake and some water.

“Let’s find someone,” said Mordin as he helped Nicholas to his feet.

It was not long that day before they came across someone Kind recognized: Shaymuh Hoontz. The creepy old menton was surrounded by lackeys 10 meters or so off the ground. Glitch and Malloy were present working about on systems and repairs.

As Mordin and Nicholas stepped up to below the station they were working on it was obvious that vast amount of repairs were needed to make this a ship again. Hoontz, seeing them from up top, repelled to the ground to meet them. Unlatching and writing off a certain amount of data on a meshed VR board at his finger tips his spindly fingers came together and the board faded at their approach.

“Uh, hi. So I guess you were right and I failed,” Mordin began.

Shaymuh’s response was short and iced, “The Captain knows your here. She’s coming down from the other half of the Claw floating in space. Whatever devices the saboteur used to detonate on the hull only cracked her almost completely in half. Some chunks fell off, but all can be replicated and fixed, for a price. Lucky explosion for a lucky Captain.”

Roaring through the air an inter-spatial AV designed to zip back and forth between the tweaked gravity of Mars could be heard. As they watch the small ship land Hoontz’s repelling wire, connecting him to the repair station he was previously working on, went taut and he was pulled out of talking range whilst giving a slight salute on the way back up. Mordin Kind stood about with Nicholas Cord, Jort Durkor, and Ju Nu Pai like a cornered pack of rabbits.

Out of the AV Li Lin Tzu stepped with a small entourage of vastly different looking guards. The two parties approached and before Mordin’s had a chance to talk the Captain of the Black Claw extended her hand to Mordin Kind. They shook and then she began quickly.

“Still alive, eh Mordin? Your somethin special. I have things that need to be done around here and I want my ship back in the air as soon as possible. I need your help if your still with us? You seem to have been on planet the longest, and so now I need you to go back out there and retrieve something very important for me. Else The Black Claw remains as is.”

“What is it?” Mordin asked.

“Another piece of the ship. It’s got data we need. A server. The info on it will reboot the engines and we can get off Mars, but not a second before hand. Do you want the job or shall I find someone capable?”

“No we’ll take it. Anything to speed up the process. This sounds like its going to take a while.”

“Thats where my trouble starts Kind. I haven’t a man to spare at the moment. I got everyone I could to come down ‘ere and get this thing up. You know a lot of good people have left? Including the whole Yivanga. So this is it. You come in out of nowhere like ya fell on us. You’ve graced us and now we need you to help out. You get your boys and get me my data, you can hitch off with us and be on good terms. Otherwise I’m going to start asking questions as to why you planted smart dust on my deck. Got it?”

“Yes Captain,” with a salute, “Just point the way. Wherever it is we’ll get it.”

“That’s where your trouble starts Kind,” her eyebrows cocked, “The TQZ,” as she pointed her finger into the West. Hoontz was a stone owl in the background. They’re conversation ended as Tzu wandered off to see about fixings with nothing more to say.

Later Cord and Kind agreed that this was the best plan to get off the planet. Cord could make use of Ju’s info from there and Kind would be back amongst the Scum. The next day they recruited Jort for the expedition and were off on the Martian horizon at sunrise.

A few hundreds of thousands of miles away on Aspis station
Johann waits in silent observation. He knows that others in the arena are armed with lasers they’d found about, but he hadn’t the fortune to find one himself. Through the foliage the sound of brush being trampled with shouting and laser fire echoed off.

Tagged means dead and out in here, but the rules for this arena are clear on close combat. If it occurs and you are not up to bat and happen to lose a limb, or your sleeve, then you are responsible for replacing it. Therefore the poorer Ultimates opt out of this training ground until they feel more experienced with close combat calls.

Johann knows his tricks well, and trades them with others only in brief moments. He kills quickly and most Initiates try to steer clear if they see him for fear of losing. Those with the guns will take the shot to eliminate the duelist due to his threatening skill level.

The objective of the arena is capture the flag based on teams of one. Each player is their own team. Each team wins when they get the capturable golden avatar of a flag back to their lair. Through the shrubbery Johann was ducking around he could see the gleaming flag gloating just over a small hill.

Counting his enemies and equating an outcome he picked his moment. Off at a bullet’s pace Johann weaved through the jungle growth. Out and around him a couple of dozen other Ultimates were there with the same goal: to win. With 1 winner the competition bears ripe fruit for the victor.

Johann could hear the electronic deaths from laser shots counting down players through the air. He could even see two Ultimates in a knife fight no more than ten feet away off his course, but at his pace they barely took notice – with lasers going off above their heads – as the adrenaline from the close combat rushed them into fury unbowed.

Johann was almost to the flag, his frame moved with fervent surging his perceptions almost a blur except for what was directly in front of him. In the moment it would take to reach the flag he had pre-calculated the few Ultimates closest to the score. A trio of men dug out in small individual holes only poking out to fire off a shot in hopes that they could knock out an opponent.

Johann flew by two of them like a rocket ship. One barely had time to react with an off-aim shot that sizzled by Johann’s head and made the air smell dazzlingly fresh. In the forefront of his vision now, beyond the flag an opponent – Mahjitsu Musashi – reared up, a laser in hand blasting away at people behind him and bearing down on the bacon. Johann saw the collision coming and in the seven exact paces he knew he would be taking he added up how he was going to kill this man.

At a precise leaping point his body passed through the 3D image of the flag and into a crescent moon kick shape. Mahjitsu’s last beam shot glanced and slipped between Johann’s acute form. The foot of Johann came down hard into Musashi’s chest, sprawling him backwards while the 3D image of the rifle clattered to the floor into pieces then faded from view.

Mahjistu Musashi had no choice at this point. To take the flag one must knockout the opponent who has the flag and claim it yourself. In this case attacking Johann in close combat was the only choice, and the poorest. As the Ultimate came forward drawing a sword Johann’s cyber claws sprung from his wrists with robotic aptitude. The fight lasted seconds as Johann lingered but for a moment, then came for the man’s thigh area under a tall sweep of the sword. Mahjistu knew he was done for after his leg started failing to respond, his next counter attack was clumsy; Johann batted it away with an open palm. With a killer’s twirl Johann gouged Musashi through his spine four times like a boxer battering a beef carcass. He left Musashi to die on the floor.

It was easy jogging back. Once the flag was obtained everyone, except those with the deepest grudges, starts looking for you. Johann made an epic run around the perimeter, from which spectators jeered at him, “Another win?”, “Johann is too good!”, “Bah get out!”

He met no further resistance and won the round. All of the 3D images instantly faded from view and the room was no longer covered in a long lost jungle scene but a plain shaped box, devoid of anything but a silver-plated sheen. Each warrior retired to their base. Johann’s score was marked for its fifth time, the highest of the Initiates at Aspis on this arena.

Shortly afterwards when he left he was messaged under the Admin’s upper-line networks, which meant it wasn’t some junk mail. He took the moment to open it through his endoptics. Cosmo, his muse, outlined it into a reading format that Johann found tactful. In which case he’d programmed official messages be delivered as scrolls. The message was barely a breathe of words.

It read, “Official Meeting at the query of the Initiate to meet his beholden Ducti Devro Sontar.”

He’d seen the Ducti before over a small dispute about rank long ago, and knew the transhuman to be on the forefront of progressivism with the rest of Transhumanity and its many problems. Also that the man casually saw people off all the time when they were bound to leave Aspis, Johann had an itch that this meeting would add up to something big. When he arrived at the official offices at the nicest part of the station he had to go through formal searches and questions but was quickly passed through security. The Ducti’s room was respectably plain, almost barren. Devro sat at a small table that was low to the ground. A couple of pieces of art and scripture were all that adorned the room. The Ducti made a gesture with his hand towards a pillow and Johann took a seat.

“Greetings Johann,” his voice sounded ethereal. Johann nodded but said nothing at first.

“I have good news for you Initiate. You are to be placed in a squad for a retrieval mission. Should your team succeed you will be evaluated for new placement. Since this mission takes place far from here you are to be traveling within a confined group of four others. The leader of the team is Ennobler Pavel Milyukova, an up and coming star. These kinds of missions are placed together to overcome odds that each of you can conquer working as a team. In a day you will meet the Ennobler and continue from there.”

“Thank you Ducti. I am finally going to prove that I belong here.”

The Ducti said nothing more, but stood and did another sort of hand gesture with his head slightly bowed in humility. Johann stood and left without saying another word. Mere hours passed before he was messaged by the Ennobler, who informed him of the details for departure.

