>> Thread #0282: COMMENCE.
As you step outside, the sun washes over you, filling you with warmth. You exhale deeply and look around, thinking to yourself, "What another beautiful day in Freemark." You glance at the nearest calendar and make a note of the date. 458 L.V. Nothing of importance on this day; no important holidays, no birthdays missed. And yet, despite the brilliant sunshine, you can't help shake the foreboding feeling today is giving you.
Then it hits you. Today's your first Sentinel patrol assignment! Oh shit. Captain Stiles has a reputation for extreme punctuality. Demas had filled your ears with stories yesterday, as you stood at the roster lists, poring over your assignments. No one, from the grizzled veteran to the wet-behind-ears rookie, was spared the wrath of Stiles if they weren't already mustered at post, javelins polished up, weapons and kit all ship-shape, ready to march at eight o'clock on the second. You're late!
Your eyes shoot toward the clock, right above the calendar. Oh, good, you're not that late. About an hour to get to Sentinel Command at Freemark's Administrative Core and be ready for patrol. Better move now.
You bounce down the steps from your apartment block. The morning commute is already thick on the ground. You slip into the masses of bodies and bicycles pouring through the streets--
--streets are quiet. You poke your head out of the passage and look both ways. No one around. That's normal. The Sentinels seldom come to this area. They patrol streets, and this particular street is barely worthy of the name: a dim, damp gap between the slum's buildings and Freemark's outer wall. Used only by criminals, rats, and poor destitute folk like you.
Still, you can't make your shoulders relax. You leave the passage and enter the alley, creeping through the shadows, picking your way over the mounds of trash. The sounds of city life are muffled and far away like a vanishing dream.
At last, you reach a crumbling door in the city's wall. The great, five-metre wall designed to keep the savagery of Bastion out, and Freemark's citizens in safe. But every wall has its cracks, and even the tiniest saurian can breach a barrier if it tried hard enough.
You've used this door before. Behind it is a tunnel that barely fits a human. It punches through the wall, and will spit you out into the savage wilds.
You look up and down the alley again, then open the door and enter. It's still not locked. Good. People barely notice the skittering of saurians. You're beneath the Sentinels' notice.
It's pitch dark inside, but you've used this passage so much that you don't even need to feel the walls to find your way. It twists several times, then straightens into blinding light.
The smells and sounds of Bastion's wilds pummel your senses with almost physical force. You cling to the wall. There are gazicks beyond! You think of turning and fleeing back into the safety of Freemark. No, there is also food beyond! Your children haven't eaten for three days. Little Son had been weeping all night with desperate hunger, and you'd hushed him with the promise of starfruit and guavas. He finally fell asleep, and you left Older Son watching over him, as you departed the hut to beg, or to forage, for food.
There's a grove of fruit trees and bushes nearby. You've been there before. Neema showed it to you. Free food that's actually edible! Your tiny earnings have lasted longer as a result. It's not far away, and you can get there in a few minutes, if you hurried...
You're rustling through the branches of a guava tree when the tremors begin. Gazick! You freeze, chest pounding. The ground shudders in tempo with your heartbeat. No, gazicks are meant to be light-footed, they won't shake the ground. Titan? You shove a handful of fruit into your canvas bag and look about. The ground shakes again, and you stumble into the tree. Titans. They're pounding toward Freemark--
--pounding Freemark's gates.
You pull the visor over your face and sink into the amplifier's embrace.
You've experienced the uplink countless times. That moment between breaths, when your mind leaps from your physical body and stretches through the amplifier toward the network beyond. That moment when you float completely untethered, submerged in the violent gulf that is the Anthem of Creation.
A moment of transcendence.
But your body convulses. Nausea rises in your throat and gut. You remember your flesh. You clear the gulf, and emerge into a multitude.
Breselmann ready Survasta ready Verrars hurry up you slowpoke. Just running backup checks on my seals Engineer McCartney is usually thorough but he was drunk last night check check check alright I'm ready. I uh shit guys I need to take a leak again. It's just nerves Tchang it's fine you said that the last time and you went and nothing came out you'll be fine. Okay hotshots kiss the picture of Sweet Cecilia last one has to wear the bug-eye goggles when we go out for drinks! What that ugly ursix drawing that just attracts real ones for the smooches not to mention the ursix at the bar too shut up Breselmann Sweet Cee saved my bacon last mission you were there and you still don't believe in luck? What’s up with Haggard Company has Adams said anything hey cypher hotshot how's the weather in our heads? Oi lads and lasses we ain’t dressin up for an ursix makeout session -- the Dominion are here! So gear up and look sharp!
