THE INDEPENDENCE SOLDIERS:
After nearly a full month of intense shelling, orbital bombardment and chemical weapons attacks, the Special Operations unit and General McHale's 5th division (what's left of it) can confidently say they've been to hell and sold ice water. Having suffered through everything the Alliance orbital bombers can drop on them, from high-order thermonuclear detonations to rains of smart Thor "crowbars" to plain old kinetic energy weapons (big rocks), they've managed to hold on tooth and nail to the shattered city of Triopolis. But the 21st Mechanized in neighboring Geopolis apparently hasn't fared as well. Having lost over half their strength in the month-long bombardment, they're currently pulling out to link up with the 5th division...with the Alliance 3rd and 14th divisions snapping at their heels the whole way. Orders have come down from Central Command to merge with the 21st when they arrive and pull the hell out of the area entirely.
If preparing for such a major operation weren't difficult enough the Alliance has tossed their own brand of monkey wrench into the mix. A recent low-order tactical nuke at the far end of the city, along with a three hour rain of incendiaries, has set what little flammable building material is left in the area on fire. The city around HQ has become littered with individually wrapped packets of raging inferno. Naturally Athens' infamously unpredictable weather has utterly failed to produce anything like actual rain in well over a month.
In all, it looks a like one big niufen sandwich and everybody's going to have to take a bite.
For the PC's, though, matters only become worse when they receive word that their little three-man unit has been "volunteered" for special duty. Three days ago, when the decision to coordinate the "strategic withdrawal" was made, some well intentioned but apparently moon brained chunren at Central decided the Independents on Athens need to show compassion for the civilian inhabitants who've suffered so terribly during the occupation. Never mind the fact that the entire planet supported Unification and their beloved Alliance has shown enough "compassion" by bombing them to pieces for the favor. The PC's, as part of a larger SpecOps effort, are charged with evacuating an entire five block area of Triopolis, directing the civilians to the very same transports the 5th and 21st will be using. Looks like Special Operations gets TWO bites of the niufen sandwich.
The PC's grab their gear and head out on foot for their assigned sector, which is thankfully nearby. Arriving within the half hour they hit the streets looking for civilians amongst the piles of rubble that were once beautiful marble tenements. Just up the block they come across a small crowd of locals gazing anxiously up at the bombed out fourth floor of what was once a high-rise tenement. There a man and a small girl now stand about with glazed expressions. One woman among the crowd is yelling frantically in Chinese for the man, apparently her brother, to come down and evacuate. From the looks of things he's either too dazed to understand or just unwilling to come down. Smoke gushing from the rear of the building seems to indicate the first couple of floor are on fire.
Pushing through the crowd to question the woman the PC's are quickly beset by the angry crowd who curse them and order them away. When attempts to redirect their attention to the transports awaiting them at HQ fail, the PC's ignore them and question the woman about the situation. They learn that her brother has suffered a head injury recently and has been subject to bouts of confusion off and on since then. Now, with the building on fire and the crowd below yelling at him, he's clearly too disoriented to make sense of what's going on. As it is she's been unable to find a way up to him as the stairwell is blocked with rubble. She fears he may soon do something desperate if he becomes aware of the danger in his current state and, worse, her daughter has become trapped with him.
Sensing an opportunity to get through to the crowd the PC's head off to investigate the ruined tenement, hoping to figure a way up to help the disabled man. After a quick check of the interior itself they soon verify that the only way up, the stairway, is thoroughly choked with solid chunks of marble debris. Further, the fire raging at the rear of the building has is spreading rapidly and will soon reach the dry wooden flooring of the fourth story.
Ringo notices that the twisted and partially melted remains of the building's fire escape may still function from the that floor. Unfortunately the ladder is retracted and, while the confused man upstairs could easily drop it, it is doubtful he will be able to collect his wits enough to do so. Shouldering his Grizzly and examining the latching mechanism through the scope, he figures he can drop the ladder with a well placed shot. He fires, obliterating the latch and the ladder instantly slams down into the alley.
