This was not last year. It also died, like so many of my efforts, an unfortunate and ignominious death (much like its main character in Apocalypse. Well, maybe hers was not ignominious, but I'm drawing symmetries here damn you!)
Then came last October and there was another Secret Santa, and I once more drew Mobius. I vowed to make up my utter failure to him, specifically with a story so goddamn grandiose he'd forgive me my former literary bankruptcy, like, totally, man.
What a stupid, stupid, stupid idea that was. Like I ever get epic stories done, right? Yeah. More like, wrong.
So here we are very nearly a year later and what has come of that story? Well, it's still not finished. Or rather, not entirely. But it's so goddamn close to finishing, and I've stalled for so long, that I think I can rightfully say that the best way to force myself to wrap the damned thing up is to just start posting it methodically, first and foremost to actually give Mobius what he's owed, and secondly to force my own lazy ass to actually finish the damned thing.
In my defence, I think I'm doing something pretty interesting here. Like, it's philosophic and deep and whatnot all else. Of course I'm pretty crap at philosophic deep whatnot stuff so I just kept rewriting and rewriting pieces and paragraphs of it (seriously, there's stuff in here that I've rewritten at least six times). Anyway. This is now a 42 page thing, and if you're ever gonna read it all I'm probably best off just cutting the intro short and getting on with it, right? Right. So here goes. I hope you enjoy it. Lord knows I have enjoyed writing it for far too long .
Like a sentence to death
I've got no options left
I've got nothing to show now
I'm down on the ground
I've got seconds to live
And you can't go now
A holocaust of fire blooms slowly through the endless metal cavern, consuming precious oxygen. Missiles arc on lazy trajectories through the hollow bosom of the ship, detonating in flares of frenzied flame that tear men limb from limb. Cascading shockwaves of incandescent force climb up to the ceiling, somewhere, an unfathomable distance above me.
Time crawls. In that split second I see my comrades die in a dozen different ways. Shot. Gutted. Mangled and mutilated. I see a man in heavy armor contemptuously torn in two. Blood spills over the steel floor, startlingly red. The dying man's vitals run into pools of oil and crystalline pseudo-fluids squirting out of ruptured hydraulic conduits, flecking the congealing scarlet with streaks of charcoal black.
Dirty. Contaminated. Like everything else about this place.
Explosions ripple through our bulwark. Waves of lethal splinters tumble on erratic trajectories, slice with ease through flesh and ceramic fiber alike. Lasers strobe everywhere around me, streaks of light almost frozen in the space of that moment.
I'm scared as all hell. I've seen war. I've beaten hopeless odds. But nothing like this. A frightening realization claws its way up from the simian depths of my brainstem, and tells me I'm not going to make it this time.
The bulk of the rifle is a solid weight against my shoulder. It is a reassuring, almost soothing sensation. Heavy weapons like this inspire overconfidence in some, make them feel immortal, unconquerable. But not me. It did, once. Not any longer. For that, I've seen too many good men and women die. They were great soldiers all, but in the Ark onslaught they died just the same.
Like I'm going to, so very soon.
But not yet. I still have a purpose. I push the knowledge away, push away everything but the translucent green crosshairs interposed on the corneal display. For a moment the whirlwind of death and destruction vanishes from my reality. In that moment of abject clarity I can see the missile, a blotch of dark green perched atop a halo of flame and smoke, heading for the only group of soldiers still standing. The Storm Commandos are unleashing a storm of fire onto the assaulting Nakhtar. None of them see it coming – except maybe for one. In their middle I see a woman, barely more than a girl, staring at me, eyes wide with panic. That just presses home the understanding that if that missile hits, this is all over. We lose. Everyone will lose.
The hardware lodged behind my eye zooms with perfect clarity. I can read the serial number stamped on the side of the weapon that'll lose us the war even as it accelerates toward the speed of sound. The universe is frozen and I am the only movement. My heartbeat is an single drawn-out chime. I shouldn't be able to do this, but I do. The barrel of my rifle is a blur of liquid smooth movement.
I am the angel of war. Hear me sing.
Recoil hammers my shoulder as soon as I stroke the trigger. My slug strikes a missile in mid-air. An impossible shot. Both projectiles vanish in a convulsion of nuclear fire, and for a split second a pinprick sun shines in the hangar as the power of the atom sets the very air on fire. Everything in its radius dies.
Everything but the Tyrax.
The abomination bounds toward the platform I lie upon, its frenzied pace somehow bolstered by the nuclear shockwave. Its speed is astonishing, faster than anything I've ever seen. It vanishes somewhere below where I can't see it. But I know what is coming.
I hear the ringing sound of shearing metal as the cybernetic monster tears the platform out from under me. The world begins to tilt. I try to hang on to the moment, but time spins up as I futilely scramble for safety. The floor collapses. Desperate to regain my footing I jump for safety. I almost make it.
I fall, and land mere meters away from the cyborg monstrosity. Time speeds from a slow crawl to an indistinct blur. My movements are slow as molasses as I rise to face the thing that is going to kill me.
It speaks my name. I respond by shooting it in the face. It shrugs off a salvo that should have taken its head clean off.
I brace myself, knowing what comes next.
It spears me through the gut. The pain is excruciating. I feel its blade twist inside me, sending lightning tendrils of torturous agony through my body. Blood squirts over the floor, and I know that it is my blood this time. The Tyrax looks at me, impersonal satisfaction etched on its robotic features. Then it retracts the metal spike and simply casts me off like a broken toy. I crumple on the deck in a rapidly growing pool of my own blood. I can feel more spurting out of me with every fevered heartbeat. I'm bleeding out.
The light blurs. I think I see the outline of a face. Someway far off, I can hear trumpets.
I die again.
I wake, feverishly clawing at my stomach and biting back a scream. Cramps shoots through my gut. I trash against the pillows. I feel sick. I draw a deep, ragged breath and fight down the bile rising in my throat. Clear your mind. Breathe in, breathe out. In, out. The mantra repeats again, and again, and again as I try to clear the images from my mind.
I clutch my knees, somehow cold despite the sheets. The clock at my bedside says it's five in the morning. I haven't slept more than two hours. I can't help it; details of the nightmare flood back into my mind. Shock. Bleeding. The horrific sensation of serrated steel rubbing against my insides. The flashbacks replay themselves over and over again, dancing through my mind. I can't stop it. I'm breaking down, and there's nothing I can do about it. I shake like a reed as the memories race through my mind, battle after battle after battle, always ending in that same moment. Pain. Bleeding. Death. Before I know it I'm sobbing into a pillow. Long, lonely minutes pass before I master myself. I swallow and feel my stomach convulsing.
I'm going to throw up again.
I barely make it to the bathroom in time. My abdomen heaves and contracts along threads of phantom pain. I shudder and gag as what little dinner I'd managed to wolf down comes back out again. Dark, unkempt hair falls past my face. I feel sick, and weak, and alone. I curse myself for my weakness.
A lot of time passes before the aching sensation slowly subsides, fading from sharp, shooting spasms to a dull throbbing pain somewhere deep in my gut. Shakily I push myself up.
