The Ashlanders - Chapter 6: The Blind Man's Last Gambit (Closed, Started)

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"The plan? Pretty standard divide and conquer shit. Leaving a lot to Bennie, but someone needs to work with Cameron. Works for me."

"Yeah. You don't really know the guy but trust me when I say he's good to have around. I bet you heard a few things about Bennie Carmine?" Anyway, him and Cameron, you and me was the best logical combination for distribution of talents, but on top of that, it's put people who're more familiar with each other together. I coulda asked you to be the one to go with Bennie, but why the hell should you trust him?"

Sitting up in his seat, he leaned down and fumbled through his bag. "That reminds me. We still haven't heard anything from the others since we were separated. Maybe they can find something out about Aesop and Silo." Producing his radio, he thumbed the button. "Come in, Slepnir squad. Come in, Slepnir squad. Do you read me?" No response. He tried again. "Hey Slepnir Squad, get your fists outta your asses and gimme a sign, would ya?"

Any returned the kiss, as well as the smile that followed it.

"It would be my pleasure Captain." she answered, before following Meredith out of the room, thus enabling the other crew members who were sitting down to breakfast to put their tongues back in and hold a conversation with each-other.

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Once they had all taken their seats in the dining hall, The Gentleman looked at the pair of them and said, businesslike and without a hint of innuendo, "I trust we all found time to view our dossiers last night."

"Oh Sprout. Please. Take me now. I can not contain my hunger for cock any longer."

Sprout's eyes narrowed as his stupid grin grew more insidious, "Lily, ya' know I love it when y'all talk dirty like that." Sprout scooted by and retrieved a clean change of cloths from his backpack and started for the bathroom again. "Unfortunately, I reckon yer gonna hafta wait. There're a whole mess'a hot girls down stairs that're waitn' their turn ta' ride my meat-stick, if ya' know what I mean."

Sprout closed the door behind him, "Now don' go peakn' on me, ya' hear!?" He shouted from the other side of the bathroom door.

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Rodrigo shook his head, unsatisfied by Aesop's plea. He sighed as he rubbed his eyes in frustration, "You're nothing but a fuckn' spaz, aren't you? Well, that's fine with me. You're a fuckn' squealer. Gave me far more than that other fucker.' He looked over his shoulder towards the door. " Send him in."

Silo, covered in bruises and blood, staggered into the room and collapsed in a heap next to Aesop. He groaned pathetically. Rodrigo grinned, "Maybe he's be more cooperative tomorrow? Well, I'll let you two sleep on your current situation. I'm sure you'll see there is no way out. Once a piggy starts squeeln' there ain't nothing he won't spill." His was a cruel smile, indeed.

He got to his feet and walked out the door, "Keep an eye on them." The bald, intimidating man nodded and left out the door with him; presumably to stand watch outside the door.

Once the door had closed and Silo had stopped coughing up blood, he looked up at Aesop from where he laid, "Y-you fuckn' ratted out our guys?"

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"Hey Slepnir Squad, get your fists outta your asses and gimme a sign, would ya?"

Bennie entered the room, shotgun slung over his shoulder, "You came with a second team?" He grimaced. "Hopefully they fared better than we did. Comm interference ain't a surprise around here. This dome's tricky. We're going to want to find high-ground to get a signal."

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"I trust we all found time to view our dossiers last night."

Pixie gave a hardy laugh, "An' I trust that's a joke, right?! No, Gents, y'all know my one eyes makes me a slow reader! Plus, I reckon I was squeel'n too good ta' give the mission much thought last night. Give me the short version an' I can fill in the blanks. Ya' know I'm good fer it."

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Feroxi - Basilio Tower

Tsubaki sat silently in the General's office for a solid thirty minutes before he had finally arrived. She was nothing if not punctual and it was clear he was not. Despite her distaste for the man, she was a proper soldier and she knew the part she played better than anyone. As soon as his presence was made known she stood up and snapped to attention. Though she felt nothing in performing the act for the man, her salute was exemplary and convincing enough for him.

Standing before her, he looked down upon the short soldier, "At ease, Saburo. Do you know why you're here, Commander?"

Tsubaki didn't so much as blink, "No, sir. I have already received my orders and was preparing for departure when your summons arrived."

"Spare me the details, Commander. I asked you a simple question."

"My simple answer is no, General." Tsubaki stated coldly.

He grunted, unamused and continued, "You and your team have already received details on the operation in Frostfall and I expect it will go off with out a hitch. That is not what I am concerned with, however." Tsubaki didn't stir. "I am here to question your loyalty to your commanding officer. I want to know whether or not you're loyal to the chain of command or if you're just our Lord's favorite lapdog: eager to clean the shit off his boots and lick the seed from his---"

Tsubaki's stone-cold demeanor wavered and her brow furrowed, "PERMISSION TO SPEAK FREELY, GENERAL?!" She shouted.

"Denied, Commander."

How dare you....

He smirked and laughed to himself. He enjoyed setting her off. There was something about exploiting the cracks in her mask that really brought a smile to his face. He was nothing but a pig in Tsubaki's eyes. Only loyal to his next paycheck. Not unlike some of her comrades.

Once he'd banished his laughter and regained his composure he continued, "So, am I to assume you will follow your orders despite them no originating from Lord Basilio's mouth?"

"Yes, Sir." Any sign of emotions she had displayed moments ago had faded.

"Good, Lord Basilio will be happy to hear you are every bit the soldier he thought you were. And... perhaps the plaything?" He suggested with a taunting grin.

"Am I dismissed, Sir?"

"Yes, yes, get the hell out of my office!" He said through his incessant laughter.

The moment the word "yes" left his mouth she had already pivoted on her heel and left towards the door. Once she closed it behind her she muttered under her breath, "I'll feed you your own cock one day you fucking scum." Her emotions properly vented and her resolve in check, she headed towards the barracks.

Once inside, she spotted her squad playing cards in the corner of the room. They had likely been ready to depart for some time now. Unfortunately, the General's "urgent" summons had put them behind schedule. She approached the three larger men, and towered over them, despite her stature, "Is everything ready?"

Bryan slapped his cards down triumphantly. "Royal flush!" Leaning forward, he swept the pile of carbon they were playing for over to his side. He was about to gloat when they were interrupted by their commander. "Is everything ready?"

Bryan looked up at her. Based off the muffled shout he'd heard, and the extra layer of terseness in her question, the man had gotten under her skin again.

"Yeh look bonny when yer angry," he said, smiling. The smile flickered at the glare she gave him, but came back in full force, revealing white teeth. Leaning in his chair to an improbable degree and putting his boots up on the table, he said, "aye, Commander. Ready and waitin'."

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Ruffles glanced up at Bennie's appearance. "Yeah. Didn't mention 'em before 'cause we can't count on them at the moment. Gotta be able to plan without them. Anyhow, think I should wait 'til morning or go hiking for better reception now?"

"Lily, ya' know I love it when y'all talk dirty like that."

Rolling her eyes, Lilith sighed and returned her attention to the case. We can't keep this much on us, we need to decide where we're staying in the long term, and hide it.

"Unfortunately, I reckon yer gonna hafta wait. There're a whole mess'a hot girls down stairs that're waitn' their turn ta' ride my meat-stick, if ya' know what I mean."

Lilith smirked, "Well, yes, I'm sure a young man like yourself, with a case full of carbon, would be quite the popular chap." She stretched her arms above her head, cracking her fingers and neck. As the boy picked up some 'clean' clothes, he shuffled back into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

"Now don' go peakn' on me, ya' hear!?"

"I don't know, it might be too much for me to resist." Lilith grinned as she got to her feet, sneaking over to the door, she quickly cracked it open without looking inside, "HURRY UP I'M STARVIN'!"

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"Royal flush!"

