[Giftsnap] Justice

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Mobius 1
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[Giftsnap] Justice

Post by Mobius 1 » Fri May 23, 2008 5:42 pm

This'd be from Ford. I asked him the other day if he'd rather post it that me, but he told me to go ahead, so here goes.

***

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

-Beowulf

Justice
A Post War Epic


Chapter One
New Space Order



Here's something that lots of people don't know. After the long, boring, needlessly vast ceremony where they pinned enough medals on my chest to make the seams creak, a few important people took me into a small room. There, they put a large gun to my head, and asked me quite pointedly to never open my mouth to anyone about pretty much anything. At the time, I was not afraid. I could count the number of times I had been actually afraid on two fingers. I was, and I suppose still am, a Carnage Marine. Six men and a firearm floating an inch from the back of my skull is certainly not enough to frighten me. Not after the shit that went down around Kaeleron. It helped that at the time, I was effectively immortal. I politely told them that they should try this same trick with Trego. They more politely asked me to become a general.

I thought about that for a long time. I didn’t leave the room, even after they had. I considered what they had said: Leaders were needed. Strong leaders that the people could rely upon. It makes a fair amount of sense really; I had recently been party to the saving of the galaxy, and it had been televised, after a fashion. I agreed with their sentiments. I also liked the idea of being a general – it was unusual for a Carnage Marine to actually get that sort of brass. They swore me in as one of the first generals of the New Unified Army.

*

Of all my friends, or the collection of beings I don’t quite consider enemies, the only other one to continue in the armed forces was Trego. His rank was even more impressive: Supreme Commander of the New Unified Army When it came down to it, that was the only possible move. Trego already had an innate understanding of the management of such a vast, varied force as the NUA: before his essential defection, he was an Ark Warmaster. Not even Grand Admiral Mccorl could ever have claimed to have nearly a tenth of the authority that he wielded. More than that, he was clever, dedicated and very good at his job. It was also a bad move, because Trego was not just a clever commander, he was also a clever politician. The NUA was almost certainly guaranteed success. So was Trego.

Undoubtedly, there was both quaking in the boots and much rejoicing. Especially when it became apparent that Trego was very interested in making sure that the NUA did not become the order upon which the galaxy spun. As he confided to me shortly after our induction to the new ranks of leadership, he believed it was necessary for democratic civilian government to rule. We later discovered this was a mistake, but the idea was sound. We spent a considerable amount of time eliminating parts of the old galaxy which we believed jeopardised this vision. The Office of Naval Intelligence went first, lasted longest, and bit hardest. Humanity had not nearly been as internally fragmented as the Ark, and thus ONI had gained something of a dominance which could only be called disgusting. We both knew first hand the sort of shit ONI got up to. The grand instigator was dead, of course. Jak had fed him a nuke. There was more to it though. We had to invent our own intelligence taskforce purely to most of what ONI had. Most of that is gone, of course. We have some left over. More is still out there, and every day, thousands of operatives try and get it, and try to excise the last of the demons.

With the Ark, we found that the problems weren’t so pertinent. The most effective way of dealing with the utterly myriad agencies that skulked around were to make them turn on each other. After they were done with each other, the boys and girls could sweep in, the whirlwind in their thorn tree. The legacy of the Tyrax loomed, fresh in the minds of those who were his. They, like the ONI remnants, fought. They still do: the legacy of the Tyrax looms large.

Thinking of the Tyrax always gets me. It’s not that he and I were arch-foes (though there was this cool rumble including rocket launchers at one point), but it’s just that he’s the one who took a lot away from us. He killed, directly or indirectly, a lot of people I would call my closest comrades. Morbidly, if it wasn’t for him, we all would have died anyway. That’s supposed to be ironic. Trego once said, in a very melancholic way ‘isn’t that funny’.

I’m still not laughing.

*

I didn’t see Ian for three years.

That was a mistake. Letting the NUA take up all my time had been a mistake. I had neglected the people that needed me the most. So I tried to find them, and I started with Ian. I did it personally. We had some good agents in CTI at the time, and Ian wasn’t really hiding, but I needed to take the time to do it myself. I tracked him to the place where we had last seen each other: the monument on New Cal. As I stood beneath a drooping, orange leafed tree, I watched him march straight up to the monolith, and stand before it. I had some ideas about how Dusk was doing, but there was no way he’d come here drunk. As I watched him stand ramrod straight before the basalt memorial, I felt something lift within me, like escaping plasma. He was a soldier. A good soldier.

