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Mar 2018

Demons, by Lorenzo Vicente

Posted by / in Fan Art / 3 comments

Wow, I’ve been sitting on this awesome bit of guest art for several months XD Now’s a good time to post it while Seba catches back up on work on the latest page.

Thanks to Lorenzo Vicente, creator of the comic Toward’s Eden, with whom I actually wrote and made a short sci-fi comic, The Beauty Sleeping in the Void (now up on the site for the first time).

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Dec 2017

A Life In Whispers – Part 4

Posted by / in Lore / 1 comment

Situation Report Request [A-COFR-SRR]



Requesting Party: [email protected]

ATTN: Agent N03 {Nightshade}

Still waiting on that field report. Those at home growing concerned. Satellite imaging shows heavy cratering at Semey Airport, major structural damage, and two NRF transports heading east from the site. Please check in at earliest convenience.

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Dec 2017

A Life In Whispers – Part 3

Posted by / in Lore / 1 comment

Autonomous Covert Operations Field Report [A-COFR-TDU]

Report Number: 080



Reporting Unit: Agent N03 {Nightshade}

ATTN: [email protected]


There have been major developments today, but unfortunately none of it good. Thank you for the satellite data, by the way. I took my personal terminal to the airfield this morning at about 0700, intending to show the data to Okane and plan our defenses. Ours. It still bewilders me that I can consider Okane’s forces as “ours.” No longer the enemy, the incomprehensible other. How did this happen? How does time stitch even wounds like these back together? I suppose it’s more than just time. The wounds were salved by time, but sutured by circumstance. We need each other, at least for now.

On my way across the tarmac, I saw a loose group of women assembling makeshift land mines and packing bags of gear. The Chinese girl that had worn the flower crown yesterday was among them, so I decided to take a brief detour.

“Excuse me,” I said in Mandarin. She stiffened up as I approached, and I remembered to pull down my hood and goggles. “I’m not going to hurt you. Any of you. I’d just like to ask you a few questions.”

“What if you don’t like the answers?” she asked. “Will you hurt us then?”

I was about to give her a snarky reply, but I caught myself. This was icy ground to cover. I had to step cautiously. “No, I won’t. I’m here to find out who tried to kill me and why. That’s all.”

“I don’t know who tried to kill you,” the woman said, clearly no stranger to snark herself.

“I should hope not,” I replied. “But I also want to know more about your community. I want to know who I’m fighting for.”

The woman put down the trigger plate of a land mine and cocked her head at me. “You don’t really look like a witch. And you don’t act like the stories.”

“That’s because I choose what goes in the stories and what doesn’t. Let’s start with your name.”

“Sunrise,” she said.

“That’s not a name. You just said the first thing you looked at, didn’t you?”

“If the Dust Witch knows your name, she can read your thoughts,” she said, deadpan. “In case the stories are true.”

“God, if only. Alright, Sunshine.”

“Sunrise,” she corrected me.

“Bloody hell. Sunrise. What was that fight about last night? You looked like you had some stake in it.”

“I did. Those men were fighting for the right to sleep with me.”

“Oh,” I murmured. “So you were some sort of prize to be won.”

“You don’t think I’m a prize?” she asked, and if my grasp of Chinese hadn’t caught the double meaning, she fluttered her eyes and gave her skirt an effeminate flick for emphasis.

“Oh, but of course,” I said cautiously. “You’re the proper jewel of the community. But it doesn’t bother you that they do this? What if you don’t want to sleep with one of them? Or either of them?”

“Then why would I have them fight for me?” Sunrise asked, genuinely confused.

“Wait, you arranged the fight?”

“Yes. They both made bids. I couldn’t decide between them. I’ve been with Jun before, and he’s a good man. We were married before our tribe found the Father. But Kyros is strong as a bull, and he’s new. Isn’t that exciting?”

It was all a lot to process, and I didn’t answer her. I couldn’t tell if the arrangement was more demeaning to her or to the men fighting for the right to lay with her. I thought of old nature docs, of two bucks locking horns for mating privileges. I suppose that was the point, wasn’t it? That was his societal model.

Before I could speak, Kyros Eliades himself brushed past me, hauling jerry cans in each hand. Sitting on one shoulder, a small Chinese boy was balanced perfectly, fiddling with a puppet made of wood and steel wire. Kyros set the can on the ground, and Sunrise plucked the boy off his shoulder. Their eyes locked for a long moment, and then he turned his scarred visage to me.

“Remember me?” I asked, feeling a bit outnumbered and out of my depth. I patted my side, right where he’d shot me, to show that I wasn’t intimidated. I’m not sure that it worked.

Kyros grunted, bullish even in his vocalizations, and lumbered away.

“He doesn’t talk anymore,” Sunrise said, watching his back as he went. “Another good thing about him.”

“Something happen to his throat?” I asked. The boy in her arms was staring at me, mouth open, sitting in the crook of the girl’s elbow. The puppet dangled, forgotten, by its blank egg-shaped head.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think he just chooses not to talk. Ask him.”

“I’ll pass,” I told her, then nodded at the boy. “Your son?”

“My little brother.”

“What’s his name?”

“Puppet,” she said, without so much as a blink.

“Of course. Silly question,” I said, shaking my head. I clearly wasn’t going to get anywhere with this one. “I need to speak with the man in charge. Is he in the hangar?”

“The Father is still in his chamber,” Sunrise said, tilting her head up at the control tower. “Does this mean you don’t have any more questions for me?”

“More than I did when we started this conversation,” I replied. “But the NRF is bearing down on us, and I don’t have time for your games.”

“Are you worried?” she asked. “You shouldn’t be. The Father will protect us.”

I bit my tongue and left her with her brother and her fantasies, ascending the control tower to enter the cavernous darkness of Okane’s sanctum. It reeked of sweat, dust, and human waste. An animal’s lair, after all.

The mighty dragon himself lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. Jun was crouched by the bed, holding Okane’s hand.

“Get out,” I told Jun, standing over his shoulder.

“You’ll have to kill me and throw me off the tower yourself, witch,” he said, still staring at Okane’s glazed eyes as he spoke.

“Why are all of you so bloody difficult?” I muttered, grabbing Jun by the shoulder and wrenching him away from Okane’s bedside. He swung a fist at my head, but I blocked it with a forearm and his knuckles scraped against my powered armour. “You can stay, but only if you keep your mouth shut like your good friend Kyros.”

