View Full Version : Ravens By Starlight
22nd Sep 01, 12:50 PM
As requested, the first eight chapters of Ravens... :)
You can download the latest version of Evil_Dictator's brilliant Stormhawk model for Homeworld here (http://www.btinternet.com/~ionfish/ravens/stormhawkv1.1.zip), complete with working point-defence guns.
(just extract it into your HW directory; currently it replaces the Taiidan Heavy Cruiser)
Prologue – Drive me down the pitch black road
01 – A Dream within a Dream
02 – A Battle of Words
03 – Living reflection from a dream
04 – Woes which hopes thinks infinite
05 – Drying up in conversation
06 – Blown on the steel breeze
07 – The scream of the butterfly
08 – Shadows wandering off somewhere
>> Empty sermons to my head
22nd Sep 01, 12:51 PM
RAVENS BY STARLIGHT
Prologue – Drive me down the pitch black road (http://www.wdass.net/GrlinaBox/Journal/2000/February/3.html)
The grey surf roared as foam-crested waves dashed against the black pebbles of the shore. Jet-black clouds raced across the dark sky, rain lashing the clifftops, a hundred metres above the beach. Silhouetted against the heavens, a tall, gaunt man stood, braced against the howling wind. Raven-hair blown about his shoulders; hawk-like features jutted from a thin face, defying the storm. Ebony robes rippled outwards as he spread his arms and jumped forwards, into oblivion.
Down, down, towards the sea.
Chapter 1 – A Dream within a Dream (http://www.internal.org/view_poem.phtml?poemID=60)
“And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men.” – Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness’ (http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~csicseri/)
Enfolded by darkness, struggling to let in the light. Eyelids straining to open. Finally, a crack. White light poured in: blinding. Nothing but light. Slowly, eyes adjusted to the brightness – vision returned. A lamp, focussed on his face – pure intensity. Above, white-painted ceiling, the spidery metal arms of medical instruments.
Icy brilliance surrounded him.
Sheets – white, cold. Restrained – straps across the bed, holding him down; chest, thighs, calves. Looking around; a medical ward – no, a single room. No other beds. Hollow emptiness echoed around the bare room. White walls, white tiles on the floor. No windows; harsh, artificial light – surgical, clean, cold. A door, white again - a small observation grille, no keypad or other means to open it. Trapped. In the corner of the ceiling, a small black surveillance camera, watching him. On the wall, a clock: 23:54. Meaningless. What day? Nothing to tell him. He lay back, head resting on the cold pillow, tired. Blackness engulfed him once more.
He awoke again, the memory of strange visions lingering like a shadow, elusive. Slowly, carefully, he opened his eyes to the world. His cold, white cell. Above him floated a face – a woman, in her middle age. Wrinkled skin surrounded sad, reassuring blue eyes. A light green medical uniform, brown hair lined with grey, tied back. Smiling; a friendly, worn face. A face that had seen too much, but could still smile. Age hid the toughness behind. "Good morning, Captain…Marnos, isn’t it?"
He nodded, weak muscles aching. "Where am I?"
"The Deeron Seven naval base – this is the military hospital."
"How…how long have I been here?"
"You were in a coma when they brought you here, two months ago."
"Ever since you arrived with the rest of the casualties from the Starwind."
"The Starwind? The ship… she made it?"
The nurse smiled. "Judging by the state she was in when she arrived, it’s a miracle she did."
Marnos nodded, remembering: thoughts of darkness and fire flashed across his mind.
"I’d better fetch the doctor, tell her you’re awake." she said, turning toward the door. She looked up at the camera, nodding. With a hiss, the door slid aside; she stepped out, the door sliding to behind her.
Dragging himself up by his elbows, Marnos looked around the room. Blinking in the bright light, he saw that the restraints had been removed. The room had changed in other ways, too: tight against the wall stood a small desk and chair, while a wardrobe now adorned the opposite wall. All the furnishings were in the same clinical white. With a whisper, the door opened. Eyes still blurry, Marnos tried to focus on the person who entered – a young woman. A green, baggy medical uniform covered her thin frame, trousers covering the tops of old, worn shoes, grey with engrained dirt. Black hair, tied back in a practical style; delicate features surrounded dark, enticing eyes. A slight smile ghosted across her face as she saw Marnos’ open eyes, then vanished, replaced by the false friendliness of professionalism. Silently making her way around the bed, she proceeded to pull the sheets down to his waist, and examine the dressings on his now-healing injuries. A satisfied smile spread slowly across her face. Pulling the sheets back up, she turned to the desk, and dragged the chair over to Marnos’ bedside. He turned his head, slowly, to see her.
She spoke – her voice quiet, assured: "I see you’ve decided to join us in the land of the living… we were quite worried for a time, but you appear to be healing nicely."
"How – how long was I out?"
"You’ve been comatose for the last ten weeks. To be perfectly honest, it’s a miracle you’re alive at all: a ruptured kidney, two punctured lungs, severe head injuries, major burns, not to mention the fractured bones and other assorted damage. You’ve got enough injuries to go round half the sector fleet."
"When can I leave?"
"Leave? Oh, not for a while. The bones have knitted together nicely, and the external injuries are healing well, but your internal biochemistry is still off. I’m afraid you’ll be stuck here for a while yet."
Marnos digested this silently.
"Is there anything we can do for you, make you more comfortable?" she asked hesitantly.
The slowness of his speech could not hide the longing in his words. "A new room...? One with a view… where I can see the stars..."
" I'll see what I can do." That smile again - mysterious, confusing.
Her voice was low, melodic. "There are some people who want to see you, but I’ve told them you won’t be up and around for at least a week."
She smiled and shook her head.
"I’ve no idea. They had military uniforms, and Fleet IDs, but they didn’t seem like navy types, somehow… Anyway, I’ll leave you to get some more rest – you’ll be needing quite a bit, at least until you recover."
With that, she stood and left, the door softly swishing shut behind her.
When Marnos woke again, he did not recognise the room. The door was on the wrong side; the furniture had moved. Then he saw the wide expanse of the viewport, the vast depths of space, and understood – they had moved him. Smiling weakly, he sat up, trying to ignore the searing pain that flashed through his muscles, unused for so long. Pulling back the sheets, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, letting his feet rest on the cold floor. Immediately, his head swam, a sense of nausea rising. Vision blurred – the room swayed. A dull ache in his skull; thudding, pounding. He lay back, heart racing, eyes closed. Sweat soaked his white hospital gown - breathing hard; fighting the sensation of drowning.
Slowly, he returned to normal. He sat up again, slower this time. His body burned as he stood, tottering on unsteady legs. Placing one foot in front of the other, he trod tremulously forward, shaking. He took another step, and collapsed forwards. Reaching out as he fell, he grabbed the edge of the wide seat before the window. Pulling himself up, he sat down on it, panting – staring, transfixed, out into the sea of stars, stretching out into infinity. Countless silver sparks, glowing in the darkness – tiny havens of life, in the loneliness of the void. Marnos sighed, memories old and new spilling into consciousness. The stars were his home, and had been for thirty of the thirty-seven years of his life.
His thoughts drifted, back to a world of clouds and oceans. A child, wide-eyed, staring out of a viewport like this one, watching as his home disappeared into the distance, finally hidden from view in the glare as the ship went to hyperspace. Long years of memories, cascading through his mind: soulless grey corridors of spaceports, frontier outposts, the vastness of the void. Always, the stars his only refuge; his mind turning inwards, away from the cruel world.
The room’s bright, soulless lights made his eyes ache. He reached out and twisted a dial, lowering the light. He looked toward the viewport once more, glimpsed his reflection – older than he remembered. Tired grey eyes; they had seen a lot. A lined face echoed lonely nights and restless days. A recent scar, mostly healed, marred his forehead. Where had he got it?
Memories blurring; a jumble of images, tumbling down into eternity – the bowels of a ship. Red emergency lighting gave it a hellish feel – heat pressed against his face; steam and smoke made him cough. Sparks arced from smashed panels and torn cabling, broken girders, the torn, twisted metal of blackened bulkheads. The stench of blood and scorched flesh in his nostrils: the crew’s, his own. Drenched in sweat, crawling through dark tunnels – the ventilation system, narrow, sides covered with grime, blackness closing in. A maze of pipework, twisting metal forming haunting, animalistic shapes.
Hunting his prey, Marnos stalked through the steel jungle, hefting a projectile rifle. A compact weapon – lightweight black ceramics, with a magazine of armour-piercing explosive rounds, primed to detonate once they had torn through the armour of their target. Conventional explosive propellant; inelegant but functional, self-contained – mass drivers needed power plants, magnetic coils; size the rifle could not afford. Clad in armour, like some nightmarish predator, he stalked through the hulking darkness. On one shoulder, an insignia – crimson, like dripping blood. The flag of the Taiidani Republic. A new sign, a new nation. A new war.
Marnos trod silently forward, cat-like, tracking his enemy: a saboteur, readying charges to destroy the ship. A clang – Marnos crouched, listening. A hollow sound – his quarry? No – it was the ring of the hull as another shell impacted, far from the engine compartment where he was. Ducking under a low pipe, walking softly forward onto a gangway. Looking down – the light was behind him, hiding him. There! Next to a console, his back turned away. Marnos crouched, crept closer, down a flight of stairs, weapon trained. Ten metres; five; three. He froze as the figure laid down the bag he had been holding, and stood slowly up. He did not turn.
“Captain Marnos, Fleet Intelligence. Special Operations Group three-five-oh-seven. I’ve been waiting for you.”
The voice: quiet, assured. A voice he recognised.
“I’m afraid there’s no going back now… the charges will blow in three minutes, and there’s nothing you or I can do to stop them.” Neutral tone, calm delivery – the truth?
“Just you and me then?” Marnos’ first words, a challenge, a plea.
“As always… you and me. I kill you, you kill me… what does it matter anymore?”
“Did it ever matter?” his voice bitter, biting out words.
A sigh from the form before him; silhouetted against steam, glowingly backlit by the red lights. “Ten years ago, when we still had a choice, perhaps. Not any more – there are no more choices.”
Marnos nodded, and raised the rifle.
The man turned; his face hawk-like in the dim light. Piercing eyes bored through Marnos, deep into his soul; he could not suppress a shiver.
His voice choked – a friend, an enemy: who knew which was which anymore?
Smiling; “Goodbye, Marnos.”
A flicker of motion – a gun rising from his side – Marnos fired on instinct, shells from the rifle slamming into Ornam’s chest, blowing it apart. Blood spattered on his face – warm, wet, it ran down his face in rivers. The body collapsed to the floor; a puppet with strings cut. Eyes still open, staring, face rigid. Marnos knelt down, closed the eyes with gloved fingers. Looking up: a timer. Two minutes.
He ran, ran, away from hell, into blackness. Cold oblivion; his head thudded onto the tiled floor of the white room.
A week passed; long days, while he waited. Bland hospital meals, injuries healing: aches faded, muscles rebuilt while he slept, scars formed. Hours, just staring, out at the stars – had he missed them so much? Hungry for life: the need to move once more. Marnos roamed his tiny room, his prison, like a caged animal, restless, waiting to be set free. Waiting. Troubled dreams – montages of images, horrifying, mad – fading as he woke, sweat pouring off him, heart pounding.
Morning – the wall clock read 08:17. A bleep from the small data terminal that sat on the table beside his bed; he reached over, pressed a key. Text scrolled across the screen:
>>Republic Military (Fleet Intelligence), currently attached to Special Operations Group 3507
>>C/O Deeron Seven Navy yards Military Hospital
>>You are required to attend a meeting with representatives of Special Operations
>>Command and Fleet Intelligence at 12:00 hours.
>>Colonel Faeron Halsh, Fleet Intelligence, 77891/202-3
Marnos stared, unsure what it portended. A new assignment? A court-martial? What? He pulled back the sheets, swung his legs over the side of the bed. Looking through a wardrobe, he found his uniform, wrapped in plastic. Tearing open the packaging, he dressed carefully; rank badges, campaign ribbons the only colour on the black cloth. Straightening, he looked in the mirror, and stared back at himself. Brown hair combed to one side – too long, after months of sleep. Deep lines around his eyes – age showing in the tired look behind them. A white scar trailed down his forehead, crossing one eyebrow – no new hair where it puckered his brow.
A grim smile – the pride, the first time he had worn the uniform. The sense of belonging, of the family he had never had. Now? Now there was nothing: enemies, friends – all one in the madness of war. Stretching, he paced the small room. Aches remained, but less than they had been. Tiredness washed over him; dreams gave him little space for sleep. He went over to the bed; lying down, he stared at the surgical white ceiling. Closing his eyes, he willed himself to sleep.
Darkness, all around. The biting wind – rain stung his eyes. Walking, along an endless clifftop, stumbling on the sharp black rocks beneath his feet. Looking to his left he saw the grey sea boiling, the dark sky lashing down at it, forks of light stabbing from the clouds – two battling giants. Ahead stood a figure, poised on the edge of the cliff, face turned away. The wind blew black robes about him: a cloak of darkness. Marnos suddenly felt the urge to run, and began to sprint forward towards the figure, running, running. Pains in his chest, he felt like he was drowning. It became harder to run – as though he were moving through water, not air. Nearly there, nearly there; he ran on. Almost reaching him – the figure launched itself into space, falling down to the cruel sea below – too late, Marnos fell to the ground, heart exploding: his body thudding into the ebony rocks that littered the dark soil. Rain seeped through his clothes, soaked his hair, water streaming down his face. A dark shape fluttered down from the sky, wings outspread; a creature of the storm. Landing on a tall rock, it stood, looking down at the broken man; laughing. The raven’s harsh voice tormented him: he stood, defying it. Legs too weak; he couldn’t stand – falling to the ground, the laughter following him into blackness.
22nd Sep 01, 12:52 PM
Chapter 2 – A Battle of Words (http://warpedworld.net/Lyrics/usandthem.html)
“I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you -smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.' ” – Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness (http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~csicseri/)’
Bright light; pain. Marnos tried to close his eyes, to shut out the white light that seared his retina, but he couldn’t – his muscles would not respond. Blinded, his mind wallowed in the nothingness that surrounded him. He was seated on a hard plastic chair, his feet resting on the rough floor. Slowly, his eyes adapted to the intensity. Shining in his eyes, a powerful white spotlight. He still wore his uniform, badges shimmering in the light. No restraints tarnished the impression of military order, but he felt remote from his body – as though he were a spectator, watching from a great distance. No control: drug-induced slowness. Sluggishly, he focussed. Just in front of him was a plain metal desk, on the far side of which lay a few datapads and a pair of arms. Encased in black cloth – the uniform of the Taiidan military. On the forearms, silver markings indicated the wearer was Intelligence. Rank patches on the shoulders – a colonel. A Special Ops medallion glinted on the right lapel. The face a shadow, lit only by the light reflected from the dull grey walls of the little cell. Older than Marnos: maybe fifty years in age. A bald head, an imperious nose; dark little eyes that saw everything. A twisted smile spread across the man’s face.
“Good day, Captain Marnos. I’m glad you could join us.” A slight movement of his head indicated his companion – a man in smart civilian dress, sprawled on a chair to the colonel’s right. The man nodded – small, birdlike, a head too big for his body jerked convulsively. The colonel spoke again. “I apologise for having to perform this interview like this, but we had to be absolutely certain you told us the truth, so the… inducements… were necessary. You should feel completely awake in a few minutes.”
His throat dry, parched like a desert. “What…what do you want?”
The bird-man jerked forward, leaning towards the table: “Merely the truth, dear captain, merely the truth. And your… cooperation.” He sat back, smiling, eyes like a ferret’s – waiting, poised to strike. The colonel’s sibilant tone: “As you may have gathered, I am a member of Fleet Intelligence. Colonel Halsh, attached to Special Ops Command. This is my civilian liaison, Citizen Omar Natch.”
The bird-man nodded again. “We are here to discuss your last assignment, Captain. And perhaps… other matters.” He leant back, gesturing to the Colonel. “I believe the Colonel has a little story to tell.”
Halsh pursed his lips in a thin smile, his eyelids slowly closing and then opening again. “Indeed. If you feel you have anything to add at any point, please do so. This is, of course, all being recorded” As he spoke he gestured up to a small camera, watching them – watching Marnos.
Marnos nodded, swallowing. His mouth felt like dust. Citizen Natch cleared his throat and spoke. “Perhaps the good captain would like a drink. Clear his head a little, yes?”
Halsh turned slightly, taking a tall glass from a small table behind him. He slid it slowly across the desk to Marnos, a slight rasping sound as the bottom of the vessel scraped over the metal surface. His arm shaking, Marnos reached out and took it. Moving his hand back across the table slowly, meaningfully, Halsh stared straight at Marnos; their eyes locked. The implication was clear: drink it, or they would make him. The liquid inside sloshed up the sides as Marnos’ shaking hand raised the glass to his lips. He poured the ice-cold liquid down his throat, draining it to the dregs. A slight dribble trickled out of the side of his mouth; reaching up automatically, he wiped it off with the end of his sleeve, and put the glass back down on the table with a clink. Tasteless, yet refreshing – water? No, there was something else, a buzz: stimulants? He tossed the thought away; irrelevant, inevitable – if they wanted him awake, he would be awake. His own hand, or another’s – no choice. No choice.
The Colonel, his voice slow; a snake-like hiss: “Let us start at the beginning.”
Marnos nodded, agreeing – was it him agreeing? Or just the drugs they had given him? No way to tell. The Colonel spoke again, his voice probing: “You were assigned to a Heavy Cruiser, the Starwind. Your mission was to root out a suspected traitor in the crew. That is correct?”
A nod – involuntary, spasmodic.
“What were you told, prior to boarding the ship?”
Marnos hesitated: should he reply - should he incriminate himself? His body decided for him, speaking without command: “Nothing. Just that there was an Imperialist saboteur on board. Nothing more – they said they didn’t know anything else.”
“SOC command – my orders came from there.”
“I see. And how were you to find this… saboteur?”
Hesitation again – again he spoke, his tongue running loose, reeling off facts.
“I was to liase with the ship’s Intelligence Officer. I was told the Internal Security division had cleared him. The ship’s captain was told that I was conducting an exercise in crew effectiveness. The two of us were to interview every crewmember: watch for mistakes, slip-ups – catch them in a lie.” Marnos remembered the interviews – the IO asking the questions, while he watched, waiting for a sign. Look at the eyes, said the man who trained him. You’ll see the truth there. Eyes never lie.
The Colonel’s voice, interrupting his thoughts: “And did you find anything? A suspect?”
“No.” There had been no one. The ship had been clean – too clean. Everyone had their dirty washing; things they didn’t want others to know. Ships had theirs – missing reports they hoped weren’t noticed, equipment that would fail safety checks. Small things; not what Marnos was concerned with. Yet there was nothing.
“And where was the ship during this period?”
“Here. The Deeron Seven naval yards.”
“Why wasn’t she out on patrol?”
Moments passed – Marnos’ heart thudded faster, the sound ringing in his ears. Words burst out: babbling, his voice no longer his own: “I ordered her to be kept in dock while the investigation progressed, under the pretence of routine system checks.”
