Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Clone Wars Campaign Extra: Stefan's Seven

Directing a long-standing role-playing campaign brings with it a lot of joys--crafting a story that grows over time; witnessing PCs evolve from one-paragraph backgrounds into three-dimensional characters with complex personalities and motivations; and even witnessing the players grapple with the in-game moral and logistical obstacles you've thrown in their path. One of the things you don't get, however, is that sense of camaraderie--that joy in teamwork after a mission accomplished, that sense of "we're all in this together", because although you can be thrilled when the PCs succeed, you also know that it's your job to make sure there was a reasonable chance (within the bounds of fairness) that they wouldn't succeed and this invariably creates a bit of a "you against them" situation.

I think this is maybe one of the reasons I enjoy writing stories about the Sun Runners, which is, in many ways, a rival adventuring group to the PCs in the Clone Wars campaign--except that this group is one that I'm a member of because I run all the characters! The Sun Runners allow me to craft a group of characters who have taken on lives of their own, far beyond the simple stereotypes they began as: Greesh Leedo evolved from a one-note assassin into a gruff, but almost likable mercenary like Jayne from Firefly; Rycard Ryjerd transformed from a swashbuckling pirate into a man trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his teammates for his "failure" in Last Voyage of the Sun Runner; even Korkoth, the Gammorean muscle, becomes an unintentional comedic genius while also seeking a replacement for his murdered brother. It also reveals more about characters like Kronos (if he were a famous character, people would walk around in t-shirts with his catchphrase "Which potentiality will you effectuate?") and Stefan (what choice is he trying to forestall?), while also introducing a new character in Sunset Cassandra (someone capable of rivalling Daal in the tech department).

The Sun Runners are also, in a way, a proxy that allows me to tell stories that, for one reason or another, the PCs in the Clone Wars campaign have unintentionally avoided or are simply not suited for. The escape from a doomed Duro in Last Voyage of the Sun Runner would have been a great storyline for Daal, but the timing just didn't work out in the game. Similarly, this story, Stefan's Seven, was originally conceived as a "heist" story arc for the PCs but I ended up discarding it because they had already spent a whole story arc on a heavily-corporate world, had just fought through an office tower, and I wanted to get back to the main "myth-arc" of the campaign. And someday, it looks like now, I may have to depict the Sun Runners encountering the Battle of Coruscant or Order 66, since it looks like the PCs are probably going to miss it. Having the Sun Runners around allows me to still get the satisfaction of telling the stories I want to tell, without railroading the PCs into being the protagonists--so everyone benefits :)

This particular story, Stefan's Seven, is of course inspired by Ocean's Eleven. Each of the seven parts of the story is told from the point of view of a different Sun Runner, and the chronology of the entire story weaves back and forth between viewpoints. What I liked about this is that I could show more of the personality of each character, while also letting the reader have fun in making the connections between something that already happened in section one, for example, being about to happen in section two. This story was important for the campaign in that it set up the penultimate story arc of the game: the PCs' trip to a lost Arkanian colony (the item in the vault is a starmap).

A couple of other miscellaneous bits:

* Now you can see the other end of Arresta's conversation with Stefan from Session # 37. The "he should have set the comlink to vibrate" vs. "he shows he loves her by answering even in a firefight!" controversy starts here!

* The setting for the story, the banking world of Aargau, comes from the YA book Boba Fett # 3: Maze of Deception. I like stealing stuff from the novels for use in the game--it makes reading double as research.

Stefan's Seven

Aargau wasn’t just a bank. It was a planet, whose every square inch was devoted to furthering the Intergalactic Banking Clan’s domination of commerce throughout the known galaxy. Although the Clan was a key member of the Confederacy of Independent Systems, Aargau itself was officially neutral. After all, nothing, even war, should get in the way of making money.

For Vaultkeeper Kos Wiinst, this meant dealing even with the plump, sweaty, bald-headed human sitting across from him. Wiinst was a Muun of some taste, and his custom-sculpted office had been profiled on numerous holonet programs. This frumpy stranger, wearing outdated clothing and carrying an old-fashioned briefcase, was an assault against fashion. He was single-handedly lowering the aesthetic effect Wiinst had labored so hard to achieve.

Neither Wiinst nor his executive assistant remembered entering the man’s name on the day’s appointment calendar, but there his name was this morning--and if his name was listed, the meeting must go forward. Such was the nature of business. It was a large galaxy, and one never knew when great wealth might be hidden behind a gauche veneer.

“Now what can the IBC do for you, Mr., ah, Kronos? Is that a Coruscanti name?”

“Arkanian, in fact,” the man replied in a low, almost monotonous voice.

