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"Now, Miss Madigan, if you will explain these recent...irregularities?"

Madigan looked back at the man on the other side of the podium. He didn't matter, and truthfully, neither did this board. But the continued appearance of normality was, with all the Crey discrete funding it entailed. Access to Crey intelligence assets. Crey-controlled boltholes. Any number of messy little details that gave her operation a leg up on most independent villain groups. Still, that didn't mean she didn't take the chances handed to her to be as annoying to the board as they were to her.

"I'm afraid I'm not aware of what irregularities you're referring to, Chairman," she lied smoothly. Madigan knew damn well what had his feathers ruffled, but she was going to drag every last syllable of what they knew out of the man rather than admit any of it on her own.

"Your operation has taken several apparently uncontrolled risks recently. Scimitar unit "Zanbar" has maintained an on-and-off presence in Paragon of late with no operations scheduled there. Scimitar unit "Psycho" has involved herself deeply with Arachnos "Destined Ones", which you reacted to by hiring both of them. Scimitar unit "Kumi" was enrolled in Arachnos training, at risk of Arachnos indoctrination or detection by the Fortunata. Scimitar unit "Arc" was assigned two new construction Scimitars, "Ice" and "Caduceus" before being deployed into Dimension Upsilon Beta 9-6 for "aggressive reconnaissance" according to your report. Not to mention extensive reworkings of existing armor designs outside of Crey facilities," the chairman finished accusingly, staring her down as if looking at a particularly disobedient child.

Madigan, who'd survived and thrived in a corporation run by no one less than Chairman Quincy Rosencroitz, was unimpressed by the intimidation attempt. But appearances had to be preserved. Still, he'd confirmed which of her "irregularities" were known of and which were not....and that they still didn't have a source of information within her core cadre outside of Robin. Which would soon be dealt with, given Caduceus and Ice's contacts with the Praetorian Resistance.

"Zanbar is conducting false flag operations in Paragon as has been intended by the Scimitar project from the start. Her cooperation with the rogue Sabres ruins their credibility by association. Furthermore, connection with Crey official resources was to be minimized, unless our mission objectives were recently changed and I was not informed. To that end, Psycho has been obtaining expendable outside manpower, and Battery Acid's recent hiring was my acquisition of a valuable technical resource without having to risk blowing our cover as Crey assets by over-utilization of Crey technicians. Kumi has gained vital Arachnos access codes and an identity within their command structure to utilize for infiltration. And with the recent raid on Project: Swordbreaker by Praetorian forces, advanced recon was needed to determine the scale of the threat. At present, my operatives have identified at least two cases of the technology being proliferated, one being the stolen prototype and another a seemingly more advanced model in a much higher profile position, or possibly a mere reverse-engineering of the powered armor designs."

Madigan, for reasons of her own, knew the final one to be a blatant lie, but what were an enemy's lies for if not for reinforcing your own? It wasn't as if Silicon would jeopardize her own cover simply to make Madigan look bad in front of a board she probably didn't even know existed. She let the chairman build up a good head of indignant steam before continuing. "Furthermore, the "irregularities" are nothing outside of the Scimitars' mission profile. We were intended to operate as if typical Rogue Isles villains, in order to make the Sabres more questionable to the FBSA. While we have curtailed some of the company's black operations, their secrecy was so blatantly compromised that our insuring that the resulting sensitive materials were not sold off by other villains is a net gain over the loss in materials and personnel, while identifying the Scimitars as the independent villains our cover story says we are. As such, everything I've done has reinforced this image, as well as saved a considerable amount of expenditure from falling on the company."

The chairman didn't actively wince at the last addition, but his scowl deepened as Madigan kept herself from smirking.

Point to me, you old fool. You're complaining that I'm doing what I told you to do, under budget and on time, while cleaning up other people's messes. Try to protest that.

