The Praedian Records

J.G. Phoenix

Fleeing Victory




We’re coming for you, Doctor.

Doctor Alfred Gil found the note addressed to him in the middle of the Cordoba’s field tests. He hadn’t told anyone about it, figuring others might write it off as a prank, just like he had at first. Later, when Fort Baldi came under attack, the Doctor somehow found himself with that little note in his hand, again. Things always seemed to be going poorly for him. Ever since his combat stimulant research–along with many other programs–had its funding pulled and diverted to Munica’s new colossus, things had been going extremely poorly. Smiling and quietly enjoying the misfortunes of his peers and the spoiled officers of Fort Baldi was all he could do to keep his spirits up these days.

Who was coming, though? Doctor Gil didn’t have a clue. His first thought was someone on the Cordoba project, some group that found out he was still working on his combat stimulant in secret. Maybe they planned to expose him to General Cruz and the others. It wasn’t too long before bigger concerns took over. What if it wasn’t his own people, but Cordaean special forces? They might have spies in the Munican army that knew about his work. That seemed worryingly more likely than some petty researchers trying to shut him down for good. They had all the funding they wanted, and Gil himself had to keep his research going almost entirely out of pocket. Scrounging up materials when he was supposed to be working exclusively on improving the prosthetics of allied soldiers made things even more difficult.

There was just one thing that didn’t add up for Gil, and that was the note itself. Why leave something like that for him to find? The sender had to know there were a number of actions he could take in response, actions that didn’t serve whatever their plan was. That was why Gil had been ready to dismiss the note out of hand when he first found it. Dangerous people with eyes on the doctor wouldn’t sneak into his office only to warn him they would be coming back for him later. Dangerous people would just come inside and have their way with him and his research material. So maybe this was just a petty prank after all?

No, that couldn’t be it.

Doctor Gil had wracked his brain for hours trying to figure it out. He only took a break from mentally running in circles when Captain Fran Sandoval was brought in, unconscious, but otherwise alright. Seeing the mighty brought low and hearing about flaws in the design and battle damage to the Cordoba had been the highlight of an otherwise grim day. Once the captain left, it was back to the mystery, and the longer Gil thought about it, the more he felt he would never find the answer.

There was no time left to think about it once the Cordaeans attacked. All the doctor could do was make a decision. He could either wait for whoever was coming to arrive, or he could take what was left of his research and run.

“No,” Doctor Gil shook his head as he surveyed his own office, “you’re being irrational.” There was no mistaking the danger that the best of a foreign power’s armed forces posed, but even with Fort Baldi under attack and the doctor awaiting some mystery guest, he didn’t need to abandon everything. While it was true Gil was pressing on with his research against the ‘strong suggestion’ of his superiors, he was more than on top of his regular duties. If someone came with the intent of harming him, or shutting down his personal laboratory, his fellow countrymen would protect him. They didn’t need to like him in order to do their duty, just like the doctor didn’t need to like them in order to keep pursuing ways of helping them fight the Cordaeans.

There was no need to run, Gil decided, but he was going to make certain his research, as well as all of his working samples were safe. It would be simple enough to keep his personal endeavors hidden, even in the rising chaos, buried beneath his notes on medicines and prosthetic nerve bridges. Most of it was interrelated to at least some degree, even the combat stimulant. What had once merely been an attempt to reduce a soldier’s need for post-procedural treatments and enhance the integration of their new prosthetics had nearly blossomed into a serum that could push that same soldier’s combat capabilities far beyond the witless mechanical hordes of the Cordaean army. Doctor Gil was so close to a breakthrough, but things were always going poorly for him, and today was no different.

As Gil grabbed his most important notes, he scanned the office again. Something felt off. It was too quiet. The odd rumble from an outdoor explosion was to be expected from time to time, but this was the main HQ building. Why weren’t there men running around out in the halls? It felt like that entire wing of the building had been abandoned, which put him on edge. If no one was around, who was going to protect him?

“Blast,” the doctor hissed, opening his desk’s front drawer and pulling out a small pistol. He would just have to protect himself. He was no fighter, but he had no intention of becoming a victim while everyone else was distracted. With everything he needed from his office, Gil carefully peeked out into the hallway. No one was out there, not even a custodian drone. Once he was sure the coast was clear, the doctor started running. His next stop was the Laboratory Wing.

When Doctor Gil made it to the labs, he quietly slipped into the room set aside specifically for him and his assistants.

“Danger,” one of the assistants warned Gil with its a scratchy, artificial voice. The automaton was dressed like a lab assistant, but little else about it seemed pruden. Its face was little more than an array of cameras. Its arms could somewhat mimic the shape of a pruden hand, but in that moment they were branching out from the elbow, multiple tools and pliers ready to handle whatever Doctor Gil needed. “Please proceed to the shelter.”

“Ah,” Doctor Gil muttered, recalling a minor detail he’d forgotten. There were procedures in place should Fort Baldi come under attack. Under normal conditions, if the Cordaeans or anyone else tried to reach the base, nearby assets would swoop in and handle them. The civilians and noncombat personnel would only need to hunker down where they were and stay out of the garrison’s way. If the fortress walls were being shelled or otherwise compromised, noncombat personnel and the like were to head deep into the underground facilities, assuming they weren’t already there. The explosions Gil heard definitely implied Fort Baldi was being hit directly.

Doctor Gil had two mechanical assistants assigned to him and both were there in the lab. Neither were privy to his combat stimulant research, nor were they allowed to interact with any of the materials. Gil always managed to keep them both busy with the work the higher ups actually wanted done. They were just machines, and far from questioning. With them here, Gil could secure his research materials and then get to safety. Whoever left him that note wasn’t going to get the chance to get to him.

