Snowbound Blood Transcript: Volume 5

Volume 5 - Of Blood and Comfort

It's been a few days since your last and very unpleasant shift of field duty.

The discovery that you were being tailed, along with your sudden explosion-related disappearance from the corporate comms grid, sent everyone into a tizzy — Sestro and Hamifi especially, in their respective ways.

And so you spent the last few days on enforced rest. You spent your hours researching, following up with contacts, and consumed with thought.

After a near-death scrape or two and several hours of interviews, you're really only a single step closer to answering the question that sits like ice in your gut.

Who has the resources and the nerve to execute a theft of this magnitude, get away with it, and put a tail on the planet's top regulator, all while finding the time to engage in online harassment?

One thing's for sure: you're going stir-crazy here. This sparse respiteblock won't hold you for long.

OCCEUS COLIAD

HAMIFI: Knowledge may be a burden, but ignorance always comes at the cost of character.∞
HAMIFI: And I tire of being ignorant, Secily.∞

Well. That’s something the two of you have in common.

You don’t voice that thought, of course. The last thing you need right now is to further prod the irritable, impatient bird of prey that’s standing in front of you.

There’s nothing stopping you from indulging in a spot of snappy commentary in the privacy of your mind, however. Which is what you’re doing at present. It helps with the stress.

Somewhat.

You’ve been summoned back to a certain conference room by a certain superior, in order to discuss a certain case. With all this certainty going around, you’d have hoped said case would be going far more smoothly.

The scene before you is all too familiar. Just being here strikes you with a sense of déjà vu, down to the underlying tension permeating the atmosphere.

If anything, said tension is even more pronounced now than it was before. An expected development, really — considering the pragmatic, methodical dispositions of the individuals involved.

It’s hard not to let the lack of concrete results get under one’s skin, when one is either Secily Iopara or Hamifi Hekrix.

You take a deep breath, letting it out in a short huff.

SECILY: 1.e4 I understand your frustration, Ms. Hekrix. This investigation has been progressing slower than I’d like it to, as well. ...e5
SECILY: 2.Nf3 I can say with certainty, however, that I’m starting to see a larger pattern forming. Furthermore, I have eliminated several potential suspects thus far, and there are still many leads to follow. ...Nc6
SECILY: 3.Bb5 And if the elaborate, indirect attempts on my life and newly established surveillance in the form of a less-than-discreet girl are anything to go by, I’d say this points to my being on the right track. ...Nf6

Hamifi narrows her eyes. The tap-tap-tapping of her pen on the clipboard is a metronome of sorts — a steady auditory accompaniment you narrow in on, as she considers your words.

You use this lull in conversation to take in her appearance more carefully, and — now that you think about it, this change from her regular business casual look is rather... conspicuous.

These silks and linens are way too elaborate for your usual meetings.

You can’t really tell from this angle, but you’re sure the back of her new hairdo is as striking as the front. She’s always had a good eye for aesthetics.

You’d like to think you taught her a thing or two about it. Knowing Hamifi, though, she wouldn't be particularly receptive to this idea.

In fact, she would probably have you publicly retract a statement like that and submit a written apology (in triplicate, signed and stamped).

She might also fine you, or mark you down for insubordination. It kind of depends on the day, really.

Anyway. There is a little detail that definitely does not escape your notice — it seems Hamifi has also chosen to integrate quite the colorful bruise into her new ensemble.

It’s sitting right at the junction between her neck and collarbone, almost deliberately peeking out from under her dress. A loud and clear statement, to be sure. You can only imagine how Sestro was marked in turn.

Ah, young love. Good for them.

She stops her tapping and clicks her pen with a sense of finality.

HAMIFI: I’ve decided your next suspect for you.∞

You had a feeling this was where this conversation was going. Only on rare occasions is Hamifi this hands-on with her micromanaging of Corporate assets, but you’ve known her for quite some time.

Still. A small, practically negligible part of you wishes that Hamifi would at least ask how you’re doing before telling you what you’re doing. Just once.

SECILY: 4.d3 I already have a list of suspects, all personally handpicked by the two of you. Should I not be sticking to it? ...d6
HAMIFI: We both know that has not stopped you from defying orders on at least three occasions thus far.∞

This also happens to be the third time she's brought these transgressions up, in this conversation alone.

You have to fight the urge to bristle at the comment. The reprimanding superior routine is starting to wear on you.

Mother and Father above, you really wish every single detail didn’t always come back to this girl. Talking to her sometimes feels like swallowing knives.

You bite back a grimace and silently wait for her to continue.

HAMIFI: This choice is, admittedly, somewhat personal in nature.∞
HAMIFI: But we received a tip from one of our insiders, and given my previous suspicions, I was inclined to look into it immediately.∞
HAMIFI: Consider it a special request on my behalf, for all the precious time you wasted following that unhinged, voice-changing criminal.∞

Doesn’t every request you follow qualify as being on her behalf, by default? This is like saying squares categorically differ from rectangles. Pointless semantics.

SECILY: 5.Nc3 Very well. Who is it that I’m to investigate next, Ms. Hekrix? ...g6
HAMIFI: Occeus Coliad, spearhead of our modest number of outsourced researchers.∞
SECILY: 6.c4+ And his field is? ...d5

Hamifi glances aside for a brief moment. You can practically hear her clench her teeth behind pursed lips.

HAMIFI: Hematology.∞
SECILY: 7.Bxe3 Oh? I thought that area of study was largely obsolete nowadays. ...Bd7
HAMIFI: Your assessment evidently doesn’t match his.∞

Her voice drops low, bitter. You... don’t really understand where this animosity is coming from?

HAMIFI: His results are... unprecedented.∞
HAMIFI: This world hasn’t seen anything like it before.∞

SECILY: 8.Qd2 And this is a bad thing? ...h6
HAMIFI: It’s an abhorrently suspicious thing.∞

So is her sudden change in attitude.

SECILY: 9.d4 Is there anything else that drew your attention to him, besides the subject of his research? ...exd4
HAMIFI: The man is a workaholic, to an extreme degree. There’s no record of him engaging in recreational activities or using his various granted credits for anything besides bare necessities.∞
HAMIFI: Everything he accrues ends up being funneled back into his research, with the exception of hive refurbishment and expansion.∞
HAMIFI: He is also notably cagey about technical descriptions during his check-ins, preferring physical demonstration. His exact methods remain unclear.∞

She narrows her eyes, looking particularly disgruntled.

HAMIFI: Hard to reason with is an understatement.∞

You’ll grant it to her, the reclusive attitude and frugality would raise a few eyebrows. She seems to be taking it almost personally, though, which still strikes you as odd.

SECILY: 10.Nxd4 What else can you tell me about him? ...Nxd4
HAMIFI: His specific study is built around the extension of life and revitalization. He has consistently impressed on that front.∞
HAMIFI: Especially among my jadeblooded kin.∞

Oh.

Oh, you’re seeing where this is going.

He’s impeding on territory that Hamifi would rather leave untouched.

Jadebloods form a rather unique repitonian subculture, in your experience. Unusual, especially in the current day and age, where a fairly homogenous planet-wide cultural lifestyle is shared across the Mass.

Only rivaled by the remaining sea dwellers in terms of scarcity, jades are special in their cultivated ties to one another — bound together by SHARED KNOWLEDGE in a manner that borders on the familial.

Ordinarily, this concept is only tossed around in relation to the mythical, or — if you’re especially lucky and happen to stumble upon it — the inherited.

It’s a personal thing, what these particular ties mean to each individual. Still, it’s something that your species as a whole is aware of.

You suppose you can see where she’s coming from. The facilitation of life and its myriad intricacies have been passed down for countless generations among her caste.

At this point, the knowledge of reduplication has been instilled into them almost as a birthright. As their purpose.

Hamifi doesn’t want that taken away from her, even potentially.

You have an instinctual urge to... prod. Maybe digging a little deeper into this would be prudent? You feel it may be clouding her judgement.

You decide against it. The last thing you need right now is to further try her patience and have her question your intentions. But you do stow the idea away for later.

That, and you can’t say Coliad’s area of research doesn’t bring the stolen vial to mind. The connections to revitalization alone make this doctor a prime suspect.

There is reason for suspicion here, even if under unfair pretenses.

Hamifi clears her throat.∞

HAMIFI: Well, are you just going to stand there and ponder? Or should I invite you to act?∞

Always so impatient, this one.

SECILY: 11.Bxd7+ There is a lot to consider going into this. ...Nxd7
HAMIFI: Consider it while you move.∞
HAMIFI: We’ve updated your files with his location. You are going to want to leave quickly.∞

You're about to do just that, but you catch something in her expression. It feels like she still has more she wants to say.

HAMIFI: ...The longer you stand in the same place, the more likely the parasites are to bite you.∞

She holds your gaze, waiting for you to comment. You raise an eyebrow.

SECILY: 12.Bxd4 Was that a joke? ...Bxd4
HAMIFI: I’m trying my hardest to keep my good mood.∞

You scoff, taking the banter for what it is — an unspoken peace offering between the two of you.

SECILY: 13.Qxd4 Give the Heir my regards. And have a pleasant time on your outing. ...Qf6 ½-½

Her gaze briefly flits downward, toward her clipboard, and you catch the barest ghost of a smile on her lips.

HAMIFI: Noted.∞

With a quick flash of color, you’re left alone in the room.

And in another, you leave it empty.

The plains that stand before you are a desolate, dismal sight.

Colossal bones of long-dead creatures litter the landscape — the only points of interest amidst the cracked, jagged edges that make up the scenery. That, and the lonely hive that stands a few expanses away.

The air is cold here. A dreary fog permeates the area, curling around everything it touches, almost as if it’s alive — wispy, ghostly tendrils circling what little fauna manages to survive in this place.

In the distance, you hear the faint howl of a blackblooded lusus. It's a lonely sound; a desperate call for a bond it will probably never find. Not out here.

All around you, everything seems to whisper a single word: death.

No one ever comes this far out into the undead wasteland — at least, not without a damn good reason. You’re well aware of yours.

And you will not be leaving before you find out what exactly it is that this Coliad fellow is keeping so close to his chest.

On that note — it’s high time you got an actual move on.

You start making your way down the slope, towards the SKULLTITAN GRAVEYARD.

The terrain here is way too uneven for tires, and so the bike had to be left behind. You bid it a solemn and silent farewell as you hop over a particularly large crack in the ground.

It’s not a very steep incline, though. Any difficulty in the descent is more due to the Graveyard’s inhabitants than any sort of downslope.

Maybe difficulty is overstating it. You’d gladly resign from your position as chief regulator if you ever let a bunch of wild lusii and mindless, half-dead trolls get in your way.

It seems some of these creatures are eager to try their luck, though. As you land on the other side of a small ravine, two trolls whip their heads around and start slowly shambling toward you.

You’d call it brave, if you didn’t get the distinct impression their actions come from lack of higher cognitive functions, rather than a sudden bout of courage.

Oh, well. It would be rude not to indulge them.

The ensuing fight — by a loose definition of the word — is quick and straightforward. The undead closest to you, now in striking distance, lunges in your direction. You're already strafing to the right, and you dodge with ease.

A swift advance to get in better position, your blade through its neck, and it’s over. The body slumps in on itself after a couple of seconds with a final, wet gurgle.

You turn around to face your second opponent. Like the first troll, it tries to grab at you with clumsy, loudly telegraphed movements, and like the first troll, you finish it off in a matter of seconds.

Sidestep to the left. Use the opening to circle around it. Run Proserpina through its chest. Dead.

Or rather, dead for a second time, you guess. Double dead? No, that sounds really fucking stupid.

You pull your blade out of the corpse with a grunt, and it dislodges itself with a squirt of dark teal blood. Eugh. You’re going to have to give it a thorough wash later.

Just as you move to sheathe it, you hear a very unpleasant squelching noise. Your eyes snap toward the sound — you have the distinct feeling you’re about to extremely not like this.

The carcass at your feet lies completely motionless. Motionless, except for the arrhythmic, repetitive strain you’re able to make out on the back of its skull. Almost as if something is trying to—

Before you can finish your thought, the skin bursts open with a sickening pop, and bits of rotten flesh and brain matter explode outward, as a handful of writhing vermin make their way out of the troll’s head.

Ew.

The parasites that inhabit this stretch of land are... peculiar creatures. Not very well understood, they were discovered a few decades prior only to start multiplying in droves over the course of the next few sweeps.

They tend to stick only to very specific locations — the Graveyard you find yourself in, for example — which likely stems from the abundance of a key component in their means of reproduction: corpses.

