CAUTION, WIT, & DISCRETION – Act II
“And though mine arm should conquer twenty worlds,
There’s a lean fellow that beats all conquerors.”
-- Thomas Dekker, Old Fortunatus
"The meek shall inherit the earth, but only when the last soldier leaves it in his will.”
-- Bernard Cornwell, Sharpe's Company
He felt a great relief wash over him as he finally cleared his CO. It wasn’t much longer before he reached his own room. Keying the door code, he walked in… and Johanna Ingolfsson was standing there. “Johanna? What are…”
"M. Aglié sends his compliments." she answered. "He says things didn't turn out the way he expected… and he has a new job for you."
Erich had just enough alcohol in his system to make him swear. "Fuck Aglié, I've got other things on my mind." He then sat down heavily on a chair.
Johanna's mouth fell open at his words, then quickly shut with an audible snap. "Erich, what do you think you are doing?"
Von Shrakenberg sighed. "I don't know what I'm doing. I've been ordered to attack Earth. Again."
"Earth?" Ingolfsson raised an eyebrow. "Erich, I know how much Uncle Karl meant to you, but…"
"That isn't the reason I'm annoyed," he dismissed, then paused, thinking for a moment. "Okay, it's part of the reason, but it's not the only reason."
Erich stood up, walked to the kitchenette, and grabbed a beer from the minifridge. “Johanna, you were born on Avalon, as were your parents. I was born on Earth. My parents were both born on Earth. We barely got out before the Bug Meteor hit and wiped out the whole damn planet. I was raised on three things." He popped open the beer and took a swig of the strong brew. "Duty to the Federation, duty to the family, and stories of life back in the good old days on Old Home Terra." He took another big swig of beer. "And now….and now, I've just been given orders to bombard Earth to dust again."
"That is most unfortunate," came a silky, cultured voice from the shadows. Erich looked up as a small, dapper man stepped into the light. "I told you that this war would not end well. Perhaps now you believe me?"
"M. Aglié," Erich stated flatly. "I wondered why Johanna was acting as your messenger. Still lurking in the shadows, I see?"
"The messenger was itself a message, of course," the man answered with a slight bow. "I wanted to show you that we did, indeed, have friends in common."
"So you said." the admiral slammed the can of beer down on the counter. "You said a great many things. I'm still not sure I believe any of them."
"And why is that?"
"You said I should go along with Vorheis in her little grab for power. Well, I did that. I ended up bombarding my own capital. You said she would take power and revitalize our war effort. Instead, she handed over power to Arthur Clarke, and oh, boy… is he EVER revitalizing our war effort!"
"Of course she handed over power to Clarke," Aglié replied smoothly. "She knew that the people would never accept her as chairman after the incident. She had to bring in someone who both had an existing support base and whose hands were still clean… at least, in the public eye."
"And his new laws? Were they part of your little scheme?"
"No, Clarke was never more than a backup plan. We hoped to block their advance further outside the capital, where the bombardment wouldn't have caused such resentment."
"Oh, please!" Erich was livid with rage. "The capital city covers a quarter of the planet's surface! Ten billion people live on that planet! There isn't enough empty land on the whole damn planet to hold a goddamn golf tournament, much less toss around 100-kiloton mass driver rounds!"
Aglié simply smiled. "As I said, not everything went according to plan."
Erich sat back down, unable to sustain his anger. "Who are you, anyway? You're not Agilé Onymalius, the senator. I met him tonight. Fat bastard, no fashion sense, not a skinny little runt in a good suit like you."
"You like the suit? I had it tailored at a little place just off Dearborn Street in New Chicago," the man said with the same polite smile. "I'd recommend you drop in yourself, but I'm afraid it was blown up last week by one of those annoying cyborg attacks."
"Do you EVER give a straight answer to a question," Erich asked, "or do you just stand there with that polite little smile and wait for someone to hit you with a brick?!"
"So it's answers you want, hmmm? How about I ask you a question first?" The man pulled up a stool and sat at the counter. "How come every time I come to see you, you're drunk?"
"Bad timing," Erich answered with a polite smile of his own. "I'm still waiting for a name."
"What good would that do? If I said my name was John Smith, would you believe me? How about Archibald Leach?”
“Before your time, sorry. But what would it gain you? I'm not exactly listed in the Avalon net address database."
"How about in the Who's Who for Hell?"
"Tsk, tsk… you can do better than that, Vice Admiral."
"I'm usually much wittier, but as you pointed out, I'm drunk." Erich lifted his beer in a mocking salute, and took another sip. Suddenly, the rank that he had been addressed by registered. "Wait a second, how did you know about my promotion?"
The man smiled even wider. "You will find that there is very little that happens that I don't know about, M. Von Shrakenberg."
"So how come your plans, how did you put it? Didn't turn out the way you expected?"
His smile became so wide it seemed to stretch from ear to ear. "Bad timing."
"Fuck off," Erich said with a scowl, "I'm sick of being manipulated by you."
"Good," the man said, the smile suddenly vanishing from his face, "you should be sick of being manipulated. We should all be sick of being manipulated. It's gone on for far too long."
"He's right, you know." Johanna suddenly spoke up.
Erich swiveled to look at her. "And what's your part in all this, hmmmm? Why are you working with our mystery man, here?"
"Because he's right." Johanna answered evenly.
"Right about what?"
The man spoke up again. "Right about the fact that the war you are fighting is not the war you think you are fighting."
"That's what you said last time," Erich shot back. "I thought you were referring to King and Wall, but now… I'm not so sure. What exactly did you mean?" Erich didn't give him time to answer. "And I don't want any evasions, no witty reparteé, no squirming away this time. I want a flat and simple answer!"
The man frowned for the first time. "I understand you saw the body of Marko Vitek, yes?"
"Damn it, don't change the subject!" Erich shot off his seat and stepped forward, practically nose to nose with the man. "I want an answer!"
"And I'm trying to give you one," the man answered, raising his voice in return. He dropped back down to a more conversational tone. "It's a complicated subject, even a man as glib as I cannot boil it down into a short sentence of one-syllable words."
Erich stood his ground, his eyes narrowed and a look of murderous intensity on his face. The man continued, regaining his composure and a smile creeping back onto his face. "Marko Vitek was the product of a TI project to clone werewolves, with marginal success. Bolstered by this, they attempted to clone mages. There are other projects of a similar nature. I'm sure even you have heard of them?"
"Yes and it's a good idea," Erich shot back. "We need all the awakened troops we can get."
The man's smile turned back into a frown. "No, it's a colossally bad idea." He smiled again. "Now put this together with another one of the facts easily at your disposal. Name one of the stated goals of the TI rebels, one that they trumpet in their propaganda, and one that I'm sure also sounds like a good idea to you."
"Soldiers' rights," Erich replied warily, "they want…"
"Yes, yes, I know what they say they want," the man continued. "They want to ensure that the TI continues to have a large voice in the government. You'll notice that they rarely mention a similar voice for the Fleet or the LI. Do you find that odd?"
"Not really, the Fleet and the LI are made up mostly of normal humans," Erich answered, in a puzzled tone. "We don’t have to serve in federal service to gain citizenship. Awakened people do."
"And have you ever wondered why that is?"
Erich still didn't see where this was going. "Because there are so few awakened among us and we need them so badly as ground forces. Only awakened troops stand a chance against bug warriors or other awakened troops. It's the only way to ensure we have enough to win."
"An answer straight out of your History and Moral Philosophy class at the academy, like a Catholic reciting his catechism. Did you ever think about that sentence? Did you ever think about what that means?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
The man continued doggedly on. "For thousands of years, mages and vampires controlled human history from behind the scenes. The bug attack on Rio de Janiero and the coming of Gehenna changed all that. They were forced to come out of the shadows and move among us openly, but we still outnumbered them by more than a thousand to one. They became vulnerable and they knew this. As long as most humans didn't know they even existed, they could work behind the scenes and control everything. You can't fight an enemy that you don't know exists. But when they were forced to reveal themselves, that ended… so they had to find another way. They set up the Federation and rigged things so that they would be in control. The mages took advantage of Gehenna to finally banish the vampires, because they were weak and divided, fighting amongst themselves. They keep the War of Blood going to keep the vampires fighting amongst themselves, Sabbat versus Black Hand, supporting whichever faction is weaker at the moment. Still, they leave Enoch alone, to keep the vampires visible and thus effectively harmless. Similar programs are happening here at home."
Erich interrupted. "What similar programs?"
