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Whispers of the Kraken (Epilogue: Revelations of the Kraken)


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So this is how it all started in Kleptogart. Too bad poor Jeb didn't make it. But the mystery remains: was it the Kraken or  Layland  ... and what about those swamp creatures?

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1 hour ago, lodger said:

So this is how it all started in Kleptogart. Too bad poor Jeb didn't make it. But the mystery remains: was it the Kraken or  Layland  ... and what about those swamp creatures?

If it was the Kraken it was being remarkably short-sighted. Leland + Jeb would have gotten to Jool a lot faster - and with a lot more kerbals in tow, than Leland managed.

If I recall rightly, the swamp creatures (RatSquirrelFish??) have already been covered.

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3 hours ago, KSK said:

If it was the Kraken it was being remarkably short-sighted. Leland + Jeb would have gotten to Jool a lot faster - and with a lot more kerbals in tow, than Leland managed.

If I recall rightly, the swamp creatures (RatSquirrelFish??) have already been covered.

But Jeb would have probably destroyed the Kraken just like Edgas: punching it in the face. I mean, isn't that the sort of thing that Jeb would have totally done? Sucker punching a devil?

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3 hours ago, KSK said:

If I recall rightly, the swamp creatures (RatSquirrelFish??) have already been covered.

Ah, yes you're right! So finally we know how that ... "thing" came to being.

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Exploded instantly on contact with the Karmin line? is that a reference to the early teething troubles with the 64k mod which had craft exploding for no apparent reason at specific altitudes (91km iirc)?

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18 hours ago, vsully said:

But Jeb would have probably destroyed the Kraken just like Edgas: punching it in the face. I mean, isn't that the sort of thing that Jeb would have totally done? Sucker punching a devil?

I'll take "things the author can't comment on" for $1000, Alex. :wink:

 

12 hours ago, Shania_L said:

Exploded instantly on contact with the Karmin line? is that a reference to the early teething troubles with the 64k mod which had craft exploding for no apparent reason at specific altitudes (91km iirc)?

<slow grin> All Things Serve the Beam :D

 

Spoiler

Actually when I started that save back in .25 it was still the 6.4x mod by a different author. IIRC my biggest problem trying to do anything with those early game SRB's and DeadlyReentry was that they tended to liquefy the pilot. Getting something there and back again really was quite an accomplishment.

 

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Once again, much thanks to @Ten Key

 

Chapter 63: Words, Words, Words...

Valentina jerked awake from the nightmare, her head darting back and forth, panicked, searching for...

Whatever it was, it was gone now. 

She let out a long breath, and hugged her knees. An insistent chill against her drew her intention. She pulled the Münstone from beneath her shirt. It was cold to the touch again, not freezing, but she had the feeling it had been even colder a moment ago. It seemed to warm much faster than a big lump of metal should as she turned it over in her hands. 

The brilliant, lens-shaped crimson stone almost seemed to glow, probably just a trick of the morning sunlight streaming in the window. She turned it this way and that, watching the light refract and dance within. The stone was quite translucent, but Valentina realized she couldn't see the back of the titanium setting through it. It just seemed to go on and on forever, filled with fragile shafts of light. There was a sudden, unpleasant sense of déjà vu... like she was falling into the stone.

It didn't feel that unusual, just a big gemstone. Not that she had much experience with such things. Solid, yet as she ran a thumb over the surface Valentina marveled at how smooth it was. Slick, almost as if it were wet--

Her eyes widened with recognition. It seemed like a lifetime ago, could it really only have been a few months? The way the light played inside the stone, the sense of falling... no, rising... rising toward the light... It reminded her of a time she had risen through an olive sea, at the very edge of life, surrounded by ominous shadows... and fragile shafts of light stretching on into infinity. 

She lifted the Münstone and frowned at it. What is this thing, anyway? Her eyes moved to the reddish bands across her fingers, punctuated here and there by a tiny blister. It looked like frostbite, but surely that couldn't be right. Just another trick of the light, or perhaps some allergic reaction... Rising, she moved to the mirror over her small sink. The stripes across her neck were only a little worse, barely even an itch. A few larger spots on her chest. And yet...

Last night, listening to Chadvey, the stone had burned, burned, not with ice but with fire. Burned with all the intensity of her nightmares. Yet it hadn't left a single mark on her. Dibella had said that according to legend, Münstones had mystical powers. That was just silly stories and and old fairy tales...

...right?

With a sigh, she pushed the thoughts away and dressed. She needed to go talk to Gene. Why could no one see what was happening around here? Last night, Chadvey had gone on to mention how this 'Layland Kerman' had built his empire. Buying patents, stealing designs. Running other companies into bankruptcy and then snatching them up for a song. 

She paused. 

How does one purchase an entire company, even a bankrupt one, for a song? Perhaps that's why Ol' Sam's bar was so popular. It all seemed very strange, but these were strange people with strange laws. 

Anyway, maybe a- she rolled her eyes- foreign perspective could could bring light to the situation. Make Gene see reason. Layland's rockets had saved the Ussari Space Program, but... it was different here. The Union had the Imperium to keep Layland in check, he could never scheme against them. Only... hadn't the Empress done just that? Outmaneuvered the Imperium on their own territory?

Bah, more politics! She'd been in this strange place too long, now she was even starting to think like them, with their constant schemes and games.

If everything Chadvey had said was true... If everything she had seen with her own eyes was true... Yes, these foreigners could use some simple Ussari sensibility. It was so obvious, why couldn't they see it?

Sighing again, she slipped the Münstone over her head. No time for fairy tales and stories now. 

And paused. The stark shadows from the late morning sun seemed to move and dance for a moment. Drifting clouds perhaps. She looked again to the stone. This was Dibella's. This was home. She shifted it back over her head again, tucked it away beneath her shirt, and reached for the door.

Ugh, why couldn't they see what was right in front of their faces?

***

The elevator doors binged open, and Valentina stepped out into a cacophony of clacking typewriters. She made her way past them, nodded to Sally, the ever-smiling secretary behind the big desk at the end of the room, then headed down the long hallway to Gene's office. Like that office, the narrow hall was festooned with space-themed artwork and various photographs. Valentina paused at one now, one she must have passed before without noticing. 

