GUILTY BY DESIGN - Act II
"What lies on the surface is always a deceit; for what lies beneath, our true nature, is abhorrent to the false surfaces of others. When true natures are similar, the deceit is joined."
-- Pyramus Grey, "Politics: The Art Of The Possible."
“GOD DAMN FUCKING PIECE OF CRAP!!!” Melissa Bertram bellowed, face red with fury as she raised the screwgun over her head…
“BERTRAM!!” Xinjao hollered. She paused in mid-swing, screwgun poised to strike, and shot O’Reilly an angry, questioning glance. “Not the new quint valve!” he urged, “The old one!” Bertram spun and swung the screwgun at the old quint valve with tremendous force over and over again while roaring out increasingly creative obscenities. Unable to control his anger and frustration any longer, Xinjao also wrenched loose a pipe and began clubbing the insolent valve. The other frustrated technicians joined in and quickly reduced the machinery to a lump of twisted metal and electronic confetti in record time. They actually had to drag O’Reilly off of it and remind him that inanimate objects couldn’t really be strangled with their own wiring.
That was when "Smashie" DuCroix returned to the fuel storage area with the triple-strong coffee. Taking one look at the shattered valve, he pointed and spoke his first words of the evening: “I didn’t do it.” Laughter completed everyone’s catharsis.
The red-eyed, exhausted engineering crew sat down panting, some even laughing at the absurdity of their impromptu execution of the rebellious quintessence valve. Others chugged cold triple-strength coffee and slapped on adrenaline patches. Bertram lit up a cigarette; she didn’t care if O’Reilly saw, he even bummed one off her. None of them had slept in at least forty hours, working around the clock to get the repairs and upgrades in Dock 14 completed by the deadline. And they we close… real close. The techno-magical fuel storage tank was the last major repair left -- but it was being a bitch.
“Well, so much for simple answers,” O’Reilly said, leaning against the storage tank and fanning cigarette smoke away from his face, “I guess expecting to fix it by replacing a broken part was too much to hope for.”
“…fucking mage tech shit…” Bertram grumbled in agreement, giving the mangled quint value another kick for good measure.
“Okay, guys, back to square one,” Xinjao said as the short break wound down, “none of us are mages, and there are no mages or paranormal technicians on the station…“ he paused as his crew volunteered colorful phrases to describe of the station’s personnel director, “…but we have to fix this damn tank somehow.” Failure is not an option, O’Reilly reminded himself.
“God damn it, Chin!” Smitty burst out angrily, “We don’t understand this shit! Probably ain’t nothin’ we can do about it anyway, none of us is awakened!”
“Look, the basic design principles behind technomagic have gotta be the same as normal tech.” Xinjao countered. “That gives us a clue, at least. Westfield, you got anything for us yet?”
“Huh?” Westfield said, looking up from the thick black-and-yellow copy of Magick for Dummies.
“You found anything that could help us repair this crazy thing?”
“Oh. Yeah. We just have the alter the reality base the decompresser and valve exist in.”
“See what I’m talkin’ about, Chin?” Smitty said, tossing down his work gauntlets in disgust.
“Believe me, Smitty, I know!” O’Reilly said, his own patience wearing thin. “We’ve been ordered to do the impossible! But if we don’t fix it, we’re gonna have the juice run out on us when Bad Andy shows up askin’ if we know Jesus!” The last comment caused a sudden lull in the conversation, sobering everyone up a bit. O’Reilly let the silence linger for a moment, letting the impact sink in before continuing. “Okay, one more time,” he started again, taking a drag off the cigarette. “A power surge during the battle caused the shut down in the storage tank. It’s got a double power system, quintessence and electricity. We’ve verified that all the electronics are working correctly, right?”
“Yeah,” Smitty shrugged, calming down a bit. “As far as I can tell, all the normal tech’s working just fine. And it’s gettin’ all the power it needs.”
“So that means the problem’s occurring in the technomagical parts, in the, uh… matter decompresser or the quintessence valve? Is that right?”
“How the fuck should I know, Chin?”
“I don’t know… we’ll just say it is. And we just tried replacing them with new parts, and it still doesn’t work, so it’s not the technology. With normal tech, what would that mean?” he asked his foremen.
“Parts aren’t communicating?” Smashie offered.
“Power flow isn’t connecting?” Bertram suggested.
“Parts aren’t installed right?” Smitty guessed.
Xinjao inhaled a deep breath of nicotine, nodding and thinking. Somehow, he suspected a few hours of sleep would give his mind the clarity it needed. “Alright… let’s check out those. Smitty, double-check the installation. Check the technical manuals and schematics, if you have to… I’m not saying you did it wrong, I‘m just saying none of us are familiar with this shit.”
“Gotcha, Chin,” Smitty agreed, sighing wearily as he tugged his gauntlets back on. “I’m on it.”
“Bertram,” O’Reilly continued, “Power flow. Good. I think you’re onto something there. Not electricity - that magick stuff, quintessence. Which way does it flow, and what would cause a jam?”
“Uh… well…” she said, looking kind of lost, “Um… okay. Well, we got a couple metric tons of reaction mass in the tank… don’t ask me how they fit it all in there, that’s mage stuff.”
“Correspondence,” Gregg Westfield explained. His copy of Magick for Dummies had made him the temporary magick expert… not that anyone cared.
Melissa gave the little man a blank stare. “Uh… yeah, correspondence,” she said, trying not to look clueless and failing. She turned back to O’Reilly. “So…the quintessence valve powers and regulates the matter decompressers to release a slow stream of uranium. That’s as much as I can make out of it.”
“So what would cause a power jam?” Xinjao asked, scratching his frizzy read hair, thinking.
Bertram shrugged. “Same as for anything. An incomplete circuit, opposite polarized charges, a nonconductor in the way, stuff like that. In this case, the tank also has a matter compressor on the other side… I assume both can’t operate at once…”
“Okay, I think I see where you’re going with this.” O’Reilly said as the light began to dawn in his mind. Suddenly he caught a glimpse of Smashie beckoning them over.
“What’d you find, Jack?”
Smashie pointed to a display on his console screen.
“The tank was being refilled at 0420 hours on April 22?” Xinjao asked, puzzled. “I don’t see what you’re getting at.”
Smashie pointed to another display. The power surge caused by the Enoch attack on the Phoenix Yards had occurred a few minutes later.
“We already know this, M. DuCroix,” Bertram said impatiently, the condescending attitude returning to her voice. “What’s your point?”
Smashie brought up another display and pointed. The fuel storage tank’s surge protector was designed to shut down the device if the surge was too high. He pointed out another area. After a reboot, the tank automatically returned to fuel dispersion. Both O’Reilly and Bertram stared at the screen blankly for a few seconds before it clicked in their minds.
“Oh!” Bertram exclaimed, “Well, that explains it. Matter intake, a reboot, and then matter output. So the quintessence in the valve and compressor would both have a…. negative charge. If we fix that, the power flow should start up again… why didn’t you just say so, M. DuCroix?”
“Okay…” O’Reilly said slowly, scratching his hair again. “Now we just have to figure out how to polarize the quintessence charge. Any idea, Westfield?”
Westfield was sitting cross-legged on the floor with the book in his lap, flipping furiously through the pages. “I dunno if quintessence has a charge, boss,” he said doubtfully. “There’s nothing in here about it….”
O’Reilly shrugged. “It’s energy, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t it have a charge?”
Westfield shrugged and stuttered and stammered a bit. “I dunno... it’s just… you know… it doesn’t SAY that anywhere… in here… you know…”
“That’s just a book for beginners,” O’Reilly said dismissively. “I’m sure a mage would know better.” Westfield continued to protest, but they ignored him. That was okay, he was used to it.
“We could polarize it with another positive quintessence charge,” Bertram suggested, “but where the hell are we supposed to find one? Jesus, we don’t have any tools for this kind of stuff!”
Smashie walked over and picked up the old quintessence valve the crew had been disciplined with extreme prejudice and held it out to Bertram with a questioning glance. She took it from him doubtfully. “You think this has any charge left after we pounded it?”
“Probably,” Westfield said. “I don’t think mangling it physically would change the amount of quintessence stored in it. Not according to the book.”
“You think it’s strong enough to polarize the other charge?” She obviously didn’t like the idea.
“Mellisa, we don’t know,” O’Reilly said shortly, his patience with the overly-critical foreman wearing thin. “We can’t tell. We’re shooting in the dark here. But it’s the best guess we’ve got and we’re all tired and pissy and just want to finish the stupid job, so just give it a damn try!”
