Razorback steps out of a hover-vehicle and onto the pavement near the hub of the Demarian government. He looks around, rubbing his tongue against the roof of his mouth in disgust. He steps aside to allow the others to exit the vehicle, his ears cautiously sweeping the city noises for signs of danger.
Moments later, Colclough emerges from the vehicle to stand next to the significantly taller Demarian. He seems relatively untroubled as he taps a glowing blue node under his right ear, activating a shaded holographic lens across the upper half of his face. The display serves a dual purpose: protecting against the glare of Demaria’s twin suns and presenting Colclough with a cascade of vital data.
“Down this street,” the agent says, “and then the third left. We’re looking for Brownfoot’s Saucer in the western market district.”
Whiptail looks around in a bit of awe at the capitol city. “This place shore has grown up a bit.” he says. “Use’ta know it like the back of my paw, probably couldn’t even find the spaceport now.”
The Cliffwalker looks about him with a twinge of memory. “I know the feeling,” he mutters to Whiptail before he sets off down the indicated street. For whatever reason, he might seem to Whiptail to be more on edge than he was out in the wilderness.
That edginess might be justified by the handful of small drones skimming the edge of the market district as the busy afternoon crowds move to and fro. Particularly when cylinders affixed to the bellies of those drones give a soft hiss, releasing their contents in a fine, pine-scented mist that begins a descent toward the unsuspecting citizens below.
Whiptail twitches an ear as he hears the hiss, and looks towards the drones. “What in tarnation? That some new fangled, fancy schmancy city folk deal, sprayin’ air freshener in the market?” he says, looking totally bewildered.
Razorback looks over at Colclough, jerking his muzzle towards the tiny aircraft. “Yours?” he asks tersely, sniffing gently at the air.
“My what?” Colclough’s hearing isn’t quite as highly attuned as the Demarians. He follows Razorback’s snout-pointing. He adjusts the HUD implant via a subvocalized command, zooming in on one of the drones. “No. No ops planned in this area today. Certainly none that involve airborne deployment of…” His voice trails off as something flashes red in his sensor display. “Biological agent. Possibly viral. Unknown origin and lethality.” He activates his commlink: “Colclough to Catnip. Scramble an extraction craft to my location. Fast.” He scans the HUD, checks the wind drift speed. “Wear your hazmats.” He then looks at Razorback and Whiptail, saying, “Bad things afoot. How long can you hold your breath?”
Whiptail widens his eyes. “Ok… so it ain’t air freshener…” he says. “I kin hold mah breath for a while, but I ain’t gonna be able to do it forever.”
“Not much longer than you,” Razorback mutters to Colclough. He glances rapidly around him until he spots an office building with a helipad stories above the street. “There’s your extraction point,” he says, pointing up to it, “And your people must notify the local authorities, start an evacuation immediately.”
Not soon enough, it seems. As Colclough follows his Demarian companions toward the indicated office building, the first victims fall prey to the strange mist. A Demarian female coughs, sneezes, and her bright eyes fill with blood as she becomes enraged. She turns and lunges toward her mate, a male Demarian who *also* has become crazed and bloody-eyed, his jaws frothing. They tear at each other with fangs and claws. Blood splatters sandstone walls.
The violence continues to spread outward, as combatants sneeze and send infected droplets in all directions.
The Consortium Intelligence dropship settles onto the helipad, awaiting the arrival of Colclough, Razorback, and Whiptail.
“Whatever that stuff is, it’s makin’ ’em act like they bin possessed!” Whiptail says, running as fast as he can with what breath he has managed to pull in towards the dropship.
“Lock that door!” Razorback roars to the building receptionist as he races past the desk. A quick glance at the building’s directory points him to the stairs. If the door to the stairwell is locked, he merely tries to blast his weight through it.
Colclough is through the main door as the receptionist and a pair of security guards move to secure it. He turns to watch through the tinted glass wall as homicidal mayhem erupts on the outskirts of the Market District and begins to spread inevitably outward. He sees more drones whirring overhead and decides to stop gawking. He runs after Razorback and Whiptail as they ascend the stairs.
“I hope that there ship is fast, or we’re in fer ah heap o’ trouble!” Whiptail says as he climbs the stairs as fast as possible.
The Cliffwalker keeps glancing back at Colclough to check his progress, perhaps concerned that without him, none of them will leave the rooftop helipad. “One thing at a time, friend,” he calls to Whiptail as he glances at the nearest sign to ascertain what floor he has reached.