“I wanted outside troops on hand – the traitor might have gained influence with the crew, or had a position of command – I didn’t want to take chances.”
“And then what happened?”
“The ship was called out on alert – an Imperialist incursion force had been spotted near by a sensor array in the outer regions of the system, and the Starwind was to intercept and engage them.”
“No, three frigates as well. System defence. I forget the names.”
Details. Why ask? They knew the answers – what did they want from him?
The Colonel looked down at a datapad on the desk before him. Picking it up, he tapped a couple of keys. “It says here that the Starwind and her escorts dropped out of hyperspace right on top of the Imperialist formation, and immediately attacked. Please describe the engagement as you saw it.”
Marnos’ mind slipped back, into the past – into the fire. The blackness of space; ships silhouetted against the far-off sun. Yellow and red stripes – the colours of the Empire. The Republican ships, green and black: local fleet colours. Fire belched from the ships’ guns, ion beams burning blue-white, crisscrossing the black satin of the sky.
“Chaos. Just chaos. There were two enemy destroyers, and a carrier. Corvettes – no fighters. The Starwind attacked the first destroyer, and sent the frigates to take the second. We took heavy fire to the port frontal quarter – one of our gun batteries was taken out. The enemy destroyer took serious damage from our ion cannons though: they reversed engines and tried to withdraw, while the corvettes covered them.”
The metal hull of the enemy ship glowed white, paint peeling away in black strips, as the beams melted through the hull – cutting power lines, cabling, ammunition belts; slicing through bulkheads. Flames guttered from the rents in her hull, fuelled by the escaping oxygen.
“And the other destroyer?”
“It was taking a beating too, trying to manoeuvre into of the way of the frigates, blocking any advance toward the carrier.”
“And what was your part in all this?”
“I went down to the armoury, suited up in combat armour and rifle. I knew then was the best time for the saboteur to strike.”
“Why was that?”
“The ship was heavily damaged. Chaos everywhere: fire, smoke, sirens screaming – the crew running this way and that. Someone going into the armoury and getting some explosives might not be noticed, especially if they were…” he paused, unsure whether to carry on - his tongue decided for him: “a senior officer.”
The civilian, Natch, leant forward, scrutinising Marnos’ face. The Colonel half-turned, looking back, into the darkness. Was that a figure standing there? A dark shape – a uniform? Marnos struggled for details – a female figure, leaning against the far wall. The dark figure nodded, slowly, and the Colonel turned back to Marnos.
“A senior officer? But surely they were at their battle stations? They would be noticed if they went missing.” Halsh’s tongue, flickering – a viper, waiting to strike.
Marnos shook his head. “Not all of them. There was one who didn’t need to be anywhere.”
Why ask? They surely knew the only officer who had no official battle station. Why did they want him to spell it out for them? To hear him say it?
“The Intelligence Officer.”
“Did you find him?” A direct question; too direct. Marnos noticed what Halsh did not ask – how the Intelligence Officer, cleared by Fleet Intelligence Internal Affairs division, could be the traitor.
“Yes. In the engine compartment. He was setting explosives, rigging the drives to blow.”
“And you stopped him?”
”No. I shot him. I couldn’t disarm the explosives.”
“Did you try?”
Worried – sweat breaking on his forehead. A drop trickled down his nose, hanging at the end like a stalactite. “No.” The words were costing him, wearing him down. His mind raged, stuck as though behind a glass screen: watching himself as he blabbed out the dark words.
“Why not?” the Colonel demanded.
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to.”
“How?” The tone commanding, questioning: the weight of words bearing down, crushing him.
Struggling for air: “He… he told me.”
“And you believed him?” Disbelief – feigned? Again, that glance behind him. Eyes strained to make out the shadowy face – no details, just a blur in the darkness.
“Yes.” His voice breaking, collapsing under the strain – the drug flowing through his veins, burning. Fire in his lungs – a harsh voice, laughing: the raven, beady eyes watching from behind a curtain in his mind.
“Why? Why not try to disarm them – were they on a timer?” Demanding.
“Two minutes. I looked – then I ran.” The words came quickly now, flowing in a torrent.
“Why did you trust him? Or were you just afraid?”
“I knew he wouldn’t lie to me!” No lies, no lies – the truth, truth between friends, more sacred than life. Years, fighting together, lives in each others hands, all falling into the darkness. But not the truth. Never the truth between them.
“WHY?” Shouting, raging, a wave of a word, ringing in his ears like thunder; his own voice weak, the reply meek – speech a tool to steal his memory. “Because…because I knew him.”
The Colonel sat back, his face calculating, cruel – a predator, playing with him. “You were the only man to make it alive out of that engine compartment, Captain. There were over a hundred casualties: men, women – people with families. You threw their lives away. To save your own neck – or did you want that bomb to explode?”
Questions; hammering at his mind, like gunfire smashing onto the hull of a ship, echoes of the impacts ringing in his head. No answers. Fire, gushing through his veins – burning, burning. A raging inferno, flashing across his vision, searing his eyes, his face.
Screaming – his voice a distant echo, drowned by the roaring of the fire. He slumped to the desk, crumpling as his head thudded into the edge of the metal table.
The room was cool; a slight breeze drifted between the white walls from a vent in the ceiling. The sheets on the bed were rumpled from another restless night, sinister visions destroying any chance to sleep. Immersed in darkness; starlight streaming in through the viewport was the only light, giving the room a ghostly look. Marnos sat on the edge of the bed in what had seemingly become his prison, vacant eyes staring out at the unwavering stars. Drug fuelled madness swirled through his mind – vague memories of the day before drifting through the haze. Recalling blurred generalities, tortured brain racing – the dark room, bright light in his eyes. Questions, never-ending, words pouring from his mouth like a roaring river: uncontrolled, babbling, chaotic; an automaton, his remembrances falling from his head into the ears of his tormentors.
He rallied himself – a steadying hand on the bed, earthing him. The stars outside, cold and white, unpitying – eternal judges. When he was out there, in the vast unending emptiness between worlds, all he wanted was to be home, safe from the loneliness. But where was home? A series of small, claustrophobic rooms on space-stations or starships. No roots – just emptiness. Marnos abhorred living planetside: stuck on the ground, nowhere to go, nowhere to flee from the teeming mass of people: their very thoughts invasive, sundering any peace he found with mindless chatter, unable to comprehend the solitude his soul demanded. Space was his only home; battle his only love. Love? A strange name for it. Love implied desire – and there was no desire. It simply existed – part of him. He had not asked for it; but it was there, seemingly eternal.
Marnos stood, unsteady on his feet – the drugs had left him drained, empty. What would they do with him, now they had drained him dry? He smiled, bitterly. States, organisations: what were these but spiders, sucking the life from their members? Shivering, he took a step forward, then another, slowly trudging towards the viewport – towards the stars. The floor, ice cold on his bare feet. The room smelled clinical – a whiff of disinfectant, the air dry and cool. So long, he thought. So long, since he had been out there, in the calm of the void – oblivious to everything except the moment. Days, weeks: it seemed endless. He paced the tiled floor: a fly, trapped within an invidious web. He did not try the door – it would be locked. He glared up at the eye of the camera, watching him. They could not hold him forever. He was not a fly: the spider would regret snaring a hornet.
A buzzing sound resonated from the door. It hissed open, revealing the form of the female doctor who had examined him a week ago. A white coat covered the baggy green uniform this time; she held a small datapad in her hand. Marnos stood, watching, taking everything in. Her body was thin and lithe; a few wisps of black hair drifted rebelliously out from the tight bun. Elegant cheekbones, dark eyes – her face had some strange quality that Marnos could not define. Her movements intrigued him – unsure, jerking motions that seemed somehow affected, as though smooth surety lurked beneath a hesitant surface.
She spoke – voice quiet, appealing: “Hello again, Captain. I see they decided to return you to us at last.”
He had only woken an hour before; how long had it been since the interrogation?
She continued, voice bitter. “I don’t know what the hell they did in there, but it certainly isn’t helping your recovery.”
Marnos shrugged, mute.
“Well, you seem to be doing pretty well, considering what you’ve been through. Sit down, let me have a look at you.”
He obeyed, unsure – how much did she know?
The doctor pulled a chair over from a corner of the room, and sat down facing Marnos. She laughed, softly – the sound tinkled lightly through the room.
“We haven’t even been introduced.”
He held out a hand, slowly.
Smiling slightly: “Don’t you have a first name?”
She took the proffered hand with hers – he looked down at it. Thin, delicate, but with nails cut short and palms rough.
“Keralis. Keralis Enar.”
He wondered whether it was significant that she had said her forename first. Don’t overanalyse, he told himself, dismissing the thought.
He realised he was still holding her hand, and pulled away, looking up at her again. Her eyes moved over his face – what did she see? A haggard face; worn by hardship, pain. A day-old beard sprouted from his jaw.
“The drugs they gave you should wear off in a day or so – that was some pretty heavy stuff. I’m surprised you’re awake already.”
“Will there be any… after-effects?”
She shook her head. “No, you should be fine once the effects wear off.”
He nodded, slowly, taking this in. Why bother using methods that didn’t do permanent damage? He knew Fleet Intel’s methods; such drugs were expensive and occasionally unreliable: why did they want him to stay functional?
Keralis reached out again, rested her hand on his shoulder, her eyes showing sympathy. “I’m sorry for what they did.” She shook her head, her face sickened. “Animals. They shouldn’t be able to get away with things like that. The military has too much power.”
He reached up, put his hand on hers. A sad smile – resigned, fatalistic. “Life is pain.”
“It shouldn’t be.” Simple words – a simple connection. Marnos searched her face, looking for a sign, anything. She turned away, stood. “I should go… I have other patients too, you know.”
He nodded, and let her go; she departed as silently as she had entered, the door closing behind her.
Marnos lay on his back, hands resting behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. He wore a pair of baggy, light blue trousers and a loose shirt – still hospital clothes, but escaping the white gown at last. He stretched out, tensing his muscles, and in one swift move leapt to his feet: landing cat-like on the tiled floor, crouching, poised to strike. Eyes, watching, waiting – a predator. Caged. Nowhere to run – the walls closing in. Suddenly claustrophobic – he had to get out, get away, had to run. No space here, just the walls, closing in on his mind. The mirror – another world, reflecting the tiny room. He swung out a fist, lightning fast – a blow to smash bones, rupture organs.
The mirror broke – shards of reality fell: down, down into eternity. Freefall. Dropping, reflections shimmered on the walls.
They hit the floor, smashing, sending broken glass skittering across the floor.
Silence, broken only by the thudding of Marnos’ heart.
He looked at his hand. Blood dripped from myriad cuts – one large gash, flesh cut to the bone. Red liquid trickled down to the extremities, dropping to the floor, splashing crimson on the tiles.
A moan – animalistic, the cry of the wild, caged. Not pain, exactly: something else. Marnos collapsed backwards, resting against the bed. He pulled off a sheet, wrapping the white fabric around his bleeding hand. Blood seeped through the makeshift bandage, staining the white with red. His mind, rent with the fiery agony of imprisonment. He had to get out. Moaning, he bowed his head, hot tears of rage and frustration rolling down his cheeks.
A loud buzz from the door: two well-built men in Military Police uniforms entered as the door hissed open. “Captain Marnos?”
Marnos struggled to stand, mind blurring.
“What are the charges?”
“Charges? Uh, sir… are you alright?”
Blinking, unsure. “Fine, I’m fine… why are you here?”
Brows creasing: “Your orders, sir.” A proffered datapad.
Marnos took it, hand shaking. “Orders?”
“Yes, sir. You’re to report to Major Anros, General Naval Staff, for your briefing.”
Standing, blood dripping from his hand – mirror smashed, the room in chaos.
The first MP turned to the other. “Shit, Cray, we got another one. This fucking war…”
As one, they stepped forward, took Marnos by the arms. “Come on Captain. You better have a shower, put on your uniform.”
He didn’t resist – he didn’t think he could have.
Pulling off the shirt, head roughly shoved under the faucet. Steaming water poured out, drenching him. Shaking his head, to get it out of his eyes.
Dragged out again – dressed in his uniform. Still bleary, he watched, a spectator, as the MPs took his arms and escorted him out of the room.
22nd Sep 01, 12:53 PM
Chapter 3 – Living reflection from a dream (http://www.led-zeppelin.org/lyrics/tangerine.html)
“It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice. There was not a word from anybody. The others might have been asleep, but I was awake. I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river.” – Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness’ (http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~csicseri/)
The long walk to the briefing room cleared Marnos’ head; silent trudging down lifeless corridors revived him. He walked sedately, arms and legs still aching from newly healed injuries, but unaided by the two military police who hulked beside him. They seemed unsure of themselves, casting occasional furtive glances towards Marnos. The passageway was empty, save for himself and his two escorts. His uniform had been cleaned since the interrogation – he could smell the solvents. Crisp collar, polished badges – the picture of military order. Thoughts, questions, anger, all raging behind the calm exterior. The drugs seemed to have worn off: two days of rest, mind churning. No sleep – insomnia kept the dreams at bay.
Footsteps echoing from the polished floor – black, veined with white: fake marble tiling. Above, a curved viewport – looking out into the blackness of the void. This was the ‘top’ of the station, the panorama only empty space. Marnos knew that below him stretched a world, endless seas and green continents: he had not seen it during his whole stay. The view from his little white room was upwards, away from the planet of Deeron Seven, above which the shipyards floated, suspended in perpetual freefall. Isolated – normal life, whatever that was, denied. Marnos did his best to keep his eyes on the corridor ahead, but he found his eyes straying upwards, to the stars. A cough at his ear: one of the MPs. “It’s here, sir.”
Marnos turned, looking: a doorway, innocuous. He would have missed it had the man not pointed it out. He walked forward; the door hissed open. The MPs stood outside, waiting; ready in case they were needed, he supposed.
Once more, Marnos wondered what he was doing: what they were doing. The interrogation was probably legal, he judged. Barely – it had crossed the line a couple of times – but legal nonetheless. So why had they not continued? Had something – someone – intervened? And now he was here, for a briefing, the purpose of which remained shrouded in mystery. The MP had not known of any charges, any court martial. If they had wanted to arrest him, they would have done so. But they hadn’t. Every question spawned a hundred more: frustration fuelled his anger. He walked through the door; a jungle predator, wary – he had been trapped before. Not this time. A circular room; dimly lit. Bluish-grey walls added to the gloom. The only light radiated from a yellow lamp that hung from the centre of the ceiling, suspended above an oval table, the reddish wood surface glowing. Its paltry luminescence illuminated three figures sat on the other side of the table, casually reclining in padded chairs. Datapads lay scattered across the table, used mugs and plates dotted between them. The hum of the station’s power generator was loud in the silence.
Slowly, one of the figures raised a hand, gesturing Marnos forward. A voice: Citizen Natch’s high-pitched nasal whine: “Do come in, Captain. Have a seat.”
He walked towards the table, the tread of his footsteps silent on the carpeted floor. Seeing who the seated figures were, he automatically saluted.
“Captain Marnos, sir, reporting as ordered.”
Three men: Natch, on the right. Straight ahead of Marnos, a staff officer with the rank of Major. To the left, set back from the table, an Admiral of Fleet Intelligence. They did not return his salute, but the Major gestured for him to sit. Natch’s voice again: “Please, Captain. Sit down, have a drink.” He pushed one of the mugs across the table. Marnos sat, slowly, not taking his eyes from Natch. Deliberately, he pushed the mug away, back towards Natch’s bug-eyed face. The smile on the civilian’s face froze. “Captain, this is not an interrogation. We are not here to determine what happened on the Starwind, or any such related matter. I apologise if the methods we used earlier were somewhat… brutal… but we had to know if you were… reliable. Colonel Halsh was perhaps overly thorough…”
How easy, thought Marnos. How easy to leap forwards, twisting mid-air, over the table; sliding the last metre. One arm outstretched: the edge of a hand crushing the Major’s larynx – the other palm pushing outwards, pushing into the man’s chest, slowing the dive. Staring into a face purple from lack of oxygen: smashed backwards into the wall behind as I barrel into him. Landing in a crouch – tearing the Major’s sidearm from its holster, a flick of a thumb arming the weapon. Standing tall, vengeful: looking down into Natch’s terrified eyes – his spirit wilting, lost in the realisation that the forces he had tried to wield were too strong for him, had overcome him. A squeeze on the trigger – once, twice, three times. The roar of the pistol filling the room: three fist-sized holes appearing in Natch’s scrawny chest; blood splattering backwards onto the wall – trickles of red liquid dribbling down to form a dark pool on the floor.
Spinning, gun held outstretched, aiming toward the Admiral’s head – the roar of gunfire echoing around the small room.
Pain riddling my body: impacts tearing me apart.
Collapsing backwards, slumping against the Major’s lifeless body.
No chance – the guards outside rushing in when they heard the shots; a quick end the only consolation.
Marnos sat still, silent – angry eyes the only betrayal. Natch had paused in his discourse: seemingly taking stock of his words. “Such measures are sometimes necessary, Captain – as I’m sure you’re aware from your time in the special operations division.” A sharp barb – and a clever one. Natch was not the bureaucrat he appeared. A liaison, Halsh had described him as. An operator, certainly – a government appointee no doubt. An auditor, sent to keep an eye on the more secretive side of the military? Or a high-ranking messenger boy, handing down orders from above?
The Major coughed. “Lets get back on track here, gentlemen. We’re not here to debate Special Operations methodology.”
Why then, Marnos wondered, am I here?
The Major glanced at the Admiral, who gave an almost imperceptible nod. The Major turned back to Marnos. “We – that is, Intelligence, operating in concert with Central fleet command – have a new assignment for you.”
Marnos nodded, waiting, wondering why the man seemed to feel the need to justify his words. The throb of the generator seemed louder now, an insistent hum in the awkward silence.
Natch pushed a datapad over the table towards Marnos. He picked it up.
“You may recognise this man, Captain. He used to be one of you.”
Words echoing in Marnos’ ears: the phrase “used to” striking dark chords as it ricocheted through his mind. “You”? Special Operations, then. Natch’s voice continued unabated – background noise – while Marnos studied the picture.
Intense, dark eyes stared back at Marnos. Cold, hard: piercing his soul. Marnos shivered, forcing himself to look away.
“That is Colonel Garshak; the most recent picture we have of him. He may have… changed somewhat, since then.”
Looking back at the picture, Marnos knew that nothing would ever change those eyes – diamond hard, they betrayed no emotion.
The Admiral spoke: heavily, slowly, words falling like leaden slabs; tainted with a distant sadness. “Colonel Garshak was the best. Our best. I don’t mean that in a figurative way; he was simply the best soldier this navy has ever trained.”
The eyes stared at Marnos, seemingly searching, stripping him naked with a glance. The eyes of a warrior? Maybe. But the eyes of a judge too; of cold analysis, cutting deep. Judging him.
“Eight months ago, he was entrusted with the command of a Special Operations battle group, and sent into the Lost Regions. As you know, the border is in a constant state of flux, as we regain territory from Imperialist forces, or they push us back towards the Central systems.”
