Sorry folks. I don’t mean to leave a cliffhanger, but The Last Scout is going to be delayed again. Paying work needs to take priority. I *will* get back to writing as soon as I can.
Sorry folks. I don’t mean to leave a cliffhanger, but The Last Scout is going to be delayed again. Paying work needs to take priority. I *will* get back to writing as soon as I can.
This is a placeholder. Holm et. al. are currently unavoidably delayed. Once the author gets back to his work, things can get back on schedule.
To start at the beginning, click here.
Starships were only quiet in death. They groaned, clicked, creaked, and hummed. Air handlers, fuel pumps, drive machinery, the breathing of other human beings… Some people never got used to the constant noise. They never stayed around long. Never made sailing the eternal stars their life.
Captain Everts shrugged his way into the hard suit with practiced ease. Small craft always got more practice in EVA, and Celerity‘s crew was no different.
“I still don’t like it, Captain.” Sergeant Woods didn’t like anything, as far as he could tell. Well, maybe a good fight. And a good single malt, as he recalled.
“Be that as it may. We need every hand for this one, since the remote passives are too massy to hump with nine marines alone. And maneuvering the ship, well. “I’ll not risk doing this with too few hands.” Woods harrumphed. It was a private conversation. He could bitch all he liked, as far as Everts was concerned, as long as it didn’t go any further than that. Morale was a bit shaken as it was. The ship had taken damage, but could not be repaired by her small crew until they were no longer drifting.
He and the sergeant were the last two in the lock. Bob Lasceau appeared at the tiny observation window, tapping it with his armored glove. Time to get a move on. Everts locked his helmet down, and swapped equipment checks with Woods. It never hurt to be too careful.
He stamped his boots to get the maglocks engaged, and stepped out onto the hull. Celerity was drifting slowly towards the big wreck, hidden in the shadow of the wound that killed the giant ship. Twisted plated traced the path of destruction aft, towards what would likely have been the CIC, and whatever engines drove her. Tough old bird, to still be holding together after all these years.
“Woolgathering again, sir?” Petty Officer Lasceau remarked wryly, as his helmet clanked against his captain’s. Sound traveled through the air inside the helmet and by direct contact- no extra electronics on the hull. Too risky.
The older man was technically too senior for a scout ship. He’d been busted down in rank several times over the years, though. Everts had managed to keep him on with a combination of bluff, bribery, and outright lies.
“Got the first pair of winches set up already. Once we get the last ones down and tight, we’ll crank her in, then get lines up to that old turret and set up there.” Sergeant Woods tapped Lasceau on the shoulder. He made a few quick signs, saying he’d get set up on the ventral side. Lasceau nodded, and waved Everts over as he stomped over to the port antenna mount.
Once the captain explained the rough plan to him, the P.O. had detailed both engine room smokers and the second shift maintenance section to getting every scrap of cable and anchors out of storage. Celerity needed to be stable before hauling the P.E.S.T system up where it would do the most good- without getting them killed. Passive Emission Sensing Tachiometer was a stupid name anyway. Too stupid to end up dying over.
Everts watched as visual signals passed from Lasceau to the work parties on either side of the ship. He’d just had the idea to take a peek with the remote passive system, but his people were the ones who made it work. And Liu’s expert flying had saved their lives of course. He planned on recommending a commendation for that bit of work, once they got back to Fleet. It would put her too senior to fly a scout if the Scout Captain chose to promote her at the same time- which was just possible, of course. Her captain’s recommendation would go a ways towards that, too.
Movement caught his eye. Something in the derelict glittered in the harsh lighting. The mass of his little ship was orders of magnitude less, but it still caused some slight movement. He fumbled at his belt for his binoculars to take a closer look, but stopped when the object broke free. It was just a mattress, he could tell by the red cover and blue stripe over the top.
The approach was slow, but steady. Hand winches required brute muscle power to overcome the gentle push of the few attitude thrusters still working that were keeping them from crashing -slowly- into the wreck. On the hull that meant careful bracing before applying torque, lest you go dutchman. Nobody wanted that to happen here. Without power sources and EVA control was limited to manually directed gas jets with very little fuel. Ship sensors tended not to ping on something as small as a suited human, but it had been known to happen. Everts didn’t know which would be worse, drifting until the air ran out in hope of rescue, or getting fried.
A smaller figure crouched by the blocky P.E.S.T, cinching the cat’s cradle of lines that would carry the equipment up to the wreck. A part of Everts wanted to lend a hand. To do something, at least, rather than stand around feeling useless. He quashed that impulse firmly, the memory of his old captain telling a much younger man to stay out of the way and keep his eyes on the future. Let the men take care of the present, lad. They are counting on you to watch out for what’s coming. So he did.
Which was why he saw the meter long scrap of hull that parted the dorsal forward line and sliced into the crew working there a split second before it happened.
The snapped line whipped back down to the deck, cutting a gouge into the hull plating, throuigh one man’s side and slicing through one unfortunate rating’s hand in its path. The slow drop became a spin, as the other lines halted too late. The leading edge was dropping fast as men scrambled to escape being pinched between their own ship and the wreck and to scoop up the wounded. Everts slammed his helmet into the Petty Officer’s- no time to be gentle.
“Get them in to the port lock. Get Griggs in after!” Lasceau launched himself forward in a shuffling run to get the ventral crew- their one medically trained rating among them- in, as the sergeant began hustled two damaged hardsuits up from the ship’s dorsal spine. Everts cranked the lock open as quickly as he could. Woods snatched his two in and slammed the hatch shut with a heave. The captain glanced forward to see if there were any more wounded and his heart lept to his throat.
