[OFFICIAL STORY ARC] The Lucky Knuckle Caper

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    Into the Soup

    July 2650: Lucky Knuckle Casino chief Yantos Gazz meets with Red Eclipse mercenaries interested in hunting down the thieves behind a recent heist on Antimone…

    A popular restaurant among the locals, this building tends to be busy most hours of the day and early night. The source of its unusually brief name becomes apparent within a few moments of entering- the place’s decor is striking enough, but attention invariably drifts to the tureens. A square bar rings the inside of the room, studded with twenty-six of those stainless steel pots inset into the lavender and violet-veiled marble. They simmer lowly with their contents, each holding a different variety of soup. The menu changes throughout the day, and though a few perennial favorites remain, also every few months.

    Black-tiled floors with violet grouting provide an even surface underfoot, matte black tables and chairs upholstered in cheery lavender scattered about in the space between bar and door. Wide windows provide an excellent view of Valsho Peak and the Antim Sea below, bathing the room in pleasant light during the day. The bright lavender walls are festooned with pictures of various Timonese celebrities who have visited, though none seem to be too famous- the restaurant’s prices and atmosphere geared towards common folk, despite the quality of the food. Double doors varnished black provide egress back onto Chance Road.

    Gazz is sitting at the bar, tapping his slender fingers on the countertop as he peruses the holographic display of his PDA.

    An average sized human female, with blue streaked black hair walks into the Restaurant. She is wearing jeans and a zipped up leather jacket, a duffelbag slung over one shoulder. Following her is a Moss furred Fox creature with what seems to be a gem in the middle of its forhead, It also has an odd artifical jitter in its step. She finds a spot at the bar and seats herself.

    Gazz glances toward Umishi, silver brow knitting. He nods, then returns his attention to the PDA as it cycles through several images of different individuals.

    Umishi looks at the menu, shrugs and just orders ‘the soup of the day’…though given half the menu is soup..before leaning back in her seat.

    Gazz doesn’t look up from the images on his PDA as he tells Umishi: “Never order the soup of the day. They are none too concerned about which day it is from. It could be the soup of some day last week. Or the week before.”

    Umishi grins. “I have done that on my own sometimes when I have too. But I will remember that.”

    Gazz offers a bland smile. “At least be sure to get properly inoculated soon after dining.”

    Umishi laughs.

    Gazz freezes the PDA display as it shows the somewhat fuzzy image of a Vollistan Light Singer.

    Umishi raises a brow. “I hope that’s nothing lewd…”

    “No,” Gazz replies. “Indeed not.”

    Gazz sits at the bar, not far from Umishi, peering at the holographic display of his PDA. It’s currently showing the fuzzy image of a Vollistan Light Singer.

    At the Bar is Gazz looking over a PDA and Umishi sitting at the bar with her duffel back and a moss furred Fox nearby. Umishi wearing a leather jacket and jeans with black hair and blue streaks.

    “I am just saying, I sink it would ‘ave been perfectly fine to meet at se casino, I am perfectly able to make professional decision in a -fun- place, it is just to save se fun for afterwards,” Joca says, sauntering into the restaurant with a rhythmic jingle of belts and bangles. She appears to be addressing whoever is behind her, and props the door open with her hip while she casts an appraising eye over the bustling restaurant.

    Tirax isn’t far behind Joca, but doesn’t really appear to be paying much attention to her. “Uh huh,” he agrees, distracted. “Well…I never thought I’d ever come back here,” he considers idly, frowning back out of the door. “How strange,” the Timmie mumbles.

    Gazz swipes across the image of the Light Singer, bringing up an Odarite instead. His bland smile fades into a grimace. “Even harder to identify these.”

    A tiny ship, no larger than your typical pack of cards, is flying in a bit behind Tirax. Not in a flight pattern generally considered sendible, though. This vessel opts for a path more suited to an injured moth than anything else. Someone looking closely might see Limping Moth emblazoned on one side.

    “‘Soup’,” Sterling grunts as he looks around at the interior of the restaurant. “Who’d base a restaurant around soup?” He glances at Joca. “We really meetin’ this guy in a soup restaurant?”

    Umishi tilts her head “you mean due to the image or just reacial features?”

    Jeff Allen follows along behind the rest of the REM folks, taking in the sights as he does so, but definitely sticking close to the others.

    “Odarites,” the Timonae casino exec replies to Umishi. “They all look alike, save for some occasional variants in chitin coloration, limb differentiation, antennae length and angularity…” His voice trails off before he swipes again to show a Demarian. “This one, though, we are fairly certain about him. Oh, quite certain.”

    “Comment suis-je suppose savoir?” Joca says to James with a shrug. “Sis is where sey said ‘e would be, so we will find ‘im ‘ere.” After a little more looking around, and a few moments of distraction. “Donc, beaucoup Timonae,” she murmurs, and snaps her fingers twice. “Sere. I see ‘im sere.” With that, she jinglesaunters in the direction of the casino executive.

    Tirax is completely out of touch with the rest of the group, wondrously staring around. “I wonder,” he muses, glancing around.

    The Limping Moth adjusts its flight pattern to hover a more steady path along by James.

    Sterling follows along after Jocaira, smirking briefly as he allows himself to enjoy the sight of her backside as she moves away from him. He glances aside at the tiny ship, grinning. “Soup, Kilroy!”

    Jeff Allen continues to listen for the moment.

    Gazz glances toward the approaching newcomers. He considers the group with his pale eyes and tilts his head, the light of the restaurant playing off the pattern on his scalp. “I am guessing this is not the typical tourist entourage.”

    Umishi sips her drink looking behind her briefly. The moss furred fox near her chair looks at the ‘limping moth’ and tilts its head to the side with a audible clicking noise.

    Jocaira reaches out, well within Tirax’s field of vision, to try to draw his attention with a gesture or touch. “Cheri, revenir a aujourd’hui, s’il vous plait,” she murmurs, before making a ‘hold here’ gesture to the gathered mercs. The last several feet, she closes herself. “Good Evening, Monsieur, Mademoiselle,” she addresses Gazz and Umishi. “If you will pardon se interruption? One of you is looking for mercenaire, if I am not mistaken? If sis is not an opportune moment, we can return later, ne?”

    Tirax blinkblinks down to Joca. “Yes, of course,” he says softly, moving to rejoin the main group. Even if he’s still looking around the restaurant, his attention seems to be a little more focused on the actual going-ons.

    “Now would be an optimal time for such a discussion, I feel,” the Timonae at the bar replies. “I am Yantos Gazz. The Lucky Knuckle Casino is my responsibility. If your team wishes to have the contract for those involved in the recent heist, I am happy to talk with you about it.” He gestures at a corner table that should seat everybody, with a little room left over for the Nemoni vessel. He nods to Umishi before making his way toward the table.

    Sterling stops where he’s told, watching Joca and the Timonae at the bar warily, cracking his knuckles in a not-entirely-unconcsious gesture.

    The Limping Moth stops along with James.

    Jeff Allen steps over near the table, taking great care not to hit the Nemoni vessel by accident, something he’s still trying to get used to.

    “But yes,” Joca replies, looking up as the Timonae stands. Her grin widens. “I saw you on se news.” The bridge of her nose crinkles with the force of her merriment. “I like your ‘air, it is very interesting and fun, yes? I am Jocaira d’Agneau, Capitan of se Red Eclipse Mercenaire, and I would be -very- pleased to ‘ear ‘ow we might be able to assist you.” Another gesture, this one for ‘all clear’ is made, and she motions towards the booth before heading there herself.

    Tirax pokes James in the side as he wanders over towards the table. “Try to look less like a lughead,” he teases softly before following Jeff over, “I imagine it’s an incendiary device, easiest way to make sure you’re aware of it at all times,” he murmurs to the human. Gazz gets a dip of his head. “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Gazz,” he says in Timonese. It sounds slightly tentative, as if the Timonae hasn’t spoken in his native tongue for some time.

    Gazz slides into the booth, finding a place at the center for himself. He tells Jocaira: “You can assist me by capturing or killing the five individuals who stole a fortune from my casino. A bonus, of course, if you also secure the purloined funds.” To Tirax, he gives a nod and then speaks in Timonese: “You have an interesting accent.”

    Sterling smirks up at Tirax, also heading to the table. “It’s a gift,” he replies. He makes a show of sizing Gazz up, then nods as if in approval, allowing Jocaira to sit at the table before taking a seat himself.

    Umishi turns her chair and listens from her spot at the bar.

    The tiny ship takes a quick detour to fly past the fox at eye level before heading back to settle into a parking spot on the table.

    “But of course,” Joca replies, leaning back in the booth and crossing her legs, appearing momentarily distracted by the Timonese-language discussion. “Just a few preliminary question? Do you ‘ave suspects, or will we need to make investigation? Do you believe it was, ‘ow do you say, se inside job? We would be more sen ‘appy to make some… inquiries.” Again comes the grin, a bit of a glint coming from a gold-backed canine tooth. “Do you prefer live capture? Please be advised sat we will not take action outside of se law systems of se planet or system we are dispatched upon wisout a full waiver of liability.”

    “I haven’t had anyone to speak with in a while,” Tirax responds in the same language before leaning back and letting Joca take the meeting.

    Yantos Gazz lifts an eyebrow and laces his long, slender fingers together as he ponders Jocaira’s query. He taps the PDA on the tabletop. “Surveillance images of the five suspects. We are almost certain that one of them, a Demarian, has ties to the Sandwalker House in Alhira. I would hesitate to classify him as the brains of this operation. I suspect the leader is the Vollistan Light Singer, who we have yet to identify. If the surveillance AI is accurate in its assessment, however, the Demarian is called Halffang Whitestar. More muscle than mindpower in that one. So far, he is the only suspect that we have been able to identify with a great degree of confidence.” He eases back against the booth cushion. “Live capture would be ideal for our purposes. For yours too, I feel, at least when it comes to Whitestar. Capture him, perhaps you learn the identities of his accomplices. After that, do what you will with him.”

    Sterling studies the images on Gazz’ PDA, nodding slowly.

    Jeff Allen looks at the various images, his eyeridge raising at the non-humans, but he’s seen enough so far it’s not a big shock. “Tag ’em, bag ’em, shake ’em down. Sounds straight forward.” he says, mostly to himself.

    Umishi sips more of her drink listening on from the bar.

    Jocaira taps her own PDA, capturing images and making scrawled notation with her pinky finger nail. She pauses, makes a thoughtful sound, and adds a few more notes. “Last sighting? For the Monsieur White Star. Do not worry, se per diem time invoiced will not begin until we ‘ave an accord, your team ‘as been assigned, and we begin active mission. Initial consultation is gratis, yes? We are just talking, always a pleasure to talk. Your language, it is very pleasing.” Another wolfish grin crinkles the bridge of her nose. “I can provide team of specialists for investigation, acquisition of your missing asset, and capture. Would you care to make an offer at sis time?”

