Planet Denerar, Imperium of Sidhae

Core industrial world

Population: ~ 85 786 300 000

Sometime around year 2630



There is something special about evenings on Denerar. The average off-worlder would no doubt characterize this planet as an overpopulated, polluted industrial hellhole, and from an objective standpoint, he would be right. Yet there is something oddly beautiful about the synthesis of industry and nature that best becomes visible at sunset. As Denerar's two suns approach the horizon, the sky assumes a deep red-orange hue. As it darkens, the lights from the countless urban spires piercing the sky well into stratosphere turn on and illuminate the cloud cover deep below. The last rays of sunlight illuminate the massive orbital ring encircling the entire planet in an inimitable shade of radiant gold, the many ships in orbit glinting in the sky brighter than the stars. As the night sets in, the orbital ring lights up just like the cities on the ground, and one can observe ships docking at the ring throughout the night.

But such breathtaking sights are mostly reserved for those who can afford to live in the upper spires. Government officials, prominent military commanders, industrialists - but mostly directors and managers of the planet's vast industries. Government and military brass generally prefer less crowded and polluted places, resort worlds like Eridanos IV, and business magnates tend to have their own private paradises on secondary and tertiary worlds. Most Deneraris, however, will never see the sky of their homeworld, nor ever set foot on its natural surface. They will live out their entire lives in the incomprehensibly-vast maze of concrete, synthrock and steel that covers much of the planet's surface, breathing the acrid-smelling air that's been cycled through filters and CO2 scrubbers for millions of times from the moment they are pulled from the progenitory vat to the moment the body recycling units are notified of their impending demise.

Most off-worlders would no doubt find such existence miserable. Yet Deneraris do not just endure their harsh artificial environs, but thrive in them and take pride in their ceaseless toil in the planet's numberless mines, smelters, refineries and industrial plants. For Denerar is the beating industrial heart of the Imperium, one of only odd-200 worlds to bear the proud title of "core industrial world". Enough consumer goods are produced here to supply the entire sector around. Denerar's continent-spanning military-industrial complex churns out enough weapons, ammunition and equipment to keep 50 legions well-stocked and in fighting shape even during the worst of conflicts. The titanic shipyards in the planet's orbital ring are among only a handful of facilities in the entire Imperium large enough to produce and service superdreadnought-class ships. So for all the hardships and inconveniences, Deneraris are a proud lot, even by Sidh standards.

So the arcology spires towering far above the clouds may represent the elite of Denerar's residents, but it is beneath the clouds where the real life of the planet goes on. Countless factory complexes that encase entire continents under a thick shell of concrete and metal operate under the perpetually-overcast sky. Thousands of chimneys and cooling towers belch smoke and vapor towards the sky, adding to the perpetual overcast, sparse flakes of industrial ash ever raining down from the dark clouds between the occasional shower of acid rain. Numberless flare stacks illuminate the surroundings at night, as does the hellish glare emanating from the massive ziggurat-shaped funnels built over the vast foundries that dot the landscape. Atmosphere processors that tower over this environmentalist's nightmare here and there are the only reason why Denerar is still marginally inhabitable at surface level. The din of industrial machinery never ceases here. Immense bucket-wheel excavators the size of skyscrapers shake the earth for miles around as they grind down entire mountain ranges to extract the ores concealed within. Smelting furnaces blaze and disgorge their incandescent contents with a volcanic roar around the clock, rivers of white-hot metal cascading towards the foundries. Slag heaps the size of mountains grow near the ore refinery complexes by the minute, resembling volcanoes as their constantly-growing peaks glow and erupt jets of flames and sparks, only being kept in check by different factories that grind away the cooled slag below to be processed in building materials. Inside the city-sized foundries and forges, titanic power hammers pound gargantuan blocks of glowing-hot metal into different shapes, each destined to become a part in some giant mechanism. Millions upon millions of miles of conveyor belts are constantly rattling in motion, delivering raw materials or unfinished products from factory to factory for further processing. Numberless robotic arms move in unison with mechanical precision, cutting, polishing, welding and doing innumerable other things that serve to shape the diverse array of products made in the factories. The whole planet sings with the never-ceasing rumble of industrial machinery. And amidst it all, in this rumbling world of cogs, bolts, chains and engines, walk its true masters - the Sidh workers who pride themselves on being just as much machine as men.

The residential areas, upon which the spires that tower many kilometers high are built, are just as bustling as the factories. The concept of night and day does not exist here in the perpetual purplish-blue glow of neon lamps and holographic advertisements. Giant screens broadcast patriotic propaganda, urging the citizens to work hard in the name of the State and the Emperor, or inform them of the latest battlefield victories won with the aid of weapons produced in their factories. On the street corners, the red-robed Wordbearers preach the holy Word to a flock of acolytes, all hooked up to the Imperium's datanet seeking digital communion with the eternal Emperor and ever looking to grow their flock of believers amongst the masses. But most attendance is invariably attracted by Denerar's numberless bars and nightclubs. Every other floor of every residential block has at one, and there are tens of millions of residential blocks across the planet.

Deneraris work hard and party hard, so violent altercations under influence of alcohol and/or drugs are a common occurrence around the clock in the lower residentials. The abundance of seedy establishments also attract various shady characters seeking to do all sorts of illicit business - even with mass surveillance technologies as sophisticated as those of the Sidh, the Imperial authorities can respond to maybe 10% of detected or reported crimes in a place as populous as this. So in most places, some semblance of law and order is maintained solely through the efforts of "private contractors" - freelance mercenaries, who are often little more than common criminals trying to put up a legitimate face. Naturally, the brand of justice dispensed by these "contractors" isn't exactly by the book from a legal standpoint, and tends to be of a harsh and summary nature, but the Imperial authorities rarely if ever care about a few Sidhae of questionable repute going missing or turning up dead. What matters to them is keeping the planet's industries running like clockwork, even if it takes sacrificing a million of their compatriots every day and flouting just about every Imperial law in existence to some degree.

It is one of these innumerable seedy recreational establishments frequented by working-class Sidhae and characters of questionable reputation like myself that I am currently at.

---

One would think there is no such thing as a Sidh prostitute. Officially, it is strictly forbidden as un-Sidh. A Sidh is, according to the holy Word and the law, meant to represent everything that is noble and pure - and selling one's own flesh for money to the pleasure of others certainly is none of that. A Sidh caught prostituting oneself can expect to be de-augmented, stripped of citizenship along with any accompanying rights, and cast out to live with the "cunt-borns" - unaugmented, naturally-born humans - where such depraved and base characters supposedly belong. Or more often than not simply shipped to the labour camps along with criminals and other social deviants to be eventually worked to death. Yet every rule has its exceptions, given the right circumstances. Living in the lower cities on a world like Denerar definitely qualifies as such a circumstance. Though work at the factories is paid well enough, it is still nowhere near enough to move to more spacious and comfortable residences in the upper levels of the city, let alone off-world to some less-crowded and polluted place. Joining the military or a colonization mission are the usual ways out, but even the military and the Colonial Affairs Department only need so many recruits at any one time. So for most, leaving Denerar is a distant dream which the authorities further discourage, seeing how they need a stable workforce to man the planet's vital industries. As a consequence, many take to augmenting their modest income through various illegal and semi-legal means. For many women, and more than a few men, this entails dancing in the local strip joint and also selling sexual favours to paying customers. Since most monetary transactions are digital and monitored by the authorities, and cash is hard to come by these days, the payment for certain favours is formulated as a "gift" - even though it is plain as day as to what a single woman receiving "gifts" from numerous men and more than a few women is occupying herself with. All in all, despite the involved risks, there is no shortage of willing participants in the sex trade, as fucking still pays more than pulling 12-hour shifts in a factory and is certainly more fun.

