Prodigal Son

2.15.2022

“If my data files are correct, the man on that platform is Emperor Inago III, ruler of the Mettugi Empire. The events that unfolded during his reign led to the death or displacement of more than 300 million sentient beings. If there is a Butterfly here that can change that, our actions can indeed make things better!” Hunter says in a tone of awe.

At Hunter’s words you look back up at the platform and are shocked to see that the “man” in question looks like a giant grasshopper as he leans on his middle pair of limbs to stare back at you over the edge of the platform. In the confusion of your arrival, his coat and other regalia obscured his nature and left your mind to fill in the blanks. As your descent continues, you stare upwards in partial shock. This strange figure, and the enormous flying machine hanging in the air above, drive home the fact that you are a very long way from Ed’s food cart and the familiarity of Bright Lights!

“B-b-but he’s a bug!” you manage to stammer.

“Yes, did you imagine that evolution followed the same path on every world? That’s primate chauvinism, and poor critical thinking as well.” Hunter chides gently.

At that moment, the guards who were firing upon you leap over the edge, insect wings extending to direct their fall. As they spot you they dive in pursuit.

“Oh… I didn’t know they could do that. This may be a little uncomfortable, please grab on.” Hunter instructs you as they adjust the settings on the command staff.

The moment you secure a grip around Hunter’s shoulders they activate the new settings and a globe of energy forms around you both. Your descent accelerates wildly and your course veers westward (or at least in the direction of the sinking sun), taking you directly towards the dense jungle on the other side of the river, far below.

Energy beams flash around you as you speed towards the canopy. Your gut clenches in terror as Hunter gives no indication of slowing and soon you are crashing through the trees, leaves and branches whipping about you.

After what seems like an eternity, but must have been only seconds, you pass through the upper layer of branches and find yourself in a realm of shadow. Hunter changes direction again and brings you to rest at the base of a huge tree, nestled between it’s massive roots. Adjusting the command staff, Hunter gestures for you to be quiet, and suddenly the world goes almost completely dark, the only light coming from a tiny display on the staff.

An hour passes like this and then another. Eventually, Hunter dismisses the camouflage field and indicates that your pursuers have moved further into the jungle.

“We should make our way to Nasekomo. My files indicate that the capital is very cosmopolitan and many species do business there. Hopefully we won’t attract too much attention.” Hunter tells you.

“Is our Butterfly there?” you ask.

“Yes, well that’s complicated. D.I.O.S., the organization I belong to, doesn’t exist yet, so we’re left with my limited data files about this time and place. That and our best judgment. It is a good thing that the data we did have indicates that we make a very good team when it comes to these decisions. That, or we are just improbably fortunate when it comes to being in the right place at the right time. The concept of luck makes me uncomfortable, but I will take any we can get.” Hunter replies.

It’s a long hike to the city of Nasekomo and once you arrive you begin to understand what Hunter meant by “cosmopolitan”. There are vast crowds of beings of all descriptions, and while most of them appear to be large, bipedal insects, there are also a few mammalian types and even a number of what appear to be sentient mollusks.

The city itself is vast, dwarfing anything you’ve imagined, far larger than the tales you’ve heard of the City of Winds, or anywhere else for that matter. There are clear financial and social divisions in evidence. Huge buildings of a glass-like substance reach into the sky, reflecting the last rays of sunset. Their bases are crowded by tents, ramshackle structures and temporary looking shops. Flying vehicles flit from the rooftops while people and animals loaded with goods push their way through the crowds.

And are there crowds! You had no idea there could be this many people anywhere in the universe, much less in one city. They make a constant stream through the streets, pressing past you and each other without the slightest concern for personal space. Hawkers and merchants try to draw your attention, shouting in buzzing trills that sound like nothing so much as a chorus of overgrown cicadas serenading you.

“We should find a place to recharge the staff before we have more trouble, its reserves won’t last through another altercation. We should also see what they have for a datanet in this place. Perhaps then we can learn more about our Butterfly.” Hunter tells you.

As your search for electricity and information continues, you notice that you are being followed. Just as you are about to mention it to Hunter, a Mettugian dressed like a street vendor blocks your path.

Bzz trill chirrup!”, they begin.

Hunter makes an entry on the staff as they continue.

“Chirrup bzz-ith me if you want to live!”, they say, suddenly speaking your language.

Glancing nervously back at your tail, Hunter says, “Yes, please lead on!”

