THE LAST HUNDRED DAYS – Act IV
I've been stuffed in your pocket for the last hundred days
When I don't get my bath I take it out on the slaves
So grease up your baby for the ball on the hill
Polish them rockets now, and swallow those pills
And say oh—Space Lord, Motherfucker!
I lost my soul when I fell to earth
My planet's called me to the void of my birth
The time has come for me to kill this game
Now open wide and say my name
Space Lord, Motherfucker!
-- Monster Magnet, Space Lord
“Absolute power’s gonna take some getting used to.”
Izzy laughed. “So what is your command, Oh Mighty Queen?”
Victoria rolled her eyes. “For starters: never call me that again. No way do I want to be the Queen of anything. Especially not...” her voice faltered for a moment, “well, not after everything I’ve seen.”
Izzy opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it again. It had been almost four centuries since his body had been capable of producing tears. But just the memory of watery eyes was powerful enough.
“Victoria,” he said. “I... I’m so proud of you.”
She laughed, but there were tears in her eyes, too, real ones.
“Well, now let’s not get ahead of our—HGLLLKK!”
Victoria doubled over, one hand clutched around her own throat in a vice grip.
“Victoria?!” Both Izzy and Roberta rushed forward.
But the young woman reached for her hip with her free hand. Without looking up, she drew out the small crossbow holstered there and shot Izzy. The little sliver of wood pierced the vampire’s chest with a thwip! Izzy collapsed mid-step. Roberta froze, uncertain.
Vicky lowered her arm and dropped the crossbow onto the dirty floor of the diner, next to Izzy’s limp body. Then she stumbled and fell sideways to lean against the back of a bench. She continued to choke and sputter as she squeezed the breath out of her own throat.
Slowly, she turned her head to cast terrified eyes at Doctor O’Brien. Her mouth moved, but the voice it spoke with was not Victoria’s. It was airless, calm, and dark.
“Assumptions,” it said, “are the most dangerous things in all the universe.”
Three creatures, one of light, one of flesh, and one of shadow, stood at an impasse.
The being of light spoke first. It took the aspect of a tall, intense, but elegant woman.
“Evil!” she cried. “Release us!”
The creature of flesh could not speak, for the creature of shadow held it tightly bound, ready and able to annihilate it in the space of a moment.
“Yes, you may have her,” the shadow said. “But first you will bind yourself to me.”
The creature of light’s laughter was resounding and terrible. “Do you really think I would ever serve one such as you?”
But the shadow was unmoved. “I have no doubt,” it replied. “Your apparent intelligence is surprising, but ultimately a mere illusion, perhaps invented to facilitate interaction with these second-order mortals. Fundamentally, you are still nothing more than an entrophic singularity. Your affinity for a patternistic node is still irresistible.” The shadow lifted up the struggling creature of flesh and held it out, like an offering. “I control the node, and so you WILL serve me.”
The woman carved from light did not respond immediately. She stood still, fuming and struggling with a futile rage.
“What do you want?” she asked at last in bitter surrender.
“What I have always wanted. What each of us has wanted for so very long. A return to life and immortality as a first-order being.”
“Impossible!” the woman spat, and she seemed to take a wicked pleasure in her refusal. “Even for me! Even with—” her brilliant eyes slid towards the shadow’s hostage, still struggling helplessly in its grasp.
“Yes, I know,” the shadow almost sighed. “But the nodes are a recurring phenomenon. I may not have the expertise to replicate them myself, but it should be no great trouble to... encourage their emergence on an acceptable schedule. So you will sustain me until a permanent solution is devised.”
Sadness and anger showed in equal measure upon the white woman's face. But she said, "So be it, then. I am yours to command as you will. Now release the poor girl's spirit!"
The shadow cast the squirming mortal away. It gasped and fell in a heap at the other woman's feet, then immediately began crying and convulsing with wordless sobs, a young girl broken with despair. The woman of light knelt down and gathered her up in an embrace.
"There, there," she said, soft yet strong, "it's all right, now. It's all right. I'm here, nothing can hurt you anymore."
The girl wept, but did not attempt to pull away. Instead, she pushed herself deeper into the arms of the white woman, who held her tight and whispered soothingly.
"I'm here, little one. I'll always be here. You are safe."
Slowly, the crying girl began to sink into her embrace. The white woman's glow expanded and shone brighter until, eventually, the light consumed the small girl's form completely, and the white woman knelt alone.
"Be ready," the shadow said.
Scyr opened her eyes.
Someone had grabbed both her shoulders and was shaking quite frantically. The same person also seemed to be yelling irritatingly close to Scyr's ears. Scyr could see the face of a woman with mousy brown hair, a pinched nose, and wide eyes oscillating back and forth as she shook.
"Victoria!" the woman shouted. "Victoria, are you all right?!"
Scyr threw the wererat backwards through the wall.
Then Scyr held up her left arm and look at the silvery bracelet that twinkled delicately upon her wrist.
"Obvious," she said.
Scyr plucked the bracelet from her wrist. It warped and expanded into a glassy, softball-sized orb pulsating with ethereal light. Scyr turned it around in her fingers a few times, studying its surface. Then she opened her mouth.
And opened it further.
Scyr's lower jaw wrenched away from the rest of her skull. Her cheeks strained and then split down the center to display her full measure of teeth.
She pushed the Orb into this wide, bloody maw, pressing it back into her throat. Then she forced her mouth closed again, and swallowed. The flesh of her neck squeezed and bulged unnaturally, and blood ran out the torn sides of her mouth as internal tissues were abused and destroyed.
With that done, Scyr glanced down at the body lying at her feet. She prodded it with the toe of her shoe, but it remained limp and unresponsive. The thin sliver of wood protruding from its chest held it fast.
"Suboptimal," Scyr said. "But you may tell your master that I am very curious to meet him someday."
At the back of the room, the wererat began to pick herself up from among the splinters and wreckage of the diner wall.
Scyr did not wait for the shapechanger to recover completely. She vanished, wholly and instantly.
Even as the ratkin doctor shook herself off for another effort, she knew something wasn’t right. Victoria–but no, was it? Or was this the true power of the Orb?—had vanished wholly and completely, and even attempting to sniff out Victoria’s umbral trail was now quite beyond the good doctor’s abilities.