"Enjoy my little contribution," I grin, hitting the "Confirm" holo-key on my tacticom. A simple move of a hand sets in motion a chain of events in the cyberspace, a digital data package being sent out and bouncing from server to server at close to the speed of light, until some processor somewhere along the way determines that a sum of 500 aurons, formerly belonging to Marcus Aurelius Cato, a Freelance mercenary, will from now on be the gifted property of Sabine Quercus, officially a minor desk clerk in the residential administration, and informally a part-time "comfort girl".

"Much appreciated, baby," she laughs in her husky voice, brushing her hazel chin-length hair in front of the mirror, "You know I do this for the fun."

Girls like Sabine could be best described as courtesans rather than whores proper. They make a living doing their honest-to-Emperor day jobs, and tend to be quite picky about whom they fuck in exchange of monetary contributions, usually no more than 5 or so people at any one time. Besides me, Sabine has three more "sponsors" that I know of - a branch manager of the local ammunition plant's small arms section, an Urban Security optius in charge of policing Levels 530 to 535 in this hab block, and a female merc from off-world who frequently drops by for business. As anywhere, there's a hierarchy in the sex trade, especially in a place as structured and organized as the Imperium. The Sidhwomen mostly do it for the thrill of breaking a taboo, the money being merely a nice side benefit, and simply because they like to fuck. They usually stick with a limited number of "sponsors" in a sort of sugar-daddy arrangements, like my Sabine does. The human prostitutes occupy a lower status, most often being trafficked and enslaved, or otherwise coerced into the job against their will. Those poor broads don't get much choice about whom, or how many times they get to fuck, and consequently must cater to the most bizarre, depraved and perverted of tastes. Even though human settlement on the core worlds is forbidden, I know of at least five places just within walking distance of this hab where humans are kept either as slaves, or live illicitly through some other form of arrangement with their Sidh betters.

"Wanna have another go?" Sabine offers as I sit up to get dressed, "I'll make this one a freebie..."

She twerks her enticing backside barely covered by a skimpy tartan skirt before my eyes to emphasize her intent. I guess I fancy myself an ass man where it comes to taste in women. Sabine in turn seems to have a thing for roleplays, her choice for today having been a naughty human schoolgirl with me as the harsh principal who must punish her.

"Maybe later," I gently push her aside, "My boss doesn't like to be kept waiting for long."

"Aww..." she groans in disappointment before playfully planting her foot against my chest and pushing me back down on the bed, "Not even a speedy-weedy quickie?"

I feel the cool metal of her foot morph, projecting a pointy stiletto heel into my solar plexus uncomfortably. Sabine is all augmetics below mid-thigh. As she jests, that way she can save money on stockings and shoes. Admittedly I find her proposal tempting. As my hand runs up the inside of her thigh to where metal gives way to soft and warm skin, a buzz of my tacticom unfortunately interrupts any hopes for a repeated intercourse.

"Sorry," I sigh, looking at the avatar of my boss accompanying a new text message instructing me to get my ass to the meeting right now or else, "I really have to go."

"Alright then," Sabine reluctantly removes her foot from me and buttons up her tight white blouse that shines brightly in the black light illuminating the room, "Drop by when you are done then. And don't keep me waiting for long!"

---

One would think being a Freelancer is a life of freedom and license unseen anywhere elsewhere in the Imperium. In a way, that is true - in that nobody crams government propaganda down your throat 24/7, nobody tells you what and when to do, what to think and how to act, and there is no official constantly breathing down your neck and looking for the slightest excuse to fuck you over for being insufficiently "patriotic", "industrious", "proper" or whatnot. But to say that it's a life of absolute freedom is also far from truth. In reality, being a Freelancer is a full-time job no different from what one would get to do as a regular citizen, the only real difference being that there is no State to point a finger and tell you to do this or that, or else. A Freelancer must figure out all by himself what and when to do to avoid going hungry, something that is never really a problem for the regular state-employed Sidh. Consequently, for all the flamboyant air that Freelancers try to put up, their lifestyles generally aren't anywhere near as affluent and filled with leisure, adventure and sexual affairs as the popular imagination would have it. Hell, in fact a paid arrangement with women like Sabine is the closest thing to a romantic relationship that men like myself will actually ever get. For all the romantization of the fiercely-independent swashbuckling Freelancers, most Sidhwomen do prefer mates in more stable and socially-unquestionable positions.

I leave Sabine's dimly-lit room for a hallway, illuminated in hues of blue and purple. Nominally designated as "employee residential area" for the local nightclub, this is a place where part-time "comfort girls" like Sabine can meet with their patrons away from the prying eye of the authorities. The club manager obviously doesn't mind, being paid rent in return and the presence of the girls attracting paying customers. A couple other skimpily-dressed girls are out here, having a smoke and chatting. Hard to believe that in everyday life all these women are reputable citizens employed in industry, management or even minor government jobs. None are native to this hab for reasons of discretion, coming from the adjacent blocks where nobody may know of their alternate lives. On my way out, two platinum-blonde chicks in revealing gaudily-coloured outfits are making out passionately against the wall in a niche that houses a drinking faucet and a small utility hatch. One has four extra mecha-limbs grafted to her back, grasping her partner in an iron embrace with them, and I have little reason to doubt that she intends to put all four of them to creative uses shortly afterwards. In my experience, the services of the oldest profession in human societies are overwhelmingly used by men, where in ours the women visit the girls almost as often as the men do. Probably has to do with the different takes on sexuality - where humans pay a huge attention to it, going as far as to construct entire identities and subcultures around their sexual preferences, Sidhae generally regard sex as just another bodily need, no more deserving of special consideration than eating, sleeping or excreting. That's not to say my kind doesn't have their own taboos in that respect - no self-respecting Sidh man would, for example, take it up the ass from another man, because that's what women and slaves are for. Whatever one's preferences and vices, one is expected to always exercise discretion about them, so openly advertising anything related to sex or one's preferred role in it will certainly earn one no praise or respect in Sidh society.

The rhythmic beat of electronic dance music reaches my ears long before I even round the corner of the hallway into another hallway that leads to the club itself. Passing through the bead curtain that separates the "employee" area, I enter the club proper.

The Ion Maiden is perhaps the most popular establishment throughout floors 400 to 600 in this hab. The name is a witty pun on the club's centerpiece attraction - a giant holographic AI dancer, which the patrons can tip to shed pieces of her clothing just like the real strippers performing next to her. The especially generous can even request a private lap-dance in one of the private lounges. Behind the club's namesake who is made of literal ions, there's a dance floor surrounded by several cages with gilded poles, occupied by the establishment's living dancers. The dance floor is always occupied by a bunch of mechanically-shaking zyme-heads in outlandish costumes, who are often running an illegal digi-dope software in their mnemonic chips on top of a large dose of zyme and are in all likelihood seeing the sounds of music and smelling the movements of the dancers in the cages by now. Others are more busy drooling about the dancers and constantly tapping their tacticoms to transfer "tips" and "gifts" to the girls' accounts. To the left, there's an array of leather couches around tables where other patrons enjoy their drinks. Some are openly snorting lines of synthcaine or applying "eye candy" - zyme eyedrops. UrbSec would probably have a field day busting every other person in here if only they cared to - except that they don't, in no small part because many of them frequent this nightclub themselves to blow off some steam. As long as nothing too patently illegal and outrageous happens here and the more questionable ongoings are handled with discretion, it is deemed better by the authorities that the hard-working citizens of Denerar be allowed their fair share of forbidden pleasures in reward for their hard and dutiful service.

