WALK IN LOVE, FLY IN CHAINS - Act II
"We are errant knaves all; trust none of us."
-- William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Xavier looked into the vampire's eyes, watching the unearthly fire that swirled inside them. Despite their beauty, they never waved from his stare. She was serious; Elizabeth really relying on him. After an uncomfortable pause, she broke the staring contest. "You see, he has been giving us so much trouble lately."
"Treschi's dead. I saw King kill him."
"I don't know what you saw. All I know is that he's very much alive… and that he remains a threat."
Xavier scratched his head. None of this made sense to him. "I don't understand. Why in the world are you coming to me? You're obviously powerful, and besides, you have all those followers. You don't need me." This is real familiar, he thought. Hasn't this happened before?
She gets up from the booth. "Yes, we could use our own if we wanted. However, to risk our own members would be… foolish, at stage in the game."
"Game? I hate to tell you, Beth, but I don't like being a pawn."
"And no one's asking you to be one. No… you're more of a knight, one who jumps the enemy's pieces, attacking where it's least expected."
"I still don't like being moved. Come on, answer the question!"
"We are caught in a war of blood. You have no appreciation what that means." Elizabeth took out a cigarette and lit it with a snap of her fingers. "We fight over centuries; our moves are quiet, subtle… because to move too fast would reveal our weakness." She took another drag off the little white stick. "If we had one of own attack Treschi, the enemy would instantly know it, and then our man would be killed. We would lose a valuable member, they would move their plans forward, and we would lose the initiative."
Pollos tapped his fingers on the table. "If that's true, they'd have the same problem."
"Yes," she admitted, "that's why they hired an outsider like Treschi." As the smoke rolled from her mouth, Elizabeth smiled. "Therefore, we must hire an outsider… like you."
"All right, you've answered the why, now answer the who. Why me, specifically?"
"Besides your obvious qualifications, you have already met him."
"For thirty seconds." Xavier grumbled.
"Yes… certainly, we could have gotten any assassin, but none with your connections or skill. I feel that you will soon find out that you and your target are well matched."
"Fine." Pollos agreed. "Two million credits; half now, half on completion. I won't move until the first million is deposited in my accounts on New Madrid." As he rolled out of his business mode, only one thing fell into his mind. "King... is mine."
"Now listen…" Xavier growled, grabbed her arm. As he did, a chill ran up his neck, and screams… thousands of screams echoed in his ear. The pain was intense; so much so that he dropped her arm like it was a hot plate.
"What is it?" she smiled, her eyes glaring at him.
"I said that King is mine. I want to kill him. Not you… me."
"And I said we'll see. We have no interest in what happens to Rashid King, one way or the other. In the end, all of you die. Does it really matter when?"
"That reminds me. Why didn't you kill me?"
"I tried to," Elizabeth licked her lips, "remember?"
Pollos glared back at her. "That's not what I mean. You've been chasing 'Kuar' for so long… how can you give it up so easily?"
"I'm not giving it up, I'm just waiting."
"Waiting for what?"
"You to die." The vampire moved out of her seat and stood up. "It is obvious I can't take the sword while you live; it won't let me. But I can wait..." She whispered closer to his ear, the smell of her breath was like a slaughterhouse. "I can wait until stars burn out. One million will be deposited in your account by tomorrow. Be ready." Then she turned away and left the bar.
"Great. That is just great." Xavier mumbled under his breath, "First I get King, then I lose Steve. Then I'm the most wanted man in the Fed, then some psychotic leech is out to kill me, then she wants me to kill someone that's already dead! WHAT IN THE HELL IS GOING ON! I HAVE LOST COMPLETE CONTROL OF MY LIFE!"
It was only then that Pollos noticed everyone in the bar was looking at him. Damn, he thought, I must have said that out loud. Xavier quickly paid his bill and left the restaurant. I need to get my shit together.
It didn't take long to reach his InSec office. The assassin had never used it, but he knew it was there. It was hardly an office at all; more like a hotel room with paperwork (already filled out, just in case someone was looking for him) spread out everywhere. He sat down in his seat, leaned back, trying to think. How do I get Treschi? How do I find him? After all, it's hard to find a dead man!
It took him a while, but finally he realized what he had to do. Activating the holoproj, he immediately dialed up Gergenstein's office. The perky little secretary (who was good with a plasma revolver, he remembered) answered. "Commandant Gergenstein's office, may I help you?"
"Yeah," Xavier answered. "Let me to talk to the boss."
She blinked; probably had a datalink hooked in through a cybernetic eye. "Who may I ask is calling?"
"Captain Pollos. I need to talk with him immediately."
The secretary blinked again until she nodded. "Very well. One moment."
The Internal Security icon appeared for a moment before the commandant appeared on the screen. "All right, rookie, what is it now?"
"I need to know one thing... Andrea Treschi."
"The smuggler? What about him?"
"Is he still alive?"
Herbert tapped on his keyboard in front of him. "No. According to our files, he died a month ago." The colonel was scrolling down the file. "You were there… you should know this already!"
"I have reason to believe he's still alive."
"Or someone pretending to be him." Gergenstein suggested.
"Whatever. The point is that I think he's a threat."
"A threat to you or to me?"
"A threat to the Federation. I'm going to take him out."
The commandant leaned back in his chair. "If you feel like chasing dead men, be my guest, but you're wasting your time."
"I also need some help."
"Look, captain, because of the war, our resources are pretty thin. I don't have the manpower to give you!"
"All I need is three men… mages. Enough to keep alive to get him."
"Why should I give them to you? Give me one reason."
"Because if you don't, I'll let your… associates know how a simple underground operative got to be commandant in one jump. I'd bet they'd love to know how you did that. " Xavier gave a knowing grin. I'd like to know that, too, Pollos thought, since he was bluffing.
Herbert shifted uncomfortably. "Okay, but I'm not promising the best, only the men."
"That's all I ask."
"Discom." Gergenstein said, then cut the connection.
Death came for him, as it often does, when he least expected it.
Miro Creed was sleeping in the greenhouse, like he had been for the last week. Of course, between naps, he kept his eyes closed and let his other self provide him information. Most of the time, the millions of nanocells writhing through his body were nothing more than a nuisance, however, they did have a few redeeming qualities. One of which was a photographic memory of everything that happened to him. Creed thought about the fight that had left him a cripple for the past month. Turks must have known exactly where to hit me, he thought. That means he would have known he's a Hodraida. Sure, the technology has been out there for years, but how would he have known to hurt me this badly?
Suddenly, the darkness outside suddenly burst into a powerful light. Miro jolted out of bed and got into a defensive stance. Whatever the fuck this is, I'm going down fighting.
The glass walls of the greenhouse shattered in an explosion of tiny fragments. Creed dropped to the ground, desperately trying to shield himself from the flying glass. As he lay there, huddled, the metal frame ripped off, opening like a sardine can. Then just as quickly as the light appeared, it suddenly went dark.
When Miro managed to open his eyes, he could see a man standing there… well, more the shadow of a man. "Who are you?!"
The man stepped forward. In the dim light of the stars above them, he could make out nothing about his clothes, or the rest of his body, but the face was clear to him. His eyes were narrow and widely set apart. His hair was slicked back so much you could almost believe it was a wig. The entire look made him seem friendly… if he hadn't seen the building explode around him. "Miro… why did you leave us?"
"Who the fuck are you?!"
The man closed his eyes and sighed. "I'm sorry, Miro. It took us so long to find you. My name is Vin Dane, but only to these nurrrrrrraaassssssssssttttulllllllle."
