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by Jason McKendry

"Bluefull, huh. Funny section for a Ranger," said the Teleporter Security Agent.

"I am what I am," Catch replied.

The agent snorted. "A caseal with a sense of humor. What next?" he asked rhetorically. "You're clear," he said, pausing to examine her information one last time, "Miss... Catch."

"It's just 'Catch,'" she said tonelessly, disconnecting her link from his terminal, and moving on to the teleporter.

With only token resistance remaining on the area of Ragol's surface selected by Pioneer 1 for settlement, and the ruins secured and mostly void of hostile creatures, Pioneer 2 was back on a landing schedule at last. Both ships were designed to land once, then be taken apart and repurposed as the beginnings of the refugees' first city on Ragol. With the majority of Pioneer 1's parts scattered across the surface as useless scrap, Pioneer 2's operators knew that they'd have to ration very carefully.

Word of the loss of Pioneer 1 and all her passengers and crew had not yet been officially released, but there were few who clung hopefully to the government line that an investigation was still in progress. Rumors had spread, and most of the populace had accepted the fact that, at best, those friends and family who had gone ahead on the first ship were now dead.

Catch, an average-sized RAcaseal with a blue chassis and white and yellow details, was, like most casts, without family. And, like most casts, she had difficulty making friends. Nearly all casts, aboard Pioneer 2 or otherwise, were endowed with an artificial intelligence. While logic was, in relative terms, simple to impart, emotion proved far more elusive. Basic drives were applied as overriding parameters, to create the illusion of, for example, a forgiving nature, or obsession. The reality remained the same; most casts were able to apply or deactivate these pseudo-emotion parameters, as they deemed appropriate.

A much less common form of cast, though the original type, is one whose intelligence is not artificial in the purest sense. While it is uploaded and stored as any other data, this consciousness is taken from a previously organic being. Frowned upon by more religious elements of society as a form of hubris, this essentially offers the being a sort of immortality. Often, this doesn't last. Most of these casts end up destroying themselves, heedless of the advantages that a robotic body provides, longing only to truly touch, taste, smell, and feel again.

Catch is the former type. What the agent saw as a dry humor was simply the barest interpersonal reaction required by Catch's programming, neither accepting nor rejecting his comment, only acknowledging it. Advanced though her emotional algorithms were, they remained just that; algorithms. Attempts to define illogical behavior patterns as logical cascades of events. Most of the time, Catch left these social tools inactive. Her few attempts at truly social interaction led her quickly to the conclusion that her purposes were rarely served by such activity.

Presently, her purpose was another routine sweep of the ancient ruins beneath the more recent ruins of Pioneer 1.


When Pioneer 1 exploded, the force shook more than Ragol's surface. Pioneer 2, in a close orbit, was rocked by shockwaves. Its modular design strained the monstrous cast that held the ships together, and portions of the ship actually broke away from the central core. While each collection of ships that broke away was self-sufficient, it made communication across all of Pioneer 2 more difficult.

The first piece to break away from the Dreamcast, or "DC," was a relatively small cube-shaped collection of ships, which came to be called the Cube. A larger, more rectangular group of ships broke away a few hours later, and came to be known as the Box. Their varying sizes and power ultimately caused these three collections to orbit the planet at different speeds, making collaboration between their populations, civilian or otherwise, nearly impossible.

Fortunately, for Hunters on the Cube and the Box, this separation meant an increase in work. Though the planet's surface, at least in the area the Pioneer settlement defined, was mostly vacant, a few stray altered beasts, malfunctioning mining robots, and other such hostile elements posed a sporadic threat. With the accidental independence from the DC gained by the Box and the Cube when Pioneer 2 was split in three, responsibility for assuring safety within the regions to be settled by each part of Pioneer 2, and for ensuring that an area of appropriate size was available for the ship when dismantled, was now shouldered by three practically independent governing bodies.

Unfortunately for the rest of the Box and the Cube's population, the breaking points with the bulk of Pioneer 2 contained critical areas. The Cube went for nearly a month without air pressure or temperature controls, though the government luckily managed to quickly arrange jury-rigged airtight seals that held long enough to get most of the population into environmental suits. The Box lost its medical center and all staff who were on-site at the time of the split. This left its new medical center woefully understaffed.

While the major ships represented by the DC had sufficient population to stick to the same three Hunter subclasses for the same three major Hunter classes, officials on the Cube and the Box, short on resources, elected to let some of the previously restricted Hunter subclasses in on the action. Waves of RAmarls, HUcaseals, and even FOmars were suddenly not only useful, but sought-after.


