“So I need to be walked through this situation,” Aja said. “How is it we were hired to both protect and ransack the same cargo?”

“Well, ah, Colonel Hunnah, who worked for the Mossad while he worked for the SAS, will be leading Blue Team, with the objective of protecting the package,” said Tonin. “He was hired through our joint North Korean shell company Globomex, along with weapons and equipment.”

“So there would be a delay since everything has to go through Pyongyang. Twice.”

“And Major Retter, who is semi-retired from the YoY, will be leading Red Team in turn,” Tonin continued, “with the objective of securing the package. He was hired via Project Untraceable via secure 512-bit encryption, paid in advance upon receipt.”

“So unless someone gives us the key, the encryption is essentially unbreakable?” Aja said.

“Well, I’m hearing good things about quantum computing in tackling previously unsolvable problems…”

“Within the next 72 hours, Tonin.”

“Ah, no. Unlikely at best.”

Aja clicked a nail loudly on the tabletop. “I don’t like this. Blue Team was kited along so that Red Team could be hired in the time it took to get the first deal inked. Whoever put this together knew exactly how we operate.”

“Indeed,” said Tonin. “So what do we do about it?”

“We need to figure out a way to satisfy both clients, without killing our best field operatives.”

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Of course, the existence of separate crews for road paving and road striping inevitably led to conflict when city bureaucracy was unable to keep them from crossing one another. All it took was a few instances of a freshly striped road being paved over, or a freshly paved road crudely striped with spray paint, for the crews to start to hate each others’ guts.

And that’s what happened in Davis. DeShawn Howell’s paving crew, the Blacktoppers, was retained to lay a thin stream of asphalt on city roads on a regular, rotating, basis to keep them in good repair, occasionally scraping them down too for good measure. And Martavious Washington’s painting crew, the Liners, was in charge of painting lines on city streets, parking lots, and elsewhere, with a very high quality and expensive reflective paint that had to be made and mixed on-site before being sprayed with specialized equipment.

Now, if you asked Howell, he’d tell you that Washington’s crew had been on his shit list ever since they took three months to stripe a part of Van Buren Avenue, forcing his crew to go back five times to reapply temporary reflective tape as it wore off and idiot drivers started forgetting where turn and through lanes were. He’d tell you that the Liners were a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings who couldn’t find a white stripe on a skunk and smelled about as rank to boot.

But if you asked Washington, he’d insist that Howell’s Blacktoppers were a bunch of irresponsible cowboys, always disregarding the schedule and paving over fresh-laid lines six months out of sync. He’d remind you that the stripes he laid down weren’t cheap and every time Howell’s brain-dead boys paved over them, they were basically stealing from the city treasury in broad daylight.

Ordinarily, the dispute was one of petty vandalism, name-calling, and sullen absenteeism. But that was before both the Blacktoppers and the Liners showed up on Adams St. on the same day, at the same time, their engines rumbling.

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The environment of Nahen IV is such that Obet were constantly beset by predators, particularly the closely-related darorwo. This has led to the development of a number of natural defenses against predation, many of which the Obet have conscious control over.

Firstly and most infamously, Obet are capable of generating slime of varying viscosity which can allow them to wriggle free of potential danger. The biological process is similar to the hagfish on Sol III; the Obet releases polymers that react with nearby liquids or atmospheric moisture to generate any quantity of ooze desired. Unlike hagfish, the Obet have the ability to control several aspects of their generated slime, including its viscosity, color, adhesion, and more. With some practice, most Obet can–and many do–create slime “hair” of a high viscosity and adhesion that will stick to their heads, as a fashion statement.

One of the factors Obet can control is how toxic the resulting ooze is–at least to the other native organisms of Nahen IV. The toxins have a variety of effects on other sapients, with no effect whatsover on the Zypger, a mild rash for Fulvans, a gentle tingling for Humans, and intense stimulation for the Vatna. The highest toxin levels can be fatal to darorwo and even some other Obets, particularly those from other clans, and are therefore rarely employed on Nahen IV, seeing more use among Obet living off-world.