A day later he was standing in front of The Aspis Ego-Casting Hospital where souls flew through space and arrive in new bodies. The place was crowded with strange slumped biomorphs speaking Burmese in soft whispers. Cosmo digitally linked Johann into the private comm channel that the Ennobler invited him to. On the channel a small list of information loaded up files on his teammates in front of his eyes. Cosmo began dissecting the information and placing it in an aesthetic order in which pleased Johann.

The other men he’d been slumped with were Crow Stognan, Sa’d Ibn Abi Waqqas, and Gunther Frominch-Handler. All had relatively low rep scores in the Ultimate circle. Pavel’s was a nice rounded number and his loyalty could not be questioned but two of them, Crow and Gunther, had Hypercorp scores at a really low rate which started jogging Johann’s imagination as he and Cosmo began to connect the dot on who to trust.

As he was lying back on the egocasting table Cosmo started him on the mission diagnostics. The specs were the team was being sent in to retrieve a highly classified piece of technology that was lost over ten years ago before the Fall. The Fall. We lost during The Fall. We lost everything. Thinking about the Fall crept into Johann’s mind. He dreamed about places where you were, and places where you wake up.

The main point of the mission was clear enough. The document was a red protocol meaning it could change the way the Ultimates operated in this part of the inner system, giving them an edge on their rivals. The object of desire was a cornucopia machine thought to be long lost in the Fall. It’s coordinates were retrieved via an open source crack, by Ultimate hackers. The schematics the cornucopia had on it were of utmost interest, not seen since the Fall: a prototype kinetic pulse rifle, a new and highly dangerous EMP grenade, and high ordinance explosive devices. The info was stolen from the Hypercorp TerraGen, who had it marked for a while. Their prime directive put on hold as too many trackers had gone missing, hunting for buried treasure. Now Ultimates were going in for their own gain. Johann felt good about this.

Drifting through the last of the packet info he failed to find the one clue that eluded him. It was getting to him where this whole mission was going to happen. Then in burning hot letters there it was at the very front, although he had to admit it could be a lot worse than Mars.

Back on Mars at the mouth of Noctis Labyrinthus in the hive city of Noctis-Qianjiao

The voice of the information broker was musty and steam emanated like a froth on the air when he spoke. The temperature of the room was cold enough to warrant a load of cold gear. They were down in the Martian dirt in this secret bunker. Sylar Rains sat through it like it was a speech. He needed to get paid was the truth and to live a little you can sell your gun arm, sometimes for a good price.

“Make no mistake gentlemen,” the speech went on, “this can be a hit if you want it to look like that. So longs we get the stack. However, if Trisha Timpton is still standing and alive that might get you a little extra tip. I am rewarding and I do give. I just don’t want to be cross in my belief that her body is just a shell.”

Sylar spied about like a snake in a den. A lot of the trench coats here adorned slick looking killers and deformed cyber-hackers. A lot of the faces seemed fresh, like they’d just stepped off a bus. One stood out amongst the small hive. The infamous Jerome “Gutspiller” Solms. You can’t miss a mustache like that. The man had weapons that dangled about his waste the way a repair man had a tool belt.

“…so you could be walking in to a million cred settlement if you can pull it off. Any questions?”

A few men around him that were paying more attention approached the speaker to have a quieter audience. Sylar stood about leaning on the data. Kidnap or kill a woman and bring her stack back. The Martian Governments are putting out an official bounty under the pressure of the Hypercorps on Mars. Some woman who had evaded capture somewhere in Pathfinder City was on the loose and highly dangerous. Whatever. Money talks.

Making for the exit he weaved through dripping pipe-line labyrinths to a known working elevator to the surface of the city. Qianjiao was much prettier up top. The green that peppered the environment was a main attractor for him, the dark life was just a living. The underhive just a series of old tunnels, the roots of a sprawling metal flower.

The elevator ride took long enough for him to trace the cracks in the floor three times over. When the doors finally parted with the ding the light wasn’t much better in the underground garage. No natural light until he stepped out onto the streets. A dim brightness illuminated Noctis-Qianjiao’s souk areas. Highly revered and more established than in other cities many of the souks maintained a permanent station.

A few familiar faces in the crowd around the area tell him its safe to exit. Some of the sleek looking sharks from the meeting were eating fabbed sushi in a shop down the street. Sylar saw them gathering through a window as he walked by. A big score was out and about. There was no time for food.

Further down his walk he noticed a portion of the end of the red-light district, mainly used for fashion shows but tonight it hosted women of a different variety. Solms was suddenly in his vision being pushed out the front doors of the sleaziest establishment. The argument was no more than twenty feet away from him and getting hotter by the moment. Spectators made room and silence fell across the people. In a matter of seconds Jerome’s brawl came to an end as the other punk went down in a gutsy hail of bullets from Jerome’s gun arms. The awe of the public killing sent people sprawling in all directions. Even Jerome took flight down a narrow alleyway out of sight.

“Sigh. Another day on Mars.” Sylar muttered under his breath.

Rains bolted after the morph-slayer down the alley and across several streets into a different shady district. On the way he had no plan really other than to follow the old coot through the streets and hope he didn’t notice. Good thing Sylar was good at not being noticed. An ace he played often.

Up ahead the chase came to a halt. Jerome was on the street when an official AV came down out of the sky to park, lights blinding yet no noise. Out stepped an NQPD member, whose rank was too far to decipher. After an exchange of words Jerome jumped into the officer’s car and they flew off leaving Sylar to ponder alone on the street corner.

“The Police. Shit. Chamber I need some background checks on some perps from down under. Let me know when you’ve got something,” Sylar ran through his digital software at the back of his mind.

I’d already gotten brief glimpses into a lot of Rep in that circle. Most of those individuals were heavy hitting contractors. ‘Not Shittin You’s’ from all over the Belt and many LLA figures with lots of background in Gatecrashing. I suppose Miss Timpton is well known. What shall we do?

“I need you to trim around the edges Chamber. Find me something. We know Solms is in the NQPDs pocket. What if they fund for something? We gotta find some sort of tab on them,” Rains thought to Chamber.

Very well. I already have something then. Once we left the meeting it appears a few others also tagged names for contacting later. One of these gentlemen is offering a possible split with regards to costs of mission deducted after. Another offers a small rep reward in exchange with his local Lagrange guild back in orbit around Earth. Actually, Mr. Solms sent one as well. A general invite to an encrypted forum deep within a dark net sanctuary in the mesh. Shall we ghost it?

“Do it.”

Hacking the forum was straightforward, but took many hours to do completely under the radar. The work was none other than precision cutting, backdoor coding, and part-time hiding in the system, withdrawing from any sort of detection. Once “in” Rains and Chamber shook hands on the digital level. They’d decoded enough information to make a move. About a dozen or so men had registered to the forum. Solms’ registry only appeared a handful of times amongst the other names. Basically he was rearing control of this group of wranglers and aside from spilling a slight amount of info, was basically ordering them around. To Sylar it all looked like a chess board, and he wasn’t sure which piece he was yet.

Jerome had some hot tips alright. Sylar could only guess how high up the problem went in the political food chain and about what generation Solms’ information was. How groomed the intelligence might be only to give away the most specific details. The worst shocking truth Jerome had blanketed the group with was that their prey was hiding in the TQZ.

Since Sylar’d been on Mars he’d never made time to visit the robotic wasteland of lore. Rumor has it there are still TITANs fully intact in the zone somewhere waiting for their day to break free, but no one has seen anything more efficient than stupid AI in the bigger bots. The swarm-clouds are the most dangerous foes that reach the public databases. The scarier reports ending with people being shredded to pieces, carried off into the atomical winds of Mars bit by bit.

The first major hurdle Solms’ team needed to jump was getting a ride out of town. Noctis-Qianjiau was nearly 2000 kilometers west of the TQZ. The last of Solms’ posts was a decision to meet at a ground vehicle rental company within the hour. Sylar Rains began to think about how to inoculate the group with his presence. His Sylph face was so obvious to others that had seen him, but the more he thought about it the more he knew he would have to go in and plant himself.

Rains chose a dark and gloomy wardrobe, with the expertise of Chamber. One with a face cover. He would be a hood like some of the other caped killers he’d seen earlier. Once disguised he departed for the lot the group had agreed to meet at, somewhere on the west side of Noctis.

He arrived before them apparently. Finding his way inside the confines of the lot, as it was public, he lost his way amongst the bodies and frames of the vehicles. He waited in a darker area, where the land vehicles held anywhere between a couple to a couple of dozen passengers. From his position he could see the main gate. See if anyone entered. Soon enough a gang of people did.

