News

Perihelion: Story Update

Commanders!

Today, we’ve prepared a story update for you. You can read the story so far in this summary:

Story So Far (Click to Open)

It is the latter half of the 2020s. After long decades of prosperity, things have taken a turn for the worse for the western civilization, which now finds itself in a decade of strife and internal turmoil. Where peace once reigned, conflict is the new normal and things are starting to fall apart as the countries of Europe as well as the United States of America are slowly consumed by a clash for dominance between the traditional political powers and newly emerged greedy, vicious corporations.

But even amongst the giants of industry and finances in the new world, there are a few of those that truly stand out, such as David Murdoch, a legendary 21st century investor known for his almost supernatural trend prediction abilities. Recently, he has founded a brand-new venture, a company called Perihelion, its goals as mysterious as the background of its enigmatic owner.

You are Samuel Thorpe, a mercenary down on his luck after a botched job in Dubai he took the fall for. Your angry musings in a Chicago exile were interrupted by an invitation to an interview. After passing a number of rigorous tests, you’ve been invited to a dinner with Murdoch. Murdoch, with his aide, Norah Ferguson, revealed his plan to you – at least your role in it. In the recent years, each major company fostered the means to project power, usually in the form of an armed mercenary outfit. The size of such outfit varies wildly, from a few platoons of elite troops to entire divisions of infantry armor. While such private units are no match for the might of the U.S. Army, the trend is clear – with corruption and incompetence rife in the upper echelons of government across the globe, the age of democracy is at an end and the era of corporations is about to begin.

Murdoch, with extraordinary prescience, recognizes the need for such an outfit of his own – after all, there’s only so much the money itself can do, the true power always comes from a clenched fist, not an open palm. He hires you to train the troops, currently located in his temporary camp in the Arizona desert. With that, he leaves you in Ferguson’s hands.

On your way there, you learn not only of Murdoch’s massive wealth, but also of his ties to the U.S. Army. Murdoch is clearly deeply embedded in the U.S. establishment and, as such, has a vested interest in seeing the United States of America prosper.

Your arrival at the camp is not met with cheers – the outfit’s de-facto leader, Gail Espinoza, sees you as a threat to her position. Due to what she perceives as bad choices in the outfit’s equipment and composition, she attacks you and knocks you out cold. Fortunately, things come to a peaceful solution later that day and the true training begins.

***

The training goes successfully, with equal emphasis on heavy and light vehicles. The troops are handling the uneasy situation admirably – being stuck in a desert with no clear purpose but to train is something that tests the resolve of even the best paid mercenaries. With no clear end in sight, Samuel Thorpe and Gail Espinoza have a call with the Perihelion HQ in Chicago. Norah Ferguson, Murdoch’s liaison and confidant promises aid and, true to her word, she and Murdoch manage to convince the U.S. Army troops to bring out their stock of various vehicles (including foreign ones) for desert training. At the same time, Ferguson, having personally flown to the U.S. base to meet with a local colonel, is seen overseeing the transfer of mysterious Perihelion hardware into the base’s bunker.

The Perihelion troops use the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the world’s most modern tech but a week into the training, a decision still has to be made. Thorpe, who is still struggling to settle in with the troops and to replace his personal items stashed in a trash dumpster behind one of Dubai’s famous skyscrapers, discusses several options with Espinoza – options that will finally decide the fate of the outfit for the time being.

***

Having settled on attaching an anti-aircraft squad to Perihelion’s outfit and on changing the camouflage of the units to something more appropriate, Samuel Thorpe succumbs to nightmare-ridden, fitful sleep only to be woken in the night by the sound of gunfire.

The nearby U.S. Army base is under by unknown assailants, all communications cut and all radios jammed by a disturbing unknown signal in the form of a droning, deep sound. Rallying whatever forces they can muster, Perihelion’s vehicles are sent in piecemeal to investigate what’s going on. An old M113 is the first to depart. The reconnaissance unit armed with French Jaguars follows soon after. Espinoza and Thorpe must wait precious minutes to have their respective vehicles refueled, but they finally get underway only to encounter an abandoned, still-running Jaguar belonging to Perihelion standing in the middle of the road.

Any investigations are, however, cut short by the suddenly extremely loud droning sound from the radio, which turns into a deep, metallic voice.

“Pawns of the Exile appear,” the voice declares before ordering them to turn back.

