IN STONE WHERE FIRES BURN – Act I
“Did you kick him in the head / Did you see the blood run
Did you laugh at all / When the people walked right by…
So set him up / Then let him fall
Turn him over in your hands / God save the king of New Orleans.”
— Better Than Ezra, “King of New Orleans”
It was dark when Wilfred Saito-Sato, escorted by Agent Five, arrived at their meeting point. It was a relief to see the politician knew how to pack light for an expedient getaway. It seemed very clear to Izzy that the man had been planning for this contingency, it had merely been a matter of when.
“Is it just you two or…?” The governor looked from Agent Five to Izzy.
“No, no, the others have already gone up, planning our trip ahead. No need for us all to be down here like we’re leaving Oz in a hot air balloon.”
“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa—” Like a buzzing in his ear, Izzy became aware of a distant sound rapidly approaching at an alarming speed, and at the same time Agent Five unholstered her plasma pistol. “Get down!” she ordered and unceremoniously shoved the politician into the waiting shuttlecraft. Izzy, who had been in the process of depositing the governor’s luggage in the craft, took up a defensive posture at the shuttlecraft door, brandishing the suitcase like a shield.
An amorphous shadow seemed to approach the craft, jangling and shedding and screeching as it went. “—aaaaaaaaaaaaa—”
Agent Five held her weapon at the ready, the shadow seemed to stumble once, and then regained its footing and continued barreling towards them. “What the hell is that?”
Suddenly Izzy grabbed Agent Five’s wrist. “Don’t shoot! I recognize that screech!”
“—aaaiiiiiiiiiittt!” Izzy seemed to vanish, and then appeared at the side of the galumphing thing. The noise stopped abruptly.
“Eeegads! Shut up woman!” Izzy hissed. “Are you trying to draw attention to our departure!? And what the…? Is this luggage?”
Breathless, the creature beneath unloaded her baggage onto the vampire. “Oh, thank you, Izzy dear. I’m not as young as I used to be, you know. We can’t all live practically forever, so to speak. Although I’ve heard of some excellent advances in experimental gerontology…”
“Doctor O’Brien,” Izzy’s muffled voice leaked from underneath the mound of luggage, “what is it that you think you are doing!?”
“Why, coming with you, naturally.”
“Wha… Who said you could come!? This isn’t a pleasure cruise! What is all this … stuff!?”
“Oh, have you already found a field medic then? See? I bet you didn’t think of that, did you, Mister Vampire. Mister ‘Oh look at me, my limbs grow back!’ Mister—”
“Okay, enough! I get it! But there isn’t any more room! How were you even running with these? Mon dieu, are these rocks?” Agent Five began unloading Izzy and throwing the bags next to the alarmed politician. “What are you doing?" Izzi said. "Five, don’t help her!”
“Pish tosh! I was born on a space-faring vessel, I’ll fit anywhere! Cargo hold, stairwell, maintenance corridor… anywhere you like! My people have a long and noble history of occupying the spaces between the spaces, of travelling the wide open space-seas, going where the space-winds take the—oh, do be careful with those bags, dear, they’re not hats, you know. Anyway, I thought I would kip down in the medical bay. You do have a medical bay, don’t you? Well never mind, if you don’t, I can make due in any old room, I’ve worked with far less. By the way, don’t ever try performing emergency surgery with a blade fashioned from one of those aluminum tin lids… messy, messy business that, but what can you do?”
Izzy looked to Agent Five for backup, but she offered nothing. Izzy changed tactics. “What about your clinic?”
“Oh, the Dear H will do splendidly in my absence. I taught him everything I know. And also he agrees with me—you need someone with field experience. You won’t last five minutes out there. And we want your mission to succeed! Yes we do! You’re not the only one who wants the universe to be a better place for their children, don’t be solipsistic!”
Izzy shoved into the small craft across from the harried and confused looking Saito-Sato while Agent Five silently took the pilot’s seat. Between the two back passengers and the medic’s ludicrous amounts of luggage there was little room to spare, certainly not enough room for a whole other passenger. Izzy glared triumphantly at the middle aged doctor as she looked for spare room. “There you see? If you can’t even get into the shuttlecraft, how do you expect to come with us?!”
“Oh, now you’re just being silly. You’re going to have to hold me, Izzy dear. Don’t worry, I trust you’ll hold on tight.”
“Doctor...!” Before Izzy could protest, she jumped in his lap—only now she was small and furry white, with a long pink naked tail, lengthy whiskers framing her snout, ruby eyes and large round ears. She curled up in Izzy’s lap.
“A ratkin!?” Saito-Sato shifted in his seat uncomfortably, but ever the politician, his face was a mask of decorum.
She squeaked and then shifted back into human form. “Oh, Wilfy dear! I didn’t even see you there under all that luggage!” she exclaimed. “Halloo! Roberta O’Brien, medic, at your service—oh, but you can call me Bertie. Just about everyone does these days.”
A day later, perhaps a little more, hyperspace parted for the starry skies of…
“Epsilon System,” Aussie called out, shifting the controls to adjust the engines.
“Have you located the 6th Fleet?” Izzy asked, excited as a kid in a candy store.
“If you can hold your horses a moment,” Agent Five muttered.
“If I had horses, I could find them myself,” D’Argent muttered back.
“Don’t be such a grouch,” Dr. O’Brien muttered. “Enjoy the moment. Savor the exquisite…”
“I’ll savor it when we find the fleet,” Governor Saito-Sato explained.
“And who the hell let all of you on my bridge?!” the vampire burst out. “This is a small ship, and I have important business to do…”
The doctor interrupted. “Like complaining, I’m sure. Don’t take it personally, dear Five, my eldest daughter was exactly the same…”
“How am I supposed to save the universe if I keep smashing my elbows…”
“Oof!” Wilfred grunted.
“…into you two? Out!”
“We’re only trying to be friendly, Izzy,” Roberta explained.
“Found them,” Agent Five announced. “They’re falling into standard defensive pattern around the primary planet.”
“Open space, heh heh,” Freak opened his mush. “Need the space to boom. Boom. Heh, heh.”
Izzy looked over at Five. “Why did you hire him?”
“Got a discount,” she muttered back, “but he’s right. Protecting the planet is the worst thing they could be doing. Unless they’re planning to hold the system.”
“The newscast said Jennifer’s Star,” Aussie piped up. “That’s why we came here. Trying to beat them before they can meet up with the 7th Fleet.”
“Then we may have fallen victim to the greatest of all strategies,” the governor smiled. “Misdirection.”
“You’re saying there isn't a 7th Fleet?” Izzy asked.
“No,” Wilfred repeated, “but Epsilon is home to a sizeable garrison. I’m sure Laurie’s got a few surprises to help out Admiral Qing.”
“Laurie? What a delightful…” Roberta began.
And was cut off by the governor. “Governor Laurie Samwise, the Slicer of San Angeles. She raided a Light Infantry arsenal, tied up the guards, and sliced their heads off with a monofilament blade.”
“And the Republic made her a governor?” Aussie asked.
“Better to have her on our side, don’t you think?” Wilfred admitted. “Besides, she has a talent for heavy weaponry. I’m guessing that’s why Qing’s making his stand here.”
“Then why don’t we ask him?” Agent Five answered. “I’m getting a comm in from the Terran Navy. It’s very polite, but it boils down to who are you and what do you want?”
“Put me on.” The governor stepped forward to face the holoproj. Five activated the comm screen and a man in a crisp naval uniform answered. “My name is Governor Wilfred Saito-Sato. I’ve come to speak with Admiral Qing personally.”
The lieutenant was obviously confused. “Uh, sir? Aren’t you supposed to be in Jennifer’s Star?”
“Something has come up that’s too important to wait. I need to get this information to the admiral immediately.”
“Yes, sir. Please stay on your current heading and deactivate your weapons. I’ll let him know you’re coming. When I get confirmation from the admiral, I'll send you the rendezvous coordinates. Discom.”
D’Argent smiled. “Now all we have to do is say, ‘Hi! You’re doomed! Could you please turn…”
“…your fleet towards a more pressing target?”
Admiral Qing Mengyao was not the poster boy for biosculpt. The skin was simply too stretched over his older frame, lacking the fat deposits under the surface to make him look… normal. All that surgery and personal experience made him look completely implacable. “I’ve heard this speech before,” the admiral admitted. “From someone with far greater authority than you, M. D’Argent. And you, Governor.”
Wilfred grimaced and took in a deep breath. “But Izzy’s not wrong. If you stay and fight on, all you will do is doom the Republic to failure.”
“The 7th Fleet…”
“Is a lie!” The governor slammed his fist on the conference table. “You know it!”
“I have my orders. We will make our stand at Epsilon against the Imperial Fleet.”
“Then you will lose,” Agent Five pointed out. “Because if you could have stopped them before now, you would have.”
The admiral’s eyebrow raised a millimeter. “Perhaps you underestimate our resources, little girl?”
Five was unphased. “Nah. I’ve got a tactical expert on my ship that says that your squadrons show no sign of battle damage. You’ve been running. You only run when you’ve got no chance.”
“I was ordered to withdraw,” Qing answered.
“Not by the Secretary,” Wilfred taunted. “He’s about as useful as a wet fart. Not by the Chairwoman or the Treasurer, either. They never would have abandoned Babylon. So that leaves only one man.”
The admiral stared at the governor. “You should know better than to say…”
“Aren’t you tired of running errands for that bastard?” Saito-Sato shot back. “Yeah, I said it. I’m tired of pretending. I fought for years against the Federation and assholes like Treschi. Now we’re building an empire for him? Fuck him!”
Qing Mengyao leaned forward on the conference desk. “Do you tire of this life so quickly? He will kill you. There is no hole deep enough to hide from that man. If he is a man.”
“No. There is a better way,” Izzy answered. “We have to stop the Emperor. This fleet is the key to that.”
The admiral’s eyes flashed towards him. “Your friends have just finished telling me how weak my fleet is. Now you’re telling me to fly to Avalon? The heart of Imperial power? Tell me, M. D’Argent, what good will the 6th Fleet do there?”
Yeah, future me, Izzy challenged himself, explain that.