Limp, drifting towards the pinch point. Not leaking. It was Liu. Smallest of the crew by far. Everts was already rocketing towards her as he recognized who it was. His gut told him they could make it, just beneath the angle the ship would hit, barely, as he twisted his gas jets to full, emptying the tiny tanks in an instant of hard thrust. He bent his body over her limp form and spun to put his nearly empty maneuvering pack between them and whatever awaited them in the wreck, hopefully not a spear of steel to gut them both…
Then they were in, and darkness took him.
* * *
Ensign Liu woke cold and stiff. She needed to pee and had the mother of all hangovers, and gods only knew what she’d done last night… As she reached up to scrub the sleep from her eyes, her hand smacked into something hard and unyielding.
Oh. Oh, crap. She opened here eyes and immediately started to panic. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t see!
To be blind would be the worst fate of all. Liu would give up all the music that ever was or ever would be to be able to see, to read, to paint… to fly. Flying was the best thing in the universe, better than sex, better than chocolate, even. She was a good pilot. Better than good, she was a great pilot. One day she would be the best pilot, ever. If only she wasn’t blind.
On her mother’s tiny kitchen refrigerator was a child’s drawing of a starship, with blue flames coming out the back. It was from her chubby toddler hands, under the printed words “What I Want To Be When I Grow Up.”
“A pilot, that’s what you will be my little one.” Her father missed the point, she’d told him then. She wanted to be the ship itself. To soar free from star to star, from station to planet to colony. Ships went places, and did things. Mostly what they got to do was fly. Her mother understood. She had raced tiny stiletto craft in the rings of Eloo, the gas giant their colony orbited. Liu still had the tiny metal ship toy mother gave her that day on a chain around her neck.
A full twelve inches shorter than the next tallest recruit, Liu had fought her way through arguably the navy’s most challenging course- small craft school. It was… bad. Not the classes. The other recruits. She was just an older colony brat from outside the naval families in Class 4157Echo. Not someone who mattered, not at all. But not even the things they did scared her as much as this. She hadn’t known what she had to lose back then.
Tearfully, with shaking hands she searched for her suit lights. Liu never needed them before. She’d left the hull with the rest when she had to, of course she had. Did her duty with the rest of the crew and not a speck less. And for this, they let her fly.
There it was. Light.
In the shattered remains of a maintenance closet Ensign Liu wept for joy in wracking, shuddering sobs. They could take her legs. Her ears. Her appearance, her pride, take it all away but only if she could go back to flying, it would all be worth it. She’d fly her way to her own firing squad, if only they killed her just as she landed.
* * *
Captain Lee Everts had a lot to be thankful for, he reflected. That he was alive one one big plus, of course, but that Ensign Liu was still breathing was another. Wouldn’t do to have her go and die before he got that commendation sent off, now would it?
Broken ribs, now those weren’t so nice. Sure, being alive to grouse about broken ribs was better than the alternative, but while he was wishing couldn’t there be a few less of those? Despite being saved by that mattress- the combined velocity of the ship and his full blast charge would have been somewhat less than survivable, he thought- despite that, there was the ribs. And some nasty bruises otherwise, but nevermind those. What he needed now was a way out. Because there was no going back the way they got in.
The corridor ran forward and aft, littered with the debris of battle. Violent impact had buckled the deckplates and exposed wiring conduits and shattered pipes, making the choice of direction simple: forward was blocked by wreckage, aft was clear. He decided to check back on Ensign Liu before heading out, though. Air he had almost a day left of. Power for the suit lights was somewhat more limited.
He ducked back through the hatch to find fingers of light reaching out form the maintenance closet across the hold. That was a good thing- either Liu was awake, or rescuers had found them. From this angle, he could see a suited figure, dead obviously, sprawled behind a crate. In its gloved hand was a boarding pistol with the slide locked back.
Boarding weapons had changed over the past seventy years since the exodus, but the basic function was the same: put holes in whoever boarded you without putting holes in the thick hull plating. They utilized expanding or fragmenting ammunition once the outer shell punched through light armor or flesh. Marine shotguns and short rifles fired heavier projectiles, more suitable for taking down heavier armored foes, or punching through the less massive interior bulkheads at need.
Everts wondered when the ship had been boarded- before the shot that killed her, or after, as the crew rushed to escape pods? Such things had occurred before. The bugs were by turns mindless and shrewd. Sometimes they sent their version of marines into dying ships for some reason that command had thus far declined to share with the captains of lowly scout ships.
“Bad luck, mate. May your soul have found peace among the eternal stars, and your kin find closure crewman…” he peered at the nametag on the suit. “Baaltu.” The corpse remained silent, it’s gloved hand reaching towards the pistol as if offering it to him.
He picked it up. The magazine release was in the same spot as he remembered from his early training. It was empty, but a similar one was on the deck, along with a magnetic pouch with more spilling out of it, along with some loose rounds. They were shiny yellowish metal encasing a dull gray tip. He took those, too. If nothing else, they would make a nice souvenir for when he got back to his ship. Maybe tell a ghost story or two at the O club. He grunted a laugh, but stopped as his ribs protested this newest abuse.
Liu was sitting up and turned around as his suit lights chased away a few more hard edged shadows. Her brown eyes were puffy and red, but alert- good, no severe damage then. He hoped.
“As we’re not back on the ship, you can probably tell something went wrong.” Her lips twitched. Another man might not notice the small smile, but Captain Everts did. He tried to get to know all his people. Other captains might remain aloof, but on a small ship like Celerity he thought it helped bring the crew together. They needed to be. Scout ships often operated alone.
