Tectonic groans shake the surface. Apollinaris Mons had been bellowing pyroclastic clouds for two days before the quakes doused its ambition. They shattered the volcano's southern slope, sending the landmass shelves that supported Apollinaris' caldera into freefall. Volcanic lightning forked illumination through plumes of soot over the cascading landslide. The face of Mars shed, and with it the glint of a treasured age was laid bare; grit-polished bone that hung among the alloy-flaked basalt cliffs like trophies in an iron case.
Fresh Martian storms cut red into the sky.
Oxidized sandscape stretches for miles around the broken mountain, bent into multiple sloped creases that had cupped Apollinaris' base before the fall. Their fracturing borne spillways down the volcano's banks, as if loosed from between the fingers of fallen Ares, lost to time and waiting to be exhumed.
Dunes migrate outward from the ruin, carried forward on strong zephyrs—each ever distant from the last. Under the windblown sands knuckled patches of basalt are revealed like fossils carefully brushed into sunlight by the breath of Aeolus. Wind, now unfettered by stony resistance, roars across open wastes, unfurls through the salt-encrusted yardangs that sparsely pock the surrounding desert, and rejoins the currents. Dust and ash follow. Thirteen salt-form opalescent spires encage the approach. They had ribbed inward against the caldera’s deluge; soot-ash frenzy staining them of burnt bones.
Within the storm, a glow refracts.
A red-sea pyre.
Coals still warm.
A sojourner’s welcome.
Ana Bray traverses the newly sunken expanse, wrapped in mixed layered garb that forms a pseudo-duster and trails her frame in scruffy shawls of loose thread. Jinju glides in front of her and spins a thin Light barrier to buffet away the scouring winds. She halts at the shore of the caldera, Apollinaris Mons’ wide crest vies for dominance over the horizon as it presses the borders of her vision. Resonators embedded across her custom SN0MASK hum and disperse dirt from her visor.
“You were right about the storm, Jinju. It’s not going anywhere.” Her voice crackles through her respirator.
Jinju chirps sassily and rocks side to side.
Ana scoffs. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
Jinju pointedly focuses her iris on the lengthy distance they’ve already traveled, then on the remaining distance, and back to Ana.
“Yeah. It didn’t look this far from the air.” She shifts a bandolier of pouches over her head. 18 Kelvins tight to her hip.
Her augmented eyes twist and focus to the cliff-face installation across the caldera. Braytech. Solid and unyielding in its form; a cenotaph to the progeny of her line. Ana’s hand finds the snap-lock on a bandolier pouch, pulls a locational tracker from it, and switches it to life. The screen pops dull-resolution green, and a rhythmic ping pulsates some distance ahead.
Warsat Spike Integrated
Distance: 31,739 meters
Output: 51 GWh
Geiger Reading: (!) 67 µSv/y (!)
Biometric Activity: Negative
Network Uplink: Negative
Broadcast Signal: Negative
"No Hive, no Cabal. Either they're stretched thin or we got here faster than I thought." Ana cycles her sulfur-stained respirator filter with a new one.
Jinju cheeps excitedly at the lack of hostiles, “About time.”
"Right?" Ana looks back to the tracker. “That’s a lot of power, whatever you are.”
Jinju slowly emerges over Ana’s shoulder and emits a duo of low hums.
“Geothermal makes sense.” She nods towards the center of the caldera.
Ana commits the information to memory before stowing the tracker. “Good readings. Nice shot, Red.”
A synesthetic tone ripples marmalade hue through her helmet in response.
Their descent to the roof of the exposed facility entrance had been the cleanest route. The trio's position atop the tunneled arch oversaw the caldera, with the installation's entrance causeway far below them.
Jinju scans a cylinder protruding from the corroded roof, years caked around its metal frame. Ana kneels beside her. She scrapes oxidization from the cylinder's riveted label with her boot knife.
Cranial Node S-0319
Ana runs her glove down the cylindrical node, brushing dust and oil grime from its metallic shell in search of a seam. "Hello Cranial Node S-0319. Nice to meet you, you sneaky bastard."
She guides the edge of her knife to chip away rust and expose the discolored metal underneath. How long did it take for rust to bleed tarnish into the steel's luster? She wipes her palm across the enclosure circularly, smearing ash progressively thinner until it blends like cloudy wax polish. Ana exhales, rolls her shoulders and continues chipping away. The knife's blade finds purchase in the crease of the node’s access panel seam. Ana pushes an impulse of Light through the blade, busting the access panel cover free from its rusted locks.
