File 16: Equalization
Subject: Diego Bardem
Neither Teague nor Karras expected the graveyard on the outskirts of the Chasm’s perimeter. Dozens of civilian starships, shredded from without and within, beached upon the grey lunar surface.
“What could have done this?” Karras asked frowning.
“These impacts aren’t consistent with Marrow weaponry,” Teague noted, bulky Aeon Drifter Kai dropping down to inspect the vessels, careful to avoid stepping on a near-carpet of corpses spilling out of the bellies of the ships.
“We can cover it after the battle,” Alix said, floating above, keeping watch. “But trust me here, guys, it makes the fate of these nukes all the more important.”
It took about three hours of low-speed drifting to reach the cavern Karras had discovered and perhaps another hour of careful navigation through tight fits in the veins surrounding the Chasm to reach the long-hidden gateway under the belly of the Marrow base. Despite Teague’s offer to do so, they couldn’t simply blast their way through the jutting remnants of underground magma rivers – Karras was fairly sure the Marrow base had seismic sensors in case of an underground attack through newly created tunnels. By sidestepping this defense through a technicality, Karras was sure he’d catch the terrorists off guard.
By the time they reached the massive archway built into the central column of the Chasm base, Teague was eager to actually begin the mission, and even Karras had to admit that he himself was getting jittery. The whole point of a backdoor was that it was secret – a lack of opposition was a good thing. That didn’t stop the flutters, and he was sure happy to see his plan working out for a change.
Docking his black Wasp alongside Alix’s blue SB-Andras and Teague’s red and white Aeon Drifter, Karras popped his cockpit and stuck his helmet out into vacuum, surveying the hatchway that the original designer had installed in the Chasm’s spine. It would most likely allow a Tempest frame to pass with some contortions, but given that Karras wasn’t just ready to fly a frame straight up the gullet of the Marrow base, on foot was the only option from here on forward.
Touching against the ancient steel of the Spine, Karras felt minor shudder run through the metal. Looking behind him, he saw that large pieces of the cavern had detached themselves from the walls and were currently floating free through the empty void. Odd – gravity well projectors had been abandoned decades ago due to a few too many horrible accidents, but apparently Bardem had set up a well to project up through the Spine.
“They haven’t started the assault,” Teague radioed on an ultra tightbeam comm channel into the ensuing silence. At least Karras hoped it was true. He had actually been about to activate the remote beacon for the Cocytus to begin its assault, having finally reached the Chasm and needing the chaos of mobilization to cover their entrance. But with the signal still inert on his robotic gauntlet, Karras was sure Carnifex hadn’t jumped the gun.
“Remember, this place started as a geothermic power and mining station,” Karras whispered. “I wouldn’t doubt there’d be instabilities this far down. If anything, if it’s regular enough we should be thankful for the cover.”
“Just as long as that’s the extent of it,” Alix put in, eyeing the debris orbiting her SB-Andras. “The last thing we need is to be hit by a magma plume or so-”
Powered by some perverse need to be wonderfully timed, fate stepped in at that point. The Spine began to tremble with a greater intensity, and Karras knew this was no simple natural phenomenon.
The BAV came up from the core, dragging an imploder lance along the length of the Spine’s inner walls, throwing up sparks and comparatively giant waves of molten metal in the tip’s wake.
Several things happened at once.
Karras’ uplink to CC intercepted the comm channels used by the Andras’ battlenet and, using codes he had obtained back in Armstrong, decoded the transmissions to let Karras know that the pilot was indeed sortieing in response to the detection of a massive blue battleship just beyond combat range.
His eyes widening, Karras reacted instinctively, pushing Alix back into the cavern and using the wonderful third law of physics to propel him into the massive empty space of the Spine.
The BAV’s pilot, who by dint of most likely being a barely functioning trained psychotic, had been dragging his sabre through sheer force of malicious boredom after being recalled from a guard CAP, realized that a previously-unseen loading hatch had been opened in the wall of the Spine. Most likely getting sensor feedback of three idling frame-sizedenergy signatures just enough the hatch, the pilot poured power into his flight pack, boosting towards the hatch and plunging his lance into the wall. Karras, who would’ve been disintegrated by the blade had he not acted, missed being struck by the decelerating Andras’ head antenna by mere meters, drew a grappling hook from his belt and fitted it to his arm, firing it at the side vents of the frame’s head.