The wererat rushed to Izzy, who lay motionless where he had fallen, surprise still etched into his wide violet eyes. With shaking hands, Bertie pulled the stake from Izzy’s chest with a wet squelching sound.
Izzy screamed. It was a wild, grief-stricken howl, not from the physical pain, but from a near instinctual sense that Pandora’s box had blithely been opened. He clamped powerful hands onto the wererat’s shoulders and shook her. “Par la sang sacrée du Jesu Christi, qu’est-ce que nous avon fait!? J'ai apporté l'enfant en ruine! Ma faute! Ma faute! Ah, mon Dieu dans Empyrée, il est de ma faute!”
“Izzy, I have no idea what you’re saying, but you’re hurting me!” Bertie squeaked as she looked to her battered and just previously dislocated shoulder that Izzy’s fingernails were now digging into. With a tremendous effort of will, Izzy released her from his grasp.
With the palm of his hand, Izzy wiped Victoria’s still-warm blood from his face, where it had fallen when he had been forced to watch her—no, that thing—swallow the Orb. He closed his hand around it as though he could hold onto her life for her, but he knew it was an utterly futile gesture. “She’s dead,” he declared as he went to wipe his bloodied hand on his ruined coat. But then he thought better of it; instead, Izzy shut his eyes and muttered something low and gentle that Bertie couldn’t understand before ingesting Victoria’s spilled blood.
“But, I saw her leave…” The stricken doctor sat down at a nearby booth. “No, you must be mistaken… I think the dear is just shaken up by the power of the Orb… maybe she wasn’t ready for—”
A look of disgust and hatred filled Izzy’s face. “I don’t know what that thing was that left the room, but it was not Victoria.”
“But if it was the power of the Orb—”
“I am telling you, that was not my Victoria!”
“Well I know, but if you’d just listen, there’s a chance we could get the—”
“I KNOW WHAT DEATH LOOKS LIKE!” Bellowing, Izzy rounded on her, fangs fully extended. For a moment Bertie was certain Izzy would attack her, but instead he turned away abruptly, uprooting a nearby diner stool and throwing it at the wall behind the counter. A stifled yelp and the sound of movement that was incongruous to the falling plaster and glass debris displaced by the stool caught Izzy’s attention. Izzy leapt onto the countertop and plucked a cowering young girl from her hiding space.
As he held the struggling and crying girl up to his face, there was a moment of stillness. It was always like this. A profound moment of clarity where he could see his place in the universe, and the girl’s place in the universe, and that everything was exactly as it should be. As his fangs sank into the nameless girl’s soft, warm neck, he could feel his soul become a little less substantial, his grip on it a little more tenuous as it eroded against a great ocean of nothingness. That was fine; souls only held things like sadness and guilt and obligation and world-weariness. The girl’s own life blood flowed into him, sparkling and making a valiant attempt to fill the endless void. It was heady, tasting strongly of life and youthful innocence. He did so love the children.
From far off, he thought he could sense someone shouting and plucking at his clothing. He pushed them away roughly but cradled the now limp figure of the girl protectively. As Izzy’s senses began to coalesce a moment later, Bertie returned, pointing Victoria’s crossbow gun in his face.
“If your intention is to stop me, you’ll want to aim a little lower,” Izzy said calmly, smoothing the exsanguinated girl’s hair lovingly. “Though, with bolts that thin, it really takes an expert hand to get it just right.” The thought of Victoria chilled him, so he held tighter to the bloodless girl like a ragdoll and kissed her tenderly on the forehead. “Ah, ma petite jeune fille, je suis seulement un monstre après tous. Pardon… tellement pardon...”
The crossbow bolt hit cleanly, reentering almost exactly where ersatz Victoria’s had previously entered. Both Izzy and the dead girl fell into a heap on the countertop.
On Purrfang, Heth deflated onto a ledge and strode into Capital Hall, Miu at his side, flanked by fifteen “secretaries and assistants” in identical waistcoats and breeches. They'd barely had time to update their power armor with the new camouflage parameters, and no one realized until too late that they all had the same default setting for K'Nes business attire. Thankfully, the suspicious fashion faux pas seemed to go unnoticed.
The stealth suite in Heth's armor had successfully slipped through Capital Hall's security before—but that was just one suit, one bored security guard, and after business hours. Heth wasn't sure it would work for three clouds of armored (albeit disguised) troopers. Luckily, the busy and chaotic atmosphere seemed to work in their favor. A few anomalous power signatures made some whiskers twitch, but Narrah claimed it was coming from his bionic leg and tail—and then the old cat launched into a loud and cranky rant about shoddy merchandise and warranty loopholes. When security finally waved them all through, Heth wondered if it was just to shut Narrah up.
There was an unusual, nervous tension in the air… and Heth knew why. Several hours before, he’d “leaked” the Varrless-Vin Dane contract to Durrmach Media—and it quickly went viral. It was all the newscasters could talk about (after stock prices, of course). It would doubtlessly come up for discussion on the trading floor—investors abhorred political instability and uncertain future projections.
Oh… and their freedom was on the line, too.
In the black and red chaos of hyperspace above Purrfang, the most pathetic fleet in K’Nes history drifted, idle and waiting—the three Miao super-freighters Avarice, Asset, and Acquisition (with their all-important gravity drives), four squadrons of twenty-plus-year-old K’Nes fighters, and the even older escort carrier, the Loophole. They possessed at least one minor advantage: each ship and fighter was armed with as much Impossibarium ordinance as MIRADI could crank out on such short notice. Their dismal task force hid in hyperspace roughly corresponding to (as far as they could tell) geosynchronous orbit above Purrfang’s capital city Awuon.
Soth drummed his claws restlessly on his manager’s console. Somewhere out there was an Imperial Horadrim god-ship waiting to rain death and destruction on the K’Nes. In truth, they had no idea where to set their ambush—but this was Soth’s best guess. If Pirr Varrless really did have a Horadrim warship at his dispoal, then it was his most useful—and perhaps only—asset. If he’d really have it fire on a K'Nes city as a show of power… then, strategically at least, the most valuable target would be Awuon, and probably even Capital Hall itself. After all, the K’Nes Llan Board of Directors and Executive Board—the leadership of the most powerful corporate clans in all of K’Nes space—were all conveniently clustered together in one place. If Varrless wanted to bring the K’Nes Llan to its knees in one shot, this would be the most sensible target. Scat, it’s what I’d do, Soth thought to himself.
