[Oc/Ac] Week 191 - Operation Alien Disrupt: Stage 1!

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#1
Laermont/Craxtus = Mwn
Inillis/Kydoimos/Fifth of Division B9 = Urmm

“Well, I suppose frankly, I did not expect the outpost to be so heavily armed,” Inillis replied as he glanced toward the next tent.

It was full of ammunition for the gunners stationed around the border. In the moments since the group’s arrival at the demvir outpost, the attending general Kydoimos insisted on giving them the full tour. As he put it, “The best way to deal with the Quaestorii is to show you’ve got nothing to hide.” The camp consisted of mostly of basic pine-green tarp tents, with only a handful of structures made of modular segments of steel. Even those were low, windowless, and built entirely for function. What the camp lacked in luxury, it made up in manpower. When not on patrol, the hardened polybolii garrison mingled with mages fresh from Terminus.

“Ha!” the general stopped to motion proudly towards the nearest soldier. “It took a lot of convincing to make it as armed as it is. Really though I wanted double the guns.”

His second sentence was a disappointed half-mumble, and the first hint of something other than professional bravado.

Craxtus was looking around eagerly. His engineer’s eye was immediately drawn towards the armaments and the overall layout of the place. He turned in a semi-circle and spread his arms wide. “You really have done a damn fine job here with what ya got, General. The fire area of these guns has pretty good coverage and your reinforcements of the walls are pretty damn impressive. I’d say you look ready for almost anything!”

Laermont was less interested in the physical presence of the place and more interested in what Kydoimos had said and more specifically how he’d said it. As a detective, it was the human element that intrigued him. “So why did you want more guns, General? Is there a particular threat for which you need more armaments? I was unaware of anything of that nature here.”

His impassive faceplate and neutral tone helped him ask questions without appearing too hostile or aggressive. The lack of cues meant that he didn’t seem to be injecting much bias into what he was asking. He really did want to know what exactly this outpost was meant to be fighting.

Kydoimos initially took a dignified stance at the professor’s compliments, but it withered away. The general shifted uncomfortably from Craxtus to Laermont.

“The Laicar mining company, whatever they’re called, didn’t like it when we interrupted their supply line. Most of them left like they were supposed to, but some of them didn’t. Somehow they got it in their fleshy brains that it would be better to stay and put up a fight. Every mile up the mountain, every hole we try to dig, it’s a struggle. Thankfully, the insurgents are limited to whatever they can scrounge up or steal.”

The general paused to find more words, looking up at nothing as he did so.

“I’m not concerned with winning. Winning is only a matter of time. I’m just concerned with keeping everyone in the camp alive. The damned Laicar miners keep coming up with new ways to make that job harder. I’ve dealt with explosive drones, vistra, snipers, and even velen hired as mercenaries.”

While the general talked, Inillis stayed to the back of the group. At first, he thought they could pull some reinforcements for their journey into the swamp, but that would take some good convincing. He was keeping a mental note of any signs of combat. There were a couple large claw marks on one section of the walls, and some scorch marks in some of the open places of the camp. He could see it in the soldiers, as well. There were uniforms, but they were ripped, dirty, and often ignored in favor of other clothes. The patrols were no longer organized and professional, but were still thorough.

Craxtus’ face had turned dark. He glowered around the camp and back at Kydoimos. “You mean bloody Vis-damned, hellspawned TorBru don’t you, General? Those bastards are everywhere. They’re not just a mining company you know? They’re a...a...blight...a scourge!”

Laermont cut into the rant of the old man smoothly before things got even more heated. “The professor has a bad history with TorBru. Do you have any intelligence on what they want, General? It seems that anyone who would fight that hard has something they desperately want or even need.”

The detective was surprised that Inillis had remained quiet, but he assumed that his fellow demvir would speak if there was something worth saying.

“You know,” Kydoimos answered, “I just recently saw the name TorBru somewhere. It might have been on a book or something that we salvaged from one of the insurgents. I’ve never heard of it before then, though.”

“I don’t know,” Inillis explained, “how old TorBru is, but the mining operations here date back at least a decade. I doubt they’re helping the situation, but it’s probably easier for them to just manipulate existing tensions rather than set up their own operations. They don’t strike me as the sort to worry themselves over hard, endless, manual labor. General, can you think of anything that might be used as leverage over them? Like Laermont said, needs and wants, but also any ideas to twist or loose ends to dangle?”

