WALK IN LOVE, FLY IN CHAINS - Act IV
"The ways of the world all will change, and all the ways remain the same,
But if you're mad or only sane, the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.
We walk in love, but fly in chains, and the planes in Spain fall mainly in the rain."
-- Traditional Nursery Rhyme
Andrea Treschi kissed his mother’s forehead and dropped her corpse onto the floor. By now, blood had spread over most of the floor, leaving his Raptor uniform badly stained. Why does it always have to be so messy?
He made a thorough mental and physical scan of the study; once Treschi was satisfied that the study wasn't bugged, he sat at the desk that facing the door. As he did so, an image from the datachip Auntie Sarah gave him came to mind. I'm missing something, Andrea realized, something important. He reached into his pocket and pulled out another little crystal chip. Before he could put it into the holoproj unit, he heard a knock, looked up, and saw his charming lieutenant standing in the doorway.
“We have secured the area…” Veolin’s sentence trailed off as she noticed the dead body on the floor. For once, Andrea saw a look of concern touch her face, as she soon realized who it was and what had happened.
Were-cobras have been conditioned to only care for themselves. Over the years, though, he had manipulating to feel concern for him as well. Although it made it easy to get her in bed, in some ways, he had hoped it had been more challenging.
“What? You haven't seen a dead body before?" Treschi mocked, activating the holoproj. "You have something to report?"
The look of concern slowly melded into a serious mask. “Sir, I received a communication from Sergeant Major Luther a few moments ago. He informed me that Xavier Pollos has been apprehended. A background check determined that he is currently serving as a captain in InSec. According to our contacts, he’s not highly regarded. So far, Luther has not proceeded with the interrogation. He awaits your orders.”
Andrea leaned back in his chair and pondered the situation. “Veolin, return to Avalon and proceed with the interrogation as normal… but do not release him. If this Xavier isn't popular within InSec, then chances are they won't care that he's missing for a week… at least."
"Is that all, sir?"
"No. Have Charlie and Stewart sent to this office within a half-hour."
Veolin looked back at his mother's body bleeding on the carpet. "Anything else, sir?"
"No. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some business to attend to. I will return to Avalon by the end of the week to personally finish the interrogation.”
She saluted, trying to hide her feelings, and left the room.
Inserting a chip into the unit's slot, the computer came to life. “What can I do for you today, M. Jackal?”
“Fox, I want you to run a cross check on all personal contacts Samuel Wall and I have that are currently located on Minos.”
It took only a few seconds for the AI to finish. “Complete.”
“Thanks, Fox. Please display their names, positions, and personal descriptions.”
A short list appeared projected above the desk. Most of the names he recognized, except for one; some scientist running a secret project. He filed the name away in his mind to follow up on later. The person he was interested in was at the top of the list.
Sandra Black; that was a name that took him way back. She was the personal secretary to the governor of Minos, and former Grand Council member, Edward Byrne. Treschi had known the secretary long before joining the Raptors. She was one reason why his family's more questionable businesses in system never got tracked down.
Why is she at the top of the list? It can't be a coincidence. He thought back to his discussion with Auntie Sarah. “Treschi, Minos, Wall, and retribution.” Finally, Andrea made the connection… and it had nothing to do with his dead mother. “Sorry, Mom," he said to her bleeding corpse, "I guess that I didn’t have to kill you after all. Oh well…"
Another knock came to the door and Charlie and Stuart Weaver entered. Treschi was ready for them. “Have a seat, my friends.”
As soon as they noticed the dead body on the floor, the two smugglers eyed each other carefully, then sat down in two overstuffed chairs opposite the Jackal.
“Fox," Andrea spoke to his AI, "please transfer two million credits from my United Swiss Bank account, number 681264, specifically from funds A, C, and F, to Bundesbank account number 34924 dash 53, funds B and C.” Those were Jason Monk and Cornelius' accounts, the only two members of his cell not present.
“Complete.” the computer replied bluntly.
“Thanks." Treschi now faced them. "The score that I have arranged will be worth 1 million credits to both of you after completion. Charlie, I need you to return to Avalon, I'll give you the details after I arrive. Stuart, I need you to remain with me… for now.”
Charlie nodded and then left the room. As soon as he was gone, Andrea got up from his seat, and then paced across the floor, carefully avoiding the corpse on the floor. What's the next move? he wondered, contemplating the contents of Fox's search. Stuart said nothing, terrified of his employer who remained calm before him. A half-hour, he stopped pacing. "Fox, open an coded channel to Sandra Black.” Treschi ordered.
“One moment, M. Jackal.”
After several seconds, the computer continued. “The connection has been made.”
“Put her through.”
A full-sized holoproj appeared in the center of the room. The woman standing there in a business suit would have made a good candidate for Miss Avalon. "Who the hell is this?!” her voice screamed. “This better be damn important!”
“Please Sandra… I know I haven’t seen you in over six months, but… is that anyway to speak to an old friend?”
“Andrea?” she replied, a shocked look coming across her face. “What are you doing back on Minos?”
“I came back to visit my family,” he glanced down at the corpse before continuing. “I also need to take care of some business. I’d like to make an appointment with Byrne. Is he available for lunch today?’
“He is very busy... I’m not sure if I could arrange it.” Black answered, with a leading tone.
“Perhaps five thousand credits might help his election campaign.”
“He still pretty busy, but I'm sure a donation for ten big ones would demand his gratitude.”
“The funds will be forwarded to your account. Please tell him to meet me at my parents' home; I'll be in the study. If he wants to know the nature of the meeting, tell him that I am speaking on behalf of the wall.”
Sandra was a little confused. “I’ll see what I can do. I’ve got to go. Say hi to your mother for me. Discom.”
Treschi smiled and made his way to a small liquor cabinet. As he pulled out a bottle and a glass, he turned to his companion. “Would you like a cognac, Stuart?”
A hour later brought another knock at the study door. Two men entered, one was exceptionally tall, the other much smaller by comparison. Underneath their trenchcoats, chemically treated to repel the acid rain, he could see that the shorter one wore a business suit.
The tall man walked in first; despite the coat, it was clear that the man was very well built, although his face looked like a large unmade bed. He lowered his head to fit through the entryway. Andrea's light scan of the man was easily blocked. He quickly noticed Treschi’s bloodstained shirt, then followed the blood trail to his mother's dead body, as well as another body lying next to her. “The room is secure.”
The shorter man entered next, rage and hatred entering his eyes as he saw the dead body on the floor. Treschi made another quick mental scan of the new figure; it was the governor, Edward Byrne. He sat in one of the overstuffed chairs while the tall gentleman pulled out a cigar and lit it.
“You better have a good fucking explanation for this!” The governor’s voice boomed.
Andrea thought quickly. These men are dangerous, he realized. If I'm too cautious, my cover is gone. If I'm overzealous, they'll blast me into a million pieces. Let’s try changing the subject. “Some of my associates have brought your recent removal from the Grand Council to my attention."
"They know that it was unjustified and they also know that you were rather bitter about the whole affair. Is that correct, governor? Would you like to be reinstated on the Grand Council?”
“The answer to your first question is yes. I was removed from the Grand Council. I was a leader of the Minority Coalition in the Senate. I had a seat on the Council… back when it had a balance of power. However, the answer to your second question is no. Why the fuck would I want to suck up to Johnson? And who the fuck are you, Treschi? I read the InSec report on you. You’re nothing but a small time smuggler!”
"I assure you that I'm much more than that."
“You should have never left the planet! Look at you… what a disgrace. Your mother lies dead before you and you don't give a shit. It’s too fucking bad that Rashid King wasn’t more successful with his plasma revolver!”
“It's amazing, don’t you think? That a small time smuggler like me would know that Auntie Sarah now possesses all of the technical and military data regarding the New Paris System?"
“How in the hell would you know that?!”
“Simple, I gave it to her.”
As if in response, the tall man took off his coat, and rubbed his face. While the man rubbed, his height diminished slightly, his face became clean, his hair was suddenly trim, and his elaborate uniform looked sharp. Treschi immediately recognized him; Lieutenant-General George Maxwell, head of the Tech Infantry still in the Federation, and one of the most effective field commanders still alive. The Grand Council hadn't bothered to make him a full general, even though he had a list of military victories long enough to take up all the room in his computer.
Maxwell pointed the cigar at Treschi. “This man, sir, is no mere smuggler. He's a Raptor, a rising star in that organization for the past decade. His mission highlights have crossed my desk. I remember that Clarke spoke highly of you, which is impressive, since he didn't speak highly of anybody. Still… before I have you executed for treason, I have just one question. Why?”
“Permission to speak freely, sir.”
“You’re going to need it," George smiled, "granted.”
“Under the orders of my former commander, Arthur Clarke, I conducted a joint operation with InSec to bring down an operation located on the outer rim that was stealing Federation technology. While I was gone, Clarke was killed, most likely by InSec. When I returned to demand an explanation from King, this is what I received.” Treschi pulled up his shirt momentarily to reveal the horrid scarring on his chest. “While conducting a later independent investigation for the Raptors, I obtained the man you see passed out on the floor,” Treschi pointed to Stuart Weaver, overdosed on one small glass of cognac, and sleeping like a baby on the floor. “He succeeded breaking into the InSec mainframe and obtained the info about New Paris. Fortunately, I managed to get to him first. Once the information is out, though, what’s the point of hiding it? Sarah will get it sooner or later. In exchange for it, I obtained the name of the person she needs to win the war."
