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/qst/ - Quests

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>>Summer, 76 A.C. (After Cataclysm) [2517 AD]

Old Man Larkin tells it the best. The story of how the world ended.

Not that he makes a habit of telling it. The semi-retired roughneck has to be either sufficiently boozed, or in a melancholic mood. Sometimes it takes a potent combination of both, when the weather outside gets really nasty, and he’s had enough alcohol to curdle his liver. It’s a depressing story, but on the Duck, there’s only so many ways for the workers to stave off boredom.

But he had lived through it. He had the burns and the frostbite to challenge anyone calling him a fraud, as well as the temper to back it up. No one knows exactly how old he is, but he’s at the age where he has little left to live for, and even less to lose.

“I remember it clearly, the day of the Scouring,” Larkin mutters, cowing the assembled riggers into silence. “I’ll never be able to forget it. I can’t forget it, no matter how much I drink…”

The mess is as silent as it can be to accommodate thirty off-duty roughnecks, and the cafeteria staff serving them dinner. You stand off to the side, nursing a bowl of protein stew. Larkin’s tale is one you’d heard several times over, but there’s still some novelty in watching the rooks and greenhorns react.

The curtains are drawn shut, but the gathering storm can both be heard and felt. The Duck sways with every passing gust of wind, and buffet of the high ocean tide against the struts and legs. A mild storm, Karl Kolter claims, but one that the entirety of the oil rig will feel for the next few hours.

A perfect mood to backdrop Larkin’s story.

The old man’s eyes, half-blinded by cataracts, go glassy as he rasps: “I was a small child, living in Florida, barely knee-high in height, and kindergarten recess had just ended. Mrs. Severe was reading out of Mister Popper’s Penguins when the announcement came over the 7G. Miss Daria Beisner of NPR, ever the consummate professional, was reporting in a panicked voice that the sun had exploded, and that we were all going to die.”

He chuckles darkly, somehow heard over the dull muttering of the riggers. His hands are clasped tightly, and the flickering, overhead light casts long shadows across his worn face. The next words come with a bitter cynicism.

“Of course, it didn’t explode. We’re all still here, aren’t we? That would have been a mercy, killing us all at once. No, what happened was something I later learned was a coronal mass ejection. But for little five-year-old me, it might as well have exploded. And there by the grace of God and the NASA scientists, we had three days to make peace with ourselves before the radiation hit the planet and killed us all.

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“The chaos and panic that seized everyone…” he shudders at some distant memory. “…madness. Martial law was declared across the world, not that it did anyone any good. Riots, mass looting, prowling gangs of rapists and murderers…the complete disintegration of the social order as mankind embraced the worst of our nihilistic tendencies. Some prayed. Some committed suicide en mass. Most…went mad. Some of the more belligerent powers used the apocalypse to settle old grudges. It seemed that every hour, someone somewhere was launching nukes as a final ‘fuck you’ before we all went extinct.”

Larkin sighs, and a nearby rigger takes the pause to refill the old man’s cup. “My family was lucky. Our neighbor had a fallout shelter that his great-great granddaddy built for Cuba. We crammed in there, about two dozen of us in that concrete bunker, slammed the door shut, and shot anyone who got too close for comfort. Didn’t matter if they were civies or looters, marauders or military.

“And when the radiation finally hit the earth…” his voice trails off. The old man’s head turns towards the ceiling, eyes wide and unblinking. His next words come in a reverent whisper. “I saw the sky turn green, blue, red…all manner of colors. A beautiful sight. One I can’t do justice with mere words. But I wouldn’t wish for any of you to see it. It was the last sight that I had in that small window from the bunker before the planet shattered.”

As if on cue, the entire room shudders as a rough wave hits the Duck. Someone curses. Everyone sways in rhythm with the rig as it rises and dips, but some of the rooks haven’t nearly gotten their sealegs. Larkin uses the interruption to let the image settle in the minds of his audience, whetting dried, cracked lips with a sip of moonshine. More than one rigger makes signs, mutters prayers or wards against the evil eye.

He continues, rasping: “…for one week, the Earth was scoured with cosmic energy. The magnetic field reversed, triggering a series of violent, tectonic movements. Tsunamis ravaged coastlines, wiped entire countries off the face of the map. The Ring of Fire erupted all at once, spewing lava, ash and smoke up towards the sky…and where the magnetic field just gave out entirely, pillars of light carved mile-long furrows into the very bedrock itself.”

Some whispers break out. Most of them in agreement or affirmation. It matches up with what many learned in those open-aired community schools, or family folklore. But with every fresh batch of rooks, there’s always at least one greenhorn who doubts that the old man is a the genuine article of a Rememberer.

This doesn’t go unnoticed by Larkin. On your first tour of the Duck nearly five years ago, he’d throttled a doubter, hissing and spitting in their terrified faces. But the years had mellowed him out somewhat. He isn’t nearly as aggressive, but no less abrasive or confrontational.

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“Matter of fact…” He stands up, and undoes the buttons of his jumpsuit. The crowd recoils as he slides it off to get a full, unabridged look beneath the lighting. “Yeah, looks awful, doesn’t it? Ever wonder why mommy tells you to draw the curtains shut when it gets a little too bright? I never disobeyed my mother after I nearly cooked by the window.”

His is a chest covered in an ugly, pockmarked section of scar tissue and burn marks. Even on his leathery skin, tanned and salted with decades of working on an off-shore rig, the injury looks no less angry. More than one person looks sick, and someone actually retches.

You grimace, if only slightly. That’s a sight that never gets old. Almost a rite of passage for the fresh faces coming onto the Duck. Whether or not you had reacted the same way is a matter of contentious debate.

Larking eventually buttons back up, and eases back into his seat with a fresh cup of booze. He eyes everyone, checking to spot any doubters. Your gazes meet, but you merely shrug in response. Satisfied that he’s found no disbelievers, Larkin returns to his story once again:

“A week. That’s how long the Scouring lasted. My da went up to the bunker’s entrance, scouting to see after all the shaking had stopped. I’ll never forget the look on his face that he had when he came back. ‘Hell on Earth’, he called it. Scared the shit out of me. Never was one for exaggerating.”

The old man gestures to the shortwave radio, hanging on the wall. “The grid was fried. Fragments of satellites and space stations were falling from the sky. Everything was still burning and melting. Stepping outside in nearly hundred-degree weather. Dust and ash clouds polluted the air for months, but the sky itself…the Ring was still burning, still spitting smog into the air. Blocking out the sun…blocking out the warmth and light…”

He’s overtaken by a coughing fit. Several of the closest riggers move to help him, but Larkin waves them away with an angry huff.

“I didn’t survive the Scouring and the Dark Winter to die of a dry throat,” he growls. “I’d sooner jump off the Duck than croak from that.”

The crowd answers with a rippling laughter. Nervous, but genuine. It cuts through the tension, and bleeds the memory of Larkin’s scars.

“But where was I?” the old man mutters.

“Something about blocking out the sun?” suggests a cook.

He nods. “Yes, yes, that’s right. The sun. The smog and ash blocked out the light. Our relief that we wouldn’t burn to death quickly became fear. Heat turned to cold. And the cold seeped deep into the roots of the world. For the next thirty-one years, there would be no sunlight as the planet was held in the chill, icy grasp of the Dark Winter.”

Larkin shudders, making a show of flashing the two missing digits on his left hand. The stubs of his ring and pinky fingers wiggle in the light. Even you have a hard time swallowing your next bite of stew.

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“You’ll find plenty of people who lived through the Dark Winter. Some of your parents, even. Count yourselves lucky that your grandparents didn’t smoother their children, rather than risk seeing them starve to death. The rich and the poor, everyone unlucky enough to have been left behind by the Exodus Fleet…the Dark Winter was the great equalizer in bringing us all to the same miserable level of human existence…

“But you’ll find fewer who remember that slow transition. Hope as they exited the bunkers, only to find despair at having to live for an entire generation in the clasp of a thirty-one-year long winter night. Where the only thing colder than the planet were the hearts of men and women who did what they had to survive…”

Silence. Save for the noise of the storm, the entire cafeteria falls silent. There are some veterans with salt in their hair, who clutch their limbs nervously or shudder. Larkin’s words ring true, in that there are others who had lived through the snap ice age. The warm stew in your hands, congealed mess of proteins as it is, would have been a borderline inconceivable luxury during the Dark Winter.

With that pleasant thought, you shovel the last bit of stew into your mouth, trying not too hard to think about what went into the meal. It’s hardly the cooks’ fault that the storm’s delayed the bi-monthly delivery of supplies, but damn if you aren’t really tempted to take your chances with a fishing rod. At least the fish, radioactive or mutated it might be, would be fresh.

Larkin stands, to everyone’s surprise, leaving the story unfinished. He shuffles away from the spotlight, taking a seat at a nearby table. “…my recounting of Dark Winter will have to wait until tomorrow. I am in no mood to continue.”

The rooks look grateful, even as some of the more seasoned hands look like they might object. But cooler heads prevail, mostly from drillers and wellheads who glare at the more rambunctious ones to shut up. Everyone shuffles off, depositing trays and bowls in their receptacles before heading off to spend their free time until the next shift.

You aren’t in a hurry to join them. For one thing, the number of friends you have on the Duck can be counted on one hand, and most of them work the opposite shift. And your current shift mates…well, at least one and a handful of his cronies, really don’t like you.

The schedule you keep is odd enough as it is given your…unique position, but it’s one that you’re forced to live with. The pay, at the very least, justifies the disjointed hours.

The storm causes your brands to ache, and you scratch awkwardly at the back of your neck. Just last week, you had one removed. It’s comparable to a bad sunburn, only dialed up by a handful of levels. But you welcome the pain over one of twenty-five constant reminders of what had landed you in this situation in the first place.

Only twenty left until you're a free man once more.

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As you move to put your dishes away, you go for one more drink. Non-alcoholic, since you're technically on standby. And as you pull away from the rim, and peer into the depths of your mug, the shallow pool of water holds a rippling, uncertain reflection of your face. One you only just barely recognize, haggard after what feels like so many years since that fateful day.

Sinleq Unami.

Accomplished mechanical engineer and PUEXO pilot.

An indentured debt-slave of the Free City-State of Babylonia.

Currently leased out to the oil rig Marduk, colloquially known as “the Duck” by its denizens and workers.

But that’s enough introspection for now.

>>How do you want to spend your free time on the Duck?
>Drop by the entertainment district to unwind and de-stress.
>Share a drink with Larkin and ask about the world prior to the Cataclysm.
>Visit the engineering platform to check up on your PUEXO after the last deep dive.

[Vote open for 6 hours]
>>Drop by the entertainment district to unwind and de-stress.
>>Share a drink with Larkin and ask about the world prior to the Cataclysm.
>>Share a drink with Larkin and ask about the world prior to the Cataclysm.

Larkin starts as you settle down, and pour a fresh set of drinks for both of you. “Who’s…Unami?”

“The one and only,” you answer dryly.

His laughter is more a bark than anything else. “I thought you’d be out of here already.”

“I ain’t in a hurry to go nowhere. ‘sides, it’s a long walk back to the hab, and a whole lot of things can happen during a storm.”

He frowns at that. “…is Pierce giving you trouble?”

When isn’t he? you think dryly to yourself. “That prick’s still ass-blasted that I had stop the diving bell three days ago for emergency repairs. His division lost the to the night shift when they didn’t reach their weekly quota.”

Larkin frowns, downing the offered drink in a single swing. “You had a good reason, didn’t you?”

You nod grimly. “Faulty equipment that would’ve made Bydford Dolphin look like a picnic if I hadn’t otherwise.”

The old man spits his drink, and you barely dodge out of the way in time. Coughing and cursing up a storm, he levels an incredulous glare. “You serious?”

“Yep,” you declare with an audible pop. “He was rushing his safety checks, and didn’t notice that the failsafe seal wasn’t locking properly after the second dive. Too focused on trying to chase that bonus to give a damn about anything else.”

Word had spread like wildfire after that. Humiliating Pierce was the last thing on your mind; the wellbeing of the crew had been. But his downfall had been something to behold. He’d been given a one-month ban from the local temple of Ishtar, and a private lecture from the rig manager. Other roughnecks and roustabouts took to giving wary looks, and all but his loyal supporters left him alone.

“If he’s smart, he’ll thank you and ride out the wave,” mutters Larkin. “Two months, granted, it’ll be water under the rig.”

Unlikely. He’s a good enough driller and a shoe-in for becoming a toolpusher. But his ego is barely able to fit in a diving bell, let alone a saturation suit. And that kind of mental attitude is the kind that gets people needlessly exposed to danger and death. Nothing short of divine intervention, or a personal scolding from a Founding Family, would change that.

“I hate the bastard,” you say with all candor, “But death by delta-P isn’t something I’d wish on my worst enemy. Painless as people claim it is.”

Larkin shakes his head. “Not if you’re in space.”

You aren’t quite sure about that, but astrology isn’t your strongest subject. “You ever been?”

“No, but my parents did. Little high-altitude tour and twenty minutes of zero-G before coming back down. Came with the honeymoon package, along with a graphic warning of explosive decompression.”

The drink in your hands regulation. Powdered milk with crushed vitamin powder and a shot of blue raspberry. Tastes awful and gets stuck in your throat, but it does the job of warding off scurvy.

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“You’re bullshitting me, Larkin.”

He rolls his eyes. “The insurance company was very anxious about covering damages-”

“About zero-G honeymoon parties,” you counter, deadpan.

Larkin chortles at that, low and deep. “I shit you not, that was a thing. A once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, but something that the upper middle class could’ve done at one point in their lives.”

“First I’ve heard of it.”

“You had to have been there. Really was a different world than the one we’re living in.”

Now that’s the understatement of the fucking century.

“Well, if you wanna pull the wool over my eyes,” you drawl as you pour another glass of scurvy-b-gone, “Now’s the time. I’d believe just about anything about the Old World, right now.”

“Hmph. Got anything in particular?” asks the old man. His grin is so full of shit that I’m surprised he isn’t gagging. “Let’s see if you can’t tell if I’m bullshitting or not.”

Where’s the tired old man who cut off his story?

Suppressing a grin, you ask, “Genetically engineered catgirls for mass market consumption.”

“Yes and no,” Larkin answers, snorting. “Although that depends. There were some schools of thought that had the idea of splicing animal genes into the human genome. Fuck if I could tell you why, though. But in some seedy red-light districts in Tokyo, you could find plenty, although it’s more implants and props than natural-grown appendages.”

He isn’t bullshiting. What the hell…

“Weren’t you five when you went into the bunker?” you demand. “How do you know this?”

His grin is saucy. “When you’re with twenty-three other people, and you run out of books to read, people tell stories of better times, and past exploits. And they just eventually stopped caring about covering my ears for the spicier bits.”

Snorting, you shake your head. “That’s fucked. Alright, what about…3D-printed meat?”

“Very real, but your millage may vary. It’s plant-based. And the taste and texture’s only good as both the printer and the protein source.”

Ew. “Fair enough. But how about flying cars? We always see those in the movies.”

“No.” He shakes his head sadly. “At least flying cars that made it past the prototype stages.”

“What about Dolljackers? And Auglockers?”

“Both were real. And no, they weren’t just made up for the Teeth’s ludic propaganda.”

Yikes. “Right, right…huh. Okay, here’s one: brain transplants.”

“Very, very real…” he mutters, but you can see in his eye(s) that he’s lying.

Snorting, you counter: “Yeah, only your wildest dreams, Larkin.”

But before you can continue, the doors to the cafeteria open with a loud BANG. Startled, your gaze turns towards the entrance…only to promptly sour when you realize who it is.

Larkin grips your arm. “Unami, who’s…”

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With a wary sigh, you bring the full brunt of your attention to the unexpected visitors. “Hello, Pierce.” And to his sides, you barely nod in acknowledgement. “McDonald. Shannon.”

No answers from Dumb and Dumber. Unsurprising. Not when they’ve got one Conrad Pierce yanking their chains all across the Duck. And he in turn, has only got eyes for you.

“You guys need help with anything?” I ask dryly. “If not, you can always join our spirited discussion about Old World technology.”

Pierce is at least two inches shorter than you, but his boots make up the difference. You see nearly eye-to-eye, insofar as his standing position, your seated gait. His face is contorted into an ugly frown that spells twelve kinds of trouble. You can only hope that the old man doesn’t get caught in the crossfire.

“You owe me money, slave,” he hisses. “You owe me a whole lot of money.”

“I owe you money,” you repeat, unimpressed. “How do you figure?”

His hand slams down, hard, on the table. Droplets of scurvy-b-gone splatter everywhere as the glass is knocked across the surface. Larkin raises an objection, but he’s overlooked. “Cut the shit, Unami. I know you’ve got friends on the night shift. How much did they pay you to sabotage us?”

Ah, fuck. So, this is his angle. New in his arsenal of trying to fuck with you. It’s almost original in the three years he’s been trying to get the up over a perceived pissing contest you have. You couldn’t give less of a fuck what he thought so long as your ability to work remains undiminished.

Your chair grinds harshly on the linoleum as you stand up to meet him. “Sabotage. That’s what you wanna call it? That’s a pretty serious crime you’re leveling there, Pierce.”

He thrusts a meaty finger, stopping just short of my nose. “There was nothing wrong with the failsafe! You overstepped your bounds, and fucked all our hard work! A fifteen-thousand ducat bonus, gone because of a fucking slave!”

It takes a special kind of stupid to make you angry. You aren’t there yet, but you’re rapidly fast approaching. “I fucked you. Is that what you think? Because I’d hate to see what a rape looks like from your skewed perspective.”

Dumb and Dumber bristle, muscles coiling beneath grease-smeared tank tops. “You dare-”

“Shup up,” you snarl, before turning back to Pierce. “Better that I fuck you than see the Duck suffer a Byford Dolphin. Your recklessness nearly got the shift crew splattered in chunks all across the Belt.”

Predictably, he doesn’t buy it. “The fail-safe would’ve held! LeGrange signed off on replacing the interlocking mechanism, and he’s been here longer than you!”

“And the fact that he’s a beneficiary of a bonus doesn’t make him compromised?” I counter. “Both of you are lucky that I didn’t go directly to the rig manager. Conspiracy to foster an unsafe work environment."

His nostrils flare angrily. It makes him look every bit the stubborn mule he is. “You wouldn’t dare. It’d be your word against mine. A slave against a journeyman driller.”

“Dare to what. Give an actual damn about my shift mates? Not run them ragged until a mistake kills them all with delta-P?”

He lunges, grabbing a fistful of jumpsuit. I don’t lift since I’m too heavy, and he knows that it’ll make him look even more like an idiot. But Larkin objects audibly: “Hey, that’s enough!”

“Pipe down, old man,” growls Pierce. “This is between me and him. You don’t owe me and my boys fifteen thousand ducats.”

It’s hard not to laugh. “Fifteen thousand. We don’t have that kind of money on the Duck, even if you scrounged together everyone’s wallets! I don’t owe you a goddamned thing, Pierce.”

“Oh, no, no, no,” he sniffs, eerily calm. “No, the way I see it, you do. And you can pay it. You’re a goddamned PUEXO pilot. You shit ducats with every dive. I want the first payment in two days come payday.”

The audacity and entitlement is almost worth putting in a museum to admire out of sheer bilge fascination. “Or you’ll what? Punch me? Fight me? Will that make you feel better, Pierce?”

He growls, poking you in the chest. Hard. “Come to think of it…yeah, it just might. It’s been a while since the last time we had a fight, hasn’t it boys?”

McDonald and Shannon agree via crude whoops and jeers. Satisfied his ego’s been stroked, their leader’s attention returns back to you. “Receiving deck. Thirty minutes. No patrols on account of the storm. You win? Debt's off. I win? Debt's doubled.

>>How will you respond?
>“I hope I’ll see you there.”
>“This petty shit’s beneath us.”
>“Why not the diving bell?”

Ah fuck. That’s supposed to be EIGHT (8) hours. Whoops.
That guy sounds like he deserves a good beating.
If write-ins are allowed:
>"Fine, but on one condition, if I win, you pay me the debt amount instead. It's only fair, for wasting my time."
If not:
>"I hope I'll see you there."
>“I hope I’ll see you there.”

When he and his goons leave, stuff as many objects in my shirt as possible. Just in case he pulls a knife on me. Also hide a fork or knife up my sleeve in case they try to 3v1 me.
>>5187763 +1

“Fine, but on one condition,” you counter, wrenching his hands off your suit. “I win, you pay me the ‘debt’ amount instead. It’s only fair for wasting my time.”

Pierce sneers. “Done. You better be there, Unami.”

“Funny. I was about to say the same to you.”

The trio slink off, out the door and away from the cafeteria. Once they’ve turned the hall, Larkin hurriedly reaches the entrance, and slams the door with a loud BANG. He turns to you with a fierce scowl. “Are you crazy?”

“Maybe,” you answer honestly. “You know how it is. Pilots either have to be mad or mentally ill to dive that deep down.”

“Don’t be glib, boy. This isn’t some schoolyard brawl that you’re getting yourself into.” He runs his hand across greasy, matted hair. “He’s looking to hurt.”

“I know, and that’s part and parcel for the plan.”

He grumbles, “You know you could’ve told him to just fuck off. How many years has he been razzing you?”

“I didn’t bother because it was too much trouble,” you grunt, sliding the knife into your boot. A fork similarly vanishes in the inner lining of your jumpsuit. “He at least had the courtesy to stay in his fucking lane and not threaten with my flow of income.”

“Money,” drawls the old man. “You don’t mean to say…”

You cut him off before he can accuse you of anything untoward. “No. I do care about my shiftmates. The fact that their deaths would’ve been a consequence of my loss of income…and I’m not going to lie. I’m spoiling for a fight as well. Fucker’s had it long time coming.”

“You know the price for murder,” he warns.

“I’m not gonna kill him. That’d be too much trouble, and the paperwork would be a nightmare.”

One would hope that even Pierce would know the price of permanently maiming an active-duty PUEXO pilot. Even one who’s a debt-slave. But you aren’t nearly willing to be your life on those odds, and slip the knife into your boot. And a fork into your breast pocket. Just in case.


…there’s too much riding on your survival to be cavalier about your life.

Besides, Pierce threatened you first, didn’t he?

“You know that you could go to the rig manager,” Larkin insists. “I’ll vouch for you.”

“I could,” you admit, grunting as you lace up your boots, and zip up your pilot suit.

The old man’s face turns crestfallen when you offer no further elaboration. “…but you won’t.”

You pour him a fresh cup of grog. “If I don’t come back in an hour, hit up the rig manager. Tell ‘em that you saw a fight going down by the reception deck.”

Larkin looks like he might argue, but he sighs, and glances towards the clock. “Five minutes after your fight starts.”

“Ten,” you counter.

“Six, and I won’t go any higher.”


>“This petty shit’s beneath us.”
Chances are he rigged the match to make us lose. Either way there's less than no point in doing something that could end up costing us 30 grand when we owe nothing
Oh shit nvm
>>Receiving Deck, Oil Rig Marduk

The rain’s tapered off somewhat, even if the wind hasn’t nearly abated. True to form, the storm’s left the Receiving Deck completely devoid of any sort of activity. The security guards that would have normally patrolled the area are nowhere to be found.

You arrive a handful of minutes prior to the deadline, scaling down the stairs and ladders to await the promised time. Not that you have to wait long. For all his faults, Pierce is a punctual man, and arrives on the dot.

It’s impossible to miss him, McDonald and Shannon on their way down. The knife in your boot weighs just a little heavier, as does the fork in your pocket. There’s only one way up and down, one route back to the hab and central platforms.

And it’s a long, long way down to the bottom of the ocean if anyone slips and falls.

“You actually showed,” he drawls, idling to the center of the platform.

You shrug, testing your boots against the water-slick surface. They hold, if only just slightly. It should be enough for the fists you’re about to throw. “Not gonna lie, now that I’ve had time to think about it…I really wanna punch you.”

He laughs darkly. “Glad to know the feeling’s mutual.”

You push off the crate you were leaning, and fall into a fighting stance. Not quite circuit approved, but it’ll get the job done. The knife presses into your lower calf, ready to be drawn if things take a turn for the worse.

“So how’re we doing this?” you drawl, bouncing on the balls of your feet. “First blood? Three strikes and we’re out? Nothing below the belt and back to our corners after a prolonged clash?”

Pierce snaps his fingers, and gestures for his cronies to block off the exit. “Until either one of us isn't able to fight back anymore.”

The unspoken fact that ‘anything goes’, and the conspicuous absence of a ref means that this fight is going to get very ugly, really quickly.

You tilt your head side-to-side, popping the joints as you bring your fists up. “I’m still on standby. Let’s make this quick, Pierce.”

Miles off the rig, lightning strikes the ocean, sending a pillar of light roaring above the waters. The sound of thunder drowns out his reply, but you don’t need the brilliant light to see the dark glittering in his eyes.

And as the last peal of thunder fates, you begin to beat the shit out of each other on a sea-slicked platform.

>>How will you fight?
>Fight aggressively. Overwhelm him with unrelenting attacks.
>Fight defensively. Carefully strike when he makes mistakes.
>Fight underhandedly. No-holds bared, everything's fair game.

>>Fight underhandedly. No-holds bared, everything's fair game.
kill him
>Fight underhandedly. No-holds bared, everything's fair game.
He brought this one on himself.
>Fight underhandedly. No-holds bared, everything's fair game.

Those goons might try to kill me if I win this fight, fair or not.
>Fight defensively. Carefully strike when he makes mistakes.
Wanna make sure we see if he or one of his cronies pull a knife
>Fight defensively. Carefully strike when he makes mistakes.
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…this wasn’t ever gonna be a fair fight, was it?

Well, that’s too damned bad for Pierce. Two can play at that game.

He leads in with a one-two combo, aiming high before jabbing at your midsection. Rubber squeaks on metal as you pivot away, side-stepping to riposte with a jab towards his side. A kidney shot! The driller recoils with a grunt, but recovers to make a kick aimed towards your extended knee.

You leap back, skidding back towards a pile of crates. Friction stops you before a nasty crash, but you have barely any time to recover. Pierce presses the advantage, charging in with a haymaker to knock you flat across the platform. Who the fuck is he trying to impress with that?

The attack comes from a mile away, and you make an easy enough dodge. The wind of its motion brushes almost gently across your face as you lean into the attack, and take another shot at his ribs, then a kick towards his groin. Even as it connects with a pained wheeze, he retaliates with an uppercut, smashing your guard into your face.

You beat a retreat, maneuvering through the platform to put a cargo pallet between you. With only three inches and about a dozen pounds of muscle over you, you need the time to think and plan. He curses, ultimately forgoing a leapfrog motion to come around the side.

“Hold still, you slippery fuck,” hisses Pierce.

You meet him head-on, body angled to meet his charge with a shoulder check that would’ve made Alex Ovechkin blush. He stumbles back, the wind nearly knocked out of him as you sweep the leg. But as quick as throwing a chain, his heel catches your foot, and stomps your ankle. The bastard recovers quickly, steaming and hissing mad as he puts his weight down, and slams you onto the platform.

By some miracle, your back takes the worst of the fall, leaving your head clear enough to see the next move. Pierce catches your reflexive kick, and twists hard. He gets a scream, but not as much as he would’ve liked, and he stopped just short of fracturing the bone. He lifts a foot, steel-toed tip aimed towards your groin as his goons cheer raucously.

You twist at the last moment, cursing up a storm as it smashes into your thigh. But you trap his leg in a scissoring motion, and pull him down to the platform. You tumble over each other, smashing into cargo loaders and other assorted tools. A finger gets into your ear, and a thumb comes dangerously close to your eye. You bring your knee repeatedly to his gut, but he clings onto you like a demented limpet.

His size and weight gives him an advantage. But you’re fighting with knees and elbows, which brings it back to you. You bloody his lip with an elbow strike, and knock at least one tooth out of alignment. Pierce snarls, drawing a razor from his belt, and nearly extends your award-winning smile all around your face.

“Are you fucking insane!?” you growl, recoiling back. "The price for maiming a PUEXO pilot-"

“Shut up!” Bloody flecks of spit and an heady miasma of bad breath tinged with alcohol washes over you. “Shut the fuck up! You’re just a fucking slave, Unami. Should’ve known your goddamned place before screwing with your betters!”

…well that’s just rude.

You push away the hand with the razor. Then you let it come back, but this time, you turn your head and open wide. Being a biter isn’t something to be proud of, but in a pinch like this, it comes pretty damned well in handy.

Pierce loses the razor, along with some of the use of that hand. You spit out a glob of blood, and gag at the muscle fiber stuck in your teeth.

“You son of a-!”

He cuts himself off, slamming your nose with a headbutt. The pain blinds you, and he pushes you away. You both stumble onto your feet, blinking and reeling, cursing and hissing mad. But before you can do anything, another bolt of lighting strikes the ocean, this time way closer to the rig. The lights wink out in terrific explosions of glass as the sheer proximity of the glass overloads the grid.

The world is darkness, save for the sound of how the waves splash against the Duck, and the panicked shouts of McDonald and Shannon. You close your eyes, envisioning that you aren’t on land, but that you’re in the cockpit of your PUEXO, shut out of visuals and relying solely on audio. Then, in the direction of a pained gasp of breath and the crunch of glass, you charge forward, and catch him right in the breadbasket.

This time, the both of you crash into a pile of crates. But Pierce comes worse off, as you both feel and hear his head smack against something hard. Not nearly hard enough to knock him out, since he’s still fighting for his life. Because that’s what both of you are fighting for now, ducats be damned.

You get a fistful of blonde locks as your tussle brings you towards the edge of the platform, right along that little landing grate that surfaces and disappears with every passing wave. The kitchen knife comes out of your boot, and you bring its hit to crash against his temple. Stunned, he offers only a little resistance as you hold the knife up to his throat and shove his head under the water.

His fingers find your throat. In the instant you falter, his head comes back up, gasping: “Help-!"

You skirt the blade just along the edge of his carotid artery, and slice open the skin just above his collarbone. In the instant he recoils back, you sucker punch him in the throat, and promptly dunk his head back into the ocean.

“Pierce-!” cries one of his goons. Shannon, you think. He always had a reedy voice.

The sound of footsteps come running down the stairs and ladders. But you know for a fact that by the time they get down here, it’ll be too late. Between the size of the platform, the darkness caused by the brownout, and the sheer loudness of the storm, they’d be a while before they found you.

After ten seconds of struggling, you bring Pierce’s head back up. Punch-drunk from the crate injury and wide-eyed with fright, he sputters, “Wait, I give! I give up. You win, Unami, you-!”

You send him back under the water. His boots drum panickily against the grate, and his hands claw wildly for your face. This time, you count to twenty before bringing him back up.

“Until one of us isn’t able to fight back anymore,” you answer with a voice full of venom. “That’s what you said, didn’t you? Looks like you’re still fighting me, Pierce.”

The telltale slur of a concussion coupled with oxygen deprivation isn’t nearly enough to get rid of the fear in his voice. Even if his voice is obnoxiously loud as he screams: “The bonus!! Thirty thousand, I…you’ll get them. I'm sorry-!”

Just a little over the spray, you can hear Shannon and McDonald’s footsteps draw closer. Clever bastard, but not clever enough for you not to notice. His goons are gonna be on you soon, and Pierce was playing for time. Emphasis on the past tense, because his head’s now back under the water.

And to be honest, you haven't decided when or if to stop counting...and whether or not the trouble of killing him is well worth whatever satisfaction comes from it. Because goddamn, it feels really fucking good.

>>Please choose one of the following:
>“Stand up, Pierce, and don't you move an inch. Call them off, or else I’ll rip your throat open.” (Spare him)
>“There aren't nearly enough paystubs on the Duck for both the bonus and what you owe me.” (Kill him)

>“Stand up, Pierce, and don't you move an inch. Call them off, or else I’ll rip your throat open.” (Spare him)

If I kill him, those goons won’t have an incentive to go easy on me. I’m already injured.
>>“There aren't nearly enough paystubs on the Duck for both the bonus and what you owe me.” (Kill him)
>Stand up, Pierce, and don't you move an inch. Call them off, or else I’ll rip your throat open.” (Spare him)
Won't be the last of it though.
>>“There aren't nearly enough paystubs on the Duck for both the bonus and what you owe me.” (Kill him)
>Stand up, Pierce, and don't you move an inch. Call them off, or else I’ll rip your throat open.” (Spare him)
>(Spare him)
>>“There aren't nearly enough paystubs on the Duck for both the bonus and what you owe me.” (Kill him)
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“Stand up, Pierce,” you mutter, pulling him up just as his movement becomes less frantic. Concussed and slurry from the waterlogging, he’s more dead weight than anything else as you haul him onto his feet. “And don’t you move an inch.”

He only offers a token resistance as your arm snakes around his neck, and bring the edge of the knife right along his carotid. Not one second later, Shannon and McDonald come skidding into your field of vision. Much like their boss, they brought some of their own contraband to the fist-fight. You spy the glint of a crude shiv, and an expendable baton. Between feeling justified at bringing the knife, and ironic hypocrisy at complaining when you also broke the rules…eh, doesn’t really matter.

Dumb and Dumber stop only a meter away. They have enough sense to not get closer, but they’re still visibly tense.

Pierce stiffens as you dig the knife a little bit harder into his skin, and stop just short of making a cut. In a voice more tired than anything else, you exhale: “Call them off, or else I’ll rip your throat open.”

“…you…you wouldn’t dare-”

Even now, he’s got the stones to try and act tough. How tiresome. The pain in your thigh throbs angrily, and you really need to lie down. “I’m only a slave, remember? I don’t have much going for me, so I have to get my rocks off wherever I can.”

He stiffens. “…I…”

“Clock’s ticking, Pierce.” You emphasize the statement with the tap of your boot on the platform. “Tell your goons to drop their weapons, and kick them away. No sudden movements from either of them, or else I’ll make one move of my own.”

Shannon looks uncertain, but McDonald’s spoiling for a fight. “We can still take ‘im, Pierce. All you gotta do is…”

You look him straight in where you think his eyes are. “Wanna bet? I’ll give you thirty-thousand to one odds you can rush be before I kill him.”

That seems to do it.

“Back off, back off! Just…” Pierce struggles momentarily, but isn’t able to undo the headlock. “…back off and…do what he says.”

Shannon drops his shiv immediately. McDonald takes longer, scowling as he loses the baton.

“To the hab, gentlemen,” you say in a voice that brokers no nonsense. “We’ll be just along shortly-”

The power couldn’t have come back on at a more opportune moment.

They don’t make it too far, only halfway up the ladder and stairs. And just as you ponder the mystery of how to make sure they won’t jump you on the way back, the Duck comes roaring back to life. Dozens of 1000-megawatt lights come slamming back on, stabbing you in the face. It hurts like a mother, but not nearly as bad as it’s gonna hurt Pierce, what with his concussion.

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Over the sound of the storm, what sounds like dozens of heavy footsteps come running down the scantlings and ladders. Covered head-to-toe in black body armor, they wield an odd assortment of weapons, from guns to nightsticks, bringing them to bear against the men on the platform. Even if not for the orange bands along their arms, you’d have to be an idiot to not know who they are, and what their role is on the Duck.

“Marduk Security!” shouts one of the men. “Drop your weapons and put your hands where we can see them!”
Shannon and McDonald are the closest, utterly overwhelmed as they’re wrestled to the ground with little fanfare, and cuffed with extreme prejudice. But there are still plenty left for you and Pierce. Their body language conveys that the inevitable takedown is inescapable, but you’re ultimately in the end as to how much it’s going to hurt.

The knife falls, and you release Pierce, shoving him forward to collapse atop the deck. A handful of security guards only spare the bare minimum of attention before they bring you down to the ground. Hard and completely uncaring of your injuries.

“Good job,” you groan as the cuffs bite into your wrists, and one presses your cheek flush against the sea-slicked deck. “…impeccable timing, Larkin…”

>>One detainment later…

Rig Manager Declan McGuire looks no less intimidating in his flannel nightgown than he would have otherwise in worker’s overalls. If anything, the dissonant contrast makes him look all the scarier. He runs the Duck with a tough, fair hand, and is by the by an overall reasonable man. But above all else, McGuire hates being woken up in the middle of the night. Even if his aides and officers had a good reason.

Cuffed to the table are you, Shannon and McDonald. Pierce had been carted off to the infirmary under armed escort, delirious and unable to stand McGuire’s lecture. You almost feel bad, since his time’s with the rig manager’s gonna be one-on-one, all of that fury concentrated instead of dispersed among three troublemakers.

McGuire’s already in a bad mood from being roused, but his face becomes apocalyptic with every report he’s given. And by the time the evidence is brough to the table: the shiv, baton, Pierce’s razor and your kitchen knife…

“UNACCEPTABLE!” he roars, slamming a meaty fist on the table. Everyone and everything jumps, props and people included, and the noise rings loud in the tiny space that comprises the holding cell. “I expect to read about these kinds of incidents in Lloyd’s List and other nautical periodicals. Not to have them darken my doorstep on this bloody oil rig!”

“Sir, we can explain-” Shannon tries to reason, but he only succeeds in digging his grave further.

McDonald, for his part, is only trying to glare a hole into your shoulder. Not that he's immune from the tongue-lashing as McGuire blows a gasket.

“SILENCE! Regardless of who was at fault, and I bloody know damn well who’s responsible, all of you played your roles out to this spectacular conclusion. Nobody is going to escape punishment for this gross display of tomfoolery. Warren!”

The security chief stands to attention. “Yes, sir?”

McGuire gestures to Shannon and McDonald, leveling a steely glare in their direction. “Throw these amoebae in the brig. Ten days should be enough for the alcohol to leave their systems and return them to higher-functioning mammals.”

Shannon looks like he might try to protest, but McDonald elbows him in the ribs before he can get them in any further trouble. Dumb and Dumber opt to remain silent as they’re manhandled and hauled away by the security team. Your face betrays nothing as they disappear out the door. The last thing you want to do is set McGuire even more off with even the ghost of a smirk.

He’s still pretty steamed though, eyes blazing as the full brunt of his attention reaches you. “Silneq Unami. Why is it that whenever something happens, I can always find you at the center of attention?”

Well, that’s hardly fair. Once, for your unexpected transfer so many years ago, and then every so often for report delivery and meetings with your debt-liaison. Other than that, you stayed out of sight, out of mind….right up until the diving bell kerfuffle. To think, that was only three days ago. And you got to sit in a real leather couch!

But you wisely keep your mouth shut, and don’t refute that claim. If anything, the only thing you’re concerned about are the thirty-thousand ducats that Pierce owes you. Not that you’re about to bring that up in front of the rig manager.

McGuire grimaces, collapsing into his seat, and snaps his fingers. One of the guards approaches you, and undoes the bindings shackling you to the table. Your make no sudden movements, keeping your hands in sight as you rub at the places where the cuffs bit into your wrists.

“If not for Larkin vouching on your behalf,” he says brusquely, “You’d be joining them in the brig. But I would think that you would know better. You’re a PUEXO pilot, indentured servitude non-withstanding.”

Indentured servitude. Babylonia’s polite term for the institution of debt-slavery. Mostly because they don’t want to sound even remotely anything like what the Toghril Khanate practices.

But, you digress. You do know better than to get in fights that jeopardize your life. But every man has his limits. And you aren’t nearly about to let some puffed-up digger try and extort you for money that you don’t even have. Most of all, he sure as fuck doesn’t deserve.

“Permission to speak freely, sir,” you politely ask.

“Denied,” he refuses flatly. “It’s your first strike on an otherwise unblemished record, one that I'm willing to overlook in light of your prior performance. Do not fuck yourself by trying to smooth-talk your way out of this.”

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…well, that’s just great. All that’s left to do is wait for the punishment that’s gonna be handed down. If there’s any mercy in the world, it won’t dig too deep into your debt. You just got one of the brands off, dammit.

McGuire gives you a hard look, as if reading your mind. The rig manager exhales, reaches into his desk to pull out a sheaf of paper. “This arrived by radio relay no less than two hours ago when the storm ended. Orders for your immediate transfer off the Marduk.”

The surprise you feel and emote is wholly genuine. Letters for transfer? You haven’t even finished the bare minimum of a five-year rotation. “I’m being transferred?”

“Cool your jets, you aren’t being fired. You’re being reassigned to the Salvage Guild, effective immediately. The next supply skiff coming here is gonna bring you and your Magellan back to Babylonia for your attachment to the armed trawler Calypso.”

Your head races. Salvage? Good money, but not nearly enough for your timetable to freedom. What the hell is the city playing at? Off-shore oil work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the Belt, pulling the most money remand what you owe! Is this some kind of ploy to keep you longer in debt?!

“It’s non-negotiable,” McGuire says flatly, preempting any complaints or umbrage. “Believe me, I tried to fight it. Losing you would be a terrible blow to our efficiency and output, and I know why you need the money. Thing is…”

He gestures to the slip of paper. Looking past the legalese and fine print, the orders are personally signed and sealed by none the less than Bartholomew Stolze. Scion of House Stolze, eccentric entrepreneur and oil mogul, nephew of Founder Bartimaeus Stolze.

The man who you sold yourself to, and currently holds your debt and contract.

“I don’t mind arguing with agents of the Founding Five,” he says dryly, “Not so much when the head of one personally calls to convince me. And offers either carrot or stick to get me to comply and bend the rules for your transfer.”
He pauses, and considers the look on your face. “If it’s any consolation, I’m acquainted with the captain of the Calypso. You’ll find no better trawler captain than Rashid Elishani, and he treats his crew well.”


“…when do I leave?” you ask quietly.

“As soon as the supply skiff comes. Which should be soon, now that the storm’s long since passed. Consider yourself on leave, unless something catastrophically goes wrong and we need your help.”

You nod tersely, standing as he dismisses you. “…I’ll start packing.”

“One last thing.”

Another sheaf of paper drops on the desk, and McGuire eyes you expectantly. His face betrays nothing as he declares: “While the rig cannot officially pay out the pension you might have earned at the end of your tour, you are still entitled to your sign-on bonus, employee performance review and reward incentives.”

You take it…and had you been drinking anything, you would have spewed it all over the office.

The pay slip reads “two thousand gold ducats”. About as much as you’d make in about two months, if not what’s garnished towards your debt. Almost 98% of it, leaving you with just enough for basic amenities. Which would be odd, given the fact that you’ve lived on an oil rig for the better part of nearly four years, but with a whole platform dedicated to entertainment…

…well, most of the workers have no trouble spending their money. Fine food and drink, new shoes and clothing, sacred prostitutes from the local temple of Ishtar…even a burgeoning cinema with recovered Old World movies. And the overseers of the Duck actively keep the prices low, or on par for what you’d pay back on Babylonia. Mostly out of fear for rioting roughnecks. A happy worker is a productive worker, after all.

But these are golden ducats. Gold ducats! A lump sum worth two hundred thousand regular ducats. Not that it’s nearly enough to remove one of your brands. Each one takes a million, and you’ve still got twenty evenly split along your arms, legs and neck. The price for a service only you could have purchased.

Yet it is a start. One that you didn’t expect.

