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Seventeen-1

“It’s going to be light soon.”

The statement was more than simple fact. Coming from the young Marine corporal, whose left leg ended halfway down his thigh, the bloody stump capped with crude bandages that now reeked of gangrene, the words were a prophecy of doom. Like many of the others clustered around him, broken and beaten, he was beyond fear. He had spent most of the previous night taken with fever, whispering or crying for the wife he would never see again, the daughter he had never seen beyond the image of the hologram he held clutched to his lacerated chest. There were dozens more just like him crammed into the stone church, waiting for morning. Waiting to die. “They’ll be coming.”

“Rest easy, my son,” Father Hernandez soothed, kneeling down to give the man a drink of water from the clay pitcher he carried. “Conserve your strength. The

Lord shall protect and provide for us. You are safe here.”

“Bullshit.”

Hernandez turned to find Lieutenant Jodi Ellen Mackenzie, Confederation Navy, glaring at him from where she kneeled next to a fallen Marine officer. Her foul mouth concealed a heart of gold and a mountain of determination, both to survive and to keep the people who depended on her – now including these Marines – alive. Momentarily turning her attention from Hernandez, Mackenzie closed Colonel Moreau’s eyes with a gentle brush of her hand.

Another life taken in vain, Hernandez thought sadly. How many horrors had he witnessed these past, what, weeks? Months? And how many were yet to come? But he refused to relent in his undying passion that his way, the way of the Church into which he had been born and raised, and finally had come to lead, was the way of righteousness.

“Please, lieutenant,” he asked as one of the parish’s monks made his way to the side of the dead Marine
colonel to mutter the last rites over her cooling body, “do not blaspheme in my church.” He had said the very same thing to her countless times, but each time he convinced himself that it was the first and only transgression, and that she would eventually give in to his gentle reason. He was not, nor had he ever become, angry with her, for he was a man of great if not quite infinite patience and gentleness. He looked upon those two traits and his belief in God as the trinity that defined and guided his life. They had served him and his small rural parish well for many years, through much adversity and hardship. He had no intention of abandoning those tenets now, in the face of this unusual woman or the great Enemy, the demons, that had come from the skies. “Please,” he said again.

Mackenzie rolled her eyes tiredly and shrugged. “Sure, Father,” she said in a less than respectful tone. “Let’s see, what is it you guys say? Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned?” She came to stand next to him, the light from the candle in his hand flickering against her face like a trapped butterfly. “The only sin that I’ve seen
is you and all your people sitting around on your butts while these poor bastards,” she jabbed a finger at one of the rows of wounded that now populated the church, “throw their gonads in the grinder for you.” She saw him glance at Colonel Moreau’s body, now covered with a shroud of rough burlap. “She can’t help you anymore, priest,” Mackenzie muttered, more to herself than for his benefit. Moreau had been as sympathetic to Hernandez’s beliefs as much as Jodi was not. “I guess I’m in charge of this butcher shop now.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Jesus.”

Hernandez regarded her for a moment, taken not so much by the callousness of her words but by her appearance. Even exhausted, coated with grime and smelling of weeks-old sweat (water conservation and Kreelan attacks having rendered bathing an obsolete luxury), she was more than beautiful. Although Father Hernandez and the other dozen monks who tended to the parishioners of Saint Mary’s of Rutan had taken the vows of celibacy, he could not deny the effect she had on
him and, he suspected, on more than one of the monks under his charge. Even for a man of sixty-five, aged to seventy or eighty by a rough life on a world not known for its kindness, she was a temptation for the imagination, if not for the flesh. Hernandez did not consider himself a scholar, but he had read many of the great literary works of ancient times, some even in the original Latin and Greek, and he knew that Helen of Troy could have been no more radiant in her appearance. He could hardly intuit the heritage that gave her the black silken hair and coffee skin from which her ice blue eyes blazed. In his mind he saw the bloodlines of a Nubian queen merged with that of a fierce Norseman. Perhaps such was the case, the result of some unlikely but divine rendezvous somewhere on the ancient seas of Terra.

“You’re staring, father,” she said with a tired sigh. It was always the same, she thought. Ever since she was ten and about to bloom into the woman she someday would become, she had been the object of unwanted interest from men. The boys in her classes, sometimes
the teachers; countless smiling faces had flooded by over the years, remaining as leering gargoyles in her memory. The only man she had ever truly loved had been her father, who had been immune to her unintentional power: he was blind from birth, beyond even the hope of reconstructive surgery. Jodi was sure that the fate that had placed this curse on him had been a blessing in disguise for her and for their relationship. He had never seen her beauty beyond what the loving touch of his fingers upon her face could reveal, and so he had never felt the craving or lust that her appearance seemed to inspire in so many others. He had always been wonderful to her, and there were no words to describe her love for him.

Jodi and her mother had been equally close, and with her Jodi had shared her feelings, her apprehensions, as she grew. But while her mother could well understand Jodi’s feelings, she had never been able to truly grasp the depth of her daughter’s concerns, and in the honesty they had always shared, she had never claimed to.
Arlene Mackenzie was a beautiful woman in her own right, but she knew quite well that Jodi was several orders of magnitude higher on whatever primal scale was used to judge subjective beauty. Jodi was only thankful that her mother had never been jealous of the power her daughter could wield over others if she had ever chosen to, which she never had. Jodi had always been very close to her parents, and she reluctantly admitted to herself that right now she, Jodi Mackenzie, veteran fighter pilot of the Black Widow Squadron, missed them terribly. The priest’s appraising stare only made her miss them more.

“What’s the matter, father?” she said finally, her skin prickling with anger. “Did you get tired of popping your altar boys?”

Red-faced, Hernandez averted his gaze. A nearby monk glanced in their direction, a comic look of shock on his face. The Marines lying on the floor beside them were in no condition to notice their exchange.

“Please,” Hernandez said quietly, his voice choked with shame, “forgive my trespass. I cannot deny a
certain weakness for your beauty, foolish old man that I am. That is an often unavoidable pitfall of the flesh of which we are all made, and even a hearty pursuit of God’s Truth cannot always prevent the serpent from striking. But I assure you,” he went on, finally returning her angry gaze, “that the vows I took when a very young man have been faithfully kept, and will remain unbroken for as long as I live.” Hernandez offered a tentative smile. “As beautiful as you are, I don’t feel in need of a cold shower.”

Jodi’s anger dissipated at the old joke that sometimes was not so funny for those in Hernandez’s position. More important, she appreciated the priest’s guts for admitting his weakness with such sincerity. That, she thought, was something rare on the outback colony worlds, where men were still men and women were still cattle.

“Maybe you don’t,” she told him, her mouth calling forth a tired but sincere smile of forgiveness, simultaneously wrinkling her nose in a mockery of the body odor they all shared, “but I could sure as hell use one.”

Visibly relieved and letting her latest blasphemy pass unnoticed, Hernandez took the opportunity to change the subject. “Now that you are in command,” he asked seriously, “what do you intend to do?”

“That’s a good question,” she said quietly, turning the issue over in her mind like a stringy chunk of beef on a spit, a tough morsel to chew on, but all that was available. She looked around, surveying the dark stone cathedral that had been her unexpected garrison and home for nearly three weeks. Shot down by Kreelan ground fire while supporting the Marine combat regiment that had been dispatched to Rutan, she had bailed out of her stricken fighter a few kilometers from the village of the same name, and that was where she had been stranded ever since. She had never worried about being shot at while floating down on the parachute, watching as her fighter obliterated itself against a cliff face five kilometers away, because in all the years of the war, the
Kreelans had never attacked anyone who had bailed out. At least, that is, until the unlucky individual reached the ground.

In Jodi’s case, friendly troops happened to reach her first, but that was the beginning and the end of her good fortune. As she was drifting toward the black-green forest in which Rutan was nestled, the Hood, her squadron’s home carrier, and her escorts were taking a beating at the hands of two Kreelan heavy cruisers that a few days earlier had landed an enemy force to clean out the human settlement. After destroying her tormentors in a running fight that had lasted nearly three days, Hood had informed the regimental commander, Colonel Moreau, that the ship would be unable to resume station over Rutan: her battle damage required immediate withdrawal to the nearest port and a drydock. The captain expressed his sincere regrets to Moreau, but he could not face another engagement with any hope of his ship and her escorts surviving. There were no other Kreelan ships in the area, and Kreelan forces on the
planet were judged to be roughly even to what the regiment could field, plus whatever help the Territorial Army could provide. On paper, at least, it looked to be a fair fight.

But neither Hood’s captain, nor the Marines who had come to defend the planet had counted on a colony made up entirely of pacifists. Normally, the two thousand-strong Marine regiment would have been able to count on support from the local Territorial Army command that was supposed to be established on every human-settled world in the Confederation. In the case of Rutan, that should have been an additional five to eight thousand able-bodied adults with at least rudimentary weapons, if not proper light infantry combat gear.

Unfortunately, the intelligence files had contained nothing about the colony’s disdain of violence. But that was hardly surprising, considering that the information contained in the files was for an entirely different settlement. Only the data on the planet’s physical characteristics – weather, gravity, and the like –
happened to be correct. Someone had called it an administrative error, but most of the Marines had more colorful names for the mistake that was to cost them their lives. They were bitter indeed when they discovered that what should have been a comparatively swift human victory through sheer weight of numbers rapidly became a struggle for survival against the most tenacious and implacable enemy that humans had ever encountered.

Now, a month after the Marines had leaped from the assault boats under protective fighter cover from Jodi’s Black Widows, the proud 373d Marine Assault Regiment (Guards) had been reduced to twenty-two effectives, eighty-six walking wounded, and nearly five-hundred stretcher cases, most of them crammed into St. Mary’s. The rest of the original one thousand, nine hundred and thirty-seven members of the original Marine force lay scattered in the forests around the village, dead. Among the casualties were the regiment’s surgeon and all thirty-one medics. The survivors now had to rely on the primitive skills of the two local physicians
(Jodi preferred to think of them as witch doctors), plus whatever nursing Hernandez and his monks could provide.

The remainder of the population, on order of the Council of Elders and with Hernandez’s recommendation, had holed themselves up in their homes to await the outcome of the battle. Jodi had often pondered the blind luck that had led Rutan’s founders to build their village in the hollow of a great cliff that towered over the forest, much like an ancient native American civilization had done over a millennia before on Terra: it had been the key to their survival thus far. An ordinary rural settlement, situated in the open, would have forced the defenders to spread themselves impossibly thin to protect their uncooperative civilian hosts.

