GUILTY BY DESIGN - Act III
"Tum mujhe khun do, main tumhen azadi dunga.
Give me blood, and I will give you freedom."
-- Subhas Chandra Bose, pre-Fed resistance leader
The original Babylon was the cradle of mankind's civilization. Now we venture forth to make the new one our downfall. May all the gods have mercy upon our souls. Major Dimiye pondered the future as he looked out the window to the planet of Epsilon below. It was the saddest moment of his young life. At the tender age of twenty-one he'd seen enough blood to last a thousand lifetimes. Red rivers of it ran through his dreams at night. So much blood that he couldn't remember the morning after. He knew more was to come soon; more than had ever come before. Looking at the planet that had seen fifty-six million people die made it worse, but he could not bring himself to turn away.
He knew he should have been asleep, but he had a lot on his mind. The battle ahead of him wasn't half of it. Finding out that someone close to you has been leading a double life is unnerving. That person wanting you to join the enemy in a galactic war is…well, there isn't a word for it. Then there was Stacy. She shipped off somewhere with a promotion to captain and didn't even say goodbye. He only found out about it when Kromminga said goodbye; she was shipping off too. He should have been relieved, one less thing to worry about, but he wasn't. She didn't even say goodbye…
As he looked down at the planet, reality started to warp around the ship. Within seconds, the planet disappeared into the swirling orange and black of hyperspace. His body wanted sleep but his mind said otherwise. His mind was winning the argument. It kept buzzing with all the information for the assault on Babylon. The past two days had been spent in the war room of the general staff. They wanted him to lead the newly formed Ninth Division that was replacing losses in the 86th Legion. His brigade was also being transferred and a promotion was part of the deal… or so they said. All ordered from on high by Auntie Sarah herself. At least I hold the authority of a colonel; rank comes later, General Fabin said. To think, I was nothing but a lonely Sergeant just three months ago.
His body asked him for sleep again. His mind finally relented. Listening to his body, he went to sleep.
"Light Infantry!?" Dimiye said, astonished by the orders just handed to him.
"Yes, sir." replied the fleet officer evenly. "Were you not informed?"
"This is totally FUBAR-ed, sir." Command Sergeant-Major Benjamin said. He looked up at the fleet officer. "This how you run things in Wilke's Star?"
"Don't blame me, I didn't assign them to you." the fleet officer said. He threw a crisp salute to Dimiye that was grudgingly returned and left.
Dimiye kept staring at the orders in his hands. "I don't fucking believe this." he said to himself. Auntie Sarah, you fucking bitch! his mind screamed.
Benjamin read the orders along with him. "It ain't that bad, boss. Says here they've been issued H-90s and standard combat armor."
Thank goodness for small favors. Dimiye thought. "Well, at least they all have field experience." Beating up drunks and writing tickets, he thought. It wasn't much, but at least he wasn't getting completely green troops. What he was getting were unawakened MPs. He read on. "They've all just gotten out of TI boot camp, they should be OK. And they all went through something called HAP. You ever hear of that, Peter?"
"Nope." Benjamin shrugged. "Must be a LI thing. What's it stand for?"
Dimiye scanned the orders. "Doesn't say. Remind me to check latter."
The two men entered the barracks structure housing part of the division. Although recently constructed, it smelled like any barracks would to a normal person. To Dimiye, its scent was very different.
"That's weird." he said.
"What?" Benjamin asked.
Alistar remembered being in hospitals filled with old people; the smells of chemicals and slowly decaying flesh. "Place smells more like a nursing home than a barracks."
"Don't smell any different to me." Benjamin replied.
They rounded a corner into a living area. The grunt on fire watch called out. "Officer on DECK!"
"At ease, boys. Just passing through." Alistar said. The living area had that same strange, out of place, smell the rest of the building had but stronger. They quickly walked through the room, but they were soon blocked by a young trooper towards the end. "Hey! You that Dimiye guy?" he said, cockily pointing a finger.
"Is that how you address a superior officer, private!?" Benjamin bellowed, furious.
"Stand down, Sergeant-Major." Dimiye stepped in front of Benjamin. He sized up the grunt in front of him. He reeked of the strange sent permeating the building! It was making Alistar's hackles rise in anger. "Name and rank, soldier."
"You TI assholes think you're God's gift, ya know that!?" The trooper said moving in closer.
"Name and rank, soldier!" Alistar yelled.
"Just cause I wasn't born a freak of nature don't give ya the right to boss me around!" The trooper said impudently.
"Boy!" Alistar yelled, growing a little more hairy. "You just bought yourself a court marshal!!!"
The young trooper threw a punch with lightning speed, missing Alistar by a hair's breath. Both of them jumped back and started circling each other. The trooper continued his assault with a flurry of punches and kicks as the other troops gathered in a circle. No one wanted to miss a once-in-a-lifetime event like this.
Alistar couldn't believe the speed his attacker had, it just wasn't human. He'd fought with bio-augmented mages who couldn't match this kid! A snap kick glanced his rib cage. Buddha that would have hurt! He's got strength too?! he thought. His attacker had speed and strength, but no experience pulling the two together. That meant that Alistar would have to seriously hurt this kid instead of incapacitating him. He slammed his fist into the side of his head expecting it to crack open. The blow only stunned him.
What the fuck!? He should be bleeding on the floor right now! His brief surprise allowed his foe to continue his attack. Enough of this shit! his mind screamed, catching one of his opponent's kicks, violently breaking his ankle. He waited for the scream of pain that didn't come. As the young trooper tried to get up, Alistar smashed the back of his neck. He went limp, unconscious on the barracks floor. Dear Buddha, he's still breathing. That should have killed him.
The sergeant-major instantly moved to defuse the situation, pointing to the nearest trooper. "You! Call the medics! You! Get this place cleaned-up! The rest of you, CLEAR OUT!"
In their stunned state, the troopers obeyed like sheep, shuffling out the door as fast their legs could allow. Dimiye still stood over the trooper, stunned himself, trying to figure out who… no, what had just attacked him. He didn't smell right; none of them smelled right. This wasn't a bunch of troopers. This was a bunch of machines. Organic machines, pumped full of… something, he didn't know. The major had tons of questions, now I want answers, he thought.
Once the medics came to taking the bruised man away, he turned to Benjamin. "Peter, I want you to take care of this."
"Boss, he attacked you. I can't fill out an Article 20…"
"Please, Peter. There's something I gotta do. Just give the details to the MP's and I'll take care of later."
"You got it, boss."
Within a couple minutes, Dimiye found his way to General Fargus' office. The clerk manning the desk outside didn't even bother questioning or stopping him; the major was a frequent visitor. Alistar didn't even bother to knock before barging into the army commanding officer's room. Russell just sat there, watching a recording of something on the holoproj. Fargus took a quick glance at the major, then once assured he wasn't a threat, went back to watching the vid.
Once Alistar closed the door, he could see the vid better. It looked like Auntie Sarah sitting around with several people; officers, scientists, and several suits. It was some sort of meeting, but why Fargus had a recording of it was beyond him. The general didn't seem to object when Dimiye took a seat right next to him, so that the major could get a better view of what he was seeing.
"So you're telling me this project is operational?" the marshal asked.
"It is possible, ma'am, there are many risks…" the scientist replied.
"There are men and women out there are taking risks every day."
"Acceptable risks, ma'am. We don't even have an effective reversal process."
"But you do have a process, correct?"
"Yes, but as I told this council before, it's only 60% effective. Before I'm willing to release this project, we need at least 90%. At least, ma'am."
"It's not your decision. We need replacements, M. Kraitor, I am ordering you to activate the project. We'll take care of recruitment."
"Are you questioning my order, M. Kraitor?"
Pause. "No, ma'am."
Then the general turned off the recording. "I have to play this every so often," Russell said out loud, not necessarily to the man sitting next to him, "to remind me why I'm doing this."
"Sir?" Alistar was completely confused.
The general turned toward Dimiye. "Did you meet your new troops yet?"
"Yeah, I did. One of them tried to rip my arm off!"
"I should have figured as much." Fargus muttered. "When you juice up a human like that, they can't be prepared…"
"What are they?" the major interrupted.
"We don't really have a name for them. They went through the Human Augmentation Program, injected with chemicals to improve reaction time, stamina, pain tolerance, strength; everything necessary to keep fighting in a battle. All thanks to Auntie Sarah's new program."
"But there's a catch."
"Life expectancy significantly decreases. The human body wasn't meant to take that much strain in so short a time. If the chemicals aren't removed within five years, the body dies."
Dimiye finished his thought. "And not everyone who gets injected can be turned back to normal, is that it?"
Fargus nodded. "She's insane, major. The marshal will burn down heaven in order to take it. She doesn't care anymore about soldiers' rights or reforming the Fed. Sarah only cares that she's right. She'll kill all of us to prove that to the universe." Russell leaned closer to Alistar. "We can't let that happen. This revolution is about something bigger than us."