Bertram shot him an icy glare, but went to work. She tapped the old valve to the new one a few times, trying to polarize the charge… but without the familiar spark of electricity, it was hard to tell if it was working. Then, using a wire from the old valve, she touched the quintessence valve to the matter decompresser to jump-start the power flow.
Absolutely nothing happened.
Bertram felt very self-conscious and kind of foolish. Her face turned red as she tried it again and again with no success. She was approaching the “rip it out and throw it against the wall” stage when Xinjao reached forward to try it.
“Let me give it a try,” O’Reilly suggested, holding his out to take the valve from Bertram.
“O’Reilly,” Bertram began, “what makes you think you can get it to work? Do you have some special power that the rest of us don’t?” She was getting nasty again; professional pride can have that effect on people.
“Not a special power, Bertram,” O’Reilly said, pulling his slide rule out of his pocket, “just a fresh approach. Let me do a quick calculation…”
“A calculation for WHAT?” she exclaimed, annoyed. Xinjao merely raised a finger to his lips.
In reality, Xinjao had no idea what he was calculating… he was just looking for some sort of inspiration. He slid the bars back and forth, watching the numbers shift along, waiting for the feeling of when to stop. Finally the bars came to a halt: 30. Thirty what? O’Reilly thought. Watts? Amplitude? Centimeters? Pounds per meter?
O’Reilly put the slide rule away and held the old mangled valve against the new one for a full thirty seconds, giving the charge time to polarize, the tapped the wire to the decompresser and the valve. Nothing happened. Bertram snorted her disapproval. Anger and frustration welled up inside Xinjao - it seemed like the valve was mocking him.
“Now look here, you little piece of shit,” O’Reilly started. His foremen looked around in confusion to see whom he meant for a second… until they realized he was talking to the valve. “Now we’re sick of your crap,” Xinjao continued. “We’re tired and grumpy and not in the mood to put up with stubborn machinery. You see this?” he asked, holding up the old mangled valve, “This is your brother. This is what we did to him because he pissed us off. You’re pissing us off, too. So unless you want to spend the rest of your miserable existence as a doorstop, I suggest you start working. Now. No, you WILL work. Do you understand me? You WILL work… or God help me, I’ll turn Bertram loose on you.”
He lay one end of the wire on the quintessence valve and touched the other end to the matter decompresser. There was a flash and a hum, and the decompresser buzzed into life.
Herbert Gergenstein propped his feet up on the desk and dialed in O’Reilly net address. He figured he’d grab one last call in to Xinjao before radio silence kicked in for their flotilla.
“WHAT??” O’Reilly’s image popped up on his screen, rumpled, grumpy, shirtless, obviously getting ready for bed. Herbert glanced at the clock… 7:47 AM.
“Well, well, Commander McChink… you look like shit. Rough night?”
Xinjao squinted through blurred eyes at the screen “Herb?” he asked, surprised.
“The one and only,” Gergenstein smiled. “Just called to see how you’re settling in. Looks like you’ve had a rough night.
“You have no idea…” Xinjao said, sounding totally exhausted. “We’ve been up for forty-three hours straight repairing battle damage to Dock 14 after the Enoch attack! Just got done winning an argument with a particularly stubborn quint valve. Now I have an intense study of the inside of my eyelids planned for the next several hours…”
“Quint valve?” Herb asked. He couldn’t have meant…
“Quintessence valve. Part of a technomagical fuel storage tank. That was a bitch to fix,” Xinjao said as he put his shirt back on. “10,000 people in the Yards and not a single mage, can you believe that?”
“So who fixed it?” Gergenstein asked. This didn’t sound right…
“Me and my foremen.”
“Oh! So one of them is a mage, right?”
“Nope. The brass left us high and dry on this one.”
“So how did you fix it?” Herbert asked, amazed.
“Oh, just polarized the quintessence charge in the valve, and got the power flow going again. Pretty simple, really…” O’Reilly’s voice trailed off as he saw his friend’s expression. Herb was looking at him as if he had just grown a third arm. “What?”
“Dude…” Gergenstien said, his voice intense and amazed, “you shouldn’t have been able to do that!”
“Oh, it really wasn’t that tough,” O’Reilly said modestly, apparently quite pleased with himself. “Well, no, it was a bitch and a half for us,” Xinjao corrected himself, “but it probably would have taken a mage about five minutes. Power fundamentals are pretty basic across the board.”
“That’s not what I meant, Chin,” Herb continued in the same serious tone, “no mortal should have been able to do that…they shouldn’t be able to alter quintessence at all…” He watched Xinjao’s expression change as he absorbed the implications.
“What are you trying to say, Herb?” Suddenly he was very serious.
“Quintessence isn’t positively and negatively charged!” Herb scoffed.
“But then how did we…“
“You altered reality, man. Just a tiny bit.” Herb explained.
“But… but that would mean….” O’Reilly couldn’t finish the thought.
“Yeah,” Gergenstein agreed. “Welcome to the club.” Xinjao couldn’t have been more shocked and confused if Herb had just told him he was half K’Nes.
O’Reilly began shaking his head. “No. There’s gotta be another reason…”
“To be honest, I’m not surprised, Chin,” Herb continued. “I always kinda wondered about you and that sixth sense of yours.” Suddenly Herb heard the whine of a siren cut through the air and saw red lights flashing in O’Reilly’s room.
“FUCK!!” O’Reilly shouted, jumping out of his chair, looking around in a panic.
“What? What is it, Chin? What’s going on?!” Herb demanded.
He saw Xinjao turn back to look at him with frightened eyes. “Bad An…“
The screen cut to static.
"Your choice. Coming?"
Hex thought about his options… there weren't many.
It was a fairly easy decision. There was something… wrong with him. He didn't trust himself alone on Avalon with so many targets to choose from. That mind mage cooked up one bitch of a nightmare. Hex didn't want to put himself in a position where he would have
to kill someone or even have a good excuse to do the same. If he went into Resistance territory, at least there would be much less of a chance of that happening.
"Hex, are you armed?" Cerise was still concerned about his well-being. They were on a shuttle headed for the Ark; Kash made sure the cell was ready for a fight, if it came, on the station.
"Yeah." he lied… sort of. He had magick, but no other weapons; to his surprise, Cerise didn't know he was lying.
Getting there was going to be the interesting part. The trip back up to Archimedes Orbital Station was fairly uneventful. There were a few pale faces, but for the most part, all present were rather indifferent. They'd obviously been down this road before. Hex smirked. The resistance was getting its ass handed to it in open combat. He recalled how easily he'd torn apart that group on New Paris, and for a moment, he was proud of his work. Then he recalled who he had done it for and the girl who was left behind wondering why…
Before he could think about his sorry condition any longer, he found himself walking through the station towards the resistance ship that would take them to Babylon… if they weren't blown out of the sky first.
When the Tech Infantry platoon came around the corner in Mark 3 power armor, it seemed like an anti-climax. Kash didn't wait for them to talk; his plasma bolts were suddenly followed by a hail of the same from the Resistance cell. People along the cramped corridor, merchants trying to pawn off their worthless possessions, fled like startled birds. In the chaos, the cell broke off, trying to gain the little cover there was to be had.
Hex wasn't stunned at all when the battle began; he was rewarded by not being hit by the TI's next volley. He rushed off to the side of the corridor, right next to the station map. A quick look at it showed him that they weren't far from where his shuttle was. He quickly formulated a plan, then he turned away from the fight, and ran like a good civilian.
As he left, he turned briefly to look back at his "sister"; she had taken on a totally different appearance. When they first met, she had been completely unaggressive, unconcerned of the threat that he posed to her. At the Rage, she had been merely urgent, and when he made his move, she seemed thrown off by his aggressive reaction to Smith's danger. Now, though, she was a warrior. She was so small, and yet she seemed to be fighting with just as much, if not more, spirit as the rest of Kash's cell.
Hex tried to speak to her mind, and he thought he got through. I'll see you again at Eden, Cerise. As he turned away and headed for his shuttle and the sounds of the battle grew further and further away, he could feel her glance over to see him leave. He had a feeling that the cell would come out of this okay… at least, most of them.
