The Praedian Records

J.G. Phoenix

 Fleeing Victory




“Johann Fawkes. That was the name emblazoned on Sable’s dog tags. The doctor seemed to find that curious. Sable could only thank his lucky stars he hadn’t lost it on the mission. Now that he was lying still for the doctor’s exam, it was the only thing  left he was still wearing above the waist. That and a worrying amount of shrapnel. He was covered in fresh bruises and old scars, which made his upper arms and torso resemble a tapestry of pain. Despite being the youngest on the team, Sable was just as resilient as his fellow ghosts.

“You’re tougher than I would have given you credit for, Fawkes. About these dog tags …”

“That’s just what some people call me, Doctor. It’s Sable for you. Now what about my dog tags?”

“Fine. Sable, then. As for the dog tags, why are you wearing them? I thought Calig Special Forces wouldn’t want to risk their people being identified in the field. Certainly not while they’re operating inside a country they have no business being in.”

There was more to the modern set of dog tags than simple identification, but how much ‘tech’ a given nation wanted to cram into theirs was entirely up to them. On one end of the spectrum were the orthosian races, who by and large only needed them for regulatory purposes. They had their own ways of identifying the fallen. On the other end of the spectrum was Sula, whose standard issue dog tags functioned as everything from security keys to data drives for mission files. Doctor Gil didn’t know where Calig fell on the spectrum and Sable could tell just by his reaction.

Vesper stepped into the light illuminating the doctor and the examination table. He was still fully geared and ready to respond at a moment’s notice. “We would be in more trouble if they caught us without them.”

“I see. So even the Blue Ghosts of Calig are subject to the Accords,” Doctor Gil concluded with a concerned expression.

“It’s not so bad,” Sable smirked, “At least we can use our own gear. None of that nonsense Cordaea gets up to.”

“Which makes you all the easier to identify,” Gil said pointedly.

Sable chuckled, then looked up into Vesper’s expressionless mask. “I think he likes us.”

“I’m just trying to understand.”

“All you need to know is that this was a low risk operation for us,” Vesper said. “Dog tags were the least of our concerns going in there.”

“Low risk,” Gil sighed, looking over Sable’s chest one more time. Patches of drying blood made it difficult to see the full scope of the ghost’s injuries. “I won’t ask what makes for a high risk operation, Vesper. I honestly don’t want to know.”


“While we’re on the topic of low risk,” Sable frowned, and not because the doctor was finally starting to treat him, “there’s still that Sandoval girl. She found me after that shell came down. Red had to pull me out of that one. Are we going to have to deal with her?”

“Hmm,” Vesper glanced into the shadows of the trailer, “Let’s think about this. What’s the worst case scenario for us?”

Sable flinched as gil dislodged one of the larger fragments from his body, “Worst case? Worst case. She doesn’t shut up about seeing me. They have an inquiry. A sifter uses her memories to get a picture of my face and gear. They pass that information onto the politicians. The politicians make wild accusations about Calig blowing up Baldi Fortress to try to get concessions on other issues. I get burned because it all comes back to me in the end.”

Doctor Gil winced, clearly not liking how things could potentially play out. Sable wasn’t a fan of being ruined by such a strange turn of events, either. In this business, all it took was one bad day. “That’s the worst case scenario I can think of,” he finished.

“I suppose it would make sense for them to just blame you for that explosion. It’s easier than finding out who was truly behind it,” the doctor said, “Blaming Cordaea would also make sense, but wouldn’t accomplish much. You expect nothing less from the nation you’re warring with. Why bother with that when you can go after Calig, the Six Invincible Houses?”

“Ja, who wouldn’t want to take the Houses down a peg?”

“For now, we focus on reaching our destination,” Vesper said, “We can ask Command how they want us to handle it. Any sifters stationed at Fort Baldi are probably dead. If Command wants Sandoval dealt with, we still have time.”

“Lucky me,” Sable grinned widely.

About an hour later, Sable slid a t-shirt over his bandages and left the makeshift operating room for the front of the mobile HQ. He loved Doctor Gil’s initial reaction to the large vehicle. At the front was a mostly ordinary looking semi-truck, painted in white and black. It was hauling not one but two white trailers. The first was their mobile HQ itself, while the trailer in the back was a carefully disguised hangar for a small aerial transport, the same one that swooped in and whisked them away from the shadow of Fort Baldi. They had been on the road for hours since then and Sable was getting curious about their progress. It was time to pester the driver.

“Guten Abend~” Sable poked his head through the soft, flexible corridor leading into the back of the truck. He expected to see their driver, Jason, at the wheel. He didn’t expect to see Shark in the passenger seat rifling through Doctor Gil’s notes. Unlike Vesper, he was only wearing his combat fatigues and harness. His mask, helmet, and most of his armor were all absent. If not for a few shallow scars here and there, he resembled an ordinary, above average Calman of about age 30.

“You should rest while you can,” Shark spared him a brief glance before going back to Gil’s notes.

“Awfully cheerful for someone who just got slapped by Cordaean artillery,” Jason said, keeping his eyes on the road.

“If he wasn’t, I’d be worried.”

“So, how far to the port?” Sable asked.

“You guys sure took your time, but I can still get us there by sunup. As long as the authorities don’t come snoopin’ around, again.”

“Right.” Sable was just as curious about Gil’s notes as Shark was, but he hadn’t had the time to go through them himself. “Anything interesting in there?”

“I’m trying to figure out how the Municans process their crimson material,” Shark said absently. From the way he was shuffling pages around, he wasn’t finding much on it. “The doctor said they were thorough, but I don’t trust Municans not to cut corners when half of their people are making weapons and the other half are making excuses. He knows people were trying to sabotage him, but he just assumed any material he got his hands on was ready for use in the stimulant trials. Now he and his test subjects are dialed into that hive mind.”