It was Solms’ crew. The lot started to split up amongst the vehicles, a large contingency sticking to Jerome’s backside like a hive of sentient flies. Sylar watched around and found two of the men entering the area he was waiting in. They shopped about casually, like this was an everyday occasion.

The two came to a stop. Then without thinking one opened the cockpit to a vehicle and plopped down inside it and dropped the latch. His companion wandered further down observing different styles and systems. Silently, Sylar slipped around to the shotgun door of the vehicle. Without hesitation he opened the door and stepped inside, closing it promptly behind him.

What happened next was a blur. The man inside expecting to see his friend getting in beside him instead finds Sylar’s rail pistol pressed up against his eye socket. Before the man had a moment to decide what to say at the closing of the door Sylar pulled the trigger.

The body fell back into the seat. Rains quickly pulled a cord attached at the back of his neck and snapped it into place on the back of the corpse’s head. He focused to retrieve information he would need to stay on the trail.

“Only what we need. I won’t be talking too much after this.”

Piece of cake. Pulling down the remaining systems was like cutting an umbilical cord. I have the Muse hostage in a private room. I copied its file before I killed the last of the cereberal output and evacuated. We are now acting under the ID of Marcielo Tambhilo Sanspo.

“Gotta get this hood on. His friends likely turned back. Good thing people don’t tac up on shopping days.”

Rains pulled the corpse into the back of the small vehicle, unplugging first, then stripping the outer layer of clothing. He donned the dead man’s coat and head piece, using his own mask, being similar enough. He now looked essentially like the man he had just killed.

Stepping from the vehicle Marcielo waved down his friend, meshed as Dontolamo. The “friend” approached with just a shoulder shrug and slight giggle. As if some sort of inside joke had registered. Marcielo sort of giggle-grunted to go along, then waved Dontolamo back to the Solms crowd.

A decision had been made on a deal for a transport that would fit twelve. Perfect as that was the exact number of men that Solms had recruited. After paying a nominal fee for the land-boat the group hitched up into it as tight as the six wheeler would allot. Jerome fed the onboard AI driving data and the transport peeled out, Rains securely onboard.

As Solms’ large transport rolled out of the yard another group entered, on foot. Five very tall hooded figures, with no weapons to show walked in single file into the vehicle lot. Their approach was Tac-netted, sharing info for the benefit of maximizing time in space. Their leader walked straight to the rental office in person, beaming info in silence through the mesh to his Tac-netted crew. The other four spread out amongst the vehicle lot to find what to represent them on Mars for transport. Johann found the right pick.

Through the mesh on the Tac Johann’s digital voice echoed to his teammates, “Got one with a cannon on it back here. Easily holds eight. Its on pad twenty-seven.”

At the office Pavel spoke up moments after he’d arrived in his clearest voice, “The one on twenty-seven, please.”

The Ultimates had gotten what they’d needed and only brought what they’d carried. Their initial arrival was briefly fettered with the remodulating to a new body, but luckily the specs on their sleeves had reached the right people else they would be standing around in crap morphs or pods. As the purchase was made and the Tac visions all zoned in on the same spot and faces Pavel issued commands in person before they left.

Pavel’s voice was draconian now, “My brothers we are but an arms reach away from the prize. Soon we will be back aboard Aspis toasting to success and progress. Initiate Gunther, you will secure a ride back from the Skyhook. Once we have the info, we will rendezvous with you at the Space Elevator.”

“Yes Ennobler.”

“Leave now, I have secured a bike for you in lot eighteen.”

Gunther did as he was bade, silently leaving for lot 18. The others jumped aboard the transport, Johann into the cockpit. The small tank buzzed around for a moment and then Ultimates broke free from the lot, from Noctis-Qianjiao’s neon streets, off in search of the TQZ.

Their journey was long and arduous, but the small tank was capable of fast tracking the M-1 highway, a major vein that ran east to west along the whole of Valles-Marineris. Johann drove them over lusty cliffs and through the windblown crags of crimson Noctis Labyrinthus, going through ranges of red gorges and fissures, all adorned with natural spindly Martian spires jutting from the ground.

When the road suddenly ceased and they were on open terrain the computing became slightly technical. They weren’t planning on driving through the TQZ, but parking on its edge, hiking the distance to their query. They registered several life forms along the way through the dust curtains that billowed across the landscape. Strange Barsoomian groups that remained neutral along the ride watched from cliffs and from far off mesas. Johann knew nothing would try to attack them whilst aboard the tank, nothing Transhuman at least.

Driving for hours upon hours their boredom broke when the horizon started to shift the closer they got. City ruins came into view, but something about the atmosphere in the area was unsettling. Where the red rust of the dirt was visible at their approach, there was a clear shift in color along a perfect barrier where on the other side the sand was clearly more metallic. In the distance a sprawling post-apoctalyptia of ruined cities expanded to the farthest sights.

A sensor reading showed high levels of radiation all over the areas they were driving towards. Pavel took it into consideration, acknowledging history and paying homage to the fledglings that thought nukes would kill a TITAN. Quietly plotting a course through rad zones he could see on the tank-board sensors, Pavel meshed Johann to park at a plotted spot on the main view screen.

The four Ultimates geared up with what they had, they tuned their wireless almost to off, getting out messaging lasers for communication. The parked vehicle slowly grew smaller as they crossed into the TITAN Quarantine Zone. The sands of Mars mixed at a border and suddenly the ground was no longer Martian, but crumbling regolith remains, reflective glass floors, exploded wastelands like a cratered moon, and oddly active wild artificial life all over the place.

The floor crunched underfoot as they past the eery ruins of dead city, the sights offering little more. The paranoia of watching backs and moving forward was hostile and incohesive at first. Pavel laser penned Johann to climb a tower to get a view and beam back. The lanky Ultimate pulled a fast one and scaled the tallest transman-made building in sight, a tower with a view at the top.

Up top the small crevice of a room was littered with a few dead looking synths. Johann briefly erupted his wolver-claws and poked a few holes in each of the corpses for good measure, then continued to spot from the tower. In a very short distance perhaps a few kilometers from them a newer looking sight of wreckage could be seen, shinier amongst the older looking ruins, like ship hull. Tracing his way back amongst certain points from what he could see Johann beamed down to Pavel.

“A Ship? Three clicks West.”

Pavel beamed back, “That’s our area, we start searching around there.”

Below Pavel gave a forward movement motion with his arm. The two Ultimates with him followed suit, continuing through the chewy rubble. Johann waited for a few moments to spy about. Far off in the distance he could see the sky was a different color entirely. On the horizon a stream of nano-cloud shimmered through the sunlight like a twisting spiral of metallic petals falling out of sight.

Down below movement caught his attention. His team was heading straight for some large looking synth trash collector. The monster was munching down on everything around it, almost like a vacuum. Johann could see that the robot was clearly of some changed stature from whatever it originally was. It riled about flinging junk, a few prehensile tails fed the grinding gears of its teeth on several sides of it’s body. Beaming Pavel, the Initiate watched as the other three avoided detection. The run through the first city scape was going to be the most deserted Johann knew. The farther in, the worse it would get.

Johann caught up without delay. His pace a relentless pursuit to the goal, a golden ticket in his mind. Together the team progressed through areas that they had to squint hard at to understand, places where the ground would shift as coils and cables would uproot and fluctuate out of nowhere, even finding traces of recent comings and goings by synths of varying sizes. Occasionally they crossed by glittering yellowy-white silicate shapes a lot like the giant termite mounds on old Earth, some even buzzed with aeolian disassembler swarms and were subsequently left alone.

Over the hardened terrain they finally came to a hill that needed ascending. Going prone at the top, Crow dropped as he spotted something. The others went prone and crawled to the edge of the hill. Just over the other side more ruins began, and the ship that had crashed into these ruins was for some reason of great interest to lots of synthetic wildlife in the area. A large group of dodgy looking synths bustled around down below, tossing pieces of trash and scrounging about.

Pavel whispered out loud, “Johann flank right. Waqqas left. Crow and I got center. We take them down quick and we move on.”

Johann gathered his spirit into his mind and with a sigh rolled down the right side of the hill. Gathering his strength he came to his feet and began to flank right, avoiding sight and making no sound. He came around to another edge on the synths and beamed a laser message to Pavel with the green light. On the edge of the hill Pavel and Crow began raining pearly red death arcs into the crowd of about 15 synths, cutting them down like toy soldiers.