The bar is located to the right of the Ion Maiden display, and features mostly a selection of Sidhae lining the counter in various stages of inebriation. The three bartenders manning the place serve a selection of cocktails with colourful names like Five-Finger Death Punch, Woggo's Fist, Latgallian Depth Charge or Orbital Bombardment, all of which are apparently meant to be suggestive of their power to knock the consumer out and (presumably) generate a comparably memorable hangover. In all likelihood, the better part of the menu would cause death or induce coma in unaugmented humans - given the hardy augmented physiques of the Sidh patrons, the drinks must be correspondingly stronger and enhanced with additional ingredients besides alcohol to produce the desired levels of intoxication. For those with more traditional tastes, the bar serves a range of straight-up liquors and beverages, ranging from high-end Qadessian whiskey to the local brew of synth-malt beer which frankly tastes like diluted piss, and Victory vodka, which is essentially little more than industrial-grade ethanol with a fancier label.

Although I would stop for a drink, my employer is waiting, so I turn instead to the stairs hugging the wall behind the bar, leading up to the second floor where the VIP lounge is. Two stone-faced bouncers in sunglasses step in my way, each holding a compact but imposing auto-blaster. In places like these, it never hurts to have a couple hired guns around. After all, you can never know when some junkie hooked on digi-dope will suddenly have his circuits short out and start tearing the place up, or when some goons from the local gang (other than the one you are paying protection money to, that is) will decide to drop by and shake you down. Judging by their build and stance, these two are most probably down-on-their-luck ex-military types. Military service is the only way to full citizenship in Sidh society, and an absolute pre-requisite for any government office, however minor. Even most civil establishments and businesses will prefer full citizens to uninitiated civilians for any jobs above lower-level management. But naturally, not all who complete their minimum service term to earn full citizenship also get the promotions, benefits and social advancement expected to come with it. The ones who don't tend to end up like these two guys. Or like me.

The bouncers recognize me and let me pass, so I make my way upstairs. The VIP lounge that overlooks the rest of the club isn't much different from the lower area, except that there's more privacy and a more upper-class clientelle here. Local big-shots come here to talk business away from the public eye. Politicians, cops, merc captains and gangsters shake hands and strike agreements they otherwise shouldn't be seen striking in places like this. Among other things, the VIP lounge of Ion Maiden is the go-to spot for people looking to hire mercs. A small-time merchant who wants his ship protected against pirates, a lower-city businessman who has grown tired of being shaken down by the local gang, the local gang boss looking to arrange an "accident" for the said uncooperative businessman, or even an Urban Security precentor who wants the gang boss taken care of without a lengthy and expensive investigation or causing a big stink - all can be found here looking for men with the right set of skills that the Freelancers can readily provide.

As I arrive, the rest of my small outfit has already assembled.

"Took you long enough, Cato!" our boss announces with displeasure.

---

Lucretia Allenbrisk, going by the handle of Brisk, is the captain of our outfit of eight, "Brisk's Brigands". Our usual specialty is bounty-hunting and smuggling, sometimes of the very people who have a bounty on their heads - depends on whichever pays more. She's also the reason why I don't fuck other Freelancers - from what I heard, her latest tryst ended up scavved for his augs alive in a bad case of mistaken identity by a personal enemy of Brisk's. Other than having a stormy personal life riddled by poor judgement and bad consequences, Brisk is a reasonably-competent commander, having served in the Imperial Navy for a time before getting booted over a disciplinary infraction that, in her words, involved "excessive consumption of alcohol, fraternization with a superior officer and a violent disagreement with MilSec". Given her current flamboyant style, I frankly can't picture Brisk in a prim-and-proper Navy uniform.

"Business first, fun second," she sternly reminds me, aware where I've been spending my time, and gestures everybody to follow her.

"Had a fun time, Cato-buddy?" the voice of Krunk, the team's heavy gunner, rumbles at me from above as the lumbering brute plods next to me. Arminius Gundobad, nicknamed Krunk for his ability to manually crush just about anything he cannot shoot up, is a former serviceman of the Gamma Legion. Having seen more action than the rest of us combined, Krunk's body is a testament to his experience, there being little of his original flesh left. Although his boast of having absorbed enough punishment to bring down a dreadnought may be a little exaggerated, it's nonetheless obvious that the amount of injuries he has taken during his long service would have been enough to kill an ordinary human, or even a low-tier Sidh a dozen times over.

"You bet I did!" I retort curtly.

The three other of our collegues following close in tow are Alix Faye, the team's markswoman who dresses even more outrageously than the most debauched of Ion Maiden's comfort girls, Jedediah "Jedd" Smith, a converted human and a former Texark Mob hitman, and a colourful data-slicer known only as Zero-One. Zero-One's heavily-augmented androgynous body and synthetic voice leave none of us certain about what gender does he/she/it belongs to, or whether Zero-One is even an organic being at all. If the latter is true, then Zero-One must indeed be the most outlandishly-decorated and dressed android this side of the galaxy. Our two remaining companions, Elaine Dryas, callsign "Ellie", and Lucius Tarquinius Segovax, callsign "Gaul", remain lingering somewhere down in the club, pretending to be a couple and acting as look-outs for potential trouble. The deal we're here to make today is no simple matter - a fellow merc outfit is offering us 8 million aurons in cash and gold bullion for smuggling what they refer to only as a "high-value cargo" off-world. Given the diverse nature of Denerar's industrial produce, that could be anything ranging from a shipment of zyme to a "planet-buster" fusion bomb. Whatever the case, the price tag is heavy enough to trigger alarms even in the most reckless minds, so Brisk wants us all to look sharp and be ready for anything. After all, despite being tolerated to a degree, Freelancers aren't exactly on the best terms with the authorities, not to mention their often-violent internal rivalries.

Brisk leads us to the conference room - surprising as it may seem, Ion Maiden has one behind the VIP zone - guarded by another two armed bouncers. It is room illuminated slightly better than the rest of the club, though still retaining the eye-hurting neon purple-blue colour scheme. A refreshing break is the large glass wall with a view to the street outside, if the abyssal chasm between two hab blocks crossed by dozens of bridges and with skylanes of grav-cars running at dozens of levels could be called that. A giant holographic billboard on the opposite side of the street shows a smiling Asian girl in a sakura-coloured kimono eating noodles with chopsticks, advertising "100% locally-made" ramen by Soylent Industries.

"Our customers should be here shortly," Brisk states, checking her tacticom for time, and I sense she is nervous. Admittedly, I am a little too - whatever it is these other guys want smuggled, a price like that alone means Domestic Security probably knows about it, and that complicates things more than the local office of uncaring UrbSec could ever hope to.

"What do you think it is?" Krunk asks to nobody in particular.

"Dope, most probably," Faye shrugs indifferently, her voice purring like that of a seasoned seductress even when she's being indifferent, "Lots of it. Either the regular, or the digi-variety. Or both."

"Guns, maybe?" Jedd guesses, "The Feds and even the Scalies will pay handsomely for any new Sidh-tech heater they can get their hands on. As would a whole bunch of rivalling companies right here in the Imperium."

"The statistical probability of the article in question being narcotics or prototype firearms is low," Zero-One drones in his monotonous voice, "Mission parameters as delivered by Commander Brisk were very specific that the cargo will be delivered to us in our current location. The amount of firearms or narcotics associated with the offered payment would be impractical for on-site delivery." Though nobody is certain about the slicer's gender, I and the rest of the team have for some time settled with using a male pronoun when referring to Zero-One, which he/she/it doesn't seem to mind or care about either way.

"Well, whatever it is, we are about to find out," Brisk frowns, her glowing red ocular implants narrowing nervously.

Moments later, the elevator at the far end of the conference room opens, and our customers join us.

"Good evening, ladies and gents!" their leader announces himself. He's a lanky chap, sporting a long duster coat and a wide-brimmed hat with a leopard-skin band like some sort of Old Western outlaw - quite obviously a Freelancer, as no reputable Sidh would dress as gaudily. His glowing orange oculars, three days-old stubble on his cheek and the holstered handblaster hanging on his hip further enhance the roguish charm this guy is trying hard to project.

"I am called Ariovistus Metellus, and these fine folk are my partners in crime," he gallantly raises his hat and points at his companions.

