The Brain Collectors
Ulysses Werner looked again at the Quest proposal, as the SUV car drove through the Mojave desert, the steering wheel moving on its own. A catchy seventies song filled the car with an old world blues atmosphere.
Scratch that, desert was outdated. Some areas had turned green, lushly so, due to the dragons’ experimenting with the weather and crops. They intended to turn the area into a vast agriculture farm, the same way they did with the Sahara. Ulysses wondered how they intended to advertise products Made in Mojave!
“Al, can you change the tune?” Minos complained in the backseat, the elderly, brown-furred bullman having grown bored with Al’s undying love for it. Also, having been forced to bend all the way to fit inside the car had put him in a foul mood. “I am sick of it.”
“My body, my radio!” Al’s voice responded through the car’s radio. To hammer it home, he increased the sound, much to his teammate’s annoyance.
“Children,” Ulysses said, even if he was barely older than Al himself.
“Al, lower the volume,” Cheyenne, the party’s leader, chided her brother. A tough as nails Native American young woman in her twenties, with tanned skin and pretty black eyes, she carried herself with a scarf on her face to give herself a desperado look. Her mere voice, low but firm, made Al comply.
Ulysses wondered if her parents had given her the name to pay respect to her roots while keeping it bland enough not to raise eyebrows. Cheyenne didn’t tell him much about herself, or even the team, beyond the basics; he guessed what happened to Al had hit her hard and made her wary to trust others, even new teammates.
Ulysses glanced over the windows, trying to find the rendezvous point. “We should be pretty close, right?”
“I hope so, I can feel sand slip inside me!” Al complained.
“They’re here,” Cheyenne said, pointing at a spot in the distance. She had such sharp hawk-like eyes, even while squinting Ulysses could barely distinguish a few black shapes under the twilight.
When they got closer, the group was met with the strangest of sights. A group of seven figures, clad in thick, green and black combat armor that covered every inch of their body, waiting around three pre-Conquest military ground vehicles. One of them, probably the leader, carried the American flag as a coat like those cliche, patriotic comic superheroes. It was so over the top Ulysses would have laughed, had the group not been heavily armed with assault rifles and watching their SUV approach warily.
“Stop there, civilians!” the armored figure called, pointing a rifle at Cheyenne’s face as the group parked near them. “You’re on government property. Identify yourself.”
“The Concordian government?” Cheyenne asked with serene aplomb, as she stepped out of the car and glanced at the man’s flag cape. The sheer intensity she radiated was enough to make even Ulysses feel safe.
“Pff, like hell! The government of the United States of America, who else?” The soldiers switched target to point at Minos, upon seeing the bullman walk up. “What the hell is a minotaur doing here?”
“Who are you calling a minotaur?” Fumes went out of Minos’ nostrils.
“He’s with us,” Cheyenne replied with a steely gaze, channeling energy through her fingers in the shape of arrows, “And if you don’t like it, then we’ve got nothing to say to each other. We’re the Argonauts party. We do not discriminate who we fight with.”
The soldier looked at her, before lowering his weapon, his fellow imitating him; Cheyenne canceled her Lock in response, the arrows dissipating. “Sorry, it’s just I’ve never seen a minotaur that didn’t try to shoot me first before. Makes me all itchy.”
“Bullman,” Minos insisted, angered. “Would you like that I call you an ape, human?”
“Bullman,” the armored soldier corrected himself. “No racism here. I guess I need to be open minded. I mean, you can’t be bad if the Administrator vetted you.”
“Especially if he hangs out with such a pretty girl,” one of the soldiers said, whistling at Cheyenne, who ignored him like dog shit.
“Shut up, Denver,” the commander replied firmly. “Your conduct is unprofessional and dishonors your uniform.” The soldier lowered his head at the rebuke. “I apologize on his behalf.”
“It’s okay,” Cheyenne replied, above it.
“Can’t blame him, Cheyenne is so nice, inside and out.”