    “The individuals took separate shuttles offworld, all to various destinations with layovers and vessel switches,” Gazz replies. “All rather ridiculous, really, as we tracked their itineraries and each of them appeared to have Tomin Kora as their final destination. From there…” His voice trails off for a moment as he stares at his hands. “Our representative met with an unfortunate demise. The path was lost.” A sigh, then he looks back at Jocaira. “The offer we made public was 25,000 credits per suspect. Your organization also would receive a percentage bonus based on any recovered funds.”

    Sterling chuckles. “Tomin Kora. Not surprisin’, eh?” He grins at the mention of cold hard credits and numbers thereof.

    Tirax fidgets slightly at the mention of Tomin Kora, but keeps his mouth shut, glancing down.

    A small hatch opens in the top of the Limping Moth, and Kilroy climbs out to have a seat on top.

    Jocaira sketches a few more notes into the PDA, uttering a throaty chuckle. “Ahn, per’aps sey sought se dangerous place would deter following, ne? Or per’aps it was…” she gestures as she thinks. “What is it called, when someone makes a book for complete flight and does not board for se rest? Secret stop? What was se -second- to last stop for Monsieur White Star? We will check sere before se Tomin Kora.” Her short but manicured fingernails tap the table top. “Do you ‘ave anyone else working on sis? I am not opposed to it, but I would like to know if anyone is going to ah, get in my way, as it were.”

    Gazz shakes his head. “No one else.” He taps the PDA display, bringing up a graphic of the various itineraries. “It appears that Whitestar’s next to last stop would have been Ungstir Prime.” He shrugs, waving the display blank again. “If all else fails, you should be able to make contact with people on Demaria who are familiar with him. He is a sort of idiot nephew to Senator Stumppaw Sandwalker.”

    Umishi chuckles to herself at that comment from her spot at the bar before moving a bit closer. “Not much on mercenary work, But this sounds interesting.”

    Jocaira raises a pale eyebrow. “Interesting.” She makes a few more notes. “A Senator, eh? Interesting. If you would like to contract our services, your pricing is acceptable. I will ‘ave contract sent for review…” With a *bleep* said contract is sent over, including a blank space for ‘please fill in any additional non-monetary incentives that undersignatory would like Red Eclipse Mercenaries and its agents to consider when assigning resources to your business needs’. “Also we would like your security department to send us any and all relevant footage and already gathered intelligence so sat we may waste no time in attending to se reacquisition of your assets.” She cannot help a suggestive smirk and a slight brow-waggle at the word “assets.”

    “I will have the information transmitted to your organization as soon as the contracts are signed,” Gazz assures.

    Sterling’s face splits into a grin at Joca’s response to the word ‘assets’. “I like yer assets better, Joca,” he says, nudging her with an elbow.

    Kilroy smirks to himself and taps some notes in his pda.

    Umishi says, “I am not really in an organization myself.”

    Jeff Allen continues to simply observe, getting an idea of how things in this day and age work.

    Jocaira says, “Wanderful. Sen we ‘ave an accord,” Joca says, rising to her feet and offering her hand to the casino manager. “You will indulge? I am se old fashioned girl at my ‘eart, aftair all.” Both of her eyebrows raise at Umishi’s input; after giving the other human female a casual once-over, she offers a quiet snort before turning back to her business. James gets a smirk. “Dans le temps, mon loup.””

    Gazz peers at the offered hand, then takes it in his own and shakes it firmly. “That, I assume, is the custom.” He offers a wan smile, then says, “The Lady smile on your efforts.”


    From A Stone

    July 2650: The Red Eclipse mercenaries start their hunt for Halffang Whitestar on Ungstir…

    Rock and a Hard Place Tavern: A small haven apart the bustle of the crowded nexus corridors, Rock and a Hard Place is a carven retreat from the demands of industry and the harsh pragmatics of the Ungstir day. A small bar runs along the side wall, taking up almost half the long narrow space. Polished steel panels serve as its full mirror, the racks of bottles and rows of taps providing most any drink that one might seek. Here the younger members of Ungstir’s population tends to congregate, leaving the single row of tables are nestled against the opposite wall for the old time patrons. At the end there is a small stage, where a drum kit rests between a pair of tall battered black speakers, a hand lettered sign proclaiming “Live Music Every Saturday”. Between times a jukebox provide the entertainment, stuffed with techish hopperbop and neo-retro tunes. A haze of smoke stains the air, forcing the mechanicalsystem to grumble, a touch overworked. Small sconces, set along the wall, provide the only light, adding a tauch of noir to the tavern’s atmosphere.

    Vechkov is hunched at the bar, brim of his fedora tugged down so it shadows his eyes as he grips a battered gray metal mug of beer. An unlit cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth. The pale, skinny female bartender refills the beer from a brown glass bottle without a word. She goes back to wiping a mug with a grungy yellow cloth.

    It’s been an interesting afternoon for Joca. She’s gotten to talk to a whole lot of very strongly built people with -fascinating- accents, interesting stories, and samples of extremely potent drinkables. What she hasn’t found is anything that might lead her to the Demarian heist suspect, which is of course annoying. It is apparently time for a break. “Well, at least always sere is a bar,” she says with some relief, and clomps her jingly way right up to the bar, hoisting one leg over a stool with practiced ease.

    Sterling tramps in, peering around at the place. A faint smile curves his lips at the sight of the drum kit, but he follows on after Joca, parking his backside on a stool beside her. “Is everything in this place made outta stone?” he complains, digging a packet of cigarettes out of his inner jacket pocket.

    And of course, where goes James, the Limping Moth isn’t far behind. Though it is lacking the usual whimsical music today as it lands on the bar by the pilot’s business partner.

    “Toughest stone in the galaxy,” remarks the man in the fedora as he plucks the cigarette from his mouth. He takes a gulp from his mug.

    “So I ‘ave ‘eard,” Joca says, swiveling on the stool to give Humanoid Fire Hydrant, P.I. a once-over. “What is good to drink in ‘ere for a dry throat and feet tired of, ‘ow do you say, pounding se pavement?” She dredges a gold plated lighter out of the depths of her cleavage and offers James a light.

    Sterling smiles at the Moth as it lands nearby. “What, no music?” He looks around thoughtfully. “In a place made outta rock,” he advises, grinning, “you oughta play … some rock music!” His face splits into a grin and he chuckles at his own rather awful joke. Joca’s movement catches his eye and he transfers the grin to her as the lighter appears. He shakes a plain white cigarette out of the packet and sticks it in his mouth, leaning toward Joca for the proffered light.

    “The potato beer’s not the worst thing ever,” Prague replies. “Steer clear of the bamboo wine. It’s not really bamboo.”

    Kilroy smirks at Sterling as he climbs out of the ship’s upper hatch and sits down in the inbuilt deck chair. “Too obvious.”

    Jocaira lights James’ cig while giving him an internation(and interplanet)ally obvious Look. “Well, it -is- Saturday, maybe sey will ‘ave some live music later.” Prague gets a raised, pale eyebrow in response, followed by a one-shouldered shrug. She orders two beers, and then looks back at the man for a long, thoughtful moment. Primitive mental gears eventually snap together, an initial instinctive dismissal nudged out of the forebrain by any number of long movie nights. “I like your ‘at,” she finally says. “It is like, what is word. Inspector? Detective, non?”

    “Pssh, obvious.” Sterling puffs at the cigarette for a moment to get it going, enjoying his increased proximity to Joca’s cleavage, then leans back again, giving a snorting laugh toward Kilroy. “Maybe subtlety’s a thing fer you, but it ain’t fer me.” He glances over to the bartender. “I’ll try somethin’ new,” he says, looking back to Joca as she puts in an order.

    Kilroy smirks as he presses a button that causes the sound system to start up some fairly quiet saxaphone music. The sort that spent so much time lurking in black and white motion pictures in the olden days.

    “Something like that,” the Ungstiri man grunts. “I’m a private investigator.” He tucks the unlit cigarette back in his mouth, then fumbles around inside his trenchcoat pocket until he finds a wrinkled plastic holocard that he slides across the counter to Jocaira. It reads: PRAGUE PRIVATE INVESTIGATIONS – VECHKOV PRAGUE, PROPRIETOR. “I’m kind of in the middle of a bender right now, though. So, y’know, don’t be sending many clients my way.”

    “Vech-kov Prague,” Joca says, after spending a bit of time parsing through the words. “Jocaira D’Agneau. I do not ‘ave a card, and I do not work when I am -sober-,” she adds with a bit of a possibly-staged brainless titter. “We are no staying long enough for referrals, I do not sink… BUT… per’aps I can line up a few more drinks for your bend-air if you can maybe remembair seeing sis man?” She slides the card back, along with a holoprint of Monsier White Star.

    Sterling glances at the holocard, then to its owner. He doesn’t comment on either, but frowns at the holoprint. He lets Joca do the talking, dragging over an ashtray and flicking the ash from the end of his cigarette into it.

    Kilroy leans back in his ship-mounted deck chair and listens to the proceedings.

    Vechkov peers at the Demarian in the image. “No, I don’t think…” His voice trails off as the cigarette bobs up and down in his mouth. “Wait. Maybe.” He taps a stubby index finger on the holoprint, striking Halffang on the snout. “Pretty sure he was a grease monkey aboard the Implacable. Katerina’s ship.” Again, his voice trails off. He yanks the cigarette from his mouth, downs a healthy swig of beer, then settles back into his hunched silence.

    Jocaira taps on the bar and holds up a finger, gesturing for a refill for Mr. Prague. “Ahn, I see,” she says, in sympathetic tones. Again she dredges up the lighter, this time flicking an unmarked paper packet of cigarillos out of her sleeve. With almost ritual reverence she lights up. The smoke is potent, speaking more to a pricey strain of cannabis than mere tobacco or other smoking leaf. “…Katerina?” A gentle query, a tiny, silvery verbal hook, is exhaled along with the smoke.

    Sterling grunts. “Never heard of ‘er,” he comments, taking a deep drag from his cigarette. He sniffs at the air as the smoke from Joca’s cigarette drifts over to him and smiles.

    Kilroy shrugs, but pulls out his PDA to make notes anyway.

    Vechkov clenches his jaw. He pokes the crumpled cigarette back in his mouth. Stares straight ahead through the shadows under the brim of his fedora. “The freighter belongs to Owein Panderyn. A few days back, the Implacable left repair dock for Demaria. You want that furball in the photo? Sounds like you’re taking a trip to their sandbox.”

    Jocaira nudges the refilled drink in the PI’s general direction with a small, nonverbal noise of encouragement. “It is all right. Sank you very much, Monsieur. Enjoy your drink, ne?”



    Reflections Tavern – Alhira – Demaria: Floor to ceiling mirrors ring this spacious tavern, with long, padded benches for lounging and a scattering of tables and chairs, as well as a bar fronted by a dozen elevated stools. The tavern is decorated here and there with potted purple ferns and brightly clinking chimes. A small raised platform in one corner serves as a performer’s stage.

