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Microservices: Service-to-service communication
The following excerpt about microservice communication is from the new Microsoft eBook, Architecting Cloud-Native .NET Apps for Azure. The book is freely available for online reading and in a downloadable .PDF format at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/dotnet/architecture/cloud-native/ Microservice Guidance When constructing a cloud-native application, you'll want to be sensitive to how back-end services communicate with each other. Ideally, the less inter-service communication, the better. However, avoidance isn't always possible as back-end services often rely on one another to complete an operation. There are several widely accepted approaches to implementing cross-service communication. The type of communication interaction will often determine the best approach. Consider the following interaction types:
Query – when a calling microservice requires a response from a called microservice, such as, "Hey, give me the buyer information for a given customer Id."
Command – when the calling microservice needs another microservice to execute an action but doesn't require a response, such as, "Hey, just ship this order."
Event – when a microservice, called the publisher, raises an event that state has changed or an action has occurred. Other microservices, called subscribers, who are interested, can react to the event appropriately. The publisher and the subscribers aren't aware of each other.
Microservice systems typically use a combination of these interaction types when executing operations that require cross-service interaction. Let's take a close look at each and how you might implement them.
Many times, one microservice might need to query another, requiring an immediate response to complete an operation. A shopping basket microservice may need product information and a price to add an item to its basket. There are a number of approaches for implementing query operations.
One option for implementing this scenario is for the calling back-end microservice to make direct HTTP requests to the microservices it needs to query, shown in Figure 4-8. Figure 4-8. Direct HTTP communication While direct HTTP calls between microservices are relatively simple to implement, care should be taken to minimize this practice. To start, these calls are always synchronous and will block the operation until a result is returned or the request times outs. What were once self-contained, independent services, able to evolve independently and deploy frequently, now become coupled to each other. As coupling among microservices increase, their architectural benefits diminish. Executing an infrequent request that makes a single direct HTTP call to another microservice might be acceptable for some systems. However, high-volume calls that invoke direct HTTP calls to multiple microservices aren't advisable. They can increase latency and negatively impact the performance, scalability, and availability of your system. Even worse, a long series of direct HTTP communication can lead to deep and complex chains of synchronous microservices calls, shown in Figure 4-9: Figure 4-9. Chaining HTTP queries You can certainly imagine the risk in the design shown in the previous image. What happens if Step #3 fails? Or Step #8 fails? How do you recover? What if Step #6 is slow because the underlying service is busy? How do you continue? Even if all works correctly, think of the latency this call would incur, which is the sum of the latency of each step. The large degree of coupling in the previous image suggests the services weren't optimally modeled. It would behoove the team to revisit their design.
Materialized View pattern
A popular option for removing microservice coupling is the Materialized View pattern. With this pattern, a microservice stores its own local, denormalized copy of data that's owned by other services. Instead of the Shopping Basket microservice querying the Product Catalog and Pricing microservices, it maintains its own local copy of that data. This pattern eliminates unnecessary coupling and improves reliability and response time. The entire operation executes inside a single process. We explore this pattern and other data concerns in Chapter 5.
Service Aggregator Pattern
Another option for eliminating microservice-to-microservice coupling is an Aggregator microservice, shown in purple in Figure 4-10. Figure 4-10. Aggregator microservice The pattern isolates an operation that makes calls to multiple back-end microservices, centralizing its logic into a specialized microservice. The purple checkout aggregator microservice in the previous figure orchestrates the workflow for the Checkout operation. It includes calls to several back-end microservices in a sequenced order. Data from the workflow is aggregated and returned to the caller. While it still implements direct HTTP calls, the aggregator microservice reduces direct dependencies among back-end microservices.
Another approach for decoupling synchronous HTTP messages is a Request-Reply Pattern, which uses queuing communication. Communication using a queue is always a one-way channel, with a producer sending the message and consumer receiving it. With this pattern, both a request queue and response queue are implemented, shown in Figure 4-11. Figure 4-11. Request-reply pattern Here, the message producer creates a query-based message that contains a unique correlation ID and places it into a request queue. The consuming service dequeues the messages, processes it and places the response into the response queue with the same correlation ID. The producer service dequeues the message, matches it with the correlation ID and continues processing. We cover queues in detail in the next section.
Another type of communication interaction is a command. A microservice may need another microservice to perform an action. The Ordering microservice may need the Shipping microservice to create a shipment for an approved order. In Figure 4-12, one microservice, called a Producer, sends a message to another microservice, the Consumer, commanding it to do something. Figure 4-12. Command interaction with a queue Most often, the Producer doesn't require a response and can fire-and-forget the message. If a reply is needed, the Consumer sends a separate message back to Producer on another channel. A command message is best sent asynchronously with a message queue. supported by a lightweight message broker. In the previous diagram, note how a queue separates and decouples both services. A message queue is an intermediary construct through which a producer and consumer pass a message. Queues implement an asynchronous, point-to-point messaging pattern. The Producer knows where a command needs to be sent and routes appropriately. The queue guarantees that a message is processed by exactly one of the consumer instances that are reading from the channel. In this scenario, either the producer or consumer service can scale out without affecting the other. As well, technologies can be disparate on each side, meaning that we might have a Java microservice calling a Golang microservice. In chapter 1, we talked about backing services. Backing services are ancillary resources upon which cloud-native systems depend. Message queues are backing services. The Azure cloud supports two types of message queues that your cloud-native systems can consume to implement command messaging: Azure Storage Queues and Azure Service Bus Queues.
Azure Storage Queues
Azure storage queues offer a simple queueing infrastructure that is fast, affordable, and backed by Azure storage accounts. Azure Storage Queues feature a REST-based queuing mechanism with reliable and persistent messaging. They provide a minimal feature set, but are inexpensive and store millions of messages. Their capacity ranges up to 500 TB. A single message can be up to 64 KB in size. You can access messages from anywhere in the world via authenticated calls using HTTP or HTTPS. Storage queues can scale out to large numbers of concurrent clients to handle traffic spikes. That said, there are limitations with the service:
Message order isn't guaranteed.
A message can only persist for seven days before it's automatically removed.
Support for state management, duplicate detection, or transactions isn't available.
Azure Service Bus Queues
For more complex messaging requirements, consider Azure Service Bus queues. Sitting atop a robust message infrastructure, Azure Service Bus supports a brokered messaging model. Messages are reliably stored in a broker (the queue) until received by the consumer. The queue guarantees First-In/First-Out (FIFO) message delivery, respecting the order in which messages were added to the queue. The size of a message can be much larger, up to 256 KB. Messages are persisted in the queue for an unlimited period of time. Service Bus supports not only HTTP-based calls, but also provides full support for the AMQP protocol. AMQP is an open-standard across vendors that supports a binary protocol and higher degrees of reliability. Service Bus provides a rich set of features, including transaction support and a duplicate detection feature. The queue guarantees "at most once delivery" per message. It automatically discards a message that has already been sent. If a producer is in doubt, it can resend the same message, and Service Bus guarantees that only one copy will be processed. Duplicate detection frees you from having to build additional infrastructure plumbing. Two more enterprise features are partitioning and sessions. A conventional Service Bus queue is handled by a single message broker and stored in a single message store. But, Service Bus Partitioning spreads the queue across multiple message brokers and message stores. The overall throughput is no longer limited by the performance of a single message broker or messaging store. A temporary outage of a messaging store doesn't render a partitioned queue unavailable. Service Bus Sessions provide a way to group-related messages. Imagine a workflow scenario where messages must be processed together and the operation completed at the end. To take advantage, sessions must be explicitly enabled for the queue and each related messaged must contain the same session ID. However, there are some important caveats: Service Bus queues size is limited to 80 GB, which is much smaller than what's available from store queues. Additionally, Service Bus queues incur a base cost and charge per operation. Figure 4-14 outlines the high-level architecture of a Service Bus queue. Figure 4-14. Service Bus queue In the previous figure, note the point-to-point relationship. Two instances of the same provider are enqueuing messages into a single Service Bus queue. Each message is consumed by only one of three consumer instances on the right. Next, we discuss how to implement messaging where different consumers may all be interested the same message.
Message queuing is an effective way to implement communication where a producer can asynchronously send a consumer a message. However, what happens when many different consumers are interested in the same message? A dedicated message queue for each consumer wouldn't scale well and would become difficult to manage. To address this scenario, we move to the third type of message interaction, the event. One microservice announces that an action had occurred. Other microservices, if interested, react to the action, or event. Eventing is a two-step process. For a given state change, a microservice publishes an event to a message broker, making it available to any other interested microservice. The interested microservice is notified by subscribing to the event in the message broker. You use the Publish/Subscribe pattern to implement event-based communication. Figure 4-15 shows a shopping basket microservice publishing an event with two other microservices subscribing to it. Figure 4-15. Event-Driven messaging Note the event bus component that sits in the middle of the communication channel. It's a custom class that encapsulates the message broker and decouples it from the underlying application. The ordering and inventory microservices independently operate the event with no knowledge of each other, nor the shopping basket microservice. When the registered event is published to the event bus, they act upon it. With eventing, we move from queuing technology to topics. A topic is similar to a queue, but supports a one-to-many messaging pattern. One microservice publishes a message. Multiple subscribing microservices can choose to receive and act upon that message. Figure 4-16 shows a topic architecture. Figure 4-16. Topic architecture In the previous figure, publishers send messages to the topic. At the end, subscribers receive messages from subscriptions. In the middle, the topic forwards messages to subscriptions based on a set of rules, shown in dark blue boxes. Rules act as a filter that forward specific messages to a subscription. Here, a "GetPrice" event would be sent to the price and logging Subscriptions as the logging subscription has chosen to receive all messages. A "GetInformation" event would be sent to the information and logging subscriptions. The Azure cloud supports two different topic services: Azure Service Bus Topics and Azure EventGrid.
Azure Service Bus Topics
Sitting on top of the same robust brokered message model of Azure Service Bus queues are Azure Service Bus Topics. A topic can receive messages from multiple independent publishers and send messages to up to 2,000 subscribers. Subscriptions can be dynamically added or removed at runtime without stopping the system or recreating the topic. Many advanced features from Azure Service Bus queues are also available for topics, including Duplicate Detection and Transaction support. By default, Service Bus topics are handled by a single message broker and stored in a single message store. But, Service Bus Partitioning scales a topic by spreading it across many message brokers and message stores. Scheduled Message Delivery tags a message with a specific time for processing. The message won't appear in the topic before that time. Message Deferral enables you to defer a retrieval of a message to a later time. Both are commonly used in workflow processing scenarios where operations are processed in a particular order. You can postpone processing of received messages until prior work has been completed. Service Bus topics are a robust and proven technology for enabling publish/subscribe communication in your cloud-native systems.
Azure Event Grid
While Azure Service Bus is a battle-tested messaging broker with a full set of enterprise features, Azure Event Grid is the new kid on the block. At first glance, Event Grid may look like just another topic-based messaging system. However, it's different in many ways. Focused on event-driven workloads, it enables real-time event processing, deep Azure integration, and an open-platform - all on serverless infrastructure. It's designed for contemporary cloud-native and serverless applications As a centralized eventing backplane, or pipe, Event Grid reacts to events inside Azure resources and from your own services. Event notifications are published to an Event Grid Topic, which, in turn, routes each event to a subscription. Subscribers map to subscriptions and consume the events. Like Service Bus, Event Grid supports a filtered subscriber model where a subscription sets rule for the events it wishes to receive. Event Grid provides fast throughput with a guarantee of 10 million events per second enabling near real-time delivery - far more than what Azure Service Bus can generate. A sweet spot for Event Grid is its deep integration into the fabric of Azure infrastructure. An Azure resource, such as Cosmos DB, can publish built-in events directly to other interested Azure resources - without the need for custom code. Event Grid can publish events from an Azure Subscription, Resource Group, or Service, giving developers fine-grained control over the lifecycle of cloud resources. However, Event Grid isn't limited to Azure. It's an open platform that can consume custom HTTP events published from applications or third-party services and route events to external subscribers. When publishing and subscribing to native events from Azure resources, no coding is required. With simple configuration, you can integrate events from one Azure resource to another leveraging built-in plumbing for Topics and Subscriptions. Figure 4-17 shows the anatomy of Event Grid. Figure 4-17. Event Grid anatomy A major difference between EventGrid and Service Bus is the underlying message exchange pattern. Service Bus implements an older style pull model in which the downstream subscriber actively polls the topic subscription for new messages. On the upside, this approach gives the subscriber full control of the pace at which it processes messages. It controls when and how many messages to process at any given time. Unread messages remain in the subscription until processed. A significant shortcoming is the latency between the time the event is generated and the polling operation that pulls that message to the subscriber for processing. Also, the overhead of constant polling for the next event consumes resources and money. EventGrid, however, is different. It implements a push model in which events are sent to the EventHandlers as received, giving near real-time event delivery. It also reduces cost as the service is triggered only when it's needed to consume an event – not continually as with polling. That said, an event handler must handle the incoming load and provide throttling mechanisms to protect itself from becoming overwhelmed. Many Azure services that consume these events, such as Azure Functions and Logic Apps provide automatic autoscaling capabilities to handle increased loads. Event Grid is a fully managed serverless cloud service. It dynamically scales based on your traffic and charges you only for your actual usage, not pre-purchased capacity. The first 100,000 operations per month are free – operations being defined as event ingress (incoming event notifications), subscription delivery attempts, management calls, and filtering by subject. With 99.99% availability, EventGrid guarantees the delivery of an event within a 24-hour period, with built-in retry functionality for unsuccessful delivery. Undelivered messages can be moved to a "dead-letter" queue for resolution. Unlike Azure Service Bus, Event Grid is tuned for fast performance and doesn't support features like ordered messaging, transactions, and sessions.