My heart plummets into my stomach. Why the fuck was he a soldier? Why were any of them soldiers? I rubbed one eyebrow heavily. The Ian I knew was full of dark cynicism. Every act of violence seemed to bury him, and he would claw his way back out of it. And every time … Some men and women thrive as soldiers. Others are destroyed. Ian was, is, a survivor. Survivors are the middle: they adapt. They live. In order to stay alive, they change themselves. As I stepped from the cover of the tree, into the drizzle, I decided that it was the survivors who were tested most sorely of all.

He half turned as I approached. His face is covered in a few days stubble, his eyes are slightly sunken. I called up a memory of Ian from when I first met him, compared it to the man before me. It had only been a few years. Too much had changed. He turned his face back to the memorial. I stood by his side, and ran my eyes over the names – too many names. I don’t need to look; I know where these people lie. I know what he’s looking for.

Running a hand through damp, slicked back hair, I glanced sideways at Ian, then back to the monolith. I wondered what words would be appropriate to open with. He decided he’d beat me to the punch. “I hear you’re still with the military.”

“That’s right.” I said. Our voices were equally neutral. Ian had resigned almost immediately. I doubt his paperwork was ever properly filed; there was a lot. We had limited AI resources, and we had to make a call. Undoubtedly, this act had driven many like Ian into a state of near-destituteness. I almost smile wryly; they’re survivors, naturally.

“How do you do it?” he asked, still with his eyes locked on Sarah’s plaque. It’s a sliver of brass. She deserved more. “How can you keep working for them? It might be bigger, it might be newer, it might have more aliens in it, but it’s still the same stupid shit.”

“Because,” I replied, moving forward and going to one knee. I rubbed a name gently with a gloved thumb, removing some perceived dust. “Someone has to. Someone has to be the bad guy.” I turned my head back to look at him. He still wasn’t looking at me. There were tears streaming down his face, lost in the rain. I stood, looked along the simple stone, the simple brass, the simple act of remembrance. It’s one of many. I’ve been to them all. “For them.”

*

“This seems worrying.” Trego said, leaning back in his chair, one leg with its ludicrous number of joints propped on his desk. His reptilian eyes were focussed upon the flimsy. “The slipstreams between here and Andromeda are supposed to be blacker than black. They’re not supposed to be stolen.” He throws down the transparent sheath with no measure of disgust, only mild annoyance. He sits up straight and clicks his claws against the surface of his desk. “I imagine that hordes of agents are already scouring the galaxy. Even with the slipstream data it’s not easy to get to Andromeda, but if these bastards start messing with the Deinonj, we could have … You’re not actually listening, are you.”

“My wife is having an affair.” I said automatically.

“That’s wonderful.” Trego remarked, pointedly jabbing the flimsy and its scrolling text. “We could have a war in the making here.”

“I think she’s having two.”

“And I think that I really don’t care. Focus please.”

“And the thing is, I’m having an affair too. And she knows.”

Trego tossed up his arms, and flung his eyes to the roof of his office. He stood and leant over his enormous desk; even though his side was buried several feet into the floor, in order to equalise his height with his smaller liaisons, he loomed. “I’m failing to see how your marital problems have any relevance right now. You’ve walked into my office with some of the worst news since I discovered that they’ve stopped making crumpets. It might not sound like much, but a couple of gigs of information has gone missing, and it’s actually a galactic crisis.” He reached over and clamped my head with one big hand. He gave a slow twist and had me looking at him. “I’ll give you the number of a good marriage counsellor, if you like, but keep your eyes on the prize here.”

I shook my head free of the Supreme Commander’s grasp and rubbed a temple. “Keep my eyes on the prize. Sorry.” I stuck a finger on the flimsy and dragged it to my side. I already knew the contents, and they were worrying. Since the Ark dissolved after the war, the Deinonj hadn’t really been heard of in the Milky Way. Occasionally there were rumours, but never anything more, which was a blessing. At best, we were hoping for some sort of peaceable, arms length relationship. At most, we could hope for them to totally ignore us. No one was actually sure, but we had a vague idea that we were bigger. No one was delusional enough to think that mattered.

In all honesty, very few had any idea of what individual Deinonj were like, let alone the whole of their mysterious race. Not even Kehksol could tell of anything useful, and he’d been around as long as they had. We didn’t know if they could be provoked. We decided to err on the side of caution. If you can’t get to Andromeda, you can’t interact with the Mysterious Pandimensional Threat From Beyond. The simple plans were best. And now we didn’t even have that.

“Well,” I tried, fanning myself. “It’s not all bad.”