The synthetics acted sluggish. Like they weren’t very tactical. Some merely rushed up the hill to be gunned down one by one. Waqqas’ laser fire had several pinned down behind a wall. That’s when Johann struck and levied the lot of them, but the two smallest wheeled ones came revving up to attack him at low angles. One was destroyed before it made it to him exploding from his kinetic rounds. The second exploded by Johann’s surging punch combined with wolvers slamming the stumpy wheeler to the ground, the air was spruced around him with the littlest of metal bits but for a moment.

Up ahead far off in the ruins, but still outside the ship, Marcielo and Dontolamo could hear the familiar song of fizzling laser blasts. They had split off from the main Solms crew as had other pairs in order to cover more ground. With wireless off they had no choice but to use the buddy system, and at this point Marcielo was done with being Dontolamo’s fucking buddy. The man prattled on about the most horrible things. The first of many long stories was about shooting Barsoomian children in broad daylight for hypercorp cred and then went into a bedragglingly low story on how to steal crypto from the M-3 South crossing station if you timed it right. His best story was how he’d killed a woman, stolen her stack, and tortured her in a simulspace when he used to live in Shanghai, all for fun. He was on the run now making money as a killer in Noctis.

Yep, Marcielo couldn’t wait to watch this scumbag Dontolamo die. Except things in the area kept changing and the unpredictability had him on edge, unable to concentrate on one thing. Now there was trouble brewing up somewhere he could hear far off, hopefully Solms. He had to keep Dontolamo moving and thinking they were buddies, when Sylar Rains was all the wiser.

Pushing into the ruins they had arrived at Marcielo avoided commentary on what they could obviously hear. Dontolamo followed, keeping an eye on their backs with his kinetic rifle. They descended into a tunnel of sorts. In the foreground of Marcielo’s vision everything started to disappear as the natural light began to die out in favor of darkness.

Marcielo could see through his transformable vision displays that there were bodies littering the sides of the walls as they walked through the semi-cleared floor in the middle. Bodies stacked on bodies to the ceiling in some places, and some were just chunks of robotic body parts stuffed into each other in piles. Sylar deduced it could be a scavenger den since nothing seemed active. Regardless, they continued forward through the dark tunnels of the ruined underground.

Then it happened. Contact with someone they couldn’t identify. A woman in the dark ran ahead as if being pursued. What else could it mean? Marcielo jumped a few hurdles and closed the distance quickly enough to see that it was her. She stopped up ahead and stared back. The bang of a gun with the chink of rock being blasted echoed about. Marcielo stopped behind cover.

A blast from Dontolamo’s gun rang by. From the rear Dontolamo crept up amongst the ruins behind Marcielo. Eventually they were in talking distance.

“Cease!” Marcielo whispered in his loudest tone, “That’s our hit! We want her alive!”

“Damn,” Dontolamo said out loud with no regard of danger, “I thought she looked like a bot.”

Dontolamo shuffled up to Marcielo in the shortest ball he could manage. Marcielo, pushing Dontolamo’s barrel down, waved him on to move up the hallway. As Dontolamo moved by to make a distraction he suddenly stood up and began to bellow instructions.

“We are here for your evacuation ma’am! We would please appreciate it if you would drop your weapon! Drop your weapon and come with us!”

Another shot rang out from down the hall and smacked Dontolamo right in the shoulder. The rifle fell at Sylar’s feet and he stared down at it for a moment. Dontolamo rolled about on the ground screaming. The pain apparently was high and the fool had no editor.

“Arrgghhh! Come on man! Get her! Why are you looking at me!”

Rains picked up the rifle and held it in a resting position under his arm. He watched the man wincing in pain on the ground. Then, uncaring, Sylar drew his pistol and plugged Dontolamo till he lay dead.

Sylar reloaded his rail pistol and continued in quiet. The rifle had a light on the end of it, so he flipped it on and poked down the hall, silent as the grave. Up ahead the light tappings of footsteps could be heard. He measured the pace, tone, could almost feel her stride. It was definitely a woman in that sleeve.

Prowling through the dark Sylar managed to close a wide distance in the pitch black. Apparently, nothing moved about down here except them and she was hurriedly dashing in the opposite direction. To where Rains could not guess, but continued through the haunted hallways.

Some distance off Cord and Honzo arrived, finding two larger vehicles parked on the periphery where they had planned to park. One vessel was civilian, and the other military. They found both vehicles to be completely abandoned of personnel.

“They must all be in the TQZ,” Jack Honzo calmly vocalized.

Cord spoke up for the team to hear, “We’re on foot then same as them. Ju stays with the vehicle, scan for any weird mesh signals and use the onboard laser link while you can. The rest of you don’t trust anything out here. No wireless, mesh off, laser links only. We don’t know who any of these people are. They might be in on multiple ops inside multiple ops, that have been set up for this one op for months. They’re out here in the same shit as we are. So we assume every single one of them is dangerous.”

Nicholas took point. He steered them in a route that seemed safest, through semi-destroyed paths into small outcroppings of cracked buildings. Angles lost cohesion as metallic plant life curved and spindled, flourishing like the nature of a robotic landscape.

The team made first contact with hostile cyber-life after traversing a hill in pursuit of the ship. They wandered through a building with a dome for an exit. The upper areas of the dome’s interior had recently become host to new life forms. A monstrous crabby spider-like artificial dangled from the ceiling to drop at their approach.

The creature was a few meters tall. It’s joints hissed as it came up on it’s shorter hind legs in a display of territorial power, revealing a great armored under abdomen. Four massive arms reached out from above easily several meters each, and hooked at each end in abrasive nano-tendrils that glittered in the darkness. At its core a vibrant arrangement of red glowing eyes lit it’s darkly shifting mouth, an intricate clockwork of buzz saws. Several human sized appendages protruded from it’s belly; some ended in simple coils, others in octopus conjectured tumors looking like fleshy spindly finger-arms.

The back of its body was low to the ground as it stood back on its haunches. Nicholas and Jort took center stage, popping off a few rounds, aiming into the head area. Engaging his invisibility Jack flanked the giant through the dark.

The beast flailed forward, sending Cord and Durkor fleeing back behind cover. Their small caliber gunfire did little to thwart the monster as only one of their rounds visibly chinked its outer shell. The magnificent nightmare reared close enough to touch. Then from the rear a well placed mini-missile burst through the spiders backside, it’s mechanical glowing guts spilled out between the new fissure as it fell back on itself.

Groaning sounds of defeat the spider-crab tried to rear up once again, but was defeated by Jack Honzo who bombarded the rear with gunfire. It fell forward on its own weight and the sound of a dying engine thrummed its final notes. When the coolant had lost its brightness the three man team listened through the dark as several other demons retreated into respective crevices. Reloading their weapons Jort and Nicholas continued as a visible pair, Jack alongside in the near light.

Their main objective had to be reached through a corresponding hallway that Nicholas was familiar with. Part of an old section of a town he used to vacation in, when he could vacation with his family. Remembering his boy had him suddenly shivering in uncontrollable adrenaline, but cooly he set forth. Up ahead he wasn’t sure, but what seemed like echoes started off, way down from somewhere. They proceeded with slowed caution.

The Ultimates had penetrated the tunnels meeting all resistance with strategic carnivoral aptitude. Every shot mattered. Every direction taken meant imminent death. The amount of dead synths that lay about could mean anything and they had no intentions of waiting to encounter something on its home turf.

Johann, on point, glimpsed something up ahead in a split intersection. A female biomorph flew past his vision, almost like a ghost. It was so brief he hadn’t a good enough shot to take. In a volt Johann flew after her throwing the briefest of hand signals to his team they bounded after him.

Rounding the corner up ahead in sudden pursuit of his quarry a humongous Remade reeled into Sylar’s view. Rains came to a halt, flipping off his light. Then three more rushed into view after the first one.

“What the fuck?” Sylar felt like he almost said aloud, but the thought echoed in his mind so loudly he was frozen in dire fear.

Then the last one, a sleek looking shark of an Ultimate, stopped after a few paces in and steadied to listen. Sylar watched in the darkness as the towering hunter swung a laser rifle through the passageways at passing, occasionally looking behind. The one time Rains moved up the Ultimate stopped and swung back.

The voice of this particular Remade warrior was grizzled as he spoke into the dark at Sylar, “I know your out there. I can small the blood on your hands. Nice draft in these tunnels. Come on out you little monster. Say hi to Daddy.”