"What are you talking about, sir?"
"I've been talking to several of the other generals and admirals; they don't like the direction she's taking this war. It's time to change that. When the time is right, we'll arrest her, and rebuild the Emergency Council. This time, major, we'll get it right, and we want you on our side."
"I…" Dimiye was caught in a corner. He had no special loyalty to Auntie Sarah, he simply fought on her side. Now there was something big coming. The dream kept coming back to him; which answer led him to the hill of blood and which led him away? "I… don't know, sir."
"You don't know, Major Dimiye? Even after all you've seen?"
"It's not a question you can answer lightly."
"Well, decide soon. Your division and the rest of the 5th Army have to be aboard the Ariadne by 1800 hours. We're going to hook up with our wayward fleet and free the system. Afterwards, if you're not dead, we're going to need your help. Win or lose at Babylon, we've gotta pull our side together. With your help, we can do it."
The training session went well. Xavier could feel his whole body throbbing from fatigue. It was time for some rest. After he left the training room, he went out and found a small diner named Javier's. It was that sort of run-down place where no one cared who you were or why you were there; everyone was content with their drinks and food. Pollos took a side booth with a great view of the side alley. The fight with the werewolves flooded into his head as he picked up his first taquita.
As the memory rushed through his mind, his thoughts critiqued his moves. Several times, he cursed himself silently for all his stupid mistakes. If it wasn't for that sword, I'd be a goner. That sword… it's saved my life so many times. Where did it come from? Yes, that's right; it was my father's, I inherited it after his death. They never told me how he died; I was hardly even born when he did. That weapon is the only thing that I have to remind myself of he even existed.
The waitress came over to his table, popping her bubble gun, as she interrupted his thoughts. "Anything else I can get cha?"
"No, everything's good. How much do I owe you?"
"Thank you." Pollos replied as he handed her his credit chit. She ran it through the machine at her belt, wrote a bit on the hard copy, then handed him the receipt. He looks at it. On the top of it is says, "Off at 10:00, meet here." He looks up at her as she flashed another smile. He smiled back and walked out the door.
The assassin managed to make it back to the training center again. This time King is not there; he's a rather busy man. "Perfect," he muttered under his breath, "time for me to really train."
Xavier activated the holoproj controls, setting the difficulty to "intense." Let's see how this works, he thought. The second he reached the middle of the training zone, twelve figures appeared in front of him. Pollos willed the sword to his right hand, taking down the holoproj bodies in short order. When the last one fell, sixteen more appeared, rushing him from all sides. Is this intense enough? his subconscious taunted, but the assassin paid it no heed. Swirling the sword in a circular, he felt the pulsing aura filling the room again. As he felt it emanating from Kuar, he hoped for the same reaction that he got from the bar fight; nothing happens.
Right, his mind explained, they're just computer-generated. The figures rushed in and it took all his dexterity to block their attacks. Luckily there was too many of them to all attack at once. As another holoproj rushed in from his left, this one was not holding a sword but a gun. Pollos's first reaction was to run, but then Kuar shot out of his hand, piercing through the holoproj's neck. Before the next strike can fall, his sword comes back to his hand.
Three hours of this continues, trying different programs and variations on attacks, before he finally called it quits. However, this time, he didn't feel as tired; in fact, he felt pretty good. Xavier looked up at the clock, 9:37. "Well," he said softly, "time to take a short break."
It didn't take long to shower and hit the street again. However, as he walked towards the monorail station, he felt something. Something is wrong; he can sense it. Quickly, he rounded a corner into an alley, ready for something to come out. This wasn't training, he knew; there wasn't any holoproj going to ambush him now. There was something real out there. As he walks down the alley, Pollos found what he was looking for. A thin wisp of a woman walked out from behind a dumpster. She looked completely out of place with her short floral print dress, covering over an incredibly thin body. She was beautiful… in an anorexic sort of way; the sort of woman who would be beautiful even after the Black Plague ravaged her thin frame. Her scraggly hair framed her eyes that seemed to bore into his soul. None of that frightened Xavier more than her skin; pale as the moonlight that touched it.
Pollos wanted to run. He wanted to flee as fast as his feet could take him and run up the nearest tree. This is not human, he thought, this is a predator. Yet as much as he tried, he couldn't move one inch from where his feet froze him.
She slowly walked over to him; her gaze never separating from his vision. Once she reached his face, her lukewarm breath covered his face, heavy with the scent of blood. "You have something that belongs to me."
One word pops into his thoughts: vampire. "What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. The one possession that you truly possess… or it possesses you. It's your first thought in the morning to your last thought at night. Al-Hazen forged it to torment us and we will not rest until it is ours."
"What the hell are you talking about?!"
"The sword, mortal! Give it to me now!!!"
The San Angeles and Hrothgar jumpgates burst into swirling orange pools, while the ships of the Righteous Army poured out against the Phoenix picket like a plague of locusts, weapons blazing. The battlecruisers and destroyers of Task Force 17 instantly returned fire and the battle was joined.
The jumbled collection of ships of the Christian Federation buzzed around the battlecruisers as gnats around an angry bull. Anything that could fly had been pressed into service in the Righteous Navy; every freighter converted to a missile pod to attack the destroyers, every transport into a weapon platform firing blindly at the fighters. Ancient destroyers and frigates with their double cross hastily painted over the Enoch crescent moved in to support their improvised fighters, concentrating their fire on a few targets, necessary to bring down the full fury of the Lord.
Thin laser beams licked out from the battlecruisers as the enemy closed in, igniting their ships into tufts of light like moths in a flame. Flashes of fire sparked across the defender’s hulls as salvo after salvo of torpedoes found their way through the defense grids, briefly bursting into flame before being extinguished by the vacuum of space.
The Fleet officers aboard the defending ships were not too worried as the swarm of the Righteous Navy closed in on them. Concentrating their fire on the ancient destroyers that posed the greatest threat, they ignored the “fighters” and left them to the point defense systems to dispose of. Only too late did they realize the enemy freighters were not deviating from their intercept course. The brief, frenzied scramble to shoot down the speeding freighters proved worthless before they crashed into the Fleet ships at full speed. Explosions rippled through the ships as their hulls buckled and tore, ending in the final flash of a ruptured fusion bottle and leaving only the dark silence of space.
In the words of Andrew Tremont, Commander of the Faithful: Salvation shall come unto those who sacrifice their lives in the service of the Lord.
Xinjao O’Reilly peeled the foil off a fresh adrenaline patch and slapped it on his bicep as he ran down the corridor. Still shrugging on his uniform jacket as he burst through the door to the Command Center, he threw himself into his chair, fingers flying across the keyboard.
“Paulson, what’s our status?” he demanded.
“R-righteous Army c-came through the g-gates an hour ago,” Paulson called out through the excited buzz of the Light Infantry officers in the room, “S-some of their sh-ships have g-gotten through the b-blockade, an’ the others have even t-taken out s-some of our b-battlecruisers–“
“HOW??” O’Reilly cried.
“B-beats the livin’ sh-shit outa me!” Paulson replied, dumbfounded, “B-but we g-got a whole m-mess of f-frigates an’ t-transports headin’ our way…”
“Half an hour, I r-reckon.”
“Damn!” Xinjao said, looking over the displays. He leaned back in his chair for a second, eyes closed, taking a deep breath. Calm down, he told himself. You can handle this. Reinforcements are coming, all we have to do is hold out. It was worse than this on the Benedict.
One by one, he opened comm channels to his foremen as they popped up on the screens: Smashie in the Data Center, Bertram in the Power Plant, Westfield and Smitty standing by with their repair crews…
“Paulson!” O’Reilly snapped. His exec’s cybernetic eye rolled toward him. “Where’s Rymir?”
“P-probably out -- OH FU-FU-FU-“
While Paulson struggled to pronounce the obscenity, O’Reilly opened a comm channel. “Rymir, where are you?!” he demanded.
“Only two more hull plates left to replace, Sir!” his youngest and greenest foreman answered.
“What th- Jesus Christ, Rymir, you’re still outside?!” O’Reilly hollered. “Bad Andy just came through the gates! The hull plates will have to do, get your zero-G team inside NOW!!”
There was a shocked silence on the other end of the channel, but it was quickly replaced by Rymir barking out orders to his construction platoon with only the slightest tremble of fear in his voice.
“Sir?” Captain Terrel, commander of the Light Infantry assigned to his dock asked, “Are your men ready?”
“Yes, captain,” he replied. “As soon as the damage reports come in, we’ll be all over it.” Xinjao leaned back and drummed his fingers restlessly on the console. There was nothing left to do now but wait.