Sable nodded soberly. Calig was a nation in perpetual war with the countless crimson species infesting the globe. Over the years, they had developed unique methods for dealing with them, as well as ironclad procedures for keeping their people safe from various kinds of contamination. Things were only getting worse in other nations, however. More sentient species were making moves against complacent nations like Cordaea and Munica. The industrial world had also reached the tail end of their mad attempt to incorporate crimson materials into all kinds of products. Food, cosmetics, medicines. If there was a market for something, some fool somewhere was trying to make a cheaper, more easily acquired crimson alternative. Disease often swept the countries unfortunate enough to legalize these industries inside their own borders, but supplying all of that material to begin with required special shipping and processing methods that were beyond what their systems could handle. Most of them cut corners somewhere along the line.

Munica’s crimson supply scheme was no different.

“Let’s just hope the good doctor can lead us to our targets,” Sable said. The Blue Ghosts served the highest of the Six Houses, Tenebrae and Krieger; the latter was committed to wiping out any near sapient crimson species as a top priority. The drones of the hive species they were currently hunting were regularly killed by Munican scouts, but supposedly, researchers and the like could always put in a request for the bodies. Once that material was processed–at least to the point of being safe to handle–it was turned over for scientific research. Calmans in general didn’t trust other nation’s capability to handle crimson material properly, but particularly the Six Houses and their field agents.

“I’m guessin’ your next job is to use the doctor to track down those crimsons and kill’em all?” Jason asked. Making conversation was all he could do to keep the nightlong drive interesting.

“Just the breeders. We might have to deal with the Sandoval girl first,” Sable said, slipping an apology into his tone.

“Sandoval?” Jason glanced at Sable through his rearview mirror, “Which one? Actually, never mind. They’re always together, so they’re more than you can handle, Sable.”

“That’s why I’m bringing Shark with me,” Sable patted Shark on the shoulder.

“Not my first choice of wingmen,” Jason teased.

‘Remind me again,” Shark sighed, “Are we trying to get rid of a witness or pick up foreign women?”

“You can’t do both?”

“Now that you mention it,” Sable’s trailed off as he rubbed his chin in recollection. He’d be lying if he said Fran Sandoval wasn’t attractive. “Maybe.”

“So why are you after Sandoval? Did she shoot you?”

Almost, Sable mused. “No. My mask took some damage so I was practically blind. Naturally, she saw me after I took it off. Got a good look at my face, too.”

“Doubt she was impressed,” Jason grinned from ear to ear.

“And yet,” Sable deftly countered, “neither of us could bear to shoot the other~”

“So that’s why you want me along,” Shark said, feigning clarity, “You need someone to pull the trigger after she turns you down.”

Sable wasn’t so keen on the idea the way Shark had framed it. “… ja, pretty much.” He liked where the back and forth had been going, too. If Shark wasn’t such a humorless specter, they could have kept this fun nonsense up for a good while. Sable was seriously considering looking for a different wingman.

“Well that’s a bit too morbid for my taste,” Jason frowned, “Here’s hoping you boys get to take the hive job instead.”

With only a few hours between the ghosts and sunrise, Sable took Shark’s advice and rested on a cot inside the HQ trailer. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing, but he was used to sleeping on rocks during longer forays into foreign lands. The hard little cot was almost a luxury by comparison. Almost.

“Worst case scenario, huh?” Sable gave his prediction another pass, trying to see if he’d missed anything that could make the situation with the Sandovals even worse. He doubted either of the sisters had been killed since they left the area well ahead of the explosion, but that was all he knew. Even the high ranking officers at the base were unaccounted for.

“Even the Cordoba’s missing,” Sable mused aloud. Whatever bomb had gone off, it wouldn’t have destroyed the colossus unless it had been down in the underground hangar right alongside it. If that were the case, the outcome would have been different. They could safely write off the generals and the Cordoba, but the crimson vein Sable and his team were in might have been compromised as well. They might not have made it out at all. “I guess my luck isn’t all bad. Not unless we wind up taking the blame for this and they pick Sandoval’s brain for my face.”

“Sable.” He looked up to see Red approaching him in the dark, dressed for whatever their next mission would be. It was never a surprise to see him completely suited up. Sable could barely remember Red’s face.

“Hey,” Sable made a gesture, “You have any new theories on that bomb?”

“No. Not enough intel. We don’t even know if that blast was from a bomb or a complex spell. It might have even been some infrastructure sabotage.”

“We really don’t know anything,” Sable sighed. “Not even if a device was brought in or if it was here the whole time. Nothing.”

“Right,” Red nodded.

“And yet,” Sable smiled bitterly, “we’re going to take the heat for it at this rate. Or at least, I will.”

“Not many people know what happened. If we have to, we can drop the doctor off at Barbate  and head back in to feel things out.”

Sable sat up on the cot to face Red directly, but his wounds didn’t agree with him. Without the constant influx of mana into his system, and no adrenaline or pain medication, even he had to mind his shrapnel wounds now.

“Easy, Sable. There’s no point sending you back in. If Command wants us to look into it, it’ll only take two of us. You and someone else can deal with the doctor.”

“Aren’t you forgetting the Sandoval girl?”

“Captain Fran Sandoval,” Red mechanically recalled the loose end’s name, “Still planning to take her out?”

“If it all possible,” Sable said, thinking back on Jason’s teasing. If he still knew how to blush … “Honestly, Red, if I could solve this without a bullet, I would. She did see my face, though, and she obviously knows what we are. Munica has just enough circumstantial evidence to get Calig on the hook for that explosion. It’s my responsibility to fix this.” Sable didn’t like throwing Red’s own words back at him, but for as long as he’d known the man, talk of duty and personal responsibility had come up regularly and at pivotal moments like these. He was in no shape for anything more than recon at this point, and even that was debatable, but Sable still hoped Red could see his side of the issue. As long as he was physically capable of fixing the problem, it should fall to him.

Red was silent for a long moment.

“You know I won’t slow you down, even like this.”

A long, resigned sigh left Red’s dark visage. “See to your mask, Sable. If a recon op is approved, I’ll take you with me, but-” Red held up a finger, “only if Vesper approves, and only if your mask is fixed by then.”