"The draft. It serves three purposes. The first is what you mentioned, we do need awakened troops, but second, it also keeps all awakened under their control. Anyone with magickal or shape-shifting abilities is forced into a military organization that keeps them in line with discipline, training, and indoctrination to support the ruling mage elite. Any that resist are recruited into the Resistance. That's the third and final purpose. To create an underground resistance movement, also secretly controlled by the exact same mages. To get all their enemies in one convenient bundle, where they can be watched and manipulated. A movement where their refusal to fight for the species against alien enemies cuts them off from any real grass-roots support among the masses of unawakened humans. A movement that attracts the natural leaders, the dissatisfied, the strongest of the awakened. And when these natural leaders rise high enough, in a perverted version of Darwinian selection, they are recruited into the secret ruling elite that controls both sides. Some are enticed with the possibility of working within the system to change it, some simply want power, some work for the elite for years and don't even know it. Any that don't go along with it are conveniently eliminated to maintain the illusion of fighting the Resistance, the illusion that top leaders can be captured… the illusion that the war can end. But it can't ever end, because the fighting is what supports the elite in their positions of power."
"Is he?" Johanna interrupted. "Isn't this what Lwan told you? Didn't you believe him?"
Erich was struck silent by the cascading thoughts in his mind. The man continued doggedly on. "And now there is a chance the war can finally end. But not in any way that us normal humans could possibly want. Now they can clone werewolves and mages. Now they can build cyborg soldiers." He leaned forward and looked Erich right in the eyes. "Now… they no longer need us."
"This is insane!"
"Is it?" the man asked, sitting back again. "Racism is one of the deepest, most instinctive parts of human nature. The desire to fight against that which is different, to preserve your genes and those of your family and tribe over those of outsiders. All previous racisms were wrong, not because the idea itself is evil, but because they were directed at silly targets. Individuals differ from each other much more than groups of humans differ from each other. But now we are faced with a real race enemy. Several, in fact. Bugs, Jurvain, K'Nes Tor, do you really think they will ever become members of the Earth Federation? Will humans will ever be full citizens of their empires?"
"Of course not," Erich snapped back, "but even mages and vampires are still human!"
"Are they? Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals were close enough to interbreed. But the Cro-Magnons were smarter, more evolved, and the Neanderthals are gone. Dead, every one, and good riddance. Do you want that to happen to the human race? The normal human race? In a world with billions of awakened instead of mere millions, what place will there be for us? We wouldn't even be good enough to keep around as slaves. Why enslave a normal human when you can hire a werewolf who's ten times as strong, a mind mage who's ten times as smart, a vampire who can work all night long, a ghoul who can't disobey you? No, when there's enough of them, the only reason they'd have to keep us around is as walking buffets for bloodsucking vampires. And there is no love lost between the mages and the vampires. When there are enough of them, they will simply kill us both off, we'll have outlived our usefulness."
"Erich," the man said quietly, "once, three hundred years ago, your ancestors killed six million Jews because they thought they were subhuman vermin. They thought they were superhumans. Now we face real superhumans. Will they act any different? Will they? Are you willing to gamble the future of your entire species, everyone you know and love, on their good will?"
"No, I suppose not," Erich replied in a near whisper.
"So you see, he's right," Johanna said, placing her hand on Erich's knee. "We can't let them win. We can't let the awakened win this war."
"Okay," Erich answered. "What do you want me to do?"
“How did it go?” Leisa asked, jumping out of the lobby chair as O’Reilly, General Horton, and Governor Smythe left the Grand Admiral’s office. “Did she approve the volunteer task force?”
“It went better than I expected!” exclaimed Xinjao. He considered the meeting a success.
“Good and bad,” clarified Schuyler, less impressed. “I figured the Fed was too desperate to turn us down… but they didn’t make it very easy for us, either,” the old general grumbled to his niece. “We got approval, fuel, ammo, and intelligence, but no ships, no men, and no fighters. Damn!” he cursed, worried. “Our whole naval strategy revolved around fighters! Fighters and mass drivers. I was hoping for a least a squadron or two… and pilots to fly them…”
“We got a squadron of Corsairs at Battlestation Masada back home,” Leisa pointed out.
“We’ll get more fighters from somewhere,” O’Reilly reassured him, “Leave that to me.”
“And just where are you going to pull them from, Captain? Your ass?” Schuyler snapped irritably. “The Grand Fleet Admiral said no fighters -- you can’t get a refusal from higher than that!”
“No one waits for permission when it comes to supplies, Horton!” O’Reilly scoffed. “The Fleet brass can blow all the hot air they want, but it’s the little guys in the rear with the gear who make things happen!” Xinjao stepped closer and lowered his voice. “Look, I’ve been serving on Fleet spacedocks and construction yards for fifteen years. I got whole systems full of connections to tap and favors to call in. I got tons of friends in low places and I know all the grease that makes the Fleet run smoothly. Just give me enough time…” the engineer said with a wink of his cybernetic eye, “and I’ll get you some fighters.”
O’Reilly quickly checked his supplies – code manuals, data crystals, carton of smokes, full pot of coffee, box of donuts, the latest issue of Eastern Bloc Bondage Queens… yup, he was ready to go. Okay, he thought, sitting down at the computer terminal in his quarters, I only got a few days to find volunteer crews for six ships, fuel, ammo, supplies… and a shitload of fighters and pilots. I ain’t getting’ outa this chair until we’ve got enough to fly!
He was actually a little nervous as he dialed up the galactic net. He did have a plan on how to get it done so fast… but it drastic and made him uneasy. Part of me is a machine now, he had figured, and machines communicate fasters that animals. Every cyborg had a neuralware processor (Jesus… I’m not a cyborg, am I?) to coordinate their natural bioelectric brain activity with the electronics in their implants. When O’Reilly had the neuralware implanted for his new hand and eye, he had paid extra for an external interface socket in his scalp… he wanted to be able to upgrade the software running his cybernetics. But the interface cord was basically just a network connection… and if he could copy software upgrade files, he could copy other files, too… It didn’t take him long to find the right input/output software to provide his brain with a direct, mental connection to the galactic net.
Queries, analysis, networking, programming… at the speed of thought, O’Reilly pondered, staring apprehensively at the cord and plug in his hand. I really don’t know if I can handle this… He removed his hat and ran his fingers through what was left of his frizzy red hair, feeling for the socket in his skull, then pushed the interface plug in. He hesitated briefly, fingers hovering over the keyboard, before typing in the command to open a connection to his own brain.
His cybernetic eye opened marquee across the bottom of his field of vision informing him that the connection was open… but that was it. It didn’t hurt… he didn’t feel anything, actually. But the second he thought about running a search on Fleet supplies, the information scrolled across his field of vision and suddenly he knew the names and locations of every Earth Fleet supply depot… as if he had it memorized. He was amazed… no, awed. Suddenly his mind had infinite memory and infinite knowledge… all he had to do was wonder.
“I know… everything,” ‘Reilly whispered. He wasn’t boasting -- it was simple fact.
After a bit of practice, he caught on to the linear thinking the interface software required, and then he was off… researching naval personnel and ship specifications and supply inventories. He quickly lost track of time in the galactic net, intoxicated on information.
“Chin! Well, howdy, you ol’ brown-nosin’, ass-lickin’ good-for-nothin’ pig fucker!”
“How ya doin’ Joe, you dirty ol’ goddamn child-molesting motherfuckin cock-smoker!”
This was how Xinjao O’Reilly and Joey Rossano normally addressed each other.
“Been a long time, Chin! How the hell are ya!” the enormously fat man squeezed into the Earth Fleet uniform asked O’Reilly through the vid screen, his pale, sagging face smiling. The grotesque Quartermaster in charge of Oasis Naval Supply Depot sat in a special chair to support his weight at a desk filled with papers, tools, and ashtrays and snack wrappers. The cluttered office behind him was filled with papers and terminals and covered in Gun Metal Gray posters… most featuring Priscillia Savant in very little, very tight clothing. “Heard about Phoenix, man!” he boomed, flicking long, greasy hair out of his face. “You been makin’ a name fer yerself out there! I’m surprised the big bad war hero’s still willin’ to talk ta little guys like me!”
“Ah, just propaganda from the Fleet Brass,” O’Reilly scoffed. “Don’t believe any of it!”
“Had to be pretty rough, man,” Joe said to his old buddy, “bein’ captured by Fundies.”
“Oh, man… you have no idea,” Xinjao swore. “The forced labor… the torture…”
“Yeah, heard about yer eye,” Rossano said sympathetically. “Though luck, man”
“Huh? Oh, not that… I can replace an eye,” Chin said, “I’m talkin’ about the other stuff.”
“What other stuff?”
“You didn’t hear?”
“No, what?” Joey asked, confused.
“My…” Xinjao stopped before his voice broke, then slowly continued. “My mainframe, man! They… they erased it!” he moaned. “My whole collection -- it’s gone!”
“All of it?!” Joe asked, shocked. “Even the pics of that chick with the tail?” Xinjao nodded solemnly. “Those bastards!” Joe whispered in horror, looking away, wiping his eyes. “That’s your property, man! They ain’t got no right! Boy, if they ever touched my stash, I’d--”
“I know, man, I know,” O’Reilly agreed. “But I’m gonna get them, Joe, I’m gonna get them all! They’re gonna pay for what they did! I’ve raised a task force the take down the Righteous Army. When I’m done, we’re all gonna be free to be as depraved as we wanna be!”