These creatures burrow inside a troll or lusus’s body, using it as a walking host until their breeding cycle is complete, at which point they... exit, only to find a new vessel and start the whole thing anew.

It’s all rather gruesome and revolting, and it’s happening in front of you right now.

Your face contorts into a grimace at the disgusting display. This is absolutely appalling. You hate this place.

There’s a modicum of satisfaction in squashing the insects under your heel, though. Viscous yellow liquid squirts out when you press down, and the consistency makes you think of spilled jam. The grossest jam you've ever seen.

It hardens like a resin when it comes into contact with the crisp winter breeze. Take that, you nasty little fiends. No more corpses for you.

You mentally congratulate yourself on the impromptu bout of pest control before sheathing your rapier and—

Wha— 

Beneath your feet, the sudden tremors reach a deafening crescendo, until a gargantuan figure shoots from the ground below you. You’re knocked flat on your ass.

You blink. The action is enough to nearly have you miss the cavernous, gaping maw of an OUWORM, as it claims your two kills for itself with an enthusiasm befitting a six star full-course meal.

Wait, is it... navyblooded?

It’s very hard for you to imagine such a detestable, vicious creature forming any sort of genuine attachment to a troll. Unless it had something to gain out of the arrangement, that is.

Natural lusii often require their bonds to be symbiotic in some manner — a far cry from the instinctual caretaker leanings the domesticated, artificially reduplicated Corporate lusii tend to exhibit.

A chunk of what used to be someone’s thigh flies through the air, landing right next to your feet.

You... would really rather not have to deal with that beast in close proximity, if you can help it.

With that in mind, you stand back upright, dust your coat off, and start speed walking toward your destination, in as dignified and professional a manner as you can manage. It ends up being somewhat stiff.

The rest of your trek is far less eventful than the first few minutes. His hive is really not very hard to spot — an elaborate modern building that you usually wouldn’t find any sub-purple trolls residing in.

You have to admit, though, you find the placement of it a tad... questionable.

Personally, you would not have built your home smack dab in the middle of a monster’s long-since brittled rib cage, right in the spot where a heart should be.

You guess it makes a statement of sorts? Oh well, to each their own.

A few minutes later, and you find yourself standing in front of an excessively large set of double doors.

You see no way to properly knock on the entry slabs — no gaudy rings, no bells, no whistles. Not even a communications box or a standard issue P.A. system.

You almost take offence to it. Really, any non-modest living space that’s worth its salt should have at least one of those. It sends a very apathetic message to any hypothetical guests otherwise.

Before you can consider whether it’s wise to loiter in the middle of one of the most uninhabitable places the Mass has to offer, the doors begin to clunk and creak.

It takes a moment, but you spot the silhouette of what you assume is your man. He’s still wreathed in shadows when you greet him.

SECILY: 1.d4 Hello, Dr. Coliad. My name is Secily Iopar- ...d5
ROGI: GRAH

A rotund, hunchbacked creature stitched together like a well-worn tapestry greets you at the threshold. Somehow, you get the impression that it’s trying to communicate the feeling of equal greetings to you.

It fixes you with a hollow, yet oddly earnest stare.

You... were not expecting to be expected.

SECILY: 2.c4 Uh. ...c6
SECILY: 3.e3 Greetings? ...Nf6

It (he?) simply blinks up at you.

ROGI: RAAGH

Hm. This is not the... individual you thought would be welcoming you.

You furrow your eyebrows, taking in the short little living thing that’s now stepped into the light, peeking its head out inquisitively.

You’ve never seen anything like it before. Could it be one of those daring experiments Hamifi mentioned back in her office? It certainly seems to be cobbled together from different parts, from what you can tell.

Impressive and unprecedented results in the field indeed.

SECILY: 4.Nc3 Do you... understand me? ...g6

It tilts its head to the side in a manner quite similar to that of a barkbeast. Then it lets out a quiet, curious groan. It’s almost endearing.

You sigh.

SECILY: 5.Nf3 No, I don’t suppose you would. ...Bg7

You enact a number of interpretive hand motions at the creature, trying to convey the idea of doors opening and safe passage. It’s like you’re playing a slightly manic game of charades.

Despite your great efforts, it still refuses to budge from its place. The only reaction you get is a quiet clap of coarse, slightly wrinkled hands. And more indistinct vocalizations.

Speaking of which — guttural gurgles echo across the landscape, steadily getting louder. The imminent company will soon be impossible to ignore.

You glance at the critter. It looks back at you with its beady, innocent little eyes.

Oh, damn it all. You just can’t bring yourself to shove it out of your way.

Resigning yourself to another series of butchery-related unpleasantries, you spin on your heels. Your hand hovers over your revolver as you gear up to face the incoming aggressors.

You already got a solid smattering of gunk on your soles. You would really rather not risk your coat.

One of the putrescent beings chooses this moment to vomit on the ground in front of it. You wince.

It must be an uncontrolled reaction to exertion, which you can’t help but see as a threat to the continued cleanliness of your attire.

This better be some man.

As if on cue, the clack of what sounds like steel-toed boots rings out from the dark hall that your puzzling new acquaintance was guarding.

You turn your head just in time to catch it scuttling aside for — oh, there he is.

You finally see your suspect, one Occeus Coliad, making his entrance from stage right. You're fairly certain this is not a repeat of the previous identity mishap.

OCCEUS: D.o. excuse me f.o.r the wait miss—
OCCEUS: .o.h dear

With the effortless calm that comes with practice, he advances toward the nearest cluster of trolls and plunges his boot directly into one of their midsections.

The maneuver not only rockets the troll’s entrails out through its rotten back, but also sends all of the nearby reanimated corpses tumbling down with it.

A familiar tremor rattles you. Seconds later, you become intimately acquainted with the gluttonous jaws of the Ouworm, as it bursts through the dirt to swallow all three cadavers whole.

Sweet all-mother. You really hate that thing. You may also feel ever so slightly terrified of it.

OCCEUS: Hm

The encounter barely fazes him. There is the briefest pause before he turns back to you, with what you can only describe as an unperturbed expression.

OCCEUS: Ap.o.l.o.gies .o.nce again miss i.o.para
OCCEUS: That was quite the unnecessary spectacle

He scrapes his boots on the ground, getting some of the undead gunk off his soles.

At least your shoes match.

OCCEUS: Perhaps we sh.o.uld c.o.ntinue this inside
OCCEUS: W.o.n’t y.o.u please come in?

Gladly so.

You're led into his hive, at last. You peer around at the various bits of machinery and cables with some amount of curiosity. There’s a loud creaking as Coliad’s... assistant? Closes the doors behind you.

It scurries off to his side and peeks at you from behind his torso as the three of you make your way down the hall.

You fight the urge to give it a little wave before turning your attention back to your target.

SECILY: 6.Bd3 You were expecting me? ...Nbd7
OCCEUS: Hamifi and eye are in regular c.o.munnicati.on and she was graci.o.us en.o.ugh t.o. n.o.tify me .o.f y.o.ur arrival
OCCEUS: Standard pr.o.cedure f.o.r c.o.ntract.o.rs

Ah, of course. Standard procedure. Her reputation for being by-the-book does lend a certain veneer of credibility to this blatant spying. Still a wonder he never figured anything was out of the ordinary.

She tends to have a lighter touch. Maybe you should be writing her up for such an obvious ploy.

You take a closer look at him — the stiff set of his shoulders, the slight crease of his mouth. It’s subtle, but he seems nervous. Twitchy.

Perhaps it’s time to start applying some pressure.

SECILY: 7.O-O You don’t seem particularly thrilled about my being here. ...O-O
OCCEUS: Eye... d.o.n’t get many visit.o.rs

He glances to the side, readjusting his arms behind his back. The rubber gloves creak with the motion.

OCCEUS: And it w.o.uld be inc.o.rrect t.o. claim that this typically saddens

You can certainly relate to the sentiment, if that’s all there is to it. Sometimes the best company you can have is your own.

The moment passes, and once again, he schools his features into a cool, focused neutrality. Looking at him now, one would be surprised if a single muscle in his set jaw as much as twitched.

Just then, the corridor opens up into a lab. It’s what you’d expect from the usual researcher paraphernalia: books, test tubes, various charts, an enormous computer pressed against the back wall, a tea table—

Wait a second. Is that an operating table?

Huh.

OCCEUS: Please excuse the extent .o.f the disarray
OCCEUS: Eye was t.o.ld that y.o.u were c.o.ming .o.n very sh.o.rt n.o.tice and had t.o. rush disp.o.sal

SECILY: 8.b3 Disposal? ...Qc7
OCCEUS: The lab needed t.o. be purified p.o.sthaste f.o.r y.o.ur arrival
OCCEUS: Eye als.o. had t.o. make us tea
OCCEUS: That is why it t.oo.k me s.o. l.o.ng t.o. meet y.o.u at the d.oo.r

He was... making tea?

SECILY: 9.Bb2 You really did not have to go out of your way to do this for me. ...e5
OCCEUS: N.o.nsense it is c.o.mm.o.n c.o.urtesy

It really isn’t — not when one chooses to pursue a career like yours.

The effort is... quaint. And you appreciate it, even if it's not the most hygienic of choices. You’re not usually received so hospitably when you drop by for hive calls.

You also don’t have the chroma beater to tell him that you really don’t care for tea.

Warm milk mixed with the usual sugary fruits and cocoa powder just doesn’t sit right with you, mainly due to the grit. You’re very picky about texture.

OCCEUS: Make y.o.urself as c.o.mf.o.rtable as p.o.ssible
OCCEUS: Eye rec.o.mmend the cream biscuits
OCCEUS: My assistant r.o.gi prepared them
OCCEUS: They are als.o. fresh

SECILY: 10.cxd5 Oh, so it — he does have a name. ...cxd5
OCCEUS: .o.f c.o.urse

He lays a hand on one of "Rogi’s" shoulders.

OCCEUS: Y.o.u must always title y.o.ur pr.o.udest achievements
ROGI: EEEEEEEEEE

You suppose you really can’t argue with logic like that.

Finding yourself trapped by the expectation of good manners, you sit down at the makeshift table and tentatively take a bite of one of the pastries, under Rogi’s expectant watch.

It’s sweet. Extremely, overly so, to the point where you feel like you just slurped the caramelized syrup straight out of a finished cigarette. Still, you give him your nod of approval.

He claps excitedly.

A long silence falls over the lab. This day must be getting to you, because your mind drifts. You imagine yourself lying on this table, not an investigator, but a victim awaiting an autopsy.

It's a silly thought, and you quickly dismiss it.

In all fairness, being in Coliad's company is much more comfortable than you anticipated. You feel that if he were a coroner, he would at the very least take due consideration with your dead body.

You suddenly feel the pressing need to break the silence.

SECILY: 11.Nb5 Your contracting has a rather unique set of circumstances attached to it. ...Qd8
SECILY: 12.dxe5 There’s not really anyone doing work like yours outside of jadeblood practitioners. And even then, I would say you seem to fit rather snugly into your own personal category. ...Ng4
SECILY: 13.Rc1 Must be laborious. ...Ndxe5

OCCEUS: Eye prefer t.o. think .o.f it as necessary m.o.re than anything

He’s still not sitting with you — just standing there next to Rogi, vacantly staring at a spot on the wall. The goggles make it a bit challenging to puzzle out what he’s thinking, honestly.

The only thing you can tell is that he’s nervous, gloved fingers anxiously pulling at one another behind his back. He looks like he wants to say something, but can’t find the proper words to start with.

The entire situation is much different than what you were expecting based on your conversation with Hamifi. Leagues apart, really.

You went in fully prepared to be met with resistance. Perhaps immediately run into something sinister? At the very least, you were ready to deal with a stiff, uncooperative recluse with a chip on his shoulder.

But instead, in front of you there is an anxious, overly polite man — more a boy to you, really — who made you tea before opening the door and had his assistant prepare you biscuits.

You’d go as far as to say that he’s entirely unaware of his present circumstances. And you’re loathe to imply this, but...

Maybe Hamifi was a bit hasty in her assumption. Still, you’re not willing to let first impressions lead you astray — not again. You’re here for a reason, and you will conduct your investigation.

Perhaps some casual conversation will lead you down the right path, if there’s one to be followed. That, and you’d like to have a better profile on Coliad.

You decide to inquire about:

>Rogi.: 

You’ve been quite curious about this creation of his. Rogi seems to have a certain level of autonomous thought, along with base emotions and spontaneous reactions to stimuli. Very developed motor skills, too.

You wonder if that’s what got him on the Corporate payroll in the first place.

