Vindex Spei 01 - What came before


Amaranth
QI_Small.png
Vindex Spei 01 - What came before
by
Stardraigh

The Prologue
~-~

April 9, 10245 BC
Navamat City, Arsana IV

~-~

Kusa, stood still as the portable maintenance stand ran its diagnostic suite on the armor module she wore. Around her, the command center she’d had set up in the Navamat City’s public administration office bustled with activity.

The building rumbled as if from an earthquake. Flakes of dust rained down upon all in the room.

“What and where did it hit?” Kusa demanded of her staff.

A tech at one of the consoles monitoring the battle raging in orbit and elsewhere on the planet spoke. “It was a kinetic kill rod just like on Kormault II. The impact site was twenty-eight miles on the other side of Mount Tarath.”

“Fuck.” Kusa mouthed under her breath. She was afraid of the rebels using this weapon here. She’d witnessed first-hand the kinetic kill weapons on Kormault II. Three years ago their use by the rebels had forced her to retreat off-planet, leaving numerous citizens behind at their mercy. It also had devastated the environment. If she let the rebels have their way, it might not only spell the end of her survival but the loss of the colony itself.

The diagnostic stand’s display showed everything was nominal with her armor module.

“Finally,” Kusa grumbled. She stepped down and moved to the center of her command room.

Tellek Sarnby, the governor of the Arsana star system spoke up, “Prime Architect Kusa, you should escape now while there’s time.”

“No governor. I will not run any longer. The honor of the Hegemon demands these rebels be crushed if they cannot be re-educated.”

Kalin Mav, the ranking member of the Hegemon police force in the system spoke next, “The rebel fleet has almost gained space superiority. The remains of our fleet have retreated to Arsana VII. Please escape now and return to the core worlds.”

Kusa knew both men’s words were rooted in their fear. “No. we will not retreat. We will crush these rebels here and now. What is the status of Highspire,” she asked of her staff.

One of her man at a console answered, ”It’s not ready. Techs and Engineers onsite say three hours at the maximum.”

Kusa looked over several displays showing the status of the planetary defense network she’d had setup. It was evident to anyone looking that her forces were being slowly and inexorably crushed by the rebels.

“Everyone, listen up,” Kusa bellowed out. “What I’m going to say now may come as a shock to all of you but we have to face reality. The truth of the matter is that the Hegemon has lost control of the edge-ward fringe.”

The personnel around Kusa who were able focused their attention on her. Many had expressions of fear and confusion, some appeared to panic. The few members of Kusa's protection detail watched over all for a threat to her.

“Right now we’re outnumbered and outgunned. But the war isn’t over.” Kusa kept on going. “We have a number of opportunities here. Above us right now the rebels have a prime architect among them, leading them just as I lead you. This prime architect is one I’m sure all of you are familiar with. It is Carios himself, the man who started this rebellion that split the Hegemon. The man who will die today if we have our way and I have a plan to do it. It will not be easy. For some of us we won’t make it through the day but we will succeed.”

“Prime architect, what do you need us to do?” Mav asked.

“Tell the techs at Highspire to put Highspire in Mode Beta-four when it is ready to fire and target as much of the enemy fleet they can. They’re to directly comm me when it is ready to fire. Once I order it used, the techs are to evacuate and join up with the fleet.”

The tech relayed the order.

Kusa continued on. “We will buy them the time. All forces outside of a hundred eighty-three kilometers are to stand down, and if the circumstances demand it, surrender. All citizens and personnel remaining in Navamat city are to evacuate and regroup in Kalver to the north and Farreia to the southeast. I am staying here.”

Another quake rocked the room.

A tech at one of the workstations called out, “Kill rod. The Western slope of Mount Tarath.”

Kusa thought it would probably be minutes for the rebels to adjust their targeting to hit them. She had to act fast.

“Prioritize the remaining air and space defense systems to deflect the kill rods off course. I need the three Type A2 Engineering Modules handed over to my protection unit. Give our remaining fleet orders to re-engage the rebels in orbit once Highspire has done its job. They are to then pick up as many evacuees as possible and regroup in the Lanton star system for rest and repair. Establish FTL comm with any other Hegemon force in the fringe and tell them to evacuate to Lanton as well.”

“I must protest this Prime Architect.” Sarnby interrupted. “I cannot condone your treasonous idea of giving up to the rebels.”

“You're a fool governor. A fool for wanting to stand up against a superior force. We do not have the resources to stop the rebels in the short term except for this course of action. What I do, I do so others such as yourself can live. Mav, remove the governor from here and evacuate. You're in charge of seeing everyone else survives. All of you go now.”

“Yes, Prime Architect.” Mav grabbed ahold of the shocked governor and pushed him out of the room. The personnel got up from their stations and left, letting her protection detail take their places to work the command control systems.

“I need an FTL comm open to Prime Architect Mahran and encrypt with my personal key. Feed it through my armors comm system.” Kusa triggered the armor to enclose her head. This would allow her some modicum of privacy.

“You're connected,” said one of Kusa's bodyguards.

An image appeared in one part of the HUD showing the connection active.

A voice came over, “It is good to hear from you, sister. how goes it out in the edge-ward fringe?”

“Not well brother. I admit that right now, it is lost to the rebels. The traitor Carios is here, and I’m going to destroy him.”

“I’m sorry that you have to do this Kusa. It’s a terrible thing that we fight among ourselves. It is my desire to see you and Carios return safely to the Hegemon, but I know that will not be. I will miss you both should either of you pass into oblivion.”

“Pass a message onto Renyx for me. She'll listen to you. Tell her she was right and I was wrong. Tell her to not give up hope. She will win against the rebels where I could not.”

“I’d prefer that you said this to her yourself, but I know you’re not on speaking terms with her. I have news myself. I am going to meet our brother Hostu within the year. We’ve decided to reactivate Project Starl. I will be out of contact for a while. I will miss you, sister.”

“As I you brother. Tell Hostu I wish him well. Good luck and I hope you succeed. I must bid you farewell for time is short.”

“I will give him your greetings. Good luck and good bye sister.”

The image in the HUD disappeared indicating the line had closed from the other end.

Kusa opened her helm again. “What is the nearest library node outside of rebel control?”

“The Vermarn Library,” One of her protectors answered.

“Make a connection to that node and begin an upload of our entire data set. At least the rest of the Hegemon can use the intelligence we gathered. Now get me a line open with the Rebel fleet. Tell them I am interested in surrendering my forces but will only speak with Carios.”

The ground shook again from another kill rod impact.

One of her bodyguards went to work on the comms. The holo-display which so far had been displaying a large 3D map of the Arsana star system and the battles within it changed to the ready state for the call. Kusa moved next to it. An image of a humanoid flickered into existence after a minute of waiting. It was her brother Carios.

“Sister Kusa, I hear you wish to surrender.”

“Carios, this would be so much easier if you stopped this nonsense and turned yourself into face justice.”

The man's expression went from one lacking emotion to anger.

“I did not murder Arla.”

“And what about all the men and women sent to their deaths in this rebellion of yours?”

“This is ridiculous Kusa. I didn't choose this. I did not want this. I did not ask for this. I did nothing to cause this because I did not kill Arla. I did not start your rebellion. Did you call me only so you can taunt me or were your words of surrender a lie? You and your rebels are outnumbered and outgunned. I will bring you in line with Hegemon Protocol.”

Kusa clenched her jaw at the suggestion she and her forces were the rebels but managed to keep a straight face. “It is true that your rebels are in the superior position. It galls me to say this but I am willing to surrender my forces with conditions on both our part. The colony infrastructure and environment are being destroyed needlessly with your kill rods. I ask that we limit ourselves to the conflict in and around Navamat city to a hundred eighty-three kilometers out. I’ve already ordered all defensive units elsewhere to stand down. If you look, you’ll see that all are evacuating their defensive positions or surrendering.”

Carios muted his end of the call and looked away appearing to talk with others offscreen. It was another minute before Carios came back on. “It appears you are telling the truth.”

“I am. I will turn off the space defense systems as a sign of faith. But only on two conditions. You stop with the kill rods. Arsana is a promising colony world. I don't want to see it turn into Kormault II all over again.”

“Point acknowledged, and what is the second condition?”

“The second is that my remaining forces within Navamat city will only surrender if you come down yourself to accept it. No one else will suffice. It's an honor I'm willing to give you as the victor in this battle, even if I do hate everything you stand for.”

“It sounds like you want to trap me somehow.”

“As much as I want to see you dead at my hands, I also want to see an end to this needless conflict. With you in the superior position, the only optimal outcome I see are my forces surrendering to you.”

“But why me? You don't need me to surrender. I can have elements of my forces down on the ground in an hour to accept your surrender.”

“My bodyguard unit’s quantum template is to alt-form into a copy of myself but with additional powers. They all look like me. No one can tell the difference without the use of a quantum template interpreter which as you know, is the size of a standard housing. There are none here in Navamat city. You’re the only one on your side who has the ability to tell. You won't know the truth that you have me until you see it with your own eyes. Regardless of your acceptance, as a sign of good faith, I am turning off the local defenses right now and turning the planetary protection system back to passive mode. I will be waiting at the Navamat city park in the center of the city. It has enough space to land a few shuttles. Don't forget to bring template suppressors for my bodyguards.” Kusa smiled and then signaled for the comms to be cut. The holo-display went dark.

