God and Mind - Volume II - Revolution
Presented by: Xenogears: God and Mind
The three men, in their patched and faded blue tunics, were indistinguishable in the crowd that thronged the dusty road half a mile from the impressive sandstone walls of Bledavik. All three of them were strong looking: one in his late 20’s and two who looked about 18. All three had long black hair, which two of them wore in pony tails and the other... one of the younger men, wore long and loose in a flowing mass. They looked like strongly bred Aveh workmen, coming to the capital on a commission for an aristocrat; an illusion which was enhanced by the heavy packs and tools they were all carrying.
“Is this necessary?” Fei growled. The leather strap that held the pick to his back was digging into his neck, and the tightly rolled pack of clothes was making his arm ache in the hot sun.
“Quite necessary, no one would ever think we’re anything but common laborers.” Citan glanced critically from their own costumes to those of true laborers. “Stop a minute.”
Obediently, Bart and Fei stopped their trudging and followed Citan off the road, into the scrubby trees and sandy desert dunes that bordered it. The doctor led them past a thicket to a heap of powdery sand, out of sight of the multitude.
“What’s the problem...” Bart began.
“Our disguise is...” Before he could finish, Citan had seized him in a judo throw and hurled him to the sand. A moment later, Fei found himself flying through the air to land beside the prince, who was enthusiastically spitting out bits of desert.
“Wha... wha... what... for?”
“Not dusty enough,” replied Citan, rolling forward into the sand so that a film of fine brown dust covered his clothes.
“You could have just told us,” Bart protested, but his only reply was a mischievous grin. Citan could be extremely petty at times.
They rejoined the thronging crowd suitably dusty, but Citan needn’t have bothered. Numerous cars, Land Crabs, and other forms of transport whizzed past them, kicking up clouds of dust. They were shouldered and jostled, as the road narrowed to a gap in the wall. Fei felt hot and alone; only the presence of Bart and the doctor kept him from slinking off the crowded road, and into golden obscurity in the desert. The air was heavy with the stench of petrol and sweat, but at long last the huge thickness of the sandy wall was past and he could breathe as the crowd dispersed.
“Now we get to the citadel,” muttered Bart, his newly dyed dusty hair falling over his eyes in sweaty disorder.
“Is it always this crowded?” Fei wondered, picking at the hot pavement with the toe of one scuffed boot.
“No.” Citan frowned, scanning the crowd that thronged the narrow shaded streets. “There must be something going on...”
“I’ll find out,” Bart offered, and he strode off into the crowd.
Fei cringed inside; he had never been a spy before, and wasn’t sure he liked it. It seemed that everyone was looking at him. Suppose Bart made a slip and they got arrested. But the long, rangy pirate was striding in a straight line, towards a woman cloaked in a simple dress of blue and white, plain and unfrilled. Fei leaned forward, and could hear the young prince’s words through the hum of the crowd.
“Excuse me Sister, my friends and I are new in Bledavik and we’d like to know what’s going on.”
“It is the Bledavik festival,” she answered, her plain face disinterested. But she looked more closely at Bart, and her eyes seemed to light up. That’s it, Fei thought. They’d been recognized, and the hunt was up. But the woman only continued to study Bart’s face with bright eyes and a look of wonder. “The festival begins tomorrow in the castle courtyard. Even the Prime Minister himself will be there; he always is. He instituted the festival just after he took over from the king. The year Prince Bartholomew died.” Her eyes winked significantly as she said Bart’s name, but she gave no other sign. Bart too, looked hardly troubled by her knowing look; his lean tanned face under its blackened pony tail seemed more pleasantly surprised than shocked.
“If you would be so kind, Holy Sister. I was wondering if there was a chapel nearby. My friends and I would like to continue our devotion.” The woman Fei now recognized as a nun looked across at Fei and Citan with a knowing smile.
“If you would all follow me, I will lead you to a place of sanctuary.” Without another word the woman turned, but Fei felt unsure: how could they trust this woman who they’d never seen before?
“Erm... excuse me, Sister, but, where... who?” Surreptitious questions weren’t one of Fei’s talents. Bart looked back at Fei and frowned furiously.
“Come on, Fei. We’ll need God’s help in our endeavors.” Obediently Fei shut up, and blindly followed Bart and the nun, with Citan hovering in the crowd behind him.
The nun and Bart led the way through the hot, narrow and crowded streets; dim, sandy buildings rearing up on either side like the walls of canyons. Before dim shops, traders spread their wares in glittering profusions. Some desert dwellers watered horses at a well. Cars and Land Crabs fought for dusty space with milling people of all classes and many races. Bledavik, the capital of Aveh, was a whole new world to the village-raised Fei. Here and there in the golden brown dusty light were signs of the upcoming festivities. Venders were selling bunting or flowers. Large advertisements were everywhere.
“Grandmaster Marvel, Aveh's best Fortune teller. Discover the future only at the festival”
“Dragon-jaws, expert fire-eater and sword swallower, permorming in the castle courtyard at 3pm.”
“Grand fighting Tournament, any style! No firearms. All combatants welcome. Grand cash prizes!”
On one street corner, Fei saw a baker arguing with three people in the costume of laborers, trying to hire help for the next day’s big sales.
After a half hour’s walk through this strange, sandy city, the nun turned into a dusty courtyard and the noise and crowds were instantly shut out behind large wooden gates. In the courtyard was set a beautifully symmetrical flowerbed, with a fountain flowing invitingly in the center. A few stone benches ringed the courtyard. As they entered, their guide gestured for them to sit. Fei was glad to obey, and taking off his pack and homespun blue jacket he leaned gratefully against one wall.
Fei looked about in interest. The house was not large, but it was low and pleasant, built of the same sandy stone as the rest of the city. Set to one side was a small chapel, with a slight spire that reached over the high walls that surrounded the house.
“Well sister, how’d ya do it?” asked Bart a little angrily, his bad grammar seeming to give his words a common rustic threat. The nun seemed perplexed. She sat down demurely on one of the benches and folded her hands on her lap.
“Recognize you? Your Highness, your cousin has had a picture of you on her dressing table for the last 7 years, and even if she hadn’t, I’ve seen you enough to recognize you.” Bart’s shoulders slumped.
“Well, that’s it, then. When do Shakhan’s guards arrive?” He slammed a hand down on the stone bench exasperatedly. “If you recognized me, what about Shakahn’s spies!?” he half shouted. The calm nun cocked an eyebrow.
“Shakahn hasn’t seen you for twelve years. He might know you in royal dress and without the dye but in this...” She plucked at the dusty jacket.
“I assume that you know this lady and her order,” said Citan.
“Yeah! These are the order of nuns that are based in the Nisan Cathedral; they took care of me an’ Margie when we were kids. But I didn’t know they had a chapter in Bledavik.”
“Salvation is not limited to Nisan, Your Highness.” Bart scowled, which gave his face under its jet hair a definite villainous look. “If you don’t mind me asking, Your Highness, were you planning to attempt to rescue your cousin?”
“Yeah.” The nun leaned back and stretched out her feet.
“Well, may I suggest tomorrow as a good time? Shakhan and all his guards will be at the festival.”
“Say, that’s a thought... Nab Margie while everyone’s gawping at Dragon-jaws the fire eater!”
“Look, Bart...” Fei began nervously, casting an apologetic glance towards the demure nun. “Is it wise to...”
“Sure, She’s a member of the Nisan order, where Margie’s enrolled. They’ll help us if they can.”
“Just because we appear to be with a guerilla revolutionary movement, we do not have to assume that everyone is our enemy, Fei. Most of the general populous hate Shakhan and would be glad to welcome Bartholomew as king.” Fei nodded. Citan was right, he was being paranoid.
“Well, the festival’s at the right time, and it’s a better plan than Operation Vegetable Sack, but what kind of diversion would distract those idiots Shakhan employs as guards? A strip show maybe?” The nun frowned disapprovingly at Bart’s impiety, but Citan nodded.
“Hmm, a show of naked females may be impractical, but you’re right that we should try something that appeals to their base instincts. Some sort of threatening display, perhaps.” Bart snapped his fingers, and his grimy face lit up.
“The tournament! If we could get somebody to whoop the ass of everyone and then...” Bart’s voice trailed off and he flicked his fingers. “Act tough.” He smiled impishly. “ That’s my department. I’ll dazzle ’em with my skill.” He stood and struck a dramatic pose, looking slightly comical in his patched clothes and dusty face.
“Unfortunately not. You’re the only one of us who knows the layout of the Aveh castle. So the responsibility falls to either myself or Fei.”
“Hold on a minute, doc. We can’t expect all Shakahn’s guards to be at the tournament... and even if they are, how do we know they’ll watch?”
“Very true Fei, but I surmise that only a skeleton guard will be left to watch the princess... nothing you couldn’t handle,” replied Citan, looking confidently at Bart. The scruffy prince twirled an imaginary sward.
“You’re right there, doc! But there won’t be many guards anyway, Shakhan’s got ’em all fighting battles at the border. I doubt there’s more than a couple of companies in the whole city.” Citan nodded as if he had already suspected it.
“Well, who’s performing?” Bart asked, staring first at the tall athletic doctor, then at the smaller, but no less lithe form of Fei.
“Well... you always won the village tournaments, Fei, and I haven’t fought for years.”
“Doc! Me!?” Bart nodded, brushing dark strands away from his forehead.
“Just pretend you’re in a Gear.”
“You’ll be fine!” Bart assured him.
Fei felt despondent; fighting in a small village boxing match was one thing, but this was the capital of Aveh, and there would probably be hundreds watching.
“On the contrary, I believe this task is well within your capabilities, Fei. I will remain in the crowd just in case.” And that was that.
Fei stared moodily around the garden and kicked at the grass with his scuffed dusty boot. The sun rolled in the sky like a giant spotlight, picking out the small dusty group of conspirators in the center of this vast city. Fei flexed his biceps and reflected that it was for the good of his country, and anyway how could he... he who had committed so much evil, refuse just because he had a little stage fright?
“Alright, I’ll do it.”
* * * * *
The crowd around the arena was busy. They pressed as close as possible, waiting for the event of the day to start. They had marveled at the fire eaters, heard the false promises of the fortune tellers, had stuffed their innards with pies and hot dogs and all sorts of junk food, and now, they wanted to see a fight. Though the heat was intense in the bare court that stood in front of the massive sandstone castle, nobody seemed to mind. Bunting and flags hung limp in the windless desert air and the heat haze gave the whole crowd the look of a dream.
In a box high above the common folk, Shakahn sat with the Gebler officers by his side. He sat in his red cloak, sweat shining on his bald pate. In one corner, a troop of gayly dressed dancers kicked plumes of dust off the stones with their polished sandals, while a banjo player played a strangely atonal dance tune above a deep drone.
Citan recognized the tune: the Yggdrasil march arranged as a dance tune, the ancient national anthem of Aveh, depicting the tree of life in all it’s glory. The doctor (once more dressed in his favorite militaristic jacket and trouser) smiled at the cloaked figure beside him.
“Good old tune.”
Bart didn’t reply, setting his face into a scowl of concentration. He was covered head to foot in a long black cloak that hid all the details of his favorite costume. He had insisted on wearing the red ornate jacket and blue satin shirt, and on bleaching his newly dyed hair back to its original blonde.
“I can wear a coat or something. I want Margie to recognize me.”
“It is not the princess recognizing you that I’m worrying about,” Citan had replied nervously, as they had stood with the nun in the courtyard of the chapter house.
“So what? The guards’ll know who beat ’em. We’ll be away before I’m recognized!”
