BLOOD OF PATRIOTS – Act II
“Man is only great when he acts from the passions; never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination.”
-- Benjamin Disraeli, pre-Fed politician
Captain Dimiye and his battalion walked down the streets of Phi Epsilon to their rally point. The Light Infantry units attached to them were patrolling every corner as the people who called this place home went about their lives, trying to forget the past two months. Everyone from the Admiral on down had heard the stories of Eastern Bloc cruelty at this point; it was common to see bruises of scars on the people who lived here. It only served to strengthen the TI's resolve.
"Boss, you think this is gonna work?" Sergeant-Major Benjamin asked.
"I don’t know, Peter, it might. In theory, we should surprise the EB right outta their rice." Dimiye replied. "Still, it's a dicey move. But we've got to do something about that artillery of theirs."
Benjamin smiled. "Well, sir, then may I request that we only pull this operation in theory?" The Captain chuckled his agreement. Two figures came from behind and flanked them.
"Well, you two look pretty cozy." Lt. Johannes said.
"Yeah, mind if we tag along?" echoed Lt. Kromminga.
The two of them had been at each other's throats only a month ago, and now acted like they'd been friends for years. Women, Alistar thought.
"Tamara, are the Crowfoot brothers ready to take us over?"
"That’s affirmative, sir. They've been chanting ever since the briefing."
"Good", Dimiye nodded, "Then let's get to it."
The Crowfoot brothers were from the batch of newbies they'd gotten two weeks ago. Their aboriginal North American heritage made them unusual; that they were spirit mages made them rare as hell. So, when a junior officer in the general’s staff saw that they, along with so many Garou, were in the Dead Boy Battalion; he cooked up this operation and set it to the brass. Dimiye remembered the briefing.
He'd been ordered to General Fargus' office along with Major Vanderpool. She had been wounded in the taking of Phi Epsilon; no one seemed to know how badly. When the major didn't report in to see the general, Dimiye knew it had to be bad. He couldn't help feeling somewhat responsible, having seen little action that day himself. He didn't like his CO, but she was TI and that made her family. He made a silent prayer to Buddha for her quick recovery. We need everyone we can get, he thought pragmatically.
"Come in and have a seat, captain." General Fargus ordered.
He entered and sat down facing the general. To his right was Colonel Wolfe, his division commander. To his left was General Fabin. This outta be fun, he thought sarcastically.
"We've got a special assignment for your battalion. It's already been approved by every man in this room." Fargus said, looking towards Fabin, standing up.
"Al, ya ever breech the gauntlet?" Fabin said in a moderate tone of voice.
Alistar thought about all the times he'd slipped through the mirror wall to the other side, chasing Kindred. "Yes, sir. It should be in my file."
Colonel Wolfe spoke. "It is, captain. Did you know that every one of us under your command has made multiple incursions into the near umbra?" He knew Wolfe was a Glass Walker, it was one of the reasons he'd been transferred into the 6th division.
"Are you familiar with Dale and Aaron Crowfoot under your command?" Fargus asked.
"Yes, sir, I…" He suddenly knew what they were planning. His men, the two spirit mages; they wanted the battalion to do a spirit walk. "No…” Alistar breathed out in disbelief.
"Oh, yes, captain." Fargus said tonelessly. He turned in his chair as the holomap sprang to life. "Due to the enemies medium and long range artillery in Alpha, we’re still holding perimeter outside Kappa and Beta. Artillery duels have proved fruitless to both sides. They have so many jammers and point defenses that our air power is useless against that son of a bitch." He said pointing to Alpha Epsilon. "Correspondence raids are impossible. All of our smaller orbital bombardments get taken out by their point defenses. We could use the larger satellites, but as you know, they would produce unacceptable civilian casualties." He turned around in his chair to face him. "We’re gonna be sitting here for a year, maybe more, if we can't knock out that god damned artillery." As he finished, Dimiye looked around to see his superior officers staring at him. They were right; it was the only way.
"All right, what exactly do you want me to do sir?"
All three men smiled as another officer entered the room. "This is Lt. Connell Sandusky." General Fargus announced. "He'll fill you in on the details of his plan."
The battalion was organized in a large circle at the rally point, with the Crowfoot brothers in the center. They had been chanting nearly all day in preparation for the task at hand. The Garou in the battalion chanted too, but their rite was different. Everyone else just waited, bracing themselves for the unknown. The objective was over twenty kilometers away, it would be a long journey indeed.
The chanting of the two brothers reached a crescendo as the Garou kept their steady rhythm. Reality seemed to slowly melt around the large circle of men until they disappeared altogether. The realm they reappeared in was similar to the one they'd just left, yet eerily different.
"All right, Dead Boys! Quit yer gawking and fall IN!" Johannes yelled, betraying her fear. A person’s first visit to the near umbra was always nerve-racking.
"Sir?" Aaron Crowfoot, the younger of the two brothers asked.
"What is it, private?" Dimiye noticed his armor now looked as if it were covered in war paint.
He looked over to his brother and continued. "We should wait here for a few minutes, sir. Our spirit guide…we called to him, asked him to meet us here." Dale nodded in agreement.
Why the fuck did you do that? Dimiye thought. Spooks never do anything without something in return… and you've called one?! You stupid little…
Dale read the anger on his face. "Sir, we've known Strong Eagle all our lives. He is the guardian of our people. He protects the spirit realm from attacks by other gods. He will watch over and protect us."
Dimiye still didn't like it, he knew what celestial temper was all about. "You two, maybe. But will he protect the rest of us? Will he like what were about to do?" Will he like all the white faces among us?
"He will." Dale replied. "We are all of the same set, he will respect that. We have told him of your great victories and how you have achieved them. He approves."
"SIR! Twelve o'clock!" Benjamin screamed over the comm. What looked like a comet streaked towards the battalion. At the last second, it took the form of a large Native American warrior wielding a large war club. He was as tall as a man in power armor was. The two brothers paid him affirmations of respect and the three then proceeded to speak in a strange tongue Dimiye had never heard before. The War God kept looking toward him during the conversation, occasionally pointing at him. Dimiye just stood there trying to look tough. When the parley had ceased, the mighty celestial gave out a war cry. The two brothers approached him.
"Well?" He asked.
"Strong Eagle wishes to take part in the battle. He will only guide us to the enemy artillery emplacements if he gets to fight." Aaron said.
Dimiye thought about it for a long hard second. "Did you tell him exactly what were going to do?"
"Yes" said Dale. "He thinks it’s a very good plan."
Dimiye yielded, "Sure, why not? He can come." This is insane.
"Wait a second, all that pointing at me. What was that all about?" Dimiye asked.
The two braves smiled. "He thought you'd be bigger." Dale said.
Hell, I get that all the time. Alistar thought.
When they finally reached the objective, Alistar was glad they had Strong Eagle with them. All the fighting in the area had attracted spirits of all kinds, most of them malevolent. The War God had called upon hundreds of animal and elemental spirits to fend them off. They were also going to guard the gauntlet breech for his battalion. The Crowfoot brothers had told him that the spirits couldn't survive long in static reality, but they could keep their escape route clear. That relieved Alistar. But more than anything else, he was glad Polaris hadn't decided to pay him a visit.
The gauntlet was breached and his battalion poured out of it. They were smack dab in the middle of the EB's main batteries as planned. The unsuspecting, helpless artillery pieces were ripped to shreds as the battalion broke into platoons and wrecked havoc. Crinos in power armor lifted the multiple tonnage of cannon and threw them into nearby troops on guard. Explosions both primary and secondary rang out everywhere. The element of surprise was complete.
The battalion soon went to take out secondary and tertiary targets. Smaller artillery batteries and point defenses were crushed. Enemy troops that came to fortify positions fell back against the ferocity of their assault. During the fray, Dimiye saw Strong Eagle take on what had to be an entire battalion trying to flank their positions. His glowing arrows went through power armor like paper. His huge war club cut man and machine in half. When they tried overrunning him, he cut them down with knife and tomahawk with impossible speed. All the while singing his battle cry. He was a god of war indeed.
Alistar soon realized how spread thin his forces were; and how little there remained to sabotage. "All squads back to the gate NOW! We've earned our pay for today." As he jumped back to the gate, he checked his suit for casualties. Incredibly, there were none. As he continued back to the gate, he saw Strong Eagle turn around now and then to strike down an enemy trooper. A genuine smile plastered on his face all the while. Now why can't all gods be like that? He thought.
His train of thought was derailed as a few stray rounds penetrated the power armorv from behind. Nothing serious, he thought as he limped towards the gate. His body quickly went to healing the wounds. Now I've got to requisition another damn uniform.
The trip back in the near umbra went by quickly as most returning trips do. Once again the totem spirits kept the others at bay. Strong Eagle conversed quickly and mirthfully with the Crowfoot brothers. The son of a bitch was down right giddy. When they reached the rally point, the war god approached Dimiye. Putting both hands on his shoulders he rattled on in the same strange language Alistar couldn't make heads or tails of. The tone of the god's voice was one of respect; he didn't know the content, but the speech made him well up with pride. Afterwards, he and his totem spirits walked off and disappeared.