He turned to his sensor administrator, busy scanning the gravitational map of hyperspace. “Anything yet?”
“Nothing, Sire.” The cat sighed. “According to the intelligence the Miao gave us, there should be a small gravitational buckle when Horadrim tunnel drives drop into normal space… but I’m not seeing anything like that.”
“It’ll be very brief… so keep watching,” Soth said. “It’s our only warning where and when the ship arrives.”
Heth floated onto the trading floor and slipped into the crowd of K’Nes milling and flying about. Most of his “secretaries and assistants” floated off, tapping datapads, glancing at stock price holoprojections, by all outward appearances just more nervous shareholders… who just happened to cover all the entrances.
Heth had timed his arrival to just before the markets opened. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Pirr Varrless appeared, floating up to join the other Executive Directors on the raised central kiosk running the length of the hall. He grabbed the ceremonial gavel and whacked the opening gong—which was instantly drowned out as K’Nes shareholders began roaring out negotiations and trades.
Varrless looked a bit like his financial empire—worn around the edges. It was big news that Varrless Financial was under pressure. Once the Federation had begun transferring its capital out of the First Varrless Bank of Purrfang, the news spread like wildfire. Many K'Nes, fearing the Fed knew something they didn't, followed suit and transferred their capital out too. It was common knowledge that Varrless Financials's liquid assets reserves were running low. Rampant speculation over why the Federation had mysteriously pulled out had driven down Varrless Financial’s stock price. Then the Varrless-Vin Dane contract had hit the news—and suddenly the Fed’s actions made a lot more sense. Varrless Financial would certainly take a beating in the market today.
There was no point in discussing policy so soon after the opening gong—the trading was fast and furious, and no one would be paying attention. After the first hour though, when things had calmed down a bit, Horrath K'Urrin K'Meorr, LEO of both the Urrin Llan and former royal company Horrath Industries, took the central podium.
“First Patriarch Varrless,” he began, “I move to open this ‘Varrless-Vin Dane’ contract for discussion. It—”
“Bah! A waste of time!” Varrless spat, perhaps a little too defensively. “It’s a blatant forgery! A politically-motivated smear campaign designed to devalue my company, nothing more! I won’t dignify it with a debate!”
“The blood signatures have been verified,” Horrath argued, “and the implications are very serious!” He slammed down his datapad angrily. “The K’Nes Llan Articles of Incorporation state that diplomatic contracts must be approved by votes of both the Board of Directors and the Executive Board. This personal contract involving Llan planetary assets is clearly a violation!”
Varrless narrowed his eyes. “Are you accusing me of being a contract-breaker?” he growled.
“Your words, not mine!” Horrath shot back. “I move to officially declare this contract null and void!”
“Well, then it’s too bad that we don’t have quorum, isn’t it?” Varrless snapped. “Gurrmew Soth isn't here!”
“Actually, I’m the fifth Executive Director of the K'Nes Llan now,” Heth said, floating up to the central kiosk. “Miao Mercantile recently increased our share of the K'Nes Llan. Don’t you follow the news?”
In truth, Heth had carefully waited until the last possible minute to buy the extra shares of the K'Nes Llan, specifically to give Varrless at little warning as possible. Heth’s strategy had apparently worked; Varrless spun around, staring at Heth in surprise—and looked positively shocked to see Miu floating next to Heth, alive and well. Then he noticed how scratched and bitten they both were… and his fur bristled in anger.
“And, now that we have quorum,” Heth said, “I second the motion to bring the Vin Dane contract to the table. I assure you, it is genuine—I would never have released it to Durrmach Media if it wasn’t.”
“You’re behind this?!” Varrless roared. “I should have known! I will sue your whole clan for libel and defamation of character, Miao, for every last credit your pathetic little company has! You'll be beggars when I'm done with you! Security!” Varrless called out. Corporate security cats around the hall looked up from their datapads (they'd been trading, too), bewildered. Varrless pointed a claw at Heth. “Arrest this slanderous rat!”
After a moment of uncertainty, the security cats put away their datapads and pulled out their sidearms. A second later, the waistcoats of over a dozen businesscats throughout the hall shifted into black power armor. They bounded over to the security cats, hissing, vibro-claw out and humming, bladed tails whipping around menacingly. The security cats hesitated, fur bristling in fear. Their pistols would do little against military-grade power armor.
That got the attention of shareholders. The roar of buying and selling tapered off and everyone suddenly realized things had gotten a lot more serious. It was a standoff for now… but that could change in a heartbeat.
“I’m afraid you’ll have a hard time proving libel.” Heth said casually, reaching into the breast pocket of his waistcoat and pulling out a human-sized datapad. “You see, I obtained the original contract from this.” He held the datapad up for all to see. “The personal files of one Zechariah McNeilly—a Horadrim and personal aide to Emperor Vin Dane… and also, I believe, a business associate of yours, Pirr?”
For a moment, Varrless looked stunned. He recovered quickly. “Lies!” he spat. “You forged the contract!”
“Then why has the Federation been transferring their funds out of the First Varrless Bank of Purrfang?” Heth demanded. “I'll tell you why: they've independently verified this contract and found it to be genuine! They're trying to save their assets before you freeze them when you merge the K'Nes Llan with the Empire!” Heth stabbed a claw in Pirr's direction. “You are a contract-breaker who employs contract breakers!” Heth growled. “You are not fit to administer a mange treatment, yet alone a commercial empire!”
Suddenly Heth spun around to face the Board of the Directors watching below the central kiosk. “I call for a shareholder challenge!” he roared. “Transfer your assets out of the First Varrless Bank of Purrfang! Dump your stocks in Varrless Financial! Invest that capital in…” Heth pointed at Horrath K'Urrin K'Meorr. “Horrath Industries!” Meoor stared back, as surprised as anyone.
“How dare you!” Varrless roared, outraged. “The Llan is mine! You’ll pay for this with your hide, Miao!” Suddenly he charged at Heth, paws raised, claws out, and murder burning in the yellow cat’s eyes.
“Suit! Armor! Claws!” Heth yelled—and ducked back into a defensive crouch as his suit morphed into power armor, metal claws snapping out, humming. Pirr stopped short, shocked surprise written across his furry face. Heth glanced at the Board of the Directors. “For the love of the Llan—shareholder challenge! NOW!”