Oh well, Citan thought, you couldn’t account for youthful exuberance. And it would boost his reputation if the populous of Aveh knew that it had been the prince himself who rescued Shakhan’s captive. They watched indifferently as several combatants carried out mediocre fights with various weapons, as the crowd roared around them.
“Here he comes,” Citan hissed in Bart’s ear as a figure in green trousers and white shirt appeared on the platform. Fei had practically refused to change his costume, saying that he would fight better if he was comfortable. The only concessions to weaponry were the steel-tipped engineer boots on his feet. The light at the other end of the arena flicked on, the crowd murmured expectantly, and then Fei’s opponent stepped into the ring: a twisted green goblin figure with long arms and a huge knotted club.
The bell rang and the mutant advanced on Fei; its arms loose, the club ready. Fei stood perfectly still, his heavy boots planted firmly on the sun-warmed stone, waiting for an opportunity. The thing swung its club in a wild, powerful arc, but Fei had been expecting it. He seized the wrist and attempted to throw the beast, but the weight of the squat body was too much for him. The beast wrenched its arm free and howled in triumph, its club whistling down. Fei rolled aside and came to his feet, then jumped lightly forward, one foot coming up to slam into the creature’s chest. It flew backwards as if hit by a gun, slamming into one of the low barriers. Fei stood smiling at the crowd, waving one hand languidly. People roared their appreciation, stomping and cheering. Fei felt like a fool with everybody’s eyes on him, but he posed, flexing his biceps, waiting for his next opponent.
The rules of the tournament were simple: combatants would fight (until one was unable to battle), then the winner would stay on until the next opponent was available. The combatants would be judged on their endurance and a winner selected at the day’s end. So Fei stood watchful as the doors opened to admit his next opponent.
The boy who dashed into the ring was familiar: his disorganized red hair tangled in a mass, his disorganized clothing now powdered with dust. He walked forward with his fists raised, thumbs tucked on top of his fingers the way Fei had taught him.
“Dan!” Fei exclaimed. He stared at his one time little brother with tears in his eyes. Dan stared back, his own face twisting with hate.
“Fei! I’ll kill you... you bastard!!” With an inarticulate yell the furious boy flung himself at Fei. Fei stood still as if stunned while Dan’s wild fist cracked into his chest. It was not a powerful blow, only an angry one. But as Fei stood still, unmoving, Citan turned to Bart, his face disappointed.
“That’s torn it. Dan lived in Lahan. I don’t think Fei has the psychological equipment to deal with fighting him.” But Citan, for all his wisdom, was wrong. Fei may not have had the indifference necessary to attack Dan, but he was well past his suicidal faze. As Dan rushed him again, his right hand whirling in an uppercut Fei himself had taught him, Fei moved with eye-baffling speed. As the furious boy swung his fist, Fei jumped aside and Dan stumbled, almost falling. He struggled to regain his feet for an instant, but Fei did not attack; he only watched. Then Dan was up and charging again like an angry bull. Fei swung aside again, backing towards one of the wooden barriers that bordered the stone arena.
Dan charged him again, murder in his black eyes; a murder that Fei deserved - but Fei had a job to do for new friends, a purpose that could not be shaken. He swayed aside once more as the furious Dan leapt, but he was too light. With a meaty thud, his red-haired skull connected with the barrier and he fell stunned to the stone. Fei was breathing hard and fast. His eyes misted; once more he had caused pain to a friend. The sun streaming down on the arena only seemed to warm his skin; his inside was cold. He stood looking at Dan’s unconscious body until two attendants dragged it away. Light glinted off a golden jewel in a lady’s costume, and Fei was reminded of the flickering flames that destroyed his home. Then suddenly a mocking voice, hard and arrogant, hit him hard.
“Turn yourself around Cat, it’s no fair if I weigh in while ya not ready!”
Fei spun around to see a tall, strikingly handsome man in a long red trench coat, jitterbugging his way onto the arena.
“Name’s Big Joe -- daddio. Let’s get this show on the road!” Without warning, the man lunged forward in an elegant slamming chop with one long hand. Fei couldn’t have hoped to avoid the blow, but he was able to deflect it onto the hard muscle of one shoulder. Still, it sent him sprawling. The man swayed from foot to foot, and Fei was able to see that under the coat he wore a white jumpsuit and a pair of strange light shoes made of blue suede. “Thank you very much.” He turned to the crowd, pulling out some sunglasses and flourishing them onto his face.
“You’re beautiful!” A section of the audience started chanting “Joe! Joe! Joe! Joe!”
Fei staggered to his feet and circled around the man who was still jitterbugging and blowing kisses. He started to tense his body for a spring at the man’s back, when something small and hard hit him in the forehead. He picked it up: it was a coin. More started to hit him and he backed away.
“Get out of here!” a couple of the crowd members screamed. He edged away from the barriers as, to his astonishment, several items of feminine underwear flew through the air to land at Joe’s feet. Who was this guy?
Deciding that he had had enough of the crowd’s attention, Joe turned to deal with Fei, walking purposefully forward. Fei waited, and sure enough, the big man tried the same elegant chop again. This time however, Fei was ready. He caught the wrist and twisted it, hurling Joe onto the stone. Then he jabbed downwards at the man’s throat, his fingers finding the carotid artery and pressing it. When he stepped away from the body, Joe lay still and unconscious.
“Now’s your chance, go!” Citan hissed in Bart’s ear as the crowd went wild over Joe. “If I had known that this man was so well beloved by the crowd, I wouldn’t have asked Fei to fight. ...Go!”
“What about you?” Citan shook his head.
“I must watch over Fei. If you need us, call.”
Bart nodded, tapping the small radio in his pocket, then as Fei’s fist smashed into Joe’s throat, he was off; threading his way behind the crowd, up the huge age-worn steps and through the huge studded door of the Aveh castle.
Fei looked over to where Bart and Citan had sat. The doctor was there, thumbs entwined into his red sash, but Bart was gone. Fei felt relieved; he had done it - his mission had succeeded. He felt a sense of relief flood his face with joy, so he grinned as he faced the crowd. But then the bell rang, signifying the next competitor to enter the ring.
Fei turned and ducked into a fighting crouch, his brown eyes intent. It didn’t matter now, he could lose with knowledge that he had succeeded; and as each opponent was harder than the one before, he would probably lose anyway, but he didn’t care, his job was done.
The doors opened, and a man in flowing dark blue stepped into the arena. The crowd’s roar hushed as they watched the new fighter expectantly. He was a tall man, draped in a cloak the color of deep evening skies. Over his face was an ornamental blue mask, and on each slender hand was a gauntlet of the same infinite color. He looked steadily into Fei’s hot brown eyes, his own eye holes in the mask leading into a sad darkness.
“I am called Wiseman.” His voice was deep and ponderous, like the voice of a statue. Fei stood slowly, feeling that this opponent was somehow different. He felt unworthy and filthy in his thick engineer boots.
“Who... who are you?” he asked almost tremulously.
“A warrior,” the deep voice replied without changing tone.
“So am I,” replied Fei flippantly, feeling a little put out by the seeming boast.
“No, you are not. You fight and you may win, but you are not a warrior.”
Fei felt an emotion stir in his that he never expected to feel again, a dark yet sun bright pride in his own abilities. For the moment, he forgot what those abilities had done to his home; he could only remember the man in red and the club wielder falling to the floor under his blows. If he had to fight, he would do it well.
“I’ll show you.”
Fei’s heavy boots clanked on the sun-dusted stone as he charged at the figure, one hand whipping forward in a vicious karate punch at Wiseman’s midriff. He was expecting a block, or an evasion; his overheated brain whirled with a million stratagems for further combat. What he didn’t expect was for the masked man to sit and take it. Fei’s fist hammered into him, but Wiseman didn’t even flinch.
“Is that your best? You are strong and fast, true, but such qualities can be found in any brawling idiot. You have no purpose, and that is why you will never defeat a truly dedicated opponent.”
“I do have purpose!” Fei almost shouted, reduced to words now that blows had failed. The infinitely dark, sad eyes behind the blue ornamental mask seemed to glint with a kind of calm, impassive amusement, like a wizard whose apprentice thinks he knows all magic after a day.
“Why do you fight?” the calm voice asked conversationally. Fei stood tall, remembering the photograph of the brown-haired girl in Bart’s room and how Bart’s blue eyes had misted when he looked at it.
“My reasons are my own.”
“You have none, and without reason you are just a wild animal destroying things and people at random, no match for a real reasoning being.”
It was as if the enigmatic blue figure had looked into Fei’s mind and found the perfect insult. The flames and fury of Lahan, temporarily banished, returned with redoubled force.
Fei ran at the figure again, head down, fists pumping. But it was as if he had struck fog. Wiseman didn’t seem to move, but suddenly, Fei found that he was a half meter left of his target. He leaped in a crushing kick, but once again, it was as if he had veered right, and he had to drop quickly to prevent himself from falling.
The crowd loved this, staring at Wiseman and shouting, chanting his name. But Wiseman seemed hardly distracted. As the furious Fei launched attack after wild attack, missing by each time though his opponent didn’t seem to move, Wiseman looked distractedly into the sky, his dark eyes distant. At last Fei stood still, staring levelly at the man he could not hurt.
“Well,” he gasped, his expressive brown eyes gazing into the ornamental mask. Wiseman seemed not to hear him.
“It is that time, I must depart. Find a purpose, young Fei.” There was a quick fizz in the air, a shimmer as of a passing current of undetectable gas, and when it cleared, the arena was empty.
Fei looked around, wondering where the man had gone. Then it struck him like a hammer blow; the man had known his name, even though the name he had used in the tournament listings had been false.
“Wait... you knew me? I need to talk to you!” But it was useless: the man was gone. Fei peered around wildly as if trying to spot Wiseman, but it was no good. The person in the ring was himself, and a tournament judge, gorgeously if a little effeminately gowned in scarlet silk.
“This is highly irregular, but we must declare you the victor. However, since you did not defeat your opponent, you must leave the competition now.”
“Okay!” Fei replied helpfully, his head bemused with dust, sun and mysteries. “Who was that man?” The judge shook his head.
“We have no idea. We ask no questions of our combatants, now if you would kindly leave the ring.” Obediently, Fei stepped out of the arena. Fei walked through the milling crowd to where Citan sat, conspicuous in his almost militaristic splendor.
“Doc! It worked then?”
“Indeed, the first part was successful. But our young impetuous prince has a nasty habit of underestimating the fighting skills of others. If I were you, I would go and assist him. I will remain here and create another diversion, if necessary.”
“Okay doc, it’s my purpose.” Citan looked up, his angular eyes surprised behind the specials he had remembered to put on that morning. “... Never mind doc, I’ll go.” Fei turned before Citan could question him further; much as he liked his old teacher, grasping quick explanations was not one of his strong points. He waited until the guards were looking away, and then slipped into the castle’s huge oaken door, that easy! But the tournament had been worthwhile. His feet clanged on the stone floor of the mighty citadel, as he walked on his way to the purpose that had brought him to Bledavik.
Commander Kahran Ramsus was well and truly pissed off with Aveh, land dwellers in general, and Shakhan and his goons most of all. He leaned back in his seat and fervently wished the "Festivities" would end and he could get a shower. The stiff white cloth of his dress uniform clung stickly to his well-muscled back, and the sun was blistering his pale skin into burns. Beside him sat Miang, no less sweaty or uncomfortable, but seemingly ignorant of both facts, as she made the diplomatic conversation that was as much part of being an ambassador as coming from the country you represent.
