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/qst/ - Quests

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>>Previous thread: https://suptg.thisisnotatrueending.com/qstarchive/2022/5187049/’

>>RECAP of the prior thread…

The year is 76 A.C.

After the Cataclysm that blasted away the human order and man’s collective progress, water now covers approximately 90% of the world.

Mankind stands at 100 million strong.

Hanging on the knife’s edge between civilization and barbarity.

Struggling to find purpose and meaning in a Flooded World.

… … …

Sinleq Unami is a debt-slave of Free City of Babylonia, 25 million ducats in debt to Lord Bartholomew Stolze. For the last three years, he had been working aboard the oil rig Marduk when orders for transfer were suddenly issued. The PUEXO pilot and deep-sea engineer had been re-assigned to the salvage trawler Calypso, for an expedition undertaken by the Salvage Guild.

Aboard the ship, he settled in, making new contacts and acquaintances. Captain Elishani and XO Geary, Deck Chief Holt and ACOMMS Aalto, Sergeant Kwan and his marines. But perhaps the most significant relationship he established was with Gully Elishani, a fellow PUEXO pilot and daughter of the captain.

The salvage expedition, recovering an Olympia-class starship, promised to be one of riches and Old World treasures. However, the wreckage had been trapped, rigged to blow by the Dragon’s Teeth – eco-terrorists with Luddite sympathies diametrically opposed to Babylonia. In the depths of his mind, injured by the blast and hallucinating a vision of his godson Tom, Sinleq admitted that he sold himself into slavery to pay for Tom’s life-saving treatment because of a love for his mother, Caroline.

Sinleq and Gully barely escaped the blast, only to find that one of their submarines, a small, three-man submersible called the Mackerel, had suffered damage and was hemorrhaging oxygen. To make matters worse, the Calypso was not the only one searching for the starship. Raiders of the Toghril Khanate were fast approaching the ship. Weighing his options, Sinleq made the decision to save the Mackerel first, before leaping to the defense of the Calypso.

Nearly all of the raiders are dead, but the Calypso paid a high price in blood to keep the ship. As luck would have it, Sinleq came across a survivor, a young teenage mechanic cowering in one of the raiders’ attack boats. The youth, a boy named Gren, pled for his life, swearing that he had done no harm, and that he was here only because of his brother.

Whether or not that plea would work had been left at the end of the prior thread…

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You cycle the hatch and airlock, wrenching your helmet off to suck in the savory, stinging salty ocean air. It’s befouled by both the pitter taste of iron and ozone, but makes better than the recycled, scrubbed air you’d been working out of for the past few hours. After checking to see that your pistol as a fresh clip of ammo, you exit the Magellan, and hop onto the foredeck.

“What a fucking mess,” you murmur tiredly.

Most of the torpedo boats are on fire. Some might be saved, others not. Still, the burnt-out husk of one might make for a pretty penny back with the Salvage Guild. Damned shame about the loss of the jamming technology, but you aren’t about to weep over shrapnel.

The sound of distant gunshots below deck means that the fighting isn’t nearly over. Even if it largely is. The raiding force has been defeated, and while the Calypso took heavy casualties, she’s still under the sovereignty of her original, Babylonia crew.

You ignore the pleas of mercy, for death, kicking aside weapons and limbs that grasp at the hem of your NERVlink suit. It isn’t petty cruelty that motivates you to ignore them as much as the fact you’ve got other concerns. Really, it isn’t.

But as you inspect the solitary ship that isn’t on fire, an attack boat with several spears and its glass blown out…a sudden shadow in the window that you might’ve missed if you didn’t blink.

“Movement,” you shout into the radio, drawing your pistol, “I’ve got movement in one of the boats!”

Among calls for you to standby and wait, you’re already moving. The Magellan lumbers after you ever-so-slowly, piloted in a limited capacity by HOPI. Hardly fast or precise enough for quick trigger reflexes or delicate work, but enough to keep herself upright.

Leaning over the safety rail, you aim your gun below and warn, “You’ve got five seconds to come out before I have my PUEXO cook you alive.”

A yelp of fright, then a stream of words in the Khanate’s pidgin language. Then…

“Wait, wait, wait!” the survivor screams desperately in heavily accented English, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! I surrender!”

…he couldn’t have been more than sixteen. The youth who emerges, pale and frightened beyond belief, is thin and gangly. Not malnourished, but definitely lacking the bulk of his fellow raiders…if he could even be called that. He isn’t wearing any armor, and the belt of tools on his waist speak more of a repairman or engineer.

Not that you fail to notice the pistol strapped to his thigh.

You pause, momentarily taken aback. A member of the Khanate surrendering. What kind of trickery is this? But you don’t let the surprise last long. Eyes narrowing you put the sights right between the kid’s eyes.

“There anyone else with you?!” you demand.

“N-no, it’s just me, I swear!”

“You better be telling me the truth, boy.”

“I am! You and the marines, you all killed…everyone else is dead!”

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…huh. Guess you did.

As the Magellan idles alongside and levels the plasma cutter, you eye one of the ladders connecting the boat to the Calypso. “HOPI, he telling the truth?”

“Yes,” she answers quickly. “But beyond the gun, he doesn’t really-”

The kid only seems to notice. Both you and the Magellan swivel, aiming your guns as he drops his hands to his thigh. He shrieks, pleading, “No, no! I’m…I’m not doing anything!”

He skips right over the weapon, moving instead for the buckle. With a click, the holster drops to the deck. And regarding it like a venomous snake, the kid sends it skidding across the deck with a kick.

“Keep an eye on him,” you mutter to HOPI. “I’m coming down, kid. No sudden moves or else…”

One ladder trip later finds you atop the deck of the attack boat, pistol aimed center mass at the Khanate youth. Who’s since prostrated himself in abject submission, all the while blubbering for his life. You’ve since appropriated his pistol, strapping it to your own thigh. “Who are you?”
Past the snot and tears, he mumbles, “G-Gren. Gren. I’m Gren, sir. That’s my name.”

…what a stupid name. “You the mechanic? The onboard engineer?”

He nods, swallowing, “Y-yes.”

You gesture to his waist. “Toolbelt, too. No sudden moves.”

Gren complies, even as his hands shake violently out of fear. It takes the boy three times before he’s able to undo the belt, whereupon it crashes onto the deck in a cacophony of metal. He steps away hastily, out of arm’s reach from any wrenches, screwdrivers or other improvised weapons.

“I surrender,” he repeats, as if you didn’t hear him earlier. “I’m your prisoner now, yes?”

That remains to be seen. You cut him off, “Why did you attack us?”

He looks anguished. “I wasn’t even…my brother, Paran…” he gestures vaguely up to the deck, “My brother was the captain! He made me come here! I didn’t want to go, but he convinced the chief…”

A subject of the Khanate…not wanting to participate in a raid? A conscientious dissenter? How unusual, you think dryly. Then again, if this is some sort of pantomime or act, he’s pretty good at it. You can’t say that you’ve ever seen a marauder debase himself this much for his life.

Well, since you’ve got the opportunity…

“Who sent your brother?” you ask, “This chief? What were you here for?”

“No, sir,” Gren replies nervously, unable to meet your gaze, “An…order came over the radio, with coordinates we were to investigate. We were…patrolling the nearby waters when the command came.”

“Patrolling,” you growl, “…you mean preying upon the shipping and trade lanes?” The way he flinches is all the answer you need to hear. “Do you have any slaves or prisoners?”

Thankfully, he says that there are none aboard any of the ships. But prior to the order, they once did, slaves of both physical and pleasurable labor. A seventh ship had been with them, but it had been since redirected back into Khanate territory prior to their command to investigate the Olympia. “Lightening the load” for future plunder.

That enough alone is nearly enough to sign his death warrant. And he sees it in your eyes as well.

“I was…was never part of the raids or boarding actions,” he insists, conspicuously looking away from your gun, “…I never took any slaves, or…or hurt any of them. I don’t want this! Never…never wanted anything like this!”

“I find that hard to believe given your relation to a Khanate Marauder,” you retort contemptuously, “Let alone the fact that you’re here. That’s damning evidence enough.”

He panics, “No, really. Please, you have to believe me! I only kept the ships afloat, radios working, and the signal jammer-!”

Gren goes white, clasping his hands over his mouth. But it’s too late. In his shock, he’s unable to defend himself from the brutal crack of your pistol that sends him sprawling onto the deck.

“You’re an awfully long way from the signal jammer,” you intone darkly, “Shouldn’t you be on that smoldering wreck right now?”

Spitting out blood, he wails, “I’m a technician, not a raider! My brother, he…he only took me so that I would be Bloodied! But I didn’t…you can…check the gun!” he gestures wildly to your thigh, “It’s still got a full magazine! I didn’t fire a shot! Besides, you…you won, didn’t you? You beat my brother, killed nearly all of us!”

You won. What a sick joke. Kwan's marines took a mauling, dozens of deckhands are dead or injured, Holt's crew is down at least one experienced rigger. Even if all of the Khanate pirates are dead, the Calypso still took horrific losses.

“The fact that we won doesn’t change the fact that dozens of my crewmates are either dead, dying or badly injured!” you snarl. “You kept the jammer signal, didn’t you? Not just for us, but for anyone who crossed your path. You’re just as complicit as your brother and all the rest of them!”

“No, please!” he wails, throwing himself at your boots. “I didn’t…I swear to Tengri, I didn’t hurt anybody! Not here, not a hair on a slave’s head…I took no woman, harmed no child…please-!”

With a look of disgust, you kick him away, only to kneel down and jam the barrel of your pistol right against his head. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t paint the hull with your brains, Gren.”

“I…please,” whimpers Gren, any and all pretense of dignity gone. The boy whimpers, “I…I don’t want to die…”

>>“…fuck, I’m going soft.” (Restrain him)
>"Sloan didn't either." (Execute him)


“…fuck, I’m going soft, aren’t I?” you mutter to nobody in particular.

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You pull the gun away from his head, aiming instead for center mass. “Put your hands behind your head and stay on the ground, kid. Do not give me a reason to change my mind.”

Gren slumps in obvious relief, babbling something borderline incoherent. It almost sounds like he’s thanking you.

Don’t thank me yet, you think quietly to yourself. There are worse things than an execution at sea.

But he sees the gun, and then hurriedly complies. His head hits the deck with a loud THUMP as I hear the sound of footsteps fast-approaching from the deck of the Calypso.

“Ahoy there!” shouts Jenkins, peering over the gunwale. Soon after, the heads of Halloway and Sergeant Kwan join the private. “Everything alright, Unami?”

You don’t take your eyes or the gun off Gren as you shout back, “I’ve got a prisoner. Do any of you have handcuffs?”

A pause. You can almost see the marine squinting. “…is that a Khanate?”

“Shipboard mechanic,” you answer back, “And he’s been disarmed. I’m gonna send him up, so I need those cuffs ready.”

The privates look uncertain, but Kwan looks like he’s about to blow a gasket.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demands.

Frowning, you reply: “Securing intelligence. He seems to know more than the rest of the lot.”

Not that there would be too many survivors, if Kwan’s orders for execution were anything to go by. So that means that Gren’s value as a prisoner shoots up by a fair margin. Just by virtue of being alive.

But Kwan isn’t having it. There’s something ugly in his eyes, and venom dripping in his voice. “This is a waste of time. Just shoot the little bastard and be done with it. We’re burning daylight here, Unami.”

Gren turns as pale as a sheet. And from the way he looks from you to the water, he’s seriously debating the merits of swimming out to sea. The sort of helpless kind of look that a kid would have when faced against an impossible ordeal in a matter of life and death…

…the same kind of look that Tom had on that bed so many years ago.

“If you want me to kill him,” you say quietly, “Then you’d better get Captain Elishani to give me that order. Because I don’t see any profit in painting his brains across the deck.”

What goes unspoken is that if the price was right…well, Gren would’ve been into the water a long time ago. Alas, the Port Authority had stopped paying bounties out on bandits that aren’t on official Kill Lists. Hardly enough to remove one of the debt-brands, but still enough for you to weigh it seriously.

Kwan nods stiffly, then reaches for his radio. “Captain Elishani, we have a situation here…”

A tense moment passes. The absence of any noise on your comm means that they're on a private channel. Gren doesn't dare to breathe, shivering as the seconds pass as the man responsible for his fate weighs his life...

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But cooler heads prevail. From the way his face purples, it seems that the reply he got wasn’t what he had been expecting. The sergeant isn’t about to explode, but he makes no attempt to hide his displeasure. Or his disgust, for that matter. If looks could kill, then Gren would be dead several times over.

“…send him up,” he says with a cold finality. Turning to his marines, he adds, “If the little bastard even twitches in the wrong direction, you shoot him.”

Gren looks up, panicked, as you motion for him to stand.

“No sudden movements, like the sergeant said,” you say, shoving him towards the ladder. “Get up so we can clean up your brother’s mess.”

“Will they hurt me?” he asks, fearful.

They might. Or the rest of the crew. With much of the raiding party dead, there isn’t much in the way for them to vent beyond kicking the corpses around a few times. And given the track record of Kwan ordering the execution of the wounded raiders…

You sigh. “…up you go.”

He’s shaking enough for the ladder to rattle against the hull of the Calypso. But he manages to shimmy up without too much trouble. When Gren’s a handful of feet away from the railing, he’s unceremoniously grabbed by the marines, and hauled over the gunwale like a fish. None too gently. His landing on the deck is accompanied by a sharp yelp.

Grimacing, you quicken your pace, leaping over the side as Halloway slaps a second pair of cuffs on Gren. Overkill much? Jenkins pats him down, not that there’s much he’s got after you took away his gun and toolbelt. And off to the side, Kwan leans against the railing, resting his injured leg, and muttering something into his radio.

Finished with the inspection, Jenkins shouts, “He’s clean!”

The sergeant jerks his head. “Then get him out of my sight.”

The marines aren’t too gentle in manhandling the boy, but they aren’t cruel about it. Gren shoots you one last, final look. Whether it’s a silent plea, or a call for future aid…could’ve been both. All you do is respond with a very curt nod as both prisoner and marines disappear below deck.

Kwan clicks his tongue, annoyed, collapsing onto a bench. “They wouldn’t do the same for us.”

“…it’s what separates us from them,” you counter, but your retort lacks heat. It isn’t an actual belief of being the better man as much as…whatever flight of fancy caused you to spare him. “Besides, he seems to be smarter than the average goon.”

“That remains to be seen.” The sergeant frowns, eyes flicking upward to the bandage slapped across your forehead. “Are you alright?”

…better late than never. But you can’t fault him for being late. Up until however many minutes ago, you were in the cockpit of the Magellan.

“It looks worse than it is,” you reply, reaching up to touch it. Your fingers come back only somewhat damp, and tinged red. “…dinged my head in the explosion.”

“And your PUEXO?”

You look towards the Magellan. Heavily damaged, but still operational and combat ready. Most of the damage is largely superficial – bullet holes and impacts that’ve dented the front. The right arm took a bad hit, still barely attached by a few lengths of frayed, sparking myomer cable. You’ll definitely be losing some motion for the speargun, but once reloaded, it should still fire.

And that’s just going into the damage suffered from the Khanate. God knows what she’s gonna look like under the hood, what with how the nuke damn near went internal. Still, it could be worse. You weren’t standing that close to the blast…

…but Gully had been.

So had the Mackerel.

You fumble for your radio. “Holt, this is Razor. Come in, Holt. Do you read me?”

“Readin' you loud and clear, Unami!” she replies, “What’s up?”

“How soon can you get that crane ready?”

They should have enough oxygen to last for at least two more hours. Nobody down there is at a risk of dying. But the sooner that the Calypso makes a beeline out of here, the better.

“Shouldn’t take too long! The reactor’s spoolin' back up, and we just cut the last guys out from under the crane."

“Good to hear,” Aalto’s voice suddenly comes over the radio. Her tone is jittery, full of barely-restrained anxiety. It seems that the ACOMMs had been shaken up something badly by the fighting. “So…they’re all dead, right? It’s safe to come out?”

Without any sort of warning, Elishani’s voice comes over the channel: “It’s safe for now. But we need to move quickly. Khanate raiders travel in packs, and I’d rather not sit and wait to have another attack group to fall upon us.”

“…yeah, I’m staying in the safe room, then. Sorry, skipper, but I ain't taking any chances.”

Kwan coughs, muttering something beneath his breath. “You did at least get that distress signal out?”

“Of course I did,” she angrily snaps, “Or at least, half of one before that signal jammer nearly blew out my eardrums. But all that gunfire knocked the dishes out of alignment! And fuck knows what else is damaged!”

>>Choose one:
>Join Holt’s crew to help get the crane back online.
>Help Aalto with restoring communication with Babylonia.


Thanks for tuning back in, and apologies for the delay. Midterms happened.
>>Join Holt’s crew to help get the crane back online.
welcome back. much has changed.
Welcome back Kaz!
>Join Holt’s crew to help get the crane back online
>>Join Holt’s crew to help get the crane back online.

The sooner we get them stowed the sooner we can get moving. They could listen in on comms if they got a good codebreaker, I'd rather be moving when we start filling airspace again instead of sitting.
>Join Holt’s crew to help get the crane back online.
>>Help Aalto with restoring communication with Babylonia.
>Join Holt’s crew to help get the crane back online.
>Join Holt’s crew to help get the crane back online.
Save the sub and our girl. Also, totally should've plugged the mechanic, I'm still with Kwan's bloodthirst.
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You thumb your radio, dialing a one-way channel into Holt’s line. “Would it help if I gave your crew a hand?”

“Do fish swim?” she asks dryly, but you can hear the grin in her voice. “You’re more than welcome to come back down. Dependin’ on how mauled your PUEXO is, it might speed things up a fair bit.”

“Right arm’s gonna need some maintenance, but the left one’s still got full strength and mobility.”

The chief takes only a handful of seconds to reach a verdict. “Perfect! That’ll cut our timetable by a fair bit. Hurry up and come down here, Unami!”

“Roger that.” You nod politely to Kwan, just before sprinting back towards the Magellan. “Excuse me.”

The PUEXO kneels, extending its left hand as you clamber up and over its side. The canopy opens with a pneumatic hiss of pressurized air, and the limb promptly drops you back into the cockpit with little fanfare. It takes all of twenty seconds to reconnect your suit and helmet, interfacing with HOPI, then into the machine proper.

“You hanging in there?” you ask, easing yourself into the controls. There’s a brief moment of disorientation as the internal gyro synchs up with your brain, and the contacts against your temple hum with energy.

The A.I. replies, “As best as I can, given the current circumstances. Now that we’re out of the water, I have a better assessment for the damage we took.”

"How bad is it?"

“Nothing that won’t be covered by our contract. Which I made triply sure to read.” She almost seems proud as the machine preps for dustoff back to the aft deck. “Captain Elishani was able to negotiate hazard pay well in excess of typical salvage contracts.”

“We didn’t pull that much up anyway. At least from the Olympia that wasn’t the black box and bridge computer.”

“There’s still Kingston,” HOPI demurs, “And all of those cargo ships. Besides, I don’t know why you’re complaining. It’s not like I’m getting paid.”

You chortle, signaling for Kwan to get below deck before you launch. “And I’m the one footing the bill for repair and maintenance. Besides, what would you even do with the money if you did?”

“I…I don't know,” she admits. “There isn’t much a HOPI unit can want for or buy.”

“Didn’t you say that you wanted those Mk. IV RAM sticks?”

“Right. But that’s a utilitarian expense. Not so much leisure.”

Best to nip this in the bud before it’s back to business. “Tell you what. Give it some thought. When you do figure out something you wanna buy, I’ll see if I can’t get it for you.”

The A.I. laughs. “I’ll be holding you to that, Sinleq. But I have to say. That feels less like you paying me, and more like a parent giving their kid allowance money to buy a toy.”

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“Hardy-har-har,” you shoot back, tapping your fingers on the A.I.’s box. “Keep that up, and I’ll send you to the repair bay without supper.”

“I don’t even eat, you carbon-based, organic jerk!”

One launch later finds the Magellan back on the aft deck. The instant you touch ground and kill the jets, Holt’s crew come swarming out below deck and the midsection. The deck chief herself is surrounded by a cadre of people looking for orders, direction and instructions, and she’s all too eager to give them.

“Hey, hey!” she calls up, flagging you down with a wave. She breaks away from the cadre of deckhands, sprinting over to meet you. “Over here, Unami! And…dang, you weren’t kiddin’ with that arm of yours.”

You try not to grimace. “Is that gonna be a problem?”

“Shouldn’t be, so long as you don’t put too much weight on it. Now, c’mon over to this section of the aft…”

The first job you’re given is to realign the knuckleboom crane. Which is to say just holding it up as the techs scramble to repair everything. Barring some bullet holes, most of the work is largely electronic – replacing fried circuitry, reattaching hydraulic cables, and spooling a new length of triple-strength composite cable.

Hardly the most illustrious work for a PUEXO pilot, but it is what it is.

But just before you get too caught up in your work, you open up a private line towards the Caprica. “Gully, this is Razor, come in Gully. Do you read me?”

The reply comes quickly, relieved but still anxious: “Gully here. What’s the situation?”

“The ship is ours,” you say, only a tad bit triumphant. The losses mute the otherwise exultant feeling you’d otherwise be unable to hold down. “We defeated the raiders.”

“And my father?”

“Alive and well, last I heard. He and Geary are with Kwan’s marines.”

Gully doesn’t cut the line. You hear her audible gasp and shuddering breath of relief. And then the faintest of whispers: “…thank you.”

You tug at your collar, suddenly flush. “…don’t worry about it. Just sit tight, alright? We’re fixing the crane and the comms, but we’ll be fishing you and the Mackerel out soon enough.”

Elishani has a good eye for talent, and Holt’s drilled her crew well. With your help, the deckhands manage to not only get the crane back in order, but square away the mess that the aft deck had become during the heat of the battle. The bodies of the khanate raiders are unceremoniously dumped overboard after being stripped of their possessions, and the barricades disappear back into containers and hangar bays.

And it isn’t just the cranes – knuckleboom or auxiliary, which mostly escaped damage. The Calypso’s armaments are stripped, clean and reloaded with fresh ammunition by a dedicated compliment of deckhands and marines alike. Even the starboard autocannon is taken offline, and hurriedly replaced with an impromptu .50 machine gun. Just in case.

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And idly, out of the corner of what few of the Magellan’s cameras remain operable, you can make out a pair of workers scrambling to repair the communications array.

An hour passes. As the last bolt goes into the foundation of the crane, you step back as Holt shouts: “Connecting the crane to the reactor. Standby…striking!”

There’s an audible click, then a sudden whine as the gyro seizes, and the cable shudders within its spooling. Up in the control room, the operator tentatively works the crane, twisting, lowering and gyrating in as much locomotion as it can allow…
“Load-bearing?” the chief shouts.

At her prompt, her subordinates push a pallet of crates beneath the boom as the operator lowers a length of cable. They attach the hook, tighten ratchet straps, and throw stabilizing lines, no differently than they would to cargo, a submarine, or a PUEXO. Then they all run back, holding their breath as the cable tightens, and the crane groans…

“Confirming good lift!” the operator shouts, and the crew lets out a ragged cheer.

“Not bad for MacGyvering it,” quips HOPI. “Although I wouldn’t rely on it for too long without going back to drydock.”

God willing, it only needs to fish two things out of the water. And then, with the reactor back online and the engines purring against the choppy ocean, it’s back to Babylonia.

>>Line Break…

The Mackerel is the first to come back up. As the hatch pops, medics and crewmates rush to get her crew out. One of them, the pilot, suffered a concussion the nuke went off, and has to be lifted via stretcher to medical. The other two, an engineer and a mechanic, are welcomed back with raucous cheers, a pair of oxygen tanks, and personal commendations from Geary.

“Get some rest, all of you,” the XO orders, not unkindly. A bandage wraps down the side of his head, and around his midsection. “Sawbones has already cleared you for hyperbaric treatment if the need arises.”

The submariners nod, and wobblily salute a stern-faced, but sympathetic Elishani. But just before they disappear below deck…


They clasp your hands, and shake them vigorously.

“Thank you.”

“Sinleq…thank you…”

You cough, nodding politely as you fight off the urge to blush. You really never got used to this kind of heartfelt compliments or thanks. “You’re welcome.”

Gully and her Caprica are the last to come up. The instant that her PUEXO makes contact with the ship, Geary gives the order to get underway.

“Let’s get out of here,” the XO says.

