DESTROYER OF WORLDS – Act IV
“If the light of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky at once, that would like the splendor of the Mighty One… I have become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.”
-- from the Bhagavad-Gita, early Hindu text.
Hex saw the attack coming, but could do nothing to stop it. Through his time sense, the teenager could see Remi coming at him, literally a mile away. Kiddo set him up in the traditional defensive style, and as the albino ran closer and closer, at speeds impossible for mortal man, he adjusted himself for the slight changes in his path. Then, in the last quarter mile, he had only a few seconds to react. Remi shifted left, then right, trying to throw off his brother’s guard. I’m not being fooled this time, he thought, before his practice sword came up a few centimeters higher.
Suddenly, the albino shifted, but Hex wasn’t fooled. The bamboo pole shifted over his head, blocking the head strike that Remi tried to inflict. The boy stayed perfectly still; he had made the mistake of counter-attacking before. The albino shifted to the left, Kiddo blocked; again to the right, and he blocked. After a flurry of blows, Remi had failed to land even one. Finally, he stopped… and bowed.
Hex heard clapping off to his left; Wade Kennedy suddenly reappeared and he was all smiles. “Well, it’s obvious you learned the lesson. Don’t be fooled by the time shifts, and when unprepared, don’t attack. It seems you’ve learned some patience.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t thank me yet, Ehud,” the deacon explained, “the worst is yet to come. For our mission on Valkriye to work, our ability with time is essential. You understand short jumps. You need to begin large jumps. That’s harder, but more rewarding for our purposes.”
“Quiet.” Remi whispered and disappeared.
“Thank you, brother, I almost forgot.” Wade nodded. “Large time jumps can be disorienting to anyone who sees us in the past,” the deacon disappeared again, but his voice still carried, “so we need to be invisible.”
Hex willed himself back into the non-existence that was his security. The more he stepped into the void, the more he disappeared from reality… and from sight. The teenager felt the time shift and followed it, jumping with his two new brothers through the streams of time. When they stopped, they were in exactly the same place. He saw Remi in the distance and thought he had decided to be invisible again. Kiddo was about to join him when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “No,” Wade’s voice was unmistakable, “that is not Remi.”
Another hand landed on his other shoulder. “I’m Remi and so is he.”
“I don’t understand.”
The visible Remi rushed forward faster than the normal eye could follow. Then Hex saw where he was running to. It was him again, holding that bamboo sword, and failing miserably to defend himself. “Fifteen minutes ago?”
“Yes, Ehud. This is a larger jump, and usually not necessary, but for future missions it may be. Remember… you can be just as dead in the past as you can be in the present.”
Hex was really excited. This is amazing! Travel… in time! “Let’s do it again.”
“All right.” The teenager couldn’t see his deacon, but he knew he was smiling. “Follow.”
The two brothers shifted again and Kiddo tried to follow. However, as he tried to shift himself, the boy felt himself slipping, and suddenly got scared. Soon his companion’s trail disappeared and he felt himself becoming adrift in time. Panicking, he brought himself further into non-existence.
Suddenly, the time blur stopped. In fact, everything had stopped. The world had turned into a uniform shade of black and Hex was visible again… the only thing present in his own little universe. There were swirls… barely definable shapes at the edge of his vision. Little gray swirls played with each other like clouds. The teenager was lots in the wonder of it all. There was a bunny, a bug warrior, a dreadnought-class spaceship, hexadeer, a man; all the images seemed to mix with each other through the pocket universe.
As the shapes continued to cycle, only the gray man stayed the same. Is that real? Hex wondered and looked closer. The gray man never moved, and the closer the boy looked at him, the more ordinary he looked. It was as if none of the gray matter circling him could affect his physical form. The teenager had almost given up looking at it when it punched him.
Kiddo never moved; the force of the hit was enough to knock him across the room… if only there was a room. It was as if physics had no place in that small quiet place. The gray man stepped forward, in his ordinary clothes, and his ordinary walk, kicking him as he came closer. “Weak,” came a deep voice from within the figure, “pitiful… pathetic.”
The teenager winced from the pain of the blows. Nothing he seemed to do could even block the attacks. “What do you want?”
“I want you to stop whining,” the gray man knocked his head back, “and be a man.”
“Who are you?!” Hex screamed, only to be answered by another kick. “Stop hitting me!”
The look on the gray man’s face looked neither interested or disinterested… just… ordinary. “Why? What have you done to deserve mercy?”
“I don’t know why you’re hitting me!”
“Because you’re weak.” he hit the kid again, “You should have been able to block that. Why didn’t you?”
Hex felt tears rolling down his face. “Because… because…” For the life of him, the boy could not come up with an answer.
“Because you don’t know any better.” The gray man answered for him. “You’re traveling the wrong path, Hex. The Righteous Army will lead you astray… keep you from being strong, because you would destroy them if you were.”
“They’re my friends! They saved me! I didn’t know who I was…”
The ordinary voice roared with anger. “Who are you, then?! Do you know God? Have a personal relationship with Christ?! Has he called you by name and said, ‘Come, good and faithful servant?!’”
Kiddo looked inside him for the answers… and was sadden by when he saw. “No.”
“You never will, Kiddo. I can create a thousand angels and none of them will lead you to paradise.” The gray man pointed at the blackness surrounding them. “This is the only salvation. The prime matter of the universe. Reality is fluid. It can be broken by a word, a thought… an idea.”
“Bullshit.” Hex spat back. “Somethings can’t be changed.”
Suddenly the void around them parted and they were suddenly on a shuttle. An older model, Hex knew, Standard Type 7 planet-hopper. But those were discontinued ten years ago…
There were several people on the ship. A dark-haired girl holding some kind of orb, a redhead boy who didn’t look too much older than himself, a kid with some kind of strange machinery in his hands, and a young man with a strange dagger on his hip. They all looked familiar… especially the one with the dagger. I swear I’ve seen him before.
The gray man stepped out and suddenly they all turned to face him. The orb flew out of the girl’s hands and into the ordinary man’s. “Well, let’s get rid of this problem.” The man threw it back to Hex who caught it; it was a strange black sphere, perfectly smooth, and it was warm to the touch. The sphere encompassed his attention so much, he didn’t even catch what the gray man was saying, then he stepped back out and the void returned.
“What is it?”
“The orb.” the gray man said, his ordinary voice sounding bored. “It caused a lot of problems twenty years back.”
“Twenty years? The second civil war?”
“Not that trouble… the Caal invasion of Earth.”
Hex was completely confused. “What? I’ve never heard about that.”
“That’s because it never happened.” The ordinary man grabbed the sphere from his grasp. “This caused it. When I removed it from time, the timeline became redundant, and it disappeared.”
“And those people?”
“Oh, they still exist… well, most of them.” The gray man nodded. “They had two sets of memories for a while when they returned to the current timeline. Really caused a lot of trouble, that did.”
“So what was that about?”
“I still visit that timeline… it’s the only home I have left now. Much like me, it’s no longer reality. It’s nice to share the nothingness with those who can relate.”
“Wait!” Too much was happening to Kiddo all at once. “You destroyed an entire timeline?! You can’t…”
The gray man punched him and threw him back. “Get this through your head… I can do anything… I…. want!” Another kick to his head left him in extreme pain. “So can you! Why can’t you understand that?!”
The ordinary man stopped talking, the rage apparent from his actions, even though his face was blissfully calm. After the next few hits, the teenager stopped feeling them at all. All of it became a cacophony of pain that sang in his ears. When the figure finally finished beating Kiddo, he kneeled down and looked into his eyes. “Strength only comes through pain, Hex. Pain lets us know that we’re alive. Stop being… weak.” Then the gray man stood up, and throwing his arms in front of him, cast the kid back into reality.
“Are you okay?!” Wade rushed over to the boy, bleeding and bruised, like a giant sponge of blood.
“Ehud?” The look on the albino’s face was of complete shock.
Hex tried to respond but the pain was too great. “Brother Remi,” Kennedy ordered, “get the doctor.”
‘What did this to him?!” the albino was lost in the picture of blood that lay before him.
“GO!” Wade shot back and Remi finally ran off. Kiddo tried to speak to his deacon, but he shushed him. “No, keep your strength.”
“What…” finally escaped Hex’s lips, “what… was it?”
The deacon closed his eyes. “There is more in heaven or hell that is dreamt in your philosophy.” Wade saw his charge’s confusion and shook his head. “Never mind. You must keep your strength. This isn’t a good enough excuse to get off the team.”
Those were the last words he heard before he lost consciousness.
It was even easier to get out of the Phoenix system than O'Reilly thought.