“First, I want you both to scour the lab,” the doctor let slip a faint grin, “Anything referencing-“

A noise that sounded almost like metal clashing hard against concrete made Gil swallow the instructions and make a gesture at his assistants. He wasn’t alone after all. The Doctor quietly made for the door and peaked outside. He looked west, the direction he came from, and the main route out of the laboratory wing. Nothing. When he looked east, down the far end of the Laboratory Wing, he froze in terror. The lights were out, save for the ones at the T junction. Standing there was a dark figure that, even standing under the light, was as black as a shadow. The doctor almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Was it the one who wrote that note and left it in his office? No Munican soldier wore all black, nor did they set such a twisted and grim scene to try and intimidate people. Gil gulped hard, finding it nearly impossible to look away. There was no chance the figure was just standing there, oblivious to the lone scientist in the area. He knew the doctor was there and watching him.

With greater effort than he could have imagined, Gil pulled his head back through the door and closed it. “No time left. They’re here.”

The doctor’s knees were shaking uncontrollably. He wished that note had been a prank, but things were undeniably beginning to bear out.

“Doctor, please repeat your instructions,” the assistant chirped.

“They’re here for me. There’s no way out of here.” Gil put together and dismissed half a dozen escape plans in the space of a heartbeat, quickly realizing that his only way out of this situation was to create a diversion. Running was useless without one. Briefly, he eyed both of his assistants. “Your instructions, of course.” The doctor’s grin returned as he thought of a way out. He could make this work, if only because his assistants were good listeners and knew know fear.

While he didn’t know how much time he would have to prepare, Gil wasted none of it. He relayed each assistant’s orders even as he helped them gather his battle stimulant research and a briefcase to put it all in. The plan was quite simple. One assistant would come bursting out of the lab running to the west, and the other would be going east in the direction of that imposing black figure. Even if they had him blocked off at both ends of the hall by the time he made his escape, all the doctor had to do was gauge the situation as the assistants charged and take the better looking route out of the laboratory wing. He still had his pistol, so he was far from harmless. He could and would defend himself if they tried to stop him.

Doctor Gil kept checking his watch, expecting his plan to fall apart at any moment. It was taking far too long to get everything ready, but they were nearly done. His assistants approached him and handed over the final documents they could find, and Gil quickly put them in the briefcase along with four metal cylinders and a small chemical storage unit. “There!” He slammed the briefcase shut and motioned for the door. “We’re leaving. Now. Start running to the shelter ahead of me and tackle anyone you can’t identify. I’ll be right behind you.” One of them, anyway, the doctor shrugged in amusement.

Just as his assistants reached the door and one of them tried to open it, mana tinged a splendid blue rushed up from their feet and overtook them both. Both automata fell to the floor as a tall black figure materialized out of the mana behind them. The only thing the doctor could make out at first was the faint blue light coming from the eyes of the figure’s mask. Blue colored mana was rare among mages, but even more so among soldiers, which made Gil fear the worst. He clung to the briefcase with one hand while the other grasped desperately for the small pistol in his coat.

“Doctor Gil,” the masked figure spoke, his voice deep and almost morbidly inquisitive, as if he’d found exactly the person he was planning to …

“Stay back,” Gil jutted his gun at the man. The doctor knew exactly what he was. He was a Blue Ghost, one of Calig’s most powerful field agents. Trained soldiers were like children throwing rocks to them, and Gil didn’t even want to imagine how helpless he was compared to a soldier. His assistants hadn’t even gotten the chance to attack. All he had left was a gun that probably wouldn’t do much.

Just as the masked man took a step forward, Gil panicked and pulled the trigger. By some miracle, he managed to keep his eyes open, but by another, this one favoring the masked man, the bullet passed harmlessly through his body. The only sign that magic had been involved was the brief but noticeable flicker, as the masked man’s body vanished in a faint blue haze and just as quickly returned.

Blue ghost indeed.

“Stay away from me!” Gil fired another shot, but he only hit the door. He fired again and stumbled backward as yet another bullet phased through the masked intruder. He caught himself on a counter, but just before he could fire another shot, a hand appeared out of the corner of his eye. In the time it took for the second blue ghost’s body to fully appear, the doctor’s pistol, his only means of defending himself, had been ripped out of his hand with practiced ease. He dropped his briefcase as the second ghost twisted his arm around his back and pressed him face first down onto the counter.

“No, stop! Please!”

“It’s him,” the second ghost said, his voice not quite as deep as the first’s. His tone was impatient, irritated, as if the doctor wasn’t worth the trouble. Gil feared that if he was going to be killed in a moment, this second ghost would be the one pulling the trigger.

“Good,” the first said.

“What do you want? Please just tell me,” Gil pleaded, “I’ll answer any questions you have, just please don’t kill me.”

The second ghost suddenly pulled the doctor up and turned him to face the first ghost. He released him, but Gil was paralyzed in shock and fell onto his rear with his back against the counter. He almost didn’t feel the pain from such a hard landing; his own fear had him by the throat as much as either of his attackers.

“Even better.”

Gil could tell this blue ghost was smiling, even behind that mask and the mana that was churning up around him.

“Let’s get right to it then.”




“You’re Doctor Alfred Gil, the medical scientist overseeing the Crimson Tide Project.”

The doctor could only nod as the first of the Blue Ghosts he’d encountered approached him. Calig was more than just interested in Munican affairs. They put in the effort to learn about his project in particular, the one he was trying so desperately to salvage after his superiors were completely entranced by the Cordoba. At least this man didn’t sound as likely to kill him anymore.

The mana that surged around the Calman ghost’s body steadily quieted and disappeared. The man standing in front of him now was clad all in black, from his combat fatigues to his armor, mask, helmet, and even his weapons. He was equipped for anything an infiltrator might have to deal with in Fort Baldi; had a pistol holstered on his right hip, a short sword of distinctly Calman design on the left, a knife sheathed on his chest, what must have been a full set of flash grenades on his belt, and a submachinegun tucked away on his lower back. Gil only saw the barrel, but that was the most common way to carry a submachinegun in the eastern part of the continent.