Holt doesn’t look too certain. “Uh, sir? Hate to be a bother, but the Caprica’s missin’ arm-”

“Is either scattered across the floor, or utterly destroyed in the blast,” interjects Elishani, stone-faced and frosty. “We don’t have either the time or the manpower to go looking for it.”

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Within seconds, the Calypso is burning at all ahead full, maximum speed back to Babylonia. Accompanying her are three of the Khanate attack boats, repurposed by a mixture of Kwan’s marines and what few sailors Elishani, Holt, Kwan and other officers could spare between the myriad departments. The bare minimum to helm the wheel, keep the engines afloat, and otherwise appear to be manning the guns. The other three had been either destroyed in the battle, or deliberately scuttled.

The hatch to the Caprica pops open with a dry hiss of air, but Gully takes her time to get out. Your fellow pilot rips off her helmet, gasping at the spray of fresh, ocean air, coughing as she swings up and out of the cockpit. She doesn’t quite tumble down, but her descent is markedly less graceful than what you’d expect.

Maybe it’s by fiat of your shared position, but the medics don’t stop you as you run towards her. “Easy. Don’t be in such a hurry.”

She coughs, wordlessly brushing away a tank of canned oxygen. “Believe me, I’m not. Just give me a moment to breathe air that wasn’t scrubbed by a wonky CO2 fan.”

You do so, only to frown and point up towards her forehead. “You’re gonna want to get that bandage changed.”

“That will be coming later, Mister Unami.” Before you know it, Elishani’s idled up alongside either of you. His gaze is affixed to his daughter, even as he continues speaking in a low, ominously mild voice. “But I have not dismissed either of you yet.”

You go ramrod straight to attention. Gully does the same, hesitantly offering an uncertain salute. “Fath…” She cuts herself off. “Sir.”

Geary looks like he might interject. “Captain, this can surely wait until they’ve been seen by Sawbones-”

“No, Morgan, I’m afraid it can’t.” Now that you have a closer look at the captain, you can see the faintest of dark red splotches splattered across his beard, face and hair. It doesn’t look like his blood, and he appears uninjured enough, but it does absolutely nothing to calm the butterflies in your stomach.

Gully, for all her disaffected and aloof demeanor, looks as terrified as you’ve ever seen her.

“What you did was nothing short of reckless endangerment,” he reprimands his daughter sharply, “Did you not promise to come back alive? To not join the ranks of those claimed by the city?”

“I came back, didn’t I?” she mutters, almost petulantly.

“You escaped death only by sheer fucking luck…and for what. A waterlogged computer?”

Your eyes flick towards the Caprica, and to the contents wrapped around its back. The black box and transponder of the Olympia is being slowly unloaded by Holt’s PUEXMech team. The chief herself is doing everything in her power to avoid looking or even acknowledging the captain’s verbal tongue-lashing. And it seems that Aalto, for all of her quips and sniping, is wisely keeping the comm silent and free of any japes.

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Gully’s posture betrays nothing, but her eyes reflect helplessness. “…I couldn’t just leave it there.”

“Could you now?” he replies calmly. The calm within the eye of a terrible, broiling storm. One that could go in any violent direction based on Gully’s next words. You don’t think he’s about to hit his own child, but the way his hand is flexing…

...you won't just stand idly by.

“Was it worth risking your life?” the captain asks, “For all we know, it won’t even turn on. If the damage you and Mister Unami suffered to your electronic suites were any indication…”

She doesn’t answer immediately. Gully chews on her lip, unable to hold eye contact with the intensity of her father’s gaze. Then: “…I’m sorry, dad.”

Elishani’s hand suddenly comes up. The crew holds their breath, Holt curses, and both you and Geary tense like a spring, about to leap and pull them apart…

“…thank God you’re alive.”

The captain pulls his daughter into a tight embrace. It takes everyone by surprise, Gully the most. But she overcomes the initial shock to return the gesture, just as fiercely.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats again. Her eyes aren’t quite at the point of crying, but her quiet voice is full of emotion. “It won’t happen again.”

Geary tries not to make his relief too obvious. But the XO clears his throat, and shoos the crowd of onlookers away. “Back to your posts! You aren’t being paid to stand around, ladies. Gentlemen. Everyone’s got something to fix on the way back home, so let’s get back to it now!” Then, to Elishani in a hushed voice: “Rashid, please! There’s a time and place…”

So there is. You tug at the collar of your NERVlink suit awkwardly as the captain and pilot extricate themselves apart from each other. Clearing his throat, the captain turns to you, and you stand straight to attention. “Mister Unami. Thank you. For saving my daughter and my ship.”

…how succinct, but you won’t complain. “Of course, sir. It was my pleasure.”

The corner of his eye crinkles in dry amusement. “I’ll personally see to it that you receive a special commendation for what you did today.”

“Thank you, sir.” Hopefully that special commendation involves a monetary prize.

Elishani’s gaze turns to the burning wrecks of the scuttled ships. He sighs, “…what a mess this turned out to be. Morgan, what’s the butcher’s bill?”

Geary’s face isn’t pleasant. “Seventeen dead, thirty-four wounded. Fifty-one causalities out of two-hundred forty-seven crew.”

Twenty percent casualty rate! A number almost unheard of save for the worst accidents or pirate raids.
Elishani nods. “…are the wounded expected to make it?”

The XO nods, but maintains his troubled expression. “Yes, but there’s several who’ll never work aboard a ship again. Some of the Bloodied among the raiders carried vibro-weapons.”

“…get me an itemized list of all those who’re expected to lose limbs or function in them. Spare no detail in your report.”

Geary salutes, scampering off to carry out his orders. Leaving you, Elishani and Gully left aboard the aft deck. The captain’s gaze turns to both PUEXO pilots, and you stand straight to attention.

A smile tugs at his lips. “Get yourselves patched up. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“Yes, sir,” you and Gully chorus as one.

“Oh, and Gully?”

"Yeah, dad?" She jumps, hastily correcting herself. "Uh, erm…sir?”

“...you’re grounded.”

>>Running at full steam, even through the night, it will take roughly two days for the Calypso to return to Babylonia.
>>Sinleq will be busy, but has the liberty of choosing where he gets to work.
>>Please vote for the following...

>>On the first day, Sinleq worked with…
>Aalto. Even with the comm array fixed, much of the ship’s electronic suite needs repairs.
>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica are in serious need of repair, who better than their pilots?
>Holt. With her crew down several people, the deck chief needs all the help that she can get.
>Kwan. Interrogating Gren, keeping the stolen boats afloat, interfacing with salvaged weaponry.

>>On the second day, Sinleq worked with…
>Aalto. Even with the comm ray…
>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica…
>Holt. With her crew down several…
>Kwan. Interrogating Gren, keeping…

>>On the third day, Silneq worked with…
>Aalto. Even with the comm ray…
>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica…
>Holt. With her crew down several…
>Kwan. Interrogating Gren, keeping…

>>Please structure your votes as the following:
>Day 1 choice.
>Day 2 choice.
>Day 3 choice.

>Holt. With her crew down several people, the deck chief needs all the help that she can get.
>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica…
>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica…
>Holt. With her crew down several people, the deck chief needs all the help that she can get.
>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica…
>Aalto. Even with the comm ray…
>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica are in serious need of repair, who better than their pilots?
>Aalto. Even with the comm ray…
>Holt. With her crew down several…
>Day 1 Aalto
>Day 2 Gully
>Day 3 Kwan
>Holt. With her crew down several people, the deck chief needs all the help that she can get.
>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica…
>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica…
Blatant favoritism and I don't care.
>>Kwan. Interrogating Gren, keeping…
>>Holt. With her crew down several…
>>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica…
Interrogating Gren seems like the most pressing priority to me, what if there's a bigger Khanate presence in the area he can tell us about. Kwanbros rise up
>Aalto. Even with the comm array fixed, much of the ship’s electronic suite needs repairs.
>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica are in serious need of repair, who better than their pilots?
>Holt. With her crew down several people, the deck chief needs all the help that she can get.
>Aalto. Even with the comm array fixed, much of the ship’s electronic suite needs repairs.
>Kwan. Interrogating Gren, keeping the stolen boats afloat, interfacing with salvaged weaponry.
We captured him so we should be the one to ask him.
>>>Kwan. Interrogating Gren, keeping…
>>>Holt. With her crew down several…
>>>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica…
>Kwan. Interrogating Gren, keeping the stolen boats afloat, interfacing with salvaged weaponry
Holt. With her crew down several…
>Aalto. Even with the comm ray…
Hope I'm not late.
What, no Attila anymore?
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Just recycling my images. Both the one above and Atilla fit her to a T. A lithe young woman with pale hair, deep red eyes, and a tan.

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>>At the time of the writing, the vote was...
>Day 1 - Holt
>Day 2 - Gully
>Day 3 - Gully


On an ordinary day, the Calypso would’ve been running a 7-5 watch, or a one-in-two watch. An overall comfortable, less harried timekeeping schedule that allowed the crew to get more sleep, and eat more regularly. Even if you and Gully didn’t quite fit in due to your positions as PUEXO pilots, you still contributed your fair share, and got more than a good rest when your heads hit the pillow.

But after the attack, Elishani’s gone and set the ship to a war footing. He’s since adopted the six-hour shift, dividing the crew up into three sections to ensure constant, round-the-clock work to keep the little armada afloat. With a fifth of the crew either dead or wounded, the remaining able-bodied members have to pull the remaining weight to keep the ship(s) in working order.

People gripe, of course, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. They’re all too willing to accept the adjustment in order to get back to Babylonia safely. Morale isn’t as high as it had been setting out, but it’s since plateaued, caught between triumph at repelling the attack, and sadness at the losses the ship took.

There hadn’t been a department that lost someone. Or a group of friends that emerged unscathed. From the death of a coworker or a brutal maiming at the hands of the Bloodied.

But for you, nothing’s really changed. You’ve still got enough leeway to pick and choose where you want to work. Both the captain and the XO otherwise know that you’d be bored out of your skull if you just sat on your ass. Justified as it might be given your actions in saving the ship.

Although you’re starting to get mildly annoyed at the stares, whispers and pointed fingers that follow you and dog your footsteps wherever you go.

>>Day One
>Beneath the aft deck, with Chief Holt…

“Mothaphuckers,” the chief curses past the screwdriver in her mouth. Her hands are deep in the guts of a fire-control system, working through a patchwork mess of wires. In a small pile at her feet, a collection of frayed or shot-up components lay waiting to be replaced. “Pardon my phrench.”

You grunt, both in acknowledgement of Holt and in physical effort as you, Carter, Hasazi and Darius strain to unjam one of the bulkheads. The third in as many hours, but all of you are already sweating like pigs on market day.

“One more try, on the count of three,” mutters Carter.

Darius frowns. “Counting down or up?”

“And if down, what about cero?” adds Hasazi. “Sometimes we begin on cero, sometimes not.”

The specialist looks like he’s about to kill someone, but he stops just short of braining his fellow deckhands. Carter turns to you, then says, “If we can’t get it open, then we’ll have to cut our way through.”

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You glance at the bulkhead door, then to the mess of the gears and interlocking mechanisms. In their haste to deny the raiders entry into the aft and midship, Kwan had mentioned jamming, sealing or otherwise doing everything the marines could to stop them. It had worked, but cleaning up their mess is starting to become an exercise in self-control and aggravation.

“I want to try as much as we can before we have to resort to plasma cutters,” he insists.

Fair enough. Using cutters means isolating the area, and preventing any and all work, traffic and passerby from disturbing you. Hardly an obstacle given the detours via the top deck, but still one that’ll eat well into your allocated shift.

The question had been brought up of doing this back home in drydock, but Elishani was insistent. Scuttlebutt says that he, Geary and Kwan are building up a scathing mountain of evidence to bear against the Salvage Guild for reckless endangerment of the ship. So he’s clearing the bare minimum of bulkheads to not stymie or stifle ship board function, but leaving plenty of evidence of how badly the attack could’ve gone.

Although…hadn’t he said that he would’ve gone out if the Calypso wasn’t prepared? Even though you did win, albeit at a high cost. Hopefully there’s more than a fair share of worker’s comp, hazard pay and post-op cash-outs for everyone affected.

“Count of three, going up,” you mutter, hands on the wheel. All thoughts other than the task at hand are driven out of your mind. “And on three, we all go. Capisce?”

They do. And on said count of three, you all take a deep breath, dig your heels into the flooring, and strain as hard as you can against the interlocking gears. But the four of you aren’t able to get too far, moving the mechanism only a handful of inches before it sticks fast and flush, refusing to move anymore.

“…I’ll get the torches?” asks Darius.

“…two should be enough,” Carter agrees with a frustrated sigh. “And be sure to get Sabine. She and Unami are the only ones here with welding certs.”

“So what am I, chopped liver?” Holt emerges, having finished her task. She watches Darius scamper off, disappearing around a corridor to scurry back above deck. The chief crosses her arms, amused. “It’s nearly enough to make me cry.”

“Sorry, chief. I just thought you’d still be busy with fire-control.”

“I still am, but something came up. How many more bulkheads do we have to go?”

“This…” you pause to check a map of the Calypso, “…and the one between CIC and the armory.”

“See if you can’t go any faster. I’m gettin’ reports about the starboard engine pullin’ sluggish. And before your panties get tied up in knots,” she adds, holding up a hand before any one of you can field questions, “It’s about that time to check the crankshaft anyway. So maybe it’s just due for maintenance.”

“Bet you a gummy pack it isn’t,” Hasazi offers.

“Don’t go jinxin’ it now,” Holt warns, “But let’s get this corridor clear, yeah? There should be some caution tape ‘round here somewhere…”

>You spent the day helping Holt and her deckhands repairing some of the damage the Calypso suffered.
>You have gained Holt points!

>>Day Two
>In the PUEXO Hangar Bay(s), with Gully…

What few PUEXMechs Holt had been able to spare focus almost exclusively on the Magellan. Gully’s Caprica, on the other hand, remains undisturbed and unmaintained. Save for a scrubbing of any radioactive sand or fissile materials, the Mk. IV sits on the gurney without as much as a single technician going over it.

It isn’t out of spite or punitive edict from the captain. The Maggie’s just simply the one between the two that got off (comparatively) lightly in the raid…and the one that’s battle-ready should the Khanate attack again. There isn’t much in the way of replacing the busted actuator outside of a proper drydock, but there’s enough spare parts to compensate.

“…need any help with that?”

Gully cuts the power to the plasma cutter, stopping the lightshow as you saunter into her PUEXO Bay. Perched atop the good shoulder of her Caprica, it seems that you’ve caught her in the middle of an impromptu repair. One that’s going to take her a long while, given the absence of any help.

“I thought you were busy with yours,” she replies quietly. It isn’t phrased as a question, but nonetheless invites an explanation.

“They don’t need me there,” you reply. “All they’re doing is buffing out bullet holes and rearming Maggie. I’ll check in every hour or so, but I don’t have to be hovering over their shoulders.”

“I see.” She chews on that, then casts an eye towards the damaged section of her PUEXO. “How much do you know about Mark IVs?”

“A few things,” you answer wryly, “I know that they were meant for space before the Cataclysm. And that while they don’t dive nearly as far down, they block out radiation a whole lot better.”

“Have you ever piloted one?”

“No, can’t say I have. Highest I ever went up on the generational totem pole was a Hercules.”

That was only because Reggie had gotten sick, and you had to pull double while the Maggie was in maintenance. After years of working with the Magellan and (your) HOPI, climbing into that cockpit had been…an experience. Like an odd, out-of-body experience, or a really bad bender after some of the Ishtarite’s holistic incense.

“That’s…a Mk. III, right?” asks Gully with a frown.

You nod. “Yeah. Had a buddy back on the Duck who piloted one.”

She hums again, this time electing to slide off the PUEXO. Her arc takes her down the arm, hitting the deck with a one-two step as she comes to a stop a handful of feet away. Crimson eyes appraise you, looking up and down, then flick towards the Caprica and all the cables, gimbles and hooks dangling from the ceiling.

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It doesn’t take too long for her to make a decision. Nodding, she says, “Alright. Thanks for the offer.”

You offer a smile, brief but wholly genuine. “Don’t worry about it. Always was curious about the later generations.” A brief glance around the room confirms that you’ve got everything you could need. Save for extra manpower. “So what’s first on the docket?”

She jerks a thumb towards the fraying mess of wires and cable, all that remains of her PUEXO’s left arm. “We gotta prep it for drydock back home. It’ll take the whole shift, but I think we can disconnect the arm and get started on fixing the torso. Just us, maybe one more PUEXTech if you can get them.”

You try not to wince. “They’re under orders to focus exclusively on the Magellan until we get back home.”

If looks could kill, Gully could probably sear paint off the deck. “…dammit.”

“Well, if it makes you feel better,” you offer, fishing a little pamphlet out of your breast pocket. Dog-eared and battered, but a souvenir from your time aboard the Duck. “I just checked, and we’ll be passing back into the range of broadcast radio in a few hours. Let’s see if we can’t get the Caprica’s radio back in working order by then.”

That gets her attention. She raises a cursory eyebrow, taking the offered pamphlet. “Anything good on the airways?”

“Depends on what you’re looking for. Midnight Channel for radio dramas, David After Dark for viewer interaction, Megiddan Rosary if you’re looking to pray, or the Dragon’s Teeth hijacking the airwaves to spew some luddite, anti-Babylonian ‘return to monkey’ propaganda...”

Gully laughs, short and sardonic. “We’re certainly spoiled for choices, then.” But her amusement doesn’t last long, as her features school into something more serious. “Dragon’s Teeth…they’re the ones responsible for this whole mess.”

You exhale heavily. “This is bold, even for them. I didn’t think that they’d have the guts or the power to clean out a sunken spaceship.”

“Not completely,” she counters, “They left the black box and transponder aboard the Olympia.”

The transponder, you understand. The signal that led both Babylonia and the Khanate to the shipwreck came from that. A trap meant to lure any opportunistic scavengers and kill them for…what? Daring to repurpose the treasures of the Old World for the betterment of mankind? Maybe not so much for the Khanate, but you have enough patriotism to feel offended at the thought.

Either way, Babylonian Intelligence is gonna be having a field day. It hadn’t been bad enough that the debriefing with Elishani and Geary had lasted for three hours to get everyone’s accounts in line. You foresee several visits and house calls from the spooks who want the testament straight from the source. No matter how thorough the captain’s secretary had been in taking down notes.

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Clearing your throat and mind of any distractions, you gesture towards the Caprica. “Let’s just hope that the Salvage Guild’s got the tech to interface with the computer.”

Gully nods quietly, staring wistfully at the spot where it had been strapped to her PUEXO. “…yeah. I hope so, too.”

>You spent the day helping Gully repair her PUEXO, fixing the Caprica’s radio just in time to catch a performance of “The Shadow”, staring Orson Welles in the titular role.
>You have gained Gully points.

>>Day Three

The two of you fall into a routine of sorts. Wake up, shower, get some chow, then head back into the PUEXO Bays. Lunch comes after a handful of hours, lasting no longer than twenty minutes, before the two of you get back to the grind. You both work well into the night, even a few hours after the other PUEXMechs make their return to their berths.

Barring a few instances of checking on your Magellan, your shift is largely concerned with repairing the Caprica. Which isn’t much between two people and only shipborne equipment, but it’s progress that keeps your hands working and your minds sharp. You even managed to get the arm off!

Today sees both pilots getting into the electronic suite of the Caprica. Most of the left side is a write-off – scrap electronics and fried circuitry that cooked when the nuke went off. But true to form, the design quirk of Gully’s PUEXO means that most of the harder stuff got blocked out. Definitely looks a whole lot better than the Magellan’s, at the very least.

“Main and auxiliaries to the shoulder are cut,” you mutter, confirming with a voltage reader. “You should be clear to power up and run that diagnostic.”

“Copy,” Gully’s voice shouts from the cockpit. “Standby to bypass…”

You step back, retreating to the yellow line as the Caprica’s reactor spools back to life. The PUEXO shudders, spasming against the restraints as the myomer musculature seizes with the electrical current. Pure instinct, and nothing more – Gully isn’t wearing a TAComm helmet to interface with the onboard gyro.

“Main and auxiliary draws are online and responding,” she reports, “…I’ve got a few systems that’re dark across the board.”

“Can you run a diagnostic?” you shout. “What about your on-board HOPI?”

“Non-responsive, but I’m already ahead of you…”

Lights dim and flicker across the PUEXO, and the limbs lock in their place as the Caprica enters diagnostic mode. Flaps twitch, hands twist and fingers clench as each individual, moveable part of the machine tests its range of moment as far as the restraints will allow.

Gully pops back up out of the cockpit, an annoyed expression on her face. “There’s still blood smeared all over my cockpit. I'll get it, but could you grab the windex and a bucket of water?”

A reasonable enough request. Come to think about it…with the PUEXMechs working on the exterior of the Maggie, would they have had the time or trouble to clean up your cockpit? Something to think about as you sprint to the janitor’s station, where soap and a bucket await-


The voice blasts out of the Caprica’s external speakers, reverberating along the metal enclosure of the bay like a thunderclap. It catches both of you completely off-guard. You drop your bucket, and Gully nearly falls off the cockpit. Nearly, and not so nearly high a fall, but she manages to catch herself at the last second.

“Ouch,” you mutter, wincing and blinking away the noise in your ears.

“No, that isn’t normal-” she begins, but she’s interrupted by another series of digital squawks and squealing. No differently than when your own HOPI had to recalibrate and reboot after the blast.


“Oh, thank the Lord you’re alright, mum!” the Caprica’s HOPI unit voices, “I feared the worse with the injuries you suffered. You don’t know how relieved I am to see you in good health!”

Even from her vantage point, you can see how pale Gully turns as the voice rings across the hangar bay. You don’t quite drop your tools, but the sound does bring you to a complete stop. Of all the voices that she could’ve chosen for the artificial intelligence…well, you don’t recall this one in the voice bank aboard the Magellan.

But it’s still shocking. How aggressively and unapologetically British the AI is.

Like something straight out of a pre-Cataclysm film.

Your eyes meet Gully’s. A silent communique passes. And she bypasses pale to turn a deep, crimson red. Breaking off contact, she turns angrily to the Caprica, hissing: “I’m fine, but shut off your external speakers, you idiot! You nearly blew our eardrums out!”

“Of course, mum. But I see that we aren’t alone.” One of the few remaining cameras on the Caprica swivels, wobbling almost drunkenly before it focuses sharply upon you. Then the HOPI makes a triumphant noise: “And you must be Mister Unami!”

…you aren’t quite sure how to react, so you just give a small wave. Even as Gully makes the universal throat-slashing motion for you to cut it. “Yeah, that’s…me.”

“I fear that I was indisposed when you rescued the young miss, but allow me to extend a proper tha-”

Gully dives back into the cockpit, headfirst with her legs dangling out the hatch. The HOPI isn’t able to finish his sentence as the external speakers abruptly cut off, and the unit powers down with a quiet whine.

“…uh, Gully?” you venture after a handful of moments, "You okay there?"

Your fellow pilot doesn’t emerge immediately. When she does, she’s wide-eyed, breathing hard, and the blush hasn’t gone any less intense. Borderline steaming, equally embarrassed, and none too pleased.

Perhaps not nearly as dramatic, but you might have a similar reaction to your own HOPI. God knows how far the ‘personalized customizations can get out of hand, and how they adapt with consecutive deployments. You’d never quite forgiven Reggie for making his HOPI a breathy, mature woman after a favorite priestess of Ishtar.

But where you found flow and comfort in a snarky, peppy gal who could match you tit-for-tat in sardonic banter, Gully seems to have been drawn to a doting, gentlemanly, (aggressively) British valet.

And what did that say about her? Nothing you won’t bother speculating about or aloud.

“…y’know, I don’t recall my HOPI having a Jeeves or an Alfred preset,” you confess, rubbing the back of your head sheepishly, “Must’ve been something installed in the later generations.”

You aren’t laughing. No siree. Because if you even as much as squeak, the fire in Gully’s eyes promises a slow and painful end. Not that she says anything, but the way she smacks the wrench against the empty palm of her hand speaks plenty.

“Laugh, and I will turn you into soup and chum you into the Atlantic.”

…is what you manage to get from her eyes.

But honestly? The look on her face is enough to bring you to laughter, rather than the PUEXO voice itself.

>You spent the day helping Gully repair her PUEXO, all the while under the sword of Damocles to not laugh.
>You have gained Gully points.