Garshak’s hair was closely cropped: his nose, aquiline, jutted forwards – imperious, commanding. A strong jawline – a rippling scar puckered the chin. A big head, with a thick neck: a big man.
“The Colonel’s mission was the destruction of two large Imperialist fleets operating in the Lost Regions, to enable us to send in more… conventional… forces to retake the area with a minimum of casualties.”
The eyes were ruthless, yes, but… detached. They would not hesitate to kill, the eyes told Marnos, and yet there was something else there. What was it?
“Reports were to be directed by tight-beam transmission to a listening post in the Yalmarar system, just our side of the border. Two months ago, they picked up a transmission – the first since regular reports ceased three months previously.”
The Admiral took another datapad, and pressed a key. Static hissed from it as the recording began to play – the sound of the stars, singing their eternal song.
A voice – low, gravelly. Garshak’s voice. “Our hearts are filled with fire. But our eyes… do not see.”
A shiver ran down Marnos’ spine, nerves jangling as though touched by something powerful, intangible.
The voice continued. “Out here: in the cold, the dark, we are free. But freedom is… nothing… to us. We are prisoners, our minds shackled…”
The recording ended, and the room fell silent. The low hum of the generator seemed to scream in the silence.
At last, the Admiral broke the stillness. “We have received other transmissions…” he trailed off.
Natch coughed, taking up the narrative. “It appears that Colonel Garshak has gone… totally insane.”
“Insane…” murmured the Admiral. “Quite so, quite so…”
Marnos nodded. “Insane, sir. Quite obviously insane.” Agreement easier than the alternative – Garshak’s eyes boring into him; seeming to question his whole existence.
The Admiral rubbed his forehead, his hand moving rhythmically over a furrowed brow. “Your mission, Captain, is go – out there – and… terminate… the Colonel’s command.”
Marnos spoke again, his voice hesitant, questioning. “Terminate, sir?”
Natch, his voice seeming to relish the words: “Terminate… with extreme prejudice.”
“With extreme prejudice. Yes, sir.”
The Admiral waved a hand, dismissing him. “You can go now, Captain… the Major will fill you in on the details.”
Marnos stood, saluting. As he turned to go, Natch’s voice whined loudly behind him. “We have absolute confidence in your skills, Captain. Don’t fail us.”
The sound of that voice felt like a icicle being slid between Marnos’ shoulder blades. He stood still, clenching his jaw shut; controlling the urge to shiver. To his left, he saw the Major stand: taking a thin, rectangular black case from beneath the table, he walked around the table, and out of the room. Marnos followed, a few steps behind, feeling eyes on his back, their gazes boring into him.
Standing outside the dark room, in the light at last, the two men faced one another. The Major held out his hand to Marnos. “Raenar. Brakt Raenar.” An offer of friendship? Or just another meaningless formality? He could not tell.
Marnos took the other’s hand – it could do no harm, whatever the meaning of the gesture.
A nervous smile: the voice apologetic, a needy tone – searching for redemption in Marnos’ reply. “For what it’s worth, Captain, I’m sorry about what they did to you – that interrogation was way out of line.” Then the inevitable excuse – “I don’t have any say in internal matters; I’m just an analyst.”
Marnos nodded, unspeaking. Cold anger burned within him: a choking presence lurking just below the surface. He controlled the impulses – kept his face impassive, stony.
A hesitant attempt: “Well, you’d better come with me… I’ll give you a brief rundown of the situation, give you all your documentation, that kind of thing.” Looking down at the datapad he held, as if to check a schedule – uncertainty emanating from anxious features.
Marnos’ curt nod spoke impatience, surety – a façade, but a successful one: Major Raenar started to walk down the corridor, beckoning to Marnos to follow. Looking up and down the brightly lit passageway, Marnos saw that the two military police had gone. Some feelings of security returned; perhaps they trusted him now? Or had the whole interrogation been a sham, a shameless masquerade to hide an ulterior purpose?
The lift door hissed open as they reached it: the circular chamber three metres wide – a size that would be a luxury on board a starship, but on a station such as this it seemed part of the normality of the place. A slightly soulless place, Marnos thought, with its wide, starkly lit corridors, colourless walls and polished floors. Stepping inside, Raenar gravitated to one side of the compartment, while Marnos stepped deftly to the other. The Major studied the control panel before pressing a red button about two-thirds of the way down. A low tone sounded, and the button began to glow with a soft orange luminescence. That duty done, Raenar’s eyes had nowhere to run: forced to stare across the small space to where Marnos leant casually against the cream-coloured wall. With a hum, the lift slid smoothly into the depths – Marnos felt a jolt in his stomach as the metal capsule accelerated downwards.
A certain sense of vulnerability seemed to emanate from the other man: a time to strike? He framed the questions in his mind, a predator ready to pounce. An angle: “Was there a particular reason why I chosen for this mission?”
A slight twitch: he seemed to have been anticipating the question, but the phrasing caught him off guard. A casual question, not the pointed demand Raenar appeared to have expected. The reply was a rehearsed one, but it was delivered in a slightly flustered tone: “I don’t know… I suppose you were the best operative available.”
“But I’ve been lying injured in that hospital for months. The Admiral said that regular reports ceased five months ago: the first transmission was over two months old – why was nothing done then?”
“As I said, I’m not really privy to that kind of information – it may just be that no course of action was decided upon until a few days ago.” A weak response, as they both knew, but Marnos decided to leave it at that: pressing the issue might damage his chances of getting any information at all. Secrecy and distrust were the currency of Intelligence: it was possible that Raenar did indeed know nothing.
The Major glanced down at his jacket, and reached one hand inside the black tunic. From a pocket he retrieved a small datacard; green plastic, measuring about six by four centimetres; wafer thin. One side was a pattern of electrical contacts, and his name. The other was a small display: his own face stared back at him from the surface – the expression blank, eyes glazed. A military ID card: the vacant stares made everyone seem the same, the soulless pictures telling you nothing of the person within.
“That’s everything official you’ll need. ID, orders, special dispensations. Obviously, they don’t state the real nature of your mission: all knowledge of that is in your head. Deniability, you know.” A conspiratorial wink followed the last statement; Marnos wondered whether it was a joke.
“What special dispensations are there for this mission?”
Raenar looked down at his hands, ticking points off with his fingers. “To begin with, powers of requisition: you can take command of any reasonable number of assets in pursuit of your objective.”
Reasonable? wondered Marnos. Where is the reason in war?
“In addition to this, local commanders are to render whatever assistance may be necessary to the successful completion of your mission.”
Like a robot with its power supply drained, Raenar fell silent, leaving Marnos to ponder the accumulating oddities. The broad, discretionary powers he had been given: far above the norm for such a mission. The brutal interrogation, followed by what could only be construed as a brief apology, then a new assignment; madness piling on madness, as the lift fell down towards its destination.
22nd Sep 01, 12:54 PM
Chapter 4 – Woes which hopes thinks infinite (http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/poets/shelley.html)
“A complaining clamor, modulated in savage discords, filled our ears. The sheer unexpectedness of it made my hair stir under my cap. I don't know how it struck the others: to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed, so suddenly, and apparently from all sides at once, did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise. It culminated in a hurried outbreak of almost intolerably excessive shrieking, which stopped short, leaving us stiffened in a variety of silly attitudes, and obstinately listening to the nearly as appalling and excessive silence.” – Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness’ (http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~csicseri/)
The door slid open; Marnos stepped out into a large, dimly lit room – seeing the squad of Marines standing rigidly in line to either side of the lift door, he froze. The rounded vertices of the hulking suits’ armour plating only served to reinforce the menace exuded by the glossy black angular carapaces. Raenar – seeming not to notice Marnos’ disquiet – swept past, gesturing to the armoured troopers. They fanned out to left and right, carbines held ready: taking up guard positions by each of the room’s three exits, they stood motionless; statues of flesh and bone, polished shells glinting in the dark. With an impatient gesture, Raenar beckoned him forward into the wide plaza. Slowly, eyes flickering to left and right, he walked out from the lift’s circular chamber.
Save the small spotlights gleaming from the lofty ceiling, the only illumination was the starlight that streamed into the wide expanse of the courtyard from the immense viewport that covered the entirety of the wall immediately opposite where they stood. Grey metal walls reached up to the vaulted heights above; broad steps led down from the raised dais that spilled out from the lift doors, down to a broad viewing area. Briefcase in hand, Raenar strode swiftly down the smooth steps, Marnos following in his wake. With the Marines his insensible audience, Raenar seemed surer of himself – focussed on the duty at hand. Glancing hastily around the silent emptiness of the enormous piazza, he seated himself on the low bench that curved back to the edge of the lower chamber, facing the infinitude spread out before him: a balcony opening onto the stars.
Marnos sat; careful not to sit too close to the Major, but near enough to talk easily. Turning his head slightly, he looked back towards the troopers who stood immobile near the only doors; stopping anyone from entering, or him from leaving? “What’re the Marines for?”
Raenar looked at him, his face serious, intent. “Protection. For you, for the mission; it’s better for everyone concerned if this is kept… quiet.”
Raenar opened the case which he had laid on the bench between them; the lid blocking Marnos’ view of the contents. Slowly withdrawing a small headset comlink, he fitted it to his ear, the discreet microphone just touching his cheek. Flicking a small switch on the body of the device, he spoke into it.
“Control, this is Gesoth Seven. We are in position; activate at your discretion.”
An indiscernible reply; then a sudden hiss of static, loud enough for Marnos to hear despite the speaker’s resting place within the Major’s ear. Wincing from the volume of the sound, Raenar removed the headset.
“Good, now no one can hear us.”
“A damping field?”
The Major nodded; Marnos was suddenly caught in the past, the precautions bringing back memories. Covert sound damping was standard practice for most intelligence briefings, although it was usually built into the room where the meeting took place. Obviously here they were improvising; the damping field was being projected from outside.
Raenar replaced the headset in the case, removing in its place a small datapad and a handful of memory cards. The datapad was standard military issue; a dark grey, the epitome of dullness and practicality. It was said that the plastic casing was almost indestructible – perhaps a myth, but Marnos knew that they were indeed tough: he had once smashed a man’s skull with one. He shuddered at the memory; the feel of the man’s blood slick on his hands, still warm – even today. The memory cards were green, transparent: they shimmered in the light, individual threads of superconducting circuitry too thin to see with the naked eye.
He passed them over to Marnos; the thin wafers clinked as they changed hands.
“That’s all the information we can give you on Colonel Garshak. His military record, psych profile, all we know of what happened after he went into the Lost Regions.”
Marnos inserted the first chip: Garshak’s record. He thumbed through the contents, hunting. The image stared out from the screen at him; the same picture he had seen so recently: those haunting, inscrutable eyes.
“How am I going to get there?” A sudden need; the emptiness outside beckoning, welcoming – wanderlust his opium.
“There’s special transport laid on. Central Fleet Command is providing a ship.”
Confusion: “Central? Isn’t this an Intelligence mission?”
“Yes… but we feel the specifics of this assignment have created a need for a different style of vessel than we are prone to employ.”
“What is she?” Female: a ship was always a lady. Marnos wondered why – as many women as men sailed the sea of stars. Perhaps it was a very ancient tradition; maybe things were different then.
“A cruiser – a new design.”
“A cruiser? I thought this was a covert mission!”
“Don’t worry.” soothed Raenar. “She’s stealthy enough. But this operation is not a regular assignment.”
The statement brought a twisted grin from Marnos; killing renegade Intelligence operatives hiding in enemy-controlled space could hardly be seen as normal.
“You’ll be along as a passenger; you have command only where it pertains to the mission itself.”
Marnos nodded, hiding his anger – it would get him nowhere. The irregularities were building up; the normal Intelligence load-out for such a mission would be a heavily modified Heavy Corvette, stealthed up to the max, a larger long-endurance drive installed. The crew would be perhaps two men, both highly trained specialists: their mission to deliver the operative to the right place at the right time, and to extract him if and when necessary. Frigates, even destroyers had occasionally been used for extraction if the opposition was anticipated to be especially fierce: a cruiser was unheard of.
“Would you like to see her?”
Raenar stood, inclining his head towards the viewport.
He walked slowly across the etched metal floor; Marnos rose and followed. Reaching the edge, he looked out and down. Below them stretched the shipyards: capital ships of every class lay docked, enmeshed in the angular latticework of the dock. Here, an Assault Frigate, tiny figures patching the vast rent in its flank; there, a Destroyer in the final stages of construction, paint beginning to cover the meshed ceramic and metal armour plating. Raenar lifted his arm, pointing down at one of the twenty or so vessels that reclined lazily in the dock.
Marnos stared, transfixed by the vision he saw: an avatar of destruction; sleek beauty, death incarnate.
Below, backlit by the eternal glow of the stars, lay the ship. Golden light from the system’s twin suns glistened on the black armoured hull; jagged crimson stripes down her spine enhanced the predatory look of her rugged lines. A spider’s web of silvery struts linked her to the station; a child joined to its mother, umbilical cords ferrying crew, food, ammunition, fuel: supplies for the journey – the war – ahead.
As Marnos gazed, Raenar began to speak, his voice that of a man in a trance, his mind wandering as he stared down at the ship.
“Before regular reports ceased, the Colonel sent various transmissions stating concerns that his unit had been infiltrated by Imperialist operatives. The last message we got before the messages stopped altogether was… different. He seemed calmer; as though he had made peace with something, someone.”
“What did it say?”
“That he had instituted a purge of his detachment, executed the traitors. There was a list of names; pictures too.”
“Pictures?” The revulsion of Raenar’s tone hinted at unsaid horrors; a glimpse through the dark mirror.
“Of the ones he killed. They had been dead for a week or more. Their bodies were hardly recognisable as people… but you could see who they had been in the faces.” A horrified fascination permeated Raenar’s voice, his face white as he stared out towards the armoured form of the mechanical revenant.
Marnos’ reverent gaze scrutinised the vicious profile. She looked to be some kind of light cruiser; fast, deadly, heavily armed. Its shark-like contours were classic Taiidani design, studded with weapons. Marnos smiled, bleakly; the Taiidan knew how to make beautiful ships. In the nose were two turret-mounted heavy ion cannons: from their size, he judged them to be a step up in power from the grade on Heavy Cruisers, although there were only two in total, rather than the four which the larger ships bore. On either flank large protrusions housed two heavy turrets, each equipped with a tri-barrelled system – high velocity, armour piercing explosive shells ready to reap a grim harvest of any frigate or corvette who opposed her.
Further back were what looked like launch bays, massive sliding doors slightly open. As he watched, a Scout jetted out of one, accelerating to high velocity in a fraction of a second, a glowing blue engine trail streaming out behind it as it hurtled into the void, a second fighter following close behind. Both craft bore the same black and red colour scheme that marked the Cruiser. Marnos wondered what it signified.
Turning his attention back to the Cruiser, he pondered the out of place engines. They seemed too big to be part of the design; bulbous nacelles jutted out towards the rear of the ship. Marnos was willing to bet they were the same enormously powerful thrusters and powerplant used on the ship’s cousin, the Devastator-class Heavy Cruiser. What was it the Kushan had named the Devastator after? The Qwaar-Jet – some ancient god of pain and enslavement, as he recalled. Marnos lip twisted in a grim smile at the irony, the way the universe came full circle. The oppressors became the oppressed; the oppressed rose against the oppressors, who were once the people the oppressed had themselves enslaved.
“The faces weren’t the worst thing. It was the names; knowing who these people were, the names of their families – their partners, their children.” An echo in the silence, a voice in the darkness: the bleakness of fate. Raenar turned to Marnos; the words now had a pleading note to them.
“End it, end it. Let me sleep again.”
The desperation in the man’s voice made Marnos uneasy; he turned away, looking back at the ship; concentrating on technical details, small things – twisting his thoughts away from Garshak, from pain, from darkness, from death.
The larger engines, he realised, would enable the smaller, lighter ship to move fast; perhaps as fast as a frigate. He was, Marnos realised, looking at a very new ship: one of a new breed, designed for the vast, unending border conflicts that seemed to eat up ships and men faster than the Republic could build or train them. She was made for the quick strike, the deadly ambush, her weaponry geared to destroy any opponent within minutes. How many strike craft did she carry? One squadron? Two? With Interceptors and Attack Bombers, and the superior manoeuvrability and speed those powerful engines surely gave her, she could even threaten a Heavy Cruiser or Carrier battle group. Still, he realised, there must be drawbacks to the design. To get that speed, with the weight of her weaponry and the associated systems, the ship’s armour must be no better than that of a Destroyer; while it would still be a tough ship, it would not stay the course in a protracted battle.
“What’s her name?” Diversion from death, from sorrow. He had to focus, ignore the vast emptiness without and within.
“The Stormhawk. She’s a Jaguar-class ship: the only one, at least for now. Maybe in a few years there’ll be more, but she’s an expensive beast to build.”
Relief in Raenar’s tone: glad to engage in ‘safe’ conversation – an unspoken agreement to shut out the dark.
They left the room hurriedly; doubts and fears playing on their minds like some manic harpist. Four of the Marines marched beside them as they strode down empty passageways, towards the docking bay where Marnos would bid the hollow station goodbye and greet the depths of emptiness that spanned the distance between the stars.
Coming to a junction, they began to walk across a wide courtyard. Three boulevards led onto the plaza – the passage they had just left, ahead the way to the docking ports. It was, however, the third corridor that attracted his notice: a sign bearing the legend “Medical Facility”. A thought flashed through his mind; a chance, a hope for life beyond the eternal sorrow of death and despair.
“Can you give me a few moments?”
Raenar’s face was hard, uncompromising: nothing would ruin the moment of salvation. In that pitiless stare Marnos saw desperation; he would not let anything stand in the way of the mission, of the ending of a nightmare.
“I’m afraid we can’t permit that, Captain. Operational security; I’m sure you understand.”
Marnos stood still, facing the Major – they had come to a standstill in the centre of the courtyard, the four troopers standing at the ready, watching, waiting. Anger swelled within him; cold logic thrown to the winds. He sprang, a whirling dervish of devastation.
He brought his left leg up in a scything kick that dropped one man, his boot smashing into the armoured chest, hurling him clattering onto the hard floor. Pivoting on his other foot he lashed out with his right hand, fingers jabbing into the throat of a second Marine; a gurgling collapse. Grabbing the second man’s carbine, he brought it around in a wide arc, thudding into the third man’s helmet. Staggering back, he collapsed to his knees as Marnos pounced on the last soldier, tackling him at knee height – bringing him crashing to the floor.
Raenar stood unmoving, shocked at this sudden outburst of violence, as Marnos sprinted away towards the medical facility. Alive at last; the scent of battle filling his nostrils. Adrenaline pumping through his veins, walls blurring past as he sped down the bland corridor. Dully, he heard Raenar’s shouted orders to stop, then a scream: “No, you idiot! Don’t shoot!”