The first two are burly blokes in similar duster coats who look nearly identical, both sporting a spikey "naval mine" hairstyle. Metellus introduces them as Nut and Washer. Judging by their near-identical looks, my guess is that these two are former soldiers from the same progenitory batch, belonging to one of the warrior genotypes that the progenitories these days churn out like hamburgers in order to replace Imperial losses on the frontlines. Behind them stands a pair of women. One is dressed as skimpily as our Faye, a very revealing and tight-fitting short blouse and denim shorts easily mistaken for a wide belt being pretty much all the clothing to her name. Both of her legs and arms are augmetic. Half of her head shaved, this lass wears the other half in a long tuft dyed a bright pink and has several piercings on her face that seems perpetually frozen in an angry scowl. This one is introduced as Shirin. The other woman looks very much the opposite of Shirin, being clad in a prim-and-proper businesswear, and could almost be mistaken for an accountant or secretary, were it not for a quad of ellegant mecha-limbs protruding from her back - military-grade, as far as I can tell. She carries a large briefcase and goes by the name of Talia. Lastly, there's a fifth chap, a weedy unassuming guy whose shaved head is bristling with implanted neural interface sockets. His eyes shine a lifeless green, and his slightly-shivering hands attest that he's taken on a bit too many neural augs for his own good. I've seen folks like him before, expert slicers, most of them. Flouting official regulations on how many enhancements of what type a Sidh may take at each augmentation tier, these guys cram themselves full of uncertified black-market augs to boost their already-formidable slicing skills. This comes at a cost, however, the extreme neural load gradually causing irrepairable physical and mental damage, so the lot of these Freelance slicers tend to come off as unhinged and eventually succumb to insanity and neural degeneration. This particular lad, introduced by his boss as Crypto, is still in the early stages of the process - but give it another 10 years, and he'll be a gibbering wreck raving incoherently as he is picked off the streets by the authorities and sent off to be euthanized and recycled.

The sixth man, however, looks like anything but Freelancer. Expensive business suit, clean-shaved face, hair neatly slicked back in one of the officially-approved male hairstyles for government employees. A high-end custom made tacticom and fine jewelry. That inimitable straight back and an air of arrogance characteristic to full citizens in offices of some importance. And the paranoid look of a chased beast in his faintly-glowing eyes. My guess is a government official of some rank, or should I say - former government official.

"Lastly, meet Mr. L.," Metellus introduces the man, "He is going to be your high-value cargo today."

Now it makes sense. In all likelihood, Mr. L. is guilty of taking one bribe too many, embezzling a few tax aurons too much, or simply of pissing on the wrong shoes under pretentious belief that he is too important and irreplacable to be called out for it. Now that the State Revenue Service, Domestic Security or a personal enemy of his is after him, Mr. L. has taken to spending his ill-gotten fortunes hiring Freelancers to smuggle him off-world before his pursuers can get their hands on him. With our outfit being the local smuggling experts, the mercs he has hired to protect him have taken to offering us a share of their apparently most generous pay in exchange for our assistance.

"I see," Brisk nods. It won't be the first time she has taken people-smuggling contracts, though it's certainly the first time the pay is this generous, "And where are we taking Mr. L.?"

"Anywhere that is not here," Metellus states, and his orange optics betray more concern than he wants to reveal, "Preferably as far from Denerar as you can reasonably get. Your payment should cover the expenses quite adequately. You will receive three million aurons up front, and the remaining five when Mr. L. feels you have taken him far enough to be safe. Our client insists that it is imperative that you leave immediately."

"Our ship is not fully replenished yet," Brisk objects, "We will need to resupply in one of the nearby systems."

"You can't!" Mr. L. exclaims, "They... they'll track you down!"

"Who are they?" Brisk inquires suspiciously.

"For reasons of discretion, the client does not wish to disclose details about his enemies," Metellus informs before Mr. L. can answer.

"They... They are very powerful people... You have no idea what they are capable of..." Mr. L. starts raving in terror.

"Mr. L., these fine folk are some of the best in business," Metellus tries to reassure him, "If they say they can get you out, they can."

"I don't like this one bit, boss," Krunk grumbles, "What if it's DomSec that's after him? Those are some boots we definitely don't wanna be pissing on."

"We've dealt with DomSec before, Krunk," Brisk objects, "Hell, half of our regular clients are on DomSec watchlist!"

"Who then? SRS? MILINT?" Faye wonders.

"SRS doesn't have half the teeth that DomSec does, and MILINT wouldn't bother with a civil administration office rat, because that's what DomSec is for," Brisk states, "Besides, it's not our concern. If the client does not want to disclose details, then it is not our place to ask. Especially not when we're paid this much for our discretion."

"Damn right it's our place to ask!" Krunk insists angrily, "If I am to put my ass on the line for this guy, I damn well better know what we're up against!"

"We are up against whatever the client pays us to be up against!" Brisk barks impatiently, "If you have a problem with that, then you better get looking for a new outfit to work in!"

"Hey, ease up you two," I deem it necessary to intervene, "You are both right! We should take the contract as agreed, but we also have a right to know who are we dealing with!"

"Well, it's complicated..." Metellus speaks, nervously twirling the collar of his duster. Mr. L., the real reason for this mess, is in the meanwhile too busy being abjectly terrified to be much use in clarifying things.

"Then make it un-complicated! Who excatly are these guys we're dealing with!?" Krunk barks at him.

"Commander Brisk, we may have a problem!" Zero-One interjects in his droning voice before Metellus can answer.

"What now?!" our captain turns to him impatiently.

In place of answer, our slicer taps a few keys on his tacticom, enlarging the holographic display for everyone to see. He's apparently been busy keeping an eye on the surveillance cameras all this while, and now zooms the view in on two suspicious individuals who stick out amongst the crowd like the proverbial sore thumb. An ash-blonde woman in shades and a skimpy leather outfit, and a burly man dressed in an old-fashioned suit like some Old Terran mobster from 1930's America approach several patrons, apparently asking questions, more than a few pointing up towards the VIP zone. What draws our attention is the woman showing pictures on her tacticom, a closer zoom revealing them to be the people from Metellus's outfit.

To further confirm our suspicions, Elly and Gaul call in.

"Boss, we got trouble! There's some broad and her goon snooping around, asking about mercs meeting up here today! I heard her say they're late for the meeting, and I'm pretty damn sure they ain't from our outfit!"

"These two chumps any of yours?" Brisk points Metellus to the camera feed.

"Sure ain't none of mine..." Metellus shrugs, "DomSec, maybe?"

At this moment, Mr. L., peeking over his shoulder, almost pisses himself in terror as he starts to shiver like a rad-meter needle near a crate of uranium.

"Oh, Emperor's blood... It's them... It's THEM! GET ME OUT OF HERE NOW! I'LL PAY DOUBLE... NO, TRIPLE!" he shrieks.

"Alright, alright! But first calm down and tell me who the hell are those two!" Krunk growls, grabbing him by the collar.

"Judicators! They're after me!" Mr. L. screams, "Now get me out of here!"

"Fuck...!" is all I and everyone else in our outfit besides our captain utter almost in unison.