>>On the fourth day…you returned to Babylonia.

Outside, the skies are overcast, but not in the way that heralds a storm. A cold front from the East has blown in, taking with it enough clouds to cast a lengthy shadow across much of the Belt. Some rain here and there, but hardly anything as bad as the storm that’d passed a week ago.

In the captain’s stateroom, the officers and heads of each department have gathered. No differently from both the pre-mission briefing and the debriefing that had followed.

Aalto’s radio goes off: “Armed salvage trawler Calypso, this is the Dockside Port Authority. You are to proceed to the following berth in Braken Plaza. I repeat, Braken Plaza. Standby to receive instructions…”

The Calypso’s return to Babylonia is heralded with the escort of not one, not two, but three of the navy’s Euphrates-class heavy cruisers. Not quite the Hamurabi line of battleships, but still impressive warships in their own right. Their combined broadside in total outstrips the autocannons and machine gun nests by a fair amount of weight.

“They’re hardly making it a secret,” muses Geary. Looking out the window, a significant portion of traffic in the Bay’s ground to a complete halt. From both warnings to stay out of the convoy’s way, as well as awe at the size of the ships, and the Khanate (consolation) prizes you obtained.

“They’re overcompensating,” Aalto grouses, a scowl on her face. “They don’t wanna look like the limp dicks they are after sending us out with so little protection.”

Elishani coughs, frowning. “I wouldn’t put it that crudely, but not wholly inaccurate. If this is how clogged the bay is going to be, then I fear for our reception at the Docks.”

Holt shudders. “Christ, that ain’t gonna be pretty. We’ve already got so much crap to unload without attractin’ a crowd.”

“Hopefully one without a high school band,” interjects Kwan. “Once was more than enough for me.”

The captain brings the stateroom to order, rapping his knuckles sharply on the table. “Alright, settle down, everyone. There’s some announcements to dispense with before we dock.”

He pauses, looking each and everyone of you in the eye. “As of this moment, all of you have been given two weeks of paid leave. Officers and enlisted alike.”

A dull murmur breaks out among the assembled. More good than bad, and the latter is few and far between. The last three days had run everyone ragged. Even as morale hadn’t dropped, the respite would be sorely welcome. After the battle, there hadn’t been any time to decompress.

Elishani continues, “A temporary crew has been contracted to repair and maintain the Calypso in your absence. Take the time to mourn your friends, and honor their memories as best you see fit. In the coming days, some of you may be visited by our friends in intelligence, and I ask that you comply to the fullest extent.

“We did nothing wrong,” he insists firmly, a steel edge entering his voice, “I want all of you to know that. The truth is our best defense against those penny-pinchers and armchair commodores. Give them enough for them to hang themselves upon their failure to adequately prepare us for this sort of encounter.”

And on that grim, yet optimistic note, you are dismissed. As people file out, Elishani makes the same announcement over the radio to the rank-and-file of the ship…

>>Checking for points…
>You have NOT accumulated enough Aalto Points.

Aalto sighs, stretching languidly in her seat. “Well, it isn’t like I’m going anywhere. Tell the funny men they can debrief me next, skipper. Not like I’ve got anywhere to be, and I’d rather get that shit out of the way.”

Geary sighs. “I’m halfway tempted to restart the swear jar, Tabitha.”

“You’d need more than one, or a reactor-sized jar. Because there wouldn’t be one big enough for the engineering department alone.”

“It would have to be for here only,” muses Elishani, “I don’t nearly mind vulgarity among the mess or decks, but in this stateroom? Absolutely not.”

The comms officer scowls. “That's discrimination!”

“No, it’s called keeping good manners,” counters Kwan.

“Stuff it, you overgrown two-by-four!”

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>>Checking for points…
>You HAVE accumulated enough Holt Points.

Holt catches you in the hallway, just as you’re leaving the stateroom. “Yo, Unami! Hold up for a moment.”

You turn around, blinking in surprise. “Something you need, chief?”

“Nah, it’s just that…” she shrugs, leaning against the wall, “We’re gonna be up to our elbows in crap for the immediate future. Even with the break they’re cuttin’ us.”

No kidding. Fingers are gonna be pointed, blame assigned and deflected…hopefully the Calypso manages to escape without fault.

“I like our odds,” you opine, “They can’t complain after we brought back three Khanate attack boats.”

“Sucker’s bet, but they’ll still be steaming mad about the loss of the Olympia.” The engineer sighs. “That kid you brought back…Gus?”


“Right. Gren. Here’s hopin’ that they won’t rough him up too much.” Something uncertain creases her features, a mixture of emotions. “With everyone else dead, he’s gotta answer for the whole attack group.”

The truth is the Calypso’s best defense. But with Gren, not so much.

It’s more than enough to damn him.

“...he’ll be fine,” you say neutrally. “He seemed genuine enough.”

“Let’s hope so…” But the chief’s face brightens. “Aw, enough about that depressin’ stuff. Damn near forgot why I flagged you down.”

You crack a grin. “Fair enough. What’s up?”

“I think I still owe you for those gummies at poker night,” she answers, “And for everything else aside. How about dinner to settle our accounts and wipe the table clean?”

Dinner. To pay you back for the gummies and ‘everything else’.

…how tempting.

It’s hard to turn down a free meal, you’re your parents taught you how to haggle. “…you drive a hard bargain, chief. But with what’s on the table between your department and myself…”

It’d have to be pretty damned good.

“I know this great place in Saltside, little hole-in-the-wall that serves the meanest barbecue.” Holt grins, licking her lips. “Ethnic fusion between Pan-Asian and Texan-style comfort food. Guaranteed to knock yer socks off.”

From what you recall of Old World geography, Texas means beef. Which means a very expensive meal for a ‘hole-in-the-wall’. Not that there’s a shortage of cows in Babylonia, but the volcanic nature of the island means that supporting livestock that isn’t fish drives the price up a fair bit. Even with dedicated arcologies for agriculture.

Holt sees the look in your eyes, and knows that she’s got you on the line. “Lemme know if you’re game for it.”

>>Checking for points…
>You HAVE accumulated enough Gully Points.

In the common room, Gully catches you as you’re packing stuff into your sea-chest. Not so much for moving out of the Calypso, but to keep the spooks from sniffing around your belongings.

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“Hey, Sinleq.” A sharp knock on the door brings you out of your chores. The pilot leans against the frame, aloof as ever. But there’s something uncertain in her gait. Not quite fearful, but almost…bashful?

You stand. “What’s up?”

She holds up a pair of silver tickets. “I found these while I was cleaning out the cockpit. I think I just…stashed them away for later and forgot about them.”

You take one of them, squinting at the typeset lettering. Unsurprisingly, they’re movie tickets for the Upper Garden Community Theater. But what’s interesting is the little fine print at the bottom.

“Three free movies per week,” you murmur, then look back up at Gully. “Must be quite the selection to justify the passes.”

The ghost of a smile tugs at the corner of her mouth. “It isn’t the selection as much as what they’ve scheduled to show. But we’re in luck. They’re gonna be screening 20th century cinema when we pull into harbor. None of that post-modern schlock that plagued the 22nd or 23rd centuries.”

It seems that Citizen Kane really did set the bar too high for her. And Captain Elishani only has himself to blame.

“Sounds like fun,” you say, handing her back the ticket.

She hesitates, biting the bottom of her lip. Then: “…actually. I was planning on inviting you. If you weren’t scheduled for anything else.”


“You don’t have to decide right away,” she adds quickly. “Just…throwing it out there. We’ve still got a few hours before we actually disembark.”

You scratch the back of your head, just right at the sweet spot where the brands meet your shoulders. “I’m…flattered. I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies.”

Gully perks up at that. “I’ll bet. I was planning on asking my father, but he’s spending the whole day in meetings. Not just with intelligence, but with the Salvage Guild and Lord Stolze.”

You’d pay your weight in gold just to see Elishani tear into the three. Moreso for Stolze out of petty vindictiveness, but what else is new? Then again, you’d be lying if you said that watching the Salvage Guild take an L wouldn’t be fun to watch.

Although the implication of her words means that you’re number two. A replacement for her dad…but you don’t think that there’s anything malicious in her offer.

“So, if you want…you wanna catch a few movies?” she asks, shifting uncertainly. “I’ll let you pick the first two, but you’re paying for snacks.”

You grin. How forward of her. “Well that entirely depends on what’s screening.”

>>Checking for points…
>You remained UNDECIDED on the question of saving Tom.

The last of your things to go into your sea-chest is a picture frame.

It holds three pictures. The first is your parents – Sinead and Itani. A good man and a better woman who did their best to raise a good and dutiful son. The decision to sell yourself for Tom’s sake…they hadn’t taken it well. You haven’t spoken to them in three years. Last you'd heard, they were in the Megiddan Empire on pilgrimage to the Neo-Papal States.

The second depicts a trio of young people – graduate students celebrating and smiling as they toast their mugs. Two engineers and a seamstress enjoying halcyon days, simpler days, arms slung around each other in nothing beyond friendship.

The third and final picture is that of a young boy. He has his father’s sandy-blonde hair and his mother’s eyes. A youth in all his glory, the future of the Flooded World, nearly robbed of his life by an accident. His gaze turns upward to the man holding him, directing a blindingly bright smile of a younger, version of yourself.

The glass strains in your hands, but stops short of shattering as you put it into the chest, between unanswered letters from Caroline, and unsent gifts for Tom.

>>You have one day before the spooks pull you aside to debrief you.

>>What do you wish to do?
>Accept Gully’s invitation for a movie.
>Accept Holt’s invitation for dinner.
>Pay a long-overdue visit to Jean, Caroline and Tom.

>Pay a long-overdue visit to Jean, Caroline and Tom.
Accept Gully’s invitation for a movie.
>Accept Gully’s invitation for a movie.
Maybe move on from his old crush?
>>Accept Holt’s invitation for dinner.
>Pay a long-overdue visit to Jean, Caroline and Tom.
We have 2 weeks of shore leave.
We got time to hit other people up later.
>Pay a long-overdue visit to Jean, Caroline and Tom.
>>Accept Gully’s invitation for a movie.
On one hand, our not-family. On the other, Gully.
A tie? I'll break it.
>Accept Gully’s invitation for a movie.
I appreciate the vote, but I'm afraid that at the cutoff time, the vote won out for Jean, Caroline and Tom.

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>>To Holt…

“…I might take you up on that offer,” you say amicably, “But not right away. I’ve got something to take care of first.”

Holt nods. “Fair enough. You checkin’ in on friends and family?”

“…something like that.”

“Hmmm. Well, don’t worry about it.” She cuffs your shoulder lightly. “Just lemme know when you can, and I’ll keep a table waitin’ for us! And try not to eat for six hours beforehand.”

>>To Gully…

“…maybe in the next few days?” you offer Gully. “I’ve got some…people I have to check in on.”

She isn’t crestfallen, but there’s no mistaking the wistful disappointment in her voice. “…I see.”

“I must be missing something good.”

“It was either an Eastwood or a Coppola,” she says, “But Hitchcock is always brings people to the seats.”

From the way she speaks about film directors, she might as well be talking about fine wine. Two subjects you aren’t nearly familiar with, but dip your toe into infrequently. Even if your go-to drink of choice is either Scurvy-be-gone or Reggie’s bootleg, oil-barrel whiskey. “From what little I’ve seen, I’m admittedly partial to Kubrick.”

“How cerebral of you.” She raises a finger towards her chin in a pensive gesture. “Most PUEXO pilots seem to like him and Kurosawa.”

You shrug. “I can see why...but anyway. I've got that thing, but I’m more than game after tonight and tomorrow’s spooks.”

Gully gives you a self-effacing smile. “Very well. Try not to hold me up too long. I’ll get hungry, and then you’ll really be paying too much for snacks.”

You wisely refrain from making comments about her fitting into her cockpit, and merely return her smile.

>>Berth No. 13, Bracken Plaza

City Security, Babylonian Marines and the Port Authority do as good a job enough of cordoning off the dock. Not that it’s stopped the curious passerby and the crowd of people that have gathered to see the Calypso. One would be hard-pressed to find fault – it isn’t every day that a salvage trawler comes back to port with an armed escort.

Thankfully, they’ve realized the gravity of the situation. Kwan’s visibly relieved to see no marching band, or cutout posters saying ‘welcome home’. What few idiots press up against the guards for a closer look at the Calypso’s bullet holes and blast markings are shoved back with extreme prejudice.

First priority goes to the wounded and the fallen. The standing watch officer trills sharply on his whistle as they’re lifted off the deck and into the arms of awaiting medical personnel. Some are able to stand, hobbling down the gangplank, and receive applause and cheers from the assembled crowd. They even politely clear the way as the convoy of ambulances, oxen-drawn carts and stretchers sprint, meander and drive to the healing quarter.

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Then come the crew members, the deckhands and bridge bunnies, the engineers and technicians. You blend in with them easily enough, electing to fight the crowd rather than attract attention to yourself with the officers. As sailors hug their loved ones and reunite with their families, you quietly and discretely push your way through the crowd, ducking into a nearby alleyway to escape Bracken Plaza.

You already know where you’re going, even though it’s been years since you last visited.

673 Harbor Hill.

A quiet little neighborhood just straddling the line between the Middle and Outer Rings, bordering the nicest parts of Upper Garden. Decently priced for a middle-class family with members who work across both of the Rings. It leans on the nicer side of housing, foregoing apartments in lieu of townhouses – complete with its own automated gate.

It takes you all of an hour’s worth of walking and two gate checkpoints before you’re standing at the entrance. You fumble at the keypad, punching in a code that you barely remember in the hopes of getting past the gate. And much to your surprise, it still works. Why hadn’t Jean or Caroline changed it?

Then before you know it, you’re standing at a familiar door, on the front of a familiar home. Hand raised and a dozen things on the tip of your tongue. The moment is at hand, staring you no differently in the face than the start just before a drop in your PUEXO.

…after what passes for something like an eternity, you muster up the gusto to knock sharply on the door.

“…coming!” a voice calls faintly from inside. Muffled by however many layers of doors and walls, but still indistinct. You’d never be able to forget or not correctly identify her voice.

Steps on hardwood floors, then the rustle of a chain, latch and lock. There’s no eyehole mounted, so the door opens partially, just wide enough to see who’s on the other end. “How can I help-”

The years since the accident haven’t been good for any of you. Not even for Caroline Godwin-Barbet. There’s grey in her hair that hadn’t been there before. And something that pulls at the corner of her eyes. A melancholic, wistful air seems to emanate from her posture – there’s a long-seeded tiredness that’s settled in her bones.

But she still remains a beautiful woman.

Beautiful enough for your heart to ache.

It takes all of a heartbeat for her to recognize you. Her eyes go wide, and her hand goes to her mouth in utter surprise. “Sinleq!”

You give a little cheery wave, and as best a smile you can manage. “…hey, Caroline.”

…come to think of it, a change of clothes into something nicer couldn’t have hurt. Or a quick trip to the barber for a proper shave and cut. But if Caroline is offended, then she doesn’t show it. She’s still stuck on the fact that you’ve actually visited for the first time since the Debt.

“…sorry for dropping in without calling ahead,” you murmur with a small grin.

Caroline’s surprise only lasts for a moment longer before her good manners kick in. She shakes her head, laughing softly as she pulls you in for a tight hug. You stiffen at the touch, at her warmth against your body, hesitantly returning it. Rosemary and linen wafts gently off her clothing, commingling with the scent of strawberry-scented shampoo.

“No, no, it’s fine!” she reassures you, pulling away after a long moment. “Oh my God, Sinleq, you don’t have to worry about that.”

Is it really?

But that isn’t the point of your visit. Jean doesn’t look like he’s here – most likely still at work given the time of day. And Tom…the boy’s been more asleep than lucid. Between chemotherapy and the nanotech Stolze’s doctors have him hooked to…it’s a coin’s toss as to whether or not he’s here or in that Inner Ring ward. And even then, all but dead to the world in a medically induced coma.

“But it’s so good to see you!” says Caroline, the years and fatigue washing away with every passing moment. “How’ve you been? What’ve you been up to?”

“…how’s Tom?” You gesture to the dufflebag slung across your shoulder. “It’s his birthday soon, right? I got something for that, plus some other stuff.”

Caroline seems taken aback at the abrupt change of subject. But she smiles softly. “He’s doing well. Doctor Cho says that he’s almost healthy enough to start playing football again.”

Relief doesn’t even begin to describe how you feel. And a shiver of euphoria at that familiar smile. “That’s good. I’ll have to buy him cleats for Christmas. Do you have his shoe size handy?”

At first, she looks like she might answer, but you see a light go off behind her eyes. Caroline claps her hands together, nodding at some internal thought. “Why don’t you ask him?”

You blink, utterly surprised. “Tom’s here?”

“Yes! He took a nap after his doctor’s visit, but he’ll be awake soon for dinner…dinner!” Her eyes are intense and purposeful. “You came at a good time. Dinner’s almost ready. I’ll set an extra plate for you. You can stay and tell Tom and I all about what you’ve been up to.”

Suddenly, your courage flees you. This was a bad idea. Very bad. Bad enough that you only barely notice that she didn’t mention Jean. Hastily, you respond: “Caroline, I can’t stay. My ship, she only just got in, and my PUEXO needs-”

Caroline grabs your arm just as you might back up. A determined frown creases her features. “They won’t miss you for the rest of the day. Please, come in. Sit down, put your feet up and have some tea! Or coffee? I have that as well.”

…don’t do that.

…don’t let me in that easily.

You swallow a heavy lump in your throat, somehow managing to speak: “Caroline, you really don’t-”

Her eyes narrow sharply, and the sharp hiss of breath to escape her lips causes your hair to stand on end. “Slineq Unami. It has been three years since you last saw any of us. You’ve been ignoring my letters for just as long, and I know you’ve been getting them since the post hasn’t been sending them back.”

…she has you there. But she isn’t anywhere near done in telling you off.

“Your godson misses you. I miss you! The only reason we knew you’re alive is the fact that Lord Stolze continues to pay the hospital bills, and the impersonal, borderline mono-syllabic letters that come with Tom’s birthday gifts!”

Caroline isn’t on the verge of crying, but her eyes are moist, and her cheeks are flushed. “Sinleq…you’ve already done so much for us. There isn’t any need for you to keep us at arm’s length. Even after all that’s happened, we’re still friends, aren’t we?”

…and there’s the answer to the question of Sinleq Unami and Caroline Godwin-Barbet’s relationship. Friends. Dear friends, you’d even say, given how she prefaces her letters with my dear Sinleq, and closes with ever your friend, Caroline.

“She’s stringin’ you on, mate. There’s no bloody way that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. I’ve been in your place, Sinny, so I know how it is. And the slag in my situation had me on the backburner, just in case the tithead shackin’ up with her flaked away.”

Reggie. Always so eloquent and gentle in matters of the heart.

… … …

… …

…ah, who’re you kidding?

Regardless of whether or not he’s right, it still stings. Maybe not as much as it had on the day you were asked to be best man for the wedding, but it still cuts deep. Nearly thirteen years, and the ache over Caroline only hurts somewhat less.

But you don’t say any of that, offering a tired, slight smile. Reggie only knows the extenuating circumstances, not the woman herself. And you’ve known Caroline Godwin long enough to where you can say that she isn’t like the myriad girls in Reggie’s stories.

“…yeah. We still are,” you answer quietly.

Caroline takes it as a victory, and renews her offensive. “So in keeping of the spirit of friendship, I firmly insist that you stay for tea. And say hello to your godson. Just being here would be worth more than any gift you could give him.”

Good manners override the urge to beat back a hasty retreat. The Khanate, Pierce and his goons…even Molly. Any one of them and all of them at once, over what you’re up against now: a mousey housewife that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

Sighing, you slide off the dufflebag. “…do you happen to have scurvy-b-gone?”

She laughs weakly, opening the door further to let you in. “I think I might be able to whip something up…”

Much hasn’t changed since you were last in the townhouse – one living room, one kitchen, three bedrooms. There’s an aged quality to the wallpaper, sun-faded and at least a year or two away from needing replacement. Everything from the furniture to the appliances speaks of second-hand refurbishment, even more so than the overall aesthetic of Babyloina’s mantra of repurpose and recycle.

The Godwin-Barbets had always been frugal. Up until the accident, they had been saving money to move outside the tiers, towards one of the greener arcologies to have space for more family to run around. God knows whether or that’s fallen through, or a distant dream for the family.

But for all intents and purposes, 673 Harbor Hill is home. It’s lived-in, and it’s theirs…and yours, if they hadn’t rented out the guest room. One promised to be yours in perpetuity, until the time came for a larger apartment, and a house for more children plus an uncle.

Caroline seats you at a scrubbed, wooden table, at the end affording a view of Dockside. Idly, you recall that this had been your favorite seat whenever you’d come calling. “Tea, coffee?”

You choose tea, grown and ground here in the city’s own ‘Hanging Gardens’. What Babylonia lacks in landmass and fertile soil, the city makes up for in hydroponics and aquaculture. Thus, it isn’t too much of a misnomer for the city to revive the title, even if it’s more commercial than cultural. The city-state feeds not only the Belt, but exports foodstuffs across the Flooded World. But the tea’s good enough, and quality seafood is relatively inexpensive, if somewhat repetitive on one’s palate.

As Caroline brings a kettle to boil, she continues talking: “Three years, Sinleq! Three years, and you then you suddenly decide to come.”

“I said I was sorry, didn’t I?” you grouse.

“I’m not angry. Just...curious, is all. What prompted you to suddenly visit?”

“You need to send the real me a birthday gift soon. I miss you, uncle.”

A hallucination of Tom induced via head trauma wouldn’t be a good answer. Thus, you accept the tea with quiet thanks, inhale the gentle scent of fresh barley tea, and offer a shrug: “…I guess I suddenly had the feeling.”

She rolls her eyes, stirring a pinch of sugar into her cup. “Is that a euphemism for something?”

“No.” Nursing your drink, you take a gentle sip, allowing yourself to feel the passage of warmth that spreads throughout your body. “It just happened as I was getting off the ship.”

“I…see. So how long until you have to return to the Marduk?”

“Not for a while. And I’m not on the Duck anymore, so…don’t send anymore letters there.”

Caroline nods, then frowns. “…and were you planning on telling me this, or would I have had to wait until I got my letters back?”

Cringing slightly, you retort, “I would’ve told you. Really!”

“In-person or over the shortwave?”

Coughing, you decide to change the subject, fishing out a pen and paper from your pocket. “Here. If you wanna send me anything, put this on the address line.”

“…the Salvage Guild?” the seamstress says with a frown.

“Blame Stolze,” you grumble, “I got the transfer orders two weeks ago to hop on a salvage trawler-”

But you aren’t able to finish. Even as you’re talking, she puts two and two together, coming up with a startled interjection. “You were on the Calypso!”

Huh. Word’s already spread that far that a seamstress in the tiers can hear it. Looks like the rumor mill’s doing yeoman’s work in this otherwise dry spell of a slow summer. Although given the reception and the time it took the ship to burn back to Babylonia, it wouldn’t be unexpected for news to get ahead and settle among the citizens.

It’s not a question that she asks, but you answer, “…yeah. That’s where I got transferred.”

Caroline gives you a second glance, looking over you with a renewed concern. Her eyes flicker up towards the bandage on your forehead, and she releases a sharp breath. “Sinleq, you’re hurt!”

She reaches out to grab your face, inspecting you for any other injuries.

…you don’t fight it. Not immediately, anyway. But you eventually pry her hands off, and pull yours back just as quickly.

“It looks worse than it is,” you reassure her, “Besides, you should see the other guys.”

Your attempt at being glib bleeds some of the tension. Some, but not all, given how her worry still remains. “Sinleq, you were attacked by the Khanate. A fleet of raiders!”

“Just an attack group, not even a flotilla. And only attack craft and torpedo boats.”

The seamstress frowns. “So that means that the PUEXO pilot who fought them…that was you?”

You nod, shrugging slightly. “It wasn’t just me. The crew helped out, too. I might’ve been cockpit paste if not for the chief engineer. Crack shot with the .50 caliber at a Bloodied with a rocket launcher.”

“Sinleq!” hisses Caroline, alarmed. “That isn’t something to joke about. You could’ve died! The losses the Calypso suffered…”

“I know how many we lost,” you roughly interject, “I was there, Caroline. You don’t need to remind me.”