The soldiers glanced at the source of the voice, the car itself. “Did that car just talk?” the soldiers’ leader asked, astonished.
“I’m not a car, I’m Al,” the SUV responded through the radio, the soldiers exchanging glances. “I’m human, like you! Or I was.”
“What did I tell you about using real names?” Cheyenne chided her brother.
“Sorry, sorry! I’m Argos. Like the ship.” The mythological subtlety was clearly lost on the soldiers, even if Ulysses couldn’t see past their visors.
“Argos is a Yellow,” Cheyenne said, with some sadness. “Was. His Lock only activated upon death and allowed him to stick around as a ghost after a Gearsman shot him dead. He’s currently possessing the car.”
From the broad strokes Ulysses got from Al, she had taken his death very personally since it had been in their very first quest and caused by her overconfidence. Al had taken his own fate more cheerfully, however. “Like that Stephen King movie!” he said with joy as if living out a childish fantasy.
“Christine?” one of the soldiers said. “Love it, that’s a classic.”
“We’ve got to love it, that’s one of the only movies we have at the base,” another soldier replied. “I miss Netflix so much.”
The commander let out a tired sigh as if he had heard that before. Ulysses suddenly felt he had a strong kinship towards him. “I guess we should finish the introductions,” Cheyenne said. “I’m Atalanta, Argos’ half-sister, but as Al ratted out, my real name is Cheyenne. I’m the one you exchanged with on the forums. The little boy next to me is Odysseus, and the big boy is Minos.”
“I’m not little, you old hag,” Ulysses replied.
The soldiers’ commander looked bothered by Cheyenne. “Sorry, the name brought back some bad memories. I was at Cheyenne Mountain when the dragons assaulted it and captured the president. Lost lots of comrades that day.”
“Really?” Ulysses’ head perked up. The defense of Cheyenne Mountain had been the stuff of legend, and a popular discussion subject on forums. “How did it go?”
“They sent nine bullmen in red biomechanical armors. The leader punched a tank in half, and it got worse from there. They laughed off rockets and slaughtered their way inside until the top brass raised the white flag. They killed hundreds, and they lost none. That was just how outmatched we were back in the day.”
The soldier straightened up, deciding to introduce his team in turn. “Anyway, I’m Chief Frank Royez, Player codename Washington. These are my merry men, Miami, Phoenix, San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta, and Detroit. United States Navy SEAL, or what remains of it. We’re just ghosts too stubborn to die.”
All cities destroyed by Concordia during the Conquest. “I thought SEAL disbanded,” Ulysses said.
“Not as long as we live,” Royez replied proudly, although there was a hint of grim resignation to his words. “When they defanged the army and asked everyone to surrender their weapons, many in the special forces asked themselves, ‘do we kiss America goodbye’? We were among those who said ‘hell no.’ Even if it was hopeless, at least we could make it hurt. We were thousands, at first, but the dragons hunted us until only our squad remains.”
“So you retreated to the desert and holed yourself up here?” Cheyenne sounded genuinely impressed, and so was Ulysses. They had lasted ten years without discovery?
“We’ve got a base in the desert. That was part of a super-secret initiative of hidden bunkers with top-notch equipment, in case the Russians bombed us back to Stone Age and the army had to take back the mainland.” Royez chuckled bitterly. “I guess the top brass never expected to fight dragons instead of the Reds.”
“I miss them chief,” a soldier, Denver, said. “The Russians. I mean, they put up a hell of a fight and got stoned to death for it.”
“That wording isn’t funny, Denver,” another member of his squad chastised him.
“Sorry, Phoenix. I’m just saying, Remember Moscow should be our rallying cry. Or never again.”
“There’s a lot of Russians on Player forums,” Cheyenne said. “Survivors eager for payback.”