"Who?" Maxwell asked.
"Bull-shit!" Byrne exploded. "Wall's been dead for decades!"
"No, he's been missing for decades. That's not the same thing. I've been assured that Wall is very much alive."
The general nodded. "Continue."
"While I'm at Wilke’s Star, Phoenix falls to the Righteous Retards. Then our fleet goes to Mars and gets wasted… by the Resistance, of all things! When I get back, the next thing that I know is that a man in InSec was hired to kill me. Now you'll probably want to kill me too… but what will that accomplish? How will that help you win this war?”
“King underestimated you.” Maxwell smiled as shook his head. “You’re a tough son-of-a-bitch. Now I know why Clarke favored you: cold, calculating, and most of all ruthless. “
“I can’t believe that you’re actually going to listen to this, George!" the governor interjected. "We should have this man shot for desertion and hanged for sedition!”
“Wake the fuck up, Edward! We don’t have time! For the past two years the Grand Council has sat on its hands while incompetents like King run the military. If things don’t change soon, not only will we lose this war, but we'll be the ones executed.” The smile came across the general’s face became even broader as he continued. “Treschi knows this. He’s right; there is no point in killing him. But by allowing him to live, he forces us to make a deal. Simple. Brilliant. So… what did you have in mind, M. Treschi?”
Andrea got out of his chair and made his way to the liquor cabinet. “In order to win this war at this point, four things must take place. Rashid King and Abdul Johnson must be removed from power. Then, either yourself or Admiral Vorheis has to become marshal. Three, the Federation needs to ally with another faction, at least for the time being. Then finally, we need to take Samuel Wall out of mothballs to take direct control of the Grand Council.”
“Fair enough." Maxwell nodded. "What do you need from me?”
“Twelve million credits, more authoritative control over the Raptors, one tunnel drive ship under my command, and a five minute meeting with Abdul Johnson.”
“I don't know about the tunnel drive ship, but everything else can be done, Lieutenant Colonel.”
“This man’s crazy!” Edward jumped out his chair.
“No, I am a just man that has nothing lose.” Treschi reached into the cabinet, and he pulled out a bottle and small glass. “Cognac, Governor Byrne?”
"You took your time getting here."
Hex was not in the mood to be scolded by Kash. Having two fighters on your ass trying to kill you will do that, he thought, finally catching up to him in the muddy streets of Sanfran. Brigette answered for him. "We have some trouble."
"The Fed is full of trouble," Kash answered, grabbing a peach from the vendor, tossing him a cred coin, "that's why we choose to live here. I'm just glad you made it one piece."
"Where's my sister?" Hex demanded.
"She's safe." the Hodraida answered before biting into the fruit.
Kash swallowed his bite of peach and then sighed. "You know, they've really made progress with these…"
"Where is she?!"
"Relax! She's with my daughter… they're probably both driving her mother crazy by now." The Hodraida took another bite and swallowed. "You really need to calm down. Patience is a virtue…"
"…which I don't have." Hex completed his sentence. "Now why don't we go to your home and see her."
Kash shrugged and led the way. Sanfran wasn't that large a town, however, it was the largest settlement that the Resistance had. The giant energy shield that they erected over the place had ensured their defense from the air… as well as being a magnet for every attack by the Tech Infantry on the ground. Since the TI left Earth, the shield was turned off, but the town was limited to what could fit inside the perimeter of the shield generators.
Brigette, though, was more worried about the battle inside Hex. As they walked through the muddy streets, she whispered to her companion, "Hex, what the hell is wrong with you?"
"I'm sick of being pushed around."
"Kash is on our side."
"Is he? With all that cryptic bullshit that he tells…"
"That's just the way he is. He's Horadrim. Don't expect him to act like humans do."
"I think he knows more than he's telling us."
"Maybe." Brigette admitted, looking away.
"Maybe?" Hex caught the dangling sentence. "Maybe what?"
"Look, this isn't the best place to…"
"We're here!" Kash proudly announced, stopping in front of a non-descript plasticrete building. "Just make sure to scrape your shoes before going in. My wife can survive two months in foxhole but she can't stand her house to be dirty for two seconds. Hmph!"
They scraped the mud off their shoes, went in, and took off their shoes. Inside Kash's house was a complete change to the chaos outside. Inside, the place was tastefully decorated, the floor was made of some shiny substance that Hex couldn't recognize, and the furniture was polished wood. "Is anybody home?!" the Hodraida called out.
"In back!" came the feminine voice.
The three of them made their way back to find two little girls and one grown woman scribbling on paper on the floor. "Having fun back here?" Kash asked.
Shannon immediately jumped up and hugged her father. "Daddy!"
"Hex?!" Cerise asked, looking up from her drawing. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, sis. Just wanted to check up on you."
"I'm fine." The boy's sister walked over to him, then all of a sudden, kicked him in the knee. "Why the hell did you leave us on the Ark?! You idiot! We could have used your help back there!"
She punched him several times in the chest. "Stupid monkey butt! What's wrong with you?!"
Hex finally grabbed her hands and kneeled down to look her in the face. "Cerise! Listen, all right?!"
"No! You're a coward! You left us to die!!!"
"Cerise! CERISE! Listen to me, okay? I had to take care of something, all right! I had no choice!"
"Of course you had a choice!"
"I had to get someone. Here," Hex pointed over to his companion, "this is Brigette. Brigette, this is my sister, Cerise."
"Hi, Cerise. It's nice to finally meet you."
She paused through her angry sobs and looked at her. "Oh."
Shannon finally went over and got her friend. "Cerise, come on. He's your brother. Be nice."
"But he… I…" Hex's sister stood there for a moment, then bowed her head. "I'm sorry."
'That's okay, sis." Then Shannon and Cerise went back to their drawing.
Kash's gaze soon passed back to them. "Convinced?"
"Yeah," Hex admitted, "so what's next?"
"What do we hit now?"
"Well, our network on Avalon has been compromised. We'll need to rebuild it… once the pressure to find us there has subsided."
"So what do we do now?"
"We wait." Kash answered.
"Our cell took heavy losses," Shannon's mother replied, "and our contacts have all dried up. We'll need time to recruit and reestablish connections before we put another cell on Avalon."
Hex stepped forward. "So what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Be a peach farmer?"
"What's wrong?" Cerise asked.
"I don't want to stick around here." the boy shot back. "There's a war going on out there and we should be doing something to WIN it!"
"All right," Kash agreed, "fine, you don't have to wait. I'm sure that we can find something for you to do that's more to your liking."
"Good." Hex nodded. "Where do I go?"
"Right to the top."
Hex never thought he'd ever be standing in front of the most wanted man in the Earth Federation. Marko Vitek sat in a plain wooden chair, staring at a galactic star chart, when Kash brought Hex in. To the teenage boy, the old sergeant looked like a statue that had been overgrown with gray hair. Vitek didn't even bother looking up at first.
"Marko?" Kash tried to break the silence.
The old werewolf looked up at the Hodraida, then at the boy, then looked back down again. "He's too young."
"Young?!" Hex shot back. "I've killed more people with my hands than…"
The kid stopped talking as Marko's eyes snapped up at him. "You haven't done shit, boy." He looked over at Kash. "Why did you bring him here?"
"He's wants some action."
"Tell him to go pick peaches."
Hex dropped his fist on the table. "I have been trained in every weapon known to man, I can fly commercial and military shuttles, and I've killed again… and again. I want to do it again."
Vitek sat back in his chair. "Do you now? How old are you, boy?"
"My name is Hex."
Before he could react, Marko reached out, grabbed Hex's neck, and dragged him across the table. "Your name is DIRT if I say it is!!!" The old man's hand was like a vise and it slowly squeezed ever so slightly. "'Cause that's what you'll be eating unless you show some goddamned respect!"
"Vishnu on a fucking stick, Marko!" Kash shouted back. "He's just a kid!"
Vitek let go and Hex collapsed on the table, panting for breath. "That's right, Kash," the werewolf eased back in his chair, "he's a kid. So why is he on the firing line?"
"Him and his sister were part of a project trying to grow mages. That kid could take on a platoon of troopers and win without breaking a sweat."
"Really?" the leader of the Resistance raised an eyebrow. "Well, boy… do you think you're ready to be a man?"
Hex managed to peel himself off the table. "I am a man."
"Being able to kill does not make you a man. That only makes you a tool, a weapon… it takes a man to know why and when to kill. You think you're ready to know those things? Whatever you've done till this point, boy, has only been a game. Are you ready to know pain… suffering… guilt? Anyone can kill, but having power over someone's life and death? That is responsibility." Vitek leaned closer to his face, never wavering his stare for a moment. "Are you ready for that kind of responsibility?"
Hex took a moment and actually thought about it. Still, it didn't take long to nod his head. "Yes."
"Okay. Kash, I'm sending this kid with Csilla. Maybe he can make a man out of him."
