Deep in the Outer Rim of the Cyrannus Galaxy, an Imperial Rapax dropped out of hyperspace above the perpetually stormy planet of Antemurale. The vessel, similar in most respects to other corvettes utilised by Imperial Intelligence, was, for good reason, one of the most feared vessels in the galaxy to those lucky enough to have survived meeting the occupant. In the cockpit of the Rapax, Agent Caranye Valaeris sat cross-legged, datapad in hand, typing in a status report to headquarters on the status of her ongoing mission. Yawning as she finished the final paragraph, Caranye set the datapad down and pilot the ship beneath the atmosphere. Eventually, the dull grey clouds gave way to the impressive, if imposing vista of the Eternal City, the beating hub of the Imperial military.
Setting the craft down on her private landing pad, Caranye rose to her feet and exited the cockpit. Yawning once again, she sighed contently in the knowledge that a good nights sleep was ahead of her, the first in many months. Her good mood was shattered however, when her holocom suddenly activated, revealing a male Velociampo in the uniform of a high ranking member of Imperial Intelligence.
Caranye: "Director, I've just landed on Antemurale. I wasn't expecting you until the morning."
The Director placed his hands behind his back.
Director: "Something has come up, agent. Report to me at once. I'll debrief you once you arrive."
Caranye: "Sounds urgent. I was rather hoping to catch some shut eye before being reassigned."
Director: "I'm contacting you directly, agent. That should give you all the indication you need of the importance of this mission. Suffice to say, a major threat to Imperial interests has become known to us. I expect to see you soon. Director, out."
When the hologram flickered into nothingness, Caranye sighed deeply. Stepping down the ramp of her starship, Caranye pulled a hood over her head, shielding it against the pelting rain. Looking around as she made her way to the imposing Citadel, bursts of lightning arched across the pitch black sky. She had never understood why the Empire had chosen such a world as the hub of the Imperial Military, surely not for public relations. The city itself however, was filled with activity, with craft lifting off and landing as thick crowds of people went about their daily business, seemingly at ease with the horrifyingly depressing world around them.
Piloting her speeder to a large courtyard outside the Citadel, Caranye made her way into the vast complex toward the Director's office. The interior of the building was typical of the new style of Imperial architecture, favoured by Grand Mandators such as Taev Vosaetiur, with long, wide corridors lavishly decorated in rich red and black along dark and reflective walls. Eventually, she arrived in the maw of Imperial Intelligence Headquarters, passing several colleagues she recognised from the academy as she made her way to the Director. When she arrived at his office, she knocked politely before entering.
The Director sat in a minimalist office, sparsely decorated but for four decorative pillars in each corner of the room, with a large window located behind the desk, opening out onto the city below. The Director stood to his feet once he had finished a status report to Orbispira and returned Caranye's Imperial salute.
Caranye: "Director. What a lovely world you have here. I always look forward to my visits."
The Director raised his brow and glanced at the teaming rain outside the window.
Director: "I'm sure. Now, the reason for the abruptness of my transmission: As you are no doubt aware, a group of terrorists calling themselves the "Cyrandia Resistance" have been a thorn in the side of the Empire of late. We have discovered a cell of the traitors on Antemurale itself. We've intercepted chatter indicating that they are planning a major attack."
Caranye: "Background. What are we working from?"
The Director placed his arms behind his back.
Director: "We do not know where their attack will fall, though the Eternal City is no doubt high on their agenda. Perhaps even the Citadel itself. We believe that they are hiding in the Alvarian Forest just outside the city walls."
Caranye: "Understood. I take it you'd like me to investigate."
Director: "Indeed, travel to the Alvarian Forest, find the base of the terrorists, kill the tag-alongs and apprehend the leader. Find out what he knows. Though you'll be pleased to know that you won't be working alone. It is within our purview to monitor every security system in the Empire. Artificial Intelligences, as you can expect, make such a task immeasurably less complicated. Caranye, allow me to introduce you to Eternal Enigma."
The Director interacted with a console on his desk, causing a amorphous globe of energy to appear.
Director: "Say hello, Enigma."
The globe of energy shone as it spoke.
Eternal Enigma: "Hello, Enigma. I'm sorry, I'm awful. I couldn't help myself. Agent Caranye, I've heard lots of... things about you. I'm looking forward to our time together."