“We have our own intelligence, but there are some details I’d like you to fill in for us. What happens after that depends on what you can tell us.”

“Explain the project from your point of view and keep it brief,” the second ghost said impatiently, “We’re on a schedule.”

Where to even begin, Gil mulled it over as he picked himself up off the floor. He decided to focus on the pivotal point in his research that put him on the track to the Crimson Tide Project’s core methodology, as well as inspired its name. He didn’t know what kind of background these two men had, only that they were trained killers with a mission they would fulfill regardless of who got in their way. If he was going to keep things brief, he would also have to keep them simple. No stalling for time or annoying them with details and explanations neither could really appreciate.

“Brief then. While I was researching alternative means of speeding up the recovery process for prosthesis recipients, I discovered that certain kinds of malevan material can be used to not only aid in a soldier’s recovery, but also better integrate the prosthetic bridges with the subject’s own nervous system.” They probably weren’t brutes, but the doctor could only hope none of that had gone over their heads. He continued at the first Calman’s nod. “Most untreated malevan material is toxic to us, but there is a type of hive species out in the Arenas Desert that has a somewhat different effect–when properly managed, of course.”

“I don’t like where this is going,” the other Calman practically growled, “What happened to your test subjects?”

As afraid as he was, Doctor Gil still couldn’t help but cast a glare at him. While he accepted that what he was doing was on the fringe of medical science, the implication that he had somehow crossed a line and become a madman pursuing unethical treatments was just offensive. More importantly, what he was doing had more than just military applications. His research, given a chance, might someday turn the tide against the countless malevan-induced diseases plaguing modern society. Once this methodology was fully understood, they could finally fight fire with fire in a way that actually gave tangible results, and negligible side effects. That’s what Gil’s findings suggested, at least. With all funding diverted from the Crimson Tide Project, his progress had slowed dramatically.

Gil cleared his throat and tried to keep himself composed. For all intents and purposes, he was a hostage. It wouldn’t do him any good to be aggressive with these two. “There have been no negative reports from any of the volunteers. Moreover, with all my funding taken away, I haven’t been able to continue the project.” The doctor remembered midway through his rebuttal that his project was technically suspended. The Calman ghosts were asking him to explain the details to them, though. Something felt off again, but he didn’t know exactly what. He also didn’t know what he should and shouldn’t say, both for the sake of his project, and his own life. The Calmans in general weren’t fans of malevan research; they were the ones that popularized the term ‘crimson’ in reference to malevans to begin with.

“But you are still working on it,” the first Calman ghost said insistently, “You’re already in the trial phase.”

How much did they know? Gil was hoping it was just a bluff, but if he got himself caught being dishonest, he doubted he would be leaving the laboratory wing with his life. “Y-yes,” Gil admitted. He just hoped that being open and honest with them was the right thing to do. They could just as well kill him for spearheading research their superiors hated as being a useless source of information. This was a delicate balancing act at best and a roll of the dice at worst.

“Who are the new test subjects?” the impatient one demanded.

“The test subjects?” Gil asked on reflex.

“You’re still doing the research, so who are the lab rats?”

“I …” Gil found himself on the edge of laughter. The Calmans may have known about the project in general, but they had no idea how thoroughly the doctor’s efforts were being undermined. The fear quickly came back and helped Gil rein himself in in time to avoid laughing at the two ghosts. He didn’t know why they were so interested in the test subjects in particular, but there weren’t any hidden away anywhere. Once the project was suspended, all of the volunteers were moved to a different base and were supposedly being monitored closely for a time. Once they were deemed fit for duty, they might even be transferred back to Fort Baldi. The place would certainly need fortifying after this latest attack, Gil noted.

As for testing the latest version of the combat stimulant, there was only one test subject now: the doctor himself. Gil was hesitant to reveal that much to the ghosts. What if they saw the test subjects as contaminated and simply wanted to kill them? How was he going to get out of this if he revealed that he was the only loose end, or worse, one of their extermination targets?

“Stop stalling. Who are they?”

The doctor’s life might be hanging on the answer, but he’d already held back for too long. Anything he said now would be under serious scrutiny, more so than anything else he’d told them up to this point. “W-what do you want me to say? I haven’t been able to find any new test subjects because the project is suspended.” Not so much an answer as an explanation of just how bad the situation was for the Crimson Tide Project, but he had to say something. “The original volunteers were shipped off for close monitoring some time ago.”

“Original?” The first Calman tilted his head slightly. He wasn’t even trying to sell it as genuine curiosity.

Doctor Gil cursed his own wording. He was caught.

Sort of.

The ghosts didn’t know that he was the one and only test subject left for the project, but now they had enough clues to figure it out for themselves.

“If the project’s suspended,” the second started again, “then who’s involved now?”

“N-no one,” Gil said in a strained half whisper, “I’m the only one involved now. Just, please.” Feeling cornered, the doctor slowly raised his hands up, pleading with them both. “I don’t know why you’re so interested in test subjects, but I haven’t hurt anyone.”

“I see.” That seemed to satisfy the first. “We’ve got a few minutes left. Explain what your latest testing involved, what the results were, and what you’re aiming to achieve in the final product.”

“I’ll-,” the doctor hesitated, taking a moment to try and read the man as best he could. It was impossible to tell what he really wanted. The second was obviously frustrated with him, or maybe the situation itself, but Gil didn’t really know why, or how to avoid making the man’s disposition even worse. “I’ll do my best.”