Kusa smashed the holo-display in frustration. “Fuck him,” She screamed. “I’m going to kill him.” She took several deep breaths to compose herself. “Disable all defensive systems in the area, and revert the space defense system to passive mode.”

“Done.” One of her protectors said.

“Place the A2 engineering modules at each point of an equilateral triangle where the park is at the center in order to maximize the destruction of Navamat city. Have the engineering modules detonation set for five minutes after I order them detonated.”

“Architect, the rebels have stopped firing upon us,” a protector notified her.

“Excellent. Now once the charges are set. I'm ordering all except first company to evacuate and join up with other survivors. Make sure that they follow my orders and don't do anything stupid. First company is to go to the park and activate their alt-forms and wear their armor matching my own. I will join them shortly.”

Her protection detail left Kusa alone in the command room. Kusa patiently watched the display. After thirteen minutes, a number of shuttles showed up on the sensors heading away from the bulk of the rebel fleet towards the planet.

The people working on Highspire sent a message through. It was fully operational and running through its initial firing checks. It would be forty-two minutes before it could fire. Kusa estimated the shuttles would land just before that.

Despite all of the setbacks Kusa felt overjoyed at how things were coming together. Carios would either die in the fleet if he was a coward, or she would kill him after he landed. Kusa initiated a system purge of her forces data set, to prevent the rebels from gaining any intelligence. She then left the command center to reach the park in time.

The ride to the park was almost unnerving. The city was quiet, almost unnerving. She’d only experienced this a few times before when touring seed cities after their growth, but before the assigned citizens could move in. Even then she’d had a few administration personnel with her. Another seed city could be planted. The city would return, but her brother would be gone. It was one of the costs she was willing to pay.

Once at the park, she found the first company of her protection detail waiting. Seventeen men and women who had their template activated. All of them alt-formed to appear as a duplicate of herself. She’d even gone so far as to match the lines of power on the alt-form to those on herself. Kusa took up position among her lookalikes.

They waited patiently and watched as the rebel shuttles landed. Each dispersed their cargo of rebel troops. Carios was there in his power armor.

The rebel force moved in on Kusa's group, surrounding them. Carios entered the circle. He immediately came to Kusa.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other in person.”

“It has been long indeed.”

“Despite anything you might know, I did not kill Arla.

“That's not what the evidence shows. When you fled the system it sure didn’t help your case.”

“I didn't do it. I loved her.”

“We are forbidden to love brother. We cannot have loyalties to anything but the Hegemon and the citizens we serve.”

“It doesn't matter. Are you surrendering?”

“My forces are surrendering. Deactivate your armor modules and templates.” Kusa ordered.

With that statement by Kusa, her bodyguard units with her deactivated their armor and removed the modules from their back, letting them drop to the ground. They then deactivated their templates reverting to their normal forms revealing a mix of men and women of the Hegemon member races. They moved towards the waiting rebel soldiers with template suppression devices at the ready.

“This is a wise choice you've made sister. No further bloodshed is necessary.

“You must be mistaken. I am not surrendering. Just my remaining forces.”

Carios appeared skeptical. “You're outnumbered a few hundred to one at the moment.”

“Carios, I formally challenge you to a duel.”

“You're a fool if you think I'll do this.

“I have my reasons brother.”

“And what are they?”

Kusa yelled out so everyone could hear her. “As all of you are my witness, under Hegemon Citizen Code of Conduct 48 section 3, I challenge Prime Architect Carios to a duel for the death of Prime Architects Melca and Tenka Lyr, for disloyalty to the Hegemon as he has self-admitted by loving someone more than the hegemon, and for violation of the Environmental protocols by allowing the use of barbaric orbital bombardment weapons.”

“This is nonsense Kusa. I did not kill Arla and I certainly did not kill our siblings Melca and Tenka.” Carios did not dispute the use of the orbital bombardment.

“It is not nonsense brother. The starship Kardonis, the very same starship you operated from during the blockade of the Yelnor system was captured, allowing its black box and command control logs to be examined. It may have been our brother Gurz who wanted to do the black deed, but Admiral Lanxill wanted no part of it. It wasn't until you convinced the admiral, where Gurz had failed, to destroy the Fan Bilros. Tenka and Melca died there because of you. Gurz and Admiral Lanxil are both dead, but you're still alive.”

“No, I didn't want that. How was I to know Gurz would order the destruction of the Fan Bilros? This isn't my fault Kusa.”

“I don't care brother. When you say you didn't kill Arla, I believed you despite the evidence. I knew in my heart you didn't. Love may be forbidden to us, but I knew it when I saw it despite what the evidence said. But when you had Melca and Tenka killed and untold numbers of other citizens in this damnable rebellion of yours, my hope for you died. That is why I’m challenging you to a duel. Honor demands it. My honor, the honor of Melca and Tenka Lyr, and the honor of the Hegemon demand we duel.”

“I don't want this Kusa. I don't want to fight you like this. Retract your request for a duel. Go along peacefully and we can end this nonsense.”

Kusa drew her the sword and held it between her and Carios. It hummed to life as a harmonic hard light shield formed around it, leaving it with a razor sharp edge that should be able to cut through all but the densest of armor or another hard light shield.

“Are you admitting your guilt brother?”

“Now I know why you wanted to surrender your forces to me personally. Are you sure you want to do this sister?” Carios demanded of her.

“Yes.”

Carios raised his voice for his soldiers and recently acquired prisoners to hear. “Per Hegemon Citizen Code of Conduct 48 section five, No one is to interfere with this duel or they will face punishment under Code of Conduct 5 section 2.

“Now where will we duel?” Kusa smirked. “We might as well fight here in the park, but let us avoid fighting in and around the shuttles. How about the east half of the park?” She pointed away from the shuttles.

Carios appeared incensed. “I’m fine with that. I’ll beat you at your own game.”

The two of them move away from the landing craft and soldiers in silence.

“This is far enough,” Kusa said.

Carios drew his weapons. Two swords, both smaller than the one Kusa held. He assumed a stance typical of a duelist as he was trained. They hummed to life as well, the blades being sheathed in hard-light. His helmet closed, leaving him completely covered by his armor.

Kusa took up a stance, but one of her own design, one from experience with the war so far. Her armors helm closed as well.

They slowly moved close and touch tips of their weapons together as was the custom at the start of a duel.

“Ready,” Kusa asked

“Yes.”

Carios struck first and Kusa parried. The duel was on.

Neither knew how well the other one would duel. Before the civil war, only two types of people were allowed to wield a melee weapon. Law Enforcement and those with a dueling license. Being prime Architects, they had been neither.

Both had done what they could to learn how to survive. Both had taken up arms. They danced around probing each other's defenses. One would get a strike on the other but it wouldn’t be more than a small cut marring the surface of their armor.

The signal from Highpoint station came through. It was ready to fire. Kusa gave the order to do so.

Even through the atmosphere, the effects of the weapon was visible. Kusa described it in her mind as reality in the weapons target area distorted. Highspire used technology to create a temporary bubble where no time passed within, but on a large scale. The mode, beta four, she’d had it set in, it only went half-way through the process, distorting and tearing the matter within its target area apart at the quark level.

Carios jumped back away from Kusa to give him space, and screamed, “You were stalling. There were millions of citizens in stasis on those ships. How could you?”

Kusa snarled, “I’m going to destroy you, and those with you no matter what the cost. Better that a citizen dies, than become a rebel. I will end you.”

“No, no, how could you?”

Carios let his guard down. Kusa charged in, grazing his armor with a slash as he stumbled backward. Kusa pressed in on him.

“Why Kusa, why would you commit this heinous act?” Carios pleaded for an answer as he worked at parrying her strikes.

She remained silent, striking at Carios, forcing him further and further back. The signal Kusa was waiting for came over her armor’s radio. One of her bodyguards informed her the antimatter charges were ready.

“Prime them for three minutes instead of five and get out,” Kusa ordered. She ignored anything further her bodyguards might say.

“I don’t understand why you chose this, but I will see justice done,” Carios called out. He stopped moving back.

Kusa screamed in rage, “Justice, It’s too late for justice, this is vengeance.”

“So be it.” Carios lashed out with a kick catching Kusa in her right side, sending her stumbling to her left. In his mind, he concluded, the duel was only a trick and thus it wasn’t valid. This wasn’t a fight to bring justice. It was survival. He wouldn’t be held up by meaningless rules. It was okay to use a weapon other than a blade. It was okay to use oneself. It was a brawl now, and Carios would use anything and everything he could think of to get an advantage.

They went back and forth. Kusa hadn’t expected Carios to abandon the dueling rules and she started making mistakes. She over extended her reach with a thrust she thought she could get past her brother’s defense. Carios stepped aside and brought a blade down on her left wrist, slicing through the metal and flesh underneath. Kusa stumbled away, screaming in pain. She dropped her blade.

“It’s done, Kusa. I’m taking you in. I may hate what you’ve done, but I’ll see you’re brought to justice.” Carios said as he approached Kusa. She’d fallen on her behind and clutched the stump of her left arm. Her armor had already begun sealing the wound off.