The improvised fighters of the Navy of the Lord slowed down just out of the weapon range of the lone destroyer guarding the shipyards. As soon as they were in position, they fired a salvo of long-range missiles and torpedoes. Explosions shook the destroyer, briefly lighting up the eternal night. The destroyer fired up its engines to race after them, but the ships of the Righteous Navy danced out of range, swinging out in an arc and launching another salvo. The destroyer chased them, red-lining its engines, knowing it was faster than the converted freighters and determined to catch them before they could get in any more free shots. Lasers snapped out and engulfed the smaller, slower ships while particle phalanxes shot down incoming torpedoes.
Suddenly a squadron of ancient frigates from the Hrothgar gate swung around the shipyards, descending on the destroyer from behind. Lasers and shells rained on its engines, leveling the rear defense grid, clearing the path for a lone freighter bearing down on the destroyer’s engines at top speed.
In the command center, Terrel, Paulson, and O’Reilly looked on in horrified fascination as the freighter buried itself into the destroyer’s engines, the fire cloud blossoming and rolling up the ship before the blinding flash that vaporized the destroyer.
“Mother of God,” Captain Terrel muttered in disbelief, “Did you see that!?”
“Insane… but effective, I guess…” O’Reilly mumbled, watching wide-eyed as the rag-tag flotilla regrouped and turned toward the shipyards.
“What kind of sick assholes are we dealing with here?!” Terrel demanded, shocked.
“HERE THEY COME!!”
The frigates and freighters of the Christian Federation headed straight for the shipyards’ docking bays, again hammering the weapon mounts with long-range warheads while skipping out of weapon range. The turret gunners didn’t care, blasting away with chem lasers at anything that danced close enough, damaging or destroying with any burst that hit. Explosions shook the station, tearing up the hull and mangling the gun emplacements inside amidst clouds of smoke and atmosphere. Even before all the weapon mounts outside Dock 14 has been knocked out, the transports charged inside the cannons’ arc of fire and flew straight for the landing bay.
Chem lasers burned holes through the steel bay doors as the transports closed in, atmosphere hissing out as the bay rapidly depressurized. The lead transport crashed through the glowing, perforated door, shrapnel and sparks flying as the transport skidded across the bay and crashed into the far wall. Other transports coasted in after it, landing just long enough to spew out scores of troops before roaring back into space.
Clutching simple plasma rifles and clad in white helmeted environmental suits with the Righteous Army’s red double cross spay painted across their chest and back, the troops bore an eerie resemblance to the crusaders of millennia past. The soldiers of the Lord dashed about the bay in a frenzy, jumping behind pillars and terminals, firing madly at the only Fleet personnel in the bay: Rymir and his zero-G crew. Bellowing in terror, the unarmed engineers threw themselves to the ground. Others panicked and sprinted to the interior airlock, only to be cut down in a hail of burning plasma.
The sudden hiss of the depressurizing airlock shifted the crusader’s attention to the interior doors, and they ducked behind any cover available, bracing their rifles for the charge. The hatch slid open and the armored Light Infantrymen poured out of the airlock, returning fire into the blizzard of flying plasma. Cut down in droves, the LI scrambled for cover of any kind, trying to establish a foothold in the bay. The sheer ferocity in their desperate attack threw off the crusaders at first; they lay down enough cover fire for Rymir’s crew to evacuate the bay.
“Lay down your weapons!” the only Soldier of the Lord clad in power armor shouted through the suit’s amplifiers, “If you surrender and accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, and you will not be harmed!” Raw and poorly equipped but superbly disciplined, the crusaders acted as one, moving and firing as their officers directed. “We have come to free your souls, not end your lives!” their leader continued. Crusaders everywhere lay down cover fire for others who ducked and dashed from pillar to pillar, flanking the Infantrymen and exposing their cover to enemy fire. “Unless you cease and repent,” their leader bellowed as he picked off the Fed troopers with expert aim, “you leave us not choice but to abandon you to His wrath!” Infantrymen screamed and collapsed as the flanking crusaders shot them down from the sides. “In the name of almighty God,” he droned on as the defenders fell back in confused retreat, “will you drop your weapons, accept Jesus and be born again?”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP, YOU GODDAMN JESUS FREAK!!” the Light Infantry sergeant screamed, the stress boiling over in his voice as he fired madly at the Righteous Army elder. The crusaders roared in anger at the insult and surged forward in a final wave of that cut the defenders down to the last man. Marching through the smoke and wreckage, the soldiers of the Lord packed themselves into the interior airlock.
It took one minute for the airlock to pressurize, then the first wave of crusades surged through the corridors of Dock 14.
“They’re inside! Holy shit!!”
“…and two columns heading toward the Data Center…”
“… lost contact with repair bridge…”
“… reinforce the Power Plant and prepare for a charge…”
“… power failures in sections H2 and C4…”
“… lay down suppressing fire and fall back in pairs of…”
Chaos reigned throughout the Dock 14 Command Center. Ensigns roared out damage reports and troop movements. O’Reilly struggled to coordinate emergency repairs and damage control. Captain Terrel bellowed orders to his platoons, shifting troops back and forth in a futile attempt to slow down the crusaders flooding the decks. Turret gunners shouted at each other to shoot the troop transports. Reports flooded in of captured Fleet vessels pulling out of the dock and heading for the gates. Above the roaring din of the Command Center, everyone could hear the increasing blasts and faint cries of the approaching firefight.
“Smashie!” O’Reilly cried into the open channel, “there’s a column of fundies heading for the Data Center! Start a systems lockout with a Level 5 Override and evacuate the area, do you understand me? Do it and get the hell out of there!!”
“Fall back to the Command Center!” Terrel ordered his troops, “We need to hold! Barricade the main corridors, entrench yourselves, and hold, do you hear me?! Hold! You can not surrender!”
“Sir,” the sergeant protested over the intercom, “our unit’s spread out all over the dock! We haven’t got the strength to hold, Sir, we need more men!”
“ I know, sergeant, I’m working on it! Reinforcements are on their way!” Terrel opened a channel to Vice-Admiral Toboas, Administrative Officer of the Phoenix Yards. “Sir, this is Captain Terrel in Dock 14! We’ve been boarded by the Righteous Army! They’ve broken past the docking bay and are closing in on…
“Captain, I know your situation,” the silver-bearded vice-admiral snapped, “and it’s the same for docks 5, 8, 31, 37, and 46!”
“Sir, I need more troops to defend the Command…“ Terrel started.
“There ARE no more troops, captain!” Toboas answered, his voice strained. “We weren’t expecting to be boarded – not this fast!” he explained, “We’ve got to consolidate our troops in the central hub and hit the fundies dock by dock.”
“Sir,” Terrel protested, “I’m warning you, I can’t hold with the garrison I have. Okay… we’ll abandon the dock and pull back into the hub.”
“No, you won’t!” Toboas said firmly. “All infected docks have gone into lockdown. No one goes in, no one gets out. It’s the only way to contain the enemy, captain.”
The loud chatter in the Command Center suddenly dropped off as everyone turned to stare dumbfounded at the holoproj of the Vice-Admiral, some frozen in shock and others trembling in panic. In the sudden silence, the roar of the desperate shoot-out outside seemed louder and closer than ever.
“SIR!” Captain Terrel exclaimed when he regained his voice, “if we can’t retreat and we can’t hold, what the hell are we supposed –“
“Your orders are to hold until reinforcements arrive, captain. To the last man, if necessary. We can’t lose the shipyard.” Toboas turned away. “Good luck.” The holoproj winked out.
The smell of burning plasma and the screams of dying men outside the door brought everyone back to reality. All the LI in the Command Center slowly stood, drawing their sidearms and moved behind their consoles, weapons braced and aimed at the door. Seconds later, the last of the screams died away, leaving only silence and the smell of charred flesh. The infantrymen looked at each other silently, sweat glistening on their faces despite the climate controlled air. It wouldn’t be long now.
Xinjao suddenly realized he had risen to his feet, every muscle in his body tensed, breathing heavily. Silently he motioned for non-coms to hide under their consoles, then ducked under his own. Tense seconds ticked by in hot, claustrophobic silence.
Suddenly the sealed door blasted open, spraying the room in fire and shrapnel. Xinjao listened, motionless, as rifle shots and roared curses were exchanged. Squeezing himself deeper into the hollow of his terminal, he watched as smoke illuminated by flashing firelight filled the room and electronics exploded around him. It lasted but a few seconds, and then the plasma fire died down.
“Drop your weapons! If you surrender and accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior, you will not be harmed! Unless you cease and repent, you will be abandoned to His wrath!” a crusader roared out the quick monotone of a memorized speech. “In the name of almighty God, will you drop your weapons, accept Jesus and be born again?!”
In answer, Xinjao heard weapons clatter to the floor. Holding his hands above his head, he slowly stood up from behind his console. The first sight to greet his eyes was Captain Terrel’s prone form in front of him, a charred hole where his face used to be. Looking up, O’Reilly saw the group of Christian soldiers standing and kneeling in the doorway like angles of death, plasma rifles leveled at him, their white environmental suits singed and bloodstained.