Wiinst was mildy surprised. The man sitting across from him looked nothing like an Arkanian—he had neither the height, nor the distinctive white pupils, nor the four-clawed hand. He looked like a simple chubby human, the type who might run a streetside hotcaf stand.

The visitor continued speaking. “I would like to see the tangible-item secured vaults.”

“Well, the IBC can certainly see to all your needs. I should confess you may find our rates a tad steep, but I’m sure my assistant can get you started with the paperwork.”

Wiinst stood up and extended his hand—if he was lucky, he’d still have time for lunch before his next appointment. But the man didn’t stand up and didn’t shake Wiinst’s hand. Instead, Kronos had placed his briefcase on the table and seemed to be fiddling with something behind the open lid.

Wiinst said “Ahem. As I was saying sir, I’m sure my assistant can handle your deposit—she’s just in the room you came from.” Wiinst pointed toward the door. Kronos didn’t even look at him, but kept his attention focussed on the briefcase.

Before Wiinst could reiterate, in his usual firm but polite way that the meeting was over, he felt the transparisteel window behind him shake. The window was specially treated to withstand sound and vibration, so only a powerful concussive force could even make it tremble. A second later, a building security alert sounded. Wiinst went to the window and looked down at the plaza several stories below. Security forces were exchanging fire with what looked to be a massive military droid. Wiinst heard a snap and then a click behind him, and turned around.

Kronos had finished his assembly work—smuggling in a blaster was impossible, but smuggling in the components was not. Kronos closed the briefcase and pointed the blaster at Wiinst.

“I said I wanted to see the vaults—but it is not a deposit I have in mind. Now, in 15 of the next 16 timeframes, you cooperate with me and lock yourself in this office after I have left. In the remaining timeframe, you lunge for the security buzzer and I shoot you dead. Either way, I leave here with the access card and compscans of your retinal and DNA patterns. Which potentiality will you effectuate?”

The choice was easy for Wiinst. He was a banker, not a gambler.

# 2
It swooped down from the sky with the midday sun at its back, a sleek crescent bristling with menace. Sophisticated energy bafflers stolen from the best laboratories in the Corporate Sector made it a blur to sensors; a proprietary Republic Intelligence scrambler system emitted false signals, turning that blur into a shadow. It moved faster than the human eye could track and packed more of a punch than all but the most advanced capital ships. The few people who knew about the ship called it the Sun Runner II. Its real name was Ka’ja’les Dar—loosely translated from Gurlanin, “Empress Uncanny”.

Pedestrians standing in the massive plaza around the IBC pyramid noticed only a strong wind when the ship skimmed just meters above the surface. To bystanders, a massive crate appeared almost like magic, hitting the ground with a resounding thud before skidding to a halt after colliding with a parked groundcar.

A loud hiss could be heard as steam came from every corner of the crate, and then, one of the crate’s four side walls detached and fell face down on the ground. Inside was something the passerby didn’t recognize, but they knew enough to be terrified.

Siege Commander Korg brought his targeting scanner online first, followed by weapons battery # 3. When his primary locomotion system powered up, a massive leg on either side of his central unit flexed, and the remainder of the crate burst away. Korg stood to his full height, acquired his first target (an automated fuel transport), and let loose a full salvo of rockets. Debris rained from the sky. Investigators would later be able to identify the wreckage only through security camera footage.

War droids were designed to lower the morale of enemy soldiers and Korg had been given just one instruction for this mission: Create Havoc. He was a droid, and had neither emotions nor compunctions. But if witnesses later reported hearing a joyful cackle emanating from somewhere deep inside this horrifying spectacle, who could prove them wrong?

The planet Aargau had not spent centuries as the galaxy’s preeminent center of banking without experiencing attempted heists from time to time, whether by lone bandits, criminal syndicates, or even pirate fleets. The IBC did not shirk on security, and within seconds three patrol skimmers were on scene. The skimmer pilots were veterans who could handle a crisis—and yet, still, even they were taken aback by the sheer carnage they witnessed.

Korg was programmed with urban assault software—an algorithm that ranked targets by various criteria to determine the most efficient method of “reducing enemy infrastructure.” But Korg was not leading an invasion—he overrode the software and fired almost randomly in every direction, a firestorm of blasters, rockets, sonic disruptors, and more. The plaza became a warzone, as efficiently decimated as could be achieved with anything short of orbital bombardment.

But in the ensuing chaos, the war droid had overlooked the patrol skimmers. Their first attack run knocked Korg back on his heels before secondary shields came online. Then Korg returned fire with guided anti-air missiles. This battle did not last long, and, if Korg did have emotions, he must have felt disappointment.

