YOU'RE GONNA CARRY THAT WEIGHT – Act IV
"I never give you my pillow / I only send you invitations
And in the middle of the celebrations / I break down
Boy, you're gonna carry that weight / Carry that weight a long time."
-- Paul McCartney, "Carry That Weight"
"So what do I call you now?" Hu asked, leaning against the wall, his flowing red monk robes looking carefully dyed from their original orange.
"I'm not sure," Yasuyama Takamitsu admitted, sitting across from him in the sparsely filled conference room. Shinsuke sat to his right, looking bored without something to shoot. Or maybe that's just because Wen is in the same room; he wishes he could shoot something. Kim Wen sat to his left, fiddling with schedules and task lists on her datapad. "My dad's the Duke, does that make me…?"
"Lord Takamitsu, heir-apparent to the Duchy of New Tokyo," Wen rattled off before looking up. "Or will be, upon your father's formal investiture in Avalon."
"Whenever we get there," Taka admitted. "Speaking of which, when does Robertson leave?"
The former monk smiled. "This evening. The high priest was quite pleased to be named to the Imperial Court. I'm told he will be given a high post in the Cult Temple near the palace. Quite an honor."
"And just happens to get him out of our hair," Shinsuke groaned. "No offense."
"None taken," Hu admitted. "As popular as Sun-Yat is in the system, I think he's more suited as a cleric than a governor. His… zealotry for the Emperor would have made him a poor steward for the Emperor."
"Praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal," Yasuyama said without the slightest bit of cynicism. Having met the man(?) behind the title, it's obvious to see that we're both riding the tiger. Best to give him his due. "Or anything else. So what do we call you now, Hu?"
"Archbishop. The high priest seemed fit to bestow me with a higher station, as well as responsibility to continue the Cult's work here on New Tokyo."
Taka nodded. "I'm glad to hear it. I look forward to working with you to restore this world to prosperity."
Hu smiled. "But not today. I hear an exit line when I hear one."
"From what we hear," Wen interrupted, "you're gonna have your hands full establishing the new order among your followers. We need to coordinate our corporate contacts to get everything operational again. Nothing inspires hatred as no work, no food, and the trains not running."
"Point well taken. With your permission, My Lord?"
"Of course, Your Grace," Taka replied. Hu bowed and left the conference room.
Shinsuke had the grace to keep from laughing until the door was closed. "Shin…" Wen warned.
The werewolf's laughter calmed into chuckles. "Here we are, acting all serious and…"
"And we don't have a clue what we're doing?" Yasuyama finished.
Shin burst out into another fit of laughter. Taka rolled his eyes. When he calmed down again, he turned to Kim and said, "Speaking of what we're doing, have we got the Zeta Armor production started?"
"Yes, Taka. Thankfully, our Shimonosaki plant was undamaged during the war. Our design is not that different from the Delta armor we were building before, so the engineers are having no trouble adapting the machinery. Barring any mishaps, and safety protocols placed, we should have our first ten built by the end of the week. Then we'll eventually ramp it up to a hundred a day, but that depends on our nanotech production…"
"What about the… ahem, other project?" Shin pointed out.
"The Dooms Day Device," Taka rubbed his eyes. "I talked to my father about it. He really doesn't want to build it. He only built them for the Federation because of the Vin Shriak, and… look what they did with them."
"Why do you want a 3D?" Wen asked.
"Because he has my mom!" the young lord exploded at her. "My mom, my sister, my grandfather…"
"Who has them?" She was confused.
"If I knew that, I…" he felt a slight breeze and paused. Taka's eyes looked around the windows; all were sealed. "If I knew that, I would stop him. The family made a deal, and like it or not, I have no alternative but to complete it."
"Did you…" Wen gulped. "Did you see…?"
Takamitsu took her hands. "Your father and mother are safe. I'm sure they will come and see you soon."
The battle-hardened corporate diva suddenly became a little girl again, remembering that fateful day when she left her family at the transfer station. When she thought her family had died in the fires of Vin Shriak holy war. Tears fell hard and fast as her entire body heaved with relief and regret.
Taka moved to hold her, but then stopped and looked at Shin. He pretended not to see, so Taka cleared his throat, forcing his eyes up. The young lord nodded towards Kim and glared at Shin; the werewolf finally took the hint, got up from his seat, and held her in his arms.
She continued to weep for a while longer, until she finally pushed away Shinsuke's hand. "I'll, um. I'll make sure the materials for the 3D are available. There's some technical… um, components."
"Go," Takamitsu ordered, and Shin guided Wen out of her seat and out the door.
Only when the door closed behind them did Taka lean back in his chair and ask, "Well? Are you going to keep hiding or are you going to talk to me?"
"Would it do any good?" a woman's voice answered him.
Yasuyama shrugged. "Only one way to find out."
It seemed as if the air suddenly wrapped around a shapeless form, eventually molding into the body of Fialla Spencer. Even in her unflattering uniform, her athletic frame was beautiful—in the way that a hawk is beautiful before it strikes. "You have no idea how hard this is for me."
"Try getting shot at. Try running a revolution."
"Been there, done that," the colonel sat down opposite him. "So you've made up your mind. You're going to help him."
Taka held up his hands. "I don't have an alternative. I don't want to hand some psychopathic time mage a weapon that can destroy a sun! But he has my family. They let us think they were dead to achieve a better future for all of us. So I will make the weapon, I will give it to the Denim Man, and be done with your damn little war."
The colonel was about to reply, but bit back whatever nasty comment she was about to fire his way. She took in and released a deep breath. "You found them."
"Better to say, they found me," Takamitsu admitted. "So did your enemy. Both of them are impatient."
"Did he say why he wanted the Dooms Day Device?" Fialla asked politely.
"He said he wanted it in Avalon."
"That bastard," Spencer cursed.
"The Denim Man's going after Vin Dane, isn't he?" Taka raised his eyebrows. "He's going to blow up an entire system to get one man."
She looked confused. "Why do you keep calling him that?"
"The Denim Man."
"Because I don't know his name. He wore a denim jacket when I saw him. I suppose I can call him 'Time Mage with a Grudge,' but that's hard to spit out…"
"He's not a mage."
Now it was Taka's turn to pause. "But… but he transported…"
"No," Fialla shook her head, "he's trapped outside of time, like me. You can never stay in any one timeline for too long, but you can take others with you. That's what he did. Like I did, when I saved your life on the orbital."
"So why does he want to kill Vin Dane?"
"I don't know," Spencer admitted, "but I think it's because Dane just happens to have the Orb."
This time, Taka was confused. "I don't get it."
"You and me both," Fialla faded slightly, like she was a holoproj on low power, "but the Orb does nasty things to anyone who's around it for too long. I was on the EFS Madrid, out on the Rim, when it appeared on my ship. The Caal attacked. The ship exploded—but in that moment, I grabbed the Orb… and I've never been the same." She leaned forward. "I've seen stars explode, empires rise and fall, and possibilities… the best and worst of all possible futures. The worst futures happen because of that damn Orb."
"Then… the Denim Man wants to destroy it?"
"The Denim Man… okay, I'll admit, I don't know his name either," Fialla shrugged, "thinks that if he destroys the Orb, that will free us from this half-life and return us to reality. He told me that he believes it's the key that holds magick in our universe. No magick? No one exists out of time. To him, it's a big reset button."
"You talked to him?" Taka's eyes went wide.
"Briefly, when he was trying to convince me to help him."
"And you said no?"
"Worse, I shot him." Spencer smiled. "Turns out Horadrim are hard to kill. I ended up fighting him across time and space… then I lost him. I had to monitor the time streams until I saw his interference."
The young lord pointed to her. "Why don't you take the Orb, then?"
"I don't want it. The Orb's nothing but trouble. I've seen what it does to those who try and wield it. There was this… well, gray man who was caught outside of time, too, but he took the Orb out of one timeline and shoved it into this one. Just for the sheer hell of it." She faded some more. "That kiddo was so messed up."
"But then you'll be trapped…"
"No," Fialla answered, "I've seen all the possibilities, Taka. All the alternate realities end at the same time… and that's coming soon. I bet that when that happens, I won't need to be here anymore, and I'll get flung back into reality. Hopefully somewhere nice." She was now only an outline in a chair. Her voice softened as her image did. "I deserve somewhere nice, don't you think? After all this…?"
"What do you want me to do?"
"The Orb's the key to this universe. If he blows it up, bye bye universe. Stop him."
"But what about my…?"
And with a pop, she was gone.
On the first day after the demon hunter arrived at the station, he was excited. This was his first opportunity to test his conviction and to truly prove himself, both before others and in the judgment of his own heart. When he first heard of the demonic incursion in Avalon, he'd wanted to leave the abbey immediately. Father Rourke had rightly pointed out, however, that there would be little the demon hunter could do to deal with abyssal ruptures in the midst of empty space. The demon hunter had reluctantly returned to his more mundane chores in the abbey, and quietly cursed the abbot's wisdom.
But then, when he learned of the disappearance at the Utopia Planitia yards where the surviving shuttle from the incursion incident had been impounded, the demon hunter had to take his curses back. Father Rourke had not only agreed that the demon hunter should go to Mars, but had sent a letter of introduction to Father Kamal at the Mariner City cathedral. The demon hunter had packed his bag and left New Paris within the day. And when he arrived at Mars, Father Kamal had personally accompanied him to see the Utopia Planitia number 8 repair yard commander.