While most adult Obet have full control of their secretions, when profoundly shocked, intoxicated, emotional, or otherwise in an altered state of consciousness, Obet will sometimes slime on instinct. Most regard this with intense embarrassment, much as a Human would regard offensive body order or involuntary urination, but inadvertent sliming is also a key aspect of transgressive Obet humor, and one of the most popular subjects for stock Obet characters in fiction.

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Obets hail from the world of Nahen IV, a warm, moist environment with a thick atmosphere and many shallow seas with few oceans. They have sometimes been compared to Earth amphibians, but this comparison is relatively inaccurate, as Obets do not have a larval form and do not undergo metamorphosis. While they do appear slimy, generally speaking this is a sheen or texture, and Obets can retain moisture as well as any other sapients. They are, however, excellent swimmers with an innate spatial sense which makes navigating the cloudy waters of their homeworld easier.

One of the key differences between the other Star Confederation sapients and the Obet is that the Obet do not have genders of any sort, a trait they share with relatively few others. Indeed, Obets are by far the most numerous genderless sapients in the Star Confederation, and often assume a protective or nurturing attitude toward any others of the same ilk. It is sometimes said that the Obet are mono-gendered or even all-female, but this is not true either; they are non-binary in the truest sense of the word, and all Obet are capable of both producing unfertilized eggs and fertilizing them as they wish, though self-fertilization is not possible.

Traditional Obet culture demands that hatchlings be left to find for themselves for the first 1-2 months of life, ensuring that only the fittest survive in the crucible of the birthing pits. Any “defective” hatchlings with obvious departures from the Obet breed standard that survived were then sacrificed in a variety of rituals. Only a minority of Obet follow these practices in the modern day, relying instead on modern techniques to ensure that a mating does not produce 1000 surviving offspring. Still, many Obet traditionalists regard emerging from a crucible as a major point of pride, and the intense privation of their earliest days goes a long way to explaining why many Obets and much of their culture favors safety, security, and comfort.

Obet family trees tend to be very convoluted, and they place a great deal of importance on family ties, with the eldest and most respected Obet of any family group or clan being acclaimed as Parriarch. This fierce loyalty has unfortunately led a number of Obet crime families to gain notable stature in the Star Confederation’s underworld, as an organization comprised of traditional Obet family members would never consider turning on one another. Rifuo Neffe, Irax M’Deed…Confederation media is full of lurid tales of Obet gangsters, and it has led to an unfortunate stereotype of Obets being inveterate, habitual criminals.

Another notorious stereotype in the galactic community is that Obets’ control over their reproduction, being fully and consciously able to decide if they wish to lay or fertilize eggs and able to withhold either indefinitely, results in them being hyper-sexualized. While it is true that some Obet work in that field, their reputation is greatly exaggerated in this area too. The only kernel of truth to the rumors and legends is that it is, in fact, nigh-impossible for an Obet to produce offspring with a non-Obet sapient due to their vastly different genetic makeup and life cycle. While some cutting-edge and highly controversial options are available, it is generally out of reach for all but the wealthiest multi-sapient couples.

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As part of the SETI initiative, Southern Michigan University purchased farmland near the outskirts of Hopewell, MI in 1978 and built a radiotelescope known as the Little Ear. In design it was essentially a 75% scale model of the Big Ear operated by Ohio State in Delaware, OH, and was specifically designed to help eliminate problems with the larger array that had been noted after the 1977 “Wow!” signal, namely the lack of specific right ascension values. The intention was that, in concert with other nearby radio telescopes, the Little Ear could rapidly track and lock onto an identified signal.

In reality, the project was viewed as an expensive boondoggle by sources outside of the SMU Astronomy Department, and the university administration sought to shut the project down and sell the land to developers. This pressure grew stronger as the university’s enrollment increased throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and when a new university president was inaugurated shortly after the departure of the longtime astronomy chair, it was clear that the Little Ear’s days were numbered. In July 1995, the telescope was removed as a line item from the university budget, and the Astronomy Department was told that the land would be offered for sale immediately. They were allowed to continue operations with a reduced staff of volunteers until NASA funding ran out, as the latter had been slashed by Congress in early 1995 as well.