A puerile, hysterical giggle almost escapes your lips as you realize that you had been wrong. Turns out the Duck does have enough ducats for the stupid little debt that Pierce thought you owed him. Although you don’t know whether or not he’d been demanding regular, silver or gold ducats in the bet.

And he’ll stew in the infirmary without ever knowing.

“You’ll be able to redeem that with Nabeel in administrative,” says McGuire. “I suggest you do that at a less ungodly hour, and keep this windfall a secret from your peers.”

“Thank you, sir,” you say with genuine gratitude as you pocket the slip and stand. “I…I don’t know what to say.”

He shrugs nonchalantly, as if the act had been the simplest thing in the world. “My grandnephew was on Pierce’s diving bell.”

>>Beyond packing, what will you do until the skiff comes to pick you up? [Choose one]
>Luxuriate and de-stress in the entertainment platform.
>Spend time with Larkin to ask him more about the Old World.
>Visit the engineering platform to check up on your PUEXO.

>Spend time with Larkin to ask him more about the Old World.
>Visit the engineering platform to check up on your PUEXO.
>Spend time with Larkin to ask him more about the Old World.
>Visit the engineering platform to check up on your PUEXO.

Let’s make sure Pierce didn’t send his goons to fuck up my suit before the fight happens
>Visit the engineering platform to check up on your PUEXO.

Personal Underwater Exploration eXOsuit.

This is a story you know well, as any pilot worth their salt would. It’s the first thing one learns upon being accepted into Babylonia’s extremely rigorous and competitive PUEXO program. Helps put things into perspective, and it helps that the story comes hard-coded in every unit as part of an index.

A hundred or so years before the Cataclysm, American tech entrepreneur Adan Raymond Ladera believed that before mankind explored the stars, they had to first conquer their oceans. To this end, his company Accelerasoft Industries pushed for the development of a deep-sea exosuit. A piece of equipment that a man or woman could climb into and operate unhindered hundreds of meters below sea level.

Critics at the time derided him for trying to reinvent the submarine and the diving suit. What did the ocean have to offer that the stars did not? There was little left beyond what deep-sea explorers such as Cook, Ekman, Cousteau, Piccard, and Cameron had already discovered. Colonizing the ocean? Preposterous, when there was already an ongoing effort to colonize Mars.

To them, Ladera had turned a deaf ear, as well to some of his more uncertain shareholders. Beyond the PUEXO, Accelerasoft was one of the leading cybernetic companies of the time. The profits from those drove the development of Ladera’s pet project.

Progress was…slow. After several failures, what emerged was almost outlandish in sight. The Mark 0 Prototype was a bathysphere-like suit with arms, legs, a single viewport, and a propulsion unit welded onto its back. Power was fed through an umbilical cable, with an array of lithium-ion batteries serving as eight hours of emergency backup. Accelerasoft cybernetics linked the pilot’s brain to the PUEXO, to both determine upright balance and ensure fine manipulation of its hydraulic limbs and fingers.

On its maiden voyage, Ladera himself served as the test pilot, and descended 1,483 meters in the Polyphemus during an exploration of the Bermuda Triangle. “Putting the supernatural to bed once and for all,” he had said. When he came back up, the first thing he did was complain that he didn’t find the wreck of Amelia Earhart’s plane. When his ACOMMS pointed out that Earhart had vanished over the Pacific and not the Atlantic, an utterly bewildered Ladera said “then who the [redacted] did I speak to” before promptly passing out on the deck of his ship.

While proof of concept had been established, and Ladera became something of a rockstar, the PUEXO was dismissed as a mere novelty. But there were plenty of oceanographers and private enthusiasts who clamored for their own machine. Accelerasoft produced a limited number of Polyphemus-class PUEXOs, and used the profit margins (along with a strong crowdfunding campaign) to begin the development of the Mark 1 Test-Type generation.

Advancements in the miniaturization of fusion reactors allowed for the Mark 1’s to emerge as hybrids, relying both on umbilical and internal power for prolonged, independent exploration. And while the eyes of every world power were turned towards the stars, there were still those in the auspices of power who regarded Ladera’s PUEXOs as more than just tools for naval exploration.

“How much more difficult to put a PUEXO in space than under the water?”

“Why bother risking the lives of saturation divers when you can send a trained PUEXO pilot?”

“What are the military capabilities of the PUEXO?”

A staunch pacifist, Ladera had all but refused to entertain working with the United States military. The PUEXO exists solely for the betterment of humankind. In the 24th century, what more did mankind need to kill each other with? Beyond joint scientific explorations with the navy, any and all attempts to fund the development of purely military PUEXO suits were rebuffed.

Up until the recession of 2349, as the world economy buckled under the strain of supporting too many off-world colonies. Threatened with the loss of his dream from falling stock values and investors threatening to pull out, Ladera reluctantly accepted a deal with the military, and produced the Mk. 1 TRTN-00 Triton-class. The first purely military PUEXO, one that the tech entrepreneur forever regretted producing, it saw limited, but effective action to justify the continued funding. And to Ladera’s despair, it wouldn’t be the last he would be forced to make throughout his lifetime

But you think he would be proud, relieved even at how the world post-Cataclysm’s used his machines. Even long after his death, the current state of Earth makes the PUEXO all but a keystone in mankind’s continued survival. And, hopefully, the return to a more civilized age than the current technologically-disparate and cultural-political mess that’s comprises the Flooded World.

You have the distinct privilege of piloting a Mark 2 MGLN-011. Unlike its generational siblings, the CLMB-009 Columbus and the ERKS-010 Erikson, the Magellan was designed for extreme deep-sea construction and industry. A combination of steel and titanium alloy plating keeps the PUEXO from crumpling like a tin can at even the most extreme depths. A fusion reactor-battery hybrid powers the PUEXO, with trio of chargeable batteries serving as auxiliary backups.

She can do it all: deep-sea welding, cable-laying, pipe sinking, structural reinforcement…fishing, even. You’ve put shark and marlin on the table before, when supplies got low. The wrist-mounted harpoon gun isn’t only for scaring off more ornery and aggressive sea life. And, for whenever the skiff comes to pick you up, salvage for the foreseeable future.

That isn't too unfamiliar a field, but it'll be odd getting back into that saddle after years aboard the Duck.

The Magellan stands tall at 8.2 meters, and clocks in at 23.7 tons. She’s heavy, but she isn’t slow, and handles like a dream under the ocean. Maggie’s ready to go, missing only the harpoons for the wrist-mounted gun, and the fuel cannisters for underwater welding. As it should be, due to the potential of fire hazards.

Yours isn’t the only PUEXO deployed to the Duck. But the space that would normally house a Mark 3 HRCL-019 Hercules is conspicuously empty. The only other pilot on the rig, one Reggie “Strongman” Park, is on the other shift, and is presumably five hundred meters down. A fairly decent enough man, if somewhat overly horny given his frequent visits to the temple of Ishtar.

Hopefully McGuire won’t work him too hard in your upcoming absence. Park’s an adherer of “work hard, play hard”, and with a pilot’s salary, those poor girls are gonna be walking funny for the next few months.

Digressing, it seems that the old girl’s alright. A handful of engineers and mechanics look at you curiously, before returning to their work. None of them stop you as you come in for a closer look. You might not know all of them by name, but they sure as hell know about the debt-slave pilot, and his security clearance to the bay.

Thumbing through the maintenance logs, you’re more pleased than annoyed at the state of your PUEXO. What could be fixed, has been fixed. Issues such as unbalanced gyros, unaligned valves, loose screws, unresponsive subsystems, and a particularly nasty instance of bad cable management. Not so much with long-term issues that you’ve had for the last few weeks, stuff that requires specialized equipment to patch up that’s been in backlog for months.

Case in point, a hydraulics injector with a microtear. There’s only so much that tape and glue can do to fix it, short of ordering a new part. And even with the part in question, there’s certain tools, equipment and skill that an engineer needs to install them. The Duck, for all its amenities and advancements, has no shortage of the former and the latter, but a painful absence of proper PUEXO maintenance equipment.

Not that you blame McGuire and the overseers. PUEXO maintenance is already a nightmare as it is, considering the parts and old facilities have been out of commission for the better part of nearly eighty years.

You catch the attention of one of the engineers, who hurriedly runs towards you. “Is there a problem?”
Plenty, but nothing this one can do to fix them. “Did you see anyone coming in here? Any…unauthorized personnel or people that shouldn’t be here?”

The mechanic, whose overalls read ‘Spalding’, shakes his head. “No. The only people allowed access are department heads, pilots, and workers.”

Comforting, but you aren’t finished. “How about the workers already in here? Any…” How the fuck do you put this politely. “…who was the last person to work on my Magellan?”

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Spalding frowns, thinking on it. “May I ask the purpose of your line of questions?”

I picked a fight with a driller, and waterlogged him hard enough to put him in the infirmary. I just want to make sure that he didn’t have his goons leave me any final surprises before I left the Duck.

You don’t say that, of course. “Scuttlebutt says that there’s more than a few folks resentful of what I did. Just worried that they’re gonna take it out on Maggie.”

Eyes widen in understanding, and a small smile. “Let me assure you that the engineering platform strives to be unpartisan. We’re the first to be blamed for any accidents in the field, so we’re incentivized to remain above petty bickering.”

A pleasantly political answer. As well as a bold-faced half-truth, and one that doesn’t actually answer your question. LeGrange is nowhere in sight. The rat must’ve caught wind of your arrival, and beat a fast retreat to go sulk or hide. Must’ve thought you were gonna kick the shit out of him for the part he played in Pierce’s reckless bonus scheme.

“If you say so,” you mutter, eyeing the Magellan warily. “…mind if I poke around?”

“Of course not.”


>You spend the next few hours inspecting your PUEXO.
>You check everything, from each individual joint, analog system, power draw and pilot black box.
>Everything seems to be in order, and HOPI reports no major changes from within the cockpit.

>>The following day...

The supply ship Disnomia comes sooner than anyone expected, only forty minutes after noon. Her captain makes no attempt to disguise the fact that the sooner you get back to Babylonia, the more handsomely he’ll be paid. Even as his crew’s unloading pallet after pallet of supplies and other amenities, he’s wringing his hands, muttering and checking his watch even after you’ve dropped your stuff off and Maggie’s been loaded.

“In and out with the tide,” he mutters, “And then all ahead full back to Babylonia…”


The timely nature of his arrival prevents your shift mates from saying goodbye in-person on the receiving platform. But you do get a nice card, one that everyone signed. Pierce, Shannon and McDonald’s signatures are noticeably absent, but you would’ve burned and scattered into the ocean.

“Be careful,” Larkin says after handing you the card. The old worker has some leeway, possessing seniority in both age and in rank among the roughnecks. “Don’t get too greedy trying to dig up the Old World from the bottom of the ocean. There’s things about our past that I didn’t tell anybody. Unpleasant things that should best be left alone.”

Maybe, but that doesn’t pay the bills or alleviate your debt.

“…no promises, but I’ll try,” you say.

Larkin grins. “Either do it or don’t. There’s no try, Unami. And not too many opportunities for second chances.”

Ain’t that the truth, you think dryly.

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But you thank him all the same, for the years of stories and his intervention in the beatdown on the receiving deck no less than twenty hours ago. He has a firm handshake, even with two missing fingers, and stays the longest on the platform, waving you off until he’s all but a dark spec on the horizon line.

Hard to believe it, but as you settle into the hard, lumpy cot, you think you’ll miss the Duck.

Although the jury’s still out for whether or not it’s warts and all, or in spite of warts and all.


>>Summer, 76 A.C.
>>Foggy Bottom, Babylonia

You once heard it from a sailor, that the namesake of your home district was a borough in the North American capital. He’d been so proud of knowing it. Like it was some closely guarded secret that the Founding Families didn’t want getting out.

Apparently, his great-great granddaddy had once lived there, in the urban jungle that was Washington DC. He was always firm that his ancestor wasn’t a politician, or God forbid, a lawyer. And heaven help whoever thought otherwise. He had a mean punch, and wasn’t above hitting women.

But the Foggy Bottom of Babylonia, the district you were born and raised in, more than lives up to its pre-Cataclysm predecessor.

There isn’t a single inch of the city that escapes the fog as it blows in from the bay. Though the docks get it the worst, especially the Bottoms, and even moreso when it floods or the tide comes high. On really bad days, the soup gets thick enough to where you can’t even see five feet ahead. Granted, it’s quick to dissipate as the sun rises and the day really starts to begin. But it’s still a pain in the ass to deal with in the morning.

Speaking of pains in the ass…

Nabeel in accounting did authorize your bonus payment of 200,000 ducats. Paid out not in gold, but in silver, to the total of 20,000 coins. Which got really heavy, and barely fit in your sea-chest. And the paranoia of someone breaking into your room…that’s an experience you don’t want to repeat.

Mostly because sleeping on your sea chest hurts your back something awful.

On the plus side, as it had been a bonus, and not mentioned on an itemized report, it isn’t automatically garnished. Nor had you been obligated to report it. There’s definitely some dirty legalese, and your debt-liaison would certainly object strongly to it, but it’s your tax-free, non-deductible employee bonus.

200,000 ducats for you to decide how best to spend or use them.

>>What did you do with your bonus from the Duck?
>You kept all of it for yourself, leaving none for the debt.
>You split it half-and-half evenly between yourself and the debt.
>You put nearly all of it to the debt, taking only handful for yourself.

>You split it half-and-half evenly between yourself and the debt.
>You put nearly all of it to the debt, taking only handful for yourself.

Not taking chances of being robbed and being set back to square one.
>You put nearly all of it to the debt, taking only handful for yourself.
>>You put nearly all of it to the debt, taking only handful for yourself.
>He shrugs nonchalantly, as if the act had been the simplest thing in the world. “My grandnephew was on Pierce’s diving bell.”
Well, at least we've made an impression on the right people. It pays not to be a dick.
How many people did we save ? Then entire day shift, half of it ?

>You put nearly all of it to the debt, taking only handful for yourself.
I suppose it's the safer option, though I'd have liked an option to keep enough to get the PUEXO dock-only repairs done.

Also, this quest is some very good stuff, QM. Great writing.
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You saved eight people and the bell itself. Not all of the day shift (30-ish odd souls), but eight people that would've gone down at any single instance and died from the pressure differential when the bell would rupture. As mentioned in-story, Delta-P is one nasty mother.

>>Also, this quest is some very good stuff, QM. Great writing.
Thank you! Glad to hear you're enjoying it.

Hey Kaz, didn't know you were running a one shot. This is pretty interesting.

>You put nearly all of it to the debt, taking only a handful for yourself.
>Your current debt to Bartholomew Stolze sits at approximately 19,800,000 Ducats. (20 Brands)

The markets are always open in Babylonia.

Beyond being one of the more developed powers in the Flooded World, the island itself is a crossroads of commerce. She rides just at that sweet spot, where the trade winds converge, and unites the north and southern hemispheres, and the post-Cataclysmic World.

Travelers of every race, creed, flag and color arrive, bringing the goods and cultures of their disparate homelands, bunkers, or migrant fleets. Stone, ore and lumber from the Megiddan Empire. Furs and ice from the Nordling Seas. Spice and silk from the Far Orient.

Anything and everything could be found in the Free City-State of Babylonia, and her tropical islands known as the Belt of Dreams. At any point in time, even in the wee and witching hours, there’s always a deal being cut, and fortunes exchanging hands. Most, but not all, legal.

Foggy Bottom comprises one of the city’s dockside districts, with a medium-sized dock for trade and cargo ships. It’s hardly the largest, losing out to Bracken Plaza for ship berths, Upper Garden for residential housing, and Saltside Corner for dense clusters of industrial complexes.

What it does have, however, is ready and immediate access to Grand Market Square, linking the outer and middle rings of Babylonia together. Not that it’s the only gate, that would be an urban planning nightmare. But it is the one that’s most convenient for the most people going to-and-from Dockside.

You know the way like the back of your hand, and settle neatly into the marketplace to kill some time. In any other situation, you would’ve schlepped yourself directly to the ship. But there’s more than enough time between your arrival back to Babylonia, and the actual time on the paper for your transfer. More than enough to get a decent meal that isn’t sequenced proteins, and something that isn’t scurvy-b-gone to wash it down.

Squinting at a billboard menu, you mutter to an expectant server: “I’ll have a number nine, a breakfast special, and the chef’s pot.”

Babylonia is a city that seldom sleeps. But thankfully, it is a city that always eats. One would be hard-pressed to not find at least one food vendor open, especially returning after a late-night shift. Even as dawn comes slowly over the city spires, Mount Gugalanna and the Great Heroes, there are dozens of restaurants already several hours into their shifts.

Bakers fire up their ovens, cooks ignite their stoves, and line chefs prepare their deep fryers for the morning rush. In the market square, where the inner, middle and outer rings intersect, everyone is equal in the search for breakfast. Only the truly desperate, inconsiderate, and/or "fresh off the boat" would violate the inviolable sanctity of the breakfast queue.

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Wealthy merchants with gem-encrusted rings bump elbows with desalination workers in the line for coffee. Scarred soldiers swap stories with wiry metallurgists and tanned greenhouse farmers as they pick fish bones out of their teeth. And a debt-slave like you can walk without people staring too long at your brands for a single cup of tea.

Food. The almighty equalizer.

Fish skewers straight out of the bay, a fried meat cutlet on a bed of salt-water rice, and two cool mugs of barely tea. The last good meal before your next schlep out to sea. One of your few silver ducats well-spent, with change to spare.

There’s still nearly an hour left before your meeting, but you have nothing else to do. At least, nothing to do that isn’t otherwise sentimental. Little as it is, and bereft you are of any sort of work-related business.

Paying a visit to your old flat would be an excuse in futility. That was the second thing you cut ties with after the incursion of your debt. An unnecessary expenditure that you didn’t need since you were given berthing at the Duck, and everything you owned could be fit into your sea-chest. Last you heard, the entire block had been bought, and renovated into a boarding house for merchants and sailors.

Thank God that you don't have to find somewhere to stay overnight. That would've been an awfully wasteful expense.

But beyond that…

“Tommy misses his uncle, Sinleq…would it hurt for you to visit just once?”


No, there’s nothing left for you to do here.

>>Berth No. 07, Saltside Corner Public Docks…

“What the heck?”

An armed salvage trawler isn’t exactly the image that comes to mind when you think of a ship named after a goddess. And there had been plenty of them in the Old World. Cruise liners, spaceships, developing colonies…actual women, for one thing. You just know that in the cultural hodge-podge that is Babylonia, there’s at least one person whose parents fell just as hard for the Greco-Roman/Mesopotamian LARP as yours.

If there’s any mercy in the world, you’ll be giving your future progeny proper, modern names. As far as you know, the only “Sinleq” is the bloody poet who penned the Epic of Gilgamesh four thousand years ago.

But that’s beside the point. You can honestly say that in your career as engineer, mechanic and PUEXO pilot, you’ve never seen a ship like the one docked at Berth No. 7.

From what little knowledge you have of ships, the Calypso looks like the engineering lovechild of a salvage ship and a destroyer. And then some mad scientist decided to graft the bastardized superstructure of a research vessel and a cargo hauler on top of it. There’s nothing even remotely conforming to pre-Calamity, 25th century ship design. As far as you can tell, this ship floated right out of a museum. Or more likely, the fever dream of a kitbash model enthusiast!

The first thing you notice is that the Calypso rides high for a salvage trawler. She’s at least eighty, maybe eighty-three meters long, with a sixteen-meter beam. In the absence of fore-and-aft turrets and a midship missile launcher, a pair of knuckleboom cranes lie coiled and waiting, with an auxiliary crane directly behind the superstructure. Squinting at the machines, you believe that they should be more than enough to lift up the Magellan. Or else you wouldn’t have been assigned.

Sternward, you spy a reinforced-steel winch along the transom. Either a lift or tow line, depending on the mission, you think. Behind the winch, you spy a massive spool of steel cable…no, not just steel cable. PUEXO umbilical as well. Looks like this crew is serious enough about salvage to get not only PUEXO clearance, but the rare, irreplaceable PUEXO umbilical power lines.

Ten meters of deck separates the winch from two hangars built into the superstructure. PUEXO bays, most likely, given a pair of steel rails that come under the hangars, directly beneath the stern knuckleboom and auxiliary crane. But beyond the suits, you can spy OTH cutterboats, among a myriad collection of small vessels and life boats.

There’s a painful absence of turrets. Which isn’t to say that she’s defenseless. Only a fool would go out into the Flooded World without protection From her port side, you spy a pair of what you thinks are .50 machine guns, and an autocannon situated in the midship. Presumably, her starboard side is similarly armed.

Hopefully it will be enough should you run into pirates…or worse.

But you don’t have time to admire the superstructure, or the many dockworkers, men and women alike, that scramble on the dock trying to get the Calypso ready. Even as you try to place the location of the pilothouse and observe the radar and comms arrays on the roof, a voice calls out: “’lo there!”

Emerging from Eel Street, and sauntering down the stairs to the berth, an older man, no more than fifty, greets you with a cheery wave. His clothes, while casual, don’t hide or belay the practiced gait of an experienced officer. Judging from the measured steps…military. Or former military, given that this is a Salvage Guild operation.

“You must be our new PUEXO pilot,” the officer smiles. There's a faint accent you can't place to his voice. “Unami, wasn’t it? I’m Morgan Geary, lieutenant commander of the Calypso. It’s nice to meet you.”

You blink, perplexed. A lieutenant commander, coming out all this way to meet a debt-slave?

But he reads your mind, or was already on the way to explain this unusual occurrence. “One of our runners was supposed to meet you, but a victualing issue happened at the last second that needed all hands to address. As it happened, I was already ashore for other business, so Captain Elishani asked me to meet you as I was coming back.”

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…huh. That makes enough sense. Although you aren’t cowed by the difference in social strata as much as you’re surprised. You never warranted above a runner or some greenhorn pissboy in the eyes of prior overseers.
Geary extends a hand, accompanied with a genial smile. You stare at it, then at the man offering the gesture. But just as he looks uncertain and looks like he might pull back, you clasp his hand and shake it firmly. His hands are rough and calloused – he’s not some comfy pencil-pusher.

“The pleasure’s mine,” you say.

What surprises you is that you think you almost mean it. Resentment of being transferred off the Duck aside. It isn’t gonna do you any good to come off as an ass to your new overseers.

Satisfied, Geary’s hand returns to his side. “I understand that the circumstances for your transfer are…unusual, to say the least.”

You’d laugh if it wasn’t true. That’s an understatement, to say the least. But there’s something refreshing about his straightforward honesty. Geary doesn’t look like the kind of officer too afraid of the shadow of his own authority. Or the kind of tinpot tyrant who lets the tiniest slip of power go to her head. You’ve had to deal with both, and each have their own problems that can drive a man to drink.

The only question that remains is whether or not he’s the type of leader who gets too close to his underlings. But, you guess that you have to wait and see. Come to think about it, if his XO is this chatty, it makes you wonder what Captain Elishani’s like.

“Is this all you have?” he asks, pointing to your duffle bag and sea-chest.

They show their age. The parachute canvas is faded, nearly bleached through in some spots. And the sea-chest bears enough nicks and scratches that no sandbelt could hope to buff out. But they’re yours, dammit. Rightfully earned, or received as gifts for reaching milestones.

You nod. “Yes. Barring my PUEXO. Which, according to the transfer order, should’ve been brought to the Calypsp.”

“That’s right. It arrived only a handful of hours ago from the Disnomia. I personally saw its berthing in the stern hangar.”

Then there really isn’t anything left for you to worry about. Downing the last bit of barely tea, you chuck the empty cup into a nearby trash can, before turning back to Geary.

“Then I’m ready to go whenever you are, sir.”

>>Captain’s Stateroom, BNS Calypso

“I hope that we don’t have another misunderstanding in the future,” Captain Elishani says into a shortwave radio. “We both know how our benefactor reacts to impediments.”

The reply is muffled, but you can tell that the speaker on the other end is incredibly flustered.

“Good day, Trevent.” With the push of a button, the call ends, and the captain releases a quiet breath.

“Problem with the water solved?” asks Geary.

“Addressed and rectified, even though it shouldn’t have happened in the first place."

Guh. Apologies for the long bit. Should be only two more. And then things really open up with the choices. Until then, please bear with this transitory segment. Feel free to ask me questions.

Very nice quest op!

Is babylonia a citystate or capital of a nation?
How are nations build up after the happening?
Babylonia is a technocratic, mercantile city-state, modeled after maritime republics such as Venice and Genoa. She controls a small series of islands called the Belt of Dreams, and maintains a limited amount of colonies around the Belt.

>>How are nations build up after the happening?
The current state of the world is one where the land/sea ratio is roughly around 7:93, give or take one standard deviation. Land is a precious resource, and there's only so much to go around before people start killing each other over it. And while the Ring of Fire's eruption created new island chains in the Pacific regions, there's a generational trauma of volcanos instilled onto the survivors: a mere 100 million humans.

One of the most prominent land-holding polities is the Megiddan Empire. A theocratic, feudal monarchy based along the archipelago that was once the Rocky Mountains. The Empire was founded by an enclave of evangelical Christian millionaires, who pooled their money together to create the "Megiddo Ark" for the Rapture. After the dust settled, they emerged from the Ark to settle the Rocky Mountains as their Promised Land. Life was hard, especially during the Dark Winter, but they survived into the Flooded World through sheer determination and faith. The saint who guided them to the promised land.

The (Hydro/Aqua-ponic) Hanging Gardens of Babylnoia make the city the breadbasket of the Flooded World, but the Megiddan Empire has their own strengths. They export large quantities of lumber, mine raw ores and coal out of the mountains, and have a burgeoning industry that's slowly catching up to Babylonia. They aren't about to start rediscovering how to make PUEXOs, but they're settling comfortably at pre-WWII levels of technology.

Come to think about it, the Megiddan Empire is the current forerunner in aerodynamics. There aren't many that people in the country who has enough space for an completely straight airstrip.
“I’ll make a note put in an order for a fresh batch of barrels.”

“Indeed. And Trevent sends his most sincere apologies for the oversight, and an invitation for tea upon our return.”

“Odds we die of poisoning?”

“Unlikely, but still nonzero.”

“Business as usual, then.”

The wardroom of Captain Rashid Elishani speaks as one that belongs to a museum curator. Or a historian, but at this point, the line’s blurred, somewhat. You see books on a nearby shelf, some of which have pre-Cataclysm binding. Behind his desk, there’s what appears to be imported furniture from the Megiddan Empire, artwork and paintings from God knows where, rusted artifacts and knickknacks…a model starship?

Hang on, is that a Toghril cutlass?

“No, none of them are for sale,” Elishani observes wryly.

Flushing, you bring your attention back to the captain. But he cuts you off before you can apologize. “Unless you plan on stealing anything, there’s no harm in admiring my collection. Of course, if one was planning such a despicable act…God willing, any thief would not leave this ship alive.”

The man himself is…well, you can certainly see how he could command a salvage trawler. Much like Geary, there’s definitely ex-military in his posture, as well as an accent you can’t place. Relaxed, but still ready to leap onto his feet at the slightest provocation. His face is long and drawn, but his eyes shine bright with an almost mercurial energy. Retirement for this captain won’t come for a long time.

“I read your file,” he says, drumming his fingers on a brown, manila folder. “But before I ask any questions, you’ll have to tell me how to pronounce your name.”

Oh, God, not this again...

“Oo-Nah-Me, sir,” you enunciate tiredly, “And Sin-leck.”

He nods in understanding. “Of course. And your callsign?”

“Razor, sir.”

Another nod. “You come highly recommended by Mister Stolze, Unami. Your certifications are extensive. Mechanical engineering journeyman. Welder’s permit. Saturation diving warrant. PUEXO pilot. I can see why Declan would be reluctant to release you from the Marduk.”

…not like you had a choice in the matter. And you notice that Elishani made little mention of your status. You aren’t sure whether or not to be relieved or offended. And Stolze. Bartholemew goddamned Stolze. It just always seems to come back to that prick.

Elishani steeples his hands together, continuing: “While this is mission is being undertaken by the purview of the Salvage Guild, I’ve been given free reign conduct day-to-day operations as best I see fit. I run a tight ship, Mister Unami. No differently than I would a vessel of the Babylonian Navy. Not that I expect knuckles to foreheads or holystoned decks, but there’s a level of discipline that I expect from all of my crew.

“PUEXO pilots,” he says lightly, “Don’t easily fit into the traditional ladder of a sailing ship.”

“Nor are they always so…amenable,” adds Geary. “Which isn’t to say that you aren’t. Declan spoke very highly of your service aboard the Marduk.”

"This isn't a mark against you, Unami.

…your eyes narrow as you have a pretty good idea of where the conversation’s going. And you don’t even blame them…much. There’s more than a fair share of hotshot, flyboy jockeys, byproducts of the PUEXO program that thought themselves God’s gift to the Flooded World. And that arrogance is only compounded by both their skills, talent, and overall necessity for the wellbeing of Babylonia.

Reggie’s one sex-crazed S.O.B., but other than that, he’s fairly down-to-earth. But for every Sinleq “Razor” Unami and Reggie “Strongman” Park to come out of the program, there’s at least one Jimmy “Thumper” Bailey, two Kat “Darling” Gaudet’s, and three Dexter “Amazing” Maloney’s. Hotheaded pains in the ass whose existence is only justified by the necessity of their talents and jobs.

And that isn’t even going into the non-Babylonian PUEXO pilots. There’s definitely something in the water beyond the Belt that turns people downright mad.

“You’re wasted in that Magellan, Sinny. Just remember, if you ever change your mind, I’ve got a Triton with your name on it~”

You banish the lilting, breathy voice of Molly “Mad Dog” McIntyre out of your head, and take a deep, steady breath.

“Permission to speak freely?” you ask evenly, deceptively light.

He nods, and gestures for you to speak.

>>What do you wish to say? [Please choose one]
>“Following the boss' orders brings the paycheck home.” (Professional)
>“If you read my file, you know why I’ve been on good behavior.” (Severe)
>"How badly did the last guy do for you to give me this treatment?” (Humor)


Once again, apologies for the delay. The next bit's already mostly written.
>>“Following the boss' orders brings the paycheck home.” (Professional)
>How badly did the last guy do for you to give me this treatment?” (Humor)
>>“Following the boss' orders brings the paycheck home.” (Professional)
>>“Following the boss' orders brings the paycheck home.” (Professional)
>>"How badly did the last guy do for you to give me this treatment?” (Humor)
Interested to hear what you think of the Obi-Wan trailer, bossman. Unless you're saving your ire for all things helicopter-esque for the next SWI thread?

+ 1

Thanks for the explantion boss!
Are there any other nationstates around the world?
What happend to Europa and africa?
How much do they interact with each other? Was there an „Age of sailing“ when trade and communications picked up again?
>>“If you read my file, you know why I’ve been on good behavior.” (Severe)
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Chills in the sort of "wow, I like it when I'm watching it", but when I think about it afterwards...sheesh. Goosebumps for a new "Duel of the Fates" remix, pure WTF at the Grand Inquisitor's design, painful eye-roll at helicopter lightsabers...pogged at Vader's breathing at the end. Impressed that they brought back Uncle Owen's actor from ROTS. Cautiously optimistic, but man am I just tiffed with helicopter lightsabers.

See pic related for a hastily done map in Wonderdraft that is tenuous at best when it comes to both placement, landmass and spheres of influence. Expect future maps to may or may not be vastly different and some islands to have extensive reworks.

>>What happened to Europe and Africa
Barring the Alps, most of Europe is just gone. There's a concentration of islands where the Eurasian/African plates met/erupted near where Gibraltar used to be. Africa has a bit more landmass, with the Al-Murad Caliphate settling islands that sprouted out of the Red Sea where the African/Arabian plates meet, as well as polities that survived near Kilimanjaro and Drakensburg.

>>How much do they interact with each other?
The Scourging (coronal mass ejection) knocked out a significant portion of satellites/space stations out of orbit, and completely fried whatever didn't burn up in atmosphere, on top of the entire electrical grid. Shortwave radio is the primary method of communication, with longwave being experimentally deployed.

>>Was there an "Age of Sailing" when trade/communication picked up again?
After the Dark Winter and the Thalassic Calamity that saw the ice melt and flood the planet, there was an "Age of Sail". Not quite "wooden ships and iron men", but definitely a new Age of Discovery. Some took to ships to chart out the world and look for survivors, while others decided to focus on internal development. Trade and communications did pick back up, eventually, but it's currently still at pre-WWII levels. That is, if they aren't busy shooting each other for land, resources, etc., but things are mostly peaceful around the New Atlantic.

In-universe, there is no "complete" map of the Flooded World. Satellite/GPS are kaput for the next few decades until Babylonia figures out how to reinvent spaceships, and no-one's really done a circumnavigation of the globe. While you guys have access to the map, the folks in-universe don't, and have more than their fair share of "fog of war" and "here there be monsters" on their maps. The Babylonia Cartography Guild pays sailors very handsomely for new bits and pieces of data, but there aren't that many who venture that far beyond the known out for fear of pirates, electromagnetic storms, or worse: raiding parties of the Toghril Khanate.

And for all you guys know, there might even be some islands that I didn't put on the map. I haven't nearly figured out how to mark a migrant/mobile fleet's sphere of influence. Another thing on the list.

>Chills in the sort of "wow, I like it when I'm watching it", but when I think about it afterwards...sheesh.
Been my experience with nearly every piece of mouse!Wars media. Except for the RoS trailer, that was just shit.
>pure WTF at the Grand Inquisitor's design
Him and the Fifth Brother both look like porn parody characters imo. We had more menacing practical-effect pau'ans nearly 20 years ago.
Honestly no surprise that the Netherlands is gone, even now a good portion is below sea level
I'm supprised that the terran union remnant is left in Europe. They probably have some ancient tech left, but not enough resources to exploit. Just like Europe itself.
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I was thinking more along the lines of "Pau'an/Grand Inquisitor at home", but I hate that I can't dispute "porn parody character".

Quite unfortunate, that. I've been to Amsterdam, and barring the smell, it's a lovely city.

They're there because they've been forced to. Not necessarily because it's the best place.

The Terran Union was one of the first powers to emerge in the Flooded World. While the uber-rich were able to board spaceships and escape before the Scouring hit the planet, the less fortunate opted to ride out the apocalypse in bunkers scattered across the world.

But when things started warming up, the sons/daughters of politicians who hid in the bunkers emerged and decided to try and rebuild civilization. They built settlements, reconciled their differences with the "landers", confederated neighboring powers, and created the Terran Union. Functionally, it would've resembled a hybrid between the U.S./EU, complete with a representative democracy, established human rights, law and order, and promises for a brighter future. "First the seas, then the stars!" claimed Richard Kendell, the first president of the Terran Union.

Prosperity that followed, but it didn't last. Corruption became endemic. Politicians took bribes, and military officers fell in bed with raiders. Fringe territories were ruthlessly exploited for resources and shipped back to the core at the expense of the natives. Which isn't to say that the citizens at large suffered, but many foreign/external polities, wary of joining the Union, only saw them repeating the mistakes of the Old World.

This would set the stage for Temujin Toghril, a fleet admiral who had won acclaim and admiration for his anti-piracy campaigns. A hero both adept in propaganda and in tactical acumen. Fed up with the corruption and weakness of clinging to "Old World Values", he strongly believed that mankind had to evolve both physically and ideologically to survive the Flooded World. He toed the line and fought against the enemies of the Union, but cynically came to the realization that the politicians gave him the furthest assignments away from the capital to prevent him from entering politics.

He reached a breaking point, however, when it became apparent that the pension funds for veterans was being embezzled by the president's office. Temujin brought his fleet back through the Taklamakan Gulf, an unprecedented act. During a snap election brought on by an impeachment, Temujin stormed the halls of parliament, and exploited a loophole in the constitution to declare a vote of no confidence in the elected government, dissolve Congress/Parliament and proclaim himself as emergency dictator to fight "corruption and weakness". Eventually, he crowned himself Khan, and rechristened the Terran Union to be the Toghril Khanate: the most bellicose and aggressive polity in the Flooded World.

The Remnant fled to Europe after they lost a brutal civil war that purged 250,000 loyalists.
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You lay your cards on the table, and say as candidly as possible: “Following the boss’ orders brings the paycheck home. I’ll toe the line and do both whatever’s expected and what’s needed of me.

“But I know what I’m worth,” you say in a deceptively light tone, “And I’ve met too many people who disabuse that notion. I’ll readily admit to being a slave, but I’m nobody’s fool.”

The officers share a look, and a silent communique. But Elishani seems to be pleased with your answer. “Of course not. I think you’ll fit just right into this crew, Mister Unami.”

A sharp knock at the door bleeds the tension from the room. Geary jumps, but Elishani looks remarkably disaffected.

“Come in.”

Even before he’s finished, the person on the other end of the line’s already moving. The bulkhead opens with a heavy CLUNK, and the security detail parts to let an overalled, rubber-booted deckhand into the wardroom. Rather than the indifferent look you received upon entry, they almost seem respectful as she passes through the threshold.

No, not just a mere deckhand, you realize as she presents herself to the captain. You spot the telltale marks on her arms, patches of discolored skin caused by the haptic link of a NERVlink jumpsuit. Her hair’s just at the borderline of being too long, but it should fit snugly inside of a TAComm helmet.

If she isn’t a PUEXO pilot, then you’d eat your sea-chest. But hers isn’t a familiar face. Not that you’ve kept an ear to ground for the latest to come out of the program. Fairly young, mid-to-late-twenties…couldn’t have had more than three, max four, years of experience. But that’s plenty of room for dozens of dives and clocked-in operation hours.

This must be the Calypso’s other pilot.

Wonder what she’s piloting?

The mystery woman snaps off a salute to Elishani. Not the crispest you’ve seen, but still sharp enough to be reverent.

“All departments are reporting that we’ll be ahead of schedule,” she reports, “They’ll be done within the hour. Beyond that, we’re just waiting for gas and fuel, but with the tide as it is, we won’t be losing anything.”

Geary smiles. “Excellent. Give the department heads my regards.”

She sniffs, and her eyes register a faint surprise as if she only just noticed you. “Who’s this guy?”

Elishani hums, clearing his throat. “Ah, I was just about to introduce you. This is our new pilot: Sinleq Unami. The recommendation from Mister Stolze. He’ll be joining us for the expedition, and if all goes well, the foreseeable future.”

Hopefully it’s a future that’s going to be profitable. But you don’t say that aloud. The woman's already giving you a scrutinizing look. Definitely a pilot with this kind of attitude.

“Best of all, he’s cert’d and seasoned. Not some greenhorn, wet-behind-the-ears rook.”

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No, you aren’t. The gag’s starting to wear thin. But there’s something unspoken that passes between the three of them. Geary sighs, and the woman snorts derisively. Now, you’re really curious. What the hell happened to the guy you’re replacing?

“Already a good start.” She gives you a one-over with an inscrutable gaze, then extends her hand. The nerve on this girl! “Elishani, Callsign Gully.”

Even as you stand up to return the gesture, you’re momentarily taken aback. The captain’s daughter? Out of the corner of your eye, you check for similarities…but beyond the sailor’s tan, there isn’t much in the way of family resemblance. Must either take after her mother, or some distant relation.

But no offered first name. Tactical sign only? Must be some new fad among the younger pilots.

“Sinleq Unami, like the captain said,” you reply, “Callsign Razor.”

Gully’s hand is similarly calloused as Geary’s and Elishani’s, but more thickened around the pads of her fingertips, joints and palm. Pilotpads is the slang term for them, thick from so many hours and ops to gripping the sticks and pushing buttons. Definitely an experienced pilot, even if you don’t know her certs.

For her part, she merely nods, and squeezes once before pulling back her hand. “You gonna be the Excel, then?”

Expedition Leader, shorthand Excel. The rank given to the senior-most pilot when deploying more than one PUEXO on a non-military op. It’s a flexible definition, depending on how one defines “senior most”: years as a pilot, or dives/op hours clocked in? A debate that’s caused more than its fair share of fights, both verbal and physical.

“That’s…a good question,” you answer.

You almost certainly qualify for both experience and seniority, but you’re not that old, dammit. Still, it’s been a hot minute since you’ve done salvage work. Gully could easily argue that she could hold the rank as the most adept salvage pilot.

But before you can make a decision, Geary cuts in. “Gully, if you could do me a favor, why don’t you show Mister Unami to his quarters? I’d normally show him around, but there’s still a mountain of paperwork that your father and I have to take care of.”

Father and daughter, then, you think to yourself. Nepotism isn’t unheard of in this line of work, but Elishani doesn’t strike you as that kind of parent. But only time will tell.

From the look on Gully’s face, that might’ve been the last thing she wanted to do. “Sir, with all due respect, I’ve still got a list of things that need doing.”

“Then I’ll make it a priority order,” says Elishani, dryly. “You said yourself that we’re ahead of schedule. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”

Gully opens her mouth to protest, but thinks better of it. “…fine.” With a sigh, she runs her hands through pale blonde locks, then catches your gaze. “You need any help with those?”

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“…no, but thanks for asking.” Case in point, you sling the duffle bag on across your shoulder, and bend down to lift the sea chest. “I’ll follow your lead.”

The officers’ berths are situated just beneath the pilot house. Nameplates on doors denote both rank, and whether or not said rank allocated an independent or shared space. Beyond the captain and his XO, you spot nameplates for deck chiefs, marine sergeants, DC officers, among other similarly high-ranking officials. Each department, you notice, seems to have their own shared, private space as to prevent cross-contamination.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the quarters for pilots are aftward, towards the stern of the Calypso. That makes enough sense given the placement of the PUEXO hangars. That’s the direction that Gully takes you towards, all the while attracting a few odd stares from stray and passing crewmembers.

“Your berth’s here,” she says with a disinterested wave. “Feel free to let the quartermaster know if you need any amenities. Showers are timed; you get three minutes of hot water before the tap shuts off. Head cleaning duty is rotated between us every week, but you’re responsible for cleaning up your own messes.”

Not too different from the Duck. You never needed the full five minutes anyway.

The space in question is about as large as you’d expect. Cozy and snug, but not cramped or otherwise claustrophobic. Certainly, you’d seen and slept in worse. You still have PTSD about the coffin racks, and the ungodly, awful smell of unwashed roughneck. Of all the things that Babylonia brought back from the Old World, the mass production of shampoo ranks up there. Hopefully the next big thing they reinvent is Febreze for your PUEXO cockpit.

But you digress. There are two bunks, two closets, a working desk, and a sofa(!). Far more space than what you actually have stuff for. Dust hasn’t had the opportunity to settle either, so there shouldn’t be too much to clean.

“Spacious, isn’t it?” drawls Gully. “But before you ask, no, we aren’t berthing together. Much as it’d be prudent to save space. I’m in the room opposite yours.”

That…was never a question in your mind. Maybe you’re just so used to pilots sharing a desegregated living space. But given who she is, it makes sense for her to get a room that isn’t occupied by another man. Fair as he might be, Elishani probably wouldn’t trust anyone, let alone a fresh male transfer, near his daughter.

