The Return

By Kauko

This is a story that mixes together Kauko's Core Universe with mistress-sb's Accord universe, following Ara's capture by the Accord. It's highly recommended you read some of their stories first, especially the two stories preceding this one, Shipping and Handling and Same Day Delivery.

This story contains themes of non-consensual mind control, enslavement, identity modification/erasure, mild physical violence, and dystopian themes.

"We're sending you back, Ara."

The white furred wolf looked up to her avian handler, in mixed surprise and confusion. "Home? You mean.."

"That's right," replied Feathers of Scarlet. "I'm sending you back to your home planet. And then we're coming to invade it."

Ara's heart pounded, her fingers tensing. She knew this day would come, eventually - Miss would taunt her about it endlessly, how the mighty military power of the Accord would use the information they dumped from her memories when they mind chipped her to claim the empire she came from. To convert everyone she ever knew into slaves, just like her. But she would be home again, if just for a brief while..

"But why, Miss? I know you could just make me watch it from here, without any risk of revealing the invasion plans... To give them time to set up defenses..." the wolf trailed.

The avian chuckled. "I could, but you have an important job to do. Plus, you're not telling them anything we don't want you to tell them. Because your chip isn't going anywhere."

Ara whined, managing to mix it with a sigh of exasperation. "Of course not, Miss. There's not a chance you'd have let me go free, even for a little while..."

Scarlet grinned at her Assistant. "Of course not. Come, now, Intelligence has prepared some things for you to do when you get there..."

Ara sat back in her seat. For the first time in a long time she felt.. comfortable. It was, after all, her seat. The captain's chair of her ship, the OTC Naviso. It had been stripped it down to every single part after her capture, and the Accord technicians must have meticulously reassembled it again for her "mission". All this meant to her was, for now, she had her ship back. A little oversized for just one person, but hers nonetheless.

Having the ship back, and even the fact she was heading home, was exciting for the Assistant, but that excitement was difficult to hold on to. They didn't only reassemble her ship and send her on her way, after all, they'd sent her off with her chip intact --- and an extra set of instructions to go with it. Even when she put her mind to it, she could barely hold a thought to setting the ship to go absolutely anywhere else. If they didn't modify the computers to make sure she did what she was supposed to. Knowing Miss Scarlet, they probably covered every possible contingent of escape. The mission she was given was very set on her returning home.

The wolf leaned back, keeping an eye on the navigation display. The external window displays were off, as there was quite literally nothing to see outside --- the zero-space bubble her ship was passing through only took the mass of her and her ship with it as it bent through dimensions towards its destination. She realized, watching the star charts, that this was the first time she was able to see where Accord space even was in relation to her home, as she had a completely different destination set before her ship had dropped out into real space partway through her journey, engines damaged. Only to be found by an Accord warship. Her mind briefly flashed back to her interrogation, and she forced herself to think of something else other than the avians that captured her. Of the other Assistants, like her. What will happen to her kind when they catch up with her.

With about half a day remaining on her trip, Ara decided to go back to her quarters. Stripped of any of her prior belongings, all that remained in here now were metal-grey walls and a bed. Not even the nice bed she came in with, dammit. Of course it'd been replaced with something far more uncomfortable. The wolf rolled into bed, her eyes locked on the comfortably familiar ceiling of her ship. Despite knowing what was coming, the couple days just by herself, alone on her ship was a nice break from her recent life. It was a reminder of what used to be. Part of her wanted to do more before going to sleep --- get a snack from the kitchen, listen to background comm chatter. Like she used to. The familiar feeling of a strong compulsion (that she could no longer distinguish between her own desires and the chip in her brain) told her to get to sleep, though, and after stripping herself out of her familiar grey dress, she did.

After she awoke, Ara rolled out of bed, spending some time getting herself ready. She eyed her dress, before her eyes wandered over towards a box she'd barely noticed was left in her quarters. Open it, and put them on, something in her mind told her, so she did. The wolf opened it to find some pieces of clothing that must have been scavenged from her closet, a little surprised they even kept any of it. Not her pilot suit, though, that was likely damaged beyond repair by the avian's treatment of her before getting chipped, along with a new fixed wardrobe to go with her role. She slipped herself into the skirt and top she had liked wearing now and again, a little wrinkled from being boxed up for what must have been several months. Ara found what used to be a comfortable outfit felt rather strange to wear as she moved back towards the bridge.

Ara returned to the bridge and slumped back into the pilot seat, watching the navigation computer again. Something in her mind kept her from entertaining herself with the ship's computer, and instead she just watched the hour or so tick down until the ship was to exit zero-space. A minute or so before, the external window displays turned back on: pitch black, but with errant flashes of light from photons trapped inside the bubble. And then, suddenly, a bright wash of white! The displays quickly polarized in response before the cockpit was flooded in the brilliant starlight of space. Familiar stars. And as the ship slowly rotated into alignment, a planet came into view. Third planet of the Masai system, Masai-03, according to the navigation overlay. Home.

As the ship edged towards the atmosphere, Ara instructed the computer to land at a public spaceport instead of the usual one her ship was homed to. She'd have to pay docking fees, but it'd keep her return a little quieter. As the ship touched down on the landing pad, she felt the artificial gravity of the ship disable, the subtle shift back to natural planetary gravity. Ara let the computer handle payment, keeping her eyes downcast as she collected her things and moved through the spaceport towards the planet-side transit station.

She almost couldn't get herself to look up at the others, as she stepped off her ship and came into the spaceport's main building. Surrounded by her people, instead of avians. Here, she was classified as a free person again. She sure didn't feel like it. This feeling was reenforced as she made it up to one of the customs terminal. Ever since opening itself up to the rest of space, the Core Alliance (a coordination of their original Core Worlds, the planets her kind were first seeded on) had kept strict control on tracking who enter or left their planets. Even on systems later colonized like this one, and even for natural-born citizens. Well, as natural born as she was, anyway.

"Please state your name and ID number, or present your identification." the terminal insisted.

"BG3 Ara," she said automatically. The terminal beeped angrily at her.

"Invalid. If you are a Core Alliance citizen, please state your name and ID number. Otherwise, please present your physical identification or contact a customs officer for assistance."

The wolf growled. Her first instinct now was to give her Accord identifier... the concept of even having a name has been kept from her, she couldn't remember it even for the purpose of the mission. The chip wouldn't let her. Instead she smacked her paw down onto the interface pad of the terminal.

"DNA sequence found. Core citizen ░▒░░▓, ID zero zero zero zero, zero zero one zero, C three one E, identified. Welcome back," the computer offered happily. Ara growled again. Well at least something knew her name, her identity bound in the computers to the extra tags in her genetic sequence that gets carried over between changes. The gate next to the terminal opened, and the wolf picked up her belongings and passed through. Her eyes darted about nervously, avoiding making eye contact, and she had to wonder if she was too ashamed to show her face, or if she really just been that well "trained" not to look at free citizens, avians or not. Part of her wanted to ask Miss when she gets back, the other part really didn't want to know...

After a short subway ride from the spaceport, the wolf found herself in a familiar residential block of the city, in front of the high-rise of her old apartment. She glanced at the glass outer double door and put her paw up to the pad on a pedestal in front of them, relieved as this one just gave a confirming beep instead of reminding her she can't understand her own name. She glanced around the empty lobby as she entered, before taking the lift up to her floor, and finding her apartment door. Ara did the same thing to enter again, before pushing the door open with her footpaw. Like her ship, the apartment's rent was covered by her creators, so it would always be here when she got back from her travels. And also like her ship, it was completely empty of her personal belongings --- she had taken everything she had with her, after all. So the sight was expected, if not disappointing. Worse, this time she didn't even have a bed...

Ara rubbed at her face with her paws. She had just gotten up two hours or so ago, and with an empty apartment there wasn't exactly much she could do to bide her time. Maybe she could go out into the city? Or she should pull out the folder from inside the box. The wolf decided to investigate, opening the box she'd set down on the floor next to her, finding it only contained her Assistant dress, and a brown folder with some papers inside, unlabeled. She opened the folder, only a couple sheets of paper inside, and on that paper, was information written in that undecipherable Accord block font. Of course. She scratched at her face with her claws in frustration, while trying to remember it was she was told to do.