It didn't take long to get to his old shuttle. Since all the fees for the "lodging" were paid, conveniently, from a Federation government account, there was no need to tip the harbormaster. Without another word, he slipped inside, activated the engines, depressurized the bay, then opened the bay doors. The darkness of the starry void opened up before him, like a mother reaching out to hold him in her arms. He kicked the thrusters and went to meet her.
Hex lingered for a moment once he cleared Avalon orbit, slowing down to half speed looking for their freighter; it never came. Part of him wanted to wait and go with them. He knew it would look too suspicious for the space traffic controllers, and besides… he had something else he had to do. He turned the shuttle, kicked the engines back up to full, and set course for the New Paris digital gate. He had a promise to keep.
"I'll train you, M. Smith. I can change your face, your speech patterns, even your brain waves, but even I can't save you from everything. I'm offering a chance at life… and a destiny. The choice is yours."
Mark slid back in his chair. His thoughts drifted toward a strange image. There he stood, in an open field, with a body lying beneath him. Smith didn't have to guess whose body it was. It is King. Then he noticed Kuar, standing tall in the middle of Rashid's body, glistening from the fresh kill. Is this destiny? he thought, or is this just wishful thinking? The assassin didn't care; either way, he would eventually have his kill; might as well train how to do it. When he came to that decision, Mark replied, "Yes, I will join you, but…" he shifted up slightly to be in a better dodging position, "how can I trust you to keep up your end of the bargain?"
"You'll find out soon enough. First, we need to take care of some business… like getting you a new identity." King reached into his desk, putting away the gun, and pulling out a file that was rather large. Scooting it over the table to Smith, he smiled. "You are now Xavier Pollos."
"Xavier Pollos?" Mark chided. "You've got to be kidding me. That's the best name you could some up with?"
"It's Greek, or… somewhat Greek, anyway. It's gotta be better than Mark Smith." Rashid answered, then cleared his throat before continuing. "All right, you live in Andersonville, a nice suburb on the northern ring of Avalon. We've got a nice little two-story ranch house for you out there… the key's in the folder. You're a wholesale buyer for a Victornox Shoe Centers, Inc, based on Minos. Don't worry, your supervisor works for us; you won't have to purchase one shoe. Your parents are Viktor and Helene Pollos, who tragically died in a shuttle accident two years ago. You were their only child. Your parents got off Earth right before the rock hit; no other living relatives."
"Rather convenient, don't you think?" Smith raised his eyebrow.
"And legal, I assure you. The real Xavier was killed while rock climbing out on Mt. Gray a few weeks back. Again, we didn't kill him, we just… didn't report his death to the proper authorities. After a few cosmetic changes, you will be him. Of course, you'll still be on our private database as Captain Mark Smith, I.S., and when you're done with that name, we can always change you back. Now come with me."
"Where are we going?"
"A hospital. Where else?"
It didn't take long to get to the medical building. They came in through the back door and the doctors were waiting for them. Once he got put on the table, they injected him with something; all the drugs started to pump through Smith's body. Then, as the new chemicals coarse through his veins, Mark falls asleep, leaving his operating room… and his old life, behind.
Sunlight glistens through the window, stinging his eyes, forcing him to snap his eyelids shut. "Good morning, Rip Van Winkle." he heard King's familiar voice booming from the other side of the room.
Whatever the commandant was referring to, Mark didn't get it. His head felt like it was full of cotton. "What just happened?" came a voice from his mouth that sounded nothing like his former tenor.
"Well, to make a long story short, I just made you a new man."
Smith managed to stand up and opened the bathroom. Facing him in the mirror was a completely different person. His skin was darkened, his face rebuilt, somehow he ended up being two inches taller, and… of course, his voice had mellowed down to a deep baritone. This would take some getting used to, he thought, as he brushed away the new strands of strawberry blonde hair falling into his eyes.
As his body woke up, Mark took a closer look at it. Once the buzzing in his head cleared, he felt great. There was no more pain in his arms or his mind. He had never felt this good before. After doing a quick examination, he looked over at King. The colonel just smiled. "Come to me when you are ready for your training, M. Sm… I mean, M. Pollos," he said as he got up, and then walked out of the room.
Mark… no, his mind corrected, my name is Xavier now. He went back to his bed and relaxed. Pulling over the computer, he went ahead and accessed it. The bright screen shined with the glistening rotating symbol of St. Jean Baptiste General Hospital (presumedly where he was). Accessing it, he hit the local web (he was in the far west suburbs), and instantly began to search for a flesh mechanic. Although he obviously had some implants, subdermal armor and some… chemicals, there were a couple more things that he needed. Things that he didn't want King knowing about. It only took a few more jumps to reach a medtech that put out his shingle (discreetly) on the far side of town.
The doc picked up the comm. He looked like some cheesy antique doctor that you saw in old black-and-white 2-D vids; some people took their cosmetic programs too far. "Um, yes?"
"Yeah, I'm looking to get some work done. Do you have any time this afternoon?"
"No, I'm all booked up. However, I'm sure my scheduling program can…"
"Nah, forget it. I need it done tonight."
"Well, sonny, I close at 5 sharp."
"Would you be willing to do some overtime?"
"I have a wife and family…"
"And I'm sure they need clothes, candy, they go through shoes like crazy… am I close here? Listen, I'll pay for the procedure, the implants, all that, and you will get half on top of that."
"Well, I'd have…"
"Do it. Meanwhile, I'll be there at 5 sharp, while you're thinking what you can do with all those creds. Discom."
With the net connection disabled, he had to think how to get out of here without the commandant knowing about it. Luckily, his clothes… well, they fit him even with his increased height, so they had to be his, were in the closet. As he got dressed, he suddenly realized that Kuar wasn't among them. Mark… no, dumb ass, his mind chided, Xavier rushed around the room, searching for his sword. Finally, he stuck his hand underneath the bed, and Kuar seemed to slide into his hand. Pulling it out, something clicked in his head. Wait a minute, the sword wasn't there before I reached for it underneath the bed. Same thing happened at the fight with the werewolves.
Sm… Pollos decided to test his theory. Placing Kuar in the closet, he closed the door, and then reached for it again underneath the bed. It slid comfortably into his hand once more. When he pulled out his hand, there it was. He checked the closet to see if he'd made a mistake. There was nothing in the closet. Kuar had literally teleported underneath the bed. Interesting, his mind wandered, I don't actually have to carry the sword anymore. It'll come to my hand. Xavier smiled and put the sword back under the bed.
Now there was still the trick of getting out of here. Willing Kuar into his hands, he quickly swished it around his body and went invisible. It was no great force of will to leave the hospital undetected. Once he got out of the hospital, he made a bee-line to the nearest monorail station, uncloaked in an alleyway nearby, and left his sword there. After all, it wasn't like he was abandoning it; he just didn't want it detected by the weapons sensors on the platform.
Xavier went over to the monorail platform, bought his ticket, and took the train across town. Being mid-afternoon, he managed to get on without too much difficult. In the middle of the day, the train wasn't empty, but by no means was it packed. It took two hours and three line switches to get across the huge metropolis to meet this doctor. Just as the rush hour crowd came onto the platform, he quickly got off.
It didn't take long to find the doctor's office. Far from being the simple country doctor's shingle that his site presented it as, the place was a crumbling old converted fuel station, ivy was growing all along the outside, and one broken-down flitter was sitting in the back. Great, he thought, why did I come here?
He knocked on the door. A balding man with a big gut appeared at the door. "Yeh? Wat you want?"
"You're the doctor?"
"Yeh! I'm closing!"
"I called earlier about some overtime?"
The man's eyes flashed with understanding. "Oh, yeh! Dat's right. Come on in!"
Walking into the converted garage, filled with molding magazines, oil-stained chairs, and the smell of old gas fumes. The doctor just waved at it. "Pay no attention to dis. In dis 'hood, if you look like filth, no one will touch ya!"
Pollos cleared his throat. "I was expecting a… doctor."
The flesh mechanic turned around and said in a calmer tone, in perfectly accented English, "You mean, something like this?"
Xavier took a step back. The change in voice was astonishing. "Voice synthesizer?"
"Top of the line. Can change speech patterns as well as the actual sound of the voice. Interested?"
"Yeah. Need some nanosurgeons implanted as well."
"Nanotech? Expensive. You're lucky I've still got some."
"What's the cost?"
"We're talking 8,300 credits for the hardware," the doctor rattled off, a price Pollos knew was a third higher than the listed cost, "then about 61 hundred for the installation, and 600 for sales tax."
Xavier just glared at him. "Sales tax?"