“No, it isn’t.” Kusa leveled her right hand at Carios. A part of the armor extended out. A bright blue light flashed. Carios’ armor module lost all power. With no power, it couldn’t retract. With no power, it wouldn’t enhance his movement, rather it would weight on him, slowing him down. Dropping a sword to free a hand, he struggled to get his helmet open. Something hit him hard in the stomach sending him falling backward. Carios failed to maintain his balance and fell.

Damn it all Carios thought. He was going to die unless he got out of the armor. He managed to reach up and retract his helm partway, letting in light. Carios squinted, and found Kusa standing above him.

She’s retrieved her sword. He could do nothing as she drove it right through his chest missing his heart, pinning him to the ground. She released her hold on the sword. As a safety precaution, the sword turned its hard-light cover off, leaving it bare metal. Carios screamed as Kusa twisted the blade before she stepped back.

Kusa smiled, “I win. I’m going to destroy you much like you and others destroyed Melca and Tenka. You’re going to die.” She picked up the sword Carios had dropped.

“You’ll pay for your crimes.” Carios gasped out, struggling to form words. The sword had gone through one lung.

“I’m not leaving here. We’re dying together.”

Carios weakly reached up with his right arm to hold onto the blade. With his left hand, he pulled part of his armors left breastplate back to fish something out.

“You’re insane,” Carios gasped out through the pain. “I am not dying here today.” Carios pulled out a pendant, one in the shape of a black raven, clutching a clear bauble with a speck of golden brilliance at the center.

“Is that? Give that to me.” Kusa yelled.

Carios activated the pendant in his hand.

It was too late for Kusa. Carios, the sword impaling him, and a chunk of the ground disappeared in the blink of an eye.

“No. No. No.” She screamed. The SUN device had belonged to Melca. He’d taken it from her and he’d use it to escape. Her revenge was denied.

“Was it worth ignoring me and doing this?”

Kusa whipped around to see the source of the question. It was skull face as she had labeled it. It had never given its name to her and had jokingly accepted her label. It was a skeleton wearing an average basic set of clothes, typical of what any citizen of the Hegemon would casually wear. This was the eighth time it had come to her in person, and it only came when she was alone.

“You’re on the hook for your deeds today and there’s nothing I can do about that.”

“I messed up. My trap only caught myself.” She stated the obvious.

The three A2 engineering modules detonated, enveloping the city of Navamat in a maelstrom of energy as matter and antimatter collided and annihilated each other. Kusa’s world ripped apart, leaving her in a painless void with Skullface. Her hand was no longer cut off, although her armor had no glove to cover it

The skeleton walked up and punched Kusa square in the face. Other than the feeling of pressure on her face, it didn’t hurt nor did any damage.

“Dammit girl,” The skeleton had raised his voice, “Why do you choose the same choice every time. You’ll only get so many chances before it’s too late. I like you. I really do. I’ll see if I can push through a few changes whether the rest like it or not. I think it’s doable. We’ll just have to go farther back.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’ve never understood what you’re talking about.” Kusa’s ghost said as she faded out from in front of skull face, this part of her soul going to where Skull-face had long been denied.

“I know, but someday, somehow, I’ll get through to you.” The Skeleton said to the void.

~-~

June 20, 1189 BC
Library Node #238
Vermarn IV

~-~

The door to the private viewing room whisked open, then shut. Erlan looked over his shoulder. Binlor Lyr stood there with a frown. She held a tray with what appeared to be freshly made rations.

“I brought you food since you missed the evening meal. It’s also late. I know you like to work late but it’s after midnight.” Binlor set the tray with food down on a table.

“I don’t sleep all that much,” Erlan spoke as he turned fully around to face her, hoping to placate the woman he’d chosen for to supervise the task of reintegrating the library on Vermarn IV back into the Hegemon library network.

“Just because you’re a prime architect, doesn’t mean you don’t need sleep like everyone else.” Binlor reminded him.

Erlan had picked Binlor mainly because he was sure she wasn’t associated with the Shadow Hegemon. What Erlan hadn’t foreseen when he picked her, was her goal of caring for Erlan as more than a co-worker. She was almost like a creche mother to him. Even though he was tens of millennia older than her. It felt nice to him.

“I don’t want to find you sleeping at your desk again. We all worry about you.”

Erlan looked over his shoulder again at Binlor and smiled. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I really appreciate what you do for me, but I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, but don’t push yourself.”

Erlan watched Binlor leave. As soon as the door shut he returned his attention to the data he had been processing.

The room, although being a private viewing room, had no lock on the door. It was only considered private in modern society because it had a door. It wasn’t lost on Erlan that he could have had a guard posted outside to prevent anyone from disturbing him. In contrast with the surviving Prime Architects, he’d long thought it a sign of vanity and a waste of resources to have a protection detail. Using a soldier or law enforcer in such a manner went against what Erlan believed. With his discovery of the Shadow Hegemon, Erlan knew that he wouldn’t be the one to vet anyone outside of his personally chosen staff.

The soldiers and law enforcers had accordingly been barracked elsewhere outside the library facility.

The feat of getting himself out in the spinward fringe working to recover a library on an abandoned colony world had not sat well with anyone in the Hegemon. He sold himself and his ability as necessary to save resources for the Hegemon while gaining new ones. If the project was successful, then he could go recover data from other libraries which had been long disconnected from the main network.

The abilities Erlan referred to was his mind. As a Prime Architect, his mind had been engineered to process the incredible amount of data for a quantum template and do it fast.

In comparison, It was easy to process the contents of a disconnected library node.

As for why Erlan had made this his goal, he hoped to find more about the Shadow Hegemon itself, or even better yet, something they didn’t know that he could use against them if he needed to.

Erlan had assumed even with his precautions, the Shadow Hegemon had placed spies amongst his people. Here in the library, Erlan ruled supreme. He ran the project. He was the project. There was no one else checking the data. Unless another Prime Architect joined him in his efforts, anyone who tried to process the data would get in his way.

It was another hour when Erlan reached something he never expected. A data set with his sister Kusa’s digital signature on them. The files were dated the suspected date of her death from what intel had been recovered from Carios side of the civil war. The date was only months after the Vermarn system had been abandoned and its library node disconnected.

Erlan parsed through what the library network had and compared it to what this node had. It had none of these files. He began reading through them.

A document caught his eye containing an idea to build a weapon to fight against the rebels. Fishing through, he discovered the documents for a project called Highspire. After decrypting it, he opened the file and read the details. An unorthodox weapon. Completely immobile. Enough range that it could cover anything in orbit around an average sized planetoid it was built on. A defensive weapon.

Erlan wondered if it’d been used.

Doing a quick search of references to the project, brought up several documents. The most recent one containing data on the weapon, Erlan opened, and his mouth went dry.

She’d used it, in one of the most deplorable ways possible.

Erlan had never been close to Kusa. What Carios had said was true. Any respect he’d had for his sister was gone. The device itself wasn’t illegal. The tech used in the weapon had long been used by the Hegemon in various ways. It’s what she’d done with it that was unacceptable. She’d murdered her own fellow citizens that the rebels had captured. It was unheard of for either side to destroy a citizen on purpose and it was everything was done to minimize accidents. It was the primary reason for the raids both sides did against each other between their attempts to capture whole star systems. Rescue and recover as many citizens as possible.

Thinking back to the start of the rebellion. Erlan knew It was chaotic, but no one anywhere had sunk so low as to murder citizens to get at the other side. Accidents happened, but this was no accident. To Erlan, this was unconscionable

Erlan quickly segregated any document related to Kusa that he could find and quarantined it, encrypting it so only he could access it. Not even his fellow Prime Architects would be able to access it unless they cracked the encryption.

Checking through the data, he confirmed that Kusa did die. She had faced Carios and he’d escaped somehow. With the rebel fleet destroyed, those ships that’d survived had been ordered to regroup in the Lanton star system.

Erlan didn’t remember hearing anything about that. He did a quick search of the library network and nothing came up for a group of starships returning from the edge-ward part of the fringe. The only news they’d had of what occurred on that day was from the account of their sibling Carious who said Kusa had gone mad.

Records here indicated that over a hundred ships of Kusa’s fleet survived the battle, at least eight carriers. She’d ordered them to get as many surviving citizens and retreat. Parsing through events of previous records showed that Kusa had set up a repair base on a barely habitable planet in the Lanton system and had sent almost four hundred starships there in her campaign. Checking the ships against records in the library network showed that not a single ship that could have returned from that group did.

A thought then occurred to Erlan. Even with the forty-three carriers and remaining capital ships that should have been available at Lanton, it wouldn’t have been enough to take the whole population of Arsan, let alone the entire area of the fringe. The math didn’t lie.

What about other star systems that’d been abandoned, wondered Erlan. She’d never had enough passenger space. Looking at what the reports said about the rebels said the same thing. Not enough people could be carried back to the core worlds. Looking up what intel they had about the rebel fleet in the area during the civil war showed no sign of the reported rebel ships in the edge-ward fringe having ever returned. They were most likely destroyed in the use of Highspire.

Dead or Alive, They’re still out there. A whole section of the fringe that was abandoned out of hand and no one has gone back out. Erlan brought up a list of infrastructure in the area.