Asad frowned as he let his cards fall loosely from his hand and onto the table, glancing over at Jun, he aimed a thumb at Bryan.

"Why do we always play with this cheatin' sing-song bastard?" He smiled dryly "Luck my ass." His expression hardened as the commander approached, straightening in his chair.

"Is everything ready?"

"Aye commander, I've double checked all the equipment, nothing to report."

"Yeh look bonnie when yer angry,"

Asad stifled a smirk. He was right, she was kinda hot when she was flustered.

"Ya' know I'm good fer it."

'Do I?'

The slight frown was replaced by his usual calm smile in an instant.

"I should hope so, for I's hate to have to dock you marks for lack of appropriate study." he replied playfully. "In short, you are a journalist writing for the Boomhower Gazette, a periodical that Light-Year Media has been looking to acquire for some time. All the necessary forgeries have been made, your story will check out if anyone looks any closer. I am posing as your Senior Editor. You're something of a protege of mine, you see. We'll be attending to drink fine wines, eat expensive canapes, and covertly discuss the prospects of a merger. At this point, all we need to worry about is being asked awkward questions that we don't know the answers to, so I suggest that you spend the few hours we have left before we need to park the Maiden somewhere discreet doing your homework."

"Royal flush!"

Jun sighed as he placed his cards down on the table. He had never had any luck at these pointless games. Then again, the carbon would probably be earned back quickly enough. One of the perks of being in the squad. Asad seemed a little worked up about losing, at least from the frown and from what he said. Jun didn't sympathise as he still didn't see the importance of the pile of dirt on the table. Mugunghwa-i had created its own currency and had downplayed the significance of carbon - lowly citizens and soldiers, even the Imperial Guard, didn't need to know about that, after all.

"Why do we always play with this cheatin' sing-song bastard?"

Did he expect Jun to follow up with another joke? Well, the sniper was a serious one. And that's putting it lightly. "Because he is the most willing, sir. 'Cheatin' sing-song bastard' or not." He curtly replied to the dry remark. However, banter was cut short by the Commander's entrance. Jun immediately shot out up of the chair and gave a salute to his superior.

"Is everything ready?"

"Yes, Commander." He replied. Was the question really necessary? Regardless, he tried to swat thoughts about Bryan's remark away. There was nothing attractive about that scowl. What did she expect, honesty? While she was the Commander, the officer in charge of Samsara, she was still a woman. A woman trying to play a man's role, no less. Of course such a thing would be mocked. At least the General had that much sense. Nevertheless, regardless of her sex, she was still the Commander. Jun could only think of her as the Commander, and that suited him just fine.

Aesop felt shame run through him as he was called a squealer, a pig, a rat. Silo being pushed into his room in his current state made him realise just how much he was fucking up by saying anything at all to those bastards. Silo was in a much worse state than Aesop was, crumpled on the floor. The banditos took their leave and Silo said clearly pissed at Aesop, "Y-you fuckn' ratted out our guys?"

"No I..." he stuttered and stumbled over his words. "All I said was a number, that's it. And I was just saying it to see if you were alive. I'm not saying anything else I let them pull my finger nails out and kill me before I say anything else. What can they do with a number? I swear all I needed to know is was if you were alive." Aesop pleaded, hoping Silo would believe him. He had fucked up again. Every single time he had fucked up and fucked up more. 'God, everyone would be better off if I was dead.'

Tsubaki looked down upon her subordinates with the same unreadable frown they'd come to know her for. They were good soldiers, of that she was certain. That isn't to say she didn't have issues with them, however. Bryan was a womanizer and a joker above all else. Bot qualities she despised. For someone to approach an important job with such candor was off-putting, to say the least. The flirting was just the bitter cherry on top.

Asad was a similar case, but to a much lesser extent. Where she more or less despised Bryan on a personal level she had a lot more respect for Asad's attitude. He joked occasionally, yes, but more often than not it was to cool his nerves. War could get under any veteran's skin, no matter how battle hardened, after all.

Jun was the worst by far. The irony was that, despite her personal qualms with the man, he was the most loyal soldier under her command. He followed orders, swiftly, efficiently and without question. However, she knew he was only loyal to a point. His was a loyalty to the chain of command, not Tsubaki specifically. After three years of high-risk operations together she had hoped the man would warm up to his commanding officer, but no, despite not voicing it she could tell he resented her just as much as she did him.

They were an awkward group to be around, that much was certain, but they were a well-oiled machine. Machines didn't need to "get along".

"Yeh look bonnie when yer angry."

Tsubaki looked to Bryan without moving her head, "Now's not the time, O'Laffery."

Seeing that they had finished their preparations she nodded and turned towards the door, "I apologize for the delay. Grab your things and meet m by the crawler outside. We depart ASAP."

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"All I said was a number, that's it. And I was just saying it to see if you were alive. I'm not saying anything else I let them pull my finger nails out and kill me before I say anything else. What can they do with a number? I swear all I needed to know is was if you were alive."

Silo sighed and forced himself into a sitting position, screaming out in pain as he did so. After taking a moment to get his barrings he spoke, "Not sure I am going to be alive much longer, Aesop. I think they know I ain't telling them shit. They've already got you pinned as the weak link and they're probably going to off me in front of you tomorrow to make a point." He looked down at his bloodied hands. A look of sorrow painted on his face. "I'm sorry... I'll be getting the easy way out. You're the one they'll be trying to break. Your torment will last far longer."

He looked to Aesop, "Please man, tell me you can take it. Please tell me you won't snap. I need to know my friends won't come to harm for my mistakes."

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"Yeah. Didn't mention 'em before 'cause we can't count on them at the moment. Gotta be able to plan without them. Anyhow, think I should wait 'til morning or go hiking for better reception now?"

Bennie shook his head, "This place is far worse at night, Jake. We need to lay low for now. Y'all saw hell today and could use a good rest, anyway. First thing tomorrow we'll try to make contact with them. That good with you?"

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"HURRY UP I'M STARVIN'!"

"Alright, alright!" Sprout shouted in response. Soon after he emerged from the bathroom with a new change of cloths: a blue t-shirt, cargo shorts and sneakers. He looked to the case of carbon and scratched his head. "You reckon the stash is safe here 'n the room?"

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"... At this point, all we need to worry about is being asked awkward questions that we don't know the answers to, so I suggest that you spend the few hours we have left before we need to park the Maiden somewhere discreet doing your homework."

Pixie had gone through three pancakes in the time it took the Gentleman to describe her cover. She nodded along as he spoke and when he was done she wiped her lips off with a napkin and smiled, "Sounds good, sounds good. I reckon it says in here somewhere how I lost 'n eye? 'Er am I the 'blind journalist'?" Pixie laughed.

She grabbed the dossier as she got up from the table. It was a fine breakfast, indeed. Noble contraband was always nice to have while it lasted. After fingering through the pages of the dossier quickly she looked back to the Gentleman, "Shouldn' take long fer me ta' do my homework. I'll be thumbn' threw it between sets. Y'all can find me 'n hanger if ya' need me."

"This place is far worse at night, Jake. We need to lay low for now. Y'all saw hell today and could use a good rest, anyway. First thing tomorrow we'll try to make contact with them. That good with you?"

"Guess it has to be," Ruffles replied. "Not that I like waiting when Aesop and Silo are getting reamed by banditos."

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Bryan put his index and middle fingers to his temple in a casual salute. "Aye, commander." Swinging his feet off the table, and levering himself up fluidly, he picked up the sheathed swords where they were propped against the table, and swung them onto his back. The sheath's gold filigree flashed under the room's lighting as it passed through the air. "Look alive, boyos! It's go time!"

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Rumours had led them to the train station, and Eddie was left no option but to question a staff member. A likely looking train conductor had admitted to working or otherwise being about the station all the previous day, so that was a good place to start.

"Did a ship dock here?"

