BLOOD OF PATRIOTS – Act I
“War is chaos… and the Tech Infantry practices chaos all the time!”
-- General Yufang Guo, Eastern Bloc
At first, it was confusing; now Malachi was simply pissed. With the rain cutting his optics to zero and his servogyros not quite adjusting to the mud, sneaking up on the enemy’s lance cannon seemed impossible. He wondered if Treschi wasn't the only one who helped his transfer. Maybe somewhere there was another asshole trying to get him killed, and if was, it had to be Max Thames. Since Max sided with the rebels, though, any influence he might have possessed had long disappeared. Creeping through the tanglebrush, he cursed Thames anyway.
As the trooper reached the edge of the jungle, Malachi took a moment to think. Scanning the area, it was obvious the fuck with the lance cannon was alone. A platoon nearby wouldn't be able to get to him before Spyder could. He could take all the time in the world. With a wave of his hand, his platoon stopped, 50 meters away from the bastard’s clearing. Taking a swallow of water, he gathered up his courage, and then ran the rest of the way himself. Clicking to the proximity frequency, he started screaming the second he appeared to the gunner. "You shot the wrong damned shuttle!!!"
"That shuttle was ours, you idiot!"
"Damn it, of course it was! This situ is completely FUBAR... now drop your weapon and return to base, soldier."
"I shot one of our own? Oh my…" The rebel gunner believed Spyder. Unconsciously, he put down his weapon and began to leave. Suddenly, as Malachi was coming up to take his weapon, he whipped around, realizing what was really going on. The lieutenant wasted no time, stuck out his arm, and levelled his suit with a spiker gun. The weapon cleared away the nanotech and obliterated the armor plating underneath. Although the gray little machines soon sealed the breach, the dead man inside was going to stay dead.
Spyder picked up the lance cannon just as alarms went off on his motion detector. The computer started counting for him. Twelve… then forty-five… holy shit, he thought, it was a fucking battalion! Shouldering the heavy piece of metal, he ran like hell back toward the platoon. He bit down on the dentcom, rotated it to the platoon frequency, and started barking like mad. “Fall back, damn it! Back to the LZ!”
“LT?” sounded like his trusty platoon sergeant.
“That’s an order. Fall back! The entire Reb army is coming this way!”
Once he reached the platoon’s former line, Spyder got the lance cannon ready to fire. The enemy would mow them down if he didn’t give them a chance to escape. Checking his sensors again, he aimed at their relative position, and fired. A ruby bolt of plasma erupted slicing a clean hole through the battalion’s line. Malachi dropped back down as their response was chilling. Even at this extreme range, the jungle was being ripped apart around him.
"Shit,” he cursed under his breath, waiting for the cannon to charge again.
Another volley of long-range fire erupted around him. Suddenly he felt his right leg get knocked back. By the time he looked down, he saw a small hole near his foot. Thankfully, the armor wasn’t penetrated, and already the nanotech gray was sealing it up. He tried putting some weight down on it; it was sore, but at least it wasn’t broken.
Spyder went right to work at resetting the cannon’s range. His suit quickly interfaced with the gun (as it was designed to do), sacrificing its maximum range in favor of a longer blast time. As the motion detector showed the enemy getting closer, he gave a sigh of relief as the recharge indicator beeped. Crawling back out of his hole, he moved back along the shredded underbrush slowly, the chameleon circuits working on low power to adapt him to the greenery. The only thing obvious about his movement was the giant lance cannon.
He could feel his breathing going faster, hoping to God that Elly managed to get them back to the captain. Hopefully Jada had a plan to get us back with the 1st Division; otherwise it was a long way to Talavera, especially if they were on their own.
Malachi bit down on the dentcom again, whispering on the command circuit. “Ragdowski, report.”
“Yes, Elly. I’m in a rush, could you hurry it up?” Spyder hushed, watching the white dots blip closer with each second. Not long now…
“Yes, sir. 3rd Platoon is back at the LZ.”
“Good. Now get ready for an attack. They’re not going to be happy after this.”
Malachi clicked off the dentcom and readied the cannon. They were just about in range. If they didn’t detect the power surge of the cannon… another look at the motion detector told him it was time. Finally he got up, activated the cannon, and swept the area with his massive laser. Trees, bushes, power armor; everything at waist-height was ripped in half in front of him. After that, he wasted no time. Dropping the burnt-out lance cannon, Spyder ran through the thick jungle, the rush of plasma and carbine fire ripping everything behind him.
His suit was going full tilt as he rushed through the rain, hoping that the thick foliage and constant downpour would fool the enemy batt… well, the enemy’s two platoons, anyway.
Cringing while the power levels on his suit dropped to 78%, he managed to reach the landing zone. His sense of relief was soon dampened by the fact that there were no troops there to meet him. Checking his scanner, the lieutenant found them again… on the other side of the clearing.
The plasma bolts streaked through the air in front of him. Spyder instinctually dropped to the ground as he watched the light show before his faceplate. Separated from his unit, he needed to find out what was going on. Clicking onto the command line, he called out “Spyder to Kraai, come in please.”
“Spyder?!” Malachi couldn’t tell if Jada was glad or annoyed to hear his voice. “Where the hell have you been?!?!”
“Taking out that lance cannon, ma’am.”
“Great. We’re now under attack from the rest of the brigade you encountered. Get your ass back over here and move your platoon. We’re falling back to meet up with the First again.”
“Yes, ma’am, but I’m at…”
“I don’t care where you are. GET OVER HERE!”
Captain Kraai cut the connection. At the same time, the motion detector noticed something. The enemy that he severely pissed off was coming after him. The crossfire in from of him, the enemy behind, and his own unit was moving out. Great, he thought, what the fuck am I going to do now?
Three days after their attack, the EFS Benedict cut its velocity to less than five percent of light speed, as her captain anxiously awaited the arrival of the battlecruiser to take them home. The ship did not have sufficient fuel to kill the remaining velocity, much less turn around and reach one of the jumpgates in the New Madrid system. The rebel fleet had been routed back to Rios, a shattered hulk of what it had been, but the fight on the ground was still going on.
"Jump point forming in front of us," announced the sensor officer.
Erich Von Shrakenberg smiled. "Excellent, that will be the Vanguard… five minutes early." Not bad for a rendezvous, he thought, especially since it was scheduled two weeks ago.
“Sir,” Gergenstein interrupted his thoughts, “I don't think that's the Vanguard."
"What?" The captain bolted upright in his command chair.
"It's a Jurvain battlecruiser!"
The distinctive rounded shape of a Jurvain warship swam into view on the main viewscreen. The four bulges of its gravitic drive system along the sides and the larger bulge of the heavy hellbore cannon at the prow made it look a little like a giant, flying turtle.
"Oh, Schizen," cursed the captain.
"Sir, the Jurvain are hailing us," announced Lt. Radovic.
The picture on the main viewer changed, showing a Jurvain captain sitting on the bridge of the warship, his three eyes were glaring behind the faceplate of his skinsuit. The translated words that he… she… it spoke came over the speaker without emotion.