"You admire their skill Lord Prince." It was Shakahn's aid, general Vanderkaum who spoke, a bulky taciturn seeming man who filled his blue uniform with authority and maintained a sense of mystery behind the metal mask that covered his face from eyebrows to chin. Ramsus stared at the man and tried to see the person behind the mask but it was useless. The skin of hands neck and chin was tanned and healthy, the body beneath it's gaudy blue covering muscular but not young, even the eyes that peered out from two slits in the mask were steel gray. "Some appear strong general."
"Indeed, and these are only ordinary civilians, the Aveh troops are far superior. A formidable fighting force."
"Not the equal to Gebler." Ramsus replied bluntly, letting the overheating climate and his own overheating temper get the better of him. Like a lily coated with ice, Miang looked warningly to Ramsus, trying to freeze his fury with a reminder of their mission. But she should have warned General Vanderkaum and not the bronze haired commander.
"My estimation of Gebler's abilities went down when they were defeated by a pirate - No offence meant Commander."
Ramsus stared into the general's level eyes, his own tawny animal gaze beginning to blaze like a beast at bay. "That pirate eluded your forces for eight years General, and I can tell you why, someone in that group had Jugend training and knew what he was doing."
The general's voice, already hollow from behind the steel mask became even hollower with scorn. "So you make excesses. I thought your Jugend only accepted applicants from the eugenics program."
"No! Jugend does take some non-eugenically selected applicants, even lambs if they're good enough. Two of my own graduation class were land dwellers, there have even been questions asked about Lieutenant Vanhuten's blood."
"And yourself commander, you with your mechanical gadgets and pretty weapons, are you eugenically perfect?"
Ramsus had had enough, he couldn't imagine why Shakhan's aide was needling him, perhaps Vanderkaum, exponent of purely physical warfare wanted a test of strength, well Ramsus would give him one. The dress uniform of a first Element includes a gilded sward, a slim elegant rapier with no real weight or balance but plenty of gold and polished metal. Ramsus' hand hardly seemed to flicker before the rapier's point was at the irritating general's throat. Dueling for honor was permitted in Aveh, and Ramsus fully intended to make use of that outmoded custom.
"Put your sword away Kahr." Miang ordered peremptorily, shooting a look of disdain at the pair of them.
Obediently, Ramsus sheathed his sword. Vanderkaum turned away, feeling no doubt that he had won some sort of victory but Ramsus ignored him. He sat down again beside Miang, forgoing masculinity for her superior authority.
"The truth drug is prepaired, I suggest we administer it immediately."
Shakhan, swigging down something pink and bubbly out of a glass overheard her. His swollen eyes showed that he had perhaps drank too much of the concoction than was good for him. "Go find out" He hiccupped. "Then we'll rule the world." He patted Miang's cold white hand infuriatingly.
She gave him an irritated look then turned her blue gaze back to Ramsus.
Suddenly her beauty struck him like a wave, the statuesque quality of her marble skin the flowing ease with which she moved, the sparkling blue magic of her hair. "Okay. We probably ought to do it as soon as possible, this kind of event is the perfect opportunity for a rescue attempt."
Miang nodded mutely and lead the way off the box. With one last contemptuous glance back at the Aveh aristocracy Ramsus followed her. What fools they were, drunken lay abouts no strength or stamina. There was only one true aristocracy and that was the aristocracy of talent and superior genes, the aristocracy of Solaris. And when he had the twin to the gilded half circle of bronze that hung about his neck, and the treasure it lead to, that aristocracy would be one step closer to achieving it's goal.
* * * * *
Bart remembered the layout of the castle well, true it was 12 years since he had been there since he was about five or six. But he closed his mind, not wanting to open it to the flood of painful memories that would bring. Once again he was rescuing Margie, but this time he would need no help, this time he would do more than cower in a corner and take blows. This time he would fight back and he would win.
His feet echoed on the stairs as he ran with smooth athletic ease. The gold on his jacket gleamed, and his sun bright hair flowed out behind him along with the black cloak. He looked terrifying and he knew it. But it wasn't just looks, he rested one hand on the handle protruding from the iron holster at his belt, a wooden handle attached to six feet of chain and a heavy iron ball. It was funny that his favorite weapon was a whip, a tool of punishment. Perhaps that was what it was all about, his symbolic chastisement of those who had hurt him and his family.
That Citan guy would say something about that, a real brain-box if a little absent minded.
And then all thoughts stopped as his headlong dash along the well-remembered corridor brought him into the presence of two Aveh guards in full uniform with holsters pistols and swords at their hips. But Bart had an advantage, not only were they lounging languidly on one of the heavy padded benches that littered the walls, they were also sitting with their backs to a plate glass window, directly opposite the foot of the stairs that lead to the princess's tower. A whip is not a quick drawing weapon, it was foolish of Bart perhaps not to draw it earlier, but as it happened he didn't need it.
With slackening speed he left the ground in a gazelle like leap, all the momentum of his rush behind him. With a movement as smooth as a gymnast he brought both feet forward in a double slamming kick of incredible power.
Both guards gaped cigarettes still in their mouths, then Bart's kick landed. It caught one guard on the upper chest, and he catapulted backwards, crashing through the window to summersault to the ground below. But dropped lightly onto the bench and looked down scornfully at the other guard. "Do you know who I am private?"
The man gaped, his blocky face paling, looking slightly comical with the cigarette drooping and dropping ash at his lips. "The! --- Prince!"
Bart nodded sagely. "Glad they gave you some training."
He jumped off the bench, shaking out his whip as he did so, continuing to bring out handfuls of chain even as he landed. "Now! I formally charge you with dereliction of duty, treason an---" Bart paused, partly for effect partly to think up something else. The heavy chain connected with the unfortunate guard's skull with a sound like a hammer hitting wood.
The soldier's hand fell from the hilt of his small sword, and there was an almost comical expression of surprise on his face as he joined his comrade under the window. Bart coiled the whip loosely over one arm, still gripping the polished wood haft in one hand. He held the steel ball in his other hand, couched for throwing like a cricket bowler.
A whip, he reflected could be devastating when it got going --- just like a Fatima.
He slowed as he walked up the spiral staircase, trying to keep his steps silent on the wooden treads. This was a shadowy staircase, with few windows to let in the light, and any assailant waiting on the stairs would have a clear advantage. He looked nervously over the carved wooden balustrade to the drop below, if he was knocked off he'd be dead. And what about someone coming up from behind? He shrugged out of the long dark cloak that had concealed him and hung it with incongruous neatness over the balustrade. It didn't matter that he was leaving a sign for pursuers; they would know where he was going. The stairs seemed to stretch on endlessly, step upon step dark shadow and blinding sunlight bearing across the rich wood and plaster that covered the interior.
Margie was being kept in a fine prison but a prison non-the less, and if she didn't escape Bart had no elusions of what would happen to her. So he marched through the dark and shadow, all affected proudness, a soldier with a purpose and his purpose crucial. Like a fox emerging from it's earth Bart poked his ruggedly handsome face over the top of the stairs. A gun crashed and plaster dust puffed next to his ear, like a turtle he withdrew into the safety of the stair case. There was at least one guard up there, and this one was ready.
What he needed was a diversion.
Carefully, Bart released the iron ball from his left hand and reached under his jacket to the small razer bladed knife he always kept there, just in case he was caught. With difficulty he held the knife with two fingers and raised a button with another finger, he slid the blade along, and the button came away clinking onto the step in front of him. Another, he reached up and hacked off another big shiny button from his military jacket. But this one slipped through his hand, bouncing off the back, frantically he tried to catch it and the edge of the knife nicked into his palm. Gritting his teeth the prince laid the button beside its fellow on the stairs, drops of blood oozing onto them from his cut hand. Wincing he replaced the bloodied knife in it's sheath and picked up the buttons and weighed them. Then with a sweep of his arm he threw them flashing like pirate's golden treasure, up and beyond the stair head.
He knew what would happen, the guards would turn, watch the coins of light wink in the sun and then turn back to their duty. But Prince Bartholomew only needed an instant. Repositioning the whip in his hand, he dashed up the stairs leapt over the last step and dived along the floor in a rugby tackle.
A gun-crashed above his head and he felt the wind of the bullet passing across his body, his chin scraped along the floor and he felt scratches open on his face but that was no matter. Then he crashed into the knees of the guard who had shot at him, tumbling the man to the floor, hearing his head crack against the wall. Bart rolled and came to his feet, to face the other two guardsmen who were already raising their weapons.
The burnished steel of Bart's whip flashed as it snaked through the air towards the two men, sun glinting off the smooth heavy ball as it had glinted off the buttons. The chain dragged across one man's face in bloody furrows, then the ball smacked into his jaw with an audible crack, he fell to the floor moaning and clutching his wounded face.
The second was more fortunate, the length of chain coiled about his sward arm dragging him off balance. But he was still able to get off one shot. Bart ignored the gun, and charged in, pulling on the chain to unbalance his opponent even more. One piratical fist slammed upwards into the man's throat and he fell sprawling against the wall, slowly sliding down to the polished wood floor, senseless. But Bart didn't wait to see the man fall. He walked smoothly across the circular landing, scooping up his fallen buttons as he went. There were two large windows, and three doors and the stairs, all identical slabs of heavy handsome wood stained dark with varnish, all bearing impressive looking keyholes and thick steel bolts. Across from the stairs were the steel doors of an elevator, a single red button inlayed into the plasterwork beside it. But Bart ignored this and moved to one of the wooden doors, which was unbolted; though Margie was sure to be locked in, he wanted to check there were no more guards around. Cautiously he turned the handle, the whip coiled around his other arm ready for action. But the slab of wood swung heavily open on a small derelict room; once a servant's quarters maybe, because there was a rusty grate in the fireplace. But all the furniture had been removed leaving only boards and dust. The second door he tried was also unlocked, and it proved to be a store with guns and ammunition and even some swords. Quickly he closed the door and crossed the landing to the other huge wooden slab, this one with the steel bolts shot home at top and bottom.
The man with the broken jaw was moaning softly, as he passed Bart leaned down and wrapped the guard smartly on the skull with the ball of his whip held in one hand. The man fell senseless to the floor; well, no point leaving the man suffering.
With a smile of anticipation he shot both bolts back and tried the handle. It was locked. Bart let out one of the more colorful expressions and hammered on the door. "Margie? It's me."
"Yeah, Bart. Know where the keys are?"
"Store closet." Bart ran back to the store cupboard and looked amongst the weapons for the keys. They were hanging from rings on one long shelf --- hundreds of them. It would take time to try them all and time was something Bart didn't have. He heard a sound of footsteps, steady measured and purposeful, tramping the way up the stairs with a surprising unhurried step.
In desperation he grabbed at one of the big shot guns hung on racks like so many vegetables. It was a big automatic weapon with a nasty looking bell muzzle. Daring to put down his whip for a second he loaded the weapon and dashed back to the door of Margie's prison. "Stand away from the door." Without waiting for her to obey he put the gun to the lock and fired.
There was the hollow crack of a bullet impacting in wood and the locking mechanism wrenched itself out of the door, splinters of metal and wood clinging to it like entrails.
Then the door swung slowly inwards to a gentle push from Bart and the princess stepped out of her prison. She was just the way he remembered, medium height with a pert prettiness and quizzical blue eyes. Her hair was that same rich glossy brown that he remembered so well, and when she smiled at him it held the same cynical mischief. She walked out quite calmly, her plain red dress rustling. The shawl which draped her hair and upper body moving with her, seeming to accentuate the contours of her body rather than hide them for all it's seeming modesty. To Bart's surprise in her arms she clutched a fluffy pink stuffed toy, a mouse or perhaps a teddy bear. "You look a mess." She said a little haughtily, her eyes dancing with that childishly dry humor he remembered. As always he responded in kind, his blocky pirates face under it's disheveled golden locks breaking into a smile.