"We get a couple ships every now and then, stranger. Be more specific."

"It wasn't held by a Noble. That specific enough?"

"Well gee, I'm... I'm not sure. It's hard to pay attention when ya work as hard as I do to make ends meet." The conductor flashed Eddie a grin. But Eddie was getting tired of questioning people, and even tireder of bribing them. He drew off his right glove quickly, but drew off the left in a slow and exaggerated motion that drew the eye. Drew it to the glint of his metal plated hand. The conductor stammered. "I--yeah. Some one eyed bitch and a real flash bastard picked up this real fine piece o'ass. Please don't hurt me, mister Metal, I was only funnin' with ya, I--"

"Alrighty then. Which way did it fly?"

The conductor began spilling the information like a punctured water skin.

"Alright, alright!"

Lilith chuckled as she left him to change. Taking a long drag, she finished her cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray.

As the kid walked out, she crossed her arms across her chest. "You clean up well kid." She smiled warmly.

"You reckon the stash is safe here 'n the room?"

"Hmmm..." Lilith walked into the bathroom, "Probably" She pulled her scarf from out of the sink, wringing it gently. "But I'm not willing to take any risks with our life savings." Chuckling, she walked out of the bathroom, flapping out her scarf, she gave it the once over in the brighter light of the bedroom, ringing it to her face, she gave it a smell. "Fresh as a fuckin' daisy." She grinned, returning to the bathroom, she hung it on the now empty towel rail to dry.

Walking back into the bedroom, she made her way over to the bed and closed the case of carbon. Furrowing her brow for a few moments, she reopened the case and tipped out its contents onto the bed. "We both take a backpack, take half the loot, hide it in some clothes." She glanced over at the putrid pile in the corner. "I have some room in my bag now, and I'm sure you do too." She grinned. "I'm dishing that lot, I can't be arsed to clean it, and besides." She held up a bullion bar of carbon. "We can buy fancier duds now."

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"I apologize for the delay. Grab your things and meet by the crawler outside. We depart ASAP."

Asad got to his feet, holding his hands behind his back, he gently nodded his head towards Tsubaki. "As you wish, commander." a serene smile on his face. She really needs to stop letting other people get to her so easily. Asad enjoyed the company of his companions. Well, except maybe Jun, but nobody liked Jun.

Bryan was a welcome distraction, his sense of humour always made the boring missions more bearable, definitely the type of guy he'd prefer watching his back. Tsubaki wasn't nearly as much fun to talk to and had no sense of humour to speak of. However, she was a good leader, despite her age. She reminded Asad of himself when he first started out. Not as handsome, obviously, but she knew her stuff, and he had no issues serving beneath her.

Beneath her. Now that was a thought.

Jun was a good sniper, the best he'd ever seen, but he was about as interesting as Asad's boots. Squeaky clean, but not exactly riveting conversation.

"Look alive, boyos! It's go time!"

Asad picked up his rifle, a G36. It was his favourite rifle, but unlike a lot of the soldiers he had met over his lifetime, he didn't give weapons names. He didn't find the idea of pet names for killing tools particularly tasteful. It was a brilliant rifle in his opinion, had everything he wanted from an assault rifle, low recoil, low spread, medium power, and very adaptable. Mounting rails on the top of the rifle and both below and sides of the barrel had plenty of room for various attachments, making it highly customisable for each mission.

Aesop hated seeing Silo broken like this. Except he wasn't broken. He was strong. Strong enough not to give out any information, he was smart enough to not even think of Aesop. 'I should have done the same.' I'm sorry... I'll be getting the easy way out. You're the one they'll be trying to break. Your torment will last far longer. Please man, tell me you can take it. Please tell me you won't snap. I need to know my friends won't come to harm for my mistakes."

Aesop grimaced and sunk his head into his chest in shame. All this time he'd considered himself an outsider, even with Silo saying 'my friends' hit him. But that was childish. All this time he had been acting like a stubborn child left out on the playground. He wouldn't let his insecurities fuck everything up, along with his unstable unnatural emotional state that causes him to spill his guts and freak out at the smallest thing. He couldn't let everyone down, no. He couldn't snap he couldn't. All the while he was thinking these thoughts he was chewing on his tongue. '...Thats it... oh its gonna suck but it will be worth it.'

"I promise you. I swear on my life-and I know that don't mean much considering I already told them how many there are. But I..." he whispered low, the bandito's could probably still hear him but he tried anyway, he faced away from the door in case they were looking in on him and Silo. "I will make sure I can't, even if I do snap." Aesop then made a biting motion, sticking his tongue between his teeth, and slowly made it look like he would bite down powerfully. He hoped Silo knew what he meant. "I've already talked enough, I refuse to talk anymore."
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A small child was wondering through a train station, crying. He wore old rags on him and cried for his mother and father. "Mummy! Daddy!" he yelled and cried as he clung onto an old looking teddy bear.
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Austin was well on his way out of Feroxi as the police were in hot pursuit. They didn't shoot as they were all too scared of hitting the children on board. They drove frantically through the streets and as they were on a road that led out of the city they ran into a roadblock. Smiling from ear to ear Austin said to one of his children. "I think we should put on a little show."

The door of the RV opened as the smallest of children made their way out clad in breathing masks, hands above their head in surrender. However Oliver and the girl they had freed followed out with guns aimed at the small children, also wearing masks.

"You're letting us out or all these kids fucking die!" yelled the girl as they held the children hostage. The police all aimed at them. They had clear shots at killing them all but were afraid of hitting the kids. Despite children having led the charge, seeing them cry their eyes out was a convincing act. "Separate the cars! SEPARATE THE FUCKING CARS!!!!! These kids don't mean shit to me!"

"There's nowhere for you to go! We know it was kids who attacked the statio-" yelled an officer before being swiftly cut off by a small child.

"MOMMY I WANT MY MOMMY!!!" He yelled, followed suit by the other children with guns at their heads.

"Alright alright!" the officer yelled, ordering the other cops to separate the roadblock. The family made their way back inside the RV as it slowly drove between the cars.

"Anybody follows us and these kids never see their parents again!" The erratic woman yelled. The police waited as the RV made its way out of the dome, waiting until they were out of site.

The speaking officer punched his car as they left. "Follow that god damn RV, I bet you anything those fucking kids are lying."

"But what if they kill them sir?" asked a concerned copper.

"If they do then we have a small tragedy but we would have stopped a monster. I want tabs on them, wherever they go I wanna hear them, see them, breathe the same air as them. And if those kids pull guns you take them down got it!"

Meanwhile the RV was speeding away. "You think they bought it dad?" Asked the girl.

"In all likelihood no, but they're all too scared to hurt children. You make a good actress my girl, but that's the only time I'll allow bad language okay?" Austin said proudly, but also like a stern father..

"Thanks daddy, sorry daddy." the girl blushed, acting a much different shade then earlier. Austin smiled and continued driving the RV as Oliver sat in the back on the phone.

"I got a real bad connection here Heath so lets be quick. You got anything? Alright congrats you killed an old couple... really? You get any info outta them? Oh, okay well are they with you... okay yeah gotcha. Alright... good call we don't wanna mess with them. Yeah I'll tell dad. Alright see ya bud." He made his way towards his father and said, "I've just been talking to Heath, he said that he met up with some others in Feroxi and that there was some kinda shootout in the garden. We got twp names, Wilkes Vines and the Gunslinger, and a comfirmed spotting of two maidens but they went dark."

"Wilkes Vines? Payton Wilkes Vines?" Austin asked interested.

"No but he might be in the city for all we know. They said it was a girl who worked for them. Info's scarce but they said a deal went down between the Vines girl and the maidens, it went bad, a loooooooot of people got shot and they got away." Answered Oliver.

"Okay, okay, what about the Gunslinger?"