“A line parted on the forward quarter. I saw you drifting into the path where the ship crash, and got us both out of the way. That mattress over there saved out lives,” he remarked, pointed to the crumpled red and blue shape. “Can’t get back out the way we came in, so we’ll have to work our way around. How’s your head?”
“Hurts, sir. I am still able to function, though I’d prefer to take it slow. Ish. Can we go back to the ship now?” Everts smiled. It was the same broad, joyful smile he wore on many occasions, from when he’d given crewman Hallas his first good conduct medal to the ship’s birthday party. Somehow it made everything seem a bit easier. Like the captain had the situation well in hand, even though intellectually she knew no one could be in such complete control of himself and his surroundings.
“I’d very much like to, Ensign Liu. The corridor leading forward is blocked, so we will have to work our way aft and look for a way out. Either through the hull, or in towards the damaged section. I don’t have much expectation of getting back so easily, though. The damage was quite severe.” He lent her his arm to stand up, and she carefully did so.
Liu crossed herself solemnly as they passed the corpse on the deck. Captain Everts gave a solumn salute. Whatever had happened back then, this crewman, this ship, had done its duty to the end. It was a worthy example to have, he thought.
He led the way aft down the corridor slowly. His mag boots made the footing sure, despite the broken deck plates, but he took it slow. Ensign Liu wasn’t the only one not at full capacity, little though he would tell his subordinate. At least not yet. It could wait until they got back to the ship.
He tried each hatch as they passed. Many were warped shut. Others led into machinery spaces, a small mess area, on once a missile hold with the gigantic weapons still in their racks and the launch doors firmly shut. He searched for a maintenance access port, but it had been melted at some point and was thus unusable. They continued on until the corridor split at a companionway.
“What do you think, Ensign- up or down?” Liu nodded her head up.
“Up. If the CIC is still intact, there is a chance that enough residual charge remains to show us which hatches are functional through the emergency subroutines.” It was a good thought. Modern ships used a similar system of telltales to show when the hatches were in use, and when they required maintenance.
“Upwards it is. Keep an eye out for red lines on the bulkhead- on older ships this pointed the way to the CIC. Gold lines pointed to the bridge.” They climbed in silence. Everts’ battery life indicator winked at him, letting him know he’d passed the 50% mark. A few more hours, tops, then darkness. He made a promise to himself to shut his lights off at 25%. He could follow Liu for a bit to stretch it out, but once power was gone it would start slowly getting colder. Suit heaters were efficient, but not perfectly efficient.
The Combat Information Center turned out to be only one deck up and deeper into the ship. It’s heavily armored hatch caped open, and more still suited figures lay inside, lit by the dull red glow of an emergence lamp on low power that lit as the slight charge from their boots tripped its simple circuit.
“Pardon our passage, brothers. Your long watch has ended. We hold the burden now, and will see it through. May your souls have found peace among the eternal stars, you and yours.” Everts murmured softly. The navy was officially agnostic when it came to religion, but many of the men and women who served believed. It was why navy chaplains returned to the ranks, after so long a time.
Ensign Liu sat down at a console near the hatch. She hadn’t lagged a bit during their trek, but Everts suspected her pride kept her going more than anything. A few moments rest would not harm a thing. He began picking his way up towards the secondary bridge console, where the First Officer would have held his post. Here in one of the most protected places on the ship, things were in much better shape. The deck was straight and much cleaner. That would be a heavy weapons console, to port, with the finicky tracking screens set up in a U-shape. Electronic Warfare beside it, and Defensive Weapons across from it. The layout evidently hadn’t changed. Older, cruder, but recognizable to a man seventy years down the martial path from it.
The First Officer’s console was a massive affair, with repeater screens down each side. It would be easy to get lost in the weeds of minutiae like that, he supposed. Have to keep one’s head above it, and extract the important information from all that mess. He had to respect the kind of men who fought war that way- that took a kind of mental agility and toughness he wondered if the current generation could match.
As he stepped up, he noticed another body behind the main watch station. It wasn’t suited, from the foot he could see sticking out. Strangely shaped, it was. A club foot? Perhaps the body had been burnt somehow? The deck was clean beneath it… As he gained the top level and it came fully into view, Everts was convinced that this was not a human body at all. And not of any alien species he knew of.
Spindly forelimbs ended in three hooked claws. A narrow chest over a starving thin waist, and two backwards jointed knees. The head was completely obliterated, just a truncated stump and a pulpy mass of space-frozen flesh above. The skin of the creature was a silvery sort of green, almost like chitin in places.
The captain of the Spitfire had mentioned alien bioforms. Captain Everts was suddenly sure this was what he was looking at- though for no reason or by no supporting logic he could think of. The thing looked fast and deadly. His respect for the now dead woman rose another notch. She deserved to be remembered. Another good reason to get back to the ship.
He returned to find the Ensign tapping something out on her handheld, linked to the console she was sitting at. His was lost, tumbling somewhere out in space as far as he knew, from his wild leap off Celerity‘s hull. Liu looked up at the sweep of his suit lights and motioned him closer. He gently placed his helmet in contact with hers so he could hear.
“Captian, I think I’ve found our way out, and more. Did you know that this heavy cruiser was the Courageous, sir? I believe the ship’s logs are removable- on the rear of the main watch console. My handheld can link with the ship’s systems, but for some reason Captain Caro could not.” Ensign Liu looked down at her hand held, then back up to Everts. “Should we take them with us, sir?”