When the EFS McInerny sped out of the Phoenix Yards, dropping to the planet below them right before the station was destroyed, no one pursued them. Running as silently as possible, they hid behind the planet’s second moon; after that, it was simply a matter of waiting. Before too long, the tiny jumpgate picket was pulled away, to help gather survivors and salvage as much as they could from the disaster. The McInerny flew through the gate undisturbed and undetected.
Perhaps no one knew they were out there. Perhaps Reks never told anyone the Phoenix Resistance was trying to escape. Maybe the Righteous Army knew they were out there, but was more concerned with collecting survivors. Maybe they thought the McInerny didn't have the right codes to activate the military jumpgate. Whatever the reason, Xinjao O'Reilly didn't know or care; he and his men were going home. That was all that mattered.
The EFS Kirishima coasted slowly through swirling orange void of hyperspace outside the Avalon system. It had managed to elude the Rebel ships escaping to Wilke's Star, but it was still badly damaged and repairs were ongoing. It was starting to get rather stuffy, with three times the normal crew complement on board, overloading the battle-damaged life support systems.
"We've got the oxygen regenerators from the shuttles patched in to the main air recycling system.” Captain Terry Carter reported. “It should clear up in here soon.”
Commodore Erich Von Shrakenberg nodded. "Some good news, at least. We barely have maneuvering power and we need an intact jumpgate to get back to normal space."
"We should have enough power to reach the Phoenix jumpgate and get back in-system no problem… we'll just have to hope the Rebel ships left guarding it didn't blow it up out of spite."
"That would be ironic," Erich laughed, "the Gatecrasher blows up another jumpgate, and then gets trapped in hyperspace by someone copying his tactics."
Three aggravating, cramped, and hungry days after leaving the Phoenix system, the refugees aboard the McInerny approached the gate to the Avalon system. Everyone on the crowded bridge watched in anticipation, eagerly awaiting the first glimpse of their capital planet. They were all looking forward to a shower, a hot meal, and more than two square feet of space per person.
“Captain?” the engineer manning the sensors terminal called out, “I think I’m reading a ship approaching the Avalon jumpgate…”
“Heading at us along the signal beam?” Commander O’Reilly asked, sudden images of a head-on collision swimming into his mind.
“No, it’s off the beam…” the brevetted ensign replied, “but it is heading for the beacon… I think.”
O’Reilly rolled his eyes. “It’s probably just a sensor ghost,” he said, exasperated. His makeshift crew cobbled together from construction workers and engineers had made a tremendous effort at competence in the last few days… but had failed. His patience was wearing thin at having to walk everyone through everything constantly. “Broaden the scan and try again!”
The petty officer did as she was told, but got the same results. “It is a ship, O’Reilly!” she argued, “I’m sure of it! It’s a… an Akagi-class heavy cruiser!”
“That’s absurd!” scoffed Xinjao. “What would a warship possibly be doing out there?”
"Sir! Contact approaching, inbound on the gate carrier beacon from Phoenix." reported the sensor officer.
Carter checked the data. "Half the sensors are still down. With our luck, they're probably right on top of us."
"On screen." Erich ordered. The image of a Barclay-class corvette soon appeared in the swirling orange chaos of hyperspace.
"It's the McInerny," reported the sensor officer. "The latest tac update says it was captured by the Fundies when they took Phoenix."
"Crap, just what we need."
"It's the Kirishima,” announced amateur sensor officer of the McInerny.
“Rebel or Fed?” Xinjao asked, concerned.
"Uh…” the sensor officer mumbled as she cross-referenced the info with the Fleet database, “…the last tac update received before Phoneix fell said it was captured by the TI Rebels at the first battle of New Madrid."
"Crap, just what we need," muttered Xinjao, burying his head in his hands and groaning, “does it ever end?” Then he looked up. “What the hell is a Reb ship doing out there anyway?”
“Preparing to invade Avalon?” Lesia Horton suggested from her seat at the weapons terminal. “If that’s the case, we gotta get to the capital and warn them!”
“Captain?” the makeshift sensor officer called out, furiously working over her controls. “I’m reading heavy battle damage on that ship. It’s been in a fight… recently.” A shocked hush washed over the bridge as everyone soaked in the implications. One could almost hear the morale plummeting.
“Leisa, something tells me the capital already knows they’re here,” O’Reilly said with a hint of sarcasm. “The question is: are they retreating, or mopping up a new conquest?”
"Either way, they won’t be happy to find out we’re manned by Fed sailors," replied Leisa.
"Why couldn't we have been captured by the Resistance?" Xinjao complained. "At least they have an uneasy truce with the Rebels. The Holy Rollers are at war with everyone."
“If they’re heavily damaged, is there any chance we can take them out?” Leisa asked.
"I doubt it,” Xinjao answered, weighing the situation, “they outgun us two to one, and if they got a few torpedo tubes still working, we’ll never get close enough to hit them with our chemlasers or fusion cannons," he pointed out.
"Maybe we can bluff until we get close enough to do some damage?" suggested Horton. "We could tell them we're a Righteous Navy ship, offer assistance, keep them talking? I don’t think Bad Andy and the Rebels have ever actually fought each other, and no captain wants to be the first one to start a war… it might keep them from shooting long enough for us to get in range."
"I like the way you think, Leisa,” O’Reilly said with a thoughtful nod. “Not a bad idea. Not a particularly good one, either… but it's the best we have. Okay, Leisa, charge the particle phalanx. Load the fusion cannons. Ensign Higgins, have evasive maneuvers ready and waiting, just in case. All right, go ahead and hail them, audio-only."
"Message incoming from the enemy ship."
Erich pursed his lips. "They must have seen that we’re damaged. They're probably going to order our surrender."
Carter put a hand on his shoulder. "We can't fight them. They're undamaged, we don't have enough power for the grav laser, and the torpedo tubes are fouled by damage to the outer doors."
"Then we'll have to keep them talking until we can close to chemlaser range, and pray we shoot first." Von Shrakenberg concluded. "Put them on screen."
"Oh," Erich’s ears perked up, "then put it on speaker."
The message came through, filled with static from being received by the secondary antenna, since the main antenna was still down. "This is… Captain Noah Mitchell of the Righteous Navy,” the McInerny’s captain said. “We’re out here on patrol, and we heard what you did to the apostates in Avalon. We're fighting a common enemy and we can see that you're damaged… would you like any assistance? We have some very competent engineers on board."
The commodore smiled, but waved to the communications officer to not engage the microphone. "Fundies, out to help the warriors of the Harlot of Wilke's Star? I don't think so."
"They’re trying to get us into range of their chemlasers," Terry answered, "they probably can't tell that our torpedo tubes are down."
"Since we’re trying to do the same thing, why not play along?" the sensor officer offered.
Erich thought back to something Lwan Eddington had once said to him. You didn't face the Jurvain battlecruiser honestly, you went out under a false flag of surrender and blew up a helpless ship full of over a thousand living, sentient beings. "No, we won't fly any false colors."
"But, Erich," protested Carter, "if they know we're Fed, they'll blow us out of the sky!"
"No, I think the Fundies will be anxious to let us approach. You see, the name of Erich Von Shrakenberg has been in the news so much, even Bad Andy has heard of me. I think they will be more anxious to capture me and brainwash me into joining their cult. They'd see it as a propaganda victory worth ten squadrons of Dreadnoughts."
"I never thought you’d let that kind of thing go to your head.”
"I'm not, but I'll bet they are. Activate the pickup." the flag officer ordered, sitting up straighter in Captain Belbo's former command chair. "This is Commodore Erich Von Shrakenberg. We are not in need of assistance, engineering or otherwise. You, on the other hand, are outnumbered, outmassed, and outgunned. You will come about and surrender at once, or we will blow you out of the sky." With a flourish, he waved at the comm officer to cut the signal. "That oughta shake them up." he said with a mischevious grin.
O’Reilly’s face darkened in anger as he silently listened to the audio message. “Stupid. Very stupid. If they’re going to imitate an admiral, they should at least choose a live one. Erich died at Mars.”
“Why pretend to be Fleet in the first place?” Leisa wondered, her eyes narrowing. “What are they playing at?”
“We’ll get to the bottom of this shit,” O’Reilly swore in disgust, “I’ve met Shrakenberg. I know what he looks like. Activate full video mode!"
The screen came to life with the image of an exhausted Erich Von Shrakenbeg in his combat skinsuit on board the bridge of the heavy cruiser. He looked pale and haggard, as if he hadn’t slept in several days, and was trying unsuccessfully to conceal an injured hand. O’Reilly’s brow furrowed in confusion as he gazed at the image.
“Is that him?” the sensor engineer asked curiously.
“Yeah,” Xinjao answered, amazed. “But it could be a fake transmission… either this is a very elaborate trick, or…” or it’s too good to be true, he thought.