The Hodraida went pale. "Aurelius? Are you sure you want to send Hex with him?"
"You have trouble hearing me, Kash?" Vitek challenged. The father bowed his head. "Csilla Aurelius is one of our best agents. He's leading a team to Arnheim in order to destroy the Righteous Army's main weapons facility. With any luck, that'll prevent them from using their advance base in Alpha Centauri against us here on Earth. Do you understand how important this mission is to us?"
"Yeah." Hex replied.
"Good. Then get prepared… Csilla's planning on leaving soon."
Erich Von Shrakenberg 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!" Erich tentatively stuck his head above the console he was crouching behind. He saw a frightened-looking InSec lieutenant in an emergency suit, cowering behind the captain's chair. The captain's body was lying on the floor nearby, blood pooling on the deck from when his vacuum-abused lungs had bled out through his nose and mouth. The blood was still visibly steaming and bubbling as it boiled at room temperature from the lack of air pressure.
Erich stood all the way up and raised his plasma rifle to cover the InSec junior officer. "Order your men to lay down their arms and we will restore atmosphere," he called over the suit radio.
"Why are you doing this?!" sputtered the InSec officer. "We came here to help you!"
Erich strode closer to the officer, so that the lieutenant could see clearly through his faceplate. "You came here to slaughter me and my men, and you nearly succeeded. Consider this a return of the compliment."
The Internal Security officer suddenly recognized who he was talking to and raised his sidearm. Erich was faster and the lieutenant was thrown backwards; the plasma bolt blowing a charred hole through his midsection.
Suddenly, Chuck Coppinger came running up. "Erich, we've secured all the habitation and cargo decks and main engineering. All that remains are the rest of the command deck…" he pointed to a hatchway at the rear of the main bridge, "…through there."
"All right, let's finish this." the commodore returned tersely. The two moved forward with the remaining Resistance troopers, meeting no resistance. The corridor was made of some greenish-black material, with conduits and pipes of metal stuck on the walls almost as an afterthought. They finally came to the end of the corridor into the Combat Information Center. Although most starships used the bridge as the command and maneuvering center, the sensor's complex flow of data was processed and the individual weapons were aimed from CIC. As they gingerly leaned through the hatchway, they saw a strange sight.
Surrounded by the dead bodies of suffocated crewmen, a humanoid shape seemed to be melted into the wall. There was a barely discernable seam where the hands and feet of the figure merged with the organic material of the bulkhead.
"What the hell?!"
"Damn Horadrim technology," Coppinger muttered, "the ship needs a live Hodraida to control the ship."
Erich stepped forward to touch the thing when its eyes snapped open. "Why are you here?" It seemed to hiss and breathe as it spoke to them.
"We claim this warship for the Resistance," Chuck stated flatly. "We mean you no harm. If you cooperate, we will let you live."
"Resistance," hissed the Hodraida at them, "you are not ready." With that, the figure closed its eyes again. Suddenly, all the lights in the ship went out, plunging the room into absolute darkness. The artificial gravity also ceased. Erich and Chuck, both experienced spacers who had served on zero-g vessels, instinctively activated their magnetic boots and ducked. This saved their lives as two bolts of energy seared through the space their heads had occupied a moment before.
Von Shrakenburg activated his palmlight, then tossed it behind a console, at the same time ducking the opposite direction. Two energy bolts lanced out through the darkness; one chasing the palmlight and the other again just missing Erich's body. The palmlight fell on the deck, casting enough light on the wall to see the Hodraida moving out of its niche. The commodore and Resistance admiral both fired, their plasma driving the Hodraida back against the bulkhead. Again and again they fired, until the alien stopped moving. Even then, Erich unloaded the rest of his clip into the creature was nothing but a charred and bloody mess.
"Crap," Coppinger cursed, "I was afraid this would happen." He switched frequencies on his suit radio and started barking orders to others. Erich picked up his palmlight, repositioning it so it would shine into the eyes of anyone entering the room. Then he took cover in the shadows.
A few minutes later, two figures in space suits picked their way past the bodies and into the CIC. Von Shrakenberg tensed until he saw the Resistance emblems on their chests.
Chuck stepped forward. "Erich Von Shrakenberg, meet Dr. Zebulon Carter and his assistant, Deety Burroughs." he stated over the proximity link. "He's our expert on alien tech."
"Pleased to meet you." Erich shook his hand. "Now I don't suppose you know how to reactivate a ship like this without a handy Hodraida?"
Zeb snorted out a laugh. "These ships use living beings as controllers for their main computers. Remove the Hodraida for more than a couple minutes, and the ship shuts down. Remove it for more than a couple of hours, and the reactor goes into overload, exploding the ship."
"More good news." the commodore moaned.
"So we either get a handy Hodraida," Coppinger growled, "or a yard tug to drag this hulk out before it destroys the whole dock."
"He's coming," replied Carter.
On cue, another figure appeared in the doorway. Unlike the other Hodraida in the CIC, this one was wearing a vacuum suit. The figure cast a disgusted eye over the broken remains of his fellow species in the corner. "Tttttttrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyllliiiiiissss."
Erich picked up the growl over the proximity com. "What did you say?"
"I said 'so few of us and now we've lost another." he answered.
"Must lose something in translation." Deety blurted.
Dr. Carter was impatient. "Can you interface with this ship?"
"Yes, but it will be difficult," the Hodraida answered. "Unlike my… brother… here, I cannot leave my suit in this vacuum. Nor can I cannot link with the ship through my gloves."
Coppinger switched to the dock frequency, barked something, then switched back to proximity. "I ordered a repair team up here with a temporary airlock and some canned air… it'll take about five minutes."
"That may not be enough time." Burroughs noted. "Look at this."
The commodore strode over to the console she was looking at and noticed one of the displays was active. Although the symbols weren't human, it gave the distinct impression of a countdown. The Hodraida looked over Erich's shoulders at the readout. "You have three minutes before the reactor goes into irreversible overload."
"Schizen," Von Shrakenberg cursed, turning to Zebulon. "I thought you said it would be a couple of hours!"
Carter looked dejected. "That's what I thought. Perhaps it triggered something before it broke the link?"
"In case it didn't succeed in killing us." concluded Coppinger. "Well, my luck's going as usual. How long will it take you to establish a link with the ship?"
"Thirty seconds," replied the alien, "I think."
"I have an idea." Erich interjected, pointing at the Hodraida. "You'll just have to trust me, though." Guiding the alien along, he had him stand in the niche in the wall where the previous Hodraida had been linked. Coppinger and Von Shrakenberg stood on either side of the alien, while Deety and Dr. Carter crouched at his feet. The commodore spoke to the group. "That space suit, like all suits, has automatic tourniquets at each joint. If there is a hole in the glove or boot, the tourniquets at the elbow or knee will cut in and prevent air from escaping from the main body of the suit. If we all remove your gloves and boots at the same time, your tourniquets will prevent you from dying. If your extremities are in vacuum long enough, you'll lose them, but as soon as you link with the ship you can shut the airlocks and start pumping air in again. Once you're linked, we can remove the rest of the suit, cutting it off you if we have to."
"And if it doesn't work?" asked Deety.
"Then in about 30 seconds before his hands freeze and fall off, the ship will explode and we all die anyway."
"Hell of a plan," Chuck grumbled, turning to the Hodraida. "What do you think?"
"It beats dying."
"One thing, though," Erich said, grasping the Horadrim's glove release mechanism. "If I'm going to risk my life beside someone, I like to know their name."
"Tiliash." the being replied.
"Good, now I'll know whose relatives will be cursing my memory… if this doesn't work." Erich replied with a smile. "You ready?" He nodded. "Then let's do it! Three, two, one, now!"
All four humans quickly detached the ends of the Horadrim spacesuit. Tiliash grimaced as his hands and feet suddenly felt like they were being sucked off his limbs. Air escaping the ends of his sleeves and trouser legs turned to fog as moisture condensed out and froze in the hard vacuum around them. The Horadrim quickly stuck his limbs into the wall, which appeared to melt out of the way and absorb his hands and feet. His back sank partway into the wall as well.
Almost immediately, the lights and gravity came back on, and all four humans suddenly sagged as they were pulled towards the deck by their normal weight again. The compartment quickly filled up with air, and once their suit readouts read green, they removed their helmets.
"Okay, that seemed to work," commented Coppinger, then turned again to the Hodraida. "You okay?"
"I will…recover." grunted Tiliash. "Please… I must concentrate."
Deety and Dr. Carter were watching the timer readout; they let out of a sigh of relief as the countdown stopped, changed color, then faded away entirely. The other consoles blinked back to life after that. The standard Earth Fleet displays were now showing on every screen.
Erich and Chuck sat down at nearby consoles. "It looks like the reactor is returning to normal." the commodore answered.
"I guessed it worked." Coppinger was relieved. "We make a pretty good team. Dr. Carter, how would you like to accompany us as chief engineer?"
Zebulon and Deety had removed their helmets and were looking around the room with a glaze of near avarice. "A chance to be on the most advanced ship in the galaxy?" Dr. Carter was in awe. "How could I refuse?"
Deety was more skeptical. "Where are we going?"