The Fleet officer had been less enthusiastic. "I've already got the Imperial Guard crawling all over the station, and they haven't found any sign of Nicky!" He looked between the demon hunter and the placid face of Father Kamal, however, and relented. "Fine," he said, "just don't get in anyone's way. I have to make schedule on these cruisers!"
The demon hunter spent the rest of the day conferring with the investigators from the Imperial Guards and a few members of the yard crew, but they mostly confirmed what the commander had said. A senior electronics techie had disappeared during a coffee break after examining the shuttle recovered from the Avalon incident, and no one had the slightest idea how or why. The demon hunter knew what had happened, of course, but he didn't blame the others for their skepticism. They lacked the demon hunter's calling and insight. That wasn't a failure on their part; but it was the source of his responsibility. And the demon hunter was quite certain that the fiends who had revealed themselves in Avalon were still at work above Mars.
He spent the second day speaking to more crewmen and exploring the station, familiarizing himself with its layout and its contents. He examined the shuttle which had been towed here from the digital gate, bringing its curse along with it. The vessel was relatively new, little used and little worn, and offered no clues about its most recent possessor. The flight controls had still been active when it was towed into the yard, according to station workers, but there was no sign of any occupants. The most recent fingerprints taken from those controls had appeared human, but a search of the Imperial and old Federation registries had yielded no likely matches. DNA recovered from various skin flakes inside the shuttle had produced results—more than a dozen positive identifications, and at least three unknowns. But most of the matched individuals had been part of the crew of the transport destroyed at Avalon, and the remainders were old passengers. None of it appeared to shed any light on the mystery. Still, the demon hunter memorized summary biographies of each of the matched persons, just to be sure.
For the third day, the demon hunter remained in his temporary quarters. He prayed for the wisdom of the Emperor, seeking insight that would guide him towards the correct path to complete his investigation. He prayed to be endowed with the virtue and power necessary to confront the evil which he knew to be present on this station. And he prayed for the courage which he would need to make use of that wisdom and that power if he were to see this through to the end.
During the fourth day, he reviewed all the information he had collected and possibilities he had imagined again in his mind. He repeated his examination of the shuttle and walked the station, attempting to feel for the presence of evil as he did so. At times, he thought he might almost have detected something, but the sensation was always weak and always fleeting so that he could not be sure that it wasn't the product his own imagination fueled by an excess of zealousness.
On the fifth day, he began to doubt, and more than once drew close to true despair as he continued to wander the corridors and compartments for lack of better ideas. He had not felt doubt in nearly a year. Not since he had feared for his life and soul when the demons came and walked the streets of his old home. Not since he watched the Emperor's holy warriors incinerating the bodies of his friends and families to exorcise them of the demons. Not since the light of the pyres had penetrated his soul and he'd known that he was called to join the ranks of those warriors. Not since he became the demon hunter.
Perhaps his time at the abbey had softened him. Father Rourke had never failed to praise him for his dedication; even the highest and most loyal of the Emperor's clergy had occasional grumbles. Yet the demon hunter's faith had always been absolute. He had believed that the extermination fires had burned away all of his doubt. But now he was failing to accomplish his task, and he knew that was not true. He had performed all his duties at the abbey without complaint, but those had merely been a way to pass the time while he waited for a true opportunity to arrive to fulfill his purpose. This was his purpose; this was the entire reason for his existence, the reason for his faith. And he was failing.
Before he could fully plumb the depths of his developing crisis of confidence, however, the demon hunter was waylaid by an excited member of the station crew. As he conducted his investigation, he had also taken the time and care to serve the faith by answering the questions of the curious and offering advice and solace to the wayward. The demon hunter knew that his particular calling and mannerisms made him a source of some fascination and the focus of gossip. But it also came as no surprise that the crew here found him a more accessible servant of the faith than their own stumbling, inarticulate chaplain. And in the end that attention to the missionary aspects of his faith rewarded him when the out-of-breath crewman informed him that something had just broken into one of the station's secure storerooms. The demon hunter was able to arrive before the actual security team.
Even before the regular crew explained the mundane details, however, the demon hunter knew that his initial convictions had been right. He could smell the stink of evil all over the place. The locked doors had not been forced, but the more tightly secured storage safes inside had been ripped open. The crewmen told him that the thief had taken five quintessence valves, all fully imbued and intended to sustain the integrity and efficiency of a battlecruiser's powerful primary engines. Then he had disappeared once more, again without needing to pass through the storeroom doors. The obvious conclusion was a correspondence mage or perhaps a shapechanger passing through the spirit wilds. The demon hunter, however, knew it was nothing so ordinary. So even as the station's security officers were still scouring the room for evidence, the demon hunter left again, walking swiftly and hoping to catch the trail of the fiends.
The smell dissipated quickly outside the storeroom, but after the demon hunter focused his mind and his faith on the task, he was able to perceive the more subtle signs of the passing evil. It was somewhat akin to a trail of footsteps seared into the very air, and once the demon hunter sensed the start of the trail, it was easy enough to follow. It largely followed the contours of the station's corridors, but did occasionally pass through a wall, and once delved beneath the deck. But the demon hunter was not deterred by the detours his mortal body was forced to make, and each time he quickly reacquired the trail and resumed his hunt.
He was not surprised to see it lead him back to the boat bay where the transport shuttle was impounded. He was, perhaps, mildly frustrated that he had been unable to sense anything here before, but the swelling pride for his success now was more than sufficient to overcome those feelings. He could even see the demon itself now. There was only one, ghostly and faint like the image from a failing holoprojector, the result of the demon hunter viewing his prey from across the veil between worlds. It sat with crossed legs, chin resting on the fingers of one fist as it pondered something, likely the spoils of its recent theft. The demon hunter, too, knelt to watch. He could not strike across the veil, but that did not dampen his satisfaction. He had found his quarry, now he need only wait for the opportunity to extinguish it.
The demon hunter kept his place for nearly twelve hours, moving only to relieve the strain on his legs and keep the muscles from camping. His target moved even less, only lifting its head on occasion, and perhaps speaking or uttering incantations of some sort. The demon hunter could not hear from across the barrier which divided them, so he could not be sure. Remarkably, none of the station's crew disturbed him in the bay while he waited, not even to inspect the shuttle within. The demon hunter was grateful for that. He was so excited by his impending success that he might not have been able to maintain the calm demeanor appropriate for a servant of the faith in the face of such distraction.
Eventually, the target stood and began to move again. The demon hunter followed. To his good fortune, the interloper did not descend through the floor or rise through the ceiling this time; though the demon hunter made sure he had a firm grasp on the trail just in case. Several times, the demon would approach a repair bay or work room where station technicians were carrying out their duties, only for the fiend to stop, turn back, and trace a new route. After the third repetition of this process, the demon hunter thought he could detect signs of agitation in its movement. It began walking faster, often shook its head or made angry gestures. Once, it stopped in the middle of the hall for several minutes, tapping its foot and rubbing its chin as it seemed to contemplate. The demon hunter kept pace all the way, watching silently, staying ready but taking care not to be tense. When the fiend resumed walking again, the demon hunter followed it all the way to the other side of the station. It passed into an empty boat bay, and the demon hunter had to pause a moment to open the hatch. But when he did, he found his prey standing in the middle of the open birth, looking back almost directly at the demon hunter. As he watched, it crossed its arms, stood still for a few seconds, and then nodded its head. It raised both hands and brought them together in front of its face. Then it pinched the air and peeled open a portal into the world that it could poke its head through.
"Aaah!" it exclaimed at the demon hunter. "You've been following me!"
The demon hunter threw open his longcoat and lifted up one of the short scabbards off his belt, hooking the fingers of his left hand through the hand guard, prepared to unsheathe the weapons. With his right hand he gestured towards the demon itself.
"Indeed, foul creature," he proclaimed. "I serve His Holy Majesty—praise His wisdom and His name!—by eradicating all those tainted with the scourge of evil. Now step into the light so that I may dispense your punishment."
"Yeah," the fiend's eyes glanced around the bay, "this would ordinarily be the point where I say 'No.' But I figure you're probably just going to keep on following me, so what the hell."
It spread its arms, tugging the breach in the veil wide enough to pass its entire body through. But just as it took the first step across the portal, the demon hunter surged forward. He grabbed the fiend around its neck and by the groin, then planted his foot and heaved to throw it up and over his shoulder. The fiend flew across the empty bay and crashed upside down into the far wall with enough force to break an ordinary man's spine.
"Whoa!" the fiend yelled. "What the hell do you think—"
"Silence, beast!" the demon hunter shouted it down. It was a monstrosity to be purged, swiftly and without mercy or discussion. The demon hunter leaped after it, and as he flew he drew the two short butterfly swords from their scabbard, and flipped them around in each hand. His faith and conviction flowed into the blades as he swung them at the bottom of his own falling arc.
Unfortunately, the fiend was not so slow-witted as to be caught off guard twice. It rolled away just in time, and the demon hunter's twin blades sank into the steel deck of the boat bay.
"Well—fine, then!" the fiend harrumphed. It sounded and looked like a man—albeit burned and disfigured—but the demon hunter could clearly see the truth beneath its skin. And even an unenlightened slob could see that something was not quite right when the fiend tore off a three-meter length of pipe from a wall with one hand and swung it at the demon hunter's skull.
The demon hunter released his swords, leaving them embedded in the deck, and thumped a fist against his chest. "Praise the Emperor; He is my salvation from the darkness! Burn!"