Streaming messages in the Azure cloud
Azure Service Bus and Event Grid provide great support for applications that expose single, discrete events like a new document has been inserted into a Cosmos DB. But, what if your cloud-native system needs to process a stream of related events? Event streams are more complex. They're typically time-ordered, interrelated, and must be processed as a group. Azure Event Hub is a data streaming platform and event ingestion service that collects, transforms, and stores events. It's fine-tuned to capture streaming data, such as continuous event notifications emitted from a telemetry context. The service is highly scalable and can store and process millions of events per second. Shown in Figure 4-18, it's often a front door for an event pipeline, decoupling ingest stream from event consumption. Figure 4-18. Azure Event Hub Event Hub supports low latency and configurable time retention. Unlike queues and topics, Event Hubs keep event data after it's been read by a consumer. This feature enables other data analytic services, both internal and external, to replay the data for further analysis. Events stored in event hub are only deleted upon expiration of the retention period, which is one day by default, but configurable. Event Hub supports common event publishing protocols including HTTPS and AMQP. It also supports Kafka 1.0. Existing Kafka applications can communicate with Event Hub using the Kafka protocol providing an alternative to managing large Kafka clusters. Many open-source cloud-native systems embrace Kafka. Event Hubs implements message streaming through a partitioned consumer model in which each consumer only reads a specific subset, or partition, of the message stream. This pattern enables tremendous horizontal scale for event processing and provides other stream-focused features that are unavailable in queues and topics. A partition is an ordered sequence of events that is held in an event hub. As newer events arrive, they're added to the end of this sequence. Figure 4-19 shows partitioning in an Event Hub. Figure 4-19. Event Hub partitioning Instead of reading from the same resource, each consumer group reads across a subset, or partition, of the message stream. For cloud-native applications that must stream large numbers of events, Azure Event Hub can be a robust and affordable solution. About the Author: Rob Vettor is a Principal Cloud-Native Architect for the Microservice Enterprise Service Group. Reach out to Rob at [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected]) orhttps://thinkingincloudnative.com/weclome-to-cloud-native/
Howdhee-ho everyone! So the other day I did a ranking of all the Showtime attacks. I’d said that if it got a bit of attention and people seemed interested in this kind of stuff, I’d do rankings for other Persona 5 bits. So today I thought I’d explore Palaces. Now, this one is going to be a bit lengthy because Palaces have a lot to talk about. And for the usual disclaimer; Spoilers ahead! And everything from here is just my own take on it. If you feel differently, awesome! I’d love to hear your thoughts as well! So, here are the main criteria I’m basing this stuff on. “Story” - Now, this isn’t a plot review, but rather a review of how the Palace feels in relation to the story. Essentially, how well does this Palace fit, and does it make sense for the ruler? “Creativeness” - How creative does the Palace feel? “Gimmicks” - Puzzles, areas, things like that. Are they good? Do they fit thematically? “Atmosphere” - From design, to enemies, to music. How does it feel? Does it match the tone of the current arc? “Length” - This is not necessarily “how long is the Palace” but rather “How long does it FEEL”. Does it drag on? Does it feel too short? Also, I will NOT be including major bosses as part of the Palace. I’ll be covering bosses another day! So without further ado… let’s dive right in with what I feel is the worst Palace. And I don’t think this one will be a very hot take. #9 - Okumura’s Big Bang Death Star Yikes Alright. I’m gonna tackle this one at a time, just going down the criteria list. So to start with the story, I don’t think that a space station makes sense, because thematically it’s a bit… odd. Realistically, the whole “point” of Okumura’s arc is that he wants to “Ascend to the political world”. And you uh… can’t ascend much further than outer space. I think they could have gotten the same general idea with the Palace being something like a NASA Headquarters. Then you still get the space feeling, and the concept of “escaping to Utopia”. I’ll admit this one is a bit of a nitpick. But it’s always been a nagging issue for me. Now, this is a pretty creative design for a Palace. A giant space station with faceless, robotic drones sacrificing themselves for their leader. It screams of Star Wars with the Stormtroopers just letting themselves get ripped apart for Palpy and Vader. And honestly I remember feeling this sort of overwhelming sense of wonder as I walked into the Palace for the first time and saw SPACE sprawled out in front of me. It’s cool. Now, here’s where the problems come in. The gimmicks. Not only are they not good, but GODS ABOVE they are repetitive. First there’s the “robot interrogation” section. Try to find the highest ranking robot. But first you need to go through all the ranks below him. If I wanted to be sent up a chain of command until I talked to someone who is actually useful, I’d call up tech support. And fun fact, calling tech support is awful and nobody does it for fun. Well, except apparently the person who designed this “puzzle”. Then we have the breaking arms and lunchtime puzzles which are just… build a bridge here, hit the button, sprint across to the new bridge, make another bridge, run back to the third bridge. I dunno. It’s very uninspired. And then we have the airlocks. Or as I like to call it, wasted potential. This puzzle COULD HAVE BEEN great. But they made it so overly complex and so long that it gets grating. Now, for the atmosphere. Honestly, I think this Palace does atmosphere very well (which is ironic since it’s in space). But it really gives the idea of a ruthless, corporate conglomerate. And while I think the music is one of the worst tracks in the game, it really does fit here. It’s tedious, repetitive, and droning. Just like working in fast food (and being in this Palace). And length. Yeah. It’s long. Probably the longest Palace. It definitely feels like it. So yeah. This Palace is kind of not great. #8 - Kaneshiro in the House from Disney/Pixar’sUp Now, I don’t want people to think I hate this Palace. Because I don’t. But I do find it to be one of the more bland ones. It’s just kind of… uninspired. Eh. I’ll get more into it below. So as far as the story goes it makes sense but… there isn’t a lot TO Kaneshiro. Like, he’s a guy who likes robbing people. We never get to know him beyond that. So a bank is kind of the only option. So it makes sense because well… nothing else would as far as we know. And unfortunately, this impacts how creative the Palace is. It’s cool that it’s flying, but the flight part is a little… irrelevant. Once you’re in the bank it’s just kind of… a bank. Like, there’s nothing really unique or cool about it. It’s a bank. All of it. The whole thing is just a normal, run of the mill bank once you’re inside. Well… except the money pit. Which is a full like 5 minutes of the Palace so ya’know. Now, for the Gimmicks. There is one. One singular gimmick. And I don’t really like it. Kaneshiro’s bank has the “letter math”. Basically he has a bunch of notes with things like D=1, U=2, M=3, and B=4. Then you go to a panel with the word DUMB on it and put in the code 1234 (sounds like something an idiot would put on his luggage). So yeah. It… certainly exists. Now I will say, I do like the atmosphere. And the BGM is, as the kids say, “A bop”. I’d say it’s the… fourth best Palace track. And the Palace DOES really feel like a bank. It’s heavily guarded, and you really get the feeling of “I don’t belong here” after you pass the main room. This is the only Palace that really made me feel like I was trespassing somewhere I wasn’t welcomed. And if you’ve ever been anywhere in a bank that isn’t the main hall, I’m sure you get the feeling. And the basement level does give me that sort of “bank heist” vibe. Now, I don’t know how long this Palace is. But it certainly feels long. I think most of this is the basement level. Once you get to the lettenumber puzzle it feels kind of like it starts dragging. So yeah. This Palace is… it’s okay. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It just kinda exists. #7 - S.S. Shido I don’t know how controversial this one will be. But I don’t really enjoy this Palace all that much. It gets REALLY old REALLY quickly. But it does have some merits. Firstly, the Ship idea makes a lot of sense. Especially after Haru just goes “Here’s the metaphor!” in case the player doesn’t get it. Yeah, it makes sense that Shido has a giant cruise liner filled with only the elite as the country around him collapses. Plus, he does talk about “steering the country” more often than Ryuji says “FOR REAL?!” … okay. Maybe that’s not factual. But you get my point. Now I will say, this Palace is very creative. The idea of a giant Ship cutting through buildings is cool. And I like how it’s treated as a cruise liner because it allows for a lot of additional areas, like the pool restaurant, and obviously the usual ship bits. Now for the gimmicks… there is one. It’s the rat puzzle. And it can go fuck itself. Thank you for coming to my TED talk. Now for the atmosphere. It feels perfect. The Palace itself feels grand, powerful, and intimidating, and the score accompanying it amplifies that feeling by quite a lot. I think it’s a bit of a step down from other Palaces, but it certainly makes sense and really works in regards to Shido. As for length… holy hell this Palace is long. Both literally and mentally. It has basically 5 mini levels, really annoying and long puzzles, and a whole game’s worth of dialogue. I get that they have a lot of loose ends to wrap up but ye gods this Palace feels like it takes an eternity to beat. This Palace is the textbook definition of wasted potential. It could have been amazing. It has all the pieces it needed to be. But they squander them by diluting the palace with annoying puzzles and WAY too much tangentially-related plot stuff. #6 - King Kamoshida’s Crazy Castle Now, I know that I have this one at 6th. But that isn’t a bad thing. I personally think this is the first “good” palace. It’s nothing amazing or crazy, but for the first Palace it’s nice and fun. Obviously the Castle aesthetic works with Kamoshida. It makes a lot of sense seeing how he lords his power over everyone in the school. Even Principal Eggman gives in to him. So an idea of him lording over everyone obviously makes a lot of sense. And a bit of a fun fact, the guards in his Palace have the same voices as the other teachers. And the big Castle is actually pretty creative. For a first Palace it really sets a tone, and standard for other Palaces to follow. It’s grand, absurd, and completely disgusting. Makes sense for something formed from distorted desires. There are also some really cool areas like the chandelier hopping, and the crazy, distorted upper floors. Now for gimmicks. They’re kind of simple. The two present are the book ones, where you need to place the proper book in the proper section, and the one where you need to kill enemies to get the eyes for the statue. Neither are particularly hard, or particularly inspired. They aren’t bad though. And they aren’t overly-long. They’re standard RPG trope puzzles. Now the atmosphere is kind of… strange. Honestly, I find it hard to take this Palace seriously. The BGM sounds like something out of a 70’s porno, and the Palace itself honestly feels like 70’s porn meets Dungeons and Dragons. It doesn’t really fit the story content of the outside world. It doesn’t reflect Kamoshida’s abuse or Shiho’s suicide. It feels a little too silly. I still like the aesthetic, but I don’t think it really fits with the plot. It needed to be more serious. And this Palace, unfortunately, does start to drag. By the time you reach the messed up, hyper distorted floors where the floor tiles are floating around, the Palace is getting a bit old. Though this could be due to the fact that you don’t really get to make any progress during your first like… four visits. Overall, it’s a solid Palace, and a great starting point. #5 - Madarame’s Museum (I couldn’t think of a creative name for this one. I’m sorry.) I really like this one. It’s fantastic. And I realize saying that for the 5th ranked Palace is kind of weird, but honestly I think that’s just a testament to how great the next four are. Starting off like normal, this Palace makes a lot of sense… but I always found it odd that his distortion is a Museum. Because like… that isn’t exactly unusual. He’s a renowned artist with a ton of very famous works. I feel like he has art in museums. I mean, we’re introduced to him at an exhibit. I dunno. It’s a nitpicky issue that I don’t want to press. Regardless, it obviously makes sense. And I love how all the paintings in here are sort of distorted in their own way to show how Madarame has to change his own cognition to accept his art as his own. And uh… yeah. This Palace is creative as hell. Sure, at first it feels like a normal museum. But stuff like the weird golden staircase abyss, the awesome courtyard, and the painting puzzles are so cool. Speaking of the painting puzzles. There are two major puzzles here. The painting ones where you enter paintings Mario 64 style, and the Sayuri puzzle. The one where you enter the paintings is kind of cool, because ultimately it’s about remembering the path that works, while also unlocking other paths to take and figuring out which path will let you escape. It’s cool, and brief, but a little TOO easy. Then there’s the Sayuri puzzle which I love. Basically you are presented with a few different paintings. All the Sayuri, but with slightly different modifications. And you need to pick the “real” one. I like this because it tests how well you were paying attention. They start off obvious, but the differences get more and more subtle as it goes on. It’s a great gimmick. As far as the atmosphere goes, this place is great. Not only does it match the overall feeling of an art museum, but it honestly has this sort of tenseness to it. I can’t really describe it, but it almost feels ominous. And I think that fits given that Madarame himself is a rather ominous figure. We know he’s bad, but we can’t really prove it for most of the arc. And I think this Palace has a perfect length. It doesn’t feel rushed or like it’s dragging, and I think that’s more because of the physical length. It isn’t an overly long Palace as far as playtime goes. So yeah. This one is pretty damn good. I like it. #4 - Sae’s Controversial Casino Yeah. This one is going to piss people off. I know that a LOT of people have this as their favorite Palace. And I can understand why. But it has a few issues that sort of drag it down for me. They don’t drag it down MUCH, but they keep it from getting any higher on my list. Obviously, the Palace makes sense as far as the story is concerned. Sae sees her job as essentially rigged gambling. Anyone outside “the system” thinks they can win, but in reality it’s not possible. As such, everything in her Palace is rigged to make it unwinnable. Or it SHOULD be. But we have a Futaba. So we get to cheat too. “Mwehehe”. Honestly, the casino and premise is very creative. The concept of a Casino full of rigged games that you need to unrig is awesome, and the layout and mission is great. Also, I love how they have it set up so Sae actively wants you to try to reach her. It’s incredibly unique as far as that goes. Now for gimmicks. There’s really only one, because most of the time you’re either walking around or killing things. And this gimmick… kind of sucks to be honest. I’m talking about the House of Darkness. It’s the only part that is more than a cutscene, standard area, or standart fight. But all it is is a standard area you can’t see. And it sort of sucks. It’s really… boring. And kind of lengthy. It’s pretty bad. As far as the atmosphere goes it uh… well, it certainly feels like a Casino. And Sae’s presence