About the time they push through the door to the roof, far below the Demarians in particular can hear the shattering of glass and roars of intruders tearing into the lobby of the building.
Colclough’s HUD gets a message that reads: “LOCATION BREACH.” He motions to the waiting craft on the helipad and says, with overstated calm: “We should go.”
“Ya don’t have to tell me twice.” Whiptail says, darting into the dropship as fast as possible. “We better git this thing movin’, or we’re about to have a lot of company and they ain’t gonna be lookin’ to chew the fat with us!”
Razorback slams the door shut behind them once everyone has reached the pad before turning to board the craft himself. “This seems an unlikely coincidence,” he says to Colclough as they climb into the ship.
“The timing does seem rather suspect,” the CIS agent agrees as the dropship lurches from the helipad and arcs away from the building, above the violent chaos in the streets below.
The pilot, a Castori, burbles: “Weapons lock!”
Colclough catches a similar warning in his HUD, turns his attention to a rooftop about a half mile distant. “Evasive!” The Castori tries, and effectively dodges the first rocket-propelled grenade as it roars past the dropship.
But neither the Castori nor Colclough notice a shooter on a different building – a tower not far from the Alhira spaceport, wielding a shoulder-mounted plasma skylancer.
The beam pierces the dropship on a perpendicular, directly into the cockpit, setting the pilot ablaze. Despite his agonized screams, the pilot is still trying to navigate the dropship (poorly) when he slumps over dead from shock. Safety klaxons wail inside the dropship.
The ship starts a gradual descent, passing the outskirts of the city and easing out toward the dunes of the Sandmother.
Whiptail shields his eyes from the blast, but then training from times past kicks in, and he dives for the controls, trying to avoid the burning pilot as much as possible as he tries to wrangle the controls. “It ain’t no bumbler but I’m gonna do what I can to wrangle this thang!”
The Cliffwalker’s ears fold back into his mane as he braces himself in his seat. He marks the land as they pass, trying to keep their position in mind. “You might want to turn off your trackers,” he shouts to Colclough over the wind and fire.
The CIS agent almost doesn’t hear Razorback, so distracted is he by the task of trying frantically – and to no avail – to subvocalize commands across every known agency channel in the hopes of raising assistance. No response is forthcoming, which sparks some alarm in Colclough. When he finally registers what Razorback is saying, his first instinct is to say: “But if we turn off the trackers, no one can find us!” But then that alarm in his head grows a little louder, competing with the one blaring in the cockpit.
He deactivates the trackers in his implants, the green pulsing dot in his HUD goes to a steady, pale blue.
Of course, it all might be moot if the ship crashes and burns in the desert. He gives a nod to Razorback, glances toward Whiptail, genuflects for the first time in about 30 years, and finds a porthole to gaze out of for what might be his final seconds of life.
Whiptail works the control panel frantically, throwing switches as he maintains a grip on the controls. “Damn shot knocked the bumbler shit out of the stabilizers..” he grunts, fighting against the yoke which wants to go in any way other than that which Whiptail is trying to move it. He switches the descent thrusters to manual, and attempts to fire them as needed to maintain course as an augment to the damaged controls.
The Cliffwalker has by now strapped himself in as well as possible, bracing his body against what surfaces he can find. He watches the Sand Mother rushing towards them with a defiant glare. “Take me if you will,” he mutters quietly, “It is long past time.”
Colclough tilts his head as the dropship continues its unsteady descent, then turns his head toward the rear of the passenger cabin. Another quick twitch of his head brings the HUD back up. “Maybe,” he mutters aloud. Subvocally, he transmits: “Activate.”
The vessel’s engines suddenly go silent as the power is rerouted to what appears to be a hexagonal vortex of swirling blue energy.
“Not sure where that goes,” he admits to his fellow passengers, sliding out of his seat and into the aisle. “But it has to be better than what’s waiting in the desert. Or anywhere else on Demaria right now.”
With that, he passes through the portal with a hiss and a pop. The vortex swirls as the shuttle deepens its descent, threatening to spiral out of control.
Whiptail is taken aback at this turn of events, but he knows a useless situation when he sees it. Letting the yoke fall back to neutral, he heads for the vortex. “Without them engines, this thang is gonna fall faster than a freakin’ brick.” he says, looking back to the vortex. “Best take m’ chances in thar..” with that, he dives through the vortex.
The Cliffwalker just stares at the vortex for an excruciatingly long few seconds, almost as if contemplating just going down in the crash. “Sands,” he spits finally, then looks out the porthole at the approaching desert, “Another time, then.” And he jumps through.