Thankfully, Agent Five spoke for him. “You don’t need to take Avalon. You just need to distract their defenses long enough for us to get through.”
Now the vampire turned to face the girl. And when were you going to tell me this? Izzy wondered.
“And you can kill a living God?”
Agent Five stared back at the admiral. “Yes.”
Qing leaned back. “I will have to consider this. And you will have to tell me how—” The admiral was interrupted by a chirp on his comm. “Yes?”
“Sir, we’re getting incoming ships from the Port Arthur jumpgate.”
“Send down the sensor data to here. Discom.” The admiral activated the holoproj and saw several blips coming in. Two of them were abnormally larger than the ships that followed them. Qing touched on one of them and several chains of symbols appeared. “Seems that Blair made good time. Those are the TNS Unicorn and… ah, yes. TNS Rainbow.”
“Lyla Blair?” Wilfred’s eyes bulged.
The admiral nodded. “Commander of the 7th Fleet.”
Yasuyama Akihiko had just won a great victory, and all of his friends were having a party to celebrate for him in his twenty-fourth-floor apartment in Minato, Tokyo. They were truly celebrating for him, for on the night his pet bill was finally passed by the Eastern Bloc legislature, he ducked out of the party to receive the second most important call of his life. The call came from Germany, from one of his mother’s relatives in Earth Fleet, and the news was not good.
“I’m sorry, Akihiko,” Christian Von Shrakenburg began. “The colony is gone.”
The words fell upon him like a great weight. “Survivors?” Akihiko was not normally a very powerful mage, but the volumetric display of his cousin flickered much more than usual under his subconscious influence, tortured by worry over his parents, wife, and infant son.
“They’re still sweeping the system for Bug ships. They haven’t found any refugee ships in the system yet. They can’t tell for sure from orbit, but it looks like it was a total massacre on the surface. They probably had very little warning before the Bugs attacked. To be honest, I can’t imagine that anyone could be down there...”
His dream was a memory of a day now some seventy years ago back on Earth. Akihiko woke up to see his wife Hikari sitting beside his bed, fanning herself with that same old paper fan that bore her parents’ Matsubara family crest. “It’s nearly time,” she greeted him. “I sent Akira to bring Akihiro and Takamitsu here.”
Akihiko struggled to sit up for a moment. “You know, Hikari,” he began, but she cut him off.
“You should save your strength for when they get here, dear. They’ll be here soon. Then you can talk all you want. For now, you need to rest.”
She was enjoying watching you sleep, a voice whispered into his mind. Akihiko turned to see Eun-gyeong sitting on the other side of his bed. She’d rather just continue to watch you sleep, the voice continued, than hear what you have to say. Just let her have her way on this. She knows what you would say, anyway.
Akihiko briefly considered speaking anyway, but presently let out a long sigh, leaned his head back on his pillow and closed his eyes. His thoughts wandered to another phone call with Christian Von Shrakenburg from ages past, the one which led to him meeting his wife of the past sixty-something years. Soon enough, he was dreaming again, and it all came to life as though he were living it again.
“Still… I think she would have ended up a draftee or perhaps in a lab somewhere if I hadn’t been there,” Admiral Von Shrakenburg continued. “Even at that, and with her specifically requesting to meet with you by name, I don’t think I would have been able to get her out of there without Colonel Sharpsteen’s assistance. He served with and had a great deal of respect for your father, and he wishes to convey his deepest sympathies for your loss.”
Turning away from the volumetric display of his German relative, Akihiko viewed the 2D version of the communication video from the girl’s sudden appearance. She was draped in a bloody rag of a shirt, missing an arm, breathing heavily, and clutching a large paper fan and his father’s sword in her remaining hand. “My name is Matsubara Hikari, and I am a citizen of the Eastern Bloc. I need to speak with Yasuyama Akihiko immediately.”
“Grandfather,” a voice called to him out of the dream. Akihiko opened his eyes to see Akihiro standing there, his son Takamitsu standing beside him.
“Did you ever… hear Myeong-eun’s death poem?” the dying man asked his descendants.
Taka looked over at his father, confused; Akihiro simply nodded. “Yes, Grandfather. Many times.”
“Say the words,” Akihiko asked.
His grandson honored his ancestor’s request.
“My plasma bolts are spent.
My duty unfinished,
I must pass beyond.
And I, falling without revenge,
Will be reborn to take up my sword again.
When vile Bugs overtake this planet,
My heart and soul will be with my avengers
Akihiko grunted with approval. “She was a beautiful woman. I learned to love… again…” he sought out a face that was just beyond his range, “but you never forget. Never forget your wife, your child… gone…”
“Grandfather…” Akihiro patted his hand.
“Do not patronize me!” the dying man spat out. “You say the words, but… you forget… her!”
Taka closed his eyes and thought, how could we? His first wife and child were dead before my father was born. “We honor their memory, great-grandfather.”
“We must do… more!” Akihiko sighed and settled back down. “You have allied with… the Emperor?”
“Vin Dane,” Takamitsu’s father answered, “not Chiang.”
“I’m dying, not deaf,” the grandfather answered. “Will he fight the Bugs? Will he burn their hives to dust?”
“I… I don’t know,” the Duke of New Tokyo admitted.
“If he doesn’t,” Akihiko squeezed his grandson’s hand, “you must.”
“The Dooms Day Device.”
Akihiro tried to pull away in shock, but his grandfather’s grip was strong. “Promise me, Akihiro. Promise me that you will burn the last of their stars. No more monsters, Aki… no more monsters…”
“I swear it,” his grandson nodded.
And with that, Akihiko breathed his last. His wife came over to raise the sheet over his face. The two of them stepped away to leave Hikari with her late husband. Their reunion with the entire family was… bittersweet. With New Tokyo secured, the Yasuyama clan felt safe enough to come into the open. But too much time had passed… and there were three glaring gaps in their family tree.
“A moment, please.” Akiko appeared from the shadows.
“Shouldn’t you be in there, Mother?” Akihiro asked.
“There will be time to grieve, Aki,” she assured him. “I needed to ask…”
“I will do what the… what did you call him, Takamitsu?”
His son shrugged. “The Denim Man.”
“I will pay the Denim Man’s price. I will restore my wife and my daughter to my side. Then life will continue. There is nothing more to say.”
“Then you are an idiot,” Akiko blurted out.
“Neek?” the duke asked.
“Did you not hear your grandfather?” the duke’s mother replied. “If Vin Dane is our only hope of eliminating the Bugs, then wouldn’t killing him defeat us as well?”
“I care little if the Emperor lives or dies. Why would I kill him?”
“Your infernal device only serves one purpose, Aki. What do you think the Denim Man wants it for?”
“What would you have me do?” Akihiro challenged her. “If the 3D isn’t in his hands, we risk losing our family. If the Emperor dies… well, there are always more emperors. Or those in all but name.”
Takamitsu stepped forward. “There… there is a solution.”
Both of his elders turned to face him. Akiko smiled wanly and asked, “Yes, my dear grandson?”
“You’ve always said the final sequence in the 3D requires a mage to operate it.”
“Like a transit beacon,” Akihiro answered, “to counter unwelcome effects. Destroying an entire sun is a paradox backlash of the highest magnitude.”
“The Denim Man isn’t a mage. Why not give it to him? He can choke on the fact that he can never use it.”
“But,” Akiko knitted her eyebrows, “he brought us through time. The whole family…?”
“That’s because he exists out of time,” Taka explained. “He lives there and can take people in and out.”
“Who told you this?” his father demanded.
“Pyongshin!” his grandmother cursed. “You talked with this woman?!”
“She saved my life,” Taka answered. “She warned me of the danger you caused, and how to stop it.”
“And you believed her?” Akiko challenged.
“We didn’t know you existed!” the young lord roared back. “You let us believe you were dead! How am I supposed to support the family when you won’t even tell me your plans?!”
The grandmother bowed her head. “I deserved that. I wanted to see you sooner, but…”
“But what?” her son demanded.
“The family is not of one mind. We have our obligations, but how we choose to advance the family…” She shrugged. “Opinion is divided.”
“You can say that.” Another man stepped into the room.
“Uncle Akira?” Taka asked.
The man wearing the obscenely powerful sword waved his hand and bowed with a flourish. “The only true warrior of the Yasuyama clan.”
“I fought the Federation,” the young lord pointed at him.
“Light Infantry. Sure. Great battles, I’m sure. Epic of story and song.” Akira rolled his eyes. “Try facing a werewolf in full power armor and watch as he decimates your division. But for once, the Fed is not the problem.”
“What is the problem, brother?” Akihiro asked.
“The Bugs. They’re on the move. They’re sweeping through the region of space, and it’s only a matter of time before they strike here. Blow all our plans to kingdom come.”
“Then what do you suggest, brother?” Taka’s father asked. “Do you have a spare division in your sheath? Or perhaps a squadron of ships to stop their advance?”
“No, but we have your beautiful bombs.” Akira turned to Taka. “You’ve got a good idea, nephew. I don’t trust this… er, Denim Man any further than I can throw him, and trust me, I wish I could. When the time comes, though, I don’t want to have to save your collective asses alone.”
“Akira! Language!” Akiko corrected.
“Sorry, Mom. But I think it’s time to teach Taka something about swordcraft… and magick.”
“Is it time to cut hovertanks in half?” Takamitsu teased.
“Yes. I believe it is.”
Argus McCall walked into the briefing room aboard the EFS Poseidon and sat down. He'd been one of the last soldiers transported up to the ship during the evacuation from Port Prosperity. Like many of the soldiers, he'd been mildly annoyed to learn that the city he and his fellows had fought and bled to liberate had been, in the end, simply obliterated in a matter of minutes. But the shock tactic had worked, and now St. Michael's Star was back in the Federation… at least in name. Pretty much the same people were in charge down there, and the planet was badly enough wrecked that it literally didn't matter anymore who collected the taxes or got the produce of its farms and factories. About half the troopers evacuated were dropped back down to help with security and rebuilding, but they were now under the command of the same General Vandemaar—the same person who lead the Imperial forces they'd been fighting the week before. Smythe had appointed Vandemaar as temporary military governor of the system until things calmed down enough to hold new elections.