"However, if the board believes that my work as field-commander is substandard, they may feel free to take it up with Mr. Hopkins. As always, termination of my employment falls under his purview," she then added, getting another near-cringe from the chairman. While the production facilities were known to be a rotating door of project heads, Madigan's competency at commanding the Scimitars in the field had been spotless and they both knew it. While Hopkins wouldn't have the chairman terminated for trying to make baseless accusations, it would gain him an open reputation as the only thing worse than a backstabber: an incompetent backstabber who couldn't suitably frame a competitor before trying to climb over them to higher positions on the corporate ladder.

Thus, Madigan waited while the board fidgeted and looked at each other, perfectly patient and willing to allow them the appearance of being the ones in charge of dismissing her from this farce. Eventually, the chairman allowed her to go, which Madigan politely accepted, knowing the apparent deference was all the more galling when they both knew that she was the one in charge of the meeting from the start.

As she left the building, a small beep announced a message on her digital assistant. Madigan brought up the message, curious who'd be using official protocol transmissions when she'd just gotten out of an official review board meeting. By habit, the Scimitars didn't use official Crey channels for communication, as much to preserve the polite fiction of the Scimitars not being a branch of Crey as to avoid any of their private communications falling into Crey hands where they could be picked apart by psych specialists. Madigan hadn't gone to as much trouble as she had to present their members as eccentric but reliable just to have some psych eval desk jockey blow their cover because of something as stupid as actual candid commentary on an open channel.

To: k.madigan@creysecops.cnc.net
From: @creyadmin.prime.net

Subject: Detente

Assuming your discussion with the review board goes as swimmingly as usual, I would like to discuss potential future endeavors. I suspect we have interests in common, or at least enemies, but the enemy of my enemy has the possibility of being a potential business partner.

There are more dangerous things coming this way than a petty feud over Crey internal security.

Reply to this e-mail, and I'll get the message. Don't worry about the encryption. I have very good help.


Madigan considered the message for a long moment, before bringing up a reply. It could be a trap, but an easily de-fanged one if so. It's not like she couldn't turn this to her advantage if someone wanted her job. And the initials... there was a possibility there, but Madigan wasn't sure how likely it was.

Subject: Re: Detente

Your proposal is intriguing, but I'd require some verification of its veracity. Perhaps a face to face meeting would be in order. Neutral territory, like Liberty Isle perhaps?


That attended to, Madigan went about the average business of navigating the Crey office in Nerva. The upper floors open to the public were sensibly and logically laid out, but the lower tiers that were guarded by fully suited Power Tanks were a twisting overlap of passages, some dead-ending for no apparent reason, while others folded back on themselves like some madman's fractal rendered in brushed steel and incandescent light. Naturally, given her specialization, all the actual station heads she had to speak with would have their offices down here.

Approximately ten minutes into quietly intimidating a functionary in Requisitions into allotting her group a larger amount of the DR-20 fuel budget than the given arrangement suggested, Madigan felt her PDA buzz. Concluding the meeting was simple enough, as the office drone had already capitulated, and as Madigan walked out of the room, she walked with slightly more haste than usual to one of the blind spots in the facility's visual surveillance network. Her own transmissions were secure, even here, but it'd be silly to essentially let Crey security read her email over her shoulder, figuratively speaking.

Liberty Isle is an acceptable meeting place. Perhaps around noon, this upcoming Friday?


Madigan smiled slightly. The delay in response confirmed that whoever this was was using Crey's internal mail system rather than just hacking her PDA directly to display the data. And the date gave her almost a week to prepare countermeasures to any given betrayal...much like it gave her mysterious correspondent an equal amount of time to prepare them.

Typing in an affirmative response, Madigan considered the potential accelerations to her own plans this might spawn if this "SS" was who she thought it was. Perhaps having Fate begin acquiring the components for a second field base would actually prove to be useful after all, rather than the fallback fail-safe it had been intended to be.


Nerva was burning.