In it, a group of smiling people drove shovels into the ground. She recognized Gene in the center, a bit younger if every bit as haggard. Flanking him on one side was a regal-looking lady who could only be the Queen of Omork. On the other, a handsome fellow she remembered from other pictures as a former President of Kleptogart. He looked quite young to hold such an office; a shame, what happened to him. On the other side of the Queen was a Kerb who was the spitting image of poor Jebediah. His brother, Bob, she surmised. And opposite him, next to the President... 

He didn't look all that remarkable. He bore the same official smile as the others, wore the same finely-tailored clothes. Even had an undeniably regal bearing. Valentina hadn't missed J.R. standing just off to his side, hands folded, with that ever-present feral smile. This must be Layland Kerman. He didn't look like a murderer, but, she supposed, such people rarely did. 

Raised voices further down the hall pulled her attention away from the photograph. Gene's door was open, as it always was, and it appeared he already had a visitor. It sounded like Chadvey. 

Feeling a bit guilty, she crept closer. Not eavesdropping at all, mind you, not her, just patiently waiting her turn to see him. Not her fault if they were carrying on so loudly she could clearly hear them. Clearly, if she inched another step closer, leaned over and cocked her head just so...

"Hogwash, Gene!" Chadvey spat, "this is hogwash and you know it!"

"Just calm down, Chadvey," Gene said placatingly, "you knew this was coming. We all did. We can't continue like this."

"You're putting hundreds of people out of work! Rockomax's gambled everything on us, we can't just shove them aside!"

"They haven't delivered. They've had every chance we can give them but they just can't make that booster work. Unless you want everyone here to be out of a job, we've got to move on."

"Bob will come through. He always has. He knows the stakes..."

Chadvey's voice suddenly trailed off. Valentina leaned in a bit closer.

"Gene... Why are you looking at me like that?" He said with a barely perceptible tremble, "why are you looking at me like that, Gene?!"

Gene spoke slowly, fumbling over his words, "I... was going to make an announcement later... try to get everyone together... it's... well, there's been...

"What is it? What's happened?!"

Valentina frowned. This didn't sound good. She glanced back down the hall, no one could see with the turn at the end, and leaned closer still. 

"It's Bob... he's... well, they say... they think he left his kar running... when he closed his garage last night... never showed up at his office. By the time they found him... it was... I'm sorry..."

"Ach, bloody hells!" Valentina drew back as she heard Chadvey stomping and cursing around the small room, "bloody, bloody hells!"

A shadow seemed to draw over her. Bob... Jebediah's brother, the founder of Rockomax. The poor Kerb...

"It's Layland!" A hand slapped against wood, "he's behind it and you know it, Gene!"

"Please, calm down. That's crazy talk. It was an accident. Just a horrible, unfortunate accident," something in Gene's voice said he really wanted to believe that, "these things happen..."

"And this is how you remember him? By throwin' what he built under the bus before his body's even cold?!" Chadvey railed. 

"Now you just watch yourself!" Gene shot back, "this was the Board's decision. I fought this thing kicking and screaming as long as I could!"

"The Board of Directors doesna' know a haggis from its own ar--"

"They're still the Board. They make the decisions around here. Rockomax hasn't fulfilled their contractual obligations. Besides, you of all people should be happy to see the Mule moved up the schedule."

Mule? What was the KSA doing with small horses? Valentina frowned. She shouldn't be here. This wasn't her business. But curiosity... what was that figure of speech about the cat?

"Happy that Layland used his key to the Patent Office to steal mah designs?!"

"You know that design work done for the Agency becomes the Agency's property for the duration. The Company--"

"Wait, the Company? It's the Company now? As if it's the only one?"

Gene grumbled, "Layland Heavy Industries has a valid license from the KSA to produce the Mule. You know this. They've had multiple suborbital test flights of all stages of the new launcher. Successful test flights."

Chadvey seemed to stumble briefly, "we've got flight-ready hardware sitting in the back of the VAB, Rockomax was just tooling up for the rest of the DUOS production run. Couldn't we at least give them that much?!"

"It's been discussed. Integration with the Layland  stage would take months. By that time, their Mule production line will be up and running. I'm sorry, Chadvey, there's just no other alternatives at this point. The contracts go to the Company now. Look, even in the best case, DUOS was a dead end. We all knew that. It just doesn't have the endurance..."

"Endurance? What d'you mean, endurance? It's go to low orbit for a few days not to the bloody--"

The room, the hall, the whole world seemed to go silent, save for the distant ticking of a clock. Around Valentina, unnoticed, the shadows shifted. For her part, she dared not even breathe. 

And then, Chadvey Kerman let loose with a tempest of guttural, vowelless syllables that could only be Gednalnan swear words.

"Bloody hells! All the Nine Bloody Hells! Of all the-- so that's what this is really about! Blind me, Ah'm s'bloody stupid!"

"Chadvey, just please calm down..."

"The Mün!"

Valentina jumped as a hand slammed down on the desk again. Distantly, she wondered if the shouting had drawn anyone else's attention, but didn't dare look.

"You wanna send someone to the bloody Mün!"

"Please, keep your voice down!" Gene strained.

"Blast it, Gene you're going t'get someone killed! We're not ready yet!"

"The Board thinks an audacious program with a clearly defined goal will synergize public sup--"

"We've barely gotten anyone into orbit! Not even the bloody Ussaris--"

The Mün? She drew back again. This, this must be what the Kommissar wanted her to find out! A new KSA craft capable of reaching the Mün. But to what end? Chadvey was right, the only talk she'd ever heard back home was entirely academic, not even the Union could send a ship to the Mün!

At least, not if they wanted them to come back. Alive. 

She needed to hear more. Carefully, still not daring to breathe, she inched closer to the doorway. 

Then jumped back, barely stifling a gasp as Chadvey's hand slammed against the far side of the thin wall. She could just see the tips of his fingers gripping the door frame. 

"Blind me! Cor, blind me, Ah'm so bloody stupid," Chadvey whispered only a few centimeters away... where only Valentina could hear, "he's doin' it again... tear ourselves apart..."

"I'm sorry Chadvey, I really am," Gene said consolingly, "but this is out of my hands. I'm only the Flight Director..."

Valentina felt Chadvey stir through the wall, "flight director..." he breathed. 

Muffled thumps as he stalked back across the office, then a soft creaking as he leaned over Gene's desk, "then send me."

