WALK IN LOVE, FLY IN CHAINS - Act III
"I remember falling, I remember marching like a one man army. Through the blaze, I remember coughing, 'I believe in something.' I don't want to remember falling for their lies."
-- Our Lady Peace, One Man Army
Hex and Brigette rushed out of the virtual world and right into the middle of a firefight. As the two of them rushed behind mainframes, they whipped out their plasma revolvers, and opened up at the incoming troops. The room soon became engulfed in energy beams, blasting all the electronics that had probably taken the White Knight years to collect. We can't help him now, the boy thought, making a quick blast around the lead-shielding computer tower.
"We've gotta get out of here!" Brigette screamed; the flurry of plasma bolts was making it hard to hear.
"No shit!" Hex screamed back, firing until his clip ran dry.
"If you got a plan," she turned around the side and fired a couple bolts back, "now's the time to use it!"
The boy closed his eyes, shutting out the war outside him. Now, he thought, if I can only find a way out of here. Wait! Of course! Grabbing her hand, he concentrated on his shuttle, back at the Von Eisenstein Shuttle Transfer Station. The image soon appeared in his head and he locked on to it. With his free hand, Hex ripped open a hole in reality, and walked through, pulling Brigette along with him.
Suddenly, they were on the tarmac of the busy spaceport, standing right next to the shuttle. Brigette went wide-eyed as she looked at her companion. "You did it! You really did it!"
"Uh… yeah." Hex replied, rushing over to the shuttle door. "They might trace us, so we got to hurry. I mean…"
Just then, his mouth was stopped by hers covering it in a kiss. The boy was shocked at first, but soon grew to enjoy the warmth of her mouth. Then she pulled away. "Thank you, Hex," Brigette answered, her head bowed down, "you saved my life."
"Least I could do." he smiled, opening the shuttle door. The boy wasn't going to spoil the moment with more words; besides, the Tech Infantry could be there at any moment. They both piled into the shuttle and it was only a few seconds more before they took off, leaving Avalon and InSec and everything else behind.
Once they hit orbit, a frantic message came over the comm. "Unidentified spacecraft! This is Avalon Space Control! You will shut your engines down NOW!"
Hex hit the reply button, audio only. "Sorry, control. Our engines are locked up. Working on repairs now."
Brigette looked at the system charts. "Make your heading 145 Mark 278."
The boy entered in the slight course correction and sent the shuttle on its way. "Why?"
"Because it'll look like we're out of control… until we run for the digital gate."
Two blips suddenly appeared on their rear. They were moving too fast for conventional ships. "What the hell…"
"Control to unidentified spacecraft! You will shut your engines down or the fighters following you will destroy you."
Hex turned to her. "How long do we have until their weapons range?"
Space Control answered. "You have two minutes to comply!"
Brigette smiled and nodded.
"How long to the gate?"
"Shit!" Hex cursed. "All right…" He started punching buttons, transferring as much power as he could to the engines. "Come on, come on…"
As they got closer to the gate, the fighters got even closer. Meanwhile, the shuttle's engines strained under the velocity they were forced to make.
"They're firing!" Brigette screamed, holding onto her seat for dear life. "Now! Adjust 016 Mark 124!"
Hex's hand flew over the helm and the shuttle jolted as it suddenly swung for the gate. The radar showed the fighter's torpedoes rushing harmlessly past them. "They missed!"
"They won't miss a second time." she answered, watching their plot like a hawk.
"Hitting the gate in five… four… three… two…"
As the fighters fired their light-speed lasers, the shuttle hit the inside of the digital gate, vanishing out of existence.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” O’Reilly asked as he entered the office.
“Yes,” Calton Reks, Sword of the Faithful said, looking up. “Have a seat.”
O’Reilly limped over to the chair Calton indicated and sat down. He’d been able to drop the cane after a day or two, but the limp would take longer to overcome.
Reks leaned back in his chair and stared at Xinjao for a while, just long enough to make him feel uncomfortable. Finally, he spoke. “How are you feeling?”
“Much better,” O’Reilly answered. “I’m finding dexterity with one hand I didn’t know I had.”
“Good, good…” Calton said, nodding. “That reminds me… I’ve had a prosthetic left hand ordered for you. I’ll take a while to arrive, but I thought you might like to know that it’s coming.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Just taking care of my troops,” he answered, waving the thought aside. “And how are repairs to Lord’s fleet coming?”
O’Reilly struggled with that one. “They’re coming,” he finally answered.
“Meaning…” O’Reilly struggled to find the right phrasing. “…that we’re making progress, but not exactly operating at maximum efficiently, if you know what I mean.”
“I see,” Reks said, stroking this moustache. “And what exactly is causing this… inefficiency?”
Xinjao shook his head and shrugged. “Lots of little things. A bit here, a bit there.”
“Hmm…” Reks grunted doubtfully, picking up a datapad and pulling up a file. “I’ve been looking through your file, M. O’Reilly,” the Sword of the Faithful said, “Quite impressive. You repaired all the damage to your dock within a week of being assigned to it… one of only four dock commanders to do so. Particularly since the damage to dock 14 was extensive. Yet now… after four days on the job, not even a single transport has been completely repaired.” Calton put down the datapad and looked O’Reilly right in the eye. “To be honest, M. O’Reilly, I don’t think you’re trying very hard.”
Perhaps he had been expecting a guilty or nervous reaction from O’Reilly. Instead what he got was surprise followed by indignation verging on outrage.
“Excuse me??” O’Reilly said after a few seconds of shocked silence.
“You disagree?” Calton asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes… yes, I do! There are reasons for our delays, sir! To begin with,” O’Reilly said, launching into his own engineer’s sermon, “most of the docks took heavy damage during the battle! I’m running the construction battalions with maybe a sixth of the original skilled workers on the station. Even with your soldiers helping out, we’ve got less than half the total workers we need! Our supply lines to Avalon are cut off, so we have to get spare parts from your core systems. It’ll take your factories time to start producing them, and even longer to get here! On top of that, I’ve never tried to run 50 docks simultaneously before, it’s gonna take me a while to get a handle on it… sir.”
“Very well,” Reks responded. “I'll accept that excuse… for now. Dismissed."
There was a knock on his office door.
“Yes?” the Commandant of Internal Security asked.
“It’s Lisa, sir,” his secretary answered.
His secretary walked in and sat down opposite M. Gergenstein. “Just a small matter, sir. You received a message in one your our old Fleet accounts from when you were in covert ops.”
“So answer it,” Gergenstein answered, not looking up. He didn’t have time for details like this.
“Uh… we can’t, sir. We don’t know who sent it.”
Herbert looked up. “What do you mean, you don’t know who sent it?” he asked.
“There was no return net address.”
“So trace it.”
“We tried, sir. We couldn’t. We keep hitting dead ends. It seems to have reached Avalon via the Phoenix system, but that’s about it..”
“You mean to tell me,” Gergenstein began, irritated, “that with all the resources that Internal Security has, you can’t tell who sent me a letter?”
“That’s correct, sir.” Lisa answered, staring at him evenly.
“Hmmm.” he murmured. This was beginning to arouse his interest. “Whoever they are, they must be good. Possible threat, possible recruit…” he said, putting down his stylus. He’d known someone once who could do stuff like this, but all the nerd ever used it for was to order porn anonymously. “What does the message say?”
“That’s the strange part, sir. It was blank. That was enough to make Communications curious, so they took a closer look at it. Turned out to be encrypted.”
Gergenstein cocked an eyebrow. This was getting better. “Really? Did they decode it?”
“Easily. Standard Fleet encryption. We can’t make heads or tails of what the message means, though. I’m guessing it has some sort of personal significance to you?” she asked, holding out a datapad. The Commandant took it and read the message.
Gergenstein stared at for a few seconds, then his eyes narrowed. “Xinjao?” he asked doubtfully. Xinjao wanted him to deliver a message to InSec? But O’Reilly was dead….
“Does it make any sense to you, sir?” Lisa asked politely. She was curious, too.