“They’re Laicar! I… I mean no offense,” the general nodded to Craxtus, “but some of the best attributes of Laicar are also their worst. They’re probably too stubborn to move and too naive to see the inevitable. I’ve no doubt they run on big speeches about friendship or honor or some other virtue that they’ve taken too far.”

Secretely, Inillis was thrilled. This was a different kind of push for the professor than he anticipated. He had lots of things to say to the general right now, but he kept silent and watched.

Craxtus cackled with laughter at Kydoimos’ comments. Mirth played around the deep wrinkles radiating out from around his eyes. “That’s one reason I love the demvir, there’s no bullshit about laicar from you lot. You’re right, General, those are definitely two of our worse traits.There’s gotta be some way we c’n exploit ‘em.”

Laermont was thoughtful for a moment before he chimed in. “Those velen mercenaries might be an angle as well. I assume they’ve got no particular loyalty to TorBru other than money. I wonder if we can sew enough dissent in their ranks to turn them aside. It might provide a helpful way to change the calculus.”

He paused and added, “I hope we can construct some kind of response. I believe it would be extremely dangerous to let those miners reach their goal. What they seek may pose a threat to the entirety of the races of Araevis.”

“If you could do anything with those mercenaries, I would personally make sure every soldier here shakes your hand. It would make striking back a whole lot easier.”

Inillis was about to say something, when an explosion rocked the ground. Someone shouted. Troops ran to their stations. Kydoimos focused on organizing the defense, while Inillis focused on finding some cover. Making his way behind the wall of one of the steel modules, he motioned to Laermont.

In the few seconds after the initial shock, it was apparent that the attack was multifaceted. Swarms of corrupted wasps flew over the border while burrowing drones exploded behind the ranks. Inillis noticed at least one soldier be picked off by a sniper. Just as the soldiers were starting to organize, one of the metal plates of the wall started screaming with a horrible grinding noise.

One of the sentries cried “The drill is back! They repaired the old drill!”

Kydoimos swore. The insurgents weren’t supposed to have the resources to do that.

Laermont looked around with suddenly sharpened senses, searching for advantages and weapons. The attack of the wasps was worrisome, but having the outer defences breached was worse. Craxtus was also looking about, his ingenarius’ senses reaching out for any technical solutions to help stem the tide. Laermont huddled next to Inillis, having to raise his voice to be heard over the din. “So what’s the plan, Inillis? Do we offer our help? What is your thinking?”
Craxtus was close enough to hear and he cut in. “I can stay and help ‘em find a solution to shut down the damn drill, if you got other stuff needs doing. What good would an ingenarius be if he couldn’t reverse engineer solutions?”


The demvir detective waited to hear what Inillis would say before making his final determination.

“My thinking,” Inillis responded, “is that now is the perfect time to search for the goggles while everyone else is distracted. It’s tempting to side with the outpost, but we have a different fight right now.”

The informant ducked as one the oversized wasps flew over their cover before being riddled with bullets.

“But I’m not going into the swamp alone,” he added.

Meanwhile, Kydoimos was gaining a mastery over the chaos; directing energy bursts from the mages, predicting wasp movements, and finding the angle of the sniper. In the midst of the battle, he hid rapid calculations behind a frantic energy.

Things were surprisingly as under control as they could be, until one of the burrowing drones exploded under his leg. The general dropped to one knee, struggling to stand up. Bits of shrapnel stuck out of his metal hull.

It didn’t stop him from shouting, “Grouping of wasps at 40 degrees! I want bullets in the air to meet them! Stay close to the eastern wall!”

There was no time for deliberations, so Laermont didn’t waste his time. “Very well. I concur. Let’s go now!”

The pair made their way rapidly towards the back gate of the camp as chaos erupted behind them. It was difficult for the demvir detective to move away from the fight, but he knew that Inillis was correct. This really was their best time to do what they’d come to do. They were out into the dank, lush heat of the swamp now. Laermont glanced around. “The next question is where exactly we begin our search?”