Back at the Ministry, she had been instructed by Feathers of Scarlet to go down to a lower floor of the building she hadn't yet been to. There, she had met with an Intelligence agent that had prepared information on her home based on their interrogations of her, along with information they'd collected by monitoring and brief skirmishes they had to test their military power. The agent had told her she was to disseminate propaganda to the planets in the Core Alliance, before the fleet arrived to claim their systems. The Assistant had shuddered from the thought of her home being taken, but the chip in her head forced her to obediently acknowledge the agent's orders and head to another floor where she was taken back to her ship. And then, she returned here.

The memory of what she had been told to do replayed in her mind. Probably the chip's work, she thought, since it had been installed she just always seemed to know what she should be doing at the moment. When she looked back down at the pages, she could... read it? She'd just seen it wasn't written in Common, and yet here it was, plain as day. Ara remembered being told something about only being able to read what she's allowed to read.. she didn't realize the chip made that so literal. Her eyes scanned the page. She already had her instructions, these were just text to spread. A sinking feeling started to hang in her gut. She knew she didn't want to see the rest of her kind enslaved, but here she was, already starting to get up and move towards the door again to follow out her orders. It's happening whether you help now or not. You already did your part.

Another subway ride and Ara was on the other side of town. She tried to keep herself hidden in the crowds, making her way towards one of the busier libraries where she knew there'd be a public Universal Network access terminal. Sitting down at an open station, she logged into a terminal with her ID. Anonymous access wasn't allowed, so she had to use some tricks she'd learned from the other subjects in her program to pass off data more secretly... after a little fishing, she'd managed to copy down what was on the pages. The first couple items were transcriptions of Accord news reports, painting the Core as having attacked first, one of which included the report she'd seen watched before with Feathers of Scarlet of a few Accord ships being attacked in one of the Core's New Expanse mining systems.

The last item, however, was an intimately detailed description of what the Accord does to systems it invades. Graphic descriptions of what happens to those who resist. Details about what happen even to those that don't. Details with which Ara was intimately familiar. She knew in the back of her mind it didn't really matter if they resisted or not --- the Accord would work to make sure more became Assistants than not. She already knew they had superior firepower, and getting a foothold on the ground meant Assistants, soon turning around to "encourage" those that remained...

The wolf shuddered in her seat, but uploaded them anyway, rather unable to stop herself from doing so. Her next glance down at the paper revealed only Accord script. She must have done what they wanted her to, for now. Ara took a careful look around at the less-than-busy library, only a few others around. Of course nothing was out of the ordinary for now, but what she was doing would probably be considered an act of treason. She could only hope they couldn't link it back to her before she was gone again. Not that it mattered, the Core Military would have to come to Accord space to find her.. and that wasn't happening. She logged out of the terminal, crumpled the unreadable paper into the trash, and made her way back to her apartment.

On the way home, Ara stopped to get pull out some credits, and bought herself a cheap futon and a pillow. "If I have to sleep on the floor, I might as well be slightly comfortable," she reasoned to herself. Or maybe she was reasoning to the chip. The chip didn't seem to disagree, in either case. She made her way back up to her apartment, laid out her bedding, and sprawled herself out across it. Her first real chance to relax on solid ground in months. She wasn't even sure what was actually supposed to happen at this point... would she be allowed to just do whatever she wanted until the Accord's fleet arrived? The poor wolf has had no time to herself since she was captured, either resting in her pod, automatically obeying tasks the chip gave her, doing what the free avians ordered her to, or being interrogated by Feathers of Scarlet.

Her mind started to wander, or, well, it felt like it wanted to... but nothing really seemed to land, the wolf managing to completely space out for what must have been a few hours. She finally snapped out of it when she heard a rough pounding on the door, followed by it unlatching itself. Suddenly, six furs in heavy tactical gear with rifles stormed into her room, their vests bearing the Universal Military emblem. She barely had time to sit up before she was surrounded, those rifles immediately trained on her. On the core worlds, the military took the role of police, but Masai-03 was a private security planet home to the OmniTech Corporation, the largest defense contractor in the Core, among other things. Ara was unsure why the military was on this planet at all, let alone trained on her only a few hours after she arrived. What time was it..?

Before she could check, her eyes locked on another wolf that had entered behind the armored furs. Unlike her, this wolf was brown-furred with white flecks in his fur. And unlike the soldiers, he wore the patch of the Core Government instead. A government official. His eyes dug into her, and she automatically looked away. He glanced between her and his handheld.

"GSP zero four, zero one two, right where they said you'd be. And a wolf, too, that's a surprise. You're coming with us." he said, as casual as could be. In turn, Ara's fur bristled from being addressed by her Genetic Specialty Project ID instead of her na---identifier or ID number. Her ears lay back, her concern added to the blatant violation of the military stepping foot into her apartment unwarranted.

"And why do you think I'm going anywhere with you?" she growled back. The other wolf laughed, startling her.

"Colluding with the enemy, obviously. And as OmniTech property you're being taken back to their facility at the official request of the Core Government for... debugging. If you resist, we'll just get someone to come turn you off, or something."

Her eyes widened at this, not having expected them to track her down already. She was starting to shift backwards before one of the soldiers butted a barrel at the back of her head. The OTC was very careful to issue legal paperwork for her and the others in the project to be made legal citizens, as to not get in trouble with the law themselves. Him using the words "property" and "debugging" made her very concerned that it meant the government was interested in revoking her rights in order to get information from her. As a Core citizen, she had rights, but as a corporation's property, well, they had to obey the law...

Two of the soldiers moved over to grip her shoulders, holding her in place as another moved in to tie her wrists together. Ara snarled at them, and suddenly her vision went black as a bag was slipped over her head. She felt the hands on her gripping and forcing her up, moving her out of her apartment. The brown wolf picks up the box left behind, tossing a crumpled paper in before following the team back down the lift to a vehicle parked at street level. Ara couldn't see, but she already knew where they were headed...

It took another hour before they stopped moving. She could tell they had transferred onto a maglev train, at some point, but given she was still restrained, the guards apparent, they probably had pulled in a private train to take them to the facility. Ara could easily guess where they were going, because it was just about the only place to take her on this planet. If the government wanted to deal with her on their own they'd have taken her off-world, instead they were heading straight for where she was made, the OmniTech Corporation's main headquarters.

The car made a few thumps, the sound and rumbling of heavy machinery moving them off the track and into the underground cargo passage. This led straight into the depths of the facility, she recalled, supposing they didn't want to take her past the regular employees or any visitors topside. Soon after everything around her stopped moving, she felt one of the soldiers push at her back, forcing her along once again. They passed through a security door, took a lift, then walked down a maze of long, stretching underground hallways. The main building, which they were most likely in, only came down twenty or so floors, while the R&D building on the opposite end of the plaza went down almost one hundred. Administration above the surface, and everything important sunk deep under tens of meters of blast shielding to protect the facility in the case of an attack. From some of the descriptions of Accord warships she'd heard, she had to wonder if it'd be enough...

The wolf continued moving as she was paraded down the halls, still unable to see. She could only hear the footsteps of those with her, guessing that three guards plus the other wolf remained. A few minutes later, and they finally stopped. A door opened with a telltale click, and she was led inside, where several feet into the room she was led up a couple of steps. Ara tugged at the bindings on her arms once the guards moved away, just before the bag was finally drawn off her head. The wolf squinted her eyes as they were forced to adjust to the bright light of the room... only to feel something being slipped around her throat. A collar...? It was thick and padded, and what felt like cold, bare metal pressed stiffly at the back of her neck. She could feel a strip of metal running up a few inches before spreading out to wrap around the back of her head, cradling it. Finally, her paws were released from behind her.

Once her eyes adjusted, the guards were leaving the ... room? After a few seconds she realized that she was in some sort of glass cell inside of a larger room, slightly elevated. It felt like she was a specimen on display. Her paws wandered up to feel what was holding onto her head, out of curiosity. She first felt the rather obvious collar, which made sure the rig wasn't coming off... and as her paw slid around to feel the back, she could tell that bare metal was exactly covering her RFID tag. Ara lowered her ears as she soon realized that was likely to make a direct interface to her genetic control system, and as she brought her paw up higher, she could feel the bit along the back of her head protruding slightly. A brain wave interface, like used for full-immersion virtual reality. Finally her paw found a cable running from the back of her collar, up towards the ceiling.