There was moment of shocked silence. A confused murmur ran through the Board of Directors as they looked around, uncertain. All it took was seeing a few shareholders working furiously on their datapads to convince others they really ought to sell their Varrless Financial stock before it lost any more value… and then panic selling set in, everyone dumping their shares, trying to get some money back before the price bottomed out.
Varrless, too enraged to speak, could only stare at the holoproj displays in horror as he watched his stock price plummet, capital pour out of his banks, and his financial empire crumble before his eyes. As the minutes ticked by, it became clear Varrless Financial would be facing bankruptcy soon; if they wanted to remain solvent, they had no choice but to start selling their shares in the K'Nes Llan—which had suddenly gone up in value.
Slowly, Varrless turned to glare at Heth. “Very well, Miao,” he hissed, stepping closer, “you win this round… not that really matters.” Heth tensed as Pirr reached into his jacket—then relaxed when he pulled out a datapad, not a weapon. “But I don’t need the Executive Board anymore, or the Board of Directors.” He tapped away on his pad. “True, I hadn’t planned to dissolve them quite this soon… or this literally…” He shot Heth a nasty fang-filled grin that chilled his blood. “But there’s no time like the present—and time is money.”
Bernard Dent had abandoned his Lance Cannon as being too big and unwieldy to be used in the narrow fungicrete passageways here inside the bunker beneath the Round Table. Instead, he smashed through doors with the butt of his plasma rifle, a custom model he'd had ordered with the heaviest frame available, then had a buddy in the technical section weld on extra steel reinforcements and titanium prongs on the butt that enabled it to be swung by the muzzle like a Morning Star Mace, and it had in the past crushed the skulls of human and alien enemies with equal efficiency, whether they were wearing armor or not.
Fifty meters of fungicrete, rock, and soil above them were designed to be proof against a crashing star liner malfunctioning on landing approach, and even his supernatural hearing could not detect the sounds of the battle still raging far above him between the Sabbat Shovelheads and the Imperial Bodyguards. His troopers followed close behind, checking the side passages and compartments he passed in his headlong charge. As the officer in charge, he could have ordered one of his subordinates to take point, but no one argued when a Werebear offered to lead the way.
Actually, darn few people were prepared to argue with a Werebear about anything.
But the braver among them did occasionally offer suggestions. “Sir, my gut says he's this way,” spoke up Adelisa Soti as they came to a cross corridor otherwise much like any of the several others they'd already passed. But darn few people argued with the gut of an Entropy Mage when it came to hunches and other aspects of random luck. With the bellowing war cry that was all he could manage with the ursine snout full of teeth and slobber he sported in full Crinos rage, Colonel Dent took the Captain's suggestion and charged down the hallway.
Fifty meters and two turns down the hall, they came to an armored hatch guarded by two Imperial Bodyguards in power armor. Their opening round of plasma fire was simply soaked up by his immense armored bulk. Captain Soti tried to project a force field, but even she couldn’t punch through the strengthened Gauntlet. But Dent’s power armor took the second rounds effortlessly, with a minor assist from the nanobot slush that surrounded the stiff plates of his power armor. The two troopers dropped their plasma rifles and were prepared to fight hand-to-hand.
The Matter Mage on the right took a step back and waved his hands back and forth in a well-practiced spell, but his attempt was just as useless as Soti’s. The Wendigo on the left leapt forward with a primal scream and a silver tomahawk in each hand. Bear and Wolf met in mid-air and instantly grappled in deadly combat. Dent's greater mass ensured the furball continued down the hall, now greatly slowed, but his armored hide soon sported almost a dozen gashes and cuts from the lightning-fast slashes of his smaller and faster opponent. But despite the horrific wounds, Dent managed one colossally strong roundhouse swing with his rifle butt that slammed the werewolf into the fungicrete wall with a force that would have turned a merely mortal body into inert jello. Knocked backwards by the force of his own blow, Dent slammed almost as strongly into the opposite wall, and thus was out of the way when a silver throwing knife spun through the space just vacated by his head and embedded itself in the face of his opponent. Soti gave an exultant victory shout in Romany that was cut off short when a plate of her own armor suddenly spun like a buzz saw and neatly sliced her throat clear to the spinal cord from inside her power suit. The Imperial Bodyguard Mage at the end of the hall did not have long to celebrate his own victory either, as Dent rebounded off the wall and hurled his plasma rifle forward with enough force to crush the mage's rib cage into a shattered ruin before embedding itself in the fungicrete wall behind him.
Resuming their advance, Dent bounded up to the armored hatch, and with almost contemptuous ease, tore it off its hinges and hurled himself through into the room beyond. A solid wall of fire met him and hurled him back into the hall from whence he came, even his werebear constitution no longer enough to save him from that much incandescent plasma burning through his flesh. With Soti bleeding out in the corridor behind, the next trooper in line was Irfan Malik, the Werelizard. He skittered into the room hanging upside-down from the ceiling, the Y-Rack on the back of his power armor slung almost horizontally in that position. It barked several times, chucking mortar rounds into the faces of the surprised defenders, and the room was suddenly cleared.
Malik dropped to the floor and surveyed the scene. Blasted comms gear lined one wall of the room, and the other was taken up by the scorched remains of what must have once been the prized creation of one of the Sons of Aether. No one else built that many crystalline spikes, bubbling translucent pipes of colorful chemicals, and even the still-sputtering arc of a Jacob's Ladder into technical equipment these days. This must have been the gear capturing Vin Dane's “live speech” and transmitting it to the stadium across town.
Which meant Vin Dane himself must be nearby. Malik licked his right eye turret inside his helmet, and slapped a platter charge onto the far wall. As soon as it blew a hole into the room beyond, he waved for the few remaining TI and Sabbat fighters with him to follow, and charged into the breach.
And got no further. All the salt in his blood crystallized in an instant into a sort of spiked three-dimensional snowflake, impaling most of his vital organs from the inside out. He didn't feel a thing, the sudden change in ionic potential shutting down nerve transmissions in his brain and leading to instant unconsciousness.