The giant grasshopper gives a signal and you hear a loud crash, followed by the sounds of an argument breaking out behind you. A pair of insectoids grab you and shove you roughly into the bed of a waiting cart and immediately cover you with a tarp.

“Stay hidden!” one of them commands, and then the cart lurches forward.

Several hours pass under the tarp as the cart makes its twisty, bumpy journey through the city. You feel convinced that even in a city the size of Nasekomo they must be prolonging the trip intentionally, whether to throw off pursuit, confuse your sense of direction, or both, is unclear.

Eventually, the cart stops and the tarp is thrown off. You find yourself back in the jungle, surrounded by over a dozen Mettugians of various sizes and colors. It’s full dark now and your gathering is lit only by the dim glow of cheap, chemical lanterns that sputter and buzz.

The Mettugian who approached you in the street steps forward, “You are the two who tried to assassinate the Emperor today.” It isn’t a question.

“Yes, well, that’s complicated.” Hunter begins.

“Don’t worry, we support you. We just want to make sure your next attempt succeeds.”

Following that shocking statement, a loud argument ensues. Apparently, not everyone assembled is comfortable with regicide. Eventually you’re able to calm the gathering and persuade them to explain themselves.

While some of the most vocal complaints revolve around social changes, it quickly becomes obvious that the central issue is one of economics and matters of food policy. It seems that their species has a reproductive cycle that peaks dramatically every 42 years and the next peak is imminent.

As things stand, only clans with close ties to the imperial family will get full allotments of food. The others, using the circular reasoning that they will not have large numbers of offspring to attend to, will be expected to do the intense labor of growing and harvesting the vast quantity of food necessary to feed the next generation. Since representation in the government is largely determined by population, they fear this will effectively create a permanent under class of farm laborers.

Langosto the First, the Emperor’s “son”, an imprecise translation that could also mean “heir” or “chosen representative”, has wide popular support for his more egalitarian views. Most of those assembled here would be satisfied to wait for his ascension to the throne. Unfortunately, many of the Emperor’s advisors oppose the change that Langosto represents and have largely blocked his access to the Emperor. Many fear he will be replaced by a favored “child” from the upcoming generation.

“You see, Langosto has spent large sums of money on infrastructural improvements, but there have been setbacks and they haven’t yet improved our crop yields sufficiently. Compounding this, he’s spent even more traveling to foreign nations trying to secure import agreements and buy improved farming technologies. The Ministry of Agriculture has cut off his travel allowance and rumor has it all his projects will be defunded!”, explains a young Mettugian, with dark spectacle-like markings around her eyes that give a scholarly appearance.

An ancient Mettugian cries, “Exactly! He must replace the Emperor before the next Hatching! There will be revolution in the streets if something isn’t done!” this pronouncement is met with more agreement than dissent.

Your rescuer (recruiter?) steps forward, “We can get you close. There’s an official event coming up, we have sympathizers who can make sure you’re in a position to use that stick of yours and then get you away afterwards.

Hunter looks at you in obvious distress. The gathered insects are friendly now but you see that many of them have weapons and you’re not sure you’ll make it out of here if you don’t go along with their plot.

“Of course,” you say, “we want to help in any way we can, but we need to charge the staff and access your datanet to finalize this plan.”

The “scholar” as you’ve come to think of her steps forward quickly. “I can get you to a safe place to do that. But we need to get there before morning.” she says, looking at the ringleader for assent.

As soon as she has it, she directs you back to the cart and makes a hurried departure.

“There’s another way,” she tells you as you travel, “Langosto has secured an agreement for technology from the Venurian Trade League that will synthesize all the food we need. All he needs is the chance to show the contract to the Emperor, I’m sure he’ll approve it. Then Langosto can regain his favor!”

“Yes, but how do you know about this and what can we do to facilitate a meeting?” Hunter asks.

“I work with Langosto,” she replies proudly, “If you’re smuggled into the Emperor’s presence, I’m sure you can use your technology to smuggle him in too.”

Later, as you  peruse the datanet and charge the staff, Hunter uses it to create a sound deadening field so that you can talk privately.

Here the Verses Discord was offered a choice.

