G'Kar bellowed in frustration as he watched a Narn solder get ripped in half by the monstrous half-breed apes through his binoculars. The creature howled in ecstasy as it shoved hunks of meat into its discontentedly fanged maw, writhing it tentacles in pleasure only to screech in pain as a Centauri commando drove a Centauri gladius into the creature's skull.
“I don't care how you get them to the third ridge, but we need more men down there. Those things are going to overrun them soon,” barked the Centauri General into his communicator from where he stood some ten paces behind G'Kar in his command tent. “No I do not want you to shell the Narn position. I want you to send commandoes to support it.”
General Ezra was, as Centauri went, an utter and unmitigated son of a bitch. He was cold hearted, calculating, and racist to a fault, but the man both understood warfare and outright refused to allow himself to misuse allied forces. When war eventually did break out between their peoples, G'Kar would have to make a special effort to have the man assassinated for fear that the man might turn that competence to victory against the Narn.
He flattered himself that the General shared similar feelings about G'Kar. They were adversaries, to be sure, but united in purpose against the monsters of Faust. Ezra did not believe in the teachings of G'Quan. Nor did he belive that G'Kar was correct in his assertions that these creatures were servants of the ancient enemy of the Narn people. Yet belief was unnecessary.
Ezra hated the half-breed creatures of Faust on principle. They were esthetically appalling and they seemed entirely determined to eat as many Centauri as they could manage. Which, on reflection, was as good a reason as any.
“Jak,” The General questioned their Imperial military advisor, “Precisely how do you suggest breaking this stalemate? I cannot advance without exposing the eastern front to Dilgar scout tanks.”
The damn things were a nightmare. They weren’t so much tanks as high-calibre rifles and anti-armor guns slapped into motor-bikes, and they had a level of mobility along the trenches that was hard to manage with their more cumbersome Centauri and Narn counterparts.
“Do... do you have m... mobile anti-aircraft weapons?” Jak considered the problem.
“No,” The Centauri general sighed irritatedly, “They're all plasma-based. We can't bring them into the eastern trenches with so much methane in the air. We could try another air strike, but we lost two fighers out of the last ten we sent on environmental hazards alone.”
“We have some shoulder mounted missiles that could work,” G'Kar sighed, “But they're not going to work at this range. We'd have to get them substantially closer to work.”
“How do you dig them out in the Empire?” Queried the General.
“N... not usually the j... job of rank and file solders. C... common practice is to nuke the population center from orbit or drop asteroids on the continent.” Jak shrugged his shoulders. “I... Impractical in our current situation due to environmental complications.”
“You use mass drivers on your own populations?” G'Kar felt queasy at the thought of it. Mass driver weaponry was banned by every single civilized species in the known universe. Even the Centauri were signatories on that treaty.
“If necessary,” Jak nodded, twitching slightly in thought. “Every situation different. M... measured r...response for measured attack. Surrender of Imperial territory is an inadequate solution. Negotiation with terrorists is a non-viable solution. Eventually destruction of t...territory preferable to surrender. Numerous planets overpopulated anyway.”
G'Kar was about to reply when a Centauri soldier screamed from inside the camp, howling as tentacles burst out of the black ash and dragged him down into a hidden tunnel below. The soldier howled inhumanly as five hulking shapes dragged themselves out of the sapper's tunnel.
G'Kar grabbed the phased plasma-rifle off the table and fired twice into the largest creature's head. A wave of blue energy mulched the bony mottled flesh, bursting it with a satisfying squelch of cooked meat. The remaining four ducked into cover and opened fire, their laser rifles cracking loudly with the sound of ozone.
A Narn warrior growled hatefully, chucking a fragmentation grenade across the ground to explode a the feet of a half-breed warrior. The warped creature was kicked up into the air as its legs ceased to connect with the rest of its body. It was not long before an uninjured half-breed lost control of its hunger and ceased firing to start tearing off meaty hunks of the injured creature's legs.
The two half breeds rolled across the ground, stabbing each other with their barbed tentacles, before the Narn tossed a second grenade, ending their squabbling forever.
Surprisingly, it was Jak who killed the next half breed, shooting it with a slug thrower in the chest. The creature had actually laughed at the diminutive clerk before the shell in its chest exploded, putting a watermelon-sized hole in the monster's innards.
The final half-breed tried to flee back down the tunnel they'd dug, but tumbled to the ground dead when a Centauri soldier hit it in the shoulder blades with a high-powered laser rifle, the sort the Centauri favored for anti-tank weaponry. It didn't kill the half-breed so much as liquify it.
G'Kar tossed a plasma grenade into the warren to collapse the burrow before activating his communicator, “This is a general warning to all troops. I repeat, general warning to all troops. The creatures can burrow through the ground. Attacks may come from below!”
The General growled in irritation and slammed his helmet firmly across his head, tossing the feather back over it imperiously, “Monstrous, cowardly beasts. They have no sense of gentlemanly warfare.”
“Sound the general advance,” G'Kar growled in irritation. “We need to get this command post to more secure ground as soon as possible. If we can't make the ten miles to the forward bunker we're going to have to be fighting the damn tunnel Tujula all night.”
“T... tunnel Tujula?” Jak Queried.
“They're an animal that lives on Na – That's not important right now,” G'Kar pointed with his gauntleted fist at a stone fortress sitting on top of a distant ridge. “We need to take that fortress, or by G'Quan we will die here.”
“I'm inclined to agree,” The General growled in irritation, “All troops, plan delta G. Advance on my mark.”
Susan watched as the Inquisitor examined the battlefield from safely below the trenches, a long optic extending from his eye up and over the rim of the trench, “Faust has not breached the main wall.”
“That's good isn't it?” Queried Danzig as he rubbed the soot from his eyes. “It means we're not too late.”