The light which flashed in the bay had no obvious source. It was fueled by the demon hunter's faith, and because of that it was stronger than any weapon or power which the cursed fiend could ever wield. In proof, the fiend dropped his pipe and covered his eyes, screaming in pain.
The demon hunter did not hesitate to take advantage of his enemy's momentary blindness. He jumped again, and drew his second pair of butterfly swords. The fiend blinked, and once again saw what was coming. But this time, he was not able to get away fast enough. One blade sunk up to the hilt into its left forearm. The other swung wide, and the demon hunter dropped it when the fiend punched him in the gut, winding him badly. Still, he did not allow himself to fall or be immobilized within reach of the beast. He danced away and drew his third pair of swords, even as he fought to regain his breath.
"How many of those things do you have?" the fiend hissed between its teeth.
"Enough," the demon hunter choked out. His lungs were still on fire from the blow to his abdomen, but he was pleased to hear his conviction still resonate powerfully in the single word. He weaved into a new position, preparing for another attack.
"Yeah, that's about how I feel, too," the fiend said as it ripped the demon hunter's sword out of its arm. "Seriously, it's been fun, but I have got way more important stuff to be doing. Peace out."
The infernal creature flung the butterfly sword underhand at a far wall, striking an emergency control panel. This resulted in a great mechanical shrieking, and then the heavy doors on the bay's exterior wall slammed open. The demon hunter managed three lunging steps, just a hair's breadth out of striking range of the fiend, before the rush of liberated atmosphere carried him through the open airlock and off the station.
"Well, that could have gone more smoothly," Scyr said almost an hour later. He dropped the body of the unconscious mage he'd collected next to the earlier corpse and the pile of junk that he'd collected so far. Actually, the distraction of the unexpected decompression had made the job easier, as most of the station crew rushed to investigate, leaving one dedicated engineer alone and easy to pick off. "I hope I've got everything now, security's probably about to get a lot tighter. If they don't just decommission the whole station."
"This will suffice," his internal dialogue said, standing over the mage, "unless you repeat your errors. A purpose-built patternistic array would be more efficient, but it would require more instruction and tools which would also need to be created. A second-order sentient mortal should possess sufficient resources to achieve the necessary function. Now you will separate the patternistic engines from the body."
"Great," Scyr stuck out his tongue in disgust. Even so, he walked up next to his internal dialogue, and waved a hand at his soon-to-be human sacrifice. "All right, walk me through it again."
William Bishop was used to unstable situations. In combat, one took it for granted that your battle plan never survived contact with the enemy. That's why he trained so hard; when you knew every possible direction from which a strike might fall, one could make sure never to be there when the blade fell.
But now Bishop found himself in a battle for which there were no set moves, no obvious blades, but where the strikes cut just as deep. As he followed the vampire who called himself Luther Petridis, William felt the waves of comfort and calm radiating off him… and knew that it was false. Luther may have saved him back at the street fight, but Darius could have been lure for a bigger trap. Luther was luring him into a false sense of security, and it took a lot of effort to shake it off. The werepanther knew he had to keep on his toes.
Bishop had been in the Sabbat long enough to sense the vampire's affiliation: Gangrel. The animalistic breed that preferred the forest to the city; the vampires that were more beast than man.
So the templar was even more confused when Luther led them into a high-class condominium. "You… own this place?"
Petridis twisted his wrist and the door came open. "Of course not."
As they stepped in the luxurious accommodations, a voice came from a far room, "Luthie? Is that you?"
"Yes, my love," the Gangrel called back. "I'm afraid I have business, darling."
"Don't take too long," the female voice replied. "I missed you!"
"Yes, darling," Luther smiled and nodded to a small door off to the side. They went down into the basement, dark and rustic with a roaring fire. There were two overstuffed chairs in the dimly-lit room; Luther pointed to one as he slumped down in the other.
"Luthie?" Bishop teased.
"The poor lady was lonely," the vampire shrugged, "and I tire of pretending that blood is a simple necessity to our kind. I give her romance and the height of ecstasy, she gives me sustenance. It's an equitable exchange."
"But still," William waved his hand around the room, "isn't this a bit… obvious?"
"Would you have guessed I was here?"
Bishop nodded. "Good point. So what exchange took place to save me?"
"You were worthy."
"You said that before," the werepanther replied. "Worthy of what?"
"My protection," Luther answered, reaching for a carafe of something dark. "Would you care for something to drink?"
"Do you have a sandwich?"
Petridis shook his head no, pouring the dark liquid into a wine goblet, and smelling its rich aroma.
"So why was I worthy?"
The vampire took a sip and sighed with pleasure. "You are not the first templar that has served my lord. Nor the last. They've all been bright, beautiful, and strong… but many were fools." When he saw William tense, he held up a hand. "That's why I was following you. I wanted to know you better, before I took you into my confidence. When I saw you were willing to join forces with those that threatened my lord, then obviously you were not a fool, and it would be a shame to waste such talent."
"Bullshit," Bishop spat back.
"You're scared, aren't you?" William leaned forward, his face caught in the firelight. "If you work for Santino, then you're seeing the same signs that I have. Someone's trying to make a move against him. No matter how stupid a move that is, you need all the allies you can."
"I don't just work for Santino," Luther answered. "I'm his paladin."
Bishop blinked. Santino's paladin; his personal bodyguard, the one man trusted to protect the Priscus' life. No wonder he needs allies, he thought, if the conspiracy against Santino is as big as we think. "So why aren't you protecting him, instead of following me? Better yet, why aren't you helping Melissa to kill Snyder?"
Petridis shrugged. "I don't trust Melissa."
"But you trust me?"
"I trust that you need Santino as much as he needs you. As a creature of Gaia, you know you can never rise too high in the Sabbat. I've heard of ghouls rising to the rank of Bishop—no pun intended—but they have the one advantage you will never have… time." Luther took another sip. "You need a vampire patron to keep your status… and there is only one higher than the Priscus."
The Gangrel shuddered. "Please. You dare invoke his name?"
"I dare a lot of things," Bishop replied, "like this. Who is working against Santino?"
"If I knew that, I wouldn't need you. Darius worked for Calihye, that much was obvious, but that bitch isn't smart enough to work on her own. She has to have someone powerful she's working for—but who?"
"What about this?" William took a small book out of his clothes and tossed it to Luther.
The vampire caught it effortlessly and opened it. "Giovanni? Ridiculous. We exterminated them."
"That's what everyone thought," Bishop answered, "until we killed one back on Wilke's Star."
Luther looked surprised. "The last holdout, perhaps?"
"Perhaps, but why would he be on Wilke's Star, the stronghold of Sabbat power? If he was the last, why would he be hiding in the one place he was sure to be found? No… he was told to go there, and since Calihye and Darius showed up right after we killed him, I'm guessing that they all answer to the same person."
"And that person is a Giovanni?" Petridis shook his head. "Perhaps, but Calihye wouldn't work on her own—she has too much to lose. She needs someone on the inside to take the fall, if anything goes wrong."
"So you want me to find out who that is?"
"We both need to find that out," Luther took another sip, "and quickly. I'm guessing they'll make their move soon. Our lives depend on learning who is against our lord."
"M. Cassandra," Baron Snyder beamed as he said the name, as if saying it sent pleasure through his golden vocal cords. "I was so pleased to hear that you came to visit our dark city."
Melissa Cortona smiled through her skinmask as he walked over towards the giant desk. She could almost hear her tight business suit creak as she moved, making sure to (inadvertently) show as much skin as possible. "Thank you, Your Excellency," she said demurely.
"Chris, please," the baron replied, waved his hand towards the seat. "Take a seat."
"Thank you, Chris." Melissa smiled as she took the chair and sat down, taking her time to cross her legs. "I'm glad you could see me on such short notice."
"Not at all. InterGlobal is respected throughout the galaxy. I would be a fool to ignore their… beautiful representative."
The vampire felt the blush seep through the skinmask as she forced blood to her face. "Thank you. I've been asked to do an in-depth composite of the Holy Terran Empire. My bosses have noticed that there's been a lack of detail on the FedNet coming out about your government, and we want to tell your story."
"I believe it," Chris smiled. Melissa thought he looked like a chiseled piece of meat; some biosculpt, but not a lot. The baron was obviously someone who was vain about his appearance. "FNN has been slamming us since the Emperor, praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal, rose to his rightful place."
Melissa smiled back. That is such bullshit, she thought. InterGlobal's the Fed mouthpiece, FNN's the one that has gone out of their way to be impartial. "As I said, we'd like to rectify that. A popular, successful planetary governor… such as yourself… is the perfect candidate to change that image. Naturally, my colleagues will be doing similar interviews across the Empire, but I'm sure someone in your position would get higher exposure than say… an Imperial Fleet spokesman."
"No one watches the Imperial Fleet broadcasts these days," Snyder groaned.
"Oh, we do," Cortona tilted her head, "but as I said, we need a broader perspective. Could we set up a convenient time to have the interview? My crew is en route, but after the battle for St. Michael's Star, travel connections have been difficult."
"I understand. How about tomorrow? I believe I have an opening at," he checked his datapad, "1700?"
"I'm sure my crew can be ready by then."
"Excellent. And perhaps, if you're not too busy, I could take you out to dinner afterwards. Diemanese cuisine is truly underappreciated."
"I would be delighted," Melissa smiled as she stood up, holding out her hand.