“We should indeed, Ensign. Good work.” He smiled again. “Let’s see how bulky that storage device is first, before we commit to taking it with us now. If it is too heavy, we can send a work party to return for it later. Perhaps Sergeant Woods will get some boarding practice after all.”
Liu recoiled briefly at the sight of the headless body. Pilots rarely if ever saw death up close, and today she had seen several. This one was new, but it did not deter the woman from stepping over it to the watch chair, and pointing to a yellow square near the base. Everts removed his toolkit- he still had that, if not his handheld. The Ensign was in the opposite situation- computing power, but no hand tools. Simple toggles yielded to his small prybar, and the yellow plate popped out, revealing a box the size of his doubled fists with a quick release plug on top. He removed the plug and took it out, placing it in the ammo bag he’d recovered.
“Now then. Where is this exit you’ve found us?” A flicker of shadow moved in the reflection of her helmet against his, as he saw her eyes widen. She screamed.
* * *
Captian Everts, Ensign Liu, and the crew of the Celerity will return on Monday, December 11 for further adventures. The galaxy is a dangerous place, and humanity has only recently gained a foothold into the home system, Sol. It’s scattered remnants cling to life on the edges, in the cold and remote corners they can claim with what little they’ve been able to save. The recently defeated foe appears to have fled or been destroyed- but the home system holds no safety for its long lost sons and daughters yet.
Mankind needs heroes now, more than ever.
There was a mouse sitting on his horse. As it seemed to be the day for odd happenings, Holm did not, as was his first instinct, shoo it away.
The rodent was staring at him. Intently, if such a thing could be ascribed to a rodent. Thus it was not a complete surprise when it spoke.
“Just where do you think you are going? Do not think his lordship will be pleased. Your errand is not complete.”
It had a moderate tenor voice. Not squeaky at all, in fact. And his horse, a battle-bred charger named Volney, was letting it just sit there. Odd. The knight decided to respond. Just in case. Wizards, you know. They did odd things sometimes.
“To Froglevel. And thence to Tynning.”
The little brown mouse reared up on its hind legs, looking indignant. Astonished, even. Spoiled ever so slightly by washing his paws, though. Perhaps not a wizard after all. Or maybe so. Oddness. Wizards practically oozed it.
“That is no answer!”
“Indeed it is. There was one question. And two statements. I answered the former.”
“Well! Answer me this, then. Why have you left the situation of the witch in Old Ost unfinished?”
Holm pondered. Watched the road. Late fall had come, yet the frost was late. Green grass grew, and snakeroot bloomed in defiance of the coming freeze.
“Lady Anne is no witch.”
The answers were slow coming. Holm knew they would not convince his lordship. Yet no answer else would serve justice.
“The dead sleep still beneath the stones. No plague afflicts the townsfolk, other than the usual fevers and coughs the colder night air brings. The crows do not gather, and the children are all accounted for and safe.
“Two boggarts and a young creek-spirit remain in the wilds. Tame, practically civilized. The well-water is sweet. The crops this past harvest were full, not much more or less than the last two. Old Ost is as quiet and peaceable a place as one might find, this near the border.”
“And the lady herself, sir knight? All of this is very well, but the code demands obedience. Surely you read your charge.”
He had. A curse, upon no less a personage than the Underpriest Gald himself, effected shortly after Old Ost’s contribution arrived at the local parish. Gald remained afflicted, to the best of his knowledge. And yet. And yet…
“What does the holy book say of witches, sir knight,” the mouse cajoled. “Does Saint Michael tell us to swaddle them in rushes? To anoint their brow in oil?”
“He tells us to slay them, oh mouse,” responded Holm sharply. “ ‘Suffer not their taint to remain. Dispatch them swiftly, mercifully.’ ”
“And yet the witch doth live.”
“Lady Anne is no witch, I say again. To imply otherwise is to incite a murder.”
“And to defy your lord is against the code.”
Holm was silent for a moment. The Iron Code had ruled his life for over twenty years. The men who wrote it knew about hard choices. But they also knew that men of violence must have some hard limits on what they could and could not do. Consequences had to follow action.
“The code makes demands of us greater than normal men must bear. If one can no longer in good conscience follow his lord, he must immediately return to be released from service. There is no other option.”
Volney plodded onward, unperturbed. He was a good horse. The next knight he bore would take good care of him, Holm was sure. He would have to tell him how much the greedy grey-back liked sour apples. And to keep an eye on that healing hamstring. It still gave him a twinge on cold mornings, he knew.
“Is it worth it?” The mouse twitched its nose at him, curiously. “Giving it all up, I mean.”
“It is not a question of worth, oh mouse,” he said softly. “It is a question of what is right.”
* * *
The wind sighed gently through the trees of the Wolfwood. A hint of cold carried on that breeze told of frosty mornings, and soon. Volney’s heavy gait was muffled by the pine needles and soupy fog, his usual thump-thump more of a quiet shuffle. Holm was glad of the horse’s heat this morning. Coffee had just run out and the chill when he awoke reminded him once again that he wasn’t getting any younger. Twenty years was a long time to spend in harness. The crick in his back and creak in his knees every time he donned his heavy plate made him wonder how the greybeards managed it.
The mouse-wizard- or was it wizard-mouse? no longer sat between Volney’s ears, but rode in the comfortable warm spot just ahead of the saddle. Holm had the impression it wanted to talk, but the peaceful morning remained, for now. There was a path to the ferry that was quicker than the road he left behind that led straight in to Froglevel. There was also a warm inn stable with fresh oats. The horse needed no prompting, as usual. He had been this way many times.
