Today, we’ve prepared a story update for you. You can read the story so far in this summary:
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.
The battle was mercifully short as the enemy proved (for an unexplained reason) far less competent than anyone assaulting a U.S. Army base should have any right to be. With multiple enemy vehicles knocked out, Samuel Thorpe finally investigates one of the unburned wrecks only to discover it to be completely empty with no signs of any crew.
Judging by her reactions, Gail Espinoza clearly knows what’s going on but is generally unwilling to talk about it, leaving all explanations to David Murdoch, the enigmatic owner of Perihelion. All discussions are cut short by the arrival of U.S. reinforcements, which at first consider the Perihelion troops to be the culprits of the attack. Only Murdoch’s timely intervention using his contacts in the military prevents another battle from occurring.
The Perihelion troops leave the scene with at least some evidence, crates of suspicious hardware the attackers were tried to obtain. As it turns out, the drives – that’s what the hardware turns out to be – are the property of Perihelion and are encoded. Why they were kept in an American military base is unknown.
Samuel Thorpe, Gail Espinoza and a communications officer named Mark Abernathy decide to take a peek under the hood of one of those mysterious drives. Connecting the drive to a PC triggers an automated response in a previously unseen language. The screen displays a mysterious set of images and video reels:
- 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
Before settling on a strange symbol and what clearly looks like a space to enter a password. Thorpe and Espinoza ponder the meaning of all that, relying on luck to crack the riddle.
And now, the continuation:
I’m fairly adept at solving puzzles but this time I was just stumped.
“What the hell is that...”
Espinoza, however, was clearly having second thoughts about the situation, looking more nervous with each passing second before finally admitting her doubts.
“Maybe we shouldn’t screw around with this tech. We don’t know what it is, what it does...”
“Hold on, this was your plan in the first place!”
Her only response was an intense attempt to hypnotize a coffee mug in her hand and a nervous shrug. So that’s how it was, someone was getting cold feet, I thought. Well, that’s not stopping me!
I refocused to the image in front of me but felt no closer to any answer. Abernathy was equally stuck, reciting the letters on the screen over and over.
That gave me an idea.
“Mark, those letters, they look ancient. German?”
I vaguely remembered seeing something like that in school.
“Mhm,” Abernathy agreed, “looks like that. No idea what the connection is though. Unless...”
He paused for a few seconds, tapping his index finger against lips and mumbling to himself.
“...German... Germanic... switches.... lines... transfers? Between what? States? Names? Names, yes, capital letters, ancient capital letters... maybe something to do with mythology? What else could it be... letters... Germanic mythos draws heavily from the Norse mythos... would fit the strange video... M could be Midgard, but what is G? Ginnungagap? H... Helheim... Goddess Hel... perhaps these are Norse god names? No... unless G stands for Grimnir... in which case M could stand for that serpent, what was its name, Midgard... hmm. The final letter could be T, for Thor... let’s try that.”
Wrong password, but leaning over Abernathy’s shoulder, I somehow instinctively knew we were onto something. Abernathy nodded to himself and continued.
“Alright, not Thor. No, of course not, the name of the Midgard serpent was actually Jörmungandr, Midgard means Earth.... no idea how many tries we have though, but this stuff seems like the only lead we can think of. Might as well continue trying. Not Thor then... other gods? No, no major Norse god readily starting with M... this means something else. Return to the realms idea? Perhaps. Let’s try... what’s the most famous one aside from Earth and Hell... Heaven? And the Norse equivalent for heaven is... ah yes. Valhalla.”
Upon entering the word, the screen turned black and only lit up after a couple of seconds, displaying what looked like a text menu of sorts that could be navigated using keyboard with the Up and Down keys highlighting different entries. There was a problem with it though; the menu was in a language we’ve never seen before. It resembled... I wasn’t really sure. Egyptian? The symbols were different though, no hieroglyphs, just sharp-edged and rectangular characters without any readily discernable meaning. Correction – I HAVE seen them before. I suddenly remembered seeing the symbols somewhere else, but could not recall where nor their origin.
Abernathy was just focusing on one blinking line, which apparently represented the most recently accessed entry, trying to decipher its meaning, but this was clearly getting us nowhere. Only one way left to proceed. I leaned over Abernathy and pressed the Enter key.
Once again, the screen turned black and this time, the downtime was significantly longer, as if the box was communicating with something or someone (impossible! we were off-grid!) before finally revealing its secret, which turned out to be another strange video footage.
What seemed like an airship floated over a volcano, but it was unlike any airship I’ve seen before. Four giant impellers appeared to have kept it afloat but they seemed too small compared to the sheer bulk of the giant thing, its enormous steel body over three hundred feet long.
