The core of the ongoing Zekkonian wars revolves around the rare and valuable crystals whose secrets must be revealed, but danger and risk are high... RAK'ZIK MEETING – MISSION SEMI-SUCCESSFUL The early evening sun was setting, creating a beautiful hue across the horizon with scattered light rays peaking through the branches of the trees like voyeurs. Pulling up to the Senator's residence with the flyboys came with mixed emotions. On one hand, we were able to get invited to the meeting between Rak'Zik and Kol'Zak regarding a potential alliance, and on the other hand, it didn't go as well as expected. From all indications during the brief communication from the spacecraft with the Senator, he wasn't too happy about it, other than us getting to attend the meeting. He was very specific that more work would need to be done, so today's debriefing should be quite interesting. "Welcome back MindStar," Cal said as he exited his front door to greet us, "come inside and let's have a chat." He waved to the flyboys before they left with the transport and then followed me into his home. Little does he know that after we conclude with further debriefing about the mission, I have a little unfinished business of my own with him. As we sat on the veranda, Cal looked at me and I just grinned; one of those smirky grins ya know, the kind that make people wonder what you're up to. He raised an eyebrow and looked as if he was going to say something, but I did to him what he did to me when I was surprised to see the flyboys after our hijacking in the Zekkonian Swamp where they supposedly ended up dead – NOT. "Don't ask," I said to the Senator, "it will all become clear soon enough, but I'm sure you're anxious to hear more details about the mission." Cal sat back in his chair with his hands behind his head sporting a rather large smile on his face, like a proud mentor or coach, and I presumed also reveling in the fact that I have confidently stepped into my covert ops role in a more defined way. The transition for me was a bit slow-going, but now that I'm back into the more aggressive level of space exploration and adventure, my insatiableness for uncovering mysteries and secrets has been elevated quite substantially. I attribute that to my passion for investigative journalism, but what I'm involved with now goes far beyond anything I've experienced in the past, and I'm ready to take it to the next level, wherever that may lead me. "Tell me a bit about the meeting between Rak'Zik and Kol'Zak," says Cal, "and what you gleaned from it that might be of importance." After taking a sip of his housekeeper's lovely tea, I leaned forward and gave him my interpretation of what I thought took place. "In short," I started, "Kol'Zak was having none of what Rak'Zik was handing him about the gradual invasion of the Zil'Zik into the neutral Nie Tribe Zek lands. Rak'Zik even presented Zil'Zik dead bodies as trophies from the attack we encountered on the way to the meeting just outside his city, but Kol'Zak was skeptical and untrusting of what actually took place." "Sounds like a tough meeting," states Cal, "so I take it that an alliance was out of the question?" "Pretty much," I responded, "and to further add insult to injury, Kol'Zak blames the Tan'Hok for the uprising because of their seeming hoarding of the most valuable crystals and not sharing with others. Kol'Zak was also very explicit in saying that they didn't like the relationship with the humans that the Tan'Hok had either, because their work with technology to help them gave them an advantage." "Wow," exclaims Cal, "seems like there was a bit of tension involved in that meeting." The Senator doesn't know the half of it, but I didn't think it was necessary to go into every detail. The most important factors were shared in an effort to give the Senator a starting point and where we go from here with the next mission. "Lots of tension," I replied, "but the flyboys and I maintained a respectful posture and did not speak. Kol'Zak didn't seem to be too happy that we were there, surmising that we were humans, I'm sure, but we managed to walk away intact and nonetheless for wear. I only wish I had more Intel for you." "Sometimes," Cal stated, "these missions don't always go as you would like them to, but at least you've given me enough information to know that we now have to go deeper into Zek territory, and that means a higher risk for you MindStar. This next covert ops run will be far more dangerous, but I've already employed the necessary means to enhance its success. However, before we get into the details, let's take a break for dinner." HANNAH, ROSE, AND THE FLYBOYS REVEALED We stayed on the veranda and enjoyed the cool breeze, as well as what was left of the setting sun. It was mostly small talk, but I patiently waited for my opportunity to give the Senator what he might deem a poignant reminder of something he promised that he would share with me when I returned. "My dear Senator," I said as I shot him a cheeky grin, "it's time to fess up." He placed his fork on his plate and wiped the corners of his mouth with his napkin before shooting me a cheeky grin right back. "I have a feeling I know where