“Oh, we're late,” Daul growled in irritation. “Late enough that they should have some more noteworthy siege equipment in place. They don't have anything more apparently dangerous than a Leman Russ. I mean, just look at those doors. Faust is mad but he's no fool. I wouldn't have shown up here with anything less than a Baneblade and a couple of Basilisks.”
“We didn't have those on Belzafest,” Shem whispered. “And the best siege equipment we did have, we took with us.”
Daul shook his head. “Faust has had a year or more to prepare for this assault. He has something planned to take down those doors. The question is, what is it?”
“Maybe he doesn't want them taken down,” Susan suggested, taking care to speak in English for the reporter's benefit. “If he needs a new base of operations, it’s hard to be more impregnable than Matok. He could be trying to starve them out. Like you said, the man is exceedingly patient.”
It felt a bit bad to be using the reporter the way she was. There was no way that even a quarter of this footage would hit open airtime thanks to the National Secrets Act, but it would prove her with a firm foothold to bring herself back over to their good graces. As long as they saw her as their double agent rather than as a traitor, it would go a long way towards helping her case.
But her case for what, precisely? She had no interest in becoming part of the Psi-corps, and her career in the Earthforce military was for all intents and purposes kaput. Daul had seen to that. He didn't think that she knew, but she knew the way that his mind worked too well for that to fool her. She understood Daul Hilder better than the man understood himself.
She was thinking his thoughts less often, but she knew how to visualize them if she needed to. It was a bit like having her own sociopath on demand. Which was, of course, how she realized that Daul did not have even the remotest clue what a reporter was. The Empire had no forms of standardized mass media that weren't strictly controlled by both the offices of propaganda and the church of the Emperor.
She looked into the camera as she said, “The man has been alive for centuries already.”
“Faust prefers a more direct hand in things,” Daul countered, rubbing the jaw bone of his helmet pensively. “No, we need to reconsider how we're advancing. Danzig!”
“Yessir!” the Lionheart replied eagerly.
“I need you to take the Lionhearts as we planned before. Approach them from the side and drive them into the artillery. I'm taking a different route. We're going to try and approach them from that path– ” Danzig pointed to a narrow tunnel that went vaguely in the direction of the front lines. “ – with Miss Ivanova and my retinue and look for summoning circles. If he's not going to use super-heavies, then the bastards are planning to use demons. So far, the invasion is proceeding to schedule and I won't have us slowing it down.”
“Of course, sir,” Danzig nodded affirmatively, looking to Miss Wallace nervously as the woman strained to listen in on the Gothic discussion, “Sir, perhaps she isn't...?”
“Yes, Danzig, the noblewoman should go with you,” Daul shuddered, clasping and unclasping his prosthetic hand. “I do not mean to inflict what I must do upon the woman. Take her with you. It will be a kinder thing by far. I'll relay their positions so that you can pass the information back to the line and carpet bomb the area.”
A shiver ran up Susan’s spine that was more than anticipation - a premonition, perhaps? Daul was not particularly skilled in the art of premonition, but Susan had always had a preternatural sense of when things were going to go completely wrong. She'd always written it off to Russian stoicism, but perhaps it had been something more.
It was with a heavy heart that she followed Daul and his Skitarii shadow, falling into step with Lieutenant Shan and the honor guard of Belzafesters. The lanky Kroot loped behind them, eying the departing Lionhearts and Belzafesters.
Vira'capac trilled morosely, clucking and shaking his quills in irritation. “Irritating man-things. They will be missed.”
Daul paid the Kroot no attention at all as they slunk forwards into the pitch-black of the subterranean passage. But Susan could not help but feel a deep and presiding sense of foreboding about the whole situation.
Li whooped eagerly as the shot from his aft laser cannon bisected an unwary Dilgar frigate. They might be upgraded with God alone knew what alien technologies, but the Dilgar were the same predictable predators as ever. They never fought a man one-on-one who could be battled two-on-one, and always chose a wounded opponent over a strong one.
Presumably, whatever race was responsible for the pitch-black bio-ships that lead their attack fleet had taken pity upon the Dilgar. How a fleet of Dilgar ships had managed to escape destruction hardly mattered. They were there, and they would be defeated.
The rebel fleet had already surrendered, and the so called “thousand ship demon fleet” of Dilgar and Bio-ships was slowly being whittled down to a mere dozen escorts and three kilometer long bio-dreadnaughts.
Their ECM was unquestionably impressive, perhaps even equal to that of the Minbari, but the Earth Alliance had beaten a race with powerful electronic countermeasures at the Battle of the Line. Plain human stubbornness had defeated the most technologically sophisticated race in the universe.
And there was no human more stubborn than Li. There was no crew better than the crew of the Beijing Beauty. And he'd fight anyone who disputed either.
“Manually aim the guns if you have to, but do not allow those damnable Imperials to have all the glory,” Li growled in irritation. The Earth Alliance had already been winning the battle by a wide margin before the aliens had shown up. It would be humans, not aliens or Imperials, who brought about this victory.
Li could not argue that the Narn and Centauri ships had not been helpful - necessary even - in ensuring that as few humans died as possible, but his pride would not allow him to even acknowledge the remotest scrap of the victory being due to the barbarians of the Imperium. To be sure, the demon fleet had hunted the Endless Bounty with a near-religious fervor, at times ignoring otherwise crippled or practical targets in lieu of firing at the Imperial ship.
But the Endless Bounty was not necessary. Not at all. Well, perhaps to draw fire away from himself. The upgraded Dilgar ships packed a hell of a wallop.