*

Truth be told, we were just being careful. We didn’t want the Andromeda Slipstreams becoming common knowledge. There weren’t many known, which was reasonable, given that there just weren’t many. Slipstreams crisscross galaxies, connecting star after star after star. In system, tributaries bleed off like wisps of gas, allowing rapid transport across interplanetary distances. However, between the galaxies it’s different. Someone once told me that the intergalactic streams between here and Andromeda weren’t just rare, they were different, and hard to travel. They also had positions you could conceivably guard.

And yet, despite knowing that your average ship could make it, and despite knowing there were NUA units guarding the Andromeda Slipstream Points, I couldn’t sleep. My wife was snoring gently into the crook of my arm. Once upon a time, she might not have been able to sleep as well. These days Elisa wasn’t a part of the armed forces, and instead pursued a more profitable existence using my salary to play the stock market from home. In a way, I was happy about this. Being the General’s Wife was simultaneously safer and more dangerous than actually being in the NUA. Either way, we had silently decided that our daughter needed someone at home with her apart from the Alastors. Amelia might have loved the towering drones like she would a dog, but they were no substitute.

I reach over and stroke the hair around her ears gently, before slowly rolling and engulfing her body in my arms. She wriggles against me, as though trying to push closer to my body. I place my nose in her hair. As I inhale her scent with each breath, my heart rate drops, and my worries trickle away. We might be exceedingly unfaithful, but we are also in love. We both know that the other has shared a bed with another, recently even, but we also know that this doesn’t actually matter. We’ll never actually admit to the affairs, of course, that would be strange. Yet we’ll never leave. I don’t love her less. I know she doesn’t either.

Strange, yeah. I think tomorrow I’ll ask her about more children.

*

Quick Johnny D’oro lashed out with his left. It thumped into the pad on my hand. Like a snake, he struck fast, and fluid. I don’t really need to offer him any advice as we move slowly back and forth in our faux battle. He begins the repetition again, and mid-move I slapped inside his guard and drive my right pad up. His head jerks back, and his arm wraps around mine. It’s a smooth move, but he hasn’t got the leverage and footing to beat me in a contest of strength. I put him on his back.

“That was slick.” I said, helping him to his feet. I stood practically a foot taller than him. “Even if you need more leverage. I might be bigger and stronger, but that’s not really important.” Before he could open his mouth to speak, I launched out a strike which he handily dodged, bouncing a few steps back. “Look for the opportunities. No one’s flawless.”

Forcing him back, I took a moment to pull off the pads. We sauntered about each other, watching each other closely. Johnny pulled up his dukes and stepped forward, launching out a flurry of blows. My hands weaved against his, deflecting, allowing my elbow to spike forward. Johnny’s forearm crunched against the blow, and with a kick he drove me back. “Hood,” he said, warily dancing on his heels. Like a blur, he tossed out a roundhouse that had me on the back foot. “Do you think we’ve got anything over the Ark after New Cal?”

“Do you?” I asked, my fists moving like pistons. He caught an outstretched arm and hauled me to the ground. Now that was slick.

Standing over me, Cesar pursed his lips. I cocked an eyebrow and he finally shook his head. “No. We don’t.”

*

Humanity was always going to loose. The Ark was just too big, too powerful. I mean, Christ, the whole polity was named after a roving artificial planetoid the size of Mars. We could try all we like, but winning wasn’t exactly an option. We could pull victories of course, but the whole thing? The ‘war’ was already loss. When it came down to it, it was less a war and more a political manoeuvre on the part of entities within the Ark. The total extinction of humanity would be nothing more than a clever ruse for some to move up in the world of the Ark. I mean wow.

And once it’s all over, where does humanity stand? Right at the top baby. We went in a sure-fire loose, and we came out with a thousand times the clout we ever had before. We might not be the most prolific of species, or the strongest, but the new government ended up with more humans in power than any other species. I don’t know how that happened. And we’re heading up up up! Nobody can stop us now, because we’re a part of everybody. Tensions are high of course, lots of us don’t like each other, but what does that matter? Get in the way and you get stepped on, at which point you get the lovely opportunity to go drown in the mud.

This is Union. We had such hopes for it, but it really didn’t go so well.

So much has happened, and all of it seems to lead to the same place. It’s hard to keep track of it all. The war ended, and we were left to put the pieces back together. And yet, someone was trying to pry them apart. It wasn’t the end of the play, it was a whole new act, and I was back playing my new role. Only this time, I was short all the people I needed. Johnny. Sarah. Ian.

Jak.

It doesn’t matter how many ships or men the NUA has, and that I have command over. That’s not nearly as comforting as having a fellow Storm Commando at your back. Nothing is.