“If you really are Erich Von Shrakenberg,” the Righteous Navy captain announced over the channel to the bridge of the Kirishima, “then what was the name of the Chief Engineer on board the EFS Benedict?”
“Melissa Bertram,” the commodore answered, confused, “why do you ask?”
“ERICH!!” the voice shouted over the comm, “Erich, you ol’ sonofabitch! I knew you were too tough for those Resistance fools to kill! But what the hell are you doing on a rebel ship?"
Von Shrakenberg exchanged concerned glances with Carter, who merely shrugged, just as mystified as he was. “Excuse me, sir, but do I know you?”
“Oh! Yeah! Sorry, one second…” the excited voice said. A second later, the video channel opened and Erich stared in shock at the man seated in the captain’s chair of the enemy ship. The man had obviously been severely beaten. His uniform was tattered and bloodstained, and he had an enormous robotic hand. His Asian face, although sporting a shit-eating grin, was bruised and swollen, a bloody bandage wrapped around his fizzy red hair across one of his eyes. It could only have been one man… but that man was dead. “Commander O’Reilly?”.
“Back from the grave!” the fat engineer exclaimed. “Just like you!”
“My God, what happened to you?!” Erich said, amazed. “And what’s with the eyepatch?”
“Christians. Long story,” Xinjao said, dismissing the question with a wave of his cybernetic hand.
“What the hell are you doing on a Fundie ship?"
"We were captured when Bad Andy took the Phoenix Yards, but we escaped. Now what are you doing on a rebel ship? You haven’t joined the TI, have you?” he joked.
"I escaped from the Hachiman, survived the Battle of Mars, and hopped a ride back to Avalon with the Resistance," Erich stated matter-of-factly, as if he did these things all the time. "I got back to Avalon just in time to seriously annoy an awful lot of Auntie Sarah's friends." He gestured at the bridge around him. "For one, I doubt the good captain I took this ship from will be inviting me to tea and cakes at his home any time soon."
"That's the Erich I remember," Xinjao said with relief in his voice. "Did anyone else make it out of Mars? How are Herb and your Uncle Karl?"
Erich's face clouded for a moment. "Onkel Karl didn't make it. He went down with the Hachiman when the InSec ships ambushed us off Mars."
"InSec ships ambushed you?!"
“Yes, they didn’t want us destroying the Resistance… because they controlled it.” Erich watched in grim satisfaction as O’Reilly’s jaw dropped open, speechless, and a murmur ran along his crew. "And as for Herbert Gergenstein…"
"I've got good news and bad news.”
"What's the good news?"
"He escaped from Mars and is still alive on Avalon."
"Good, good," Xinjao replied, “and what's the bad news? Was he injured?"
Erich smiled grimly. "No, the bad news is that he escaped from Mars and still alive on Avalon… only now he’s the Commandant of Internal Security. Or at least, what’s left of it.” Erich watched as Xinjao reeled from the shock of the news. “Herb was the spy on the Schaumburg and the Benedict, O’Reilly. He was the one who betrayed me to the Resistance at Mars, and he helped Rashid King when he murdered the entire Grand Council."
“Murdered the entire Grand Council?!?” .
“Yes, Chin, the head of our government is currently… empty.”
"No, I don't believe it,” Xinjao said, shaking his head. “There’s gotta be a mistake, Herb would never--"
"Chin, I was there," Erich stated firmly. "I saw him with my own eyes."
"Anyway, the Raptors and half of the Loyalist TI are busy hunting them down. They'll be caught and brought to justice."
“Well, that’s a step in the right direction,” Xinjao said. He sat in silence for a minute, his mind reeling. Von Shrakenberg waited patiently for his friend to recover from the shattering news, just as Lwan had done for him mere weeks ago. Finally, O’Reilly looked up at him, two warriors gazing at each other across the chaos of war. “Shit, man… what’s happening to our Federation?”
“That’s the worst part, Chin,” Erich said, with a hint of anger. “I don’t know.”
O’Reilly let out a long breath. “Well, a hellova lot happened while we were in Phoenix, that’s for sure!” he exclaimed. “You’ll have to bring me up to speed on it all."
Erich smiled. “I’m sure you’ve got a story or two to tell yourself! Right now, however, we both have crews to get home. I say we continue this discussion at Fleet Headquarters…I imagine there will be one hell of a welcome-home party for both of us!"
Erich Von Shrakenberg managed to stagger out of the party. Fireworks lit the sky above Avalon City, and he could easily see the tiny flashes below out the window of the space station. All the celebrations had drained him of his energy. He had drank to the memory of the fallen members of the Grand Council. He had drank to the memory of Abdul Johnson. He had drank to the memory of the fallen comrades in the battle that had just been won. He had drank to the victory in the battle that had just been won. He had drank to the news of the death of Auntie Sarah. He had drank to the return of Xinjao O'Reilly and the Phoenix Firebomb Fellowship, as they had quickly been dubbed.
Erich was quite drunk. Although he was a Prussian and had a naturally high tolerance for alcohol, drinking on duty was strictly forbidden… and to Erich, a commanding officer is always on duty. He hadn't drunk this much in years. Stein after stein of strong Avalon beer, and a little New Tokyo rice wine with a chaser of Irish Whiskey from New Hibernia on Hyperion, for the O’Reilly’s return. Then some truly vile Vodka for toasting the death of Auntie Sarah. It didn’t take long before he was reeling on his feet.
He breathed heavily as he leaned against the viewport. Over the pounding of his head, he dimly heard the sound of approaching footsteps behind him. Mein Gott, not another admirer… I can’t take another drink, he thought. Give me a break!
"The exultation of the adoring crowd," a feminine voice noted, “can always make you drunk on power.”
Erich turned to see who it was… and his jaw dropped. "Johanna! I thought you died at Mars!"
Captain Johanna Ingolfsson's mouth hardened into a thin line. "Well, that’s disappointing. Not even a `hello, cousin, glad to see you made it'?"
"But…" His vision was swimming.
"Never mind, Erich, I can smell you from here. Come on." She draped his arm over her shoulders and helped him walk off to her temporary quarters on the battlestation.
"I'm glad to see you made it back," Erich began, once they were safely away from the celebratory throng.
"That's more like it." Johanna replied, smiling again. "Glad to see you back as well. I see you’re still kicking ass with the best of them."
Erich waved off the compliment. "I did nothing. Xinjao is the real hero here.”
“That red-headed Chinaman! He endured far more,” Von Shrakenberg hiccupped, “and showed greater courage than I ever have shown."
"Modesty, too," a broader grin over Johanna’s face, "or is that the liquor talking? What did they used to say? ‘Out of wine comes truth?’”
“’In Vin Veritas,’” Erich corrected, his mouth slurring over the Latin, “and they still do… for good reason."
Ingolfsson opened the door to her quarters and pushed her cousin on in. He landed on a nearby chair while Johanna went over and poured some waiting coffee. Handing him a cup, she sat down next to him. “Sounds like you’ve had a lot on your mind.”
Erich groaned, finally getting upright, as he took a sip of the coffee she offered him. "I've had a few revelations while I was away."
"Nothing to do with pink elephants, I hope?"
The commodore laughed. "More like powerful mages and…" he had planned to say something about "exploding starships," but stopped himself, "…and the dark secrets of my soul."
"Ah, a sad drunk. I though Von Shrakenbergs were supposed to be boisterous drunks. You know, the kind that clink together beer steins and sing battle songs after a hard day of saving the universe."
"Yeah, we’re supposed to be like that. And in there," he waved in the vague direction of the party, "I played that role to perfection. But it's all a sham."
"What you did was not a sham. You saved the Federation."
Erich laughed, a touch of hurt staining it. "What did I do out there? I should have brought my ships into the line defending Avalon. But no… I ran."
"You went to get help, and it was that help that saved Avalon."
"I ran!" Von Shrakenberg shot back. "I didn't face the enemy! I hid behind Avalon VI and directed the actions of others. I sent men in to die… while I waited in safety, as far from the battle as a cow is from the moon."
"That's what officers do." Johanna replied, taking a sip of her coffee. "You’re not a trooper, Erich, you’re a sailor. You have to fight with your head, not your hands.” The flag officer was about to argue the point, but she kept talking. “Your plan saved the thousands of lives on Avalon and the ships of the Home Fleet. If you had just stayed in orbit, we would have lost."
"Yes, we would have, because half the admirals in this fleet can't find their ass with a gravitic scanner and a star chart." he cursed, taking another sip of coffee. "Now they'll make me an admiral, and I know in my heart… that I’m not worthy of the rank."
"Uncle Karl," Erich stated, "and look what happened to him. He and ten thousand other Earth Fleet personnel were slaughtered off Mars, just so that Rashid King could get a promotion.”