The Beijing Beauty banked hard to port to avoid a missile salvo from one of the kilometer-long bio-ships, yanking Li to the left within his harness as an enemy missile collided with the Beijing Beauty. A pair of startled Ensigns hovered weightlessly in the air as the ship's artificial gravity abruptly ceased to function due to severe damage in the ship's rotational section.
Li, still strapped down to the ground, grabbed them by their ankles and pulled them down.
“Permission to return fire?” Queried his weapons officer.
“Permission granted. ECM or no, It's a kilometer long target next to two other kilometer long targets, you're bound to hit one of the 死屁眼! Fire!” Li bellowed in irritation. The bio-ships troubled him: they were at least superficially reminiscent to Vorlon ships, though the jutting spines on the oblong black flesh of the ship were like no Vorlon ship he'd ever seen. Too much of this battle was unknown and unplanned.
Pulsed plasma fire rocketed across the vast expanse of debris and burning ships to collide harmlessly across the glowing energy fields surrounding the ships. The damned things were shielded, heavily so. “This is an order to all Earth Alliance ships! Fire all batteries at Hostile Omega 3, full power. The hostile is shielded. I repeat the hostile is shielded.”
Lieutenant Meyer pulled himself down into his seat, fastening the buckles hurriedly, “Captain, don't underestimate them. We're taking around one-to-one losses, even with the aid of the aliens.”
“Sir!” A worried Ensign shouted, “Port interceptors are non-functioning! Our Y axis is vulnerable from below. We have incoming fighters. I repeat, we have incoming starfighters.”
“Where the hell are our Starfuries?” Li barked in irritation.
“Protecting the London and the King while they attempt to activate their engines sir.” Meyer sighed. “Like I told you when you advanced past our defensive line.”
“Don't tell me what I already know, tell me how we fix it.” Li snarled as the sound of something impacting with the side of his ship clanged through the hull. “Damage report.”
“Superficial, sir. Re-routing power to grid g-42 aft to compensate.” the Ensign replied nervously, “The fighters managed to keep the worst of them off us. But we shouldn't stay here longer than we have to.”
“I thought you said the fighters were back with our crippled ships?” Li chastised his second in command irritatedly.
“Ours most certainly are,” Klaus pointed at the eagle winged fighters swooping past the narrow viewport of the bridge, “Those are Imperial fighter craft.”
“Saved by Imperials,” Li spat in irritation. “Fine, slow the impulse engines twenty percent and allow the fleet to catch up with us.”
“Sir, there are two Narn warships coming into formation with us, the Ga'la and the Anok'kor. They say they're planning to protect us till our interceptors are back online,” the comms officer announced.
“Good,” Li replied, “Keep hitting them with our forward batteries, switch to full spectrum pulses. And get that fool of an engineer linked up to see what in the devil is going on with those repairs. I don't want to be hiding behind the Narn's skirts forever.”
“I can't figure out what it is they're doing,” Lieutenant Meyer chewed his lip nervously.
“Mr. Meyer?” Li turned to his second in command.
“Sir, none of this sits right with me. It's too easy,” Klaus sighed. “I've never know the Dilgar to launch an assault that they weren't positive they could win. Our arrival was entirely predictable. The Earth Alliance was bound to send troops to Akdor even before they decided to invade, so why do it now? What do they hope to gain?”
“The Dilgar are not the puppet masters here, Mr. Meyer,” Li nodded towards the black ships in the distance. “Those ships, whoever they are, are the ones supplying and supporting them.”
“But what do they have to gain in invading a little scrap of nowhere that has barely achieved spaceflight? The only reason that we bother to be here is its tactical importance with relation to the Narn and Centauri home worlds.” Klaus shook his head, “This isn't an occupation force, or they would have issued some sort of demands or negotiations. There just isn't a reason.”
“It might not be a reason you or I could comprehend,” Li grunted. “Sentient beings value different things. We fight for different reasons.” However, it sounded hollow even to him that they would invade without some sort of greater purpose.
“Ensign,” Li commanded abruptly. “Put the battlefield on the main view screen.”
Li groaned in frustration as he looked at the friendly warship indicators, realizing their mistake. The Dilgar ships had flown in different directions to weaken the relief fleet's advance, spreading them to the northernmost and southernmost poles of the planet.
Li pointed to the second moon. “I want an enhanced scan of that moon. Immediately.”
“Scanning, sir,” the Ensign stared at her console in confusion, “Uh, just a second, sir. I need to recalibrate my instruments. I'm getting some odd results.”
“How odd?” Li asked nervously.
“Well, sir, there are a lot of odd radioactive elements present, but I'm having difficulty registering that the moon is there at all,” the Ensign replied in confusion. “I mean... it's a moon, so I know it's there, but it's showing up as being in more than one place at once – if that makes any sense.”
Li swore furiously, “It's an ambush.”
“What?” Klaus blinked in shock. “But how? We control the hyperspace gate.”
“Klaus, hyperspace is no longer the only method of faster than light travel,” Li replied in horror as a dozen kilometer long dagger-like ships soared out from behind the moon, skating on starlight around a monstrous warship with three massive pinioned wings of solar webbing. “Prepare to engage targets. Sent out a warning to all allied ships. And get me a firing solution, now!”
The dagger ships were elegant. They didn't seem to fly so much as they danced through the stars in a cascade of shifting shapes and shadow. The ships shifted abruptly every time Li tried to fix his eyes on one, blinking out of view and into a different location entirely. It was like grasping at smoke.
It was beautiful in a nightmarish way. An old race, it had to be an old race like the Vorlons. But why involve themselves here? Why now?
“Mein Gott,” Klaus' jaw opened and closed in astonishment at the pure and predatory elegance of their attackers. “What are they?”
“We're getting a message, sir.” The comms officer cupped his hand over his ear. “Uh – I'm not making this up sir – You do not belong.”
