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[AP] PRODIGAL SON, A Rogue's Tale - Book II
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Triaxx2





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PostPosted: Fri, 7. Jul 17, 13:24    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Yup here... waiting... lurking...

Hiding beneath beds...


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Sirrobert





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PostPosted: Fri, 7. Jul 17, 14:00    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

You guys are weird...


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drago6667





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PostPosted: Fri, 7. Jul 17, 15:08    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Sirrobert wrote:
You guys are weird...


I do believe that is why we all feel at home here.

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BlackArchon





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PostPosted: Fri, 7. Jul 17, 18:50    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Zaitsev wrote:
...
Eeep! *runs away and hide under the bed*

Ptui ... Dust bunnies. Bleh.
Split warrior don't get frightened by dust bunnies!


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Triaxx2





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PostPosted: Sat, 8. Jul 17, 00:04    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Split say: Dust Bunnies good hunting, bad eat.


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Scion Drakhar



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PostPosted: Sun, 23. Jul 17, 16:48    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

86. A Candle in the Dark

Gin stood in the shadows and watched the city breathe. The television was on across the room and she'd made sure to dim it as far as the machine would let her. It was almost amusing. She was alone in the apartment, concealed behind polarized windows, had the ability to track all warm blooded creatures for hundreds of meters in any direction, and still she felt most comfortable in the dark. 'Old habits,' she supposed. They'd gotten her this far. She had the television's screen divided into four smaller windows. Each window displayed the news feed from one of three separate broadcasting stations, with the live feed from the Federation Parliament building filling the fourth. She was aware of the moving pictures in her periphery but the event she was waiting for had yet to happen. So instead of watching the television she watched the city beyond the glass.

She could actually feel the city around her. Argon Prime. It hummed. It was a deep vibration that was both constant and unsteady. Tens of millions of people filled the kilometers around her, all of them working, playing, eating, drinking, sleeping and performing all of the other countless activities that composed their lives. Combined with the ebb and flow of traffic, the scream and whine of the trains, the machinery in the kilometer-high buildings around her, water running in the pipes, fans and air compressors moving ventilation through the ductwork, the hum of electricity, the music and television shows people used to distract themselves from their pain or boredom... and it hummed. There was even a rhythm to it that felt familiar. It had taken her a the better part of stazura to make the connection, but when she did it was obvious. 'It feels like Drake,' she thought and knew that it was true.

She took a breath and leaned against the wall behind her. She was standing, of course. Her body didn't get tired although it was able to simulate sleep, both to give the last few grams of meat in her skull and spinal column time to rest as well as allay any suspicion in a target or attentive observers. 'The ultimate infiltrator,' Erwyn had called her.

She sighed and felt her breath disturb the air around her. Her body didn't get tired but her spirit was another matter. When she'd opened her eyes after what Drake would surely have called 'a week long nap in the baby goop' she'd felt it; a weariness, as if there was an invisible weight pressing her toward the ground. She understood why Drake woke gasping in the night or ran himself past the point of exhaustion. She understood what it was to be haunted by the ghosts of all her sins. On the other hand there things he could never understand no matter how hard he tried. He'd never see the confused and horrified expressions people wore when they realized she wasn't human, or see the way people she cared about looked at her differently after they knew, or know the distance between her and all of the people aging and changing around her. For that matter, he would never understand the distance between her and him, this man who tried so desperately to love her.

She'd smelled him in the air when the tank fell away. She'd seen the makeshift cot he'd been sleeping on. Her body had better olfactory sensors than the wolf she was named for and processing power to rival most top of the line computers. As such she knew almost immediately that it had been days since he'd been in the room with her. That realization both hurt and brought a tremendous relief. As strong, as capable, as magnificent as he was, Drake was also fragile. The source of his greatest strength was also his greatest weakness. He cared too much, too deeply, and too completely. Considering the way he'd grown up it was a quality that was almost inexplicable, and a facet of him that she loved the same way she loved sunlight. It was beautiful, warm and reassuring. Yet it could also be heavy, like a weight upon her that made it difficult to breathe. He needed her to be something that she could not be, that she never would be again. He needed her to be 'all right.' He needed her to be safe and sound and happy. 'He needs me to be a real girl,' she thought acidly and hung her head.

She took another breath and let it out again, again aware of the disturbance in the air, distantly aware of how the changes in microdensity caused by breathing could be tracked by sensors. Her heart was beating very slowly, too slowly to be mistaken for human, and she'd deliberately lowered her body temperature to fool any thermal scans of the apartment. She'd 'borrowed' this flat from Eduard Soyinka. Legally it was owned by a shell company three times removed from the man and existed solely to provide specific visitors with an invisible place to stay when in Argon City. She guessed that a forensic accountant tasked with unravelling all of Soyinka's finances could find it in a week or two, Legion in an hour or less, but for her, for the night, it was safe enough. It was luxurious, near the top of one of Argon Prime's kilometer high skyscrapers. It also hadn't been used in some time and smelled a bit like her family's summer cottage after it had been shut tight all winter.

Gin trembled slightly with the memory. In her mind's eye she could see the countryside. Green fields, endless evergreen woods, and deep, dark lochs and pools perpetually covered with mist, like breath made visible. She could see the pale, thin girl that once ran in those fields, vanishing into the mists to slay dragons or search for King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, to meet the lady of the lake and receive her own legendary blade and epic quests before returning home, muddy and exhausted, when her mother called. She closed her eyes and remembered falling asleep, snuggled up against her father's belly while he read or watched television and drank beer as the hours grew dark. 'Once upon a time,' she thought, 'before I grew up and was murdered.'

Just then there was a sudden commotion in the live feed from Parliament. She turned her head and watched the camera zoom in on a man's shoulder bag and what had just spilled from it. The bag belonged to Abelard Moray, a parliamentarian of sixty jazuras [80yrs] who'd spent most of that time in 'public service'. Despite being called a briefcase it was more a purse than a slim, hard box. Moray was seated near the stairs at the end of his aisle and had left the bag resting against the chair. Someone had just tripped on the bag. The unwary passerby’s foot caught in the bag's strap, tugged the bag into the aisle and tipped it over, spilling one very unusual item onto the carpeted stairs of the parliament theater.

The cameraman responsible for the feed was a true artisan of his trade. He managed to keep the frame centered on the horrid thing as it bounced down the stairs. Yet simultaneously he managed to keep the frame wide enough to record the reactions of the crowd. The item itself was hard to discern and yet immediately and viscerally repugnant. As the thing rolled and bounced down the stairs the other members of parliament leapt from their seats to press against their fellows as they recoiled away from the thing. A moment later the item reached the landing at the bottom of the stairs and rolled to a stop against the balcony railing. By then the bag, which was made of a cheap, clear polymer that she'd treated with a strong baking soda solution before placing it in Moray's briefcase, was sufficiently degraded that it split open, spilling Eduard Soyinka's head and blood onto the dark blue carpet of the Parliament chamber.

Maggie Hatcher, who had just been occupying parliament with her own opinions regarding a bill with too many moving parts, was still speaking into an open mic. "Interesting luggage you carry, Mister Moray," she said sardonically. The camera, which was by then completely zoomed in on the shrivelled, bloodied black head of Eduard Soyinka, switched feeds to show Abelard Moray. Moray, who normally appeared pale, chinless and myopic, now looked much like a corpse himself. His skin was a mottled grey color with yellow and pink highlights. His eyes and mouth were wide in an expression that could have been described as 'mortified' and still managed to be an understatement.

Gin took a slow breath and let it out again. Moray had been championing a bill that would have allowed more money into politics. Corporations would be allowed to openly donate more money to their chosen candidates. On the surface it seemed to be little more than political greed and, in Moray's case, that was probably true. Yet it also opened the door for all manner of political "investors" to leverage their candidates for favors. For Moray this meant taking and using great quantities of money from GEOSS. Newly promoted "General" Rik Erwyn was hard at work undermining the integrity of the Argon Federation from within. Because why bother with war when you can simply buy the government? Especially when the most vocal opponents of his chosen candidates had a tendency to commit suicide or have tragic and inexplicable accidents. Gin sighed softly through her nose. Ignorance was bliss they said and she supposed that was true. Yet she couldn't help but wonder if, at the moment they arrived at the slaughterhouse, the sheep wouldn't have preferred a bit more information beforehand. On screen Moray looked a little like he was having a seizure. She could see the protests and counter arguments tumbling through his mind as he wrestled with an undeniable truth he was desperately attempting to deny. His political career was over and, once the investigation began, he would soon find himself abandoned by his supporters, alone to defend himself against the convictions of the entire Argon Federation. She'd ruined him. He would never recover.

She turned away from the screen and looked out into the early evening light over Argon City. It was never truly night time here. The lights of the city could be seen from high orbit. Yet there was a golden quality to the light as the sun set in the west. Her apartment was so high that she could see both skyscrapers and clouds cast shadows across the city below her. In the very far distance she saw the city grudgingly give way to the rolling green hills and vinelands of New España and, to the south, the white seas of San Angelus. She could see the endless city traffic below her. Hovercars, which the locals called skycars or carriages, sped along in a complex geometric grid of interwoven traffic patterns, each moving quickly toward destinations she would never know, carrying passengers she would never meet. Each was a tiny capsule of life, a world unto itself, carrying the hopes, dreams, and ambitions of their passengers. Each held their own stories of triumph and tragedy, joy and despair, hope and desperation. Each contained normal, everyday people who mostly just wanted to live their lives in peace as they pursued their joys and once, so long ago, she'd been one of them.

In that instant grief assailed her. It came on like a sudden storm drenching her spirit in acid rain that wore away what was left of her humanity. On the surface her face remained still, composed, and as beautiful as it had been made to be. But within her that storm felt like the end of the world. It felt like she should have been looking at a nuclear tsunami of radioactive dust sweeping across the cityscape at supersonic speeds ahead of a shockwave that compressed the air itself into a wall harder than steel. Yet there was just the soft whir of air in the vents, the muted narrative of the alarmed newscasters on the holoprojector, and the endless hum of the city below her.

'Once,' she thought again, staring at all the countless lives below her perch, 'I was one of them.'

Sometimes her memories of life before felt so real. Other times they were like dreams she could only half remember. She had memories of listening to her mother laugh over a flour covered table, memories of her father's booming laugh and gentle strength, memories of those first, shivering smiles from boys that were just a little less than innocent and a little more than casual, memories of friends gathering in some dingy bar after college, memories of love and pain and hopes and sorrows punctuated by laughter and hugs and that strange, irrational belief that everything would be okay, that everything would work out right in the end, that the good guys would win and that there was a happily ever after waiting for her at the end of some distant rainbow.

Her breath actually hitched in her throat and a single tear spilled from her eye. Both took her by complete surprise. Her body had been designed to be buffered from her emotions just as her mind was buffered from any pain this body experienced. Anguish that would have most women wailing and covered in snot and tears would barely touch her face. She wiped the tear from her cheek and stared at the wetness on her fingers. She wondered if those buffers were breaking down.

'Robot girl need maintenance?' she thought bitterly.

Across the room one window of the holographic projector was showing Parliament security, a detachment of the Argon 109th Marine battalion, rushing in to secure Eduard Soyinka's head and the bag it had been carried in. It couldn't have worked out any better, she thought. The images of the man's head tumbling down the Parliament stairs would spread throughout the entire Federation. It would spark investigation upon investigation. The bribes and payoffs connecting Moray to Soyinka would be discovered and the money would be diligently followed by investigators all the way back to GEOSS. The bill Moray was pushing would die in some back room, never to see the light of day. 'At least in it's current form,' she thought cynically. Ultimately Moray was just one man. In the grand scheme of things this was little more than a speed bump for the political corruption that was spreading from GEOSS out into the commonwealth. Erwyn no doubt had hundreds of operations running in the commonwealth, possibly thousands. Even so this was one vote the son of a bitch couldn't have, one vote that couldn't be used to leverage the Terran agenda. It was small, almost petty, but it was something, and she was far from finished.

"Do you feel me, Rik?" she whispered savagely. "Do you feel the ghost of the woman you murdered? Because she's coming for you."

As if in answer she heard the distinct, high-pitched whine of a .37 kilojoule electromagnetic plasma pistol. It came from the building's east stairwell, five floors below her on the opposite side of the building. Which meant they'd either been misinformed or underestimated her. Her eyes narrowed as she shifted her vision to peer into the thermal spectrum. She could see the occupants of the other apartments around and below her. They were making or eating dinner, reading or watching television. A young couple three floors down were having sex in a hot shower. And there, moving up the stairs in single-file tactical formation, was a group of red-orange blobs that she felt sure was a Wakiya hit squad. She sighed, realizing that she must have missed a sensor.

'All right then, lads,' she thought. 'If you insist...'

********

S'jar t'Chk couldn't believe what he was looking at. Except he could. He didn't WANT to believe what he was looking at. And it didn't matter. Drakhar regarded him with such contempt, such disdain that S'jar t'Chk instantly felt the need to murder him. He tried to scream... but Artie wouldn't let him. Artie was focused on the sword in the man's hand. 'Get out of the WAY!' he roared. Artie heard him and fled into the darkness.

"Drake!" S'jar t'Chk snarled. "You ruined my PARTY!" he screamed.

"You had it comin'," Drakhar replied, deadpan.

S'jar t'Chk was fast. He didn't doubt himself or hesitate. As a result he was faster and more vicious than Artie ever could have been. In the blink of an eye he was at their desk. He pulled open the drawer with the knives and quickly began tossing them into the air, juggling them into readiness. Then, with the flick of a wrist, he sent one of the perfectly weighted blades whirling through the air toward Drakey-Boy's face. Drake was savvy, though, and smooth. Yet as the boy stepped aside t'Chk threw another blade, which Drake swatted away with his sword, then another... and the boy raised his free hand.

An instant later there was a pulse from the center of the boy's palm that made Artie's head hurt. All of the hair on his exposed flesh stood on end and moved in response to a strong magnetic field. He heard the last blade clatter across the floor behind him. "How did you do that?" Artie asked, astonished.