*

I remember standing over Megan Rickson as she lay unconscious, one among so many aboard the Nightfall. Of all the surviving of Jak’s Raptor’s, she was the one I knew best. I killed the other one. It wasn’t actually my fault, but there you go. Rickson was extremely lucky to be alive. She had been a part of the fighter assault force that had attempted to take down the Tyrax’s black hole catalyst Annihilation Bomb. She was hit, yet managed to eject. Unconscious for most of the battle. I knew she’d feel guilty about that, irrational though it was. I was hoping, standing there, that what guilt she felt would only be minor. Yeah, well, people hope for a lot of stupid things. I remember standing there until she finally awoke.

I knelt by her, and as she blinked her eyes clear, as she focussed on me, I could see her fear. She tried to swallow, and her hand latched onto mine as I slipped it towards her. “Who …” she began in a small voice, before she faltered. I squeezed.

“Major Blake is still alive.” I said, and she crushed her eyes shut, bit her bottom lip. The fingers in mine were shaking. I told myself that I would have to go and find Pierce Blake and get him aboard the Nightfall. I might have fought across space with Rickson, but I was not a Raptor. “Sarah is gone.” Rickson’s teeth fastened into her flesh. “And so is Jak.”

I reached over and used my thumb to wipe away the blood trickling from her lip. Her head lolled to one side, to stare off in the opposite direction.

*

The war ended and humanity survived, prospered and now thrives. But the war destroyed too many. Many of my friends, not enough of my enemies, and even myself. It can never be allowed to happen again. This is the duty that I have: keeping the peace. I want to say ‘whatever the cost’, but another man once did that. He believed he was protecting humanity. We call him a traitor, and vilify him as such.

If I am to be remembered, do I really want that memory to be one of treachery?
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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Re: [Giftsnap] Justice

Post by Mobius 1 » Fri May 23, 2008 5:46 pm

Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds:
At which the universal host up sent
A shout that tore hell's concave, and beyond
Frighted the reign of Chaos and old Night.

-John Milton, Paradise Lost

Justice
A Post War Epic


Chapter Two
His Dark Materials


“You know, these are pretty good,” I say, holding up a PDA. Its wrist strap is almost horizontal in the wind at this height. I turn and wave the little computer to its owner, who has his feet hovering over half a metre from the ground and his head settled firmly in Alastor’s enormous hand. He’s a homerun catch this one, and I smile. “You’re quite the photographer.”

The statement is true, but it doesn’t give Martin Fellen any sort of reassurances that I won’t order my stylishly dressed drone to pop his head like one of the pimples covering his greasy face. I think he’s still stunned by the fact that I’m not actually angry. And while it is true, and that his angles and camera placement and everything else about his trade is excellent, I still find him to be despicable scum. Martin might call himself a journalist, but he’s tabloid paparazzi that the rags love to use, but refuse to acknowledge. His pictures tend to be scandalous enough that the editors and the idiots that buy their shit lap it up like a cat to milk. He’s the kind of nosy brat who tries to dig up the ‘dirty’ secrets of the famous, the rich and the powerful. Watching and waiting, trying to prove that everyone is as base as he is, that none of us are anything special compared to him. He’s right, of course, though at least I own more than one pair of socks, and they all match.

I walk within my arms distance, and Alastor lowers Martin to my eye level, so his feet still don’t come closer than forty centimetres to the rooftop. His lips rub against each other incessantly, and a boil high on one cheek breaks, oozing down his face. I’m more interested in the picture of Rickson; it’s lower resolution than my memory, and static, but it’s a more interesting angle. I keep on flicking through. I’ve been doing this for six minutes, and I haven’t had a repeat yet. I lock eyes with him. “You took a lot of pictures.” I redouble my jabbing of the ‘next’ icon. “A lot.” I repeat, waving it under his nose.

His entire face warps and churns as he attempts to choose a reply. He’s trying to decide how far he can push his luck here; whether I’m going to get suddenly offended and kill him where he hangs. “Uh.” He starts, pointedly not making eye contact. “Uh, well … the people have a right to know.”

I lean forward a couple of centimetres and he tries to shy away, which is impossible. I narrow my eyes at him and he whimpers. “Why’s that, Martin?”

“What?”

“Why do they have right to know?” I say, and wait for him to comprehend. He doesn’t actually understand why I’m asking, but he does understand that a satisfactory answer is going to be beneficial to him. As his neurons bubble and boil, I invent a fanciful picture of Martin’s motivations. Instead of being part of some twisted attempt to make himself feel better, I decide that his pictures are intended to humble the ‘elite’, keep their heads below the stars. I like that idea, a noble crusader keeping the big guys honest. The illusion lasts about as long as it takes me to remember that the content of his photos tends to be things like politicians sitting on the toilet or movie stars vomiting over their peers.