"Greetings, Gatecrasher. You will surrender your ship and board our vessel. Once here, you will be taken back to Sahlmeen to stand trial for war crimes."
Erich managed to stand, holding onto his chair for support. "And… why should I do that?"
The answer sounded angry. Once the computer translated it, the answer came back in a deadly monotone. "If you don't, I will blow your egg-killing soul and your ship out of this universe. You can either come now or take your chances in the next world. The choice is yours."
Captain Von Shrakenberg made a quick cutting gesture with his hand below the pickup range of the viewscreen, and turned to his exec. "Commander O'Reilly, you and I both know that the instant I set foot on that ship, he'll kill the Benedict anyway."
The exec nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The captain continued, keeping his voice low. "So we’re already dead.” He allowed himself a sigh, then turned back to Xinjao. “Do we have enough fuel left to ram them?”
Lieutennat Commander O'Reilly looked back with a shocked expression on his face. "No, sir, not at this range. They'd burn us down long before we got close enough."
"That's what I thought," concluded the captain. He gestured to turn the viewscreen pickup back on. "I have discussed it with my officers," Von Shrakenberg said to the camera. "And we will do as you say."
"Wise decision, Gatecrasher", came the translated response from the Jurvain captain.
Von Shrakenberg held his hands out and shrugged his shoulders. "However, we took serious damage in the recent battle. Our shuttle was damaged beyond repair, and I am therefore unable shuttle over to your vessel."
The Jurvain commander's middle eye blinked rapidly in their equivalent of an evil grin. "Then we will kill you there, you and your pouchless crew."
While Shrakenberg traded quips and insults with the Jurvain captain, stalling for time, O’Reilly quietly opened a comm channel. “Chief?”
“WHAT?” Bertram’s voice snapped back. “I’m a bit busy repairing this thing, damn it!”
“Chief, there’s a Jurvain battlecruiser out here,” O’Reilly said with quiet urgency, “and the only thing keeping them from shooting us down is that they want the Captain alive.” Xinjao heard a shocked pause, followed but several vehement curses. “Chief, listen. We need power to the main drives. Get it from anywhere, I don’t care. We need ramming speed.”
“We don’t have any weapons but the ship itself,” O’Reilly explained urgently, “We’re gonna eject in life pods and ram them.”
“But… But someone has to pilot the ship…” Bertram began.
“I know. The captain’s a good man.”
There was a pause as that sunk in. “Even if we cut everything but the engines,” Bertram began, unsure, “I don’t think we’d have enough fuel -“
“Then find more fuel, chief. Use the reaction mass from the shuttles. Use the fusion shells if you have to. But find more fuel.”
“That… might work…” Bertram’s stammered, she was overwhelmed by all of it.
“Oh, come on, Bertram, you’re an expert with power converters. I know you can do it. Everyone’s counting on you.” The commander cut the channel before she could object again.
Von Shrakenberg looked hurt. "Captain, I'm sure you would much rather bring me home in chains to display as your prisoner. Why don't you match velocities with my ship and I’ll strap a jetpack on my suit and hop on over?"
"Agreed, murderer-of-helpless-children." Erich guessed the computer had trouble coming up with an exact translation of some nasty Jurvain insult. "We will close to within ten of your kilometers for the transfer. But you will not fire your engines or power up any of your weapons or targeting systems."
"Of course not," replied the captain. "We don't have any operational systems that could get through your grav shield anyway."
The Jurvain cut the communications link without another word. As soon as the screen went blank, Von Shrakenberg turned to Herbert Gergenstein at the weapons panel.
"Lieutenant Gergenstein, load the fusion cannon, but under no circumstances are you to move the turret or light up any targeting systems."
"Yes, sir," replied the weapons officer, with just a hint of fear below his voice.
"And just what the hell are you planning," bellowed the voice of Commodore Adams from the hatchway to the bridge. "I monitored that exchange from my quarters. You don't really believe them, do you?"
"Of course not, sir," replied Captain Von Shrakenberg. "Oh, he wants me for some show-trial and torture party on the Jurvain homeworld, I doubt the Jurvain took kindly to my killing 100,000 of them when I blew up the Ashdown Gate. But they ain't gonna let this ship go once they got me."
"So what is your plan? That ship has a grav drive, our chemlaser is down, we can't get through their shield."
“If you still want to ram them, sir,” Xinjao called out, “we might be able to…“
“Change of plan, O’Reilly,” Erich replied dryly. "They have to drop the shield to bring me on board, don't they?"
J.J. Adams scowled, puzzled. "Yes, but if you're going to be scooting over in a jetpack, you'll be so close that the blast from the fusion cannon will shred us with the shrapnel!"
"The fusion cannon is the backup plan," explained Von Shrakenberg. "I'm the primary weapon."
"You have got to be kidding," exclaimed Chief Engineer Bertram. "He wants us to turn a fusion shell into a grenade?”
O'Reilly frowned. " I guess that’s one way to put it.” He answered as he removed the access cover of the nuclear bomb. “You think you can patch in a manual trigger on a 3-foot lead?”
“I can do it, yes…” she agreed, her voice hard. O’Reilly could smell the cigarette smoke emanating from her uniform. He couldn’t blame her; it was a tense situation.
“Then hurry. Set the trigger for a ten second delay. I’m removing the range safety,” he said as he gingerly removed the device with trembling hands.
"That violates half a dozen safety regs,” Bertram said doubtfully, smoke from the soldering gun drifting around her face.
"Oh, more than that,” replied the exec. “but it’s this or being blown to atoms by the Jurvain battlecruiser. Okay, stick it in this duffel bag and run it down to the airlock!"
"And I thought the last captain was crazy," muttered the chief petty officer. "All he did was put on sock-puppet shows in the officers' mess."
"You sure you want to do this," asked the commodore.
"If you have a better idea, I'd love to hear it," countered the captain.
"We could stick someone else in the suit, send him in your place."
"No, I thought of that. I won't send anyone else to die in my place. It's me they're after, it's me that has to go."
Adams looked silently at Von Shrakenberg for a moment. "All right, captain. I sure hope this works."
Erich sealed his helmet in place on his spacesuit. "I do, too."
The Jurvain battlecruiser hung motionless in space, a mere ten kilometers from the EFS Benedict. Captain Erich Von Shrakenberg stepped out through the airlock into the vacuum of deep space. He activated the thrusters on his EVA jetpack, and a stream of ionized helium shot out behind him, speeding him across the abyss between the metal warships.
He clicked the transmit key with his chin. "Von Shrakenberg to Jurvain vessel, please drop your grav shield so I can pass through to your vessel."
The translated reply came through a moment later. "Negative, captain. Our technology is far better than yours, that will not be necessary."
The captain silently swore to himself as a glowing man-sized window appeared directly ahead of him in the shimmering wall of twisted space that was the enemy grav shield. He keyed over to the secure directional link to the Benedict. "Gergenstein, can you hit that window?"
The answer came back a few seconds later. "No, captain. It's too small for a snap shot, and even if I got it through, they could easily pick it off with their defense grid."
