A small group of fifteen fighters sat around three tables in the center of the large drinking den. A variety of mercenaries, cutthroats, bandits, and profiteers packed the establishment, but none dared get close or interrupt the fifteen in the middle. Everyone knew who they were and, if the other customers knew what was good for them, they left well enough alone. These fifteen were trouble.

None of the group wore the same clothes, except that their general attire was mostly black in colour. Some wore not much more than rags while others in the party wore more expensive attire. The only things they really wore in common were the armbands around both biceps, cross-straps and belts, and Strathcone boots, all red crimson in colour. Each wore these same accessories, distinguishing themselves as members of the Renegade Nation Armed Forces. Each also wore the same type of silver-coloured pistol in the holsters on their belts.

“To the Patriarch!” They cried out together, wooden flagons filled with mead and small glasses with harder alcohol raised in the air, soon to be gulped down and refilled at the taps that protruded from the center of the tables, facilitating the frequency of drinks. One of their members, the only one with three stripes across the middle of their cross-strap, smirked as he looked around at the others while filling his flagon.

He was middle-aged, human, with greying temples, and stocky build. Time and battles left creases on his face and his grey eyes pierced through anybody he looked at. He had not shaved in a few days and it added to his rough and weathered visage. He raised another full flagon in the air and looked round at his comrades and his grin grew larger.

“You keep what you catch!” He cried, followed by a cheer by the others and the subsequent draining of the drinks.

The other patrons became more nervous with each round of beverages the group drank. The air was thick, the night outside dark and cold. The drinking den, dug out of a rock in the side of a hill, was not particularly well-lit and there was only one exit. Were things to get out of hand in an oval-shaped beer hall full of unsavoury characters such as now occupied it, the Renegade armed forces in the middle would, most likely, simply stand up, draw their weapons, and start shooting until nothing moved. They would then probably sit down calmly and have another round.

The other patrons began to disappear as regularly as the mead from the Renegade flagons until only the fifteen sat at their tables in the center.

“May the Meda save us all!” The cheer went up, followed by the obligatory cheer.

One of the younger members of the group, a blond-haired lad of perhaps 18 years old with one black stripe on his cross-strap, looked at the sergeant in charge and burped loudly before speaking.

“Sergeant Gronk, sir,” he blurted out, much to the surprise of his fellow members around the tables, his eyes becoming lazy from the drink in his veins, “Is it true that the Gols live in large communal rooms of hundreds of people, with no privacy, wear the same clothes all the time, and never take vacations?”

The tables went silent. Gronk, the man with three black stripes, froze in place and, after a moment of reflection, slowly lowered his flagon to the table. He pushed the flagon away with the tip of his fingers at its base and then placed his hand flat on the table’s surface. He looked at the young man out of the corner of his eye before answering.

“Worse than you think, boy,” he replied. “The Gols are a faceless, emotionless, spiritless, cowardly bunch of dogs. They have no honour, no respect, no sense of worth. They’re not much more than programmed robots. No independence and no free will. They’ll run away from you if you face them and shoot you in the back before you know they’re there. If you ever encounter one, hope that you see them before they see you. Because you’ll be dead before you know it. Does that answer your question?”

The young warrior swallowed hard, staring at the older man at the table nearby.

“And they put a high value on Meda. They maybe even value Meda above Tech. But Meda means nothing if we can’t turn it into Tech. Meda makes Tech. And Tech is the currency that runs Cryptomeda — the entire galaxy. What kind of idiot doesn’t want to be rich?! What’s your name again?” Sergeant Gronk asked.

“Grendel, sir. Private Grendel.”

“Well, Grendel, welcome to the Borderlands. Where the Meda is plentiful, the profit is great, and death is on the other side of the ridge. May your wounds be on your front.”

The group raised their flagons and cheered. The barman, clearing off the tables of the patrons who had disappeared, caught the eye of Sergeant Gronk. The burly, bearded man in white with a belly that nearly peeked out from under his tight shirt put a finger to his nose and glanced in the direction of the bar several times to ensure that Gronk recognized the signal.