The latest version of the combat stimulant for the Crimson Tide Project was designated M3CT-2XS. According to Doctor Gil, the animal tests had gone well, though he hadn’t been able to perform very many of them. Now he was ready for testing on prudens, rather, testing on himself. He had a significant batch of M3CT-2XS, as well as four autoinjectors. Originally, Gil planned to use all four autoinjectors on himself over the course of a single month, carefully monitor his condition, document his findings, and tweak the 3XS version of the stimulant accordingly. Somehow, Doctor Gil had avoided being shot in the course of explaining all of this to the two Calman ghosts.

Gil was surprised by just how good he was starting to feel speaking about his ideas so openly. The Calmans were foreigners armed to the teeth, ready to put him down at a moment’s notice, but there was no one else the doctor could be so forthcoming with. It was ironic and a little unfortunate that they were Calmans. This might have been Gil’s one chance to sell someone from outside Munica on his combat stimulant, but the Calmans hated malevan lifeforms of any kind. That hatred spanned thousands of years across countless tribes and city-states. One bold, optimistic scientist wasn’t going to change their minds. At least, he thought to himself, he was still alive.

Once Gil told them everything he could, the first Calman turned toward the damaged laboratory door. “If you’re the only test subject here, then you’re coming with us.”

“With you?” Gil didn’t know why they would want to take him with them. It didn’t make much sense for a team of death commandos to come all this way just to hear his side of the story and then leave, but he certainly wasn’t expecting to be extracted by the end. Murdered in cold blood, certainly, but not whisked away to who knows where. Looking back on the situation, and remembering the note, maybe being abducted was always the plan. Perhaps the fear that came with being hunted left him unable to fully read the situation.

“The materials are one thing,” the second Calman said, “but getting a high profile target like him out is going to be a challenge.”


“Wait,” Gil said, looking over to the ghost that disarmed him earlier, “Weren’t you prepared for this? Wasn’t that the plan all along? Weren’t you confirming who I was just now or is it only the test subjects you’re interested in? And what about that note you left me?”

The two men glanced at each other briefly, then looked back at the doctor. Whatever that look was, Gil could already feel the honesty in the room evaporating.

“Don’t worry about that, Doctor. Just grab that briefcase of yours and get ready to move.”

“You did stuff it with everything regarding your project, right?” the impatient ghost said, “Including the autoinjectors?” There weren’t any loose ends with these two, apparently.

Gil nodded. “Naturally, but still … at least answer one question for me.”

“We aren’t telling you where you’re headed.”

Admittedly, Gil would have liked to know that too, but it wasn’t the answer to the question that was burning brightest in him at that moment. It was the question he had before, back even before the attack. He couldn’t fathom why anyone would leave him a note warning him that they were coming for him specifically. The men who presumably did that were right here. If he just figured out why, he might be able to put together their motives himself. He might finally be able to fully grasp the situation. Or maybe it was just a rationalization, something to justify Doctor Gil’s eccentric nature. He couldn’t leave a mystery alone to save his life.

“Just please tell me why you warned me you were coming. It doesn’t make any sense and it’s been driving me insane trying to understand.”

“That’s what you’re worried about right now? Are you serious?”

Doctor Gil squinted at the second ghost, listening carefully for any clues. He couldn’t be sure, but they were both being just dismissive enough to seem evasive. They had him, he could no more expose or embarrass them than he could fight them, so why avoid the question? Unless …

“You didn’t leave me that note, did you?” The words left Gil’s lips entirely of their own accord. He could only stand there, dumbfounded by the fact that there wasn’t just one group after him, but two.

The first ghost turned away and brought two fingers up to his helmet, right where his left ear was. “Red, is the door still open?”

“Keep quiet from now on,” the second ghost warned Gil.

“Good. We’ve got everything, but there may be a challenger on site. Keep your eyes peeled.”

A ‘challenger’ was an interesting way to refer to a third party, the doctor noted.

“Let’s move.”




Doctor Gil had imagined himself being escorted at gunpoint when he left his lab. One of the ghosts would take point while the other, probably the impatient one, kept a gun muzzle poking him just a little too hard in the back. That was how Gil pictured this extraction operation playing out before they were underway. The way they approached him in the first place was a clue the doctor had overlooked, and so now he was making his own way northwest inside the HQ building. Alone. The two blue ghosts were still around, somewhere, but they were staying out of sight. Gil figured that any time they had to cross through areas with no cover or too much light, they would simply dematerialize their bodies like before, moving from one hiding spot to another completely unnoticed.

Every person Doctor Gil met on his way to the exit tried to turn him back around toward the shelter. Every time the doctor had to try to make up some urgent matter he had to attend to first. The first time he wasn’t convincing enough for an allied soldier, and he was taken by the arm. The soldier had every intention of dragging Gil to safety whether he liked it or not. Instead, the dutiful soldier hit the ground like a log when a faint wisp of blue carved a fine line through the air and across the back of his neck. Witnessing someone die so suddenly, and without the slightest bit of warning, was terrifying. These men were even more dangerous than the doctor could have imagined. Gil made sure to have a convincing story ready after that. He didn’t want to see this again; he didn’t want anyone unfortunate enough to bump into him to die just because they insisted on helping.

The situation only got worse once Gil was outside of the HQ building. It seemed like everything on the far side was on fire, and the gunfire and shouting was becoming even more intense. The ground shook as the HQ building was shelled by the Cordaean armas. No wonder people were eager to get him underground.

“Where to now?” Gil asked the two ghosts escorting him. He almost didn’t notice the trail of blue mana being drawn in front of him on the ground. It raced out and toward the warehouses, marking his way. For a brief moment, Gil contemplated going some other way. Could they catch him? The two ghosts weren’t treating him poorly, per se, but there was still no guarantee he would survive at his destination. The fate of his research was even more uncertain, but Gil doubted the Calmans would want to help him complete it. If he went with them, the Crimson Tide Project might be doomed.