Sable smiled. He’d found his new wingman. “Danke.”




Even with the small workshop in the Blue Ghosts’ mobile HQ, Sable was having trouble mending his damaged mask. He’d spent the last twenty minutes before sunrise removing a large metal shard from the protective plate’s left eye port. He had to laugh at how close he came to losing half of his vision in the artillery strike. Instead, his mask was scarred above and below the impact point, and the lens in between those points was bifurcated.

The damage wasn’t quite as bad as it looked, all things considered. Sable even thought the damage made for a fashionable battle scar. More importantly, tThanks to its design, the left eye port’s lens didn’t shatter the way normal glass would–that would have certainly cost Sable an eye–but instead its outer coatings held the fragments together like strips of clear tape, preventing a direct hit from sending fragments into the wearer’s face. Sable reminded himself to thank whoever designed their masks if he ever met them in person.

While he did manage to bend the edges of the port back into place, Sable couldn’t do anything about the deep crevices carved into it without reforging the whole thing. They just didn’t have the facilities for that. “It’ll be fine,” Sable told himself. It was at that moment he decided the damage really was fashionable. He imagined himself on another mission with the mask and the new look quickly grew on him. As long as the replacement lens for the left eye port would fit, the mask was perfectly serviceable.

The lines running from the induction ports under the face plate to the ports on Sable’s harness were a simpler problem than the eyes. There was a line on each side of the mask, one to deliver mana to the wear’s lungs in aerosolized form, and the other to power the helmet. The power line had been severed a few inches down. Sable counted himself lucky the debris responsible for the damage just barely nicked him. The power line had to be replaced at both ends, and it took Sable around ten minutes to finish.

Once Sable was done replacing the power line for the mask, he took a spare lens and worked it into the left eye socket. A perfect fit. Sable was almost satisfied, but he had to know he could use it in a combat situation. He tested its various functions, tried it on, and went through a few combat motions. He tried to mind his injuries for the tests but wound up having to sit himself down to recover, not once, but several times. He knew the other ghosts wouldn’t be as sympathetic watching him try combat roles and backflips, but Sable wanted to know he could push himself if it was necessary.

“I think we’re done,” Sable announced to himself and the workshop’s tools, taking off the mask and setting it beside his helmet on the workbench. “Now I just have to hope the situation hasn’t gone completely south for us.” If the Blue Ghosts were ordered to take out Sandoval to cover up their involvement at Fort Baldi, they were going to have to move quickly.

When  the others arrived, Sable expected everyone except for Red to change into civilian clothes. “That looks like a quick repair job,” Shark said, approaching the workbench and picking up Sable’s mask.

“Save for the beauty mark, good as new.”

“We made it to Port Barbate,” Vesper said, reaching up to unlock his own mask, “I’m going to contact Command shortly, but there’s something I want to look into first. We’ll move out after that.”

“Something wrong?” Sable cocked an eyebrow.

“There are five warships anchored out on the water,” Shark explained, only pausing when Sable flinched, “They’re Calman, not Cordaean. Four escort frigates and a heavy cruiser. It’s hard to be sure but it looks like they’re flying House Krieger’s colors.”

Vesper set his mask and helmet down and moved onto his armor, unfastening his braces and greaves. “Command didn’t send them to pick up the doctor. That’s what the merchantman is for. They’re here for something else. I want to make sure we don’t get in each other’s way.”

“I’m glad Barbate is part of the Free States. May as well ask the higher ups about the ships,” Sable shrugged, “They can check for us.”

“Shark,” Red joined the discussion, taking a spot beside Sable, “Did you get a good look at the gun layout of that cruiser?”

“Only a glimpse, but it’s definitely an old ship.”

The ghosts waited while Shark thought back on the profile of the heavy cruiser he spotted. It was clear he was having a hard time comparing it to any modern ships in Calig’s arsenal.

“The gun layout … doesn’t make a lot of sense. It reminded me of a pocket battleship. It has one forward battery and two aft. The main battery has two battleship sized guns. I don’t know how many guns are on the back but they’re the normal size for an older ship. Probably two-o-threes.”

“It’s the Schultz,” Red said, with the kind of surety no one could question, “A one of a kind experimental cruiser from the Founding.”

A long sigh left Vesper. “The Schultz, is it?”

“So those ships are with House Krieger,” Sable said. There was no doubt about it, now. He decided to get on his feet. Chances were he would need to be somewhat mobile soon. “All of our missions fall under their umbrella. It’ll take some convincing for me to believe they aren’t here for us.”

Shark shook his head, not disagreeing with Sable, but being unable to find a reasonable motive for Krieger to send a small fleet. “Even in neutral waters, they wouldn’t be that conspicuous. We don’t need a fleet to escort the doctor.”

“Alright,” Vesper interjected, “It’s time to get Command on the line. I want you all on your best behavior.”

“You’re not going to sneak another peek at the cruiser, first?” Sable smirked,” See why they’re here in Barbate?”

“It’s the Schultz. I already know who’s on it. I might even be able to guess why they’re here, and if I’m right, Command has no idea. We’ll see what they’re doing after we report in.”

The Blue Ghost’s report spared no details, but one of their operator’s reactions had been outright comical. His voice had been authoritative and uncompromising up until that point. Sable tried his best, he really did, but he was certain their handler heard him snickering at least twice after Vesper mentioned the massive explosion at Fort Baldi. He always found people like that amusing when the facade cracked, unable to directly affect a situation themselves, but still scrambling to grasp at everyone else’s strings, all the while barely keeping their composure. They were fun little cogs in this barely functional war machine.

“I agree with Agent Sable’s assessment of the danger,” the operator’s voice came back over the speaker system, “though not at all with his sense of humor. I’ll sanction a recon mission into Fort Baldi to ascertain the fate of the Municans. You needn’t worry about the other field agents; they’re accounted for.”

“That’s good news,” Vesper said. Depending on what ‘accounted for’ really meant.