Drakhar neither answered nor slowed his step. A moment later Artie realized that Drakhar was close enough to put that sword through him with one good lunge. He promptly began backpedaling away from the blade. S'jar t'Chk fought him. The warlord wanted to surge forward and try to throttle Drakhar by the throat but Artie's fear was in control now. He feared the blade in the Drakhar's hand. He feared the strange power in the man's other hand. But most of all he feared the cold clarity in the man's eyes. Artie had never in his life known the simple clear confidence that he saw in his enemy's face.

Then his foot caught on the traitorous rug again and an instant later he was off balance and staggering. Drakhar took several quick steps forward and lashed out with his foot. He stomped on Artie's chest. The blow was far more powerful than it had any right to be. For a moment Artie was airborne. His feet were off the ground as he fell helplessly backward. When he hit the deck he did so lengthwise upon his back. His breath was knocked out of him and his head bounced off the carpet beneath him. His vision darkened and for a moment all he saw were bright points of light like stars in the black. When he opened his eyes he was staring down what looked like kilometers worth of intricately worked, impossibly sharp metal. Eyes like winter stared back from beyond them.

"Don't KILL me!" he screeched.

"Why the hell not?" Drakhar asked him. The man sounded just as grim and hard as empty city streets. The tip of his blade pressed into the soft flesh of Artie's throat.

"I know where Huritas is!" he wailed.

********

So...

...

... I didn't kill him.

I wanted to. I mean I really wanted to. Buuut... the truth is I feel I've a debt to Thane, a debt t'Chk is gonna help me pay. I know. I know. I was lookin' at the point of my sword pressin' into that crazy bastard's throat and it was all I could do not to think about Ricky and Sal. I mean I just know the two of them are gonna show up again and cause me all sorts of grief. And there was still an entire carrier full of lunatics that t'Chk could whip into a frenzy and cause me all sorts of grief. And I was thinkin' that if he ever gets a chance to stand in front of the Yaki council and spin his lies again it will invariably cause me all sorts of grief. And I was thinkin' that I really don't like grief. And that I really, really, really wanted to watch that crazy little shit's peanut shaped head roll away from his lifeless body.

But what can you do? Keepin' him alive just might give me Huritas. T'Chk claims to know where she is. But if not I can still make a very nice present out of him for Thane, who I suspect may currently be a little irate with me considerin' that I, technically, kidnapped his family. It's a good thing I got 'em off the Predator, though. When I had my sword to t'Chk's throat I didn't even know that, at that very moment, the Predator was engaging both of Wen Digo's capital ships.

********

H'nt was aware of all of it: the Brimstone adrift off the Necromancer's starboard side, his fighters chasing down and destroying the odd ship that managed to escape before Drakhar took the carrier, the battle for the complex as it raged a hundred kilometers away. He could hear his officers communicating with each other and relaying information to his other assets in Weaver's Tempest. Across the bridge Chinomu was barking instructions over the comm to direct her fighters against specific targets or warn them of specific dangers. He heard the frustration in her voice and saw it in her posture. He understood. The Brimstone belonged to them. S'jar t'Chk had been defeated. Now the battle was for the complex and she was here on the Necromancer's bridge instead of out in the dark with fire and thunder all around her.

H'nt grunted. Wen Digo was either another madman or a genius. Alone, even if the Night Clan took the complex they wouldn't be able to hold it. Between the bombers and missile frigates Drakhar would drive off or destroy their capitals, leaving him free to land marines and exterminate any enemy that landed. On screen the fighting was beyond fierce. The Night Clan corvettes were making prolific use of plasma burst generators and the fighters were attacking any threat to those troop transports with suicidal devotion. Thanks to Chinomu the Drakhar Enterprises susanowas were efficient, skilled and well armed but the enemy was literally flying into them or destroying themselves in the plasma from the corvettes in defense of those transports. Across the room Chinomu's voice strained with the notes of anguish.

"Ripcord!" she barked into the comm. "RIPCORD!" H'nt watched her look up at the sector map, searching for a specific plane. He watched her face first go slack and then harden as understanding crashed over her. "NOGAS," she said a moment later, and her voice was flat and emotionless, "you are now squad leader. You've got two enemy formations approaching your position from above their carrier. Copy?"

H'nt turned his eyes back to the battle. The Predator was fast enough to have paced the fighter squadrons on their approach and was smashing through the enemy formations with typhoon swarms and flak artillery. Meanwhile the Monster was just behind the Night Clan fighters and Wen Digo wasn't sparing the missiles either. H'nt saw both hammerhead missiles and firestorm torpedoes following the Predator. Commander Nedley was using the Predator's speed and maneuverability to maximum effect, though, and managing to evade the incoming nukes long enough for her goblins or MDM system to deal with the threats. And when the opportunity presented itself he hit back with tornado missiles.

"The marines are away, Captain!" one of his ensigns informed him.

H'nt nodded. On screen panther alpha was moving up behind the D.E. fighters to block the HUB. It was obvious that Wen Digo intended to use the Monster to clear a path for his troop transports. It was also obvious the fighters wouldn't be able to breach the enemy fighter screen or the walls of fire being used by the enemy corvettes. So, with all of the other players off the field, he looked up to F'ght and Ch't to let them know they were off the leash. Lucifer's idea had been a good one. By seeding the battlefield with jump beacons he had many tactical options.

"Jump," he told them. "Destroy Night Clan."

********

Longbones brought him another cup of tea. Thane told him to add a shot of rum. It had been a long day following a long night and he expected the coming days and nights to be just as long and sleepless. On the viewscreens over his head he could see the Necromancer holding station alongside the Brimstone. The Brimstone, herself, was all but lifeless. Her engines were dead and her windows dark. He couldn't see them on screen, at this range they'd be barely flecks of dust in the dark, but the sector map told him that the Necromancer's fighters were flying patrol around both ships. None of the ships were shooting at each other. The last of the planes to escape that carrier had already been destroyed. The Necromancer's presence and the absence of shooting told Thane that the boy had taken the carrier. Which meant that S'jar t'Chk was either dead or would soon wish he was. Which meant the Set'jak clan was no more.

As a student of history the significance of the moment was not lost on Thane. What followed this day would be forever different from what preceded it. S'jar t'Chk had been a part of the clans for nearly twelve jazuras. He'd been a clan leader for the better part of a decade. Huritas had been a clan leader for nearly two centuries. And in a matter of weeks this strange young man had deposed them both.

Thane had witnessed a number of significant moments in his life. He'd usually been able to predict the shape of the future to follow. It was that ability that had enabled him to rise to his current station. Now, though, in this moment, he felt like he was trying to discern the subject of a painting with his nose pressed against the canvas. He could see the globs of paint, the individual brush strokes, even the texture of the canvas itself, but he had no idea what the painting itself was supposed to be. He was simply too close, and the subject too large, for him to see it clearly. Would Drakhar rise to power in the void he'd created? It seemed likely considering the boy's accomplishments thus far. And if he did what would that power look like? What would the Yaki look like afterward? He didn't know and it worried him.

On the screens to his left Thane saw multiple angles of the conflict near what Drakhar called his "alpha complex." In them he saw the flare and fade of half a dozen explosions against the port and top sides of Wen Digo's akuma with numerous dogfights and ship to ship battles being conducted all around it. He felt a shiver run over him, prickling his skin into gooseflesh, and shuddered as he exhaled. 'Wen Digo,' he thought scathingly. 'What the hell are you playing at?'

Near the complex both of Drakhar's missile frigates vanished in brilliant flashes of light. There were simultaneous flashes to the west and south of the complex. Thane frowned for a moment before understanding. Drakhar's forces had deployed additional jump beacons. He took a breath and let it out heavily. It was impossible not to admire the boy. He raised his cup to his lips and found it empty. He turned to find a place to set it down and Longbones stepped out of the shadows with a tray. When he turned back to the screens overhead there were two more feeds from Jaden. One showed him the cobra far to the west. The other showed the minotaur far to the south. Both were spewing blue fire into the dark. It looked like Drakhar's forces had just turned the tables. The Night Clan would have to flee or be destroyed.

********

By H'nt's count there were nearly a hundred hammer heavy torpedoes and perhaps twice as many flail barrage swarm missiles inbound on Wen Digo's ships. In addition, the Predator had come about and H'nt could see the greenish yellow fire of a tornado missile volley from under her belly. The missile frigates were twenty kilometers to either the west or the south, with both above the conflict and shooting down. The Predator flew past the Monster, scoring a number of hits with her tornado missiles and the instant she was past H'nt watched her nose settle on the Wild. A moment later a long stream of swamp fire was directed at the carrier. The Wild's shields were still recharging from the hammer heavy torpedo barrage it had withstood earlier. H'nt made a quick count in his head and decided that unless she jumped away the Wild was dead. And just then Panther alpha's bomber joined the fray, sending a barrage of tomahawk missiles at the Monster.

'Time you go,' H'nt thought.

As if they heard him the two personnel transports jumped away just a moment later. The corvettes followed shortly afterward. Which meant the Night Clan's boarding operation had been abandoned. Then the tornadoes began making contact with the bow of the Wild and H'nt watched as her shield collapsed... 53%, 41%, 29%... until the missiles were blasting fiery holes in her armor. An instant later the Wild vanished in a brilliant flare of light. H'nt nodded. All that was left was the Monster.

H'nt watched as the tomahawk heavy missiles and hammer heavy torpedoes closed from two different angles. They were still ten kilometers out but closing fast. H'nt lifted his chin and waited, knowing the enemy would jump away. Across the bridge Chinomu was instructing her pilots that there were nukes inbound and to get away from enemy ships. There were still several dozen enemy fighters to contend with once the Monster jumped away.

H'nt scowled. The hammer torpedoes and tomahawk missiles were now within five kilometers of the akuma. The Monster hadn't jumped away. H'nt didn't know if it was an act of defiance, a salute, or something else entirely.

"What waiting for?" he asked his enemy.

Wen Digo seemed to be staring at them while his death approached. H'nt suddenly realized that in this one moment Wen Digo had the attention of every ship and station in the sector and likely quite a few out of it as well. At the last moment, just as the nukes were within two kilometers of his hull, the Monster finally jumped away. H'nt scowled at the space it had just occupied.

********

I was at the window in S'jar t'Chk's great room when Wen Digo's ships jumped away. I stood there watchin' as my nukes flew through empty space and found myself thinkin' about Ea't. I expect my friend to go on and on about how this was a great battle and an even greater victory. Normally Ea't's like distant thunder. He's loud and terryfin' but I only listen with half an ear to make sure that fury isn't headin' in my direction. Standin' at that window, though, it suddenly occurred to me that, had he been there to say it, he'd be right. I just taught the Yaki my name.

It was a familiar feelin'; giddy and high like I was kite or a bird or somethin' soarin' on storm winds. I remember it from Uranus orbit, feelin' like a god as I gazed down upon the destruction I'd wrought. I learned differently, though, hadn't I? Ride on storm winds and you're liable to get struck by lightnin' and hurled down into the earth below. But for now I'll take the win. I don't expect the Yaki will risk their ships and fleets in a direct confrontation with me again, at least not in the near future. There's nothin' quite like an avalanche of nuclear warheads to get your point across, is there? At the same time I've no doubt that these snakes will continue to come after my complex. Which means they're gonna continue to try and destroy me. They'll just come at me sideways when they do.

Standin' there I thought of how none of the clan leaders showed up to the council sessions in person. They all use these holographic projections of themselves. At the time I thought I understood it. It's a precaution against treachery. It's meant to keep them safe from one another. Yet it wasn't until I was standin' there on S'jar t'Chk's flagship watchin' my nukes fly that I really grasped the reality and necessity of it. The Yaki are a syndicate of pirates and thieves where the strongest and smartest rise to the top to dominate the others. From this moment on the clan leaders will always covet my nukes and will never stop tryin' to remove me from their road so they can take my factories. It occurred to me then that settin' up here may have been a mistake.

Now right then my marines were pacifyin' the Brimstone. Normally my standin' orders are to take prisoners when possible, but when I talked with him this mornin' Thane suggested that I don't. Not this time, anyway. You see right then he wanted me goin' through S'jar t'Chk's logs, checkin' his things, interrogatin' his staff and findin' all the secrets the crazy bastard had been plannin' on usin' to get me burned at the stake. Thane told me that I should kill S'jar t'Chk, find those secrets, and then craft my own story to deliver to the council. He then told me that I should ensure that there was no one in the Set'jak clan left alive to tell a story different from mine. So before we left the CIC this mornin' those were the orders I gave to Kao t'Kt, Seldon, and Gisler. Which meant that right then those were the orders they were followin'. Or, said another way, I'd ordered the annihilation of the entire clan. It's strange, though. In some of my more surreal moments I feel like I don't make any decisions at all. It's like the world is a flood and everythin' I do is done just to keep me and mine afloat a few moments longer, like everythin' I do is done because it must be done. Sometimes, though, sometimes I look at what it is I'm actually doin' and... I mean I just ordered the deaths of nearly three thousand people. I did that. And worse? I saw how to use those deaths to underscore the message I'd just delivered to the clans.

Meanwhile, I was starin' at Weaver's Tempest with Thane's voice bellowin' in my thoughts, tellin' me that I needed to be searchin' and doin' and scramblin' around in order to keep myself safe, that time was slippin' away, that the next wave is a mountain of water blottin' out the sky and that I needed to get my story straight and decide what I was gonna tell the council before that wave breaks and sends me and everyone countin' on me down into the dark and crushin' depths below us. Thing is, right then, I just couldn't bring myself to give a shit.

I stood at that window and drank t'Chk's scotch. I smoked one my own cigars that I found in a box lyin' open on the deck beside his desk. I watched my ships secure the battlefield. And I did not go searchin' through S'jar t'Chk's files for all the crimes he had me commit. I didn't look through his computer. I didn't search his apartment. I didn't have his officers brought to me for interrogation. I just stood at that window and allowed my thoughts to sort themselves out. As I did it occurred to me that I don't have a bloody thing to apologize for, at least not as far as the Yaki council is concerned. I didn't do anything wrong. I obeyed my clan leader right up until the moment I realized that he was playin' me for a fool, settin' me up to be destroyed, and usin' me to hurt the other clans. At which point I stopped him. I stopped him despite the fact that many of his victims were lined up right beside him when he tried to take what's mine. I stopped him and I stopped them.