The last day of Little Ear operations was scheduled for June 30, 1996, with the final overnight crew of volunteers working the night of June 29-30. At 11:16 pm EDT, the Little Ear received what has been described as a narrow band un-modulated continuous wave signal, with an intensity 30-31 times galactic background noise and a frequency of 1420.4642 MHz. Most of the equipment had already been turned off in preparation for the facility’s closing, so key details were not captured, and much of the information available was hastily written down by the team. Its popular name comes from an internet relay chat (IRC) that one of the volunteers had been running with a colleague during the incident, which was abruptly interrupted with a “WTF.”

Volunteers placed an emergency call to the SMU Astronomy Department chair, pleading for more time to analyze the signal and for additional funds to reactivate equipment. The chair, in turn, called the president of SMU, who angrily dismissed the request. Volunteers from the Astronomy Department faculty arrived on-scene to assist by 12:45 am, but in spite of their efforts no additional information about the signal was forthcoming and the telescope could not attempt to re-acquire it until the following day.

With no funds remaining, demolition of the Little Ear began at noon on June 30 as originally scheduled. Volunteers sent what data they could to other radiotelescopes, but none were able to confirm or replicate the signal. One of the volunteers, who later became chair of the Physics Department at the University of Northern Mississippi, was particularly bitter, claiming that the university administration “threw away first contact.” The incident attracted little notice outside of astronomy circles, however, and the Little Ear was fully demolished by July 9, when the land was sold to a developer to use in expanding a golf course.

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This beach is shared with the wildlife
The posted placards proclaim
No going in certain areas
To crush to kill or maim

But this doesn’t mean that the backhoe
That smooths out the beaches each day
To make them all pretty for tourists
Is affected in any way

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In an unexpected announcement, delivered without warning or fanfare this evening at a press conference, Mississippi Republican Party chairman “Trip” Howell announced that governor Tate Reeves had been replaced in office by an actual potato, effective immediately.

“I have every confidence that the new potato administration will be a successful one, and both I and the state Republican Party wish Mr. Reeves a happy and harmonious retirement,” Howell said at the event.

Former Governor Reeves, who did not attend the ceremony, could not be reached for comment. Reeves’ former office referred all questions to his successor, noting only that the former governor was in an ‘undisclosed location’ that was ‘on a farm upstate.'”

At the press conference, questions were raised about the potato’s fitness for office. “The potato is eminently capable of carrying out the duties required: sitting quietly in the governor’s chair, not doing or saying anything stupid, and letting aides sign legislation on its behalf,” Howell said, “duties that Mr. Reeves was consistently unable to discharge.” He added that, unlike Reeves, the potato would also be able to reinvent itself to connect with younger generations, as a plate of french fries or tots.

When it was pointed out to Howell that replacing a sitting governor without an election was illegal and grossly unconstitutional, he boldly predicted victory for the new potato ticked in the upcoming primary and general elections. “Our supporters are issues-driven, not personality-driven,” he said. “As long as the proper letter is next to the name, they will vote for a bowl of bolognese.”

“Besides,” Howell added, “we have a supermajority. Try and stop us.”

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It wasn’t long into Mary Summerall’s semester at Deerton High School when she began to suspect that her students were cheating. The history teacher, a firm believer in lecturing and rote memorization, noticed that some of her students were suddenly making 95-100% on their history tests, when the usual average was around 50-60%.

“That’s when I started looking closely at their essay answers,” says Summerall. “The kids knew things that they shouldn’t have known, and their answers were written in an archaic style and meter. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but I had to admit that the kids were drawing upon forbidden ancient knowledge.”

Not until a few weeks later, when Summerall caught one of her seniors in the act, did she realize how they were doing it. The boy had brought an Ouija board into school, and was receiving test answers from the spirit world–from the restless shades of those who actually lived through the historical events on the test.

“After that, I started finding Ouija boards all over the place,” Summerall says. “In desks, in backpacks, and some of the kids even had miniature ones that they taped into their textbooks. I don’t know how I’m supposed to teach in an environment like this!”