Meanwhile, a group of soldiers had dragged Kydoimos backwards away from the burrowing drones, propping him up on a makeshift seat. The rest maintained their discipline as they carried out the generals orders. Craxtus rushed up to where the general was sitting and turned his bright gaze on the demvir. “Do you have any information on that drill? You haven’t by any chance stolen any plans for it or anything?”

He paused and said, “Otherwise you’ll have to detail soldiers to cover me while I look at it and try to figure out how to shut ‘er down in a hurry! Either way I need to see it.”

Kydoimos nodded to three of the soldiers, “Grab Nebua and escort the professor to the drill. Unfortunately, that puts you in line with the sniper, so the very moment you reach the sixth wall section, Nebua casts fog and you book it to the drill. The drill itself should cover you. Do you understand?”

They nodded back and ran to one of the mages.

“You’re a civilian,” Kydoimos addressed the professor, “so I want to point out that this is pretty dangerous, not that I think it’ll change your mind.”

The detail took only a couple seconds to organize, and were ready to leave as soon as Craxtus was.

Craxtus barked a sharp laugh at Kydoimos. “Damn right it won’t change my mind, General! I’ve been in a lot worse scrapes than this. Come on, lads, let’s get stuck in!” He picked up the tool roll that he’d been carrying with him.

They set off at a rapid pace. The wiry elder had little trouble keeping up with the detail, even at this high pace. They made their way to the sixth wall section and with a series of gestures and an incantation, the mage surrounded the team in a thick blanket of fog.

Now they were running and Craxtus fell behind slightly but not enough to be endangered by it. Within a minute, they were in next to the drill and the ingenarius started going over it, his keen eyes seeking out the way to disable it. He noticed all of the steam piping and grinned, if he put enough breaks in it, it would drop the steam pressure and grind the mechanism to a halt.

He looked at his detail. “You’ve all got nice big metal fists. See these pipes - here, here and here? Hit ‘em with everything you got! We want to cause a catastrophic system collapse by releasing steam pressure from the system!”

As the rest of the investigation walked out into the murk, the sludge pulled at their footsteps. The din of battle faded to be replaced by the choir of amphibians and insects disturbed by the skirmish. Inillis took a folded square of paper from his pocket.

“I appropriated this during the tour.”

He unfolded it to reveal a map of the surrounding area, drawn with crude symbols and fading ink.

“It doesn’t look like it covers the tomb, but it does eliminate several areas. Additionally, it shows where the laicar mining office is. If any map is going to show the tomb, it’ll be from the people mining the area for the last two decades. If not, then we can at least narrow our search that much more.”

Laermont nodded. “We go to the mining office first! I think that is our best chance to find a more current and relevant map. The less time we waste, the better. Let’s go!”

The sucking marsh was hardly the ideal place for anyone, least of all a being with metal construction, but Laermont coped gamely as they set off across the uneven ground. One boon to him was that any biting insect wouldn’t have the least bit of effect on him. There were advantages to being demvir.

As they moved, the detective consulted with Inillis. “Do you know what these goggles look like then? It would be helpful if we had some indication of what precisely we were looking for. Wandering around ancient tombs is challenging enough without knowing what one is seeking exactly.”

“According to the book,” the informant responded, “the lenses of the goggles are bound in simple leather. I suspect the enchantment is on the lenses themselves, which are ‘made of an unusual glass, having a faint green taint when the light hits them at the right angle.’ It shouldn’t be too hard, right? How much more magic eyewear can there be in the middle of a tomb?”

After such a long slog through the swamp, the two could finally see a clearing along their path, where the ground was firm enough for the miners to have built a scattering of structures fashioned from sticks, leaves, and rope. There were larger, more permanent structures made out of stone, but it looked like they had fallen into disrepair since the bulk of the company left. Throughout the clearing, Inillis could make out circles of charred wood, doused campfires.

“Hmm… Looks like we made it.”

Laermont wondered how long the miners had been gone from the area. Not all of them were likely to be taking part in the attack on the military camp, but no one seemed to be around. Still all of his senses were heightened in anticipation of what might be around the corner. He nodded his understanding to Inillis. “Having a good physical description will prove most useful. They may be concealed, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

The mining office was really more of a crude shack made of the same materials as the other buildings. It sat on the edge of the camp and the quaestor opened the door cautiously in case someone was waiting inside. Seeing no one, he proceeded inside. There was a low table there spread with charts and he started to sort through them. Eventually he chanced upon one that seemed to mark out the location of ancient landmarks including the tombs.