SUBSET —PILLORY #9
SERIAL – 1012058112-CLVS-9
"Auxiliary panels. Why would they put these on a closed system… outside?"
Jinju cocks her shell to the side as if to shrug. “Hard to say.”
"Nothing in the archives?"
Jinju shakes her shell left to right: No.
Ana shifts. "You know what this is, Red?”
Discordant tone ripples indistinct expressions that fade against her visor.
"We'll see if you remember anything after we hook you into the mainframe.” Ana kneels and looks over the exposed node panel before replacing the cover. “Maybe even something on Atlas.” Words sent forth to die in the storm. Atlas. Clovis Br— her grandfather's mythic journal. Its obscurity had proven far more challenging to overcome than anticipated. Ana's determination, however, was a resilient creature. Here, she would find answers.
Jinju chirps and bobs toward the setting sun breaking through the edge of the storm. Thunder booms.
Ana rocks back on her heels, letting her momentum tip her into a seated position in the dirt. Her eyes follow rusty drifts across the conquered spillway. A red front swims from the clouds overhead outward, kilometers away, nearly cinching off Sol's pale light. The star is a frail bulb. The delicate few petals of warmth that escape settle on Ana’s face: pollen sunk to surface. She lets it soak—a momentary basking.
Night creeps from the horizon, and with it the cold of darkness.
She wouldn’t stay long enough to be exposed.
Ana eyes the causeway beneath. A reinforced blast door, rough with erosion, was blown agape at some point. Jinju peers over the hundred-meter drop and descends steadily without hesitation. Ana pulls a dual-line cord from her bandolier and embeds it into the stone face. She lets her center of gravity teeter and fall, catching herself on cushions of Light to slow her.
Her feet find ground, Ghost beside her. She anchors the other end of her dual-line in the causeway steel and clamps an auto-lift to it. Ana revs the auto-lift and runs slack out of the line.
Jinju turns to Ana. Iris meets eyes.
“Think anybody's home?" Ana dips her head toward the entrance.
Flavored tone ripples cinnamon, and the scent washes across her visor into a dull whine.
Jinju chirps and nods towards something behind her.
Some distance from the opening, a detached sign lay exposed:
CLOVIS — 9
Ana's eyes sharpen, adventurous and keen.
“Nine? Here I thought we’d found all the sites on Mars.”
The splintered blast door wheezes. Licks of wind spill over the caldera and whistle through ragged gaps between metal-shed fragments. The blast door had been peeled away; curlicues of high-density Plasteel gnarled into dead spider legs.
Ana focuses her eyes on the damage. "This door. It's built like a vault. Something punched right through it."
Jinju draws a scan over the door, frame to frame. “They’d need a lot of power to penetrate that much Plasteel.”
Heat discoloration, frictional wear, and vigorous application are printed throughout the vault-style door. Channels like neon paint-spatter radiation scar the metal's face, gilded in veins of copper-teal patina. Tarnish concentrates along the strips that once formed the center of the door, while the surrounding shore-like edges, still largely intact, remain swollen and fused to the archway framing it.
Ana steps closer to the blast door and runs her hand along the steel. She swats to silence the resonators on her visor. “I didn’t see this from up there. I thought it was just pitted but look at these markings.”
Jinju floats squarely above Ana’s head. Her iris traces the spiraling patterns within small indented pits in the metal. Together, they follow interlinking connections that flow from the door’s center, outward, carving symmetrical grooves only micrometers in depth.
“So… not punched. More like pushed.” Jinju zeroes in on stress fractures in the metal. The damage was applied delicately, as if someone had split, bent, and smoothed each individual protrusion with meticulous intention.
Ana scrapes corrosion into a sterile receptacle with fingertips clawed in pointed Light and stows it in her bandolier.
Jinju chirps. "Damage pre-dates the eruption—by a lot. It’s a miracle it wasn’t flooded."
Ana nods. “These patterns look like… wavelengths? What do you think, Red?"
Aurelian honey-dripped tones wash through Ana’s helmet in luxurious fashion.
“Something Golden Age. Sure." Ana massages her palm contemplatively. “Biometric scan still says it’s empty. Whatever did it, they’re gone now.”
Jinju flicks a light on and shines it into the door-hole puncture. “Guardians first.”
Ana scrunches her face at her Ghost. “You know, normally it’s the lackey that goes in first.”
“Yes,” chirps Jinju.
Rasputin hums a resplendent and authoritative purplish rhythm through Ana’s helmet. It persists, orchestral vibrato trailing in her ears.
“Ha. Ha.” Ana responds, devoid of amusement.
They enter together.