Which is when the enormity of what just happened began to dawn on me. My forces just faced the combined might of nine Yaki clans and we had to pull our punches lest we hurt them too badly. Which is precisely when I understood why I didn't feel the need to scramble around in a panic tryin' to get my story straight. I've already got my story. All I need to do is tell the truth, and the truth is that I have no intention of bendin' my knee before the Yaki council. I have no intention of askin' for their forgiveness for anything. And I sure as hell have no intention of beggin' for their mercy. On the contrary, I was attacked by nine clans today. I destroyed two of them. Which means as far as I'm concerned there are seven clan leaders that should be beggin' me for mine.

********

"Seriously?!" Randall was stunned. Seldon could see it in his eyes. Pierce, on the other hand, was horrified. Ho t'Snt didn't so much as bat an eye. She, Frank, and Gisler had had all day to get used to the order, although in her case she'd done everything she could to simply not think about it. To her left she saw Gisler shift his cigarillo from one side of his mouth to the other and flex his jaw. "You've gotta be kidding me, Chief!" Randall stared at her. His face was wide open. Beside him Pierce just stared at the deck and shook his head.

"Those are our orders, Randall," she told him, sounding hard and grim even to her own ears.

"But... WHY?!" Randall demanded.

"It's not right," Pierce stated beside him. "It's not what we..."

"What isn't?" Seldon rounded on him and cut him off. "Thirty five mizura ago these assholes were ready to roast you over an open fire! If we'd lost then right now these filthy assholes would be invading the complex to rape, pillage, murder and steal! Did you see the slaves in that dance club?! Did you see the condition of those people?!" She waited for both of them to look at her. "They've been beaten! Raped whenever one of these pieces of garbage had an itch to scratch! That's the future these assholes had in store for you and every person you know!"

"I know!" Pierce held up his hands. "I know." Then he shook his head in disbelief. "It's just," he shrugged, "normally we try to avoid casualties."

She took a breath and tried not to let her own misgivings show in her eyes. "I know," she said. "But this time there are..." she rolled her eyes. Words were rarely her forte.

"Extenuating circumstances," Gisler provided.

"Yeah!" she said gratefully, then turned back to Pierce. "Extenuating circumstances."

Pierce met her eyes. "So," he asked her, "we're going to execute a couple thousand people because of 'extenuating circumstances'?"

She sighed. The truth was that she didn't like it any more than Pierce did. It hurt to even contemplate and she had no idea how she was ever going to sleep again. "Look," she said, "if we let any of these assholes get off this ship and they get picked up by another clan to be used against us then we're gonna be doing this all over again. Do you understand that?! This is war and we didn't start it, Pierce. Nine clans just united to try and take the weapons complex from us. If they ever do then it's a fate worse than death for tens of thousands of people," she jabbed a finger into his chest. "People under your protection! This is your watch, marine. Do you understand that? This is the hard line in the sand and we're here to enforce it!"

"But don't you want to be better than this, Chief?" Pierce asked her. "Don't you want to be an example of what could be? I mean most of the crew on this ship are just kids. They might behave very differently after they've had a chance to get clean and sober..."

"It doesn't matter," she cut him off. "What ifs and maybes don't matter, Pierce. Only what is."

Pierce opened his mouth to argue but Gisler cut him off. "You have your orders, son," the master guns told him. His smile was gone. His eyes and face were hard. "Are you gonna follow 'em..." his tone darkened, "...or not?"

Pierce looked from Gisler to her and back again. After a moment Pierce dropped his eyes. Then he closed them. Finally he nodded. "Say it," she told him.

"I'll follow my orders," he said in a monotone.

"Good," she said. "Then collect your squad. We move out in five." As Pierce stepped away she turned to Randall. He wasn't looking at her. "What about you?" she asked him.

Randall shrugged. "I'll follow my orders," he told her. "It's just..." he met her eye. "A lot of 'em are just kids, Chief." He met her eye and she saw the grief in them. "Teenagers."

Seldon stared at the man. "You've got your orders, Randall." She heard her voice. It was hard, cold, and unyielding. He sighed and dropped his gaze. Then he nodded, fit his helmet over his head, and made his way after Pierce. After a moment she realized Gisler was looking at her. She met his eye and arched one of her eyebrows. "Yeah?"

"You all right?"

She stared at him for a moment. Then she shrugged and looked after her two marines. "Yeah," she said, dripping sarcasm. "Just peachy." Behind her Frank slapped a fresh pack into his repeater and activated the weapon's charging system. It immediately produced an immediate electric whine that rose in pitch until it left the range of human hearing. She glanced at the big Split who looked back with a stare as simple and true as an ethanol flame.

"A lot of 'em are still trapped in big compartments," Gisler said beside her. "We take away their air and they just go to sleep..."

"And never wake up," she finished for him.

"Here," he said and offered her a flask. She scowled at it and then him. "Go on," he told her. "It'll help," he promised.

She sighed. Then she took the flask and a moment later downed a swig. A few mizura later she ordered a sixteen jazura old kid named Dal Gilharno to cut the air to both of the Brimstone's deck four berthing compartments, effectively euthanizing nearly a hundred and twenty people. Gisler was wrong. It didn't help.

********

"Creep mousey creep..." Sparky whispered to himself. He could barely hear his own voice over the chattering of his teeth. He was shaking so badly that it was hard to breathe. The Brimstone's corridors were once more the stuff of nightmares. Only this time Sparky wasn't looking at them through a monitor.

"Creep mousey creep..." He'd been forced to flee his lab when Drakey-Boy's marines killed his guards and started cutting their way through his hatch. Sparky was small so at first he fled into the jefferies tubes, expecting to find safety in the cramped spaces. But in the tubes he found that many of his shipmates had the same idea, and shortly after that he learned that the marines were wise to them.

"The old cat lies asleep..." He'd just reached a corner and looked left, then right and saw that there were three muscleboys cowering a dozen meters or so down the tube ahead of him. They hadn't seen him and since he'd learned a long time ago to never trust people bigger and stronger than he was he'd eased back into the corridor behind him. Which is precisely when he heard the high-pitched whirring.

"The old cat lies asleep..." In that cramped little tube he froze and tried not to breathe. He'd seen the tell-tale flickering of a tiny LADAR system and knew instantly that there was a tracker drone around the bend. A moment later he'd heard the muscleboys shouting and trying to scramble away. The drone swept down on them, whirring around a pulsating alarm that rapidly cycled up in pitch and frequency. Sparky covered his ears just as that pulsing became a single constant tone. An instant later the thing exploded. When he lowered his hands the muscleboys were silent. He didn't want to look but he did anyway. Now he couldn't stop. The image was burned into his mind like a brand. What he'd seen wasn't human or anymore. Instead it was just scraps of meat waiting for a butcher.

"But take great care if her whiskers twitch.." After that he left the tubes to travel through the main corridors, but the going was difficult. The sound of gunfire was like thunder around every corner and it was punctuated by the horrified screams of his shipmates. He could smell the blood, piss, and shit of the dying. He could smell the sour stench of fear and the sharp ozone odor of the enemy's weapons. There was a thick, choking fog in places that made him gag as his nose and throat swelled up and his eyes clouded with burning tears. Corpses littered the deck and all too often seemed to reach out to trip him. But worst of all he'd gotten lost.

"Very great care if her whiskers twitch.." The Brimstone was a shuri class carrier nearly three kilometers in length, half a kilometer in diameter and Sparky had rarely travelled very far from the crowded and cluttered compartment that served as both his lab and his quarters. Before fleeing that space he'd seen that the enemy was shooting down ships and escape pods. He'd thought of a plan for getting off the ship but to execute it he needed to first find an EVA suit and then locate a shielded cargo crate that could be jettisoned from the ship. He knew where to get both, in theory at least. He knew where they were supposed to be. He'd written the compartment identification numbers on his arm. But travelling through the ship was very different from looking at a map. Whole sections had been cut off. Hatches were sealed and refused to open. The frame and hatch identification numbers meant to guide a traveller had, in many cases, been obscured by graffiti. But worst of all were the marines.

"Take great care if her whiskers twitch..." They were faceless, black armored killers moving through the ship. They moved in groups of four, maintaining tight little formations that managed to cover all directions at once. When sat at his desk and watching those squads through the monitors he'd thought they looked funny, walking sideways and backwards the way they did. Now, though? Now he was out in these blood red corridors that reeked of filth and death. Now he was gagging and choking on the acrid fumes of tear gas. Now the sight of one of those squads meant death. Just the thought of them was enough to make his breathing stop and his heart skip a beat in his chest.

"...and keep very still!" A few moments earlier he'd heard a battle ahead of him. He'd crept down the corridor to find a place where he could look and remain hidden. He'd found a stack of crates that had been set down weeks earlier and forgotten about. He concealed himself behind them and was able to peek through gaps in the stacks to see a section of deck four's main access corridor. A few dozen meters down the corridor there was a mob of perhaps fifty or sixty of the Brimstone's crew trying to overwhelm one of Drakey-Boy's death squads. They were obviously high on S'jar t'Chk's latest creation, which the clan leader called "Lust"; a hallucinogenic amphetamine attached to a powerful aphrodisiac.

As Sparky watched the crew surged out of three corridors at once. The marines promptly adopted a tiny back-to-back formation to cover all four directions at once. Every other man dropped to one knee, allowing all four to fire in a hundred and fifty degree arc. Their overlapping fields of high-volume plasma fire quickly turned the corridor into an abattoir. Sparky watched the marines shoot through the mob's front line to kill two or even three of his shipmates with one burst. He saw a man named Rufus blasted into bits after taking several four round bursts directly to the chest. The floors, walls, and lid of the corridor were quickly painted with blood and bone and bits of smoking meat. In just a few sezura the mob shattered. Its members turned and tried to flee. But Drakey-Boy's marines were on the hunt. They unfolded out of their turtle formation, spread out, and continued to pick off targets with terrifying precision. Pale blue pulses of light announced brief, four-round bursts of hypervelocity plasma. Each burst ripped a man or woman, Split or Paranid apart.

"Yes keep very still..." Sparky breathed, easing himself down into the shadows behind the crates. His heart felt like a panicked bird within his breast. He couldn't move, could barely breathe, and wondered if it was possible to die of fear. Three men raced past him, screaming as they fled the monsters behind them. In heartbeats each of them was perforated by twenty thousand degree plasma moving at ten thousand meters per second.

After the last of those three fell to the deck a shuffling silence descended on the corridor. Sparky wanted to close his eyes but couldn't. His body had stopped responding to his mind. Instead his eyes fixated on a part of the bulkhead in front of him. The edges of his vision darkened and the whole of his world focused onto what was directly in front of his eyes. A carriage bolt projected through the bulkhead less than a meter away from him. There was a washer and nut snugged down tight at its base. He could see the rust on the bolt, the nut, and the washer. He could hear the marines behind him. He heard their mag boots clicking along the deck. He felt his breath tremble in his mouth.

'Creep mousey creep,' Sparky thought, no longer able to even whisper. 'Creep mousey creep. The old cat lies asleep. The old cat lies asleep. But take great care if her whiskers twitch! Yes very great care if her whiskers twitch! Take great care if her whiskers twitch and keep very still! Yes keep very still.'

Just then he saw a flickering light on the rusty bolt in the bulkhead before his eyes. Rapid lines of light appeared and disappeared as a tiny LADAR system mapped the space around him. Sparky slowly turned his head and looked up at the drone hovering just a meter above him. Then a bright light shone against the opposite side of his face. He turned his head and saw a black armored shape looming over him. There was a bright halogen torch mounted on the underside of the marine's solid, weighty looking gauss repeater. That repeater was aimed right at Sparky's face. "Sorry fella," the marine told him, sounding grim and mechanical through the speaker in his helmet. "Nothing personal."

Sparky couldn't move. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't scream. There was nothing but the light in his eyes and he expected it to be the last thing he ever saw. Instead of brief flare of light followed by eternal darkness, however, there was a noise so loud that it overwhelmed thought. That noise was accompanied by a violent wind that knocked the crates over on top of him and set his hair and clothes on fire. When Sparky's senses returned to him he discovered that he was screaming. Then he realized that there was a violent scuffle taking place against the crate directly atop him, pressing him down beneath the combined weight of several much larger men. He heard the sound of another man screaming through a helmet mic while another whispered in a thick, heavy croon.

"Hush now," that whisper was saying. "Hush. Hush." Sparky heard a wet, tearing sound and the man in the armor stopped screaming. Then the weight vanished from atop him. The crate was thrown aside and a rough hand seized him by the arm. "Come on, bae!" the shadow snarled at him and Sparky looked up into the face of a ginger-bearded nightmare. The man was burned black and blistering. Most of his hair and beard was gone. And Sparky could see the feverish light of pain in his eyes. Yet, somehow, Master Arms Braun was grinning at him. "Up now, Sparky!" Braun bellowed directly into his face. "Whut say we get the hael outta heah? Ay, bae?!"

********

Now I do realize that despite my current feelin's on the matter I am still in Yaki space. And in the interest of remainin' in Yaki space and continuin' to do business in Yaki space I may want to avoid full scale nuclear war with my neighbors. So I did, eventually, push down that seething desire to see the seven surviving clan leaders what flew in t'Chk's armada upon their knees to lick my boots clean as a way of apologizin' for tryin' to kill me and steal my property. Then, after much deliberation and several glasses of scotch, I decided to meet with Thane. I expect him to yell at me until I stop thinkin' about huntin' clan leaders, exceptin' Huritas of course, who is still fairly high on my to-murder list.

So, since the Brimstone is currently defenseless, I had the Necromancer and Panther Beta flank us as I captained this behemoth up to Thane's shipyard. Along the way I used what was left of the Brimstone's former crew to let my brethren know how I felt about S'jar t'Chk's treachery, just in case they ever start feelin' similar inclinations.

********

Thane set his tea back upon its saucer. Then he levelled a firm glare at Nicodemus, whose image was up on the wall before him. "Tell me, Nicholas," he said, "d'ye ask about the boy's crimes because ye were actually convinced of them or merely b'cause ye wanted yer share o' the swag?"

Nicodemus showed Thane a thin smile. "Perhaps a little of each," he confessed.