“Sort of…” Herbert answered as he turned to his terminal and dialed up the surveillance team. The image of the department manager popped up on the screen.
“Yeah?” she said grumpily, then turned to look at the screen. “Oh! Commandant! Uh… what can I do for you?”
“Tell me – has there been anything unusual on the surveillance holoproj camera assigned to O’Reilly, Xinjao?”
“One moment, sir,” she said as she searched the database. “That camera has been deactivated, sir,” she answered after a few seconds. “Commander O’Reilly was killed when Bad Andy took the Phoenix Yards.”
“Reactivate it and put the display on visual,” the commandant ordered.
Herbert looked down at the message. “I have reason to believe he’s still alive….”
The surveillance officer hit a few keys, then a visual of a Fleet dorm room appeared on the screen.
“Looks like someone’s living in his room, sir,” the officer’s voice came over the screen, “but we don’t know that it’s Commander O’Reilly. Could be a trap set up for false intelligence.”
“It could,” Gergenstein agreed. Until he saw O’Reilly alive with his own eyes, he wouldn’t completely trust this mystery message from beyond the grave. “I suppose it’s just coincidence that the terminal’s monitor happens to be turned directly toward the camera.” Herbert commented dryly, with a hint of sarcasm. “Can you get a closer shot of the monitor?” he asked, then studied the screen as it zoomed in. “Well, well. Looks like the Righteous Army’s construction schedule for the Phoenix Yards,” Gergenstein mumbled to himself. “How convenient.”
The Commandant leaned back in his chair, an expression of concentration on his face. “Captain, I want someone monitoring this camera continually. It could be quite valuable. And one more thing…” he said, looking down at the message. “Put camera 87315 on display.”
“That camera’s inoperative, sir,” the officer said after a moment. “Self destructed after being discovered.”
“Where was that camera assigned, captain?” Herbert asked thoughtfully.
“Uh… also the quarters of Xinjao O’Reilly… but aboard the EFS Schaumburg.”
Gergenstein shook his head, as if he had already known the answer. “Of course. Where else?” It was fairly compelling evidence that the message was genuine… still, caution was needed… “Alright, captain, activate it and give us a visual.”
“But… it’s broken, sir,” she replied, confused.
“Trust me, it’s been repaired,” the commandant said, amused. “Try the same transmission frequency as the other camera.”
After a second, a new image filled the screen. The camera angle was a few feet off the ground, and showed a man seated at a large desk. “Do we know the location of this camera, captain?” he asked.
“Uh, no sir, it’s unknown,” the officer answered in a surprised tone. “How did you know that—“
“Just a hunch,” the Commandant answered, cutting her off. That and I know O’Reilly’s a fucking wizard at this stuff. Gergenstein leaned closer, examining the screen for any details that would tell him what he was looking at. Off to the side, he had a partial view of what he assumed was the flag of Christian Federation. Except for the wooden cross on the wall behind the desk, the office décor appeared to be standard Earth Fleet design – somewhere on the Phoenix yards, he assumed. The man at the desk was powerfully built, with a serious face framed by slicked back dark hair and a perfectly trimmed military moustache. He wore no uniform – either a civilian or Righteous Army, he figured. Bad Andy couldn’t afford uniforms. As the man turned away from his terminal toward some paperwork, Gergenstein caught a glimpse of movement. He leaned forward, squinting at the image. Peeking over the top of the desk he could just make out what looked like the pommel of an elaborate sword…
Gergenstein couldn’t prevent a thin smile from creeping across his face. Chin, you crafty old bastard! he thought. I don’t know how you pulled it off… He could only be staring into the office of a Sword of the Faithful. The man had to be either Gus Simeon or Calton Reks.
“Captain, listen closely,” the commandant began. “This is the office of the deputy commander of either the Righteous Army or the Righteous Navy, and there’s a good chance it’s genuine intelligence. If you can verify it, then I want someone monitoring this camera at all times. Record everything. Pity we can’t see his terminal screen… do we have audio, at least?”
The surveillance officer ran a quick test. “Yes we do, sir.”
“Excellent,” Gergenstein said, leaning back in his chair. “Keep me informed of any important info we get. We might need to share some of it with Earth Fleet eventually.”
“Is that all, sir?”
“Yes, I think so,” Herbert said. “Discom.” He handed the datapad back to his secretary. “Is there something else, Lisa?” he asked when she made no move to leave.
“Actually, there is, sir,” she answered, pulling up a file on the pad. “Commander O’Reilly was marked for termination. The agent was taken off the assignment when he was reported dead. Should we put someone back on it?”
The commandant considered that for a moment. O’Reilly was being quite useful at the moment… and although he witnessed something embarrassing for InSec, he wasn’t near a reputable media source at the moment…
“No,” Gergenstein said finally. “At least… not yet.”
The lone aerial combat surveillance craft hovered half a klick outside Tower City. The man inside it was John Lipinski. John had a wife and a baby girl named Sarah that he'd never seen. It was John's job to feed real time information of the battle back to the Federation's War Room on Babylon 3. He was used to seeing men die by now, but never on this scale. "We're getting butchered out there." he said to himself, thankful he wasn't on the ground. Then the order came over the comm.
"Move in closer, the general wants better picture quality."
"But, sir, if I move in closer, I'll be detected by the city's point defenses."
"That's what stealth mode is for, lieutenant. Do it!"
"But, sir, even in stealth mode…" the pilot pleaded.
"Those are the general's orders! Discom."
John reluctantly moved his craft in closer, pushing its stealth drive up to maximum. As he feared, his sensors warned him of a target lock. He juiced his stealth system past safe levels and flew evasive, but at that range, it was a moot point. John's craft exploded into a fireball, killing him instantly.
"Damn it, where's my picture! How am I supposed to conduct an attack if I can't see what's going on!?" Lieutenant-General Edgar Curtis bellowed to his subordinates.
One of his staff managed a response. "Our surveillance craft was destroyed…again, sir."
"Dammit, that's the third one! Who the hell is training these pilots nowadays?!"
"Perhaps we should not ask them to move in so close, sir."
The general turned furiously at his subordinate. "Are you questioning my orders, son?"
"No, sir. Sorry, sir." The young staff officer bowed his head in shame.
The general turned his attention back to the battle. "Tell the 315th Legion to reinforce the right wing on the double."
"Sir", another staff officer spoke up, "that's all our reserves. They'll be under orbital bombardment as soon as they leave the city walls."
"You over estimate the Rebel's satellites, captain. Send in the 315th immediately… and more scout craft so I can see what's going on."
"Yes, sir. The 315th is moving out now and four more scouts have taken to the air."
"Excellent, we'll break these rebels yet! Get me General Sanford on the line… and what's happened to our artillery?"
"Sir, the rebel's orbitals took out all but one of our batteries once they moved out."
"That's impossible, lieutenant! The batteries were protected with point defenses and jammers. Check again."
"I have, sir. The rebels used mass drivers too large for the point defenses to intercept. The batteries weren't near a civilian population, so they bombed in a carpet pattern."
"Well, then… check it again!" Curtis bellowed. "And where the hell is my picture!"
"Here," Petronella said, handing the H-90's to the two prisoners, "if you want to defect, here's your chance."
Malachi turned towards Justine and smiled. In her mind, he projected his thoughts. You coming?
Why not? came the delighted response.
Spyder looked around the rubble. The artillery was still bursting around him, creating a nightmare landscape around them. Turning back to the MP officer, he yelled over the artillery shells, "How many do you think are coming?"
"How the fuck would I know?!" The lieutenant hollered back.
The artillery was slowing down; the Fed troopers would be coming out of the forest at the edge of the tarmac any moment. Maybe they sent a platoon instead of a battalion, Malachi hoped, or a battalion instead of a brigade. As the shells stopped altogether, the trooper looked around the rubble, counting how many were with him. Tina, me, and… five other guys? Seven unarmored troops against… Lord knows how many?!