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Октябрь 27, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Оставьте комментарий

Chapter 7: The Mark of the Beast — 5

It was after that op that they pulled us back for a rest in the squadmod.

The next day, we were gathered around the tacsit console. “So this is the Hand of the Hand. I’m disappointed,” Snow Leopard said.

The Hand of the Hand was on screen, under interrogation back in Alpha Base. He was a very important priest of the Cult, second in rank to the supreme Hand of God, who was still on the run. CAT 23 had captured him by blind luck. The priest we had captured had been a nobody, but this fellow was number two for the whole Cult.

“He looks like a mildly retarded florist,” Merlin said.

“Except for the shredded chest,” I added.

“Plenty of kills,” Dragon said. “Wonder how many were babies.”

The priest did not look particularly formidable. He was a slight, shriveled old man with wet, expressionless eyes. His frizzy, thinning hair reached to his shoulders. He wore the Mark of the Beast on a medallion around his neck. He didn’t look like a mass murderer, but he certainly was just that. Somebody from CAT 23 was interrogating him, a young, brightly extroverted Legionnaire who spoke fluent Taka.

“But you must know the Book,” the Legionnaire was insisting, “the one Book of the Men of the Book, in which was written the coming of the Beasts.” I could understand most of it. Atom refused to give up on me.

“It is lies,” the Hand of the Hand replied, “all lies, written by the Unbelievers. We do not need the Book of Lies. Our book is the Road of Truth. God calls us through His Beasts. We need no book.”

“But have you read the one Book of the Men of the Book?”

“We do not read the Book of Lies.”

“I have not read it either,” the Legionnaire said. “I have heard it was full of falsehoods. And yet it is said that the Book speaks of the coming of God’s Beasts. Is it so?”

“I need not know what is written in the Book of Lies.”

“Your own book is the Road of Truth? Is it a book? Is God’s word written in a book?”

“God needs no book.”

“How do you know what God wants, if there is no scripture?”

“God speaks through the Beasts. It is the ending time for Sunrealm. All of our people must die. God wishes it so. It is our sacred duty to deliver all our people to God. This is clear. We need no book!”

“As a man of God, why do you not offer yourself to Him? Surely this would be a sacred act?”

“Of course. There is nothing that would please me more! But as a priest I am bound by my solemn vows. I must deliver my people up to God. If we priests were to offer ourselves, there would be no one to perform the ceremonies. It is a grave responsibility. We cannot be selfish!”

“You are an inspiration to your people. Tell me more about the Beasts. How does God speak through the Beasts?”

“What crap,” Snow Leopard declared, turning away from the screen. “That priest is the XO, and he doesn’t know anything. Nothing at all! He doesn’t know where the exos came from, or why they are here. All he knows is that it’s a great opportunity for him to slaughter all his enemies and live like a king.”

“Maybe he’s not telling all he knows,” Coolhand suggested.

“No, they’ve got him wired up. He thinks he’s telling the truth, but he doesn’t know anything!”

“Well, if he doesn’t know, who does?” Dragon asked.

“Probably nobody,” I said.

“There aren’t any Systies here,” Ironman said. “That’s becoming clear.”

“Then what are we doing here?” Priestess asked.

“We’re doing the Legion’s will,” Snow Leopard replied. “That’s what we do, gang.”

“Command doesn’t appear to know what it’s doing,” Warhound said. He appeared genuinely worried.

“Command knows,” Psycho laughed. “Command knows. It’s just not telling. But it will, when it’s ready. And I can tell you my safeties are off.”

“Beta, Deadeye!” The tacsite monitor spoke.

“Speak, Deadeye!” Deadeye called us from the nearby Taka camp in the forest. We had handed out comsets to some of our auxiliaries.

“The Lake People have come. They have left a gift for you.” He spoke in Taka.

Snow Leopard stood beside me at the console. “Ask him what kind of a gift.” He was suspicious by nature. All Ones were suspicious by nature. But I asked.

“It is a very nice gift, Slayer! I will bring it!”

“Meet him outside.” Snow Leopard turned back to the monitor, the green glow from the screens giving his pale face an unhealthy pallor. Even in Hell his skin had not tanned. The rest of us had been burnt brown, but Snow Leopard’s face had just turned purple and then the skin had peeled away. Now it was pale again. We had been very close, in Providence, but he had changed after they made him a One. He had more to worry about than the rest of us.

Coolhand joined me outside under a bright, clear sky. We were armed, but not armored. We wore whatever we pleased when on duty in the tacsite.

“A gift. Cookies with arsenic?” Coolhand speculated.

“We’ll have Psycho test it. He’ll eat anything.”

“I wonder if they know about explosives.” Coolhand smiled.

“We’ll find out soon.”

Psycho and Priestess drifted outside as well, curious. Psycho frequently hovered around Priestess, even though he knew she wasn’t interested.

Deadeye emerged from the forest, accompanied by a longhaired Laker girl dressed in a clean Taka tunic, young and quite beautiful. She carried a woven bag. Deadeye was grinning, his stabbing sword resting on his shoulder.

“She is for Longhair, Slayer! His girl. The Lake People send her.”

Then I remembered. This was the woman that Ironman had captured on our first Cult bust. We’d sent her back to her people. Her eyes rigidly fixed on some object on the ground, she stood silently. Obediently.

“Somebody get Ironman,” Coolhand suggested.

I went back into the squadmod and found Ironman on the weight machine, clad only in shorts, lifting.

“Ironman, I got something for you.”

He paused, let up on the weights, and brushed his hair back out of his eyes. “What’s that?”

“Outside. It’s a surprise.”

The girl went down on her knees when Ironman appeared, and bowed low. Ironman was speechless.

“She is yours, Longhair!” Deadeye said cheerfully. “You captured her. Now she is your slave.”

The word ‘slave’ caused a small commotion and Snow Leopard was quietly summoned. When he arrived, he pulled Deadeye aside and they talked for some time. It emerged that there was no easy solution. It seemed she could no longer go back to her people. She belonged to Ironman now, just as Deadeye said. Only it was not possible. The Legion had a thing about killing slavers.

Her name was Morning Light. Ironman took her hand and made her stand up. She would not look at him.

Snow Leopard made the decision. He looked at the girl, and at Ironman, and at Deadeye. “Well, she can’t stay in the squadmod. If she wants to orbit, fine. She can camp nearby. Deadeye, you make sure she’s set up right. Ironman…” he paused, looking into space. “You’re going to remain a member of this squad. When I call your number, you’d better be there.

“One more thing, Deadeye. She’s not a slave. If she wants to stick around as an auxiliary for Ironman, she can.” He paused, and made sure everyone was looking and listening before he continued. “But be perfectly clear about this. If her people feel she’s working off some sort of debt, that debt is over as soon as we move out of this area. When that happens, we expect her people to welcome her home.”

“Ten, sir!” Ironman seemed happy, although somewhat shocked. There were no guidelines for this situation. He was on his own. I did not envy him.

“So we’re into slavery now?” Priestess stood next to me. She did not look pleased by this development.

“Why, no…I think Snow Leopard is just trying to decide what to do.”

“This is very nice for you men, isn’t it? And what if I capture a Scaler man? Can I keep him?”

I could tell she was upset. “Priestess, the girl’s people won’t take her back. We have to do something with her.”

“The poor thing! I’m sure Ironman will make sure she’s nice and comfy.”

I decided to stop talking. It wasn’t going to accomplish anything. It troubled me. I expected more problems like this. Ironman’s girl was only the beginning.

Август 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Оставьте комментарий

Chapter 7: The Mark of the Beast — 4

“In the beginning was the sky, and the clouds. The People of the Clouds came from the sky. We fell from the sky onto the land, and could not get back.” Deadeye paused, for dramatic effect.

Several weeks had passed since we had captured the priest. We had just reached our position after a hard run from the ruins of the city. The Cultists would come soon, flushed from their hideouts by Delta. I was exhausted, and glad for the chance to take a little break. Half of Beta accompanied Delta, and it had been somewhat hectic.

“Beta, Element Two in position,” I reported back.

“Confirm,” Snow Leopard responded.

Deadeye continued with his story. “From the People of the Clouds, the Taka, came the Men of the Sword and the Men of the Book and the Men of the Mud. The Golden Sword took the Sunrealm from Chaos, and then the Ancients were no more, and the Men of the Book appeared. A thousand years of war, and a hundred years of peace, and then the Age of Chaos. Now the Men of the Book are gone, and the People of the Clouds are one with the Men of the Mud. We are now in the Ending Time for Sunrealm, and our race is doomed to die. The Beasts came from the sky, and they were written in the Book. They feed on our fears. The Cult of the Dead says our destiny is to die. But we Taka do not care for words. We live to kill the Beasts, and to kill the priests. I do not know any more.”

“Tell me more,” I urged Deadeye. “About the Ancients? Who were the Men of the Book? What did the Book say about the Beasts?”

“The Ancients were the Men of the Sword. They made the peace, with war, and the land turned green under the sign of the sun. The Men of the Book faced the Age of Chaos. I do not know what the Book says about the Beasts. I have never seen the Book, and I cannot read. You must ask a Loremaster.”

But there were no Loremasters any more, I already knew. The priests of the Cult of the Dead had inherited their world.

The priests used the wealth of their victims to enrich themselves and to buy the loyalty of the Soldiers of God, a professional standing army. It held sway over a vast domain, peopled by many tribes. The priests called it the Realm of God.

We had gone to work immediately to smash the Cult. We saw no need for any more sacrifices. We launched our CAT teams into the Realm of God, and the priests and soldiers quickly learned that there was no defense. The word spread about the return of the Golden Sword and the collapse of the Realm of God and the slaughter of the Beasts by the Men of the Past. The Taka offered unconditional loyalty and unconditional obedience. We would kill the Beasts, and free them from the priests and Soldiers of God. A fair bargain!

But from the Realm of God came resistance. Many Taka would not bend their knees to us. The People of the Lake and the Red Earth People and the People of the Dark and the Clan of the Heart, and many other tribes declared they would fight us to the death. No talk with Evil! They knew their fate—it was to die, in the mouth of the Beast. Their priests had told them so.

