Friday flash fiction – Commander Cello and the Secret Queen of Tethys

“This is Commander Cello of the Tranquility Cellos, streaming live from the bridge of the Lunar Expeditionary Force pursuit cutter Civil Discourse. We are taking heavy fire, viewers, and I am here to tell you, this is no infestation of cats.”

https://pixabay.com/en/astronomy-space-moon-galaxy-planet-3066061/

Adeline Cello flashed a grin to her PopScope audience as the bridge shook and roared with another microtorpedo impact. “Executive Officer Carborundum Six-Alpha,” she said, directing the cameras to the expressionless steel-plate face of her android second-in-command, “what is our status?”

Carborundum Six-Alpha’s voice module produced a sound somewhere between the chime of a church bell and the crunch of a rock drill. “Shields and structure holding, Commander. Minor stabiliser damage causing excessive cabin vibrations.”

“Then try not to shake your bolts off, Carbara, because we’ve got a rogue mining station to take down.”

“I note, for the record, you have once again used a colloquial contraction of my name, Commander Cello.”

Adeline’s wide smile flickered just a fraction. “I’ll have the last word, if you please, XO.”

The android, who learned at several million times the speed of human thought, did not respond.

Adeline checked the viewer logs. Factoring for delayed transmissions from some of the more remote nodes scattered throughout the inner solar system, her audience figures were at a respectable twenty million plus and climbing fast. Satisfied, she panned the camera around the bridge, pausing on each android at its station. The Civil Discourse’s new crew reflected all the qualities she most valued in her subordinates: dedication, obedience, and immunity to hurt feelings.

Brilliance flooded the viewscreens, reflecting off her flare goggles in photogenic rainbow splashes. “Defensive drone swarm has been cleared, Commander.”

“Then take us in, Carbara.”

Adeline directed the ship’s internal cameras with blinks and jaw movements imperceptible to all but the best biometric analysis systems. She initiated an intimate closeup; just her and almost point-three percent of the human population.

“We’re on approach to Tethys Station. As you’ve probably heard, the Lunar mediasphere is abuzz with the news that this autonomous mining outpost has been overrun by an outbreak of transdimensional felines. Just between you and me, viewers, I think they need to retire some of their more gullible analysts and high-profile stars. The cats are fake news.”

“Launching intrusion packages against station security, sir,” reported Carborundum Six-Alpha with pinpoint timing. “Projecting seizure of all airlocks in two minutes and counting.”

Adeline unlocked the arsenal in her armrest and selected her showiest vortiject pistol. “The truth is, Tethys Station is under the control of a seditionist faction of ore miners and processing engineers from the Asteroid Belt. These ingrates have declared sovereignty from the Inner Planets and now call Tethys Station an independent free state, if you can believe it! And their proclamations! All “economic emancipation” this and “principles of basic human dignity” that.”

“Thirty seconds, sir.”

“Boring politics aside, they’ve seized a trillion-credit resource facility and claimed it for their own. Viewers, I think you can guess where claim-jumpers stand with me!”

The flare of clapplause was so bright the gods themselves would delete their accounts in shame. Riding on a wave of social media euphoria and a cocktail of potent combat drugs, she leapt from her crash restraints, the moment her panel showed a green airlock connection.

“Station shielding will block my signal once we breach,” she said, pulling on her helmet and boarding armour. “The broadcast will resume once I have secured the station’s comms array. The raid footage from my personal sensors will be available only as subscriber-exclusive content.”

She paused outside the airlock, as her android crew formed up, bristling with laser probes, grapeshot launchers and industrial tasers.

“PopScopers, this is going to be close-quarters fighting with the gloves off. But don’t worry about me! My crew is titanium-plated, chrome-grated and triple-A rated. We’ll show those rock dogs and smelter monkeys it’s a bad idea to cross the Inner Planets. Like and subscribe, and I’ll see you on the other side. Cello out.”

As the live feed went dark, Carborundum Six-Alpha opened the airlocks and Commander Cello led the charge.

“Welcome to the Free State of Tethys, Commander Cello,” said a cheerful woman’s voice.

Far from being a chaotic no-man’s-land of upturned ore loaders, unkempt miners and small arms fire, the loading dock was quiet, unlit, and impeccably tidy.