Still...four pilots for a ship that can only house two PUEXOs? Seems like overkill.

She checks her watch, sighing. “Look, I’ve got…stuff to do, and you gotta unpack and settle in. Nothing personal, Unami, but I can’t stick around.”

“Of course,” you say with an understanding nod. What else could you really say? She isn't wrong, and the last thing you want to do is step on anyone's toes.

Your answer makes her pause, and she considers something. Then, mutters: “Tell you what. I’ll let you have one question, but just the one. So make it count, otherwise you’ll have to go to Geary for everything else.”

...one question, huh?

Talk about a loaded currency.

>>What will you ask Gully? [Choose one]
>“Can you tell me anything about yourself?”
>“So about the guy that I'm replacing...?”
>“What’s the story behind the Calypso?”
>Write-in. [Custom option]

>>Do you want to be the Excel for the upcoming operation? [Please choose one]
>Yes. You’ve got both years and op-hours clocked in over Gully.
>No. Gully has more recent salvage experience than you do.


>>Please structure your votes like this:
>Gully Question.
>Excel Question.

Sorry for the delay. Finals week started, and I had a test to take. After this, we're shipping out to the salvage site and meeting the crew of the Calypso.
>>“So about the guy that I'm replacing...?”
>No. Gully has more recent salvage experience than you do.
>“So about the guy that I'm replacing...?”
No. Gully has more recent salvage experience than you do.
Picking "no" because i'm assuming there's something bigger going on.
>>What will you ask Gully? [Choose one]
Ask her if there are fights here, and if they happen, how frequently do they happen

>No. Gully has more recent salvage experience than you do.
>“So about the guy that I'm replacing...?”
>Yes. You’ve got both years and op-hours clocked in over Gully.
>>“So about the guy that I'm replacing...?”
>No. Gully has more recent salvage experience than you do.
>“So about the guy that I'm replacing...?”
>No. Gully has more recent salvage experience than you do.
>“So about the guy that I'm replacing...?”
>No. Gully has more recent salvage experience than you do.
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“So, abut the guy that I’m replacing…” you say with a grin, “…what happened to him? Or her?”

Gully blinks, seemingly caught off-guard. Whatever she’d been expecting, it clearly isn’t that. But the ghost of a smile dances across her lips as she releases a quick snort of amusement. Not that it lasts long before she schools herself back into a professional, disaffected demeanor.

“I’m not gonna name any names,” she says dryly, “Gossip isn’t becoming of a pilot. But I can tell you right now that the bar’s set so low, it’s gone pelagic.”

Yikes. It’s been a hot minute since oceanography classes, but you can vaguely recall that being an incredibly deep part of the ocean. “That bad, huh?”

She shrugs. “Considering that our last pilot left half of their PUEXO on the ocean floor along with said bar and two-hundred-fifty thousand ducats’ worth of salvage equipment…”

“No!” you gasp, and you aren’t even exaggerating the horror in your voice. “Half a PUEXO? How the hell…”

“The idiot ignored the warning from the ACCOMS coming back up,” Gully says candidly, no different than one discussing the weather as opposed to a near career-ending mishap. “And got the power umbilical tangled up around the legs and the anchor chain. Oxygen was running out, the winch was starting to spark and smoke…only thing the last guy could do was jettison their left arm and leg.”

A tactic used only as an absolute last resort to save the pilot’s life. And even then, one not recommended. Advanced as Babylonia is, the level of industry and science isn’t nearly at the point where the city can easily make either new PUEXOs or replacement limbs.

“Don’t worry,” she assures you, “I did find the arms and his tools. Tracker kicked in, and the tide didn’t them out too far. But we lost two days and that PUEXO’s deep-diving capabilities until our engineer could McGyver the limbs back together. And even then, the fixes wouldn’t survive past two hundred without proper repairs in a dock. The captain wasn’t too happy.”

Of course. The last thing that any leader wants is dead weight, especially in the middle of the ocean.

Gully hums, almost note-for-note in approximation of her father’s musing lilt. “But I’d be here forever going on about the last pilot and all their shortcomings. You’re already an improvement just by not strutting around like a rooster.”

You chortle. “I always found myself more partial to draft horses, anyway.”

“Indeed.” She pauses, once again revaluating you. “You certainly look like you’re cert’d.”

“Thank you. I worked very hard for them.”

“Then it’s a good thing you’re here. It isn’t easy to impress the captain. But beyond Mister Stolze’s recommendation, you seem to have made a good impression.”

“Good, the bribe worked,” you say straight-faced.

She coughs to mask a laugh, but isn’t able to suppress a half-smile that just catches the overhead lights no differently than the sun. When Gully recovers, you continue, “And you can be the Excel for this op. I haven’t done salvage in a long while, so I some time to get used to it again.”

“You sure?” she asks with a frown.

“Yeah. I don’t mind playing second fiddle. Doesn’t affect the paycheck.”

She tilts her head, curiously. “And if it did?”

“…then I’d be less partial and more insistent that I take the lead.”

Gully thinks on it, then nods. “Fair enough.” Pausing to check her watch, she drawls, “Pleasant as it was meeting you, I do really have errands to run. Get yourself settled in, take a nap or a shower…the whole day off, actually. We don’t have a place for you yet in the roster. Not until we set out.”

…well, that’s not a problem. Good think you brought a book.

“Will do.”

She tosses an irreverent salute, two fingers to the forehead, thumb drawn back tight. “Welcome to the Calypso, Unami. Here’s to raising the bar to at least the photic zone. See you around, pilot.”

>>Scene Break

You don’t have much to unpack. A week’s worth of clothes, your NERVlink jumpsuit plus two extra spares, a toothbrush, half a tin of baking soda, and a pair of metal mugs. These easily go into drawers and cubbies, with plenty of empty space left over for your sea-chest and duffle. The task only takes a handful of minutes, later finding you reclined on the couch.

“…salvage, huh?” you mutter, reaching for a book. The last time you’d been able to relax like this was Founding Day, a handful of months ago. “…there’s a joke in this whole situation somewhere.”

Salvage treasure from the bottom of the ocean.

Salvage the remnant of your life back into some semblance of order.

“…accident involving radioactive waste, just on the docks of Foggy Bottom. The gimble broke, spilling its contents…”

…here’s to hoping that this expedition is profitable. And heralds a new start in the changing economic fortunes of Sinleq Unami.

“All hands, prepare for departure,” a voice calls over the intercom after what feels like hours. “Disengaging docking clamps and activating main engines.”

The walls of the hull aren’t nearly thick enough to drown out the roar of the engines, vibrating the ship as they propel the Calypso right out of the harbor. You run the math in your head, pleased that you’re only off by a handful of seconds for the helmsman to open up the full throttle, and goose the ship out of the bay.

Stretching and stifling a yawn, you reach for the next book. “Another day, another dollar…another bar off my collar…”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

>>The following morning...
>>Day 1 of Salvage Expedition to [???]

“Tasks?” you query with a bemused frown.

Geary nods, sliding you a mug of coffee. “Better you hear it from me than the captain, but everyone’s expected to pull their weight. PUEXO pilots are no exception to the rule. There’s always work to be found if you know where to look. And at the same time, introduce you to the crew.”

“You couldn’t have just done that with an assembly?”

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” he adds with a wry smile. “Gully’s words, not mine.”

…so that’s what the captain meant. Well, idle hands make for the devil’s workshop, so you aren’t opposed on principle. Better that than to languish on your new sofa and read yourself into a coma. But before you do anything first…

“I really hate to do this,” you begin, “But am I being comped for this labor? I didn’t see any sort of clause in the transfer papers. No offense.”

“You are,” he confirms, “And don’t worry. Gully asked something similar during her first mission.”

You crack the slightest of smiles. “How much?”

“Nothing so large compared to your regular work. Comparatively…the wages of an NCO per day until we reach the destination.”

Not great, but not terrible. Pocket change by any other means, but it’s better than minimum wage or nothing. Or otherwise stewing in the chamber of solicitude that comprised your berth.

“Where do you want me to start?” you ask.

The XO reaches into his jacket pocket, and produces a list. “Based on your file, I took the liberty of directing you to departments where you would best be useful. I can imagine that the last thing you want is to languish where you wouldn’t be needed.”

How awfully considerate of him...

>>Where do you want to work for today? [Please choose one (1)]
>Galley/Mess. The soul of the ship, where her crew comes to eat and relax.
>Pilot House. The eyes of the ship, the bridge from where the Calypso is led from.
>Security Detail. The contingent of marines who keep the ship safe and secure.
>Vehicle Bay. Where PUEXOs, small boats, and a scout submarine are maintained.

>Vehicle Bay. Where PUEXOs, small boats, and a scout submarine are maintained.
Figure it's best to spec into one thing. Could go with the galley for +social, pilot for +social with captain, or sec for +gun XP but our pay/freedom depends on how well we salvage.
>>Security Detail. The contingent of marines who keep the ship safe and secure.
>Vehicle Bay. Where PUEXOs, small boats, and a scout submarine are maintained.
>Vehicle Bay. Where PUEXOs, small boats, and a scout submarine are maintained.
>Vehicle Bay. Where PUEXOs, small boats, and a scout submarine are maintained.
>>Pilot House. The eyes of the ship, the bridge from where the Calypso is led from.
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The vehicle bay comprises nearly all of the aft deck, nearly a whopping twenty-five meters of the whatever eighty-something that comprises the entirety of the Calypso. Beyond a section dedicated to the PUEXO hangars and the knuckleboom crane mounts, the deck itself would be empty beyond the swaying rigs of small boats, and a deck hatch that houses a Mackerel-class scout submarine. True to form, Elishani seems to run a tighter ship than what you’d otherwise see pulling into Dockside.

But you aren’t here to admire the scenery. You’re here to work. And right now, the site is a bustling hive of activity as deckhands go about their day-to-day operations. Barring an orange armband that designates them as maintenance, the uniforms of the men and women vary from waist-drawn mechanic’s jumpsuits and sleeveless tops, to working leathers and canvas Levi’s.

You stand somewhat awkwardly, content to lean against the wall and observe the deckhands. Maintenance is a universal language, easily translated from one place to another. The basics of oil rig repair and service seem to apply just as readily to a salvage trawler, based on the equipment everyone shoulders. Elishani’s crew operates like a well-oiled machine, moving with a professional confidence and purpose.

“Gripper-One’s gimbal is pulling sluggish. I think there might be either a short or a hydraulic leak in the housing mechanism.”

“Sergeant Kwan’s on the other end of the line, looking for the small-arms ammunition crate that was dropped off here yesterday…”

“Yes, sir. The sonar and radar arrays are working in perfect order. All that’s left to do is calibrate the buoys and stress-test the connection lines…”

“Hey, you there! You lookin’ for someone?”

That last one’s directed at you. Blinking out of your reverie, you turn to the source of the noise, only to find it coming straight towards you.

She’s a tall woman, only a scant few inches shorter than you. And heavyset in the way that hardworking, blue-collar folk are. Or just the kind of build that roughnecks and Jack Tars build over several years of service. Her age is easier to peg than Gully’s, late twenties or early thirties. And her accent’s the textbook definition of someone born and raised Dockside. Your people.

But beyond a mechanic’s jumpsuit, her most prominent feature is a faded baseball hat, resting on curly black hair. The colors have almost completely washed out, save for that of a handstitched logo. Some sort of brown-orange bird. Hopefully one that didn’t go extinct during the Dark Winter.

There isn’t any malice or accusation in her eyes as she comes to a stop. Only a friendly grin, and a subdued sense of curiosity. “HOLT” is stitched onto a Velcro patch placed just above the insignia of the Babylonia merchant marine.

“Or is it somethin’ that you’re lookin’ for?” she adds.

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You shake your head, but pause and think on it. Then, you answer: “I’m looking for work.”

“Work?” She raises an eyebrow, then jerks her head back to the bustling aft deck. “Ain’t no shortage of it.”

“Lieutenant Commander Geary sent me here,” you explain, with only somewhat of a wry expression. “Said something about ‘pulling my weight’ and, uh…free lunches.”

The woman smiles. “Yeah, no that sounds about right. That’s a song and dance that most folk gotta go through aboard this ship.”

“Even passengers?”

“We ain’t exactly a cruise liner. Everybody gotta work.”

“How about honored guests?”

“If I see any,” she says with a faux-conspiratorial whisper, “I’ll letcha know.”


The woman doffs her hat, throwing a lazy salute that turns into an offered hand and a genial smile. “Deck Chief Holt. I’m in charge of the maintenance crew and the daytime shift. For this expedition, I’ll be yours and Gully’s crew chief and PUEXmech. Real nice to meet you in-person…Unami, was it?”

You return her smile, and her handshake with an equally strong grip. “Yeah, that’s me. How’d you know who I was?”

“Oh, easy,” she says, “I know every single one of my crew that’s supposed to be on the deck right now. Last I checked, you ain’t on that list. And there's only so many new faces...”

“Ah. Well, in that case, if you’ll excuse me-”

“Hold up, don’t go runnin’ off just yet,” she interjects with a wry grin. “Cap’n wants you to work, yeah? I’m pretty sure that we’ve got boxes that need shufflin’ around.”

Something distasteful must’ve flashed in your eyes. Holt laughs, and waves as if to clear the air. “Jokin’, just a joke. Wouldn’t have you doin’ that kinda grunt work unless some folks are in sickbay. ‘sides, I didn’t think you’d come down here for a while.”

You relax. “Engineering and maintenance are always the first places I stop. Just to make sure my PUEXO’s been loaded on correctly.”

“Well,” Holt says, pointing towards the hangar, “You’re in luck. I actually needed you to drop by so we could do a shake-and-break. First time we’ve had a Magellan, so I wanna do things by the numbers. And it’d help a ton if you were with us. Just in case somethin' breaks.”

You snort at that. With a smile that you don’t have to force, you nod to the chief and reply, “I think that would be at least a day’s worth of food.”

Holt's laugh is carried by the spray of the sea, and echoed by a nearby, overhead flock of seagulls.

>>Calypso Hangar No. 2

The superstructure of the hangar isn’t nearly tall enough for the PUEXO’s to stand upright. Your Magellan lies on its back, resting aboard a mechanized flatbed, linked to a motorized rail to bring it out for deployment. Polyester ratchet straps hold the machine in place, while nearby tow cables can bring the bed up for “under the hood” maintenance.

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It’s a cozy space, but one that’s well-aired and kept organized to a fault. The six deckhands already present, idly chatting or performing other business, stand ramrod straight to attention upon your and Holt’s entry.

“At ease,” she says, and they all relax. With a light slap to your back, she pushes you forward. “This here’s Pilot Unami. From this minute onward, you’re gonna be the crew in charge of keepin’ his machine well-oiled and operational. Y’all got that?”

“Yes, ma’am!” they all shout as one.

“Don’t call me, ma’am!” she snaps back, but her severe tone doesn’t quite reach her eyes. She scolds them, growling, “Ma’am’s for old and crusty ladies, which I most certainly ain’t!”

“Yes, ma’am! Sorry, ma’am!”

Holt groans, drawing a hand across her face. “For every white hair I find tonight, that’s an hour of time each of y’all are scrapin’ barnacles on the underside of the hull. With a goddammed toothbrush.”

“Yes, sir! Sorry, sir!”

She shoots you a long-suffering, exasperated look that all but says, “See what I have to deal with here?”

Beyond the banter, each and every one of them looks capable enough. And Holt hasn’t given you a reason to doubt her discretion and judgement. In all the five minutes that you’ve known her, but still. One by one, the maintenance crew introduce themselves as Holt taps away at a terminal to bring the flatbed up at an angle.

Not nearly enough time to get backstories by the time she’s finished, but you establish a good enough baseline between your new team. Three natives of Babylonia – Carter, Kiril and Mehra – and three foreigners – the Galapagan Nasazi, Nordling Sabine and the Andean Darius. All of them seem fairly competent and well-versed in the finer points of both mechanical engineering and PUEXO operations.

“She’s a real beaut,” Holt says with a whistle, stepping in front of the flatbed to admire the Magellan. “Didn’t think that there were any left around, let alone in active service. Most of the pilots that blow our way ride in Threes or Fours.”

“Babylonia has a few,” you answer slowly, “Three, by my last reckoning, mine included.”

“No shit? How come I haven’t seen any of ‘em?”

“…Maggie’s are best suited for industrial deep dives. I used to be on the Duck before coming here.”

That, as well as the fact that there are newer, flashier generational models that perform slightly better than the Magellan. Ones that are doled out to the best of the best, not debt-slaves at-risk. Better to risk losing an old Mark Two than a newer Mark Three or Four.

Not that you’d trade her for anything in the world, or sabotage her in a fit of pique. She’ll get the job done, even if she definitely shows her age at times. And for one thing, Stolze, the bastard, would never let you hear the end of it.

But Holt tilts her head, a confused frown on her face. “The Duck?”

“Sorry,” you apologize, forgetting that particular colloquialism is exclusive to the roughnecks and riggers. “The Marduk. It’s an oil rig around eighty, ninety kilos east-north-east of Babylonia.”

Understanding dawns in her eyes. “Oh…that makes enough sense! The Duck’s one of those old-school floatin’ rigs, then?”

You smile. “Got it in one. Floats like…well, a duck. Even in some of the more severe hurricanes and typhoons that blow down from the Nordling Sea. Well, not that she’ll stop you from getting sick from the ocean motion, but you won’t drown.”

Holt nods, as if confirming something. “Well, that makes enough sense that you and your PUEXO would be there. Old-school for old-school. But if you don’t mind me askin’?”

“…go ahead,” you reply slowly.

“How come you’re ridin’ around in a Magellan? From what I remember hearin', PUEXO pilots should have their pick of whatever the city’s got on standby.”

>>How will you respond? [Choose one]
>“I guess you could call me old-fashioned.”
>“Slaves aren’t afforded nicer equipment.”


Apologies for the delay. It's finals week, and my projects have all converged to gang up on me.
>“I guess you could call me old-fashioned.”
>“Slaves aren’t afforded nicer equipment.”
>“Slaves aren’t afforded nicer equipment.”
>>“Slaves aren’t afforded nicer equipment.”
>“Slaves aren’t afforded nicer equipment.”

Holt and her crew seem alright, no need to be coy. Obvious working folk, work hard play hard. My people.
>>“Slaves aren’t afforded nicer equipment.”
>“I guess you could call me old-fashioned.”
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…it seems that Elishani didn’t make your status public knowledge. And you’re not sure whether or not to feel grateful about the privacy, or annoyed that it falls to you to break it to whoever comes your way.

Still, Holt and her crew seem like good folk. And the riggers on the Duck, with few exceptions, didn’t seem to mind or otherwise care. There had been ribbing and hazing, no denying that, but they largely had their ire reserved for slackers and dead weight.

“Slaves aren’t afforded nicer equipment,” you say matter-of-factly. The truth, and nothing but the truth, delivered without any sort of inflection. “There’s a cost-benefit risk associated with us that the city bigwigs did the math for.”

She blinks, perplex, but you can see the moment where the dots connect. Her eyes go wide, first in disbelief, then in a sharp, furrowed and analytical brow. “…you’re indentured?”

In the confines of the hangar, her attempt at subtlety comes off louder. Not quite shouting, but just right at around conversational level as the dull roar of her crew tapers off. More than a few look your way, curious at what’s got their deck chief riled up.

“To one Bartholemew Stolze,” you answer dryly. “He leases me out to the city every once in a while, but I spent most of the last three years on the Duck, since that’s where the most money comes from.”

Holt looks at you, as if reconsidering her prior opinion of you. It’s something you’re used to, but it’s more annoying than hurtful at this point. “…you don’t look the part.”

You don’t look like a criminal.

If you rolled your eyes any harder, they would’ve fallen out of your skull. Pulling back your sleeve, you raise your arm, and the sheen of the debt-brands catch the overhead lights. The deck chief squints, forgoing personal space to get a good, hard look at the tattoos.

“…never seen this many before,” she mutters.

You shrug. “I’ve got fifteen more where those came from.”

Her eyes nearly bug out of her skull. “Twenty?! Hold the fuck up, you’re screwin’ with me.”

“I’ve never been more serious in my life,” you say in a flat deadpan. A headache’s starting to form, and you’re having second thoughts about telling this to Holt.

But she seems to calm down. “Right, but…ain’t each one of those brands worth…”

“A million ducats, yes.” Might be a good idea to not tell her about the original twenty-five.

But she seems to have noticed anyway, the faded scar tissue where one of the brands had recently been removed. Not that she makes any more noise about it. “…must’ve been one hell of a thing to put yerself in debt for.”

“All you need to do is sign the contract and take the ink, SInleq. One dotted line, twenty-five brands…a life for a life.”

Sensing a potential landmine, Holt backs off. “…uh…right. Look, you don’t need to tell us any of the nitty-gritty.” She says that last bit more for the eavesdropping Kiril and Sabine, who wisely return back to their work. “Not unless you want to.”

You nod, only somewhat terse. Then, give the same, nebulous answer that you’ve always given to both the curious innocent and the obnoxious busybodies. “…maybe. One day, perhaps.”\

For all of her boisterous personality, Holt reads between the lines well enough. Her uncertain frown morphs, shifting into an easy-going grin. “Well, you can count on us, Unami. Don’t you worry too much about keepin’ your Magellan in tip-top shape. You focus on deep divin’ and clearin’ that debt, you hear?”

It’s…quite flattering, admittedly. This refreshing energy. The last PUEXmech to service your Magellan hadn’t been nearly as gung-ho. “…thank you. I...appreciate that.”

Her smile is bright. “’course, no problem! Anythin’ you pull up, we all get a cut of, so we’re really torqued to keep you alive. So, you wanna pop open the hood? Run us through operatin’ and maintainin’ a Magellan?”

Snorting at her rather straightforward and insensitive honesty, you nod. “Yeah. There’s actually a few things that make a Magellan a Magellan…”

Time seems to lose all meaning in the hangar as you, Holt and her crew get to work. Most of them already have the know-how to maintain a PUEXO, pulled from prior experience with Gully and other pilots’ exosuits. So any concepts that you would’ve had to explain to new engineers on the Duck are mostly glossed over with little to no fanfare.

The real meat and potatoes of your discussion through the shakedown consist of the differences between the Magellan-class among other PUEXOs. Not that you’re about to or able to climb in for a test drive or demonstration. Most probing attempts and inspections of power relays, insulated reactor cores, and other components are done non-invasively, and at low-level power. Systems uniformly shared across PUEXOs, but whose configurations vary wildly from model to model.

After what seems to feel like only an hour or two, the overhead PA chimes to life, alerting the ship for lunch break. Holt’s crew, sweaty and half-stripped to the waist, excuse themselves for food and a quick shower. Leaving both their deck chief and yourself, discussing some of the more technical aspects over a pot of instant coffee.

“I’m so busy I can barely leave the aft deck,” she jokes, leaning back against the wall with a contented sigh. “But the guys and gals make it a point to get me chow so I don’t starve. Don’t worry, I asked ‘em to bring you somethin', too.”

You thank her for the second time that day. “Is there anything else you need me to go over?”

“Yeah, a lot, actually. Just gotta say…” Holt pauses, waving her mug towards the hydraulic stand propping the flatbed up at an angle. “She’s definitely one of the heavier ones to come through the Cally. The flatbed’s holdin’ her up decently enough, but she’s really workin’ hard for it.”

“She’s got at least five more centimeters of armor,” you explain, “Than her generational siblings. Bare minimum for a Maggie if they’re under God knows how much pressure for however long. Add the spherical steel cockpit, with a thickness of ten cntimeters…”

And there's the limbs, equipment, reactor, etc.

The deck chief muses, pensive. “That’s a given of all PUEXO’s, but they ain’t divin’ the same distance down. What’s the crush depth for yours?”

“Depends if you’re going off the manual, or the historical records. They vary wildly.”

“Makes sense. A few of the pilots that blew our way went way further down than what their machines were rated for.”

That takes either balls of steel, a lack of brains, or some combination of the two. Given how either of those seem to be qualifying traits to be a pilot in the first place, you don’t exactly have room to offer critique.

But you know the limits of your Magellan, and how far you can push her. And you’d be damned if you take that cavalier of an approach to piloting. A waterlogged, clammy carcass or an imploded, bloody smear on the cockpit glass can’t make anyone money, or pay back a multi-million ducat debt.

Which brings you to an unfortunate, but necessary question.

“Did you ever lose any pilots?” you ask.

Holt’s face screws up as if you’d suggested that you do something incredibly indecent. On one of the creeper dollies. In full view of her entire crew. All the while broadcasting said sordid act to the entirety of the ship.

Before she decides whether to shout or brain you with the wrench on her belt, you raise your hands in a placating gesture. “I’m not trying to pick a fight. You said it yourself, I’m putting my trust in you to keep the machine running. That also means my life, to make sure I come back up.”

The deck chief deflates at that, the severe frown her brow had contorted into visibly relaxing. “I run a tight deck, and keep my boys and girls sharp on their feet. Worked aboard the Cally for three years, and I’m pretty fuckin’ proud to say that we’re fatality-free.”

You notice that she doesn’t say “incident-free”, but you have severe doubts that any ship, no matter how well-trained and organized the crew is, could truly be incident-free. And if someone claimed to have served aboard one, then they were full off shit. And may or may not have a bridge to sell to the gullible stupid enough to believe that.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” you say, in an effort to restore the flow of the conversation. “Puts a lot of pressure on me to not be the first on your deck.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. You’re in good hands, so long as you…” Holt suddenly pauses, squinting at you with a bemused grin. “…’pressure’ on you, huh? Didn’t finger you for a funny man, Unami.”

You make a show of frowning, then lie straight to her face: “Oh. Hah, that’s…well, didn’t mean for it to come out like that. I was being sincere.”

She doesn’t believe you in the slightest. About the pun, hopefully. The desire to not be pulled back to the Calypso in a body bag is very real, though. But the need to elaborate further is alleviated by the return of Holt’s crew. Who had, in fact, brought both you and their deck chief lunch in the form of grilled chicken on a bed of rice, and a handful of fruits and vegetables to wash it down and keep scurvy away.

Then it’s back to work for the rest of PUEXO Hangar No. 2. And by the time the shift ends, with the sun casting a shimmery, orange-red light across the horizon, you think that given the deckhands’ collective proficiency, your Magellan is in good hands. They should be able to maintain and service her without too much of your input and aid.

…hopefully Holt went around to fixing the tear in the hydraulic injector. She seemed determined enough to give it a try when you pointed out that lingering issue.

>>The following morning…
>>Day 2 of Salvage Expedition to [???]

“Another day, another dollar,” you mutter, rising out of your berth as the sun hits you in the face.

…come to think of it, wouldn’t “ducat” be more appropriate for the saying? Alas, “ducat” doesn’t rhyme with “collar”.

And last you checked, any denomination of the dollar hasn’t been in use for nearly a hundred years. The Babylonian Ducat. Andean Peso. Gallapagan Pound. Linao Won. Khanate Marks. Nordling Krona. Then there was the Terran Union, who tried to mint their own version of the United Nation credit. And this isn’t including the myriad tribal islands that either have their own currency, or just straight up barter when they come to dockside.

Thoughts of currency aside, it’s the start of a brand-new day, and scuttlebutt says that you’ve got just a bit longer before you reach the destination. Which means for your next meal, you gotta find somewhere to work. Again.

>>Where do you want to work for today? [Please choose one (1)]
>Galley/Mess. The soul of the ship, where her crew comes to eat and relax. [Spend time with ???]
>Pilot House. The eyes of the ship, the bridge from where the Calypso is led from. [Spend time with [???]
>Security Detail. The contingent of marines who keep the ship safe and secure. [Spent time with ???]
>Vehicle Bay. Where PUEXOs, small boats and a scout submarine are maintained. [Spend time with Holt]

>Pilot House. The eyes of the ship, the bridge from where the Calypso is led from. [Spend time with [???]
>Pilot House. The eyes of the ship, the bridge from where the Calypso is led from. [Spend time with [???]
>>Galley/Mess. The soul of the ship, where her crew comes to eat and relax. [Spend time with ???]
>>Security Detail. The contingent of marines who keep the ship safe and secure. [Spent time with ???]
>>Pilot House. The eyes of the ship, the bridge from where the Calypso is led from. [Spend time with [???]
>>Security Detail. The contingent of marines who keep the ship safe and secure
Apologies for the delay, fellows. Had to do a bit of traveling for spring break. Feel free to ask any questions.

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The bridge of the Calypso adheres to traditional nautical sensibilities in both design and function. It’s a rectangular room, with windows on every side that afford a near-unobstructed, overlooking view of the ship and the surrounding waters. The captain’s seat dominates the forward-right corner, with another seat fastened onto the deck beside it. Predictably, Elshani and Geary sit strapped into them, gazing intently at maps, papers, and a rare laptop computer that’s interfaced with the ship itself.

Occasionally, they direct commands to any of the other officers or enlisted occupying various watch-stations that comprise the pilot house. Similar to the aft deck, you take a quiet moment to observe their functions, and make educated guesses as to their myriad roles. Navigator, helmsman…a quartermaster, maybe even a chief engineer. There is a station on the wall dedicated to communications, but a noticeable lack of a comms officer.

A watch-stander notices you, then signals to Elishani. The captain looks up only long enough to recognize you, then returns to his work, muttering over intense mathematical calculations. It falls to Geary to rise up from his seat, and make his way over to the entrance.

“Mister Unami,” the XO says with a smile, shaking your hand. “What brings you to the pilot house today?”

“Work,” you say straightforwardly. “And the promise of lunch.”

“Of course. Yesterday, weren’t you with Chief Holt? I thought you might’ve stayed there today as well.”

Shrugging, you reply, “Just long enough to make sure that the Magellan’s in good hands. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

He seems to accept that easily enough. “Indeed. You’d be hard-pressed to find a finer mechanic than Holt on this side of the Belt.”

Maybe a hyperbole, but one that you wouldn’t dispute. Holt knows her stuff, especially about PUEXOs, to the point where you wonder why she isn’t a pilot herself. She doesn’t have the sort of bitter, jadedness that comes with washouts from the program. Maybe she just likes the bay better than the cockpit.

But those are questions for another time. To Geary, you continue, “Your list said that I’d be a good fit here on the bridge. But I don’t necessarily know where that’d be.”

“How good are you at math?” he asks.

Good, but you aren’t about to toot your horn too hard. Wouldn’t have been able to pass for the piloting license or half-a-dozen other certs. “What do you need me to do?”

Paperwork, it turns out to be. The regular quartermaster had called out sick for the day, and it fell to the quartermasters’ mates to make up the difference. While you aren’t expected to prepare or alter nautical charts, the math you perform aids the helmsman in piloting a safer, more efficient course. No satellites means no GPS, which means old-fashioned sextant navigation.

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“There’s a coral reef along our course,” mutters Sloan, one of the mates. A pimply youth with barely a scruff of hair on his chin, most likely a cadet on loan from the navy. “Uh…it should be out of the way. At our current heading, the Calypso should miss her entirely.”

“Can you define ‘should be’, Sloan?” you ask quietly. “Are you one-hundred percent sure?”

Are you willing to bet the hull integrity of the Calypso on your calculations?, is the question that goes unvoiced.

He hesitates, scratching the side of his head with the pencil in his hand. With a frown at the map, he runs the math again…only to sigh heavily. “…I’ll go get our bearings again, sir?”

You nod, with a tight smile. “By all means.”

Sheepishly, he slinks out of the bridge, carrying a sextant, a compass and a pocket watch. His footsteps are amusingly obvious in his path up the stairs, and the flying bridge atop the pilot house.

A handful of minutes and one cup of coffee later, he returns with an updated bearing. Running the math together, Sloan’s initial estimate had been correct, but would have taken the Calypso dangerously close to the reef. The word is passed to the captain, who instructs the helmsman to adjust his heading to give a comfortable space between the ship and the hazard.

Lunch comes with little fanfare. The steward, a coffee-skinned geriatric with Andean features, brings along a dolly cart for the standing watch. Rice, fish and chicken, with leafy greens and scurvy-b-gone. Idly, you observe that Elshani and Geary eat no differently from the rest of the crew, with the exception of more greens on the captain’s plate.

An hour after lunch, when the plates are cleared away and work’s been long since undertaken, something interesting happens.

“Barometer’s dropping,” one of the helmsmen suddenly reports, glancing to the instrument as it hangs on the wall. Adjacent to it, a WeatherWatcher chimes an ominous series of notes. “Wind’s picking up.”

A summer squall, most likely. The roughnecks used to bet on how high and/or long the waterspouts would be.

Geary squints, cupping his hands to look beyond the bow of the ship. Off in the distance, clouds gather, and the sun becomes lost to an overcast formation of darkening white-grey clouds. Then mutters, “Trade storm. Strong one, an hour, maybe two away. We’ll avoid the worst of the it, but there’s no running from the squall. Not in this ship.”

“Agreed,” says Elishani gruffly, then sighs wistfully. “Damn shame we don’t have the cutter with us.”

“Heh. Yumi would disagree. Shall I give the order to heave to?”

The captain hums, brow furrowing in a pensive expression. “Clear the deck and bolt everything down. Set condition to YOKE. We’ll go through the squall, then break off and set a lateral course away from the storm. Should be more then enough open ocean by the time it passes relative.”


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As Geary coordinates with one of the watch officers for a ship-wide announcement, Elishani’s eyes turn to you and Sloan. As one, you stiffen to attention as the captain rises from out of his chair, and works his way to your workstation. “How good’s your meteorology?”

Sloan answers nervously, “Uh…good, sir. Passed with distinction during the last watch exam.”

Then, you reply dryly, “Not my strongest suit, sir. Weather wasn’t exactly taught at the PUEXO program.”

Elishani merely nods. “The course you charted for the Calypso is westward, away from the storm blowing from the north-east. I’m going to need a new bearing for our escape, and a predicted path of the storm.”

“Yes, sir!”

Sloan ends up pulling most of the legwork, but defaults to your math and revisions when you point out mistakes or margins of error. All the while, you pull up booklets and journals, cartographic notes regarding the trade winds, oceanographic hazards, pirate attacks, among other points of data. Between you and Sloan, it takes only around ten minutes to chart the storm’s course, and a handful more to plot a hazard-free course.

“Well done,” commends Elishani. “Now, I suggest that you buckle up and grab hold of something…”

Even with the storm dozens of kilometers out, the squall it produces is enough to rock both the nearby seas and three-thousand-ton salvage trawler. Your stomach lurches as the ship rolls and pitches with the swell of rolling waves. Hundreds of pounds of water slam and splash across the deck, and the spray reaches as high as the bridge windows.

“Oh, God…” groans the cadet. He’s certainly looking green at the gills, struggling to concentrate on his map and math. At one point, Sloan looks like he’s about to puke, but manages to hold it in at the last possible second. “…oh, fuck…”

“When I grow up, I wanna be a sailor! There’s gotta be more islands than what’s on the map, right uncle?”

“…shouldn’t have gone twice for fish sticks, huh?” you dryly observe.

“Sir, with all due respect…please shut up…”

Your lip twitches in the ghost of a smile. “First squall?”

Green as he is, an embarrassed flush stains his cheeks a ruddy red. “…yeah.”

And probably his first outing to sea out of the naval academy. You reach out to pat him on the shoulder. “Hang in there. It gets easier, you know. Bulkhead’s closed for fresh air, but I’ll go ask the steward for some ginger ale.”

“I’d greatly…appreciate that, sir,” Sloan wheezes.

“And if you’re going to puke, don’t puke on me or the table.”

“…will do, sir…”

The squall lasts for a good two hours, thirty-seven minutes. And in that time, the cadet only pukes once, and into a hastily fetched wastebasket. But Sloan seems to faire better, even as he sheepishly takes a mop from an unimpressed Geary to clean up what didn’t get into the bucket.

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But there’s a gradual and noticeable diminishing of the winds and the waves. And as the long hours pass, the dark-grey concentration of storm clouds slowly passes along the starboard, completely missing the ship in its entirety as it rolls along the trade winds. Condition YOKE is returned to XRAY, and while sky is still largely overcast, the captain authorizes the resumption of work for the deckhands.

“Check yourself into sickbay, Sloan,” Elishani orders. “Doc should have some seasickness medicine in his chest.”
A handful of snickers from the mates and watch officers are immediately silenced when Geary shoots the offending party a glare that could freeze the air. You may or may not have joined them.

“And which one of you held your lunch on your first storm?” the XO scolds them.

Ignoring the byplay, the captain merely relieves Sloan of duty, who gratefully stumbles off the bridge and down towards sickbay.


“Thanks for helping out,” quartermaster Atkinson says as he relieves you. “And taking care of Sloan.”

…he’s a good lad. Jumpy and skittish, but that’s the kind of ticks that are ironed out with experience. Wouldn’t do to put him in immediate command, but he’d make for a good bridge officer down the line. Maybe a command officer if he held his chin up higher.

“Uncle…it hurts so much…”

“Least I could do,” you reply neutrally, “I wasn’t any different during my first storm.”

“Neither was I,” Atkinson agrees with a conspiratorial smile.

Outside, the sun’s already begun to set, and the day crew’s been given leave to R&R. This leaves you with the perfect opportunity to get some decent shut-eye, or some light reading in. Book club does not end merely due to reassignment or delay. One shower later finds you clean and refreshed, ready to dive back into the paid-per-word novels of Dickens.

But entering the common room, you find that it isn’t unoccupied.

From her seat on the couch, reclined with a towel wrapped around her neck, Gully looks up from her…you aren’t quite sure what it is she’s got disassembled on the table. “Unami.”

“Gully,” you return her greeting with an amicable nod.

The silence isn’t awkward…maybe just a little bit. Neither of you don’t seem to know what to say.

She eventually breaks it. "...how was your day?"

"...can't complain," you answer uncertainly. "Storm came and went. Didn't bother me too much."

"Mmmm. Me neither."


>>Please choose a course of action:
>Hang out with Gully for pilot socializing.
>See what Chief Holt’s doing in her free time.


Sincere apologies for the delay. Writer’s block reared its ugly head, and my OCD went into overdrive in researching naval protocol/terminology for sailing during storms.
>Hang out with Gully for pilot socializing.
>>Hang out with Gully for pilot socializing.
>See what Chief Holt’s doing in her free time.
>Hang out with Gully for pilot socializing.
Also QM: No problem. Just try plan some sort of roadmap for the adventure so that you can focus on the small parts that need to be researched then. It makes for smaller work piles.
>>See what Chief Holt’s doing in her free time.
>Hang out with Gully for pilot socializing.
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>>Hang out with Gully for pilot socializing.

Gully hums, but doesn’t stop you as you sit down opposite her, and make the decision to put Dickens on hold. Settling in comfortably on the leather, you ask, “Mind if I crash a while?”

She gives you an odd look, then replies flatly, “It’s just as much your common room as it is mine.”

“That’s not a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’” you counter. “You were here first.”

“Point taken.” She thinks for a moment, really giving it some serious thought. Then, she answers, “No, I honestly don’t mind at all. Just don’t touch anything or make too much noise.”

Fair enough. Although you wonder whether or not shooting the breeze counts as a noise violation in her book. In an effort to bridge the awkward silence, you gesture towards the table. “So, what’s that you’re working on? That’s a lot of moving parts you got there.”

Her eyes remain steadfast on the array of components and parts, brow furrowed in intense concentration. But Gully doesn’t leave you hanging, even as she applies her intense gaze and a microfiber cloth to a small mirror between her fingers. “Polaroid Land SX-70. Pre-Cataclysm instant camera.”

A camera! Squinting at the parts, you can certainly envision how they might come together as a camera. Not that photography’s been lost to the Cataclysm, but the only cameras you know of are either PUEXO-mounted, Duck security cams, or salvaged digital cameras. The tech’s certainly there, and populated enough for families to have at least one group photo resting on the mantle.

“Pre-Cataclysm,” you muse, appraising the parts with an engineer’s eye. “Definitely has that retro look.”

Gully makes a non-committal grunt. “It’s a 23rd century replica of the original 1972 model. The only thing that’s new in it is the leather covers, the battery, and the film. The latter of which is really expensive.”

You believe her. In all of the Flooded World, there probably isn’t anyone outside of Babylonia producing the film her camera uses. There’s always the possibility of finding it underwater, but you know that most photographic media really doesn’t like saltwater. Electronic or otherwise.

“How’d you get it, if you don’t mind me asking?”

She pauses her ministrations, setting down the mirrors to look you straight in the eye. “You ask a lot of questions, Unami.”

It isn’t a complaint as much as it’s a statement of fact. Nothing in her eyes suggest annoyance at the back-and-forth between you. Matter of fact…quite the opposite. Gully’s noticeably more relaxed now than she had been during your first meeting. Less standoffish, too.

You shrug. “…I know a few folks who’d want their own camera.”

Gully arches an eyebrow. “Not interested in one for yourself?”

“Maybe…just to take it apart, see what makes it tick, then put it back together."

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A smile tugs at the corner of her lips. “That the engineer in you talking? Dis-and-re-assemble?”

“Bit of Column A and B,” you readily admit. “Figure that I could add it to the list of things I can repair on the side.”


“Side hustle. I used to run a shop out of my berth on the Duck, repairing odd ends and knick-knacks from dozens of roughnecks. The kind of stuff that wouldn’t be approved to send to the maintenance platform.”

She gives you an odd look. “On top of being a PUEXO pilot?”

When you literally make however many ducats just by being on retainer?

Someone in the know or scuttlebutt about your unique position must’ve reached her, because the impassive façade on her face cracks for the briefest second. “Oh, shit…sorry.”

“Nah, it’s…alright,” you say, then segue to change the topic, “But the money does help. Pays for lunch and small amenities, pocket-change and day-to-day living expenses. Plus, I got really good at fixing odd ends and knick-knacks.”

By the time you finish, Gully doesn’t have her foot in her mouth anymore. Her expression is once more schooled into a cool, mild indifference. Albeit blemished with a downward gaze to the camera parts. “I only learned how to service it because no-one else knows how to do it.”

“Well, you could show me,” you easily offer, “Then there’d be two who know how to service it.”

Your fellow pilot gives you a, as if searching for some scheme. There is one you have in mind, but only insofar as Gully paying you to service the camera. And only if she was unable to fix it. But she seems to settle on the idea that you have no nefarious angles at learning about the Polaroid. Gully breathes, exhaling as she raps the metal casing with a sharp knuckle.

“The Polaroid was a gift from the…from my father,” she says quietly, correcting herself at the last moment. “He gave it to me when I was little, and said that he pulled it up from a shipwreck near the Andean Freehold. Along with enough film to get me started.”

Ah. So there’s a sentimental value attached to it. And there goes any significant chances of finding another camera like hers in the Babylonia market places. A damned shame, but you can’t really do anything about it.

But in the face of Gully’s statement, you don’t really know what to say. Then, “…you must’ve taken a lot of good photos over the years.”

Her expression tightens into something indeterminate, less aloof and self-certain, before relaxing. “They wouldn’t get into NatGeo or Variety. Just…pictures of whatever I find interesting.” She pauses, and that elusive smile pulls at the corner of her lips. “Maybe after the expedition, I’ll show you what's in the album.”