    Owein sits at a table in a corner of the pub, next to one of the potted purple ferns. He stands out in a room full of furballs.

    Also standing out in a room full of furballs, in appearance if not posture and attitude, is Joca. She is sitting at a table near the entrance, having a conversation with yet another un-furry person. She seems agitated. “Qu’est-ce une douleur dans mon cul,” she grouses, pawing at her drink and being generally huffy. “Remind me again why I say I am going to ‘andle sis one -personally-.”

    James Sterling rolls an unlit cigaretted wrapped in blue paper between his thumb and forefinger, looking around the place and shrugging expansively at Jocaira. “It’s a wild goose chase, Joca. At least maybe they got some good booze in here.”

    Kilroy stretches a bit in the fold-out deck chair on top of his ship that’s parked on the table. “That’d help, certainly.”

    Owein shoves his chair back from the table and stands, rubbing his belly with a pudgy-fingered hand. Looks like he hasn’t slept much in recent days, eyes rather sunken and haunted. He takes one last drink from his mug, then walks toward the bar counter with his jaw set. “Still no word?” he nearly mumbles at the hulking orange-furred Demarian fixing drinks. The Demarian’s snout shifts back and forth, negative. The Ungstiri’s fire seems to reignite then, his fist pounding on the bar, eyes flashing angrily. “How does he just hoopin’ disappear?! Someone’s gotta be helpin’ the bastard! Is it YOU?!” The bartender doesn’t seem to appreciate the customer’s attitude. One can tell just how little he appreciates it by the arc of Owein Panderyn’s path through the air and that smashing sound he makes when he lands on a table not far from Jocaira and company.

    Jocaira perks up. “MUCH bettair!” she says, zipping up the front of her hoodie and chugging down half her drink in anticipation of needing to whack somebody on the head with it. After a small amount of consideration, she chugs the rest, and utters a very ladylike belch of challenge.

    Sterling looks toward the bar at the sound of Owein’s shout, moving aside as the human comes flying through the air. He smirks down at the man and the wreckage of the table. “Nice one, mate. You this popular with all the kitties?” He tucks the cigarette behind one ear to free his hands in case it becomes necessary to bust somebody in the face.

    Kilroy raises an eyebrow as he looks over at the crashed table “Lot of table left, there. Try landing harder next time.”

    Owein struggles back to his feet, glowering at the bartender, who seems to have gone back to polishing a mirrored pane on the back wall with a red silk cloth. He looks toward the burping woman and her companions – well, the one he can see clearly, at least, who’s now wearing a cigarette behind his ear. “Done here,” he growls, stomping toward the exit.

    “…well, sat was anticlimactic,” Joca murmurs, looking very disappointed, and plunks her glass back down on her table along with enough credits to cover the bill. She unholsters her PDA and looks at it, squinting between it and the Ungstiri who’d recently caught airtime. “Hm!” she says, and moves to follow the unfortunate fellow out.

    One of Sterling’s big, meaty, but entirely human paws lands on Owein’s shoulder. “Hold it a sec,” he rumbles. “We gotta question for ya.”

    Kilroy climbs back into his tiny ship, the deck chair folding up as he closes the upper hatch. No music starts playing today, he just pulls the Moth into a hover just over and behind Sterling’s shoulder.

    Owein frowns at the hand clamped onto his shoulder. He then turns to regard the taller and arguably stronger man. “Don’t want any trouble with you people,” he says with a grunt, putting his hands in the air, empty palms open. “Just want to go home. Tired of wasting my time in this place.”

    “You and us both,” Joca says, nonchalantly leaning against the wall by the door. “Per’aps we can be of ‘elp to each usser, ne? A fellow on Ungstir told us we may be able to find your mechanic ‘ere, but from se sound of it per’aps you are looking for ‘im as well?”

    Sterling smiles down at Owein, nodding. “That’s what we wanna know. Where’s the mechanic bloke?” He maintains a secure grip on the other man’s shoulder.

    The Limping Moth continues to hover there, but the speaker does let out a suitable dramatic sting.

    Owein looks puzzled for a moment as he considers what Jocaira’s saying. “Wait.” He points first at Sterling and then at the woman. Eyes narrowing, he ventures: “You’re looking for Whitestar too? Why?”

    Jocaira shakes an unmarked paper packet of cigarillos out of her sleeve, and tucks one into the corner of her mouth. “Beetch owes me money,” she replies, matter-of-factly.

    Sterling chuckles at Joca, giving Owein’s shoulder a slight squeeze. “An’ lemme tell ya: ya don’t wanna be a person who owes her money.” He leans down slightly, adding, “She’s got a real temper.” He grins toothily. “An’ she’s got me.” He straightens again. “So maybe we can help each other out, eh? He owe you money too?”

    The Limping Moth continues to hover ominously.

    “He owes me money, and an explanation for why the hoop he sabotaged my ship,” the Implacable’s captain grumbles. “Three people died because of him. The security holos make it pretty damned clear. I want to know why.”

    “…fan-tastic,” Joca grumbles. “Well, if you do not want to talk about it in front of se apparently sympathetic bartendair, would you like to go somewhere more comfortable? As much as I adore a good fight to get se blood going, I am feeling distinctly outnumbered and my teeth are not -nearly- as sharp, ne?”

    Sterling grunts, lifting his hand from Owein’s shoulder. He glances around at the bar full of Demarians. “That’s a point,” he says absently, nodding.

    The Moth starts playing some film noir-esque sax music a bit quietly.

    Owein shakes his head. “No, I’m tired of talking about it. I talk, Demarians listen, they say nice things, and nothing comes from it. They cover each other’s tracks on this damned planet. It’s all shifting sand and mirrors. I’ve been away from home too long as it is. Maybe you’ll have better luck finding him than I have. If you do, give him my hoopin’ highest regards.”

    Jocaira runs her tongue across her teeth, pausing at the left canine tooth, backed with gold, and makes a ‘tch’ noise. “It is not nice to tease a girl, Monsieur Panderyn,” she finally says. “You ‘ave got security ‘olo, you ‘ave got probleme wis sis… man, and all you are going to do is toss me a ‘good luck’?” Spreading her hands in a dismissive gesture, she shrugs. “I suppose you do not wish ‘im to be found so badly aftair all.”

    Sterling grins at Joca, taking the cigarette from behind his ear and turning it around in his fingers. “Eh, if he ain’t gonna help we may as well quit wastin’ our time,” he mutters. “Some people just don’t have the stomach fer this kinda thing.”

    The Moth bobs in an affirmative manner “Indeed.”

    “Why would I do anything else?” Panderyn asks, brow knitting. He puffs his cheeks, then says, “I have the vid, but all that does is show him over-torquing the capacitor manifold on the main generator in the Implacable’s cargo hold. How could that possibly have anything to do with the money he owes you?” He looks toward Sterling at his comment – “fer this kinda thing” – and it’s like the sun going up over a darkened plain. “The *hoop* he owes you money. He *is* money. Right?”

    “Non, non, you do no want to talk about it,” Joca says brightly, almost a singsong, her grin growing wide enough for the light to glint off of a gold-capped molar. Be-ringed fingers clack together as she waggles them in a farewell gesture. “You enjoy your trip ‘ome now.” The titter she utters next sounds absolutely brainless, echoing off of the metaphorical ‘this space for rent’ sign that simply -must- exist between her ears. However, her expression is one hundred percent catly triumph.

    “Don’t -matter- either way, mate,” Sterling growls, turning an unfriendly glare on Owein. The glare transforms into an amused grin at Joca’s words. “‘At’s right.”

    The Moth’s soundtrack changes from cliche film noir to boucy travel music number 3.

    Owein shrugs. “Fine, then. Like I said: good luck.” He makes for the door, ready to depart.

    Jocaira whips out her PDA and starts making notes. “Hokay, who knows ‘ow to spell ‘capacitor’?”

    Sterling sticks the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and lights it with a metal lighter he produces from his jacket pocket. He takes a deep drag, closing his eyes. “Just use the voice recorder, Joca,” he advises smokily, his voice quieter and his attitude relaxed. “‘S what I do.”

    The music stops for a bit so the tiny pilot can talk normally “Believe it’s c a p a c i t o r. You’d be amazed at how much of an explosion one of those things can produce.”


    Spilled Beer

    August 2650: James Sterling delivers interesting news to Vechkov Prague.

    Warp Pizza: This clearly cheap pizza parlour is decked out in flimsy decorations, obviously trying (and mostly failing) to make it feel like customers are in the middle of FTL travel to an unknown destination. Stars adorn the walls, many of them peeling off. A long counter, nearly always laid out with different kinds of pizza, is located along the back wall. There are a handful of inexpensive tables and chairs dotted around the cramped shop, these decorated to look like navigation controls aboard a ship’s bridge. A faded sign on the wall proudly proclaims an ‘All You Can ET’ buffet.

    Vechkov is sitting, sort of hunched, at one of the cheap tables in a chair that seems in danger of tottering over.

    James Sterling tramps into the shop, his gaze on the pizza-laden counter. He spends a moment collecting a few pieces of exceptionally greasy pizza, orders a glass of Warp’s cheap beer, and plunks down at the table where Vechkov is sitting. He nods in greeting to the other man, takes a huge bite out of one of his slices, then mumbles, “Foun’ fometin’ intereftin out about the Implacable.”

    Vechkov looks up from staring at his fists, eyes glinting within the shadows under the brim of his battered fedora. “Yeah?” he inquires. He plucks a cigarette from the crumpled pack in his jacket pocket. “I’m all ears.”

    Sterling swallows his mouthful of food and takes a swig of beer to wash it down. “You remember we asked ya about that Whitestar guy? How we were lookin’ fer him? Well, guy we talked to — the ship’s owner, right? He tol’ us Whitestar fucked with somethin’ on the Implacable that caused shit t’blow up.”

    The reaction on the detective’s face is almost imperceptible. Slight downward twitch of the mouth and tighter clenching of the fists. Then he seems to distract himself by taking out the scuffed silver lighter and igniting the tip of the cigarette. He grumbles through the silence as a tendril of smoke spirals into the air above him. His eyes shift toward the door. For the moment, he appears lost in thought.

    “Thought you might be more interested in helpin’ us track the furball down,” Sterling adds, chomping down the remainder of his pizza slice.

    “Might be,” the detective agrees. He takes a long drag off his cigarette. The chair squeaks and wobbles. “How?”

    Sterling props his elbows on the table and leans his chin on one fist. “Well, yer an investigator, eh? Yer better at figurin’ out where people went than any of us. Ta hear Panderyn talk, the Demarians make it hard as hell ta find one o’their own that’s wanted fer anything.” He picks up another slice of pizza and considers the amalgam of greasy, drippy toppings on it. “An’ I hear he’s got political connections, too.” He takes a bite of the slice. “Might not be good ones, but still.”

    “Yeah?” The Ungstiri muses. He taps ash from the tip of the cigarette onto the floor of the pizza joint. Stares at the white and gray flakes as they flutter down to the ground. “I’ll dig.”