"To Avalon, to end this civil war once and for all." replied Erich. "Let's get these bodies off this ship and complete the repairs. I want to be out of here before InSec finds out what we did and sends her sister ships to destroy us."
Chuck strode out into the corridor and began barking orders at the Resistance troopers and repair technicians outside. Deety and Zeb headed off for main engineering to start figuring out how the ship worked. Erich looked around the ruins of CIC and shook his head before heading off to see what he could do to help with the repairs.
What no one noticed was a status light on one of the far consoles, blinking slowly in warning red.
"We're going to ask you again, M. Pollos. Where were you born?"
"I told you that already!" Xavier screamed at the three figures interrogating him. The light shining on him burned his eyes. "Why do you fucking care?! I told you everything you want to know!"
"Except your birthplace, M. Pollos," the one calling herself Veolin answered. "Why don't you tell us?"
"I told you! Hannibal, New Madrid System!"
"Tell me," the one called Luther asked, "why is there no record of your birth?"
"There is a record!"
"Yes," the one called Treschi shot back, "but it's a fake."
Veolin stepped in. "What's bullshit, M. Pollos, is that your entire history has been fabricated… and not very well. Although, I must admit," she smiled as she scrolled down the datapad, "you know it very well."
"That's because it is true. Occam's fucking Razor, damn it!"
"Yes, InSec would like us to take you at face value, wouldn't they?" Treschi asked. "Is that why they haven't tried to get you back?"
"What do you mean?"
"He means," Luther leaned over, hovering like an angry bear in the reflected light, "that Internal Security has gone to a lot of trouble to make you out as a renegade, a rather junior officer, and unimportant. Why don't you tell us the truth?"
"It is the truth!"
"That's enough!" Treschi answered. "We're not going to get anything out this asshole."
"Sir," Luther protested, "give us some time…"
He cut him off. "Veolin? Kill him."
The were-cobra walked forward and bared her fangs. I have to think fast, Xavier thought, as he came closer to his death. I can't get my sword. This damn collar won't let me! What to do? What to…
Finally, once Veolin got close enough, it came to him. Purposely knocking the chair his arms were attached to down, he kicked upwards, knocking the woman down. The bear charged towards him next; Pollos rolled as best as he could with the chair. Luther hit the chair, knocking the assassin down, but also breaking the chair. As the bear tried to get up, Xavier bashed him with the chair's arms, still attached to his own, and the man went out like a light.
The assassin heard the third man, Treschi, coming closer from behind. He stood still, gauging the distance, and then extended the chair arms back. Pollos felt the body of Treschi hit him, impaled on the two sharp chair arms. Xavier kicked his bleeding corpse off him and then turned, enjoying the blood spurt out the two holes in the interrogator's chest. Well, that takes care of the job for Elizabeth, he thought, and reached for his keys.
Without much trouble, the chair arms and the collar unlocked. Kuar was suddenly in his hands again and he made his way toward the door. Pollos was about to slice through it when he heard a noise behind him. Xavier turned to face it… and felt a sword go right through his heart. His eyes couldn't believe it! Treschi, still there with two holes in his chest, was standing there smiling, holding the sword that pierced him. The interrogator kicked up and shoved him off his sword. The assassin never felt himself hit the ground.
Suddenly, the alarm went off. Pollos bolted upright in bed. The sunlight was still streaming through the windows as the clock read 7 o' clock in the morning. What happened? he thought, frantically getting out of bed. Was it all a dream?
Xavier walked out into the living room. No windows broken, no blood stains, no bodies littered everywhere; nothing had changed.
The assassin finally shrugged it off. It was all a bad dream, he realized, and went to make himself a cup of coffee. He threw off his t-shirt and walked into the kitchen. Maybe I should be drinking less of this stuff.
He made the instant coffee and poured it into the mug. The sweet refrains of liquid caffeine seemed to call him to his senses. "Finally, I can…"
Pollos stopped before he passed by the mirror. His eyes widened and his mug fell to the floor. No way, his mind tried to rationalize, it was a fucking dream!
On his chest was a red line mark, sitting right above his heart.
Xinjao lay on his bunk, flipping through a printed copy of the swimwear section of the Carson, Arnheim, & Van Diemen annual clothing catalogue. I can’t believe I’ve been reduced to this, Xinjao thought in disgust, studying a picture of a young woman in a one-piece suimsuit. I haven’t been this desperate since grade school…
The swimwear section had turned out to be the most revealing part of the Christian catalogue so far… and that still didn’t say much. At least it offered attractive young women in form-fitting nylon. But the lingerie section had been a joke. It was full of cotton undershirts and flannel nightgowns. It’s amazing these Christians procreate at all, O’Reilly thought.
He glanced over at the clock. 1:17 AM… almost time. He looked in his closet at the InSec spy camera inside, currently filming schematics of Righteous Navy weaponry installed on converted freighters that O’Reilly had “accidentally” left on his terminal screen before going to bed. That camera, placed in the women’s shower room, would easily have solved all of O’Reilly’s problems. I hope you InSec bastards know how much I’m sacrificing for the Federation…
O’Reilly flipped the page and propped the catalogue up against the wall again, taking a few seconds to balance it. Having to use a printed copy was a pain in the ass too, especially with only one hand. But the Righteous Army had access to his terminal and could see anything he pulled up on his screen, and Xinjao really didn’t want to endure another five-hour retreat with the company chaplain on the evils of lust. The first two had been bad enough.
He had first been tipped off that the Christian Federation had access to his personal terminal when the few porn files he managed to rescue were mysteriously deleted. A few quick queries confirmed his suspicions: his terminal security had been compromised. Luckily, he had discovered this before he sent the encrypted message to Gergenstein, and had used the communications array of the EFS Kursk in dry dock instead. But before that, the Righteous Army had to have seen him hack through their security systems to check the casualty lists from the Battle of Earth. So far, no one had said anything… and that worried him.
After discovering his terminal was bugged, he had quickly scanned the rest of his quarters for surveillance devices. There were none in his room… at least, none that he could find, and his slide rule had never let him down yet. But O’Reilly had almost died of fright when he scanned the area outside his room and found a CFRA spy camera outside his door. It had filmed him taking down the Schaumburg bug he had placed outside his own door… although it may not have been obvious what he was doing. And they might have seen him changing the cache file the images were stored in until transmission on his personal terminal… although they may not have know what it was for.
Did they know about the bug he had placed on Calton Reks’s doorknob? If they did, they hadn’t said anything. But if anyone put two and two together…
Which was why O’Reilly was up at 1:30 in the morning and had been living off adrenaline patches and contraband cigarettes for the last few days. He zipped up his pants, shrugged into a white Righteous Army environmental suit, donned the helmet, and gathered his tools. Cracking the door open, he pointed a datapad at the spy camera opposite him and picked up the transmission frequency. A few keystrokes, and the datapad began transmitting an image of his closed door on the same frequency as the spy camera, but with a stronger signal. Confident the bug’s transmission of wouldn’t be picked up, O’Reilly slipped out the door, moved out of camera range, and turned off his datapad. Unless some extremely bored surveillance technician began a second-by-second analysis of signal strength, no one would ever know he was gone.
The corridors of the Phoenix Yards were mostly deserted at this hour, but third shift crews still roamed the halls. Taking back corridors and low traffic shuttles, he casually made his way toward Dock 7. Although his short, fat form was rather distinctive, O’Reilly hoped no one would recognize him in the helmeted environmental suit. It seemed to have worked well so far.
Xinjao walked into the shuttle bay. There were a few small crews performing routine maintenance on transfer shuttles, but no one seemed to notice him. He quietly made his way over the EFS McInerny, clamped down and off line. As soon as no one was in sight, O’Reilly entered the hatch access combination (he’d figured it out nights ago) and slipped inside.
Removing his helmet, O’Reilly sat down at the console and brought the Barclay-class Corvette back on-line. He had selected this ship out of all the others to be his escape vessel if his scheming should ever be discovered. It was small, fast, and had armor and weapons… not much, of course, but at least it was something. Then again, it didn’t require much to square off against a Righteous Navy vessel, many of which were converted freighters and ancient frigates. Moreover, the McInerny was one of the few ships permanently attached to Dock Command at the Phoenix Yards for patrol, search, rescue, and transferring supplies. It was much less likely to be transferred to another system in the Christian Federation than many other ships. There was, however, one problem: it was designed for a crew of twenty-five.
After running a systems diagnostic and confirming everything was running smoothly, he continued his long process of linking all the ship’s main systems to the pilot’s terminal. He wrote, debugged, and downloaded dozens of tiny pieces of programming code, rerouted secondary access, and occasionally even had to lay down new wiring. It was a long, complicated process, especially with only one hand. Even typing basic commands was a time-consuming effort. But without any other choice, O’Reilly worked hard, making progress bit by bit as he plugged away at the project late into the night.
Xinjao slapped a new adrenaline patch on his bicep and refilled his coffee mug for the third time. It was only 9:00 AM. He sat back down at his desk and continued his awkward, five-fingered typing. He was finally beginning to pick up some speed with it. There was a knock on his office door.
“Enter.” he answered.
A short, thin man entered and saluted. “Elder O’Reilly?”
“Yes?” Xinjao said without looking up, concentrating on his typing.