Office buildings and Arachnos fortresses alike belched fire, while clouds of ash, smoke, and char choked the island in a miasma of artificial devastation. Through the clouds strode human shapes, but nothing quite so comforting would emerge to any onlooker that got close enough. Basic Praetorian Clockwork troops swarmed every thoroughfare, plasma torches and arc projectors sweeping out at any signs of resistance presented. Behind them, the Warworks BCU and ACU units marched in lockstep, their under-slung arm cannons occasionally firing a variety of lethal payloads into alleyways, windows, or any other concealing locations. Victoria assassin drones stalked the docks, waiting in ambush for any Arachnos forces that tried to flee, while the broken and scorched bodies of those that had resisted were reduced to fine paste under the multi-ton tread of the mammoth War Walkers. The mechanized war machine of Praetoria had hit like a sudden storm, and while they had inexplicably avoided civilian casualties where possible, this was no relief to those that could be considered threats.

Madigan cycled her HUD through visual scan modes, on edge against the possibility of ambush. The assassin robots were confining their sweeps to specific locations, but the smoke and heat from the burning buildings was rendering night vision, thermal, and sonar all equally useless. Nena was at least partially able to keep them away from the patrols, given her slowly developing abilities with machines lately, but the telepath's zone of detection for the mechanized killers had a far narrower margin for error than Madigan preferred.

Medium armor, fifty meters ahead, turning left down Arachne Avenue, Galatea's voice whispered in her ear. Under normal conditions, such audible transmissions would be inefficient, with their suits simply linking each others' sensors into a comprehensive recon net, laying out visual designators in each Scimitar's HUD. However, after seeing a Tarantula squadron wind up annihilated by a War Walker's bombardment from halfway across the island, Madigan had decided to treat any form of electronic communication or transmission as compromised. Instead, Galatea was currently stealthing ahead to check their path towards the Crey building on the south island was unobstructed, while Nena's telepathic links provided communication that didn't rely on traceable electronics. Though there'd not yet been any evidence of the Seers that Robin had identified while in Praetoria, Madigan had also had all of the Scimitars activate the cloaking devices Ice had stolen from the Resistance, shielding them from any potential precognitive tracking.

Of course, the method had its drawbacks. Though no one said anything, Madigan was more than aware of the feelings coursing through her group's thoughts at the moment, even if she couldn't "hear" them. Nena was, thankfully, concentrating on the task at hand. Madigan relying on her heavily had resulted in a rather serious mood from the normally erratic telepath, which was reassuring. Perhaps her mentoring under Battery Acid was paying off sooner than expected. Lithium Cell, behind her, was aggravated, wanting to strike back at the forces that'd attacked them, but was being jerked up short by her absolute obedience to Nena, who was following Madigan's orders. Robin, Beth, and Tasha were mostly quiet, operating under orders like second nature, while Jen was suitably distracted by being able to boost the others speed while Madigan's own kinetic generators kept her addiction sated without having to attack anyone to steal their energy.

The last two, however, were odd. Madigan had some idea of who was distracting Fate. She'd had Galatea run an evaluation of whether or not it'd be more productive simply to remove the young Sabre for the purposes of maintaining discipline, but her second had yet to find a way to do the deed in a way that wouldn't adversely impact Fate's effectiveness. But Nao had always been far too realistic (or cynical, Madigan admitted) to gain any sort of close affection with others outside of their group. Yet she had the same mental earmarks currently as Fate, as if she were concerned about someone who was not present. Someone who Madigan didn't know about.

For now, Madigan set the issue aside. If they escaped Nerva alive tonight, in spite of the Praetorian invasion and the strange power dampening effect that Madigan could feel active over the islands, she'd investigate it then. For now, the plan was simple. Get to the Crey building and the emergency teleporter inside. If pursued, the Praetorians would doubtless assume the group was making for the eastern docks nearby, but only the Scimitars would know of and have the access codes to activate the secondary teleportal in Crey Court. From there, they'd portal out to a small freighter that Fate had been refurbishing into a secondary base, complete with provisions they could use either to wait out the invasion, or flee elsewhere if the Praetorians succeeded in taking the Isles.