throughout makes it feel much like how the plot does outside. Sae and the SIU are closing in, rigging the game and challenging you to take the fight to them. It’s great, and I love the plot elements here. And now onto my major gripe. The length. This is definitely the shortest Palace. And it feels short half of the time. The problem is that the parts that DON’T feel short are painfully bad, and feel painfully long. I’m talking mostly about the Dice Game, and the House of Darkness. As I just said, the House of Darkness is little more than some dark corridors. And unfortunately, the Dice Game is the same, but without the darkness. There’s no real “Game” to this Casino. It’s just a bunch of drab, grey hallways that feel like a nuisance to traverse. It sucks when what you WANT is to get to the good Casino shenanigans (like the Arena) but instead have… this stuff. It makes the Palace feel like it drags, even though it’s probably the shortest one. So yeah. I still love this Palace but it has some glaring issues that I can’t overlook. #3 - Lil Sister’s Big Pyramid God I love this Palace. Much like with my Showtime list, I honestly think I could lump my top 3 all in as my “Favorite Palace” but for the sake of this I did want to try to dive into this on a deeper level. I’ll admit, too, that from here on a lot of these placements are more on gut feeling. Anyway, to start off, this one works incredibly well as far as story. Throughout the entire Palace we see Futaba go back and forth between wanting help and rejecting help. Her shadow knows we’re busting in from day one and follows us around just like Sae does. But due to her desire to push people away, we are constantly fighting an uphill battle against her to save her, even though she wants us to save her. And the fact that her Palace is a pyramid out in the middle of the desert is awesome symbolism for how Futaba’s position is. She hates the idea of being near other people, so she locks herself away. Now, I personally think this Palace is super creative. It has a nice blend of ancient Egypt with the pyramid, but also ultra-modern tech stuff. Random flecks of data appearing all around, mechanical traps, and the room before the boss which is basically a massive data stream with floating hunks of pyramid floor in it. It’s just so cool. It’s a combination of ancient and modern that shouldn’t work, but does. As for gimmicks, there are three major ones here and I think they’re all great. Firstly are the Anubis puzzles. These are pretty simple, but the gist is you grab an orb from one statue and need to put it in another. However taking them blocks off certain paths. It’s not super hard. But I like it. Next, there is the binary puzzle. Again, fairly simple. There’s a red column and a blue one, and you need to put in certain binary codes in these columns to unlock certain doors. Finally, there’re the picture puzzles. And honestly I love these. You come to a mural of something important to Futaba’s life and you need to rearrange them to make the picture “correct”. I love it because the scrambled appearance is symbolic of Futaba’s distorted view of these events. And they get harder as you do more, but never overly hard. It’s just a quick, fun mini-game. As for atmosphere, I think it does a great job of showing the isolation, desperation, and mistrust Futaba feels. The music score (my 3rd favorite Palace theme) is absolutely amazing and the wailing guitar helps to show the pain in Futaba’s heart. And while this one is lengthy, it never feels overly long or overly short. It changes up the pace enough to feel fresh, and doesn’t overuse the elements it has. So as you can see, I have no problems with this Palace. Only things I like. Which is why Placing these top three was so hard for me. But I think the things I like in the other two I happen to like more. #2 - The Public’s Prison. Memes and Mentos. Now, Mementos itself is kinda bleh. We all know this. But the Depths of Mementos, the Prison of Regression, is absolutely incredible. And I KNOW this one is going to be controversial as hell. But I can’t help it. I love this Palace. It’s so good. To start with, obviously this one works with the story outside because… well… it’s the one most linked to the outside plot. This is about every single person in the world being unwilling to commit and plot their own lives. And this place thematically matches. It’s a prison, because every person sees themselves as a prisoner. And the creativeness levels are off the charts. Sure, they could have gone with a stereotypical “hell” level but they didn’t. It’s a prison of almost alien design. It’s the kind of weird, off the wall evil that I’d expect to see in Mass Effect. Like I could see the Reapers living in the Prison of Regression while they wait for the next cycle. It’s just so damn cool looking. I love this place. It’s so menacingly malevolent without beating you over the head with the horror it holds. Plus the post-fusion part in the second half is so wild and insane looking. It looks like something I’d expect to see in Doom. The Gimmicks are also great. While there’s only one real Gimmick, it’s a fun one. A puzzle where you need to light up tiles on the floor. The first one is a gimme. But they increase in difficulty to hilariously easy, to you actually needing to complete other puzzles first in order to do the one necessary to progress. I already sort of touched on this with the creative part, but the atmosphere of just existential dread this place holds is immense. And the BGM, Freedom and Security (my personal favorite Palace theme) really hammers that home. It has an eerie, ominous feeling to it that really works well in tandem with the rest of the level. And as I mentioned above, tt flips from being dreadful and terrifying, to having our heroes triumphantly running up a staircase of bones, destroying Yaldy’s minions as they march on to kick his ass like Doom Guy sprinting through Hell to kill a big boss demon. Finally, it’s a perfect length. Not overly long, but not short either. And the plot elements halfway through give a nice breather and tone shift before thrusting you into the awesome second half as you climb up to the Grail’s chamber. If I had to give a reason why this one is in second place, it’s that the second half is a little too focused on being cinematically badass that it foregoes exploration in exchange for a linear path. And while it works well, I still prefer the first half of the Palace. #1 - Dr. Snack’s Hospital of Happiness Here it is folks. My Number one. I don’t think this one will be as controversial as some of the others. But even so. Here we are! So to start, obviously this Palace makes a ton of sense for Maruki. He was intended to get a research lab built in the spot where this Palace forms, and the Palace IS a research lab. So obviously that works. And the whole concept was about using cognition to change people’s lives for the better. We can see this in the Palace during the quiz section where we see how Maruki guides patients to his happiness. Which is thematically nice because it shows that while Maruki claims he wants everyone to be happy with their desires, he actually wants them happy with his. Anyway, I’m rambling. The Palace is great as far as story and makes sense for the character. And yeah. This place is creative as hell. It’s not just a research lab. It’s a massive spire with rainbow bridges, massive telescopes, and a dome on top meant to represent heaven since Maruki sees himself as God. It’s the most grandiose, over the top thing in this game. And I’ll remind you, in this game you shoot a God in the face with a sword gun. *ahem* anyway. The gimmicks here are really damn good. The first thing is the awesome Quiz section. I do think it’s a little bogged down by the whole “The team must meet and discuss” part, but I love how this whole thing is just “How well do you know Maruki?”. If you know him well, you get a reward. If you don’t, you get punished. Then there’s the color bridge section which is just “If the Okumura space tunnels didn’t suck”. It’s so good because it requires a lot more strategy and a lot less luck than the Okumura port. And if you make a mistake it’s a much easier fix. The atmosphere is amazing too. The sterile but obviously corrupted first bit when you’re in the main building feels very clinical. But the strange bits of oddities really gives off an other-worldly vibe. Remember how I said the Prison of Regression felt like it had Mass Effect vibes? This part has like… Resident Evil vibes. It’s like a modern hospital tainted by an otherworldly monstrosity and it’s awesome (and, actually, not far from the truth. Much love, Azathoth.) Oh, and the BGM is my 2nd favorite. I fucking adore Gentle Madman. As for the length, I do think it’s probably the longest Palace. It definitely comes close with Okumura. The difference is you’re actually forced out about a third of the way through and, if you’re playing “optimally”, you won’t be back for a bit. So it never feels like it gets old or tired. And it changes up often enough, and with drastic enough changes that it never drags on like the bottom three Palaces on this list. So it’s great. GOD DAMN I LOVE THIS PALACE. Aaaaanyway. That’s my list. I’m thinking I’ll do bosses next, but I dunno. What would you guys want a massive rank essay on? Bosses? Awakenings? Phantom Thief members? Party Personas? And what are your thoughts on this here list? How would you rank the Palaces? I hope you all enjoyed this, and I look forward to hearing your opinions in the comments!
I work for Styx Taxis, I drive souls to the afterlife...I just picked up a familiar face.
Do something for me, will ya? I want you to think back to when you were a kid, think back to those innocent days when the world was your oyster and you could be anything you wanted. Tell me what was that anything? What was your dream job as a child? Most people will say a football player, an actor, a world-famous musician, maybe even an astronaut. Well, not me. I wanted to be a cab driver. I was obsessed with being a taxi driver, I had toy taxis and a taxi costume including a cabbie hat, I even had a bed that was shaped like a taxi instead of a racecar! I drove my parents crazy with my obsession but I was a kid from Brooklyn growing up in the big city surrounded by yellow cabs, I’m not sure why I loved them so much but ever since my Pops brought my brother Vince and me in a cab to a Net’s game when we were younger I knew what I wanted to do with my life. “Taxies are disgusting, Freddie why the hell do you like them? They smell like liquor and look like Grandma’s wrinkly butt” Vince would say to me, he had a way with words but whatever way that was it wasn’t the right one. Nobody could understand my love of taxis but that was okay they didn’t need to, I loved the thought of driving through the city and meeting new people every single day, sure many taxis were filthy but mine wouldn’t be...or so I thought when I was 8. Vince, however, had much more ambitious goals. “Me? I’m going to play for the Jets. I’ll be the best Tight End the NFL will ever see” Vince was pretty great at football, he even went on to play some college ball but he always reached for the stars with his dreams and that could make failure hurt so much more. I was more realistic in my goals from a young age, I couldn’t kick snow off a rope and I could barely throw a ball from one side of the road to the other, being a taxi driver was a dream but unlike most of all of your dreams when you were all kids, mine was doable. I received my yellow cab certification when I turned 21 making me a lot younger than my co-workers who were usually in their 40s. I worked for over 8 years as a taxi driver and I never once regretted it bar two robberies at gunpoint and a handful of casually racist remarks from tourists or some freshmen on Wall Street who wanted to know if they can say the n-word since their friend in college said he was cool with it. Eventually, though my time as a cab driver came to end...well my driving of the living came to an end anyway. Now I drive souls to the afterlife for the Styx Taxis cab company. Every day I bring multiple souls to the Great Divide where judgement is made against them to decide if they go to Paradise or Damnation. I hear many stories on the clock, people begging to be given another chance or sobbing for forgiveness but I’m just the driver, the car makes the judgement and the car is never wrong. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- My day starts like anybody else’s, my alarm goes off at around 6.30 am, I shower, brush my teeth, get my clothes on - usually a pair of black skinny jeans, a loose tee, some Air Force Ones and my Grampa’s brown suede jacket he gave to me in his will - and I will usually grab something to eat from a drive-thru Starbucks once I’m out on the road. My alarm didn’t go off today but thankfully my body jolted me awake before 7, this meant no breakfast and I was behind on at least one passenger though on a good day I could get through three before 8.30, this would hurt my place on the standings but if I worked effectively I could make up the lost points. My first passenger was a Charles Monroe, a 45-year-old stockbroker who died from a coke overdose after partying too much during a promotion party. At least he was a Jets fan. It took me around fifteen minutes to reach him, he was sitting on a bench in his clothes from the night before, if the coke didn’t kill him that hangover would have. I pulled up and the backdoor opened for him. The crossing over process had begun. “Charles Monroe?” I asked knowing damn well I had the right guy. “Yeah...who’s asking. What the hell is going on, why am I stuck here?” he replied while slurring some words. “You’re dead buddy, bit too fond of the charlie there...Charlie. I’m here to pick you up and bring you to your eternal resting place. Get in” I said. The emotions of people when they are told they have died can range from anger to sadness to in some cases jubilation though that is usually due to a sense of smugness that they were right about an afterlife existing. “Fuck off” he shouted at me while spitting at my car, his dirty grey phlegm landing on my passenger side window cleaning some dust off of it, it was safe to say Charlie’s fell into the former category, he was pretty angry. “I’m not fucking dead, I’m fucking invincible” You often got these types of people, usually rich white guys. They genuinely buy the bullshit they were sold about dying peacefully in their bed surrounded by loved ones even though they knew full well that no one loved them. “Nah bro, you are absolutely dead, here look I’ll show you.” As I replied I began to pull some pictures up on my iPad and cast them to the screen attached to my passenger side mirror, as I scrolled through the array of pictures the reality of the situation began to dawn on Mr.Monroe. “See there’s you face down in a pool of your own vomit, there’s you being zipped up in a bodybag, there is your mother Margaret identifying your body at the morgue...ignore that last picture that’s my Greyhound ‘Rufus’ not sure how that got in there” The tough bravado wasted away as Charles fell to the floor and burst into tears, he continued to do that for another few minutes - taking more time off my schedule - before I decided it was time to get a move on. “Look, dude, I know this is a shock for you and all but there is no changing it. It’s science, what's dead is dead. Your energy is being used for something else now so hop in and we will bring you to wherever you are meant to spend eternity. Paradise or Damnation.” He lifted his head to look me in the eyes, his tears caused his deep blue eyes to shine immensely bright in the blistering sunlight. He wiped his tears from his face and took four deep breaths to compose himself. “I’m not going with you, not a chance. I will fight this, I have gotten out of worse situations” he said, his air of invincibility only momentarily shattered. “I can promise you that you haven’t. You better come with me because the second that door shuts it’s over you don’t get second chances.” I responded mostly hoping for him to get in so I could add some points to my tally but also because I knew the punishment of disobedience. “LISTEN BUDDY CLEAN YOUR FUCKING EARS OUT, I’M NOT GOING. END OF STORY,” he screamed back at me. “Close your damn door, see if I care” were the famous last words of the jackass. “Okay, suit yourself” I replied while exhaling loudly, I pressed the large red x button beside the radio and the door slammed shut, once that happened his fate was sealed a lightning bolt shot down from the sky and he slowly dissipated right in front of my eyes, he screamed and begged for help and even tried to bargain with me to get the door open but the door can’t open once it has been closed. There are no second chances. Charles Monroe paid the price of disobedience, his soul was zapped and sent to NULL, a plane of existence outside of all other realms, NULL is an empty grey room with no directions. No up, down, left or right. To meet another soul in NULL is about as unlikely as anything, odds don’t go that high. This is where Mr.Monroe would spend the rest of his eternal life. NULL was quite literally a fate worse than hell. They say all things are binary, they are either a 0 or a 1. They are or they aren’t. NULL was -1. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- That little escapade took even more precious time away from me, when a new passenger request popped up on my screen I accepted in an instant and sped to the pickup point. My second passenger of the day was a Ms.Melina Cortez, a 28-year-old mother of one who had died in a drink-driving incident, the child’s father was not involved if you wanted some good news. When I arrived Melina was sitting on a bench, her knees pointing in and her arms wrapped tightly around herself, she looked scared but also like she knew what had happened to her. “Hey there, Melina. How are you doing? I’m Freddie, I'm your driver today, I’ll be bringing you to the afterlife” I calmly said to her as the backside door opened once more. She did not respond to me, no questions about who I was or what was happening. Nothing, she just stood up with her head down and took her seat in the back of my cab. I decided to take my foot slightly off the pedal for a few moments to slow our trip and allow her time to cope but she wouldn’t have much, she would need to speak or the judgement would be made for her. After five minutes of cruising, I broke the silence. “You know I’ve driven some celebs, I’m legally not allowed say who but fun fact those people who post memes about them all in Paradise are going to be sorely disappointed when they die” She lifted her head and smirked, the best I could ask for given the situation and I had an opening so I continued on. “Listen, Melina, I know it is tough for you but you need to tell your story, your life, your successes and your failures and any transgressions you may have cause it’s your best chance of getting into Paradise” “I know it’s tough but you have t-” “I’m not getting into Paradise,” she said matter of factly cutting me off in the process. “I’ve done horrible things, any God with even a little sense of respect would know not to let me in” “What have you done, Melina?” I asked bewildered by the emotionless tone in her statements. “Oh you know, you got your little screen there with my name on it. I can see it from back here. Just look through my file.” she said while placing her head onto the window and staring out into the abyss. “Actually I don’t know. This file is filled with the bare minimum I need to convince someone I’m not some fraudster. It has your name, the names of family and loved ones, how you died, some miscellaneous pictures and a list of hobbies, sometimes I don’t get anything bar a location. I know how you died but I know little of the circumstances bar the fact it was a drink-driving accident with one car involved so I would guess you were driving, that is bad Melina but no one else was hurt, I’ve seen people survive Damnation for doing a lot worse.” I responded to her factually, another rule of the job. I couldn’t lie to the passengers. “I wasn’t even drunk” she responded before a whistle went off, this whistle was the car notifying me and our passenger that they were telling a lie. The whistle was a sort of smug ‘hih hoo’ sound similar to a phone notification, the smugness of the sound often got under the skin of passengers causing them to blurt out truths or half-truths. “The car says you are lying, Melina. This car has been imbued with the power of an Old One it can tell what is true and what is false.” I ensured her, hoping it would stop any further lying but knowing from past experiences it would not. “Okay, I had a bottle of wine but I’ve driven drunk before it wasn’t the drink that caused the crash. It was the percs...and my rage. I just couldn’t think straight then I saw the tree and knew what had to be done” she replied, this time to no whistle. She killed herself, why? “I’m sure the cops have already rang the bastard and told him about everything that happened, my only regret is not getting to see his face when they tell him. The son of a bitch” “Who are you talking about, Melina? What did you do?” I responded “Jorge, my boyfriend, Marlon’s father. That son of a bitch, he caused it all, when he eventually eats lead from one of those girls’ fathers he for sure as hell won’t be going to Paradise, no need to even question him” she responded. “What did you do to Jorge, Melina? Is he hurt, did you hurt him?” I replied, each response from the woman further bewildering me. “Oh he’s hurting that’s for sure,” she responded before bursting into tears. “The bastard was fucking underage girls!” “I found texts and pictures, oh God so many sick fucking pictures, the stuff he would say to these...these kids, these 14 and 15-year-old girls it would make you sick, they did make me sick. I was sent into a haze, I didn’t know how to react so I just drank and drank glasses of white wine, washing down the percocets with it.” she had stopped crying and was now on her knees leaning forward and pushing her face and hands up on the partition window separating us. “I knew what I had to do, I had to protect myself but most of all I had to protect my son, I couldn’t let that fucking pervert go anywhere near him ever again so I did what needed doing” I had now taken my eyes off the road and turned to look Melina in the eye, her crazed stare transfixed on me, my heart was in my throat as I struggled to ask her the question I felt I already had the answer to. “What needed doing, Melina?” She smiled at me with a wide grin from ear to ear, her blue lips stuck together not allowing her teeth to bare themselves to me. “I took a pillow to my son in his sleep. It didn’t take long and he didn’t fight, he knew deep down that this was for his own good.” I gripped the steering wheel tightly in both hands attempting to hide my anger, signs of emotion behind the wheel of a Styx Cab could see me terminated. I waited for the whistle of the car, I prayed the whistle would come...but it didn’t. I didn’t respond, I couldn’t respond, I needed to relax before I could, her next statement didn’t help. “I protected my son as any mother would”, this time the whistle did sound, a statement too late sadly. “The car disagrees and so do I. You killed your son, you murdered him in his sleep then you drove your car into a tree to save yourself the jail time. You could have turned Jorge in but you didn’t” I responded to her, the words barely dragging themselves out of my mouth through gritted teeth. “Turn him in? You must be joking, he’d get 12 years at best. He’s a 30-year-old man he’d be back on the streets in his early 40s, plenty of time to get back to his sick work...plenty of time to abuse my beautiful boy” she responded, the words she spoke had such conviction, she truly believed she was right no matter what me, the car or anyone else said. “So you murdered your son to protect him from abuse? That makes no sense” I replied my foot pressing down on the gas pedal at full force. “I saved him,” she replied instantaneously before the car let out another loud whistle. “I wouldn’t expect you or this piece of junk to understand that” That was the last we spoke before reaching the gates of the Great Divide, I tipped my hat to Reginald the Gatekeeper and he lifted the barrier to let me through. We drove towards the fork in the road, two large stone doors blocking both paths, the doors had large runic patterns chiselled into them, they both looped and swirled around the stone faces, one pattern gold the other onyx. The door flung open on the car and Melina stepped out, we did not exchange goodbyes. As she walked to the doors the golden runes lit up and the door slowly opened, a warm beam of orange light beamed out from the road and she stepped into it, the door flung shut and her fate was sealed. She was sent to Damnation. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The rest of my day was mostly uneventful, many old people going up or down, mostly down. I did have one interesting passenger named Laney Richards, she had caused her brother to fall from a tree at a young age confining him to a wheelchair for life, she had also gotten involved in the wrong crowd as a teenager and done some pretty minor shit like vandalism and breaking and entering. She bawled her eyes out when we arrived at the doors fully sure her fate was Damnation, them tears stopped unnaturally fast once I took a detour left through the Mariana Forest and out the other side to the tram to Nocturland, a type of purgatory where people can work to gain entry to Paradise. She had made some mistakes but she had mostly learned from them and her brother’s accident was exactly that, an accident. I’m not a betting man but I would be positive she would end up in Paradise sooner rather than later. After a hard day's work, I drove to a McDonald’s to pick up a quick bite to eat and then drove to The Depot so I could clock in my points for the day and update my table standing, I also needed to pick up my paycheck. Once everything was sorted I threw my bag into my locker and grabbed my hat I had left there yesterday, I went to head back out to the car and finish for the day, however, the manager of The Depot, Mr.Anyew stopped me on the way out. “Freddie, just the man I was looking for. We got another lost soul that needs transporting and I know you were complaining about missing out on some points the past while so I thought I’d give it to you especially since it’s on your way...of course, I can just give it to Grigor he’s in the rec room at the moment.” Mentioning Grigor was a low blow, we were both at the top of the rankings and Mr.Anyew knew I wouldn’t say no if Grigor was the second option. “Nah, it’s okay I can do it boss” I responded before putting my hat on and turning to leave. “Great, I just sent the details to your vehicle, enjoy!” I heard the large Eygptian bellow towards me as I walked out the front door. I got to my car and checked the iPad for the details, only a location and a cause of death was given, this was pretty uncommon but it had happened a few times before, sometimes details got lost in the mix but thankfully you only needed a location, so I set off towards the pickup point to collect Mr Died From Gunshot Wounds. The best thing about working for Styx was also the worst, you really never know who you might have to pick up on any given day, they could be interesting or horrible. They could truly be anyone, it is a real double-edged sword and when I arrived at the pickup point I was cut by the sword. “Vince?”
Woodbridge: I hate to say it, but it’s unlikely, Allen. It’s a lot easier to pretend everyone else is wrong, and that you had no other option. The camera pans to a kitchen. We see Tony the Milkman standing there in his leather jacket accompanied by Jim Baker. The table is adorned with ingredients mixing bowls and other baking supplies. Tony ”Guys, gals and non-binary pals, I welcome you all to the great bake-off! Mr. Baker and I have decided to put our differences behind us but before we officially align we have decided to have one final friendly competition! Since I beat him in our debut match, I picked a stipulation that I believe will help make the score equal.” Baker: “Tony, you know I’m not a baker, right? It’s just my name?” Tony: “I get it, Baker, you’re playing a rib on me so I won’t feel bad for losing. It’s ok! We’re partners now!” Baker “Tony I’m being se-“ Tony: “As is I was saying, The bake-off! Both of us will be baking something, which will then be shared with the rest of the locker room, unless they’re that piece of shit Joey McCarty, or Joey McCarty’s friends.” Tony stares directly into the camera: “I know how much the people in the locker room love consuming the labor of others without compensation.” Baker nods in agreement Tony: “For my entry, I will be making the favored dessert of bisexuals such as myself… Lemon Bars!” Baker: “And I’m making… uh… cookies I think” Tomy: “No need to put yourself down, brother! We all know you’re going to smoke me! Anyways let the games begin! The to go off in opposite directions and begin preparing their deserts. Tony begins making a crust out of flour cornstarch and other ingredients, carefully slicing butter and mixing, while Jim unsuccessfully attempts to make even balls of store bought cookie dough. Backstage we see Mark Dutch walking around, peeking around corners and down hallways as if he’s searching for someone. Dutch: Yo Blackwater! We’re done playing hide and seek! Where are you? Dutch turns around, staring at each door and peeking into some of them, but to no avail. Dutch: Where the fuck did he go? After taking a few more steps he stares to the left of him. The camera turns and he comes across Kyle Scott, looking down onto a large map. Dutch: Kyle. You got a moment? Kyle looks up, staring back at the tall Dutchman with a focused look on his face? Kyle: What do you want? Can’t you see I’m busy? Dutch frowns for a moment, presumably having a brainfreeze from the shake before he peeks at the map. It’s a detailed map of Ohio that Kyle looks at Dutch: Have you seen Louis? Louis Blackwater? Confused, Kyle looks back at Dutch before shrugging. Dutch: Like.. the B in D&B? Have you seen him? Kyle: Becca? Dutch: No. She’s dead. Blackwater. Kyle: Ooooh! Blackwater. No, I haven’t. Why would I know that? Dutch: I don’t know. Kyle: Exactly. Now leave me alone, please. Dutch: Fine. Thanks anyways. When Kyle puts his head back down into the map, Dutch continues to walk down the hallway until hearing a loud crash. Immediately, Dutch sprints over to where the sound came from, in the background we see Kyle not even having flinched from it. After a few steps Dutch goes around a corner and immediately is heard yelling. Dutch: LOUIS! Louis is found on the ground, holding his head and surrounding him are metal pipes. Dutch gets to Louis and checks him out, staring over him as he tries to get Louis’ attention by shaking him! Dutch: LOUIS! WAKE THE FUCK UP! Blackwater: I am awake! Stop shaking me! Dutch: Why the fuck are you on the ground?! Blackwater: Fuck, man. A fucking mouthbreather attacked me from behind. Hit me right in the fucking liver. REAL LAME, GUYS! I USE IT TO DRINK! Blackwater holds his hand on his side, presumably where is black, abused liver is supposed to be before he sticks out his hand, trying to get up. Dutch takes it and pulls him up slowly. Blackwater: Ah.. fuck.. that hurts.. Dutch: You going to be alright? Blackwater: Yeah.. Fuck me, I had worse. I should check a doc or something. Then go find the cumstain who did this. Immediately, Dutch’s eyes light up as if he has a bright idea. Dutch: I got a bright idea! You go visit the doc, I’ll find who did this. I’ll be like Batman doing detective work! Blackwater: Of course you’d wear leather. You gonna have bat-nipples on your costume too? Dutch: Fuck off, mate. Let me help you get to the doc. Wrapping Louis’ arm around his neck, Blackwater begins to walk down the hallway, helping him as they both disappear around the corner. Blackwater: Really tho, I won’t judge you if you wear leather. Dutch: ...I’ll think about it. We then cut back to the ring, where we see Javier not standing solidly in the middle of the ring, but instead rushing down from backstage to it, seemingly not having been ready for once, as he pulls out a card from his pocket, and begins to read. Javier: At the request of both competitors in this upcoming bout, we will now be staging an impromptu singles match between Dalidus Nova and Buster Braggadocio! Crowd: WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Javier:Clears throat And it is a singles