“Right on, man!” Joe cheered.
“Are you with me?!”
“I said, are you with me?!!”
“Good. I need some fighters.”
“Huh? What? Oh… yeah! Sure!” he turned to his keyboards. “I’m bumpin’ you to the top of the list, man, top priority! Just shoot me the requisition papers, and those fighters are yours!”
“I don’t have any requisition papers, Joe,” O’Reilly said, watching Joe’s expression change. “I got three ships with empty launch bays, but they won’t authorize fighters for us. I need a favor, Joe. A big one. C’mon, can’t ya scrounge up a few old Corsairs for me?”
“I’m sorry, Chin,” Joe said, shaking his head. “You know captains can’t requisition fighters without approval. I can bend to rules for ya, but I can’t break ‘em. Fighters are in short supply… if some go missin’, people are gonna start asking questions.”
“What about those old Mavericks you got mothballed back in deep storage?”
“Mavericks!? Jeez, Chin, you don’t want those!” Joe exclaimed. “They’re the crappiest fighters ever! Haven’t even been used in thirty years! We’re keepin’ them around for spare parts!”
“Exactly!” O’Reilly shouted. “I can’t requisition fighters, but I can requisition spare parts!”
“Damn, Chin…” Joe said, puzzled. “I don’t know if any of ‘em are still workin’… “
“How many can you get working?” O’Reilly pressed.
“C’mon, Chin!” Joe argued, “I haven’t got time to fix ‘em! I’m behind schedule as it is!”
“Okay, Okay…” Chin bitched. “Hey… you still got a thing for that Gun Metal Gray chick?”
“Priscillia? Hell yeah!!” Joe declared. “Y’know, they still haven’t found her?”
“You ever get those voyeur pics of her?”
“What, the toilet camera? Sure I got those, man, that’s old news.”
“No… I mean the shower shots of her and the bodyguard.”
“No!” Joe’s eyes bulged. “You mean those are real?! I thought they were just a rumor!”
“Trust me, they’re real,” Xinjao grinned, “I’ve seen ‘em. I can get you some free copies.”
“Well, maybe…” O’Reilly said teasingly. “I know the right supplier, but he’s pretty expensive… how many Mavericks did you say you could get working?”
“Uh… oh, I dunno… maybe eight?”
“I don’t know, man… those pics are gonna cost me a lot of money…”
“Twelve... at least twelve. I’m sure we can.”
“By next week?”
“Well, I dunno… how many pics?”
Xinjao held up his fingers, grinning viciously “Nine!”
“Next week. Not a problem. I’ll get my men right on it.”
“And soup up the engines?”
“Aw, Chin, c’mon!” Joe protested. “Yer lucky to be getting’ fighters at all!”
“Dude, these pics are worth it… you ever seen a Horadrim in action?”
“Hora—“ Joe froze in shock at the mention of the holy grail of porn aficionados … the rarest of the rare. “The bodyguard’s a horadrim??” he gasped, his face beginning to flush.
“There’s no other explanation, man, he’s gotta be!” Xinjao declared. “I mean, he’s just… it’s frickin’…” O’Reilly held his hands out wide. “This guy’s puttin’ Ron Jeremy to shame!!”
“…oh my god…” Joe whispered hoarsely, breathing hard. “Priscillia an’ a horadrim?” he asked in a daze. O’Reilly smiled. The addict was hooked. He knew Joe would do anything to get the pictures now. “Upgraded engines. Not a problem. When do I get the pics?”
“Any chance a real fighter or two could get lost?” Chin said, pressing the advantage.
“Well,” Joe looked pained. “Fighters have been know to fall off transports before…”
“I’m tellin’ ya, Joe… there is this great doggie-style shot on the bathroom counter—“
“Okay! Okay!” Joe agreed, beginning to sweat as he turned to his console. “We got lotsa Corsairs and Crusaders right now… one of each’ll get lost in the transfer. I’ll throw in an extra Avenger we got hagin’ around. No one knows who it belongs to anyways.” He turned back to O’Reilly. “Paperwork, y’know? What can ya do? This shit happens. So, when do I get the pics?”
“As soon as I get the fighters,” O’Reilly said, leaning back in his chair. “And for you, Joe, only the best. All nine shots, 8x10 glossies, digitally enhanced and airbrushed. The very best money can buy. I’ll even get you a holoproj of that bathroom sink one.”
“Thanks, man, you’re a pal. I’ll let you when the fighters are ready,” the fat man was breathing hard, his face flushed. “Look, it’s been good talkin’ to you, Chin, really… but, uh, I gotta go now. I … uh… got stuff to do. Later!” The display blinked off.
“Major, I don’t think you realize how important these supplies are to me and my squadron. We are about to ship out and we have NOTHING, and I mean NOTHING, in the way of supplies. We have one fight in us and that’s it. Would you want the responsibility of causing the destruction of a fleet cruiser due to lack of a fighter escort?” bargained Lt. Dade.
“Quite frankly, lieutenant, I don’t give a rats ass about you or your cruiser. What supplies I have are going to front line units, they will not be distributed to a solo cruiser under the command of some half prosthetic, Christian murdering half-breed.” snapped the supply officer.
“So what you’re telling me, is that not only will I not get your supplies, but that you’re a racist fundie supporter?” fired back Dade.
“You can draw any conclusion you want, lieutenant., but the end result is still going to be that you will not get any supplies from me.”
“Okay, major, if that’s the way you feel, fine. Just consider the gloves off…” snapped Dade as he turned and stormed out of the supply office.
Sloth met Dade as he exited from the office, did a quick read of his body language and stated the obvious, “Guess you got another denial?”
“Hell, yes,” came the quick reply, “but what that fellow doesn’t understand who he is messing with. Lets go see a friend of mine.”
Three hours later Sloth and Dade were back in the Major’s office.
“What the hell are you doing here, lieutenant? Did I not make it abundantly clear to you that I would not be giving you a book of matches, much less munitions?” stated the now annoyed supply officer.
“Yes, major… or should I say Deacon Crounds, I understand perfectly your former position. I also understand what confusion it would cause in your congregation if someone where to see the pictures my friend Sloth here has,” replied Dade with a grin.
On cue, Sloth pulled forth an 8 X 12 image from the manila envelope he had been holding under his arm.
“Major, I can understand why someone would want to get naked with Admiral Vorheis’s niece, she is a beautiful woman, but what I cant understand is why you’re chained up, and what is she doing to you with that wine bottle?” stated Sloth, barely containing his laughter.
“As you can see, Major, I will get my supplies, or this little gem will be distributed at next Sunday’s services. Ohh, and I might even mail one to the Admiral…” threatened Dade.
“I er… umm, who, I guess we do have those supplies you need… four Crusaders you said… yes, I think I can find twelve months worth of munitions for those craft…sorry I was so rude earlier. Let’s just assume this meeting never happened, correct?” stuttered the major.
“Why of course major, nice doing business with you.” With that, the two junior officers made their way back to the shuttle, barely containing their laughter until they were out of earshot.
“C’mon, Erich, I can’t fight fundies with only one squadron! Can’t you spare any?”
“I’m sorry, Captain O’Reilly,” Rear Admiral Erich Von Shrakenberg repeated, his irritation beginning to show. “If I were just sitting around Avalon cooling my heels, I’d gladly transfer a squadron or two to your ships. But I’m going back to Earth to fight the Resistance, and Chuck Coppinger is…” respect flashed briefly in Erich’s eyes, “a challenging opponent. I need every fighter I have.”
“C’mon, Erich,” Xinjao whined, determined to wear the admiral down if he complained long enough. “I know you agree that invading the Christian Federation is crucial to the Federation winning this war. Give me the fighters and I’ll take back those systems!”
“Even if I wanted to, captain,” The admiral argued, “I don’t have the authority! Your task force is outside my jurisdiction.” He was reluctant to transfer the precious fighters to O’Reilly… he was a brilliant engineer, but he wasn’t a tactician. Von Shrakenberg didn’t want to squander his resources.
“Come on, Erich!” Xinjao pressed, “I made a spacewalk in the middle of a battle to drag your body out of a Jurvain debris field, when everyone else had given you up for dead!” Well, it wasn’t quite true… but what the hell, Erich was unconscious, he didn’t know any better. “Look, I’m attacking Bad Andy with or without the fighters… but I’ll have a much better chance of survival with them. I saved your life, Erich!” he exclaimed, appealing to the Prussian admiral’s sense of honor. “Now you have a chance to save mine!”
Von Shrakenberg glared at him angrily. He didn’t like be manipulated. Still… O’Reilly had a point. “Okay…” he finally conceded, “the Schaumburg is attached to the Home Fleet, so I can arrange for a full compliment of fighters and pilots to be transferred to your ship… I wouldn’t want any of my ships undersupplied or understaffed. But that’s all I can do, O’Reilly, really. We’re even now, understand? The score’s been settled.”