“Welcome to the fold, my brothers and sisters,” the lead crusader called out as more people appeared in surrender. “Please place your weapons at your feet, your hands behind your head, and form into a single file line.”
Xinjao and the other prisoners were herded down the corridors to the lower decks of Dock 14, meeting up with other groups of prisoners pushed down the halls at gunpoint. He kept his eyes peeled for his men, attempting a head count of the survivors. Mostly they were dock workers, construction battalions, and a few civilian contractors. Only a decimated handful of the Light Infantry garrison had survived, stripped of their armor and rifles. O’Reilly caught sight of Smashie DuCroix and Melissa Bertram – their sections had been overrun, but they appeared to have survived. He thought he glimpsed Rymir, but he couldn’t be sure… he saw many of Rymir’s zero-G crew who had made it, so it was possible…
All the prisoners were led down into the lower decks and shuffled into a large empty storeroom. Before the door closed, a bona-fide Soldier of the Lord appeared briefly in the doorway. As he removed his helmet, the man standing in front of them was striking. He was a handsome, clean-cut Aryan type, wearing an outdated and primitive suit of white power armor, and stood there like he walked out of a recruitment poster.
“I am Alan Evans, Elder of the Faithful, commanding officer of the Angels of Justice, C Company, 5th Arnheim Regiment of the Righteous Army,” he introduced himself, addressing the prisoners. “Although we mean no harm to those who fear the power of the Lord, I’m afraid we must keep you here until the shipyards are secured… I’m sure you understand why. We’ll provide food and water as soon as we can, although copies if the New Testament will be distributed immediately. Our medics will return soon to attend to your injuries, and our company chaplain will also pay you a visit as soon as a suitable baptismal font can be found. Please pray for the souls of your friends who have passed, as we will. Thank you.” With that, the door slid shut, leaving them alone in the cold room.
At first, no one said anything. The engineers slowly looked around, then passed knowing glances between each other, sending messages with their eyebrows, nodding in understanding. O’Reilly was the first to break the silence. “I can’t believe they just did that,” he muttered, shaking his head. “They can’t be that stupid.”
For a second, nobody moved. Then suddenly the room burst into a flurry of activity. Dock workers wrenched open access hatches in the walls and floor. Construction soldiers ripped up floor plates, exposing the crawl spaces underneath. Technicians pulled the covers off of access panels and patched into the computer network with their datapads through the wires, pulling up maps and schematics. “Trying to an engineer prisoner on their own ship,” O’Reilly swore as he pushed people down into the crawl spaces, “is like trying to keep water in a cage.”
When the chaplain arrived an hour later with a wheelbarrow full of Bibles, the door slid back to reveal an empty room.
"Hello, Mal," she said in a light alto voice, "it's been a while."
Malachi was dumbfound by the beautiful woman standing there before him. "Um, hi."
Justine D'Amprisi's eyebrows flew up. "Hi? That's all you've got to say to me after two… three years?!"
"Tina, I… how did you get here?!"
"It wasn't hard. I showed 'em my stripes and they let me on board. No one's too picky about security after a battle."
"I… um…" Spyder was at a complete loss for words. "You're looking well, Justine. I was afraid…"
"…the damage would be permanent?" D'Amprisi lifted up one pant leg, showing the perfectly normal thigh beneath. "They have amazing doctors these days. The best thing is, in the TI, it's all free!"
"That's great, Tina. Wow…"
She moved closer to him, reaching out with her arms. Malachi unconsciously stepped back, as if he'd been bitten, then stepped forward again once he realized what he'd done. "What is it?"
"I ran into Max Thames back on New Madrid. He said that he captured two of his former soldiers when he talked to me."
"Yes, Mal. That was me."
"What do you mean?"
"Thames was waiting for us. They ambushed my entire division! Did you…"
"Did I what?"
"Did you…" his eyes closed as he tried to fight back the images. Shuttles exploding, soldiers dying, that deadly crossfire… "Did you betray us?"
"What?!" Justine shot back. "Mal, where did you get such a crazy idea?!"
Spyder bowed his head. "Yeah."
"Mal, I'm so sorry. I didn't want you to get involved in all of this."
"All of what? Tina, what the hell is all this about?!"
D'Amprisi inched closer to her former lover. This time, Malachi didn't back away. Justine smiled as she tried to explain. "Tomas Delarosa is an asshole, plain and simple. He's got a grudge against me."
"After I got out of the hospital, they put me on restricted duty. So they posted me at Patton Base on Avalon. I happened to run into Tomas, since he is the head of IA, and all the bigwigs are at Patton Base. We became… I tried calling you, letting you know I was all right, but you had transferred somewhere else, and I couldn't reach you…"
"We became lovers. I was lonely, Mal. At first, Tomas was so nice and I was so scared after being alone in the hospital, with no one to talk to. However, after a couple months, I learned what he really was. He has no soul, Mal, he's nothing but a politician in uniform. He just uses people. Finally I left him and he's never forgiven me. He's determined to have me at Pluto for the rest of my life."
"Or worse, yes." Justine finally got right next to Malachi. "You don't know how long I've wanted to do this." She reached for him and pressed his lips against hers. For a moment, it seemed like the years between them had melted away.
Then, the sound of the ship changed, and Spyder broke off their embrace. "What was that?"
"We've jumped into hyperspace. We should be at Babylon in a couple days." D'Amprisi stated. "Mal, with Delarosa on board, I'm going to have to keep hiding. Please believe me, Malachi, I would never do anything to harm you."
Brushing her hair, he nodded. "I believe you."
She smiled as if she turned on the sun. "Thank you, Mal. I've gotta go. I will see you again."
"Yes, Tina. I'll see you later."
With that, she rushed off into the darkness, disappearing into the black murk of the ship.
The window escape, on second thought, had not been the best of escape routes for Miro. He had emptied the 550 in the door and then dived through the window. The tree had broken the fall, but not as gently as Creed would have liked. He was scratched up and had caught his left foot in a branch. The branch gave away under his wait but not before he felt something pop. As soon as he got to his feet pain began shooting up his leg. Somehow managed to ignore it as he hobbled away from the hotel. Behind him he heard the shouts coming from his room. He hurried to find some cover. He dived into an alley way as plasma bolts struck the pavement behind him. One of the bursts of super heated plasma nicked his arm burning through his leather jacket and shirt. The pain in his arm allowed Miro to temporarily ignore the pain in his foot.
“That was fucking stupid, Miro.” Creed cursed to himself as he fished out reloads for the 550 from his coat pocket. He popped in a fast loader and snapped the cylinder back in. He hoped that the InSec guys were not crack troopers; they might look for an ambush rather than assuming that their mark had run off down the alleyway. Miro rolled a small optical probe around the corner. “Right on fucking time.”
“Come on! If we don’t get him, Vannis will have our ass!” The lead man of three business suit-clad InSec goons yelled. He glanced over his shoulder to yell at his comrades and Miro decided to make him pay for it.
“Shit!” The rear left goon shouted as he saw Creed lay out from the alleyway, the 550 raised. Miro put a slug through his chest that punched through the InSec issued vest and tore a gaping hole through to the other side where the slug was stopped by the back side of the bullet-proof vest.
Creed turned and put two slugs into the second trailer as he was taking aim on him. By this point, the lead man realized what had happened. Instead of pulling a weapon, though, he reached out with his hand as Miro pulled the trigger twice.
“Ahhh!!” Miro screamed as the 550 blew itself to pieces, flashing powder burning in Creed's face as it blinded him. Another piece of metal also had managed to launch itself into his already injured shoulder. Creed wrenched back, grabbing at his burnt face. Using his probe, he managed to make a break down the alleyway, while the nanites inside him repaired the trauma to his eyes first. A minute later, he was clear of the ambush, and he was nearly able to see. He figured he must have dropped the InSec goon with the first shot before he had caused the 550 to jam on the second shot. If the goons were still after him after he dropped their partner, he didn't want to find out.
An hour later, Miro was feeling better. His ankle was still stiff and the burns ached but they were both better. The shard of spun carbon steel, however, was more than the nanites could handle. They had isolated the shard to prevent infection but that would require a medic to fix.
Creed made it into the outskirts of the city, right in the area where the fires from the coup had not been totally repaired. However, despite the death surrounding them, there was life. He found an open market in the midst of it, so Creed walked out into the crowd, keeping his head ducked and his black hair over his face, trying to avoid showing the scars of his firefight. Cosmetics were the last thing the nanites would repair. Miro didn’t think the damage to his face was bad. It wasn’t blistering; taking on a pinkish shade.
“What will it be, hon?” A heavy-set, redheaded waitress asked him as he sat down at a table on a street side restaurant. Miro looked for a menu but couldn’t find one. “Burger or a hot dog, hon?” The waitress answered his unasked question.