The government authorities in the Imperium exercise broad powers over the citizenry. Go around drunk and piss in the wrong place in public, and Urban Security will give you a work-over with stun sticks faster than you can say "Sorry!" Steal something, and they'll haul you before the Justicars with both arms broken. They will get a tap on the shoulder for a job well done in teaching you a deserved lesson, while you will get a couple years in the labour camp, and broken arms can be a big disadvantage in a place where you have to both meet work quotas under the watchul eye of sadistic guards and fight off would-be rapists. Say something that can be interpreted as subversive in the wrong place to the wrong person, and Domestic Security will summon you for a friendly chat, inquiring as to why you have made such unpatriotic statements. You can consider this chat to be your first and only warning against further political dissent, as the next time DomSec will deem it necessary to bring you in for a chat, it will be a decury of heavily-armed troops kicking down your door and dragging you off, never to be seen or heard from again. And then there's the Order of Judicators - folks that the top brass of DomSec are having nightmares about. Very little is known about them to general public besides them being a sort of intelligence agency-cum-knightly order, and that all Judicators are highly-trained stone-cold killers with top-tier augs and abilities bordering on the arcane. Accountable only to the Empress, the Judicators are the one force that not even the strategoi with legions behind their backs are willing to trifle with. Fortunately, ordinary scoundrels like ourselves are normally far beneath their notice. One must seriously piss off someone very high on the Imperium's totem pole to earn a placement on the Order's shit-list, but once on it, there's almost no way off besides death, and the Order is infamous for its patience and persistence. Even if you somehow manage to kill the Judicator sent after you - which is highly unlikely, given their level of training and enhancement - the Order will just send another one, and another one after that, until your luck will eventually run out. It does, after all, only take once for them to get right. So in the very best case, you can look towards spending the rest of your lifetime on the run, always looking over your shoulder. Needless to say, none of us are too happy to learn that we are about to cross the most feared organization of the Imperium.

"Brisk, did you know about this?!" I turn to our captain, who doesn't seem surprised and at the same time looks a bit guilty.

"You would have never agreed to take this job if I had told you about that part..." she sighs, "You all know we need that money."

"FUCK THE MONEY!" Krunk bellows furiously, "Fuck this guy! And fuck these ass-clowns who played us with this stinkin' job!"

"We only learned that little detail about the Judies after taking the contract ourselves," Metellus argues.

"Krunk's right," Jedd agrees, pointing at Mr. L., "Screw him! Let's just hand him over to the Judies and be done with it!"

"Hold your horses there, cowboy!" Brisk objects, "We do that, and we're never ever gonna land a decent job again! Hell, more than a few would put out a bounty on our heads for turning coat on a client!"

"If we don't, we won't be fucking alive to take another job!" Jedd argues, "And these here assholes tried to play us once they learned their client was on Judie blacklist and make him our problem! I say we sit this one out and let them deal with their own mess!"

Again, they both are right. Freelancers aren't much for formal rules and regulations, but that doesn't mean they don't have a few informal ones. The chief one among them is "Never screw over a client". It's bad for business and gives the whole merc trade a bad rep. Brisk is absolutely right about us never getting another respectable job if we hand Mr. L. over now, and rival outfits will likely use our fuck-up as a pretext to put bounties on our heads just to convey a point that this kind of malpractice won't fly in a respectable community of mercenaries, thugs and pirates without consequence. But so is Jedd right about us most likely being dead before this job is even over if we don't.

"Screw this!" Brisk finally exclaims and turns to Metellus, "He's your client and your problem!"

"That wasn't the deal!" he protests, "You knew about the risks and agreed to take the job anyway!"

"Well, the deal is off then!" Brisk barks back, "You didn't say anything about the Judies being hot on your tail!"

"Fuck you! I ain't lettin' you back out on your word at the first hint of trouble!" Metellus growls and pulls his handblaster on Brisk. Moments later, both of our outfits are locked in a Mexican standoff, everyone pointing some kind of firearm at another. Shirin leaves a special impression, her augmetic lower arms snapping open like switchblades, revealing a pair of cleverly-concealed handblasters that flip outwards and toward the target. Her metallic feet elongate, giving her legs an extra joint at the ankle for faster running, higher jumping and extra kick. Krunk responds by grabbing his trademark autocannon held secure on the back of his armor on a magnetic slot, the rest on both sides resorting to their more or less conventional firearms. Talia's mecha-limbs instantly unfold in a threatening display, a handblaster held in each in addition to the Fed-made pulse rifle that appears in her normal hands as the briefcase she's been holding disintegrates and reveals the concealed weapon.

"Guys, how about we think this through again?" I try to be the voice of reason, "We can either shoot each other where we stand and do the Judies' work for them, or we can focus on getting out of here alive and sort out who screwed over who later!"

"He's got a point, boss," Washer from Metellus's crew agrees, his twin brother Nut nodding in agreement.

"Commander Brisk, the Judicatorial agents are approaching the VIP lounge," Zero-One informs in his usual dispassionate manner, "Probability of a favourable outcome deteriorating rapidly, recommend immediate evasive action."

Indeed, a quick glance at the camera feeds on his tacticom confirms his words. The two Judicators approach the bouncers, the woman flashing a badge of some kind, probably a fake DomSec ID, which is enough to get the two to step aside.

"No way we all are gonna fit inside that elevator!" Brisk grumbles, "Looks like we're gonna have to make a stand on this one. Zero-One, Faye, go with the client! Metellus, send your slicer and two of your best guys with them! Our ship is docked in Bay 12 on Level 830, get to it and start it up! If the rest of us ain't there in 10 minutes, get the hell off this rock and deliver the client as planned! Ellie, Gaul, get ready! Once those Judies kick down the door, open up on them with everything you've got!"

"Hey, who put you in charge, bitch?" Shirin protests our captain's assumption of command.

"I did! Now unless you've got a better plan, shut it and get ready!" Brisk snaps back as we scatter around the room, taking cover and aiming our guns at the door. Hearing no objection from her captain Metellus, Shirin grumbles and falls in line.

"Nut, Washer, Crypto - you heard the lady! Get to it!" he commands his men. The extraction team leaves for the elevator with Mr. L., while we remain behind in ambush, the growing tension being almost palpable.

"Boss, I don't like this one bit..." I hear Gaul speak to Brisk over the comm, "Those bouncers will probably open up on us once we start shooting!"

"Then take them down if you have to!" Brisk barks impatiently, "Non-lethally, if possible! Figure something out!"

"Everyone who's got aural dampers and optical flash filters installed, better turn them on now," Metellus speaks to the rest of us, "Once that door goes down, the first thing going in here's likely gonna be a flashbang or something of that sort."

I can see Talia and Jedd hastily pull out earplugs and sunglasses, the rest of us having the said augs installed. Some measure of protection against blinding and stunning is a useful feature to have in the mercenary line of work.

"Zero, what's the status on those Judies?" Brisk contacts our slicer over the radio.

"Judicatorial agents are preparing to breach the door, commander," Zero-One dispassionately informs.

"Hunker down, 'tis about to get VERY loud..." Metellus instructs.

---

Moments later, the door disintegrates into a cloud of splinters and shreds with a thunderous blast that knocks the breath out of my lungs. Before anything can follow, all of us spring out of cover and open up with everything we've got.

"WOOOOO-HOOO!" Shirin cries out in jubilant battle-lust as she opens up with her duo of literal hand-blasters. Next instant, my ears begin to hurt even with the aural dampers engaged as Krunk's autocannon thunders to life. As they lay down suppressing fire, the rest of us follow close behind and barge into the VIP lounge.

The nightclub has predictably turned into a screaming bloody hell, panicked patrons and dancers running about aimlessly looking for places to hide, with the exception of a couple zyme-heads on the dance floor who are too doped up to care and are probably enjoying the new psychedelic experience of standing in the crossfire between two government assassins and a bunch of mercs. The bouncers are nowhere to be seen, Ellie and Gaul evidently having taken care of them, or simply convinced them to sit this one out. The two are now trading shots with the Judicatrix who stands further in the VIP lounge close to the stairs, her burly companion covering behind a column mere meters away from us.

