FREELANCERS #12 - 08/15/23
For the new freelancers, welcome! Every even numbered newsletter, usually sent around the 15th of every month, is an in-universe news report followed by a short story. It's a fun outlet to follow characters and other plotlines to bring the Aesteria galaxy to life.
Hope you enjoy!
This story is part 2 of 3 in a mini-series. Here's a link to the first if you want to catch up. Feel free to carry on and enjoy this one on its own, though.
Aj Atherii. Well met, Freelancers.
Captain Davius Tolvaren here with some tasty, new drama. Big thanks to the Spectres for this delightful report of operational catastrophe. They truly are our favourite bounty hunting power couple. Well, they’re mine, anyway.
Our conductor of sapient acquisitions, King Gorthrax, has been harping on the freelancer community for some time now regarding the outstanding bounty on Randle A’Viri. This fat cat, a former boss for a crime family operating on the fringes of the Federated Empire, has been on my radar for no other reason than I delight in seeing snitches get their just desserts. A testament to the brilliance and raw talent of Mara and Jack Spectre, the duo dug so deep into the mark’s profile, they triangulated his position via a long forgotten image of him with a childhood friend.
Fast forward to Port Iman’Ji’s on the opposite end of Juno’s Heart. A neutral space station ran by the aforementioned childhood friend. An establishment proper enough to be comfortable and largely free of grime, but not so high class it draws much attention. Lo and behold, our mark dyed his fur, lost a ton of weight, and had been hiding in plain sight as a dealer in the casino. What eloquence and guile the Spectres employed to bypass security checks and a veritable horde of undercover goons. They slipped past in disguise and collected the mark without raising a single alarm.
How spicy and dysfunctional their relationship that reporting suggests they blew their cover due to an argument that got out of hand. I will link an image of Jack Spectre emerging from the fountain his wife shoved him into with guns drawn to take down the mark’s henchmen.
Unfortunately for the enemy, the couple channelled their marital strife into aggression. Unfortunately for the bounty hunters, they channelled it so hard, their mark, who was wanted alive for questioning, wound up dead. The chaos caused a cascading set of failures that ripped that chunk of the station apart, venting the mark into the void.
After their antics hit the extranet, I can only imagine the drama unfolding for our favourite freelancer lovebirds in couple’s therapy. Whilst it fills my black heart with elation seeing souls connect in the rapture of love’s embrace, the anticipation of seeing a grav racer careen off the track and into a wall in slow motion is exquisite.
What Doesn't Kill You
Cast in a pale green haze, a chorus of toads filled the air with their croaks. The sound echoed unevenly through the thick miasma permeating the fetid swamps of Xerash IV. Two figures trekked through the mud, murky water and twisted, moss-covered trees.
“How can you say that? Was I ‘not there for you’ when Illa Furnow released all those phase spiders at that zoo last month?” Jack Spectre spoke through his sealed mask styled with an eerie visage. A bit of flair for the freelancer codenamed Ghost.
Ducking under a gnarled branch, Mara Spectre checked a local map scrawled onto a piece of tanned lizard hide. She checked a compass and sighed as the arrow refused to point in the direction headed. “That’s not what I meant.” She groaned in frustration. “This is frustrating enough without you never listening to me.”
Jack swatted at a pair of buzzing insects probing his armour for weak points. “Well, here’s a novel notion: why don’t you tell me what you actually mean?”
She turned and gave him a shove. “I mean you aren’t there for me when I actually need you! Not as a freelancer, as a husband. I can watch my own back on a hunt or work with others to do it for me. I need you to empathize with me when I’m mad at an acquaintance, show up and don’t cause a scene when I visit family, pretend you like my cooking even if it’s bad.
“You’re married to me, not this made-up, careless, bad boy mask you copy from old holovids and wear like a mask because you’re scared to let anyone in. I need the supportive spouse from the romance vids.”
“Very astute, Mar. Don’t act like you’re the innocent victim like you aren’t your own brand of difficult with all these expectations you force on everyone around you. Did you notice you just asked me to be some other character instead of myself?”
“You are impossible, Jack! I told you I needed some space. Why did you force your way onto this job? I could’ve been picking up this mark in peace.” Mara turned to stop herself from strangling him. Catching her breath proved difficult behind her mask filtering the thick miasma around her.
“Thought you said you wanted the fella from the romance vids. I promised never to leave you alone, love. Speaking of impossible…”
The area ahead of them grew even more deformed and twisted than the rest of the fetid bog. An unnatural darkness thrummed with dark sentience, threatening to consume the vestiges of light around them. Mara activated the illuminator on her weapon. Its light wrestled with the shadows it attempted to pierce. Inky blackness dripped upward from the thorny tree branches. No toads croaked or birds within the darkness.
Jack reached a hand up to catch some of the anti-gravity droplets. He recoiled as the strange substance surged up his arm before rolling off. A cold, unsettling chill ran up his spine and dark whispers echoed on the edges of his perception.
The freelancers shared a grave look, then readied their weapons. Jack and Mara Spectre took measured steps into the dark.