I also entertain the idea that he actually knows that all he’s interested is the proof that these are just as ‘human’ as he is. I know this is false.

“They deserve to know,” he says, his resolve building with each word, the reedy wavering becoming less and less apparent. “Just what sort of man you are. They need to know that you can be married and with a young child and you can still go off and screw some other woman! They need to see where your priorities are!”

“She is pretty hot.” I remark, and his features droop. He searches my face, as though trying to find what I actually mean, at which point I shrug. “And now I’m going to toss you over the edge of this building.”

Alastor responds immediately and gently thrusts Martin off into midair, where Luna’s gravity takes hold and begins to drag him down at a little over one and half metres a second a second. It’s not even a strain to snag him by his ankle; he continues to scream as though I have not caught him. I allow him to continue his mental plummet for a moment longer, before giving him a shake. He cracks open one and looks around desperately, his breath heaving out of him like an asthmatic elephant. “I, I thought you were going to kill me!”

“I lied.” I say, tossing him back onto the roof. He sprawls limply, as though stunned, and I stalk over him, unwinding an interface cable silently. I kneel down and seize the back of his head, and jam the cable in. “You have memories I want.”

*

Upon returning to the loft, I leave Alastor on sentinel duty as always. The drone is a reassuring presence, as all Alastors are. Imposing cybernetic monstrosities, they had the same sort of dominating aura as the old Ark Tyrant-type special police units … the kind which would eventually be used as the primogenitor of the Tyrax exoskeleton. We didn’t talk about that, and instead spent a lot of like dressing them up for fun.

With the door closing silently behind me, I hang up my coat and my jacket, before loosening my cravat. I sat down and turned my head; from here I could see the muddled heap that was a sleeping Rickson. I held up Fellen’s PDA and frowned at it. Truth be told, I found the entire idea strange; I was not universally popular, not even within CTI or Trego’s general staff, and had seen my fair share of attempted assassinations. It seemed unusual that they would try this. Even more unusual was the idea that Martin Fellen actually had enough info to pull this off. The data I’d pulled from his brain was vague about where he’d gotten his direction from – in other words he didn’t know (memory hacked, I guess), but at least I knew he had been tipped off by someone.

What am I dealing with here? Of all the things to send someone off on, my affair seems strange. Sure, it would be a scandal, ‘married general gets off with former comrade’ blah blah blah, but my career wasn’t exactly going to go to hell in a hand basket over it. Maybe some kind of blackmail involving my marriage? I wish: I’d like the opportunity to say to a blackmailer ‘go ahead, make my day’.

I go through a list of my enemies. It’s extensive. All of them would have sent a sniper, not a paparazzi.

I sigh, and unbutton my vest with one hand. Unless it’s part of some vast and unknowable conspiracy, the most likely answer is that I got careless, and Martin Fellen’s tenacity won him a chance to put a general’s face into the tabloids. Undoubtedly, his only regret was that it wasn’t Trego. Trego isn’t … mated? … yet and probably never will be. The intricacies of Nahk culture would probably fly right over the head of most human photographers anyway. It goes over my head, and I work closely with a bunch of them. I transfer everything I can from Martin’s PDA to mine, wipe it completely and leave it in Rickson’s trash compactor, before walking softly into her bedroom. The bed sinks and creaks as I rest my weight on the edge of it. The bed is already broken, but she won’t replace it.

Her breathing is practically silent; I lean my ear down near her nose and mouth and can only feel the air leaving her lungs, not hear. Sitting back up, I place a hand over her forehead, brushing back short black hair from closed eyes. It bothers me that Rickson may be somehow involved in some sort of attempt to take me down. You don’t mess with these people, not on my watch. I resolve to work out actual security for my old friends. I can’t imagine Ian would be thrilled with an Alastor or CTI team watching his back. I suppose then the safest bet would be to just kill whoever is behind it. It’s not as messy that way.

Ah, mess. It’s everywhere. The entire Union is a mess, the galaxy is mess, and the people in it are a mess. Millions and millions of people left over with such insecurities that you can’t help but feel shame at not being able to help them. Take Rickson, now rolling over nuzzle into the warmth of my waist. I spent some time in a cell with her once; she was pleasant, out-going, and something of a diplomat. Before Jak Easly apparently died the first time round, this was not the norm. It was a response. I tickle one of her eyebrows.

