Snowbound Blood Transcript: Volume 1

Volume One - Of Orders and Ordeals

Your name is SECILY IOPARA. You are the chief regulator for the REPITON CORPORATION, more recently known by its variety of slick rebrands.

You’ve been pulled off your current caseload for a Priority Aleph, which is a once-in-a-binary-eclipse level of problem. Which is good. Petty crime gets rote after a while.

You walk through the busy open-office hubs. Cubicles were deemed "too impersonal" by some new-age synergizer or another and replaced sweeps ago. You're sure they'll be back in a few. That's how it always goes in these halls.

You let the symphony wash over you, played by dozens of clacking keyboards, the idle same-ness of phone conversations on little headsets, the shuffle of papers, and the whine of a copier. Home sweet home.

Your business isn't with any of these low-level bureaucrats, thank goodness. No, you take long strides past all of them, coat swishing in dramatic contrast to their button-ups and slacks. You're on your way to your superior's office.

This case starts, as all your best have, with consultation with the newly-puissant heir.

SESTRO ENTHAL & HAMIFI HEKRIX

His assistant gives you a curt nod and presses a button on her desk that slides open the door. Same colorful office as always, littered with idle fascinations to occupy him during long meetings or periods of thought.

While nodding along to a rant he's receiving through the phone held to his ear, he gestures for you to come in and sit down.

(You’ve never forgotten a face. Or anything at all.)

(Throughout the game, you can select “RECALL” upon meeting characters to search your eidetic memory for information. The memories may be useful for solving the case ahead.)

>Recall: SESTRO ENTHAL.

It’s not hard to remember this face, though. Everyone knows SESTRO ENTHAL, the heir to THE EXECUTIVE and next in line for control over the entire corporate machine.

He’s been gradually assuming influence over more of the company hierarchy as he prepares to come into power with his ancestor’s old age.

This means you’re taking orders from someone half your age who wears sweater vests. You’d be upset about it, but you’re a consummate professional. And he’s sweet enough.

He’s got a real piece of work of a matesprit, though.

>Enter.

Right now he looks downright sour. Once you recognize the sandpaper-harsh, salty voice assaulting his ear, you feel a twinge of sympathy. 

The Repitonian elite are rarely sensible, but few could match the talent for absolute nonsense CALDER KERIAN has displayed over the sweeps.

You watch your employer pinch the bridge of his nose with two fingers, jaw clenched as he listens to Kerian go on and on about...late shipments? Of the drivel he passes off as a magazine, you wonder?

Oh well. You aren’t being paid to listen to the grievances of Mr. Enthal’s flock of fledgling hyperloopers, so you don’t.

Sestro rolls his eyes theatrically at some high point and finally meets your gaze. He mouths something, looking pained: “He can’t not pitch it?”

“He stole fizzy lifting drinks?”

“He doesn’t even drink it?”

Either way, you’re certain you don’t care.

He makes a cutting gesture across his throat with his hand and points at the phone’s receiver for your benefit, while making his voice perfectly pleasant and neutral for Calder’s.

He assures him that Corporate will do all in its ability to ensure the timely delivery of his shipment, and if he could only answer a few questions —

You stand up, draw your pistol, and aim over the phone’s receiver and off Sestro’s side, towards the enormous windows that make up the office’s outer wall.

You watch Sestro cup his hand over his loose ear while the twin sounds of the gunshot and punctured glass ring painfully in your own.

Immediately, the Corporate security alarm blares to life.

You watch Sestro mouth something — ”We’ll call you back,” maybe — and hang up, immediately turning to his computer and turning the alarm back off before the system's response can get too serious. 

A few defensive drones fly into the office as you put your gun away, but it’s been a long time since you were first given license to use deadly force in Corporate’s halls.

They see nothing wrong in the office and dutifully fly away.

Sestro regards you with what seems like equal parts annoyance and gratitude, for a moment. Then presses a button on his computer and instructs it to remind him to address Calder’s concerns later. 

He pauses. Through email, he adds. Then he turns to you.

SESTRO: ∞effective as ever, ms. iopara.
SESTRO: ∞not that I feel it was necessary to damage corporate assets like that.

SECILY: 1.e4 Even suspected threat can often serve as one of the better excuses with which to placate the distractingly powerful. They can relate to the fear of it. ...e5
SECILY: 2.f4 There’s no damage to speak of, anyway. ...Bc5

Sestro is so used to the show he doesn’t turn around, but you regard the broken hole in the window with keen, if distant, interest. 

The broken edges of the glass have already started to leak, oozing translucent drops which turn to silky threads of liquid crystal.

Within moments the substance will coat the hole between inside and outside and freeze solid, as if no breach ever occurred.

SESTRO: ∞i was speaking of your hearing faculties, ms. iopara.
SESTRO: ∞senses as keen as yours are rare to come by, and while I’m sure we could repair any damage done to either of us, time is at a premium at the moment. i need you in prime form, so please do take care of yourself going forward.
SECILY: 3.Nc3 Of course. ...d6
SESTRO: ∞are you and ms libeta...

You shoot him a glare. You’re really in no mood to talk personal matters.

SESTRO: ∞understandable. i didn’t mean to overstep.
SESTRO: ∞consider my concern a thank you, for freeing up my afternoon from grubsitting.
SESTRO: ∞on the subject of which: your assignment.
SESTRO: ∞i trust you’ve heard of the bizkantine empire?

Sestro pauses as if he expects a reply, but you’ve been here long enough to know better.

Nobody hasn’t heard of the Bizkantines. One of the older civilizations known to Repiton’s past, they were famed as a rowdy, macabre bunch in their golden age.

