The Tragic Tale of Francis Winkler
Even in a society of geniuses, some are greater than others. Some show brilliance that outshines their peers even as the sun outshines the closest stars. Some make leaps that even their brightest colleagues cannot fathom. For some, the toughest tasks are second nature and all they attempt is within their reach.
...and then there was Francis Winkler.
It’s not that Francis was an idiot. He did, after all, successfully pass the requirements to get into Project Perpetuum. He could do mental calculations as fast as any other candidate, and possessed an equally impressive IQ. The problem wasn’t so much what Francis could do, as what he couldn’t. Francis didn’t deal well with highly stressful situations - and as a result, he got himself into some pretty embarrassing predicaments.
Francis had the dubious distinction of being the only Agent to lose an assault-class robot to human-deployed Nuimqol training drones. The Syndicate had never really bothered to put restraints on the training drones, because no one ever seriously thought that a robot carrying such simplistic weapons would manage to bring down an Agent. Then - in the height of folly - someone assumed that Francis just didn’t deal well with smaller, faster platforms and moved Francis into a Kain to continue his work.
You’d be surprised what a group of Servant Filches can destroy, when they work at it.
So Francis found himself at the controls of a Termis. Clearly, Francis’s talents were less combat-specific and more inclined towards the wielding of heavy machinery. After some consultation with a Project Perpetuum advisor and considerable expense in remapping Francis’s spark, Francis was happily pulling in resources for the greater good of the project. Francis was actually reasonably successful at working with industry, and so, in time, found himself in a Riveler. There Francis spent his days, pulling up whatever resource was needed, happily contributing to the effort. Unfortunately, Francis was also given to daydreaming, and the Riveler’s cargo space is just enough to allow one to get a pretty solid daydream going.
Developers have since corrected the defect that causes a Riveler’s lasers to continue running even when the cargo is full if the pilot keeps the activation contacts open, but it took Francis Winkler to find the defect, and it took Francis Winkler to be the first person to ever successfully self-destruct a Riveler from breaching the reactor core, positioned behind the cargo bay. They still tell stories about the colors of the mushroom cloud.
For obvious reasons, Project Perpetuum senior staff didn’t want to just let Francis go. They’d barely broke even on the man’s work, and there was no rational explanation for why Francis wasn’t able to fit into the system. So after some thought, they decided the best thing for Francis to do - that, thankfully, wouldn’t require a second (and therefore degenerative) Spark remap - was to haul goods from place to place.
Here, Francis had finally found his place. With careful pre-planning of his routes (something Francis could do rather well, since it involved neither stress nor long focuses of attention on a dull task) he was able to devise routes for his large and valuable cargoes that were entirely safe and actually more efficient than many other haulers used. The Project Perpetuum staff even noted a few of his preferred routes for possible accelerator construction in months to come. Francis was even able to negotiate agreements with all involved corporations to allow him free and ready access to the ICS Beta terminal, opening up a highly lucrative and convenient logistics route between “ICS-A” and “ICS-B.” Now Francis, being well aware of his history of rising high and then crashing down spectacularly, prepared accordingly. His Lithus was a veritable juggernaut of defense: Penik shield generators powering Guardian hardeners, Testudo plates backing Aegis armor. Francis Winkler’s Lithus was widely considered the most indestructible piece of equipment on all of Nia. And so it was that Francis Winkler picked up his considerable cargo from ICS Alpha, and with a carefully plotted path, headed for Domhalarn.
Now it may be said that Francis did not choose a route recklessly, and in no way did he set himself up for his now-famous fate. There’s no safe route to any Beta terminal, but Francis’s route was no more dangerous than any other. The defenses on his Lithus were indeed the most formidable money could buy, and there was no Agent along his route that did not know of him, nor disagree with his passage. The whims of Fate are many and fickle, though, and for Francis Winkler, his final journey on Nia had already begun.
Francis landed at Sehovskia II and immediately surveyed his surroundings while under the effects of the Syndicate’s inter-teleport protections. No Nian presence. One Intakt about 900 meters off in the direction of the Sehovskia I teleport, but that in and of itself was not unusual. He couldn’t tell quite what the Intakt was doing, but it wasn’t his affair. Domhalarn was not unoccupied, and Francis knew the corp in this area and was on good terms with them. He had paid them well, and Francis would go unmolested.