"What?" Gene breathed, "you? To the Mün?!"

"You're the Flight Director, only you have the authority to choose the mission crews. So you send me."

"I... can't do that..." she could almost hear Gene shrinking back, "we can't risk you, you're too..."

The desk creaked more, and all at once, that dangerous edge found Chadvey's voice again, "you do this, Gene, or Ah'll go see mah damn fool brother, the King of Gednalna. And shut. This. Place. Down."

Gene's own voice was barely a whisper, now, "you... you wouldn't..." then questioningly, "you... you couldn't...?"

"Ah'm the thirteenth son of King Tyrion I, the Spider of Edinkergh, Ah grew up- survived- in his court."

Valentina imagined Chadvey's face only a hair's breadth from Gene's. 

"Ah've learnt how to pull a few strings," he hissed. 

"You... want this that bad?" Awe plain as Gene spoke. 

"No Gene, Ah don't," Chadvey said quietly, consolingly, "Ah want nothing to do with it. But Ah kinna let you risk anyone else on this fool's errand. And maybe if it's mah face up there... those fools will think just a little bit harder about it."

Tension hung in the air. Valentina wondered when she'd last taken a breath. Above her, the shadow played. It was silly, but... it seemed like the whole world hung on this moment. 

"All right. All right, you win, Chadvey," Gene finally said after a long sigh, "you'll be the first Kerbal on the Mün. I give you my word."

Valentina let out an achingly long breath herself, and rested her head against the wall. 

"You might as well have a seat again," said Gene, sounding a bit more like himself, "we have a lot to go over."

Shuffling papers, and more muted voices came from the room. Valentina frowned. Well, it was plain she wouldn't get a chance to talk to Gene right now. Best make herself scarce before--

The shadow shifted again...

Click-click

...and the soft, metallic noise made her blood run cold. 

"Well, now. It is amazin' what y'all can overhear listenin' in at doorways. Ain't it?"

 

Edited by CatastrophicFailure
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On 22/06/2016 at 6:52 AM, CatastrophicFailure said:
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Actually when I started that save back in .25 it was still the 6.4x mod by a different author. IIRC my biggest problem trying to do anything with those early game SRB's and DeadlyReentry was that they tended to liquefy the pilot. Getting something there and back again really was quite an accomplishment.

 

Yes, a coin toss between that or the nose chute exploding on the way up. It took me completely by surprise the first time, I hadn't even considered that it was also Deadly Ascent. Too many of my early career records were gained by already-doomed kerbonauts, until I learned how to configure Deadly Reentry for the larger scale. Isp = ill-starred space program.

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3 hours ago, CSE said:

Yes, a coin toss between that or the nose chute exploding on the way up. It took me completely by surprise the first time, I hadn't even considered that it was also Deadly Ascent. Too many of my early career records were gained by already-doomed kerbonauts, until I learned how to configure Deadly Reentry for the larger scale. Isp = ill-starred space program.

Indeed, my first forays into 6.4 scale were quite, well, Kerbal. Turns out suborbital is actually harder. The Ussaris did it right, they used sounding rockets. :D

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Chapter 64: High Noon

Valentina turned, slowly, to find J.R. grinning down at her. One hand brought a single finger to his lips, the other drew back his black suit coat, showing the grip of what was tucked into his belt. He had the feral, hungry grin of a cat that had finally cornered the mouse... and now it was time to play. 

She quickly weighed her options. Gene and Chadvey were only meters away, and didn't seem to have heard. Dozens of people at the other end of the hall. Someone would get hurt. J.R. couldn't be this brash, could he? Those calculating eyes... No, those were the eyes of a predator. He had every advantage, and he knew it. Best not to test him, at least not yet. This Kerb was dangerous.

As if reading her thoughts on her face, his grin widened. He nodded toward the main room, letting his coat drop but keeping his thumb hooked over his belt nearby, never taking his steely eyes off her. Valentina grit her teeth, and began walking. A moment later, she felt a hand wrap her shoulder in a thousand unsettling ways. 

"Now we're gonna take a little walk, you an' Ah," J.R. hissed, still looking down at her from the corner of his eye, "like Ol' friends. An' you gon' put on a great big Exast smile for Miss Sally over yonder. Be a shame if there were a... incident."

Valentina forced the edges of her mouth up. Fingers pressed into her flesh, finding nerves, moving her along like a puppet. She spared a glance toward J.R.'s belt. Only a few centimeters way... how fast could he react?

No. Underestimating this Kerb would be a grave mistake. Grave, indeed. 

As they passed into the room full of office workers, J.R. raised a hand and boomed in a loud voice, "tarnation, ol' Gene's busier than a one-legged Kerb in a butt-kickin' contest, s'pose we'll just have to come back later."

Valentina tensed. 

The other hand squeezed. He tipped his huge hat to the secretary.

"Well now, Miss Sally! Lovely day, ain't it? How're the kids?" His eyes flicked to Valentina for just an instant, "growin' like weeds, Ah reckon, what with yaw fine cookin'."

"Oh, Mister J.R.!" Sally waved a playful hand at him, "you old flatterer!"

"Ah swear, Miss Sally here makes the best can pie this side of the Tethys," he grinned at Valentina, "it is simply to die for."

"Oh, you!" Sally giggled.

Valentina forced herself to relax. PЦTIЙ! PЦTIЙPЦTIЙPЦTIЙ...GФЯЬДCHЗV! How had could she have been so foolish? Letting him sneak up on her like that. She'd been in this place too long, and she'd let her guard down. STДLIЙ! And now she was trapped. 

"Love to stay and chat, but Ah'm afraid mah comrade and Ah," he squeezed Valentina's shoulder again, "have some urgent business to discuss."

"You have yourself a lovely day," he said to the secretary, tipping his hat once more. She waved as he led Valentina to the elevator. 

"That's right, you're a smart one. You know when you been git," he said softly as they waited for the lift, "you jus' keep playin' it very cool."

The elevator doors binged open and they stepped inside. Valentina kept searching for any way out of his grasp, any advantage, but came up wanting as the doors slid shut. 

"What do you want?" She said softly, staring straight ahead.

"The only thing Ah've ever wanted," J.R. grinned, "just to talk."

The doors opened on the next floor, ending anything further, and Lolli Kerman stepped on, all bright smile and perpetually closed eyes. 