Empress Miranda Mayfield stared at the falling bodies of their would-be assassins with cold fury in her eyes. The weapon in her hands was a magickal construct that bypassed a power armor’s defenses; the Gauntlet would resist a mage, but not her creations. Another assassin came around the corner; a wererat working with the Sabbat. Miranda fired the experimental gun into her attacker; somehow, the assassin had resisted the magick and was still coming on. Still, even its lightning reflexes could not save it when Vin Dane lashed out with a Soul Web tentacle and snapped the rat's scrawny little neck. But the rest of the troopers were sprawled across the control room floor, translucent salt crystal spikes protruding from their skin in all sorts of painful-looking places.
“Is that all of them?” she asked her husband.
“No, I sense more coming,” the Emperor replied. His magickal senses may have been gone, but even before he became a mage, he was a powerful Horadrim, and the Horadrim had stood astride the galaxy without a Mage among them. He still had his Soul Web, he still was the equal of any warrior in the galaxy and better than most. His nanotechnological tendrils were plugged into the bunker's security systems, and he could monitor everything happening. But he was still weak from the shock of having his Avatar ripped from him, and he had to get out of here before someone got lucky.
He raised one arm above his head, and black filaments flew upwards, penetrating the fungicrete ceiling of the chamber. He violently brought his arm down, the filaments shattering the material, and it fell downward in a rain of chunks and dust. His other hand stabbed skyward, and another filament spat out. He reached with his first arm and grabbed his wife around the waist, then raised them both up to the next level of the complex. He was already picking an escape route out to the surface. Reinforcements were on the way, and by the time he got up there, the last Shovelheads would have met their Final Death, and this insanely suicidal attack on the heart of the Imperium would be over... he felt something wet splash across his chest and looked down.
The battered, bloody body of a werebear in seriously damaged power armor dragged itself across the threshold into the transmission room, and it was holding some sort of gas pistol in its one remaining functional hand. He actually shot me, the Emperor realized with utter shock. A net of filaments extended from his right foot and sliced the already-fatally-injured ursine into ribbons. As he stumbled down the intact hallway a level above the funeral pyre of Bernard Dent, he heard the billion voices speaking as one, the voice of the Gestalt Consciousness of the nanobots in his Soul Web.
***Foreign material analyzed***, the voices said. ***Modified Type 27 B Slash 6 Nanobots***
Horadrim Soul Web nanobots?
*** Modified by parties unknown *** the voices continued. *** Terms of Warranty Violated. Unauthorized modifications confirmed to be deleterious to designed function. Reversing modifications. Assigned symbiont identified as code name Zechariah McNeilly ***
Whether this meant McNeilly had betrayed him, or had simply screwed up yet again, Vin Dane didn't care. McNeilly had been sent to K'Nes space to be far, far away from Court. He had a grudge against the Emperor that was well known… well, against everything, Dane knew, but his evident love for his Horadrim people was strong enough to trust him with minor assignments where a capable yet expendable agent was required. Either way, his usefulness was at an end. Once this stupid and destructive civil war is over, Vin Dane determined, his services would no longer be required.
William Bishop felt his injuries disappearing as he went further and further back up through the bunker halls, trying to reach the surface. Only he had no strength; even though he felt he could sleep for a thousand days, his lack of energy had little to do with the battle. Before his very eyes, he had seen Melissa Cortona eviscerated by a man he thought he knew. And although Bishop had avenged her death, suddenly the war, the Sabbat… everything felt hopeless. To him, there seemed little point of escaping this bunker filled with death.
But Irene York felt different. Half dragging, half supporting the looming werepanther, she was determined to live… and pulled the reluctant Templar back with her. It took hours to avoid the remaining Imperial Army patrols, and even their Tech Infantry allies, whom she was afraid would shoot first and ask questions later. Once they reached the surface, the smell of ozone and blood all around them was nauseating—even for those who served the undead. The sun was rising over the Round Table, but it didn’t matter to them, as they slowly made their way out of the battlefield. It took York a long time to find a vehicle that still worked but, commandeering a luggage cart, she shoved Bishop into the storage trailer and drove them out of there.
It seemed to take forever to reach their safe house, the pizza place they had met up with their Federation contacts. The restaurant was deserted, but she deposited the werepanther onto the nearest couch while she disappeared into the kitchen. She returned with a sandwich and beer and placed it in his hands. Bishop ate without thinking, and when he had finished devouring it, a flicker of light came back in his eyes. “I can’t believe she’s gone.” It was the first thing out of his lips in hours.
“I know,” Irene nodded. “I felt the same way after David died.”
William forced himself to look at her. “How did you go on?”
“The dream,” she answered. “David… and Melissa died for the dream, Bishop. Vampires come and go, but we serve Mordred because of his dream.”
“It seems like a nightmare,” Bishop commented.
“Change always looks that way,” York replied. “But you have to remember the end. Freedom. Complete and total. No lords, no laws… just the truth.”
“Bullies. Blood. Strong ruling the weak, crushing them into submission… evil people. People like me.”
“You’ve seen the opposite, Bishop. You’ve seen what total order does to us. Peace, but at a price. It’s still the strong ruling the weak, but with the fiction of freedom plastered on top. It’s always been that way.”
William glared at her. “Is there ever an end?”
Irene smiled back. “Would you want it any other way?” When the rage started to surface within Bishop, the ghoul lady smiled wider. “Would you rather be a tame pet—or a monster?”
Bishop stood up and loomed over her. “And which are you?”
York stroked his chest absently. “Ask me in forty years… mortal.”
The werepanther pushed her aside hard and looked for a comp. “Do you think the Emperor is dead?”
“He better be.” Irene rolled her eyes. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to get a line to Luther.” Bishop found the hidden holoproj and whacked it to life. Finding a comm program, he punched in the sequence to override the Imperial block and opened a line.
It took a while before Petridis replied. “I can’t believe you got through to me.”
“Hackers have been punching walls through the local Net,”
Bishop answered. “What’s the situation?”
“The Imperial Army—at least here in the capital city—is dead. Unfortunately, we have few of us left to enjoy it. If Vin Dane’s still here, we can’t go after him. We’re pulling out.” The Priscus looked at his Templar and asked, “You were with the Fed troopers. What happened?”
“Marshal Palencia is dead. So is Melissa…” Bishop forced the sorrow away and looked at his boss. “The troopers were going further into the bunker after the Emperor. They must have him now.”