So with a great rumble, Francis’s juggernaut set off, spiked tires crunching over the landscape. It wasn’t a quick drive to ICS-B in his Lithus, but that gave Francis time to appreciate the lush Nian surroundings - the plant life was particularly beautiful at this time of year. It was a firm belief in the Winkler family that if one didn’t take time to enjoy the view, one might miss the best details, and one big advantage - in Francis’s mind - of his new lifestyle was that he did indeed get a chance to enjoy all the best details. So Francis noted right away that the Intakt still hadn’t really gone anywhere - and that was a bit odd. Beta Islands were not entirely safe places to be, and while, with preparation, there shouldn’t be any great danger, it wasn’t a place you simply sat around. The Syndicate didn’t have time to fully secure this island yet, and so that implicitly meant the danger here was quite real. You took care of your affairs, and you continued your journey.This Intakt, though - scooting around in a relatively small area, stopping, scooting around again, stopping. Spiralling inward, but not really going anywhere. What was this? Francis pondered the strange behavior as he passed by, one sensor on the Intakt. A control system malfunction, maybe? He started to open comm-
If Francis had been in control of his body at that point, he might’ve gone very pale. He knew the sound he’d just “heard.” It was as common to him as running maintenance procedures. He caused the sound himself, actually, any time he went through a teleporter. It was the sound of a heavy mech riding in on a teleportation beam. Unfortunately, he was quite a distance away from any Syndicate-sponsored teleporter. He should definitely NOT be able to hear that sound. Which meant only one thing: that teleport beam was Nian. And from the sound he’d heard, he already knew as his sensors whipped around and analyzed, what he was going to find: a heavy. Sure enough, there was a Mesmer sitting not 150 meters away. The Intakt pilot was making a quick grab of the Mesmer’s artifact stash and heading for the hills, but somehow, impossibly, the Mesmer was quick enough to lock the Intakt and affix a demobilization beam, slowing the Intakt dramatically. Francis pounded on the acceleration contacts in the Lithus. There was only one kind of Nian Mesmer that could lock and grab an Intakt that fast, and they were the stuff of Agent nightmares. The targeting computer helpfully supplied him with the information he already knew:
- Nuimqol Superior Observer.
The Intakt pilot was playing it cool and had immediately ducked behind some of the local plant life while trying to put what distance he could between himself and the mechanized demigod smashing down the landscape behind him. To put it mildly, the sights Francis was enjoying before were evaporating rather quickly now. Francis was far less interested in seeing the sights and far more interested in not being a sight, though, and rapidly began coaxing what speed he could out of his lumbering monster of a hauler.
It became clear to Francis very quickly that the Intakt pilot had no intentions of calling in support or trying to lead the death-on-two-legs behind them away - he was simply taking cover and staying behind it as he got distance sufficient to break the demobilizer beam and get away altogether. Francis suddenly remembered an old Earth saying, when wilderness still existed back home: “You don’t have to run faster than the bear - you just have to run faster than the other guy.” He’d never really gotten that joke, until now. Francis knew what the Intakt pilot’s plan was, and a cold feeling gripped him. The corps he made the agreement with had said they wouldn’t shoot him and would warn him if potentially rogue Agents were around - but they had said nothing about protecting him from Nians.
Francis nodded to himself and pressed on. The outpost was only 3000 meters out, and even the Nians wouldn’t try to breach a Terminal - they valued their own tech too much. He watched the Intakt finally draw out of the Observer’s reach and bolt away just as the last of the vegetation between them blew apart like some purple firework. Some economically-minded part of Francis’s mind cried out about so much wasted Helio, but he didn’t listen to it just then. The “bear” had just noticed who was slower. A strangely calm, polite warning message went off in Francis’s virtual ear. It went on to coolly estimate the threat level as extreme and even sagely posited that the likelihood of surviving the confrontation was minimal unless immediate action was taken. Francis, not being one to philosophical considerations, ignored the fact that the machine was handling the highly likely predictions of its own obliteration far more calmly than he was.