“Have another round,” Gronk told the Renegades and stood up. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

The others continued to drink, some of them slapping the young Grendel on the arm in congratulations for having the nerve to speak up. Gronk made his way to the bar a good distance from the center tables. He leaned casually on it and waited while the barman came around to stand in front of him.

“Jasper?” Gronk said, eyebrow raised. “This had better be good.”

Jasper looked past Gronk and began cleaning the bar between them with a white towel.

“I have a very reliable source that’s informed me of a vein of Meda on the border, in the Neutral Zone, and it’s huge. I mean, really something. She also provided me with co-ordinates.”

“And how did your contact get this information, Jasper?”

“Same as always. She hacked into Goliath comms and intercepted it.”

“Which means the Gols know about this, too.”

“Yep,” Jasper frowned. “And you’ll never be able to collect it all in that ship of yours.”

Gronk looked back over his shoulder at his squad, still revelling in the center of the hall.

“I’ll have to let them in on it.”

“The Gols aren’t going to send a single scout, for sure. It’ll be a squad, at least. You’ll need some help.”

“I’ll also have to share.”

“Hey, as long as you get your fill, right?”

“What’s this going to cost me, Jasper?” Gronk raised an eyebrow. “Your information is never cheap.”

“But it’s always reliable,” Jasper replied with a grin. “It’ll be five hundred Tech.”

Gronk pursed his lips and exhaled audibly.

“Five hundred? That’s steep. You think I’m made of Tech. That’s a lot of currency.”

“According to the source, there’s never been a vein of Meda this big in the Neutral Zone. It’s worth millions of times my price. Your ship can hold Meda worth a lot more than my fee. If you can get it.”

“Renegade Command should be informed of this,” Gronk said.

“After you confirm the information, of course,” Jasper replied.

“Of course,” Gronk smiled. “Looks like I should tell them to stop the drinking.”

“Might be the difference between success and failure.”

Gronk laid his hand on the bar in front of Jasper with his palm facing up.

“Information?”

Jasper lifted his arm and revealed a device wrapped around his wrist, a screen on the face, glowing red.

“Payment?” Jasper replied.

Gronk gently turned his left shoulder toward the man behind the bar. Jasper lifted the device on his wrist to the top of Gronk’s arm. Less than a moment later the device flashed green and Jasper took it down while Gronk returned to his original posture.

“The information?” He repeated.

Jasper took a small disk, barely the size of Gronk’s palm, and deftly slipped it into the sergeant’s hand.

“You know the rules, Gronk,” Jasper whispered. “You don’t know where this information came from.”

“Your secret’s safe with me, Jasper. Of course,” he added, “If this lead turns up nothing…”

“I know. I know.” Jasper raised his hands in mock surrender. “I’m not stupid, Gronk. I wouldn’t cheat a member of the Renegade Martial Forces. I happen to enjoy the simple things in life. Like breathing.”

Gronk smiled and turned. He walked back to the tables. The squad went silent as if by command.

“There’s a big vein of Meda and we’re going to go check it out.” Flagons and shot glasses dropped quickly to the table and every member of the squad looked at Gronk with the most sober of faces. And then some of them smiled. “My source says it’s big. Real big. Big enough to fill your ships and then some.”

The squad’s faces became suddenly eager with anticipation.

“Where’s the vein?” Somebody asked.

“It’s in the Neutral Zone in the Borderlands,” Gronk replied.

A few of them swallowed hard when they heard the news.

“Gols?” Another member asked.

“You betcha.” Gronk smiled and received many smiling faces in return. “Not only do we fill our pockets with Meda and then sell it for Tech, but we get to bag some Gol trash while we’re at it. The only thing better than Meda and Tech is watching a Gol ship explode into flames. Am I right?”

A roar exploded from the squad.