    “I was gonna send a message off t’the Demarian politico’s office … what was his name?” Sterling sits back, his elbows making a ‘shhhrk!’ sound as they pull free from the sticky surface of the table, then pokes in his jacket pocket for his PDA. “Lemme see.” He pushes his plate aside and sets the device down, tapping at it for a moment or two while he tears off another chunk of pizza. “Stumppaw?” he says, swallowing his mouthful of pizza. “Read someplace Whitestar’s connected ta him somehow. Dunno if he’s related, or what … I dunno how their clan system or whatever works.” He smirks at Vechkov. “You might do better makin’ contact with ‘im than I would.”

    Vechkov nods. He tugs absently at the brim of his fedora. Smoke wafts from his mouth as he mumbles: “Could be.” He pushes himself up from the chair, using the table for balance, and it nearly falls over. The investigator just narrowly avoids tumbling face first into the tabletop. “I’ll let you know.” The cigarette dangles from his mouth as he takes out the lighter once more, staring at the scuffed engraving. He pockets the lighter, then walks toward the doorway.

    Sterling’s eyebrows rise as the Ungstiri almost overturns the table. He snatches up his PDA before it slides to the floor, but is unable to save his beer, which plummets to a premature, glass-shattering death on the dirty floor. “Aw, man,” the merc mourns, staring for a moment at the ruins of the glass. He glances up to Vechkov. “Alright, I’ll keep an eye out fer yer message. An’ fer the furball. If I find somethin’ before you do I’ll let ya know too, eh?”

    “Yeah,” the detective grunts. “Sorry about the beer.” Then he’s out the door.

    • This reply was modified 8 years, 6 months ago by Brody.


    August 2650: James Sterling meets with Stumppaw Sandwalker about Halffang’s whereabouts.

    Communique from Stumppaw Sandwalker: I am given to understand that you have some interest in an individual known as Halffang Whitestar, who is purported to be of some dubious relation to me. It is possible that we have confirmable blood ties, but I am unmoved to provide him with protection on that basis. If you wish to gain additional information about his possible whereabouts, I am willing to discuss it with you in person. Notify the guard at Sandwalker House that you are on the premises to speak with me about supplying antibiotics to treat the recent fungal infestation at the combat arena. Identify yourself as Dr. Offer Purchason. Yes. Offer Purchason. That seems appropriately espionage-ish. I await your arrival.

    Senator Stumppaw Sandwalker

    Alrathir Road, Demaria: Yellow dust swirls across the cobblestones, and hooded passersby scurry from one place to the next, shielding their eyes against the blasting sand. From here, through the whirling sand, you can see the spire of the temple and the domes and roofs of other buildings in the city. A shuttle can be seen leaping off the spaceport pad and toward the heavens. Nearby, a courtyard leads into the local Vanguard Institute campus. A small domed shop is just to the west.

    A Demarian guard stands outside the gate to Sandwalker House, a plasma rifle braced in his arms. His snout swivels as he glances around the area, watchful for trouble.

    James Sterling gazes at the gate and the guard standing near it. In order to keep with the ‘espionage-ish’ persona the Senator told him to assume, he’s left his typical scruffy merc look behind and is instead dressed in a pair of charcoal grey trousers and a dark blue button-down-style shirt. The man is nothing without his leather, though, it seems, for he’s covered all this with a black trenchcoat. His face is clean-shaven, with none of the usual stubble visible.

    He walks with an air of confidence toward the gate and addresses the guard. “Offer Purchason,” he tells the Demarian, with an attempt to hide his typical Aussie drawl behind an unsteady American accent. “-Doctor- Offer Purchason. I’m here to speak with the Senator about an issue at the combat arena.”

    The guard regards “Offer Purchason” with a grunt and a snarl. A clawed finger taps absently on the barrel of the plasma rifle. He shrugs, then activates the glowing blue commpiece looped around his right ear: “Got a furless one out here, says he’s Doctor Awful Pudgy’s son. He’s here about the arena blight.” He listens for a few moments to the response. Tilts his head. The tail twitches irritably behind him. His fangs clack. Finally, he looks directly at the visitor and says, “Enter.”

    Sandwalker House: The front door of the house leads into this dimly lit room, which has a thick burgundy carpet, and cream colored adobe walls, probably painted. Light is given off by several lamps hanging from the ceiling by gold chains. A large sofa, which looks as if it could envelop a grown man in its cushions, and two easy chairs sit around a dark oak coffee table. A holo-display terminal sits on the table, while behind some royal purple curtains, set into the wall, is a large communications and video screen. A few small windows provide a view of the desert scenery outside.

    Stumppaw paces near a window overlooking the Sand Mother Desert, a goblet of wine in his clawed hand. An older Demarian crouches at a nearby desk, inscribing something into a leatherbound book while Stumppaw speaks: “So there we were, the five who survived, backs to the setting sun as this massive sand eel reared its hideous maw from deep in the belly of the Mother of us all, and roared such a roar that shook the medals on my chest and rang the bells in old Firemouth’s braids.”

    Sterling steps into the room with uncharacteristic quietness and shuts the door behind him. Perhaps his old habits as a soldier are asserting themselves, as the usually boisterous merc stands and waits respectfully for the Senator to finish whatever it is he’s working on.

    The senator notes the arrival of the human – he was, after all, not unexpected. “Ah, good afternoon,” the Demarian noble says to the visitor. He swings his snout toward the scribe and says, “That will be all for now, Bluetongue.” The scribe inclines his head, closes the tome, and departs the parlor. He disappears deeper into the house. Stumppaw then turns his attention back to Sterling and says, “I apologize for the clandestine nature of the meeting. It seemed prudent to avoid alerting anyone sympathetic to my nephew’s cause or, worse, his pocketbook.”

    Sterling relaxes, reverting to his more typical slouch. “Yeah, I get that,” he drawls, dropping the fake accent as well. “So this guy’s a thorn in yer side too, eh? Seems like nobody around here wants ta give up any kinda info on ‘im.”

    Stumppaw grunts, whiskers flexing. “Many around here are counting on the promise of a share of his recent windfall. You may be aware of that.”

    Sterling shrugs. “Money talks,” he says simply, then smirks. “Don’t talk so loud ta somebody who’s already got a bunch though, I reckon.’ He leans his hands on the back of one of the chairs. “You got an idea o’where he might be, I assume, since ya called me here ta talk about ‘im.”

    “Yes, I would not endeavor to waste your time otherwise,” Stumppaw replies. He holds up his goblet and inquires, “Would you care for a beverage? The shra berry wine is particularly pungent in this latest vintage.”

    Sterling walks around the chair and drops into it, grinning. “Sure. That sounds great.”

    Stumppaw bobs his snout. He sets his goblet on the desk, then walks over to the wet bar. He pulls down a goblet from the shelf with his good hand. Uses the stump of the other to hold the cup in place as he pours amber liquid from the already open cask into it. Setting the cask aside, Stumppaw picks up the goblet and strides toward Sterling. “Thank you for making the trip. Do you enjoy your line of work?”

    Sterling watches Stumppaw pour the wine with interest, partly because it’s booze but mostly because of the injury the Demarian sports. “No trouble,” he says. “Nice planet ya got here. An’ yeah, I s’pose I do.” He grins toothily. “I been a soldier a long time, so it’s just what I do any more.”

    The Demarian reclaims his drink and raises the goblet in salute. “To duty and service,” Stumppaw intones.

    Sterling mirrors Stumppaw’s gesture, nodding but not repeating the Demarian’s words.

    Stumppaw gulps from the goblet, then settles into the chair on the other side of the coffee table from Sterling. “Halffang survived this long because of his choice of compatriots. They are liable to protect him until they no longer have use for him. His work aboard the Implacable may have bought him a significant amount of breath.”

    Sterling sips from his goblet, running his tongue over his lips. “What was it about that ship that somebody wanted it blown up?” He gazes at the goblet, smiling. “This is pretty good,” he opines.

    “I am pleased that the wine suits you,” the Demarian replies. A mordant chuckle, then: “It is a poor host, ripe for gossip, that serves an unworthy vintage to a guest. It was true in the days when our farthest visitors came from the Stubtooth Mountains. It is true when our visitors come across light years to sit with us.” He studies his goblet in silence for a moment, then sets it on the table. “The goal was not to destroy the Implacable. It was to eliminate the people in the cargo bay. They knew too much about Halffang and his activities.”

    “I came from ever farther’n that,” Sterling replies, jerking a thumb at his own chest. “I’m a rifter from about six hundred years ago.” He frowns at Stumppaw’s explanation about the Implacable. “Figures. Knowledge may be power, but get too much an’ ya really gotta watch yer back.” He takes another, larger, sip of wine. “So he’s layin’ low now, waitin’ fer the heat ta blow over, an’ his buddies’re keepin’ their lips zipped so when he does come out they can get their dough.” He tilts his head at the Demarian. “You got an in, then? You can point me at someplace or somebody so I can get my hands on this guy?”

    “A place,” Stumppaw replies. He tilts his head, fangs clacking as he considers. “The journey is treacherous. This hiding place was chosen for the difficulty and danger of its approach. They have spirited him away to the caverns beneath the sands of the Shining Dunes, deep within the Sand Mother Desert. The surface terrain is too loose to make landing a vessel of any size practical, and the sand eel pits are numerous.”

    A slow grin spreads across Sterling’s not-so-scruffy face. “Been a while since I had any real excitement. You got a map, some info on distances, terrain? An’ tell me about these sand eels.”

    “Aye, maps can be provided,” the Demarian states. He picks up the goblet, takes another gulp, then wipes his mouth with the back of his stump. “You will need a guide if you want any true chance of surviving. Sand eels burrow beneath the dunes. Notorious ambushers. It takes someone keenly attuned to their movements to safely navigate through their nests.”

    Sterling nods eagerly, draining a good portion of the wine in his goblet. “Guide’s great, long’s I can trust ‘im.” He frowns. “Problem with bein’ dependent on somebody like that is that they can lead ya wrong an’ ya won’t know it until it’s too late.”

    “Yes, well, I am unlikely to lead you astray,” the senator retorts. “Certainly not on purpose.” He chuckles, then gets to his feet and walks back to the wet bar. “It has been many years since I ventured into the Shining Dunes. Then, I can assure you, it was not by my own design. The wreckage of our vessel has long since been swallowed by the sands, I expect.”

    “Wait … -you-‘re the guide?” Sterling sits up, watching the Senator as he moves back to the bar. “I guess I expected ya t’give me ta somebody else.”

    “It crossed my mind, believe me,” the Demarian grunts. He pours himself more wine. “But I prefer to see the task done properly, and I would not mind at all seeing the look on that moron’s face when he realizes that his friends are not as useful as he had hoped.”

    Sterling nods as he listens, then cackles with glee. “I like the way ya think, Senator.” He raises his nearly-empty goblet briefly, then drains the remainder of its contents. “You get me there an’ I’ll make sure ya get ta see that.”