Our strategy was simple: kill exos, and win over all the Sunrealmers to our side. Our orders were to secure the planet, and that’s what we were going to do, Systies or not. Most of the 12th Regiment was on-planet now and that included all of the 2nd Company. Half of our forces went after the exosegs, and the other half dealt with the Taka. Beta got the Taka. I was happy about that, at first. Many of the Sunrealmers lived underground. They found the exos had difficulty cutting through solid stone and had fortified the underground after the exos had swarmed over the fortress walls above ground. The size of the exos limited what they could do in confined spaces, although they continued their efforts to break the Taka defenses. Apparently, the priests understood Exoseg tactics.

Our work was tiring and sometimes dangerous. CAT 24 had been lucky so far. Our closest call was Nomad. But he had been hauled back from the dead by the lifies.

And through it all, there was no sign of Systies. They just did not seem to be here.

“The enemy approaches, Thinker.” Sweety was whispering in my ears. My thoughts snapped back to the present.

“Soldiers of God,” Deadeye warned me. He loaded up his slingshot.

“Beta, Delta, we’re flushing your Cultists. You all set?”

“Delta, Beta. We’re on it.” I raised my E. They were on the scope, a whole gang of them. Why didn’t they just surrender? It was pointless.

“Priestess, Thinker. Where are you going?”

“Don’t bother me!” Delta had forced the Cultist fanatics out, and we’d mopped them up. It had been a nasty, violent operation. The underground Cult complex had been savagely defended at the cost of several of our Taka auxiliaries and even a few wounded of our own.

In the aftermath of the op, long lines of prisoners, just recovered from the gas, snaked out shakily from a dead city. The night was ablaze with searchlights and flares, aircars hovered overhead, and probes darted around.

Priestess was staggering blindly. I caught up with her as she was about to stumble into a tree. The limp form of a dead Taka girl was draped across her armored arms. Blood was everywhere, even smeared across Priestess’s faceplate.

“I’m so tired, Thinker. I’m so tired. I want to sleep. I want to die.”

“Don’t be foolish. Come here, over here, let’s get out of this mess.” I did not know where I was going. I stumbled over some equipment, and led Priestess past a flare and into a clearing. As gently as I could, I took the girl from Priestess’s arms and laid her body gently on the ground.

“It’s all wrong, we shouldn’t be fighting them. It’s wrong.” Priestess slurred her words.

“It’s right. We can’t postpone it. The longer the priests rule, the more Taka die. You know that.”

I sat her down on a bed of flowers. The night sky arched gently above us, full of stars. An aircar glided overhead, searchlight burning down into the forest. I could hear V bolts in the distance. Priestess slumped and turned away from the corpse until she lay flat on her back. We should have been working, I knew.

“Why can’t we leave them alone? Why are we here? There aren’t any Systies here!”

“We can’t leave them alone. We’ve been ordered to take this world. And we have to consolidate power as soon as possible. That’s Legion doctrine, and it’s also what our auxiliaries are telling us. We’ve got to wipe out these priests.”

“I don’t care. I’m going to sleep now.”

I was desperate and Priestess appeared to be going into shock. “Priestess, look. Look! The moon.”

It was floating just over the black tree line, a pale moon, rising in the night sky. I was so high on fatigue, it struck me then as the most magnificent sight I had ever seen.

“Yes, I see. I see.” Priestess propped herself up on an elbow. “Moon rising. What does it mean?”

“It means everything will be all right. Now get up!” And she did, with a little help from her Persist.

Август 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Оставьте комментарий

Chapter 7: The Mark of the Beast — 3

“The moon rises, Slayer. The blood will flow soon. Too many have died already. The priests are insane! The sacrifices do not stop the Beasts. The Beasts take only the living.” Deadeye clutched a short stabbing spear. A blazing sun was etched onto the blade. Neither the Clouds nor the Cult expected to survive the war with the Beasts, and I knew that Deadeye would like nothing better than to kill a Cult priest. But we needed the priests alive. If anyone could explain the presence of the exos, it would be the priests.

“That’s a priest.” Snow Leopard’s voice, whispering in my ears. I triggered the zoom on the E’s sight and panned through the temple. Shadows, movement, then a faint red glow. They had lit a fire. Suddenly I had the priest, no doubt at all. A naked torso, a black cloak thrown back over his shoulders, arms going up, pale eyes rolling back, wild hair, a great metal staff in one hand, a long dark knife in the other. We could hear someone chanting and voices murmuring, whimpering. Andrion 2’s moon glowed, a far-off silver orb.

“Ready for assault,” Coolhand reported.

“Hold a frac,” Snow Leopard said. “We need confirmation on these sacrifices.” We’d been busting cult raiding parties for weeks, but this was our first chance to grab actual priests. So far, we’d only heard one version of the story. Orders were to get the other side of the story by nabbing a live priest for interrogation.

“Snow Leopard, do you want them to kill someone before we move?” Priestess asked. I had thought the same, but was not in the habit of questioning our orders.

“Move up slowly, gang,” Snow Leopard responded. “Keep an eye on the priest.” We moved, keeping low, the tall grass whispering all around us, Deadeye close beside me. I tried to keep the zoom on the priest, but it wasn’t easy. The sky darkened, black clouds blotting out the stars. I caught glimpses as we moved up, the priest glowing red in the reflection from the fire. He stood behind a high stone table that had to be an altar. The chanting became faster, a rhythmic human drum. Moans and cries carried on the breeze. Shadowy figures appeared around the altar. A naked baby squirmed on the stone. The priest had one hand on the baby, the other held the knife high. Deadeye broke into a charge, without a word.

“Deadeye’s attacking,” I reported.

“Fire,” Snow Leopard ordered. “V only. Get the priest.” The night erupted with the fury of our attack. The derelict temple flashed with brilliant white V-min hits. The Soldiers of God scattered immediately, blown off their feet like targets in a shooting range, spears flying, black cloaks flapping, V-min bolts bursting everywhere. I fired into a group of five warriors as I advanced and they went down in a tangle of limbs. In moments, we gained the temple and the engagement was over. The Cultists outnumbered us greatly, but they never had a chance.

Deadeye had one foot on the chest of an enemy warrior. He pulled his bloody spear from the thrashing man’s throat. No one moved to help the choking Cultist as he finally let out a death rattle and grew still. Someone sobbed. Several Taka women huddled miserably not far from the altar, too shocked to move. Cultists were sprawled everywhere, stunned and twitching. A burst of auto v-min erupted to my right. Ironman and Dragon were clearing up some resistance. I saw a few stragglers hightailing it through the saw grass, auto V-min trailing them, lighting up the dark.

The baby’s body lay split open on the altar, bathed in blood, tiny fists frozen in death, its little pink mouth locked open in a final scream, eyes tightly shut. Too late!

“We hit the priest. He’s right here,” Coolhand reported, standing over a prone, shadowy figure.

“Good. Keep him away from Deadeye,” Snow Leopard ordered.

I found the priest’s bloody knife where it had fallen on the stone floor. The blood-encrusted altar showed the baby was not the first to die here. The priest’s staff stood grounded in a slot on the floor. I lifted it out and examined it. It appeared to be iron. A massive, circular design, an exoseg—Exoseg Gigantic Soldier—decorated the top of the staff. This was the Mark of the Beast, chilling in its simplicity.

“Let me kill him, Slayer.” Deadeye whispered desperately to me.

“We have to question him, Deadeye,” I replied.

He bit off his words. “Then come with me, Slayer. The dead await us.”

“Site is secure,” Coolhand reported. A few drops of rain hit my faceplate. Black clouds streaked past the face of Andrion 2’s moon. I followed Deadeye.

An open pit located off to one side of the temple was half filled with corpses, naked children of all ages and both sexes, their throats slit, their chests carved open, their limbs frozen in death. A forlorn group of Taka females gathered around the pit, crying and wailing, covering mouths and noses from the stench of death. It started to rain, fat heavy drops falling onto the dead.

“We’ve got your confirmation, Snow Leopard,” Priestess said quietly.

He did not respond.

“They are all Taka,” Deadeye explained. “They are all children. Do you see why we fight the Cult of the Dead? They are worse than the Beasts—they kill their own kind. Let me kill the priest, Slayer—grant me only that!”

I could not grant Deadeye his wish, but later, I took a good look at the priest when he regained consciousness, his arms secured behind him, wild eyes, a pale, fanatic face. His chest was shredded with old wounds, hundreds of little flaps of skin fluttering in the breeze…what in Deadman’s name?

“Each cut is a death, Slayer. Each cut is a soul,” Deadeye explained. We had taken away his spear. We knew he could not control himself in the presence of his enemies.

“I’m sorry the baby died, Deadeye.”

“The Gods willed it, Slayer. The Gods brought you. You are the Golden Sword, come from the past to avenge us. The Beasts are doomed, and the priests will die, and our people will live. We bless you, Slayer.”

“We’re not from the past, Deadeye. We’re from the future.”

“No, Slayer. The Gods have sent you. You are from the Past.”

Ironman and Dragon appeared from the saw grass. Ironman had a Taka girl by an arm. The girl was pale and shaken, too tired to run further.

“Can I keep her?” Ironman asked. He was joking, but it was almost obscene. Ironman, an alien monster in black armor and red faceplate, bristling with antennas and weapons, while the girl, almost naked, gasped in shock. Even splattered with mud, she was dangerously attractive. The more I saw of these Taka girls, the more I liked them. They appeared fragile and beautiful, creatures from some gentler world. And they certainly did not belong in the mud.

“Why don’t you just get her number?” I suggested. “Rape is not included in the mission order, I checked.”

“Damn! Look at her—she is nice!”

“She is yours, Longhair.” Deadeye addressed Ironman. He had named us all, and Ironman was Longhair. We ignored his comment about the girl, but we learned later what he meant. The Taka did not kid.

“Command, Beta. Mission over. We’ve got your priest.” Snow Leopard reported back to our CAT leader.

“Good news, Beta. Bring him in.” The skies opened and the rain fell, washing away some of the blood.

Август 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Оставьте комментарий

Chapter 7: The Mark of the Beast — 2

“This is great!” Psycho exclaimed, with his mouth full. Beta gathered around the table in the lounge, having a feast. I hadn’t had a decent meal in days. Music blasted, somebody had a sex show on a screen, and everybody talked at once.

“That’s disgusting! How can you eat that slop?” Ironman chided Psycho.