"Well, we tried," concluded Erich, "back to plan A." He nudged the control on his jetpack forward again, and drifted silently through the open gate through the grav shield.
"As you can see, our gravitational technology is decades ahead of your puny science," taunted the Jurvain captain over the comlink. "The Jurvain Commonality is destined to rule the galaxy."
”I wouldn't know about that," answered Von Shrakenberg good-naturedly. "Humans are pretty resourceful. After all, how many of your people did I kill at Rios?"
The Jurvain captain was audibly annoyed, even through the flat computer translation. "Two hundred fifty-eight thousand, four hundred and ninety-six."
"Exactly," Erich continued. "That must have been one heck of a dent in your navy, since it’s not as large as Earth Fleet.”
"Ah," interrupted the Jurvain, "but you are not united like the Jurvain are."
"No, we act as individuals," replied the captain, breathing faster as he approached the kilometer-long Jurvain warship. "We’re not collective like the Jurvain… or the Bugs."
"The Bugs are irrelevant," the Jurvain corrected. "They act collectively because they know no other way. You humans act as individuals because you know no other way. We Jurvain have chosen the path of unity, the path of commonality."
"My condolences," quipped Von Shrakenberg.
"No matter," the Jurvain captain went into a lecture. "You humans will lose because you fight amongst yourselves. You squabble over table scraps, while we seize your choicest systems. You sell each other out for political advantage, while we bury your race in the shellheap of history. Your own security forces sold you out, the short-sighted two-eyed cripples."
The captain had reached the Jurvain ship, and had decelerated to a stop with his magnetic boots resting on the frame of the airlock door. "Maybe you're right, after all. If someone as good at killing Jurvain as I am isn't worth keeping, then maybe I should join your side." As the airlock door cycled open, Von Shrakenberg tossed his duffel bag into the opening, hitting the ten-second timer.
never fit in with us, murderer," finished the Jurvain voice. "The
Jurvain act as one, the Jurvain think as One, The Jurvain…"
"…DIE AS ONE!" Erich shouted as he kicked off from the hull out into empty space. He immediately hit his suit thrusters, way past the safety margin. He sped away from the battlecruiser, taking off through the void like a rocket, while the 15-gee acceleration caused him to black out.
Ten seconds later, the side of the Jurvain battlecruiser erupted in flame as the 100-kiloton warhead in the duffel bag exploded just within the hull. High-energy gamma radiation flooded Von Shrakenberg's body, more than a kilometer away, and shrapnel from the explosion tore his suit in two places. The automatic tourniquets cut in to stop the bleeding and air loss, but it was just as well that he was no longer awake to feel the pain.
The explosion destroyed one of the primary grav projectors for the Jurvain gravity shield, and the field died just in time as the captain’s unconscious body passed through the space that seconds before was twisted by gravitational energy. The crippled Jurvain warship shook with secondary explosions, broken and worthless; the terror had become nothing but a hulk in space. Captain Erich Von Shrakenberg's broken body sped onward into the void, coasting on empty thrusters, trailing a thin stream of blood that rapidly crystallized in the frozen stillness of deep space.
Lieutenant Radovic stared wide-eyed at his monitors. “I don’t believe it,” the sensor officer mumbled. “I don’t fucking believe it! The captain escaped the blast!”
Xinjao breathed a sign of relief. “I don’t know how he does it…”
“He’s not answering his hails,” the communications officer said. “He’s at least unconscious, possibly dead.”
“Set the Benedict on an intercept course with the Captain.” O’Reilly ordered instantly.
“Sir?” O’Reilly turned a puzzled gaze toward Commodore Adams.
"If we pick him up," Adams said firmly, "we won't have the fuel to mate up with the Vanguard when she arrives to pick us up.”
“But the Vanguard has plenty of delta-vee, they’ve got that huge grav drive.” Xinjao argued. “They can match velocity with us, mate on docking thrusters, and jump us out of here. We don’t need the extra fuel. But we do need the Captain!"
“Then let the Vanguard pick him up!” Adams snapped.
“Sir, he’s heading out of the system at 15 G’s!” Xinjao protested. “If we don’t catch him NOW, we might loose him out there!”
"Commander O'Reilly, you can't jeopardize this entire ship for the sake of one man," exploded the Commodore. “What Von Shrakenberg did was brave, but it cost him his life!”
Here it is, Xinjao thought, here’s the call. This is what I hate about being exec - the split-second, life-or-death order and all responsibility for what follows. What do I do?
"Commodore Adams,” O’Reilly said, heart pounding in his chest, “in the event that the captain of a ship is dead or otherwise incapacitated, the executive officer assumes command of the vessel. Captain Von Shrakenberg is either dead or unconscious. I am assuming command of this ship. Helm, maintain intercept course for the captain."
"And as your squadron commander, I am ordering you to get this ship back on the rendezvous vector!" Adams bellowed, fist pounding on the console. O’Reilly flinched. The crew didn’t move. They shot each other puzzled, worried glances and shuffled uncomfortably.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Xinjao said calmly and firmly, “but I’m not leaving the captain behind.”
The commodore’s eyes narrowed. He stepped closer to the short Asian-Irishman. “Are you disobeying a direct order, lieutenant commander?” Adams asked, his voice low and dangerous. “Because if you are, I’ll have your fat yellow ass in the brig so fast you’ll think light speed is slow!!”
Xinjao really, really wanted to back down… and then he caught Gergenstein’s eyes -- Don’t do it, they told him, don’t leave him to die out there! My God, he thought, his mind racing, there has to be a way around this…
“I won’t disobey orders, sir,” O’Reilly began, looking Adams straight in the eye, “BUT if I can pull enough extra fuel out of my ass to pick up the captain and return to the rendezvous point, will you let me?”
The commodore crossed his arms and looked suspiciously down at O’Reilly. “Yeah,” he said after a slight hesitation. “If you can do it, maybe…”
Instantly O’Reilly hit a comm channel. “Chief Bertram!”
“What?!” her irritated voice snapped over the intercom.
“The extra fuel we discussed for ramming speed - you got that ready yet?”
“I would if you’d stop interrupting me… wait, we’re not ramming anything, are we?”
“No, chief, but we do need the fuel. Excellent job, Bertram.” He cut the channel and looked up to see Adams starring at him dumfounded. “Never make a technical bet with an engineer, Sir,” he explained. “If I bet you your shoelace would jump up and spit an egg in your face, trust me, you’d have a yolk in your eye.”
The bridge crew burst into laughter, a rather lame joke suddenly hilarious as all the tension on the bridge was suddenly released. Commander O'Reilly turned to look at over his relieved crew. "Helm, MAN OVERBOARD."