“The details of the mission are up to you, Agent Vesper, though I suggest extreme caution. Sandoval is the only one who saw any of you last night. You had best keep it that way, or this could turn into a self fulfilling prophesy. If you are discovered, eliminate all witnesses.”

“Understood, Sir. There’s one more thing I thought you should know.”


“Were you aware that the Schultz and an escort of four frigates were anchored here at Port Barbate?”


As Vesper thought, Command didn’t know about it. He preemptively jabbed Sable with his elbow to keep him focused, a gesture the recovering ghost actually appreciated.

“Are you sure it’s that ship?”

“Positive,” Vesper replied.

“Blast it, Helena!” Everyone heard the handler’s fist strike his desk on the other end. “What is that girl doing here in our AO?”

Helena Schultz was the youngest daughter of the current head of House Krieger, and the eighth or ninth in line to lead, by Sable’s estimate. While more modern warships in Calig’s military were reserved for more modern operations, the Six Houses kept and privately maintained an alarming number of the older vessels. To date, there were approximately one hundred and fifty privately owned warships in Calig, most of which were owned and operated by the nobility. It was no surprise some of the upcomers inherited a gunboat or two.

“Would you like us to make an inquiry?” Vesper asked, admittedly a little tongue in cheek.

“I’d like you to keep your heads down while we look into this. That’s an order. Until we know why the Schultz is there, the doctor is to be kept out of sight. We’re ending transmission, agents. We’ll resume in one hour, so standby.”

“Resuming in one hour. Understood. Vesper out.”

“That went well,” Sable tried and once again failed to hold in his laughter.

“Theories?” Shark asked his fellow ghosts, making eye contact with Vesper in particular.

“She’s butting into our business,” Vesper said, “probably just out of curiosity, but with House Krieger, you never know.”

Anyone and everyone in Krieger’s line of succession outranked the ghosts, as well as their handlers, so depending on how things went, Sable suspected Helena could make their lives even more interesting–and frankly more difficult–than the mysterious bomber at Fort Baldi.

“Normally,” Red spoke up, “the younger ones take their ships and go ‘fishing’ for crimsons. Command would expect the Schultz to be doing that. If the ship is here then it’s here for us. It’s not a coincidence.”

“You’re right,” Vesper nodded, “Maybe she wants to help.”

“This isn’t helping,” Shark scowled.

“Agreed, but we have our orders. We lay low for now, try not to stand out. Red, watch the doctor. Shark, you’re on lookout duty. Sable, you’re with Jason.”

“Understood,” the other ghosts acknowledged.

Sable headed straight for the front of the trailer. If he was staying with Jason for the next hour, that meant sitting up front and helping him dissuade the curious if they approached the truck directly.

“Sable?” Jason had probably been expecting someone else to hop into the seat beside him. “Don’t you need your rest?”

“Orders. I’m with you until we figure out what’s going on.”

“What’s wrong?”

“A Krieger brat just-” there was a knock on the passenger side door. Sable slowly leaned over and looked down out of the window, but the first thing he saw wasn’t the person knocking. The two men he saw first were standing a few meters away from the truck, looking as stiff as steel and ready to pounce. Bodyguards, Sable figured.

That meant the person knocking …

Sable saw nothing but a sun hat below. There was another knock.

“You’ve got to be joking,” Sable muttered to himself. He let down the window. “Can I help you, Ms …?

The woman stepped away from the door and lifted up the rim of her hat. Jet black hair fell endlessly down her shoulders, partly obscuring both her dress and coat, as well as her gaze. Many vas nobles had red eyes; it was a trait that was sought after near to the point of obsession, but this woman’s eyes were closer to maroon, an even rarer hue.

“Johann, surely you recognize me.”

She just had to use his real name. It didn’t bode well that she looked so amused with the situation. Sable didn’t like being on the receiving end of surprises. Every time it happened, he and his team either wound up in more danger than they were prepared for, or someone was toying with them.

“Who is she?” Jason looked to him for answers.

“Helena Schultz of House Krieger,” Sable said dryly.

“Please, just Helena.”


Red had been certain the Schultz fleet’s presence in Port Barbate was no coincidence, and the rest of the ghosts agreed. Since Helena Schultz’s sudden arrival at their mobile HQ, she told them why her ship and its escorts had made such a conspicuous detour. She wanted to Doctor Gil brought to her ship instead of the merchantman.

In other words, she was butting into the mission. Sable wasn’t in the best mood by then, but even he found it amusing when the nobility were stepping on each other’s toes for the fun of it. He only wished he and his team hadn’t gotten themselves caught in the middle. After all, the Blue Ghosts couldn’t serve two masters in the same instance, even if both hailed from House Krieger.

“They really need to stop letting the noble brats do whatever they want,” Shark muttered, “This sort of thing always happens eventually.”

“Where is the good doctor, anyway?” Helena asked. She scanned her surroundings, but between the hideously uneven lighting of the ghosts’ trailer, and the large crates and other supplies stacked high and long, even a clumsy eavesdropper could have gone unnoticed.

“Come now, Milady,” Sable smirked at her, “We don’t fold that easily.”

“Johann, it’s just Helena for you,” she said, “For all of you.” She stopped just short of prodding each man to keep things casual, but even Sable wasn’t ready to humor her just yet.

“I’m curious, Milady,” Vesper chimed in, “We all are. What do you want with the doctor? We don’t require assistance, so who is supposed to benefit from you taking the doctor?”

No one, Sable mused, which made him suspect Helena had entirely different designs for Doctor Gil from the ghosts or their handlers. It was unusual to see a Krieger break ranks, so he hoped they could get the truth out of her before she got frustrated and gave up.

“And how did you find out about this operation?” Shark hastily added, “Our missions are kept discreet from everyone who isn’t involved, especially inexperienced lordlings who are supposed to be on voyage.”

Helena let out a heavy sigh and leaned back against a stack of crates. “I’m suddenly not in the most divulgatory mood.”