The captain got his gun ready. Quickly going through the standard adjustment routines, he looked over at his former captor. "Anything you need to tell me?"
1st Lieutenant Petronella looked up from his own adjustments. "It's a gauss cannon. This baby has twice the range of a Mark 16 Plasma Rifle. Other than that, keep your head down, and your clip ready."
He peeked his head around the edge of the rubble they were using as cover. He wished he had power armor, but he might as well hope for a chariot of fire; some things were too much to ask. "Lieutenant, I haven't used a Mark 16 since Basic. I'm used to my suit and my spiker gun. You mind giving some idea of range?"
"You see those trees over there?"
You mean right where millions of power armor are going to pour out, chanting the Viking battle cry, using my ass as target practice? "Yeah."
"You see something come out, you're bound to hit it."
Spyder smiled. "That's better."
"Here they come!" D'Amprisi shouted.
The enemy was reckless. Power armor did pour out of the woods and Malachi started firing. He aimed carefully and was shocked by the sudden force of his gun. When Spyder went to fire again, he quickly noticed he was making holes in the enemy lines. Why are they charging? his mind screamed, his fire team mowing down row and after row of the incoming troopers. Why the fuck are they charging? Are they that stupid?!
Their weapons fire fell short of the desired target. They continued to miss, all but a few. These few shots would strike the rubble but none had hit home. Malachi turned to one of the soldiers behind him. "Cover me." He demanded quickly.
"Cover me, now!" He yelled as one shot hit the ground two inches from the other man's foot.
"Okay!" he agreed, and moved to cover his position.
Spyder rushed over towards another pile of rubble off to the side. Even though the seven of them were murdering the attackers, there were only seven guns against the hundreds rushing forward. They were getting closer. Malachi burrowed his way quickly into the loose rock. The armor was getting closer and closer still when the trooper finally was ready.
As the enemy troopers reached the rubble, Spyder opened up with his full clip. The enfilade fire ripped apart the attack from the flank. As the hundreds of rounds poured out the trooper's gauss gun, millions of credits worth of power armor fell in seconds.
Then there was another whistle sounding. Oh God, he thought, not more artillery. Suddenly the tarmac exploded; metal troops were tossed aside like so many used toys. Spyder ducked under the fierce pounding. Jesus, he prayed, I know I haven't been that great lately…
A suit of power armor bashed against his pile of rocks, burying him completely in the rubble. And I know that I haven't been following your rules recently…
Dust burned his lungs, as he coughed it out to breathe. But I swear that if you let me survive this day…
Three giant explosions rocked the pile he was trapped under, crushing him in places he didn't know he had. I'll make it up to you… whatever I did to piss you off!
Then, just as suddenly as it came, the pounding stopped. There was a moment of peace in that silence; the same as you get after a thunderstorm. Spyder didn't know how long he had been there before his lover's voice called faintly through the dark rock. "Mal?!?!"
"Here!!!" he screamed through the inky darkness he had been trapped under. Then he went into a coughing fit, as the dust threatened to kill him from within.
The rocks suddenly moved aside and there was light above him. As he looked up, Malachi saw the most beautiful thing he could dream of at that point. Justine, dirty and scraped badly, reached down and pulled him out of the landslide.
Once Spyder got to his feet again, he looked around… and he couldn't see the trees. A wall of broken power armor stood between them and the tarmac. Limping with D'Amprisi by his side, he made it back to their line. Only there did he truly see the devastation that had happened.
It was a picture of hell; great craters filled the once level tarmac, as the remains of orbital bombardment had littered the field with bodies.
Of the defenders, only Spyder, D'Amprisi, and Lieutenant Petronella were left. The MP officer was cut deeply in several places, but somehow he managed to stand. Coughing and limping himself, he walked over to him. "Are you convinced? Are you satisfied?"
The lieutenant managed a nod. "Quite… sir."
The couple just stood there, unable to look on the battlefield. Although they had saved their lives, they knew that they had committed themselves to a cause. What was once their enemy was now their friend.
A few minutes later, the battle video feed was reestablished. "Ah, now that's more like it… why the hell are they retreating?!"
One of the staff officers went to make his report. "Sir…"
"Why are they retreating and why am I not talking to Major-General Sanford right now?" Curtis said, his pudgy face so red that steam looked to be coming out of his ears.
"General Sanford is dead, sir. General Huang has ordered a general retreat for her and the other three legions."
"Damn that woman! I'll court-marshal the insubordinate bitch!"
Ten minutes later, what was left of the four Federation legions sent to take the Rebel fortress returned to their home bases. They'd sent legions to take Tower City, they returned with divisions. The disheveled form of General Huang reported to the war room as ordered.
"General, why did you order your legion to retreat?!" Curtis was furious.
"General… I have no legion." she replied calmly. Then suddenly, her temper broke, and she charged toward her commanding officer. "You murderous bastard!!!"
As the staff officers lunged to contain the frantic woman, Curtis jumped out of his seat. "Place the general under arrest for treason!"
The men and women of the ninth division looked out on the devastation before them. Gigantic creators smoldered in the earth where orbital bombardments had landed. The dead littered the landscape for kilometers. Medics were now everywhere looking for any signs of life. They weren't having much luck.
"That wasn't war out there, boss." Peter Benjamin answered, the first words he had said in half an hour. "That was murder."
Dimiye didn't argue the fact. "We've been through this kinda thing before, Peter."
"The EB's never charged through an orbital artillery barrage."
"No… not that I recall."
Peter's face soured. It almost looked like he was crying but no tears were in his eyes. He was a hard man now that couldn't cry; not after the things he'd seen. "It's days like this that I'm sorry to be a human being."
"I know, Peter," he said grabbing his shoulder, "me, too."
Another hour passed and Dimiye was back at Fabin's headquarters. Fragments from the bombardment had ripped open the front half; some staffer had managed to put a tarp covering the open wall. The general looked like he wanted to cheer and celebrate. Still, all his rejoicing was stopped with one look at Alistar's face. "Listen, Al…"
The major shook his head and Fabin shut up. "Did you need me, sir? My division is still counting casualties."
"Yes, I do. There's a couple things we need ta clear up."
"First off… my God, what a job today!" Joel Fabin couldn't contain himself any longer. "I am promoting you to Lieutenant Colonel… NOW! Do you hear me?"
Dimiye nodded. About damn time, he thought.
"Second, I…" the general picked up a datapad from his dusty desk, "I read your file. The G-40 clearance stuff…" Fabin handed it to his subordinate. "You wanted it and there it is."
Alistar swallowed the grit in his mouth and nodded again. "Thank you, sir."
"I want you to know, Al. I don't think any less of you for what happened. Could happen to anyone, but…" Fabin was interrupted suddenly by one of his adjutants. "What?!"
"I'm sorry to interrupt, sir, but I thought you might want to see this."
Joel didn't like getting interrupted in the middle of a speech. "What is it?! What's so damned important?!?!"
Malachi Spyder walked into the office. Fabin was flabbergasted. "Who the hell are you?!"
The captain was more than a little intimidated. "Captain Spyder, sir."
"Him and six others held the spaceport against a division, sir. We count the enemy dead at six hundred." the staffer explained.
Dimiye was shocked. "Seven against a thousand?"
Malachi nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Hail Mary!" the general shouted. "I heard about you! God damn it, between you and Al here, we could wipe up the Fed in a couple days!"
"What unit are you with, captain?" Alistar asked.
"251st Legion, 612nd Military Police Battalion."
"251st? You were fighting for the Grand Council?!"
Spyder smiled. "Not any more, sir."
Fabin burst into laughter. "Damn, boy! Ya picked one hell of a time to switch sides!"
"Sir," Dimiye turned toward Fabin, "Major Taylor was killed in today's action. I need a replacement. I want this man to command his brigade."
The general nodded. "Done."
Alistar went to shake the captain's hand. "Welcome aboard, Major Spyder."
It was times like this that made Dimiye think that maybe things were turning around for them. They were pushing forward. With the Babylon system taken, the old Federation would be driven from the outer systems. It was only a matter of time before the war was over.