With preternatural speed and agility, he cartwheels out of his cover just before Krunk's autocannon pulverizes it, firing bolts of plasma back at the hulking gunner. I've heard about these prototype 610X-series handblasters that are currently issued only to the Imperial Guard, and presumably the Order of Judicators. They are said to be about as compact as plasma weapons ever get, neatly fitting on a gun-brace in a loose sleeve and not even needing powered armor to be handled comfortably. Never thought I'd actually get to see them in action, though obviously, being on their business end somewhat diminishes my excitement. The Judicator manages to dodge most of the torrent of gunfire we pour at him and deflect the rest with a personal energy shield that flashes every time it is hit, revealing a blue-green hexagonal pattern. His shots land on their mark, leaving glowing craters in Krunk's powered armor and knocking him back. Just as the Judicator lands on his feet after a triple cartwheel, Shirin is upon him and lands a beastly kangaroo kick square on his chest with both of her morphed legs. The Judicator crashes through the railing and flies half-way across the club, through and behind the Ion Maiden hologram, where he lands hard amidst panicked patrons. A kick like that would have pulverized the ribcage of even a Sidh with military-grade augs, provided he wasn't wearing powered armor - which this Judie definitely wasn't.

The fight is nowhere near from over, however, as the Judicatrix turns her attention to us when our shots start to impact on her personal shield. Dashing out of her last cover with the same preternatural speed, she moves like quicksilver, with a boneless grace that almost seems to defy the laws of physics. Despite the overwhelming volume of gunfire our entire group dishes out at her, she seems to dodge practically everything we throw at her. Just as she dives behind another column, the Judicatrix flings a trio of small disc-shaped objects at us. I narrowly dodge them as they streak past me, landing square on Jedd's chest and sticking there.

"Fuck me...!" Jedd exclaims an instant before the discs pop open small vents and eject a cloud of silvery dust that engulfs him.

An instant later, I am thrown far back into the conference room as the dust cloud ignites and detonates, literally vaporizing poor Jedd. The pressure wave ravages my body, and probably bursts more than a few blood vessels and what not. As I come to my senses, my vision still blurry and ears ringing even in spite of aural dampers, I see Brisk and Metellus lying next to me in a similary-battered condition. Krunk and Shirin is somewhere out in the VIP lounge out of sight, and a badly burnt Talia in a shredded businesswear is stumbling inside, her mecha-limbs dragging limply behind and hands clutching her bleeding ears and eyes. All that is left of poor Jed is a pair of smoldering cowboy boots still standing where he stood before. As my hearing returns, I hear another, distinctly electric explosion of what sounds like a plasma grenade inside the club and a few thunderous bursts of Krunk's autocannon before the man himself rushes back in the conference room, battered but still alive and kicking.

"Emperor's blood, those Judie fuckers are tough!" he curses, "Let's get the fuck outta here!"

"Where's Ellie and Gaul?" Brisk inquires.

"Dead!" Krunk growls, "Judie-bitch got'em both with a plasma 'nade!"

A moment later, Shirin joins us, firing furiously to cover her retreat.

"Whatever you're thinking, be quick about it!" she shouts, "That big lug I kicked down in the club is back up, and he looked really pissed!"

"There's a service ladder in the elevator shaft going to the utility level two floors down, we can get out on the streets from there!" Brisk is quick to think, "Krunk, you know what to do!"

"On it, boss!" the gunner rushes towards the elevator, using the massive strength of his armor and augs to pry and hold open the door. Metellus is in the meanwhile busy helping the wounded Talia. Moments later, a plasma bolt grazes my shoulder, singing my hair and cheek, and I narrowly manage to dodge the next one behind the corner. Shirin responds by deploying another trick up her sleeve - an armor plate on her back that I thought until now to have been merely a part of her clothing. The plate twists over her shoulder and onto her upper left arm and expands sideways, forming a kind of shield that Shirin uses to absorb several following plasma bolts while returning fire on her own. Although significantly battered, the shield holds for now as she ducks behind it, skillfuly bending and twisting almost impossibly tight to fit entirely behind it.

"Done!" Krunk shouts from behind and we begin to retreat. Metellus who is carrying Talia goes first, Brisk following and me and Shirin covering the rear while Krunk holds the door open for everyone.

"Go! Go! Go!" I hear Brisk shout from behind.

"They're coming! I can't hold much longer...!" Shirin screams, reeling under a sustained barrage of plasma bolts that begin to tear apart her shield, when a roiling cloud of brilliant flame suddenly erupts from behind the corner, engulfing her with a volcanic roar. Her shrieks of agony are terrifying as she stumbles and crawls a few steps towards me, the strange brilliant-white flames literally melting away her flesh before she collapses into a writhing, twitching pile of charred flesh and augs, bubbling foam pouring from her mouth. The smoke from her burning body trigger a fire alarm and sprinklers inside the room. Survival instinct drives me not to stick around and find out where that blast of flame came from, and I dive into the elevator shaft, another searing plasma bolt narrowly missing my back and striking the shaft wall as I do.

It's a good three floors fall, though it's not a particularly great height for a Sidh with the right augs. Still, my dive in the shaft hardly resembles a controlled jump, and I narrowly avoid impaling myself on the damper spring at the bottom of the shaft. Rapid-fire plasma blasts and an agonized roar from above indicate Krunk is not faring so well. Just as I exit the shaft with the help of Brisk, my suspicions are confirmed, the battered body of Krunk crashing down from below, snapping his armor and spine against the damper spring. His autocannon clatters on the concrete floor next to him, with a length of ammo belt spilling from the ruptured ammo drum on his back.

"Get... the fuck... outta here..." he gasps his last, blood flowing profusely from his mouth.

The remainder of us run through the utility tunnels and rooms like chased by the Furies and all demons of hell. Metellus does his best to drag Talia along, but it becomes obvious she is slowing us down.

"Leave me a grenade," she groans, "I'll buy you some time!"

"Nobody gets left behind!" her captain dismisses the notion, but the woman struggles free of his grasp, leaning against the nearby utility box. Her blaster-wielding mecha-limbs spring up in a threatening display once more. Sighing reluctantly, Metellus reaches inside his duster coat and tosses her a silvery object roughly resembling an oversized lipstick - a plasma grenade.

"Make it count, sister!" he snaps a quick last salute to her before joining the rest of us.

And indeed, no sooner have we rounded the corner when the thunderous report of four handblasters begins to rattle the utility tunnel, soon responded to by the electric cracks of returned plasma bolts. A woman's agonized scream soon puts an end to the blaster fusillade, and moments later I hear an indistinct curse followed by a deafening electric blast, the wail of fire alarms filling the tunnel afterwards along with a gust of acrid smoke and the characteristic ozonous scent that accompanies plasma detonations. Hopefully Talia's sacrifice has taken at least one of the Judicators off our backs.

Reaching the end of the tunnel, our group bursts out on the street after Metellus shoots down the locked door. We find ourselves in the alley behind the club, next to the chasm separating this hab from the adjacent one. There's a parking lot with both grav-cars speeding in the sky-lane to our left, and the more ordinary wheeled cars driving in the street and across the skybridge ahead.

"Over there!" Brisk commands, pointing at a delivery grav-truck that looks big enough to hold all of us. A couple servo-bots are busy unloading supply crates of food and alcohol and bringing them over to the service entrance of the club not far from our escape tunnel. The vehicle admittedly bears little semblance to the more common wheeled road trucks, essentially being a small gravship called a "truck" solely for its function. The distinction matters little to us, however, with us being in a pressing need for a getaway vehicle.

"Crypto," Metellus contacts his slicer over the comm, "I need you to sync to my tacticom and run a remote security override for a VT590-series grav-truck!"

"On it, boss!" Crypto's voice responds. While he stands next to the cockpit door and initiates the data-slice procedure, the rest of us form up a perimeter despite the protests of servo-bots who warn us that this grav-truck is private property. Brisk in the meantime sets about to contacting our own teammates.

"Faye, what's your status?" she inquires.

"We're almost at the ship, the client is winded but otherwise doing fine! I'll tell Zero to initiate a remote start-up!" she speaks, "How are things on your end?"

"Jedd and Krunk are gone, and the Judies wasted Ellie and Gaul as well along with both of Metellus's girls," Brisk informs Faye, and I can hear her curse upon receiving the bad news, "Set up overwatch on the landing pad and be ready to bug out as soon as we arrive, we'll be coming in hot with a grav-truck!"