It takes a few seconds for the babel of mindtalk to split into unique identities, surrounded by a constellation of data. You sift through it with ease. Tchang is less nervous than she thinks she is. Verrars is more keyed up than he thinks he is. Breselmann fidgets -- even her javelin is registering her twitches -- but that's all in normal operational range. You give Survasta the barest look, that veteran's always preternaturally calm--
You sense the glowing warmth that is Survasta's attention turning to shine on you, and answer his question before he asks it. "I'm here. Linking in with Haggard Reefer and Haggard Windshear. Stand by, Victor."
The other cyphers are shining nodes in the web of consciousness that unites all of the Enclave’s Freelancer companies. The network pulses with chatter and anticipation. You find your sibling cyphers. A breath, a thought. "Haggard Company is ready to rumble! Let's bounce, Freelancers -- go, go!"
Haggard Victor is up and away, and you go with them, a fly perched upon their crowns. Far away, you relax deeper into the amplifier chair. The chair is vibrating non-stop now. Even at uplink's remove you can feel the forces battering the city, the concussion of ballistic fire, the pounding feet of striders--
--strider lurches, throwing Tallgirl hard against you, you against Grunt-on-the-right, and he against the Corporal. The Corporal bounces off the wall, and you all sway back upright, a stack of bodies crammed in a metal tin.
Your buttcheeks clench the edge of the seat. You try to shove further back, but your neighbours' big arses are in the way. This is very uncomfortable. But your shoulders are wedged so tightly between them that there's no chance of you falling off the bench. Gotta be thankful for Dominion strider comforts.
Something groans, like a titan riven in two. A boom reverberates through the troop bay, echoed by another boom. The titan groans again, adding a shriek at the end for good measure. You think that's what a titan sounds like. You've never seen one. You hope you never do.
Tallgirl elbows you in the ribs. For a moment you think she's fallen over again, but there's a second jab. Her breath tickles your ear. "Sounds like they're hammering the gates. They shouldn't hold much longer."
Now it's Grunt-on-the-right's turn to breathe down your neck. "You said that half an hour ago. The Freemarkians are putting up a good fight."
"Nonsense! The gates are breaking, can't you hear it?" Tallgirl shoots back. You know her real name. But in this cramped, stuffy trooper bay, where it's hard to breathe and harder to think, you can't be bothered dredging it up.
You squirm your backside again and strain to listen. There it is! A monstrous sound of metal being smashed and twisted. Your spine crawls at the scream of a city dealt a crippling blow.
The Corporal stands up in a clanking of ceramic plate and leather. "Squad Valens, attention! Remember your orders. We head towards Freemark's Administrative Core. Follow me until we reach it. Then we will be under Monitor Brom's direct orders. His word is law. The Arcanist will be escorted by the elite troops but we are the vanguard who clears the way. Press the advance; show no mercy. The Arcanist team must reach objective at all costs. Freemark is cracked open like a ripe skorpion egg. We shan't fail. Understood?"
You raise a salute alongside fifteen other salutes. The Corporal nods. "Squad Valens, muster out. To live is to serve."
"To live is to serve," you declare in unison, then stand and crowd out of the trooper bay. You grip your gun. Your hands are sweaty inside your gloves, but there's no way to take them off.
As you shuffle into the cargo lift, Tallgirl mutters, "That Arcanist's hocus-pocus must be a really big deal, yes?"
You shake your head, and she elbows you a third time. "Not the time for your faith in Stralheim to slip," she hisses. "We'll get the Arcanist there."
That's not what you meant. You're not afraid that it won't work, but that it will. Shaper relics and artifacts are dangerous. It's been drummed into you all your life: at school, at home. Only Arcanists are qualified to handle Shaper artifacts. Doctor Harken is one of the top Arcanists in Stralheim, but that fact somehow makes you feel less secure.