As he went back to his tent, Alistar plopped down on the cot, and closed his eyes. The werewolf was exhausted but sleep would not come easily to him.
Your destiny is at hand, my son.
The major… colonel, his mind corrected, jolted from his bed. Through the strip of light peeking from the tent door, he could feel a presence. "Who's there?"
The light pulsed as a voice came out of nothingness. Did you think I had forgotten you? Did you think I left you on Epsilon?"
Yes, my son. Your destiny is at hand.
"But the battle is over!"
The battle is just beginning. Arise… kill and eat.
"What the hell does that mean?!"
Arise… kill and eat.
Alistar jolted upright in his bed, cold sweat dripping down his face, and his minicom unit flashing an irritating beep, just to spite me. Damn it, he thought, I hate waking up like this. Why can't my totem leave me alone?
The beeping continued, grinding into his skull. "All right…" he groaned, "ALL RIGHT, ASSHOLE, I'M COMING!" Dimiye almost crushed the small box as he activated it. "WHAT?!"
"WHAT IS IT?!"
"This is Major Wilhelm… are you all right, Al?
The colonel took in a series of deep breaths. I must maintain control. Control, damn it! "Sorry, Fredrick… um, what time is it?"
"Oh-three-forty. Why? What is it?"
I was asleep for five hours, Alistar realized. "Bad dreams, I. What do you need?"
"I got this guy here, says he's in charge of Taylor's Brigade. His name is Roach… or Moth… or…"
Dimiye smiled. "Major Spyder."
"Yeah, that's it."
"Taylor didn't make it yesterday. He's taking over."
"Are you sure, sir? I mean this guy is green… you can hear him squeak when he walks down the hall."
"That man and his squad held off a division. He can do the job."
Wilhelm gulped. "Yes, sir. I'll get him stowed away."
"Thanks, Fredrick. Discom."
As he closed the com unit, Dimiye desperately wanted to go back to sleep, but his mind wouldn't let him. Right next to the com was the datapad Fabin gave him. I have to know, Alistar thought, as much as it scares me, I have to know. There are two days on Fieras I have no recollection of. What happened?
With a shaking thumb, he activated the datapad. His personnel file, declassified, appeared before him. Dimiye scrolled through the beginning information. Punitive juvenile enlistment, boot camp, promotion to corporal… here it is, he thought, Fieras; 8-101 Special Forces, 2nd Platoon. Why did I get stuck on that shithole planet? I guess hot-shot rookies fresh out of boot get flagged by Personnel to hit the shit.
There was a list
of actions… against bugs, against souleaters, against rock shadows that moved
and didn't know what it was. Comments by Lieutenant Corban Frost here and there…
Frost, yeah… he recalled. Buddha, what a hard charger! I swear, that
man was trying to get us killed! Everyone else knew that we shouldn't leave the
fort… this war was lost and every other unit was staying inside the
triple-reinforced and shielded bunker. Not Frost, though… he was out to get his
brains blown out for the Fed.
Then there was the point he had always reached before in his file and no further. Fieras Incident #209: G-40 Clearence to view material. It was the strangest designation, corresponding with the hole in his memory. There was nothing before or after in his personnel file indicated anything unusual. There was a change of personnel afterwards, but that was strictly routine for a six-month tour; people left Fieras, Sergeant Caldwell said that was the only thing you could be sure of on this planet. People leave: on their feet, on a stretcher, or in a body bag… take your pick, boy.
He activated the link. The pad scrolled out to allow room for the whole documentation. I've never gotten this far before, Alistar realized, and his eyes were glued to the screen. There was the initial debriefing of the commanding officer, and Frost was laying it out in perfect bureaucratic legalese. The platoon was ordered to clear Sigourney Ridge on February 14th, 2237; nothing unusual about that, he thought, standard operation. The ridge overlooked Firebase Dante and we were sure as hell not going to let any bugs mount their cannon… or whatever the hell they had, up there. There was never anything there except rock; a cake run.
Something did happen, though. Frost indicated that there were ghost images on the motion detectors. No shit, Dimiye added mentally, Fieras always fucked up equipment. It went with being there. "4th Squad was sent ahead to scout." My unit. "Corporal Dimiye reported some unusual markings around the ridge's central outcropping." A nice way of referring to the "Middle Finger," the colonel thought. Looking up at the ridge from the fort, there were five little bumps of rock. The middle one was taller than the others, making it look like the planet was flipping you off, reaffirming that humans don't belong there. "The squad leader decided to fire at the outcropping, believing there was something hidden inside."
A chill went down his back as he read the next paragraph. "After the obstruction was removed, bugs came out of the rock at an alarming pace. We lost contact with 4th Squad and I ordered the platoon to form a firing line. My unit opened fire at the wave of bugs and was managing to hold them back at first. I ordered a slow withdrawal as the enemy came closer to our position."
Alistar read on, only noticing later that he was holding his breath. "Corporal Dimiye reappeared out of the Bug mass, cutting his way back through to us. The troopers held their fire when they saw him, and as a result, the Bugs overcame our line. Most of my unit was destroyed at that moment. What was left, which consisted of my 1st Squad and two other troopers, which only survived thanks to the superior speed of our suits." In other words, he realized, they ran for it. "It was only then that we noticed Corporal Dimiye was with us as we withdrew from the ridge. The squad leader then called in fire support from the fort, not realizing that we were still in the danger zone. The lance cannons fired at the enemy. Only Harrington and myself managed to drop in time. Sergeant Caldwell and the other remaining five troopers were killed instantly."
It was only then that the colonel remembered to breathe. The cold sweats returned to his body. I killed my whole platoon, he realized, my stupidity killed them all. Alistar had no choice now; he had to continue reading. "Once the bug threat was neutralized, Corporal Dimiye quickly realized what had happened. He went into frenzy, but luckily his suit realized the threat, and locked him down. We managed to drag him back into the fort, but it was obvious that his mind was gone. Harrington noticed a strange light emanating from his mouth but we couldn't identify it. Once back within the fort, a mind mage was brought in, and managed to stabilize him by eradicating his memories of the mission. For the sake of the squad leader and the morale of the division, it was decided to state for the record that the unit members were reassigned from Fieras and a new unit built around newly transferred soldiers. Trooper Harrington requested to be reassigned, even though she was only two months into her tour. Due to the unusual nature of the circumstances and her family connections, that transfer was approved, and she was sent to Avalon for reprocessing."
After the debriefing file, there were the depositions from the official inquiry, which happened much later. All of his former commanding officers, including Major Keys, his CO from his days fighting the Resistance on Earth, were called in for questioning. The court-marshal (of which even Alistar wasn't even aware) had declared him not guilty and added one sentence at the end of this file: "Classification of incident raised from G-20 to G-40, by order of the Judge Advocate General: August 29th, 2240." Dimiye knew what that meant; before the inquiry, his commanding officer and above only had access to it. Afterwards, only a general could access it. Something's not right, the colonel realized, why would they have a court-marshal for it three years after it happened? Then again, why lock it down more after the inquiry was over. He scanned through the file again and noticed the discrepancy. There's one person that didn't give a deposition, the only other person who survived the incident; Trooper Maegwyn Harrington.
Alistar vaguely remembered the girl. She was shy, didn't talk to anyone, very religious, some sort of nature worship, he thought. Maeg was beautiful but too weird to be around; she had been drafted young, just like he had been. Dimiye quickly checked her file. According to records, she was the niece of Stephanie Harrington. Why is that important?! Wait a minute, Stephanie Harrington… I've heard that name before. She was involved in politics before the war. That's right, she was big with the corp… Then it hit him. There had always been something holding him back. The reason he didn't get his citizenship or why he was never promoted easily. The fucking granddaughter of Maeve?! CEO of the late Harrington Industries, the mega-corp?!