In this age, though, they’re lost: the skeletons of their society all that’s left of them.

After he collects his thoughts, he continues.

SESTRO: ∞last night we had a security breach in the northern wastes, near the site of some bizkantine ruins. a transport convoy was compromised. there were casualties.
SESTRO: ∞two guards, plus the convoy’s driver. all three were found executed, face down in the snow.

He slides pictures of the bodies across the table to you. You whistle in awe at the sight.

SECILY: 4.fxe5 Clean cuts. This is professional work. ...dxe5
SECILY: 5.Qh5 And the convoy wasn’t operating on its regular schedule. ...Qd4
SECILY: 6.Nf3 Anyone who might’ve known about the order to reroute the convoy’s transit could’ve set us up. ...Qf2+
SECILY: 7.Kd1 I’ll need a list of names, of course. ...Nc6
SECILY: 8.Nd5 And whatever was taken was clearly special. Does my assignment include its retrieval? And if so, do I get to know what it is? ...g6

It always pays to show your superiors you can predict them--the more aware they are you know what you’re doing better than they do, the less they bother to get in your way.

Sestro, for his part, looks reassured by your surety.

He looks at you uncertainly for a moment, as if he might say something. Then he sighs, gets up, turns away from you and looks out towards the window. 

You resist the urge to roll your eyes. The kid makes a spectacle of this window whenever he genuinely cares about something, and you’re tempted to gently inform him it’s a shitty excuse for a poker face every time.

But you aren’t paid to give advice, so instead you wait to listen. Eventually he speaks.

SESTRO: ∞your powers of perception continue to shine, ms. iopara. it’s wonderful to know i can rely on you at times such as these.

Yeah yeah kid, you answer in your head. You wonder if you’ll ever be able to get your briefings done without the pointless flattery. 

SESTRO: ∞you’re right, of course. i will need you to discover who from corporate leaked such crucial information to our assailants.
SESTRO: ∞and uncovering the identity of the thieves and bringing them to justice will also be among your duties.
SESTRO: ∞but your most important task by far is to return our lost cargo to us.
SESTRO: ∞while these ruins were originally bizkantine and remain designated as such on official records, we have strong reason to believe the location was appropriated by worshippers of...
SESTRO: ∞the vivifier.

That earns Sestro your brow, raised in genuine interest. You’d heard rumors about the Vivifier, and the old legends, of course.

But even as high up the Corporate ladder as you are, this is the first time you’ve heard the name spoken so seriously.

SESTRO: ∞the item that was taken from us was a philter of what we believe to be her own blood.
SESTRO: ∞i trust i don’t have to explain further why its recovery is so crucial.

Sestro is doing that thing where he sort of strokes the glass, all contemplative angst, but even though you feel like you see him do this every time you see him, it doesn’t feel tired and empty this once.

You think of what the stories say about the Vivifier’s blood: that it can heal wounds, or create untethered, everlasting life. Maybe even save Repiton, if trollkind understood its mysteries well enough.

You can guess well enough that’s what Sestro is thinking, at least. Some things never change.

SECILY: 9.Qg5 I think the situation speaks for itself. ...h6
SESTRO: ∞good. expect a message with your names and any other points of data we feel you may find useful shortly.
SESTRO: ∞i expect you to start working on this immediately, you understand?

SECILY: 10.Qg3 Of course, Mr. Enthal. ...Qxg3
SESTRO: ∞excellent. your services are appreciated as ever, miss —
SESTRO: ∞secily. if that isn’t too forward.

Your employer’s voice catches on his breath. The hitch would’ve been imperceptible to most people, but if you were most people you wouldn’t be where you are.

You already know what he’s going to say, and you’re already tired of it. But so much of being a professional is holding your tongue while other people are not.

SESTRO: ∞i wish to impress on you that...
SESTRO: ∞this assignment, this one more than any i’ve asked of you yet, is truly...

You look just past Sestro, to the half-melted, healing mess of glass by his hand. You wonder how much he really believes he can fix this broken world — whether it’s with a small vial of one more substance, or really anything else. 

You suppose the earnestness of the desire is noble, at least. 

But not all things that shatter heal as easily as glass does. If someone were to ask for your opinion, you suppose you’d say you believe this world was shattered from the start — that the poison choking it goes down to its deepest center.

Sometimes things are just broken, and they stay broken...

SESTRO: ∞for good.

There’s a beat of silence between you. He looks at you and, for a moment, seems downright earnest in a way that almost threatens to move you. 

Maybe it’s not the world that’s broken, maybe it’s just your heart. Either way, not much about this world holds your interest, and even less seems worth saving.

But you suppose if someone has to run this planet, it may as well be this kid, who really seems to want to fix it.

You guess that’s something.

SESTRO: ∞i’m counting on you, secily.
SESTRO: ∞thank you.

In any case, you’re not paid to have opinions. Existential or otherwise.

SECILY: 11.hxg3 Of course, Mr. Enthal. ...Bd6
SECILY: 12.Bb5 For good. ...½-½

You’re paid to get results.

An hour of prep later, and you have a briefcase full of files, including the deck of TROLLODEX cards of suspects and potential allies you’ll be dealing with on this case.

The trollodex identification system provides a simple card-based interface for field agents and regulators who must interface with large numbers of suspects while managing their caseload.

As the name suggests, it was originally a physical filing system.

Entire warehouses used to be dedicated just to maintaining the records, but dwindling population size and the marvels of digitization now means that the whole thing is accessible at any time, in any location. 

Despite the convenience, you still find yourself resorting to the real cards once in a while, when you need to focus on a particularly troubling case. Something about holding a person's life in your hand strengthens your resolve.