match set for one fall, with a 30 minute time limit! Introducing first- The Kids are Back hits the speakers, as out from the curtain comes Dalidus Nova, swiftly followed by Miles Alpha. Javier: From Toronto, Ontario, Canada, standing at 6 feet 3 inches and weighing 225 lbs… DALIDUUUUS! NOOOOOOVA! Crowd: BOOOOOOOOOOO! Woodbridge: And the crowd here not a fan of Dalidus or Miles. Paisner: They’re not the only ones… Dalidus spits out a grotesque, far-too-large mouthful of Hubba Bubba gum at ringside and enters the ring, Miles staying outside but putting himself in Nova’s corner as Freaky Black Greetings hits the speakers. Javier: And now, from Atlanta, Georgia, standing at 6 feet and three quarters of an inch and weighing 220 lbs… BUUUUUUSTER! BRAGGADOCIOOOOO! Buster comes out from the curtain, pick in hair and yelling caucasian-themed insults at the crowd with reckless abandon. Crowd: BOOOOOOOOOOOO! Woodbridge: Quite clearly, the audience here doesn’t feel too strongly about Buster either! Paisner: Seems the crowd and I are finally seeing eye-to-eye! He slides into the ring, flicking his pick towards Alpha at ringside while he does so. Buster and Dalidus eye eachother up from opposite sides of the ring as the bell signals the start of the bout. DING DING DING! The bell rings, and Buster is quick to charge Nova, who slips underneath the bottom rope and out of the ring. Crowd: Booooooooooo! Paisner: Dalidus wasting no time going to his sleazy playbook. Woodbridge: But Buster’s not having it, look out! Buster immediately follows Dalidus to the outside, giving chase as Nova stumbles into a run, not expecting Buster’s aggression. The two make a circle outside the ring, until Dalidus slides right back in through the bottom rope. Buster is seconds behind him, but as he gets to his feet he sees that Nova has slipped back outside the ring, grabbing Buster by the ankle and pulling him down and out to the floor! Crowd: Booooooooooo! Paisner: Ooh! Buster landing hard outside! Dalidus starts to lay boots into Buster on the outside, as Miles yells a mix of encouragement towards his partner, and insults towards the opponent. After several seconds of the officials count, Nova grabs Buster and wrestles him back into the ring. Woodbridge: Finally, both men back into the ring, the only place the final fall can take place. Not relenting, Nova drags Buster up to his feet in the corner, striking him in the chest with a chop! Crowd: Ooooooooh! He winds up for a second one, but not before Buster strikes him with a forearm strike, creating the separation necessary to connect square in the chest with a dropkick! Crowd: OOOOOoooohh! Paisner: Buster with the retaliation! Nova is sent flying backwards, quickly rising to his feet in the opposite corner as Buster continues his attack, flying in with a corner clothesline! Still not giving Dalidus a second to breath, Buster shoots Nova back towards the other corner with an Irish Whip… Woodbridge: These two men, back and forth across the ring! ...Charging in for another clothesline, Buster is suddenly met by the rising boot of Dalidus! Crowd: Woooahh! Paisner: Back and forth quite literally, Mark! Neither man’s gotten a concrete advantage thus far! Taking a second to breathe, Dalidus re-approaches Buster, bending down to pick him off the mat only to get caught in a lightning-fast small package! 1…! 2.. - No! Woodbridge: Nova damn-near got caught! Dalidus is swift to fight out, both men twisted away from one-another and back up to their feet, backing towards opposite ropes. Alpha: C’mon, Dali! Get his ass! With the verbal from Miles, Dalidus rushes Buster, who ducks underneath a clothesline attempt, grabbing the waist from behind and using Nova’s momentum to run him into the ropes with an O’Connor Rollup! 1…! 2…! No! Dalidus reverses the roll-up! 1…! But Buster breaks free, and is quickly up to a knee! Paisner: Two escapes from both - WOAH! Still kneeling, Buster is caught in perfect position for the Kneeling Superkick! Paisner: CHEKHOV’S GUN! Buster falls back to the mat, rolling out of the ring and plopping to the floor outside the ring. Woodbridge: Buster got caught on bad timing, but makes up for it by getting outside the ring, away from any potential pinfall attempts. Dalidus, with an annoyed look on his face, walks towards the ropes, crossing them and landing outside the ring beside Buster. As Miles stands beside him, Dalidus again tries to get Buster into the ring. This time, however, Buster slips from Nova’s grip, slamming his opponent's head into the edge of the ring! Crowd: OOOOOH! Paisner: Buster was playing possum! With Nova dazed, Buster turns to Alpha, kicking him in the gut before grabbing the back of the Canadian’s head and swinging him into the ring post! Crowd: YEEEAAAAAAHHHH! Woodbridge: Miles hit hard, and the crowd loves it! With Alpha laid out outside the ring, Buster swings Nova’s legs up and onto the canvas, sliding in after him. Paisner: These two have fought at a lightning-fast pace thus far, and it looks like Buster is aiming for an equally-fast conclusion to this bout! Buster sits Nova up in the center of the ring, shooting a quick kick into his back to keep him in place. Breaking into a sprint, Buster hits the rope facing his opponent, running back at Dalidus with intentions to hit a running knee strike… Woodbridge: Bravado Bust - Nonono! However, Dalidus lays back and the knee flies right overhead, as he reaches upwards and catches Buster between the legs, pulling him back down to the mat with another roll-up! 1…! 2…! 3.. - NO! But Buster kicks away, breaking the pinfall! Returning to his feet, Buster is unable to avoid a forearm strike from Dalidus, stunning him long enough for Nova to drive a knee into the gut and snap down with a quick DDT! Paisner: DDT from Dalidus, and these two just will not slow down! Woodbridge: Ya may not like them, - God knows I don’t - but they’ve got some mighty gas tanks on ‘em! Dalidus, now behind Buster, brings his opponent to his feet with a waistlock, before throwing Buster’s arm over his neck and throwing him backwards with an Inverted Exploder Suplex! Buster flies far through the ring, but his boots collide with the skull of the official, sending him falling to the mat like a sack of potatoes! Crowd: BOOOOOOO! Paisner: Cord Cutter, but the ref’s down! Woodbridge: Buster ate all of that! Dalidus begins to go for a pinfall, but spots the official down on the mat. Looking up towards a less-than-admiring crowd, he gives a shout to his partner. Dalidus: Miles! Gimme a chair! Paisner: Oh, sonuva… Miles, still reeling from the collision with the steel post, grabs a steel chair and slides it into the ring as Buster begins reaching for the ropes in an attempt to get back to a standing base. Meanwhile, Dalidus grabs the chair from the mat and sizes up Buster from behind. Woodbridge: Buster’s gonna get his brain rattled! As he turns around, Dalidus charges with the chair raised high, swinging it downwards just as Buster sees, quickly rolling underneath the blow leaving the chair to connect with nothing but air! Crowd: OOOOOOH! Quickly up to his feet, Buster reaches into his tights to retrieve his signature black marker! Throwing the cap into the crowd, he immediately strikes Dalidus in the left eye with a jab from the marker! Crowd: OOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHH! Nova falls to the mat, clutching at his face! Buster returns to the official, trying to get him back into the match, when he is struck from behind by a sudden forearm blow, courtesy of Miles Alpha! Crowd: BOOOOOOOOOOOO!! Woodbridge: The third man! Miles, getting himself involved once more! Buster falls to his knees as Miles pulls him away from the ref, before swiftly bringing him up in a Fireman’s Carry and driving his boot into Buster’s skull with a Benadryller! Paisner: Alpha with the Defeater to Buster! *Woodbridge: He’s out cold, without a doubt! Looking behind him to spot the official slowly coming to, Miles rolls Buster onto his back and pulls the blinded Dalidus on top of him, before slipping out of the ring and hiding from the officials view as he begins to slowly make the count! 1…! 2…! 3…! DING DING DING! Paisner: Absolute bullshit! Javier: The winner of this bout via pinfall, at a time of 7:02: DALIDUS! NOVA! The Kids are Back hits the speakers, as Miles comes back into the ring to assist Dalidus out of it, a shit-eating grin plastered on his face. Woodbridge: In what was looking like quite the match, Dalidus steals one from Buster with the help from Miles Alpha! Paisner: It’s bullshit, Mark. Complete bullshit. The two walk through the curtain as the camera cuts away. Mark Dutch is walking around the backstage area. He comes across Tony the Milkman, seeming to take a breather from the chaos of the kitchen, wiping off a milk mustache. Dutch: Milkman! Tell me everything you know about the attack of Louis Blackwater! The Milkman looks confused. Tony: I don’t have any information for you, unfortunately. I do have a wonderful lemon cake! Would you like a piece? Dutch takes a good look at the lemon cake Tony is offering, but he shakes his head. Dutch: No, I cannot be distracted. I have responsibility! Tony: Your loss! As Mark Dutch continues to walk around, he peeks into a room and sees Big Money Maverick on the phone talking to someone. Dutch begins to speak to himself. Dutch: Mav….maybe it was him…. Big Money Maverick: So yeah, if you're interested in doing business, let's talk about financials… As Mav talks on the phone, and Dutch watches from outside the room, Dutch is suddenly approached by a backstage crew worker holding a bag of cheetos. Crew Worker: Looking for the guy who attacked Blackwater? I don't think it was Mav. Dutch: Why do you say that? Crew Worker: He's been in this room making phone calls for hours, I should know… The crew member swings the door open, cracking it behind him so the camera and Dutch can still see inside. We see the crew worker hand the bag of Cheetos to Mav, and Mav sets the bag on a table next to him, alongside many other drinks and snacks that Mav presumably forced the worker to get for him. Dutch: Hmm...maybe not...but…...I don't know…. Dutch walks away from the room, and immediately is face to face with Stephen Romero, who’s holding an athletic jump rope in his hands and sweat covers his tank top. Romero. Heard you were looking for who snuck up on Blackwater. Dutch: Yeah. By the way, thanks for going after Balandran for my hotdog. Romero looks back at Dutch, scratching the side of his head with a confused look. Romero: Oh yeah. Uhm. No problem, I guess. Look, we two have been in the business for a while. Dutch: True. Romero: Yeah, and I noticed a trend which might work. Dutch’s eyes are wide open as he looks back at Romero. Romero: Usually, if you go to the ring and call out who did it.. they often show up and take responsibility. That or someone else shows up who wants to fight. It’s a 50/50 chance. Dutch: Now that you say it, yeah.. you’re right. Thanks, Stephen. Mark Dutch pats Romero’s shoulder before he looks at his now sweat covered hand. Immediately, Dutch wipes his hand off on Romero before he quickly walks away. Romero looks down at the sweaty handprint before letting out a sigh. The camera returns to the kitchen, where we see Milkman back in after his break, and his crust has been pulled out and he’s pouring in a filling into it. Baker is on Twitter instead of watching whatever he has put in the oven. Bakers oven start producing smoke, whole Tony’s produces an absolutely gorgeous looking loaf of pastry Baker: “Shit!” Baker runs over the oven and opens it, quickly pulling the cookies out without wearing any form of hand protection We open our next scene, as we see Stephen Romero backstage once again, clad in his wrestling gear and changed into a cleaner, and very small black tank top. So small the tank top is dangerously close to slipping inward a bit and potentially revealing his nipples. With this phone on hand, as he starts an instagram live stream from his phone, quickly getting up to around 14 unique viewers. As he begins to speak. Romero: Hello world! I’d just thought i’d give a bit of insight into how I go about preparing for whatever I need to do when i’m at a show! The first thing to bring, always, always have this- Romero opens one of his bags layed in his locker, inside revealing many bottles of water. Romero: Stay hydrated, constantly! And you can stay hydrated with….uh….actually I don’t have any sponsors for this yet……..use tap water if it’s safe where you live, get some re-usable bottles if you can! I think when it comes to price points it’s not something you’d regret if you splurged on, but not something you need to splurge on either. I might even recommend not splurging, because with some extra money, you can become a patron for 1 cent a month! We are already at fifty-three patrons, and you can get in on the new hotness, and access to exclusive content! Now, to show y’all some more- Romero grabs a significantly sized lunch box, as it seems to contain generous servings that make up a large rice bowl. First ingredient is obviously a lot of rice, with sliced pork, green onion, cilantro, mushroom, carrot, and avocado all being found in significant portions. Romero: Being as large as I am and working in such a physically draining industry, the portions that I need to function would incapactiate a normal human being. Whether I am exaggerating or not is up to your own interpretation. And now, some may wonder how I get mentally prepared for a match? It heavily depends, for ippv matches where there’s more on the line, I tend to psych myself up with intense music, let out energy through running in place, my ippv matches are more about being intense. With lower stakes matches or House Party matches, I tend to moreso leave my training at the gym, I just try to show up in as good and happy of a mood as I can. Easier said than done of course, but with things such as forming alliances recently, I always have some others to lift me up. I think specialist and Rizwan are in the break room, lets go visit them actually! Romero then walks out of the locker room and into the hallways, and as he just enters the hallways, he bumps into someone right in front of his whole stream! gayboygayboygayboygayboygayboygayboygayboygayboy: omg king u okay??!!??!! MarioFantatic37: Nooooooooo don’t get hurt from an unexpected collision your so sexy haha After a moment of surprise, we see the person Romero collided with as he exited the locker room, GiGi, who now sees that Romero bumped into her, and gains a fury in her eyes. GiGi: Hey! You! The audacatity to have said the things you have and now this?! Do you want to know the consequences! Well i’ll show you them! GiGi then whips out her phone herself, a look of anger on her face throughout the process of doing this, as she starts up an instagram live stream of her own…….and instantly changes to a fake wide smile as she starts the stream up, hundreds upon hundreds of viewers quickly pouring in. She glances up at Romero with now a smug smile at the sheer numerical differences in their streams, as she begins to talk to her fans. GiGi: Hello GiGi Gang! Welcome to an impromptu stream, brought on by more severe aggression against me! And guess who’s the person behind it! GiGi dramatically swings her phone to reveal Romero in the shot, who’s holding up his phone for his stream as well, as GiGi’s chat goes- Chad68: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Feet?: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! LocalLesbian: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Jouster06: HOW DARE YOU HURT HER YOU MONSTER! I’LL BEAT YOU UP MYSELF! xxxsavannahgranger4523: Looking for hot singles in your area? Visit Datebeast.notavirus.com/132342435353324244het43422 for your hook up today! QuirkyGamer!!!: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Upon realizing who they’re seeing, as GiGi continues to speak. GiGi: Once again I have been put in serious danger by Romero, by him as the much larger person trying to bulldoze over me and hurt me in the process! Romero: I...literally just accidentally bumped into you. GiGi: You’re lying! I can’t trust a word you say after your threats towards my livelihood, and now my physical well-being! You know what, this calls for retaliation, Kaitlyn, you’re strong, get him! As GiGi commands this though, we don’t