    “Excellent,” Stumppaw says. He gulps wine, then: “I will make the necessary arrangements, including acquisition of surveillance data from orbital satellites. One or two make passes over the Shining Dunes each day. Perhaps they can offer useful intelligence about what defenses are in place around those caverns. Once I have everything in order, I will notify you.”

    Sterling gets to his feet and sets his empty goblet on the desk. “Sounds like a plan,” he replies, extending his right hand to Stumppaw for a handshake, pausing for the briefest of moments while he reminds himself with a glance which of the Senator’s hands is missing. “Lookin’ forward ta workin’ with ya.”

    The senator sets down his goblet, then shakes the offered hand with his good right paw. “Indeed,” Stumppaw growls. “Safe travels, Doctor Purchason.”

    • This reply was modified 8 years, 6 months ago by Brody.

    Shining Sand

    August 2650: The Red Eclipse Mercenaries, accompanied by Stumppaw Sandwalker, hunt for Halffang Whitestar in the Sand Mother Desert…

    Stumppaw walks out of the gates of the Sandwalker estate, accompanied by three sturdy underclassers who look like they belong in the battle cages, a weary-looking Demarian scribe, and a pair of six-legged padraki desert bumblers loaded with supplies for the journey.

    Resplendent in gleaming crimson battle armour stands a tall figure … no, wait. This figure may be tall and clad in deep red armour, but it’s not resplendent in the least. His face hidden by the visor of his smartsuit helmet, James Sterling stumps up to the Senator’s entourage and gives the politician a confident nod. “Looks like yer set fer the journey, there, Senator,” he drawls, his voice digitised by his suit’s vocoder. He smacks one metal-clad fist into the other. “I’m ready ta help ya find that jerk Halffang an’ give him what for.”

    Stumppaw swivels his head to regard the armored Sterling, fangs clacking as he scratches absently at his stumped arm. “I certainly hope that armor includes a coolant system. Otherwise, you are liable to cook inside it before we reach Wickclaw Ridge.”

    Jocaira’s armor, on the other hand, is moderately resplendent; it looks like someone’s done a fine job arranging the white pinstripes for adornment and emphasizing purposes. Her visor is currently down, as she is smoking a pungently-scented cigarillo, and she cants her head to the side to observe the Demarian official. “Full climate control, moisture cycling, and air filtering, Monsieur,” she says, extending an armored hand. “Jocaira d’Agneau, Capitan and presently at your service.”

    There’s nothing particularly resplendent about The Limping Moth. It’s just a tiny little ship flitting about among the mercs.

    Following rumor and scent, and for once not looking particularly out of place, Razorback Cliffwalker strides down the road. He spots the brightly-painted smartsuits and a faint smile creases his muzzle, a hint of white fangs gleaming in the sunlight. His armor may not be as obvious, but he is clearly well-armed. He begins to make his way over to the group, pausing only for a moment upon seeing Senator.

    One of the bumblers mistakes the Limping Moth for some freakish bug, lashing at it with its tail as Stumppaw shakes the offered hand of Captain d’Agneau. “When’s the last time you had these suits inspected and run through full diagnostics? The Sand Mother gets her gritty fingers into everything.”

    Sterling’s deep laugh causes his vocoder to crackle slightly. “Oh yeah, Senator, that’s part o’why I’m wearin’ it.” He lowers his visor and reveals his scruffy face. “We came equipped fer a desert trek.”

    “End of every shift week, Senator, all smartsuit are turned in for inspect and maintain before mercenaire leaves for R and R.” Joca says, taking a drag on her cigarillo and blowing it downwind, away from the party in general, “And sey are full-rated for sand, so long as you run se blow-out cycle -before- you put back in case, ne? Usserwise it is se many hours wis se tiny brushes. Is sere anysing outside of standard intel sat we should expect in your Sand Musser, Monsieur? We ‘ave based loadout on available reference material.”

    With an amused fanfare, the Moth darts out of the way of that tail and alters its flight to one a few feet higher.

    “Miss Jocairrra,” a voice rumbles from behind the mercenary queen. Yes, it’s Razorback. “I received your response. I thought that I would offerrr my assisstansce.” He offers a slight bow to James, than another to the Senator. “My Lord,” he says in Demarese, his ancient dialect notwithstanding, with a respectful flourish of his tail.

    Stumppaw inclines his snout in respect to Jocaira. “If you are confident in your gear, then you have my confidence as well. The trail is difficult, but with the latest topographical satellite maps, we should be able to navigate to the Shining Sands encampment with few problems.” He turns his attention toward the newly arrived Demarian, scratching once more at the stump of his left arm as his fangs clack. “Which house are you from?” A dangerous edge creeps into his voice as he studies Razorback.

    Sterling glances toward Razorback, his eyes narrowing momentarily before he returns his attention to Stumppaw. “When d’we leave?” he asks, tapping at his thigh to open a storage panel from which he retrieves a battered packet. He slides an equally battered cigarette from it with his lips, then returns it to the compartment.

    Jocaira raises a pale eyebrow at the arriving Razorback. “Eeehn? Well, I suppose sat is one way to make a clear up on my calendar, Monsieur… I am not going to be able to cut you in, but of course, alsough if you would like to make an assistance I certainly believe it will earn you discount when you make a ‘ire of us, ne?” Her eyes dart between the two Demarians; whether or not they are speaking in a language she understands, she seems to be -very- attentive to tones and body language. She runs her finger and thumb down her tongue, pinching the lit end off with a soft ‘hss’ before depositing the extinguished half-cig into a compartment in her armor’s arm. Wordlessly, she taps her thumb behind her ear three times, mercenary cant for “Problem,” with her expression reading it as an interrogative.

    The tiny pilot of the Limping Moth apparently feels no need to comment just now. Not past altering its flight path again to more of a steady hover a little weays behind James’ head.

    “Cliffwalkerrr, my Lorrrd,” the dark-furred Demarian replies to the Senator, his ears sliding deferentially forward, “I am called Rrrazorrrback, though I have been away frrrom home forrr quite some time.” He nods agreeably to Jocaira. “I do not rrrequirrre payment,” he rumbles.

    “We leave now,” the Senator rumbles in Standard. He beckons the underclassers to lead the bumblers onward in the direction of the waiting dunes. The scribe gives a sad sigh and follows after, leatherbound tome clutched under one arm and a satchel slung over his shoulder. He fixes his attention on Razorback once more, shifting to Flick, with the fingers of his right hand, twitches of his ear, the lifting of whiskers, and the lashing of his tail: “I watch you, Cliffwalker. Suspicion high.” He then stalks off after the departing bumblers.

    The cigarette’s end bobbles as Sterling repositions it, taking a lighter from that same compartment and lighting the cigarette with it. He smirks, turning his head slightly to regard the Moth. “Should have a lighter built into the fingers of the gloves,” he tells the little ship, holding up one hand and snapping his fingers, though the action doesn’t produce the usual sound due to his armoured hands. As the Senator and his entourage start moving, he stumps along after, though he stays closer to Jocaira and Kilroy than to the Demarians.

    Jocaira purses her lips, observing all of the Demarians in play for a long, long moment. She, too, stays closer to the mercenaries, but keeps herself between both groups to continue steady observation of both. “Initiating hydro-conservation sequence,” her suit says, in a bass male rumble, before her visor slides shut. “Intairesting culture,” she muses, over private comms. The blue-green optics on her visor drift back and forth, the HUD marking friendlies as her gaze passes over them.

    A voice from the Limping Moth chuckles at Sterling “Imagine we can work that out. Should probably keep it seperate from that other project, though. Confusing the two would be painful.”

    A fang-filled smile splits Razorback’s muzzle as the Sandwalker walks off. He turns to take up a rear-guard position in the group. His ears swiveling about observantly.

    Some hours later, as Demar Major and Minor start disappearing beyond the horizon, the team arrives on a ridge overlooking the rippled expanse known as the Shining Sands. Stumppaw opens a pack on the side of a bumbler and pulls out a PDA, which he rests on the saddle and uses to call up a local topographical map. “All right, the camp we want is inside a cavern network beneath the stretch of desert before us.” He zooms in the map display, showing the cavern entrance. It is blocked by a Frankenstein’s monster of a sliding door made of cobbled together metal plates. “Scans inconclusive for any other defenses or emplacements outside.” The Senator swivels his face to look at the Limping Moth. “A scout might be useful.”

    Sterling peers at the Senator’s PDA, then turns his head to look at the Moth. “Yeah,” he agrees, “we need ta know if there’s anything or anybody waitin’ fer people like us ta come stompin’ in.” He smiles behind his visor. “It’s a good time ta be tiny, Kilroy.”

    “When sey smile, sey remind me of my musser,” Joca muses, idly, once again on the private comm. Switching to public, she adds. “Scan and sweep, if you would, Monsieur Keelroy, and let us know ‘ow se door is locked, ne? We should know if we are going to ‘ave to come in quiet or loud.” A glance towards the entourage. “Possibly not going to be much of our choice, but it is good to know if se possibilitie exist.”

    Razorback comes up from his position at the back of the line, nearing the door and closing his eyes. His ears swivel forward, moving back and forth as he conducts some scans of his own; his nostrils twitch, taking in the dry desert air and sifting it for signs of … well anything untoward.

    The Moth rings out a quiet affirmative sort of chime before darting off close to the ground towards this monstrosity of a door. Once close enough, the tiny ship abandons the ground in favor of getting a good and detailed scan of things, with a particular interest in what may lie past, what kind of mechanisms are involved in its operation, and any potentially lethal counter-measures installed therein.

    The Moth detects a fairly standard metal lever and gear system controlling the door from the inside. The door is built into a rocky hill, concealing a cavern passage that leads back about thirty feet before it descends under the ground. Six humanoid heat signatures are detected within the entrance corridor. They may be armed with plasma weaponry. Kilroy might also notice the bulbs of sensor modules poking out from the peak of the hill. At the moment, he hasn’t triggered them – but he might before much longer.

    Sterling chuckles as the Moth zips off. “Good ol’ Kilroy,” he says. On the private comm channel he adds, “Hope he don’t bring the house down on us.”

    “‘e should not,” Joca replies via private comm, “I mean, bring down on ‘sem, maybe, but not us.” More publically, she checks her HUD for the signal from the Moth. “Still strong signal, should be getting ‘is results to us momentary.” The panels on the outer thighs of her armor cycle silently open; a pair of blades are revealed, one short, one long, and at the ready. “Remembair,” she says, although this could be more of a reminder to herself than anyone else. “Alive.”

    “Bluetongue and I will remain here and make camp,” the Senator says, settling down onto a bumpy canvas-covered cushion that he pulled off the second bumbler. He waves a clawed hand toward the three underclassers. “They will show you the way through the dunes to the door and offer any assistance against issues foreseen or otherwise.”

    It looks like The Moth has scanned all it’s going to for now, as it is making a quick return to the group, skimming along the ground as it does. During the trip, the tiny speaker folds back in as he flips over to comms instead of the usual PA system. “Looks pretty sturdy. Easiest way to open is with a lever on the inside… fat lot of good that does us. Possibly half a dozen guys waiting on the other side.”