The cynic within you tartly notes that if you die, Stolze immediately axes Tom’s ongoing treatment. Not a completely unwarranted worry on the part of his mother. Caroline is only worried about Tom’s continued survival. Or alternatively, your continued existence as a metaphorical golden goose.

But you squash that thought like a bug.

“We survived,” you insist emphatically, “I survived. They didn’t. Barring one prisoner for the spooks, that attack group is gone-ate. With extreme prejudice.”

Caroline tries her best to hide her amusement. Her severe frown cracks, and a light note of laughter escapes her throat. “You always did have a way with words, Sinleq.”

“But that’s still worrying to hear,” the seamstress muses, “Khanate raiding parties this close to the Belt…what was it that you were fighting over anyway?”

…last you checked, Elishani didn’t ask any of his crew to sign an NDA. But erring on the side of caution, you decide to keep mum about the Olympia. “Salvage out of the ruins of Kingston. Whole lot of cargo ships that sunk during the Cataclysm. High technological ends and stuff the Guild could repurpose for the city.”

Vague, but close enough to the truth. And she knows better than to press for more details. Just as you wouldn't ask her about the ins or outs about the...seamstress guild? Sewing Guild? Whatever conglomerate that holds all of the city's weavers, tailors and clothiers.

“So you’ll be in Babylonia until the ship’s repaired?” asks Caroline.

“I don’t know,” you say honestly, “But most likely. Or however long it takes for us to get new orders or to ship back out..”

“Hopefully with an armed escort.”

“I think there’d be a mutiny if we didn’t. Not after this mess.”

She hums, refilling your cups with a pensive expression. “Where will you stay? I know that you…sold your apartment before going to the Marduk. I can have your room ready after dinner.”

So they hadn’t rented it out. That’s…oddly sentimental of them. You find it mind-boggling that Jean and Caroline would just leave one room out of…four? Five? However many in their home, but one solely dedicated to someone who hadn’t been around for three years. Just in case he ever decided to come and visit.

But something strikes you odd. Caroline’s always been a gracious host. Yet there’s something that goes beyond that in her offer, one that you have a hard time deducing. Nothing…inappropriate. Holding onto that hope is a bridge too far, even for you.

Besides, if she was really in the mood for that

...which would be a cold day in hell before Caroline Godwin would entertain an extra-marital affair...

…you drain your tea quickly, coughing as the heat nearly scalds your tongue and throat.

>>How will you respond?
>“I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)
>“So is it you or Tom that’s asking me to stay?” (Light)


Apologies for the delay. Writer's block struck hard for this one. Meeting the object of Sinleq's oneitis. Shouldn't be any more long delays after this.
>“I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)

Also, your pt1 tatamu was a big inspiration for me to write!

I was the one that suggested we bring a fork and knives to the opening fight.
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I'm flattered to hear that, thank you! What quest are you writing?

>>I was the one that suggested we bring a fork and knives to the opening fight.
Nice. It really can't be called fighting dirty if your opponent had no intention of fighting fair anyway.
I’m writing the “Modern blades quest” right now. The players really liked my detailed description of combat!
>>“So is it you or Tom that’s asking me to stay?” (Light)
>“So is it you or Tom that’s asking me to stay?” (Light)
No need to spill any more spaghetti this day.
>“I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)
Until we can have a real sit down with them and talk this shit out, best we avoid any source of miscommunications.
>“So is it you or Tom that’s asking me to stay?” (Light)
I think he should move on from potential heartbreak.
>ask her about the ins or outs about the...seamstress guild? Sewing Guild?
Is this a Discworld reference?
>"I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)

Jean is a bit of an elephant in the room and it's weird she hasn't mentioned him yet.
>“I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)
>"I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)
>“I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)
>“So is it you or Tom that’s asking me to stay?” (Light)
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It isn't. I haven't finished reading through all of the Discworld novels, so I had to look that one up. And lemme say, that one took me for a loop. Bravo, Terry Pratchett.

Hem, hem.

Caroline is a seamstress in the most literal sense of the word. She works at a factory that makes wool and fabric bolts, and does freelance work repairing and altering dresses out of her apartment.

>“I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)

Speaking of the Discworld seamstress guild in Dutch that name was a lot more appropriate, the Dutch word word for sewing is a rather crude euphemism for the services the Guild offers
Wait, I'm confused. You're saying she's NOT a hoor?
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Caroline isn't a prostitute. Babylonia's [Insert tailor, clothier, weaver] Guild exclusively deals in making clothing, acquiring raw materials, and keeping an eye on the market. No sort of funny 'private embroidering' going on. She's a beautiful woman, but not in the sort of way that makes blood rush to one's privates.

Still, it's funny, even without the whole unintentional Discworld reference, something along those lines was mentioned in the last thread.

Not that Jean would fetch much. Missing a leg and most of his left hand, a solitary thumb and fancy new digits notwithstanding, there isn’t much a cripple could pull in. And as sick as the thought makes you, Caroline wouldn’t either. There isn’t much money that anyone could squeeze from out of a desperate seamstress. Even if she put her talents to weaving in and out of brothels or the Temple of Ishtar instead of looms or spinning wheels.

The city does have extensive prostitution though. You've got the low-class Flash Mollishers who prowl the Outer Ring and take clients out of alleyways, the Spells who sell their services at theaters and coffee houses, Bawds who own actual brothels, and the Babylonian equivalent of the Covent Garden Nuns, the Ringed Ladies. But above them all are the Priestesses of Ishtar.

Babylonia is largely secular, but the Temple of Ishtar exists as both a religious organization of neo-pagans who fell hard for the post-apocalyptic, return-to-antiquity LARP, and the (oft unspoken) guild for prostitutes. You won't see the Lord Protector of Babylonia engaging in ritual intercourse with the Head Priestess on the first day of the new year, but you might find his son going to a social function with a ravishingly beautiful woman on either arm.

So in that regard, Ishtarite priestesses often have more in common with Renaissance courtesans and Japanese oiran and/or geisha: beautiful women trained extensively in the "performing" arts that receive gifts such as jewelry, expensive furniture, or even real estate from favored lovers/clients. The temple gets a cut, from the lowest acolyte-in-training to the High Priestess herself, but the Ishtarites aim largely for social status among the elite of the Flooded World, and marriage into families of high standing. Plenty manage to find favor among merchant princes and industrial tycoons, but the greatest prize for an Ishtarite would be to secure a marriage into one of the five Founding Families of Babylonia. Or at the very least, one of their cadet branches, which happens far more than a marriage into the main branch.

Whether or not the historic priestesses of Inanna/Ishtar engaged in sacred prostitution is still a contentious debate among scholars.

A bit of a tangent, but still something fun to answer and clarify while stuck in a rut. Feel free to ask me any other questions about the setting.

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“I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here,” you answer quietly.

It isn’t just the impropriety of staying at a married woman’s behest. In a vacuum, that would be wrong enough. But this is Caroline and Jean. The former happens to attend a church with pewmates and busybody housewives who love nothing more to gossip. God only knows how bad the rumors would get if they saw you coming out of the house. The latter is your best friend in the entire Flooded World that isn’t Reggie.

Although that’s a relationship that’s tenuous at best, and non-existent at the worst. Beyond the fact that you haven’t spoken in three years, Jean taken your debt-slavery harder than Caroline. So hard that on the first day of Tom’s treatment, he’d stumbled out of his hospital room, high as a kite on a cocktail of painkillers. Then slugged you in the jaw with a metallic prosthesis he’d MacGyvered out of a box of scraps to replace his right hand.

“Damn you, Sinleq…why did you have to do it?!”

He’d said some other things, but between the near concussion you got, the shouts of orderlies trying to restrain him, and Caroline’s screams for him to stop…most of it’s lost to the ages. And the fog of head trauma.

In truth, you had undersold it to dream-Tom. The mass and weight of his father’s prosthetic dislocated your jaw and knocked a tooth loose. Stolze’s doctors had been able to pop it both back into place, but the old man hadn’t been happy about the delay in your services. It had taken some wheeling and dealing on your part to convince the crank not to press charges.

But Caroline flinches. Her teacup hits the paired saucer harder than one might expect.

“…something wrong?” you ask hesitantly.

She doesn’t answer immediately. Her lip quivers, and her mouth moves as if she’s struggling to find the proper words. The apartment is silent, save for whatever’s been left on low heat on the stove, the dry hiss of the air-conditioning unit, and the distant, muffled sound of Babylonia just outside the windows.

“I didn’t tell you this in the letters, but Jean and I are…” The line of her mouth thins, wobbling uncertainly with her uneven voice. She has to swallow twice before continuing: “We’re not…living together at the moment. Four months after Tom’s treatment started, he got an apartment closer to Saltside. And he’s been there ever since. So, there’s nothing for you to worry about.”

…a gunshot could’ve gone off in the silence that followed, and you wouldn’t have cared in the slightest. You stare, wide-eyed and utterly agog. And, much to your guilt, a disgustingly desperate hope churns within your guts. You aren’t completely able to reign it in, as a strangled word escapes your throat: “What?”

The seamstress cringes. “Please don’t make me repeat myself. It isn’t something that we’re proud of.”

The sheer absurdity of the situation nearly makes you laugh. It would have been an ugly, hysterical noise completely unbefitting of the mood. But you smoother the hope in your voice with the sheer disbelief and shock that’s hit you like a railgun. “You’re…you’re divorced, then?”

She shakes her head, much to both your relief and immense disappointment. Caroline raises her hand, still bearing one of a paired set of rings on her finger. Her eyes are watery, and her voice is thick with emotion. “Legally and spiritually? We’re still married. File taxes no differently, share a joint account and take Tom to the clinic for his checkups, check in for marriage counseling with Father Franky. But emotionally…”

You swallow the lump that’s formed in your throat, along with the last, visceral bit of hope. It’s still there, waiting in the wings, but you shove it violently to the side as concern takes the ultimate precedent. Hesitantly, you ask, “When did it-”

“Start?” Caroline sighs. Her gaze turns towards the living space, all the emptier with this latest revelation. “I was struggling to rebuild everything as best I could. Tom was responding well to the treatment. But Jean, he…was relieved that our son would live. But in that same accident, he lost a hand, most of his leg…and the position of chief engineer at the desalination plants.”

That isn’t surprising to hear. It isn’t cynicism that prevents you from reacting too viscerally, but the cold sobering fact that Jean was all but useless. “And the Engineer’s Guild didn’t fight for him?”

“The best they could grab was severance pay and two years’ worth of salary. He was…devastated.” Caroline’s voice drops, and the faintest hint of venom bleeds through. “The plant didn’t even have the courage to fire him in-person or over the phone. Just a little pink slip among the pile of letters that the nurses would give every day while he was laid up in the ward. It…there wasn’t much do to while he was waiting for his wounds to heal…all alone in that room.”

It isn’t hard to put the pieces together. “He had too much time on his hands, and nobody to talk to.”

“And I didn’t realize until it was too late.” Caroline shakes her head morosely, gulping and wiping her eyes. “It’s my fault. I was too focused on Tom. He was just as hurt, but I neglected Jean-”

Out of pure instinct, you interject, “No, it isn’t.”

“Was it?” Her tone is bitter. “He certainly made it clear enough.”

Your eyes darken. “If he’s hit or hurt you…”

Caroline laughs bleakly. “He’d sooner hit himself than lay a finger on me. Not that it’s stopped him from yelling or shouting. But only when he was sure that Tom was asleep in the next room over, and wouldn’t hear what he had to say.”

She swallows. You reach out uncertainly, tentatively taking her hand and squeeze lightly in a minute gesture of solidarity. After eating a little and drinking some tea, Caroline is able to continue.

“You just got back from fighting monsters at the edge of the Belt,” she says sadly. “But Jean’s been fighting the demon in his head. Even before he and I were married and your days as apprentices, he’s struggled with it all his life, Sinleq. And it’s…”

Jean Barbet. The ever-exuberant man who dragged you along from one misadventure to the next in engineering school. Bold and brash, headstrong and so sure of himself in all things. He’d always been riding the highest points of life, even during your time as youths who didn’t know any better.

Chasing certifications.

Experiencing as much as you could.

Dreaming big and shooting for the stars.

Living his life to the fullest, as if every day could be his last.

Hearing at this is…you almost can’t believe it.

When you don’t immediately reply, Caroline continues: “He ate, slept and lived in his workshop for weeks after you left, feverishly working, milling and testing his prosthetics until his fingers bled. And whenever he was here, he…couldn’t bear to look at me. We tried staying together, but he’d…he’d wake up in the middle of the night, crying, weeping and cursing at God for cursing him.

“I suggested that he try to find other things he could do,” she murmurs, “Or at least find a steadier income for funding his prosthetic experiments. And he tried. He really did. But as soon as he had to disclose his injuries…the job offers just dried up. And what few he had been able to get…they didn’t last. Only as long as his bosses found someone to replace him. Eventually, he just…stopped trying. Jean landed a job as an chief's assistant at a tannery, but it...wasn't the same."

Wishing that Father Franky was here to help alleviate this burden, you suggest softly, “But what about Tom?”

Caroline sniffs. “…Jean still loves his son. He comes to visit every other day. But whenever your name comes up, or the doctors start explaining the healing process…Jean can’t help but compare himself to you. I think he slowly accepted not getting into the PUEXO program when you did, but his inability to pay for Tom’s treatment…”

…your mouth suddenly goes dry. All of your griping about Jean’s emasculation at your sacrifice suddenly takes a darker turn. “I…I didn’t know any of this! Jean’s head-monster…he never showed anything. Caroline, why didn’t you mention this in your letters? I would’ve written, or…”

“Would you have?” she quietly counters. “…and even then, would Jean have read it if he knew it came from you?”

You raise your voice to object, but aren’t able to offer a suitable rebuttal.

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In a way, it had been a blessing to get away from Babylonia, away from Jean, Caroline and Tom. Whether or not it was a mistake to save Tom…it didn’t matter. A final act of love that separated you from them, even as you pined over her. They could go back to the life they had, or at least bounce back quickly enough, and you might have tried your best to get over everything.

But perhaps that might’ve been naïve thinking. Things haven’t changed. No matter how hard you try to deny it, there’s still some part of your heart that’s desperately in love with Caroline Godwin. And it seems that her family hasn’t been able to move on either.

“I was pregnant, only just for a handful of weeks when the accident happened,” Caroline says dully, leaning her head on her hand. Her eyes are squeezed shut, and her fist clenched tight. “But not for long. The stress of everything that happened…I miscarried. Jean didn’t even know. I couldn’t tell him. There was a time where I sincerely feared…that one more bit of bad news would be enough for the monster to take my husband.”

You stare, utterly aghast. “Caroline, I’m so sorry-”

“Don’t apologize!” Her voice is sharp, startling her as much as you. Calming herself, she squeezes your hand back. “Don’t…Sinleq, you have nothing to apologize for. You’ve already done so much for us. Jean and I…we’ll handle this on our own. It’s…not ideal, but we’re getting by. The counseling does help, but it’s slow. And that’s fine. I’m not in a hurry to rush things.”

Bullshit. You can see the hurt in her eyes. There isn’t any way this is normal in the slightest. Not to mention how it gutted you whenever you saw your parents arguing. And God…how was Tom taking all of this?

But Caroline doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. She wipes at her eyes, smoothing out the plaits and creases in her skirt and apron. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she smiles softly, then says, “But that’s enough about us. What about you? Injuries aside, have you been eating well? Have you met anyone?”

Before you can confront that non-sequitur, a door deeper within the apartment opens with a click, causing you both to jump. It’s punctuated with a loud yawn, the kind of sound a child would make without a care for manners, and the sound of slippers on hardwood flooring. “Mom, is dinner ready…?”

Thomas Godwin-Barbet is a young boy, just a handful of weeks short of his eleventh birthday. He’s short for his age, barely edging around the bottom of your ribs, and his clothes hang loosely off a lean, thin frame. Where 8ys of radiation and years of chemotherapy had taken his hair, some of it’s started to grow back.

“Who’s…” He squints, frowning and rubbing at the corners of his eyes. Tom blinks rapidly, first out of tiredness, but you can see the instant adrenaline floods his body as his eyes go wide in recognition.

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You give him a rough, crooked, honest smile, standing up and out of your chair. The one only an uncle could’ve pulled off to a favorite nephew. And for a moment, you forget about Caroline and Jean’s troubles as you behold the result of your sacrifice – one very alive, and slowly recovering godson. “Hey, kiddo.”

Before you know it, he’s running like a bat out of hell, stumbling over his pajamas in a haste to reach you. You move without thinking, running to catch your godson in an awkward embrace as he jumps and wraps his arms tightly around your neck.

Tom’s always been light. At one point, dangerously light to the point of skin and bones. You were never that small as a child, even with the worst of how rationing had gotten. The faintest hint of antiseptic wafts off his clothing as a constant reminder of his ongoing treatment.

“Uncle Sinleq!” he cries joyously.

“Whoa, whoa!” you laugh (laugh!), spinning him around. “Easy there! Don’t overexert yourself.”

“I haven’t seen you in so long! Why haven’t you visited us sooner!”

“I’ve been busy, is all,” you reply, ignoring the way Caroline rolls her eyes. “Sorry about that.”

Tom pulls away, scrunching his face up in a frown. Truly, the child of his mother. “Are you really?”

“Really-really. Scout’s honor. Think you can forgive me?”

That seems to do the trick. He nods firmly. “Sure. But…did you bring me anything?” he asks innocently. “It’s my birthday soon.”

“Tom!” scolds Caroline, utterly mortified. “Don’t be rude.”

But you laugh. “No, that’s…more than fair.”

Unzipping the dufflebag, you present to him no less than three boxes. Everything that a young boy his age could have wanted, from both the bottom of the ocean, as well as Market Square. A rare, fist-sized fossil from a dive near the Duck, an assorted collection of Jules Verne novels, and a tablet salvaged off the Caribbean Courier.

“You can open them if you want,” you assure him.

Tom looks eagerly to his mother for permission. He receives nothing but a stern look and a critical eyebrow. Erring on the side of safety, he goes for the smaller package that you know contains the fossil. Wrapping paper goes flying across the living room in excitement. The last of it doesn’t even touch the ground before it’s out in the open.

“Megalodon!” Tom’s eyes are wide as he holds the tooth up to the overhead light. He looks to you excitedly. “Where did you find this?”

Chuckling, you squat down to his level, sketching out the scene in the empty air with your hand. Admittedly cribbing a bit from Old Man Larkin, but he had rubbed off on you after so many years of stories. “Eight hundred meters deep, Reggie and I were clearing the way for a new wellhead for the Duck. The only light we had was from our PUEXO’s and flares we’d shoot into the void. I almost missed it, if not for HOPI pointing it out on the ground...”

“Did you see or find the rest of the skeleton?” he demands. “The books say that megalodons have two-hundred and seventy-six teeth!”

Unfortunately, you hadn’t. In all candor, the tooth had been an extremely lucky find. It wouldn’t fetch an outrageous price, but there are plenty of collectors who would’ve paid a premium. At the very least, two weeks’ worth of wages. Maybe even more to those yahoos who grind it up and snort it as some sort of miracle fertility cure.

But, you digress. Nothing larger than the tooth had been found. Besides, where would you even put the skeleton? Between your Magellan and Reggie’s Hercules you probably could’ve fit the entire mass of a prehistoric skeleton between yourselves…as powdered or splintered bones within your PUEXO storage compartments.

Tom’s hands are barely large enough to clutch the entirety of the fossil. But he gets points for effort. “I’ll save the rest for my birthday, okay mom?”

Faced with such a compromise, all Caroline does is nod. “Be sure to make your bed and wash your hands before dinner-”

“I know! I just wanna find a spot to put this first.” With that, Tom gives you another quick hug, and sprint-walks back to his room. “Thank you, uncle!”

“Don’t run!” His mother sighs, a faint smile tugging at her lips as he disappears deeper into the apartment. It seems no differently to you, the troubles with Jean are not forgotten, but distant enough from this display of childish joy. “Did you really find that by the Marduk?”

“I really did,” you reply truthfully.

She shakes her head ruefully. “Keep bringing souvenirs, and he’ll run out of space in his bedroom. Or worse, try to shoot for becoming a PUEXO pilot to find the rest of that skeleton.”

And you’d write him a recommendation letter. Not that Caroline needs to know. She’d be beside herself if Tom as much as went into five feet of water in a pool.

“…he looks better,” you manage to say. “Could use a few more pounds, though. How much are you feeding him?”

“Enough for two boys his age. Whatever’s in his body, those machines from the Old World?” Caroline asks, exasperated. “With all the work they’re doing to fix Tom, I’m not surprised that they’re hungry.”

Maybe she could’ve put it more delicately. The unpleasant image of the medical nanobots in your godson’s bloodstream suddenly becoming going full Grey Goo is a gut-churning nightmare. Even though Stolze assured you that it wouldn’t happen – the eggheads hard-coded the nanites to not cannibalize biomass from the patient they were healing.

Said patient comes skidding back out into the kitchen. Tom plants himself on the floor, looking up at you with an eager expression. “So are you staying for dinner? Mom’s making tilapia, and I wanna know everything! Where you’ve been diving, how the Magellan’s doing…can I get another ride in it now that you’re here?”

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Dear Lord. It seems that not even 8ys couldn’t burn out his squirrely attitude. It seems that in spite of the accident, he’s still acting his age. Not nearly as solemn or hard-hitting as Dream-Tom, but still familiar enough to not be too much of a shock.

“Maybe later,” you assure him, hoping that he won’t remember. Caroline’s pointed look had nothing to do with any sort of deferral. “The Maggie’s a bit dinged up at the moment.”

“Fiiiiine.” He pouts, disappointed, but he bounces back quickly. “What happened to it anyway?”

“I’ll tell you over tilapia,” you promise. “Now c’mon and stand up, kid. Lemme see how tall you’ve gotten-”

Everyone starts at the sudden, sound of the door. The knob rattles, the lock clicks, and in comes the fourth member of the Godwin-Barbet-Unami disfunction junction, one heavy, metallic step after another. And the voice to waft from the hallway freezes all of you in place.

“Caroline, I’m sorry for not calling ahead, but I accidentally put the wrong address on a package…”

The last time you had seen Jean Barbet, he’d been drunk, intoxicated on a cocktail of narcotics and painkillers that lowered his inhibitions and better judgement. Not so nearly impaired as to not make himself a prosthetic replacement for the hand he’d lost. That in of itself had been an impressive feat of engineering and the sheer power of the human mind when overcome with a challenge...just to punch you in the jaw and scream grief-fueled obscenities.

But just as time hasn’t been kind to you or Caroline, it’s certainly taken its toll on Jean. You’re both only in your mid-thirties, but in three years, he looks as if he’s aged ten. There’s a slight slump to his shoulders, the one supporting his prosthetic hand. Silver-grey’s crept up along his sideburns, and his hair’s starting to thin and recede. The scraggly beard he’s since grown is in desperate need of a shave.

As soon as he enters the kitchen, time seems to stop for everyone. The blood drains from Caroline’s face, and Tom looks an odd mixture between excited and concerned. You can pinpoint the exact moment where Jean’s tired, nonchalant and disaffected changes – puzzlement, suspicion, then naked shock and disbelief.

“Sinleq!” he says with a strangled voice.

…you don’t respond. Your smile is thin and brittle. Even with all of the revelations that paint him in a more sympathetic light, you’re all too susceptible to those pesky, petty emotions. The jury’s still out on whether or not he married Caroline to spite you. And that irrational, paranoid anger wages a bitter war against the pleasure, concern and joy of seeing your best friend.

“Hello, Jean,” you reply in a deceptively calm voice.

>>Please choose one of the following:
>“I think you and I are long overdue for a one-on-one talk.” (Stay)
>“Thanks for the tea, Caroline. Tom, it was good to see you.” (Leave)

>“I think you and I are long overdue for a one-on-one talk.” (Stay)
Well, time to end this mess once and for all.
>I think you and I are long overdue for a one-on-one talk.” (Stay)
>“I think you and I are long overdue for a one-on-one talk.” (Stay)
>>“I think you and I are long overdue for a one-on-one talk.” (Stay)
>“Thanks for the tea, Caroline. Tom, it was good to see you.” (Leave)
>"I think you and I are long overdue for a one-on-one talk.” (Stay)
YOOO, it's beef squashing time.
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“I think you and I are long overdue for a one-on-one talk, Jean,” you say quietly.

Caroline swiftly interposes herself between Tom and her husband. In a hushed, urgent tone, she whispers: “Go back to your room, Tom. Don’t you still got some worksheets to finish?”