No way I'm getting back to sleep after that.
The warm lights of the bathroom are a relief after the darkness of sleep. I turn on the cold faucet and splash water in my face. When I look in the mirror I momentarily cannot recognize the woman staring back at me. I see a lank face with hollow, blood-shot eyes, framed by hair that's black instead of blond, longer than ISN standards would allow and streaked with premature white. I rapidly blink my eyes until the feeling of alienness fades. My gaze drifts toward my abdomen, and I half-expect to see a gaping hole there, or a massive scar. There isn't. But for the fractal wheels tattoo, my skin is unmarred.
Of course it is. I'm me. I'm here. I didn't die aboard that god-forsaken ship.
Hollow eyes haggardly stare back at me from the mirror. Maybe if I keep repeating that to myself for a few more years, I'll someday believe it.
I put on a shirt, pour a stiff drink and sit in the silent darkness of the living room. Beyond the windows glitter the million million lights of the Nikeovast transmetropolitan sprawl, as reassuringly eternal as the stars themselves. Huge arcologies stretch kilometers into the sky, linked to one another by a warren of skybridges and overzooms. Each of these towering megastructures is home to tens of millions of people, each of them not quite like me, but close enough. Each is proudly illuminated, etching long lines of multihued neon against the darkness of planetary night. In the distance the coruscating blaze of the never-sleeping megacity rises up higher than the eye can follow, forms an illuminated bridge to the stars themselves – the Tyvek-Corion space elevator.
This not Tartarus, New California or Lochlear X. Nor is it New Wales, or Artemis, Five Suns or Kaeleron, or any of the ten thousand other battlefields of the great ISA-Ark War. This is High Inhofer, a world-city that escaped the ravages of the galactic turmoil unscathed. Tucked away deep in the recessed nebulae of the Lower Perseus, it straddles one of only a handful of unbroken slipspace routes between Carina-Sagittarius and the Outer Arm that remained fully under human control during the war, and its technates had become supremely wealthy because of it.
One man's death is another man's gain. If there is one truth to how the galaxy worked, that is probably it. It revolts me. I empty the glass and immediately pour another one. I know I shouldn't be drinking. I shouldn't be doing a lot of the things I do these days. I shudder as the alcohol burns its way down my throat, and wrap my arms around myself. There are a hundred billion people in this system, maybe more. But I feel lonely. Very, very lonely.
Then the communicator chimes.
Cause love, like an invisible bullet has shot me down and I'm bleeding - yeah, I'm bleeding
And if you go, furious angels will bring you back to me
The galaxy turns before my eyes. You haven't really seen the four hundred billion stars that make up our galaxy until you've seen them with your own eyes, separated from yourself and the interstellar void only by the small layer of ceramic and plastics called a hardsuit.
I drift through the darkness, barely conscious and barely alive. The cold is intense. I've slowed the supply of oxygen to a trickle. Even so I don't expect to be rescued. And that's okay. My mind is reeling. I am content with oblivion.
There is debris all around me. Metal, plastic. I drift through a field of refuse so vast I cannot see the end of it. Some of the detritus is as small as nails, some are chunks as big as mountains. Thousands of pieces, probably more, molten and cratered, gouged, shattered; failed in their purpose, utterly undone. Some one of the larger fragments are close enough that I can make out writings on what used to be mighty warships – the stark white lettering on ISAF battlewagons contrasting vividly with the gold cuneiform hieroglyphs, strangely regal, of Ark war-carriers. Occasionally I see bodies too, flash-boiled in the vacuum. I, and all these ravages of the great fleet battle spiral down, slowly but inexorably drawn in by gravity's pull.
If I look down at the point of attraction I can see, far below me, the naked blackness of the Kaeleron Singularity. A gaping black fissure in space and time towards which all the refuse of battle is falling, myself included. It's just as well. I'm not sure if anyone survived. Brute Hope is gone, completely destroyed. I know that. With it have gone most of the people I know.
I'm delirious. Even if I wasn't it wouldn't matter. I don't know who won the battle, or who lost. I don't know if we got the Tyrax-
The Tyrax. Whiteout. Short-circuit. I'm back in that moment. I cringe as the steel spike slides through my armor. I can feel the air rushing out through the hole in my hardsuit, can feel my blood freezing in the vacuum of space.
Didn't happen! Fragments of a shattered mind scream at me. Wasn't me! Was! Wasn't! Was!
A sense of vertigo seizes me. My heart-rate accelerates despite the lack of oxygen. The stars blur as I begin to hyperventilate and finally, mercifully, pass out.
When I come to, the size of the singularity has grown considerably. Or rather my distance to it has decreased, though I suppose under relativity both conclusions are equally valid. One thing hasn't changed: whatever remains of my millions of erstwhile comrades and enemies is falling toward the event horizon just as I am.
I had a mission. I was sent to do something. I would've shrugged if I could. It used to be important, but it's no longer. It's not important. I'm not important. Nothing is.
The maw of the singularity draws irresistibly closer. I am beginning to feel the pull of gravity, barely perceptible but growing stronger. It won't be long now. Somehow, after all that's happened, being slowly smeared into strings of relativistic spaghetti doesn't seem that bad a fate.
Bright lights. A flare of torch engines that outshines the stars. A voice crackles over my ruined helmet comm, garbled, barely audible and incomprehensible. I can't reply. There's not enough air left, and my suit's electronics were cooked by the same explosion that blew me clear of the Brute Hope; the radio is permanently stuck on 'receive', for what little that's worth.
But then something begins to pull me up, away from the quiet death below. The sudden strain against the gravity of the black hole is enough to make me to pass out again.
The det-charges go off at the exact moment they're supposed to, atomizing half a ton of critical engine machinery and causing the Joyride Madonna to violently transition back into realspace. The ship groans and shudders as millions of cubic tons of metal force their way from the super-Euclidean madness of slipspace; I can feel the corridor buck under my feet. I'm glad for the the lite Falcon suit. It absorbs the brutal backlash, reduces it to a minor nuisance. I'm still on my feet. The same can probably not be said for the other people on the ship.
I take stock of my situation. I'm the only agent on a rogue starship nearly a kilometer long. I'm still at least four decks away from my target, and surrounded by people much more heavily armed than me. Those same people will, as soon as they pick themselves up from the floor, be looking to make me dead. But that's how I like it. That's how this was planned. I grin toothily underneath the taut facemask. The time for stealth is over. Let's do this thing.
I explode down the rusty corridor in a hurricane of psychokinetic force that buckles and tears the deck plating around me. A single swift hand motion and a solid steel bulkhead door goes flying off its hinges, slamming through the space behind it as if shot out of a cannon. It's theatrical, I know. But I think in a situation like this I'm allowed to be a little vulgar.
Fontaine's goons react far too slow; fire from their pulse guns stitches through empty space behind me or grazes the edges of my force-shields, crackles of ionized sidescatter crawling like lightning along the metal ceiling. I ignore the first two men but the third moves impossibly fast to block my way. He lunges without hesitation, v-knife pointed right at my heart, and his sheer bulk pierces through fizzling fields of mental force, sending arcs of multi-hued sparks across his bodysuit. I dodge left and evade his thrust, folding the fingers of my right hand around his knife hand. Then I lock my left hand behind his elbow and throw my whole weight behind the push.