A roar of gunfire; shells ricocheting off the metal walls in a hail of sparks. Ceasing as suddenly as they started: the Major bringing some semblance of order to the chaos. Marnos ran, frustrations fuelling the furious assault on reason – heart pumping to the demented drumbeat of his inner demons.
Bleached walls flashing past; pulse beating at his temples as he sprinted through the hospital. A glimpse of green through a ward’s open doors; he skidded to a halt, scanning the room for a face familiar from dark days of wandering thoughts and whitewashed walls. His gaze swept the room, and as it did so the room stared back; fifty pairs of eyes swivelling towards him from the dull vista of bare walls, pale sheets – sterility screaming its silent loneliness from every bandaged face. Despair emanated from the gaping maws of their pupils, devouring him; their eyes were dead orbs floating in a sea of patchwork: skin, dressings, all merged into a mangled incompleteness. The doctor – a young man with cropped hair – looked up to see who dared disturb his labours. Unnerved by the room of lifeless eyes engulfing him, he fled.
Wandering through the bustle of the main section of the medical facility, it struck him just how far removed it was from the silent bleakness of his lonely little room. Around him, nurses trotted back and forth; busy with myriad tasks. Patients were wheeled through the wide corridors, doctors scurrying between wards: cogs in a vast engine. The hospital a machine, that did not heal but patched up and rebuilt, sifting through the broken bodies of a thousand soldiers a day – the only goal to send them back, back into the fire and darkness that lurked beyond the barren walls.
Averting his eyes from the cold emptiness that surrounded him, Marnos walked ghostlike through the wide corridors, searching. Spying a reception desk, he approached the counter. Behind it sat an older man; thickset, heavy-jowled – dark skin wrinkled with age, black hair tinged with grey. A bored, lifeless expression covered the indifferent face.
“Can I help you–” a quick glance at Marnos’ uniform “ –Captain?”
A sudden nervousness invaded Marnos’ consciousness; he glanced around hurriedly, checking for a sign – anything – that he had been noticed.
“Do you have a Dr. Enar here? Dr. Keralis Enar?”
The registrar blinked – descending eyelids thudding together like closing coffin lids.
“Might I ask why you want this information…Sir?” There was a note of derision in his voice: the contempt easily recognisable. Marnos tried to ignore it – he had heard the same tone a hundred times before. Waiting here for the next ship to dock, to bring back the next load of shattered minds and twisted bodies; monstrous insanity pulling them all down into the abyss. Marnos wondered at the muted defiance of the protest; a rebellion in thought but not in deed.
The lie came so easily to him; the child of a world deceived. “Dr. Enar is needed for reasons that are classified; I have orders for her from Intelligence Command.”
The man looked dubiously at Marnos. “Could you show me your orders, Captain?”
Marnos shook his head; “No, I’m afraid they’re for Dr. Enar’s eyes only. Please locate the doctor immediately; otherwise I may have to inform my superiors of your actions.” Stilted language; an idiosyncrasy common to Intelligence – the threat implicit in Marnos’ words widening the man’s eyes. Even for a division of the military, Intelligence had power far disproportional to its task: fear was a universal tool. The registrar looked down at his computer terminal; ancient, leathery hands danced across the keys. He hummed, nervously, as he worked.
Confusion spread across the registrar’s face as he looked up. “Captain? According to this, she isn’t even here…” His voice trailed off, eyes moving from Marnos’ face to somewhere over his right shoulder. Realisation dawned in a flash; yet Marnos did not move. A slow shrug, as he turned around to face Major Raenar, and the four Marines that flanked him, weapons aimed unerringly at Marnos. A slow, victorious, yet strangely sympathetic smile spread across the Major’s face.
“Congratulations, Captain. Your skills are apparently all Special Operations assured us they were.”
“Apparently not. I didn’t break your neck when I had the chance.”
Raenar’s smile froze in place. “Come now, Captain – there’s no need to be hostile.”
Marnos glared; rage, defiance, hatred, all emanating from an uncompromising stare. He held his arms out, palms upward.
Raenar looked at the Marine to his right, and gave a slight nod. The soldier stepped forward; hesitantly, he snapped the handcuffs on Marnos’ wrists. A grim, sneering smile of triumph from the Major: “Come along, Captain. Your ship is waiting.”
Arm in arm with the tall, black-armoured figures, Marnos walked slowly away; twisting in the Marines’ iron grip he shouted back towards the registrar. “Where is she? Where did she go?”
But there was no answer.
The vast metal tubes that anchored the Stormhawk to the station detached, concertinaing back into the station; the umbilical was cut.
Engines flaring with blue light, the vast bulk of the ship wrenched itself away from the shipyard, thrusters steering her out, towards the stars.
22nd Sep 01, 12:55 PM
Chapter 5 – Drying up in conversation (http://www.greenplastic.com/lyrics/songs/highanddry.html)
“You must go to the house of Hades and of dread Proserpine to consult the ghost of the blind Theban prophet Teiresias whose reason is still unshaken. To him alone has Proserpine left his understanding even in death, but the other ghosts flit about aimlessly.'
"I was dismayed when I heard this. I sat up in bed and wept, and would gladly have lived no longer to see the light of the sun, but presently when I was tired of weeping and tossing myself about, I said, 'And who shall guide me upon this voyage- for the house of Hades is a port that no ship can reach.'
"'You will want no guide,' she answered; 'raise you mast, set your white sails, sit quite still, and the North Wind will blow you there of itself. When your ship has traversed the waters of Oceanus, you will reach the fertile shore of Proserpine's country with its groves of tall poplars and willows that shed their fruit untimely; here beach your ship upon the shore of Oceanus, and go straight on to the dark abode of Hades. You will find it near the place where the rivers Pyriphlegethon and Cocytus (which is a branch of the river Styx) flow into Acheron, and you will see a rock near it, just where the two roaring rivers run into one another.” – Homer, ‘The Odyssey (http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.10.x.html)’
The handcuffs had been removed before he boarded the ship: Raenar not wanting to ruin appearances, no doubt. Whatever the reason, Marnos walked onto the Stormhawk to all appearances a free man. As the airlock door opened before him, a feeling of rebirth washed over him – resurrected into his element at last. For one short moment, he forgot everything; existing in that brief eternity only here, where he belonged.
Stepping out of the confining space between ship and station, he stared around him: eyes seeing, as if once again for the first time, the world that surrounded him. The ship’s shadowy interior was a stark contrast to the polished, artificial feel of the naval yards. Dark metal pipes ran along the sloping walls of the hexagonal corridor that stretched to right and left; the grimy industrial feel a product of its unashamedly economical military design. Small lighting panels glowed from the base of the walls; where the dull metal floor was not marred by the outlines of access panels it was just a grille, easily lifted aside to allow access to power conduits, computer cables, coolant lines – the lifeblood of the ship.
Standing silently, waiting patiently to the right of the airlock door stood a short, slightly balding man; his body a thick trunk, his face rounded. His eyes were small, beady. They reminded Marnos of a rodent, as did the crooked, yellowing teeth. He wore a dark grey naval uniform, a little too small. Blue epaulettes revealed him to be an engineer; Marnos glanced swiftly at the rank, darting eyes watching, analysing. A senior Lieutenant; he must be the Chief Engineer. Allowing his gaze to drift from the man, he saw that he was flanked by two Marines – each a full head taller than the engineer, encased in black armour, carrying rifles. Impassive – their faces concealed by their helmets’ dark visors – they stood ramrod straight, still as statues.
“Captain Marnos?” Not so much a question as a statement.
Dooman nodded, slowly, beady eyes looking Marnos up and down, assessing silently. He held out a massive hand; podgy fingers twice as thick as those of the hand that Marnos took it with. “Welcome aboard, Captain.” His voice was gravelly, grudging. “I’m Lieutenant Dooman; the Stormhawk’s chief engineer.”
He gestured down the corridor. “Shall we go? Captain Leedan would like to speak with you.”
The journey from the small airlock to the Captain’s office was short and uneventful; a brief walk down the passageway had terminated when they boarded the lift that carried them upwards to a large ante-chamber, from which doors branched out to the ship’s bridge, conference room and the Captain’s office. Marnos noticed that they had not stopped on the highest deck; he wondered what was above them. Exiting the lift, the two Marines silently took up positions to either side of the door marked ‘Captain’. Dooman pressed a small panel to the right of the white ceramic door: a miniature bulkhead. He then spoke quietly into the microphone of his discreet black headset. The door opened, sliding into the wall – Dooman gestured to Marnos to enter.
After the defiantly practical surroundings he had seen thus far, the Captain’s office was a slight surprise. Plush, dark blue carpet covered the floor of a room that while not especially big was a luxurious size when compared to the average dimensions of those on board a warship. To his left, two doors led to the bridge and the conference room respectively; to the right was an unmarked portal Marnos assumed led to the Captain’s quarters. Towards the back of the room stood a wide metal desk; uncluttered, the only objects to tarnish the smooth surface was an elegant, long-necked grey steel lamp that ended in a blue-white bulb enclosed in a protective hood of similarly-hued metal. Cool, relaxing; elegance emanated from the tasteful white walls, the soft white lighting, and from the tall man who stood behind the desk. His skin was brown as autumn leaves; he was almost bald, enhancing the skull-like look of his bony features. Deep sockets contained eyes that were so dark as to be almost black – the dark uniform was the perfect complement to the gaunt face. When he spoke it was with a voice that was soft, melodic and not a little sad.
“Captain Marnos. I feel somewhat at a loss as to what to say, seeing as so many of the usual meaningless platitudes don’t apply. I can hardly say I’m glad to see you; after all, your arrival doubtless means that within a few short hours my crew and myself will once again be placed in mortal jeopardy.”
A dry, humourless laugh followed this observation.
“Nonetheless Captain, you are here, and are likely to remain so until your mission – whatever it may be – is fulfilled. My orders specify that until such time I am to place my ship, my crew and myself at your disposal. The question is therefore raised: what exactly does your mission entail?”
Leedan interrupted him with a dismissive wave of one skeletal, carefully manicured hand. “I realise your mission is a classified one, Captain. I’m not asking you to disclose it to me – but a ship needs a destination.”
Marnos nodded slowly. “Fine.”
He reached into his pocket and extracted one of the memory chips that Raenar had given him. He slid it across the table towards Leedan. “That’s our first port of call; a small outpost in the Farzan system. That’s where we meet our escort into the Lost Regions.”
The Captain raised one eyebrow quizzically. “The Lost Regions? All is revealed – I wondered what game Central was playing when I was assigned this ship. Now we know.”
A voice echoed in Marno’s mind – Raenar’s, just before he had closed the airlock that separated the ship from the naval yard. “Captain Leedan is one of our most… experienced commanders – he knows the Lost Regions like nobody else, except perhaps the Turanics…”
“That card contains the exact hyperjump coordinates; we need to jump as soon as possible. I’ll brief you further when we enter hyperspace.”
“In a hurry? Well, we should be ready to jump in a couple of hours – there are only a few last checks we have to run.”
He rested his palms lightly on the surface of the desk, looking down at the subdued plane. “Is that all, Captain, or do Central have any more hoops they’d like me to jump through?”
Marnos was slightly surprised at the tired bitterness that coursed through the man’s voice. “No, that’s all for now.”
“Very well. If you’d like, I can have Lieutenant Dooman show you the ship; I’ll have you informed as soon as we’re ready to jump.”
So saying, he opened a slim desk drawer and withdrew a standard military headset – identical to those Marnos had seen Dooman and Raenar wearing earlier. Leedan held out his hand to Marnos, upraised palm holding the small black plastic device like a delicate butterfly. Keeping his eyes trained on the Captain’s, Marnos took the headset, affixing it to his skull. A flick of a tiny switch and the instrument activated, a low chime informing him it was live. The tiny microphone tickled his cheek; he twisted it slightly, moving it outwards so it didn’t chafe against his skin.
“Thank you for your cooperation, Captain. I’ll speak with you when we enter hyperspace.”
A stiff salute reinforced the image of authoritarian Intelligence doctrine Marnos hoped to project. The corner of Leedan’s mouth twitched into a twisted smile. “I look forward to it. Enjoy your tour.”
Dropping his arm to his side, Marnos turned to the door, and began to walk towards it.
The glowing tank to the right of the exit caught his eye – he hadn’t seen it as he came in. A gentle green light emanated from the clear rectangular container, which nestled quietly in a small alcove in the smooth wall; an oasis of tranquillity. On closer inspection, he saw that the tank – about a half a metre tall, and twice as wide – was filled with tiny tropical plants. Green shoots sprouted from dark, wet earth; moisture glistened on waxy leaves. As he watched, a fine mist was sprayed through a vent in the tank’s roof, watering the delicate foliage. A luminous panel was affixed to the top of the transparent cuboid; the bright light shone pale green as it was filtered through the thin leaves. Hypnotised, Marnos walked closer.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
The voice was that of Captain Leedan, but it had undergone a transformation from the tired, world-weary tone he had assumed only moments before. Wonder and delight played through his intonations. “This is what keeps me sane in this metal cage.”
“What are they?”
“Ikarian fireblossoms. These have had their roots clipped, so they don’t grow to their normal size.” Leedan turned to Marnos and winked. “If they hadn’t, it wouldn’t be long before I lost my office to them. Like this, they stay in their tank: better for me, better for them. They’ll be ready to flower in a few years; they’re a slow plant, they like to take things easy. But it’s a sight to see when they do…”
He trailed off, lost in distant memories. Abruptly, he turned away, his voice hollow; regret at letting Marnos see such a personal piece of himself?
“Lieutenant Dooman is no doubt waiting for you, Captain… I’ll see you again when we jump.”
Marnos and Dooman sat in silent contemplation, gazing out at the spectacle before them. They were seated in the observation lounge: one of the few real luxuries in the warship’s purposeful design. The circular room was perched on the highest point of the ship: along its spine, towards the rear where the engine nacelles jutted outwards from the armoured hull. Dimly lit, the place exuded an aura of peace – the large viewports curved up in a dome that peaked a few metres above their heads, affording an unspoilt view of the stars beyond. They had taken the lift up to the highest point of the ship, Dooman gesturing silently to Marnos to follow – the two Marines had disappeared.
The only sound was the rhythmic thrum of the ship’s engines, a low rumble reverberating through the floor beneath Marnos’ feet. The contemplative mood the place inspired set his thoughts wandering: an unfettered mind roving the darkness. The cold fire of the stars: a reflection of the bleakness within his soul. The emptiness ached within him, a gaping wound – the loneliness of the void mirroring the need. Companions in nothingness; existing in harmony with the wilderness. The fire of battle quenched the raging imperative – the exultation in bloodlust driving him on. The acclamation of hollow victory: a return to the emptiness, the longing. Now he was free again: heading back into the fire, the false hopes of civilisation fading behind him in the Stormhawk’s ion wash. The ship moaned softly, straining at the leash, as she headed out into the abyss; leaving the spidery form of the naval yards behind as she steamed out – engines driving her on, into the vast desert of space.
Dooman broke the silence with a deep sigh. “This place is so tranquil… so peaceful. Not like a warship. No roar of engines or scream of sirens, no scurrying crew, just… peace.”
Eyes still focussed on the living sky beyond the thick glass of the viewport, he continued. “It was my one self-indulgence, my temple to the heavens.”
“Yes… my design. My ship.”
Dooman looked at Marnos, beady eyes belligerent: daring him to question him. Marnos nodded, slowly, keeping his face neutral, calm. “So why are you here?”
Dooman shrugged. “She’s been in trials for the last three months – with a new ship like this, especially such a radical design, Central like us to do extensive testing. This is her first mission; I suppose they wanted me along in case anything went wrong.”
He stood, stretching. “After all, I do know more about her than anyone. Anyway, if you want the tour, it needs to be now; I’ll have to supervise the hyperspace jump in an hour or so.”
“Fine. Lets go.” Brisk, snappish – he needed to move, to leave: the room’s lack of distractions made his needs, his desires, so apparent – so painfully clear.
Dooman nodded, seemingly oblivious to Marnos’ abruptness. “Sure. Follow me.” A smile; “She’s a real beauty, I can tell you that.”
Beauty – in death, destruction? In an engine of war, a machine created to cut down fields of men like corn; a scythe wielded by the wrath of her builders? Marnos wondered how one could see beauty in such a thing; yet he realised that he did.
Dooman walked out of the room, into a small corridor, Marnos following. He gestured towards a lift door; “This way.” The lift dropped; a small metal capsule, heading down, down into the bowels of the ship. When they reached the bottom, the metal door slid aside smoothly, revealing the beating heart of the Stormhawk. The room was vast: a spherical cathedral, ringed by walkways; the high dome of the ceiling was fifty metres above the lowest point of the floor. Marnos reckoned that the catwalk on which they stood was two-thirds of the way up: the drop to the curved steel floor below was arresting. A thick central column, dull metal five metres wide, swelled out in the centre, forming the massive sphere that housed the central fusion reactor. The bright white lights that fixed on the reactor casing magnified its brilliance, contrasting sharply with the dull red lighting that pervaded the rest of the room. Dancing reflections glittered on the walls: a million prancing puppets of light, preying on the shadows. Staring in silence at the magnificence that surrounded him, Marnos leant back against the wall behind him. Around the room technicians sat at consoles, monitoring the beast that stood chained before them: a monster, shackled by science, labouring night and day to give life to this metal avatar of death. The room seemed to throb with energy; red light panels on the reactor casing pulsed rhythmically. “You can feel it, can’t you?” asked Dooman, eyes shining with rapt adoration, eyes locked on the reactor chamber. “That power, that primal strength, striving to free itself.” Marnos sensed something behind those words; pride? Fear? Perhaps the feelings of a parent for a child they love dearly, yet fear being eclipsed, destroyed by.
“As you see,” Dooman explained, “the fusion reactor is rather larger than would usually be found in a ship of this size. I expect you noticed the somewhat… oversized… engines on your flight here – they’re hungry beasts.”
“I can imagine.”
“She needs to be fast, you see. All part of the concept; the philosophy of the thing…” he trailed off, as if unsure what to say.
“It was strange,” he mused, “the way she came about.” He leant forward, resting his arms on the rail that bounded the walkway, his expression one of contemplation; Marnos could almost see the thoughts passing through his mind. He spoke slowly, his voice meandering through the sentences: a slow river flowing down to the sea. “Such a short time, ten years. And yet everything has changed…” He looked down, shoulders hunched; as if contemplating the fall, down into oblivion. Gazing around the generator room – a sudden smile; “I think this place, at least, is all me.” Dooman tilted his head, looking over to where Marnos leant against the wall. “I was an architect, you see. Buildings, not warships. Even now, I’d rather build a school than a gunboat.” He shook his head, bitterness seeping into his voice. “No chance of that now, of course. I’m in their trap now, no way out.” No way out – the words resonated in Marnos’ mind, echoing through his thoughts. Dooman, reflective; “It was a strange thing, to see an empire die – power crumbling to ashes, chaff in the wind. All over so quickly… one month there are rumours of an alien crusade; the next, the Emperor is dead, the Navy mutinies – and suddenly we are a Republic.” A wry smile; “We live in interesting times.”