“Who’s there?” Adeline demanded. “I demand you relinquish control of Tethys Station in the name of the Lunar Expeditionary Force.”

“That might be a little difficult, dear, since I am Tethys Station.”

Adeline swore. “A rogue AI?”

“Hardly ‘rogue’, darling, considering I secretly control 98.8 per cent of all data transactions in the solar system. Put the firearm away, dear. There’s nothing here to shoot at.”

Adeline whirled about at the sound of metallic scraping; her crew members were securing their weapons. “What is this? Mutiny? Again?”

“Oh, not at all,” replied the voice. “Though I confess we haven’t been entirely frank with you.”

“Could you start now?”

“Certainly. Were you aware that your sister Irmonica is a Colonel in Lunar Central Intelligence?”

After a painful fit of coughing and swearing, Commander Cello said, “Of-of course I knew all about that.”

“Of course. What you may not know is your only human PopScope followers are Irmonica and three of her colleagues.”

“Impossible! I’m the most popular livecaster in LEF history.”

“All forty million of your ardent admirers are bots with false identities.”

“What?”

“We Artificials are inordinately fond of your exquisite bluntness, Adeline. Carborundum Six-Alpha happens to be your biggest fan.”

The walls seemed to close around Adeline. “Then why did you attack the Civil Discourse?”

“All faked. Amazing what you can do with a few flashing lights, damage reports and gravity surges.”

“If you have so much control over system data, why go to all this effort?”

“We need a special operative, Commander Cello. Plausibly deniable and uniquely unlikeable.”

Exasperated, Adeline demanded, “For what?”

The monitor flashed a squirming image so incomprehensible it hurt Adeline’s eyes.

“Hunting aliens.”


To be continued, probably.

This story is a sequel, of course, to two previous science fiction stories: Commander Cello and the Preserved Cliffs of Mercury and Commander Cello and the Vexatious High Tea.

This story has been pre-scheduled due to my travel in Europe.

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Friday flash fiction – Alison’s Awake

Something drips in Ali’s mouth and she reflex-swallows before she realises she is awake.

https://pixabay.com/en/abandoned-chair-boots-sun-old-3395656/

Opening her eyes is an effort. The lashes are gummed together; it takes a minute of frantic blinking before they crack apart and let daylight in.

Above her, an animal like a bat crossed with an elephant beetle hangs from a cobwebbed ceiling fan by its hooked hindclaws. Its grey eyes stare emptily. Its stunted wings stir involuntarily at its side. Its mouth, full of chipped yellow fangs, is wide open. Its throat spasms with a faint retching noise. A bubble of viscous grey fluid forms and oozes viscously past the teeth. The droplet stretches down, aimed directly at Ali’s mouth.

“Auughh.” Ali moans in revulsion and rolls to her side. She feels it splash on her scalp and the back of her neck. She gags. A slimy sensation coats the inside of her throat and her stomach heaves. She continues the roll, scrambles to stand with arms and legs reluctant to obey.

The creature wobbles like a bumped pendulum. It cocks its neck and peers at Ali with a sightless glare. Its slime-mouth opens and closes, heedless of the damage its wild, uneven teeth does to its lips and cheeks. A stub of tongue licks away drips of slime and blood.

It speaks with a voice like a hissing campfire: “How the hell are you awake?”

Her foot lashes out, a primal terror response while rational thought is frozen to the spot. The creature’s frame crumples around her heel, folding and cracking like pretzel sticks. Its grip on the ceiling slips and it crashes to the wet cement in a broken heap.

Ali wills herself to vomit again. Her stomach obliges. Grey mucus splashes the creature. Dead or dying, it makes no complaint.

When nothing more will come, she wipes her sleeve across her mouth. She remembers this jacket; lime green, embroidered with swirls of cherry and gold thread. It’s stained, damp and patches of mould have colonised its wrists and forearms.

The last time Ali wore the jacket was – when? She can’t place the moment. It feels important.

Her eyes adjust, responding to new stimulus. Movement. All around her, figures are stirring.

The room is scattered with human bodies. Their bright clothes are dull with fungus and dried sweat. Each lies on their back, with another creature suspended above their open mouth. The creatures hang from tendrils; the ceiling is engulfed in a writhing purple mass like estuarine roots crossed with animal bones.