He read on. It said that after she left Fieras, she was sent to Avalon, and then quickly moved to a mental hospital due to "acute emotional fatigue." She was given a medical discharge a year later and disappeared off the military records. It still didn't make sense, Alistar shrugged. If she was that far gone, she wouldn't be coming after me. There was something missing.
The colonel rubbed his eyes. "Computer, display service picture from Harrington file."
Yep, that was Maeg, he thought, but it doesn't help me one bit. As he rubbed his eyes again, he looked at the screen askance, and suddenly jumped out of his chair. No way, his mind screamed, no way in hell! As he squinted at the picture, Alistar knew who it was. Cut the hair short, make it blonde, change her eyes from hazel to blue, and… Dimiye shivered at the sight, trying to erase it from his mind. There was no doubt at all; he was looking at Stacy Johannes.
"Sir?" some man cleared his throat just outside his tent.
Alistar nearly jumped at the sound. "Yes?"
A sergeant came in to the tent, carrying a large bundle on his side. "Sir, it is my sad duty to inform you that Lieutenants Krominga and Johannes were both killed in action." He sounded bored.
Dimiye was stunned. "H… h… how?"
The man looked at the thick sheet in his other hand. "Uh, clean-up ops at Epsilon. Guess the EB's got 'em." The sergeant droned on. "As you were listed as her next of kin, you're entitled to her belongings." He dropped the package at the colonel's feet. "Good day, sir."
Erich Von Shrakenberg and his new friend stood over a data terminal in Chuck Coppinger's quarters, deep under Deimos. "This won't be easy," muttered the Resistance admiral. "There are over two hundred InSec personnel on the Canaris. If you're right, we can't bring enough of my people in to beat them in a straight fight, without tipping our hand to InSec."
"We don't have to give them a straight fight." Von Shrakenberg grinned. "They're on a starship, aren't they?"
"That's the problem. If we storm the ship, they can hold us at the docking arms or fight us for every corridor. It'll be a slaughter!"
"Which is why we aren't going to storm the ship. We don't have to."
"Oh, really?" Coppinger shot back. "What did you have in mind?"
The Canaris sat in spacedock in the former Utopia Planitia, now John Paul Jones construction yard in Mars orbit. The docking bay was an immense enclosure, ten kilometers long and five kilometers wide, criss-crossed by hundreds of stay lines and power umbilicals. It was designed to accommodate the largest star control ships, but for the moment, the InSec warship was the only vessel in dock. There were a dozen more similar spacedocks arrayed around the central core of the shipyard, holding half-completed warships, damaged Resistance vessels, and even an Earth Fleet destroyer, captured nearly intact from the previous battle.
Coppinger and Von Shrakenberg looked out of the viewport into the immense repair dock. "Even a space station like this can't afford to pressurize and depressurize a bay that large." Erich pointed out.
"It's too much like murder," Chuck grumbled, "at least in open space, you have a fighting chance."
Erich glared at him. "But we don't have a fleet this time. You made sure of that."
"Yeah, yeah," the Resistance admiral moaned, "like you said before, we have no choice." He turned to the confused aide behind him. "All right, Danny, let's get this over with."
While it was being repaired, the Canaris' shipboard systems were under the spacedock's control, allowing the ship's main systems to be taken off-line for repairs. So when they suddenly ordered the ship's airlocks to all open at once, it was immediately obeyed. Within two minutes, there wasn't a lungful of air anywhere on board the vessel. Only a handful of the InSec personnel on board were in pressure suits at the time. Few of the rest managed to scramble into them, leaving they rest to die gasping on the deck.
The platoon guarding the docking tubes was wearing light power armor, and although they survived the vacuum, they couldn't survive the repair technicians. The Resistance fighters in maintenance skinsuits drew sidearms from their toolkits and slaughtered the enemy.
Von Shrakenberg rushed down to the docking tube in his old skinsuit, armed with a plasma rifle, and a pronounced sense of righteous indignation. He joined the fight, clearing out the pockets of InSec soldiers, still managing to hold a few compartments of the ship.
As Erich followed a squad of Resistance fighters up the ship's main corridor, a barrage of plasma bolts met them suddenly. They quickly dropped down, taking position along the walls, as they returned fire. Coppinger came up behind Von Shrakenberg as he crouched behind a dark mass of… something. The entire ship was alien, like nothing he had ever experienced before; only the barest of accommodations were made for its human crew.
Chuck had to shout over the firefight. "Looks like a few of them made it to their suits."
Erich fired down the corridor and then turned to his companion. "I never said the plan was perfect, admiral." He fired again. "It's all we could manage at the time."
Coppinger started firing as well. "So what's next, commodore?"
"We can't let them regain control of the ship's systems!" Erich replied, right before he dove across the corridor, somersaulting over to the other wall.
"O-kay…" the Resistance admiral muttered, then threw a grenade down the passageway. When it went off, there was no sound in the airless corridor, but Coppinger felt the deck shudder under his feet. As heads and arms of InSec troopers appeared at the next junction, their enemy took aim, and blew them off with bolts of superheated plasma.
Cheering over their suit comlinks, the Resistance troopers advanced down the corridor. After several short engagements, they finally reached the bridge.
Erich took a grenade from a nearby dead trooper and tossed it into the command room. Hot on the heels of the explosion, he dove onto the bridge, firing blindly with his plasma rifle. Sheltering behind a display terminal, he readied another grenade.
Just then, a voice broke in over the suit comlink. "We surrender! Hold your fire, we surrender!"
"Your name is Damien Richter. Do you understand?"
The machine nodded, recording the data for further use, and accepting it under Directive #7. My name is Richter, Damien. Etymological data… accessing… Damien, Irish name meaning divine power or fate. Richter… German surname, variant of Richard, meaning ruler, I rule over my fate. His mind contradicted the last thought, due to Directive #2, and the machine understood. Designation only, no meaning attached.
"Good. Now, Damien, you are to be referred by that name and no other designation. You are Damien Richter, not XES-3 or anything else. Do you understand?"
The machine nodded again.
"Access Avalon background and geographic information. Respond with verbal acknowledgement."
Richter processed the data into his immediate memory. "Confirmed."
The technician leaned back in his chair. "All right, Damien, where are you?"
"Sub-Level 3, Elysian Fields Research Center, Bloemfontein, Avalon, Vega System."
"Correction, Damien. Vega is now Avalon System. Confirm."
"They really gotta update that shit." The man in the white coat picked up his datapad and checked off a box on his list. "All right, your dataterm link is able to access the local net's GPS." The technician looked at him. "Good… now access your cybermodem and jack in to my console."
Damien closed his eyes, accessing a particular subroutine that activated his cybermodem. Through the dataterm link, he was able to go through the serial connection into the techie's console.
"All right," the technician smiled, "we've got access. Give me visual readout of your opticware." The monitor showed Richter looking at him through his eyes. "All right, we're going to do a speed drill. Activate targeting sensors," a crosshair appeared on his sight, "and lock on to my finger." The lab man lifted up his finger and the crosshair immediately hooked to it. As the techie waved his finger around, there was the slightest delay before Damien was able to lock on to it.
"Targeting scope analysis indicates 0.05 deviation from design parameters." the machine answered, his baritone voice stuck in a constant monotone, his words clipped.
"That's acceptable, Damien. If your tracking is too perfect, you won't be able to adapt to new variables."
Richter said nothing.
"All right, I believe that's everything." the technician smiled, checking off the last box in his list. "I think it's time you stretched your legs a little, Damien. We need to do a field test… and I just got the authorization to do it. Disconnect from your terminal."
The machine obeyed, deactivating his cybermodem with the blink of an eye, and then pulled the cord out of its socket, located just behind his right ear. The tracking system disappeared from the techie's screen and was quickly replaced by an e-mail program. As the lab coat scrolled through his message, he finally reached what he wanted to, then looked back at his creation. "Here's the plan, brown eyes… you're going to go to the capital and hook up with the commandant. He'll tell you what to do there. Do you understand?"