Snyder took it immediately to shake; Cortona felt relieved the baron hadn't noticed the transdermal med she had sprayed over the clearskin glove on her hand. The vampire appeared to appreciate the over-affectionate shake and then turned to leave…
…right as the double doors burst open. A trio of angry men looked at her, plasma revolvers pointed at Melissa. "Freeze!"
"What the hell.,,?" the baron said.
"Sire," the lead bodyguard interrupted, "we managed to get a connection to InterGlobal as part of our background check. Melinda Cassandra is currently listed as missing after the Cronos riots."
Well, so much for black-market scrambler bots, Melissa thought, and decided to play the outrage card. "Of course I am! I barely got off Cronos with my crew! We're trying to do a composite of the Empire and…"
"Then we'll hold you until we find out the truth. Move!"
Cortona shrugged and calmly walked forward. After all, she had made her kill—the target just didn't know it yet. Unfortunately for her, Chris noticed it before she could step out the door. "Aaaagggghhh!!!" The baron suddenly grabbed his hand. "What did you do to me?!"
"What are you talking about?" Melissa continued to feign ignorance.
The lead bodyguard ran back to his boss. "Shit—virus. Here," he pulled out a silver tube.
Melissa knew what that tube was; antibody nanobots. Depending how good they were, they could break down her chemical attack. She had to stop the guard before he could use it. Twiddling the sapphire broach on her suit, suddenly the wraith burst out of the stone, spooking the hell out of the guards. Cortona rode in after the shock and spin-kicked the two to the ground.
Hugh was confused as he appeared. "What in the bloody…?"
The vampire didn't have time to explain. Slamming her elbows into the downed guards, she swept the plasma revolvers into her hands…
…right as the lead bodyguard blasted away at her. Luckily, he was aiming at Hugh, so he let the plasma bolts pass through him. Melissa let her fingers do the talking and blasted at the remaining bodyguard's legs. The man went down in excruciating pain, so Cortona shot him in the head, putting him out of his brief misery.
"God!" the baron screamed, falling to his knees and reaching for the silver tube.
Melissa walked over and kicked his antidote out of his grasp. "I'm afraid your god's on Avalon these days. Hugh, watch the guards."
"Now I'm a babysitter?!"
"Sorry, Sir Hugh. Watch the guards."
"Waste of my talent," the wraith mumbled, keeping his ghostly blade over the dumbfounded guards.
"W…why?!" Chris Snyder asked.
Melissa smiled. "Jason Horner sends his regards." She stood there calmly, watching the knowledge pass over his face, counting the seconds while she watched the planetary governor die.
"I don't know if it's relevant," Hugh Montgomery offered, "but they've just sealed the lift."
"Expected," Cortona walked around to the other side of desk, searching the drawers.
"What in blazes are you doing, girl?"
The vampire hit a hidden button and a portion of the wall opened. "Escape hatch. Let's go."
"I'm not getting back in that stone."
"Then walk. Or float, whatever… just move." Melissa stepped into the tiny corridor. The little path took them down a strange flight of stairs—sandwiched inconspicuously in the inner walls of the government complex—until they reached the end. Melissa shoved against one side and the wall slipped open. Finding themselves just off the main road, she began to fiddle with her ring.
"I suppose we walk now," Hugh moaned.
"If you like," Cortona shrugged as a flitter decelerated down towards them, "but I'm going to take a ride."
The hatch opened and Irene York smiled from behind the pilot's chair. Somehow she made a chauffeur's outfit look indecent. "It went smoothly?"
"Hardly," Melissa groaned and stepped in; Hugh floated into the matching seat. "Keep to ground streets. Imperial Guards will check air traffic first."
"That good, huh?" York teased.
"You are a terrible assassin!" Montgomery berated her. "At least the IRA had timing! Not only do you almost get caught, but you leave two live witnesses!"
"Yeah, fancy that." The vampire started peeling the skinmask off. "Two witnesses who heard me use the chief minister's name as the man who ordered his death." With the false face removed, she used the plastek to rip off the infected cover on her palm. "Imagine what happens when some intrepid reporter discovers a hundred thousand credit transfer to one Melinda Cassandra."
Hugh's eyes went wide. "You wanted them alive?"
"No, I wanted to get out of the building before the baron started dying, but… mission accomplished." Melissa leaned forward. "Send the signal to Santino. Hopefully Bishop had better luck with Darius."
Izzy pressed his face to the tinted windows of the auto-cab like a small child as they drove by the Dynametro's signature waterfront.
"Oh… it's been ages since I've been here! Look at how the place has grown! It was so much more quaint back then. The beach looks nearly the same though. The surf… the sun… the auto-sand… I wonder if they still have that… auto-sand… wonderful stuff…"
After a pregnant silence filled with Izzy glancing surreptitiously at the two other passengers in the car and back out at the waterfront, Agent Five spoke up with a sigh. "All right, fine, I'll bite. What is auto-sand?"
"Nanomite grains," Izzy said too quickly, as though he had been waiting for just that question. "Originally they used the stuff for clearing polluted water to make it safe for public use, but it's evolved to clean up the beach of trash as well. Breaks down most ordinary trash into nutrients that get taken up by the surf to enrich the water for the marine life. I should really get some of the stuff for Sylvania's beaches. It has hideously expensive startup costs and a tendency to wash away though, which is why I've been putting it off. But from what I've heard it usually winds up being worth the expense."
"That's really… fascinating."
"It is also excellent for curing athlete's foot. Just take your sandals off and run around a bit. Bam! No more fungus!"
"I really hope you don't start spewing 'interesting facts' at the governor." Agent Five crossed her arms and looked slightly annoyed.
"Listen, little miss Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I am perfectly capable of conducting myself with the utmost sense of decorum and grace. I didn't stay in power in the Hadrian system just by being endearingly eccentric, I'll have you know."
"No, I'm sure that had more to do with the vast amounts of money," Five mumbled under her breath.
"Look, there's no point in being as old as I am if you can't act childlike—"
"Childish." Agent Five corrected.
"—childlike, if you want to." Izzy sulked and stared out the window. "My goodness, when did you become such a Grinch?"
"I am not a Grinch! You don't even know who I am! Maybe I've always been more mature than you."
"Sorry sweetie, no one starts off life as a stick in the mud. That requires years of intensive study—"
In a flash, Agent Five was out of her seat in the moving cab. "Don't ever, EVER, call me 'sweetie' again." The look in her eye was murderous.
Izzy held up his hands in surprised supplication. "O-okay… I apologize," he said seriously.
Twedt cleared her throat noisily. "I think before we head offworld I'll go run around in that auto-sand of yours..." She rubbed her boots together a bit like a cricket. "Any objections?"
Both Izzy and Five looked at Twedt and her feet, ever so disgusted. "Err... none at all," Izzy replied.
The tension broken, Five sat back in her seat and buckled her belt after retrieving a datapad from the satchel next to her. "Our appointment isn't until this evening. Until then we can get ourselves situated. I've booked us a suite at the See Star Inn—"
Izzy nodded. "Excellent. That leaves room for me to contact an old friend of mine."
An hour after arriving at the hotel, a small, unkempt looking middle-aged woman with long white hair knocked on their hotel room door.
"Izzy!" the woman screeched happily and gave him a friendly hug. "You haven't aged a day—to be expected, I suppose. Those blood samples you provided me with were quite useful, by the way."
"Research is going well, I take it? How's the clinic?"
"The clinic is still going strong, thanking you for your generous donations over the, ah… what is it now, decades? My my my…time flies when you're having fun, doesn't it?" she grinned toothily.
"I'm not sure I would have called the local climate here 'fun.'"
"Understatement of the year dearie, but we manage somehow. I saw you on the vids. Amusement planet Silver-something, good for you. It was all you ever talked about when we met. It's good to have a dream, but even better to realize it. So what brings you to my little corner of the galaxy, hmm?"
"Actually, I was hoping you could fill me in on the local climate. I can think of no one with a closer ear to the ground than you, my dear Doctor."
"Well, when you run a charity clinic you do tend to pick up the odd scrap of information. Have you got any tea, dear? It must be ages since I've had a cuppa, and you know, I'm such a dreadful cook. I can never seem to manage a good cup of tea. Aren't you going to introduce me to your friends?"
It was then that Izzy remembered the rest of the room. "Ah. Right. How rude of me. This is my… ah, crew. Five, Freak, Aussie, Twedt, and Larry. Guys, this is my old friend, Doctor Roberta O'Brien."
"What creative parents you must have all had!" she said, sounding very pleased.
After a disgusting pot of complimentary hotel tea, and enough tangents to fill a bad romance novel, the good doctor finally said, "You're off to see the wizard?"
"The governor," Aussie corrected.
"Oh, yes, good ol' Saito-Sato. Or was it Sato-Saito? I can never keep Wilfee's names straight."
"Dr. O'Brien," Izzy smiled, "I need to know all I can about the current situation on Jennifer's Star. I'm afraid… I told myself I need something from the governor, and apart from some assets, I have no idea how I'm going to convince him to give it to me."
"Wilfred is such a dear." Roberta took another sip with relish. "He had such a hard time in the beginning. So many people wanted to ingratiate themselves to the Republic. I mean, everyone knew he was the head of the Resistance in Jennifer's Star, but after the Caal, there were so few of us left." She nodded unconsciously. "He had to make some tough decisions. We all did. But it was for our own good." O'Brien looked up and smiled. "Now we're a happy bunch of loyal citizens!"