"Even medtechs need to pay it."
The assassin knew that this doc probably never paid one demi-cred of taxes to the Federation. "All right, so we're talking 15 grand even?"
"That's about right."
"Done. I'll give you 15,000 credits now and 15 more after the work's done. Have we a deal?"
"Y… yeah, sure! Let's get to it!" The flesh mechanic opened a door into a perfectly sanitary operating chamber, cleverly hidden behind this crappy façade. He pointed to the card reader off to the side. "Run your credit chit through the scanner. When the magic number hits, I start cutting."
"Right." Pollos replied dryly. Inputting the code for one of Mark Smith's United Swiss Bank accounts, he ran the card through for approval, deducting fifteen grand from it. What was a whole year's wages for some citizens was pocket change for the heavy hitter. That's why he didn't dicker with the doc about cost… he knew he could easily afford it.
The flesh mechanic took a look back at the scanner and smiled. "Looks like we're in business. Let's take a spin on the table, shall we?"
Pollos groaned and went over to the operating table. Better to go the anesthesia quickly, he thought, before this guy talks me to death.
A couple days later, once the quick heal had set, Xavier decided to make his visit to King. As he walked into King's office, Rashid got up and walked over to Pollos. "Are you ready?"
"Any time." He remarked with great confidence.
"We'll see." King looked at Xavier in such a way that made his hair on the back of his neck stand up.
The commandant took him to a room that was as large as a basketball court, but the room was filled with large circles with smaller circles inside them. Of course, Xavier knew what this was; he had practiced in one of these rooms for years, but not one of such magnitude. King went over to the side, grabbed a helmet, and threw it at him. "Get ready."
Pollos reached into his coat, and quickly pulled out his sword, ready for whatever was going to happen next. Inside his mind, he heard King's voice, go!
Right away, a holoproj man appeared in front of him, holding a sword. The figure quickly moves for the attack; easily blocked with a textbook counter. Xavier quickly lunged at his target, stabbing his target in the chest, forcing the image to disappear. Then another appeared and Xavier made sure to start the attack this time. The holoproj blocks, then thrust forward. This one was much better but still lacked something. They battled for some time until Pollos caught him in a bad position and sliced him down to size. Then another appeared; this one was quick. Xavier kept himself in a defensive position. The holoproj kept him on his toes the whole time… then he made a mistake. When he led with too high of a swing, he tried to follow up with a low lunge. Pollos ducked and bring his sword to victory.
The next one the computer brought up was a dumb holoproj who obviously didn't know how to handle a sword. As he made his move, Xavier did his, stabbing into his chest. However, something was wrong. Pollos pivoted around and saw another holoproj coming up for an attack. "Shit!" he cried, before the computer-generated image struck. At first, nothing happened, then a jolt of electricity flew through his body, dropping him to his knees in pain.
"If you get hit, the computer simulates pain." King spoke from the far side.
Xavier spat the blood out of his mouth. "Thanks." he shot back, aching from the shock inside him. He tried to stand, but it took a concerted effort.
Rashid got to his feet. "Listen, perhaps we should start on a lower…"
Pollos glared back at him with the look of determination in his eyes. "Don't stop, I am ready. I want more."
Miro sat silently in the confines of his small room and watched the last few moments of Rico Severns. Filks, the little cocky shit he was, had made a copy of everything off of Priscilla’s com system. Included was the message that Savant had received from Creed’s source. But this time, the video was intact, and he watched the two men walk up behind Rico and order him to back away from the computer system. Miro watched as the one named Vannis put a plasma bolt through Rico’s face. Then Vannis calmly walked over, flicked the switch to the com system, and the line went dead.
“Why did he call him Kojak?” Creed muttered to himself. “Did Rico know him?” Miro ran a search through the galactic net for the name Vannis attached to the image of the man’s face. He was partially Asian, jet-black crew cut, and had a small golden nose ring through his left nostril. Whoever his nervous partner was, Miro couldn't get a good image of his face.
“Dietrich Vannis.” The computer answered as it displayed the public records of Vannis. Miro scanned through them quickly looking for the name Kojak. “Married, two kids, loan officer.” he muttered. There was no mention of the name Kojak.
“Computer.” Miro ordered. “Please search for the word Kojak.”
“Searching.” the computer replied. “1675 entries detected. Do you wish to narrow selection criteria?” Miro leaned back in his chair and tried to think what he could use to narrow the search.
“Please limit the search to entries that could include the use of firearms.” Miro ordered.
“Searching. 144 entries returned.”
“Fuck.” Creed cursed… but he was getting closer. “Is there anything similar in each entry?”
“122 of them are reference to a Peace Officer. The earliest listing references an old television program about a police detective.” the computer replied.
“A PO?” Miro mused to himself. A peace officer. “An undercover officer.” he muttered out loud. Creed scanned the entry for Vannis and located his home address on Avalon. The question is whether he is or is not InSec, he thought, scanning the data from Mendota’s comm system. Nothing jumped out at him in particular. Sixteen messages from family and promoters for the tour; one glitched message that was nothing but static. On a hunch, Miro opened up the glitched message.
The screen filled with static and the same noise hissed over the speakers. Miro reached up to turn off the message when he spotted a pattern of resonating energy in the image. It was too well defined to be random.
“Wavelength of video anomaly corresponds to theoretical deep structures of the human mind.” His little voice reminded him of some the things Miro had studied in his times. The theory was that there were deep-rooted structures that were burned into your mind over your child hood. The older you got the deeper they became. That was the reason that young children could handle the sight of a werewolf going into Crinos without flinching and see through a vampire’s mental invisibility. They were still open to those things. Supposedly mages never developed the deep-rooted mental sub routines since the awakening destroyed any that had developed or were developing.
“Where was this message sent from?” Miro asked the voice.
“There is an error in the message. No originating point for the message is specified.” Miro closed his eyes and immediately he was interfacing with the computer at a binary level. He began to trace the message. Twelve minutes and three dozen communication stations later, the final starting point was listed as a bank on Avalon. The sender's name wasn’t much of a shock.
“The old man finally bought it?” Miro smirked as the bartender chatted away about the death of General Arthur Clarke.
“Bought what, sir?” The robo-bartender replied.
“Are your dialect files down? Clarke finally got himself killed?” Creed clarified.
“Yes, sir, on both accounts.” The bartender replied with artificial happiness. “The dialect file has been reported to the scutters. Don’t you feel horrible that such a great man has died?” The robot asked him. Miro smirked at its programmed patriotism.
“Not particularly.” Miro replied. “The old fuck needed to go. He’s an anachronism. Still stuck in the days of the Grand Council doing no wrong; a loyal soldier to the end. Look what it got him. You got any other interesting news clips?”
“I have the press conference of Commodore Von Shrakenburg.” The bartender replied as Miro took a sip of his drink.
“Who?” Miro replied.
“Former Captain Von Shrakenburg, now recently promoted to commodore, gave a press conference on his brilliant success against the rebels and the Jurvain.” The robot beamed as if it had been waiting to reveal this awesome fact to a person who had not heard it. “Do you want to see it?”
“Sure.” Miro rolled his eyes. The screen switched from the funeral to a press conference with a man in a wheel chair. The man in the chair, obviously Von Shrakenburg, was nothing impressive. The nurse next to him, though, wasn’t bad. “I want to go to a hospital where that uniform is regulation.” Miro muttered.
“Do you want some more?” The bartender asked him. Miro silently put out his glass to be refilled as he listened to the news conference. “We are lucky to have an officer like him.”
“Yea. I’m sure the Council loves this guy.” Miro replied. “Total fucking tool. Probably doesn’t realize that his actions killed thousands of his fellow human beings, much less the Jurvain crews." He took a sip of his drink. "Funny… the bugs couldn’t wipe us out, but guys like Commodore Von Shake n' Bake have done more in a shorter time to thin out humanity than they ever did. Oh well…” Miro downed the last of his refilled drink and waited for the bartenders reply to his slightly traitorous talk.
“You want some more?”
Miro walked off the shuttle and into the burnt smell of Avalon. He went and picked up his bags, then once clear of the gate, took a minute to slip into a toilet stall and retrieve his plasma revolver. Creed left the stall and walked past several comm stations. As he did, he activated a subroutine of his mind to contact one of the stations, downloading any messages sent to him.
“4 messages for you.” His voice stated to him. “One from the peace officer you talked to on Babylon inquiring as to your whereabouts. Two from members of Gun Metal Grey. One has no name listed.”