The magnetic head at the tip of the hook’s monowire snapped onto the corner of the BAV’s facemask just as the frame ground to a halt. The Marrow pilot peered out into the space beyond at the three docked frames and realized just what was happening.
Knowing from blueprints of the original Andras line that the main communications antenna was wired through the crest that covered the front of the frame's head fin, Karras engaged the retraction mechanism on his wire, yanking himself up towards the Dagger’s head. Alighting with his feet just upon the frame's left camera – one of its ‘eyes,’ Karras reached into his belt and withdrew a trademark of his time back in ISB a decade ago – a sticky bomb. Throwing the explosive down at his feet before leaping to the side as the BAV’s pilot realized what was happening, Karras narrowing avoided the swipe of the frame’s massive fist.
And, more importantly, the resulting explosion of the penetrative EMP grenade he had affixed to the face of the BAV. The resulting blue-tinged shockwave strategically shorted the frame’s communications and threw half of the frame’s viewscreens into static. The BAV’s pilot, panicking over the tiny gnat that had just momentarily crippled his Tempest frame, let his training take over – his goal was to neutralize the more important threat of the three frames within arm’s reach. Retrieving a grenade the size of a large car from its belt, the Andras flung the device into the open gap of the backdoor.
Realizing what was about to happen the second the geological shivers began wracking the Spine, Karras rappelled down towards the chest of the BAV and braced himself in the protective cover just outside of the frame’s cockpit as the grenade went off in a tremendous burst of unforeseen consequences.
The already unstable connection between the cavern and the hatch in the Spine shifted under the sudden structural shock – one second Karras was looking at a fireball, the next solid rock had replaced the view of the cavern beyond.
And with that, Karras realized he had just been separated from his only allies, stuck in the heart of the base of a crew of psychotic space racist terrorists, and was currently clinging to the hatch of a frame that would soon quash him like a bug.
Knowing he’d never been able to blast his way through the Dagger’s laminated titanium-k armor, Karras knew he had one option. Remembering he’d still have a remote connection with CC, he clung tight to the handrails encircling the BAV’s cockpit hatch and pulled a wire from his wrist-mounted computer to interface with the Andras’ diagnostic window. If it worked once… Well, it wasn’t like Tempest frame designers expected to be engaged by a human-sized opponent in open combat, did they?
Granted, this time CC didn’t have to overcome an unknown computer architecture with the frame itself currently trying to murder Karras, but – there.
The hatch slid open to reveal a surprised looking soldier, who went for his gun with speed Karras had never seen another human duplicate. Dodging out of the way as the first bullets buzzed silently out of the cockpit, Karras did the only thing he could – drawing another stick bomb from his belt, he quietly primed the timer and chucked the explosive into the cockpit.
Perhaps the pilot attempted to swat the grenade back out of range, but given the putty that had gone active the second the bomb had left Karras’ hands, Karras could only imagine the pilot’s panic the grenade adhered to his glov—
-There was a soft whoomph of light, and Karras peered past the open hatch of the cockpit to see a mangled corpse and an equally trashed pilot’s console. While he doubted he would have even been capable of piloting the Black Andras, it was regrettable that he had to completely disable the controls in addition to the pilot.
Grimacing, Karras looked away from the macabre sight and triggered his comm. “You guys okay?”
“You alive, bub?” came Teague’s gruff, disappointed response, as though he expected nothing less of his begrudging ally.
“Barely,” Karras said, looking up at the titanic metal fist that was poised meters above his head, frozen a split second before it could brush Karras off like a troublesome cobweb.
“Listen, Atmos, don’t worry about us,” Alix put in. “We’ll try to find a way around. Or, failing that,” and Karras could practically imagine her throwing a sidelong glance at Teague, “blast our ways through.”
“Happy hunting,” Teague intoned, before closing the channel for good.