SECILY: 14.Ba3 I’ve been led to believe that your indictment into the Corporate fold was under rather unique circumstances. ...Nxf3+
SECILY: 15.Qxf3 Might I ask what you did to win the representatives’ favor? ...Be5
SECILY: 16.g3 Rogi here definitely seems to be worthy of attention. ...Re8

OCCEUS: Actually he came ab.o.ut a decent while later
OCCEUS: Eye was first able t.o. reach .o.ut t.o. the b.o.ard thr.o.ugh an extensive essay titled "examining yields .o.f everlasting sustainment"
OCCEUS: In which eye d.o.cumented research f.o.cusing .o.n a hyp.o.thetical meth.o.d .o.f cellular decay reversal in all maj.o.r bl.oo.d shades
OCCEUS: The c.o.ncept .o.f pr.o.l.o.nged sustainment .o.f life in the face .o.f entr.o.py
OCCEUS: And the meth.o.ds in which it c.o.uld further gr.o.w s.o.ciety at large

Huh. This is all rather philosophical in nature. From the results you’ve seen of his research so far, you were expecting something more along the lines of hard science and applied biology.

OCCEUS: It is a very br.o.ad and ambiti.o.us pr.o.p.o.siti.o.n that eye am happy they decided t.o. listen t.o.
OCCEUS: Eye was always w.o.rried .o.thers w.o.uld find my ideas t.o. be unrealistic
OCCEUS: Luckily eye was able t.o. pr.o.ve myself with my serums
OCCEUS: Even if any subsequent subjects eye used t.o. test my hyp.o.thesis .o.n turned .o.ut t.o. be
OCCEUS: Less than sav.o.ry in the end

SECILY: 17.Rfd1 Well. That’s a rather harsh thing to say about him, don’t you think? ...Nf6
ROGI: URRRGAAHH

Rogi sounds aggravated.

SECILY: 18.Rd2 Yes, I know, I’m trying to defend you! ...Bg4

You guess you’re actually holding a conversation with him now.

OCCEUS: Ah eye believe he is trying t.o. say that he’s n.o.t wh.o. eye am referring t.o.
OCCEUS: R.o.gi was a pers.o.nal pr.o.ject c.o.-created by myself and my ass.o.ciate as an experiment in adaptability and pers.o.nality

He pats Rogi on the head, fondly.

OCCEUS: Which ended up being quite successful eye think
SECILY: 19.Qg2 So... you’re saying he’s not the norm when it comes to your test subjects? ...a6
OCCEUS: He is rather unique in that he lacks the usual disp.o.siti.o.n f.o.und in the .o.thers
OCCEUS: Up.o.n revitalizati.o.n m.o.st .o.f them are sent int.o. a frenzy
OCCEUS: Eye assume it is the trauma .o.f being f.o.rcefully br.o.ught back fr.o.m wherever it is they had been l.o.st t.o.

You find the matter-of-fact way that says the "wherever" portion to be quite telling. Certainly not a follower of the all-mother’s word, nor of the naught-father.

Perhaps he’s not a follower of anything. It could be where he finds the will to carry on with his research — morality can turn grayer without the thought of a higher entity breathing down your neck.

You’d be lying if you said the whole thing didn’t leave you feeling a bit... uneasy. This doesn’t seem like an area of study one should be tampering with so liberally.

You wonder how something this unorthodox was given the go-ahead in the first place. Their attempts at salvation must be getting rather desperate.

If you had to make a guess, Sestro and Hamifi must have been outnumbered by the other board members and trustees. Perhaps even executively.

SECILY: 20.Nc3 What do you figure makes Rogi different from the rest? ...Qa5
OCCEUS: Eye am uncertain at the m.o.ment
OCCEUS: My current w.o.rking the.o.ry is that since he was created entirely fr.o.m scratch with.o.ut any pre-m.o.rtem individuality t.o. speak .o.f
OCCEUS: The lack .o.f a shall we say previ.o.us "s.o.ul" acts as an inhibit.o.r t.o. the inherently painful and negative
OCCEUS: Which isn’t t.o. say he d.o.esn’t have feelings
OCCEUS: He simply w.o.rks thr.o.ugh them at a sl.o.wer and less intense pace than m.o.st

ROGI: ERRRYAA
SECILY: 21.Bb2 Sounds like you have a good grasp of the situation then, Doctor. ...Rad8

Coliad looks away from you, flushing. He seems weakened by the statement.

SECILY: 22.a3 Did I... say something wrong? ...Qb6
OCCEUS: N.o.
OCCEUS: It’s just
OCCEUS: Well
OCCEUS: Eye haven’t had the pleasure .o.f being called d.o.ct.o.r directly very .o.ften

You suddenly feel very old.  

>The supercomputer.:

You recognize the exact model in his possession — it’s Corporate grade, and very similar to the ones used to modify DNA strains in the reduplication labs.

Maybe he needs this for his work because of the raw processing power? Still seems like an oddly specific piece of equipment to have just lying around.

SECILY: 23.b4 Is that your work station? ...Qe6
OCCEUS: .o.h n.o. it isn’t
OCCEUS: Eye sadly d.o. n.o.t have the time t.o. utilize the device as planned
OCCEUS: It has been m.o.dified fr.o.m its .o.riginal state in .o.rder t.o. better m.o.nit.o.r certain parameters

Well, these computers do excel at running large amounts of data at a time.

SECILY: 24.Ne2 What kind of information are you recording? ...Ne4
OCCEUS: Audible musings .o.f the p.o.tentially extranatural with the .o.bjective .o.f establishing c.o.ntact

Oh shit, not this again. What is it with these suspects lately?! You really should not be messing with this kind of crap, it never ends well.

You know it from experience, now.

OCCEUS: There’s n.o. need t.o. be alarmed by the p.o.tential liabilities .o.f such an idea
OCCEUS: The pr.o.cess pr.o.ves t.o. be m.o.re draining than anything
OCCEUS: Eye have never .o.nce heard anything besides a dr.o.ning n.o.ise
OCCEUS: It is very ann.o.ying actually
OCCEUS: .o.nce it w.o.rms its way int.o. y.o.ur head it d.o.es n.o.t tend t.o. leave
OCCEUS: And this s.o.und may be persistent but at this p.o.int eye am n.o.t nearly as much

SECILY: 25.Rdc2 Still, that’s a... treacherous field to be playing in. What practical use does all this data even have? ...Bh3

He shrugs his shoulders, seemingly at a loss.

OCCEUS: Eye cann.o.t say with certainty as the statistics have n.o.t answered my m.o.st pressing questi.o.ns thus far
OCCEUS: The entire pr.o.ject is n.o. m.o.re than a pipe dream at this p.o.int
OCCEUS: .o.ne which eye have n.o. real way t.o. execute in the l.o.ng term

Something’s still not sitting quite right with you, though. You decide to prod further.

SECILY: 26.Qh1 Well, let us speak strictly in hypotheticals, then. ...Bxb2
SECILY: 27.Nf4 What do you wish you could get out of this? ...Nxf2

He seems to take a deep dive inside his thoughts before pulling out the right words, offering them to you bluntly — almost as a dare.

OCCEUS: Untethered imm.o.rtality

That’s... bold. And starting to ring closer to what you came here to find.

SECILY: 28.Nxe6 You view that as something to aspire to? ...Nxh1
OCCEUS: Eye view it as a p.o.tentially necessary thing
OCCEUS: But as eye said it is highly pr.o.bable t.o. never happen .o.n a wide scale
OCCEUS: N.o. .o.ne has the means t.o. execute such an idea

That isn’t exactly true, depending on who has that philter on hand... or what Coliad himself could do with such an object.

He’d be able to bring all of his aspirations to fruition — all of that, without a hint of involvement with Corporate.

Hell, he could end up rivaling it.

You think you understand just why Hamifi’s had her eyes trained on him. This is leading you right back to the "prime suspect" line of thinking you were starting to doubt you’d need.

That, and it all sounds incredibly dangerous to you regardless. You can only hope Dr. Coliad keeps his senses and no longer meddles with forces he cannot control.

>His goggles.: 

You can’t avoid the rather unusual set of eyewear that Coliad has on. Its shape resembles that of common ashen symbolism, although you imagine that’s coincidental.

The thought that he had been using it to protect himself from fluids and chemicals comes to mind, but from what he’s told you, all he did before you got here was take care of basic disposal and make tea.

Such a distinct shape can’t be used for no reason whatsoever, though. Can it?

Perhaps if you’re nice enough, he will let you in on such a self-evident secret.

SECILY: 29.Nxd8 There’s really no need to be so guarded around me, Dr. Coliad. ...Bxc1
OCCEUS: Pard.o.n?

Normally, you prefer to instill a degree of intimidation in the people you talk to. It’s conducive to the kind of work you do - part of the job description, really.

But if you want him to open up, you feel as if a gentle touch would work better.

SECILY: 30.Rxc1 You’re still fully dressed for lab work, even though I doubt we’ll be doing any experimenting any time soon. ...Rxd8
SECILY: 31.Kxh1 Please, feel free to remove your gloves and your goggles. This is your hive, after all. ...Rc8
SECILY: 32.Rxc8+ I see no reason for you to stand there while I sit down at your table. I assure you I would not find that unprofessional. ...Bxc8

The indigoblood freezes at the proposition. His head snaps to you just as his hands ball into fists.

He opens his mouth, then abruptly closes it again. You can practically hear his thoughts shooting around in his head, an expanse per minute, as you watch on with mounting concern.

With every second that passes, the silence seems more tense. Coliad is visibly shaking. Before you can think of how to intervene, he clasps his forehead, right over the middle lens of his spectacles.

SECILY: 33.Kg2 Are... are you okay, Doctor? ...Bg4
OCCEUS: Eye... think eye w.o.uld much prefer t.o. pr.o.ceed with my tri.o.ck .o.n

His voice is strained.

The behavior leaves you baffled. Is this some sort of onset migraine from overexertion? You have trouble believing that such a straightforward request would leave anybody debilitated like this.

OCCEUS: It’s n.o.t y.o.u
OCCEUS: It just
OCCEUS: Well it .o.pens .o.ld w.o.unds that eye still d.o.n’t fully c.o.mprehend
OCCEUS: F.o.r lack .o.f a better explanati.o.n
OCCEUS: Please d.o. n.o.t fret .o.ver it
OCCEUS: Y.o.u didn’t kn.o.w

You weren’t fretting over it before.

Seems your curiosity struck a sensitive nerve. You’re just going to have to hold it in, for now — this topic clearly puts him under a lot of stress.

The exact wording sticks out to you, though. You’re no stranger to feeling less than satisfied with your features, but for his eyes to be a source of such distress?

Oh well. It’s not really any of your business.

Well, it seems like you managed to find your path — Coliad is even more linked to the ideas surrounding the Vivifier than you initially thought.

And you’ve managed to keep an amicable atmosphere to boot.

You hope it’ll be useful in getting him to open up, or let something slip. Time to get to the real investigative questions.

SECILY: 34.h3 Not to sound blunt, Dr. Coliad — you’ve been an excellent host so far, more than I expected — but I do believe it’s time I got to the reason why I’m here in the first place. ...Bd1
SECILY: 35.e4 Tell me more about how you do your work. ...Bb3

You’re reluctant to tell him the exact reason why you need this information. For all he knows, you’re just here on a general business check-in.

Regardless, the reaction you get is nothing short of ecstatic.

Or, well, as ecstatic as it can get when it comes to someone with Coliad’s disposition. Still, it’s noticeable how the topic seems to suffuse him with energy.

OCCEUS: Well y.o.u see .o.utside .o.f what eye have already t.o.ld y.o.u my cause is t.o. find a way t.o. extend the durati.o.n .o.f current repit.o.nian lives
OCCEUS: A life expectancy between twenty-eight and fifty-five sweeps is rather dismal c.o.mpared t.o. anything pre-renaissance
OCCEUS: H.o.wever in .o.rder t.o. pr.o.perly manipulate the faculties .o.f life we need t.o. understand h.o.w it is created and h.o.w it can be rest.o.red
OCCEUS: This is where my study c.o.mes in
OCCEUS: The examinati.o.n .o.f whether and h.o.w life can p.o.tentially be returned t.o. an individual p.o.st-m.o.rtem and reinvig.o.rated
OCCEUS: S.o.me c.o.nsider this practice ethically dubi.o.us but
OCCEUS: Eye am .o.f the mind that rest.o.ring .o.ur l.o.sses is the first step t.o. .o.ur eventual rec.o.very
OCCEUS: The m.o.re we can save, the m.o.re we can utilize, the m.o.re manp.o.wer we will have in .o.rder t.o. rebuild repit.o.n and achieve lasting peace and pr.o.sperity!

