The drizzling rain in this place never seems to stop. There are patches of sunlight for a few hours here and there, sure, even the occasional torrential downpour. Those extreme opposites still somehow both just feel like intermissions, brief reprieves in the constant patter of tiny drops that gutters the gaslights but doesn’t extinguish them, that trickles, black-stained, down roadside drains but never seems to wash an ounce of soot off the city.
The coaly runoff in the sluiceways and the shiny creosote on the sides of buildings isn’t the only persistent grime here, either. Ironsfed is dirty to the core, from the newly-minted industrial barons, drunk on the wealth and power of a mechanical revolution, scarcely two generations away from the earnest toil of their sheep-farming grandparents, all the way down to the six-rev street urchins, born two generations too late for anything but the last resorts of sweeping chimneys or picking pockets in an indifferent, inhumane town.
All too common, the pervasive pollution, on these neo-industrial, d-orbital worlds. Give someone a centi and they’ll take a kilo, it’s said, and nowhere in the whole of Synthex does that bear more truth than in these in-betweens. A centi past basic metalwork and a kilo’s kilos behind Delphi, Ironsfed fancies itself to be damn near nuclear.
“Where else on this backwater planet could you have the luxury of full-cycle gaslights?” it asks with its smug, wasteful flicker, never mind the fact that less illuminated locales maintain a night sky with a more realistic version of the actual scope of the Verse. Presumably, they offer better vision of the sky during the daytime, too, given that this ostensible center of culture and fashion is perpetually overcast with continually-leaking, mould-grey clouds that obscure not only the star that drives the system, but also all horizons beyond the boundaries of its own self-absorbed, self-righteous settlement. No wonder waterproof wool coats never go out of style. Black waterproof wool coats.
Ironsfed is just one out of a tera of make-believe metropoles, though. Scrabbling through its petromuck, learning the coin-lubricated lanes of its social hierarchy’s lowest levels, making friends with friends who aren’t really friends, and for what? Fifteen builds chasing rumors? Fifteen builds eating the oily approximation of fried fish that the city prides itself on? That the boarding-house prides itself on?
Fifteen builds with the only whisper of a clue in the form of a child, almost too young to be in school, if there were school for children in this pit of a place, caught by the wrist in a feeble attempted pickpocket, crying out, “Please, please, guv! I meant novfin by it, Roor Yaniss put me up to it, ‘e did, ‘e’ll beat me if I come back barehanded. But, guv, please, don’t make a scene of it! Take Roor’s worst than face the Arc Angel any cycle, I would.” Loose but an instant in a moment of surprise and pity, then running, lost, just another anonymous soot-stained face among the uncaring underclass.
Roor Yaniss, then, a link in the chain of this mystery, a name that might mean fresh, lean sashimi if it leads to the intel in question. A ticket out of Ironsfed, out of the d-orbit, if it leads to the Arc Angel.
But maybe a myth or an invention of a scumbag child exploiter named Roor Yaniss, deployed to keep the kinders in line. Just as his purported pay raise per rev past ten keeps them on until they are too old to be of service, picking and passing until they are terminated, turned out onto the street, always invariably just before their eleventh revday. Yaniss isn’t alone, though; nobody in Ironsfed gives pay raises.
Another five builds and it’s a dead end.
Lots of labor violations, lots of safety violations, lots of lifetime sentences in Delphi for the kind of things that Yaniss is party to, but this isn’t Delphi. It’s a filthy benighted d-class that should consider itself lucky to not be called an f. No judge here would give him a day behind bars given the promise of payoff. And there’s been no sign of the supposed superhero. It might be time to pack it up and go, call it quits, come home as the first mission to go on the books as a failure, maybe even face forced resignation. Anything would be better than another plate of motor-oil fried fish.
First, though, another look around town. Drink in the miserable mist, smell the sad solemnity of generations, ingest the implications of collective history. Relish in how far things have come, how good, how true, how hopeful humanity must be to… feel a puncture, the silent shive of polished blade into a pungent, purple kidney, then witness leg and knee, the pillars of civilization, give way and collapse.
“Yer wallet or yer life, guv. Very likely bofe, tho it stands to reason the former should go before the latter, init? But if you’d ravvers, the vicey versey’s no trouble.”
A triumph of iron spilling iron in this loose carbon black, over a bit of copper, until a faint atmospheric hiss makes itself known with a scorching WHOOSH and an angel descends from on high.
“Effen ‘ell boys, it’s the Arc Angel! Cheese it!”
Footsteps in every direction, the scent of ozone, the gentle touch that moves a feeble attempt to hold the fluids in. Then…
SHRAAPPDC! a shock of searing pain, an aroma of burning flesh, a sense of closure, a rugged voice.
“You don’t belong here. I’ve been watching you since you arrived. Not only are you not from Ironsfed, you’re not from anywhere on this planet. I don’t know what you want or what you're doing, but this city doesn’t need anyone’s help. It’s under my protection. Go back to where you came from.”
A glimpse in the moonlight reflected off the still waters reveals the angel’s true nature. Fabricated, non-functional wings of corrugated roof scrap, a welder’s mask, a smith’s thick apron. The divine flaming sword, sealer of mortal wounds, no more than an enormous, reckless blowtorch, run from a backpack of tanks by means of flexible tubing.
Nevertheless, the preternatural knowledge of interversal travel and the life debt owed shape the following decision:
To return to the Hub, seeking medical attention and a posthaste debriefing about the low-tech genius in Ironsfed.
To call out with a promise to to tell the truth about arriving in Ironsfed and the purpose of the mission in hopes of recruiting an ally.
To live with the cauterization of the wound and suffer a few more platefuls of “fried fish” while continuing the investigation at a reasonable pace.