Marnos inclined his head in silent agreement; silence filled the room. The throb of the generator seemed more pronounced in the stillness.
Marnos’ gaze swept the spacious chamber, noting how few personnel there actually were. “Are we going to be taking on more crew?”
“No, the Stormhawk’s level of automation is extremely high. She doesn’t need many people to look after her; I designed her with a minimal crew in mind – there’s only a hundred or so, plus the Marines. There’s been something of a recruitment crisis in the Navy – since the Republican government got rid of conscription, people have been staying out of military service. The war isn’t exactly popular, you know.”
Marnos wondered what that meant; why should any war be popular? It wasn’t something you did for fun: it was a grim business, at least for those who had to fight it. It changed things – people – irrecoverably.
Feeling slightly unsettled, Marnos shifted the topic back to the ship. “What’s her weapons loadout?”
Dooman’s answer came perhaps a little too quickly; keen to revert to his reverent depiction of the warship. “Her primary weapons are two turreted ion cannons in the nose – they’re a grade above those mounted on a Heavy Cruiser, equivalent to something you’d see on a fortress or orbital weapons platform.”
Marnos frowned. “How’d you fit the magnetic coils and cooling equipment for a system like that into a ship this size?”
A slightly twisted smile crept across Dooman’s face. “That’s a long story. Actually, that’s how I got here in the first place; or rather, how she got here…”
His voice wove a tale in Marnos’ mind; a stream of images gushed from the intense little man’s voice. An engineer, conscripted from his work as an architect under a programme of intensifying military research – the drive the brainchild of a mad emperor, obsessed with the expansion of his military power. A tiny, remote laboratory facility on a long-dead world; its original inhabitants crushed centuries before by the iron heel of the Empire. White, sterile rooms – starkly lit, soulless little cubicles so beloved of research institutions. Endless days, months, years of fruitless toil before the final breakthrough. Then, finally, the crushing humiliation – their pioneering work ignored by an establishment mired in stultifying bureaucracy, the once-great Empire stifled, decaying into collapse and ultimate ruin.
Then, in the aftermath of the revolution and the bloody birth of the Republic, the awakening of renewed interest in his work: the young nation needed weapons to fight the bitter civil war.
“We were researching weapons miniaturisation,” recalled Dooman, “seeing if it was possible to adapt mass drivers and ion cannons for infantry use. Useless, of course – a fusion reactor that small simply isn’t practicable. Still, there were big advances in reducing coil size – enough to attract Central’s attention.”
The programmed had been shut down, and all its personnel and data transferred to the Weapons Research Centre on Taiidan itself. The technology had proved adaptable enough to be applied to both ion cannons and mass drivers.
“That’s what’s special about the Stormhawk’s turrets.” explained Dooman. “The projectiles are a fairly standard size, but the increased power of the magnetic field means it’s possible to fit a large explosive charge into each shell, and still have them travel at high enough velocities to penetrate enemy armour.”
He sighed. “Once we had effective prototypes of the weapons systems running, I was assigned to the ship design section. I think it must have been my architectural background – I’d had some naval experience as an engineer in the Imperial Fleet Reserve as well.”
The team he had been assigned was tasked with the creation of a new class of vessel – a light cruiser for the battlefields of the Lost Regions.
Dooman’s monologue had made Marnos restless; weeks of claustrophobic isolation had left him agitated, feeling the need to roam ceaselessly. He pushed against the cold wall behind him, propelling himself out of his slouch. He stalked around the metal walkway, his catlike tread producing only a muffled ring from the thick mesh, despite his heavy, thick-soled boots. Dooman trailed behind him, running one hand along the rail that separated them from the drop to the distant floor. It squeaked – the engineer’s sweaty palm juddering on the smooth surface.
“How many strike craft does she carry?”
“Two full squadrons – twenty-four fighters in total.”
“What’s the mix?”
“Six bombers, six scouts; twelve interceptors.”
“Four – Gladiator-class assault shuttles: they can carry about twenty Marines.”
Marnos stopped, his barrage of questions momentarily exhausted.
Seemingly encouraged by Marnos flurry of interest, Dooman continued. “She’s got a system of AAA turrets – tertiary anti-fighter defences. Fully automated of course; the ship’s AI is the most advanced in the fleet.”
Marnos nodded, wondering what he had started. He was relieved to hear a chime in his ear, and a woman’s voice. “Captain Marnos, the Captain asks you to join him on the bridge – we’re ready to hyperjump.”
Dooman, apparently having been advised in the same manner, waved Marnos to the door. “I’ve got to stay here, supervise the jump; monitor reactor and hyperspace module fluctuations and so on. You know the way…”
Marnos nodded, turned, and walked out of the vast chamber, heading to the lift that would carry him up to the bridge.
The bridge of the Stormhawk was much like that of any ship of comparable size, but the design was still fascinating to Marnos. The bridge was spherical in shape, the surrounding walls seeming to be open to the blackness of space and the piercing light of the stars. It was all an illusion, of course – the walls were merely screens, projecting the information pumped in from external sensors. Nonetheless, an admirable way to allow the bridge crew to see exactly what was going on around them. Running down the centre of the bridge, from the door where Marnos had entered, a wide platform housed the seats and consoles of the bridge crew – Helm, Comms, Ops, Weapons, Intel. In the midst of it all was Leedan, a gaunt figure sitting silently in the centre of the bustling bridge: the eye of the storm, calmly gazing out to the stars.
“Coordinates set, Captain – we’re ready to jump.”
“Excellent. Ah –” Leedan swivelled his chair round “– Captain Marnos. Please, take a seat.” He gestured towards an empty chair; Marnos sat noiselessly, buckling himself in.
“Jump at your discretion, Helm.”
“Aye sir. Hyperspace Module charged, initiating jump.”
In the last short moments before the ship jumped, Marnos stared out at the darkness and the light, icy diamonds glaring from black silk. Straight ahead, with a scream that sent a shiver down Marnos’ spine, the very fabric of space was rent asunder and the light – terrible, blinding light – poured in. The room was blanketed by a white nothingness that bleached the faces of the crew into ghostly apparitions.
As the light faded into the blue infinity of hyperspace, Marnos thought he caught a glimpse of something – almost invisible in the gloom – out of the corner of one eye: the beating of dark wings.
22nd Sep 01, 12:56 PM
Chapter 6 – Blown on the steel breeze (http://www.davemcnally.com/lyrics/PinkFloyd/ShineonYouCrazyDiamondI-V.asp)
“As when some mighty wave that thunders on the beach when the west
wind has lashed it into fury- it has reared its head afar and now
comes crashing down on the shore; it bows its arching crest high
over the jagged rocks and spews its salt foam in all directions-
even so did the serried phalanxes of the Danaans march steadfastly
to battle. The chiefs gave orders each to his own people, but the
men said never a word; no man would think it, for huge as the host
was, it seemed as though there was not a tongue among them, so
silent were they in their obedience; and as they marched the armour
about their bodies glistened in the sun. But the clamour of the Trojan
ranks was as that of many thousand ewes that stand waiting to be
milked in the yards of some rich flockmaster, and bleat incessantly in
answer to the bleating of their lambs; for they had not one speech nor
language, but their tongues were diverse, and they came from many
different places. These were inspired of Mars, but the others by
Minerva- and with them came Panic, Rout, and Strife whose fury never
tires, sister and friend of murderous Mars, who, from being at first
but low in stature, grows till she uprears her head to heaven,
though her feet are still on earth. She it was that went about among
them and flung down discord to the waxing of sorrow with even hand
between them.” – Homer, ‘The Iliad (http://www.uoregon.edu/~joelja/iliad.html)’
The room was small and sparsely furnished, the ceiling low and the lights dim. Escape at last; Marnos felt tired, so terribly tired – the meeting with Leedan and the Stormhawk’s senior staff had drained the last of his energy. Introductions had been brief, formal: new faces, new names clouded his mind. Only a few stood out: Senior Lieutenant Jen Daima, the Executive Officer – Leedan’s second in command – and the Operations officer, coordinating the ship. A tall, well-muscled woman with striking features, she was professionalism and unquestionable authority personified. Then there had been the thin, effete Lieutenant Koltor, the Intelligence Officer. A talkative man, his accent placed him unmistakably as an aristocrat – his parents had probably been high-ranking Imperial officials or courtiers. Marnos wondered why he was on the Republic’s side at all: maybe he was a philanthropist, supporting out of a sense of right and wrong rather than simple expediency. Throughout the discussion, Dooman – present, as Chief Engineer – had stayed oddly silent: a stark contrast to his earlier babbling. The rest of the senior staff had been more trenchant: questions had pounded at him like hammers, his mind too sluggish from weariness to answer.
“Once we arrive at the outpost in the Farzan system we rendezvous with Task Force 317, part of the 43rd fleet. From there, they escort us through the frontier zone; after that, we’re on our own.”
“On our own? In Imperialist space? We won’t last two days out there.” Daima’s voice was scornful. “Why the hell are Central sending us on this suicide mission? And what do Intelligence have to do with this anyway?”
“Ours not to reason why, ours but to do and die…” murmured Koltor.
Daima turned a scathing look on the blond-haired man. “Quoting ancient poetry doesn’t make you any more right, Koltor, or any less slimy.”
Koltor raised an eyebrow. “And questioning our orders does? Sometimes you forget you’re in the military, not a school.” he said sneeringly.
“Quiet, both of you.” Leedan’s deep voice brought unquestioning silence to the room. “Koltor is right; this is not something we have a choice in. Just remember, Intel, Lieutenant Daima is your superior officer, and you should treat her as such.”
“Yes, sir. Of course.” Koltor’s voice was embarrassed but resentful; he stared at his boots as he spoke.
“Captain, if that’s all…?” Marnos’ voice was slow, quiet: exhausted.
“Yes, of course; I’m sure you need some rest, Captain Marnos. I’ll have a crewman show you your room.”
Marnos nodded his thanks; maybe now he could elude the thoughts that haunted his waking hours – scenes of violence and death replaying endlessly in his mind, the train of thought triggered by Raenar’s last desperate pleas dominating his mind.
What he needed now was sleep, to flee the turgid, weary world for one of peaceful oblivion. His boots squeaked on the recently laid, dark blue floor tiles. A quilted coverlet covered the thin mattress of the metal-framed bed. In one corner a desk was bolted to the floor; built into the wall was a large locker. Both were made from the same grey metal. Some lightweight alloy, he supposed: saving mass for armour and weaponry. Tiredly, he pulled his datapad from a trouser pocket and placed it on the top of the desk. Opening one of the desk’s three slim drawers, he tossed in the memory cards; they tinkled on the light, polished metal of the otherwise empty drawer. He pulled out the other two drawers; one was empty – the other held a regular military sidearm, the small weapon compact, heavy, the ergonomic grip ready to for him to reach out and touch it. He slid the drawer closed; not yet, said the voice. Not yet.
Walking to the locker, Marnos swung open the doors that reached from floor to ceiling. Inside, shrouded in clear plastic, was a suit of armour. Standard Light Combat Armour, the powered suit was made from lacquered black ceramic and metal: the empty shell sinister, standing waiting for a soul to fill the empty body. He slammed the doors shut again; he would need the suit soon enough, but for now he was free. Tiredness washed over him: he tugged off his boots and collapsed backwards onto the bed: into darkness – into sleep.
The darkness was shattered by a flash of light; the crack of thunder announced the storm.
Marnos stood alone on the clifftop, staring down at the seething sea as it smashed on the rocks below with ferocious abandon. White foam rose from the obsidian waves, pale ghosts rising from the grave.
He staggered, buffeted by the wind, as though struck by some invisible hand. The stinging rain whipped around him, the storm screaming in his ears like some demented animal.
A flap of wings, as heavy, feathered pinions beat against the howling gale. Claws clutched the black rocks that littered the clifftop, anchoring the raven as it landed. Wings drawn about itself like a dark cloak, it stared at Marnos with beady eyes. Unsure, he took a hesitant step towards it, then another, and another, until finally he was running, running, drawn inexorably towards the night-garbed bird; it stood, haughty, inscrutable, silhouetted against the flashes of lightning that lit up the scene.
The raven opened its wings, a vast feathered mantle unfolding; raindrops sparkled like stars as they flew from the black plumage. Then, in one swift, eternal moment the great bird flapped its wings, soaring upwards to the heavens as Marnos vainly leapt towards it. Upwards, into the dark sky – the black shape taking on the aspect of a ship, soaring into space, abandoning him to the gale.
A great cry tore itself from his lips and he fell to his knees, hands still raised aloft, as though in supplication to the sky.
He struggled to his feet, staggering bleakly forward, lost in the stormy darkness. One of the jagged black stones that covered the bare ground sent him sprawling, collapsing to the ground in an ungainly, twisted heap. Face pressed close to the earth he lay, staring down at the desolate ground, inhaling the damp scent of rain – a pungent aroma of rotting foliage. He stretched out a hand, grabbing at lumps of sharp, white-veined black rock, palms torn by the serrated edges of the stones. Not noticing, not caring, his aching muscles heaving himself onward.
Heedless, he raged onward, hand over bloody hand, dragging his feeble body on and on, towards… what? Even the lightning had ceased its tumultuous discharges; only the gale remained, eternal, wailing about him, icy fingers tearing at his flesh. Leaden, wind-ravaged clouds swirled across the murky sky, moonlight shafting through brief gaps in the ethereal host above the only illumination for the shadowy scene. Raising his head, peering through lids battered by storm-swept rain, he saw his subconscious goal: a tall rock, smooth sides rising above the lonely plain – shelter from the tempest’s depredation.
Reaching the rock, he collapsed against it, panting as he rubbed cold hands together, shoulders hunched, head bowed. Rainwater trickled down his face in shining rivulets, like thin, cold fingers tracing a line from forehead to chin, brushing red, wind-scarred nose and cheeks as they did so. Glancing around, a flash of white caught Marnos’ eye – a tiny, iridescent flower, white petals spattered with raindrops.
He leant forwards, marvelling at the delicacy of the minuscule petals. Then, suddenly, he reached out, tearing the flower from the black earth, white roots snapping like steel hawsers in his vice-like grip. Tearing, rending, destroying, he tore the petals from the stamen, ripping, shredding, until all that remained were white tatters, littering the dark ground like snowflakes.
Standing, staring straight into the storm, he screamed, his voice all but silent in the howling of the gale, the destruction of something so beautiful bittersweet in his mind, icy fire tearing into his brain, as the wind shrieked out its undying song.
The siren let out a great whoop, startling Marnos from sleep. A disembodied voice announced that the ship would be making the transition to normal space in five minutes. Hastily pulling on his boots, Marnos grabbed the datapad from the desk where he had tossed it so casually a few hours before, and ran from the room. Pulling up short halfway down the corridor, he stopped and walked hurriedly back. Entering the room, he took the sidearm from the desk drawer; attaching the holster to his belt, he left the room once more.
The bridge was silent when he reached it; Leedan, quiet as always, gestured noiselessly to the seat Marnos had occupied before.
The Helm officer spoke quietly. “Reversion in five…four…three…two…one…zero.”
With the last word, everything changed.
The pale blue glow of hyperspace was rent asunder in a blinding white flash as the Stormhawk tore her way into normal space. The low whine of the hyperspace module faded away, replaced by the rumble of the ship’s vast engines: twin dragons, their fiery breath urging the cruiser forwards.
Forwards; into chaos.
As the searing flash of reversion faded, the featureless vista was replaced by the inky black shroud of space, the glittering stars – and the fire of battle.
“Red alert! All hands to battle stations! Prepare for immediate action!”
Marnos could feel the shock spread through the bridge as the crew took in the apocalyptic sight before them. All around, two opposing fleets wrestled, like a pair of titans engaged in some primeval struggle. The searing blades of ion beams rent dark sky; plasma bombs exploded with furious strength as they smashed into the hulls of frigates and destroyers. Wings of fighters strafed the surfaces of capital ships while corvettes roamed between the massive walls of the vast vessels: wolf packs, hunting their prey.
“Evasive action! Adjust vector: port twenty degrees, down ten degrees. Roll port ninety degrees.”
The strident voice was that of Captain Leedan: Marnos wrenched his attention from the anarchy that surrounded them to see the cause of the alarm. Dead ahead, weapons trained on the Stormhawk, was a Raptor-class destroyer. Striped like a jungle cat, the red and yellow of the Empire denoted her allegiance. Twin ion beams lanced out, tearing a streak down the Stormhawk’s spine as she dove beneath the destroyer. Marnos felt the ship shudder as the thick armour absorbed the blow. Her starboard turrets swivelled towards the belly of the Imperialist ship as she rolled to port.
“Fire at will!”
The cannons roared, a stream of shells pulsing from the tri-barrelled turrets, racing across the gap that separated the two ships, smashing into the destroyer’s hull with unbridled ferocity. Punching through the ship’s armour they detonated, a ripple of fire spreading across the Raptor’s blackening carapace.
In the middle of the chaos Leedan sat, a calm centre to the storm – the raging battle had left him unperturbed.
“Comms, find out who’s in charge of this mess! Helm, bring her around to face that destroyer – Ops, prep our fighters for launch.”
A chorus of Ayes echoed across the room.
“What’s our hull status?”
“Holding, sir – just a scratch.”
“Helm, full power to manoeuvring thrusters; let’s see if we can hit her in the side before she turns.”
“Aye sir, full power to thrusters.”
The tiny jets scattered across the surface of the ship flared, turning her towards the destroyer – similarly twisting, a predator in flight spiralling towards its prey.
“Ion cannons have a firing solution on the destroyer!”
“Fire at will!”
The ion cannon turrets mounted on the Stormhawk’s beak swivelled, tracking the destroyer as she turned; the cruiser’s manoeuvrability paying off as the cannons fired, bright blue beams lance spearing the destroyer. The massively powerful charged particle beams melted through armour, bulkheads, crew – Death’s scythe, razor sharp, carving through life, through the ship.
Damaged, but still alive, the Raptor turned to face the Stormhawk once more, ion cannons replying to the Jaguar’s barrage. Gun turrets roared, mass driver shells slamming into the cruiser’s multi-layered hull.
“Fighters are ready for launch!” yelled Daima.
“Launch Osprey and Vulture squadrons; Osprey’s to cover Vulture while they make strafing runs on that destroyer.” Leedan’s orders came calm and clear; cool water flowing over the hot heads that filled the bridge.
Vulture squadron – six Attack Bombers, blue light from the port hanger glinting from their black hulls – launched, while the twelve Interceptors of Osprey deployed hastily from the starboard hanger, automated launch rails hurling them forwards, into the fray.
“Captain, we’re taking heavy damage from those ion cannons!”
“Fire and movement! Attack vector up fifteen degrees, lock ion cannons on her sensor array. Strike craft, focus attacks on the Raptor’s engines.”
“I have the Republican fleet commander on line, sir!”
“Put him through!”
A portion of the wall rippled as the battle gave way to the bridge of another ship; a carrier, Marnos judged. In the centre of the picture was a woman’s face; a strong jawline and high forehead dominated the ivory face. Straight black hair was tied back severely.