Your eyes have glazed over. A pregnant pause settles over the room as you both stare at each other.

You think he's expecting you to say something, but you struggle to formulate a response.

Your expression does all the legwork.

He clears his throat, a light blue flush peeking out from under his goggles.

It’s not that you’re bored exactly, it’s just. You asked for a demonstration, not an entire sweep’s worth of theoretical ramblings to fill your head with.

OCCEUS: Regardless
OCCEUS: Eye d.o. n.o.t kn.o.w if y.o.u w.o.uld understand were eye t.o. explain it in raw technicals

This somehow doesn’t sound condescending coming from him. Credit where credit is due.

SECILY: 36.Kf3 What would you propose we do, then? ...f6
SECILY: 37.Ke3 I’d still like to get a better idea of the results your process yields. ...Kf7

OCCEUS: Well eye currently find myself with n.o. usable cadavers n.o.r a way t.o. stitch .o.ne t.o.gether
OCCEUS: Eye w.o.uld need t.o. refer t.o. my ass.o.ciate f.o.r that and it w.o.uld take much t.oo. l.o.ng
OCCEUS: The .o.nly .o.pti.o.n eye c.o.uld see being viable w.o.uld be t.o. g.o. .o.utside and .o.btain .o.ne f.o.r a live dem.o.nstrati.o.n
OCCEUS: It w.o.uld need t.o. be a fresh pick in .o.rder f.o.r it t.o. w.o.rk th.o.ugh
OCCEUS: Recently infected as t.o. n.o.t all.o.w f.o.r heavy r.o.t .o.r extrane.o.us trauma

Odd. You didn’t think he’d be so eager to share his work, from what Hamifi relayed to you.

Could she really have been off the mark with this assignment? Perhaps any connections between his research and your missing vial are merely coincidences.

Tsk. Should have pressed her on the topic. Those two have the habit of clouding your judgement.

SECILY: 38.Kd4 That sounds agreeable. ...Ke6
OCCEUS: Excellent
OCCEUS: We shall leave and return p.o.st-haste

SECILY: 39.h4 Now, to be clear, this is for- ...Kd6
OCCEUS: .o.h d.o. n.o.t w.o.rry we will try .o.ur very hardest t.o. n.o.t leave y.o.u waiting f.o.r l.o.ng
OCCEUS: C.o.me r.o.gi we are burning m.oo.nlight by just standing here talking at miss i.o.para and n.o.t sh.o.wing her

ROGI: HHHHHHHHHH

And just like that, he leaves through the same hallway you entered in, his assistant faithfully trailing behind.

You hear the familiar creaking of his front door opening a few seconds later, and then, silence.

He just... left?

Hamifi did say he preferred physical demonstrations, but this is almost comical. You barely had a moment to process what was happening — you wouldn’t have been able to stop him even if you’d wanted to.

This is... such a notoriously bad move on his part. You can’t make heads or tails of it.

There is a high-ranking Corporate operative inside his hive, sent specifically to investigate him and his methods, and he didn’t even realize leaving you to your own devices might not be the wisest of ideas?

Boggling.

Or it would be, provided he was in any capacity involved in the events you are investigating. Which has become questionable after this stunt, because come on. But STILL.

How can somebody so evidently smart be also so oblivious? You feel almost morally obligated to conduct an investigation, just to teach him a lesson in situational awareness.

Alas, you won’t be doing it for that reason. You’ll be doing it for regular business reasons, as planned.

If anything, Coliad's absence means that he's less likely to get upset at witnessing your more hands-on methods. Thank you for that much, Doctor.

YVES chooses this moment to pipe in, almost knowingly. The sudden chime definitely does not make you startle.

Apparently, your new companion comes with a full body scan mechanism that integrates it with your cognition somewhat. You’re still not used to these notifications going off whenever you get those INVESTIGATIVE EMOTIONS going.

Oricka may be a dangerously brilliant engineer and a friend, but you found out the hard way that streamlining interface systems is not exactly her forte.

A good portion of your two-night study period was spent just figuring out how to even work the gadget. You’ve lost count of how many widgets you had to remove for ease of access.

Really, all you want is to be able to record your INCREMENTS without a complete report of your emotional vital signs, relayed to you through emoticons. Or emojis. Or stickers, or WHATEVER.

Ahem. You were saying.

Time to get to work.

You don’t know how long it will take him to obtain a specimen. From what you’ve seen, he is more than capable of handling himself, and there are a lot of undead roaming the graveyard.

You can only search what you deem to be conducive to the investigation proper, no dallying.

Might as well go with the most laborious option first: all these cabinets are just begging to be rifled through.

You pick the one closest to you to start, which is a dresser by the massive computer. You take a cursory glance at the books sitting on top of it — various schematics and other scientific resources.

The spoils of your actual search are similarly disappointing. Flasks, tubes, extra pairs of gloves, scalpels. Nothing out of the ordinary here.

Eventually, you’re just left with the big cupboard at the end of the room. You’re not expecting much at this point — everything you’ve seen has been innocuous enough so far — but you’re nothing if not thorough.

You pull the double doors open and do a quick inventory of its contents. Cleaning tools, mostly.

Just as you’re about to close them back up, a bottle rolls out from underneath some towels, landing on the ground with a thump. You furrow your eyebrows, picking it up and examining the label.

It’s... liquid dye? Strange. You don’t remember finding anything else around his hive that would indicate an interest in the arts and crafts.

You lift the cloth that was hiding it from view. Underneath, there’s even more bottles of the stuff, in various colors. The entire display is rather conspicuously tucked away.

Very strange. You ponder for a moment, but no plausible explanations come to mind. You’re not sure what to make of this.

After another moment of deliberation, you shrug and stow the item back into its original place. You will have to tuck this observation away for later.

Your curiosity pecks at you, however. There’s a feeling that you haven’t quite been able to shake off since your fun little interview.

If what Coliad said about searching for untethered immortality is true, then there must be something about it on his computer, some thread that you could follow.

You walk over. You fiddle with the keys and knobs for several seconds, before you somehow stumble onto the power button.

What you find shocks you:

Absolutely nothing.

Well, not absolutely nothing. You search through the direct files and his various inventories, but you only find old notes and musings that aren’t exactly... intelligible.

Something about a TRANSMUTED EPIPHYSIS CEREBRI pops up, but whatever he’s discussing seems out of focus, beyond rational thought.

A test file, perhaps, or some sort of private joke? Though he doesn’t strike you as the type for random bouts of humor.

You try to search for any kind of software, modified or otherwise, that he could be using to make contact with the outside forces he spoke of. But you still find nothing.

This entire machine is practically wiped clean. He doesn’t even have a custom wallpaper.

You do notice he has SKORPE though, the only application currently running.

Hm. This is a bit of a gamble, but perhaps there’s something to be found amid his discussions with his so-called "associates".

You decide to take that chance.

It seems that all of Coliad’s recent Skorpe calls have been from Hamifi. Not much of interest there.

You start scrolling through his recent conversation logs and contact list, only to find them... practically barren. When you investigated Rypite, his conversations were frequent, friendly, colorful.

Coliad, on the other hand, seems to almost never message anyone. sanguineAllegory, wices of no contact. demiurgeQuantified, over two blinks of silence. pliableDecadence, no contact at all.

windlessArtificer and furbishFacilitated are a little more recent. You believe the former is the work partner he mentioned earlier, whereas the latter seems to be giving him a bit of a cold shoulder.

You reach grandioseSaturation, who you quickly surmise is one CALDER KERIAN. Somebody who you’re frankly surprised isn’t on your suspect list.

Their last messages date sweeps back. Almost two, to be exact.

You don’t spend much time on them, but you note just how different they both sound in the messages you read. They’re practically still children.

Calder seems raw, like he’s on the verge of breaking.

You don’t feel comfortable reading these specific messages further.

The others continue to be less than useful — until you get to one animatedHumorist.

You stare at the sign next to their chat handle. Isn’t this... the sigil that Husske and their group painted over the barn’s wall? The sign of their savior?

Upon closer inspection, the blood color matches as well — it’s the exact same shade, just to the left of bronze, that makes you think of high-fructose corn syrup.

This... this must be your mind playing tricks on you after that concussion. A sigil like this should never have been on record — not anymore.

A person like this shouldn’t exist.

It is then that your eyes catch on another chat handle.

existereOracle.

You skipped over the name at first, assuming it was simply another shade of olive. But upon further inspection, the hex code lines up almost exactly with the picture of the philter in your dossier.

You glance to the left of it.

Sweet fucking all-mother. The sigils match, you know they do. No one alive on Repiton today is ignorant of this symbol — not with the impact it has had on this planet’s history.

This can’t be real. The Vivifier was never reduplicated. No trace of her was ever found or arguably even existed until your case.

You open the chatlog. Their last communication was a couple of nights ago.

You skim through the conversation — talk of experiments, of promising results, of replenishing the stock, and of... love?

That last part cannot possibly be genuine.

By the end of it, you’re gripping the desk so hard your knuckles have turned white.

Pieces of the puzzle start snapping together in your mind as you try to make sense of what you’re reading.

These are symbols you’ve only seen noted in cheap fiction, among cults searching for someone to give their lives meaning, in stories passed through word-of-mouth that nobody dares claim to be true.

You tell yourself that you’re dreaming, or that he’s just friends with trolls who roleplay legendary figures as a pastime.

You go through every excuse to try and rationalize what this could be other than a case blown wide open.

But you don’t buy it.

You don’t buy that a young girl named Ellsee Raines doesn’t exist. That the blood stored in Coliad's laboratory isn't hers, that she has nothing to do with the marvels of science that have put him on Corporate's payroll.

You don't believe the smoke screen of pleasantries and dyes he tries to disguise this with.

Who are these trolls? How come they even exist?

And what does this mean for the case — for you?

These are questions you don’t have answers to. You don’t think Coliad really knows either. None of these logs seem to suggest that he might have orchestrated any of these encounters.

It all just seems so... natural.

Like it was destined.

Maybe you being here was destined as well.

You can’t risk losing this. You need a backup of this information, something more physical than usual. Time to test one of YVES’ upgraded features.

You press a button on your scouter and YVES scans the monitor, taking the relevant snapshot. It’s safely stored in an allocated folder.

With the information secured, you whip your head around, and your eyes immediately land on a single point of focus: the door at the back, which you now know serves as "storage".

You rush toward it, pushing it open with so much force it slams against the wall and rattles on its hinges.

There, by the left wall — two cylindrical storage units. You barely pause before storming toward them.

Just as you expected, the door is unlocked — like everything else has been in this hive so far. It slides open with a hiss, and a blast of cool air hits you square in the face.

The tendrils of mist dissipate in front of your eyes, and you feel a chill run down your spine. It has nothing to do with the temperature.

You stare, petrified, at the shelves in front of you.

Rows upon rows of vials, filled with blood. Lime blood, Ellsee's blood — the Vivifier’s blood.

Your right hand grips the handle so hard you can feel your fist shaking.

This is not what you came here for — and at the same time, it is exactly what you were looking for. Your head swims, and for a second, you feel as if you’re going to be sick.

Then, all at once, your turmoil comes to a boiling point inside you, and you’re seething.

He nearly tricked you.

On impulse, you reach out and grab one of the damned philters. You’re probably gripping it with more force than you should, but you can’t bring yourself to give a shit.

You stare at the contents. They’re a vibrant green, all but shimmering in the artificial light, and not liquid as much as a thicker, gel-like texture. The chilled glass burns your fingertips.

You fight the urge to smash the thing into the ground.

There’s noise coming from the other room. You hear moans from Rogi, the familiar steel toed step of Coliad’s boots and scraping, like something is being dragged on the floor.

Probably the body they intended to use this very blood on for demonstration.

OCCEUS: Miss i.o.para? Where are y.o.u?

Your voice sounds like venom, even to your own ears.

SECILY: 40.Bb1 In here, Coliad. ...dxe4

After a brief exchange with Rogi, he steps inside the room. You barely take note of his bloody clothes.

SECILY: 41.Bxe4 You will take me to Ellsee Raines. ...b6

The safety catch of your gun releases with a click. You aim at his chest.

Coliad freezes at the threshold and slowly raises his hands up.

He speaks up before you have the chance to.

OCCEUS: H.o.w did y.o.u find .o.ut her name?

The words leave your mouth almost as a snarl. 

SECILY: 42.g4 You might want to give a little thing called a "password" a try. ...Bd1
SECILY: 43.g5 And stop stalling. You’re not getting out of this one, Doctor. ...fxg5

His voice takes on a pacifying tone, like he’s talking to a wild animal. It makes you want to aim for his leg and pull the trigger.