Dane's last word was more of a growl than a part of speech. Creed recognized it instantly, although he had no idea how. Nurastule: humans, but the way he said it meant foreign, idiots, and especially, tools.
Miro didn't know how to react to this strange creature, but his other self spoke for him. "Ssssssssaaaaaaaaayyyfffffffffffoooooooonnnnneeessssss." I can't go with you, sir.
"Sssssssssaaaayyyfffffooooooooooooooonnneeessssssssssss ttttttrrraaaaaahhhhkkkkk." You will come with us. We need you.
Creed understood what he meant. He was too weak to resist him… and he wasn't sure that he wanted to. "Zzzzzzzzzzaaaahhhhhtttttttttt?" Where are we going?
"Hhhhhhhhooooodddddrraaaaaaaaiiiddddrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaa." We're going home.
With that, Dane wrapped his body around Creed, writhing his arm across his back until they covered all of it. Then, Vin's head looked up, and the light came again, bathing them in the sun.
When the darkness came again, the greenhouse was empty; both had disappeared.
As Treschi looked down at Stewart Weaver sleeping on the couch, he couldn't help but shake his head. He's such a useful servant.
Suddenly, he felt something; like a spider when someone steps on its web. When he first entered the apartment, Andrea made a thorough scan, looking for telltale residual emotions that would have been left by someone recently there. His initial inspection told him that no one other than Leonardo, himself, and Stewart had been there for weeks.
Andrea walked over to a nearby room, much emptier than the one he left, filled with nothing more than a desk, some file cabinets, and large mirror that dominated one of the walls. He looked at himself in the mirror and admired the black and red TI uniform he was wearing. As he walked towards the desk, his mental defenses picked up that feeling again; that slight emotion of indifference and coldness. It was as if the slight breeze that itched at the corner of his mind developed into a full gust of wind.
Treschi reached the desk, opened the top right drawer, and whipped out the plasma revolver, aiming at the other side of the room. Coiled on Weaver's chest was a cobra, hissing at Andrea. Slowly, it slithered off his body, growing larger and larger… until the form of woman, dressed as a lieutenant in the Raptors, suddenly appeared next to him. "You're always overreacting, Treschi."
Andrea was perplexed at first, until he suddenly realized who was standing beside him. "Ve…"
"Shhh… Of course it's me. How many snakes do you know… well, other than yourself?"
"Quite a few, actually." Andrea frowned, putting away the weapon.
While she kept her eyes focused on his, she drew out a small instrument that looked like a cigarette case. As she pointed it towards Treschi, the device was silent at first, then it let off a hissing noise as it drew closer to his left hip.
Crouching down, she unbuttoned his pants, gliding the device along his hip until it beeped loudly, right over what appeared to be a scar. With the precision of a surgeon, she made an small incision, and then removed an object from his body.
The slender woman closed her eyes and chanted quietly while her hand massaged the cut. Slowly, the wound started to heal. When she was finished, she pulled up Treschi's pants and buttoned them.
"You're getting sloppy, Treschi." she revealed, handing the bioelectric object to Andrea.
"Shit, I've been bugged all this time." As he took the device, Treschi closed his hand, and it disintegrated inside. He thought back to his encounter with Colonel… no, Marshal King now. Somehow, he thought, when he blasted me with the plasma revolver, he must have implanted the bug… conveniently making it look like a wound. Or did it happen earlier?
"I see that your chest is better. We all heard about what King did to you. Most of us thought you were dead… but I had my doubts. I knew that if you were still alive you would eventually come back here." she explained, pulling out a data chip and handing it to him. "Looks like I was right."
Treschi shrugged and took the chip from her hand. Smiling, he took a look at his new subordinate in the Raptors. Her name was Veolin, the most efficient assassin he had ever seen, and she had never failed. Veolin specialized in taking down "underground railroads," organizations that sheltered the newly awakened from the draft. The assassin would knock out their leader, destroy their command structure, and then the mop-up teams (which Andrea was often on) would meet little resistance. Her ruthlessness was legendary… and so was her hunger for power. In a way, the smuggler respected her; they were too similar not to like each other.
"Andrea," Veolin interrupted his thought, "normally I wouldn't disturb you, but this came in from Sergeant-Major Luther an hour ago. I thought it was important."
"You're posted to Wilke's Star?" Treschi realized. "Why?"
"Why are you here, Andrea?" the assassin grinned. The captain understood it for what it was: a reminder. Some things you don't reveal… not even to your friends. "Just play the chip."
Treschi inserted the chip into the projector and watched the recording. It was… the angle's off, he thought, but it's definitely a restaurant. The woman talking was Number 9 on the Federation's most wanted list: Elizabeth, a leader of the Sabbat and the childe of Modred.
"I know that you have the sword and you know that I have powerful friends. It's obvious that only you can possess the blade. That disrupts my plans."
"I'm so sorry."
"Who's the guy?" Treschi asked.
Veolin shrugged. "Unknown. The man has no public ID. Etheral scans, DNA, hell, even fingerprints… nothing. All we got is a name… Xavier."
"Wasn't that some big vampire back during the Bug War?"
"Luther checked with the Crusaders, he's dead… confirmed dead. Scans confirm that whoever this guy is, he's human."
"…what will it take, Xavier? One million credits? Two million? How much will it take for you to consider my offer?"
"Why don't you tell me who you want to kill? Give me that much and I'll think about it."
"Fair enough. I believe you met him once. His name is Andrea Treschi."
"I am too busy for this shit!" Treschi screamed, kicking the holoproj off. "Damn it!" The smuggler caught himself, taking in deep breaths. "All right. Did Luther say how he got this recording?"
"No, but it's not surprising," she calmly replied, "since Clarke's death, we've had tails on all known Sabbat members. Elizabeth couldn't step foot on Avalon without us finding out."
"Clarke got killed with a sword. Is there a connection?"
"Maybe. Listen, since this Xavier guy's probably after your ass, you make the call. We protect our own… no one else will. We've got a tail on him, so we can take him down anytime you…"
"No, lieutenant," Treschi answered, "I want this thug alive. Bring him in and interrogate him by the end of the week. Sergeant Alexander should do well for this type of operation. If he's worth several million to the Sabbat, then he's a heavy hitter. Take no chances, wear Mark 100's, and bring him down… gently." He then ejected the chip and tossed it back to her.
"That's what I like about you, Treschi," Veolin smiled, catching the chip, "you're more of a cobra than I am." With one move, she crushed the chip to dust.
Treschi walked back over to the mirror. After some minor adjustments to his uniform, he made his way to the back door. "I'd love to stay and chat, Veolin, but I've got a meeting with the Aunt. I assume you can find your own way out?"
By sunrise, the Jackal was eating breakfast; the diner was half a mile away from the rebel headquarters. The place wasn't busy, the mud outside reeked of fish guts, and the hostess had hair that hadn't been washed in a week. Andrea hid his smile and looked out the window. Ah, he thought, about time he showed up. The major walked into the diner in his civvies. As the man walked by Treschi's table, the smuggler created a mental block… just in case. The stranger sensed and stopped in mid-step, turning towards him. "Please have a seat, Major Jefferson." Treschi said pleasantly.
The man looked suspicious. "How did you know my name?"
"You look like a Jefferson," Andrea allowed his inner smile to come to the surface. "Please have a seat. I'm not going to waste your time."
The major sat down beside him, fixing his stare upon Treschi's face. "Don't I know you?"