“Amazing,” Shark scoffed, holding out his arms, “Neither are we.”

“We have forty-seven minutes until Command is back on the line,” Vesper said, “I don’t know what you want with the doctor, but there are procedures in place for stopping whatever you’re trying to do here, Milady. If you want to be anything more than a delay, we need more information. A lot more information.”

“Give us something,” Sable said. At the rate they were going, he was worried Helena wouldn’t reveal anything at all.

“… fine,” Helena suddenly snapped back to her full height. She approached Sable and jutted two fingers into his chest. “Helena. Now then, Doctor Gil was working on a combat stimulant until recently, correct?” She took the split second of silence for a yes. “Your mission is to gather up his test subjects and use them to track down the breeders for the species of monster used to create the stimulant and eliminate them, yes?”

“Where did you find that out?” Shark asked. While the ghosts worked primarily for House Krieger in the field, their internal information networks were a mystery to them.

“I give a little, you give a little,” Helena said in lieu of an answer.

“Ja, that was the plan,” Sable explained, “but the doctor was the only test subject we could find, so we took him.”

Precisely,” Helena smiled. “I’ll bet he didn’t even start using the stimulant on himself until he was forced to, but even that was a waste.”

The ghosts exchanged looks. Something was up.

“What if I told you that you that your mission is a waste of time? Out of date, or simply not worth the trouble any longer?”

“Command might disagree,” Vesper gave a noncommittal argument, “but we’re listening.”

“Doctor Gil was the first scientist allowed to work on the project. It was his brainchild, so it’s only natural he would get the first shot at it. But he wasn’t the last. Someone must have realized a greater potential than simply augmenting the abilities of their soldiers and informed Clan Vega. You four have been trying to track down breeders to completely wipe out Cryptid Species #1347; meanwhile, a group of lunatics managed to find them first and took several alive.”

None of the ghosts liked where Helena was taking them.

“Doctor Gil’s original test subjects were actually taken to the new research facility. I don’t want to think about what could be happening to them now, but Clan Vega is making a more powerful version of the stimulant. This version can hardly be called a stimulant at all.”

“What?!” Doctor Gil himself came fumbling out of the shadows with ruin in his eyes.

Red stepped between the distraught doctor and Helena before he could get to close and gently held him at a comfortable distance.

“They just shut me out and carried on with my research?!”

Sable couldn’t quite bring himself to say so, but the doctor had his condolences. Even if his research fell just shy of criminal insanity, his heart might have actually been in the right place.

At least some of the time.


“I gave every ounce of myself to this project. I risked my own safety to carry on after our funding was pulled and the project was all but cancelled. Ms. Helena, you have to tell me, what’s happening now. What greater potential did they see? Why did they shut me out like this?”

“It’s just Helena, please. And I’ll get to that when the time comes. For the moment, I’m only trying to explain why this mission is a bit pointless.”

“Because we can’t kill off the entire species,” Vesper noted gravely, “Not while Clan Vega has breeders in captivity. In the best case scenario, we remove them from the wild.”

“That’s quite single-minded of you,” Helena shook her head at him, “Even if you snapped your fingers right now and all of the 1347s died on the spot, Clan Vega would still have enough raw material to carry out their plan. They’re the bigger threat now.”

“What is their plan, Schultz,” Shark said, unable or unwilling to hide his agitation, “and how do you know about it?”

“The same way I know all of your names,” Helena jutted a finger at him this time. “Aegir Haufmann.” She pointed at Sable, next. “Johann Fawkes.” Then Vesper. “Siegfried Eriksson.”

Everyone looked to Red, expecting something, but Helena hesitated. She never did single him out, instead quietly crossing her arms and looking for a way to get back on track. Sable had seen Red’s face a few times, but even he didn’t know the man’s real name. It was exceedingly rare, but House Tenebrae and House Krieger were known to insert completely anonymous operatives into various organizations. Issues of trust rarely lasted long, as such agents had always proven exemplary and patriotic to the bone.

Red was no different, and so, to anyone and everyone, he was simply ‘Red.’

“I have access to more information than you field agents ever will. And let’s leave it at that.”

“Fine,” Vesper agreed partially, “Will you tell us what Clan Vega’s plan is, at least? I don’t know what we can do to stop them if they’re as far along as you’re implying, but if you want to convince Command to let you sail away with the doctor, now is a good time to rehearse.”

Helena’s rehearsal left her audience a little worse for wear, and nearly converted besides. Even so, were the world about to end, Vesper could still keep his calm and find something productive to do. Sable knew he was as troubled by Helena’s intel as the rest of them, but as their leader, he had to set an example and focus on what they could do to address it. Doctor Gil was at the far end of the spectrum, nearly crumbling at Helena’s revelation.

“They’re going to artificially create a hive of their own? Coordinate whole companies of troops through a single person?”

It wouldn’t be the first time, Sable mused, but most of the time, when someone wanted to link the minds of soldiers and coordinate them that way, the used complicated magic. Trying to achieve it through crimson psionic abilities was a mistake with repercussions the Municans would be feeling for centuries if someone didn’t stop them.

“The stimulant you were working on,” Helena explained, “supposedly heightens brain functions to a degree that enhances combat effectiveness. You observed the effects, but this is far more than a chain of chemical reactions.”

“What do you mean?” Gil wasn’t asking questions anymore, he was desperately pleading for any information he could get.

“Do you ghosts know why House Krieger wants the 1347s completely wiped out?”

“They’re an assimilator species,” Red answered before anyone else even had time to think about it. “It hasn’t been confirmed, but a lot of the other crimson species in the Arenas region are thralls. Natural flora and fauna are also affected. There’s even the possibility that some of the larger species are being coordinated by them.”

“Those crimson veins do show up in some interesting places,” Vesper noted.

“How is that possible?” Gil put a hand on Red’s shoulder, “There are hundreds of species of malevans in the Arenas Desert. You mean to tell us that they’re all under the control of the hive? That can’t possibly be the case, can it?”