Jinju’s light speckles through ash flittering in from the punctured doorway, but all elsewhere there is only stillness. A small utilitarian atrium encircles them with a freight lift directly ahead, saddled by two large windows. Smudges and clouded filth belie a grander facility beyond them. A sectioned-off reception desk fills the space on their right, while lockers line the opposing left wall or lay fallen in impact craters of collecting ash. Above them a large gyro arm, split away from the vault door, is ensconced into the ceiling. Cracks in the surrounding superstructure tell of a violent snap.
The room isn't particularly tall, only enough to accommodate the entryway frame behind them. From the arm, the ceiling slopes down swiftly to the top of the lift mechanism, lines of florescent bulbs popped or burnt out ages ago litter the floor in a field of glass shards that transform Jinju’s light-beam into prismatic skitters across the walls.
Ana looks around and crunches through the glass, making her way to the windows. Her visor ripples infrared as a scan sweeps the room. Heat signatures, nil.
“I’m not seeing any access points to plug Red in.” Her voice trails with abject confusion.
Jinju whirs and floats passed Ana, decompiling herself into data-points of Light that sift into the walls around the lift. Jinju’s flashlight goes with her. Darkness rushes in on Ana to fill the space left by Jinju's absence. It halts against a Light epimysium, clinging to her like a second skin.
She waits in depth. A pause.
Time: malleable in the dark.
Ana puts her fingers to the glass and leans. It feels firm, cold, resistant to pressure. She draws in her fingers, leaving trenches in the caked soot. Her fist closes and polishes a clean hole through the smears.
A pop sounds overhead and glass plinks off her helmet. Ana ducks her head reflexively.
The few remaining intact fluorescent bulbs surge with electricity. Some burst into flashes of ash and sparks, but enough remain to dimly light the room. Through the newly cleaned window porthole, lights twinkle within a dark expanse of liquid before swelling into waves of psychedelic surf across endless towering fields of circuitry. Ana inches her face closer to the glass.
The lift chugs.
A thin overlay interface pulses to life on top of the basalt separation between lift and window, pulling away
Jinju recompiles herself into being, a smug lilt to her wafting motions through the air. Her light-beam carves existence out of the dark. “Rasputin can’t do everything you know.”
A crimson-hue lash spits venom across Ana’s visor.
“Good job Jinju. Red, cool it.”
The trio board the lift.
The lift descends.
They drift diagonally deeper. On either side, paint-stamped signage bears familiarity.
>>> CLOVIS — 9 >>>
The Bray name, in origin—at least as far back as anyone would care to look—was seated inseparably from Clovis. Preservations on the shaft walls, though dulled under waning ash coat, solidify his legacy in stenciled prints visible through the split-weave chicken wire wrap that surrounds the lift.
Ana lets loose a whistle. “Raasssputin. This has your name written all over it.”
Senseless quiet sounds back in recognition of a daunting unfamiliarity.
>>> PILLORY CONTAINMENT / MAINTENANCE >>>
Hydraulic pipes groan as the freight lift transitions from the stony shaft enclosure into a glass-walled overlook.
Ana steps forward, Jinju close behind. Both peer through the rusted links into monolithic mangroves of circuitry and data cores, drown in an oceanic tank. Coolant ebbs and flows through bundles of sapphire wiring in shallow breaths. Psychotropic-surge washes over motley arcs of electricity as they zip between the towers like synaptic impulses.
Tint spills through the glass and flows over eye and iris alike, dripping color into faint emergency lighting. Ana slips between the feverish half-breath beats of pigment that roll over the lift cabin. She could stare forever. If time would wait, it might be enough.
Rhythmic. Fleeting. Frenetic. Beauty.
Something blinks in her visor:
(!) HYPOXEMIA: b/o 77% (!)
She shakes it. Comes to. Breathes. Sharp.
Ana turns her head towards Jinju, her eyes still affixed to the glass.
“Are those servers? An archive?” An undercurrent of excitement pitches through Ana's voice. Atlas had always materialized in her mind as a journal or hidden subset of file directories… but this, if it was what she thought it was… After all these years buried gems still hold the capacity to surprise her.
Jinju sends scans out into the drink. "They're shielded." She sinks a bit under the weight of her disappointment. “It’s odd that they’d run the servers off backup power, if that's what they are. I was only able to trip the auxiliary breaker from the atrium.”
>>> MAINFRAME ACCESS >>>
"At least we're going the right direction."
Clatters and whines echo through the shaft as the lift comes to a stop.