“Burger, please.” Creed replied. As he did his hair parted and she saw his face.
“Out in the sun or something?” She asked, a slightly surprised expression creeping over her face.
“Yea.” Miro answered. Apparently, he had been right on the status of his face burns.
“You look like a regular lobster, hon. I’ll go put in your order.” She smiled back at him. Something in her smile made him smile back.
“What are you smiling at?” A small voice asked from behind him. Creed turned and eyed a little girl no older than eight. She had soft blonde hair and a piercing gaze that gave Miro an odd feeling. Still, the smile on her face made him relax. Actually he felt pretty good… it was the first time he had since leaving Babylon.
“I don’t know.” Creed replied honestly. He looked up at the crowd around him. The barrage of colors from their bio-electrics aura warmed him with the many soft vibrant colors of compassionate and generally happy thoughts. Miro turned his attention to the little girl but her aura was all wrong. It had no color except white, although it was at a much higher intensity level.
“Don’t worry.” she smiled. “I can’t read you either. The Soul Web's activities completely distort the normal bio-electric pattern of our minds.” The answer seemed so scientific and considering the source, Miro couldn’t help but laugh. Her smile widened at his laughter.
“You are a Horadrim aren’t you?” Creed leaned over and whispered to her.
“Of course I am, silly!” she smiled. “I’m also part human… like my daddy. He was bio-engineered, though. I was born.”
“Born?” Miro replied in surprise. “I didn’t think that was possible.”
“I’m the first.” she smiled with a proud look on her face. “Well, at least I thought I was. That’s what my mommy and daddy told me. Till I met you.”
“Oh?” Creed smiled. “Why do you say that?” Miro was intrigued; so much that he hardly noticed the waitress returning with his burger. Apparently, the standard fare was a burger, some fries, and a glass of water. “Want something to eat?”
“Sure.” she smiled as she climbed into the seat opposite of him. She immediately grabbed a fry and took a bite. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” Creed replied as he bit into his burger. Apparently they liked lots of toppings on their burgers. Miro squirted mustard and ketchup on the front of his jacket. The girl giggled. Creed gave here a mock condescending look as he wiped the glob from his jacket. “So you were saying?”
“A true Horadrim modified to be human still retains at least 75% of his genetic pattern.” She continued to amaze Miro. “Those created by the Federation during the experiments have approximately 50% of their original genetic heritage. Me and you only have 25%. Less for you. A little more for me.”
“And how do you know that about me?” Creed asked.
“My daddy told me.” The little girl giggled. “He told me how it works. So I look for it. I can see it in you.”
“I can’t see anything like that in you.” Miro answered.
“That’s cause you are not a mage, silly.” The girl giggled. Then her smile faded and she turned and looked out at the crowd. Creed turned and followed her gaze and saw someone was coming. Someone who wasn’t happy. Miro turned to tell the girl to run but she already had. Miro stood and reached for his slug throwers hidden in the back of his coat. He had left the plasma revolver in his hotel room.
The crowd parted as a man walked through in a tight black business with no tie and a mandarin collar. He had a gray goatee and small metal glasses perched on his face. He was obviously coming for Creed. Once the crowd was out of the way Miro snapped out the slug throwers and activated the laser sights. He put the two dots on the man’s chest. At the sight of his guns the crowd scattered amongst shouts and screams.
“Put that away, M. Creed.” The man snapped. Miro was about to reply when he saw a pattern to the electrical stirrings of the man’s body. They resembled the pattern he had seen in Mendota’s glitched message back on Earth. But these were much powerful. Creed felt a spark of energy as the patterns encountered his nano cells. They happily gathered up the energy to recharge themselves after working continuously to heal him. “Drop the guns now!”
“Fuck off.” Miro replied. “Who the fuck are you and what do you want?”
“Interesting.” The man replied obviously surprised by something. “My name is Insal Turks, M Creed. You can either come with me on your own power or under mine.”
“How original.” Turks sneered and then suddenly his energy pattern surged. A blast of electricity arched from Insal and struck Miro sending him flying ten feet before crashing against a parked flitter. His slug throwers soared off in different directions. Creed groaned in pain as his clothes smoldered. Miro pulled himself to his feet as Turks walked over.
“Where are you to tell me to move now?” Creed silently questioned his other voice. It remained silent.
“Are we finished?” Turks smirked at Miro. It lasted only for a second as Creed snapped forward and snapped a combo of punches and kicks that caught Turks by surprise. He staggered back and tripped over the curb of the road. Miro started to move forward when Turks raised his hand. Creed darted away and around the front of the flitter. Vannis was there waiting for him.
“Hello, Miro.” The man that had gunned down Creed’s friend smiled as he snapped a stiff kick into Miro’s stomach. Creed tried to reverse his direction but Vannis was faster than any human could be. His kick didn’t break any ribs but immediately Miro knew he had been hurt bad. He dropped to one knee trying to look as bad as he felt. Vannis fell for the ruse. Creed stepped up as Vannis stepped in and fired a flat punch upward towards Vannis’s jaw.
“Nice form.” Vannis caught Miro’s wrist an inch short of his own jaw. He then wrenched the limb with inhuman strength totally shattering the bone and rending several tendons. Creed's scream of pain was halted a second later as Vannis slammed a double flat hand strike to his chest. The palms impacted with a sickening crack on his breast and Miro soared a few feet and landed on his back.
“Ah, M. Vannis.” Turks smiled at the new arrival. “I’m surprised to see you here. But I really shouldn’t. You are truly a man of great talent.”
“M. Turks.” Vannis acknowledged the older man as he readjusted the cuffs on his sport jacket. “You are a hard man to find. Colonel King is very unhappy with your leaving us out of the loop.”
“Couldn’t be helped, I assure you.” Turks replied. “M. Savant discovered your agent. If I hadn’t been there to pick up the pieces, M. Creed may have slipped totally through our fingers after your agents flubbed the pick up and the space port.”
“Where is she?!” Miro winched with the pain in his chest.
“I would like to know that as well, M. Turks.” Vannis stated flatly. “We put a lot of effort in M. Savant and we feel she could be the key to controlling Creed.”
“Oh… she is in good hands.” Turks smiled.
“Once again, this is an unacceptable answer.” Vannis stated coldly. “You can tell M….”
“Shhh.” Turks cut Vannis off. He then smiled and looked past Miro. “A third party has apparently joined the party.”
Creed twisted to see behind him and was only able to make it half way. Ten feet beyond him was a gray robed figure with what looked like a black poncho. Two hands, one slender and feminine, the other also feminine in shape but glistening with metal, reached up and drew back the hood. A fairly attractive brunette lay beneath it. As her hands returned to her sides, Miro saw some sort of long device attached to the back of her forearms.
“Neither of you may have him tonight.” The brunette stated simply.
“Two against one, M. McManus.” Turks smiled. “Not exactly a good tactical decision.”
“One against one against one.” McManus replied. “For I will confirm what M. Vannis already suspects. That you were the one who killed his agent Mendota as well as the agent of General Clarke.”
“Clarke had an agent in this?!” Vannis spat. “Turks! Did you know this?”
“Of course not.” Turks stated coldly, the smile finally fading.
“Actually he did.” McManus replied. “He was the one who keyed Clarke in on the project. He wanted a counter in case InSec decided to over step your agreement.”
“Don’t tell me you are going to believe this woman.” Turks snapped at Vannis who was eyeing Turks and turning to face both him and McManus. “Why should you believe her over me?!”
“Cause I don’t know her.” Vannis replied coldly. “You I know. And what I know is not to trust you.”
“And you are far from being worthy of trust, M. Vannis.” McManus continued. “For it was you who deliberately hired the incompetent hacker to clean Savant’s comm, as well as Mendota’s.”
“Why the hell would I do that?” Vannis replied defensively. Miro, though, had already found that answer.
“Cause you knew it would lead me here.” Creed grunted, trying to get to his feet. “And only you would know about it.” Miro surmised.
“Well, that’s a strike against honor among thieves.” Turks laughed. Before anyone else could react, he snapped his hand out and an emerald flash of energy cut through Miro.
“NO!” McManus replied with something more than her voice. She snapped her arm up and energy lashed out and disemboweled the flitter that Turks had been standing next to.
“If we can’t have him, I’m sure as hell not letting you have him!” Turks shouted as he landed… much too close to Vannis. Suddenly the InSec agent shifted into a giant half-man, half-reptile creature with massive wings. He slashed out a fair chunk of Turks' side, sending the mage stumbling back trying to heal himself. Vannis then breathed out a gout of fire toward McManus but a glimmering black energy shield blocked the flame.
Meanwhile Miro lay on his back, knowing he was dying. The blast had tore a gaping hole in his side and blood was gushing out. He didn’t know what was happening to him or why but he figured he would be better off dead.