Minutes later, Xinjao buckled a jet pack over his EVA suit as the airlock depressurized. Just my luck, he thought, Not familiar enough with the ship to qualify for engineering crew, but qualified enough for this dangerous spacewalk shit! The engineering crews, accustomed to spacewalks for hull repairs, would have been the most qualified for the risky rescue attempt. But the Benedict’s engineering crew, trying to hold the ship together, was all tied down with repairs, which left … O’Reilly. He was used to spacewalks, yeah, but never far from the ship, and always with safety cables. Once out of the air lock, all that separated him from the ship and the big black void was a jetpack with a ludicrously small amount of fuel. Still, it had its perks... he was able to pass command off to Adams while he was off the bridge.
The airlock open and Xinjao jumped out. A burst from the jets sent him flying toward what he hoped was an intercept course with Shrakenberg. Herb calculated the trajectory in order for him to reach him, but as far as his eye could see, there was nothing but black. The suit had been jury-rigged up with a suit computer from one of the ancient power armors the TI Marines had on board. If he was going to go for a walk into the void, he at least wanted to know where he was going.
A crude HUD showed the location of the captain’s floating body in front of him. The green icon got larger and larger as he got closer, but the actual form still eluded him. He dared not look back at the ship, fearing that the computer would lose track of the captain. Finally, the spacesuit appeared to his naked eye and Xinjao kicked his maneuvering jets around to get ready to stop. He couldn’t tell if Von Shrakenberg was alive or dead; only that he wasn’t moving. As O’Reilly got closer to his target, he tensed up, getting ready to hit the thrusters to stop the spiraling captain.
Once he got close enough, Xinjao reached out, then grabbed the flying bullet in the spacesuit. His suit’s thrusters kicked in, slowly at first, but finally moving the duo back towards the relative safety of the Benedict. The lieutenant commander couldn’t bring himself to look at Erich’s faceplate; he knew he wouldn’t be able to forget it if he turned out to be dead. Checking the captain’s suit instead, his computer chirped the news. Von Shrakenberg was alive, although only just.
Missing an arm and a leg, out of propellant, and low on life support, Erich had managed to survive. You damn bastard, Xinjao thought, you did it again. I don’t know how you did it, but you made it. Shifting his thrusters up another notch, they spiraled around through space, back on an intercept with their ship. As O’Reilly looked around, he noticed a flash where no flash was supposed to be. It wasn’t the red shift of a jumpgate or the white hot flash of a fusion bottle rupture. He had seen that flash a thousand times from the orbital platforms of his home in Port Arthur. It was an ion drive breathing into life.
“Benedict to O’Reilly!” the voice of Nebojsa Radovic screamed over his suitcom. “The Jurvain…”
“I know. “ the commander interrupted, watching his suit’s computer track the incoming ship. “How the hell did it survive?”
“O’Reilly?” Commodore Adams broke into the circuit. “You better move your ass back to the ship. Looks like we might need you after all.”
“How long till they’re in range?”
Herb broke in now. “We’re pretty sure the captain got their hellbore, but that leaves a lot of other stuff we have no idea about. If they’re working off their secondaries… assume fifteen minutes.”
Xinjao kicked the thrusters up another notch; they were going as fast as he dared go without letting go of the captain. With any luck, they could get back to the ship before they were all blown to hell.
Ten minutes later, they were through the airlock, and stripping to get the suits off them. The captain was taken to sickbay to join the dozens that were already there. They didn’t even rate a full doctor on this crate, but the pharmacist’s mate was doing a hell of job with what he had. Xinjao floated his way up to the bridge, to see the horror of what was happening.
Once O’Reilly opened the door, all eyes shifted to him. Nirav Patel, who should have been manning the helm, went over to him and shook his hand. “Sir, you look like hell.”
“Thanks, lieutenant.” Xinjao managed a smile. “What’s the status?”
Commodore Adams rotated the captain’s couch around. “The Jurvain are on our ass, boy, and there’s no way to shake them off.”
“Ion drive’s dry. All we’ve got are maneuvering thrusters.” Patel added.
Herb looked up from his console. “Three minutes to estimated weapons range.”
“The battlecruiser is pushing its engines way past their normal capacity.” Radovic commented. “They’re leaving coolant trails like a comet. They’ll catch us in seven minutes.”
O’Reilly floated over to the sensor station. “Do we have any weapons?”
“Twenty rounds on the fusion cannon.” Gergenstein mumbled, not even looking up from his screens. “They’re only going to work if I hit them in the right place.”
“I’m working on that now, sir.”
The wait was intolerable; expecting to get blown out of the void was rather unsettling. The tension in the room was visible as the silence that shrouded the room. When Gergenstein finally spoke, it was like a firecracker exploding. “In weapons range… now.”
The crew physically tensed for a moment… and nothing happened. Finally Lieutenant Radovic cut in. “The battlecruiser’s engine just jumped up another level. They’re on an intercept course… sir, they’re trying to ram us!”
Xinjao coughed a dry laugh. If this is some god’s idea of irony, it’s not very damn funny, he thought.
“Take us with them?” Adams smirked, “They’re ballsy, aren’t they?”
O’Reilly dropped all sense of decorum. “Herb, can you hit their engines?”
“Maybe…” Gergenstein muttered, finally looking up from his scopes. “Turn us around.”
The EFS Benedict used the last of its manuevering thrusters to flip the ship around. They couldn’t break out of their trajectory but they could rotate the vessel. Once the destroyer settled, the fusion cannon fired off a string of projectiles, swirling through the darkness and impacting on the oncoming battlecruiser. A series of explosions followed, but nothing so engulfing as the one they hoped.
“Shit!” Herbert cried out before he could catch himself. “We’re dry, sir.”
“Life pods?” O’Reilly offered.
“They wouldn’t escape the damn blast radius!” Adams shot back.
Xinjao didn’t reply as he silently watched the Jurvain’s icon get closer and closer. It was all for nothing, wasn’t it? O’Reilly’s thoughts grew more and more dim with two minutes remaining to his life. The fusion shell, the fuel, the ship, the spacewalk… none of it mattered. No one will ever know what or why we did it. All of this, it was for…
Suddenly the screen filled with light and things suddenly became obscured. The next thing the commander knew was that he was tossed against the wall. The pain exploded through his body as he crashed against the side of the bridge; teach him, he thought, for not strapping himself down. The shock wave was coursing through the ship as things exploded all around them. Then, just as suddenly, it stopped.
O’Reilly couldn’t quite peel himself off the wall as the fire suppression systems kicked in and doused the flames. Then the ship’s comm squawked to life. “EFS Benedict, are you there? EFS Benedict, respond, please!”
The commodore’s groggy voice sounded through the mist. “EFS Benedict here. Who is this?”
“Benedict, this is the EFS Vanguard. We destroyed the Jurvain ship tracking you. Move your ship to dock.”
“Uh,” J.J. coughed the dust out of his lungs, “that’s a negative, Vanguard. Our engine capacity is zero. I say again, we ain’t moving.”
There was a slight pause, then the comforting voice of another Earth Fleet ship came again. “Very well. Prepare to abandon ship.”
Captain Von Shrakenberg awoke to a low murmur of sounds and a cacophony of shadowy visual shapes. As he came back from the realm of unconsciousness, the images before him gradually came into focus. He was in a bed, apparently in sickbay… somewhere. It wasn't the EFS Benedict, this ship obviously had internal gravity, or it wouldn't hurt this much to simply lay in bed. The brightness of the room was what hurt the most. He looked toward the source and the sunlight was streaming… SUNLIGHT?!