Sylar suddenly swung out from behind a crate with the rifle steadied, he flipped the light on. Cutting through the darkness into the Ultimates shining killer stare Sylar came face to face with Sa’d Ibn Abi Waqqas. They locked eyes, barrels, sights. They were both in a position to try and kill each other yet each held off, surprised by the other.

Rains feared the worst honestly, beads of sweat dribbled from his brow like rain. He was wise enough to know that these Ultimate people don’t fuck around and right now he was in a death lock with one of them. They were frozen and speechless, when Sylar saw what can only be described as nature.

The Ultimate stood on heightened alert towards Sylar, but a paper-slim wave of a synthetic curtain slithered into view above Waqqas’ head. Two longish antennae protruded from points near a mouth orifice looking hole dropping all the way to the floor around Waqqas’ feet. Once the semi-sentient curtain sensed the man, as a centipede it came down around him. The curtain wrapped around the man’s head, torso, arms all the way down to his feet, carrying him up into the ceiling in a speedy coil. A suctioning slurp sound reeled from the dark, and no sound came from Waqqas. Silently Sylar continued past the horror without disturbing it. He hurried through the dark after his fleeing bounty.

Nicholas Cord was right. There were beings other than wild artificials and crap-hacked synths wandering mad in the waste. Up ahead through the dark a woman ran past their vision. Cord fell back against the wall at the sudden encounter, Durkor dropped behind debris, and Honzo faded from sight.

When Nicholas thought it was safe he took a step out. Then suddenly the bulky frame of a Remade morph flew by in pursuit and Cord did his best to jump back into his hiding spot. Honzo laughed under his breathe watching Cord jump back and forth. After the first Remade two more followed close behind. When the noise had died down Cord, Honzo, and Durkor started up the hall. At the juncture they came muzzle to muzzle with Sylar Rains.

“It’s crowded in here,” Cord muttered under his drawn pistol arm.

“No kidding,” Rains responded with rifle at the ready, “Whats with the death squads? Since when does someone pay top mint to get some Ultimates down in the TQZ?”

Honzo spoke up though invisible, “They’re not with us. We came alone. We came for a ship.”

“Bloody Scum divers,” Rains said, “So you here to gather or erase?”

As Honzo negated his invisibility for a corporeal form he stepped out into the light of Sylar’s rifle. Between Sylar’s lit gun-end and Nicholas’ steady aim stood Jack Honzo looking friendlier than ever. Jack’s hand was outstretched in the old familiar Earth gesture that meant only one thing.

“A little of both. Honzo. Jack Honzo.”

“So your aren’t after her?” asked Sylar who cautiously dropped his guard.

“The Black Claw is all we’re interested in,” Jack said reinforcing his desire to have a friendly meeting, “Who is this lass then? Throw her back and decide you wanted to keep her?”

“Not in the slightest,” Rains said with a free right hand, “She’s someone of vast interest to lots of very powerful people. I’m trying to turn the shiniest coin is all.”

Nicholas’ heightened sense was breezed away now as the man in front of them slowly became friendlier. His own gun arm lowered and danger seemed like an after thought. Rains shook hands with Honzo, then with Cord and Durkor.

“Sylar Rains. Here on assignment, but under the assignment if you catch my meaning. The pricks that were called in on this big project are all in a mess, lets just say they can’t keep up. I think only I can bring the girl back. I’ve tracked her this far in, until I met up with the new age space yuppies,” as Sylar pointed after the Remade, “and you guys.”

“Nicholas Cord and my partner, Jort Durkor. Martian Rangers. Assignment is duty. We’re helping Jack get his ship’s databanks back to a fully loaded and operational order. The crash landing of the Black Claw has been a massive shockwave to the local Shanghai populace, and the Barsoomian movement in the area. We’re trying to minimize further chaos and get his boat back into space as soon as possible.”

“Look,” said Jack, “We don’t want trouble. We’ll even help you. Just help us and don’t shoot us in the back, eh? Soon as I find this server and load up on whats needed we’re out. Cake all gone.”

“Fine,” agreed Sylar,“Lead the way for now. If I see her I’m going after her though.”

“Nicholas,” as Honzo dismissively saluted Cord whilst returning to his familiar invisible self.

Cord stepped forward leading the team onward in the direction he could remember by memory. In his mind he passed a shop that fabbed beautiful arrangements of begonia flowers, and pearly molds of peace lilies that his lover would stop to smell. His boy would always want to stop at the public food fabber for an Old Earth ice cream cone. The cream would drip down to stain the clothes as they wandered deeper into the zone, a tear on the edge testing his resolve.

When the floor changed from a dusty wasteland into ship interior they were semi relieved. Although from what they could hear they were slightly spooked. Laser blasts echoed off, some very close by. Nicholas took a step back.

“Okay Jack. Your turn. Find the gold.”

Jack “revizzed” before them, giving them the signal to follow him. He led them through a few brief passageways when they came into a large room inhabited by a couple of Transhumans. A large Remade morph stood directly in front of them, his name was tagged on his suit and “Johann” was aiming his laser sights right down the room. Beyond the Ultimate was a small female, who remained unidentifiable for a few more moments.

She was wiring something up at the console port near a huge bay door. When sparks suddenly flew from the panel the two huge doors that looked like a wall inched open little by little. The small female morph retreated into the darkness of the new room as it steadily grew visible in the near light.

The Ultimate stood at guard, thinking at his back were his brothers. Jack, Sylar, Jort and Nicholas all took up defensive positions at the rear of Johann. The door eventually opened to reveal another large corridor, but what awaited within was what began a slight case of the Fear in the lot of them.

A mecha of sorts sat waiting at the center. The woman pulled a curtain off of it as she held a remote in her hand she appeared to operate the huge droid. Several parts began to retract, to change, and the exoframe of the huge thing became dotted with activated lights.

Throwing his laser rifle to the ground Johann reared up and launched himself at the huge bot hoping to tumble it over. The frame managed the weight of the Ultimate’s body with ease. Johann did his best as he ruthlessly tugged and hacked at the body of the Warbot with his cyberclaws.

The girl down below seeing the hopeless situation, button mashed the bot into kill mode. Dual sets of arms dislodged separate weapons sheathed behind the broken down frame: a massive plasma cannon, a fully functioning particle beam rifle, a seeker rifle, and a railgun machine gun.

With Honzo invisible Cord and Durkor opened fire, concentrating on the great behemoth. Rains stepped forward down between the gunfire and the legs, where the girl was operating. He put a hand out at first to give that hopeful gesture, but recoiled once he got a look at her face. She had no face. Instead a metal skeleton face with robotic eyes greeted him under the raven black hair.

Oh no. What are you? Sylar thought to himself.

Johann crawled onto the bot’s backside rending its armored limbs through and through with his cyberclaws. Jort’s fire did nothing to fade it, Nicholas popped a couple of the eyes, and Jack blew off the plasma cannon arm. Then the Bot went off with all it’s remaining weapons. The seeker planted at Jort’s feet and exploded, propelling the man across the room. The beam weapon lanced out like blue sapphire, burning through the rubble Cord jumped behind, leaving him flattened to the floor. The railgun auto-shot was about to go off, when Honzo shot the controller from the now obviously deformed humanoid female figure from under the behemoth’s legs.

Then the damn thing went haywire. It started moving forward slowly, firing all of its weapons constantly until they were drained of ammunition. The team circumvented its attacks and withstood its barrages of stupidly missed rounds for a time. Promptly, each returned fire at will doing what they could. The room was a smoke screen.

Rains meanwhile attempted to distract the woman. Realizing she was losing her goliath the woman-creature made a mad dash to flee through the gunfire and smoke encountering only Rains standing defiantly before her.

“I’m your only hope Trisha. You have to come with me or someone else WILL kill you.”

The woman’s voice was digitized,“No one will ever get me. You can try,” as she reached out for Rains who promptly stepped back, “Go ahead. Take me.”

With robotic aptitude small gyros twisted in her legs and assisted in a great leap through the air, high over Sylar’s head. Rains, not sparing any more time here, merely aimed up and blasted a hole through her body. The burn cut straight through her and she fell lifeless to the floor behind him.

On a cracked maker at his waist Sylar quickly coded to print out two long thick rubbery gloves that had a shiny nano-coating over them, a very sharp plastic blade, and a palm-sized crystalline case. Pulling on the gloves that sleeved past his elbows while bending over the dead women with the blade; careful not to touch any of the rest of her body he performed a surgery he was accustomed to at this point in his career. This mission was going well for him. He put her stack in the fabbed crystal box and at a simple synaptic command the gloves fell from his arms like dust as he pocketed the case.