Rattled into a near-concussion state, the crews disembark and rest for a while with Espinoza mentioning, still shaken, that the voice somehow knew her name. As the sounds of gunfire get louder and louder, the crews decide to descend the final stretch towards the base to finally investigate the source of the mysterious transmission.

And now, the continuation:

Halfway down the hill, the anxiety suddenly fell off me. I could not explain it but I suppose it had something to do with actually seeing the enemy take form. No longer was I experiencing any dread like when we had heard that terrible voice on the radio and judging from the determined postures and quiet nods from the crew of the Mamba, they felt the same way, as if an evil spell was suddenly lifted.

mis1

I shifted in my seat, eagerly scanning the optics screens for my first target. Several enemy vehicles broke off the main assault and started making their way towards us, but their behavior was somewhat strange. Not that I am much of an expert in armored tactics but I’ve never seen armor driven like that with the vehicles making frequent stops without firing and driving seemingly directionless, their weapon systems aiming towards us but rarely firing off a shot, like drones with their controlling signal disrupted.

It simply made no sense for the U.S. Army base to have been defeated by such opponents, but here we were. And what was worse, I couldn’t see the enemy infantry anywhere anymore, as if they had vanished into thin air. A half-loaded truck was all that was left from the scene I witnessed mere minutes ago. Not for the first time felt the entire operation dream-like, a feverish nightmare I had to wake from any minute. But the ringing sounds of bullet impacts on my metal steed’s armor were all too real, I reminded myself, as I shifted my focus once again to the targeting display.

***

Of the battle itself, not much can be said beyond the fact that we held our own. The fate of the enemy was sealed by the gradual arrival of other Perihelion forces from the camp and less than thirty minutes after the initial encounter, all that remained of the once numerous hostile force was a pile of smoldering wreckage.

That’s when things got really weird again.

I was just putting myself together after the fight, leaning against the Mamba and wishing I had picked up smoking because now it would be the perfect time to light a cig while looking badass. No such luck, I thought. I’d have to do with some answers, starting with the identity of our recently deceased friends. Espinoza was out now as well, arms folded tight and looking around as if unsure what to do.

“Yo!” I waved at her.

She suddenly grew stiff and looked really uncomfortable but our eyes met after a split second. Clearly she wasn’t looking forward to talking to me again and I realized that instant she knew more of the situation than she was letting on.

Espinoza seemed quite content just standing there looking awkward – fine, I have to make the first step because by now, I was just dying to find out what was the last hour all about.

Casually strolling towards her, I leaned once again against the cold steel of her Nightsinger, not looking at her but at the sky above, the desire to get to the bottom of the riddle fighting basic human decency of leaving the clearly distraught woman alone. Needless to say, the curiosity won.

Starting a discussion with a lady with a statement spiced by a hint of accusation was hardly gentlemanly, but I didn’t really think of myself that way anyway. I am more a lovable rogue type. Yeah, right, who am I kidding – I’m about as lovable as plague.

“So. You know what’s happening, don’t you.”

No reaction apart from a barely perceptible sideways glance. I sighed.

“Look, you need to tell me what’s going on. People got hurt here, our people,” I pointed towards a burning Jaguar knocked out seconds after its arrival, its shell-shocked, soot-covered crew sitting next to it while tending to some minor burns.

“I mean,” I continued, “you know this makes no sense, right? These... whoever it was,” I waved roughly in the direction of the nearest wreck, “they trashed the whole base looking for... whatever. But we take care of them in minutes?”

I shook my head, once again lifting my eyes up, towards the stars.

“Either we’re the best goddamn outfit on the planet, or the Army REALLY let itself go. And given how half of our own guys are ex-U.S. military, I don’t think that’s the case.”

She pursed her lips, opened her mouth as if she was going to say something... and then closed it again, shaking her head as well, leading to yet another pause before she finally decided what to say.

“Sam... you’re a nice guy. I like you. I really do. That’s why I am telling you...”

She finally looked me in the eyes with previously unseen intensity to underline the impact of her words. She was practically begging.

“...walk away from this. Get another job. Tell Murdoch to go fuck himself.”

Bullshit. I wasn’t going to let this go and the red, ugly, bitter furnace of anger swelled in my chest. I suddenly wanted to rage, to shout at her for even suggesting anything like that but the impulse thankfully passed as quickly as it came with logic taking over again. I wasn’t about to ruin my chances of having a guide through this rabbit hole slash acid trip by acting as a petulant child. Besides, whoever was to blame for this mess, it clearly wasn’t her.