"Sor-ry! How about I go make my self presentable, I'm sure Shakhan would lend me a jacket. What do you think?"
"I don't think so." She said flatly, then with a peculiar half mocking tenderness she reached up and wiped some of the blood and dust from his face. "I knew you'd come."
"Huh?" Bart responded inadequately, a little fazed by the open gratitude and vulnerability sparkling sapphire in his cousin's usually cynical eyes. As if trying for some gesture of tenderness, he flung the gun he had used to break the lock past Margie into the room from which she had escaped.
"Who let rats in here?" Said a deep golden voice with the merest trace of an accent Bart whirled, instantly alert, his blue eye already assessing the two who had just appeared from the stair head for weaknesses.
The one who had spoken was a man, tall tanned, with bronze hair falling over the color of his incandescently white uniform. The eyes that ran expertly over the prince were a penetrating animal yellow, tawny as an owl and full of predatory rage.
Behind him was a woman, only just medium height, slim an almost insignificant. Her uniform was a dazzling arctic blue, which matched the same unearthly color in eyes and hair. Her skin by contrast was pale giving a look of glacial calm that was mirrored in her stance. These, Bart thought, were professionals.
"Prince Fatima?" The woman said analytically.
"Yeah, that's me." Bart's voice was defensive.
The icy woman made a rigid mocking little bow, her hair gleaming in the sun from the window. "Let us introduce ourselves, I am Miang, and this is Commander Kahran Ramsus of Gebler." She gestured with the hypodermic syringe she carried. "We are going to administer this truth drug to your cousin to find the location of the Fatima Jasper."
"You're not doing anything to Margie." Bart signed for the girl to stand beside him and readied his whip.
Ramsus squared off a few paces ahead of him, drawing his slim gilded sword as if they were in the tournament arena.
"This is extremely galleant of you, but you cannot win. Kahr is a graduate of Jugend, an elite fighter." Bart felt somehow quelled by the woman's calm confidence, he felt uncouth and stupid, but he would go down fighting.
"Yeah --- Well Jugend can kiss my ass!" The commander pursed his lips as if irritated by Bart's impropriety, then he charged, his sword coming forward in a vicious stab at Bart's belly.
Bart stepped aside and before Ramsus could recover flicked his whip so the heavy coils wound around the Solarian's sword arm. Ramsus was pulled off balance and the sword went spinning as he whipped his hand free. The chains tore at his skin and a bloody scrape opened on the back of his hand. Bart whirled the whip again, trying to get the heavy links to slam against the commander's skull, but Ramsus dropped, rolled and came to his feet all in one flowing movement, scooping up his sword on the way. He was inside Bart's guard now, and the point of the gilded blade was spearing towards Bart's midriff. Frantically the prince twisted aside and felt the point tear first the cloth, then the skin of his upper arm. But it was only a graze, and as Ramsus stepped back preparatory for another thrust, Bart's foot sithed out in a vicious kick at his kneecap. But Jugend training involves heightened reflexes, Ramsus dropped smoothly to his knees and, abandoning the sword grasped Bart's foot in two strong hands, the next thing he knew, Bart was lying on the floor behind the commander, his twisted leg on fire, his shoulder aching where it had struck the floor.
Dropping the teddy bear Margie ran to her cousin, her eyes filling with alarm. Temporarily ignoring the lowering commander she bent beside him. Staring straight into his dazed eye she began to sing first softly then louder rising quickly to a peaceful crescendo. A soft green light suffused her body and transmitted itself to Bart, spreading out as it touched him into a shower of emerald sparks.
Bart stood astonished to find himself fully restored, even his grazed face healed. With renewed energy he swung his whip, slicing through the air with expert strength. Ramsus raised the sword he had retrieved during the healing and parried the blow. The whip wrapped itself around the slim blade and with a mighty heave the commander wrenched it from Bart's grasp. Then he lunged forward, hands reaching. Bart ducked the clutching fingers and rabbit punched the man in his flat muscular stomach. Most men would have been staggered by that blow but the commander kept on coming. Bart fainted left then uppercutted the commander, but one tanned arm blocked the slamming edge of his hand with jarring impact, and then the commander's white clad leg slammed upwards, crashing into Bart's groin with agonizing force. The pain was excruciating, Bart jackknifed backwards, hand unconsciously going downwards breath rasping out of his lungs in a long hiss. He was dimly aware that the blue haired woman had seized Margie in a judo hold, he was dimly aware that the commander had picked up his sword and was advancing on Bart, murder in his animal eyes.
But then something came through his pain, a figure in khaki trousers and a dusty white shirt, a figure with long dark hair and a pair of engineer boots. "F -- F ---Fei!!!!" He wheezed in astonishment and relief.
Battle fury filled Fei, his friend, his only friend Bart was threatened, the man standing over his agonized body held a naked sword, Fei must defend his friend whatever the cost. And this man was a killer, his uniform plain with blood however white it was.
Not noticing Margie or Miang, Fei launched himself at Ramsus like a missile. Before he hit Ramsus stared in astonishment. A steel tipped boot struck him in the forehead opening a bloody gash, another tapped on the top of his skull leaving him dazed.
But even as he spiraled to the wooden floor a memory triggered itself in Ramsus' brain, a memory of other steel tipped boots slamming into his head, but that had been in a night of starry glory, and evil flames and insane laughter. Then he was lying on the wood floor and the attacker the prince had called Fei was pirouetting away to land beside Bart.
With a supreme effort Ramsus got to his feet, blood matting with his bronze hair to make it the same color as lieutenant van huten's. He shook his head to clear it then bent and picked up his sword. Fei was instantly alert as Ramsus stood and began stalking towards him. He circled, trying to get the commander away from Bart. Ramsus was in pain that was plain from the tawny animal eyes, but behind the pain was an animal determination not to give up.
Fei didn't let Ramsus attack him, with lightning speed he dashed in aiming a slashing sideways chop at Ramsus' jaw. The commander didn't have the time or physical control to block, so he countered with a slamming smash into Fei's face. Both blows landed at the same time, and both fighters fell backwards. Then they were up and circling again. Somehow Fei sensed that this commander was subtly different from any opponent he had fought before. Most people would give up after his devastating three kicks but Ramsus just kept coming. The commander launched his own kick, a swipe at Fei's stomach, but as Fei blocked, Ramsus' rapier stabbed forward towards his chest, the kick had been a faint. With a flailing boot Fei knocked the sword away but was left unbalance, and was only just able to evade Ramsus' brutal neck chop. He backed away, only wanting to get close on his own terms.
But then he felt the wall pressing into his back, a wooden picture rail jabbing at his shoulder blade as the roots had dug in that first night after the destruction of Lahan and he knew he was trapped. Even crippled, Ramsus' combat skills were clearly superior to his own and with the added advantage of the sword he would have no chance.
But to his surprise Ramsus didn't immediately come to finish him off. He walked past Fei; carefully keeping out of reach. With a quick jump he darted behind a huge wooden door. For a second Fei thought he was running, that was until he came out holding a gun. With a smile he leveled it at Fei. In an oddly pleasant tone he said: "It's over. You loose." Bart scrambled to his feet, retrieving his whip and frantically preparing to attack but the wounded officer moved the gun between Fei and Bart, stepping back a few paces. "Drop the whip." He commanded in his rich slightly accented voice. The length of chain clattered to the floor. "Raise your hands to shoulder height" Obediently they took on the position of basket ball players about to pass an invisible ball. "Now," Ramsus voice was almost pleasant. "If one of you would tell me the location of the other half of the Fatima Jaspar?" There was dead silence. Fei felt the air heavy and hot, and his arms thrust out and vulnerable as if some great monster; like the ranker dragon would appear and bite them of.
"If you remain silent the commander will shoot both of you and then we will administer the truth drug to the Princess. Its effects are irresistible." Miang spoke calmly from where she still held the limp figure of Margie in a tight unbreakable hold.
Margie herself seemed distant, her eyes fixed appealingly on her cousin as if expecting a miracle.
"If either of you move I will shoot you both." Ramsus said quite calmly, wiping blood from his eyes with the sleeve of the hand that wasn't holding the gun. "I will count to three and then fire." The officer's voice was a hard and immutable as a rock in winter. As if the ice on the rock Miang added. "Your deaths will serve no purpose." "One ---" The silence stretched tought as a drum skin, Fei found it hard to breath as if his body were already shutting down. This was the end, the just retribution for his massacre in Lahan, this was divine punishment administered by this arrogant operative of death. "Two ---" Fury built up in Fei, a righteous burning anger. He stared into Margie's eyes, locked with Bart's in a last mental embrace of love, was it right that they should die? Power flowed through him, the way it had in the Stalactite cave, though this time there was no Weltall to channel it, only his own body. "Thr---" But even as Ramsus spoke he must have seen what was coming for just as the incandescent bolt of blue white ether energy left Fei's outstretched hands, the Gebler officer dived to the floor and curled himself into a fetal ball, rolling desperately out of the way. So the bolt that should have killed merely knocked him aside, searing along his back, and spent its force in obliterating the opposite wall.
As if seeing that the situation was lost Miang released Margie and moved quickly to the side of the prone Ramsus.
"This way!" Bart yelled and snatching up his whip, ran for the elevator, slamming his hand onto the red lit call button. The doors opened instantly and the three of them piled in, Margie still incongruously clutching the soft toy.
Miang knelt beside Ramsus, her expression distant. They had lost the girl and probably the Jasper as well, but that didn't matter. After all the Fatima treasure was only part of the main plan, the plan which those far above Ramsus in rank had set in motion long before. With the professional detachment as a nurse, she began treating Ramsus' wounds as she had treated Lieutenant Van huten's, reenergizing his body. It would of course take Ramsus longer to recover but that wouldn't matter either. She accepted the defeat as she accepted everything else with the monumental calm borne of centuries.
* * * * *
"Say, Margie, where'd you learn that Etheric cure?" Bart asked, his breath still rasping a little in the confined steel box of the elevator.
"Why do you think I joined the Nissan order? They do more than just prey you know." The brown haired princess said.
Bart Blinked. "I thought you --- well, just like it I guess." Margie rolled her beautiful blue eyes; so different from Miang's cold orbs, up towards the ceiling in a gesture of profoundest resignation. "Well who's this?" She asked, looking with interest at Fei.
"Friend of mine, name of Fei Fong Wong. Fei this is Margie, my cousin."
"Pleased to meet you."
"Mmmm." Fei replied his eyes still scanning the metallic wall of the lift as if it might show him some kind of revelation.
"Communicative chap." Muttered Margie, but Fei hardly heard. His mind was full of the fireball, arching away from his hands, reducing the powerful commander to a cringing ducking wreck. Grahf had been right; he had power. But what power was it, if he could cure like the Princess but --- it was worthless if he could only destroy.
"Hello!? Bart to Fei! Bart to Fei! Are you receiving me?!" Fei turned to face his friend sheepishly, aware that one of his companions had asked a question. "I said where'd you learn that ether attack?"
"I don't know." Fei replied, his voice and face closing the subject.
"Nothing to worry about Fei, it's not unusual, most people have some kind of ether power."
Fei shook his head but would say no more. Abrutly Margie looked at the panel showing the floors they were passing, the numbers were clicking by at the rate of one floor per five seconds. "This lift's as slow as hell, anyone any idea where it's going?"