It’s a little strange, but you take your own card with you wherever you go. It sits in the breast pocket just over your bloodpusher.

If someone wants to run you through, they’ll have to do it twice over — that’s a little joke you tell yourself. 

Nobody has managed it so far, and after twelve sweeps the card has come to be a sort of good luck charm. 

You keep another card close to your chest, but for different reasons. A promise long overdue.

You step through the streets you've memorized like a hymnal since you were first accommodated in STRONGHOLD 21 over ten sweeps ago.

It's a brisk winter day. Scarf-adorned trolls don't meet your eyes as you brace against the wind and look at the trees, still green. They’re fake, of course, like everything else inside these walls.

In truth, you've never felt at ease here. The slick branding and nightlife, the convenience drones and social media stars. Booze and sugar for every well-off lotus-eater while blood spills across the dying world outside.

You step over a crushed soda cup that the automated street-sweeper missed and swing your leg over your motorbike. You adjust your helmet and then kick it into gear, letting the purr of the engine carry you out of town.

You arrive at the site in the Northern Wastes a few hours later. It's mid-afternoon, and though the weather was clear and bright all morning it's still bitterly cold.

When you hit the tundra you entered into a fierce snowstorm, and the last half-hour of the journey was spent battling against poor visibility and harsh wind.

The blizzard settles down into a light snowfall by the time you reach the convoy though. Three guards meet you there: two olivebloods and a bronze.

They all look extremely bored and cold, and you can't blame them. Hopefully you can wrap up here soon, and then they can go home and do the same. Wrap up, you mean.

You remove your helmet and shake your hair loose, brushing a few loose snowflakes off your arms and shoulders. As the bronzeblood guard jogs over to where you've parked, you take a moment to survey the scene.

After taking note of some key points of interest, you turn to face the guard as she greets you. She seems to be the one in charge. Or rather she was until you got here.

Once you've exchanged some formalities, flashed your card and so on, she walks you through what's happened since the convoy was discovered.

In short, she says, not a lot. Nobody has disturbed the scene, the bodies or anything else since the preliminary investigation late last night. 

Security only got wind of the event due to the vehicle's automated system, she says. Other than that, there was no indication of anything unusual taking place.

What about before the security backup arrived, you ask. Maybe someone tampered with the scene in the meantime. She says it's possible, but they didn't see any evidence of that when they got here.

What about the driver, you ask. She says what about them. You say that there should be three bodies here, but you only count the two guards. 

She says oh, right. The subcontractor that assigned them to the job took the body away this morning. You say that's a pretty loose definition of "not disturbing anything". 

She says yeah, yeah, whatever.

You're not surprised, though. Drivers are often equipped and outfitted with company gear and uniforms, and their hands are usually chipped with the activation code for the vehicle they're assigned to. 

It's only natural that they'd want to recover it as soon as possible.

Still, you say, you'll have to chase that up later, and that's paperwork you'd rather not get tied up in. The guard just shrugs, palms up, in the universal language of the chronically underpaid.

Alright, you say, you get the picture. She says she guesses you'll be wanting to start the investigation, then. You say yeah, it's been several thousand words already. 

She walks off to reconvene with her two colleagues.

Throughout an investigation your main goal is to find key pieces of information. The INVESTIGATION PROGRESS on your overhead visor lets you keep track of this.

Nobody knows how it works, if you're honest, but it certainly comes in handy. Not everything you find will get that happy lil' bar moving, but every time you score another INSIGHT INCREMENT a little feeling happens in your bloodpusher.

That feeling is called "PROGRESS".

You decide to investigate...

>The surroundings.:

You decide to scout the surrounding area, just to be sure. It's highly likely that the response team missed something when they arrived during the night.

Starting with the ground between the transport and the bodies, you begin a sweep for footprints.

You establish pretty quickly that the only tracks in the vicinity belong to you, and by comparison with the guard's prints from earlier, your three companions.

Otherwise, the snow which fell overnight has completely coated the ground in a pristine layer of white, sitting unbroken like fondant on a Yulepassing confection.

You don't remember the last time you had one of those.

Well, that's not true. You remember it with perfect clarity, just like everything else. But you'd rather not think about it, so you don't. What's important is that it was a long time ago.

And what's more important than that is that there's no trace of the culprits to be seen.

There's a little hillock a small ways out from where the transport is stopped. In lieu of any better ideas, you decide to see if a little elevation reveals anything.

You trudge your way up the slight incline, boots crunching and squeaking against the ice and snow.

From the higher vantage point you can see the whole scene in one picture. The transport, the bodies, the security team, your bike.

And beyond, the field of white patched with streaks of grey and brown and sickly green extends as far as you can see in all directions.

There's no sign of anything from up here, either. Shit.

On the way back down a harsh wind whips up for a moment, and you grip your long coat around your neck against the chill that it brings. Well, at least the cold isn't toxic.

The Northern Wastes are forever being buffeted by the very worst that Repiton's recalcitrant climate has to offer. Almost nobody lives here.

The region seems to exist as somewhere to be travelled across, rather than a real place in and of itself. And while such places can be enjoyable to pass through, the very opposite is true here.

The Wastes strike you as more of a cruel joke than anything else. A deadly expanse separating two of the planet's most populous regions, its traversal is a perpetual nightmare, logistically and otherwise.

You arrive back at the crime scene with no better idea of the situation than when you left. An absence of information can itself be an important detail, but there are no Insight Increments to be had this time.

You'll need to try something else.

[Investigation Progress bar increments by 0%.]

>The cockpit.:

You decide to check the inside of the driving compartment.