The inseparable Crowfoot brothers came to him. He cut them off when they were about to speak.
"I don't want to know what he said. Maybe someday, but not right now."
The gauntlet breached, the 613th Battalion returned back to base camp. The moment they entered real space again, cheers rang out. What seemed like hundreds of their fellow soldiers had gathered awaiting their safe return. Clapping and cheering among them was General Fabin. What the battalion would never know, what the soldiers gathered would never tell, was that Joel Fabin had spent the previous hours pacing up and down the rally point like a distraught old women; scaring the hell out of the rank and file. The general went right up to Dimiye and pumped his hand like no one business.
"All right, Al! You beautiful son of a bitch!" He spoke in his normal loud tone of voice. With all the cheering going on, it fit in for once. "You know what we got now?! We've got an open road, baby! That's what we've got!"
After the cheering died down, Alistar dismissed his unit. He knew that they had drinking to attend to. He then accompanied General Fabin to a nearby bar. He had no choice in the matter, but the General was buying. When they entered, he immediately noticed the general's secretary was waiting for them. Her beautiful buxom body made him think of Tess, and then of Stacy. Why did I have to ruin a perfectly good day by thinking of her? He thought. They sat down and the general proceeded to order three pints and three whiskeys.
"Now, what're you two having?" The general said, laughing at his own joke. "Al, I wanna get a point of business outta the way before we get toasted here."
"Go ahead, sir."
"Vanderpants won't be coming back."
"KIA?" Dimiye asked remorsefully.
"Nope, she'll live, but her soldier days are over. That's why I'm putting you in charge of first Brigade. I know the other three have seniority, but I'm putting you acting command. Don't screw up."
They clinked their pints together. "Thank you sir."
"Don't worry, you'll get the rank later." Fabin read his mind.
Alistar tipped back his glass and let the cold amber slid down his throat. Good day, hope I see more of them.
Captain Erich 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."
Erich paused, gathering his meager strength to form the words. "What do you mean, M. Gergenstein?"
"The short version?"
Commander Gergenstein sighed. "You're on Avalon, at New Bethesda Fleet Medical Center. You were badly wounded in that attack on the Jurvain battlecruiser."
"Your back was broken just above the pelvis. That's being fixed by nanobots. Your suit was holed in two places, and two of your limbs were open to space for over an hour. Your…right leg and left arm were replaced by limbs from that clone your family keeps in stasis for you."
"I always knew being filthy rich would pay off someday."
Herbert chuckled. "At least your sense of humor wasn't damaged."
"You need a sense of humor in this job."
Gergenstein looked troubled for a moment. "Speaking of the job…"
"Yes?" Erich sleepily looked upward, the pain medication keeping him from feeling the impact of the extent of his injuries.
"You're going to be in sickbay for at least three weeks. The cloned limbs will take time to be re-integrated into your nervous system, and you will undergo electrostimulation therapy to build up the muscle tone." Clones in stasis tanks didn't get a whole lot of exercise, but if you could afford the storage costs, it meant quicker and easier healing than regeneration of limbs or vital organs.
Von Shrakenberg swallowed. "The ship?"
"The Benedict was badly damaged. We caught a lot of shrapnel from your initial attack, and we had to finish the BC off. When the Vanguard showed up, Commander Adams decided it was best to take off the crew and scuttle the ship rather than risk a jump into hyperspace with such heavy damage."
The twin concerns of self and ship taken care of, the captain turned to the mission. "Any news from New Madrid?"
Gergenstein had briefly been in the TI himself before transferring to Fleet when he proved too weak a mage to be a useful trooper. "There is still heavy fighting, the ground-pounders say they have the upper hand, but it doesn't look good."
“Rapture.” Erich grunted.
“I wanted to be here when you woke up, sir. I thought you might want to see a friendly face.”
“I don’t know if you qualify as friendly.” Von Shrakenberg replied, then smiled. “Just kidding, commander.”
“I have to go, but I’ll check in on you later, all right?”
“Very well,” the captain managed, before the weakness of his body drew him back to sleep.
Erich Von Shrakenberg grunted with effort. Trying to walk with a fragile spine and two legs with vastly different strengths and dexterity was not easy, even on a therapeutic treadmill. He couldn't even support himself on the handrails well with his arms, since one of those was a newly-grafted limb, pale and skinny, that had never been used for anything until a week ago. Now that Erich had two new limbs, he had to work out with them several hours a day, literally learning how to walk all over again.
As he finished the routine and reached for his walker to head back to his room, a familiar figure was standing in the doorway.
"Admiral Vorheis," he stated matter-of-factly.
"At ease, captain," the commander-in-chief of Earth Fleet said. "Or should I say, commodore?"
That took Erich aback. He had been a captain for less than six months, he didn't have the seniority to be promoted yet. "Commodore?"
Vorheis smiled. "Yes, commodore. You are finally being rewarded for your remarkable exploits. Frankly, I would have promoted you after Rios, but the issue of time-in-rank and certain…other considerations prevented it. But we can't really ignore a captain who straps on an EVA suit and takes on a Jurvain battlecruiser single-handedly."
Erich grunted. "I did what I had to do."
"Most of my captains would have ran, sent someone else in their place, or at most simply surrendered," stated Admiral Vorheis. "Not many would go on such a suicidal mission alone."
"Ma’am," objected the new commodore with obvious exasperation. "I volunteered for service in Earth Fleet, just like you. And when I put on this uniform, I volunteered for everything that goes with it. I swore an oath to defend the Earth Federation, with my life if necessary. I did what was necessary, no more, no less."
"I beg to differ, commodore."
"It is against regulations to contradict a superior officer," the pale woman interjected. "I am not used to my officers refusing honors when they are so justly deserved."
Erich swallowed. "Of course, I apologize, I was out of line."
"Indeed you were, but I will overlook it," said the Grand Fleet Admiral with a smile. "You won't get out of the promotion so easily."
"So what are my orders, ma’am?"
"Once you recover, we will find suitable duties for your new rank," replied Vorheis. "But until then, we need you for a special assignment."
"And what might that be?"
Admiral Vorheis smiled. "Talking to reporters."
Erich wasn't looking forward to this meeting. Talking to reporters was always a very dicey thing, especially in wartime. Telling too much could get people killed. Telling too little could lead to accusations of censorship, which annoyed the propaganda officers, who wanted a hero to rally public support for the war effort. Telling the wrong thing could get you cashiered or transferred to running a garbage scow.
He was wheeled into the press center, the usual hatchet-faced nurse replaced by a young and pretty one just before entering the briefing room. She was just a prop, there was a real nurse standing by behind the scenes just in case he needed medical attention. Erich hated the façade, but grudgingly admitted it was necessary to keep the reporters happy. As he was wheeled onto the stage, he noticed Kristen Vorheis herself was standing at the briefing podium.
The admiral began the briefing. "Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I am pleased to announce that we can now provide additional details on the campaign to restore the New Madrid System to the rightful rule of its lawfully elected government. All rebel vessels have been destroyed or driven from the system, and the outlying asteroid belts and outposts in the system have all fallen to Marine task forces. Although fighting continues on the surface, it has entered the mopping up phase and we expect the surrender of remaining rebel forces on the surface any day now. All this was made possible in part by the courageous actions of this man." She indicated Erich to the waiting press. "Captain Erich Von Shrakenberg planned and helped execute a daring raid by four elderly destroyers that destroyed several enemy warships, including a captured star control ship and an assault dreadnought. The task force he helped command also eliminated most of New Madrid's orbital defenses, allowing the invasion fleet to come in hours later against much lighter resistance. Consequently, we lost only six ships in the entire campaign, none larger than a light cruiser. After the attack, in which his own ship was heavily damaged, Captain Von Shrakenberg's skillful ship handling allowed his destroyer to escape much superior enemy force behind him, and escape to the rendezvous point with the rest of the fleet."
Erich noticed a few paddings of the truth in that speech, but that was necessary for wartime security, with the added need for positive propaganda to folks at home.
"After escaping from New Madrid, Captain Von Shrakenberg's ship, the EFS Benedict, heavily damaged and almost out of fuel and ammunition, was ambushed by a lone Jurvain battlecruiser, apparently on a probing raid or perhaps a mission to aid the traitorous would-be military dictator, `Auntie' Sarah Dunmeyer." Erich smiled at this larger fabrication. That ship was on no probing raid.
Vorheis went on as usual. "When the Jurvain ship ascertained that the EFS Benedict was too badly damaged to be a threat, it attempted to capture the vessel intact, no doubt planning unspeakable alien tortures for the crew. When they realized that Captain Von Shrakenberg was on board, they demanded he be immediately transferred to their vessel. Captain Von Shrakenberg, on his previous assignment, ambushed and destroyed a Jurvain invasion fleet attacking Rios. Unfortunately, doing so left him too far away to intervene when Sarah Dunmeyer's traitors moved in and took the system anyway. But the Jurvain never forgave the captain for the destruction of so many of their ships. At New Madrid, Captain Von Shrakenberg courageously left his ship, and, all alone in a spacesuit, facing a kilometer-long Jurvain battlecruiser massing 750,000 tons, snuck on board the enemy vessel a nuclear explosive device that so crippled the Jurvain ship that the EFS Benedict was able to destroy it. Barely escaping the exploding Jurvain ship, Captain Von Shrakenberg was gravely wounded in the blast, and floated unconscious for over an hour in the vastness of space before being picked up by his ship under the command of his executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Xinjao O'Reilly." Erich was starting to get annoyed at the exaggerations and outright fabrications, but it DID make a better story for the news.