Bart shook his head, his ponytail moving on his shoulder like an obedient golden snake. "No. Just seemed like a good idea at the time". As if on queue, the doors flicked open to reveal a steel lined corridor up which a cold draught blew. Hard bright lights were slung at intervals along the passage, running off into the distance where the steel box turned a corner. "They really sooped up the old dungeons." Bart's voice was hushed as they all exited the elevator and began to walk along the passage.
There was nothing sinister about the passageway, it was functional steel and functional light, but uneasiness almost a foreboding came over Fei. This corridor felt like the proposes of some huge steel fly down which he was walking. The slight clangs which their cautious footsteps made on the steel floor sounded like the mechanical heartbeat of the machine of destiny, cold and implacable as the knell of a clock. When they turned the corner, they found themselves in a similar steel corridor, but off to one side the corridor opened out into a carpeted space strewn with function but comfortably padded chairs and small tables. The impression of an office block was heightened by the plain wooden doors standing at intervals along the corridor.
"This looks tough, some one could come out of one of those and attack us. Fei, you go ahead, Margie in the middle I'll make sure no one sneaks up on us." Like a sergeant ordering scouts, Bart moved behind Margie so they crept along alertly in an absurd parody of a Conga line. When they had passed all those interminable death-trap doors Fei saw that the corridor turned another sharp corner, with a pair of massive double doors standing open on the walls. Passing through them Fei gasped. He found himself in a Gear bay not dissimilar to that in Bart's hideout. Except here, all the standing gears; of which there were a huge number, emblazoned with a huge red G. Off to one end he saw a mighty gray gunship with torpedo tubes and other weapons protruding from it like horns. On it's side two was the massive red G, etched in the functional gray like a bloodstain on a sword blade.
"This must be Gebler's base." Bart breathed looking around. "Where did they get all this stuff? Some of it's real high tech ---"
With a suddenness that shocked Fei sirens started to blare red and terrible. A robotic voice started to shout monotously. "Emergency! Emergency! Intruder alert! Intruder! Two males one female, armed and dangerous. Emergency! Emergency!"
"They're on to us!" Margie squeaked in an uncharacteristic display of panic, clutching the pink toy with both hands. Then Fei saw her master her fear and her blue eyes take on a look of calm determination that almost reminded him of the woman with the indigo hair; except Margie's expression was more human.
"Let's get moving." Bart hissed and started to sprint down the corridor, dragging Margie behind him. Fei loped after him and soon was a few steps in front. They dashed across the dock, threading their way in and out of massive metallic shapes which seemed to leer down at them in the bloody flashing light of the alarm. From across the bay they heard shouts, but it was impossible to tell if they'd been seen.
Like an animal on the run Fei dived into the mouth of a corridor that opened off the bay area, it too was lined with wooden doors, but non-seemed to be open. Letting go of Margie Bart readied his whip, and Fei too tensed for attack. But non came, the claxon still wailed and the voice still boomed out its message but no hoard of guard materialized. Even so their blood raced as they pelted down the corridors, no longer caring about how much noise their feet made. Bart occasionally glancing back to check no one perused them.
Fei skidded around another sharp bend, into another steel corridor with doors along the walls. He pushed his sweat soaked hair out of his eyes and kept on running, ignoring the swelling lump on his cheek, his minor bruises from the tournament and the pounding of his heart against his ribs. If it hadn't been for the claxon they might have heard the clatter of feet in front of them, as it was Fei didn't notice the running figure in the Gebler uniform until it cannoned into him. He was staggered from more than the collision. "Elly!"
"Fei? You're the intruder?"
Fei nodded dumbly.
"Quickly!" Without waiting for them she sprinted up the corridor a few yards before opening a door and gesturing for them to enter. Fei moved unquestioningly, as if drawn by a magnet, Margie followed, and after a quick nervous glance that seemed to acknowledge to the world that it had not been he who decided to trust a Gebler Soldier, so did Bart. The room into which Elly lead them was a small function bed room with neither frills nor any touch of individuality. The walls were whitewashed and the floor stone, along one wall was a neatly made bed with white blankets, a desk and chair and a chest of drawers and a small wardrobe stood against the others. But none of the fugitives were interested in the furniture. Bart's blue eyes ranged the walls suspiciously as if looking for a hidden trap, Margie was gazing from Fei to Bart to the Lieutenant in frank astonishment. But Fei's eyes were riveted on the girl he had thought never to see again. He drank in every detail as if fixing in it some inner recess of his memory, as if he were planning to paint a portrait of her. She was dressed in the same Gebler uniform and brown trousers he had seen in Blackmoon forest, but she wore no pack on her back and the only thingson her broad belt were the two metallic short spears and a black revolver. The uniform; if it were the same she had worn, was scrubbed of all stains and mud and gleamed white under the hard naked light, all it's colors defined. Her face too glowed cleanly and pale, flawless and beautiful, yet still with that strange vulnerability that no amount of training in methods of killing could dispell. Her hair was no longer the bird's nest it had been, and cascaded down her back like a river of chestnut fire.
"You're safe here." She said, and for the first time Fei realized that her accent; though more pronounced, was the same as Commander Ramsus'.
"Elly, I'm sorry --- for everything --- I'm glad you escaped." With an obscure sense of guilt, Fei's hazel eyes were drawn to the lumps under her clothing on arm and thigh, which indicated bandages. But the soldierm refuted his guilt with a shake of her head, and a softening in her violet eyes.
"No. I should be sorry, I shouldn't have said --- what I said --- I --- I Well I'm sorry."
The moment was broken by Bart, who stood glowering from Fei to Elly with his handsome pirate's face twisted into a tanned scowl. "You know this girl! Fei I though you was on our side?"
"We met in Blackmoon forest." Fei replied simply.
Elly looked at him slowly with dawning wonder, staring at the golden haired prince as if noticing him for the first time. "That's Prince Bartholomew."
"Too right, Gebler Girl." Bart replied a little pompously, puffing out his ornately jacketed chest; the gesture only slightly spoiled by the jacket's lack of shiny buttons.
"I'm cooperating with Bart." Fei told Elly. With a sigh she sat down on the bed. As if on cue Bart hooked the wooden chair from under the desk and nodded to Margie who slumped down upon it. From outside they could hear the continued wailing of the claxon, like a lost dog howling at the door of a pleasant home.
Elly sighed and drew one hand cross her forehead, and for the first time Fei saw the veiled exhaustion behind her eyes, Miang's treatment was not complete yet, and her body was still resealing it's wounds. "You will be safe here. After the alarm stops I will give you the launch code for one of the Aveh excavation gears, you can use it to escape."
Bart's eye glinted. "Why would you help us Gebler girl?"
"Fei saved my life" She smiled wanly. "I owe him a favor."
For some reason this stung Fei, he had hoped he meant more to her than that, for an instant his brown eyes flamed with disappointment, and then they cleared like cloud shadows on woodland pools.
"We only got your word, you're with Gebler, how can we trust you?"
"I trust her." Said Margie suddenly, speaking for the first time.
"Princess." Elly murmured, and for a moment her violet eyes met Margie's sapphire ones and something passed between them, something feminine, a shared feeling almost a companionship, as of those on the same quest but for different goals.
"Yeah, well I don't." Bart's voice was stubborn, but Margie glowered at him disapprovingly, shaking her head slightly so that soft brown hair and folds of red cloth swirled through the air together.
"She's telling the truth Bart. This friend of yours --- Fei, did save her life."
"How'd you know?"
"I just know." Margie smiled mischievously at Fei.
Outside the klaxon was and recorded voice had stopped, and except for a distant sound of clanking metal, it was silent. "Anyway now it's two-to-one, we have to accept her help." Elly's violet eyes crinkled with amusement, and for a moment her expression resembled Margie's.
"Three-to-one, I don't want to see you get caught either."
Bart made a low questioning growl in his throat. "You could lead us into a trap." The prince muttered, but the heart had gone out of his protest.
Elly smiled winningly at him. "If I wanted to turn you in I would have just pressed this." She pointed to a small red button set into the wall beside the bed.
Bart shrugged. "Okay, a truce Gebler Girl."
"My name is Elly, please use it." She said a little stiffly. "Now let's get going."
As she walked across the room to the door, Fei glanced candidly into her violet eyes. "Thank you, Elly." He said simply, the air between them becoming charged with emotion.
"That's all right Fei, as I said I owe you a favor." She slipped lightly out of the door, and was back within a second. "Coast is clear, let's go."
They dashed smoothly down the steel lined corridors, trying as hard as they could to make as little noise as possible. Bart still held his whip coiled about one arm, but there was no sign of anyone, for all they knew they could be the last people left alive inside the castle. When they got back into the gear bay, Elly led the way past the silent gun ship to an iron flight of steps. Ascending they found themselves in a small stone passageway with windows letting shafts of blazing afternoon sunlight.
"The excavation gears are kept in a courtyard behind the citadel, from there you can get straight out into the desert." She led the way down the passage to a huge metal door that seemed out of place in its frame of age worn stone. With a neat flick she unlatched it and let sunlight flood in and bathe them warmly. In the sun Elly looked radiant, her hair straight and glossy red shone like fire, Margie too acquired a kind of luminescent beauty in the shafts of falling light, her straight brown hair taking on the sheen of polished oak.
They walked out into a courtyard thronged with excavation Gears, at one end the high stonewall was broken by a gap that let onto the blazing sands of the Aveh desert. The gear she gestured towards was a standard, faun colored model with no particular speed or strength, and like all excavation gears it had no weapons beyond the large drill welded to one hand. But Fei knew that it would be perfect as a getaway vehicle, indistinguishable from the thousands of Aveh gears in the wide expanse of burning sands. It's other advantage, was the enlarged cockpit with it's jump seat meant for a copilot. Bart scrambled up the ladder and opened the hatch; through the Perspex Fei could see him lean over the control board.
Elly leapt up after him, and for an instant Fei felt his heart leap, would she come with them, maybe she cared for him maybe--- But she only stuck her head through the hatch, and Fei watched the sunlight strike the curtain of coppery fox hair as she reeled of a code, which Bart was presumably punching in. In a few seconds she dropped to the ground, and with shaky unpracticed movements Margie swung herself up the ladder, trying her best to climb with her hands only, inhibited with the long redress she wore.
Fei turned to Elly, who wad gazing steadfastly towards the citadel. "Elly, you don't know what this means to ---"
"I know Fei, you saved my life remember?" Her reproof was gentle and it emboldened Fei, his shyness suddenly evaporated like steam in the desert heat.
"Elly. Come with me." She turned fully to face him, and reaching out one hand pale and delicate-seeming as mist, she laid it over his hot tanned fingers. It was the first small gesture of affection either of them had ever shown for the other, yet despite all that happened afterwards, Fei never forgot it.
"I can't Fei. My place is here."
"You don't belong with Gebler, they're destroyers --- you're not. Look what they did to Margie."
She smiled slightly, her perfect lips twitching upwards. "That was Shakhan, Gebler is more than just his tool. If it wasn't for Gebler, Kislev would have already destroyed Aveh; they do have more gears excavation sites after all." Her violet eyes took an expression of longing, a yearning that seemed to flash from her inner soul. But then suddenly it was gone, replaced by a look of profound sadness. She lowered her eyes as if her pride wouldn't let her look at Fei. "I am Solarian, a Shepherd you are a Lamb a land-dweller."
"W - what do you mean?" Said Fei thickly, for at the mention of the word "Solarian" a strange chill seemed to settle over the bright desert sky, and the burning dunes seemed more arid. Fei found it harder to think of the word let alone speak it.