The driver and the two guards were all stationed in the same chamber at the very front of the vehicle. A set of concertinaed steps leads up to the entryway.

These got deployed automatically when the doors were opened, and stayed that way since the crew never returned. A fair bit of snow blew inside overnight, so the floor and seats are flecked with white and slush.

Besides the mess jointly formed by the inclement weather and the usual layer of trucker detritus, though, there doesn't appear to be any sign of disarray in the compartment.

If there was a struggle at any point, it didn't happen here. That means the driver and two guards probably got out of their own accord. You think you have a pretty good hunch why.

There's an angry red light humming in and out on the main info screen. An emergency overlay has activated, apparently in response to the driver's extended absence.

Since transport convoys play such a huge role in Repiton's socio-economic system, the risk of them getting into trouble is taken very seriously as a matter of survival.

A truck driver's chip, while allowing them to activate the vehicle in the first place, also acts kind of like the pin in a grenade. But like, if the grenade were designed for safety purposes.

This is an unspeakably shitty analogy but you're going with it anyway.

POINT BEING, if the driver is out of the compartment for more than a short period between stops, the onboard computer automatically registers an emergency and backup is called for. 

In a totally non-explosive manner.

It occurs to you that a system which allowed the driver to get out and stretch their legs every once in a while might have resulted in better job satisfaction. 

Or rather, it would occur to you, if the notion of job satisfaction existed on your planet.

You lean over the dashboard and tap a menu icon on the screen, and the warning light fades out one final time.

Taking one last glance around, you see an open book with its pages turned down on the far passenger seat. Looks like it must have belonged to one of the two guys out front.

Cocking your head to one side you can read the title. It's called "VORED MY BONG WATER AND LOOK AT ME NOW: THE TURNIN KAIKAI STORY".

Oh, wow. 

Someone was a big fan of a certain internet daredevil, apparently. Doesn't look like the uncanny ability to survive pretty much anything rubbed off on their beloved reader, though. 

The book seems really... well-loved, actually. Picking it up, you can see that the spine is broken in several places from overuse, and lots of the pages have been folded over at the corners. Some of them even appear to be missing.

Flipping to the front, you take a peek at the nameplate stuck to the inside cover. "THIS BOOK IS JUST DYING TO BE DEVOURED BY: N. Evantt". There's a little heart next to the pencilled-in name.

You put the book back. You feel like wiping your hands on something.

[Investigation Progress bar increments by 25%.]

"The tires":

You walk around the bodies in a wide circle and approach the vehicle to get a closer look at the tires. Call it a hunch.

The fresh snow is gradually piling up around the transport. The gentle curve between the white and the wheel arches makes it look like the ground is coyly grabbing at the tires, not wanting to let them go.

There's something almost tender about it which belies the very real danger. Getting stranded out here in the Wastes is not a situation anyone wants to be in. Another hour or so and someone's going to have to get digging.

Your feet plunge a ways down through the frozen mass as you get in close and begin to scrabble away with your hands, carving the wheels out in order to get a better view.

The first few you look at don't reveal much. The wheels are in a dual configuration, laid out in pairs along the length of the transport, so you take them two-by-two.

The voice of an old, uh, "acquaintance" pops up in your subconscious while you do this, mumbling inane facts about the vehicle's model, the wheel configurations, the tire manufacturing. All-mother knows why she tells you this stuff.

You do have a knack for recalling useful information when it's needed, though. And just like that, you notice that all these tires have been retreaded at least once. For some of them the process was done very recently, in fact.

Retreading wheels this size usually means that it's more expensive to replace them altogether. Going by the age of the vehicle, though, you'd say it's more like a desperate attempt to keep it going as long as possible.

This one's probably on its last legs. Last wheels? Last wheels.

You reach the last pair of tires, and repeat your routine of digging them out with your hands and then skimming around the inside of the guards and wheel-arches with your fingers.

This time, though, you find something.

Your fingers meet a small oblong object, probably no larger than a pack of cards, stuck out of sight on the underside of one of the arches. 

This is most definitely not supposed to be here.

Planting your feet either side of the wheel and bracing, you reach your other hand under the metal rim and pull down, hard. It doesn't budge for a moment, but then —

POP!

With that, the object comes loose very suddenly, and you stumble backwards a little ways. Your grip on it doesn't hold, and it falls out of your grasp and down into the snow, bouncing off the rubber.

Righting yourself, and dusting a little of the snow off your coat, you bend forwards to take a look at this thing where it fell.

It appears to be the remains of a small box. The casing is burned and charred, half-melted and barely holding together. Some wiring is poking out at odd angles, and you can make out something akin to an aerial at one end.

It's almost destroyed beyond recognition, but you don't need to be an expert to know what this thing is. What it represents.

Sabotage.

[Investigation Progress bar increments by 25%.]

>The cargo.:

You move around to the very rear of the transport, looking for the entry port into the cargo hold.

One of the two faceless oliveblood guards sees what you're doing and comes over to point out the access terminal for you. She offers you a keycard, saying she's not authorized to open the door herself.

You take it, and thank her. You keep quiet about the personal access card in your jacket pocket. The one which, as a regulator, you have the right to carry.

You don't need her help, but it's good to let the kids think they're part of something important. You find it hard to think of these people as anything but wigglers, sometimes.

Besides, it's part of your job as a higher-up to not let people feel redundant. At least, right up until the moment they are. Then it's a different story.

You wave the borrowed card over the receiver and a loud, harsh buzzing noise signifies that the lock is disengaging, together with an almighty CLUNK! as the bolts retract.

You hand the card back to the guard and climb up into the transport.