“Piss off you religious cult bitch!” Turks cursed as he lashed out with a massive ethereal blast of energy at McManus. She raised her arms and a dark glowing nimbus formed around her. Regardless the blast shredded her robe revealing some more of her technological bodysuit under it. It also knocked her to the ground stunned, but the nimbus remained. When she looked up, blue light seem to leak from her eyes.
“Run Miro!” His other voice replied. “If you never listen to me again, Miro get up and run! Get away from her.” Something in the voice’s panic made Creed react. Miro dragged himself away from the fight. He got to a flitter and managed to get to his feet. He pressed his good hand to his wound but blood still flowed freely from it. He stumbled a few feet toward and alley way. He made it to the entrance and then collapsed in front of two people. One wore small pink galoshes where the other wore military style combat boots.
“Help him, Daddy!” The little girl Miro had encountered earlier shouted in alarm.
“Okay, Shannon,” The older man dropped down and rolled Creed over, “I’ll try.” He pushed Miro’s hand away from the wound and then covered it with his own. Suddenly a sheet of black metal covered his hand and then spread out over the wound. Miro tried to scan the man but there wasn’t enough energy left in his nanocells to power his sensory nerves. Creed finally noticed that the man had stopped and was staring at the battle. Miro rolled his head to watch the air ripple and to see a ripple of reality wash over Vannis and smash the were-creature through a wall. Turks was hiding within a energy screen that shattered under the impact of the ripple.
“Oh, fuck the Caal!” The older man cursed. He bent down and hefted Miro over his shoulder. Pain lanced through Miro. “Sorry, friend, but we are out of here.” With that, they dashed off down the alley and away from the battle.
Through rain, through sleet, through grayish clouds and impenetrable murk, Andrea Treschi's shuttle managed to land into the mud-soaked dark of Wilke's Star. His body had managed to heal… for the most part. Even after two days of constant supervision and rest on his trip here, he still felt a lancing pain in his chest every time he tried to walk too fast.
"What the fuck was worth all this?" Treschi muttered to himself as he stepped off the shuttle into the rainy murk.
"Watch your step, sir!" the shuttle operator said from the safe, warm interior of his craft. "Stay on the planks. If you drift in the mud, you'll get stuck, and you might not get out till tomorrow! Later!" With that cheery thought, he closed the door, and the shuttle powered up to head back up.
As Andrea tested the planks in front of him, he lifted up his raincoat collar a little higher to gain a hair more protection from the monsoon drenching him. He practiced his little trampoline act, stepping from precarious plank to even more unstable plank, finally reaching the building placed just out of the blast radius of a potential thruster failure.
Reaching the only dry place around, he finally shook off the cold around him, and went inside. Sitting there behind the desk was a bored trooper. Every so often, his head fell off his wrist and he woke up, noticing Treschi standing in front of him. The mage timed it; it took two minutes. "Um, uh… yes, sir? Can I help you?"
"I need a ride into the city."
"Oh. Are you military?"
"Then I'm sorry. You'll have to wait till it stops raining."
"I'm an acquaintance of Marshal Dunmeyer."
"So's the whole universe, sir."
"Why don't you call headquarters on the vidphone over there and tell them Andrea Treschi has arrived and wishes to see the marshal?"
"Because I feel like surviving longer than two seconds. Why don't you call?"
"Why not?" Andrea went over to the phone, picked up the HQ card that was lying right next to it, and inserted it in the slot. Soon enough, the comm signal went through and he was face to face with a captain. "My name is Andrea Treschi. I believe that the marshal would like to speak to me."
The captain said nothing at first, simply checking his datapad, scrolling down the list of approved personnel. When he reached his name, the officer looked up and said, "Yes, sir. I believe she's available tomorrow morning."
"Good. Currently I'm at the shuttle transfer station, and there's no…"
"Oh, a flitter will be sent for you immediately."
"Thank you." Then Andrea cut the comm signal.
Another hour later, after a bumpy ride in the flitter, he managed to make it to what was laughingly called a city. Since he hadn't gotten used to the time change, Treschi was still awake. He asked to be brought to a local bar, so the driver kindly obliged, dropping him off at the nearest one he could find. The lights were dim, the place was scummy… but at least it was dry.
After ordering a stout, Andrea found a booth farthest away from the door, and took a seat. After being knocked around for the past couple of hours, he allowed himself the pleasure of stretching out over the seat. The pain lessened in his aching muscles, and with a sip of the stout, things were looking much better.
Suddenly, another man appeared, drink in hand, and sat opposite from Treschi. A dark cape covered over his face, but even so, the mage felt like the man was staring at him. "Can I help you?"
He answered in a deep voice. "We will watch over his children as if they were our own, we will show them the right way, and in return, they will serve us all of our days."
"Excuse me?" Andrea answered. "What is that, poetry?"
"No," the cloaked man replied, "a prayer."
"Listen, I don't want…"
"This is not about what you want, M. Treschi."
Andrea froze. "Who are you?"
"You were sent to meet someone, yes? Someone with a job for you?"
"You work for the Jackals?" the mage whispered.
"Not work for. Am. The Jackal. As in singular."
Treschi took a sip of his brew to calm his nerves; he noticed that the man didn't touch his own. "I see. So what do you need me for?"
"You want power, right? Power over people, over money, over government?"
"I get you that power, M. Treschi, oh, yes… yes, I can. What do you want? I can supply it."
"What do you want?!" the Jackal slammed his fist on the table, his voice agitating him beyond his normal thoughts. "It is a simple question."
"I want control."
"Control of what?"
"The Raptors. I want control of the Raptors."
"Interesting. Raptors. Seems like there's a opening as of late, oh yes, openings are good for us." The Jackal leaned closer, never giving a glimpse of his face. "We need someone, M. Treschi, someone willing to help us in the corridors of power. You want control of the Raptors, yes? We can get that for you, but it comes at a price."
"This is a favor, yes? You will do us favors in return. Seldom, very quiet, nothing to disrupt your position. Understand."
"Good. Then return to Avalon, M. Treschi. Your office is waiting for you."
As Hex set down outside of Maine City, close to where he had landed the last time, he went over the fight he witnessed on the Ark. The flight to New Paris took little time, but he found that simple navigation bored him to death; thinking the battle through helped to alleviate some of the boredom. He felt aimless, like he was passing from planet to planet without rhyme or reason; there was certainly plenty of confusion in his life. He was a little concerned about his Resistance cell… he had only been with them for a short while, but he seemed to belong with them more than with anyone else. The teenager was tired; he hadn't slept since that mind mage gave him that nightmare. He made himself a stimulant drink and twenty minutes later he was ready to roll.
He stepped out of the shuttle and quickly got his bearings. He had to figure out where he was in relation to where he had left Brigette before leaving last time. He sat down cross-legged on the grass. He knew he was looking for something, but he wasn’t sure what. The girl had probably left something, some way for him to notify her of his return; Hex needed to find it. Of course, the boy's thoughts interrupted, maybe she's scared shitless of you and doesn't want to see you again. The reluctant mage shrugged it off; no, she waited for him… somewhere.
The teenager closed his eyes to concentrate and felt the space around him. There were two curious objects he could sense within a reasonable distance. One was further away and easy to spot, the other very close and subtle.
Hex suspected that his best bet was the object further away, but he was curious about the closer one. As he came closer and closer to pinpointing the object, he realized that it was inside of him… in his right arm. He was going to try to take a closer look when his reflexes snapped him out of his trance. He knocked the gun away from his head and threw his assailant off balance before the feeling of cold metal against his temple registered in his brain. He’d been looking for small objects, so he didn’t sense the large body approaching him. He did a low sweep with his right leg and saw that Brigette was still making the same mistake of getting too close to her target. She was so cute…
She fell on her back while Hex jumped to his feet, unsheathing his katana with his right hand, and aiming with a plasma revolver with his left. “I would have thought you would have learned your lesson by now.” she said nothing, her eyes full of hatred. A moment of awkward silence followed. Hex put away his gun but held the blade still. He felt like he was moving very slowly. The stimulants were beginning to wear off. How long had he been sitting there?
“I’m sorry about your friends. If I could change what I did, I would.” The expression on Brigette’s beautiful face changed from one of hatred to one of shock. Hex continued. “I’ve changed since we met. If you still want to kill me, then you’ll be killing one of your own. I met up with the Resistance on Avalon.” She was upset, but Hex put away his sword anyway; he didn’t think he would need it anymore.
"Why did you come back?" she managed to force out her lips.
"Because I had to know something… about myself. As strange as it seems, you're the only thing that's made sense these last few months."
Brigette got to her feet and came closer. Hex fought back the training that told him to keep a combat distance. However, the aura she radiated didn't seem to be violent at all. Finally she reached forward and wiped his cheek. "What happened? What made you change your mind?" she asked, her words seemed to soothe his head.