At least one good thing had come from the tsunami; the one that wiped Port Prosperity off the map. So many of the Cult of the Emperor fanatics had flocked there to fight the final battle that the cult had been crippled on the planet. It was hard to keep fighting when the bulk of your surviving membership was drowned in the rubble. Hopefully, this meant Vandemaar and his mixed bag of ex-Imperial and Federation forces could keep a lid on things for a while. But with Admiral Munoz' task force recalled to New Madrid to defend the capital in the absence of Smythe and his Star Control Ship, and with the Bugs and Jurvain flooding into the border systems, there just weren't many Earth Fleet ships to leave as a picket in the St. Michael's Star system. The first time a serious Imperial Fleet task force dropped out of hyperspace into the system, Vandemaar would probably switch sides right back to the Empire. And all of this would have been for nothing. But hopefully the Imperial fleet didn't have the ships to send such a task force, what with the bulk of their surviving ships either tied down defending Avalon from a possible thrust from Minos or busily re-conquering the Terran Republic.
The EFS Poseidon and its escorts were currently en route to Chalfont to swat at the Jurvain fleet currently occupying the system. The system was nominally Imperial, but first the Bugs invaded, followed by the Jurvain. The Jurvain had already swept the system clear of Bug ships, but both the Bugs and the Jurvain had managed to land at least small numbers of troops on the surface. The planet had been drained of troops to support the Imperial attack on Kalintos a few months before, so the planet was now a vicious three-way battle between three species that hated each other’s guts.
Well, that wasn't entirely true, Argus thought to himself with a grimace. The Bugs didn't hate anyone else's guts, they loved everyone else's guts—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Argus was idly wondering what the Bugs ate back in the days when they were still Horadrim foot soldiers against the Caal. Then Colonel Dent strode into the briefing room and everyone rose to attention. Lost in thought, Argus was tardy getting to his feet, which earned him a nasty look from Captain Soti and a scowl from Dent. “At ease,” Dent growled, and the assembled special forces soldiers took their seats.
“Well, boys and girls, I hope you all enjoyed your vacation on the beautiful white sand beaches of Tranquility Bay.” A wave of rueful and sarcastic laughter rippled around the room. “The big waves definitely lived up to their reputation as a surfer's paradise. But vacation's over and we're going back to work.”
The briefing holoproj behind him switched on to show a map of a planetary surface. “This is the main inhabited world of the Chalfont system. The Bugs, the Imps, and the Skinnies are all fighting over this particular piece of worthless real estate, and now we're gonna make an appearance.”
“Why don’t we let them kill each other off?” Bill Balogh asked, sitting in the row in front of Argus.
“That’s brilliant, sergeant!” Dent barked a mock laugh. “That's exactly what we're gonna do. But Command’s got two problems. First, the Jurvain are invading us in Kalintos and Sarma, as well as here in Chalfont. The Jurvain have only a handful of ships in each system, and the Admiral thinks if he picks those off, he can stop the Jurvain incursion in its tracks, at least long enough for us to finish off the Imps.”
“Fat chance,” grumbled Windspeaker Durward from a few seats to the left of Argus.
“Second,” Dent continued. “The reports coming off of Chalfont, Circe, and Deseret indicate that there is something odd about this particular Bug offensive. They're acting strangely, using tactics and methods far more sneaky and innovative than the usual 'run-forward-and-eat-you' system the Bugs usually rely upon. The Xenobiology boys think the Bugs may have developed a new Strategist caste or something... or even that the Horadrim or someone else has regained at least partial control over them and their behavior.”
That announcement sent a ripple of an entirely different character around the room. “But if it's the Horadrim, why are the bugs attacking Imperial systems, if the Emperor is one of their own?” inquired Major Reid from the first row.
“Frankly, we don't know,” replied Captain Dave Tibbetts, standing up next to Dent. “Maybe they want to throw us off the scent. Maybe they don't have full control. Maybe the Bugs are mad about someone giving them orders and are lashing out. Or, as the Colonel here said, maybe it's someone else. Intel is banging their heads against this one and we need some answers.”
“If it’s not the Horadrim,” Lieutenant Vardan stood up, “who else would control them?”
Tibbets activated another holoproj; images of Bugs appeared next to pictograms. “After the Eastern Bloc fell, Fed scientists retrieved a lot of intel from their data banks. Turns out one of their secret projects involved studying the Arachnid genome. Intel suggests that they might have had hopes of doing something just like this… but then the Vin Shriak wiped them out. A lot of ex-Bloc people are now working with the Republic, maybe they picked up where they left off. But whatever is going on, we need to figure it out and stop it.”
“And that's where we come in,” Dent concluded. “We're not going down to Chalfont to save the Imps from the Bugs, we're going down there to kidnap a Bug Queen for analysis.”
Oh crap, Argus thought. That means we're gonna go INTO a bug hive. And I thought an underground Sabbat hideout was creepy...
The next day, after the Poseidon made short work of the Jurvain ships in orbit, Argus and the rest of his unit rode down to the surface. Compared to drop pods, they were riding in luxury aboard an AT-30 Hercules heavy assault pinnace. The Bugs and Jurvain had taken out most of the Imps' air defenses, but the Jurvain had landed on the other side of the planet from where they were dropping, and the Bugs hadn't been on the surface long enough to put up many air defenses of their own. So they didn't need to come down in Drop Pods, and Transit Beacons were a very bad idea when dropping onto a Bug world. The Bugs could sense the magickal energies of a Transit Beacon connection being formed and would mob the troopers stepping through it.
The big spaceplane thundered down out of the sky above a particularly barren stretch of rock-strewn plains on Chalfont's southern continent. The terraformers and soil conditioners hadn't gotten to work on this part of the planet yet, so it was still pretty much a near lifeless stretch of wilderness. Like all oxygen-atmosphere planets, Chalfont had life, but it was still in the local equivalent of the Cambrian Era, mostly restricted to the oceans that covered a bit less than half the planet's surface, except for the odd bit of lichen-equivalent just beginning to break down the surface rocks into soil capable of supporting more complex plant life. Once that evolved. Over on the northern continent, where most human settlement was, the colonists had introduced genetically-engineered microbes that were doing in a decade or two what would have taken natural processes a million years or more to complete. With help, it was building up a bed of soil rich enough in organic matter to allow Earth-evolved crops to grow. But over here, the only macrofauna was Arachnids, and they had just recently arrived.
The pinnace descended to low altitude and slowed to only a couple hundred kilometers an hour, and the tail ramp opened up. Argus and the other hundred soldiers inside leapt off the ramp in groups of four, falling a few hundred meters before forming winglets and gliding the rest of the way down. They flared to landings by squad, cushioning their fall with their suit jets, and scrambling to find the nearest Bug Hole.
Argus and his squad found one and dove inside, their suit sensors automatically adjusting for the sudden darkness by switching to an enhanced composite display of infrared and light-amplification views of the tunnel walls around them. They advanced at a brisk walk, trying to get deeper as quickly as possible, before the Bugs could wall off the Queen's egg chambers from the tunnel network. Other squads came in through other holes, all trying to get as deep as possible as quickly as possible.
Argus felt especially vulnerable. In all his days in the LI, he'd never had to actually go inside a Bug Hive; that was a job for the awakened troopers of the TI. He'd fought bugs many times, but always on the surface, never inside their tunnel networks. And here he was as a squad leader, the most dangerous job in such a mission. That was because troopers needed some way of mapping tunnels quickly without getting too distracted. So each squad leader's suit was in constant whisker-maser contact with the other soldiers within line of sight in the same tunnel (and getting out of sight of your fellow troopers in such a situation was usually a death sentence), sharing data on the tunnels they passed through and building up a 3D map in real time. Fine enough so far, but then the squad leaders' suits had to be linked by radio with other squad leaders in other tunnels where they didn't have line of sight, so the small maps built up by each squad could be shared and combined with each other to make one big 3D map for all the troopers to view on their helmet displays. Which meant they transmitted signals the Bugs could, and often did, detect, intercept, localize, and home in on.
Argus felt like he might as well be wearing a twenty-meter tall neon sign saying “EAT AT JOE'S” and playing ice-cream-truck music on external suit speakers.
But he continued on. Luckily this was a very fresh hive, with a low population “only” numbering in the tens of thousands. So while they ran into workers and drones a few times, they got lucky and mostly didn't run into any warrior bugs. Mostly. About an hour into the mission, at a depth of about 400 meters, they dropped through a hole from one tunnel into another one below it—and ran into a trio of Warrior Bugs.
Private Dunston, being the sneakiest of the bunch, had been the first one down the hole, and so he was the first one hit. A plasma round took off his right leg at the knee and spun him around. He hit the floor firing, taking out one of the Warriors, but the other two returned fire and a second later he was dead. Zinger dropped through the hole, firing his Lance Cannon, and took out a second warrior, before he too was hit and badly wounded. Argus and Josie Davis dropped through together and took out the third bug. Then Argus scouted a bit ahead while Davis stabilized the wounded Zinger.
“Cor, this 'urts like hell,” Zinger muttered as Davis slapped a dressing over the plasma burn on his stomach.
“Well, I'm sorry…” Argus muttered, not sounding sorry at all. “I checked that tunnel, it was empty.”
“Warrior bugs must have enough Magick to hide themselves from drones,” Davis answered.
“Then the frakkers either came out of the wall after the drone had passed, or they were there all along… but somehow invisible to my drones' cameras.”
“On the other hand,” Davis panted as she tore off strips of tape to hold the dressing in place, “maybe the warriors were guarding something.”
“Dat is why we're 'ere in the firs' place, innit?”
“Bingo, Zinger,” Argus replied, before sighing in frustration as he stared at the tunnel walls near where the dead bugs lay. “I can't see any obvious evidence that there's another passage here, but this tunnel is a dead end. Either the Warriors were waiting here in ambush, or there's something here I'm not seeing.”
“It might help to look with awakened eyes,” Davis answered, straightening up as she finished dressing Zinger's belly wound. “He'll be fine, let me take a look at it.”
“Bug plasma takes a long time to 'eal,” Zinger grunted as he rose as well, turning to look the other way down the tunnel. “Cor, wass dis?”