Barely four minutes had passed when Korg’s internal chronometer signalled it was time for extraction. The Ka’ja’les Dar swooped in again, launched a powerful magnetic grappler which stuck firm, and yanked the droid into the sky before slowly reeling him into the cargo bay.
Korg’s role was done, but he knew this was just the merest taste of the destruction Jocasta had promised him when she transferred his essence into this new shell. Today, Aargau Plaza. Tomorrow, all of Mongui.

# 3

The Ka’ja’les Dar dropped its first payload in Aargau Plaza, corkscrewed away between massive skycrapers as tall as some planets’ mountains, executed a tight turn that scattered airspeeders like flotsam, and approached the IBC pyramid from the far side. It was time to launch the second payload, a 3-meter long torpedo-shaped object that crashed through the heavy-duty transparisteel windows of level 44. A few feet lower or higher and the payload would have been utterly destroyed by durasteel girders and the entire mission would have to have been scrubbed. But the launch was perfect and it was time to pick up Korg.

Rycard Ryjerd was not the best pilot in the galaxy. Indeed, he wasn’t even the best pilot Jocasta had ever hired. He didn’t have the fastest reflexes, or the most intuitive understanding of spatial geometry or performance parameters. But on this day, in this place, no one could have handled the Ka’ja’les Dar better. Simply put, Rycard knew that ship in the way only thousands of hours of flight time could provide. He had spent every spare moment in the cockpit ever since the sleek, claw-winged vessel had come off the assembly line.

Rycard Ryjerd had something to prove to someone. He wanted forgiveness, or admiration, or pride. He wanted the others to stop looking at him with mocking smiles and whispering stupid cracks behind his back. He wanted things to go back to the way they were before the Battle of Duros.

Jocasta had never said a word about the destruction of the Sun Runner.

Before joining the crew, Rycard hadn’t even thought of himself as primarily a freighter-jockey. He was a freebooter, an adventurer, a smuggler, a highwayman, a stick-up artist or whatever he felt like being one morning and could change by evening. He had the brash bravado that came from quick feet, a quicker smile, and too much time spent watching swashbuckling holovids. Being a good pilot simply came with the territory, but it wasn’t something he had passed much time thinking about. And now, he was stuck in the shadow of pilots whose reputations had grown through gossip and legend to the point he could never match. Borelias II. Spiralling between two Venators. The time Zalon executed a flawless, dead-stick landing in the anomaly and Twitch matched it.

But that wasn’t what impelled him to stride into the tap-caf on the flip side of Aargau thirty-six hours ago. It was the short, pink-haired pixieish teen with horn-rimmed specs sitting in the corner peering intently into a datapad. Rycard approached her. He wore the stink of too-much cologne, an open-necked shirt that could have been fashionable only twenty years ago, and more jewellery than a Hapes princess.

He sighed—this was going to hurt, both his ego and his chin. But it would work.

“Buy you a drink? Fabulous,” he said, setting a lukewarm caf next to her without giving her a chance to answer. He sat down close, invading her personal space and said “You like the ‘net? Me too. All kinds of good games on them.” He moved in even closer, and then whispered, “But I bet behind the datapad you’re a rancor in the bedroom.”

She looked at him above her specs, a combination of disgust and annoyance on her face. She moved her chair a few feet to the side, pushed the drink away, and said, as coldly as she could “I’m fine, thanks.”

Rycard moved his chair closer and put a hand on her knee. “Listen, why don’t we go back to my place. You can . . . fiddle with my datapad all you want.”

He felt a hand grip his shoulder hard from behind and then twist him around. A tall man in an elegant business suit was looming over him. Hints of silver showed on his temples—he was probably middle-aged, but he was the kind of man that only grew more handsome with the years.

“I think the young lady said ‘no thank you,’” the man said.

“Maybe you should mind your own business, pal,” Rycard replied. He slid the drink back across the table and said forcefully to the girl, “finish it and then we’ll go.”

The girl shook her head, mumbled something about a loser, and then spilled the drink in Rycard’s lap with a smile of satisfaction. “You have it.”

Rycard stood up abruptly with a howl of pain—the caf wasn’t hot, but he felt in the moment.

“Bitch!” he shouted before drawing his hand up to backslap her. Here it comes, he thought, trying not to wince.

The “stranger” caught Rycard’s hand in mid-slap, twisted it hard, and then punched Rycard square in the nose. Rycard went flying, not even pretending to fall. He crashed into an empty chair and lay there, stunned on the ground. The surprise on his face was mostly fake, but the blood streaming down his chin was very real. A few seconds later he got to his feet and scurried away as everyone in the tap-caf applauded the comeuppance of a creep. The last thing he saw before leaving was Stefan Cassadine placing a protective arm around the girl’s shoulders.
Everything was fitting into place, and the mission was a go.