OCCEUS: Eye have n.o. intenti.o.n .o.f walking .o.ut .o.f this
OCCEUS: And eye kn.o.w that y.o.u d.o.n’t either
OCCEUS: In fact eye th.o.ught this confr.o.ntation a distinct p.o.ssibility fr.o.m the m.o.ment y.o.u stepped inside my h.o.me
OCCEUS: But please let me explain
OCCEUS: Eye utilize Ellsee’s bl.oo.d f.o.r my research because she all.o.ws me the privilege
OCCEUS: The .o.nly reas.o.n it’s kept secret is because it cann.o.t fall int.o. the wr.o.ng hands

Your own hand tightens around the revolver. A bark of laughter claws its way out of you, humorless.

SECILY: 44.hxg5 And I suppose the right hands would be yours? ...Ke6
SECILY: 45.Bd3 Please. ...Bf3

Part of you realizes there’s no reason to argue with him. And yet, the words spill out of you before you can stop them.

SECILY: 46.Bc2 You’re keeping a vital, groundbreaking asset from the only institution on this fucking planet that has the necessary resources to do something tangible with it. ...Bc6
SECILY: 47.Bd3 Right under their noses, no less. ...Bb7
SECILY: 48.Bc2 Do you really think yourself better than the entire body of researchers at Corporate’s disposal? ...Bg2
SECILY: 49.Bd3 Or do you just want all the glory for yourself? ...Bc6

OCCEUS: N.o.
OCCEUS: Eye d.o.n’t think eye am better than any.o.ne else
OCCEUS: Eye am simply trying t.o. d.o. right by .o.ur species and .o.ur planet
OCCEUS: Eye want t.o. help, as many before me have tried t.o.
OCCEUS: Perhaps my hands are n.o.t the .o.nes y.o.u and c.o.rp.o.rate w.o.uld deem m.o.st fit t.o. handle p.o.wer such as this

He pauses, steeling himself.

OCCEUS: But it is n.o.t y.o.ur ch.o.ice t.o. make miss i.o.para
OCCEUS: It is hers
OCCEUS: She trusts me t.o. use her gifts c.o.rrectly
OCCEUS: And eye simply trust her judgement in turn

You scoff. The revolver is still trained on his blood pusher.

SECILY: 50.Bc2 Oh, will you cut the bullshit. ...Bd7
SECILY: 51.Bd3 You still think this earnest act has any chance of sticking? ...Bb5
SECILY: 52.Be4 After what you’ve told me, after what I’ve seen here? ...Be8
SECILY: 53.Bd3 You expect me to believe you’re on some sort of noble crusade to protect this Ellsee, when we’re standing right in front of shelves upon shelves of her own blood?! ...Ba4
SECILY: 54.Be4 At least have the nerve to admit you don’t want to lose your precious lab rat. ...b5

He immediately stiffens at your words, and — there we go, you think. The mask is off.

His anger bubbles to the surface and you gear up for confrontation.

You are taking him with you, willingly or by force.

OCCEUS: H.o.w... dare y.o.u
OCCEUS: H.O.W DARE YOU DEMEAN HER
OCCEUS: Y.o.u kn.o.w N.O.THING .o.f what she has d.o.ne f.o.r me!
OCCEUS: She SAVED me!

What?

OCCEUS: That "lab rat" y.o.u s.o. desperately wish f.o.r me t.o. see her as
OCCEUS: She is the SALVATI.O.N .o.f this planet and the L.O.VE .O.F MY LIFE
OCCEUS: Eye will n.o.t all.o.w c.o.rp.o.rate t.o. l.o.ck her away and treat her as a walking test subject
OCCEUS: N.o.t f.o.r any price
OCCEUS: N.o.t f.o.r any reas.o.n
OCCEUS: And if y.o.u refuse t.o. listen to her will

He draws his weapon, and the finger you have on the trigger twitches reflexively.

The raw intensity in Occeus's voice makes you still your hand.

OCCEUS: Then eye will either kill f.o.r her
OCCEUS: .o.r die f.o.r her right t.o. be free

The words echo across the room, bouncing off the walls, sharp — and they stick, ringing in your ears, inside your mind.

It’s like a cold pail of liquid has just washed over your body. The red haze leaves your vision, and in front of you, you see— 

You see unsteady, trembling hands, pointing a weapon in your direction. You see devotion, and a fierce desire to protect at all costs. You see a child, not even half your age.

You see yourself, twelve sweeps old — rather, what you wish you could’ve been. For her.

The vial you’re still holding feels heavy in your hand.

SECILY: 55.Bd3 I... ...Kf7
SECILY: 56.Be4 Tell me about her. ...Kg7

This catches him off guard — and it does you, too. You’re not sure why you’re asking.

OCCEUS: What?!
SECILY: 57.Ke5 Tell me about Ellsee. ...h5

He stares at you for a few tense seconds, chest heaving, before taking in a shaky breath.

OCCEUS: She is s.o. very... unique
OCCEUS: There is s.o. much .o.f her shr.o.uded in a dense f.o.g .o.f mystique
OCCEUS: She is h.o.st t.o. a p.o.wer the likes .o.f which the w.o.rld has n.o.t seen in centenalia
OCCEUS: S.o. many w.o.uld rend her limb fr.o.m limb in .o.rder t.o. .o.btain it
OCCEUS: And yet she perseveres thr.o.ugh every unfair hand she’s dealt
OCCEUS: Her passi.o.n t.o.ward th.o.se she cares ab.o.ut rivals any w.o.rk eye c.o.uld ever h.o.pe t.o. d.o.

His voice softens at the next words, and your throat constricts.

OCCEUS: And she l.o.ves t.o. dance
OCCEUS: She trusts .o.thers, maybe a little t.oo. much
OCCEUS: And eye kn.o.w that she craves c.o.mpany, desperately
OCCEUS: The kind that eye m.o.re .o.ften than n.o.t cann.o.t pr.o.vide in this line .o.f w.o.rk
OCCEUS: Even th.o.ugh she deserves it and s.o. much m.o.re
OCCEUS: Eye d.o. n.o.t get t.o. see her as .o.ften as eye w.o.uld like
OCCEUS: But even when she c.o.mplains and gets frustrated...
OCCEUS: She still believes in me
OCCEUS: And whenever eye get t.o. see her smile
OCCEUS: Eye truly feel as if eye am d.o.ing the right thing
OCCEUS: F.o.r her, and f.o.r every.o.ne else

At this point, his laser is hanging limply by his side. You’ve also been gradually lowering your revolver — not quite aiming at him anymore, but still at the ready. Just in case.

His words swim around inside your head. For the first time in what feels like ages...

You waver.

Before you, you see two paths.

>Duty.:

You have to do this.

You HAVE to do this.

You have to do this.

...But do you, really?

You know who you are — what you could do. You have the capacity to do either of these things.

And yet.

The only place a choice ever truly lies in is within yourself. Whether you decide to listen to or ignore what your own soul already knows it wants.

The feeling is all too familiar to me. I understand the doubt, the fear.

But perhaps you need a moment to consider the weight of this decision more carefully.

It is no trouble. I will wait for you.

You will see what’s right in the end, Secily.

Because you will listen to her.

>Empathy.:

You have to do this.

You have to let him go.

So you do.

You push the safety of your revolver back on, and the click makes Occeus startle. He's tense, shoulders clenched and jaw locked, and you know his eyes are boring into you even though you can't see them.

Once again, he seems to be expecting you to say something. Once again, you let your actions do the talking.

With a smooth, practiced motion, you holster your gun.

Occeus's shoulders slump.

OCCEUS: Are...
OCCEUS: What are y.o.u d.o.ing?

What are you doing, you think quietly to yourself. You breathe out through your nose in a sharp huff.

SECILY: 58.Bb7 I’m letting you go. ...Kf7

You direct a command at YVES, for Occeus to hear.

SECILY: 59.Bxa6 YVES, dump latest snapshot files. ...Ke7

You watch the screen as it permanently deletes some of the most important secrets Corporate could ever hope to know.

The silence that follows your statement hangs over the two of you like a thin veil. You stare at each other.

Occeus feels for the wall behind him with one hand. He stumbles back and braces himself against the surface. His laser clatters to the ground.

OCCEUS: .o.h
OCCEUS: Eye see

He slumps against the wall, running a trembling hand through his hair. Then, to your surprise, a quiet peal of laughter spills from him.

OCCEUS: Thank y.o.u

His voice has a watery quality to it, and when he lifts up his head again, his face lights up with the first smile you’ve seen from him since you walked through the front door.

OCCEUS: Thank y.o.u, miss i.o.para

The gratitude in his voice is... slightly overwhelming. You glance aside and clear your throat.

SECILY: 60.Bb7 Yes, well... ...Bc2
SECILY: 61.Ba6 You’re welcome, Dr. Coliad. ...Ba4
SECILY: 62.Bb7 Do try to keep your doors properly locked, next time. ...Bc2

You’re still clutching the vial in your hand. At this point, the blood inside has started to melt, and it sloshes around in its container as you lift it up.

You consider it for another moment, before putting it back in its original place and closing the door. There’s an undercurrent of something left unsaid permeating the room, as you both stand there.

With your back still turned to him, you heave a sigh. Then, you shoot him a glance over your shoulder.

SECILY: 63.Bc6 I’m... sorry about this. ...Bd3
SECILY: 64.a4 About what I almost did. ...bxa4
SECILY: 65.Bxa4 I’ll spare you the details. It’s a long story and we just went through a whole situation together. ...Kd8

OCCEUS: It is alright

At this point, he’s already pushed off the wall and assumed a more collected stance. You press your lips together, furrowing your eyebrows.

SECILY: 66.Bc6 Is it? ...Kc7
OCCEUS: Well, perhaps n.o.t quite
OCCEUS: But eye am .o.kay with it at least
OCCEUS: Were y.o.u sent here t.o. l.oo.k f.o.r the bl.oo.d in the first place?

You reluctantly nod. His mouth twitches up into a smile, a deep chuckle leaving his throat once more.

OCCEUS: Perhaps eye sh.o.uld have gathered that much fr.o.m the start
OCCEUS: Eye am n.o.t always the m.o.st perceptive
OCCEUS: But...
OCCEUS: Eye kn.o.w just h.o.w hard it is t.o. d.o. y.o.ur j.o.b
OCCEUS: It’s a difficult balance t.o. maintain
OCCEUS: Eye am sure y.o.u meant well

SECILY: 67.Be8 I... try my best to do what's right. ...Kb6
OCCEUS: That is really all we can d.o.
OCCEUS: Thank y.o.u again

SECILY: 68.Kf4 Just don’t tell anyone I did this for you. ...Bf5
SECILY: 69.Kg3 Especially not Ms. Hekrix. ...½-½

OCCEUS: C.o.nsider my lips sealed

With a final nod in his direction, you start making your way out of the room — only to stumble into Rogi. He sort of looks like he wants to give you a hug.

You pat him on the back, glancing over your shoulder at Occeus one last time before you reach the corridor.

He waves at you, and you wave back.

Then, you leave.

...

As you approach your motorbike, a familiar din echoes across your sound chasms.

You know who you'll hear on the other end of the line.

After all you just went through, you really don’t feel like answering. The weight of your decision has barely started to settle on you. You feel slightly dazed.

A moment passes, and you take a deep breath. Then, you notify YVES to answer.

SECILY: 1.e4 What do you want. ...e5
??????: [Such blatant hostil i  t   y    .]
SECILY: 2.Nf3 I don’t know what else you expected from me. ...Nf6
??????: [At first, I expected nothing at a l  l   .]
??????: [But then you started to surprise m e  .]
??????: [That’s why I chose y o  u   .]
??????: [Did you like what you fo u  n   d    ?]

You have every reason to believe that they know exactly what just happened, but you’re not feeling particularly agreeable right now.

SECILY: 3.d4 I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never found anything past your last little scheme. ...d5
??????: [What a terrible wa s  t   e    .]
??????: [And after Ms. Hekrix seemed so thrilled about the tip I gave her, t o  o   .]
??????: [I knew she would take the bait once I told her what she wanted to h e  a   r    .]
??????: [A sh a  m   e    .]

Your blood turns to ice in your veins. His words settle inside you, heavy, like an irradiated lump of ore slowly poisoning you from the inside out.

SECILY: 4.Nxe5 What did you just say? ...Nxe4

The raspy chuckle that comes out of your earpiece feels like a serrated blade dragging across your skin.