you're headed," replies Cal, "and I guess it's time to clue you in on a few things." Did I hear that right? Was I really going to finally get some information on the flyboys and Hannah? I perked right up in my chair and gave him my full attention, because I was sure I would have questions once he started. Although, the Senator is quite detailed and thorough, so we'll see. "Hannah and the twin pilots," began Cal, "are actually gifts from Vida at the Cyrene Skylabs. All three are human-like, and all three are androids, but …" "It all makes sense to me now," I cut in, "and I have one quick question, if you don't mind. Did you send someone in to collect the flyboys in the Zekkonian Swamp after we were hijacked?" "No," Cal responded, "after receiving them from Vida, they were reprogrammed to return to me should anything happen to them, and why they teleported to my residence after their death in the swamp." Well, as much as I have become attached to them already, it's nice to know that they'll always be around in one capacity or another, they've really grown on me. "Hannah is a bit different," Cal continued, "while she's human-like and also an android, she's actually the prototype Vida developed without some of the advanced features that the pilots have, especially when it comes to her strength. Therefore, while quite efficient and very trainable, she expresses more of a demure and feminine quality. However, don't underestimate her, because I found her to be quite surprising at times when I least expected it. She's sharp, witty, and can verbally punch if she needs to, but in the end, she will be loyal to you, and the two of you should grow into each other in a very beneficial way." "Well," I responded, "she already asked me if I was ready to kick some ass, so I'm guessing she's got a bit of spunk in there somewhere." Calvin smiled, almost as if he was saying, I know what you mean, but then he continued filling me in on all this android business. "Rose is also an android," Cal said, "but she's a bit more advanced than Hannah, and she can pretty much hold her own if she has to." I didn't know that he was involved with Rose too, but that explains the extra firm grip I experienced when I encountered her on the ISMA spacecraft during the first leg of my trip to Cyrene. Nonetheless, I sensed that there was still something not right about her, but I wasn't going to get into it now while the Senator was disclosing all this juicy information. "The thing with Rose is," continues Cal, "she's a second generation android, and not actually created by Vida, but I'll get into those details in a minute." "I'm more interested in the flyboys," I responded, "those guys seem far too human to even think of them as androids. They're wise-cracking, can carry on an intellectual conversation when I can get them to focus long enough, and it seems that they use a level of critical thinking in situations where it's most beneficial. I can also tell you that they're fast-acting in crucial moments, and they don't have to be told what to do, which is why their dynamics interest me the most." "As I mentioned, MindStar," states Cal as he shifts more in his seat, "the pilots are far more advanced, and there's a very good reason why. They were not created by Vida, but rather her Boffins. Boffins cannot innovate, but are perfectionists in their work. So they took Vida's prototype of Hannah and created Rose. She has a greater level of advanced features, and considered a second generation android, but then they worked the prototype further until they were satisfied with the twin pilots who are considered to be third generation androids." "Wow," I exclaimed, "that's incredible. I have only one question though. Who or what are the Boffins?" This ought to be good I thought to myself. I'm not naïve to androids or robots, but Boffins sound like a whole new ballgame to me, and I'm highly anxious to learn what the story is. Female Boffin Male Boffin "Boffins are a genetically-created human species, Cal begins, "and very cat-like in features. The females are taller with more warrior-type tendencies, and the males are more technology-focused, but can stand their ground if need be. While Boffins are living robots, the more you get to know them you cannot help but project your human emotions; eventually wanting to think of them as beings, rather than products. They are extremely adaptive, which makes them perfect for science and other constructive activities." All I could think of at the moment was when I would get to meet one of these Boffins, but Cal moved back to the flyboys. "As a result of being third generation androids," says Cal, "the pilot twins are far more adaptable, have much greater strength, and have a level of free thinking if you will, which is probably where the wise-cracking comes in," he shares with a grin, "but their behaviors and dynamics are so human-like, that I also don't think that even they know they're androids." "Kudos to the Boffins," I said, "nothing like getting it right, and then making a carbon copy. How many more of these cuties do you think we can get Cal, I need me some extra body guards when I go on these outings?" Cal just shook his