"It means," said Elly, straightening and looking him full in the face, her violet eyes strong and soldierly again. "That the next time we meet we will be enemies. So it would be better if we never met again." Like an infantryman ordered to about turn, she spun round so fast that her hair whipped out like a flag then with out a backward glance she strode manfully into the citadel and away.
Fei watched her go, then with a sigh clambered wearily up the ladder to the cockpit closing the hatch behind him. Fei ran his eyes distractedly around the cramped cockpit, and saw Bart and Margie pressed impatiently together behind the main control grips. Against the wall was a single jumpsuit with couple of shoulder straps.
"I'll pilot it." Announced Fei quickly, realizing that Margie would be forced to sit on the lap of the man not piloting and feeling that such intimacy would be better left to Bart. He strapped himself in and Bart did like ways. Margie perched herself on Bart's white trouser legs and he slipped his arms around her, either for safety in flight, or to comfort her Fei couldn't tell.
With mechanical actions, Fei brought the gear up to power and flew it at its top speed out into the desert. There was no pursuit so evidently their escape had been a success. Not even the talkative Margie spoke as they flew, all emotionally and physically drained from the day's exertions.
* * * * *
Ramsus drew air through his teeth in a sharp gasp, his rich voice came out as a tortured whisper. "Shit woman! --- You trying to kill me?"
Miang dipped her fingers into the pot of antiseptic lotion and continued applying it to the livid burns on the half naked Ramsus' back. "Burns are the most likely of all wounds to develop epedermic infection. Even with my help you will require treatments of antiseptics once a day for the next week."
Ramsus groaned and lifted his head, but his tawny animal glare was wasted on the papered wall of their apartment. They were alone, Miang having dismissed all the Aveh physicians Shakhan had attempted to foist on them. He wondered why she'd done that, he liked to think it was because she loved him, and wanted to treat him herself rather than let his body be mauled by unsophisticated Lambs. But a more pragmatic part of him suspected that it was simply that she didn't want the land-dwellers to see her amazing healing ability. "His n---n---name was f-f-f-f-Fei."
"What of it?"
"I---I've heard that name before --- sss-somewhere and --- his technique. His appearance was d---d-different but ---" The shear effort of speaking proved to much and he slumped back, not having the energy to complete the sentence except for the name of the doomed city. "Elru."
"Shhh. Don't try to speak." For one instant Miang's voice lost it's icy quality, and became the tones of a lover, worried for her man. Ever before had she spoken to him that way, not even in those nights of cold clinical passion which had started long before the darkening of her hair and soul. There was a knock at the door, and Miang left his bedside to answer it.
An Aveh soldier in smart green looked down at her through a black bear with contempt. Unlike the Solarian forces, the Aveh army didn't permit women, she remembered, and so the soldier despite his superior rank looked down on her. "We await the prince's orders." He said formally in Ignasian, evidently all shovanism quelled by Miang's implacable glare.
She turned to Ramsus who mouthed the words: "Gunship, find, kill, princess alive."
She turned back to the soldier. "You are to instigate a full search, order the gunship launched, when found ---" She was interrupted by Lieutenant Van huten who dashed down the corridor like a summer breeze, a paper held close to her chest. She glanced over at Miang and the last two colors of the rainbow: indigo and violet, did battle as their eyes met.
"A message. It is in status I. Command code. I was ordered not to trust it to anyone of inferior rank." Elly said in respectful Solarian.
"You may leave." Miang said indiscriminately in the speech of the Lambs, and turned back into the room as the soldier slouched off in one direction while the lieutenant marched off in another.
Miang held the paper out to Ramsus, and gently but precisely aided him to sit so that he could read. His tawny eyes scanned the lines of letter and number grouping, which were not only in Solarian, but also in an code known only to the Gazel and certain favored individuals of the highest rank.
"A message from Hyu…" Muttered Ramsus, his voice a rasping whisper. But he would recover, he would be up in two days, and though he would not be fully recovered until a week later, he would be armed and dangerous in four nights, like a well homed sword sharpened for the kill.
Road to Nisan
"Glad to see you back miss Margarita." Maison's voice was deferential as ever as he stood in blue suit and cumberbund, old bespectacled eyes showing more pleasure than his formal clinical butler's voice.
"Glad to be back Maison. Have you got any Nisan cake on board?" The old retainer's eyes sparkled behind their steel rimmed spectacles. Fei was astonished at the change of subject, they hadn't been back five minutes before this girl was asking for treats. But he kept silent, sensing that they were going through a familiar routine, trying to restore a sense of normality that had been lost with Margie's capture.
"I'm afraid not miss, but I believe our current destination is Nisan so you will be able to get some soon."
"Great! And I don't have to worry about some stinking Gebler officer sticking truth drugs in it either."
"No miss Margarita" Said Maison respectfully. "Now, if you don't mind me saying you all appear in extreme need of refreshment, if you would allow me to show you to the cabins I've prepared for you, you can refresh yourselves before supper."
"Supper! I'm starving." The blonde prince's voice was so fervent that it produced a laugh from both Fei and Margie as they followed Maison out of the gear dock.
"Well you've got a new gear." Fei remarked to Bart, as they passed down one of the functional steel corridors that lined the inside of the Yggdrasil.
"Wrong there Fei, We! Got a new gear. You really saved our asses back there, you are hereby promoted to ---" Bart frowned his blue eye going introspective. They reached a lift, and as the door hissed shut behind them and Maison pressed one of the buttons Fei noticed with astonishment that the Yggdrasil had three floors. "A higher rank." Said Bart happily.
"Higher than what? You never gave me a low one."
Bart's handsome face broke into a smile. "Then I don't need to, do I. Tht gets rid of all that annoying working your way up ranks business. Welcome Sergeant Wong ---no!" He held up one hand to stop a flood of gratitude. "Lieutenant Wong, how's that?"
"Still playing toy soldiers Cousin?" Margie asked Bart teasingly, as they exited the lift and began walking down another functional steel corridor, it's walls lined with numbered doors.
"There's no playing about it. This is a serious operation." Bart's voice was filled with an irritation that Fei wasn't sure was genuine or feigned.
"People just follow Bart because of his charisma there's no real rank attached." Margie roled her eyes heavenwards. "Sometimes I think I'm the only person who can see all his faults"
"Faults? Okay I'm not perfect but ---"
Maison interrupted the budding half-argument with one of his meaningful throat clearings. "I have prepared number ten for you master Fei. The good doctor has already taken number nine opposite and the young master and miss Margarita are in those." Maison gestured two numbers 11 and 12, Bart's obviously next to Fei's and Margie's opposite. "I have left all the ---"
"Yeah, yeah! Thanks Maison, now push off please could you?" The prince interrupted obviously longing to get back to his sparing with Margie.
Maison gave Fei a long suffering look and moved off back towards the lift.
"Now where were we? Oh yes your faults ---" she started to count on her fingers. "You're rude, you're loud, you have a nasty habit of fighting everybody, you smell ---"
"I do not smell! And it's lucky for you that I can fight!" Margie looked at him consideringly. She was shorter than her cousin so she had to tilt her head back to allow her piercing sapphire eyes to travel over his hard, strong face with it's frame of bronze hair.
"Well --- Maybe you don't smell that bad!" And suddenly to both Fei and Bart's astonishment she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him exuberantly. Bart was a little non pleased at the sudden embrace, and when she released him Fei noticed a sheepish, but pleased glint in his sapphire orb of an eye. "Thank you Bart." She said simply, then turned to Fei. For one confused second Fei thought she was about to kiss him, but instead she smiled a radiant smile of gratitude, which spread across her pretty face like a sunrise. "Thank you as well Fei."
"That's --- That's alright." Something about the way her sapphire eyes were assessing his tanned strong face with it's liquid brown eyes and long matted dark hair made Fei feel uncomfortable.
"Hay quit staring at him, your goina marry me, it's custom."
Bart leaned against one wall, crossing his long legs as if wishing for strength. "Stil talking like a parrot eh' Fei? Course Margie's gonna marry me, she's Mother of Nisan and hopefully I'll be king of Aveh."
"it's one of these annoying old customs, that I get saddled with him!" Margie playfully elbowed Bart in the ribs. "And anyway Fei, I wasn't trying to---"
"Yes you were but I don't mind.' Replied Bart neatly. Fei felt a wave of relief sweep him, for a moment he had worried that this girl would drive a wedge of jealousy between him and his strange knew friend.
Margie sighed, rolling her eyes upwards in what was clearly a characteristic gesture of mock-resignation. "Why do you all have one track minds. No sooner a girl looks at you, you start jumping to conclusions."
"Hey! I--- I wasn't." Fei's face flushed, something about the blatant innuendo embarrassed him.
"What I was actually wondering is how you fell in with my disreputable cousin here?"
"Oh." Fei replied sullenly. For a second he had forgotten his great guilt, but now it all came flooding back in waves of fury. Margie saw the change in him, the brown eyes going introspective and pained.
"Come on Margie, we better get ready." Before she could do anymore accidental emotional damage to Fei, Bart had dragged her inside the door of room number 12, showing a degree of tact Fei had thought his blunt friend incapable of.
Slowly Fei walked back into room 10. It was a comfortable if small room, with a porthole showing the sky and a dim view of sand flying past. Fei was startled, he hadn't known the ship had started off. Bart certainly had a marvelous ship on his hands.
Fei sat down on the neatly made bed and gave the room a more thorough inspection. It was a cozy room, wardrobes and shelves of dark wood making the metal walls less harsh. In one corner was a basin with all appropriate bathroom accompaniments. Fei opened the wardrobe to find a variety of clothes in various colors, styles and size. He was just about to change into some of them when there came a soft knock at the door.
"Come in." The door opened to reveal Margie still wearing her red dress and shawl.
"Fei, I want to say thank you again."
"Don't mention it' Fei replied facing her.
"No really. Bart told me about everything that happened. I just think it's great of you to offer to help us like you have."
Fei looked her straight in the face, his dark eyes grim and steady. "What choice do I have? I have nowhere to go and nothing to do. I'm a murder and ---"
"Oh stop that!" Margie said in a strangely commanding tone that reminded him of Elly. "You've agreed to help us and I think that's great. Whatever you did before, you've done something good now."
"It can't pay for what happened in --- Lahan."
"Well the fact remains, it happened. But there's more than just that, you got something that Bart really needs and I think you can help him." Resentment filled Fei. So Margie and Bart were no different from Grahf, wanting him only for his dark inner power.
"I don't want power, even if I use it to help you there's no knowing when it could turn on you as it did at Lahan."
"Oh you fool!" Margie's sharp blue eyes so like Bart's, blazed with a kind of overacted mirth. Fei was startled out of his newly growing melancholy and onto his feet, almost angry.
"What do you mean?" As if this had started a flood words started to pour into him. He didn't want power, He would refuse to help, he hated fighting even if it were for a good cause.
"Oh I don't mean your skills --- no offense but Bart's got lots of good fighting men like Jerico and the others. No I mean that apart from me you're the only person who Bart seems to be able to get along with. Sigurd and Maison try their best but they can't be his friends. Bart and I have been together since we were small, but apart from me I don't think he's had any real friends."
"Oh…" Fei muttered inadequately, flushing slightly at his own hot headed jumping to conclusions.
Margie's eyes took on a peculiar open expression. Fei was astonished to see such naked emotion in those turquoise depths. When he had first seen Margie he had dismissed her as friporous, playful and maybe even kindly but not dependable. But now he saw his mistake like Bart Margie was a person who hid her feelings behind a mask. Though he was still young and inexperienced in matters of the heart, Fei saw that the distinct similarity between the two of them drew them together. He no longer worried about Bart's jealousy for he knew that this girl would not be capable of leaving her cousin even if she had wanted to.