"Don't you recognize me, John? I served under you at Draco, remember? I was only a medic at the time, but I believe I did save you from that plasma bolt…"
The man's frown changed to a smile. "Angelo?! I thought you were dead… well, I see that life's been good to you! An officer and everything! Well, I guess this war really rates a lot of promotions, but a major?"
Keeping his voice low, Treschi replied, "Look, I did some favors for some people, and I got some certain benefits in return. Now they want to do the same for your leader."
"Exactly. A couple months ago, an associate of mine travelled through this space. After speaking to the Aunt, she let him through. Yesterday, he gave this crystal chip to give to her as repayment." Treschi pulled the datachip out of his pocket and put it on the table.
"What is that?"
"I don't know, but he told me to have someone close to Auntie Sarah give it to her. It's for her eyes only."
He picked up the chip, turning it in his fingers. "You don't see one of these everyday."
"John, please be careful with that. Tell her that if she finds the contents interesting, she can meet this man here by 9:30."
The TI major paused while considering what Treschi said. " All right, I'll pass this along to marshal, but I can't promise you or your associate anything."
"That's all I ask, old friend."
Two hours after Treschi had finished his breakfast, he watched the end of the Galactic Plasma Ball championship between the New Tokyo Wolves and the Epsilon Red Hawks. Sure enough, a flitter stopped in front of the diner, and she stepped out. The two men flanking her looked like middle linebackers; they could have easily played for the Red Hawks.
The two men scanned the room as they came in, quickly focusing on Treschi, as he continued to watch the game. They slowly took seats at the counter while the woman behind them came over and sat down at his table. The officer with the five stars on her rumpled service uniform was obviously not trusting of whomever she was beside. She opened her mind to a surface scan and Andrea bothered to check. The weary face framed by her close cut graying hair could be no one else; Marshal Sarah Dunmeyer.
Taking a quick look around the diner, she turned toward him and said, "M. Treschi, I want to thank you for the data you provided. It will be very useful, but I want to know why. I assume you have an arrangement in mind?"
Treschi chose his words very carefully. "The Federation is on the ropes. You know it, I know it; the reason I'm helping you is simple. The time to strike is now. King has eliminated his opponents, the Grand Council is united behind Johnson; all the political in-fighting, previously hampering their ability to fight is over. There are those within the Raptors that realize that with King running the show, it's only a matter of time before we're eliminated. That, among other reasons, is why we're willing to help you bring down the Grand Council."
Dunmeyer narrowed her eyes. "What's the price?"
"You will need someone to fill InSec's shoes. Obviously they can't be trusted, but others can. Many of the Raptors are willing to be integrated into your 'Internal Awareness Division' or whatever you want to call it when you win this war. All I ask in exchange for helping you is a small gratuity of 6 million credits… to cover my expenses. I would also need some assurance that the Raptors will not be eliminated either. I'd be willing and able create the type of strife within the Federation that would delay any sort of counterstrike they might have in mind."
Dunmeyer said nothing at first, thinking about what was on the datachip he sent her, and who this man was in front of him. "Your proposal interests me, but there's one problem. How do I know the information you gave me was accurate? It looks authentic, sure, but what if it isn't? What if it's data InSec want us to have?"
"It doesn't matter whether the information on that disk is accurate or not."
"It doesn't matter as long as the Fed believes it's where you intend to strike. If they believe that you're likely to attack that system, they will pull forces away from more valuable systems to defend it."
For the first time in about a week, Sarah smiled at the words, but there was something else. The marshal looked distantly over Treschi's shoulder before she replied. "Very well, M. Treschi… you have a deal. Inform Major Jefferson where you want the funds forwarded. However, there's one catch. The deal is off unless you can find the one man that will be useful to us after the war."
"Who? What are you looking at?" Andrea turned to look behind him and suddenly realized she was staring at the wall.
Erich stood and watched this, then ran to catch up to the mage. "What do we do now?"
Lwan didn't even look back over his shoulder. "We go to visit someone else."
"Who," asked Erich in a frightened voice, "Bruce Von Eisenstein? The ghost of Pyramus Grey?"
"No, not another corpse," answered the mage with a slight smile, "someone quite alive."
"Ah," Von Shrakenberg sputtered, "who then? Brunch with Abdul Johnson? Tea with the Chairman of the Eastern Bloc? A midnight snack with Auntie Sarah?"
"No," Eddington stopped and turned to face the commodore, "someone much closer."
Erich threw his hands up in frustration. "Damn it! Enough of this cryptic bullshit! What do you want?!"
Lwan stared at him vacantly, as if his companion hardly existed. "What do you want? Are you honest enough to listen to your soul for the answer?"
The commodore looked him straight in the eye. "I want to end this civil war and save the Federation."
"Good. Once you get past the lies you tell yourself, you learn who you truly are."
"Really," Erich said flatly, "so where are we going? To help me learn more about myself?"
"The lesson is over when the student knows the answer. The question is: where do you want to go?"
"Back to Avalon, stop InSec from seizing power, and save the Federation in the process."
"Good. Then what do you need to do to get where you are going?"
"I…" Von Shrakenberg paused, realizing that exactly how to do what he wanted was more difficult that he had hoped. I've always had a ship or a fleet to help me, he thought, how do I do it on my own? "I need a ship."
Lwan nodded. "I can help you, but it must be done carefully. Here's what you'll need to do…" As the mage explained his plan, Erich listened, growing with frustration, then finally, tired acceptance. He agreed with the plan and then they walked through the correspondence portal.
Chuck Coppinger woke from his sleep in a jolt; a strange man loomed over his head, in his quarters deep below Deimos. "Wakey, wakey…" the man said in a soft voice.
The Resistance admiral sprung for the intercom switch by his bed, but the Earth Fleet officer above him grabbed his hands. "You killed a lot of my friends the other day," he began, "including my beloved Onkel Karl. In fact, you may never get on my good side again."
"Who are you?" demanded the quaking rebel.
"Why does everyone I meet ask that? Doesn't anyone watch the newsvids any more?" The man sat back in the chair, bringing his face out of the shadows.
"Erich Von Shrakenberg," Chuck realized. "I thought you were dead."
Erich smiled. "So did I… for a while. I'm better now."
"What do you want?"
"Déjà vu all over again," grumbled the commodore, "you're going to ruin my friend's reputation for having a unique outlook on life."
"I have no monopoly on the truth." said another man behind Von Shrakenberg, walking out of the shadows. He was middle-aged, with crew-cut black hair, a dark complexion, and wearing a marshal's uniform.
"No…" Coppinger squinted, looking closer at the man who had just appeared. "Lwan Eddington? They said you--"
"Yes, you thought he was dead, too." interrupted Erich. "Now that we're all properly introduced, can we move on?"
The Resistance admiral managed to break out of the post-sleep daze and nodded his head.
we're here to ask some questions. You will answer them, and you will answer
them promptly and truthfully, or my friend here will know otherwise. M.
Eddington does not like being lied to, as I am sure you have heard. Dishonesty
really annoys him, and when he gets annoyed, bad things happen."
Chuck nodded again.
"Okay," Erich went on, "someone gave you advance warning that my task force was coming to Mars, correct?" Coppinger looked at Lwan, who merely raised his eyebrow. The Resistance admiral nodded again. "I thought so. And this someone brought several warships to help defend Mars?" Chuck again nodded. "And this someone was from Earth Federation Internal Security?" The man nodded guiltily. "And why did InSec say they were helping you?"
Coppinger looked downcast. "Those ships came out of nowhere. They could have blown us out of the sky before we got off a single shot. They said they came to help us. They said they wanted to eliminate someone in the Federation, and that we had a common enemy. We had no choice… we agreed."