“It’s all I ever eat.” Psycho seemed genuinely surprised by the question. “It’s all you need. Read the label! Comrats have everything you need for a balanced diet.”

“You’re a barbarian,” Dragon cut in. “Nobody in his right mind would eat that stuff if he didn’t have to.”

Psycho just stared at him. “A barbarian? Me, a barbarian? Hey, I don’t eat animals!” A low blow. Dragon was a flesh-eater, and that bordered on cannibalism on some worlds.

“You’re gonna eat a fist if you don’t shut down!” When the black snakes on Dragon’s arm started to enlarge, it was time to end the conversation. Psycho went back to his comrats, grinning.

Psycho liked to harass Dragon from time to time, but always backed off after he had made his point.

Ironman remained silent, probably sorry he had raised the subject.

“Have some juice.” Coolhand slid a mug of freezing bitter over to me.

A burst of laughter. The music was hypnotic, insistent.

“Death!” I drank. Cold and clear and tart, it was perfect. Bitter, from the past. “This won’t last forever.” Somebody had to say it.

Sure, it wouldn’t last. We’d be back to work tomorrow, maybe today. I closed my eyes.

“The wind is with us, Slayer.” Deadeye crawled beside me through a field of wild saw grass under the stars, a few dark clouds scudding past close overhead, a cool breeze rustling lightly through the grass. What a night, still and clear, as if the Gods held their breaths.

Deadeye was Beta’s Scaler. Actually, he was mine. He had attached himself to me right after our disagreement with the exosegs in the underground. Deadeye had been a witness. He liked what he saw. He was deadly accurate with his slingshot, hence our nickname for him. He had named me Slayer. I’m not sure why, since it had been Psycho who had saved us all. Perhaps I’d seemed more real to him since Psycho had been in armor.

Deadeye crept past me, cautiously, clad in loose legion-issued camfax, long hair splattered with mud, and eyes alight. He spoke in Taka, the language of the People of the Clouds, the Scaler’s own name for one of the largest tribes. I was learning it in spite of myself. Atom whispered in my ear at every spare frac, and even Sweety harassed me in Taka.

Deadeye was a Cloud, as were most of the tribes in our AR. The Cloud People formed the Clan of the Sun, and claimed descent from the Far March of the Golden Sword, the ancient race of Sunrealm, as they called their world.

When that first Scaler…Taka, I corrected myself again…war chief bent his knee to me, it was for forever. Loyalties to the people of Sunrealm were clear-cut, leaving no room for compromise. Deadly enemies one instant, we became allies and protectors the next.

Our power over the exosegs generated the change. In a few moments, we had proven ourselves capable of annihilating the hated Beasts, the great terror that had struck the Sunrealm a generation in the past. Our power was awesome to the Taka, and it became immediately clear to them that we represented the Future, and the Hope, and the Light.

When the dust had cleared from that first skirmish with the exosegs, the Taka had come up from the underground, full of hope. Deadeye took a position right beside us, wide-eyed. We had auxiliaries now—plenty of help, enthusiastic help, from our Taka allies. We dressed them in camfax and set them loose.

They were good—we did not need to explain anything to them—the dead exos had done the trick. That’s all they had to see.

I eased up my E and pressed the sight against my faceplate. A roofless temple rose above the saw grass, a line of columns outlined against the night sky. Taka, moving around, clad in black cloaks, starlight glinting off spear points. The Soldiers of God, fighting for the doomed Cult of the Dead. The priests would be in there somewhere. We’d come for the priests. They’d never talk to us voluntarily. We threatened everything they stood for.

Our sudden appearance in this ancient world had upset the balance of power in the Takas’ uneven struggle to respond to the exoseg threat. We had learned that Taka society had disintegrated unknown ages ago, and the collapse of civilization in this world had nothing to do with the exosegs.

When the creatures suddenly appeared, their only opposition was a fragmented tribal society, completely unequipped to deal with such a formidable foe. The Takas had collapsed against the onslaught of the beasts and finally coalesced into two distinct groups, the Cult of the Dead, dedicated to appeasing the beasts through human sacrifice, and the Golden Sword, sworn to a seemingly hopeless struggle against the exos and the Cult of the Dead. The two groups expended most of their energy fighting each other in a pointless, bloody, protracted, worldwide struggle, tribe against tribe. And while the Takas fought amongst themselves, the exosegs continued reproducing, and soon they swarmed, an invincible horde.

Август 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Оставьте комментарий

Chapter 7: The Mark of the Beast — 1

Seven weeks later:

I awoke warm and comfortable. Completely relaxed, I wanted to stay in dreamland forever. It slowly dawned on my fuzzy mind that I was on the floor of the squadmod lounge, lying in a confused tangle of motionless bodies. I had not the slightest idea why. This has to be a dream, I thought. It felt so damned good just to be lying there, warm and lazy and mindless, that I wanted to continue like that forever. And it had to be a dream. The Legion does not sleep.

The bodies around me gradually came into focus. Squad Beta, asleep. Sleep, a forbidden drug. Priestess lay beside me, a blanket up to her chin, breathing deeply. In the dark, her face seemed faintly luminous. An angel, asleep. There, that angular shape against the sofa—Coolhand, his face sunk into a cushion, out like a stone. The others were on the floor, under blankets or pillows, sleeping where they had fallen.

Memory crept in like a grey ghost. We had been busting the damned Cult of the Dead for weeks. It seemed more like a hundred years. Flying on mags and biotics, we had become spirits, biogens, walking tirelessly through a ghostly dreamland, our souls watching us from far away. Then the unbelievable had happened, another squad flew in. Beta had been ordered back to the squadmod and told to sleep.

We collapsed when we reached the lounge. We all had our own cubes, but we didn’t make it. We crashed to the deck of the lounge, fumbled at our boots and armor, somebody doused the lights, cushions came off sofa and chairs, blankets appeared. The cubes all had bunks, but they were seldom used. I had not slept in a bed in some time. I did not trust them in any case; we knew that Atom’s wisdom came to us in our sleep from the bunks. We had enough wisdom already.

Sleep. Unbelievable! Every muscle in my body ached, but I felt as if I had been reborn. All the exhaustion was gone. It had been there for weeks, a constant presence, a dull ache behind my eyeballs.

Bodies, in the dark. I could see them now, dimly. Warhound laid flat on his back on the floor, still in his litesuit, not even a blanket, his mouth open. Merlin and Psycho lay in a tangle of equipment between two chairs. I could see their faces clearly. I wondered what demons drove Merlin. Around us and when we were in action, he was just one of the guys. On his own time, I’d seen some of the esoteric things he read. I knew a bit about his background. He had walked away from a research lab to join us in the mud. There was no doubt in my mind that he could switch over to some cushy safe-zone, top-echelon tech job any time he wanted. Was he running away or was he looking for something, trying to prove something? I suspected his dreams would be an eerie freefall into an alternate universe.

Psycho’s face appeared troubled. His dreams would be violent, exploding with light and sound. I did not envy him. Up against the doorway to his cubicle, Ironman slept, shoulders hunched uncomfortably against the wall, a blanket tangled around him, both hands palm up on the deck. Ironman, our youngest male, had let his hair grow out and now it partially covered his face. Ironman was in excellent shape, better than any of us, better even than Dragon. He was everybody’s little brother, and I felt a special responsibility toward him. I really liked him.

Their breathing sounded like a far off sea, beating gently on a sandy beach. It was our first real rest since arriving at Andrion 2. A faint light glowed around the door to the tac room. I heard the faint peeping of our sensors. Not everyone slept.

I forced myself up. The lounge smelled like a gym. We had not washed in some time. I still wore my litesuit pants, but had torn off the tunic. I found my own cubicle in the dark, closed the door, hit the lights and blinked hard at the glare. A soundless explosion, burning into my eyes. Someone had ripped the bedding from my bunk. I peeled off my pants and jox and tossed them into the cleaner. I did not know where to look for my shirt. Hot and sticky, I stank like a corpse. My mouth tasted as if something small and evil had crawled into it and died.

I moved into the head and confronted my naked body in the mirror. Death, recently risen, stared back. I had not changed much since Hell. My skin was burnt brown and covered with scars. The Legion cross was etched onto my left arm, just below the shoulder, the result of a celebration following our induction. My brown hair still had streaks of blond from the searing sun of Hell.

I emerged after an icy shower; the Legion didn’t use warm water. We thought it immoral. In fresh camfax litepants and a shapeless, sleeveless gym shirt, I padded barefoot into the darkness, picking my way around the sleeping bodies to the tac room, the towel hanging around my neck. I felt like a brand new soul.

A warm, green glow from the sensors bathed the figures in the chairs. Snow Leopard gazed at the monitors, but I could read nothing in his pale face. He appeared fresh and relaxed. Weapons were stacked carelessly against the wall. Dragon sat beside Snow Leopard with a cup of hot dox. His shorts and a sleeveless bodyshirt revealed his taut, hard muscles. Dragon had a Master’s in Contact, and you didn’t want to make him angry. He was a dark, brooding presence, his brown skin covered with black tattoos, relics of some lost life. They were indecipherable, arcane symbols, sinister icons of an unknown race. A snakelike dragon crawled down one arm, armored beetles marched across his chest, and sightless faces stared up from the backs of his hands. Hash marks from obscure, forgotten wars marked his shoulders, and even his earlobes bore strange symbols. He was as young as the rest of us, and new to the Legion. He never talked about it, but I thought that he must have had a fascinating childhood. I liked Dragon. Smart and tough, he didn’t fight the program.

Dragon looked up. “The dead walk. Are the rest of them up yet?”

“Still out,” I responded. “Give them a day or so.”

“Welcome back,” Snow Leopard said. “Have some dox.” His eyes did not leave the monitors. From the tac room, we controlled the entire AR. Nothing could escape our invisible eyes and ears.

“Thanks, Snow Leopard,” I said. “I’ll get it.” I walked over to the kitchen console and hit the tab. A cup of hot dox appeared. It burned my lips, great. Life flowed into my system.

“I’m going out,” I announced. I needed some air. I picked up the nearest E and punched the door open. Cold air flowed over me, a bright, clear morning. I stepped down barefoot onto gritty soil. Andrion 2’s star was already high overhead in a cold, clear blue sky. We were high on a forested hill, a magnificent view. Trees covered the mountains and the vista below was all forests. A wild, virgin world, as far as I could see. A faint breeze touched my skin, and my breath hung visibly in the air. A chill ran over my flesh.