He squirms in her grip. “I finished them last night.”

“Well, why don’t you get started on next week’s homework and reading? Just in case Dr. Cho calls for you-”

“I already finished that, too. The whole month’s, actually.”

“…just go to your room, Tom, okay?” she nearly pleads. “I’ll call you when dinner’s ready. It isn’t nearly finished.”

Whether or not he recognizes that trouble’s brewing isn’t important. But the boy obeys his mother, nodding dutifully. He waves at his father, cheery and bright. “Hi, dad! Are you staying for dinner? Uncle Sinleq’s here!”

Jean doesn’t take his eyes off of you, even as he replies, “…I see that, Tom. Hello. Son, I…”

“Tom,” warns Caroline.

“Fine, fine…” the boy sulks, shuffling away. But not before he turns to you one last time. “Story over tilapia. You promised, okay?”

With that, he makes his exit. Only when the door to his bedroom audibly closes shut do the three adults in the room begin to talk. And even then, in low, urgent voices.

“Caroline, can we borrow your veranda?” you ask. “I promise to stay quiet.”

She looks alarmed. “Sinleq, what’re you-”

“I just want to talk.”

“Tom is here and awake, and listening!” she hisses. “If you’re going to fight, I won’t have it here-”

“I just want to talk,” you insist, still gazing at Jean. “That’s all I want to do.”

“Caroline-” Jean interjects.

She turns to her estranged husband, a pained expression on her face. “Jean…”

Relaxed as you are, you keep a very sharp, peripheral glance towards his hand. And every time the interlocking gears, gyros and bolts make as much as a click, gooseflesh raises along your skin, and along the side of your face where it had last struck you.

The maimed mechanic visibly swallows. You’d almost say that he looks too stunned to speak, like a deer in headlights. “…you wanna talk, Sinleq? Now, after three years of silence?”

You cross your arms, scowling. “If I didn’t, I’d be out the door. Besides, it cuts both ways. I don’t think you sent me any letters, Jean.”

His face reddens, and the muscles of his neck strain in anger. But even as Caroline gasps and you tense for a fight, he keeps his cool, breathing slowly, deeply. “…I suppose you aren’t wrong.”

The scowl turns into a wry, self-effacing grin. “Veranda, then?”

Jean nods hesitantly, turning to Caroline. "Just a talk. It won’t be…”

…like the last time. Hopefully.

Say what you will about Jean's inability to properly express his grief. He won't make himself look bad in front of his son.

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She nods reluctantly, features tense and drawn tight. “…Tom’s got a sharp ear. Try not to be too loud, or so help me God.

Both of you easily have a head and a dozen kilos over her, but in that moment, as the overhead light flickers and casts light on Caroline’s spatula, the mousey little housewife looks as intimidating as a bull shark.

You step away from the kitchen, fumbling at the latch that opens to the veranda. “See you in a second, Jean.”

The veranda is small, but comfortable enough to easily house a small family and a few friends over for dinner. Much like the interior of the house, it’s seen some better days. The floor needs sweeping, the rails a good pressure hosing, and a few flaking areas that could use a fresh coat of paint. Inspecting the covered form of a barbecue unit, it looks like it hasn’t been used for months, if not years, given the dust buildup.

But if nothing else, the view hasn’t changed. Their townhouse affords one of the better views of the Outer Ring, and almost the entirety of Upper Garden. Just slightly, you can make out the berthing ports of Bracken Plaza, and the tip of Foggy Bottom. Ships come into the lagoon, slipping into Ishtar Bay, bearing colors and flags from the disparate nations of the Flooded World – even as the sun continues to set, the ports and markets of Babylonia are always open.

The door behind you opens several seconds after. Jean comes out, looking slightly more human. Caroline must’ve loaned him a towel to scrub the dirt, soot and grime off of his face. Nothing could be really done for the smell of tanning hides, clinging on to his clothes like a faint, cloying scent. But the breeze from the lagoon blows gently, masking it with the gentle confection of brine, diesel, and the city itself.

Jean tosses you a bottle, and you snatch it out of the air. Inspecting the label reveals a cheery monk, pondering the mystery of his glass. Craft beer, imported from the Megiddan Empire! Certainly pricey, but one that’s well worth the cost. You haven’t had one in years. Bless the monks that spend their time making it.

At the unspoken question, he holds up his own bottle, and gruffly replies, “Caroline’s been keeping some at the top of the fridge. Just out of Tom’s reach. Some for her...some in case I dropped in to visit.”

A light vice, but one completely excusable for a stressed seamstress in her position.

In an old ritual you haven’t performed in years, you both twist the caps off, clink your drinks together, and take a generous swing. You manage two swings, but Jean sputters off, barely spilling after he tries to go for a second gulp.

“Dammit,” he grumbles. “We used to be able to do the whole damned bottle.”

“Better that we don’t,” you reply dryly, “We’d be setting a bad example for Tom.”

The inarticulate grunt he makes could’ve been either flat acknowledgement or a wry chortle. But he sets his drink down, reaching into his overalls to fish out a carton of cigarettes. Then a lighter. It isn’t easy to watch. He’s got the stick in his mouth, and his prosthetic struggles to squeeze the flint tight enough.

But just before you're about to go offer to help, he shoots you a steely glare.

“I’ve got it,” he says roughly, catching a spark after his third try.

“Didn’t know you picked up a habit,” you comment after a moment.

Jean takes a long drag, blowing smoke out in a hazy spiral that catches the twilight breeze. “It’s not like I’ve got to save my lungs for underwater diving. Besides, I smoke only when I’m stressed.”

There’s no missing the accusation in his voice. But passive-aggressiveness aside, he’s got a point. Even if he didn’t get into the program, the missing limbs would’ve all but killed any chance of him going underwater beyond a recreational or therapeutic visit. The limbs would’ve just been dead…weight…

…yeah, that’s fair enough.

The two of you idle up to the railing, drinks in hand, staring out into the beyond of Babylonia. The silence observed is profound, but not so uncomfortable. There’s a tension between the two of you that’s about to get cut tonight. And it seems neither of you are so eager to see what happens, and how hard it’s gonna hit you.

>>Please choose one of the following options:
>“All those years ago, did you marry Caroline just to spite me?” (Confront)
>“I see that you’ve made some adjustments to your hand.” (Wry)
>“Why didn’t you tell me about your depression?” (Sympathy)

>>“Why didn’t you tell me about your depression?” (Sympathy)
Let's not be cuntish.
>“I see that you’ve made some adjustments to your hand.” (Genuine)
But not sarcastically, just as a conversation opener. Confronting him about something that is years over is just bad form, and asking him to open up immediately will just get him to close himself off again.
>“All those years ago, did you marry Caroline just to spite me?” (Confront)
Hopefully this is also direct.
>>5284738 +1
>>“Why didn’t you tell me about your depression?” (Sympathy)
Let's not be cuntish.
Hes still our friend. And right now, our friend needs help. Depression like this is a stone cold bitch.
>“Why didn’t you tell me about your depression?” (Sympathy)
God no on the confront option, nothing good could come from that
I feel like he'd react poorly to sympathy, he's not the kind of person, from what we've seen, to respond well to it.
Ah you're probably right. Changing my vote.

>I see that you’ve made some adjustments to your hand.” (Wry)
*obligatory question about your thoughts on Kenobi*
Yeah, you got a point.
>I see that you’ve made some adjustments to your hand.” (Wry)
>“All those years ago, did you marry Caroline just to spite me?” (Confront)
>“Why didn’t you tell me about your depression?” (Sympathy)

“I see that you’ve made some adjustments to your hand.”

He gives you a look, and his mouth screws up as if you’d insulted him. But you didn’t. It had been a neutral statement, one that easily lent itself for a reply or clarification. The punch you took from his prototype isn’t far from your mind, but hardly the reason for asking about it.

Jean’s glare softens when he finally gets that you aren’t screwing with him. He sighs, exhaling a thick plume of smoke. “Yeah. It, uh…I had a lot of free time.”

Too much, you think quietly. But at least he’s put it to good(?) use. “Looks pretty sturdy. What’s it made out of?”

He holds up the hand, letting the ambient light catch off of the fingers, gears and gyros. “High-carbon steel imported from the Empire, and milled over at Davis’ Chop Shop. Grafted onto a seal-hide glove, and wired up to a chip that controls grip strength and speed.”

You whistle, impressed. “That’s an impressive bit of hardware.”

“Wasn’t built in a day,” he murmurs. “Took several versions, about a dozen different configurations and materials…still a work in progress, though.”

It both looks and functions pretty well for an ongoing project. But knowing Jean, he wouldn’t rest until he’d perfected it. Or otherwise gotten on to resurrecting and/or replicating the true cybernetic augmentations that the Old World had to offer.

“What version are you on?” you ask.

“Nine point…whatever. I made so many prototypes that I stopped counting.”

“Hmmmm.” You nurse your beer, sipping it slowly. “How close are we to replicating Old World cybernetics?”

Jean barks out a harsh peal of laughter. “Not as close as I’d like. Haven’t quite figured out a surefire way to ensure permanent connection between the host and artificial neurons.”

“But you made it work?”

He shrugs. “Lasts for a couple of days, longest I had it go was a week before the connection broke down. Did some digging, and apparently, there’s a drug that the augs took back in the day. Cyprozentine or something like that. A pill along with the bio-graft that kept the nerves connected and prevented the body from rejecting the implants.”

Come to think of it, Larkin had mentioned something similar in one of his old stories. “No chance of replicating the drug?”

“Not easily,” he admits. “I tried taking it to Institute, but they didn’t have the resources. I only have the name, not the damned formula. Tried looking and asking around, but no-one’s got it.”

“Not even in the Union?”

“Not even in the Union,” he confirms drolly. “Of all the things they fled with after the Khanate took over, Cyberbenzaprine wasn’t one of them.”

That’s a damned shame. But even in the unlikely event that they had it, Jean probably wouldn’t have gotten it. The Terran Union has a dim view of everyone that isn’t them. Ballsy considering that they’re a fragment of what they used to be. Arrogant, pre-Cataclysm pricks.

But you shift away from geopolitics, gesturing towards Jean’s side. “How about your leg? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that you just sprained your ankle. You’re barely limping.”

He grunts, trying and failing to hide a proud smile. “It’s nothing too fancy. What money I scrounged up from the hand prototypes went to a fund for osseointegration.”

“Can’t say I’m too familiar with it,” you admit. “Cybernetics was never my forte.”

His lips twitch in a facsimile of a smile. “It’s an Old World procedure. But the long and short of it? The sawbones drilled a hole into my femur, then inserted a titanium rod. Took a few weeks for the bone to grow around it, even longer before I could put pressure on the prosthetic without pain shooting up my leg.”

You can’t help but shudder at the graphic image that procedure paints. “Jesus. Must’ve hurt.”

“It did. And it’s a real bitch to keep clean, especially at the tannery. If the rod goes septic, it won’t be pretty.” He pauses, taking another puff of his cigarette. “But I’m mobile again. I’m not strutting around with crutches or being carted wheelchair.”

A risk that he’s seemingly willing to take, just for the ability to walk without aid. Risking blood poisoning out of a point of pride is worryingly reckless, but so very-much in character for your friend. Does Caroline know about the danger her husband’s risking?

But you ask none of those things. You sip again at your beer, musing, “And you designed the leg yourself?”

“Based off of Old World prosthetics, but I took a few creative liberties.” He taps his leg, rapping his knuckle sharply against the chassis. “There’s a suspension unit in here that I ripped out of a bike for high-impact work.”

Impressive. “You could turn a tidy profit. Have you gone public with them?”

Jean grimaces. “Most see them as sideshow pieces. Those are the idiots who think cybernetics are just gonna roll out of the Institute. But I’ve got a few dedicated customers, and a handful of backers. It’s not much, but it justifies me working only part-time at the tannery.”

“Here’s a little bit of insider trading,” you muse dryly. “But I’ve got a few folks who might need a new hand, arm or leg in the next few weeks.”

Jean frowns. “Something happen on the Duck?”

Beyond the fight and near Byford-Dolphin? Nothing that drastic. Then again, you bit Pierce’s hand hard enough to be spitting muscle fiber. But he’d nearly cut your throat, so if he loses range of motion in any of his fingers, then sucks to be him.

You shake your head. “I was on the Calypso. Some of the worst injuries the crew suffered were inflicted with vibro-weapons.”

His eyes go wide. Looks like he heard about what happened, too. “You were…”

“Yep,” you intone grimly, “They jumped us while we were trying to fish up some salvage above Kingston.”

A full third of his cigarette vanishes in a puff of smoke as Jean takes the deepest drag of the evening. “They kept your name out of the news. I didn’t know you were there.”

“We did well enough. But more than a few of the crew are gonna need replacement limbs. I hope your schedule’s cleared, because you might be busy in a few weeks.”

He grimaces. “My prosthetics…they aren’t expensive, cream-of-the-crop, but they aren’t cheap either.”

“You didn’t hear it from me, but I have it on good faith that Captain Elishani is planning to squeeze the Salvage Guild and the city as much hazard pay as he can.”

“Enough for an osseointegration?”

Maybe, but that depends on whether not some poor sap lost both motor function in their hands, as well as a leg. “We’ll have to see…but going back to what you said. We made the news?”

“It was the only thing the city was talking about for the last three days,” he confirms. “From the watercooler to the market square, and those late-night radio kooks screaming about an imminent invasion…”

Years of animosity are seemingly forgotten as the two of you bounce ideas off of each other. Even after the beer’s finished, and the sun starts to set, it seems that time has resumed once more for the relationship between Silneq Unami and Jean Barbet. And loathe as you are to admit it, you’ve missed talking with the bastard. But that’s only in spite of everything that’s happened.

Whether or not he’s noticed or deliberately avoiding the minefield of his marriage to Caroline remains unknown. It’s hard to tell since he usually wears his heart on his sleeve.

A sharp knock on the glass brings you out of the discussion. The sliding door opens, revealing none other than the seamstress in question and the heavenly smell of spiced fish. It isn’t her beef stroganoff, but it’s a still a close contender for your favorite dish. “Dinner’s ready...and I’m glad to see the veranda’s still in one piece.”

Jean nervously chuckles, even as you roll your eyes. “Oh, please. I’m not that bad of a guest.”

That, and the fact that if any punches were thrown, you wouldn’t be the aggressor. But you’d be more than willing to end the fight.

“Oh, and speaking of guests…” Caroline pauses, biting her lip as she glances briefly at Jean, then back to you. “…the guest room’s ready if you need to stay over.”

“…we’ll see,” you reply quietly.

She nods, then turns to Jean. “Will you be staying...?”

He shifts anxiously, ashing his cigarette against the chassis of his hand. “…I’ll decide after dinner.”

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“It’s your house, too, you know,” scolds the housewife as she enters back into the kitchen. “Now both of you, hurry up and come in before it gets cold.”

Caroline disappears back into the house, calling for Tom to come out of his room. But just as you’re about to go back inside, Jean reaches the door first. In a burst of speed you didn’t think he could pull off, he cuts you off, a conflicted, unreadable expression on his face.

…hoo boy.

“Jean, we have to go eat dinner-”

“…punch me.”

You blink. Of all the things you expected, this hadn’t been one of them. “I’m…what?”

“Hit me, dammit!” he insists, almost desperate. “I owe you that much at the very least, after what happened all those years ago…”

He owes you far more than can be settled by just a single punch. Not just for his attack or the price to save Tom’s life. Whether or not he married Caroline to spite you is a question that hasn’t been answered yet…

But your fist tightens out of instinct, even as you protest, “Jean, I’m not going to punch you. We’re about to go eat dinner! Not to moment that the second I do, your wife’s gonna hang us out to dry by our toes!”

Jean shakes his head, gripping onto your shoulders tightly. “You don’t understand, Sinleq. I…I haven’t been sleeping well. Not for the last few years. And it’s been gnawing at me. I see how Caroline writes the letters, how Tom’s been asking if you’re coming to visit. Everything that happened since the accident, all the words I said in the hospital…”

You want to scream at him. What the hell is he trying to pull? You aren’t his therapist, or even his goddamned marriage counselor. It’d be a lie to say that you didn’t dream of punching back, but in this kind of situation?

He continues to shake you. “I want to be friends again! Friends on equal footing!”

Choice of words aside, you never stopped being his friend. Even after…what he had done.

“You’re the only one who can knock all this stupid, petty crap out of me!”

…would it kill him to say 'I’m sorry, Sinleq'?

"We can't go back, but I want to move forward."

"You son of a bitch, you fucking bastard! You...what gave you the right?! He's my son! My...my son!"

You swallow hard, taking one long, hard look at the man who's your brother in all but blood.

"You didn't...we would've...why didn't you tell me before you fucking sold yourself, you bastard?!"

>>Will you punch Jean?

>>After your interview with the spooks tomorrow, who did you want to hang out with?
>Gully. She had tickets to the local move theater.
>Holt. She wanted to pay you back with dinner.

>>Please structure your vote as the following.
>Punch vote.
>Date vote.

Don't put your all into it- More of a lovetap, but if it's what he wants for closure...
>Gully. She had tickets to the local move theater.
Our girl is waiting.
>Gully. She had tickets to the local move theater.
>Gully. She had tickets to the local move theater.
>Holt. She wanted to pay you back with dinner.
Put heart into it, an eye for an eye. If you're gonna do it, you gotta do it right.

>Gully. She had tickets to the local move theater.
Im biased and I don't care.

If thats what he wants. But it should sure as fuck be light.
>Gully. She had tickets to the local move theater.
Time to move on, in more ways then one.
More of a pushed fist to the chest, and a smile.
"I never stopped being your friend, Jean. We'll do it after dinner. No reason to act silly in front of Tom and Caroline. And then we'll go get a drink."

It's time to move on Sinleq.
>Holt. She wanted to pay you back with dinner.

Oh, what the hell.

You raise your hand, rearing back. “Clench your teeth, Jean Barbet. This Sinleq Unami’s about to make up for a lack of an iron fist.”

Not for the first time, Jean looks nervous. Instinct compels him to back up…not that he can get more than a handful of steps before his back hits the wall. “I didn’t hit you that hard, did I?”

“You dislocated my jaw and knocked a tooth loose,” you reply flatly.

“…wait, so that crack wasn’t the prosthetic?” He shakes his head. “Damn.”

You aren’t about to hit him with a full-powered haymaker. But you aren’t nearly about to let him off the hook with a slap. For all of his nervous griping, Jean doesn’t attempt to flee. He stands his ground, and braces himself as you raise your fist, re-establish your friendship, and vent a small bit of eleven years’ worth of ill-will.

… … …

… …

Jean opens his eyes to find your fist an inch away from his face.



His head jerks ever-so-slightly as you complete the arc of the punch, and tap him on the cheek with the back of your hand. Hard enough to make him stumble, but not so hard to either leave a bruise or induce a headache.

“We can do it later, you idiot,” you grumble, “Not before dinner, and certainly not in front of Caroline and Tom.”

Jean’s taken aback. God, he looks like an idiot, cradling his cheek as if you’d hit him harder. “Sinleq…”

“A lot of things happened. But in spite of everything you did, I did still think of us as friends.”

Most of everything that he did. The Caroline question will have to be resolved later.

“…c’mon,” you insist, poking him in the chest, “This ain’t you, Jean. We all went through some shit.”

He starts to protest, “But I-”

“You don’t need to say anything. I…get it.”

This is as close to an apology that he’s been offering without saying the words. But he’s still spilling his guts out and seems repentant enough.

You offer a wry grin. “Tell you what. After dinner, we’ll go duke it out somewhere far away. Then grab some drinks to wash it all away.”

Jean smiles. It’s small and fragile, but wholly genuine. “I think I’d like that.”

You shake on it, clasping your hands together. “Let’s grab some chow first.”

“What’s going on after dinner, then?”

You and Jean jump, turning to see that Caroline’s returned to the veranda. She must’ve wondered what the delay was, and came to check. How long she’s been listening…oh dear.

“Oh, no. Please don’t stop on my account,” she insists with a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes, “Pray tell, what exactly did you have in mind to settle your differences?”

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A chill colder than what you’ve felt in the deepest parts of the ocean, or even going up against the Khanate, travels all the way down the length of your spine. And from the way Jean’s face pales, it seems that the feeling’s mutual…

>>Line Break

“…through Christ our Lord, amen,” finishes Caroline.

“Amen,” the rest of the table choruses. But she isn’t done.

“Heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of friendship-”

You and Jean wince.

“-and for the gift of forgiveness and wisdom.”

You cough violently, even as Jean wheezes. Tom looks more confused than anything else, but the seamstress continues on, utterly uninterrupted.

“Please give us the strength and patience to deal with those who would test our limits.”

Just before prayers and intentions becomes a passive-aggressive snipe, Caroline mentions family friends, loved ones and the people of Babylonia. Heathens though some of them are, it is her hope that more of the Flooded World would see the light and walk willingly into the arms of the Church. To be precise, Megiddan Catholicism.

“We also thank you for the safekeeping of Sinleq, and ask for Your intercession for the healing and recovery of all of the Calypso’s injured crew. In Christ, our Lord…”

“…amen,” Tom and Jean finish.

“Amen,” you hastily add. It’s been more than a hot moment since you said grace before eating.

“Mom’s scary tonight,” notes Tom, gnawing on a malformed baby carrot. The boy coughs, shivering as he reaches for another helping of fish.

You chuckle nervously, reaching for the peas. Bad luck that they’re in front of Caroline, who isn’t inclined to pass them to you, and is doing her best to glare holes in you and her husband. “Yeah, well, I don’t know why she is. We didn’t wreck the veranda.”

Jean nods in agreement. “You’ll understand when you grow older, son.”

“I would hope not,” interjects Caroline, cutting into the fish just a tad bit too aggressively. “There’s better ways to resolve issues than by brawling it out.”

Nah, there really aren’t. Money on the ducat that you’d be willing to bet that beating the crap out of each other is a great way to become friends and/or restore them. Failing that, settling differences. You wouldn’t think to call Pierce a friend after the scuffle you had on the Duck, but you’d certainly say that the tab’s been settled.

The Cataclysm might’ve changed a few things, killed a few billion people and blasted civilization back hundreds of years. But that adage about friends becoming closer after beating each other bloody? You’ll vouch for it. That love tap’s already doing wonders.
Tom ponders that, then shrugs, digging into his meal with audible gusto.

“Chew your food!” scolds his mother, briefly directing her ire towards Tom, “No one’s going to take your fish away from you.”

“But, mom, the nanites are hungry!”

“So am I, your father and your uncle, but we aren’t rushing!”

Jean looks up from trying to fit his fork into his prosthetic. You hold your hands in a ‘don’t look at me’ gesture.

“Yeah, but I’m also eating for…” Tom pauses, eyes flicking upward as he runs the math in his head, “…I’m eating for seven thousand nanobots per microliter of blood.”

You can’t help but grin. It seems that Dream-Tom hadn’t been exaggerating the real Tom’s intelligence. It’s certainly a sight to behold.

Caroline, on the other hand, isn’t so nearly amused. “Thomas Godwin-Barbet.”

“…sorry,” he mutters, visibly slowing. Eager to change the subject, he turns to you: “You promised me a story!”

“I did,” you confirm. “What would you like to hear?”

“How’d your PUEXO get damaged? Mom said you were on the Calypso. Did you see anything cool at the bottom of the ocean? What were you trying to salvage?”

You tuck away another generous helping of tilapia before you launch into the story. “So, it all started when I got a letter to transfer…”

Twilight turns to evening. A young boy is regaled with the tales of adventurers and robots venturing into the depths of the ocean to salvage the treasures of the Old World. His parents switch between amused, concerned and horrified as the story takes a turn for the violent with an encounter of marauders and pirates.

For the first time in three years, the fractured unit of Godwin-Barbet-Unami is together once more. And while there are still plenty of cracks that need filling, and issues that need resolving, they vanish by the wayside as four souls enjoy the simple pleasures of good food and drink, and each other’s company.

>>The following day…
>>Berth No. 13, Braken Plaza, Dockside District, Free-City of Babylonia

The spooks aren’t dressed in black suits like the intelligence agencies of the Old World. Not in this heat, and not this close to the equator. But they still wear the dark sunglasses and the sleeveless vests with the yellow lettering above plainclothes and visible sidearms.

OBI – Office of Babylonian Intelligence. Or ‘Obbies’, as the shorthand slang (slur) muttered under breath.