“No. No way am I walking out without any answers. We haven’t known each other for long but... I think you know me well enough for that already.”

Now the look in her eyes was pure sadness. Not the teary kind, the deep, black kind that no amount of drink would cure.

“I know... I know.”

She shook her head and took a deep breath before looking back at me.

“That wreck nearby,” she pointed towards a large boxy vehicle with half of its suspension torn off by an explosion. I’ve never seen such a design in my life, not even at the earlier demonstration.

“It doesn’t look burned and one of the hatches is open. Check inside. And... don’t worry. I’ll wait here.”

I hesitated for a moment. I wasn’t exactly keen on going through some dead guys’s belongings, but she waved me off.

“Go... go!”

Listening to her seemed liked the best course of action and I slowly made my way towards the hulk. One of the hatches on top was indeed open so I carefully climbed one side scored by impact holes from some autocannon rounds and, after checking for unpleasant surprises, carefully wormed my way inside.

***

When I – dumbfounded as I was – returned, she was still there as she had promised, waiting for me with a canteen of water in her hand, which she offered without saying a single word. I took a big gulp.

“So...”

“So?”

“There’s nobody inside. The controls are... strange. Some weird language I can’t decipher. Doesn’t look Asian though... I don’t know,” I threw my hands up in despair.

She nodded before looking around.

“A few of the troops just reported in. All of them are empty. No bodies. No dead infantry either. Everything’s just... empty.”

I frowned.

“You knew I’d find nothing? Why?”

mis2sto4

Her expression didn’t change, not one bit.

“I didn’t know you’d find nothing at all. Just...” she bit her lower lip, “something weird. I don’t know either.”

She looked so lost, massaging the temples with the thumb and middle finger of her right hand.

But the mystery of missing bodies had to wait. By now, the Army survivors began to emerge from their hideouts and they looked none too happy to see us. I saw James Twocrows arguing with some officer before joining us with a worried look on his face. The reason was pretty obvious.

“They think we were involved in this, right?”

Twocrows sighed.

“Yes, of course they blame us. They suffered a lot of casualties, nearly all of them fatal. The enemy...” he paused, “left no survivors. Highly unusual.”

He was right, of course. In all wars, the wounded far outweigh the dead, but this wasn’t the case. The enemy clearly wasn’t interested in witnesses. Many would still hide in the buildings and bunkers around the base though, there would be at least some local surveillance footage... I shuddered to think what the enemy would have done had we not interfered with their plans.

“And seeing we’re the only ones walking and talking...”

Espinoza gave me another long, appraising look as if deciding how much on board I was and, more importantly, how much she could trust me. I wasn’t sure about my odds but Lady Luck definitely was on my side tonight.

“Jim. Sam. That truck – get a few men and,” she pointed towards the transport the enemy was trying to capture before our ever so rude interruption, “move the boxes they were after to our camp. Whatever was causing the jamming is gone now. The landlines are probably still fucked but I’ll try to raise Ferguson or even Murdoch directly through the satellite link. Post some sentries around the stash, nobody, and I mean NOBODY is to touch it without my presence. Not even you, Sam, got it?”

I kept nodding without even realizing it at first. This was a situation where I felt comfortable with her in charge as I still had no idea what was going on, but if getting my hands dirty brought me closer to finding out, so be it. Besides, good old manual labor is the best cure for aching mind, as Ms. Pembroke, the shrew that ran the last foster home I’d been in, used to say. Only now, years later, could I appreciate how right she was.

***

The sunrise caught us all packing. It’s not easy to break a camp but try tearing it down without leaving half of the shit behind.

Nobody slept anymore that night. We had several wounded – mercifully, none of them grievously – and were preparing to move out. The critical stuff first, then everything else. Everyone moved with the sense of urgency normally reserved for the direst of catastrophes or the darkest of fears.

The area was now positively swarming with U.S. armed forces units with seemingly endless columns of armor and infantry passing south of our camp. All of them gave us dirty looks but thankfully no more than that. From what Espinoza said, she managed to raise Murdoch pretty fast following the incident and he immediately got to work, using his military contacts to solve the situation.

The arrival of the first U.S. response units almost ended in another battle but, at the last possible moment, the standoff was concluded with the G.I.’s standing down following a call from a superior officer, which, as far as those of us who heard it could tell, involved a lot of shouting and expletives I’d rather not repeat. Uncle Sam was hurting and was looking for someone to punish. Anyone, really – preferably the guilty, but they would surely settle for us instead.