"Well it's all lies!" Thane boomed. "S'jar t'Chk was a scheming madman and manipulated the boy from the start. He asked the lad here, encouraged him to build, and had every intention of claiming that complex from the very beginning. He ordered that boy to attack your interests and the interests of many other clans! He sent him against those he thought most likely to be outraged or willing to be deceived! Each task was meant to be a mark against him. Each one was designed to incriminate him. D'ye understand? Either he saw you as easily manipulated or greedy enough not to care. And now the boy has demonstrated to all the clans that he's not to be trifled with, wouldn't you say?"

"So you're saying that the young man is not, in fact, a bloodthirsty madman?" Nicodemus asked, continuing to play the fool. Yet Thane saw the truth in the other man's eyes.

"Aye," he said while looking at the other man askance. He was well aware of Mary Anne watching from the other open feed on the wall. "That's exactly what I'm saying, Nicky. The lad's shrewd and industrious. He's dangerous to be sure," Thane narrowed his eyes, "especially to those he thinks have wronged him." He spread his hands. "But is he a madman? Is he rabid dog? I say not! I've been working with him for mazura now and he's been making me a bloody fortune!" He grinned. "Often by sellin' me the captured ships of his enemies. So is he another Wen Digo or Huritas? Nay, I say. Nay. He's a businessman."

Nicodemus watched him shrewdly. "Your veiled threats are noted, Thane..."

"I veil nothing!" Thane cut the man off. "Cross that lad and make an enemy of him and you're likely to regret it! But would ye not say the same of yerself?!"

Nicodemus held up a calming hand. "Assuming that all of that is true," he said, "and that S'jar t'Chk is responsible for all of the acts Drakhar committed against the clans, that complex still represents a tremendous amount of power. The lad may be just a 'businessman' but you cannot deny that in the hands of any one person, no matter how reasonable they may be, that arsenal is more than a little disconcerting."

"Aye," Master Thane replied without missing a beat, "but would ye not rather the Yaki have an arsenal like that than be without one?"

"But is it the Yaki that have this arsenal?" Nicodemus countered. "Or only Drakhar?"

"Well," Thane replied with his best roguish smile, "he's been sellin' to me, Nicholas. Perhaps ye jus' went 'n picked the wrong side, eh?"

Nicodemus arched an eyebrow. "Perhaps," he allowed. "But, to clarify, what exactly has he been selling to you?"

"Whate'er I want!" Thane told him. "I bought one thousand tomahawk heavy missiles from him just this wozura! Along with twelve hundred hammer heavy torpedoes and an equal number of flail barrage missiles." He watched the other man's expression grow taught and pale.

"I see," Nicodemus said, then busied himself lighting a cigarette. Thane didn't bother to conceal the satisfaction in his eyes.

"You say the lad's reasonable?" Mary Anne interjected.

"Aye," Thane nodded to her.

"So it's safe to say he won't start pointing any of those big bombs my way after seeing me fly beside S'jar t'Chk?"

Thane frowned and thought about his words for a moment. "S'jar t'Chk was a liar," he said. "The boy knows this. He knows that you were lied to same as him. I can't speak for him but I'd say that if ye wanted to make peace with him he'd be willing to hear you out. Although I suspect the same may not be true of Wen Digo."

"Now there's a devious bastard," Nicodemus said with admiration in his voice. Thane turned his eye to the other man. "Did you see that gambit?" Nicodemus asked him. "What a move! If Drakhar hadn't seeded the sector with jump beacons I daresay that complex would belong to Wen Digo right now."

"At least until the lad drove off or destroyed his capitals and landed marines on the station to retake it," Thane pointed out. "Aye," he said sarcastically, "it was a lovely gambit."

"I suspect that particular man had a plan in place for that eventuality," Nicodemus steepled his fingers as he mused. Thane thought he sounded like a University professor. "We are talking about Wen Digo after all. He's as brilliant as he is ruthless, and from what I've heard your lad has a soft spot for the people he employs. Perhaps a threat to shut off life support or release a pathogen into that complex?"

Thane felt the smile leave his face. "Sometimes ye worry me, Nicky," Thane told him.

"Why?" Nicodemus replied. "Because I can anticipate the actions of others?"

"Nay," Thane said. "Because it comes so easily to ya. Tell me, could you do it?" Thane asked him.

"What?" Nicodemus replied. "Threaten to kill tens of thousands of people to secure an asset like that complex?"

"I was thinking rather of making good on the threat. Could you do it? Could you kill tens of thousands of people if the lad called your bluff?"

Continued...


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Scion Drakhar



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PostPosted: Sun, 23. Jul 17, 16:49    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

...continued.

Nicodemus thought about it. "I'm not exactly a sentimental person, Thane. Even so I expect that none of truly knows what we're capable of until afterward. In any case it's not my usual modus operandi, now is it?"

"So," Mary Anne interjected, "d'ya think he'd sell to us? Your lad."

Thane arched an eyebrow in reply. "I can't speak for him, Mary Anne. The only way to know is to ask him," he said. "Although... we are now several clans short, are we not? If Drakhar were to be nominated as the next clan leader and were you to support him? Well I'd expect that to go a long way toward soothing any hurt feelings the boy may still be harboring."

Both Mary Anne and Nicodemus looked up with concerned and slightly awed expressions. "You're going to nominate that boy for S'jar t'Chk's seat?" Nicodemus asked him.

Thane raised both eyebrows and put a hand on his chest. "Who said anything about me?"

"Oh don't be..." Nicodemus started

"I expect one of you to do it," Thane cut him off and then smiled at Mary Anne. "You know: as a way of lettin' bygones be bygones and seein' the water pass under the bridge'n all."

Just then there was a gentle rap at his door. Thane looked up and frowned. Gamen knew better than to interrupt him when he was conducting business. Yet Longbones was pointing toward the screens overlooking his apartment while wearing a grim expression. "I think you may want to see this, ser," the old man snarled at him. Thane turned his head and immediately saw that two of the great screens overlooking his central seating area were showing different views of Senator's Badlands.

'No,' he realized a moment later, 'it's the same view from two different places.' A moment later he understood. One of the feeds was from his shipyard. A long range camera was pointed toward the south gate or, more precisely, at the fleet flying north from that gate. The other appeared to be from a craft flying within that fleet.

Thane got to his feet and turned his back on Nicodemus and Mary Anne to gaze at those images. It only took an instant to identify the Brimstone. She was flanked on her port side by the Necromancer, who was cruising above the Brimstone's beam while one of the boy's new Panthers was holding station below and to starboard. Thane glanced at the other image and saw a flight of susanowas in the lower portion of the screen and the boy's hyperion vanguard flying vanguard. He looked between the two images for a moment and realized the second was from the Necromancer herself.

Thane willed his face to stillness but felt his jaw flex. Once he took the ship Drakhar was supposed to fortify his position and hole up in Weaver's Tempest. The boy was supposed to gather all the evidence he could from S'jar t'Chk's ship and computers. Then they would meet and take everything he found to craft a palatable story, something that would be easy for the council to swallow without losing face. That was supposed to give Thane days to lay the groundwork with the other clan leaders so he could control and adjust their perspectives and pave the way for the boy and his Phantoms to be made the next Yaki clan.

So what the hell was Drakhar doing flying the Brimstone across Senator's Badlands?

The feed from the Necromancer suddenly zoomed in on the Brimstone's port side. It took a moment but Thane saw the flashers beside the launch tube gates. A moment later those gates began to open and...

"You bloody daft bastard," Thane growled beneath his breath.

...bodies began floating out from the Brimstone's launch tubes. Before the enormous ship and the endless black behind them those corpses looked like little more than tiny dolls floating serenely in the void. Tens, then dozens, then scores, then hundreds of them floated from the Brimstone's tubes in a great flood of rapidly freezing meat. Soon there were so many bodies in the dark that he could see them in the camera from the shipyard like a great dark cloud spreading into the lavender and purple twilight.

'What the hell are you doing, boy?!' he demanded within his thoughts.

Except he knew. He even understood, despite how much it annoyed him. Drakhar had been used by S'jar t'Chk. He'd been played for a fool. Then he'd been attacked by the combined might of nine clans who'd banded together to try and rob him. He was angry and still young enough to show it. So he was making a statement that all of the clans were meant to hear.

"It seems," Nicodemus stated from one of the holo screens before him, "that your 'reasonable man' wants us to know what became of the Set'jak clan."

"So it would seem," Thane replied evenly. Then he turned and faced the other two clan leaders. His confusion was apparently written clearly upon his face.

Nicodemus showed him a thin smile. "The lad is broadcasting the images on an open channel."

"Is he now?" Thane rumbled. Then he managed a smile of his own. It wasn't an ideal situation, but he could work with it. "Well," he said, "all the more reason to put him at ease then."

"Quite," Nicodemus replied. He looked very much like he'd just bitten into something sour.

********

Mary Anne listened while Thane and Nicodemus sparred with each other. Nicodemus had already decided to support Drakhar. She'd seen the resignation in his eyes. The only reason he was stalling at all was to see if could weedle any concessions out of Thane. Unfortunately for Nicodemus the old bear had seen what she had seen and was deftly avoiding any promises while steadily manipulating the man into a commitment. Every so often Thane would look her way with a knowing twinkle in his eye.

Mary Anne reclined in her chair and let her eyes settle on the images between Thane and Nicodemus. Earlier she'd sent the Magnolia, one of her washi's, to the equipment dock in Senator's Badlands for supplies. The Magnolia was now holding station several dozen kilometers from the equipment dock with a long range camera trained on the Brimstone as Drakhar made his way to the shipyard. From fifty kilometers away it was impossible to see individual corpses. They were instead a great cloud trailing behind and away from the Brimstone, like an ink stain in the water. In Drakhar's feed she could see them tumbling and crashing into each other. Some collided with the Brimstone's shields and were disintegrated. Most just floated off to become flotsam in the sector. If pressed she'd admit that she found the notion of several thousand frozen corpses forever floating around Senator's Badlands more than a little disturbing.

'Quite a point you're making there, laddie,' she thought.

Just then Nicodemus relented. "Fine, Thane! Fine! I'll support him. But I want your help getting the lad to sell to me. I have several bombers that could make very good use of those heavy missiles." On the other screen Thane inclined his head. It was not a commitment but Mary Anne suspected Thane would help nonetheless... and make a profit doing so. A moment later Nicodemus was wishing Thane good night. Then he nodded to Mary Anne. Then he was gone.

Thane turned to her. "And you, Mary Anne?" he asked. He was smiling at her and looking smug. She held his gaze and waited. "Are ye willing to vote in the lad's favor?" he asked. "Ye know, as a way of letting him know ye're..."

"What's it to you?" she asked him.

Thane blinked. "He's good for business."

"Your business maybe," she said and put her feet up on her desk.

"My business is clan business. The more I have to work with the more ships I can offer, and better equipped too."

"I have enough ships," she told him.

"Do ye now?"

"I do."

Thane stared at her. She stared back at him and put a flavored toothpick between her teeth. After a moment Thane rolled his eyes and exhaled heavily. "What d'ye want?" he asked, sounding just a touch sullen.

"I want'ta meet him," she said. "Face to face and in person, like."

Thane lifted one massive furry eyebrow and created uneven furrows in his brow doing it. "Why?" he asked suspiciously.

"That's 'tween him and me, ain't it?"

Thane scowled at her while he tried to read her mind. After a long moment he sighed through his nose and nodded once. "Alright Mary Anne," he said. "I'll let him know."

"If ye want my vote, luv, ye'll do more than that. Make it happen, Thane." Thane's mouth was open when she cut the feed. She sighed heavily and closed her eyes. She was playing a dangerous game and wasn't even sure why. Thane was not a man to cross, yet another man held the key to mysteries she needed to unravel. She opened the top drawer in her desk and removed a beautifully made wooden box, with dovetailed joints and hidden hinges. It was small enough to fit in a pocket and only held one thing inside it, and that thing was just as much a mystery as the trail her father left behind him fifteen jazura earlier. She turned the tiny key that allowed brass hasp to be opened. Then she tipped the hasp up and lifted the lid. Resting in the folds of a silken cloth was a tiny black shell that once belonged to a snail. At some point someone had carved a delicate pattern of leaves and vines along the spiral. It was far from the work of a master artisan. In many places the gouges left by the knife or stylus had gone astray or dug too deep. But she could see what it was supposed to be and it was in that intention that she saw the beauty. She wondered what the story behind it was, what sensitive soul had created such a delicate thing and for whom?

After a moment she activated a very special communications protocol through her desktop console. It took some time for the call to go through. While she waited she wrapped the shell back in its silk handkerchief and placed it back in the box. Then she returned the box to her drawer, got up, crossed the room, and made herself a drink. When she returned to her chair her eyes settled upon another mystery, albeit a familiar one. Behind the glass doors of a cabinet across the room was a stone carving. The carving was roughly the size of a dinner plate, although nearly as thick as her fist. She'd never been able to find out what civilization produced it, nor even what species. And it was the only clue she had for finding her father. She took a swig of her rum and stared at it until Gil finally answered her call.

"Mary Anne!" he said pleasantly as his image appeared in the space above her desk. "How good to see you. I trust all is well?"

She met his right eye. She didn't like looking at the left one. "It's done," she told him. "S'jar fracking t'Chk went through with it."

The smile fell off Gil's face. "I see. And my son?"

"He's got a bloody bad temper, your son," she told him. "He destroyed the Demon and Balefire," she said. "Those are S'jar t'Chk's frigates?" He nodded. "Then 'ee took the Brimstone..."

"The Set'jak flagship," Gil nodded.

"Aye," she said and watched him. "Boarded it himself, I understand."

"Really?" Gil was impressed.

"That's my understandin', aye," she told him. He pursed his lips and thought about it for a moment. Just as he looked back to her with a question on his lips she interrupted him. "When he was done he threw the entire fracking crew from the airlocks."

Gil blinked and looked at her. He hadn't been expecting that. Mary Anne held his eye and waited. "He did what, now?"

"He killed three thousand fracking people, is what," she told him. "An' that's just the Set'jak clan. The idiot cap'n of one of those Teladi heavies was runnin' light in the fracking shields an' the Split your son has cap'n'n them missile boats o' his didn't bother to check fore they launched their torpedoes. So scratch another Teladi clan."

Gil was wearing a strange expression. It was mostly shock with a healthy dose of bewilderment tempered by a hint of fatherly pride. "Another clan?" he asked.