"I'm sure you are." Danielle Twedt took a deep breath.
"You mean," Agent Five clarified, "he killed all his opponents."
"Not all of them," the doctor held up a correcting finger. "In fact, one of them had a heart attack, another was killed by his jealous wife, and there was this charming young man who simply left town. Of course, that was after a hit squad tried to kill him, but I'm told that was Vitek…"
"Boom, boom… heh, heh," Freak piped up uncomfortably.
"So there's no one who opposes him," D'Argent summarized.
"I wouldn't say that," Roberta smiled. "They just have to be more… discreet these days. Or do it from a distance. You know, I never got to see Babylon this time of year. I hear it's gorgeous."
Larry wandered off sometime during the conversation, but since he never really spoke, no one really noticed. "Who?" Five asked.
The doctor was flustered. "Who what? When? Or why?"
"Who opposes him?" she repeated.
"Oh, my dear, everyone around here loves the governor—but really, he's not much loved off the planet. I'm afraid Kasimir Vitek was his good friend—and his only trump card—in the Republic. With him gone…" She sniffed. "Chairman Vivas simply isn't the same. She can't unify the factions. Roimata can't either, even though she's got Llora in the palm of her hands."
"So he needs political traction," Twedt said, her grandmotherly face slipping for a moment to reveal the political animal within.
"Exactly! Of course, no… no, it doesn't matter. The Imperial Fleet is coming this way—eventually—and he's doubtless going to be on their hit list."
Izzy suddenly had an epiphany. "That's it!"
"…and so let me come to the point, " D'Argent said in the governor's office, after many pleasantries had been exchanged. "I came to see you for—"
"One moment," Wilfred asked, looking like the unholy union of a used-hovercar salesman and ramshackle asteroid miner. He pressed a button on his desk. "Holly, is M. Stennis out there?"
"Yes, Your Excellency."
"Then tell him to get to work. Discom." He then picked up another object off his desk and it started flashing. "Okay, M. D'Argent, we're now as private as we can get. What do you want?"
"The 6th Fleet."
Saito-Sato blinked several times before a broad smile came over his face. "You must be joking."
"Contrary to my persona," Izzy explained, "I do have those rare points where I'm absolutely serious. This is one of… oooh, are those jelly beans?"
looked at his desk. "Yes. Would you care for some?"
"Yes, please." D'Argent helped himself to some of the sugary treats, crunching deliciously in his mouth. My body will hate me later, the vampire knew, but my mouth will love me now. "Anyway, I need the 6th Fleet."
The governor paused for a moment and considered. "Everything my agents tell me is that you are a force to be reckoned with. You've stayed neutral in the power struggle, even though you could certainly push the scales in the Executive Committee however you wanted."
The vampire was even surprised. "Could I? Gee, I should have thought of that sooner."
"But let's skip past the why and wherefore and run right to the point where you think I can get it for you?"
"I honestly have no idea," Izzy opened his hands, "but I told myself that I could do it on Jennifer's Star. According to my agents, you have sole power in this system."
"True. But that's one system, not the Terran Fleet."
"And you are the leader of the opposition in the Assembly."
"That doesn't mean…" Wilfred explained.
"So you tell me, who better to give me a fleet than you?"
Saito-Sato choked down a laugh. "Yes, I know the admiral involved. I might be able to convince him to let you on board… talk to him, maybe he'll agree with you. But I have no incentive to help you."
"Well… er, what about that push into the Executive Committee…?"
"Too late," the governor shrugged. "Unless the mythic 7th Fleet that Chen keeps telling us about bothers to show up, the estimates I've seen say that the Republic will fall apart in a couple months. My representative in Babylon is already packing up to leave."
D'Argent gave a big grin. "Then you need a way out, too."
Wilfred shook his head. "Oh, I do. But that would mean giving up everything I had worked so hard to achieve. I'm not about to do that until the last minute."
is coming… soon." Izzy leaned forward. "What if we could make it
"The universe. A better place. Good men and women, like yourself, coming together to finally build a better future for everyone. No republic or empire, just one big human effort to build a lasting peace for us all."
"You obviously don't know me," Saito-Sato corrected. "I'm not a good man. I fought with the Resistance against Clarke for twenty years. I've happily crushed the life out of people for no better reason than I wanted their gun. I've seen more blood in the last year than I would care to see in two lifetimes."
I know what you mean, the vampire thought. "Then we can end it. Now. But to do it, we need a fleet."
"You shebing idiot! Treschi would kill me!" the governor exploded at him.
Izzy shook his head. "Whoever this… Treschi is, I know someone more powerful who can protect us."
"And then what?"
"Lasting peace. Place at the table when the new constitution is written."
Wilfred rolled his eyes. "Been there before."
"No." D'Argent held up a finger. "This time, no one has a card to play. Everyone starts off equal at the negotiating table. Of course, I've never been that good at poker."
"In that case, I'd love to have you at my poker night."
"From where I'm sitting, you've got nothing to lose." Izzy smiled. "Help me, and there's a chance at making history. Fail… well, there's always that escape shuttle."
Saito-Sato sighed. "Then I'm coming with you. After all, if I stay, then I'm dead."
"That's the spirit!"
On Cronos, Heth's mind and body seemed to be on autopilot as his crewcats finished their last delivery to the Imperial siege lines and he and Rachel O'Reilly headed back to their cargo shuttle. Somewhere deep down inside, Heth had been hoping for some legitimate pretense to abort the Smythe contract—they couldn't get to Cronos, or arrived too late, or couldn't find a way into the Abbey. But now that they had a way inside the monastery, his last excuse had evaporated, and it was all but certain that Heth and his fellow Miao Mercenaries would be flying right into the heart of a raging battle.
And soon. They had a deadline. The final assault on the Cialt Abbey began at dusk.
From that point on, things began to happen fast—too fast. It helped that Heth was feeling numb. The delivery crewcats began packing up to head back to the Avarice. A few of Heth's crew would remain on Cronos until dusk, trading on shore leaves or looking for commodities to fill the super-freighter's cargo holds for the return voyage—they had had to keep up appearances, after all, to avoid suspicion over why a massive alien freighter was parked in orbit over the planet even after their deliveries had been completed—but the rest of the crew was ordered back to the Avarice immediately.
Heth meanwhile, headed straight inside the shuttle to where Narrah was waiting, and together they discussed the information scribbled down by the Cialt spy in hushed tones. Inside the Abbey, apparently, a network of tunnels had been carved into the mountain. The Brotherhood's independent water supply came from a mountain stream (or trickle, rather) that flowed into a cave and was later diverted to the Abbey's cistern. The Empire promptly cut off the water supply, and posted a few sentries in the area just in case the Brothers tried to escape the Abbey that way… but it was unlikely. Anyone without diving gear would drown trying, and the water tunnels were too narrow for people to fit through anyway
Too narrow for humans, perhaps, but not for the meter-tall K'Nes. Encased in sealed power armor with its own air supply, they could (hopefully) swim through the tunnels and pipes into the Abbey's cistern without drowning. No one was particularly looking forward it, though—K'Nes generally hated water, preferring to float over it than swim through it.
Narrah silently absorbed the information, formed an action plan, and began growling orders—and just like that, Heth once again went from superior to subordinate. He didn't mind this time, though—he'd much rather defer to the more experienced manager when the plasma began to fly.
Narrah ordered Rachel back up to the Avarice with the rest of the civilians and commercial equipment loaded into the larger cargo shuttle. She didn’t object—she was even less of a soldier than Heth was, and she knew it. Just before her shuttle departed for the super-freighter in orbit, though, Rachel asked Heth to deliver something to her parents if he managed to get inside the abbey… just in case no one made it back out. Heth was more than happy to oblige her—it never hurt to have a business associate owe him a favor. He was mildly surprised, however, when she handed him two letters—not digital files, but actual handwritten ink-and-paper letters, labled "Mom" and "Dad." And then Rachel was gone, the cargo shuttle lifting off into the red Cronos sky.
The time had finally come. Heth wasn't ready—would never be ready—but he had a contract to fulfill, and a deal is a deal. The K'Nes hunters rolled eighteen barrels of Mungunwha algae into the last cargo shuttle, strapped in, and took off. Once airborne, the cats silently fished dripping power armor out of the vats they'd used to smuggle the suits down to the planet surface, then pulled out the rifles from their hiding places inside the armor. The suits, their stealth suites successfully disguising themselves as algae, had not been detected when the K'Nes brought the barrels down along with all the other cargo—although, thankfully, the Imperial Army hadn't run anything more than the most basic chem, bio, and rad scans, the routine security measures checking for toxins or explosives.
The mood was grim and apprehensive as the K'Nes hunters dressed for battle. Heth put on his armor slowly and meticulously, double-checking every joint and seal. When he was done, he went to put Rachel's letters and Well's ring-spikard-thingy (he was still too scared of it to put it on his finger) into a spare ammo compartment in his armor… and found something already there. He pulled it out and stared at it. It took him a second to realize what it was… and what it meant.
Narrah outlined the action plan to his hunters one final time in a grave voice, reminding them all that it was likely to change on a moment's notice, and they were to follow orders without question or hesitation. After that, the shuttle fell into silence as K'Nes hunters checked and re-checked their railguns, armor, and orders… until there was nothing left to do but wait.
"Heth," M'Rowr whispered next to him, "that the fifth time you've checked your ammo magazine. Trust me, the rounds aren't going anywhere."