“Message?” Miro asked himself.
“Welcome to Avalon.” His voice replied. “But there is an encrypted audio piece.”
“Time to decode?” Miro asked as he stopped and concentrated on the message.
“The encryption is already known to me, most likely Horadrim in nature.” His little voice shocked him. “Playing message.”
“I don’t know who you are, M. Creed, but I know what you are. I also know you have some big names interested in you. I would like to meet with you. Talk about the Horadrim… and Priscilla Savant.”
“Shit.” Miro cursed to himself. Too many things were happening at once to him. “One thing at a time. First check out Vannis.” Decided on a course, Creed hailed a taxi.
An hour later, Miro sat down in another hotel room and took a moment to relax… but only for a moment. He activated the room computer and ordered it to do a complete search on Dietrich Vannis. Once it was off and running, he activated Filks’ deck, and directly accessed it. He began to scan Filks' own logs and traffic. The initial messages from whoever had hired him were still there. It was all done through virtual facades so Creed didn’t worry about what Crotch_Pistol looked like. He was more concerned with the specifics of the deal.
“A bot.” Miro muttered. A bot was a small AI program that were sometimes used in chat rooms to provide facts. It was fairly obvious that this one was an expensive one but still fairly obvious. It gave away itself by asking Filks to repeat statements until he said them in clear English. The deal was simple. Clean two computers and he got a copy of a Shatter Star program. Through all of this it was apparent that Filks hadn’t realized he was talking to a program.
“InSec has its own hackers. It would not seem prudent to hire an inexperienced netrunner like M. Filks.” Miro’s little voice spoke.
“Same thought here.” Creed muttered. “They know I’m a hodraida. They had to know I could track this.” he spoke to the empty room. Then it dawned on him. “Unless they fucking wanted me here!” Miro cursed. At that moment, the comm beeped, signaling that it had completed the search. He walked over and opened the report.
“Kid, you got a lot to learn about being subtle. I think we should meet NOW. Get out of the hotel. Take a taxi to That’s A Fine Pizza. See you in an hour.”
The message flashed twice and then vanished along with the request for the report. There was a knock at the door.
“Yes?” Miro called out.
“M. Creed, this is Internal Security! Open the door! We have a warrant for your arrest!” Miro lifted the 550 from his suitcase as he holstered the two slug throwers. “Open the door now!” Creed glanced out the window. He was only on the second floor, and thankfully, there was a tree right outside his window.
“Hold on. I’m coming.” Creed yelled as he generated a probe and tossed it to the door. It landed in front of it, grew small legs and slipped under the door.
“As soon as he opens the door drop him.” Miro clearly heard through the audio sensors. “We are getting impatient, M. Creed! Open the door now!”
“I got your open door right here.” he muttered, releasing the probe, then hefting the 550. As he keyed his reflexes to max, he pulled the trigger.
After the briefing, Erich retired to his quarters. His personal data console was beeping; there was a message waiting.
"Accept message," intoned Erich tiredly.
"Level Blue password required for message delivery," demanded the console.
Erich's eyebrows went up. Level Blue information was pretty high-level stuff, detailed tactical battle plans and such. Information so important that if it fell into the wrong hands, it could blow operations and cause thousands of deaths. "Identify, Commodore Erich Von Shrakenberg, password Barbarossa".
The computer console flashed and the face of Admiral Kristen Vorheis appeared. "This is a recorded message, Commodore. It will automatically be deleted once it has finished playing. I have a warning for you. You are being set up again. It is absolutely imperative that you do not carry out your orders as given. The fate of the Federation rests on your shoulders."
Commodore Erich Von Shrakenberg could only listen in stunned silence as the Commander in Chief of Earth Fleet continued. "As you suspected, our investigations have concluded that Commandant Rashid King of InSec contacted the Jurvain and gave them the coordinates of your rendezvous at New Madrid. We managed to pry this information from a certain member of Commodore Adams' staff. A member who was on the InSec payroll, it turns out. Luckily for us, while an awful lot of people are willing to sell to King or even kill for him, no one is willing to die for him."
Erich's mouth hardened into a thin line. On the screen, Admiral Vorheis' voice seemed to waver for a second. "Commodore, I know you and I know your family. Every one of the Von Shrakenberg clan would gladly lay down their lives for the good of the human race and the good of the Earth Federation. Because of this, I trust you. Because I trust you, I must tell you why you have been sent on this mission. Every ship, every officer in that task force was carefully chosen. They are all people I can trust. The sad fact is, they are about the only people I can trust completely."
The pale and beautiful Kristen paused for a second as her stance visibly hardened. "Commandant King knows this, of course. He certainly knows that we know. I believe that Rashid King has contacted the Resistance leadership on Earth and warned them that your fleet is coming. The Earth Federation cannot allow your fleet to be destroyed. But we need a victory to maintain our current offensive momentum. So I am ordering you to go to the Earth system, regardless. However, knowing that a trap exists is the first step in avoiding it. I have full confidence in you that you and the other officers of this fleet will be able to triumph despite any intelligence information that King may have supplied to the Resistance."
Admiral Vorheis continued. "You are authorized to take whatever actions you feel are necessary to win a victory in the Earth system. But you must NOT carry out a major asteroid bombardment on Earth itself, or bombard other civilian targets in the Earth system. The cost in terms of public opinion is far too high. This is a civil war, and nine tenths of winning this war is having the civilians on your side. You know the Fleet would NEVER sanction a mission such as the one your briefing package outlines. Those orders came directly from Internal Security and their allies on the Grand Council. You were set up for failure. You were set up to die, sacrificed on the altar of political expediency, so that the Fleet would get a black eye and Rashid King would ascend to the Marshal's office. So I am countermanding that order, and giving you a free hand in the Earth system. You know what you have to do."
Erich stood stock still as the CNC concluded her speech. "Now go out and do it, and God help us all." The image on the monitor faded to black, and the file automatically deleted itself. Erich remained standing there, not moving, for a full five minutes. He finally turned towards the door to leave, but it opened before he could reach it.
Standing in the doorway were Admiral Karl Von Shrakenberg and a man in the uniform of the Tech Infantry. The admiral spoke in an authoritative voice. "Erich, ve haff to talk…"
Erich dove into the side entrance to the sleeping room. The marine drew his sidearm, following him into the chamber, just in time to see Erich drawing a plasma revolver from his nightstand. The soldier fired first; Erich caught the blast in the left shoulder and fell back onto the bed, screaming incoherently. Uncle Karl walked into the room to see the marine staring intently at the badly wounded commodore, as Erich thrashed back and forth on the bed, foaming at the mouth.
"Get a medical team up here and another mind mage," the TI sergeant said through clenched teeth. "I don't know how long I can hold him like this, the programming runs pretty deep."
"Gott in Himmel, it's true," stammered the Admiral, reaching for his comm unit. Erich only uttered another wordless groan, and passed out.
Erich awoke in the warship's sickbay. Admiral Von Shrakenberg was standing over his bed. "Dis is getting to be a habit vith you, ja?"
"Was ist…what is happening?" asked Erich groggily.
"Those InSec brownshirts sure did a number on you, Erich," answered the Admiral. "They must have done it to you vhile you vere in the Hospital."
The TI sergeant entered Erich's field of vision. "Someone was in your mind, sir, a high level mage. It took two of us to get through all the blocks they put in."
"What did they do to me?"
"They put in several devious bits of programming. In short, sir, you were made incapable of actively working against InSec, and they implanted with a compulsion to turn in anyone who suggested acting against them."
Erich tried to sit up in bed. "Mein Gott… Admiral Vorheis!"
"Calm down," ordered Admiral Von Shrakenberg. "I know all about Little Krissy's message, there vas one on my terminal as vell. That's vhy I came looking for you."
Erich slumped back down in the bed. His words came out hoarsely. "Mein Gott…what are we going to do?"
Uncle Karl smiled a death's-head grin. "Vhat else vould the Von Shrakenbergs do? Ve fight."
Two days later, the task force dropped out of hyperspace far below the ecliptic of the Earth System. Erich and Uncle Karl were in the Flag Bridge deep inside the EFS Hachiman. Erich was seated in a powered life support chair, his shoulder still tingling as the nanobots repaired the damage from the plasma revolver blast, and his left arm hanging uselessly at his side.
"Deploy the decoy drones," ordered the admiral. "Let's see if this works."