He struggled to form words. "Where…am…I?"
A figure leaned over his bed. "Those medtechs are getting better every year," chuckled a voice that sounded vaguely like Herbert Gergenstein. "They said you'd wake up at 1500 hours. Not 1501, not 1459, but 1500 hours exactly. Guess what time it is?"
Erich was not amused. However, that annoyance brought him all the way back to the land of the living. Able to focus on his smug face, he noticed his collar suddenly bore three silver pips. "Where am I, lieutenant… commander??"
Lieutenant Commander Gergenstein looked around nervously. "That…is a far more interesting question than you realize."
Although the shuttle bay was filled with four other people, Hex felt alone. His body was no longer on fire. He was freezing. Not only was nothing around him real, he himself was not real. The world around him was fading away, but he could still see the girl called Cerise struggling against her escorts to reach him.
From her perspective, the closest thing she had to a relative was slipping away from reality. She could barely see him, and it took all the concentration she could muster to reach into his mind, which was also vanishing quickly. Diving as deep into her "brother's" memories as she could, she tried to find Hex's memory of awakening before. Hex was freezing… alone… He wasn't real. There was no reality. The only thing real was the cold. He vaguely felt another presence, and suddenly several memories all came to him at once. Images overlapped; a proverbial conference was going on in his head. He could hardly feel the cold now_ and the vague presence he felt only a second before was gone. The images started to make sense to him, and it all became clear to him. He had to go back before he completely disappeared from the face of reality. His body tensed in grim anticipation of the pain.
Cerise felt the loneliness for a brief moment, and then was forced to break off the incredibly weak mind link. She couldn't see him or sense his mind. She cried, more out of frustration than out of fear of her "brother's" death. She knew he would survive, but she
was so angry that she hadn't been strong enough to help him more. She didn't know what he was going through now, but ever since she learned that Kiddo may have survived Dr. Atkins' raid on Xaktos' lab, she had sworn that she would find Kiddo and never let him face anything alone. Now, although it would only be for a short time, they were separated, and she was powerless
to help him. What's worse, her protectors seemed to be just as inept as she was.
"Keep looking," she demanded. "He’ll be coming back." She wiped the tears away that were welling up in her eyes. He'll be all right, she thought. I can't let him see me like this, though. He’ll be all right.
At first, it was a gentle warmth, something he was used to experiencing when he went invisible. Then it was uncomfortably hot. In another few seconds, all within him burned. Hex now remembered what he believed was the first time he came out of the cold and isolation of non-existence. It was both eight years ago and just a few seconds ago that he believed himself so well concealed that he actually became literally invisible. He had awakened, and although he
had never really trained in magic, he was suddenly quite apt in it. Dr. Xaktos was stunned, and had barely managed to bring him in out of what they dubbed "the cold." Thankfully, Kiddo had awakened at a relatively early age. Had his abilities surfaced much later, he may have vanished from reality entirely-just as he had nearly done mere seconds ago.
Dr. Xaktos… Dear God, what have I become? Kiddo thought. I've let Atkins play me for a fool. The anger welled up inside of him as the pain of reentry into reality increased. It was almost as if it were a punishment for his eight years of killing. I have failed him… I must correct the mistakes I have made. Just as he was beginning to scream in righteous fury; both at himself and at the man who had posed as Xaktos for half of his life…, reality quickly came back together before him. He felt Pint and her mind mage friend probing his mind as he started becoming
visible again. When he was finally fully visible once more, his body felt like it was burning with the strength of the sun.
He had been trained several times to put pain out of his mind, and he was able to will some of the pain away. He was a mage now, after all. He was no longer worried about the inferno that he had to endure when coming out of the cold, but it was certainly an inconvenience. Dropping to one knee, he raised his right fist into the air, and was about to smash it into the metal floor of the shuttle bay.
Pint's small but willful voice stopped him. "What’ll that accomplish, Kiddo? You will need
self-control before you go around using your newfound abilities.”
“My name is Hex, damn it!” he cried out, finally getting to his feet. “I want to break something. I want to wring that phony doctor’s tiny neck! I want my life… I want ALL OF IT BACK!”
Cerise closed her eyes. “You can never go back, Kid… Hex. You know that, don’t you?”
The boy shook with anger, finally slamming his body against the side of his shuttle. The pain… the pain seemed to bring life back into focus. “Yes,” he admitted, “the Center is gone.”
“The Auschwitz.” she corrected.
“You were aboard the EFS Auschwitz, a genetic research vessel. You were designed to be the perfect warrior and I was cloned from your pattern.”
Cerise tried to put her arm around her brother, but he shook it off. “I know this is hard for you, Hex, but you have to understand. It was hard for me, too.” She started to cry again. “I’ve had to hear this story so many times when I was really young. It hurt… but I had know.”
“I don’t think I’m ready for…”
“Okay.” she turned to her companions. “Can we take him home?”
“Not yet,” the mind mage said, “we can’t risk jumping without some help. We can take him to Kash.”
“All right.” Pint replied, before turning back to her brother. “Hex, we can go now. Later, we can teach you, and maybe… if you’re ready, I’ll tell you the rest.”
All Kiddo could do was nod his consent. It was going to be a long road home.
"When are those new recruits due?" Captain Dimiye asked.
"It's almost 0230, they should be here any minute." Lieutenant Johannes checked the chronometer in her suit. "That is, they're supposed to be here at 0230."
The campaign to take Epsilon was only two weeks old and reserve units were already being brought up to the front. The outer rings of troop bunkers had gone down like ninepins under the might of the Technical Infantry all along the front. Then the stubborn armor wall that was the backbone of the Bloc's defenses had kept their forces out of Phi Epsilon for two weeks now.
The planet's population, now four generations old, consisted of Alpha Epsilon, the oldest of the cities, & five newer ones which spread out from it like a five-pointed star. All the smaller towns and villages in the surrounding area had been destroyed by the Eastern Bloc's initial invasion. So the TI advanced on Phi and Kappa Epsilon simultaneously along a 200 kilometer front, which stopped at the cities' walls. All attempts to flank both cities between the huge expanses between them resulted in immense bombardments from enemy artillery and failed. In short, the six cities were one giant fortress with enough men, artillery, and point defenses to make taking it a Herculean task. The TI had total sky and space superiority, but the civilian population's proximity to the enemy reduced that advantage.
"Late or not, we need them." Dimiye said. "What are our total casualties after yesterday's push?"
"Thirty-five percent," Johannes shot out, not needing to consult her datapad. The damage that they had been taking had stuck in the minds of all of them.
A trooper in power armor approached them. The armor's nanotech skin was colored black with contoured white bones formed a skeleton. All of the armor in the 613th Battalion looked this way now. The distorted grinning skull on the faceplate lifted up to reveal the sour looking sergeant-major. "Boss, those reserves are here."