Erlan couldn’t believe the next tidbit of info he stumbled upon. Why would anyone have been crazy to abandon the Arkonis system? Somewhere in his mind, Erlan knew that the Arkonis system was somewhere in the fringe and had been abandoned but he’d never payed attention where. Right there within the area Kusa had done her best and worst to defend against the rebels was the home of the third race uplifted into the Hegemon. Reports Erlan found indicated Kusa had stripped it of any usable infrastructure.

Almost everywhere else in the fringe had an orderly withdrawal as resources were diverted to the war effort. Everywhere except in the edge-ward fringe where Carios and Kusa decided to throw down with each other in the ugliest of ways. Everyone made the assumption from what Carios had exaggerated the events. No one ever came back to give a different story.

The Arsana system was considered at the time of the civil war to be one of the most promising colony worlds still being settled. Arkonis contained the fourth race's homeworld and technically life was self-sufficient even though being slightly off the ecology standard. Going through the reports, Erlan counted a dozen worlds that in theory would have had citizens left on them and been, for the most part, self-sufficient to meet basic survival needs in the long term.

No, they wouldn’t be citizens. They’d be individuals. They wouldn’t have sides. They wouldn’t be part of this rebellion anymore. Would any of the protocols still be in effect out there, he wondered. The protocols were similar in nature to a quantum template. If they weren’t filtered out on a citizen pre-fertilization and re-applied post-birth, they would become corrupted with each generation. Average citizen genetic donor age is twenty-two. It’s been 9056 years from Kusa and Carios’ fight on Arsana IV. That’s just over 411 generations. No one has done protocol updates in that time.

How can I confirm if they’re still alive, Erlan asked himself. He could leave right now and go, but he’d draw attention to himself. He’d start a race between the factions to reclaim potential resources.

It came to Erlan. The automated system report collection routine may have something. Normally a Library only collected the automated reports from infrastructure in star systems that weren’t closer to other libraries. The nearest library to the area in the fringe was Caramor, but that’d been abandoned early in the war. It would still collect reports. But Kusa had used Vermarn because it was the nearest non-rebel active library that hadn’t been destroyed or abandoned. The next two nearest libraries after Caramor had both been destroyed during the civil war, and that put Vermarn as the closest. What luck. Erlan checked the log files. 2402 years ago the Caramor library went offline completely due to system failure.

There it was. Everything in that part of the fringe making reports had failed over to the Vermarn library node.

Which reports would have what I need, Erlan thought. Automated systems didn’t require human interaction. It was why they were automated. The only time someone would look at the reports was if a report aggregating system caught something that would trigger an alert. It had to be something with a log of some sort. Video preferably. Erlan found what he was looking for. A security alert from the terraforming system on Arsana dated 153 years ago.

Erlan hit play. It wasn’t an animal. It was an Albaz, and someone descended from an Arkonissian. The clothing appeared crude and archaic. One held what appeared to be a stick with a flame on the end. They were oblivious to the system that watched them as they walked through the corridor of the facility. A corridor filled with dust and some debris.

They’re still alive. At least 153 years ago, they were alive. Erlan went back through any other alerts he could find with video in any system that would have a video log. People inhabited these places and there was no indication of them being Hegemon in their appearance or behavior.

Maybe no Shadow Hegemon. The Shadow Hegemon wouldn’t let the fringe go wild. They’d control it like they’d tried to control the Hegemon. The thought that no one, not even the Shadow Hegemon knew what Erlan knew at the moment ran circles through his mind. This was it. This was exactly what he wanted. Erlan had a chance.

There were inhabited worlds out there. Worlds that could be raised up and be stronger than the Hegemon and its malevolent shadow. Worlds that could be free. Worlds that would be free.

~-~

May 6, 1872, AD
Gaeta Winter Encampment
Arsan IV

~-~

Kregg opened his eyes and rubbed away the sleep crud. The air was particularly chilly this morning and his breath was visible. He turned his head, viewed the inside of his hut. His fire had died down overnight to only coals allowing the chill air in. Bright sunlight streamed in through the smoke hole in the roof.

On a normal day, Kregg was awake and working before dawn. Today was an exception thanks to Jasma. She’d visited him in his dreams again. They weren’t really dreams, but always felt like such, and lasted much longer. Kregg had lost count of the times she came to visit.

When he was younger, Kregg was wary of this strange woman who intruded in his mind at night. When he finally admitted to his mentor, Noth Kutalla, Noth had laughed and said he had asked Jasma to visit him. He then had admitted to Kregg that he has had the pleasure of meeting her in person. To his point of view, Jasma had always seemed personable, asking after him and his family's welfare, and talking to him about his life on Arsan.

This time, Jasma’s visit was different. This time, Jasma asked Kregg to leave home and go out in the world. She had done her best to calm his fears stating he would need experience in life to learn and grow.

Kregg could hear sounds of people working through the walls of his hut. It must be well into the morning or even later he realized.

Sitting up on the edge of the cot, he braced himself and stood up. Feeling his power reserve, Kregg realized it was lower than he’d like. He’d need to get something to eat. He found some jerky and ate a piece of it. Kregg placed another log on the fire and stoked it, sending embers and ash up in a flurry of smoke. The fire rekindled drove the chill air away.

On the youthful side of life for an Albaz, Kregg was 241 years old. He was on the tall side at six foot six. Had the typical pointed ears. His eyes, a pale sky blue, his hair was a fair golden brown that he kept short. Kregg kept fit and didn't laze about.

What would he take with him, Kregg asked himself. After dressing himself, he started a collection of gear on his cot. His pack, bedroll, sword, change of clothes and other items were organized. If Kregg wanted to, he could build a cart and take all his belongings, but that wasn't what he wanted. His new desire was to travel out into the world, not move somewhere and stay. Lightweight was the goal. There was no need to weigh himself down with any literal or metaphorical excess baggage.

The door to his hut opened. It was his mentor, Noth. He came in only far enough to shut the door.

“I saw the smoke and thought you finally awake for tending your fire. You did not come out this morning, I, “ Kutalla paused seeing Kregg packing his belongings. “Jasma told me she’d ask you about this. I see you’ve taken her up on the offer." his voice turned morose.

Kregg, didn't face his mentor. Taking care in his choice of what he would take, Kregg did not distract himself by looking away.

"There isn't a need to go. You could always refuse.”

"I know,” Kregg said. “Jasma came to me last night. Said it was time." He reached for an item off of a shelf he thought he might need. Some trinket, turning it over in his hand, once, twice, then set it back down, and moved onto the next item.

"Are you sure you want this?"

"Yes, No, it doesn't matter. What can I say? She was persuasive against my protests. Maybe I’ll get to meet her in person." Kregg moved through his belongings, considering the various factors of taking it versus any other. "I'm old enough, Master Kutalla. I have no outstanding debt, nor do I have any responsibilities such as a family to keep me here. The Creator willing, I'll be back."

Kutalla chuckled and Kregg kept on sorting through his belongings. "I'm sure you will. Just watch out in the shadows." With that, Noth left Kregg alone and exited the hut.

"I know.”

It did not take long to go through all his belongings. Everything ready to go, the last being the sword he placed in a scabbard and attached to his pack. Kregg exited his hut and stood outside to observe the other members of the Gaeta tribe nearby. Seeing the first person he wanted, he called out, "Obarth,"

Obarth stopped tending the small garden plot he’d been, and came over, "Hi Kregg, I see that today is the day you're leaving. I always knew you’d go. Spina is already out on a hunt, if you want her, you'd have to wait for her to come back to see you off."

Kregg held up a sack of items, “I’m going now. But here, this is for you and Spina to go through. It's a few things I figure may be of sentimental value between us. The three of us were close."

They had been close, but Kregg had grown distant over the last few summers since Spina and Obarth had taken up with each other rather than either of them with him. He did not fault them. He just no longer put forth any effort to pursue either one staying a friend.

Obarth took the proffered sack of items. He extended his arm out, "I'll miss you Kregg. You're a good man and the best of friends."

"Thank you," Kregg grasped his friend's forearm and Obarth did likewise. They released each other. "I'll miss you Obarth, both you and Spina. Tell her I'll miss her."

“I will. I look forward to your return and your exciting stories.”

“I hope they're boring for my own good,” Kregg laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back.”

Kregg left Obarth to his work and began walking through the village to find his mother. She was the last one he would talk to before he left on his way. He found her working in the communal kitchen, directing several children in how to prepare and cook food.

He watched for a few minutes as she directed the children's efforts. Finally, he spoke out, "Mother?"

She came over and stood before him. “Noth already told me you were leaving today. He explained everything. I’m going to miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too, mom.” Kregg, let his mother move in and hug him awkwardly with his gear on.

When she released her hug, she spoke up, “I have a sack of food for you. Should last you a week with your appetite.” Her attempt at humor didn’t hide her sadness. She retrieved a sack full of food. Kregg, knowing his mother, guessed it had well over a week's worth of food.

“I’m sad to see you go, but be off, and visit when you can." His mother kissed him on his cheek.

“I will,” Kregg retrieved the sack and turned away. A few of his tribe mates looked on him as he passed with a knowing look.

Kregg walked out of the encampment, not looking back once, and headed south to reach the escarpment and the lands below it. Jasma hadn’t said where to go, other than to leave home. Kregg felt that was the best way to go.