“That's it?” Li questioned, raising his voice to speak over the gunnery crew as they attempted to target the new threat.
“No sir.” Replied the officer. “Leave or die.”
“They don't seem to be waiting for an answer, sir!” The tactical officer shouted. “They're launching fighters. And – how in the hell did they – Incoming!”
A blank patch of space some hundred kilometers above where their sensors registered the presence of a warship fired upon the Narn warship to their left, a beam of blinding white bisecting the ship down the middle. Not waiting for Li's order, their helmsman punched the engines to full speed, narrowly avoiding the nuclear fireball when the beam of light hit the Narn reactor core.
“Sir! Our sensors just detected that we've been targeted.” The tactical officer shouted in horror. “I have no idea where they are sir! I have no firing solution.”
“Evasive action,” Li barked.
“To where?” Klaus growled. “We cannot match those speeds.”
“Second contact!” The tactical officer shouted. “It's the Endless Bounty. They've engaged the hostile.”
“They're transmitting a wide band radio transmission to all ships in the Region in Interlac.” The comms officer turned to Li. “They say, 'We will not surrender an inch to these miserable, arrogant, knife-eared murderous pirates. For the Emperor, for Terra, we stand.”
The excited chatter of his gunnery crew washed over Li as he pondered the new arrivals. The Imperials knew them. Not just knew them, hated them.
“Never thought I'd be glad to see that miserable ship,” Li grunted. “At least someone can target the bastards.”
“Sir!” The tactical officer smiled. “I can't target the enemy ships but I can target the Imperial torpedoes. Shifting targeting priority to imperial ordinance impacts.”
“Do it! And tell the Anok'kor that they can do the same,” Li grunted. “And somebody get on the horn to tell Captain Anders to stop sitting on his thumbs on the southern rim. We need reinforcements yesterday!”
Osma felt underdressed for the battle in spite of his carapace armor. The need for an expedient investigation into Nor's “little matter,” as he'd become fond of calling it, was so great that he'd left the coordination of security teams in the hands of Shakut rather than controlling them himself. He was, of course, in full battle armor and would respond to any and all invaders to the sovereign realm of the Lord Sáclair, but he could not afford to let even a second pass where the loyalty of Donat Enzo remained in question.
They kept on appearing in crime reports, odd examples of people having anti-agapics more sophisticated than they strictly ought to have had access to. Osma had never made the connection between the disparate crime reports, in part because the theft of medicine from the nobility was a rather victimless crime and in part because he rather pitied the crewmen who could not afford proper medical care.
It was not Bonafila that he directed his efforts towards at the moment, but a prior case that, due to the rapid expulsion of Magos Frist, had fallen by the wayside. The sabotage of the War Servitor was a seemingly unremarkable event. A week in which someone did not try to murder the Inquisitor was a slow week indeed. But the sophistication and the lateral thinking displayed by trying to poison a war servitor by restoring its mind to drive it insane was devious, even brilliant.
Were the war servitor to have murdered or maimed the Inquisitor, it likely would have been written off as a product of poor maintenance or an accidentally uttered command. In the highly unlikely event that they managed to subdue a crazed war servitor without damaging the machine, it would have still been difficult to figure out exactly what had happened, as standard procedure in those events would have been to cut out the malfunctioning augmentics first. Any healing done by the drugs would have been concealed by the damage done to remove the augmentics.
But there were two men to enter that room. The first had administered the anti-agapic. The second had administered anti-venom in a misguided attempt to protect the Inquisitor’s life. This told Osma that the first man not only knew the second, but knew them intimately. If he could find one, then it would be only a matter of time before he tracked down the other.
But after days of watching every damn security recording from one side of the cell block to the other, the most he'd managed to discover was that the ship’s internal security monitors were pathetically easy to scramble due to general disrepair. Whoever had come to the brainwave that repairing security cameras in the detention levels was a low priority task needed a kick to the teeth.
He leaned back in his chair and swore in irritation, “Bloody milk and whore tit's of the eye.”
A small voice yelped in shock at his anger. Osma swiveled in his chair to see the stocking footed Tariq. The child wore the smile linen smock with a tiny lion of Sáclair embroidered over the breast that Osma had given him for the last Primarch's feast. The boy shivered, afraid he'd done something to anger Osma.
Osma stood from his chair and lifted the boy into his arms, “No Tariq, I'm not mad at you. You're in no trouble. But why are you out of your bed? You have school tomorrow.”
“No,” Tariq lied, pouting sadly. “I don't. I can just stay up with you.”
“Child, you know very well that isn't going to work.” Osma grumbled, jiggling the child on his knee as he sat back down. “Now, why aren't you asleep?”
“I'm scared,” Tariq kicked his legs back and forth as he tugged on Osma's braided beards. “You always fight, and I want to stay with you. I want to protect you.”
“Oh, bless you child,” Osma grumbled. “I'm an old man. My duty is to protect the ship, and that means going into danger sometimes. But I go there to protect you.”
“You're my dad,” Tariq said in a voice that only the ungracious would call a whine. “I need you.”
“Child,” Osma gesticulated with his left hand while searching for a way to make it all right in the boy's eyes, accidentally tapping an activation rune on the keypad. He swore and reached to undo what he'd done ,but not before Tariq yelled “I'll help!” and proceeded to smack every rune he could reach, pulling knobs and levers with great eagerness.
Osma yanked the child away from the keyboard, resisting the urge to scream at the boy as he gently placed the child on the ground and whispered in a dangerous rumble, “Child, never do that again. Ever. The wrong rune, the wrong lever, the wrong button and you could well condemn a man to death. If I ever see you touch a cogitator rune without permission, I will punish you severely.”
Tariq groaned, rubbing his sleeves against his face and choking back the tears. Osma turned away from the boy and looked back at the screen, “Lets see what the damage is.”