As she tried to move around, the cable carefully halted her from reaching the walls of the cell. It was designed, she suspected, to keep the occupant from escaping or being able to injure themselves with it. While the wolf was fussing with figuring out her situation, a faint green glow started from the corners of the cell, filling the bottom and slowly moving upwards. Her body was being scanned, she realized, this entire setup was a diagnostic rig built just for someone like her. She'd never seen one the entire time she was in the program, but it had been a few years, who knows. All she knew is that she wasn't getting herself free. Worse than the Avian's blunt force tool of the chip in her head were those technicians right outside her cell, with access to every note and scrap of documentation involved in her creation. This thing was designed to restrain her.

As the slow-moving glow of the scanner inched up her legs, she caught the government wolf glowering at her while the soldiers were filing out behind him. He turned to someone facing away from her just as he was heading out the door.

"Make sure everything you find here gets reported back to my office. This is a matter of Alliance security: make sure your higher ups know what you get out of it, too." Ara growled again. The wolf gave Ara another look before departing, and the person he was talking to turned around to face her. A female orange fox, she realized. Unlike the technicians, which she'd now caught three of in the room with them, in their white and green lab coats, the fox was wearing a blue Universal Military ship captain uniform. As they moved closer, however, a feeling of dread filled her once she saw the logo on the chest of the uniform. She was an agent. The corp's sort of agent, not the Accord's. Ara wasn't any more relieved.

Unlike the Accord's agents, public and similar to the military in structure, the OTC's agents were an elite role within the corporation, used for everything from exploring new systems to infiltrating new species distant from the Core. As OTC employees, they were usually highly genetically and technologically modified, probably the closest things to cyborgs the Core had. They also had the benefit of having the honorary title of ship captain in the Universal Military, while able to be called on in the time of need, this gave them extralegal protections while outside of the Core. They usually didn't operate on Core planets for much that reason, but apparently suspected treason is a valid reason to let one operate planetside.

The fox opened the door to the cell, grinning all the while as she entered to inspect Ara up close and personal. The glow of the scan had raised up to her thighs, but immediately halted once the fox stepped in.

"I can't say I've had a chance to see one of your generation before. You all scattered rather quickly after your cycle ended. The new ones of you are nowhere near as interesting, psychologically, even if they are way better than you. I hear you can only last a few years at a time, is that true?" the fox said all at once, before looking expectant for an answer.

"I.. what? Who are you...?" Ara asked, confused briefly by the rush of words. She was expecting to be questioned, but not quite so, well, personally. The fox's grin shifted to a smile.

"Oh, yes. I'm in charge of the current generation of GSP subjects. I guess since you were one of those that chose to exit the program you wouldn't know what's changed. Anyway, I was brought here to see just what broke with one of our old toys. Head office isn't too happy, you know, twelve." the fox chided.

Ara rolled her eyes at being addressed that way. "I have an iden.. I have a name you know," she corrected the fox. And herself, apparently. The fox hummed at her.

"Yes, yes, I know you AI types gave yourself names. But you've had your tags pulled, as it were, so in this room, under my hands, you are nothing more than a subject number." the fox said, her tone shifting more serious as she continued. Ara narrowed her eyes, and the fox smiled again, disarmingly.

"And well, here to find out what's making you tick so wrong, I am. So once this scan finishes, we'll make a backup and find out what's gone wrong with you since you were gone... nobody else in your generation has had an issue this serious, so for your sake let's not hope it's correctable, mm?" the fox chimed, her tone shifting back to that off-putting sort of playful to hide the implications of an 'uncorrectable' error.

"My name is Rnel, by the way. Rnel`Masai-Tenne, OTC Agent Class B, and Genetic Specialty Project lead. I'll be your service technician today! Please be good and follow all posted instructions," she singsonged, sounding far from the first time she'd done this. The wolf's ears twitched. A member of the planet's founding royal family with that sort of attitude in a position like theirs couldn't be a coincidence, Ara thought to herself.

Rnel stepped backwards out of the cell, the door closing between them. The scan immediately started back up, the light starting to work the rest of the way up. The fox returned to the large console at the side of the room, various visuals of Ara's form appearing as the scan progressed. Adjacent to those, Ara recognized what must be a representation of her current genetic makeup. The wolf sighed and leaned herself back, supported upright by the collar. She had been used to having her body be scanned like this (without the restraints...) for months after she was made, as initial tests to make sure her genetic shifting was working.

Ara watched as the light passed her upper body, heading up towards her head, and finally hitting the ceiling as the process finished. After a moment, an alert sound came from the console, a display going red. The fox's ears perked up at the sudden change, fussing with the computer and the results of the scan. It wasn't long before she saw an image zoom in on the display, of what must have been the chip implanted in her head. Rnel seemed to light up at this, giving a sly look as she turned back and approached the cell yet again.

"Well look here, how convenient! Evidence of foreign contamination with your system. Do you know what this is, twelve?" the fox asked, pointing towards the display showing the chip.

Ara looked down and off to the side. "Yes," she replied.

"And just what is it, hm?" Rnel asked her. The wolf glanced over towards the display again, recognizing text from the paper she brought her: the description of what would happen to everyone once they were invaded. Rnel already knew, she just wanted to hear it from the traitor...

"It's a mind control chip. The Accord uses them to keep their ... charges in control." Ara answered, quietly, still looking away.

Rnel hmmed to herself. "That's what I thought. Interesting how it seems to have co-opted a lot of the tissue, it must be awfully extensive! Well, since we know you're broken, it's safe to remove your legal protections entirely!"

Ara blinked. She realized they must have just been suspended to get her here, but if they knew she was the one that released the info, along with foreign hardware in her head... her personal safety was another thing. The fox turned back to the panel, tapping a few buttons, and suddenly everything around Ara went dark.

Her vision only showed her pitch black, but Ara could tell she was still conscious --- they must have shunted her into a virtual space to deal with her body separately. Not a great sign. She sighed to herself, then started to wonder how that interacted with the chip. The Assistant decided to test with a quick self identification...

"I am BG3 'Ara', of... well, okay," she said, groaning. Chip still had control of her in here. Made sense, she supposed.

"Of what?" a voice asked, making Ara rather surprised. Suddenly the black became a brilliant white, and condensed itself into a featureless white-walled room, about the size of the one her cell was in, before. In front of her she could now make out a rather tall tiger, wearing a government uniform much like that wolf that brought her in. Next to the tiger, the space shimmered, and Rnel's form came into view. She was sitting, and not as seemingly animate as the tiger was for VR. 'Just an avatar, must still be busy outside,' Ara figured.

The tiger coughed, catching Ara off guard. He had actually expected an answer. "Oh! Of Masai-03," Ara answered helpfully, before realizing that while what she was going to say, wasn't exactly his point.

"Mm. So you call yourself 'BG3 Ara' now?" he asked. The fox continued to watch her, unmoving.

"N... no, I don't have a name. I was given the identifier 'Ara'," she answered truthfully. Well, as much as what the chip made her truth be.

The tiger moved a paw up to scratch at his chin, glancing over at the static model of Rnel, before looking back to Ara. "Mm. Well. We already know who you really are. Registered artificial construct as part of the OTC Genetic Specialty Project, subject 04-012, with the Core ID 0000-0010-C31E. And uh, previously self identified as ░▒░░▓. My name is Netim`Oro-Teren, and I'm the head of the Core's intelligence division. As of this moment, your granted status of personhood under the Core Alliance has been officially revoked. With this you revert to OmniTech Corporation property, now on indefinite lien to the Core Government."

Ara's heart sank hearing his words. She knew at some level that she could never escape the Accord's reach, that she'd never really be a person again... but to hear that even at home, she'd had this taken away from her... Netim's paw moved up, massaging the bridge of his muzzle. "Now. Where did you get the materials that were distributed to the Universal Network yesterday?"

Ara lowered her ears. "It was given to me by an agent of the Accord."

Netim glared at her, and then replied, "Why did you start working with the enemy?"

Ara winced. "I'm not working... with them. For is a better term. They... my ship fell out of zero-space, they captured me, and they put this damn thing in my head... they turned me into an Assistant," the wolf cried, her ears laying back.

The tiger just sighed and nodded. "Yes. The servant class listed in the propaganda. Still, there are things we need to know. Why are you here, Ara? What are you doing distributing this information? Why are they attacking us?!" he growled, getting more agitated as he continued his series of questions. Ara shifted backwards anxiously.