"I know…" Heth pushed down on the top shell anyway, just to make sure (again) that it was fully loaded.
"Don't worry, cuz. The first time is always the scariest. They won't be shooting at you anyway—you're a runt, and my fat tail makes a better target!" He chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. It didn't work. "Look, Heth," he continued, "if you got any nepeta left, take a little sniff. You gotta relax and…" M'Rowr's voice trailed off as he stared at Heth's ammo. "Hey… those aren't standard rounds! What are they?"
"Impossibarium." Heth slid out the armor-piercing round and held it up, the explosive tip encased not in steel, but a glossy black metal, notched and segmented for fragmentation when the micro-charge within detonated. "I found them in the extra ammo compartment of my power armor," he explained, watching how the shiny black metal caught the light. "I… I think Miu must have left them there for me to find. As a surprise, I guess. She even guessed the right gauge for our rifles," he said, hefting the round in his paw. "Well, MIRADI was a military contractor during the Human Occupation, I suppose…"
"Impossibarium?" M'Rowr let out a low whistle. "Stars above! You know how much that cost her?"
"I know…" Heth stared at an emperor's ransom in ammunition meant to get him home alive. Never in his life had anyone valued him this highly. "I know."
He slid the round back into place—and noticed for the first time something etched into the side of the magazine. He tilted the engraving toward the light so he could read the words: COME BACK SAFE.
Heth's whiskers twitched. He swallowed hard. He felt a hot sting in his eyes and blinked it away. "M'Rowr… if I don't … you know, make it back… tell Miu… tell her…"
"Heth," M'Rowr cut him off. "Trust me… she knows. I'd bet money on that." He hesitated a moment, then added, "And if I don't make it back… just make sure my cubs are taken care of, will ya?"
Heth merely nodded and said nothing, his heart pounding.
"All right, rats," Narrah growled as he hefted his railgun, the wicked blade under the barrel glinting in the red light of the setting sun. "It's time. SWAAAARM-HUP!" The quiet shuttle was instantly filled with the clatter of railguns locking and loading as the K'Nes swarm fell into three flock formations. M'Rowr supervised one flock, his mate Surra the second, and Narrah, of course, managed the third. Heth was in Narrah's flock—and wasn't sure if that was a privilege or a punishment. Was Narrah keeping an eye on his most worthless hunter, or just trying to keep his employer alive long enough to get paid?
He snuck a quick glance around, looking with new eyes, and for the first time realized just how different a group of K'Nes they'd become from the recruits who had lazily gathered in the transit bay nearly a month earlier. He marveled at what Narrah had accomplished in so short a time. His management style was harsh, true—but there was no denying it was effective! Oh, they were still a motley crew, to be sure, a hodgepodge of mismatched power armor of all different models and manufacturers, and all of it at least a decade old; it was the best M'Rowr could scrounge on such short notice. Only their rifles were standardized—and thank the stars for that! Overall, the whole swarm looked like the bargain bin leftovers at a military surplus liquidation sale.
Yet each hunter hovered at attention in a perfect three-dimensional formation, three flocks of six K'Nes each, a swarm of hunters in sleek black power armor with bladed rifles held at the ready. It was a welcome sight most K'Nes hadn't seen since the days of the old K'Nes Tor, a sight banned during the long years of the Human Occupation: a K'Nes security division ready and able to defend their property rights and labor force against a hostile takeover—with violence, if necessary.
"Suits on full stealth mode!" Narrah hissed. "Inflate, helium only. Hunter Heth! You inflate internally—but at the first sign of enemy contact, you deflate and stay down!" he snarled at Heth. "If a plasma bolt breaches your suit when you've got a belly full of hydrogen, you'll go out in a blaze of glory—literally!"
Heth's power armor alone lacked a helium tank. He had sacrificed it for the ability to disguise it as a business suit—a trade-off which, Heth thought as he prepared for battle, was utterly absurd. What was I thinking?
Narrah turned back to the other hunters. "Cronos is approximately three times the gravity of Purrfang, and the air is thin, cold, and dry. That'll limit our buoyancy—figure maybe twelve meters, tops. Adjust your sights and suits accordingly. Now get ready to fly on my word."
Narrah paused for a moment, looking each hunter in the eye before continuing in his deep, gravelly voice. "Yes. We are defending humans. We are fighting for the Federation. And I don't care—not as long as I get to kill some apes, any apes. You know why? Because I am not a cat. I do not chase butterflies or balls of string or play with my tail. I do not sit in laps and purr and wait to be fed. That's what the humans think we are, you know—cats. Silly little useless pets. Well, I am NOT a pet—I am a predator, a hunter...a K'Nes. And when the scat hits the fan on Cronos, we are going to teach these apes a lesson. The humans who watch us hunt will remember, and the humans whose friends we eviscerate will never forget. We will remind these hairless apes of something that they seem to have forgotten: that cats have both fangs and claws—and they're sharp! RROAH!!"
On cue, the hunters roared—literally. In the confined space of the shuttle, it was a deafening and terrifying sound. And somewhere deep inside Heth, something stirred in his blood.
Far away from the Cialt Abbey, a cargo shuttle set down at the foot of the mountains. On the off chance anyone was watching and wondering why a K'Nes ship was landing and opening its loading bay, the pilot and copilot provided a plausible explanation—and distraction. They hoped out, dug in the sandy soil, and… well, did what cats do in the sand. By the time they climbed back inside the shuttle, closed the bay, and took off, eighteen camouflaged cats had flown of out the loading bay and up into the sky.
The hunters moved silently in full stealth mode. Their camouflaged nanotech armor was the same color as the Cronos sky: blood red—their sun was a red star at sunset. Once the K'Nes were high enough, the hunters were all but invisible, just blurs against the background. Besides, humans were, at heart, a ground-based species—the K'Nes had learned long ago just how rarely they actually looked up.
Climbing to the spring in the mountains would have taken humans hours or days—but K'Nes could fly. Floating above the terrain, assisted by the wind and occasionally their suit thrusters, the swarm reached their goal quickly. As they approached, Narrah called a halt and sent scouts ahead to recon the area, then led the swarm slowly and cautiously to the location.
A tiny mountain spring snaked through a shallow, narrow valley and trickled into a cave at the far end—or it would have, if it hadn't been damned off by a sandbag barricade. Instead, the water formed a small pool, where an extremely bored Imperial trooper lazily pumped the water into containers—presumably to supply the Imperial Army besieging the Abbey.
The hunters' inner helmet displays zoomed in on the trooper. Heth heard Narrah's voice over his suit's comm. "He's armored… but not power armor… probably Light Infantry," the old hunter said, studying the soldier. "Just one guard? Bah! I don't believe it!" he growled to himself. "Do they think I was suckled yesterday?"
Heth looked at Narrah, confused. "What do you mean?"
"If I were guarding this perimeter, I'd have one trooper as bait to draw attention and fire," the veteran hunter explained, "then have snipers in place to take out any hostiles who approached. Probably set them up… oh…" He pointed a claw. "There and there."
Heth felt his fur bristle slightly in fear. That thought would never have occurred to him.
Narrah took his time, sending out scouts to locate the snipers, and then slowly and stealthily moving his hunters into position to take out the enemy as dusk faded into twilight. Narrah gave his hunters a final reminder to set their railguns to sub-sonic velocity—they didn't want any sonic booms giving away what was happening up here in the mountains—and gave the word to fire.
A few strangled cries echoed through the valley. The armored trooper manning the pump collapsed, perforated by railgun rounds. He rolled over, screaming, crawling through his own blood toward his forgotten plasma rifle, before a second railgun volley stilled his body forever.
Heth made a mental note to give Narrah a performance bonus when this was all over.
Then, drifting through the darkness, they heard the rumble of explosives in the distance. The final assault on the Cialt Abbey had begun. Their rescue contract was running out of time.
"Sire!" Surra called out over the comm. "We've got power signatures bouncing this way from the siege lines! ETA thirty minutes!"
"Blast!" Narrah roared. "One of them must have sent out a distress call! Hunters! Get in that cave mouth NOW!" As the hunters zoomed toward it, Narrah paused long enough to toss a plasma grenade at the sandbag dam, releasing the flood. "Follow the water!" Narrah ordered. "It'll lead us to the cistern!"
And so it did. Finding their way through the cave tunnels was surprisingly easy. They did indeed get very narrow at times, but cats have a talent for squeezing through impossibly small spaces. Well, except for M'Rowr. His tubby tummy got him stuck a few times, but some pushing and pulling from his fellow hunters (and a tongue-lashing from Narrah) got him moving again. Eventually the natural water-carved tunnels gave way to artificial ones carved from the rock—and then they found the Abbey cistern. Or, rather, fell into it with a splash.
It was an enormous tank, but only about a fifth full—the siege had taken its toll. The K'Nes inflated, shaking the water off them vigorously and sending drops flying everywhere, and then floated toward a hatch at the top of the water tank. It wasn't locked, exactly, but latched from the outside—still, it only took M'Rowr a few minutes to open it somehow. Heth once again worried about the security of his private safe up on the Avarice.
"Hunter Heth!" Narrah hissed. "You go through first."
"M-me?" Heth stammered.
"And give me your rifle—they're less likely to shoot if you're unarmed."
"But… why me?"