Now your interest is definitely piqued. What could this unreadable young woman find interesting?

“Oh, and one more thing,” she adds, frowning, “The film for the Polaroid?"

You nod. "Yeah? What about it?"

>you a,
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Your fellow pilot gives you a thorough looking-over, as if searching for some scheme.

Whoops, that's my bad. Bloody copy and paste.

Yeah, no I get that. I actually have an outline for all the Acts. The updates after that bridge one will definitely flow faster.
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Her lips pull back in a nervous grimace. “There’s a chemist in the middle district who managed to rediscover how to make and process raw film. But the cost for custom packs for my camera…eh, it’s beyond most peoples’ budgets. Even with more SX-70s on the market.”

“Oh, crap. How much?”

“You and I could easily afford it,” she begins, “But for the rest of the ship’s compliment…”

Had you been drinking anything, the number she gives you would have caused you to choke. “Jesus Christ!”

“Yeah, it’s…an expensive hobby,” admits Gully with a wince. “But I get a good deal. Two packs of thirty sets me for most of the year. I’m…picky with what I choose to photograph.”

One would hope, at the highway robbery that chemist is charging her.

But the talk for cost falls to the wayside as she once again resumes cleaning her camera. She doesn’t get too far before she pauses, looking at you. “Didn’t you want to know about the Polaroid?”

You blink, taken aback before the words reach your brain. And with a smile, you agree. “Yeah, I do.”

“Come on over, then,” she says, patting the cushion adjacent to her. “Let’s see if we can’t add camera technician to your resume.”

You do so, easing into the leather with an eager smile. “Challenge accepted.”

“Mmhmmm. If you break anything, I'll kill you,” declares Gully with that same straightforward expression.

You laugh nervously. “Dully noted.”

“By the way, the book that you brought in…”

“Oh, it’s a Charles Dickens novel. Tale of Two Cities. Classic pre, pre-Cataclysm literature.”

“…who’s Charles Dickens?”

…hoo boy.

…turns out that outside of PUEXO piloting, there’s things that neither of you are that well-versed in.

>…you spend the rest of the late afternoon and evening with Gully in the pilot common room.
>…together, you learn from her how to service a Polaroid instant camera, and in turn regale her about the literary genius that is Charles Dickens.

>>The following morning…
>>Day 3 of Salvage Expedition to [???]

You yawn, stretching the cricks and cracks out of your neck, back and spine. “Another day, another…fucking hell.”

Your reflection in the mirror echoes that sentiment. Morosely, you run through the motions of freshening up. The “toothpaste” isn’t even the real deal, a lathery combination of seashells and soda-ash, mixed in a little tureen of fluoride.

“How many more days?” you bemoan as you shuffle out the door.

>For the sake of expedition, I will narrow the choice to workstations you haven’t done yet.
>After which, I will give you options to spend time with a heroine of your choice: Gully, Holt or [???].

>>Where do you wish to work for today? [Choose one]
>Galley/Mess. The soul of the ship, where her crew comes to eat and relax.
>Security Detail. The contingent of marines who keep the ship safe and secure.

>>Galley/Mess. The soul of the ship, where her crew comes to eat and relax.
>>Security Detail. The contingent of marines who keep the ship safe and secure.
>Security Detail. The contingent of marines who keep the ship safe and secure.
>…together, you learn from her how to service a Polaroid instant camera, and in turn regale her about the literary genius that is Charles Dickens.

Security Detail. The contingent of marines who keep the ship safe and secure.
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Security of the ship lies in the capable hands of one Sergeant Kwan, a fairly gruff and humorless man with Asiatic features. He couldn’t have been older than you, but he has one of those ageless faces. A face that happens to be permanently stuck in a severe expression. As far as you know, he could either be in his late twenties or early forties.

“Sinleq Unami.” He says your name with a slight Linao accent as he looks you up and down. Seated in his office, you’re given the full degree upon coming in for work. “Do you have any prior military experience? Any combat training whatsoever?”

You think momentarily about bringing up your brawl with Pierce, then elect to forego that in lieu of something less…reckless. “Basic pilot and diver physical conditioning. And on the Duck, we used to drill every two weeks. Raiders were prolific around that part of the New Atlantic.”

Kwan nods, humming his approval. “Any experience with firearms?”

“M1911, standard-issue service pistol to PUEXO pilots. And my Magellan’s harpoon gun, but it isn’t handy.”

“Indeed. Do you have your pistol with you?”

You shake your head. “It’s in a lockbox in my berth. I only take it out when I’m in the cockpit. Didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea.”

He frowns, a pensive expression creasing his features. Then, he reaches for a slip of paper, and scribbles something on it. “Take this with you, and go get your pistol. If anyone stops you, show them this. As long as you’re working with security, you have my permission to carry your service weapon outside of the cockpit. Do not give me a reason to revoke this.”

You accept the slip with all due gravitas. “Of course.”

Kwan seems to accept that. “How much protection does your NERVlink suit give you?”

“…not much,” you admit. “It’s more like a reinforced diving suit. Might stop a knife, but I haven’t heard anything about blocking bullets.”

“Very well. When you come back, we’ll have a vest waiting for you.”

How…oddly acquiescing. You doubt that anyone else would be getting this kind of treatment in your place. Maybe it’s a pilot thing? For a security chief, Kwan seems to be…too accepting? Straightforward?

But on cue, the sergeant intones, “Commander Geary took the liberty of giving me your file.”

Ah. There it is.

His eyes are dark pits that hide steel. “All evidence points for you to not do anything that could jeopardize the safety of the Calypso. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite given your...particular incentive.”

Oh, for Pete’s sake. You already got this from Elishani and Geary. And before that, from McGuire on the Duck.

“Are you going somewhere with this?” you ask, only somewhat annoyed.

Something flashes in Kwan’s eyes. “Only that any and all threats to the wellbeing of this ship and her crew will be put down with extreme prejudice.”

Do not give me a reason to fuck you up, is what you read between the lines. And do the same to others now that you’re working with us.

On the one hand, he’s got a point to being ornery. The threat of pirates is a very real thing, and more than one Babylonian ship’s been compromised from agents in deep cover. Those were the worst kinds of raids, preying on cargo haulers and merchantmen carrying technological goods from the island to all corners of the Flooded World.

On the other hand, Sergeant Kwan could really take the stick out of his ass. But you have a feeling that it'd just be another weapon in his arsenal.

True to form, they do indeed have the vests waiting for you to try upon returning from your berth. You fit easily enough into a “large” sized uniform without too much trouble, and barely stagger beneath the weight of the ceramic plates on your front and back. In addition, you’re also given a nightstick to compliment your pistol, and a shortwave radio that feeds directly into your ear.

“Test, test,” you mutter into the mic, “Testing, one-two-three.”

Jenkins, one of the privates accompanying your patrol, gives you a thumbs-up. “Reading you loud and clear!”

“Ready whenever you are,” adds Halloway, the second of your four-man patrol group.

Kwan grunts, holstering a wicked-looking knife at his side. “We’ve got the lower decks today. Don’t expect anything too exciting, but always be prepared.”

“Always vigilant,” the two marines chime a singsong motto, to which the sergeant rolls his eyes.

The onboard marine compliment comprises around two dozen, including Kwan himself. Small, but more than enough for a ship of the Calypso’s size. There are twelve marines on patrol at any given moment, six or eight for the evening shift or when running a skeleton crew. They work in eight-hour rotation shifts, no different than the deckhands or seamen, but can be called to general quarters at a moment’s notice.

Following a quick breakfast, your team spends the next few hours patrolling around the lower decks. Jenkins takes point, followed by you and Halloway, with Kwan bringing up the rear. And true to form, the sergeant is right – there’s very little to do beyond looking pretty (stern), chatting with both on and off-duty workers, or otherwise keeping a general eye on things.

More than one person double-takes at your passing, as if unused to seeing you in the uniform and vest of the Calypso marine compliment. And to be fair, you’d do the same. The vest fits well enough, but the extra weight of the nightstick and the ceramic plates prove to be a stark difference to the relatively lightweight kit of a PUEXO pilot. Strange, but not uncomfortable. Perhaps you might get used to it after repeated jobs with Kwan.

The engines hum rhythmically, filling the lower decks with their deep, bass lulling. Four chug merrily along under the watchful eye of engineers and marines, and fed steam produced by two large nuclear reactors. Those, you give a wide berth, even with assurances from both the marines and the staff that they’re contained. The latest in Babylonia’s scientific advances and rediscoveries.

Not quite close to the miniature fusion cores that power your PUEXO, but getting closer to those pre-Cataclysm technologies. Hence, the addition of a fuel tank. Even if you don’t see it, you can smell the strong stench of diesel throughout the fore-and-aft engine rooms. Hybrids, perhaps? Or backups in case the reactors go offline.

A fascinating question that you’ll have to ask someone later-

“Wait a moment.” You tap Jenkins on the shoulder.

The patrol stops halfway through the hallway. The lower decks are mostly empty, with most of the engineers off to lunch. Towards the bow of the ship, there’s a place a third from the front where the crew berths meet the fire rooms. Right now, it’s just you and Jenkins. Kwan took Halloway to keep an eye on things sternward.

“Something wrong?” the private asks.

“Is that door supposed to be open?”

He frowns. “Which one?”

“That one,” you say, pointing to an ajar bulkhead door that reads:


Jenkin’s face goes from bored to concerned in an instant. “No…it isn’t.”

The gun on your hip doesn’t feel any heavier, but you do rest your hand on the butt of your borrowed nightstick. “I’ll just go close it, then…”

The noise is faint, barely audible over the noise of the ship: the humming of the engines, the waves that slap against the outer hull, and the sound of your own breath and steps echoing off the metal surfaces. But it’s there, hidden just barely within the cacophony, a scream.


From the way the blood drains out of his face, Jenkins had heard it, too. Both of you draw your weapons, even as Jenkins grabs the radio on his vest. “Jenkins to Sergeant Kwan. Unami and I are investigating a disturbance in the emergency reactor control room.”

The muffled squelch that comes back sounds like an order to wait for reinforcements. But even you know that it’ll take Kwan and Halloway two minutes to sprint across the deck, through all the bulkheads and twisting corridors of the lower deck. Two minutes for anything to happen.

“I'm on point," the private whispers.

“Jump on three, not after,” you mutter back, thumbing the safety off your pistol.

“Right, right. On three, then. One, two…three!”

Jenkins’ rank belies his training. The marine enters, sweeping the room with his rifle. A well-rehearsed and drilled movement. Comparatively, you almost stumble in after him. If there had been anything like this on the Duck, it had been a long time since you’d done it.

The emergency control room is empty, all but for two people: a woman in an orange-yellow engineer’s jumpsuit, and a man in the fatigues of a CIC operator. The engineer has her back against an analog workstation, arms and legs wrapped around the operator. It’s nothing short of God’s mercy that they still have their clothes on. Not that they would’ve had them for long, you note with disgust, at the current rate they’re going.

“Sinleq…we’re getting married. Caroline and I. You’re the first one we’re telling, and…I’d like for you to be my best man.”

On the one hand, this looks consensual. But that’s the only silver lining in the world of shit these two are about to be in.

Leveling his gun, Jenkins shouts, “Hands up, now!”

One of them screams. You aren’t sure who, but they move fast, separating quickly to comply with the order. Maybe it’s a holdover from training, but engineer moves faster, shouting, “Friendlies! We’re friendlies!”

Her partner looks stupidly at your guns, caught with a deer-in-headlights expression. Not that you’d ever seen a deer, but it’s something Larkin often said about vacant-minded rooks and greenhorns.

Your battle-buddy doesn’t relent. “Both of you, name and rank!”

They’re given hastily. Sonar Technician Rory Toone, CIC bridge bunny. Crewman Specialist Tammie Martinez, nuclear technician.

“Anyone else here with you?”

“No, sir!”

Jenkins frowns. “Martinez, I know you’ve got clearance to be here. How about you, Toone? You have any?”

“…no, sir,” he replies in a barely audible voice.

“Thought so.”

But before you can continue, the heavy footsteps of Kwan and Halloway draw closer. The marines burst into the room, guns drawn. Or in Kwan’s case, nightstick and knife at the ready. Christ.

“What the hell’s going on here?!” the sergeant demands. “Report!”

Jenkins does so. When he’s finished, you give your report as well. It’s a near match for his, but Kwan demands it anyway, and listens just as carefully. Then, with an utterly unamused expression, turns to the lovebirds with every intent to put the fear of God into them. Judging from how pale they are, it seems to be working. Even as they give their own shaky answers as to why they’re down here.

It isn’t too hard to put together. Martinez and Toone had been fraternizing. Not necessarily a crime, but one that should be best left to off-hours. With the rest of the crew out to lunch, she thought it a good idea to invite her beau over for some alone to make the shift go faster. The difference in their ranks is negligible, and they confirm that this is indeed a consensual affair.

Not that it seems to make Kwan any less angry. Who approaches them, and speaks in a menacing tone: “Is this a cover-up for anything else? Are you working with foreign powers? Do you have orders to destabilize and sabotage Babylonia by the destruction of this salvage trawler?”

They both shake their heads furiously, replying with horrified denials. “No!/Absolutely not!”

You’ve seen enough spooked and reprimanded men and women to know that they’re telling the truth. This is hanky-panky, not a nefarious plot by rogue elements. Her jumpsuit’s nearly unzipped all the way. His hair’s messy, like someone ran their hands through it. They weren’t anywhere near the controls when you burst in, or at least had the wherewithal to not get freaky on sensitive equipment.

“Regardless, this is too serious to overlook.” Kwan gives them both a deadly glare. “The captain will be hearing about this, and you’ll be confined to the brig-”

They both pale. But surprisingly, Toone beats Martinez to the punch in pleading with the sergeant. “Sir, we weren’t doing anything like that! I just wanted alone time with Tammie. That’s all!”

He might not have been a saboteur, but letting someone in a restricted, critical area like reactor control is a bad security violation.

“Even if that’s true,” continues Kwan, ignoring Toone to point at Martinez, “That means you weren’t paying attention. You’re supposed to keep an eye on the gauges and monitor for any fluctuations in the cores. What would’ve happened if there was a meltdown while your tongue was down his throat?”

She doesn’t say anything, looking down and utterly ashamed of meeting the sergeant’s eyes. Not that he’s done giving them as severe a tongue-lashing as you’d ever seen. But if McGuire is the fiery hot-head, then Sergeant Kwan’s temper burns a cold, frigid fury.

“There are over two hundred souls aboard this ship. Two-hundred forty-seven, to be precise. Are their lives worth ten minutes of fooling around?” He pauses for a beat. “Answer me, crewman.”

“…no, sir,” she whispers.

Kwan regards the pair with a disgusted expression, then turns to you. “Unami, you were the one who found them out. I’ll let you decide their fate.”

Everyone seems taken aback. Both the guilty party, as well as the security officers. But no-one’s more surprised than you. “Are you sure?”

He nods.

…hmmm. That makes enough sense. Considering the fact that in the unlikely event that the reactor went critical, and killed everyone…well, you’d be ash on the wind. And particulates to feed the plankton.

But for Martinez and Toon…their careers would be severely impacted. Not unrecoverable, but that kind of mark on their records isn’t so easily erased. Even if it doesn’t get them off the ship or mustered out of the Guild…years of work down the drain for one stupid flight of fancy.

“The treatment only continues so long as the flow of money isn’t interrupted. But you’ve always been good for it, Sinleq. Quite admirable of you."

>>What do you recommend that Kwan should do?
>Clap them in irons and formally arraign them.
>Let them off with a very stern warning.

>Let them off with a very stern warning.
>Let them off with a very stern warning.
>>Clap them in irons and formally arraign them.
>Let them off with a very stern warning.
This is a test and the binary answer won't do. The mark of any respectable police or equivalent is discretion and a firm but fair hand. This is goofing off but not a crime.

Nuclear engineers don't just grow on trees irl, let alone in this setting. If he gets marched off to the brig over seven minutes in heaven, who's going to do his job, especially if something goes wrong while he's in the brig? Assuming we have a backup guy to man the station, that guy has to pull extra shifts and potentially have to be in worse sorts. Not good. And is the security team fascists or there to keep the ship safe?

Since this is a quasi-military ship with those kinds of rules set in place, you set them to some of the most bullshit tasks and extra duties while they simultaneously can still carry out their regular duties.

Place it with emphasis on irony: have them study and teach seminars about good security practices, the risks of fraternization, and complacency on duty. Have them study and teach these things in their off time. If they're so bored on shift they can study then too. It'll be total bullshit but also totally fair: it saves them face, keeps them at their jobs, keeps the roster on schedule, won't go on record and they'll never want to schedule hanky panky during the work day again. If that's not enough give them latrine duty for a month or so.
>Clap them in irons and formally arraign them.
>Let them off with a very stern warning.

“…I hope that even after all this…that there wouldn’t be any hard feelings between all of us.”

“…I know what it’s like to be head over heels for someone,” you mutter, exhaling warily as you stare Toone and Martinez. “But there’s a time and a place for that. And those certainly don’t include an active work shift, or a nuclear control room.”

They don’t answer. Matter of fact, they don’t look like they’re even breathing. The lovers know that their fate is in the palm of your hand, a stranger to the inner workings of the Calypso. And that terrifies them quiet understandably that adjudication could go either way.

But they have nothing to fear. Maybe it’s because you’re feeling sentimental, or you want as little disruption to your job as possible. Getting the captain involved just sounds like too much of a pain in the ass. Not to mention that throwing them in the brig would lead to the loss of efficiency and others pulling double-shifts.

“I’m here to make money,” you intone, “And I don’t like when someone threatens the flow of it. Don’t let me catch you doing this again, because I might not be so forgiving next time. Or, Sergeant Kwan. Because two times is dangerously approaching enemy action.”

It doesn’t hit them right away. But Martinez catches onto it first, sagging in obvious relief against Toone. “Oh…o-of course, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Right, yeah…” her lover echoes, similarly grateful. “Th-thank you, sir. P-promise it won’t happen again.”

…with Sloan, it felt natural for him to call you ‘sir’. He’s a fresh-faced cadet on his first outing to sea. But coming from them, it feels weird.

Out of the corner of your eye, you assess the marines. Jenkins looks almost relieved. Halloway, casually indifferent. But once more, Kwan’s expression is hard, severe and utterly unreadable.

You jerk your thumb out the door. “Get back to work. Both of you. Toone, you better skedaddle back to CIC before lunch break ends. Now git.”

He doesn’t need to be told twice. But you’re almost impressed at his guts when he plants a quick kiss to Martinez’s lips, before scurrying out of the room, and running to CIC. Martinez takes all of five seconds to look stunned, then turn an interesting red-white combination from the looks she gets from the marines. To which she responds by turning her back to you and pouring over the gauges and controls with machine-like accuracy.

Kwan signals for everyone to file out of the control room, shutting the door behind him with little fanfare. The four-man patrol remains silent for a good moment as everyone puts a significant distance between yourselves and the flustered technician.

“How mercenary of you,” notes the sergeant, “That speech of yours.”

You don’t answer Kawan immediately, taking a few moments to compose your thoughts. “It made the most sense. They aren’t repeat offenders. From how jumpy they were, it was the first time they’d gotten caught. I dunno about Toone, but Martinez belongs at her station, not the brig. Wouldn’t be helpful to the salvage effort to lose a nuclear technician.”

“One can only hope, then,” he counters, “That she doesn’t use this knowledge of her worth to continually break rules and regs. Because her MOS as a nuclear technician makes her a near-irreplaceable part of the engineering crew.”

Jenkins opines, “Seems to have stuck though, sarge. Scaring the piss out of them. Between you and Unami, they’d prolly get nightmares about the reactor room.”

“They’d better,” mutters Halloway. “I’d hate to die just because someone was getting some.”

A sentiment you can readily agree with.

Kwan rolls his eyes. “Alright, cut the chatter. We’ve got a patrol to finish. Let’s reconnoiter above deck for a few minutes of fresh air…”

The rest of your shift goes quickly enough. After the excitement of the midday’s encounter, everything feels mind-numbingly droll in comparison. If nothing else, you can say that going up and down the stairs in marine armor makes for a good calorie burner.

Come the end of the day at sundown, you return your borrowed weapons, and shake Kwan’s hand. The man’s a definitive hardass, but he seems to have his heart in the right place. Which means one less thing for you to worry about prior to actually diving.

“Incidents like those aren’t common,” he says, just as Jenkins and Halloway follow their peers to the mess hall. “I’d hate for you to walk away that every shift has that much…excitement.”

You shake your head. “No, of course not. It’s good for security to be vigilant and idle.”

Because an idle security guard means that he or she isn’t busy fighting or containing a threat.

But in any event, you think you part on good enough terms with Kwan. He didn’t seem to disapprove, or otherwise take umbrage with the verdict you handed Toone and Martinez. But you do recall him writing their names down in a pocketbook. And it’s a suckers bet that even if he won’t report them, he’d keep a hawk’s eye behind over their shoulders.

Still, none of your business. Unless it fucks with your paycheck.

One dinner and a shower finds you free for the rest of the evening. And from what you heard of scuttlebutt, the salvage site is fast approaching. At the very least, two more days, weather permitting.

Plenty of time for you to otherwise find something to do, work-related or otherwise.

>>Choose an option to end the day:
>Grab some fresh air on the deck and…?
>Hang out with Gully in the pilot common room.
>See what Chief Holt’s up to in her free time.

>Grab some fresh air on the deck and…?
>Grab some fresh air on the deck and…?
Should've put the on toilet duty.
>>Grab some fresh air on the deck and…?
>>Grab some fresh air on the deck and…?

The skies of the New Atlantic are mostly overcast, with the faintest sliver of moonlight peeking through gaps in the clouds. Waves lap at the hull of the Calypso, sucking at the hull as the trawler makes steady her course at 14.2 knots. Not her fastest, but definitely a good constant speed that could adapt to an unpredictable ocean.

A skeleton crew mans the night shift, that nebulous eight-hour period between dawn and dusk. The decks themselves are almost entirely abandoned, populated only by a scant, combined number of deckhands and marine security. Mostly to make sure that the cranes, gimbals and heavy-lifters stay secure and fast whenever they aren’t in use.

No one makes a fuss as you take a late-night stroll along the forward deck. They seem to know who you are, even if you hadn’t actually met them one-on-one, or via formal assembly. A combination of scuttlebutt and your pilot’s jumpsuit seem to work wonders at people leaving you to your own discretion.

Tonight is no different than any other slow evening on the Duck. The only difference is that the oil rig was largely stationary, barring rough swells and anomalous waves. Leaning against the railing, and staring off at some distant point on the horizon, you indulge in the simple pleasure of isolation. And let your mind meander to other things…

“…Sinleq Unami, was it? Sorry if I mispronounced that. I’m Jean Barnet. Looks like we’ll be rooming together for year one.”

…now that had been almost a lifetime ago. Two fresh-faced teenage youths, hopeful applicants to engineering school. Daring dreamers who aspired to become a part of Babylonia’s elite PUEXO program. Maybe a bit of vainglory, and the teenage aspiration of a girl on each arm. The modern-day heroes of the Flooded World.

“My granddad had a story of his Uncle Joe, who had himself a fancy-schmancy cybernetic arm. A bonafide Swiss Army Knife of a limb. Thing damn near killed him when the sun blew up, and fried half his nerves…”

…you were always interested in the finer points of mechanical engineering. Grounded and practical, but you’d never be short of work. He dreamed of one day resurrecting cybernetics and prosthetic limbs, in a post-Cataclysm world. He

“I’m thinking…if we don’t get in…we’ll open up a shop along Dockside…we’ll call it the B&U Cybershop…maybe spend a few years on an oil rig to get that sweet, sweet startup money…”

…one of you did get in. But the other one didn’t.

It was something that Jean had never really gotten over. Happy as he had been for you, and it had been genuine. But there are honestly times when you lie on your cot, and wonder if that had any weight on what he ended up doing next…

“Alright, Miss Godwin, I think that’s just about done. Give the academy a ring if your AC starts acting up again.”

The faintest scent of rosemary wafts off her clothing, a holdover from whatever’s boiling on the pot. Her eyes are bright, but her smile is brighter, catching the overhead light at just the right angle to bring out the best of both. She is beautiful, but not the kind of beauty to be found in a temple of Ishtar, or along some Andean Freehold runway.

A homely woman that a man could spend the rest of his life with.

“You’ve both been here enough times to just call me ‘Caroline’. And, I insist that both of you stay for dinner. Long enough to be that the unit’s really working…”

The pungent scent of nicotine draws you out of Caroline’s kitchen, away from bittersweet revere and the errors of youth. The taste of her potato stew cedes to salt, brine and a deep flavor of smoke, as you turn your gaze away from the sea, and back onto the deck of the Calypso. It seems that on the fore deck, you aren’t the only visitor out for a moonlight stroll.

The newcomer…you aren’t quite sure what to make of her. A thick pair of glasses rests on her nose, partially obscured by a shoulder-length cascade of orange-red hair that disappears in her hoodie. From the lit end of her cigarette, you can distinguish a frown. She’s a pale, small woman, and you don’t think that she’d reach your shoulders even with heels.

Above your heads, the moonlight passes through just quickly enough, and you swear that running down her neck, is a series of angry burns, or violent scar tissue. But the sight ends, and the moon is hidden once more. And the newcomer moves too quickly for you to get a second, closer look lock.

“Who the hell are you?” she bluntly intones, drawling around the cigarette between her teeth. Her voice is colored with a Nordling accent. Sharp r’s and p’s. “You’ve got a brass pair to be here.”

“…I’d ask the same question,” you counter, somewhere between perplexed and bemused.

Her frown turns into a scowl. “Yer in my spot, dickhead. Bowspirit and flying deck are mine at nights by captain’s decree.”

Really? First time you heard about it. You make a mental note to grill Geary for other surprises that would’ve been really helpful to get on the first day. “I wasn’t aware.”

“Oh, you weren’t aware, really?” she drawls, utterly unbelieving. “Wait, lemme guess. Someone put you up to it to figure out who was on the radio? No, wait. I got it. Nobody told you.”

“Yes,” you say, and that seems to actually catch her off-guard. “No one told me.”

She’s stunned, and takes a longer drag of her cigarette. “Wait, really?”

“Yeah, really,” you echo back. “I’m a recent hire.”

She squints up at you, frowning. Then sighs, and reaches for your collar. “Get down here so I can see your face better, dickhead. You better not be lying.”

Frowning, you retort. "Do I look like a liar?"

"I dunno. I guess we'll find out soon enough."

Anyone else, and you would’ve punched their lights out for touching the NERVlink suit. But your mother raised a gentleman, so you merely acquiesce to her rather brusque request. All the while planning to have words with either Geary or Elishani about proper ship boarding etiquette.

Through her glasses, she squints, frowning and rolling the cigarette in her mouth as she inspects your face. You try not to wrinkle your nose too much at the strong odor of tobacco, unwashed clothing and the cloying, heady smell of fish oil.
But it seems that you pass her inspection. Or that you’ve confirmed yourself to not be a liar. The realization causes her face to slacken, and her mouth to drop. Not nearly enough for the cigarette to fall out, though. That, she deftly catches between her teeth and tongue.

“Oh thit.” Coughing, she releases you, working the cancer stick back into its proper place. “Huh. Guess you were telling the truth after all.”

That she’s dropped the nickname is a good sign. Even if her attitude is, in her own words, brassy and abrasive. Somehow, she makes both Holt and Gully (but more Gully, you think idly) come off as high society socialites.

“They didn’t tell you about me?” you ask, “The second pilot for the expedition?”

She shrugs. “I mean, they did. But fuck if I knew what you looked like. Sinleq, uh…Unemi, Uname, Unami? Just said to keep an eye out for an tall old guy in his late thirties, looking lost and wandering around in a NERVlink suit.”

“Unami,” you sternly correct her, only slightly offended at the ascription. Thirty-six, closing in on thirty-seven, is not old. “And you are?”

She takes the cigarette out of her mouth, and shoots you an irreverent salute with the same hand. “Communications Officer Tabitha Aalto. Out here to enjoy a smoke now that my shift’s over. Want one?”

A comms officer? Huh. Elishani must’ve really had a good reason to pick her out for his crew. Because the image of the stern captain doesn’t match with the impertinent young woman before you.

But you politely refuse. It would be irresponsible for an industrial diver to pick up a smoking habit. “Thank, but no. Pilots aren’t supposed to.”

“Well, who’s keeping score? I won’t rat your ass out to whoever it is runs your guild.”

The PUEXO Program is funded and organized by the government at large, and overseen by a board of directors, veterans and semi-retired pilots. Regular physical examinations and performance tests keep the standards of pilots high. And smoking was a big red flag on their checklist.

At your second gentle, but firm refusal, she gives up. “Suit yourself, jumbo.” Ashing the cigarette with the heel of her boots, she pulls out a carton, and pops a fresh one into her mouth. “Oh, but you’re still standing in my spot. I really do have exclusivity rights to the bow and flying bridge. So...if you could just be on your way if you ain't gonna smoke...”

You frown. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“No,” Aalto says bluntly, fishing through her pockets. “I’ve got this permit here…where the fuck did I put it…?”
“…there’s plenty of space at the bow for more than two people,” you point out.

“Yeah, but you and I are here to brood. Don’t bullshit me, I see that face in the mirror enough. And it just really doesn’t have the same effect when you’re brooding with someone else. Y’know?”

…you hate how she isn’t necessarily wrong.

Suddenly, her eyes light up. “Ah, found it…dammit…”

Excitement turns into disappointment when the slip of paper in her hands is a half-crumpled gum wrapper. That she quickly tosses over the side. It catches the wind, taking flight to disappear into the evening as a fluttering shadow in the ocean breeze.

“…prolly left the thing in my other pair of pants,” Aalto mutters angrily. “Fuck…although, come to think about it…”

Rolling your eyes, you decide to humor her. “Yes?”

She gestures towards the pilot house. “If you want, you can have the flying bridge to brood. I’ll take the bow spirit. Or vice versa if I decide to claim the other one first.”

There’s a throbbing in your head that signifies the oncoming of a headache. “…how magnanimous of you.”

The lit end of her cigarette outlines a crooked grin in the shadows of her hoodie. “I know, right? I ain’t a complete dickhead. Shit, jumbo, I’ll even keep that cigarette out for you if you decide to change your mind.”

…it seems that Captain Elishani has assembled a very interesting crew. Not quite “misfits” since they do their jobs well enough. Eccentric, definitely. But that’s with Aalto notwithstanding, since you haven’t seen her work at all…

“Aalato,” you mutter.

“Aalato here. What’s your status, Unami?”

Oh, definitely a radio operator with that tone of voice.

“So where is it that you work, exactly?”

For the first time in this oddball interaction, she seems uncertain for how to respond. Then, with a heavy sigh, gestures towards the pilot house. “Comms suite is down the stairs from the bridge, and a hallway away. Just a floor above CIC. Hard to miss. How about you? Where do you work?”

…Lord, give me strength…

When you don’t answer, she continues, “Don’t expect to come out during the day, though. Not unless it’s overcast, and even then…”

Curious, you venture: “How come?”

The smile on her face is…less than pleasant. “I’ll put it this way, jumbo. I get really bad sunburn. Lobster red. Absolutely awful. I’d die of embarrassment. Gotta stay cooped up in both a hoodie and my steel cubicle, and I can't work outside. I'd show you the permit, but I think that's in my other pair of pants.”

It’s the truth. But you get the distinct feeling that she’s…almost morbidly glib with that description. Underselling whatever she's got with a dark joke.

Something to investigate when you have less of a headache.

“Say, by the way…” she asks pointedly, “Are you berthing with Gully, or is that just baseless scuttlebutt? ‘cause, don’t tell Skipper, but there’s an ongoing bet that I’m ten ducats in for.”

…don’t take the cigarette, don’t take the cigarette, don’t take the cigarette…

…and so passes your evening with Comms Officer Tabitha Aalto.

>>To expedite the quest, we will be foregoing the Galley/Mess Hall option, conclude Act 1 and leap into Act 2.
>>However, I will leave you with the opportunity to spend time with the heroines for the two days left on the voyage.
>>After this vote, you will arrive at the destination, and begin the salvage mission.

>>At the end of the second-to-last-day, what did you do?
>Hang out with Gully in the pilot common room.
>See what Chief Holt gets up to in her free time.
>Pass an interesting time with Aalto on the deck.

>>At the end of the last day of your voyage, what did you do?
>Hang out with Gully in the pilot common room.
>See what Chief Holt gets up to in her free time.
>Pass an interesting time with Aalto on the deck.

>>Please structure your votes as the following:
>First choice.
>Second choice.

>Pass an interesting time with Aalto on the deck.
See what Chief Holt gets up to in her free time.
>Hang out with Gully in the pilot common room.
>See what Chief Holt gets up to in her free time.
>>See what Chief Holt gets up to in her free time.
>Hang out with Gully in the pilot common room.
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>>You spend time with Chief Holt…

“Unami!” Holt waves from across the room. “C’mon over here!”

The chief and a good portion of the PUEXMech crew have commandeered a handful of tables close towards the aircon. Best seats in the house. Matter of fact, you heard them even before you entered the galley. They aren’t nearly as loud as the roughnecks on the Duck, but they’re up there with how many they manage to cram at the table.

They’ve shed their belts and braces, undone their jumpshits and tied their sleeves across their waists. T-shirts and sleeveless tops reveal an impressive collection of ink, with about one in every three or four spotting tats of all shapes and sizes. Between bites of their meals, they joke and laugh, snipe and gripe.

The simple enjoyment of a hard day’s work.

At the chief’s orders, a hole is cleared for you to enter. Nodding to a handful of familiar faces from the PUEXO bay, you settle in at her left side, and join the deckhands in some well-earned R&R. Promptly, you discover that the cafeteria culture between roughneck and deckhand is not entirely dissimilar from one another. Both seem to share in largely griping, joking, or playfully swatting at each other.

You fit nearly seamlessly into their clique, even if you answer in monosyllabic grunts or a few short words. The initial curiosity of your first meeting hasn’t quite worn off yet, but the crew seems to know better than to ask insensitive questions. Holt, for all her digging into a plate of fish with gusto, keeps a sharp eye on her subordinates.

Not that the exchange is so one-sided in your direction. In between bites of chicken and sips of scurvy-be-gone, the deckhands share a little about themselves.

There’s an even divide between those who signed on for prosaic and romantic reasons. Your fellow citizens of Babylnoia seem to lean towards the former. Once Carter finished his apprenticeship, he co-signed onto the Salvage Guild to pay them back for sponsoring his journeyman exam. Kiril had joined the navy after scoring high for it on the Mandatory Citizen’s Aptitude Test (MCAT). Mehra was an old friend of Captain Elishani, and came out of retirement for one last expedition.

The foreigners have more fantastic stories. Nasazi had left a young woman in the Galapagan Commonwealth with a swollen belly and an angry father. Sabine had run away from home, seeking an adventure beyond the Nordling Realms. The Andean Darius said that he woke up with a hangover in an immigration hauler bound for Babylonia.

But for all her outgoing and easy nature, Chief Holt is far more restrained than her subordinates. She mentions nearly as much as you do, sharing a common upbringing in Foggy Bottom. The firstborn daughter of a boat mechanic and a literal bread-maker, she knew from a young age that she was born to tinker. She has no grand dreams of rediscovering cybernetics or putting mankind back into space.

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“A shipyard,” she says, when pressed for an answer, and it’s one given with a dreamy, wistful smile. “That’s what I’m savin’ up for. My own shipyard. So unless the sun decides to explode again…”

Everyone at the table raps their knuckles sharply against the wood.

“…people are always gonna be needin’ boats, and boat services. Job security, yeah?” she finishes with a grin.

…no, you can’t argue with that logic. The Cataclysm had certainly put things into perspective, as well as redefining wholesale the term of “critical workers”. You yourself are no exception to this rule.

But once dinner ends, trays and plates are cleared away. From her breast pocket, Holt produces a deck of cards.

“You’re in luck, Unami,” she says as the rest of her crew moves to shuffle around tables and chairs. “It’s game night, and we need an extra player.”

You quirk an eyebrow. “What’re we playing?”


The quirk becomes a frown. “…sounds risky.”

Holt rolls her eyes. “If we were playin’ for money, it would be. But we ain’t. Seen firsthand how things turn ugly when money’s involved.”

“…it’s too much, Sinleq! We don’t have that kind of money for both of them…”

“If not money,” you slowly begin, “Then what’s on the table?”

A blue, plastic bag is dangled in front of your eyes. The multi-colored contents within bounce with every shake. “Somethin’ far more valuable than money.”

“…a packet of fruit snacks,” you deadpan after a cautious sniff.

“Packets,” she corrects you, “And straight from a lovely lil’ candy store in Upper Garden. First bag’s free to try. But after that, you gotta get your own.”

Perhaps it’s the expectant looks, or the tone of Holt’s voice that compels you to try one. Popping a cherry-shaped candy into your mouth…actually not half bad. Good, you’d even dare to say. There’s definitely a sort of sickeningly sweet aftertaste that gets stuck in the back of your throat, but it goes away with an orange-shaped gummy.

“They’re pretty good,” you admit.

Holt grins. “Yeah, ain’t they? Way better than gamblin' for MRE’s.”

You’d beg to severely disagree. During some of the stormier seasons out on the Duck, suddenly all of the Roughnecks became food critics and spontaneously developed preferences. As well as an aversion to the dreaded onions-grown veggie burger, and the unholy abomination that was the sequenced chicken protein.

But mac and chili, meatball in marinara Sauce, maple sausage...dear God. The betting got even fiercer than folks anteing up money in underground, unsanctioned rings you absolutely know nothing about. You’d fight an entire goon squad of Pierces', Shannon’s and McDonald’s just for a day’s worth of all of ‘em. Better yet, that elusive packet of blue raspberry powder that makes scurvy-be-gone taste far more palatable.

But gambling with one’s coworkers and friends is a delicate balance of playing either casually or competitively. All the more on a naval ship, or the Duck, where tempers flare and blaze at the slightest provocation. All the worse if they’re betting their own wages. Little wonder why gambling had been severely frowned upon, if not outright banned throughout the history of soldiering.

The use of gummies instead of ducats seems to have alleviated this, however. Even if everyone looks deadly serious as Holt deals everyone in, and holds the chip marking her as the small blind. Anteing up the necessary bet as the big blind, you check your cards.

Ace of Spades and a Three of Hearts. It has potential…

>>You spend time with Gully…

“Paid by the word,” your fellow pilot mutters as she squints at the borrowed novel. “No, I can definitely believe that.”
You don’t look up from your sketch of the disassembled Polaroid. In a spare notebook, you painstakingly render out the composite parts that make up Gully’s camera, as well as a set of diagrams as how they all fit into each other. She isn’t letting you put anything together yet, but has allowed you to touch to get a better view of things.

“It was a different time,” you mutter, replacing a mirror for a gear. Each individual tooth is noted, rendered out first as a crude sketch, then a more refined design. It’s not nearly as precise as machinery or wax impressions, but it’ll get the job done. “His stuff was published in serials, and they had to pad everything out a fair bit.”

Gully hums in response. “What got you interested?”

Book club doesn’t stop even after the apocalypse. “David’s Dailies used to have two hours where they’d perform audio dramas over the radio. What started off as background noise for the chop shop turned into a side hobby.”
Her face scrunches up in a frown. “I find that hard to believe given their…current programing.”

The skepticism isn’t unwarranted. Ten years ago, a salvage team had discovered a bunker near the ruins of Orlando, two hundred meters down. After lowering a diving bell, they discovered a desiccated corpse, as well as his avid collection of musical records. “The Mummy’s Music” was the shorthand name that had been attributed to that particular haul of late 20th century music.

And ever since then, the program took…not a turn for the worse. The music’s got more good than bad, but at the risk of sounding like an elitist prick or geriatric like Larkin, it just isn’t the same as the radio dramas.

“I guess you had to have been there,” you say wistfully. “They once put on a copy of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds.”

Thankfully, there hadn't been any panic during that broadcast, unlike it's original debut.

There’s something on the tip of her tongue, and a flash of recognition in her eyes, but she politely asks, “So no one’s doing radio dramas anymore?”

You pause to think. “The Midnight Channel still puts on dramas every other evening. Not that you have to tune in at midnight. The name’s apparently an inside joke among the founders.”

“I see…” Gully tosses her hair back, pulling up an ottoman to sit at the desk. “But you mentioned Orson Welles?”

Surprised, you give her your full attention. “Yeah. How do you know him?”

All of a sudden, she seems…embarrassed? “The captain. He took me to a screening of Citizen Kane at the Upper Garden community theater when I was little. It was the first movie I’d ever seen.”

Jesus. One hell of a way to make a debut into Old World cinema. Must’ve only been downhill from there. “How’d you find it?”

“I fell asleep,” she admits sheepishly, “I only managed to catch the last hour.”

Completely understandable, given the slow pacing of the movie. “Rosebud, huh?”

Shrugging, she replies, “I’ve never been sledding. But Welles gave a good performance. Sold me on wanting my own, even though we don’t have snow for it.”

Most places in the Flooded World don’t, given the fucked climate and the shock the ozone layer suffered during the Scouring. Last time anyone checked, the polar caps are…technically there, if not severely diminished. Even the Nordling Realms only get so much ice.

But you change that line of thought before the reality of the world puts you in a depressive mood. “Photography and movies? Interesting hobbies.”

At first, she doesn’t understand the question, but she catches on quickly. “…I guess? I try to go to the community theater when I can. It isn’t often given how often the Calypso’s out at sea.”

Fair enough. And you didn’t see any projectors or TVs in the mess hall. Both are expensive, and otherwise fall into the umbrella of Old World technology. The Khanate apparently has some from a bunker out of Mount Everest, but they aren’t the most open to trade goods as much as bullets and bloodshed.

“How about you?” she asks, “You watch any movies?”

“You can’t see or feel a Delta-P situation as you dive near it. It grabs you suddenly, and it doesn’t let go until the pressure is equalized. When it’s got ya, it’s got ya!”

“Do diving safety movies count?” you dryly quip. Somehow, of all the things to survive, crappy industrial worker safety made it through the apocalypse. That poor crab…

Gully rolls her eyes, and swipes at you with an annoyed huff. “No, they don’t.”

Everyone’s a critic.

“Oh, by the way,” you say with a grin, “You don't need to be formal. Captain Elishani's your father. You can call him that around me.”

Her expression is unreadable as the idle drumming of her fingers on the table comes to an abrupt halt. “…is that so?” But before you can say anything else, she sighs. “…sure. I guess you’re right.”

…okay. That seems to be a point of contention. Though you don't know why...

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Great Expectations.”

Indifference gives way to confusion. “Hmmm?”

“Another Charles Dickens novel,” you elaborate in the hopes of getting your foot out of your mouth. “It got however many adaptations, but I saw a restored copy of the movie that had Ioan Gruffudd as Pip and-”

“Hornblower!” she suddenly interrupts with a smile.

“I…beg your pardon?”