"They said they saw her but they don't know what role she was playing."

"Alright good good. Those cops are probably gonna be chasing us soon so I'm gonna floor it outta here. If you can call the rest of my children in and nearby domes, they might know something.

The Gentleman nodded.

"Of course, I have my own business to attend to in the mean-time. Now, if you'll excuse me."

"I apologize for the delay. Grab your things and meet by the crawler outside. We depart ASAP."

There was little else to do but to follow orders, as was the case most of the time. Jun picked up the case containing the sniper rifle and its various pieces. It was just a weapon, built to be deadly, but it was also something Jun had carried with him for quite a while he had gotten to know all of its tricks: the back-up iron-sight, the bayonet mount, the adjustable sights... He could go on. It was a sniper rifle perfect for a small squad like the one he was in: it increased the effective range of fire of the squad. Not to mention its reliability, apparently it was a hand-me-down from an Imperial Guard who got killed in action, so who knew how old it was? But enough about the gun. With no one to operate it, it was just a piece of junk.

It was the same with people, in a way - once you had no use for them, they were junk. Easy to get rid of as well, just one shot in the head... Or jugular, or even the common carotid arteries, if the conditions were right... Jun longed for the day when he could finally leave the band of clowns. But then again, why would he? Jun just knew how to be a soldier and he would probably end up serving another 'Lord' in another army in another land he cared little for and knew hardly anything about. Nevertheless, thoughts like that were useless. And so, Jun ignored Bryan's redundant remark and stepped outside to the crawler. Without further ado, he took a back seat, both literally and figuratively. The others could make meaningless noise all they wanted, Jun didn't care.

Alex sat at her home. Preparing a dinner for her son and one of his school friends who was staying over. She was tired after a long day of dealing with her officers complaining of cuts from her wages. She hated having to tell them they were losing more money but she also hated those who blamed her. Some people needed to be disciplined, even if she understood their anger she wasn't going to let them blame her. She stood at the oven looking on the dinner while her son was in the main room with one of his friends. Alex felt a little better, chuckling at the fact that the same girl had been coming over for dinner the past few days.

Meanwhile in the front room Austin and his friend Stacy were talking. "Sorry about my dad, he can be a jerk sometimes." said the girl.

"Don't worry he's a teacher, its kinda what he does." said Austin with a cheeky smile.

"Hey!" the girl shouted, "thats my dad Austin!"

"I'm kidding I'm kidding." he laughed.

"Yeah well..." she pouted. "It still wasn't funny."

"Fine I'm sorry, and he isn't that bad." he said apologetically.

"Well... what's up with your dad anyway?" Stacy asked, immediately being shushed by Austin.

"Please don't ask about my dad. I'm sorry I joked about yours, but whenever my dad is mentioned my mom gets upset." He clearly looked worried.

"Oh why what's up?" Stacy said, looking more concerned.

"I don't know, but everyone always shuts up about dad's when I'm around. I have no idea but I think he did something bad, either that or maybe he died or something. I-I really don't know just don't mention anything when my mom comes in."

"Yeah okay, sorry. And nevermind about my da-" she said but was interupted.

"Don't worry I was being mean." he said.

"Dinner's ready." Alex shouted from the other room. Austin put a finger to his lips and Stacy nodded in response.

Pixie left the pair and started down the hall, towards her abode. As she passed by the "guest room" she could hear Florian's voice.

"Is there anything else you need?"

Elizabeth shook her head, "No, I don't believe so. I--" She silenced herself mid-sentence as Pixie entered the room.

"Mornin', ladies," She said before turning her attention towards Florian. "Ya' have a second?"

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"Not that I like waiting when Aesop and Silo are getting reamed by banditos."

Bennie grimaced, "Sorry Jake, but that's how it's got to be." He stretched, cracking his back in the process as he started for the door. "Try to get some rest, will ya'? Shit's only going to get tougher, ya' know. 'Night."

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"I've already talked enough, I refuse to talk anymore."

"No," Silo said. "Don't go doing something stupid like that unless there's no other choice. Try to hang in there, okay? There's a chance you can still make it out of here alive if you can hold out long enough. Meredith would never abandon one of her own."

He laid his head up against the wall and closed his eyes. He looked exhausted, "I know you haven't been a Maiden long, but believe me when I tell you this: you're family to Pixie and she'd hate to see another one of her own go down... so wait until there's no other option... got it?"

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"We can buy fancier duds now."

Sprout smirked, "Before 'er after we get 'ar bellies full n' wet 'ar whistles?!" It was clear he was excited for the night to come. He'd seen plenty of wild parties growing up among the Maidens, but he'd always felt like an outsider. Now he and Lilith were the stars of the show. They'd go down stairs and drink with all the city's lowlifes and whores.

"The girls 'er already comin' out, Lily! Les' git down there before they're all taken'!" He shouted, yanking on her wrist.

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************

Tsubaki was happy to see the crawler had been properly prepped before her arrival. Everything was tied down and ready for a long-distance trip across the rugged ashlands. Eventually her men joined her outside, now dressed as she was in their disguises: bandits of the Wilks-Vine family. Their scarves would be hidden until they left the city so as to not raise suspicion. This dome was the family's territory, after all.

Tsubaki gave Jun a knowing look, one he'd grown to understand as "you're taking charge". In this case it implied he was driving first. She slammed the passenger door shut and made one final sweep of the cabin to ensure everything was in place while the others piled in. Once she was content she turned around in her seat so as to get eyes on all her men, "This will be a rather long trip, gentlemen. Once we're out of the city you may all speak freely. Though..." She paused for a moment, her expression unchanged. "Do be mindful of what you say. I don't want to have to break O'Laffery's nose again."

She hadn't actually broken his nose, but that's how Asad always told the story. When Tsubaki recalled the story, however, it was flat and ill-timed. Mentioning it now, it sounded more like a threat than a joke. Maybe she had a sense of humor after all... just a really hostile one.

"Before 'er after we get 'ar bellies full n' wet 'ar whistles?!"

Lilith smiled gently as she put the bullion back in the case. What the hell, this Borelli is friends with Cranston, no way he'd rob us. She lifted up the edge of the mattress and slid the briefcase underneath it. "Should be fine in there for now." Besides, if they were gonna get drunk, it was probably for the best that they weren't carrying around a ridiculous amount of cash.

The boy was excited, he wasn't do a very good job at hiding it. Lilith didn't mind though, he deserved to let his hair down, at least for tonight. She chuckled as he grabbed hold of her wrist.

"The girls 'er already comin' out, Lily! Les' git down there before they're all taken'!"

She put on her best airs and graces. "Axel Socrates Monroe! Don't you manhandle me before we go whoring!" She raised a hand to her forehead, as if she were going to faint, letting him drag her out of the room.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Asad placed his rifle securely in the trunk of the crawler, walking to the left side of vehicle, he hopped into the back seat.

Crossing his arms across his chest, he waited as Tsubaki finished her checks. Turning around in her seat, she looked at the three of them.

This will be a rather long trip, gentlemen. Once we're out of the city you may all speak freely. Though... Do be mindful of what you say. I don't want to have to break O'Laffery's nose again."

Asad raised an eyebrow as he glanced to his side, sharing a small grin with Bryan. He raised a hand to his mouth, coughing slightly, a small smirk on his face. "Aye ma'am."

"Try to get some rest, will ya'? Shit's only going to get tougher, ya' know. 'Night."

Ruffles grunted in response and put his had back down in his chair.

===============================================

At the trunk of the crawler, Bryan slipped the sheath of his swords into a matte black sleeve and tightened it. Better for his weapon to look more in keeping with Wilkes-Vines. Then, he bounded into the back of the crawler, stretching his arms out behind the head rests.

"Do be mindful of what you say. I don't want to have to break O'Laffery's nose again."