~-~

July 16, 1879, AD
Argravm Coastal Highway
Arsana IV

~-~

It had been seven years since Kregg left his village to wander through the world. He had returned home a few times to visit with his tribe and family.

Jasma still visited him from time to time in his sleep, conversing with him about his life, telling him of hers. She had even offered for him to come visit her, but he said he wasn’t ready. Rather, he took to mind her suggestions on places to go and things to see. She also gave suggestions for work.

The first two years Kregg guarded caravans out of Ganjomo. The next three years he hired on in Allorith as a city patrolman around the University. Jasma convinced him during that time to take a few courses offered there in the idea to better himself. He had spent the last two years in Fahrennia as a guardsman.

This year, it was time for a venue change, After speaking with Jasma, Kregg decided to go north along the coast to Argravm. The last year saw Argravm's ruling monarch murdered. There was no clear line of succession which caused no end of problems as local lords came into conflict with each other vying for power and resources. Kregg thought he could take up service with a town or lord clearing bandits that had become a nuisance because of that.

Kregg traveled by foot refusing the use of a cart or riding animal. For the most part, his journey was a solitary one. Most traffic was the opposite way out of the area by refugees. Those he passed, if they deigned to speak with the lone albaz they viewed as an uncivilized foreigner, gave warnings. The ones who said nothing stared at the crazy man traveling alone into what they considered dangerous territory and were fleeing from.

It was late in the afternoon of his fourth day past the border into Argravm, that Kregg approached a bend in the road as it curved left away from the coast to go around a small hill. His map showed him there should be a small village a few miles up the road, hopefully with a warm bed and a hot meal.

A scream rang out. To Kregg's ears, it sounded like a shrill woman, or maybe a girl-child. There was nothing he could see out of place along the road. He stepped off the road into the brush and picked up his pace trying to remain out of site of whatever had caused the scream. Within minutes he had reached the bend and could see what the commotion was about.

A group of men had stopped two carts on the road. The men didn't look professional. None wore a uniform. Some weren't even fully clothed, and they had a mishmash of armor and arms. These were most likely the bandits and the first ones Kregg had seen.

There was nobody on or in the two carts that Kregg could surmise other than the bandits. The riders or owners had been forced into a scared huddle to the side. Two of the ruffians looked to be fleecing them down. The rest of the bandits were going through the cart’s contents. There were eight bandits in total he could see. He thought that if the bandits were smart, they’d have at least two men providing watch. One with the group and one man hid in the brush. None of the bandits on the road seemed particularly aware of anything beyond their looting. Kregg moved as close as he could, which placed him on the side of the carts with the huddle of people.

He set his pack down quietly and drew his sword. He stepped out from the cover of the brush. None of the bandits paid him any attention. No hidden bandit in the brush called out in alarm.

Were they so blind or stupid, thought Kregg? He had a hard time understanding how bad these men were at what they were doing.

Kregg cleared his throat, and said, "Excuse me."

Everyone that had line of sight turned towards him. In their mind, they saw only a lone albaz, lightly armed with a one-handed sword that had been drawn and no armor to speak of.

The nearest bandit, yelled out, "We got a fighter over here boys." Him and the other bandit nearest to Kregg on this side of the carts moved closer. "Best ye' surrender albaz, you're a long way from yah' barbarian home by the looks of ye'. Yah' outnumbered."

Kregg smiled, "Not as I see it."

The same bandit spoke again, "You think yah' so tuff. We'll kill you and take ye' stuff." He and the other had their weapons out. The talker had a sword in his right hand and wore no armor, and the other a spear held with both and wore only a hard leather vest.

Assuming a defensive stance as they approached, Kregg made note the other men had come off from the carts and watched, waiting to see what would happen and if they needed to jump in. The two bandits spread out, placing them on both sides of Kregg in a pincer. The spearman held his spear too far forward.

Kregg kept his smile and maintained his calm. He stepped sideways towards and to the right side of the spearman striking the spear tip away with his sword faster than the man could reposition the spear or himself. His poor posturing with the spear put him off balance. Kregg was able to strike through an opening under the man's armor at his waist and kick him away. He went to the ground. Kregg turned bringing his sword up to meet the more talkative bandit, and their swords struck each other.

"Ye' pay for that, albaz," The man yelled,

Letting the bandit make the next strike, he parried, stepped aside, reached out with his left hand, grabbed the bandits wrist and pulled him forward bringing him off balance. Before the bandit could recover, Kregg tripped him, sending the bandit to his hands and knees. Kregg brought his sword down across the exposed back of the neck, killing the man.

Turning to the rest of the bandits and assuming another defensive stance, Kregg spoke out smiling, "Which of you is next?" The two bandits deaths had happened in less than a minute.

The other were taken aback at the demise of their two compatriots. They appeared to want to break and run. One of the bandits said the worst thing Kregg could think of for one of them to say in this situation.

"If we swarm the bastard, one of us will get him. He can't take all of us."

A chorus of agreement ran through the group. They had drawn their weapons and it was almost as if the same scene would repeat itself, although they would start at a farther distance from Kregg this time. Three had swords, one had a club, one a staff, and one a spear. None of these men were good at what they were attempting to do, and Kregg almost felt pity at what he was going to attempt to do with them.

He felt within himself, feeling out his reservoir of power. It was over half full. Enough that if he had to, he could fuel his power should he not be able to take the bandits by his sword arm alone.

The six men rushed past the people huddled together, and circled him much like the first two had, except they remained silent, nervously wary of the danger Kregg posed to them.

Kregg kept his smile up and said nothing. He watched them as best as he could.

The bandit behind him made the first move. Kregg picked up on it, moving away towards one of the bandits carrying the swords, slashing out and putting him off balance, the man with the staff swung it around to get him. Kregg avoided it and found himself outside of the circle. He stepped further away and turned to face the approaching men. They were an undisciplined mess, easily maneuvered around, and drawn along. Much like anything else Kregg thought they should be able to do, they couldn’t fight as a group.

Even with their ineptitude, Kregg discovered a problem. Despite how bad these men fought, they were crazy and desperate enough with their actions, he couldn't commit himself for a killing stroke and not leave himself open. If he’d had a set of armor like what a Fahrennian guardsman wore, he’d not worry, trusting in its protection, but he didn’t own one.

A few cuts were all he could make but nothing lethal he could follow through on.

The dance continued. Maybe a little more time and they would tire so he could finish the fight and cut their numbers. Maybe they would run, but the longer he delayed, the more emboldened they became. He didn't want to use his power if he didn't have to. Its use could draw the wrong attention and Kregg didn't want the hassle if he didn't have to have it. On the other hand, he didn't want to die and leave the travelers at the mercy of the bandits. If Kregg couldn't resolve the fight by the time he counted to fifteen, he would activate.

One

He parried a sword, dodged a spear thrust while sidestepping a slash from a bandit's sword.

Two

Kregg tripped one of them, stepped back to avoid the club, maneuvered away for more space.

Three

Kicked the spearman, causing him to stagger. Stepped back again and parried another sword.

Number by number, Kregg counted up to fifteen. At any time he could have run away, or he could have taken a wound, possibly a lethal wound, but win the fight. Fifteen was reached.

Kregg, jogged back out of their reach putting distance between them. He took a defensive stance. The reservoir of power was there, waiting. He tapped into it, filling him, changing him. Quantum energy visibly flared out bathing his body. Those who were watching were temporarily blinded. His base form converted to another, something different.

The six bandits took pause at the unexpected sight.

The place where Kregg had been, stood an unclothed five-foot tall woman carrying the same sword Kregg had carried before. Her skin and hair an absolute solid white with glowing power lines all over. She had no nose, mouth, or eyes, her face being featureless except for two black spots where her eyes should be that radiated small swirling and twisting tendrils. The sword she held glowed with a pale white light with light particles dropping off to the ground.

The bandits didn't know what to think about this strange woman before them and didn't press forward.

Kregg changed her stance from a defensive to the offense. She spoke, "I tire of this. Run now and live, or stay and die."

One bandit took off running, one with a sword. The rest again attempted to encircle Kregg, but this time, she wouldn't give them the chance.

"So be it," Kregg moved to the nearest bandit. The bandit attempted to hold his sword to deflect the blow, but he wasn’t fast enough. Kregg ignored it, stepping around it, thrusting her blade into his chest. She withdrew the blade from his body and moved onto the next one, who had barely registered the end of the first.

She moved to each bandit who had tried to face her, one by one. Each one died.

Kregg turned herself around to survey the carnage she had wrought. Seven men dead. The travelers who had been waylaid stared with awe and fear. She reached within herself to the reservoir of power. It had barely been reduced by this effort. She willed the access to her power off and felt a similar tingling. The same quantum energy flared and he was his normal Albaz self, fully clothed, and fully male again. None of the travelers he saved moved.

Kregg turned to face them. Breaking the ice he said, "I'm sorry that you were troubled this day. I hope that you are troubled no more on your journey." Kregg nodded before leaving them to retrieve his pack.

A few of the travelers, less afraid than the rest, thanked him from a distance. One even offered him a payment. He refused it saying they had more need of the money than he.