"I ... I don't know! They gave me instructions, and I just carried them out, but I can't tell what... gah!!" Ara let out a sharp cry as her body briefly felt like it was on fire, for only a couple of seconds, before the feeling disappeared.

"Don't lie to us. If they were forcing you to do this there's no way you'd have continued once you'd arrived, unless it was willing."

"But that's what I'm telling you! The chip, it can make me do things..." Ara whined, then let out another yelp as the same fire washed over her, dropping to her knees this time as it lasted for a couple seconds longer. She didn't know what to tell them, she as telling the truth as far as she knew it! The wolf shifted to a growl. She was having trouble, but the questions continued for what felt like ages to the wolf.

Finally, she interrupted one of his many questions in a list of those she was unable to answer. "They're going to invade!" she cried. "They're going to come and take over the entire Core, they're going to turn every one last of you into Assistants like me! Their firepower is overwhelming, they..." Ara continued, nearly in tears until she was cut off, realizing she could no longer speak. It wasn't the chip stopping the thoughts from coming out... the environment seemed to have muted her entirely.

While Ara was trying to figure out why she couldn't speak, the fox finally came to life. Rnel's head turned to look up at Netim, and she told him, "I can't get any further on my end. Either she just doesn't know, or that thing won't let her tell us. Either way, if you're done, the higher-ups want me to move to the next step."

The tiger glanced at Rnel and sighed. "I suppose so. Ah, well." He turned back to Ara.

"For your sake and ours, let's hope they're not as powerful as you've said. We'll defend our home to the last." the tiger said, looking right into her eyes. Ara had to look away, feeling so ashamed. "This is goodbye, Ara," he continued, with Rnel now looking her way, giving a creepy smile. For her sake? Goodbye? What were they ---

And suddenly everything went black again.

Ara's body went limp as Rnel switched the wolf over to the secure virtual space they had set up with the government for interrogating the subject. She really couldn't believe one of the previous generations would turn on them... she knew some didn't appreciate being forced to stay in the program, but to go so far as to fly into the wilds of space and find a warmongering alien race to turn on her creators? That was some fiction right there.

On command, the glass walls of the holding cell slid back down into the floor, a panel sliding open with a table rising up beneath Ara's body. One of the other technicians in the room moved over to strap Ara to the table once it had raised up, with the Assistant still cabled to the ceiling. Rnel set up one of the consoles to display a video stream from inside the environment, to show what was happening during the interrogation. She would have preferred to be the one doing the interrogation, but the government wanted to do things their way. Boring...

Rnel took to attaching a few probes to Ara's head, more interested in finding out how the chip worked at this point. Brain activity seemed pretty normal, she figured, and took this window of time they had before the interrogation started to perform a full backup of Ara's current state. The wolf had to have active backups in case of a system failure, but the most recent backup in the system had been from months ago, just before she'd left. Taking a current copy would let them get closer to figuring out what changed between then and now.

While the backup ran, the fox had been poking around at the scans of the chip. Such a compact system, that had spread to physically wrestle control from the body. The OTC's neural interfaces were bulky and limited, these seemed like so much more... The fox figured there pretty much no chance of recovering the subject's body at this point, which she didn't seem to have much a problem with, all things considered. Rnel had to wonder if shapeshifting Ara away to a specially modified form would solve the chip problem, but she had to guess that the brain was so corrupted at this point that there'd be practically nothing there to bring back without the chip intact.

Once the backup had finished, she sent a message over to Netim, informing him he could start. Rnel typed a couple commands into the computer, and the visual space initialized as Ara woke up inside of it. The subject would know they were in a virtual environment, but it solved of the pesky problem of the interrogation interrupting her analysis.

Rnel was a bit surprised to hear Ara saying her 'name' out loud before Netim had finished to load in all the way. Well, her... name? Identifier, Ara had claimed. When Netim had called her out on it, Rnel grew very interested. The brain activity had differed greatly between the two events --- when the "identifier" was used, the normal recognition parts of the brain lit up. When her registered name was used... there was no response. A complete lack of recognition, except there was a detectable amount of activity coming from the chip. Could she not even recognize when her own name was being said? Infer from context clues, perhaps, but it didn't look like there was any direct recognition at all. Maybe it really was erased from her head, like she'd said?

The fox continued studying the chip as best she could from the outside while the interrogation continued. After several minutes, she received a message from one of her superiors. 'We have permission to use the old backup to make a second one, and keep this all quiet. You have authorization to disassemble the current one.' Rnel couldn't help but grin to herself, before sending off the command to the project's recovery network to start assembling a new copy of 04-012 from the previous backup.

Rnel then slipped on a neural headband and brought herself halfway into the simulation to tell Netim of the situation. "I can't get any further on my end. Either she just doesn't know, or that thing won't let her tell us. Either way, if you're done, the higher-ups want me to move to the next step." She couldn't hold back that twisted grin as Netim said goodbye, and then Rnel turned off the simulation, forcing the tiger out and leaving Ara in limbo.

She cracked her knuckles and moved to the other side of the room, starting to take a selection of power tools back to the table Ara's body was laying on. Now to see what makes this chip tick...

Kauko yawned and stretched out as she awoke. Today was the day of her fresh start, she was going to... The cheetah quickly lost her train of thought as her arm hit the wall. Wall? She squinted her eyes and looked up, then around, before letting out a frustrated groan. Kauko was in her regeneration pod, which meant something had gone very wrong. She fumbled around for the release button, and the top of the pod slid open, allowing her to sit up. She was... not in her quarters. As she looked to her sides, there were other pods like hers, which she recognized meant she was back at the main facility, in the cold regeneration room. On the failure of a local pod, like the one in her ship, regeneration fell back to these pods, for all subjects in the program, hence so many. She sighed and rubbed at her eyes as she climbed out of the pod, stepping over the large numbers 012 written on the floor.

She brought herself over to the console for her pod to make sure the self-diagnostics had passed. Everything seemed fine, leaving her having to wonder exactly what had happened. She pulled out a set of clothing from one of the closets near the door. While not a common occurrence, someone could pop out of here at any time, so clothing and other items were kept around so they didn't have to run nude until they could go buy more clothing. Grabbing a spare datapad from a drawer, she got dressed, and fussed with synchronizing her data from the network as she made her way out into the hall and towards one of the lifts.

Once the pad had finished catching back up, Kauko was on the lift heading back from the depths of the facility as she noticed the current date. To her, she had just fallen asleep in her bed last night. And now... the calendar read almost 9 months later than it did last night. Shit. If she lost that much time, and she'd been intending on switching to another species and leaving Core space entirely the next day, it means she must have already left, and something had gone wrong while her backups didn't reach back this far. So she woke up from an old backup. The feline shivered at this thought, only to have it be reenforced as her datapad chimed with new mail.

The mail read:


I'm sorry you had to wake up back here today --- we'd gotten word that you and your ship were in an accident while in deep space, and were both completely destroyed. Higher-ups have authorized re-provisioning your ship and a regeneration pod, but it'll be a couple months to make one to specification again. Let us know if you need anything in the meantime. You should stick around in Core space until then.

- Rnel`Masai-Tenne
Agent Second Class, OmniTech Corporation"

Kauko was a little surprised by the personalized letter, and disappointed by the occasion, but wasn't going to complain about being given a replacement ship. The fact the mail came from an agent did make her have to wonder how her life would have been if she'd decided to stay in the program instead of leaving, as several from her generation did. She knew those of them in the Genetic Specialty Project were highly sought after for covert operations, being able to change form so easily. She shrugged that thought off for now, though, and made her way out to the courtyard. OTC's main facility was in the middle of a heavily forested area, and the well-manicured park between the R&D building she'd just come out of and the main staff building was always a nice sight. She set her eyes on the maglev rail that ran behind the main building, just enjoying an idle walk towards the station.

The facility was deep into the heavily forested continent, a half hour or so of a train ride away from Nohoce City, the capital and only real metropolitan zone on the planet. There were a few small cities and towns, scattered across the continent and connected by maglev, but as most of the planet was dedicated as a forest reserve, despite the population, very little of it was occupied. Kauko had always enjoyed watching the landscape pass by while riding between the city and the facility. She got off the train once arriving into the city, moving underground to the subway, to make her way to her apartment.