The files largely seemed to be intact; the cogitator's search window had been open so the worst Tariq had manage to do had been to open a work order from gold channel. How the eye had he done that? Gold channel work orders were supposed to be deleted immediately after being issued. It was an added security precaution enacted by Sáclair to prevent Amon Sui sabotage. The order could not be known or altered by any outside party once issued.
There were precious few with access to it. Other than the Captain and the Lady Sáclair, he could count them on one hand, all of them dangerously highly placed within the command structure of the Endless Bounty.
“Child... if this is what I believe it to be, I may very well take you to the sweet shop.” Osma grumbled in frustrated approbation. He really shouldn't reward the child for something so grox-headedly foolish, but the boy had found the lead he could not. It was a lead, the first real one he'd found on the case so far. “Hell, I'm buying you that Commissar doll you wanted.”
Tariq was going through so many confused emotions that he seemed on the edge of whiplash. “I... didn't... but... what?”
All he needed to do was cross reference the work order with who would have been on the bridge when Sáclair wasn't there on the day in question to figure out which of the potential – Osma stopped cold as a tinny screech of a klaxon interrupted his train of thought. A blue light spun, flashing a warning that he hoped never to see again in his lifetime. Pirates - Eldar pirates - had boarded the Endless Bounty. Merciful Throne, where had they come from?
He punched the rune to save his findings to a data crystal and frenziedly shoved the crystal into the pocket of his tunic. Osma lifted the boy under one arm as he grabbed a combat shotgun and bandolier with the other.
“What's going on?” the baffled Tariq cried, “Where are we going?”
“Never you mind.” Osma whispered in a voice that he hoped did not betray the terror in his heart. “It will all be well. It will all be well.”
“No!” the boy yelled, “What's going on?”
“We're just having a drill. It's a game, boy, a special game.” Osma ripped open the evidence safe in his office. He waved his arm to find the massive adamantium block, invisible to the naked eye when closed, which opened to expose a room the size of a walk-in closet. He sat the boy down on a shelf, pulling a confiscated breathing mask tagged with an evidence number and fixing it over the boy's face before attaching it to an oxygen apparatus. “You're going to sit in here and wait till I come back for you. I need you to stay absolutely silent for this game. The other team doesn't play nice.”
Tariq latched onto Osma's leg, “No! Don't go!”
“I have to go, child.” Osma pried the boy off his leg and put him back onto the shelf. “I don't have a choice.”
“If you go, you won't come back.” Tariq's eyes were wet with tears, his words near-incomprehensible from the mask and the sobbing, “Nobody ever comes back. Not ever.”
“Hey!” Osma pinched the boy's cheek, “Don't you talk like that. I'm coming back. Always.”
“Promise?” The boy hiccuped, lifting the bottom of his shirt from over his belly to wipe his face.
“Of course I promise.” Osma hugged the boy, “I'll definitely be back. We're family. Family always comes back.”
The little boy hugged him as hard as his tiny arms could manage, pressing himself against Osma's chest as though if he just tried hard enough the bad things would go away. Sighing sadly, Osma ruffled the boy's hair and walked out of the evidence locker, shutting it behind him.
Hopefully he hadn't just lied to the boy.
“Come on then, you old goat,” Osma grunted agitatedly to himself as he ran out of his office. “Let's show these knife-eared bastards why they should stay the Eye off your blessed ship.”
Daul twisted his fingers, manipulating the hatred into his mind into a bolt of energy as a half-breed warrior leapt from a second story window while brandishing an axe. The monster's innards sprayed across the bunker, venomous blood sizzling on contact with the obsidian. He hopped backwards to avoid the claws of a second beast, parrying its swipe with his power sword in a messy arc. The creature yowled as four sets of arms fell to the ground.
“Go other way, Vira'capac said.” The Kroot warrior crooned irritatedly as it drove its elbow into a half-breed hound's gullet, “Obvious ambush, Vira'capac said. But no, man thing refuse to listen to Vira'capac. Mule-headed man thing must go left.”
“We get it,” Shan growled in irritation, heaving a frag-grenade into the open window of the bunker, “Complaining won't make them die any faster.”
The grenade exploded, tossing smoke and shrapnel within the confined space. The Belzafest Lieutenant nodded to the nearest of his men, motioning for the door. The unfortunate soldier charged through the door and into the waiting jaws of an injured but still living half-breed. Barbed tentacles perforated the man's chest, poking out from his back as the creature dislocated his jaw and swallowed his head.
Susan Ivanova screamed an irate “No!” before firing at the creature with her hot-shot las pistols. The masterwork weapons punched orange-sized holes in the half-breed's face and lungs, killing it instantly. A second Belzafest guardsman charged up to the hole, depressing the firing stud on his flamer and turning the inside of the bunker into a blazing inferno.
The half-breeds on the second floor tried to counter the assault, but Daul's Skitarii counterpart opened fire with his bolt-gun. Fist-sized explosive projectiles ripped across the side of the building, ignoring the stonework as though it were paper. Shell met flesh, and the half-breed creatures died.
“Cease fire!” Daul barked, reaching out with his senses to search for the presence of half-breeds, “They're dead.”
“Another battle survived,” the Kroot crowed in irritation. “Irritating.”
Ignoring the preening alien’s self-pity, Daul followed Cairn into the charred remains of the bunker, examining it in irritation. The remnants of what had once been maps and charts were only burned scraps beneath the charred corpses of half-breeds, “Damn! See if any of the intel survived the fire. We need to figure out what Faust is up to out here.”
Shan poked at one of the bodies with the butt of his rifle, “This one isn't half-breed or Sh'lassen.”