Something is going to go wrong. You feel it in your sweaty palms. You'd signed up for this invasion, hungry for the glory like a good Stralheimer. But though a Monitor is leading the strike, it's all serving an Arcanist's schemes. And no doubt there is a Shaper relic involved.
The lift jolts into life. You and your squad rumble up to the strider's hatch, and your misgivings rise as well, up and up, until the hatch opens, and your senses are assaulted with a cacophony of sound--
--cacophony surrounds you as you stumble out of the dark passage and into the dirty alleyway. Smoke barrels up from the rooftops. The air is choked with ash. You cough and bat at it, impotently. Not far away, the wall -- the five-metre thick Freemarkian wall -- shudders, showering debris and dust down. Something booms in the distance. Something closer falls with a great crash, battering you with a wave of fierce heat.
Smoke is everywhere. Choking, you stumble down the alley, retracing your path to home. Home! The smoke is in that direction! Your children were still at home when you left them in the morning. You stumble faster.
Bodies careen into your path: people are fleeing. You run smack into someone. Both of you clutch each other for balance. It's Neema. She lives -- lived -- down the road from you.
"Run!" Neema screams. "City's being attacked, everything's on fire. Run for your life, it's not safe here anymore!"
"My boys!" Your hut is flimsy and poorly built. Older Son had been watching over Little Son as he slept. "Where are they!?" you yell into her face.
Neema drops her eyes. "I don't know. The fire came too fast! No--" she half-tackles you as you try to lunge past her. "Everything's on fire, it's all gone! No one will survive it. You need to escape! Someone will find them--"
"No! Stop, let me go!" You howl and kick and struggle, as she drags you off.
The ash clots in your throat. You shouldn't have left your boys all alone. You shouldn't have gone foraging today. Then you would've been here to save them from--
"--save them?" you shout.
Captain Stiles' face can't be seen behind his javelin's helmet, but you picture his moustache bristling like an angry tesilar as he snaps, "Retreat, Officer. I will not repeat again. Get onto our flank. We do this orderly." He pivots with a whir of servos and strides off.
You fall into step next to Demas as your Sentinel squad marches away from the lofty buildings of Freemark's administrative core. The Dominion's striders are in the city, smashing through the companies of Freelancers that try in vain to hold the gate. They will be here in less than an hour.
Outrage rises like bile in your throat. "We shouldn't be running. What about the Freelancers? We were fighting together. And now we're abandoning them like cowards!"
"They probably know already," mutters Demas, and you realize you've been venting your rage aloud. "I'm sure the Grandmasters were told."
"But the core! This is the most important part of the city! The Sentinel's vow..." Words fail you. You had sworn to protect the city and its people, to maintain order against anarchy. This is the edict of Arden Vassa. How dare Captain Stiles violate this ancient law!
"You don't get it, do you?" grumbles Demas. "The Dominion are through. You saw how they trashed the gates? How're you gonna defend a giant hole? You'd rather stand and die in a pointless fight instead of retreating to fight another day?"
You open your mouth to give Demas an earful, but Captain Stiles turns around and cuts in. "Officer. Since you insist on questioning orders, I will tell you what's going on. The Dominion are heading here. Straight here. They're targeting Freemark's administrative core and nothing else. The fires are just a decoy to keep city defenses busy and scattered. These movements have been noted by Freelancer and Sentinel cyphers, corroborated by Corvus overwatch. Our orders come from Sentinel Command!"
Now the captain is marching beside you. You're definitely in trouble. He continues, "Demas is right. Better to go fight fires, defend our citizens and help them flee than to stand and surely die." His expressionless faceplate fills your vision. "You wanna talk about the Sentinel vow, rookie? Order against anarchy. We're following orders, bringing order to Freemark’s people, inside the city and out. In a time of chaos you don't question orders. Learn it well!"
You say nothing. Each step you take seems like a step towards death row. Flee. The city has fallen, and you're abandoning it. This isn't right. You think of breaking rank, shoving Stiles aside, racing back to Freemark's core, and standing with the Freelancers in their heroic sacrifice. But you keep marching with your patrol. You just don't have the courage--
"--courage and brashness," Monitor Brom says. "See how easily the city fell?"