“Quite a view,” Dragon said. He had followed me outside, soundlessly, now standing beside me with his cup of dox steaming in the cold.

“Reminds me of Providence,” I said. I thought of our very early training on Veltros. After months of brutality, after the Legion had molded us into perfectly functioning, human machines of flesh and blood and bone, we had been sent out on yet another route march, with full weighted compaks and heavy-weighted, chargeless weapons. We marched toward the mountains, magnificent nameless snow-capped mountains, and the day had been still and clear and cold, just like today, and, looking toward those icy mountains and walking over that spongy turf, I had been overwhelmed by a sudden joy, and wonder, and gratitude, and I knew then that the Legion was all I wanted in life.

Август 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Оставьте комментарий

Chapter 6: Dancing in the Dark — 4

“What is this, confession time?” Psycho was outraged. “I save her ass, and she loves you? Wait’ll I tell Valkyrie!”

“Look out!” A spear flashed past my cheek and bounced off the stone floor. A rock hit me square in the chest, leaving me breathless.

A low wailing arose from the Scalers. Hysterical screaming, urgent shouting, someone barking out commands. The rain of stones slowed, and ceased. An evil silence fell on the great chamber. Scaler women and children ran frantically along one wall, illuminated by a flare. Grimfaced warriors with heavy metal tridents stood fast in the human flood, facing the direction from which the civilians were fleeing.

“It’s the Legion!” Merlin exclaimed.

Psycho glanced at his tacmod. “Negative. There’s nobody here.”

“Deadman,” I whispered. I could see something, in the inky black of a far corner of the chamber, behind the columns, hidden from the flares. I could see what the Scalers feared, what had drawn their attention from us.

“What is it?” Priestess demanded.

Something big, in the dark. Something dark and evil, writhing in the shadows. Something from Andrion 3, to break your bones and drink your blood.

“Death,” I said. “It’s death!” I was not too coherent, right then. I did not know if I could face another exoseg.

Two of them emerged from the shadows, illuminated harshly by the glittering light of our flares. Two grim, terrible, giant killing machines, heads snapping back and forth, antennas cracking out like whips, front legs probing ahead of them, awful empty black eyes reflecting only death. Another great exoseg appeared out of the shadows, behind them. And another. Their chittering filled the chamber, the only sound. It chilled my blood. I felt the hair rising on my scalp.

“To the death,” Merlin whispered reverently.

“My, my!” Psycho exclaimed. “Just look at that!”

“I can’t do this again, Thinker,” Priestess said quietly. “I don’t want this. Not again.”

“Lasers,” I said. We faced the exosegs. “Zap ‘em with the light, Merlin. Maybe it will help. All right, let’s do it.” I could not tear my eyes away from those giant, obscene beasts. Merlin flooded the creatures with light. My skin crawled at the sight of them. My heart raced, adrenalin shot through my veins.

We fired simultaneously at the first two exos, laser light ripping the air violently, dazzling our eyes, sizzling and burning, raw energy from the heart of a star. We sliced the creatures, from top to bottom, from front to rear. They disintegrated, quickly, screaming, a high-pitched squeal, grating to our ears. Their bodies, suddenly sliced into many pieces, simply fell apart, burning at the edges, smoking, the internal organs ripping out to fall among the rest of the wreckage. We ceased firing. A horrible stench suddenly hit us like a physical blow.

“Deadman!”

“It works!”

“I love it! I love it!” Psycho was ecstatic.

“Get the others!”

Three, four, more! More exosegs, picking their way in fast motion over and around the steaming carcasses of those we had killed, twitching and snapping, reaching out for us with their antennae. We had no real reason to fear them, despite their terrifying appearance. Our fighting lasers cut through them like paper.

Overcome with loathing, I fired again. Psycho and Priestess fired simultaneously. Merlin kept the light on them. It was a horrible orgy of death, a blind slaughter, a pitiless, deliberate massacre. I saw it through burning red eyes, and I loved every frac. I bounced the E up and down, and slashed from side to side and the creatures walked right into our firestorm and disintegrated, all those separate body parts falling down sizzling to steam and hiss in the water covering the stones of the chamber floor, yellow viscera suddenly free, spilling hot and steaming into nothingness.

A hulking, smoking pile of obscene exoseg parts lay scattered all around us. A head, lying on one eye, glared at us, mandibles still twitching. The lasers did it all, an elemental force, the power of the stars at our fingertips, as we stood fast against a tidal wave of nightmare, grotesque alien creatures from the edge of the universe.

I felt like a God. From the corners of my eyes I spotted Scaler warriors behind us, forming a human wall of tridents and spears, in front of their huddled women and children.

More of them, a new exoseg come to die, its antennae lashing out among the fallen corpses of the others.

“Take the Manlink, Merlin.” Psycho handed it to Merlin, who snatched it eagerly. Psycho stepped out to face the exoseg. He crouched, his black armor catching the reflections from the flares, his hot knife outstretched before him, already triggered, burning a blue-hot flame.

“Hold your fire!” Psycho demanded, “Let me take him.” The exoseg paused for an instant, focused on him.

“You maniac!” I gasped in horror, suddenly realizing his intent. “Fire! Fire! Fire!” I shrieked and pressed the trigger. The giant exoseg disintegrated in an irresistible, glittering stream of laser bursts, its burning remains showering down on Psycho.

“You subnorm earther reject! Get your ass back here, Psycho!” I could hardly believe he had actually done it. What a raving lunatic.

“Damn it, I had him! Why’d you fire?”

Two more exoseg soldiers jerkily picked their way over the great mound of stinking body parts, vacant compound eyes winking evil. We vaporized them, hitting them head-on with the lasers, slicing them up lengthwise. They exploded, green and yellow puss spraying outwards in an obscene halo of death.

We ceased fire. A great silence settled over the chamber. I heard my heartbeat, and the sputtering of Scaler torches, the whimpering of children, and the hissing of our flares. We slowly re-formed our fighting circle, without words. The great hall was littered with unconscious Scalers, the victims of our V bolts. Beyond the bodies, a strong, straight line of Scaler warriors faced us, stretching all the way across the chamber, shoulder to shoulder, behind a wall of long heavy tridents and spears. The women and kids were behind them, in the shadows, all talking at once, shouting at each other. They may have been debating whether they wanted us medium-rare, or well done.

“Don’t fire yet,” I said. “Let’s see what they do.”

“Can we fire after they kill us all?” Psycho was still unhappy because I had terminated his exo.

“Tenners, no more games. If they attack, we keep the E’s on laser.”

“I don’t think they’re going to attack us,” Merlin said. “Look!”

A Scaler warrior stepped forward. He was small but well built, with hard flat muscles and great scars on his chest. An ornament of gold glittered at his throat. He held aloft a heavy blackened metal trident, grasping it with both hands, keeping it parallel to the ground.

“Watch him…”

He walked towards us, fearless, and paused, almost arms-length away, the trident overhead. Three lasers pointed at his belly. He looked right into my eyes, and I knew he could see death, looking out at him. His eyes burned. He was not afraid. He had already decided what to do.

He knelt, and brought the trident down, slowly, holding it out, to us. Presenting it, to us.

“He’s surrendering,” Priestess whispered.

I reached out to take it, in a daze. It was heavy. A sun symbol engraved the metal shaft, a sun with a single rune on its face, radiating light. The long line of Scaler warriors carefully laid down their weapons on the flooded stones of the great hall. I could hardly believe it.

“Cease firing, Snow Leopard,” Psycho suddenly exclaimed. “The Scalers in the great hall have just surrendered to us.”

“What do you mean, Psycho?” For an instant, I did not understand.

“It’s Snow Leopard,” Psycho replied. “CAT 24 has broken through, they’re on the way. Engagement in the tunnel.”

Priestess’s arms snaked around my waist and she buried her face in my chest. I balanced the E on my hip and tried to comfort her. A great relief flooded over me. I was suddenly very conscious of her very naked body, pressing close to mine.

“Let’s see if we can find Priestess’s litesuit, guys, uh, and maybe mine and Merlin’s, too.”

Август 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Оставьте комментарий

Chapter 6: Dancing in the Dark — 3

They dragged Priestess onto the grate, and fastening her wrists to the bars with chains. Merlin and I were next. Here the Scalers roasted their enemies, and we were the newest addition to the list. This was our fate, a slow, agonizing death, a long slow burning over an open fire.

The Scaler leader and two other warriors brought a bucket of dirty, oily liquid over to Priestess and began rubbing it onto her body. They started on her face and worked their way down, taking their time, exploring her body thoroughly. Priestess shuddered and cried out, twisting her legs to get away from them. The Scaler girls started in again, screaming angrily and pelting the warriors with rocks. They moved away from Priestess reluctantly and she collapsed, glistening with oil.

Merlin and I were then tied to the grate as well, and the warriors threw the rest of the oil on us contemptuously. They retreated and the crowd hushed. They surrounded the grate, a huddled, torch-lit, silent mob, warriors and women and children and the living dead, a whole Scaler city, come to see the aliens die. The fire flared up below us and someone threw a bucket of oil into the pit and the flames burst to life, searing our backs. We lay in the filth of the last victim, the bars of the grate now heating up and burning into my naked flesh.

Priestess moaned beside me. Merlin moved restlessly, raising his bloody head to look around. My fate roared in my ears, the spectators laughed, the torchlight flared over the shadowy ceiling, the heat rose from the fire pit. I remembered Gravelight’s words: “They will roast you slowly over fires…you will die slowly.”

There was no avoiding our fate this time. We would die, immortal or not, burnt to black crisps. The Legion would find our bodies, and many Scalers would die in revenge. We would be buried under cold skies, side by side beneath the strange stars of this new world. Generations of schoolchildren would chant our names, the First of the First, Thinker, Merlin and Priestess who died for you in the first assault. We would not be forgotten, and I would lie beside my lovely Priestess for eternity. I began whispering the chant of the Legion, our death song.

“I am a soldier of the Legion.
I believe in evil,
The survival of the strong…”

The grate burnt into my flesh, now. Smoke rose all around us. I raised my voice.

“…and the death of the weak!”

We were weak, to have been trapped like this. I was weak, to have thought of the Scalers first and of my comrades second. Priestess had stopped whimpering. She joined her words to mine.

“I am the guardian
I am the sword of light…”

And now Merlin joined us, in a strong, clear voice.