head, but he's used to my off-the-wall comments, and still enjoys them. "I would hardly call them outings," Cal came back with a chuckle, "your covert ops missions will more than likely get increasingly risky and dangerous, so not quite a walk in the park. However, I can tell you that with this next mission, you will have one additional person with you." "Before we go there," I responded, "I have a question. I really like the flyboys, but I would prefer to call them by names. Do they have names?" Cal looked at me almost knowing that this question was coming sooner or later, but as he sat back in his chair once again, he didn't dismiss it, and even surprised me. "To be honest, MindStar," Cal shared, "Hannah and Rose came to me already named, but the twin pilots did not, and I just haven't taken the time to address it. Besides, I wouldn't know how to tell them apart anyway, even if they did have names." "Good point," my dear Senator, "but if I'm going to spend an inordinate amount of time with these guys, I think we should name them and figure out a way to tell them apart, don'tcha think?" Calvin raised an eyebrow as if to say, do we really have to go there, but then came back with an interesting proposition. "Tell you what," Cal says, "since you will most likely be spending the majority of the time with them while you're on Cyrene, I'll give you the honor of naming them, and then coming up with a way to tell them apart, how's that?" Ohhh, this was going to be fun. I gave them the nickname flyboys, but I'm not quite sure how they're going to take to real names. I guess we'll find out eventually. MISSION DETAILS "However," continued Cal, "before we get lost in android naming, I need to brief you about your next mission, which is going to be rather involved. Vida from the Skylabs needs more samples of the rare crystals found on Cyrene, and although her Father's corporation Enkidd had some of these crystals, an experiment gone wrong caused them to lose their most valuable samples." "Sounds rather dire," I said, "but these rare crystals must have some major value for them to be in such high demand." The Senator began shaking his head yes before he continued. "The crystals," says Cal, "afford Vida and her research team the opportunity to create powerful technology, and the results can be used both for great benefit, as well as great destruction. The continued research is vital to not only understanding the properties of these rare crystals, but also to be able to minimize or thwart off any potential destruction in the wrong hands." "Well then," I replied as I sat back in my chair, "what is this next covert ops mission all about, and when do we get started." The Senator grabbed what looked like an electronic notebook, and pulled his chair over closer to me. As he reviewed the mission agenda, he continued with the briefing. "This time," says Cal, "you must go deeper into the Zekkonian territory in order to collect more samples of the valuable and rare crystals from one of their gardens, which makes this mission a much higher risk level. However, Enkidd has created a new type of armor that blends with the Zekkonians and gives off a scent that leads the less-evolved Zeks to think they are among a Zek Noble." "Gotta love technology," I said, "so will this actually make it easier to get in and out?" I did not get the response I was expecting, and as the Senator sat there shaking his head no, almost in slow motion, I could only wonder what was coming next. "Not quite," Cal responded, "unfortunately, the scent will only last so long, and there's a limited amount of time to travel deep into the Zek territory to extract the crystals. Your pilots will also be wearing the specialized armor so that no attention is drawn to them either. In addition, you will be equipped with powerful weapons should you need them." The Senator shared that we will be carrying Imperium Firestarter Flamethrowers, but they should only be used in extreme situations because they would attract a vast number of attacking Zeks if caught. He further explained that the Firestarter uses a special type of fuel that will self-extinguish after a while, so we didn't need to be fearful that we would burn down the entire village or forest. Definitely a high risk factor with this mission I thought to myself, but in the past, I was always known to be fearless, and an in yer face kinda gal. However, I think I got a bit too soft when I focused purely on media and away from the more adventurous escapades. Well, I'm back in the saddle again, and to quote Hannah, "ready to kick some ass." The Senator snapped me out of my daydreaming with more details of the mission, and I could feel myself getting more excited despite foreseeable obstacles. "The crystal gardens are heavily guarded," shares Cal, "and although the normal Zil Zik warriors won't be able to tell you from the Noble Ziks, if a Noble were to catch you there, you would quickly be captured. And just for general information, the Zek culture is divided into castes, with the higher evolved Zeks being the brains of the operation, while the un-evolved Zeks are the more drone-like muscle." "Looks like we have our work cut out for us," I