We've got a problem, Nena's telepathic voice said, interrupting Madigan's thoughts. Someone's trying to pin down my signal telepathically...I'm trying to avoid, but it's like they know what I'm doing before I do it!

Madigan frowned at the frustration evident in Nena's tone. To be detected and outmaneuvered so casually...still, there was only one thing to do. Detected, all they could do was run.

Just as she was about to give the order, a new voice chimed in on the telepathic circuit. Wait, please. We're not Praetorian Seers.

Madigan considered telling Nena to fry whoever it was letting their mental defenses down to transmit anyway, but discarded the notion. More bodies trying to escape meant more people for the Praetorians to split fire amongst. Identify yourself.

Seer Cassandra, of the Fortunata. I'm here with an Operative Weyland and a few other troops. Weyland said you might have a way out of here rather than sacrificing ourselves pointlessly in defense of a losing battle.

Madigan considered the point. On the one hand, backup from an Arachnos unit was useful, and she doubted Cassandra knew where Weyland's real loyalties lay. On the other hand, revealing their bolthole would be...problematic.

Perhaps, but aiding Arachnos deserters is not precisely in our best interests, she said. Assuming Lord Recluse repels this invasion, eventually he'll get back to reinforcing discipline lost in the face of it.

There was a sense of dark amusement in the mental tone of the Fortunata's reply. You could say we are not exactly bound to the same strictures as the rank and file, Miss...

Inferno will do for now.

Miss Inferno, then, Cassandra amended. I'm unsure if you've met the man yourself, but Mr. Desslock certainly remembers a young Operative Zhang, who I believe is in your employ. I'm certain that she's relayed to you the information regarding certain...irregular units within Arachnos in recent years.

Madigan frowned at that revelation. She had been fairly certain Nao's identity was still intact, within Arachnos. But it was possible that Weyland had spun this Fortunata a story in order to cover up a leak. She considered her options, before coming to one conclusion. Inevitably, as the possessor of the sole means of escape, she had the high hand here, not someone who might have suspicions about one undercover agent.

Perhaps you could accompany us, but on one condition. If your intent to desert were made known to the Arbiters at a later date, it would be inconvenient for you. We're willing to hire such...unattached soldiers as mercenaries. If Arachnos and the Rogue Isles survive this, you will be allowed to return to duty with them. You will simply report to me as well.

There was a silence on the other end of the line, though Madigan felt through the link the slight buzzing of some sort of discussion at the other end. Doubtless her ultimatum had raised a great deal of furor. Finally, Cassandra replied again.

Your proposal is acceptable. Where shall we meet?

Madigan blinked, having expected more haggling than that. However, she'd learn whether she needed to burn a gift horse to cinders soon. Crey Court. We have a way off the island there.



In the end, the group had gotten away clean, not due to any cleverness, but by chance. A strike force under Vanguard command had hit Nerva shortly after, punching through the War Walker blockade, and destroyed their central hangar. In the ensuing confusion, it'd been child's play to escape offshore to the prepared freighter. Most of the group had de-armored and promptly picked out their cabins, collapsing into the exhausted sleep that only raw terror can leave one with when one's finally safe, while Weyland and a few of the Arachnos troops had moved to the top deck to watch for potential Praetorian attackers heading their way in retreat from Nerva. Which left Madigan sitting in her impromptu office in the captain's cabin, tallying up the resulting gains and losses of the night.

The Lair was the first casualty, unfortunately. A battle between a few local Destined Ones and a War Walker had left a blazing gouge through the side of the building, according to Galatea's reconnaissance after most of the group was away. The entire eastern side had been mostly obliterated, taking Madigan, Robin, Jen, and Nao's bedrooms with it. Madigan privately found that a small loss, as she'd always considered that they might have to evacuate the Lair at some point, and had kept relatively little of worth on site there. Astonishingly, despite being a scant two feet from plasma-based devastation, Nena's bedroom and plushy collection had survived entirely unscathed. Now that the Praetorians had been driven back, Madigan had assigned the small brigade of identical ninja Nena had acquired to begin salvage operations on anything of value before the building was inevitably hit by looters. But the Lair itself was unfortunately structurally  unsound after the beating it'd taken and would have to be abandoned entirely.