But Admiral Vorheis had another surprise for him. "In recognition for his incredible heroism of taking on an alien capital ship literally single-handedly, as well as his masterful planning of the attack on New Madrid itself; I am pleased to announce that Captain Von Shrakenberg will be promoted to the rank of commodore. He will be given an appropriate command once he has recovered from his wounds." The reporters gave a small burst of polite applause. "In addition," continued the Grand Fleet Admiral. "I have just received word that he will be awarded the Earth Fleet Cross of Honor."
Erich sat up even straighter at those words. That medal was the third-highest award a member of Earth Fleet could get, and one of the two higher medals was only given to those who died in the line of duty. He smiled inwardly at the look that would probably appear on Rashid King's face when he heard that Erich Von Shrakenberg got a medal for barely avoiding being killed by the trap that the InSec commandant himself had undoubtedly set for him. Then he sobered up at the thought of what King would do for revenge now. He had already tried selling him out to alien invaders, it's doubtful he'd stop at anything.
As Admiral Vorheis opened the floor to questions, Erich cleared all such thoughts from his head, determined to be a good little officer and answer the questions in a way that would reflect maximum glory back on the Grand Council itself. He needed to make certain no one had any more excuse to let King have his wicked way with him. With an enemy as powerful as the commandant on your trail, you needed all the friends, allies, and protectors that you could get.
"He wants you to kill Arthur Clarke."
Okay, he thought, things can be worse. On second thought, NO… things can't be worse. It was like jumping out of the pot and into the fucking fire! "He wants Clarke killed… I know can’t do that. Clarke is too strong. I mean, he took on an abomination! We learned about him in the history books! I’m supposed to beat him? I’m supposed to kill a legend?!" Mark slid his head into the palms of his hands. Why doesn’t someone tell me what’s going on here?
"Yes, we know he is strong.” Shannon admitted. “We don’t understand it ourselves, but that is what he wants you to do."
"Well, he can get some other patsy, ‘cause I’m not going to do it! King isn’t going to kill me yet."
Mark leaned his head against the painted wall and thought. There are always options, he remembered from his days in Officer Candidate School, sometimes they’re just hard to see. He could always go along with King and try… the optimum word being try… to kill Clarke. Of course, since the commandant of Internal Security is expecting his help, it would a lot easier to kill King. Finally, the animal brain inside him just wanted to run off and avoid all that had happened. However, since losing his brother, all his dignity and every emotion he valued was torn off from him; left in the past. No way in hell, he decided, is King going to get away with that. I want his head!
Looking up into the little girl’s eyes, a demonic glee passes over his face. "You have
any ideas on how I can get even with M. King?"
Shannon betrayed a look of surprise, but it was quickly gone. Sitting down on the ground with him, she started painting strange symbols on the floor. "There are several ways, several paths open to you.”
“I just want the one that’ll kill King.”
She looked up from her drawing. “Are you… yes, of course you are. Very well.” The little girl finished drawing the fifth symbol on the floor and stared into Smith for a moment. “If you want to kill Rashid, there are many dangers, many choices. Although we’ve wanted him dead for some time, we have been unable to move against him.” Shannon pointed to the middle image, a spiky thing encircled by a broad stroke. “The straight road is open, but to go one on one with him? Pointless; you have no chance.” She pointed to a star-like picture. “You have already denied yourself the harsegaer,” then pointed to its opposite, a black sphere with two broad slashes surrounding it, “and the immolaet.” The girl finally pointed to a series of straight lines with one broad slash across them. “You could trust your skills, trying to surprise him, and cut him down. However, he could likely sense your presence, and hence take away your only advantage.”
“Which leaves?” Mark answered, pointing to the pierced box symbol nearby.
“The caldourtan. Trap him."
"What do you mean… trap him?"
"King doesn’t trust his own men to transport him through the city. Luckily, there are many underground tunnels burrowed underneath Avalon that he uses instead. There are few, if any maps, and only he seems to know them all.”
"Okay, I think I’m seeing what you’re saying. So you want me to trap him into one of these tunnels. Great, but if he’s this good, what will that accomplish?"
"By itself, nothing, but combined with explosives and gas, even King will be unable to escape your attack. If you can get his own men to abandon him, then your job will be complete. Of course, the commandant may have already done that for you… InSec agents are not known for their loyalty. With King gone, they all go up in rank."
"So you want me to disorganize InSec and get them to turn on their leader. Then, trap him in one of the underground tunnels, and let his own men kill him. Is that all?" Mark was annoyed as he stood up. He was supposed to bring down InSec? He was supposed to end this war?
"How the hell will I do that?!"
"That’s what I said."
"Are you mad? What will that accomplish?"
Shannon stood up. Even though he was twice as tall as her, Mark felt inferior next to her stance. "Do what you like, then… remember, you came to me for help.”
Mark said nothing, but simply left, walking up the long corridor, out the bar, and out into the street. It didn’t take long to find the shop he wanted. He bought some clothes: hat, overcoat, brown ski mask, and some other odd items. Finally heading out again, the plan began to form in his head. He started moving back towards the center of town; back towards InSec headquarters.
His head filled with casual thoughts as he found himself on the inbound monorail. That girl is weird; she has the answers to any question I ask. Yet sometimes, she seems to be what she is; a little girl. Shannon may be small, but she knows so much, and she’s so strong. There’s
something doesn’t fit the picture. Why didn't King just pay me to kill Clarke in the first place? Why take me through all this?
Before he could complete his thoughts, the monorail arrived at the town center, and Smith got out. As he walked closer to the giant office building, his plan slowly came together. The best way to cause chaos was to take out the main power to the building. That should really piss off King. Then, once their defenses are down, get into the headquarters, and find the plans on the underground tunnels. There has to be some place where they all meet, he thought.
When he reaches the physical plant for the installation, he’s relieved to find only one guard walking around the building. Whipping his sword out into a circle, his image vanishes from sight. It was nothing then to walk towards him, although Mark is cautious; he remembers too many times when overconfidence nearly got him killed. The guard’s suit is an older model, probably not designed to detect heat signatures, but Smith takes no chances. Sliding in behind him, he makes his move. The sword slides into the back of his suit, piercing it like a tin can. He moved the sword upward to ensure the guard doesn’t make a sound. With his first duty done, he walks into the plant for the second.
The entire building hummed with the sound of the generators. Going through a few doors, passing people every now and then, he finally makes it to the main room.
"Bingo!" he whispered, pulling out some odd looking plastic goop, and placed it on some of the main power converters. For good measure, he added some to the main beams in the room. "That should do." Smith muttered, before walking out the same way he came in, except a little faster.
Once he was out of the building, Mark moved away quickly hoping to get closer to the headquarters before he set it off. Finally, once he was in position, he pulled out a small device, and hit the button. All the silence around him was abruptly sucked away by a huge explosion; he hoped that it was a great enough distraction to get him into the building.
Slipping through the doors, his invisible self walks into the building. Lights were flickering, people running everywhere; pandemonium. No one noticed (not that they should) Mark’s ascent into the upper reaches of the building. We went through rooms left and right, trying to find the one he was looking for. Finally, one sign comforted him: Records Department – Avalon. As he entered the empty room, the first thing he noticed was the cleanliness. Not a speck of dust appeared on the rows and rows of endless large shelves. Going to the first one available, he soon recognized what they were… blueprints, drawings, maps, charts, among many other things he could barely define. If there was a map for the underground tunnels, it had to be here.
Trying to decipher the cryptic classification system proved impossible, so Mark just started opening drawers. He saw glimpses of so many things; some that he recognized, others that were beyond his understanding. When he hit the city plans, he knew he had to be close. Then, out of nowhere, the emergency lights came on and the all the doors in the building slammed shut.
"Damn it." he cursed. Mark was about to continue looking, because he knew he was close, when he heard clapping. His head looked around… no one was there, but there was the sound of one man clapping.
“Very good!” a voice laughed; a voice that Smith knew without seeing his face, Rashid King. “I’m impressed! It’s good to know my faith wasn’t misplaced.”
“Where are you?” Smith pivoted, trying to find the object of his hatred.
“Drop your mask and I’ll drop mine, M. Smith.” Reluctantly, Mark swung his sword around his body and appeared back into view. It felt like he was naked in front of the world. The image of the commandant appeared soon after, standing at the end of the row of shelves, facing him in civilian clothes and a long brown coat. King shot him a sinister smile. “Isn’t so much better when we can see each other face to face. I was afraid that when you walked out…”
“Shut up!” Smith yelled pointing Kuar at his enemy.