He glanced at Asad and flashed him a wide grin. "Gotta love strong women, don'tcha? Commander knows I like it rough."

"No, don't go doing something stupid like that unless there's no other choice." 'Something stupid? Thats all I really know.' "Try to hang in there, okay? There's a chance you can still make it out of here alive if you can hold out long enough. Meredith would never abandon one of her own."

Silo adjusted himself. He was destroyed. Maybe it would have been better to save two bullets for them both... but Meredith coming to save him? Aesop didn't doubt Silo he just... 'Stop feeling sorry for yourself look at Silo for fuck sake. You've got it easy you ungrateful fuck.' "I know you haven't been a Maiden long, but believe me when I tell you this: you're family to Pixie and she'd hate to see another one of her own go down... so wait until there's no other option... got it?"

"I... alright... I got it. Guess I was taking the easy way out." Aesop crawled his way over to sit side by side with Silo. "I'll take all their shit. But if I think I'm gonna snap, if I think I'm gonna say anything then I'm gonna have to. But I promise I'll try and stay..." Aesop had to stop as everything he had been thinking up to this point had hit him upside the head. "Fuck I'm sorry I've been feeling sorry for myself forever... fucking... shit I..." Aesop paused and grunted before continuing. "If they do... if they do kill you tomorrow I figure I should tell you my real name, its stupid I know but hell it might be, I dunno comforting or... its stupid and doesn't mean much but," he leaned in and whispered his name into Silo's ear. "I know its weird me telling you my old name I just thought it'd be wrong not to tell you... I'm just gonna shut up or..." Aesop stumbled like an oaf over his words before forcing a chuckle and saying, "hey, don't you find it a bit odd Meredith sent out all the black and brown people on the same mission? Do redheads not like darkies or something?"

'That's right... bad humour, keep it up dumbass, he hasn't got long. And smile for fuck sake, camera's rolling.'

"Mornin', ladies," She said before turning her attention towards Florian. "Ya' have a second?"

"Of course." Florian nodded. "Excuse us." He said, addressing the nobles before he turned to leave.

He and the captain stepped out into the hallway, Florian made sure to shut the door behind him, Elizabeth and Josephine were still their captives after all.

"So, we going to get to work soon... well... you going to get to work soon?"

The Commander's "you're taking charge" look was met with the usual look from Jun, as if to say, "I'd better be the one in charge, fine." He quickly switched to the driver's seat, started the engine up and began driving. Nevertheless, what she had said was true, it would be a long trip. As the topic of keeping their mouths shut until they were out of the city, well, Jun really didn't feel like saying anything, both out of a general distain for meaningless drivel and the fact that he just couldn't relax while on a mission. In any case, Asad and Bryan would probably end up singing silly songs or something and that was enough to be worried about.

***

Maria stormed through the hotel. She couldn't find Micky anywhere? Just where would the guy run off to? And why? Well, at least she could finally have the bed to herself. She threw herself onto it and began to think... Someone had wanted Micky dead and they wanted him to suffer, she knew that much. Otherwise, there would just have been a corpse left there on the sand. Bandit scum weren't known for their respect for the dead or their kindness. Feroxi was certainly a busy place - a hive of activity - could those pissed-off bandits be here? Well, if they were, a sleazy hotel wouldn't be the best hideout. Hopefully, she wouldn't be too late...

"Axel Socrates Monroe! Don't you manhandle me before we go whoring!"

Sprout giggled like a schoolboy as he dragged Lilith with him down the stairs. His excitement was short lived, however, for it appeared that the bar scene at this particular brothel was... muted, to say the least. Cranston seemed like the kind of guy who favored the discreet, so it made sense. Though if that were true then why in the world would he have joined up with Sprout's mother of all people?

Sprout let go of Lilith's wrist and wandered towards the bar. There were maybe two others in the room besides the woman working the bar. She didn't appear to be a prostitute, but then she could have just been filling in for the actual bartender. Hitting on her probably wouldn't be wise until he knew for sure. Giving the room one last cursory glance, Sprout hopped onto a bar stool and patted the cushion of the one beside him, "Come 'er, Lily." He said, his grin slowly returning. It may not end up the crazy night he'd envisioned, but it could still be fun.

*********************************************************************************************************************************************************

Limp against the wall, Silo kept his eyes closed as Aesop fumbled with his words. He wasn't entirely sure if the man had it in him to weather the bandito's torture, but hope was all he had left and he wouldn't go down with his tail between his legs. Eventually Aesop cracked a joke of sorts.

"... Hey, don't you find it a bit odd Meredith sent out all the black and brown people on the same mission? Do redheads not like darkies or something?"

Silo offered a weak grin, "She fucked one for seven years, Aesop. Can't say the woman's got anything against you lot. Then again, I've never met a woman turn down Bennie in the first p-p... place..." His words stumbled out of his mouth as his consciousness faded.

It was a cold, bitter night in Boomhower, indeed.

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************

"So, we going to get to work soon... well... you going to get to work soon?"

Pixie crossed her arms and leaned against the bulkhead, "That's right. We'll be arrive'n at the rendezvous at dusk. I reckon I'll be away from the ship fer a good day 'er two." Their eyes met. "Now's not the best time ta' leave the ship... I realize that, but Gents' offerin' us an opportunity we simply can't pass up. I won' be gone long, but if somethin' were ta' happen in my absence, Florian.... I need you ta' keep the girl safe. Yer not a fighter, Florian, not really. If shit hits the fan I wan' y'all ta' get the fuck outta dodge ASAP, ya' got that?"

Though her posture implied a relaxed attitude, she was anything but. The way she looked at Florian told him this order... or perhaps request, meant a lot to her.

***********************************************************************************************************************************************************

"Gotta love strong women, don'tcha? Commander knows I like it rough."

Tsubaki ignored the comment and nodded to Jun. Before he applied the gas, however, Tsubaki reached down and pulled a level under her seat, unlocking it from its fixed position. The force from the crawler taking off sent her seat rolling backwards and colliding with Bryan's knees before locking into place, "Oops." Tsubaki said, coldly.

After a moment of discomfort she relieved him by sliding her seat back into its appropriate position. She allowed herself a muted, cruel smirk.

The trip through Feroxi was longer than usual as they were traveling incognito, but eventually they made it through the city and outside the dome's threshold. What lay before them now was an endless expanse of nothing. Miles and miles of empty wasteland between them and their destination. Thankfully her men had followed orders, remaining silent as they crossed through the city. Now, however...

She reached into her jacket and produced a small cassette player and ear buds. It was her hope that the sound of the roaring engine and her music would drown out her squad's mindless prattle. Before putting in the earbuds she turned her head, "Going to try to take a nap. Keep it down back there."

Lilith breathed a small sigh of relief upon seeing the empty state of the bar.

In all honesty, she wasn't up to a night of partying. A nice quiet drink at a nice quiet bar was more her style. She felt a pang of sympathy for Sprout, after seeing him get his hopes up, but she guessed it wouldn't matter as soon as he got a few drinks down him.

She lit up a smoke as Sprout walked ahead of her and sat himself down onto a stool.

"Come 'er, Lily."

Running a hand through her still damp hair, Lilith chuckled slightly, her eyes closed as she took a deep drag of her cigarette. She sat on the stool the boy had beckoned her to, dragging an ashtray from the empty spot next to her, she tapped the counter to get the barmaid's attention.

As the the barmaid sauntered over to them, Lilith smiled sympathetically, "Slow day huh? I'll have a scotch on the rocks, and my good friend here..." She aimed a thumb at Sprout. "He'll have a pint of your weakest beer." She met his eyes before he could argue the decision. "Before you start whinin', I'm still in charge, no matter how much you sound like your mother." She smiled warmly. "You'll get to the stronger stuff later, I'm just starting you off slow, easing you into it." She realised what she just said, blushing slightly, she laughed nervously, "Man, bet those words get said quite a bit 'round here." she said to herself quietly.