Despite his fears for the project, Gil couldn’t risk running now. He knew only as much about the capabilities of Calig’s Blue Ghosts as they were willing to let him see; no doubt they had even more cruel tricks and methods hidden away for people that wanted to be difficult. In the end, Doctor Gil still valued his own life over the fruits of his research. After all, what was once made could be made again. As long as he was alive, there was hope. He followed the trail toward the warehouses, hoping against hope that none of his allies were waiting there.

Just as he was getting close to the buildings, close to safety, Gil felt a strong warmth in his chest. He felt dizzy. A dark vignette closed in on him, narrowing his vision more and more until he could hardly see anything at all. Gil stopped trying to run and hunched over. For a split second, he thought he remembered feeling like this before. It was well over a month ago, but it hadn’t been nearly this intense. Fearing he was about to pass out, Gil crouched down. Then he heard a shell coming down nearby. All the doctor heard before his hearing left him was a loud pop.

Doctor Gil could feel himself lying on his back. He could hear men talking over him. His limbs ached, but his right arm in particular. If he didn’t know better, Gil could have sworn his arm was fractured. Maybe it was. He didn’t have a clue what was going on, where he was, or how he’d gotten there. Once he opened his eyes, the situation only got worse. The second ghost, the one that was always so impatient with him, the one that had effortlessly taken away his only means of defense, was standing directly over him with a gun drawn. Gil could see straight down the black barrel and up to the blue eyed ghost wielding it.

Was this it?

“Don’t move,” the ghost warned.

Gil could barely move his lips, but he had to ask, even at the risk of dying here and now, “What happened?”

“You tell me,” the ghost spat back.

“Help him up.” The doctor recognized the first ghost’s voice, but that wasn’t the one who came up from above–rather behind–him and hauled him up to his feet.

Gil’s arm was hurting even more, now. He started nursing it with his good arm and looked back to try and see who hauled him up. Whoever it was, there were at least three ghosts accounted for now. The doctor was startled by the site of the third ghost. He was dressed similarly to the first two, but his goggles gave off a haunting red glow. Did Calig also field ‘red ghosts’ or was this blue ghost special somehow? Regardless, the red one made the doctor far more wary than the others, even the one that still had him at gunpoint.

“You said he was the only test subject left,” The red ghost said to the first, the one Gil was almost certain was in charge, now.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the leader said.

“I could sense the mana building up from here. He’s a risk. Need more information before the extraction.”

Doctor Gil could tell a surprising amount about the red one just from the way he spoke. That one was emotionless, focused only on the mission. He wasn’t so much concerned with the process or the methods as with the results. Gil was beginning to suspect that he’d done something ridiculous while he was disoriented, but the red one didn’t really care, so long as they stayed on track. This group of ghosts was starting to make more sense to the doctor. The first ghost he’d encountered was the leader, calm, cool, and reasonably focused. The second ghost was more emotionally driven, but just as capable in a fight, and an invaluable asset to this team. The red ghost was probably the most capable, that or he had some special ability or a set of skills that gave him unique value. The doctor didn’t know if there were any more ghosts, but even if there weren’t, these three seemed capable of taking on just about anything Munica could throw at them. This must have been close to a regular, routine extraction for them.

“First thing’s first,” the leader said, bringing the doctor’s attention to him with a gesture, “Something was wrong with you, Doctor. Shark came to get you out of the open and you went for his gun. After he put you on the ground, you passed out. He carried you the rest of the way. Now it’s your turn to tell us some things.”

“I … did what?” Granted, if Gil thought he had a snowball’s chance on the sun of escaping this situation, he might at least try to think of a plan first, but he wasn’t stupid enough to ever try to disarm a special forces agent, and certainly not one of these three. What in the world had come over him? Why would he do something so embarrassingly, so unfathomably stupid? He had to be making this up.

“Has anything like this happened to you before? Are there any gaps in your memory, or times you felt off since you started testing the stimulant on yourself?”

Good questions, if a bit cutting, Gil admitted. Was he experiencing a side effect of his own combat stimulant? Was it causing him to act differently at times and retain no memory of the event? If that was the case, why hadn’t someone pointed that out to him before now? Why hadn’t his research been exposed yet? Why wasn’t he being closely monitored from inside a cell? No, Gil concluded, this might not be the first time he’d had an ‘episode,’ but it was almost certainly the first time he had ever done something like this. No one would trust him if he went for an allied soldier’s weapon, whatever the reason.

The doctor shook his head. “There were times where I’ve felt off … a few moments that are vague to me, but they would never let me roam or work at all if something like this happened.”

“Not necessarily,” Red cut in, “We’re not your allies. You have every reason to want to protect yourself.”

That had the ring of truth to it. Maybe Doctor Gil wasn’t completely insane during these supposed episodes he was having. Maybe he felt safe, surrounded by security personnel, as well as his automaton assistants. Aside from the shells raining down inside the fortress walls, the blue ghosts were the only threat to his life at Fort Baldi. That had to contribute to what happened.

“We could just knock him out and carry him,” Shark offered.

Not helping the case, Gil bitterly mused.

“I want to know if his change was based internally or externally,” Red said, looking at Gil, “If it’s the latter, then knocking him out is inadvisable.”

“Agreed,” the leader nodded.

“By the way, Red,” Shark made a soft pivot, “what did you find in his notes?”

“The notes?” Gil looked around and quickly spotted his briefcase. Not only was it open, but his research materials were completely out of order. He gasped when he saw that one of the autoinjectors was missing. Red had it right there in his left hand. “What are you doing? Why do you have that?” Surely they could understand the briefcase was better left closed. He wasn’t even surprised they had gotten the thing open in spite of the combination lock, though the doctor did suspect the lock was broken now.

“Never put all your eggs in one basket,” Red said casually. He slid the autoinjector into one of the many pouches on his vest.

Well, at least they weren’t intent on destroying everything. Still, this hardly seemed like the time or place to be rifling through his the doctor’s things. “What are you people trying to do exactly?”