"I thought as much, M. Coppinger. Did any of this strike you as odd?"
Chuck stared at Erich as if he had three heads. "Odd? We're talking about InSec, aren't we? Odd doesn't begin to describe them."
"And no one thought it odd that InSec would consider Earth Fleet a bigger threat than the Resistance?"
"No one cared. If the Fed wanted to take out their own fleet, who were we to care? My fleet would have been destroyed if we went in alone… it almost did anyway! I've got three ships now instead of seven… and only one of them works."
"My heart bleeds for you." Von Shrakenberg replied dryly.
"This is why the Federation's going to lose the war." Coppinger shot back. "You Fed assholes spend so much time screwing each other over that you can't wipe us out!"
"You're not far off there," Erich admitted, "but did it ever occur to you WHY InSec wanted to give the Fleet a black eye so badly?"
"Does InSec need a reason?"
"Ah, one of the fundamental flaws of the amateur soldier," concluded Erich triumphantly. "attributing evil motives to their enemies."
Coppinger snapped back. "Amateur?! Listen, Von Talks-a-lot, I served in the same damn Earth Fleet that you're in for TEN YEARS! I got enough medals to decorate a Christmas tree! Did ANY of that matter in the last war when I refused an order? They ordered me to fire on a transport… a goddamned civilian transport!" Chuck shook in anger, tears forming in his eyes. "I got thrown in the brig, dumped in some prisoner camp, and left to die. It was the Resistance who saved me… and I've been working for them ever since. I've fought more engagements on converted freighters and mothballed destroyers in the past 15 years than you could ever hope to imagine. Amateur? I wish…"
Von Shrakenberg swallowed and tried again. "Look, that's not what I meant. No one, not even InSec, thinks they're the bad guy. They must have a motive for their actions, no matter how much others might disagree with them. Do you agree?" The Resistance admiral nodded reluctantly. "So why do you think they did it?"
"The fleet was more of a threat than the Resistance."
"Exactly," Erich replied, "and why is that? Earth Fleet's been loyal, the Federation is in turmoil, and the Grand Council is being pushed back on all fronts. How would you think InSec would react?"
"They'd seize power for themselves."
"Exactly." Von Shrakenberg answered. "You defeated the "Gatecrasher" in battle and now you've uncovered a plot by InSec to carry out a new coup d'etat in the Federation. What are you going to do about it?"
"Why should I do anything?" Coppinger growled. "Let them kill each other off! When it's all over, we can move in and pick up the pieces."
"You really believe that? You have almost no Fleet. You have few heavy weapons for your ground troops and almost no transports to move them with. You really think you will pick up the pieces?"
When Coppinger made no reply, Von Shrakenberg went on. "No, if InSec succeeds, the Federation will become even more repressive than before. This will get you a few new members, but it will also mean that they will make a serious effort to wipe you out. If they fail, the pieces will be picked up… but not by you. Auntie Sarah will get the lion's share, and she certainly won't end the draft. Bad Andy and the Eastern Bloc will pick up some more pieces, and if you think the Fed's oppressive, you should see life under their rule! In the end, it's the Bugs and the Jurvain that'll take the rest. Do you think either of them will care about your rights?"
Chuck still said nothing.
"There is an opportunity for you here, M. Coppinger," concluded Erich in a steady voice. "InSec must be close to launching their coup if they are willing to move against the fleet so openly. If they succeed, it will go badly for the Resistance… in the end. If they fail, it will go badly for the entire human race, you included. There's an opportunity here, if you have the will to exploit it." The commodore sat back again. "There is also a great secret for you to expose, and I am certain you'll have the desire to do that."
The Resistance admiral looked at the fleet officer skeptically. "What secret?"
Erich leaned close to Chuck. "The greatest secret in the Federation. InSec is using the Resistance for their own ends, and when you have served their purposes, they'll destroy you."
Coppinger raised an eyebrow. "You talk a great deal, commodore. Where's the proof?"
Lwan spoke up once more. "Marko Vitek has been dead for eight years."
"I saw him die. The man who leads the Resistance is an imposter, created and controlled by InSec. They are playing you like pieces in a chess game. They will use you and cast you aside like a pawn from the board."
Chuck digested what the mage said for a moment. "If this news came from anybody but Lwan Eddington, I'd tell you you're full of shit. Then again, if I hadn't seen those InSec ships firsthand, I wouldn't have believed you either."
"With those ships," Erich explained, "they could have ended this war within a week. They could jump into any system, destroy a fleet, and leave before they even knew they were there. They could have wiped out your fleet if they wanted to. But they didn't. They need this civil war. They need the Federation to be weak enough to be led by a strong hand… and frightened enough not to rise up against them afterwards. To do that, they need control of the Resistance, so that anyone who does rise up joins an organization where they are watched and kept from doing anything seriously threatening."
"All right," the Resistance admiral agreed, "but it doesn't make any difference. We don't have the ships to move on Avalon, and no one would believe us if we did!"
"You do have one ship that can move on Avalon." Lwan interrupted.
Chuck's jaw dropped. "You're right! One of those tunnel drive ships was damaged in the battle. It's still here at Mars making repairs!"
Lwan's face turned to an evil grin. "And with the Federation's foremost naval hero at the helm of an InSec warship, carrying the proof that InSec is planning a coup, they can't deny the evidence, now can they?"
Coppinger's face fell. "It might work, but… I don't know how we'd pull it off. If what you say is true, InSec would know any plan we'd put together to seize the ship. Besides, what's in it for us? All we'd be doing would be making the Federation stronger, and whether InSec is in charge or not, they'll still hunt us down once this war is over!"
"There is another reason InSec didn't want me to succeed in my mission here," Erich interjected. "I wasn't just coming in to destroy your fleet. I also came with an offer of peace to the Resistance."
"I came to offer a truce. If you and the planets the Resistance controls re-join the Federation, we promise to end the draft and call new elections as soon as the civil war is over."
"I see. So you planned to blow up my fleet and then just… what, ask nicely for us to join your side? Come on, commodore, you're just the second coming of the same fucking cavalry."
"You don't understand…"
"I'm supposed to believe this shit?!" exploded Coppinger. "You and I both know that the Grand Council would never honor that!"
"It wasn't the Grand Council that made it," explained Erich, "it was me, speaking for the fleet. The Fleet is an all-volunteer force; we never liked the draft to begin with. It was a necessary evil, nothing more."
"You're serious about this, aren't you?" Chuck was astonished.
"Yes, I am." stated Erich flatly. "If you help me stop InSec from destroying the Federation, you have my word that once this war is over, the Resistance will see their demands met. If the Grand Council tries to go back on this promise, they'll face the fury of the Earth Fleet. We'll no longer stand by and let that body ruin our chances for The Fleet will not stand for the Grand Council overruling a peace offer such as this, and with a squadron of Star Control Ships in orbit around Avalon, even they can't afford to ignore the Fleet."
Coppinger came to a conclusion. "Okay, commodore. What do you want me to do?"
"Help me save the human race. With you, me, and Lwan…" the flag officer turned to see Eddington, only to find him gone, "…figures."
"Looks like you're rapidly running out of friends."
"Story of my life." Erich grumbled. "Shall we?"
The Resistance admiral smiled, reached out, and shook his hand. "The battle is joined."
Xinjao stared in shocked silence at the nightmarish scene spread out before him. Hundreds of bodies were laid out in neat rows all across the floor of the repair bay. Crusaders walked up and down the rows with the few lone survivors of C Company and the Dock 14 prisoners trying to identify and record the rotting corpses. The mangled remains showed signs of a dozen different forms of death in various states of decay. The stench was overpowering.