    “Perrrhapss if we knock loud enough …” Razorback says, a low chuckle rumbling from his throat. He shakes his head back and forth, rippling his mane. Ears and eyes turn towards Jocaira as he waits to see how she wants to proceed.”

    Sterling’s sneer isn’t visible behind his visor, but it’s audible in his cranky grunt. With a slight movement of his shoulder and elbow he unslings the Longtooth Battle Rifle and checks it, detatching, scanning, and reattaching the magazine, pulling back and releasing the slide, and dragging his thumb over the safety switch, then tapping it with his thumb, causing an audible click. “Alive,” he grumbles over the private comm, letting the rifle rest in the crook of his elbow, its barrel pointed at the ground. “I hate that word.”

    “More credit, you like -sat- word,” Joca replies, in a gentle sing-song. She draws her weapons, both seeming to be crafted of future-available materials in -very- ‘classic’ designs, a cutlass of crystalline Lyiri make and a left-handed basket hilt knife of some kind of matte black alloy. “Well, if sere is no lock to pick, only one way to make open, ne? Possibly ‘alf a dozen? Is se corridor narrow enough for choke attack?” She looks over at the underclassers, once again raising an eyebrow, observing them for enthusiasm for said mission, or lack thereof.

    The underclassers seem indifferent, but vigilant – they are for the moment focused on any movements amid the dunes between the ridge and the cavern hideout. Like Razorback, they are testing the air with their nostrils, seeking out-of-place scents.
    Another message comes through the comms from the Moth’s pilot “Seemed fairly narrow, yeah.”

    The Cliffwalker seems quite content to stay out of any planning for the moment. Possibly taking mental note of everything. He waits patiently, though maintains a fairly high level of alertness.

    “Yeah, yeah, I like the cash too. It don’t matter if we kill the guard dogs, right?” Sterling switches back to the public comm. “How narrow?” he asks Kilroy. “Big enough fer two ta stand side-by-side?”

    In the lower level of the cavern hideout, Halffang Whitestar sprawls on a pile of dusty blue cushions, watching a Demarian opera holovid for about the umpteenth time since he had to go into hiding. He grumbles at the empty plastic goblet on the floor next to him: “We’re out of wine.” One of the three human mercs in the lower chamber rolls his eyes at the snaggle-toothed fugitive and says, “You’re alive. Could be worse. Next shipment of supplies should come tomorrow. But if I got my wish, your pals would come take you off my hands. I’m tired of cat sitting.”

    In the upper level, two of the human merc guards stand next to each other in the corridor. They’re staring toward the closed door. “That rust patch, right there, in the top left quadrant – swear to god, it just got a little bigger.” The other guard replies: “I don’t think that’s rust. This place is way too dry.” The first guard tilts his head. “If it’s blood, how did it get up there?” The second guard ponders: “Good question. Better question is why would it get bigger?” The first guard answers: “Trick of the light?” “Could be,” the second guard agrees. The third guard, farther back down the hall, snaps: “Would you two fart-heads shut the hell up about that goddamned metal stain?”

    “Monsieur Keelroy, do you sink you could blow se lock wis small shape charge, if door is too tight for se flash bang?” Joca says, assessing the data from her HUD. “If it is two by two, Monsieur James, I will come in low, and if you will covair me over top, sis will make room for support to advance or retreat as necessaire? Is anyone ‘ere capable of suppressing fire?”

    There’s a thoughtful pause from the Moth “I think that if the gate doesn’t start opening while I place the charges, it will never be closed again.”

    “Sssuprrressssion firrre is likely all I am good forrr with thiss,” Razorback says now, hefting the chain gun dangling from his shoulder and turning it to face forward. “At the very leasst, it will make it undesirrreable for anyone to take the time to aim at you.”

    Halffang gets up from the cushions in the lower level of the hideout and skulks over to the holovid player. “Will the next supply shipment include something more interesting to watch than this wailing about the Demarian plague from six hundred years ago? Maybe some Nobles Gone Feral vids?” The talkative merc, who sits at a table next to the cavern passage, glowers at Whitestar and replies: “I’ll see what we can drum up for you, Princess.”

    Sterling nods slowly while he listens to Joca, his gaze on the door. “Flash-bang,” he mutters absently, “cover fire, Kilroy in.” He looks over at Joca and the others. “If these guys aren’t professional soldiers we oughta take ’em by surprise. Kilroy can sneak in an’ feed us info while we finish wreckin’ the guards.’

    “You ever kill a man, Dusty?” asks the first guard of the second guard in the upper passage. The third guard looks curious at this inquiry. The second guard, Dusty, checks the charge level on his plasma rifle. He notices the third guard watching him. The other trio starts wandering their direction, piqued to learn more. Dusty clears his throat, then tells his companion: “Oh, yeah. I’ve killed plenty. And not just men. I butchered an Odarite once.” The first guard marvels at that: “No shit?” “No shit,” Dusty assures him.

    Jocaira’s blue-green optics take a moment or two to swivel over the chain gun, and the low whistle she produces is distorted somewhat by her vocalizer, but the general impression is clear. “Bien. Check. Flash bang, cover, suppress. Monsieur Razorback, sat will do nicely. Low shots, move to disarm and disable in case our target is among sem or if only sey know where to find ‘im. All affirm, please.”

    “Enough chatter,” the third guard in the upper passage snarls. “Dusty, Pembroke, take the night watch outside. Lobo, open the door.”

    The Moth bobs around in a vaguely impatient manner. “Ready to remove the gate. Couple of small charges at the top should do it. If we’re lucky some poor shmuck will be standing where the gate falls.”

    Razorback nods curtly in response. “Underrrsstood,” he rumbles, leaning his head first one way, than the other, each motion producing a satisfying cracking noise.

    The merc identified as Lobo yanks the lever that causes the hideout door to slide along its track, opening as Dusty and Pembroke approach the entrance with their rifles at the ready.

    The low growl emitted from the back of Sterling’s throat sounds strangely alien through his suit’s vocoder. “Understood,” he grunts, lifting his rifle and grasping it with both hands. Motion draws his attention and he looks back toward the door. “Open sesame,” he says, his hidden grin audible in his voice. “They’re comin’ out ta see us. Can still flash-bang ’em if we hit ’em before they come out too far. Mind visibility,” he adds, moving to ensure he’s concealed by the sand dune.

    That’s about the time the rumbling begins beneath the patch of desert where the Red Eclipse mercs are lurking. The underclasser Demarians hunch and brace themselves, claws readied as one of them hisses: “Sand eels.”

    “Affirming,” Joca says, going to move forward but absolutely -freezing- as the underclassers stop. “Merde.” There is a long pause, before her comm starts up, much more quietly. “…actually… Oh, je suis une mauvaise fille. Monsieur Keelroy, can we get distraction for se guards, pull sem small in sis direction, and sen, if someone could… what is se word… thump thump, away from us, yes? Wis se machine, or ordinance. For sem to meet in middle? Senator, do not move and discourage your carriers from moving unless you would like sem to make a bait.”

    Shivers of sand spill from small cracks in the ceiling of the lower chamber in the hideout. Halffang looks up, whiskers flattening against the side of his snout. “It’s back!” He jabs a clawed finger accusingly at the human merc at the table, who’s already unslinging the rifle from his back. “You told me it was dead!” The human just shakes his head and replies, “I told you it was *gone*. Never said it wouldn’t come back. Anyway, you’re safe in here. Solid rock all around us.”

    The Moth swivels around in the air for a moment, getting a passable scan of the current situation. “I think that would not only work, but be potentially hilarious.”

    Senator Stumppaw Sandwalker is on his feet, but unmoving, as he hears the communication from Jocaira. He peers down from the ridge toward the shadowy desert valley. “Can it be?” he wonders. The Demarian turns toward Bluetongue and says, “Ready your sketching tools. I suspect we are about to witness a marvel for the ages.”

    “On my way down,” Razorback calls out, reaching down to flip a switch on his belt before dropping to a four-footed run. His path takes him at a forty-five degree angle off of the line between the mercenaries and the cave. His energy shield crackles to life as he races out into the sand. Upon reaching a reasonably open area, he stops and unslings his chain gun. He lifts it skyward, and with a roar drives it butt-first into the ground at a steep angle. He draws a knife from his belt and jams the hilt into the trigger guard, forcing it to fire a burst every half a second. That accomplished, he aims for the nearest patch of rock and _launches_ himself toward it.

    “Aw, no,” Sterling breathes, crouching automatically to help him keep his balance as the ground beneath him shudders. “You want us ta draw the guards an’ the sand eel together?” He glances up as Razorback takes off. “What the fuck is that guy doin’?”

    Dusty, Lobo, and Pembroke at first are troubled by the rumbling beneath the dunes. But, really, it’s the bursts from the chain gun that drive home the concern that something has gone horribly wrong. A sand eel they can deal with. Someone making a move on the hideout? Time to hunker down. “Close the door! Close the door!” Dusty yells at Lobo, who’s already on his way to shove the lever in the other direction. Pembroke yelps into his link to the mercs down below with Halffang: “Shots fired, Chet! Shots fired!”

    Jocaira just watches all of this, open-mouthed behind her visor. “…oui,” she whispers, perhaps instinctively. “I think ‘e is making a t’ump t’ump? Worm away is first, worm and guards finding each usser, bettair. Damn I wish I jump sat ‘igh.” She hears and sees the panic ensuing. “Merde, well, cover blown, let us get sis sand snake away so we can advance before se shits dig in.”

    The speaker on the Moth not only folds out, but it lowers enough that it can be pointed directly downwards, and some curiously bass heavy music starts coming out, and the Moth darts out above the sound, attempting to lure the eel away. “On it!”

    Beneath the dunes, slithering through gaps between the rock below the desert, about the length of an airplane runway moves with sinuous purpose. Its pebbled flesh is marked, pocked by time but also scarred by slashing weapons and bristling with stumps from broken-off spears, swords, daggers, and here and there the odd wing or chunk of fuselage from a flying vehicle. The steady pattern of Razorback’s chain gun summons a familiar memory and it can smell the stench of the Demarian whose hand it claimed so many years ago. Now, perhaps, it could claim the rest. It homes in on the gun.

    “Interesting,” muses Chet as he hears Pembroke’s cry over the commlink. “We may have more than that damned worm to worry about.”

    The Cliffwalker’s claws scrabble at the rock, pulling him up and away from the sand. He turns, his ears flattening tightly and his tail brushing out to several times his normal size as the largest sand eel he’s ever seen comes barrelling towards him. He reaches behind his back and unhooks his axe from its sheathe. A growl rumbles from his throat that steadily grows in volume until it becomes a roar as he prepares himself shoult the beast attempt to reach him.

    “Great, yeah, they know we’re here now.” Sterling grumbles, muttering over the private comm, “Fuckin’ glory hounds. New plan, Joca?”