see anything happen, GiGi, confused as to why Kaitlyn is not doing something for her, turns around, and sees that Kaitlyn has mostly fainted due to the sheer scale of her infatuation with GiGi. Connected to GiGi only by holding on to her foot, where many in chat upon seeing this foot holding simply comment “God I wish that was me”. Romero: Well, considering the state of Kaitlyn, i’m not sure she’s up for much of a fight in this moment. So unless you are, I think we’ll need another method to settle this, through what has been my goal, a stream battle! Where I handle mine with honesty and openness! GiGi: Is that all? Easy! You’re on! Kait! Come with! GiGi then begins to walk away, but is very noticeably slowed by the mostly dead weight of the head over heels Kaitlyn clinging onto her. Due to this GiGi is not able to make nearly as smooth an exit from the scene as she was hoping, but tries to make the best of it by highlighting the struggle she’s going through due to this, pointing the camera down in the process, showing her pastel colored shoes, as we see several “POGGERS” and excited proclamations of “FEET!” in her chat at this. Romero meanwhile heads his own way, as we see support from the members of his chat- gayboygayboygayboygayboygayboygayboygayboygayboy: Romeo, u r fuckin sick ur gonna do it BasedAndGaypilled: STEPHEN ROMERO KREYGASM Thats_So_Shibe: Bro no homo but I would like to have anal intercourse with you Romero makes his way quickly over to a break room, where we see Rizwan and Specialist chatting over a cup of tea for Rizwan, and several cups of coffee for each member of Specialist, as Romero mutters to himself for a moment- Romero: Fuck what do people like...spinning, they like spinning right? HEY RONDEL! Rondel then stands up, he and Romero making intense eye contact. Romero: DO ONE OF THEM COOL SPINS! Rondel then jumps on top of the table, Rizwan able to save his tea, but all of Specialist’s coffee gets spilled. Rondel then not only spins, he balances on one leg to do the spin, mixing in several hops into the spin to add even more onto it, before finishing the spin, and stepping off the table. He then offers to replace everyone’s spilled coffee, as he goes to get more, but not before he and Romero both communicate to each other with a thumbs up. As the chat that has now grown to 25 unique views POPS OFF We then cut back to GiGi, where we see on her stream her attempts to geti Kaitlyn functioning again. We see GiGi more gently poking her, shaking Kaitlyn, throwing a glass of water on her face, all to no avail! Before she finally switches up the strategy, and slaps Kaitlyn across the face, this action finally making her functionable again, as a wide smile forms on her face, as she springs to her feet. This once again drawing many “damn I wish that was me’s” from the chat. As GiGi then speaks to Kait- GiGi: So, you’ve been allied with Romero before right? Knowing him from that, and knowing him now from his evil actions, what do you think he could be doing right this moment? Kaitlyn: Uhm, he could be showing off his wardrobe right now? Yours is just, so much more expansive and prettier than his, I think you can easily take away the few viewers he has by showing off your- GiGi: Not bad...but I think I got an idea better. We then cut back to Romero again, where he’s showing off more of his wardrobe, where he is currently clad in a maroon red beret, glasses straight from a sexy secretary halloween costume, a white/maroon striped shirt tucked into tight fit jeans, and a leather jacket over it all. Romero hits several poses in this outfit, but as he’s focusing on himself in the mirror and showing off the outfit and his figure in it to the audience in his chat, we see GiGi and Kaitlyn sneak up in the background. Keeping a low profile, but enough to be noticeable in the lower frames of Romero’s stream, and obviously visible on GiGi’s stream as we switch to her view of her slowly crawling her way towards Romero’s set up. Where we see his set up is organized into different pieces, the tops/bottoms/jackets/hats/accessories all put into different sections. We see GiGi and Kaitlyn coordinate to take one thing of each from all of those while Romero is focused entirely on his posing. Then they go to make their escape and with wonderful timing, because as they start, Romero for the first time fully turns around to show off the outfit from behind! GiGi and Kaitlyn barely dodging out the way with all the stolen clothes. As we then hear Romero say- Romero: Alright, I hope that was enough for all of you! Now, onto the next outfit… Romero then goes through each his sections, making most of his next outfit….but cannot find the hat for it! Romero: Yo what the fuck…..you know what, i’ll skip that one, next outfit! Romero then goes through his next outfit…..but finds that he is now missing the jacket that goes with it! Romero: HUH?! Again?!! Well uhhh….third time’s the charm I guess! Romero then looks through his next outfit…..but cannot find the top to it! Romero: WHAT THE FUCK?! Hold up, somethings going on here…. Romero then goes to grab his phone, and check insta live chat, where they are spamming “GIGI STOLE YOUR CLOTHES” in the chat, as an anger then manifests in Romero’s face. Romero: She took my clothes?!........I’ve gotta do something about this man.. We then cut to GiGi and Kaitlyn still streaming, where we now see GiGi attempting a try on an article of clothing she stole from Romero, a denim jacket…..emphasis on *try, as we see that the jacket looks less like a normal jacket, looks less like an oversized jacket, but more like a straight up blanket on GiGi, nearly completely covering her all on it’s own.* GiGi: What do you say Kait? I think these are so big on me they could really work as a unique shoot, maybe make it available for patrons donating $750 and up, or you could take them for yourself if you want, they’d still be quite large on you but not to the point where you could make your bed with it. Kaitlyn: Oh, um, no, no thank you, I think i’d like to see more you wearing some of his stuff.. GiGi: Ooohhhh, well I know I already have one patron on board, say, how exactly would you enjoy seeing me wear it? Kaitlyn: Well...uh….maybe with, nothing….uhhh GiGi: Nothing what? Kaitlyn:Uh…..umm…......nevermind… GiGi: Alright, just if you ever do want some of this stuff let me know, you gotta take advantage of your top patron exclusive reward of receiving one individual piece of clothing from me! As GiGi says this, we then hear the door into where they are get kicked down, as through the rubble, emerges Stephen Romero, Kaitlyn looks defensive and ready to scrap, as GiGi initially panics. Romero: Hey! All that is my damn clothes! In her panic, GiGi grabs the oversized denim jacket, and tosses it at Romero’s face as a distraction! Before GiGi bails out the room before anything can escalate! Kaitlyn still looks primed to defend, but GiGi forcefully grabs her anyway, pulling her away from the scene all the same.As Romero the takes his denim jaket he got thrown back in, he smiles that it still fits, and puts in on, striking a pose to his crowd in his chat. Romero: Well…..I lost several hundreds of dollars and cool pieces of clothing because of that……...but at least this denim jacket is still sick though! Romero then strikes more poses for the fans, as we gradually fade out on the scene. We come back to the ring, where we see Javier standing in the middle of the ring, ready to announce. Javier: The following is a tag team match, set for one fall, with a 30 minute time limit! Introducing first- The Fall III by Doping Hornets comes through the speakers, as we see Mercenaire and Marshall Wheeler both come out from behind the curtain. Both disregarding the audience, as they stride to the ring with confidence. Javier: From Houston, Texas, and A Dark, Dark Place respectively, weighing in at a combined 480 pounds, Marshall Wheeler, Mercenaire, Coup d’Etat! Crowd: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Woodbridge: Being announced from Houston and A Dark Place as separate things? Ain’t those the same thing? Paisner: Mark! Woodbridge: Sorry, had to take the opportunity when I had it. Digressing from that, we’ve got one hell of a tag match coming up! As we got two men who are talented and angry, one hell of a deadly combination if i’ve ever seen it. Feeling overlooked, they have a chance to channel that anger into their biggest tag challenge yet in SPECIALIST. They’ve proven they can take care of those they should absolutely beat, now lets see how they fare against those where it’s more of a 50/50. Wheeler and Mercenaire continue to stoically march their way down to the ring, paying to mind to the jeers tossed their way, as they both reach the ring apron, and step through the ropes in sync with one another, before the two take a spot at the end of the ring, looking out to the entranceway, awaiting their opponents. The Anomoly by Scar Symmetry blasts heavy riffs throughout the venue, as we see Presagio Del Fin and Nelson Butterfly out on the entranceway. Clinging onto one another, a look of determination on their face. Javier: And introducing next, from Parts Unknown, weighing in at a combined 437 pounds, Presagio Del Fin, Nelson Butterfly, S.P.E.C.I.A.L.I.S.T.! Crowd: YAYYYYYYYYYYYYYY! Paisner: Now, two very strange men coming down to the ring, the traditional pair of SPECIALIST representing it tonight, and despite their unorthodox in-ring methods, there’s very few others who have as much chemistry and knowledge of each other inside and out as SPECIALIST do. And that unorthodox style? Might be exploitable, but if you don’t know that exploit, you get torn apart by it. And inexperienced wrestlers like Mercenaire and Wheeler may be prime for not knowing, this could be a huge win for SPECIALIST here tonight! Butterfly and Presagio make their way down to the ring with their arms linked together, interacting with the fans, handing out hand slaps as they walk down the entranceway. They begin to practice their respective underhooks and pins to make sure they’re warmed up, before finishing their way to the ring, as they step into it. We see both Coup d’Etat and SPECIALIST talk amongst one another, as we see Mercenaire and Presagio step onto the aprons. While Wheeler and Nelson stay in the ring, Undersach signaling to see if they’re all ready, and getting nods from everyone, rings the bell! DING DING DING As the match starts, Wheeler and Nelson slowly approach each other, they lock up, as Wheeler then goes to slip behind Nelson right after! Grabbing Nelson’s head, pulling it back, and driving a european uppercut into the back of Nelson’s head! Nelson holding at the back of his head, before Wheeler shoots a forearm shot into the back of Nelson’s head! Sending Nelson stumbling forward, as Wheeler then runs the ropes, and comes back to attempt an enzu lariat to the back of Nelson’s head, but Nelson drops down! Fitting in between Wheeler’s legs, as Wheeler stops himself after a moment, and turns around to Nelson who had gotten back to his feet, who grabs Wheeler in a double underhook! Wheeler tries to struggle out, but Nelson lifts his knee up into Wheeler’s face! Doing it multiple times until he has Wheeler sufficiently harmed, where upon which, Nelson tosses Wheeler back across the ring with a butterfly suplex! Wheeler landing hard on his back, gritting his teeth in pain! Crowd: WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Paisner: Wheeler trying to quickly strike Nelson down, but Nelson dropping down, then quickly into offense through his patented double underhook! Wheeler then begins to push himself up, sitting up, then getting onto his hands and knees to try and make his way to his feet, but Nelson swoops in quickly, nails an elbow to the top of Wheeler’s head, and hooks Wheeler’s arms to bring Wheeler up on his own terms. Nelson takes Wheeler over to his tag corner, shooting a look at Presagio to cue him to tag himself in. Presagio sets himself up near Nelson, as Nelson tosses Wheeler up into the air with the set up for a double underhook powerbomb, but instead of following through with it himself, Presagio instead comes in as the one to catch and add his own force to slam Wheeler down to the mat with the assisted tiger bomb! Presagio sitting down with it! Crowd: OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Paisner: Nelson combining well his double underhook and tag team mastery! And of course Presagio keeps the sit-out for a pin! 1! No! Kickout from Wheeler! Wheeler kicks out with a bit of force, rolling onto his stomach as he does, as Presagio gets up, sizes up Wheeler as Wheeler begins to push himself to his feet, and runs towards the ropes! Jumping onto and bouncing up off of them as he reaches them, and launching himself back at the now to his feet Wheeler with a springboard hurricanrana! Keeping it for the rana pin! Crowd: WOOOOOOOOOOO! 1! 2! No! Kickout right at 2 from Wheeler! The force from Wheeler’s kickout pushes Presagio off of Wheeler, Presagio flung outwards as the two have their backs to one another. Both of them attempt to rise to their feet, but Presagio as the healthier man is a good deal faster, and with that, hooks Wheeler from behind him, gets back-to-back to him, and goes down into a backslide pin on Wheeler! 1! 2! No! Kickout from Wheeler again! As we get another kickout from Wheeler, both men go to scramble to their feet, and as Wheeler rises, Presagio responds with a knee to the gut to double him over, and keep him in place! Following up by going to the ropes, and jumping off for another springboard! This time going for a springboard crossbody, as he connects with Wheeler! But suddenly, Wheeler rolls through the momentum of the crossbody! Coming out of it with Presagio in his grasp, holding Presagio in front of him! Wheeler then lifts Presagio, and goes to toss Presagio over his head, but Presagio shifts his momentum in mid-air and lands on his feet! Crowd: WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH! Paisner: Presagio nearly reversed, but he finds his own way of escape! Directly countering the counter! And as Presagio lands on his feet, he grabs Wheeler from behind and goes to roll him back into an o’connor roll!.....but Wheeler once again moves his own momentum through! Going into his own o’connor roll!....but he still does not stop! Continuing to follow through by going to lift Presagio up in a rolling german suplex! Lifting Presagio up halfway, but Presagio desperately struggles! Kicking his feet and swinging his arms, until he lands enough wild strikes to force Wheeler to let him go! Wheeler backs off a bit, as Presagio takes a moment to catch his breath and recover, before beginning to run towards the ropes!.......but not before Wheeler recovers himself, and comes forward to spin around, and connect with a spinning back elbow to the back of Presagio’s head! The impact and suddenness of the strike knocking Presagio flat to the mat! Crowd: OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Paisner: BY GOD! THE SPINNING ELBOW TO THE BACK OF THE CRANIUM! COMPLETELY DEVASTATING PRESAGIO! Presagio is completely laid out, as Wheeler bends his knees for a moment in order to catch himself, before grabbing the limp body of Presagio, and dragging it over to his tag corner, where upon which he lifts Presagio’s body and tosses it into said corner, and tags in Mercenaire. Wheeler then lifts his leg up high, and presses it up against Presagio’s neck to both keep him in place and choke him out! Crowd: BOOOOOOOOO! As he does this, Mercenaire enters the ring, and backs up to about the center of the ring, before rushing towards the corner, and just as Wheeler releases his foot choke and moves out the way, Mercenaire connects with a big boot in the corner to the head of Presagio! Knocking him back down limp to the mat! Crowd: OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Presagio is completely out on the mat, as Merc stands over him, leans down to grab him, then tosses him right back in the corner where he begins to lay in body punches to the stomach of Presagio! Doubling Presagio over in the corner, as Merc then lays in pointed elbows to the back of Presagio’s neck! Raining down elbow after elbow on Presagio, forcing him lower and lower down in the corner, until he’s dropped to a seated position. Upon which Merc just puts his boot on Presagio’s face, and rubs it in! Crowd: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Woodbridge: Mercenaire just absolutely relentless right now! No mercy nor respect given! Undersach begins to count off Mercenaire, and gets all the way to the 4 count before Merc removes his boot and finally relents! Crowd: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