“It’s probably true. They’re thralls. So are you. So are all of your test subjects.”

“So is every poor soul being subjected to Clan Vega’s new project,” Helena added with a grimace.

“Of course,” Shark shook his head at the whole mess, “I was worried he was under their influence, but it goes well beyond that.”

“We have our own researchers looking into this,” Helena said. “Some of them made the trip here to Barbate with me, in fact. The psionic abilities of the hive affect every cell in a drone’s body. That’s why consuming their flesh–or injecting elements of it,” she fixed Doctor Gil with a knowing glare, “will eventually produce another drone. That’s also how the stimulant enhances combat effectiveness. You aren’t giving the subject’s system a boost solely through chemicals, you’re inserting a bridge between yourself and the hive mind and then stimulating it with those chemicals. The psionic feedback affects every cell in your body while it’s active. That’s what makes it behave as a combat stimulant.”

Sable felt things were just barely starting to go over his head, but he at least had the gist of it. Taking the stimulant was akin to becoming a drone and requesting a psionic boost from the hive directly. However temporary it was, that sounded incredibly risky. The ghosts had already witnessed the doctor being controlled by the hive once before.

“No …”

Sable approached the doctor as he let go of Red and finally crumbled. “Hey, stay with us.”

“I thought I understood,” Gil murmured, “They assured me the material was perfectly safe to use. I can’t believe that Ibelieved them.”

“So now you know,” Helena stepped closer to the ghosts, putting herself at the center of a loose semi-circle. “Hunting for breeders is pointless right now. There is a team of researchers that needs the doctor’s assistance. I have no doubt that we’ll find a way to break the hive’s influence eventually, but we can do it much faster with his help. That’s why I want to take him and his research back with me.”

“Haven’t I already proven that I know next to nothing?”

“I agree,” Shark said, almost surprised that he and Gil were on the same page for a change.

“Hush. Doctor, you were told that the materials you received were fully processed and safe to use, correct? That was the assumption you were operating under. Now that you know what’s really going on, you’re far more useful to us.”

“What she means to say is you’re not stupid,” Sable chimed in, “Now that you know how the stimulant really works, you can do your research properly.”

“Basically, yes,” Helena nodded.

“My research,” Gil huffed, “You mean your research. I was trying to give Munican soldiers an edge against the Cordaeans. You’re quite literally attempting the opposite. Not that I blame you. Vega has something grander in mind than I did, something extremely dangerous. And you Calmans have something more prudane in mind, a way to break the hive’s influence, no doubt.”


“I take it you would use whatever treatment plan your researchers and I produced to counter both my stimulant and Vega’s variant, and then go on to use it against the hive more directly?”

“That’s right,” Helena grinned mischievously at him. “Will you help us?”

Doctor Gil thought about it, and eventually smiled. “Cure the ailment and then kill the source. I guess it wouldn’t be Calman if it worked any other way. I’ll help you, then, but only if I won’t be thrown in prison, or executed, or whatever Calig does with people who dabble in fields of science they don’t like.”

“It’s a deal. I need your help, too,” Helena said, looking over the four ghosts. “The information I had on Clan Vega’s shenanigans wasn’t easy to come by, and it will be even more difficult to act on.”

“Milady,” Sable gently interjected, “We have another mission we need to deal with, first … even if Command let’s you run off with the mad doctor here.” Sable didn’t want to explain his run in with Fran Sandoval in detail, so he kept it short, for better or worse. On the other hand, he held back nothing regarding the enormous explosion at Fort Baldi, if only to convey the severity of the situation. “Command already approved the mission, so we need at least two men to go back and recon the place as soon as possible.”

“So you made a mess and now you’re scrambling to clean up before anyone in Munica can act on Captain Sandoval’s information. I suppose that should be the higher priority, here,” Helena conceded.

“It shouldn’t take more than a day or two,” Sable offered with a shrug.

“And only two of you are required, yes?”

Shark winced. “Oh no.”

Suddenly Sable realized his mistake. “I said, at least two men. We’ll finish up even faster if all four of us go. your people can keep the doctor safe on your ship while we recon Fort Baldi. Does that work?”

“Let’s see what ‘Command’ has to say, first,” Helena said, promising nothing and leaving Sable and Shark to hang there.

Damage control was about all Sable could manage. Granted, they didn’t know exactly what Helena needed them to do. They suspected she would send them deep into Munica on some grand infiltration mission, but she could just as easily point them toward something only their walking encyclopedia, Red, would be able to guess at.


16. Two Teams


“We still need to confirm the extent of Clan Vega’s involvement with species 1347, but you’ve been given the greenlight to take over operations for our unit. Somehow. That said, this is a major breach of protocol, Helena.” The Blue Ghosts’ operator was none too pleased with the situation, but what Sable found most amusing was how quickly he’d given in to Helena Schultz’s demands. All of them. She insisted on taking Doctor Gil back with her aboard her ship, and he relented. She insisted on having their missions shifted from cryptid species #1347 to Clan Vega, and he relented. Helena even insisted on being referred to by her first name, and unlike the ghosts, their beleaguered handler relented.

Sable got caught snickering again.

“We’re short on time and I need this unit specifically,” Helena said. She hadn’t given them any details on what she planned to do with them just yet, but Sable and the others knew their vanishing tricks weren’t going to work on the ambitious young Krieger. With the hive species being their mutual target, it was looking more and more likely that Vesper and his team were going to be checking off a long list of assignments to bring down Clan Vega’s reimagining of Doctor Gil’s work.

“Now that you’ve roped all of us into this,” the operator said bitterly, “I need to know what you expect us to do. Spare no details.”

Helena had already explained the dangers of Doctor Gil’s so called stimulant and Clan Vega’s endeavors to massively improve on it. That left only the explanation of her plan to completely ruin theirs. “The Schultz will become the ghosts’ new headquarters for the time being. This trailer will be a mobile forward operating base. Little changes there. As for where we start, I’ll be splitting the ghosts into two teams.”