Task Force 54 moved slowly and stealthily towards the trap they new was waiting for them in orbit around Mars, preceded by a wall of decoy drones moving just slightly faster and a tiny bit less stealthily. Waiting for them a hundred billion kilometers in-system was… it had to be the Resistance's whole damn fleet, Erich thought. Behind them, there were orbital defenses of the main training facility for the Tech Infantry on Deimos, as well as seven dark ships coming out of the moon's shadow that bore no markings whatsoever.
"Into the valley of the shadow of death, rode the six hundred," muttered Erich as he watched the tactical display, as they closed into weapons range. Well, he thought, really just another day at the office.
Uncle Karl smiled a tight-lipped smile. "Activate main drives, all ahead slow." The icons of the task force started moving almost imperceptibly down the trajectory.
One hundred billion kilometers away, a fresh icon appeared on another tactical plot in the control room of a battlestation in Mars orbit. "Hyper footprint," reported the sensor technician dispassionately.
"Damn," replied the Resistance admiral. "It looks like those bastards were right. Deploy missile pods."
---- "He's lost of blood…"
---- "….revive him, damn it!"
---- "Damn it, we need him. Stay alive, you son-of-a…"
---- "….slowly, sir. He needs to come out of it slowly…"
The world slowly reformed around Andrea Treschi, although, much to his surprise, it wasn't exactly what he was expecting. The ceiling above him was decorating beautifully in some kind of script… he thought they once called it Arabic. All around him, there were different kinds of medical equipment. Whatever this is, Treschi thought, this certainly ain't InSec headquarters.
An unfamiliar face loomed over him for a second and then looked off to the side. "Sir, I think he's coming out of it."
The face disappeared replaced with another. He looked like an Arab himself, except… paler, maybe. Andrea was feeling too weak to be sure.
"M. Treschi? Are you awake?" Standing there in his immaculately clean business suit, he brushed the side of his short black hair.
Andrea worked up some spit to wet his dry throat. Still, his voice sounded raspy, "Yes. Who… are you?"
"My name is Akkad Umayyad, M. Treschi. I'm an associate of a friend of yours. Goes by the name of Cornelius."
Andrea caught the accented word. Associate meant member… member of the Fearless Jackals. "Y… yes. I know Cornelius."
"Good man. Glad we took certain precautions with you."
Akkad looked over at… someone, presumably the doctor, and waved him out of the room. Once the sound of a door closing was heard, Umayyad turned back to the patient. Once you got back to Avalon, Cornelius was afraid that M. King might… renege on your bargain. A mind mage has been locked onto you since you landed. When you went unconscious suddenly, without explanation, we knew something had gone wrong. Apparently King has a sense of humor, and dropped you in the Cornell Municipal Waste Treatment Facility." When Andrea looked completely confused about the in-joke he missed, the pale man explained. "The dump, M. Treschi. King hoped to flush away like so much garbage. Luckily, we had a lock on your position, and zapped you here as quickly as possible."
Treschi was feeling stronger. "What... where is here?" he rasped.
"This?" Umayyad moved in his fingers in a circle to indicate the room. "This is the Holiness Temple #5, lying on the outskirts of Third Chance, one of the outer southern suburbs." Akkad smiled broadly; a chill went through Andrea's bones. "It's a mosque, more specifically, it's Rashid King's mosque, whenever his duties allow him to attend. I thought it appropriate as a safe house. Life isn't interesting without a touch of irony."
Andrea managed to raise his head up. "So what's the plan?"
"All right, since the Jackals have received the payment from King, he's done what we need him to do. He is not a target for now, do you understand me?"
The smuggler managed to sit up. "I get it."
"I'm serious, M. Treschi. He's not to be touched, not yet. Revenge is bad for business, do you understand?!"
"I understand! All right…" Andrea waved his consent; pain and soreness were more on his mind than getting back at King. However, the idea did have some merit. "So, what's the plan?"
"First, we get you off Avalon. If the commandant doesn't see you, he'll believe you're dead, and move on. That is crucial. Once we get you on a transport, we'll take you to Wilke's Star…"
"Wilke's Star?!" the smuggler interrupted, "That's a shithole!"
"It's also a good place to go if you don't want to get noticed. It's also happens to be the capital of the counter-Federation… or Auntie Sarah's court, whichever you prefer."
"You still haven't explained something… why there?"
"We have a job for you. A job you are… ah, uniquely qualified for."
"It'll have to do, M. Treschi. Can you walk? It's time to go."
"Captain?!" Elly was dismayed at first. "You made captain?"
"Yeah." Malachi was just as stunned as his platoon sergeant, but there was a sadness toning her speech.
"Well… congratulations! Do you know when you'll be getting your new unit?"
"Not a clue, but I was told to be on the Vishnu when it left so... I guess it will be soon."
Spyder watched as Elly's apprehension vanished to be replaced by shock. "You're leaving that soon?"
"Yeah. What about you? Have you received any orders yet?"
"I see." The captain acknowledged the statement very quietly.
"So..." Ragdowski searched for words and was grasping at anything to stop the tears forming at the corners of her eyes. "…um, do you know who's replacing you?"
"No idea." The two stood there, silent for a moment, both of them grasping for words to say. They had worked together for several months, and being the only familiar things in a constantly changing universe, it was hard to let go. Luckily, Captain Kraai came over and broke the tension. Although he hadn't been with the unit long, Malachi had been an important part of her unit; she intended to see Captain Spyder off.
"You got everything together?" Jada called out as she came closer.
"Yes, ma'am." Spyder answered without even thinking.
"Ma'am? I'm not exactly your superior anymore, Malachi."
"Right," the new captain felt his cheeks heat up, "sorry."
"Don't worry, you'll get used to it. Sergeant Ragdowski?"
"You'll want to get your platoon ready before your new commander arrives."
"Yes, ma'am." Elly replied, before heading off towards base camp.
Kraai was about to join her when Malachi spoke again. "Umm, ma… I mean, Jada? When exactly does the Vishnu leave?"
"An hour and a half, I believe."
"Do you know where I'll be at?"
"No, but don't worry. The Bureau of Personnel will tell you. They never leave you in a limbo for long."
"Thanks." Spyder replied, picking up his pack. "Well… I'd better get to the ship."
Kraai stepped closer and grabbed his hand. Shaking it as hard as she could, she smiled. "Good luck, captain. I think we all could need it."
Malachi shook it back. "Good luck and goodbye." Finally, he turned away and headed towards the shuttle to the Vishnu. There was never enough time to say goodbye; I guess that's the point, he reminded himself.
Avalon again; he'd been there so recently, and yet it seemed another lifetime. The ship had arrived at the military terminal, but he was in no rush to leave. He knew that soon he'd be thrown at a battalion and told to go kill. Rise and kill, warrior, his mind chided, slaughter more people in the name of restoring law and order. He took a few minutes and sat and thought. It was only then that he realized that he still hadn't met Max or the other former subordinate of his. He had wasted too much time at New Madrid; whatever Thames had been talking about was now long gone. This among the tens of thousands of thoughts ran through his mind before his door opened.
The man was just another TI grunt, no one special, except that he held a small box in his hand. "Captain Malachi Spyder, correct?"
Malachi didn't even bother looking at him. "Yeah. What?"
"This arrived from the surface just before we left." The man put down the package and left promptly.
The box sat for a while before the officer got up to look at it. As he approached it, he only saw his name written on the box. Once he opened it, the package could only be from one person. He picked up the little note and looked at it:
Malachi, I saw you put this in your armor before we went down to the planet. Enjoy your promotion. Hope to hear from you soon, Elly.
Spyder moved away the packing paper and saw his .50 caliber Piccone hand cannon placed ever so delicately inside the box. Malachi didn't touch it; instead, he put the note in his bag, crossed off his name on the box, and then replaced it with Elly's address. The captain took a moment to write his own letter and placed it in the box before he sealed it:
Elly, thanks for sending this back to me, but I think you should keep it for yourself. I have a feeling you'll need it more than I will. Anyway, watch your back. Goodbye, Malachi.
He sat back down on his bed. "Goodbye Elly."
The next thing he knew, the door buzzer went off, waking him out of a deep slumber. "All right," the captain mumbled, getting to his feet, "all right! I'm coming!"