Xinjao looked over the carnage in disbelief. Two hundred and seventy-eight dead, he thought to himself. That doesn’t sound that bad, but, Jesus, when you see them all at once… He looked over the remains of C Company, neatly lined up across the room, grouped together by troop, all dead. Jesus, did I do this? he wondered. It all seemed so far away now. Unreal. Surreal. Had he really ordered the deaths of all these people? I’m just the mechanic…
He looked down at a rotting corpse of a young man sliced in two. Pneumatic door, he remembered. Xinjao had hit the switch himself. He looked away.
O’Reilly hobbled across the room on a cane. The medics told him he might always walk with a limp after the plasma bolts he took in the ass. He staggered along the rows of Dock 14 casualties. Platoon after platoon of Light Infantry stretched across the room. Then came line after line of yard dogs. His men. Non-coms. They should never have been in combat at all… he scolded himself, struggling with anger and guilt. They should never have been in the position to die…
He stopped suddenly, staring down at the body at his feet. It was Rymir, his youngest construction foreman, his body twisted and frozen in rigor mortis. The memory suddenly came back to him like a vision: reloading his revolver as plasma bolts sizzled around him, Xinjao looked up and saw Rymir’s limp body spinning slowly around in midair, spraying droplets of blood and ash in a spiral as the war raged around him in zero-G. He had looked so peaceful in death. O’Reilly closed his eyes against the image, a lump forming in his throat. Dammit, he was just a kid! A rookie! Xinjao thought sadly. And he was good, too. He would have gone far. What a waste. Back on the Schaumburg, O’Reilly had commented that war was a waste of good machinery. It was also a waste of good mechanics.
As Xinjao shuffled around trying to estimate which of his crew had survived, he slowly noticed the conversation of the crusaders cataloguing the deceased around him. They were swapping horror stories.
“…and then they pumped the air out. Never even gave them a chance to surrender.”
“…most disturbing use of power tools I’ve ever heard of…”
“Troops D and E? Heathens blew them out an airlock, didn’t you know that?”
“I take it you’ve never seen a depressurized body before…”
“What kind of sick person would use a blowtorch on a human being?”
The crusaders had obviously been disturbed by what they had seen in the “death dock.” Upon liberating it, they had found the decaying corpses of almost an entire company strewn throughout the place. The soldiers assigned to clean up the mess shared tales of people killed in bizarre and hideous ways: frozen, poisoned, smothered, burned, electrocuted, imploded, dismembered… They whispered the story of how the smell led them to the rotting bodies O’Reilly’s men had hidden in the walls and floors to make the enemy “disappear.” A continual stream of corpses still trickled in as soldiers searched through dark passageways for dead bodies. It only convinced them of the evilness of their enemy and the righteousness of their cause.
They talked darkly of the cowardly, evil form of warfare the Fleet engineers had waged. They accused yard dogs of sadism and depravity in their torture and slaughter of Christian troops. They were outraged over the ruthless form of combat that allowed no room for prisoners or mercy. They swore they would kill the people who were sick enough to do such demented thing…. and then there were the rumors about the evil, corrupt pervert who had masterminded the atrocities in Dock 14. War crimes were mentioned. Bible passages of vengeance and retribution were quoted.
“You know they caught the guy who ordered the masacre?”
“Yeah, I think I heard that… they gonna put him on trial?
“No,” the soldier said, disgusted. “Reks made him Elder of the Gentiles.”
“What?! Are you serious?” he companion asked.
“I think Reks figured no one else knew how to run this place or something.”
“I’m not working with him. Not with someone who does these kind of sick things.”
“Did you hear what they found in his room?”
O’Reilly decided it was time to leave before he was noticed. This isn’t an atrocity, is it? he thought as he limped toward the door, past the mangled body of a soldier crushed in a docking clamp It didn’t seem that bad at the time… we were just defending ourselves in the only way we could… weren’t we? He was tired of this – the death, the loss, the blame. All he ever wanted in the fleet was a ship to keep running and a bottomless supply of nudes. How the hell did he end up responsible for 278 dead bodies?!
“Hey! Hey, you with the cane!”
O’Reilly kept walking, pretending not to hear.
Xinjao locked the door to his quarters and limped over to his bunk. Sitting down, he let out a deep sign. He would never feel comfortable or safe on the station while under the thumb of the Righteous Army, but at least in his own room he could come pretty close. He could feel the stress draining from him as he sat, and knew he would get better sleep that night. When was the last time he had been here? It had to be over a week ago, when Herb call--
Busy with his own war, he had forgotten they were heading into battle, too. O’Reilly logged into his console and began looking for a news network the CFRA hadn’t banned or censored. He wasn’t too worried – it was Shrakenberg, after all – but still curious how the battle had turned out.
Surprise swept Xinjao as he read news of the defeat and retreat at Earth… the Old Man had lost?? Was it possible? Christian propaganda wasn’t enough, Xinjao had to know more – instantly he set about hacking his way through the security placed on the Phoenix network by the CFRA and didn’t stop until he had some details of the battle. Shrakenberg had been outwitted by some hippie captain in a chess game of ships and drones? O’Reilly’s opinion of the Resistance slid up another notch. Finally he came to the part he was dreading, but he forced himself to search through the casualty lists. Multiple Shrakenburgs answered his query… including Erich, missing in action, presumed dead.
O’Reilly a strange hollowness inside him, but mostly just numbness – after loosing the battle, his crew, and his hand, why not his friends? Little could phase anymore. Xinjao stared at the screen for a few seconds, working up the nerve for what came next. Finally, he opened a search and keyed in Gergenstein, Herbert. He held his breath as he waited for the results…
Thank God, Herb was alive! He knew nothing more than that, but that was enough for now. O’Reilly couldn’t risk trying to send a message off the station. He might never get the chance to talk to him again, but just the knowledge that at least one of his friends was still alive was comforting.
He quickly closed the connection – he couldn’t risk leaving it up longer than he had to. He sat in his chair for a while, thinking. His life had changed forever in the last few days. He had finally accepted Calton’s offer for a position in the Phoenix Yards, helping the enemy build a fleet. It was a better choice than slavery on the Fundie home world, and there was a better chance for escape or liberation on the fringe of Christian Federation space than in their core systems. Of course, if Phoenix was liberated, he would probably be executed as a traitor and a collaborator. Even if he survived that, he’d still have InSec to deal with. He wasn’t sure what to do with himself.
He could join the Christian Federation… he’d been flirting with that thought for a day or two. There were all insane, to be sure, but otherwise they all seemed to be fairly decent people… they had spared his life twice and saved it once, and accepted him into their community even though it was clear the few survivors of C Company wanted his head on a platter. Yet somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to convert… as an Asian-Irishman raised as a Catholic Buddhist in a system bordering the Eastern Bloc, he had come to appreciate what tolerance and freedom of speech he could get. He knew he could never survive in the restrictive, single-minded atmosphere of the Christian Federation. He’d never fit into their world. Besides, where would he get his porn from?
Speaking of which, there was one thing he had left to do before calling it a night… something else he had been waiting several days for – actually, he was going into withdraw. He reached over to his portable mainframe and PornNet hummed into life. What shall it be tonight? he wondered as it booted up. Hetro? Homo? Three way? New mail or old standbys? Hmm… given the events of the last few days, he was definitely in the mood for his Brides of Christ file… yes, there was something erotic about that clean & innocent look. Mmmm… O’Reilly thought as a grin spread across his face. Long hair. Skirts. Bridal gowns. White lace…
His brow furrowed as the database pulled up only a blank screen. He quickly checked the file path – it wasn’t there. Musta gotten misfiled, he figured as he pulled up the directory… and stared in horror at the blank space. His porn was gone. Only a small text file was left in the entire database. Hoping for some clue, Xinjao opened it.