He seemed surprised, both at my strength and at my knowledge of Kyros’s vow of silence. He sank back into a chair at the table, but he continued to stare at Okane and fidget with his small, quick fingers.

“Anybody in there?” I asked Okane, taking Jun’s place at his bedside. “Don’t tell me you’ve already nicked off.”

Okane gulped, dry and painful. “No, not yet. We have to prepare for…”

“This,” I said, taking out my terminal and holding it up to his line of sight. “That NRF camp I passed on the way here? They were headed to this outpost.” At that, I swiped to the next photo and showed him the detachment at a small town near the border. “They were picking up more weapons. Tanks, mortars. The business. Apparently they think you’re quite the threat.”

“Are you sure they’re coming here?” he wheezed. I advanced to the next photo, taken at 0500 this morning. The detachment, now filled out with five NRF tanks and two extra troop transports, was heading back in our direction.

“As sure as I can be without walking up and asking them,” I said. “I’ll continue to track them and if they change course, we’ll know.”

“But we should prepare for the worst,” he said.

“Yes. The tanks will be a problem. Obviously. I might be able to pick them off with my rail gun, but he’s a bit unreliable. If I can’t, they’ll flatten this place before the lot of you will even be able to return fire.”

“Jun,” Okane wheezed.

“Yes, Father?” I could hear Jun stand at attention behind me.

“Take some men today and hit those tanks. Can’t…let them get close.”

“Do you have that kind of firepower?” I asked Jun.

“We have mines, two rocket launchers. And the will of the Father.”

“See how far that gets you. The good news is, the tanks will slow them down,” I pointed out. “They probably won’t get here until tomorrow morning at this rate.”

“Enough time to fortify…” Okane said, almost to himself.

“Okane, I need to know something,” I cut in. “Can you think of anyone from the Family Rebellion that might have access to Aegis firepower? Someone with a grudge against me?”

“They all…have a grudge against you,” he chuckled. “But you are not an easy person to find. How did the NRF get to you?”

“I’ll find that out when I get my hands round Commissar Petrov’s neck. But they knew right where I was.”

“Hmmm,” Okane rumbled. The sound was quiet, like very distant thunder. “Is Sifo Kubek still commander of Aegis?”

“Yes. Why?”

“You’re his bloodhound. As long as he’s in charge, I don’t think anyone in Aegis would or could touch you.”

“You’re not going to try and make me suspect him?” I asked, heavy with sarcasm.

“That’d be a waste of my time. You and I both know there are easier ways for him to burn you. And if he had any reason to, you’d already suspect it yourself. No. If it’s not Kubek, then we can rule out Aegis.”

“Oculus, then,” I said.

“I have names, people who may have survived the purge. They could find you. But not get the CF-14s to the NRF.”

“And some experimental visors,” I added. “Saw right through my camo.”

“Tell me, Thalia. Who is president of Oculus now?” Okane asked.

“Name’s Alexander Smith. Do you know him?”

“Interesting,” Okane said, practically a whisper. He licked his dusty lips. “Very interesting.”

“What the hell does that mean?” I recalled what you told me about the breach last night. Professionally done or very high level. It gave me a chill.

“He was Minister of Trade when I left Minerva. I knew almost nothing else about the man.”

“But you knew everybody,” I pointed out. “That’s precisely what made you such a rat bastard to take down.”

“Indeed it was,” Okane said. He tried to laugh, I think, but he just let out a keening, phlegmy growl instead.

“That’s enough,” Jun interrupted, stepping up to my side. “The Father needs to keep up his strength.”

“And you need to keep your mouth shut,” I growled at him, leaning in close enough to smell the dirt in his pores. “You’re fond of this ‘over my dead body’ shit now, but when you’re lying on the floor with your guts slipping through your fingers, all that bravado will evaporate like the morning’s dew. Believe me.”

“She’s not bluffing, Jun,” Okane gasped. “Please sit down.”

Red-faced, huffing, but mercifully silent, Jun backed away, though he did not sit down.

“I wonder…why would Alexander Smith want to kill you?” Okane mused, as if the coughing fit and face-off had never occurred.

“Your guess is good as mine,” I replied. “I’ve had no cause to investigate him.”

“But you might,” he said. “You might. If he’s got something to hide, then he’ll be very worried about you. After what the Dust Witch did to me and my rebellion, you’re a conspirator’s worst nightmare.”

“You think it was a preemptive strike?”

“It’s what I would do.”

I laughed, in spite of the confusion, the tension, the frustration. Here I was, writing in to Fionn Okane’s advice column, and genuinely starting to suspect the president of Oculus for wanting me dead. Absurd.

We weren’t going to get much more out of speculation, so Okane ordered Jun to round up four men and intercept the NRF attack force. I elected to go with him, since Tom Fury had a much better chance at stopping those tanks than their old rocket launchers. The Family had one working AUV, which would outpace any NRF clunker, allowing us to hit them and return to the airfield before they could arrive.

None of the former Aegis soldiers offered to join our strike team. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. We laid mines on the road as we went, and when we were within eight kilometres of the approaching army, we veered off the road and hid the AUV behind a hill. Jun and a member of his nomad tribe took the rocket launchers up the hill, while the third man brought a pair of binoculars and the fourth stayed in the driver’s seat.

I laid down next to them, tuned Tom Fury to bunker buster rounds, and watched the road.

“Keep your bloody heads down,” I told the men. “And do not pop them up until you hear tank treads.”

It took about twenty minutes for the NRF detachment to trundle into my sights. They were thousands of metres away – all well and good for Tom Fury, but for the RPG-7s my new comrades were sporting, they were much too far. I waited, caressing the detachment with my sights, counting heads and looking for out-of-place tech. The tanks were NRF originals, not refurbished old world, which is unusual enough out here. I’ll have to investigate their manufacturing capabilities if I survive the attack tomorrow. At that distance, with infrared on my scope, it was hard to make out individual details of the soldiers inside the old Typhoon troop transports, but they weren’t my main concern anyway. Not at the moment.

When the convoy was about five hundred metres away, I fired at the lead tank in the column. The round screamed through the armour with ease, detonated inside the crew compartment, and left behind crumpled, misshapen infrared splotches in its wake. The tank slowed to a halt as the vehicles behind it swerved, but the other tanks were too slow. I popped a second, then a third. The aim trajectory in my goggles kinked, rubber-banding back and forth to let me know that the firing tongs were already starting to arc. When are your techs going to fix this shit?