“Jesus Setana, reporting for duty.” The scrawny middle-aged man’s dark complexion and neatly trimmed conquistador goatee revealed his Hispanic heritage. He was dressed in civilian clothing, but wearing the white armband of a Righteous Navy officer around his bicep, with a black triangle signifying captain’s rank displayed on it. Officially, the armed forces for the Christian Federation wore civilian clothing to represent the volunteer nature of their military, to promote a sense of community. It was a reminder they were common men working toward the fulfillment of God’s divine plan. Unofficially… they couldn’t afford uniforms.
Xinjao looked up and blinked, confused. “Reporting for duty? What, did we have an appointment or something?”
“Not exactly, sir,” he said with cold courtesy, “I’ve been reassigned as your Chief Deputy Administrative Officer.”
“I didn’t know there was a Chief Deputy AO position.” O’Reilly said, tired.
“There is now, sir.”
“When did this happen?” Xinjao, asked, the lack of sleep making him irritable. “And why don’t people tell me these things?” He didn’t have time for this, he had a lot to do, and Reks expected results fast.
“Actually, sir,” Jesus explained, “you requested it.”
“I did? I don’t remember that…”
“If you remember, M. O’Reilly,” Jesus began as he sat down in a chair opposite Xinjao’s desk, “you requested a change in organization in the Phoenix Yards… quite forcefully, I believe. Instead of trying to repair several ships at once and making slow progress, you suggested concentrating all our resources on one or two ships at a time and getting them repaired faster.”
O’Reilly perked up at the news. “Are we finally going to do that?” he asked.
Jesus nodded. “You convinced the Sword, who persuaded the Commander of the Faithful to see it that way….”
“Well, it’s about time! Maybe now we’ll make some progress around here!” O’Reilly exclaimed as he leaned back in his chair. It was the first good piece of news he had heard in days. “I don’t remember requesting a Chief Deputy position, though…”
Jesus smiled thinly, but his eyes betrayed a much harder emotion. “You didn’t. However, with only one or two repair docks being utilized for the next few months, several of us Dock Commanders were relieved of our positions and combined with other dock staffs.”
“Oh,” O’Reilly said dryly. This explained Jesus’ attitude. “I see. You lost your position because of me, is that it?” he asked, a bit of a challenge in his voice.
“Actually, sir,” Jesus began, his voice deep and slow, “I was supposed to be Administrative Officer of all the repair docks… until you crawled out of your hole in the Death Dock and wormed your way into my position.”
The accusation stung like the slap in the face it was. O’Reilly sat motionless for a second, then leaned forward and glared at his new assistant. “I don’t think I like the tone in your voice, Setana,” he growled.
“That’s Captain Setana,” he shot back, “and I don’t believe I like the tone in yours, Elder.”
“Oh. I see.” O’Reilly said after a moment, running through the Righteous Navy command chain in his head. “You outrank me.”
“Yes,” Captain Setana said smugly.
“But you’re still my Chief Deputy, my assistant… right?”
Jesus shrugged. “Theoretically.”
Xinjao didn’t like the sound of that. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” O’Reilly demanded, his defenses bristling up.
“Language, sir.” Jesus reminded him.
O’Reilly’s temper flared at the reminder. Everyone scrutinizing his behavior and constantly nagging was driving him crazy. He took a second to recover, then tried another approach. “Look, Jesus, obviously neither of us are happy with this situation,” he began, “so let’s get this clear form the start. Where do we stand? Who does what?”
“Simple, sir,” Jesus replied with a polite smile, “you’re the Administrative Officer, and I’m your Chief Deputy.”
“But what does that mean?”
“Oh, let’s just say the Sword feels you’d be more productive with an assistant.” Jesus answered, neatly sidestepping the question. “Coordinating all the repairs on the station can’t be an easy task, especially with your handicap. The keyboard, for example,” he said, motioning to O’Reilly office terminal, “I could probably type that document in half the time you could. May I?”
O’Reilly grudgingly stood up and let Jesus sit in his chair behind the desk, mainly because it would be quicker…and he was tired of typing with one hand.
“Let’s see…” Jesus began before O’Reilly had a chance to start dictating. “Agenda for Daily Team Meeting,” he read off, erasing O’Reilly previous notes. “Well, let’s start with the announcement of the repair priority reorganization. And the first ship to repair?” he wondered aloud, typing. “EFS Napoleon… the Left Sword wants to use that for his new flagship. What next? Hmm…”
Xinjao seethed with anger and resentment at what was happening, at how Jesus had literally slid himself into O’Reilly seat in a few minutes and clearly intended on taking over, but what could he do? He couldn’t really report him to Calton Reks; the Sword had selected this guy for the job personally. Xinjao could expect no support from the Righteous Army. So it’s just you and me, buddy, he thought, narrowing his eyes, we’ll see who wins.
O’Reilly wasn’t fooled by the title game. He had just been effectively demoted from Administrative Officer to Head Advisor. And he didn’t have an assistant… he had a watchdog.
As Rashid left for the subway, Gergenstein angrily grabbed Damien's arm and turned them both around. His logic processors released adrenaline into his blood to counter any possible threats the agitated man may present.
"Damn it!" Herb growled. "He always does things the hard way. All right," the commandant looked at Richter, "I want you to go to Room 712 at the Philante Hotel. Hook up to the jack ASAP; everything is prepared for you there. Go!"
As Gergenstein left him there, Damien assessed his situation. Philante Hotel, distance from present position: 2.14 kilometers or approximately 10 city blocks. Immediate area reported to contain large concentrations of petty criminals. Imminent threat detected.
Making his way up the same corridor as King he entered the thriving underworld of Avalon. He made his way quickly through the streets, scanning the great number of people milling around him. Man, six meters ahead, small pistol hidden in back of the pants. Woman at 9 o'clock, throwing knife handle exposed in the side of her bra. Nothing moved to oppose him, although his sensors were operating at full, ready to attack any threat. Continue to the hotel.
He had no trouble reaching the room. The place was falling apart; mildew grew over the ceiling, the bed frame was old and rusted, and the lock was non-existent. However, the vidphone worked perfectly. Damien cleared the jack and plugged into the net. Consciousness quickly faded away.
In the morning, his body powered back up, and he unplugged the cybermodem. The linked computer had briefed him on the schematics of the capitol building and his mission priorities… only one of which was to protect King.
At 0900 exactly, the machine met up with the marshal at the Defense Building… along with another man. The new figure was abnormally weighted to his right side, and his thermal pattern varied to great degrees, which his mind processed as an anomaly. However, twin pistols at his sides showed him as an obvious armed threat.
"M. Richter, meet Angelo. He's been a trusted bodyguard at times… when I need one. I trust you'll work well together."
The machine said nothing, continuing to concentrate on whatever object weighted the man. Before he could complete his analysis, his anti-magic buffers went up, and his threat subroutine went active. Security Breach.
King calmly held out his hand. "Be calm, M. Richter, I only scanned you. Please disregard those orders you have been programmed with, it will happen many more times today."
"Sir?" Damien asked.
"Delete any previous directives regarding magic, M. Richter, that is an order. Do you understand?"
Directives #4 and #9 released, Asimov Protocol disabled. "Confirmed."
"Good." King nodded, turning to his companion. "Angelo, if you would be kind enough to give M. Richter the weapon he was designed for."
Releasing the weight, Angelo threw a custom smart gun at him; Damien caught it with ease. "I think you will find it most satisfying for the mission today, even if you don't tell me so." He reached inside his coat and pulled out a few power packs. "Oh, you might need these, too. That needler eats up power like a bitch."
Richter ignored his comments and took the devices. Lashing the gun to his inner thigh, he made a small rip in his pants, enough for the butt to stick out of, but not enough to be revealed underneath his long black trenchcoat.
Without another word, the trio entered the luxurious subway train and soon arrived at the Capitol Building. To Damien, it was quickly apparent that everyone was armed. Power armor trooper with spiker gun, 3 o'clock; lawyer with a pistol at 12 o'clock.
The machine continued its observations, following King and Angelo up a flight of stairs to a small lobby. The marshal's eyes flashed as he recognized the figures growing ever closer. "Ah, Admiral Vorheis." The dark-skinned man was the glaring opposite of the pale woman before him. "Mind if I have a seat?"
"Of course not, sir," she replied, the albino's smile covering her grinding teeth, "and may I say your new uniform fits quite well."
"Thank you, admiral. You're too kind." King relaxed in his chair as his turned to the other notable companion. "Who's this?"
Kristen's grin widened. "Surely you recognize Anton Tutanken?"
Rashid nodded. "Of course, my apologies. So, governor… what brings you all the way from Proxima Centauri?"
"I've come to address the Grand Council, marshal."
"Really? I didn't see anything on the agenda today."
"I invited him to speak, sir, as part of my weekly briefing." If Vorheis were a cat, she would have purred.
"Indeed? So, what does the honorable governor have to say about our naval status?"
"It seems that the Proxima System's comm net picked up a flutter a few weeks ago."
"A few weeks?" King chuckled. "Hardly current or relevant to the Council, admiral."
"I believe it is, sir. It took them a while to identify the cause for the flutter, but they soon decoded it as a message. An InSec message."