Will you defile yourselves… and lust after their vile images? -- Ezekiel 20:30
O’Reilly had been saddened at the passing of Smitty. His eyes had stung at Rymir’s demise. He had wept over the loss of his hand. But nothing came close to the gut-wrenching, primordial howl that now emerged from the fat little man.
O’Reilly did all that he could to save it. He searched the cache memory. He tried to resurrect the ghost data imprint. He searched all of his backup data crystals, but they had all been wiped clean and only contained copies of the New Testament. He was able to retrieve a few things… but the rest of it was gone. All gone. Decades of work and of thousands of credits. It was irreplaceable. All of his rare interspecies images… the Schaumburg shower scenes… the illegal under-16 files… all the expensive celebrity photos he had been collecting since 2214, including the rare, super-expensive paparazzi photos of that Gun Metal Grey chick and her bodyguard that he had just purchased…
O’Reilly buried his head in his arms and pounded the desk with his good hand as tears of outrage and loss flowed from his eyes. Utter black hatred burned though his mind… hatred of the judgmental, self-righteous prudes who had robbed him of the one thing that brought him joy. Hatred of the young, hansom soldiers who condemned him for just wanting to look at what he couldn’t have. Hatred of all the—
Suddenly Xinjao sat straight up. Oh, shit, that means they know! Everyone on the fucking station is gonna know about my…oh, crap… At that moment, blinded by rage and revenge, O’Reilly swore that whatever it took, he would wipe the Christian Federation from the face of the galaxy or die trying.
O’Reilly stared at the screen, feeling lower than he ever had in his life. His freedom… his crew… his friend Erich… his reputation… his respect… his hobby… his hand… he had lost absolutely everything in just a week. Well, almost everything… at least he still had his buddy Herb.
Alistar Dimiye and his two brigades followed the highway of death leading to the heart of Tower City. The bodies of Federation soldiers had died where they'd stood, creating a path kilometers long to follow. No one even bothered consulting their grid maps; it was obvious where the other half of his division was. By the time they arrived to reinforce, all hell broke loose.
The remainder of the enemy legion had to file down the city blocks in columns to reach them. Although the Fed had numbers, the narrow passageways made using that advantage difficult. The 9th's two brigades were holding their own, but even with his whole division, Dimiye knew they'd need the rest of the legion… and fast.
"Dimiye to Fabin."
"We are heavily engaged, sir!" Dimiye reported as he let loose on his H-90. "Our heavy hitters are back there with you. We need reinforcements now!"
"We're double timing it now." General Fabin announced. "Nelson's Flying Tiger brigade should reach you in a few seconds." The Flying Tigers were the 86th's full-flight capable armor unit. Dimiye prayed that the air squadron his heavy units destroyed were all that the enemy had.
"What's your ETA!?" Dimiye yelled. The beast inside of him was stirring.
"Less than two minutes, can ya hold?"
The heat of battle and the smell of all his HAP troopers pushed Dimiye over the edge as he transformed into Crinos form. "WE WILL HOLD….BUT MOVE YOUR ASS!!!" Alistar roared, splitting an enemy trooper in half after he got too close.
Seconds later, the Fed artillery sprang to life with a deafening roar. They overshot the Ninth, aiming instead for the rest of the 86th en route. Through the aching sound of his own beating heart, Alistar heard another deafening roar from above; the Flying Tigers had arrived… as promised. A clump of them broke off from the main force and silenced the enemy artillery in a manner of seconds. The rest stayed to fight. Dimiye forced himself to calm down. Control, he thought, I must remember control.
Lieutenant Colonel Nelson called down to the major. "Nice shit storm ya got here, Dimiye." You could feel the sarcasm dripping off his lips.
"It was like this when I got here, sir." Alistar managed. No sooner had he said that than a hailstorm of gauss rounds rained down upon two enemy battalions advancing from the left flank; obliterating them. Alistar looked up to see where the firestorm had come from. A large Dead Boy armed with an MP-342 was hovering in mid air.
Colonel Nelson pointed at Benjamin. "I believe he belongs to you?"
Before Alistar could reply, he was cut off by the sounds of… bagpipes? He looked to the south as the lead elements of the 86th arrived to reinforce them. "Scotland The Brave" was being played loud enough to knock satellites out of orbit. All the major had to do was follow the sound to see where it came from. In front of the column was a trooper in golden power armor, carrying the legion's colors, and with a massive amplifier sitting on his shoulders. It could only be Brigadier-General Joel Fabin.
"All right, boys! Let's finish the job!" Fabin bellowed over the comm. The column surged forward to take the town.
After the medic had cleared them, the platoon herded Malachi and Justine back to the ruined Tower City spaceport. The perimeter around the area was expanding, pushed out from the tarmac by the few troopers Spyder could see. They're preparing to establish a safe landing zone for transit beacons, the captain realized.
Once the platoon got them where they wanted, they were provided with TI jumpsuits to wear. It was cold on the tarmac and they just stood there with nothing else to do. Finally the platoon went away and they were left with two guards. Malachi sat down on a nearby crate and Justine soon joined him. There was nothing to do for the next hour except freeze while they waiting for something to do. When she tried to move closer to Spyder, he just scooted away. They were both silent, as if neither spoke the same language. Malachi was too full of anger to care about anyone else. I can't believe this happened again, he thought. Damn it! The second I get close to a battle, wham… captured by the other side! Why is God playing this trick on me?
Justine managed to grab hold of his hand. Malachi wanted to pull away, too bottled up in his own frustration, but then he caught a glimpse of her eyes. She was scared; the last time he had seen that look on her was when she broke both her legs. The sergeant thought she was going to die. Spyder held on tighter, letting her know, without words, that she was safe.
The uncomfortable silence was finally broken when someone came over to them. Once he reached them, he pulled out his datapad, and scrolled down. "Um… are you Spyder, Malachi and D'Amprisi, Justine?"
The man with the rank of 1st Lieutenant finally looked up from his pad and looked at them. "Good. Geez, it's been a nightmare out here. War is hell on paperwork."
Neither of them said a word.
"My name's Samuel John Petronella." the officer answered crisply, as if details were his life's work. "I've been assigned to interview you."
"By who?" Spyder finally asked.
"Captain Ruiz, CO of the 86th Legion's MP battalion."
Malachi couldn't help laughing. There are no coincidences, he reminded himself, but Lord, this one's a doozy!
"Is something funny, Captain Spyder?"
He looked back at the lieutenant and then cracked up again. "Us MP's gotta stick together, eh?"
Petronella shot him a confused look then shrugged. "Captain Spyder, Sergeant D'Amprisi, I need to ask you a few questions."
Justine sighed. "All right."
"Obviously we have your ID's and relevant data, but why don't you tell me how you got here."
It took another hour until the lieutenant was satisfied. The two reluctantly answered his questions and Petronella kept asking for clarification. It took going through the whole tale three times until the man seemed satisfied. On his datapad, every box was checked, and every t crossed.
"So what are you gonna do with us?" Malachi managed to ask, once the man was finished.
"Well, normally we'd keep you as a prisoner-of-war, exchange you to get some of our own back, but it sounds like you don't got much to go back to, M. Spyder. Besides, from what I've read, we might be more interested in keeping you ourselves."