"Oops."

Bryan laughed as he rubbed his knee. "Thank'ee fer provin' my point, ma'am. Although I reckon it ain't smart to injure yer close quarters specialist right before a mission."

The journey out of the city was spent in silence, as per request, but eventually they left, and were free to talk. The noise of the Crawler surrounded them, and to Bryan it looked as though the surfaces were faintly suffused with a pulsing purple glow. After a while, the commander put in her music and went to sleep, and he struck up conversation with Asad. "So Asad. Who'd yeh rather do? Lord Basilio, or that fat bar lass from the Fox and Hound in Feroxi, but she's been dead fer four hours?"

"A lot of sexual tension in here." He muttered to himself, a small smile on his face, as Tsubaki backed her seat into Bryan's legs.

Asad crossed his arms across his chest, gazing out of the window as they drove through Feroxi. His parents' gun shop was in the opposite side of the city. He hadn't spoken to them in a few months. I'll pay them a visit once we've wrapped up this mission.

As they left the city, Asad's daydreaming was interrupted as the inevitable tones of Bryan pierced the silence.

So Asad. Who'd yeh rather do? Lord Basilio, or that fat bar lass from the Fox and Hound in Feroxi, but she's been dead fer four hours?"

Asad raised his head slightly, rubbing the stubble under his jaw. "Hmmm..." He pondered the dilemma for a moment.

"Dead chick, but only because I wouldn't want to make Suburo jealous." He nodded towards the commander. "Would you wanna incur her wrath? Because honestly, I'd rather get stabbed again." He glanced at Bryan, realising what he just said, he shook his head, chuckling slightly. "Of course you would."

"- but if somethin' were ta' happen in my absence, Florian.... I need you ta' keep the girl safe. Yer not a fighter, Florian, not really. If shit hits the fan I wan' y'all ta' get the fuck outta dodge ASAP, ya' got that?"

"I got that." He nodded.

Of course that meant that they'd pretty much guaranteed that something horrible would happen while Captain Munroe and co were away. That was just their luck these days, never mind the massive price that Dio was capable of putting over their head and the horde of thugs and hunters he could send their way.

With all that in mind it might be better to hold off on giving their two charges free roam of the ship, better to have it so they were somewhere Florian could find them easily. What exactly he was supposed to do if something like an attack happened was pretty much over Florian's head right now but this wasn't his first job with the crew. The real concern here was towing two noncombatants behind him. What with their lack of training and Florian being... well, on the wagon would make things tricky.

"But we still need to figure out what we're going to do with them in the long run. We can't drag Elizabeth around with us forever. She's already asking to get out of her room, it's only a matter of time before asking turns into an escape attempt."

"Of course you would."

"Yeh know me well, old friend."

After several minutes of inane chatter, Bryan said, "yeh know what bothers me? We've been about the block a bit, right? Bumped into a few bandit groups, and mercenaries and suchlike along the way, yeah? And every now and then, I see some schmuck who decided to super size his close combat weapon. I keep seeing guys carrying swords, and without exception, none of them actually know how to use the feckin' things. They just... wave them around like the penis extensions they so obviously are. Makes me sick, it does. Especially when you see some yobbo waving a genuinely nice piece over his head. Fuckin' disgraceful, I tell yeh."

"You'll get to the stronger stuff later, I'm just starting you off slow, easing you into it."

Sprout crossed his arms and pouted, "Fer real, Lily? I reckon I can handle anythin' they throw my way!"

The barmaid laughed to herself as she poured his pint, "Listen to your lady there, kid." She placed the filled pint and a glass in front of Sprout. "If you're looking to get lucky with her you won't want to get whiskey dick on your big night, would ya'?" The barmaid gave Lilith a knowing wink.

Sprout poured himself a glass and held it up, admiring the booze before downing it, "No, yer right ma'am. Lily deserves better'n that!"

***********************************************************************************************************************************************************

"But we still need to figure out what we're going to do with them in the long run. We can't drag Elizabeth around with us forever. She's already asking to get out of her room, it's only a matter of time before asking turns into an escape attempt."

Pixie nodded, "I know, an' yer right." She glanced at the door beside them and sighed. "Unfortunately I reckon we're gonna hafta sit on that fer a bit... at least until this score's done. Continue ta' keep them company, be their friend... Lord knows they need one right now."

She continued to stare at the door for a long while before entering the room. Elizabeth turned her head to see Pixie standing in the doorway. Neither said a word as Pixie remained there and the two locked eyes. Elizabeth wanted to bluntly ask, "What?", but there was something about the way Pixie stared her down. It wasn't unlike the look she gave her during their first meeting. Some strange combination of resentment and sympathy.

After a long, uncomfortable silence Pixie simply said, "Stay safe, Ladies."

Elizabeth and Josephine exchanged confused looks, "Y-yes... and you too."

Pixie nodded and closed the door once more. She took a moment to collect herself before turning on her heel and starting down the hall towards the hanger, "They're in yer hands, Father."

********************************************************************************************************************************************************

Next day in Boomhower...

Aesop felt a sharp pain shoot through his abdomen, waking him from his slumber, "Up. Now." The husky bandito ordered with a thumb pointed towards an open door.

********************************************************************************************************************************************************

Bennie emerged from the bedroom he was sharing with Virgil. He was still a bit groggy, but after a quick shower and a bite to eat he'd be sharp as a razor in no time. He caught a glimpse of Ruffles as he passed by the main room on the way to the bathroom and stopped short, "Going to wash up real quick. Is the equipment ready? I figure scaling this complex will do the trick."

********************************************************************************************************************************************************

Tsubaki put in her ear buds and fingered the cassette player in her jacket pocket. The soothing sound of a thousand-year-old guitar riff blasted into her eardrums, drowning out the two buffoons behind her and the roar of the crawler's engine. The music she listened to, the product of a culture long defunct, lulled her to sleep with its ancient melody.

Tsubaki couldn't sleep... not with the constant yelling. The men in the Yamato gang liked to stay up late gambling. Booze and loose women flowed through their doors like a flood of sin, tainting every scum there even further than Tsubaki thought possible. She curled herself up into a ball in the corner of the room in an attempt to drown them out, but it was no use. As she withdrew she could feel her body shrink and their presence grow.

Despite the difference in scale they eventually caught on to her efforts. This was bad... very bad. Their eyes burned into her. Their wanting, horrifying gaze. They clawed and groped into the darkness, looking to grab hold of her small, weak form. Eventually one of them, the largest and most insidious of the bunch, caught her ankle and pulled her in. What was he to do with her? Was he to torture her, spit on her, kill her, eat her, rape her? These were all possibilities he would have to consider in his twisted mind.

Tsubaki resigned herself to her fate. She was their slave and would bow to their whims. Such was the way of things. Such was the hand fate had dealt her. Then, suddenly, a great blinding light shone through the dark void and pierced straight through the beast's heart. Tsubaki crumpled to her hands and knees, disoriented. A hand appeared before her, palm up and open. An inviting hand, indeed.

She took the hand and rose to her feet. The being who stood before her, who delivered her from her cruel fate, was no God or Devil. He was naught but a man: Dio Basilio, Lord and Master of House Basilio. Bastion of Feroxi. Protector of the people. His was will so pure and so resolute that no other man in the ashlands could stand before him. No man in the ashlands could tell him, "no".

He gave her a warm smile and took her by the hand. The two of them left that wretched den behind forever and returned to Dio's home, Feroxi. There, Tsubaki spent endless days and nights fighting, learning and working to repay her savior. To live up to the good will he'd extended her in her time of suffering. He was always there, even when he wasn't, watching her and monitoring her progress. She was to become His soldier. His protector. His shining knight, so that when the time came, in his hour of need, she could repay the favor and deliver him from an unjust fate.