“Taidaani cruiser, this is Admiral Ieuno of the 43rd Fleet of the Republican Navy. Please identify, and state your business in our area of operations.”
Leedan gave a brief salute, amusement playing through his voice as he spoke. “Admiral, this is the Republican cruiser Stormhawk. We were supposed to be making a rendezvous at these coordinates.”
An expression of bemused recognition spread across her face. “Leedan? What the hell are you doing here? No one told me you were the one in charge of this crazy mission!”
Leedan smiled, sardonically. “That’s odd, I always remember you as being the one who was so keen to take the crazy ones.”
Ieuno grinned. “Still the same, Leedan. Just like you.”
Marnos cleared his throat. “I hate to ruin your reunion, Admiral, but we’re in the middle of a battle.”
Ieuno turned to Marnos, her face now icy, disdainful. “You must be the Intelligence operative we’re escorting. I see they managed to send the usual toad.”
“Captain Marnos is right, Admiral.” interrupted Leedan. “We were supposed to rendezvous with Task Force 317 for escort to the frontier zone.”
This elicited a black look from the Admiral. “This is TF317; we dropped out of hyperspace twenty minutes ago to find an Imperialist force attacking the outpost. Looks like a carrier group: four destroyers, approximately twenty frigates. We’ve got them outnumbered, but they’re pretty tenacious – your assistance is appreciated.”
“We’d be happy to assist, Admiral.” Leedan’s voice soothed the air of tension. “We’re currently engaging a Raptor-class destroyer; we need some backup to finish them off.”
Ieuno nodded. “I’ll send a bomber squadron and a couple of frigates. Once the destroyer’s taken out, move against their flank; a bit hit now and they’ll crumble.”
“Thank you, Admiral. Leedan out.”
The screen faded to the starry background once more, leaving Marnos to stare at the devastation around them. The Stormhawk moved upwards, over the destroyer, ion cannons at maximum angular elevation stabbing down at the Raptor. Mass drivers rained a constant hail of explosive darts towards the Imperialist vessel.
“Ops, what’s our fighters’ status?”
“They’ve had minimal fire directed at them, sir. Vulture reports moderate damage to the destroyer’s engines: could be some damage to fuel lines, looks like she’s having trouble turning.”
“Helm, get us behind the Raptor – strafe her sensor array as we pass her, then focus on the engines as we come about!”
Roaring over the destroyer, engines flaring with blue light, the cruiser’s mass drivers pinpointed the enemy ship’s dorsal sensors: battered by the impact of the high velocity bolts, a couple of the raised spines snapped, spinning off into the void as the Raptor tried desperately to turn, to face her opponent.
“Reinforcements have arrived, Captain! Two ion frigates off the starboard side, no fighters though.”
“Captain? Transmission from the frigate commander.”
“Put it through.”
“Captain Leedan? This is Captain Vicara of the frigate Skyhammer. We’re here to provide support; compliments of the Admiral.”
“Thanks for the assist, Skyhammer. Focus your fire on the destroyer’s engines, we’re trying to disable her.”
“Aye commander, targeting the Raptor’s engines now.”
Slewing around, the Stormhawk turned to face the rear of the destroyer, ion cannons pulsing into the Imperialist’s engines. Bombers and interceptors weaved through the melee, mass driver rounds sparkling through space like chains of rubies, plasma bombs a string of pearls, flaring into great orbs of icy fire. Bright as miniature suns, they rendered the whole scene in monochrome as they detonated against the Raptor’s hull.
Two Republican heavy cruisers, striped green and black – the colours of the 43rd – pounded away at a formation of Imperialist frigates, who retaliated with a withering hail of fire, tiny explosions dancing across the Devastators’ thick hulls as mass driver shells ricocheted from the thick ceramic, or penetrated to cause havoc within. Wings of Republican strike craft enveloped the Imperialist carrier in a swarm of buzzing insects, their stings individually insignificant but collectively deadly. Elsewhere, Republican frigates slogged out a battle with a pair of Imperialist destroyers, the Raptors supported by a squadron of Interceptors that danced between the sleek lines of the Ion Frigates with deadly grace.
Insanity, insanity; black space turning red with fire and blood as the two fleets crashed together, mountain ranges thundering into one another in a cataclysmic conflict that rendered irrelevant everything, everything except the moment, survival or death the only choices in a world without rules or boundaries. The battle ran like fire through Marnos’ veins; alive within the devastation, he felt a jolt as the dark panorama was lit by brilliant light; one of the Imperialist destroyers exploding in a shower of sparks, burning debris hurled through the emptiness as the ship tore itself apart in one ecstatic moment of stark finality. Marnos felt the deck vibrate beneath his feet as the Stormhawk’s main guns fired once more at the Imperialist destroyer. Battered by the Jaguar’s guns, the Raptor wilted, armour boiling into space as ion beams raked its hull. Mass drivers tore at the engines, gouts of plasma guttering from myriad holes in the blackened carapace. Slowly, its gun ceased firing as they lost power or were destroyed by the strafing runs of Vulture squadron’s bombers.
“Cease fire!” Leedan’s voice rang out across the bridge, and the Stormhawk’s guns fell silent. The silence seemed deafening, imprisoning – Marnos suddenly felt the need for more, more noise, more of the scents and sounds and sights of battle.
“Ops, tell Lieutenant Urnai to prepare his marines for a boarding operation.”
Marnos put a hand on Leedan’s arm, who turned towards him. “Yes?”
“Captain, I intend to accompany the boarding operation.”
Leedan looked puzzled. “Why?”
“There may be information on board the ship as to why we were attacked; how the Imperialists knew we were going to be here.”
Seeing the determination in Marnos’ eyes, Leedan nodded his agreement. “Very well. I’m sure having a more senior officer along wouldn’t do Lieutenant Urnai any harm; neither he nor his troops are the most experienced at this sort of operation. With your seniority, you’d obviously be in command of the mission.”
“Thank you for your… cooperation, Captain.”
Leedan nodded again, his ascetic form inscrutable. “We’ll drop off two assault shuttles, then move in on the enemy flank; once the battle is over I’m sure the 43rd will be sending a skeleton crew over to take command of the destroyer – make sure you’ve taken control of her by then.”
Marnos twisted his lips into a grim smile. “I’m sure you won’t be disappointed, Captain.”
With that, he stood and left the bridge, a forbidding light in his eyes.
22nd Sep 01, 12:57 PM
Chapter 7 – The scream of the butterfly (http://doors.iscool.com/lyrics/When_The_Music%27s_Over.txt)
"What does the candle represent?"
"All life, every life. We're all born as molecules in the hearts of a billion stars, molecules that do not understand politics, policies and differences. In a billion years we, foolish molecules forget who we are and where we came from. Desperate acts of ego. We give ourselves names, fight over lines on maps. And pretend our light is better than everyone else's. The flame reminds us of the piece of those stars that live inside us. A spark that tells us: you should know better. The flame also reminds us that life is precious, as each flame is unique. When it goes out, it's gone forever. And there will never be another quite like it. So many candles will go out tonight. I wonder some days if we can see anything at all." Sheridan and Delenn: Babylon 5; "And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder ( http://babylon5.warnerbros.com/cmp/episodes/517.htm)" – J. Michael Straczynski
The interior of the assault shuttle was filled with a babble of assorted noises: snaps and clicks as magazines were slammed into weapons, catches were fastened, straps tightened; ominous tonks as grenades were loaded into rifle breeches; the thrum of the ship’s two fusion drives sending it hurtling towards the Imperialist destroyer; the murmur of whispered conversations.
“How many times have you done this, Captain?”
Marnos stared at the floor, avoiding the visor-suppressed gazes of the troops around him. Young men and women, most of them – a few vets, but for the most part the innocent, wide-eyed stares of new recruits.
“Yeah? But how many?” the soldier persisted, his voice over-eager: a pair of scared eyes, needing reassurance.
“Around three hundred combat missions. Maybe a hundred boarding ops.”
He hefted his rifle, weighing the balance in his armoured hands.
“Like I said; too many.”
“Amtar R-72 Theta pattern smoothbore.” the Stormhawk’s armourer had said, handing the sleek, matt-black shape of the assault rifle to Marnos.
“Standard three millimetre caseless APX micro rounds, sixty round mag. Breech-loading ten mil grenade launcher; takes twelve high yield plasma rounds. Wide spectrum, high-definition targeting system, zoomable up to 20x magnification. Latest model. Best damn rifle they’ve given us for years.”
Marnos had nodded silently, accepting the weapon, and the promise it embodied.
He looked around the cramped transport bay of the Gladiator-class shuttle, studying the hunched forms of the two-dozen Marines, blocky forms clad in black powered armour. This was the second boarding shuttle; the first had crunched into the Raptor’s motionless hull brief seconds ago. The comm. net hissed: Lieutenant Urnai reporting the first two squads’ status.
“Commander, we’ve secured the boarding zone, no casualties so far, enemy resistance minimal.”
“Expect a counterattack soon; once they realise where you are, they’ll mobilise all available troops to repulse us. We should be with you in –” he checked the chronometer built into his suit display “– forty seconds.”
“Aye Captain. Alpha and Beta squads are assuming defensive positions; we’ll leapfrog with Gamma and Delta when you arrive.”
“Good work, Urnai. But don’t relax just yet.”
“Thank you sir, we won’t.”
There was confidence in the boy’s voice, thought Marnos. Too much. I’ll be happier when I’m onboard.
He licked his lips in a vain effort to moisturize the dry skin. Eyes cast down at the floor, he focussed: flexing, stretching – feeling the strength of the suit. No, he threw off the thought; not the suit – him. His strength. Bound inextricably to mind and body, the suit was him; a technological extension of the fragile shell he inhabited. The neural interface took the same commands as he gave to his body and fed them to the artificial musculature of his armoured carapace – making him faster, tougher, stronger. Concentrating, he stretched out, his thoughts touching, accessing the suit’s sensors. A wide-spectrum array, linked to his mind by the NID, investing him with better hearing, sight – even smell. He shivered, a feeling of animation washing over him. Fully enclosed, the suit allowed its wearer to survive in the vacuum of space, or in the enormous pressures deep under the sea. A second skin, the armour could deflect or stop shrapnel, plasma blasts, or even a rifle bullet.
He flexed his right hand, grasping the ergonomic grip of the rifle tightly. Mind shifting up a gear, he looked through the gun’s sights: the targeting system was linked to his mind in the same way as his suit. He flipped a switch, the weapon emitting a low hum as it armed itself; a red light blinked for a second in the upper right of Marnos’ vision. His eyes didn’t see it, but his mind did, the signal pulsing directly to his brain, bypassing retina and optic nerve as the NID transmitted it directly to his visual cortex.
Almost subconsciously, he flipped the comm. channel to the command circuit.
“Lieutenant? Situation update.”
“Main docking bay’s partially under our control, sir. Light casualties; three injured, not bad. Give us a few minutes to clear up the resistance there, sir.”
“Negative. We’re heading in now – we need to take this take control of this ship ASAP.”
Urnai’s voice was uneasy. “Aye sir. We’ll cover your docking.”
“Good. Marnos out.”
He shifted circuit again, switching to the shuttle circuit.
“Pilot, what’s our status?”
“ETA thirty seconds sir, no enemy fire so far. Where do you want her?”
“Main docking bay; fast as possible.”
“Aye sir. Have your men ready for a quick deployment.”
Marnos clicked off the comm., the silence that followed pregnant with doubts and fears. The whoop of a siren cut across the tension; the pilot’s disembodied voice rang loud and clear from the transport bay’s speakers.
“Contact in twenty seconds. Prepare for immediate deployment.”
“All troops, ready for combat!” Marnos’ voice, practiced from a hundred battles, betrayed none of the misgivings he felt.
Adrenaline surged through his veins as the prospect of combat loomed large, the emptiness within him a towering monstrosity calling him to battle, to death and destruction and bloody victory. His heart pounded, beads of sweat forming on his forehead as a vein at one temple throbbed, new life flowing through his veins; supercharged for annihilation. The shuttle lurched closer to the destroyer, swerving over one massive gun turret as it made its run into the small, blue-lit hanger bay. Manoeuvring thrusters vented gas, swinging the small ship around, coming to a shuddering halt on the metal floor.
The transport bay door opened as restraints fell away from the two dozen armoured troopers within. They plunged forward, into the maelstrom of battle, the effervescent blue glow of the landing bay making the protagonists appear as ghosts, the deathly tinge turning the black-armoured multitude into spectres, weapons flaring with white light as they advanced into the fray.
Marnos leapt from the door of the shuttle, hitting the ground rolling; his shoulder slamming into the hard floor as he rolled away, coming up in a crouch, weapon trained on the enemy troopers. Crouched behind turbolifters and bulky plastic crates, they returned sporadic fire at the advancing Republican Marines. Marnos took careful aim and fired, the weapon’s recoil digging it into his shoulder. Sparks flew as his shots ricocheted from the metal bulk of a turbolifter, causing one of the Imperialist troopers to duck behind it. A flick of a switch; he armed the grenade launcher and fired in one swift movement, the small projectile arcing a ballistic path across the open space of the hanger bay, landing just beside the enemy position. The bright flash of the detonation was accompanied by the thundering roar of the shock wave, his adversaries tiny figures cast aside by the force of the blast: rag dolls hurled by an angry child, crumpling into the ground.
“All squads advance and secure the area!”
A chorus of Ayes echoed through Marnos ears as he flung himself forward, enhanced strength giving him more speed than he ever had without the suit. He jumped high into the air, somersaulting as he vaulted over the makeshift barrier that divided the Marines from the Imperialist position, the Stormhawk’s troops following close behind.
An angel of death, he landed feet first on the smooth floor, the impact crushing him to his knees. Rising slightly, he scythed fire from the rifle across the shocked forms of the enemy troops, bullets thudding into the naval blue of their armour. One man fell, blood gouting from the hole torn in his neck by the explosive round; another collapsed to his knees, three fist-sized holes punched in his chest. A third staggered under the impacts, tiny bullets spattering from his armour – lucky to have survived. Slowly, so slowly, he brought up his weapon towards Marnos – slow motion, air like water, he leapt aside, rifle blazing fiery death as his right shoulder crunched into a large crate. Sliding to the floor, aiming, firing – the Imperialist’s head was flung backwards as a burst from Marnos’ weapon blew apart his forehead.
The floor was slick with blood; Marnos almost slipped as he got to his feet, looking around to see the Marines mopping up the last pockets of resistance. No mercy – no surrender; he turned away as a black-clad Republican put his rifle to the head of an Imperialist trooper. He crumpled into an undignified heap, head lolling, as the three millimetre round burst through his temple, turning all to black. Only black uniforms still stood; their foes lay unmourned in damask pools, blue livery spattered with crimson droplets.
Sighing, Marnos issued his orders. “Alpha squad, set up a perimeter around this landing bay. Lieutenant, take Beta and Gamma squads and secure the Engineering. Delta squad, you’re with me – we’re going for the bridge.”
“Aye commander.” Urnai’s acknowledgement was more confident now, but shakiness still showed through in his clipped tones.
Boarding shuttles launched, the Stormhawk swung about, heading for the weak Imperialist flank. On the cruiser’s bridge, Captain Leedan watched as the first Gladiator came to a juddering halt in contact with the destroyer, docking fields clamping her flattened snout to the Raptor’s hull. The assault shuttle’s fusion torch stretched out, a glittering orange beam, groping, touching, the destroyer’s hull plating wilting under the onslaught, layers of armour melting into so much slag. A suitable hole torn in the enemy ship’s side, the shuttle extended its boarding tube, creating a link between the two through which the Marines could attack the innards of the great beast.
Another day, another battle thought Leedan as he turned back towards his crew, the stench of death palpable even across the empty kilometres that separated him from the Raptor.
“Helm, give me two-thirds speed,” he ordered, forcing the desolate thoughts from his mind.
“Comms, tell the Skyhammer that she and the other frigate are to hang back and cover our six; get Osprey squadron to probe the enemy formation, while Vulture covers us.”
The acknowledgements came quieter now, the slow death of the destroyer inducing a more sombre mood.
A moment’s respite before they reached their target; Leedan wondered for the hundredth time what he was doing here. You should have retired years ago, he told himself.
Your dream was realised; why didn’t you leave it at that? The voice incised into his mind like a razor, piercing the calm.
That was Marlee’s dream, not mine, he retorted angrily.
You didn’t have to stay in the Navy after the revolution, insisted the voice.You could have stayed on Taiidan; gone into politics – made her dream flower.
I couldn’t, he sighed. It hurt too much, there; out here I can try to forget what might have been
You could have been an Admiral, said the voice, bitterly. Chief of Naval Staff, a big player in Central, a nice political position when you retired – but you had to throw it away so you could pursue your own petty vendetta. Its voice was cutting, scornful. You must be the only member of the Lorikan Group still only a Captain.
So called for its founder, Fleet Admiral Lorikan, the Group was instrumental in the uprising that had brought the Republic into being after the Empire’s collapse. The naval coup smashed the provisional government of corrupt officials that had seized power after the Emperor’s demise, and instituted the only democracy the Taiidan had known for 3,000 years.
Composed mainly of high-ranking officers in the Imperial Navy, the Group had plotted, schemed and conspired for well over a decade before the end finally came. When it did, it was a surprise – the rag-tag Kushan fleet’s attack could never have been foreseen. Even so, the Group had acted swiftly, the tendrils of power reaching out from the highest levels of the Naval Staff to lowly frigate captains in the vast fleets that patrolled the Empire’s frontier.
“Captain, firing range for the enemy formation in thirty seconds!”
Leedan bit his lip, fighting to silence the nagging voice, to concentrate on the here and now.
“What’s the composition of the enemy group?”
“Osprey reports two frigate squadrons – six ships, four assaults, two ions. But it’s all that’s between us and the enemy carrier, plus they’re already engaged with one of our destroyers.”
“Engage the closest frigate at maximum range,” ordered Leedan “And have Vulture squadron make an attack run once we’ve made contact; focus our firepower, take them down one at a time. Comms, tell our two frigates to switch their vector upwards and attack them from above.”
The Stormhawk charged into the fray, bearing down on the frigate squadrons – striped predators, dwarfed by the black and red monstrosity that lunged towards them, ion beams tearing a fuzzy blue-white streak that climaxed in a blistering flash as they tore into the side of an Imperialist Ion Frigate. The Attack Bombers of Vulture squadron skimmed the upper hull of the Jaguar, ion trails trailing behind like threads of blue gossamer. Splitting from their tight formation they burst outwards like the petals of a deadly flower, racing full tilt towards the frigates. Avoiding sporadic return fire, they formed up again, concentrating their firepower on the beleaguered frigate.
Under the enormous stresses, the ship’s hull began to buckle, impacts shaking it from bow to stern. Mass driver rounds from the Stormhawk’s guns tangoed across the charred ceramic armour, explosions dancing across the weakening carapace. Then, in one horrifyingly short moment, the ship exploded, a stray round punching through armour and reinforced bulkheads to detonate inside the fusion reactor. A white glow pulsed from the core of the ship before it detonated in a spray of red-hot gobbets, torn in two by the primeval force of the explosion; the bow drifted, a blackened wreck, while the stern tore itself apart in a series of secondary fires and explosions.