“Please, M. Smith. We can act like gentlemen… at least.”
“I want some answers first!”
“You say that I’m the key to ending the war. You say you want me alive but then you want to kill me!”
“I don’t want to kill you, Mark. May I call you Mark?”
Smith spat back a question. “Killing Clarke is like committing suicide!”
Rashid laughed to himself. “You really don’t know, do you? You have no idea why I need you?”
“Why don’t you start telling me, damn it!” The assassin stomped closer to King.
The colonel put his left hand behind his back. “Why don’t I show you instead.” When his hand reappeared, a sword appeared in his grip.
King leaped toward him and Smith immediately shifted into a defensive stance. His high slashes were easily parried, but his movements tried to push Mark into a weaker position. The assassin went for a thrust against the commandant, throwing him off balance. Smith took advantage of the initiative and kept shifting his attack, looking for a weak spot as Rashid parried hastily down the row of shelves. Finally, Mark made his move, thrusting forward, in order to push his opponent back, and then swung wide to cut off his head.
At the last moment, King ducked, but the Sword of Kuar cut Rashid’s blade in half. Mark was about to adjust his killing blow when King kicked him hard in the abdomen, sending him flying down the row.
“Tsk, tsk…” the colonel said, dropping what remained of his sword. “They don’t make swords like they used to.” King reached into his coat and pulled out another sword; this time, much more ornate, and obviously older. “Now this… this is what you need for a time like this.” Dropping into a defensive stance, he stared right at Mark. “Come at me again.”
Smith didn’t need urging. Getting up from the ground, he rushed towards his target, sending King a flurry of slash cuts, hoping to throw him off again. However, this time, something wasn’t right. Although he was falling back, King was getting faster. Mark knew he was better at the sword, the colonel seemed to anticipate his every move. Suddenly, Rashid stepped inside one of Smith’s attacks, and lightly stabbed Mark’s hand with the tip of his sword.
The shock, more than the pain, forced Smith to step back and stop. The blood flowed steadily in a small rivulet over his fingers. King just smiled. “You’re not going to give up that easily, are you?”
Mark rushed to the attack again, but even though he tried, he couldn’t keep up with King’s furious counter-assault. He felt his skin pierced again and again. Small cuts seemed to appear all over his arms and hands. Defeat was slowly creeping over him.
“Not yet, Mark,” King yelled, “not yet! Stop thinking about your attacks! Let it happen!”
In the middle of his furious swings, Smith let his hands go… and they kept fighting. No, the sword kept fighting. As he moved with the attacks, Mark saw himself moving faster, faster than he could have believed possible. Soon enough, he was matching King’s attacks blow for blow. This is incredible, the assassin thought, the sword is moving on its own!
The colonel felt the change in his attack and knew he succeeded. He jumped back in a leap that seemed impossible, landing at the end of the row. Kuar wanted to chase after him, but Mark’s hand managed to hold it back. The sword was pulsing in his hand; waiting for the attack again.
Rashid looked insufferably pleased with himself. Assuming his defensive position, he smiled broadly. “You see, you have no concept of your own potential. That sword, passed through your family for generations, is the key to unlocking it!” Lowering his sword, he continued, “I can teach you how to use it, how to master it, and how to become more powerful than any mage or werewolf could imagine.”
King straightened out of his stance. “Someone once asked you once if the killing was ever really about the money. You know and I know that’s not the truth. It’s about the challenge. It’s about who’s the best. Even though you’re a fair assassin, when you do it right, no one ever knows who did it! Now you have a chance at greatness.”
The colonel leaned against one of the shelves. “Arthur Clarke is old and weak. His power comes more from his political connections than from his strength. I have already proven that I don’t want to kill you. I could have killed you now if I wanted to. Even though I want Clarke dead for my own reasons, I’m not willing to risk your death for it. But I don’t have to… I know you can kill him. When you do, the name of Mark Smith will be a name to be feared and revered through the whole galaxy! Join with me; we can blaze a trail through the cosmos that’ll be told about for a thousand years!!!”
Mark was caught at a crossroads. In this dimly lit, whitewashed room, Smith felt the oppressing feel of history. The assassin found it amazing how the most important decisions are always in the least likely of places.
“Have I mentioned yet just how much I LOVE gravity?” Gergenstein said, taking immense pleasure in dealing the poker cards and watching them fall to the tabletop.
“Several times,” O’Reily answered with a sign, scooping up his cards.
“Really? Well, one more time won’t hurt. I love gravity. The ante pile doesn’t float away… the cards don’t flip face up when you deal them… my head doesn’t bump into the ceiling…”
“Personally,” Xinjao said, studying his cards, “I like sipping my beer from a mug, instead of sucking it out of a plastic bag through a straw.”
“Oh, yeah,” Herbert agreed, “and the way the beer sorta falls down your throat, instead of having to push it down.” He paused for a second, studying his hand, then threw two cards on the table. “Two.”
“Ooh, the brass is feeling lucky!” Herb observed, dealing out the new cards.
“Hey, I got a good hand,” Xinjao said. “So how’s the Old Man doing?”
“The Captain? Well, he’s conscious,” Herb answered. “Missing a few limbs, but otherwise fine.”
“How’s he dealing with it?” O’Reilly asked.
“Don’t think it’s sunk in yet, not really. Sorta acting like he’s checked his body into dry dock to get the arm upgraded and the leg replaced. It’ll be awhile before he realizes he’ll never be the same,” Herb answered, suddenly more serious. “Bidding starts at five credits.”
“He’s gonna miss zero-gee… now that he can’t walk,” Xinjao commented. “See the five and raise two.”
“See the two and raise two.” Herbert countered.
“See the two and raise five.”
“Five?” Gergenstein cocked his head and looked at O’Reilly. “You sure, Chin? You get a few beers in you and think you’re Jack Maverick. I don’t wanna clean you out again on our last game before you leave.”
“Ooh, someone’s getting cocky,” O’Reily shot back. “Give the man a promotion and he thinks he’s Auntie Sarah!”
“Fuck you, Chin.”
“So?” Xinjao countered.
“So what?” Herb asked.
“So ya gonna meet five and call, or fold?”
Gergenstein stared intently at his cards, briefly pausing to glare at O’Reilly. “Fold.” He finally said, throwing down his cards. “And you better have a royal flush, Chin.”
“Actually,” Xinjao said, spread out the cards, “just a pair of…“
“PAIR??” Herb exclaimed, almost jumping out of his chair. “You little…“ he stopped, then scooped up the ante pile and tossed it at O’Reilly. “Here. Take you winnings and go buy another pitcher.”
“Well, I learned to bluff from the best,” Xinjao chuckled, stacking up the credits. “So you sticking with Von, getting transferred, or what?”
“Oh, I’m staying with the Old Man. Which means I get multi-week shore leave while he’s in rehab!” Herbert said gleefully. “Actually,” he said, lowering his voice, “I’m thinking InSec wants us together. Keep us all in the same basket where they can keep an eye on us, something like that.”
“Meanwhile, I get promoted and transferred.” O’Reilly said puzzled, scowling. “I don’t really see the logic in that… and that worries me.” He picked up the cards and began to shuffle them absently.
“I think it’s Erich they really want,” Gergenstien theorized, sipping his beer, “but you can bet they’re keeping an eye on you. As for the promotion, well, everyone got promoted after New Madrid, so that’s no riddle. Even Melissa Bertram made Master Chief.” Herb explained, sipping his beer.
“Whoopde-fucking-do,” O’Reilly said bitterly. “It’s still pathetic after a lifetime in the Fleet. Did I ever tell you that I worked up from the ranks?”
“All the time. Don’t be too hard on her, though. I think she must have pissed of someone pretty powerful to get buried on that old Archer.”
“Can’t imagine how,” Xinjao said, dripping with sarcasm. “Two things I won’t miss from the Benedict ... zero-gee and her! That woman was the bane of my existence on that ship.”
“God, I know,” Herb agreed. “You must be really pissed that she’s being transferred to the Phoenix Yards with you.”
O’Reilly froze. He stared at Gergenstein in disbelief, not sure if he was joking or not.
“You mean nobody told you?!” Herb suddenly exclaimed, reading the look on his friend’s face.
Xinjao picked up his beer and beer and chugged.
“I shoulda known!” he moaned. “You were right. InSec’s not done with me. Looks like torture is next on their agenda.”
The first words he heard from her as he stepped into the passenger liner was, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t want to get stuck here either.”
Commander O’Reilly turned and saw Chief Bertram, leaning against the side of the hall, staring at him. Melissa had a scowl on her face; then again, she always had a scowl on her face. “Chief, I would never…”
She snapped up from the wall and took a offensive stance as she walked closer. “I was supposed to retire, damn it! Away from this war, away from all this Fleet bullshit!!!”
Xinjao didn’t quite know what to say; unfortunately, the chief said it for him. “But no! You and your crack-pot captain come on board my ship, you take us off on a suicide run, and then you blow up…” She gritted her teeth against the pain. “…you blow up my home!” Her eyes closed as she convulsed into sobbing. “Do you… do you know what that’s like?! Do you…” Melissa latched on to O’Reilly’s chest and wept all the tears out of her. All of it left the commander stunned as he stood there, afraid to move… afraid to speak, scared that she’d rip his head off.