Fortunately, bunker busters don’t require precision aiming. I landed the fourth shot and wiped out the internals of the second to last tank. They were starting to get a bead on us.

“Now!” I yelled, and the RPGs popped up, fired into the scramble of vehicles, then dropped again. One rocket hit a transport, and the other connected a glancing blow to the last tank.

Then, the hill next to me exploded, along with the torso of Jun’s nomad friend. Almost after it had happened, I heard the scream. Not an artillery round. A supersonic bullet.

Somebody gave those bastards a rail gun.

I collapsed Tom Fury immediately, sinking the tongs back into the body. Jun laid tight against the hill, staring at the crater in the back of his friend. He didn’t know that the hill would not protect him against an ATROPA VPR any more than a sheaf of paper. I pounced over the corpse and dragged him, rolling, down the hill. Another gout of dirt showered over us, the supersonic scream rattling my teeth. Artillery was raining down now as well. Our spotter was thrown, bloody and lifeless, down the hill, presumably by a mortar. The AUV was running, the man in the driver’s seat staring at us with bulging eyes.

Then his eyes disappeared, head snapped back and caved in by the force of a magnetized slug. I threw Jun into the webbing at the back and kicked the corpse out of the driver’s seat. We took off across the plains, past the range of the falling mortars. Eventually past the range of the ATROPA VPR.

Whoever leaked all this to the Federation is running up quite the bill. I intend to collect as soon as this is all said and done.

We returned to the airfield to find what seemed like the entire community out on the tarmac, weeping and burning candles. I knew immediately what had happened. Jun, though, was still in a silent daze. I had to take him by the hand to get him out of the back of the AUV.

Aaron stormed up to us, flanked by two former Aegis soldiers.

“He’s here!” Aaron cried, and all eyes turned to Jun. Without further preamble, Aaron threw a punch into his gut that doubled him over. He stepped in for a kick, but I braced my forearm against his throat, pressing my handgun into his chest with my other hand.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I asked.

“Out of my way, witch. This man killed General Okane.”

There it was. I had known, but it didn’t matter. The shock still kicked in. “Jun was with me. How are you…”

“He brought the Khan his soup this morning,” Aaron said, loud and proud. Projecting for the gathering crowd. “He knew our Father was weak. He poisoned him and left the base so no one would suspect him!”

Murmuring around us. I remembered the barely-concealed hope in Aaron’s voice last night as I held Okane at gunpoint.

“You little shit,” I said. “Okane was on his deathbed. Probably choked to death on his own blood, but you have to make a power play with a Neo-Russian army crashing down around your heads!”

“Stay out of this,” he intoned, this time not for the crowd’s benefit.

“You can’t accuse me, can you?” I pointed out. “I’m the most likely suspect, but you need me. And I’m not the one jockeying to be your new leader.”

“I found poison in the Father’s chamber,” he said, a bit weakly.

“You’ve been here all day. How do we know you didn’t kill him?”

The murmuring changed its tone, its subtle vibrations. I didn’t wait for Aaron to answer. I turned and addressed the crowd, holding up Tom Fury over my head.

“You see this?” I pressed a button, and the gun unfolded with a sudden pop. The crowd gasped and backed up. “This is the reason why they say the Dust Witch can kill you with a thought. This gun almost wiped out your precious Father’s bandit nation. And guess what? The NRF detachment heading our way has one.”

The murmuring stopped altogether.

“They’ve got one tank left, as well. We need every man, woman, and child ready to fight if we’re to survive this thing. That means you need to save your petty shit for another day.”

Aaron hesitated, so I leaned in close to his ear, whispering at a barely audible volume. “Do whatever you want with Jun when this is over. I don’t care. Just don’t get us all fucking killed because you’re hard for the top spot.”

He looked into my eyes and nodded slowly. “We’ll continue this investigation once the NRF threat has been dealt with,” he clipped, looking around at the crowd. “Get back to work. We must make sure that today’s tragedy is the last one our community must suffer.”

The crowd scattered, lethargic. I hoped Okane’s death hadn’t completely killed their morale, but it’s too early to tell. I looped my arm under Jun’s shoulder and pulled him up. The punch had at least shaken off his shell shock.

“How can we fight this?” he asked me, looking younger than before, more vulnerable than I’d ever seen him.

“Ordinarily, you wouldn’t,” I said. “They’d show up, kill all of you, and craft your scorched bones into a cautionary tale to tell their enemies. But you’ve got me. And I’ve got Tom Fury.”

He stared at the rifle hanging in my hand. “Will that be enough? Without the Father’s blessing?”

“I’m sure he, uh…blessed the hell out of all of you before he kicked off,” I murmured, starting toward the hangar. “Besides, you’ve got your girl to fight for, don’t you?”

“Li Chunhua? You spoke to her?” he asked, falling into step beside me. I decided to press on as if I’d known her real name all along.

“She said you were married, before Okane took over your tribe. What did he do, force you to split up?”

“Why do you care?” he asked. We arrived at the hangar, where preparations were underway for the attack.

“Natural curiosity,” I answered. “And I’m trying to distract you. Is it working?”

Jun sighed. “The Father did not force anything. He told us we would still love each other. We could stay together as long as we liked. But we were not bound together like logs in a raft.”

“And you liked that idea, did you?”

“At first, it was strange. But he was right. It was…freeing.”

“You like having to fight for the right to be with your ex-wife?”

Jun laughed. The distraction was working. “You’ve been asking a lot of questions around here.”

“I have reason to be suspicious, let’s put it that way.”

“I would fight Kyros anyway. We like to spar, let off steam. The Father says this is a natural thing, to want to fight.”

We settled in with the other soldiers, unboxing ammo and cleaning weapons. I went to work on Tom Fury. The stupid bastard looked like he only had one, maybe two shots left in him. I don’t relish the idea of resorting to the flechette cannon again, but I may have to.

“Have you laid with any other women, since you joined this community?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said, without a flicker of hesitation or guilt. “This would have been forbidden. But it feels natural, to want other women. She has been with other men. We always come back to each other.”

“You know this is unusual, right?” I asked. “Are you sure that nobody in your community protests this…arrangement?”