# 4
Within three minutes of the crash, Level 44 was evacuated, a special weapons response team had arrived, and the torpedo-like object was surrounded. Scans showed no explosive potential, but instead what looked to be a mangled assortment of organic body parts mixed with a variety of non-organic equipment.

“Why the frak would someone send us a casket?” one of the troopers mumbled.

“Maybe it’s a distraction,” their commander said. “Or a warning.”

Three of the men stayed behind, weapons drawn and pointed at the object, while the rest of the team quickly deployed to the plaza far below where a massive firefight was already underway.
Level 44 was the most heavily-defended level of the complex, and nobody could get in without encountering a bracing array of human guards, biometric recognition sensors, and anti-weapon countermeasures—for it contained the only access to the private turbolift banks that ran to the secured vaults dozens of levels below.

A minute later, a curved lid unlatched from the object and began to slowly open with small puffs of smoke. With one man to either side and the third standing at the bottom, they peered intently to see what lay inside.

“It is a corpse,” one of them said. The figure within was probably Rodian, but it was hard to tell—part of the right skull and eye socket had been replaced with artificial prosthetics, along with at least one leg and both arms. It lay there unmoving, its arms crossed over its chest as if in death or repose.

Suddenly a red light began to blink rapidly somewhere in the depths of the right eye socket. A low rumbling sigh filled the deathly silence, hands clenched into fists, and wrists flexed to reveal pop-up blasters. The guard on each side of the “casket” fell to the ground with a blaster burn to the face, never having really understood what was happening. The third guard took an involuntary step back and then recovered himself and opened fire. But it was too late: a fusion-powered tetranium leg had already crushed the man’s ribcage and sent him sprawling out of the breached transparisteel window.

Greesh Leedo rolled his shoulders and ran an internal diagnostic. Minor damage from the entry vector, but nothing auto-repair nanos couldn’t fix. His amplified hearing picked up a voice coming from one of the dead men’s earpieces. It was asking for a status report.

It was time to get to work.

Greesh strode rapidly down the corridor and into the security control room. Two bodies later, he turned a wheellock and slid back the thick durasteel door. Level 44 was nearly invincible from the outside, but easy to handle from within.

Stefan Cassadine stepped in and looked around. He gave a curt nod to Greesh and walked toward the turbolift bank. A few moments later, Kronos arrived with an access card and biometric scans to activate the turbolift for the tangible-item vault.

Cassadine, Greesh, and Kronos stood patiently inside the lift as it dropped 67 stories in less than 8 seconds, inertial dampeners compensating for the effect. Mellow background music dispensed with the need for small talk.

The lift opened to reveal a wide corridor two stories high and several hundred meters long. They couldn’t even see where the corridor ended—it simply stretched on into the distance. Each wall contained a grid of deposit vaults, some as narrow as 12 centimeters wide, others large enough to hold a landspeeder. Each vault was secured with a dense mobylennium hatch and a simple, nearly unsliceable locking mechanism: upon tampering or a third incorrect password, the contents of the vault were disintegrated.

Small repulsor sleds provided easy access to the higher vaults. The three beings walked onto one of the sleds and rose slowly into the air. The journey to Tangible-Item Secured Deposit # 7337142927 took three seconds longer than they had estimated it would, but that was still within optimal parameters. They were 8 meters above the ground, exposed and with no cover should they be caught.

Kronos stared at the small vault door, as if hesitating.

“Well, get on with it man,” Cassadine said.

Kronos leaned in close and whispered. The vault door began to slowly retract.

Greesh suddenly put a hand on Cassadine’s arm and, in response to the inquisitive look, a finger to his lips. The Rodian took up a kneeling sniper’s stance, raised one arm like a rifle, and peered along its length. His cybernetically-enhanced hearing had picked up what the others could not—footsteps. A Bank of Aargau watchman was making his rounds. He was lost in thought and staring at the ground in front of him and about to walk past the lift suspended above him.
Greesh smiled and sent the stream of neurons to his wrist-blaster at the same instant that other neurons from his audio receptors entered his cerebellum and identified that Kronos had shouted “No!”

The first blast caught the watchman square in the chest and spun him around. The second blast, intended as insurance in case the first wasn’t enough, missed completely. The bolt struck the wall across from them.

And then it kept going.