The inside of the hold is lit up in a pale green light which blinks into life when you open the cargo door. One of the bulbs at the far end struggles to come on, sputtering like a sick sparkbug.

The cargo itself is packed in boxes of varying shapes and sizes, all of which are arranged in a very intricate pattern on a series of shelves. They range from small cubes all the way up to crates taller than you.

The arrangement of the cargo is determined via an algorithm which picks the optimal way to store the eclectic mix of items to be delivered on any given trip.

It's a clever system, but sometimes it leads to something very small being packed inside a box which is four times larger than it needs to be. That's one of the disadvantages.

The other main drawback is that, unless you know the arrangement beforehand, it's very hard to know where any particular item will be. Fortunately the thieves took care of that for you. 

That's also the unfortunate part, of course.

There's a single empty slot on a shelf about halfway down the length of the transport, roughly the size of a briefcase. The philter must've been taken from here.

There are probably hundreds of bands worth of valuable resources in this transport, together with provisions, trade goods, electronics...

But the thieves didn't go for any of it. Just the philter.

The fact that rest of the crates weren't disturbed at all also tells you immediately that they knew exactly where to look. The schedule change wasn't the only thing your little snitch spilled the beans on, then.

The more you find out about this case, the less you like it. And yet there's something that's beginning to thrill you, even now. There's nothing quite like an opponent who knows what they're doing.

You duck back out of the hold, and the door shuts and locks automatically behind you. 

[Investigation Progress bar increments by 25%.]

>The bodies.:

You make your way over to the two corpses lying prone. Looks like you've got a rustblood and a goldblood here.

The pair of them are laid out straight, arms by their sides, legs flat against the ground. They were probably on their knees first, before they fell forwards. No sign of a struggle from where you're standing.

A combination of rigor mortis and the temperature means they're now stiffs in the literal sense, as well as the metaphoric. Although now that you think about it you guess the literal sense is where the expression originally comes from?

Whatever, you're not a wordologist.

Slipping on a pair of work gloves and making sure not to disturb the scene too much, you carefully roll the two of them over to get a closer look.

The thing you notice immediately is the wounds: two clean cuts, one across either neck. From that you surmise that they probably bled to death.

The next thing you notice, almost as immediately, is the expressions on their faces. Their eyes and mouths are wide open.

They look like they were utterly terrified.

The one on the left, the goldblood, is/was an adult in his mid-to-late teens by the looks of it. You'd estimate maybe 15 sweeps at a pass. You don't recognize him. 

There's something about the younger rustblood on the right that strikes you as familiar.

You take a look at...

>The rustblood on the right.:

You decide to examine the troll you recognize a little more closely. You get a good look at their face, and then close your eyes and search your memory.

>Recall: THE REFECTORY.:

As you concentrate, a recollection seems to coalesce out of the void, forming gradually like a bead of water before dropping and splashing across your consciousness all at once.

You remember seeing them, just once before. It was in one of the various eating halls inside the walls of Stronghold 21, about half a sweep ago.

They were around twelve sweeps old at the time, judging by the fact that there was a certain bright optimism in their face which hadn't yet been stamped out. The horror of this world bides its time for some people. How fortunate for them.

The encounter wasn't even a proper meeting, they were just some stranger your eyes lingered on a moment longer than usual. You noticed them leaning against a pillar, handheld mobile device in hand, with a distinctly sour expression on their face.

The way they were drilling holes into the screen with their eyes gave the impression that they were waiting for someone to get in touch. A frustrating business colleague, maybe? 

All-mother knows you spend enough Corporate hours waiting for the right people to buzz you, and just as much time hoping that they won't all the same.

You turned to hand a loop or three to the elderly burgundy behind the counter, her horns gnarled and helical. You could remember the exact amount if you cared to, but you're not focusing on it right now.

After picking up the freshly boiled soda (carbonated but not glucomated) and the lateral wheat-fiber stack, you turned back in their direction.

While your back was turned, their face seemed to have morphed into a gleeful, yet still gentle and reserved, expression of pure delight. They were now standing upright, excitedly tapping away at the device in their hands. 

Their eyes had softened at the corners, and a faint blush danced across their cheeks.

Oh, you thought.

Of course.

You open your eyes, almost regretting the exercise. Your inability to forget can be a cruel thing sometimes. Most of the time, in fact.

You search the young rustblood's body, but don't find anything of note. Just some personal effects, a packet of chilldrops, a worn photograph.

Their phone.

Without thinking you go to wake it, and you feel a sharp rush of relief as it doesn't light up. The battery must have died overnight. You put it back in their pocket.

The last thing you check is the ID tag tied to their ankle with a sense of dread.

These things are always rather morbid to look at, but they're an important means of sorting out the mess after a troll kicks it. Or, as in this case, has it kicked for them.

"CORPORATE EMPLOYMENT ASSET #32200: BYSTAN, NOCENT. DESIGNATION: LOGISTICAL SECURITY." "WILL/TESTAMENT: UNDOCUMENTED. BONDMATES: M." 

That last letter curls painfully in your chest. Shit. 

They have a bonded matesprit out there, somewhere. Someone who just felt a twinge of pain, but doesn't know why yet. Someone whose life won't ever be the same again.

Just one more poor soul who'll be filing their TEMP papers tomorrow, not really knowing how they'll manage it. If they'll manage it. 

It sure takes you back.

You stay there for a while, kneeling beside Nocent's body in the snow. Then you sigh, and pull yourself back upright.

>The goldblood on the left.:

You get a closer look at the goldblood stranger. Besides the neck wound, he doesn't appear to have sustained any other injuries. That strikes you as very odd.