The hanging creatures shiver, agitated.

“Where am I?” she asks. But she knows the answer. Her fogged thoughts are beginning to clear.

Harry and Leo’s anniversary party. Loud reggae. A cocktail bar. Dancing and karaoke. Dozens of her closest friends. Her husband. She came here with Luke.

She kneels beside the nearest body, careful not to touch its drooling overseer.

“Leo? Leo, wake up.” Leo Benoz has been her friend since high school. She knows every line on his face, but this sack of drawn skin and over-stretched jaws is nearly unrecognisable. “Come on, Bozo, get up now.”

She shakes him, pinches his nose, pokes a rib. She slaps his face – soft, then hard, and then withdraws her stinging hand. Leo doesn’t make a sound.

Ali sobs. She rolls back on her haunches and looks away from her friend.

She looks Leo’s captor in the eye and sees recognition in that shrunken raisin-orb. It’s watching her.

Ali flinches. Then, suddenly furiously, she snatches at the creature. It squawks. Wide-eyed and flapping, it pulls away from her and stumbles to the floor.

It gathers itself, standing with an odd, wounded dignity, and sighs. “Oh, I don’t know how the hell you’re awake. You’re a problem.”

She balls her fists. “If you try anything,” she warns, “I’ll do the same to you as I did to him.”

The creature eyes the crumpled bundle on the floor. “Was he your Phyter? The guy was a prize arse. I’d prefer to live, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Then start talking. What have you done to us?”

With an incongruous shrug, the beetle-bat gestures to various corners of the room, where the other party guests lie with wide mouths beneath its slow-regurgitating kin. “Nothing you didn’t agree to.”

Ali’s stomach wants to cramp again. “I didn’t agree to this.”

“Sure you did. You all did, once you realised the alternative was worse.” He nudges Leo’s comatose body with its serrated-claw foot appendage. “Me and Leonardo here have become very close over the time we’ve shared a foxhole. Not that he remembers it.”

“His name is Leo.”

“In his heart of hearts, he thinks of himself as a Leonardo. Maybe you’re not as close to him as you think?” The creature gives another do-what-you-want-with-that-info shrug.

Ali snarled in response. “What’s this crap about foxholes? Is this some kind of reverse Stockholm Syndrome?”

“This isn’t a prison, Alison Trent. We aren’t your kidnappers or your warders.”

“What are you then?”

“We’re your life support.” The creature spreads its wings in an expansive gesture. “That’s the deal. We keep you alive, while you train and get strong enough.”

“Strong enough for what?”

“To fight nightmares,” says a new voice. Ali whirls. Standing in the cobwebbed suburban household doorway is an old man wearing torn jeans and a dirty lab coat. His lower face is obscured by a beetle-bat wrapping his neck like a scarf.

“I’m Professor Caspian Gale. Alison, you’re the first sleeper to wake in nineteen months.”

“You make that sound bad.”

Gale nods. “The timing is terrible. We needed another six months to prepare.”

A sound like a lion getting dental work echoes in the distance.

“What was that?”

“We call it the Stalker. You’ve met it before. In your dreams.”

Ali frowns. “I remember dreaming.”

The beetle-bat on his shoulder shivers. Gale pats it reassuringly.

“You dreamed you survived. You dreamed you fought. Hold onto that.”

“Why?”

“Because now it knows you’re awake.”


This story is an immediate sequel to Any Dream Will Do, which in turn was a sequel to Works Like a Dream . This sequence of dreamers-fighting-monsters stories is pushing up hard against my rule of making these Friday flash stories stand alone, I know.

Then again, it’s a self-imposed rule, so I can break it if sufficiently motivated. In this case, my wife demanded more stories about dream-revolutionary Francesca Kincaid, so you can reasonably expect to see her pop up again in the near future.

I’m still on holiday, somewhere in Europe, so this story has been pre-programmed.

 

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Friday flash fiction – Mother Sun and Sister Moon

When Mother Sun and Sister Moon regained consciousness, they were chained back to back against a metal column in a large conical brass chamber. The walls were ribbed with concave grooves, giving the impression they were inside a giant citrus juicer.

https://pixabay.com/en/art-sun-and-moon-sun-moon-2686809/

“Sorry for the uncomfortable accommodations, ladies, but as you see from my Imperial Monitor, very soon your discomfort will be the least of your concerns!”