By our laws of physics, the craft had no right to stay in the air yet there it was, slowly moving away from the raging elemental inferno below it. There was clearly a crew on board – the laptop’s speakers played a radio traffic recording from the strange craft, loud and clear, as if captured straight from the source.
No, not radio traffic – those were the unfiltered voices of the crew.
Something was happening.
The world on the screen... simply stopped, as if someone hit a pause button. The recording continued. The bodiless voices were clearly aware of what was going on judging from their surprised and gradually panicking voices. The shock soon grew into terror as both outside and inside of the ship, things started to just... I couldn’t find the right word. Disappear would be the obvious first choice, except it wasn’t that. For something to disappear it has to exist first but somehow, the events depicted on the screen implied the things gone weren’t just gone. It was like they never existed in the first place. In their stead, an indescribable void – a non-color defying any attempts at description.
By that point, the voices were screaming, the minds behind them scorched by the sheer magnitude of the event unfolding before their eyes. Above, the clouds disappeared and the stars were going out, cluster by cluster. The event was clearly accelerating – the mountains, the trees, even the volcano faded away and so did many of the voices and parts of the ship. In the end, there was only one male voice left, a continuous tortured howl of a man condemned to the worst possible fate of the last witness of an entire world dying around him. And then... nothing, just darkness swallowing the scene.
The screen turned black. Abernathy and I looked at each other, speechless. It was clearly some sort of a movie, a computer-generated image designed by a twisted mind... and yet... it felt like it wasn’t. In fact, it felt oddly real, to all of us – Espinoza especially.
Gail Espinoza, THE badass Gail Espinoza, tough as they come – was quivering, her face pale and eyes closed. I didn’t understand why (I would in time but not right then and there) so I tried to put my hand on her shoulder. She barely registered it, refusing to even look at me.
“Are you alright?” I said. Silence and her rapid breath was the only answer I got, so I turned back to Abernathy, hoping for an explanation. He too was still out, whispering something to himself over and over with the face in his palms.
After the night battle I was getting numb to the weird and the uncanny and despite the chills still running down my spine, my mind started to focus on the task at hand, racing with thousands of questions. None of them would get answered (at least at that point) before the silence was broken by a cold, imperious voice that did not belong to any of us.
“I believe that is mine.”
Murdoch’s stern visage was staring at us from a nearby laptop, clearly a connection in progress. Who established and why, I had no idea, but somehow, he KNEW what had just happened. And he wasn’t happy, no, not one bit – there was something strange about the image, a distortion in perception perhaps, one that made his once friendly face appear... distant, ancient, alien, nothing like the charming businessman I once had the fortune (or misfortune, I realized) of meeting.
In his place, a tyrant with an aura of power clearly felt in the tent despite him being thousands of miles away. I could not explain what was happening and only later would I realize the thing I was experiencing truly was fear of the primal kind I had never encountered before. I did not know how, I did not know why, but I was completely convinced that the man on the other part of the screen would crush us all like bugs had that been his wish.
None of us knew what to do. Abernathy was just staring blankly into his table in a vain attempt to become invisible. Espinoza was still quivering and I... I was in shock. Murdoch inspected us one by one with his piercing gaze and finally scoffed as if we were not even worth dealing with, like ants having discovered the secret nature of the universe, much good would it do them.
And suddenly, I could take a breath (I didn’t even realize I was even holding it) and I started coughing in a desperate attempt to get as much oxygen into my lungs as possible. I could feel the heat and the sounds of the camp coming from the outside (I also didn’t even realize they were gone) and the familiar smell of cold sweat, stale coffee and gasoline. The face on the screen was still staring at us but there was nothing unsettling about it anymore, just an angry boss about to scold us for disobedience. But we knew better now, and he knew we knew.
“Some things are not meant for your eyes. And...”, he addressed Espinoza specifically, “I am very disappointed in you, Gail.”
I forced myself to look in his eyes and nod, my teeth still clenched. Espinoza nodded too and the current state of our affairs seemed to have satisfied Murdoch – at least for the time being.
“Now then,” he continued.
“Gail, Mr. Thorpe, we have much to discuss. There are helicopters coming to pick you up. They will carry you to a private airport where you will board a plane to Chicago. You are to carry the repository as well as all other items recovered from the base with you. Do not discuss any of it with anyone. That goes for you too, Mister Abernathy. Are we clear?”
Crystal-clear. Clear as rain. Couldn’t be any clearer. Quite frankly, I had absolutely no idea how I could have ever even considered disobeying Murdoch’s orders or crossing his path in any way imaginable.
The connection broke and we were slowly leaving the tent, both of us pondering what just happened. As we were moving out, Abernathy offered us one last wave and a weak smile.
“Put a good word for me, will you?”
“Sure thing, Mark,” I tried to return the smile but it came off as disingenuous so I turned away. We never saw the man again.
To be continued and concluded...
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