The crew of the Calypso gives them as wide a berth as possible as they meander up off the docks, and onto the deck of the ship. Two men and a woman, each carrying steel briefcases. Their leader, a man identifiable with a white badge on his shirt, exchanges words with Elishani and Geary. Then, they turn to you and Gully.

“The gentlemen and lady will be speaking to you now,” the captain says. “The stateroom’s been reserved for the debriefing.”

“Not for the pilots,” their leader interjects smoothly. His voice isn’t as oily as you thought, but it’s full of the sort of conceitedness that comes with being a government agent. “We’ll be needing the PUEXO bays. For this, we’ll need their HOPI’s to be debriefed as well.”

Elishani frowns, but Geary’s the one who protests, “We turned over all of the black box data for both Unami’s Magellan and Gully’s Caprica.”

“Aye, but the Office wants to be as thorough as possible.”

You and Gully exchange looks.

The OBI leader gestures towards the aft deck, clearing his throat. “If you would.”

Elishani and Geary issue an order cordoning off the aft deck. Holt raises a little hell, citing ongoing repairs, but the chief’s ultimately overruled, much to her displeasure. Tense as whippets, you and Gully lead the OBI agents to your PUEXO bays. By the time you enter, the PUEXMechs are already gone, leaving only the PUEXOs, their pilots and the spooks in question.

The female agent opens her briefcase, unboxing a series of recorders – analog tape, digital microphones. These are laid out on a table – one for the OBI agents, two for you and Gully. The PUEXOs themselves have loud enough external speakers that they don’t need to bother.

“This is Agent Spears,” says the leader, “And Agents Harlow and Mullaney. On this day, July 19th, 76 AC, at approximately 9:13 AM, we are conducting the debriefing of the PUEXO pilots attached to the salvage trawler Calypso.

“Pilots, if you would state your names, serials and callsigns for the record, please.”

“Sinleq Unami,” you answer easily enough, “Callsign ‘Razor’. Serial number 22A-44.”

Gully has a harder time. She has a look of frustration, almost outrage as all of the agents turn to her with expectant looks at her defiant silence. But she loses the waiting game, cursing under her breath as she grounds out: “Yohana Elishani, callsign ‘Gully’. Serial number 32D-11.”

You stare at her, trying to reconcile that name with the woman adjacent to you. It…doesn’t fit immediately. And from the way she’s bristling, it isn’t a name that she’s too keen on either. Or maybe she’s just too used to her callsign.

Either way, it seems like a sore subject. Unless you’re told otherwise by the woman herself, you’ll stick to Gully.

“Thank you,” says Spears as if she hadn’t tried to glare a hole in his chest. “Now, if you could describe to me the events leading up to the skirmish above Kingston…”

The debriefing lasts for the better part of the morning, and a little past noon. You and Gully give a joint testimonial of what had happened from your perspectives. The days leading up to the dive are glossed over relatively quickly – the spooks aren’t that anal retentive to know what you did at every given minute at any given day.

Then comes the dive itself. That’s when they want to know everything, right down to what you picked up from the Caribbean Courier. But a bulk of the attention is given to Gully’s side of the story – her entry into the command compartment of the Olympia, the discovery of the black box and transponder, and her desperate flight as the reactor went critical.

“An awfully close call, Elishani,” Harlow remarks. Spears’ brunette assistant jots down something in his notes, then takes a look at the Caprica. Gully’s PUEXO isn’t nearly as mangled as it had been, but it’s still got a week’s worth of work before she’s seaworthy once more. “Just a few seconds too late…”

Gully’s face betrays nothing, but you can see the color of her knuckles turn white as her grip tightens. “Where have you taken the ship’s core?”

He and Mullaney exchange looks with Spears. Their leader nods slightly, prompting the recordist to answer: “The Olympia’s computer is in safe hands at the NIS, held in joint custody between the Salvage Guild and the OBI. If anyone can extract data out of that waterlogged bit of hardware, then it’s them.”

The Nabu Institute of Science. A catch-all term for the collection of universities and research centers dedicated to both rediscovering the technologies of the Old World and advancing it as best they can. Nobody’s expecting them to build spaceships or reverse the Flooded World, but their work can be keenly felt and seen in day-to-day living. One need not look any further than your PUEXOs.

But Gully isn’t done. “And when can I get a copy of the data?”

“We’ll forward them a request,” assures Spears, “But is there anything in particular you’re looking for?”

“…crew manifesto.”

“And why’s that?”

“…to see whether or not I was aboard the Olympia when it was shot out of the sky.”

She doesn’t answer, crossing her arms sternly. When it’s clear that she won’t budge, the agents merely sigh, and move on with the debriefing.

The extent of the spooks’ interest in you is largely focused on the people you killed. Though they do grill you about the Teeth more than the Khanate. Spears expresses regret that the opportunity hadn’t arisen to take any of them prisoner. To which you flatly counter that even if you hadn’t killed them, the shockwave of the nuke would’ve turned them into jelly in their own suits.

“What about the boy we picked up?” you interject, “The Khanate kid. Gren.”

Spears shuffles his papers, clicking his notepad with the back of his pen. “He’s been taken into custody, pending a trial for his part in the attack.”

How forthcoming of a spook. Since he's so open, you go for the tough question. “You aren’t gonna kill him, are you?”

“That depends on whether or not he’s more useful alive than dead.” He pauses, giving you a look. “And I’m only telling you this because you took the lad prisoner. His case is being handled by top men, Unami.”

You release a breath that you didn’t realize you were holding.

“You’re worried about him?” asks Gully with genuine surprise.

Likewise, you hold your silence, crossing your arms and staring off at a distant point in space.

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But the debriefing ends soon enough. The HOPIs of both pilots give and corroborate their testimonies, and the spooks are all too eager to pick apart the A.I.’s for any sort of discrepancy. They find none, much to at least Mullaney’s disappointment.

“We’ll be in touch if we need anything else,” Spears says with a sniff of finality as his goons pack up their equipment. “Unami, Elishani.”

You nod curtly. Gully doesn’t even bother. And the two of you remain standing, even as they shuffle off and out of the hangar. Neither of you sit back down until you hear the boatswain’s whistle, signaling their departure off the Calypso.

“…that went well,” you say dryly.

Your compatriot grunts wordlessly, arms crossed and her features pinched tight. She’s still angry. Whether or not it’s from stonewalling her the crew manifesto, the revelation of her name…maybe a combination both.

You scratch the back of your head. In truth, you hadn’t been planning on using it as a crutch to get her out of this funk. Just a happy side-effect of an already pre-determined event. “Hey, Gully? Remember what you and I talked about yesterday…”

>>An hour later…
>>Méliès Community Theater, Upper Garden, Dockside District

“Two for the Maltese Falcon,” Gully says, flashing her silver pass at the booth. They’re accepted with a wordless nod, punched and returned to her with tickets. Then she turns to you, pointing at the billboard. “Your turn to pick, Unami.”

You blink, surprised. “We’re using all of the punches today?”

“I didn’t plan on it originally. But after that shitshow with the spooks…” Her voice trails off, and she clicks her tongue in annoyance. “…besides, push comes to shove, we can just pay for tickets later down the week.”

True enough. Although…while it isn’t like you had anything else planned for the day, three movies back-to-back…it’s quite the time sink. Looks like you’ll be getting out of Upper Garden just around sundown, if not a little later.

“Do they have anything more substantial than popcorn,” you ask, squinting at the billboard. “Since we didn’t get lunch?”

Gully cracks a smile. The first she’s had since the debriefing and your departure from the Calypso. “There’s a little sandwich shop down the street. Go pick your films and we’ll go grab a bite.”

Checking a nearby clock, you frown. “There won’t be enough time to eat. By the time we get our food, the Falcon’s already started.”

“PUEXO pilots get to bring their own food from the outside. Same goes for roughnecks.”

How awfully generous of the theater!

>>Please select two(2) movies you'd like to see with Gully:
>Dr. Strangelove (1964), a black comedy.
>Frankenstein (1931), a sci-fi horror.
>The Lady Eve (1941), a screwball romcom.
>Metropolis (1927), an expressionist sci-fi.
>Seven Samurai (1954), an epic samurai drama.

>The Lady Eve
>>Frankenstein (1931), a sci-fi horror.
>Seven Samurai (1954), an epic samurai drama.
>>Dr. Strangelove (1964), a black comedy.

>>Seven Samurai (1954), an epic samurai drama.
>>Dr. Strangelove (1964), a black comedy.

>>Seven Samurai (1954), an epic samurai drama.
>>Dr. Strangelove (1964), a black comedy.
>Seven Samurai (1954), an epic samurai drama.
>Dr. Strangelove (1964), a black comed
>Seven Samurai (1954), an epic samurai drama.
>Metropolis (1927), an expressionist sci-fi.
>The Lady Eve (1941), a screwball romcom.
>Dr. Strangelove (1964), a black comedy.
>Seven Samurai (1954), an epic samurai drama.

Any chance they’ve got Sorcerer (1977) in their roster, or will we have to search for a copy for them?
>>Dr. Strangelove (1964), a black comedy.
>>Seven Samurai (1954), an epic samurai drama.
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Anything saved within the National Film Registry, Criterion Collection and other prestigious film preservation organizations/societies largely survived the Cataclysm. But largely, as a whole, most of the Old World's cinema has been lost to the Cataclysm, specifically the EMP waves that destroyed server rooms and digital archives.

Last thread, Sinleq mentioned that some of the adaptations of Charles Dickens' novels survived on a flash drive, and Gully remarked how she saw the Hornblower TV show off a Terran Union merchant's datapad. Beyond critically preserved films, a film survives the Cataclysm based on how well its media storage was protected. Ironically, cult films like the "Sorcerer (1977)" had as good a chance of surviving as their critically acclaimed counterparts due to the dedicated fanbase it might have, preserving copies on hundreds of thousands of storage media.

But then the problem isn't as much selecting films to screen as much as whether or not a city has the means to screen them. Physical, cellulose reels of film at this point in time have melted or degraded into dust. DVDs/Blu-Rays are more than likely found with cracks or scratches. Films preserved on salvaged smartphones and tablets aren't easy to extract without certain software and are at risk of being corrupted via a botched recovery. Projectors - digital and traditional alike - were cannibalized for spare parts during the 'Mad Max'-esque era of the Dark Winter.

The Méliès Theater in Upper Garden is notable for having ten theaters with digital projectors, although they originally started with sixteen at the city's founding. The projectors themselves are an irreplicable technology, as the parts to keep them running haven't been made in a hundred years. When one breaks down, it's considered a terrible tragedy. Projector operators are almost a cult in of themselves in how they zealously protect them and refuse to let anyone that isn't part of their inner circle into the booths.

Searching for a copy of a particular film that the theater doesn't have would likely require venturing out of Babylonia. Contemporary cargo ships have dedicated 'movie lockers' with hundreds of DVDs. Depending on how they sank, there might be air pockets where the lockers haven't been touched, and a pristine collection of movies would be Sinleq's and/or Gully's for the taking and enjoyment if they've got a player. Otherwise, one would have to go to the Terran Union Remnant to barter and haggle, as they've got the second densest collection of Old World technology in their territory, right after Babylonia, even though the Khanate that usurped them made off with the hardware in the vaults and caches of Mount Everest.

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>>You have gained Gully points!

Gully’s mouth curls into a teasing grin as you hand her the tickets. “Kubrick and Kurosawa.”
You shrug. “Something, something PUEXO pilots and cerebral films. But I can’t say I’ve seen the Maltese Falcon. What’s it about?”

“That would be spoilers,” she admonishes, guiding the two of you to the sandwich shop. “But I can tell you that it’s based off a novel.”

“I don’t think book club ever got to it.”

“I’ll loan you the novel. It’s sitting on my desk back on the Calypso.”

“Consider it added onto the docket.”

She nods, pleased, then adopts a pensive expression as you queue up in the line. “So have you seen either of the films you picked.”

“Just Strangelove. But I know that Seven Samurai was the inspiration for a lot of Eastwood’s spaghetti cowboy flicks.”

“As well as much of contemporary Western cinema at the time.” Gully looks up towards a sign advertising tuna melts. “But what made you choose Strangelove?

“After the SNAFU with the OBI, I’m more than in the mood for a film that takes the piss out of them.”
That gets a laugh out of her, a warm, throaty and feminine noise. “Were there actually any spies in that film? There were more soldiers and generals, I think.”

“Spies, government spooks, kooky generals…” You grin. “Same difference, really.”

>>The Maltese Falcon (1941)

“We didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy. We believed your $200.”

The Maltese Falcon turns out to be a noir film, right out of that era of whiskey on the rocks, smoke jackets, the Mid-Atlantic accent, and hardboiled detectives taking on cases because of imminent rent. Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, the archetype for the detached private eye, rakish but hellbent on the pursuit of truth and justice. His counterpart is one Mary Astor, playing the role of femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

“I tell you right out that I’m a man who talking to a man who likes to talk.”

The titular bird in question is a gem-encrusted sculpture, made of gold and gems and intended as a gift to the King of Spain by the Knights of Malta. Lost to the ages by a pirate attack, it has been the dream of many a treasure hunter. Happenstance that for Spade, it surfaces in San Francisco, where the chase for it claims the life of his partner.

“I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, then it’s possible to get another. There is only one Maltese Falcon.”

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It’s a thriller from start to finish, one that has you on the edge of your seat. For a film that largely takes place indoors, the dialogue is witty, and the tension as taut as a mooring line. Even Gully, who’s already seen it, is similarly enthralled at the spectacle, breaking eye contact with the screen to grab more popcorn out of a shared bucket. She certainly picked a movie that you both would enjoy.

“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him, he was your partner, and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

The ending is typical of its time, but not one that’s cliché or otherwise predictable. There are genuine heartfelt moments where the film escapes the detective drama, calling into question the nature of humanity. Spade waxes philosophical on the Falcon, the source of all the death and bloodshed and heartbreak – the stuff that dreams are made of.

…dreams. Insubstantial, fleeting things that all too quickly disappear and slip out of grasp upon awakening.

A dream where Caroline Godwin was your wife, not Jean’s.

A dream where Tom was your son, not just your nephew and godchild.

A dream where the boy hadn’t suffered an accident that very well near killed him.

A dream where you, Jean and Caroline could simply live out the rest of your lives in that idyllic, status quo of eternal friendship.

A dream…

…a dream.

Dreams that those would be, and would continue to be no matter how hard you pursued them. Ephemeral things that could never be accomplished in this real and Flooded World.

You clear your throat with a sip of your soda, masking the harsh cough and the swallowing of a heavy lump in your throat. As the lights come back on, and the audience gives an applause, you turn to Gully. But any compliment for her taste in movies dies on your lips as she stares, misty-eyed and wistful at the screen where the Falcon had disappeared.

A mirror of your own gaze.

The look of a dreamer chasing her own fleeting dream.

>>Dr. Strangelove (1964)

A quick break to freshen up, emotionally re-center and replenish your snacks finds you and Gully heading to a different room in the theater. Both of you hold your silence, settling in with as little noise and talk as possible. Perhaps inadvertently and definitely unintentionally, the Maltese Falcon hit a little too close to home.

“I can no longer sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion, and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

But heavy as it had been, it isn’t enough to detract both of you away from the silver screen. If nothing else, that would have been an awful note to end a relaxing outing with. At the very least, you’ll sit through one of Kubrick’s lighter films. Although that’s saying quite a lot about the man, given his filmography.

“You would have never have found him through his office, Mr. President. Our Premier is a man of the people, but he is also a man if you follow my meaning.”

One might argue that the Flooded World is in a Cold War, not unlike the countries in the film. The Toghril Khanate and its conquered territories are no different than the Soviet Union. Against them stands the Megiddan Empire and her allies – Babylonia, the Galapagan Commonwealth, the Andean Freeholds, and many more island-nations – the NATO. All the more poignant given how the Empire is built upon the ruins of North America’s western coast.

“Gentleman, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room!”

Not that anyone’s about to launch nukes at each other. If they hadn’t been destroyed during the Cataclysm, what few remaining ICBMs would’ve had their fissile materials converted into reactors. Earth is already bad enough of a mess without the additional complication of a nuclear winter. Besides, railguns and kinetic artillery did just as much damage without the fallout.

“Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!”

But you’re here to watch a film, not reminisce, compare and contrast the Old World with the current geopolitical situation of the Flooded World. You and Gully are here to enjoy the film, and maybe enjoy a laugh at the expense of the OBI. But the best part? Even without the spooks ruining your morning, the film is still funny. Ripper ranting about “fluoridation” nearly makes you bust a gut, and Gully wheeze into her soft drink.

“Okay, I’ll get your money for you. But if you don’t get the president on the phone, you know what’s gonna happen to you? You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company!”

The tipping point for the hilarity comes at the climax. Slim Pickens screaming joyously like a madman and waving his hat as he rides an atomic bomb to his death, comes close. Somehow, you both manage to hold it in until the very end, when the titular Doctor Strangelove stumbles out of his wheelchair.

“Sir, I have a plan…MEIN FURHER! I CAN WALK!”

The tension snaps like a violin string, and the nearest viewers aren’t so keen as you and Gully both burst into raucous laughter. Pounding your seats, armrests and howling with unrestrained hilarity as Kubrick’s satire of the Cold War comes to an explosive end. The dulcet tones of Vera Lynn serenade the detonation of nuclear bombs across the world as the credits roll, bearing the names of men and women a world away, long since dead by over four hundred years.

>>Seven Samurai (1954)

“Find hungry samurai. Even bears come down from the mountains when they’re hungry.”

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Seven Samurai. Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece of cinema. The inspiration behind a generation of filmmakers, dozens of spaghetti westerns, and the codifier of “assembling the team”. In addition to all of those things, Gully also insists that the film popularized fighting in the rain, but you haven’t seen enough to contest her on that point. You’ll readily agree with everything else, though.

“I may look like hell, but I’m a real samurai! I’ve been looking for you ever since that day. Wanted you to see this. Look at this! This is my family tree. All my ancestors are here. Damn you, trying to make a fool out of me. Screw you.”

The story starts simple enough. A village of farmers preyed upon by bandits wishes to hire samurai to defend them. An old ronin is the sole warrior to answer their call for aid, but soon accumulates a cadre of warriors, even a disciple. Toshiro Mifune, playing the wild Kikuchiyo, makes the seventh and unlikely samurai. From there, they journey to the village in order to train the locals and fortify the village against the bandits’ attack.

“Cut if off! It’s only because I love you. No telling what those samurai’ll do!”

But beneath the veneer of an action movie is a parable of class difference. It hides it well, and kudos for Kurosawa to not otherwise shove it down your throats. Noble as the samurai are, there is still an underlying tension between them and the farmers they’re sworn to protect. Perhaps the only difference between a bandit and a samurai is that the latter has a pedigree to justify his debauchery against the lower castes.

“They kowtow and lie, playing innocent the whole time. You name something, and they’ll cheat on it! After a battle, they hunt down the losers with their spears! Farmers are misers, weasels and crybabies! They’re mean, stupid murderers! But tell me this: who made them into monsters? You did! You samurai did! In war, you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women and kill ‘em if they resist! What do you expect ‘em to do? What the hell are farmers supposed to do?!”

It’s surprisingly sober, and translates beyond the time and place that the film is set in. Not even the end of the world could completely eradicate the difference in class. If anything, it’s only served to reinforce and set them in stone. The disparity can be keenly felt just by traveling from one ring to another.

“Is that clear? This is the nature of war: by protecting others, you save yourself. If you think only of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself. From this day forward, anyone caught doing that…”

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But the film doesn’t let itself stew for too long. Prior to the intermission that sees you and Gully grabbing a fourth bucket of popcorn, the movie takes on an uplifting tone as the samurai and peasants bridge their differences. The six accept Kikuchiyo as one of their own. The harvest proceeds without interruption. Romance blossoms between a samurai and a farmer’s daughter.

“Hey, lend me your scythe! I’ll cut three times your share. In return, we’ll get nice and friendly, eh?”

Arguably, despite not being the main character, Mifune steals the show, playing excellently against the straight man of Kambei, Takashi Shimura’s character and leader of the seven. Two very different men from very different paths of life, whose paths have intersected with one another in the pursuit of a common goal. Justice for the farmers? Vengeance against the bandits?

“Raise your spears and give the battle cry!”

The film ends on a bittersweet note. Of the seven, only three remain, standing over the graves of their comrades. But life in the village flourishes once more, as the farmers sing songs while planting their paddies. Two lovers, divided by societal differences, each at their own place – the future of their relationship uncertain, or perhaps over now that the crisis has ended.

“In the end, we lost this battle too. I mean, the victory belongs to the peasants, not to us.”

There isn’t a single person in the audience who isn’t visibly moved by the ending. And that’s a surprise, as most of the viewers are young men, presumably drawn for the action and adventure. You yourself, a man of almost thirty-seven years, are similarly touched. It had been real.

The struggle of the seven, the plight of the farmers…in that span of three hours, you felt as if you had been a part of the band itself.

And from how Gully’s wiping her eyes with the corner of her sleeve, she feels the same way.

By the time you exit the theater and throw away your refreshments, night’s fallen over Babylonia. It isn’t too late – the faintest hint of the sun can be seen, peeking out over the tops of Bracken Plaza. Regrettably, the sandwich shop outside the theater is closed, but there’s a nearby stand that sells chicken skewers, among other street confections.

“How long were we in there?” you say past your third skewer.

“Just a little over six hours,” answers Gully. She frowns as a dallop of sauce lands on her hand, then licks it without a care in the world. “Not that I’m complaining. You picked good movies.”

“So you feeling better?” When she gives you a questioning, you clarify, “About the OBI, Gully.”

Her face twitches in annoyance at the mention of the spooks. But she grins back. “I…actually am. Thanks for asking.”

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“Glad to hear it.” Finishing the last of your skewers, you yawn, stretching out the cricks and knots accumulated from three consecutive movies. “What a day! What a day. Let’s walk all the food off back to the Calypso. HOPI isn’t gonna like it if I can’t fit into the cockpit.”

>>Checking for Gully points…
>>You have accumulated enough Gully points!

But just as you push off the wall and start to move, Gully stops you. Again, no differently than her first invitation, with a nervous bite of her lip. “Actually, if you’re still up for something else…I know somewhere we could go.”
You say nothing when she leads you out of Upper Garden, back into the industrial sprawl of Foggy Bottom. Passing through the apartment complexes, the checkpoint and the bustling crowds, you reach the industrial district within a handful of minutes.

You do, however, raise an eyebrow, then level a concerned look as she waltzes through an empty construction site at the base of one of the district walls. When you hesitate, she motions for you to follow, holding up the yellow CAUTION tape to let you in.

“C’mon!” she insists. “We’re almost there.”

“There” turns out to be one of the myriad towers along the Outer Ring, assessable via a maintenance lift for construction workers and foremen. It’s a tall structure, easily thirteen stories high above the rest of Foggy Bottom. There isn’t anyone stopping you, let along a single patrolman making the rounds. And from the way that she’s moving, this is something that Gully’s done before.

“Are we supposed to be here?” you ask nervously.

“Not really, no,” she admits candidly. The pilot reaches for her bag, revealing the leather container holding her Polaroid. “But it’s the highest point in the Outer Ring that gets me a view of the entire city.”

You have to admit that it is an impressive view, if somewhat vertigo-inducing. It’s…an awfully long way down. So until you get your bearings, you’re gonna stay away from the railing as much as possible.

She tilts her head. “Are you scared of heights?”

“Nah, it’s…odd, is all,” you assure her, gazing just beyond her shoulder to the vista of the city. “…I’m just used to being at or below sea level. Feels weird being up this high.”

“You’ll get used to it,” she reassures you with a smile. Nervous and anxious, but a smile nonetheless. “I hope you like it. Don’t tell the foreman, but it’s my favorite place in Babylonia aside from the Calypso.”

…you can certainly see why. It’s the perfect vantage point for picture-taking. And with the way the city lights up at night, you think she won’t need to use any flash. The entirety of Babylonia generates enough light to be seen for miles outside the city.

“Yeah, no…” you reply, “I…I never really looked at Babylonia like this before. Could use a beer or two, maybe a grill and a table for eating, but it's a great view.”

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Pleased, Gully hums to herself as she takes stock of the tower, frowning at light fixtures and debris scattered across the floor. “A good photographer lets nothing stand in her way for the perfect shot.”

Port authority might disagree with that, but bully to them. She’s a PUEXO pilot. Eccentricities are to be expected and accommodated for the work you do. Besides trespassing for the sake of a good photo is mostly harmless.