Taking one last look at how close he had come to a grisly end, Karras pushed off of the disabled BAV and, reloading his grappling line, began to slowly work his way up the length of the gargantuan Spine of the Chasm. It was barely any faster than their progress earlier to the backdoor, but here Karras was free to move at speed, not detecting any potential checkpoints or security measures that we could trip this far down in the bottom of the Spine. Still, it was a race against time to find a way inside the base before, in the chaos of the ARClight invasion, someone noticed that the nethers guard hadn’t returned from rounds.
He ultimately shaved it close. Reaching a service hatch, Karras had just disappeared inside a tight maintenance tube when a pair of BAVs flashed by, evidently dispatched to retrieve the truant guard. While Karras was particularly proficient at infiltration and stealth on foot, he wasn’t relishing the increased security that would ensue when Bardem realized he had an intruder.
Maneuvering the fastest he could through the bowels of Chasm base, following the stolen schematics, Karras finally arrived in a smaller auxiliary bay, one that was only wide enough to house a pair of Valac frames and several starfighters that were currently undergoing repairs. Pulling himself up out of the tube and into the hangar, Karras ducked behind the leg of one of the Valacs, adjusting his backpack of supplies and glancing around. The hangar, thankfully, appeared to be deserte-
“I was wondering when you’d make it up here,” a voice called out over a loud speaker, as if on cue.
“There’s no point in hiding,” the speaker continued, the smug air in his voice unmistakable.
Karras glanced out through the rather solid pair of blast doors sealing the hangar and sighed. And he had come so far, too.
Shrugging out of his backpack and kicking the sack into a corner, Karras stood and stepped out from behind the Valac’s leg, arms raised.
No fewer than twenty black-armored soldiers stood in a wide arc at the rear of the hangar, intimidating rifles all aimed at Karras’ center of mass. Behind the soldiers stood a pair of a walking tanks, the size of the autonomous spider hunter-killers ImpSec employed as pirate-hunters. Armed with wicked-looking grenade launchers, the armors were perhaps overkill, but were entirely within Bardem’s style.
Glancing up at the glass-encaged operations room surveying the entire hangar, Karras saw the leader of Marrow standing confidently behind the undoubtedly bulletproof glass, his white suit pristine. Bardem had one had casually in his pocket, the other idly adjusting his tie as though he honestly had more pressing matter to attend.
“I, for one,” Bardem announced over the hangar’s loudspeakers, “am shocked that you thought this would work. Which part were you counting on? That I’d be too busy focusing on the pesky distractions you have my Centurions dealing with outside, or that I’d never notice that ancient backdoor to my base and be completely unprepared for the rather predictable attempt at a Trojan horse. I’m insulted.”
“You should be,” Karras said quietly.
“What was that?” Bardem's lips curled smugly.
“I said, you should be. I was hoping I could arrange this meeting, Diego.”
Bardem eyes narrowed dangerously, and his grin vanished instantly. “You have seconds before I have my men gun you down.”
Karras laughed up at the bastard. “You’re thinking you know me. That I’m a broker, and I might offer to sell out of ARClight right here and now.”
“It would, after all, give you a good chance of surviving the next hour,” Bardem allowed.
Knowing that Bardem, with his hair-trigger temper and poor sense of honor, wouldn’t hesitate to murder him anyway, Karras smiled and interlaced his fingers above his head, stretching and cracking his knuckles. “It’s not really that, man. I just wanted to look you in the eye where neither of us can harm the other to give you a heads up.”
Looking Diego directly in the eye, he added, “A heads up that I’ll be coming for you personally.”
Bardem’s eyes widened. He was smart enough to know that Karras wouldn’t be acting this flippant if he didn’t already have an exit plan in place. And he had just placed his prime guard – soldiers, who, being recently shuttled up from earth, didn’t usually wear spacesuits in combat situations, in a hangar where the only thing keeping the air in were two thin blast doors.
Following the chains of logic to their conclusion, Bardem widened his eyes. “Oh.”
“I learned this one from my teacher, Diego!” Karras shouted.
And before Bardem could shout to his men, Karras moved one hand down to the wrist computer. Flipping off the leader of Marrow with one shining robotic finger, Karras used his other hand to depress a single button on the cybernetic gauntlet.