“In the dark of the night.
I will deliver us from Evil!”

The Scalers surrounded the fire pit, silent phantoms in the torchlight. And now we would die, with the chant of the Legion on our lips, until the pain overwhelmed us.

“I accept life everlasting…”

Life! Life everlasting. It only meant death, in the end. The Legion promised life, and delivered death. A fair bargain. To us, death was the final frontier, the final mystery, the final, holy glory.

The Scaler leader leaped onto the grate, screaming at us, waving the E over his head. We defied him, raising our voices so that everyone could hear us clearly. We knew we were going to die.

“I will trust no Earther worm,
Nor any mortal man…”

He stood right above me and raised the E like a club, as if to bludgeon me to death. I thought briefly that it would be preferable to burning. Something snapped, and a neat little pinhole suddenly appeared on his forehead. He stiffened, and a thin stream of bright red blood squirted out of the hole. The Scaler leader shuddered and collapsed, falling face-first onto the grate.

The crowd stood motionless, shocked. I raised my head, trying to look around. Priestess clanked her chains, trying to see behind her. For an instant, it was quiet.

The crowd exploded, V bolts burst among them like the fist of a mighty God, earsplitting explosions shattered the silence, filled the great hall. Someone had a Manlink on V-min auto, working the mob over slowly, systematically, from one end to the other. The V bolts blasted the Scalers right off their feet, arms and legs flailing, explosions of filth and dirt, bodies tumbling wildly, multiple blasts hammering into the mob relentlessly. The Scalers screamed in a wild panic, clawing and trampling each other to get away. But there was no escape. V bolts, again and again and again, seeking out the Scalers, cracking white-hot in the dark as Scaler torches flew through the air, trailing hot sparks. The hall darkened as the torches went out. Now there were only the eerie lightning flashes of the V bolts and the glow of the fire pit.

The grate burnt painfully into my flesh. “Come on, guys, whoever you are! Cut us loose,” I shouted.

The Scalers were a frantic tangled mass of bodies in the shallow water covering the stone floor, now trying to rise, to crawl, to get away. But the V did not stop. Bolts of searing hot energy burst among the survivors, knocking them head-over-heels. No mercy! V swept the hall, chasing after fleeing groups of Scalers, tumbling them down as they ran. In a frac, an angry, determined mob had been turned into fleeing rabble.

Psycho suddenly appeared and knelt over Priestess, his Manlink glowing. “Hi, Honey. You still hanging around with these two losers?” He aimed again, and fired into the darkness.

Psycho! Psycho the Maniac, Psycho the Avenging Angel, covered with dirt, armored and armed and as cool as could be. Through his faceplate, I saw his happy grin. He sliced through Priestess’s bindings with his hot knife. A stone bounced off his armor. He ripped off another burst into the dark. “If they keep that up, they’re going to upset me, and I’ll switch to xmax,” he informed us.

“Cut us loose, Psycho!” Merlin demanded.

“What do you think, Priestess?” Psycho inquired calmly. “Why don’t we just leave them here. Who needs ‘em? They’ll just get you into trouble again.”

Priestess didn’t waste any time. “Give me your mini!”

Psycho fired again, a long burst. Priestess sliced my chains off with a laser burst from the handgun and then freed Merlin. Rocks ricocheted harshly off the metal grate. Regrouped, the Scalers had started to fight back.

Psycho fired on xmax and a tremendous blast lit up a far corner of the chamber. He peered into the dark, surveying his handiwork, shaking his head. “I leave you clowns alone for a couple of fracs and come back to find the Scalers having you for lunch. Can’t you do anything right without me?” He was in his element. He was magnificent under stress. When there was no stress, he generated it, just to annoy us.

“Where are the others, Psycho?” Merlin looked around wildly, an eternal optimist, completely detached from reality.

“Others?” he laughed madly. “Come on, we can handle this bunch. I just dug my way out of the cave-in. There aren’t any others!”

I snatched up Priestess’s E from where the Scaler had dropped it and let loose a long burst on v-min into the dark. It got darker fast. Scaler torches sputtered weakly here and there where they had fallen and piles of twitching Scaler bodies could be seen in the gloom. Only Psycho could see properly. The rest of us were all but blind in this underground world. The fire pit illuminated us nicely for the Scalers.

“You’ve got a beautiful ass, Priestess.” Psycho always said exactly what he thought.

“Thanks for rescuing us and keep your hands off!” she replied hotly.

“Can you please concentrate on the Scalers, Psycho?” I suggested. “Let’s get away from the fire.”

“On me,” Psycho said simply. He knew the way out. A rock exploded off Psycho’s plasmapak. He whipped around and fired again on xmax. A searing detonation illuminated shattered Scaler bodies flying through the air, and a sudden horde of fierce-looking dirtmen off to one side, whirling their slings in the air, coming right at us.

“Damn! Where did they come from?” A hail of rocks ricocheted all around us. A heavy metal trident flashed past my face.

“Lights! Psycho, give us lights!” Merlin had armed himself with an axe. He snatched the flash from Psycho’s waist and snapped it on, right at the dirtmen.

The sudden light was dazzling, silent nova, bursting to life, glaring and sizzling right at the dirtmen. It stopped them like a wall, just for a moment.

“V-min,” I said. “Auto.” We were really not supposed to be killing them.

“Always thinking,” Psycho retorted. “What a pain.”

He and Priestess and I stood shoulder to shoulder while Merlin held the light. We opened up with V bolts on straight auto. We cut down the dirtmen with thunder and lightning, with V bolts from another world, and the underground shook with the earsplitting din of the battle. The dirtmen just kept coming, right at us, chanting their death songs. Lord, they were good!

“The other side.” Rocks pelted us from behind. We formed a fighting circle, back to back, surrounded.

“Flares.” Merlin could only cover part of the chamber with his flash so we fired flares out into the darkness and they burst into brilliant light, glaring and spitting from the far corners of the great hall. Now we could see it all, many, many Scaler bodies, and women and children huddled in terrified clumps on the watery floor, playing dead. Warriors, leaping from behind those great columns, launching stones and evil spiked metal balls through the air to whistle past our ears. Shadows leaping from wall to wall, hundreds and hundreds of Scalers all around us, swarming in blind panic and terror and hatred and courage and bloody suicidal sacrifice. I felt for those Scalers, I really did.

“Deadman!” Psycho exclaimed. “I haven’t had this much fun since Planet Hell!”

“I love you, Thinker! I love you!” Priestess could not hold it in.

Август 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Оставьте комментарий

Chapter 6: Dancing in the Dark — 2

“They’re right up ahead. A whole gang of Scalers.” Priestess watched her tacmod. I prepped to fire. I could see from the tacmap that Merlin was not with them. A wet, filthy tunnel, a dirty place to die. If it got any smaller, we would have to use the plasmapaks. I was slimy with sweat inside my A-suit. We paused for a moment.

“Put it on xmin and blow them away,” I advised Priestess. I wanted to show the Scalers we were serious. They had tried to kill us, and we still played around with V bolts. Priestess adjusted her E and aimed up the tunnel.

She fired, and the xmin flashed brilliantly up ahead, the sharp crack echoing down the tunnel. A large chunk of the tunnel roof collapsed up ahead. No worries, we had plasma. I raised my mini, but there was no movement. Priestess aimed again. I glanced at my tacmod.

There was a sudden snapping, then the roof and walls of the tunnel around us burst in on us, showering us with dirt. Ropes whipped through the air, entangling us immediately.

A net! It jerked me right off my feet and I fell backwards. Another rope whistled past me, singing as if shot from a gun. I landed on my back, stunned. Priestess had fallen right beside me, on her side, already fighting the net. The net drew tighter around us. Thick leathery strands wrapped all around me. I moved my arms, and the A-suit strained. My mini had reeled itself back to the holster on my u-belt, and I could not reach it. The plasmapak was in the way. Priestess tried to raise her E to fire through the net.

“Get it loose! They’re coming!” I heard the dirtmen shrieking, coming at us like a pack of killer bloodcats.

“I can’t get it loose! I can’t aim it! Help me!” Priestess struggled to get the E pointed down-tunnel but it was hopelessly entangled. I could not reach it. I strained at the net. It began to give. A single strand popped open, freeing my right arm. I could only reach my hotknife. I triggered it and forced it upwards, the strands of the net ripping open in its wake. Then the Scalers pounced on us, triumphant.

With a blood-curdling scream, a dirtman landed on Priestess. Torches danced in the dark. Four more Scalers leaped onto Priestess, axes smashing at the E as if to kill it. Someone landed on my chest. A savage, with upraised axe. I slashed upwards with my knife and it burnt into his chest effortlessly, hissing and spitting. He shrieked and fell backwards, spewing a fountain of blood, his entire chest carved open. I forced myself to my feet, slashing wildly with the knife. My helmet slammed against the tunnel roof and the cords fell away. I groped for my mini, but my left arm would not move. Something smashed my wrist, a hot bolt of pain shot up my arm. I held on to the knife, but the net was still wrapped around my legs and now someone pulled it and I went down again. Two dirtmen seized my knife arm. I hacked right through them, opening one up from the face to the navel, then caught the other across the chest. Shrieks of pain and terror and rage echoed in the tunnel.

More dirtmen piled onto my arm, heedless of the knife. On my knees, I lifted my right arm up and slammed three Scalers against the roof of the tunnel. Then I reached back and tore another one off my back, over my head and into the tunnel wall. A wild-eyed Scaler hit me on my faceplate with his axe. I countered with a right cross to his face, pulverizing him with my armored fist. His nose and cheekbones and temple smashed, blood burst forth from his eyes and nostrils and mouth.

More dirtmen landed on me, all glaring eyes and flashing teeth, battering at my helmet with large rocks wrapped in leather thongs. Another net fell over my head. No! My left arm popped out of the net and seized a dirtman by the throat. I squeezed and crushed his neck, lifting him right off his feet. Blood poured down my arm. I still had my knife and I opened up another dirtman, skewering him. My arm was buried in his chest, suddenly caught inside his rib cage, his body jerking like a puppet out of control. Axes smashed down onto my knife arm, and suddenly it went numb. A swarm of dirtmen covered Priestess, smashing downwards with their axes and rocks, shrieking. Priestess moved, using her armored hands, crushing arms and heads. The dirtmen screamed. Another net snapped around me, and I went down under a swarm of Scaler bodies.

