FREELANCERS #14 - 09/15/23
For the new freelancers, welcome! Every even numbered newsletter, usually sent around the 15th of every month, I send 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 3 of 3 in a mini-series. Here's a link to the first and second if you want to catch up. I highly recommend it to give more context.
Lina Ro'Shaer here. This month's Bullet Points highlight some strange developments in the corporate realm that caught my interest.
For those who don't know, veteran freelancer, Tera Sin, has spent the last six years enhancing an already sterling reputation on retainer with the Consortium megacorp, MacroStrat. The very same MacroStrat who recently made waves for an unprecedented surge in profits from their consulting wing. Critics accused them of signing a pact with devils or employing insider trading seers. The company attributed their sudden success to new proprietary technology used for predictive modelling of market forces.
Three weeks ago, the company went dark for a few days. Then a leaked report to investors announced they were liquidating most of their consulting wing. With barely a tepid explanation full of PR speech, the megacorp axed their printing press for credits.
Some extranet sleuths did some digging and posted several suspicious images online. The first that caught my eye were sightings of the company's enforcer, Tera Sin, meeting with some shady, unidentifiable figures. The second was a video of the veteran freelancer sharing stern words with her boss. There was no audio, but the body language looked like the merc confronted her employer about something, got chewed out, then stomped off with bone-chilling determination.
Fast forward a week, the employer vanished into the Aether, the company severed a very lucrative limb overnight, and their star security professional fell off the map before being spotted near a remote monastery in Vishtara's Crown.
I'm not one to indulge in conspiracy theories, but I feel like I've seen these signs before.
This journalist's educated guess is MacroStrat's proprietary technology was illegal AI and the Vigilant Shadows caught wind of it.
We've all seen the jokes and memes floating around about the clandestine organization who haunts the galaxy, enforcing the Alvor Accords. While I can already hear my esteemed co-host, Captain Davius, laughing derisively about running from bogeyman tales, I'd like to remind everyone that the Inquisition was definitely real when the Alvor ruled the known galaxy.
I know my co-host is a staunch and lyrical advocate for chaos and lawlessness in the spirit of the Age of Determination. But I'd like to share a line from Kali Buzz saying everyone's a revolutionary until black ships darken your skies. I know most people don't like being told to behave, but the Accords mostly prohibit apocalyptic technology and weapons. As someone who lives directly under Alvor control after their post-empire rebrand, it's really not that bad. They truly just want to collect and codify Ancient technology in peace. Ruling us mortals was more hassle than we're worth.
Speaking of shadows, many have been wondering what became of Jack and Mara Spectre. The turbulent freelancer power couple haven't been seen in over a month. I know we all love eating up the drama, but please keep an eye out for our fellow freelancers. I hate to think of any of you out there lost in the void. <3
Dying For A Light In The Dark
At the bottom of a pit in a long forgotten temple, Jack and Mara Spectre kissed each other with their dying breaths. Or so they thought. The couple weren’t aware something else lurked in the blood-soaked pit with them.
As shadowy tendrils emerged from the exit wound in her chest, Mara’s body tightened. Her eyes rolled back in her head as the inky substance crept along and into her body. Her mouth locked open in agony as she tried in vain to claw it out of her.
Seeing his wife in danger, Jack used what little energy he had left and reached into her chest to help remove the voracious entity. A tendril shot out of her, grabbed him by the chest, and slammed him to the ground underneath the growing pool of viscous blood. Jack felt Mara slip away from him as dark veins rushed into his face. The broken stone floor beneath him dissipated and he plunged deeper below the muck.
He reached out and cried for her, but there was only silence and an angry force pushing him further down. He fell and fell through a hundred gossamer webs of reality. A storm rumbled around him. Lightning illuminated images in the surrounding clouds of his final battle with that monster, Sabre. He slammed into solid ground, propelled by the weight of his failure to defend himself and his beloved.
Jack craned his neck up to the light of a star above him. It resembled a permanent, horrific eclipse. The gnarled weeping willow trees around him swayed as shadowy vines flowed in a chilled breeze. He wasn’t a metaphysical scholar, but he knew enough to guess where he was right now. Be it his body or just his soul, he was in a pocket of the Shadow Realm. The Dark. The tenebrous reject realm of reality where nightmares are born.
A dark miasma laden with hungry eyes closed in around him. Jack’s already broken body struggled to breathe and his head throbbed. Holding his breath as best he could, Jack focused on his objective. The shadows parted as a tower burst forth from the ground in front of him. At its peak, he heard Mara’s pained, echoing cries.
He braced against a gust of frigid wind pushing him away from the tower and fell to his knees. Jack always hated the cold. As he shielded his face, the shadows behind him blew aside to reveal the silhouette of a shadowy city. The freelancer remembered those streets. He ran through them, getting in all sorts of trouble as a youth. All the hidden nooks and crannies only he knew about could protect him from this wretched wind.