Josie and Argus turned away from the blank tunnel walls either side of the dead bugs to see what Zinger as talking about. “What did you find,” Argus asked.
“Turn off dose fancy-ass goggles and look at dis wall with your own peepers,” Zinger said, shining a flashlight on the tunnel wall.
Argus switched off his infrared view and mentally kicked himself. There was a clear strata line in the rock layers this tunnel passed through, but it suddenly stopped at one point, the rock smooth and uniform. Worker bugs dug tunnels by spraying enzymatic organic acid that dissolved the walls, then slurping up the resulting corrosive slurry and regurgitating it elsewhere. The dissolving rock made a distinctive “frying bacon” sound which all troopers learned to dread, whether it came from under their feet on the surface, or the walls of the tunnel behind them. When bugs built up walls, they puked up the slurry they'd already eaten and then solidified it by spraying another chemical that neutralized the acid and re-solidified the rock. Clearly, they'd plugged a hole here at one point.
“Nice find, Zinger,” Argus complimented him.
“Hey, we wereboars know mud, even when it's dried bug puke,” Zinger replied good-naturedly. Davis stood next to the wall and took off her suit gauntlet, placing her bare hand on the cold rock of the wall. She closed her eyes and visualized the space beyond. A mischievous smile crinkled the corners of her mouth inside her helmet.
“Bingo,” she reported. “Egg chamber right through here.” While Davis and Zinger set demolition charges to blow through the wall, Argus marked the location on the map and sent the info to the other squad and platoon leaders now scattered throughout the labyrinthine maze of twisty underground passages, all alike. The dots on Argus's helmet display of the 3-D map began to converge on his location, but he didn't want to wait and give the Bugs any more time to get the Queen out of the chamber. He ordered the tunnel wall blown.
As the demolition charges shattered the wall of the tunnel and blew an opening into the large chamber beyond, the three survivors of Sixth Squad were momentarily blinded by churning dust. But a quick spay of water from their suits (small tanks of drinking water and absorbed sweat could be vented out for just this purpose) settled the dust, while a barrage of plasma grenades were tossed inside to clear away immediate opposition.
As they charged into the chamber, they saw a huge open space, the floor of which was covered by thousands and thousands of desk-sized eggs, the near ones covered in brown and grey rock dust, the farther ones glistening wetly in the glow of the phosphorescent fungi the bugs used for lighting in their larger chambers.
Towering over the whole scene was a Queen, easily larger than the pinnace they'd come down in, her maglev-sized egg sac trailing after her for several hundred meters. Either side of her were two equally enormous Guardian Bugs, each standing five meters tall on their four rearmost limbs, their four forward grasping appendages crackling with energy as they prepared to throw balls of magickal fire at the three soldiers.
"You're sure this is going to work?" Scyr asked again. Ordinarily he would never have let himself display such open worry. He himself found such repeated questions quite irritating coming from others. But his memory of the last time he'd passed through the digital gate to Avalon was simply too powerful to control. Scyr was scared.
"Penetrating a Life Mask necessitates at least the partial destruction of superficial patternistic structures. Such an intrusive examination would be fatal to most unmasked second-order mortals. Detection is possible, but I judge the probability of your adversary employing to such methods unlikely, especially if he is not anticipating the use of a Life Mask. I also judge the probability of you damaging the Life Mask to be minimal, but still recommend that you desist from handling the array."
Scyr forced himself to release the amulet and let it hang free around his neck. Part of his compulsion to touch the thing came not so much from worry as curiosity. His internal dialogue had offered no instructions as to what the device's "array" should look like, and so far as Scyr could remember, he had given the matter no conscious thought. But after spending several hours weaving it into existence out of pure quintessence, he had been more than a little surprised when he looked down into his hands at his creation. The amulet had the shape of the Earth Fleet sigil, with the Roman numeral VI embossed on the circular halo. Scyr didn't know why, and the mystery was almost enough to make him search through the dark parts of the floating brain's memories. Parts which he had scrupulously avoided so far.
A recorded voice buzzed overhead, announcing the imminent transition through the digital gate. Scyr squeezed the armrests of his seat. Sneaking aboard the short-range transport liner had been easy once he'd found his way off the shipyards. Unfortunately, he'd had to take a seat in the cramped economy-class section, rather than risk detection by an overly alert steward in the first-class accommodations to which he was accustomed. At least the trip from the gate to Avalon would be short. The ride from Mars to the gate had been a crowded, smelly hell. Eventually a government would get around to towing the gate out of Earth orbit to the system's more populated planet. Eventually.
The transition passed quicker than the blink of an eye. Scyr held his breath and counted to ten. Nothing shrieked or tried to burrow into his skull. He could feel no other consciousness watching him, trying to fix upon his exact location. The amulet around his neck might have vibrated just a bit, but he might have just imagined it, too. Otherwise, there was only peaceful isolation. And the discomfort of the passenger in the next seat over kneeing Scyr in the hip as the fat man stood and tried to stretch prematurely. A steward told him to sit back down and fasten his harness; they still had another fifteen minutes before reaching Avalon's atmosphere.
Saladin City had once been an independent municipality before becoming a borough of the much larger Avalon City. Nowadays it was indistinguishable from the rest of the agglomerated mass of "downtown" Avalon. Cold, dismal-hued towers rose hundreds of stories into the air from every block in the somewhat-run down district.
Every block except one, anyway. The house on Bakr Street could have been called a mansion in just about any other environment. Here, its four levels looked laughably small. And the dilapidated state of its wooden façade compared unfavorably even to its neighbors' grime-soaked window plates.
Scyr wondered if anyone even used the streets anymore. The subterranean tunnels and enclosed skyways meant few of Avalon City's residents ever had to venture outdoors these days. And given the state of the sidewalks and lack of sun penetrating to the ground in the midst of the sprawl, there was little reason for those residents to want to go outside at least not in their own neighborhood. The Avalon countryside was well known to be gorgeous, of course. The inner city… Scyr kicked a dog's skeleton off the cracked fungicrete footpath and into a gutter.
The grass in the yard around the house was a sickly, pale grey; but Scyr couldn't be sure if it was dead, or if that was actually its natural color. The yard was protected by a waist-high wrought iron fence. There did not seem to be any gate to let anyone through the fence, despite a gravel walkway leading up to the front door of the house. Scyr spent a minute looking around, then sighed and hopped over the fence. Gravel crunched beneath the boots he'd stolen from the workers at Utopia Planitia as he marched up the path.
A cheap plastic box was affixed to the wall next to the outer screen door. Scyr pressed the button on it with a thumb, and then pounded on the doorway a few times for good measure. The wood paneling shivered and threw dust with the impact of his fist. Scyr stood waiting for a few minutes, listening to the thrum of aircars passing hundreds of meters overhead.
Eventually, the stout inner door pulled open, and a head peered out to look at Scyr through the screen. The man it belonged to was short, perhaps even a centimeter or two shorter than Scyr, but was considerably thicker set. And he wore eyeglasses, which he adjusted on his nose with beefy fingers as he examined the man on his doorstep.
"Who are you?" he asked. Then he craned his neck to look around either side of Scyr, as if checking for companions.
"I'm looking for Benjamin Lefebvre," Scyr said, reciting the name which he had carefully extracted from the floating brain.
The other man's fingers tensed slightly, squeezing the side of the doorway. But otherwise, he showed no reaction. "He's not here," the man said.
"Will he be back soon?"
"He doesn't live here," the man said, a little sharply.
"Oh," Scyr said. But he tried not to be discouraged. "I'm sorry, this was the address I had for him. I don't suppose you're able tell me where I can find M. Lefebvre?"
The man in the doorway didn't respond immediately. He licked his lips and drummed his fingers against the door, then finally seemed to make up his mind. "Ben's dead," he said. "Look, what do you want?"
It was Scyr's turn to hesitate, unsure how much to trust this person. But then, of course, he realized that he couldn't really trust this person at all, which simplified his dilemma immensely. "I knew M. Lefebvre several years ago," he said, trying to sound cagey. "I hoped he'd be able to help me."
"Yeah?" the man took off his glasses and squinted at Scyr's face. That let Scyr see that they weren't corrective eyeglasses. Bright orange characters flickered across the interior surface of the lenses: they were augmented reality spectacles. "Help you with what?"
Scyr closed his eyes and took a deep breath. That would let the man in the doorway think he was struggling to make a decision. But really, Scyr was looking into the floating brain's memories again, very cautiously pulling out the data he needed. "I'm looking for some information," he said after a moment. "And a place to hide. Ben always said he ran a sanctuary for—"
"Well I don't know!" the man in the doorway said quickly and a little loudly. He replaced his glasses, then stepped forward and pushed open the screen door before glancing nervously around again. "But why don't you come inside, and I'll see if I can help you find something?" He beckoned Scyr forward.
Scyr nodded and followed the other man inside, closing both doors behind him. The interior hallway was larger than he expected, and brightly lit in an unpleasant shade of yellow. His host stopped and turned to face him again a few meters in, smirking.
"Sorry about that out there, man," he said. His voice was more relaxed now, and had picked up a sort of whiny accent. "But the Raptors got Ben a couple years ago; I have to watch my back. I'm Dwight. Dwight Friedrich von Grier. Grandma always said the 'von Grier' is important, but I'd rather just go by Dwight, you know?"
"Sure, Dwight," Scyr said, "and you can call me Oldman, I guess. Um, and you know the Raptors are gone, right?"
"Are you out of your mind, friend?" Dwight tapped the side of his head. "Vin Dane was Raptor-in-Chief; think he's forgotten all that just because he's got himself a fancy new crown? No way, man, take more than that to change the system. Anyway, come on in, I'll show you the sanctuary!"
Scyr followed Dwight deeper into the house. At the end of the hallway, he slowed down a bit to study a pair of huge statues flanking a doorway. They vaguely resembled dogs, but stood two meters tall at the shoulder, and appeared to be built of polished steel and brass, down to the snarling, serrated teeth. Metal tubes curved around their bellies and opened at the hips like exhaust ports. Something about the sight prickled Scyr's mind, but had to pick up his pace to get back in step behind Dwight.