“In a word?” the leader shrugged, “research. We couldn’t wait for you to wake up to find out what happened.”

“The doctor may not be dangerous,” Red explained, “but the compound he came up with is. The physical substance is working fine, but what it does to mana is mostly undocumented. I’m guessing he wasn’t accounting for the communicative properties. It’s a shame there isn’t much he can tell us.”

Gil flinched. That was most certainly not true. “I more than accounted for everything. The hive creatures my materials were taken from were processed correctly and thoroughly. They can’t attune the mana around them beyond the acceptable parameters.”

“That doesn’t fill me with confidence,” Shark said derisively.

“Don’t underestimate crimson psionics,” Red warned the doctor.

The leader of the blue ghosts knelt down over the briefcase and lined up the research pages inside. “I think that’s all Doctor Gil has for us.” He closed the case and stood back up with it. “Next time he does something like that, Shark knows what to do. We’ll figure out the rest once we’re back at base.”

“What happens to me, then?” Gil asked, though a part of him really didn’t want to know. The ghosts had been interested in the test subjects of the Crimson Tide Project before, but now there was strong evidence that something was terribly wrong with them, something terribly wrong with him. The doctor feared for his safety more than ever now, not just because Shark had an excuse to harm him, but because a new threat was lurking within. He didn’t quite understand the implications yet, but he was quickly putting together a grim picture in the back of his mind. Were his days numbered from the moment he began to test the 2XS stimulant on himself?

No one answered him this time. Shark shoved Gil forward as their leader and Red made for the exit.


Doctor Gil and the ghosts weren’t five steps from the warehouse when another Cordaean artillery shell came down. He must have had his eyes covered just a moment too long; when he looked around he was alone again. The doctor quickly ran over to a container near the side entrance to the warehouse and hunkered down. He didn’t know where he was supposed to go from there, but if the ghosts were serious about taking him away, Gil wouldn’t have to wait long for guidance. He made doubly sure not to ignore anything strange happening on the ground nearby or at his feet. It was a faint mana trail that led him toward the warehouse to begin with.

“My day is only going to get worse, isn’t it?” Gil muttered to himself. Normally it was the suffering of his insufferable colleagues and the elitists in his camp that amused the doctor. He couldn’t help but find his own situation a bit comical, even if it was becoming increasingly morbid by the moment. Between all the death and violence surrounding him was an honest attempt to use his knowledge for something good. He knew that the Crimson Tide Project had the ultimate potential of turning the curses of the malevan lifeforms infesting the world into a blessing for the masses, but there were many steps and phases required to get to that point. One obstacle after another hindered him, and now the Calmans, the people that were by far the least receptive to malevan research, were making off with him and everything relating to it. Gil didn’t know enough about their intentions to be sure of anything yet, but that ignorance was the only thing left giving him any hope for the project.

Doctor Gil wasn’t waiting long in the end. He noticed a faint blue light at his feet. It started moving as soon as it had his attention, leaving behind a hazy, fleeting trail of mana. Gil followed it, making sure to keep himself low and hunched over. It wasn’t good for his back, but he didn’t want anyone to notice him sneaking around in the middle of the battle. He could barely see anything as he followed the ghost trail toward the western side of Fort Baldi.

Once Gil made it safely past the various containers, the small blue light he was following nearly left him behind. He had no choice but to pick himself up and start running after it full tilt to keep up. Gil didn’t know what was going on, but he thought calling out to it to slow down would be useless, and taking the opportunity to run away might be just as useless, probably even dangerous. The light was leading him toward a small building that appended the inner western wall. Doctor Gil rarely toured Fort Baldi, only being familiar with the HQ building and a few others nearby, so he didn’t know what was inside the small structure or what its purpose was. Maybe it was a convenient storehouse or an armory for the guards manning the walls. The light led him right up to the entrance, and just as he arrived, the door cracked open. It was completely dark inside.

“Where are you taking me?” Gil asked.

Instead of an answer, the doctor felt someone running up behind him. He couldn’t turn in time and was tackled through the door, which promptly shut behind them.

“Don’t ask questions,” Shark said, rising up off of the doctor, “just follow.”

Gil was in far too much pain to respond at first, letting out a confused groan.

“That the doctor?”

Gil glanced toward the new voice and saw a fourth ghost, or at least what he thought was a ghost. The fourth was the most unusual of the bunch. He was dressed just like the others, but he was unmasked, a young dirty blonde with a notably thicker Calman accent than Shark. The doctor wasn’t expecting to ever see one of their faces. Depending on what they intended to do with him, that could be a very bad thing.

“It’s him,” the leader said.

Gil looked to see him with one hand on the door handle and the other holding the doctor’s briefcase with his samples and all his research materials.

“Sable, how’s your mask?” Red asked the fourth, unmasked ghost. It seemed like all of the ghosts had short, pointed code names.

“Well,” Sable shrugged and tossed the damaged equipment over to Red, “if we didn’t have tools at the base, I’d say damage is total. I can’t fix it here. Goggles took some shrapnel, the filter is broken, and the power supply is leaking. I’m lucky that blast didn’t break my neck.”

“And you’re sure the only one who saw your face was Sandoval?”

“Her and this madman,” Sable gestured at the doctor. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to deal with her. She left to fight the armas, already. At least he’s not going anywhere.”

Gil almost looked away defensively. Was he not supposed to see any of them unmasked, then? Why was he forced into this situation? “That wasn’t my fault. I didn’t mean to-” “Relax, Doctor,” the leader of the ghosts gently cut him off.

Shark grabbed Gil and hauled him up to his feet. “If we wanted you dead, you would be.”