Your discussion leads to the following possibilities regarding the Butterfly you’ve come here to find. Hunter does not trust their, currently limited, algorithms to determine outcomes and insists that you make the final decision. They believe that D.I.O.S.’ calculations have selected you for exactly these sorts of circumstances:

A: Do no more, just go home Hunter feels that there is a slightly greater than 50% chance that you’ve already caught your Butterfly, though they’re also extremely clear that without access to D.I.O.S. processing power there is a noticeable margin for error. The very fact that you appeared in close proximity to the Emperor is likely to have increased security around the capital and led to enhanced protective details around his person. If the societal chaos described in Hunter’s history files was due to Inago’s assassination, you’ve likely already prevented that outcome. The command staff is fully charged again. You should be safe just to lay low and look for an opportunity to return through the portal. Once you get to the other side you can start looking for the next Butterfly.

B: Help Langosto meet the Emperor It’s also quite likely that whether or not you’ve caught the Butterfly, if Langosto can do what the “scholar” suggests it will likely lead to much better living conditions and boost the stability of all the people of Mettugi. If you haven’t caught the Butterfly, this may be it. Smuggling the Son in to meet with the Emperor could have an extremely positive effect on the lives of millions of sentients but there are a lot of moving parts. You think you’ve got the technology to conceal him from both the conspirators and imperial security, but there are several parties who could betray you, and what happens to you and the son if the Emperor is not glad to see him?

C: Assassinate the Emperor “When time travel has to be accounted for the calculations become extremely complicated,” Hunter has told you, repeatedly. Another possibility, is that your appearance has indeed prevented the Emperor’s assassination and that this will lead to the revolution the ancient Mettugian predicted and precipitate all of the misery and destruction documented in the historical records. In that case, you need to correct your mistake and make sure the Emperor dies this time. It makes your head spin and your stomach queasy, but it speaks to you on some level.

D: Warn the Emperor Sure, the Emperor has probably increased his security, and sure, if you pull out the rebels may very well decide not to go through with the plot. Still, they seemed very confident they had agents who could get you through security undiscovered and very close to the Emperor. Hunter has told you with some confidence that their calculations indicate a larger than 75% chance the rebels wanted to use you for the assassination so that an outsider would take the blame and that there is small, but not insignificant chance that they can succeed without your involvement. You should make sure the Emperor is warned of the plot, even if you find that the only way to do it is by turning yourselves in.

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[Para Initiative agents, when given this scenario as a training exercise, supported Helping Langosto meet the Emperor at a rate of 80%, compared to 20% who thought it best to withdraw.]

Your debate runs until almost dawn, but in the end you know that you have to help the people of the Mettugi Empire. If that means smuggling the Emperor’s son in to see him, then that’s what you need to do.

“So,” you ask the Scholar, “how are we going to make this work?”

“There’s a meeting between government ministers and key leaders of industry in two days. The Emperor will be there. There will be a formal dinner and you will be smuggled in with the catering, you’ll just need to fool the security scanners as you did when you made your escape from the Emperor’s personal guard.” she informs you.

There are more details to work out, of course, but you're able to construct a viable plan, though the timing is going to be very tight. The opposition leaders have agents watching Langosto, and their people have been very effective in preventing all contact between son and Emperor. Langosto will have to find a way to slip away from these agents just before the event, if he’s to avoid tipping your hand.

You’ll be smuggled into the venue first, hidden in the bottom of a mobile buffet table, and Langosto will enter at the last moment disguised as a member of the catering crew. Shortly before the table is wheeled in to serve the guests, Langosto will discard his catering uniform and slip under the table with you. Once you’re into the dining room, and through the security scan, he will emerge and announce himself. This is the most dangerous part of the plan and you fear it will end in catastrophe.

“From what you tell me of the enhanced security, I must warn you that I calculate there is roughly a 37% chance Langosto will be shot before he is recognized. I would prefer to be more precise, but our resources are limited at present.” Hunter informs the Scholar with concern.

“We know the risks and Langosto wants to proceed. I believe it will work!” she replies.

Now the day has arrived and things have gone smoothly thus far. Tension is running high as you wait in the dark, the three of you crammed into an uncomfortably tight space, under a roasting hot steam table, with your face pressed painfully into Langosto’s carapace. The table has just come to a stop at what should be the final security checkpoint. You hear the buzzing and chirrups of Mettugi speech and dare not breathe, much less activate the translation mechanism on the staff to understand what they’re saying.

After a long pause, the table begins moving again and before long you feel it pushed into position as part of the buffet line with the buzz of conversation all around you. It’s almost time, you just have to wait for the signal that will let Langosto know to emerge.