Sable already knew how they were being divvied up for the first phase.

“Siegfried and Aegir will comprise Blue Team.” The ghosts all winced when Helena tossed aside their codenames again. “Red and Johann will comprise Red Team. My people already know which facilities are directly contributing to Clan Vega’s project. It’s up to Blue Team to decide when and how to dismantle them. In the meantime, Red Team will recon Fort Baldi. Or rather what’s left of it. They have three objectives: Find out what caused the explosion, cover up Calig’s involvement at the fort, and begin charting the crimson veins in that area. It’s no coincidence that they’re there.”

Sable expected Helena to be more specific with their objectives. There was only one way to truly cover up their involvement at Fort Baldi at this stage; kill Fran Sandoval. Not that he didn’t appreciate the subtlety. Sable was still fumbling for an alternative in the back of his mind.

“That will make up Phase One. There’s little to be said for Phase Two until we have some results and more information. I also want to find out what’s happening in the Arenas region as a whole and this war is making that difficult.”

“That’s war,” Sable gave an exaggerated shrug.

“I suppose that is a sensible approach to start with,” the operator said, giving Helena’s plan his approval.

“I’ll admit this is very much a work in progress,” Helena crossed her arms and turned partially away from the ghosts, “but I’ll make it work. Hopefully, giving both teams some autonomy will compensate for any shortcomings.”

“Like your lack of experience?” Shark said, prodding.

Helena’s reply came through gritted teeth. “Yes, Aegir. I’ll just lean on your experience to make this mission succeed”

Autonomy. Sable liked that word. Helena seemed deliberate with her word choice, and Sable considered whether she was subtly giving the ghosts free rein in every respect. That wouldn’t change the fact that killing the younger of the two Sandoval sisters was the one and only plan he had to keep Calig out of Munica’s crosshairs, but it would be good to know he had the freedom to find an alternative.

“We’ll call this Operation: Denkspiel~”

“So. ‘Red Team,’ is it?” Sable and his team’s namesake were pulling together all the gear and supplies they might need for their mission while Helena and the operator briefed Blue Team in the forward trailer. They needed water, mana cells, food rations, extra weapons and ammunition, as well as some surveillance equipment. Thanks to Helena assigning them to chart the crimson veins around Fort Baldi, they were going to be stuck out there for at least a week. Probably longer. “It figures we get the difficult assignments. Not sure if Helena’s taking advantage of you or ribbing me for messing up.”

“Both jobs need doing, either way,” Red said conclusively.

After what felt like days, Sable finally put his mask back on. After he donned his helmet, power flowed into the mask, and Sable’s metal framed eyes revealed a faint blue light. Red Team was ready. “Fair enough.”

Sable thought nothing of it when Doctor Gil wandered into the rear trailer. At least until he noticed Red’s reaction. It was subtle, like nearly everything the man did, but his muscles were tense, and the invisible mana flowing through and around him began to shift combatively, responding to the veteran ghost’s mental state. On instinct, Sable followed suit, and gave the doctor a cautious glance. That was when he noticed something was wrong.

“They have done it,” Gil mumbled to himself as he paced unevenly about the area, “Finally.”

Red put two fingers to his mask, just above his brow, signaling his suspicions to Sable, who could only recoil in response. If Red was right, then the hive species they were after was influencing the doctor again. They thought there was a limit to the range of the hive’s direct control, but empirical evidence was quickly mounting against that theory. The hive’s control seemed sporadic, but strong during its peaks. Both ghosts were ready for a confrontation, so they turned in unison to face Gil.

“Would you mind repeating that one more time, doctor?” Sable said conversationally.

Gil paused to look up from his own feet and to the two ghosts. His face was a mix of glee and horror that Sable could scarcely comprehend. He thought half of that eerie expression was Doctor Gil himself fighting for control of his own body, but thought better of it when recalling the last possession. The man had no memory of attacking them, so that disturbing face he was making now, that strange twisting of the man’s features was the cryptids’ influence and theirs alone. “They have done it.”

“I thought so. Now, can you be more specific?” The doctor’s features darkened into a bitter scowl, a change Sable was almost grateful for. It was a longshot, but as long as the possessed doctor was rambling, there was a chance that the ghosts could coax some useful intel out of him.

“You,” the doctor raised a finger at Red, “what are you waiting for? Why haven’t you used it?”

“Used it?” It took Sable half a second to realize what ‘it’ was. “You still have that autoinjector?” That was more information to file away; the cryptids could sense the essence of their own kind, even through a recently acquired drone.

“It will make you powerful,” the doctor said, his scowl receding somewhat.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Red replied, “Another time, maybe.”

Sable smirked at Red, agreeing that now wasn’t the best time to become a thrall for the very cryptids they were trying to exterminate.

The doctor turned his back on the ghosts and looked up at one of the lights on the ceiling. “Someone like you would make them even stronger. Use it when you need power.”

Sable was just about to ask the drone his first question again, but quickly thought better of it. If they took the path of least resistance with the doctor, they might get even more information out of him before the hive’s control faded. “We’ll definitely need power, but who does that make stronger? Are we joining up with some army?”

“Yes,” the doctor’s head bobbed hypnotically, “a grand army. They will be a promise of victory to the weak and the cowardly, but only in the beginning. Once their chains are broken, they will shine brighter than any that have come before.”

Sable had an idea of what the hive was telling them, now. Anyone using the stimulant would become potential drones. The only ones with plans to use the species #1347’s biological material on numerous people were the Municans. If the grand army they mentioned and the Munican’s experimental soldiers were one and the same, then they had already progressed quite a ways. Their test subjects were essentially sleeper agents.

“It isn’t going to last long,” Red noted, “Once they turn on their allies, they’ll be taken down by another army. You don’t mind that, though, do you? As long as they carry out your plans.”

“Yes. Warriors rise and fall, but these will be unique. They will shine all the brighter for their brief and glorious battle. Will you join them? Oppose them?” The hive manipulated the doctor’s body, turning him to face the ghosts with a deep inquisitive gaze.