You suspect that they were threatened at a distance, since otherwise they wouldn't have knelt without kicking up a fuss. Certainly you'd expect to see some incidental bruising if there was a scuff-up. 

It would make sense if they were occupied in front, though. Perhaps someone came up from behind in the meantime and...yeah. You pin that explanation to the top of your mental list as the most plausible, for now.

You gently search the guy's pockets. 

There's a couple of loops in spare change, a respiteblock keycard, the beginnings of a pretty substantial lint collection, a handful of soda bottle caps... nothing of any importance.

Although who are you to judge, maybe the lint was his ancestor's.

From the fact that this stuff was kept in his pocket you deduce that he wasn't in the habit of using a fetch modus. Same goes for his companion, too. Perhaps they couldn't afford them. Not everyone can.

You're about to call it quits here when you glance down at one of his hands. It appears to be holding something. 

While you prise his fingers open you take a look at the ID tag around his wrist. 

"CORPORATE EMPLOYMENT ASSET #03220: EVANTT, NOTREL. DESIGNATION: LOGISTICAL SECURITY." "WILL/TESTAMENT: UNDOCUMENTED. BONDMATES: NONE."

Poor guy. At least he's not leaving anyone behind to suffer sweeps of withdrawal. You don't let that thought carry on. You don't.

Finally you manage to force the hand open. Nestled in the palm is a small, ball-shaped device. The surface has several small holes in it, and there's a flap on the back that looks like a wing-case.

You recognize it as a maintenance drone. These things are always carried on logistics transports: they're used to check for and fix mechanical problems, since it's unfeasible to have a resident mechanic for every convoy.

This one looks like it's been crushed. Did this guy, Notrel, do that? You'd try and rip a diagnostic from it, but it's probably been out in the cold too long to show any signs of life now.

Perhaps this explains why the convoy was stopped in the first place, though. If the vehicle was tampered with somehow, then the first thing the crew would do is try and identify a systems failure.

What a nasty trap to walk into.

[Investigation Progress bar increments by 25%.]

>Go back.:

[Takes the player back to the options for investigation.]

>Looks like you're done here.:

By now the light is starting to dim. You've checked everything that you wanted to, and it's about time you began to head back to the Stronghold. 

This report isn't going to submit itself, you think bitterly. You've tried that one before.

You thank the guards for their help and let them know that they can start clearing up here. The oliveblood from earlier is looking pretty flushed, presumably from the cold. Hopefully she gets someplace warm.

You make your departure with a curt nod, and then walk back over to your bike. Some of the snow has begun to pile up on the seat. You brush it off and swing one leg over before starting the engine up.

Before gunning it out of here you get one last look at the scene: take in the bodies, the vehicle, the endless white. You try and picture in your mind that last frantic moment, in the dead of night, when three people's lives were cut short.

In a few hours this place will be empty again, nothing but some blood beneath the snow to mark what happened here. But you'll remember.

As night continues to fall on the journey home, you find yourself running over the few scraps of information you were able to find. The absence of any fighting, the sabotage of the vehicle, the pinpoint accuracy of the robbery itself.

Something doesn't quite make sense here. The execution was just a little too perfect, in both senses of the word.

If it was just your average cultist job, you'd expect a little less finesse. Most of these fanatics haven't even heard of the word finesse, let alone got enough to carry out a scheme this flawless.

Could it have been an inside job? It doesn't seem particularly likely. And yet the intel that leaked had to come from somewhere. Someone.

But what reason would Corporate have to steal from their own convoy? Could it have been a ruse to shake potential third parties off the trail?

Sestro seemed so righteous in his office, despite the theatrics. You've known that boy since he was a wiggler, and something tells you he'd never sign off on something like this.

But if not him, then maybe...

Ugh. This isn't getting you anywhere. This case is just getting started: it's no good seeing threats for no reason. That's never the best move on the table. 

You need much more information.

BEEEEEEEEP.
BEEEEEEEEP.
BEEEEEEEEP.

Suddenly, an alert rings out from your visor, jolting you out of your train of thought. Someone is trying to contact you. This strikes you as unusual for two different reasons. 

Firstly, the caller information is withheld. Whoever it is has something to hide, almost offering themselves up as a suspect from the outset.

Suspicious calls on the way back from crime scenes don't tend to be inquiries after your health.

The second reason is that you haven't had a personal call in ages.

You pick up.

??????: [I’m so glad you were assigned to this c a  s   e    .]
??????: [When your name flashed up on my interface, I knew this was all worth i t  .]
??????: [I’ve been following your work, you k n  o   w    .]
??????: [Too many trolls on this planet don’t appreciate the really skilled. Obsessed with idle celebrity. Sucking down whatever swill your paymasters feed t h  e   m    .]
??????: [But I respect you. You deliver your idea of ‘good’ face to f a  c   e    .]
??????: [You should be famous, Sec i  l   y    .]
??????: [Everyone should know the trail of bodies you’ve left beh i  n   d    .]

SECILY: 1.c4 How did you get this contact. ...c5
??????: [That’s a tedious question. You can do bet t  e   r    .]
SECILY: 2.Nf3 Fine. What can you tell me about the scene I just left behind? ...Nc6
??????: [You’re trying to scope out how much I know. Still just trying to find the bounds of my po w  e   r    .]
??????: [A standard opening. Safe. But you can’t play for the draw h e  r   e    .]
??????: [There’s simply too much on the l i  n   e    .]
??????: [Your focus on what happened and when won’t bring you any closer to understand i  n   g    .]
??????: [To triumph, you can’t just take your orders and ma r  c   h    .]