"BECAUSE THOSE ARE YOUR ORDERS, HUNTER!" Narrah roared. "And because you're the single point of contact for this transaction, remember?" Narrah ticked off more reasons on his claws. "You're the only K'Nes that met the Cialt spy behind the Imperial siege lines, you've got his message for the other Brothers on your datapad, and you're the only one who can disguise his armor as human clothing. Now GO!"
Heth swallowed hard, but obediently handed his rifle over to Narrah. "Suit, human!" he hissed, and felt his power armor change shape as he floated over to the open hatch.
"We'll follow out—cloaked, of course," Narrah said. "If you encounter any humans, draw their attention away from this tank. Don't worry—you're armored, and we're here to cover you if the humans engage you."
Heth nodded. Heart hammering in his chest, he floated through the hatch, deflated on top of the tank, and looked around. He was in some sort of cavernous room—possibly a natural cave—and it was pitch black, illuminated only by tiny glowing lights on various pieces of machinery throughout the area. Cats have good night vision, though—especially K'Nes clans who, like the Miao, came from the dark side of Purrfang. It appeared to be a utility room—Heth could make out pumps, boilers, and generators, pipes and wires running every which way.
Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, Heth sprang down to the floor and walked boldly down the center of the room. "Hello? Gainful day? Is anyone here?"
His only answer was the whine of a plasma revolver charging in the darkness. He froze.
"Don't move!" ordered a gruff voice behind Heth. "Hands in the air, NOW!" Heth did as he was told. A second later a flashlight lit up behind him.
"Holy crap, Chin—it's just a child!" said a second, high-pitched voice. It took Heth a second to realize they were being confused by his height (or lack thereof).
"Kid," said the first voice, exasperated, "you picked the wrong time and place to sneak in and play soldier! All right, Bob, you can hit the lights. And you—turn around, nice 'n slow!" Heth was momentarily blinded as overhead fluorescent lights lit up the cave. He obediently turned around and got his first look at his captors.
The gruff voice belonged to a heavyset middle-aged human in an old tattered Earth Fleet uniform with frizzy red hair fading to gray and narrow eyes, the right one obviously cybernetic. He held an enormous plasma revolver in a prosthetic left hand. Heth recognized him instantly from the Fleet profile Gergenstein had given him—Xinjao O'Reilly, the Demon of Phoenix.
The squeaky voice—Bob, presumably—belonged to a scrawny twenty-something who looked like he couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag. He must be a Cialt Brother—a cross hung from his neck, and he wore a brown robe under a vest covered in bulging pockets above a massive tool belt around his waist. He held a plasma rifle in trembling hands, staring in slack-jawed amazement at Heth, looking like he would faint from fright.
"Holy crap! That's not a kid, that's a cat!... right? I mean, I'm not tripping, right? You're seeing this, too?"
"I'm a K'Nes, actually," Heth clarified, forcing himself to sound calm and casual.
"What the hell is it doing here, Chin?" Bob said, tense and anxious. "How did it get in?"
"Calm down, Bob!" O'Reilly snapped. "How did you get in here, cat?"
"Through the water pipes," Heth answered. "We removed the dam, by the way, and the tank is refilling as we speak. You might want to filter it, though—there's quite a bit of sand, and… er, plasma grenade shrapnel."
"You were poisoning the well?!" the scrawny monk squeaked, sounding on the verge of panic. "Oh God, he did! He poisoned it! We're out of water! Oh dear God!"
"I said calm down, Bob!" O'Reilly snapped. "Now what are you doing here, cat?"
"Actually, Chairman Smythe hired me to rescue you—his mother, the Brothers, and the Resistance."
For a moment there was only shocked silence. Then O'Reilly burst out laughing. "You? Rescue us? What, you got a couple nukes shoved down your pants or something?" The laugh faded to a wheezing cough.
"No," Heth snapped. "A ship in geosynchronous orbit with a transit beacon and a gravity drive. We can teleport you all out of here and jump to hyperspace before the Empire even realizes what's happened."
The laughing abruptly stopped. "You expect me to believe this crap?" O'Reilly demanded, suspicious.
"Not really, no," Heth answered. "That's why we sent word that we were coming via the Cialt's spy in the Imperial ranks. A mage and a doctor, I believe… I take his message didn't get through?"
"We haven't had any communication from outside the Abbey in weeks," O'Reilly answered firmly.
"Which is why I took the precaution of having your spy write a message explaining my—"
"Which could easily be forged," O'Reilly cut him off. "What, you think I'm stupid or something?"
Heth hesitated, not sure how to convince them he was on their side. Then he remembered the technique Rachel had used. "I bet the Ashdown Werecats will beat the New Tokyo Managers this season ten to seven."
"Great! Now we gotta change the passcode, too!" O'Reilly exclaimed. "What, did your Imp buddies torture it outta somebody? Who told you that, cat? Tell me!"
"Why, my business associate on New Israel," Heth replied—and saw an opportunity. "Rachel O'Reilly."
The fat man's face contorted in fear and fury. He stepped forward and rammed the revolver in Heth's face. "What the HELL have you done with my daughter, fundie?!?"
"Nothing, I assure you! She's safe and sound aboard my ship!" Heth cocked his head. "When she found out her parents were trapped in the Abbey… we couldn't stop her from coming—and we tried! She's worried to death, you know. And… she gave me letters to deliver to you and her mother. Would you like to read it?"
Fierce emotions battled across O'Reilly's face. Caution was still there—but fading fast. "Yeah… I would."
Heth reached (slowly) into his ammo pouch—which had morphed into the breast pocket of his blazer (Sky Father above, Miu was good!)—and pulled out the letters. He held out the one labeled 'Dad.'
O'Reilly snatched it from Heth's paw, opening it with his free hand, the other keeping the gun trained on the alien. Xinjao glanced at the letter. "Looks like her handwriting, all right…" his voice trailed off as he scanned the lines of inked words… and slowly lowered his gun. He turned away as he flipped the page over to read the other side, absorbed in the letter. Silence stretched out. O'Reilly's shoulders began to tremble. He sniffed.
"Chin…" the scrawny monk said, laying a timid hand on the older man's shoulder. "Chin, are you alright?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine," O'Reilly said, turning back to them as he quickly wiped the back of his hand under his good eye. "She just… Rachel hasn't said stuff like this since… well, since she was a little girl. I was away a lot… in the Fleet, y'know?... and we didn't… part on the best of terms…" He took a deep breath, composing himself as he holstered his revolver. He turned to Heth. "So, you must be…" he glanced at the letter, "… Miao, right?"
"That's my clan name," Heth corrected, handing O'Reilly a business card. "My personal name is Heth."
"I'm Robert Robertson," the scrawny monk said. "Just call me Brother Bob. Everyone else does."
Heth cowered politely—which only seemed to confuse the puny human.
O'Reilly sighed and said, "All right, Heth, what's the plan?"
"My hunters and I cover your withdrawal through th—"
"Your hunters?" O'Reilly repeated, looking around. "What hunters? I don't see anybody…"
"Well, they're cloaked, of course," Heth replied. "Narrah! I think it's safe to show ourselves now."
Nothing happened. O'Reilly turned his head slowly back and forth, his cybernetic eye flashing in different colors as he scanned the room in different spectrums and frequencies. "Nope. Still not seeing anybody."
"Um… M. O'Reilly?" Heth raised a claw and pointed upward. Both humans tilted their heads up… and finally saw almost a score of cats hiding in the wires and behind pipes, railguns pointed straight at the men.
"Holy crap!" Brother Bob whispered, turning even more pale… if that were possible, Heth thought.
Narrah jumped down to the floor. He handed Heth his rifle back, then snapped a salute to O'Reilly. "Sire."
O'Reilly's face broke into a vicious grin. "Oh, yeah…" He reached up and tapped his earpiece. "Leisa. Leisa! Yeah, it's Chin. Look, honey, I need you to round up the Governor and the Reverend Father for a meeting, we got—" Xinjao was silent a moment, listening, then rolled his eyes, "Yes, dear, I know there's a war on. But this is important! The cavalry just arrived!... sort of. Look, we thought this was a Last Stand, but it might just be a Great Escape instead!" He paused again, and then shook his head in exasperation. "Yes, Leisa, I know Steve McQueen was better in—look, can we talk about this later? Discom." He glanced at the cats. "Sorry. That was my wife. Look, do me a favor and don't tell her a bunch of cats just got the drop on me—I'd never hear the end of it! If you're married, I'm sure you understand." O'Reilly turned to Brother Bob. "All right, Bob, let's move out."
"Go?" The monk looked panicked—which, Heth thought, might be a perpetual state of existence for him. "But… what about the repairs, Chin?" He gestured to one of the big generators across the room, and for the first time Heth noticed the tools and machine parts spread around it.
Well, that explains how they found me so quickly, Heth thought. They must have been here working on it when they heard us splash down into the water tank… and probably Narrah yelling at me, too.
"Leave it, Bob," O'Reilly answered. "I don't think we're gonna need it anymore… one way or the other." The K'Nes hunters swarmed up behind Narrah (who, thankfully, didn't insist Heth return to formation) as Bob and O'Reilly led them through the tunnels and caverns. Xinjao turned to Heth as they moved.
"So… transit beacon, huh?" When Heth nodded, O'Reilly sighed and shook his head. "Well, hell, if it were that easy, we would have been out of here long ago! I hope you got a backup plan."
"Of course." Heth nodded. He struggled to keep his face neutral, but thought, what the scat do I do now?