Still barely able to breathe, he forced his broken, maimed body to its feet, gritted his teeth, and limped into the cursed wind. With his cybernetic arm ripped out in the battle with Sabre, he raised his remaining limb to shield his face and pushed forward as best he could. As his skin burned from frostbite and his vision blurred from lack of oxygen, he gave it all he had and rammed his shoulder through the tower’s door.
His world darkened and his head throbbed once more. Jack opened his eyes to the neon lights of a casino. He breathed in deep of the oxygenated air filled with all the intoxicating scents he’d grown so accustomed to as a young adult. Sweet-smelling, sultry figures crowded in, offering him strong drink and other vices to take the edge off, numb the pain, and bring him ecstasy. His aching body begged to stay here forever.
With great effort, Jack swatted the figures away and forced himself back to his feet. “No. That’s not me anymore.”
The figures sneered and hissed at him. The entity ripped this strange man through reality once more.
Jack fell hard into the tough bark of a pine tree. He took a deep breath and his lungs seized up. Fucking cold again. The shivering freelancer limped through the snow-covered forest of black pines. He saw something staining the ground in front of him. Though the scene was robbed of all colour, he knew it was blood.
Around the corner, he stumbled into a grisly scene. A camp of militia who went out on patrol to defend their home lay massacred across the woods. The lucky ones died while they slept. The rest were cut down in a panic as they tried to fight or flee. A dark figure in tactical gear stood in the centre of it all, admiring his work. The mercenary known as Ghost turned to Jack and regarded him through three dark eyes that were once night vision goggles.
The maimed merc said, “No… it wasn’t… I didn’t…”
Knowing the truth of what he felt in that moment, an impossibly wide, toothy grin creased across Ghost’s mask.
Jack shook his quivering head. He fixed his past self with a look of steely determination. “That’s not me anymore!”
Ghost’s wicked smile turned into a grimace. It dissipated into shadows and reappeared beside Jack, knocking him into the pile of corpses. He tried to fight back, but it was just like his battle with Sabre. Even if he was at full strength, the entity’s enhanced powers were too much. Especially in its domain.
It roared in frustration and dove on Jack to strangle him. With a maw of vicious black teeth slavering above his face, Jack said, “You don’t understand… It’s not all darkness and shite.”
The three eyes narrowed at him in confusion and grabbed his head. Jack’s scream became unnatural as he dematerialized and got sucked him into the entity’s eyes.
The freelancer’s consciousness blinked into a scene he’d never seen before. Still robbed of all colour, he looked upon a rich, but still somehow spartan, room. Beyond a glass window, skyscrapers stretched into the clouds and sprawled across an entire world. A ten-year-old Mara stood in the centre of the room. Her hair done up in two tight buns, she fiddled with her hands as her father had some faceless soldiers drag one of their rivals into the room.
He handed his daughter a pistol and told her to execute the man. When Mara hesitated, her mother took measured steps forward and knelt down behind her daughter. As the girl turned into her mom for comfort, the woman adjusted Mara’s stance to better hold the weapon on the intended target and brace for the recoil. The young girl sniffled and shook until she shut her eyes, aimed away and fired into the back wall.
The weapon clattered to the floor as it jumped out of her hand after the errant shot. Mara reached for her mother, who swatted her hand and marched away, disappointed. As she exited the room, her seething father beat the rival to death with his bare hands in front of her. The crying girl stood in place trying not to look, but her father shouted at her to watch. His words calling her soft, weak, a shame on the family name echoed around the room.
Dark tendrils crept along the floor and up the girl’s leg. She clenched her fists and bit her lip so hard it bled as the tears turned into quivering rage. The entity enveloped her more, feeding into her dark emotions with the promise of strength to exact vengeance on everyone who wronged her.
She froze as Jack willed himself into the scene and gave her a hug. “Shhh, love. Don’t listen to them. You’re the strongest person I know. It’ll be okay.”
As she looked into his eyes, the scene shifted once more. Back in the pit's muck, Mara held the dead body of her husband, trying to resuscitate him. Now bonded with the entity, her wounds sealed, though it replaced her rich brown flesh with its inky, unnatural blackness.
Present, but not in his body, Jack watched it all unfold. Through the entity, he felt the maelstrom of emotion rushing through his widow. All the immense sorrow wrestling with the overpowering rage at what Sabre did to both of them.
Jack’s spirit breathed a sigh of relief. She would live. Her strength would carry on.
As his soul’s connection to this realm and the entity faded, he said, “Whatever you are, it’s on you to have her back now. Don’t be a knob and fuck it up like I did. Just remember, you’re one foot out of the Dark now. The galaxy isn’t all darkness and shite. And there’s no greater light in it than her. You’ll see.”
Mara’s grief beat out her anger. She held Jack’s body close and sobbed. Black tears streaked down her dirty face. “No, Jack. No. Don’t leave me.”
It was all so foreign and strange. The entity didn’t understand. However, its newly formed consciousness heard her command and was determined to know more. To feel more.
Before his essence could fade into the Spirit Realm, a dark tendril snatched Jack’s soul and plunged it back into his body. Dark power poured out of the grieving widow into her dead husband. It coursed through his mangled spine, shattered ribs, and broken leg. His lost arm reformed from inky shadows and held his love as tight as she held him.