He laid it out and as he looked over it, he realized that the tomb they wanted had an interesting red mark in front of it. He glared at it and sighed. “I do believe that our target might have some kind of trap in it or in front of it. Is that what you’d make of the symbol there?”

As focused and hurried as the two should be right now, Inillis was not. He was looking around at everything, the stacks of inventory logs on the makeshift shelf, the scrawlings of tunnel systems that burrowed into the tunnels, and only the map itself once Laermont called him over.

“Apologies, I just don’t know how many chances I’ll get to be here unimpeded. Any number of these things could be important for other reasons.”

He showed no intentions of clarifying, and his words rushed past to matters of the mission at hand.

“Now, I don’t know much more than you do about mining iconography,” he admitted, “but the red ink probably indicates something dangerous. You can see the same symbol a couple other places, but those are along lines that I presume to be tunnels. If that one is the tomb, then it looks like we can make it by-”

The informant stopped. There were voices outside of the shack, thankfully distant.

“I defer to your expertise,” he whispered, “as I assume you’ve done this sort of thing before. Do we run, hide, or is there some other Quaestorii protocol?”

Laermont whispered back to Inillis. “We should try to observe the situation first of all, preferably from a hiding place. It would be foolish to either run or engage the owners of those voices without first understanding the nature of the threat or lack thereof that they might pose.”

Noticing a large open back “window” which was really little more than a screened in area, the quaestor pushed out one of the screened panels and motioned his companion over. The pair climbed out and into the dense brush behind the camp. Laermont replaced the mesh panel and the two of them crouched in the forest, waiting to see who the voices belonged to and what they might be doing.

Meanwhile, the large boring drill was almost deafening as it ground against the steel. It was made for crushing rock, and straining against the metal was causing parts of it to heat up. Other parts extruded long curls of chewed-up metal from the wall. Only Craxtus was able to make sense of the maze of pipes, gears, and pistons.

On his order, the soldiers struck the mechanism. One of the pipes erupted with boiling steam, causing the striker to stumble back. It was a half-step too far away from the cover of the drill. The sniper shot him, splintering the glass lens of his eye. The soldier dropped.

With a yell, a group of Laicar miners charged the detail.

The good news was that the drill lost a lot of pressure. The churning slowed down. Without the steam to absorb excess heat, certain levers started to glow and deform. Smoke, from burning oil, billowed out of the machine and filled the air.

“Vis-damned bloody hell!”

Craxtus swore sharply as the sniper killed one of the soldiers. It was his fault the man had died, but there wasn’t any other way to disable the damnable infernal machine. At least his plan had been correct in terms of damaging the drill. They needed to get back to the safety of the camp quickly.

Lifting up a heavy wrench, the professor parried an attack by a miner with a pickaxe and thumped the man in the gut with the wrench before tapping him on the head as he doubled over. He shouted to the soldiers in a voice that had a surprisingly military bark in it. “Fall back to the walls! Now!”

He parried another attack and swung the wrench again, knocking another miner flying as the party tried to draw back to the walls.

The group withdrew back into the fog, along the sheer metal, in case the smoke wasn’t enough to deter the sniper. The remaining two soldiers dissuaded any attackers close enough to see with bursts of gunfire. After a couple tries, the miners stopped.

“We were informed of the Quaestorii’s impending arrival.”

The words from within the fog cloud carried a thick accent, neither demvir or laicar. They were spoken with a cold facsimile of friendliness, a trained cadence for de-escalation.

“But it’s unfortunate how the timing worked out. We have no quarrel with the officials of Terminus. Step out of the fog and we can cooperate with whatever brings you here.”

Spooked, one of the soldiers fired impotently into the dense cloudbank. The emptying of his magazine gave the velen the opening he wanted. The agent appeared behind the nervous soldier, and held a thin blade to a joint in the demvir’s neck.

The soldier, now a hostage, dropped his weapon. Nebua also put his hands up, lacking any real offensive power. The remaining demvir aimed his rifle.