The ricocheting shot bounced back and forth along the corridor, gaining speed and power, too fast for even Greesh’s cybernetic eye to register. Then Kronos toppled and would have dropped over the edge of the lift if Cassadine hadn’t caught him. Blackened char was almost all that was left of his abdomen. He wasn’t dead yet, but immediate bacta immersion was his only chance.
“Goram it!” Greesh cursed. “No one said nothing about magnetic shielding! It wasn’t in the specs she got us!”

“Nor the fact that we’d have company,” Cassadine said, looking at the turbolift doors. They were opening, and an IBC security response team began to pour out. Each trooper was armed with a sonic disruptor rifle that wouldn’t be prone to ricochets from the magnetic shielding. “We’ve been set up,” he concluded.

“What’re we gonna do?” Greesh asked.

Cassadine pondered this for a second, and then drew his blaster. “Don’t miss,” he replied.

# 5

Korkoth had been assigned an undercover role. This was the largest point of contention during the planning phase.

Ninety-Six Hours Previously

“Any questions?” Stefan asked, turning off the holo-projector.

The conference room at the ARC on Etti IV was silent for a moment, then Korg spoke up. “I like it,” he said, his mechanical voice bordering on enthusiasm. Workers had had to remove the doorframe in order for the war droid to fit through. He took up a whole side of the table, forcing the other Sun Runners to squeeze into what space remained.

Greesh nodded and Rycar shrugged, but Kronos removed his spectacles slowly, his brow furrowed. “I foresee risk with the girl. In six hundred and seventy-seven out of twelve-hundred and eleven timeframes, she doesn’t cooperate,” he said. “In the rest, a surprising range of reactions and events occur, too many for me to analyze in a satisfactory manner. In short, something about this girl denies probabilistic foreshadowing.”

Stefan poured himself a drink. “I’ll take care of it,” he said simply.

Jocasta stood up and said to the Sun Runners “That’s enough for now. I’ll finish working things out with Mr. Cassadine and we’ll let you know your respective roles at the final briefing.” Then, in fluent Gammorean, she said “Korkoth, you should stay.”

The others shuffled out, leaving Jocasta and Stefan standing on either end of the table, while Korkoth sat placidly in the center, gouging a crude drawing on the table’s surface with his thumb-nail. Since he didn’t speak Basic, he hadn’t really understood most of what was said during the briefing, and the charts and maps displayed by the holo-projector gave him a head-ache. All he really needed to know was who to bash and when.

“It seems okay,” Jocasta said.

“Just ‘okay’?” Stefan said, with a hint of a smile.

“A bit more showy than I would have expected from someone trained in Malkite ways,” she replied. “But this is a hardened target and there’s no easy way to slip in. Still, are you sure you don’t want your wife involved? She has a surprising knack for getting things done and getting out alive.”

“She’s not ready yet,” Stefan said with a slight shake of his head. “I had hoped she would be, but recent events proved otherwise. She’ll be at her best for Mongui, however.”

“I should hope so,” Jocasta replied. “Now we need to talk about Korkoth here.” She made a slight gesture in the Gammorean’s direction—he had decided to taste the leftover shavings from his drawing. “I’ve travelled from one end of this galaxy to the other, heard more rumours and told more lies than anyone in this line of work, and never have I heard an idea more ludicrous than placing Korkoth as an undercover agent.”

Although it held a certain kind of twisted logic, Stefan’s explanation didn’t satisfy Jocasta entirely. Still, she had chosen him to lead this mission in her stead and she needed this partnership to succeed. Korkoth’s role wasn’t crucial and she didn’t have time to start second-guessing Stefan’s decisions.

To almost everyone’s surprise, it had worked beautifully. Korkoth was dropped off in front of the Bank of Aargau hiring center with only these instructions: “Go inside, get a job, and wait to be contacted.” He wasn’t really sure why he was supposed to do this, but he figured the bashing would come sooner or later. During the interview process, he talked repeatedly about the Sun Runners, failed multiple psi-scans, showed a mostly mistaken understanding of what a “bank” was for, and in almost every other conceivable way was the worst spy and job applicant one could conceive. And therefore, no one at the hiring center thought he was anything else than what he seemed to be: a dumb Gammorean looking for work with a tendency to tell fanciful, nonsensical stories about pirates, half-robots, and (as best they could make out with the shaky Gammorean-to-Basic software on their computers, a chubby Hutt who had travelled back in time from the future with dire warnings about what was going to happen next). Of course, no employer with an ounce of sense would give Korkoth a job, but the hiring center’s computer (easily sliced from the outside) showed a need for: “Security Guard, Gammorean or Wookie only.” Suffice it to say, neither of either species travelled often to Aargau and a quota was a quota. An hour-and-a-half after walking through the doors, Korkoth was a certified employee of the Bank of Aargau.