    “He comes for me,” Stumppaw realizes as he stands on the rim of the ridge and gazes down at the star-lit trail of dust and sand kicked up by the great sand eel’s passage. The creature takes no obvious interest in Razorback, but lurches from the sand and flings the chain gun toward the sky in a chit-chit-chittering kill spiral that sends bursts of bullets in all directions. Two of Sandwalker’s underclassers are felled by shots. One is killed by a blast to the head, while the other goes down, wounded from a leg injury. Another spray of bullets zings around the Limping Moth, narrowly missing.

    Jocaira takes in the scene, HUD finding and tagging friendlies, loose sand patches, spraying ordinance, and potential enemies. There is an awed exhalation as the great worm rumbles by. “Oui, get worm away -first-, worry about sings -not- big enough to swallow us in se one gulp next,” she replies, doing her best to duck down and make herself a smaller target before adding, “Senator, I would recommend un burdening one of your burden beasts and giving it good sharp reason to run away from you and us. Affirm please, if you are still alive.” Pause. “Going to be rough trip back but rougher if we do not live to make it.”

    The Moth sends over another message over the comms while zooming across the sand “Eel doesn’t seem to care about me. If there’s no objections, I’m going to zip over and plant those charges so they’ll be ready when things are quiet outside.”

    There is a moment of clear relief on Razorback’s face as the worm turns away and passes him by. That relief disappears though as he realizes that his ploy has failed and the worm has turned towards the others. He gathers his legs under him again and springs towards where the eel made the turn, his axe outstretched in an attempt to at least snag a ride as his chances of doing anything from a distance being slim to none.

    What goes up must come down. Razorback’s chain gun crashes into a flat slab of rock, wrenching the barrel and knocking the knife loose. The weapon stops firing and won’t fire again without significant maintenance. The Moth’s musical lure now kicks into the behemoth’s thoughts and it loses interest for the moment in the old Demarian waiting on the ridge. It arcs around, looming up from the sand, rising behind the Moth and preparing to drop upon it. Razorback may be riding now, but the beast seems untroubled by the passenger.

    Sterling hits the dirt instinctively as the madly firing chaingun spins through the air, landing on his belly with his rifle held out in front of him. He starts a low-crawl toward the huge door, watching nearby targets on his HUD, hoping the lessening light and the distraction of the sand eel will sufficiently keep him from being targeted by the guards in the cavern.

    The old Demarian on the ridge actually suffers some sagging whiskers of disappointment as he sees the massive sand eel turn away to chase the Nemoni ship. And then he spies the Cliffwalker launching himself onto the creature with axe in hand. Stumppaw looks at the remnant of his left arm. “Maybe the beast gets a matched set this night.”

    “Qu’est-ce que l’enfer est que fou chat faire?” says Joca, as Razor jumps on the barrelling sand-worm that appears to be carrying enough bits of armament to open its own secondhand shop, and there are no buffalo things stampeding away to lure it off with the promise of a free lunch. “Merde! Keelroy, evasive. Sterling, cover door so we do not get stuck between devil worm and shooting from be’ind. Senator! If you are still alive, affirm please! Burden beast, running away from us, good plan.” She ejects a small grappling hook and line from an arm compartment, and looks for a likely outcropping to hook onto.

    For the moment, Sterling is unseen – the sensors atop the cavern hill are rattling from the passage of the sand eel, which is wreaking havoc with any readouts inside the cavern. Not that anyone’s paying much attention to sensor displays inside just now. The six guards in the entry passage are now hunkered down, crouching, rifles held at the ready and aimed toward the entrance beyond the now closed and locked door. Down below, Chet paces toward his two companion mercs and says, “Get a card game going. Deal Whitestar in. I’ll stake him.” Halffang protests: “I can’t bluff when the walls are shaking!”

    The Moth really doesn’t respond right now. Clearly the plan to plant explosives must be tabled for now. So the tiny ship does what is most sensible right now. It adjusts to its more normally evasive flight pattern, listing away from the population of course, with a substantial increase in volume from the speaker.

    The Cliffwalker, still retaining both of his hands for the moment, hangs up his axe and begins to race towards the front of the word, his claws extended to hang on through shifts in the worms course and what-not. He races forward on all fours towards the front of the beast, his ears buried in his mane as he dodges between the bits of of spears and arrows. He spots an aircraft fuselage sticking out of the animal’s flesh and leaps up towards its edge, hoping to find a more vunerable area of the creature inside.

    Physics being what it is, the eel keeps falling after it starts. The Moth successfully evades the beast as it slams into the sand and rock beneath it. Razorback is not so fortunate. The impact bounces him out of the fuselage chunk and sends him tumbling, slamming against the door of the hideout, just before the worm pursues the music again. Up on the ridge, Bluetongue informs Stumppaw of Jocaira’s suggestion about the bumbler. The senator waves his good hand dismissively, “I have lost two perfectly good underclassers. I will not sacrifice a precious bumbler.”

    “What the hell was that?” asks Lobo after the Demarian clangs on the door.

    With the door now closed again, there’s not much Sterling can do on his own to get inside the cavern. He hears Joca’s command and sets up at the edge of a low dune, sighting in on the door with his HUD, then with his rifle so he’s ready to pick off anybody who sticks their nose out. “Acknowledged, Joca,” he calls into the comm. His head jerks back from the rifle’s sights as Razorback impacts the door. “Goddamn it, well -now- somebody’s gonna come out.” He reports what he sees over the general comm.

    The senior guard in the upper passage contacts Chet about the noise of something slamming into the door. “If it was the sand eel, pretty sure it would’ve just busted through. Must be our other guests,” the guard says. Chet considers the report quietly, watching his two downstairs companions as they settle into a nervous card game with their ward, the Demarian known as Halffang Whitestar. Chet turns his back to the group at the table and mutters into his link: “Open the door. Kill anyone who tries to come inside.”

    “Merde, cannot get politician to follow orders wis sere pants up,” Joca muses, before sinking the grappel end of her zipline into a higher-up rock outcropping and beginning a cautious ascent, keeping her movements uneven and as in time with other environmental noises (and people whanging into doors) as she possibly can. “Affirming. Unable to get outside distraction, Keelroy, keep moving, but do -not- ‘ead for open sand, keep bouncing ‘im off rocks until ‘e loses appetite. Sterling! I am approaching from opposite side, if door opens, anyone who is not our mark… No quarter.”

    Claws reach out, but skitter uselessly across the metal of the fuselage as the Cliffwalker is flung outwards. He grunts as he hits the door, then again when he falls to the ground, his axe clattering to the ground next to him. A low growl comes up from his throat as he starts to rise, shaking his head. By the time he is on his feet, the eel has passes well out of his range. Alone by the door, his ears swivel towards it; he lifts his axe, taking a couple of steps back from the cave, still shaking off the fall.

    Someone listening closely might here some tiny cackling from the speaker underneath all the heavy bass he’s keeping the eel’s attention with. Cackling or not though, the Limping Moth once again alters path so that its general flittery evasiveness heads in the general of one large rock after another.

    The door to the entrance passage rumbles open after Lobo pulls the lever. Pembroke looks over at Dusty and asks, “You really iced an Odarite?” Dusty shrugs: “Well, I think I winged him.”

    The sand eel, meanwhile, is slamming into solid rock and forgetting its primal urge and ancient memory. It loses interest in chasing ghosts around the Shining Sands, plunges below the dunes, and abandons the pursuit for some other time – leaving the Red Eclipse Mercenaries to focus their attention on the inhabitants of the cavern hideout.

    Sterling’s rumbling chuckle is tinged with bloodlust. “Acknowledged, Joca,” he calls back over the comm. He holds his sight steady on the door as it opens, groanimg when Razorback stands up right in the middle of a beautiful shot at anybody dumb enough to stick their head out of that passage. “Suppose it’s bad form ta shoot the goddamn glory hound, Joca?” he asks over the private comm, holding his shot for the moment in hopes of getting a clearer one — unless, of course, his boss tells him to shoot anyway.

    Static crackles as a public address system is channeled through the sensor modules atop the hill. “Look,” a man’s voice says over the speakers, “you’ve had a rough night. So far, you’ve survived the desert and a sand eel, and now you want to take your chances with what’s behind Door Number One. That’s fine. But we all know why you’re here. Same reason *we’re* here. It’s all about the contract.”

    “Monsieur Cliffwalkair, cover, to the side, NOW,” Joca says into her comms, and prepares to roll a flash-bang down said corridor. One of Micky’s special concoctions, featuring a smell like the product of a polecat and a ferret’s drunken love-fest at the bottom of a fast food joint’s dumpster, and a thick red smoke of similar hue to the mercenaries’ smartsuits. “Bad form to shoot anyone willing to ride giant fucking worm to save our asses, yes, even if ‘e is crazy son of beetch,” she replies over private comm, and then reopens the group channel. “Preparing to deploy smoke. Initiate friend or foe ‘eads up system. If you do not ‘ave system, -stay se fuck down-.” The blue-green optics roll, and her suits vocalizer hisses to life. “Fine. You ‘ave fifteen second to make better offair or give up se target. Usserwise se rough night is going to be worked out upon you and your men. Savvy?”

    The tiny cackling from the tiny ship starts to trail off as the worm eel thing scurries away beneath the sandy waves. The bass heavy music comes to an end as the speaker pulls back into its normal folded in and firmly attached position. A quick bit of darting around has it hovering in a convenient cluster of rocks behind the tall folks.

    Chet lowers the commlink in his hand, then looks toward the men playing cards with Halffang. “Let’s take him for a walk upstairs,” Chet says. The Demarian’s ears flatten against his head as he growls. The mercs all pull guns and aim them at the fugitive as he flips the table. Cards go flying. He doesn’t make a run for it, though. He raises his paws, then obediently walks ahead of Chet and his friends as they lead him up the passage toward the surface. Chet speaks into his commlink again. “No one else has to die,” he says, before lifting his gun and blowing a hole through the back of Halffang’s head. The Demarian topples forward onto the sand. “No one else but *him*,” Chet clarifies. “He’s all yours. We good?”

    The Cliffwalker’s eyes widen faintly as the door begins to open. He does not need to be told twice by the mercenary queen and leaps up and out of the way, his claws reaching for purchase on the rock in an attempt to get out of sight of anyone looking through the door. Just in time to watch Halffang drop to the ground he once occupied.

    Sterling chuckles as Joca tells Razorback off, his finger ready on the trigger of his rifle. “There ‘e is, Joca,” he calls into the private comm. “There’s our –” He stops abruptly as the man behind Halffang casually kills the Demarian. “Fuck. That’s cold. We still get paid if he’s dead?”

    Jocaira’s vocalizer utters a significant quantity of profanity in several languages as she is robbed of both a live target and anyone to murderhobo upon. “Vous tuer voler nigaud!” She gets to her feet, tamping down the flash-bang’s fuse to stop the timer. Her fellow ‘merc boss with poor impulse control’ seems to be her only focus at the moment. “…sere was intel in sat skull you just -perforated-, what in se shit, Monsieur? Could you not ‘ave ‘eld it for a moment?”