Xinjao sighed. He wasn’t happy about it, but he could tell he was at a dead end. “What about small craft?” he asked, trying a different strategy. “Repair pods, shuttle craft, assault pinnacles? Can you spare any of those?”
“I’m sorry, captain, but I don’t have the authority.” He was loosing patience with Xinjao.
“Vorheis herself promised us Earth Fleet equipment and supplies, admiral,” O’Reilly argued, “and small craft is technically classified as equipment. Besides, you’ve got tons of ships being repaired in dry dock that aren’t using their small craft. Can’t we just transfer them to the New Israeli ships until yours are repaired?” He watched the Admiral’s face closely; he could tell Erich was tempted, now that a loophole had been presented.
“All right, I’ll do that, too. Anything else you want?” he asked sarcastically.
“Why did I ask?” Erich scolded himself.
“I’ve had to recruit volunteers in Earth Fleet to staff the ships. There’s a lot of people in the Home Fleet who are willing to join up, but I need you to approve the transfers.”
“All right,” Erich sighed, “so long as they’re not in my task force heading for Earth, I’ll approve it. They won’t see any action in Avalon unless we’re attacked again, anyway. Who did you find?” Erich asked, mildly curious.
“Most of the Schaumburg crew chose to stick with it,” O’Reilly explained. “And some of the old Phoenix Resistance signed up, too. I don’t know why most of the volunteers joined… but judging from their names, I’m guessing we’re getting a lot of Buddhists, Hindus, and Moslems.”
“On a ship commanded by Israelis? That’l be fun,” Erich scoffed.
“I also got a lot of supply requisitions here, ammo transfers, and lots and lots of spare part requests,” Xinjao pushed. “Can you approve those, too? We’ve got some really old ships here, and I’m anticipating a lot of”
“Fine, fine,” Erich cut him off, rubbing his temples, What does it take to get this guys to shut up and go away? If he weren’t a trusted friend… “Look, I’ll tell you what, Chin. I don’t really think you need to tell me every thing you need transferred. Just send me the ammo, fuel, equipment, and spare parts requests, and I’ll approve them, okay?”
O’Reilly smiled broadly. “Yes, sir!”
Chief Tran walked over to O’Reilly as he organized the crewmen to unload the third wave of cargo freighters docking with the Schaumburg. They were running out of cargo space.
“Hey, Captain,” the Vietnamese engineer asked, ”What is all this cargo, anyway?”
“Spare parts,” O’Reilly grinned. “Lots and lots of spare parts. Enough spare parts for a squadron of Crusaders, actually.”
“Hmm, I see…” Tran mused, puffing on one of his extremely strong Vietnamese cigarettes. “Won’t do you much good unless you assemble them, you know…”
“I know,” O’Reilly answered confidently, patting Tran on the back. “Let me know when you’ve got them put together.”
Tran’s eyes went round as saucers, and his cigarette bounced to the floor as his jaw fell open. O’Reilly withdrew from the cargo bay before Tran could recover from the shock and protest… although, and Xinjao closed the door, he could swear he heard a horrified whimper behind him.
"My name is Vin Dane, I believe we have a lot in common."
Zechariah McNeilly stood there in what he assumed to be the cargo hold of the Horadrim battlecruiser, facing the mysterious man who looked at him with deadly intent. "We have a lot in common? What exactly is that?"
“Don’t you feel it?” Dane stepped closer. "We are both of the same race."
The former Resistance fighter was reluctant at first. “Horadrim work with the humans. I don’t.”
“Our lost children work with the humans. They have been seduced by this false flesh and wish to remain.” Vin stepped forward and touched his shoulder. “I am pleased that you have not.”
McNeilly stepped back. “Wait. InSec’s been running around with these ships. You work with the humans, too.”
The mysterious man stepped over to the wall, held out his hand, and drew four horizontal lines that made a clear impression on the surface. Then he ran another finger in a diagonal slash from upper right to lower left. “Do you know this word?”
Zech wasn’t impressed; it looked like someone counting to five in hash marks. However, another voice inside him recognized it. “Nakennop.” escaped his lips before he could shut them.
“Yes. Do you know what it means?” When the visitor said nothing, Dane continued. “It means ‘evade.’ One way to attack your enemy is to move secretly around him, finding his location, discovering his weaknesses… and then striking.”
“So you used InSec for… for what?”
“To find our children, the ones that have lost their way. With the loan of a few ships, and their help, we have accomplished that.”
Zechariah looked at the man with a newfound respect. "So if you don’t work for the Resistance, who are you?”
Vin smiled. “We’re your brothers… and we’ve come to take you home.”
“And how many of us are there?"
“Twenty, including myself."
“I meant all of us together.”
“It don’t matter. Only the lassimott has meaning.”
It took McNeilly a few moments to realize what he had said. “The time of hope?”
Dane nodded. “The lost children misunderstand what that means.”
"So… where are we headed?"
"To find hope.”
The visitor looked at his host strangely. “What?!”
“It will all come in due time, Zech, you must be patient. Follow." Vin Dane turned his back towards him and began walking toward one of the tunnels. McNeilly followed close behind. As they passed through strange chambers, questions kept bubbling in his mind, but his host didn’t look like he wanted to answer him.
Finally, after a few minutes traveling in the tunnels, he tried again. “What am I here for?"
"You'll find out soon enough."
"What do you need me to do in the meantime?"
Vin Dane suddenly turned left and exited into a large spherical chamber. Zechariah could only assume it was the bridge. "We're here."
As they entered the room, the man stepped forward to challenge them at the door. "Who is this?"
"One of us." Vin Dane answered.
The man returned a strange gesture, a small circling of the hands, stepping down to allow them to enter. As they walked into the sphere, Zechariah sized up the room quickly; six men, presumably Horadrim, were moving their hands along strange pillars, coming out of strange projections from the wall at seemingly random places. All of the men turned towards him for a second, then turned back to what they were doing, unconcerned about his presence.
Vin Dane turned away from the man who had halted them at the entrance. "We are currently headed back to Hodraida, most of your questions will be answered there. Once we are finished there, you will join us on our journey to Earth."
"What’s on Earth?" Zechariah questioned, silently concerned about returning to the Resistance.
"Soon, Zech. I know you have many questions, but you must have patience. Fear not, you will soon have plenty to do. Follow me."
McNeilly followed him unquestioningly. Vin Dane led him off the bridge and through even more corridors. I doubt I could find the way back to my shuttle, Zechariah thought, amazed by the beauty of the ship as he passed through it. This ship is a wonder. "This ship, how many of them are there?"
"It’s not important."
"And how many of us are there?"
"Enough." Vin replied patiently.
Questions seemed to roll off his tongue, but Zechariah shut his mouth. Answers aren’t important, he thought, I have found my people. Well… they found me, but no matter. For the first time in a long time, I’m with my kind again. At last, I’m home.
Dane opened a door to another room; blank, black, and small. "This is where you will stay. Rest now… in the morning you will start."
“Your future.” Vin smiled and left, leaving the confused Hodraida in the room. Zechariah wanted to ponder what had happened further, but his fatigue got the better of him. With no furniture in the room, McNeilly spread out on the floor, and tried to fall asleep. Suddenly the floor contorted around him, wrapping him in a comfortable cradle. The former Resistance fighter found himself relaxed as the ship sang him to sleep.
Kash had to keep himself from laughing. In Sanfran, the leader watched as the bounty hunter came across the room. A scruffy looking man dressed in body armor, loose clothing, and wearing enough small projectiles to kill an entire tribe. He looks like something out of a two-dee movie, the older Hodraida mused, but that look on his face is real. This man knows what he’s doing. “You were the one sent for?”
“Yeah, what’s the fucking job?”
“What’s your name?”
“What the hell do you care?” the bounty hunter shot back. “Tell what meat you want dead and I do it. S’long as I get paid.”
“First name, then gold.”
“Iosef. Now what’s the job?”
“You have a last name?”
“What the fuck do you care?!”
Kash stood up and walked towards him. “I care because I’m responsible for my people’s security. If you’re some InSec plant…”
Iosef interrupted with a coughed laugh. “Look, Kiss…”
“Kash.” he corrected.
“Whatever. My name’s Iosef Ruzyho, I served in the 8-524 TI Battalion, did my five years, took my licks, then left. I was out of work until this war came around. Suddenly I had something to do… and I’m damn good at it.”
“What was your unit’s job?”
Ruzyho sighed. “We’re wasting time.”
“Your old unit’s job, M. Ruzyho,” Kash intoned, “or we’re going nowhere.”
“CSR. We were in the shit most of the time, that’s why I got out.”
“Combat Search and Rescue? You were a Black Talon?”
Iosef rolled up his left sleeve and there was a tattoo on his wrist. It was a large outlined eagle with huge talons colored black. It seemed to shimmer as the light caught it. “Thirty-four drops, eight heavy combat. Most of the time we just showed the flag, but when someone dropped the ball…” he rolled back the sleeve, “we got the call. I find self-employment a hell of a lot less hazardous.”
“I’m sure you do. You were on New Madrid?”