Stacy caught his look first. "Is it that bad, Peter?"
"Buddha, how green can they be?" Dimiye asked.
"You better come see, sir.” Benjamin replied, leading them over to the formation.
Alistar caught his friend’s disapproval immediately. "Peter, do you see what I see?"
"Yes sir, I told ya you wouldn't be happy."
Carbines? They were issued carbines? Dimiye thought. He made a mental note to slowly whip the skin off the division's quartermaster. Carbines were excellent weapons, but gauss rifles had ten times the range and damage capacity, and carbine rounds didn't sprawl when they hit the target.
"Sergeant-Major, grab some of the rifles we've acquired from the EB's and give these kids something decent to shoot with." Dimiye ordered.
In the briefing tent of the 1st Brigade, Major Deanna Vanderpool coolly endured the angry protests of one of her subordinates.
"We can't afford losses like this, ma’am!" Captain Wilhelm announced. "I’ve taken nearly 50% casualties, and my men didn't even see the enemy on the last push!"
"Come now, captain," the major cooed, "I recall your casualties being 42%, there's no need to be melodramatic." Her voice was pure ice.
His was pure venom. "My men are dying out there for nothing! We're never going to breech that wall at this rate!"
"I have to agree, ma’am." Captain Darling chimed in; he was suave, sophisticated, and seemed to know what he was doing on the battlefield. It was an odd combination from a young man from a rich and powerful military family. "The Eastern Bloc forces are in a much better position to play a war of attrition. We have to be…innovative."
"And how do you propose we do that, captain?" The major's question was greeted with silence.
"I’m not sure, ma’am, but I do agree with Darling and Wilhelm. No good will come from our present actions." Captain Yurgi added.
"I have a suggestion." Captain Dimiye interrupted.
The four of them turned their attention to him. "Well, the hero speaks," The major said slyly, "Tell us, captain, enlighten us; what have we been doing wrong?" Her gaze held nothing but contempt.
"We've been ordered to open a pocket along this sector of the wall. We need a breakthrough. We've been trying to do it in the wrong place." He stood up and walled over to the map hologram that they were standing around. "We should hit them, here." He said pointing to a u-shaped indent of the wall on the map, 80 meters wide.
"That place?" Vanderpool betrayed her surprise. "It's one giant murder hole!"
"It's the only place on the line that doesn't have tracker mines. It's also the only spot we've avoided and they've been drawing forces away from it."
Yurgi disapproved. "To defend that place? They don’t need much."
Alistar bent over the map and pointed a small path through the broken land. "One platoon goes in under cover of night in stealth mode and lays charges to blow the wall. At dawn, the whole brigade, maybe the entire legion, rushes through."
"Outstanding! They'll never see it coming!" Wilhelm ejaculated.
"It won't work.” Deanna condemned. “Their sensor clusters would detect the suits even in stealth mode."
"Not if the suits moved slowly enough." Dimiye replied.
"And how slow would they…"
"3 meters a minute." Alistar interrupted.
The major thought for a long moment. Finally, she looked up at them. "Impossible; the suits wouldn't have enough power for their chameleon circuits to complete the mission."
"They would if they had extra power packs."
"Yes, Yurgi agreed. "Additional power packs would give the suits ample time in stealth mode."
Her four subordinates staring at her, Major Vanderpool searched for a reply. "I'll have a hell of a time pitching this to the brass. They’re not going t…"
"I'll lead the incursion personally." Dimiye said.
They all stared at him. Finally, the major nodded, "OK, I'll send the request up. Is there any other business? No? Dismissed." Vanderpool went back to her paperwork, barely acknowledging their salutes.
Once outside, Captain Darling turned to Alistar. "Well, I guess what they say about you is true. You've got balls. How long do you think you can keep them?"
"I guess we'll find out." Dimiye answered, then returned to his battalion. He had work to do.
The pitch blackness seemed to envelop them as they creeped closer to the Wall; the metal monstrosity reaching towards the sky in front of them. The troopers’ suits were programmed to limit their movement, making the march towards the enemy lines an agonizingly slow one. Finally, Captain Dimiye sighed with relief. “We’ve made it.” he whispered on the proximity channel. “Set the charges.”
“Yes, sir.” came their quiet reply. They rushed as fast as their suits would let them, without setting off the sensors. As Alistar got out his charges and started activating their timers, he took a look at the rest of his team. It was like watching a vid on half speed; everyone was moving too slow to be believed.
The suit did most of the work. Plugging the nanotech frame into the device, the computer acknowledged its activation. Then he began the long move to set the next one.
God, this is too slow! his mind screamed, the bio-aug activated from the adrenalin rushing through his veins wanted him to move. The bacteria colonies wanted him to jump, run, skip… anything, but do it fast! Still, he tried to control it with his training; control above anything would save him. He had to have control.
He was about to place another charge when a voice came over the comm. “No, not there!” a female voice whispered. Alistar looked up and saw the invisible blur that he knew to be Sergeant Sara Lee. His demolitions expert couldn’t pass up the opportunity to blow something up.
“Spread the charges out further. These beauties pack quite a blast.”
Dimiye blinked his acknowledgement, moving the charge over another fifty meters. He was only glad that Epsilon 3 didn’t have a moon. Even in that garish light, the suits’ distortion might be recognizable by the naked eye.
It took two hours to set up the last of the charges. The captain wasn’t stupid; he left the planting of the explosives to the tender mercies of Sara Lee. If anyone knew how to level a kilometer of seemingly impenetrable rock, it would be her. As they finally put the last in place, they targeted the suits back to the forward friendly lines. Dimiye let himself rest, setting the computers to guide him home. Something told him that he’d need the sleep.
At dawn, the wall in front of the murder hole lifted off the ground as if the god of earth had woken from a terrible dream. All around Dimiye, he saw the blank faces and white skeletons of his battalion, waiting to live again. “Come on, Dead Boys!” he shouted over the comm, “Get those corpses moving!!!”
The line of power armor seemed to surge across the open countryside. Artillery blasted all around them and fighters danced above their heads; all of this for one big push and the dream that was called breakthrough. The captain led the way as they rushed towards the gap. The armored troops made amazing speed, running at full augmented gallop, making it to the Wall (or what was left of it) in less than a minute. It took Dimiye and his boys the entire night to cross the same distance.
The crater lay ahead of them, and without another word, plasma fire covered any obstacle or threat that was in the battalion’s way. His Dead Boys cleared a path through the Wall so fast that the Bloc troops couldn’t react fast enough. Already his platoons were exploiting the breach, clearing out the trenches and emplacements still standing around them.
Dimiye stopped and stood in the breach, watching the next wave of troops crash in behind them. It was Yurgi’s battalion; Vanderpool’s Brigade was responsible for leading the rush into enemy territory. Captain Yurgi soon appeared in his HUD. “All right, Dimiye, you made this mess. Where you want us to go?”
Alistar started directly the waves through the breach and onward into the interior. Majors, colonels… seniority no longer mattered. Dimiye guided the legion through, guiding them as the dust flew up all around, turning order out of chaos.