"Aye," she informed him. "Countin' Huritas and S'jar fracking t'Chk that's three clans your darling boy has done in."

"Huritas is far from done in," Gil replied almost absently. Which she suspected meant he'd been waiting on the edge of his seat for days in order to casually slip that into their conversation. When she didn't say anything for so long that it was obvious she wasn't going to play along he eventually looked up at her. She met his eye and continued to wait. Finally he laughed.

"You know where she is," Mary Anne stated.

Gil grinned at her and slipped her such a subtle wink that she'd almost missed it. "So," he changed the subject, "how is the Yaki council disposed toward my son? Are they planning a lynching?"

"Some would like to, especially after all the lies S'jar t'Chk told. And I doubt Abmanckusset is feelin' very friendly right about now. But the lad's been making the dockmaster rich, so he's got Thane's support. Which means he's got Mel fracking Gorda's support. Which means most of this lot won't touch him for fear of pissing off the two of them, especially after today." She cued up a video file and sent it to him. "He broadcasted this in-the-clear just a few mizura ago."

"What is it?" Gil asked.

"It's one fracking hell of a way to make a point, is what it is." She drank her rum and watched his face as he opened the file. It was a rare thing to catch Gil Jerigan off guard, especially when he'd been warned. Yet she watched his expression grown blank and saw his eyes widen ever so slightly. 'Not quite the darling boy ye knew, is 'ee now, Gil?'

After a few moments he looked back to her. "So what is the reaction among the council?" he asked.

"Don't know yet," She shrugged and took another swig from the bottle of rum in her hand. "We haven't convened. But I'm guessing it'll be a fracking mess. The stupid ones will demand the boy's head. The smart ones will stay quiet. And Thane will eventually get them all to see things his way."

"Any chance of the council acting against him?"

"After today?!" She let him know what she thought of that suggestion with just a look.

"You're sure?"

"He jus' used close to two hundred nuclear fracking torpedoes to fire a bloody warning shot across the bow!" she told him. "So yeah," she said. "I think I'm fracking sure."

Gil shook his head and concealed his grin behind a glass of wine.

"B'sides," she shrugged. "If Thane has his way Drakhar'll be the next clan leader."

Gil froze and for a moment he just stared into space. His face was utterly without expression. Finally he smiled, but it was a strange smile and Mary Anne didn't trust it. "And have you conveyed my message yet?" he asked her.

"No," she told him. "But Thane wants me to vote for the boy when he's nominated. I told him I needed to meet with the boy first." She shrugged and took another swig from the bottle of rum in her hand. Then she met Gil's eye. "He'll make it happen," she assured him.

Gil nodded and reclined into his chair. It was then that she noticed how tired he looked. His skin was pale and bloodless and there were bags under his eyes as if he'd been missing too much sleep.

"You look like shit," she told him.

"That's what I love about you, Mary Anne," he told her. "No matter how bad I feel I can always count on you to cheer me up."

She watched him and said nothing. After a moment he smiled. "The stress of my position," he said dismissively.

She lifted her chin and eyebrows.

"So," he said. "Was there anything else?"

"I was about to ask you the same thing," she told him pointedly.

"Aah," he said. "Of course." He lifted his glass of wine to his lips and then met her eye. "There's a scholar," he said. "His name is Doctor Ewan Connely, a professor at the University of Saratego on Montalaar..."

********

Shortly after droppin' the remainder of the Set'jak clan into the black I called Thane to let him know I was comin'. For the first time ever I decided to make him come to me. The argument was that I had subjects to discuss with him that would be easier said aboard my new carrier, not the least of which was the renovation of the carrier herself. But the truth is that for the latter part of this day there has been something movin' within me. Somethin' dark and unnameable. Call it hubris, call it arrogance or pride, call it ambition, but within the confines of my thoughts none of those names fit it, none of those names do it justice. To me it feels bigger than that, grander, and more ominous. It feels like I just shed some chain within my psyche, some attachment to a limited perspective that was, in turn, limiting me.

I find that there is this struggle within me. This need to cling to ideas and sensibilities that are necessary if I want to believe that, at my heart, I am a good person. A good man. But the question I've been confronted with lately is what does that mean? What is 'a good man'? I provide for my own. They may fear me but every last man, woman, Split, and Teladi in my employ knows a better existence in it than they would otherwise. Does that make me good? I love and I feel and I regret the evil I have wrought. Do these things make me a good man? I am responsible for tens of thousands of lives ended. Does that make me an evil man? I capture my enemies and make them my instruments. Does that make me an evil man?

Lately I find that, within my mind, the notions, the very ideas of good and evil have, themselves, started to unravel. They seem to be the result of perspective rather than some universal constant. The USC and ATF consider me evil but that's because I threaten their agendas. I'm sure the pirates consider me evil, but considerin' the source of that accusation I find it hard to take seriously. In short, though, the acts of one man are perceived differently by different people depending on whether those acts help or harm their own agendas. So, ultimately, the weight of my own judgment lies with me. Who am I? What am I willin' to see starin' back at me from the mirror?

I just destroyed two clans today and intend to finish the destruction of a third. Huritas will not escape me. I intend to continue my vengeance against the pirate guilds and see Gil Jerigan in bondage so that I might deliver him to Hayla. I intend to have my vengeance against the USC and ATF and don't know how far I will take that vengeance. Do I destroy their fleets? Their shipyards? Their factories? Do I bring the battle to Earth itself?

Sometimes I turn and look into the darkness within me. It already seems endless yet I can also feel it growin'. Earlier tonight I stood over S'jar t'Chk and stared at the tip of my sword pressin' into the soft flesh under his Adam's apple. I saw the madness in his eyes. It wasn't an act. It wasn't a ruse. His mind has broken. I saw two completely separate people fightin' for control of his faculties. One was cautious and fearful, a little boy wearin' his daddy's clothes. The other was rabid, a monster that would kill and rape and destroy just because it could. Seein' that I thought of the 'Blind God' again, that blind, stupid, senseless hunger within all of us. I saw that war goin' on within him, like snakes writhin' under his skin, and I wondered if that kind of madness lies ahead of me.

I used to wonder if all of this was a dream. If I was dyin' or in a coma back in Old City, bleedin' out or fadin' away from some wound I can't remember recievin'. If all this is just the result of a restless mind tryin' to either make sense of itself within an impossible situation or just deludin' itself with fantasies as the body sustainin' it wastes away. I don't anymore. I don't wonder about it for one reason: none of my dreams ever involved this much introspection. The ability to reflect, to doubt, to question, seem to be the sole province of a lucid mind.

But there is a far more terrifyin' idea that occurrs to me. What if the darkness within me is my madness? What if the anger, what if the fury and the rage I feel, the anger that sustains me, the hate that lifts me out of bed in the mornin', that drives me to make deals with devils like t'Chk, that drives me into the trade lanes and border sectors to pillage and steal, that drives me to offer my services to the powerful people in core sectors who can change the disposition of their respective societies, what if that rage, that fury, that wrath is allowed to consume me? To rob me of my reason, my sense, and my judgment? Would I even notice? It's a scary thought. Sometimes it feels like that darkness, that hatred is the only thing that keeps me together. Other times it's hard to see past it.

Earlier tonight I was ridin' that hate. I was lost inside it and I'll tell yah, it felt good. I liked bein' in the middle of the fight. Crazy, right? It was hell. Darkness and fire and a couple thousand Yaki all tryin' to kill us. But it was also somethin' else. Despite the fire and the blood and the death in every heartbeat it felt good, like ridin' the crest of a wave that just kept on goin', like perfect sex that stays right at the edge of an orgasm until it feels like the climax is everywhere. Our enemies couldn't kill us. They tried and tried and tried and just couldn't do it. I liked that feelin'. I liked how I felt like inevitability. I felt like finality. I felt like a god on my way to visit my wrath upon S'jar t'Chk and nothin' was gonna stop me.

Then one of my marines thanked me for carin' about his life, and the lives of his fellows. This from a man I routinely send into harm's way often for no other purpose than to further my greed. It shocked me. Contempt? Anger? Disdain? Those I could understand. But gratitude? It completely disarmed me. It slipped right past my guard and changed my perspective in a way that I was completely unequipped to defend against. In that moment I felt like I was darkness and all of a sudden this man showed me a light. It was so strange, too. I liked it. In the stazura since I've found that it matters to me, his gratitude I mean. Hell, if I'm gonna be completely honest I think the man's gratitude means more to me than his life does. At the very least I find myself secretly and quietly invested in preservin' it.

Shit. It's so strange. Everything I do these days seems like a paradox. I will send that man into harm's way again. I may very well get him killed doin' it. At the same time I want him to continue to be grateful to me for carin' about him despite the fact that I'm not sure I do. But I care about Seldon. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that I care about the way she sees me. I don't want her to think badly of me. I also don't want her to leave. But is it because I care about her? Or is it merely that I need her? I need her abilities. I need her competence. I need her to act as a centralizin' force for my marines. I don't know anymore. The only thing that's really clear is the darkness.

I hate. I hate the Yaki. I hate the pirates. I hate Gil Jerigan. I hate Ricky Machado. I hate the shotcallers behind the Terran military. I hate the gangsters I grew up with. I hate Leo Cobb. I hate my junkie mom. I hate and the hate is pure and simple. It's darkness and fire and blood and it makes perfect sense. But I can also sense that it's an abyss, an abyss I can fall into and never find my way out again. I just don't know if I care anymore. Last week I did. Last week I had someone to stay in the light for. Last week I woke up to someone I loved, someone I felt the need to smile for, to stay bright and shiny for. But now she's gone. She's gone and I'm empty and hate feels like an old friend.

Sigh...

Right. So, in any case. The Brimstone needs repairs. She is a magnificent ship but she's like a lady that was dragged into the dark and used in terrible ways. At best t'Chk's degenerates have been sporadic, inconsistent, and just plain absent when it came to the maintenance of this ship. At worst they were destructive. So while H'nt recruits a crew for her I need Thane to restore her to grace.

You know I look at the state of this ship and honestly don't understand how the man I met, the clan leader who invited me to become a Yaki, the clan leader with access to the information and intelligence that was just remarkable... how the hell did S'jar t'Chk degenerate into the creature that is now in my brig? How was he so blind to the state of his crew? To the state of his ship? To the state of his clan? How could he be so blind to the consequences of his choices? Did he honestly not expect me to fight for my life and property? For my life I simply cannot imagine how such madness could come about so quickly, or, if not quickly, then how secretly. I mean just two months ago that man sat across from me at his table and toyed with Gin and Kao t'Kt by knowin' secrets that I didn't even know. His knowledge was so complete that I still find myself wonderin' how he came by it. How did he know the things he knew? And how could he be so competent and clever then only to disintegrate into such reckless insanity a few weeks later?

I don't know.

Either way, I've asked Legion to upload himself into the Brimstone's computer. There he can help me both manage the ship and help me find any of S'jar t'Chk's secrets that may be useful to me, such as the source of the man's intelligence. Legion will also remain... err... aboard durin' the repairs and refit. I'd like to say that I trust Thane but hell, Thane himself told me I'd be a fool to do so and, after t'Chk, well, let's just say that trust is no longer a luxury I feel I can afford. Frankly, I'm amazed Thane agreed to come to me. He's an ally. I'd like to think of him as a friend. But we're both of us pirates, aren't we? And when it comes to men who take and steal to make their way in the world... can you ever really trust such men?

********

Thane walked to his window to watch the Brimstone approach. The sight of several thousand bodies floating in space refused to leave his mind. If he turned his head he thought he could almost see that cloud of corpses, like a distant puff of smoke in the twilight sixty kilometers away. He watched the boy's new conquest approach his shipyard and wondered what the future would look like. The only thing that was clear was that Drakhar would be at the center of it. In the space of just three weeks the lad had deposed a sitting clan leader, exiled her clan, and then proceeded to destroy two others, albeit the Teladi were obviously an accident. Yusmaeos was a penny pinching fool for running that mobile pirate base under shielded. For just a hundred and fifty five thousand credits, the price of a two hundred megajoule shield, her entire clan would have avoided destruction. Thane shook his head in disgust.

He'd expected the boy to destroy the Set'jak clan. He, himself, had encouraged it. Leaving several thousand loose ends alive in this particular political climate was simply too dangerous. What he hadn't expected was for Drakhar to not only let the rest of the Yaki syndicate know that he'd done it but to let everyone know what the consequences for fracking with him actually were. Thane shook his head and sighed. He admired boldness and the lad had that in spades. But dropping several thousand bodies into space, in full view of the rest of the clans no less, was something else entirely. It wasn't boldness or arrogance. It wasn't a cocksure smile on the face of a rogue. It was hate. It was a darkness upon the soul.

Thane understood that darkness. He knew the depths it could take a man to. He'd been swept away in that black tide himself more than once and left rivers of blood behind him when in its sway. Then he became a father. He didn't entirely understand why that had changed him but he did know how it had done so. Since the birth of his eldest son he found that there was a part of himself that was always aware of him and, later, of his other children. It wasn't long before he found himself weighing his every thought, word, and deed against the innocence and joy he saw in their eyes, wondering what they would think if they learned of it and finding that he meant to be a man they could be proud of. His daughters, in particular, had softened his heart. He wasn't afraid of his own strength, or to use violence when it was called for. But since the birth of his children he'd become more inclined to reason and negotiate with an adversary than simply go straight to war. In the jazura since he'd found that his heart and mind were less troubled, that it was easier to sleep at night and that his days were more enjoyable.

The sight of all those bodies had reminded him of what hate tasted like. He watched as that cloud of corpses spread out behind the Brimstone and felt the blackness of it filling his heart and blanketing the world. It was a furious emptiness. It was rage in the absence of faith and hope. It was the inevitable response to a world that seemed made of pain and loss. In such a world hate was the only thing that made sense. Thane rubbed Maggie's head and once more realized how grateful he was for his children. They'd never understand, not until they had children of their own, but they were his sanity. They were his faith, his hope, and his future. Before them hate filled the world. Since them it was like there was a light in his heart that was always with him. As he watched the Brimstone approach Thane wondered if there was a way to tether the boy to the light.

"Ser," Longbones addressed him from behind.

"Aye?"

"The captain of the Brimstone," Longbones snarled at him, "is calling for you, ser."