"Oh, hi Miss Valentina!" She squeaked, "Mister J.R!"

"Well, good mornin', cupcake. Though Ah s'pose it's not really mornin' any more," the hand squeezed.

Valentina's stomach jumped as the car dropped.

"Isn't it?" Lolli chirped, "wow I guess not, busy day as always!"

PЦTIЙ! PЦTIЙPЦTIЙPЦTIЙPЦTIЙ!!!!! This one had fight in her, but... no, the risk was too great.

Lolli wrinkled her brow, "are you all right, Miss Valentina? You look kinda pale."

"Am fine," she forced a smile, "er... too many cheeseburgers."

"I know, right?" The other Kerbelle beamed, "get a bad one and they just tear you up all day."

Valentina forced herself to remain calm, keep her shoulders relaxed. A drop of sweat slid down the back of her neck. And all the while, J.R. just grinned and grinned, showing far too many teeth. Finally, the doors binged open on the lobby. 

"Oh well, this is my floor too. Back to training! Toodles!" and she bounced off. 

The hand prodded Valentina onward, through the masses of bustling, oblivious people and swarms of cadets inside, and out into the blistering tropical sun. All the while she cursed herself, for letting her guard down, for not seeing the obvious. J.R. led her across the campus, past more people blindly going about their days. Blindly, save for that tiny mental seed that why yes, they had seen J.R. that day, walking with around Valentina like the best of friends...

Finally, they came to a wide, open area not far from the Research Center, but just distant enough from everyone else. 

"That's far enough," he spat, and shoved her forward. Valentina took three or four stumbling, off balance steps, trying not to go sprawling onto the pavement. She spun around, squinting against the sun now glaring down into her eyes. J.R. just grinned from beneath the shadow of his silly, wide-brimmed black hat. His face seemed to disappear into that shadow, save for those chill eyes and that horrible, horrible grin. His teeth almost looked sharper. He stood there, implacable, his thumbs casually hooked into his belt. 

"What do you want?" Valentina spat again. 

"Well, it's not about what Ah want, it's about what you want," he slithered, "though it does seem the scales have shifted. Espionage while under color of diplomatic privilege..."

He shook his head slowly, "where Ah come from, that's still a hangin' offense. Even here, yaw immunity won't help you."

Valentina said nothing, just tried to hold that gaze like cold steel. 

"Ah can make awl this go away. Make it awl just a... bad dream, if you will," the grin widened. 

"And if I tell you to shove it in dark place?" She sneered. 

The grin crept wider. His fingers flexed about his belt. 

"Then Ah'm'a gonna have'ta get mah hands dirty. And Ah do so hate gettin' mah hands dirty."

She glanced around at the distant workers, "there are people about. They will hear. And see."

"Oh, Ah reckon they'll hear somethin'. What they thought they saw, now... well that's all a matter of perception. And Ah've found perceptions to be highly susceptible to the right kinda persuasion." 

The grin faltered for an instant, "now it don't have to be like that. It don't need to be like that. You don't like me, and that's fine, you ain't gotta like yaw teammates. You just gotta play ball with 'em."

"We ain't that different, you and Ah," the cast of his eyes seemed to subtly change, loosing none of their iciness but somehow burning with fire as well, "we both see what's wrong with the world. Mister Kerman wants to change all that. He wants to build a better world. Build better worlds."

"Mister Kerman," Valentina said slowly, "you speak of Layland Kerman."

The barest hint of a nod, "Mister Kerman is a visionary. Some might even say a prophet. He wants to better everyone, lift everyone up. But he needs everyone's help to do that. He needs yaw help."

He raised a hand. Offering? Beseeching? His eyes grew wide. 

"Just... just think about it for one minute... a world, without borders. Without scarcity. Without..," PЦTIЙ, that grin! "...politics. A world with no Imperium breathin' down yaw neck, no political officers checkin' yaw papers. No Kerbs coming in the dark of night... and draggin' yaw family away."

His eyes narrowed, as he saw something in her own, "you can be a part of that brave, new world."

Thought rode roughshod through Valentina's head, each toppling the next. Finally, one shone through the others. 

"And what of Jebediah Kerman?" She countered, "where is he in your brave new world?" 
 
"The journey is long, and the night is full of terrors," fire flared in J.R.'s eyes again, "surely you can see that sacrifices... must be made."

Just as quickly, the ice returned, "Mister Kerman holds no grudges. Even ol' Dean came to see the light, once he found the right... perception."

The final piece clicked into place, "you... you killed him?!"

"Well no, Ah didn't kill him," J.R. sounded genuinely offended, "Ah just... made some arrangements. Truth is, no one else killed Dean either. Ah just had a little heart-to-heart with him. Suggested it'd be a cryin' shame if'n anythin' untoward happened to his young wife an' brand new baby girl. Cryin' shame, indeed. He became most amenable after that. Completely willing to, uh..." 

He grinned, PЦTIЙ he grinned!

"...take one for the team."

Valentina shrieked back at the edge of tears, "you son of a--!"

The grin widened, "you learnin' the real important words now. Won't be long 'fore you sound like a native. Ah told you there'd be a good faith offerin'. An example. Of just how far Mister Kerman is willin' to go for his friends, and... his enemies."

Balling her hands into fists, it was all Valentina could do to hold her ground. He wanted her to charge, he wanted it. The excuse played over and over in her mind in his drawling accent, caught her spyin' yah see. Tried to talk some sense into her, get her to hear reason, turn herself in peaceful-like. Came at me like a wild animal. Why, it was just self-defense, yuh hona'... just self de-fense.

"Now Ah told you Mister Kerman don't hold grudges," he prattled on, "that lil' lady won't want for anythin' the rest of her life, an' when her lil' baby come of age, why, she'll have her pick of any university in the country. Maybe the world. Ah'm sure she'll make a fine team player, just like her dear ol' daddy Dean."

"Donald!" She took a step, "his name was Donald! Did any of you even know?! Did any of you even try?"

"Why, Ah reckon you had a soft spot for the ol' boy. Well ain't that sumpthin'," the grin faded again, "it still don't gotta be like this. Ah'll give you one last chance, to hear reason. You can name yaw price, this is a negotiation, after all. You ain't the money-lovin' type, so what'll it be? What do you want more than anything else in the world? Go on, gimme a challenge. Ah do so love a challenge."