“So we’re just gonna snap some pictures?”

“Mhmm. But in all honesty…” Gully clasps the railing, looking over her shoulder across the lagoon, beyond Ishtar Bay towards the distant horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. Her gaze is wistful, longing and so far away from here. “…I promised you an answer for why I wanted the crew manifest. Back when we had to go rescue the Mackerel.”

That she did. Her response of wanting to know whether or not she had been on the Olympia had been burning a hole in your pocket. That’s certainly a strange claim to make, and one that you’d really appreciate an explanation for. Claiming to be a passenger aboard the Exodus Fleet is certainly one for the books.

Gully turns back to you, resting her back against the parapet. “Twenty three years ago, before they emigrated to Babylonia, Rashid Elishani and Morgan Geary were officers in the Megiddan navy, fishermen when they were on half-pay. During a rare peace, they chartered a boat to hunt for shrimp, squid and whatever fish they could find in the Appalachian Sea. Just the two of them – they were skilled enough to do it.”

That explains much about Elishani. Same thing with Geary. But that definitely clears up the strange accents they have. Megiddan expats. Not unusual, yet there’s a saying about how nobody leaves paradise for all the Empire touts itself to be the safest place on Earth. Let alone its officers.

But you stay quiet. Gully’s words become slower, even as you get the feeling that she’s unburdening herself of a great secret. “They found what they were looking for. Plenty of fish, plenty of shrimp. But one day, after a squall that nearly capsized their boat, they stumbled upon something unusual floating above the water.”

“What was it?” you ask softly, intrigued and eager for an answer.

“A…pod,” she answers just as quietly, just as uncertainly, “…an escape pod from a spaceship, but they only recognized it after a closer look. Floating there on the water without a care in the world. And no answer as to how it got there."

You draw a sharp hiss of breath.

“Inside, they found a girl.” Gully's smile is uncertain, wobbly with emotion. “A little toddler swaddled in a white blanket, embroidered with the emblem of the Terran Union. But beyond that…nothing else. The onboard computer was fried, the systems controlling cryo were a week away from failing. There was nothing, not a name for the girl or anything else, save for a serial lasered against the hull – RV-171.”

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A chill goes down your spine. Putting two and two together isn’t that hard. And from the look of understanding in her eyes, Gully doesn’t need to tell you who the girl is.

“…you were aboard the Exodus Fleet?” you ask. From how Gully winces, it comes out harsher than you’d like. “Or…they’ve somehow come back without us knowing!”

“…I don’t know,” she answers uncertainly, “I can’t say anything about the Fleet. I can only speak for myself. And all evidence points to the fact that I was likely aboard a spaceship of some sort.”

Gully’s desperation to save the Olympia’s computer takes on a frighting amount of clarity. But there’s still a few things that don’t add up.

Cryo pods do a good enough job of keeping people alive en route to the Alcubierre Gate. No point in staying awake when you could just suck on a tube full of nutripaste and sit on ice for the month-long journey to Alpha Centauri. Or otherwise preserving their vital functions at minimal power in the event of an emergency.

You stare at Gully. “But if you were on the Fleet, that would’ve been…”

“Seventy-six years ago,” she confirms, “Just after the Cataclysm.”

A sense of vertigo suddenly overtakes you that has nothing to do with the height above the city. You don’t fall, but you do collapse heavily into a nearby chair. “Wow, that’s…God. Gully, I don’t what to say.”

Your fellow pilot regards you with a sad smile. “You don’t need to say anything, Unami.”

Well too bad, because you aren’t nearly finished yet. “Why are you telling me this?”

Gully shifts against the parapet. “Because you deserve to know. You saved me and the computer core after the Olympia exploded. I…thought it only fair for you to know why I risked so much for the manifesto.”

You nod, blearily. “…oh, uh. I’m flattered.”

Of course, the implication is that you’ll keep this a very close secret. Not that you’ll be blabbering about it. Who’d believe you anyway?

There’s a beat of silence as you take a moment to reorient yourself. “…so, does anyone else know about this? About your…uh, pod. And past?”

“Only my adoptive parents, and Geary, as he was there when I was discovered. You would make the fourth to have the full story.”

What an interesting circle you’ve gotten yourself involved with. Now that your breathing’s evened out a bit, you grouse, “So…if you don’t mind me extrapolating…Elishani and Geary didn’t tell the Empire about who and what they brought in with the shrimp.”

“They should’ve, but they didn’t.” Gully’s smile is warm and soft. “He adopted me as his daughter. He and my mother were…unable to have children of their own. My discovery was, in their eyes, God’s gift to them. That’s what my real name means, and one I only answer to them in private.”


No wonder she was angry at the spooks for demanding her name for the debriefing.

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She shakes her head ruefully, a bitter laugh escaping her throat. “But that’s not my real name. Just as ‘Gully’ is only a callsign. It’s somewhere out there, Unami. Either above or below the water. Who I am. Where I came from. Why I was set adrift at sea in an escape pod meant for spaceships…”

There’s a noise as her head slams against the back of the fence. “I know I’m venting, but the Olympia’s manifest is the closest I’ve been in years. Even if I don’t show up on there…it’s one less possibility for me to worry about.”

“How’d you know if you were on it, anyway?” you ask, curious.

“Old World commercial liners have photos that accompany the names in their passenger list. Providing that the data isn’t corrupted…” There isn’t any wood nearby, so Gully’s forced to knock on the brick and stonework of the tower. “…I should be able to match them all against my face.”

Photos. Privately, you wonder if her fixation with her camera is tied into the search for her identity. But from what you've been able to see, she rarely makes an appearance in her own collection. Even in the cockpit, the only time she's in frame is with her father, Captain Elishani.

But it'd be rude to psycho-analyze a clearly distressed young woman. Thus, you frown and reply: “Those ships easily held hundreds, if not thousands of passengers. They probably crammed as many as could pay even into the cargo hold. Sorting out through everyone would take weeks.”

“I’ll have my HOPI helping me,” she assures you, just a tad too aggressively. “He’s done it before. All we have to do is wait for the OBI to get the data back to me…”

And that might take longer than normal salvage. You’d bet at least two brands’ worth of debt that the spooks are gonna go over everything, byte-by-byte. Even as they aren’t pressed for too much time to do a rush job, all it’d do is make Gully anxious and stir-crazy. And that's in spite of the fact that she's got the best claim via the rights of the Salvage Guild.

But she sighs, rubbing the back of her head where her head hit the fence. “…dammit. I know that we’re trying to relax after…everything. And we had a good time at the theater, didn’t we? I didn’t want to end the night like this, but I just…I had to tell you. What you, I, the Mackerel and the Calypso nearly got killed over…”

Gully laughs, uncharacteristic in both the action and how bleak her voice is. “I’m sorry, Una…Sinleq,” she hastily corrects herself. “…I’m not too good at talking about these things. Even with Geary, or my parents. The last few days've just been awful at keeping this all...compartmentalized.”

>>How will you respond?
>“I sold myself for the sake of a married woman.” (Share your own past)
>“The Teeth were responsible for the reactor. Not you.” (Re-assess the blame)
>Custom Option. [Write-in]

Apologies for the delay. The update was big and I had to move back home after the semester finished. Updates are gonna be sporadic after the 7th due to family vacation, but I'll be updating as best I can while abroad.

And in a mad fit of inspiration, I sketched out a motif on the piano for Gully. Subject to change, but I think still a decent enough listen.

>Custom Option. [Write-in]
>Smile softly
God has a plan for us all. Have you accepted Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ into your heart?
>“I sold myself for the sake of a married woman.” (Share your own past)
Feels right to admit it to someone, like he's finally getting over it.
>>“I sold myself for the sake of a married woman.” (Share your own past)
She bared her soul. Only fair we do the same.
>“I sold myself for the sake of a married woman.” (Share your own past)
That's not fully true. We also sold ourselves for our love of Tom.
>“I sold myself for the sake of a married woman.” (Share your own past)
>“I sold myself for the sake of a married woman.” (Share your own past)
Don't patronize her. Assure her that she's not alone with painful memories.
>>“I sold myself for the sake of a married woman.”
>“I sold myself for the sake of a married woman.” (Share your own past)
But please do not say it so directly, actually tell the whole story just like she did. Start from the beginning then let the listener connect the dots for the big reveal at the end.
>The Teeth were responsible for the reactor. Not you.” (Re-assess the blame)
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“I sold myself into slavery for the sake of a married woman.”

Gully nearly stumbles. She catches herself just at the last second, staring at you as if you’d grown an extra head. “What?”

You give a self-depreciating smile. There’s bitterness in it, but it’s more rueful than it’s ever been in the last thirteen years. The weight on your shoulders is light, almost completely gone. Somehow. “Well, the main reason was my godson’s medical treatment. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that his mom wasn’t a driving factor.”

Somehow, the look on her face becomes even more incredulous. But the best part? It’s snapped her out of her funk with how much it isn’t a non-sequitur to her confession. She shared her past. It’s only fair that you share yours as well.

And beyond Stolze, smug prick as he is, there’d be at least another person who knows that your act went beyond paternal affection for Tom. Or at least was another driving reason behind it.

“But I’ll get serious.” You shift in your seat, settling into a more comfortable position. As the sun disappears, and the sky opens to a sea of stars, a story gathers on the tip of your tongue. “Why don’t you pull up a seat, Gully? Wouldn’t want you standing on my account.”

She does so, grabbing a nearby stool with an intense frown of concentration. “Your godson?”

“One thing at a time, but…yeah. My godson.”

The sun disappears well over Bracken Plaza, the edge of the island and the very horizon itself as you begin to share your story. “About twenty years ago, a born-and-raised youth of Babylonia took the MCAT and got accepted into the city’s engineering program. His roommate at the time was a young man named Jean Barbet. They would become best friends, and the two rising stars of the program.”

Gully quirks a faint smile. “Referring to yourself in the third person?”

If you roll your eyes any harder, they’d have fallen out of your skull. “Who said it was me? Besides, you did it during your story.”

“Not for too long.”

That gets a genuine laugh out of you. “Fine, fine, that’s fair enough.”

Twilight cedes to night as you sketch out the years of your youth. Three years of apprenticeship, three more of semi-independent journeymen working on behalf of the school and guild. And while you aren’t one to toot your own horn, you’d be underselling how good the both of you were. Projects came and went, designs drafted and ratified – most of the students get hired out of the program, but the two of you could’ve had any pick of jobs.

“Caroline…” you pause, struggling to find the right words. It’s…difficult. Describing her in a way that doesn’t come off as obsessive. “Have you ever been in love, Gully?”

“…no,” she says, and with deliberate consideration. Her eyes are narrow, but her tone is light. “I can’t say I have.”

You laugh. “…I’m not one for ‘love at first sight’, but Caroline…she came close. Jean and I met her as students – her father’s the purser for the school, and we went to his house to fix his aircon unit. During our apprenticeship, the unit would keep breaking, and we’d get sent back to repair it. It didn’t take too long for all of us to become friends.”

A friendship that had lasted for six years. An unspoken status quo that the three of you would never disturb, three young people content to enjoy themselves, even though you wished for something more.

“But why didn’t you say anything?” Gully blinks, as if surprised by the loudness of her outburst. Coughing to recompose herself, she continues softly, “…why didn’t you just go after her?”

Because you’re a coward scared of ruining what you have. Too chickenshit to disrupt the status quo and potentially burn a perfectly good friendship.

“…I guess I wasn’t ready to start a family or propose,” you exhale slowly. “Money was tight, even with a stipend from the school. It wasn’t a good time, as we were in the middle of transitioning from apprentices to journeymen.”

But the status quo had lasted. Up until the end of your journeyman career, when you and Jean applied to both be PUEXO pilots, and underwent the grueling training that came with it as a screening. A month later, after a grueling examination, everything was changed forever when two letters came in the mail at the flat you and Jean had rented.

“I received a letter of my acceptance into the PUEXO Program,” you say lightly.

Gully’s eyes widen, interjecting: “And Jean didn’t.”

“Got it in one. He was happy for me though – you and I both know how hard it is to get in, let alone the training that comes with it. But I…” You pause, exhaling roughly. “…I wasn’t blind to the envy that he felt. Or the resentment, no matter how hard he tried to hide it.”

You take a deep, shuddering breath. “I left for Abnar Island, along with the rest of the pilots who passed. Then it was just two of our little friend group left alone in Babylonia. I was…naïve in hoping that everything would’ve stayed the same when I got back-”

Gully’s sharp. She puts it together quicker than you had her own story, and this time, she doesn’t bother checking herself. Her voice is angry, full of disgust on your behalf: “So he went after Caroline just to spite you.”

…at one point, you think he might have. But Caroline truly loves Jean as a woman does a man, and it isn’t just a one-way street. Even now with their emotional separation, you can see that Jean’s trying his best to be a good husband for her, and a good father for Tom. All the while struggling with depression.

“…what’s done is done,” you say with a slight edge, “And…I’m mostly over it. Whether or not that’s the main reason is irrelevant. They get married, I was asked to be the best man. Two years later, Tom’s born, and I’m asked to be the boy’s godfather.”

The incredulous look she gives you all but questions your sanity. “And you said ‘yes’ to both?”

“…I was in a weird point in my life, Gully. Roughly around your age, I was still trying to figure stuff out and get my shit together.”

She makes a face at that. “Screw you, I’m twenty-six!”

Hah. You were twenty-five when Tom was born. If anything, that fact combined with her obsession with her past only cements your point about that age range. So full of confusion and uncertainty.

But you shake your head. “Everything was…fine. I was the extended family friend who became an honorary uncle. I tried…seeing other people. Over eight years, the longest I ever lasted was four months, and only because we happened to be working together. And I just…stopped trying after that ended.”

“Here’s my answer, Sinny. If you ever change your mind…well, you’ve got my key. You know where I live, and where my cabin is aboard the Capone. And for what it’s worth…I don’t regret anything. Not one bit.”

Eight years of trying to get over Caroline with little to no success. Eight years of being Jean’s best friend in spite of a planet-sized weight on your shoulder. Eight years of being Tom’s godfather. You’d slipped past your twenties and entered your thirties with over a dozen certifications, plenty of money, but no success in the pursuit of happiness.

Until everything changed forever. Clearing your throat, you continue, “Three years ago, there was an incident in Foggy Bottom. Maybe you heard of it. The Juniper Star?”

Gully frowns, thinking deeply. “…I think I was out at sea for the guild at the time. I heard what happened second-hand, but I heard enough to know that it was bad.”

That’s putting it lightly. “The Juniper Star was a cargo carrier, and the time, she was carrying radioactive waste for disposal out in the Atlantic. Y’know, dumping in the subduction zones, right where the tectonic plates meet.”

“I’m…vaguely familiar with the process.”

Jean had the day off, and Tom didn’t have any school. A father-son bonding trip, meandering through Dockside to look at all the shops, ships and goods that came in from across the Flooded World. An idyllic day that would take a turn for the nightmarish when their path intersected with the Juniper Star

…and the crane loading the ship with nuclear waste, 450 kilos at a time, sixteen barrels on a single wooden pallet.

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“They still don’t know what caused it,” you say caustically. The chair groans as your hands dig into the wood, tightening into white-knuckled fists. “Port Authority’s still got their thumbs up their asses. Unsafe investigation, my fucking ass. It could’ve been sabotage on the part of the Teeth, or some fucking idiot in a hurry to get the job done and the cargo out to sea for a fucking quota. Just…bad fucking luck that they were moving away to look at another ship when the line snapped as it was passing over their heads.

“Jean, he…he pushed Tom out of the way, seconds before the pallet fell on them. It crushed his right leg, and his hand. But…” You shudder. “Just sheer bad luck that the barrels burst open when they hit the ground, spilling everything onto the dock. Tom...wasn’t quick enough to get out of the way.”

Many things get easier over the long years. Telling this part of the story never will. “Tom got doused with 8 Gys of radioactive waste. Damn near killed all of the DNA in his body, most of the white blood cells in his bloodstream, and kickstarted the systematic shutdown of each of his organs over a two-week period.”

Gully’s hand comes to her mouth, eyes widening in a horrified expression. “Oh my God…!”

Caroline was inconsolable. Jean only got hit with only 1 Gy from ambient radiation, so he’d be fine, even though he’d lose the leg and half of his hand, save the thumb. But for Tom…

“There wasn’t anything the doctors could do, these…‘doctors’, they just told Caroline that it’d be a mercy to pull the plug. Tom was a dead kid walking, with at best, two weeks before . No affordable way to reverse the damage, but plenty of morphine to make him pass away in his sleep.”

“How cruel of them,” she spits.

“They weren’t wrong, but…yeah. Zero out of ten for their bedside manner. Would not recommend going for a physical.”

She ignores the flippant attempt to lighten the mood, grabbing you by the shoulders. “You did something though. Tom’s still alive, and you’re in debt. So, what you did saved his life, but…what was it? What the hell cost that much?”

Medicine and technology from the Old World. Pre-Cataclysm miracle machines that escaped the Scouring completely unscathed. Things we won’t be reinventing for another few decades, unreplaceable and almost exclusively reserved for the city’s elite just because of the sheer price alone.

But there was only one thing saved Tom. Far beyond the meager expenses and savings that both of his parents could put together.

A price only you could have paid.

You match Gully’s intense stare with your own, and gently extricate yourself from out of her grip. “I sold myself and my services to Lord-Founder Bartholomew Stolze for the lump sum of 25-million ducats. For a syringe of self-replicating nanites capable of reversing the damage and giving Tom the chance to live the life he would’ve had otherwise.”

…she lets you go. Gully stumbles back into her seat, utterly shocked. She mutters something underneath her breath in a voice so low you can’t make anything out. Then, she stares at you in a new light. “How much do you have left to pay?”

Not the question you were honestly expecting. But one you’ll still answer.

“By my last reckoning…” You roll up your sleeves, showing the brands around your arms. Four black bands of ink, and the discolored flesh where a pair had been removed via laser. “…20 million. Here’s hoping that whatever bonus I get from the guild goes towards that.”

She stares at you again. “You’re joking about it.”

You tap your head. “There’s an old saying that PUEXO pilots are either crazy or have a really good motive to climb into an exosuit and descend hundreds of meters below the ocean. No reason for both to be mutually exclusive – I’m living proof of it: crazy to get into debt for the love of a married woman, motivated enough to save the life of my godson.”

Gully opens her mouth to reply, but nothing comes out. Seems that you took her too much for a loop.

“Lemme guess,” you muse slowly, “You’re gonna say that it was a mistake.”

She blinks, stiffening in surprise. Then shakes her head. “I wasn’t going to say something as callous as that!”

“Then you’re a lot more generous than I am.”

Gully frowns. “Then you think it was a mistake.”

>>Based on the choice you made in the last thread...

“Didn’t say that. Between you and me?” You throw your hands up into the air. “…I don’t know the answer. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat without any sort of regrets.”

She holds her silence, scrutinizing you for any sort of double-entendre. Then, suddenly leans in and asks intensely: “Do you still love Caroline?”

Now if that isn’t a loaded question…

You sigh. “It’d take some really drastic circumstances for me to hate her. But if whether or not I still love her…some part of me still does. And while I don’t think I can change anything…I think I can live with that. As long as she’s happy, who am I to interfere in her business except as a friend?”

…to your surprise, you find yourself actually meaning it.

“And what about your own happiness?” demands Gully.

If she’s happy, then you’re happy. Even if it isn’t the main driving force behind your happiness. Say…twenty percent? Most of it’s chasing money, and the primordial thrill hard-wired into your lizard brain of exploring the unknown and feeling the rush of adrenaline.

“That isn’t the point.”

“What do you mean? Sinleq, you’re 20 million in debt! You’ve…when you’ve paid everything off, what’s left for you when the last brand comes off?”

“I’m not asking you to pity me,” you say firmly, but not unkindly, “That wasn’t the point of me telling you everything. And I don’t think you want me to do the same for what you shared.”

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Taken aback, Gully doesn’t immediately have a response. Coughing and internally wishing for a drink, you follow up with a softer counter. “You aren’t the only one with painful memories. I wanted to share with you my secret because you trusted me enough to share yours with me.”

She isn’t convinced, but she backs down. “…how many know?”

“Stolze, for one,” you mutter. “He figured it out when I signed on the dotted line. Jean, maybe. But I don’t know for certain. Everyone else, such as Captain Elishani, or the myriad authority figures I’ve worked with, think I did it solely for Tom.”

“…I have a hard time believing that Caroline didn’t know it wasn’t just love for your godson.”

If she suspected anything…no, Caroline would’ve told you.

She would have…wouldn’t she?

…something to ask the next time you’re over for dinner. Besides, there’s already a woman you’re talking to right now. “I do appreciate your concern, though, Gully. It’s…touching. Thank you.”

Gully’s eyes go wide, and she masks her embarrassment with a cough. “…my question, though. You didn’t finish it.”

Oh, she’s right. “Stolze, maybe Jean…but definitely you. Same as me with your secret. But you do know what I’m getting at, right? It isn’t whataboutism or a pissing contest to see who has it worse, but the fact that I’m here if you wanna talk. Doesn’t have to be about your past. Anything.”

She rubs the back of her head in an uncharacteristically sheepish manner, slightly blushing. “PUEXO pilots, huh?”

The laugh that tears out of your throat is only slightly hysteric. But loud enough to where Gully jumps, and nervously looks over her shoulder for guards that haven’t been seen at all, let alone in the last hour. “…yeah. Sounds like both of us’ve got more issues than a Pearl District tabloid.”

You both share a laugh at that, this time more genuine and self-effacing than hysterical and sardonic. In any other situation, after this heavy of a talk, you’d be emotionally drained, mentally exhausted, and more than ready to call it a night.

…but not yet.

You gesture to the camera at her hip. “I’m still up for it, if you are.”

It takes her a moment to catch on. “Photography?”

“Yeah. Good as that talk was…dunno if it’d be right to end the night on that note.”

She seems to agree. With an eager smile, Gully stands up, covering a yawn as she stretches languidly. You hastily avoid staring as her body flexes and writhes, exposing even more of her midriff than her top normally allows. “Have you ever shot a photo before?”

Clearing the sudden obstruction in your throat, you answer that no, you haven’t. At least, not one that was digital and done via the PUEXO interface or verbal command to HOPI.

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“I’ll show you how.” She beckons you over to a nearby light fixture, bumping shoulders as she holds the Polaroid up for inspection. “Focus wheel’s right here. Shutter button’s right beneath it, so don’t put your fingers there until you’re ready to take the shot…”

Five minutes later finds you as prepared as you’ll ever be. And to your surprise, you’re given the exclusive privilege of taking the first shot of a fresh roll of film. With your nausea mostly contained, it’s easier to move closer to the parapet for a better view of the city. “Anything in particular I should shoot?”

Gully shrugs. “Whatever you find interesting.”

How subjective of her…although that does bring up a question. Save for one of her own photos in the collage you saw, she’s noticeably absent. How come that’s the case?

You decide to ask her indirectly. “Can I take a picture of you?”

“No,” she says too quickly, in a voice harder than iron. “Aim that camera elsewhere, Sinleq.”

“How come?”

Gully shifts uneasily, kicking a stray pebble out of the way. “It’s…a stupid reason.”

“I won’t laugh,” you promise sincerely. Not after everything that’s been shared between you.

>>Checking for Gully points…
>>You have accumulated enough Gully points!

She sighs. “…you know I already have problems with my past. Figuring who I am. Looking at photos of myself…it only makes things worst. I can’t relate to the girl in the photo, or reconcile her as me.”

…you try not to stare or otherwise look too horrified. “Disassociation?”

“That’s what Geary called it. But he just told me to take pictures of things that…things that I’ll always find interesting. So that way I can enjoy my hobby without the disconnect from myself.”

…Jesus Christ, Gully. Don’t say something like that so blasé!

Shuddering, you try to put that out of your mind as you scour the city for anything interesting. More for Gully’s sake than yours, now that her words are rattling in the back of your mind. But you manage to find something to your liking that’s well-lit and interesting enough.

Fiddling with the controls, you adjust the knobs that control focus and exposure. You take a deep breath, stilling your movements no differently than if you were firing a rifle. With steady hands, and a focused shot…you hit the shutter button.


You quickly pull the camera back, just as it starts to hum and whir. It spits out a photo, which Gully takes.

"And now we wait," she says.

"How long?" you ask.

"About ninety seconds, give or take."

You squint at the black square, and recall a little bit of pre-Cataclysm trivia. "Won't shaking it make it develop faster?"