“Working both sides, depending who ran the planet. Lots of assassins there; glad I got out.” Ruzyho looked around as a pause fell upon the room. “You wanna play 20 Questions all day or do I got the fucking job?”
Kash pulled out a holoproj unit and activated it. Suddenly a man’s image appeared life-size between them. “His name’s Zechariah McNeilly. Born on Earth, parents died, working for the Resistance his whole life.”
“He snapped. Now we want him dead.”
“What the fuck do you mean by ‘snapped?’”
The Hodraida moaned. “Killed his partner, the crown prince of the Eastern Bloc, and all his bodyguards.”
Iosef let out a low whistle. “Fucking psycho. How much to shut him down?”
Kash snorted in amusement. “You going to keep an itemized list?”
“Then no expenses.” the Hodraida nodded. “Dead or alive, your choice.”
Ruzyho smiled. “I prefer dead.”
"New Tokyo, the Fuji Depository. It was built for only one purpose… but you'll discover that soon enough."
The long ride over was the first time Xavier had a chance to think about what had happened… and rest. The freak of a pilot had disappeared and he was on a small commercial liner heading to the New Tokyo System. That allowed him to relax without worrying that he could be killed in his sleep.
As he was resting, something came to him again… a picture of his mother, but this time there was something different about it. The person behind his mother was the same vampire as before, but now there was someone else there. He was standing in the back of the room, just watching the whole event, unable to do anything. In the end, Pollos could only assume he was there to watch.
He woke up in a cold sweat, watching his parents die before him again was almost more than he could stand. Lying there alone in the private passenger compartment, Pollos sat there shaking. Finally he willed himself calm. In that strange quiet, Xavier just let his mind wander, for the first time in a while. Before, he felt he had never had time to think to himself, everything was always going by too fast. Why am I afraid? I’m one of the most wanted people in the universe. I killed Rashid King and Arthur Clarke… or at least his son. I shouldn't be scared of an old hack like Modred.
The whine in the air seemed to laugh at him, suddenly changing from the calm travel of interstellar flight, to the rumble of atmospheric entry. Pollos decided to get dressed. I can think later… now it’s time to act.
After his shuttle landed at the port, he was amazed at the amount of traffic around the station. Military personnel were everywhere, all branches of the military, with civilians rushing towards the shuttles. It didn’t take Pollos long to figure out what was happening. The cats are coming here; the defenses are being built up and some are hoping to get out of the way. I hope this mission doesn’t take long.
As he walked out to the street, a small blonde lady walked up to Xavier, with long curly hair, and a dark complexion. "Need a taxi?" she asked, grabbing his hand.
"No." Xavier took his hand back.
"No, please take my taxi… really cheap, I promise." she took his hand again, this time grasping with a much tighter grip.
"I really don't need a taxi, lady. Now let me go." Pollos tried to take his hand back, but she was too strong.
With her free hand, she lifted it up to touch her eyebrow. Her eyes glistened with strange light. “Get in the cab.”
Xavier was able to blink the hypnotic effect away, but that was enough distraction for her to pull them both into the waiting taxi. Pollos finally broke away once he was inside. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Alyssa.” she looked over at the controls and spoke, “Autopilot, drive. Corner of Mulholland and Chancellor.”
Pollos tried to open the flitter door to get out, but it was locked. Soon the vehicle floated away on its own, rushing on through the busy traffic of the metropolitan city. “Talk quickly or I’ll kill you.”
“Yes, he said you were most effective with your sword.”
Xavier’s eyes flashed with shock. “Who the fuck are you?”
“I told you… Alyssa. I was supposed to contact you and take you to the Fuji Depository. Who knew of an off-worlder who didn’t need a taxi?"
“You can’t be a vampire. It’s the middle of the fucking day!”
“You’re right, I’m not… but my lord is the Bishop of New Tokyo. He said to meet you at the station and help you anyway I could.”
“You mean Mor…”
Alyssa quickly put a finger to his lips. “It’s not wise to say that name. He could hear you.”
She nodded her head, then rubbed her face, like some sort of prayer. Pollos wasn’t quite convinced. "What makes you think that I can trust a ghoul like you?"
"What makes you think that you can't? Face it, Xavier, you really don't have any other options.” Pollos noticed that she knew his first name; he bit back a witty response. “I’m the only person here that can take you inside the Fuji Depository, so you better trust me, or you’re dead.”
"Whatever,” the assassin kept up his bravado, locked inside a flitter with a strange and deadly woman, hovering above the ground about two hundred feet, “Just get me there and I’ll be happy. I don't need anyone's help."
The little taxi pulled up to the extremely large building's security station. Right away their taxi was checked for weapons. Then they checked both their false identicards, validated them, and then were let in. The taxi pulled up in front of the very large building's doors.
“Well?” Pollos lifted his eyebrows.
"This is as far as I go." she smiled, opening the now-unlocked door. “Good luck.”
"Thanks for nothing." Xavier stepped out of the cab and back onto the more assuring street.
“Asshole.” the ghoul spat back before the cab pulled away.
Pollos couldn’t help but look up at the enormous building. There was something about it that just made Xavier take a step back. So far so good, he thought. Now all I have to do is figure out where… whatever the damn thing is, and how to get to it without being noticed.
The environment inside was totally different from the chaos filling the streets outside. There were people everywhere, constantly moving just like outside, but it was controlled; they moved with deliberate purpose. The effect sent chills down his spine.
As soon as Xavier entered the room, the atmosphere changed quickly. Movement slowed as all eyes turned towards him. Pollos tried desperately to ignore as he went straight to the service desk.
A incredibly tall man was sitting at the desk, gently typing at his console, looking up at the visitor when he stepped within exactly a meter of the attendant’s position. "How may I help you?"
"I need to know where the bathroom is?"
"Just down the hall," the clerk replied, pointing off to his left, "third door on the right."
Xavier walked into the bathroom and found exactly what he was looking for. There was a man standing at the faucet washing his hands. Xavier quickly turned invisible, got behind the man, and pulled the man's head to the side until it cracked. The man's body fell to the floor. Pollos wasted no time in going through his victim's shirt and wallet. He finally found what he wanted in the man’s wallet. Yes, he thought, picking up the data and door access cards, this should help me out. Now what about the body?
The assassin looked around and quickly sized up the small room. That should work, he mused as he picked up the body and shoved it into the airshaft. With that done, Xavier walked out of the bathroom still invisible, and walked down the hall. Once he got to the end, Pollos found his way into a nearby office. Hooking up to the net relay in the office, he quickly got on-line, finding his hacker friend.
Pollos was in a particularly strange part of the Galactic Net, behind a group of abandoned data blocks on the outer Hyperion System network. He hacked the incredibly simple code to get in the backdoor and he reached AngelHand’s electronic hideout. It looked like a retro 20th-century bar, complete those two-dee boxes… what were they called, televisions? They were showing random vidnews broadcasts without the interaction functionality. Behind the bar, the virtual image was that of a glowing man with gossamer wings. Always trust AngelHand not to be subtle. “Are you there,” the assassin asked, “or am I talking to a replica?”
“You got the real deal, DarkSable. What's up?"
"I need the building blueprints for a place on New Tokyo."
The angelic icon stopped polishing the virtual glass. "What building?"
"The Fuji Depository.”
“Whoa! The fucking Fuji Depository?! What kinda shit you in?”
“I don’t know, but I’m up to my neck in it. Can you get it? I’m in a bit of a hurry."
"Don’t rush an artist. I need some time."
“Fine, I’ll leave my replica here, but I gotta jack out.”
“What is it?” AngelHand smiled. “Are you actually in there?”
“Ring me when you’re done.” Xavier replied, then jacked out.
Pollos sat there, crouched in the empty office, wondering how the hell he was going to get out of here alive. They might spot the outgoing transmission, but I doubt it. Unless they hit the alarm, they wouldn’t need to, and that clerk’s not going to get nosy for another…
His cybermodem gave a quick beep. He jacked back in and clicked into his replica again. There was that smiling hacker of his. “DarkSable, are you there?"
It took a second to readjust to his virtual surroundings. "You have my blueprints?"
"Of course,” AngelHand looked hurt. “I always pull through, don't I?"
"Thanks a bunch, man."
“You’re just lucky it was that easy. Discom.”
He jacked back out and cut the net connection. With the blueprint in his cybermodem, he could take a little bit of time to scan over it. It didn’t take long to see the weak points. The building had only two power stations and one back-up system. Odd for a high-security facility, he knew, the Fed usually builds these places better. Then he noticed that the building also had an emergency shut down system, locking off certain areas of the facilities. Ah-ha, so that’s how they compensate… instead of relying on lots of high-tech, power-eating devices, they kept it simple. Power goes down and the place becomes a fortress of anti-magic plasticrete and thick metal doors. Still, the builders don’t expect anyone to break out, just in.