Passing the travelers, Kregg saw two men on horseback. With them, they had three more horses tied up behind them. Neither appeared to be riff-raff like the bandits. Both appeared well equipped and even wore somewhat archaic heavy armor kept in good repair. All of their equipment that Kregg could see was quality and well maintained. The one on the left had a rare rifle slung on his back. Kregg remained silent and went to walk around them.

The man on horseback nearest Kregg spoke, "My good man, We just arrived here and would have helped but we saw you had the situation well in hand. My name is Tihr," he bowed his head, "and this is my good friend Galim." He waved his hand to indicate the man with the rifle. "We are glad to see that you are okay. It looked close there for a moment, but you have proven your skill and thus we have a proposition for you."

Kregg, almost past the head of Tihr's horse, had stopped to face the two men. "What would that be?" Kregg could see the opportunity for a job.

Tihr answered, "We both are Knights of Aturn, and we are always looking for more good men," Galim coughed,"and women. We do not discriminate. We don't see many Albaz south of the escarpment and north of the blight, especially here in Argravm. You appear capable, and from what we witnessed, also one with a power. We could use you and your talents What say you, interested in joining?"

Kregg thought to himself. He had heard of the Knights of Aturn before, even seen them at distance once when they had traveled through the camp of his tribe when he was a child. They’d spoken with Noth and left, not even staying the night. They were mercenaries and very good ones. Their jobs were high paying jobs and seemed they were known to get results.

It occurred to Kregg. Perhaps this is what he was supposed to find when he decided on going to Argravm at Jasma’s behest. He’d ask her about it next time she visited him.

"Yes. Yes, I would like that very much. My name is Kregg." Kregg stated.

"Welcome Kregg," Tihr said. Galim nodded in response. Tihr got off his horse and went to one of the horses tied behind his. Here, this one is yours to use. He had detached the reins from his horse and handed them to Kregg. Then he reached into a belt pouch and pulled a small object out. He also handed it over.

It was a signet ring with the Knight's of Aturn sigil on it. There appeared nothing special about it. He checked and the ring fit on his left index finger. He then inspected the saddle. It was of decent quality. Securing his pack, Kregg climbed on. "Are you going anywhere in particular?" Tihr had already returned to his saddle.

Tirh answered. Kregg picked up that Galim was the silent type, who let Tihr speak for them, "We have just come from investigating the murder of Argravm's king. Now we ride for the blight where we'll meet with a man for more work."

They started their horses down the road back towards Fahrennia and their destination of the blight. Curious Kregg asked, "Is there anything special about being a Knight of Aturn" Any ceremony, tools, or quest to truly be a member?"

"No. Your acceptance is good enough. You're already a knight. Us knights don't put much into ceremony and pomp. We just recruit skilled people as we go. Nothing special about it. How does Sir Kregg sound?"

“Hmmm, no, Kregg will do just fine.” Kregg shook his head no at their suggestion.

“Kregg it is. Let’s be off.”

The three men and their horses headed south back the way Kregg had come from.

~-~

February 2, 1883 AD
Vindrik City
Arsana IV

~-~

Out on the horizon, the sun crept lower and lower. Lark flew inches above the edge of rooftops, occasionally peeking over the edge to make sure she hadn’t lost her target. In the fading light of dusk, anyone’s looking in her direction would be hard pressed to notice her.

The autocart she followed was unremarkable in any way from any other autocart on the road with the exception she’d been able to tag it earlier with a paint that only showed up in the ultra-violet part of the spectrum. It was a new and valuable technique Erlan, and the Knights of Aturn had developed to tail someone. He’d provided the paint and sets of these high-tech visors which allowed them to see the otherwise invisible paint.

“They just turned onto 14th Market Street.” Lark subvocalized over her suits throat mike.

Lark had long familiarized herself with the layout and makeup of Vindrik city. This particular part of the Marless District consisted mostly of workshops, factories, and warehouses. Nothing but large two to four story buildings.

She adjusted the visor on her face. It was a bit too big and rubbed the bridge of her nose wrong. “This visor is great, but, can I get one that fits better,” she spoke through the mic.

Erlan responded, “We’ll work on it later. I’ll have a better set made for you.”

“Thanks. They cart looks to be wandering around. Already they’ve turned three corners, and almost double backed to the main thoroughfare. They’re trying to shake any tails.”

None of their efforts would do them any good. The operators of the cart couldn’t account for an eye in the sky. Several more turns, the cart ended up at the front gate to a warehouse. Two people came out of what must be a guard shack to open the gate.

“They’ve stopped. It’s a warehouse a third of the way up H9 Road. East side of the road.” The visor could not only see into the ultraviolet spectrum but had a telescopic function which Lark used to zoom in. “Both guards, no wait, I see three of them. One is still in the shack. They’re armed with rifles. Type 48s, but not sure what configuration.”

Lark knew the rifles were illegal for a private citizen to own. They were restricted to the military because they were the Empires next generation of semi-automatic rifles.

“Maybe a renegade part of the military was in on this,” Lark suggested. “There’s nothing special about what’s in the yard. I can see four other warehouses from here with the same type of equipment. There’s a corral on one side with oxen and horses. Livestock cages. Two animal-drawn carts are parked in the yard. Nothing appears out of the ordinary other than the rifles the men are carrying.”

The doors on the autocart opened. Two men got out, scanning the area. A third man left the cart after they did. All were dressed in typical fashion common among the upper class. The third man wore clothes, typical of someone of someone well off and looked to be well groomed.

“Two escorts and a VIP. All male.”

Erlan came over the comm, “Identification?”

“The VIP is not facing me. Flying around to get a better view. Wait, no, the warehouse door is opening. The three men are moving towards it. I can’t make out enough detail to make an identification. Men are exiting the warehouse. Hold on. Another VIP has exited the warehouse. It’s our friend Tathi Harnoss. Our favorite criminal kingpin in Vindrik.”

“The VIP meeting them?”

“Still no ID yet. They’ve entered the warehouse, and I wasn’t able to see his face.”

“We’ll have to wait till he comes out. The operation in Nerist is still ongoing. Estimate it’ll be an hour before I can divert overhead and run a scan. Keep me apprised of any changes.”

Checking her power reservoir, Lark saw it was over half empty. “I’m setting down on a nearby building with a view of the entrance. I need to eat. I’ve been flying for hours now.”

Erlan acknowledged, “Okay, keep watch.”

Lark set herself down on the building of her choice. She could easily see the warehouse door which had been shut. She pulled out of her small pack, three food bars. Ripping open the package on the first one, she began wolfing it down.

A half hour later, something changed. “Erlan, two heavy, four animal carts, are making their way towards the warehouse. Contents covered.” It was dark enough it should allow her to use thermal. Lark toggled a setting on her visor. “Switching to Thermal. Heavy Thermal count. Unable to tell if human or not. Same deal as before. They pulled up to the gate. Guards are letting them in. They’re backing the carts up to the door which is opening. So much for my view of the door. The carts are obstructing everything at ground level.” Lark did her best to narrate what she saw. Lark finished wolfing down her second energy bar.

“Make a verification if you can. We need to know for sure.” Erlan came back.

“Aye,” Lark tweaked the settings on her visors to get as clear a picture of the inside of the warehouse. The disparity in light sources and insulation on the walls of the warehouse against the ever present cold weather interfered greatly. “No can do from where I’m at. Taking flight again.”

Lark stuffed the third food bar back in her pack. She lifted off and arced up and over the target to get a better view from directly above of what the men were unloading from the carts.

“Shit, cargo is humans. Bodies are being carried inside from the carts.

“I can’t divert yet. At least we know one of the places the missing is ending up at. I’m calling in backup for you. Has the VIP come out?”

“No.”

Lark checked her power reservoir again. It read over 80% full.

“I see a roof entrance and windows high up on the sides of the building. I’m going to check them out. First windows then the roof entrance.”

Lark floated up above the warehouse, the guards below oblivious to her presence. She came down slowly to the roof's edge and peeked over. There was no one she could see. Lark floated upside down to get a view through the window.

“I can’t see much. There're racks of equipment blocking my view. There’s a catwalk along the roof. There’s a single guard I can see. He’s focused on looking down. The roof entrance is behind him. Guard has a rifle, matches the ones below. Now that I’m closer, it looks like it’s the basic model. Going to the roof entrance now to check it.”

Lark flew up to the hatch. There was no lock on it, she could see, only a latch. Using her visor she flipped through a range of the em spectrum to peek through the door. Nothing other than the latch and hinges showed up. There was no trap she could detect.

“It’s not locked, and I’m sure it’s not trapped. I’m going in to get a better view. The guard will be oblivious to me and I can get a better view.

“No, wait for reinforcements,” Erlan ordered

“ETA?”

“Two hours.”

“Still going in. We need to know what’s inside for sure.”

Lark carefully and slowly opened the door. A blast of hot humid air, bringing with it the faint smell of human waste and rotting meat.

“Something smells.”

Lark entered floating down through the open hatch. The catwalk blocked anyone from seeing her from below, and the single guard on it remained oblivious to her. She slowly closed the hatch but didn’t latch it. Lark floated up into the rafters to obstruct anyone's view of her before moved to a better vantage point.