He's heavily augmented; I can tell from the resistance he manages to muster. I can hear gears grind beneath his muscles. But he's no Valkyrie, and his enhanced strength is nothing a bit of PK cannot fix. I will my hands to move and feel raw force flow like molten iron through my muscles, brutally overpowering my assailant's strength. His arm flips like a balisong; the back of his knife's handle smashes into his own face. I can hear the satisfying crack of breaking bone through the visor. I keep pushing, gyrating the man and myself round until he is between me and his buddies. They are still shooting at me; I drop my shields for a moment and their fire abruptly walks into their comrade. His body twitches as the pulse rounds burn through his light armor and then explosively vaporize the soft flesh beneath. A gory eruption of red mist and coolant gas blows through the maintenance corridor.
The withering fire falters ever so briefly. I reverse my grip of the dead man's hand and pry the v-knife from it. The body begins to crumple to the floor, and as it clears my field of fire I thumb the button on the end of the handle; the stolen blade turns into a barely perceptible blur as the vibro-function engages. Then I throw the knife at the nearest of the two remaining attackers, using a soft and subtle psychokinetic touch to steer the blade on the perfect trajectory. With a wet sound the weapon pierces his helmet and embeds itself deep in the man's face.
I don't know if he's dead or not, but even if he's somehow not that's definitely going to leave a scar – and it should be enough to dissuade the last attacker from following me. I pirouette and continue my lightning sprint down the corridor. Bundles of pipes and thick safety doors into engine compartments rush by, the vessel's heavy retorsion slipdrives groaning audibly behind them as machinery toils to push excess energy back into vast condensator banks. The freighter is huge, and a warren of cargo bays and corridors from end to end. It would be difficult to find one man aboard a ship this large – difficult, for anyone other than a trained psychogenic Meister.
I don't really get how this works. The techs at Ocrana chatter about 'Perdu–Yasuka collusion' and 'simultaneous waveform overlay', but that's not what I do. Entering the trance the mind bends, a crystalline inflorescence of sense and sentience flattening against the skein of the universe until, at some Casimir level, the contrariety between I and it dissolves. It is a blossoming, and a submerging, and then I'm not me but everything.
The Joyride Madonna resolves before me, and I am it as surely as I am my own body. I am the rigid steel walls of the maintenance corridor and the motes of dust glinting in the artificial light; the cold plasma that courses through the ship's coolant systems, the heart of exotic fusion that beats at my core. I am the electricity in its circuits; the void in its cargo bays; the rainbow of subatomic particles scattering from its radiators.
I am its crew, panting and sweating as they run, leukocyte-like, through my corridors. I catch glittering flecks of their thoughts, hopes and dreams. I am a panicked deckhand wondering what's going on; a sweating technician in a hardsuit trying desperately to control the impossibly-colored flames in the drive compartment; a stone-faced mercenary running down a hall. Impressions of training on some remote ice-world; I feel the weight of a gun in hands glistening with sweat, heedless nightmare fears, an old trauma – memories of a blinding blizzard on a nitrogen glacier, a Nakhtar ambush, a fireteam wiped out on a suicide mission-
Patterned reflexes kick in. My mind crumples and I come up heaving. The metallic taste of blood fills my mouth. I stumble and my body, suddenly small and fragile, barely corrects in time. I careen to a not-quite-halt in an empty corridor. C-sight is a dangerous technique: it's easy to get lost in the trance's unending welter of impressions. I wouldn't be the first Meister to lose their mind that way. Or maybe their mind lost them? Suddenly self-contained again, my body feels small and fragile. My head aches from the rush of information overload. It feels as if I'm trying to watch a hundred movies at once. I sift through the welter of impressions, shards of places, objects and impressions until,
A blind spot I can't bring into focus. The tell-tale sign of a Chebyshev pseudofield, psyk-out gadgetry designed by ONI to keep nosy psychogenics from sticking their minds where they don't belong. The boffins say it's based on reverse-engineered Deinonj tech, but I think that's a load of bull – someone's way of boshing up their whatsit gimmick.
I can't help but smile at backfiring spook paranoia: because they keep me from seeing what's going on I know exactly where I need to go.
The bridge. Well, that's hardly surprising.
I snap back to immediate reality and notice the deck of the Joyride Madonna has begun to angle, as if the ship's artificial gravity is losing a battle for influence against some other gravitational pull. What is Fontaine doing?
I have to get to the bridge. And I have to get there fast.
You're a dirty needle
You're in my blood and there's no curing me
And I want to run
(like the blood from a wound)
To a place you can't see me
Space contorts, twists, and tears itself apart in a huge explosion as the Martian Fleet forces itself out of the Slipstream and into subspace. Fighters are immediately swarmed out of docking bays, and autolasers, mass drivers, and autocannons target the Ark fleet, three times the size of the Martian fleet. It isn't pretty, the ships are within range in under two seconds. It is short and sweet. But for the people inside, dodging crisscrossing particle beams and tracer bullets, it brings the sudden realization that the entire galaxy is trying to kill you. Everyone. Cruisers explode, fighters spiral into dreadnaughts and explode against shields, and dropships did what they did best- they dropped to the surface. Wicked-looking warmachines slide beneath the waves to attack Ark defense stations on the seabed.
But those battles- ground, air, space, and marine, are all another man's battle. They may be on different elements, but they all share one similarity- they all depend on the fifth battle.
Seemingly a little late, five stripped-down Arrowhead X-2s fly out of a small hangar on the port side of the Brute Hope, hitting 6000G almost instantly and staying on the fringes of the battle, avoiding engagement with the enemy.
In the lead fighter, sits Colonel Jak Easly, his robotic arm plugged into his fighter, acting as a telepathic link between man and machine. He activates a secure comm line among the four other fighters. "The capital of New California, Los Angeles, is the base of operations for the Ark. It's protected with a huge dome shield, no one is getting in or out of it. Except- There's a slipstream leading from here-" He pulls his Arrowhead to a relative stop. "-to the fringes of the city. From there, we're to fight our way to the citadel, to take care of the Ark leadership. Mainly-" he pulled up a pic, and sent it to the other fighters.
"- Trego Oduna'Fel. Supreme Commandant of the Warmaster Council, Warrior Caste- which in this time of war is the most powerful caste in the Ark."
Caesar's voice came over the comm. "He's the unofficial head?"
"Yup. He's the head of the serpent. We need to cut it off. He won't be easy, I've fought him, and I lost one arm and half my face," Easly says emotionlessly. "Well, the jump is right here, prepare for slipstream entry."
Five aye-ayes chirp in over the comm, and the Arrowheads array themselves around an empty space, a light second out from the battle.