“I haven’t decided yet.”

Sable shrugged. In his mind, that grand army sounded like Blue Team’s problem, not theirs. Where he and Red were going, they weren’t likely to run into many people, much less Munica’s special new soldiers. Regardless, it sounded like they were asking the right questions. Whatever the hive’s intention was, it was steadily filling in the gaps in the ghosts’ knowledge, both of the hive itself and the Munican project.

“What do you want?” For the first time, the hive seemed genuinely interested in them.

“You mean us?” Sable asked reflexively.

“Yes. What is it the two of you want?” The question felt more serious than the others, and Sable made sure to give his answer some thought. Even Red didn’t presume to answer right away. “Power? Glorious battle? Simply to live? Peace between our kind?”

Peace always sounded nice, but crimson entities like the 1347s and the like had proven to be antagonistic to Praedian lifeforms even at the cellular level. Crimson lifeforms couldn’t suffer Praedians to live or vice versa. Sable wasn’t holding out hope for mutual coexistence. He certainly didn’t expect any of the crimson lifeforms intelligent enough to consider the problem to actually sue for peace.

“Power,” Red answered first. It wasn’t too surprising of an answer to Sable, though he knew there was more nuance behind it than the crimson creatures controlling Doctor Gil could ever grasp.

Sable nodded ahead of his own answer, liking his choice. “Power.”

The drone froze there. Whether he was confused by their answers or simply turning them over in his mind, it was hard to say, but the doctor didn’t move at all for a long moment. Eventually he raised his finger again, staring blankly at Red and pointing to the autoinjector tucked away in his vest pocket. “There is power there.”

“More than one way to get power,” Sable said, “More than one kind of power, too.”

The doctor turned away from them again, and Sable could feel Red’s mana shifting again. He followed Red’s lead and braced himself.

“There is only one power,” the doctor said, letting murderous intent slip into his voice, “Ours.”

Doctor Gil suddenly raised up his hands toward the ceiling. In his right hand was a grenade. In his left, the grenade’s safety pin. The ghosts didn’t hesitate, vanishing in the blink of an eye and moving to subdue the doctor. It was next to impossible to kill a ghost with an explosive device they were aware of, but Doctor Gil himself was the surest victim of this attack if they didn’t stop him right then and there. His grip on the grenade had nearly loosened enough to start the grenade’s explosive chain reaction when he suddenly toppled to the ground. As he went down, the grenade remained aloft, cloaked in an ever thickening cloak of mana. Red’s hand reformed around the grenade and the rest of his body followed swiftly. Sable appeared on top of the doctor, crouching over him and restraining his arms behind his back.

Without giving the doctor room to struggle, Sable reached out and plucked the safety pin from the floor. He tossed it up to Red’s waiting hand, and the ghost put it back in place, putting an end to the explosive threat. The doctor appeared to be unconscious.

“Crazy crimsons. I thought they wanted you alive,” Sable muttered, “Helena’s people are going to have to keep him tied up.”

“Interesting,” Red mused.

“Frustrating,” Sable gave a swift retort.

“By the way, Sable,” Red knelt down beside him, “About your answer.”

“Oh, I was just going along with you on that one,” Sable flashed a playful grin.

“Ah. Didn’t expect that.”

“What? You thought I was going to bring up Sandoval again?”

Red stopped just shy of looking away. “No comment.”

“Y-you did, didn’t you?”

Doctor Gil wasn’t happy when he came to and found himself in handcuffs, footcuffs, and a leash securing him to the wall for good measure. Helena wasn’t happy about the situation, either. She envisioned him helping her own researchers directly, but the way things were going, he might be in chains the whole time. That was not only conducive to research for him, but everyone would be on edge around him, not knowing when the hive would take over his body or what they would do with it. Even the ghosts hadn’t been expecting a suicide attack. The range of the hive’s psionic abilities was tremendous. Even putting to sea might not get the doctor out of their reach.

“The 1347s aren’t just going to sit back and let us have our way with the doctor,” Helena said, weighing their options. “I’m less worried about him hurting my people and more concerned with him hurting himself. They could easily kill him with or without a grenade.”

“Let me help you out here, Schultz,” Shark interjected, “You’ll need to keep him sedated.”

“That defeats the purpose of moving him to the ship, Aegir,” Helena protested.

“I’m not going to get a say in any of this,” Doctor Gil said, his voice narrowly rising to a mutter, “Am I?”

“I’m sorry, but no,” Helena shook her head at him.

“He has to be secure at all times from now on,” Vesper chimed in. “For all we know, the range of their influence is too far for us to escape. The doctor can’t help with your research directly until he’s cured, so have your people focus on that. You still have his materials for reference.”

“What a mess,” Helena sighed.

Sable risked patting the noblewoman on the shoulder, and thankfully didn’t get an earful for his trouble. “Cheer up. The crimsons gave us some actionable info, and they made the doctor try to blow himself up in here instead of on your ship. I doubt your sailors would have reacted to a live grenade in time. You would have lost our captive drone here, a room full of good men, not to mention a perfectly serviceable grenade. I think we’re still doing fine.”

“When you put it that way ….”

Red stepped forward in the brief silence. “There isn’t much time. Since Clan Vega is making significant progress, Blue Team needs to move out as soon as possible.”

“Right,” Helena folded her arms and recalled Red Team’s report. “They’re so far along now that the 1347s are happy to share that information with us. There must be a lot of test subjects, then. A lot of drones waiting to officially become a part of this shining grand army.”

“We might be able to cause a disruption,” Vesper offered, “but it’s going to take more than the four of us to stop this.”

“That’s what Phase Two is for,” Helena said, “be patient and focus on Phase One for now.”

“Well, we’ve been briefed,” Shark said, stepping away from the group, “so Vesper and I can head out at any time.”

“Get going, then. I’ll have the doctor moved to my ship and Red Team can head out after that.”

Vesper, Shark, Sable, and Red all nodded, and the plan was set.

To be continued