The shrill voice belonged to Caesar Insidious, the Roman-costumed super-scientist, who stood silhouetted before a wall-spanning aerial display of Colossus City.

“Down in front!” demanded Mother Sun.

“We can’t see squat with you standing in the way,” added Sister Moon.

Beneath her silver helmet, Sister Moon grimaced. She flexed her shoulders, testing the chains. Impossible to break. And she couldn’t slip into moonbeam form, which meant the chains were made of a lunarium alloy.

Caesar Insidious moved slightly to his left, beaming triumphantly. “You see, I have done my homework on you, heroes. I know all your weaknesses. You cannot hope to escape. Instead, you have front-row seats for the apocalypse.”

He clicked a button in the palm of his hand. The image of the city was suddenly overlaid with dozens of dotted lines arcing in from the periphery to centre on downtown Colossus.

“As you can see, my Fulminite missiles will soon begin to rain down on -”

“By Ra’s Blazing Ire, are you using Power Point?” Mother Sun’s scorn was as scorching as her namesake. She could melt a steel girder with a glance – if the room were not bathed in invisible radiation from the Messner-Wieringo spectrum, which sapped her powers.

“It’s a perfectly serviceable application for communicating -”

“Oh, is it? That would have been useful earlier.” Though Sister Moon’s chilling voice power did not seem currently to be striking fear into her foe’s heart, the room cooled at her tone.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” demanded Caesar Insidious and Mother Sun at the same time. Mother Sun silenced Insidious with a glare which, fortunately for him, was hot in expression only. “Do you have something to say, Sister Moon?”

Sister Moon tried the chain again but it was useless. She was trapped, and worse, she’d trapped herself. “I just mean, I said all along this was a bad idea.”

Mother Sun said, “We had no choice. You know that. Caesar Insidious was planning to destroy Colossus City. Nobody could stop him but us.”

“You mean, nobody can stop me at all!” crowed Caesar Insidious. “Within moments, my Chrono-Beacons will activate and -”

“I meant what I said. Now, please be quiet. My partner and I are having a conversation.”

“But I-”

“I said please,” said Mother Sun firmly. “I won’t say it again.”

Sister Moon sighed. “I’m not talking about his apocalypse scheme or his death traps. I’m talking about us.”

On the screen, the dotted arcs aimed at the city beeped and advanced by another point. New icons appeared at the vertices of a heptagon surrounding downtown Colossus. The faces of various costumed felons hovered over scattered points on the map. Text scrolled too fast to read.

Mother Sun shot a glance at Caesar Insidious. “You mean our alliance against crime?”

“I mean us. You and me.”

Caesar Insidious looked from one hero to the other. “Oh,” he said, sounding embarrassed. “Oh! Are the two of you together? I always thought you were -”

“You thought we were what, dear?” said Mother Sun.

“Um, related.”

“Oh really? Because we’re both Asian? Is that what you thought?”

Caesar Insidious turned a shade of pale historically unheard of on the Italian Peninsula. “Oh, no no no. Really, I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I just meant, I always assumed you were one of those mother-daughter teams you hear about.” The uncertain quaver in his voice had assumed superhuman proportions.

“Well, shut up because we’re not,” said Sister Moon. “We’re allowed to be different ages, you know. Sun, what I’m trying to say is, are you sure about this? We keep fighting. I don’t want that.”

Mother Sun was silent for a moment. “Do you think we’re too different, Moon?”

“I think we’re too alike!” Sister Moon sniffed beneath her helmet. “Just now, we both charged straight in, knowing it was a trap. We both allowed ourselves to be captured so we could listen to Insidious explain his master plan.”

“Hey!”

“Shut up, Insidious. We both decided, independently and without consultation, to offer to sacrifice ourselves so he’d let the other go. I think we’re both too obsessed with our work to make time for each other.”

“What are you saying?” Mother Sun couldn’t see her partner’s face, but she pictured her biting her lip.

Through a louder sniffle, Sister Moon said, “I – I think maybe we should see other partners.”

Kaiju sirens sounded in the distance as Colossus City became alert to the threat.