"I know. I was there, too, remember?" she reminded him. "But Erich, it’s over. King’s gone, InSec’s been driven underground, there’s a chance for a fresh start. Just because one man was wicked doesn't mean the whole system is corrupt."
"You like playing devil's advocate, don't you?"
Johanna laughed. "I was your XO once, remember? It's in the job description… page three."
Erich managed an honest smile, but it quickly faded. "Yes, you were my XO. You were there when I ran at Rios. You probably watched from orbit when I ran again. I put on a brave front, but in my heart… I’m a coward."
"You are not a coward.".
"Yes I am!" Von Shrakenberg shouted. "I didn't take on the Rebel fleet! I took five battlecruisers and ambushed a pair of heavy cruisers with half my firepower. That wasn't a battle, it was an execution."
"But you took out half the Rebel Fleet!"
"Yes, I blew up another jump gate, another execution. But what I killed wasn't just their fleet, it was our only way to attack Wilke's Star. With that gate gone, by the time we work around through New Tokyo or Babylon to hit them, our best opportunity to end this war will be lost."
"There's still the gate at New Paris. That goes directly to Wilke’s Star."
"And that will be guarded by half their fleet. We can't force that gate or they'll just do to us what I did to them. They probably already have charges planted on it, ready to blow it as soon as a fleet comes through."
"See," she interjected, “you're already thinking like an admiral."
Erich grimaced. "Wash out your mouth with latrine disinfectant."
"The war is not lost." Johanna insisted.
"Yes it is." the commodore explained. "Sure, we'll win this war, but it’ll be a Pyrrhic victory. It’ll take years to rebuild our fleet. In the meantime, the Jurvain and Bugs will rebuild faster, and before we’re ready, the next war will come. That's if… if the compromises we mke don't lead to a fourth civil war before then." He snorted out a laugh. "But I guess that's what Von Shrakenberg's do best, we soldier on, whether or not it's a lost cause."
Johanna opened her mouth to say something, but Erich interrupted her. "Johanna, you're not a Von Shrakenberg… you're an Ingolfsson, from Mom's side of the family. You can't know what it's like. To be weaned on heroism and self-sacrifice, to have a model of a space station for your teething ring… to grow up knowing, from the day you are born, that only two possible fates await you." He took another sip of coffee. "Either you can retire someday as an Admiral, or you can die gloriously in battle, fighting to preserve the honor of the Earth Federation." A strange laugh came across his lips. "Or… you can be like Great-Uncle Joachim, and do both."
His cousin didn’t bother arguing, so Erich stood up and began pacing the room. "Our family takes pride in the fact that we volunteer for service. We're not mages or werewolves, we’re already citizens from birth, and can live normal lives. We don't have to fight… but we do, not because we chose it, but because it was chosen for us long ago." He slammed his coffee cup down on the table. "Six generations of Von Shrakenberg's have served in Earth Fleet. Six generations of heroes. Not a one of them retired lower than Rear Admiral… those few that did retire, but we still send our youngest into the meat grinder. For what?"
Captain Ingolfsson tried to interrupt. “For humanity, Erich, to preserve…”
“This is the third civil war, Johanna! Either we're fighting for the Bugs, or the Drakat, or the Jurvain, or… ourselves! And for what? We're still fighting. Not against the Bugs or the Jurvain, oh no… those fronts aren't important enough to waste ships on." His voice dripped with sarcasm. "It's much more important to kill our fellow humans, blow up our own ships, bomb and invade our own planets, slaughter our own citizens. The Federation is falling apart; it's been falling apart since the day it was founded. And do you know why the Von Shrakenberg clan keeps sending its sons and daughters to die to keep it going?"
Johanna sighed. "All right, why do they keep doing it?"
"Because if four or five children lived long enough to inherit when the patriarch dies, they'd all get a chunk of stock in the family chemical company. To keep Paderborn Chemicals intact, they have to kill off half the kids in the service, making sure that the rest have nice, comfortable Fleet pensions to live on. That way, the eldest son inherits the company, and another platoon of kids is raised to repeat the cycle." Erich finally returned to his chair and slumped, emotionally drained.
"So why do you stay?” the captain replied quietly. "You've put in your twenty years. Even with the war on, I’m sure you could retire any time you like."
"Because the alternatives are worse." he spat. "Say what you like about Chairman Johnson, at least he had some spark of honesty in his body. The Federation has always been a military dictatorship with a thin veneer of democracy. Auntie Sarah and her friends would remove even that, making every family just another Von Shrakenberg clan, sending their sons and daughters off to die, ensuring that the same bunch of mages and politicians keep in power." Erich slumped back in his chair again. "And if you think that's bad, Bad Andy's religious tyranny would be worse. The Resistance are nothing but a bunch of stooges for InSec, and they make Auntie Sarah and Bad Andy look like fluffy bunnies by comparison. The Eastern Bloc today is what Auntie Sarah wants to institute here tomorrow. And don't even talk to me about the bloodsuckers of Enoch, I'm not sure if they even qualify as human any more."
Johanna looked worried about her cousin; she had never seen him like this. "So what are you going to do?"
Erich shrugged. "I don't know. I once asked Onkel Karl that same question, and the only answer I can give is the one he gave me." He put on a passable imitation of Uncle Karl's thick Prussian accent. "Vhat else vould Von Shrakenberg's do? Ve fight."
Johanna raised her eyebrow again. "Against the Federation?"
Erich shrugged. "No, even if it's a lost cause, I swore an oath. The fact that I had no more choice in swearing that oath than a TI draftee doesn't change that fact. I swore an oath, and I have to uphold it, or I can't honestly claim to be better than the politicians who find it so easy to go against the oath they swear when taking office."
"So you'll go on fighting? Even when you don't believe in the cause any more?"
"It's all I can do, if I still want to look at myself in the mirror when I wake up in the morning." Erich stood back up. "And speaking of which, I have to go see Admiral Vorheis in the morning, so I had better get some sleep."
“Yes… go. Get some sleep.” Johanna waved him towards the entrance. “Don’t worry, Erich. Things always look better in the morning.”
Von Shrakenberg managed a snort of laughter and struggled out the door.
Erich palmed open the door to his quarters, intent on getting into bed as soon as possible. He was still feeling the effects of the alcohol, and wanted nothing more than a warm bunk and the solace of sleep. He wasn't looking forward to the hangover he would have in the morning. Three hundred years of genetic and magickal medicine, and we still don't have a good hangover cure, he thought. He was still thinking of this when he noticed the dapper old man sitting in the chair in his sitting room.
"Hello, commodore," the man began, standing up with a wide smile on his face. "My name is Aglié. We have to talk."
As Erich's eyes widened, the door quietly closed behind him.
Creeping forward at an insanely slow pace had gotten to them… all of them. The Dead Boy Division was getting careless. Not that anybody cared; they were sure that the HAPs could wipe out anything that would come at them. Nonetheless, Malachi continued to worry, not about his men specifically, but one man… Fredrick Wilhelm.
Major Wilhelm had a reputation with these men; they all knew and trusted him. They don’t know me, Spyder thought. All they knew about their new CO was that he was a deserter from the Fed. In the major’s opinion, trust was out of the question, all he could hope for was obedience. If Fredrick wanted the division, odds are he'd get it.
What do I do now? Malachi wondered. I guess I keep walking. Until Wilhelm decides to make his move, I can’t do anything.
Lieutenant Jon Walters stood up and walked over to Sergeant Links. His muscles ached after hours of continuous crouching and belly crawling. “Sergeant, give the kid that found this cave a medal! It feels great to stand up.”
The sergeant, a grizzled old career man, smirked at the lieutenant’s use of the word ‘kid.’ “Yes, sir. I bet we can find plenty of spare bits of shrapnel upstairs, melt it down with a laser, and make a medal. With enough time…”
“Point taken, sergeant. Let’s get back to the matter at hand. We have sixteen scouts, they have roughly six hundred heavy infantry, and they now know we’re here.”
“Sounds like fun, sir,” Trooper Lear interjected, “when do we start kick'in some ass?!”
After the laughter died down in the cave, Walters turned to his men, outlining his plan. “We’re going to do just that. I feel that what we witnessed yesterday might give us an opportunity. That colonel we saw today looks to have some definite problems in his command, and the situ-rep I read before the mission suggests he is one of those hocus-pocus types. So I figure we can use that razzmatazz stuff against him and make him look foolish in front of his men. If we are lucky, that dis-sent-shion we saw will turn into something we can use for an opening to strike.”
“Suh,” a trooper in the back sounded off, “We don’t have any of our own brainiacs, how we gonna fool him?”
“I have already detailed my plan to division and they are sending us four psyche troopers to help me imp-la-ment the plan… now listen up.”