Fiery torches lit up the scene with an eerie yellow glow. My right arm was useless and I could not see the glow of the knife. Bright, soundless explosions flashed through my mind. I could not move my arms. I could not hear Priestess.

o

Death was a tunnel. They drag your corpse down a flaming tunnel, the road to Hell. A bumpy road, I thought. My head roared curiously as flames flashed from side to side along the tunnel. The Scalers had my body tightly wrapped in the net, dragging it somewhere. There was no need to be gentle with the dead.

The Scalers held smoky torches to light the way to Hell. Something jostled my body. Priestess was right beside me as the Scalers pulled us along, all wrapped up in the net. My plasmapak was no longer there, but we still had our A-suits.

“Priestess!” Oh, Deadman, let her be alive! “Priestess! Priestess! Answer me!”

“Thinker! Oh, my God, thank you. I thought they had killed you!”

“I’m alive. Did they hurt you?” We jostled together as the tunnel curved. The Scalers shouted among themselves; they could not hear us talking on the tacnet.

“They beat me until I stopped moving. They took the E.”

“Deadman! I thought we were finished.”

“I’m sorry, Thinker. I’m sorry.” I didn’t know why she was sorry, and had no time to find out.

“Sweety! Report!”

“Yes, Thinker,” she said. “Your E is missing. The enemy has taken the ampak, the plasmapak, the mini, the hot knife, the cold knife, the flash, the medpak, the bootknife, the U-belt, the excan, the toolpak and the ratpak. Your A-suit is fully functional. You have several injuries but none are serious. We have no commo as yet. The enemy attempted to open your helmet but failed. However, they may succeed on the next try. There are several layers of cords wrapped tightly around the A-suit. It is difficult to break free as the arms are securely tied.”

“Wonderful! Do you have any good news?”

“Yes, Thinker. If you break free of the net they will have difficulty restraining you.”

“You’re damned right they will! Suggestions!”

“Keep working on the restraints.”

The Scalers began to sing, a savage, rhythmic, haunting chant, chilling my skin. My helmet banged against a rock, and Priestess bumped up against me. I could not move the ropes, even with all the power of the suit. I had really botched this one. And all because I tried to save some Scaler women and kids. I should have let them die, instead of us!

A savage cheer filled the smoky air. We were dragged into a vast stone hall, a great cellar, somewhere under the temple. The floor was flooded with shallow, filthy water and the walls were coated with green moss and slime. The ceiling was smoke-blackened stone, glistening with moisture, supported by a forest of great stone columns. A jostling crowd of shouting, excited Scalers surrounded us, holding their torches high. Our captors continued chanting, dragging us through the water, the crowd splashing alongside, poking at us curiously with spears and tridents. Filthy Scaler children and fragile Scaler girls and the horrible walking corpses of the incurably aged all prodded and probed at us for a reaction. Metal axes banged off our armor. They wanted our blood. Priestess whimpered. My terror was complete but I did not want her to know.

“Thinker! Is that you? Who is that?” Merlin, the object of our quest, called out to us. But his voice wasn’t on our tacnet. The Scalers had stopped dragging us and now five or six of them sat on my chest, cutting the net away from my helmet. I still couldn’t move my arms. They fumbled at my helmet, trying to get it off. They would find the links soon. The other Scalers crowded around, torches held high.

“Merlin! It’s Merlin! We’ve found him!” It was an absurd statement, considering the circumstances. I craned my neck to see him. There! Merlin, out of his A-suit, chained to a massive stone pillar, blood streaking down his chest.

My helmet popped open and the Scalers wrenched it off. They swarmed all over me, knees and elbows and hands. The screams and the fetid stink of the place hit me like a physical blow, cold and wet and dead. A bloody haze, by flaming torchlight. I still couldn’t move my arms. I could feel nothing, running on straight adrenalin. About ten of them sat on me. Knives at my throat, a knife sticking into an ear, another forced into my mouth. Hopeless! I was as good as dead. They were after the armor, now. They had gotten Merlin out, so they knew how to unlink the suit.

They got our A-suits and litesuits off, stripped us naked and trussed us up like newly caught mumpups, the cords biting into our skin. I may have been in shock. There were hundreds of them. Bleeding heavily from the mouth, I wondered how we would die and hoped we would make a good death.

A roar suddenly erupted from the mob. A Scaler warrior stood over us, brandishing what I assumed was Priestess’s E. Small and wiry, his eyes glittered red in the torchlight and his hair was matted with dirt. He held the E aloft, waving it around, screaming harshly to the crowd.

“Priestess, is your E still on safe?” They had tied my hands behind my back and I could not see her.

“Yes.” I could barely hear her through the noise of the crowd. But why should I worry? Now they could only crush our skulls with rocks, instead of zapping us with the E.

Priestess screamed and I wrenched myself around enough to see what was going on.

The leader had Priestess by the hair, forcing her to her feet, her hands tied behind her back. The leader continued exhorting the crowd, forcing her head back, waving the E around with his other hand. War trophies. The sub! Priestess was absolutely lovely, even with blood trickling down from her head wounds. Her body appeared phosphorescent in the dark against all those dirt-caked Scalers. The torchlight flickered and flared and her skin glowed red and golden in the dark. An unexpected hush fell over the gathering. The sputtering of the torches underscored the heavy breathing of the mob.

Priestess was slim and lovely, incredibly beautiful, a child-woman, a starflower in the night. To the Scalers, her beauty must have seemed almost supernatural. Even the leader became silent, holding Priestess at arm’s length by her hair, staring at her in awe.

Then the Scaler women reached out to touch Priestess. I wondered if they thought they could have some of her beauty by touching her. Some of the men reached out to touch her as well, their hooded, evil eyes burning with lust.

The first warrior who slid his hand between her legs was rewarded with a sharp, perfectly executed front snap kick to the crotch. His face turned white and he collapsed without a sound. The crowd roared. The Scaler leader bellowed and pulled at Priestess’s hair, brutally yanking her off her feet, wielding the E like a club, striking out at the other warriors. Was he angry with them for touching his trophy?

Priestess fell to the floor, face contorted with pain. The Scaler women shrieked at the men, some of them beating at the warriors with their fists. Their meaning was clear: Hands off the alien girl!

Sloshing through the water, the leader dragged Priestess by her hair over the flooded, slippery stone floor. Another great shout went up and my captors hauled me away by my feet. I caught a glimpse of Merlin, being undone from his chains. A whiff of smoke hit my nostrils.

“Thinker! Thinker! Do something, for God’s sake! Deadman, help me!” Priestess was desperate and terrified. I struggled, but to no avail. I could not even see her anymore. A moving forest of Scaler legs surrounded me. Then the forest fell away, and I saw.

A metal grate, blackened by the fires of many centuries, rested over a deep, dark stone pit, its depths already smoking from a newly lit fire. The Scalers pulled away the blistered, crisp-blackened remnants of a giant exoseg from the grate, and chanted an evil song. The exoskeleton collapsed as they pulled, stiff black legs snapping off from the thorax as if from dry rot, showering the Scalers with ash. The filthy grate was covered with charred rot from the exoseg.

Август 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Оставьте комментарий

Chapter 6: Dancing in the Dark — 1

“All right, gang. Drag ‘em in.” My heart pounded. Still underground, we had launched a messy humanitarian rescue mission. The damned Scalers had set fires to drive us out, and the entire underground complex had filled with smoke. Most of the Scalers would surely die of smoke inhalation unless we got them out. Terrific!

Psycho found a smoke-free corridor, but it just didn’t feel right. He led the way, carrying two bodies. I dragged an unconscious Scaler girl behind me, probing the corridor with the flash on my E. Merlin and Priestess followed, dragging more Scalers. The stone walls were featureless and my skin slicked with sweat inside my A-Suit.

Priestess said what I’m sure we were all thinking, “This is crazy.”

“That’s a ten!” I agreed, “Where does it lead?”

“It leads nowhere, gang,” Psycho said, “The room is blocked with big vertical iron bars, and I’m not sure what’s behind them. We’re going to have to cut through and hope they aren’t load-bearing.”

“What?” My Scaler girl was still out cold on the corridor floor. They could all breathe in here. I reached out and touched the bars. I didn’t like it.

Priestess grunted and asked, “Is Snow Leopard coming?”

Right on cue, Snow Leopard broke in on the net, “Thinker, report!” Apparently, he was busy with the rest of the squad, evacuating more Scalers.

“Nothing to report,” I responded. “Have you got our breathers for the Scalers?”

“We’re working on it, Thinker. Keep your position, we’re sending an element to assist you.”

“Tenners,” I replied.

Why bar the room? I looked up at the stone ceiling. A root snake dropped down from somewhere and slithered away. My entire being ached with fatigue. Stay out of the corridors, they had said, stay out of the tunnels. And save the women and kids. Wonderful! Strangely, I felt no rush to leave. I didn’t like the smoke out there. That root snake and I had much in common, after all.

A root snake? My heart gave a little jolt. I pressed my armored fingers against the ceiling. The stone was smeared with a thin layer of earth. I switched to local and yelled, “All right! Psycho! Priestess! Merlin! Get out! Now. Leave the Scalers!”

A terrible metallic screeching deafened me, even through my armor, then it felt like the entire planet fell on me as the ceiling collapsed on top of us. My world exploded in a cosmic flash of glaring white lightning, a great red roar overwhelmed me and the lights went out. My face plate lit up with red warning lights. I gasped and found I could not scream. Dying, blind and helpless and paralyzed, lying on my back, buried beneath tons of earth. Sweety was with me, whispering a sitrep into my ears.

That poor Scaler girl must be dead already, I thought. Now I will join her, another immortal entering the ranks of the dead. They will add my number to the honored lists of the front rank of the Legion, that phantom army that goes into battle with every Legion unit. I will be a footnote in the history of the First Scaler Campaign. Valkyrie will mourn for me. Priestess will feel my loss…Priestess!

Rage and terror and shock coursed through my body. Priestess! I strained every fiber of my being to fight my way out. The A-suit gave us superhuman strength. But even so, I could not move my arms.

“Strength at maximum, Thinker,” Sweety whispered soothingly. “Try the right arm. It’s meeting less resistance.” I tried. Nothing. “Try again, Thinker. It moved a micromil.” Encouraging! Sweat popped onto my forehead. I strained every muscle in my arm. Nothing!