Damien scanned through his data files in order to comprehend the incomplete orders just given him. Bloemfontein to Avalon, distance is 3,243 kilometers. Commandant, title for highest ranking member of Earth Federation Internal Security, of which current facility is a part of. Current holder of position: Colonel Herbert Gergenstein. Orders interpreted: Go to Avalon city and meet up with Gergenstein for further instructions.
After only a second delay, the machine nodded. "Confirmed."
"All right, big guy. Identity papers and clothes are waiting for you at the door. Good luck. I'll see ya when you get back."
Richter nodded then stood up, walking slowly… deliberately towards the door. He put on the clothes, then pants, the collarless shirt, and then covered it with the long black wool trenchcoat. Looking at the mirror beside him, Damien saw no imperfections in his disguise. On the outside, he looked like a normal man. Only a detailed scan would determine the amount of metal that existed underneath his skin.
He picked up the identity cards and opened the lift door. It didn't take long to leave the research center and walk out into the light.
Bloemfontein was a small town at the edge of the Ambrose National Forest; not quite absorbed by the southern arm of the ever-expanding suburbs. The express monorail ended there. It was far enough that it took a serious effort to get out there but not far enough to require a sub-orbital. Richter had no trouble getting aboard the train and then allowed himself to power down while he took the ride toward the heart of Avalon. Somewhere between Carlsbad and Andersonville, someone talked to him for an hour, although Damien said nothing back in return. The machine carefully recorded and noted the one-way conversation, but once the fellow passenger left, he carefully edited the important bits of information (which were few) and then dumped the rest of it.
Ten hours later, the train pulled into the Capital Park station. With his organic systems refreshed, he walked through the night air, much colder than it was in equatorial Bloemfontein. None of this mattered to the machine, which cared not for the temperature, apart from its use as an extra piece of data. It didn't take long to walk the five blocks from the station to Internal Security headquarters. Once there, the identity he possessed easily got him past the night guards into the building.
It didn't take long to reach the commandant's office. Damien quickly identified the tired blonde pretending to be a secretary as a threat. Activating his sensors, he quickly looked for changes in heat, sound, anything that might identify a trap before it sprung.
The normally perky secretary looked up from her work. "Can I help you?" came out pleasantly, but with a tinge of annoyance.
Richter pulled out his identity card and handed it to her. "Gergenstein."
"You mean the commandant?" she clarified. The machine nodded. "One moment." She touched the intercom button with her left hand, sliding her right hand under the table. Damien's senses tightened, ready to attack, if her hidden weapon was to spring. "Sir?"
"Yes?" the garbled response came.
"Sorry to disturb you, but a man named," she looked closer at the card, "Damien Richter is asking to see you. He has Level Three authorization."
"That's all right, Lisa. Let me through but keep his card. Bump him up to Level One while we talk, would you?"
"Level One, sir?"
"That's what I said. Now please send him in."
She put the card down and waved him through. The machine obeyed and went through the small door.
The commandant sat there, looking a bit tired himself, staring at the holoproj sticking out of his desk. Richter immediately recognized it as blueprints of the central government building. Damien immediately noted what he could from the data and turned toward the colonel.
Gergenstein looked up at him. He didn't say anything at first but cocked his head to the side, getting a better look at the creature before him. The machine stood still, noticing the change in temperature in the room. Force field, Damien recognized, static current disrupts normal ventilation flow. His threat warning went down a notch, classifying Herbert in a lesser category. In cases of force fields and other containment systems, the field must come down first before any action can be done on the other side.
"You know," the colonel finally said, "you're much shorter than I thought you'd be."
The machine said nothing.
"Bet that was a long trip from the southern rim. That had to take forever."
Again, Richter said nothing.
"Ahem. Are you listening to me, M. Richter?"
Damien nodded, continuing to analyze the man's voice.
"I see they didn't implant a personality in you as well. Oh well..." Herbert clicked off the holoproj. "I have a mission for you, M. Richter. Do you think you're up to it?"
Damien nodded again.
Gergenstein sighed and stood up. "Not much on conversation, are you? Follow me."
The commandant walked back out the same door he had come in, right back to the secretary. "Lisa, are you done with that ID?"
She smiled and handed it to him. "All finished, sir."
"Good," the colonel smiled, handing it back to Richter, "you now have Level One clearance… but I suppose that doesn't mean anything to you."
"Level One access is restricted to members of the Grand Council and those who work directly for them." Damien recited.
"Oh, so the newer model can speak?" Herbert kidded. All that Richter did in reply was nod. "That'll be helpful. Come on, this way."
The two of them took a lift down to the basement. Once they reached it, there was a small one-car subway train sitting there. Herb led the way and they both got in. Once they sat down, the doors closed, and a computer's voice clicked over the speaker. "Where to, sir?"
"Very well, sir." Then the train took off down the tracks.
When Gergenstein and Richter reached the marshal's office, Rashid King was about to walk out the door. "Herb! What are you doing here?" The voice sounded friendly, but there was an undertone of concern, as if he expected an attack. Damien noted the voice's stress pattern and subtle shift to the marshal's stance. Textbook maneuver when introduced to an unknown situation, he recited to himself. Right leg forward allows balance while the left leg propping the door open allows easy exit. His in-built logic approved; King rose to possible threat.
"Had a recent delivery. You said to bring him over as soon as he arrived."
"Herb," King rubbed his eyes, allowing Richter to notice the hidden plasma revolver in his right sleeve, "I know what I said, but it's late. Can't this wait till morning?"
"Of course, sir, but since you were here…"
"How did you know I was here, colonel?"
Gergenstein smiled. "I am the head of InSec now, sir."
King smiled back. "Of course. So what have you brought me?"
"This is the end result of Project Nexus. The experimental engineered soldier, XES for short, version 5.2."
"5 point 2?"
"Previous versions proved effective but… unable to adapt to unknown situations. This one has none of their previous handicaps."
"I see." King walked closer to get a better look, always keeping an established distance, allowing him to react in case the soldier suddenly attacked. "Good. What's your name, soldier?"
"My name is Damien Richter."
"Richter?" the marshal took a step back. "Why is that name familiar?"
Herbert cleared his throat. "The Pi Incident…"
"That Richter?" King was fascinated. "Indeed! I must admit, Project Vitek has been…"
"No, sir," Gergenstein corrected, "Nexus uses standard cloning techniques. All previous memories have been erased."
"I see. This is rather impressive, colonel. You are to be congratulated."
"I wouldn't be too excited, sir. This is only a field test."
"Well, we better test him, shouldn't we?" Rashid tapped Damien on the shoulder. "Herb, how many more of these do we have?"
"Eleven, sir. Only M. Richter here has been made fully functional."
"Very well." King smiled like a wolf before the kill. "M. Richter, I want you to report here at oh-nine hundred hours tomorrow. You're going to be the perfect bodyguard."
Gergenstein was worried. "Sir, are you sure you want to take him to the Grand…"
"Of course!" he shouted back. "What's the point of being marshal if you don't get the best?"
Xavier left his office, still left with the daunting task of finding a man who was already dead. He took a drink of water to clear his head. I'll do better after a good night's sleep, he thought, and fumbled his way back to the apartment. As soon as his head hit the pillow, Pollos was asleep.
When he woke up, his bedroom clock said 5:30. "Great," he mumbled, "I can sleep for another couple hours."
Somehow, he had forgot to make the doorbell an accomplice to his plan. "All right… ALL RIGHT, I'm coming!"
Rushing out of his bedroom, still in the clothes that he was in last night, he got to the door. Throwing it open, he was looking at three blonde men, their hair trimmed short, dressed in business suits. They were photo images of each other. "What do you want?"
"Are you Captain Pollos?"
"You're at his apartment, you have his name, you woke him up at five o' clock in the fucking morning! What part of this train of thought don't you get?!"
The left one answered. "Sir, it's 5:37 p.m."
"Evening?" Xavier mumbled. I was asleep for almost a full day? he asked himself. How is that possible? I wasn't that tired. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, sir. We were ordered to meet you at your office but you never showed up… sir."