Spyder hit the ground when the first shots burst around him. Malachi took aim at the area he thought the fire was coming from and let his gun fire a quick burst. As he fell back into the only available cover, three other enemy positions began firing.
The ersatz colonel just lay there, listening to the shooting, and… something sounded wrong. It took him a moment to figure out what it was; there was a lot less fire returning then coming back. Oh, shit, he thought, Wilhelm’s making his move!
Just as he moved to a better position, two of his own men suddenly appeared behind him, their guns aimed directly at him. “Don’t move, sir.” came out from the distorted suit amplifier.
Walters was there with four other men, running along the tree line, blasting the hell of the enemy division’s vanguard. It was too easy, the lieutenant thought, they’re not even fighting back.
Thanks to the help of the mind mage with them, suddenly five men looked like fifty, and the trees helped with the distortion effect. None of the enemy seemed to question the mass illusion, however as Jon soon discovered, having fifty men keeping up the firepower of fifty was really draining their ammo. If they’ll only follow the bait…
Suddenly, two of the enemy troopers stood up. The lieutenant smiled to himself, swinging the plasma rifle over toward his two new targets. “Stupid mutha-fuckas…”
"Colonel Wilhelm,” the right one clicked over his dentcom, “we have captured the Spyder-man.”
"Good," the response came through; the major having eagerly relished this moment, "now kill him."
The right one powered up his rifle and placed it against the major’s helmet. Suddenly, a plasma bolt smashed into the standing trooper, knocking him down dead. A second bolt winged by, but the other trooper quickly jumped down. Malachi wasted no time; ripping into the other troopers’ mind, he touched his fear, transmitting an image of bugs eating him alive. The trooper suddenly screamed in terror; he was still screaming when Spyder bit down on his own dentcom. "Justine… Elly… report!" No response. A cold chill came over him and he feared the worst. If they weren't dead already, they soon would be.
However, he finally did receive a response, just not the one he was expecting. "Sir, my battalion is holding off Major Wilhelm's rebels, but I won't be able to hold for too long!" It was Shari Zilloux’s voice.
Spyder was still confused when Captain Illingworth called in his status. "Sir, I've cut a small hole in one of the offensives, but they're falling back to regroup."
Dragesh even managed to call in. "My battalion is attacking the rear of the offensive, sir. They're falling apart."
Malachi finally cycled up his radar screen on his HUD and saw two of his brigades… Wilhelm’s brigades, he corrected himself, falling back. Fredrick had overlooked the chance of any opposition and the counter-ambush scared him off. Malachi watched as the other missing battalion suddenly appeared, firing on Wilhelm’s demi-division, flanking it fiercely, ripping the mutineers to hell. Confusion set in Wilhelm’s ranks, but eventually they managed to give return fire. Two brigades ripped each other apart before Spyder’s sensor eyes.
Malachi checked his HUD again and saw another brigade, a Fed brigade, trying to hide its numbers by flickering their chameleon circuits on and off. A triangle of gauss, plasma, and pulse fire soon developed. Wilhelm must have seen an opportunity to escape in the crossfire, escaping with only three battalion-sized units left, one platoon staying and covering their escape.
“Shee-it!” Trooper Lear shouted over the proximity com. “I don’t believe it! I can’t believe they fell for it!”
“Believe it, son,” Sergeant Links finally managed to catch up with them, “the great and mighty Dead Boys ran before a platoon. Tells you something about the Rebs, eh, sir?”
It was still too easy, Jon Walters thought it in his mind, there were three sides fighting each other, they weren’t just fighting us. They killed each other… god-damn, they were stupid. “Yeah. Sarge, pull in the platoon, we’ve done our good deed for today.”
“Yes, sir.” As the men around him disappeared, Links just stood there. “What are your orders after that? Who do we chase now? The ones here or the ones who ran away?”
“We go after the larger of the two.” Walters pointed down at Spyder’s group. “Besides, if our favorite colonel made one mistake, he’s bound to make another.”
Malachi had done it, but he didn’t know why. He had not foreseen that his former brigade had given far more than obedience… he had their loyalty. Instead of a division, though, he only had one brigade.
Spyder just sat there, looking over the field full of skeleton-painted skeletons; most of the Dead Boys were now truly dead. They hadn’t fought the enemy and they hadn’t died with honor. They died fighting over a stupid rank. My God, what have we done?
"Colonel!" Elly Ragdowski’s voice came through clearly over the proximity band. She soon cycled open her helmet, greeting him with an evil smile. “Sorry I didn’t get to you sooner, but I was a little busy.”
"What..." was all Malachi could manage to breath out before she interrupted again.
"It’s hard for me to explain, sir, but we’re with you. All of us, now.”
When night fell over Avalon, his brigade sat in a forest, still pulling in the casualties from the fight a few hours before. Most of them were dead; modern warfare didn’t leave much room for error, and after so long in the field, they hardly had the resources to manage them. Malachi and Justine just sat there against a tree, the now-established colonel holding his sergeant-major in his arms, still trying to make sense of the whole thing. “Wilhelm is still out there." Spyder spat out. Over half my men are dead, he thought, and Fredrick Wilhelm killed them. If it takes me a thousand years, I’ll make him pay for that.
“He can't hurt us now,” D’Amprisi tried desperately to console her lover, “he has so little left."
"A brigade is not enough for what we're supposed to do!"
"We can always head back to Cao… get him to give us some reinforcements. Together, we can retake the capital.”
“Take it?” Spyder shot out and then took a look at his girlfriend’s eyes. She needs reassurance, he realized, she needs to know that everything will be all right. Malachi sighed. “Yeah, honey… we’ll take it.”
He tried to let himself believe what was going to happen. The reinforcements would come and they'd take Avalon. I have become invincible; I have been for a while, if only I'd known it.
Andrea Treschi stood there for a second, looking at the bruised and battered secretary, as a thirsty man looks at a glass of water. With the knowledge that this woman possesses, he thought, I can get back in the big game.
Suddenly, the former smuggler felt time begin to slow down, as if powerful magic was being used around him. Strangely, as Andrea looked around the room, watching the ever-slowing forms of the officers around him, he noticed that he was unaffected. His gaze naturally went back to the secretary. Lisa Quinlan’s head snapped back at him and words formed in his head: You really want back in this game?
The colonel unconsciously took a step back as he realized the power emanating from this weak-looking woman. I thought…
You thought wrong, she snapped back, Lisa’s words echoing in his thoughts. I was ambushed, like you were… by Wall.
Time stood still in that room; the only people unaffected were Andrea and the secretary. So why haven’t you escaped? Treschi challenged.
Why haven’t you?
Because Wall’s going to make a mistake, the colonel answered, and when he does, I’m going to be in position to strike back.
Wall’s already made a mistake, she replied. He’s kept me alive.
What do you mean?
Do you really believe Wall told Clarke about the attempt on his life? Lisa tried to smile, but the pain was too much for her. Do you think Samuel Wall, hoping for a chance to rise to power again, would leave the general around to oppose him?
You told him?
Lisa’s head slowly cocked to the side and time sped up again. Treschi was lost for words in front of the officer corps of the Raptors. “Um… take her to… Room 101. I’ll get the information out of her.” The colonel then turned to his subordinates. “You understand what needs to be done. Dismissed.”
The officers filed out of the room; Moreno taking a closer look at Lisa before leaving. That boy has potential, Treschi thought, as long as he doesn’t get in my way. Finally, the two troopers that brought the secretary in, took her out, taking the box down the hall to the interrogation chamber.
The lady in red followed the colonel down the hallway, standing beside him as Lisa was being carried away. “I sensed you were doing something to her. What was it?”
She thinks I was manipulating reality, Andrea realized. “I was making sure she was the genuine article.”
She touched his forearm, caressing it gently with her fingers. “Don’t you trust me, colonel?”
“Certainly.” Treschi’s words came out bluntly. “Understand, that since we will be working together I still need to take the necessary precautions. There’s no point doing an interrogation if she’s not who you say she is.”
The lady in red sighed and leaned against Andrea’s arm. “We must learn to work together if this agreement is going to work. If we can’t trust each other, who can you trust?”
“Of course I trust you…” They finally reached the room and the two of them strolled in. As soon as the door closed behind them, the colonel suddenly shoved the woman into the wall. His fist came back and then impacted on her, slamming her petite frame down the ground. She moaned as several kicks jabbed into her chest, preventing her from striking back. Finally, Treschi spit on her, and gave her another kick against the head for good measure. “Guess not.” He felt the two troopers move behind him so he pivoted to face them. “Get out.”