What the hell, he thought, despite his better judgment, now is as good a time as ever. "Not long after I left here, memories that I didn’t know I had came back to me. I’ve been leading a life that I hate for the last half of my life.” He blinked and his eyes burned with weariness. “My name is Kiddo… at least, that's what they called me. I’m part of some damned Technocracy agenda to create and program the next generation of mages."
"You're what?!" Brigette interrupted, drawing her hand back. "That is the silliest thing I've heard in my life!"
"It's true!" Hex defended, stepping closer to touch her again, but she backed off. "I was genetically engineered by Dr. Xaktos, and for the first eight years of my life, he was my father and teacher. Under his care…“
She stepped back even further. "No, I don't believe you!" Resting her back against a tree, she shook her head. "People don't grow up in secret experiments. Not anymore! What the hell do you think you are, Marko Vitek?!"
"Brigette, will you please just listen to me?"
"Not till you start making sense!"
Hex took in a breath to clear his frustration. Palms out, he walked closer. "What will it take for you to believe me?"
"Tell me the truth. Tell me why you killed my friends!"
The boy stopped. "Because I was ordered to. I was told to kill Mary Obanye. Your friends were in the way."
A tear fell down her cheek. "You. One man took out all of them?"
Hex explained. “I learned to kill almost anybody using almost any weapon. I trained in dozens of possible combat scenarios. I also awakened, and for a short while, Dr. Xaktos tried to teach me to use my abilities.” As he spoke, he remembered how he had used to vanish during training sessions, but suddenly his memories reached the time he spent in deep sleep. “But something went wrong in the lab. Xaktos was running tests on me… I had just met my twin sister… and then something happened. I was in a cryogenics tube…” His memory was failing him. I thought that Cerise had unblocked all of my memories. It was all a jumble… it wasn’t due to nervousness… it was something that he had no control over. That bastard Atkins scrambled my memories! Damn him! “…I couldn’t help them.” His voice was cracking. “They were too fast and too powerful… we were all so young… damn him!… He kept me locked away for months… he killed my father! He fucked up my mind! I’LL KILL HIM!”
His eyes were filled with tears as he fell to his knees. Part of him screamed. Don’t be so weak! Kill her and stop blubbering, and then get your revenge on that bastard! He tried to ignore it but it was so powerful he had to concentrate harder to push it away. Hex didn't realize how entranced he was until he suddenly felt a slap on his left cheek. Had he fallen asleep?
“That’s one hell of a story," Brigette replied, "and I don’t believe one word of it, you bastard!”
Hex could barely keep his eyes open to look at her he was so tired, but he could tell her conviction was wavering. She was still crying. Brigette kept mumbling about incoherence and make believe… “ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?!?” The press of the revolver against the bottom of his chin woke him up long enough for him to hear her next words. “I’m going to kill you! Understand!?” Hex collapsed unto her before she could say anything more. He had been awake for the past seventy-four hours and nothing she could have done could have made him stay awake any longer.
Task Force 54 moved slowly and stealthily towards the trap they knew 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 master control room for the orbital defenses on Deimos. "Hyper footprint," reported the sensor technician dispassionately.
"Damn," replied the Resistance commander, "Admiral" Chuck Coppinger. There were no ranks in the liberation's forces, but he was in charge of the tiny fleet they had amassed. He had earned the right to be called admiral. "It looks like those bastards were right. Deploy missile pods."
From the battlestations and larger warships, dozens of missile pods, the size of small houses, floated out and moved off on the push of small thrusters. They deployed in the gaps between warships and rotated to face the oncoming threat. Nearly a hundred orbital defense ships also swarmed out from the battlestations, moving forward to get in an early shot with their lance torpedo box launchers.
Coppinger turned to his executive officer. "When they reach two million kilometers from Mars, open fire." With that, he turned and strode out of the control room. It would take several hours for the Federation warships to close that distance, and he needed a nap.
"Approaching Point Totenkopf, sir," announced the flag captain over the intercom.
In the flag bridge, Admiral Karl Von Shrakenberg smiled. "You may go ballistic, kaptain."
"Aye, aye, sir." Task Force 54 cut all engines and coasted in. Even the grav drives were taken offline, to avoid any betraying emissions.
Nearby, Erich was muttering to himself. "Classic ambush. Show them what they want to see, then take it away. Come on you bastards, see what you want to see…"
"They're coming in too slow for a cee-fractional strike, C.C.!" observed the sensor technician at Deimos.
"Too bad," replied the admiral, "they'd get the shock of their lives. They know better. They come in fast, they minimize our response time, but we would see them. They come in slow, though, we've got longer to spot 'em, but they can come in a lot quieter and we still may not see them at all."
"And if they came in fast, all they could do was a few quick broadsides as they flashed by," interjected the man in the black uniform, leaning against the far wall. "Since their orders are to stay and bombard the planet, they have to come in slow enough to kill their momentum and go into orbit around the target."
Chuck scowled. "We know the consequences of their velocity. You don't have to tell us our jobs."
"But, of course, admiral," replied the man in black, smiling politely. "I'm only here to help."
"Of course, you are," Coppinger replied with obvious distaste. Turning back to the tactical plot, something about the enemy's approach bothered him. Perhaps…? "Brett, are they close enough for a mass reading yet?"
"Negative." replied the senior sensor technician.
"They have to know we control the old Early Warning Network. They have to know we'd see their transit to normal space," mused the admiral.
"You think this is a ruse?" inquired the sensor tech.
"I know it is! Go active on the sensors," Chuck ordered, "I bet those blips are drones."
"Active emissions!" shouted the sensor officer on board the EFS Hachiman.
"Are they above detection threshold?" asked the flag captain.
"Good," commented Admiral Karl Von Shrakenberg from the flag bridge monitor. "Activate phase two."
From his seat nearby, Erich could only watch as his plan unfolded.
"Picking up a second line of blips!"
"I thought so," Coppinger declared with smug pride. "Track the second wave of blips, and fire as they come into range."
"I am impressed," interrupted in the man in the black uniform. "You certainly do know your business."
The admiral scowled again. "Just make sure your ships follow the plan."
"Oh, you don't need to worry about that," said the man with a smile. "They're the cream of our fleet, the most advanced ships in the Federation."
"Sir, we're picking up some unusual emissions from these seven ships here," announced the sensor officer on the Hachiman, highlighting the icons of seven hostile warships in Mars Orbit.
"What the hell are they?" wondered the flag captain. He uploaded the data to the flag bridge at the other end of the star control ship.
"Mein Gott," intoned Karl when he saw the data. "InSec battlecruisers."
"What did you say?" asked Erich.
"There haff been rumors at the Admiralty for a couple of years now," explained the Admiral. "InSec supposedly built a handful of advanced battlecruisers based on Hodraida technology."
"Oh, schizen." moaned Erich.
"Exactly." answered his uncle. "InSec is not allowed to operate starships larger than frigates, any more then the LI or TI is. Large warships are the sole province of the Fleet."
"But InSec never felt the law applied to them." finished Erich.
"Vell, time for us to show dem how much the law applies to them," replied Uncle Karl with a mischievous grin.
"Drones now entering firing range," announced the sensor technician on the moon.
"Open fire with the battlestations only," ordered the Resistance Admiral. "Hold fire on the pods and torpedo boats."
"Aye, sir. Firing!" The battlestations started firing their lance torpedoes. Over six hundred ICBM-sized torpedoes spewed forth with each salvo, and three salvoes were in space before the second line of ships entered range. Joined with half the missile pods, one thousand projectiles rushed to bring their targets to their mortal end.
"Bring the defense grid to standby, but don't light up the active sensors yet." ordered Admiral Karl Von Shrakenberg. "Prepare to execute pre-planned maneuvers."
The twenty-four ships of Task Force 54 activated their particle phalanxes and readied their main drives, but stayed silent. The several thousand incoming torpedoes and missiles closed the million-kilometer gap steadily. The first laser warheads in the incoming salvoes detonated. Laser-pumped fusion triggers vaporized carbon rods in the laser heads, forcing the resulting plasma to laser and producing beams of high-energy x-rays that lashed out at their targets. One by one, the drones launched by the task force flashed into plasma and vanished from the screens of both sides' tactical plots. Then the proximity-fused torpedoes entered kill range, and exploded with multi-megaton fusion warheads, vaporizing the remaining drones.
"Entering firing range in 30 seconds." the Hachiman's helm officer announced.
Admiral Von Shrakenberg grinned. "Light up the drives, and fire at will."
"C.C., there's no defensive fire coming from either line of target blips," announced the worried tactical officer on Deimos.
The admiral whirled to face him. "What?"
"Chuck, we've got new contacts, bearing 143 by 63, range 1.2 million klicks!"
"Those tricky assholes! Fuck!!! Shift fire to new targets!"