Xavier made quick work of his new knowledge. First, head to the power stations. It didn’t take him long to reach the first room. The assassin pulled out Kuar as soon as he entered. Gazing at the many terminals in front of him, Pollos went to work, dicing wire and metal everywhere. Then, as backup systems were slowly repairing the damage, he rushed over to the janitor's room. Grabbing three cans of paint thinner, he placed them next to the main power generators in the room, then placed the shirt that he had stolen from the dead man in the bathroom into one of the paint cans. Lighting the sleeve, Xavier made a hasty exit. One down, two more to go.
Before he could make it to next room, the lights in the place began to flicker. Kuar… I mean, Mark… Xavier, think! I must act quicker.
The light in the room was rather bad due to the flickering power supply. The guard was on the verge of falling asleep; it didn't help working a double shift. Then, out of nowhere, something cracked his skull into two pieces. Pollos appeared from thin air and quickly scanned the auxiliary power generators. Okay, he wondered, how do I take care of this room? Then he noticed the guard lying on the ground; on his belt was a single grenade. Pollos took the grenade, and with expert precision, cut a hole into the grenade. Pouring the precious explosive granules into a silk sac, he planned to use them as a timer, using the paint cans to destroy the generators. With any luck, I’ll have enough time to make it to the other room before the automatic shutdown.
Using the guard’s shirt as a wick, he placed the silk sac down at the end. As flames engulfed the sleeve, Xavier gave a mock smile. Who said I’d need myself… I mean, Kuar. This is a piece of cake.
Over the intercom, an feminine computer voice spoke. “Attention all personnel, intruder alert, locate and destroy.” Another flicker and the voice continued. “Primary power station has been compromised, switching to secondary systems. Power will be restored."
"Not for long." Xavier laughed to himself as rushed past all the people around him running for cover, while he remained cloaked. Finally, he reached the lockdown station. Rather small, he thought, not much to look at. If I didn’t know what it was, I would have passed right by it. Now all I have to do is cut some wire here, nothing big. Before he knew it, every wire in the place was cut with great precision, with nothing was left to connect to anything.
Going back into the hall, Pollos took out his cybermodem and checked the blueprint. Now if I was a special artifact where would I hide? Looking at the map, it didn’t take long before he noticed something. Here… here’s where I would hide.
As he reached a pair of large doors, all the lights went out. A silence hung over the air; the emergency battery lights went on. All right, I’ve got about thirty minutes till the power gets back up. I have to work fast. As Xavier pulled the doors open, air sucked into the room ahead. It made his work difficult, but he quickly entered the room; the doors behind him closing with a furious noise. Looking ahead, instead of what Xavier thought was looking for, stood two Mark 100 Power Armor Suits, ready to fire.
A loud crack announced the beginning of the match, several more followed, the sounds were so close together that the ear could hardly discern the pauses between. From the start, Wade Kennedy, Deacon of the Faithful, could tell that Remi had the advantage over his younger opponent. For some reason, Remi practiced frequently with the bamboo pole—time that could be better spent on flight lessons, thought Wade. Remi’s skill with the pole was incredible, and when paired with his powerful magic, deadly. Young Ehud was catching up quickly, however. No longer limited to defense, the boy was making victory very difficult for their albino brother after the first three losses.
Hex could see the next three attacks that Remi was going to make, blocked each one with his own pole, and made a weak attempt to throw Remi off balance with his last parry. It provided just enough of an opening for Hex to push forward with his own attack, but instead he waited, watching Remi open his next assault. Hex could already tell by Remi’s openings exactly what combos he was going to try. Blocking all five strikes and side-stepping the thrust, Hex once again had an opportunity to make a counter-assault, but he only glanced at the bamboo pole that had nearly stabbed his shoulder.
Remi didn’t understand why Ehud was continually ignoring the lines of attack that were given to him, but didn’t want to sit around long enough to find out. He immediately jumped forward and spun around in the air, making a high sweep with his pole—then he noticed that Ehud had slowed down. Instead of ducking underneath the blow, the young soldier made a slow but strong block against it, and Remi’s bamboo pole snapped in two with incredible ease. Remi had to smile at his brother’s creativity, but did not appreciate his lack of form. Since he was still faster than his brother, he wasn’t worried. Before Ehud could follow up with another attack, Remi made a few quick jumps backward.
Wade was surprised to see Ehud “breaking” the unspoken rules of the match, but he suspected that Remi still had the advantage. Ehud just stood there, waiting for Remi to strike again, but Remi didn’t move. After a few seconds passed in real time, which was equivalent to half of a minute for Remi, the albino held out his pole and it grew back to its full length.
Remi immediately began to move forward again, moving faster, increasing his speed to heights usually not used. Hex pumped his speed up too and once again watched closely to see how Remi opened his attack. Instinctively, he knew where to put his own pole to block the blows and moved forward with his own attack. Remi blocked each one of the strikes and pushed Hex back with another combo. Hex gave himself pause, and did not block the last blow. He was struck hard in the chin with the blunt end of Remi’s pole, but he rolled with it in a back flip. Remi was already moving forward with his next attack, and Hex was not ready to block. Instead, he shoved his pole backwards and corresponded the pole into the back of Remi’s knee.
More shocked by this unconventional attack than the one before, Remi fell forward, but he was still faster. He rolled forward with his momentum then made a blind strike at Ehud’s stomach, hoping to end the match. However, as he reached out with the pole, he felt Ehud follow the pole back into the portal he had formed for his pole and appear behind him. As he spun around to strike, Ehud sped up and jumped over the low arc.
The match finally ended in a draw twenty minutes after it started. It had been at least an hour’s worth of fighting, with several magical attacks made by both parties. At one point, Ehud split into two locations and fought Remi from both, but Remi’s speed was enough to keep a defense up. They fought in the air for a short while, but neither could keep it up for long. In the end, Ehud refused to attack, but Remi could not land another hit. When it was over, they both shook hands and thanked God that they were indeed on the same side.
Wade broke the silence that ensued. “Well, brothers, while you two were keeping busy, I received a message from Lieutenant Weiss. Seems he has a new mission for us… and we’re requested immediately in New Jerusalem.”
The onslaught system made the machine even more impressive. J-54 was loaded with point defenses, but the onslaught incinerated it. Hex eagerly awaited to see what other weapons the All-Father might use. He grabbed the bottom of his chair and tensed up to keep from shaking in excitement when All-Father readied the Free Electron Cannon.
"Pilot, lock on to the target and prepare to fire the cannon."
Something strange happened at this point. The All-Father suddenly shifted its stance and changed targets—aiming somewhere near the camera.
“Caleb? What are you doing?” There was a brief pause. “Caleb! Stop this! Stop this right now!”
A bright light flashed on the camera before the transmission ended, and the vid cut to something else—the All-Father was obliterating several fighters; another cut showed the All-Father vaporizing a small picket near a hyperspace beacon. The vid ended, and Hex was confused. Looking at Wade and Remi, he could see that they shared his feeling. Weiss could see the blank look on their faces, and answered their questions for them before they were asked.
“The All-Father’s pilot—his name is not known since he used a false one—betrayed the Christian Federation during the testing. It immediately destroyed several important facilities in the system and a significant portion of the San Angeles system’s fleet. This proves the system’s effectiveness, but the Evil One has taken it from us. The All-Father moved out of system through the Centauri jump gate and did much the same there as it did here.” The lieutenant paused to look at each of them. “Wade… Remi… Ehud… we need the All-Father, now more than ever. We believe that the Resistance has their hands on it. I would not be at all surprised if it was on Earth. We doubt that they’ve had a chance to start building them yet, and even if they have, there can’t be many of them.”
“How many teams are going to fetch it, sir?” asked Kennedy, rising to his feet in eager anticipation.
“You’re the only team we’re sending to retrieve the All-Father. I can tell you that we hope to provide you with some more intelligence before you leave the Centauri system.”
Ira’s response was clearly not what Wade had wanted to hear, but he quickly regained his composure. His newly-aged face did not have the usual look of elderly wisdom, but youthful instability. “Sir, why us? Surely there are others more qualified for this task.”
“I’m afraid not, brother.” Weiss put a strong emphasis on not, as if to hint at some inside information. “The Commander of the Faithful has faith in your abilities due to your success at Valkyrie.”
Temporarily distracted by the thought of going back to Earth and the Resistance, Hex’s head perked up when faith in abilities came up. “The battle is the Lord’s, sir, I’m sure M. Tremont has faith in God alone, and does not rely on men.”
Ira gave the young soldier a strange look. “Yes, Ehud, you are correct. The battle is the Lord’s. Just as he delivered Valkyrie to us through you, however, I expect that he will use you to give us back that which the devil has taken from us.”
Hex glanced over at Wade. He couldn’t be older than twenty-six, but one of the mages at the control center had done a nasty number on him, taking several years off of his life before Remi… Remi saved Wade. Wade now looked like he was in his late forties. Hex blamed it on himself for being hit so early on, but Wade assured him it was not his fault, and boldly declared that he was only that many years closer to being with the Lord.