With resignation, she bowed her head... and pointed vaguely in the direction of the sea, "I want you. To take long trip. Off short dock."

The hideous grin widened until it split his face in two, "so be it."

"You've made yaw choice," his fingers flexed at his belt, "now make yaw move."

 J.R. fixed her with that icy gaze, that feral grin, and Valentina knew then that she had been wrong. About him. About everything. Those soulless eyes did not belong to a predator, but to a killer. And worse, a fanatic. Yet only the tip of a very long spear that was now pointed directly at her. And she knew that it was too late now to stand out of the way. She'd been stalked and driven, and there was only one way this could end. Tensing, she prepared for the inevitable. 

The ground quaked, and a flash drew her eyes. 

"Heads up!" Cried someone. 

"Line drive!" Screamed another. 

Something sparked across the concrete once, twice, steel met flesh, warm spray hit burning pavement, and Valentina gasped as fire bloomed at her chest. The harsh glare of the sun faltered, dimmed, then all the light went out of the world. 

Edited by CatastrophicFailure
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Awesome job, you can really feel the story stalking poor J.R. as he stalks Valentina. Normally this mob-enforcer-explosively-encounters-Lovecraftian-reality-warping would count as great drama, but in these days of enhanced political flexibility it's a very welcome light relief. Many thanks!

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"That's right, you're a smart one. You know when you been git," he said softly

Yes, she's the smart one. She's not tempting fate. Not everyone knows when they've been git, J.R.

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And all the while, J.R. just grinned and grinned, showing far too many teeth.

Well, maybe too many, maybe not. All depends how much you've bitten off, doesn't it.

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" and the night is full of terrors," fire flared J.R.'s eyes again,

Poor old J.R. He was doing quite well. If only he hadn't named it ...

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...and since I missed it last time, once again big thanks go out to @Ten Key, who probably deserves an official editing credit by now.  _ador.gif

 

Chapter 65: O Brave New World

Plip...

Plip...

Plip...

Crimson, now freed, soaked into Valentina's clothes, clung to her skin, dripped from her trembling fingertips onto the uncaring concrete. Her lungs fought for the thick, tropical air. The world had become still, and restless. Slowly, her eyes fluttered open. 

She never saw where it came from, but that didn't matter anymore. Where it was now, had most recently been occupied by J.R. Kerman's right eyeball. The rest was sticking out of the back of his head. 

"Guk," said J.R. Kerman, and toppled over backwards. For a few moments he twitched, and then all was once again still. 

Valentina stared on in shock, unmoving, untouched. At her chest, the last warm flares of the Münstone slowed, then faded away. A pall of oily black smoke rose over the nearby research center. Around her, blood soaked into the thirsty, burning pavement like the bitter understanding now soaking into her mind. For just an instant, she'd thought she'd seen... felt... but no. She'd been wrong, she'd been so wrong. 

About everything.

In the distance, sirens began to wail.

***

It had all happened so fast.

Valentina stood amidst a vast crowd of people, the constant murmur broken by the occasional "oooooh!" or "aahhhhh!" The journey from Exast took weeks by ship, yet these had arrived in only days. Days, since the moment she'd faced J.R. beneath the blistering sun. Today, wandering clouds tempered that sun, while a pleasant breeze brought fresh, clean air from the sea. 

The massive form crept by on its hundred-wheeled self-propelled modular trailer, still clad in bright white shrink wrap. Despite laying on its side, only half a meter above the ground on its carrier, it towered nearly four meters over Valentina's head, and seemed to stretch in either direction to infinity. And this was only one piece. 

They called it "Colossus." Someone had explained the word to her. It fit. It was the largest, heaviest, most powerful rocket ever conceived anywhere, by anyone. Five hundred tonnes at launch, nearly double the heaviest lifter the Ussaris had, with an estimated 25 tonnes to orbit. A number that was expected to increase. 

In one fell swoop, the foundering Kerbal Space Administration was now poised to lap the mighty Ussari Space Program. As the enormous stage pivoted away around an impossibly tight corner, Valentina could plainly see why. Even beneath their protective shrink wrap, the resemblance of the four main engines to the ones that powered nearly every Ussari rocket was undeniable. Only these were much, much larger. 

Following the enormous core stage, came a much more ordinary looking crate behind an ordinary looking truck, the angular "Layland Heavy Industries" logo plain on both. The murmurs of the crowd rose in intensity. Inside, was the Medium Utility Launch-Experimental. Everyone just called it the Mule. Valentina didn't get the reference.  

Here, was the KSA's long-awaited answer to the Union's Zarya, a three-person spacecraft that could maneuver, dock, and, some whispered, even go to the Mün. Controlling it would be a state-of-the-art computer system supplied through a partnership with Wutani Kokuni. They called it, the Mechanical JEB. Neither the slight nor the irony was lost on Valentina. 

Behind the crate on its truck, more immense shapes stretched off in a long line towards the port, where tankers waited in turns to offload their cargo of cheap, storable, safe propellium. At least, that's what the faces on the news programs said, the newspaper articles, the radio broadcasts. Enough for dozens of launches. 

None of which would happen for at least a year. These massive constructs slowly rolling by were only mockups, needed just to design and build the equally massive hardware to manipulate them. Ahead there would be months, yet, of training and testing shakedowns, but the outcome was as clear as this brilliant tropical winter's day: Layland Heavy Industries had saved the KSA. Rockomax would continue on, producing brackets and fittings and sundry things, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of "The Company."

As it was, J.R. Kerman's unfortunate accident had received little attention. Valentina had been interviewed by various authorities, signed a short statement. Just a horrible, horrible accident. She didn't mention his offer. Or his threats. 

What was the point?

Surrounded here by babbling Kerbals, catching snippets here and there, "Layland has saved us... Layland the genius! Layland, the Hero! Layland for President! Layland for King!" the harsh reality of this place was also blindingly clear.

She had been wrong. About everything.

Never make noise, do what you must to survive. And never, ever take sides.

Her Deda had been right, in that time a world away. This force... this power... that could drive haughty, self-absorbed Donald Nelson Kerman to suicide for its own ends, that could toss away devoted J.R. Kerman like so much trash as soon as his usefulness expired, that broke every rival and then devoured them...