The PC's hustle up the ladder onto the rubble-strewn fourth floor and Angelina is soon able to coax the man down to his sister. Ringo snatches up the nearly catatonic little girl and carries her himself. Below the crowd gathers to reassure themselves of the man's safety and grudgingly offer the PC's their thanks. Angelina takes the opportunity to encourage them to evacuate and bring as people with them as they can. With some half-hearted assurances that they will do so, the PC's hustle off down the street to spread the word to the other civilians.
A mere two blocks away the PC's detect the muffled sounds of several people calling out for help. Tracking the sounds to their source they arrive at the thick pile of rubble that was once a small tenement. The cries seem to be coming from somewhere below. Questioning one of the people frantically searching through the rubble they find that several people took refuge in the building's basement and became trapped when it collapsed during the last bombardment. A hasty examination of the area reveals that the basement level itself has only two points of egress, both buried under heavy layers of rubble. The PC's can see no earth moving equipment of any kind in the area and it's clear that removing the rubble by hand will take days, even with a score of volunteers.
Iddy looks for, and finds, an area near the outer wall of the basement that is relatively clear of debris and sets the rest of the team to communicate with the trapped civilians, ordering them clear of that area. She whips out her demo kit and begins jerry-rigging several powerful tamped explosives. Placing the charges precisely on the ground floor she clears out of the area and takes cover well away. The other PC's chase off the civilians picking through the rubble, then join her. With a loud thump Iddy punches a perfect hole clear through the ground floor to the basement below. Though several of the trapped civilians are now temporarily hearing impaired they are easily pulled from their erstwhile grave and rescued.
Angelina again takes the opportunity to direct everyone to HQ to evacuate. As they move on one of the civilians informs them that a large band of refugees from Geopolis have camped out down the street near the old petrochemical fuel tanks. She fairly certain the huge tanks are empty since they've been hit so many times, but there has been an odd odor in the air which she believes might just be flammable fuel of some kind. She fears that the refugees, a paranoid and twitchy lot that everyone has so far steered clear of, might be in some danger with so much burning debris raining down everywhere.
Double-timing it over to the old fuel tanks the PC's discover that they have been indeed been hit more than once, and judging from the odor the fuel they contain has by some miracle not ignited yet. As the civilian down the street suggested, however, there's a rain of burning ash and debris falling all over the city that's growing thicker every hour.
The refugees are easily found in their makeshift huts lashed along the chain fence surrounding the tank yard. Apparently they've already spotted the team and at least three of them have actually armed themselves. Iddy confirms that, though the tanks don't seem to have held a whole lot of fuel to begin with and most of it has probably evaporated, the squatters proximity to the tanks may well mean their death if what's left of the powerful fuel actually ignites.
Approaching to within shouting range the PC's attempt to engage the squatters verbally and convince them to evacuate. The quickly realize the depth of the group's paranoia when they not only refuse to listen but threaten to open fire if they don't clear out immediately. Ringo bravely disarms, tossing his Grizzly to Angelina and dropping his other weapons on the street, and approaches with his hands up. As the squatters level their weapons at him he creeps near enough to point out the fuel tanks and the falling ash. He does his best to assure them they only wish to warn them of the danger and advises them to evacuate with the rest of the locals. With no verbal response from the squatters, other than more threats, he does notice a few of them casting doubtful eyes at the tanks behind their shacks. Satisfied that he's done enough he retreats back to the team, rearms and heads out with them again, leaving the twitchy bunch of refugees to their own devices.
As they move on the PC's note the streets have slowly begun to fill with many small bands of evacuees. Amazingly far more civilians have survived the multiple Alliance bombardments than they would have thought possible, especially considering they have no access to anything even approximating the reinforced bunkers that the Independence forces do. Relatively satisfied that word has gotten around to the entire sector (judging from the amount of people) they veer off in the direction of HQ to ensure everyone heads the right way.
Along the way they find that the various fires that have erupted throughout the city have only grown stronger and many avenues of escape have already been cut off. At their current rate the gaggle of evacuees may just make it out of the area into the safer Independence zone without being burned to a crisp. Unfortunately they notice the horde of evacuees seem to be stalling up ahead and clear sounds of panic can be heard even two blocks away.
