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File: TatamuOP.png (1.71 MB, 1500x835)
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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!”

(cont.)
>>
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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?”

(cont.)
>>
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)

“Uncle!”

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

(cont.)
>>
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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...

(cont.)
>>
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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?”

(cont.)
>>
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.

[VOTE OPEN FOR SIX HOURS]

Thanks for tuning back in, and apologies for the delay. Midterms happened.
>>
>>5263914
>>Join Holt’s crew to help get the crane back online.
>>
>>5263914
welcome back. much has changed.
>>
>>5263914
Welcome back Kaz!
>Join Holt’s crew to help get the crane back online
>>
>>5263914
>>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.
>>
>>5263914
>Join Holt’s crew to help get the crane back online.
>>
>>5263914
>>Help Aalto with restoring communication with Babylonia.
>>
>>5263914
>Join Holt’s crew to help get the crane back online.
>>
>>5263914
>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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>>5263926
>>5263930
>>5263933
>>5263935
>>5264159
>>5264409

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.”

(cont.)
>>
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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.

(cont.)
>>
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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…

“Razor…”

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.”

(cont.)
>>
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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.

(cont.)
>>
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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.”

(cont.)
>>
“…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.

[VOTE OPEN FOR TEN HOURS]
>>
>>5265037
>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…
>>
>>5265037
>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…
>>
>>5265037
>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…
>>
>>5265037
>Gully.
>Aalto.
>Kwan.
>>
>>5265037
>Day 1 Aalto
>Day 2 Gully
>Day 3 Kwan
>>
>>5265037
>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.
>>
>>5265037
>>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
>>
>>5265037
>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.
>>
>>5265834
Changing
>Aalto. Even with the comm array fixed, much of the ship’s electronic suite needs repairs.
to
>Kwan. Interrogating Gren, keeping the stolen boats afloat, interfacing with salvaged weaponry.
We captured him so we should be the one to ask him.
>>
>>5265037
>>>Kwan. Interrogating Gren, keeping…
>>>Holt. With her crew down several…
>>>Gully. The Magellan and Caprica…
>>
>>5265037
>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.
>>
>>5265034
What, no Attila anymore?
>>
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>>5268285
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.

Writing...
>>
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>>5265046
>>5265051
>>5265073
>>5265122
>>5265224
>>5265652
>>5265672
>>5265834
>>5265837
>>5266267

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

ACT THREE – THE RETURN

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.”

(cont.)
>>
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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.

(cont.)
>>
“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.

(cont.)
>>
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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.

(cont.)
>>
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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
>Gully

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?”

(cont.)
>>
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-

“DIAGNOSTIC COMPLETE.”

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.

Then…

“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.

(cont.)
>>
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.

(cont.)
>>
“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!”

(cont.)
>>
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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?”

“Gren.”

“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.

(cont.)
>>
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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.”

Oh!

“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.

(cont.)
>>
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.

[VOTE OPEN FOR EIGHT(8) HOURS]
>>
>>5270088
>Pay a long-overdue visit to Jean, Caroline and Tom.
>>
>>5270088
Accept Gully’s invitation for a movie.
>>
>>5270088
>Accept Gully’s invitation for a movie.
Maybe move on from his old crush?
>>
>>5270088
>>Accept Holt’s invitation for dinner.
>>
>>5270088
>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.
>>
>>5270088
>Pay a long-overdue visit to Jean, Caroline and Tom.
>>
>>5270088
>>Accept Gully’s invitation for a movie.
On one hand, our not-family. On the other, Gully.
>>
>>5270088
A tie? I'll break it.
>Accept Gully’s invitation for a movie.
>>
>>5271958
I appreciate the vote, but I'm afraid that at the cutoff time, the vote won out for Jean, Caroline and Tom.

Writing...
>>
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>>5270124
>>5270199
>>5270266
>>5270374
>>5270384
>>5270833

>>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.

(cont.)
>>
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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.

(cont.)
>>
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-”

(cont.)
>>
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…”

(cont.)
>>
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?”

(cont.)
>>
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.”

(cont.)
>>
“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)

[VOTE OPEN FOR EIGHT HOURS]

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.
>>
>>5278768
>“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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>>5278769
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.
>>
>>5278774
I’m writing the “Modern blades quest” right now. The players really liked my detailed description of combat!
>>
>>5278768
>>“So is it you or Tom that’s asking me to stay?” (Light)
>>
>>5278768
>“So is it you or Tom that’s asking me to stay?” (Light)
No need to spill any more spaghetti this day.
>>
>>5278768
>“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.
>>
>>5278768
>“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?
>>
>>5278768
>"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.
>>
>>5278768
>“I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)
>>
>>5278768
>"I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)
>>
>>5278768
>“I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)
>>
>>5278768
>“So is it you or Tom that’s asking me to stay?” (Light)
>>
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>>5278869
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.

Writing...
>>
>>5278768
>“I don’t think Jean would like it if I was here.” (Serious)

>>5278869
>>5279450
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
>>
>>5279450
Wait, I'm confused. You're saying she's NOT a hoor?
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>>5280826
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.

Writing...
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>>5278769
>>5278799
>>5278843
>>5278844
>>5278869
>>5278887
>>5278978
>>5279050
>>5279145
>>5279210
>>5280092

“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?”

(cont.)
>>
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.”

(cont.)
>>
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.

(cont.)
>>
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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.

(cont.)
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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...”

(cont.)





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