“One other thing, brothers. The Federation is changing quickly and rapidly moving to clean up their mess. We believe that they may strike down the Resistance once and for all, starting with Earth. If this happens, they may get to the All-Father before we do. Don’t let that happen.”
Sending awaken signals... unresponsive. Loading defaults...
The machine crawled out from the drainage tunnel, the lights from a team following far behind him yet advancing. Still unconscious, his mind could not assist him, as the machine activated the chameleon circuits, trying to stay ahead of them.
"I'm still not registering any brain waves. We either killed it or it's an AI." Private Ricca continued trailing his team, his magickal ability unable to back up their tracking equipment.
"The equipment is never wrong, trooper. He’s human, he gives off a unique scent, and we can track him." Corporal Hill continued scanning the dark tunnels with his night vision, toggling between infra red and green light. Nothing. Arriving at the drainage tunnel, the corporal sent on the private to check it out. No cyborg. Worse still, the trail ended here, the moving water having washed away the traveling machine's scent.
The machine looked back, searching its memory banks for the proper attack sequence in this exact situation. It could find nothing, pulling the H-90 moving up to an overhead manhole. It threw it open and crawled out into the dead street above.
Hill saw the burst of ambient light far in the distance, the lens focusing in time to see legs moving up the ladder to the surface. "Target sighted, move out, move out!" His team charged the target as he called for backup. "This is Squad Three to Platoon. Target has been sighted, request assistance." Shifting into Crinos form, he rushed ahead of his team, jumped to the surface, and was instantly slugged through the chest from an unseen position. Falling
back down into the sewer, his team considered itself pinned down as they tried to save their dying leader.
From its cloaked position atop a nearby building, the machine took the opportunity to drop down to the surface and escape.
His mind having come back to him, Richter returned the slum apartment building that the doctor lived in. "Your face is all over the newsvids. Have you lost the pursuit team?" The doctor had his back to the machine, looking at a 3D strand of DNA on the holoproj.
The machine nodded.
"Good, time for your next mission. Do be subtler next time… fortunately, your escape has made your services in greater demand. Just make sure they don't kill you for the reward.” On the computer screen, the doctor spliced the gene, placing a much more radical looking triple stranded piece of genetic code in it's place. It for an instant held, RNA forming onto it as usual, before splitting itself off of the normal DNA and forming viruses that consumed nearby material into copies of itself. "Damn it!" Shiro held out his hand, pulling a petri dish from across the room into his direction and then incinerated it midair with unseen forces. "What the fuck else could that hodraida have meant..."
The doctor's mumblings became indistinguishable as he buried his head into his arms. Raising his head suddenly, he looked at Damien directly. "Repair yourself in the growth tube and put your weapon on the charger. I will have your mission downloaded to you before you are finished repairing. I also want your experiences from last night uploaded onto this console for review. I pray that you haven't picked up the habits or memories of your genetic source."
The machine said nothing, putting its weapon on the recharger and moving into the growth tube.
Damien walked into the Avalon South Side Public Library at midnight, moving into the criminal history section and pulling finding the data tape Serial Killers Throughout History. Sitting down at a table, the machine placed the tape into the reader and read as directed. Flipping through the files, the machine cross-referenced killers within the last ten years, finding a Detective Drake Richter, disappeared mysteriously after a 258-person killing spree.
His contact interrupted the machine's reading, having sat directly across from him with the data tape Great Lawmen Throughout History. "We share a common interest in books, don’t we?" the contact asked. He was large, the black man's face having a deep scar running diagonally across it. His hands were singed from close range plasma burns, and the deep red glow of an infrared eye was visible through his sunglasses.
"My book is better." The machine said in monotone, following the syntax of the orders perfectly.
"Perhaps we should enjoy this dark night together." Rising and moving towards the door, the two men walked towards a large black flitter. Never trusting by design, the machine was not caught off guard when the man rushed him. Reacting calmly, the machine grabbed the man's neck and the plasma pistol coming out from underneath the man's trenchcoat, throwing him against the nearby flitter. Releasing enough that the man could speak, the machine continued. "Explain."
The doors of the flitter flew open, as two older men stepped out. The smaller of the two emitted a mind scan, although not directed at the machine. "My associate is right to be concerned. Where are your scars?"
"Please, your making a scene." The man stepped forward, and the machine drew its weapon and stepped back. "Hey, cool it, we don't want any of that!" He looked at his associate still holding his neck. "Did he follow the code?"
"To the letter." he gasped.
"Then let's go. Come on." The men motioned to machine as they all got in. Classifying the men as high threats, Richter stepped inside the flitter to continue his mission.
Days later, the men stood outside the First Provincial Bank of Avalon in security guard uniforms. Damien cloaked and walked to the front door, swiping the ID card through. Prompting for a retinal scan, Damien held the severed head of the security guard to the eye hole, and then to the security camera. The automated system not concerned with his lack of a neck, the door
popped open. The information the security guard had given them was correct. The machine walked inside, threw the head at the guard at the front desk, walked around the chameleon circuit detectors, up to the front desk and slit the stunned guard's throat. The security guards wouldn't get their cut of the money after all. Loading the loopback tape they had made before their deaths, the machine signaled for the others. Throwing the bloody corpse out of the seat at the front desk, jacking into the console, the machine began doing cyber battle with the bank's AI program, overloading the processors of the AI with a slurry of artificial information.
"How long until the program notifies the police?" the smaller man, the leader of the group, yelled as his team with their equipment rushing by into the back room and the huge vault.
"Four hundred and fifty-four seconds."
"Okay, we have exactly seven minutes before the AI program frees enough memory to notify the authorities. Let's move!"
The glow of a plasma cutter emanated from the back room, but the machine did not concern itself with their activities, watching the outside for any sign of police intervention. Unable to stop the dedicated anti-theft program any longer, the machine notified them of its success. "Police notified."
"Done!" The crew stopped working, walking out of the bank with bags of diamonds and other hard gems, the hard currency sent to help stabilize and legitimize the new government. With clockwork precision, three black flitters pulled up outside as the men rushed into them.
"2% will be deposited to your account as soon as we arrive to the safe house and deposit it. Cover our escape and your services are over." The machine complied, walking calmly onto the sidewalk as the flitters raced away. As they were turning the corner to escape, two police flitters flew around the other side of the bank.
The machine pulled the H-90, disintegrating the first flitter. The second flitter shot first, knocking the cyborg against the wall of the bank, but not penetrating its armor.
“Operator, it's him! Send back up, back up now! It's the fucking cyborg!" the machine turned the H-90, blowing the squad car into several pieces.
He turned and began walking away again, when the police converged on him from all directions.
“Why are you on this fool’s errand?” the bright star beckoned Alistar Dimiye from his pilot’s console.
The werewolf woke up at the sound of Polaris’ voice, looking out the freighter’s window into a field of stars. Funny, the general pondered, I thought we were still in hyperspace. “Why didn’t you save me?”
“You are weak.” the star spirit chided. “You should have rose and killed.”
“But I couldn’t…”
“Why are you fleeing the battle? Your destiny lies behind you.”
“You left me to die!” Alistar shot back.
The star grew brighter with anger. “You dare shout at me?!”
Dimiye felt himself being thrown down to the deckplates. The star rose above him, hovering just below the ceiling. “You serve me, ungrateful pup! You will kill and kill till there is none left to die!”
“NO!” Alistar screamed back, suddenly feeling his body wracked with pain.
“You will serve!”
“NO!” His defiance was rewarded with another nerve snap.
“You fucking bastard! I’ll kill you!!!”
Dimiye suddenly woke at the controls, the sinister orange and black swirl of hyperspace yawning before him. Behind him, the sounds of Maegwin Harrington’s screaming woke him out his nightmare. “Alistar fucking Dimiye, I’ll fucking kill you!!!”
The general shook off the lingering effects of his tormented sleep and stood up. Looking over at the other end of the cockpit, Maegwin was sitting there, her arms and legs bound to the navigator’s chair. “Good morning to you, too.”
Harrington tried to project a image of pain into his mind but Alistar was able to deflect it; his connection to the spirit world allowed him protection. I just wish the spirits were friendlier to me. Her spite seemed to grow with every moment she was awake. “You better release me, murderer, or I’m going to fry your body into…”
“Shut up!” Dimiye roared as he stepped closer, cutting off her rant. “Now who are you?”
“Who am I?!” Maegwin shot back, a hint of confusion adding to her anger. “I’m your beloved fucking Stacy! I’m the one who pulled the wool over your eyes for years! Who the fuck do you think I am?!”
Alistar rubbed his eyes, trying to wake himself up. “All right, Maeg, you’ve got a choice. You’re gonna stop shouting or I’m going to gag you.”
“You don’t have the balls, you murdering, cock-sucking…” her rant was cut off by a tight piece of rope tied around her head. Weaving his hands, he placed a binding spirit on her ropes, and then stepped away. The fire in Harrington’s eyes was hot enough to burn away toxic waste.