To pursue on foot immediately and attempt to resolve things for better or worse as quickly as possible.
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[Archival Note: All 9 Mission Assessors unanimously approved the field agent’s decision to reveal aspects of their identity in an attempt to make a connection with the rogue hero. No significant discussion of other options was necessary.]
As the strange figure begins to fade into the inky shadows of the dockyard, the options become limited. Wounded, there is no chance of following him; in twenty builds, there’s been no contact, and he seems to have reliable information about your off-world origin, astounding considering the level of technology here. Giving up now is out of the question as well, having finally come face to face with the mysterious figure, a return with no tangible data would be worse than having left without ever meeting him. Playing to his confidence is the best option.
“Wait! Just wait. You’re right about me. I’m not from here. I’m an investigator from another part of this universe.”
The silhouetted wings stop for a moment, and after an extended pause, turn to face you, but move no closer. Finally, his voice comes. “Hm. I wouldn’t be inclined to believe you, but… it all adds up. How did you get here, investigator? While most people here think stories of ships that can travel to other worlds are just flights of fancy that belong in penny dreadfuls, I’m a man of science, and I prefer to consider the possibilities. Still, if you had come in some kind of vehicle, I think it likely that I would have found it by now.”
His silence afterward makes it clear that he is expecting an answer, so you muster up the courage to speak. “No, no, not a spaceship. Even on my world, we don’t have an actual vehicle that could travel this far quickly. There’s also the question of sustaining life on such a vessel, producing food and breathable air. We’ve found it much easier to use… alternative methods, ways to shorten the distance between two points rather than trying to travel the whole distance quickly. A ‘portal’ is probably the best term. One such portal that we discovered on a world much closer to my home than this, presumably left there by an earlier civilization, led me here, to a subterranean cave complex about five cycles travel from Ironsfed by horse.”
He considers the revelation for a moment, and when he speaks again, it is authoritative. “Then we need to go there, send you back, and destroy it once you’re through.”
Jaw-dropping. For a self-proclaimed man of science, he seems disinterested in a startling discovery. “What? Destroy it? Why? I came to this city after my arrival, not just because of its reputation, but the whispers of yours as well. The Arc Angel, man of mystery who protects against wrongdoers and things that go bump in the night. Surely you can see that this is an opportunity to learn from one another, to make a mutually beneficial friendship. Destroying the gate won’t benefit anyone.”
Gruffly, he replies. “I work alone. The things that go bump in the night, which I’ve seen far too often of late, are probably coming through that portal. Ironsfed is my city, my responsibility. Shutting down that portal is a means to keep it out of harm’s way.”
“No,” you say. “The portal hadn’t been used in thousands of revs, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands. Not by my people, or anyone else. I’m the only person, or thing, for that matter, who has traveled through it since its discovery. Whatever you’ve been dealing with, that’s not the source. As for your city, I’d argue it’s in more danger from people like the tech-barons and Roor Yaniss than anything else. Exploitation, greed, pollution– those are serious threats to your citizens.”
“Leave Yaniss to me,” he says. “He’s just a link in a larger chain that goes all the way to the top. When you started going after him, I almost thought I would have to intervene before you blew the whole case open by moving on him. When you didn’t, I understood that you were a competent detective, and that you were probably looking for me. Luckily, I decided to follow you down here tonight. Those hooligans would have made good on their offer if I hadn’t been here to intervene.”
With an appreciative nod, you say, “I know. Thank you. I owe you for that. But listen, it’s not my job to make waves in the places I go to gather information. If the organization decides that intervention is the right thing to do, depending on the individual case, there are whole teams of people dedicated to making that happen. My job is to find out what’s going on and report back so the people in charge can formulate a course of action. For now, why don’t you ease up on your ‘lone wolf’ thing. Let’s work together. We’ll figure out what’s been causing these things you’ve been dealing with, and go from there. In exchange for the information about what’s happening in Ironsfed, I’ll tell you where the portal is, so you can keep an eye on it. But you have to promise not to destroy it. And, you have to tell me one more thing.”
He grunts assent. “We can work together for now. On these conditions. No moves without my approval, don’t try to follow me home, don’t try and discover my identity. When you go home, you recommend what we agree on after you’ve seen what I’ve been dealing with.”
“What other thing do you want me to tell you?”
“How did you know I wasn’t from this planet? Knowing I’m not from the city, sure, you’re from here, and you’re well-informed. I know my accent is good, I trained in linguistics for years. And it’s wildly improbable that I’m from another world compared to another city or country on this one. What gave me away?”
“Ironsfed has a lot of detractors. Ajax thinks they’re the height of art and culture, Ponta Berio claims to have the best-looking people and the best wine. The colonies aren’t big fans of the companies or the government. But they all agree on one thing, some of them even save money their whole lives to make a trip here because of it.”
“The fried fish is delicious. Anyone who hates it as much as you do has to be an alien. Go get that wound looked at, and get some rest. I’ll be in touch.”
You shake your head as the Arc Angel melts into the misty night.
Betrayed by your taste in seafood!
[SHK-E Analysis: Choosing to remain on a d-orbit world with a questionable level of medical technology while injured is a threat to SAFETY. The commitment demonstrated to forging new relationships, however, is a strong testament to HEART. The shared information about portals was offset by new data about events near Ironsfed, so KNOWLEDGE is a net neutral. Portal missions, particularly undercover, single agent work, do not consume a significant amount of ENERGY.
KNOWLEDGE: Very Good
Para Initiative Reputations: Interventionist
Para Initiative Inventory:
Oystersand’s Illustrated Arcana
Notes on Xavi and 1086
Untranslated Copy of Dear People