2500 meters. The chime now informed him - as if he couldn’t tell - that the Observer was now focusing primarily on him. The great gouts of turf torn out of the crest of the hill behind him told him largely the same information, but with a bit more drama. Even through the hilltop, the demobilization beams grabbed at the Lithus. Francis grinned. That, at least, was in his favor. This Lithus was built sturdier than some outlying terminals, and its native resistance to demobilization was kicking in as well: the Lithus’s speed barely twitched. Then, like some terrible rising omen of Judgment Day, the Observer Mesmer crested the hill. Francis was painfully aware that, demobilizer or not, he was not a fast-moving vessel.
2000 meters. The last shred of purple wall between his Lithus and the rapidly closing Observer was gone, and the road ahead was almost entirely clear. The Intakt pilot was long gone out of radar, headed for ICS Beta. Francis’s shields took their first impact - only about 8% of his accumulator was gone. Might just make it out of this. Then the shields took their second impact and it was clear the first shot was mostly off target - he’d just dropped another 20% of his accumulator into the defense grid. More warnings were going off, predicting all kinds of dire fates, always in a calm, collected voice.
1500 meters. His shields were now flickering, and the sensors could actually detect clear patches through. Francis shunted more energy to the back half of the sphere, and it was barely enough to absorb the next salvo. The shields were down. The computer voice calmly estimated that in five more salvos, he would make a neat little pock mark in the grasses of Nia. Francis idly wondered if the mushroom cloud would be visible from the surrounding isles - he wasn’t exactly carrying Algernonian Flowers, here.
1000 meters. His armor was coming off faster than the protective pods on a Noralgis plant. One of his wheels was making some rather horrendous grinding noises, as well. He was beginning to lose speed. Francis thought about his career and knew this was probably the end of it. He’d bet a lot on this route, trying to redeem himself. Up until a few minutes ago, he figured he probably had. Now? Well. Just have to see how this race turned out. The Mesmer was sitting in at its optimal range now, hammering away with a rhythm on Francis’s Lithus that was nearly hypnotic in its utter regularity. Hypnotic, that is, if you consider something kicking you in the ass with the force of an atom bomb to be relaxing.
750 meters. A chunk of the Lithus flew by and landed ahead of him. Despite the unintentionally lighter load, he was definitely slowing down now. The finish line was a mere 350 meters away, but the damage was stripping off enough of his mass that the demobilizers were getting a better grip on him. Suddenly, a pair of Agent-piloted heavy mechs appeared from the depths of the terminal. Francis clung to hope - these mechs were from the corporation he’d struck a deal with! 300 meters to go, and there were distractions for the Observer which was now basically using him as a targeting dummy. Rounds from the Gropho and Seth slammed into the Mesmer, rocking its torso back and forth with the impacts.The raging Nian god, however, was having none of it. Another salvo slammed into the rear of the Lithus, and now there was real trouble. The calm computer voice reported once more that things were going remarkably badly - the shield generators were completely destroyed, the plates largely shredded, and now the reactor core was about to give way. The cargo area, Francis noted, was entirely intact. Either the Observer wanted Francis’s load in one piece, or the cargo bay of a Lithus was more armored than anywhere else on the mech. Francis didn’t want to take bets either way. One hundred meters left. Francis had a finger already jabbing the button to bring him into the terminal, and the terminal was responding, but the range was too far to get a grip on his mech.The next salvo arced in with a flash an-
To this day, if you look near the grasses of ICS-B, you can still see a crater where Francis exploded. They say the shockwave took up both the mechs of the attempted rescuers and the Observer as well. The corporation Francis made his agreements with vigorously protested any kind of intentional triggering of the Observer spawn, pointing to their own losses as part of the engagement. Project Perpetuum trainers still use “the Francis Winkler” incident as an example for new Agents - of how fitting your mech with massive defenses will do you no good without help, or the ability to run away. Some of the more sarcastic members of the faculty also point out that it might be a bad idea to go kicking over Observer artifact sites in front of passers-by, but the average Project Perpetuum Agent has a far more simple saying:
Don’t pull a Francis Winkler.