Susan examined the body, green in the face for having been exposed to so many charred corpses. The breathing mask would help, but nothing could truly silence that hateful odor. The Russian leaned over the body and squinted her eyes, as though trying to envision the uncooked flesh of the creature, “Yeah, that is definitely a Dilgar. Or was, I suppose.”
V'clath sniffed the corpse, “It smells right for a Dilgar. Look at the mask, the grinning death insignia over a broken eagle. He's pledged to the half-breeds.”
“Then the Dilgar are officially an enemy of the empire,” Daul sighed. “Not that we're short for enemies.”
The Skitarii's shoulders shook in amusement as he fidgeted with the shattered fragments of data crystals, scanning them with his auspex in the hope that one of them was stable enough to retain some data. His taloned fingers, too indelicate for such work, were crossed behind his back as his mechandrite cables did the more delicate adjustments.
Kicking an eviscerated half-breed from its perch with a wet thud, Daul sat down at the still-smoldering table and rested his elbows upon it in thought, “None of this makes any sense. Faust's strategy is clearly dependent upon both siege weaponry and reinforcement arriving imminently, but whoever he's placed in command of this legion has no way of obtaining either. Your Earth Alliance fleet has blockaded the hyperspace route. Travel to and from this place by the warp isn't even possible for another four weeks, according to navigator Illirch. By now, any competent commander must see this. And we haven't even come close to detecting an upswing in Warp energies on the battlefield, so he isn't summoning something around here.”
“Very little about this war has made sense,” V'Cath brayed morosely. “It could just be their comeuppance. They deserve it.”
“I don't know,” Susan sighed. “In the last days of the Dilgar Wars, they started ordering all sorts of irrational things intentionally. The idea was apparently to confuse us into searching for a strategy where there was none, in the hopes that we would act to counter an attack that was never coming. It was a way of getting us to waste resources on places they had no interest in.”
“Perhaps,” Shan hissed, “but the Half-breeds aren't especially prone to forward thinking. They have to believe that their commander has an immediately practical plan, or they're prone to eating them whole.”
Daul chuckled, “Faust seems to think of it as aggressive motivation for his commanders to be visibly competent at their jobs.”
“Sir!” A terrified voice from the second floor yelled down the stairs. “I found something you should see.”
Grunting with irritation as he stood up, Daul walked up the uneven stone steps to the second floor, tossing a half-breed corpse out a window with a telekinetic burst along the way. It was an unnecessary showy way of clearing it off the stairs, but he needed to burn off some of the pent-up frustration he felt.
“Yes, private? What is it?” Daul walked over to the great-coated Belzafester, taking a small piece of stone from the man's hands. No, not stone, it was something else. Nor was it bone or metal: it was all three, and yet it was none. It was as terrifying as anything Daul had ever seen.
It was a token forged from wraithbone, a rune of communication. Even as he touched, it he could hear the overwhelming sound of thousands upon thousands of sing-song syllables screeching in anticipation of the conflict to come. As he tried to get his bearing, an overwhelmingly powerful mind howled in fury, casting him from the song bodily.
Daul flew a good food back from the rune, propelled away by pure will. He hit the wall painfully as he aimed the plasma-pistol strapped to his augnmentic arm at the rune, firing twice to evaporate the stone entirely, “Throne cursed blood and bloody hellfire from the bowels of the Eye!”
He shot the ashes again for good measure.
He looked up into the confused and terrified faces of his retinue. Vira'capac sighed and crowed, “Foolish man-thing.”
Susan said in a voice of genuine concern that surprised her as much as it did Daul, “Are you OK?”
“Yes, yes, I'm fine.” Daul shook his head to dismiss the furious presence of the Eldar talisman. “But we need to get out of here as soon as possible. The Eldar have allied themselves with Faust.”
“What?” Shan hissed loud enough that it might have passed for normal human speech, “Why?”
“The Eldar protect their own interests at the cost of all other species in the universe.” Daul growled as he tried to reach anyone on his long range transmitter. “I don't even begin to speculate why they do what they do. But we need to warn our forces that they're coming.”
“I get the sense that that might be a bit too late, Inquisitor,” Susan shouted in horror from the window. “They're here.”
Daul followed her gaze and felt his heart stop. From their elevated point on the battlefield Daul could just make out the outline of a flock of swooping wing-tipped vehicles descending from the heavens like lances from heaven. An army of lithe, murderous creatures stepped in an angelic grace, as beautiful as it was terrible. The war-host had arrived.
“Well,” Shen whispered in amused resignation as he pointed to a dozen massive war machines gliding above the ground around a vaguely humanoid shape, “There's your siege weapon, Inquisitor.”
“A Titan,” Daul groaned, resting his face in the palm of his hand, “They brought a Titan.”
“Would seem so,” the private agreed. “Don't suppose you have something that can kill a Titan?”
Daul's mind snapped to a black box bound in chains that sat within the Endless Bounty, a weapon at his disposal capable of unknowable damage if let loose. The words to summon the beast were simple enough. Just a few syllables and he could crush thething that stood in his way. His mouth began to roll around the first syllables – No, he wouldn’t do it. Daul shook his head to dismiss the thought. He could almost hear the voice of Bast Hilder chiding him, “Boy, don't you go and do some damned fool thing you'll regret later. There ain’t nothing worth losing who you are.”
“No,” Daul replied irritatedly. “I can't even begin to – Cairn what the throne are you doing?”
The Skitarii shoved Daul to the floor and started firing at the previously featureless black wall, into a gaping tear in reality. A lithe wraith-bone clad warrior covered in web-like patterns of blue and white fell to the floor, dead.
“Warp Spiders!” the private screamed as a tear opened behind him and a pair of power blades punctured his lungs. The Eldar screeched inhumanly as he dove forwards, creating a new portal in front of himself and disappearing with the impaled Imperial warrior.