The Ultimate finally managed to topple the monster as he tore out all of the connections from the backside up top to the lower functioning pieces down below. The only remaining weapon that fired was the railgun machine gun, seemingly endless ammo had it blasting away at a corner of the room. The smoking denizen finally shut down as the crew closed in around it blasting at its carcass, reloading, repeating. Honzo had fired half a dozen mini-missiles into its leg joints and torso helping to bring the thing down.

So the stories were true Nicholas thought, no bots in the area had any sort of advanced AI left in them, but ominously the TITAN tech was still salvageable. Firing the clips last round into the giant mech’s head he raised his eyes as the Ultimate warrior stepped back cautiously from everyone; Johann now realizing that he was alone in the room with his ideological perspectives and these were not his brothers.

“Who are you?” Johann implored.

“Just folk of the wasteland here on our own accord,” Jack responded as he jacked in to the control port the woman was using a moment earlier from across the room.

“That was my quarry,” pointed Johann to Rains.

“I saw her first,” Rains stood his ground, weapons at the ready, “Sides. Shes dead now.”

Johann merely sneered about not finding a trace of his team. His cyber blades retracted into his forearms with a click. He retrieved his laser rifle from where he’d tossed it.

The group bantered about for just a moment before deciding to leave. Jack finished up at the port, easily tracking down the data they needed and breaking through coded areas with the packet he’d been given. Tracking their way out of the ship Johann only found Pavel, who was reluctant at first but the numbers seemed safer.

“The data has been ransacked and the whole server was blown,” Pavel told Johann, “We might not be able to go back to Aspis. Crow and Waqqas are missing.”

Johann deduced, “I should think that we could at least get out with Initiate Gunther once we rendezvous at the TQZ perimeter. We shall travel with these Transhumans for the time being. The Ducti will know what to do next.”

There was no more talk on the way out. The sound of multiple grav-engines doing a flyby out of their sight gave them an eerier feeling, for things were not supposed to be flying around in the TQZ. The dusty region they were in was inhospitable and they wanted no more of it.

Leaving the ruins for the ridge and looking back they now witnessed a horror that was beyond them. It was like a huge tolling bell – a large craft hovering above the damaged ship hull not far off. It was a horrible shimmering brown-copper disc with strange tendrils coiling in and out of at its perimeter, dropping what looked like trash, everywhere. It made brief, but intense and deep-bass honking noises. They kept hidden, especially when the ship hovered down to the ground below with a noise that shook the ground and their lungs.

The horror was too much for Nicholas, who felt cold at the sight of the hovering ship. They were in awe like at the sight of first meeting an alien. Then Cord shook Rains and Honzo, yelling at them over the bass noise.

“Theres another Warbot down there! I can see it through the rubble and it knows we’re here! It’s moving way too fast to be stupid like the other one! We’ve gotta run! We gotta go! Now!”

Then Cord bolted down the hill in the opposite direction, back towards the vehicles. The rest joined in his pace, all running for their lives. The run back seemed to make the distance so short, especially since it was kicked into an adrenal overdrive. At their rear they could hear what could only be described as robot legs in the distance, gigantic running robot legs.

Johann was the limber one, being a huge Remade his stride simply carried him farther. Bounding ahead of the smaller Transhumans the huge Ultimate crossed through the ruins, Pavel gave cover from ahead positions as well. Johann’s traction left huge marks in the ground for the team to follow as he plotted a safe course through the irradiated area.

Then he was surprised to find ahead not only the ship that Gunther was supposed to be picking them up in, but Gunther running to the borders of the TQZ hauling ass to the inter-spatial ship. Gunther was running away Johann realized. He was the saboteur. He had the data.

GUNTHHERRRRRRRRRR!” bellowed Johann over the distance.

Gunther turned in his tracks. The Ultimate braced himself brandishing an assault rifle. Pointing in Johann’s direction the crass man lifted a finger and gave Johann an inviting gesture.

COME ONNN!” Johann screamed as he started into a rushed sprint with cheetah-like speed.

Gunther didn’t aim. He shot from the waist. He shot like a rock star. A hail of bullets slurried past Johann as he parted the onslaught. Catching a few nicks that glanced off his shoulders and legs he watched as Gunther ran dry with no time to reload. Gunther took a few steps back as Johann closed the distance like a yoyo returning to its owner. Johann’s opponent drew his sword from his back, anticipating the worst.

Johann flew at him with wolvers brandished. A quick parry and Gunther was still standing, blocking off a slash to the face, a slash to the leg. Johann’s claws flashed like lightning. He maneuvered with calculated effrontery and eventually found the niche in the man’s style. Taking advantage at the next swipe around Johann pierced through the defense and caught the man in his front side, the wolvers carving deep through Gunther’s cartilage, bone, just under the right shoulder blade above the heart. Johann’s left most talon on this attack was also piercing a portion of spine.

The combat seemed to cease as they became one for a brief moment for Death to take his snapshot. They were a statue of Mars briefly. Gunther’s blade fell from his hand as Johann winced to shove the cyber claws all the way down to the knuckles. The dying Ultimate’s blood dribbled out in frozen shards to the floor and Johann watched with peaking interest as the light left his eyes. Withdrawing his blades from the impressive stab and retracting to a single wolver-blade, Johann grabbed Gunther by the crown of his hair and seamlessly chopped the head from the body before allowing the corpse to fall to the ground. Gunther’s stack now lay in Johann’s arms.

From over the hill Pavel goaded the men on, “Go! Don’t look back! It’s not good! Keep up the pace! Hurry!”

Pavel loosed a laser blast from the last hilly pinnacle to grant some sort of cover. Cord, Rains, Honzo, and Durkor bounded into sight of the vehicles and were running as hard as they could. Ahead they witnessed Johann behead the other Ultimate, capturing the carnal moment from a distance and not fully understanding what just happened.

Then Pavel was flying past them, a look of exhilaration and excitement on his face. From the vehicle Ju Nu Pai laser linked the team a broadwave.

“Your almost to the border! I’ve got the engine running hot!”

Not far off Johann kept Gunther’s head. He started to make for Gunther’s space ship when suddenly a missile came out of nowhere and collided with the craft, which exploded into a fireball. Johann shuddered under the explosion just in front of him a few hundred feet. Turning back he witnessed a fully intact Warbot coming into view from the ruins. It blew up the ship and now there was definitely no way back to space. Johann dropped to the floor, trying to place any laser fire he could on the weakest points he could remember from his previous encounter.

The five men crossed the TQZ border with the bot hot on their trail. A few well placed blasts had giant torrents of Martian dirt flying all over them. They were for the briefest moment in the most danger they had encountered since entering the TQZ and they were just now leaving it. However, right at the border of the TQZ, where the dirt visibly changes from a weirder metallic color to Martian soil the Warbot seemingly stopped. Stopped firing. Stopped advancing. As a matter of fact it turned around and promptly started rushing back in the direction it had came, disappearing from sight. Disappearing from mind.

It was a massive relief to everyone who came out of the experience with little more than burns and a few non-penetrating gunshot wounds. The survivors rallied at the Ultimate’s vehicle and Jort’s buggy. First aid was administered and rations handed out.

“Whats your plan Ultimates?” Cord asked aloud.

“We’ve no way to get off planet,” responded Pavel while Johann stuffed his face with protein paste.

Jack offered, “We’re going back to the Black Claw. You can follow us back. You might even be able to hitch off with us?”

Pavel stood about pondering for a moment. He looked down to consider the feasting Johann. Johann returned a glaring nod.

Finally Pavel came forward after a silent moment in agreement, “Very well Transhuman. Take point. For now.”

They rested for another minute before loading up into the tank and buggy. The sound of the hollow wind beckoned on the air. Leaving the TQZ behind their vehicles cut a new path in the dirt as they drove back into the distant horizon.

Back at the border stood a smallish robot. It had only recently arrived, but could go no further. It was a bare metal skeleton, with a face that lacked any organic look to give it humanity. The robot held a stone in its right hand. Reeling back it’s throwing arm with a perfect pitcher’s stance the robot chucked the rock into the horizon. As the vehicles left sight of the TQZ it stood there, alone.

Their tank rolled through the Martian countryside, leaving the mirage like TQZ behind. While counting down kilometers to the Black Claw the men remained rather silent and on guard. Staring at monitors with sensors looking back at the TQZ to make sure nothing flew out after them they waited for some time before anyone began to talk.