"Been a while since we've had visitors," Dwight said as he led Scyr into a spacious den. "I mean, I guess I'm supposed to represent the Council too, you know, but Ben was always better at being the people person. Have a seat," he gestured at a couch, "might be a bit dusty. Want a beer?"
"Sure," Scyr sat down carefully, as there was indeed quite a layer of dust on the couch. Dwight ducked into an adjoining room for a moment before returning and tossing a bottle across the room. Scyr caught it and tapped the cap a few times before twisting it off with his palm. Dwight plopped down into an armchair across the room with his own bottle.
"Okay then," the pudgy man said after taking a gulp, "let me see… So what do you know about the Council, M. Oldman?"
"Not too much," Scyr bluffed, "I think Ben felt the need to be careful about how much he said."
Dwight gave this a matter-of-fact nod. "Yeah, always good to be careful out there. That's okay, though, most people don't know much; and for the most part, they don't need to. So, more important question," he set his beer bottle down on a small table and leaned forward, "have you been inducted into, or are you at least familiar with, one of the Nine Mystic Traditions? Shit, for that matter, you are a mage, right?"
Scyr showed a slight grin. "I'm a Dreamspeaker," he said. "Or at least my mentor was."
"Aww, damn," Dwight rolled his eyes. Then he straightened a little, looking embarrassed. "Uh, sorry. No offense or anything, I just never had much use for all the voodoo spirit-guide stuff. But it ain't my place to judge, and it's not like we're in a position to be picky anymore."
He shook his head before continuing. "Right, so the Council's an alliance of all the Mystic Traditions. Back before Gehenna, the Council used to be like a government—we enforced mage laws and protected the world from monsters and the men in black, that sort of thing. These days it's pretty much all we can do just to help our members escape the draft, keep them hidden from the Raptors and whatnot, so they can stay free and learn to use magick for something other than fighting for the Man."
"That's roughly what I'd gathered from M. Lefebvre," Scyr said.
"I'm sure he was happy to find you," Dwight nodded. "Dreamspeakers are technically part of the Council, but you guys bit it pretty hard even before Clarke took over. Some of the other Traditions managed to hold together, form little clubs at other sanctuaries. But Ben figured there were maybe ten of you guys left in the whole galaxy, we only ever had a couple of you on the lists."
"My mentor spoke of 'us' like a large organization, but he never mentioned any others specifically."
Dwight chuckled, "Yeah, I can understand that. I do it, too; it's a bad habit. I'm the only other guy here." He held his arms out wide, "Welcome to the Council sanctuary on Avalon, the Traditions' most secure refuge from darkness and oppression, and the last great temple to our knowledge and wisdom!"
Scyr looked around the big, dusty room. Cables cluttered the floor, running out from behind a wall of bookshelves and over to a row of ancient, inactive computer monitors lined up on a table. There were some moldy tapestries hung over each of the doorways, displaying incomprehensible arcane symbols woven in red and gold. And from the ceiling hung about a dozen oddly shaped machines that looked like they might have been intended to fly, despite questionably aerodynamic features.
"Impressive," Scyr said.
Dwight snorted, and then took another drink of his beer. "Okay, M. Oldman. So the bad news is, I can't extract you to any of our safe houses off world or put you in touch with any other members. When Ben got himself tagged, I purged all of our contact lists and active databases, including the ones in here," he touched his forehead. "I even got ready to burn this whole place down, but fortunately, they never found it. Not sure if Ben was able to hold out or if they just killed him without an interrogation."
His face took on a distant look for a moment before he shrugged. "That's the bad news. Good news is, there's no reason you can't just hang out here until whatever trouble you're in passes by. I'll see what I can do about reestablishing contacts if you're really looking to get away from Avalon, but that could take a while. Meantime, I'm pretty good at forging IDs and rewriting government records if you need that sort of help. And I wouldn't mind your company; you might have noticed it's pretty quiet around here."
"Thank you," Scyr said. "I do appreciate that, tremendously. But finding a place to hide is really only incidental to my current needs. I'm looking for information. My mentor died before he could teach me certain things, and M. Lefebvre implied he might have access to books or records which could be of help to my studies. If this place really is a 'temple to knowledge and wisdom,' then it may be exactly what I have been looking for."
"Ahh," Dwight said, and he raised his beer in a small salute, "yes indeed, M. Oldman, yes indeed. There may not be any other Dreamspeakers here, but we have got their writings. Such as there is, anyway, I always had the impression that your philosophy was sort of eclectic. But if there is something for you to learn from books, then you can learn it here, yes you can." He grinned from ear to ear, and brought the bottle to his lips. "Let me take you downstairs. We've got the entire Zürich Chantry Library down there."
“If Darius reported to Calihye,” said William Bishop, “then naturally we need to make her talk.”
“I want to talk to Santino first,” Luther Petridis answered.
When the vampire simply sat there, William accused, “Then why are we sitting here?”
“That can wait. First I want to know more about you. Are you sure you wouldn’t you like a glass of wine?” Luther asked in a relaxed voice. Bishop finally sighed and nodded his head. “As you get to know vampires better, you will learn that patience is perhaps our greatest virtue.”
Luther turned his head towards the door of the basement and projected his voice, “Annabel, darling?”
“Yes, Luthie?” the same feminine replied.
“Please bring our guest a nice glass of Shiraz.”
“Certainly, darling!” Footsteps walked around above them.
Bishop looked at Luther with a curious expression. “I thought you offered wine?”
“Shiraz is a wine. A deep red wine, originally from
the vineyards of Australia, back on Earth. Certain regions of Van Diemen have
climates and soil content that is similar.” He took a deep contented sip. “The
locals here in Darwin swear that even their worst vintages are far superior to
wines made on other planets. If you ask me, that was the real reason
why Santino wanted to come here.”
Moments later, the middle-aged lady came down the stairs with a glass of wine and handed it to Bishop.
She said nothing, merely smiled and walked away. Once she left, closing the door behind her, Luther asked, “I want to know more about you.”
“What about?” William took a sip.
“About why you decided to join us.”
Bishop sighed and tried not to roll his eyes; it was the umpteenth time he'd had to answer this question since he joined the Sabbat. “At a young age, I was raised by were-rats in Calaunt, back on Wilke’s Star. While living with them on the streets and in sewers, I learned the truth about humani—” Bishop was interrupted when his datapad started vibrating in his pocket. He pulled it out and pressed a button. “Yes?”
“Bishop, this is Melissa. Mission accomplished. Did you track Darius?”
“Affirmative. He’s down.”
“He’s down?” Her voice sounded confused, but she simply asked, “Where are you?”
“I’m with Petridis.” Bishop provided the address of the condo.
“Got it,” Melissa replied. Following a short pause, Melissa continued, “We should be there in an hour. Discom.”
“You were saying?” Luther stated.
“Humans have a social structure that’s frakked,” William sighed. “Some of them get to live in wonderful mansions with lush colorful gardens, while the rest of us are forced to live in poverty. To defend their lifestyles, they force my kind and their mages into the Tech Infantry. Then they get killed fighting bugs while the rich get to sit back and drink martinis.”
Luther nodded. “We were once human. You could say the same of the Sabbat.”
“No.” Bishop held up a finger. “Our leaders might be flawed, but you earned that right. At its core, the Sabbat honors the best… and when you’re the best, you can’t stay too selfish and expect live.” He took a sip of his wine, and had to admit it was quite tasty. “Many of my fellow werecreatures are clearly misguided. Some of them voluntarily offer themselves and die to protect this system. My father made that mistake. At a young age I refused to follow in his footsteps, because I realized the truth.”
“The truth?” asked Petridis.
Bishop placed his wine glass down on a table beside him and leaned forward in his chair. His blood pressure steadily increased and he started to become angry. “Werewolves are slaves. The humans are a far greater threat to Gaia than the vampires could ever hope to be! They exploit every resource they can find, create vast empires built upon mass slaughter, and don’t give a crap about who gets stepped on! It seems no one can hold them in check… but there is. Vampires and the Sabbat. They represent the best chance of being able to restore the balance. And those that oppose the Sabbat, including the werewolf slaves that take the side of their human masters, must be killed!”
Luther chuckled. “Yes, you were raised by wererats, all right.”
“What do you mean?”
“Their ideology regarding humans and werewolves is similar, considering some of their totems were destroyed and they were driven to near extinction. Yes, that explains a lot.”
“How would you know?” asked Bishop bitterly.
“I have known wererats long before you were born,” Luther replied in a calm voice. “When I moved to Athens—this was the 17th century, you realize—I was a young vampire. I hunted everything, including vampires, and for that the Camarilla Prince declared a Blood Hunt against me for killing his followers. The wererats were among those that gave me sanctuary. So you see,” the vampire smiled, “we have wererats in common. But… if you want the Sabbat to come to power in the Federation, do you truly know what that means?” asked Luther.
Bishop nodded. “More planets will become like Wilke’s Star in order to have environments where vampires can thrive. When that happens, those fat cat human bastards that now live in luxury will be reduced to having to live in filth, feel what it is like to starve, and struggle to survive just like I did!”
Luther nodded and slowly smiled. “Relax… I understand your rage. I feel it too. At our core, the Sabbat are rebels. We laugh at the mighty and tear down their thrones, if for no other reason than because we can.” He took another sip. “Together we can make your dream happen.”
For a long time, the servants of Santino talked, covering the history of the Sabbat, Camarilla, and vampires in general. Finally, the door opened, and Annabel came down to the basement. “Luthie, you didn’t tell me we were having more guests.”
“Strictly business, I assure you, darling,” Petridis gave her a gentle pat. “Send them down, please.”
Annabel glided away happy, and moments later Melissa and Irene came down the stairs. “Welcome,” said Luther. “It has been a long time.” He turned towards Irene and said, “I see Victor Lynch was very wise. It is a shame he is no longer with us.”
“Who?” William asked.
“My sire,” Irene answered, then asked, “Where’s David?”
“He didn’t make it,” Bishop replied, retelling the story of the battle when they tried to apprehend Darius.