When he finally reached the door, he hit the admittance button… and instantly went to attention. The man on the other end was a full colonel, a Hispanic-looking man, with stylish black hair that was slowly turning gray. He looked just as tired and pissed as Malachi felt. Of course, he wasn't a colonel; the demeanor came with the job. "At ease, captain. This shouldn't take long."
Spyder came out of attention as the colonel brushed past him into his room. The Hispanic man grabbed a chair and sat down, stretching his back and his arms. Malachi closed the door and took a chair opposite him. "How can I…"
The colonel cut him off with a brush of his hand. "Captain, I've had to search the length and breath of this ship for you. You're not listed on this ship directory since you're just following the ship on a transfer. You're not with a unit since you've been reassigned. What you are, Captain Spyder, is damn hard to find. So if you could give an old man a moment to catch his breath," the Hispanic man took in an obviously dramatic deep breath, then released it, "I'll explain."
"Yes, sir." Malachi wasn't in the mood for these games, but… he didn't have much choice.
The colonel rustled through his bag and pulled out a file. "My name is Colonel Delarosa, TI Internal Affairs. Are you aware of your new billet?"
"No, sir." The hairs on the back of Spyder's neck rose up. IA didn't come out of the shadows unless it had a reason. Did they know about his business? About his purchase of guns… did they think he was a Rebel agent? Why the hell was IA, especially a colonel in IA, concerned with him? Why was he, instead of a pre-programmed message, telling him about his new posting?
"You can knock off the 'sir' bit, Malachi. My name's Tomas."
"Yes, s… Tomas."
"Better. Now," he opened the thick file and pulled out a standardized personnel form, "according to the BuPers, you've been reassigned to Babylon, in charge of the 251st Legion's 612th Military Police Battalion. You had no idea this was coming?"
"It seems that someone wants you out of the way, M. Spyder. The reason I know that is… I'm going to tell you something, captain, and it doesn't leave this room. This hasn't been revealed to the press, yet, and I don't want it to." Delarosa scanned the room with his eyes as if he could see bugs. "The Fieras System has fallen to the Rebellion. They've destroyed the digital gate to Avalon, preventing us from taking it back immediately. Now normally, the TI rebels could take all the bug-infested planets they want, but it happens that Fieras is a stepping stone to…"
"Babylon." Malachi completed, realizing why he was about to be sent there.
"Exactly, now in order to hook up with a good portion of their cut-off fleet, they have to attack and hold that system. However, we know that as well, and the Grand Council is sending every ship they can spare to it. Of course, we're a bit more spread out than the TI is. The battle that's coming is going to be close."
"That's… interesting, sir, but why come to me?
Tomas leaned back in his chair and stared at his fellow officer. "I heard that you were taken prisoner on New Madrid."
The colonel reached into his file, pulled out a picture, and set it on the table. "Do you know this woman?"
The lady was in TI uniform, beautiful, with long black hair, and hazel eyes. "No," he lied.
"Really? You served with her for a year. Sure you don't know?"
Spyder looked a bit closer, but he already knew her. Justine D'Amprisi, she was part of Operation Cerberus; they had been… close. She didn't make it through the program, though; with two weeks to go, she broke both her legs thanks to a nasty fall. The girl lived, but she was out of the project. "Um, yes, sir. Sorry, that's Trooper D'Amprisi. Of course! When I knew her, she didn't look that nice."
"Staff Sergeant D'Amprisi was attached to the 137th Legion, 931st Battalion, Infantry. She was in your legion. Sure you didn't run into her?"
This time he was perfectly honest. "No, sir. I was in a different division altogether."
"The sergeant was also captured in the New Madrid campaign, by this man…" Delarosa pulled out another photograph. The second Malachi saw him he tensed. Tomas smiled. "I take it you know him?"
"Max Thames." Spyder growled.
"Yes, it seems Major Thames was commanding the brigade that ambushed the entire 1st Division, is that correct?"
"That's what I was told, yes."
"Did you ever wonder how you were ambushed so soon after landing?" the colonel asked. When Malachi didn't answer right away, Tomas answered for him. "We believe that Sergeant D'Amprisi told the enemy our battle plans to M. Thames."
"Then why come to me? Why don't you just arrest her."
"After your unit managed to free M. D'Amprisi, she disappeared. She has not appeared on any roster on New Madrid, and my agents have not been able to find her there. I must only assume that she got aboard the Vishnu and escaped the planet."
"That's great… again, why come to me?"
"Your file says that you were intimate with the sergeant."
Spyder coughed in surprise. "It says that?"
"Yes, back then Captain Thames was very thorough in his reports." the colonel smiled again. "I believe that…" he checked the report again, "…Justine will try and contact you. If she does, you must contact me at once."
Malachi's eyebrows went up. "With all due respect, sir, why the hell would I do that?"
"If our defense plans fall into the hands of the TI Rebels, we can kiss Babylon goodbye. Not only is she a traitor to the Federation, she is also a confederate of Max Thames. I somehow get the impression that you're not real friendly with the man."
Spyder growled. "No, sir. What if Justine's innocent? Maybe Max set her up?"
"Maybe." Tomas shrugged. "Who cares? I'll find that out AFTER I have her in custody." The colonel leaned forward. "I know you don't give two shits about me, trooper, but here's the deal. Give me D'Amprisi and I'll make sure not to give" Delarosa took out a picture of Hope and Bob and held it in front of Spyder's face, "these two to the authorities on Avalon."
Malachi grabbed the picture from the colonel's hands. Delarosa smiled wider. "What a story they could tell to the mind mages. I'm certain that they could tell all about your business… among other things."
Spyder reached up and grabbed the front of Tomas' shirt. "If you even touch…"
"You'll do what, captain? You'll kill me? Please," he looked at Malachi's hands, "let go of me. You'll put wrinkles in my uniform." The captain let go as the colonel grabbed all his papers. "Think about it, captain. In the end, you'll know what to do." Delarosa put down a net calling card on the table. "Call me when she calls on you. Later." Then Tomas walked out the door, leaving a very distraught trooper behind him.
Malachi had to go for a walk; it wasn't everyday you were asked to turn in one of your old lovers… one of the few he ever had. Stuck between two loves, everything seemed so muddled. He had to clear his head.
As he walked down the empty corridors of Marine Country (most of the personnel were being sent down to Avalon for reassignment or R&R; Spyder hadn't yet received his orders), the dim lighting and the acres of piping along the sides reminded him a forest at night. It was comforting until he heard a whisper in his ear; Mal…
Spyder pivoted around, trying to find the source. It was only then he realized he heard it in his mind. Then he heard it again; Mal!
Malachi turned around, slowly this time, finally noticing a woman standing there in the side corridors. Justine looked radiant, standing there in her service uniform, her long black hair rolling out in waves over her shoulders. The dim light of the ceiling lamp seemed to catch her face and her sparkling hazel eyes. "Hello, Mal," she said in a light alto voice, "it's been a while."
Dimiye stood in front of his uncle's house illuminated by the hall lamps. He'd been standing there for a long time now; and every time he went to walk to the front door, something stopped him. For some reason, an unknown feeling of dread froze him in his tracks. He didn't understand why. Ever since heading for Port Arthur, he'd anticipated being reunited with the family he had been ripped from after losing his parents. But over seven years had passed, seven long years, growing years. During that time, the TI had been the only family he'd had. If I walk through that door, I'll see nothing but strangers, he thought.
The little boy inside of him longed to be with his family once again. However, even the little boy was afraid. After all, he'd never been that close with his uncles, aunts, and cousins. But there was something else, something darker, stopping him. Maybe I don't want them to see what a monster I've become? Having realized that, he slowly started to walk away down the hall. I'm all alone in the world, he thought again, as he rounded the corner.
He had stopped back briefly at base camp to change into the one pair of civilian clothing he owned before going out to find a bar. He didn't want anyone recognizing him tonight as he drowned his sorrows. Although bars and taverns were prolific along the docks, it was hard to find one that wasn't jammed pack with soldiers. Finally finding one that looked relatively empty, he went inside to forget what he couldn't remember in the first place.
"Gimme a pitcher, will ya?" Dimiye said with a strong Arthurian accent.
"Gotta see ID, pal, and we don't run tabs here." the bartender responded.
As he reached into his wallet, the bartender rubbed his chin. "Hey, you're not that Dimiye guy, are ya?" he asked, leaning in for a better look.
"I wish! You know, you're the hundredth person to ask me that in the past three days." Alistar answered, producing the forged identification from his last covert ops mission.
"Jeez… man, how do ya pronounce this?" the bartender asked.