"The captain of the Brimstone, is it?"

"Aye," Longbones replied.

A few moments later Thane settled into the large, comfortable chair behind his desk with a contented groan. Maggie and Duke promptly lay down beside him while Fred and Mickey settled down by the door. The puppy was out in the apartment somewhere. Thane had recently noted that, unlike the others, Max often failed to follow him from room to room. He accessed the controls in his desk and summoned a holographic projection of the incoming feed from the Brimstone. A moment later he had a view of the boy's back from ten meters away. Drakhar was standing at the window in S'jar t'Chk's apartment. Beyond him Thane could see his shipyard looming a few dozen kilometers in the distance.

"Drakhar," Thane called to him.

The lad turned around and met his eye. The lad's eyes were cold and clear, yet despite having won the day there wasn't a trace of joy in them. "Thane," he replied. "I have something for you. Would you meet me aboard the Brimstone?"

"You have something for me?" Thane asked.

The young man smiled but it didn't reach his eyes. "I do," he replied.

Thane watched the man and thought about it for a moment. He thought of the cloud of bodies in the south. He thought of the wolf and the snow. He thought of hate and how easily a man could get lost in it. Then he thought of his wife and son, who he'd just been informed were aboard the DESS Nyx and would soon be arriving at the shipyard. And he thought of his youngest daughter, who always wanted him to pick her up so she could put her arms around his neck and kiss him on the nose. "Alright, lad," he said finally. "Consider me intrigued. I'll be along after I've seen to my family."

Drakhar nodded and cut the feed. Thane stared at the empty space left in the young man's wake. He felt his jaw clench and relax, clench and relax. Maggie put her chin on his thigh and his hand found the scruff of her neck and the soft spots under her ears. A moment later Duke and Fred joined her, shoving each other aside to push their noses under his hand. He smiled and felt the tension ease just a little.

He looked up at a single tone from his private elevator. An instant later all five dogs were scrambling down the stairs to greet whoever just arrived. Thane walked to the balcony in time to see his son swarmed by four of his five dogs. He heard the boy's laughter and smiled. Then he met the eye of his fourth wife. Mia was looking at him as if she was an eagle and he her prey. Inwardly he groaned. He was tired and the look in her eye was beyond combative. Outwardly he held her eye and grinned from ear to ear.

He heard her indignant, "Hmph!" from fifteen meters away.

*********

Sparky was miserable. The EVA suit was too big for him. Which made everything from breathing to basic locomotion a struggle. His torso was too small so the suit was like a shell with a loose nut inside, with him being the nut. Worse than that, however, was that he wasn't tall enough to properly wear the helmet. So the neck of the thing was snugged up directly under his chin and he had trouble seeing out of the visor. Meanwhile he was on his tiptoes to walk and couldn't manipulate the suit's hands properly. Which meant that he couldn't brace himself well enough to avoid tumbling about the interior of the cargo crate once the Brimstone jettisoned it out into space. Which, in turn, meant that he kept colliding with Braun, who was suffering from severe burns and in a foul temper.

On the upside they were headed in the right direction. Since the Brimstone had been completely still it had been a simple matter for Sparky to calculate which airlock they needed to jettison themselves from, how much air pressure they needed when the the outer hatch opened, and how long the trip to the marine training barracks should take. He'd even managed to tap into the telemetry from the several satellites the Set'jak clan had deployed a jazura ago and monitor their crate as it travelled. He estimated that they'd pass within ten kilometers of the station in roughly five mizura. At which time they'd blow the crate and use their suit thrusters to navigate to the station.

When he'd first suggested the plan to Braun the other man had been both surprised and pleased, and promptly pounded Sparky on the back and clapped his shoulders with enough force to leave bruises. Since then, though, Braun's disposition had darkened considerably. Mostly due to Sparky tumbling about within the cargo crate and crashing into him, which aggravated his burns. After the first of these collisions Braun screamed and cursed over their helmet to helmet radios.

"God DAMN ye, bae! Cain't ye contROL ye'saylf?! Don' ye know I'm DYIN' heah?!"

After the second collision Braun just screamed wordlessly as his burns tortured him. After the third Braun started to beat him while threatening to pull his oxygen tanks and let him suffocate. Which meant that Sparky was nearly as terrified sharing the cargo container with Braun as he was in the Brimstone's corridors with Drakhar's marines. It was during one of these beatings that their situation suddenly changed.

They'd been moving at roughly fifteen meters per second in the general direction of the marine training facility when suddenly the crate jerked and vibrated around them, then lurched sideways. Their momentum threw the pair of them into one wall of the crate, instantly causing Braun more agony which he was more than willing to share with Sparky.

"AAAARGH!" he screamed while punching Sparky's helmet.

Sparky, terrified of one of the seals breaking, began screaming back. "It's not my bleedin' fault, Braun! It's not my fault! Stop hittin' me fore ya kill me, damn you!"

"What the hell WAS that?!" Braun demanded.

Sparky checked the computer mounted on his wrist. It wasn't easy because of the limitations of the suit, forcing him to lift his left hand nearly overhead so he could see out of the visor. After a moment he heard a noise in his throat, "gulp!"

"Whut?! Whut God damn ye?! Whut's happenin' to us, Sparky?!"

"A salvage drone..." Sparky breathed.

"Salvage drone?" Braun echoed. Then his done darkened ominously, as if all of this was Sparky's fault. "Who's salvage drone?"

Sparky looked at the other man through several layers of transparent mylar. Braun was visible in the wavering light of Sparky's helmet torch. He looked both monstrous and completely mad. Sparky was afraid to answer him.

"Wayell?! TAEL me already!!"

"It's attached to the-ah... the-ah..."

"Oh bloody hael!" Braun grabbed his wrist and twisted it so that he could look at the screen. Sparky felt the bones in his forearm strain dangerously under the pressure. "Let mae see!"

"OW!" he screamed. "Let go, Braun! The drone's from one of Drakhar's ships, alright?! Who do you think it belongs to?!" Braun let him go and Sparky felt the immediate ache in his bones. "OW!" he screamed. "You frakking hurt me!"

"Aw get over it! Yer fine!"

Sparky glared at the larger man. He hadn't decided yet if being stuck with Braun was preferable to being dead. He really didn't like the man.

The crate shifted direction again and both of them were hurled into the far side of the thing. Again Sparky collided with the big man and again Braun decided to take it out on him with his fists. After a moment Sparky managed to shove off the exterior wall of the crate and float away from Braun, who continued to bellow with pain. Once free Sparky checked their location through the satellite uplink. They were moving toward a small cluster of ships in the shadow of Drakhar's complex and they were moving fast. They were moving so fast in fact that Sparky began to worry about the effects of slowing down.

"We should blow the crate!" he shouted at Braun. "We should blow the crate and use our suits to fly to the barracks!"

"Awrite! Do it, then!"

Sparky activated the tiny explosive charges to blow the hinges and clasps on the door. As they went off in the closed space it felt like the air became a hammer against the outside of the suit. Yet after the blow when Sparky opened his eyes the crate door was still in place.

"Aw, wael isna THAT jus grate!" Braun complained. "Ya'know, Sparky, if we're gonna tumble through the black in this can for the rayst of our lives, I can tael you now that I'm goona kael you fust!"

*********

Thane sighed with relief as the hatch to his apartment closed behind him. It had taken nearly a stazura [4.3hrs] to extricate himself from Mia's indignation. To say the woman was furious did no justice to the woman's temper. Even worse she managed to pry his destination from him before he left and summarily announced that she was coming with him to, "speak with this man who thinks himself entitled to board my ship, kill my pilots and kidnap my child and I merely because it is "convenient" for him to do so." Thane briefly entertained the notion of correcting her but a single look into those golden green eyes of hers put the idea right out of his mind. A field mouse would have better luck arguing with a hawk.

For the ten mizura [1/2 hr] that followed she demanded that he take her with him while he did his best not to further aggravate her temper. Meanwhile the very idea of putting her and her temper in the same room with Drakhar after the lad had dropped several thousand bodies into the dark and annihilated two clans sounded alot like a suggestion to light a match while stood in a lake of gasoline. He suspected the lad would weather the storm well but he didn't want to risk it, especially after the day the man had just been through. He expected that Drakhar was likely exhausted and enduring all the doubts and questions that were sure to be plaguing him, the questions of a troubled soul that only another king could truly understand. The lad was responsible for thousands of deaths this day and those ghosts would not go quietly. So Mia's indignation could wait. In the end he told her 'no' and meant it. The argument was over. His decision was final and he'd hear no more about it. Oddly enough the instant he did so she stopped fighting him. It wasn't over. He could see that in her eyes. But she didn't harry him about it any further. She did get quiet, though, and it was the kind of quiet that told him he might want to sleep with one eye open that night.

After that he spent some time with the two of them. He joined Aaric, who was happily playing with the dogs. When the boy did get around to talking it was obvious that he was very impressed with Drakhar's marines. He asked many questions about their armor and weapons and if Thane himself had such men in his employ. Thane answered the questions he could and told him he'd look into those he couldn't. Eventually the boy yawned and closed his eyes mid sentence, falling asleep between Fred's paws with his head nestled in the lion-dog's mane.

For a time he risked talking with Mia again. He asked her questions about her current projects. She answered him coolly, often with one syllable, and the arch expression she used to look at him let him know in no uncertain terms that he still had a great deal to answer for. So after a few mizura Thane carried his son to bed and then proceeded to seduce his wife. In his experience sex was the best medicine for a woman's anger, provided you were up to the task of wooing her. After she, too, had fallen asleep he slipped out of bed and then left his apartment to meet with Drakhar.

His dogs, of course, came with him and Thane smiled to himself when he saw the puppy loping along beside the others. He didn't quite understand why but Maximilian seemed reluctant to join the pack. Thane had owned many dogs throughout his life. Most found a place within their doggy society. Some, like Maggie and Duke, were alphas. Despite being the smallest members of the group they led the pack through ferocity and sheer determination. Leadership was their right and responsibility and they knew it. Others, like Mickey and Fred, were betas, gammas, and omegas. Mickey was a beta who could easily fall into the role of omega. The big dog was steady and supportive, good natured with a sweet disposition, who was always willing to help the alpha's lead while also being tolerant enough to endure the pack's aggression without complaint. Fred was the gamma, or pack protector. He tended to be on the outer edge of the pack, never at its center, but always vigilant as he watched for threats. Thane had only been attacked once in the presence of his dogs and it was Fred that took the idiot down. Max was still a puppy but Thane thought his role would have been clear by now. Yet instead of joining the pack and defining himself within it the young dog seemed almost indifferent to the rest of the pack. He followed Maggie and Duke but it seemed grudging. More worrisome still he tended to show Thane the same indifference. So it felt good to see him fall in with the others.

The trip from Thane's apartment to the end of the kilometer long docking arm where the Brimstone was docked took five mizura. High speed transport lifts followed by teleportation platforms cut the seven kilometer journey down substantially, but he still had to walk to the end of the docking arm. There he was greeted by a small contingent of Drakhar's marines. There was a brief discussion between his chief bodyguard and the lad's lead marine. After several moments the conversation began to get heated. At which point Thane remembered that, like Drakhar, he'd had a long day. At which point his patience evaporated and he stepped onto the Brimstone without permission. There was a moment of collective shock from the boy's marines accompanied by amusement from his own guards. One of Drakhar's soldiers attempted to bar his path and was immediately warned off by a single, booming bark from Fred, followed instantly by more barking and bared teeth from Maggie, Duke and Mickey. Max merely looked curious. Considering the armor the marine was wearing Thane doubted that he was in any danger from his dogs. The situation had escalated beyond the fellow's pay grade, however, and he quickly stepped back. Then, after a quick radio conference where they checked their orders, Thane's escort grew by three as the lead marine and two others joined him to lead the way through the ship.

Thane had visited the Brimstone several times since he built the carrier three jazuras earlier. On both occasions he'd been offended by the way S'jar t'Chk ran his ship and crew. It was haphazard, chaotic, and contemptible. T'Chk himself showed nothing but disdain for the all the mundane necessities of keeping a ship and crew healthy. Even so Thane wondered how it was possible for any man, let alone the captain of such a ship, to simply ignore the rot seeping through such a magnificent vessel.

The smell alone was ghastly, a combination of rotting garbage and organic filth that Thane didn't want to breathe long enough even to reach Drakhar, let alone day after day for mazura [months] or jazura [years] on end. It was so foul that he'd already decided that Drakhar better have a good reason for subjecting him to it. Then he stepped past a ventilation duct and smelled fresh clean air. He paused to take a deep breath and noticed that both his dogs and the soldiers around him were doing the same. It occurred to him then that Drakhar's crew couldn't tolerate the stench either. They were apparently prioritizing air filtration repairs.

Thane shook his head. Everywhere he looked the ship was in a horrific state. Between the filth, the lack of maintenance, the damage from vandalism and neglect and he imagined it would take several mazura for a good crew to clean and repair the ship properly. His crews and the shipyard drones could do it in far less time, of course, but he would charge for the service. And if Drakhar didn't have some very compelling reasons for subjecting him to this stench he'd charge a lot.

It took another few mizura to travel from the airlock to the captain's quarters behind the bridge. He had to walk because neither the teleportation system nor the ship's internal lifts were functioning. During the travel he routinely had to call his dogs back to him after they'd found a pool of blood or bit of meat. The ship was filled with grisly displays. Even without the bodies themselves it was obvious that a great many people died in these corridors. At the same time, however, he also noted many more examples of the disdain her crew had shown this shuri. The sheer indifference to the state of the ship was so contemptible that by the time he arrived at the captain's quarters he found himself thinking of the mass of corpses Drakhar dumped into the void with a new and grim satisfaction.

When he and his escort arrived at the compartment that had formerly been S'jar t'Chk's apartment Thane noticed that even here, in the most prestigious part of the ship, the crew had been allowed to profane and vandalize the ship. As he was shaking his head at the graffiti over the hatch Drakhar's enormous Split bodyguard met his eye and held it. After a moment Thane arched his eyebrow and the big Split nodded to him. A moment later the bodyguard opened the hatch to permit him entry. The instant the hatch was opened Max bolted through it. Maggie and Duke both barked once at the puppy before turning worried eyes on Thane. As he and the other four dogs followed Thane deliberately ignored the artifacts behind the storefront windows on either side of the corridor. At the end of the fifteen meter corridor the space opened up into a large chamber. At the center of that chamber was a raised throne and desk. Just behind that throne was a great window showing a view of what lay in front of the ship, in this case the underside of his shipyard. Standing in front of that window was Drakhar who was, by then, smiling broadly at Maximilian.