Hustling up to the front of the large crowd they find the main street has been blocked by the recent collapse of what was probably one of the few multi-storied buildings remaining in the city. And, as luck would have it, every other street in the area is either packed with utterly impassable piles of rubble or already too choked by smoke and flame to use. Though the layer of rubble before them is relatively navigable, the delay and the injuries the PC's can already anticipate are sure to slow the civilians enough for the flames to move in. From the panic beginning to grow around them, it's clear the civilians have realized this as well and are already begin to mob.
Angelina immediately draws her pistol and fires into the air, seizing the startled pause to yell at everyone to calm the hell down and start cutting a relatively safe path through the debris. Jumping in with her, Ringo and Iddy being popping off orders, taking advantage of the confusion to whip the crowd into shape despite themselves. In short order they have several "rubble brigades" going, passing along chunks of debris to clear a pair of semi-stable paths. The PC's join one of several small teams levering larger bits of debris out of way. As the fires close in on the panicking crowd behind them they figure the path is at least safer than burning to death and begin ushering the crowds through the debris. Though several minor injuries result from slips and falling chunks of refuse, nothing unmanageable occurs and they soon have the crowd moving through with some measure of alacrity.
With HQ so near at hand the PC's rush forward to ensure the rest of the route is relatively safe, as well as remove themselves from the path of the roaring flames. Arriving back at HQ they report in and grab something to sit on, watching as the 5th division infantry takes over directing the flood of emaciated and wounded civilians toward the awaiting transports.
THE EX-BLUE SUN AGENTS:
Blue Sun Research Vessel "Jiuxing", Persephone orbit
As the PC's recover from their last flashback they quickly note that the two mysterious blue gloved men have disappeared. Michael snatches up his Grizzly and they head for the computer room where they were last seen. There they find all of the computer core memory cards have been pulled and now litter the floor, certainly all now demagnetized. Casting about for some clue where the blue gloves have gone they find none, though only one airlock leads from this section to the next and it stands nearby off the main hall.
Debating whether to pursue the blue gloves or attempt to regain control of the ship, the PC's finally decide that the reentry poses the most imminent threat and return to the conference room where the medical staff cower. After some quick questioning they find, to their dismay, that none of the staff actually know how to operate the vessel. They more or less hoped to get lucky which, considering their options at the time, seemed the best course. The PC's now abandon the medical staff as essentially useless and move off at a brisk pace to find the control room. Thanks to clearly posted signs they find it easily and enter to assess the situation.
Echo and Sierra, having the only real technical training, examine the various control room stations and identify their functions while Michael and Rink guard the door. In moments they've accessed navigation and sensors, confirming that the vessel "Jiuxing" is indeed headed for a suicidal reentry with no heat shielding. Both the girls get to work hacking through the ship's system and shortly regain control.
Echo, having no pilot training at all, elects to simply bring the ship to a halt rather than attempt any complicated maneuvering. She does so with some difficulty (and a couple of Plot Points). A quick navigation and diagnostics check confirms that they're out of immediate danger but the matter of the blue gloved men loose on board still needs to be dealt with. The PC's decide it's time to finally question the medical staff as to what in TIAN XIODE is going on.
Unfortunately the troublesome tingling in the arms tells them that may have to wait a bit. They grit their teeth as the flashback descends like a wrecking ball...
THE YOUNG READERS:
The Academy Compound, Persephone
After a very pleasant interview by Alliance officials at the Thomas Aquinas School, the PC's are soon informed that they fully qualify for enrollment at the Academy and are already eligible for transfer as this year's program starts in less than a week. Eric, Pamela and Jessica are naturally thrilled and opt to start immediately. After a nice farewell party and some tearful goodbyes they grab their belongings and board the shuttle to the Alliance courier awaiting them in orbit.
On arriving at the Academy, however, they are shocked to find it's not quite the kind of academic institution they had assumed. In fact, judging from all the uniforms and barking instructors it seems to be more of a military academy than anything else. Feeling some misgivings they are herded into a large examination room with over a dozen other inductees where they are stripped of all their personal belongings, have their heads shaved and are issued a very plain set of grey fatigues and some basic toiletries.