The normally cocky and arrogant Irene suddenly seemed far more fragile. Although she had been a ghoul for decades and learned not to become attached to anyone in particular, she had come to enjoy her company with David during the years they worked together on Midgar. While he wasn’t the toughest of vampires, she deeply appreciated his forwardness, candor, and personality. Far beneath the cold uncaring front she displayed in public, she had special feelings for David, and inside, was forced to admit that he was the only one she ever truly loved.
As the news of his death sank in, Irene felt a sliver of loss, regret, and other strong emotions she had not experienced in half a century. She would always miss him. Despite her efforts to maintain her cold apathetic façade, her eyes started to moisten, and a tear of blood slowly made its way down her pale white cheek.
Luther walked over to Irene and wiped the blood from her face. “I know this is hard,” he said, “but going forward you can report to me, and I will be your source of sustenance. I will also see to it that you will continue to be treated with respect.”
Bishop reached into his coat and pulled out two daggers. In a soft voice he said, “These were David’s. I picked them up before leaving the scene. I think he would want you to have them, Irene.”
Irene took them. “Thank you.” She cleared her head, regained her composure, and slowly asked, “OK... So what now?”
A strange expression flashed across Luther’s face as he sniffed the air and turned towards Melissa. He stared at side pocket of one of her legs and raised an eyebrow.
Melissa followed his gaze and pulled out the blue sapphire. She looked down to it and said, “Sir Hugh, please come forth.” After a few brief moments, the wraith was floating beside her, looking as regal as possible.
Luther’s eyebrows rose. “It has been quite some time since I have met one of your kind. Welcome.”
“Finally,” Hugh muttered, “I get to work with someone with some competence.”
Luther ignored him and turned his gaze towards a desk in the corner of the room. He walked over to it, pulled open one of the drawers, and withdrew a datapad. He pressed a sequence of numbers and everyone could hear Santino’s voice asking, “What is it, Luther?”
“I am here with Bishop, Cortona, Irene, and a wraith you have not seen before.”
“David?” the Priscus asked.
“David is no longer with us, sire. I need to speak to you at once.”
“Very well. I need to debrief them anyway. What I have to tell them is for your ears as well. Report to my office in the big building. Discom.”
They all left the condo and got into the flitter that Irene left in the parking lot. It was still very dark outside. She sat behind the wheel and quickly drove them away. She took them to the main air route and they were soon downtown. They soon reached the largest and tallest skyscraper in the city.
They parked in a reserved parking garage across from the street; the below-ground structure was nearly deserted. They took a tunnel to a basement level of the skyscraper. Once inside, Luther guided them to a specially marked service elevator area with a sophisticated security pad. Luther entered in a long sequence of numbers and performed other tasks before the door opened. They all piled in. There were four buttons on the terminal, he pressed the highest one, and the elevator door closed. They could feel the momentum of the elevator going up. Moments later, the elevator stopped and the doors slid open.
As the doors opened, a massive dimly lit room was revealed. It must have taken up the majority of the space on the highest floor of the building. The walls of the room were over fifteen feet high with ceiling-high windows. Through open blinds the lights of the city’s skyline could be seen below them extending out into the horizon. Lights from some of the Olin casting plants, refineries, and surrounding residential areas twinkled in the distance. Distributed throughout the room were alien plants, some the size of bushes and others the size of small trees. The floor was made of well-polished dark stone slab slates.
Dominating the center of the room was a very large open fireplace with a roaring fire. Nearby were overstuffed chairs and sofas, a bar, and a dining area. Facing them near a window at the far side of the room was a large deep red ash wooden desk. On one side of the desk was a large green table lamp; on the other side was a comp. Seated behind the desk was Santino. In front of the desk were two people seated in chairs with their backs to the elevator. They were positioned so that each of them faced the desk and were separated by an open space between them.
As soon as Santino saw the elevator open, he waved them over. As soon as they were within a dozen paces of the desk, the individuals seated in the chairs turned to face them. In the chair on the right was Dr. John Tyler, the longtime head of the board of directors for Olin Corporation, a relatively young megacorp large enough to be mistaken for a government in and of itself. Despite being an economist and business leader, the general population of Van Diemen considered him to be well respected, especially since he brought hundreds of thousands of jobs to the planet when he moved Olin’s Southern Federation regional headquarters to the planet, making major increases in local production. His drive to see to it that hundreds of large businesses and several other megacorps had major operations on the planet had resulted in the employment of millions more.
The person that turned to face them on Santino’s left only Bishop recognized. It was Herbert Gergenstein. Bishop nodded towards Gergenstein, who returned the nod with a minute smile. Santino began to speak. “You all know Dr. John Tyler, of course, but for those of you who do not know this other gentleman, this is Herbert Gergenstein. He is the head of Internal Security…”
“Was,” the captain corrected, holding up a hand. “We prefer more subtle titles these days. Words like ‘security’ tend to get us killed.”
“M. Gergenstein also works as our unofficial representative within the Earth Federation.” The Priscus shrugged. “Now, as many of you know, there has been a growing anti-Holy Terran Empire sentiment on this planet. Their practice of high taxation has been compounded by the incompetent government being run by Chris Snyder’s underlings, including the Emperor’s favorite, Jason Horner. Now that Chris Snyder has been assassinated, we have been informed that Jason Horner will become the next planetary governor. Thanks to M. Cortona, he will be blamed by many people for the assassination. By early tomorrow morning, there will be uprisings on the streets, followed by outright rebellion. Dr. Tyler?”
John Tyler spoke in a calm voice, like a professor giving a
lecture. “The business and community leaders have been moving towards making
Van Diemen an independent state. The businesses want more profits and the
people want more jobs. And everybody wants lower taxes. They can’t get that
from the Holy Terran Empire, and let’s face it, the Earth Federation isn’t much
better. Since the news was revealed that Smythe killed millions of innocent
people on St Michael’s Star, many on this planet believe he is as evil as Vin
Dane. The people are against a resurgent Earth Federation, killing their own
people and businesses. As for myself, I refuse to work with a government that
would destroy trillions of credits in corporate assets.”
“So,” Bishop asked, “what’s stopping the Empire from sending in troops to crush the rebellion?”
Gergenstein jumped in. “Us.”
“You’re sending a fleet?” Melissa asked.
“We don’t have to. Much like ourselves, the Empire is stretched for resources. After St. Michael’s Star, they’ll be far more concerned about protecting more important assets, such as New Paris. When a revolt happens, the simple threat of us sending a squadron will be enough to keep them away. And I’ll make sure Marshal Palencia gets the message.”
“Who?” William asked.
Dr. Tyler tsked at the werepanther, and Bishop felt like an errant student who didn’t finish his homework. “Field Marshal Demar Palancia, commander-in-chief of all Imperial forces. The right hand of the Emperor.”
“One question, M. Gergenstein,” Melissa piped up. “Why are you helping us?”
The captain licked his lips. “There’s an old saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. I’ll admit, the Federation isn’t crazy about Van Diemen becoming independent. But it’s better than being controlled by Vin Dane. As long as taxes flow to support the Earth Federation war effort, well… who cares what flag you fly?”
“Too easy an answer,” Luther grumbled, making his presence felt. “Why not send a fleet?”
The captain smiled. “Your paladin, Santino?”
“A loyal and trusted friend,” the Priscus confirmed. “You may speak the truth.”
“We planned to send a fleet,” Herbert answered, “but recent events have forced us to alter our plan. The Empire has had several victories, while we have been hampered by Bugs and Skinnies.”
“I’ve heard,” Melissa replied. “Bugs are breaking through the frontier.”
“I’m having someone look into it,” Gergenstein waved her off.
“We can no longer count on an all-out military victory against Vin Dane.” Santino looked towards Gergenstein. “Someone needs to take him out. M. Gergenstein?”
“We’re looking into that, too,” Herbert shrugged. “In fact, Smythe’s in the process of creating an elite task force, but lacks reliable contacts and safe houses on Avalon.” The powerful mage leaned back in his chair. “Interestingly enough, my sources say that the Sabbat have resources on that planet.”
“Which is why you’re here,” Bishop realized.
“I have been authorized to arrange a joint operation with Santino to eliminate Vin Dane.” Herbert smiled.
“What are we getting out of this?” asked Melissa.
“If this joint operation is successful, without their god the Cult will collapse, and the Holy Terran Empire along with it. After the war is over, we will fully recognize Van Diemen and Wilke’s Star as independent states. After all, we will have our hands busy for quite some time restoring the Federation. Why would we kill the… uh, Golden Goose, if you will, that provides us supplies that our other ‘loyal’ systems do not? Given time, these systems will be useful as release valves for all those pesky rebels who appear from time to time.”
“And the Sabbat will control them, cute,” Bishop admitted. “What will my role be? I’m afraid it’s been a long time since I was involved with Raptors. They are not going to be happy to learn that I’m with the Sabbat.”
“Why?” Gergenstein answered. “You’re still in the Tech
Infantry, Major.” The spymaster’s smile was unnerving. “I made sure that you
went to Wilke’s Star, on my orders, to make contact with the Sabbat. The only one
in the Federation that knows you’re a member of the Sabbat is me. And
rest assured, my job is to keep secrets—and I do it very well.”
Santino finally stood up from his chair. “Dr. Tyler, M. Gergenstein, you must be tired. We can resume our discussion tomorrow. We have much work ahead of us. Feel free to get some rest.”
Taking the cue, the two visitors nodded to Santino and left. As soon as the elevator closed, the Priscus sat down. “Now… what do you have to tell me?”
Bishop and Melissa relayed the sequence of events that had taken place over the past few weeks. They informed him about what had happened at the warehouse, the fight with the Giovanni vampire and his were-liger bodyguard, and Hugh. They also told him about how Calihye and Darius arrived at the site moments after Bishop and Melissa had won the fight, even though they were not on the mission. They also told him about the discovery of the book and how Hugh believed that the vampire Claudius, who is a near-antediluvian, could still be alive.
“Let me see the book,” said Santino after they were
finished. He flipped through the pages. “Hmm…”
“I believe that those are account numbers written in the margins,” Melissa commented.