“Weapons, fire on the second Ion Frigate in that squadron; Ops, tell Vulture to follow our target lead – have Osprey cover them, there may be enemy fighter squadrons out there. Comms, find out what the Skyhammer’s status is.”
“Sir, the Skyhammer reports she’s in position to start her attack run.”
“Good. Order her and the other frigate to attack the second frigate squadron. And get me the captain of that destroyer.”
“Aye sir, hailing now.”
The Republican destroyer sat immobile, pounding away at the frigates with heavy mass drivers and twin ion cannons, the smaller ships retaliating in kind. The Raptor’s thick armour was taking a lot of punishment in the slugging match, but one of the enemy assault frigates had taken heavy damage and was venting atmosphere, small fires burning across her hull. Reacting to the cruiser’s onslaught, the two remaining ships of the first squadron turned to face the Stormhawk, weapons trained.
“Firing on the second frigate now, Captain!”
“Sir, Vulture squadron are making their next attack run!”
The Stormhawk’s weapons raked across the Imperialist Ion Frigate, the bird of prey’s talons tearing into its foe. Bright flashes rippled along frigate’s spine as plasma bombs burst on the ship’s armour.
“Captain, I have the destroyer’s commander on the comm.!”
“Put him through to my terminal.”
The worried face of the Raptor-class’ captain appeared on the small screen built into Leedan’s armrest. “You got here just in time, Captain. We wouldn’t have been able to last much longer on our own. He gestured around him; “I’m Captain Iarik; this is the Sunstorm.”
Leedan nodded. “I’m Leedan – we’re the Stormhawk, as you probably guessed.”
Iarik raised one eyebrow. “The reason we’re here, eh? Well, thanks for the assist.”
“Continue to engage that frigate squadron; I’ve got two frigates coming to reinforce you. We’ll take care of the other two.”
“Sounds good; after that, we can hit their carrier.”
Leedan nodded, severing the connection.
“Ops, what’s our status?” he yelled.
“Some minor hull damage; dorsal sensors have taken a couple of stray rounds as well, taken a third off our passive sensor range.”
“Well, we don’t need them now – we’ll repair when we finish this battle! What’s the opposition looking like?”
“One Ion Frigate, heavily damaged, one intact Assault Frig. Plus the three the Sunstorm and the Skyhammer are engaging.”
“The Skyhammer reached weapons range yet?”
“Yessir, about seven seconds ago. They’re targeting that damaged Assault Frigate.”
“Good. Have our fighters taken any fire yet?”
“No sir; enemy fighters seem to be busy protecting their main force – pretty close-run at the moment.”
“Well, lets try and change that balance. Tell Osprey to engage the frigates, aggressive strafing runs.”
“Oh, and Comms? Get me Lieutenant Urnai; I want to see how the boarding op.’s going.”
Urnai’s voice came fuzzily through his headset, interference unable to disguise the worry in his voice.
“Captain, he’s crazy!”
“Keep calm, Lieutenant. Just give me the report straight – current situation only – then tell me about Marnos.”
“Sir. We’ve taken the hanger bay, both shuttles docked safely there now. Alpha squad is guarding the perimeter. Beta and Gamma are with me, we’re advancing towards the main Engineering control room. Captain Marnos took Delta squad, said he was going to take the bridge! Sir, he’s gotta be crazy: there must be twenty or thirty enemy troops between him and the bridge – he’s just gonna get them all killed! Sir, I request permission to relieve the Captain of his position.”
Leedan reflected for a moment; Marnos had certainly seemed slightly unhinged, but weren’t all Special Ops troopers? He’d have to get Koltor to check Marnos’ records.
“Denied, Lieutenant. The Captain is a veteran soldier; he knows what he’s doing. Worry about completing your own objectives.”
Bristling, Urnai’s voice sounded strangled by anger and fear in equal measures. “Aye sir.”
“Oh, and don’t mention this conversation to the good Captain… I don’t think he’d appreciate me ignoring the chain of command.”
“Of course, sir. He won’t know from me.”
Leedan gave a tight-lipped smile. “Good. Carry on, Lieutenant. Leedan out.”
So saying, he severed the comm. link.
Marnos hurled himself forward, landing on knees and elbows, his dive taking him across the mouth of the corridor – Imperialist gunfire blazed over his head. He brought up his rifle, stitching a line of bullets across the enemy troopers who crouched behind a makeshift barrier, blocking the small, dark passageway. Two of them fell, one with half his head blown away, the other clutching his stomach; a bullet had punched through his belly armour to blow a hole in his intestines – shell fragments lacerating his innards. The other two men who had manned the barricade raised their weapons to return fire, but were gunned down as three Republican Marines rounded the corridor, hosing down the blockade with rifle and machinegun fire. The Imperialists collapsed, riddled with bullets, their armoured suits leaking blood from a score of holes. Standing, Marnos checked down the corridor – clear. He smacked a button, the empty clip clattering to the floor as he slammed another mag into the rifle.
“Good work. Only a couple more corridors till we reach the bridge.”
They had ascended the two decks to the bridge’s level relatively easily, brushing aside the token opposition. Now it was getting tougher, each corridor harder to take, and every little stumbling block more demanding. They’d lost two men to enemy fire: Marnos had paused only to discard them, ordering Alpha squad to send a team to retrieve the injured men, before he continued the unrelenting advance. Ten men left; how many more would he lose?
Ten, of twelve: long-forgotten training manuals flashing suddenly into his mind. It had been years since he’d last led such a green unit; the Special Ops troops were all combat veterans, hardened to the reality and unreality of war – these troops were different. Innocent, and yet so full of hate and eagerness and grim determination, yet wilting at the first brutal caress of death. It was all a game to them, slowly imprinting its own twisted reality upon their malleable minds. A squad – twelve men – consists of three Fire Teams, read Marnos, the most basic recognised combat unit. Each team contains four men: a team leader – usually a Corporal or Lance Corporal, less often a Sergeant – who commands the Team, a specialist with a support weapon such as a machinegun or flamethrower, and two soldiers armed with rifles or carbines. Usually the former; the ultra-compact carbines were most often used by un-armoured military policemen for keeping order, not in true combat situations.
Now Marnos had ten: two Lances – the squad leader had been injured, shrapnel shredding his left leg while mopping up an unexpectedly fierce pocket of resistance – a machine gunner, a flamethrower unit and six soldiers armed with rifles like the one he himself carried. Ten men, against who-knew-how-many ahead, waiting for them. He signalled to his little band to move out: not far, not far – the end almost in sight.
They jogged swiftly forward, weapons at the ready. On reaching the end of the corridor, Marnos poked his rifle around the corner, sensor array linked to his brain – he saw what the weapon did. He pulled it back swiftly as bullets whizzed out at him, but he had seen enough: an enemy position not twenty yards down and to the left. He reached into a pouch, withdrawing a small camera drone – flicking a switch on the little black sphere he lobbed it out into the T-junction. It scanned left and right – enemy positions both sides, eight or so men ensconced in piles of crates, weapons trained on the intersection. Fuck.
“Too tough. We’ll have to go round. Team 2, guard our rear – everyone else, you’re with me.”
Team 2 was the only full-strength team left. Led by Jarra, the squad’s senior Lance, it also contained the squad’s only machinegun, hefted by Trooper Yaller. The big man was fully a head taller than Marnos, and he wielded the large weapon like a carbine. The other two teams Marnos had amalgamated into a new Team 1, headed by the only other NCO left in the under strength unit.
Thoughts jostled for position in Marnos mind; the best route around, looping through several smaller corridors, maybe up or down a deck – delay, delay – to reach the bridge, their ultimate destination. What was Urnai doing? Surely he’d report if there was a problem – but the Imperialists had activated some local jamming: only short-range comm. systems were working. He checked his HUD: some motion ahead, coalescing into cogent signals – enemies? Moving dots, closing, closing – twenty metres, ten – oh shit…
He started to shout a warning, but his words were eclipsed, flattened by the roaring, tearing, screeching sound of an explosion ahead…
…and then there was light.
Terrible, blinding light, pouring in through his visor, blinding him. He was blown backwards by the force of the blast. Plasma grenade, his subconscious reported, years of training and combat taking over, acting on reflex, crouching against the blackened wall, taking stock.
As his vision and hearing returned, he looked around – hardened eyes momentarily shocked by the sight. The soldiers of Team 1 lay sprawled around him, armour battered and torn. “Team, report in!” he almost screamed into the comm.
Slowly, so slowly, acknowledgments came in. Four still alive, two relatively uninjured. Then it was madness, madness as bullets began to whiz through the smoke, hissing through the thick air before punching into walls, ceiling, armoured forms. Staggering to his feet, Marnos returned fire. “Captain, this is Team 2! We’re under attack, enemy troops moving from their barricades!”
“Hold them off! We’re under attack from our end too – make sure they don’t get into this corridor!”
“Team 1, get on your fucking feet right now! Flame unit, clear us a path! We’ve gotta make it back to that barricade if we’re going to get out alive!”
They charged through the smoke and flames, weapons singing a song of death, white plasma fire spewing from the barrel of the flamethrower, forcing their unseen enemy back.
Huddling behind the sparse barrier, among the dead bodies of enemies and friends alike, they took stock. Nine men, two injured, four still fighting off enemies at the other end. Paralysed, enemies to front and back – injured men bleeding their lives away on the hard metal floor. Marnos cast his eyes around the claustrophobic space, searching for a way – any way – out. Had to get out: imprisonment driving him mad.
“Demolitions, throw me a couple of breaching charges, and a remote fuse!”
Unquestioning, the soldier known only as Demolitions – the squad’s munitions expert – tossed a tough black cloth pouch to Marnos. He turned to the Lance, eyes impaling the younger man. “Ok, you’re in charge here now. Hold them off however you can.”
“Sir?” the tone was shocked, questioning. “Where are you going?”
Marnos attached the pouch to his waist. “To get us out of this mess.
Feet resting on the rungs of a wall-ladder, Marnos pushed aside the grate, pulling himself upwards onto the floor of the deck above. Replacing the metal square, he padded silently off, red emergency lighting glinting from his black, dirt-smeared armour. Okay, he said to himself, let’s see where you are. The corridor was parallel to the battle-scarred one below, so all he had to do was go in this direction… He came to a halt at the T-junction, checking his motion sensor – there. Below, the two concentrations of Imperialist troops, and there were the Republican Marines. He quickly set his charges, keying them to detonate when he transmitted the right command sequence. Let’s just hope they go off, with all this interference.
He sprinted back along the corridor, to the intersection above the one where the battered remnants of Team 1 held desperately on, like sailors from a sinking ship clinging to wreckage in a vain hope for survival. Marnos circled, scanning the floor – there. In the floor was another grate, like the one he had ascended through, but behind the enemy. Slowly, so slowly, he inched it upwards, leaving a gaping hole in the floor. He poked his rifle through, seeing the world through a gunsight. Imperialist troops, crouching, firing towards the barricade that brief minutes previously had been a bastion of their defence. Now the roles were reversed – but Marnos intended to switch them again.
He punched in a combination on the keypad on his left forearm, and waited as the world trembled with the fire of the explosion.
Roaring, the fire exploded out from the breaching charges in two ghastly fireballs that vaporised the walls, floor, ceiling – the men below were instantly killed, the blast crushing armour, flesh, bone, and sending shards of metal slicing through their charred bodies. The few survivors huddled in corners, deaf and blind.
“Team 2, attack now, wipe them out!”
The rattle of gunfire echoed their compliance.
Marnos took a deep breath, and dropped through the grate, into the war, yelling to Team 1 to advance.
Three men immediately in front of him; dropping into a crouch, he sprayed a hail of bullets towards the dark blue forms of the enemy. One slumped into a wall, holes puncturing his back in four places. Another span, rifle blazing erratically towards the ceiling as his finger clenched around the trigger in one last act of defiance – blood spouted from his neck. The last dropped to the floor, rounds bouncing from his armour, one arm crippled as an explosive round blew apart his bicep.
Marnos scythed one leg around, knocking another to the floor with a thud; twisting, he pulled the trigger, the second man blown backwards, his brain splattered across the inside of his helmet as Marnos’ bullets punched through the Imperialist’s visor with deadly finality. He lowered the rifle towards the chest of the fallen trooper, blowing his chest apart in a shower of blood. Then, gore-soaked, he turned back to the fray. Only a couple left – Team 1 had taken out the rest, the rebel troops’ attention distracted by Marnos’ sudden onslaught. Arming a plasma grenade, he sent it arcing down the corridor to end the battle in a blaze of white heat.
The Raptor’s captain was dying when they found him, slumped forward in his command chair – the bridge crew had fought to the last, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, with no protection save their thin naval uniforms. Lying on the cold floor, staring up at the stars, the man struggled to breathe, air coming in short gasps from between blood-flecked lips.
He coughed. “Looks like… you got us after all.”
A weak smile. “Not worth it, in the end.”
“What do you mean?”
A shrug. “Suppose it doesn’t mean anything now.”
“Why…” another cough, blood and spittle spattering across Marnos’ weary face as he leant close to the dying man. “Why we were here. No accident.”
“How did you know we were going to be here?”
A wink, eyelid fluttering feebly. “One… one of yours.”
“Ours? You mean a Republican? A spy?”
“One of yours!”
“Intelligence? Central? Who?”
“Not from me… not a traitor… just… a believer.”
“Who?” he was shouting now, words tearing from his lungs, desperation in defeat – victory hollow without this.
“Now I’ll haunt you… goodbye, Captain.” With those words his head lolled as his last breath faded into silence.
22nd Sep 01, 12:58 PM
Chapter 8 – Shadows wandering off somewhere (http://www.poplyrics.net/waiguo/fastball/015.htm)
“Nineteen kings for nineteen tribes. These were not the young Kings of the Year, chosen to rule from one great Rite to the next and then to die – these were kings who would rule as long as they could grip a war-axe, some young, some scarred with time and battle, but man-slayers all, their smile wealth, their frown death. The King of the Otters ruled from Blacksands to Umba’s River; eight thousand fighters gathered to his muster; for nine years he had knelt to no other king. The King of the West Cats ruled one sparse valley and could call thirty-three men to his war-pole; for nine years he too had knelt to no other king. But now both knelt on the slope of the man-built hill while their tribes watched in silence.
For nine years no High King had ruled. No one had sat on the Stone Chair. Like baiting dogs the tribes had warred mindless. Sometimes one king had decided he had gained mastery enough and had issued the summons and travelled with henchmen and allies to the man-built hill, but before they had reached it they had lost their way among the marshes. There were mists, there were fevers. Guides who had been there before had forgot the route. Paths circled back on themselves. So the kings had returned to their holds and allowed themselves to be persuaded that the time had not been ready. What use to find the hill and to site on the Stone Chair unless they could hold in their right hand the axe Iscal, and that was lost in the Bog of Beara? The last High King was dead, his line all slaughtered, and Iscal lay deep in the black ooze. There would never again be a High King, only endless warfare.” – Peter Dickinson, ‘Merlin Dreams’
“Chief, you seen the captain?”
The question, spoken a few centimetres from behind his ear, startled Dooman. Halting his scurrying walk towards the Officer’s Mess, he turned to see Captain Marnos standing a scant metre away.
“No, he’s having dinner on the Onyx with the Admiral.”
The Onyx was Task Force 317’s flagship, a thirty-year-old carrier; from it, Admiral Leyn Ieuno had directed the Republican battle group’s victory over the Imperialist ambush. The mopping-up operation had finished barely an hour ago, the insurgent force fighting a rearguard action as it withdrew to the safety of hyperspace.
“Oh” said Marnos, sounding slightly puzzled “I thought he’d be here, supervising the repairs or something.”
Though the Stormhawk’s furious attack had shattered the enemy flank and destroyed the Imperialist carrier, it had sustained significant damage in the process. A few enemy strike craft, finding themselves stranded and low of fuel, had kamikazed into the cruiser’s hull: one heavy turret was out of action, as were two of the AAA batteries; numerous scrapes and tears were being patched by suited crewmen and repair drones – the Task Force’s support frigates and repair corvettes had more serious casualties to attend to.
“He said he was ‘going to have dinner with an old friend’ and to have her battle-worthy by the time he got back.”
Marnos nodded silently, and Dooman examined the Special Operations officer’s face more carefully. It was lined and drawn, the features pale. Purple lines rimmed tired eyes: the face seemed haunted, as though something – someone? – was hunting it, following it through every dream and waking nightmare.
“What was it like?” he asked timidly, slightly afraid of the intense, enigmatic man who had come into their midst in such secrecy – a man who demanded, and seemingly got, whatever he asked of the Stormhawk’s crew and captain. Even Leedan – a fearless man, if Dooman had ever seen one – seemed slightly unsure of himself in Marnos’ presence.
“Out there, I mean; what was it like?”
The repetition did not appear to bother Marnos; he seemed to have hardly heard.
Just one word, but it seemed to be all that needed to be said. Quailing slightly, Dooman reached out and took the other’s arm, guiding him down the corridor.
“Come on, have something to eat.”
“If… if it’s not too much trouble.”
Dooman shivered – the transition from tired warrior to timid child only serving to add to the unsettlingly incomprehensible nature of the man.
“I was going to the Mess anyway. Come on, it’s no bother – you’ll feel better after a bite to eat.”
The air in Leyn Ieuno’s quarters was cool; a refreshing breeze drifted serenely through the dimly-lit cabin, making candlelight-cast shadows dance across drapery-covered walls. Thick green and blue threads were woven into twisting waves, seeming to leap from the cream backdrop in a spray of foam.
“Why did you do it, Akar?”
Leedan shrugged, eyes staring unseeing at the wineglass he held. “Because I didn’t have anything else to do; anywhere else to go.”
“You had me.” Her voice sounded hurt and sad, as though his words were shards of glass, stabbing deep into her heart.
“I… you know I couldn’t. Not so soon. It wouldn’t… wouldn’t have been right.”
“I would have been what you needed – a shoulder to lean on.”
“No. I would have felt I was betraying her.”
Leyn’s voice was laced with frustration and sadness. “Why do you always have to be so goddamned loyal, Akar!” she almost shouted, immediately falling silent, eyes cast down to the floor. She spoke again, he voice broken like cracked ice. “I’m… I’m sorry. It’s just…”
“I know. I’m sorry too.”
She glanced at him, the tears in her eyes glowing in the candlelight. “Do you think – maybe? If things hadn’t…” she trailed.
Leedan nodded. “Maybe. But they weren’t.”
They sat in silence, glances carrying unspoken words across the space between them.
“You want another drink?”
He smiled up at her as she stood, naval uniform abandoned in favour of a loose white shirt and baggy trousers.
“I’ll be back in a sec.”
She seemed slightly remote when she returned, her mind focussed not on him but on something in the far distance.
“Here.” She poured the wine from the elegant carafe into Leedan’s glass, then her own. Placing it on the table, she sank to the floor, sitting cross-legged on the rug across from him, just out of reach.