He didn’t know how long they stood there, the oddest couple in space, before she finally let go. “I… I’m sorry about that, O’Reilly. I don’t know what came over me.”
“It’s all right, chief. Happens to the best of us.”
She sniffled a bit then nodded. “Thank you. I guess I needed to get that off my chest, O… sir.”
Xinjao allowed himself a smile. “Don’t mention it.”
Three days later, the passenger liner appeared in the Phoenix System. Looking out the observation blister, it was painfully obvious that a battle had occurred here. As they got closer to the Phoenix Yards, every dock was jammed with crippled ships, and repairmen in e-suits and shuttles were whizzing around everywhere. He had served here not that long ago. In a sense, it was good to be home.
Chief Bertram followed him through the docking tubes into the mess that was the arrival bay. Wiring, carbon scoring, hanging rafters were dangling everywhere, and the mass of people rushing through carefully tried to avoid them. The whole station was alive with panic and the need to rush, Rush, RUSH! Out of the spiraling crowd, one face in a Fleet uniform came over to meet him. It was a thin toothpick of a man, his hair frazzled and grey, with an obvious cybernetic left eye. He shook when he walked and his voice had the same instability. “Commander O’Reilly?”
“I’m Lieutenant Commander Paulson, your exec. On behalf of the Repair Dock 14, welcome to Phoenix.”
Great, he thought, this gets better and better. “Why don’t you show us to our quarters, commander?”
“Y… yes, sir. Right this way.” Paulson replied, leading them through the storm of rushing people.
It was a long way down.
From the Archimedes Orbital Station, the shuttle rushing down to Avalon was like an express elevator rushing to meet the planet below. Of course, this boxcar was for civilians, so they gradually descended through the atmosphere, trying to make the ride as easy as possible. However, for comfort you sacrificed speed; it seemed to take so long.
The shuttle was practically empty. Hex, Cerise, and her three companions were alone in the large transport, waiting to meet someone named Kash. The boy took it in as best he could. Nothing made sense; nothing mattered anymore.
Something poked him in the side. He turned to look at the faded seat, but nothing was there. He looked around and saw his sister… well, he was still trying to accept that. He remembered… well, he thought he remembered a little baby once that was his sister. Hex’s mind was lost through the compounded images. Xaktos was Atkins, Atkins was Xaktos… none of it made sense. He wasn’t even sure this shuttle, or anyone on it, existed.
Another poke, this time to his arm. Cerise giggled a few seats away from him. Once Hex shot her an ugly look, she stopped, preferring to stare out the window instead. The shuttle rotated and the capital city appeared in all its glory. Great slashes of the city were black, birthing pains of the civil war; the damage caused by the initial coup was extensive.
Once the big blue ball came into sight, the boy took a look himself. As they got closer, certain buildings seemed familiar, but his mind knew they couldn’t be… could they? They descended into the gray wilderness below until they finally landed at the Von Eisenstein Shuttle Transfer Station.
It didn’t take long for the three men to shuffle them through the station, guiding them away from the bums and human trash that scuttled all around the building, and put them in the waiting car. It rushed away through the brightly-lit city, while the daytime traffic hustled and bustled around them.
Cerise found herself looking out the window again. Finally, she muttered, “Look at that, Hex.”
Hex looked and saw an entire part of town, gutted out by the fires that raged during the coup. “Yeah?’
“It’s so pointless!” she cried, her hands balled up in controlled rage. “The Council, the TI… all of it. There’s no point to this war and yet they destroy homes, families, lives… everything in their path. They don’t care about any of it!”
At first, Hex couldn’t care less. Then, as he looked at the destroyed apartment buildings and burnt-out stores, he realized something. There was an entire life for these people before this war began. His sister was right, neither of their causes was right… “Stop it.” Hex said flatly.
“You know I’ve never been to Avalon before, Cerise. The only information I know about this city is what I got in the Auschwitz’s virtual cities database. Stop playing around in my head.”
“I don’t know…”
“Yes, you do. I don’t care about the buildings or who’s right or who’s wrong. I do care about you stepping around in my mind.”
“You know why. I don’t want anyone screwing up my brain any worse than it already is.”
Cerise sighed. “Fair enough… but I doubt hostile mind mages will care about your wants. You’re going to need to learn how to protect your thoughts for them. My friends and I will teach you.”
“Wonderful. Just quit messing with my mind.” Once he relaxed back into the seat, the boy felt another poke at his chest. “I’m not impressed with your little parlor tricks… Pint.” Hex said her name venomously… condescendingly... “I can do anything you can do already. Probably better.”
“You really think so, huh? Prove it.”
“I don’t have to prove anything. Leave me alone.”
“Why?” Cerise scooted over so she could stare right into her brother’s face. “You want to just brood about getting revenge on Atkins? You want to blow up the Auschwitz? Are you really that dumb?!” She started to raise her voice, but caught herself quickly, then calmed down. “It won’t do you any good. We’ve already prepared to fake your death. Dr. Atkins will believe you are dead… and rejoice, most likely… while you continue to…” His sister paused for a moment as she thought. Finally, she asked, “Actually, what do you plan on doing with yo…”
Hex raised one hand and tapped her on her shoulder. However, Cerise felt the taps on both her shoulders and right between the eyes. Her eyes went wide open while the boy closed his; trying to ignore them all. Wish I knew where they were taking me, he thought, glad that his sister had finally shut up.
Finally the car shuddered to a halt. When Hex opened his eyes, it was in the least likely of all places. The warehouse was one of many in a long row, stretching out in every direction. Each other them was colored differently, but the one they were walking towards was gray. As he was shuffled out of the car, he had to wonder about these people. Why do they love non-descript places?
Cerise led the way. As Hex looked at the building, he saw the pre-fab plastic was starting to shed into a deeper shade of black. In fact, as he looked closer, the boy could see its whole pattern. It was decaying. His head looked around and looked at the people around him. Everything was decaying!
He snapped his eyelids closed, tight against the illusion of reality he saw around him. You didn’t see that. You only imagined it. Nothing’s real. None of this is real. In the blackness, he heard his sister’s voice, “Are you all right, Kiddo?”
His eyes flashed open and his voice sounded angry. “My name is Hex.” Finally, he shoved past her into the warehouse.
Inside the structure was empty, apart from a few dusty boxes, and a strange office nearby. Two more shadowy figures paced the area, looking for threats in every dusty corner. Cerise’s bodyguards pointed towards the office; his sister grabbed his hand and began walking towards it. Hex followed along like a robot and his anger flared within him again. I’ve been a robot all my life; doing Atkins’…. Xaktos’ bidding. I’m sick of taking orders from everyone. This is my life, damn it!
Then the door opened. The tanned-skin man with the rumpled hair looked at him through the opening and stared. Behind him on the wall was an old yellow flag, a snake rampant upon it, with the words DON’T TREAD ON ME written in big black letters below the serpent. “Won’t you have a seat?”
Something wasn’t right about the voice. The way he moved didn’t look right either. Although the group around him bored him, there was something about this man that was interesting. Hex took the offered seat; Cerise sat beside him. “Who are you?” the boy managed.
“The name’s Kash. I’m the one who’s been looking for you.”
“You’ve been looking for me?”
“In a sense. Actually, Cerise has been looking for you. To tell you the truth, Hex… at first, I didn’t think that finding you was that important, but I’m glad to have been wrong.”
“Wrong? Why were you wrong?”
Kash walked out behind the desk… too smoothly, Hex thought, and sat on it directly in front of him. “You’re on fire, Hex. Anyone with sensitivity can sense it. You’ve awakened and you’ve done it recently; I can feel your power just by sitting next to you.”
“How does that help me?”
“You? It doesn’t. Usually, most new mages are weak at first. There’s not enough power for them to use. But you… yes, you’re powerful. Could probably bring down this whole building if you put your mind to it.”
Hex felt waves of nausea come over him. Putting his hands on his head, he looked at Kash and saw only a dark shadow over his body. He suddenly leaped up out of the chair in fright. The man put his hands on his shoulders to try and calm him. The boy broke free, rushing over to the corner of the room. “WHO ARE YOU?! WHO ARE…” Suddenly, a large group of people rushed into the room, and Hex realized that there was something more going on here than just a little girl’s dream of a brother. Calming down, he finished his sentence, “…all these people? Who are you guys?”
Kash waved them back to… wherever they came from. “Please, take a seat, and I’ll explain it all to you.” He picked up the chair and waved to it. “Please?”
Hex managed to walk back over and sit down. His breath still came out in shattered, short breaths, but he was calming down… slowly. “All right.”
“I’m… we’re part of a group that believes differently… that lives differently, than the Federation wants us to. For that, we’re marked criminals and terrorists. We…”
Kash never got to finish his speech. Suddenly the door slammed open and a little girl appeared in the doorway. It looked like the photo negative of his sister. Cerise hopped up and went over to her. “Shannon! What are you…”
The girl ignored her and went straight to the man. Kash kneeled down to her height and took a hold of her hands. “Honey, what is it?”