"It's against the law to crack encrypted Internal Security messages, admiral."
She raised her hands in innocence as the smile stayed plastered on Kristen's face. "They weren't aware of its origin. Had it been sent through normal channels, yes, that would be true. This was picked up on iterant frequencies."
The marshal sighed out his frustration. "Well don't keep us in suspense, admiral…"
"It seems that you had prior knowledge of the Resistance's strength in the Earth System, before our attack." The grand fleet admiral's eyes locked onto his face. "Perhaps you would like to explain why we never received this information."
"InSec is a large organization. Even I can't follow up on every bit of…"
"The letter was addressed directly to you."
"Admiral Vorheis, I have many enemies in this universe," King glared back at her, "particularly in the Resistance movement. It's obviously a poor attempt to discredit me."
"I'm assured by the governor that it is not."
"That's enough." he shot back, keeping an even tone of voice. "If you insist on bringing this nonsense before the Council, that's your right… but I would consider your action first. I don't take kindly to threats." King rose to his feet. "You must forgive me. I have many people to see before the Council meets this afternoon." The marshal calmly walked away, his bodyguards following him.
Rashid didn't turn around to see if they were following him. "M. Richter? I feel that the dear governor has lost his mind. Pity the rest of him doesn't go as well." King sighed as they walked down the marble walkway. "Angelo, if you would help M. Richter? I believe he has an appointment to make."
Damien turned toward his companion. Syntax error, incomplete orders… wait for further instructions. Luckily, Angelo knew what to do. "Come on."
It didn't take long for them to find the fat governor and his bodyguards. Tutanken entered a small bathroom far off from the main concourse; Vorheis' guards moved to flank the door. There was no one else in the hall, and as the capitol's schematics churned in his head, they showed that the camera covering that zone conveniently under repairs.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," the first guard warned, reaching into his pocket. "This bathroom is occupied."
Richter didn't even pause. As he walked towards the door, the boosterware and adrenal boosters optimized. Estimated threat draw time for hip mounted plasma pistol, 0.6 seconds. Estimated Laser Carbine draw time, 0.1 seconds. Targeting systems activated. Arm trajectory calculated, emergency fallback procedures ready. Fire at will.
Throwing the black trenchcoat off, it hadn't touched the ground before the first guard was shot through the head, followed shortly by the second. The only sound in the empty hallway was the fall of the bodies on the marble floor. They didn't wait for the next attack as they both flew to the side of the bathroom door. A grenade flew out a second later. Richter grabbed the projectile out of the air, bashing the grenadier back into the bathroom. Damien shoved the explosive into the third guard's chest, then shoved him down to the ground; his body muffled the sound of the burst.
Placing his foot on the crushed man's chest, the machine reestablished his balance, but not until his audio nerves detected two life forms in the room. Springing off the floor, Damien only had a few milliseconds before another guard he hadn't detected charged him, morphing into a 10-foot tall werewolf.
His arm was barely able to deflect its claws, but it quickly sprang off the wall, and shot back for a second attack, this time even faster than before. Damien quickly swung the smartgun for a shot but the werewolf knocked it out of his hand. Richter instinctively shifted into a defensive form, hoping to dodge his attacks long enough to develop a counter-attack. Even with his enhanced reflexes, the werewolf tested him to his breaking point.
Unable to continue current attack, the metal told the machine, adrenal boosters will shut down in 15.7 seconds. Then suddenly, for the first time, another voice came into his mind. His infant brain managed to add the valuable input his computer needed. It only attacks effectively with its right. Ducking under his latest swing, Richter dropped right on the dead guard, pulling out a large knife from the deceased's belt, then faced the werewolf's next charge. Throwing himself into its left arm, its rage instinctively threw its right paw toward his close attacker, right into the blade he held out for it. The creature screamed in agony but Damien only aggravated the attack. Wielding the knife with skill, he stabbed it into the werewolf's stomach, then swept its feet out from underneath it.
Bleeding and in obvious pain, it fell to the floor; Damien was impressed at the creature's ability to recover so quickly, as it rolled to its feet. The machine moved to press his advantage and countered with a kick to the head. The werewolf caught his foot in mid-air, twirling him through the wall, and then into the bathroom stalls.
The creature didn't take long to pounce on him, which the machine was counting on, as he held his knife rigid, at the exact angle necessary to pierce the werewolf's heart. In its blind rage, it impaled itself, knocking the creature and the machine down to the floor. Damien wasted no time, grabbed its head, and broke it from its body.
As the creature shifted back to his normal form in death, Richter managed to get to his feet, the blood all around soaking into his clothes. He rose out of the stall wreckage to the sight of the terrified governor on the toilet, Angelo standing above him, injecting him with some sort of device. The man was going into convulsions. Tutanken only spoke between spasms. "Wha… what'ssssss…"
Damien's partner just stood there, calmly explaining the situation to Anton. "You've been injected with Laurentian Oxide, sir, a special concoction developed by the immortals. When in contact with oxygen, it reacts chemically, and burns up all the oxygen around it. I've injected this into your blood stream. In…" he checked his watch, "…five minutes, all the red blood cells in your body will die, and you will suffocate internally." Angelo cut himself, putting his blood on the governor's tongue. "Unless you drink this blood."
The governor latched onto the hand, like a drowning man for a branch, choking the blood down his throat for dear life. The convulsions instantly became less powerful and Tutanken was growing stronger with each moment. Finally, Angelo pulled his hand away and smiled. "You are now mine, do you understand? You will do my wishes and the wishes of my masters." He glared into the governor's eyes. "Know my master's biddings."
"Ghoul." Richter reported out loud.
Angelo turned to his companion. "Very good. My true master wouldn't be able to survive in the heat of the day. Pity… therefore, I must resort to these crude methods." He reached in his suitcase and pulled out a package, throwing it to Richter. "Strip and put these on. Quickly."
Damien did as he was instructed; the governor did the same without being told. The ghoul continued to explain. "Once you get dressed, grab your gun, drag the other two guards in here, and leave. I'll take care of this mess."
The machine did as it was told and quickly finished. The governor left in a dream state, unaware how he had been attacked. It was only a minute later that Angelo left himself, throwing in the sterilization bomb.
The bag stared at Dimiye like an infectious disease tears into your body… very slowly. All of this was happening much too fast for him to comprehend. Stacy was dead? Stacy, my lover, was really trying to torture me all this time? HOW?!
His mind screamed with questions and no answers. As much as he wanted to sleep, drink, toke, or poke something right now, nothing could drive his eyes away from that bag, dropped there at his feet like so much human debris. It's pathetic, was what came to his mind. It's pathetic that a person's possessions can fit inside a fucking little bag. A human being trapped in a space small enough that it wouldn't even clutter up my floor. Life should mean more than that. As he closed his eyes, he tried to cry… anything to keep the pain away a little longer.
Oh, yeah? his conscience countered, tell that to your Dead Boys. How many of them have you valued? Or the enemy? Or whatever the fuck Fabin tells you to kill?! Those are lives too, you self-absorbed, insensitive prick!
Oh, real brilliant, Al… real fucking brilliant. Tell me, Colonel Dimiye, you felt for this psycho blonde bitch trying to kill you, but the thousands you killed mean nothing, right?
"I don't know what I feel."
Then nothing matters, does it? Open the fucking bag.
If nothing matters, Al, if Stacy doesn't matter, then open the bag. It doesn't matter either, does it?
Dimiye opened his eyes and he opened the bag. The container was full of stuff; dental implant charger, sonic shaver, optical drugs… then several objects that the male of the species was never meant to identify. As he sorted through the detritus of her life, he finally found one thing worth looking for. The 8-101st battalion patch, the unit Dimiye and Stacy… Maegwin, his mind corrected, were part of on Fieras. The piece of fabric looked worn to the fibers; how many nights did she stay awake planning to kill me? he wondered.
There was a holoimager; a photo album. As he activated it, he suddenly had a glimpse into her life. The first one was one of her family… she must have been no older than six. The rest followed in chronological progression. Her home, somewhere on the frontier, he realized, several other Harringtons, then her graduation from boot camp. Suddenly the pictures changed. Fieras came back to Dimiye in vivid color. Sigourney Ridge, Firebase Dante, Trooper Sandoval, the platoon, Sandoval again, the barracks, Sandoval…
She was in love with Arnesto Sandoval. Finally, Dimiye thought, at least some of it falls into place. The quiet, shy girl, being cut off in private schools her entire childhood, suddenly falls in love with some man, but has no way of expressing it. Then I killed him and I live. How long was she infatuated with this man before I took him away? From when she arrived… three months at most? If she suddenly left her sheltered life, felt for someone for the first time in her life, and then it all vanished in front of her; no wonder she flipped out. No wonder she hates me.
Still, if that were true, why'd she sleep with me later? Why pretend to love me? She had done enough to hurt me already.