Some people say that slipstream entry and exit is like being squeezed through a very long tube, others say that it is like being destroyed cell by cell. Lab tests prove it truly is a unique experience for each person. While slipspace travel appears instantaneous to any outsider, on the inside, travel times are equal to about five seconds per lightyear with an standard drive. Cross-galaxy trips, rare because there are few known pangalactic streams, always even out to about two weeks, no matter what the drive. It seems that the longer the stream, the faster you go.
While these random tidbits are neither here nor there, the Storm Commandos are not here, in the space surrounding the planet, but there, popping into existence on the fringes of the megacity that was Los Angeles. Their fighters instantly absorb whatever energy was produced in the slipspace rupture, and lacking energy weapon cells to store the excess in, the energy is dumped right into the propulsion system, giving it a boost highly inappropriate for atmospheric flying.
They pop out right in front of an office building. With no time to pull up at supersonic speeds the individual soldiers each let loose their own unique curse and hit the eject button, sending them and their weapons flying horizontally, instead of the vertical escape they had planned. It seemed they had come out on their side.
Slipspace can be like that.
The EV pods crash in a lake, vaporizing the water but cushioning their landing from deadly to merely extremely painful. At the same time, the fighters hit the building. They tear through it, blowing a gigantic hole in the middle before exiting and plunging straight into the next structure. They detonated upon impact, creating a humongous explosion that mushroomed off over the cityscape.
The EV pods hiss open, and groaning soldiers extricate themselves from their crumpled pods. Easly moans as his sides throb. "If it hurts, sound off!"
The soldiers, one by one, chime in.
"Good, means you're not dead. You lot aren't reading any serious injuries, no broken bones, just a bit of battering." And with that Easly grabs his rifle and launches his wrist grappler, standard on Storm Commando armor, at an overhanging piece of metal. He is jerked off his feet, and thrown up at the metal, flying past it and out of the pit, where he lands on his ass. "Gotta remind the techies to tone down the pull on those lines." He surveys the smoking crater that their escape pods made. "Reckon the Ark saw that?" asks Dusk, coming up behind Easly.
Longbow vaults out of the empty lake and lands lightly on her feet. She slams a mag into her Colt. "Them and everybody else. Nothing we can't handle."
The ground trembles. She's right, they are coming.
I never did a thing like that before it was me wasn't gods Ian we were so young then our first time New California not me not me not Sarah I'm not Trego he had Bateau's wife gloating bastard always his shortcoming or we would've never made it not me God help me I was not born on Luna the Earth rising over New Scotland dad waiting for us when Dee and I got there the Manor hadn't looked this good since I left for basic not dad looked older with his beard a bit grown he was so happy to see me I could tell something was bothering him I suppose the war I wasn't there I wasn't Ian oh god please I'm losing myself again please getoutofmyhead
Bateau. Of course it is goddamn Bateau, who else could it be? The director-general of CTI looks frigid and distant, his holo grainy with static. “You look like shit agent,” he says. He speaks in platitudes and boiler plates like every other war hero. “I need you to get yourself together.”
“Me?” I laugh weakly at him from where I sit on the couch. The rumpled shirt is still the only thing I'm wearing, and I have a half-empty bottle in my hand. I don't know where the glass went. God I must look like a mess. At least that means one thing about this situation is exactly what it looks like. “Is it really me you want, Bateau? Are you sure about that?”
He at least has the decency to wince. I suppose that's as close as you can get to feeling like you've been punched in the gut when you're head spook of, hell I don't even know what they're calling galactic authority these days. I haven't exactly been paying attention for some time. When he speaks again his voice has lowered, and there's a glimmer of rage in his eyes. “Renner, this is important. I need you,” he stresses the last word, “to pick yourself up. Fast. I'm serious.”
“Why? What's so goddamn heavy that you of all people came down off your cloud o' secrets to call me in the middle of the night?” I take a swig from the bottle. Vivid green hard liquor sears my throat and stomach. I cough. “What the hell do you want from me?”
“Me?” Bateau chortles, but he doesn't look amused at all. “I don't want a damn thing from you. Hell, I was doing a pretty good job forgetting your existence.” He gives me a look that holds the middle between yearning and repulsion. “And I was probably better off that way too. But this isn't about what I want. It's about what Fontaine wants.”
Mention of that name makes me look up. “Bollocks,” I slur with a sudden flux of Caledonian brogue. “You have the report. Fontaine is dead. He died on Rab-Higherly. I watched it happen.”
A shrug. “Then someone is doing a bang-up job imitating his MO. 'Cause that someone is running around all his old haunts. We're seeing activity on credit-accounts only he had the q-key to. And half the survivors of his old cell, the ones we didn't put on ice, have vanished off the face of the galaxy. The other half, well, they aren't talking anymore, or for that matter ever again. On account of being overcome with a sudden case of dead, see.”
“Fontaine's gone,” I maintain inarticulately. “His head fucking exploded, Bateau. Like a really putrid melon. I got that gray shit all over me. No way was there enough of his brain left to run a cortical sim on. So you're mistaken. It can't be him. And you still haven't told me whatever the fuck any of this has to do with me.”
“Three standard hours ago one of his datacaches was accessed – from Nikeovast. That's High Inhofer, Renner. And there's only one reason he'd be on the same boondocks planet as you.” He jabs a holographic finger at my chest. “In case you weren't paying attention, that's your ass.”
I look at his holo with hollow eyes. “So what?”
He scowls. “Did you hear what I just said about half of Fontaine's old buddies suddenly being dead? What do you think he'll do to you?”
My face feels like a mask and my mouth's gone dry. “So he'll kill me. Fine by me.” I take a swig. I know I should stop talking but my mouth has other ideas. “I would've done it myself but I'm such a coward, I keep talking myself out of it.” My voice trembles. “It gets a little harder each time, too. If someone else wants to do it for me, hell, they're welcome to. I probably deserve it.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
Am I kidding him? Christ, does it look like I'm kidding him? I'm a wasting wreck. I've fallen so deep I can't even see the edge of the cliff anymore and I bet I look the piece. “What does it fucking look like?”
Bateau shakes his head. His voice yields a little. “Jesus Renner, what the fuck happened to you?”
“What happened to me?” Suddenly I'm standing, propelled up by a burst of hopeless rage. “Fuck you Bateau, You were there. You know what happened!” I'm shouting at him now. “I don't sleep. I don't eat. Half of the time I don't even know who I am. All I got is nightmares. All I do is fucking die. Every fucking night again, and then I wake up and I get to do it all again. For years! Nobody talks to me. I got all these memories and nobody wants to talk to me.” The shouts turn to screams. “Everyone who knows thinks I'm the villain! Including you, and don't you fucking deny it! Everyone forgets and I- I can't get her out of my goddamn head Bateau! I'm losing myself, I'm going stir crazy one day at a time! So if some fucker wants to end it all? Fine by fucking me! Let's get it over with!”
I collapse onto the carpet, the surge of energy going as quickly as it came. I feel tired, and abandoned. Silence. The only sound is that of sobbing. It takes me a while to realize it's me that's crying. The granular hologram remains speechless for long seconds. Then: “Jesus, Renner.”
“Fuck you Bateau,” I hiss. I hate myself for being this weak and pathetic.