Gates glide through pristine tracks and slip into alcove slots in the walls, giving way to a maintenance nexus fed by dozens of service hatch, fiber-line cluster, and access tunnel nervous systems that sprawl the facility.
Directly ahead, a door:
Ana’s visor sweeps and hi-lights a dead network aperture embedded in a web of tunnels below them.
“Jinju, think you can get us in through that?
Crinkle-thrum laughter purrs from Jinju’s shell. “Power will be restored momentarily.”
Ana approaches the mainframe door; Jinju’s Light-fetters dissipate behind her. It’s no blast door, but still far denser than any of the surrounding maintenance hatches. Ana turns away from the door and looks back to survey the room.
Brass-hue citrus prickles surge from temple to temple across her visor. Discrepancies in the floor’s smoothness trim with ballistics pings. Impact-gouge divots had whisked chunks of melted stone into shallow swept peaks all along the floor. A peppering of gloss-ridden flakes around each of Rasputin's contact pings designate three main concentrations of fire.
“Someone had a gunfight down here. Looks like everything was flying one direction. Nice catch, Red.”
Satin satisfaction weaves over Ana’s skin and dissolves like perfume.
Jinju reforms, prideful.
“Auxiliary power spooling down. Main power stations, of which there are twenty-two, are coming online presently. Expect full operational system functionality to be restored within a minute or two.”
“What would I do without you?”
“Well you’d only die once, and that would be it.”
Ana shakes her head and attempts to bite down a smile.
Rasputin remains silent.
The trio position themselves at the door as breaker activations roll thunderous current through the facility.
Ana unclasps the holster strap on 18 Kelvins.
Light-strips sputter and strain to illumination along corners and grooves outlining the floor and ceiling. Glimmers catch in the gunfire ruts behind them.
She extends her fist to Jinju.
Jinju bumps it with her shell.
Ana taps her knuckles against her helmet to a bass-beat response.
She nods. “Stay behind me.”
A lens blinks at center-top position above the mainframe door. It sweeps red light over them, focuses in on Ana Bray's badge, and shuts off. Moments pass before a decrepit speaker garbles a synthetic wail of acknowledgement. Piston locks slink into silicon-grease sheaths and the access door retracts into the ceiling.
Flickering shadows strobe three forms—sunken and ragged. They lay motionless in pools of iridescent slick; tacky globs grip tattered textile strands like thread-bare posts driven into oil. Powerless. Unlit.
"Exos," Jinju's somberness bleeds into the cadence of her movement as she sweeps the scene. "Repairs might be—
"And wipe them again? No." Ana follows her in and hovers over one of them, carefully avoiding the pool of oil. "Let them be… besides it's not like they're going anywhere."
Between the bodies lay a sleek instrument, sized for crew deployment and dressed in precious filigree tendrils rimmed in calligraphic etching. The instrument’s core links to multiple platinum discus drums implanted into its frame, resembling the smaller resonators on Ana’s helmet, and ends with a hopper-crown of artificial diamond bearings.
"Here's what they used to crack the entrance door." Jinju assesses structural damage to the device. Twists of broken machinations do nothing to diminish its Golden Age beauty. "Took a lot of hits. Inoperable. Not beyond saving though.”
Jinju tilts to the machine while Ana approaches an Exo body. "Should I transmat this back home?"
"Yeah…" Her answer full of distraction.
Ana kneels, a visor sweep hi-lights bullet holes, ruptures, and mechanical failures—her eyes, however, see only the BrayTech emblem emblazoned on the Exo's uniform. Ana pulls a rusty-clasp badge from the Exo’s belt.
"This is how they accessed the lift… and got through the door scan. How long ago was this?"
Power kicks on. Strip-lights drone as charge flows through the room. A thick glass enclosure dug out of the far wall brightens. Beyond the glass divider: a step-way and a series of consoles undergoing automated boot procedures.
Jinju analyzes an Exo. "They're well preserved down here, hard to tell exactly. I’ll take some samples."
A synthetic voice, wracked with static and age, seethes into the room.
Jinju and Ana turn to each other.
Ana lifts her hands into a shrug and mouths: I don’t know!?
Jinju’s look intensifies into a glare, her thoughts almost transmitting telepathically: Try something?
"Bray, Anastasia. Verification—"
Scans run over them.
"Anomalous Entity Detected…
Rogue Mind Detected…"
A duo of gauss repeaters drop and align firing solutions. Ana grips Jinju with her gun-hand and flings her back, condensing a swarm grenade into her left. She tumbles sideways as the coilguns open fire and flings the grenade in the opposite direction. It erupts into firefly explosives that flutter toward the turrets. The repeaters snap to the solar-heat signatures and unload at the distraction.