SECILY: 3.Nc3 You’ve talked yourself in circles. And you call me tedious. ...g6
SECILY: 4.e3 Answer the question. ...Nf6

??????: [A hundred trucks cross the remote corners of this disgusting planet every d a  y   .]
??????: [A hundred containers of valuables. Raw materials. Fodder for craft, fruits of the labor of thousands of tro l  l   s    .]
??????: [Each part contaminated by greed and fi l  t   h    .]
??????: [But only the blood was ta k  e   n    .]

SECILY: 5.d4 Why? Do you know its properties? ...Bg7
??????: [I want to help you understand, I really d o  .]
??????: [You will by the e n  d   .]
??????: [I think you’ll agree with me, t o  o   .]
??????: [You’ve been purging this planet of refuse for so l o  n   g    .]

SECILY: 6.d5 You’ve done nothing to convince me you’re not part of it. ...Na5
??????: [We’re all a part of it, lap d  o   g    .]
??????: [I’m going to give you the tools to break your ch a  i   n    .]
??????: [Eidolic Acres. +2.111. Two d a  y   s    .]
??????: [Listen cl o  s   e    .]

The call clicks out, nothing but the sound of wind whipping past you and the hum of your motor left to accompany you as the sun fully disappears beyond the horizon and your headlamp shines into the distance.

SECILY: 7.Be2 I always do. ...d6 ½-½

You make the rest of the journey back to the Stronghold without additional excitement.

As you approach the outer walls, you get a message from one of your superiors. Looks like they tried to call you while you were talking to... whoever that was. Two in one day! You'd think something was wrong. Oh wait.

The message is just a room number and a meeting time. Efficient as always. A few minutes later and you're walking back in through the dimly lit foyer of the Corporate headquarters.

A short elevator ride finds you striding past mostly-empty cubicles, soda coolers and falsified office foliage. The trolls still here are the late-night strivers. Eager to prove themselves. 

Could they be eager to atone? To assuage their own guilt?

You make a mental note of everyone around out of habit, but quickly cut that train of thought off before it goes anywhere. No point in being unnecessarily suspicious of people, not at this stage.

On the far side of the floor, at the end of a hallway, a tall figure stands waiting. As she sees you coming she beckons once, and then vanishes into one of the many doors lining both sides of the corridor. 

You hurry onward, managing to catch the door before it closes and sidle your way in quietly.

The Corporate building seems to have more conference rooms that they know what to do with. Certainly more than any normal company could use.

Then again, normality is a concept that tends to get left behind when you're dealing with the end of the world.

It's very dark in here. There's barely any light to see by, apart from the faint glow from your overhead visor and the occasional flash of lightning outside.

You'd consider trying to find a light switch, but then perhaps that would ruin the effect.

The tall, shadowy figure that was in the room when you entered steps into a shaft of light, and you can make her out clearly for the first time.

>Recall: HAMIFI HEKRIX:

HAMIFI HEKRIX may be more of a no-nonsense corporate cutthroat than her knitwear-loving matesprit, but she has the same underlying instinct for dramatic flair bordering on the comical. 

They were almost made for each other. You have to remind yourself that this is, in fact, very literally true.

But between her skulking in the shadows and him looking forlornly out of windows every few moments it's a wonder these kids get any work done.

Now, the effective second-in-command of the Corporate machine is standing in front of you with an expectant look on her face. She's holding her signature clipboard, the weapon of choice for a ruthless itinerarian.

>Get right to it.:

She doesn't bother saying anything. She just clicks the end of her pen once, somehow managing to make it sound like a question. You both know she's here for your report on the burglary, so you get right to it.

Your eyes drift shut as you begin to recount the afternoon's findings. Something about the darkness makes it easier, like you're giving the information an emptiness to fill up.

Your mouth moves of its own accord, recalling everything in discrete, itemized chunks. All the while, the faint scratching of a pen on paper accompanies your low murmur.

It's an odd kind of music the two of you make together sometimes, a routine that's familiar despite the business atmosphere.

Eventually it dies down, your story comes to an end, and you open your eyes again.  

Hamifi has stopped writing. She's looking down at her clipboard deep in thought, brow slightly furrowed. After a few moments of silence, though, she looks at you again and speaks for the first time.

HAMIFI: In your opinion, what sort of people are we dealing with here?∞

Her voice is proper, professional, poised.

SECILY: 1.d4 I'm... not sure. There are several reasonable possibilities, with varying degrees of mutual exclusivity. ...d5
SECILY: 2.c4 The only certainty is that, whoever they are, they have some kind of connection with Corporate. ...c6
SECILY: 3.cxd5 The amount of information they must have had access to speaks to that. I can't say if it's anything as serious as a mound mammal within the organization or just a matter of bad bookkeeping. ...cxd5

Her eyes narrow at that suggestion.

SECILY: 4.Nf3 But either way there's clearly some avenue through which these people were able to exploit internal information for their own ends. ...Nc6
SECILY: 5.Nc3 The heist was far too clean, too perfect. ...Nf6
SECILY: 6.Bf4 It was almost impressive. ...Bf5

Hamifi is frowning openly now, and cuts your hypothesizing short with an upraised hand.

HAMIFI: This robbery was far from a watertight operation, Ms. Iopara, and you of all people should understand why.∞
HAMIFI: There was one key detail which demonstrates it.∞
HAMIFI: The bodies at the scene. The murder of our employees.∞
HAMIFI: That was mess. That was uncalled for. An unforgivable waste of troll resources.∞
HAMIFI: The theft itself was so perfect that the deaths were clearly unnecessary. Anyone with that complete a picture of the situation should have managed to avoid bloodshed altogether.∞
HAMIFI: You made it sound as though you almost respected these people, but this isn't a game that you're playing.∞

(No comment.)