She couldn't have made a more offended face if you’d asked her about the captain's sex life. Gully scowls, releasing the kind of weary sigh that one has when dealing with the woefully uniformed. God knows you've made it plenty of times on the Duck.

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"No," she says deliberately, "That's gonna make the colors run, crease the photo and blur the shot."

...huh. The more you know.

"I'll keep that in mind," you say with a shrug. The flippancy in your voice doesn’t do you any favors, as you feel her glaring a hole into your back.

And true to her word, it takes just a little over that time to render out...but it isn't a good picture. The contrast is off. At the angle you held the camera, the photo caught the edge of lamppost and got overexposed. There isn't as much a background as much a backdrop of blinding light. And the angle is off by a fair bit. As if it had been taken by a drunkard or someone under hypoxia.

But it’s still decent enough for a first shot, dare you say good for avant-garde photography. A simple photo of the late-night ships pulling into Dockside, and the men and women aboard them, scurrying around like worker ants. And from the way you held on just a little bit long, the ship lights bleed contrails as they slide into port.

Both pilots look up from the photo at the same time, and your gazes inadvertently meet.
A profound moment of silence. The world beyond the photo, yourself and Gully seems to bleed away.


...were her eyes always that much a deep shade of red?



“Meh," she says flatly.

You blink, utterly taken aback. Then your brain finally catches up with what she said and you scowl fiercely. "Oy."

But she grins, and your anger vanishes. It’s a welcome change after her moping about the Olympia. "I wasn't expecting you to be the next Robert Capa. My first photos weren’t any good either. That said..." Gully unzips her jacket, fishing out a small notebook from an inner pocket. "...it has an amateurish charm to it."

With a flourish, your photo disappears between the pages, and the notebook back into her clothing.

"Hey!" you complain, "That's my photo."

She sniffs. "You should be honored that it's going into the album."

"Yeah, but I took it. It's mine by right."

"Whose camera is this? Who paid for the film?"

You pointedly ignore those two very good points, and reach for the camera.

"Let me try again, dammit. I'll get you a better one."

"Hey, watch it!" she snaps, dangling the polaroid out of your reach. "Film isn't cheap."

True enough, but the petulance in her voice makes you want to roll your eyes. “I’ll pay you back.”

Gully crosses her arms. "With what money? It'll take the Salvage Guild at least a week before we get our pay stubs."

She didn’t mean for it to come as a joke or a snipe at your funds. True enough as it is that you’re not the most liquid. But you lower your collar, just enough for the light to catch the brands, and tap your neck. "Just get your dad to tattoo another bar here. Should be enough for at least five years' worth of film."

She flinches, and shoots you a glare. "That isn't funny."

You raise your hands in apology. "Sorry. But in all seriousness, you can take it out of my prize money."

...what's the going rate for film in a world after the end? You know only because Gully said what it is, and fuck if that chemist isn't ripping her off. Bloody highway robbery, even for something that's a luxury good.

But your answer seems to satisfy her, and she hands the camera back.

"Thanks," you say with a grin. "Let's try this again."

Your pride as an amateur photographer is on the line.


...you both spend what feels like hours trying to take the perfect photo.


...both of you end up nearly using all of her film, about thirty photos' worth.


...halfway through, it turns into a pissing match to see who can shoot the better photo.


...it gets heated.


To the point where you both stop giving a damn about being caught by the watch.


"I've seen finger paint that had more shot composition!"


"And I've doodled schematics that had more perspective!"

...you can't remember the last time that you were this loud with anyone you weren’t trying to fight, hurt or kill.

Halfway through arguing with Gully about slicing into the electrical grid to decrease the ambient lighting...you realize that you’re having fun. And that for all the heat and vitriol, you really don't mean any of it. Not in the remotest sincerity beyond professional pride.

And...she doesn't either. Not from the way she's grinning. Even if it's more crooked than what you’re used to.


...maybe it's the air.

...maybe it's the dazzling lights.

...maybe it's the fact that this high above the city, it's only the two of you, Sinleq “Razor” Unami and Yohana “Gully” Elishani, in your own little world.

...but you can't remember the last time you had this much fun with anyone.

Let alone with a woman that wasn't Caroline.


…just maybe.

…you’ve finally started to let her go, Caroline and thirteen years of regret.

You’re jolted out of your thoughts as Gully holds the camera up to the light, squinting at the little dial by the shutter release.

"Only one more left," she mutters.

Your gazes both turn towards the pile of photos. They wouldn't go into a pre-Cataclysm magazine, but they'd have decent enough spots over the fireplace...or a community center class about how not to take a photo. Or in Gully's case, maybe one or two might even make it into her PUEXO's cockpit. If cityscapes were her thing, and random, ant-sized passerby.

"...dammit," she curses, handing it back to you, "It's your turn."

You take it off her hands with a wry grin. "Why so serious?"

"The most important photographs in a roll are the first and the last," Gully intones, "So make it count."

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...make it count, huh?

You look to Babylonia, the crossroads of the Flooded World. A city that never sleeps, so very full of life, energy, and the enduring progress of mankind against the worse that the universe could throw at it. The lens isn't nearly wide enough to capture everything, but you could capture a lot of it.

And then you see Gully, staring wistfully off towards the ocean. To wherever it is that her past lies, sunken hundreds of meters beneath the waves. A headstrong woman chasing her own Maltese Falcon, uncertain of what she’ll find, but more than willing to pursue it at the risk of her life.

An adopted daughter.

A PUEXO pilot.

A new friend.

A woman with a mysterious past.

She’s all of these things and more.

…Yohana 'Gully' Elishani isn’t Caroline Godwin.

...she never will be.

…but that’s alright.

...she doesn't have to be.

>>What do you wish to capture?
>The Mermaid Princess. (A solo picture of Gully for yourself.)
>The PUEXO Pilots. (A selfie of the two of you for her collection.)


Wew, long update, but one that I'm happy with for both of their character development. At any rate, I'm off to my vacation, and will update as best I can.
>The PUEXO Pilots. (A selfie of the two of you for her collection.)
We almost died together, let's show that we lived together.

I adore this quest QM. Have a wonderful vacation.
>The PUEXO Pilots. (A selfie of the two of you for her collection.)
>>The PUEXO Pilots. (A selfie of the two of you for her collection.)
I would say snap a pic of Gully to fluster her, but yeah, prove that We Were Here. That we lived. Existed.
>The Mermaid Princess. (A solo picture of Gully for yourself.)
>The Mermaid Princess.
>The PUEXO Pilots. (A selfie of the two of you for her collection.)
I think a selfie is better in this occasion, leave a solo picture of her for later.
>>The PUEXO Pilots. (A selfie of the two of you for her collection.)
>The PUEXO Pilots. (A selfie of the two of you for her collection.)

We aren't alone anymore. Both of us, we've bared our past to each other. If that doesn't bond us, what does.
>The PUEXO Pilots. (A selfie of the two of you for her collection.)
>>The PUEXO Pilots. (A selfie of the two of you for her collection.)
>>The PUEXO Pilots. (A selfie of the two of you for her collection.)

>unrequited love for a best friend
>left unsaid for fear of ruining what there is
>8 years of knowing her
>named Caroline
Just caught up and Christ, Kaz, who let you read my diary? Least Sinleq's Caroline isn't a blonde, that'd just be Fed-levels of coincidence, kek.
Hang in there, king.

Anywho, I'm back from my vacation. Writing...
Hope you had a great time.
Glad to have you back chiff
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…this is either going to be a very good idea, or one that backfires horribly. But with the weight of the Godwin-Barbet’s off your shoulder, your more impulsive inhibitions are finally let loose once more.

“…Gully, c’mere a moment.”

The pilot frowns. “You didn’t break my camera, did you?”

“No, I didn’t. Just…humor me for a second, please.”

Still frowning, she meanders over to your side of the parapet. Completely unprepared for the arm that pulls her flush against you.

Gully yelps. “Hey, what the hell are you-?!”

“Smile for the camera,” you retort wryly, all the while praying that this gambit pays off.


No sooner does the Polaroid spit out a photo does Gully wrench herself out of your grip. Eyes blazing, she demands, “Sinleq, what the hell?!”

“Before you clobber me,” you say, holding both her camera and the still-developing photo in your hands, “…can we wait ninety seconds?”

The glare in her eyes could sear paint off the hull of a ship. But the raised hand that’s about to slap or punch you is withdrawn. She mutters something under her breath, grumbling about impertinent men. Gully leans back against the wall, crossing her arms in an annoyed huff.

…it seems that a stay of execution has been granted.

They say that a picture’s worth a thousand words. But you probably don’t need all of them. Insofar as something taken in the heat of the moment, it doesn’t look too bad. That much you can tell, even as it’s starting to come into focus.

Photo-Gully looks surprised, but not distressed. Her eyes are wide, mouth parted as if to demand an explanation. Only at the last second, just before the flash goes off, her gaze instinctively turns towards the camera.

Photo-Sinleq didn’t know what face to make. Somewhere between impassively indifferent or mildly smug. The grin stops just short of being insufferable – just curved to a reasonable degree. The visage of a harmless prankster, one you haven’t worn in a very long time.

But it isn’t a perfect photo. The sudden motion of getting your fellow pilot into the shot left a slight blur around the edges. The light of the city’s gone and washed out, if not otherwise negated by the flash of the bulb.

Yet it’s still the best one of the night. And you aren’t tooting your horn – it looks better than the rote landscapes, cityscapes and ant-sized subjects meandering in the streets. To your own satisfaction and relief, Gully seems to think that too. There’s no missing the astonished expression on her face. Or the wonder in her eyes.

Not that it takes too long for it to turn accusatory. “I thought I told you earlier-”

“It’s not a picture of you,” you interject, “It’s a picture of us. So if you’re gonna hit me, please only do it at half-strength.”

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Whatever she was expecting, that hadn’t been it. It takes her a moment before she’s able to respond. “…I don’t understand.”

You point to her, then to yourself. “It’s proof that we were both here. That Sinleq Unami and Gully Elishani were alive at this point in time, hot on the heels after a Khanate raid that nearly killed us all.”

Seized by a sudden boldness, you extend a tentative hand towards Gully’s shoulder. She stiffens lightly, but makes no other movement as you draw her close, and gesture towards the city, the sea, and the rest of the Flooded World. “Come what may tomorrow…we’re still here. And they aren’t.”

…it sounded better in your head. Spoken aloud, the defiant, existential proclamation sounds just a little embarrassing. The sort of spontaneous speech-making that one of Dickens’ characters might have given at the climax of the story.

But Gully doesn’t laugh. For a moment, she just leans in against your shoulder, then murmurs flatly: “I probably won’t recognize myself in a week. My condition…it’s that bad, Sinleq.”

“I will,” you counter emphatically. “And so will all the others – your parents, Geary, Chief Holt, Aalto, Kwan and all the crew of the Calypso. You’ll still be Gully to us.”

The noise she makes could’ve been a scoff, a huff, a sigh or the faintest bit of laughter. “…didn't think you were a sophist.”

You shrug, offering a wry grin. “Book club might’ve passed around a few texts on philosophy. But you’ve got that photo of yourself and your dad in the cockpit. How do you feel about that one?”

“…anchor,” she whispers after a moment’s deliberation. “I am a PUXO pilot, and the daughter of Captain Rashid Elishani. That much won’t change, no matter what happens. When things get bad…I can always go back to that.”

…that’s more than fair enough. You can work with this.

“Then consider the following.” Gently, you bring the last photo up towards the ambient light cast by the lamps. “…you’re the friend of fellow PUEXO pilot Sinleq Unami. You know his past and why he’s a slave. Just as he knows yours and why you dive. Whether or not those things change, if he becomes free or if you find your origin…”

“…we’ll still be pilots,” she finishes, “…we’ll still keep our secrets.”

"We'll still be friends." You smile softly. “I hope you don’t think that I’m trying to get a leg up on your dad. Just…helping you put things in perspective.”

She hums quietly, neither affirming or denying anything. When she suddenly moves to break away, you let her go, spinning away to recline back up against the wall. “…you called me ‘Gully.’”

“Didn’t think it’d be proper. You said it yourself – ‘Yohana’ is reserved only for your folks and the XO.”

Gully bites her lip uncertainly, frowning in deep thought. Then, after a moment’s silence: “…Sinleq, hold still for a moment.”

“…you aren’t about to punch me, are you?”

If she rolled her eyes any harder, they would’ve fallen out of her skull. “If I wanted to, I would’ve done that earlier. Just please be quiet and stand still.”

She has to stand on her toes to close the distance between your respective heights. The faintest scent of lavender shampoo teases at your senses as her lips brush gently against your cheek. Your eyes widen, but before you even have time to react, she withdraws quickly.

“You don’t have to pay me back for the film,” she says, a light blush on her cheeks and what you think is a seductive grin. “For helping me save the Olympia’s black box.”

Numbly, you bring a hand to the spot against your cheek. That…had been completely unexpected. “Then what was…this for?”

The red deepens, and Gully has to swallow before continuing. “Payment for the photo. Proof of Yohana Elishani and Sinleq Unami’s existence. You shot it, and it would’ve been yours otherwise. I…changed my mind. I want this one, too.”

A kiss for a photo.

You honestly don’t know what to say.

Once more, Gully reaches into her jacket pocket, pulling out the notebook. Much like your prior photo, the selfie disappears within the pages, and she gathers the rest of them to stuff into your pocket. “…and I think that after everything today and tonight, after what I shared with you…you’ve earned it.”

“Earned what?” you ask.

“…Yohana. I’ll answer to either that or ‘Gully’, but I won’t get mad if you use my real name.”

A privilege reserved only for three people – her parents and XO Geary. Coincidentally, the same intrepid individuals who know her secret about the escape pod. Sinleq Unami is now two-for-two within Yohana ‘Gully’ Elishani’s inner circle of confidants.

You swallow the lump in your throat and clear it in an attempt to reign in the blush on your cheeks, and the wild, racing feeling within your heart. Glancing up towards the sky, now well into evening, you cautiously ask: “…so what’s next. Yohana?”

She blinks, frowning. “…that’s gonna take some getting used to.”

“I’ll save it for our berth, then,” you suggest, then check yourself at the slip of the tongue.

‘Our berth’, as if you were sharing bunks.

Best not to get ahead of yourself. Even if it seems that there’s some mutual attraction between the two of you. It is starting to scab over, but the Caroline-sized wound in your heart is a long away from being completely healed.

But she doesn’t seem to notice or otherwise mind. “…that’s fine. We’ll have practice getting used to it.”

Clearing your throat, you repeat, “So what’s next? It’s getting a little late.”

Gully thinks on it. It doesn’t take long for the light of an epiphany to fill her eyes, and she hurriedly checks her watch. “I know a photocopier in Pearl District. Stingy, but he does good work. If we run, we can still make it.”

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“What’s the photocopier for?”

She gives you an odd look. “A copy for you. I’m keeping the original, so you’ll be getting a copy. A nice, high-quality print. Do you want it with high-gloss or luster-”

Suddenly, an impossibility. From across the next tower over, a bright, high-megawatt light shines in your faces. Just before it nearly blinds you, the indistinct shape of a large man in worker’s overalls can briefly be seen.

“HEY! What the hell are you two doing there?!” demands an angry voice. “This area’s off-limits! Dispatch, I’ve got some trespassers in Tower 19-A of Foggy Bottom…”

Both of you share an alarmed look. Then, simultaneously:

“Time to go.”

By the time the watchman’s made his way to the tower, you and Gully are already off the lift, sprinting away at full speed. Hot on your heels, the guard’s determined to catch you, sputtering into a little tin whistle to try and rouse some help. A small blessing that the thin, reedy noise is practically drowned by the bustle of the city’s night life.

In any other circumstance, you’d admire the man’s tenacity. There are few who can pass the strenuous training and physical conditioning required to be a PUEXO pilot. He isn’t about close the distance any time soon, but he’s not showing any signs of falling behind or easily giving up the chase.

“No guards, huh?” you say between breaths.

“Shut up and run!” snaps Gully.

“Anywhere in particular?”

“Not towards the Calypso. Dad’s still mad at the repair bill for the Caprica, and I don’t want this on my rap sheet!”

Hah. How long ago had it been when you and Jean were doing similar things in your youths?

“If you’re still up for it,” you offer, vaulting over a trash can, “I know a shortcut to Pearl District. We’ll lose him in the alleyways!”

Gully curses, jinking before she smashes into a panicking food cart vendor. “Sure, why not? I gotta burn off all the popcorn and fish skewers anyway!”

You grab her hand, ignoring the indignant squawk she makes and pull her into a sharp turn. Lampposts vanish and the loud, dull roar of the Babylonian thoroughfare fades away into a muffled noise as you sprint down into a narrow alleyway. “I’ll get us there, but you’re paying for my copy.”

“What?! Ugh, fine, alright! But don’t ask for a print larger than a poster. It’s gonna be expensive as it is.”’

“Of course.”

As you descend further into the labyrinth, Gully’s eyes occasionally flick upwards. “…dammit. I’m gonna miss that tower. Had the best vantage point in all of Outer District.”

“…I’ll help you find another one,” you reassure her, helping her up a fence. “However many you need.”

Disheveled and sweaty as she is from the chase, a genuine smile pulls at her mouth. “…careful now. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”

“PUEXO pilot, remember? In for a ducat…”

The promise is made, and somewhere, a clock strikes the loud toll of midnight. The sound of the bells masks the passage of two runaway pilots, racing into the night away from a watchman. An unlikely pairing the pair of them make, yet one that seems to have made the most sense in a world already gone mad.

Sinleq Unami and Yohana Elishani keep running, even after the patrolman’s long since vanished, even after they make it into the Middle, and Inner Districts.

Running into the Free City of Babylonia.

Running into tomorrow.

Running into the uncertain future of what the Flooded World will bring.

… … …

… …


"The loss of the Olympia is regrettable, but well within acceptable parameters. Enough was recovered to resume our work. It will take time before we're able to breach the black box, but I'm confident in the NIS's ability to crack into the system."

"Indeed. Pay Captain Elishani whatever it is he's demanding. We've set aside more than enough to deal with his dead and injured."

"Of course. And of the pilots?"

"He has expressed a continued interest in Unami as a potential candidate. Battle-ROM data pulled from his Magellan paints him in a favorable light, slave status notwithstanding. If anything, an invitation to Eden is all but guaranteed."

"What about young Yohana?"

"Her inexperience shows, but her courage speaks volumes. We would not have the black box if not for her. See to it that the cost of repairing her PUEXO is covered. Should she continue to perform admirably, he will extend an invitation as well."

"Truly? I would have thought that his eyes were upon Molly McIntyre."

"She pursues her own agenda, independent but parallel to our own goals. Bringing her too close to the Pact would jeopardize our security. 'Collateral damage' is a foreign concept to her, I'm afraid."

"A pity. But she and her company are still useful for when the hammer is needed."

"And the hammer has fallen upon the Khanate. The Atlantic Boyan Tsolom has lost face and six attack boats. He will be looking for revenge, or petition the ilKhan to join the subjugation of the Caliphate to regain his honor."

"Then we'll have to beef up security and expedite the next batch of supplies to the Mujahedeen. Although I will say that Nasaar has made multiple requests for nuclear ordinance and advanced PUEXO suits."

"He's mad if he thinks we'll hand him nukes. And as for PUEXO suits...I'll have to check, but we should have some Mk. I's and II's mothballed. Hardly a loss for us, but Nasaar will have to content himself with those."

"And what of the Freehold? Ivelisse Villalba has inherited her father's dream of a united Andean Commonwealth."

"It will remain a dream. See to it that destabilization efforts continue."

"John's will be done."

"Revelation continues, Stolze."

"And I look forward to the world that Patmos will bring."


This is not the end of Sinleq and Yohana’s story.

But it is a conclusion.
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Thank you for everyone who took part in this quest! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I've got enough for my thesis, so please look forward to something down the line.

I'll call things finished here since the thread's close to falling off, but I'll be here as long as needed in case anyone has any questions or comments. Funny enough, I did end up writing some of Aalto's stuff as deleted scenes while I was on my vacation. Quite the angry girl, she is. Might end up posting her and Holt's date on pastebin.
damn this was a fun read and story, What if anything would we have received as reward for the Olympia job and if this continues sometime in the future what goodies did we manage to salvage and sell off. and of course did this job nock a band or 3 loose?
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Loved it. Your characters and world building are awesome, and still leave much to the imagination. I know this is probably a good stopping point without too many loose ends but I hope we get more, or at least more from you soon!
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For loot from the Olympia, I would've asked you to throw dice. There would've been two checks, one for the Kingston Boat Graveyard, and one for whatever bits and pieces Sinleq could scavenge from the cargo section of the spaceship before the Teeth triggered the explosives. But there's still stuff - after the two weeks Elishani gave the crew, they would've gone back out to Kingston, albeit with a larger salvage fleet and a military escort.

Salvage from the Caribbean Courier would've included objects that could be broken down into base components, and these are largely cargo of our own time. An average roll might've netted you tires and washing machines, iron ore and nickel, crop seeds or a random smattering of Amazon packages. These would sell for a reasonable amount, and Babylonia's industrial/recycling is always hungry for things to turn into rubber, steel ingots, and other intermediary processed goods. But if you rolled really high, Sinleq might've gotten lucky - waterproof shipping containers that contain pristine cars, computer parts, maybe even a PUEXO if you rolled a Nat 20.

There wouldn't be too much on the Olympia beyond small bits and pieces, but they would be of high value. The passengers aboard the Exodus Fleet were the richest of the rich, so if Sinleq isn't too picky about looting corpses, then they would've been carrying smartphones, high technological ends, maybe even jewelry.

At the bare minimum, the Olympia job would've knocked one brand off of Sinleq's current 20. But Stolze was authorized by [REDACTED] to give Sinleq another two for saving the Calypso and fighting off the Khanate. Depending on how well the cargo/loot roll would've been, at the maximum, you would've gotten 5 brands removed in total. Maybe even more if you fished up a pristine PUEXO since nobody makes them anymore.

Thank you! I promised my readers that I would be returning to the Star Wars quest that I run. But maybe if there's enough interest, I'll return to Tatamu, right where we left off here. Sinleq becomes a permanent member aboard the Calypso, and returns to Kingston to resume the salvage job with the others. And all the while, the myriad powers of the Flooded World, from sovereign powers to secret societies, radical cults to religious orders, play their games against each other...
Hell of a quest Kaz, as always.

Question, were designer babies a thing in the past? Because Yohana screams "Human designed for a specific purpose" given her od coloration and dissociative disorder.
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Yes. Thank you for reminding me. This was originally supposed to be a part of Sinleq's Q&A with Larkin, but I completely forgot about it in a prior draft. He'd ask about designer babies, and Larkin would confirm they were a real thing.

Designer babies were very much a thing of the Old World. The same nanomachine/nanite technology used to cure Tom of his radiation sickness went into editing DNA/genes during the development of a fetus. Ethical debate aside, these were mostly 'harmless' edits such as preventing Down Syndrome, curing Sickle Cell, or preventing the heart disease on dad's side of the family from being passed on.

Of course, there were also the 'cosmetic' designer babies, or vanity projects. Parents who wanted their children to have certain eye colors, hair color, athletic predisposition, increased metabolism, and what not. Strict regulations were imposed upon the populace at large, and the ethics debate for those got locked in gridlock. Plenty of back-alley doctors, or doctors in certain countries with less restrictions and oversight, made a hefty business catering to unscrupulous parents.

And of course, there were conspiracy theories about the myriad world powers, the United Nations, and the Terran Union breeding super soldiers and artificial humans to colonize the solar system, but no concrete evidence ever came out.

The technology for creating designer babies, however, have long since been lost to the Cataclysm.

Sharp mind you got there, anon. I can't say more without spoiling stuff, but let's just say you're very, very warm.
Wasn't expecting to like this quest as much as I did. Stellar work here bossman. When're you expecting to return to Interregnum? I've been worrying about what'll happen when we crash the conclave for months now.
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As mentioned in the prior thread, this quest and the setting serve as part of a graduate-level thesis I'm developing, so there's a whole lot of writing that went into this. Now that I'm finished with all three acts, I just gotta get my crew to start working on asset generation.

Two weeks, give or take a few days. And the updates for those should definitely be faster. Tatamu hobbled me a bit since it's an original setting, and the setting bible I wrote for it still has some blank spots. But thank you for waiting for Interregnum, and reading Tatamu!
>have siblings one with same name
The rabbit hole gets deeper.

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