“So are we,” Royez replied. “For years we couldn’t do more than the occasional discreet sabotage now and then. Even anti-tank artillery can’t take down a Gearsmen the way spells do. Now that we’ve got magic powers…”
“About that, do you guys know where that Magik stuff comes from?” Denver asked them. “The Administrator is a stone wall when we ask about it.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s something crazed scientists in a hidden lab cooked up,” Phoenix voiced his two cents. “I’ve heard some of the military-industrial complex retreated underground after the war, researching new technology to take back Earth in secret.”
“That ‘Majestic 12’ conspiracy theory?” Ulysses said, having frequented conspiracy forums after the whole fiasco with Mathias. “Isn’t that bogus?”
“Yeah, well, it sounds as good a reason as any. Unless you got a better idea?”
“Mathias wasn’t sure himself,” Ulysses said. “But I’m pretty sure it has something to do with his mother’s artificial intelligence researches.”
“Wait, Mathias? As in Mathias Martel?” Ulysses nodded reluctantly, slightly uncomfortable at the soldiers’ sudden interest in him. “Guy’s a fucking hero. I mean, it takes balls to pick a fight with a dragon and solo it. He’s the only one who did it, as far as I know.”
“There is two others,” Minos said. “Draconomicon, who killed a young dragon near old Mexico, and the Longinus Guild in Europe.”
“Really?” Royez whistled. “What happened?”
“From what I gathered, Draconomicon ambushed a dragon scientist overseeing the weather machines in the Mexican Gulf, and the fight was so savage that it caught the attention of other Players and Gearsmen. The whole region was burnt for miles when they were done. I’m not even sure if Draconomicon survived, and I know even less about that Longinus Guild, except that they have the highest kill count among us Players.”
“He, or she?” Cheyenne replied. “That’s sexist to say the Draconomicon Player is a guy when we don’t know.”
“You humans’ insistence on gender flies over my horns,” the bullman replied. “All that matters is that a member of our herd did it.”
“No seriously, what’s he like?” Royez asked Ulysses. “Martel?”
“He’s a selfish, shortsighted angry jerk with a capital J, and the luckiest, smartest son of a bitch I’ve ever met. In short, he was my best friend.” Ulysses was thankful Cheyenne never confronted him over the issue, which was still a sore subject for him.
“Ah! I can tell there’s no lost love between you,” Royez laughed.
“I guess I’m young and stupid, and I hope I will see him again someday to deck him in the face. For old time’s sake.”
“You can’t punch a friend in the face!” Al said, horrified. “That’s evil.”
“No, that’s the whole reason I joined this adventure,” Ulysses replied.
Actually, Ulysses was more angry at himself for getting cold feet when Matt had offered him to join. He still couldn’t believe a month had passed since he saw the smoke rising from the Arc-City, Shroud’s ghastly, wounded shape emerging from the ruins after slaying Smokefang in cold blood.
The iron gaze of Concordia had fallen on everyone involved. Sam had joined the Institute and pulled strings to get Perse and Mom a nice job outside Earth, last time Ulysses could talk with them. He didn’t have such luck, however.
When they realized he had guessed Mathias’ true identity before everyone else and didn’t inform the authorities, the Red Ministry took Ulysses into custody and sent him to a hidden ‘reeducation center’ in old Arizona—something Ulysses didn’t even know existed. If the Conquest hadn’t opened Ulysses’ eyes to what Concordia’s totalitarian nature hid beneath the nice facade, that experience did.
The Argonauts ended up attacking that center and freeing him, alongside a dozen others youths, before the dragons could brainwash him. With nowhere to go, he stuck with them and received an invitation from the Administrator soon afterward.
While Ulysses still thought the situation was way over his head, he admitted that maybe Matt had had a point. Maybe they still had a fighting chance after all…
Besides, Mushroom Zombies was an awesome Lock.
“You humans are strange,” Minos said.
“Deal with it,” Royez said. “And what’s your reason to join? Not to sound racist—”
“You already said that,” Minos said, not believing the soldier. “I am doing this for Concordia. The real Concordia.”
“You’re not making friends here,” Royez replied with sudden coldness.