18 Kelvins lines up with the leftmost repeater, chunking round after electrified round into the sparking turret. Her gun burns, super-heated, discharging arc-rounds with cores of solar Light. Metal drips molten from the turret’s fluxing frame. It rattles. A final round ruptures the magnetic barrel and splits the rotary breach, sending splinters of shrapnel across the room.
With the swarm grenade's fireflies depleting, the remaining gauss repeater swivels and locks onto Ana. She ducks under a leading shot and spins—using the centrifugal force to whip a solar knife through the turret, splitting it. Flame-licked fluid spills onto the ground as the knife detonates.
Fire fills the role of the stuttering lighting fixtures.
"Of course, THOSE still work." Ana pivots on her heel. "Jinju?"
Extinguishment protocols sputter into action, dousing the oily blaze with directed bicarbonate foam.
"Alive!" Jinju slinks into view from behind a fallen Exo and examines the bullet-laden turret. "You've never tripped a security system before.”
Ana thumbs the ECHO badge in her hand before stowing it. "I don't think I did." She walks to the far wall.
“What did it mean by ‘rogue mind’?” Jinju glides close to Ana’s shoulders, remaining partially covered and taps her helmet with a plink of Light. “Does someone in THERE know?
Jade-scale hue tremors ripple over Ana’s visor like caffeinated tea before they fade into deep blood-red knots in her chest.
“Let's get some answers."
Ana swipes the ECHO card through a glowing slit in the glass. Recognition beeps and clinks sound as magnetic locks unlatch from the thick ballistic plate door. She pushes her way into the room, Jinju peers over her shoulder as she passes and watches Ana's login clear on the console before following.
CLOVIS — 9
>ECHO LINK (!): PENDING REQUEST
>WARMIND NETWORK BYPASS
Ana stares into the console's interface. "What are you?"
"Not Atlas." Jinju's dejection reverberates in the glass cell.
Ana flicks a sideward glance over her shoulder at her Ghost before selecting 'Warmind Network Bypass'. "No, but it looks like this system has backdoors all over.”
She toggles through a list of shadow-networks, production facilities, and connected Pillory stations.
“It’s not Atlas, but it’s a start. There are eleven other stations like this—there’s a whole subnet defense network completely disconnected from the Warmind initiative.” Ana steps back.
“Why?” Jinju circles the screen.
“Why’s right.” Ana dives back into the terminal.
The facilities listed span the system. Earth and Luna, Europa, Asteroids adrift now belonging to the Shore. Mars— naturally. Even so far as Uranus. That station, an orbital, caught her eye. ECHO. She flicks back to the previous menu.
“Echo link. One of these stations has a pending request.”
Thin-tap tones of pale tin reek metallic inside Ana’s helmet, frenetic and uneven.
“Pillory does sound bad.” A few swift motions navigate the trio into the Pillory Access menu:
>REDLINE PROTOCOL – Test Pillory
>REDLINE PROTOCOL – Initiate Pillory
>REDLINE PROTOCOL – Purge Pillory
Status: [No Target]
>REDLINE PROTOCOL — PROCEDURAL OUTLINE
Select: [Ver. 1.072]
"Never hurts to read the instructions." Ana selects the procedural outline. Her gaze chisels into the loading screen.
In the event of a REDLINE PROTOCOL incident:
[PARAGON-level members] Pillory system network: CLOVIS — 1 - 12.
Jinju rolls her shell end over end along the top of the console display. "Want me to get in there?"
"Yeah. Download everything. Figure out where we can stitch Rasputin in and give him station control."
Lavender-aroma relaxation subsides sour worry-knot tensions building throughout the atmosphere in Ana's suit.
"Red. If anyone can pull your brain apart, it should be you."
"That… sounds fair," Jinju agrees.
Ana leans into the console. "All these connections are one-way network integrations from closed systems. We'll have to do it manually at each site."
"Oh…" Jinju’s voice digitizes as she trails off into a snowdrift of Light and enters the console.
"But first…" Ana jumps back to the main menu and selects the pending 'Echo Link' request.
CAELUS STATION ACTUAL, URANUS
(!) MANUAL DISTRESS TRIGGER (!)
LAUNCH-1 INITIATED, MANUAL — FAILURE
BAY 1: COMPROMISED | BAY 2: INERT
(!) COUNTERBALANCE FAILURE (!)
(!) ORBITAL DECLINE — 42d12m07s (!)
The orbital decline timer ticks down.
“No time to waste. Once you get Red access, we have a station to save.”