Caranye narrowed her eyes as she turned to the Director.
Caranye: "Director?! This isn't necessary, I work best alone!"
Director: "You have your orders, Caranye. I expect you to complete them to the letter."
Caranye: "Sir, I have contacts on Antemurale. Contacts which will become unresponsive if I saunter to their location with an ImpIntel AI."
Eternal Enigma: "If I may intrude, I operate independently from Imperial Intelligence. For all I care, you could defect to the Republic. Whatever gets the job done."
The Director extended his hands, a wry smile on his face.
Director: "See, agent? Think of it as a new experience. But if it's all the same to you, do try to avoid defection. The paper work I'd have to complete..."
Caranye piloted her speeder over the Eternal City before decreasing altitude above the surrounding forests. Nevertheless, she had no intention of travelling to the confirmed location of the rebel base just yet. One of her contacts lived life as a hermit in the depths of the woods, whose insight would likely prove useful to her mission. After an hour of travel, she touched down the speeder outside a decrepit hut in a clearing surrounded by massive trees. As she stepped down from the speeder, once again raising her hood, she heard Eternal Enigma speak to her via her neural interface.
Eternal Enigma: "This world is lovely. Just lovely. All the... rain. And the rocks! I quite like the rocks."
Caranye: "Stay quiet, this will be hard enough as it is."
Opening the door of the hut, she looked around with apprehension. It barely qualified as a safehouse, more like a crumbling ruin in the midst of the horrifyingly populated forest. Granted, while not the best to live, it was certainly an excellent place to hide.
Eternal Enigma: "What is this place? I have no information on it in my database."
Caranye: "Yeah, that's kinda the point."
Caranye had used the hut during undercover operations, a place to stay attached to her memories as a person prior to signing her life away with Imperial Intelligence. Somewhere to keep grounded... or to keep a secret.
Unknown: "Go away! I've got blasters! I've got-"
Caranye kicked down the door. A thin Libertus held his hands up in surrender.
Voe Dirais: "b-blasters... Caranye! You're back, I never thought you'd come back!"
Voe, far from the stereotype of his people as orderly and civilised, was clearly not in the best health, with blood shot eyes and torn clothes. His surroundings were equally rough, with the Libertus clearly having few skills when it came to upkeep. Caranye attempted to restain her anger as she overlooked her safe-house.
Caranye: "What have you been doing to my house, Voe?!"
Voe: "Oh you have no idea how awful it was! You can't even get a HoloDomain connection from this dump!"
Eternal Enigma materialised beside Caranye.
Eternal Enigma: "Voe Dirais!"
Voe: "Oooh, an AI!"
Caranye indicated to the AI.
Caranye: "This is Eternal Enigma."
Eternal Enigma: "The official report indicated that you had been terminated by our mutual friend here. You're quite spry for a dead guy. Though you look like you've been tortured."
Voe: "Oh, I was."
Caranye: "Shut up, Voe. You weren't tortured!"
Voe: "Oh really?! You left me with no access to the HoloDomain for three months! I've had to read actual books!"
Caranye sighed deeply. Despite her ruthless efficiency, she couldn't bring herself to kill the defenceless Voe, whose only crime had been hacking into an unimportant HoloDomain network on some Outer Rim backwater. To silence him, she simply brought him to the middle of nowhere, activating a blackout array a kilometre in every direction. Now, she was glad she had. He could prove useful against the terrorists. Thankfully, Voe was too busy interrogating Eternal Enigma to express any true anger.
Voe: "Okay, I have a question, Mr. Eternal Enigma. Most AIs I know take the form of whatever species they like. I take it you like... big, weird, purple swirls?"
Eternal Enigma: "I am pure intellect. Why should I effect a façade to appear more... friendly to organics? I am what I am. An Eternal Enigma."
Voe blinked, a blank expression on his face.
Voe: "M'kay, I feel like I'm going to call you 'Mr. Purple Swirl'."
Suddenly Voe yelped in pain, jumping back from Enigma. Glancing over at them as she gathered her equipment, Caranye rolled her eyes.
Voe: "Ow! Little bitch stung me!"
Eternal Enigma: "No I didn't. Oh, hang on. Yes. Yes, I did."