First Chapter Previous Chapter The view of Sanctuary was made even more impressive as An’Ra and his team waited in the V-Lift. Through the window, they can see the ornate streets curving through resplendent pools underneath, dotted by the occasional fountain. “I hate this.” Vora groaned, dressed in a soldier’s standard battle uniform. “Why are we here, Commander?” “We were investigating genocide and possible use of bioweapons,” Sonak explained, “Even without the first part, Strain Y is going to scare a lot of people. I think it’s reasonable for the Council to take a personal interest in this. Besides, I think the real issue here is the fact you might actually have to speak to the Council.” “But...ugh, fine. Yes, I wasn’t mentally prepared for it when An’Ra came along and went, Party’s over, ass to the Council, now.” “Hey now.” An’Ra feigned offense, “I didn’t say it that way, did I?” “Kind of close, Commander.” Sonak chuckled. “But still, I think that this isn’t about keeping the galaxy safe.” Vora sighed. “I think the Council’s keeping an eye open for any opportunity to to convince the galaxy they’re still in charge.” “Or maybe they genuinely want to make sure that we’re not at risk of dying a horrible death by watching our own bodies melt.” Sonak shrugged. “Strain Y doesn’t care if you’re an officer or infantry.” “That assumes the Council cares about what’s going on outside of these walls.” Vora glanced over, wariness in her look. “Either way, we’re going to get our answer. Eyes open.” An’Ra said as the V-Lift doors parted ways, revealing the same ornate architecture within. Trees and grasses stole the eye as they walked through the hallways, various government officials from the myriad races conversing and conducting whatever business they were doing. After walking up some steps, they arrived at the large double-doors that lead to the Council Chambers. Standing on each side were the guards constantly on watch for any potential attack. Both of them Anaran, as expected. On approach, the guards opened up the doors to allow An’Ra and his team in. When they entered, the room was probably more magnificent than they expected. A grand, curved window dominated the view. An unintrusive look into the beautiful splendor of Sanctuary. Directly in front of An’Ra and his team was a pathway that led to a semi-circular desk, standing in front of the raised platform that the Council sat, who had just now noticed the arrivals and are settling themselves in. And it was there An’Ra got a good look at the Council. Four of them, half Esti, half Huak. An’Ra secretly never liked the Esti, the way he could see menacing fangs when their flat mouths opened, or those flaps of scale that expands outward into a hood. It just unnerved him, a reason he could never really find out. As soon as he sensed that they were ready, he walked up to the desk, wearing his officer’s dress uniform, comprised of a fine, smooth fabric shirt, adorned with a fluffy sash that went from his right shoulder down to his left side, shoulder pads accented with shining studs and finished with awards placed on his top-left chest, awards hard earned back in the Great War. “Commander An’Ra.” The Huak councilor on the far right side, Neual, began, thick fingers interlaced together as he rested his hands on the desk. “Thank you for agreeing to this unusual request, we are very appreciative.” “It’s no trouble, Councilor.” An’Ra gave a slight bow. “How can I help?” “We’ll start at the beginning.” The first Esti councilor, Zhur, stated, holding up a secure datapad to ensure the information is easily accessible. “Strain Y. Your report says that while there is confirmation it was used, it was not used in significant quantities. Can you elaborate on that for us?” “Previous uses of Strain Y all had one thing in common,” An’Ra began, “The amount deployed saturated the atmosphere of the planets they were used on. This is because, despite its lethality, is not actually that infectious. In order to guarantee the total elimination of a planet’s population, you will need to deploy it in such large numbers that everyone will be infected within minutes of deployment. In this case, for Planet 3, there simply wasn’t enough to reach that threshold.” “At which you go on to state that thermal weapons were used in a state of panic,” Yhiz, the second Esti councilor, added, “Can you explain your reasoning for us?” “As established before, Strain Y was used on the planet. My working theory is that, when they discovered that they grossly underestimated the amount needed, they panicked and used thermal weapons to both try and burn out the supplies used and finish the genocide they started.” “But if thermal weapons were indeed used, how did you confirm Strain Y was deployed?” Zhur spoke up. “We found pieces of Strain Y’s genetic material on the planet’s surface.” An’Ra glanced over to Zhur’s direction. “And as I arrived back in the system, I received a quantum packet from the expedition, stating that they have confirmed that Strain Y was indeed used. Adding that with the obvious use of thermal weaponry, I concluded that the attackers didn’t use enough of the weapon to guarantee extinction.” Zhur leaned back in her seat, scarlet eyes fixated on the desk. An’Ra couldn’t tell if she was trying to find a counter argument or just processing the information. “Have you found any evidence that can tell us if there’s more of the strain out in the galaxy?” Neual asked after giving a sigh through his wide nostrils. “I’m afraid not, sir. All I can definitively say is that this planet fell victim to a biological Cruel Weapon.” “I’m more concerned about the native life.” Ghala, the final and second Huak councilor, stated after being silent. “Are you absolutely certain that none of the planet’s indigenous life survived?” “The scientific team said that there’s a very low chance of that.” An’Ra’s ears flattened. “And after seeing the surface myself, I must agree. I don’t think we should wait for a miracle.” “Ah...I see.” Ghala leaned back in his chair, obviously disheartened. “Even if the planet is now incapable of supporting life, we still wish to move forward with a more symbolic gesture and statement by declaring Planet 3 of System AQ 115-4A illegal for colonization.” “But let’s move onto what I believe is the most pressing issue: the identity of the attackers.” Neual leaned forward. “Based on your report, you and the team have found nothing that neither confirms nor clears any potential suspect?” “That’s correct, Councilor.” An’Ra nodded. “We’ve found nothing, within the system and on the planet itself, that tells us anything about who did it.” “Are there any surviving infrastructure on the planet?” Ghala asked, straightening his posture. “Even if there isn’t much, maybe the natives’ equipment has something we can use?” “As established before, the planet was devastated terribly. There are indeed ruins of their civilization, but whether or not we can salvage anything from them is a different story.” An’Ra answered with a sigh. “So in that case, the Qu’Rathi are still the likely aggressors then.” Zhur stated. “I’m not convinced.” An’Ra shook his head. “Everything we have so far is just circumstantial, nothing solid.” “Yes, that proves they did it. But looking at it from a different perspective, nothing that proves they didn’t do it either.” Zhur countered, her eyes squinting some. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to press forward with what I think you’re planning, Councilor.” An’Ra leaned forward on the table, ears flattening back. “If you do, and we uncover evidence that clearly proves their innocence, you will be pushing an innocent race away.” “But if we uncover evidence that proves their guilt, then the trial will be much more expedient.” Yhiz joined in, his eyes also squinting slightly. “With respect Council, I still think that’s the worst decision you can make.” An’Ra’s teeth began to bare as he spoke. “We can’t make any decision until we acquire more evidence.” “Nothing we have proves that Strain Y is permanently removed as a future threat.” Zhur started, “Nothing we have proves that the Federation did not do anything. Right now, we have the threat of a Class 4 Cruel Weapon looming over everyone’s heads. People will start becoming scared, start wondering if their shadows will melt them at any time.” “I know that Councilors!” An’Ra raised his voice. “Give me time! I’m not saying this is over yet, just let me keep looking!” “We aren’t stopping your investigation, Commander.” Neual said, holding his hand up slightly. “We’re just informing you that you may not have the time you thought you had.” “What does that mean?” An’Ra’s ears stuck out at an angle, mixed between stiffening and anger. The councilors looked at each other for a few moments before Zhur stood up and took in a deep breath. “Commander, based on both the collected evidence so far, and lack of any other evidence, the Council has decided to proceed with charging the Qu’Rathi Federation on counts of Genocide, possession of a Cruel Weapon, and deployment of Cruel Weapons with intent for malicious harm. Out of respect for your efforts, Commander, we will give you eight months to continue your investigation. Beyond that, we will close your investigation to allow the courts time to process and review what has been collected.” “Are you insane?!” An’Ra shouted. “Do you even realize what would happen if you’re wrong?!” “We do, Commander.” Zhur nodded. “But the risk is just too high. The safety of the galaxy and justice for the inhabitants of System AQ 115-4A must be our top priority. This debrief is over.” An’Ra stood in complete and stunned silence, watching the Council casually get up from their seats and dispersing to their own private offices. It wasn’t until that they have fully left the chambers that An’Ra finally found the will to move and regroup with Sonak and Vora, both of whom are also equally stunned. “Those ekas!” Vora exclaimed. “It’s bad enough to be quick at accusing someone, but how dare they claim this is for those humans!” “And here I thought all those things the news were saying was just to get people to watch them.” Sonak muttered softly. “Commander, obviously this is bad.” “I know, Sonak.” An’Ra crossed his arms, ears now pointing straight back and teeth fully bared. “We can’t let them do this.” “But what can we do?” Sonak exclaimed. “What options do we have?” “Alliance Enforcement!” Vora declared. “Commander, what if you filed a complaint to the Lord-Enforcer? Tell him what’s going on?” “That’s a good idea actually.” Sonak nodded. “If we convince the Lord-Enforcer that the Council is being too hasty with our investigation, which shouldn’t be hard, he just might deny the Council’s request for prosecution!” “I can’t imagine the Lord-Enforcer approving this even without our complaint.” An’Ra replied. “Still, never hurts to be prepared. Come on, let’s get to it.” Jur’El leaned back in the puffy seat he was assigned to. The restaurant he entered had a calm and relaxed atmosphere. The lighting was dimmed, which complimented the dark but cozy ambiance of the room. The walls and floor each had a dark-themed color scheme, the seats were of a different scheme but not too different to oppose the goal set by the designer. And although the building was packed with customers, their conversations did not threaten to turn anyone deaf. It was a quiet and relaxed experience, something he needed desperately. Even now, as hard as he tried to focus on how delicious his food was, how balanced the flavor and texture of it was, he was still forced to relive what happened on Planet 3. He could hear the sudden screams of his colony group. The scientists who were first awoken that wanted to find out why their Life world was so different to the data they were given. To the families and menial workers who were just talking amongst themselves and organizing the supplies when those machines stormed the ship. And what still terrifies him, still sends his heart racing, was when that one machine entered the control room, blood drenching its chassis. Bits and pieces of Qu’Rathi innards on its cold mechanical manipulators. How it just stared at him, lifelessly, with a rifle aiming right at his chest. And those drills. Those ghenning drills. He was forced out of his torment by the rough poking of his shoulder. When he looked, it was another Qu’Rathi. “Captain Jur’El, right?” “Uh..yes, who are you?” He nodded in confusion. “Jhen.” She introduced herself, quickly taking a seat opposite from him. “I need to talk to you.” “About what?” “The expedition to that system deep in the Dead Zone.” She glared at him, mandibles tense. “The same system who’s Life world had a native population, the very same world being investigated as a genocide site, where your expedition went to settle.” “Jhen, please, we had no idea what was going on.” Jur’El leaned back, hands raised in a defensive posture. “All we were told was that this was the most pristine and beautiful Life world ever discovered in a system rich with stellar bodies.” “I don’t care about that. What I care is how you seem to be the only one who came back.” Jhen started raising herself from her seat. “I’m pretty sure that anyone who attempts to colonize a freshly cleansed world is forcibly removed from that planet and returned to their respective people. So where is everyone?” Jur’El’s eyes went wide. He knew exactly where this was going. “I...I can’t tell you.” “Don’t you dare.” Jhen snarled, now leaning over the table. “I’ve heard enough of that from the company, I’m not here to be force-fed more of it!” “Just...trust me,” Jur’El spoke softly, shakily leaving his seat, “You don’t want to know.” “Don’t you ghenning walk away from me!” Jhen shouted, grabbing Jur’El’s shoulder firmly, the other patrons now locking eyes to the two. “Two of my sons were on that mission! What happened to them?!” Jur’El clutched his head with a hand firmly, feeling tears exploding out of his eyes. His mind rushing back to those scenes. The sounds, the smell, the fear. Everything crashed into him all at once. And they’re not just memories now. They’re all coming back to him as if he was transported in time and placed back to the exact moment it started. Back to the moment where he was screaming for his wife and son to hide, to find a corner of the ship that was hard to see and to stay there until the shooting stopped. How he felt his heart give out when he heard them beg for their life when they were found, cut short by the merciless cracks of their alien weapons. How every possible feeling melted away when the clanking of the machine’s walking approached him, when he realized there was no nowhere in the control room to hide, not with how thorough those things were being. The frantic, mindless begging he got into when he saw the blood covered machine hold that weapon to him. “You’re safe!” A voice rang out. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for him to come back. That scene melting away back into the restaurant. All those smells and sights to be gone. When he was certain that it was over, he looked around. There was Jhen, face beaten and currently being restrained by a blue-furred Anaran. And in front of him was another, gray-furred one. “You hear me? You’re safe now!” “I...wh-what happened?” “We saw what was going on. The Qu’Rathi over there? She was just screaming down your throat, all while you were just on the floor. Ken’A there nearly caved her face in by the time we got some distance between you two.” “Th...thank you.” Jur’El muttered, shakily getting himself back on his feet with the help of the gray Anaran. Jur’El was just about to walk away when the Anaran firmly, but not threateningly, gripped his shoulder. “I know the signs, friend.” He began softly. “Your soul is badly wounded and is bleeding heavily. Just like a doctor if you’re shot or cut, you need to find someone to talk to, get your soul back together.” “As long as I don’t run into another person like her, I’ll be fine.” Jur’El countered, trying to walk away still. “No, you won’t.” The Anaran still held his grip. “I need you to trust me. With how bad your soul is right now, doing anything other than talking to someone will just make it worse. And when your soul dies, well...believe me, it’s not a good experience, for anybody.” Jur’El stared into the gray Anaran’s orange eyes for a moment before he let out a sigh. “You’re not going to give up, are you?” “I’ve seen what happens too many times. Good Battle-Brothers, completely different people. Either they’re just shadows of themselves, or doomed to forever relive their horrors. If I have the chance to prevent it happening again, I’m giving it my all.” Jur’El looked aside for a few moments, internally fighting himself as to whether he should comply or keep resisting. He finally reached his decision when he became certain that the Anaran would most likely hunt him down as a life mission if he didn’t seek therapy. “Fine, I’ll do it. Got anyone in mind?” “A dear friend of mine. He’ll get you back on track, promise.” The Anaran patted Jur’El’s shoulder a few times before proceeding to lead him, motioning for Ken’A to let go of Jhen and follow. Michael, accompanied by his newly founded Praetorian Guard, continued his leisurely stroll down the surprisingly spacious corridor. The hallway itself was typical. All-metal construction with evenly spaced rows of blue-white lights. The Praetorian Guard themselves are comprised of those Servants who display both extreme scores in combat efficiency and effectiveness in defensive situations. Armed with the absolute best in magnetic-ballistics, the most impenetrable of armor designs and the highest optimized combat-frames, even a squad of these guards can hold off a virtual army, provided they aren’t subjected to bombardment or heavy ordinance. Just as Michael was about to enter the main command center of the station he was touring, Central contacted him on a private channel. “Master? Your new administration is ready.” He declared proudly. “Alright, let’s begin the introductions.” Michael replied, signaling the guardsmen that he’s about to enter a meeting. Although unneeded, the Guard promptly took up a defensive formation around him. He assumes this is mostly to keep unwelcome guests from interrupting him. The scenery of the tranquil design of the corridor melted away into the virtual world built by neon-blue blocks, the same visual that he witnessed when he first received the interface. After a few moments, several other Servants materialized and stood attention in a semi-circle in front of him. “My Lord.” The first Servant bowed, its voice deep, if gruff. “I’m Supreme Commander Schwarzkopf, in charge of managing our armed forces and overseeing the grand strategy of the Imperium.” “I am Secretary Elizabeth.” The second spoke with a calming, soothing feminine voice. “I’m responsible for ensuring our economy runs perfectly. In short, I make sure every project gets the hammers and resources it needs.” “I’m Foreign Minister Edward, at your service m’Lord.” The third, with a distinct British accent and of a composed, controlled voice. “While regretfully I’m useless at this stage, the moment we initiate contact with xeno species, I’ll handle diplomatic affairs and achieving our goals through negotiations when possible.” “No offense, but I thought every Servant wants to see aliens dead?” Michael spoke up with slight confusion. “Oh, of course. The very idea of ripping out the entrails of a xeno and suffocating them with it brings such joy it’s therapeutic.” Benjamin replied. Michael was unsure if he was joking or not. “I was appointed because I displayed the most effective ability at hiding such feelings.” “Ah...good to know.” Michael nodded dryly, not exactly assured. “Back to where we were?” “Yes, Lord. I’m Director Mansfield.” The fourth spoke with an eloquent-sounding voice. “I’m in charge of Imperial Intelligence, running operations abroad and managing counter-intelligence on the homefront. I give you my word that we will know everything about the aliens and they will know nothing about us.” “And that leaves me, Master.” Central began. “As a result of this delegation, I now possess more processing cycles towards research and development. That means that I’ll be in charge of ensuring Imperial dominance in technology. I will also act as your adjutant, filtering out information that does not need your attention.” “Well...shit, this sounds like an actual government I’m in charge of.” Michael gave out a nervous chuckle. “All the more reason to get down to business though. Let’s start with the first matter. Schwarzkopf, how’s our military coming along?” “It’s growing rapidly, your majesty.” He answered with distinct pride. “Already we have several hundred frigates, fifty light cruisers and twenty heavy cruisers, with the first wave of battleships due to exit the drydocks within a few days. Additionally, we have established four different army groups with fifty divisions each.” “I thought we’d take a lot longer.” Michael stated with no hidden amazement. “There’s great benefit in our workforce able to operate at a hundred percent every hour of the day.” Elizabeth commented, her emotion-flags also indicating pride. “And speaking of which, our population of Servants grows geometrically. That benefits both our economy and the military. Our economy by providing more workers in skilled and unskilled labor, and the military by providing more crew members and soldiers.” “So in short, it won’t be long before we become a virtual powerhouse.” Michael said, arms crossed. “Especially if we continue expanding.” Elizabeth nodded. “On that note, we have already claimed several dozen more systems.” “With Rigel and Betelgeuse selected as naval bases.” Schwarzkopf chimed in. “So we’re expanding in all the ways, got it.” Michael nodded. “Now the second matter. Terraforming Mars.” “At present, there are two issues that must be resolved.” Central answered. “The first problem is the planet’s lack of a magnetosphere. Without that, any and all organic life would perish under lethal bombardment of the Sun’s solar wind, in addition to any sustainable atmosphere being lost to space. The second problem is Mars’ inability to retain heat, the cause for it’s known low planetary temperature.” “And knowing you, you already have possible answers?” Mansfield shrugged. “Correct. The heat issue is rather trivial to solve. Mars already has an abundant amount of carbon-dioxide within the atmosphere, a well known greenhouse gas. Combined with even more of the gas locked planet side, once temperatures begin to rise, we will set off a snowball effect. However, that is all for naught if the atmosphere is allowed to escape into space by solar wind.” “So basically the key here is the magnetosphere.” Michael added. “Build that and everything becomes simple.” “Exactly.” Central affirmed. “Already there are two main methods. One is to build superconducting rings around the planet and drive them with direct current. With enough power, we can generate magnetic fields strong enough to form a virtual magnetosphere.” “And what’s the second?” Elizabeth said. “The second is to construct a station at the L1 Lagrange Point that will generate a dipole magnetic field, diverting the solar wind around the planet instead of into it. Although it was simulated using slower, binary processing, the results indicate that Mars would gain half the atmospheric pressure of Earth’s within a few years.” “So then, the main focus is building that magnetic shield.” Michael spoke firmly. “Elizabeth? Let’s get the ball rolling. Coordinate with Central as needed.” “At once, my Lord.” Elizabeth bowed. Unlike the Council chambers, the office of the Lord-Enforcer was much less opulent and more pragmatic. After going through the receptionist area, An’Ra and his team were escorted into the main office itself. However, just like the chambers, a large window dominated the view on entry, granting another view of a city district on Sanctuary. And sitting in the more rectangular desk was the Lord-Enforcer himself, Dura. Blue eyed, with a fur of dull-orange it reminds of a sunset. As soon as An’Ra and his team walked into the office, the Enforcer sat up, tail wagging. “Commander An’Ra, in my office!” He exclaimed, arms out to his sides. “Forgive me sir, but I never thought I’d see the day!” “A pleasure to meet you, sir.” An’Ra replied warmly, greeting the Enforcer with their fists clasped together and pulling themselves inward, shoulder to shoulder. “Please, no need to be formal with me.” Dura chuckled. “Sit down, what brings you here?” After taking their respective seats, An’Ra looked at Dura grimly. “I’m here to file a delay on a request for prosecution against the Federation.” Dura’s ears angled themselves in a mixture of stiffening and lowering. “I just got the paperwork from the Council. And I can tell you that won’t be needed. I’ve already submitted my rejection.” “With respect, sir.” Sonak spoke up. “I get the feeling that the Council might fight that.” “Don’t worry, I’m not going to present my back to them just because they ask.” Dura gave off a grin. “I might be some paper-tosser now, but that just means the battlefield is different. Don’t worry Commander, as long as I’m here, you’ll get the chance to finish this investigation properly.” “Thank you, Enforcer.” An’Ra smiled as he got up from his seat. “With any luck, you won’t have to fight long.” “Oh, take your time!” Dura replied with an inflection of humor. “This is the most exciting thing I’ve had in years. Was just about to smash my head on this desk any day now actually.” “Wait, really?” Vora asked, ears stiffened. “It’s just a joke, Vora.” Sonak assured dryly. “Oh...” Her ears flattened as the team exited the office. When they arrived in the main plaza where the Enforcer’s office is located, they congregated in a small collection of benches nearby an ornate fountain that commemorated the Anaran defense of Felaal IV, largely considered the turning point of the Great War, which further enhanced the beauty of the surrounding scenery of floating walkways above crystal-clear waters. “Well, that’s a relief, hopefully.” An’Ra began, letting out a decompressing sigh. “I meant what I said earlier, An’Ra.” Sonak said. “If the Council are determined to charge the Federation, which I’m sure they made abundantly clear, they’re not going to let the Enforcer drop mines in their path just like that.” “Which just means we can’t lose our focus.” Vora replied sternly. “So, what are our options? We can’t exactly go back to Planet 3, there’s really no leads there.” “What about that Detective we met when we arrived?” Sonak suggested. “He was handling that whistle blower. Maybe that’s something worth looking into?” “There’s also the Nav-Net.” Vora said. “All we got right now is that the Feds were at that location, but what if we look at the rest of the network? Try and trace their path?” “The network doesn’t extend into the Dead Zone.” Sonak countered. “No, not like that. We look at the network across Alliance space. We start with the logs that end at the Dead Zone, and we try to backtrack their route.” “We’ll need to obtain legal authorization for that, Vora.” An’Ra stated. “Actually, if I could add something.” Sonak said with his arms crossed. “If the Federation didn’t actually do it, then that questions the credibility of those codes. I think there’s a question that hasn’t been asked yet. And that is, are those codes faked?” “That’s...a good point actually.” Vora acceded. “If we get the legal permission to examine the NavNet logs, then if the Federation didn’t do it, the logs across the network won’t support it. Think about it. You need a big fleet to do what just happened, and that fleet has to come from somewhere.” “And that would mean if this was a frame job, they need a way to account for that.” An’Ra continued, confidence flaring. “It’s one thing to trick a single Nav-Buoy, but I really doubt anyone is capable enough of affecting the network itself.” “We still need the Enforcer’s help to get access to the network.” Sonak reminded. “Let’s go get it then.” An’Ra stated firmly. With that, the team left their meeting spot and began returning to the Enforcer’s office. With confidence in their step, the walk back to the office was much shorter compared to before. However, things took a turn when An’Ra and the team noticed a large gathering of officers around the office entrance. They didn’t have to time to wonder when a group exited the office, dragging a combative Dura out with them. “Commander, this isn’t good.” Sonak growled under his breath. An’Ra simply stepped forward and grabbed one of the arresting officers. “What in Arenar’s Sword is going on here?” “Dura’s under arrest on suspicion of corruption.” The officer replied flatly. “Lil’Al has been appointed as acting Lord-Enforcer.” “The Council’s behind this, Commander!” Dura shouted, his feet literally dragging along the floor as four officers were taking him away. “Don’t believe a word they say about me!” An’Ra and his team just stood there in stunned silence, watching and hearing the Anaran official being dragged virtually kicking and screaming. By the time they returned to their senses, hushed conversations was populating both the room and outside. “We’re not going to get in the network, are we?” Sonak asked, still recovering. “We still have to try, come on.” An’Ra said, already moving. When the team returned to the office, standing next to the desk was a slender Esti. No doubt Lil’al. She was looking out the window when she turned around upon hearing the encroaching footsteps. “Yes, may I help you?” She began. “Acting Lord-Enforcer Lil’Al?” An’Ra began, trying the diplomatic route first. “I’m Commander An’Ra, investigating the genocide by use of Strain Y. We’d like to request legal authorization to examine the logs of the Nav-Net.” “For what purpose?” She replied, taking her seat. “We believe that it may hold evidence that either confirms or disproves the Federation’s alleged involvement in the attack.” Lil’Al leaned back in her seat, staring at them. “The Nav-Net is the lifeblood of, well, everything. Commerce, tourism, law enforcement. It holds great information about who has gone where, and in what ship, Commander. You realize that, don’t you?” “I do, and what you’ve said precisely states how important that is, how important the potential evidence is.” Lil’Al stayed motionless for a few moments, her long, lithe fingers twiddling about that indicates her thought. “Very well, I’ll start the paperwork to get you authorization, just be mindful of what you’re about to analyze.” “Thank you.” An’Ra gave a slight bow. “In addition, I’m not sure if it’s been passed along, but Dura has rejected the Council’s request for prosecuting the Federation. Can I assume you’ll uphold that?” “I’m afraid not, Commander.” Lil’Al replied flatly. “The galaxy has suffered a great loss through the genocide of a race who’ve suffered the universe’s cruel sense of humor by being placed both far away from us and deep within an almost uninhabitable region. I have overturned Dura’s rash decision and accepted the Council’s request.” “Then I’d like to file a delay on that decision, immediately.” An’Ra replied, ears flattened back. “On what grounds?” “Lack of decisive evidence, to start.” “Same could be said on your side, Commander.” Lil’Al let out a sigh. “Yes, all the evidence collected thus far is not...ideal. However, the most significant points at this time are that a young race who was just about to leave their homeworld was exterminated through the most horrible of all options. We cannot ignore that.” “But we also can’t rush to conclusions. We need to continue investigating and only go after someone if we have at least one crucial piece of information.” An’Ra countered, arms crossed and his teeth starting to bare. “And I agree, that’s how it should be done.” Lil’Al replied. “But if we do, we risk dragging out an investigation to such a length we may end up forgetting this tragedy. We cannot allow such an insult to Planet 3’s memory. I’m sorry, but I must reject your petition for judiciary delay.” Next Chapter AN: Every single time I paste this in, Reddit is just determined to put it in some code block. Anyways, As of now, I've finally completely locked in the plot for this story, just one major question that could've changed a lot was on my mind for a while. Enjoy!
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