She soon felt sick upon entering her apartment, seeing it completely empty. Then she remembered that she'd already moved most of her belongings to her ship... where she felt even worse, realizing everything she'd accumulated in the past couple years was now gone, destroyed along with her ship. The feline sighed, brushing at her face with her paw. She thought about going shopping, but... honestly, why was she leaving the Core at all? She had been sort of upset at the OTC, but if not for how they designed her, she would have just straight up died in the accident. She had to wait another month or so to get a new ship, anyway, so, she decided that instead of refurbishing her apartment, she might as well just try settling down somewhere else in the Core. Maybe a Core World, one of the few initial planets those of the Core had started on, almost a thousand years ago. A different kind of change of pace.

Kauko looked around her apartment one last time, shrugged, and headed back out one last time to make her way to the spaceport. On the way, she started looking for places to live on one of the homeworlds. Maybe the one felines came from, she figured she could stay as one for longer... While she was skimming through listings, a news article in a sidebar had caught her attention. Apparently, an enemy agent from a military force that had attacked some Core ships out of nowhere had been caught distributing propaganda, among other things, and had been captured. The cheetah's fur bristled. Hopefully they got what they deserved.

Ara gasped hard as she came to, moving so fast to try and sit up that she immediately hit her head on the top of the regeneration pod. This dazed her for a moment, before fumbling for the release button, smacking it and sitting upright. It took her a few moments to focus, and as everything settled around her she realized that Rnel was in front of her, and two armed technicians, both grey foxes, were standing ready at the sides of her pod. The wolf looked around in confusion.

"Wh.. what's going on? Why am I back here?" she asks, looking over to Rnel. The last thing she'd remembered as being in the glass room, suspended from the ceiling, and everything went black...

The fox smiled. "Well, once I'd gone in and removed the chip, I found out that it kind of limits your usefulness as a resource. We can just make another one of you, after all, and look, no chip!" She neglected to mention that the wolf's predecessor was now braindead, a side effect of removing the chip.

Ara blinked. And then blinked again, her paw wandering back to the spot on her skull where the chip had been inserted, inspecting the spot with her fingers. "Wait. The chip is gone? I'm out of their control??" she says, her heart leaping. "I'm free again!"

Rnel wanted to give that disturbingly playful smile, but instead she just looked sullen. "Oh, no you're not. Now they're just going to get what they want out of you while being sure you're out of external influence. You'll meet your new home later. For now, you have another appointment."

Ara was rather confused as to why the fox had suddenly become so dejected by this prospect, given how eager she was before. Then, she realized, that once Rnel had broken her toy.. well, they made a new one, and this subject ticks the same as all the others, now. She's just not as interesting to the fox. The wolf wound up giving Rnel a flustered expression instead. "Whatever. Let's go," she said, glancing side to side to the two armed ones.

She was paraded a few blocks down hallway before the guards looked around, opening a door. Ara glanced inside. It was a small room, probably nothing more than a supply closet, except hastily fitted with a table and a couple of chairs. The two guards pinned her in at the sides while Rnel came up from behind her, forcing a metal collar around her throat. She felt metal along the back of her neck and head, realizing it must be a portable version of the harness she was held by in the other room, earlier.

One of the guards pulled Ara's arms in front of her at the same time, clasping them together with metal wrist-cuffs. Then the other shoved her into the room, following up by forcing her to sit down in one of the chairs, chaining the cuffs up to the table. The wolf gave them a firm tug, growling lowly. She glanced back at the three, ears back.

Rnel tilted her head slightly. "Anyway, this is where I leave you. Have fun, traitor," the fox trailed off as she turned and left the room, the metal door sliding closed behind her.

Ara sat back in the uncomfortable office chair with a sigh, having to keep her head pointed slightly downward to keep the bright spotlight from blinding her. This is a strange place to hold her, a makeshift interrogation room. They must not have had anywhere else, mostly being a scientific facility after all. Idle thoughts wandered through her head for what she realized was probably the first time in months. The chip seemed to suppress a lot of that... it was a really weird feeling being free of such deep control after so long. Even from the start she had trouble telling which thoughts were hers and which were the chip's, but there were certain behaviors that made its influence more obvious. Like her name. ... her name!

"KAUKO! My name is K A U K O!" the wolf suddenly shouted, with a gleeful laugh. Her name wasn't being suppressed. She had a name! Not a damned identifier, not an Accord serial number. It was just her and her self identification. Even if her own government didn't consider her a person anymore, she was free to express herself again.

"Excited about something, are we, Ara?" a voice asked, the wolf not having realized someone had entered the room. She nearly jumped, and the fur on the back of the wolf's neck stood up as she heard someone she didn't recognize calling her by her identifier. She didn't know who it was, but a tiger, obviously a government official by his uniform, took a seat across from her.

She quickly glanced away. "S.. sorry. It's been a while."

The tiger had to stifle a chuckle, but did his best to uphold his professionalism. "Mmmhm. Anyway, I was told you won't remember my previous visit... so. My name is Netim`Oro-Teren, and I'm from the office of Core Intelligence. As I'm sure you know by now, we authorized another copy of you to be made so we could continue without... foreign interests interfering with our questioning." Ara's ears laid back, but she didn't seem to carry much worry at the thought of interrogation, or even the implication that it'd already happened to her earlier. Well. To her previous body. She was more worried over the fact the government would let them make more than one active copy of her, in clear violation of several cloning treaties...

"Makes sense, I guess... I'll tell you whatever I know, but I'll be honest with you --- it's not much," she told him.

Netim sighed. "We'll see about that. But protocol is protocol. Let's start from the top. Where did you get the materials that were distributed to the Universal Network four days ago?"

Ara's eyes widened. Four days? That means she lost three whole days in their possession already. The wolf sighed.

"From an Accord agent," she replied.

"Why did you start working with the enemy?" the tiger asked, hard for to make him out past the rim of light beaming down on her.

"I didn't have a choice... my ship, it dropped out of z-space. I was captured. The chip, it... it makes me do what they want."

Netim rubbed the bridge of his muzzle with his fingers. He was getting the same answers as before. He decided to try a different tactic.

"Who is your handler?"

"Handler? I guess... that'd be Feathers of Scarlet."

The tiger looked briefly confused. "Is that their title?"

The wolf shook her head. "They're all avians. They all have names like that... a body part and a color. Feathers of Scarlet, Beak of Blue... Claws of Gold..." she said, tensing slightly at the thought of the last one. "No. She's an agent of the Accord. She works in one of their Ministry buildings, the same one I was assigned to. She processed me after I was captured..." the wolf explained, looking visibly anxious as she recalled it.

"Did she give you the propaganda to distribute?"

"No. It was some other agent, in Intelligence, I think. I don't really know..."

Netim gave her a stern look. "What were they having you do while in Accord space?"

Ara started to get the sneaking suspicion that he thought she had been more... prepared for the role she was sent to play.

"They... kept me doing office work, among other things..." she answered, biting her lip. Intentionally being vague, because the rest was not stuff that affected her situation, nor anything she wanted to admit willingly...

The tiger became quite confused. "Office work? Why would they have a spy working in an office?"

Ara then looked equally confused. "A spy?"

Netim's confusion turned to frustration. "Rnel ... our technician confirmed the chip was a completely invasive mind control. That much we can verify from the propaganda we caught you distributing. But if they weren't using you to spy, why are you here? You had to know how easily we would catch you the way you pulled that off."

Ara's heart sank. "Why am I here? They sent me here to watch. As every single person I've ever known gets a chip just like the one I had planted into their head. Knowing that there was nothing I could do. That it's all my fault for leading them here."

The tiger's own ears sunk back a little this time. He got this out of her last time, but if they really did sent her back only for that reason... He shook it off, and growled. "Then... why would they risk giving us time to prepare?"

"Because... they already know how exactly how powerful we are. There's nothing we can do," she answered. The wolf, chinless and free from control, knew the answer in her heart, and it pained her more than anything to admit this to someone of her kind.

Netim looked to Ara, showing a bit of concern in his eyes. She had to guess they didn't get much out her previous interrogation, and knowing what they know about the chip, that if she wasn't lying --- that she really was forced into all of this against her will, that they really were in trouble.