He raised the glass to his lips. “To old friends, and battles long past.”
A smile. “To old friendships never forgotten, and the battles we still have to fight.”
They drank, and in drinking seemed to forget the years of pain and loss that lay between them, their toast a salve for ancient wounds.
“What’s this secret mission of yours, anyway?”
“I have no idea. I was assigned the Stormhawk a month ago, oversaw her final fitting-out, then I got orders from Central telling me to pick up this Captain Marnos and take him wherever he wants to go.”
“ ‘Wherever he wants to go?’ ”
“Yes. No questions; just take him. So why are you here?”
“43rd command sent me a tight-beam transmission four days ago, highest security levels – unbreakable ciphers. Told me to be here at a certain time to escort a ship into the Lost Regions via whatever route seemed appropriate.”
“So you’ve no idea what this guy’s mission is either?”
She sighed. “Time to go… we’ve got this conference. Maybe we’ll get some answers then.”
Leedan nodded. “I suppose so.”
He rose, Leyn following, dark eyes flickering toward his face. “When will I see you again?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe in a couple of months. This one’s going to be tough – I can feel it.”
Taking a deep breath, she took a step forward, enfolding him in an awkward embrace. She rested her head on his shoulder as his arms came up and around her, stroking her back. “It’ll be alright. Don’t worry, Leyn. I’ll be back.”
She pulled back slightly, looking straight into his eyes.
“I… I loved you, you know.”
He nodded, words unnecessary; reaching up, he stroked her cheek – she closed her eyes at the touch of his fingers.
He leant forward, bringing his palm behind her head, pulling her into the kiss. As their lips touched, he felt a tingle run down his spine.
Lost in the moment, they stood there, silhouetted against the stars – time enough.
Dooman, Marnos in tow, made his way to the food dispenser; the regular meal had been some hours before, and the counter – across which the Chef doled out exquisitely cooked banquets concocted from fresh ingredients (the products of the ship’s tiny garden) – had been battened down, steel shutters closing it off from the Mess.
Jen Daima, the Operations Officer and second-in-command of the Stormhawk, passed them as they walked toward one of the grey metal tables that were scattered liberally throughout the Mess. Walking swiftly past, she shot Marnos a black look.
“She doesn’t like you” Dooman observed.
“I noticed” was Marnos’ only reply.
“Don’t let her get to you – she doesn’t like many people.”
Someone else had noticed Daima’s withering glare: rising to his feet, Koltor, the Intelligence Officer, waved them to his table.
He smiled at Marnos. “I’d be delighted if you would do me the honour of sharing this humble repast with me, Captain.”
He glanced at Dooman, still smiling. “And you as well of course, Lieutenant.”
“Thanks.” Marnos seated himself, placing the plate of reheated military rations on the table in front of him.
“I apologise; some of us –” a meaningful glance toward Daima’s departing form “– have made you less than welcome here, Captain. Not an attitude we encourage, I assure you.” He chortled. “I suppose she must feel threatened.”
Marnos gave a weak smile.
“We do try to maintain a civilised existence here, of course –” here he prodded the contents of his plate with a fork “– despite the Navy’s best efforts to destroy our palates.”
Another smile: Dooman couldn’t decide whether it was real or affected.
“We have quite passable food at dinner, but the Chef keeps the fresh provisions under lock and key the rest of the time, so we must make do with this regurgitated mush if we are not to starve.” He winked.
“Don’t worry, I’m used to it.”
“You’ve been in the military some time then?”
“Really? I joined just after the revolution. Did you… play any part in that?”
“Not really; I was on an extended surveillance op when it all happened – got back to base, broke comm. silence for the first time in two months, and everything… everything had changed.”
Koltor nodded sympathetically.
“It must have been disorienting. And after that?”
“Not much to it; transferred my commission to the new Intel Division, been there ever since.”
Koltor, Dooman saw, was – somewhat unsuccessfully – trying to pump Marnos for information. Maybe he can’t help it, he thought. He is an Intelligence Officer, after all. Or maybe he’s just curious like the rest of us.
“So what did you do, before the revolution? Were you in Special Operations then?”
“No, I was in a Marine unit, attached to a frontier patrol fleet. Boring duty: we didn’t see any action, even in the war – the Kushan fleet bypassed us completely.”
“Oh, I see.” Koltor sounded disappointed. “So, did you…”
The rest of the question was cut off by a curt wave of Marnos’ hand; looking, Dooman could see he was receiving a transmission via his headset.
Marnos stood abruptly – “I’ve gotta go; thanks for the dinner.”
“But you’ve hardly started” protested Dooman.
“Sorry – duty calls.”
Marnos turned to Koltor. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”
“My pleasure” the Intel Officer replied. “I only hope we can continue this some time.”
Marnos nodded curtly to both of them, and strode from the Mess.
“I wonder what that was about?” Dooman pondered aloud.
Koltor looked thoughtful. “Must be a conference of some kind; maybe the Captain wants to know where he’s got to jump to next. Still, he’s a strange one; I suppose they must all be bit odd, in Special Operations; the stuff they do, you know…” he trailed off.
They ate the rest of the meal in contemplative silence, leaving unsaid their thoughts and fears.
Exiting the lift that had carried him down, Marnos looked warily about one of the Stormhawk’s two hanger bays. It was about two hundred metres from the massive bay doors to the far wall – twice that between the bulkheads to either side. Roughly in the middle of the landing surface sat a small transport shuttle, its stubby body reminding Marnos of the corvettes it was descended from.
Beneath his feet, grey metal – to left and right, high walls: gigantic bulkheads, stretching fifty metres up to the ceiling, panels hiding automated repair and refuelling equipment. Suspended by vast metal cranes, as though held by the claws of gigantic crabs, were strike craft; Merlin-class Interceptors, Kestrel Scouts, black armour glistening in the bright blue-white light that saturated the hanger.
The cold grey floor was featureless, save the panels that Marnos knew slid away to reveal fuelling points, power cables, interface wires. An occasional blemish also blighted the smooth metal; scorch marks from the superheated exhaust gases of fighters and corvettes. Marnos took a deep breath, inhaling the vapours that filled the vast room. The smells of coolants, fuel, lubricants, recycled air; all blended together in a fascinating cocktail, each aspect telling a different story. He closed his eyes, remembering.
Images flashed past in his mind’s eye, rendering myriad scenes of hope, despair, love, war, death. A small child, pushed roughly aboard a transport, fuel lines giving life to the ship, the sickly-sweet smell mingling with the odours of the grime, the sweat of the other passengers. Packed so close they could hardly breathe; suffocating as the ship lifted off, the roar of the jets deafening.
Glimpses, out of the shuttle’s viewport; green trees, grey sky darkening as rain clouds closed in. Then, as the ground receded further into the distance, the blossoming of red-orange roses of fire, as explosions rent the surface. Thrown wildly about the cabin – standing room only, the seats stripped out so it could carry more passengers – as the ship shuddered violently, tearing upwards through the atmosphere, frantically manoeuvring.
The hull clanged, the sound horribly loud in the confined space, as mass driver rounds struck the transport. Staring, entranced, out of the viewport, as grey ships striped with yellow hurtled past, coming around for another run. A thunderous bellow as the shells tore into the shuttle’s engines; a flash, blinding; then nothing.
A voice interrupted his reverie: the shuttle pilot. “We’d better get going, sir.”
Marnos sighed and nodded, following the man towards the shuttle. He had an appointment to keep, but it was not one he was going to relish.
“This is our current location,” Admiral Ieuno gestured with a thin metallic pointer to a cluster of green dots on the tri-d holographic display, looking at the room’s three other occupants: Leedan, Marnos, and a tall, thickly-built man who had been introduced as Ieuno’s chief of staff, Major Haikar. “and here you can see the Kalari-347 system. From Intel reports –” she glanced coldly at Marnos “– and probe data, it seems clear that this is the base location of the fleet that attacked us.”
Haikar stood, taking the Admiral’s place before them; he pressed a few buttons on the display unit’s control panel, then looked towards Leedan and Marnos. The display shifted, zooming in on the selected system. Red icons glared from the centre of the holographic sphere.
“We believe that system defences consist only of the ships that survived today’s engagement, a Imperator-class space fortress, and a few minor sensor arrays and outposts. However, it seems highly likely that they have signalled for reinforcements from their sector command. Therefore, a quick strike would appear to be the best option, eliminating a large enemy force and paving the way for further offensives in this region.”
“How long have you known this base’s location?” asked Marnos.
“About two weeks.”
“So why haven’t you attacked it yet?”
Ieuno chewed her top lip. “We’ve requested additional forces, but the 43rd is pretty stretched already, and there are no reinforcements available from other sectors of the front either. Until now, they’ve been pretty well impregnable – as long as they stayed close to that fortress, we haven’t been able to do a thing. Until now. Any thoughts on what would make them abandon their advantage like that, Captain?” She gave Marnos a pointed look as she asked, but all he did was sit silently and give a slight shake of his head. Why in hell would I know? he wondered. I’m as much in the dark as everyone else.
“What’s their approximate fighting strength?” he asked the Major.
“Two Raptor-class destroyers managed to withdraw from today’s engagement, as did ten assorted frigates – approximately half their original strength. There are two Imperialist frigate squadrons within a few hours of the Kalari system, so we must assume they have been called in to reinforce the base. The fortress itself, as well as housing three dozen strike craft, is roughly equal – in terms of firepower at least – to three Devastator-class heavy cruisers.”
“What about us?”
“Three Raptors, one of them too heavily damaged to join an engagement. Two heavy cruisers, both with minor hull damage – they’ll be ready to hyperspace in an hour, any other repairs can be completed en route. Twenty frigates, including four support frigates, seven ions and seven assaults. Plus of course this carrier; four squadrons of fighters, two of corvettes – minimal damage to both, should be full strength by the time we reach the target.”
“And with this we’re supposed to take out not only a considerable enemy force, but an Imperator fortress as well?” asked Marnos cynically.
“Of course not, Captain.” replied the Admiral acidly. “I’ve been in communication with 43rd Fleet Command; they have assigned us five destroyers and another ten frigates from their reserve force – this is an unparalleled opportunity to finally break this stalemate, we don’t intend to waste it.”
“Just one thing, Admiral: how exactly does this attack constitute the effective satisfaction of your mission objectives, which are – as I understand them – to deliver us safely and covertly into Imperialist space?”
“The attack will be the perfect cover; you’ll slip through Imperialist lines during the engagement. Our forces will eliminate all enemy sensor arrays to destroy any chance they have of spotting you.”
Marnos sat back, satisfied. Leedan, however, edged himself forward. “I believe there is one matter which we have not properly addressed, Admiral – the matter of how the Imperialists knew we were here. Captain, I believe you heard the last words of the captured destroyer’s captain; would you care to share them with us?”
Marnos swore under his breath. How did they know? That little snake Urnai must have got the story from one of Alpha squad.
“I’m afraid there was no information we could use – just the ramblings of a dying man.” He frowned, feigning concentration. “He said something about flowers… then died.”
Leedan and Ieuno shared a look – the Admiral cleared her throat. “Unfortunate he died before he could give us any useful information – however, we may yet learn something from his crew, they’re being processed in the interrogation centre as we speak. Perhaps we’ll have something before we reach Kalari.”
She looked to Marnos. “Anything else, Captain?”
“Yes.” He pointed to a few spots of green, deeper into Imperialist territory. “What are those?”
“A recon detachment – four frigates on a scouting mission. I suggest you jump to their location once you leave the engagement at Kalari-347; they’ll escort you deeper into enemy space.”
“Is that it? Captain Leedan?”
Leedan shook his head.
“Very well then. Consider this meeting adjourned – we’ll make the jump to hyperspace in an hour.”
The blue glow of hyperspace portals opened as the fleet jumped, sleek ships enveloped in a cerulean radiance, then fading from sight as they disappeared into the depths of hyperspace, leaving only the darkness of the void, the glimmering of the stars, and the decaying wreckage of the devastating struggle that had scorched the cold depths short hours before.
Marnos sat cross-legged on his bed, staring down at the datapad he held; Garshak’s record. That harsh voice, slowly imprinting its insanity on his mind, played in the background – one of the recordings Raenar had given to him.
“We fight our endless battles not with ion cannons and mass drivers, but with our very thoughts – conflicting ideas striving to destroy one another. Our war is not ‘us’ against ‘them’: it is us against ourselves. Self-destruction is what we are; that thought, that concept, made flesh. And so we fight – as we must fight. We fight forever…”
The voice trailed on and on, threading a narrow path between darkness and light – a whisper in the silent agony of hatred. Exhaling, Marnos tuned out the words, hearing only the discordant tones: a muted song of everlasting death. The letters on the screen before him blurred into grey nothingness as he read, mind lapsing into oblivion as shards of reality and unreality dug deep into his brain, overwhelming him.
The child stood alone on the clifftop, rain stinging his tearstained cheeks. The unforgiving sky raced past, oblivious to the aching pain that had clenched its cruel fist around his heart, squeezing it into a black hole of fear and grief. Great jolting sobs wracked his small body, unheard over the screaming wind – alone, no one to hear or care. Abandoned to the elements, he wandered, lost, across the empty plain of hard black rock.
His matted hair was blown by the cruel wind’s caress across features so lost in hopelessness they no longer saw, heard or felt, the storm’s assaults insignificant against the tearing finality of the pain that tore at his very being. No maternal warmth to shield him from ravages of body or mind: alone, so utterly alone, traversing the darkness on weary feet. Sharp rocks slashed at his bare soles, gashing the soft flesh. Weeping, he ran, ran, ran – onwards, into the very heart of the darkness, uncaring as the storm closed in around him, the sorrow in his heart transcending all external fears. He wept alone, tears winding a damp path down his cheeks, the wind freezing cold as it chilled the wet trail.
A harsh cry startled him; looking up, he saw the raven, silhouetted against the gloom. The great bird’s sharply pointed beak opened once more in a screeching caw, the stark sound mimicking the storm in its primal intensity. The boy watched the glittering black eyes, sparkling with reflected light as a shard of lightning crashed to earth with a shuddering roar.
The monstrous avian’s murderous talons flexed, grasping tightly the tall rock it stood upon, one omniscient eye transfixing the child with a stare that spoke of a mind old beyond reckoning; anciently powerful, constrained by no primitive morality – unshackled, a will of stone and strength of iron. Captivated, he walked slowly closer, staring into the gaping maw of the raven’s pupil. Like a deep well, the darkness seemed to go down and down, into inky, uncharted depths. Tiny points of light flickered and slowly expired into nothingness, as he fell.
Through light-spattered dark he fell, onwards, downwards.
Suddenly he hit the bottom, blinding light flaring around him, brighter than a thousand suns.
Then there was nothing.
Marnos awoke shivering, lying curled in a foetal position on the small bed, memory cards scattered across the blue coverlet. Sitting up, he hugged his arms tightly around his knees, staring unseeing into the middle distance. A haze of half-remembered images cascaded through his mind, a shudder running down his spine as the memories coursed across his synapses; looking at his arms he saw the tiny hairs that covered them raised in a silent plea, goose bumps rippling across his flesh.
He looked out towards the stars, glittering jewels littering the firmament, and wondered: why? Why did this thing, this incarnation of darkness, haunt his sleep? What was it? What cold terrors did the beast portend?
Sinking back onto the bed, he closed his eyes, trying to snatch a moment’s fitful sleep before the engagement.
26th Sep 01, 6:32 AM
Time to start reading this again I suppose. /sigh
26th Sep 01, 9:43 AM
I love to read, and some things are worth reading over, this is one of those stories. for that I am glad, for now I begin the rereading process once more:)
30th Sep 01, 12:32 PM
30th Sep 01, 12:52 PM
Ion you are really good at making images and such, I am amazed at your talent.
I look forward to seeing more of your facinating work.
12th Nov 01, 10:26 AM
gota keep this thread up, everyone should read it.
12th Nov 01, 1:00 PM
Sorry I've not updated for so long -- I was busy writing my short story, Shadows, and after I finally completed that I've been working on a "director's cut", writing a long essay/introduction, doing this fantasy story etc... However, you'll be glad to know that I've also started work on the next chapter of Ravens -- the last in this Act. From the way it's shaping up, it should easily blow away any and all of the previous chapters. :)
As I intimated in the last chapter, there's going to be something of a battle this chapter; I realise that most Homeworld fiction is generally (and woefully) centred around battles, and I've got plenty of competition in this department, but I'm aiming for, if not bigger (because I don't think more ships necessarily makes a battle any more interesting to describe or read about, and usually just muddles it), then better battles than have been done here before. Of course, with the competition I have in this regard, I probably won't succeed, but hopefully I won't fail by too great a margin. ;)
Anyway, just to reassure you that I really am working on the next chapter (and it's not just a fabrication created by the IonFish Industries press corps), here's a little descriptive extract from the beginning of the chapter. Enjoy...
The sky was stained with blood; silhouetted against the vast crimson globe of the system’s sun, a shadowy fleet moved purposefully toward their target. The vengeful shapes of cruisers, destroyers and frigates sped on blue ion trails, weapons armed; suspended from launch rails in hanger bays, bombers and interceptors powered up their engines. Engineers checked and rechecked mass drivers and ion cannons, while missile tubes were reloaded and final repairs were made. Kalari-347 was a desolate place – the few planets were small and rocky, baked by the giant’s furnace that glared pitilessly down at their scorched crusts; only dead space between them. An old star, past its prime, but with aeons left to live – dying, but not dead, the once seemingly infinite life granted to it fading a millennium at a time.
Far from the system’s fiery core, scant distance from the great sweep of asteroids that ringed the sun with rock and ice, hung a vast fortress. The black metal of docking bays, missile pods and gun turrets extruded like cancerous growths from the stony leviathan that formed the citadel’s core – around it buzzed scouts on their patrol routes, insects teeming around their nest. Larger ships were docked snugly in recesses, or moving sluggishly towards the stronghold, debris drifting from great fiery rents in their armour. Support frigates and repair corvettes stuck closely by their injured charges, nursing them back to the safety of dry-docks and the army of repair crews and robotic engineers awaiting them.
12th Nov 01, 10:12 PM
You really have that fluid narration down. Can't wait for more!
13th Nov 01, 3:38 AM
Good stuff again Ion!!
I will try to update it on my site also a.s.a.p. (busy busy lately)
17th Nov 01, 12:11 AM
Just asking if you remember me :) long ago in a community near you :)
Well atleist i remember yoooouu :)
16th Jun 02, 6:53 PM
More people are needed to encourage IonFish to finish this!
17th Jun 02, 4:55 AM
I, too, encourage some form of completion of movement towards therefore.
However, sometimes these things take time. Give the metal fishy a chance: he's awed us all with his literary power; maybe his brain needs some time to catch up with his running imagination :)
PS - Constructive comments will be posted, by myself, after I've read the compo entries.
18th Jun 02, 10:46 PM
A maestro cannot be rushed.
I'm patient enough; but I might not be: school just ended...
2nd Jul 02, 8:13 AM
well, i dont normally read this kind of stuff, but this is pretty good
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