??????: [I see you continue to listen whenever I tamper with those you hold d e  a   r    .]
??????: [Yes, Secily, that little insider was m e  .]
??????: [You should know first hand just how easy it is to play pret e  n   d    .]
??????: [Even more so when you’re viewed as a... what was i t  ?]
??????: [Ah, yes. An unhinged, voice-changing crimi n  a   l    .]

Your blood boils. A scream threatens to burst out of you in your frustration, but you keep your grip — just barely.

You refuse to give them the satisfaction.

SECILY: 5.Bd3 So this is where you wanted me. Was this why you took the philter? ...Be7
??????: [No, not for this place in particu l  a   r    .]
??????: [Let’s call this little detour... a necessary raising of the sta k  e   s    .]
??????: [You see, this story that I’ve invited you to be a part of, it has ru l  e   s    .]
??????: [And you have been following them exquisit e  l   y    .]
??????: [I did lead you here for a rea s  o   n    .]
??????: [Just as I have everywhere e l  s   e    .]
??????: [You’re simply not in a position to grasp the bigger picture y e  t   .]

You want to call this a load of bullshit. But the more you think about it, the more certain coincidences start to align in your head.

If you had not gone to Husske’s barn, animatedHumorist’s symbol would have meant nothing to you. And if you hadn’t been led to Oricka, you wouldn’t have had any knowledge of their methods in the first place.

Maybe even Endari was premeditated — maybe that girl in the dress wanted you to notice her.

Are they giving you hints on purpose?

SECILY: 6.O-O What purpose does it serve for you to lead me on this path? ...O-O
??????: [What purpose does a path serve for any o  n   e    ?]
??????: [One would assume it eventually leads somewh e  r   e    .]
??????: [You saw some of the breadcrumbs yourself, didn’t y o  u   ?]
??????: [The blood is merely a circumstantial byproduct of this particular chroni c  l   e    .]
??????: [This is bigger than all of u s  .]
??????: [Our lives have always been, and always will be, superflu o  u   s    .]
??????: [Irrelevant, forgettable set pieces in a grand order we cannot compreh e  n   d    .]
??????: [I simply want to prove a point on my way o u  t   .]

SECILY: 7.Nc3 What fucking point do you have to make? ...Nxc3
SECILY: 8.bxc3 That harming others yields results? That it makes some sort of statement? ...c5

??????: [Oh? Perhaps the lapdog can think for herself, after a l  l   .]
SECILY: 9.Qh5 Fuck off. You have no moral ground to stand on. ...g6
SECILY: 10.Qh6 And you’re wasting all the precious time you have left before I find you on meaningless diatribe. ...Nc6

??????: [We’d all like to think ourselves better than those we view as infer i  o   r    .]
??????: [You go out of your way to aid some, yet neglect oth e  r   s    .]
??????: [Why is that, I won d  e   r    ?]
??????: [At the end of the night, life is all the s a  m   e    .]
??????: [Hollow, self-indulg e  n   t    .]
??????: [This is why we need cleans i  n   g    .]
??????: [That is what I wish to prove to y o  u   .]

SECILY: 11.Nxg6 You are absolutely vile. ...fxg6
??????: [I am the c u  r   e    .]
SECILY: 12.Bxg6 I will find you. ...hxg6
??????: [Of course you w i  l   l    .]
??????: [That’s what I want you to d o  .]
??????: [You just need to go through the necessary steps beforeh a  n   d    .]
??????: [Pacing is very important, after a l  l   .]
??????: [Take a good look at the setting, Regulator. You’ll wish to remember i t  .]
??????: [I’ve made you an appointment with an acquaintance of mine. You’re preemptively welc o  m   e    .]
??????: [Behind the cracked skull of Baragonith. Three days. -0. 0  0   0    .]
??????: [A hermit will await y o  u   .]

SECILY: 13.Qxg6+ And if I refuse? ...Kh8 ½-½
??????: [We both know you will n o  t   .]
??????: [That’s why you’re spec i  a   l    .]

You grit your teeth, and the line goes dead before you have the chance to reply.

A weary sigh leaves you, fading into the barren landscape.

You stand there for a few seconds, glaring at a pebble on the ground. Then, as you hop back onto your bike, a solitary course of action begins to form in your mind’s eye.

You now know which hands are the wrong ones — or at least, you have a better idea of it. You know that this isn’t solely about a vial anymore, that this isn’t a standard mission to retrieve a stolen object.

Maybe this is against orders, more than your usual flirting with disobedience. Maybe you don’t fully understand what you’re getting yourself into.

But you do know one thing. Something this entire escapade thus far has taught you.

This case doesn’t have to be about what others want from you. It doesn’t have to be about anything other than what you see it as.

An opportunity to do right by this world, to stop someone who’s more than eager to abuse it.

You’re doing this for yourself, now.

And as such... you press forward.

END

MSHIRI LIBETA

[Note: Mshiri's text is different than her canon blood colour for readability purposes. #fbec5d is very hard on the eyes on a white background, and has been changed to #d3b24b instead.]

She's been on your mind for a while, and not just because of your recently acquired bumps and bruises. It's time you paid MSHIRI LIBETA a call. For business... and for pleasure.

So here you are, making your way through the Stronghold's own Pale Light District, an area dedicated to the night's less colorful — but not necessarily less libidinous — delights.

You turn left onto the Pastel Promenade, heading for an apartment building limned with fluorescent pink about half a block away. The lapels of your long coat are pulled up against the cold. And prying eyes.

Even though the district is Corporate-sanctioned, as all internal districts are, there's still a like, unshakeable need for surreptitiousness that grips most people whenever they come here.

Because while there's no shame in availing oneself of TEMP services, either corporate-state-sponsored or free-commercial, there's something psychically degrading about the ins-and-outs of withdrawal management.

That's all stuff you're used to by now though. Your caution is for other reasons. By now you've hopped the steps of the CO-opped TEMP apartment building and spiked Mshiri's buzzer with one weary finger.

She knew you were coming, but not what state you'd arrive in. You're not all that forthcoming about personal injury on your best of days, and certainly not when you're at all nervous about phone security.

The carpet-muted shuffling sounds of someone about to open a door gently tug you out of a characteristic overthink. And then, suddenly, Mshiri is here.

You're sure you make quite the display. Exhausted, coat ragged, silly band-aid still on your head as a kind of ironic ornament.

No offense meant to the on-scene first aid you received, but it felt necessary to have someone back at the office give you an actual once-over, after the whole ordeal.

It's definitely not the worst shape you've darkened Mshiri's doorstep in. But, despite the rest, it's close.

MSHIRI: .oh my goodness
MSHIRI: ..lily

Her eyes widen in surprise. There’s a pinch to her eyebrows, and despite the less-than-ideal circumstances of this particular meeting, you can’t help but admire her for a few seconds.

You feel a smile tug at your lips.

SECILY: Hey, Mshiri.

The moment is immediately ruined by a ragged, wet cough that claws its way out of your lungs. Mshiri goes out of focus for a few brief seconds, and your head spins.

When you manage to adjust your eyes again, she’s standing right in front of you, doing her best to hold you upright by the shoulders.

MSHIRI: .oh allmother youre hurt
MSHIRI: ..sit down

SECILY: I’m fine, I’m fine. Don’t worry.
SECILY: I just hit my head a bit. It’s been a rough few days.

To put it mildly.

She purses her lips in a manner that is equal parts fond and exasperated. It’s a look you’ve become intimately acquainted with over the sweeps.

MSHIRI: .dear thing
MSHIRI: ..do you take me for a fool

She’s already leading you inside before you can object, one arm wrapped around your waist in order to support your weight. You’re not sure you even want to protest at this point, to be entirely honest.

It’s been a rough few days, and you’re one concussion over your recommended daily limit of blunt trauma to the think pan. Letting someone with experience take care of you will hardly make things worse.

You half stumble, half follow Mshiri through her living room. It’s a practiced motion. You know this place by heart: all the meticulously organized personal belongings, every carefully arranged piece of furniture.

She lets you down on her couch with a grunt, and you let yourself fall gracelessly against the soft cushions. All-Mother, you’re tired. Your head feels so heavy.

You allow yourself a few seconds of respite as Mshiri moves away from you. Your eyes close, and you lean your head against the back of the couch, idly listening to the soft rustling as she flits about the room.

A few minutes later, and you feel the press of something cold against the side of your head. You crack one eye open and find Mshiri leaning down in front of you, inspecting your wounds.

She tsks in disapproval, then gently runs a hand through your hair and tucks it behind your left ear.

MSHIRI: .this bandage is woefully insufficient
MSHIRI: ..what kind of slipshod medical attention did you receive

A raspy chuckle leaves you at her words, and you lean your head against her free hand as she cups your cheek.

SECILY: My old friend Oricka has found a new hobby in first aid. You’ll find I’m carrying a great deal of evidence of her handiwork, and a new piece of gear by way of apology.

Your answer seems to catch her off-guard. She blinks rapidly, mouth hanging open in a confused o.

MSHIRI: .wait
MSHIRI: ..oricka did this to you

SECILY: Well. Not really.
SECILY: She was a pawn in a game I seem to understand less and less of every day.
SECILY: There’s an antagonistic force out there. An insidious messenger driving trolls to their deaths.
SECILY: I’m... ashamed to admit I almost fell right into his trap.

The admission comes with some difficulty, almost like a confession. You don’t meet her eyes as the words leave your mouth.

There’s a pause in the conversation. Then she moves the cold compress away from your head, setting it down on a nearby table. The sudden change in temperature leaves a warm, tingly imprint on your skull.

Mshiri wordlessly helps you shrug off your coat, hands gentle. She's always so careful with you when she deems it necessary, as if you’re made of fine glass.

You’d find the comparison humorous if you weren't feeling so brittle.

She sits herself next to you, placing a hand against your jaw and forcing you to turn your head, until the two of you are face to face again.

MSHIRI: .you need to take it more slowly
MSHIRI: ..i havent seen you since this business began
MSHIRI: ...ive heard a great deal about the case already
MSHIRI: ....but i dont think anyone truly knows just how much youre taking on

You let out a puff of air, wrapping your hand around her own.

SECILY: I prefer to work in the background. You know that.
MSHIRI: .theres working in the background and then theres suffering alone
MSHIRI: ..youre trying to solve a conspiracy as a one woman agency
MSHIRI: ...you need a team lily

SECILY: Inside assistance was necessary for this heist. How can I know who to trust

Her eyes flash with a familiar intensity before she replies — a sign which you know means that the gears have started turning inside her head.

It’s been a while since you’ve collaborated on a case together. The thought is like a bolt of electricity running through you.

MSHIRI: .start from the other side
MSHIRI: ..what are the problems youre facing
MSHIRI: ...and who can help solve them

>Hacking.:

SECILY: It's clear that our opponent-

Mshiri smirks a bit.

MSHIRI: .our
SECILY: Shh. You said I should have a team. You've been drafted.
MSHIRI: .always happy to help

Your face runs a bit hot. Not now, Shiri, you're trying to do tactics.

SECILY: As I was saying, our opponent is quite deft with computers.
SECILY: And the other trolls Oricka told me he messaged... many of them are dead. Ruled suicides, but I'm having a few juniors review those cases.
SECILY: I'm... self-aware enough to know I can't handle that avenue on my own. But it's likely he's either high-up inside corporate infosec or has compromised someone within.

MSHIRI: .hm
MSHIRI: ..i know of quite the proficient programmer
MSHIRI: ...through some rampant speculation about his unusual personal relationships amongst the mediators

SECILY: Wait. Is this one of the vaunted Boys I've been hearing so much about?
MSHIRI: .one and the same

You had an odd feeling about Bytcon and Endari's descriptions of their... tight-knit social circle. Was it revulsion? Or envy?

SECILY: Perhaps I'll reach out.

>Insider knowledge.:

MSHIRI: .i can navigate the typical corporate bureaucracy while we root around for a mole
MSHIRI: ..i have a broad mandate for information gathering without anyone asking too many questions
MSHIRI: ...it may be worth getting more help from the heir and his liaison as well

SECILY: I've been trying to avoid putting them in harm's way.

Her gaze softens at your words. She strokes your cheek with her thumb.

MSHIRI: .fair
MSHIRI: ..ill consider other options

>Combat support.:

SECILY: If this is indeed a conspiracy, it might be useful to have more muscle by my side.
MSHIRI: .and i imagine none of the junior regulators meet your rigorous standards.
SECILY: Pencil-pushers, the lot of them. Nobody does proper fieldwork any more. They have the drones do it.
SECILY: Maybe Oricka's matesprit would do..

MSHIRI: .worth an exploration at least
MSHIRI: ..that is if youll survive another encounter with rourst.