“We’re in range to comm the Claw,” Jack broke the silence, “I’ll try and get a read on them.”

“Finally!” Johann jeered from behind the steering console.

Over his headspace Jack cleared his mesh of over excessive media, down to basic communications. He boosted the signal off the tanks antennae until he could zero in on the exact location of of the Claw, who boasted open radio channels. He jumped onto the Black Claw emergency channel for personnel, IDed as Mordin Kind. It didn’t take long for him to reach security channels that operated along the new borders protecting the ship.

Honzo sat in silence, his eyes were closed, occasionally his lips twitched. Behind the steering wheel of the tank Johann stared forward, glancing down on occasion between his knees to jeer at Gunther’s dead face. Sylar Rains fiddled with a cortical stack in his fingers, sitting passenger. Nicholas Cord exchanged protocol with Jort Durkor over the next steps to be taken in the passenger seats. Ju Nu Pai twisted knobs behind a sensor bay in the back past Honzo. The whole time Pavel sat atop the tank staring into the horizon, awaiting the shapely figure of a rocket-ship to appear.

When Jack snapped out of his communication meditation the crew turned heads and sat up to pay attention, “We’ve got a Barsoomian barricade to break through. Seems after the crash site turned into a retrieval site all sorts of wild folk showed up. A lot are clankers, but there are reports of high grade synths and heavy weapons.”

No one spoke for a moment until strategizing settled in. As a group they all jacked in to a small server onboard the tank. Ju spun up a VR room and digitally displayed current map information being broadcast from the Black Claw. With the help of their Muses, digitally displayed in their full forms alongside their masters, they determined the best route in plotting a course for a southern entrance. Here the maps indicated the thinnest of forces along the perimeter of the Claw, and the Muses unanimously approved, with the best odds of achieving a successful breakthrough.

All but Ju disembarked from the tank, he remained in order to take advantage of the mesh. Cord led the rag tag crew ahead to crack the plan, which included framing the Barsoomian techno-cult – The Burning Men in front of them for killing another gang across the way, Critter Hood Gang.

Through the foresight of knowing he wouldn’t get pinned for the murder Cord sent an invisible Honzo out into the fray to kill a Critter and set his body in the general vicinity of the Burning territory. From there Ju was going to fabricate a fake message sent from a hacked Burning Man account via the limited mesh in the area across the way to the Critter Hood Gang boasting of their evil deed.

While ghosting the limited abilities being piggy backed from the reluctant Black Claw mesh facilities many of the gangs became lax. Their security measures were so thorough within their wireless parameters that many of the Barsoomians didn’t try to hack the Claw’s systems for fear of a backlash from the space pirates. Every gang that had arrived thus far was only interested on what was going on inside the crater, not so much the outside.

The team’s setup worked. Honzo waited on the top side of the hill for a Critter to wander by through his established territory. With a neck crack Jack drew the body as close as he could without being seen. It took a few moments for the Critter gang to realize one of their own had disappeared, but once Ju Nu Pai blasted the broad wave throughout the mesh a small contingent of Critters took up arms and marched around the crater to the Burning Men’s side.

There was no talking. Hostile memes were being blasted through the mesh from the Critter Hood Gang, with other gangs meme-ing through to egg on the smaller gangs claims. Meanwhile the Burning Men countered with a defensive meme, mimicking around the mesh feeds as the basis of the Burning Men. When the gangs came face to face no more than a hundred meters from each other they began to open fire, deliberately targeting morphs; The Burning Men wasting no time in initiating the interaction of gunfire.

As the two gangs battled for supremacy Cord’s group of killers: Rains, Honzo, Durkor, Pavel, and Johann made short work of their quarry in their planned surprise attack. The initial spear head proved worthy with both gangs in full retreat from that area of the perimeter. The crew made way back to the waiting Ju and skipped ahead into the crater where The Black Claw’s engines stood idle.

None of the Barsoomians challenged their entry. Especially after the tank made straight for pirate lines. Reluctant, pirate ground forces let the tank through after a personal mass wave from Mortz to let Kind behind friendly lines in his dinky land-ranger. Passing through heavily barricaded areas Cord drove the tank down a VR path laid by Honzo.

As they peered up at their new surroundings and defenses they took note that the Claw now stood upright from large amounts of labor, nano fabrication of struts, and a launchpad. The compartments that had been blown away since the ship cracked in half and crashed were slowly being welded shut. A strange ghost frame stood erect on the perimeter of the ship in order for weight calculations to approximate a safe take off. The Scum crew had some of the finest outlaw engineers working for them and worked like they were getting paid for it.

Crews decked out the spires and insides of the ship, with sparks and the screech of welding to accompany. Nicholas stopped the tank somewhere in a designated parking area that claimed they were safe from sniper fire. Of the team Honzo (Mordin Kind), Cord, and Rains disembarked from the tank as Jack claimed he needed to speak with members of the crew to assure they could leave with the Claw into space.

They left the Ultimates, the dirtied sylph hacker, and the Ranger behind for a moment to find Shaymuh Hoontz. He was not far, as were the other members of the crew that knew Kind. Hoontz was doing oversight on repairs high up. Without disturbing the other workers Kind meshed Hoontz in silence.

“We’re here. I’m on the ground with others. What should we do?”

Hoontz glanced down and replied over the mesh without speaking, “I’ll be down in just a moment. Have you seen the Captain? Preparations will be complete in a matter of hours.”

It didn’t take long for Shaymuh to descend, intent on retrieving the data for the engines. Already meshing through to all of the members of Kind’s party was Captain Tzu. On her way from another point of the ship. Excitement buzzed around on the air as memes of hope and high spirits rang throughout the pirate-mesh. Other workers standing around on struts and nearby stared down at the party, knowing who they were without even speaking to them.

When Tzu arrived Kind wasted little time in handing over the data. She handed it to her techies with a wave of “Get this done,” and returned her attention to the returned party. Her face was lined with calm recognition.

“Your quite impressive Mister Kind.”

“I work with the best and I really want to get some use out of this morph before I get stuck for another ten years in a locked off room made out of data.”

“Well. We are set for lift-off then,” Tzu claimed and cheers began chanting up physically around them.

Through the mesh Cord was pinged. A combination between Ju and Jort were asking for his presence, and it was an emergency. Without claiming too much glory Nathan slipped away from the happy proclamation of lift-off news. He jogged back to the tank where the rest of the crew waited inside. Cord popped in, seeing them all engaged in a VR sequence he couldn’t see, he reached over and plugged in through an extra access cable. Coming into the private hard-wired VR room onboard the tanks server. Accidentally interrupted Ju and his muse’s report on something that was occurring apparently now, Cord took a virtual seat.

“Hunter Cord,” Ju spat, “welcome to me saving your ass. Now to jump to the point gentlemen. Here is our exit point from the TQZ,” Ju made a circle on the air where a huge VR map of their progress across Mars since leaving the TQZ loomed.

“Here’s the Claw,” he continued making marks across the VR simulator.

“Now here’s the TITAN reading,” and he scored it once again with a different VR tag. The tag was moving across the martian landscape following the exact same path that their tank had taken.

“Unfortunately, due to the limited resources I can access at this point I can’t tell you what it is. Only that it is inorganic, started at a variable speed of somewhere between sixty and eighty miles per hour, and is now traveling at a velocity of about two hundred and sixty miles per hour. That gives us a window of about fifteen to twenty minutes before whatever is carrying this TITAN signature arrives at where we are sitting.”

“Oh shit!” Nathan blurted out, “We’ve got to takeoff now!”

The team unanimously agreed as the VR sequence faded from view. Everyone pulled their plugs out and started about doing extremely desperate things. Ju collected all of the cyberware he thought was his in the immediate vicinity to make for the holds of the Claw, Jort jumped onto a the general vicinity mesh to send a broad-wave message out to the surrounding people to warn them, whilst the Ultimates prepared for their end. Nathan assured everyone that they were allowed passage aboard the ship and then relayed the nightmare message to captain Li Lin Tzu.

It took only moments for the whole camp to go on red alert. Tzu left from her spot and gave the general order to retreat for space and prepare for liftoff. Only those back-upped on the Black Claw were allowed to stand and defend the ship from the oncoming threat. Thanks to the news from Cord’s team Tzu was now using more of the resources at her disposal, by getting satellite relay info and using her teams still sitting in space. She decided to exact the launch time with arrival of the TITAN signature, in order to blast it with the ships engines as a good-bye gesture. Her hopes were to leave Mars at least clean of infection or anything that could get to a city. Relaying her plans around boosted her plan’s confidence as her many advisors and engineers counseled her on initiating a late high burn for a blinding scorch of the earth below.