“We’ve gotta help Mark! He’s in trouble!!!”
Unfortunately for Malachi, the enemy decided what was going happen before he could. Stuck at the edge of the clearing, suddenly a hail of plasma fire was directed his way. The lieutenant hit the deck as he could feel things scorching all around him. How am I going to get out of this? he wondered.
The fire seemed to let off, as whoever was firing had finally decided that he was dead. Not wanting to change their opinion, Spyder rushed off through the tall grass, hoping that the suit’s nanotech could keep up with the grass’ shifting tides. Creeping his way along the thick foliage, he saw the enemy platoons coming up behind him. The lieutenant froze; he only hoped that the camoflauge circuits would last long enough for him to survive.
The group of powered armor troopers stopped before the clearing, not out of caution, but they were looking for something. No, Malachi realized, not something, someone.
He didn’t have much time before that enemy platoon found him and turned him into burger meat. Spyder let his eyes scan around for a hiding place. At the edge of the clearing, though, there weren’t many choices. Finally he saw something that could work. A hollowed-out tree stood less than fifteen meters away. If he could reach it before those platoons could find him, he’d be safe… well, safe enough to find his unit later in this drenching rain.
Malachi creeped along the grass, making the painfully slow journey across the ground; no cover but the grass to protect him from the enemy scanners.
Suddenly, Spyder’s luck ran out, and the troopers started gunning for his position. He knew he’d been found out and moved towards the forest in an all-out run. Plasma and spiker gun fire tracked behind him all the way to the tree line. He didn’t bother to slow down once he reached it, though; his motion detector was going crazy.
At full jolt, his suit and him inside rushed through the rainy forest. He could hardly see a thing in this rain, but he let his suit’s sensors do most of the tracking for him. Rushing through the swampy, sodden area, one could hardly do more than…
WHACK! He was suddenly knocked down and he felt pain racking through his body. His suit’s survivability rate seemed to plummet as he laid down on the ground. Spyder managed to look up and see the giant tree in front of him. Great, he cursed, taken out by a fucking tree.
Suddenly another image appeared above him, blotting out the constant stream of rain on his suit. It was another suit but Malachi knew it wasn’t friendly. “Hello, there.” said a highly amplified voice from the suit. “Don’t go anywhere on us now…”
The suit’s foot suddenly came down and smashed down on his head. Everything went black.
What seemed like a short eternity was over in a heartbeat 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.
He stepped out of the shuttle and into a howling gale-force wind. The landing field was on a high plateau or mesa, and the wind drove a light dusting of snow before it, stinging Treschi's unprotected cheeks. Treschi struggled to walk normally in what must have been two gravities, stumbling along behind Danika as she strode purposely toward a low building at the edge of the tarmac. She moved easily despite the wind and the heavy gravity, as if she had been born here. Then, of course, she had, Treschi reminded himself, as he tripped on a stone and fell painfully
to the ground, his reflexes totally out of adjustment for this heavy-g world.
As he reached the low building, he had almost caught up to the tall female werewolf. He glanced around, noticing that they were at the edge of the mesa and he had a reasonably clear view into the valley below. He could see a line of enormous thunderheads moving rapidly across the sky, and the horizon was obscured by driving snow, but the valley itself was clear. His TI-trained eyes picked up the dots of power-armor troops moving below, advancing in rushes as they carried out some sort of training exercise. On the floor of the valley were four medium-sized hills jutting from the otherwise featureless plain, strangely regular in slope and size, and looking totally out of place.
Treschi blinked. One of the hills was moving.
Andrea filed the information away for later contemplation, and entered the low bunker-like
building, happy to get out of the driving wind. Inside, he found Danika waiting impatiently for him,
and a rack to hang the coat on.
"What is this place?" Treschi gasped.
"Training base number seven," was the only answer she would give. "Come on, they're waiting for us."
Andrea followed Danika into an elevator, and realized that the building looked actually was a bunker, the surface entrance to some sort of underground facility. He saw Danika activate the elevator controls and select the lowest level.
Well, direct inquiry failed, thought Treschi, try small talk. "Hell of a wind, isn't it?"
"That's nothing," she smirked. "A light summer breeze here on the equator. You should see the wind in winter." The werewolf looked him over briefly. "Actually, perhaps you shouldn't. I doubt you'd survive."
"This place is that hostile?"
Danika looked at him strangely. "Ever been to G2?"
"Once," Treschi admitted. He had delivered some prisoners there when he was in the Raptors.
"New Sparta makes G2 look like Eden."
"So why are we here?"
Danika smiled slightly as the doors of the elevator opened. "You'll find out soon enough."
The two strode out of the elevator and into a tunnel hewn from the living rock of the mesa. Treschi followed in anxious silence as they walked for a long time, finally reaching a door with the exciting title HANGAR 2. Once the door opened, Andrea got his first look inside New Sparta. The hangar was a cavernous chamber, surrounded on all sides by machine shops, fueling stations, and munitions lifts. At the far end was an enormous armored door, covering one whole side of the complex. A massive crane was moving along rails set into the ceiling. Danika and Andrea walked along one wall of the hangar, and into a door set in the far wall. As they entered the wall, Treschi turned at a hideous screeching noise, and saw the huge door opening
slowly. As the gap widened, he glimpsed the shadow of some enormous thing waiting to enter the hangar. Danika impatiently grabbed her companion's elbow and physically dragged him through the door.
"Come on, we're almost there," she scolded.
Treschi scowled, but followed her anyway through the corridor. This passage was a bit more comfortable, paneled on the sides, and the look of it told him that it wasn't a former mining tunnel. A short distance down the hall brought them to a briefing room. Several military officers mulled around inside. Andrea hid his surprise when he realized that three of them wore the khaki and black of the service uniform of the Tech Infantry. The other two off-set them with the gray-and-blue of the Colonial Marines.
The middle one, with the insignia of a TI colonel, smiled when he saw Danika. "Good, you're here. You can proceed to the computer center for download." He turned toward the other visitor. "Thank you for delivering your cargo, M. Treschi. If you will be seated, we can begin your briefing."
Treschi sat down, keeping his best poker face on. As the other officers sat down, a Colonial Marine major remained standing and activated the presentation screen.
"As you no doubt are aware, the Frontier Worlds Territory is currently engaged in active warfare against the Bugs. We're putting up a good fight, but we're losing. We simply do not have the population to replace our losses, but the Bugs don't have that problem.”
The viewscreen blinked, and there appeared a graph of the population of the Frontier Worlds Territory's main planets. "Although we have a higher percentage of awakened people,
our losses on Exinum and Sculla are cutting deep into our reserves. We simply cannot sustain current loss rates for more than six months before we’ll be forced to withdraw from all bug-infested worlds on our border." The major frowned. "And, sometime before then, we predict the Jurvain will cease simply passing through our territory to attack the Fed, and will begin attacking us directly to secure their supply lines. In short, time is running out for the Territory."
The officer's frown turned into a look of grim determination. "This facility will change all that." The image on the viewscreen changed to a rotating 3-D view of a trooper in nanotech power armor. "Phase one of our operation was to introduce new and more advanced power armor, provided by our friends in the Federation. With help from the TI, our own engineers, and some civilian researchers quietly hired from the Eastern Bloc, we’ve managed to streamline and automate production of these suits, leading to a unit cost that’s slightly less than half of the current Fed model. The new suits less resistant to damage than standard Fed armor, but still much better than previous Colonial models."
The image on the viewscreen changed again. Now it showed representations of a Bug Soldier and a Drone. "The second phase is also now complete. We have long wondered how even non-awakened castes of Bugs like Workers, Soldiers, and Drones could move at supernatural speeds. Analysis of dead and captured bugs has finally yielded results. We have discovered a chemical which they use to boost nerve and muscle functions. With some chemical tinkering, and assistance from certain corporations, we have come up with a modified molecule which has the same effect on humans. It works even better in combination with existing bio-aug, giving even normal humans the speed and reactions of a werewolf or vampire."
He paused a second, glancing at the TI colonel as if for permission, then continued. "There is a drawback. The chemical causes permanent neurological and cardiological damage, leading to increased risk of heart attacks and early onset of severe arthritis. Continued long-term use will greatly reduce life expectancy, but when used in moderation in combat situations only, we believe we can hold the risk down to a 10% reduction in lifespan. We are working on a treatment, and hope to have one before our troopers start feeling the effects in significant numbers. But for now, the threat from the Bugs and Jurvain is great enough to justify the risk." He managed a slight smile. "After all, if their choice is between maybe dying of a heart attack at 30, or being eaten by a bug at 20, I know which one I'd choose."
The TI colonel spoke up with a devious smile. "That cargo you initially tried to smuggle in was not, as you were told, weapons systems. It was chemical analysis and nano-production equipment. I think the rebels will be slightly miffed with you when they pick up those power armor crates and find a bunch of test tubes and computerized spectroscopy machines." He chuckled at Treschi's reaction. "Don't worry, we were able to get the equipment we needed from the Eastern
Bloc, but it did set us back a few weeks."