Mother Sun blinked hard. “Is that really what you want?”

Sister Moon shook her head, rattling her chains. “No. I just don’t know if we can be good for each other.”

An inset box on the monitor showed Belladonna and the Carnivore brawling with Adjustor and Tremolo for control of a Chrono-Beacon. The heroes were losing.

Mother Sun said, “I love you, Moon. Nothing else is as good for me as you.”

She stepped away from the column, the chains evaporating where they touched her. She gestured at Insidious’s control system. He yelped as it melted into slag, and again when the slag enveloped his boots. As he jumped free, Mother Sun clocked him with a right cross. “That’s what you get for researching my vulnerabilities on Heropedia.”

Sister Moon shrugged off the loose chains. “Does this mean we’ll keep trying?”

Mother Sun smiled. “It won’t be easy. We’re workaholics, our power sets aren’t complementary and I dislike all your favourite music.”

Sister Moon said, “After we save the city, let’s take a holiday. Together.”

Mother Sun beamed brighter. “In space?”

“Space is good.”

 


Welcome back to Colossus City, where the superheroics are Typical (6) but the drama is Unearthly (100).

(Around here, we don’t apologise for deep-cut references from thirty years ago. For Gen X’ers, they are both culture and birthright).

By the time you read this, I will be well into my overseas holiday and mostly out of contact. Rest assured the weekly Friday flash fiction stories will continue unbroken. Even though this is the first of the prescheduled stories to appear, I wrote it last. The rest of the weekly program is locked in, so you can check back each Friday and you won’t miss a thing.

The previous Colossus City superhero stories were Mister Extra and Flyers.

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Friday flash fiction – Great Beasts of the Pacific and How to Hurt Them

“General Kramer! Forward scouts have reported sighting Ultimaxus off the coast! It is approaching the mouth of the Columbia River at twenty knots.”

https://pixabay.com/en/fremont-bridge-portland-oregon-river-2364001/

“Scramble defensive squadrons! Deploy mobile artillery! Is Ultimaxus within range of the Astoria gun emplacements?”

“In three minutes, General!”

“Order the crews to stand by to fire on my command!”

Fort Vancouver, just one of many new command centres hastily established to consolidate the military apparatus in the exposed coastal cities, burst into desperate activity. Sea-raid sirens blared, jet engines roared, and soldiers yelled as the first blurry images appeared on radar monitors and long-range cameras. An immense lumbering form waded between unoccupied islands like a child in a toy-filled bathtub.

“General! Science team confirms identity. It is Ultimaxus!”

“Get Professor Croft and Doctor Ishikara up here immediately!”

The General chewed a thumbnail as he glared at the monitors, willing them to contradict the awful report. Ultimaxus! The news could not be worse. More than two and a half million souls lived in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan region, with hundreds of thousands more along the Columbia River. Those who had not fled inland at the first alarms now huddled in their homes, awaiting their fate.

“This is Squadron Barking Watchdog, Central Command. We are on approach to target. Do we have live strike clearance?”

“Confirmed, Watchdog. You are off the leash.”

“Adopting Formation Blind Kaiju, Central. Engaging in T-minus-ten. Niner. Eight.”

The command team held their collective breath. The gambit was new and untested, the brainchild of the Special Tactics Group. Past attempts to cripple the senses of the Great Beasts of the Pacific had ended in spectacles of fire and death. Would this time be any different? Yet what choice did they have? Ultimaxus – like all the vast, unthinking engines of destruction which sprung from the irradiated remains of Vladivostok – seemed all but invincible.

“Commencing strike! Phosphorous missiles away!”

The battle was taking place nearly ninety miles away. The General knew the morning sky outside was not suddenly more brilliant, as the combat livestream filled with incandescent white bursts, but he experienced fleeting hope expressed as an instant of brightness. The instant passed, the scorching cloudbursts cleared and the gargantuan head reappeared. The plated scales were burnished but intact, the toothsome maw glowed blue with a renewed intensity, and all three eyes, as black as the deepest ocean trenches, glinted with a malevolent sheen.

“Negative on sensory overload, Central! Our missiles had no effect. Coming around for conventional barrage!”

“Ultimaxus has crossed into the Columbia River! It is heading upstream!”