“Quel re mellon.”

At the velen’s impossibly familiar suggestion, the active soldier dropped his rifle. His hands were shaking, trying to fight the subliminal words crawling through his head.

Craxtus swore again. What was it with these Vis-damned velen and their powers of subliminal suggestion? He could feel the tug of the words even though they weren’t directed at him, but he gritted his teeth and applied willpower. He wasn’t going to let himself be manipulated. “How about we start by figuring out who in the nine levels of cold hell you are eh? Holding people at knife point isn’t exactly a constructive beginning to a conversation, is it?”

He stepped into view, still holding the wrench. It wasn’t much protection and certainly couldn’t help the man being held at knifepoint, but he was not going to give it up easily. He grumbled internally about how he always seemed to end up in these bloody messes, no matter what he did.

“I see,” The velen answered. “Let’s get some extra ears out of the way, then. You there!”

He promptly addressed the free soldier and the mage.

“Walk slowly, hand on your head, toward the Laicar camp. If you do comply, you and your friend will survive. We treat our prisoners well.”

The velen pressed the knife until the hostage made a feeble, pained sound. Nebua started to leave first. The free soldier hesitated, then ran toward the demvir outpost instead. There was a mild look of disappointment from the agent, but it didn’t seem to bother him much. It wasn’t until they were both out of earshot that he looked back at Craxtus.

“I am the fifth of division B9. Understand, detective, I’m doing you a favor. This is classified information, but we can’t risk conflict with Terminus as well. I expect the same consideration.”

The velen paused, still uncertain about how much he wanted to give up.

“I think the best answer to your question is to explain how much profit is as stake. The presence of the Laicar miners offer a little much-needed trade competition to our empire in what would otherwise be a complete monopoly. They keep the cost down, and give us room to find leverage. The notion we might be mercenaries, as the demvir believe, is half-right.”

The velen walked to the side as he spoke, strafing Craxtus. His manner was completely casual, save for the hostage being coerced to follow.

Craxtus looked distinctly skeptical as “the fifth of division B9” attempted to explain himself. “Is attacking an outpost really how you people want to play this? Profit or no, there’s not much need for what you were doing. Maybe before you start pulling this kind of shit, you need to talk to the commander of this outpost? I’m sure he’ll hear you out.”

The professor wasn’t sure if his words would get through, but he had to try. Needless bloodshed between the races wasn’t something he considered acceptable or even inevitable. If there was some way he could avert it, he had to try.

“Ooohhh, I get it now. You’re one of those types. Let’s all get together in a circle and talk out our differences. No, no I don’t think politely asking the general to give up the whole operation is a real option. Worse, it tips our hand, making the more plausible, current option much harder. We know how to play the shadows, Quaestor.”

The fifth paused for a second, gears churning behind the mask of politeness.

“Although, if it’s important enough to you, maybe you can scrape together an incentive. If the quaestorii itself was to donate to certain benefactors, perhaps something to reimburse our projected losses...”

The fifth really had no idea who he was. He had assumed that he was offically working for the Quaestorii. The professor smiled inwardly, thinking about how he might manipulate this situation to the ends that would alter the outcome to the best possible advantage for everyone involved.

“Well this is certainly a proposal that requires some exploration. It might be possible for donations to be made that would ease things along. You and I need to discuss this at great length. You are far more more amenable than I was expecting when it comes to how we might mutually benefit from this situation.”

This development had put some fascinating wrinkles into the situation and Craxtus was going to play them out to see where they ended up going.

“There’s higher-ups for me to clear this with,” the velen explained, “as I expect you have your own. Why don’t you and any other relevant persons stop by the old laicar mining office. Let’s say… tomorrow at 5:00? The middle of a battlefield is not the place for negotiation.”

While Craxtus and the velen talked, there was still gunfire off in the distance.

---

“Besides, until those donations come through, I have an outpost to crush.”

The agent started backing up, slow enough for Craxtus to get a few last words in, but to the point where he was being enveloped by the fog once more.

The only last words that Craxtus had for him were, “Tomorrow then. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

Back at the mining office, the two demvir investigators were hiding within the forest vegetation. Inillis strained to hear the voices, but it would be a couple minutes before the conversation wandered close enough to make out.