Sadly, alone in the throng, she shook her head. It was often said, that the Imperium ruled the Ussari Union with an iron fist, but this place...

This place was ruled by a silken whisper, from a fleeting shadow. And how could she fight that?

How could anyone?

And what would the cost be even now, to the ones she cared for? Now, that the predator had her scent. For now, only one thing was certain. 

It was time to go home.  

Edited by CatastrophicFailure
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Well we knew things were heading that way from Shadows... but darn. :( 

Poor Bob. Bracket-maker in chief to the son-of-a-RatSquirrelFish that did for Jeb.

 

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On 7/1/2016 at 3:35 PM, CSE said:

Awesome job, you can really feel the story stalking poor J.R. as he stalks Valentina. Normally this mob-enforcer-explosively-encounters-Lovecraftian-reality-warping would count as great drama, but in these days of enhanced political flexibility it's a very welcome light relief. Many thanks!

Yes, she's the smart one. She's not tempting fate. Not everyone knows when they've been git, J.R.

Well, maybe too many, maybe not. All depends how much you've bitten off, doesn't it.

Poor old J.R. He was doing quite well. If only he hadn't named it ...

I keep grinning at this. :D

Fascinating and absolutely unironically valid interpretation cuz that's not at all what I was aiming for. 

17 hours ago, KSK said:

Poor Bob. Bracket-maker in chief to the son-of-a-RatSquirrelFish that did for Jeb.

Erm... for better or worse, poor Bob didn't quite live to see that...

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Well, I just got back from vacation, and yay, two moar chapters to read! I am now really excited to see Val punch the Kraken in the face.

Edited by vsully
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19 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

Erm... for better or worse, poor Bob didn't quite live to see that...

Oh SТДЦЙS SШЕДТУ SФСКS, I forgot about that. :(

Either way, that last chapter had a real melancholic, end-of-a-glorious-dream feel to it.

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Chapter 66: All Good Things...

Gus Kerman grit his teeth, flexed every muscle in his face in vain hope it would lessen the onslaught. He squinted tearing eyes, cursing for the thousandth time for putting himself in this unfortunate position. Never, never again would he switch out the crew chief's coffee with decaf. 

Not even the thickest bunny ears he could find, stuffed full of tissues, seemed to make the slightest dent in this infernal noise. With arms that trembled, he continued to guide the wailing Converter toward its parking spot. 

At last, at long last, its wheels reached the painted marker on the ground. Gus raised the paddles in an X over his head, then drew one back and forth across his throat over and over again. Finally, the shrieking racket began to abate. He slid the chocks around one strange-looking wheel, then wandered off to go rethink his life. 

Occasionally rapping at his head with a fist. 

Behind him, the small crowd of Kerbals cautiously approached the aircraft, also rapping at their heads or making silly "oooo-WAAAH" faces to clear their own ears. The hull door slid open and a face appeared, one Valentina was exceptionally glad to see. 

"TIIIIIIAAAAAAA!" Dibella squealed as she hopped down from the plane, "I--oh!" She twisted her ankle on a small rock on the pavement, taking two or three long, stumbling steps before crashing headlong into--

"I've got you!" Jorrigh smiled down, having deftly caught her about mid-chest. They stared at each other for a moment, then both blushed furiously and they quickly separated themselves, with lots of awkward coughing and furtive glances. 

Valentina gaped. It seemed to take Dibella a minute to realize why she was there in the first place. 

"Oh... TIA!" She recovered and glomped into Valentina, "I've missed you so much!"

Valentina enjoyed the welcome, slightly crushing hug, "I have missed you too," she nodded toward the Converter, "were you able to..."

Dibella grinned, and winked, and... glanced back at Jorrigh.

With a roll of her eyes, Valentina turned to the small crowd. Feeling more than a bit awkward once again, she spoke slowly and carefully. 

"My friends! This is my other good friend and comrade, Dibella Kermanov, of the Ussari Space Program," nods and friendly mutters, "where I come from, in Kerberia, it is an old tradition, when a guest departs, to present their host with small tokens of their appreciation."

She approached Jorrigh, who was not at all glancing back at Dibella when he thought she wasn't looking, and offered a hand, "Jorrigh, my friend, I shall see you again in one month, no?"

"No... I mean, yes! I mean..," his attention stumbled, then he straightened, and said in Ussari, "I am this yuo, blue of cats, where cheese abundance."

Valentina opened her mouth. 

Valentina closed her mouth. 

Jorrigh's face fell into a dejected pout that, by the look on her face, Dibella found rather adorable, "I'll never learn Ussari, will I?"

"I have just the thing," Valentina grinned, then nodded to Dibella, who was--

Valentina cleared her throat. 

"Huh? Oh!" Squeaked Dibella in a very un-Dibella-like way, before scurrying back over to the Converter and returning, with difficulty, carrying an enormous book that was quite a bit thicker than it was tall. She passed it to Valentina, herself nearly buckling under the weight, who passed it to Jorrigh. His eyes moved over the Kerillic letters on the cover, brow pinched, lips moving slightly, before the pout returned. 

"Is Student's Edition Compilation of Greatest Ussari Literature: War, Peace, Crime, Punishment, Pride, Prejudice, and a Nasty Hernia. You read this," Valentina laid a hand on the cover, "and soon you speak like real Ussari, ?"

"! I mean, yes... I mean... thanks!" Jorrigh said, but he had gone back to absolutely not peeking at Dibella who was absolutely not peeking back at him. 

Valentina sighed, and stepped to Edmund, "Mister Edmund, or shall I now say Commander?"

He grinned as he shook her hand, "hah, I suppose the cat's out of the bag, now. Never expected to get the first Mule flight, after everything."

"It is well deserved," she smiled back, "have you chosen your crew yet?"

"I do need an experienced pilot, I was thinking of asking Jorrigh, here--" he turned to Jorrigh, and stopped, his grin widening, "well, would you look at that..."

Jorrigh seemed to be flexing his arms a bit more than was strictly necessary to heft the massive book. Had... had he always had biceps like that? And did... yes, Dibella did just bat her eyelashes at him! Valentina groaned. She suspected that, book or no book, Jorrigh's Ussari skills would shortly be making an uncanny improvement. 

Edmund chuckled, "hope that doesn't distract from his training. Anyway, Gene wants one of the rookies along too, as an engineer. Got my eye on one fellow, bright kid, learns fast. And when he fixes something, well it stays fixed, by gum!"