Thane was momentarily stunned. The dog was bouncing around, turning in circles and pressing his flanks against the boy all while yipping, whining, and wiggling incessantly. It was behavior Thane had been waiting for. It was the way close packmates greeted each other. It was the way the other four greeted him when they'd been separated from him for any length of time. It was the way his dogs greeted each other if one of them had been separated from the rest for any length of time. But it was behavior he'd never seen in Maximilian until this moment.

For his own part Drakhar was grinning and this time it did reach his eyes. The chill weariness Thane had observed in the man's face was retreating and Thane once again saw the boy in the man, the same boy who had allowed his dogs to knock him down and cover his fine clothes with hair and slobber the first time they'd greeted him. He saw the delight and the innocence in the young man's eyes and as he did he felt a slow tingling wave move over him.

Drakhar looked up as he saw Thane and the smile was bright on his face. "Thane," he said warmly and Max shoved his nose toward the boy's face and licked him from chin to eyebrows. Drakhar roared and shoved the dog away, then ended up laughing as Max bounced back and dropped onto his forelegs with a thunderous bark. The puppy's rump was high behind him and his enormous tail was waggling playfully.

Thane watched, feeling strange and quiet. He felt Maggie shove her nose under his hand and he smiled at her as he rubbed her head. Then he looked back at the boy and the puppy. After a moment he sighed. "I've never seen him behave that way," he admitted.

"What way?" Drakhar was on his haunches by then, holding the puppy's cheeks in either hand to avoid being slobbered on any further. Fred and Mickey were halfway across the room and looking back and forth between Thane and the boy. Maggie and Duke were both by his side wiggling and watching him soulfully.

Thane shook his head, knowing the lad didn't see it. "Why am I here, Drakhar?" he asked, unable to keep the anger out of his voice.

Drakhar heard it and looked up. Max never so much as looked in his direction. "My apologies, Thane," the lad said and even though Thane wasn't looking directly at him he saw the lad's guard slip back into place. The light in the lad's eyes slipped away as the concerns of duty and responsibility settled back into place.

Then Max lunged forward and barked again, forcing Drakhar's attention back to him, and just for an instant the light returned. A smile slipped back out from behind the seriousness. Then Drakhar forced a frown onto his face. "No," he said, just once and softly. It wasn't meant for Thane's ears but he heard it anyway. The puppy barked once more, then licked his chops. A moment later the big dog settled down onto his belly and watched the boy adoringly.

With that Drakhar turned back to him. "Sorry," he said, unable to keep the smile off his face. Then he came around the desk and down the steps. A moment later he stepped up in front of Thane and offered his hand. "Thanks for comin'," he said. Thane took the lad's hand and held his eye. "And-ah, sorry about the smell. I've got crews workin' on the air filtration and oxygenation systems but this ship is a mess."

"I noticed," Thane rumbled. "Bloody daft bastard lets his starship go to ruin around him! Can you think of anything more stupid?! What did he expect to breathe when he ran out of oxygen?!"

Drakhar shrugged.

"Can I assume you killed him?!" Thane demanded.

"Actually..." Drakhar began.

"Why the hell not?!" Thane demanded angrily.

Drakhar blinked and gave Thane an incredulous look. After a moment Thane looked away. He was feeling out of sorts and it was affecting his temper. "Can I offer you a glass of Scotch, Thane?" Drakhar asked him. "T'Chk actually has a fairly well stocked liquor cabinet. Including a bottle of fifty jazura old MaCallan."

Thane blinked and met the boy's eye. "MaCallan, you say?"

"Aye," the boy smiled at him and once again Thane noticed that it reached his eyes. "It was unopened several hours ago," the lad told him. "From what I can tell t'Chk preferred brandy or," he rolled his eyes, "other things. I suspect the bottle was just a status symbol for him. Much like," Drakhar gestured to the many fine things in varying states of disrepair around them, "everything else." He looked at Thane again. "As far as I can tell the ownership of a thing was more important to the man than the thing itself." Drakhar smiled at him again. "So, can I tempt you?"

Thane held the other man's eye for a moment before nodding. Several moments later the boy escorted him to a small seating area that Thane was sure had just been put together, for no other reason than that the couches were actually clean. A moment later Thane settled himself onto a very comfortable faux leather sofa as Maggie and Duke jumped up on either side of him. A moment after that Drakhar put a chilled glass with several fingers of amber gold in his hand. As the lad poured himself a glass and sat down across from him Thane lifted the whiskey to his nose and inhaled. It was a beautiful, silken nose with a pristine sherry character, filled with perfectly aged and flawlessly blended malt, with hints of fruit from faraway places in a faraway time. He lifted the glass to his lips and took a sip. It was almost impossibly smooth on the tongue, with very little burn. It felt unctuous with a honey-like thickness. He thought he could taste the hint of jams and berry preserves, of dried figs and dried apricots dipped in chocolate. After he swallowed the taste lingering in his mouth was reminiscent of cigar tobacco, cocoa nibs, dried cranberries and just a final, farewell eddy of woodsmoke.

He sighed as he opened his eyes and found the young man looking at him. "Not bad, eh?" Drakhar asked him.

"'Not bad,' he says," Thane grunted and raised his glass. "I'd say that may be the definition of a classic Scotch whiskey."

Drakhar smiled again and leaned forward on the couch. Thane looked down at the crystal tray in the boy's hand. It held an already cut cigar and cigarette lighter. "One of mine," the younger man told him. "From the House of Dreams, no less. I think you'll find it blends rather well with the Scotch."

"Huh," Thane grunted, but found himself pleased despite himself. A few moments later the two of them were both reclining on their couches, sipping their Scotch, smoking their cigars, and watching each other cautiously. "Alright, boy," Thane broke the silence. "Now that ye've got me all buttered up why don't you tell me why I'm in this depressing, foul smelling abattoir of yours."

Drakhar smiled at him. Maximilian settled on the couch beside the boy and stared at him adoringly. As the lad smoked and drank with one hand his other buried itself in the ovcharka's mane. "Well," he said. "The first is this ship. It's gonna need to be completely renovated."

"Aye?" Thane asked, wondering why that couldn't have been mentioned over the comm.

"Second," Drakhar gestured at the apartment around him. "S'jar t'Chk has a substantial collection of art." Thane glowered. Just the idea of how much damage had been done to the precious things around them was enough to sour his mood. Then Drakhar said, "I want to give it to you."

Thane blinked. "Come again?"

"I know almost nothing about art, Thane. I don't know the value of the pieces around me. I don't know how to care for them. I don't know how to restore or repair them. I don't know how to display them. I can't do any of it justice." He gestured to Thane with the tip of his cigar. "You can. You also have a number of holes in your collection thanks to an asshole that I should have murdered when I had him in my custody." He inclined his head. "So I'd like to give you S'jar t'Chk's art collection as a way of makin' amends."

Continued...


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Scion Drakhar



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Joined: 27 Oct 2010
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Location: Milky Way galaxy. Sol system. Earth. Most of the time anyway.
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PostPosted: Sun, 23. Jul 17, 16:50    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

...continued.

Thane grunted but said nothing. Without knowing what t'Chk had or how much damage had been done he couldn't begin to estimate the value of the entire collection, but judging solely by the pieces he could see on display in the room around him and it was substantial. Just in this room there were pieces worth tens of millions of credits.

"Third," the lad continued. "I want to give you S'jar t'Chk. I saw your face when I told you what he ordered me to do. I suspect that you'd like to discuss it with him personally. Say the word and I'll have him delivered to a time and place of your choosin'."

Thane shook his head, amazed. When he looked up Drakhar was wearing a confused expression and that expression tickled him. Thane opened his mouth and started to laugh. "Ye never fail t'amaze me boy!" Thane told him. "Every time I think I have the measure of ya, ye go and do something I'd never have seen coming!" He laughed again, this time from his belly. Beside him Duke barked happily and Maggie rolled over onto her back and burrowed her nose into his side.

When Thane looked back to Drakhar the lad was wearing a bemused expression. "So," he asked, "I take it you like my gifts?"

"Aye, lad," Thane nodded. "I do and thank you. Although with t'Chk, well, ye may have done yerself a favor as well."

"How so?"

"My wife," Thane told him. "She's furious. Wanted to come here tonight t'tell ye how grateful she is for ye killing her pilots and kidnapping her and our son."

Drakhar had the good sense to look unsettled.

"Aye," Thane laughed at his expression. "So ye can see how giving her t'Chk himself may deter her wrath. Let her take it out on the fool who gave the order to kill her instead of the lad who found a way to circumvent it."

"Why didn't she come with you?"

Thane shrugged. "I expected ye to be in the doldrums, honestly, and thought ye..."

"Doldrums?" the boy asked.

Thane chuckled. "It's an old sailing term, lad. Refers to calm waters with no wind. Without wind a ship of sails has no power. It's adrift, listless and still. Too long without wind the sailors trapped on such a ship die of thirst or starvation."

"And how does that...?"

"I know what a battle like the one ye faced today can do to the spirit," Thane told him. "I know the questions it can raise, the doubts it can inspire. I'm also amazed that ye're not already passed out from exhaustion. Personally I find people trying to kill me to be very tiresome."

Drakhar blinked and stared at him, immediately grasping both edges of Thane's quip. Thane chuckled and a moment later Drakhar joined him. Then Drakhar stared at the smoke rising from his cigar. After a moment he took a sip of whiskey. Then he glanced back to Thane. "I am tired," he admitted. Then his eyes grew so hard and so dark so quickly that Thane felt a chill run down his spine. "But I'm also angry," Drakhar told him.

Thane watched him and waited.

The younger man continued to watch the smoke rising from his cigar. "I'm gettin' very tired," he said, "of people thinkin' they can take from me without consequence."

'Aye,' Thane nodded. 'That's why ye let everyone know what you did with the Set'jak clan.'

Drakhar sighed through his nose, slow and steady and filled with black thoughts. Maximilian looked up at the boy and huffed! softly. Drakhar turned his head and looked at the puppy... and just like that the darkness was dispelled. The lad's eyes and face softened. His smile returned and he rubbed the big dog's head and ears until Max's tongue fell from the side of his mouth.

Thane sighed and took another sip of his whiskey. It really was exquisite. He'd tasted Scotches with more flavors, with more subtle flavors, with stronger flavors, with bolder notes in the nose, but he thought this was what Scotch was supposed to taste like; clean, leathery, smooth, with a beautiful peat aroma and delicate honey finish. He savored the taste of it for a moment. Then he glanced at the boy and the puppy and sighed again. Then he nodded to himself.

"Ye know," he said, mostly to take his mind off the decision he'd already made, "there is something else we need to discuss."

"Aye," Drakhar nodded. "The council."

Thane nodded. "D'ye know what you're going to tell them?"

"I was thinking I'd try the truth and go from there."

Thane snorted skeptically.

The boy met his eye. "I'm not going to apologize, Thane," he stated and his tone was adamant. "Nor do I have any intention of grovelling before them, and I sure as hell don't intend to ask for their mercy."

"Easy now, lad," Thane told him. "I understand ye're angry..."

"Nine clans," the lad interrupted him.

"And ye destroyed two of them!" Thane boomed. Several of the dogs looked up and whoofed! in alarm.

"That still leaves seven," Drakhar said, and his tone reminded Thane of a knife being drawn.

Thane took a breath and forced his own temper to settle. Then he gave the boy a firm look. "Now you listen here, lad. S'jar t'Chk told many lies, convincing lies. You were taken in by them! Can you really blame others for the same?!"

"I can blame them for pointin' their guns in my direction," the lad said softly.

Thane rolled his eyes. "So what's your plan? To hunt down and destroy seven more clans?!"

The lad met his gaze and Thane saw the darkness in them again.

Thane shook his head. "Don't be a fool. What are you after, boy?! Endless war? Endless battles that see you beaten and bloody at the end of the day? Endless vengeance? And what happens when the loved ones of your enemies come seeking the same against you? That's oceans of blood, Drakhar. It's pain and heartache and it never ends and never leads anywhere you want to go."

"So what? I just let those clans get away with tryin' to murder and steal from me?"

"Laddie I want you to listen to me now," Thane shook his cigar at the boy. "One of the clans that flew against ye today has already agreed to support you. Another probably will as well. I've also been cultivating support for ye with the Split and the Boron. But if ye show up spoiling for another fight ye're going ta UNDO ALL OF IT!"

"Who?" Drakhar asked.

Thane shook his head. "What?!"

"Who is willin' to support me?" Drakhar clarified.

Thane frowned and thought about it. He took several puffs from his cigar while staring at the boy. Finally he shrugged. Either the boy would see reason or he wouldn't. "Nicodemus has already agreed," he said. "Mary Anne O'Riordan will as well but wants to meet with ye before she commits. And don't ask me why! I've no idea. Just be careful when ye do. She's smarter than the pair of us combined, that one, and tends to keep her mouth closed and her thoughts to herself. If she's working an angle ye won't know it until she lets you. But she's a good sort to have in your corner. And I haven't spoken with it yet but Abmanckusset tends to be reasonable. Ye may be able to work something out with it, provided ye're willing to sell weapons to it, and if ye have Abmanckusset the other 'nids will likely follow his lead."

Thane shrugged. "Outside o' the ones that flew against ye? Well, strange as it may be ye've got the support of both the Boron and the Split. The Split respect your strength and the Boron respect your business savvy. If Kai t'Knt and Kunkli Fu vote your way the rest probably will as well. There's also Metricus Brano. He's another Argon. He's a little crazy but I expect that if you're willing to sell weapons to him he'll vote you in.

Drakhar fixed Thane with a very chilly stare. "Wen Digo?" he asked softly.

Thane took a slow breath and shook his head. "Nay," he said. "And I wouldn't trust a thing that black hearted bastard said anyway." He leveled a finger at Drakhar, waving smoke in the air between them. "You be careful with that one, boy. I'm of the opinion that there is very little true and deliberate evil in the 'verse. Just misfortune, stupidity, or simple, stupid ignorance. But Wen Digo? I think Wen Digo may be as close to real evil as any I've ever seen."