    “Your contract pays dead or alive,” Chet replies with a shrug and a faint smile. “Our contract pays alive or dead if he goes quietly about it. Neither one of us gets the big payday we’d prefer, but, hey, we get paid. It’s just business.”

    There’s just a sigh from the Moth.

    The Cliffwalker remains at his perch, waiting to see how things pan out. Risks he is willing to take, but only to protect others. As long as the two mercenary groups are not shooting at each other, he is not getting involved.

    “Intel …” Sterling had forgotten about the connection Halffang had to the explosion aboard the Implacable, but Joca’s accusation recalls it to him. “Ah, shit, that’s right. I guess we’ll never know, then, unless these jokers had some kinda connection other’n a merc contract.” He stays where he is, watching the passageway carefully, regardless of what the other merc team’s leader says.

    Jocaira’s visor snaps up, and she huffs, petulantly. “I would ‘ave preferred ‘im to go -noisy-, I still ‘ave usser marks in sis chain…” A slow grin crosses her face. “…a chain sat was apparently paying to keep ‘im quiet, dead or alive. ‘ow much, do I wonder, was sis quiet worth? Obviously love nor money was enough for you to keep ‘im alive.”

    The Moth’s little speaker folds back out to play the Let’s Make a Deal theme.

    Razorback remains silent through the exchange, despite his precarious perch.

    “His life ain’t worth mine,” Chet replies. “What he knows doesn’t matter to me, just so long as no one finds out. And, before you ask, I got no cares about who hired us for the contract. The money all changes hands through anonymous transfers. Just business.” He waves his gun barrel toward the Demarian corpse. “Now go on, haul him off. I have to explain a few things in a report and I hate goddamned paperwork.”

    Sterling smiles behind his visor as Joca speaks, chuckling at Kilroy’s choice of music.

    Jocaira’s flirty little grin turns back into huffy-face. “Mordre mon cul,” she hisses, gesturing at the dead mark while keeping her eye on the opposition. “Monsieur Keelroy, keep an eye out for any more eel worm. Monsieur Sterling, cover our departure. I will make sure our generous ‘osts do not change sere minds. Someone pick up sis empty meat sack and let us get se fuck out of ‘ere.”

    The Moth emits a chirpy little chip tune fanfare before a voice comes out “Scanners active. I’ll yell if anything shows up.”

    Lobo gives the lever another push. The hideout door starts sliding along the track. Chet gives a jaunty salute and says, “Next time, maybe just think about knocking.” The door clangs shut once more. On the Moth’s sensors, it’s apparent that the guards are lingering in the passage, but don’t appear to be making any offensive efforts.

    The dark-furred Demarian above the door drops down from the rocks now, hanging up his axe and leaning down to haul the corpse up onto his shoulder. At least he can make himself useful. He begins to make his way across the sand to retrieve what’s left of his chain gun before rejoining the group.

    As the door slides closed, Sterling gets to his feet, flipping the safety on his rifle and resting it against his shoulder. “Well, that was annoyin’,” he declares, heading for Joca and Kilroy.

    “Sere was giant sand worm, beetch!” Joca yells at the door, before her visor snaps shut and turns the end of that pissed off exclamation into a digital hiss-pop. “James, did you bring cryo-whatevair body bag or is it in my suit? Son of squeerrel-fucking ass for a ‘at. I see sat boy again I am going to give ‘im a knock… right in ‘is taint.”


    Fly In The Soup

    September 2650: The Red Eclipse Mercenaries meet with Yantos Gazz about the Lucky Knuckle contract.

    Soup: A popular restaurant among the locals, this building tends to be busy most hours of the day and early night. The source of its unusually brief name becomes apparent within a few moments of entering- the place’s decor is striking enough, but attention invariably drifts to the tureens. A square bar rings the inside of the room, studded with twenty-six of those stainless steel pots inset into the lavender and violet-veiled marble. They simmer lowly with their contents, each holding a different variety of soup. The menu changes throughout the day, and though a few perennial favorites remain, also every few months. Black-tiled floors with violet grouting provide an even surface underfoot, matte black tables and chairs upholstered in cheery lavender scattered about in the space between bar and door. Wide windows provide an excellent view of Valsho Peak and the Antim Sea below, bathing the room in pleasant light during the day. The bright lavender walls are festooned with pictures of various Timonese celebrities who have visited, though none seem to be too famous- the restaurant’s prices and atmosphere geared towards common folk, despite the quality of the food. Double doors varnished black provide egress back onto Chance Road.

    Gazz sits at his usual table in a corner of the restaurant with a window overlooking the ocean. His brow is furrowed; mouth drawn downward into a grimace as he stares into a swirling bowl of lavender soup. He dips a wide, flat-edged spoon into the liquid, then gives it a taste. Shrugs. Goes back to quietly frowning.

    Jocaira saunters into the restaurant, looking it over with a moderate frown. She also shrugs, and casts about until she sees the casino boss at his usual table. There is one -more- cast over the clientele, to ensure that no one seems too out of place (other than them), then she signals to whomever is behind her and heads over his way. She is carrying a dataslate, a folder, and a keycard on a chain.

    A bit behind comes flitting the Limping Moth. It’s just flitting along in its usual odd flight path. There’s no music today.

    James Sterling stumps in behind Jocaira, exhaling a plume of smoke from his nostrils. “Soup,” he grunts absently, flicking ash from the end of a cigarette.

    The casino boss catches sight of the newly arrived mercenaries. The frown deepens as they approach. “Here for your payment for Halffang, I presume.”

    Jocaira shrugs one shoulder, and plunks down at the table. She pushes the datapad his way. “Footage of incident,” she says, then pushes over the folder. “Still photos and inventory list of possessions of se decease,” she says, then pushes over the keycard, unclipping the chain and offering the clip to Gazz. “Body, cold storage access card.” Her tongue darts briefly across her gold-backed canine tooth. “If case not solved to your satisfaction, you may give partial installment to cover our cost incurred in execution of
    sis phase and we can continue.”

    The Moth lands gently on the table near enough for the cameras to catch what’s going on.

    Sterling sticks his cigarette in the corner of his mouth and folds his arms over his chest, but says nothing, remaining standing at the corner of the table nearest to Joca.

    “Continue?” The Timonae’s frown vaporizes for a moment into a mordant laugh. “Halffang Whitestar was our only identified suspect. I was relying upon you to at least gather intel on his collaborators before his elimination. Unless he left a list of names in his shirt pocket, I think we’re effectively at a dead end.” He takes out his own PDA and taps on the display. “I will honor the arrangement, of course. Twenty-five thousand credits for dealing with the Demarian.”

    Jocaira shrugs, touching her fingertips to her forehead in an informal salute. “As you wish, Monsieur. You are se client, we shall do as you desire. ‘is collaborators apparently would ‘ave rather seen ‘im dead sen allow us to ask ‘im even se one question.”

    A brief and fairly quiet fanfare is played from the Moth’s speaker as the client suggests the money will still be paid.

    “Yeah,” Sterling puts in, “corpses don’t wag their tongues much.” He pauses to uncross his arms and take a deep drag from his cigarette. He glances at the Moth at the sound of the fanfare and gives an annoyed snort.

    Gazz absently picks up the PDA offered by Jocaira and peruses the footage in silence for a couple of minutes. Then, deadpan, but with widening eyes: “Maza’s lopsided nipples, who is the lunatic Demarian who decided to go worm riding in this fiasco?” He waves a hand. “Never mind.” He keeps watching. Finally gets to the part where the merc leader guns down Whitestar during the handoff. Gazz freezes the image on the merc, then pushes the pad back toward Jocaira. “Who is he? And who does he work for?”

    Jocaira titters at the mention of ‘nipples’. “Se Demarian is a Monsieur Rasoirback Cliffwalkair, who is from some usser place and time and who is apparently willing to risk life and limb upon my be’alf. As for se dirty casual who shot my godsdamned mark, I only know ‘is name is Chet, and ‘e was willing to take a pay cut for losing se mark as opposed to fighting us over it. ‘is client was all done via anonymous transfer.”

    The tiny ship remains silent for now.

    Sterling grunts and rolls his eyes at the mention of the ‘lunatic Demarian’. “Fuckin’ glory hound. Yeah, they didn’t wanna fight us,” he tells Gazz. “They thought they’d take the easy way out, takin’ out Halffang so they got at least some pay, rather’n fight us ta keep ‘im.” He shrugs, rolling the cigarette between his fingers absently.

    The Timonae tilts his head, the frown returning. “You saw the records of these anonymous transactions with your own eyes? Or he *asserted* that this was the case and you took him at his word, because why would one mercenary lie to another?” He chuckles darkly. “At least you got *his* name. He’s your next target. Hopefully, you’ll keep him alive long enough to get better intelligence on the architects of the Lucky Knuckle heist.”

    “Oh sure, aftair I wanted to rip ‘is face off for shooting my mark, ‘e invited us inside to look over sere paperwork, and sen ‘e made me dinner and we ‘ad a bit of a -snog-,” Joca snarks, making a very sarcastic face, which only gets -more- sarcastic when the line about ‘hopefully keep him alive’ comes up. “…I am ‘onestly starting to sink sat I am se only person ‘ere who noticed se giant fucking sand monstair trying to eat us? Who wants to say ‘ow sey would ‘ave kept Monsieur Chet se colossal -deek’ead- from airing out se mark’s dome? Anybody at all? Who ‘as got se bettair idea?” She plants the fingertips of one hand on the table with sufficient force to whiten the tanned skin. “Now I can track sis boy down if sat is what you want, Monsieur, but if you are going to ride my ass about ‘alf-fang getting ‘imself capped se least you can do is pull my ‘air.”

    The Moth quickly lifts off and darts a few inches to the side as those fingers come down on the table. Being that small probably makes one a bit paranoid.

    Sterling sneers, thumping one hand down on the table and leaning toward Gazz. “You don’t like our work? Maybe you can find yerself another damn merc group willin’ ta chase down this bastard.” The hand lifts from the table and curls into a fist. “Or maybe you want yer clock cleaned right now!”

    “Save the hair pulling for another time, I think,” the casino boss allows with a grim smile. He shrugs. “For now, such pleasures are not included in our contract.” He offers a cold grimace to Sterling after the threat. He slides his PDA aside, then says, “You have your assignment. Proceed.”

    Jocaira titters again, traipsing along the fine line between anger and arousal. “Au revoir pour le moment, sen,” she says, making a brief circular motion in the air with the first two fingers of her right hand upraised together. “Hmm-mm, business is business, Monsieur Chet,” she muses, as she moves to saunter out.

    The Limping Moth goes back into its normal semi-erratic flight pattern for the trip away from all the soups.

    Sterling gives a guttural growl, pushing off the table and turning his back to the Timonae as he follows Jocaira out.

    Gazz returns his attention to his lukewarm soup.

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