said, "now tell me who this other person is that's joining us." The Senator tilted his head a bit to the right before he began grinning. I know this grin, which tells me something extra is coming that he hasn't revealed yet. "Well," explains Cal, "you will be accompanied by a Boffin named Enyo; a female warrior quite capable of assisting where needed, including field engineering and medical duties." "So when do we take off on this mission," I asked, "I'm ready. You have a way of sharing mission details that get me quite excited, but I'm guessing that it's the old dormant me coming to life again and realizing it's time to come out of the rain and experience a few distorted rainbows along the way." "Actually," Cal responded, "Enyo will be here first thing in the morning, along with your pilots for a briefing about the mission, and then you're off. I'm sure your previous mission was a bit tiring, and I'm going to recommend that you rest up as much as possible, because tomorrow's mission will be tense and challenge your stamina, if not your nerves." Oh great, I'm too wired right now to go to sleep, so maybe I'll do some laps in the pool to wear myself out. I love these little mind-games I play with myself; I already know they don't work, so I'm not sure why I even bother. "I'm heading to bed, MindStar," said Cal, "I'll see you in the morning." "Ok," I responded, "I'm going to give some thought to naming the flyboys, but I already think I'm going to name them after my special friends and twin pilots from Planet Calypso, "Rip" and "C" – they were my personal pilots for a good while, and the flyboys remind me of them. My only challenge is now figuring out a way to tell them apart, but I'll sort this all out after we get back from the mission. See you in the morning." MORNING HAS BROKEN – THE MISSION TEAM ASSEMBLES Contrary to what I expected to be a rather restless night, it was quite peaceful, and I slept well. However, regardless of the number of hours I'm able to capture, my internal alarm clock always has me rising early. There's nothing like experiencing a dawn's canvas as the sun caresses the horizon, and there's nothing like the smell of coffee to draw you into consciousness. After finishing my shower and getting dressed, I could hear voices, seemingly coming from the kitchen, which was not far from the guest room. I think that's usually the first stop in anyone's morning, but today was going to be a bit different. As I walked toward the kitchen, I could see the Senator on the veranda already having conversation with the flyboys, but then as I entered the kitchen, I was startled. My attention was captured by a tall woman with cat-like features walking toward the veranda, until she came to a complete halt and turned to face me. She was quite unique, and I could only surmise that it was the Boffin Enyo. "Greetings," the Boffin said, "I'm Enyo," as she walked toward me with right hand extended. "You must be MindStar." Wow, did I feel like a shorty, and a bit embarrassed at the moment given my eyes and mouth were wide open in awe of what I was seeing. "Uhm, yes," I stammered, "I am MindStar, and it's a pleasure to meet you. Forgive my awkwardness at the moment, but this is my first encounter with …" The Senator interrupted me as he walked into the kitchen from the veranda, and saved me from any potential embarrassment. "Relax MindStar," Cal says, "your reaction to seeing a Boffin for the first time is quite common, but grab yourself some coffee and join us on the veranda. We need to sort out the details of the mission so everyone is on the same page." "Right," I responded, but I couldn't help think about, or admire the cat-like features of Enyo, nor the gracefulness with which she moved across the floor. I couldn't wait to see how she interacts out in the field, and what she'll bring to this mission. I poured myself some coffee and headed for the veranda, but not before I grabbed myself one of those delicious biscuits that the Senator's housekeeper makes. "This is going to be a challenging mission," begins the Senator, "not only because of where it will take you, but because of the limited time involved." Since Cal already briefed me the evening before, he shared the details of the mission with Enyo and the flyboys, but then added a little something that hadn't come up in our chat. "You will leave here by transport," states Cal, "and head for a secluded area near the falls in the City of Janus where helicopters are waiting for you. The helicopters are super silent, and it's best to travel at night. You'll only be able to travel so far into Zek territory before you'll need to land and go the rest of the way on foot to the crystal gardens. Enyo and MindStar will fly in one chopper, and the twin pilots will fly in the other." Dragonfly Helicopters (night scene) The morning passed and we were now into the afternoon hours, but there were still so many details to work out, along with backup plans. Time slipped by rather quickly, and with each passing moment, the more intense it became, realizing just how much danger we may be facing. I don't know what came over me, but my adrenaline started pumping in anticipation of this