Suddenly a new face appeared on his faceplate; the sour look of General Fabin. “Damn ye, captain! What te hell are ya doing?!”
“We’re flanking the enemy, sir. I’ve ordered Third and Fifth Divisions to roll up the wall to the left, while the Seventh and Fourth are rolling up the right. Eight and Nine are rushing forward to take the town, with the Second in reserve. Ten has yet to come up, and of course, One’s with you.”
“You’re ordering divisions around?!?!”
For the first time in the five minutes he had started, he questioned what he was doing. It only seemed natural at the time. Blinking, he admitted, “Yes, sir.”
A map appeared in his HUD with the present positions of the 86th Legion. “Hellfire! You got ‘em on the run, God damn it! Beautiful!” The map vanished and Fabin looked like the cat who just swallowed the canary. “What the hell do ya need?”
Alistar paused for a moment until he realized he wasn’t getting yelled at anymore. “Well, um… sir, we need some orbital bombardments to hit the rest of the Wall. If we keep them busy, the EB’s won’t be reform, and we can take them down.”
“Great! Ya got da slants on the run, eh? Keep it up and give ‘em a good kick in the back side.”
“Yes, sir.” Dimiye managed before the general could cut the connection. He didn’t have time to gloat, though… more troops were coming through the breach, and they needed somewhere to go.
Rashid's eyes shifted off to the side for a moment and then he smiled. "I doubt it, M. Smith." Behind him, Mark heard the whirr of a plasma revolver charging. His head slowly turned.
Steve Jupedus stood there in the doorway, revolver drawn and charged, pointing right at him. "Drop the sword, Mark. M. King has a few things to say to you."
Mark was stunned. When his lips moved again, all they could say is "What the FUCK?!"
"Don't worry about Steve.” King answered. “If you don't do anything wrong nothing will happen."
Everything was happening too fast. Every memory was whipping through his head, flooding his mind; Mark was completely unable to concentrate. Each passing thought reminded him of all his past experiences with Steve. Growing up with him… attending school… both of them going into the military... It was too much for him.
Rashid broke the silence. “M. Smith, let me enlighten you. There is so much that you don’t know. Let me explain what’s going on and why you are here." Taking a puff on his cigar, he leaned back in the chair. "You see, you are very valuable to me. When you come to think about it, I’ve done a lot to bring you here. I don’t like taking that much risk unless it’s warranted. You possess many things that I need. In fact, you are the key to my very success."
"So why not just kill me? You can take all I have… in fact, you can have it now. Nothing! I have nothing! So go ahead… kill me!”
"That is just it… I need you alive. You don’t see it yet, but you are the only person who can do it. I need you to stop this civil war."
Then Mark slid his sword back into its casing. If he made any sudden moves, it didn’t matter. Steve (was that even his real name?) wouldn’t fire; not if he was that damn important. He walked over toward King and sat down in the overstuffed chair. "How many people did it take? Do you have enough to do… whatever the hell you want to do? I mean you’ll need..."
Rashid interrupted. "I have enough. Just to put your mind at ease, the ones that were the closest to you were the easiest to cross over." King leaned forward. "The reason why you went through all that work and time is because I needed to see if you could succeed."
"You were fucking testing me. I was a lab rat? The hell I was!"
Steve was suddenly behind Mark’s chair. "Settle down."
Mark looked up at the werewolf. "Settle down? Settle down?! You don't understand what just happened, do you? My life-long friend, my brother… you just betrayed me… and you tell me to settle down." More and more memories of his past flew though Mark like an open book. None of it was making sense.
"Your anger isn’t helping. There’s nothing you can do, go along with it."
Out of all the images and emotions filtering through Mark's brain, one starts to come into focus. When he first found his sword, he remembered how cool it was to have found it. The glimmer… the speed… Then, all of a sudden, that little girl… Shannon reappeared, and he remembered how easily she took Steve's gun away from him, after she took… dodged that plasma bolt. That’s it, Smith realized, I have to find her.
In the surreal atmosphere that surrounded him, Mark thought nothing of standing up, and walking toward the door, right in the middle of King’s speech. Steve tried to walk in front of him, but before the werewolf could react, Mark threw an elbow in his gut, and slid by him. “Sorry,” Smith mumbled, “I have to leave." Then he walked through the open doorway.
Jupedus finally whipped around and aimed the weapon at Mark’s back when King interrupted. "We need him alive!" the commandant screamed. Steve moved to fire the plasma revolver and suddenly his arm bent down. The gun discharged into the side of the wall.
Watching Smith walk away, King finally came over to the paralyzed Steve. "Don't worry,” he whispered to the werewolf, “he’s going nowhere."
Mark walked down the street… all over the darkened streets of the capital city. Somehow he found himself in late-night café; Avalon never slept. He sat down in a booth, trying to make sense of all of it. King has powerful connections; he seems pretty powerful himself. I still don't know why he wants me alive. How am I going to stop the war? Why does he need me and not Steve?
The waitress finally came over to his table. She was in her twenties, with a black bee-hive hairdo, and a stare that could cut through bank vaults. “What’cha need?”
"Oh, um…” Mark took a quick look at the menu, “#2 special, please."
“Any thang to drink with dat?”
The waitress shrugged and went back into the kitchen.
Smith was left to himself again. Okay. Get yourself together, Mark! Need to get moving… need to find that girl. But how? If she can keep away from King, then how can I find her? Then what about her dad? Did he sell me out too?
The waitress came back with his meal. "Enjoy," she said, then walked away. Mark smiled as he saw her tight ass. "I can get me some of that," he mumbled to himself, before swallowing some of the gruel.
He finished it quickly; even though the stuff was slop, he had forgotten how long it had been since he last ate. After he paid, he decided to go back to that bar where Shannon first took him and Steve. Maybe he could find her there… without her father.
It didn’t take long to get to Cornell. He entered the bar and… it looked exactly the same. It looked like nothing had ever happened there, as if the raid hadn’t happened. Mark felt everyone in the room tense up as he walked toward the stairs leading down. He walked down to the little room she had led them through before. A shadow danced off the walls of the room. Smith turned the corner and saw a bright light emanating from the portable generator. Shannon was there, drawing on the far wall; a bizarre design dark with black slashes in a dizzying pattern.
She looked over at him, nodded, then went back to drawing on the wall. That really pissed Mark off and he rushed over to her, knocking the brush out of her hand. “Damn it, what the hell is going on?!”
“What do you mean?” Her voice sounded so innocent.
Grabbing her shoulders, he tightened his grip on her as hard as he could; she didn’t even notice. “You, King… ALL OF IT!”
“Oh, is that all?”
“NO MORE GAMES!”
“Let go of me.” Shannon replied coldly, looking up at him. “Let go of me.”
“Not until…” Smith never finished his sentence. The next thing he knew, he was bashed against the painted wall.
The little girl just glared at him, ten feet away. “You ruined my painting.”
“What?!” was all he could manage as he peeled himself off the wall.
“How much do you want to know? Could you handle the truth even if I told you?”