Voe shot Caranye an angry look.
Voe: "Err... why did you bring the psycho AI here? He's with ImpIntel."
Caranye: "So am I, Voe."
Voe: "Right, because that's going to last once Mr. Purple Swirl tells them that you kept me alive."
Once again, Voe yelped when hit with an electric spark.
Eternal Enigma: "Whoops."
Voe: "You can't trust an AI, Caranye! They want you to think they're all perfect and stuff, but where were they when the Ryderallo Monster rampaged through Orbispira?! Huh?! It all starts to make sense once you see the sign-"
Caranye: "Focus! I need information, Voe. And not the kind on your conspiracy holovids!"
Voe cut himself off mid-rant and glanced at Caranye, his eyes filled with hope.
Voe: "... Does that mean you're going to give me access to the HoloDomain?"
Caranye sighed and nodded her head, prompting Voe to leap into the air with joy.
Voe: "Frak yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!"
Caranye: "It's a limited channel, Voe. Encrypted, so Enigma can't give ImpIntel a call."
Enigma gasped theatrically.
Enigma: "I'm wounded, Caranye. I'm not sensing a lot of trust."
Caranye smiled slightly as she handed Voe his old datapad.
Caranye: "Find out what's going on with the Resistance camp in the Alvarian Forest — fast, before I change my mind!"
Voe sank his head, his attention completely fixed on the datapad.
Voe: "Focused. Oh, a ton of unread messages. Oh no!"
Caranye's eyes widened.
Voe: "No, no, no, no, no! The unthinkable... it's finally happened..."
Caranye: "W-what?! What's happened? Did the terrorists strike?"
Voe: "My nemesis knocked me off the leaderboard in Clash of Dvotties. He will rue this day! When I get out of her-"
After several minutes hacking into Resistance networks, Voe yelled for Caranye's attention.
Voe: "Interesting, so it turns out there is a camp not far from here. Most of the chatter I can find is the typical Resistance rhetoric, 'fighting for a better future, blah, blah, blah'. I did find the name of the leader though, an Anazasi called Borravin. I have a location too, all we have to do is-"
Suddenly, the area was rocked by an explosion, throwing Caranye and Voe to the ground. Enigma floated over to Caranye and used an anti-grav beam to lift her to her feet.
Enigma: "Are you both alright? I'm detecting multiple lifeforms approaching the hut. No doubt the ones responsible for destroying your speeder just now."
Rushing to the back room of the house with Voe, Caranye interacted with her wristpad, causing Enigma to dematerialise. Standing in front of a couch, she prodded an increasingly terrified Voe on the shoulder to help her flip it. With much strain, the couch was upturned, revealing a cache of grenades and blaster rifles.
Voe: "Some heads-up that I would be sleeping on top of explosives would have been nice! How did they find us anyway... I bet it was the Purple Swirl! He's probably a Neraida agent!"
Enigma: "Well on that note, Caranye, we really should be returning to the land of the sane. This location is no longer secure, anyway."
Ignoring their bickering, Caranye interacted with her datapad, setting the grenades to explode within twenty seconds just as the first Resistance operative jumped through the boarded-up window. Grabbing her rifle from her back with one hand and Voe's shoulder with another, Caranye began running toward the exit, firing at the Resistance soldiers, hiting one directly in the chest and another in the head before diving out of the house onto the soaked muck outside the house. Getting to her feet, she checked the countdown one last time before fleeing into the forest, just as the explosion destroyed the hut and everything in it.
Caranye: "That was too close."
Enigma: "Indeed, it would have put a dent in my day if you exploded. In any case, that blackout array prevents me from summoning reinforcements."
Voe: "Good, I could do without more ImpIntel goons."
Caranye: "So you'd prefer to be eaten alive by the native wildlife?"
Voe: "... Maybe."
Taking out her scanner, Caranye investigated the local area, trying to ascertain which direction they should walk toward either the nearest settlement or the rebel encampment. Suddenly, she turned her head toward a nearby thicket of jungle, detecting five lifesigns approaching their position. From the bushes emerged a pack of loathsome alfrekah, who smelled the air audibly as they growled at the agent and her Libertus companion, surely attracted by the noise of the explosion.