"Your reputation precedes you, sir. Back on New Madrid, it was reported to us that you took out two platoons by yourself?"
"Something like that." Spyder could see where this was going. "So, you want me to help you then?"
"We'd hate to see that kind of talent go to waste. If we traded you as a POW, I get the impression that you wouldn't last long on the other side."
"What do you mean?"
"Resisting arrest, striking a superior officer, murder…" Petronella listed off, "they might not even bother with the court-martial before they kill you."
Justine finally spoke up. "And what about me?"
"Looks like you're in the same situation. You might as well join us."
"Until we can secure the city, you two will remain here. After that… well, we'll see."
A few hours later, the major got a rude awakening over the com. "Dimiye, where are you?!" General Fabin bellowed.
Oh shit, Alistar thought, he's using my last name. He must be pissed. "Right here, sir!" The Battle of Tower City had already ended; with the city under their control, a new one between Alistar and General Fabin was about to start.
"Get in my office now!" Fabin ordered.
His headquarters, if you could call it that, was an abandoned town house. After getting out of his power armor, the major left the metal exoskeleton outside, and entered the general's office. Fabin had already changed out of his armor into his uniform, a new uniform that had… Great Buddha, he's wearing epaulets, he thought.
The General caught him staring. "Ya like it, Al? I'm pitching it as the new general staff uniform after the shit goes down."
The shit? Alistar mentally asked himself. So that's why I'm here. "Yes, sir… regarding 'the shit'…"
"Why do ya always have to be so prim and proper around me?" Fabin asked quietly.
"Do ya remember what ya said right before we took the city? 'MOVE YOUR ASS!' That's what ya said! Now that's the Al I know and I wanna see more of him from now on!" Fabin looked at himself in the mirror, then added, "When we're alone, of course."
Alistar blushed. "Sure, Joel! Anything for you, big guy."
"Now that's what I like to hear!" Fabin pulled out two glasses and a bottle of whiskey. As he stood up to pour the glasses, Alistar was relieved to see that his new uniform didn't include a kilt. "Now would you care to join me in partaking of some of the fine whiskey we recently liberated from the heel of Federation oppression?"
Alistar took his glass and raised it high. "To the taking of Tower City. One down, three to go." They clinked glasses and took a drink.
"Ah, good stuff. They shouldn't have attacked."
"They shouldn't have let their soldiers back in."
"They shouldn't have given you time to reinforce."
"And they really should of dumped their final artillery barrage on me and not you." Alistar answered, and they both laughed.
"We got lucky." Fabin managed.
"Yep, sure did." Dimiye said. "Next time, they'll stick to their fox holes. And we'll have a devil of a time getting them out." He paused. "How are things upstairs now?"
"Well, Fargus managed to drop three more legions from 5th Army. They'll be meeting up with us in a few hours. Wasn't easy either; apparently, as soon as we started fighting down here, the fleet boys remembered there was a war going on and tore into each other. Losses on both sides… big time… the Feds headed back to 'Baby One' to lick their wounds."
"In other words," Dimiye said, "it's Epsilon for us all over again."
"Yeah, pretty much. Except this time our fleet ain't gonna have the advantage when we have to pull out. Ya know those HAP heads were really something today. Those boys can fight."
Dimiye's face turned slightly sour. "Yes, they performed exceptionally. But what we've done to them is inhuman."
"We're not human, Al." Fabin paused, taking another sip of whiskey. "I guess I'd better tell ya this now. Auntie Sarah got the reports on you're experimental divisions actions already. She's gonna push the HAP program into full production now."
"What she's doing to those people is wrong." Alistar declared.
"I know." Fabin looked down at his empty whiskey glass. "Al, about what's going down…"
Dimiye cut him off. "I've thought it over, and… I'm in. I was always in; I just had to think about it. You can tell Russ Fargus when you see him that I'll be a good little doggy."
"Glad to hear it." Fabin said relieved. "Now…"
Dimiye cut him off again. "I do have one small condition."
Fabin looked up at him. "And what's that?"
"I wanna see my profile. Not the low clearance stuff, I've seen that. I want a copy of the G-40 classified material on me." Dimiye demanded.
"Yes, that's it, Joel. I just want some questions answered and then we can get on with business."
Fabin smiled. "Well, I'll have to ask Russell, but…I think we can get that to ya pretty soon."
"Thank you, sir." The major answered, raising his glass for a toast.
The 103rd, 74th, and 208th Legions had joined the 86th inside the city. The streets were congested with troops and equipment as Dimiye made his way down them. I should check on that naked captain we captured the other day, he thought. What was his name again?
He made his way through an area where prisoners and civilians were being held. That's when he saw her. "Hello, my darling boy." Nana Dimiye said.
"Nana…" Alistar froze, squinting to make sure that what he was seeing wasn't an illusion. "Why am I not surprised?" At this point, lobsters could come out of my ears and I wouldn't be surprised.
Nana walked out and hugged him. "I got worried when you didn't write back." She squeezed a little tighter. "I thought you forgot all about your old grandma."
He hugged her back and then looked into her eyes. He couldn't help the enormous smile coming across his face. "When did you get here?"
"A week before you did… more or less." she answered, a sly smile playing on her own face.
Alistar chuckled. "No wonder I could never catch you." She was a powerful and dangerous woman, he realized, but she was also his family. The smell of her alone made him feel like he was home again. He couldn't bring himself to be angry with her. "Let's go some place and talk."
It didn't take long to find an open restaurant. It was packed, like every place else in Tower City, but a couple of troopers quickly made way for the two Dimiyes. Among the clanging of pots and dishes, and the noise of troopers arguing, it was hard to talk. Somehow, Nana rolled her fingers, and it seemed to quiet around them. "At last," she began, "we can talk."
"About the Resistance?"
"About the future, Al. I never did get a reply. Are you willing to be a part of it?"
Everyone's trying to pull my strings, he thought, remembering back to the point when he left Port Arthur. I'm part of one conspiracy, why not two? "I want to know something first."
"How did my parents die?"
Nana jumped back in her chair. She closed her eyes tightly, trying to block out the pain. "Don't, Al. Don't ask me…"
"That's my price, Nana." The major shot back. "I'll help you and Vitek and whoever else on this end, but you've gotta give me that first. Just tell me."
When she opened her eyes again, tears flooded down her cheek. "My darling boy…" she began, then covered her face with her hand. "You don't know how long I've tried to forget that."
"I have forgotten it. Nana, I want… I need to know."
"A part of me died that day! Don't you understand?!" she cried, her tears silent outside the dampening field, "I should have known… I should have…"
Alistar grabbed her grandmother's shoulders and stared at her. "Nana, look at me." She kept her eyes fixed on the table. "Nana, look at me." When she finally managed to look at her grandson, he asked again. "What happened?"
She kept shaking her head. "No, I… I have the report… I'll send it to you." Nana then got up from the table.
"Don't ask me for more than that, my darling boy." she answered, and then turned to the door.
Alistar stood up to follow her as the sounds of thunder filled the skies. That's impossible, he thought, the sky is clear.
What was left of the spaceport was being ripped apart by the fall of artillery shells, bursting the tarmac apart. Spyder and D'Amprisi were herded back toward the only shelter there was; the LZ's field headquarters. Sam Petronella was crouched there under the tilted piece of plasticrete, along with several troopers. "Allah, be merciful! Damned Fed guns! They're going to attack! They're really going to attack!"
"We need to get out of here!" Malachi screamed back at him.
"NO!" the lieutenant screamed back. "We have to hold!"