In the end, somehow (I don’t know how), cooler heads and Murdoch’s influence prevailed and we were let go, including the loot which – as it turned out – truly was the property of Perihelion.

***

My breakfast was interrupted by Espinoza waving at me from the still-standing comms tent (we planned on tearing it down last in case we still needed it). I sighed, bit one last time into the Chef-MRE-provided sandwich and threw the rest away, realizing I probably wouldn’t have enough time to finish it anyway.

Espinoza was with comms officer Abernathy, both tinkering with what looked like a black box made of metal and plastic with some wires attached to it. I was hardly an IT expert, which is why I decided to waited for an explanation while attempting to not look stupid. It was a challenge, especially the last part. After a few seconds, the box whirred and whizzed and a list of symbols appeared on the screen of a nearby laptop. Abernathy frowned.

“It’s a drive of some sort, for those of you who didn’t know, and it’s coded. Obviously.”

Espinoza, looking over his shoulder, sighed in response.

“Can we crack it?”

Abernathy sat up, alarmed.

“Should we though? This is Perihelion property. I doubt Miss Ferguson would approve...”

“...of us checking for potential booby traps?” Espinoza smiled innocently.

Abernathy’s expression turned sour, just like every time he felt someone took him for a fool.

“That’s bullshit and you know it.”

“Mark,” I interceded. “I appreciate your loyalty, I really do, but we almost got killed. We’d really...”

And I emphasized the word ‘really’, as in ‘there will be consequences if you don’t.’

“....really like to get some answers.”

He got the message and sighed, shaking his head and pushing the glasses to his forehead.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

A couple of minutes and several curses later, Abernathy found something.

“I’ve never seen a code like that...” Abernathy mumbled to himself. “Let me just...”

The screen of the connected laptop suddenly lit up, then turned black with strange symbols appearing all over. I should have felt worried but, for some reason, another – completely unrelated – though crossed my mind instead; if I was to make a movie about machines taking other machines over, this is how I’d have imagined the process looking like.

Blurred images and short video reels rapidly filled the screen. I managed to glimpse a few details but the sequence was too fast for a human to follow.

A young man dressed in an ancient pilot’s attire and a wizened one-eyed warrior dueling with katanas in front of a Tiger tank on a plain that had no end. An inhumanely tall Viking and a silver-skinned boy crossing a sea on a Drakkar. New York City, entombed in ice. A two-headed dragon dogfighting a Great War biplane, the rattling of Spandau machineguns almost pathetic against the beast’s mighty roar and flame – and yet, the dragon was losing. An army of the dead invading the world of the living under a skull-shaped, alien moon.

The imagery ended as abruptly as it had begun with a single image featuring a text field clearly intended for a password.

monitor

“What the hell...” whispered Abernathy. I and Espinoza looked equally dumbfounded. Were the scenes just some random computer-generated imagery hiding some true meaning? And what of the symbol?

As if in response, Abernathy shrugged.

“This is way beyond my pay grade, folks. I have never even seen such code, no way in hell we’re cracking it in the few hours we have left.”

“Hmm,” Espinoza bit her lower lip again, “it would be nice to know more before getting in touch with Murdoch.”

She turned to me.

“He promised he’d contact us as soon as he had a moment. And...” she paused, “I believe him.”

“Well,” I responded, ever more curious, “might as well try to guess the password. If we succeed, we might even get an upper hand over Murdoch. And if not, who’s to say this particular drive wasn’t destroyed in the fighting?”

Abernathy scowled and glared at me but Espinoza just nodded. Eventually, he gave up and agreed to help us. Espinoza brought us all some coffee (much to Abernathy’s displeasure –someone was AGAIN desecrating his place of worship with vile liquids!) and we finally started focusing on the task at hand.

“You have to be able to enter the password anywhere since these disks are portable, so... it’s probably a set of standard Latin alphabet letters, related to the image,” explained Abernathy.

“Furthermore, I doubt there are any numbers in there. It’s probably a single word, easy to remember and not capital-letter-sensitive. The length, however... could be anything,” he concluded.

In short, he didn’t have a clue. But, who knows, we might get lucky.

The full story can be accessed here:

Back to the Perihelion Hub.

Go up

Join the action