“Out of the building! Now!” Daul leapt from the second story window and onto the ground below. He hit the ground hard and rolled to the left, just barely avoiding a net of deadly monomolecular razor wire. It tightened around the rocky ground, shredding it into powder.
Daul fired at where the razor wire had come from with his plasma-pistol, only to find that it was nothing but unoccupied air. He reached out with his senses, searching for where the next one would come, vaguely aware of the howls of agony from inside the bunker. Someone had been caught with the razor-wire webbing.
When a pocket of air began to slice open behind Daul, he did not hesitate in driving his blade into the nape of the eldar warrior’s neck, pulling the energized weapon downward to slice from stern to stem. Realizing too late that a second portal had opened up, he held up his hand and repelled the incoming webs with a burst of telekinetic power, forcing the Eldar who'd fired them to flee back into the Warp.
He readied himself to slay the next thing that hopped out of the portal in front of him when, to his dismay, Susan Ivanova came through it on the quite dead Eldar's back. His apprentice looked up at him in astonishment before saying, “Well, that was new.”
Daul lifted her from her fallen foe, firing at the vaguely humanoid shape of the nearby Eldar exarch as it used its carapace-like warp-jump generator to hop back into the bunker. A human head flew out of the bunker seconds later, though Daul was too occupied avoiding monomolecular webs to figure out whom.
“How the do we fight these guys?” The woman bellowed in consternation between alternate shots of the pistols in each hand. “They refuse to stop jumping all over the damn place.”
“Open your mind,” Daul growled, parrying a series of wrist blade blows from the exarch before it hopped backwards and disappeared. “You coward – no, not you Commander – open your mind to what is around you.”
“A bit busy!” Susan shoved Daul to the ground as another web swept past where his head had been.
“Look, just get pissed off and let loose. The rest will take care of itself.” Daul flung a fistful of lighting at a tear in space, cooking the warp-spider alive in his own armor.
“Down to one.” the Kroot warrior chittered from inside the bunker.
“How do you know?” Susan growled in irritation, “They're jumping around all the damn place.”
“Because, man-thing,” the Kroot yelled as he fired, hanging out the second window. “Vira'capac can smell them.”
Daul cried out in pain as the Exarch's blade sliced across his chest, perforating the side of his armor. It was a glancing blow, but painful in the extreme. First blood to him, then. Daul planted his hand in the Exarch's chest. Daul focused the pain into a single burst of energy in his palm as he smiled and said, “Farewell.”
The astonished Exarch flew across the battlefield into what should have been a bone crushing collision with the cliff wall. However, the exarch vanished when he got within inches of the surface, reappearing on the clifftop.
The Exarch looked down at him from beyond the range of their weapons and bellowed in psychically enhanced reverberating challenge, “You are dead, mon'kiegh, you just are not smart enough to have stopped moving yet. You have killed my apprentices? There are a thousand more where they came from. Before this day ends, your head with be on a pike to adorn my personal transport. You are nothing, garbage to be wiped off the floor. For today is the day you meet your doom –”
Whatever else the Exarch might have had to say was quite rudely interrupted as the entire cliff burst into a ball of superheated plasma, tossing the Exarch's desiccated and sizzling corpse to the ground below. A Sh'lassen battle tank rolled up the path, stopping ten meters from the Imperials. Daul stared down its main cannon, waiting on baited breath as it turned his direction.
It was not marked with the insignias of the Sh'lassen government. The traitors had arrived.
V'cath, their Sh'lassen guide brayed in fear from where he crouched in the doorway of the bunker, staring at the sponson guns of the battle tank in anticipation of his own death.
It never came.
The front hatch to the tank popped open and a Sh'lassen man in grey robes climbed out the front, hooves clattering loudly on the side of it as he climbed down. He pulled back his hood to reveal that his face was clean shaven and that his horns had been removed entirely. V'cath actually gagged in disgust, apparently repulsed by the rebel's appearance.
Daul couldn't have cared less about the rebel Sh'lassen's appearance as it bowed and proceeded to speak to him in his native dialect of Metzik Gothic, “Time is of the essence, fatebringer. If you and your companions would please follow me, you are expected in Matok. You have my word that no harm will come to you or your companions.”
“You do realize I came here to conquer Matok,” Daul replied in confusion.
“This is known to us.” the rebel replied, “As it is known to us that you will succeed. But not before you see what you must see. Not before you know what you must know.”
“And if we refuse?” Susan growled, looking expectantly at the Skitarii warrior as he walked forward aimed a melta-pistol at the side of the stationary rebel tank.
“Then you will kill me.” the rebel replied, “You will also likely die trying to make your way back to the battlefield.”
“You seem awfully confident,” Daul lowered his plasma-pistol and sheathed his sword. “Why?”
“Because Inquisitor, the path is already written,” the rebel smiled, “Only the end remains.”
“Kill him, eat him, and man things can take goat-man's tank,” Vira'capac suggested helpfully as he sliced the heads off of the Eldar warriors, shoving them into a sack for a snack later. He pointed with his jagged knife to V'cath. “Other goat-man can drive.”
“No,” Daul replied slowly, looking into the Rebel priest's eyes. “Not this time, Vira'capac. This time, we go peacefully.”
Daul didn't know why, but he had to know. He simply had to know. It was written.
Fighting every rational instinct in his body, David ran in the opposite direction from every other able bodied crewman, heading towards where he knew the Eldar pirates had boarded the ship. He would very much have preferred to be in his father's residence, sitting behind the numerous forcefields and barricades that prevented boarders from entering. He'd long ago lost count of how many times he'd sat in the fortified bunker of house Sáclair with a warm cup of soup and a blanket, waiting for the siege to break.