Petronella blinked. In the pause, Spyder could see the light turn on inside his head. Turning around, he grabbed two of the odd-looking guns the captain had seen all of them carrying. "Here," he said, handing the H-90's to the two prisoners, "if you want to defect, here's your chance."
Hex didn't look at Brigette for the rest of the ride; he was afraid to. After all his training with different weapons and martial forms, nothing prepared him to deal with women. Maybe that's something they can't train you for, he thought, needlessly checking the shuttle controls.
Some quick talking with the system's space controller got them clearance to land at the Von Eisenstein Shuttle Transfer Station. It was the closest spaceport to the capital city and they could park their craft there. Avalon was nothing like New Paris. The capital megalopolis extended over a quarter of the planet, the central city surrounded by an infinity of suburbs, and kept alive by an extensive transport system. There was nowhere he could hide a shuttle easily. So, he reasoned, if you can't hide a shuttle, put it in an open area. Best place to hide anything; no one ever thinks to look in the obvious place.
After some buffeting on reentry, their shuttle came to a gentle stop on the tarmac. It didn't take long to get around customs (the officials were easily bribed), then they rented a flitter, and took off down the streets of Avalon. All the while, they still had not said one word to each other.
Finally, Hex managed to get the courage to try again. "Look, Brigette… we need to… ah, work together, you know?" She said nothing. "Come on, you've gotta give me some slack here."
"No, I don't." she muttered, looking out the window.
"Brig, I need your help."
"Why? You've taken me back to Avalon, you have no plans, and we're driving around aimlessly. I think you're doing just fine!" she shrugged, never turning her gaze from the window.
"We need to hook up with the Resistance." Hex answered. "Now I know where my cell used to be, but by no means does that mean they'll be there again. Beyond that, you're right… I don't know what I'm doing. I'm hoping you've got a better idea what we can do."
Brigette sighed and finally turned back. "All right, take a left at this corner. Follow it till we hit the Isis Turnpike. We can reach Cornell within fifteen minutes."
As Hex turned the wheel, he asked. "What's in Cornell? Another base?"
"No, but we can hook up with the Resistance there. Well, we can jack in."
Half an hour later, the flitter came to a stop in front of an abandoned apartment building. In fact, the entire street was abandoned; trash and pieces of the nearby buildings cluttered the path. As Hex got out of the car, he could smell the stench of the nearby garbage dump. The entire place was revolting. "Are you sure this is the place?"
"If you were the Fed, would you look for someone here?"
"No way in hell!"
"Exactly…" Brigette replied, before walking over to the nearest building and knocking on the boarded up door.
Nothing happened. Hex just stood there leaning against the car. "Now what?" he shrugged.
"Just wait." She then stepped back and shouted. "HEY! Open the damn door!"
Suddenly a noise erupted from a hidden speaker. "Who the fuck are you?!"
"A friend of Kash's. We need to talk to him."
"Use a fucking vidphone!"
"Come on, Knight! We need to get to Freeboot!"
"No one rides for free, chick…"
"We've got creds if you've got the balls."
A piece of the wall pushed back and then slid open. "You can make the scene if you've got the green. Get in."
Brigette walked right in; Hex ran to follow her before the wall closed.
They followed the stained hallway, kicking the rats out of the way, until they reached the back. Inside, they found an electronics salesman's wet dream. There were more monitors, CPU's, cybermodems, and wiring than Hex had ever seen in his life. In the center was a man strapped into a medical bed, also connected by wiring, catheter tubes, and IV hookups. As they stepped inside, a giant holoproj appeared, the image of a medieval knight in shining full metal armor, lanch pointed menacing at them. "Who dares enter the domain of the White Knight!" boomed out from another hidden speaker.
"Cut it out!" Brigette yelled back. "We need your help to get to Freeboot."
The knight's visor opened into a beam of light. "Who's the kid?"
"My name is Hex," he said, stepping forward, "and I can take care of myself."
The knight closed his visor and shook his head. "Whatever. If you want access, chick-ee, I need one grand. If you need more than that, it jumps up to three. This knight don't ride off to battle for free."
Brigette whipped out her credit chit. "Five grand, if you take us to Freeboot and back. Clear?"
"Yeah!" the knight shouted back. "You can jack in over there." The lance pointed off to two seats and then the holoproj disappeared.
They both took a seat and started strapping themselves in, taking the helmets, and placing them on their heads. The second they activated them, they were in the Galactic Net, standing at their real-space equivalent in the virtual world. Standing, or rather mounted next to them, was the same White Knight. "Damn it, Brig," he called out, "I had just racked up 78,000 on Darkcell!"
"I think a little cash will be worth the pain." she replied. "Now, if you don't mind…"
"All right, Freeboot… coming up!"
The grid work of the practically empty Cornell net zone faded away as the screen stretched. The tunnel of light finally let out in another particularly empty part of cyberspace. "Great, now where are we?" Hex whined.
"Alpha Centauri 3. Pretty vacant since everyone left, huh?"
Brigette was annoyed, too. "This ain't Freeboot, W.K."
The knight's visor opened. "You can't link to Freebook, chick-ee, you gotta slide." He opened up a small screen with his hands and a series of simple symbols appeared on it; a dash, then three dots after it. He minimized the screen into a box and then threw it out into the virtual wilderness. A trumpet suddenly sounded a long note, then three short notes, and then… a door opened out of nowhere. A giant golden snake uncoiled and rushed towards them.
"Brig…" Hex whispered insistently.
"Don't worry," she whispered back, "this is how we get there."
The snake opened its huge mouth, and as it was about to eat them, they passed through another tunnel. It finally opened up in this ancient manor house hall, unfamiliar flags hanging from the walls. An image suddenly shimmered into existence, looking like a butler. "Welcome to Freeboot, state your business, sirs… and madam."
"My name is Brigette Campbell, my voice is my authority, verify me."
The butler shifted again. "Approved, Brigette. What about you two gents?"
"Hey, buddy, I'm just the chauffeur!" White Knight threw up his hands.
"Identity confirmed." Then the butler turned to Hex. "And you, sir?"
"Hex, my… um, voice is my authority? Verify me."
The butler closed his eyes. "Identify unknown." When the image opened his eyes again, they appeared as green beams of light."
Brigette talked quickly. "We only want to speak to Kash. We don't want access to your site."
It closed its eyes again and the beams disappeared. "Understood. One moment." The butler opened his hands and a flat screen appeared between them. It was blank at first but then the image of Kash clicked in. "Hello?"
"Kash!" Brigette called out, "It's good to see you. We really need your help."
"Brig? It's good to see you're alive! When those damned Raiders hit…"
"Kash, we really need to see you."
"Come to Earth. The gate should be open. I'll see you when you get here."
"All right." she finished, then the screen disappeared.
All of a sudden, the knight started to flash red. Hex was confused. "What the hell?"
"Fuck! Someone's here and they're not using the door!" The knight's visor opened toward them. "Jack out now! The TI's after you!"
END OF ACT II
Because no one can stop it… and because I don't have enough info for a newsletter…
Rank One Standings --
Warfare: Alistar Dimiye (Frank D'Antuono)
Magic: Andrea Treschi (Chris Yarwood)
Social: Erich Von Shrakenberg (Martin Hohner)
Intelligence: Xinjao O'Reilly (Ed Stasheff)
To really confuse you, though, how 'bout…
Rank Seven Standings --
Warfare: Malachi Spyder (Josh Wooden)
Magic: Xavier Pollos (Matt Hutchinson)
Social: Hex (Andy Wooden)
Intelligence: Malachi Spyder (Josh Wooden)
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.