I suppose I should have focused on the battle to come, but I couldn’t let my suspicions drop. I’ve hated Okane for so long that I can’t help but want to find the seams in this place, to pick him apart even after he’s died.

“Of course not,” Jun said. “The Father understands us. He does not deny our humanity.”

“Understood,” I emphasized, perhaps a bit petulantly. Jun swallowed hard and looked away from me. “There are places, even today, called monasteries. Up in the mountains, off in the secret places of the Earth. People go there to shed their instincts. They let go of desire. Sort of your polar opposites, really. I’ve been to one, and they don’t seem to be any more or less happy than you lot. So what makes you think Okane really understood humanity?”

“Well…” Jun thought for a moment. “He understood us. You can’t force someone to live like we do. But you can’t force someone to live in one of these monasteries, either.”

For some reason, that made me think of Okane himself, castrated and disemboweled by cancer at a young age. Ironically, he was unable to indulge in practically any animalistic desire, and fate, or perhaps more accurately, his service to Minerva rendered him a monk by necessity. Perhaps his entire philosophy was fueled by the things he could never have. I realized, with surprising sadness, that I was closer to understanding him than I’d ever been while he was still alive.

We spent another hour or so making preparations, meeting with the former Aegis soldiers, and laying traps. The plan is to pick off the last tank before Tom Fury gives out, funnel the NRF troops into the main hangar with a smaller decoy force, and hit them from the terminal across the tarmac. I gave the CF-14s I’d saved as evidence to Jun, Aaron, and the Aegis soldiers. Hopefully it’ll give us an edge, because we’re going to need it. I’m not sure what to do about the man with the ATROPA. You can’t exactly take cover from one of those. I just have to hope the user breaks it before it punches a hole in my chest.

I’m currently up on the control tower with Aaron, watching the road. Figure I’d better keep an eye on the bastard, and he says he was a damn good SDM in his Aegis days, so I gave him my scout rifle attachment. We’ll see if he lives up to his talk. Or if he lives at all. Since you asked so nicely the other day, I decided to test the flechette cannon’s recycler, so I asked a civilian earlier to round up as much scrap metal as she could. I’d actually forgotten about it until five minutes ago, when I was interrupted mid-sentence by a creaking patter of footsteps on the tower staircase.

It was Li Chunhua’s little brother, whom I have no choice at this time but to call Puppet. He was carrying a cardboard file box full of scrap. He walked up to me and set the box down at my elbow, never taking his eyes off of me. It wasn’t out of fear – rather, it was out of fearlessness. He was curious.

“Sit down, Puppet,” I said, patting the corrugated metal walkway next to my knee. He sank down fluidly onto crossed legs, and I put my personal terminal aside. I took the flechette ammo drum out of a bag behind me and threw back the lid. I took a bit of scrap, a rifle magazine that had been snapped in half, and placed it in the drum. I flicked the switch and the drum began to hiss and snarl and rattle like a rock tumbler. Puppet’s eyes ballooned out.

“You want to know what I’m doing?” I asked him. He nodded. “I have in my possession a team of little men, each one no bigger than a fingernail.” I took his hand and held up a nail to his face. It seemed so fragile between the carbon nanotube muscles in my glove. “I found them in a jungle in Namibia living in an abandoned anthill.”

“What do they do?” he asked.

“They make my bullets for me,” I explained. The recycler had finished with the magazine, so I pulled the machining pod off the top of the drum and showed him the spiraling rows of tiny metal teeth slotted into the firing tracks. We could just see the tips of the flechettes, and just as promised, the metal shavings on the ends of each rack were a darker metal than the rest, almost black – the color of the magazine I’d just fed into the recycler. So far so good. Maybe we’ll see if the recycled flechettes actually work if things go south tomorrow.

“Can I see them?” Puppet asked, excited.

“I’m afraid not,” I said, shaking my head. “That’s part of our deal. I have to keep them safe in their pod, or else they won’t work for me anymore.”

“I won’t hurt them,” he said.

“I know you won’t,” I reassured him. There was no need to keep the charade going, but I was actually having some fun. I pulled down my mask, leaned in toward his ear, and whispered, “They’re a wee bit sensitive, and they might get very upset if I even open their pod. And when they get upset, they turn red hot, and then they explode! Like little firecrackers.”

The boy smiled. Madly, I smiled back. I’ve told many stories about myself, always to intimidate, trick, or exploit. I’d never told anyone a story to entertain before.

“Are you scared, Puppet?”

“No,” he said, too quickly and too firmly.

“Didn’t your sister tell you? I’m the Dust Witch. I can read your thoughts, and I know when you’re lying.”

“I’m not lying,” Puppet insisted, his voice wavering. “I’m being strong.”

“Do you know what happens when you try to be strong all the time?” I asked. His face was partially blocked by the wind sensor readout on my goggles, so I pulled them down. “You make yourself weaker.”

Puppet stared at me, his eyes becoming watery but his expression remaining fixed.

“Go to your sister right now, Puppet. Tell her you’re scared.”

“She won’t like it,” he protested.

“Trust me. She’s scared too.”

“But what if she’s not?”

“What did I tell you?” I said, smiling. “I can read thoughts. Hers too.”

Puppet seemed to accept this as fact, and he got up. He looked at me one more time before he tottered sleepily down the stairs. I record our conversation in the hopes that, if Li Chunhua or her brother die tomorrow in the attack, at least small, inadequate pieces of their lives, like mine, will live on in these whispers to you.

It’s getting quite late now. Please send updates on those backup agents when you can. And let me know what you think of the Alexander Smith theory.





SENT 202348EFEB04


I don’t like the implication against President Smith. Not because I can’t believe it, but because I can. He’s more guarded than I am, and that says something. And a Regent would have access to top secret R&D projects like the FALCON and the ATROPA. It’s military tech, but Glaucus works closely with both of us. It’s possible. And if it’s true, then it’s bad. You’re an open secret by now (comes with the reputation) so any conspiracy would indeed be worried about you. No idea what they might be planning or who they really are. The only good news here is that the first attempt clued us in that there is a conspiracy. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Unfortunately, other agents intercepted NRF backup converging on your area. They may be tied up for at least another day. Good luck, Agent Nightshade. Will be waiting anxiously for your next report.


If she and Kubek have been suspecting Smith for this long, why haven’t they done anything? There better be a good reason why they let this conspiracy fester until it destroyed the Keleres, or I’ll show them how I deal with problems.