Caranye: "Looks like you're about to get your wish, Voe! Stay behind me!"
The alfrekah roared and charged at them, believing them an easy meal in the middle of the forest. One of them ran directly at Caranye, who rose her rifle and opened fire, blasting through the creature's mouth and making it fall dead in front of her. The others attempted to flank them, provoking them before Voe found himself forced to run as one of them begun giving chase to him.
Before the Libertus could be hurt, Caranye opened fire at the alfrekah's legs, causing it to fall over immobilised. However, as she was distracted, another one tackled the Ortella agent into the ground, forcing her to wrestle the creature as it attempted to chomp down on her. However, she succeeded in hitting the alfrekah's head with the butt of her rifle before opening fire, killing it before it could seriously harm her.
The two remaining alfrekah growled and stepped back as their pack members fell dead. Caranye turned to them and opened fire one more time, scaring the creatures back into the bushes they came from.
Caranye: "We need to move. The Resistance camp is not far. With any luck, these corpses will distract predators."
Deep in the Alvarian Forest, Commander Borravin paced in his makeshift command tent, overlooking a status report from other Resistance cells located across the planet. It was certainly a feat establishing so many camps on the headquarter world of the Imperial Military, an endeavour aided in no small part for their mysterious benefactor within the highest levels of the Imperial administration on Antemurale. The commander knew very little about this mysterious Basileus, other than the fact that he lacked the typical haughty attitude of his kind, instead exuding cold elusiveness, never revealing his face or his true intentions. Borravin knew that he would be a fool to trust such an individual, though given the status of the Resistance's campaign against the Empire across the Cluster, he knew that the enemy of his enemy was invariably his friend.
Located behind a highly advanced holographic projection field, the camp was designed to be invisible to Imperial sensors, allowing the half dozen Resistance operatives to plan in secret, without fear of Imperial detection. Nevertheless, on Antemurale, Borravin constantly felt as though he was being watched. Suddenly, against the thundering sound of claps of thunder and subsequent flashes of lightning, Borravin distinctly heard five discharges of energy, followed by the sound of bodies falling to the ground. Before he had the time to react, he found himself facing the barrel of an Imperial blaster rifle, being held by an Ortella in an Imperial uniform.
Caranye: "Remain perfectly still, Borravin."
Borravin: "... What the... how did y-"
Caranye, joined by Voe, stepped further into the Resistance command tent.
Caranye: "I'll ask the questions here. Lets start with what you're planning, shall we?"
Borravin: "You won't get anything out of me, Imperial!"
Eternal Enigma suddenly materialised.
Eternal Enigma: "Unless you're partial to disintegration, I'd answer the question."
Caranye frowned, taking what looked like a syringe out from her belt.
Caranye: "I didn't want to have to do this... but if you're not going to give the information willingly, I have no choice. This is the SYN-10, the latest in Imperial Intelligences' efforts to negate willpower. I hope you're not afraid of needles."
Though Borravin attempted to resist, Caranye managed to inject the SYN-10 into his neck, rendering him completely helpless and completely servile.
Eternal Engima: "An inspired move, agent. That serum should last about an hour."
Borravin suddenly fell to the ground, his skin pulsating, causing the Anazaxi commander to grasp his head and scream in pain.
Voe Dirais: "... Whoa, was that really necessary?"
Caranye: "The ends justify the means. Now, Borravin, what is it that you've been planning? Who in the Imperial government have you been working with?"
Through forced breaths, Borravin began to speak.
Borravin: "We... mean to s-stop... the Operation... destroy Antemurale defence grid... Basileus... contact."
Eternal Enigma: "Basileus contact? How interesting."
Caranye: "A Basileus betraying the Empire? Not terribly surprising. They are nothing if not treacherous. Borravin, contact your Basileus informant, ask him for further instructions. Enigma, trace the transmission."
Borravin, who had managed to regain his motor control, walked over to the holocommunicator and activated it. After several seconds, the holographic image of a Basileus garbed in black robes and an intimidating helm appeared.
Borravin: "... H-hello again, we require additional intelligence regarding the Eternal City defense grid. The timeline of our attack has been accelerated. We mus-"
He was suddenly cut off by the Basileus.
???: "You have done well, Agent Caranye."