The ache in his back was killing him. “What is going on? Why did you say there was a raid? There’s no burn marks, no turned-over furniture, no bodies… nothing!”
“Oh, that.” Shannon walked over and picked up her brush. “We knew one of you was working for King. We had to keep you distracted as to what we were doing.”
“You knew that Steve was…”
“No,” she interrupted, “we knew one of you was an InSec agent. We didn’t know which. Daddy hoped that the agent would jump at the chance to collar a Resistance leader during a raid, but M. Jupedus already knew my strength beforehand. Then my father stepped forward, and when that didn’t work, we finally tempted you with King.”
“How did you know where King would be?”
“We were told.”
“It was a trap.”
“We know. But if we used you two, we would soon find out the truth, wouldn’t we?” Shannon picked up her paint and sniffed it. “My father was expendable, as are we all. He knew the risks and made it back alive. That’s the most we can hope for sometimes.”
“Do you know how long Steve has been working for them?”
“No. We didn’t even know you existed till you dropped on Avalon several weeks ago.”
“So why does King want me? I mean, he can get a dozen assassins. Why am I so fucking special?!”
“Do you want the long or short version?”
“You’re going to tell me whatever you want, and nothing more, so spit it out!”
Shannon smiled. “King wants you for many things, not the least of which is that you’re the best.”
“Best assassin? Who cares?! King has dozens…”
“Yes, King has dozens of assassins, but they’re all known by his target. He couldn’t get them within half a kilometer of him without being detected. Internal Security is efficient, but they’re rather obvious, I’m afraid.”
“You could hook up any schmoe on the street with a bomb and do the same thing. You don’t need me!”
“You’ve been in the killing game for three years. No one survives that long without getting killed themselves or getting out altogether. You’ve made it this long, so you have to be the best.”
“That’s not all of it, though, is it?”
“No. King sees something special in you. We don’t know what it is, but the commandant seldom does anything without extensive reasons.”
The pain in his back was hurting so bad that he had to sit down. “So… ah, who does he want me to kill?”
“The one man who can stop him from becoming all that he desires. He wants to become Marshal, the head of all the Federation armed forces. Decorated war-hero, political general, and the one man who knows where all of the commandant’s skeletons are kept.”
“What’s his name?”
“He wants you to kill Arthur Clarke.”
He wanted me to bring her here? was all Andrea Treschi could think as they burst through the jumpgate into the Hadrian System. The Lonely Heart, thanks to Auntie Sarah’s help, had managed to easily make the last three jumps seperating them between Wilke’s Star and Hadrian. Welcome to the Frontier Worlds Territory, the man imagined some tour guide saying. From the holoproj and the stats he had become familiar with on the way here, he finally understood why the Fed never bothered taking these worlds back. There was nothing here!
Kraw took his worthless little ship from the jumpgate towards the big ball of nothing that looked like an agricultural colony. He had remembered Danika mentioned something about New Sparta… whatever the hell that was. Whatever it was, it had to be important enough for Clarke… and whatever that was was good enough for him.
After fifteen minutes in-system, suddenly the ship shook with the engines rattling a course change. He looked over at their captain and noticed (for once) that it was on purpose. “What are you doing?”
Kraw could hardly hear him over the rattle of the sound; either that, or he was ignoring him. Andrea yelled this time, “What are you doing?!”
“Goin’ ta New Sparta, dumb ass!”
Treschi’s head pivoted over to his charming companion. Danika seemed perfectly content. “Don’t suppose you would care to tell me something?”
She glared at him at first then suddenly broke a smile. The appearance of her white teeth sent chills through his bones. “If you name someplace New Sparta, where do you expect it to be?”
His eyes cowered back to the holoproj, watching the projected course take them to the moon orbiting Hadrian 3. “The moon?”
“Right on the nose!” Kraw cackled, as only an old man can.
Danika detached herself from the chair and started to float up in the zero-gee. “Come on,” she said to Treschi, obviously pleased with herself, “let’s go.”
“The shuttle. We’re going to land.”
“Did you think I was going to plop this down there?” Kraw shot back, keeping his eyes on the antiquated controls.
Frankly, Treschi thought, he did… or at least an orbital station. No such luck today, though, as he unfastened the belt to his chair, floating up until he got a hold of the handrail. Danika led the way, almost dancing, as she found her way down to the shuttlebay. In the few weeks that he had known her, Andrea had never seen her so happy. It was obvious what the cause was; she was home. In the boring trips through the even more boring systems, he managed to coax some details of her life out of her. She had left Hadrian in search for adventure, joined the Tech Infantry, soon became dissatisfied with it, and then went back into business for herself. Still, what jobs were available for a werewolf with no other skills… well, apart from breaking things. Arthur Clarke snatched her up quickly and she resented every minute in his service.
At least the shuttle’s new, he silently thanked whichever god was listening at the time. Thank Valhalla for small mercies. Treschi couldn’t really complain about his pilot; not that he had a choice. He had taken enough of Danika’s verbal… as well as physical abuse on this voyage already.
“Two minutes to drop window.” squawked the voice of their aging captain.
“Get in,” the werewolf ordered. Calmly; not angry as she normally was.
They strapped themselves in without another word and heard the mechanical sound of the drop doors open beneath them.
The ship’s intercom burst to life again. “Ready to go? All right… three, two, one… See ya!”
The shuttle suddenly lurched and the white chipped paint interior of the Lonely Heart was replaced with the rushing blast of atmosphere all around them. The planet’s sudden gravity pulled at both of them as they dropped down into the white swirls below. The red burn of the moon’s heat shield seemed to erupt all around them. Andrea hardly noticed it compared to the contents of his dinner spraying on the console in front of him. Treschi kept puking like he had never kept a thing down in his life. The contents of the bean paste he had been eating for the past few days appeared in front of him like a portrait from some disturbed modern artist.
Danika tried not to look at it, keeping her hands on the controls, guiding them into the maelstrom that lay below. The shuttle was being rocked on all sides; nothing seemed to be stable. Andrea kept heaving but nothing more was coming out.
Finally they made it out of the upper atmosphere, but if anything, the buffeting against their sides got worse. The engines whined their displeasure as the werewolf pressed against the winds that threatened to tear them apart.
What seemed like a short eternity was over rather shortly as the shuttle came to a halt on the ground of New Sparta. The wind was worse than ever as the window in front of them seemed to screech against the pressure. “Welcome home,” Danika whispered to herself, as she undid her straps and went toward the back of the shuttle.
Treschi wiped his mouth clean and fumbled with the restraining straps. He felt weak. “What am I supposed to do?” he cried, finally getting out of the seat.
She threw a thick coat toward him. “Put this on.” The werewolf didn’t bother waiting for him to finish dressing before she opened the shuttle’s door.
The light blared into his face as the wind tried to knock him down. As soon as Danika passed the doorway, she seemed to be lost in the blur.
“Wait for me, God damn it!” Andrea shouted, finishing buckling his coat, then tore off into the nothingness in front of him.
END OF ACT I
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.