The guards paused, then nodded, quickly leaving the room. The colonel walked over to the table in the center of the room, grabbing a metal collar, then placed around the neck of the lady in red. “Now, let’s find out who you really are,” Treschi smiled, then turned towards Lisa, as she struggled to get to her feet, “unless you would like to do the honors?”
Quinlan coughed out blood as she weakly tried to stand up. “I’m afraid not.”
“Very well… but you never answered my question. Why did you tell Clarke of the attack?”
“Because I knew King wanted him eliminated so he could rise to marshal. I couldn’t let that happen. As King rose in power, I would become more of a liability, and he would get rid of me.” Lisa finally managed to stand, pointing to her face. “Do you know how much it cost me for this body sculpt? Plus the creds it took to create a new identity? I used up a lot of favors to disappear from sight and do the work needed. Once I did, though, it didn’t take much to be put on Herb’s short list for a new secretary, but trying to fool his scans were a bit difficult.”
“But King became marshal anyway.”
“I didn’t know that Clarke would contact Wall. When he did, that old fart figured out a way to use the general, and still have him negated… politically, anyway.”
The lady in red moaned as she returned to consciousness. “You’ve just made… a big mistake.”
“I’ll risk it.” Treschi said, smiled, and planted a well-placed boot back into her chest. He turned back to Quinlan. “All right, so how does she,” the colonel pointed at the downed woman, “fit into this?”
“She was Wall’s contact inside InSec. She was responsible for setting up the hit on Clarke. When Wall contacted her, she made the switch, and they were set up to fake Jon Clarke’s death. However, no one knew that King had sent some insurance.”
Lisa nodded. “After King became marshal, she aligned herself with MacManus. After all, with In-Seok Pax gone, he was the next in line to be commandant. However, Gergenstein suddenly came out of nowhere, and was named instead.”
with her and MacManus suddenly out of favor, Wall used them for his own plans.”
The colonel finished her thought. “That’s why she was sent to spy on me on
“Once you revealed yourself by killing Leonardo.” Quinlan moaned. “Brilliant move, Treschi.”
“It was necessary,” he shot back, turning towards his prisoner, “as is this. Tell me. Why did Wall want you in that room?” The lady in red said nothing at first, but Andrea continued to use magic, drilling deeper in her head, getting past her feeble mind blocks and pushing them aside. The pain showed over her face and yet she would not reveal a thing. “Let me know and your torment will end. Give me one word. The word…” intense pain rippled through her body, “the word…” Treschi projected an image of Fieras fire ants eating her flesh, “the word….”
“Horadrim!” she screamed, small tears of blood streaming down her face.
Andrea didn’t let go of his mind lock, but the fire ants disappeared completely. “What about the Horadrim? You can tell me…”
The lady in red was desperate to escape his torment. “I work for them! I’m their link to InSec!”
Treschi released the pain and his prisoner relaxed. “Go on. Why do the Horadrim need InSec?”
“Something about finding their children, they’re not very specific. They use our resources to find them.”
Lisa gasped. “So that’s where the tunnel drive ships came from!”
The colonel turned toward his new comrade. “Excuse me?”
“We’ve had them for years,” the secretary explained, “since we signed the Coral Sea Treaty, but we could never get them to work. Suddenly, King uses them… I never found out how.”
“Because the Horadrim are now using their people to run the ships.” the prisoner explained.
“I don’t understand,” Andrea noted, “I thought that the Horadrim disappeared into the Fed. I know some of them joined the Resistance…”
The lady in red laughed weakly. “You don’t get it, do you, Treschi?”
“I will now.” Andrea stared at her as she screamed, the colonel ripping through her mind, tearing her piece by piece to find the answer. When he did, Treschi unconsciously took a step back. That’s impossible, he thought, that can’t possibly be…
The lady in red smiled as she saw the expression on his face. “That’s right… and I’m your only link to them.” the lady in red smiled. “Kill me and you’ll bring hell down upon your head.”
“I’ll enjoy it.” Andrea suddenly threw his hand at her and the InSec agent burst into flames. Treschi stood there, stone-faced, as the woman shrieked in agony, as the blaze consumed her faster than normal fire. Within a minute, all trace of her was gone. As he turned back to Lisa, he realized he had forgotten to find out her name. Oh, well… it’s only trivia.
“What now?” the secretary asked, her body healing herself noticeably.
“Now,” the former smuggler smiled, “we strike back.”
“I really don’t understand what you want me to do, colonel.”
Treschi sat alone next to the pale-skinned admiral, sitting there in her office, drinking her coffee, and noticing that Kristen Vorheis looked tired. Really tired, he noticed, although she’s done everything she could to hide it. These last few weeks have caused enough stress to last several lifetimes. “I’m wondering, ma’am… when does the Senate meet?”
“Three days.” the admiral replied, taking another sip of coffee. “Why?”
“If that assembly meets, Samuel Wall takes power, and there will be nothing we can do to stop him.” Andrea noticed her eyes flash at the mention of the old man’s name. “Ah, so you do understand.”
“Yes,” Vorheis nodded, “the Wall asked me to convene the Senate. I had no choice.”
“Of course you did. Think about it. Why did the Wall ask you to do that? Because you are the highest legitimate authority left in the Fed. You’re the only one who could reestablish it.”
“But why the Senate?”
“Because it’s also legitimate. The citizens and the military of the Federation will follow their decision. However, Samuel Wall controls it… he does not control you. Once it convenes, he can have anyone he wants elected to the new Grand Council.”
“That still doesn’t explain what you want with me.”
“Like I said, you’re the only other legitimate authority left. If you move against Wall…”
“I die.” Kristen interrupted. “I have nothing to stop him!”
“You’re in charge of Earth Fleet, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” the admiral pointed at the ceiling, “up there. We may have won the battle, but ships have a hard time moving on the ground.”
“You need ground troops, is that it?” Treschi asked. Vorheis nodded. “Then we’ll get them.”
“Just like that? I hate to call your bluff, M. Treschi, but a division of Raptors won’t beat Wall’s hand. If what you say is true, InSec will crush your little resistance,” she snapped her fingers, “like that.”
“Then we’ll get more.” the colonel leaned back in his chair.
“Just like that?”
“But only if you support us. If you legitimize the action, then the Fed will follow. Without it, we gain only Avalon, and the planetary governors will break off and join the rebels.”
The grand fleet admiral took another sip of her coffee. “Not to sound greedy, colonel, but… what do I get out of it?”
“The chairmanship… if you want it.”
“And what about you? This kind of support doesn’t come without a price.”
“True,” Treschi nodded, “but under Wall’s leadership, neither of us benefits. When I worked with Maxwell, I knew that he could win this war… now?” the colonel waved his hand. “With you in command, we stand a chance, and we both benefit.”
“But what’s your price, M. Treschi?”
“Later… first, if I come through with my end of the bargain, will you support it?”
The albino looked uncomfortable at first, but finally, she nodded. “Yes… personally, I don’t think you’ll be able to do it. To accomplish that, you’d have to control the capital city and do it in three days.” The admiral allowed a smile to come across her face. “If you can manage that, I’ll welcome the opportunity to get rid of Wall.”
“Very well, then I name my price. I want the Tech Infantry, the whole thing, under my control. The least I can do for Maxwell’s memory is to continue his dream.”
She didn’t even blink before she said, “Agreed. Good luck, colonel… you’re going to need all you can get.”
Major-General Edward “Lucky” Llangollen just stared at Treschi and Quinlan, perched over his tactical console, letting the sweat roll off his bald head under the heat of the New African sun. “Your rank may have got you in here, colonel, but you’re wasting my time.”
Lisa wanted to speak but Andrea opened his mouth first. “We’re losing the battle, sir. The fleet battle,” Treschi pointed at the bunker’s ceiling, “up there. Samuel Wall…”
“Wait a minute,” the general interrupted, scratching his head, “Samuel Wall? One of the 2nd Triumvirate?” Edward laughed loudly. “You’re trying to tell me that a man who’s been missing for twenty years suddenly shows up? I find it that hard to believe.”
“Believe it or not, Wall’s alive, and he’s convening the Senate in three days.”
Lucky shrugged. “Great, wonderful… what does this has to do with me?”
“He needs to win the battle on the ground so he can negotiate with the rebel fleet above. When that happens, he’s going to sell out the Federation to our enemies.”
Steam rose off Llangollen’s bald head. “He’d never get away with it!”
“Who’s going to stop him?” Treschi goaded. “You?”
“Hell, yes… and all of First Army with me!”
“Exactly, which is why Wall would have to have you killed.” The general suddenly became very quiet. “Ah, I see I have your attention.”
Edward put a fat finger in the Raptor’s face. “If what you say is true, what the hell do you expect me to do about it?! If you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of busy with a war right now.”