Santino shook his head. “Those aren’t account numbers. They’re passwords. During our war against the Giovanni, we were able to access hundreds of their account numbers, but they had passwords we couldn’t break. My guess is that this book has access to many of them. That might not seem significant, but if payments were taken out of the accounts, then I might be able to determine who in our organization received them. Anything else?”
Bishop told Santino about his encounter with Darius and his werewolf companions outside the Lodge of the Predator Kings. Santino took a deep breath and exhaled. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “Find Calihye. Bring her to me.”
On Cronos, Xinjao O'Reilly and Brother Bob led Heth and his hunters out of the mountain tunnels and into the Cialt Abbey complex. Heth heard the explosions, shouted orders and agonized screams of battle, and smelled the stink of smoke and blood. Cronos Resistance irregulars and monks with plasma rifles ran every which way, shouting orders and smoking joints. More than once, a monk saw the K'Nes hunters and froze, then pulled the foul-smelling hand-rolled cigarettes from their lips and stared at it, wondering if they should believe their eyes.
"How many of the Cronos Resistance are left?" Heth asked O'Reilly.
"Less then a hundred, I'm afraid." O'Reilly shook his head sadly. "My fault. I should have led them better."
"You?" Heth asked, whiskers twitching. "I thought Governor Smythe was leading the Resistance…?"
"Technically," O'Reilly shrugged, "but Edwina's a politician with no military experience. She's more of a figurehead. My wife Leisa and I are calling the shots." He chuckled. "I guess you could say we've got some experience operating resistance networks against religious fanatics with guns."
"I see," Heth said… although he didn't.
Brother Bob led them through the main chapel, which had been hastily converted to an overflow infirmary. Heth's whisker rings suddenly started tingling wildly, and he looked around to see several Cialt Brothers standing in a circle around the altar, passing a burning pipe around, and slowly chanting in a strange musical language Heth had never heard before. If they were mages, it struck him as a poor allocation of valuable resources.
"They're praying—in the middle of a battle?" Heth asked, incredulous.
"We call it prayer. The Tech Infantry would call it ceremonial magick," Brother Bob explained. "Either way, our correspondence and spirit mages are all that's keeping the Imps from jumping into the Abbey with correspondence portals, or side-stepping in through the Umbra. Trust me, they're far more useful in here, singing and smoking and praising Hosanna 'in the Highest'—if you know what I mean—than manning the walls." He shrugged. "Look, the Brotherhood built this Abbey to withstand a Bug attack. We know what we're doing."
O'Reilly led them into the main room of something called a "Chapter House." A large rectangular table dominated the room, with an ornate carved chair—presumably for the Abbot—at the head of the table. And in it sat Cronos Governor Edwina Smythe. One look at her told Heth everything he needed to know about the woman.
The elderly woman wore a red beret and a Light Infantry uniform—sort of. It had clearly been carefully tailored to her figure, the elements exaggerated to look more prominent over the cameras at press conferences. It was as if Che Guevara has been ambushed by a team of Avalonian fashion designers. An open bottle of communion wine sat on the table before her (along with an empty bottle), and she sipped it daintily from a wine glass. Edwina was a woman who understood how desperate her situation was—and that there wasn't much she could do about it. She somehow maintained dignity despite looking either terrified or tipsy—quite possibly both.
Next to her stood a middle-aged woman with a faded Earth Fleet uniform and a plasma rifle. She was short and stocky, a powerful figure grown slightly plump with age and motherhood. Her face was hard and sharp, with big brown eyes over a long beak-like nose. She looked up at O'Reilly as they entered and her face softened.
"Leisa!" O'Reilly rushed over to her and they locked in a brief but fierce embrace. "Rachel's safe!" Xinjao said. "She's on his ship—this is Heth, by the way, Joe Smythe sent him—he's got a letter from Rachel for you!"
Leisa looked utterly confused, but one concern cut through her mind. "A letter? Give it to me!"
"Why yes, of course, of course," Heth said, pulling the sheet of paper from his pocket and handing it to her—and then the two parents were lost their own private world, oblivious to everyone and everything as they read and compared the letters from a daughter neither was sure they'd ever see again.
Edwina looked up hopefully at the sound of her son's name—and her face fell. "Cats," she muttered, and took another sip of wine. "We need a Fleet rescue… and little Joey sends me a dozen kittens to defeat an Imperial Army." She sighed and dropped her face into her hand, shaking her head. "Oh, Joey, Joey, Joey… what am I going to do with you?"
Heth heard Narrah growl at the blatant insult to him and his men, and interrupted before things could get ugly. "We're not here to defeat the Imperials, madam, just to protect you while you escape through—"
The double doors at the opposite end of the room crashed open as a huge white creature head-butted his way through and stormed in. He slammed down a huge lance cannon on the table, pointed a hoofed hand at the K'Nes, and bleated loudly. A look of surprise crossed his face. Then—remembering he couldn't speak in Crinos—he shifted back to human form, wool shrinking into his skin and the massive curling horns morphing back into gray hair. "Who are ye wee kitties then, an' what are ye doing in me Abbey?!" he demanded.
Heth opened his mouth to speak, but Narrah beat him to it. "The Miao Mercantile Mercenary Company, Captain Narrah commanding! At your service, sire!" He snapped a quick salute with his bionic tail. "Chairman Smythe hired us to extract you and your men to Federation territory. Are you the Alpha Hunter of this perimeter?"
"I'm Abbot Angus MacAries—I'm in charge here, an' don't ye forget it!" He paused, evaluating Narrah. His eyes took in the cat's stance, the way he held his rifle, the look in his eyes and the scars on his face where his fur had grown back in white streaks—or hadn't regrown at all. The Abbot nodded and grunted, apparently satisfied that Narrah was, however small, a soldier. "Aye. Ye'll do. Is that… power armor ye're wearing?"
"Eighteen suits, sire," Narrah nodded, "piloted by Vulthra War veterans." At the look of joy that swept the Abbot's face, Narrah twitched his whiskers in confusion. "Don't your men have armor, sire?"
"No!" the Reverend Father exclaimed. "Clarke turned a blind eye to our missiles and rockets, aye, but he drew the line at power armor—and we dinae dare cross it! But you'll even the score in this battle, aye!" Suddenly he clasped his hands together and lowered his head in prayer. "Dear heavenly Father, I know ye work in mysterious ways—and this one takes a beating, even from You—but we give Ye thanks for answering our prayers, and delivering unto us the means of our salvation from the soldiers of the false god Vin Dane! Amen."
Heth couldn't contain his curiosity any longer. "You're a… were-sheep?" he asked, amazed. He'd never seen—or even heard—of such a werecreature before.
"I'm a were-ram, ye cheeky bugger! Aye, ye think that's funny then, do ye?" the Reverend Father demanded, then before Heth could answer, said, "Now listen here, you bloody cat—I am the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, with extreme prejudice and overwhelming firepower! Got it?" Heth just nodded mutely. "Now what's all this about an extraction, then?" He looked up. "Is that why ye called us here, O'Reilly?"
Narrah cut in again. "We have a ship with a transit beacon in geosynchronous orbit, sire."
"… and, uh… that's the problem," Brother Bob spoke up timidly. "To use a transit beacon, we’d have to drop the correspondence shield the Brothers are maintaining," he explained, "and the second we do that, the Imps will start pouring in. And besides," he shrugged, "the Imps have their own mages out there. The second they realize what's going on, they'll try to shut the beacon down."
"We brought beacon signal enhancers," Heth volunteered. "Will those help?"
"A little. Not much," O'Reilly sighed, folding Rachel's letter back into his pocket. "To cut through a hostile correspondence shield? To a ship in orbit? And maintain it long enough to get everyone out?" He shook his head. "Even with all the mage monks in the Abbey, I don't think we could generate that much magicakal energy."
"Bloody hell!" the Abbot cursed.
But O'Reilly's comment struck a chord in Heth's memory. "Magickal energy? You need more?" He reached into his pocket and pulled out Wells' ring. "Would this help? It's supposed to convert matter to energy—a 'spikeard,' I believe." Heth could tell from the looks on Bob's and O'Reilly's face that he'd struck pay dirt.
"A spikeard?" Brother Bob picked up the ring gingerly, examining it. "Wow… I've never seen one before!"
"Well, it might help," O'Reilly said, scratching his frizzy red-gray hair nervously. "But there's a problem, though. Generating the amount of power we need would create a vacuum strong enough to implode the Abbey."
"What if we converted small amounts at a time?" Brother Bob asked. "And store it in crystalline batteries?"
O'Reilly snapped his fingers. His face lit up. "Hey, that could work! And we have lots of rock to convert!"
"I'm sure I can scrounge some batteries from the Abbey's technomagical equipment," Bob said, excited.
"And if we can jury-rig them together..." and then the two technomages were off, trading bewildering jargon and drawing schematics.
"Saints be praised!" the Abbot whispered. "An' how long will that take ye, Brother Bob?"
Bob looked up. "Huh? Oh… couple hours, maybe. Now, if we add a quintessence valve here…"
"We need a firm deadline, ape!" Narrah snapped. "To let our ship know when to activate the beacon!"
The room went silent as O'Reilly and Bob argued math formulas and timetables. "Three hours," Bob said.
The Abbot and Narrah traded glances that even Heth could read: Can we hold out that long? "All right, then, Captain Narrah." The Reverend Father nodded. "Will yer men join us on the walls to defend our Abbey?"
"Yes, we could…" Narrah hesitated. "But with all due respect, sire, I can think of a more efficient allocation of our resources."
"Resources?! What are ye, then?" the Abbot sneered. "A warrior? Or an accountant?"
"I'm K'Nes. I'm both." He bared his fangs in a grin. "And if blood were currency, my assets would be legendary!"
The Reverend Father blinked at him for a moment, shocked into silence. Then he broke into his own toothy grin, pointing at Narrah. "I like you, laddie—ye're wee, aye, but ye're fierce! Aye, then, what's yer plan?"
"The Imps don't know we have power armor in the Abbey—and sure as scat not hunters who can fly! It's dark out, and our suits have stealth suites. We can attack their lines from above and behind, throwing their offensive into chaos. With any luck, they'll have to retreat and regroup. That'll buy you some time. Besides," Narrah added, "we have to get beyond the Imperial's jamming range anyway, so we can signal our ship and let them know when to use the transit beacon. Might as well bomb some Imps while we're at it."