“Then can I ask what you plan to do with me?” Gil pleaded. He wasn’t expecting it to work this time, but these men clearly weren’t a bunch of a sadistic thugs, enjoying the stress the doctor was under. Surely the leader had at least one sympathetic bone in his body. “I understand that you won’t tell me where we’re going, but will you at least tell me what you intended to do with any test subjects you ‘extracted’ from Fort Baldi? You can at least tell me that much, can’t you?”

Shark and the fourth ghost glanced at their leader.

The doctor waited, his eyes still pleading.

After a long moment, the first ghost said, “We’re not taking you out of here just to harm you, Doctor.”

His words felt sincere. Gil even detected some of the sympathy he was looking for in their leader’s tone. Even so, he was being unhelpfully vague, and no doubt on purpose. The doctor doubted he would be getting anything even approaching a clearer picture until they were safely back at whatever base the ghosts were using. “So, where I’m going, it won’t matter that I’ve seen one of your faces, but I’m not going to be harmed. It sounds like I’m off to a Calig prison.” No, Gil mentally corrected himself. “More likely a black site.”

“Cheer up, Doctor,” Shark said, clearly amused by something or other, “At least you’re not going to die. Maybe you’ll even get some real answers if you cooperate.”

Gil turned to Shark, trying to make some kind of eye contact, but the blue light from the ghost’s goggles was as much a wall for the ghosts to sit behind as the masks they wore. The doctor felt like he was staring into the void itself. There was more to their attire than he first realized. Even unmasked, there was something off about Sable, something the doctor couldn’t quite place. It felt like the distance he would have to cross to truly understand these four men was almost infinite. Were they really prudens at all?

“The shelling stopped,” Red said, looking toward the ceiling.

“… so it has,” the leader affirmed.

“Door’s still open,” Sable said, making for the far side of the room they were in.

The door on the other side should lead to the inside of the fortress walls, by Doctor Gil’s own estimation. He had some theories coming together about how they were going to escape. Most Calmans had a significant vas ancestry, which gave them innate abilities with Destruction magic. To what degree they could wield it came down to just how much vas blood ran in their veins. Considering that these four men were Blue Ghosts, and not ‘ordinary irregulars,’ Gil suspected they were all true bloods, vas with enough genetic purity to have the highest potential in Destruction magic possible.

Add on to that power their special training and conditioning, and these men wouldn’t really see a fortress wall as an obstacle. If anything, it was something they could use to trap or bar others. Gil imagined that one of the ghosts had made a convenient tunnel just large enough for Shark to drag him through. If not, they could always make one now, but the doctor heard something from the leader of the ghosts, earlier. He heard him ask if a door was open. He didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded like code, a way to reference their escape route. When Sable opened that door, the other ghosts began to follow, and Shark gave Doctor Gil a light shove to get him moving. Whether figurative or literal, the door was still open, and at some point soon, they were all going to step through it.

“You can’t be serious.” Doctor Gil barely managed to get the words out.

“Try to roll when you land so you don’t break your legs,” Shark warned as he leaned over the ledge they were standing on.

“Sorry, Doctor,” the leader of the ghosts said, “but the safest way down is to jump. The Municans haven’t cleared out this vein yet, so there are still crystals everywhere.”

I noticed,” Gil said wearily.

They were in a large subterranean tunnel. The Calmans and the Cordaeans referred to them as crimson veins, due to the monsters that created them, as well as the deep red mana crystals that grew out of the walls years after their passing. The Arenas Desert was full of tunnels just like these, both new and old, and none of them safe to be in for long thanks to those crystals. They were supposedly corrupted, though that meant different things to different people. Doctor Gil had no idea there was a tunnel like this running beneath the western wall of Fort Baldi. That brought whatever network this tunnel was a part of entirely too close to Fort Baldi’s underground facilities. The doctor supposed the higher ups wouldn’t want that kind of information leaked, not before they could bury the tunnel or otherwise secure it.

“Do not touch the crystals. Don’t even graze them.”

“What’s a vein doing here in the first place? How did you find out about it?” Gil asked while he looked for a relatively safe spot to land. He was coming up short until Sable leaped down. That was when he realized just how high up they really were. He thought the tunnel was only fifty feet high at most, but it was actually closer to a hundred. His twenty-foot leap was starting to look closer to forty. “I … there is no way I can do this.”

“I’ll catch him,” Sable called up to the group, “Just jump down here. Aim right where I’m standing. You’ll be alright.”

“I don’t want to hear that from the one ghost that lost his mask,” Gil blurted out. He realized too late that he was getting too familiar with his captors. Just because Sable was unmasked, a young, mostly harmless looking man, didn’t mean he was any less dangerous than their leader, or Red, or even Shark. If he was with them, he had to be dangerous. His damaged mask spoke more to his endurance than anything, now that the doctor was considering the situation.

“Harsh. I’ll remember that,” Sable smirked.

“Hurry up and go,” Shark shoved Gil again, nearly over the edge, this time.

“C-careful! And do you honestly expect me to jump after what he just said?” Gil tried to steady himself as he turned to the leader. “You, commander or whatever you are, isn’t there another way?”

“Vesper,” the leader of the ghosts corrected, “Just trust Sable and don’t touch the crystals.”

Red leaped down, and he stuck the landing effortlessly.

Shark was next, and rather than aim away from one of the crystalline spikes, he wrapped his body in destruction magic and plowed through it on his way down, reducing half of the corrupted mana to dust.

“Get a running start. You’ll be fine,” Vesper promised.

The doctor stepped away from the ledge and tried to find as much room as he could. He tried to keep an eye on where Sable was. Vesper stood there waiting, which Gil realized was specifically to keep him from running the other way. The ghosts would need time to get back up to the ledge if they had to chase him down, so their leader would be the last one to jump, once the doctor was accounted for. They weren’t taking any chances, it seemed.