Any trace of her prior annoyance is gone, as she energetically explains: “Gruffudd was Midshipman, Lieutenant and eventually Captain Horatio Hornblower in an old TV show. I never had a chance to read the books it was made from, but the show was wonderful to watch!”

Huh. Guess she has more emotions than deadpan, indifferent, sardonic or mildly annoyed.

It’s…endearing, to say the least.

“Sounds…okay, I’ll add it to the list,” you say, “Do you know when it’ll be shown next at the theater?”

Frustration creases her brow. “Unfortunately, no. A Terran Remnant trader brokered a deal with the curator to screen movies off his tablet to make some money while he was in harbor. I don’t know when he’ll be back. Stingy bastard would’ve charged two thousand ducats per file.”

Ah, well that’s a damned shame. Understandable, given the scarcity of electronic file formats, and you can appreciate the side hustle. But very much a dick move.

“But Great Expectations?” Gully leans in closer, pressing for answers. “What’s that one about?”

Checking your journal, you’re relatively satisfied with what you’ve drawn so far of the Polaroid. It shouldn’t take you another day to finish everything and jot down the instructions. Setting down your pen and returning the part to the table, you give Gully your full and undivided attention.

“See, there’s this kid named Pip,” you begin, “It’s not his actual name, his full name’s Philip…something. But he’s this young boy out in Kent who lives with his sister and her husband…”

Last time you checked, the Babylonia Book Club should still have a copy of Great Expectations on a preciously guarded USB stick. 32-gigabytes of all things Charles Dickens, courtesy of a member who’s grandfather ran a local library. Even if they’ll fight over all the other adaptations of Victorian literature, they’ll hold the 1999 film as the definitive hallmark of Pip and Estella’s romantic misadventures.

…maybe you could arrange for a special screening. This is the most animated you’d ever seen Gully, even if only by proxy via Ioan Gruffudd.



>>Day 6 of Expedition to [???]
>>Summer, 76 A.C.
>>Belt of Dreams, Territory of Babyloina

The Calypso’s stateroom is large enough to comfortably accommodate fifteen, maybe thirty if you get rid of the furniture and have everyone stand. But as it is, only the heads of each respective departments are here, with their aides and an escort of marines at the door.

You see more than a few familiar faces at the long table. The helmsman at the bridge, Lourde, and Sloan, who gives you a nervous wave. Holt’s reclined against the wall, one booted leg across the other, idly chatting with Kwan. And to your surprise, even Tabitha’s here, although completely covered up and as far away from the windows as possible. The surly comms officer sits with her arms crossed, impatiently waiting for the briefing to begin.

Seated with Gully, and half-vested in your NERVlink suits, you don’t have to wait too long.

Everyone stands to attention as Elishani and Geary enter the room, making towards the head of the table. They’re carrying an assortment of items, charts, maps, a briefcase, and all manner of objects used for either cartography or a presentation.

“At ease,” grunts the captain, and everyone sits back down. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, captain,” a chorus answers.

“In approximately two hours we’ll reach our destination. For the sake of secrecy, I was forbidden by the guild from disclosing it. However, now that order no longer applies now that we’re in the salvage zone.”

Geary produces a map, and lays it out across the table. It’s a semi-transparent map of the Old World, prior to the Cataclysm that saw the sky aflame, and the seas boiling. It fits neatly over a map of the “known” Flooded World, carefully aligned not to corner, but to tectonic plate.

All eyes are on the maps, as Elishani continues the presentation, tapping at a section of the map just a handful of miles away from Babylonia. An island in the Caribbean Sea. “Kingston, Jamaica. In the Age of Fighting Sail, she was the port of call for the British Empire, rising to prominence after the nearby harbor of Port Royal was destroyed in a tsunami. Prior to the Cataclysm, she was a popular tourist destination for spring breakers, retirees, and Reggae enthusiasts.”

A smattering of laughter from most of the assembled. Yourself included. “Reggae enthusiasts” usually meant an appreciation for recreational drugs.

“Cap'n,” inquires Holt once everyone’s settled, “If you don’t mind me askin', how come you had to keep it secret?”

“Because of this.” Geary reaches for the briefcase, placing it gently on the table. His head vanishes partially as he fiddles with an electronic lock, humming in satisfaction as it pops open. “Ah, here we go.”

What he produces…you’d almost call it a tablet. It’s Old World tech, definitely, and military given the faded camo pattern. Bulky, too. It’s almost the size of a textbook, but probably weighs more given how hard of a noise it makes on the table.

"That," explains Elishani, "Is a Tactical Mission Controller 'Gryphon' model, formerly the property of the late United States Air Force. Combat Controllers would be attached to special forces, and use these to establish air control and provide fire support on the field."

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You look at it, and suppress the urge to take the hood off an inspect its insides. Gully and Holt have similar expressions, but the majority otherwise regard it no more than a curious artifact.

Tabitha breaks the silence. “We aren’t about to call an air strike on anyone here, are we? I get that there’s terminal guidance for the Heroes back home, but…”

The corner of the captain’s mouth twitches. “I’m getting there, Aalto. Three weeks ago, it was sitting in Mister Stolze’s private collection of old-world memorabilia. But during routine maintenance, it picked up a distress signal coming from this general direction.”

Rescue operations? you think with a frown.

“Morgan, if you would…?”

Geary nods, activating the controller. The machine softly whirs to life, after which the XO presses a handful of keys into the machine. Then, to a silent, captive audience, from out of speakers, a weak, synthetic voice wafts out:

“…priority channel…mayday, may…is the TCS…Exodus Fleet…repeating…Olympia…heavy structural…containment breach reactor failing…mayday, mayday…”

…no way.

…no fucking way.

The breathless look on your face is mirrored on all of the assembled. Even Kwan is unable to fully mask his surprise. In the stunned silence, Gully beats everyone to the punch with a breathless whisper:

“A spaceship.”

All eyes shoot towards the captain and the XO, who nod at all the unspoken questions. “It took some digging, but we managed to identify the origin of the signal. Terran Commonwealth Ship Olympia, an Excelsior-class interplanetary starship. Built in 2349 in a Vancouver drydock by Boeing Interstellar, she spent many years ferrying colonists from Earth to Mars, Venus…maybe even to the handful of startup colonies along Jupiter’s moons.”

“How the hell did it end up at the bottom of the ocean?!” demands Holt. “That message was Exodus Fleet, wasn’t it? That thing should’ve been burnin’ 9 G’s towards the Alcubierre Gate-”

Geary exhales roughly. “I have a hunch…but we can’t make any definitive conclusions until we get divers down to scope out the site.”

“Is there a guarantee that the ship itself is where it is?” Kwan remains steadfast as everyone looks at him. “The distress signal doesn’t implicitly mean that we won’t find the hull scattered across the sea.”

Elishani steeples his fingers together. “That was brought up, but we are potentially salvaging the ruins of an Excelsior-class starship. Mister Stolze, the Salvage Guild and the Founding Five decided to…gamble, for lack of a better term.”

“How come there aren’t any more salvage ships with us?” you ask. “If there really is a starship down there…I don’t think two knuckleboom cranes and a pair of PUEXOs are gonna raise the whole thing. Crates and odd ends, maybe. Bodies, if anything's left there. But titanium plating, fissile material...”

Somehow, the questions come one at a time. As opposed to the disorganized mess that would’ve been a roughneck’s briefing back on the Duck. But Captain Elishani takes it all in stride, not showing any speck of annoyance. “We’re the vanguard, and the only ship docked in Babylonia when the discovery was made. A proper salvage fleet’s being prepped, but they’re more than a week out. And have to secure the site as soon as possible.”

Nods all around, and mutters across cliques and departments.

You can’t help but grin. Holy shit! This kind of opportunity only comes knocking once every century. The debt you could possibly shave off, even with dues paid to the Salvage Guild…you will never complain about being reassigned anywhere. No wonder Stolze was dead-set on pulling you from the Duck.

“This typical of a salvage gig?” you joke to Gully.

“No,” she whispers back. “Recycled materials from cities, ships raised after typhoons and hurricanes…never a spaceship. Never!”

But among the excitement, Tabitha isn’t nearly sold on it. The comms officer raises her voice: “…how come the distress signal only turned on now? And, uh…that’s a neat combat controller thing, but how do we know that anybody else didn’t pick up the line? Babylonia isn’t the only power in the New Atlantic with Old World technology.”

A sobering question that puts a dampener on the mood. One that Geary looks reluctant to answer, but Elishani does with a cool, calculated confidence. “I would not have accepted the mission if I knew that we were unprepared to deal with any threat we could possibly face. Sergeant Kwan and his men have more than proven themselves multiple times over in keeping us safe.”

What were the Calypso’s armaments? Four .50 machine guns, and a pair of auto-cannons. Not including whatever the sergeant had in the armory, and you could’ve sworn you saw a rocket launcher next to the security vests.

You pray that it’ll be enough.

But before anyone else can ask any more questions, the captain launches into the next part of his presentation. Logistics are brought up, as well as the deployment of crude SONAR and RADAR ROVs to scout for the ship and the vehicle. The Calypso can best weigh anchor above Kingston, and use the sunken city as an underwater FOB until the Olympia itself can be found.

Two hours later, you’re still giddy, as everyone reconvenes for the meeting now that the anchor’s been weighed. This time, you and Gully are fully suited up, TAComm helmets slung under your arms. Much to your amusement, nervous-looking Toone is completely unable to look either you or Kwan in the eye as he gives Elishani his findings.

“The ship’s been split up, sir,” he says anxiously, “Two halves resting along this…raised plateau of the Puerto Rican trench. Front half and cargo area’s been blown towards Kingston, but the command and living quarters are nearly two kilos away."

Kwan doesn’t look annoyed that he’s been proven wrong. If anything, he’s ticked that the area of operations got wider than he expected. You'd bet one of Holt's gummy packs that he'd kill for at least one extra salvage ship.

“How deep?” asks Geary.

“Deep, sir. Uh…three hundred meters at the bare minimum deep. We don't have enough saturation diving suits.”

Expectant eyes turn towards you and Gully. And the captain smiles, flashing white teeth from behind his beard. “I don’t think that will be a problem.”

On cue, you and Gully stand at attention, and present yourself to the front of the room.

“You’re the ExEl, Gully,” continues Elishani. “What’s your plan?”

Gully takes a marker, than crosses two points on the map. “Razor and I will split up, and take different components. Reconvene at the Calypso after five hours to check oxygen, data dump and drop any samples.”

A bold move. Splitting up certainly allows you to cover more ground, and you’ve done plenty of solo dives in the past.

“Is the sub coming with us?” she asks.

“The Mackerel will be deployed in a limited capacity,” confirms Geary, “They’ll be going between you to check up periodically. That said…have you decided on where each of you are going?”

Gully’s eyes flick towards yours briefly, before she makes her announcement. “Razor will be going to secure the cargo. I’ll be heading towards the command structure.”

Grunt work, comparatively, but one you definitely won’t complain about. Your shares for the salvage are going to be exponentially higher for every crate you tag. If her father wasn’t in the room, you’d kiss Gully for the opportunity.

“Then looks like he’s goin’ in first,” mutters Holt, squinting at the map and tracing a path with her finger. “We’re right above the city now. Question is…where to, Unami? I see a few insertion points we can drop you off to. Just not on top of the ship.”

>>Where do you wish to deploy?
>North-West Valley. A direct straight shot towards the wreck of the cargo component.
>Southern Shoals. Take a scenic route through Kingston and tag items for salvage.


Apologies for the long post, but I didn't want to delay to the meat of the one-shot. We now deep diving, bby.
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>>North-West Valley. A direct straight shot towards the wreck of the cargo component.
>Southern Shoals. Take a scenic route through Kingston and tag items for salvage.
We diving now bby
>Southern Shoals. Take a scenic route through Kingston and tag items for salvage.
>>North-West Valley. A direct straight shot towards the wreck of the cargo component.
>Southern Shoals. Take a scenic route through Kingston and tag items for salvage.
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>>Southern Shoals

With the decision made, it seems that there’s little left for either of you to do. But before you leave, Elishani holds his hand up, and gives either of you a long, hard stare. Moreso to Gully than yourself, but no less intense.

“Both of you, come back alive,” he orders. “That city already has its fair share of bodies without adding anymore to the tally.”

Gully nods sharply. You do as well.

Her reasons are her own for going to the command structure. Something in her eyes…just gives you an odd feeling. But you know your reason well enough to grab as much salvage as you possibly can. A reason that crosses the line between selfishness and altruism.


>>Scene break

The cockpit is a spherical thing, lined to the gills with all the equipment and systems needed to operate the PUEXO. Hybrid digital-analog computers and gauges for pressure, oxygen and CO2 flicker dimly in the low-level lightning. You cram yourself into a seat that’s been placed like an afterthought, and punch a button that closes the canopy with a wet hiss of hydraulics and pneumonic machinery.

It isn’t just skill and good health that gets someone chosen for the PUEXO program. Physicology matters, too. All the training in the world won’t do anyone any good if they couldn’t fit in the cockpit. The steel sphere, nature’s perfect shape for resisting pressure, was built for survivability, not comfort.

You’re a fairly tall guy, edging out at 5’11’’, and clock in at around 78.4 kilos. And you barely manage to fit in without a TAComm helmet. There’s only two, maybe three inches above your head and the ceiling. And your final seated position leaves your legs tightly bent, with only just enough space to operate the pedals.

Having a limb go to sleep in the middle of an operation isn’t fun.

“Alright, alright…” you mutter.

You lace up your NERVlink suit, plugging in cords and wires that run power to the heating module. You do the same for another system that monitors your vitals, then reach for the last part of your kit. Once you check that the onboard computer’s reading all of your vitals – body temperature, pulse rate, breathing rate, blood pressure –, you reach for the helmet and slide it over your head.

The helmet cuts out all external noise, and makes the sound of your breath rattle harshly in your ears. You jigger the helmet, adjusting until the rectangular faceplate centers itself around your face. There is a mild pressure, and you shiver as the cool, steel pads of neuroreceptors come into contact with your temples.

“Pattern check: Sinleq Unami, Serial 22A-43.”

What answers is a low squelch of static, then incomprehensible series of digital noises. Seconds later, a synthesized voice replies: “Voice pattern match obtained. Please input command code and standby for biometric scan.”

“Yeah, I know, I know…”

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You try not to sigh as you punch in a ten-digit code into a numberpad, then slap your thumb on an adjacent fingerprint scanner.

“…you’ll be mine, one day,” you mutter. “Then we won’t have to go through this pony show…”

The scarcity of parts and the lack of advanced industry makes PUEXOs irreplaceable treasures. As such, they’re loaned out to pilots with the appropriate certs, and aren’t inherently exclusive to any one operator. The on-board computer holds dozens of codes so that anyone qualified could pilot.

Without fail, every single Babylonia PUEXO pilot has a command code unique to them, in addition to a biometric signature. Any irregular actions could be pegged by checking which code and biometric had been used to activate the suit at any given time.

But before anyone gets any funny ideas, like cutting off a thumb to activate it, Accelerasoft and Ladera thought ahead of that. The biometric sample needs to detect a pulse, and it’s scarily adept at detecting forgery. Not that it’s stopped some idiots from assaulting pilots in their sleep with knives and bags of ice. The punishment for which was a removal of their thumb(s), a branding, and fifteen years of hard labor.

Then, the voice once more: “Identity confirmed. Welcome aboard, Sinleq Unami.”

In response to the correct codes, the console comes to life with lights and flashing buttons. Bulbs and meters on an analog panel report a full tank of oxygen, responsive main and auxiliary reactors, and a full can of fuel for the welder. You glance down, and survey CO2 and heat monitors that sit low at a cool, non-critical blue. Another informs you that the wrist-mounted harpoon gun is locked, but ready to be activated at the flick of a switch.

Just in case of ornery sea life that gets too close for comfort…

...or worse.

But, you digress. All of the systems look like they’re online. That means that there’s only one, final check. Not from any of Holt’s deckhands, or from yourself.

It’s more theater than anything else, but you still lift your hand to rap a black, metal box just at the side of your elbow. “HOPI, are you awake? Rise and shine!”

Seconds later, the reply comes as a disembodied, synthetic voice, routed directly into your helmet. But you like to attach the image of a pretty lady to the artificial intelligence living inside the PUEXO. “You know that tapping my box does nothing, right?”

“Sorry. Old habits are hard to break.”

“I’d be more inclined to believe you if you didn’t do it every mission.”

“Ah, but what can you do?”

“Many things, Sinleq. Many, many things…”

The ritualistic greeting over, you immediately launch into business. “Kept you waiting long?”

“No. I just started running preliminary diagnostics.”

“Anything to report so far?”

“The microtear in the left hemisphere’s hydraulic line has been fixed.”

You nod, even though HOPI only “sees” you through the suit’s line to the PUEXO. Unless they managed to get that cockpit camera working again. “Did they seal or replace the tube?”

“Replaced, according to the engineer’s log, and signed off by Deck Chief Holt.”

Huh. Kudos to Holt for getting done what the gearheads on the Duck weren’t able to do.

“Glad to hear it. Lemme know when you’re finished with your diagnostic.”

"Of course, Sinleq."

The more advanced the PUEXO got, the more technological ends that Ladera and Accelerasoft could cram into them. But there’s only so many subsystems and processes that the human mind can keep track of, even with a neural interface. The idea of a copilot or a “WSO” equivalent had been floated, before ultimately being discarded due to the limited space within the cockpit, and additional strain pressure would cause.

So, the Old World eggheads got it in themselves to stuff an interactive, artificial intelligence in each of their machines, starting with the Mark II’s.

Human Operator PUEXO Interface.

Or “HOPI” for short.

An exceedingly rare technology not wholly unique to Babylonia, but one currently unreplaceable with the current constrains of the Flooded World.

At one point, you’d heard that PUEXO’s belonging to the Megiddan Empire had purged the HOPIs in their PUEXOs. Something about the “soulless, artificial abominations” that was artificial intelligence existing as an affront to God. Well, bully to them, because you certainly don’t envy the added workload of micromanaging dozens of subsystems otherwise.

But no sooner do your thoughts wander towards the HOPI of an Erickson-class you once worked with, dues yours announce her completion of the diagnostic.

“Done,” chirps HOPI, “Confirming that all onboard systems and pilot integrations are online.”

“Alright,” you answer, stretching for a big, red button on the roof of the cockpit. “Pressurizing...”

You take one last breath of the cool, ocean breeze, then hit the button that seals the Magellan and triggers the airlock cycle. The cockpit pressurizes with a dry hiss of air and the heavy clunk of pneumonic machinery, and you open your mouth to equalize the pressure in your ears.

Exhaling slowly, you flex your fingers, then clear a radio link back towards the outside. “Pre-launch checks complete. Awaiting transportation to gripper.”

“Copy that,” comes the voice of Chief Holt. “Just gimme a sec to clear the deck and runway…MOVE IT, YOU SLOWPOKES...and done!” There’s a momentary pause as you hear someone knock a wrench against the cockpit’s side. “Bring us back a souvenir, will you? Something that’ll fit nice on the mantle in the rec room."

You snort. “Well, since you asked so nicely…I think I can find something worth three packs of fruit gummies and a Chili Mac MRE.”

"You'd better!"

The cockpit shudders as the flatbed the Magellan rests on starts to life. Even through the armor plating, you can hear the whine and strain of the machine, and the overhead alarms that signal for everyone to clear the way as your PUEXO is transported out onto the aft deck. No sooner do you come to an abrupt stop, deckhands move to secure lines, harnesses, and feeds.

“Razor, this is Gripper, I’ve got control,” the launch officer radios into your headset. Out of the viewport’s peripheral, you can see the figure of a man in black overalls, waving from his position near the aft knuckleboom crane. “Standby for liftoff.”

Your world lurches, and the Magellan rattles in its hardness as its lifted off the deck, and into the air. Deckhands move with practiced efficiency, hauling lines and securing cables to stabilize the maneuver. If they aren’t careful, or if the sea is any choppier, then the PUEXO becomes a twenty-four-ton wrecking ball.

But the weather conditions are good, and the deckhands are well-trained. You’re brought over the water without any incident.

“PUEXO-1102-Calypso,” Gripper calls, “Clear bottoms. Nav-con is green, interval check. Thrust positive and steady.”

Frogmen and supervising boats clear out of the way as mech and man are lowered into the ocean waters. You run through the pre-drop checklist, thumbing switches and squinting at panels as sensors feed information into your console. And through no less than four external cameras, you can see divers unfastening the guiding cables and stabilization lines. They work fast – within a minute, the only thing that keeps the Magellan from dropping are lift bags and the crane harness itself.

“Final check,” you radio, reading off the computer display, “Vision One. 18% O2. CO2 is 0.3%. Scrubber fan is running. Compass is working, depth gauge is working. All systems nominal. Waiting for the green light.”

The launch officer answers, “Copy that Razor. Launch Officer to CIC, permission to launch?”

It comes quickly. Elishani’s voice comes over the comm: “Permission granted.”

“Confirmed. Razor, whenever you’re ready, we’ll initiate and launch.”

You close your eyes, and take a deep breath, as much as the helmet will allow you…

“He’s responding well to the treatment.”

… …

“Please, let us help you…it’s least we could do…”

… … …

“Damn you, Sinleq Unami…why did you have to do it?!”

Your eyes snap open. “Launch! Release, release, release!”


You feel it more than hear it, the sound of restraining bolts and steel cable whipping out of their sockets and holdings. There’s a brief moment of weightlessness as the Magellan is free of its harness…

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…then gravity and the laws of physics do the rest, plunging both PUEXO and pilot down into the ocean’s depths in a controlled, lateral descent. In an instant, the white light that suffuses the cockpit turns a light, playful blue as the canopy slips completely under the surface.

“Razor, you’re now released,” the operator says, “Safe travels and godspeed.”

“I’ll see you topside,” you answer back.

Your descent disturbs a nearby school of fish, drawn to the shadow and activity of the Calypso. They move too quickly for you to tell what they are, swimming away in a cloud of shimmering, silver scales. Tuna, you decide. Hopefully they were tuna.

Maybe Holt can wrangle some of the deckhands to fish everyone some dinner that isn’t salted or otherwise out of a tin can. From the way your stomach grumbles, that’s a sentiment you can get behind.

But before you can ponder the mystery of dinner, you’ve got a post-launch checklist to run through. Which includes a step of establishing contact with the surface.

“Surface, this is Razor. Do you copy, over?”

There’s only a two second delay before you get an answer.

“Hey, jumbo,” drawls the dulcet voice of Tabitha Aalto, “This is ACCOMS Calypso, callsign Sybil. How’re ya doing, over?”

On the one hand…this makes enough sense given the fact that she’s a communications officer.

On the other hand…hoo boy.

Sybil, huh? Makes enough sense given her function and antisocial tendencies. But if the name’s anything to go by, you give it 50-50 odds of her being prone to the frenzied mouth-mutterings of her callsign’s namesake.

Razor copies, reading you loud and clear, Sybil.” You pause, then consider that two can play at that game. And if asked, she broke radio protocol first. “Anyone ever tell you that you’ve got a good voice for radio?”

She barks a laugh, short and harsh. “Hah! You and just about every other jockey I’ve ran comms for. Skipper said that he’d write me a recommendation letter if I ever went into public broadcasting.”

“I’d write you one, too. So far, you’re already doing a better job than that schlub on David’s Dailies.”

The best part of that statement is that you aren’t even joking. Even if she seems to have differing thoughts.

“Fuck you, that’s not a high bar! Hand to God, Karl Koulter could put a nuclear reactor to sleep.”

“Which’ll make it all the more impressive when you make your debut. You’ll be the audible sweetheart of jarheads and roughnecks all across the belt.”

“Yeah…no. I’ve already got enough shit on my plate without worrying about love letters or weird fanmail. I dunno about you, but I’ve seen what a long-term absence and deprivation of women does to those kinds of guys.”

…she’s not wrong about that either. Things on the Duck got downright...weird whenever the temple of Ishtar was closed.

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“…fair enough,” you concede. “But don’t quit your day job until after I come up, alright?”

“No promises, Razor,” she replies drolly.

The deeper you go, the more that sunlight struggles to penetrate the ocean depths. The LZ isn’t too far down, but you can already see the differential by looking out the viewport. There’s a very clear divide between the sunny-bright blue, a more ominous cobalt towards the horizon line, and a place in the middle where everything goes green-blue.

The finer scientific words escape you, but the shorthand you learned in the PUEXO program could be boiled down to the following:

“Sunlight good, twilight okay, midnight bad, abyss fucked.”

But you can already see it clearly, as you pass fifty meters and cycle through the cameras.

As far as sunken cities go, the ruins of Kingston have been surprisingly well-preserved. But it still bears the scars of the Scourging. Only the tallest buildings, ones with deep-foundations built for earthquakes and tsunamis, are still standing. And even they’re halfway lost to corrosion, erosion and the weathering of tide and time.

Everything else – neighborhoods, boroughs, thoroughfares – have long since been washed away, overtaken by the reef, or buried beneath thousands of tons of hardened lava. There’s a sort of picaresque quality to it, the gradual erosion of the manmade as the ocean stakes its claim. If you were sentimental, you’d make some sort of pithy remark, or have someone paint you a picture to hang on the wall.

There’s no denying you’re sentimental. You wouldn’t be in this situation if you weren’t. But you’re on the clock. Any tourism beyond scouting out for salvage is a waste of time and oxygen.

Depressing the TALK button, you radio: “Razor to Sybil, I just cleared a hundred meters, and the LZ’s in sight. Maintaining a vertical speed of 1.4 knots.”

“Copy that. Be advised, once you make touchdown, Calypso’s gonna move out towards the other half of the ship. Gully and the Mackerel will be coming down in a few moments.”

“Acknowledged. ETA to landing is three minutes.”

“Roger that. Anything else?”

“Nothing to report. Razor out.”

The designated LZ is the ruins of National Heroes Park. According to Elishani, it was once a botanical garden and a resting place for the country’s heroes. Not much has changed, even though the biome’s since switched from freshwater to saltwater. There’s a noticeable absence of trees, but some of the ornamentation’s done a good enough job of surviving.

“Standby to drop shot,” you mutter, finger on the trigger. The depth gauge continues to rise at 132, 145, 159 meters below sea level. “And decelerate for final approach.”

“Standing by,” HOPI confirms.




You flick the switch. “Dropping shot.”

“Reversing thrusters," adds HOPI.

Your descent ends at a comfortable 0.4 knots, and your Magellan makes contact with the ocean floor. Sand, silt and ocean soil erupts in a cloud to cover the point of impact. A shudder runs up and down the frame of your PUEXO as gyros, actuators and hydraulics work to stabilize and orient you properly.

“Final depth,” you mutter, squinting at the control panel, “…314 meters. Commencing deep-dive exploration of Sunken Kingston.”

“Should I prepare the articulation arms?” queries HOPI.

“Might as well. Keep an eye out for anything that might be worth anything.”

“There’s no shortage of that, but I’ll assume you mean items that we can store in the Magellan.

Oh, HOPI knows you so well…

Rotating your arms and flexing your feet, you take a handful of test steps, and pick up a nearby chunk of coral. All of your thrusters – main, vertical, horizontal – read green across the board. Hydraulic fluid’s where it should be, and everything’s pulling smoothly.

“Another day, another dollar,” you mutter, taking one step, then another as you begin the trek towards the wreck of the Olympia. “…once you go, you know, huh? Well, I’m here now…”

>>You have enough time to investigate one (1) part of Kingston.

>>Please select one of the following districts to visit en route to the Olympia:
>Inner Residential Quarter. What few skyscrapers remain standing hold vigil over the city ruins.
>Port Authority Graveyard. A twisted landscape of sunken ships, wrecked during the Scouring.

>Port Authority Graveyard. A twisted landscape of sunken ships, wrecked during the Scouring.
>>Port Authority Graveyard. A twisted landscape of sunken ships, wrecked during the Scouring.
>Port Authority Graveyard. A twisted landscape of sunken ships, wrecked during the Scouring.
>Port Authority Graveyard. A twisted landscape of sunken ships, wrecked during the Scouring.

“You know that tapping my box does nothing, right?”
. kek
>Inner Residential Quarter. What few skyscrapers remain standing hold vigil over the city ruins.

They run the gamut from yachts and barges, cruise liners and cargo haulers, oil tankers and armed warships. Some sank whole and intact, others torn and wrenched violently apart. Hulls of all shapes and sizes have come to rest in the commingled waters of the formerly Hunts and Cagway Bays. But even diminished, the tallest among them still cast long shadows over the graveyard, the coral kingdom that’s emerged, and your own PUEXO.

The HUD struggles to ID them, approximating their original shapes and designs on one of the myriad computer screens that line the cockpit. Suffice to say that from what you see in the database, they were truly great ships of their time.

Clearing your throat, you hit the throttle and trudge forward into the graveyard. “See any spaceships? How about high-atmo shuttles or escape pods?”

Even wrecked or drained of fuel, those fetch high prices. High technological ends that the eggheads back in Babylonia hope to reverse engineer in the hopes of putting satellites, then mankind, back into orbit.

“Hmmmm…nope,” reports HOPI, “Doesn’t look like there anything like that.”

“Damn. Figures it wouldn’t be that easy.”

Most of the wildlife scatters at your approach, but some stay or otherwise recognize that you aren’t one of their predators. Schools of fish swim without a care in the world, gasping and gulping at microscopic plankton or other small animals. Crabs scuttle underfoot, ducking beneath coral, evading the jaws of eels and suckers of octopi.

But it’s the coral and sponges that festoon and encrust their hulls that makes you pause and wonder. For the mass extinction that happened above land during the Dark Winter, it looks like the ocean’s faired significantly better. They come in all colors, all shapes and sizes…even the iconic brain coral that’s often been the butt of many divers’ jokes.

Of the dozen sharks that linger, a lone hammerhead circles you cautiously. The lizard part of your brain screams at you to still, warring with the urge to keep on trekking past a hard-wired evolutionary threat. It closes the distance almost lazily, approaching you with a curious gait. It’s jaws open, and takes a harmless bite out of your left arm before the hammerhead swims away to find meatier prey.

“Minimal damage,” HOPI chirps, “Nothing that a fresh coat of paint won’t fix.”

“If he comes again, I’m shooting,” you say grimly, thumbing the safety on the wrist-mounted harpoon gun. “We’ll have shark-fin soup for dinner.”

“You’d have to kill at least…seven to make enough for the whole crew.”

You’re not sure whether or not to be impressed that she did the math. “I’ve got four in the chamber, and another eight to spare. Plenty to go around for his buddies, and maybe a big, fatty tuna."

But you aren’t here to do big game hunting, so you pull away from the safety and continue your trek into the graveyard.

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Some of the ships can be refloated, but there’s no way for all of them to sail once again. If not for damage sustained in the Scouring, then corrosion over time made their hulls unseaworthy. At best, most would be consigned to the roaring fires of the industrial district, melted down and given new life as raw materials. Base metals are at an all-time premium, and the Megiddan Empire charges hand over fist for premium Rocky Mountain steel, zinc, iron and tungsten.

It would be a terrible shame to the reef that’s come to flourish in the graveyard. Cousteau and Bird would have wept at the destruction that the salvage effort would cause. If not outright taken up arms. But that’s what the Teeth are for, mad bastards all. And as opposed you are to that group of eco/Luddite terrorists, you can at least understand their perspective.

But sentimentality’s going to have to take a backseat. Orders are orders, and you’ve got a mountain debt to pay to an affable oil mogul.

Even after each prize has been divvied up by eight, you’ll still walk away with a sizable amount to the debt. One part to the organizers who authorized the expedition (Stolze and Babylonia). One part to the captain (Elishani). One part divided among the commissioned officers (Geary), one part divided among warrant officers (Holt, Kwan, Aalto). Two shares divided among the regular crew…

…leaving two shares to the frogmen, divers and PUEXO pilots who tagged and recovered the salvage.

Best of all? Rich as all the salvage is, the graveyard’s chump change compared to whatever’s in the Olympia.

Firing your thrusters, you jet atop the deck of a cargo hauler, bearing the name Caribbean Courier in half-stripped and faded paint on its side. The metal groans upon impact, but mercifully doesn’t give way beneath the Magellan’s weight. You ignore the containers that’ve been ripped open or otherwise compromised, opting instead to tag what your sensors read as remaining air and watertight.
Out of curiosity, you peer towards an open container on the other side of the deck, magnifying your viewfinder to inspect its contents…

“…washing machines,” analyzes HOPI.

Another container reports…thoroughly waterlogged mattresses. The one next to it reveals assorted tires via a gouge in its side. And many more containing the most diverse range of goods that you’ve ever seen, running the gamut from car parts and toys, TV sets and shoes. Sadly, no smartphone or high-technological end containers, or at least ones that are readily visible. At least two marks after shares.

But the true prize lies within the Courier’s hull. Forty long tons of steel cover up the hold where the Scouring was (hopefully) unable to compromise the seals of the containers therein. Frustratingly, the ship didn’t break on the way down and give you an easy way in. You’ll have to cut through or force it open, both of which have their own challenges to overcome.

“Hey, Sinleq…” whispers HOPI, tagging something on your HUD.

What you first mistake for trash is identified as a corpse, fastened onto the railing via a carabiner on its lifejacket. There isn’t much left. Scavengers and bottom dwellers have since rendered the body a sexless, featureless skeleton. A nameless casualty of the end of the world, save for a faded, ragged patch that reads “Toason”.

…if you had a hat, you would’ve taken it off. The best thing you can do is take your hand off the stick, and offer a crisp salute to a fellow seafarer. You can afford that much sentimentality before going back to work.

“This ship’s been dead for a while,” HOPI says as you come amidships, positioning the Magellan right by the hatch. “And you’re far enough from any oil or power lines to where it won’t make a difference.”

“Duly noted, but I’m not taking any chances,” you mutter back. Once the power junction line’s been identified, you cycle through the PUEXO’s kit to settle on the right tool. “Polarize the cockpit and prep the plasma cutter.”

Once the risk of a surge or explosion’s been mitigated, you proceed accordingly. Stabilizers fire as your PUEXO bolts itself onto the deck, and you maneuver the arms onto nearby handholds. Even with the aid of de-powered lifts and hinges, actuators and gyros strain and spike into the orange as your PUEXO strains to lift forty plus however many atmospheres’ worth of water pressure.

“C’mon, baby,” you mutter, licking your lips as you keep a sharp eye on all the panels. So far so good, and performing within acceptable norms. “You’ve done heavier in deeper waters than this…”

You don’t need to even get everything open. Just one of the hatches coming slowly, but surely, off is enough to expose the inner cargo hold of the Courier. While some of the containers are understandably skewed or otherwise protruding into the structure, most seem to be intact, even if crusted and covered with sea life.

Maybe there’s a shipping manifest in the bridge…but you’d have to hop in a diving suit, and climb into a saturation bell before going out for a swim. The Magellan definitely won’t fit. But there’s a raised volcanic plateau off to the horizon, just a handful of kilos south-east of your position. You’ve heard of salvage teams using a combination of pontoons, cables and oxygen pumps to lift wrecked ships off the ocean floor, and bring them gradually into shallower waters for easier salvage.

But that won’t be for a while until after the spaceship.

“Deploying marker,” you announce. There’s a hiss of air, and a CLUNK as you bolt an electronic tracker to the side of the hull, marking it as scouted and claimed by PUEXO pilot Sinleq Unami of the salvage trawler Calypso, citizen of the Free City-State of Babylonia. You bolt another one just for safe keeping, and radio back to the surface to report the stake.

“Confirming claim on salvage designated Caribbean Courier,” drawls Aalto. In the background, you can hear cheering. “Y’know something, Razor?”

Hoo boy. “Yes?”

“I feel kinda bad. You and Gully are working hard to pull all this stuff up, but I’m sitting on my ass in this air-conditioned room spitting into a radio.”

How surprisingly candid. “Well, Sybil, if you do feel guilty, you could always put on a diving suit and come on down-”

“Hard pass,” she flatly answers.

“…or split your share with me-”

“Hell no.”

…yeah, that does sound about right.

The radio squawks, and Holt’s voice comes in. “Hey, Unami! Find us anything yet?”

“How about a crate full of tires?” you answer back.

The chief breaks protocol by transmitting a hearty laugh, one that you hear echoed in the voices of the PUEXMech crew. “Smartass. How’s the Magellan?”

You do a quick check of your screens and gauges, reporting back: “All systems are green across the board. I’m an hour in with six more worth of oxygen in the tank. Gonna tag a few more ships in the graveyard before I head to the Olympia.”

“Don’t take too long,” Aalto cuts in, “Captain’s orders. Priority’s the spaceship, and we want to get both parts scooped and scouted by the end of the day.”

“Understood. I see a couple more ships, shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes to tag and claim.”

“Just leave some for the Mackerel and the froggy boys, m’kay? All of y’all and Gully are sharing the lion’s share of the spoils anyway, so there’s no need for any sort of pissing contest.”

…pissing contest?

>>Forty minutes later…

The cargo component of the Olympia has come to rest at an odd angle. Its bow is half submerged in the sand, with the shorn half of it sticking up a few dozen meters into the air. Nothing out of reach for the thrusters of your PUEXO, but one that’s gonna take a fair bit of fancy maneuvering to get in.

“All channels, this is Razor,” you report, “I’ve got eyes on my part of the Olympia.”

You take the silence that ensues as the chaos of surface not knowing who answers first. Which leaves the channel open for Gully to radio from however many kilos away.

“How does yours look?” she queries. “The command structure seems relatively intact.”

“…define relatively.”

“Not crumpled, laying on its bottom. The superstructure of the bridge isn’t crushed. There’s a few holes, but other than the split…relatively intact.”

You can’t say the same. HOPI’s already ahead of you, bringing all cameras and viewfinders to highlight against the worst damage affecting the structure. And confirms what you suspect to be Geary’s hunch about the reason for the Olypmia’s descent into the ocean.

“Commander Geary?” you say quietly into the radio.

He answers quickly, but with a somber voice. “Yes, Unami?”

You have to take a deep breath of tanked oxygen. Twice, before you’re able to give your report. “…three extremely violent points of exit, blown out forward and mid compartments. Confirming damage from either railgun or gauss anti-orbital artillery.”

Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the “Heroes” of Babylonia.

Those are the names of two former Starguard Anti-Orbital Defense System (SADOS) weapons. At the city’s founding, they were salvaged from the bottom of the ocean, and mounted in special fortresses on the slopes of Mount Gugalanna. Every nation in the Flooded World has their big stick or deterrent against attackers. It just so happens that your home has two of them that can put armor-piercing shells in enemy battleships as far away as 600 km. Maybe 800 if the city diverts all its power.

The Heroes are what allow Babylonia to enforce both its sovereignty, and strict neutrality for all those who wish to come and trade. And their current capabilities are nowhere near what a properly-maintained SADOS would have been prior to the Cataclysm. 2000 kilometers according to urban legend.

The Olympia, one of the dozens of civilian ships comprising the Exodus Fleet that fled Earth during the Cataclysm…had been shot out of the sky.

Turns out that when only the uber-rich and most affluent of the 1% can afford tickets off-world during the end of the world, people get…angry. Angry enough for a population with nothing left to lose launching a violent, populist uprising. And in that uprising, more than a handful of anti-asteroid weapons were seized or their disgruntled staff opened up the gates stick it to their escaping superiors.

Larkin said that it was out of pure spite that they aimed the barrels of those guns towards the Exodus Fleet as they climbed into the upper atmosphere. They would shoot as long as they could, and drag as many as they could screaming back down to Earth. No one was escaping the Scouring if they could help it.

“God have mercy,” the XO whispers, voicing the lump in your throat.

Aalto is silent, for once. Holt doesn’t offer anything, but you can hear a sharp hiss of breath on her end of the line. Elishani, however, remains cool, and the captain decisively orders: “Proceed with caution, Razor. Bug out if you even feel that the structure’s unstable or about to collapse.”

“You got it, sir,” you answer, hitting the pedal. “I’ll keep you guys posted.”

Given the devastation that a SADOS can cause, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the Olympia didn’t burn up on the way down. Or otherwise crumple and warp under its own mass. Splitting in half seems to have been a fair enough compromise for the laws of physics.

As you come up in the shadow cast by its mangled end, you come to a stop and survey the wreck. “HOPI, talk to me. What’s our insertion point?”

The AI takes all of three seconds, a borderline eternity, before answering. “I see two. Jet up through the mangled half and make a descent into the ship’s interior. Or…that blown-out hole right on the lower deck.”

"What's the difference?"

"The ship split down the middle of residential quarters for crew compliment and passenger berths. Lower-deck hole puts you in the middle of forward engineering."

Decisions. Lovely. “Do I have the wiggle room for it?”

“You should. The schematics provided by Captain Elishani say that you’ll have plenty of space, not just in the cargo hold. Excelsior-class ships were built to seed colonies, so they built them pretty big.”

"I hope it doesn't have to come down to crawling through bulkheads and corridors."

"...it shouldn't."

“What about power lines? These things ran on the bigger versions of what the Maggie’s got in her guts.”

“I’m not detecting any radiological abnormalities. Even though the distress beacon said that their reactor was failing, it looks like the failsafe activated and prevented a catastrophic nuclear fallout.”

"Gotcha." That makes enough sense given the fact that the immediate surroundings aren't dead zones devoid of even the smallest bit of kelp.

“But do keep in mind that the main reactors were towards the stern of the ship, just beneath the bridge. Which falls under Gully’s jurisdiction.”

…welp. Hopefully, she knows how best to handle that.

>>How do you want to enter?
>Through the mangled half, up and down through living quarters.
>Through the violent exit, down and up through engineering.

>Through the violent exit, down and up through engineering.
>Through the mangled half, up and down through living quarters.
>Through the mangled half, up and down through living quarters.
>>Through the violent exit, down and up through engineering.
>Through the violent exit, down and up through engineering.
File: 159845191865.jpg (87 KB, 1386x577)
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>>At the time of the vote’s closing, the living quarters section won out.

In the shadow of the Olympia, you can only now appreciate the sheer size of the former starship. Even in her diminished state, the wreck speaks volumes of humanity prior to the Cataclysm. The Magellan clocks in at around 8.2 meters, but it would take at least two dozen to match the height of the wreckage. And even then, there’s still plenty that’s buried underneath the shifting sands.

“Standby for thruster and jet burn,” you intone, thumbing switches and knobs on the dashboard. “What’s the angle of approach?”

HOPI runs the math, and displays the trajectory of your “flight” path on the HUD. “This should get you on one of the less-mangled floors. From there, it’s just finding a path towards the maintenance shaft from residential to cargo.”

“Copy that.” Then to the Calyspo, you radio, “ACOMMS, This is Razor. I’m starting my infiltration of the Olympia.”

Without waiting for a reply, you fire both thrusters and jets to blast off the ocean floor. In your wake is a cloud of dust and scattering wildlife as 23.7 tons of industrial, pre-Cataclysm machinery gracefully soars through the water. What then follows is a game of chicken as you cut propulsion, then wait to fire off just enough so that you won’t go through the floor.