"Aye, an' how do ye plan to get yer men out of the Abbey without being detected and massacred?"
"Through the bell tower, sire," Narrah answered. "Did I mention we can fly?"
The Abbot thought about it for a minute, then nodded. "Aye, all right then. Leisa!" The short Israeli woman looked up from her daughter's letter. "Be a good lass and take these men—er, beasties—up to the bell tower and let them go bump in the night!"
"All right, rats!" Narrah turned to face his hunters. "Time to earn your paychecks! SWAAAAARM-HUP!"
The Abbot nodded in satisfaction. "God be with ye and yer men then, Narrah." He raised three fingers and sketched a cross in the air. "Now," he said, hoisting his lance cannon. "If ye'll excuse me, I have some more Imperial hovertanks to blow to kingdom come!" With that, he ran out the door, shifting into Crinos and bleating.
As they flew through the Abbey corridors, Narrah ordered all his hunters to set their armor's comm system to automatically send a message to the Avarice with the time and coordinates of the transit beacon extraction. Only one of them needed to get beyond jamming range for the ship to get the message. It wasn't until the K'Nes swarm began following Leisa O'Reilly up to the shattered bell tower that dread began to set in. The top had already been blown off, and the higher they climbed, the more the structure seemed to sway in the never-ending Cronos winds. The rumble of explosions and the whine of plasma rifles seemed louder than ever. Heth had a sudden flash of utter clarity, fully realizing the madness of his situation. What in the stars am I doing here?
Before he could follow that train of thought any farther, Narrah began giving orders. "Equites!"
"Sire!" M'Rowr and Surra said in unison, the equites of second and third clouds respectively.
"Chose two hunters to load up with armor-piercing explosive rounds. They focus on vehicles and power armored troopers while the remaining four hunters provide cover for the heavy weapons." Narrah turned to his own first cloud and chose two snipers. "Hunter Heth! You stay here—no helium, no flying. Got it?"
"Yes sire!" Heth said, feeling simultaneously confused, slightly embarrassed, and enormously relieved. Narrah turned back to the rest of the swarm. "First cloud will take center with me. Second, take the right flank. Third, the left. The wind is steady, north by northeast, twenty-nine knots," Narrah informed his hunters. "Adjust your suits navcomps to compensate. The wind's kicking up a lot of dust—it'll help hide us, but visibility will be reduced. And remember—keep your tails moving, constantly! Your armor does its best to camouflage you—but you want to be in motion when and if it fails! Do NOT fire while we're moving into position, or we'll lose the element of surprise! When we're directly above the siege lines, I'll give the order to pounce—attack pattern Urrkkak. Fire at will, drop plasma grenades if you get the chance. When I give the order to withdrawal, fly back to the bell tower at full speed, evasive pattern Horrath. Hunter Heth will provide cover fire for our return."
He paused, looking at each of his hunters. "Remember, leave no dead or wounded behind—the Imps can NOT know we're here. There's only one K'Nes ship in orbit, and it needs to stay there safe and sound—or there’ll be NO transit beacon to extract us!" He bared his fangs in a grin. "All right, rats… let's go kill some apes!"
The hunters inflated, their camouflage systems activating as they rose into the air and sped off into the night. Within seconds, Heth lost sight of them with his eyes, knowing their location only from the tactical display in his helmet. He looked around, found a nice piece of crumbling masonry to hide behind … and waited.
He looked down at the fierce battle raging beneath him. In the sandy reaches between the Imperial siege lines and the Abbey, crisscrossing plasma fire and magickal energies lit up the night while grenades, rockets, and missiles exploded randomly. Between blasts, Heth heard the musical chanting of entropy and forces mage-monks whose song-spells caused incoming ordinance to veer off or detonate prematurely. Power armored Imperial troopers and armored transports full of Light Infantry rushed the narrow breaches in the Abbey walls, all while Cialt Brothers and Cronos Resistance irregulars tried desperately to shoot them down. Imps who reached the walls engaged in vicious close combat, both sides fighting desperately over the footholds into the Abbey.
Heth couldn't see the Miao hunters, but heard over his suit's comm when Narrah gave the order to pounce. K'Nes railguns were silent and near-invisible, creating no sound or bright plasma streaks to give away their position—and they were constantly moving. It sounded like it took the apes a few seconds to realize they were under attack, and even longer to figure out the enemy fire was coming from above. Then the chaos began.
On the horizon, far beyond the contested no-man's-land surrounding the Abbey, plasma grenade flashes began rippling along the Imperial siege lines. Then streaks of plasma fire sprayed into the air. The apes were firing wild, firing blind—but that much overlapping firepower was bound to hit something, and Heth could hear over the comm lines as some hunters came under fire and Narrah roared out the order to withdraw. Heth knew he was supposed to be providing cover fire for the hunters retreat, but wasn't sure what he was supposed to fire at… and didn't want to waste his hideously expensive Impossibarium rounds if he wasn't sure he'd hit something.
On his tac display, Heth saw the dots of hunters weaving an intricate aerial pattern as they zoomed toward the bell tower. As they passed over the contested soil, the K'Nes fired a final flourish of slugs and grenades. A score of Imperial troopers beneath the hunters, caught up in their own fierce fighting and completely unaware of the raid behind their lines, were caught off guard and cut down. Then something big appeared on Heth's tac display—behind the K'Nes hunters and closing fast, spraying plasma fire everywhere.
"Scat! Aerodyne!" Narrah yell over the comm. "Hunter Heth, take it down! We're coming in hot!"
What? Heth thought. How in the stars am I supposed to do that? Yet he found himself lifting his rifle to his shoulder as his suit's targeting computer locked on... and Heth's brain kicked into economics mode. I can’t always miss a target this big, he thought, so the hit-to-miss ratio is acceptable for my limited and expensive ammo. Heth fired, again and again. The statistical probability of hitting something vital increases with each shot...
Finally the aerodyne seemed to wobble, then veer off course, and then spin out of control. For an instant, Heth bared his fangs and roared in triumph—but it turned into a squeak as he watched the injured aerodyne spiral down and slam into the Abbey wall. Its sheer size and speed shattered even the steel-reinforced ceramcrete, creating the biggest breach in the wall yet. Heth just stared in horror at his terrible mistake. What have I done?
The next thing Heth knew, K'Nes hunters were deflating all around him, Narrah bellowing for everyone to get back down the tower into the Abbey.
The K'Nes raid was an attempt to buy more time for the Abbey, and it worked. The Imperial command and control structure had been thrown into chaos, and they needed time to regroup and restore order before they could launch an effective counterattack. The artillery and rocket fire continued, and opposing mages continued to duke it out, but even with the massive hole in the Abbey walls, the Imperial troopers had stopped trying to fight their way inside. The temporary reprieve came at a high price, though—three K'Nes hunters were seriously wounded, several others with minor injuries, and the Miao Mercantile Mercenary Company had suffered its first fatality.
O'Reilly and Brother Bob had set up the transit station in a mountain cavern behind the Abbey, where they'd be safe from direct fire and could fortify the only entrance. They used the spikeard to convert rock into magickal energy as fast as they could, storing it in a jury-rigged crystalline battery bank, but they were running out of time to build up a big enough charge to break through an Imperial correspondence shield for several minutes. The refugees and wounded has been moved to the cavern, ready to rush through the transit beacon portal when and if it appeared… but for now, they could do nothing but tremble and pray and wait.
Narrah, of course, had volunteered his hunters to cover everyone's escape while they retreated through the portal. Heth really wished he'd stop volunteering them for all these dangerous jobs, but… well, it was in the contract. That was why the mercenary company had been formed in the first place, after all.
Finally, the moment arrived. The defenders abandoned the crumbling walls and fell back, fighting, to their makeshift transit beacon room, caving in the tunnels behind them with grenades. O'Reilly and Brother Bob powered up the K'Nes beacon signal enhancers, patched in the magickal battery banks, the mage-monks dropped their defensive correspondence shield… and nothing happened. Heth got a sinking feeling as terrible thoughts raced through his mind, each worse than the last. Is Kirrp having trouble with the transit beacon? Did my crew not get the message? Is the Avarice even still up there? Did the Imperial Fleet destr—
There was a blinding flash of energy as the fabric of reality ripped open and a shimmering disk appeared in the air. A deafening cheer arose as the mob of almost three hundred monks, irregulars, Fed sympathizers and refugees surged forward and began pouring through. Governor Edwina Smythe (at Heth's insistence) was the first to cross over, followed by civilians and wounded. For a second, everything went well. Then hell broke loose.
Mages and werecreatures suddenly shifted in through the Umbra, and correspondence portals opened all over the room as Imperial troopers flooded in, firing indiscriminately into the escaping crowd. The resistance returned fire, and suddenly the whole room was filled with flying plasma. Heth dropped to the floor, terrified.
Forces mage-monks threw up shields to protect the mob fleeing through the transit portal while other Brothers shifted into Crinos and threw themselves at the invaders. The battle instantly devolved into ferocious and brutal hand-to-hand combat. Plasma fire lessened, everyone afraid of hitting their own men in the chaos. Abbot MacAries raced around bleating as he rammed through Imperial troopers with his massive horns and swung a huge claymore at anything within its range. Armored K'Nes hunters zoomed around the room like a swarm of angry flies, slashing with vibro-claws and bladed tail-tips, hacking with the blades mounted under their rifles. Narrah was practically bouncing between Imperial troopers with unnatural grace, his rifle forgotten, ripping out throats and intestines with slashes and rakes of his claws, his tail blade whipping and stabbing.
Heth looked around. All the civilians were out, the Resistance members were falling back through the transit portal now. They were almost done, it was almost over… Heth was vaguely aware of someone screaming orders at him through his suit—but he was too petrified with fear to move.
"Heth! BEHIND YOU!!"
Heth rolled over to see a huge armored werewolf swinging down a battle-axe. Heth knew he was dead.
END OF ACT I
Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home—Albegensia Press accepts no liability for readers who venture into Bug Holes.