>Weaponry.:

SECILY: Proserpina and my snubnosed revolver serve me well, but I might want something a bit... longer range for dealing with a well-prepared enemy.
MSHIRI: .it would be worth your time to look into weapons dealers anyway
MSHIRI: ..see if there have been any suspicious purchases

SECILY: Quite. Hopefully I can find something not too gaudy to wield.
MSHIRI: .for someone who wears the same thing every day you are quite concerned with the aesthetics of your arsenal
SECILY: It's not a crime to take pride in the tools of your trade.

Mshiri gives you a knowing look at this remark.

MSHIRI: .of course

>Cultist contacts.:

SECILY: Endari was a bust as far as occult knowledge goes.
SECILY: It just doesn't befit a Vivifier sect like the Mora to leave bodies behind and work with a serial-murdering nihilist.
SECILY: I need some other way in.

MSHIRI: .hm
MSHIRI: ..nothing comes to mind immediately
MSHIRI: ...but ill look through the files i have
MSHIRI: .im glad youre accepting help
MSHIRI: ..ridiculous as this figure may be
MSHIRI: ...the threat he represents must be taken seriously
MSHIRI: ....he tried to sweep the queen off the board in the opening
MSHIRI: .....i worry youll accept the sacrificial gambit one day lily
MSHIRI: ......so what does he want
MSHIRI: .......besides you out of his way

SECILY: Not profit. Left it in his wake throughout this whole ordeal — valuables in the truck, seadweller wealth untouched, no sign of this thing popping up on the black market.
MSHIRI: .i thought you lost your black market contact blinks ago
SECILY: Found a new one. Sirage Feltri. Had her pegged as a suspect and ended up drunk in her office instead.
MSHIRI: .of course
MSHIRI: ..you really do have a problem lily

SECILY: What, with drinking?
MSHIRI: .no
MSHIRI: ..with women

SECILY: Says the biggest part of it.
MSHIRI: .you come to my door for succor and then slander my good name
MSHIRI: ..what a diplomat

SECILY: It’s not slander if it’s true, mediator.
MSHIRI: .those are fighting words chief regulator
MSHIRI: ..square up

SECILY: What?
MSHIRI: .you heard me

You raise your fists in a faux-defensive posture as she does, indeed, square up. You idly swat away a few fake jabs and history's gentlest left hook.

Mshiri laughs and leans in, pushing the fists of your boxer's stance apart to get close.

Mshiri smells of spring air, like none of the smog of the world outside has ever touched her. You, her lily, close your eyes and embrace her, pressing your lips to Mshiri’s forehead gently.

MSHIRI: .you know
MSHIRI: ..i think i showed great pugilistic promise there
MSHIRI: ...i think id have solid odds if we fought for real

SECILY: If we fought for real... Yeah.
SECILY: You’d win.

A delicate warmth has been oozing slowly and inevitably through the room — like a very viscous, very affectionate lukewarm lava flow — while the two of you have been chatting.

Mshiri Libeta is one of those rare, faintly-haloed-if-you-squint people that you sometimes get up in the morning and thank the all-mother for the grace of having met, metaphorically speaking.

It's really thanks to her (Mshiri Libeta, 5ft 2 give-or-take in her flat soled shoes, hair sleek and meticulously kept, presence vaguely cinnamon-infused...) that you're alive in the first place.

It's all... beginning... to take you back...

>Recall: AFTER AHLINA.:

SECILY: 1.e4 They told me you'd be coming. ...e5
SECILY: 2.Nf3 Armed guards at the door didn't give you any trouble, I hope. ...Nc6
SECILY: 3.Bb5 Can I take your coat? ...Nf6

MSHIRI: .why
MSHIRI: ..youre still wearing yours
MSHIRI: ...do you require a second

SECILY: 4.Nc3 No, to, well. Hm. ...Bc5
MSHIRI: .a little joke can go a long way towards defusing the tension in situations like these
MSHIRI: ..if you are cold though i can assist in warming you up
MSHIRI: ...i could make a spot of tea

SECILY: 5.d3 I... prefer my liquids without grit, as a rule. I'm fine. ...O-O
MSHIRI: .right
MSHIRI: ..very well then
MSHIRI: ...while im certain an official in your administrative capacity is well aware of my role and the purpose thereof
MSHIRI: ....regulations still require me to provide a basic introduction
MSHIRI: .my name is mshiri libeta
MSHIRI: ..i am a temporary emotional mediation partner

SECILY: 6.O-O (You could just say TEMP, like everyone else. Much more efficient.) ...d6
MSHIRI: ...i am trained to assist in the stabilization of corporate assets in the event of the loss of a bondmate should a registered moirail not be available
MSHIRI: ....and i have been licensed in the practice for over a sweep

SECILY: 7.Bxc6 Just a sweep? ...bxc6
SECILY: 8.h3 Was everyone more senior too afraid after my outburst? I know I gave Zayeem quite the bruise. ...Be6

MSHIRI: .while it is possible that some of my cohort may have considered your reputation, in conjunction with the recent incident, a challenge to take on
MSHIRI: ..i assure you i am not at all frightened of you
MSHIRI: ...and hope to be of assistance in this difficult time
MSHIRI: ....let us go over your medical history

SECILY: 9.Be3 Let's not. ...Bb6
MSHIRI: .as you wish
MSHIRI: ..we can handle the paperwork later

SECILY: 10.Nh2 I doubt it. I appreciate your offer, but I'm fine. While I'm sure you're appropriately qualified, I'm declining TEMP service, as is my right pursuant to Article Five. ...Nd7
SECILY: 11.Bxb6 I'll return to work after the mandatory leave period assigned to me. ...axb6

MSHIRI: .dont play games with me secily
MSHIRI: ..youre up against the wall right now
MSHIRI: ...everything that matters to you is under siege
MSHIRI: ....youre barely hanging on
MSHIRI: .....ive read your file
MSHIRI: ......you assaulted a superior officer
MSHIRI: .......if you send me back theyre not going to send another temp
MSHIRI: ........theyre going to send the chief regulator
MSHIRI: .........so play nice for a minute and i can at least get the armed guards off your stoop
MSHIRI: ..........
MSHIRI: ...........capisce
MSHIRI: .while article five of the bylaws does give the worker consumer the right to decline mediation services
MSHIRI: ..it does still require the completion of a standard evaluation report
MSHIRI: ...and declining that report with a resource readiness inquiry pending will trigger a review by the chief regulator

SECILY: Apologies. Let's continue.
MSHIRI: .have your prescribed medications changed
MSHIRI: ..there are a number here

SECILY: I've been taking the same ones for a couple sweeps.
SECILY: Can I ask you a question?

MSHIRI: .of course
SECILY: When does it start?

A hand upon yours. Comforting.

MSHIRI: .well it depends on where you were at on your cycle of course
MSHIRI: ..when was the last time you reaffirmed your bond

It was the first thing you noticed when she appeared at your door, that day, and something you haven't stopped noticing in the sweeps since. How much she looks like Ahlina.

Her looking like that and asking that question seared in your gut, indescribably. But now, in the present, the pain has become something... else. Less of a burn, and more of a dull, pale ache.

SECILY: I hope I’m not causing you too much trouble.
MSHIRI: .youve been causing trouble for me for ten sweeps
MSHIRI: ..dont stop now lily
MSHIRI: ...just make it good trouble
MSHIRI: ....i
MSHIRI: .....have done a lot more thinking about what good is
MSHIRI: ......i learned more about corporate
MSHIRI: .......ive seen things

SECILY: I know. The level of responsibility... it’s always going to be impossible to do everything right.
SECILY: And we’re up against much worse.

MSHIRI: .are we really
MSHIRI: ..this guy
MSHIRI: ...the voice in your ear
MSHIRI: ....where does he prey on people
MHSIRI .....hassle them
MSHIRI: ......turn their friends against them
MSHIRI: .where does he find the members of the mobs he sends after his targets
MSHIRI: ..you know this

SECILY: On the internet.
SECILY: If a bomb is delivered via post do you call the parceltroll an accomplice?

MSHIRI: .parceltrolls didnt put a system in every trolls pocket
MSHIRI: ..at great expense mind you
MSHIRI: ...that algorithmically decides what to show you
MSHIRI: ....controls how you get information
MSHIRI: .....connects you instantly to thousands
MSHIRI: ......corporate did
MSHIRI: .corporate centralized our systems of social interaction
MSHIRI: ..they created a pipeline that encourages trolls to document everything about themselves for public consumption
MSHIRI: ...a spotlight that leads dangerous people right to the people they threaten
MSHIRI: .your fancy new visor accesses corporate records to get the information you need to kill people
MSHIRI: ..this figure uses corporate records
MSHIRI: ...in this case social media run on their servers and maintained by their engineers
MSHIRI: ....to find information on who he kills

SECILY: Don’t compare me to—
MSHIRI: .im not lily
MSHIRI: ..id never
MSHIRI: ...you have accountability
MSHIRI: ....you file each piece of information gathered
MSHIRI: .....you report to supervisors
MSHIRI: ......you were evaluated for this power
MSHIRI: .......trained for it and were judged worthy to wield it
MSHIRI: .shouldnt that same accountability be applicable to both the system you operate in and the system he does
MSHIRI: ..its always about the next big evil bad guy with you
MSHIRI: ...but bad guys dont exist in a vacuum
MSHIRI: ....if they did theyd quickly suffocate which would obviate the need for this whole conversation
MSHIRI: .bad people are created by systems and enabled by systems
MSHIRI: ..and the systems that make them and sustain them should be looked into a little deeper
MSHIRI: ...thats all

SECILY: You always manage to make the radical sound so mundane.
SECILY: You’re dangerous with theory.

MSHIRI: .im dangerous all the time
SECILY: Yeah. Me too.

You pause and take in the dimming light outside. It's always like this with her: hours passing in what seems like the blink of an eye, conversations spanning every aspect of your lives, all tangled up in each other.

No. You're wrong. It's not always like this. There have been times where the two of you have tried to untangle yourselves. For her sake. The first try was almost ten sweeps ago. The last wasn't long ago at all.

Mediation is an ancient tradition. Its practitioners are tight-knit and, like any high society, they gossip.

As the sweeps of Mshiri's work stretched on, her colleagues began to talk about her behind her back as an... oddity. Never dipping into red or black relationships, focusing wholly on her profession. And you.

One evening she'd been quite upset. A bottle of wine and a session later, you discovered it was because they dubbed you Secily Ioparasite.

You thought it was sweet that she'd get so upset over a slight to you — the nickname didn't bother you much. But seeing her back here, after another final separation and her falling red for another, brings it back to mind.

Mshiri's mediator peers are, to a one, socially perceptive.

You watch her glide around the room, the picture of serenity. A blessing you've never understood.

She's circling around, putting sputtering matches to the wicks of many candles to light the dimming room, flames dancing in her dark eyes.

She's one of the few practitioners of the old ways, with new hires opting out of monasterial isolation the intensive study it requires. Most are elderly now.

She unties the ribbon from her hair, which lets you see the gold-threaded inscription embroidered on it. It's in the old tongue. Most trolls, including you, got your education through technology.

Dead languages weren't on the curriculum. Mshiri, though, grew up studying intensively with others of her tradition, and can speak and write fluently in PRETEXT.

She's tried to explain it to you, but somewhere around declension you always start losing focus.

Her dark hair spills down her back as she sits down beside her harp and begins to move her soft fingers delicately across the strings.

Again a creature of uncommon talent, she knows well your... difficulty with most music. But the slow, wandering tones she plays always put you at ease.

You walk up to her slowly and kneel beside her on the soft mat floor. You watch, and breathe, and wait for her to begin the next part of her ritual.

She sings a slow, mournful song in the old tongue, syllables softly flowing. You close your eyes and let the sound wash over you. You think the effect would be spoiled if you understood the words.

As it is, you can imagine it's exactly what you need to hear. A declaration of feelings and understanding, in words so plain and clear as to make every stopped-up river inside your head flow freely again.

You lose track of time, a rare privilege for you, as she continues to play. You close your eyes as the last notes fade into a resonant memory.

You hear the shifting of fabric as she shifts across the mat, from beside her harp to your side. She lifts up your hands and lays them on one knee. You open your eyes.

Mshiri is looping her gold-threaded hair ribbon under your wrists. A prayer is woven into it. She reads that prayer, quietly, melodically, as the thread touches your skin.

As she loops the ribbon around itself in an elegant knot, binding your wrists together, you remember what it means from the translation she first provided for you eight sweeps ago.

Oh Mother of omniscient name,

Impart a gift unto this plane,

Deliver peace and respite now,

Upon this well-deserving brow.