The immense expenditure of energy left the reborn couple unconscious in the bloody muck-filled pit.
They awoke an unknown amount of time later, floating in a suspension tank. Still holding each other, Jack and Mara looked down at the array of tubes and devices attached to their bodies. Jack marvelled at his new shadowy limb and noted how his wife’s veins, once inlaid with cybernetics, now pulsed with dark power. Seeing movement, an advanced drone the likes of which they’d never seen emerged from the darkness of the sterile room and approached them.
Still groggy and uncomfortable in tight spaces, Mara lashed out and attempted to rip off her breathing mask. Seeing her panic, Jack’s arm shifted into a blade and cut a deep gash into the glass. The drone emitted sounds in Ancient binary and warning lights flared.
A female voice echoed about the room as soon as the door hissed open. “Careful, Mrs. Spectre. We come in peace, but we’ll only be as cooperative as you are.”
The Spectres stopped as the woman stepped into the light before their tank. They recognized the strawberry blonde hair and fiery eyes of the elf they met while hunting Ballis Melik some weeks earlier. Outside of her winged armour, her fine clothing was something between a military uniform and a royal dress. She wore an advanced blade and sidearm on hips. Even out of her armour, they saw the metallic nubs of something poking out of her shoulder blades.
She regarded them and smiled. “It’s always a pleasure when intuition pays off. The containment team was ready to give up and destroy you. I was correct that the entity would calm down once we stopped trying to separate you.” She put a hand on her chest and sighed. “Still so precious.”
The woman continued, “Had I knew I would’ve encountered you again, I would’ve introduced myself properly when we first met.” She dipped into a graceful, perfectly executed bow one might see in the courts of her people, the Ahalyr. “My name is Artoria Fellarin. I am a shade sworn to the Vigilant Shadows. It was I who contracted you to rescue Dr. Taylo. I have many questions for you regarding what happened in that foul corrupted pit, and time is of the essence.”
The Ancient drone floated closer and emitted more binary cant. An array of arms extended to further scan the prisoners.
The Spectres exchanged concerned glances and readied themselves for a fight. It was all new, but they felt thoughts, intents and feelings flowing directly between them. Mara activated the cybernetics attached to her nervous system and felt a rush as they flared up with a new and terrible power. Jack narrowed his eyes and the shadows in the room quivered with anticipation.
Artoria produced a small device. Her smile faded as she flicked open the top and hovered her thumb over a red button. Their tank spooled up and flooded with new chemicals. “Your file painted the picture of a gambler, Mr. Spectre. I hope even you wouldn’t be so unwise as to push your luck after everything you’ve been through.”
The Spectres relaxed as best they could. Artoria smiled again and closed the lid on the device. She kept it in her hand, though. “Excellent. I’m glad you two retained some sense and haven’t become mindless monsters like the others.”
Mara banged on the glass. “Get to the point. What the hell happened and what do you want from us?”
Artoria approached the glass and examined them like dangerous animals at the zoo. “You two died on Xerash IV. The entity in the spawning pit, the umbracyte, bonded with you and brought you back to life. Once there were two, then there were none. Now, there are three. And that’s how it will remain until you inevitably return to zero.” Her words dripped with disdain at the mention of a creature from the Shadow Realm.
“As you are, there’s no way we'll release you back into the galaxy. You’re still alive because you’re still useful. I have a fondness for strays, sinners and rejects proving their worth. And for a good romance holo. Even a tragic one.”
The elf paced around the tank, running her fingernail along it as she went. “By all rights, I should vaporize you both right now. But there are extenuating circumstances around our current objective which require some unorthodox solutions. A gamble, if you will. Our mandate is stern, but our means can be flexible.”
Artoria climbed the few steps to stand at the same level as them in the elevated tank. The Spectres realized how tall the athletic woman was. She leaned in close to look them in the eyes and pressed her hands against the glass. The umbracyte recoiled under her gaze. It felt as if some entity from another realm scrutinized it through her burning gaze.
The elf lowered her voice and looked between them. “I’m offering you two a choice. Work with us and help us keep the galaxy safe… or…” She tapped the device against the glass. “I wouldn’t blame you if you just wanted it to end on your terms. I assure you, living with that… thing… will not be pleasant. But cooperate, and we’ll see if you can find redemption. How many get the chance to bring their killer to justice?”
Jack wrapped a supportive arm around Mara’s waist. The couple gently touched their heads together and took a deep breath in unison, sharing their thoughts and concerns.
An hour later, the stealth field enveloping their sleek black ship glimmered as particles of a nebula passed through it. The engines ignited, and it tore through space toward its quarry.
Hope you enjoyed that! We'll see what becomes of the Spectres when I get to the Vigilant Shadows series. Please let me know if you're interested and I'll bump it up the list of ideas I want to explore. I'll link their previous story below.
Here's the link to the archive of newsletters in case you missed any.
Also, if you made it this far, thanks! I have no clue how many actually read these. But they're fun to write either way. <3
Talk to you next month. Have a good one!