"Bart's a good person. You might not have noticed but he is. You haven't seen his back have you?" Fei was startled, he sat down abruptly on the bed and the action of the springs in the mattress made him bob up and down like a cork on a wide blue see.
"Yes" Margie replied seriously, leaning against the door jam. "It's covered with old scars from where he protected me when we were children. Shakhan had just taken over, father was dead and Bart and I were being whipped by some soldiers. I crouched in a corner and Bart stood with his back to them just taking it."
"Oh." Fei said again inadequately.
Margie cocked her head on one side, soft brown hair falling a curtain down the crimson folds of her shawl. "Well, now you know. But don't start agonizing about it, it happened a long time ago"
Abruptly a sunny smile crossed her face, the door to her inner self had slammed firmly shut. She had done her damnedest to try and secure her beloved prince a friend by bearing her soul and now that it was over she was back to the same mischievous teenager Fei had seen before. "Well I'll see you at supper, I could eat a Ranker."
"No you couldn't." Fei asserted remembering the great green forest monster that had almost had him for supper.
"Yes I could --- probably. But Maison's doing beef tonight so I don't think we'll get to find out. See you later Fei."
"Okay." She turned back into the corridor and flounced back to her own room, on the opposite side and one door down.
Fei looked after her, the happy glow of acceptance almost overwhelming him. Fei washed shaved and changed into a plain blue jacket and red trousers, folding his other clothes neatly and putting them into the wardrobe.
He had no idea what time the promised beef supper was so he decided to find Citan --- if he'd got back from Bladavik.
In the gear dock he found several men in green overalls busily at work on gears and other vehicles. He walked calmly over towards the huge purple black shape of Weltall, sitting in huge companionship with the red slim Braigandier and the powerful green gray form of the gear Citan had piloted; Heimdal.
"Excuse me. Have you seen Citan?" Fei asked, glancing at a tough looking dark haired man in Bart's green uniform with the sun bright yellow of the Yggdrasil Y on his chest.
"That your gear?" The mechanic asked, gesturing at the giant purple figure.
"Yes, I suppose so." Fei answered, his tanned face uncertain, the bright lights flickering in his waterfall of dark hair.
"Well that's a machine! God there are more whistles and whirligigs in that thing than in anything I've ever seen. We've connected it up to refuel but that's about all I can do. The joints are electromagnetic coils but I can't work out where the main power converter is. There's this huge black box over the ether generation unit but there doesn't seem to be any kind of engine coolant mechanism, by rights that thing should explode after a protracted battle---"
"Thank you. Now have you seen Citan?' The mechanic came out of his revelry on the finer points of gear innards and took in what Fei was saying. His slightly grimy face broke into a grin.
"Citan! That's the doctor guy isn't it?" Fei nodded letting his dark hair flow even as Margie's had done. "Wow what a man. See that landcrab?" He pointed to a ten person-model with huge lifting claws and gigantic legs. "Totally gone, all electromagnetic fields totally screwed up. That doctor just repolarized every single joint in the system! And he rewired the battery links to increase power flow efficiency." "
Have you seen him?" Fei asked a little impatiently.
“Yeah. Went up to the gunroom just now with Sigurd."
"Gunroom?" Fei asked feeling a little bothered about distracting this man from the machines that were clearly his pride and joy.
"Just beside the bridge you can't miss it.'
With hurried thanks that the mechanic probably didn't hear, Fei crossed the dock to the lift and pressed for the bridge. When he reached the control room with it's myriad of scanners and controls and it's three panorama windows showing scenes of rushing sand, Fei looked along one wall and found a thick wooden door --- unusual on this metal ship, marked "Gunroom." He was just about to turn the handle when he was stopped by the sound of a voice that was unmistakably that of his old teacher coming clearly from the unknown interior of the gunroom.
"The mission was successful then?" There was the sound of a chair creaking slightly and then a deeper voice that Fei thought might be that of Bart's white haired guardian.
"Hmmm." Fei could almost see Citan's angular dark eyes narrowing into that squinting concentrated expression. The lines of experience on his face creasing into evidence like the contours of a map showing an ancient battlefield. "It struck me as a little fool hardy."
"Not at all." Sigurd's voice defended his plans.
Fei was leaning on the opposite wall staring down the bridge with a theatrical expression of disinterest on his young tanned face, toying with the ends of his glossy hair. He didn't usually make a habit of listening at keyholes but this particular conversation promised to be interesting. He had often wondered in the past couple of days just who Sigurd and Citan really were and now he hoped to learn something. Mingled with this unhealthy curiosity was the same self effacing modesty that was an essential part of him. He was worried that he might have failed his new allies in some way.
"We waited until Vanderkaum had sent most of his troops up near the boarder with his sand ship navy leaving only a minimal complement at the citadel. I'll admit that we hadn't thought of using the festival as a distraction but everything else was pre-planned." There was another creak of furniture. "But things did come uncomfortably close to failing thanks to commander Ramsus."
"Ramsus! I never liked him, how he came to be primary element I never know." Sigurd opinion of the Gebler officer almost casually, but Fei felt a deeper resentment under the light criticism.
From behind the door there was a flinty rasping click, and when Sigurd spoke again it seemed as if his teeth were clamped together. It wasn't until a moment later that Fei realized that Bart's white haired Lieutenant must be smoking. "What worries me is pursuit."
"Don't worry about that. There won't be any pursuit I'm sure of it." Citan's tone was final and Fei wondered what magic the doctor had performed to stop Ramsus from chasing them all the way to Nisan.
"Well I trust you Hyu." Said Sigurd loyally. Then abruptly his tone changed. "But this mission came a little too close for comfort. When we get to Nisan I'm going to give Bart and your young protégée a few combat lessons. I can't have them being beaten by Ramsus."
"Ramsus may have improved a little since we last knew him. What puzzles me is why Miang's on the surface."
"Miang! Are you sure?"
"Positive. How many other women do you know with indigo eyes and hair and a somewhat cold manner?"
"I never though she set foot on the surface. But she was always fond of Ramsus."
"I don't think Miang would do anything for fondness, it's not in her nature. More likely she was sent down to make sure that Ramsus doesn't blow up in front of Shakhan. You remember his somewhat pyrotechnic temper." There was the sound of liquor being poured into a glass and a brief pause filled with the tiny noise of something alcoholic and probably anti-toxic knowing the paint stripper Citan drank, being tipped down someone's throat.
"I wonder if all the old Jugend crew are here? Dominia and the other elements, Jesiah…"
"I wouldn't get your hopes up, you know how much Solarians hate the surface."
"That I do. Really the Solarian isolation is absolute, extremely damaging to the planet economically ---" Fei recognized Citan's tone as the one that usually proceeded a long and rambling assessment of something. But Sigurd it seemed was wary of sermonizing.
"Don't! start preaching Hyu. I might just have to find another ornamental like to throw you in!" Fei heard Citan laugh, and only now did he really understand how deep their friendship must have been. "Throw me in a lake if you wish. But I just hope we don't wake up with hangovers that bad ever again." Sigurd's voice gave a deep throaty chuckle.
"Hey Fei!?" Fei spun round guiltily to find Bart and Margie standing at the end of the bridge. Bart had exchanged his formal jacket for a plain red one and Margie was wearing a light serviceable looking dress of pale pink. Her long brown hair freed of it's shawl tumbled down her back in a wave, matching Bart's golden pony tail. In her arms the Princess held the small pink white stuffed toy she had taken from the citadel.
"Why're you standing around here. We were just going for drinks in the gunroom and I wondered if you wanted to come?"
"The gunroom --- where's that?" Fei asked trying to assume as innocent an expression as possible.
"Aaah Good, Fei." While Fei had been trying to explain himself to Bart the gunroom door had opened and Citan was standing in it pleasantly dressed in a green felt jacket and black formal trousers. Behind him Fei saw Sigurd in his dazzling white uniform --- that seemed to remind him of the Gebler battle dress Ramsus had been wearing. "We were just about to send a search party to find you. We thought you were never coming."
"Just looking round the ship." Fei said lamely. Citan, Sigurd, Bart and Margie all exchanged knowing smiles, but non of them spoke.
The gunroom Fei found was a pleasantly appointed dining room and bar area, with a table and chairs at one end and a bar and scattered chairs at the other. There were several pictures on the walls and the portholes had curtains. The table was set for five with clean lace and gleaming cutlery. It all looked pleasant and civilized with light cool colors and soft lighting. The only discordant note was the huge gun in a case on the wall. It was a massive weapon, beautifully polished but still giving out a brutal heir. The butt was a huge slab of varnished pine and the barrels extend out in thick black profusion. It was unquestionably a weapon that was meant to be used. Bart caught Fei staring at it and his blue eye gleamed.
"That's my father's gun. We had to put it somewhere so we put it down here. This is the closest thing the Yggdrasil has to a stateroom. There's a proper dining room on the lower deck but Maison asked for a room that he could be formal in so ---"
"Fei doesn't want a history of the ship Bart." Margie chided. "I don't know why men are always accusing women of talking too much."
"Maybe it's because when women are around they won't let men get a word in edgeways" Bart retorted smoothly like a repost with a rapier.
"Stop it you two." Sigurd tried to keep the peace, a fat white cigarette dangling from his strong amber fingers. His single eye darted from Bart to Margie to Fei. "I wonder if all young couples fight like this?" Sigurd asked Citan analytically.
Citan pulled absently at the end of his ponytail, peering owlishly through his spectacles. "From my experience I'd say probably yes --- or they get all mushy and sentimental which is much less desirable."
"Sit down people and have a drink" Sigurd ordered peremptorily, emphasizing his command with a swig from a balloon glass at his elbow. "You haven't got a young lady have you Fei?" Sigurd asked, fixing Fei with a smile.
"No." Replied Fei a little too quickly. Luckily Sigurd didn't notice the speed of his denial though Margie's stuffed toy did.
To everybody's surprise it leapt out of her arms and waddled on short marsupial legs over to Fei, it's cute little button nose thrust in the air, an intense expression of purpose in it's beady black eyes.
"I'll be your young lady Fei. I love Chu." Fei felt profoundly embarrassed, but everyone was so startled at the sudden animation in what had appeared to be a pink stuffed toy, that they didn't notice.
"It's alive! I thought it was just a teddy bear." Bart gasped.
Citan looked at the little creature critically. "I don't recognize it as any species I ---"
"I'm Chu Chu and I love Fei!"
"Er ---" The beady little black eyes stared into Fei's astonished face with a mischievous kind of adoration. The creature paddled across the floor and stood in front of Fei, resting it's tiny tubby head on one pink furred paw.
"You’re so handsome." It squeaked. Fei looked frantically round the room for help.
Bart was grinning openly, his single sapphire orb of an eye gleaming with amusement. "Say Fei, you said you hadn't got a young lady well now ---"
"Yeah! Fei love Chu Chu!" The tiny creature threw itself at Fei, the pink body connecting with his chest. Fei sat stiff and unsure trying his best to ignore the thing on his lap.
'Hey Chu Chu" Margie said beguilingly, her blue eyes crafty. "How about a drop of the hard stuff??' Chu Chu rocketed energetically off Fei's knee and landed at Margie's feet.
With a neat swipe Margie picked up a bottle of amber whisky, one of the strongest drinks ever to distilled. Pouring a triple measure into a whisky glass she handed it to the little pink creature who snatched it greedily.