“Where are you?”
“You didn’t go with them?”
“I…” Bishop suddenly realized how much he had failed Luther, and hung his head in shame. Why didn’t I finish the mission? Does it really matter?
Irene stepped forward to save him. “Bishop was seriously injured after his fight with the Marshal. He couldn’t keep up with the rest of the squad. I took him out of there back to safety. He served you well, my lord. You should be proud.”
“Very well.” The Priscus nodded. “We have to hide here until the sun goes down. Stay there and we’ll join you when we can. Try and make contact with what remains of our local network. If the Emperor escapes, we have to be on his trail as soon as possible.”
“Bishop…” Luther stared at his templar. “I will ask a lot of you in the coming weeks. Are you up to the task?”
The werecreature nodded. “I am.”
“Then may your way be clear and your feet be swift. Discom.”
“Manager Soth!” the Loophole’s sensor administrator yelled, “Grav buckle detected! Wait… it’s gone…”
“That’s it! Move out!” Soth opened a comm channel to the Miao super-freighters. “Avarice, this is—”
“We see it, too!” Rameth answered. “We’re heading to the coordinates! We’ll open a jump point for you!”
“Acknowledged.” Soth turned to his crew reminding them of the battle plan one last time. “All right, we only get one free shot—if we surprise them—so target the Horadrim ship's tunnel drive! If we fail to take it out, they'll jump in and out of normal space all around us and rip us to shreds. Remember, that thing repairs itself quickly, so we've got to take it out hard, fast, and permanently—or we all die, and the Llan dies with us!”
The tiny flotilla raced to the location. The Loophole was too small and old to have its own gravity drive… but it was bristling with weapons. Half of its fighters were clustered around the Asset, inside its gravity prolusion bubble, and the remaining fighters were in the same formation around the Acquisition. With a top speed of almost a hundred gravities, it would take them mere seconds to reach the place in hyperspace where the grav buckle was detected. Soth could only hope there got there before the Horadrim ship could fire on Capital Hall.
“Pirr… what in the stars are you doing?” Heth asked in dread… but he suspected he already knew.
“I have friends in high places, you see,” Varrless answered. “Very high—in orbit, actually—and with a very powerful asset at their disposal.” He continued tapping on his datapad. “Shame, really, Capital Hall would have made an excellent palace, but… well, sometimes it’s simply more efficient to just make your problems… disappear.”
Heth inched closer, bladed tail swishing nervous. “Fire on Capital Hall, and you’ll ‘disappear’ with us!”
“Oh, I think not,” Varrless purred. “I plan to join my new business partners. Let’s see… drop the correspondence shield around the building, and…”
Heth’s eyes widened as he suddenly realized what Varrless was doing.
Heth yowled and pounced at Varrless, claws slashing. A tiny transit portal popped open, seeming to wrap itself around Varrless… then he was gone, and Heth was flying through thin air. Heth could only look up helplessly and wait for victory—or death.
In orbit over Purrfang, two hyperspace portals tore open and the Miao super-freighters Asset and Acquisition flew through. Switching their gravity drive to generate grav shields, they bore down on their target, coasting at top speed on a ballistic trajectory, bringing their K’Nes fighter squadrons with them. A second later, the Avarice’s gravity drive ripped open a third portal nearby and the Loophole shot through. It took the ship’s crew mere seconds to acquire their target and race toward it at top speed for a strafing run. The Horadrim ship looked like a water demon from the dark side of Purrfang—an organic, glistening black thing, long and cylindrical, bristling with curved prongs and spikes. It was smaller than Soth expected… then, suddenly, he recognized it from Heth’s schematics—it was just a destroyer, not a battlecruiser! Sky Father above, we just might survive this!
“All weapons!” Soth roared. “Pounce!”
The last surviving K'Nes warship unleashed its full fury on the alien vessel as it flew toward it. Both Hellbore cannons blasted, ten Impossibarium-tipped lance torpedoes launched, and all sixteen fusion cannons fired round and after round of Impossibarium-jacketed fusion shells across the void of space. Their four heavy chemlasers, traveling at the speed of light, were the first to strike the Horadrim ship’s tunnel drive, burning into the thing's glistening black… hull? Hide? Skin?
It was the only free shot they got. The Horadrim destroyer’s prongs curved toward them like tentacles and twin energy beams sliced out. One cut clean through the Loophole's lower pylon of fighter launch tubes, severing it, pouring atmosphere, equipment, and K’Nes deck crewcats into the vacuum of space. The second energy beam slashed across the bow of the Loophole chopping the off the ship's nose where the Hellbore cannons were mounted. The escort carrier turned its port side to the enemy, rippling with secondary explosions… but kept going.
“Keep firing!” Soth ordered, and the fusions cannons kept pumping out nuclear shells. The Horadrim energy beams kept coming, punching holes through the Loophole and obliterating their cannon turrets. Soth rolled his ship along its horizontal axis, exposing the starboard-side cannon turrets to the alien vessel, and kept blasting away as it sped by. More energy beans slashed and punctured the K’Nes carrier… and then the Loophole’s trajectory carried it beyond the Horadrim warship’s effective weapon range.
There were dozens of projectiles bearing down on the Horadrim destroyer now. Its black spikes twisted around, snapping out smaller point-defense energy beams at the incoming shells and torpedoes—but the balls of superheated plasma from the Hellbore cannons couldn’t be shot down. The ship almost seemed to squirm out of the way, dodging one of the plasma blasts… but the second struck home right over the tunnel drive. It would have been a crippling blow to any other ship, but the Horadrim ship almost seemed to shrug it off, its black surface rippling as the auto-repair functions kicked it. It did, however, temporarily clear the area of point-defense spikes—which was the best Soth could hope for. The alien vessel was shooting down shells and torpedoes at an alarming rate… but only one needed to get through…
And one did. An Impossibarium-jacketed torpedo slammed into the Horadrim ship right over its tunnel drive. Impossibarium shrapnel sliced into the destroyer’s hull, exposing the interior of the ship to the one-megaton nuclear blast that followed. The organic vessel practically writhed in pain.
“Did we get their tunnel drive?” Soth demanded.
“I… think so, sire,” answered the sensor administrator. “It’s hard to assess the damage to that kind of ship… but if we didn’t get their tunnel drive, they probably would have used it to jump away by now.”