“I do not care for your opinion,” Minos replied bluntly. “I do not look like it, but I was born before my home of Mazeworld joined Concordia when the Empire was newborn. Before the war with Gintargo. Concordia used to be… better. Kind.”
“Hard to imagine that,” Denver said.
“Some, like the Golden Prince, still uphold the old ideals of Concordia. Terra Firma—” Minos stopped as he caught a few glares from the other party. “Earth’s current situation would have been much healthier had he be the one to discover the planet. He would have offered you science, medicine, help, asking nothing in return. He would have made your planet want to join Concordia, instead of being forced to. He would have given instead of taken. That was the standard procedure back in the day before it became the exception.”
“What happened?” Ulysses asked, curious.
“One of the founders, Halcyon, died during the Gintargo war and Concordia lost its soul with him,” Minos replied with sorrow. “The changes were gradual, so slow it seemed natural. One orbital fortress here to protect our borders, tighter surveillance to deal with internal threats… now the dragons do not ask new species to join, they force them. I considered the matter for years, and I decided that to be loyal to Concordia, I must oppose it.”
“And you think you’re going to return it to its roots by helping us?” Royez asked with barely hidden contempt.
“It is time Concordia remembers what it was made for,” Minos spoke. “If colonies rise in revolt, the Grandmaster will have no choice but face reality and reexamine her policies.”
“That’s the biggest load of bullshit I ever he—”
“Are we here to bitch around,” Cheyenne put them back on track, “or fulfill a Quest?”
“Right, right, let’s be professional,” Royez shrugged, making a hand sign to his team. The soldiers moved to get bags out of their cars, Minos and Ulysses doing the same with their SUV.
Within a few minutes, the gathered Players faced a pile of Gearsmen pieces and parts, more or less intact, which they had gathered over the course of the Quest. “Is that enough?” Royez asked.
“I hope,” Cheyenne said. She had been the one to set up that meeting on forums, as neither group expected their parts to be enough and thought collaborating would allow them all to reap the Quest’s reward. “I’m sending a message to the Administrator.”
They didn’t have to wait long. The pile of parts vanished in a flash of Violet light, and Ulysses received a notification.
|The Brain Collectors, fulfilled!
You earned Six Spellcoins.
The sound of a phone ringing echoed through the meeting, Royez taking an old cellphone from one of his armor’s pockets, before activating the loudspeakers.
“Congratulations, Argonauts, Eagleland,” the Administrator’s robotic voice spoke through the phone. “Another victory on your spotless record. Acquiring those samples must have been a harsh ordeal.”
“You can count on us, Administrator,” Royez said, his whole team making a military salute.
“The Quest said we would get information on Gearsmen,” Cheyenne brushed it off, all business.
“Yes, and the preliminary analysis confirms some of our theories. Do you know what happens to unclaimed corpses in Concordian territories?”
Ulysses guessed where this was going before Minos even answered. “They are recycled, to get spare organs for transplants, or to create compost.”
“They are,” the Administrator confirmed. “But not all of them. The brain and nerves are extracted before composting, empowered with a battery of Green and Blue spells, then integrated to machinery. The organic components of Gearsmen and UBs aren’t created in labs but recycled from corpses or prisoners of war. It is very probable that all Gearsmen present on Earth comes from human stock.”
“They’re treating us as resources,” Cheyenne spat with disgust.
“After everything Concordia did, that’s pretty tame,” Royez replied, unsurprised. He probably guessed the truth long before getting an actual confirmation. “The only question, is, how does that help us?”
“We wondered how Concordia produced UBs and Gearsmen, and why the Mad World Hack spell developed by Shroud,” Ulysses frowned at the mention of his old friend. “Affected them. We thought the parts linked to identity, memories, were removed or tampered with, but it appears Concordia simply keeps them suppressed so as to maintain most of the brains’ computing power intact. Mad World temporarily undoes the spells suppressing the last vestiges of sentience inside the brain cells, allowing them to emerge and go berserk.”