His assignment, per the work request, was to patrol Level Sub-Three. This was mostly disused storerooms, which Korkoth used to take long naps. It also contained a large black panel with bright warning stickers on it. Occasionally, he patrolled alongside another guard. Korkoth liked to tell raunchy stories in Gammorean sprinkled with Huttese. The human guard didn’t understand either language, but when loud and repeated shouts of “Shut Up!” were apparently seen as a sign of encouragement, the man simply gave up.

On his third day at work, Korkoth’s comlink beeped. He turned it on and said "[Yeah Boss?]" Jocasta had explained to him patiently that Korkoth now had a “Boss” (Mr. Cassadine) and a “Big Boss” (herself). Korkoth was supposed to do what either one told him, though Big Boss was still more important. This introduced a level of complexity an order of magnitude greater than Korkoth normally dealt with, but he was getting the hang of it.

“[Turn around the second flipper!]" he heard the Boss say, in very poor Gammorean.

“[Huh?]” Korkoth replied.

“[The second flipper!]” was the shouted response. Then, in Basic “Greesh! How do I tell him to flip the second switch? Hold on, I have another call,” he said with exasperation.

A few seconds later and Boss was back “[Flip down switcher number the second]” he said. “[Behind the gigantical blackish sheet!]

Now blaster fire could be heard in the background and Greesh said in Basic “We’ve got maybe thirty seconds before they realize that smoke grenade’s not anthrotoxin and they come for us.”

Korkoth looked around. Everything in the storage level was a dusty gray or a metallic silver, except for the big black panel. He shrugged, walked over to it, and yanked it open. Inside was a dizzying array of switches. Korkoth pondered this for a moment and then flipped them all.

# 6

Type-II sonic disruptors were popular with Bank of Aargau security because they had a devastating effect on organic beings but caused no harm whatsoever to property. By focussing and amplifying ultra-low frequency harmonic waves into a tight beam, a sonic disruptor could literally fry someone’s insides while leaving no visible wound on the outside of the body. Such wounds were painful, debilitating, and difficult to heal even with bacta.

Like the Bank of Aargau Counter-Insurgency Team, Sunset Cassandra was wearing a personal field distorter that negated the effect of Type-II sonic disruptors while still allowing normal communication and movement. This was a precaution, in case such weapons found their hands into hostile elements. Only a low-pitched whine would be the marker that such weapons were even being fired—that, and bodies collapsing to the ground with their internal organs turned to goo.

Sunset Cassandra—she had chosen the name herself, and insisted it not be shortened—slowly peered around the open turbolift doors and down the corridor. The thick smoke that had filled it a moment earlier was starting to dissipate, just as the BA-CIT had fished out their rebreathers. Deadly accurate blaster fire was coming from somewhere down the corridor, but at an oddly high angle. Either the Sun Runners were stuck on a repulsor sled or had learned to levitate through sheer mental power. She giggled at the thought. In her mind, it wasn’t that they were stupid, per se—just that she was much, much smarter.

They must have thought they were so clever with that fake fight, she reflected. Lame! Her firewalls were like webbing, slowing intruders and shunting them into useless corners until she decided how to respond—in other words, she knew an above-average slicer had been trying to track her down over the last several days, and let them get a fix on her position in the tap-caf. She assumed it was agents from the tax division—governments usually put their best investigators into tax, which showed you where their priorties lay. It was simple enough to have the tap-caf’s surveillance cams link into IBC and Republic facial recognition databases. Before Rycard and Stefan recognized Sunset Cassandra, Sunset Cassandra had identified them as suspected members of the criminal underworld. Then, it was simply a matter of playing along long enough to see what it was they wanted.

Things were starting to heat up now. The smoke had dissipated completely, and the BA-CIT were getting it together. The bottom of the repulsor sled provided the three Sun Runners some cover, but she saw the cyborg Greesh Leedo take several hits, some of which had an effect and others which were dissipated by his electronic equipment. Stefan Cassadine was laying prone, firing a blaster with one hand and, apparently, talking on his comlink in the other. He looked exasperated.

Sunset Cassandra figured she had made her point. She crouched back in the safety of the turbolift, removed her field distorter, and pulled a small silver box from her belt pouch. She isolated the frequency of the BA-CIT’s field distorters, set the device to match and amplify that frequency by a factor of one-thousand, and then activated the device. Each member’s distorter tried to cope with a massive power surge, failed, and then overloaded, sending powerful electrical shocks through its wearer. The BA-CIT fell to the ground convulsing.

Up until now, everything had gone according to Sunset Cassandra’s plans. Then the lights went out, which by itself didn’t seem like that big of a deal until she realized that might mean the power was out, which might mean that there was nothing holding the turbolift in place.
It started to fall, and Sunset Cassandra screamed.