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Dec 2017

A Life In Whispers – Part 2

Posted by / in Lore / No comments yet

Autonomous Covert Operations Field Report [A-COFR-TDU]

Report Number: 079



Reporting Unit: Agent N03 {Nightshade}

ATTN: [email protected]


Have you ever wanted something for so long that it sort of became a part of you, kept so close to your heart that you didn’t even realize that you wanted it anymore? And having suffered this kind of unrequited desire, have you ever managed, after long years of wanting, to achieve what you desired? Is there any feeling more gutting than that? Is there anything more unsatisfying?

I desired closure with Fionn James Okane. I told myself that I’d already gotten it, but I knew it wasn’t true. Unless I saw his charred corpse or met him once again in the living, breathing flesh, I would not really be able to consider our business concluded. Well, now I’ve done that – met him, and concluded our business. Now what do I do with this dead thing in my chest? This thing that’s been a part of me for the last ten years?

Allow me to back up. I can’t seem to focus for two bloody minutes. Okay, so this morning, I broke camp and continued on to Semey Airport. On the way, I passed by what appeared to be a Neo-Russian Federation convoy camping next to a small hillside. Normally, I would have stopped to investigate, but I’ll admit I was singleminded in my pursuit of Okane by this point. I kept my distance.

I arrived within operational range of the airport at 1400, with plenty of time for reconnaissance while I waited for dark. I took Tom Fury with me to begin planting camera darts. After a twenty minute walk, I crested a hill and saw, spread out below me, Semey Airport. It had clearly seen quite a bit of violence over the years – no atomic bombs, of course, but it had likely changed hands many times, from the Russian Air Force, to raiders, to wanderers, to Nature herself. The brutalist architecture of the main terminal had maintained its angular strength, despite the fact that the ceiling and half of one wall had collapsed, but there were only three intact aircraft hangars left. The control tower was in better shape, almost as if it had actually been cleaned recently. A flag hung from the top of the tower, snapping brusquely in the wind.

I hefted Tom Fury and used the new scope to take a rough body count. There were almost two dozen people visible to the naked eye, milling about the tarmac between the terminal and the hangars. Zooming in, I could see that they were no mercenary band. I saw women in shawls washing clothes and scrubbing potatoes. I saw children chasing each other and climbing on what appeared to be long ammunition crates. There were two armed men standing guard at the terminal doors, but their rifles were old, rusted Kalashnikovs, not CF-14s. I was discouraged, to say the least. I’d chased a dead end. If there had been a mercenary group here, they had joined the airfield’s long list of former owners and a nomad tribe had taken residence instead.

Just in case, I fired a camera dart into the scaffolding of the control tower. A square in the corner of the scope lens crackled to life, and I now had a bird’s eye view of the airfield. The roofless terminal had been converted into a sort of living complex, with hollow shops and kiosks containing beds and personal belongings. There were more people in the main hall of the terminal at various desks, most of them adult males cleaning dismantled weapons. This caught my attention, so I zoomed in.

The parts themselves weren’t out of the ordinary for a community like this, mostly Kalashnikovs and hunting rifles. However, as the little camera panned up the gathering, I froze the picture on a man I recognized. His face was warped now by a vulture-claw scar that gave him a permanent growl, but I recognized the long, wavy hair and singularly piercing eyes. His name is Kyros Eliades, and he was a battery commander in the 8th Company before the mutiny. He was also the one who shot me as I was trying to finish off Okane four years ago.

To my fevered brain, this was proof enough. The Family was still active. They were here. I realized the women and children on the tarmac weren’t members of a community – they were slaves. Just like Terekat. Just like Shadow City.

I fired three more camera darts onto the rooftops surrounding the strip of tarmac that connected the terminal, the hangar, and the control tower. The space between the buildings was blocked off with Czech hedgehogs and makeshift barricades, so I assumed that their forces were concentrated in those three buildings. With all four cameras active, I counted eighty-six individuals across the base, including children. No sign of Okane, but I couldn’t see inside the hangar from my position or from any of the cameras. I circled around for a better angle.

The hangar doors were half open, and a triangle of light illuminated a row of soldiers, standing rigidly at attention. I call them soldiers, but they had the sun-roasted, never-once-cleaned skin of common raiders, with unmatched camo and rags on top of that. Yet their composure suggested a discipline that I had never seen in a raider band before. More proof of Okane’s influence.

I zoomed into the inky shadows of the hangar, adjusting the light amplification on Tom Fury’s scope. Out of that darkness, a monstrous machine emerged. It wasn’t a machine, as I soon found out, but a monstrous throne instead.

Sitting atop a rampart of rubble was the cab and arm of an old world excavator. The bucket on the arm had been removed, or had broken off, and in its place were two T45 autocannons bolted to the excavator arm. They were wired together, and the wiring extended all the way down the arm to the cab, wherein a shriveled old man looked out through bulletproof glass at his domain, hands resting idly on a busy control board. He had the glassy, ashen stare of a mummified corpse, but the heat sensors on my scope informed me otherwise. Okane was still alive. Barely.

I considered pulling the trigger right then and there, but I remembered the women and children on the tarmac. The place was all tucked in and orderly now, but if I opened fire, there was no telling how the Family would react. If I chose to battle it out with the rest of them, they’d have no shortage of hostages or bullet shields, and if I left them to their own devices, this semblance of peace would certainly fall apart without Okane keeping them all in line.

I returned to the NRF jeep and waited for dark, watching the cameras, noting their combat strength and patrol patterns. Of the hundred-odd residents at the airfield, only about thirty of them appeared to be soldiers. Their patrols were disciplined, with extremely brief windows of opportunity. I would have expected no less from Okane. However, as the sun began to set, I got a stroke of good luck. People began filing into the hangar as if summoned or scheduled to do so. The perimeter guards remained, but with fewer eyes around the airfield, my windows of opportunity had widened considerably.

I took Tom Fury and a bandolier of six turrets, crept low in the grass to the back of the hangar, and waited for the next patrol to pass. I had roughly sixty seconds to work with, so I immediately fired Tom Fury’s grappling hook onto an old fanbox on top of the hangar and scaled the side of the building. The turrets weighed me down more than expected, and the winch inside my rifle whined with the strain. Seconds ticked off in my head. Fifty three, fifty four, fifty five. My right foot touched the edge of the roof as grass crunched under combat boots below me. I pivoted up and over the roof, hoping desperately that my cloak would save me if the guard happened to look up.