Crossing a gurgling stream, Volney stopped. His ears pricked forward, and he uttered soft whicker that told Holm “trouble.” After a moment, he heard it, too. It wasn’t much. A minor scuff. A rustle, quickly smothered. And silence, where a woodpecker knocked just a moment before. Something was ahead. And it did not want to be heard.
Holm slid down, and loosened his blades. His mail shirt wasn’t meant for sneaking- knights did not do much sneaking. But it was well maintained, oiled and the leather worn in and comfortable. The small sounds he did make were swallowed up by the mist as he crept up the hillside to the left.
Two scruffy looking men, one red-haired man with a bow, one dark and scarred with an axe, crouched behind a giant oak, peering carefully around it down towards the main road. There a stout figure in a long dark cloak and floppy brimmed hat was leading a mule to town. <i>An ambush,</i> Holm thought- and the quiet morning shattered as a roaring shockwave flattened the trees of the far hillside.
The bowman cursed, drew and fired swiftly. The axeman wasted no time in turning to flee- strangers that could flatten hillsides were no easy marks! His distraction proved fatal as he met his end impaled on a broadsword. The red haired man snatched a knife from his belt and threw it as he attempted to flee as well. His next two steps lasted the rest of his life.
Other bandits sprang from the woods, some heading for the figure on the road while others sprinted for wherever they thought was safe. Down on the road were sounds of battle as well. Meaty thunks and the clash of metal-on-metal echoed. Up on the hill, three more headed for the large tree where two of their fellows died. Holm stepped forward to meet them. Even three on one, they fared no better.
The end came abruptly, as most battles did. One moment he was fighting, stabbing, and slashing his way downhill, and the next there was nothing. His heartbeat slowed. Gasping breaths brought the smell of blood and human waste, all too familiar by this time. A pinch in his side, ignored ’till now, showed a dagger that somehow found its way into his mail. It came out with a trickle of blood. Oops. A twinge in his arm showed the broken shaft of an arrow. Holm sighed. Perhaps it was just as well. Getting old. Getting slow.
“My thanks for the aid, sir knight.”
The floppy brim hid gray curls and an impish grin. The woman had to be at least fifty by the wrinkles around her eyes. This fact did not seem to deter her one bit.
“It was my duty to do so, good lady. That said, I am glad I decided to take the shortcut. I’d have been too late otherwise.”
“Are we done being noisy now?” The voice came from the hillside, as Volney picked his way down. Most horses tended to go the other way if it was up to them. By now the big gray-back was quite inured to the sounds and smells.
The older lady glanced up, then back up again with raised eyebrows.
Holm shook his head.
* * *
The torturer smiled a very small smile as the broken man at last gurgled out a name. It matched the one given him by the fellow across the hall. He nodded slightly to the assistant standing ready for this moment, and began cleaning and putting away his things. It had been a tidy little operation, no muss, no fuss. A trifle boring, even.
<i>No matter, </i> he told himself. It wouldn’t do for things to become too interesting. As a professional, he prided himself on getting results and doing so in a methodical, workmanlike manner. The sadist was far too likely to go to excesses in his zeal. Better to leave such business to men like himself, who viewed their work only as a necessity and just got on with it.
Besides. A bit of professional pride was a good thing to have.
He rolled up his tool-bag and picked it up. Just in time, too. Out in the hall, the last one was being dragged out. A fresh room awaited, and too, his next project.
Inside that chamber was a hanging table. Ingenious in its design, he thought, it allowed the subject to be raised and lowered, or tilted at any angle needed. There was a stool at just the right height, and a small table for his tools. Bright light filtered in through small high windows, and something akin to a small blacksmith’s forge sat at the back wall. This would be his starting point today.
“Bring me number fifty-three, if you please, gentlemen.”
The guards stationed outside the door would see to it. Efficient fellows. The short one did not seem to like his job, the taller one appeared to enjoy it entirely too much. Using the two of them together made for a happy medium. Not too brutal, not too soft. Just right.
The torturer laid out his tools, and stretched. Much of his work required careful concentration. It was easy to become stiff. It would not do to rush a job simply because one became uncomfortable.
As he finished up he found fifty-three being fastened down already. Now that was a fine thing, indeed. Almost.
“Not so tight on the leg strap. The left one. He will need proper blood flow down there. The subject is an old man, and his veins are particular.” This is why one always had a professional on hand for these sorts of things.
The guards left the room. A bit of muttering, but that was to be expected. No one liked being reprimanded, no matter how well deserved. Perhaps he would consider calling on the cooks to deliver some ale at the end of the shift. A bit of a thank-you. They were quite good in most cases.
“Now then. There will be no point in introductions here. You will, I am sure, only think of me as ‘the torturer.’ This is to be expected in your position. I know much about you already.”
The old man glared back silently. This is what he had been hoping for. A challenge. A man with some steel in his spine, not some mewling damsel or wretch sobbing before the knife was even revealed. The subject’s eyes flicked up towards the windows, then back.
“By all means, I do bid you to dream of escape. Hope keeps a man alive.”
He stood and walked out of the subject’s view. Pumped the bellows a few times, and hummed softly to himself. A children’s rhyme, it was. It also helped him keep time while he heated the coals.
“I already know you have no children, sir knight. Are you, in fact, considered still a knight, even at your advanced age?”
Wispy white hairs stirred atop the old man’s head as he pumped the bellows patiently. Not long.
“Not that it matters, of course. All men break under torture. Kings and queens, too, they are only human.”