“So…” Ulysses trailed off. “You say that if UBs on Earth are made from human brains which still have some remnants of their owners’ identity buried deep within, then we could turn them to our side?”
“Very sharp, Odysseus. In the best case scenario, yes, that is what we hope for. It is fortunate that we got this information now before the hammer of Concordia falls on Earth. With the death of three dragons on it and the rising number of Players, the Empire is now aware of our existence and the danger Magik presents to their hegemony.”
“They’re taking off the kids’ gloves,” Ulysses said somberly.
“That was inevitable,” Cheyenne replied, unimpressed.
“They already deployed bio-armored soldiers in South America, and Blackcinders is sending troops to strengthen the occupation, under one of her elite commanders,” the Administrator continued. “I’m afraid that things will become much, much more difficult in the near future.”
“Let them come,” Royez replied. “We’ll send them back to Hell.”
The Administrator ended the call soon after a few more words of encouragement, leaving the groups alone. “We could make this alliance more than a one-time deal,” Cheyenne said. “The Players in Neo York formed a wide alliance, and work better for it.”
“I’m not certain I can ever trust that one not to turn cloak,” Royez pointed at Minos. “But sure, anything to get the American flag to rise again. But not in the short term. We got a big operation planned first.”
“You are going to challenge a Lair.” Cheyenne didn’t show it, but Ulysses knew she was a bit miffed at not having the necessary numbers to assault one yet.
“Yes, we think we’re tackling either that Mictlan, Tower of Bones, or Uruk, Monster Cradle. They look tough, and the way I see it, we’re very good at shooting stuff until it stops moving, not talking our way through.” He offered his hand to Cheyenne, who shook it firmly. “Miss Atalanta, always a pleasure to meet a fellow patriot.”
“Let’s stay in touch, Washington.”
The soldiers packed up their stuff and left after giving the Argonauts a short military salute, vanishing into the Mojave. “They were nice,” Al said. “Even if they’re assholes to Minos, they’re nice.”
“You find everyone nice,” Ulysses replied, while the bullman shrugged, above human pettiness.
“That’s wrong! I can be mean to people… sometimes. Like, if they had wanted to get into me, I would have told them to apologize to Minos first.” Ulysses chuckled at the wording.
“Do not blame them,” Minos replied, “Put yourself in their place. I may be the only bullman they ever met on friendly terms; my kindred may have killed many of their friends. With time, they will let go of their bitterness.”
“Still, that’s not nice.”
“No. But they are a symptom of what is wrong with Concordia. The fault is on Blackcinders’ head, not them.”
Before Ulysses could get inside the car, Cheyenne put a strong hand on his shoulder. “Two seconds,” she asked, leading him away from the group for a private conversation. “You holding up? I saw your face when he mentioned Martel.”
Ulysses sighed, before deflecting the question with a joke. “Yeah. I mean, he ran off with my old girlfriend. That’s like, the ultimate dick move.”
“From what you told me, you didn’t care about her all that much,” Cheyenne responded with a straight-laced face. Unlike Perse, she never reacted with irritation at his responses and cut straight to the point. “How do you really feel?”
No point in lying. “I think this whole adventure is doomed to failure and we’re all going to die. I mean, they can make slingshots out of asteroids. How do we deal with that?”
“I see where this comes from, but we have no choice but to try. Is living in fear truly living? I say you are already dead, you just keep walking.”
Ulysses didn’t have an easy answer to that.
Al honked at them, and Ulysses got into the car, wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into.
Argonauts Guild Moderator
|Holder||Cheyenne Yazzie||Energy Bow||Unlocked|
|Level||2 (Adept)||Roving Spirit||Unlocked|
|Holder||Ulysses Werner||Death Pollen||Unlocked|
|Level||1 (Novice)||Locked Feature||(0/1)|
|Lock||Mushroom Zombies||Locked Feature||(0/7)|
|Level||2 (Adept)||Spell Driver||Unlocked|
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