When the Central Dome of Pioneer 1, reconfigured to be an administrative building, exploded, the resultant panic on Pioneer 2 was difficult to deal with. In time, it became easier, as missions to regain control of the surface took on a routine air. Eventually, with the area comprising the Pioneer settlement controlled again by the colonists, a question that had been avoided with relative ease throughout the battle to win back the land was bubbling back up to the surface.

Where were the bodies?

In the early stages of arrival, as territorial progress continued, friends and relatives of those who manned Pioneer 1 grew increasingly agitated, at turns hoping for news, or glad that the struggle was continuing, allowing them to imagine an impending reunion or some other happy ending. Now that rumors had spread that the ruins had been won, the buzzing grew louder every day.

Throughout the struggle, it had gone without saying that Pioneer 1's crew and passengers would turn up in one way or another. Either their bodies would be found, or, as Pioneer 2's few optimists suggested, they would be holed up somewhere, perhaps surviving without the benefit of Pioneer 1's shelters, or as prisoners of the evil that was surely guiding the hostility of Ragol's denizens. With the ruins cleared, and even more dangerous areas of the forests and caves coming under greater control with each passing day, people became puzzled at best.

As such, part of the job description for the routine patrols of controlled areas was, in relatively small type, to investigate any leads that could point the way to the optimistically labeled "survivors" of Pioneer 1. The closest anyone had come was the recovery of Red Ring Rico's eponymous bracelet, flung with its owner's lifeless body from the crippled husk of the monster, dubbed "Dark Falz," at the heart of the ruins. This suggested something extremely unpleasant.

After having laid waste to hordes of dark enemies, some Hunters came to the sickening realization that it was entirely possible that those faceless horrors were in fact the crew and passengers of Pioneer 1, transformed somehow into representations of Dark Falz's spirit. This theory was proposed, through the Hunters' Guild, to the government of Pioneer 2 before the ship was divided. Without any evidence to back the theory up, the Principal did his best to keep it quiet. While situation wasn't ideal, the timing of the division of Pioneer 2 was a fortuitous coincidence, as it effectively restricted ever-wilder rumor versions of the theory to the DC ships.

Hunters were asked to re-investigate Ragol, especially the ruins, for any evidence that could support the transformation theory. Prior to the appearance of Rico's body and bracelet, the only thing suggesting that Pioneer 1's crew had even penetrated the ruins was the abundance of supply boxes scattered throughout the structure. While it struck some as odd that the lumbering hulks, which invariably struck directly in melee, would sometimes drop extremely rare and valuable canes, rifles, and even technique disks, this was easily dismissed as a mass coincidence. With dimenians in thankfully short supply, there were no subjects to study. It was posited that the monsters killed the colonists, and simply carried their possessions as primitive trophies. Without evidence to the contrary, this seemed to be a more rational theory than the transformation concept, absent remains notwithstanding.

As Catch entered another abandoned chamber in the ruins, her CPU continued to spin over the possible fates of Pioneer 1's crew and passengers. Reviewing the footage from the epic battle with Dark Falz, she stopped to consider the details of the sudden reappearance of Rico's body. The body had been ejected from Dark Falz as it collapsed, shortly before it, like the dimenians and other hostiles on Ragol, simply dissolved into a puddle of jelly. This suggested, Catch realized, that if the colonists were somehow taken over by Dark Falz, it might have been a process of envelopment rather than one of transformation. Tests on the gelatinous matter that remained when a Ragolian hostile was destroyed revealed high concentrations of dangerously corrosive acids. If the colonists were in fact encased in the dimenian husks, their bodies would have, in all likelihood, simply dissolved along with their shell.

Her revelation was transmitted to the Hunters' Guild and logged, like the rest of her thoughts. She briefly considered marking it "important," so that it would be examined rather than simply logged, but instead opted to search for evidence to support her extension of the current theory before pushing to get any Hunters to change their mission parameters.

Nobody had ever considered capturing one of the vicious, mindless residents of the ruins. Often, it was difficult to simply survive an encounter with one. In order to support her envelopment theory, Catch surmised, she'd have to find a way to essentially skin one of the dark monsters alive. Somehow, the inside would have to be exposed in a way that did not fatally wound the creature. She decided that her Photon Launcher's paralyzing extra attack would be the best option. An ice trap was out of the question, because the ice casing would prevent her from operating on the frozen body within. The Photon Launcher wouldn't give her much time, but with the creature unable to strike, she calculated she would likely have just enough of a window to draw a brand and cut off a single extremity, exposing the inside of the creature without killing it. If she saw red anywhere in the roiling purple, she'd be assured that she was onto something.

Now, there was the matter of actually finding a dimenian.