The tiger didn't ask another question. Instead he sighed, got up, and left the room. Ara looked a little confused by the sudden departure, glancing backwards to try and keep an eye on him. The two guards moved back into the room, detaching her from the desk to shuffle her back through the facility, before finding their way to another room and tossing her into a more traditional metal cell within.

It had been a few days since Kauko had arrived and settled down on Chire-02, one of the six Core Worlds in the Alliance. This planet in particular was where most of the various species of felines had originated, and Kauko had been drawn to one of the least metropolitan areas on the main continent, in a stretching area of rolling hills. She had found herself a place to live in a small town called Torren a short maglev ride away from the next largest city, and while mostly keeping to herself, she started talking to locals, even happy to find some other cheetahs around.

Despite being in a fairly remote area, wireless access to the Universal Network was still possible, due to satellites in low orbit around the planet. This was also true in outer space around most of the populated systems and the routes between them, enabling a high degree of easily accessible connectivity between every person in the Core. It was quite a surprise to Kauko, along with many of the other residents of this area when the wireless access went down. She came out into the street, looking to meet up with anyone to investigate. Several hours later, with the help of some townsfolk, they had brought up some connectivity in the town center adjacent to one of the few hard linked fiber nodes coming into the region.

Kauko returned home afterwards, keeping a close eye on the news, as well as a network map open of the Universal Network. Nearly ten billion people across the planet had been cut off from their only form of communication, only able to access the network near hard points now that the satellites were down. An unexpected case, to be certain, and this made news spread slowly. At first, reports had mostly just been that the planet had managed to lose wireless connectivity across the entire surface, and that the OTC claimed to be investigating the outage. Around half an hour later, the first reports came in of people seeing explosions in the sky around the time access to the Network went down.

It wasn't long before people started to notice there hadn't been any ships coming or going since around the same time, either. Some remarks surfaced that every spaceport on the surface had soon been grounded, and all ships mid-air were to return to ground immediately. This quickly lead to people worrying the planet had been cut off from the rest of the Core. This was a Core World, too, one of utmost importance, where was the military, they wondered? Was it their doing?

Nothing but rumors spread for almost half a day. The only ships taking off were military. Almost nothing was coming back down from outside of the atmosphere. Then, reports of people having heard or seen surface bombardment of military bases began to surface.. shortly followed by video. Flashes of something moving so fast it was barely registered, followed by huge explosions, mainly of dirt and metal as ships and buildings were hit. After the Core Alliance had been formed, the Chire system was chosen to house the primary government buildings, and a fair share of the military's forces were assigned to defend it. Naturally, it was the first planet the Accord chose to invade.

Kauko got into a pattern of going back and forth between her apartment and the town center every once in a while. Most of the town was now often passing through there, making it a nice opportunity to meet people if it were under a better circumstance. By now, though, word had been coming in of ships that looked completely unlike any Core designs had started to descend in the major cities. Kauko felt fortunate to have picked such a small town, but she could probably have chosen a better planet... it sounded like this was the only planet being hit. All of the others were still reporting in as safe, and shifting defensive.

Not long after reports of bombardment came in, the maglev rails were shut down. News arose of ground forces invading the major cities. Avians of alien appearance and insignia, fighting with the limited Core Military forces on the ground as they made their way inwards towards government buildings. This must be the Accord, the force that had attacked ships in the Core's outer reaches a couple months ago, and had only been assumed the perpetrators through leaks onto the Network a few days ago. For a few hours there were flurries of reports of the forces taking over sections of the cities, of ship combat in high atmosphere... and then the reports came to a trickle.

As major facilities were being overrun by the Accord, the planet finally went off the Network. Kauko figured they must have overtaken the facilities with the interplanetary uplinks, moving to cut off communication from the planet getting any word out of their strategies. Only a few minutes after the other planets had disappeared from the network, the town lost its connection to the other cities. The hard link had been shut down, the planet's Network was out entirely. The last word they caught before the network disconnected had been something about the Avians starting to round people up from their homes. Nobody knew what for, just that block by block they were moving people back to landed ships.

The town of a couple hundred furs fell into murmurs of concern, not having enough room on nearby ships to get people out. The last order the half-dozen or so locally stationed military officers received was simply to defend the town from the invaders. Despite the small size, the military was still the military, and on their ship was a fair assortment of weapons which were distributed to volunteers. Defensive positions were set up, and everyone else was instructed to stay in their homes.

Kauko had chosen to be one of those volunteers, having had a bit of training with a rifle. It had been maybe two weeks after the invasion had started, and there had been no Core ships spotted in the sky since that day, only the very rare passing of an Accord military ship overhead. They never landed, but it kept the town on edge, while reminding them of their isolation at the same time. In an early morning patrol, Kauko was with two other civilians, one another cheetah, and the other a wolf, keeping an eye on one of edges of town. As they were passing the main road towards the next city, they caught sight of about a dozen varied furs in civilian clothes approaching.

Both Kauko and the wolf started to raise their rifles, trying to make out the crowd at their distance. The approaching group noticed, and halted, moving into more of a visible line to make it easier to tell there was no enemy with them. The wolf mentioned to the other two the rumors about the chips, but the they figured there was no harm. Those required huge processing facilities, and the invasion had just started. Plus, they weren't armed. One of the furs from the approaching group, a bear, called out.

"Hey! We're with you! Orrit was taken over by the Accord late last night. We managed to get out... do you guys have any food? Seen any combat?"

The two of them lowered their rifles. The town was probably a couple hour walk, but who knows how long they'd been holding out. The other cheetah called back to them. "No, with the Network down we haven't heard anything in weeks! We've got plenty of food and supplies back in town." Kauko looked to the two and then gestured the group in.

The three of them kept their eyes on the other group as they all followed the road back into town. They settled in rather quickly, starting to talk with the officers about what they had seen happen in Orrit. Most of what Kauko overheard was about the avians forcing civilians into their homes as they came inwards, and street combat with the military forces stationed there. So far there seemed to be minimal civilian casualties, which was good, if not a little concerning. The trio returned to patrol.

After another couple hours of keeping an eye on the edge of town, the group took the road back into to the town center. On the way back in, Kauko spotted the bear and another from their group, a cougar, waving frantically to them.

"They're here! The avians, they've hit the other side of town!" The cougar shouted, pointing in to the other main road into town. The three tensed and picked up their pace, hands on their rifles as they ran by, ready for a fight with the Accord soldiers. What they were not ready for was the bear and the cougar to draw Accord plasma pistols on them, followed by three shots. The two cheetahs and the wolf were immediately on the ground, knocked out.

Kauko woke up groggily a few hours later, realizing she was in her own apartment. She remembered rushing into town after being told the Accord was attacking, and then... pain, and black. The king cheetah massaged her muzzle some and looked around. Nothing seemed any different, so she took a moment to reorient herself before cautiously making her way out of her apartment. The feline had managed to peek her head out the front door long enough to see the townspeople that had banded together to protect each other were no longer there. Instead, patrolling the streets, were only avians wearing obviously military uniforms. She quickly ducked back into the building, heart pounding. The first planet of the Core had been taken over by the Accord.

The town found itself settling into the Accord occupation rather quickly. For the most part, things had been quiet. Everyone was forced to stay in their homes, and with the Network down it was difficult to socialize, or find out what was going on. By peeking out the window, though, Kauko could see that just like in the early reports, soldiers would come up to a building, and take their occupants towards the edge of town. Those that resisted, were shot. It had only happened a couple times, that she'd heard, but she hoped there was more resistance in the cities.

It had been about a week, and by then Kauko was getting perpetually exhausted, not to mention low on food. She had tried to sneak out a couple of times, but the cat was immediately spotted by the Avians, who chirped at her in their strange, harsh language and threateningly forced her back into her apartment. As she was considering sneaking out again, she heard the march of talons clacking down the floor of the hallway outside her door. More of that loud, but muffled chirping could be heard, an insistent knocking on her neighbor's door.. before she could hear the sound of the door being burst open. Her heart was pounding, and she pinned herself against the wall next to the door. Another, similar forced entry followed, now across the hall.

Finally, the insistent noises, and a slam on her door. The king cheetah's heart leapt as the avian soldiers forced their way into her apartment. She immediately ducked down and forced herself past the legs of the soldiers ready to raid her home. They seemed to be shouting at her, and Kauko made it halfway down the hall before an avian peeked out from the corner, and fired on her. The cat managed to dodge out of the way, but she suddenly felt a searing pain to the back, forcing her to do go down hard. She could tell it wasn't anything serious, but her entire body itched painfully of electricity, finding herself unable to move. One of the avians cuffed her paws behind her back, while another grabbed her by the leg and started to drag her out of the building while the others resumed their sweep.