Treschi sighed; it’s such an easy concept. “Whoever’s on the other side of the battlefield…”
“The Twenty-Seventh Army.” Llangollen explained.
“The 27th is not going to benefit from the war if they’re dead. Make a deal with them.”
“That’s treason, mister!”
“Sir, you and I both know that treason and loyalty all depend on who wins. The question you must answer is, do I want to win?” the colonel shrugged. “If Wall succeeds, I’m sure they’ll find your corpse among the dead after your amazing victory. If they did it to Maxwell, they can do it to you. After all, a martyr for the cause is so much easier to manipulate than a live hero.” Treschi leaned over the tac board, looking right into the general’s eyes. “Make the call.”
Their eyes remained locked for eons before the general finally looked over at one of his staff. “Lieutenant, patch me through to General Cao on the other side.”
“Sir?” the communications officer blinked in surprise.
“DO IT!” Lucky shot back, then walked over to the vidphone screen.
Treschi finally stood up, Quinlan putting her arm around his shoulder to whisper in his ear. “What happens when he discovers you’re lying about the fleet battle?”
Andrea didn’t bother to face her. Projecting into her mind, he shot back, it doesn’t matter. He understands how politics work. That’s enough incentive for him now.
And if it’s not?
The colonel smiled. We’ve nothing to lose, Lisa. In three days, we’ll either be promoted or dead. Either way, the stakes are high… you’ve gotta be willing to bet it all.
Five XES in Mark 100 power armor stood there, looking out a large window near the top of the Drake building. Their target, Major Patricia Wenke, stood on the sidewalk fifty stories below. She could sense the danger, but the team was faster than she was. The signal was given and a small device activated nearby.
All units attack.
Through their new wireless cybermodems, the teams communicated the command. Their window broke as a combination of spiker rounds, laser beams, and plasma bolts shot towards the mage. As the rounds approached, the time began to slow and stop as reality breached. Everything stopped as the woman seemed to glide upwards towards the hole the XES had made in the building. Entering through it, she stared at her prey; she had all the time in the world to kill them.
Suddenly she was hit backwards by a punch to the head. She turned to see a woman standing behind him, operating in real time. Countering, reality rippled as she attempted to obliterate her, her flesh turning transparent momentarily as the metalic structure underneath her glowed. "Do you think that you can hurt me with magic?" Speeding up her limbs, she did a combo at the woman’s face, her blurred fists countered by even faster blocks from her opponent. Burning her quintessence, she attempted to keep up as the opponent beat closer and closer to the device, emitting a supersonic noise on the floor. Jabbing forward at her neck quickly, the woman cupped her hand at the last nanosecond, catching the mage’s throat and ripping it from her body. She smiled as the high frequency sound grew, and the mage fell to the floor, choking. As the mage’s quintessence drained from the mage's body, so did her blood.
"Magickal engineers make wonderful products,” the strange woman said, “it's just too bad for you that this is one of the larger quintessence traps… absorbs it like mad. Too bad... for you." She walked over to the major, grabbing her by her wrist where she wore her watch, and wripping messily off her body, bits of flesh caught in with the armband. "Only a human would steal." They left, leaving behind a plasma pistol scavenged from TI raids.
Team Y has killed Target Y. Mainframe Report: Mission status?
Team X has killed target X. 44 of 50 XES remaining.
Team Y has killed target Y. 5 of 5 XES remaining.
Team Z has found target Z. Loss of XES 17.
Total Combat losses: 49 XES for 25 top operative mages. 451 XES remaining.
Team Z engaging Raptor mage operative, 49 of 50 engaged still functional.
XES 231 of Team Z is MIA. Mission continuing.
Missions A through Y have been completed. Regroup and Deploy Team A1 through Team Z1?
Leviathan continued her battle analysis with the mainframe.
Negative. We must wait for the completion of Team Z.
These battles had caused high casualties, the XES were designed for use against normal combat mages and werewolves in power armor on the frontlines, not special service masters. Even with their power armor and built in anti-magic devices, theirs were high casualties. However, if enough XES remained after the powerful mages were purged, and there wasn’t that many in the Raptors, they would be at home attacking the headquarters.
Has Damien Richter been located?
Negative. Richter has not been found on the any scanned network.
Richter stood watching a crude interface called a comm link. Trying to find any combat information, the algorithm caused disgust as he found nothing but battles between mages.
Combat is not within the realm of physics. No compatible techniques found. Destroy Comm Link.
He did with his bare fist, causing a load crash and a burst of electricity. He found he enjoyed its needless destruction.
"What the hell?" The woman woke back up to her two associates rotting on the floor next to her. She looked over at the thing walking back towards her, its face looking almost normal, light power armor and dual plasma pistols barely visible under its ripped clothing.
"Don't kill me,” the woman screamed, “don't kill me!"
Noise may cause attention. Human 254624323 must be silenced.
The machine turned off the algorithm. Reaching for the simplest solution, it pulled out a plasma rifle and put one bolt into her head, turning it into a deformed black mass of burning flesh.
Team Z has killed Target Z. Regroup and Deploy Teams for missions A1 through Z1?
Negative. Operate mission.
Plugging in its netmodem, it began to monitor Light Infantry secure transmissions, making sure that they weren't moving in on his position. He kept this up for several minutes, until something responded to him.
Leviathan had found him. The machine responded. Orders required...
It was dark night, the moons of Avalon invisible under the dense fog and cloud cover. The flitter whined, moving at full speed directly at Patton Base. At the wheel, a frozen dead soldier was strapped in, left behind during earlier fighting.
"Sir!" a young soldier yelled, the sophisticated sensors of the base picking up the archaic car bombing tactic. "Flitter coming in at nearly 500 kph."
"Call in outside reserves. Fire on my mark." The old man watched the screen, seeing waiting for the flitter to come in range of the base's lance cannons. "Now!" Thirty oversized and automated lance cannons drilled into the vehicle, the flitter disintegrating quickly under the massive energy. On the passenger seat sat a box, a small device emitting a very high frequency. When the cannons nicked the device, the trapped quintessence of the powerful mage suddenly released.
Miles away, fifty XES saw the blast, and the main power of the base flickered into nothing. Holding up their needlers, they emptied their clips from their elevated position aboard a stolen LI aerodyne. Setting the ship down quickly to avoid true combat aircraft, they reprogrammed its autopilot to go straight into the base, making their own way towards other rendezvous points.
The hundred cloaked XES made their way quickly into the confusion of the base, Damien Richter at the lead. Men were cut in half as laser fire came from nowhere, the complex movements of the machines to irrational for any human to understand. Directing his troops, they massacred unarmored werewolves and mages, a slight glow of fire coming off the collapsed towers designed to take anything the enemy could dish out. The needlers tore apart flesh and overloaded stasis fields, Not willing to slow his troops down, they destroyed the spartan barracks and massed groups of men with grenade launchers and massed needler fire. Only seconds after the initial explosion, only the central command center of Patton Base remained standing, it's back-up defenses still unmanned. The XES left as quickly as they came, the central building of the base remaining unharmed. A slight whine was heard as the XES cleared the field, and a police helicopter formed a hole in the side of the building. As the last of them disappeared into the darkness, the second cloaked wave moved in. Twenty of them took out plasma torches, burning holes through the armored building. Overwhelming the base's defenses by shear speed and numbers, enough distraction was made that ten XES jacked into the building's mainframe, first disarming the self-destruct sequence, then hacking into the building's security cameras, checking for possible threats.
Damien looked at his troops, a feeling of pride coming over him for their efficiency and skills. Keeping with the plans, Damien issued his orders.
Execute tactic: Mushroom. After initiation move out, double speed.
As the survivors of the base managed to reach safety, they still saw the shattered base on the horizon, knowing that tac fighters would soon be there to destroy the enemy. Senior personnel had been evacuated, but possibly their comrades were still putting up a fight. All of it disappeared, when several minutes later, a tactical nuclear warhead destroyed the remains of the base, as well as several city blocks of central Avalon. Their suits on lockdown, the Raptors and the several other specialized units based there, do nothing, forced to watch the destruction of their command center in the distance.
"I need to find Marko Vitek."
"THE Marko Vitek?!" Xavier Pollos’ eyes lit up, standing there waiting at the Von Eisenstein Shuttle Transfer Station.
"There’s only one I know of.” Sergeant-Major Richard Alexander replied, looking suddenly large next to the former InSec agent. “My mission to find him, not kill. To do that, I still need backup… you were highly recommended.”
"Sorry to disappoint you,” the assassin shot back, “but I really don't need the money right now. If you don’t mind, I’m in a hurry.”
Alexander shifted in front of him. “I want you to think about this offer. It could prevent your location from being discovered by certain InSec agents. Ones that might be a little upset…”
“If you don't get out of my way, I am going to miss my shuttle."