Thankfully, HOPI does all the math for you, leaving almost no room for human error. When the pop-up comes, you fire off another controlled burst, slowing you down to make a comparatively light impact on the flooring. The metal groans, but holds fast.

“Touchdown on forward compartment…” you pause to check the schematic, “Residential 4FA. Commencing infiltration…”

The residential quarters of the Olympia’s forward compartment could be compared to the low-income housing complexes scattered across Dockside. Just enough space for two people to live comfortably, maybe four or five accounting for young children. Comfort seems to have been a secondary concern compared to fitting as many colonists as possible to populate the solar system.

But the halls are spacious enough, surprisingly. Just both high and wide enough to drive a forklift through them. Not nearly so large for the Maggie to stand upright, or even crawl without scraping either paint or critical components off the PUEXO’s rear. Parts of the interior have buckled to the point of inaccessibility, if not outright blocked by debris.

“What was that about having to get on my knees?” you grunt as you finagle the PUEXO through a tight corridor.

Eventually, you give up, and resort to pulling out the plasma cutter. It takes you the better part of twenty minutes, but you manage to make enough space for an entry point by shearing through the flooring of Deck 5FA.

Angling the [i]Maggie[/i] incidental to the slope of the wreck, you descend feet-first into the residential quarter. External sensors feed data into your monitors – temperature, pressure, radar, 3D mapping – painting a tentative picture of the wreckage. Much like the port authority graveyard, both the interior and exteriors of the [i]Olympia[/i] became havens for wildlife.

Some of the residential quarters are shut tight, others have been left ajar or completely open. Shining your light into them sends scavengers and dark-dwelling piscine scuttling away. What brief views you get of the rooms before they pass paints a bleak picture of formerly spartan whites and greys overtaken by rust, corrosion and either coral, sponge or barnacle.

On cue, HOPI chirps, “I am detecting air pockets scattered throughout the wreck, but this ship’s been at the bottom of the ocean for almost eighty years.”

Translation: if the impact didn’t kill any of the passengers (un)lucky enough to survive the damage of the railguns and the descent and impact onto the ocean floor, they would’ve long since suffocated to death. Or drowned if life support got flooded and sent water in lieu of oxygen through the ventilation system. Not a death you’d wish on anyone, save for a handful of unsavory individuals.

“Razor, this is Geary,” the XO radios, “How’s it looking down there?”

…what can you say?

“…it’s everything I expected it to be,” you say candidly, “Boiler-plate design for a starship. Couldn’t imagine anyone being cooped up in here, let alone during a maximum burn.”

He seems readily inclined to agree. “Any signs of the crew?”

You’d think that there’d be more bodies in this kind of wreck. There had to have been hundreds, if not thousands, of passengers, crew and other disparate occupants trying to make their escape. But the huge, gaping hole that points up at a near 45-degree angle begs to differ, as well as the craters and blown-through sections. More than plenty enough space for sharks or other large scavengers.

“Negative, not even a skeleton,” you reply, “Most of what I’m seeing is free-floating junk.”

Gully’s line suddenly picks up: “Anything interesting in the junk?”

…eh, not really, no. Odd ends and trinkets filtered into storage units or plucked and deposited by articulation arms. You’d have to surface in order to properly examine. “How about you? How far along are you into the command structure?”

“Nearly…there. The hole leads into the other half of passenger residential. Then it’s the officers’ quarters, then the bridge.”
Looks like you’re both roughly at the same place, progress-wise. Just on the brink of reaching your respective destinations…although that does bring up a question.

“So…what’s the plan once you reach the bridge?” you ask.

“Salvage,” she answers drolly. “And the beacon. The ship’s transponder and black box are my primary objective."

“…when you get there, let me know how that thing’s still running. I don’t have any power here, so I’m pretty damned curious.”

Gully doesn’t answer immediately. It seems like she hadn’t thought about that either. But Holt decides to weigh in, musing over the comm: “Lookin’ at the schematics, it looks like Boeing Interstellar built a backup on top of main and auxiliary reactors. Parked just outside the bridge in a shrouded compartment. That’s…prolly your culprit.”

She doesn’t sound certain either, though.

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Elishani cuts in. “But speculation isn’t getting us anywhere. Focus on your objectives.”

With a sigh, you cut the channel, then return your gaze to your immediate surroundings. “Too bad I can’t disembark,” you gripe. “There’s gotta be a decent haul of electronics from all of those rooms combined.”

“More likely than not,” opines HOPI, “But depending on whether or not they used LCD, LED, HoloHaptic…”

She doesn’t need to remind you. The liquid crystal would’ve boiled off, the electromagnetic wave of the Scouring would’ve fried the circuits, and HoloHaptic is DNA-locked to owners long since dead or cannibalized by the fish. Damned implants. Damned Cataclysm. Not that it stops you from bolting electronic tags to claim them as your designated salvage or snatching artifacts with the articulation arms.

Touchdown with at the end of the slope comes relatively quickly. From there, it’s a simple matter of cutting open enough space both above and below to wiggle the Maggie properly towards the maintenance shaft. A tall, barnacle-encrusted blast door blocks your way, but it’s easily dispatched when you dial the plasma cutter up to maximum burn.


It’s hard not to wince at the harsh scream of metal against metal as you pry the doors open. The PUEXO strains, hydraulics and myomer musculature fighting against nearly eighty years of rust and a busted lock. Not that there’s any question about whether or not you succeed. You very much do, and jet into the shaft without any further complications.

“Just cleared residential,” you radio back to the surface, “Entering the cargo hold…”

The hold itself is…spacious, to say the least. It’s the hold of the Courier several times over, at least lengthwise. Comparatively, it would’ve been able to stack container units five stories, maybe six if the structure hadn’t buckled. But there’s a noticeable dearth of containers that just happens to coincide with a large shell-shaped hole completely blocked off by sand.

“…right, then,” you mutter, stretching. “Let’s see what stayed behind.”

Perishable, perishable…here’s a decomposing, faded plastic bag marking a shipment of corn. And the mangled, twisted ruins of a container that looks like it took one of the shells that brought the Olympia down. One that had been, frustratingly, carrying parts for computers.

But much like the Courier, there’s plenty of cargo that’s still salvageable, or otherwise hadn’t been sucked out of the ship during the crash. Everything that one could need to help start, seed or otherwise maintain a colony. Clothing, non-perishable goods, sheet metal for prefab housing, refrigerators…not much, but it’s a question of quality vs. quantity in differing from the prior ship.

The real prize, however, reveals itself on the far end of the hold, just closest towards engineering as you turn the corner around a pallet of crates.

“PUEXO bays!” reports HOPI, scanning a faded, metallic directional sign. “Mark IV Zodiac line.”

The spacer models. Because as it turned out, the question of whether or not it was easy to adapt a PUEXO for space work was “yes”. And the Accelerasoft after Ladera’s death was more than willing to expand. When shaving off all the armor that would’ve otherwise been necessary to survive the crushing depths of the ocean, everything else went into more lightweight exosuits that could carry more equipment.

Unfortunately, they don’t quite adapt as well to the ocean. Not that it’s stopped Babylonian PUEXMechs from jury-rigging them for deep-sea exploration. But they don’t go nearly as deep as the older models. At around 600 meters, things start to get dicey, and outright stop working at 800 meters.

But at the end of the day, a PUEXO is a PUEXO. Even though they tried to change the “Underwater” for “Vacuum”, everyone prior to the Cataclysm still called them PUEXOs. Ladera had something good going for them, and it stuck a tad bit too well.

Marine life scatters as you push and jet your way to the other end of the hold. You aren’t easily excitable, but it’s already been a very good day to paying off your debt. An intact PUEXO, or even the scrap of one, would be a huge payout from the city. The brands ache, phantom pain dancing across the ink, reminding you of what you still owe, and how much would be removed at the end of this expedition…

You wouldn’t give a fig about even being rich. Even if most of the payout went to Stolze, you’d be a free man once more. What you’d do with that freedom…you still don’t know yourself. But the possibilities…!

“Uh, Sinleq?” HOPI nervously asks as you round the final corner, and get a good, hard look at the PUEXO bays.

“…no, I see it, too,” you mutter lowly, thumbing the safety off your harpoon gun. The cockpit flickers, polarizing briefly as the external lights come roaring to maximum brightness. And the emotional high you were riding from both the Courier and the cargo comes tumbling down to settle into your stomach as a heavy pit of anxiety. “I can see it very clearly, HOPI.”

The bay doors to the closest PEUXO bay have been violently ripped open. But the damage hadn’t been sustained in the crash. It would’ve been more mangled. Underneath more than 3200 watts of total light, the indentation of PUXO hands gouged deep into the metal, and the telltale slagged metal of a plasma cutter couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. They’re fresh, both not having nearly enough time to allow rust to settle.

Someone else was here. Someone had been here before you and cleaned out the bay of anything related to PUEXO technology.

There’s nothing left, not even maintenance pods or scrap metal, or the wreck of one where a berth’s been smashed to bits. Even the lead PUEXMech’s station was ripped apart. They picked apart this section of the ship like scavengers and crabs to a carcass on the ocean floor. The fact that they left the cargo undisturbed only raises more questions, but the fact that they knew that the PUEXOs were the most valuable…

Frustration wars with a spike of fear as you reach for the horn. Calypso needs to know IMMEDIATELY. You hit the TALK button only slightly harder than normal, “Razor to Calypso, we’ve got a huge problem.”

“Penny for your thoughts, jumbo?” drawls Aalto.

“We aren’t the first ones here, Sybil. Someone’s already looted the Olympia.”

“Uh…can you repeat that? There’s gotta be lint in my ear, because did you just say-”

“Repeating,” you almost snarl, letting your frustration bleed into your voice, “Someone’s already looted the Olympia. I dunno the who or the what, but there’s no mistaking it. There’s eight PUEXO bays here, and all of ‘em show signs of deliberate sabotage and salvage. A PUEXO was used to open them, and it sure as hell wasn’t me.”

Aalto breaks protocol by transmitting a very elaborate swear. “Shit! Uh…uh, oh fuck. Hold the phone, jumbo, I gotta-”

“Razor.” Elishani’s voice overrides his ACOMMs with an urgent decisiveness. “Confirm what you just said.”

“I’d send up video footage if I could, sir,” you grouse, “But I know what I’m seeing. HOPI can verify it as well.”

On cue, the A.I. does so. “No, it’s very clear, captain. Sinleq’s right. These markings…it’s hard to tell this deep in the ocean, but they’re at the earliest given the slag formation? Two weeks old.”

Not a moment is wasted before he makes a decision. “The operation is cancelled. Razor, Gully, Mackerel-Actual. All of you, get back to the Calypso, now!”

To your surprise, Gully is the one to immediately complain. “Sir, I just made it to the bridge-”

“That’s an order!” he shouts, “The Olympia is compromised. I’m not going to risk any of your lives on the off-chance that whoever responsible didn’t leave anything behind-!”

The situation goes from bad to worse when your monitor lights up like a Christmas tree. HOPI shouts, “Sinleq, I’ve got something on the radar-”

The wreckage violently shudders, groaning as something explodes in a distant compartment…and triggers another series of explosions. The impact rocks the cockpit, even as the Magellan fires stabilization bolts into the flooring. The gyro keeps both you and the exosuit upright, but that’s only as long as the floor doesn’t collapse beneath you. The containers aren’t nearly as lucky as several of them start falling over each other.

“Explosive decompressions detected!” alerts HOPI. “Structural buckling along decks 2 thru 5. Sinleq-”

“Yeah, I know!” you shout back. “Retract stabilization bolts. HOPI, we’re getting the hell out of here!”

“Razor, what the fuck’s going on down there?!” demands Aalto.

You gun the throttle, firing off your jets and thrusters at maximum burn. The Magellan blazes a trail of thermal exhaust and a storm of bubbles as it jets up and away from falling cargo. “Booby trap! The wreck’s been rigged to blow!” Cutting the line, you turn to HOPI, “What was it that you said was on radar?”

“Unknown!” she says, “One second it was there, just outside of the hull, then the next thing, it exploded! It could’ve been anything, Sinleq. A depth charge, a torpedo, a mine?”

Couldn’t have been a depth charge. The Calypso would’ve seen another ship or a flyer. Not a torpedo, the impact wasn’t violent enough. A mine, perhaps? No, the explosion was too controlled.

“At least we aren’t imploding,” you quip dryly. “SADOS took care of that for us. But we gotta expedite our exit, HOPI. I don’t fancy being buried under however many tons of wreckage.”

“10 million metric tons, give or take,” she reports.

“Not helping!”

Your escape is frantic, hectic and desperate. Caution is thrown to the wind as you jet at maximum burn through the wreckage of the Olympia. More than critical component gets knocked out of alignment, or the paint on your PUEXO gets scratched to hell and back. And all the while, the hallways and corridors you left behind grow smaller, tighter as struts and supports fail and collapse in on themselves.

But you make it. You definitely make it. There are a few close calls, but ones easily dispatched with concentrated blasts of the plasma cutter. By the time you pull yourself out of the wreckage and jet away to a nearby sand dune, the head of the tool glows and steams a cherry red. You don’t need to look back; the rear-facing camera captures the footage of the Olympia’s cargo component crumpling into a compact shell of its former self.

Breathing heavily, you unmute yourself and the radio. “Razor to all channels, I…I just cleared the wreck. Gully, Mackerel-Actual, Calypso...does anyone read?"

“̴Y̶O̷u̸ ̷S̵H̶o̶U̷L̴D̵ ̶N̵O̸t̶ ̷H̸A̷v̵e̴ ̵C̶O̶m̸e̸ ̴H̷E̶R̵E̸.̵”̴

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They stand only a dozen or so meters away, a pair of divers in the ancient regalia of 20th century suits. How they’re surviving under 300 meters’ worth of water pressure is a mystery. What isn’t a mystery, is what’s being held in their hands. Courtesy of the viewfinder and HOPI’s image enhancing suite.

You bring the spear gun up to bear, aimed at the diver with the detonator. Even at this distance, with the aid of HOPI, you won’t miss. “Drop it!”

The same voice chants over the radio. “̷T̸h̵e̵ ̷s̷I̷n̷s̶ ̸o̸f̴ ̵T̴H̷e̴ ̶W̸O̸r̵L̶d̷ ̴b̶E̴f̷o̶r̵e̵ ̴T̶H̴E̵ ̵f̷l̵O̷o̵d̷ ̸S̵h̵a̵L̶L̴ ̶n̶O̵T̶ ̸B̴e̷ ̵t̴o̴R̵N̵ ̵F̶r̵O̸M̶ ̶T̸I̵A̴m̷A̶t̷’̷S̴ ̸e̸M̷B̴r̶A̷C̷E̵,̷ ̷b̶A̸B̸Y̸L̵o̷n̵i̷A̷N̷ ̵s̴c̴U̶m̸.̸”̵

“Dragon’s Teeth,” you spit contemptuously.

Eco/Luddite-terrorists that emerged in the wake of Babylonia’s founding. Originally, neo-pagans organized in the Dark Winter, believing that the Cataclysm was the judgement of the gods upon the arrogance of men. Violently opposed to what they saw as a return to life before judgement, they adopted the primordial goddess of salt as their idol of worship: the dragon-goddess Tiamat. A direct challenge to Babylonia, and all the nations of the Flooded World seeking to return to life before the disaster.

You lost more than a handful of coworkers to their attacks. Bombings at the industrial district, poisonings on supplies bound for oil rigs, unexplained accidents that would be found to have been deliberate acts of sabotage. Beyond the distant and impersonal boogeyman that was the Toghril Khanate, there is no organization you loathe more than the Dragon’s Teeth.

“HOPI, do you see anything else, or is it just them?” you mutter.

“Just them,” she confirms, “But I don’t see a sub or a vehicle, let alone a structure…where the hell did they come from?”

Doesn’t matter. All members of the Teeth are designated ‘shoot on sight.’ No response from either surface or the Mackerel. To Gully, you then radio. “Gully, come in. Where are you?”

“…almost…out,” her voice comes past heavy interference, “…got transponder and black box…but reactor’s active…hot, going critical…”

The blood in your veins turns to ice. Did they sabotage that too? “Drop the box and get out of there now!”

“No…need it!" The interference isn't enough to block the desperation in her voice. "Can’t leave behind…”

Damned woman! But you shake your head, focusing back on the cultists. The Magellan takes one step after the other, closing the distance. “Drop it! I won't ask-.”

“̶W̷E̷ ̶a̴l̶l̸ ̸A̵R̷E̶ ̴a̶l̸r̷e̵A̷D̷y̸ ̸d̴E̵a̵D̶.̶ ̷Y̴o̴u̶ ̷a̸N̸d̷ ̴T̵H̶e̶ ̵r̸e̵s̴T̸ ̷m̴e̸r̶e̸L̷y̵ ̶r̴e̶f̵u̵S̸e̶ ̴T̸o̶ ̴a̵c̸C̴e̷P̴T̴ ̴T̴h̵A̵t̵ ̸h̵u̴M̵A̵N̶i̷t̸y̵ ̵i̵s̸ ̷a̷ ̷d̴y̴i̷N̷g̵ ̵a̴n̴I̷M̴a̷l̴.̶”̶

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T̸h̵e̵ ̷s̷I̷n̷s̶ ̸o̸f̴ ̵T̴H̷e̴ ̶W̸O̸r̵L̶d̷ ̴b̶E̴f̷o̶r̵e̵ ̴T̶H̴E̵ ̵f̷l̵O̷o̵d̷ ̸S̵h̵a̵L̶L̴ ̶n̶O̵T̶ ̸B̴e̷ ̵t̴o̴R̵N̵ ̵F̶r̵O̸M̶ ̶T̸I̵A̴m̷A̶t̷’̷S̴ ̸e̸M̷B̴r̶A̷C̷E̵,̷ ̷b̶A̸B̸Y̸L̵o̷n̵i̷A̷N̷ ̵s̴c̴U̶m̸.̸
W̷E̷ ̶a̴l̶l̸ ̸A̵R̷E̶ ̴a̶l̸r̷e̵A̷D̷y̸ ̸d̴E̵a̵D̶.̶ ̷Y̴o̴u̶ ̷a̸N̸d̷ ̴T̵H̶e̶ ̵r̸e̵s̴T̸ ̷m̴e̸r̶e̸L̷y̵ ̶r̴e̶f̵u̵S̸e̶ ̴T̸o̶ ̴a̵c̸C̴e̷P̴T̴ ̴T̴h̵A̵t̵ ̸h̵u̴M̵A̵N̶i̷t̸y̵ ̵i̵s̸ ̷a̷ ̷d̴y̴i̷N̷g̵ ̵a̴n̴I̷M̴a̷l̴.̶

“…almost…out,” her voice comes past heavy interference, “…got transponder and black box…but reactor’s active…hot, going critical…”
The blood in your veins turns to ice. Did they sabotage that too? “Drop the box and get out of there now!”
“No…need it!" The interference isn't enough to block the desperation in her voice. "Can’t leave behind…”

A second voice croons, “̵w̵H̴o̴ ̴A̸r̴E̶ ̷Y̸o̵U̸ ̶T̵O̷ ̴c̵H̵a̶L̴l̴E̸N̷g̸E̶ ̶t̸H̶e̵ ̵J̷U̸d̶G̵E̸M̵E̵N̵t̷ ̴o̶F̴ ̴T̸h̵E̵ ̷g̷o̶D̶s̵?̸ ̵T̴O̴ ̵T̶H̷i̷n̷K̷ ̶Y̴o̴U̸ ̷c̸A̶n̸ ̴r̴E̵s̶T̷O̷R̶e̸ ̵T̵H̶E̴ ̸e̵A̸r̴T̵H̴ ̴t̸O̴ ̶A̴ ̴g̸r̶o̶t̵e̸S̶q̴u̵E̸ ̶s̸i̴M̶U̸L̶A̵c̵r̵u̴M̶ ̵o̴f̵ ̶i̸t̷s̵ ̷f̴O̷R̷M̵E̴R̴ ̴S̷E̵l̵f̸?̶”̸

“HOPI, send an alert to the Calypso,” you tersely order. “If they aren’t already aware, the Olympia’s command structure is about to go critical. They gotta get as far away as possible.”

“They already know, Sinleq,” she says quietly. “I’ve been muting them. Aalto’s panicking and Geary’s trying to coordinate some sort of rendezvous with the Mackerel and Gully…”

The cultists make no movement as you hit the brakes, stopping at just six meters away. At this range, you won’t miss. Either with your spear gun or the plasma cutter. But what they say next stops you cold as you bring your tools to bear against them.

“̶W̴E̵ ̴k̴n̶o̴W̷ ̷W̸H̸o̶ ̵y̵o̸u̶ ̷A̷r̷E̴,̷ ̶p̴i̷L̵O̸t̶ ̷O̵F̴ ̴T̷h̷E̵ ̸B̴L̸a̸c̷k̷ ̴M̸a̷G̷E̸l̴l̷a̶N̶.̸”̵

“̶s̸I̶N̷L̶e̷Q̸ ̶u̷N̸A̸m̵I̸,̴ ̷o̸F̴ ̴t̵H̸e̸ ̴f̷R̵e̵e̷-̶C̷I̷T̷y̵ ̴o̶f̴ ̵b̸A̵B̷Y̸l̵o̸N̴I̶a̶.̷”̸

“̵f̷i̴R̷s̴T̷B̷O̴r̷n̵ ̴a̶N̶D̴ ̷o̴N̷l̸y̶ ̸s̴o̶N̸ ̸o̸f̵ ̷s̴i̶N̶e̶A̷D̵ ̷a̵N̸D̵ ̷i̵t̸a̶m̵i̴ ̸u̶n̵A̶m̷I̷.̶”̴

“̶D̶E̴B̸t̸ ̸s̸l̷a̵v̵e̸ ̶t̵o̷ ̵b̴A̷r̵t̷h̸O̸L̶o̵m̸E̶w̸ ̴S̴T̵o̴L̴z̴E̴.̷”̵

“̸G̶o̶d̸f̷a̷t̶H̷E̷R̵ ̵T̴o̷ ̸t̶H̴O̴m̵A̶S̸ ̶g̶O̸d̷w̶i̵n̵-̶B̶A̷r̶B̶E̶T̷.̶”̴

Your grip on the stick and throttle turns white. Pale as your face as the blood drains out of your skull. For the first time, true fear grips you like a vice. “How do you know these things? Answer me!”

The divers don’t answer, merely linking their arms together. “̶Y̶O̴U̸ ̷h̵A̶V̸e̴ ̴y̷o̸u̶R̶ ̵R̷O̸l̵E̴ ̶T̵o̸ ̸P̷l̸A̴Y̵ ̴i̶N̸ ̴T̷H̷e̷ ̷C̵O̷m̵i̵N̴G̷ ̵T̶R̷i̸A̷L̴s̷ ̷A̶h̵e̴a̵D̶.̶”̵

“̸m̴a̶y̷ ̶Y̸O̸U̷ ̵E̸m̵E̵r̶g̸E̶ ̵F̶A̷V̸o̵R̵a̴b̷l̸y̸ ̷I̸n̵ ̸t̵H̵e̸ ̸E̸Y̷e̷S̵ ̴O̸F̶ ̸T̴h̷e̸ ̷G̶O̶D̷D̶E̷s̸s̷.̵”̵

Uncaring about the answers, you fire off your weapons. But even as the spear impales the one on the right, and the arc of superheated gas cuts the left one in two…

A sudden flash of light just beyond the port authority graveyard. The cockpit polarizes just before you’re blinded. Gauges and sensors spike into the red, panicking at the sudden change and fluctuations of both ambient temperature and radioactivity.

“Nuclear detonation!” screams HOPI. “Sinleq, you have twenty seconds before the shockwave hits-!”

>>Roll 1d100.
>Best out of five.
Rolled 71 (1d100)

Rolled 80 (1d100)

Rolled 48 (1d100)

Rolled 30 (1d100)

Rolled 10 (1d100)

>“Nuclear detonation!”
Nukes? underwater? doing more damage to the environment themselves, fucking hypocrites.
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You come to in a familiar room. The ceiling is white, and the faint, lingering scent of anti-septic permeates the air. It’s quiet, save for the sound of your own breathing, and the creaking, groaning noise of the chair you’re sitting on.

This…isn’t where you were. No, no it isn’t. Your head’s a blurry, fuzzy mess, but you’re able to concentrate hard enough to remember how you got here. HOPI was…screaming about a trench, just deep and wide enough for the Magellan to hide in. You gunned the throttle, overriding all safeties, and you only just _barely_ made it when the blast hit, rocking both the cockpit and yourself like-

A sharp pain suddenly lances through your head. Cursing and pressing your hand to your temple, you mutter, “…what the fuck?”

“Language!” a young voice complains. A young, painfully familiar voice that stops you right in your tracks.

The room itself is sparse, dominated only by your chair, and a bed propped right up against the wall. Its occupant lies reclined, propped up by a small army of pillows. A series of IVs and drips snake from the ceiling, intertwining with EKG wires to disappear beneath sleeves, pants and shirt collars.

And yet in spite of the equipment borderline restraining him to the bed, the young boy remains utterly disaffected as he turns the page of his book. His eyes meet yours, blue to uncertain grey. “…you know the rule. A ducat into the swear jar. Between you and dad, I’m this close to buying a jet ski.”

“Tom,” you whisper.

Your godson smiles wistfully, closing his book with a quiet thump. “Hey, Uncle Sinleq. It’s…been awhile, hasn’t it?”

He looks no less diminished than he had been before the accident. Tom’s hair hasn’t fallen out from months of chemotherapy. His cheeks are pink and full, and his clothes aren’t otherwise swallowing him. He is every bit his father’s son, but his mother’s eyes, a brilliant blue, haven’t sunken in from the burden he was forced to bear.

By any stretch of the imagination, he’s the young, bright child that he should be, and should have been.

“Tom,” you repeat, rising out of your chair. “You’re…”

“…still alive,” he finishes.

“No, that’s not what I meant. How am I here? How are _you_ here?!”

“That’s easy, uncle. You’re dreaming!”

…oh. Oh. So…this is what you’re gonna be doing. “So this is happening inside my head?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“…and you aren’t the real Tom.”

He sighs. “Does it matter? I’m the Tom that you remember. I’m real enough here.”

You sigh heavily, leaning back against your seat. When you get back, you’re definitely checking in for that sleep study. “Dammit. I could’ve sworn I escaped the blast.”

Tom gives you a funny look. “You hit your head pretty hard when the wave hit. Your helmet kept the worst of it out, but it was still a bad tumble.”

…eh, that sounds about right. Besides, you’re alive enough to be dreaming and hallucinating! Silver linings. “Look, I gotta…Tom. I can’t stay. I gotta wake up. My PUEXO, the expedition and my crew…”

“I know. You’re all in trouble,” he says nervously, drumming his fingers on the cover of his book. “Uh…like a whole lot of it.”

The noise that comes out of your mouth barely passes as laughter. “Tell me something I don’t know, kid.”

“You’re deep and far away enough that the water will absorb some of the harder gamma rays and neutrons. The ship should also escape the worst of any fallout, but only if the crew stays indoors and puts on oxygen masks.”

You do know that, but you aren’t about to be pedantic with a projection of your subconsciousness. “But that still leaves Gully and the Mackerel unaccounted for.”

“The submarine…should be fine,” ventures Tom, “But your friend might not be lucky. She was closest to the Olympia when the reactor went critical.”

Gully…oh, God. What the hell was she thinking, getting the black box? Elishani would be apocalyptic right now. The two of you promised the captain that the city wouldn’t claim your lives. Stoic as he presents himself, her father must be beside himself. Any good parent would, and he doesn’t strike you as an uncaring block of wood.

“…I wouldn’t discount her yet,” you say cautiously, picking your mind for possible scenarios. “She was nearly out when she made the call. Thirty seconds later, the reactor goes critical. Lot of distance a PUEXO can travel at max burn in thirty seconds.”

Tom agrees, nodding, “Right…but what kind of PUEXO was she piloting again?”

Not a Magellan. Anything that wasn’t a Maggie could outrace your PUEXO in terms of raw acceleration. “Also, last I checked, the kinds of reactors they load into spaceships are pretty well-protected. There’s at least a million metric tons of ship between her and the core.”

“Something obviously went wrong though,” says the boy, “But you couldn’t see anything after the light and initial explosion. Maybe she found a trench, same as you? There’s plenty of them around here.”

“Maybe…hopefully it didn’t cave-in.” You pause, giving him a second look. “How old are you again?”

“I should be…eleven in a few weeks.”

“Where’s your math tables? That stuff’s way above the fifth grade, kiddo.”

Tom pouts. “I already did them. I’ve got a lot of free time in the ward, so…”

He was always smart. Is smart. In a few years, Babylonia might have an accomplished academic in their ranks. Tom could very well qualify for anything on the MCAT. Land himself in any job in either the government, merchant marine or engineering schools.

Still. “Neutrons and gamma rays, huh?”

His smile is pained. “…I wanted to learn about what nearly killed me, what's still killing me until my treatment’s over. What you saved me from.”

You cough, wishing that you had something to slake the sudden dryness in your mouth. Clearing your throat, you say roughly, “Do Caroline and Jean know about your extracurricular reading?”

Tom looks down, muttering sullenly, “…mom might. Dad, he…” He doesn’t finish, sighing. “You need to send the real me a birthday gift soon. I miss you, uncle.”

You snort at the abrupt topic change, crossing your arms with a wry grin. “Assuming I make it out of this mess alive, I’ll give you a fancy fossil I picked off the sea floor. Or maybe a waterlogged smartphone from the Caribbean Courier.”

“I’d appreciate both,” he says candidly, “I need more things to decorate my nightstand.”

Suddenly, the EKG beeps, causing both of you to jump. Tom squints, the turns to you, apologetic. “I’m sorry. But could you change out my IV fluid? There should be an extra bag in the drawer…”

You do so, crossing over to his side with two great strides. From the drawer, you unearth a plastic bag containing a red-orange fluid. The chemical cocktail printed onto the bag has more syllables and fancy medicinal names than you’re used to seeing.

“Here,” you murmur softly. A registered medicinal practitioner, you are most certainly not, but you know enough about IVs to kink the tubing to prevent air from getting in the tube. An embolism after all of this would be funny in the worst sort of fucked-up manner. “Lemme know if it hurts.”

“It won’t,” Tom says, “But I’m used to worse.”

…he isn’t even bragging. You’ve seen him face things that “worse” doesn’t even begin to cover.

“…alright, there.” You step away to admire your work, holding the old bag in your hands. “…so, where do I put this-”

“Why did you do it?” he suddenly asks.

You blink, taken aback. “I’m…you asked me to?”

He laughs, surprisingly bitter, and coughs briefly. “No, not the IV.”

[“Sinleq…it’s…it’s Caroline. S-something terrible's happened…Jean and Tommy, th-they were at Dockside this morning when…”]

You have a sinking suspicion to where he’s going. Not that you’re about to suddenly jump onto that emotional landmine. That whole issue’s been compartmentalized for the better part of five years, and now is certainly not the time to address it. Not in the middle of an emergency.

“…I took the dive to pay the bills, Tom,” you say slowly, “Might’ve gotten greedy during the dive, but I couldn’t say no to Stolze’s orders.”

His eyes narrow. “You know what I’m asking about, uncle. This…whole thing.” He gestures to the entirety of his body, and the machines both monitoring his health and keeping him alive. “And…”

[“It’s gonna be okay, Tommy. Mommy’s here, and so’s Uncle Sinleq. Daddy’s in the operating room, but he'll be here soon. So we need you to be strong, okay? I need you to be strong for all of us!”]

With a strength that he shouldn’t have, he strains, reaching up and off the pillows to grab your arm. He pulls back your sleeve, revealing the Debtor’s Brands tattooed along your arm. Four of them, one million ducats each, with sixteen more around your other arm, legs and neck. Twenty million, formerly twenty-five million, a debt owed to Founder Bartholomew Stolze.

Twenty-five million ducats.

The price for the life of Thomas Godwin-Barbet, after a freak chemical spill in Dockside exposed him to 8 Gy’s of radioactivity.

Only the technology of the Old World could save him, miracles that Babylonia could not hope to rediscover or make commonplace for a hundred years. Gene therapy, medicinal nanotechnology, tissue reconstruction and regeneration, and the reversal of severe radiation poisoning. Treatment reserved almost exclusively for the Founding Families and a select number of the elite.

[“It’s not enough, Sinleq…we could never have enough! Those…‘doctors’, they just said that we should…we should make Tommy c…c-comfortable until he…bad luck for the accident. Just bad luck. Those…those fucking bastards could cure him, but Jean and I could never come up with that much money!”]

“Why did you do it, uncle?” he repeats, as deadly as you’ve never heard or seen him. His face is sharp, and his eyes are narrowed tightly, belying the desperate tone in his voice. “…why?”

…why did you sell yourself into debt-slavery to save the life of Thomas Godwin-Barbet?

>>Please choose one (1) of the following:
>“…because I loved your mother.” (Truth)
>“…because you’re my godson.” (Technical)
>“…because your father’s my best friend.” (Omission)


And here we go...
>>“…because I loved your father.” (Truth)
>“…because I loved your mother.” (Truth)
>>“…because I loved your mother.” (Truth)
Ah, love. Ain't it a beauty?
>“…because I loved your mother.” (Truth)
>>“…because I loved your mother.” (Truth)
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>“…because I loved your mother.” (Truth)

Sinleq you moron but I get it
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>“…because I loved your mother.” (Truth)
Really? Sold yourself for a woman? And for a debt of 25 million?
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“…because I loved your mother,” you whisper softly.

Caroline Godwin. The daughter of the purser managing the finances and books of the Engineer’s Guild. A homely young woman who caught the attention of two young apprentices, two best friends sent to repair and fix a broken AC unit at the accountant’s home. On a fateful summer day, the lives of three young people became permanently intertwined.

It was, by all accounts and in hindsight, love at first sight. Childhood infatuations and adolescent crushes came and went over the years. But it had been different with her. She stole your breath away without even trying, and her smile was brighter than the sun itself. Gentle yet stern, kind but intolerant of fools. Not a sensual figure to be found languid in the Temple of Ishtar or at the arm of Babylonia’s mercantile elite. That was not her place.

The inner light within her made all the little blemishes and imperfections accentuate a warm and vivacious soul. And it was perhaps a blessing that AC unit was faulty enough for both you and Jean to make multiple visits, and that there was something else within the wings always on the verge of breaking. Household visits between strangers quickly turned into meetings with friends.

The weight on your shoulders…it doesn’t completely go away as you confess to Tom. But there is a distinct feeling of catharsis, the sensation of releasing your breath after holding it for too long. What you kept bottled up for the better part of…God, how many years had it been? At least a decade, if not more of carrying that burden all by yourself.

There are plenty who know of why you’re in debt. Larkin, a few of the Duck’s roughnecks, Geary, Elishani and Kwan. They see it as helping out your godson and his parents. A good man helping out his best friends at the lowest point in their lives. And that is true enough, but not the real motivation for why you signed the dotted line. Stolze might've been the only one shrewd enough to make the connection, but wisely knew better than to make snide remarks.

“Really?” interjects Tom, confused. “I mean…I love her, too.”

“No, Tom. Not…not like that.” You sigh, running a hand through your hair. “Kid…look, you’ll understand when you get older.”

“Only because you foot the bill,” he interrupts, “I only have a chance to grow up because of what you did.”

You grunt. “Again, tell me something I don’t know.”

Tom frowns, pursing his lips in thought. "...oh." Then, he asks with a troubled expression: “…does dad know?”

“About what?” you ask with a frown.

He gestures vaguely. “…uh, about you and mom…”

You laugh, in spite of yourself. It isn’t a pretty sound. “He’s got nothing to worry about. I’m many things, kid. An engineer, a PUEXO pilot, a wretch in love with a married woman…but I’m not a homewrecker. Your mother and I..."

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Friends? Best friends? It’s Caroline you’re talking about. And to you, she’s…

…you aren’t sure anymore. And that bothers you greatly.

Sighing, you drag your seat over to the bedside and plop down with an irritated huff. “I’m an extended part of your family. I’m still your godfather, and the oddball uncle who drops in from time to time.”

“That hasn’t been true for a while,” he says accusingly.

Tom’s right. You haven’t visited or spoken with either of his parents for years. And maybe that’s because of the distance of the Duck from Babylonia. But the roughnecks had snail mail and short-wave radio to communicate with loved ones back on the island. Caroline’s letters grew slowly less frequent as you never replied back to them.

Not that she stopped sending them, talking about the inane life on Babyloonia, or how Tom’s treatment is going. The current rate is…once every two or three months. You have them collected at the bottom of your sea-chest. How long until she realizes that the Duck’s gonna have to send her mail back since you aren’t there anymore?

But does Jean Barbet, your best friend and roommate in engineering school, know about the love you have for his wife?

You exhale wearily, muttering: “He’s…more upset at the fact that his best friend had to sell himself into slavery to save his son’s life. And that it wasn’t him. Like I’m the one who did something wrong, and it’s somehow my fault that Jean thinks of himself as less of a man.”

Tom flinches. He never was used to hearing someone put either of his parents down. All the more coming from his beloved Uncle Sinleq.

“…he feels guilty about it,” he weakly protests. “You haven’t gone out of your way to see him, but he’s avoiding you, too. He feels bad.”

“Does that include when he punched me on the day your treatment started?” you mutter darkly. The memory brings the faintest sensation of phantom pain, causing you to rub at the side of your face. “Damn near took my jaw and a few teeth off with that fancy new prosthesis he MacGyver’d from a box of scrap metal.”

The boy’s eyes go wide in utter disbelief. “He did that?”

“Yep. You were in a coma, so you wouldn’t have known. But Jean was…” You pause, thinking about how best to phrase it. “…well, he was having a bad day. Between the stress of losing a hand and leg, a whole lot of morphine, the condition you were in and the physical therapy…he cracked. It took three orderlies and Caroline to pull him off me.”

What you don’t mention is the fact that she had turned to you more than she did to her husband. Not through any fault of his own, as he’d been under the knife and comatose for a week to fix his limbs lost in the same accident that nearly killed Tom. The same pipe that bathed his son in radioactive chemicals nearly crushed him. Had crushed him to the point of losing the fingers of his hand and most of his left leg.

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Jean had always been proactive, loud and forward. Not much had changed since engineering school, and unexpectedly made for a good team. You each were complimentary opposites, two sides of the same coin. To his gusto, you offered temperament. To your analytical mind, he gave execution. An easy relationship that could’ve had one over the other, but you were both equals in each other’s eyes. The thought of one subordinating to the other was never in mind.

But it had been so tempting on that day. It fell to you to console Caroline. She was an emotional wreck, bawling and sobbing into your shoulder as her son and husband laid in the hospital, dying or otherwise mangled and unresponsive. And damn you, but it was so tempting. The faint scent of shampoo and fabric softener that gently wafted from her clothes and hair, and the warmth of her body contouring perfectly against your own…

“…he shouldn’t feel guilty,” you say bitterly, banishing that memory out of the front of your mind. “Wouldn’t do any of us any good, least of all you and Caroline if he signed the dotted line.”

Not that he would fetch much. Missing a leg and most of his left hand, a solitary thumb and fancy new digits notwithstanding, there isn’t much a cripple could pull in. And as sick as the thought makes you, Caroline wouldn’t either. There isn’t much money that anyone could squeeze from out of a desperate seamstress. Even if she put her talents to weaving in and out of brothels or the Temple of Ishtar instead of looms or spinning wheels.

That kind of money would never come close to paying for Tom’s treatment. Only someone with your standing and certifications could have ever hoped to make an offer to the Founding Families. Not that too many were willing to help since you couldn’t pay everything up front. Stolze was the only one who let you work the rest of the difference and pay in installments.

“…you still didn’t answer,” protests Tom.

But that isn’t the billion-ducat question.

The three of you had maintained a happy status quo for years. Unspoken, but very well established. She had plenty of propositions and date invitations, turning them all down without fail. Neither you or Jean had any flings or other significant relationships, not for a lack of trying on either part. The years spent in all of your respective programs had been the best part of your lives. Friends content to bask and enjoy each other’s company, even if you secretly wished for something more.

But everything had changed with two letters: one of acceptance, and one of rejection. You had to leave, but by the time you returned from a year of intense training, the status quo had been irrevocably broken.

Did Jean Barbet, your best and only friend in the Belt, if not the entire Flooded World, know about how much you loved Caroline Godwin…

…and that even with that knowledge, made a move on her out of spite when you got into the PUEXO Program, and he didn’t?

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And then as if to rub it in your face, he made you both the best man at the wedding, and godfather to his firstborn son.

“Uncle,” Tom cries suddenly, and you’re pulled out of your thoughts to realize you’ve gripped onto his arms tightly, nearly throttling him in a fit of pique. “You’re…hurting me!”

…he isn’t real.

This is all happening inside of your head.

The real Tom Barbet is laying in a bed back in Foggy Bottom, hooked up to a battery of machines and IV fluids that are keeping him alive.

This is just an image of your godson, conjured up by your unconsciousness as you lay collapsed in the cockpit of your PUEXO three hundred meters below the surface of the ocean.

…but you loosen your grip and let him go. Tom looks at you with a hurt expression that feels like a punch to the gut. And you can’t decide which of his parents he takes after more. Either way, Jean or Caroline looking at you with that same expression only makes you feel like more of a bastard.

“…sorry,” you mutter, plopping back down into your chair, “…it’s been…a rough couple of years.”

Tom’s gaze softens. “…yeah. It has.”

You don’t have too long to stew in silence. Off in the distance, and blocked by the walls of this mental construct, you can hear something faintly. It ebbs and flows, a high-pitched, caterwauling shriek that couldn’t be mimicked with a human voice.

“The emergency alarm,” your godson realizes. “Uncle, your PUEXO…”

“At least it isn’t the oxygen alert,” you muse dryly. “…but I guess that means our time’s coming to an end."

"Please be safe, uncle. You've got your work cut out for you."

"Something I know, kiddo," you joke. "Well, duty and the Calypso are waiting. Not to mention her crew, and...”

A brief impression, a smattering of faces that come to the front of your mind. The crewmembers, officers and personalities of the slave ship. But one stands out above the rest…

>>Please choose one (1):
>“Aalto needs my help.”
>“Gully needs my help.”
>“Holt needs my help.”

“I guess…” Tom’s silent for a few seconds more, then shyly ventures, “…uncle?”


He looks at you straight in the eyes, and in a wobbling, uneasy voice asks: “…what you did. Selling yourself to Stolze. What you put yourself through… was saving me a mistake? Do you regret it?”

>>Please choose one (1):
>"Calling it a mistake is underselling it, and I'm a fool for doing it."
>"Don't ask me that because I don't know the answer to either."
>“It doesn't matter because I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”

>>Please structure your vote as the following:
>Help choice.
>Tom choice.