But he would not, could not, be idle. Not now, not while Bonafila was in danger. Faest Nor's surgery was only three decks up from where they'd breached the ship's hull, and he would not cower in some hole while the woman he loved was in danger. He sprinted along the hallway with his ornate rifle held tightly to his chest, huffing from the exertion. He was not out of shape compared to most children of noble houses, but the effort of running at break-neck speed for the past thirty minutes was more than he usually engaged in.
He'd heard stories of what Eldar pirates did, how they could trap souls within rocks and summon death with a whisper. More so that even Chaos, they were the bogeyman of all shipborne men and women of the Empire. They would attack without warning or reason, their skillful violence matched only by their capricious nature. They flew the stars in ships as large as planets, serving their own unknowable needs and desires. There were even whispered stories of a dark city that lay outside of time and space, where the Eldar dwelled in shadows and nightmare.
They would not take Bona.
“David Sáclair, where the hell do you think you're going?” a harsh voice barked as he rounded the bend some ten meters from Surgery. Donat Enzo stared at him in blank-faced irritation, his lip curling slightly in exasperation as he crossed his arms over his carapace-armored breastplate.
“I, uh,” David swallowed nervously. “I heard about the attack and I –” Throne it sounded stupid now that he was saying it out loud. “ – I have to protect Bonafila.”
“You decided to come alone to face an unknown number of Eldar pirates, armed with a flak-jacket, a kitchen cleaver, and a lasrifle I'm almost positive you stole from your father's armory?” Donat repeated in a montone drawl.
“Well – uh – yes.” David swallowed nervously and replied in as confident of a voice as he could muster. Somehow, speaking to Donat was more terrifying to him than even the prospect of fighting the Eldar had been. “She needs protection, and the Security can't catch every one of the slippery bastards with the Lionhearts on the planet.”
“And you know that in the event that you actually faced an Eldar pirate, they would have hundreds if not thousands of years of experience in warfare that you could not even begin to hope to match. You know that it would mean almost certain torture and death at best?” Donat replied incredulously.
“I – I don't care. She needs me.” David felt particularly small under the nobleman's judgemental gaze.
“Good.” Donat replied. “Controlling the bulkhead to the surgery is a two-man job, and none of security can be spared.”
“I – wait, what?” David blinked in surprise.
“And I will expect you at my house on Tuesday to discuss the conditions of your continuing courtship to my daughter tomorrow, providing that we both survive the day.” Donat led David in the direction of the surgery. “Once the matter becomes official, I intend for you to be chaperoned till I can negotiate a proper dowry with your father.”
“Oh.” David replied lamely before it dawned on him what Donat was saying. Donat had just given David permission to marry his daughter. “Yes – That – Yes sir! Thank you, sir.”
“To hell with your parenthood,” Donat chuckled amusedly. “A man who will die for my daughter is noble enough for me. But for both our sakes, let’s not make that our goal.”
“No sir,” David beamed as they rushed to the surgery with his future father-in-law, “Of course not, sir.”
In spite of the imminent danger, David briefly allowed himself a moment of unabashed happiness as he imagined his future with Bonafila. For once, everything was going as planned. Well, everything minus the pirates.
Earthforce One was more comfortable that what John was used to, more akin to a luxury liner from the days of yore than a space ship. Even as a pleasure craft, it was a bit excessive. The couch he was sitting on would have cost him two years’ salary to buy, but making an Earthforce One that was even bigger, more armed, and more impressive than the one that had been destroyed had been a unifying factor for the Earth Alliance in the years following Santiago's assassination. It was a way of showing the terrorists that Earth would never bow to terrorism.
It was a noble sentiment. Unfortunately, it just happened to largely benefit the Terrorist-in-Chief. The smiling hearty-cheeked midwestern Brutus sat across from him with a glass of scotch, discussing baseball animatedly with John. It was actually quite nice.
John kind of liked the guy.
John didn't want to like him. Liking him as a person was inconvenient. When the impeachment trial finally came about, there would be no way for it not to come off as a personal betrayal.
But the truth was that he did like William Clark. He was charming, if an unashamedly obvious politician in the extreme. If it weren't for the armed coup of the former President Santiago, he would have even been enjoyable company. Fortunately for John, his awkwardness around the President was interpreted as general nervousness around the most powerful man on Earth.
The president slapped him on the knee jovially, “Come on, Sheridan, lighten up. It's over. Relax.”
“Yes, Mr. President,” He replied with absolute professionalism, “Of course, Mr. President.”
“Call me William,” the President sighed in irritation as he sipped at his scotch. “There's no need to stand on formality.”
“Yes, President William,” Replied John, he raised his glass of scotch politely. He had yet to even sip it.
“Hah!” the President barked in amusement. “I made the right decision with you. You're as Earthforce as they come, Alliance through and through.”
“If you say so, sir.” John replied noncommittally.
“Actually, Captain, I have an ulterior motive in bringing you along. There are certain events that are going to come to light in the next few days. Certain events that will involve you personally.” Clark sniffed his scotch and sighed, “Lord that's good. Aged to perfection.”
John had been waiting for the other shoe to drop, “Events?”
“Well, I suppose I'm not the best one to explain this to you.” The president waved to the secret service officer behind him. “But we do have an expert.”
A tall, grinning man in a charcoal grey suit walked into the room and extended his hand to John. The man looked vaguely familiar, though exactly how he was familiar eluded him, “Have we met?”
“I've been on your station before, Captain,” The man laughed cooly. “It is quite likely that I've popped up on your radar in my travels.”
Clark snorted in amusement, “I'm sure you have. Captain Sheridan, please allow me to introduce Mr. Morden.”
“Tell me, Captain,” The man smiled. “What do you want?”