I must have been drugged, he realized, but how? I didn't eat or drink… the water.
"Sir," the right one asked, "what are you orders?"
"You mean you weren't told?"
"No, sir." they replied in unison.
I don't have time for this shit, he moaned to himself. "Um… wait outside."
"Sir?" the middle one asked.
"Your orders are to wait outside till I get fucking dressed, understand?!"
They looked blankly at one another. Pollos, still tired and groggy, slammed the door in their face. "Idiots."
Xavier walked back to the kitchen, hoping for some coffee, anything to wake him up. "I get three morons for bodyguards." he muttered, fumbling around the cabinets, groping for anything that remotely looked like coffee. "Fucking mages. I get three mages who can't find their dick without an instruction manual. Oh, yes, it's obvious where I am on Garglestein's totem pole… right underneath it."
He found his coffee (some God-damned instant shit!) and started pouring the slop into a cup. "Okay, they might keep me alive long enough to find this Treschi schmuck... but I doubt it." As he poured some hot water into the cup, he added, "They might even do some good. At worst, they can stop some plasma bolts for me."
With his coffee ready, he put the dark liquid to his lips… and spit it out all over the kitchen floor. "What the hell is this crap?!" Nothing's going right today, he thought, tossing the rest of the coffee out in the sink. First I get drugged, then the men assigned to me are morons, then my coffee's actually rat poison! Spitting the taste out of his mouth, he looked up at the mirror. There's only one man to make it right.
After he put the mug down, he made a bee-line for the vidphone. Once he got there, he punched up the net address he knew by heart. The Aryan secretary smiled at first, then frowned once he saw who it was. "Yes, Captain Pollos?"
"Yeah, let me speak to Gergenstein."
"I'm sorry, sir. He's in a meeting now." she replied, a hint of cockiness leaking from her placid exterior.
"I want to talk to him now!" Xavier growled, feeling the anger inside him growing. "Why the hell did he send me the moron triplets?!"
"Sir, the commandant is a busy man…"
"I don't care what it takes, damn it, put that bastard on the line!"
"Right." she sighed, trying desperately to hide her annoyance. "Give me a minute." Then the InSec symbol appeared on the screen, with some Gun Metal Grey song being played by a high school band.
Okay, he told himself, just remain calm. I need to settle down. Remember… I am in charge of my life. I am the FUCKING GREATEST KI...
The secretary on the vidphone was confused. "What?"
Damn, Xavier thought, I said that out loud. "Nothing."
"Will you please stay on for a little longer? I'm having trouble reaching the commandant."
"All right." The pathetic music came on once again. After a couple more minutes of waiting, the call went through. "About time…"
What he was hoping for was Gergenstein. What he got was something completely different. "Hello?"
"Who the hell is this?"
"Major Victor MacManus, Division Chief, Intersystem Operations. Who the hell are you?"
"Captain Xavier Pollos. Listen, I was waiting for Gergenstein… so why am I talking to your pathetic ass?!"
The major was unruffled. "Captain, he was suddenly called away on important business. Can I help you?"
"Yeah, put me through to Gergenstein!"
"The commandant is away from his desk and can't be disturbed. I am taking his calls."
"Fine... then you tell that piece of shit…"
Just then, Xavier felt something, something that made every muscle in his body tense up. Something was going to happen… right now. He cut the vidphone connection, ran toward the window, and grabbed his jacket. Just then, his front door explodes. A body flew through it. He didn't bother to see who it was; he made a mad dash towards the window.
"Shit!!!!" he cried as two more bodies were thrown through the very window that Xavier was trying to escape through. The blonde men were lying dead at his feet. "Okay... What next?"
He saw the blur of a cloaked power armor rushing towards him. Pollos mades his move. If they want to play invisible, he thought, I can do the same. Kuar appears in his hand and he whips it around in a circle, disappearing from plain sight. Before the suit in front of him can react, he gives him a roundhouse kick into the guy's neck, knocking him into the wall. Suddenly, he noticed another suit behind him. He stood still, hoping the man didn't think Xavier saw him, and waited for his moment. As the blur lunged forward, he took hold of his arm, and broke it clean… but not fast enough. He felt a hypospray touch against his neck as the man screamed for pain. The assassin suddenly felt woosy and dropped to the ground; everything went black.
Xavier wakes up to a terrible cooking smell. There was no light except for a small grate in… what he assumed to be a door. His eyes tried to adjust to the darkness but there wasn't enough light to see anything. All he felt was a metal collar around his throat. "Where the hell am I?" he muttered to himself.
"Ah, he speaks… yes, he speaks!" The voice came from someone nearby.
"Where am I?"
"You are the property of the Raptors," it said, then broke into a song. "You're going to die… you're going to die…"
"Who are the hell are you?"
"Who knows? I can't remember my name anymore!"
"You're a prisoner?"
"Yeah," the voice cackled, couldn't you guess that by now?"
"How long have you been here?"
"I don't know… what's the year?"
"Fifteen years? Fifteen years! I must have done something to piss them off."
"Nice." Xavier muttered, falling back to sleep. The Raptors wanted him for something. Everyone wants me for something it seems. They'll tell me when they want to find out.
"Who? What are you staring at?" Andrea turned to look behind him and suddenly realized she was staring at the wall.
Suddenly Treschi realized what Auntie Sarah was asking him to do; she wanted him to find Samuel Wall. Of all the people in the galaxy, this man would be the most difficult to locate, if he was still alive. Wall… of anything she could ask, she wants me to find the Wall. The thought sank like a cold dagger in his chest. There was no point trying to hide his frustration; his companion would have already felt it by now.
"Why me? Surely you have men that could track him down!"
Treschi desperately tried to regain his composure; he didn't think anything could affect him like this. Still, before the 2nd Civil War, Wall was one of the most powerful men in the Federation. A member of the Second Triumvirate, he stood toe to toe with Clarke and Fox and was unafraid. A man like that had political connections that Abdul Johnson could only dream of, he thought. Then again, that was twenty years ago, when he vanished, right before the Liberation's uprising. If he was still alive after all this time, his power would be immense!
Marshal Dunmeyer put her own datachip on the table and slid it over to him. She spoke softly, clearly, as if a single word out of place would physically hurt her. "I did have men tracking him down. All of them either wound up dead or were never seen again."
"Another good reason to stay away." Andrea muttered.
Sarah leaned forward. "I don't ask this of you without reason. Three days ago, we found this chip," she tapped it in front of him, "in the coat of one of my agents. The man was dead, stabbed… stabbed, for the love of God, to death in an alleyway on New Tokyo. Whoever killed him either took him by surprise or managed to defeat a master of Jujitsu at close range. Somehow, he managed to reach his com unit. Before he died, he transmitted a brief message to his contact. The message was, "Treschi… Minos… Wall… and retribution."
She waited a moment, watching Andrea's face, wondering how he would react to this information. He's got a good poker face, the marshal thought, or he has no idea what the message meant. For the first time in years, she felt pity for the man sitting across the table.
"We tried to access the chip, but it's highly encrypted. However, we did manage to do a file count. Each of them is exactly the same as a standard Fed identification listing. Now we assume that it's a list of people that Wall had personal contact with. Since it's encrypted, we have no idea who the people are, but since the information was obviously intended for you, you might have better luck obtaining the information."
"You're holding something back." Treschi intoned.
"Yes I am. My data analysts tell me that the only reason that these files would be encrypted for you is if you personally knew the people on those files as well. Do you want to take a guess on how many people you've met that had personal contact with M. Wall?"
Treschi paused for a moment; considering all that the marshal had told him. "Thirty-two?"
"Not even close. According to our analysts, there are somewhere around four hundred identity files."
"Four hundred?" Andrea couldn't help but feel his eyes bulge.
Dunmeyer just shrugged. "For a man who's supposed to have been dead for two decades, he's been rather busy." She smiled. "I've arranged a ship for you to leave the system, but how you deal with the Grand Council's fleet is up to you. I'm sure you've already made arrangements."