"Roger that, boss!"

"Done!" Metellus informs us as the cockpit door opens up with a hiss, him hopping in the front while I and Brisk jump in the cargo compartment despite the continued protests and warnings of the servo-bots.

"Hey, where do you asshats think you're going with my truck?!" the angry driver of the grav-truck suddenly announces himself as he bursts out of the service door, wielding a crowbar. The duo of our guns pointing back at him quickly convinces him to restrict his protests to verbal abuse.

"Scoundrels! Thieves! Carjacking ass-fuckers!" he shouts, furiously waving his crowbar at us as we take off in his grav-truck, "Somebody call UrbSec!"

We've made our escape just in time, as the main entrance of the club bursts open, and both Judicators emerge, dashing towards us with their incredible speed. The burly man is visibly burnt and battered, evidently having taken the brunt of Talia's plasma grenade, but his movements show no sign of impediment beyond purely-superficial damage. A joint barrage from my and Brisk's autoguns forces them to dodge apart and take cover behind the parked cars, from where they fire off a few plasma bolts towards us. They impact against the grav-truck's hull, leaving glowing scorch marks.

As the grav-truck makes off at best speed, the last I glimpse of our pursuers is them running off towards one of the parked grav-cars. No doubt they will be on our tail again shortly.

"Take the quick route to the top level, Metellus!" Brisk instructs over the comm.

"You mean cutting straight through a dozen skylanes?" he responds, "We're gonna have UrbSec gunships on our ass in no time if we do that!"

"Getting pulled over by UrbSec is the fucking least of our worries right now, in case you haven't noticed!" Brisk barks, "I'm sure you can fly this thing without causing too many traffic accidents!"

"Speaking of traffic, where is it?" I state, taking note of a patent absence of grav-powered traffic in what are usually perpetually-busy skylanes. Indeed, we seem to be the only grav-craft currently in air.

My question is soon answered by a public announcement from loudspeakers, every advertisement billboard and propaganda screen on the street switching to display a warning message.

"Attention, all citizens! Due to terrorist activity, all air traffic in this district is temporarily suspended! If you are receiving this message, please direct your vehicle to the nearest landing pad and remain there until further notice! Failure to comply will be met with deadly force! Thank you for your cooperation, and have a good day! Ave Imperator!"

"Shit, that can't be good!" I curse. Now it's only a matter of time until every Urban and Domestic Security air patrol within a dozen clicks will converge in on us.

"There's your answer, Metellus!" Brisk remarks.

"Alright, hold on to something!" Metellus informs us, and we barely manage to find something to grab onto when the truck's grav-plates hum into overdrive, the vehicle entering an almost vertical climb. Loose crates of goods fall out from the still-open rear door, plunging down into the abyss below and likely ruining someone's day a few clicks below.

"Level out, you fucking maniac!" Brisk shouts, "You're gonna get us killed!"

"You said - get to the top as fast you can!" Metellus retorts, but levels out his climb so we can at least regain our footing without risking loose crates hitting and knocking us overboard, "Approaching the docking area, ETA 30 seconds!"

"Faye, is the ship running?" Brisk contacts our escort party.

"Up and ready, boss! Client is secure aboard, and we're ready to take off as soon as you arrive!"

The grav-truck enters the layer of toxic haze that perpetually shrouds the lower urban areas over much of Denerar. Visibility drops almost to zero, and every breath I and Brisk take makes us cough, leaving a mild burning sensation in throat and lungs, and an acrid metallic taste in the mouth. Six centuries of unrestricted industrialization have resulted in much of Denerar being perpetually shrouded in this poisonous haze that is only kept in check by massive atmospheric processors that extract and reclaim useful industrial resources from the air. This only lasts briefly, however, as the grav-truck soon rises above the layer of haze and under the star-lit sky that is visible far above between the towering spires on both sides.

"Approaching the landing bays!" Metellus informs us, and I feel the grav-truck enter a shallow descent. Looking out from the rear ramp, I can see the vehicle fly over the platform next to docking pads which house a number of dropships - we have evidently arrived at the docking area.

An instant later, I am almost knocked unconscious by a violent impact that deeply dents the grav-truck's hull to my left, throwing me and brisk against the wall along with every goods crate still remaining inside. The truck is violently pushed down, the last thing I hear being the ear-splitting screech of twisting and snapping metal.

---

When I come back to my senses, I am being dragged by the collar by somebody, presumably by Brisk or Metellus. The wrecked grav-truck is smoldering a few dozen paces behind, an equally-trashed sports grav-car embedded nose-first in its side. The two Judicators are covering nearby behind some support pylons holding up the structure further above the docking area, trading gunfire with what's presumably our escort party on overwatch. I can certainly tell there's Faye among the shooters, as is hinted by the thunderous crack of her favoured L-539 Harkonnen anti-material rifle. Faye might not look like much with her modest stature, but it belies the strength of her augs - I've seen her wield that rifle which is longer than herself with the ease of a light auto-blaster. The massive projectile carves clean through the metal pylon, narrowly missing the Judicatrix covering behind it, and I get the feeling that Faye missed her intentionally - killing a Judicator in our current situation wouldn't exactly benefit our future chances of survival. They are, after all, pursuing our client, with us being merely obstacles in the way towards their objective - so there's no reason to make it personal and mark ourselves as objectives by terminating one of their agents.

"All aboard!" it turns out I'm being dragged by Brisk as I hear her voice behind me after I feel the familiar surface of corrugated steel dropship ramp grinding against my backside. Moments later, Nut, Washer and Faye join us, laying down suppressive fire on the Judies as they back up into the dropship. The ramp begins to close and I feel the ship taking off.

"About time!" Faye remarks, "I was about to run out of ammo!"

"Zero, set course for our ship!" Brisk instructs our slicer, who is flying the ship along with Crypto. She is referring to our modest starship, an ancient rust-bucket pompously named The Crimson Dagger, waiting in the docks at Denerar's orbital ring. A facility as massive as an orbital ring takes centuries to build, so some parts of it will naturally become disused and abandoned over time. These locales often come to host marginalized communities consisting of Freelancers, pirates, outlaws, refugees, escaped convicts and slaves, and other assorted characters regarded as scum and social parasites by proper Sidh. Illegal docks used by pirates and mercs like ourselves are set up in such places, and it is in one such site that our starship is currently docked at. One would think a closed orbital facility would be more tightly monitored than that, but given how an orbital ring is essentially a small planet in its own right in terms of size and population, keeping an eye on every nook and cranny is a downright impossible task for the authorities - who are too preoccupied with ensuring that Denerar's massive industrial output is delivered from planetside to the endless cargo fleets waiting in orbit with clockwork precision anyway. Besides, willingly or unwillingly, these illegal settlements on the ring also contribute to society by keeping their premises in a reasonable state of repair, thus helping preserve the structural integrity of the ring itself and cutting the maintenance costs for otherwise disused areas.

"Commander, we have an incoming gunship!" Zero informs, sounding about as concerned as his droning electronic voice can possibly express. Before Brisk can respond, the lock-on warning begins to ring throughout the ship, everyone hastily buckling up in the seats along the cargo hold walls as the pilots begin evasive maneuvers.

"Decoys away!" Crypto announces and I hear several thumps outside the hull just behind my back, where the countermeasure dispensers are. Moments later, the ship is shaken violently by a detonation outside, presumably the missile aimed for it. The lock-on warning keeps on ringing however, as the pilots maneuver the dropship desperately.

An instant later, a bone-crunching blast knocks the breath out of me, the whole starboard side of the dropship caving in under a violent explosion, spraying the interior with deadly shrapnel and debris. In an instant, Washer disintegrates into shreds of bloody flesh before what's left of him is sucked outside along with a a portion of the hull behind him as the ship depressurizes. Flying debris decapitate Metellus, and a length of pipe pierces my flesh. The agony is indescribable.