It only took moments to heat the irregular lump of steel to a dull, wheat-gold glow. Too hot, and the burn was over too quickly. Too cool and it blistered. Just the right heat was required to linger for a long time after . He wanted to take his time with this one. He picked up the carefully shaped tool with the tongs, and allowed the old man to look at it for a moment. Anticipation was as much a tool as any knife.
“Men and metal share some properties between them, I have come to believe.”
He slammed his fist into the subject’s stomach and quickly applied the heat to his left elbow. The old man’s jaw clenched and his muscle flattened gut quivered, but he did not cry out. Not until the torturer quickly wrapped the man’s own arm around the hot metal.
It was a small cry, more of a hoarse shout than anything. But it was progress.
“Too much heat, too much stress and, man or metal becomes brittle, prone to shatter. A flash that comes and goes quickly is quickly forgotten. But steadily applied, even steel becomes weak. Even knights.”
He slowly rolled up his tools, mostly unused. One step at a time.
“Oh by the way. Did you know that precious young girl, Lady Ann, was it? Did you know that she was recently found out to be guilty of witchcraft?
“Such a terrible shame, sir knight. And did you know who they sent to do the deed? Shall I tell you?”
He bent down to whisper in the subject’s ear. This was too good not to apply a little theater.
“It was Sir Holm. Your protege of decades past, was he not? Twenty years of fine service. Never one to go for half-measures, was he? Bloody Holm, they call him in the East. Maschak Kur, they call him in Ghor- the taker of heads. The beast-men of Jeoulais use his name to frighten children to this day..”
The old man laughed. It was the loud, booming laugh of the man he had been, before age had withered him away. Its echoes frightened birds outside the high windows, setting them to flight. After a time he tired himself, through pain and mirth. He as reduced to chuckling coughs and labored breathing before long.
“Fool…” he muttered. “Holm will be the death of you and your schemes.”
The torturer signaled the guards to take him away. He gave instructions on how to secure number fifty-three with one arm being slowly crippled. It was not quite as he’d hoped, but still and all there was time. Time to begin again, and wear away that gem of hope he had inadvertently given away. With that pleasing thought, he took himself home to dine, and to sleep. All in all, it had not been a bad day.
It was not quite dawn when a runner summoned him back to work. Unusual. The next subject was not scheduled to be installed until next week.
The problem was in the cells. A subject had died, they said. Which one, the runner did not know. Well. They <i>were</i> here to die after all. Eventually. Most of them had long since been nearly wrung out.
Something akin to dread began working its way up his spine when he was taken to the East wing. Surely not…
But it was. Somehow, fifty-three managed to slice his wrist open, and had quietly bled to death in the night. The rictus on his bearded face would look like death to most men. To a professional, however, it looked like triumph. He would <i>have</i> to find another like this one. Already, ideas were coming to him on how to prolong the process, squeeze ever more information out in careful, measured doses.
It was not often that steel of such temper could be found, after all. It would be… good to test himself so again. They may only be men, but such men…!
* * *
“That was no ordinary man, I tell you! ‘Twas a beast, aye, a beast- with teeth of steel!”
The men with hastily bandaged wounds muttered agreement, and a few otherwise. Pedigar marked those men who, though unharmed, agreed. They would need watching in the coming days. He considered his response carefully. His firm supporters were too few just yet. He might need some of these weak men and women in the coming days. For a while anyway.
“Beast or man, I will agree that he’s dangerous.”
Some shouted. Some cursed. Pedigar stared down at the smaller man. Orrid was his name, a sorry name for a sorry, scrawny, cross-eyed, fumble-fingered excuse for a rogue. So what if others said he was the best tracker for leagues. It wasn’t like there weren’t any others.
“Dangerous enough a beast to murder us all, asleep in our beds- or awake and armed! Best we be away from this place. And soon. Whatever coin that pasty-faced ghoul gave poor dead Igvard, it wasn’t enough.”
The bigger man twitched, but stopped himself in time. It wouldn’t do to let on he’d filched Igvard’s pouch in the chaos of the fight.
“Think we should do that, hey? Give up an’ turn tail, just like that?” The old bandit’s voice was low and dangerous. The tracker matched him stare for stare, though, for all his lack of inches.
“Yeah he killed poor old Igvard. And Nance, and Snag, and Fits. There was that witch, too, bitch that blew the hill down on us. Was her that got Uvog.” He broke off his glare, looking at the tattered band around him. Ilyn fingered her knives, staring at the dirt. Her man hadn’t showed yet, who knew if he even lived. Black bearded Mox stood with his thick arms folded, nonplussed. The mood was sour, and dark.
“But we ain’t some soft-faced townies. Ain’t no slope-browed farm oafs.
* * *
The bubbling pot smelled faintly of tomatoes. And rosemary. That old iron cauldron had held many things over the years- stew, mostly, but occasionally libations of great strength and potency. Or scrying portals, as this one was just a moment ago. A failed scrying portal, that is.
Annie Poth stirred, licking her blistered fingertips. They were good hands, her mother had said. Ladylike. Feminine. No cause to go digging about in the soil like a common farmwife, said she. Or casting portals in the soup kettle. She shook her head, banishing memories. Wouldn’t do to spoil her dinner as well.
“Still missing, I presume?” The voice was gentle in its power. You could get away with that, if you were strong enough to knock over castle walls, but chose not to. That is to say, if you were a dragon. Annie brushed her dark hair back out of her eyes, and kept stirring. Gently, not sloshing madly about.
Well. Perhaps a little firmly, but still.
“My child is quite the curious one. It is quite likely he’s off chasing rabbits down their holes. Or catching frogs. Or-”
“Or, and this is most likely, he’s gone and gotten himself into trouble. Again. I cannot see how you can be so calm about this. He is your only child, godmother!”