Meanwhile, as the Captain and her cadre prepared the space flight, the crews on the ground were busy in a full on evacuation. One of the smallest ships boasting communication and delicate reconstructive equipment took off with the smartest heads that couldn’t be sacrificed. The other ground crews worked desperately to retrieve and finish of their work, as the few defensive lines left on the ground took up positions on the western side of the crater. They watched as the Barsoomian population fled for the Hinterlands. The news of the ship taking off and the arrival of a TITAN weapon was enough to respect the act of self-preservation.

The crew that has spent so little time together yet now finds more in common with escaping the surface than ever hatch their own plan. As news of the TITAN machine moving faster arrives they break up. Jort took this moment while everyone was getting ready and the Barsoomians were fleeing to hop in his buggy and say goodbye. With little more than a hand wave and a mesh photo tagged with the date Jort was gone.

“I’m taking the tank out to slow it down,” Nathan spoke up, “Anyone who wants to stay on the ground has till the precise moment of takeoff to make it through those doors,” he pointed to a hatch low to the ground. It was the last means of escaping Mars.

“Anyone who wants on now better get cozy. Seats are going fast. I’m out,” and with that Nathan engaged the tank. Clipping into the seat through the back of his head, he retained cyber-puppet control of the tank as he took the wheel and drove the rig out over the lip of the crater.

No one knew the enemy exactly. A few lines of pirates decked out in expendable biomorphs and synths were all that stood between them and the ship. At the back line closest to the door Jack Honzo and Syler Rains stood by with weapons ready. The Ultimates paired off with them on the other side of the hatch as a sort of guard-corridor. The ground was still abuzz with members leaving and ships charging up, including The Black Claws massive engines.

After Nathan peaked the hill he started off towards the approaching thing that was TITAN infected. He retained control of the tanks cannon through the scopes of his endo. With magnification and spectrums provided by the tanks onboard systems he spied what it was that was about to destroy them all, however he kept the petal to the metal.

It was the other vehicle they had left behind when they left the TQZ. He remember the outlay of it. A large rover with maybe twelve to fifteen seats in it. It was also modified in his vision now, but he wasn’t taking any chances. With a glance and a pinch of a nerve ending he fired the onboard energy cannon, and the tank lurched back. Far ahead, but closing fast, he made a direct hit and pieces of the vehicle stripped away in the blast, yet it continued with even faster momentum. Sweat dribbled down cords forehead. He wouldn’t have time to take another shot before it was upon him. He braced for impact, yet as it was about to smash into his oncoming vehicle it veered off to the side and dodged him entirely, making straight for the Black Claw.

Cord slammed on the breaks and the tank came to a screeching halt. As he began to back up and turn around Tonto signaled a proximity alert. He looked out passed the settling dust. The wreckage he had blown off of the vehicle was an anthropomorphic bot, welded together to resemble part of the vehicle. It was lurching straight towards him in long distance-covering strides. His lumbering tank was relatively slow, and as he took off back towards the crater the TITAN had no problem catching up to the tank and jumping on the back of it.

With a rocking sensation Nicholas knew that soon the TITAN would overtake all the onboard computers and take complete control of the tank. He copied Tonto onto the tank’s system with an override order to keep the tank going until it was under the Claw’s engines. From there he pulled his hardwire from the back of the chair as he felt bits of the tank getting peeled off the top. The tank ambled forward at a substantial speed. Cord ripped his auto-mag out and prepared for a close range battle with a piece of TITAN war machine.

At the line the teams of pirates were given a countdown for how long they had until they were burned to a crisp: One minute! At least they knew there would be an end and they wouldn’t be turned into TITAN slaves. Everyone braced as the radiation readings on the TITAN machine reached the peak of the crater. When it did it burst through the crater wall rather than peaking it. As the TITAN exploded through the wall it sprang apart into five large mechanoids that transformed out from the parts making up the body and machine parts of the old land transport. Immediately the war machines begin tearing apart every sentient being in the area, like juggernauts they the smashed through towards The Black Claw.

The first line fell within seconds under hails of gunfire and lances of laser light. The pirates were for the most part helpless. Only with combined fire on one machine at a time were they able to fell one of the advancing bots. Even the Ultimates were overcome with awe, while the others were outright terrified.

These TITAN machines grappled to tear apart. They begin with simply deconstructing each morph at the waste with their larger upper appendages, leaving them to die quickly and painfully if they were biomorphs. As the TITAN bots moved about it was as if they had already gridded where the dead lay, for each one systematically entered an area already littered with corpses simply to gather stacks; which they did from a growth emanating at the crotch region between their powerful legs like a den of cybernetic snakes that could uncoil to the length of the ground and perform the devious operation. In this case it involved going through the mouth to break through the back of the neck, severing the connections between the cyberbrain if you were still awake, and forcibly removing the stack in an efficient method. While efficient it still took a few moments to successfully abduct each stack, so the TITAN bots just dragged around corpses by their faces as they killed more transhumans around them.

Sylar watch for only the first line of pirates, then retreated inside fearful of infection. Many of the crew who were fearless before the battle were now running for their lives. Honzo braced for as long as he dared, staying to help the Ultimates who snarled at their opponents. The two Ultimates kept yelling out simultaneous commands that only they were paying attention too.

“Front morph! Head!”


“Chest center!”


“Left shoulder!”


Through their commands Honzo could tell they were pinpointing weak spots. He attempted a combined fire with them helping to bring a second bot down. Then the engines started to rev up on a serious crescendo, the time quickly terminating. The TITANs were close, but as the battle looked like it was at its worst a tank came flying over the top of the crater, on fire, with a TITAN warbot mounted on the back ripping it to pieces, and Nicholas Cord surfing it down from the crest at the pilot’s area of the tank, blasting backwards with his auto-mag into the nightmarish cyber-demon. The tank came to a crashing halt smashing the foremost TITAN bot that was about to advance into the hull of the Black Claw.

Over their mesh a general warning sounded off between each respective muse. The had seconds to get on board or be backed up from their last occurrence somewhere else in the galaxy. They made for the latch as Cord used the last of the tanks momentum to jump off and bound him through. Cord, being last in slammed the door shut on the 2 second count. The group as a team rotated the heavy locking mechanism on the manual shutoff to the outside just as the engines ignited.

They heard the lock just after the crack of fuel burning at intense heat went off outside. Their eyes all wide with fear, their palms all greasy from sweat and gripping the steel tire that locked the small hatch from doom outside. Then they felt a rocking. They could here hard metals grinding against other hard metals, the guidelines of massive steel piping until suddenly they knew. They were off the ground, but the ride was hell. The room jittered and rocked about. Everyone’s balance was obliterated and they were knocked around like a fresh break at a game of pool. The sound was deafening, like the longest, lingering, loudest, muffled thud noise you had ever heard.

Then when it seemed like they were going to explode in midair, and the noise was going to overtake them all everything went silent. The booming a mere beckoning aftershock to the now warm sound of a humming engine in happy equilibrium. The air became clean as the oxygen scrubbers began pumping out breathable cooled bliss.

Everyones endos suddenly registered a shift in dimension as their location shifted to, “Martian Lagrange 50.361 off -1067.904.” Zero gravity set in and they floated about in the bottom part of the engine section of the ship. Shifting about in zero-g the team made sure they were clean of infection.

The back half of The Black Claw was back in space. Freshly off the red planet it carried a trail of martian dust with it, giving the Red Planet’s sky an angelic appeal. Aboard was maybe a hundred specialized morphs glad to be space bound again, although some were in a place they’d never imagined they would be in.

The Claw came together in the days ahead and extensive repairs took months to eventually hobble back together a ship that could once again fly under the respectable name, flight, and banner of the ship known as: The Black Claw.



“…Well that only delayed us close to a year,” Shaymuh interjected between a council of engineers, cosmonauts, autonomists, and scum.

“We’ll make for the outer system then at full burn. Once the other engine is online and the rest of the ships return we’ll make good time slinging around Mars,” Tzu commanded.

“That’s fine by our measure,” spoke up the uncanny Ultimate, “We’ can make for Aspis as soon as we’re within range.”

Cord asked Ju, “I believe we have business in the belt anyhow?”

“Yes, yes,” Ju Nu Pai said somberly.

“I’ll get out when it’s convenient. Just happy to be alive and be able to spend money,” Rains complied.

“Then its done,” ended the Captain, “We make for Locus.”



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