I crouched on the corrugated roof and listened for any slight change in the guard’s patrol, but he continued on with mechanical precision. With that, I went to work.

I used my cutter to punch six holes in the hangar roof, just large enough for the coconut-sized turrets to seal the breach without falling through. As I cut the final hole near the entrance to the hangar, I looked in on the event that had drawn so much of the community inside. To my surprise, there was a tight ring of onlookers surrounding two shirtless men in a makeshift boxing ring. One of them I recognized as Kyros by the hair and build, but the other man was a stranger to me. They were trading exploratory jabs, circling each other and kicking up dust. The entire crowd – men, women, and children – pressed in with hungry eyes. Apparently this is what passes for entertainment at Semey Airport.

I placed the last turret and returned to the back of the hangar, where I used infrared to pinpoint the top of Okane’s armed and armoured throne. Then, I cut a hole large enough to fit through, and I dropped down on top of the excavator cab with a dull thud. Before anyone in the hangar could see what had made the noise, I gripped the edge of the cab and ripped open the roof. I swung inside, landed on Okane’s lap, pressed one boot against the control console for leverage, and jammed my pistol into the underside of his jaw. I kept my eyes firmly on the Family brothers in the hangar, as I was far more concerned with the armed raiders surrounding their civilian slaves than I was of the legless seventy year old man crushed under the weight of my powered armour.

The fight broke up almost immediately, and the ring of spectators scattered, but did not flee the hangar. A phalanx of Family brothers advanced on the excavator with their guns raised, yelling impotent threats at me. The women I’d seen outside were watching me with terror in their eyes. There was one that stood out to me – a young Chinese girl wearing an ornate robe and a flower crown. She had been standing on a crate, watching the fight above the other spectators, and she now rushed toward me along with the guards, almost pleading. For what?

“Ladies. Gentlemen.” I said, speaking into a mic tucked under my bandanna. My voice boomed out of speakers in the six turrets imbedded in the ceiling, filling the hangar. “I have some unfinished business with your tyrant king. If you are armed, I suggest you drop your weapons. If you are here against your will, I suggest you leave.”

The room was completely still. The only movement came from the two fighters, who pushed their way through the onlookers to see me. Kyros stopped as soon as he did, and there was a hopelessness in his eyes that momentarily arrested me. His opponent, a Chinese man not much older than the woman in the flower crown, did not stop, but grabbed a pistol from one of his comrades and aimed it at me.

“You are free to go,” I insisted. “You will not be harmed. I will make sure of that.” As soon as I said this, I pressed a button on my gauntlet and six green laser sights flickered to life, webbing across the room from the turrets in the ceiling. They were aimed at the armed men standing before the throne.

Nobody moved.

“Where do you think they’ll go?” Okane rasped into my ear. “And what makes you think this isn’t where they want to be?”

“Trust me. If these men have enslaved you, you may leave now,” I said, trying to tune him out. But evidence was piling up against me. The civilians were more frightened now, not less, and the girl in the flower crown had dropped to her knees. I couldn’t hear her, but her lips moved in desperate silent bargains.

“So nice to see you again, Thalia,” Okane whispered. “I think we should talk.”

“Alright then, have it that way,” I said into the mic. “But I still don’t see the rest of you lot dropping your weapons.”

“You’ll have to kill us first!” The young Chinese man yelled in Mandarin, and the men around him roared in agreement. The woman in the flower crown smiled bitterly, her face still wrinkled with fear. Kyros approached the man he’d recently been fighting and laid a hand on his shoulder. His snarling, scarred face looked as though he was resigned to death already.

“I can arrange that quite easily, darling,” I replied, though my mind was already racing to adjust my plan to this new dilemma.

“Jun will not drop his gun for you,” Okane told me, wheezing from the weight pressing down on his frail chest. “But he will not harm you as long as I’m alive.”

I tapped off the mic with my free hand. “Why should I believe you?” I asked him.

“Because I think we should talk,” he said. With that, he leaned to the side and grabbed his own microphone attached to the glass wall of the cab. “Attention please. This is Nightshade, the infamous witch of the wasteland. We do, indeed, have business to conduct. Do not harm her. I need two volunteers to escort us to my room, and you will leave us there until our business is concluded. The Spring Dance for Li Chunhua will take place tomorrow instead.”

The hangar was completely silent and still for several agonizing moments. I ran through my options, but I felt I had no choice but to hear him out. I had too many questions, and sitting on top of him in the cramped excavator cab wasn’t exactly conducive to discussion.

The man identified as Jun was the first to step forward. He jammed the pistol in his waistband and took a rifle from one of the idle guards.

“I’ll go,” he said. As soon as he did, another man in the crowd was spurred to join him.

“I will protect you, sir, as always, with my life,” the second man said. This one wore a dirty Aegis uniform under his rags, though I didn’t recognize his face. I later looked him up in the list of MIA 8th Company mutineers and found his name: Aaron Elgin. We hadn’t crossed paths during the rebellion, which is probably the main reason he’s still alive.

Okane chuckled and reached for the door handle, but with my weight pressing him down, he couldn’t reach it. I sighed and pushed the door open myself. The two volunteers approached us cautiously, both squeezing their rifles with white fingers. Jun scooped up Okane in his arms like a bride – quite easy to do, since the man’s legs ended at or around the kneecaps – and Aaron, the former Aegis soldier, hovered behind me. Jun led this bizarre procession through the crowd, and Okane whispered words of reassurance in that deep, inhuman rumble of his. The civilians in the group held out their arms to touch his shoulder or his head as we went, then immediately shrank back from me.

We walked across the tarmac, Okane waving away the patrols outside, and up the winding staircase to the top of the control tower. Inside, surrounded by broken banks of computers, there was a wooden table with three chairs and an unlit candle, a small cot, a latrine bucket, and a stack of boxes. The windows were covered in dirty sheets, so that even if it had not been night, the room would have been dim as a tool shed.

Jun set Okane down at the table, and the man I’d hunted for half a decade waved me to the chair across from him.

“Leave us, please,” he said as I took my seat.

“Permission to speak freely, sir?” Aaron asked.

“Denied. Aaron, leave us.”

“Can we at least wait outside?” Jun asked.

“Father didn’t give you permission to speak,” Aaron snapped. “He gave you an order. Or did you not understand him?”