Six men lounged by the door, all armed with the rifles. Several unarmed men were unloading what she thought were unconscious bodies and placing them into cages with others. Lark did a headcount from what she could see.

“They’re definitely our target. I count one hundred sixty-two prisoners. There’s a small cart with several dead bodies on it which explains the smell of rotting flesh. Count a total of eight laborers, and counting those I could see outside, fifteen armed men, not including the VIP and his men.

“Any sight of the VIP?”

“No, but there are offices they may be in. One of them has the two bodyguards standing outside, so I’m sure they’re in there.”

“Be careful. I’m still not able to divert overhead and backup is over an hour away.”

Lark flew down behind shelving units full of machinery. The place had a severe lack of internal security that Lark was ready and willing to exploit. Not a single man patrolled the inside, and the one guard who had a view of the warehouse was focused on the prisoners. There was a storage space above the office. Lark was able to take cover behind a few crates stacked there. She had to be careful. If the floor creaked from her pressure, it’d give her away. She precariously balanced, floating a centimeter above the surface, only a hand cupped around her ear to help focus the sound touching the floor. She could hear two men talking. It was distorted enough she couldn’t identify who the speaker was, but it was understandable.

One voice spoke, “Rumors are spreading.”

“Stop them.”

“We are, but we have to hear them find them, and usually we’re not the first to hear them. You know how it works. We’re playing catch up in that regards. It’s why your office does what it does. And before you accuse us of slacking, I’ve got my men, round the clock squashing the rumors.”

“I wasn’t complaining. You’ve done what you’re supposed to.”

“How long until our benefactor arrives.”

“I don’t know other than it is tonight.”

“I wish he’d be more forthcoming.”

“He has his secrets.”

“Erlan, One additional VIP, implied male, is supposed to arrive tonight. Both are calling him their benefactor.” Lark sub-vocalized into the throat mike.

“Backup is delayed, but I’ll be overhead shortly, wait and identify them. We need to know who we’re dealing with. Get cozy.

“Aye, Erlan.

The two of them talked further on a few other useless topics. Lark checked her power reserves. Already she was down below 60%. She gingerly got out another food bar, taking great care to make no noise while opening the wrapper. After eating, her power reserve was just over 70%. While she waited, the laborers below had unloaded the kidnapped people and put them in cages. The warehouse door was shut again.

A half hour later, Erlan came over the comm, “I’m overhead now. Eyes are on target. Yeah, that’s a lot of heat signatures. Switch your visor on so I can see and hear what you’re seeing.”

“Backup?” Lark asked as she toggled the visor to allow Erlan on his starship in orbit to link to it.

“Still delayed. There’s a problem with their carts, and they’re working on an alternative.”

“Sabotage?”

“I doubt it, but the possibility does exist.”

“Convenient.”

Lark kept listening, but the two men in the office just made small talk.

“I see activity on scanners. An animal drawn cart is proceeding down the road towards your location. They’re stopping at the gate and being let in.” Erlan informed Lark.

“More prisoners?”

“No. Not enough heat signatures. There’s only four.”

“This may be the second VIP they’re going to meet.”

“Keep watch. I think they’re offloading something. It’s not clear, but a pair of them are bringing something in. The other two are not helping.”

Lark realized the two men had stopped talking with the warehouse door opening. The two men exited the office. Lark floated to the edge of the storage area. She still couldn’t make out the first VIP.

Two men walked in carrying a crate between them. The third carried a rifle, while the fourth was not dressed like any of the other men here. His clothes were outlandish. They looked fake being made of a strange material, being too clean and new looking for anyone to wear.”

“Focus on the man in gray clothing. No, that’s impossible.”

“What? What is it? Who’s the man.”

“His name is Gurz, and he should be dead.” Erlan sounded shocked, which Lark knew to be unusual. The man had always seemed to her sure of himself.

“He looks very much alive.”

“Our starship was shot out from under us over Beleshorv VIII. His demise was the reason why Prime Architects have to travel separately. It’s the Shadow. I bet they had a hand in him surviving.”

“I take it he’s like you then. Could he be a clone?”

“Yeah, he’s a prime architect. No for cloning. We’ve been engineered so any cloning attempt would fail. During our creation, we had to be constructed cell by cell. By his position, I’m not seeing a heat signature for him.”

Lark wasn’t too sure what some of the words Erlan said meant but she didn’t ask for an explanation. It was more important to focus on the mission at hand. “A look alike?” She suggested.

“No, that scar on his eye would match up to the wound he had when he died, and he’s got one on his chin that goes almost next to the left side of his mouth. I cannot conceive of a reason, other than he survived. Now that I think of it, I did not see him die. He was what we thought, mortally wounded, but I did not see him actually die.”

Both watched as the two men went up to Gurz and began a conversation. The ambient noise and distance from them prevented Lark from hearing what they were saying.

The first VIP, Lark had tailed here, finally turned so she could make out his face.

“I know the first VIP. It’s Athad Ruodlo. He’s a staffer that works for Tarlan. I don’t know if you’ve met him.”

“No, but I’ve heard the name,” Erlan responded.

The three of them moved back to the office and within hearing distance of Lark.

Athad was speaking, “We still need more people. The project is ahead of schedule but will only stay that way with more people. Which is where the problem lies.”

“How much more?” Gurz inquired.

Athad explained, “We estimate we need just over fifteen hundred additional people within the time frame we’ve outlined for this stage of the project.”

“And you’re not able to get them?” Gurz asked as they entered the office.

Tathi explained, “There’s just not that many people available, unless we skimp on quality, or become more visible with increased risk. We pick up almost every transient and a homeless person we can get our hands on but it’s not enough. There’s just not enough people coming into the big cities anymore that will be missed.”

Athad spoke up for Tathi, “Don’t worry, this was expected. We knew it would come to this where the number of bodies we’d be able to pull in would dwindle, we’d just hoped it would be later than sooner.”

“We’re taking in everyone we can. That won’t stop, but like Athad says, it’s a trickle now.”

“I see. You’re right, we definitely do not want the attention. Don’t change your methods of acquisition. I have a solution. In the short term, we’ll have to make do with less, but we’ll reach out to our associates on Kusartha for the bodies we need. They’ll be brought in through the normal channels on the west coast like any other import.”

Tathi said, “I’ll notify my men in the ports to be ready.”

“Part of the shipment I brought is the money. But remember, we need the people to the same standards as before. You’ll receive the same amount per head and they will all be checked for health, and remember, no quantum templates.”

“We understand.” Both Athad, and Tathi spoke in unison.

“We’ll meet again next month. Erlan is overhead now watching down on us this location is compromised. Take all precautions and evade. This batch of bodies will have to be abandoned.”

“They know we’re looking, We have to stop this,” Lark sub-vocalized.

“I know, but don’t do anything. We need more intel. They don’t know you’re there.”

“Backup?”

“They’re leaving now,” Lark said as the three men left the office.

“By then it’ll be too late. They’ll be scattered. I can take them. I’ll bag your brother and my uncle’s aide. I can do it.”

“It’s too dangerous.”

“I know. If we can stop them, we’ve got three of the ringleaders.”

“Don’t Lark. Wait for backup.”

Lark didn’t say anything. She flared her second power of increasing thermal energy by setting the wood crate next to her on fire. She floated up and around the shelves of equipment.

Someone notice and yelled a warning.

Lark came up behind the lone man on the catwalk who was looking around in a panic. She grabbed his rifle and pushed him over, letting him fall to the ground. The other men drew back from the body that fell down in their midst, their attention now focused on it. Lark took the rifle and fired a few shots. She wasn’t an expert marksman, but it was enough to scare them when she hit one of the men.

She jumped off the catwalk and came down yelling out, “Gurz, Athad, Tathi, you’re a plague on this Empire. I’m going to take you down.”

Tathi exclaimed, “Erlan’s bitch has found us. Get her.”

Athad pushed Gurz back towards the door, the men were only now scrambling to open.

Lark flared her power sending flames across the door while causing the ammunition in the rifles the thugs held to explode. The men trying to open it released their hold from the now incandescent metal.

One of the thugs opened fire with his rifle she’d failed to cook the ammunition off in. His aim off, Lark rolled to the side and rushed in, using a wall of flame as cover to split the men.

Erlan came over the comm, “Fire isn’t going to stop Gurz. If he’s not showing up on thermal, he has other protections in place.”

And it was true. Gurz grabbed the still incandescent door and slid it open with ease, then stepped outside before shutting it. Lark processed that he must be strong as it took several men to manually open the door and he did it by himself with ease.

A bullet whizzed past her head. Lark used the flame again to hide her as she moved to the next target. She could fly up and out, leaving the warehouse to go after Gurz, but there were the kidnapped people. By now the office area near them was a roaring inferno, filling the warehouse with smoke. The thugs were in chaos, not sure where she was in the flames. She couldn’t leave the innocent people behind. One by one she took the men out until she then found herself with the Athad and his two guards.

Lark came out of the fire. The reflexes of the nearest guard sent a bullet grazing her thigh. Lark twisted out of the way instinctively from the pain. She flared her powers focusing on the weapons.