Treschi nodded. She got up from the table, gazing down at Treschi. Her face changed from sympathetic to serious as she looked at his uniform. "Good luck, major. I'd love to stay and chat but I have a war to fight."
Andrea watched her and her two bodyguards leave the diner. What are you getting yourself into, Treschi asked himself, running errands for grunts? He snorted in amusement, got up from his seat, and dropped some creds on the table. I guess if you want to be the Wall, first you have to find the Wall. Oh well, time to rewrite Stuart's memory. After all, if this is going to work, he has to believe he cracked into the InSec mainframe. He allowed himself a smile, then walked out the back door, disappearing into the muck of Wilke's Star.
By late evening Treschi, Veolin, Charlie, and Stuart Weaver managed to get aboard a Barclay-class corvette. It just happened to be there, thanks to his Raptor connections. They decided to take a chance and headed for New Paris through the military jumpgate. Traveling at top speed, a destroyer moved to intercept, firing several shots at the escaping patrol ship. Veolin managed to maneuver the ship past the destroyer, using their ship's better maneuvering to their advantage, and finally reached the gate and jumped. To an outside observer, it would have been very convincing.
Half a day later, the New Paris system welcomed them, with a heavy cruiser guarding the front door. "I am Captain Dorathea Wells of the EFS Bangalore. Your registry code states that you're the EFS Sullivan. You will stand down and prepare to be boarded."
The corvette quickly replied. "This is Captain Andrea Treschi, Tech Infantry Special Service, serial number 6-1-fiver-1-2-3-6-niner-2-dash-4. I am in command of the EFS Sullivan. Under EF military standing order 3-4-7, paragraph 5, subsection 1b, all Raptor ships are to accorded unhindered passage to and from any Federation system, regardless of their cargo, origin, or destination."
"Bull-shit!" Wells shot back. "In case you forgot, Captain Treschi, we're in the middle of a war. I don't have to take your legal crap. Prepare to be boarded!"
Andrea kept his cool. "Our charter is valid in times of peace as well as war, captain. Our mission is necessary for the continued security of the Federation."
"Your mission is…"
"We are under direct orders of Colonel Tanya Neilson," the smuggler interrupted, "commanding officer of the Raptors, and those orders specify that this ship and its cargo is to go to the Minos System."
Wells was not convinced. "You have thirty seconds before you drift into my energy weapons range. Let's see some proof."
Treschi smiled. "My navigator is transmitting the authenticated orders and the regulation I'm referring to as we speak."
The Bangalore muted its comm channel and Andrea could see some shuffling going on on the other ship's bridge. The pause extended a while until Wells came back on the screen. "Very well, Captain Treschi," Wells replied, boredom creeping over her voice, "the EFS Bangalore will escort your ship to the Minos jumpgate. Discom."
As the communication broke off, he looked over at Veolin, manning the helm. "That could have gone better."
The were-snake returned a wiry grin. "She could have at least wished us a nice day."
"Day and night have no meaning in space, lieutenant." Andrea answered. "It's a dark cold place."
It was going to take two days to reach Minos from New Paris. It's taking too long, Treschi thought, walking back to his small cabin to get some rest. Wall could slip away and I could lose the whole deal! As he locked the door behind him, he chided himself. No, he's not going anywhere. Samuel Wall wants me to find him, but he's playing with me. I don't like being played.
Forcing himself to relax, he got out a small piece of plastic, no larger than his credit chit. Plugging it into the ship's computer system, his AI was activated. "How can I help you, M. Jackal?"
Andrea inserted the datachip into the machine. "Fox, run a diagnostic on this chip, then decode the encryption sequence, and display the relevant data."
"Of course, one moment."
As his artificial intelligence processed the datachip, he went over to the cabinet and poured out a scotch. I'll have to remember to thank Sergeant-Major Luther for stocking the ship. Life is all in the details. He took a sip of the drink and approved. Aged just right, no synthetics, no immobilizing chemicals. Perhaps my thanks is too little; a man who has taste in liquor deserves a promotion.
It took only a minute for his clever little program to do his trick. "Processing complete. Would you like the entire diagnostic?"
"Not right now, Fox. Let's start with the holo-images of each person in the files, starting with most recent contact, and working back chronologically." If Wall knew where I would be, Treschi reasoned, most likely it would be a recent contact of mine.
"Very well. Beginning at time stamp 05/17/43."
As the three dimensional images displayed in the air before him, Andrea sat down on the bed, nursing his glass of scotch. The pictures passed by; people that had a connection between him and Wall, or someone would like to believe had a connection between him and Wall, his cynicism erupted. For all I know, someone's hiding behind the Wall name. The bastard's probably been dead for years. Military and political leaders passed by in unusual regularity. Come on, whoever sent this expects me to believe Wall's been behind everything for the past twenty years? Give me a break… look at these people! Dead, dead, killed her, dead… I think he's alive, living, dead, should be dead…
"Last image on chip, M. Jackal." the AI cheerfully chirped. It was a picture of Wall, standing at some formal dance, his arms around a woman. No way in hell, his mind rebelled, it can't be. The time stamp on the image dated it in 2213. That's impossible, I wasn't born for another year. How could I… Then he recognized the woman. This must be some sick joke! Treschi's face went pale as he looked closer at the data. That's fucking impossible!!!
The glass fell from his hand, shattering on the deck plate below. Andrea didn't even notice as he stared in disbelief at the holoproj.
Treschi hit Minos running. Within minutes of reaching the orbital station, a platoon of Raptors met him in a drop ship. Andrea knew exactly where to go; there was no mystery to his destination. He was going home. As they came in through the dark clouds and the acid rain, the magnificent house that he hadn't returned to in fifteen years seemed unchanged. The harsh environment that dominated this industrial world had not made its mark on the mansion. All seemed peaceful and at rest, just like the smuggler remembered it.
Once on the ground, the platoon boiled out of the drop ship. The guards melted before the crack troopers; neither side fired a shot. offered only light resistance to the very heavily armed Raptors. Treschi didn't even need to issue orders. When the all-clear sounded, he got out of the drop ship, walked up to the front door, and entered the house. Andrea didn't hesitate as he ran up the stairs into the study.
His mother stood next to the window; her long black hair fluttering in the simulated breeze. She snapped around as her son entered the room. The woman opened her mouth to speak, but Treschi beat her to it. "Where?!"
It took only a moment for the smuggler to tear apart her strong mental defenses. Ripping into her mind, he found the answer; he knew where to find Wall. As he turned to leave, his mother pleaded, "Wait!"
Andrea stopped in mid-stride. As he slowly turned around, a small package had appeared in her hands. "He said you'd be coming. He told me to give this to you."
The smuggler stepped forward cautiously. "Who?"
"The man with the eyepatch."
"Mom, you're not making any sense."
"He told me you killed his son."
Treschi stepped closer, the clouds of doubt forming over his brow. "What?"
"He said that you forced him… made him sacrifice his son so that he could live. He told me to have you open this package and then you'd be even."
Andrea reached and took the package from her hands. Inside its ornate casing was a large dagger; the blade was the color of blood. As he picked up the dirk, it felt like an icicle. It was so cold. As he turned to face his mother, he realized what it meant. Again, I'm being played, he thought, raising the blade up, you bastard. A tear escaped his eye and it rolled down his cheek.
His mother kept her face calm. She reached out and embraced him for the last time. She had always been a strong woman; in her last moments, she wanted to pass on every ounce of it to her son.
As they embraced, the Jackal slid the blade between two ribs in her back, gouging into her heart. The blood that gave him life trickled onto his wrist. In his ear, her mother's last few breaths echoed, the tears falling like waterfalls on his face. The crimson blade, saturated in his mother's blood, melted in his hand like an icicle in warm water. The liquid metal rolled onto the floor, evaporating into a mist, then seeped out a crack in the wall.
In the study, all that was left was Andrea Treschi and the lifeless body of his mother, locked in his arms.
END OF ACT III
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.