A minute or so later, Kauko was able to start moving her limbs again. Once she was able to move around enough to try and get up, the soldier dragging her dropped her to the ground, and then forced her up onto her feet, gripping the cat's scruff with their talons. She was forced out to the edge of town, seeing several others being forced ahead in front of her. As they passed the last buildings, a sizable ship came into view parked about half a mile from the town. Forced to walk the entire way with a hand gripping her scruff, she saw several dozen of small tents set up around the base of the ship, the Core furs being spread out individually amongst the tents.

The soldier leading her forced her into one of the tents, and once she'd passed through to into the inside, she was immediately taken by another guard and sat down in a metal seat positioned in the center of the tent. She quickly found that it was set up for firmly restraining its subject, as she was uncuffed and then strapped down to the seat. Her legs and head followed her wrists, making sure she could barely budge. Her eyes followed another avian in the tent, wearing a different color uniform, that was now circling her while taking some notes on a clipboard. Then this one nodded towards the guard, and Kauko suddenly felt a jab at her arm, before everything went blurry and numb and then black.

When the cheetah came to, everything was still hazy for a long while, the cat feeling fuzzy-headed while still strapped to the seat for what must have been another good half hour or so, while realizing the very edges of her vision were starting to show some sort of chromatic aberration as time went on. Finally, something flashed in her vision.. blinding, almost, as white overtook her sight, a sharp screeching in her ears before fading back into the quiet sounds of the tent. Her heart was pounding, still utterly confused as to what was going on, her eyes darting around to see if she could spot the avians that had been in the room, worried that something was wrong with her.

Instead, in her field of vision she saw the flash of several graphics, and blocky text she couldn't make out before it disappeared. Suddenly, the text [STAND] appeared in the center of her vision, the letters crisp, square, and unavoidably present. The cheetah felt the restraints of the seat she'd been stuck in loosen, and she stood. Her eyes were drawn towards a metal box, sitting on a table in the back of the tent. [STRIP], new text appearing front and center in her vision, the command imposing. The feline started to slip off her clothing, worn from the weeks of paranoid defense and then subsequent occupation of her town. She then reached down into the box, drawing out a grey dress which she worked herself into.

[Exit the tent and step inside the next open pod] the text changed to next. The cheetah made her way out of the back of the tent, finding an array of what look like large, silver eggs. She quickly spotted one open with what looked like white foam inside, and turned herself around to back in, feeling the material yielding to her body. She climbed into the pod, and settled in as the material closed around her. Some last lines of text were displayed to her before she found it too hard to stay awake, suspended and immobilized inside the pod.


Assistant Class: A

Assignment: Labor

It started with Chire-02. Then Lairo-04 fell, followed by Reise-03. Outside Ara's cell, a screen had been set up, the others torturing the now-chipless wolf by giving her little choice but to watch endless security feeds and news reports as planet after planet in the Core was overwhelmed and taken by the Accord. She watched as each planet reported Accord ships blockading a planet, wiping out everything in orbit, and then bombarding military ground positions. Then they would land their ships and begin to invade the cities, quarantining people to their homes. Cities and towns would slowly be chipped, building an army out of new Assistants to help overtake their neighbors.

She felt bad, knowing that once the Accord had destroyed all of the Universal Network relay satellites in orbit, everyone on the surface would feel helpless. And even worse, once they'd manage to take over the communication centers, the point to point network links to the planet would go down, disconnecting them from the rest of the Core. By then, with the Accord's superior air power, the planet was considered lost. The Core Alliance only had a dozen or so populated planets in its name, the most populous being the Core Worlds, the rest semi-populated colony planets like Masai-03. The Core Worlds were the first to fall, as the avians seemed to be targeting the government, military, and major population centers all at once.

It had been weeks since she was interrogated and thrown into her cell. Ara had not once been let out, mostly only ever seeing the same guards bringing her food and checking on her. Occasionally, a technician stopped by and she was restrained, tests taken, and then the dull existence of being trapped in a cold concrete room deep underground resumed, unable to do anything to help as her kind's planets fell... the taunting of Feathers of Scarlet ringing in her head. That this was all her fault.

After about a month, the OTC and the Core Military had been able to collect some minimal reconnaissance on the captured planets. Cities seemed intact, but sizable structures had begun to spring up, closest to largely populated areas. The military couldn't figure out the purpose of these structures at a distance, but Ara knew. They were Assistant processing facilities. Efficiently chipping a planet with billions of people wouldn't work without infrastructure. Her heart hung heavy in her chest, knowing how many must be holed up under occupation, awaiting their fate of being chipped and given a Class A assignment, sent off who-knows-where in Accord controlled space.

Four months later, Rnel started to visit her cell. The fox technician that had been in the room when she first got back to the facility. She reintroduced herself at first, loosening up to the wolf as they talked. A little about the Accord, what Ara did and saw there. More discussion was had about the Genetic Specialty Program, including what the wolf's generation was like, or what the other subject she had partnered up with was like. Over her often daily visits, the fox appeared to be growing more and more downtrodden as the invasion continued on, spreading planet to planet.

One day, Rnel sat herself down in front of the cell. "Look. I know you were under their control when you got here. What I did put you back to normal, so to speak... so even though you're not getting out of here, you deserve the truth." Ara cocked her head slightly at the sudden honesty.

The fox continued without waiting for a response. "You know this already, but there aren't many planets left for them to hit. The military is having a hard time holding them back. They'll be coming here soon.. but I'm guessing you don't know that the procedure is the blow the entire site if it's penetrated by ground forces. They have secrets they'd rather keep hidden, and if the biggest defense contractor can't protect their own planet, then well, I guess I don't blame them..." Rnel trailed off, then shook her head.

"Anyway, I'm being reassigned to take some assets off-world before the Accord can set foot in the system. I guess I mostly just wanted to say, I'm sorry, but you're probably not going to be moved before the ground invasion. I won't see you again. This is goodbye, twelve. Kauko." she corrected herself, ears back a bit with a sigh as she touched the bars of Ara's cage. It threw Ara off to hear her name again, but even moreso from someone that had been so adamant about not respecting her having one. The wolf touched the other side in return, everything feeling heavy as the fox got up to head out of the cell. Just the weight of everything Ara knew being claimed by the Accord, along with one of the only people she's socialized with in almost a year. The thought of death, given that the facility going down would take her backup with her, was almost a relief. When she and her personal pod were both in the Accord's possession, they had made sure to let her know that it wasn't an option of escape.

Shortly after, the news reports had stopped entirely. All that was left was Network condition reports and occasional security footage from independently connected monitoring systems. Only a couple of the colony planets remained, the one she was on included. Ara had to wonder if the Accord was holding out on taking her home planet, just to torture her longer. It felt like they were chasing her down. And another two weeks or so after Rnel had disappeared, the screen outside her cell came to life with an alert. The local wash monitoring station, a system set up to watch for imbalances in nearby spacetime, indicated the presence of non-Core ships dropping out of FTL. They were here.

Under the direct protection of the OmniTech Corporation, Masai-03 had already been equipped with every bit of offensive and defensive equipment they could test with. Everything from orbital defense satellites to ground based missiles and point defense lasers kept the Accord from gaining a foothold in orbit for almost a week, instead of the hour or so it'd taken them with the other planets. Once they got a stable enough position, however, the orbital bombardment began, a specific tactic neither the Core nor the OTC had been prepared for before the invasion had began. Space combat continued, slowing a total orbital victory from the Accord just yet, but there was still a window for them to start landing on the planet, going after planet's biggest city.

The capital city of Masai-03 was the only major city on the planet. Ara's home. Capital cities had been the first target of many of the Core planets, and like the others, this one fell within days, so much of the OTC's resources being tied up in orbit and on-site that they couldn't protect it. The last forces of the Core Military struggled to make it to the surface. The corporate headquarters hadn't been touched, but as the city fell and began to drop off the Network, the Accord must have realized that unlike the other planets, this time the Network uplinks weren't in the city. Every major control system for the planet was routed to a facility a few hundred kilometers away...