The ribbon, in concert with her words and touch, feels attached to something greater. Like you are tethered to a great enveloping root that winds its way through the soil of all that ever was.

And if in action we do err,

Gather us then into your care,

And our step, and make us wise,

So we may be your thousand eyes.

When the ribbon is pulled taut, binding your wrists, she pulls back, happy with her handiwork. You, like always, catch yourself before you lean longingly after her.

A wistful, questioning look flickers across her face in the candlelight.

MSHIRI: .what does it mean to want to make someone happy
MSHIRI: ..ive asked myself this question a great deal
MSHIRI: ...over our sweeps together
MSHIRI: ....i want to make you happy
MSHIRI: .....i know this much is true

SECILY: You've seen me at my worst. I fear I might not be far from it now.
SECILY: People are dying and I can't even see the shape of the problem.
SECILY: I've been poring over every suicide on recent record. Looking for connections.
SECILY: I don't have... time to be happy. Not while this monster is out there.
SECILY: Right now, while we're talking, someone's seeing words on a screen that'll push them closer to giving up.

MSHIRI: .theres a selfish way to be selfless you know
MSHIRI: ..where you make the problems of the world your problems
MSHIRI: ...and let the pain rain down on you
MSHIRI: ....and burn as the rain burns
MSHIRI: .....it feels productive to hurt

She tightens the bonds on your wrists. Not enough to pinch, but just enough for the soft ribbon to constrict, cut off circulation, squeeze firmly.

MSHIRI: .but pain for pains sake accomplishes nothing
MSHIRI: ..your agony cannot revive the dead of the past
MSHIRI: ...nor can your guilt prevent the dead of the future
MSHIRI: .happiness works kind of like magnetism
MSHIRI: ..its a force that comes about through alignment
MSHIRI: ...like how a magnet is created by aligning the atoms in a bar of iron
MSHIRI: ....happiness is a construction that requires peoples desires be aligned in a corresponding way
MSHIRI: .....along certain shared axes
MSHIRI: ......usually neurotypical ones mind you
MSHIRI: .......trolls who throw off the alignment or whose desires point in different directions
MSHIRI: ........these people are seen as disrupting the right to happiness of everyone else

SECILY: Are you saying my natural inclination toward unhappiness is a harm to society?
SECILY: Is that why you’re so fascinated with fixing me?

MSHIRI: .i cant fix you
MSHIRI: ..nor do i want to
MSHIRI: ...a long time ago it was my job to
MSHIRI: ....and for some time after that i admit i entertained the fantasy that there was a conventional life possible for you
MSHIRI: .....that i could find the right combination of words and the right soothing touch to make it a reality

The tips of her knuckles brush across your cheek. You weren’t expecting it, your senses dulled and eyes shut, and it gives you a sudden chill.

She lingers, dragging her hand agonizingly slowly until the tips of her fingers brush your chapped bottom lip. You fight the bizarre urge to bite.

MSHIRI: .i thought i could fill whatever gulf lies within you
MSHIRI: ..you could live a normal life
MSHIRI: ...the weight of this world off of you
MSHIRI: ....i wanted to take you away from here lily
MSHIRI: .....but theres nowhere else
MSHIRI: ......and that made me realize how selfish that desire was

She’s gotten closer, now. You can feel her breath on your face. Does she know how this feels for you? She must. This dance you’ve been dancing for sweeps.

You don't know why she does this to you. How she actually feels.  You've never bonded – can't ever bond. You made sure of that when you met Yeshin five sweeps ago.

In these moments, though, your thoughts swim with frustration and love. In another life... could it have been different? Would she have wanted that?

Duty and selfishness, obligation and personal desire, together and then not. The two of you, irrevocably intertwined. What is the line of pale?

MSHIRI: .this world needs you
MSHIRI: ..it asks you to be a machine
MSHIRI: ...but flesh wears and weakens where metal does not
MSHIRI: ....the mind rends with the dissonance of purpose
MSHIRI: .....someone must put you back together

You’re kneeling on her soft tatami mat, hands and ankles bound, soft sound of harmonic wind chimes outside. Your vision swims with deeper shades of black behind closed eyes.

Her hand, dull-clawed but nimble, brushes the short buzzed hair on the side of your head and gently guides you closer.

She kisses you. It’s gentle, full of feeling, and gives you the sensation of falling. It always does. You never ask her for this. You never have.

But you always end up coming back to each other. And you kiss back, hungrily.

You want her all to yourself, and she wants to keep you. Unthinkable, for a Mediator — and at the same time, so simple. The radical, made mundane.

If you had an ounce of shame you'd catch fire with it — if you were concerned with appearances, about the foundation of taboo your arrangement is built on, then both you and it would burn to the ground.

But you don't ignite. There are no observers here, no shame. In this moment, there is no Repiton to save. No murder to solve. No strict limits to adhere to.

Just your lips and hers, and her hands roaming across your skin, warm and soothing.

...

MSHIRI: .so
MSHIRI: ..i have something to tell you
MSHIRI: ...while youre here
MSHIRI: ....its difficult
MSHIRI: .previously when assigned a client wed be given a folder
MSHIRI: ..printed out information
MSHIRI: ...their histories past RRIs et cetera

SECILY: You'd been pushing Sestro to rectify that, right?
MSHIRI: .yes
MSHIRI: ..and he did
MSHIRI: ...thanks for the assist on that one
MSHIRI: ....so theres a new computer system that lets us search employee records

SECILY: I know I struggle with computers occasionally, but you don't have to warn me that you're about to talk about them.
MSHIRI: .hush
MSHIRI: ..so i looked into a few things from the past
MSHIRI: ...they digitized historical case files going back sweeps
MSHIRI: ....as it happens the one who used to provide me reports eventually transitioned to managing that ocr system

SECILY: Oh, I liked him. Tinney? He helped me out back when I was junior-3.
MSHIRI: .the very same one
MSHIRI: ..and yes hes preserving entire libraries now
MSHIRI: ...worth the cost of your morning reading being nerfed id say

SECILY: I have this archivist do it for me now. Clever thing, but too enthusiastic by half. One time I asked her if an alibi of a guy buying chips at the time of the infraction was true.
SECILY: She gave me a ten-page report that included a graph of quarterly profit in the convenience store industry, indexed to power-cost increases from crypto mining.

MSHIRI: .dont fuss
MSHIRI: ..that report got you on bytcons tail

SECILY: Not that it's paid dividends. Greasy bastard covers his rat tracks. At least his lead was interesting.
MSHIRI: .youre getting distracted
MSHIRI: ..you always change the subject when you fear bad news

SECILY: You'll find I'm an expert at receiving bad news.
MSHIRI: .of course
MSHIRI: ..its a skill youve honed well

>Stall more.:

SECILY: Well, when it comes to honing myself... I'm sure you'd know all about that.

You go for a smile that you hope is somewhat winning. Mshiri chuckles a little, politely. There's no heart in it though.

MSHIRI: .secily
MSHIRI: ..please

This... doesn't look good. Your attempt at questionably platonic flirtatious prevarication hasn't made you feel any better about what's coming. Might as well get it over with.

>Hear it.:

SECILY: What is it?

No point in delaying the unpleasant. At least it isn't taking you completely by surprise this time.

MSHIRI: ...look i
MSHIRI: ....searched the robiad file
MSHIRI: .....to see if there had been any updates on trolls of interest in her case
MSHIRI: ......and i was surprised to find an unredacted copy on the database

Just hearing Ahlina's surname freezes you stock-still. The posthumous file you received was pitifully thin. It was Mshiri herself who told you not to press, who emphasized acceptance.

Something must be very off for her to bring it up now.

You storm into Sestro's office, mind clouded with anger. You're surprised to see Hamifi sitting at his desk instead, caught off guard by your unannounced entry.

HAMIFI: What's going on?∞
SECILY: 1.e4 Where is he. ...e5

She gives you a significant look. All-mother dammit. Not now.

SECILY: 2.Nf3 ... Is he alright? ...Nc6
HAMIFI: He worried himself sick when your signal went dead a few days ago. It's been a challenging few wices, and things haven't let up since the first bodies were found.∞
HAMIFI: We're getting strange reports... Nothing worth taking you off this case for, yet...∞
HAMIFI: But it was all weighing on him a great deal. You know him. If anyone's hurting, he's hurting.∞
HAMIFI: He's been having an episode.∞

It's one of corporate's closest-guarded secrets. While he's capable of intense focus, working tirelessly for days at a time, Sestro is prone to burning out in spectacular fashion.

For up to a wice at a time, Hamifi has to take the Heir's place when he can barely leave his 'cupe. Some of your rage has already burned off as you remember the times you had to feed him.

Now she handles that, along with cleaning up his mess. The public doesn't know what she does. Perhaps it's for the best. You adopt a gentler tone.

SECILY: 3.d4 Take me to him. ...exd4

You're walking and talking now, passing through a hallway, both with nearly the same long, loping stride.

SECILY: 4.Nxd4 Vitals? ...Bc5
HAMIFI: All within acceptable bounds. White blood cell count good. Blood pressure a little high but it is, as you know, not abnormal for him.∞
SECILY: 5.Be3 Doesn't have our gift for it. How long has it been? Any lucid periods? ...Qf6

You get in an elevator. Hamifi presses a touch stump to the print detector and pushes the button for the penthouse bedroom.

HAMIFI: In about hour fourteen he had a few spells of lucidity. We put a set together, we ate dinner, then I got him in the recuperacoon and he slept just fine.∞
SECILY: 6.c3 You didn't think to call me? ...Hge7

Hamifi shoots you an annoyed look as she holds open the elevator door to Sestro's respiteblock. One that communicates I can handle this, Ms. Iopara. You hope she can.

She switches to a whisper, and you can see why. The Heir is wrapped up in a blanket and slouched forward, sitting on that storage-cube chair thing you've never liked.

HAMIFI: I didn't think it necessary to interrupt your rest yet. You could've died out there.∞

Hamifi has moved behind Sestro and put a hand on his only-slightly-responsive shoulder while you continue your hushed conversation. You whisper back.

SECILY: 7.Bb5 Glad to hear life is a new priority of the company. ...a6

She looks taken aback.

HAMIFI: What?∞
SECILY: 8.Bxc6 Do you know what happened to Ahlina Robiad? ...Nxc6
HAMIFI: She was kidnapped.∞
SECILY: 9.O-O Yes. By a group of smugglers known to have only five members. ...d6

Hamifi pauses. She whispers back.

HAMIFI: You've seen the full report, then.∞
HAMIFI: I... Yes. They were a band of bootleggers.∞

SECILY: 10.Nxc6 They sold low-quality honey and sweeteners as part of their racket. Ahlina's superior apiary techniques were making better goods for cheaper. Running them out of business. ...bxc6
HAMIFI: So they turned to crime.∞
SECILY: 11.Bxc5 They demanded a ransom. ...dxc5
HAMIFI: It's corporate policy to avoid paying large sums of money to criminals.∞
SECILY: 12.f4 I was physically restrained from intervening, and this company, that I've given everything to... they negotiated??! ...O-O
SECILY: 13.Qf3 The Executive negotiated the price on Ah- my matesprit's life! ...Qe7
SECILY: 14.Nd2 He stayed my sword hand so he could ask them to knock off thirty percent, like he was haggling for a shipment of concrete! ...a5
SECILY: 15.Rfe1 Are you defending him? ...f6

You can't believe you've managed to keep whispering. You're barely keeping it together right now. Tears well up at the corners of your eyes. The finger you gesture with shakes.

Hamifi has her guard up. You hate that.

HAMIFI: I didn't expect this kind of anger from you.∞
HAMIFI: You've never been sentimental. You taught me how not to be.∞

At that, you restrain yourself. This wasn't her fault. She wasn't even hatched at the time Ahlina was killed. Your tone softens.

SECILY: 16.Nf1 I... could have been sentimental. ...Be6
SECILY: 17.Ne3 I was. For her. ...c4
SECILY: 18.Rad1 I... taught you not to be? ...Rad8

HAMIFI: You were always so gentle with him. You picked up all the slack. It was clear I'd have to, as well.∞
HAMIFI: Even now. This important thing... you wanted to go to him.∞
HAMIFI: Do you trust me?∞

She's looking at Sestro, who lays there glassy-eyed beneath a blanket adorned with stars, hand on his shoulder. She looks closer to tears than you've seen her in sweeps.

SECILY: 19.Nc2 You told me not to trust anyone. ...Rd6
SECILY: 20.Rxd6 But I do, Hamifi. ...cxd6 ½-½

She meets your gaze and the corner of her mouth twitches. Just a little.

HAMIFI: You were never very good at following orders.∞

END