She drew its attention to her position near the door with a few stray shots from her lockgun. As the dimenian lumbered towards her with ever-increasing momentum, mindlessly driven to destroy the intruder, she put the lockgun away and drew the massive Photon Launcher. Catch steadied herself to counterbalance the heavy kick of the slow-firing weapon.

Catch opened fire on the dimenian just as it came into the Photon Launcher's range. Its penetrating shots barely phased the creature. It jerked with each impact, but its pace was barely altered. A living thing might have cursed in such a situation, but as the dimenian entered no-quarter range, Catch mechanically let the Photon Launcher fall back over her right shoulder, where she had mounted it. Before it hit the ground, she drew her brand, and activated it as she brought it up to meet the dimenian's downward-swinging right arm.

Her servos whined in protest as the brand locked with the dimenian's arm. Sparks flew from where her brand met the dimenian's bladed arm. They flew from her feet as she was pushed back across the floor by the dimenian's brute strength. Every motor in her body was dedicated to the defensive stance she had been forced into. Her legs were wide apart, her feet firmly planted, and she leaned into her bent left leg to absorb the pressure put on by the dimenian. Sparks began to fly from her left shoulder as motors reached their load limit and failed. As the dimenian moved to stab her with its left arm, she was forced to improvise.

A damage trap dropped from Catch's back. She spun down and to her left, letting the dimenian's right arm finish its swing. This unbalanced the dimenian, which stopped its stabbing left arm and flung it out to its side to keep itself upright. As the creature brought its right arm back up and began a sideswiping motion, Catch, still whirling, drew her lockgun with her left hand and fired at the trap, detonating it. The dimenian was again thrown off-balance, and Catch used the momentum from her spinning motion and the dimenian's initial strike to bring the brand down hard on its upper right arm.

Her swing uninterrupted, Catch was certain that she had missed the mark. She came down hard on her right foot, with her back to the dimenian, her left knee on the ground, and her right thigh pressed against her chest. To keep herself from falling over altogether, she opened her sword hand, slamming the brand's handle into the ground beneath her palm. Her left arm dangled beside her, the hand still clutching the lockgun. And then she saw the dimenian's severed right blade arm, at two-thirds of its length from the shoulder, land just behind her.

The brand flickered and went out, the impact with the ground rendering it inoperable. Catch rose quickly, shifted the lockgun to her right hand, her left arm now useless, and trained it on the stunned dimenian. Streams of red and purple fluid dripped from its partially cauterized wound.

Catch leapt backwards through the door as the dimenian stumbled towards her, lunging with its left arm aimed at her chest. She braced herself for the struggle to break free from the blade, which was certain to impale her. Instead, as the tip of its bladed arm crossed the threshold, the creature cried out with greater volume than any dimenian had ever produced. Its momentum too great to stop, the dimenian shrieked and twisted in midair as it found itself thrown outside its room by its own off-balance rush. Catch watched dispassionately as the chitinous surface seemed to age a hundred years in a fraction of a beat.

As the dimenian's body struck the ground, its torso in the hallway, its legs still in the room, its shell cracked and shattered. Billions of minute purple crystals poured out of the maze of cracks in the dimenian's carapace. Whole pieces of its armored exoskeleton disintegrated, and the purple crystals grew finer and finer until they seemed to disappear entirely. Pale white skin began to break through the mass of purple and black dust.

The creature inside lifted its torso off the ground with its left arm, its eyes glowing, and howled as the last of the dimenian torso disintegrated. It pulled itself further into the hallway. The dimenian's legs underwent the same transformation, seemingly losing all moisture, then all substance. Left behind was a pale, hairless, naked female form that slowly curled into a ball around its partially severed right arm, and then lay motionless.

Determining that the threat had passed, Catch retrieved her Photon Launcher, and collected surface samples from where the dimenian form had disintegrated. Then she snapped open a telepipe, picked the woman up, and stepped through the portal to Pioneer 2.


Dr. Reya Abbingham, one of the Box's few surviving medical doctors, was the first thing that Julie-Anne Valentine, the first known being to be freed from a dimenian shell, had seen with her own eyes in some time.

It had been nearly one month since her unwilling battle with Catch, and she had been, for most of that time, only able to distinguish brightness levels and colors. While Reya's voice was familiar to her, after hundreds of beats of careful explanation of the physiological changes she had undergone when taken over by the dimenian, Julie had not been able to see her clearly until now.

The second thing she examined was her cybernetic right hand. The bionic prosthetic extended halfway up her forearm, replacing the part of her body that had been cut off when Catch sliced through the dimenian's upper arm.