Eventually, Deerton High was able to solve the problem by having the class take their tests in another classroom, supervised by the School Resource Ghostbuster, Officer Winkeganz. But with only one SRG per school, and with them preoccupied with random locker exorcisms and manning the school’s possession detectors, Summerall and her principal know the solution is not scalable. “We’re just waiting for the other shoe to fall, and for kids to start communing with Sir Isaac Newton for help with their calculus homework,” said Deerton’s principal, Dr. Louine Tulnitz. “It’s going to be a huge problem.”

Critics say that Deerton is just one of many schools struggling with widespread availability of spirit guides and the Ouija boards to communicate with them. While old-fashioned seances used to take hours, with no guarantee of success, newer Ouija boards designed to take advantage of advanced Apparition Intelligence are far faster and far easier to use. And while defenders of spectral assistance–sometimes derisively labeled “specbros”–insist that it is a liberating and morally neutral technology, many disagree.

“I just want the soul of my ancestor to rest in peace,” said Li Jiangjiang, a 132nd-generation lineal descendant of Confucius, upon learning that her forebear had been contacted by a Syracuse junior high student for assistance on a paper for an ethics class. “It’s really disrespectful.”

“It’s just a moral panic,” countered Apparition Intelligence enthusiast and self-proclaimed specbro Luke Mons. “People said the same thing about literacy when it was invented, complained that it was ruining people’s ability to memorize things.” Mons, who is in the process of writing a novel with the assistance of Edgar Allen Poe and Ernest Hemingway, also noted that there was no reason for the specters to be truthful when contacted by Ouija: “They can lie, cheat, mislead, and play practical jokes while dead just as much as they could alive,” he says.

Nevertheless, Deerton and a number of other schools have banned Ouija boards in classrooms due to fears of cheating. Mons, reacting to this, said that competing products like China’s Zhānbǔ board and the Russian Uidzha would simply lap Western products and become impossible to ban, restrict, or control. “The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s granting wishes to everyone who wants answers for their history test,” says Mons. “No amount of ghostbusting is going to change that.”

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As the ogre bailiff led the jurors away, Jon Weatherall leaned over to Muhrot. “What sentence can I expect if they convict me?” he whispered.

“Severance from the fey world, as the prosecutor asked,” Muhrot replied curtly. “Were you not listening?”

“Come on, Muhrot. What does that mean, exactly? Aren’t I already severed from you, since I’ve never seen any of you or your kind before in my life.”

“In your life? No. In your dreams? Yes. Severance from the fey world means no more dreams, no more inspiration, no more seeing the unseen. Mundanity unending.”

“Surely the jury wouldn’t do that to a fellow author, would they?” Weatherall said, with a nervous little laugh.

“Only if they think you’re guilty,” said Muhrot, stonefaced.

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Sir Slouh of Perg

Sir Slouh of Perg

Sir Slouh of Perg, also known as the Beast of Perg or the Mountain of Perg, was a noble and landsknecht who attained notoriety in service of Otto VII. The song of the previous lord and a mistress, Slouh was abnormally tall and large for the era, with a height nearing seven feet and a girth that made him truly tower over his contemporaries.

Despite his immense physical strength, honed for years as he worked his way up the ranks of the landsknechte, Slouh was an equally formidable thinker and strategist. He wrought the downfall of seven legitimate heirs before him in the House of Perg, seeing his half-siblings and cousins murdered, imprisoned, exiled, and in at least one case burnt at the stake. With his personal power base secured, Slouh offered his services to Otto VII as a personal troubleshooter both on and off the battlefield.

In battle, Slouh would carry a kite sield in each hand, warding off blows from his enemies and boxing them with the flats, tossing or stunning lesser combatants. Only when he needed to finish a foe would he snatch one of their weapons and drive it home, discarding it immediately after. Even without his size, Slouh could be recognized by his helmet, which bore two gleaming blades like a crown of swords. He was rumored to inflict lethal wounds with it as well, though this is often dismissed as myth in latter days.

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