The guard quickly dropped his gun before the exploding munitions within shattered its frame. He didn’t hesitate as he rushed over, to strike at Lark. She rolled to the side while flying away to avoid, and kicked with her good leg. The first guard was joined by the second, forcing her to fly back up but not before one of them managed to reach out and pull her mask and visor off. They were too good. One had a knife he threw which hit lark in her shoulder and bounced off, not penetrating her armor.

She scanned the area for Athad to see if he’d gotten out or not. There he stood with a pistol aimed at her. He rapidly pulled the trigger sending rounds her way. She felt two stings, one in her stomach and the other in her left shoulder.

Lark said as she flared her power to cook the ammunition of the gun, and whatever was in the crate. It exploded sending Athad sprawling. She came down to the ground. The two bodyguards rushed over to him. Lark stumbled over, and set their clothes on fire, engulfing them in flame. She didn’t mind shooting or throwing someone to their death, but burning them alive disgusted her. Still, it was better she survive than die. Standing over Athad, she found him alive. He turned his head and smiled up at her.

“My princess,” he whimpered in pain.

“Why have you betrayed your empire?”

Athad forced a chuckle through the pain, “Your father and uncle are the ones who ordered me here. I lived, I served, I die.”

He started foaming out of the mouth, and went limp, his face contorted halfway between smile and grimace.

The two bodyguards were dead by poison as well seeing Athad. Lark could see no other thug alive. She brought her right arm up. It was covered with her own blood. She checked her own power level. Eight percent. Lark picked up the visor and mask and put it back on.

Erlan was yelling through the comm, asking what happened.

“I’ll survive.”

“By now the fire was spreading to the racks of equipment.

“I’m seeing a large thermal bloom. What happened?

“I’ll survive,” Lark repeated. She stumbled to the first cage and grasped the lock in her hand, focusing on pumping heat into it. It melted off. She went cage by cage breaking the locks, supported by two of the former prisoners.

After the last one, Lark was practically carried out. She and the prisoners used the rear entrance of the warehouse to leave.

Once they were out, she checked her power again, 4%. She pushed the survivors away and took off flying up to a nearby rooftop where she lay down ignoring Erlan on the comm.

“I’m so tired Erlan.” Lark spoke. Her power reservoir hit 0% and her quantum template let shock set in.

~-~

April 1, 1883, AD
Vindrik City
Arsana IV

~-~

Erlan watched as an aide to the Emperor showed his identification to the guards at the door. One of the guards opened the door allowing him entry. Erlan slipped in behind the aide before the door swung shut.

The aide moved up to the table the Emperor’s brother, Tarlan Conn stood at. It was a mess, covered in numerous documents, books, and maps. The Emperor himself sat at his desk, leaning back in his chair, reading a document.

“I have the reports about the geological surveys in the Pansoonan Isles. The aid pulled out several binders of documentation from his satchel and set them on the table.

“Thank you, you’re dismissed.” The aide bowed to Tarlan, then the Emperor, and departed the room.

Once the aide had left, Erlan deactivated the cloaking shroud, letting the occupants in the room have sight of him. The two guards in the room drew their weapons and interposed themselves between Erlan and the Emperor.

“Don’t fire, gentlemen,” The Emperor ordered. I’m sure Mr. Erlan has his reasons for intruding. Why have you come to us Erlan? We didn’t call for you.”

“I know about your projects in the Ondrass Desert and about the missing. Do you think I wouldn’t find out about it? This cost of human life is not unacceptable.”

The Emperor shrugged. “I’ve been remiss in keeping you around for so long. Your usefulness is long gone. We’ve found a better benefactor. One of their pre-requisites is that we hand you over to them. It’s convenient that you’ve come to us today.”

“This is a mistake. You have no idea who you’re dealing with.” Erlan warned. “They don’t care about your Empire. To them, you’re a bunch of wayward misguided children. They will grind the Empire beneath their feet when they have their way. You will be forced to bow down to their whims. I’ve dealt with them before, and seen the terrible things they’ve wrought upon society.”

We’ll deal with them when the time comes.”

“I must admit that I was mistaken about you. Your arrogance is unbecoming. I had hoped you wouldn’t be tempted so easily. I shouldn’t have come.”

The Emperor laughed, “But you did, and that makes it easier for us.”

The doors to the room opened up. Princess Larkosa walked through dressed formally in a dress, although her left arm was in a sling. This was a rare sight for even her father to see her dressed as such since she’d made it long clear to her family, she hated dressing the part of a princess.

“I need to speak with you father.” Lark did not attempt to explain the two guards slumped on the ground outside the door.

“Larkosa, you must go. If you don’t, you’ll pay the consequences daughter.”

“I told you to not come.” Erlan turned to her.

“As if I’d let you do this alone.” She turned back to her father. “Father, I’m here to ask if you and Uncle would be kind enough to join us for a meal. Maybe we can discuss our differences, and our reasons civilly over good food and drink, rather than crudely in a fight.”

“No daughter. With you here, It’s well beyond that point. Don’t you agree, Erlan?”

“I told you, Lark. You should have stayed away.”

Lark ignored Erlan. “I know what you and uncle are doing father. I still hold out hope.” She turned to Erlan, “Even if my father and uncle don’t have the time, Dinner tonight?”

“Leave, “The Emperor ordered. Don’t ever do this again Larkosa. I can only make so many excuses for your actions. My benefactor will eventually ask me for your head.”

Lark bowed to her father, “I understand.” She turned around and walked out past the still unconscious guards.

“Just go along peacefully Erlan. Let’s not make a mess.” Tarlan said.

One of the two guards in the room began circling around Erlan towards the door to cut Erlan off.

“I’m afraid I have to decline. I wish it could be another way.” Erlan said as he dropped a flash grenade. Both the Emperor and his brother activated their powers, each alt-forming into a hulking stone humanoid covered in lines of power. The flash grenade went off blinding the two guards. Out of his sleeve, a stun baton ejected which Erlan caught in his hand. He struck the guard attempting to move between him and the door, sending him reeling. The other guard blindly opened fire with his sidearm.

Erlan didn’t wait, and ran, much faster than either of the Conn brothers would be able to move in their alt-forms. He made his way through the palace in a seemingly random way towards the exit he wanted. The smell of smoke became prevalent the further he went. Lark joined him in moving through the palace. Where Erlan ran, she floated alongside him.

“You changed quick,” Erlan exclaimed.

“I was wearing most of it already under that insufferable dress that if I have my way, I’m never wearing again.”

“You always say that, but you still find a way to wear one.”

“I already burned it. If I want a dress, I’ll just have to find someone to wear one for me.”

“Got a plan?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it you setting everything on fire?”

“No.” Lark used her fire power on anything they passed that was flammable. “Okay, Yes. I’m gonna set everything on fire.”

“What about all this art?” Erlan commented on the many pieces hanging on the walls Lark torched as they went by.

“I hate it. It’s all horrid.” Lark said matter of factly.

The two reached the exit they wanted. Leaving the Palace, they found no guards waiting for them in the plaza they had exited into. Smoke already rose from various parts of the palace ground. The two moved past the fountain, and onto the stairway of the one hundred and eight.

“Do you want me to destroy it?”

“No.”

“Come on, I know how you hate your statue. You remind me every time we go this way.

“Yeah. I do hate it, but the answer is no.”

The two made it to the bottom of the stairs and past Erlan’s likeness minus his trademark mustache he’d long cultivated since coming to the fringe. Lark and Erlan made their way through the top terrace to the next one. Here there were guards but unlike any of the rest in the palace, they were forbidden from leaving their position. They stood around a large round stone of a different material than what was used to construct the rest of the old city. It was long worn with weathering, but still had markings of swirls and whirls carved into its surface. The locals called it the moonstone.

Lark and Erlan rushed past the guards to the center of the moonstone. He along with a few select people on Arsan knew what its true use was, and only within the last three years had it been turned back. Erlan grabbed Lark’s hand and held on tight. The guards looked on in confusion, not having encountered anyone doing this before.

Erlan mouthed one word. “Kallis.”

To the guard's point of view, Erlan and Lark blinked out of existence. For Erlan and Lark, their perception of reality broke down to spinning rainbow before coming back.

The two found themselves in a different place under the same sky, but at night. They’d traveled nearly halfway around the world in the blink of an eye to another stone similar to the one those in the empire had labeled the moonstone. Several torches had been placed around the stone in the ruins to illuminate this bridge node. Their light flickered over the several uniformed men who had their weapons out, aiming at the two new arrivals.

“Lieutenant Simond,” Erlan called out to one, recognizing him. Erlan hadn’t known the man from Earth long, but he’d made it a point to get to know those from there he worked with. Erlan had decided that rather than have locals on Arsan guard this bridge node, he’d have men from another world guard it. Men who wouldn’t give the sites secret location away.

“It’s a friendly, men. Stand down. Sir, What are you doing here?” The men did as Simond ordered.

“Lieutenant Simond, The Vindrik Empire has openly turned against us. Send a dispatch to all other nodes and alert them.”

“Yes Sir,” Simond said. “You’re not hurt are you?”

“We’re both fine,” Lark volunteered.

“Good, I’ll get those men sent.” Lieutenant Simond started directing his men on what to say and dispatch them.

Erlan and Lark moved off the bridge node. “You’re definitely not in good graces with your father.”

“Ah, he can shove off,” Lark said. “He’s made his choice. We’ll deal with him.”



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