“Then finish your drinks. Get to your ships. And meet me at the rendez-vous point. I got the co-ordinates. We’ll fly in fast and hard, grab what we can, and if a Gol patrol shows up, then we’ll just have to teach ’em a lesson, right?”

Another cheer erupted from the squad. They all stood, finished their drinks, and began moving out. Gronk found himself walking out next to Grendel, the young rookie that had asked the questions before.

“Ready, rookie?” Gronk growled down at the young man.

“Ready, sir,” Grendel replied with a swagger in his step.

“Well,” Gronk said as they walked out the door, “You’d better be.”

“To the Matriarch.”

Wine glasses raised, the small group of Goliath Marines sat in a quiet, well-lit, eloquently decorated establishment for military personnel. They wore impeccably clean and well-kept high-collared, royal blue uniforms with black cross-straps and black Strathcone boots similar to those worn by the Renegade squad members. Their ranks were distinguishable by the gold stars and bars which decorated their epaulettes. Silver pistols were holstered on every hip.

Six marines sat round a table set with fine linen and silverware, with plates of porcelain and glasses made of crystal. Life was good in the Goliath Marine Corps. The other patrons quietly spoke among themselves, never raising a voice aside for the occasionally light laugh.

Commander Gabrielle — call sign Viper — brought her glass to her lips and took a small sip before returning the glass to the table.

“To our new wing member, 2nd Lieutenant Vladimir, call sign Torpedo.”

The six members once again raised their glasses, took a conservative drink, and placed them back on the table.

“Shall we indulge in a good meal?” Viper asked the others. She wasn’t really asking. She was telling them that they were going to eat and that they’d better enjoy it. Goliath Marines veiled themselves in refinement and cordiality, but their hearts could be as cold as the frozen wastelands in which they often patrolled and fought.

“So, Lieutenant,” Viper addressed Torpedo, a young man in his early twenties, clean shaven and sporting short cut hair, as did all Marines, “which track brought you into the Goliath Marine Corps? Conscripted Potential, Familial Genetic Disposition, or Anomalous Genetic Mutation?”

Viper listed the three tracks to becoming a Goliath Marine. Conscripted Potential was the process of a citizen applying for the Marine Corps, going through a battery of tests, and showing the required talent to be accepted. Familial Genetic Disposition described the Marine’s hereditary enrolment in the Marine Corps based on their family’s own service in the military. And Anomalous Genetic Mutation was the screening of newborn citizens to determine which role in Goliath society they would be most suited. Many from the third track came from families with completely different hereditary dispositions.

Torpedo’s sparkling blue eyes scanned the faces at the table before replying.

“I was AGM, Sir,” Torpedo replied.

The others at the table shifted in their own ways — some taking an awkward sip of their wine and others gazing into the distance trying to hide their reactions — but all of them put Torpedo slightly on edge. AGM was the least acceptable track for entry into the Marine Corps.

“Forgive them,” Viper said firmly, “They all come from the other tracks. You see, the CP’s think that they belong in the Marines because they chose to join. The FGD’s think they belong because of their family traditions and history. But the AGM’s are a wild card. Neither choosing to join nor born into it.”

One of the others, a 1st Lieutenant, spoke up.

“With all due respect, AGM’s don’t belong in the Marine Corps,” the dark-skinned Lieutenant said.

“Why’s that, Lieutenant?” Viper raised an eyebrow.

“Sir, even though the AGM’s are, perhaps, genetically ideal for the Marine Corps, they can’t understand or know the significance and importance of the Marines. The potential is there, of course, but they lack the commitment and determination of the others, Sir.”

Another 1st Lieutenant piped up.

“Nobody is questioning their ability to do the job, but what motivation do they have to do it? And how do we know they won’t just run at the first sign of trouble? AGM’s are the least reliable Marines and simply gifted their positions rather than earning them.”