*

My wife is reading the news. The article is not about the disappearance of Martin Fellen; if people already knew I really would be dropping the ball. I place a hand on her shoulder and one of hers clasps against my leg, and her head leans back against my body. The light of paradise catches her features in such away that there can be no doubt she’s the most beautiful woman alive. I lower myself down and kiss her, for a little while. She smiles into my face and I take a seat opposite her. Elisa always takes breakfast on the terrace and, against my own better judgement, I always join her – I haven’t missed breakfast in years, despite gallivanting across the galaxy. The manse was beautiful enough that I could occasionally dismiss the danger of having such a routine. And really, I owed her this much, that she could see her husband at least once a day.

“How was Luna?” she asks, placing down her datafilm. One of her toes wriggle into the top of my left sock.

My spoon slid into the flesh of the strange fruit on my plate, oozing pale juice. “It was good. A little eventful, but good.” I said, as Elisa’s foot worked its way beyond the hem of my trousers. I return her smile and glance out over the land. There are very few people on Hebrida in comparison to some worlds. It is not a centre of economic or military or industrial power. Even so I can see a smudge in the powder blue sky, like an improbably distant cloud. It grows visibly with every week.

“Will you be here very long?”

“I’ll have some time off towards the end of the week.”

“Do you have time now?”

As I open my mouth, I hear a small squeal of excitement, and it takes no effort on my part to discern that it is my daughter. Amelia has clearly discovered that Stylish Alastor is home, and that means that I must be home. I can hear her telling the drone to take her to me. The robot strides in with my blonde haired seven year old in the crook of one arm. She has his skull embroidered silk stole around her neck like a scarf. She clambers to my lap and kisses me noisily on the cheek. “And how are you, baby girl?” I ask.

“I missed you.” She says with a slight pout. I smooth the thick hair back from her forehead. “When are you going to stay here Papa? You always go so soon.”

“Three days.” I grin, and hold up a pinky. Amelia grasps it with both hands. “I’ll stay all weekend, I promise.”

“Promise?” she chirps, and the way her faces lights up is impossible to refuse. I immediately start making arrangements for Alastor to make sure that everyone understands that this weekend, I will not be free. I nod and kiss her forehead.

“We’ll hold you to that.” Elisa says slyly, and then she turns her gaze on our daughter. “And you miss, you need to finish getting ready for school.” She cut through an emerging protest with the ruthless efficiency of a laser. “No stalling. Alastor will take you.” There were fewer protests after that, and my drone carried Amelia away. Once she had left, Elisa turned back to me, standing up. “You said you were free?”

I shrug noncommittally, and she beckons with one finger. Getting to my feet, I follow her, though I have no doubt about where we’re supposed to be heading. We barely make it, and when we do, her fingers are seemingly incapable of handling my buttons. Her towelling robe slips off far more easily. It is not quite like this every morning after breakfast; her kisses are only so ferocious and her desire uncontrollable when she knows. When she knows, it’s like something has invaded her body, something is making her shake and whimper. We have been making love for two decades or so, and when she’s like this, it’s like she’s forgotten all of what she has learnt in that time. It is, truth be told, highly arousing; when I’m finally naked I almost find it difficult to restrain myself.

It is as I’m kissing down her throat and into space between her breasts that I get the call. I ignore and instead focus upon my wife’s shuddering body. When the call returns, her moans can do nothing to drown it out, and nothing I can do seems to drive it away. It’s too high priority for that. Elisa’s movements slacken and she sighs loudly. I pull away and she is left spreadeagled, her chest heaving. I try to ignore the prickling sensation her eyes are giving me, but it doesn’t seem possible, It’s too high priority, I guess.

It’s a message from the Supreme Commander.

“What’s the deal, Trego?” I ask, exasperatedly, slumping back on to one of my pillows. I stroke Elisa’s cheek with the back of my hand, and desperately hope that he’s quick; talking to Trego does nothing good for my mojo. “I’m really busy.”

“Spare me.” The Supreme Commander replies. “We have an Andromeda related situation. You are required. And by required I mean at the scene. And by required I mean I am in orbit right now.”

The link closes down, and my mind whirls. In the end, it settles upon Elisa, who appears to be regaining her normal rate of respiration. I place a hand on one of her comfortably warms thighs. I lean close and whisper directly into her ear. “I have ten minutes.”