Due to their abrupt acquisition of a fleeing Arachnos squad, Madigan's available manpower had expanded considerably. Weyland's group had included the Seer she'd spoken with earlier, and several others, scattered across the upper tier of the Arachnos promotion tracks. Between them and the various Sachie-duplicates (who, with proper disguises, were still useful without necessarily incurring the wrath that that incident coming to light might cause), Madigan had a sizable force under her command that were off the Crey books, as it were.

What to do with them, however, was still up in the air. Madigan looked at the message again, contemplating the potential responses. Negotiating positions had changed since the meeting was agreed to, but the reasons it had been viable were still intact.  She was drawn out of her contemplation as a crackle of ionization announced Galatea de-cloaking in front of her, the dark haired woman removing her helmet and resting it under one arm.

"Communications status?" she asked.

"Currently inoperative," Galatea reported. "I deactivated my IFF code and slipped out to other areas of the Rogue Isles to see if communications were back online, and the Grandville hub is currently up. At present, Nerva operations seem to be confined to securing the holding facility in Primeva. There are currently no elements in Nerva proper besides automated defenses around the primary facility."

"None at all?" Madigan asked, surprised. At least some recon elements would be expected to have begun creeping back in. But if Crey didn't have any observers on the ground...

"Yes," Galatea confirmed. "Nerva took the hardest hit of the Rogue Isles. Current priority by the board is to let Arachnos clean it out of any lingering Praetorian elements, then move forces in, rather than risk further losses."

Madigan's mind whirled as she took in that factor. It was an exceptionally conservative move, but the board was probably afraid of follow-up invasions in Nerva that they'd be deploying reinforcements under, and had decided to let Arachnos absorb the casualties. But if Crey was effectively blind in Nerva at the moment....

"Galatea, do we still have the location of that assault base that the War Walkers deployed from?""Yes," Galatea said, nodding.

"Excellent. Take Weyland and a few of the others and go there immediately. Salvage any explosives you can. We're going to need them."



"You're certain this report is accurate?"

The young security agent twitched slightly, trying to avoid looking directly at the blank eyes behind darkened glasses. Hopefully if he did, the man wouldn't see how frightened he was. "Yes, sir. We searched most of the island, but there wasn't any evidence of the group anywhere else, and they hadn't left Nerva when we lost communications. Furthermore, their place of residence was completely destroyed by several explosions of what we've identified as as Praetorian weapons fire."

Hopkins considered the files in front of him, glancing down at the pictures of the old apartment building, currently gutted by fire and plasma. The excavation crews had yet to find any bodies, but preliminary data on the Praetorian weapons had noted that at that close of range, it was entirely possible they'd been incinerated outright. Yet...something seemed off. He'd met Madigan, the woman they put in charge of the Scimitars. Spoken with her several times. Somehow, this seemed too clean. Too pat of an end for such a formidable woman. To be taken by surprise and simply annihilated out of hand? Surely, that couldn't have been all it was. However, all of the evidence seemed to point to the same conclusion. They were at war, and war was all too commonly not what one expected.

And yet...

Hopkins put down the files, looking back at the security agent. "For now, we have to conserve resources in the region. If the Scimitars are still alive, they will make contact. If not, we do not have the time or men to search for them long enough to get confirmation. Forensic operations are to be discontinued, and reconstruction accelerated."

"Yes, sir," the agent said, turning on his heel and heading out of the office with what might be indecent haste if Hopkins had cared to observe him, his hidden eyes looking at the twisted wreckage again.

And yet...
"Oh, silver blade, forged in the depths of the beyond. Heed my summons and purge those who stand in my way. Lay