Dimiye flipped through the rest of the pictures. After 20 different shots of Sandoval, he flipped to the next shot and a chill drove down his spine. There I am, Alistar thought, lying in a hospital bed on Fieras. Those are the hours I don't remember. Then the last picture was him again, getting pinned with the Napoleon Medal for Valor… but no one was supposed to know about that. That was a private ceremony after we rooted the Resistance out of old Atlanta; how the fuck did she get a picture?! Then he noticed the cute redhead standing beside him… no…
His hands flew to the datapad, calling his personnel record back up. His group on Earth; he checked the personnel files… Corporal Samantha Rechardson, one of his squad leaders, it was fucking Stacy! Dimiye checked the records when he was with the Crusader Teams. There was a late addition to his platoon, Sergeant Aisha Iradne, again minus the Arabic look and… it was fucking Stacy again! Had she been tailing him his whole life?!
That was the reason for the G-40 classification, he realized, cradling his head in his hands, knowing about Maegwin, I could have pieced it all together. But there's still something missing.
He put down the holoimager and continued to rummage through her bag. All the time, Alistar hoped to find the one thing that would explain all this. If anything could. Then at the bottom, behind the silk panties, there it was. It was the only thing that it could be; completely out of place in a grunt's duffel bag. It was a book.
Alistar had only seen two or three books in his lifetime; they were as obsolete as slates. For anyone to afford one meant you had to be rich. Paper was cheap back in the pre-Fed times, but few people made the stuff anymore… even on the frontier.
He opened it and started reading. The scrawl was confused at first, disoriented… the date matched the time when she was in the psych hospital. This is her diary, he absorbed, as he tried to decipher the confused messages. As the pages turned, the writing became less scrawled, but the messages were the rantings of a confused woman. At first, every page had the words "a man tells a lie," until the dates advanced several months, when she joined the Crusader Team. The phrase was replaced with "she and I are I" until Earth when it became "as hard men ran those." Then on Khmer, it became "Tess can, Y a John?" Nothing made sense.
Then he turned a page and everything changed. The writing was different, the style of different; this hadn't been written by the same person. Dimiye's eyes focused on the words as if it were holy writ.
I made a mistake. No one but me knows who this woman is and I can't tell him. Damn it, Al, why did you make me love you? Trapped in this flesh is not living. Being held in your arms is not love.
This woman is not alive. I fight her twisted mind with every breath that she takes. I don't know how much longer I can keep fighting… but I have to, because I love him. I can't let her do this to him. If he can learn the truth, if I can send this to him… maybe he can stop her, but then I die. How can one love a person so much to be willing to die for them again?
It's coming back again. I don't know which is worse… her lost mind or his lost words. Both can kill him. I don't know why the light kept me alive. Is this my…
It was the last thing written down. When Alistar looked up from the diary, light peeked from behind the tent flap. It was dawn again on Babylon 3. There was so much to find out. There was only one place for the answers.
The push on Ur was a cakewalk after the Battle of Tower City. Malachi Spyder and his brigade crept closer to the city. The rest of the division was moving to support the legion's drive on Tigris; Spyder's unit was left to handle this large suburb, just outside the main city. The major wasn't about to take any chances. Sure, there were no pickets, their detection grid had been powered down, and the place looked deserted, but Malachi had heard the stories of what happened on Alpha Epsilon. This time, he thought, we're not falling for anything.
"Roland to Spyder."
Malachi bit down on his dentcom. "Roland, report."
"My battalion is in position. Let's get… it… on!"
"Confirmed, standby." Spyder's suit computer updated his HUD, showing his 3rd Battalion finally in position on the north ridge above Ur. "Recon, go!"
Tiny blips on his screen showed the platoon move forward, ready to spot the enemy. They activated their chameleon circuits and rushed out toward the buildings at the outer ring of the city. Their signals moved quickly across the HUD. A little too fast, Malachi thought, and then chided himself for worrying too much. These HAP troops are really good. They really don't need me here. I don't know why the Dead Boys all get nervous around them. If they had had the group I had on the Schaumberg, they would have a reason to be nervous. These guys, at least, knew their jobs.
"Recon to Spyder."
"Spyder here. Go."
"We've spotted one enemy unit inside the city. Battalion-sized, located at a camp in the center of town. Looks like they're guarding a supply dump."
"Well, it looks like there's facilities for an entire division here, but there's no sign those troops are anywhere near here."
"Did you use the energy detectors?"
"Yes, sir. There's no power armor beyond the supply dump."
Spyder looked over at the nearby battalion commander, looking hopeful at the city, and clicked on the proximity circuit. "Well, John? What do you think?"
Captain Dragish seemed to shift as he looked at his CO. "Sir?"
"About the city, captain. Where do you think they're hiding?"
"I don't think they're hiding at all, sir. I think that battalion is all they've got."
"If it's not a trap, captain, then why were there no pickets?"
Dragish moaned. "Sir, after those charges they pulled at Tower City, I'm surprised they have anyone left… even to defend a city like this."
"Move in all battalions at once, overwhelm their defenses, and wipe out their position."
Spyder thought about it for a moment, then switched to the command channel. "All battalions forward. Take the town."
His brigade surged forward as hundreds of troops in power armor rushed into the town. Four columns jumped over the pathetic barricades and punched through the streets. Nothing was stopping them.
As they approached the central plaza, distress signals flashed brightly on his HUD… from the other side. He switched to the proximity channel again to hear the frantic calls of the Fed troops. "We surrender! Surrender, damn it! Fuck this shit… we surrender!!!"
"Why is the south gate not reinforced, lieutenant!?" General Curtis bellowed.
"Sir, the enemy has no troops attacking the south gate, sir. That battalion has been redirected to sector five."
"By whose order?"
The staff officer checked his files. "Colonel Frost, sir."
The general hated the cowardice of his enemy, slowly bleeding what was left of his forces to death inside the city walls… but he hated insubordination even more. "Bring Colonel Frost to me immediately."
The colonel got his orders over the comm, but he had a brief stop to make before hand. He entered the prison block with a platoon in tow.
"Release General Huang into my custody now." he told the MP.
"But sir, I have orders…"
Frost cut him off. "This insanity has gone on long enough, sergeant. Release the general to me now! We're going to put an end to all off this nonsense today."
The MP looked at Frost, then to the faces of the platoon of troopers behind him. Slowly, he gave the colonel the passkey to the general's cell.
"Sir," a staff officer reported shaken, "Colonel Frost is here to see you."
"Send him in."
The doors opened, releasing the platoon of armored troopers into the room. Within seconds, they had everyone in the room covered. Once the all clear was sounded, General Huang and Colonel Frost entered the war room.
General Curtis rose from his seat. "What is the meaning of this?!"
Huang spoke. "It's over, general, we're surrendering to the rebels. I will be taking over command."
"Treason!" Curtis bellowed, as he turned to his adjutants. "Men, take out your arms and kill these upstarts!"
His staff all looked to one another. They slowly pulled out their pistols, and aimed them at Curtis.
"I'll see you all hang for this…"
Curtis' last words were cut off as a flurry of plasma bolts that blew out his back. One of his staff officers, smoking gun still in hand, walked over to his body and emptied his clip into the general's lifeless body. He turned to Huang. "He killed my brother John. My brother is dead because…the picture quality of the battle feed wasn't good enough for him!" Lieutenant Lipinski dropped his gun and held out his hands. "General, you can arrest me now."
Spyder walked into the huge meeting hall in the Ur Municipal Building, meeting up with his battalion commanders at last. Karen Roland was playing with her stack of coins, placing them on the top of her hand, then flipping them up, catching them in her palm with unearthly speed. John Dragish looked asleep. Captain Illingworth was busy working on his datapad while the other captain… what's her name? Malachi strained to remember the name of the 4th Battalion's CO. Some "s" name… Sally… Sharon… Shari! That's right! Shari… Z… something. Weird spelling, um… Zill… Zilloux! Shari Zilloux! That captain was busy sharpening her knife with a laser scalpel. We have weapons that can blast entire planets to dust and we still carry knives. Welcome to the high-tech Stone Age.
Jim Illingworth quickly noticed the major come in. He could hardly miss him; there was no one else in the room. He snapped up out of his chair. "Atten-SHION!"
Dragish and Zilloux got to their feet quickly; Roland took a little longer. Once Spyder joined them, he waved back them down. "Be seated."
Malachi whipped out his own datapad. "All right, I called you today to get a chance to know you better. With any luck, we'll be working with each other for a while and…" the major smiled, "…I want to know who I'm working with."
Karen yawned. "Sir, the battle's over. Can't we wait until we get on the ship for this bull…"
"Shut up!" Illingworth snapped. "You wanna lose your command? Pay some respect!"
Captain Roland rolled her head over toward Jim and stared. With a tired sigh, she managed to say, "Who are you now? Major's pet?"
"Well, captain," Spyder answered, "I guess I know who you are, don't I?"
She rolled her head back to Malachi. "Sir, no offense, but I spent my entire career in the LI in garrisons and status meetings. You'll forgive me if that since I'm in the TI now, I really don't want to deal with this shit."
Jim was upset. "You're a disgrace, captain."
"Excuse me, captains," the major interrupted, "but this is my meeting." Both of them stopped and then looked back at Malachi. "All right, let's hear the casualty reports. I need to know what reinforcements so I can report to Colonel Dimiye."
"Major Dimiye," Roland corrected, "he's only field commissioned to lieutenant colonel."