*

Thirteen minutes later and I am standing within the Pit aboard Nightshade. The Pit is aptly named – it’s somewhat like a pit, after all – and it is Trego’s favoured location for giving people bad news. The bad news appears as a hologram of a system which I recognise, primarily because I’ve been there before. It belongs to the Scorpia, a fact which Trego lets sink in over a course of twenty seconds. Technically the Scorpia are a part of our Union, though a fair amount of humans don’t really like this. The Scorpia were our enemy before the Ark. Our first real interspecies, interstellar war was against the Scorp. They were in a way the biggest bed-time nightmare fuel a chiding mother had (and still has, incidentally). The Scorpia were, at least to humans, awful monsters. Multi-limbed, shark-toothed bladed evil with a sting that turned humans into Scorpia too; an alien hyperpredator with cunning intelligence and incredible unity. Monsters.

And to the Scorpia, we’re monsters too. We stuff our bodies full of unnatural machinery and sacrifice our nature for killing prowess. We drove into the hearts of their society with wild, vicious abandon. The Scorp equivalent of horror stories are either about us, or the Tyrax. Usually about us.

Trego is going to tell me that whoever has stolen the Andromeda Slipstream intel has taken it into this system, and is now hiding somewhere there. I know he is, I can feel it. Which means all manner of political rigmarole trying to convince the local hierarchy to let a CTI Meister team rip shit up. However, I can also see that Trego has a plan, the bastard, which he starts to detail to me in a rather interesting way.

“It should be obvious to you that we are now dealing with a delicate operation.” He says striding around the Pit. “We must go into this system, and we must take a hold of the agents responsible for the left and we must brutally execute them. Except that this system belongs to the Scorpia, and most of the people who live there are, in fact, Scorpia. Please perform the rudimentary logical steps to see exactly what the problem is.”

What Trego is being an asshole about is that if agents can hide out in a system primarily consisting of Scorpia, it means that they are allied with Scorpia, or are entirely Scorpia. The Scorpia are one of the most important allies in our Union, but you honestly cannot just walk up to one of their nobility-equivalent and say that to their face. They’ll probably get offended, and that’s never positive. “Tell me that you’ve had some progress here.”

“Leo, my friend. This is Sahad. It is the capital of all Scorpia.”

“So you’ve made no progress then.”

“Not as such, no.” He takes a few steps towards me, and places his hands together. Claws click together like the priming of a gun. He leans down, and I am treated to his worryingly pleased with himself smile. “I do, however, have a very good idea involving you meeting with their Ambassador to the Union. Four hours from now, in fact.”

*

We call the collective territories of the Scorpia ‘The Kingdom’, though it’s actually closer to a federation of extremely large families, the patriarch of which is called a king. I don’t really pretend to understand exactly what makes up their political nuances, but I know enough to get that Trego’s plan isn’t such a bad idea. While the Scorpia are incredibly alien, their upper echelons are intriguingly familiar. Their kings, queens, and assorted hangers-on love good press, as it serves to balance out the fact that they’re enormous spiky killing machines. Their Ambassador is actually of the caste we term ‘king’, and most of his household lives aboard Concordis Tower, capital of the Union.

I always like looking at Concordis. It’s simplicity itself, but an incredible feat of joint engineering nonetheless. It’s not actually a tower, it’s a cylinder; an O’neill styled space habitat, only considerably more gargantuan. Concordis could have swallowed three Valkyrie class supercruisers and had room for the Open Truth and Terror Cause after that. There was only one artificial object bigger in our joint histories, and that was the Ark – and like the Ark, Concordis Tower is a political citadel. Politicians live and work here, governing the concerns of all Union members. The NUA has its joint command here; Trego’s office is located amongst the artificial landscape, and mine is nearby that. Traffic streams in and out of the Concordis System in such numbers that it belies belief – so vast are the traffic streams that it becomes impossible to make out anything but ribbons of exhaust stretching across the void. Concordis itself is not the only habitat here; there are thousands of other orbitals hanging above Unity, the system’s largest gas giant, and sapients make their homes and work on, in and around all of the nineteen major celestial bodies located throughout the system.

Of course, I’m more interested in the hive palace co-opted by the Scorpia embassy. It’s an interesting building on the exterior; arranged in concentric dodecahedrons that become smaller and smaller the further you travel in, until you hit His Sovereignty’s personal residence. As I step out of the Bentley, I’m struck by the smooth certainty of the walls, and the geometric spacing of the windows; though more interesting is the web stretched across each space.

“That’s their strain-crest.” Says a female voice to my left, and I turn my head. I must have been staring. “Good afternoon General. I’m Haley Farud, Union Diplomatic Apparatus.”