“Mission accomplished, then,” Soth growled. He looked at the damage assessments pouring through his holoproj display… Loophole was dying. Her ion drives had been nicked by a Horadrim energy beam—with luck, she’d hold together until they could get to the escape pods. Frankly, he was amazed they’d survived the first pass at all. “All right, crew, we did what we came to do…” He took one last sad look around the old warship that had served his race so very, very well. “Abandon ship.” True, they hadn’t destroyed the Horadrim vessel… but then, that wasn’t their job. In the end, Soth thought, we were just the distraction.
The whole exchange between the Loophole and the Horadrim destroyer had lasted mere seconds, a minute at most. If the alien bioship was even aware of the three massive freighters bearing down on it, it apparently hadn’t considered them much of a threat, concentrating its fire instead on the only actual warship in the task force. That changed as the battered carrier limped away, the super-freighters dropped their gravity shields, and disgorged four squadrons of K’Nes fighters. They swarmed around the crippled Horadrim vessel, darting and dancing like acrobats, launching Impossibarium missiles at the black weapon prongs and strafing the hull with explosive railgun rounds. The alien ship’s point-defense energy swatted the K’Nes fighters down like flies, but the Impossibarium shrapnel cut deep into the hull. It seemed to writhe and whither like a wounded animal.
It still ignored the seemingly-harmless cargo ships… until the Horadrim finally noticed, too late, that one freighter, the Avarice, was not veering off. It was on a collision course—and coasting with the speed of a hundred gravities. The energy beams suddenly stabbed out at the Avarice… but the super-freighter’s gravity shield held.
The K’Nes had immobilized the alien warship for now—but at the rate it repaired itself, that advantage wouldn’t last for long. They had to destroy it, suddenly and completely, now. There was only one weapon in the known universe that could even hope to drop a Hoardrim warship in one shot—a Gravitic Ram, the most massive and energy-intensive weapon ever built. The K'Nes, unfortunately, didn't have a Gravitic Ram. The Miao, however, did have a Gravity Drive… and both operated on the same principles. If the Avarice could get close enough to open a jump point inside, or even near, the Horadrim destroyer… well, if that didn’t kill it, nothing would. But to do that, the Avarice had to get terrifyingly close to the alien destroyer—a hundred kilometers or less. Their gravity shield glowed with absorbed energy as they closed the distance. The surviving K’Nes fighters ferociously attacked the bioship’s weapons prongs, trying desperately to help the Avarice get through.
As the super-freighter closed to jump point range, it dropped its gravity shield and spooled up its gravity drive. It was only vulnerable for a few seconds—but that was enough for the Horadrim destroyer’s last weapon prong to slice an energy beam into the Avarice. At such close range, it chopped clean through the super-freighter, bisecting it in two. For an instant, the two halves rippled with secondary explosions—then its fusion bottle ruptured, and the two-mile long super-freighter burst into an expanding cloud of white-hot plasma… still flying toward the Horadrim warship, with the speed of a hundred gravities.
The organic ship hit its thrusters, trying to outrun the blast radius, but wasn’t quite fast enough. The glistening black vessel trembled and withered and as the cloud of flying plasma overtook it before finally breaking apart with the screech of tearing biometal—or was it screaming?—and was vaporized.
A few of the smaller, faster K’Nes fighters managed to escape the blast, but others were caught and incinerated in the fireball. It had been a costly victory… but the alien was dead.
Heth trembled with relief as he received the good news on his datapad—then almost collapsed with shock at the bad news: his beloved ship, the Avarice, was… gone.
“What? What is it?” Miu asked, seeing the stricken look on Heth’s face.
“Avarice…” Heth whispered. “They destroyed the Avarice…”
“And we saved Capital Hall—and the Llan,” Miu said firmly. “It’s worth the price.”
“Yes…” Heth said wearily. “Yes, I suppose you’re right…” He turned back to the Board of Directors spread out below the central kiosk on the trading floor. “It’s over!” he bellowed. The noise of commerce died down to a dull roar as the shareholders turned toward him. “The Imperial Horadrim ship in orbit has been destroyed! Varrless is gone! Capital Hall is safe! And the Llan… the Llan is free!” As relief and joy swept the shareholders, Heth smiled to himself and decided to borrow a page from Narrah’s book one last time. “These aliens keep forgetting,” he said, “that cats have both fangs and claws—and their sharp!”
The K’Nes shareholders roared—with pride.
Argus McCall was worried. He and Jason Regis had stayed up on the surface, hidden in the shadow of a starship hulk being cannibalized for spare parts, until it was clear that there was no longer anything they could do to prolong the fight between the Sabbat Shovelheads and the Imperial Bodyguards. Someone had finally gotten through to the Artillery unit and submunitions were no longer raining out of the sky, slaughtering anything that moved or emitted a power signature. Not that there was much left moving or emitting a power signature. Enemy reinforcements would be coming soon, and there wasn't much the two of them could do to stop it... and if Vin Dane wasn't dead before they arrived, it wouldn't matter much even if they could. With the way to the entrance cleared of anything living, Regis had taken Argus by the hand and took him via a very short trip down into the bunker below.
Regis was shielding them from the view of the bunker's security cameras with his Glass Walker gifts. They weren’t obvious magick, so like the werecreatures themselves, the strengthened Gauntlet ignored them. Still, finding a clear path to Vin Dane was proving to be difficult. From the muffled sounds of explosions and the increasingly pervasive odor of smoke and ozone, it was clear that someone was fighting someone; who was winning was far from clear. Argus was down to a single drone, the others having been caught in crossfire or detected and destroyed during the battle on the surface. Only his newly-sentient awakened drone remained, and it had been flitting down the halls ahead of them for the first few minutes below ground. But then Jason had suddenly dragged them down an unexpected turn, and the drone was now playing catch-up and watching their rear. Regis' senses and abilities were impressive, but Argus would prefer to have had eyes ahead himself.
They had to trip over bodies in and out of power armor, but soon the familiar suits of the Imperial Bodyguard began encumbering their way. “We’re on the right trail now,” McCall muttered.
Jason snorted. “No shit. Keep up.”