“Surely you must understand this, Sir,” the other said. “You’re one of the most-decorated Marines in the history of the Goliath Nation. You’ve seen more combat, shot down more Renegades, won more honours and medals than any Marine with the same amount of time served. You have the highest honour possible for a Marine — the Golden Meda — awarded to a Marine wounded in combat while still performing above and beyond the call of duty. I heard you took out an entire Renegade infantry squad after your ship was shot down and you had already taken out five of their ships.”

“You’re right, Lieutenant,” Viper smiled but a glint appeared in her eyes. “And none of that would have happened had I not been selected in the first group of Anomalous Genetic Mutations.”

All the Marines, except for Torpedo, now fidgeted and became uncomfortable in their seats. Viper took a drink of her wine, allowing the words to hang in the air. Torpedo did the same, elevated pride beaming from his face.

“Apologies, Sir,” the Marines muttered, now nervously taking sips from their own glasses.

“Marines — AGM’s, CP’s, or even FGD’s — are still Marines. You may come from different backgrounds, different tracks, different environments, and different…points of view, but all of us achieved the same high standards to become Marines. There are no exceptions.”

The mood of the table changed significantly. The moment lingered longer and longer, weighing down heavily on the whole party until their commander spoke again with a smile.

“And I think we can all agree that our standards are much higher than those pirates they let into the Renegade Armed Forces, no?”

The squad paused for a moment before grins appeared on all the faces at the table and then smiles and laughter rose from the group.

“I heard all they need to join the Forces is own a ship and wear trousers.”

“They have to buy their own ships?” One of them asked incredulously.

“And wear trousers.” Another laughed.

“Or at least a loin cloth.”

“I heard they value Tech above all other things and even sell their own children for it. What kind of idiot values a simple currency over the very thing that creates the currency?!”

“I heard the poor sleep in the streets and the rich live in giant mansions and neither cares for each other in the slightest. Tech is their master and they are slaves to it. They’ll do anything for Tech.”

Viper chuckled as she listened but finally cut in.

“There is one thing that they value above obtaining Tech,” She said as the others grew quiet. “Killing Goliath citizens.”

Once again the small group grew quiet and pensive.

“And that’s why we don’t question who is AGM, PC, or FGD. Because the Renners don’t care. They’ll kill any and all of us just as easily, just as quickly, and just as equally. We wear this uniform for all Goliath citizens. We are Marines, but we are teachers, lawyers, doctors, cleaners, farmers, street sweepers and engineers. We are all Goliath and we represent and we protect all Goliath citizens. We can’t lower ourselves to live like those barbarians. Order must be maintained.”

The squad watched Viper until Torpedo raised his glass in the air and toasted firmly.

“Goliath past. Goliath present. Goliath future.”

“Goliath forever,” the others replied in unison.

As they finished their glasses and put them down another Marine entered the restaurant, walking with purpose, but not rushing or hurrying. She walked to the table directly and stood next to Viper holding a dispatch in her hands.

Viper looked up at her and the Marine offered the dispatch. Viper took it and nodded to the Marine, who then spun round and exited with the same bearing and calm expediency. Viper looked at the small message and read it carefully. She finished and placed it in the pocket of her uniform.

“A large vein of Meda has been reported in the Neutral Zone. We are to go there immediately, assess and eliminate any threat, establish a perimeter and then call in the Collectors for processing.” Viper looked at her fighter wing, who returned her gaze with equal intensity. “Marines, move out.”

The six stood in unison and headed for the exit. Viper nodded at the maitre d, who then took out a small device and billed the Department of Marine Corps for the wine. After all, the order must be maintained.

Part two coming soon…

About Cryptomeda

Cryptomeda is a gaming ecosystem that uniquely blends NFT collectibles, DeFi mechanics, and iconic crypto characters into an exciting fantasy world. Players of all experience levels can explore Cryptomeda and find various opportunities to earn; whether it is finding rare collectibles, winning prize pools, receiving ranked rewards, or acquiring an ultra-rare Revolution card, traversing the world of Cryptomeda is both fun and highly rewarding. To tie the world together, all economic activity is facilitated by one unified currency — TECH.

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