The first voice was laicar, although it lacked the coarseness of years breathing rock dust and stale air. Inillis figured at least one of the officials that ran the operation must have stayed behind.

“And you’re sure you can get a shipment by the end of the week? We took a risk using our last one on the drill. If that doesn’t pay off then you’ve put us in a bad position.”

The reply was velen, feminine, and sounded almost cheerful. It wasn’t clear how much of that cheerfulness was sincere.

“Don’t worry about it. I promise that the next shipment will change things. We finally got the support of the majority of the trading guild board. Sure, we still got to keep things under wraps, but all kinds of options just opened up here. You can look forward to all kinds of surprises.”

“That didn’t answer anything,” the man pressed. “We need basic stuff. We need food, weapons!”

Laermont looked over at Inillis. He leaned in and spoke in a low whisper. “Fascinating, no? I wonder what exactly the ‘trading guild board’ is shipping to this lot besides the drill they used to attack the outpost? I wonder what these ‘options’ are that she’s talking about? I’d say this is proving a profitable little detour and not just because of the goggles.”

He let his voice drop away again and the pair of investigators observed this exchange from their hiding place. Laermont, for one, found his level of interest growing stronger with each passing minute.

Unfortunately, the official and the velen kept walking, and the conversation got farther and farther away.

“Those are… a little bit harder,” the velen admitted. “For complicated reasons, yes. The ebb and flow of trade, the limitations of our jurisdiction, but I’ll certainly see what we can do.”

“Hmmph.” The laicar wasn’t convinced. “It’s getting harder to convince the miners. Tell your lofty guild board to send food or we’re out.”

“I understand. I’ll deliver the news personally, of course. You don’t need to worry-”

There was the sound of a door closing, and the already-distant words were muffled to near imperception.

The detective turned to regard his companion with unblinking eyeplates. He spoke in low tones as he tried to assess what was happening. “Clearly there are serious tensions between the miners and the guild. It would appear that we’ve walked into some kind of corporate dispute, but it certainly is violent in a more than average way. I wonder how it ties into the area we’re seeking?”

He pondered for a moment before he asked, “What is your assessment, Inillis? How do you feel it would be prudent to proceed?”

“I see… opportunity, Laermont.”

Inillis put his hand on his chin.

“It might be possible to drive a wedge between the miners and this ‘trade guild.’ If we do that, we have the chance to help forge something here. Something stronger than the shadows and strings at play.”

The informant slumped, and his tone dropped slightly with disappointment.

“But we should probably address the TorBru machine first, I suppose. Who knows how many people have fallen prey to that accursed thing. I just hope the whole situation doesn’t go anywhere for a bit.”

“Well perhaps we can proceed towards the goggles then! I think we should secure those before we make any attempt to sort this situaton out. Whatever is happening here is unlikely to spiral out of control as quickly as the TorBru machine situation will. Come now, we should move before we get noticed!”

The pair began to fade back into the bush, heading away from the camp and towards the direction of the likely hiding place for the goggles. It was hard to know if there was more danger behind them or in front of them, but time was wasting and the thought of more people falling into the thrall of the Outside technology was one that put a sharp spur into Laermont’s side.

Reluctantly, Inillis followed the investigator back into the marsh. It was a long trek, but thankfully an uneventful one. The informant stopped to grab a few pieces of bark here and there, explaining that it made good enchanting material. As the sludge got deeper, the foliage became denser. Vines snaked up the twisted, arching mass of trees and produced exotic blooms. Occasional wildlife could be seen only by the slithering wake of ripples headed away from the duo.The smell of sulfur rose from the agitated peat.

After hours of trudging through the brackish slurry, Inillis hit his foot on something, causing him to stagger.

“Fuck! How is there a rock right in the middle...”

He stopped his profanity and stooped down.

“I think that was carved.”

Inillis picked up the rock so they could see it. It was distinctly rectangular, with worn, but still defined edges and corners. The white, porous appearance matched the tomb they were looking for.

“We’re getting close.”

If Laermont had facial features, he would have raised an eyebrow. As it was, he simply nodded to his companion. “We had better proceed then. I don’t believe that time is on our side.”

Word Count: 5314
 

Current Writing Week is 193

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