“You’re making progress, Thinker.”

“Yeah, how long is it going to take, Sweety?” I gasped.

“I estimate six hours at the current rate to dig up to the surface of the dirt. However, it is unclear how much dirt is above. And it is unlikely that you can continue at the current rate. This is just an estimate because…”

“Blackout, will you, Sweety? Just blackout!”

“Yes, Thinker. I’m sorry. You should not give up hope.”

“I said blackout!”

“Yes, Thinker.”

Think! The plasmapak strapped to my back, useless. I was going to die! Rescue! They had to rescue us!

“Snow Leopard,” I choked out. “Nova! Tunnel collapse! Thinker, Merlin, Psycho, Priestess need help! Nova! Nova! Nova!” My words died on my lips. A dead, hollow silence in my ears. Surrounded by tons of earth, I realized my comset was down.

“We have no communications, Thinker.” Sweety calmly informed me. No, they could not hear me—but they would know! We would be off scope and off map, and there would be an immediate response. Snow Leopard would be rushing to the scene right now, cursing me for being a damned fool. All of Beta would be digging for us. It was only a matter of time before they found us. I might even live! But Priestess and the others—were they still alive?

It did not make me feel better. I could hear Death, laughing at me. I remembered Priestess in starlight, eyes closed, in my arms, and I knew I did not want to die. All I wanted was to touch her again, to hold her in my arms and fall into those dark eyes, again.

The earth moved.

Moved! Right over my chest, movement! Someone was chopping at the earth with some kind of hand tool. Salvation! A warm wave rushed over me—a full-body orgasm of sheer delight, the blood pounding in my ears.

The earth loosened and I still could see nothing, but my left arm moved. I forced it up, and the earth gave way. Someone grabbed my arm, and pulled. I struggled frantically, wrenching my body from the grave with the full power of the A-suit. The earth gave, loosened, and I burst free.

I clawed at my dirt-encrusted faceplate with my one free hand. Movement, across my vision—a green glow, coming at me quickly. An explosion of jagged pain shattered my skull, and a silent white-hot flash of searing agony burst through my brain.

“Get down!” Priestess, blessed Priestess, screamed into my ears. “I’m going to fire!”

Where the hell is my E? I struck out blindly with both arms, and ghostly figures swarmed over me. My armored fists struck flesh and bone.

A sudden series of loud, sharp explosions jolted me. V bolts! Something heavy fell on my leg. I saw only green dust, swirling madly. My arms were free, where was the E? I seized my hot knife and struck upwards. The knife burned its way into something, and shuddered to a stop.

I had to see! I grabbed my flash and triggered it. It burned into focus. Chaos, through swirling clouds of green dust. A Scaler, mouth open, eyes glazed. He collapsed slowly, like a rag doll, and I pulled my knife free. Another Scaler, whirling, snarling like a swarmer, blinded by the light. He raised his metal axe up and back, poised it to bash out my brains. I lunged up at him with the knife. It burnt with an icy blue flame, and sank into his thigh. My head exploded with pain.

“Get down!” Priestess pleaded. I collapsed, the knife glaring in a hopeless, wobbling arc, then fading as I lost my grip. The Scaler’s chest flashed, the sharp crack of a V bolt.

“Get down, Thinker! Get down!” I lay in a tangle of bodies, Scaler warriors draped over my armor. A tomb of earth surrounded me, a tunnel of black dirt and smoking dust, figures coming out of the dark and V bolts exploding all around me.

Priestess continued firing and I cringed in the dirt, clenching my teeth to stay conscious, swirling in a whirlwind of throbbing, gritty pain, wondering just what it was that had clobbered my helmet. I was still in my A-suit but my head had taken a beating. I caught a foggy glimpse of Scaler warriors, dirtmen, crouching behind mounds of black earth and jagged rocks, peering into the searing light from the torch, mouths open, shielding their eyes. I had dropped the hot knife but I still had the flash.

“Point the flash right at them, Thinker,” Priestess calmly instructed me. “Keep it right there.” She fired again, a continuous burst, knocking the Scalers senseless, blowing them away into the dark. My flash wobbled. It pointed down tunnel, illuminated only swirling dust. My vision was narrowing and I knew I was about to pass out.

“Love you, Thinker. Love you!” Priestess exclaimed. Somehow it made perfect sense. But I could not respond. Sweety zapped me with a stim, but it did not work.

“I’m going under, Priestess. I need you.”

“I’m coming, my love. You stay awake! They’re still out there. Keep that light shining!”

And then she knelt close beside me, aiming that big, beautiful E down the tunnel. She had her medpak out in a frac and pressed something into an access port on my armor. Strength burst into my veins, driving the webs from my mind. The pain began to fade.

“Priestess—Deadman, that stuff makes Green obsolete! What was that?”

“I gave you a biotic charge, Thinker. How do you feel?”

“What happened to me?”

“I saw the Scalers dig you out,” she replied, scanning the tunnel with her E. “One of them hit your helmet with an axe, just as I fired. He didn’t hurt the armor, of course, but the shock must have been transmitted to your head. Concussion.”

“That’s a big ten,” I confirmed. “What happened to our nice little smoke-free road?” I could almost move now. I kept the flash pointed shakily down-tunnel. It wasn’t much of a tunnel. We crouched in a great pile of collapsed earth, the soggy roof close overhead.

“It was a trap,” Priestess said. “Percy says it was a false ceiling, holding up tons of dirt—and we bought it! Then they came to dig out the dead, I guess.” Percy was her Persist. He had a voice like the hero in a subgirl’s sex fantasy. I always imagined him as a big, blond goon with a prominent chin and a tiny brain. It made me wonder about Priestess. But I had no complaints at that particular time, with Priestess hauling me back from dreamland and Percy scoping out the neighborhood.

“Sweety, what about Merlin and Psycho? Report!”

“I have a fix on Merlin up ahead as marked,” Sweety said calmly. “He is accompanying the enemy. I do not detect Psycho.”

Accompanying the enemy! I checked my tacmap. The tunnel ran on up ahead. There, B4 on the chart, surrounded by the enemy, a dark red glow. Scalers! Merlin, a captive of the dirtmen! My head cleared up fast.

“It’s Merlin!” I could hardly believe it.

“They’ve got Merlin,” Priestess echoed in amazement.

“How could they do it? It’s incredible!”

“How could he let them do it? Oh, no!”

“Merlin, Thinker! Merlin, Thinker! Report!” A faint hissing in my ears. Why couldn’t he hear us?

“Where are our people, Priestess? We must call Snow Leopard in!”

“No commo, my darling. There is no exit…no exit to our side. We’re cut off.” She seemed as cool as ice. “Be calm. We are together now. Together. How do you feel?”

Together. No exit. The tunnel went on. Dead quiet, the dust still hung in the air, smoking in the beam of my flash. My E was gone, but I still had my handgun, the mini, and we both had plasmapaks. I picked my hot knife up from the dirt.

“Estimate Psycho’s situation, Sweety.”

“Situation unknown. I do not detect him in this area.”

I said something rude.

“That is not within my capabilities, Thinker.”

“Blackout, Sweety!”

“Yes, Thinker.”

“They’re up ahead,” Priestess said. “Waiting. We’d better dig our way back out.”

It rushed over me, the certain realization of what we had to do.

“Merlin is up ahead,” I said.

“Yes, Love. Yes, yes, yes, I know that. But Psycho must be buried. And the Scalers…”

“We have to go after Merlin.”

“But what about Psycho? What about the Scalers?”

“Psycho’s in armor. He’ll survive. Beta will dig him out. And don’t tell me about Scalers! It’s because of them that we’re in this mess!”

Sweety sent an alternating charge across the outside surface of my faceplate and the mud and goo that clung to it melted away. I turned off the flash. We wouldn’t need it; we’d be safer without it. The Scalers needed light to see, and we didn’t. The tunnel faded to a dark green glow…only phantoms, in the dust. No further decisions necessary, I thought. I could feel that cold rush, again, crawling over my skin. I always accepted it, when only one possible course of action remained.

Now the Gods of Fate had us in their hands.

“Let’s go, Priestess. I’ve got my handgun, you use that E.”

“Thinker.” She reached out and touched my armor. “I…” She hesitated. “I want you to know. We might die…” She stopped, embarrassed. “I love you. I want to be yours…I want you to be mine. Please tell me…if I’m dreaming. Am I crazy? Do you love me?”

I reached over and touched her helmet. She was a shadowy creature of the dark, a demon in green, a lover from Hell, reflections glittering off her A-suit and helmet and that long evil E. Yes, yes, just the two of us, Thinker and Priestess against the world. Wasn’t that what I wanted? What I really wanted? Stop fighting it!

“I do love you,” I said. “And I want you. But what about Valkyrie? She’ll kill us, if she finds out.”

“I told you. I don’t care about her! All I want is to live with you. Forever!” The Gods of Fate. She knew exactly what she wanted. She was everything I was not. The dirtmen waited for us, up ahead.

“Yes. Yes, of course.” It was like a dream. No more decisions needed to be made. Just pledge myself to her forever, and walk down the tunnel together, to meet the dirtmen. I knew I wanted her more than anything.

“Do you take me forever, Thinker? So long as we both shall live?”

“Thinker and Priestess. On the cross. Forever!”

“Forever!”

“Let’s go, my Love. We have work to do.”

This unusual wedding may have been the most decisive thing I had ever done in my young life, short of joining the Legion. I knew that Valkyrie would certainly go out of orbit. But I did not feel that I had any say in the matter at all. Fate rolled over me in an irresistible wave. And if Valkyrie did find out, it would mean that we had survived. What, then, would there be to worry about? In the Legion we worried about life and death. Everything else was secondary. And my only worry at that moment was whether or not my marriage with Priestess would end in sudden, violent death before we even had the chance to explore the hidden secrets of each other’s hearts and bodies.

We began moving down the tunnel and found Scaler bodies with their heads crushed. It looked as if Merlin had put up a fight, but he must have lost his weapons in the cave-in. We switched our plasmapaks to the front for easy access in case the tunnel fell on us again. We had to hunch over to avoid the dirt ceiling. Priestess stopped, and held my arm.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I can’t see,” she said. “Just a moment.” She stood there, silent.

“What’s the trouble? Is your faceplate damaged?”

“Tears, my Love. Tears of joy. I’m all right now. Let’s find Merlin.”

Август 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Оставьте комментарий