A little shocked and disoriented they soon find themselves decked out in Academy drabs, standing uncomfortably at attention in the auditorium. There they are treated to an admittedly rousing speech by the Academy Director, a burly and tough looking fellow who's clearly a military officer of some kind. The Director's speech extolling their excellence and praising them for achieving the estimable privilege of admittance to the Academy fills them with some measure of pride and excitement. However, this is tempered by the stern warnings he gives that the Academy's curriculum with undoubtedly prove far more challenging than anything they had previously imagined. Though feeling a little betrayed and more than a little intimidated at their surroundings, the Director's promises of fulfilling, and in fact exceeding, their potential is rather appealing.
After being escorted to their dorm, nothing more than a cramped hall packed with bunk beds and a dozen tired looking cadets, they find their assigned bunks and stow their meager gear. Before they have time to interact with the roommates (who all seem to either sneer or look on them with pity) they are rushed off again to begin their orientation. Despite their fright and the certainty that they may have volunteered for something they didn't want, the PC's soon find the Academy to be even more awe inspiring than they had originally hoped. The gymnasium, Olympic swimming pool, track and playing field are clearly both hugely expensive and very well maintained. The laboratories and libraries are, indeed, far superior to anything they've ever even heard of. And the academic program itself is everything they could have hoped for. In fact, judging from the curriculum, they'll be studying advanced quantum theory within the month! The disturbing militaristic character of the Academy aside, the PC's find they're once again thrilled at the opportunity they've stumbled upon.
By early February 2517 the PC's have finally completed their month-long orientation and general studies. Though it's become clear that they are more or less prisoners at the Academy, the academic program has proven every bit as challenging as they had hoped. Perhaps more so than they desired. After six days of classes a week, with eight hours of study and four hours of intense physical conditioning each day, the PC's are utterly exhausted and their previously voracious appetite for learning has been somewhat tempered.
On the other hand they are both surprised and delighted to find that seemingly every one of the two hundred plus students at the academy are all Readers just like them, a fact which is not only casually accepted but even openly discussed. According to the rare occurrence of older students deigning to speak with them, some of the later courses they'll undergo are even designed to explore and expand this ability. There are even whispered rumors of a "post-graduate program" designed specifically for, and focused solely on, strengthening this ability.
Having received their badges for successfully completing the challenging orientation phase (and a few troubling rumors concerning the students that failed...and disappeared) the PC's are escorted with the rest of their class onto the honor field. There they receive another, even more rousing speech by the Academy Director. In it they are assured that they are not only the best the Alliance has to offer the 'verse, but that the Academy will forge each and every one of them into razor-sharp weapons and keen-minded intellects. When the Academy is through with them there won't be a thing in the 'verse than can stand in their way. They are treated to intriguing insights into the "true" motivations of the handful of devious men who instigated the Independent resistance...and the devastating Unification War that followed. They are warned that the 'verse if filled with ruthless and ingenious men and organizations who'll stop at nothing, even laying waste to entire civilian populations and instigating horrific wars to further their own ambitions. But, the Director assures them, the Alliance has an answer to this threat...the Academy. The glorious privilege of defending the righteous ideology of the Alliance has fallen to them. Just as the privilege of ensuring they're capable of it has fallen to him.
With that they are led away to their dorms and the last chance they'll have for rest before beginning their first quarter program: physical training.
THE EX-BLUE SUN AGENTS:
Blue Sun Research Vessel "Jiuxing", Persephone orbit
A bit more accustomed to the disoriented and debilitating flashbacks, the PC's spring back into action a bit quicker than they have before. Stopping to give Rink a quick ruffle for guarding them while they were "away", they hasten across the hall to the airlock and the next section. There they find the airlock has been fused shut on the far side, similarly to the previous door. Before they can head back to retrieve the medical staff and their crowbars, to put them to work again, they are surprised to find their arms are already tingling again. Without time even to curse the situation they fall twitching into yet another mind-shattering flashback...
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