# 7
Stefan rolled over with a low moan. The repulsor sled had apparently relied on transmitted power, and it fell to the ground hard when the power was cut. Everything was pitch black, except for a subdued red light emanating from Greesh’s right eye socket. It was deathly quiet—an almost apt metaphor, Stefan knew, for if he didn’t get Kronos to a med-bay soon, Jocasta’s favourite adviser would be a corpse. Moments before the lights went out, Stefan thought he had seen their attackers collapse, but it paid to be careful.

“Greesh,” he whispered. “Anything?”

He saw the red light move and face him. “Sensors report no movement. I think they’re down.”

“Good,” Stefan replied. “Call Korkoth and get the power back on—we need that turbolift.”

A few seconds later, and total darkness was replaced with almost blinding light. Stefan crawled over to Kronos. The latter’s face was pale and covered with sweat. They had managed to slap a med-patch over his blaster wound, but he was clearly in pain.

“I would like to see them again,” Kronos said, his voice slurred. “It has been so long, but mine is a long-lived race and the probabilities are . . .” he drifted off into a low mumbling. His eyes grew dim, and then he began a wet, hacking cough. “A pity,” he said, with difficulty. “The precise nature . . . my own mortality.”

“What’s that?” Stefan said, examining the repulsor sled. It had been heavily damaged in the crash. They would have to carry or drag Kronos out of here.

Kronos didn’t answer, but with great difficult raised the small grey tube he had removed from the vault so he could see it better. “Home,” he said, and began coughing again.

“We’re ready,” Greesh said, turning off his comlink. “The ship will be at the drop-off point in three minutes. We’re behind schedule though, and the shift change we planned on taking advantage of has already been completed.”

Stefan only nodded. He went to stand up and almost failed. The sheer agony from sonic disruptor wounds tore through him and doubled him over in pain. Greesh moved to help, but Stefan waved him away. He gritted his teeth and stood through will power alone. It was the first time he realized that he needed the med-bay almost as much as Kronos.

Greesh picked Kronos up with little difficulty. He was tempted to make some crack about how baldie could at least have predicted that eating too much would make him fat, but Stefan didn’t seem to be in the mood for a joke. If Greesh hadn’t flooded his own organic nervous system with synthetic adrenaline and pain-blockers, he would probably feel as bad as they looked.

They were a few feet away when the turbolift doors opened to reveal Sunset Cassandra. She was curled up in a ball in the corner, her eyes wide and face whitened with fear. Combined with her pink hair and black nail polish, it made her look almost clownish. The turbolift had fallen twenty-five stories into the very depths of the Bank’s underground vaults before the car’s battery-powered emergency system activated and kept her from being smashed into a thin paste. And now, before she could even gather her wits enough to stand up, she realized Stefan Cassadine, Greesh Leedo, and a barely-conscious Kronos had joined her in the car. Greesh had set Kronos down and pressed his wrist blaster against the side of her face.

“Wait!” she said, as the doors closed and the lift began moving upwards. “I saved your lives! I fried their distorters. You owe me.”

Stefan grabbed her roughly by the arm to stand her up. “What are you playing at, girl?” he said.

Sunset Cassandra was starting to regain her composure. “Whatever it is we’re playing, I’m better at it than you,” she said. “I knew from the first you ‘rescued’ me just to take advantage of my slicing skills. Well, now you can see just how much of an asset I am. I want to join your heist-gang. And I want an equal share of the loot, too.” In truth, she had already made a substantial profit from collecting the reward money for playing informant in the first place. But money wasn’t the real driving force behind her decision to play both sides against the middle. She had sliced enough cash for several lifetimes—but this was a chance to steal it with style.

Stefan snorted. “I’m not the leader of this ‘heist-gang’, as you so colourfully put it, and I doubt the one who is would be impressed by what you’ve done.”

“Well, you better put in a good word for me, Stefan Cassadine,” she said. “Or I’ll tell your wife you quenched your lascivious urges in the cooling depths of my loins.”

Greesh took a careful step back. This could get messy. There were some things one quickly learned about Stefan Cassadine, and one of them was that his wife was off-limits.

For a moment, such effrontery filled Stefan with rage, but then the sheer lunacy of the idea that this . . . slip of a girl thought she could come between him and Arresta made him chuckle softly.
“You go too far, and have overplayed your hand,” he said with a thin smile. “Do you think my wife a fool to believe such a lie? Do you think she would reward you for such a story, even if she did believe it? Or that you would survive such an insult if she did not? In her own way, she is as possessive as I am. Stars willing, you’ll have the opportunity to put your promise into action, so that I may witness the results.”