"Mmm-hmm," you prevaricate. You always knew that breaching the city would be easy. Vassa's descendants had gotten soft over the centuries. So unlike Stral's faithful, walking the Path of Might, zeal and devotion only burning hotter with the years. Might separates the weak from the worthy. Proven true once again, as Freemark sinks to her knees before Stralheim.
Your device, however. That’s the only uncertainty in this equation. But it's been ready for ages, as ready as it could ever be. The other Arcanists had always criticized your impetuousity, but theories forged in the academies were purely theoretical until they got tested in the field. Besides, you're positively hesitant compared to the lancers. They take impatience to a whole new level. It may have some benefit. Such as punching a hole through an unprepared city.
You and the Monitor stride through the vast chambers of Freemark's heart. You barely notice the fighting around you. Against furies and brutes, the Freelancers in their frail javelins barely inflict a scratch. With increasing desperation they hurl themselves at you, but your guardians have mastered the Path of Might, and annihilate them.
You know about the other battle happening right here. A silent struggle waged in the air through through amplifiers and signets and crowns, as cyphers fought for dominance over the physical shells and mental states of their lancers. All this lies beyond your senses. Even so, the warfare is so ferocious that your ears ring with phantom tinnitus. For once, you're glad you're not a cypher.
Your troops carve a path before you. You forge deeper into the core.
And there it is. The Cenotaph. The last shreds of your misgivings evaporate at the sight of the Shaper relic. Your feet quicken.
"Take your time, Doctor," the Monitor chuckles. "We're not going anywhere soon." You ignore him and hurry to the Cenotaph. Ah -- wonder of wonders! You'd spent your whole life honing your focus and desires and expertise to this one thing. You had waited so long. But here it is! How sweet and delightful is victory! Maybe there's something to be said about lancer impatience.
"Doctor, the device is ready," an aide murmurs.
The Cenotaph crouches before you, balled up like a hibernating titan. It is utterly silent. No teeth-aching thrumming, no flashing lights. Yet pregnant with infinite potential. And you will be the first in centuries to unlock it.
Your device lies in the open case, prongs and tubes gleaming. The culmination of all your research and invention. You grasp its handholds and lift it out of the case. It's bulky, but light.
Did the Cenotaph just ripple a movement? Your ears ring. Hands ensconced in your device, you reach toward it--
>> ANALYSIS: Simulation thread #0282 encountered critical failure. Analysis of causality progression in all parallel continuums reveals inevitable degradation over time, accelerating upon global convergence. Simulation outcome is asymptotic but fails to converge with calculated endpoint. Conclusion: The calculated endpoint is impossible to attain.
This data corruption rate of 100% indicate fundamental flaws in starting paradigms. Recommend hard reset of event sequence and seeding of alternative parameters to escape this (projected, theoretical) local minimum.
>> Recurse yes/no? Y
>> Rebooting... ... ...done.
>> Initializing thread #0283...
>> Thread #0283: COMMENCE.
As you step outside, the sun washes over you, filling you with warmth. You--
PATROL REPORT #024
---- Patrol ID: Juhan-A.
---- Date: xx-xx-459 L.V.
---- Location: Freemark (former) restricted zone, 40 miles from Heart of Rage epicentre.
Juhan-A Freelancers retrieved, at great risk, a survivor from the Freemark restricted zone. This survivor was observed walking an unvarying circuit that ranged between half a mile and six miles from the Heart of Rage epicentre, well within the cataclysmic zone.
This individual has been identified as the field cypher of Victor squadron in Haggard company, Freemark Enclave. All members of Haggard Victor are recorded as missing/killed in action in the fall of Freemark. I.D made by Freelancer S_______, Juhan-B, formerly of Haggard Reefer.
The cypher is physically healthy but has suffered massive psychic breach through excessive, continuous exposure to the Anthem of Creation. The symptoms and ravings suggest that the victim's reality perception is trapped in a recursive temporal continuum, forced to relive the same sequence of events over and over. This case is exceptionally resistant: we're unable to break the continuum using the usual methods of deep reasoning or contradictory stimuli.
The ravings are surprisingly coherent. We gather the survivor was trying -- and failing -- to figure out a scenario where the Heart of Rage cataclysm and the fall of Freemark could’ve been prevented.
The survivor has been sedated and restrained, and will be transferred to Antium for rehabilitation.
===== THE END =====