“Unlike you, I can think for myself. You really want to leave him with this monster?” Jun said, waving his hand at me. I was flattered, actually.

“Enough, both of you,” Okane murmured. “Wait outside if it will make you feel better. Just go.”

“Roger that. Thank you, sir,” Aaron clipped, though he did not move until Jun stirred from Okane’s side. I watched the two of them carefully, as Aaron patronizingly held the door open for Jun to leave. The younger man stepped outside with a scowl, and Aaron immediately followed him.

“Trouble at home, eh?” I asked, kicking my feet up on the table and leaning my chair back. I kept my goggles, mask, and hood on. I didn’t want to betray any hint of humanity.

“Jun is very passionate,” Okane intoned. “Aaron is extremely disciplined. He was just a private when we left Minerva. Now, he’s one of the most experienced soldiers I have. They both think of themselves as my second in command. Neither one wants to settle for third.”

“You left Minerva?” I repeated in disbelief. “You didn’t go on holiday. You nearly destroyed us. Razed half a dozen villages. Kidnapped women and used them as breeders. When you say those civilians out there want to be here, why on God’s scorched brown Earth should I believe you?”

“You don’t have to believe me,” Okane said. “Believe your own eyes. What did you see?”

“I could see that they were afraid of me. Lots of people are afraid of me.” He was silent, staring at me and smiling subtly, waiting for me to admit that I’d seen more. “And they loved you. Worshipped you. But you can come by worship in many different ways. Torture, threats, propaganda. They loved you like Winston Smith loved Big Brother.”

“I’m not sure I follow, but I can assure you, these people were never harmed by me or the few soldiers I have left.”

“Who are they? These people.”

“Three different nomad tribes. One from China, the rest from Russia. A raider band we encountered. I convinced them to join us. Had to kill their leader, but you don’t have any problem with dead raiders, do you?”

It was my turn to give him the silent treatment.

“You’ll like to know that there are only five Family brothers left in our community. You took care of most of my men. Protecting our people these last four years, living on the move…well, that’s done the rest.”

“You don’t have any interest in returning to Minerva? After all you’ve done, you’re just going to flip and live out a quiet life here on the plains?”

“You have no idea what I’ve done,” Okane said quietly. “Or why I did it. If you did, none of this would come as a surprise to you.”

“I know you enslaved the people of Terekat to pamper your soldiers. I know you rebelled against Minerva and caused more terror and destruction than any threat we’ve ever faced. What more is there to know?”

Okane sighed, or attempted to, and was stopped by a violent cough. “See,” he said, “I like this. We finally get to have a real talk. No pretenses. No audience. We’ve been so busy ruining each others’ lives that we never got a chance to understand each other.”

“Getting your legs blown off has made you sentimental, has it?” I quipped.

“Something like that. Thalia – do you mind if I call you that?”

“I do, actually.”

“Well, Thalia, I have always operated under the philosophy that the old ways are best. Once upon a time, I thought that meant the Old World. I always felt that Minerva was headed away from that, into some damn fool utopia that would have robbed us of our humanity. So Oasis was my first little rebellion. I wanted a place where my people could be human. Just like the old days. Whenever something happened – and, you know, it’s got to happen. We’re human, whether the Regents liked it or not. Whenever something happened, I had to cover it up. In order to keep our way of life.”

“In order to keep your slaves,” I clarified.

“They weren’t slaves,” Okane said. “They were upset about the cover-ups. They were upset that I spoiled my men. I don’t blame them for that. They got violent, I had to get tough. It was a mess. I don’t excuse any of that. I learned how to deal with my problems out in the wasteland. You deal with raiders differently than with civilians.”

“No shit,” I said, standing up. I’d tried to maintain my composure, but in the face of this non-apology, I couldn’t help myself. “You don’t protect rapists and test weapons on dissenters. You don’t bomb a town just to cover your own ass. They don’t put that in the fucking rule book because it should be bloody obvious to anyone with a working conscience!”

“Rule book,” Okane scoffed. “Thalia, there is no rule book. I discovered something after I bombed Oasis. The universal truth that I was looking for wasn’t in the Old World after all. See, Minerva was a product of the Old World. They trussed it up with breeding pacts and Zen mind-body shit, but underneath all that, they were still the same monogamic Capitalist scumbags that blew up the world in the first place. People like my father kept the systems alive through the dark ages. And now, thanks to these luminaries of a dead civilization, nobody even knows of any other way to live. I spent day after day surrounded by pretenders who suffered under all these rules and said they liked it. Said “thank god I was born here and not out there in the wasteland.”

But I’ve been to the wasteland. I’ve seen the people out there. They lived like animals. And you know what?” Okane suddenly stopped, wracked by another violent coughing fit. The timber of his voice hadn’t faded a bit, but there was an extra sawtooth edge in it. When he stopped coughing, he wiped blood from his lip and continued.

“They were happy. They lived by no rule book and no law, but we were miserable and they weren’t. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the reason they were happy was because they followed the only universal truth that matters: instinct.”

“So you believe we’re no better than animals,” I said.

“We are animals,” Okane replied, then coughed again. “It’s pretending we’re not that makes us miserable.”

“Does that mean you would have rebelled anyhow, whether I had exposed your crimes or not?” I asked, trying to keep him focused on our history together. Based on his cough, I could tell he didn’t have much left in him.

“Not in the way that I did – you forced my hand – but in a way, yes. I would have tried to change Minerva no matter what. The conditions we lived in were intolerable. Comfortable. Safe. Sophisticated. But intolerable nonetheless.”

“Is that how you justify the slaughter your men committed after the mutiny? Because if you really did it because you were bored, I’m going to shoot you in the head right now.”

“I’m not talking about boredom, Thalia.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“I’m talking about a denial of our natures. To fight, yes, to breed, and to indulge. Not to excess – instinct protects those who are in tune with themselves from excess. But to indulge in urges without fear or guilt.”

“So you let your men indulge in their urges, and all of them had the urge to become what basically any society on Earth, past or present, would consider monstrous, even demonic. You think that’s what we really are.”

“No,” Okane said with a chuckle, though even the chuckle now caused him to tremble with a coughing fit. “That was psychological warfare. Not instinct. Our forces were smaller. Our equipment was inferior. We had to resort to guerilla tactics to destabilize Minerva. Terrorism, Thalia. You know a thing or two about that.”