As the minutes drag by, you worry that security is too tight and your co-conspirators on the catering team have decided to call it off. Just as it seems you won’t be able to take another minute jammed together under the table, you hear the series of taps that signal to Langosto it’s as safe as it’s going to get.

He immediately slides out, leaving you in the dark with Hunter, who quickly stabs the controls to re-activate the translation function on the staff.

“BZZ-TrP-Pt!”, someone shouts in anger.

“BZZrillT-on’t you recognize the Emperor’s son?” shouts a strangely familiar female voice.

“Undersecretary Trilbzzkip, what is the meaning of this?” replies another man.

You wish you could make out more than legs and feet, but you dare not move for fear of getting yourself shot.

“I believe your son has a very important proposal for you, my Emperor. Unfortunately, some over protective members of your ministries have necessitated this most unusual method of presentation.” this time you’re certain it’s the Scholar’s, apparently Undersecretary’s, voice you hear.

This precipitates an outpouring of heated debate, which continues for some time. Still, when  your table is eventually wheeled away, it seems obvious that Langosto’s trade proposal has been well received and he is back in favor.

You find it a simple thing to make your exit, with almost all the security focused on the conference hall itself. Once you’ve slipped out of the building Hunter pulls you into a concealing alcove and gestures for you to wait.

Looking slightly puzzled, Hunter cocks their head in the way that tells you they’re performing serious analysis. Then, smiling, they say, “This is very disconcerting. My data files are now different from my memory, which shouldn’t be possible, you see. It appears that my files now indicate the Mettugi Empire survived a period of social unrest to become, what now is, or was, or will be, at the time we left, a thriving interstellar republic comprising three star systems. It is very challenging to put this into precise language, but it seems we have caught a very beautiful Butterfly this evening!”

Now, with your Butterfly securely in your metaphorical net, you are both happy to make your way back through the portal.

Taking advantage of the Emperor’s absence, you slip back onto the Imperial estate and make your way to the overlook where this all began. When you arrive you are dismayed to see no sign of the portal, nor any indication it was ever here.

“Yes, the geometry of such things is very complex. Let’s look around and see if we can catch a glimpse of it from another angle. The energy readings I’m getting on the staff tell me it has to be here somewhere.” Hunter reassures you.

After much turning and craning of your neck you eventually find an angle where you see a perfect plane of blazing blue light.

“I’ve got it!” you say excitedly.

“Yes, I see it now too.” Hunter agrees, matching your contorted gaze. “If we enter at exactly the right angle I believe it will still transport us.”

“OK, if you’re ready, lead the way.”

Hunter nods and takes your hand. “Yes, we’ll have to go single file this time, try to follow me exactly. On 1. 3,2,1.”

You follow immediately behind Hunter as they enter the portal and feel the blazing heat of the transition, followed by freezing cold that paralyzes you. This time, however, the cold doesn’t vanish, but instead intensifies. You find yourself frozen, holding Hunter’s hand as they stand similarly immobile.

After an indeterminate time, a second that lasts an eternity, or an eternity that’s over in a second, you see a flicker of light and then the “ghost” from your previous transit manifests into a luminous, vaguely humanoid form. It examines you both intently, as if it could read your mind or your history simply by staring.

“Interesting. It seems you are an ideal pair to assist me with my situation. I have a very challenging Butterfly that needs apprehension.” the figure says in a tone of satisfaction.

And then, you find yourself elsewhere.

[ATL Personal Log: It happened again. I was puzzling over just the right word for my translation of the poem from the Not-Between and when I broke for lunch some things were not quite the same. The doors which had been opening slowly were working fine. Everything on the Initiative campus looked just a little more polished. Those statues were too weathered to be new, but I am sure they weren't there before. Last, but most surprisingly, the Initiative has many bipedal insectoids that are from a species I remember being extinct after some old interstellar war.

Medical scans continue to show no unusual phenomenon, and my health to be as expected other than the biological aging from my last field mission.

SHK-E Report: Nothing to report.

SAFETY: Very Poor
HEART: Excellent
KNOWLEDGE: Excellent
Energy: Dangerous

Para Initiative Reputations:

Interventionist
Friend of the Keep

Para Initiative Inventory:
‍Oystersand’s Illustrated Arcana
Notes on Xavi and 1086
Untranslated Copy of Dear People
Gloomspark Portarray]

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