"Emile Antoon Khadaji." Dimiye replied.
Not satisfied with the false identity card, the bartender ran it through every authenticator program he had. Since it was government issue, it registered as perfect. "Sorry, gotta be thorough, Light Infantry's been cracking down." the bartender lied. "This one's on the house." He said handing Dimiye a pitcher.
Beer in hand, Dimiye immediately went to a dark booth in the back corner of the bar that looked empty. Once he got there, he saw it wasn't.
"Hello, Alistar." The woman in the booth greeted.
"Nana?!" Alistar gasped.
"Sit down and have a drink with your poor old grandmother, won't you?" Alistar's grandmother, "Nana" to her family, was the only member of his family to serve in the Bug War, and the only other member of his family that was awakened. She was in her mid-sixties now, but didn't look half that. It would have been easy for someone looking on to mistake the two of them for lovers, or brother and sister; luckily, no one was looking on.
"I see you bought us a pitcher, how thoughtful." She answered, pouring herself a mug and downing it within seconds.
"Nana… you look…"
"Exactly as you remembered me, yes, I know. I thought about growing old, but… it just didn't suit me." As was as being Alistar's closest living relative, she was a captain of industry, and undoubtedly the most powerful mage living in Port Arthur. Alistar remembered as a young boy walking hand and hand with her through the commerce plaza on Sundays after services at the temple. People would stop and greet her, pay their respects, merchants would never haggle with her. He hadn't thought about that in years… now he wondered. "Thinking about the past, my darling boy?" she asked.
Alistar looked at her in surprise. She's reading my mind, he thought, and suddenly she laughed. "Of course I am, darling. How else do you think I knew when you were about to cause mischief? Woman's intuition?" she answered in a chiding, yet endearing tone of voice. "I'll stop if it's upsetting you."
"Thank you, Nana."
She filled her mug and drained it as quickly as the first. "So, Alistar… or should I call you Major Dimiye?" she inquired, draining the last of the pitcher into her mug.
"My friends call me Al, Nana."
"Then I'll call you Al. You know, the family was looking forward to seeing you."
"I kinda figured." he replied, his eyes looking down at the table.
"I told them you wouldn't be able to visit. Don't worry, I gave them a good excuse."
He gave her a look that hadn't changed since he as a little boy. "How did you know?"
As she polished off the last of the beer, the bartender arrived with another pitcher. "On the house, M. Dimiye." he told her. Then, after a quick look at Alistar, the man bowed his head and left. Refreshing both their mugs, she went on.
"My darling, if I'd been through what you have, I wouldn't want to come home either."
He felt a lump in his throat and quickly pushed it down with a drink. "Thank you, Nana."
After many pitchers of beer and hours of rehashing the past, they left the bar together. It was still early so they walked along the docks. Men and women everywhere were still celebrating the liberation of their station. Soldiers of all shapes and sizes were still celebrating with them. Luckily, with his civilian rigs on and so much liquor flowing, he hadn't been recognized.
"Shouldn't you be in uniform as well?" Nana teased.
Alistar smiled. "Sure, but what are they gonna do? Hang me?" They both laughed.
They walked on and passed two soldiers on a street corner making out like their transport was going down. They were obviously too drunk to notice passers by.
"Do you have anyone special in your life, darling?" she asked, smiling in that annoying motherly way, as if she had already picked out the china patterns.
Alistar stopped and stared at her. He thought for a brief second about lying, but realized the futility of it. "I did, but she didn't make it out of Hadley. I'm seeing someone else, one of my subordinates actually. I know it's against regs but…I don't know, Nana. I don't want to be alone but I can't…"
She finished his sentence. "Can't get close to anyone who might leave you."
"Yeah, that's about it." he said in remorse.
"Darling, I know all about what happened on Hadley and Epsilon. War is a terrible thing and you can't blame yourself for what happens during it. Some things, my darling boy, are beyond your control."
Tell me about it, he thought, knowing that she would hear his retort.
"I've followed your career with great interest." she shot out matter-of-factly, continuing to walk on down the avenue.
"Have you? How did you manage that?" he jibbed.
"I have my resources." she said.
Alistar paused. So she does have resources! "How much about me do you know?!" he shot back, more than a little anger in his voice.
Nana looked at him with a thin smile on her face. "Everything." she answered, rubbing her fingers in her hair. "Well, you never call, never write… how else is a woman supposed to keep up with her grandkids!'
He immediately got defensive. "All right, then how come I'm not a citizen yet?"
The smile dropped from her face and she looked disappointed. "Because you have an enemy out there. I haven't been able to find whoever or whatever it is, but it's out there. And it wants your head on a plate."
Disbelief struck him. He had to test her so-called knowledge. "OK, if you really know everything about me; then what's my registered code name with the anti-resistance covert ops teams?"
"Oh, I have intimate knowledge of that name… Vendetta!" she replied, accenting his code name that only five other people knew other than himself. His shock was complete and total. "You see, darling, you were hunting me down for nearly two years and never even knew it. Back then, though, you knew me by another name."
He'd hunted down and destroyed countless resistance cells in his two years in covert ops. Although he'd encountered them on dozens of worlds and knew many of their names, one in particular kept coming back to him as he looked at the face of his grandmother.
"No," Alistar shook his head, "you can't be."
"I'm afraid so, darling. Your dear old Nana is the notorious 'Delphi'."
All the major could do was stare, mouth gasping, at the young woman who was his grandma. The working mother who was #7 on the Federation's most wanted list; all this time, leading a double life that only a handful had an inkling of. "Wait… wait a minute. What about your business?"
"Run mostly by several well educated, well paid executives. I only need to pop in once in a while to sign some things. As Chairman of the Board, not the CEO, you have a lot more flexibility."
Alistar moved over and leaned against the nearest wall. This is too much, he thought, I can't believe this is happening.
Nana went over and hugged him from behind. "I know this is difficult for you, darling, but you must understand. After the War, I didn't know what to believe. The Fed didn't make any sense and most of my friends in the TI were dead. All I knew for certain was that something was wrong. There was a sergeant, a man I respected… everyone respected… that taught me that if something's wrong, change it. I volunteered and joined his group. They believe we need to be free, Al, and I believe that, too."
The soldier felt weak compared the stronger woman who held him. Finally, he broke off, and turned to face his grandma. "Nana, I know the propaganda… I've read enough it myself. But, how did you survive the last civil war, when the Liberation went down?"
She smiled warmly. "A year or so after I joined, I met your da. Despite myself, with all the rhetoric running through my head, I still fell in love. While I ran the business and the Resistance at the same time, we had a family. When they built the station here at Port Arthur, my company was the first to sign on. Vitek knew that the more support we had on the frontier, the better it would be to launch a revolution from later. They supported my company in exchange for certain concessions."
Nana allowed herself a sigh. "Then your father met your mom here and had you. The next year, all hell broke loose. I still had your Aunt Katerina and Uncle Ivan to raise, your da was getting sick, and with you to spoil, I couldn't fight. They understood, and I supported them… but…" she took in a shattered breath, "…they died anyway."
Alistar managed to ask a question. "Did my da or my parents…"
"No, they never knew. They suspected, sure, but they never asked. I don't think they ever wanted to know. After you left, Gregor was so broken when your parents died, that… that he died two weeks later. Your da was a good man, but he became too sick… he couldn't have kept the secrets that I had to."
He looked into his grandma's eyes and asked, "How did my parents die? They never told me how before they shuffled me off to Deimos."
Nana just stood there for a moment, tears streaming down her face. Finally, she reached out and hugged her grandson, her arms tightly around his chest. "It was…" the words seemed to sear upon her heart, "…it was an accident, my darling boy. We're not sure how you survived, but we found you at home later, covered in blood."
Alistar didn't pry anymore; it was obvious the pain was still in her grandma's heart and he didn't want to hurt her anymore. Even so, the questions in his mind had, if anything, increased. So he started with the least offensive. "Why did you come and find me, Nana?"
"You’re my grandson!" she cried, finally letting go again, then pinching his cheek. "I haven't seen in you in so long… isn't that reason enough?"
"No." his reply landed with a thud.
"I guess you're right, Al… it isn't everything. I was told to come and find you. You see, I'm not the only one interested in your progress."
"Marko Vitek has heard about you; you've made quite a name for yourself. Now, I don't expect an answer right now, darling, but I… we want you to join the Resistance."
END OF ACT II
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.