mission. Perhaps it's the thrill-seeker in me longing for the action I've missed so much, but maybe it was fear rearing its ugly head at the prospect of the unknown. Whatever the case, I wanted this mission to get underway, and I wanted to savor every moment, be it good, bad, or … "Time to head out," Calvin says interrupting my moment of adrenaline-pumping thoughts, "there's no time to waste with this one. The specialized armor, along with the power weapons are already onboard the helicopters. Keep in mind that communication will only be possible between the four of you, and you will not be able to contact me until you are back in the helicopters and returning from the mission. I wish you all the best, and I'm expecting good things. Let's not disappoint Vida, and get her the crystals." Oh geez, no pressure whatsoever! The Senator's send-offs are never predictable. Sometimes they can be so rah-rah, and at other times, he seems to pile on that invisible weight that we often tend to do on our own when we feel less confident. Nonetheless, we were on our way, and I couldn't wait to see how we were all going to mesh on this mission. The flyboys are cool, but Enyo will be the test. SILENT AND STEALTH – THE MISSION IS UNDERWAY It was already early evening and the sun was setting. I guess that's a good thing since it seems that the more stealth this mission is the better. It stands to reason that no matter how silent your flying apparatus is, in broad daylight, you have less of a chance of remaining hidden. It wasn't long before we reached the helicopters. The flyboys boarded one, and Enyo and I boarded the other. Enyo jump into action immediately, handling the chopper like it was a tinker toy, getting us in the air in no time flat. The flyboys followed behind us. The setting sun was a beautiful aerial view, but it's time to focus on the mission at hand. However, Enyo decided to give me some additional information about how the Boffins interact with people. I am now beginning to feel more secure and comfortable with Enyo; this could be a good thing. "Here MindStar," says Enyo as she handed me a document, "I give you more information about Boffins." I found Enyo very endearing, but also quite precise, and I was wondering if this was true of all Boffins and their language skills, but I didn't want to be rude and ask. While the Senator had already shared information about them in our meeting the evening before, it seems it wasn't everything. The document read almost like a manual, but clarified a few more things for me. The Boffins are capable of great strength and agility, but require little to eat, and may need large amounts of rest after extraneous mental or physical work. Boffin owners should also take note that they are not human, and will not display any human behavior when it comes to irrational human emotions. However, they are completely loyal once a command is given, and will perform any task assigned by its master. Due to the dangers of such power, the Boffins may only be sold to high ranking Imperium members, and must be registered with the Imperium. All Boffins are created from the same original pair, and the only way to tell them apart is from their assigned serial number implanted under their skin. Just as I finished reading the additional details about the Boffins, Enyo broke my train of thought. "We are close to landing point," says Enyo, "prepare." What's to prepare I thought to myself, I've been buckled in so tight since we left that I think I may have cut off my circulation. I love flying, but when it's not a vacation, and it's under these types of conditions, it's a whole different story. After landing, we equipped the specialized armor and grabbed the power weapons. Enyo pointed us in the direction of our travel on foot to the crystal gardens, and off we went. It was an uneventful trek, giving hope that this mission might be accomplished without much challenge, but I thought wrong. "What the HELL," I yelled out, "where did THEY come from, and what ARE they?" Seemingly out of nowhere, these nasty birds swooped in on us, and there was no way of avoiding combat. Horned Roc Bird We managed to make our way through it, but the question was – did it cause too much of a disturbance and alert anyone that there might be intruders. After the bird encounter, we finally reached the swamp land. As we walked toward the gardens, my adrenaline is off the map, and I can't help but fear that we are going to be spotted. However, as we approach the gardens, we are met by the Guards who stand at attention. No issue, no nothing, and Enyo instructed us to keep walking forward. Apparently, the less evolved Zik do not look at Noble Ziks directly. They use their antenna to pick up on the scent of what is around them. When they sense a Noble, they stand at attention and never meet eyes with them. I was relieved, and perhaps a bit more relaxed seeing that we were carrying some heavy artillery, but we made it through into the garden. "Wow," I exclaimed, "look at those crystals, they are amazing." As I stood stunned by the beauty of the crystals, Enyo started collecting samples as quickly as possible. In the meantime, the flyboys, who were