Barely able to see five metres in front of them, the freelancers soon found themselves in the central chamber of some ancient ruins. Some long forgotten people built the broken structure out of strange, warped stone covered in a thick layer of moss and grime. The surviving reliefs in the walls painted a picture of madness. Jack got a headache from trying to make sense of the imagery that seemed to shift the longer he observed them.
“Shite, Mar. Who in the Infernal sent you this gig?”
Despite the warnings from locals that the miasma interfered with technology, Mara dared activate the cybernetics wired into her eyes. She winced and force quit the applications after the display filled her vision with flickering nightmares.
“It was a rush job, but the fixer vetted them. They warned of the hostile swamp, but the report didn’t mention… this.”
A third voice echoed about the room. “It’s called an umbral bloom.”
The brackish waters along the edge shifted as something surged through them. A figure shot out of the water to land behind the freelancer couple. They raised their illuminators to regard a curious sight. The speaker was an Octopan, a species of sapient, human-sized, octopus-like people. She wore a flexible wetsuit that the strange water couldn’t adhere to. An oversized pair of goggles covered her eyes. They seemed to be some mix of very advanced technology mixed with arcane components.
She reached out her tentacles and approached them. “I’m not surprised you’re confused. If anything, it speaks to your strength of will that you haven’t been driven mad already. Unless…”
Already on alert, Jack raised his weapon at the strange person swimming around the abyss, invading his personal space. “That’s close enough, ya blathering—“
The Octopan exclaimed, then splashed Jack’s visor with ink before disappearing back into the shadows.
Mara rushed in and pushed his rifle aside. “Damn it, Jack. Take it easy.” She turned to the darkness with her hands up. “I apologize for my blockhead of a husband. What’s your name?”
There was a pause before the darkness responded. “Who’s asking?”
Mara activated her holographic ID badge over her wrist. It flickered and flashed an image of her covered in dark tendrils before it shorted out. “My name’s Mara Spectre. We’re freelancers hired to pick you up. I got a request from Ariella Consulting saying someone matching your description needed emergency extraction.”
The spastic Octopan muttered to herself as she continued swimming about the room or climbing across the ceiling. “Ariella Consulting? Hmmm. I don’t work for them. Few sapients are aware of my work. Much less me. Much less my location in the depths of a forgotten swamp on the edge of Aesteria’s spiral arm. Maybe it’s a trap from my enemies! Unless it’s… Ohhhh. It must be. That strangely intense elven female cares more than she lets on.”
Eager to leave with his headache growing worse and shadows nipping at his heels, Jack finished wiping the ink off his visor and said, “That’s all well and good, but could we please leave this Infernal hellhole, Miss—“
Their mark appeared behind them and raised a stern tentacle. “That’s Dr. Taylo! Just because the Seeker’s College is too self-righteous to acknowledge my good work doesn’t make my doctorate invalid. Also, your assessment of the situation is incorrect, sir. Surely, the standards of galactic education haven’t dipped so low that people can’t tell the difference between the Infernal and the Shadow Realm.” Taylo scoffed and used three tentacle limbs to adjust her oversized goggles.
Mara looked replaced the battery on her barely functioning illuminator and peered about the room. “Is that what this is? I thought it was a Fay zone.”
Dr. Taylo slid over to Mara. “An easy miscalculation for the uninformed. Precisely why my work is so crucial to educating the galaxy. Fay zones are a space where the realm of magic, The Great Aether, bleeds into our Elemental Realm. This is an umbral bloom. Similar principle, but for the aberrant realm of shadows, the Shadow Realm. Or the Dark, if you’re feeling familiar.”
The doctor wrapped a tentacle around Mara’s hand and yanked her over to the centre of the chamber. “My instruments discovered a spike of dark energy in this region, so I had to investigate. This appears to be an ancient breeding pit for something. I have some theories about what would be bred here, but my main point of interest is this dais. Something is off about this and other blooms I’ve investigated in the past few months. Though they can, on rare occasion, occur naturally as part of the ebb and flow of cosmic chaos, these appear to be conjured recently. By people. On purpose!”
Jack peered over his shoulder. “Sounds to me like there’s a chance someone might be coming back to check if their eggs have hatched, doc.”
The freelancers closed ranks and raised their weapons as a laughing deep voice echoed about the room. The reliefs on the walls shifted into uncanny cackling visages in response.
The voice spoke with a timbre that sounded both arcane and electronic. “Oh, Jackie Boy. They say the greatest trick devils played is convincing people they don’t exist. Yours was convincing people you are as dumb as you look.”
Chills ran up Jack’s spine. He shifted his feet and swivelled his head from side to side. “This place must be really messing with my head, or there’re some necromantic shenanigans going on. Either way, I’m not keen on speaking with a dead man.”
The voice chuckled. “I wouldn’t believe everything you read on Freelancer. But you know what they say: what doesn’t kill you… makes you stranger.”
Near the entrance of the chamber, shadows coalesced into the figure of a large man. The form of a robust Fierla’Ash, a sabre-tooth tiger-like humanoid, stepped forward without making a sound. He carried the gear, weapons, armour and cybernetics of the ruthless mercenary they remembered. Except something robbed his fur and eyes of all colour.