The Colonial major continued his talk. "Phase Three is undergoing the final testing. As you know, for the last 200 years, the weapon of choice for ground combat was the trooper in power armor. Power Armor are the best way to deal with bugs and rioting civilians, but now we face combat with other technological races, including the Jurvain." The image on the viewscreen
changed again, showing a Type 2 Jurvain landcruiser. "These Jurvain tanks proved devastating against Federation power armor troops on Ashdown and St. Michael's Star. Standard plasma weapons and Spiker guns have proven ineffective against the heavy armor, and those hellbore cannons are capable of vaporizing any power armor we have. Standard Mark III assault tanks can take them out, but since standard Fed tanks are too big to go down into Bug tunnels, they never built enough to make a difference against the Jurvain."
The image on the screen changed again. The major smiled broadly as he indicated it. "This is our answer to the Jurvain ground threat. This will change the nature of ground combat forever."
Treschi's breath caught in his throat. They couldn't be serious. Then he remembered the moving hill he had seen in the valley, and his eyes went wide. My God, he thought, they actually did it!
It looked like a giant pyramid bristling with gun ports. The measurements… well, they seemed impossible. Andrea realized they had done the impossible. In essence, they had built a star control ship on the ground. The major seemed insufferably impressed with himself. “This is the Giza-class Mobile Siege Fortress. It has over a thousand DLS missile cells, twenty-four surface-to-air missles, hundreds of 25 mm plasma phalanxes, and hellbore cannon and hypervelocity railguns to fill out the rest. In short, it simply will decimate anything on the ground.”
“Hellbore cannon?” Treschi asked.
The other Colonial Marine smiled. “We’ve been trading with the Jurvain for some time. Eventually, we got access to that.”
“This… this is incredible.” Andrea mumbled out. “I didn’t believe it when I heard about it. How many have you built?”
“Four.” The TI colonel explained. “We’ve been testing in the field constantly since construction, determining weaknesses, design flaws… we’ve even been developing several ways to use them more effectively. Our initial trials have been very encouraging.”
“Amazing.” Treschi stared at the screen in obvious awe. Suddenly he jumped, as if bitten on the ass. “I almost forgot. My employers will need to know that Danika and myself arrived safely. I’m sure they would be interested in the progress you’ve made.”
“Of course,” the major answered. “We greatly admire General Clarke.”
“Would it be possible for me to get a copy of the work you’ve done so far to send to him?”
The TI colonel looked like he’d been bitten himself. “What? Over the net relays?”
Andrea smiled. “Through the Raptors, we’ve developed very sophisticated encryption equipment. Your secret will be quite safe.”
“Very well.” the other Colonial Marine officer concluded. “Major, please make a copy of the briefing for M. Treschi to send.”
Treschi pushed his luck. “I’d also like some detailed information about the Giza… what did you call them?”
“MSF’s. Mobile Seige Fortresses. Yes, of course. Major, include the blueprints and test results in the report.”
“Yes, sir.” the major said before scurrying off.
“I’d need a place to transmit from as well.” Andrea added.
“Of course.” the TI colonel pointed to a console in the far corner of the room.
Treschi cleared his throat. “With a little privacy, sir?”
The remaining Colonial Marine laughed. “You can have my office, M. Treschi. And please… give General Clarke my warmest regards.”
Andrea joined his smile. “I certainly will.”
Five hours later, the alarm sounded. Andrea looked up from his bunk and stared at the red light; as if his contempt would make it go away. What the hell is the emergency? He thought, dragging himself out of his deep drug-induced sleep. We’re in the middle of fucking nowhere! Treschi had taken a sleeping pill after he had made his report. In the increased gravity, he barely dragged his feet out of bed before Danika burst into his small quarters.
“Get up, damn it! Didn’t you hear the alarm?”
“This better not be a drill.” Treschi moaned over the whine of the pulsing siren.
“The Bugs are attacking!” Danika kicked the bed, jolting Andrea out of his sleepiness. “God damn it, listen to me! The Bugs are attacking New Sparta!”
It’s always raining. Every night, it’s the same torrential downpour. I sometimes wonder if it has some special meaning, but I don’t really think so. It doesn’t seem important. Like I said, it’s raining like a stone bitch. I feel soaked all the way through my armor. None of that flashy TI shit; this is old hardware. This stuff doesn’t have servos to help you move. Stuff that rain, mud, cold, piss; whatever will get through in a second if you let it. Rain like this doesn’t give you much of a choice.
Anyway, it’s raining and I’m walking through a grass field about waist high. It’s night; I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face without my spook eyes. Problem is that along with the rain there is lightning; that really big stuff that sent you crying to your mother when you were a child. When one of those suckers goes off the damn spook eyes automatically cut in their screens to prevent you from being blinded. Of course, this does blind you for the half second it works. Considering that every time it happens, I’m carrying an old style plasma carbine, I get the feeling that I don’t want to be blinded for a second. I sense her off to my left. There are four of us in A Quad; a point man (me, of course), two flankers, and a heavy weapon specialist in the rear. Good formation; problem is that it only works if you’re positive no one is behind you. The bugs taught humanity’s generals that the idea of a secure flank could not be counted on.
Still, this is before they fought the bugs. This is a human place; Avalon, Phoenix, hell… maybe even Earth. Besides, these weapons pre-date the Bug War, but the problem is that they were used for so long, I can’t figure out what year it is.
Again, I sense her off to my side. She is always there. Don’t ask me how I know… I just do. I don’t know who she is but I know she’s special to me. Some one I love; as a sister, friend, or lover, I have no idea. I risk a glance her way. I always do. I see her form through the spook eyes, drawn out in green pixels. I look to her face. Here it comes… this always happens.
“BANG!!!!” Followed by several more of the same as Miro Creed’s twin laser sighted slug throwers roar on full auto. The poor fool never sees it is coming and his stealth suit offers no shielding from the explosive tipped shell.
“Three more cloaked targets. One to the left, four feet near Priscilla’s bed. The other two are coming up.”
Creed is already moving, swinging one of the automatic shotguns toward the perp near Priscilla’s bed. The little voice in Creed’s head continues to rattle out information.
“Targets 3 and 4 are retreating with their downed companion.” The voice whispered to him as Creed shredded target one with a two rounds to the chest and one to the head.
“AIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEE!!!!!!” A scream ripped through the air.
“Priscilla is now awake and scan indicates total panic.” Creed didn’t acknowledge the report. His little voice knew that he had received the message. He dropped the slug throwers and reached behind his back for his plasma revolver as he dashed to his employer, grabbing all 101 pounds of Priscilla Savant’s near naked body, and pulling her behind the bed. He lobbed a small black object toward the far corner of the room with a thin black thread (nearly invisible) running to his hand. No one saw it land nor did they see it sprout three tiny legs and a small black orb. It turned to point the orb out the door where the two remaining targets hid behind the wall.
“Stay down and quiet.” Creed whispered to Priscilla, shaken, but slowly recovering. She was tough enough to resist breaking down into a helpless panic. Creed still knew she was scared. After all, so was he.
“Who is it?” Priscilla whispered.
“Shhh!” Creed replied as he closed his eyes. Immediately he could see from the vantage point of the small black device. He saw the two remaining targets preparing to make one last run at him and Priscilla. Creed opened his eyes and aimed his revolver for the wall. He squeezed off two rounds through the wall next to the door.
“Fuck!” a voice shouted, as its owner’s body fell through the door, two craters in his back. A crash of a window was followed by profound silence only interrupted by the wail of an approaching siren. The small black object ambled to the door, over the now cooling body and into the far room. It was empty as far as it could sense.
“Lights.” Creed ordered the room comp. Immediately the lights came on to full intensity giving good lighting to view the gruesome remains of three intruders in ghost suits. “Stay here.” Creed ordered. Priscilla nodded with frightened eyes. Creed moved from behind the bed, his plasma revolver leading. He moved towards Target 1.
“Target’s 1 and 3 are dead. Target 2 is approximately 35 seconds from death. He has lost most of his face and thus is unable to be questioned.”
1 was equally a mess, but Creed didn’t care what he had looked like. Most
likely he wouldn’t have recognized him anyway. His suit, however, was of far
more interest. It was a full stealth suit, the type that doesn’t come for
anything less than
c750,000. It would hide nearly everything from a
standard set of scanning equipment. However, it didn’t hide the
bioelectric emissions of the perp’s body; that’s how Creed had been able to see
him. A gift of his Horadrim nature. Not that he knew much about his ‘race’. He
had never met another Horadrim to explain it to him. Even his little voice that
represented the collective consciousness of over three hundred billion molecule
size nano cells didn’t know any more than he did.
“Are they gone?” Priscilla asked as a frantic pounding on the door indicated the arrival of her standard security team. Creed checked the next room and spotted the broken window.