Sunset Cassandra was left open-mouthed when the turbolift doors opened. They were twenty-seven levels above the ground now, and at the end of a long corridor was a metal door leading on to an aircar platform.

“Forty seconds to pick-up,” Greesh said as they made their way down the corridor. “Rycard won’t be able to keep her waiting, as they’ll have scrambled fighters from the orbital picket ships by now.”

Stefan brought them to a halt about ten meters away from the door so he could peer around the corner where their corridor intersected with another. The blaster bolt nearly took out his eye instead of only spraying permacrete chips from where it hit the wall. He quickly ducked back to where the others were waiting.

“At least four of them,” he said.

“We can handle that,” Greesh said with confidence.

“And they’ve dredged up an E-web,” Stefan added.

Greesh groaned.

“We don’t have time for a firefight. We’ll have to sprint for it. You carry Kronos,” Stefan said to Greesh. “We’ll keep their heads down.” He drew a small hold-out blaster from a vest pocket, switched off the safety, and handed it to Sunset Cassandra.

“I can’t get in a shootout,” she stammered. “What if my datapad got hit? It’s got every—“

Stefan wrenched the datapad out of her hands and slid it into the intersection of the corridors. A steady stream of blaster fire melted it into slag. Stefan loomed over Sunset Cassandra. “You’ll fight, or by my word you’ll be the next thing I throw out there. We could use the distraction.”
She gulped and took the blaster.

“No one stops, no one turns back,” he continued. He counted down from three, and as a group they sprinted into the intersection.

Stefan never knew whether it was skill, adrenaline, or pure luck, but his first shot dropped the gunner on the E-web. The return fire was still heavy though, and one of the bolts hit him in the shoulder, spinning him around in a full circle. He stumbled, but managed to keep his feet and continue running. He saw Greesh a step behind him, his left arm and leg a gory mess, dripping blood and a greenish oil. Sunset Cassandra was sprinting too, firing wildly in the general direction of their attackers.

And then they were through. They burst through the metal door and on to the aircar balcony.
Stefan loved his own ship, The Knife’s Edge, but today he was a faithless lover, as the sight of the Sun Runner II filled him with an indescribable joy.

He hadn’t really thought they would make it through the corridor, and the thought of dying so far away from Arresta was more agonizing than his physical wounds.
He sat with Kronos in the ship’s med-bay, while the top-of-the-line GH-7 medical droid examined them. Someone had turned off the droid’s “bedside manner” program, and now it was all business.

“Triage situation,” the droid reported. “Top Priority: Patient Kronos--critical condition with imminent risk of cardiac arrest and respiratory distress. Patient Cassadine, please keep Patient Kronos calm while I prepare the bacta tank.” The droid went into the next room, leaving the two men alone.

Kronos’ eyelids fluttered and then opened. He saw Stefan and started to speak in a low mumble. Stefan could barely hear him and moved closer.

“My parents . . . they sent me away,” he was saying. “But I didn’t forget them . . . Jocasta will tell them . . . I didn’t forget . . .” He reached out with surprising strength and grabbed Stefan’s shirtfront. “The darkness is coming . . . cover everything. But Mistress knows the way out . . . Empress Uncanny . . .” His eyes grew dimmer, but then focussed on Stefan’s face. Kronos leaned up with the last of his strength and whispered in Stefan’s ears.

Stefan’s face twisted. Not in surprise, or disgust, or rage. Into a mask, a cold mask of death, the very last sight that many men and some women had seen in their lives. Stefan covered Kronos’s mouth and pinched his nose shut. His victim struggled for just a few seconds, and then shuddered and moved no more.

The one you love--if she chooses, she will not choose you, Kronos had said.

Then I’ll just have to make sure she doesn’t have a choice, Stefan thought.

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1 comment:

The Wife said...

Wow - this may qualify as your longest post ever (but the commentary was great!). I like the SunRunners - they make a fun group for us to repeatedly encounter and they fall into that category of rivals/comrades, which always makes it interesting.

Since you originally gave me this story to read in parts on different days, it was fun to wait for the next installment and see what happens next. I remember that Sunset Cassandra set my teeth on edge right away (on behalf of Arresta). :-) So, I loved Stefan shutting her attempt at flirty backmail down.

This was a great story - action packed, but with great character moments. I remember reading the last part, in particular, and being impressed that we see such different sides of Stefan's personality: romantic/loving husband when he's just trying to make it back to her - but then on the heels of that we have the scary assassin moment when he offs Kronos for the mere suggestion that she wouldn't choose him. I guess Kronos didn't foresee getting whacked as a high potentiality?