Caranye's eyes widened. How did this Basileus know she was there?
???: "I am Lord Ruuvitharn. This creature was my thrall, though its use has expired."
The hologram lifted an arm, causing Borravin's neck to snap, causing the Anazaxi to fall to the ground dead. It was clear to Caranye that Ruuvitharn was a Phaedric Lord, the mysterious emissaries of the Emperor she had heard so much about.
Caranye: "You shouldn't have done that, he was a key source of information!"
Ruuvitharn: "An unknowing servant of a larger plan. You, however, have exceeded expectations. Feel my power, let it twist and consume you. Know the power of the Phaedra, the power to mould an Empire forged by the will of the strong and obeyed as the sole destiny of the weak. This is my vision, agent, and you have shown yourself worthy of a part to play."
Caranye folded her arms.
Caranye: "I want nothing to do with some powerhungry psycho willing to betray the Empire in the pursuit of personal power."
Ruuviatharn: "Bold, but unwise. Consider your defiance in the face of my power over you. Should I desire, you can be made a hollow shell. Nevertheless, do as you will and await my further command."
The hologram dissipated. Caranye turned her head to face Eternal Enigma.
Caranye: "Do you have any information on that nutjob?"
Eternal Enigma: "Regretably, no. Rather unpleasant chap, wasn't he?"
Voe: "How can you serve someone like that, Caranye?! You're actually concerned with the truth and justice, people like him aren't... come to think of it, the entire fraking Empire isn't!"
Eternal Enigma: "Must we continue to listen to this... how did you say it, nutjob?"
Caranye rolled her eyes.
Voe: "Shut up! I've seen a whole lot more than-"
Eternal Enigma: "I have nigh-infinite intelligence."
Voe: "You're a purple blob!"
Eternal Enigma: "Wow. Impressive."
Caranye: "Will both of you please shut it! We need to report to the Director. Don't give me that look, Voe, I'm not going to turn you in. You can crash on my starship, but so help me, if you wreck the place, I'm tossing you out the airlock."
Two days later, Caranye sat cross-legged in the Director's office, watching him closely as he read her mission report. If this was any other job, she'd likely receive a commendation. An entire group of rebels destroyed before they could damage the carefully orchestrated order on Antemurale. But this was no ordinary mission. The revelation that the rogue Phaedric Lord Ruuvitharn had pulled the strings of the Resistance on Antemurale was troubling, as was his vision for the Empire. Nevertheless, she was glad that Voe was safe. While she often found him irritating, she could at least admit to herself that he is the closest thing she has to a friend. A deep sigh from the Director snapped her out of her reverie.
Director: "Troubling, agent. Troubling indeed. It appears that our traitorous Phaedric friend is hiding his tracks well."
Caranye: "We still need to eliminate him. Who knows the damage he could inflict."
The Director nodded, his voice betraying irritation.
Director: "I concur, agent, but I've been overruled by our newest Grand Admiral. We will attempt to track this "Lord Ruuvitharn", but take no action against him. Yet. It is clear from your report that Ruuvitharn wishes to recruit you to join his cause. If he contacts you again, feign acceptance, you could learn a great deal about his plans."
Caranye: "Very well, but what of Eternal Enigma? He proved to be quite helpful, his attitude notwithstanding."
Director: "Ordinarily, we wouldn't assign such an advanced intelligence to a single agent in the long-term, though I suppose you have proven yourself capable of handling him. Now, agent, as you can imagine, I have much work to do. Dimissed."
Rising from the chair, Caranye saluted her commanding officer. Just as she was about to leave, the Director called to her.
Director: "One more thing, agent. I know in this line of work it goes without saying, but based on the information you provided, it's more apt now than it ever has been: trust no one."
Caranye raised an eyebrow and nodded her head knowingly. As she began making her way back toward her starship hangar, she couldn't help but feel somewhat disillusioned. What possible reason, or authority for that matter, could this "new Grand Admiral" have for ordering Imperial Intelligence not to eliminate Ruuvitharn, a clear threat to Imperial interests? During the New Cyrandia Wars, she often felt constrained by the power exercised by Inquisitors, but these "Phaedra" occupy another level entirely. One thing remained clear to her, however, on the murky path ahead, nobody should be above reproach.