“Looks like it.” Creed replied as the door to the suite opened and a half dozen armed men thundered into the room. Miro appreciated the fact that they were well trained, enough to recognize they were late to the party, so they didn’t need to shoot him. That was about all Creed appreciated of the security team. They were sloppy. His earlier talk with them had given him a good understanding of their training, zero, and their collective intelligence… also zero. They holstered their weapons as a fat man wearing what looked like old gym shorts and a Gun Metal Grey (Priscilla’s band) t-shirt pushed his way through the security. Behind him was an older man with a gray beard and long gray hair.
“Where’s Priscilla?” The fat one asked anxiously. “She had better not have gotten even a tiny scratch, you shit, or we are going to….”
“Shut the hell up, Mendota!” Priscilla cursed. “I’m all right.” Creed smiled at the things that little petite form would say to people. The older man noticed his smile and guessed the reasoning behind it.
“Nice work, Creed.” Alex Grey stated flatly, but Creed could see the smile in Grey’s eyes. The man was ex-TI. He recognized good work. Maybe not the best work, but the mark was safe, and the bad guys had been handed their asses. “A little well equipped for stalkers.” Alex spoke softly as Miro bent down, examining the (now dead) Target 2. He pulled up the sleeve of the ghost suit and found what he was looking for.
“Not for the TI though.” Creed answered back. Grey bent down as Mendota began to badger Priscilla into seeing a doctor. The bodyguard showed Grey the tattoo most commonly found on TI soldiers. In the old days, if you were caught with the skull crossed with missiles and you weren’t TI, you spent the next week sipping your meals through a straw as both your legs set. These days, you could occasionally find outside the corps, but rarely. “Could be the rebels… or the fleet… or even the resistance. Hell, it could even be Bad Andy! Priscilla has managed to piss nearly everyone of them off in some fashion.”
“No way to know. I’ll have the PO’s do a work up on these three.” Grey replied.
“Fourth man got away. This isn’t over.” Creed stated as he stood away from the corpse. He knew better than to look for a wallet. They wouldn’t be stupid enough to have wallets with anything that was authentic. Besides, one of the security team would check anyway.
“Miro,” Priscilla called. “Mendota says I should go to the hospital. He’s fucking paranoid but I’m worried the fat little bastard is going to have a heart attack if I don’t.”
Creed turned toward his charge, and for the first time, he was unsure about her. She had argued with Mendota about Grey’s choice to hire this outsider to act as a personal bodyguard. She felt she didn’t need one. Grey felt otherwise, especially because of the war. Creed has spent a day at her side and quickly realized that the high pay might not be worth it. She hated him and deliberately tried to make his life difficult; she had even displayed the vulgarity of her vocabulary on numerous occasions. Still, she had never called him by his first name.
“I want you to come with me.” Priscilla stated simply. Creed’s ability to scan a person’s bio-electrical field allowed him to see that there was more than just simple procedure here. She was intrigued… and more than a bit aroused. He stood there, studying her nearly nude form, clad only in one of her band’s t-shirts, cropped so high you could see the bottom of her breasts, and a red silk g-string. As her bright red hair hung wildly over her shoulders, he realized he was equally turned on.
“She knows you’re aroused.” His voice analyzed a change in her field patterns.
Shit, Creed thought to himself, I won’t do her any good if I’m running around with a hard-on. “Yea.” Creed stated flatly, “Sure. Someone’ll see about another room when we get back.” Her smile made him feel warm inside. At the same time, he cursed his human nature, realizing that he’d have to be careful… or he’d lose control of the situation.
The katas always brought his mind and his little voice into perfect accord. Only at these times could they work together… without his natural difficulty with dealing with a voice that sounded only in his head. Half the time, he’d turn to see who was speaking to him, only to realize that it was his little voice telling him something. The first couple of times had made him doubt his sanity.
“Hi. I’m the collective conscious of over three hundred billion nanotech-based cells living in your body!” Well, it hadn’t been quite like that. Still, after it announced that minor fact, it really didn’t have that much to say. It didn’t know much more than he did. But it remembered better than he did. Anything he read, it read, and it remembered… forever. It did make things a little easier; like dozing off and having it remain alert, a couple of his scouts set out strategically to spot intruders… like at the hotel room. Thinking back to the hotel brought his dream to the forefront. He had awakened from the dream’s lightning clash to find his guns already drawn and aimed. All he needed to do was to pull the trigger; that he could handle.
“Once again,” it said, “I am unable to determine the origins are causes of your recurring dream.”
Don’t worry, Creed thought to his other self. I feel that I’m getting more. Have any of my previous dreams had the rain? It seemed so familiar, but I think this was the first time it was actually raining.
“You are correct. No previous dreams have ever had rain. It appears that each time more is revealed to you.”
“Then time will tell all tales.” Creed muttered to himself.
“And what tales will it tell you first?” Priscilla Savant asked him. Miro spun quickly on his toes and eyed the younger (well, twenty-four) woman in front of him. She stood there clad in a pair of shorts and a sports bra with her hair braided behind her. Her eyes were bright despite last night’s excitement and little sleep. Why didn’t you warn me? Miro silently questioned his other self; it remained silent. That was very strange behavior; it always had something to say, whether he liked it or not. All of a sudden, going without its help left Miro unsure how to respond.
“There isn’t much in the public records about you, Miro.” Priscilla stated simply, a hint of a smile peering at the edge of her mouth. “I prefer it that way.”
Miro retreated into his usual gruff exterior. It covered him like a warm blanket; he learned to use it to hide nearly all his emotions from other people. Priscilla, though, was having none of that. “What are you so scared of?” she asked, with a touch of honest concern.
Miro could see by her electrical signature that she was genuinely aware of his discomfort. Her pattern switched to amusement and a more friendly air. “You afraid little old me is gonna jump ya?” Savant smiled as she stepped back into a mock boxing pose. “I’m gonna put you in the hurt locker, Miro!” She laughed as she threw some soft punches at his shoulder and chest. Miro closed his eyes and shook his head with a sly smile.
That’s when she stopped playing.
Miro cursed as she snapped a stiff right jab across his mouth and tasted blood. “Son of a…” He staggered back a step only to take a left to the stomach that nearly keeled him over. She lifted her knee and only Miro’s quick reflex allowed him to avoid the point of it. He shoved her knee away and sent her tumbling as he stepped into his a modified Hwrang-Do stance; legs perpendicular to his target, feet spread twice his shoulder distance apart, with one hand held in close with the other with open palm toward Priscilla.
Savant noticed his change and stepped into a standard Jujitsu stance, feet at right angles and spread shoulder width apart. Her hands came up in a high boxer protective guard. They stood for what seemed a minute, but was likely closer to a second. Then she leapt forward stomping at his lead foot and throwing a claw hand toward his eyes. Creed pulled his foot in, pirouetting away from the claw hand and came around facing her as she whirled around. Again she came low with the kick, this time towards his knee and looking to follow it up with a flat hand strike to the chest if he were to open himself up to block the kick.
“Shit!” Priscilla cursed as Miro blurred as he ducked low and slammed out his right foot into her planted foot. At the same time he got her kick in both hands and yanked up. The result was to be expected. Remove the support of a human body and give it no chance to recover. Priscilla landed squarely on her back spreading out the impact on the padded floor but it was still hard enough to knock the breath out of her. She gasped trying to fill her empty lungs as Miro grabbed both her feet and lifted her legs to waist level. He stepped through, crossed her legs, and then used his leverage to roll her onto her stomach as he pulled down on her leg and put pressure on the knee as it pinned the other leg to his leg.
“What the fuck is this?!” Savant gasped. Creed couldn’t help but smile; professional wrestling may be fake, but the Sharpshooter hurts.
“Give?” Miro asked matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, yeah!” Priscilla nearly shouted. Miro released the hold and Priscilla grabbed at her knee. Then she did shout. “You could have fuckin crippled me!” He scanned her and saw that she was far from being angry. Most of it was shock; she was amazed at how quickly he had slipped her into the hold, how helpless it makes you. “Mind giving me a hand up?”
“Sure.” Creed smiled, planting his lead foot solidly before extending his right hand. She attempted to throw him, but found he wasn’t going to budge. She smiled at him and allowed him to pull her to her feet. “Nice style,” he commented, “who taught you?”
“Grey.” Savant answered as she stretched her sore knee.
“Yea, no shock there.” Miro gave a thin grin. “TI- Fu if I’ve ever seen it. A little more brutal, but basically the same concept. Remind me to show you some real stuff; that oppungate crap was created by a committee. You can guess how good it is truly worth against any one well trained.”
“Cool by me.” Priscilla answered, before brushing the dust off her clothes. “Well, I gotta go. Rehearsal for tonight’s concert.”
“I understand.” Creed answered. “Give me a minute and I’ll walk you to the hotel.”
“Sure.” Savant replied with a laugh. “Oh by the way.” Priscilla smiled coyly as she stood on her toes and wrapped her arms around Miro’s neck.
“Yea?” Miro smiled slightly. He didn’t need his scan to guess her intentions.
“My place or yours?” She smiled and it made Miro feel all warm inside. He hated it on one hand but the other hand told the disgruntled hand to shut the hell up.
“Since I shot holes in yours,” Miro answered. “I’d say mine.”
END OF ACT II
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.