He sighs. “I didn't know. I mean I knew, but... I didn't realize.”
“Save your pity for someone that believes a damn word you're saying.” I push myself off the floor and back onto the couch. It seems to take a lifetime to do so.
“I mean it,” he presses his point, holding up his hands apologetically. “Shit. You were ONI, I was a Carnage Marine. Our employers weren't ever on the best of terms, to put it mildly. I know it was a long time ago but you know how it is. Old habits die hard. Reading about your mission just made it easier to bear a grudge for, well, everything that happened. So I did. I'm not saying that's deserved. Just that it's hard for us... for me.”
I grit my teeth. “Try being on the other end.”
“I can imagine.”
“No you can't.”
“No, I can't,” he admits. “I have no idea what it's like. That just made it easy to hate you. To think that Sarah died, and here's someone... Well.” An apologetic shrug. “Maybe I shoulda-”
I cut him off. I've heard all this before. “You can't help me. Don't you think I looked? No-one can do a damned thing about this.” I close my eyes. I'm so goddamn tired. Suddenly I chuckle. “I'm so fucked up, nobody even has a friggin' clue where to start.”
“You sure look the part.” His honesty surprises even me. I say so. He leers a little. “Yeah I know. Surprise! I'll tell you something else that's true, then. I don't want to see the last living memory of my friend lie down like a dog to die. So do me a fucking favor will you Renner,” Bateau's voice grows increasingly louder, “and pick yourself off the fucking floor!”
I snort, almost despite myself, and take another sip from the bottle. “Is that an order?”
“I can make it one if it'll make you feel better.”
“I was never in CTI. You guys didn't want me.” Not that I'd done much to convince them otherwise. I'd been just another on a long list of catatonic war victims, a footnote dragged up from the refuse of the Battle of the Kaeleron Singularity.
“Then prove me a damn fool will you?” Leonardo Bateau's holo plants his fists in his sides. “Get dressed, and get the fuck out of there.” The holo punches a command into an unseen console; a second later my communicator beeps to indicate a received file. “Go here, it's a CTI safehouse near the space elevator. My people are en-route to that location as we speak, they'll pick you up and then we can discuss this situation further. But right now you have to move, Renner. 'Cause I don't reckon you have much time.”
“You win,” I growl and stand up shakily. “But tell me Bateau, whoever the hell are coming for me,” I toss the bottle into the sofa without bothering to screw the cap back on. “And I'm not saying that it's Fontaine, because he's dead as all hell... But whoever they are, what do you reckon they want from me?”
“They want what everyone wants, Renner. What everybody has always wanted. They want Backslide, and they think you know where it is.”
Time slippin' by
I call out your pain
Shadows have long gone by
Dark night of the soul
Something is wrong. I don't know what but I can feel that something about the Joyride Madonna has changed. There's something about the corridors of the massive freighter, a single-minded purpose both destructive and suicidal. The sense of it has me on edge. There's a straining in the grav-plating, a groaning in the structural fields, as if the entire ship is coming up against its limits. My advance toward the bridge feels somehow like a downhill run, which on a starship can only mean a few things, and none of them are good.
What are you up to Fontaine?
I extend a hand and feel invisible strands of fore ripple outward. The corridor ceiling ripples, then buckles, then comes apart at the seams as my mind tears through the cold steel. I jump, and a boost of psychokinetic force sends me through the new hole onto the deck above the subcorridor I was just on. This is the bridge level, and it immediately becomes clear that it's more heavily guarded than the previous. I'm in an ornate hallway, all gilded arches and alabaster pillars. The floor is mosaiced marble except for where my PK has torn a ragged hole that exposes the coarse metal beneath. It looks like a goddamn Ark ship in here, except that the defenders are mostly human.
There are a good two dozen of them at least, and these guys aren't the clumsy cannon fodder I encountered earlier. I catch whispers of cybernetic thoughts coded in binary; glimpses of curve-bonded armor plate; shifting movement along the edges of my field of view, too fast for the mark 1 mod 0 eye to catch. I had half begun to believe Fontaine had to cut back on his personnel, but this – bioroid killers and hardcore cyborgs, this is more like it.
And that's all the sarcasm I have time for. My mode of entry has them surprised for a moment, but now they're on to me. There is a duality to their attack: the cyborgs are walking walls of steel and ceramics, slow but methodical and heavily armed. The bioroids meanwhile move like bats out of hell, haze-fields breaking up their silhouettes as they race in for a close-quarters kill. Pulse-gun fire from the cyborgs' chainguns walks across my fields in such volumes the outer edges flare red and begin to collapse in seconds, but not so much that they do not still utterly fry the first 'roid as he lunges toward me with a v-knife pointed at my heart. Arcs of psychogenic force dance across his body which isn't insulated, as the creature finds out a split-second later when its head bursts into blue flame. The smell of ozone, hot blood and charred flesh fills the corridor as the creature collapses abruptly to the floor, whining and twitching, fractal radiators sticking dragonfly-like out its back, glowing hot.
I'm not the slightest bit of sorry for it. Bioroids are spliced and born for murder, lab-grown bionic monsters that may look rudimentarily human but are anything but. They're rabid attack dogs, plain and simple. Besides, this one tried to kill me. Took a major bite out of my screens too, which presents a problem: even with the condenser packs on my belt the screens won't hold up against this kind of punishment for long.
If I don't want to end up like Swiss cheese with lead poisoning I better hurry this up.
The trance deepens. Colors blossom abnatural blue. The universe is rendered sluggish around me, and I'm the only thing that moves at velocity. The cyborgs are clunky hulks of cobalt-shaded steel, the bullets spitting out of their chain-driven guns chunks of metal moving at snail speeds. Deprived of their advantage in speed the 'roids are visible for the monsters they are: grotesqueries of recombined human and alien DNA, boosted by flimsy cybernetics, all ribbed steel spines and dragon-wing radiators, bug-eyed augmetics crudely set in scaly purple skin, v-knifes and needle guns surgically grafted to thin arms.
If I'm honest, these guys aren't that different from me. Bioroids aren't natural. Neither are Meisters. Cloned up, spliced together, raised in a lab on a diet of memetic engrams and flash-programming. Ruthlessly trained and conditioned to improve on the previous generation of experiments – better at infiltration, better at killing. I didn't have a childhood, I had a drilling. I know it's the war, the war justifies anything but ONI's idea of pedagogy, well, sometimes it is hard to believe that. Sometimes, sometimes I want to – But looking at these creatures makes me think I got the better deal. I wonder how that makes them feel.
Within the trance I can hear their howls. It's a furious shrieking on mental bands canted away just so from normal human thought, the telepathic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I don't want to think about what it means, desperately want to keep these creatures' minds out of mine. I angle my screens and sidestep the bullets, grab one of the bioroids with a psychokinetic clamp and hurl him into the trajectory of chaingun fire. The 'roid intersects the stitches of incandescent flame near the cyborg's gun. Vast chunks of flesh and machine and something-in-between are gored out of the creature. Jets of cruor and half-vaporized blood follow roughly the path of the bullets. Then something in the 'roids mangled body overloads and it vanishes in a ball of white-hot fire. In that state of hyperkeen awareness I ride the shockwave of the explosion, upward at first and then I'm horizontal and flying at another cyborg. Energy crackles with hungry purpose across my screens, purple tendrils of destructive energy arching off the metal walls and now I'm running across the ceiling, the blast of the explosion still at my back, wrapping two hands across the man-machine's head and twisting with inhuman force. Something goes snap, I can hear a sound like grinding gears and something metal breaking and then the heads comes off with a squirt of cooling fluids.