The scene became more surreal as they went further into the bunker. Frozen dead troopers and Sabbat, mortar burns, and a strange anti-magickal collar stabbed into the wall… without an occupant. Before Argus could think too much about this, he heard voices ahead of them. McCall pointed to his ears, then down the hall. Regis nodded back, took the opposite side of the hallway, and slowly made their way down the hall.
Miro Creed, dressed in the same denim clothes he had been captured in twenty subjective years ago, was almost within striking distance of the Emperor. The Horadrim was waiting in the passageway that he knew his fellow countrymen was bound to escape through. He should have known that a collar doesn’t work on us, Miro thought with glee, his long imprisonment almost over. There’s no magick in my genetic code, no Gaia claptrap in my veins. That stupid device didn’t know how to counteract tentacles…
He looked down at the distant light source and heard their voices. There’s no escape this time. With Vin dead, there will be no future Vin to kidnap me. The timeline will correct itself, and I will be free. Maybe I’ll appear back in my bed on Earth. Maybe I can find her again…
A portal opened behind him—and Miro knew who it was. “Not now…” he growled.
But Fialla Spencer half-rolled, half-fell out of the portal. Miro turned to face the new threat, but unlike their last couple meetings, Fialla didn’t immediately attack him with the plasma carbine swinging off her hip. “What the…” Then she saw the Horadrim. “Oh. I should have known you’d be here.”
“If you’re going to kill me, please give me one more minute.”
“Look, Denim Man, I… okay, I’ll admit it. This once, I didn’t chase you.”
“The timeline kicked me out!” Spencer barked back. She tried fiddling her hands, but nothing happened. “I can’t open a portal out of here!”
Miro, uncertain what to make of this superbly bad timing, tried to open a portal as well… and nothing happened. “What does it mean?”
“It means that this is the moment. This is when everything changes.”
Creed blinked. “You mean… we’re free?”
“No, Denim Man. I mean, the universe doesn’t have any need for us anymore. So we’re about to find out what that means.”
“Stop calling me that!” the Horadrim barked. “My name is…”
“Miro Creed,” another voice came nowhere. Out of the wall stepped a well-dressed man, with a monomolecular blade glowing in his hand. “And a sad waste of life you are, little alien. Between the two of you, the Imperial Bodyguard should have shot you to shreds by now. Thankfully, a little Quietus has kept them blissfully unaware of our presence.”
“Who are…” Miro began.
But Fialla knew who he was. “Fabian Cortez. What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same, little girl.” The ghoul rolled his eyes. “As it turns out, we all have our part in this little play. Miro wants to kill the Emperor, I want the Orb, and you want to go home to Kansas.”
“I’m not from—”
“No one reads the classics anymore,” Cortez sighed, “and being cut off from the timeline has clearly eliminated your sense of humor. Sad.”
“Listen, blood boy,” Miro snarled, “no one gets the Orb except—”
“Whoever has it,” Fabien answered. “Which is not the Emperor… or anyone else down the hallway.”
“What?” both of them replied, astonished.
“Can’t you feel it? The Orb isn’t there.” Cortez blinked and then shook his head. “Oh, of course you don’t. Merlin had a certain affinity with the device—as well he should—which allowed him to sense its presence. Which means this,” he waggled his expensive technological blade, “is as useful as the Prophet’s wife at a battlefield.”
“Then… why are we here?” Fialla demanded.
There was a sound down the hallway and Fabian smiled. “Ah. I think we’re about to find out.”
"Still no response from Marshal Palencia, your majesty, and Squad Three reports that they've been engaged now."
Vin Dane hissed under his breath, but he waved the grim news away. The pain of his Soul Web was getting greater; he could feel himself unraveling, despite everything his nanobots could do to counter the infection. "No matter. If Demar went down, he went down fighting. And he's given us the time we needed to get—"
There was a schluuurp as the air in the tunnel was pushed aside to make room for a new person teleporting in. Unlike Miro Creed's entrance, it was not an entire hole ripped in the fabric of space. Instead, a young woman with a bloodied face simply appeared in the midst of the Emperor's entourage.
Dane's Bodyguards were already whirling and raising their weapons at the cry of "Target!" But then a blast of air whipped into their chests and sent all of them, as well as the Empress Miranda, toppling to the ground.
A broad, perfectly opaque—and perfectly invulnerable—pearlescent bubble appeared, sealing off both the Emperor and the intruder from the outside world.
"Horadrim," Scyr said from within the cocoon.
"Caal." The Emperor's voice was barely louder than a whisper. His body was impaled upon a dozen silvery spikes protruding from the interior surface of the bubble. His eyes were clear, though, and full of hate.
"Yes," Scyr agreed. "I conjecture that it must have been very frustrating. Facing such expansive and vigorous opposition combined with so little appreciation for your efforts. I further presume that it felt lonely, as if you were the only one who understood the threat."
"It was my duty," Vin Dane said. If he was bitter, he suppressed it well.
"Yes," Scyr agreed again.
She held out one hand beneath the suspended, mangled body of the Emperor. Black liquid dripped from his wounds and into her palm.
"You might console yourself," she said, "with the knowledge that you have my respect, at the very least."
Vin Dane scoffed as loudly as he could, but his strength was failing rapidly. "You can shove that pity up your ass, monster."
"Not pity, young crusader," Scyr made a noise that was almost the start of a chuckle, "respect. You Horadrim were never our most dangerous enemy; mortals of the third order, mere vermin, how could you be? I have faced eternal oblivion at the hands of more than one of your predecessors, while you have never threatened worse than inconvenience."
She shook her head in slow, unnaturally precise arcs. "But never did we encounter a more determined foe. No other species ever marched to its own doom by choice in order to oppose us. It was a foolish choice, yes, but still worthy of respect. And it is a shame these other mortals were so ungrateful."
The Emperor strained against the spikes piercing him, but grunted when they only tore his wounds deeper. "What the hell do you want from me?"
Scyr stepped back and held up her hand. "The Orb was always a means to an end," she said.
Her entire forearm was now coated in the black ooze that had been dribbling off of Dane. As he watched, consternated, it began to ripple and then twist into little ropes that wove around the rest of her limb.
"I have spent so many hundreds of millennia searching for an immortal body. Now I believe that I have found the perfect one."
Suddenly, Vin Dane had the sensation of looking into a mirror. His eyes bulged.
"Praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal," Scyr said.
END OF EPISODE SIX
Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, no matter how tasty that orb looks.