“If you’re trying to plead for your life, you’re doing a right poor job of it,” I growled.

“Do you honestly think I have much left to plead for?” Okane wheezed. “I don’t know for sure, but I feel like the cancer is back. Has been for some time. I haven’t spoken so many words at once in two years, but I felt I had to take an opportunity I never thought I’d get to have this little talk with you.”

“Why?” I asked. “Why do you care?”

“Because I want you to understand me,” he said, and I found myself momentarily stunned. It was perhaps the last thing I expected him to say. “I don’t care if you forgive me or accept me, but I want you to understand why I did what I did.”

“I’ll never understand you,” I said.

“Why not? I think you know exactly how I feel.” At this, I realized I was leaning forward, palms on the tabletop. “You’re a creature of instinct now. You have the power to take what you want, and you are far happier now than you ever would have been as an Aegis drone.”

“You don’t know the first goddamn thing about me,” I snarled. I admit, sir, this got under my skin. I thought I was prepared for anything, but I suppose I was wrong.

“Oh really? You’ve never used this power of yours to take what you want? You don’t revel in that? Watching your victims squirm, feeling your blood pumping in your chest? Thinking about how you finally feel alive – ”

I reached out, grabbed him by the back of his scraggly head, and shoved it against the tabletop. In my other hand, I held my pistol to the side of his head. I pulled the trigger three, maybe four times. The gun clicked; I knew the safety was on, but I wanted to see him sweat. I wanted to see him flinch.

As always, I was disappointed. Okane merely smiled.

“Feeling alive yet?” he asked, just as the door burst open. Jun and Aaron rushed in, guns drawn. They began yelling at me, but Okane immediately cut them off.

“Silence!” he said. “Let her do it. If she’s going to do it, let her do it.”

I thought about it. But I already knew that my revenge would come too late to do any good, especially to myself. He was wrong about me. I don’t revel in this. I do feel guilty about what I do. Everything I do as your agent is for the greater good. It just hurt, momentarily, to hear him twist my actions around, to make me sound so much like one of his animalistic followers.

“I can’t kill you,” I said, lifting my gun and putting it away. “I have more questions to ask.”

“Ask them quickly,” Okane murmured, seemingly disappointed. “Nature’s about to finish what you couldn’t.”

“Sir, can we stay with you?” Jun asked, still standing with Aaron by the door. “I don’t trust the witch.”

“Jun, for the last time, Father gave you an order. If he wishes to die, he will die.” Aaron rattled off mechanically, staring neutrally at the wall. However, I thought I detected a hopeful pep in his voice.

“Can they stay?” Okane asked me innocently. It was absurd.

“I don’t see why not,” I said. “As long as one of you can tell me how Minervan CF-14 assault rifles ended up in the hands of a Neo-Russian Federation death squad or why they were given orders to kill me.”

“So that’s what this is about,” Okane wheezed. “As you can see, we don’t have access to CF-14s. If we did, we wouldn’t be giving them all away. Especially not to the NRF.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Those pigs have threatened our people,” Jun cut in.

“They tried to recruit me,” Okane clarified. “Once they found out who I was, they thought I might make a valuable asset. Help them gain some ground on Minerva. But I’m done with cities, states, and countries. I’ve lost all taste for human civilization.”

“So why threaten you?”

“You clearly haven’t dealt much with the NRF. If you’re not with them, you’re against them. And if you refuse an alliance, you’re more than just not with them. You’re practically declaring war.”

Suddenly, I remembered the NRF camp I’d seen earlier in the day.

“I suspect war is coming sooner than you think,” I said. I told them about what I’d seen on the way to the airfield. They didn’t seem surprised.

“Looks like we’ve got some common ground,” Okane said. “The NRF is after both of us. Care to stick around and do what you do best?”

“Help you fight off the Federation?” I said, just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. But it did make sense. I wouldn’t have believed it an hour ago, but it did make sense.

“Forget about helping me. Nothing’s going to help me. Help this community. Help Jun and Aaron here.”

“Sounds an awful lot like you’re playing to my conscience,” I pointed out.

“I know my audience,” he said. “And you’re not ready to give up your conscience. Not yet.”

“Sir, you can’t be serious,” Jun interrupted.

“Permission to speak freely, sir?” Aaron asked.

“Granted,” Okane said with a sigh.

“For once, I agree with Jun. The witch is too dangerous and too unpredictable. After what she did to us four years ago, I think it would be unwise to ally with her now. We can deal with the NRF on our own.”

“Don’t mind them,” Okane told me. “Aaron, please show the Dust Witch to the terminal. Give her a room.”

“Absolutely not,” I said. “I’ll make my own camp, thank you.”

Okane responded to this with a coughing fit. Jun winced. Aaron was stone still. “Fine. But come back tomorrow morning. We have preparations to make.”

So there you have it. Yesterday, I thought I’d found evidence that Okane was alive. Today, I thought I was on my way to kill him. Now, I’m helping his community defend against the Neo-Russian Federation. Even so, I fully intend to investigate the community further to back up or disprove Okane’s claims. And I’m not just doing this to protect these people. If Okane can’t tell me who sent those assassins after me, then someone in that detachment of NRF soldiers can. If I’m lucky, the assassins came from that same unit, and I’ll be able to meet this Commissar Petrov face to face.

Whatever happens tomorrow, I’ve finally had the meeting with Okane that I’ve desired for all these years. That business is done. And those who say that you should never meet your heroes really ought to add that you should never meet your nemeses either. I don’t know what I expected, but I know that it was not this, and I feel cheated. But perhaps some good can come of it all. I hope to have more news of our security breach tomorrow.





SENT 200215EFEB04


Incredible. I never would have expected this outcome either, so you are not alone in feeling blindsided, though I don’t think you should feel cheated. As long as Okane is no longer a threat, that is all that matters. Sending you satellite data of all known NRF units in your area. Backup agents are two days away at least. You may be on your own if this strike force attacks tomorrow.

Still no updates on the breach. Checked with the FALCON R&D team, they reported no missing visors and none checked out of the lab in the past 2 months. The team was then surprised to find that their prototype inventory said 20 when it should have said 26, so someone made sure the visors gifted to the Russians never existed. This is either professionally done or very high level. Hope you have more luck with Petrov.


I’ll come back and write more here later. Probably. Whatever, I’m reading the next part right now.


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