"Going down! Going down!" I hear Zero drone while Faye and Mr. L. scream in horror as the ship careens through the cloud cover into the twilight below.

---

When I come to my senses, I find myself lying amidst wreckage not far from what's left of our dropship in a pool of my own blood. There's still a length of pipe jutting out from my chest. Running a quick diagnostic, I am relieved to find that the wound is not terminal, my haemo-stop aug having done it's job with its coagulants and vasoconstrictors that have sealed off the ruptured blood vessels around the wound. Asides from the impalement, three disaligned vertebrae, a broken right arm, moderate concussion and damage to the right hip micro-servos, I am relatively intact. If I live long enough to receive the urgent medical attention that the diagnostic software recommends, my biggest future concern will be racking up a five-digit hospital bill - as someone outside the establishment and with uncertified custom-made augs, I am not eligible for the free state-sponsored healthcare that more respectable Imperial citizens receive. But that's a big "if" - the gunship responsible for my current condition is landing nearby, the two Judicators who have been pursuing us jumping out to finish the job.

Brisk, who is trapped in her seat attached to a piece of dropship hull close to me, is the first to be on the receiving end of their wrath. The Judicatrix grabs her by the hair and lifts up Brisk's head to see if she's still alive. As Brisk cries out in pain, the Judicatrix fires two blaster shots in her chest without as much as blinking her icy steel-grey eyes. Her burly companion with eyes glaring a menacing red sees Faye crawling out of the wreck on arms only, her spine apparently broken. He steps on her hand, making her cry out in pain and look up angrily.

"End of the road, merc!" he states in a seemingly calm, indifferent voice that nontheless sends a chill down my spine. Faye spits blood at him defiantly, prompting the Judicator to look down on his tarnished trousers.

"This is the third time today you pests ruin my suit!" he growls before stepping back. An oversized kukri pops out from his sleeve, evidently held there by a mechanical brace, and he lifts the screaming Faye from the ground by the hair seemingly effortlessly, using just one hand. I can only look on in horror as he uses the other holding the blade to flay off Faye's face and listens to her shrieks and moans with a demonic delight briefly before lopping off her head. The Judicatrix looks at him irately.

"Now is not the time!" she scolds him, "Dispatch the mercs quickly and retrieve the traitor if he is still alive!"

"If you say so..." the Judicator grumbles, visibly displeased at the interruption of his sadistic joys. He steps inside the wreck and I hear several more screams and blaster shots, presumably directed at my remaining associates, before he emerges again, dragging along a hysterically-crying and begging Mr. L., who has survived the crash with only a broken leg. I see another pair of Judicators approach from their gunship. One is an athletic man with long raven hair, pale skin and lady-killer looks. The other is smaller, weedier and less imposing, even nerdy appearance that belies his status as one of Imperium's elite assassins and spies.

"What about that one?" the handsome Judicator points at me to his mistress.

"Leave him be, I'll deal with him shortly," the Judicatrix instructs. Apparently the four of them are all a single cell, the woman being the ranking Judicatrix and the three men her disciples.

"Spare my life, I beg you!" Mr. L. grovels on his knees, "I was only looking to cover my debts!"

"Do not offend our ears with accounts of your own debauchery and corruption, traitorous scum!" the burly Judicator slaps him on the head hard and kicks him in the stomach as he falls face-first to the ground, "We know them all better than any of us would care!"

"Pleeease, Lady Judicatrix!" Mr. L. begs pathetically, "Hand me over to DomSec! Send me to the camps!"

"The camps are meant for those who may yet redeem themselves, Director Licinius," the Judicatrix retorts calmly and coldly, "Traitors like you do not rank among them."

"Get up, filth!" the burly Judicator kicks him again and pulls him up as he collapses into a hysterically-sobbing pile, "You disgrace the good name of Sidh race with your wailing! The least you can do is receive your sentence like a man!"

"Citizen Aulus Martellus Licinius, formerly employed as regional manufacturing director by Denerar State Arms - you stand charged with the crime of high treason for selling state secrets to agents of the Federation of Mankind, aggravated by your motive to cover personal debts incurred by illicit gambling, the crime of attempting to obstruct justice by fleeing, and the crime of attempted murder of a representative of the State with the aid of a contracted third party! With your guilt proven beyond reasonable doubt, the sentence for your crimes is death, effective immediately!" the Judicatrix assumes a formal tone and pronounces, "Judicator Halko, do your duty!"

"My pleasure," the burly Judicator grins sadistically as he steps back from the wailing prisoner. A stubby nozzle pops out from his sleeve, and an instant later, the condemned director Licinius is engulfed in a roiling cloud of brilliant, effervescent flames. His terrifying screams die down soon as his flesh literally melts away under the intense heat - whatever the big Judie is putting in that flamethrower of his burns far hotter than napalm.

"Iudicatus est!" the Judicatrix pronounces as is apparently customary, her disciples repeating the phrase.

---

So this is it. Now it's my turn. Although my heart races, kidneys itch and guts churn in a pressing desire to release the contents of my bowels and bladder in raw terror, I strive my best to retain composure and make no effort to crawl away or hide. The burly Judicator named (or code-named) Halko was absolutely right about Director Licinius having met his death in an absolutely disgraceful way, even most cunt-born humans retaining more dignity in the face of death than he did. I am determined to go out like a Sidh should, looking death straight in the eye and show these Judie bastards who killed my companions and friends that a Freelancer merc is no less worthy a Sidh than themselves. The Judicatrix approaches me and pins me against the ground with her high-heeled boot, the pointy heel pushing painfully in my solar plexus just like Sabine's did earlier today.

"Now listen to me, and listen well, Cato," she begins in a calm, almost sympathetic tone. That she knows my name I find entirely unsurprising.

"You will not die today. The reason you will not die today like your companions did is because I want you to bear witness," the Judicatrix speaks, "I want you to bear witness and attest to everybody who asks what happened today that this is what happens to traitors and those who consort with them. I want you to spread word among your mercenary friends that this is what will happen to everybody who will take contracts from traitors in the future. Tell everybody you meet that the corruption and debauchery of this world's upper classes has been overlooked by Imperial authorities above them for long enough, but no more! Tell everybody that the Order is watching!"

"I will, Lady Judicatrix!" I respond.

"A friend of yours, a certain Miss Quercus, has taken up a decadent and un-Sidh lifestyle," the Judicatrix continues, "Convince her to stop. Better yet, take her with you to some far-away place where she will have no temptation or reason to sin against law and the Word anymore. Since you acted in good faith under contractual obligation and without previous knowledge of your client's treasonous offenses, I believe that as the sole survivor of Brisk's Brigands you are still entitled by law to the advance payment of two million aurons promised by your client. I strongly suggest you spend that money to start a new life with your friend somewhere far away from here. As for that grav-truck and other property damage, no charges will be pressed against you for the time being."

"You are just letting me off like that, Lady Judicatrix? Along with a generous payment?" I find it hard to believe her words.

"Think nothing of it," she states as she turns to leave, "I'm not doing this as a favour, but as an incentive for you to serve the purpose you were spared for. Think of it as... an investment. For your sake, I hope we won't meet again."

And so the Judicators leave for their gunship, starting to discuss the evening's upcoming All-Imperium Blitzball League semi-finals as if nothing had happened, leaving me alone among wreckage and dead partners and clients. The sound of approaching sirens in the distance signifies I won't have to lie here and slowly bleed out for much longer. No doubt the authorities will want a lot of questions answered, and it's going to be a couple weeks in the hospital before I can get to carrying out the mission I was spared for. And then get the hell off this rock to anywhere that's not here. But I have the patience to wait - especially after what happened today.

Let's hope a certain Sabine has enough patience to wait for me a little while longer as well.