Drakhar watched him. It was obvious the man wasn't impressed.

Thane put his cigar in his mouth and took a puff. "You're going to need to present your case, lad," he said, "and that very soon. Right now most of the council knows only what S'jar t'Chk has told them. And as much as I appreciate the drink and cigar I think your time may have been better spent getting your story straight, and getting the proof of your story ready to be presented."

The younger man continued to stare at him for a moment before finally dropping his gaze. Thane saw it then; the exhaustion he'd been expecting, the weariness and the doubts and the questions the lad was asking himself about his very nature. It was actually a relief to see it. After the day the boy just went through only a man without a conscience would be without a troubled soul, and how could you trust a man such as that? He just hoped the boy was willing to set aside his hatred and anger. He understood the allure. He understood how they could keep the pain at bay and give one the strength to keep fighting... for a time. But in the end the price they exacted was too high.

After a moment Drakhar sighed. "Alright," he said.

"Alright what?" Thane demanded.

Drakhar met his eye. "I'll get my shit straight," he said. "I need some rest but I'll get to it tomorrow. I'll prove that it was all S'jar t'Chk. But Thane?" The lad's eyes grew hard again.

"Aye?" Thane asked, already knowing what the lad was about to say.

"Nine clans attacked me today. I destroyed two. That leaves seven." Drakhar lifted his head and stared directly at him. "Seven clans who participated in an attempt to kill me, steal my property, and enslave my people. I have not forgotten that and I have not forgiven it."

Thane exhaled heavily through his nose. Then he nodded. A moment later he groaned as he got to his feet. "I better leave you to it, then," he said. Then he waggled a finger at the boy, who stood with him. "But talk with Mary Anne tomorrow and hear what she has to say. Ye need the votes..."

"To become a frakkin' clan leader," the lad shook his head, sounding amazed.

"Ye already ARE a clan leader!" Thane told him. "Hell, ye're already stronger than most of them! All we're doing is making it all shiny and official. And for that," he poked the boy's chest with his finger, "ye need the votes!"

"Two thirds of twenty seven," Drakhar recited.

Well, two thirds of twenty four, now," Thane corrected him, then scowled. "We seem to be light a few clans of late."

Drakhar shrugged and showed him a wry smirk. "Survival of the fittest," he said.

Thane snorted. "Put your case together, lad. In the meantime I'll do what I can to pave the way fer ye." He pointed another finger at the lad. "But mind me! Don't ye show up angry! Angry is stupid! Angry makes mistakes! Ye show up angry and ye'll say things ye shouldn't! Ye'll DO things ye shouldn't! And get angry in front of those jackals and they'll make ye pay for it! Ye understand?!"

Drakhar stared at him for a moment and Thane knew the boy was wondering how many clans it would take for the Yaki to win that fight. It chilled him to the bone. After a moment the boy sighed and then nodded. "Aye," he said with a roll of his eyes. "I get it."

Thane nodded. "Good," he said. Then he clapped the lad on the shoulder. "Get some rest. I'll see ye on the morrow." With that he turned and headed for the exit to the compartment and the long walk back home. He was a few paces away when he heard Drakhar behind him.

"Go on," the lad said and Thane knew he was talking to the puppy.

He turned and looked over his shoulder. Maximilian was looking at Drake expectantly. As the boy tried to shoo him toward Thane the puppy took several steps away, looked at Thane, then looked back at Drake and wagged his tail. "Woof!"

Drakhar looked from the puppy to Thane and shrugged. The puppy looked from Drakhar to Thane, then back to the boy. Then he lay down on his belly. Thane took a slow breath and let it fill him up. Then he exhaled just as slowly. "It's all right, lad," he said finally. "I'll have some food and things ye'll need sent over. And tomorrow I'll put ye in touch with the vet on the shipyard..."

"What the hell are you talkin' about, Thane?" Drakhar asked him.

Thane met the boy's eye and gestured to the puppy. "Look at him," he said and the boy's brow furrowed. "LOOK at him."

Drakhar did. He turned and looked at Max. The instant the boy's eyes settled on the dog the puppy's tail began to wiggle. The dog's ears were perked up. His eyes were fixed on Drakhar. It was written in every line, every muscle, every hair on the dog's body.

"He's yours, Drakhar," Thane said. "Don't you see it?" The boy met his eye again. It was obvious that he didn't. "These dogs are genetically engineered for more than just space travel," Thane told him. "They're made to attach themselves to one master. For these here," he gestured to Maggie, Duke, Fred and Mickey, "that's me. But for months I've been at a loss with him. He never really joined the pack. I didn't understand it until tonight."

Drakhar turned and looked at Thane. His eyes and mouth were both open. Thane saw the shock and humility in the lad's face and knew it was the right decision. He nodded.

"Aye," he said. "He's yours. I should have known it the first time ye met him. He whines for nearly half a stazura [2hrs] every time ye leave." He took a deep breath. "Take good care of him, Drakhar. Do that and he'll keep ye out of those dark places in your soul."

The shock on the younger man's face couldn't have been clearer. Thane understood. The man was still young enough to believe that he was the only one wrestling with those demons. Having them pointed out by a stranger made him feel vulnerable, as vulnerable as a naked man in a room full of power tools.

Thane smiled and turned for the hatch. "G'night, lad," he said. And with that Thane left with the four remaining members of his pack.

********

There was a momentary sensation of falling, only instead of down Sparky felt like he was falling out. An instant later the sensation was gone and then he was falling. He fell nearly a meter onto the hard bottom of the cargo crate. He wasn't right way up to begin with, and inside the too big suit he had no way to control his fall. So he landed on his right knee first and then on his side. It was painful, but he was almost too grateful for gravity to care. Several meters away Braun also hit the deck in a heap and promptly began screaming. Before Sparky had the time to start worrying about whether he needed to worry about Braun, however, the doors to the cargo container were suddenly thrown open.

The first thing Sparky was aware of was the light. He couldn't see past the light. A moment later he realized that it wasn't one light but many, and the closest of those lights were moving. Then he heard the mechanical sounds of mag-boots and the creak of laminated ceramic and his heart skipped a beat in his chest.

"DON'T MOVE! DON'T YOU FRAKKING MOVE! HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM!"

The lights were mounted under the barrels of rifles. The rifles were in the hands of the same black armored marines hunting him aboard the Brimstone. Sparky heard a keening sound within his helmet. He never realized that he was the one making it.

********

Detective Jimmy Costa stared at the corpses again and again he shook his head in disbelief. He could almost see the events in his mind but what his mind was showing him didn't make any sense. The 'victims' were all well dressed, clean cut men who would have fit in well with the upscale residents of this building where they'd all died but none of them lived. Their clothing was local. Their jewelry and accessories were pricey enough to pass muster with the snobs who lived in this part of town. They were also all reasonably attractive.

'But not too attractive,' he thought, and not for the first time. 'You boys were made to fit in.'

"Jay-sus Christ on a pogo stick!" Ed Ranier announced himself on the stairs behind Costa. "What the hell happened here?!" Costa had worked with Ranier long enough to know that the old cop didn't expect an answer and probably wouldn't have listened to one had it been offered. The questions, and the blasphemy, were just part of how the old guy operated. Costa glanced over his shoulder and saw that Ranier had the perpetual cup of black coffee in hand, was wearing his battered, three day old suit, the same ridiculous, too-broad red and yellow tie that he'd been wearing for the past ten jazuras, and was rubbing the back of his neck the way he did when he was trying to solve a particularly troublesome morning crossword puzzle. "One, two..." he counted. "Just three of them?" he looked at Costa.

"Seven," Costa told him. "There's four more on the other side of the landing door." He snorted. "Looks like they were the trying to run."

"Shee-it. I think I'd run too," he said and gestured to the dead men littering the stairs. "Look at these poor bastards."

Costa nodded.

"All right," Ranier said. "So what do we know?"

"They're not citizens of the Argon Federation," Costa told him. "Facial recog, fingerprints, DNA samples," he shook his head. "Not a single match among them. They're well dressed, well groomed, and every last one of them looks like he could run a 5k in under twenty minutes."

"You move the bodies?"

"Only to collect fingerprints."

"So this is where they fell?"

"I know how you like to see the scene," Costa replied.

Ranier nodded and looked at the bodies on the stairs. Then he turned around and looked at the blasted craters in the walls around them. Finally he looked up and Costa watched him furrow the skin between his eyebrows. Then he looked back at the dead man at his feet.

"This one died first," he said and Jimmy nodded. "The assailant came up behind him, grabbed him by the mouth and..." Ranier bent over and squinted. "Broke his neck," he finished, sounding impressed. He showed Costa a significant look. "Strong and quiet. The guy never even knew what hit him."

"The next two went down just as fast," Costa pointed to the next one up the stairs. "I'm thinking this fellow heard his friend's neck break and turned to glance over his shoulder. There's a single entry wound above the collarbone, angled down into the heart."

"Huh," Ranier grunted.

"The next one managed to turn all the way around just in time to have his throat cut. The cut is so deep that if you look you can see all the way to the spine. By that time the four above realized that they were under attack and started a shooting retreat. We've got high velocity impacts there," he pointed to the series of blasted craters in the wall beside them, "there," the pointed high at the wall behind Ranier, "and there," he pointed at the ceiling above them, which was nearly three meters off the top landing, and nearly six off the landing Ranier was staning on.

Ranier shook his head, looking dumbfounded. "They were shooting all over the place," he said. "Like they were getting attacked flying monkeys."

"Oh just wait," Costa said. "It gets weirder."

"So," Ranier said and took a sip of his coffee. "We've got... seven, you said?" Jimmy knew good and goddamn well that the man had heard him, but Ranier liked to play dumb and keep everyone thinking of him as a fool. He'd been a cop for nearly four decades, and a detective for most of them. The number of cases he'd closed in his career was staggering.

Even so, Costa knew his part in the game. So he nodded. "Uh huh," he affirmed.

"Seven men who all look like they play professional sports," Ranier went on. "They're armed and..." Jimmy held up an evidence bag to show his mentor. Ranier frowned. "What is that?"

"This," Jimmy said while handing the older man the bagged compact black pistol, "is a point three seven kilojoule electromagnetic plasma pistol. It is made specifically for Terran USC special operatives."

Ranier's eyebrows went up. "Is it now?" he asked with raised eyebrows. "Well well, the plot thickens."

Jimmy grunted.

"So," Ranier said and took another sip of his coffee. Then he chewed on his lower lip for a moment. Then he looked around at the bullets again. Then he gingerly climbed the stairs past the dead bodies while trying to avoid stepping in the drying blood. Jimmy gave him a hand to help him up the last three stairs passed several bodies that had fallen in a heap. "So," Ranier said again once he was on the landing, "we have seven athletic men making their way up the stairs together. They're carrying Terran weapons and dressed to fit in. Then they're attacked from behind by someone stealthy enough to get very close and strong enough to break a grown man's neck. Then..." he pointed at the damaged walls. "That just doesn't make any sense to me. It's like their attacker was flying."

"Come on," Costa told him and led him through the landing door. Beyond it, in the corridor serving the six apartments on the floor, there was more gunfire and more damage. There were also more bodies. The first had been hit by repeated shots of plasma and was burned and blasted to a crisp. "Pretty sure she used that one as a shield to get close to the others," he said.

"She?" Ranier asked him.

Jimmy Costa met his mentor's eye. Then he pointed. A few paces away there were two more bodies in horrific states. Then one more several paces beyond them. The last was lying in a wide pool of drying blood. Both of it's arms had been removed from the torso. Jimmy waited for Ranier's eyes to open wide and turn back to him. Then he nodded at the ceiling.

"Hole-eee shit," Ranier said beside him. "I do believe that is a first."

Three meters off the deck, directly above the man with the missing arms, there were a pair of footprints from a pair of women's size nine combat boots crushed into the concrete ceiling.


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Sirrobert





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PostPosted: Sun, 23. Jul 17, 23:40    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Awwweeesomeee


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PostPosted: Mon, 24. Jul 17, 15:31    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Also poor Sparky. If he didn't already, that kid is going to have super PTSD after this.


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PostPosted: Mon, 24. Jul 17, 23:11    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Sirrobert wrote:
Also poor Sparky. If he didn't already, that kid is going to have super PTSD after this.


Lets face it. the poor lad has probably been running on pure adrenaline and fear for years now.


A GREAT chapter!
I can feel the rage just coming off drake like waves.
YOU attack ME!? and then i have to be nice to you!? hell no i want to BURN IT ALL, i want you on your KNEES

I can understand that feeling, Lets see if Drakey boy can reign it in.
The dog should help. hopefully..


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PostPosted: Tue, 25. Jul 17, 18:30    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Mmmmm.... delicious delicious chap--- a German Shepherd you say? D'awwww... Embarassed


... Just what Drake needed.


Edit 2: removed redundant edit


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PostPosted: Tue, 25. Jul 17, 18:59    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Thanks guys. Glad you like it.

Quick note, though. Max is a Caucasian Shepherd, not a German Shepherd. A Caucasian Shepherd, otherwise known as an Ovcharka, is a Russian guard dog and one of the largest dog breeds around and this one was genetically engineered to be a bodyguard for the Yaki dockmaster. Max is only about 9 months old and already ways over 220lbs. By the time he's fully grown he'll be around 280-300 lbs. Standing flat footed his ears reach the top of Drake's shoulders.

Here, to put him in perspective for you. This is the Ovcharka in real life. And THIS is how I see Max.


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PostPosted: Tue, 25. Jul 17, 21:04    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Right, one of those... That's not a dog. That's a war mount.
So now next to a giant Split bodyguard, Drake has a giant dog.

I'm sure there's a mythological or legendary example of a tiny kid ordering giant monsters around.
Perhaps a good source for a name of the Phantom's command centre. Assuming there is going to be a new official one. Like a carrier.


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PostPosted: Wed, 26. Jul 17, 03:20    Post subject: Reply with quote Print

Hey all, this is a test post to see if the thread is broken.

EDIT: It is apparently working fine. By way of explanation: Olterin said he wasn't able to reply. Hence the test.


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