A fireball ballooned into existence over the blastdoor before the flames were swiftly sucked out into hard vacuum. Unable to support the stress caused by the hidden explosives, the doors blew completely outward. Karras allowed the sudden suction to bring him to his knees, his magnetic boots holding him in place. One of the armors went wild with its grenade launcher, but the 40mm bolt sailed wide as the flash-evac of air sent the armor flying. Karras rolled to one side as the miniature frame slammed a crater in the metal deck as it passed – before being crushed underneath one of the falling Valacs.
Men flew past Karras, unhelmeted and doomed to the vacuum outside, screaming and scrabbling at the deck. Marrow hasn’t occupied the base in full for long, and proper safety procedures had yet to be established.
The second armor was quickly on the uptake, sliding halfway across the hangar before seizing ahold of an overhead launch catapult and arresting his momentum, riding out the pressure differential. Even as the hangar emptied, the armor trained its grenade launcher upon Karras, who seemed completely defenseless in the middle of the hangar.
He wasn’t. Raising his mechanical arm, Karras loosed his magnum launcher at the control panel of the catapult at the far end of the room. The bullets sparked against the launch level, and before the mini-armor could obliterate Karras, it was flung out into the open air of the spine to fall to its death.
Karras lay there for a moment, breathing heavily. He had heard stories from that damned immortal cyborg for two decades, and he knew the ins and outs of each war story by heart at this point. The opportunity had been too good to pass up. Rolling to his feet, he looked up at Bardem in his surveillance room. The man stood there, rooted to the spot, momentarily slack-jawed at what had just happened in the hangar below.
“Like I said,” Karras yelled up at him. “If you think you know me, that I’m some sort of two-bit criminal,” he took a step forward and drew a pistol from a hip holster, silently working the slide, “think again.”
With that, Bardem spun on his heel and marched out of the room without so much as a parting word.
“No you don’t, you little bastard,” Karras growled, firing the grappling line up at the windows while simultaneously straightarming his last sticky bomb at the bulletproof glass. The charge, shaped to explode outward, went off on impact, sending a vicious web of cracks through the pane, and when Karras hit it at speed, the glass shattered.
Alighting inside the luxuriously decorated control room, Karras plunged into the heart of the Chasm, intent upon putting an end to Marrow personally.
Seeing the tails of a white suit whip around a corner at the end of a corridor, Karras started after Bardem, only for a pair of black-armored guards to open fire on him, forcing him to duck into a nearby briefing room to take cover.
Taking advantage of the moon’s lowered gravity to flip a large metal desk into his hands, Karras maneuvered what would normally take two men to carry into the corridor. The makeshift shield held under the increased gunfire, dimples forming everywhere a bullet struck, but Karras was a man possessed, bumrushing the rearguard with two-meter desk raised.
As his cover passed the doorway one guard was firing out from, Karras set the desk in place, launching himself at the praetorian, driving his fist at the man’s stomach in a truncated uppercut. With skills expected of the ImpMil’s elite, the man easily caught Karras’ robotic arm in one massive fist, trying to twist Karras’s elbow into a position that would rob the broker of the weight of the blow.
It was a futile gesture, and the guard glanced up to see Karras grinning at him.
The twin blades running the length of the cybernetic forearm shot out, impaling the guard in his gut. Eyes immediately watered and a glob of blood exploded from the man’s mouth, but by then his compatriot had shoved Karras’ desk to the horizontal and was drawing a bead on the man who had just murdered his comrade.
Spinning the soon-to-be-corpse around on the blade, Karras got the body between him and the burst of fire. Rifles on space bases had never been loaded with AP ammo, and the guard jerked under the barrage. Karras lashed out with one boot, kicking the desk across the space in between him and the final guard. The edge of the desk caught the man in the gut, stunning him, and Karras shook the corpse off of his arm blades, calmly and deliberately drew his pistol, and shot the final praetorian between the eyes.
Vaulting the desk, Karras began sprint-jumping down the halls, intent on reacquiring Bardem’s trail. A bullet, sparking off a bulkhead just inches from his left ear, gave him all the answer he needed, and Karras didn’t even flinch as he saw the terrorist leader ducking out of sight, hold-out pistol in hand. Had Bardem just faded into the base, he probably could have gotten away, but always one to have the last word; he had just allowed Karras to easily regain the trail.