Sinleq's past and reason for the debt are now finally out of the way. Now, without further ado, onto the action!
>>“Gully needs my help.”
She's in the most danger. And she's the cutest.
>“It doesn't matter because I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”
Might have been a mistake- might not. Doesn't matter in the end. It's just the way he is.
>>“Gully needs my help.”
Gully does need the help compared to the rest. Holt best girl tho.
>>“It doesn't matter because I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”
I kinda want to mix the first and last in the help choice. It was a mistake, and Sinleq was a fool for doing it. But he'd definitely do it all the same
>>“Gully needs my help.”
>“It doesn't matter because I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”
>“Aalto needs my help.”
>"Don't ask me that because I don't know the answer to either."
>“Aalto needs my help.”
>"Don't ask me that because I don't know the answer to either."
What a sad, sad story. Hopefully it can be happy with some breaking.
>“Gully needs my help.”
>"Don't ask me that because I don't know the answer to either."
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>“Gully needs my help.”
Needs it the most and I like her the most.
>"Don't ask me that because I don't know the answer to either."
Saving a kid's life is not a mistake on principle but doing it because of an impotent love for another man's wife, however, is revolting. Guess it depends on what you prioritize.
Sydney Carton did it in Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities". Although he was saving the whole Manette/Darnay family unit, not just Lucie's daughter, from the Reign of Terror. Traded places with Charles Darnay to save Lucie from being a grieving widow and at risk of being executed just by being associated with an aristocrat.

And for all of his griping, Sinleq _does_ care for Tom beyond the fact that he's Caroline's son, and the boy in turn thinks the world of his uncle/godfather. That's also another grievance that Jean had against Sinleq when he snapped in the hospital ward. Tom was always asking when Uncle Sinny would come to visit, whether or not dad could ask Uncle Sinny if he could take a ride in the Magellan, and whether or not Uncle Sinny was coming to dinner to share stories of his adventures beneath the ocean.

Define "breaking".

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>"Gully needs my help."
>"Don't ask me that because I don't know the answer to either."


“…read me…”

… …

“…not responding…time before we…”

… … …



The dim, low-level emergency light of the cockpit stabs into your eyelids. The burden of consciousness returns too quickly, then violently ebbs just as fast. It feels like someone repeatedly driving a heated knife in and out of your frontal lobe.

Your left eye opens. The other one doesn’t. All you see is a small, sliver of light before something seeps in, and instinct and pain forces it shut.

Everything hurts, but nothing feels broken, numb or otherwise unresponsive.

You wrench your hand free, and use the back of your sleeve to wipe whatever it is blocking your eye. It comes back a stick, bloody red, and you think to yourself that it’s better that you’re bleeding outward than inward. But you have to repeat the motion twice before you’re able to see completely. And even then, it isn’t all that much.

The interior of the cockpit has gone dark, save for the dim red light of emergency power. Everything that isn’t essential to life support is offline. Your camera monitors are offline, and the fist-sized viewport is completely obscured by mud. Coughing harshly, you try to reorient yourself and even out your breath. It takes a few moments, and you’re spitting blood out with every breath.

“…HOPI?” you whisper, straining to reach the box that houses the A.I. core. “HOPI, are you awake?”

No response.

“Ah, fucking hell…” Groping for the TALK button, you hiss out, “…Sybil?”


There’s way too much noise on her end of the line. Like she’s in the middle of a busy intersection. Twenty people seem to be talking at once, voices you’re only slightly able to attach to faces and memories.

“EVERYONE SHUT THE FUCK UP!” A beat. Then: “Razor, come in, Razor. This is Sybil! Do you read me?”

“This is Razor, reading you,” you cough out, “…reading you loud and clear, Sybil.”

Aalto breaks radio protocol by transmitting a very elaborate and unladylike swear. “About fucking time, jumbo! Scared us half to death when you weren’t picking up the line!”

You shake your head, fighting off a sudden wave of nausea. “How long was I out?”

“Just a little under an hour, you jackass,” she snarls.

Her voice is angry. Not an ounce of concern as much as annoyance that you didn’t respond immediately. How wonderfully typical of her.

“Razor,” the sharp voice of Elishani cuts through the din like a hot knife through butter. His voice is calm, but it’s the tersest you’ve ever heard. “What’s your current status?”

“I’m fine, sir," you reply, "But the main reactor’s out, running on emergency. Won’t be able to get a full report until I restart both the PUEXO and HOPI.”

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“Accelerate your timetable as fast as you can. We’re bugging out back to Babylonia as soon as we get everything fixed.”

That…doesn’t sound too good. He didn’t mention Gully or the Mackerel, but you decide to file that away later in lieu of a sitrep. Punching into an old analog computer to run a manual diagnostic, you inquire, “What about you? What’s goin’ on up top?”

“Eh…could be worse,” offers Chief Holt in a muffled, ragged sing-song voice. In the background of her transmission, you can hear engineers shouting and the chaotic whir of hand machines and hydraulics. “Could be better.”


She sighs. “It’s a fuckin’ mess, pardon my French. We were steamin’ away from the Olympia at full burn, but the waves from the blast damn near capsized the ship. Engine’s stalled, and the reactor started goin’ into the red…Skipper gave the order to kill the reactor before the control rods had a chance to start dancin'.”

You grimace, biting back a string of curses. The failure of containment would be an unmitigated disaster for all involved. For the whole ship to lose both oil and water pressure to the engines and reactor, those waves had to have been tall. “Tell me the crew’s equipped for radiological threats.”

“The moment Gully said the reactor was still hot, I had ‘em all shut up and suit up. While the whole ship ain’t insulated, most of the crew should be. Only essential deckhands up top, everyone else is hunkerin’ down as far away from the bulkheads as possible.”

It’s gonna cost a pretty penny to decontaminate the Calypso back home. Hopefully that’s an expense that Stolze, the local Port Authority and the Salvage Guild are willing to pay. If not, you’d be the first one to raise twelve kinds of hell on behalf of the whole crew.

“Any casualties?”

Holt doesn’t answer immediately. “…crane fell on one of the operating crews. Killed two instantly, bled another to death, and pinned another five against a bulkhead. We’re still tryin’ to cut them out, but it’s…a mess.”

Shit. “I’ll get up there as fast as I can,” you begin, but she cuts you off.

“You gotta focus on yourself, Unami,” she says, in a voice that brokers no argument. “I might be the Deck Chief, I’m also your PUEXMech. And right now, your situation’s a hell of a lot worse than mine is. One thing at a time, but let’s see if we can’t get you back up and runnin’.”

An old diver once said that if you hear a bang or a crack, and have time to think about it, then you’re going to be okay. Granted, he was talking about submarines, but the same principle should apply to PUEXO piloting. The fact that you aren’t a fine, chummy paste splattered against the sphere of the cockpit is a good indicator that things aren’t completely fucked.

But you aren’t about to start a pissing contest with her to see who has it worse. “Right. Okay, let’s…diagnostic’s coming back.”

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The analog computer spits out its diagnostic on a DDOS-style screen. What it says confirms what you suspected had happened, and why you don’t have any power: adapter isn’t making contact with the reactor core. Something must’ve gotten dislodged in the explosion. A bad situation, but not the end of the world.

Reporting this to Holt, she speculates, “You should be able to bypass the link to the main reactor then reroute the draw to the auxiliaries. The backup draw’s gonna feel the strain, but it’ll give you enough of a kick to restart the Magellan.”

You nod…then think about the ridiculousness of the gesture when you’re the sole occupant of the PUEXO. “That just might work.”

“Might,” interjects a skeptical Aalto. The radio isn’t completely able to mask the nervousness of her voice. “I think skipper and the XO are gonna need better than ‘might’ considering how Gully and the Mackerel are-”

“It’s the only thing I can think of that’ll work,” the chief retorts hotly, “What we both think’ll work. If not…you’re more ‘n welcome to go down and try and fish him up.”

"You first, you knuckle-dragging wrench wench."

The bickering doesn’t last too long before Geary tells them both to shut up. “We’ll leave it to you, Razor. Once you finish, let us know immediately.”

You grunt an affirmative, straining to reach an override key placed at the very top of the cockpit. Whiffing on the first swipe, but you manage to stretch far enough to grab it. With a twist, a big, red button tinged with orange and black stripes pops open just above your head. Pushing it begins the first in many sequential steps to restart the reactor.

You go through the motions, recalling ingrained mental and muscle memories from years’ worth of training. Switches are flipped, buttons are pressed, and override keys are inserted and turned. You punch in the manual command on an old analog computer, and hover your finger just above the ENTER key.

“Wake up, sleeping beauty,” you mutter, “It’s time to get back to work.”

You hit the ENTER key with only slightly more of a dramatic flair than is absolutely necessary.

… …

… … …

…and when nothing immediately happens, save for a long string of text that scrolls down the screen, you feel like an idiot.

“Well that was anti-climactic-”

There’s a noticeable CLUNK that runs through the cockpit as the Magellan comes roaring back to life. Emergency lighting dims, flickering before you get the full brilliance of the cockpit, console and monitors without any sort of warning. The knife sawing into your frontal lobe is temporarily upgraded to a chainsaw as you blink the white spots out of your eyes.


“Re-re-re-re-recalibrating…” stutters the artifact-ridden, static-laced voice of HOPI, “Re-re-re-recalibrating…”

Cursing, you mutter, “Give a guy a warning next time, why don’t you?”

You might’ve as well been talking to a brick wall for how she just ignores you and focuses on restarting the Magellan.

Good for her. She’s got better things to do than listen to you bitch and moan. Although should you even be complaining? Because according to the monitors, the PUEXO’s back up and running through the impromptu connection. Hopefully the draw won’t burn out before you’re finished with the day’s bullshit.


A string of text runs down the computer as the systems that comprise the PUEXO’s onboard suite come back to life. To your immense relief, more register as ONLINE rather than OFFLINE or otherwise unresponsive. Looks like you managed to maneuver fast enough to avoid the worst of the blast.


The orientation of the PUEXO isn’t…ideal. You’ve somehow managed to crash face first into the soil. But the joystick and foot pedals respond easily enough. And with a bit of fine piloting, you manage to push yourself out of the silt, shake off the sand that’s pilled up atop the Magellan, and re-orient yourself to an upright position.

“Morning, HOPI,” you say candidly, rapping the box as per the normal ritual, “Took your sweet time getting up, eh?”

The A.I. isn’t nearly as amused. “…you’re amazingly calm for someone whose blood is all over the cockpit.”

“It’s just a head wound. ‘sides, I ain’t the one that’s gonna be scrubbing it out.”

“You sure about that?”

With the ritualistic banter once more out of the way, you leap straight into business.

“Relative to those cultists, where are we?” you ask, thumbing through your cameras. All save for the rear-facing camera respond and paint a picture of a coral-encrusted hole in the ocean floor. Save for trash and a scattering of marine life, it’s an utterly desolate locale.

“In a ditch approximately 368 meters deep,” she reports, “You managed to trip just in time. Your jets and thrusters are cooked, but they’re still operational.”

You release a breath you didn’t know you were holding. The current depth isn’t anywhere near the Magellan’s stress level. God knows you’ve worked in deeper. The situation…well, it isn’t good, but it’s a massive weight off your shoulders. Shouldn’t take too long to either crawl or blast off from your current position.

“Did we lose anything important?” Fingers crossed that you didn’t. But given the state of the camera, you aren’t holding your breath.

…heh, holding your breath.

Sometimes you crack yourself up.

…no, the oxygen gauge still reads at a healthy blue. You aren’t suffering from hypoxia.

HOPI takes a moment to compile everything: “All but one of the articulation arms are unresponsive. There’s a leak in the right hemisphere’s hydraulic injector, and you’ve got some thrusters that’ve lost significant articulation. And, last but not least, I’m detecting trace amounts of radiation sprinkled all over the frame.”

The SEMAs are an acceptable loss, but the thrusters are worrying. You shouldn’t have any trouble getting out of the ditch. Push comes to shove, you can turn your spear gun into a grappling hook. However, that hydraulics leak is putting another clock on operation time.

“How long do we have?” you ask.

“Approximately two hours. I can use our last SEMA to make a field repair.”

“Do what you can.” You pause, turning upward to get the angle of the launch. “But first thing’s first…we gotta get out of here.”

“Cooked” turns out to be the right description to describe the state of the thrusters. You have enough of them to get you out of the ditch and back to 315 meters, but they _really_ work for it. To make matters worse, the loss of articulation means that they’re all pulling double-duty to maneuver the Magellan where it is you want to go.

“…can you do anything about the thrusters?” you ask when you touch down.

“I’m an A.I., Sinleq, not a miracle worker,” deadpans HOPI, “But I’ll see what I can do with only one arm and no drydock.”

And to think that her initial personality had been well-mannered and polite. Guess the whole “adaptive” angle that the Old World coded into her reacts to more than just a changing environment.

“Gully, Mackerel, this is Razor on all open channels,” you announce, “Does anyone read me?”

You receive no response. At least, a response that isn’t digitized or white noise. Both the mini-submarine and Gully’s PUEXO have popped their distress beacons. And from the looks of things, what HOPI’s able to decode in the data stream, both are in a whole world of hurt. But one of them had been closer to the Olympia than the other.

Making a decision, you radio back up to Aalto, “Surface, this is Razor. I’ve got a lock on Gully’s signal, and I’m moving to begin rescue operations.”

While much of the Port Authority Graveyard escaped unscathed from the blast, the same couldn’t be said for the field where the Olympia’s command structure had rested. The coral reef and fields of oceanic grass have been violently disturbed. Almost a full meter of displaced sand has either buried or swept away any prior signs of life.

“Protecting the environment and planet my ass,” you grumble, cursing at the Dragon’s Teeth Cultists. "Fucking hypocrite nutjobs..."

Their deaths don't weigh heavily on your mind. Your only regret is that you didn't kill them fast enough to stop the detonation.

The on-board Geiger counter dances wildly from side-to-side as you slog through the ocean floor. It increases in frequency with every step you take towards your fellow pilot’s symbol. It isn’t just the nearby water that’s irradiated. Your sensors register pieces of not only the spaceship, but dregs of unstable fissile material and parts of the reactor that’ve been scattered across the sea floor.

“I _strongly_ recommend not staying here for long,” HOPI warns, “It doesn’t matter if the water’s absorbing most of it or how well the Magellan’s shielded. There’s enough radiation here to give the Chernobyl, Fukushima and Ganymede a run for their money.”

…not like you were planning on it anyway. You know better than most how deadly radiation can be on the human body. “I’m only here as long as it takes to get Gully to safety.”

“Mhmmmm. Bringing up another woman in front of your co-pilot, are you?”

You roll your eyes. “Oh, please. She’s the captain’s daughter. And she has the black box. Saving both is gonna get me a nice bonus once we get back to Babylonia.”

“How gentlemanly of you,” the A.I. drolls flatly. “You’re only two dozen meters out from her current position, Galahad. Looks like she had the same idea as you did, diving into the closest area of cover.”

…Gully still hasn’t shown you how to fix her camera. And you haven’t shown her the adaptation of “Great Expectations” starring Ioan Gruffud. But you don’t mention either to HOPI as you crest the final sand dune and nearly stumble into the trench where the blast had flung your messmate.

Gully’s Mk. IV “Caprica”-class PUEXO is a mess, partially obscured under a blanket of radioactive sand. Its left arm is little more than a sparking stump of hydraulics and myomer fibers waving uselessly in the water. The legs look fine though, although you’d have serious reservations about her putting weight on the left leg for too long, given how it’s been violently twisted. Most of her equipment’s been outright sheared away, registering as being buried dozens of meters away on radar.

As far as you or the scanners can tell, the on-board fusion core hasn’t ruptured or detonated. It’s entered standby mode, giving only enough power from auxiliaries for life support and distress. But her right side is relatively pristine. And clutched under her arm like a football is the black box of the Olympia. It’s…larger than you expected, resembling more of a compact foodstuffs crate than a computer box.

“Surface, I’ve got eyes on Gully,” you call, “Moving into-”

“Is she alright?” Elishani cuts in with a harsh demand. “Razor, can you see her?”

“The distress signal includes her lifesigns, sir,” offers HOPI, “And they’re fine. The Mk. IVs were originally built to withstand cosmic radiation.”

“What about her status? Why isn’t she answering our calls?”

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“Oh, that’s easy enough to answer, sir,” you answer, squinting at the enhanced imaging, “Her communication module’s been fried. But even if it wasn’t, she’s…unconscious, sir. If I’m reading this data stream right.”

When HOPI verifies it, the captain isn’t quick enough to cut the line before he transmits a particularly colorful and angry swear. When the other end picks up again, it’s Geary. “Razor, I’m afraid our hands are still full. The reactor’s still offline, and Holt’s working her crew to get the crane back in order. Can you do anything on your end to help her?”

Fortunately, you can. “HOPI, standby to transmit release codes to the Caprica. We’re gonna get up close and do an emergency P2P.”

Puexo-To-Puexo. An absolute, last-resort rescue that involves one PUEXO aligning its cockpit hatch right adjacent to another for a pilot to mount a personal rescue. Not often encouraged or taught, given how cockpit alignment and design has evolved over several generations of the exosuit’s history. But one that, in theory, can be performed given the right angle. A “design quirk” that many at Accelerasoft thought to be rid of, but one that Ladera had explicitly said to keep in all subsequent PUEXO generations.

And thank God for that.

“…you should have enough room,” the A.I. says after running the numbers, “But it’s gonna be tight. Lucky for you, the Caprica’s at the right angle for it.”

“I’ll celebrate if we can start her up again and get her into the shallows. But we gotta get moving. How much oxygen does Gully have?”

“…one of her tanks is busted, but she should have another two hours’ worth. Maybe three given how little you breath during sleep. You’re not in that much of a hurry.”

“Remember what Aalto said before the dive?” you mutter as you align for, then execute the maneuver. “About how Babylonia isn’t the only one with Old World tech? We didn’t see it, but I bet the explosion was visible for more than a few miles above the water.”

The sooner you’re out of here, the better. You don’t want to be lingering, with the Calypso dead in the water and vulnerable, for anyone curious enough to come sniffing around. More often than not, it usually means bad news. Pirates, cultists…or worse.

“Hard seal established,” reports HOPI, shortly after a heavy CLUNK. “Flushing water and establishing electronic handshake…I’m in. Gully’s HOPI is unresponsive, but I’ll see what I can do to restart it.”

You slap the button holding your seatbelts in place, stretching as best as you can prior to reaching for the hatch to pry it open. The lines connecting your suit and TAComm helmet to the Magellan fall away at the slightest touch. There’s nothing left connecting you to the Magellan. All that’s left…

“Electronic handshake established,” HOPI mutters, “Transmitting emergency unlock codes…”

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You’re already moving when the hatch pops open. Armed with a first aid kit, a compact fire extinguisher and a small plasma torch, you wrench the cockpit open and squeeze through the connection with a controlled, but desperate speed. A moment of disorienting nausea passes before you right yourself and think “sideways” as you slither into Gully’s cockpit.

But you stop, momentarily taken aback by the sight that greets you. “What the heck?”

The interior of the Caprica is spacious, as one might expect of a PUEXO originally designed for space. Not enough for two, but plenty of wiggle room for your unique entrance. Most of the systems are the same, down to the orientation of the pedals and the joystick. There are, of course, generational idiosyncrasies unique to each PUEXO-class, but you can see yourself easily piloting this without too much trouble.

Gully herself is slumped against the side of her chair, unresponsive and dead to the world. There doesn’t seem to be too much blood, and you can hear the faint sound of her breathing. A brief inspection reveals no broken limbs or other visual injuries. Same as you, she took a bad hit on the way down.

What’s stopped you are the photos that line the cockpit. Instant photos of places, people, objects and things, all placed in areas that wouldn’t otherwise obstruct or hinder Gully’s controls or monitors. You couldn’t count them all, but you estimate that there’s at least a dozen…no, two dozen photos placed all over the place.

You spot a younger version of Captain Elishani and Lt. Commander Geary, twenty years younger and arm-in-arm, smiling in the uniforms of the Megiddan Empire Navy. Here’s another of the Caprica out of the water, arraigned in drydock and swarming with mechanics. A small tabby cat picks food out of a child’s hand, and a fish swims just outside of the glass of a PUEXO viewport. Photos of crewmembers, photos of PUEXO pilots…some candid, others taken without subterfuge or surprise.

These photos run the gamut from being years old, to being recent, as fresh as a week old. You have to squint to read them, but there are dates and accompanying text on the underside of each one of them. Interestingly enough, for all of the photos, Gully herself isn’t a subject in one of them.

No, you correct yourself, up towards the hatch. There’s a photo of a younger Gully, maybe a few years younger, standing alongside her father in front of the Caprica. The certificate in her hands marks her as a fresh and official PUEXO Pilot of Babylonia. Her face is neutral, but the captain sports a rare, proud smile.

“…you picked one hell of a spot for a photo collage,” you mutter, tearing your eyes away from the sight, then towards the unconscious pilot. You reach your arm, grab her by the shoulder, and shake her. “Gully. Gully, it’s me, Sinleq. Wake up!”

She stirs, groaning. You shake her harder, and this time, you get a more coherent response: “…daddy?”

[“You know, Sinleq?” Stolze mused as you handed back the pen that signed your life away, “I’d almost think that you’re Tom’s real father, not Jean. Given how far you’re willing to go for the boy’s life-”]

“Sorry to disappoint,” you mutter roughly, banishing the memory of punching the old bastard right in the face, “But I ain’t anyone’s parent. C’mon, Gully, don’t keep me waiting. We’re on so many different clocks that it isn’t funny.”

It takes her a moment, but she eventually stirs back to life. You pull back, giving her just enough space to come back to a (relatively) upright position. She blinks, wiping at the corners of her eyes, then squints in the general direction of your voice…then recoils in utter surprise.

“Sinleq?” she whispers in disbelief.

“Last time I checked,” you reply dryly.

“…how did you get here?”

“I swam.” When she stares at you, utterly unimpressed, you roll your eyes. Seems that she’s coherent enough to return to her default deadpan. “P2P from my Maggie to your Caprica. Besides, that isn’t what we’re worried about…”

>>Please choose one (1) of the following:
>“I ain’t your daddy, but you’re still about to get one hell of a spanking.” [Scold]
>“Look, what happened…happened. I’m just glad that you’re alright.” [Relief]
>“What the hell’s so important about the box that you couldn’t let it go?” [Query]

>>“I ain’t your daddy, but you’re still about to get one hell of a spanking.” [Scold]
So, so tempted to pick this.
>“Look, what happened…happened. I’m just glad that you’re alright.” [Relief]
But this is my ultimate vote.
>“What the hell’s so important about the box that you couldn’t let it go?”
>>“Look, what happened…happened. I’m just glad that you’re alright.” [Relief]
>>“I ain’t your daddy, but you’re still about to get one hell of a spanking.” [Scold]
>>“What the hell’s so important about the box that you couldn’t let it go?” [Query]
>“What the hell’s so important about the box that you couldn’t let it go?” [Query]
>“Look, what happened…happened. I’m just glad that you’re alright.” [Relief]
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>>Query won by the time of the writing...

You sigh. Any sort of harsh reprimanding just fades away. But you aren’t about to nearly let her off the hook. “What the hell’s so important about the box that you couldn’t let it go?”

Gully looks defensive. “I…I have my reasons.”

“Must’ve been a really good reason,” you say dryly. “I don’t know the going rate for spaceship black boxes, but I really hope it’ll cover the cost of repairs for your Caprica.”

“It will,” she counters heatedly. “This thing’s worth its weight in gold several times over.” Gully pauses, visibly thinking. “…if you’re nice, I’ll let you have a share when I turn it in.”

In spite of the situation, you let out a harsh bark of laughter. It rings in your helmet, and in the tight confines of the cockpit. “I already have a share just by being down here. No different than with what you get from all the crap I tagged back in the boat graveyard. And believe me, I tagged a LOT.”

She opens her mouth to argue, but closes as her eyes go wide. “You’re hurt.”

“So are you,” you counter not unkindly, reaching for the clasp behind your neck. Fumbling blindly, you feel the smooth latch and pull, releasing the TAComm Helmet’s grip from your head. “Hold this for me, please…”

Gully does so, gingerly taking your helmet as blood runs down the front of your face.

“Tell you what,” you offer, “Why don’t we clean ourselves up first? See if we can’t fix any of your electronic suite and get your reactor back online. Then we’ll get back to bickering. Sound good?”

The fact that she actually takes a moment to weigh either option…well, she decides not to press the issue any further. “Yeah…but what about the Mackerel? And the Calypso?”

“One thing at a time,” you mutter, reaching for your first aid kit. “HOPI, how’re we looking?”

“Diagnostic’s finished,” the A.I. chirps, “Most of the Caprica’s sensors and comm suites are fried, but everything related to operations escaped relatively unscathed.”

“See what you can fix in about ten minutes. We gotta go check up on the Mackerel.” Then, you add as an afterthought, “And let the surface know that I’ve got contact with Gully. Should take some pressure off the captain’s nerves.”

Gully undoes her helmet, shaking her head to allow the cascade of silvery-white hair come down her shoulders. “And here I thought you let me be the ExEl for this dive, Unami.”

You shrug, tearing open an antiseptic. “That might’ve gone out the window with your PUEXO half-crippled…”

It doesn’t take too long for you to dress each other’s wounds. The tight confines of the cockpit, and the lack of a mirror forces you adapt as best you can. Both you and Gully hiss, or otherwise curse quietly as the sting of alcohol and antiseptic chases away any dregs of mental fog from the shockwave.

Gritting your teeth, you gingerly place a length of gauze on Gully’s forehead, and carefully apply an adhesive spray. She winces as it catches some of her hair but otherwise takes it like a champ. It won’t win any awards, but it should keep any bleeding under control for the rest of the operation.

“…passenger list,” she mutters as she tears a scrap of bandage with her teeth.

You pause in your ministrations. “Beg your pardon?”

Gully exhales heavily, squinting as she dabs a pad at a nasty gash across your eyebrow. “…the black box is integrated with both the transponder and the on-board flight computer. There should’ve been a manifest for not only the cargo, but the crew compliment and the passengers aboard the Olympia.”

…right. That makes enough sense. “…those Teeth cultists. They got to the storage component and rigged it to blow. Swiped all the PUEXO-tech, too. Did they do anything to the computer? ‘cause, you know how they are when it comes to…whatever fork of Luddite insanity they follow.”

She frowns. “…I hope not, after everything that's happened. Otherwise, I’m going to be very upset with them.”

“Take a number and get in line,” you snark, twitching at the sting of the antiseptic. “I’m halfway tempted to buy a bundle of plastic straws and just chuck ‘em into the ocean.”

The ghost of a smile tugs at the corner of her mouth. “Did you see any other Teeth members? Vehicles or habs?”

“No, and that’s the damnedest thing. Wish we had time to look and see where the bastards were hiding.”

You pause, recalling what your fellow pilot had said earlier. “…so, what exactly did you need with the ship’s manifest anyway?”

Even as she’s cleaning the blood off your face, Gully has a distant, wistful look in her eyes. One that sees beyond the confines of the cockpit. She doesn’t answer, even as her lips work to form an answer. Then…

“…to see whether or not,” she whispers in a vulnerable, uncertain tone, “I was aboard the Olympia when it was shot out of the sky.”

…it doesn’t feel like the floor’s been pulled out from under you. Not so much as you’re struggling to reconcile that particular tidbit of information with…everything that you’ve learned up till this point. Because the math absolutely does not check out.

“…Gully, what-”

You barely have time to process that bombshell before the Caprica shudders, and the interior lighting of the cockpit slowly sputters back to life. (Your) HOPI speaks over the intercom: “Reactor’s working only at 80%, but Gully shouldn’t be in any danger of a meltdown, or any contamination from the outside. Her PUEXO should still have enough mobility to follow you, but she’s gonna be mostly relying on jets and thrusters.

“Oh, and the captain’s given us a direct order to assist the Mackerel ASAP. As soon as I confirmed that the Caprica can still move.”

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Tempting as it is to tell the A.I. to be hold for Gully, duty overrides your curiosity. “What’s wrong with the Mackerel?”

HOPI’s voice is grim. “They fell a little further than we did.”

Gully pulls away from your cheek, wiping away at the blood on her fingertips. Then, reaching for her helmet, murmurs, “…we should get going.”

…you really should. “You gonna be okay?”

“Mmmm. Controls are responsive, but I’m not moving until we’re uncoupled.”

“Right, right…I think HOPI might’ve set up a relay between our PUXEXO’s. So stay close, and I can pass on anything you want back up to the surface.”


Gully looks like she might say something else. only to pull away at the last second as you shut the hatch on your way out.

>>Line Break

It’s both a testament to the speed of the submarine, as well as the reaction time of the pilot to maneuver the vessel as fast and far away from the blast radius. Not nearly fast enough, though, given how the distress beacon’s gone off. They aren’t nearly as armored as you or Gully’s PUEXOs.

The Mackerel’s come to rest at the edge of a cliff, teetering over a drop-off that goes down into a pitch-black abyss seemingly carved into the ocean floor. It’s deep enough where you can’t even see the bottom, even with the aid of a PUEXO’s full suite of high-beam lights.

You raise the suit’s right arm, cycling to an LDM tool, and take a measurement of the drop-off.

The meter clocks in at 1.8km, the maximum distance, before spitting out a reading that says the trench goes on further beyond what it can measure. That’s an awfully long way down, and a slow, painful death by suffocation for the Mackerel if they fall off the edge…

…if the pressure didn’t kill them first and fold the submarine like a sardine tin.

Its stern took the worst of the blast. What’s left of the rudder is a twisted wreck, and the propellers are spinning uselessly with the tide. But the fact that you can see air bubbles slowly streaming out of the rear is a very BAD sign. To make matters worse, half of the sub is buried underneath a significant pile of debris.

You thumb through the channels, and open a line on the submarine’s frequency. “Mackerel, this is Razor, come in Mackerel, over.”

No response, not even the dry hiss of static. You try again twice, only to get the same result each time.

“Tell Gully to hold her position,” you mutter to HOPI, then switch the channel to the surface. “Sybil, this is Razor. I’ve got eyes on the Mackerel. Moving in to begin rescue operations…”

In theory, the cliff should be enough to support the Magellan's weight, but you aren’t taking any chances. You jet carefully, skirting just along the edge of the drop-off with your sensory suite working overtime. Sonar and radar chart a rough topographic map that overlays your HUD, allowing you to make precise movements on only the most stable parts of the cliff.

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“What’s the status of the sub?” radios Holt.

“…a rock and a hard place,” you say grimly, “She’s pinned under some rubble, and she’s teetering on the edge of a drop-off. The good news is that the rubble’s keeping her from going over the edge, but the Mackerel’s hemorrhaging oxygen.”

“Shit. How ‘bout the crew?”

“I’m about to find out…”

Once you get within range, HOPI initiates the electronic handshake between your PUEXO and the submarine’s onboard systems. “I’m…there’s something wrong with their receiver. I can’t get in. You’re gonna have to get closer.”

You take one tentative step after another, anxiously siding up towards the exposed part of the sub. “How about now?”

“…still no good. See if you can’t find a line into their electronic suite.”

Easier said than done. You manage to find the source of the distress beacon, but it’s about the only thing that’s working. The Mackerel doesn’t nearly have as much protection as you or Gully’s PUEXO, and its electronic suite has visibly suffered for it. Radiation levels are mercifully under control, but nothing short of a drydock is gonna get everything back in working order.

“…hold on,” says HOPI, “I’m picking up something on…extremely shortwave radio. There’s a signal embedded within the distress beacon. It's hidden in the noise, but it's there...”

You pause. “Can you play it back?”

Three beeps, three long tones, followed by three beeps. You try not to grin. Any sailor worth their salt would know what an S.O.S. sounds like. Even if they can’t receive you, they’re still able to transmit via the distress beacon. Lools ike some of the crew’s still alive!

“Morse code,” you radio the surface, “They’re tapping out Morse Code. Captain, Lt., there’s still people alive on the Mackerel.”

Geary says, “Excellent news, Razor! Do you need any help translating it? I don’t recall if they dropped Morse Code from out of the program.”

“They didn’t, sir, but I shouldn’t have any trouble with it. HOPI, can you automatically translate?”
“Already on it,” she replies, dedicating one of your monitors to translate each message. A series of dots and dashes await your input. “But you’ll have to tap on the hull to be heard.”

No, that does sound about right.

“R-M PXO HERE.” The message is rapped slowly on the side of the Mackerel’s hull. Gently, so not to disturb the rubble pile. “STAND BY TO ASSIST. STATUS?”


HOPI adds another countdown to one of your monitors. Just right above the meter for your own oxygen levels, as well as Gully's.





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The situation is bad, but not unsalvageable. Gully’s spare tank is little more than scrap metal, but you have plenty of oxygen (five hours’ worth) that you could splice into the Mackerel. The pressure differential shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but it’s going to be close. Even with one man down or dead, thirty minutes of oxygen between two people goes quickly.

And that’s all assuming that the cliff won’t give way beneath your feet as you get to work.

You signal for Gully to make a cautious approach. “I need your help. See the oxygen cannister? We’re gonna run a line to the Mackerel to refill her tank.”

Her Caprica’s down an arm, but she’s still got one arm free. With the black box safely secured on her PUEXO’s back, Gully’s more than willing to follow your lead. Salvage might be her bread and butter, but rescue ops aren’t her most familiar field. “Understood.”

Prior to any sort of action to be taken against the rubble pile, the crew of the Mackerel needs to be secured. That means getting oxygen (but not too much) into their systems and making sure that they won’t sink if the cliff suddenly gives way. An easily remedied situation with enough harpoons and myomer cable.

Of course, it’s only when things start going right that the world decides to throw you a curveball and sucker punch you in the gut.

HOPI is the one who breaks the news: “Warning: detecting new contacts on radar, bearing North-Northeast, distance 8km and closing at 40 knots. Six shapes, bearing straight for the Calypso on intercept vectors.”

Immediately, you drop what you’re doing, and radio back up to the surface. “Razor to surface. Is your radar still working? I’ve got…well, not eyes, but unknown signals on my scope.”

“We see them, Razor,” answers Geary with a grim inflection. “We have them in visual sights, but they’re not answering our hails. We’ve set the Calypso to Condition II and ordered Sergeant Kwan to activate all of his marines.”

Couldn’t be the Babylonia salvage fleet. Elishani said that they were still a week out. Not to mention that they’re coming in from the wrong direction. North-North-East…only real polity out there is the Terran Union. And then further north, the Nordling Realms.


“Chief, how’s the reactor looking?” you ask urgently.

Holt’s frustration bleeds through the comm. “Not exactly my department, but she’s takin’ her sweet time to get back to full power. And before you asked, no, we don’t have nearly enough power to outrun whoever’s comin’. Best we can do is turn the rudder and angle for effect…”

Your grip on the stick tightens. Explaining the situation to Gully, you order her to stop her movement, then send a brief message to the Mackerel. “UNKNOWN SURFACE CONTACTS. STAND BY.”

The reply is one word, tapped out with a frantic energy: “PIRATES.”

“7.4 km and closing…” warns HOPI. “Six torpedo boat-type vessels!”

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“They’re entering our visual range…” Geary mutters. “Aalto’s got the telescope-”

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Aalto screeches over the comm, nearly blowing out your eardrums. HOPI is barely fast enough to automatically lower the volume. “Now, of all times?!”

You take a moment to blink out the ringing in your ears. Sybil’s got one hell of an earful when you come back up regarding proper radio protocol. But business first: “Talk to me, dammit. What’s going on?!”

“Tengri symbol on a six-pointed star,” shouts Aalto, panicking, “It’s the fucking Khanate, and we’re fish in a goddamned barrel! I told all of you fucks that we weren’t the only ones looking for the Olympia-”

“GENERAL QUARTERS!” roars Elishani with the voice of an angry god, overriding the ramblings of your ACOMMs. Somewhere in the distance, a ship-wide klaxon alarm can be heard over the channel. “All hands, man your battle-stations and prepare to repel boarders!”

Geary hurriedly adds, “Aalto, send a distress signal to Babylonia. Razor, and Gully, try to-”

A sudden squelch overrides the XO. The noise is a keen knife against your ears. Instinct nearly makes you tear off your helmet, but HOPI cuts the line before you suffer permanent ear damage. You barely register her alert of directed signal jamming as you register what Aalto had shouted into the radio.

The Toghril Khanate.

Marauders that even the pirates of the Kraken Court ward against, and the boogeyman checks for every night. They are the bastard offspring of the failed Terran Union, emerging from a polity wreaked by corruption, decadence and an inability to adapt to the harsh reality of living in a Flooded World.

The Khanate seeks nothing less than the same goal of the Union: the unification of humanity under their banner by fire and sword. And they have more than enough weapons, ships, soldiers and Old World technology to give most of the successor states a run for their money. Apparently, life within the territory is…peaceful by all accounts. But the further away from Mount Everest, the Khanate’s seat of power, the wilder and more rapacious their warlords become.

Much to the suffering of the rest of the Flooded World.

“Theory,” opines HOPI, “It didn’t matter who came to the Olympia first. The Dragon’s Teeth just wanted to drag as many people into the mess as possible. We were just unlucky to be the first ones.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” you growl. “Gully, come in. We’ve got a problem…!”

The raiders will be on the Calypso in less than five minutes at their current speed, the ship dead in the water for all intents and purposes.

It will take you at least ten, even with Gully’s aid, to stabilize the Mackerel.

But the salvage trawler isn't helpless. She has two auto-cannons, and four .50 machine gun nests. On top of whatever Kwan and his two dozen marines are packing: rifles, rocket launchers, grenades...

…will that be enough against six torpedo boats and the men inside them?

Your PUEXO could turn the tide. Even though you don’t have the “Conquistador” retrofit, the Magellan is still more than able to inflict significant damage. Just as easily as it might fix or repair it. Your plasma cutter is still running at an optimal level, and your spear gun is still nearly topped off.

…but that would mean leaving not only the Mackerel, but your fellow pilot behind on the ocean floor. Gully would be fine. She has two hours’ worth left in the tank. But in her current state, she wouldn’t be able to get them the oxygen they need as fast as both of you might.

“Sinleq,” Gully whispers fearfully, “My father…!”

“OXYGEN LOW, SOS,” the submarine’s message reads on your terminal.

The lives of the submarine…against those of the salvage trawler.

>>What will you do?
>Resurface immediately to defend the Calypso. [Join the battle now]
>Stay below to aid and stabilize the Mackerel. [Join the battle late]

>>Stay below to aid and stabilize the Mackerel. [Join the battle late]
We're both closer to the Mackerel, and their only hope. It's bad odds on the surface, yes- but the Calypso has more of a chance than the Mackerel.
>>Stay below to aid and stabilize the Mackerel. [Join the battle late]
>Stay below to aid and stabilize the Mackerel. [Join the battle late]
>>Resurface immediately to defend the Calypso. [Join the battle now]
If we lose our ship, we all prob die
>Stay below to aid and stabilize the Mackerel. [Join the battle late]
>Define "breaking".
>>Stay below to aid and stabilize the Mackerel. [Join the battle late]
Gully's dad won't be fine. Probably.

“Mackerel first,” you grunt in a tone that brokers no argument.

Gully protests, “But the Calypso-!”

“Has a better fighting chance than the submarine. Right now, we’re the Mackerel’s only hope. If we go up now, they die. We stay, even if we don’t refloat the sub, that’s two people’s lives, guaranteed.”

A beat of silence. But one that doesn’t last too long.

“…then we’d better hurry,” she answers in a steely voice. “So we save more than just the Mackerel.”

Took the words right out of your mouth. “Let’s go!”

Putting the Khanate out of your mind isn’t an easy thing to do. You’ve heard the stories. Seen the scars. Bore witness to the aftermath of how hard the bastards hit. All you can do is pray. Pray that by the time you and Gully finish with the Mackerel, that there’ll still be a Calypso for you to defend.

Which should be very likely. Fringeward raiders tend to hijack and subvert rather than outright destroy. That’s one thing that they have at least that makes them only marginally better than the Dragon’s Teeth. But that’s just comparing pond scum to spume.

“I’ve got eyes on the stern,” you say to…nobody in particular. Force of habit. “Scanning for source of the leak.”

The first thing you need to do is isolate the oxygen leak and seal it. Easier said than done, even with HOPI’s scanners and probes. But the good news is that the leak hasn’t caused the interior of the submarine to violently decompress.

“Found it,” the A.I. says, bringing a 3D render of the Mackerel onto one of your monitors. The afflicted partition is highlighted, a complex housing the power source. “…10cm tear above main and auxiliary batteries...most of which are cooked or shorted.”

No wonder their power's dead. The eggheads back home probably didn't think of nuke-proofing the sub. Something to think about later, though. “Any way to pump the water out?”

“…maybe, but that'll take extra time that the Calypso could use.”

A fair enough point. Your primary goals are making sure that crew doesn’t suffocate, and that the submarine doesn’t plunge into the drop-off. Accomplishing those means that the Mackerel and her crew will be out of immediate danger. Hopefully they brought playing cards, because they might be down there for a while.

Dialing into the Caprica, you radio Gully: “I’m gonna seal the leak, but I need to you to prep the oxygen. I’ve got a line of hosing I’m about to run out that you need to connect to my auxiliary tank.”

After she responds with an affirmative, you rap on the side of the Mackerel’s hull: “STAND BY. SEALING LEAK.”

“UNKNOWN CONTACTS,” comes the reply, “PIRATES?”

You hesitate momentarily, then respond: “UNDER CONTROL.”

No need to spook the poor bastards any more than they already are. Or make them feel guilty about prioritizing them over the Calypso.

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“Raiders distance to Calypso, 6.7km,” HOPI warns, “ETA to their arrival approximately four minutes at current projected speed.”

“Give me regular interval checks,” you instruct her, cycling through the settings of the cutter. “Actually, do they know that we’re down here?”

“So far, all evidence points to the contrary. They seem to be gunning solely for the ship.”

Behind your faceplate, you can almost make out the reflection of your mouth twisting into a shark-toothed grin. Those Khanate bastards are gonna be in for one hell of a surprise once you’re finished. But Molly would’ve been similarly gleeful in your position, and that immediately sours your jubilant feeling.

[“It’s not often that you can cut loose in one of these things, Sinny. Ladera might’ve made them for peace in his time and all that hokey jazz. But PUEXOs are pretty good at killing people, even without combat retrofits. And no matter how hard you try to deny it, you and I are pretty damned good at it.”]

A small tongue of plasma erupts from your cutter’s emitter. The superheated flame makes quick work of the metal, shearing apart and slagging steel and iron plating within seconds. You cut around as best you can without damaging critical components or rupturing the batteries. A slow, but steady process that you refuse to compromise any sort of standards.

With a metallic screech that sets your teeth on edge, you pull apart the pliant metal and expose the leak. “Found the leak. Isolating and prepping welding site…”

Suddenly, a small orange-yellow flash of light flares up in your peripherals and surface-pointed camera. Some distance away, a patch of the ocean ceiling becomes engulfed within a brilliant fireball. “What the hell was that?”

“One boat has been destroyed,” reports HOPI, “Excellent marksmanship by the Calypso’s autocannons.”

“Still five on the board,” you mutter, “Don’t suppose it was the one jamming the ship?”

“No, I’m afraid not. There’s still significant interference.”