She did not have a God. She didn't need one. She had a man she believed in and would live and die for. That was enough purpose for her.

She watched Dio has he met with other nobles at weddings, funerals and dinners. She watched, resolute, ready to perform her duty if necessary. Her feelings for him were a profound and deep love, but not in the romantic sense. She owned him her very soul and she'd let him do with it what he willed.

That was why she did what she did. For Dio, and Dio alone.

Lilith smiled at the boy's reaction.

"Fer real, Lily? I reckon I can handle anythin' they throw my way!"

"Sure you can." She replied, rolling her eyes.

"If you're looking to get lucky with her you won't want to get whiskey dick on your big night, would ya'?" The barmaid gave Lilith a knowing wink.

Lilith frowned, her eyes narrowing in mock contempt. "Don't encourage him."

"No, yer right ma'am. Lily deserves better'n that!"

Her mouth ajar slightly, an eyebrow raised, she watched dumbfounded as the boy poured booze from the pint glass and into a much smaller glass.

"Do... Do you even know how to drink a pint?" She shook her head incredulously. "Did Meredith teach you anything? Other than talking like her I mean." Her elbow on the counter, she rested her cheek on her hand. She watched fondly as the boy made a show of the weak as hell beer.

'You were like this once too, deary.'

She closed her eyes and took a long drag of her cigarette, she inhaled deeply, letting the smoke caress her lungs, before letting it slowly crawl through her parted lips. She felt a contentment she hadn't experienced in a while, certainly not over the past week or so. Axel didn't seem as bothered by all this than she thought he would. Or should.

Maybe he was a lot stronger than she originally thought. She enjoyed the silence between them, removing the cigarette from her mouth, she held it between her fingers. With her free hand, she gently raised the glass to her mouth, taking a sip of the scotch, enjoying the chill of the ice as it bumped against her lips, she let the bitterness and the heat permeate her senses.

Placing the glass back on the counter, she held her cigarette between her teeth as she lazily brushed the boy's shoulder.

"Axel, do you need me for anything?" A look of concern in her eyes. "I know I'm not Meredith, but you'll tell me if you need anything, right?"

-------------------------------------------------

Asad sat patiently as Bryan finished blabbering about his sword anecdote.

"When you have a device than can shoot hot metal death, I'm not entirely sure why anyone would use a sword." He smirked slightly.

Damn show offs, the lot of them. Heard too many stories about samurai and knights growing up. Killing wasn't about how pretty you could make it. Anything more than swift and brutal efficiency was a waste.

"When you have a device than can shoot hot metal death, I'm not entirely sure why anyone would use a sword."

"Hey, don't think I don't get that," Bryan responded, tapping the bulge in his Wilkes-Vines suit jacket where a 9mm pistol was holstered. "But my job on this team is to be the end all close range guy, right?"

With their commander asleep, Bryan decided it was safe to take out his wash leather tobacco pouch. Balancing a waxed paper on his knee, he filled it with tobacco, and started rolling it. Taking it out a zippo lighter he'd pick-pocketed from... someone at some point, he bounced it in his hand with the unlit cigarette in his mouth. No lighting it yet inside the Crawler. "I dunno, man. If I'm touchy about swords, it's only 'cause I feckin' lived by 'em fer years before I met you lot. Most people these days just use 'em to be flashy and intimidating. They don't know the first thing about killing efficiently with 'em."

Grinning, he tapped the back of the driver's seat with his foot. "I bet Jun knows what I'm talkin' about," he said sardonically. "Bet he learned all about the katana when he was a kid." He knew how inaccurate that remark was, but he was bored.

===================================================

Ruffles sat up, yawning. "Yeah, the pieces are all there. Everything someone needs to build a radio transmission booster. Well... everything I need to build one. I'm Ruffles."

Opening up his bag, he began removing various odds and ends. "It'll take about forty five minutes, and then we just need to get somewhere high," he said as he began piling various things to one side, including his radio, a wire coat hanger, a small bag of carbon, a spool of wire, battery clamps and a small bottle of vegetable oil. Seeing Bennie glance lingeringly at this last item, he said absent mindedly, "don't bother, I'm not going to explain." He was already getting in the zone. Fishing out his tool belt and a box made out of sheet metal about the size of someone's head, he started working.

"Bet he learned all about the katana when he was a kid."

Jun had just been steering the Crawler, losing himself in the act driving, just letting the noise of the engine cover up the buzzing of flies and whatnot. However, a little jab from the back brought him out of that. As he changed gears, he glanced at the asleep Commander, but not for long. Disgust pulled his eyes away. Regardless, right now he had to deal with the lout behind him. Of course, Jun could have just remained silent and let his superior talk trash like that. On the other hand, he could talk about his training as part of the Imperial Guard, but those people clearly didn't need or deserved to know about his past.

"No." His answer was straight to the point; to him such worship of weapons was folly, "Swords or guns... They are merely tools designed for the purpose of killing, nothing more."

"Do... Do you even know how to drink a pint? Did Meredith teach you anything? Other than talking like her I mean."

Sprout placed the glass down onto the table, catching the waitress mid-giggle as she watched him drink.

Bitches ain't shit.

Sprout shook his head, grinning to himself and then looked to Lilith, "I reckon she taught me a whole lotta stuff 'bout ladies. Wan' me ta' show ya'?"

The barmaid snickered and gave Lilith another glass of scotch, "This one's on the house, sweetie. You're gonna need it with this kid."

Sprout shrugged, "She's right."

The moment passed and a long period of silence followed. Sprout's beer tasted like piss, but he didn't want to complain. He watched Lilith in the corner of his eye as she smoked and drank, paying little mind to her surroundings as she partook in her vices. She'd lose herself easily in her own thoughts. He could tell. Drinking and smoking only served to help keep her distracted from reality. She was a space cadet, as Bennie would say, just like Pixie was. They'd stare into space, escaping into their own thoughts. Living in their own worlds.

Pixie really was like a mother to her too. It was easy to forget that.

Ironically, he caught himself doing the same thing as Lilith woke him from his trance with a hand on his shoulder.

"Axel, do you need me for anything? I know I'm not Meredith, but you'll tell me if you need anything, right?"

Sprout finished his beer and gave Lilith a knowing smirk, "Yer projectin', aren't ya', Lily?" He spun around on his stool to face her and put his hand on her back. "I know y'all wanna look out fer me 'n everythin', but ya' shouldn' hafta carry that burden all by yerself. I'm here fer you too, Lily. Is there somethin' on yer mind?"

*********************************************************************************************************************************************************

Bennie watched as Ruffles went to work. He'd witnessed this... ritual many times before, but it still perplexed him, even after all this time. He retrieved a beer from the old fridge in the back of the main room and placed it on the tabel for Ruffles nearby. He probably wouldn't even notice it was there until he was done with his work.

After watching for a bit longer he turned back towards the bedroom and peaked his head inside, "Hey, kid. Virgil? You still up for the job? I won't blame you if you want to back out. It's risky shit."

"Yer projectin', aren't ya', Lily?"

She smiled, tilting her head and shrugging her shoulder. Maybe she was.

"I know y'all wanna look out fer me 'n everythin', but ya' shouldn' hafta carry that burden all by yerself. I'm here fer you too, Lily. Is there somethin' on yer mind?"

Lilith's eyes lost focus, furrowing her brow she finished her first scotch and moved onto the second, but not before biting down hard on a lump of ice.

"I'm at the bar with my favourite person in the world, why would I not be okay?" She said, with a mocking sweet overtone. She lied, she wasn't okay, but she'd persevere, she always persevered. Smiling weakly, she brushed a strand of hair from her face. "Here." She pushed her glass towards Sprout. "Tell me what you think of this." she tapped her cigarette on the ashtray next to her. "If you can drink that without pulling a face, I'll let you have another one."