The force of the explosion levels off and I begin to fall, twisting my body around with the cyborg's severed head still in my hands. The blast has thrown at least one more cyborg into a wall and it's twitching anemically in the indentation its armored body made there. Physics is a bitch. On the white marble near the hole I made just seconds ago is the body of the first dead bioroid. Mister charcoal's radiators have extended fully, cobweb wings disentangled into smaller and smaller flakes of some thin superconducting material, each sheaf a miniature copy of the previous. But even fully extended the dead 'roid's radiator wings are blooming with heat, red to orange to white. Without air passing over the radiators the miniature atomic battery inside its body is overloading.
Still dropping I hurl the severed head like a bowling ball, striking the flash-broiled body and sending it sliding toward the last two remaining 'roids. Just in time: one miniature sun bursts into existence in the corridor, for one instance so bright it turns one of the nearby cyborgs into a pile of molten slag. The bioroids don't even have time to overload their reactors before they are vaporized by the corpse of their erstwhile comrade. The marble cracks; the alabaster pillars are blown away. Gold runs in molten rivulets off the structural supports, exposing the gauche starship-grade steel underneath.
I land on my feet. The body of the decapitated cyborg begins slowly to topple. I look at the carnage and know it's ridiculous. I know this because I can hear someone laughing. It takes me a moment to realize it's me. Did I mention C-sight is a dangerous technique? Yeah.
The last remaining cyborgs decide the smart thing to do is to go for overkill. They switch from their pulse guns to the underslung automatic grenade launchers. Well, I say smart. But what genius throws a grenade at a psychogenic? The stream of proximity-fused grenades appears to change direction in mid-air, careening back toward the two warmachines only to explode in their faces, taking their heads, much of their chest armor and whatever was underneath with it.
Sudden silence. With some effort I disentangle myself from the trance and the colors in the corridor shift into their proper focus. Blood and soot cakes the walls. Large parts of it are cracked and cindered. Corpses are everywhere. The air smells of ozone and, weirdly or perhaps not at all, motor oil. I draw a breath, fight down a desire to sink back into the all-ness of the C-sight and check the condensors on my belt. Three reds. Thirty, maybe thirty-five percent energy remained within the field-bubble Chaudhri Loops.
Less than I hoped, but probably more than I need. Alright then.
A theatrical wave of my hand and the heavy door at the end of the corridor flies off its hinges, blown into the hallway beyond.
The bridge is a huge multi-deck affair, a dimly lit warren of walkways and workstations, flat holograms flickering information about vital ship systems to empty seats. The far wall is windows, but heavy armored blast screens have slid down before them. The decks are arraigned inverse-amphitheater-like around the main command pit in the middle of which stands, on a raised platform, the captain's chair. The chair is a huge vaulting thing of psychoplastics and tangled cybernetic feeler-plugs, designed to interface with the ship's lord and master, suck information straight out of his vital systems. Right now they're not linked to anyone. The man in the chair is not plugged in. Instead he's turned the chair away from the rooms and toward, well, me.
He's of average height and average build, his hair is brown and of average length – in fact, pretty much everything is average about him, everything except his eyes. There's a fanatical glitter in those eyes, the kind of thing that tells you that someone's probably a few fries short of a Vatican Burger™ blessed benefactory blue plate.
Well I've come this far, I'm hardly going to let that stop me now. I stomp down the stairs and stop halfway down. “Yeathro Fontaine,” I declamate with some deserved aplomb, “you are under arrest.”
He has the gall to laugh at me, ruffles a hand through his hair, rubs his chin when he looks at me. “'Arrest'? Is that what they call it now? Funny, in my days it was 'rendition to a hell-world in the arse-end of some spiral arm where we'll torture you for the rest of your sure to be very short life'.”
I smile back at him, then realize he won't be able to see that through my facemask. I shrug. “Tomayto, tomahto. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy, too.”
“Like you would know, little girl. Do you even know who I am?”
“I know your name, don't I? I know you went rogue. I'm here to bring you in.” Defecting, going native, is about the worst thing a Meister can do. For us the Office is the past, the Office is the future. Betraying it is like betraying your own family. An abusive, immoral family maybe but family still. Or the closest thing people like us had to one, anyway.
Obviously Fontaine doesn't think that way. He laughs, but doesn't appear amused. “I decided the Office wasn't for me, so you get to be the good shepherd? Do you think that's what's going on here? That you're here just because I ran away?”
I shrug. “What you were doing is need-to-know. I don't need to know. And I don't really care either.”
“Gods you're naive. But then you would be, wouldn't you? You're, what, sixteen years old?”
“Nineteen. Not that it's gonna matter when I kick your ass.”
“Oh I'm sure you would. I'd put you three generations after me? Four? No, I'm not in your league. But see, that's why I brought this,” and he fingers a small device he wears clipped to the belt of his hardsuit. I send a mental probe slithering his way and feel it skitter off a wall of obsidian halfway. It's the Chebyshev generator. So it's portable. That complicates things.
The Chebyshev field is not a force screen in the traditional sense of the word: rather, it enforces strict locality. Nothing outside its effect bubble can be psychogenically affected by anything outside, and vice versa. Very useful when you don't want someone to muck around in your brain. Or turn your insides out for that matter. “That's not going to be enough to stop me Fontaine, and you know it. Last chance to surrender. Don't make me hurt you.”
He smiles indulgently. “ONI taught you to talk like that?”
“You ought to know.”
“Indeed I do. I know all about ONI's usual methods. That's why I took precautions.” He pushes a button on that gigantic chair of his. I tense, expecting an ambush, but none comes.
It's worse than that. The bridge window blast screens retract into armored compartments, granting a view of space outside. There is a planet in front of the Joyride Madonna, and it's rapidly growing in size. As if timed a shudder goes through the grav-plating. My sense of premonition doubles as I begin to realize what he's up to. “You aren't-” My eyes widen involuntarily.
Fontaine's smile widens. “I figured ONI would send a zealot after me, a true believer. Anybody else I might compromise, but not you, hey? So that,” he points a thumb over his shoulder at the planet outside, “is my backup plan. You won't let me have this ship, so I'm just making sure that you won't have it either.” The smile disappears. “I've locked out the controls with an aggregate key. No way you're cracking it before we hit atmo. We're going down there agent, you and I, whether you like it or not.”
I take stock of the situation, then fix him with a withering glare. “I've seen your psych profile. You're not suicidal. You have a way off this ship.” A mental command to the Falcon suit and a compartment opens at my hip. I draw out the Scattergun and point it at Fontaine. My mind can't touch him, but the gun will work just fine. “Tell me what it is.”