As we shake, I size her up. Farud’s slim, somewhat short and has honey-brown skin that is very easy on the eye. She’s deliberately very attractive, like all UDA agents. I find myself instantly interested in her, which is more a function of the subtle chemical warfare she’s producing. I smile wryly and cut off the pheremonal influence. “I was wondering who they’d send.” I mention, before making my way up to the front portal, which is marked by the complex fractal geometries of the strain-crest. “I suppose you’re an expert on the Scorpia?”

“I’m King-” she unleashed a sudden burt of static interference that left me examining my auditory systems for glitches. “-favourite diplomat. I most often come to liase with him.”

“What did you say his name was?” I asked, sweat beading upon the back of my neck. She repeated it, and I was fairly sure that a larynx conforming to Euclid could not replicate it. She grinned rather sadistically as she saw me trying to fathom out the mysteries of the King’s name.

“If you find you want to refer to him by name, he put together another name for general use by people like you: Il Samak.” As the great doors open and bone-white praetorians usher us in, her smile deepens. “But I would probably suggest you stick with honourifics. You’ve never met before, after all.”

The interior of the Embassy-hive is almost as geometric as the exterior, and it is amongst the most complex buildings I have ever had to travel through. The Scorpia were initially subterranean, and they had once built actual hives; this place is equally three dimensional. A Scorp could travel on any surface regardless of gravity; the walls, and floors and ceilings are all pockmarked with grab-holds, the kind you might find in a ship for use when the artificial gravity was down. Very occasionally I could see humans or other sapients manoeuvring through the tunnels, proving my assumption that if push came to shove I could definitely do it.

After a considerable amount of walking through corridors, we pass out into the Scorpia ‘daylight garden’, which is fairly new to their culture. And just like the new architecture, it has a feeling of geometry. Of accuracy. It also looks as if the actual gardening is performed with Scorp claws, though you wouldn’t know it by looking. Our guide is chattering away about how the gardens between each section are designed to offer tranquillity of the mind to the embassy retainers, and that the embassy is home to some of the finest Scorpia daylight gardeners in the entire Kingdom. I nod politely, though it is clear he is not paying attention to me.

It takes fifteen minutes to traverse each ring and make it to the waiting garden surrounding Il Samak’s personal residence. We are left sitting in the shade as our guide scurries off to announce our arrival, which by Farud’s reckoning should only take between fifteen and seventy minutes. “Which,” she says, suddenly producing a data-pad seemingly from nowhere. “Is just enough time to educate me on how to interact with King-” she gurgles up the screeching sound which apparently passes for a name here.

“Educate me?”

“You have to understand that when dealing with Scorpia hierarchy, there are rules you must follow, and things you must and must not do.” She begins scrolling through her tablet at an incredible rate. “For example, I understand that you want to ask permission to deploy a CTI team in the Sahad system. That’s one of the things you must not do.”

I squint for a moment. “If I’m not supposed to ask that, why exactly am I here?”

“To meet the King.” Farud looks up from her computer and frowns. “You must understand that Sahad is very important to the Kingdom. It is their new capital since the Tyrax crushed their cradle system. And you must understand that prior to that, we personally did a little crushing there of our own.”

“I remember that.” I say fondly, leaning back against the pliant vines making up my chair. “Those were the days.”

Looking horrified, Farud waves her hands. “Please don’t mention that you were involved with the Scorpia War.”

“He probably already knows. The Scorp were never stupid.”

“General, please.” She leans a little closer, and she is most certainly in full dispersal mode now. “Eventually your request will be made to the hierarchy. Until then, all you have to do is leave King-” there’s that noise again. “-with a good impression of you. If he likes you, he’ll be more positively inclined to your humble request to be allowed into Sahad and onto its worlds when it is forwarded by us.”

“And how long will this take?”

“Probably about a month.” She places a hand on my arm. “Keep in mind that a bad impression will-”

“His Sovereignty, Ambassador to the Union and Marshal of the Kingdom, Hive-King of the Twelfth Precedence-” the name sprang up again, sounding for all the world as though the Scorpia hailer was overcome by a hacking fit. “Will receive General Sir Leo J. Bateau, Senior Director of the Cadre for Tactical Intelligence, Sworn Protector of the Orion Arm in the name of the New Unified Army and the Union proper!”

“Since when have I been knighted?” I ask, rising to my feet and moving towards to looming darkness of the entrance, flanked by towering bone statues covered in blades.

“Since four hours ago.” Farud replies as we both stroll into the waiting maw.
SHADOW TEMPEST BLACK || STB2: MIDNIGHT PARADOX
The day our skys fe||, the heavens split to create new skies.

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