It wasn't long before orbital bombardment began to hit the OTC site. Ara had felt it moments after impact, even hundreds of meters under the ground. Ballistics hitting the thick armor plating just beneath the surface sent waves through the building's supports. There were only a few rough impacts, Ara guessed they must be disabling the facility's spaceport and maglev systems, to keep anyone from escaping. At this point, the screen outside her cell switched to the local security system. Flipping through underground area cameras, city cameras.. and finally a feed coming in from a nearby ship of the damage to the surface. Tremendous craters littered the grounds and adjacent woods, exposing the plating to the sky. The shipyard had been completely obliterated. Followed shortly by Accord ships starting to land in the still-open spaces near the surface buildings..

Suddenly, the PA system came to life. An AI voice echoed through the facility. "This is a Universal announcement. Site Zero One has been compromised. All projects terminated. Evacuate immediately. Repeat, evacuate immediately. This is procedure DEADLINE. Facility will self destruct in ten minutes. Repeat. Evacuate immediately." The self-destruct protocol had started... and while Ara heard a rush of footsteps down the hallway, it was like Rnel had said. Nobody was coming in here to take her with them.

Ara slumped against the door of her cell, her paws clutching her chest. It felt like her heart was going to pound out of her chest. This really was it, this was..

Before she could even finish the thought, the PA called out again. "This is a Universal announcement. Procedure DEADLINE has been cancelled by executive override. Cancel evacuation. All forces, stand down. Repeat. Procedure canceled. All forces, stand down."

Ara shuddered again, her back grating against the door as she sunk down until sitting. She didn't know what was worse.. how close she was to dying for real --- or the fact she knew a stand-down order would have to come from multiple members of the executive board. Several of which were probably on Core Worlds or Masai's capital city when they were invaded. The board of the OmniTech Corporation, chipped and forced to rescind the order, to protect scientific assets for the Accord to absorb. Inadvertently 'protecting' her in the process.

The screen outside her cell had finally gone dark. She knew she didn't need to watch anymore, a full stand-down order would mean anyone that was willing to follow the order would stop resisting the Accord. It was hours before she even heard another sound on this floor of the facility. Ara had finally managed to get herself to sit up on her bed, and then saw a carcal she didn't recognize enter the hallway outside her cell. The cat was pointing at her.. no, her cell door, and around the corner past the feline came two soldiers. Ara recognized their uniforms before she even caught that they were avian. The wolf's eyes widened, quickly shuffling to the back wall of the cell as they approached, starting to unlock the door.

"No! Please, you can't take me back! Don't make me one of them again!!" she cried, but the Accord soldiers just chirped at her angrily before grabbing at her. The wolf did her best to struggle, to fight the two off, but her time being trapped in the cell right after being rebuilt left her far too weak, quickly falling prey to the cuffs tightening her arms behind her back. She was dragged out of the cell, being led up and out of the facility. As she was brought out, she saw other avians rounding people up from offices and labs, forced into a line to wait for freight elevators to take them back up to the surface.

Ara knew what was coming next, but she was more surprised by the fact everyone from the facility was being rounded up onto a large Accord ship without being chipped first. The wolf communicated nervously with a few of the others around her, everyone staff from the facility. It seemed they were taking them somewhere else. It wasn't long before the ship's hold was full, the large group surrounded by avians the whole while. She could feel the ship taking off, moving outside of atmosphere, before a strange twisting feeling washed over her as the ship went to jump. A short trip later and they were entering atmosphere again. Where were they? Did they take them straight back to an Accord planet?

The hold doors opened again, exposing the nervous, restrained crowd to the air. In front of them was a huge concrete building, several stories tall. Soon the group was forced out of the ship, passing briefly in the open air before entering a bay of the building. As they passed the outside, Ara looked around. The first thing she noticed was that there were several buildings just like this, spread out hundreds of meters apart. The second was that the moons in the sky looked very familiar. Once they were shuffled into the building, she realized they were on Lairo-04! This was one of their worlds.. and then it dawned on her. This was an Assistant processing facility, built by newly converted Assistants to handle the tremendous number of new ones that would be coming through the recently conquered planet.

The rest of the process was horridly familiar to the wolf. The group was split up into smaller groups and put into holding groups in the facility, each individual waiting for their turn... it wasn't long before it was Ara's. As she was taken to a dark room, she was immediately reminded of her experience being chipped in the Ministry building. She did have to wonder... what was going to happen to her now? They'd surely notice she was already an Assistant, with an existing serial, and put her back where she was before. The Accord was all about efficiency, after all. Distracted in thought, a soldier chirped in avian and butted her lower back with their rifle, forcing her forward. Strapped down into the chair, the drugs kicking in, this all seemed far too familiar. Part of her still wasn't sure if she was relieved she was going back, or she'd rather have died in the facility...

When Ara awoke again, she was greeted by the familiar presence of the chip's instructions in her vision. She followed, obediently, as she knew she was supposed to.


Assistant Class: A

Assignment: Labor

Feathers of Scarlet hummed to herself, thumbing through reports on her datapad. The Core Alliance Campaign was a complete success, having completed its mission in only a few months, just as projected. Despite not being a valuable military information asset, the memory dump from her exotic Assistant did prove so very valuable in taking over their own worlds. Speaking of Ara, Scarlet thought, it was about time she got her dog back..

While all of their Assistant conquest from the Core had been classified as Class A, this still meant billions of new Assistants that had not yet had their memory dumps sifted through for useful information, other than a number of scientists and government officials they could identify when taking in to be chipped. So finding where the former Assistant went would not be the simplest thing. Scarlet thought briefly on this, and then grinned to herself, entering 'Feathers of Scarlet' into the search system, before going back to her paperwork while the computer churned through every new Assistant's memories.

A little while later, the datapad gave a ding as it had finished searching. Exactly one result returned --- Assistant serial 0100-7AC-F8C61DF7. It had no identifier, just like most all of the new Core citizens turned Assistants, other than the few hundred sent to Ministries as trophies. And much like almost all their fellow former citizens, was assigned as a Class A to an off-world mining facility. Feathers of Scarlet took a break from her previous task to file the paperwork to get the Assistant transferred back to the Ministry.

Several weeks later, a reassigned class A wolf stepped foot back into the Ministry building she had spent months in, this time not only completely unaware of her history with it, but still as blank and unthinking as every other Class A sent off to the mines. She obediently followed her chip's instructions, heading down to one of the lower floors. Sitting herself in a familiar chair, she took the pills she was given, and everything went fuzzy yet again. This time, an agent removed the Assistant's old chip first, leaving her completely nonfunctional until a special replacement chip was then inserted. Special, because it had a serial and identifier to reuse, not a common request for Assistants in the Accord. Prior settings and all.

BG3 "Ara" quickly fell back in line with her office duties. She caught glimpses of Scarlet now and then, but it took a couple of weeks for the Agent to bother tracking the Assistant down. Ara was called to her office, the Assistant entering, and standing obediently in front of the Agent's desk in her grey dress, looking much like she'd never left. The wolf's eyes kept on the avian, but while the avian continued her paperwork, neither said a word.

Feathers of Scarlet finally broke the silence, looking up to Ara. "Aren't you going to thank me for saving you from the mines, Assistant?"

Ara's eyes widened, quickly breaking eye contact while her ears went back. She hesitated, but then replied. "Thank you, Miss."

"Thank you for..." Scarlet repeated.

"Thank you for saving me from the mines, Miss. It's good to be back," the wolf answered quietly.

Scarlet smiled, or maybe grinned, as best one could tell with a beak. "Good. Welcome back, Ara. Iliaca here was just telling me what an excellent job you did on your assignment.." Scarlet said, gesturing towards the door.

Ara looked looked back as the door opened, before a familiar looking orange fox entered. The wolf lit up in surprise, quickly recognizing ------ "Iliaca." Ara was about to speak up to ask the fox something, seeing her wearing a nearly identical grey dress to her own, before they brushed right past her, delivering Scarlet her tea. Ara's excitement faded as other Assistant turned around to leave, catching the lack of spark in the fox's eyes... realizing she was just another thoughtless Class A exotic, a showpiece to the Accord's conquest.

The avian looked back to the wolf Assistant, seemingly pleased with the drained look on her face. "Oh, now that you're here, Ara, it's about time you went back to your former duties. These boots don't clean themselves..."