Slowing his pace, Karras began to stroll through the corridors, checking every corner and doorway with his pistol. “I gotta say though, you may not have the highest kill count, but man, when it comes to spreading misery, you’ve got pretty much everyone outmatched. You’re Tedja with power and purpose. And just like him, you use kids. Kids! Pretty much one thing gets me off my ass, and you just managed to find it!”
“Shut! Up!” Bardem yelled, appearing and firing another bullet at Karras. Ducking easily down a perpendicular service corridor, Karras heard Bardem. “You made money off of misery, so don’t even think you can lecture me on what I’ve done to secure peace for Earth!”
Snarling, Karras threw himself out of cover, firing at Bardem and forcing the man back down a flight of stairs. Taking a half-second to aim, Karras’ next bullet hit Bardem’s gun hand, sending the derringer flying in an arc of blood. Hissing in pure fury, Bardem sprinted to the very end of whatever the stair flights were converging upon. Intent on finally finishing the confrontation, Karras pushed after him.
He emerged into the largest non-Tempest-frame-oriented area in the Chasm – the arms locker. And here Karras realized, if anything, Carnifex had underestimated just how many nukes Marrow had. There weren’t five. There were five hundred.
The catwalk stretched over the center of the circular room, overlooking rows upon rows of triangular devices, a good half of which were mounted upon interstellar cruise missiles. It was an awe-inspiring sight, and it cost Karras the momentum of the fight, just as a white grenade bounced across the catwalk to land at his feet.
Karras didn’t even have time for his instincts to take over – the grenade exploded with a flash of light and a tremendous racket, and suddenly Karras was blind in one eye, his opposite arm hanging limply, useless.
Dimly, he looked up to see Bardem approaching, holding a length of steel pipe in his hands. “Like it, Karras? Stole the idea from you and your ARClight pals. Thought it’d even out the playing field a bit. Make everyone-“ he raised the pipe – “…equal.”
The first blow sent Karras crashing to the deck, and it was all he could to do keep Bardem from breaking bones as the leader of Marrow went to town on him with the pipe.
“You – thought,” Bardem screamed between swings, his hair wild and eyes wide, “that you could – just – come in here – and bring me down?! I’ve been ruling the planet, Karras! The - earth! – and I will not – be silenced – by some upstart shit!”
Covering his head and neck with awkwardly with one arm and the weight of his lifeless robotic limb, Karras rolled onto his back, glaring up at Bardem, who had raised his pipe high for the final blow.
“What, Karras?! Some final, pithy comment? Some words you think will chill me, make me give up this life?” Spittle was flying from Bardem’s mouth.
Karras shrugged. “No jokes.”
And with that, he drove his boot into the front of Bardem’s knee. Legs weren’t built to bend in that direction, and Bardem went down with a high-pitched scream, left leg bent inward. Sagging against the walkway, he struggled to retrieve his dropped pipe, but Karras kicked it into the pit below as he regained his feet.
“Not now that you mention it,” Karras said, shaking out his arm and his legs as his cybernetic eye began to reboot, “I should let you know that the Roux twins sends their regards.” And with that he spun a roundhouse kick into the side of Diego Bardem’s face, sending him toppling over the railing and into the pit of nukes far, far below.
With Luna’s gravity one sixth that of Earth’s, it took a lot longer to reach terminal velocity, but Bardem didn’t need to hit that point.
The sharpened tip of the nuclear missile he had been preparing to use on Armstrong intercepted him before the ground did, and Bardem screamed when the tip burst from gut.
Reaching down to retrieve his pistol, Karras glanced it, considering putting Bardem out of his misery, but instead holstered the sidearm, staring down at the dying man impassively.
Bardem lay there, writhing on the nuclear missile, before his eyes finally glazed over and he went still, the angel of death coming to collect him.
Slumping against the railing himself, Karras finally took a moment to catch his breath. Tapping his comm, he let out a code burst. “Alix, you hear me?”
“Karras! Thank god, we thought we lost you!”
“No such luck,” Karras wheezed.
“You okay?” Alix asked. “What happened to Bardem?”
Straightening up, Karras threw one last look down at the corpse below. “It turned out his soul was still weighed down by gravity.”