Several thousand kilometers to the left of the double line of drones, Task Force 54 opened fire with all tubes. Over nine hundred lance torpedoes flashed out at the sitting ducks in Mars orbit. The torpedo boats, in position for the second wave against the now-revealed drones, shifted quickly to face the new threat. However, since they were out of position, they only managed to fire half of their 400 torpedoes. The few remaining missile pods were also hurriedly shifted into position, adding another 400 to the fray. However, this paltry sum of 600 torpedoes would not hold off the true fleet that appeared, coming closer to bring their defenses to their doom.
The Resistance ships had been emitting with active sensors for several minutes, letting the Earth Fleet ships get excellent passive fixes on the targets. The Federation's fleet let the weapons roar into the ships, blasting them to pieces as the blips fell off the screen. Too easily, Commodore Von Shrakenberg realized, and quickly checked his screens. Holy shit! They couldn't have!
"SIR!" Erich screamed out to his Uncle Karl. "The Resistance ships are drones as well!"
"Vhat?!?!" Admiral Von Shrakenberg rushed over to the screen. As he read the sensor data over his nephew's shoulder, the true horror of what happened came back to him. "Dey used the same trick as us." Hitting the comm button as hard as he could, the admiral quickly ordered, "All ships! Shift fire to the battlestations!"
The commodore shifted his plot, searching in vain for the missing ships. "Where the hell are they?!"
"Hyper footprint!" the Hachiman's sensor officer called out.
"Admiral" Coppinger's terror switched to relief as the clock finally reached the prearranged time. The senior sensor technician echoed his counterpart. "Hyper footprint!"
"About damn time." Chuck muttered under his breath. "Tell Dyson to order all ships to engage. Focus on their command ship. They might leave here, but they're not leaving in one piece." The Resistance admiral allowed himself a smile. "Classic ambush. Show them what they want to see, then take it away."
The true Resistance fleet appeared out of hyperspace, led by their grav-drive battlecruisers, burrowing through the flank of Task Force 54. A pair of the Fed's destroyers were blasted from the initial salvo. Cutting a hole in their line, they proceeded to cause havoc with the Earth Fleet line of battle.
Admiral Karl Von Shrakenberg watched as the trap against his fleet unfolded. Calming after his initial surprise, he became ice. "All ships," he ordered, "reverse course and head towards da center. Destroy dat fleet!"
The Earth Fleet ships obeyed, quickly pulling high gravity turns to face the new threat. As the Resistance ships moved forward, the central battlecruisers shifted to fire on the new targets. However, the attackers got to fire first. The Spartan took multiple hits from X-ray lasers, rendering many of their critical systems worthless, while the Renown vanished into a ball of white-hot plasma, as it absorbed incredible energy fire from the Resistance battlecruiser Valley Forge.
However, several other ships had managed to make up the distance lost by the false attack, and fired at the true targets. The Valley Forge, having put itself in close proximity to the EFS Renown, blanked out half its sensors momentarily. However, that moment was enough for two light cruisers to rush in and blow the Resistance battlecruiser in half by fusion warheads. The Churchill rushed in to join the attack only to be burned from stem to stern by the lasers of the light cruiser Algonquin.
Although the exchange between the two forces was fast and furious, the main body of the Resistance fleet was approaching weapon range of the EFS Hachiman. However, with all the ships of Task Force 54 closing in on them, they wouldn't have much time to fire before they were blown out of the stars.
As they reached the Resistance fleet reached their necessary distance, they opened up on the star control ships, unleashing the wrath of God upon the three-mile long craft. Erich watched in dread fascination at the weapon tracks coming in toward him that he failed to notice the strange electromagnetic signatures appearing at the outside of the Federation fleet.
The InSec battlecruisers rushed out of the tunnel drive to hit the rear of the ships now pursuing the Resistance fleet. Their armor being weak near the engines, their Horadrim-based energy weapons breaking through easily, and tearing apart their sensitive areas. As they passed by their prey, the pure black ships were lit up by the white-hot flash of fusion bottles breaking.
This fact was not lost upon the ever-maddening pace of the Hachiman's flag bridge. Uncle Karl worked at a furious pace to adjust to the sudden change of the battle. "Destroyer Squadron! Shift to face new threats. 245 Mark 115! DO IT!"
"Sir," cried the commander of the destroyer squadron over the comm, "the targets have disappeared again!"
"We got some strange readings. Like a black hole forming and then disappearing…."
Suddenly the Hachiman was wracked by the first wave of hits from the Resistance fleet. The ground seemed to shift out from underneath Admiral Karl as he hit the deckplates. Explosions wrecked the circuitry as the mammoth ship went through his throes of pain. As soon as things settled, Erich pulled off his restraints and went to his fallen uncle. "Uncle Karl?! UNCLE KARL?!?!"
The tough old admiral managed to get to his feet. "I am all right, Erich. Just a little bruised." Karl looked up at his comm screens and noticed something. "Vhere is the bridge?"
Erich looked up and saw that the connection to the Hachiman's bridge was black. "We've lost the signal."
"Sir!" another of the flag staff called out. "InSec ships reappeared against our heavy cruisers." There was a pause. "We've lost communication with Rear Admiral Jamison."
Karl turned toward his nephew. "Erich, you must get to the bridge. I'm ordering all ships to vithdraw…"
"Withdraw?!" the commodore couldn't have been more surprised if he'd been slapped. "No, sir!"
"ERICH! Get to the bridge. Ve can't survive like dis! The Hachiman must cover our retreat before we're destroyed!"
"Dat es an order, commodore!!!" Admiral Karl Von Shrakenberg rose to his full height. "MOVE!"
Erich managed to get to his feet and move toward the door. Years of military service had engrained in him the need to follow orders. Before he went out the hatch, he took one last look at the flag bridge, watching his uncle strap himself into his former seat. Finally, the commodore opened the access gate, and stepped through. Once the hatch shut, Erich quickly rushed down the corridor, needing to get to the bridge.
Suddenly, he was knocked off his feet as the second salvo wracked the star control ship. As he fell, his eyes glanced back to the hatchway he just went through. Through the tiny window, instead of the flag bridge, all he saw was open space. Erich, although shaking from the sheer incredibility of it all, managed to get to his feet and continue his way toward the bridge. He had no time to realize that his closest living relative no longer held that position.
It took him five minutes to reach the bridge. To the commodore, it felt like five lifetimes. Dodging the pieces of exploding debris, backtracking twice when a path was blocked, rushing through crawl spaces even through his hands blistered, his leg felt like lead as he was desperate to get to the bridge.
When he finally got there, it looked a wasteland. Only one man was there to greet him as he came through the door; the flag captain sat alone. Turning his chair to face him, he stared with murderous intent. "What are you doing here?!"
"Admiral…" Erich had to catch his breath, panting as he was to cross the difficult distance. "Admiral Von Shrakenberg orders you to withdraw the fleet, using the Hachiman as cover."
"Commodore," the flag captain growled, "what remained of the fleet jumped out a minute ago."
Erich was too shocked to say anything. He simply stood there like a man struck dumb; not moving, not talking. The captain examined him with his withering stare. "Didn't you hear the evacuation order?"
Another salvo burst against the ship, doing little to the wrecked bridge, apart from causing some sparks. "Well, I'm giving it to you now. Abandon ship."
"No, captain." The flag officer stood up straight to attention. "Permission to stay."
"Permission denied!" the flag captain shouted, echoed by the sparking terminals behind him. "Commodore, I don't know you that well, but I do know that you're a good officer. You need to live, for the good of the Federation… for the good of yourself."
"Get off my bridge, commodore." The captain moved his hair away to show the bloody pool that was forming on his hip. "Let me die in peace… on my own ship."
Erich nodded and went to the nearest escape capsule. It didn't take long to get in, sit down, and close the hatch. With the basics done, the capsule's computer went through its preprogrammed sequence, blasting the small craft out into space. The sudden acceleration knocked him unconscious as he rode into the big black.
The next thing he knew, he smelled the burning wood of the campfire nearby. He managed to open his eyes. All around him was a lush and green tropical clearing. Across the campfire was… what had to be the oldest lieutenant in the Tech Infantry. Long gray scraggly hair draped across his shoulders, framing his dark-skinned face. He poked at the fire with an intensity he had never seen before. His brown eyes seemed to focus on it.
"Lieutenant?" Erich managed to cough out.
"You're awake, sir?" His eyes jumped out of their concentration to fall on the commodore. "I was afraid you were dead."
As Von Shrakenberg sat up, the muscles in his body throbbed with pain, but he managed to accomplish this simple physical feat. "I wish I was." He looked around at the greenery that seemed hopelessly out of place. "Where are we?"
"Mars… I think. I found this garden inside this dome when I landed. You landed nearby. I dragged you here."
"Who are you?"
"That's not important, sir. What's important is that you're safe."
With the task force gone, and enemies circling in the skies above, safe was the last thing that the commodore felt.
END OF ACT III
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.