standing guard, noticed that a Noble had walked into the garden and looked rather shocked. "ENYO, MINDSTAR," shouted one of the flyboys as he points toward the Noble, "he's trying to sound the alarm and we can't let that happen." The flyboys and I tackled him and took him down, but it was proving to be quite the challenge. In the meantime, while all of this is going on, Enyo is still standing and marveling at the crystals without budging. I didn't know quite what to make of this behavior, as I was told that she was a female warrior, but aren't warriors supposed to always be at the ready in the face of danger and act accordingly? "DAMN, this dude is strong," I said with what breath I could collect, "and far too noisy for my liking." As we struggled a bit more, I was fearful that this wrestling match was going to alert the Sentry, but we finally managed to hog tie him and squelch the racket he was making. However, moving the Zik Noble into the brush to hide him was not soon enough. When Enyo saw that the Sentry decided to inspect the area, she quickly moved into the brush where we had the Zik Noble and took him out with a never before seen fist weapon. She explains that the weapon is one of the latest designs, and not supposed to be used unless in an extreme situation. "Ya," I said as I rolled my eyes, "I guess you could call this an extreme situation." Enyo shared further that the fist weapon is silent and capable of massive damage due to a particle blade that it emits from the center of the power glove. "Follow me," Enyo instructed, "we need to get out of here and fast." No kidding I thought to myself, and as we spread out a bit and moved toward the exit of the garden, we were met by another Zik Noble on his way in to check up on things. However, this was a primitive Shaman-type who quickly sees what is going on, and in an instant, he shoots a fireball in our direction, but we are able to withstand the assault. Zik Noble Shaman shooting fireball.MindStar and Flyboys taking the hit.Enyo (the Boffin) taking out the Zik Noble Shaman. The garden is now on full alert, and there was no question whatsoever that it was time to lay down some heavy suppression fire and hold back the Ziks with our flame throwers. Enyo, who was not near the blast, acted fast with her cat-like reflexes and kills the Zik Noble Shaman, but it now looks as if we have to fight off waves of Zik Guards. "We must hold Ziks off," shouts Enyo, "I will remote summon choppers." Wait, remote summon choppers? The more I get involved with these covert ops missions, the more technology is revealed, and the more excited I get. I hope the choppers get here quick, this is ridiculously hazardous. MindStar in special Zek armor shooting Imperium Firestarter Flamethrower. The flyboys and I laid down some massive suppression fire while Enyo fought off any Ziks that got through with hand-to-hand combat. One of the flyboys took a hit, but Enyo was able to tend to the wound. The First Aid Pack that she used, quickly and almost like weaving a fabric, healed the wound, and the flyboy was back in action again. Just as it seemed like we were about to be swarmed on all sides, the choppers arrived. Choppers arrive as MindStar, Flyboys and Enyo fight off the Ziks. "HEY," Enyo yelled in the direction of the flyboys (I told Cal they needed names), "grab hold of landing skids on second chopper. MindStar, grab hold of landing skid on first chopper with me, quick." We did as Enyo instructed, and while we were hanging on for dear life with one hand, we continued to fight off the Zik with the other. The choppers quickly flew off, but some of the primitive un-evolved Zik who can fly were in pursuit and gaining on us, and making our efforts more challenging. "Hold tight," shouts Enyo, "we are not able to outrun them; choppers are taking too much damage; I am increasing altitude where they cannot follow." She had to know it was a dangerous decision to do this, because we were all holding on literally by one hand, but as I watched her fiddle with her remote, I could only hope that our strength held out long enough to make it to our landing site. It absolutely amazed me that she was in control of both choppers with the remote while we clung for dear life. Just as we lose the Ziks, I started losing my grip, but Enyo once again demonstrates her cat-like agility and manages to climb up on the chopper and grab my hand just in time, pulling me into the chopper and to safety. I swear I heard the hallelujah choir as I took my first deep breath. The flyboys were already inside their chopper and we were clear to work our way back to the base, but it wasn't long before yet another glitch in our mission occurred. "There is bad news," states Enyo, "choppers are too damaged to continue flight to base; we need to find place to land and call for help." Oh great! There was little ammo left, we were transporting the much sought-after rare and valuable crystals, and if that wasn't enough, we also had to fear being caught by patrolling Sons of Remus Sentinels. There was only one pressing question that loomed heavily on our minds … How will we explain what happened if we are caught outside of the protected zones!? .