Keeping his weapon trained on his former colleague, Jack said, “Sabre. Can’t say death did your complexion any favours.”
Dr. Taylo peered over the couple’s shoulders and peered at the fearsome newcomer. She gasped and whispered, “It can’t be! Umbracyte… It’s real! And it bonded successfully with a host in our realm. I thought true symbiosis was impossible.”
Jack, Mara and Taylo recoiled as Sabre’s voice intruded into their minds. “Better believe it, doc. Just like you, I’m full of surprises. Can’t say I appreciate you sniffing around our operations. But you might be useful to our plans, so you’re coming with us. As for you two, it’s a damn shame your story ends here. Down in the dark, where no one will find the dust of your bones for millennia.”
Mara cracked her neck and risked activating the cyberware supercharging her nervous system. “Guild rules say the mark’s ours, Sabre. Unless you want to die again, get out of our way.”
He laughed. “Rules? We’re way beyond rules.”
Sabre grinned, revealing a mouth full of vicious, blackened fangs. The shadows wrapped around him, increasing his already prodigious size and musculature. The glow of his cybernetic eyes burned behind his now monstrous face. An unnatural, predatory growl echoed around the chamber and through their minds. A deep fear gripped their souls.
Mara was the first to push past the paralysis. She clenched her teeth, primed her weapon, and pulled the trigger. A bolt of electricity burst out of her rifle. The shadows retreated from the sudden bright light and Sabre’s form dematerialized.
He reformed behind her and said, “Boo.”
Jack watched in horror as the monster fired a high calibre round through his wife’s back, punching an exit wound through her midsection. Her voice caught in her throat as she stumbled forward. Time slowed as they locked eyes before she fell into a pit of brackish black fluid in the centre of the chamber.
Hearing the splash, Jack froze in place. He could only stare as the vice grip of horror tightened.
Sabre took a step forward. “Too bad, Jackie Boy. Don’t worry. It won’t hurt for long.” He pressed his gun to Jack’s head and pulled the trigger.
With his breath coming in quick gasps, Ghost moved at the last second. The bullet compromised his mask and scored a bloody cut across his skull. The freelancer ducked low and lunged at the monster’s face with his cybernetic right arm.
With supernatural speed, Sabre caught his opponent’s forearm inches from his face. Jack extended the vibra-blade hidden in his wrist to pierce the monster’s eye.
The beast let out a bestial shriek as sparks and blood shot out of his eye. Sabre dropped the pistol, latched onto Jack’s torso, ripped off his cybernetic right arm and slammed him into the ground.
Growling with anger, the sabre-toothed merc held his ruined eye and stomped back and forth. As the insidious whispers from the umbracyte amplified his rage, he took a few deep breaths to regain control. Tendrils of shadow slithered across his face and into his eye socket. The symbiotic organism from the Shadow Realm rebuilt the ruined cybernetic orb with something darker.
Sabre stepped over to the pit and looked inside. Fading fast, Mara clutched the hole in her chest as her blood mixed with the brackish black liquid. The monster extended his hand in her direction and opened his palm. The dark, new eye disappeared from his face and opened in his palm. It scanned the pit for something.
He let out a disappointed grunt. “Looks like there’s nothing of use in the pit, even after the ritual. What a waste.” Sabre scanned the room. “Looks like your precious mark fled the scene. No matter. She won’t get far. Bet you wish you had some of what I got right about now. Maybe you would’ve been bad enough to control it. Not like me, though.”
He noticed movement out of the corner of his good eye. A broken Jack, having trouble breathing as the miasma seeped into his broken mask, crawled with one arm toward the pit.
“Let me give you a hand.” Black tendrils extended out of Sabre and snatched Jack off the ground. Now face to face, he said, “That was a nice trick, Jackie Boy. Too bad those can’t stop me. Not anymore.”
Gasping for air as his lungs seized up, Jack looked the monster in the eye. “I’ll… find a way… You’re still nothing… but a dead man.”
Sabre regarded him for a moment. “Goodbye, Ghost.” The tendrils retracted and Jack fell into the pit as his killer walked out of the ruin.
The room fell dead silent apart from the sloshing liquid in the pit and the couple’s laboured breathing. Mara took off her helmet, then handed it to her husband. “Take it. Wait until he’s gone, then get the hell out of here, Jack.”
He removed his broken mask and let hers fall into the liquid.
She said, “What are you doing, you idiot? You can still climb out. No point in… both of us dying here.”
He wrapped his arms around her, held her close, looked into her eyes, and smiled. “I made… a promise. There’s no living… without you.”
Jack and Mara kissed as they slid beneath the depths of bloody black liquid.
The newly formed umbracyte that Sabre missed because it already took hold in Mara’s chest felt an overpowering swell of emotion. As darkness claimed them both, dark tendrils poured out and enveloped the dying lovers.
Hope you enjoyed that! There's more to this couple's story coming. I'll link their previous story below.
Here's the link to the archive of newsletters in case you missed any.
Talk to you next month. Have a good one!