His smile is positively manic now. The insane glittering in his eyes duplifies. Slowly he stands up, looks at the atomizer in my hand. “An excellent guess, agent. I do have a way out. Do you want to know what it is? Do you?” Suddenly there's a remote detonator in his hand. “Then let me show you!”
He flips a switch, and several things happen at once. A series of timed explosions blow out the crys-glass windows. The bridge atmosphere is sucked out into the vacuum of space with a hurricane roar that leaves me struggling for my balance. It's what Fontaine was hoping for: in that split-second of distraction he grabs a vac-helmet, slides it over his head, does something that completely shuts down the artificial gravity, and then hurls himself bodily through a window opening and out into space.
For a moment I am simply stunned, utterly aghast at Fontaine's sheer madness. What does he intend to do, beat his crashing starship to the surface of a planet? Has he gone completely mad?
Then I recall my own insane laughter at the destruction of his goons. The thought gives me pause. After all, isn't a plan is only truly crazy if it doesn't work?
Then there's no more time for reflection, because for a lightning moment a beam of blinding light lances up from the surface to strike the freighter. The wounded ship bucks and shakes madly around me and I'm suddenly glad I'm floating in zero-gravity. Some of the unmanned holographic consoles flash red with warnings I do not understand. But I don't need a console to tell me what just happened: I recognize an autolaser blast when I see one. Somebody down there has woken up to the fact that a seriously large starship is on a crash-course toward their little world, or moon or whatever, and they don't much appreciate the fact. There is no doubt in my mind that planetary defense cannons will make short work of a civilian freighter, and with the controls locked out the Joyride Madonna isn't long for the galaxy. That leaves me really with only one option.
I curse nervously, grit my teeth and, with a burst of force from the seventy-percent-depleted condensors, send myself hurtling past rows of bulky consoles and g-seats, through the ruined windows, out the now airless and gravity-less expanse of the bridge and into space beyond, just in time to see another spear of dazzling energy cut up from the surface and bore a massive molten gouge across the spine of the Joyride Madonna.
Then I'm out of the ship and plunging toward the face of the planet. It's impossible to gauge distances but the world below already fills most of my field of vision. I can make out geographic features: oceans, mountain ranges and what looks like a continent-spanning city.
Space is utterly silent and deceptively peaceful. The universe is acutely dark, except for a growing crescent of light, a faraway sun creeping over the planet's eastern horizon. In the approaching distance, clouds move across stunningly blue seas. Even the repeating stabs of coruscating autolaser energy have a solemn serenity to them. If I hadn't known any better the sight might have been movingly beautiful.
But I do know better.
I know I'm plunging toward a planet at speeds well in excess of that of sound. My suit's flaring alarms at me, warnings about radiation levels, about a lack of gravity and an overabundance of acceleration. I know there's a crashing klick-long freighter just seconds behind me, an insane traitor to ONI just seconds ahead of me, and somebody on the planet is discharging military-grade defense batteries in my general direction.
I also know that if that world down there has a shield I'm properly fucked so I'm left hoping Fontaine's done his homework, but not well enough to not let me nail his ass to the nearest solid surface.
Another searing burst of exotic energy spears past me. Somewhere behind me the Joyride Madonna explodes in a silent conflagration of metal, flame and prismatic light. There's no shockwave in vacuum, nothing but fire and debris pelting past me, hurtling down the planet's gravity well. I'm diving toward that world, trying to simultaneously fall faster than Fontaine and the giant field of debris now chasing me, all the while trying desperately to think of a way to somehow make it to the surface in a fashion that doesn't end messily at the bottom of a crater.
Fuck it, that last bit can wait.
I bring my screens to full opacity, draw a bead on the rogue ONI agent falling ahead of me and open fire.
I don't want to die slowly
I don't want to decay
I want to be chosen
I want to be made
I don't want to die lonely and weary of life
I will not be earthbound
I'm gonna fly
Meisters can taste death. It has a black kick, the clairvoyant stench of sentience extinguished. At Kaeleron, the stink of it was overwhelming. It ached in my teeth, throbbed at my temples, a blackness of permanent murder just beyond the ordinary senses. Millions of deaths every minute. The bloodlust of the Tyrax and its underlings; the pungent smell of pure desperation in every human mind. The death-screams of entire ships were telepathic crossfires, impossible to block out fully. It was bad enough to drive psychogenics insane, and ONI knew better than to send its pet agents into such a hell. But it was our last best chance they said, and needs must when the greater good demands it. So I went, and my sanity went with Sarah and Brute Hope.
The chrome-grilled Stadtler limousine hovers up to gates on an inertia-defying field of zero-grav and the wrought iron parts before it like waves on the bow of a ship... Or, I suppose, like Froktar cannon-fodder against a dug-in platoon of Carnage Marines. Even after two weeks of R&R I still can't help thinking in war metaphors. As the saying goes, you can pull a girl out of the war, but how do you pull the war out of the girl?
“Would you stop fidgeting? You're making me nervous.” Dee – Dolores – is smiling at me. My not-so-little-anymore sister sits on the absurdly comfortable leather couch opposite me, reddish-blond hair cut in a zig-zagging pattern that is the latest fashion, or so I surmise. Just like the chichi designer-house dress she wears. Or, well, I say dress. It's a petite thing, barely more than a negligee, and it'd be scandalous anywhere that isn't Luna.
Something about that outfit nags me. Out there we're fighting a war for the very survival of our species, and the people back home still have time for fashion? I love my sister, but really... “I'm not fidgeting,” I grumble. It comes out more sharply than I intended.
Dee frowns. “Jeez sis, no need to bite my head off. And you are fidgeting, you haven't stopped fondling that beret since we left New Berlin.”
I glance down. The blood-red beret in my hands looks disheveled, the silver Storm Commando cap badge turned and turned again to a weird angle. I push it back to the proper position, brush my fingers over the embossed motto of the 303rd. Cedo Nulli; 'I yield to no one'. And I hadn't. We hadn't. Warmaster Trego was dead. New California was once again in human hands, a major human victory – the first victory really, against the usually so overwhelmingly superior Ark forces. I was a hero, I had the medals and campaign badges to prove it and better yet I'd lived to tell the tale of the Second Siege.
Then why am I feeling so conflicted? I realize I probably am not being rational. “Sorry sis,” I sigh. “It's just, I suppose I'm not used to the idea of being back yet.”
“So you're Lieutenant Sarah, the gruff war hero having a hard time acclimating in civil society?” Dee smiles to take the sting out of it. “That's so cliche.”
I scowl, and then grin back at her. “Nothing's a cliche when it's happening to you.” That is itself a cliche. I look out the armored window. We've started moving again, and behind us the elaborate floral patterns and gilded family crests of the gate are sliding together again in a series of complex locking mechanisms. The limousine pulls up a crooked country road, cobblestones illuminated by solemn lines of aging neon-oaks, and starts to move into the Lunar highlands. There are no security checkpoints, no force screens or sentry guns, not a guard in sight. If you've managed to make it to the gate without being challenged, the idea was, you probably deserve to be here. The Earth shines brightly above us. “I'm kinda nervous to meet dad again,” I admit.