HAMIFI: These criminals aren't an opponent to be challenged, they're a scourge to be cleansed.∞
HAMIFI: They're blood on the snow, just like the mess they left behind.∞
HAMIFI: That's three more empty jobs I have to fill somehow. That's more TEMP work that needs to be done.∞
HAMIFI: That's something else sucking us dry while we try and fix this entire planet. Another vital asset plucked from our grasp as we — ∞
HAMIFI: As I — ∞
HAMIFI: Work tirelessly, ENDLESSLY, against the clock. Time is not on our side.∞
HAMIFI: This crime is a mockery pointed straight at Corporate itself!∞

Though her voice has barely changed in volume this whole time, to you it sounds like Hamifi has begun shouting by this point. Her words are ice cold and dripping with anger. Snowbound blood.

You don't know how to respond to this, and so you elect not to say anything altogether. Years of experience tell you that, in situations like these, the best move is not to make one. You're in Zugzwang

Hamifi breathes in and out pointedly for a few moments, before seeming to collect herself once more as her face inches imperceptibly back to an expression of complete calm.

HAMIFI: Sestro may take a more lax approach to deploying Corporate assets, but I'm never one to let a good thing go to waste.∞
HAMIFI: Just remember, Ms. Iopara: you are as much an investment as any of our other initiatives. And safeguarding investments is where I come in.∞
HAMIFI: This investigation may run darker and more foul than you realize.∞
HAMIFI: Don't trust anyone.∞

Well this is new. She seems cautious, almost like she's nervous about something. She gives you a very direct look with this last warning, and you can tell that she knows about your little bit of... fanmail. 

The fact that someone else was contacting you so soon after leaving the crime scene is enough to make her suspicious, perhaps rightfully so. But all the same, it strikes you as more than a little wigglerish.

SECILY: 7.e3Don't worry, Ms. Hekrix, I'm not about to get into the habit of it now. ...e6
SECILY: 8.Bd3 But any leads, any potential pockets of useful uncertainty, should be examined and exploited before being discarded. You of all people should be able to appreciate that. I didn't get so far in my career without being open to every possibility. ...Bxd3
SECILY: 9.Qxd3 I highly doubt there will be any kind of confrontation, this person seems too content to hide in the shadows. And even if it does, just you remember: ...Bd6
SECILY: 10.Bxd6 My winning streak has been going since before you and your betrothed were hatched. ...Qxd6
SECILY: 11.O-O It's not going to end with some anonymous prankster. ...O-O ½-½

HAMIFI: ...∞
HAMIFI: See to it that it doesn't.∞
HAMIFI: You're no use to us otherwise.∞

And with that, your superior clicks the end of her pen in a way that lets you know that this meeting is over, as quickly and abruptly as it began.

She glides over to the door and leaves without sparing you a second glance. You don't hang around either, but by the time you're back out in the corridor she's already vanished.

Your head is full. 

Something isn’t adding up here, and the call you got is the biggest variable. You need some space and time. You walk past the rows of cubicles, aware of anxious eyes on you.

Sestro is often nervous, fretting, obsessing about one threat or another. He crams so much history into his head you think maybe he just starts reliving it sometimes, seeing portents of a second Renaissance around every corner.

It's understandable though. He's the mask, the public face, the direction everyone's facing while Hamifi does all the dirty work. And the problem with being the mask is you have to look back at them.

But seeing Hamifi paranoid? That's rare. And now that you have time to think about it, it strikes you as... unsettling.

You've watched the two of them go through a lot of moods over the sweeps, settling into their roles and assuming authority. Hamifi took to it more comfortably than her matesprit, or at least appeared to.

You wonder what she knows that you don't, what would lead to her unusual show of concern—filtered as it is through a desire to protect the company?

The open-ended possibilities start to close in on you. You get a constriction in your chest from being surrounded by those you've been told not to trust. You're getting caught up in speculation. 

Before you know it you're back in the elevator, soft muzak blurring to a mindless din in your ears. You breathe a sigh of relief when the doors shut without anyone else coming in. You don't have idle conversation in you right now.

A very long time ago you learned a number of exercises to deal with overwhelming feelings from a good... friend. Call it an old therapy take-away.

As the elevator takes you up, up, up, you make a repetitive little motion with your hands. A ritual of calm.

Four fingers on your left hand tap your right palm twice. Then you switch, fingers on your right hand tapping the left palm.

Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap.

It helps you center yourself and focus as you exit the elevator on the top floor and take a single flight of stairs to the roof.

The cool air is a deliverance. You walk to the edge of the building and look out on Stronghold 21.

Pastel neon lights suffuse the streets. The bass of faraway music of the stronghold's nightlife thumps distantly.

Colorful advertisements flicker on LED screens—this week's Skyrim release, a new brand of sugary fizz, the 101st season of "Who Wants to Be a Hyperlooper?"

(That show hasn't been the same since a young man lost on it and destroyed the original set before spiraling into cult leadership. But that's a story for another time.)

It's easy to look inside these walls and see what the revelers on the street see. A society without scarcity. Of productivity and prosperity. But every bright light casts a shadow.

You think of bodies, face-down in the snow. Bondmates getting an impersonal phone call that will break them. A deep-breathing voice taunting you over a voice link.

You think of a thousand reasons someone would turn against this world. You think of more why someone outside of it would steal, kill, break, just to tear it down.

The breeze gives you a chill. Lines of probability start to firm up in your mind.

This world is balanced on a precipice. And, somewhere out there, a conspiracy has emerged to steal a piece of its history, one that may push it over the edge.

It's up to you.

Time to make a plan.

END