Probably not a wise decision, but being sensible hadn't gotten her very far the past few days.

--------------------------------------------------------

"But my job on this team is to be the end all close range guy, right?"

Asad sighed, "I know, I know, geeze." he waved away the subject. He returned his gaze to the terrain rushing past them, the faint sound of Tsubaki's music pawing at his ears.

"I dunno, man. If I'm touchy about swords, it's only 'cause I feckin' lived by 'em fer years before I met you lot. Most people these days just use 'em to be flashy and intimidating. They don't know the first thing about killing efficiently with 'em."

Asad chuckled, "Ain't that the truth."

"I bet Jun knows what I'm talkin' about. Bet he learned all about the katana when he was a kid."

Shaking his head, Asad crossed his arms across his chest. 'This should be good.'

"Swords or guns... They are merely tools designed for the purpose of killing, nothing more."

"You know, for once, I agree with the guy." He scratched the back of his head. "Somethin' ain't right about that."

That Evening...

Their taxi wound its way through the wide, bustling streets of the cities financial district, on its way to the guest entrance of the Herbert Russell building, headquarters of Light-Year Media. There had been an offer of a limousine to escort them to the party, however the pair from the Boomhower Gazette had refused in the politest way possible. As generous as the offer was from their host, it would not do to draw to much attention to their being here. Some of the higher-ups at Boomhower were sceptical of this proposed takeover, and would likely react badly if they heard of two of their most valuable employees being courted too ostentatiously. Besides, the taxi driver was a friend, who knew the value of discretion.

The Gentleman was pleased with his disguise. Today, both his eyes and hair were a dull brown, the hair having been greased into a semi-presentable side parting. He had bad teeth, stained yellow from the cigarette smoke that still clung to him through the cheap, over-zealously applied cologne and nervous sweat, matching the stains on the ends of his nail-bitten fingers. His tuxedo was black, rented, smart but badly tailored, and the raw, slightly uneven shave, along with the hair and the hint of bags under his eyes, told of a man not used to appearing tidy, but who had made a valiant effort. All in all, he looked like a thoroughly ordinary newspaper editor, on his way to a party attended by those much richer and better born than himself, and thus understandably more than a little nervous. A lesser thief may have been bored by the idea of such a mundane identity, but the Gentleman knew that perfection of the ordinary was an art form in itself. One should never look too unassuming. The first way to tip off any even slightly shrewd mark is to have no distinguishing features whatsoever, such as the inside-out socks and the rather ugly mole at the corner of his left eye.

Meredith had done herself justice as well. Like him, she was dressed smartly but simply, in a green, close-fitting dress that complimented her hair, which was now shoulder length and more honey than ochre. She still wore an eye-patch, though this one had seen far less wear and tear than her preferred. She wore a pair of gold heels that she could walk in with a no more than appropriate amount of difficulty, and a pair of tights perfectly matched to her skin-tone covered the tattoos on her legs, while make up from some of The Gentleman's own stores did for her arms, which would more than hold up against the worst possible heat of this gathering. It was a rather humid night inside the dome.

"Miss Turner should already be inside." he said to Meredith, still using his real voice "Mr Dickens requested her personally, so their was no need for an elaborate cover."

=========================================================================================================================

Amy, by contrast, had been picked up at the hotel, and escorted directly to The colossal Herbert Russell building via Sirus' private VTOL. The man was certainly making the most of his fortune. Via a heli-pad of the roof of the building, she was taken by two of Sirus' private security down to where his personal elevator waited, ready to take directly to her new client's apartments. Said apartments were certainly lavish. The Golden Rose was used to high-society by now, yet still... Any suspected that the contents of these rooms were almost as much of a treasure vault as what was kept down below. Mr Dickens' taste in Old Earth artefacts was certainly in evidence. Amy counted what she suspected was at least 3 original Van Gogh's decorating the walls, along with a Monet's Water Lilies, which conventional wisdom reproted as having been missing for over a millennia. All these paled in insignificance though, to the centre-piece of the living room, an ancient stone Sphinx the size of an ash-crawler.

'What does a man have to do to get his hands on all of this?' Amy wondered as she stared into the Sphinxes weathered face in genuine wonder.

"Marvellous, isn't she?" came a voice from across the room, breaking Amy out of her trance. Sirus Dickens was a man in his mid-to-late fifties, and yet Amy's first thought was of a boy, literally living in the most expensive and over-sized toy box ever complied. His somewhat piggy eyes shone with a somewhat youthful glee as he drank in first the Sphinx, and then Amy herself.

"She certainly is." Amy replied. "I had never thought to see one outside of a history book."

"She may well be the last of her kind, sadly; but while she is indeed a beauty, I find myself with eyes only for you, my dear." he said, coming forward and kissing her lightly on the hand, tickling Amy with his immense, yard-brush moustache, now mostly grey. When he drew himself up again, he was roughly three inches taller than Amy, and his broad shoulders suggested that he had once been a powerfully built man. However, the comforts of wealth and middle-age had made his figure go somewhat to seed. Up close, he was podgy, sallow and rotund, though far from the largest or ugliest man Amy had ever been with. His white tuxedo was immaculate, paired with a black smoking jacket, and a blood-red cravat that made it look more than a little like his throat had been slashed. Gaudy rings were present on every finger that grasped an ebony cane, and Amy suspected that his black bowler hat concealed a rather lame attempt at a comb-over.

'A powerful man, and not without a certain shrewdness, but also soft in the centre.' Amy deduced as she blushed a little at him. 'To Sirus Dickens, wealth and power are just pathways to more toys and trinkets. He is greedy, but he lacks any real cruelty. I suspect he isn't even aware of half the things that had to be done to bring all these treasures here.

"Come." Sirus told her excitedly, offering her his arm. "The guests are starting to convene downstairs."

Sprout watched closely as Lilith reacted to his observation. If this was her trying to hide her pain she'd have to try a lot harder. She was an awful liar... that, or Sprout just knew her too well. Sprout figured it was probably a bit of both.

"Tell me what you think of this. If you can drink that without pulling a face, I'll let you have another one."

Sprout gave her a knowing grin, "See, now yer deflectin'! But that's okay, if this is how yer gonna do it I won't complain!" He announced as he snatched the glass of scotch and downed it. He recoiled, almost immediately, coughing his lungs out in the process. "F-fuck! That shit's rough!"

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************

Pixie stared into her pocket mirror, applying a last minute layer of foundation to cover up her worn, bruised skin. With the exception of eye shadow she hated wearing makeup. That wasn't to say she wasn't good at applying it, however. Before she was a bandit she was a thief, and a good thief at that. Some would even go as far as to say she was a con-artist. Perhaps that's why Cranston took a liking to her in the first place.

"Miss Turner should already be inside. Mr Dickens requested her personally, so their was no need for an elaborate cover."

Pixie checked her arms to ensure the tattoos had been properly concealed, "I'd've preferred use'n long gloves, but if yer sure this stuff'll hold than I ain't gonna complain." She looked at herself one last time in the mirror before snapping it shut and stuffing it in her recently acquired, noble-made purse. Content with her disguise, Pixie flashed the Gentleman an excited grin. "It's been too long since we gone 'n hit the town like this, hasn't it Gents? I reckon I should start talkin' the part if I'm already lookin' it."

She cleared her throat and when she spoke once more it was with a far tamer, more refinded accent. Their paper was from Boomhower after all, so it'd only make sense she had a hint of an accent, "Why how do you do, sir? I'm Rachael Hill from the Boomhower Gazette." She coughed after speaking and nodded to herself. "Good enough."

The driver stepped out and opened the cab door for them. As Pixie stepped out she damn-near fumbled in her heels, "Fuckn' hate these damn things."

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