"You were fortunate that the photon blade cut so cleanly," Reya said, taking a seat beside Julie's bed, facing her. "It made replacing your hand a relatively simple operation."

Julie offered a thin, forced smile. Her pale skin was still smooth and hairless over most of her body, though her scalp showed signs of impending hair growth. She was still emaciated, in spite of the constant intravenous flow of nutrients she had been supplied with since Catch had first brought her onto the Box. She had regained much of her strength and form, but her lengthy encapsulation had left her wiry and thin, seemingly unable to gain much weight.

"I've got a video conference with Principal Tyrell that's set to start in about 30 beats, when our collections are within range of each other, but I can keep you company until then. How are we feeling today, better?" Reya asked.

"Sure," Julie replied, her gaze returning to the foot of her bed and losing focus again. The awkward silence that followed left the room with Reya.


"You may be wondering why, with the relative abundance of enemy body parts we retrieved and turned into weapons using the Montague process, this envelopment was not discovered sooner," Reya continued, nearly two hundred beats into her debriefing of Principal Tyrell. The 250-beat window of signal clarity between the DC and the Box would not last much longer, but she was nearing the end of her report.

"Go on," Tyrell said.

"From the seventeen additional colonists that have been captured as dimenian creatures and excised in the ruins since Catch's encounter with the dimenian Ms. Valentine, we can see that the dramatic variance in form accounts for the equally varied size of the colonists who were caught in the energy wave. As you can see," she said, indicating an overlay showing a humanoid form and a dimenian form, "the dimenian casing is substantially larger than the human or newman inside. Ms. Valentine's arm was severed cleanly through the ulna, which corresponded to what would have been the humerus of the dimenian, were it an endoskeletal creature."

"Notice that not all encapsulations are so directly laid out as the basic dimenians," Reya went on, indicating a new slide that showed an infant and a young child. "These gunner dimenians encased infants, while the delsabers held young children. Notice that in neither case do the limbs of the encased being correlate in any way to the limbs of the dimenian shell."

"Mm-hmm," Tyrell grunted. "And the chaos bringers and chaos sorcerers?"

"Chaos bringers were a combination of the dimenian energy and some of the livestock aboard Pioneer 1. The bulk of the humanoid portion is dimenian. As you can see, the animal inside was held at an angle that forced it to essentially look upwards through the top of the chaos bringer's head. The sorcerers appear to have been made from some of the more gifted Forces on Pioneer 1, whose magical energy was not fully contained by the dimenian envelopment process."

"Help me to understand this, Dr. Abbingham," Tyrell said. "You're saying that the explosion that caused Pioneer 1 to lose contact with us was not only a physical event, but also a metaphysical one?"


"And during this event, in your words, 'living or sentient things from Pioneer 1 within range of the explosion were effectively possessed' by a 'wave of dimenian energy' that then..." he paused, "'manifested itself physically as an exoskeleton' which... 'bent their wills' to those of an unknown master, which we presume to be this 'Dark Falz'?"

"Correct," came Reya's instant reply.

"Ms. Valentine's reappearance reveals several aspects of the nature of Dark Falz and the dark, or 'dimenian,' energy that were previously unknown," Reya continued. "Perhaps most interesting was the reason why none of the creatures overtaken by Dark Falz's spirit were ever known to leave the chambers in which they appeared. The power that binds the colonists' forms to their dimenian husks appears to be directly tied to the space in which the envelopment took place. In spite of however much the colonist inside a dimenian wants to leave a room, the husk will not allow it. Once removed from the space that conducted Dark Falz's spiritual energy," she continued, indicating the video sequence from Catch's meeting with Valentine's dimenian form, "the dimenian husk loses integrity and is sloughed off."

"That is interesting, doctor," Tyrell interjected, "but I need you to clarify something implied earlier."

"Of course," Reya replied.

"Do you mean to tell me that all of the people from Pioneer 1 who were... enveloped by this wave of energy from Dark Falz, who subsequently unwillingly engaged our investigators are, in absolute terms, dead?"

Reya paused. "Yes. If the dimenian shell is damaged beyond a certain point, it collapses on itself and is quickly dissolved by the highly acidic fluids inside. The few colonists that remain in the ruins as dimenians can be saved with a concerted effort to lure them to a doorway and then expel them from the room in which they --" she continued, but Principal Tyrell had already stopped listening. As she finished sharing the rest of her findings, he pondered his situation with growing dread. He was now faced with the task of telling thousands of people that the investigation he had ordered had led directly to the deaths of nearly everyone aboard Pioneer 1. More than that, he was left with a sinking feeling that it was his own dead daughter's insatiable curiosity that had started it all.

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