“Because he told you not to sign up?”
She pulls two glasses from the cooler and pours something bubbly and no doubt alcoholic. I'm in uniform but hell, I don't care. It's a good day for bad habits. “And because he's your, you know, superior officer?” Dee continues.
Dee sips the champagne like a pro. “I wouldn't worry about it. I mean, he only got to conquer New California because you were a hero before he was, right? I think he appreciates that.”
I arch an eyebrow and look at her in a new light. Dolores Grissom-MacDonnell is three years my junior and in many ways my complete opposite. I hated the suffocating safety of Luna so much I ran off and joined the army despite famous-general-dad's Commandment I didn't. Dee is different. My sister thrives in high society, the beau monde of Alliance aristocracy cherish her as one of their own. She's a notorious socialite with a net-wide reputation as a hard-drinking party girl, but at the same time not many people are privy to the details of the 303rd's actions and their implications for the subsequent Liberation. She obviously picks up on my surprise and laughs melodically. “Just because I'm not running around in the mud with a rifle on my back doesn't mean I don't keep up with current events, sis. And Trego's death didn't exactly go unnoticed, you know?”
“Yeah, well,” I shift in my seat. The laser-proofed fabric of the dress uniform makes a creaking noise against the leather. “You know dad was supposed to hand out these stupid medals back on New Cali?” I tap at my chest where – amidst a stretch of glossy metal – a Valor Star, the ISA's highest military decoration, hangs next to the Chairman's Unit Citation awarded to all members of the 303rd Storm Commandos. “He canceled at the last minute. How's that supposed to make me feel?”
Dee shrugs, causing her dress to almost-but-not-quite slide off her shoulders, no doubt like the designers intended. “He probably did it as a favor. Father's not exactly well-liked at the moment, not even after New Cali. Generals are politicians as much as they are officers you know, and like any politician dad's made enemies. A lot of them, in his case. He's always been vocal about the war, and word on the circuit is the intelligence community hates his guts.”
I give her a look. “You mean ONI.” She smiles innocently. “Dee, how do you know these things?”
My sister's smile turns slightly predatory. “You'd be surprised what the pretty air-headed bimbo girl gets to hear when she's paying attention.”
Dolores, the socialite spy. Things really have changed since I left. I shake my head. “What do you mean, he did it as a favor?”
“Jeez sis, I thought you commando types were supposed to be clever? None of us want you to get sent on another suicide mission.” There is an accusatory accent in her voice, and I cringe a little. I hadn't really thought about that. “Dad least of all. He doesn't want you in his spotlight. As long as you and him appear estranged, you're not a tool ONI can use to manipulate him. That's why he's been avoiding you. Gods, Sarah, I've seen the way he looks at the war tickers when you are away, the way he looked at your holographs. So do me a favor and just talk to him, okay?”
I nod silently, taking in my sister's words. “I haven't spoken to him in years. Not since he all but ordered me not to sign up.”
“All the more reason to have a chat, yeah?”
We ride on in companionable silence until finally we round one last corner and the ancestral pile resolves into view. The MacDonnells of Nua Albainn are a sept of the old Glengarry MacDonells, and the family mansion had once stood on the shores of Loch Oich in Scotland before being moved, stone for stone and at incredible expense, to the moon. It was one of the few remaining pieces of the old Highlands, a defiant monument that stood against the ages and, it seemed, the forces of modernity itself. MacDonnell House is an L-shaped manor, with a round tower at the north-east angle. The main building rises to five and the angle tower to six stories in height, red brick well-weathered, stained by ancient soot no Lunar factory had produced, a tangle of vines creeping across its facade. The manse looks out over the banks of Loch Ciúin in the basalt highlands, a region that before the terraforming had been known as the Sea of Tranquility. It is one of the oldest and most expensive regions of Luna: manors, sprawling haciendas and gaudy palazzos scattered haphazardly along the banks of painstakingly engineered lakes and transplanted alien forests. My family owns a vast estate here, hundreds of square kilometers of unkempt wilderness, a nigh-unfathomable luxury in the congested and overcrowding Sol System. Even more money had gone into assuring no visitors got to see the impressive array of defenses: the tactical force shield, the omnipresent CamDust surveillance and the garrison of war robots, the autolaser batteries.
I know what you're thinking. Overkill, right? But dad is a regenerate general, and mum owns one of the Alliance's largest weapon manufacturers. These things have their perks, sure, but it's also not like ISA high society wasn't rife with Machiavellian intrigue even before the war. And the war – that just made it worse. It made everything worse. Plenty people – politicians, spooks, discontent officers looking for a quick promotion, rival moguls, plain old anarchist malcontents, I could go on – now stand to benefit if anything untoward were happen to either of my parents. So, better safe than sorry. Except 'safe' isn't a binary option: it is a rat-race, an unceasing struggle to stay ahead of that bell curve of technological terror. Keeping up with the Joneses, but in this case failure means a tactical nuke could go off in our back yard.
That's my family in a nutshell. Any wonder I wanted to get away? At least in the army you usually get to know who your enemy is before he shoots you in the face. Or that's what I thought before I got acquainted with the machinations of ONI.
It's thoughts like these that occupy my mind as the dark blue limo continues its drive up the winding road toward the stronghold. Despite Dee's reassuring words I feel the knot in my stomach tighten as we neared the house. Finally, after what feels like a lifetime, the Stadtler comes to a final halt. Waiting on the granite steps leading up to the ancient oak door are the members of my family: my sisters, Aileen and Kenna, and my brother Rory, red-haired and sun-shy as ever. They beam and wave, and then the door opens and I'm in the midst of a tight knot of MacDonnells all doing their best to bear hug me at the same time.
Mother isn't here, but I know she's on Cyrucix, overseeing construction of orbital defenses intended to deter some Scorpian warlord-prince from seizing the exomat refineries there. Not for the first time I curse the galacto-strategic position of the Alliance and wish it would stop interfering in my family life. Then, amidst the teary embraces and huggings, I realize that leaves one other missing.
Dad's not there.
But somebody else is. Behind my elated family stands, straight and silent as if hewed out of solid iron, my father's aide, a man with an impossible Lower-Orion name I never bothered to remember. A former member of the Valkyrie Steel Tempests with the oak leaf epaulette of a major, he's one of few full-body cybermods in the Alliance. A multimillion dollar weapon in his own right, I've suspected for some time that rather than just an adjutant he is also my father's bodyguard and hatchet-man. I can't prove it though. And I don't much want to either. What kid wants to know the misdeeds of her father?
As my brother and sisters talk my ears off about the war and my supposed heroics this man wades through the crowd of ecstatic family-members with a preternatural ease belying the bulk of his mass, looks down on me, and rumbles with a static-laden voice: “Lieutenant? The general would like a word with you.”
Cause love, like a sentence of death has left me stunned, and I'm reeling - yeah, I'm reeling
And if you go, furious angels will bring you back to me
CONTINUED ON PAGE TWO