"We're on the field, aren't we?" Illingworth shot back. "Therefore, he's a colonel."
"You know," Karen turned to Jim, "there's a truck load of datapads out back. Why don't you go sort them by color or something. Leave the fighting to those who want to fight."
"Right on, sister." Shari echoed, never turning her attention from her sharpening duty.
"I need casualty reports, people!" Spyder was having difficulty keeping the meeting under control. "Dragish, you're first."
John managed to open his eyes. "Sorry, sir?"
"Oh," Captain Dragish sat up and activated his datapad, "um, we've lost fifteen in the 1st Battalion over the past few days. We're usually in the lead so we're taking the most damage."
Zilloux put down her knife. "Sir, permission for 4th Battalion to take the lead position."
"I'm sure the First will do fine, captain." Malachi answered. "Thank you. Illingworth?"
"Six total, sir. We lost four in the initial assault on Tower City, including two during the counter-attack. I have their names and status recorded…"
"Thank you, captain, I'll see it later. Roland?"
"Seven." Karen shot back. "When will we see some replacements?"
"Soon, captain. Zilloux?"
"Four." Shari managed before returning to her knife.
"So, out of a total of almost three hundred troopers, we've lost 35."
"Or one eighth or our force." Illingworth added.
Roland moved for the insult. "You got a calculator in your head, Jim, or are you naturally this anal?"
"I already accumulated the brigade casualty reports…"
"You know, why don't you shove your reports in a more useful place?"
Jim was going to fume, but Dragish cut him off. "Where's your boyfriend, Karen? It sounds like you haven't gotten laid in weeks!"
"In a better place than that twat you got, John."
"The problem's not the amount she's getting." Zilloux shot back, her voice was like ice. "It's that her man needs fertility drugs just to get it up."
"You lying bitch!"
"THAT'S ENOUGH!" Spyder roared. "Now I've heard your shit for too long already! You will show each other courtesy around me and to each other or I'll drop your asses back to private! You hear me?!"
"Yes, sir!" they chorused.
"Good! Now we're having formation at oh-seven-hundred tomorrow. Dismissed."
They rolled out of their seats and left the major there, hoping desperately that Justine was with him. Where is she when I need her, he wondered, activating the datapad's link to the Ariadne, where the legion's database was located. If anyone can help me sort out this walking brawl-in-waiting, it's her.
Babylon Three is ours, Alistar thought. A fight that should have taken months was over in a few weeks. All that was left was to take out Baby One and the 5th Army would have an open road to Avalon. All thanks to an inept general with fewer brains than he had ambition. Glad he wasn't on our side, the major thought as the prisoners came into Tower City.
General Fargus had accepted Huang's surrender a few hours ago, in classic style. Word was that someone had fragged General Curtis, but no official inquiry was planned. This is what was on his mind when he saw a familiar face from long ago.
The man was a colonel and currently ordering his troops through the motions of prison life. He was a few years older, but his face was unmistakable. Dimiye might not have noticed him if he hadn't been looking at his face for the past few days. Corban Frost?! Will wonders never cease?
Dimiye made his way over to him. "Colonel Frost?"
Frost turned around. "Yes?" Words escaped him when he saw the man in front of him.
"Come with me, colonel." Dimiye ordered as his former CO obeyed.
They entered Dimiye's tent. "Well, Al… long time, no see. You sure have made a name for yourself these past few months." He said nervously as he sat down. "I was wondering if I'd ever run into you..."
"Shut up." Dimiye said flatly. Then he tossed him a datapad, the G-40 file still on it. "Remember this, sir?"
Frost turned pale. "Al, come on. I've just been through some of the worst shit…" His words faded as Dimiye produced a weapon.
"Do you know what this is?" his interrogation voice oozing out his mouth.
"Those are illegal."
"Maybe you haven't noticed, colonel, but this isn't the Federation anymore."
Frost bowed his head. "OK, Al, what do you want?"
"I want to know what really happened. Why this got bumped up to G-40… why it doesn't make any fucking sense!"
"Major, I…" He stopped taking as Dimiye's weapon discharged, hitting the seat of his chair an inch away from his groin.
"Tell me everything, Corban. And if I think your lying or leaving anything out…" He gestured with his weapon.
Frost took a deep breath and started talking. "We were up on the ridge 'cause something new was there. It looked like a rock, but we never could tell on Fieras. All our sensor readings were FUBAR'ed, so I ordered your squad in."
"What happened next?"
"I ordered your squad to fire on the obstruction. I saw what happened next half a klick away. The rock moved before any of you could fire."
"A soul-eater?" Alistar asked.
Corban nodded. "It took out the squad before any of you could get a shot off. Then it…enveloped you, for lack of a better word. I'd just ordered the rest of the platoon to close in, when bugs started pouring out of the hole that thing was covering."
Alistar was fascinated. "Go on."
"The bugs were never the important thing. What was important was the fact that you started carving your way back to our lines through them! The soul eater should have killed you, if not that, then the bugs should have." Frost sighed for a moment then stared back at his former subordinate. "After that, the record is accurate. To be honest, you called in the lance strike a second or two before I could. They would have overrun the entire damn base."
"And what about the light coming out of my mouth? My frenzy? Getting my mind wiped?"
Corban started again slowly. "The source of the light was unknown, but all accounts say it's what kept the soul eater from infecting you, what scared the shit out of the bugs, and what made you frenzy. The only people who were let in on that were me, Harrington, and the mage that wiped you mind clean."
Alistar's face soured. "Then why the snow job on the report?"
Corban looked up at him looking hurt. "Al, if we'd put everything that happened in the report, do you know what would have happened to you? You would have been a lab rat, being poked with needles for the rest of your life. And that's only if they decided you weren't enough of a threat to let live."
Dimiye lowered his gun. "So you sent Harrington on a slow shuttle to Avalon?"
see the girl, Al. She was a bona-fide Section 22. Maeg was more of a risk to us
than you were."
The interrogator paused and saluted. "Thank you, colonel. That'll be all."
As Dimiye made his way back to headquarters, Spyder was waiting for him. "Excuse me, sir…"
The tired werewolf looked lazily at the man. "Yes, major?"
"Could I have a moment of your time?"
"Make it quick, I've gotta report to the general."
"Sergeant D'Amprisi… she was with me when I was captured. I hear she's been promoted to sergeant-major."
"Really?" Alistar replied gruffly, breathing in deep to release the growing rage inside him. "Listen, major, I really don't have time…"
"Sir, I want her as my brigade sergeant-major. I don't have one yet." Malachi interrupted.
"You've got the authority for that, don't you?"
"Yes, but not to transfer her from her existing unit. She's being sent in fill a posting in the 4th Brigade and I was hoping you could swing her back to the 2nd."
The lieutenant colonel leaned against the wall. "This D'Amprisi… you wouldn't have any special interest toward her, would you?"
"Why do you care, major, that's all I'm asking. Why this sergeant? Why not someone else? Give a good reason why!"
Malachi shuffled his feet back and forth, trying to come up with an appropriate answer. "Um… well, I've served with her before, and since we both surrendered together, I feel that…"
Dimiye cut to the point. "You love her, don't you?"
Spyder looked he had just been slapped. "I…"
"Say it, goddamnit!" Alistar stepped in close to Malachi, grabbing his collar. The feelings of pain and love that had been simmering for hours came out in a boil. "For once in your life, major, have the balls to say how you feel!"
The officer just stood there for a moment, his hands shaking under the power of the colonel's fury. "I… love her, sir."
Dimiye let go and bowed his head. "Very well, major. I'll approve the transfer. Get the papers to me by the end of today."
"Thank you, sir." Malachi smiled, then quickly got out of his superior's way, as the werewolf made his way into the headquarters. Alistar, however, only managed to get inside the door before Joel burst at him. "AL! Get your goddamned division back to Tower now! Pickup's in twenty!"
"We just got the order… fucking whore! We're pulling out within the hour. Get your shit together and get moving."
"We're hitting Baby One already?"
The general's prized scotch impacted a foot from his head. "NO! We're not going to Baby One! We're shipping out of the system!"
The beast stirred within him. "What?!"
"You heard me, colonel. That bitch Sarah is pulling us for some goddamned milk run!"
"Sir, we haven't even secured the system! No one ever leaves a system half taken!!!"
"Shut your fucking hole!" Fabin was crushing a datapad in his hands to a fine black mist; dark light emanating from his eyes. "You have your orders."
An hour later, the 86th was on board the Ariadne, ready to break orbit from Babylon 3. All Dimiye could do was look out the observation blister, watching the big blue ball beneath them grow smaller. A voice chimed behind him. "What a fucking waste… huh, Al?"
Alistar spun around to see Major-General Russell Fargus standing there. "Sir, what's this all about?"
"The army's supposed to be deployed for this 'big secret operation' that they won't even tell us about. The Aunt doesn't trust us anymore. Now we're going to give her a reason for her mistrust."
"This is the final nail in her coffin, major. All the admirals and generals are with us now. Your legion's going on this farce of a mission. The rest of the army's going back to Wilke's Star."
"But why, sir?"
General Fargus grinned, like a wolf gleaming before the kill. "We're going to kick that bitch out of her chair."
END OF EPISODE FIVE
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.