Gil took a deep breath once he was ready, and started running toward the end of the ledge as fast and as hard as he could. All the aches and pains from that evening came roaring back to try and hinder him, but he powered through with the knowledge that he would probably be gravely injured, above and beyond anything else he’d endured if he didn’t do this right. Fear and adrenaline carried him through the air as he leaped over the ledge. He didn’t see Vesper running just behind him or leaping after him, so he was startled when the man’s hand pressed firmly against his back and then shoved him even further forward.

The doctor cried out as he reached the height of his leap and began to fall. Gil thought he was on target, but he didn’t really know for certain. He only saw Sable and the others waiting for him just beyond the red, faintly glowing outgrowths he was trying so hard not to impale himself on. Just before he came crashing down, a cloud of blue mana erupted, seemingly out of the ground, and Gil fell into it. His landing was so thoroughly cushioned by the energies the ghosts had put out, the doctor didn’t even notice his feet hit the ground. He found himself sitting back with his arms supporting him when the cloud of mana cleared. All four of them, Vesper, Shark, Red, and Sable, were standing there over him, ready to press on.

Doctor Gil picked himself up and asked, “How much farther, and how did you know about this place?”

“The same way most people find out about them,” Sable said, “strange seismic activity and a marked increase in worm sightings.”

“The Municans probably knew about this vein,” Red noted, “but they haven’t cleared out the crystals recently.”

Shark sighed as he took in more of their surroundings. “This vein goes north right into Munica itself, so they’re probably using it for something. Can’t be completely abandoned, or they would have buried it. It’s not linked to the vein the Cordaeans used to attack the Municans, though.”

“Wait a moment! The Cordaeans have one of the veins mapped?!” Gil supposed that would explain how they snuck up on Fort Baldi with such a large, and otherwise conspicuous force of armas. “We send teams into these tunnel systems all the time. We even leave monitors to prevent issues just like this. Fort Baldi is deep inside Munican territory; I don’t see how the Cordaeans could chart a tunnel before us.”

“That’s why you Municans are always so surprised,” Shark shook his head, “You can’t even imagine a scenario where the Cordaeans know something you don’t.”

“Not true.”

“And where are those monitors?” Shark asked, mockingly holding out his arms and looking all around, “I don’t see any down here.”

“You probably destroyed them on your way here,” Gil quietly stewed. Shark was by far his least favorite of the Calmans.

Suddenly the ground shook. Doctor Gil hit the ground almost instantly as the violent tremors only intensified. Back toward the ledge, they heard a massive explosion from up on the surface. Fire, smoke, and several tons of debris exploded out from the crawlspace they came through to reach the crimson vein. For all they knew, Fort Baldi had been completely bathed in fire.

“W-what did you people do this time?!” The underground facilities might have withstood the destruction if a bomb exploded on the surface, but the doctor suspected the blast had come from several levels down, likely just above the hangar containing the Munican colossus, Cordoba. Gil didn’t know if anyone from Fort Baldi had survived if that was the case. That sound, that shaking, all of it suggested a bomb large enough to crater the entire base. It was a miracle the vein itself wasn’t starting to collapse. Even so, he was furious. “A bomb?! Really? Why would you do that?!”

“That is the question you should be asking,” Sable held up a finger while he smiled innocently at the doctor.

“That wasn’t us, you idiot,” Shark snapped.

“Let’s move,” Vesper gave the order, “Eyes up in case shards start falling.” Fortunately there weren’t very many crystals overhead. They were mostly clustered on the lower walls and the ground. Ordinary rocks were coming loose and raining down with alarming regularity, however. “Keep moving.”

They all ran toward the southwest as the tremors continued. Doctor Gil had no idea they would be running for so long. It was another hour before they reached a point where they could come up to the surface again. By then, they were far enough away from Fort Baldi to be completely hidden in the night. They could still see the light of the fires raging behind the fort’s enormous protective walls. It made the explosion from before seem almost too easy.

Gil sat completely exhausted on the edge of a boulder with his head in his hands. He could only look up at the carnage for so long. He could only listen to the ghosts quietly pass around theories about the explosion for so long.

“Transport is inbound,” Red reported, “ETA, two minutes.”

“Good,” Vesper said.

For the ghosts, it was almost mission accomplished. Gil’s future was still up in the air, but at least the ghosts weren’t going to kill or torture him, not themselves at any rate. Vesper’s vagueness always left room for a third party to unexpectedly and violently put an end to the doctor and everything he was working toward. This wasn’t the time or place that any of the ghosts would want to take questions in, but Gil just couldn’t help it, now. He had been extracted from Fort Baldi with relative ease just prior to its destruction. The situation felt more real and perilous to him now than ever.

“Once you take me to wherever it is you’re taking me to, what are you going to do then? What am I going to do? Am I going to sit around waiting to know if I’ll live or die? Or become some kind of Calig experiment?”

“We’re practically safe,” Sable said on the doctor’s behalf.

“Practically is meaningless,” Shark said pointedly.

“It’s fine,” Vesper said, approaching Gil. “The reason we’re after your test subjects is because you put a unique compound into their bodies–and yours, one that can help us exterminate an entire species of crimsons. Once that’s done, it might be possible to purge that influence from your bodies. I can’t say with any certainty, and I’d rather not get your hopes up. Either way, the plan isn’t to kill you. The plan is to turn your research toward something more direct. The medical community can play catch up later.”

“So that’s what this is about,” Gil breathed, somewhat relieved to know what his destiny for the time being was, but also unnerved by certain other things Vesper had told him. The Calmans weren’t sure the hive species’ influence could be purged from his body, but they were going to take advantage of the situation in either case. The doctor and his research were being repurposed by Calig, for their purposes, for their war on the crimsons infesting the world.

“It’s time to put this nonsense between Munica and Cordaea behind you. There are far more important wars that need to be fought, for the sake of the world. Welcome to your new life, Doctor.”

To be continued