Halfway through the weld, you both hear and feel a CLICK as Gully attaches the hose to your auxiliary tank. Over the comm, she asks, “Now what?”

HOPI answers, “The Mackerel’s got a hatch that covers a direct line into their oxygen tank. The location of which should be…on the other side.”


Sweat beads down the front of your face as you concentrate on the weld. A combination of scrap armor and materials from the Magellan’s standard kit comprises the “patch” going over the leak. It’s admittedly sloppy, but you go about it no differently than fixing a pipe back on the Duck.

Clean the joint surfaces. Weld the leak surface first. Overlay with a secondary weld. Stress-test to check for any distortions, and correct with strong, hydraulic pressure.

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But this isn’t textbook. Not even theoretical or in the confines of a classroom thought experiment. It either works or it doesn’t. Three people’s lives are at risk, at the bare minimum two. While you’re fairly confident with both your skills and HOPI’s aid, divine intervention certainly wouldn’t hurt.

5.3km. You weld the leak surface.

3.1km. You apply the secondary weld.

1.9km. You stress-test and confirm that the leak has stopped.

“Looks like another boat got hit,” announces HOPI after another explosion rocks the water, “Slowing down, but it isn’t dead in the water. Just coming slower as the other four split into a wide attack formation.”

Pulling away from the leak, you rap sharply on the hull: “LEAK SEALED. PREP 4 STABILIZE.”

“ACKNOWLDEGED,” comes the reply, “THX.”

Then, to Gully: “C’mere a moment and gimme a hand with this…”

With Gully’s help, the two of you manage to get a length of crane-grade, steel-alloy cable through the bars and holes that the knucklebooms would’ve hooked onto. It’s tough stuff, cut from the same cable that lies coiled within your speargun. It can withstand the weight of a PUEXO and however many tons of water, so it should keep the Mackerel from sliding over the edge.

The cable itself isn’t too long, so you have to make do with what you have. Wrapping it around rock formations, driving them into the earth with bolts and stabilizers…all that’s left is to actually supply the Mackerel oxygen-

“They’ve made contact with the Calypso!” HOPI says, alarmed. “Four boats, two on either side! They’re sending boarders-!”

“Sinleq-!” cries Gully.

…you still need a few minutes. Just long enough to give the crew of the Mackerel enough oxygen to last for another handful of hours. And as tempting as it is to open the throttle all the way to get it done with, you know for a fact that too much oxygen is just as bad as not enough of it. You’ll either kill them or cause a catastrophic implosion that drags the cliff, you and Gully down into a deep, dark abyss.

Fear won’t do anyone any good here. You kill your imagination before it can fray your nerves, focusing solely on the gauge that measures your auxiliary oxygen tank. “HOPI, run a timer. Gully, keep a lookout if the Khanate brought any nasty underwater surprises…”

“STANDBY 4 OXYGEN,” the message goes to the Mackerel, “PREP 4 H2O EXTRACTION. SIGNAL WHEN READY.”
The reply comes no later than twenty seconds. “AWAITING OXYGEN.”

No sooner does it appear that you hit the button, and begin the transfer, emptying your mind of all worldly things, thoughts and concerns…

…and after what seems like an eternity, or what HOPI says was only three minutes, you shut the valve off. Gully doesn’t even wait, unhooking you from the submarine within seconds after you give the signal.

“OXYGEN LEVELS STABLE,” the Mackerel says, “THANK YOU.”

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…and people think that civility got thrown out the window when the sun exploded. The stress and anxiety you compartmentalized leaks through ever-so-slightly, and you allow yourself to feel a brief moment of relief, satisfaction and pride in the work you’ve done.

Then it’s back to business. You hastily tap back an acknowledgement and orders to wait. Gully’s Caprica is already moving, and you jet after her to safe, more stable ground for a rapid, emergency ascent to the surface.

“Disengage safeties,” you order, accelerating to maximum speed. The Calypso and her unfriendly escorts are a half a kilometer away. “Icarus Override. Bring us as close to the threshold as possible without tearing the reactor apart.”

“I need vocal confirmation,” requests HOPI.

“Icarus Override engaged. Let’s not fly too close to the sun of nuclear fission, shall we?”

As the A.I. makes her preparations, you call Gully: “I’ll clear a hole. You come in after I give the go-ahead.”

She doesn’t argue with that. Her PUEXO’s a mangled mess as it is. Luckily for her, Mk. IVs were built for space maneuvering, so they’ve got far more jets and thrusters to use. Still, even a half-damaged PUEXO can wreak some devastation.

>>You have earned enough Gully Points...

But the sole arm of her Caprica extends, curving to gently brush alongside the front of your solitary viewport. It lingers, four metallic fingers sliding across the treated plastic-glass right where your face affords a view of the ocean floor…

“…be safe,” whispers Gully.

…then pulls back, and retreats as your fellow pilot gives you room for the launch.

You take a deep breath, angling PUEXO upward. 300 odd meters above you, the shadows cast by the boats should cover your ascent up until the very last moment. Your LZ is the aft deck of the Calypso. Should that not work, or pose a danger to your crewmates, then one of the raiders’ torpedo boats. Even if you don’t get completely out of the water, the full weight of your PUEXO would cause some interesting imbalances.

“Initiate countdown?” queries HOPI.

You shake your head, stilling your trembling fingers as you grip the stick. “I might change my mind. Launch her now.”

Her answer comes as a suit-wide roar, and an intense vibration as your jets and thrusters burn and spin far beyond what they’re rated for. You jerk in the seat, harness rattling as the force of the acceleration pins your head fast against the chair. The vibrations are so intense that you can barely make out the gauges – pressure, temperature, depth…the latter of which is readily ticking upward.

“…tw-two hundred seventy-nine meters,” stutters HOPI, “…two hundred twenty-four meters…”

File: Calypso Deck.png (484 KB, 800x451)
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Halfway through the ascension, there should already be a cable waiting to hook onto the exosuit. From there, frogmen link up with float bags and auxiliary lines. That way, the strain on the PUEXO isn’t nearly as bad with all the extra help. None of that is here. All you have waiting for you is the shadow of the Calypso, and the threat of those who would impede the erasure of the debt.

“…estimated time to surface break?” you grit out.

“…one minute,” the A.I. answers.

It comes quickly. The moment where you have to twist out of the way, out of the shadows masking your approach. If the Khanate was paying attention, they might’ve seen your ascent on radar. Maybe as a stationary object given the 2D nature of radar, but you’d still show up. Hopefully they aren’t paying too much attention.

“Countdown to surface break,” HOPI announces, “…in 5…”

You ready your plasma torch.


You take the safety off your spear gun.


You banish the faces of Tom and Caroline from your mind.


You jerk the stick violently and twist the Magellan out from the Calypso’s shadow.


The Magellan bursts out of the ocean, soaring above the waves in an arc that couldn’t be called graceful. Out of the water, you lose much of your maneuverability, and the 23.7-ton exosuit begins to fall like a stone.
Mind racing, you analyze the situation. The Calypso bears the marks of heavy fighting. The starboard autocannon has been destroyed, and the machine-gun nests riddled with bullet holes. Marauders in Khanate colors swarm the top deck, waving rifles, machetes, prowling around as if they owned the ship.

But the crew is still fighting. Gunfire erupts sporadically from the pilot house, pelting raiders that aren’t quick enough to hide behind corners and corridors. The aft is fiercely contested, bodies from both sides laying scattered across the deck. It’s impossible to tell if they’re below deck, but you have a bad feeling as you see smoke wafting out from the hatches.

“Eyes on the enemy signal jammer?” you shout to HOPI.

She’s on it in an instant, putting a targeting reticule on your HUD. “Furthest ship out, holding at around 30 meters from the Calypso’s starboard side.”

Damn. But when all else fails, you’ve still got external speakers. “Let’s swab the deck, then.”

The landing isn’t soft. Even with maximum jet, the Calypso visibly shakes as you crash down, and displace 23.7 tons. Not enough to make it sink or capsize, thank God, but more than enough to knock down several combatants and send waves on either side. The internal gyro and leg actuators do a good job of keeping you upright…not that you have time to catch your breath as the bulk of the enemy’s fire focuses on you.

A superheated wave of energy blasts out of the plasma cutter, tearing through a line of Khanate goons. Leveling your speargun, you fire towards one of the torpedo boats, pinning a man to the deck right through his midsection before he can unload a .50 into the Maggie.

Bullets ping and ricochet off the PUEXO, with little to no effect. The armor used to protect the pilot against the crushing depths of the ocean do just as good a job of protecting you from bullets. But you still twitch, shielding your center mass by twisting to the side. Then, counter with another blast from your plasma cutter.

"Eight confirmed kills," chirps HOPI. "Only a dozen more on this side, another two on the forward deck."

"How many in the boats?" you grunt, reloading your speargun.

"Hard to tell, but all in total? Bare minimum of at least fifty. Maybe even more."

That makes enough sense with how big the boats are. No shortage of targets. Mad bastards all who wouldn't back down out of some stupid sense of honor to their Khan.

...Molly was right after all. Even though you don’t enjoy it, you are good at killing. Exceedingly so. Hadn't you nearly killed Pierce last week? You might've done so if not for his goon squad in the rafters, or the trouble it would've caused with Declan and Stolze.

But even then, it wouldn't have cost you sleep. Prick nearly killed you, and already was interfering with your ability to make money.

The PUEXO, for all its foibles, is only a force multiplier to whatever it is Molly claims to have seen within you on the day of Jean and Caroline's wedding.

...come to think about it, how'd she get an invitation? She certainly wasn't your plus one.

>>Roll 1d100 Combat.
>Best out of three.
Rolled 3 (1d100)

nat 1
Rolled 34 (1d100)

Rolled 70 (1d100)

I've forgotten how to roll dice
File: Him.png (337 KB, 564x501)
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Almost jinxed it, anon.

Roll 1d100
Rolled 32 (1d100)


A hundred years ago, a stock Magellan fresh off the assembly line made for a decent enough combat exosuit. The spear gun for ornery sea life or grappling cables can just as easily puncture human flesh. The plasma cutter slags and melts industrial-grade alloys, short of the thickest armor plating that could be found on starships. Perhaps not a long-term combat operation, but one still good in a picket or emergency role.

The Conquistador refit, however, takes it several steps further. A belt-fed 20mm rotary cannon replaces the speargun. The plasma cutter remains, albeit with the industrial emitter head exchanged for a liquid-cooled, focused barrel for more accurate and rapid-fire shooting. In addition to weaponry, there’s upgrades to the ECM, arm/leg actuators and sensors, among other things traded for deep-sea operation capability.

You have none of those things. You don’t need them for the task at hand. The Conquistador is more PUEXO hunter and anti-armor than anything else. The original works just as fine in an unexpected position of anti-infantry.

“Get me on external speakers,” you mutter to HOPI. Once she does so, you clear your throat, and announce, “This is Razor. Sorry I’m late.”

You punctuate your apology with a shot from your plasma cutter. Dialed back to prevent the Calypso’s structure from suffering more than a scorch mark, its less accurate, less focused and has a diminished range, but still burns hot enough to make flesh run like wax. One of the raiders learns this the hard way as the top half of his body abruptly vanishes in a fine, glowing cloud of ashes.

Whoops and cheers erupt from the defenders. A handful of familiar faces pop up from behind a makeshift barricade of crates and containers, propped up around the PUEXO hangar bays. You spot some of the mechanics of Holt’s PUEXMech team, but not the chief herself. Embedded with them are a handful of Sergeant Kwan’s marines.

The tip of your plasma cutter glows a hot, cherry-red with every successive blast you send downwind. Placing yourself between the marauders and the Calypso’s deckhands, you do everything in your power to give the defenders extra cover, and as brief of a reprieve as you can.

“Where’s Chief Holt?” you shout over the cacophony.

Specialist Carter, identifiable by his uniform and mop of dark brown hair, yells back, “She sent a group to run ammunition from the armory! When they didn’t come back, she went after them with Hasazi and Darius.”

Shit. “How long ago was that?”

“About…” He ducks, and not a second sooner, a hail of bullets comes around an exposed flank. Cursing, he pulls a marine over, and they both unleash a reply that sends the marauder scampering back around the corner. “Fuck off! Sorry, not you, Unami. About three minutes!”

All you can do is pray that the chief isn’t hurt. Or avenge her if that won’t be the case. “What’s the status of the Calypso?”

Carter’s laughter is tinged with hysteria. “Eh…bad, but it could be worse. Forward deck’s lost. Bastards figured out we couldn’t turn the cannons or nests that far. You better get there next and give the folks in the pilot house some help. They won’t last for long.”

“What about inside the ship itself?”

“Hard to say. With that jammer still fucking our comm, best we’ve got is word-of-mouth. We’ve got the mid and aft, but keeping the bastards at the stern’s taking all we’ve got.”

Some of the raiders are better equipped than others. Most carry ballistic weaponry and wear Kevlar or ramshackle armor welded together and painted in bright, violent colors. All carry some sort of melee weapon – tomahawks, machetes, even a handful with pikes and clubs. They wear grisly trophies, bear painted faces,

But a handful concerningly wear the mechanized exoskeletons of the late Terran Union Armed Forces. Nothing you can’t handle with a well-placed plasma blast, but that armor’s thick enough for the Calypso marines to struggle with. It’ll shrug off most small-arms caliber weapons.

“Understood,” you reply, firing off a spear that impales an armored raider.

Suddenly, the beeping of an electronic lock rings through the cockpit. “Rocket launcher!” screams HOPI.

The HUD puts a targeting reticle on a target about eight meters out, on a torpedo boat idling along the port quarter. A Khanate raider in combat armor levels said weapon, his buddies scrambling out of the backblast’s path. Far more advanced than anything you’d ever seen carried by either the Duck’s security guard, or anything on Babylonia. A pre-Cataclysm weapon with a depleted uranium payload.

Pure reflex drives you to thumb the weapon release and squeeze the trigger…but nothing happens. Your plasma cutter is cooling down, and the speargun needs reloading. The rocket won’t kill you or destroy the PUEXO. Probably. It’s hard to tell. But it’ll hit harder and do far more catastrophic damage than the combined arms of the raiders’ guns.

“Can you scramble it?!” you shout as you prepare to jump back into the water. It might not break the lock, but it’s your best bet. Even as your gut churns at the horrific damage it would do to the Calypso.

“The nuke fried that subsystem!” HOPI shouts. “Sinleq, you have to jump-!”

Too late. Time seems to slow to a crawl as the lock tone becomes a constant, steady BEEEEEP. The thrusters are warm, but need extra time to give enough lift. All you can do is angle, run and hope that it’ll only break off an arm, and not the whole machine…

And then suddenly, the portside machine gun nest comes to life. The barrel of a .50 M2 Browning swings sharply, as far as it can go to get the angle on the torpedo boat. Time resumes almost abruptly as a hail of bullets rain down on the torpedo boat, scything through the canopy and anyone unlucky enough to be standing on the deck.

It doesn’t outright kill the armored raider, even as Khanate sailors go down or fall overboard. But the ferocity of the attack causes him to flinch. Two things then immediately happen: the lock of the rocket-launcher is broken as the barrel veers wildly out towards sea, and the speargun finishes its automatic reload.

You don’t even hesitate, plugging the marauder with a well-aimed shot that goes right through his chest cavity, and pins him to the deck like a spasming, human butterfly. Then, before any of the other sailors get any bright ideas, you fire a charged shot from your plasma cutter, destroying the launcher and setting the enemy ship on fire.

A sad waste, given the potential salvage from a Khanate torpedo boat. Hopefully it won’t burn hot enough to sink the ship.

From the machine gun nest emerges an unlikely, but well-timed savior. Deck Chief Holt grins, waving cheerily from her position. Hunkered with her are the missing PUEXMech members, each carrying boxes of ammunition, and a marine. Jenkins, to your mild surprise. They’re visibly bloodied, bruised, and beneath bullet-proof vests, their engineer’s overalls are torn, muddled and frayed.

Not that it seems to have too much of a visible effect. Holt’s definitely the most disheveled out of all of them, but it doesn’t hamper the grin on her face. She cups her hands over her mouth, then hollers: “I hope you brought back somethin’ really for that one, Unami!”

You laugh, in spite of yourself and the near brush with death. “Thanks! But for the record, I did have it under control.”

“That a fact? I’d hate to see out of control.”

The feeling's mutual.

“Chief!” shouts Carter, waving from the defenders’ embankment. “You okay?!”

“A little roughed up, but you should see the other guys,” she says. Holt takes one of the boxes, gesturing for Darius and Jenkins to stay on the machine gun. “Gimme a sec, I’ll be right down…”

Most of the raiders on this side of the Calypso are either dead or dying. The ship on the port quarter is burning merrily with little to no signs of life or any effort to put out the fire. That leaves one boat on the starboard quarter, manned only by a skeleton crew of sailors and a paltry escort. But they seem to have read the writing on the wall, as they gun the engine and make a break away as you approach…only to regroup with the other boat on the starboard bow.

…eh, a problem you’ll take care of in the next few minutes.

With the coast relatively clear, the deckhands and marines leap up from their barricade, sprinting to secure the aft deck. The injured, dead and dying bodies strewn across the deck are given assessment and their proper due. Keeping guard of the area, you watch with mild interest as your PUEXO bay becomes an impromptu triage area for the wounded sailors, deckhands and marines. Then morbid amusement as Gully’s becomes a repository for the dead.

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It doesn’t last long. With the skirmish over, more than a handful of the crew aren’t able to keep their emotions in line anymore. Some fall to their knees, staring blankly out to sea. Others collapse atop the corpses of their friends and colleagues, weeping hysterically and pleading for them to wake up. Even with through the gunfight from the forward deck, HOPI’s sensors are keen enough to isolate each source of the noise.

You quietly mute the external speakers. “How many?”

“…I count nine dead, and fifteen more wounded,” whispers HOPI.

And that’s just the aft deck. That isn’t accounting for whatever fighting’s going on below decks and the forward section of the Calypso. Or the Khanate soldiers, for that point. Not that many had survived to surrender or otherwise allow themselves to be taken into custody. What few were able to had jumped into the boat that shot up to the forward deck.

Carter’s got one of them by the scruff of his clothing. From the burns that stretch lop-sided across his body, he must’ve been on the wrong end of your plasma cutter. “Tell me how you knew where to find us, and I just might let the medics treat you.”

The raider works his mouth, spitting a bloody fleck into the specialist’s face. “You’ll have to kill me first before I dishonor the-”


The marauder flops bonelessly onto the deck. It had been quick, a clean shot right through the side of his head. He hadn’t even noticed. Startled, all eyes turn towards the source of the noise: an opened hatch leading down into the lower decks, and the smoking gun held in Sergeant Kwan’s grip.

“Bet,” growls the officer as he hauls himself onto the top deck. He’s visibly limping, leaning on Halloway’s shoulder as approaches the shocked survivors. Behind him trail an odd collection of workers, dockhands, COs and NCOs. “Don’t waste your time showing these bastards any mercy. They won’t reciprocate. Besides…”

He motions for his men, who approach the wounded pirates. One by one, without hesitation, Kwan’s marines execute them before Holt or any of the others can shout or stop them. “…you won’t get any answers out of the rank and file. You’ll want to capture the armored ones. They're Bloodied. Bring ‘em to me, and I’ll make them sing like a Pearl District diva.”

Unsurprisingly, his cadre are given a very wide berth as they file into the barricade. Everyone stands around, uncertain for how to react before Holt goads them into treating the wounded and refilling magazines with ammunition. Not that the chief’s about to let the sergeant get the last word in.

“The captain will hear of this,” she threatens with a disapproving look in her eyes.

Kwan almost seems amused. A sardonic, wry grin tugs at the side of his face. “Let’s hope so. He and the XO are still in the pilot house last I heard. We’d better get to them first before the Khanate does. They take the bridge, they've got control."

His eyes flick towards the Magellan. “Unami. You took your time getting here.”

…the worst part is that you can’t tell if he’s making a neutral statement, a joke or some kind of accusation for your delay in arriving to the ship’s defense. But before you can settle on one thing, Holt seems to read the mood, and interjects: “You’re lookin’ a little rough there yourself, sarge. You okay?”

Kwan grunts as Halloway sets him down on a crate. “Bullet went through the leg. Missed the bone, barely missed the femoral artery. Hearing’s partially gone in my right ear, they threw a flashbang that’s still ringing in my head. I’ve got a few shattered plates in my vest, but they should be enough to see the rest of the action through.”

You take a moment to re-enable external audio, and override your instinctive urge to snap back. “What’s the situation below deck?”

The sergeant takes a moment to gather his breath, fishing a syringe out of his breast pocket. He sticks himself in the thigh without as much a peep. “We pushed the Khanate back to the forward section. Kept ‘em out of engineering, CIC and the reactor core. I lost a lot of marines, but we held the line, welded a few bulkheads shut. Rest of the crew’s barricaded in their quarters.”

Right. Nothing you can really do without getting out of the cockpit. Looks like you’ll be deploying to the forward deck next.

But Holt interjects, “Hey, Unami. I was meanin’ to ask, but…where’s Gully? And the Mackerel? Last you told us, the sub was knee deep and up the creek.”

More than a few eyes, both unoccupied or otherwise tending to their business, turn to your direction. Some are curious, others are worried…more than a handful look angry or otherwise accusatory. Not that they’ll say anything aloud.

Sighing, you reply, “They’re still down there. I made sure to seal the leak in the Mackerel, anchor it to the reef, and give both it and Gully enough oxygen to survive until we have everything under control.”

That seems to satisfy most of them. Holt nods approvingly, as do the deckhands under her purview and department. Most…but not all. HOPI picks up more than a few angry words or whispers under breath. But you can read between the lines. They’ve got some nerve to be upset that you prioritized the Mackerel over them.

The chief whistles. “Alright, people, let’s get this show on the road. We don’t have all day to lollygag. Carter, where’s Mehra? I need the two of you to double-check that busted auto-cannon. See if you can’t get it workin’.”

The PUEXMech team winces, and Carter shifts uncomfortably. “…she didn’t make it, sir. I killed the bastard who did it, but…”

Holt blinks…then sighs wearily. “Oh. Fuck...remind me to pass a hat around when this is all over.”

No-one knows who says it. But the otherwise off-hand remark sounds loud in the silence that followed: “Gonna need more than one, no thanks to Unami.”

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“Who said that?” The Chief’s voice snaps like the sharp crack of a whip, and all of her subordinates instinctively jump. Her eyes are blazing mad. “Which one of you ungrateful pricks just said that?”

You stand corrected. Looks like there’s at least one person discontent or bitter enough to mouth off. And thanks to HOPI, you know very well who it was. No-one you know, one of the myriad crewmembers you’ve seen in your day-to-day living, but haven’t otherwise interacted with all that much.

It’s somewhat unprofessional of you, but given the day that you just had…

Everyone jumps as you move your PUEXO to the barricade. And you’ll give the guy credit for standing his ground, even as everyone else scrambles out of the way. Even if he looks less certain as the sheer size of the exosuit forces him to crane his neck up to even look at your viewport. And even then, you’re mostly seeing him through external cams.

“If you have a grievance or complaint about my services,” you rumble with perhaps the driest voice you’ve ever mustered, “You can contact either the Pilot’s Guild, PUEXO Board, or Lord-Founder Stolze. Do you have a pen and paper? I’ll give you their numbers, sailor, or you can check the back of my PUEXO for the appropriate bumper stickers.”

Molly would’ve laughed uproariously. Even Jean, give or take five years ago. It takes longer for Holt to catch on, but Kwan notices immediately, and covers up a grin with his hand. But the sailor’s face first contorts into the confused, then outraged expression of a man who understands he’s just been told to kiss your ass.

“Alright, alright.” The chief interposes herself between you and the sailor. “That’s enough. Save it for the S.O.B.’s up front, yeah?”

The sailor, suitably chastised and humiliated, backs down. “Yes, sir.”

With the situation defused, everyone hurries back to their business. Reloading weapons, dragging the injured to triage, rebuilding the barricade, or otherwise preparing for an assault to the forward deck. Still, you see a few that’ve gone to Gully’s bay, and begin the grisly job of stripping the Khanate raiders for everything they’re worth.

“Take everythin’ you can,” orders Holt, “Guns, weapons, ammo…Hasazi, get a fire team ready, just in case that fire decides to spread to the Calypso.”

Kwan stands, hobbling over to one of the armored pirates you ‘cored with your speargun. Nudging it with his boot, he mutters, “Dibs on this one. It’s in my size.” Then promptly takes a bucket of paint to splash all over the corpse.

...no one seems willing to argue or correct the sergeant on proper salvage etiquette.

>>You have earned enough Holt Points…

“Hey, Unami?” Holt’s come up to the side of your PUEXO, a frown on her face. “Look, about what that asshole said…”

“It’s...fine,” you reassure her, “I’ve had worse thrown at me. Verbal or otherwise.”

She grimaces. “Don’t mean that it’s right.”

True, but the statement in of itself does have merit. You would’ve come about on the Calypso just as the raiders made contact for their boarding action. Rocket launchers aside, the presence of a PUEXO might’ve been enough to outright deter them from attacking the ship.

But that’s an endless game of ‘what ifs’ that you don’t have time to play. And you aren't nearly that cold enough to start doing the calculus of weighing lives on the battlefield.

Holt raps her knuckles on the Magellan’s knee actuator. “Just…don’t let anyone ever make you think that you made the wrong call. You did the right thing – savin’ lives from the most immediate and pressin’ danger.”

…if you didn’t know any better, you’d almost think that Holt was speaking about your situation with Tom. And that’s a subject you aren’t keen on speaking about. But she shouldn’t know anything about your debt beyond the fact that you have one. And she doesn’t strike you as the kind of woman to raid or ask Elishani for dirt on a PUEXO pilot.

“…thank you,” you quietly answer. Unsure for how to respond, that’s as best as you’re going to give her. “…I appreciate that.”

The corner of her mouth tugs in a smile. Tinged with sadness, most likely from the loss of her deckhands, but a warm smile, nonetheless. “You’re welcome. Now since I can’t leave the aft, could you do me a favor? I'd appreciate if you give those Khanate pricks a swift kick in the rear for me..."

>>Roll 1d100 Combat.
>Best out of three.
Rolled 31 (1d100)

nat 1
Rolled 18 (1d100)

Rolled 43 (1d100)

That's a lot of writing.
Rolled 97 (1d100)

Rolled 15 (1d100)


This quest is very nice.
Thanks for it chief
You're welcome! I'm glad to hear you're enjoying it.

This quest and the setting serve as part of a graduate-level thesis I'm developing, so there's a whole lot of writing that went into this.

In any event, I'll prolly end up making another thread to get to Act III to wrap things up. It isn't a long act, but it just caps off the story.


The battle to take the forward deck could best be described as balancing two extremes.

On one side, the defenders of the Calypso have the numbers and the home advantage. Not to mention a heavily-armored PUEXO operated by (not to toot your own horn) one of the best pilots to be found in Babylonia.

On the other, the Khanate marauders have the training, superior equipment, and the means to easily deal with heavy armor elements.

With the airways still being jammed, the only method of communication that the defenders have are vocal. But it cuts both ways. Not that you’d be naïve enough to think that the raiders don’t know about your arrival. If they didn’t hear you blasting out from the water or the discharge of your plasma cutter, then the survivors who repositioned with them certainly did.

“Try to keep ‘em off me,” you tell Kwan as you prepare for your counter-attack. “No guarantee that was the only rocket launcher they had.”

He nods, slotting in a fresh magazine into his pistol. “Of course. After the captain and the XO, you’re the most valuable asset on the ship.”

…well, that’s one way of putting it. Annoyed as the word makes you, even if that’s what you technically are on the books. Still, even with Stolze and Babylonia footing the bill, you don’t fancy being hosed out of a cockpit, or otherwise dispossessed of a PUEXO.

The plan’s relatively simple. From the machine gun nests and auto-cannon embankments, Kwan’s marines would take up a defensive position. There, they would strike through and into the forward deck. Meanwhile, a second team will make their way towards the bridge, and secure the defenders and escort them to safety.

Your part in the plan is to swoop in the middle of the chaos, and make things difficult for the Khanate to retaliate effectively against the marines. How you do that is left to your discretion, but you’ve got plenty of options. You’ve got four spears left, and half a tank’s worth of fuel for the cutter. And if all else fails, punch or stomp them into the deck and turn them into paste.

Ah, but that would be destroying potential salvage…

“We’ll keep things safe down here,” Holt promises, cracking her knuckles. “Don’t die before I have a chance to chew you out, Kwan.”

He snorts in response, shaking his head. “Of course.” Then, to you and his marines: “Let’s go.”

You hold your position, backing up far enough away from the barricade as the defenders execute the battle plan and rush forward. One tense, nail-biting minute later, the shooting starts. It only takes you another ten seconds before you have the jets fully charged.

“Executing jump, stand clear,” you warn the deckhands. Then to HOPI, “The second we get over the bridge, I want eyes on any anti-armor.”

>Ah, but that would be destroying potential salvage…

I'm gonna go with screw the salvage, the lives involved (including our own) outweigh some petty jalopy boats from pirates.

As an ex-SF friend once told me:
>The two things you can always get more of are money and cigarettes. You only get one life.
Her reply of affirmation is drowned out by the roar as the Magellan’s jets activate. In a crude imitation of the rocket launches of the Old World, you and the PUEXO are propelled into the air in a not-so-graceful leap. Hardly a fosbury flop, but one that still allows you to safely clear the superstructure and citadel amidships…

…even before you get anywhere near close to landing, bullets are already pinging off the PUEXO.

A quick assessment. Twenty-seven on the forward deck. Twenty-two Khanate raiders, five prisoners or hostages wearing the colors of the Calypso kept under the gun. Bodies lie across the deck, boarders and sailors in equal measure. Some of the latter have already been thrown onto an unceremonious pile, awaiting the battle’s end to be stripped and looted…

…although some haven’t bothered waiting. HOPI magnifies a pair of marauders manhandling a deckhand’s corpse, stripping him of his uniform, belongings and accoutrements. The glee on their faces is only interrupted by the suddenness of your arrival.

The controls groan as you squeeze them tightly and enter into that dissonantly serene realm of detached calm. In all honesty, you can’t remember the last time you got this angry.

You’re already shooting before you land. A blast of superheated plasma cooks a line of pirates in their armor. The speargun fires, punching a hole right through the pilot house of an attack boat. They scatter, breaking away as you come down hard on the deck.

There’s at least one raider who isn’t able to escape quickly enough. Or maybe you allowed your landing to continue without a care for the cost. A sudden scream, cut off by a wet, exploding gurgle. Half of his body vanishes into a fine, pink mist that splatters along the cockpit’s exterior.

The impact shakes the Calypso violently, causing her to flounder wildly from side-to-side. Most go down in a tangle of limbs, unable to keep their balance. Some even fall of the ship, screaming as they slip through the railing. The Magellan’s internal gyro strains to keep you balanced, but you’re an old hand at staying upright in adversarial conditions. Even as the others struggle to get back up, you’re already moving.

“Now’s your chance!” you shout to the hostages, punching one of their captors into a bloody smear against the deck. Five seconds until your plasma cutter’s cooled, but you’ve already got another spear in the rack. “Fall back to the midship!”

They don’t hesitate. All of them book it, or at least run as fast as they can even as the Calyspo continues to flounder. But the Khanate isn’t about to let them get off so easily. One of the hostages abruptly seizes, pitching forward like a stringless marionette into a growing pool of his own blood. You kill the pirate responsible, but it is a small measure of satisfaction.

“No life signs detected,” HOPI reports sadly. “I’m sorry.”

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As the ship’s motion comes to a gradual and complete stop, it’s still enough to turn the fallen hostage onto his back. Automatically, HOPI’s camera focuses on the face, zooming and enhancing, matching the casualty to her onboard list of the crew, and updating accordingly.

The sandy-blonde hair of Cadet Gregory Sloan waves gently in the breeze, uniform caked in blood, youthful eyes staring blankly into the vast beyond of the open sky. Against an ash and grime-streaked face, his tears run down in purifying rivers before comingling with the blood spilt along the foredeck.

He will never get sick on another voyage. He will never make another heading calculation. He will never have the opportunity to study the weather patterns of the Flooded World. He will never again ask you to check his math and grin sheepishly if he’s off by a handful of decimals.

The voyage to the wreck of the Olympia will be the first, last and only outing of Gregory Sloan.

…something inside of you quietly breaks.

…ah, there it is. The last of your patience.

You reach in deep, to the darkest, deepest most primitive part of your mind that you had briefly touched when you nearly drowned Pierce aboard the Marduk. And as you let some of it in, you come to a quick and easy enough conclusion to the madness of the day.

Fuck the salvage. Fuck the debt.

You just want the Khanate dead.

In some distant part of your mind, you think that it’s a tender mercy that Molly wouldn’t be able to see you like this. She'd enjoy herself too much. And that you’re immensely grateful that neither would Jean, Caroline or Tom. You aren’t exactly yourself when your temper starts to flare up…

…unless this is actually who you are.

A very angry man in a 20-ton exosuit with precious little to lose, more than one axe to grind against the world, who kept it all bottled up for the better part of eleven years…

…until now.

You utter no noise as you nail an armored officer to the deck.

You make no pithy quip after splitting a torpedo boat in half.

You have no angry retort as your speargun runs out of ammunition.

You remain silent as the heat of your jets burns a man alive.

You hold fast as a stray rocket blasts your right shoulder actuator to bits and pieces.

You offer no rejoinder as HOPI overrides the heat warning to let you shoot faster.

You suffer not the presence of the Toghril Khanate, the star of Tengri, and the wretched, barbarous ideals that they champion aboard the Calypso.

But a sudden radar warning breaks you out of your trance. HOPI screams, “Jamming ship’s making an attack…no, a suicide run! She’s aiming to smash right into the bow of the Calypso!”

It is with a cold, and utterly dispassionate emotion that finds you raising your gun, and undoing all the restraints that kept you from melting a hole through the Calypso. The torpedo boat makes fast, closing the roughly 30/40-meter distance quickly as it accelerates.

But it isn’t fast enough. Not to dodge, but to hit the Calypso as you line up the shot, squeeze the trigger and send the torpedo boat to hell in a fiery explosion of superheated plasma, burning fuel and white-hot shrapnel.

“…no survivors,” HOPI whispers quietly.

It goes both ways. No survivors from the jamming boat, and nobody left alive on the foredeck beyond yourself and a handful of Khanate raiders already on death’s doorstep. Their weapons are slagged, their bodies are broken. All they can do is gasp piteously, pluck at the air with mutilated or flash-boiled limbs, writhe upon the spears pinning them to the deck, and beg for the mercy of death.

“…this is Razor,” you dial into the comms, “…commencing clean-up operations.” Then, to Gully: “You’re clear to come up if you can. It’s safe.”

“…are you?” the reply comes quietly, “And my father?”

In spite of yourself, the corner of your mouth curls upward. “…yeah. I’m fine. And he should be as well.”

Last you heard on the restored comms, Kwan and his marines had secured Captain Elishani, XO Geary and the bridge staff. And not a moment too soon. They were close to running out of ammo.

You cycle the hatch and airlock, wrenching your helmet off to suck in the savory, stinging salty ocean air. It’s befouled by both the pitter taste of iron and ozone, but makes better than the recycled, scrubbed air you’d been working out of for the past few hours. After checking to see that your pistol as a fresh clip of ammo, you exit the Magellan, and hop onto the foredeck.

“What a fucking mess,” you murmur tiredly.

Most of the torpedo boats are on fire. Some might be saved, others not. Still, the burnt-out husk of one might make for a pretty penny back with the Salvage Guild. Damned shame about the loss of the jamming technology, but you aren’t about to weep over shrapnel.

The sound of distant gunshots below deck means that the fighting isn’t nearly over. Even if it largely is. The raiding force has been defeated, and while the Calypso took heavy casualties, she’s still under the sovereignty of her original, Babylonia crew.

You ignore the pleas of mercy, for death, kicking aside weapons and limbs that grasp at the hem of your NERVlink suit. It isn’t petty cruelty that motivates you to ignore them as much as the fact you’ve got other concerns. Really, it isn’t.

But as you inspect the solitary ship that isn’t on fire, an attack boat with several spears and its glass blown out…a sudden shadow in the window that you might’ve missed if you didn’t blink.

“Movement,” you shout into the radio, drawing your pistol, “I’ve got movement in one of the boats!”

Among calls for you to standby and wait, you’re already moving. The Magellan lumbers after you ever-so-slowly, piloted in a limited capacity by HOPI. Hardly fast or precise enough for quick trigger reflexes or delicate work, but enough to keep herself upright.

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Leaning over the safety rail, you aim your gun below and warn, “You’ve got five seconds to come out before I have my PUEXO cook you alive.”

A yelp of fright, then a stream of words in the Khanate’s pidgin language. Then…

“Wait, wait, wait!” the survivor screams desperately in heavily accented English, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! I surrender!”

…he couldn’t have been more than sixteen. The youth who emerges, pale and frightened beyond belief, is thin and gangly. Not malnourished, but definitely lacking the bulk of his fellow raiders…if he could even be called that. He isn’t wearing any armor, and the belt of tools on his waist speak more of a repairman or engineer.

Not that you fail to notice the pistol strapped to his thigh.

You pause, momentarily taken aback. A member of the Khanate surrendering. What kind of trickery is this? But you don’t let the surprise last long. Eyes narrowing you put the sights right between the kid’s eyes.

“There anyone else with you?!” you demand.

“N-no, it’s just me, I swear!”

“You better be telling me the truth, boy.”

“I am! You and the marines, you all killed…everyone else is dead!”

…huh. Guess you did.

As the Magellan idles alongside and levels the plasma cutter, you eye one of the ladders connecting the boat to the Calypso. “HOPI, he telling the truth?”

“Yes,” she answers quickly. “But beyond the gun, he doesn’t really-”

The kid only seems to notice. Both you and the Magellan swivel, aiming your guns as he drops his hands to his thigh. He shrieks, pleading, “No, no! I’m…I’m not doing anything!”

He skips right over the weapon, moving instead for the buckle. With a click, the holster drops to the deck. And regarding it like a venomous snake, the kid sends it skidding across the deck with a kick.

“Keep an eye on him,” you mutter to HOPI. “I’m coming down, kid. No sudden moves or else…”

One ladder trip later finds you atop the deck of the attack boat, pistol aimed center mass at the Khanate youth. Who’s since prostrated himself in abject submission, all the while blubbering for his life. You’ve since appropriated his pistol, strapping it to your own thigh. “Who are you?”
Past the snot and tears, he mumbles, “G-Gren. Gren. I’m Gren, sir. That’s my name.”

…what a stupid name. “You the mechanic? The onboard engineer?”

He nods, swallowing, “Y-yes.”

You gesture to his waist. “Toolbelt, too. No sudden moves.”

Gren complies, even as his hands shake violently out of fear. It takes the boy three times before he’s able to undo the belt, whereupon it crashes onto the deck in a cacophony of metal. He steps away hastily, out of arm’s reach from any wrenches, screwdrivers or other improvised weapons.

“I surrender,” he repeats, as if you didn’t hear him earlier. “I’m your prisoner now, yes?”

That remains to be seen. You cut him off, “Why did you attack us?”

He looks anguished. “I wasn’t even…my brother, Paran…” he gestures vaguely up to the deck, “My brother was the captain! He made me come here! I didn’t want to go, but he convinced the chief…”

A subject of the Khanate…not wanting to participate in a raid? A conscientious dissenter? How unusual, you think dryly. Then again, if this is some sort of pantomime or act, he’s pretty good at it. You can’t say that you’ve ever seen a marauder debase himself this much for his life.

Well, since you’ve got the opportunity…

“Who sent your brother?” you ask, “This chief? What were you here for?”

“No, sir,” Gren replies nervously, unable to meet your gaze, “An…order came over the radio, with coordinates we were to investigate. We were…patrolling the nearby waters when the command came.”

“Patrolling,” you growl, “…you mean preying upon the shipping and trade lanes?” The way he flinches is all the answer you need to hear. “Do you have any slaves or prisoners?”

Thankfully, he says that there are none aboard any of the ships. But prior to the order, they once did, slaves of both physical and pleasurable labor. A seventh ship had been with them, but it had been since redirected back into Khanate territory prior to their command to investigate the Olympia. “Lightening the load” for future plunder.

That enough alone is nearly enough to sign his death warrant. And he sees it in your eyes as well.

“I was…was never part of the raids or boarding actions,” he insists, conspicuously looking away from your gun, “…I never took any slaves, or…or hurt any of them. I don’t want this! Never…never wanted anything like this!”

“I find that hard to believe given your relation to a Khanate Marauder,” you retort contemptuously, “Let alone the fact that you’re here. That’s damning evidence enough.”

He panics, “No, really. Please, you have to believe me! I only kept the ships afloat, radios working, and the signal jammer-!”

Gren goes white, clasping his hands over his mouth. But it’s too late. In his shock, he’s unable to defend himself from the brutal crack of your pistol that sends him sprawling onto the deck.

“You’re an awfully long way from the signal jammer,” you intone darkly, “Shouldn’t you be on that smoldering wreck right now?”

Spitting out blood, he wails, “I’m a technician, not a raider! My brother, he…he only took me so that I would be Bloodied! But I didn’t…you can…check the gun!” he gestures wildly to your thigh, “It’s still got a full magazine! I didn’t fire a shot! Besides, you…you won, didn’t you? You beat my brother, killed nearly all of us!”

You won. What a sick joke. Kwan's marines took a mauling, dozens of deckhands are dead or injured, Holt's crew is down at least one experienced rigger. Even if all of the Khanate pirates are dead, the Calypso still took horrific losses.

“The fact that we won doesn’t change the fact that dozens of my crewmates are either dead, dying or badly injured!” you snarl. “You kept the jammer signal, didn’t you? Not just for us, but for anyone who crossed your path. You’re just as complicit as your brother and all the rest of them!”

“No, please!” he wails, throwing himself at your boots. “I didn’t…I swear to Tengri, I didn’t hurt anybody! Not here, not a hair on a slave’s head…I took no woman, harmed no child…please-!”

With a look of disgust, you kick him away, only to kneel down and jam the barrel of your pistol right against his head. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t paint the hull with your brains, Gren.”

“I…please,” whimpers Gren, any and all pretense of dignity gone. The boy whimpers, “I…I don’t want to die…”

>>What will you do?
>“Fuck, I’m going soft.” (Restrain him)
>“Sloan didn’t either.” (Execute him.)
>“We’ll leave it up to God.” (Maroon him)


>>“Sloan didn’t either.” (Execute him.)
>>“Fuck, I’m going soft.” (Restrain him)
>“Fuck, I’m going soft.” (Restrain him)
The more info we can get about how they found us the better
>>“Sloan didn’t either.” (Execute him.)
>“Fuck, I’m going soft.” (Restrain him)
>>“Sloan didn’t either.” (Execute him.)
We're done fucking about.
I guess I'll be the tiebreaker in case this falls off the board soon.

>“Fuck, I’m going soft.” (Restrain him)

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