"I wish you all the best," Valentina said, then cleared her throat at Dibella again, who was absolutely positively not making eyes at Jorrigh who was absolutely not blushing furiously again. After another delay, Dibella returned with a small, oblong box.

"You will be doing much documenting on your historic flight," Valentina handed him the box, "you may find this useful."

Edmund opened it, and his eyes grew wide.

"Is latest in cutting-edge transcription technology!" She pointed, "titanium and stainless steel frame is light as it is strong, nitrogen-pressurized cartridge works under water, in vacuum, even in zero-G; and synthetic polymer ink is impervious to any temperature extreme. Is first released production model, straight from factory, with serial number."

"Wow..." He muttered, transfixed, "ain't that a thing..." Gingerly, he lifted the pen from its box. He turned it over in his fingers, watching the light glint off the slotted, machined surface, hefted the weight, held it up, and sighted along the perfectly straight barrel.

"I mean, I was just gonna use a pencil, but this is incredible," he slid it into his shirt pocket, and took her hand once more, "if there's ever anything I can do for you, just ask."

Valentina smiled, "we will meet again, soon."

Jerdous was waiting for her next, "Vseh blag, moy drug, we will watch your career with great interest."

She looked around, confused, "who is 'we?'"

"Oh, just a little more archaeologist humor," he grinned, "don't mind me."

"Yes, um," she thought for a minute, "do not, how you say? Quit your day job."

An eye roll, "we do tend to be a dry lot. Moisture's generally bad for the artifacts."

Valentina looked to Dibella again, who had once more gotten waylaid passing by Jorrigh and was absolutely, positively not gazing sidelong as him when he was absolutely positively not gazing sidelong at her.

"Ahem," grunted Valentina. Dibella sheepishly brought another box. 

Frowning, Jerdous carefully removed the item inside. He held it up, turned it back and forth, a wooden hoop laced with a web of fine twine, flanked by dangling feathers.

"I..." He paused, then grinned widely at Valentina, "I have absolutely no idea what this is!"

"They are very rare, even in Kerberia," she explained, "is custom of the people who live even deeper in the taiga than I did." Jerdous blinked at her.

"Is a dreamcatcher. Hang over your bed, and it will stop bad dreams, and only let good through."

"Bad dreams?" He muttered to himself, a subtle flood of emotions cascading over his face, creasing his brow. At length, he gave an odd little smile, "thank you. I'll always keep it close."

Valentina took his offered hand, "in two months, I will be watching your launch eagerly. If they let me. Good luck to you."

"Thanks," Jerdous smiled again, then nodded towards his brother, "good luck with him, too. You wouldn't believe what it took just to get him to show up." Burdous just glowered at the both of them over crossed arms.

Another glance to Dibella, another loud "ahem!" ЬЯЗZHЙЭVS SHФЗreally?! Had they even said a single word to each other yet? Another box proffered. Burdous just harrumphed and scowled. Valentina rolled her eyes, removed the top, and held it up again.

His eyes betrayed him and glanced down for an instant, but he continued his glare. They glanced down again, flicked to Valentina, scowl. Glance, flick, scowl. Flick, glance, scowl. Pout, glance, flick, double scowl. Then they locked on the item and stayed. A furrow worked its way across his forehead. Cautiously, as if expecting it to bite, he reached into the box... slowly drew the thing out... eyes flicking back and forth between it and Valentina all the time... held it up to view... and then, made the most undignified noise deep in his throat. 

His bulging eyes grew till they took up most of his face, "it's..! It's..!" They shot to Valentina, "how did you get this?!" Back to the thing, "you can't get these here! You just... you can't!" back to her, "who did you kill?!" Back to the thing, "how did you get this?!"

His brother finally leaned over with a questioning eye... bulge.

"It's..." Burdous squealed like a schoolchild, "it's a Solpugids tour shirt from the Crimson Square show!" He rounded on Valentina again, "how did you get this?!"

She turned to share a sly look with Dibella, who was... Oh STДLIЙS SШЗДTУ SФCКS!

Burdous chirruped again, "it's signed!" balled the shirt up to his face and inhaled deeply, "it smells of magic marker and sweat!" And made an even more undignified noise. Valentina grinned in spite of herself. 

"Thank you," he said with glistening eyes, "I will treasure it. Always." He wrapped her in a warm, genuine, not-at-all-creepy hug.

Gene assisted in peeling Burdous off and left him to cuddle with his shirt, still making disturbing little cooing sounds. 

"It's been a true honor to have you with us," Gene said, wiping his hands on his slacks, "we're down but we're not out yet."

And then, a bit more formally, "may this be the start of a new era of fraternity and cooperation between our peoples and efforts."

"Indeed," Valentina smiled, "this is only the beginning."

She didn't bother looking to Dibella, just walked back to the Converter herself to fetch the box from the hatchway, adding as she passed, "STДLIЙS STДCHЗ, just kiss and get it over with already." Dibella and Jorrigh looked at her, looked at each other, looked at the ground and blushed new and fascinating shades of red and green. 

Valentina held the new box out to Gene, "a nesting doll, right?" he asked.

"Like your speech, are many figures," she said, "and many layers. Great things have solid hearts, deep inside. Now, you, too, will become great. Always remember, what is inside." And inwardly winced. She hoped that sounded profound enough.

Cradling the large wooden doll in his hands, and looking better than he had in many days, Gene smiled, "thank you. I hope to see you again soon."

She took his hand in a firm grip, "to beginnings, then?"

"To beginnings," Gene beamed. 

And finally, she approached... "Chadvey."

"Valentina," he grinned... and bowed, "Ah'm a new Kerb, thanks to you."

She glanced down, smirking, "one who is still not opposed to wearing skirts, I see."

"It's the ancient tartan of mah family!" he huffed, "and besides, it breathes well in the humidity, and this sporran is absolutely practical for carryin' things."

"If you say so," winked Valentina, then looked to Dibella, who was... actually standing right beside her for once, holding the proper box. With a sly glance from the other Kerbelle, she passed the entire oblong, rather heavy box to Chadvey. He lifted the lid off and pulled back a bit of the white tissue paper packing, revealing a large bottle, or perhaps jar, filled with green liquid. 