The EFS Poseidon and its escorts eased into orbit over St. Michael's World. Their fighters had cleared away the last of the defensive weapons and sensor platforms. The surface below was defenseless against the five massive starships circling above. One by one the surviving enclaves of Federation troops on the surface were contacted, by radio or magick, and the troops were extracted via shuttles and transit beacons. A few tens of thousands of Federation sympathizers from among the civilian population came up with them. The Marine barracks decks were soon overflowing with soldiers and refugees, the sick and wounded spilling out of the infirmaries and out into the corridors. Cots and tents were rigged up in empty landing bays no longer needed for fighters lost in the battle.
Meanwhile, Admiral Smythe was negotiating with the Imperial Governor of St. Michael's Star. Duke Jordan Landon had been a Federation Senator and member of the Harrington Industries board of directors before the war. He was used to tricky negotiations, but he was also used to negotiating from a position of strength. Smythe had been on both sides of that equation in his career, but he was used to negotiating with professional warriors like himself.
"Admiral, I am truly sorry, but there is no question of me surrendering the planet to you," the Duke was saying over the encrypted communications channel. Neither leader had any intention of putting himself in the same room with the other.
"You do not have any choice in this matter," Smythe replied. "I am in control of the orbitals, and I'm sitting on the two most powerful Mass Drivers ever built."
"And I am in control of the planet's surface," the Duke reminded the fleet commander. "And you do not have the troops to take it back."
"I don't need the troops..." Smythe began, but Landon cut him off.
"Let me be frank with you, Admiral," Landon stated in a matter-of fact tone. "We have lost a fleet here. You have lost an army. We can build a new destroyer in sixteen months. You will need sixteen years to grow a new soldier. You did not have the troops to take this planet before you lost your army here, you will not have the troops to take it—or any other Imperial worlds—for some time."
"And I had a bigger fleet than your emperor before we destroyed one of his task forces at Kalintos and now another one here," Smythe riposted. "And both of those were lopsided victories. We will soon be able to raid any Imperial system at will, and then Dane will not be able to build his new fleet because the shipyards will be in our hands, or they will be dust."
"Come now, Admiral," the Duke admonished. "We both know you will not do that. How would you rebuild your own forces after the war if you smash all of humanity's biggest shipyards? Even your vaunted fleet cannot spare the ships to defeat the Jurvain, the Bugs, and the Empire at once."
"We shall see about that," the Admiral fumed.
"Yes, we shall," the Duke continued. "We both know you cannot afford to bombard a planet as important as this one any more than you already have. What will you do? How would the Romans say it? 'Make a desert and call it peace?'"
Joseph rubbed his eyes. "Let me give you another quote, governor. 'I will not leave an enemy castle behind me.' There was a reason Carthage was sown with salt."
"An empire of blasted, depopulated worlds is no empire at all," Landon shook his head. "Even your thirst for power is not so unquenchable that you would slaughter your own fellow humans… by the billions, just so you could replace the Emperor as he replaced Clarke."
Smythe shook his head sadly. "Politicians like you will never understand warriors like me. You sacrifice your integrity and your honor for wealth and power. I could never do that."
"Which is why your threat to bombard this planet is false. And so I will not surrender to you," Duke Landon replied with an air of finality.
"I said you didn't understand," Smythe replied with an even more final tone, leaning close to the video pickup. "Warriors like myself place those virtues on a high pedestal. But right beside them on that same pedestal is the goddess we call Victory. I can—and will—sacrifice anything and everything else, for victory."
Smythe just had enough time to see Landon's eyes go wide in shock and surprise before he cut the video feed and turned to his tactical officer. "Do it."
Outside, the ponderous star control ship slewed about on its axis and pointed its twin prows down towards the planet. The crackling energies around the port-side Gravitic Ram increased in intensity for a moment, and then were released as a quantum singularity erupted from the mouth of the largest weapon ever built by man. It tore downward through the atmosphere, leaving a whirling vortex of partial vacuum in its wake as its small but steep gravity well ate up any matter that came near. The tiny black hole plunged into the no-longer-clear waters of Tranquility Bay, creating a maelstrom of water swirling as if down the drain of God's own bathtub. The singularity burrowed deep into the seabed before the lingering magickal field that maintained its integrity wore off, and the energy equivalent of several tons of matter suddenly were released from their gravitic prison. The resulting explosion tore back up through the seabed, through the sea, and sent a fountain of mud, rock, water, and steam spewing out of the gaping wound torn in the planet's crust. The top of the column spiked clear up out of the atmosphere before crashing back down several minutes later.
By then, the pressure wave the explosion had sent sideways through the waters of the bay had reached the shores of Port Prosperity. The city was already in ruins, but now a wall of water half a mile high surged up the beach and into the city center. The tsunami of water, mud, and sand knocked over the few skyscrapers left standing, pulverizing fungicrete into gravel and shattering ceramcrete like china plates. The water surged twenty miles up the Tilapia river valley, and sloshed clear across the Harmony Peninsula into the Seraphim Sea beyond. Buildings, vehicles, and the rubble piles that used to be buildings and vehicles were all scoured away by the churning mass of water and debris.
And half an hour later, another tsunami almost as big as the first one would wash over the marshy debris field left behind by the first one, as the column of water spewed into the stratosphere by the singularity strike fell back to ground, creating another colossal splash that sent water rushing up onto the land once more. As the water from the two surges slowly wound its way back down the Tilapia River over the next day and a half, the river would cut a new delta through the sandblasted debris field.
What had once been a shining city of seven million people will become a riverine delta, a salt marsh, and it would take an archaeological dig to find the foundation pilings of the skyscrapers that once dominated the skyline.
But in the meantime, Admiral Smythe was talking to Duke Landon again. Landon had not been in the city, but at the Imperial field HQ a few miles away, and he and General Vandemaar had evacuated on the Duke's personal shuttle just ahead of the wall of water. When Smythe appeared on his screen, Landon was outraged. "Look what you did to my beautiful city!" he screamed into the pickup. "Do you have any idea what you just did?"
"I know exactly what I did," the Admiral replied in a voice that could cut diamond. "Urban renewal on an impossible timetable."
The Duke could only goggle at the screen, mystified how someone could joke after doing something like that. "You will now surrender the planet to me, or I will continue firing upon it until the surface is molten and the entire ecosystem is reduced to a handful of extremophile bacteria living five miles underground."
Landon continued to sputter and fume for thirty seconds, before General Vandemaar put a plasma bolt through his temple and leaned into the field of view of the video pickup. "You'll need my men to maintain order in the streets, Admiral," the General began.
"I think we understand each other," Smythe replied with a smile. "You and your men do not need to spend the next few months in a stockade. If you will guarantee their good behavior, they can re-swear their oath to the Federation and start rebuilding your world."
"Thank you, Admiral Smythe," the General's shoulders slumped in obvious relief, tinged with sadness.
"Of course, any of your men you can't guarantee the good behavior of will be sent to the stockade, but I trust you to know your men better than anyone else, General Vandemaar," the Admiral continued. "You decide who you can trust and who is deluded enough to still believe all that God-Emperor felgercarb."
Admiral Smythe cut the video feed and turned away from the main display tank, which was showing the extent of the damage caused by his Gravitic Ram strike. Water was starting to flow back into the crater in the seabed left by the explosion, flashing to steam as it hit the exposed magma beneath. The planet's climate would take decades, maybe centuries to recover, and the question of whether the increased albedo of the clouds and snow would balance out the increased greenhouse effect of all that water vapor in the stratosphere was one Smythe would leave to the eggheads and number-crunchers to puzzle out later. For now, he had a war to win. As he turned over command of his flag deck to his chief of staff and exited the bridge, he turned to his flag lieutenant. "Lieutenant Silva, ask the commander of the ground troops we rescued to send over his senior Special Forces expert. I want them both to meet me in Briefing Room Seven in twenty minutes."
Twenty minutes later, an Admiral who had showered and changed into a fresh duty uniform entered the briefing room to see only one officer standing there—but he was easily big enough for two ordinary men. Even without a bulky suit of power armor, the Lieutenant Colonel towered over the Admiral and was perhaps twice as wide. The man-mountain snapped to attention as the Admiral entered the room, and the Admiral nodded at ease to him.
"So," the Admiral gave a wry smile, "are you the ground forces commander, or the special forces expert?"
"Both, sir," replied Bernard Dent with an apologetic tone in his voice. "General Carson bought it shortly before you arrived. I was his special operations commander and next surviving officer in the chain of command."
"Then I guess you'll have to do," Smythe concluded. "I want you to assemble a team for me, from the survivors of this clusterfrak of a campaign, and anyone else you can get your hands on quickly. I want your best snipers, infiltrators, dirty tricks squad members, and stone-cold killers. A few mages would be nice too," he added as an afterthought.
"What sort of mission, sir?" Dent asked.
"The kind that wins wars," Smythe replied. "That shebing idiot of a Duke was right about one thing. I don't have the forces to win this war the conventional way, not after losing my best field army. And especially not with the whole Jurvain race bearing down on our back door."
The werebear took in a deep breath. "We kicked the Empire's teeth in hard… sir."
"Yes, yes… but not enough to break Vin Dane's aura of Godhood. There's only one way left to win this war—without doing so much damage it doesn't matter who wins."
"So what's the mission, boss?" Dent asked.
"I want a team that can kill a Living God. I want you to assassinate Emperor Vin Dane."
END OF EPISODE FOUR
Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, especially if you CAN somehow get your hands on a Gravitic Ram.