The godmother in question harrumphed, and rustled her leathery wings. Being scolded by someone a tenth her own age and even less than that in weight was not exactly a novel experience. The slim brunette’s blue gaze flicked up at her, then back to her stew. She exhaled gustily.
“I must apologize. It is just that I looked forward to meeting him so.” And she had. Oh, the tales godmother told of the little sprat were heartwarming and amusing, yes, but it was clear how tenderly his mother felt towards him. How proud.
Dragons bore young but rarely in their long lives. Each one was precious. And valuable, to many an evil man who would use them to further his power. Men like the black sorcerers of Kusaela. Or the followers of the witch-god, Bokor. Every infant and child was therefore protected. And hidden.
“While I cannot see him with your sight, I know he is alive. Perhaps when you have children of your own…”
“Not likely. And I see you trying to distract me from my worry.” She lifted the ladle to taste. Almost ready. Perhaps a touch more salt.
“Only because it is without point. I see you trying to avoid our other difficulty, as well.” Annie scowled. The thought *had* occurred to her. It wasn’t pleasant to know that one was under suspicion of being a witch. No matter how little evidence there was to support it, some would believe simply because it was convenient for them to do so.
“You know and I know that I did not curse the Underpriest. Any fool with enough sense to pour water out of a boot could tell that much.” The knights of St. Michael were no fools. There were lords, yes, and those with influence over such who could credibly be called much worse. That left the question, though. Who was actually behind the curse? Who would benefit the most from both the curse and the incertitude over her own status?
The timing was far too convenient.
Surely none of the high nobility in the Copper Kingdoms would be involved. The backlash once the charge was disproved would damage them far more. Yet how would a foreign agent provocateur manage to plant the idea in the mind of Lord Toreaval?
“Ahem.” Anne looked down just in time to catch the stew bubbling over the edge of the pot. With a soft growl she swung the pot away from the fire on its arm, sloshing some of the contents onto the dirt. Just in time, too. It smelled lovely, not burnt. At least, not yet.
“Thank you godmother.” She dabbed away the spots on her long skirt where the stew speckled the fabric.
“It is a good thing we are on the road, and not at home. Your lady mother would be most displeased.”
“She will be even more so when she finds I sent the men on ahead to town. It’s not ladylike to be without an escort, you know.” She laughed. Percival was a good soul, and the fellows he brought with him were stout-hearted lads. They were none of them too keen on sticking around while the lady cast so much as a rushlight, however.
“I was just thinking. Whoever or whatever cursed our Underpriest and cast suspicion on me will know soon that their ploy failed, at least where I am concerned. And that I am coming to town to see what aid I can lend to him. They will act again, I am sure of it.”
“Oh indeed. I almost hope they do.” Huge talons flexed, and a wicked gleam could be seen glittering in her godmother’s eye. Woe be unto the foe that caused her ire.
It was a small ship. Petite, even, measured against the mighty bulk of her sisters in death.
Huge battleships, kilometers long, holding tens of thousands of souls as they lived and tried to hold back the tide that would eventually sweep Jupiter colony, Mars, and eventually Earth itself into the pages of history. Of thirty trillion men, women, and children, the barest tithe were evacuated. Here in the old homeworld’s moon’s highest orbit was the graveyard of the home fleet. The pride of mankind stood here, stood in the teeth of oblivion and died.
Died damned hard, hard enough to save that tithe, hard enough to allow the remnants to get away. To rearm, rebuild, and return to drive the invader out, and reclaim what once was theirs. The Battle of Ceres was merely days old, and scout ships had been dispatched to discover the fate of those they had left behind. The tiny ship amidst these giants was a puzzle, one Captian Everts was determined to solve.
“Boarding team approaching the target vessel, Captain.” The ensign could hardly be considered young. Young in service, perhaps, but her skill and tenacity had won her a commission in this young fleet. Everts was a product of that system himself, poached from the merchant service before the stardust was even off the refugee fleet’s boots.
“Let’s see what that have to say. Battered as she is, I’m surprised her hull isn’t cracked. I wonder-”
“Power reading!” Ensign Liu barked as automatics slammed shield generators to full power and thrusters rammed the ship on a random vector to avoid the threat-
That never materialized.
“It’s coming from the ship, sir. The little one. It’s… barely even reading. Hell, the boarding team are practically touching the hull.” Everts glanced at the plot, noting that ‘practically touching distance’ was on the order of just under a kilometer. Which in ship-to-ship combat it was. That close, and you were either docking, or ramming.
“Boarding team to Celerity.” The grizzled marine sergeant sounded bored. But then, he always did, even when the ship rang like a drum to incoming fire…
“Got a weak signal from the target. Cannot refine. Retransmitting.” Short, and to the point, as always. At a nod from the ensign, he confirmed receipt.
“We’re on it. Let’s see what they have to tell us, eh?” A few short moments later, the AI recognized the apparently ancient civilian coding and a strange feminine voice echoed through the bridge.
“This is Spitfire to any remaining Terran ships. Do not approach. Alien bioform onboard. Destroy this ship at safe distance. Do not approach under any-” Gunfire punctuated the recording. The sound of tortured metal screeching, followed by a clang and a thud, then silence that lasted for almost a minute. The recording did not stop there.
“To hell with this. This is Spitfire actual. I’ve set the reactor protocols to overload. We’re running dirty red over here. Turns out the bugs don’t like it any more than we do, but the nanite packages survive. I’d recommend dropping this hull in the sun if you can. To the best of my knowledge, none of the other wrecks are infected. Not unless they seeded them after they killed me, that is.