"Aye, Ah do believe Ah know what this is," he smirked as he unwrapped it, "a wee dram of some of that famous, thrice-distilled Ussari GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"

Chadvey Kerman jumped a full meter into the air, sending the box flying, but Valentina deftly caught the bottle without missing a beat. 

"What in the bloody green blazes is that?!" He pointed, trying to hide behind a rather bewildered-looking Gene. Valentina held the jar up. 

"Is pickled mosquito head," she grinned, then waved her hand vaguely, "is only small one, though. Apparently is some silly import regulation on preserved insects over three kilograms, I do not understand such things."

Chadvey slowly approached and poked at the jar with a hollow, jar-like bunk-bunk sound, "it is dead, right?"

She frowned at him, "oh, no no no. The heads, they usually grow back. Is great renewable resource," she pointed at the head, "the proboscis muscles are very tender, go well with borscht and pelmeni, and the eyes make delicious spread for crackers or toast."

"Is that... so?" Chadvey sounded less than convinced, but took the jar/bottle anyway, being sure to keep it upright, then shrugged and smiled broadly, "Ah am goin' to miss you. Don't be a stranger."

"This place is quite strange enough already," Valentina said with a wry grin, "but... I shall miss you too. We will meet again." They hugged, and kissed cheeks, she went to return to the Converter, but... paused. 

A little ways off, the spaceplane pilots were huddled together, now in cadet blue, looking lost and rudderless. Had they always been standing there? Valentina stared at them a moment longer, none of them quite meeting her eyes.

She pursed her lips, and nodded to herself. Stiffening, and making tight, formal, corners, she stepped up to Waterfowl, stopping in front of him with a click of her heel. She touched fingers to her temple in a precise and slow salute, seeing confusion in his eyes. Then she unpinned the gold and ruby pilot's wings from her collar, took the other Kerbal's hand, and pressed the emblem into it. 

He looked at it, uncomprehending, for a moment, before snapping a salute in return... then lowering his hand in understanding. 

"I'll be your wingkerb any day," he said as Valentina shook it. 

"No," she smiled, "I will be yours."

And then the two of them looked up in confusion as, somewhere, a single electric guitar belted out a triumphant anthem. 

Valentina just shrugged. These people were so strange.

After more handshakes and salutes, she headed back towards the Converter again, pausing to collect Dibella who was still adamantly, inexorably not looking at Jorrigh who was adamantly, inexorably not looking back at her.

"She does speak Kerblish, you know," Valentina said to no one in particular as she dragged Dibella away by her collar and ushered her into the aircraft. With a shy grin, Jorrigh gave a hesitant little wave. , Valentina hoisted herself on board, rolling her eyes

Igor was collapsed off to one side, a hand tenaciously clutching a twisted longeron, his oxygen mask still in place. Frowning, she followed the hose back to its cylinder... and the one next to it marked 'halothane.' She shot Dibella a glare.

"Don't look at me," the other Kerbelle pleaded, "it was his idea!" She nodded to Junior Lieutenant Kerman, who was trying rather unsuccessfully to hide behind the pilot's seat. He quickly vacated once more, and stood next to it, quivering, with a terrified "please don't eat me" grin frozen on his face.

"Lieutenant..." Valentina grumbled. 

He quickly shot a trembling salute. 

Once more she rolled her eyes... and smiled, "get back in the seat."

Outside, the engines soon began their slow climb towards ear-shattering. Valentina hung in the open doorway, and waved one last time before the noise sent people scattering.

"Goodbye, and do svidaniya, my friends, I will see you all again!"

Rising on a cacophony, once more repelled from the ground by its own din, the Converter took to the air. Valentina slid the door shut and took her seat, thoughts rushing into her mind as any possibility for conversation fled before the noise. Besides, Dibella was still at the window-- oh for PЦTIЙS sake!!!!!  

The aircraft lumbered off to the north, climbing steadily, passing over the runway, the perimeter fence, and a blackened tree stump already being reclaimed by weeds. Valentina remembered, once, thinking she had been brought here for a reason. To do something. She shook her head. Such silliness, that wasn't like her. And even if she had, well... whatever she had been brought here for, she had failed. That much was plain. 

The little bundle of emotions in the back of her mind stirred again, but she pushed it away. It seemed to be getting dimmer, anyway. These were good people, strong people. Strange, too, but... they would be alright. Plotting corporations... sinister whispers... frogs... It was all just politics. And amphibians. Not her business. And even if it was... what could she do, a peasant girl from the taiga?

Another wave of coolness flashed across the gem against her skin. A rational explanation, surely. A rational explanation for all of this. Because if there wasn't... shuddering, she pushed that thought away, too. 

Don't make noise. Survive. And never, ever take sides. If you did... the Kerbs in the night would come... or perhaps the night itself. But what was worse... what truly terrified her, beyond even what she would admit to herself... the darkness might not only come with chains, but with an offer.

And there would always be... a price. 

On a warm, tropical winter evening, a small, loud, lonely airplane turned away toward the west, toward the mountains and the setting sun. Below it, reaching out from the desolate, dead, Mün-like peaks, shadowy fingers stretched out across the land. 

And deep in those shadows, with little more than whisper, something laughed. 

And laughed. 

And laughed. 

 

End of Act II

Edited by CatastrophicFailure
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2 minutes ago, 0111narwhalz said:

Right. 'Cause that's gonna stop us. :P

 

PЦTIЙS ЗДЯS you guys are fast some times. :wink:

That's up there when I'm doing my final edit online, so, read at your own risk. Occasionally involves pretty massive revisiosn, spilling, or autocorrect errors. And Ussari swear words.

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Another of those chapters where pointing out all the bits I liked would basically amount to re-writing it!

Looks like Jerrigh is going to learn all the Ussari. And speaking of which - I'm very flattered that my own little bit of the mother tongue made it's way into the story. :)

Loved the subverted Space Pen trope. And as for Chadvey's 'gift', well all I can there is riff on the author's own words...
 

Quote

"What was it this time, Chadvey? Wingsuits off K2?"

"Kite surfing at Rim Island?"

"Drinking tap water in Bhangdhong?"

"Ach, no, lads, nuthin' that harmless," Chadvey said with a wave, "Ah've been partaking of some light Ussari canapés ."

 

 

 

Edited by KSK
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