While he returned to the controls, he silently thanked that she had suggested putting the ropes on her in the first place. Wait a minute, which Maegwin was that? There’s something more here than just a split personality. One part of her loves me, the other wants to kill me… what’s going on here? Alistar spared a glance back at her; her muffled rants grew more intense. No, this is new, her diary said nothing about this until the last page. This one is the real Maegwin… so who’s the other one, and why did she suddenly appear?
He checked the controls. We’re due to arrive in New Tokyo in another two days. I hope that the other woman appears again by then… I’ve already had my fill of this one.
Andrea Treschi felt the pain rushing up his back as he slammed into the wall. This was not my idea of a personal interview with Arthur Clarke, he thought, getting to his feet. That was when the chairman smashed into his solar plexus with his fist, the werewolf’s knee came up into his groin, and his other fist smashed into the colonel’s head. The former smuggler was now a wreck, feeling pain from places he never knew he had.
“You are one stupid son-of-a-bitch, Treschi.” Clarke growled, kicking him again in the side for good measure. “You should have stayed out of my way.”
Andrea wanted to blast the old man with a mindquake, drop him with so much pain he wouldn’t be able to stand himself. Of course, that would defeat the point of coming here… and I’m not sure he doesn’t have a mage waiting to block it. “I had no choice.”
A spin kick knocked the mage’s head back down to the floor. “Then you’ll be a dead son-of-a-bitch. You always have a choice.”
Treschi lifted his head to spit out the blood in his mouth. “I thought it worth the risk.”
“Then talk quickly,” the chairman muttered, “give me a reason why I shouldn’t kill you.”
“I just arrived from Wilke’s Star.”
“No shit.” Clarke shot back. “Do you really think my contacts didn’t spot you the second you entered New Paris? Just be lucky I haven’t put a reward out for your head.”
Andrea stayed prone on the floor. “We can trade insults all day, Art, or you can…”
The colonel didn’t finish before another fist smacked down on his back. “I hate that name. You should know that.”
“I do,” Treschi coughed, using liberal amounts of life magic to heal his body. “I just wanted to get your attention.”
The rage on Clarke’s face was enough to melt mountains. Somehow, he managed to restrain himself from dealing another series of blows, and stared at the fallen creature. “Don’t waste my time.”
“Fargus wants a truce.”
The old werewolf’s rage slowly faded and he stepped back. “Go on.”
“They sent me to negotiate a peace.”
“You? Why you?”
“They got the impression that you’d talk to me.” Andrea slowly pulled himself off the floor.
The former general snorted out a laugh. “Wonder where they got that idea.”
“They want a cease fire and they want it public. To get it, you deal with me.”
“The rebels are caught between the ‘cats and us. They couldn’t mount an attack if they wanted.”
“Neither can you.” Treschi shot back, waiting for the inevitable punch. It never came; for once the werewolf was speechless, the former smuggler pressed the advantage. “Tell me, chairman, which is more wise? To leave your borders undefended or to establish a peace with your enemy? Even with your Five Acts, how long will it take to build your new fleet… or get the personnel trained to man them?”
Arthur Clarke snapped his fingers. “So close, colonel… you almost convinced me. But if we can’t fight each other, then what’s the point of making a formal cease fire? We already have peace, if not on paper, then in fact.”
“Then the rebels won’t continue infiltrating your government. You want to know how Wall got so close to taking over? What about Lucky? They deliberately tried to overthrow the Fed. There was no coincidence in the timing of King’s ill-fated coup. The marshal knew that we couldn’t win this war. Collaborating with the rebels, and the arrival of their fleet, would have reunited the Fed… under their control. If they can do that to Johnson, what stops them doing it to you?”
“Bullshit, Treschi.” Clarke spat out and drew a small dagger from his belt. The dagger suddenly grew into a blood-red sword. “I gave you a chance to live and you tried to bluff. My son’s blood cries out from this blade… it’s time for vengeance. “
“Kill me and you’re dead!” the colonel shot back, using his magic to add emphasis to his words. The power behind the sentence made the chairman step back, shaking off the intimidation the old werewolf suddenly felt.
“Don’t you dare threaten me.” Clarke growled.
The powers of his mind shaped Andrea’s words. “What are you going to do… kill me? If I die, then my friends in InSec will give over every bit of data they have to the rebels.”
“What are you talking about?!”
“When you were off snuggling with Wall and MacManus, I went over to the opposition. You’d be surprised how cooperative Gergenstein can be when you’re gunning for your head. Since he’s ‘between jobs’ at the moment, I made him an offer. Sell out the Fed to the rebels and they’ll fund your organization. Fargus was very interested in the idea.”
“You’d destroy the Federation?”
“What have I got to lose?!?!” Treschi shouted back, struggling to his feet. “The deal is simple, chairman. Make peace with the rebels publicly… or watch your empire fall.”
Arthur lowered his sword and stepped closer. Sniffing the air, he stared straight at the former smuggler. “What do you want, Treschi? What do you want out of all this?”
Andrea decided to push his luck; after all, the worst I can do is get killed. “I am still colonel of the Raptors.”
Clarke stepped closer. “You think you can run my boys without my support?”
“I did run the Raptors, sir, without your support.” Treschi straightened himself to stare back at the old man’s burning eyes. “If you remember, you were dead.”
“A technicality, colonel… you could become one.”
“You’re making them a larger organization,” Andrea talked fast, “to handle the load of the universal draft. That’s more than a division-sized group, possibly even a legion.”
“You want to be a general?”
“Why not? After all, with such a large department, you’re going to need experienced personnel.”
The old werewolf got right in the young man’s face. “I don’t need you, Treschi.”
“Would you rather have Fargus sit at your desk?”
Andrea didn’t flinch under Arthur’s withering stare, although it took all his willpower to do it. Finally, the chairman backed off, and walked back to his desk. “I know Fargus, Treschi… you don’t. He never fought the Bugs, never walked with death like I did.” Clarke opened up a drawer and pulled out a box. “He’s never had to lose. I think he took one look at you and saw hope… or did you plant that in his mind?”
Colonel Treschi stepped forward as he smiled. I’ve never even seen the man, he thought. “I use what I can.”
“Tell him that I’ll announce the cease fire. You’re still head of the Raptors… but in name only.” Clarke tossed the box at the former smuggler. “There’s your stars, now get out.”
Andrea opened the box and saw the pair of stars for a brigadier-general. “Pleasure serving under you again, sir.” he saluted, then walked out of the office.
Once Treschi left, Clarke pressed a button on his desk. “Yes?”
“Send the ambassador in.”
The man who stepped into the chairman’s office was dressed in thick robes, covered head-to-toe in dark fabric. As he stood in front of the werewolf, he took down his hood, revealing an older oriental man, his jet black hair graying slowly. “I’m surprised you found me.”
“I have my sources.” Arthur replied, leaning back in his chair, pressing another button to activate a jamming device. “I’m surprised we found you in a monastery.”
“The brothers of Saint Cialt were rather kind to give me sanctuary, especially after my generous donation to their cause.” The unlikely monk found a chair and sat down. “What did you want?”
“I want the Eastern Bloc to invade the southwest frontier.”
“Our battle fleet was badly damaged in our earlier fight with the Rebels. We couldn’t possibly…”
“You have another fleet, undamaged, still lying idle within your borders. A fraction of that could seize Jennifer’s Star and cut off the Rebels from their majority of their support.”
“I’m afraid that fleet is necessary to protect us from the Bugs, the Jurvain…”
“We’re not children,” Clarke chided, “stop playing that game. Defense against the Bugs is handled through some of the most elaborate system defenses ever designed, and not counting your government’s peace treaty with the Jurvain, they’re too busy fighting us to attack you.”
“Perhaps so, but the Emperor often errs on the side of caution. If we weakened our defenses for territorial gain, you would rush in after us. The situation dictates caution, honored chairman, not foolhardy campaigns we could ill afford.”
“Then we trade. You conquer the southwest frontier. In exchange, the Federation will ally with the Bloc, with your embassy restored and trading status enhanced.”
“All of that is academic, honored chairman. Even if you win the war, it is doubtful that your country could afford to offer us any less. Your nation needs the goods that your wrecked factories can no longer supply.”
“Then I’ll go a step farther. The Federation will finance your little campaign, providing you with the money necessary to seize Jennifer’s Star.”
“You’d pay us to take one of your own systems?”
“It does me no good to claim it if it’s in Rebel hands. Now do we have a deal?”
“To fund the campaign is one thing, but it is our people who will die in its execution. Perhaps if you assisted the consolidation of our claims by paying for the defenses around Hadrian and Charbydis…”
“The Fed will fund the defenses of Jennifer’s Star, when you have it in your possession, to consolidate your claim to the southwest frontier.”
The ambassador’s eyebrows went up. “Intriguing. I’ll have to discuss this with the Imperial Council.”
“Do it, but decide quickly… I may be forced to find other allies soon.”
The Asian man bowed his head. “I shall, honored chairman.”
END OF ACT II
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.