“Don’t have much time.” The voice was growing weaker. A cough rattled wetly in the speaker’s throat as she continued, “Destiny still has supplies if you’re scavving. I heard there were some cryopods seen drifting in the deep dark, back in the Oort cloud. Who the hell knows where they are by now. Courageous has some intact sensor logs, but I can’t read them. Damned military encryption.”
“If you’re human, good luck to you. Damn bugs are taking over all our real estate, but we’ll kick ’em in the teeth before long, you’ll see. Did what I could here.” Cough, rattle. “Don’t none of y’all give up now, y’hear? Humanity’ll be back. We look after our own.” The fading voice was a whisper now.
“Always thought I’d get to see that big, bright light as they blew me away. Heh. That’s irony for ya. Anyway. Last call. This is Captain Lisa Caro, Spitfire 851-FC. Signin’ off now.” And with a click, she was gone.
Captain Everts stroked his shaggy black beard and sighed. Just one story among many. No less poignant for that.
“Boarding team, break off. That ship’s contaminated. We’ll pick you up.” Two clicks was his only reply.
He looked down at his bridge console as if seeing it for the first time. Plot images danced in the tank. Technical readouts hovered, telling him the drives were healthy and fuel was nominal. Defensive weapons and shields were back on standby, as were the tiny throw-weight in missiles and cannon. A smooth running machine, crewed by the best there was in the fleet- at least he thought so. The best of the last.
“I want to know,” he said slowly, “what happened here. Every damned thing. Go active. If a mouse farted here in the last fifty years, I want to know what he ate for dinner. Get me a fix on when this happened, and we’ll take a hop outsystem to see what the old light has to tell us.” No one argued.
* * *
Scout commands were granted wide latitude on hunting missions like this one. Preliminary reports were already on the way, courtesy of compressed log notes via the tanglenet. Slow, for instantaneous values of slow- around 80 baud, much too slow for I voice, but sufficient for sending terse, preplanned codes. Receiving rate was much higher, as the sending units on large vessels were much more powerful. They could, technically, send real-time voice. But in practice, the system was almost always split between multiple outgoing data streams.
Admiral Garns wasn’t one to micromanage his people, though. Nor was Captain (Scouts) Rikardson- the very same man who, as a Lieutenant recruited Everts and a good many others.
“Boarding team reacquired, sir.”
“Very good. Tell the good sergeant we will likely be needing his men again soon. Have the Archives send us what they’ve got on a Terran ship ‘Courageous.’ Then let us see what sensors can tell us.” The ship shuddered as the boarding shuttle jacked back down into the hull, sealing with a heavy clank. From the outside it would appear no different from the rest of the angular hull, its plating just as thick on the forward and dorsal sides.
“Sensor batteries charged, sir. Ready to fire on your mark.” Active radiation, from old fashioned radar to gravimetric and quantum ghost sensing equipment, was the scouts’ bread and butter. But it was dangerous, at least in normal circumstances. A scout going active was ‘bright’ to passive sensors. Like those found on missile heads. Nothing in space was hidden, unless blocked by a planet or the like. But the deep black was huge, and unless you were looking in the right place at the right time, things were missed.
Active scanning flooded local space with multi-band radiation, lighting up anything and everything in range. It took time for sensors to refine the chaos of battle, time that might mean things slipped by. Again, little things- like missiles. But once that process was completely underway, and the powerful intelligent systems got to work paring down the noise, every whisker twitch would stand out like a candle in a dark room.
The basso shockwave that rattled the deck and accompanying lash of power did attract attention. This time, ensign Liu was already on the ball, twisting the ship away at the speed of thought. Evert’s eyes flicked to the plot as near real time data flowed in. Massive railguns were firing, deep in the debris field. Lasers stabbed out, igniting shattered hulls and sending them tumbling wildly.
Celerity danced through the firestorm, avoiding what she could. Liu was fully immersed in the scout ship, her trained muscle memory desperately twisting and spinning, but no amount of skill, no speed could save her from everything. Gigawatt lasers clawed at her shields as bits of scrap scraped her hull. Suddenly a massive, U-shaped block of blackened metal highlighted in her enhanced vision. She dove towards it without question.
In fleet level actions, a scout had but one ploy to survive once she pulsed her active sensors. Find something big and tough- and hide behind it. Broken frigates, shattered moons, nickel-iron asteroids, pretty much anything with the mass to stop a missile or railgun slug was preferred. Scout ships were not meant fight it out with anything. In most fleet actions, they were too tiny to matter much either way. But incoming fire did not discriminate. The scouts had but one other advantage- speed. Speed to get away, to duck, dodge, and avoid until they were, relatively, safe.
Sometimes, it even worked.
Note these are mini-chapters one and two. Three is in process. Also, for those who asked, Holm is in process as well. I’ll update once there’s enough to post, and a decent stopping point. For the story, that is.
Because the Fates have a bloody awful sense of humor.
Working an eclectic schedule, picked up another job the very *day* I started this blog, and sleep has become an addiction I can’t satiate. Naps are crack. A full night’s rest, if you could package and sell it I’d be a junkie in a heartbeat. Even though I don’t touch alcohol, don’t smoke, and won’t snort, shoot up, or inhale those quaintly termed recreational substances my fellow humans seem so enamored of.
My moonshiner ancestors must be damned disappointed in me.
Anyways, stand by, ye passers by. Bide. Keep yer head down, and keep on keepin’ on. Down here in the mud a soul’s got to make the best of things he can. Peace.