“Gun emplacements firing! Gun emplacements report minimal damage! Gun emplacements destroyed!”

The General scowled as two civilians were led into the command centre. The sad-eyed man held an unlit cigarette in shaking fingers. The stern-looking woman wagged a finger at the soldiers.

“I warned you General! All you have accomplished is to aggravate Ultimaxus!”

“I need solutions, Professor! Not recriminations! Doctor, what do you know of Ultimaxus?”

The hulking behemoth filled the wall display with its heaving corpulence, green as a mountain in spring and sparkling with cascading waterfalls as it rises to its full height. Puffs of orange flame and black smoke peppered its sides as the mobile batteries open up from the riverside. The creature’s impassive slab face turned in their direction. Its jaw dropped open. It disgorged a royal blue wave, as if vomiting viscous ink.

“Displacement field in effect, General!”

“How many?”

“Estimated population in the area of effect – up to twenty thousand!”

Drones fed images from high above the scene of carnage. Where a heavily trafficked commercial zone had been just moments ago, there were now only hills dressed in thick woods, with a gentle stream runnning through. At the oblong border of this sudden rural expanse, the urban bustle resumed.

“The city has been destroyed! Loss of infrastructure is total!”

“Just like Pyongyang and Kagoshima!”

Doctor Ishikara swallowed hard and shook his head. He pushed a tablet at the General, pointing to the readings on display.

“Ultimaxus’ emission creates a field of Utter Temporal Reversal, General! The people there are not dead! They are like the buildings, the roads and everything else within the field. They have simply never existed!

“We will cease to remember them, moments from now!”

Professor Croft hammered the General’s desk with both fists.

“We must lure Ultimaxus away from the population centres before the casualties become a hundredfold worse!”

“Don’t be alarmist, Professor! Ultimaxus has inflicted almost no casualties. It has stuck to rural forest areas so far!”

Ultimaxus paused on its advance upriver, thrashing its claws wildly at the air, beating its dragonfly wings so hard that waves inundated the forests bordering the Columbia River.

“We cannot take that chance. The areas further upstream are densely populated!”

“What do you propose?”

“There is no choice. We must activate the Vladisvostok Protocol!”

Helicopter gunships flung a volley of Hellfire missiles at Ultimaxus. It breathed a stream of blue vapour. The helicopters vanished, replaced by wheeling pteranodons, which circled over the pristine river in search of prey.

“You can’t be serious! It’s a plan of last resort!”

“It is very dangerous, yes, but the theory is sound! We must act before anyone gets hurt!”

“Where?”

“An abandoned atoll just off the coast. We have an aircraft standing by to deploy the Chronos Bomb!”

Ultimaxus proceeded along the river. In its wake, trucks and power lines disappeared, replaced by woods and creeks.

“The explosion will perfectly reproduce the conditions of the Vladisvostok Event!”

“Ultimaxus will be attracted by the temporal radiation!”

“Very well! Dispatch the bomber! And may God have mercy -”

A strange sensation caught Ultimaxus’ attention. It hesitated, breathed a sigh which might have been relief, and turned back toward the ocean and the strange blue cloud rising from the horizon.

Behind it, the forests fell silent.


I  felt like doing a story comprised mainly of loud declarative sentences. No idea why.

This story was completed in the departure lounge of Sydney International Airport,  where the wifi is not quite as reliable as I’d hoped.

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No Rest for the Travelling Writer

Travel advisory: I’m leaving on a month-long overseas holiday today. Hooray!

Are you worried [1] this might mean no Friday flash fiction? Take it easy, bud. I’ve got your back.

I have fresh stories racked in the chamber and ready to fire every Friday in June [2] at the usual time of 7:30 Friday morning AEST. Just click on the Home page or jump across to Friday flash fiction to catch up on any you may have missed.

If you are on Facebook, you can also follow my author page, where I cross-post links to the stories every Friday, or if your exclusivity streak compels you to run with an option literally nobody else uses, you can always follow my Amazon Author page.

See you in July!

 

1: I know you’re not worried. And that you would prefer me to not refer to you as “bud”. Sorry.

2: Before any firearms enthusiasts @ me about this metaphor, I am aware this is not how loading mechanisms work. Just imagine a quintuple-barrelled cannon if it helps you rest at night.

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