"You just can't walk away from me, M. Pollos."
"Watch me." Xavier went to move past him but Richard stepped to block again.
“I won’t take no for an answer.”
“Oh, yes you will." With lightning speed, the assassin suddenly had two plasma guns pointing at the werewolf’s head. "I can do what I want, whoever you are! Frankly, I don't want to mess with Vitek anymore. I want some piece and quiet!"
As he slowly moved around him, the sergeant-major laughed. “Peace and quiet? You wouldn’t know what to do with it! You need us, Pollos… you need us!”
Xavier stopped listening once he ran through the gates. The shuttle he was waiting for suddenly arrived; he wasted no time getting inside. .
Am I truly leaving Avalon? he asked himself, waiting patiently as the shuttle filled up with people heading to the Ark. Is all this nonsense is finally over?
He let the sweet thought pass through him as they lifted off, leaving the past behind him.
It took two jumps and another three days passed before he finally reached his destination. As the shuttle touched down at the station, Xavier walked out to see his world he has waited so long for, New Madrid. “It has been a while.” he whispered, breathing in the air. “Too long.”
Time to get what was rightfully mine, he thought. Wasting no time, he took a local cab to his building. Memories came back through his mind. As he stepped out in front of the structure, he saw the next door restaurant. Steve and… Mark Smith had their first lunch there after they bought the building for their new business. Old memories die fast… and old friends die faster.
As Xavier entered the building, two mages in the corners suddenly got up and tried to stop him. Two plasma shots knocked them back down. When he finally managed to look, he noticed something; they weren’t from his company, he never hired them.
He walked down he long hallway to his old office. Something was wrong; he could sense it. As he reached the office, two of his agents were waiting for him; Pollos just walked in like nothing ever happened. Before he could react, his weapons were suddenly thrown out of his hands.
The assassin didn’t wait for the next move. Xavier quickly jumped over to the first agent and snapped his neck; followed quickly by being suddenly thrown into the wall. Pollos felt the residual sting of mage permeating from the invisible hand. "You shouldn't have done that."
“Fuck you, Smith!”
Xavior ran at him, dodging the mage’s every movement, slowly pressing into the corner of the wall. With the mage’s fist suddenly three inches from his face, Kuar suddenly appeared in Pollos’ hand, slicing into his skull.
With that chore done, he finally opened the door to his office. He froze when he saw who was sitting in his chair. “It’s been a long time, Mark,” Marko Vitek said, leaning back in the chair, “please… have a seat.”
"What the fuck are you talking about?” the assassin shot back. “My name is Xavior Pollos."
The Resistance leader sighed. "Right… whatever. One mystery man decides to suddenly burst into a small urban office, kill everything in sight, for… what? Kicks? No, you’re Mark Smith under all that mask you wear."
"Old man, what the hell are you talking about? We’ve never met! Now you’re saying that you know about me? You better explain."
"I’d love to. You see, after you killed King, you have really made things change for the Federation. Thanks to you, I am free of my obligation to InSec."
"And that means what to me?"
"Right now, nothing.” Vitek stared at the assassin. “But soon it will mean something. After all. you’re the key to ending this damn war."
"Stop saying that!” Pollos yelled, and swung Kuar around, slicing into Vitek. His sword went right through him and cut off the back of the chair. However, as he looked back up at his target, the figure was untouched, chuckling to himself quietly as Xavier picked himself off the floor.
“Holoproj unit. Had my people install it this morning. I’m talking to you from Earth via a net relay connection. Since you nicely disposed of InSec, no one’s going to break up our conversation.”
“All right, old man. Everyone tells me that I’m the key… but I don't know how to do it! You people are really getting on my nerves. Can't you just leave me alone?"
“The universe places people where they belong. We need you, M. Pollos. Come to Earth and I’ll explain it to you.”
“What if I say no?”
“Don’t be more of an asshole than you already are. You want to know why you’re the key, don’t you? I think that it’s time for you to find out what we all mean."
It’s said that being in hyperspace for days tends to make people introspective. Traveling that way for almost a week pushes someone to the edge of sanity. Traveling for that long alone, submerged in liquid, with nothing to eat but nutrient paste, after destroying everything you hold dear, turns that chance of madness into certainty.
Caleb and the All-Father had been in hyperspace for six days. His two bodies were functioning normally, but his single mind was not. He kept praying to his god for answers, for guidance, and especially for forgiveness, but none of the things he prayed for were forthcoming. Dear Heavenly Father… what have I done to offend thee? Have I abandoned your righteous path? Reveal to me your will for my life… please reveal it to me… I’m so lost…
His thoughts had been progressing like that for days now, nothing to distract him except the swirls of orange all around him. This was his personal hell; stuck in an all-powerful body which was helpless to answer any of the questions that tormented him. The irony of this did not escape him… and it only made his suffering all the worse.
The only reprieve from his anguish was when he had to stop in the Alpha Centauri system. He destroyed two of the picket ships there, along with the other defenders of that system. He didn’t want to do it, but the compulsion in his heart would allow nothing else. The rage boiling inside him had a sweet but too short release. He hated taking more life, especially so many Christian souls, but now nothing short of death would deter him from his goal. As he slowly moved towards the next jumpgate, he prayed for them, the void outside mirroring his own state of mind.
However, in the midst of his prayers, he was constantly disrupted, replaying the slaughter in his mind. What really disturbed him was that he enjoyed the slaughter he'd caused. That part of his mind was the same that had started this quest in the first place. God's will is the only way he knew how to describe it.
With a thought, he checked his navigation equipment, determining the remaining distance until his final destination. Earth, he knew, I must reach Earth… and the Resistance there. He couldn’t understand it but accepted it anyway. The jumpgate soon hovered before him, ready to open as soon as he keyed the sequence. I don't know why the Resistance is so important to God's plans, but they are. To reassure himself, anything to delay the return into hyperspace. He went to the suit's computer and pulled up the data files he'd downloaded a week before. They contained all the information on the three mobile suit variants, including the manufacturing techniques necessary to construct them. Please Lord, protect your humble servant in his hour of need. Forgive me for striking down those who would take up arms in your name. Forgive me…
In the midst of his prayers, he activated the jumpgate sequence, and disappeared back in the chaotic swirling mess of hyperspace.
He left his personal hell in a flash of light, bringing him back into normal space once again. The All-Father immediately went on the defensive, deploying the various stealth and jamming technology his mobile had to offer. He didn't want to fight the pickets in this system.
Going to his comm system, he contacted one of the ships on patrol.
Bruce Zinz, captain of the Rani of Jhansi, was absorbed in the crossword as he straddled the command chair. “What?”
“We’re getting an incoming signal.”
Zinz sighed, sounding bored. “Source?”
The only other officer on the Resistance vessel’s bridge moved his hands across the jury-rigged sensor panel, slaved over to his intricate and complicated station. “I don’t know!”
“No… I think they’re bouncing it off the net relay!”
“Shit,” Bruce swore, throwing the crossword away, hitting the general quarters alarm, “all right, let’s hear it.”
The distorted image on the screen looking like one submerged in water. “Hello?”
“Who are you?”
“A servant of the Lord. I wish to come aboard your vessel.”
Great, Bruce thought, another fucking Fundie. If the Federation wasn’t messed up enough already… “Listen, I don’t negotiate with people I can’t see. Reveal your location.” Suddenly a blip appeared on the tac screen, hiding in their weapons shadow, right next to the Rani of Jhansi. “Holy shit…”
The screen suddenly split, showing the schematics of the suddenly threatening small craft. As the frame of the All-Father came across the screen, Zinz’s exec whipped around to face him. “Bruce, that’s…”
“Yes, I know.” the captain cut him off. “We’ve been expecting you. We’re sending you the coordinates to meet up with the flagship. You’ll have clearance for their docking bay.”
The distorted image nodded. “Thank you.”
The Racinante II suddenly opened its bay doors before the All-Father. He was nervous of the possible threats he might face, yet relieved that his journey had ended. As he entered the docking bay, the familiar routine of docking procedures helped him relax. It's time to leave, he thought, let’s see what I've gotten myself into, he thought. The liquid that had protected him for the past days slowly receded as it disappeared back into the machine. Finally, with some reluctance, he killed the link with his other self and exited the pilot chamber.
The airlock doors of the bay opened. He took a few steps, then stopped as he saw the two men and two women waiting for him on the other side. As he approached them, he walked forward cautiously. "Mission accomplished." he told them.
The lead woman walked over closer, then suddenly threw her arms around him, clutching him tightly. "Alistar, my darling boy," Nana Dimiye whispered to him, "welcome home…"
END OF EPISODE SEVEN
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.