"Yum yum!" Chu Chu proceeded to down the liquid in one swallow. The effect of the liquor was astonishing. The tiny tubby body arched backwards, black eyes going dreamy with pleasure as they gazed at the ceiling, then suddenly Chu Chu flew backwards as if shot and landed on the floor, snoring loudly.
"Sorry about that, Chu Chu does get a bit over excited sometimes." Margie apologized to Fei.
"That's okay you didn't need to drug --- um --- her." Fei said hesitantly.
Bart stared down at the somnolent creature. "Seems to have a real tolerance for alcohol."
Margie nodded grinning slightly. 'I discovered it back in the citadel, Chu Chu sleeps a lot and when she's asleep people think she's a teddy bear, she was put in my room for some reason. She was the only friend I had."
"Shakhan'll pay for that. Leaving you alone with a psychotic mouse." Bart tutted slightly, swigging at the beer Citan had handed him.
"Chu Chu is not psychotic." Margie defended her pet, pouring out a drink for herself.
"Oh yeah, well why was it attacking Fei?"
"It wasn't attacking Fei, handsome young men just have that effect on Chu Chu." Bart walked right into it. From the amount of verbal sparing he and his fiancée went through, it was clear they enjoyed, but it was equally clear that Bart always came off worst.
"Why didn't' it go for me then?"
"I would have thought that was obvious, if it isn't just look in a mirror."
"At least we match then Ranker-girl." Bart countered. Margie's face went livid.
"Hey this's personal why do you always carry things too far?'
Sigurd sighed melodramatically and turned to Citan and Fei, his bushy white brows drawn together creating frown lines on his strong fighter's face. "See what I have to cope with?"
"I do. But have you ever considered that they might be showing their love for each other by sparing. It's a psychological rule of thumb that people who fight love each other a lot." Bart and Margie stopped wrangling to turn to Citan.
"What! We're getting married but that doesn't mean we ---"
"And we're only getting married because we have to aren't we Bart?" Bart nodded and moved closer to her, taking her hand.
"Just because we have to." He repeated.
Sigurd glowered furiously at Fei and Citan. "Fighting and sentimental, boy have we got a problem"
The beef dinner Maison had prepared turned out to be fantastically good, it seemed Fei reflected, that if it weren't for the exercise Bart and his people got from all that battling, they'd probably die of cholesterol poisoning. After the beef was a positive mountain of ice-cream with small cherries and nuts berries in it.
After he had wolfed down several helping of each course Fei pushed back his chair. The conversation had been light and fripporous, drawing away from any kind of battle plans or what they would do next. For the first time since he had left Lahan Fei felt part of a family again.
But in spite of the light banter, and the constant flow of academia which passed between Citan and Sigurd like a ball in a tennis court, Fei felt somehow uneasy. He could forget the blazing ether shot that had almost destroyed the Gebler Commander. The shot Guided by his will alone. He knew some people had the ability to summon and control etheric power, even without the aide of a gear. Such people could light fires with a thought, make the earth shake or summon up a wind. But the shear destructive force of that blast staggered him. It wasn't ether power, it was something else, a specific use of ether a melding of body, mind, spirit and ether to produce a force of destruction.
As if breaking in on his thoughts Sigurd spoke contentedly as they returned to the comfortable chairs scattered around the bar. The man had imbibed a huge amount of alcohol but appeared totally unaffected, as did Citan. Bart was at that pleasantly happy stage of drunkenness when a person is still rational, but every thought and action is bathed in a warm glow.
"Do you know about Ether Fei?"
"I know about the four element spells yes --- but what I did to Ramsus was something else."
"There was an old martial art that used to practice in the city Shevat --- chi, it was said to be a form of etheric attack I wonder if that was what you used Fei." Citan asked, leaning back in an easy chair, his head thrust forward as if questing.
The name meant nothing to Fei, but it might be, who knew in his dark past he might have been a chi warrior. He looked up speculatively at the lights and wondered who and what he was.
"Well whatever it is I figure you've got some kind of ether ability. I'll start training you as soon as we get there." Sigurd promised. Fei looked to his green clad teacher for conformation.
"If you're going to take part in this revolution Fei you ought to learn. General martial arts instruction will also help your skills in gear fights."
"That's settled then." Sigurd's voice was peculiarly satisfied. Fei felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Bart's happily grinning pirate's face, his corn colored pony tail dangling down like some strange decoration.
"Watch it Fei, old Sig's a real slave driver."
Fei nodded. "I'll live with it." His words were almost a promise.
City of Peace
The huge gray form of the Yggdrasil cruised across dunes like a gigantic sand snake, sweeping with a hum of power up massive sandy mountains and down the other side. The stars cast a glimmering light across it's huge metallic flanks like a million eyes peering down into the microcosmic petridish of the world from some unimaginable laboratory. As it crested the rise of powdery sand the pilot could see a cluster of lights far down in the valley. As the red dawn started to flow off the sky and onto the desert like a tidy of blood a pinprick in the skin of god, the massive gray ship cruised down into the one small county in Aveh where they would be welcomed.
It wasn't precisely a city Fei thought, as he walked behind Bart in the steady flow of men coming out of the Yggdrasil. They were dressed casually, not bothering to wear the blue or green uniforms with the distinctive Y on them. Fei wondered at the change in them, such men as Jerico, the sturdy and dependable weapons expert, and the mechanic who'd been so engrossed in machinery. They were just ordinary now, no elite fighting force, just a gang of men and women in a small town. Before him he saw Bart walking with a content smile on his face, his single blue eye introspective. The piratical prince had lead him round and introduced him to the men in the morning light. Such men as Bingo and the strange bird like pilot of the Yggdrasil with his odd almost penguin like features. All had been dependable and solid men, non hot headed or psychotic as the stereotype revolutionaries should be.
"Don't you have fanatic royalists Bart?" Fei had asked, the prince looked back sardonically, toying with the golden end of his hair.
"I'm the only fanatical royalist hear Fei, and they don't come more fanatical then yours truly."
"You've got a good reason to be a fanatic --- after all you're royal. I just wondered about real fanatics."
"No. The last thing you want in a set up like this is some nut who runs round shouting "Hail King Bart!" at the top of his lungs. People like that are about as wearing a T shirt saying "I'm a revolutionary." Fei grinned. But he could understand Bart's reserve. He and Citan had talked over history, and it often seemed to Fei that the movements that succeeded were the ones that involved careful planning and cautious cleverness rather than shear fanatical zeal.
The sun beat down sleepily, Nisan stood in a fertile valley along the banks of the Nisan river, covered with beautifully cultivated fields and small copses of trees that made Fei's heart jump with nostalgic sadness. The houses like those in Lahan were solid little structures, clustered and dumped along white roads interspersed with hedge rows. In the center of the little town was a huge cathedral, standing as it had for five hundred or so years like a rock of ages in the center of a calm sea. It's massive sand stone walls rose hundreds of feet into the sky, granulated and carved with a host of angelic gargoyles and delicate patterns of leaves and flowers.
"Come on lets show Fei round the cathedral." Margie said excitedly, looking somehow even more girlish in a light summer dress with her long brown hair falling in waves. Bart turned to Fei, Citan and Sigurd, now standing alone beside the massive ship, watching the casually dressed members of Bart's crew disappearing into the sun drenched streets.
"Sorry, I should stay with the ship and try and make some arrangements. But you all go…" Sigurd smiled a board conspiratorial grin at Citan.
"Just don't let Hyuga --- Citan, get too close to any of those carvings, if he starts on their history you'll never shut him up." In a burst of good natured laughter Sigurd was gone leaving the little group standing in the sun.
Fei brushed his long hair back as they approached the massive door, he had reverted to his informal T shirt and khaki trousers, wondering if this dress was a little disrespectful. But Bart and Citan both wore similar clothes in the warm summer heat; Citan in a shirt of deep olive green and black trousers, Bart in sherry red.
They entered the massive wooden door, pausing beneath that huge lake of a window. Fei saw the isle stretching up before him, pews on either side. The place was cool because of the stone, but massive stained glass windows provided a great deal of sunlight. The floor was humble bare wood with an isle of carpet up the center. Over to one side of the nave Fei saw the great screen leading into the chancel, and the altar with it's rail and beautiful statues.
But it wasn't the beauty and antiquity of the old building that struck him, more the quiet sense of peace that permeated the air wafting around the lofty vaulted ceiling like the pungent scent of incense. It was the song. A choir of many voice, the sound drifting from behind the chancel in a complex harmonic wave. He noted that the main melody was a strange stately chorus of female voices, backgrounded with the sound of masculine bases and tenors like the great pipes on an organ. As they reached the center of the knave the little group stopped, entranced by the light or music into immobility.
"Sister Margie you're back. I'm so glad, that's why I asked for this cantata of praise to be sung." They turned to see an old and saintly woman, her frail body wrapped in the same blue and white habit that they had seen on the nuns of the Nisan order in Bledavik.
"Sister Agnes!" Margie exclaimed, running to the old nun and throwing her arms round her. "Who are these?" Bart stepped forward trying to look regal in his cherry red clothes.
"This is Fei Fong Wong, and this is Doctor Citan Uzuki, Sister Agnes. They both helped to rescue Margie from the citadel in Bledavik."
"Pleased to meet you both." The old Nun bobbed up and down in a half curtsey, the antiquated gesture seeming to go well with the atmosphere of floating peace. "Margarita, you know your mother is ---"
"I know' Said Margie a little too quickly, and in the blue eyes of their companions Fei noted a kind of sadness that he felt he shouldn't pry into, some things were just too private. "Anyway!" Said Margie brightly, shaking her wealth of soft brown hair like a wand to dispel bad memories. "This is where Bart and me grew up." She turned imploringly to Sister Agnes. "Can I show them around the cathedral?"
"Well I supposed so --- as long as they don't break anything."
"Dear lady, my friend and I have the profoundest respect for all antiquities, we wouldn't even dear to dream of disturbing anything." Fei grinned inwardly, trust Citan to pick an up an almost Maison-like formality of speech to charm the nun. She was well charmed, her old face breaking into a radiant smile.
"You're free to look --- we have some of the oldest relics in Aveh."
"Anything on the origins of the cathedral? It strikes me as Early Ronian in style, though some of the stained glass seems older."
"I'm afraid not, the Ethos keep all the old records. But I do believe that it was around in the reign of king Roni, the first of the Fatima dynasty. But the Nisan order is older than that. There's been a Holy Mother of Nisan in this cathedral for perhaps seven hundred years."
"That would be the head of your order?" Fei asked hesitantly.
"Yes and that's me." Margie replied instantly. "Well come on, lets go look round"
Bidding the old nun farewell they climbed up a rickety set of stairs onto a balcony underneath the vaulted roof, stained glass windows casting light before their path light carelessly flung jewels. The cantata had ceased and now the only sound was their foot steps.
"I always used to come up here when I was little." Bart confided, his eye gleaming around the clearstory on which they were walking fondly. The Clearstory was a long wooden balcony that stretched at about a height of 30 feet all round the cathedral, beneath the huge glass windows. "Whenever someone got mad at me and I got in trouble I used to come up here and hide. I stayed up here for a whole day once just watching the sun go down through one of those window. Can't remember what I did but I sure got chewed out when I came down."
"You were always a pest weren't you Bart --- I mean you always are! a pest!" Margie's quick quip was somehow subdued and Bart didn't bother to reply.
Their footsteps echoing in the ringing silence, they crossed the clear story to the far end underneath the massive window. Looking over the balcony Fei could see two figures, angels in pure white light it seemed, floating 20 feet above the ground one female one male, each with a single wing. Their hands were stretched out in supplication to each other, but between them was a gap of empty air.
"Humanity." Margie murmured, staring down at the hovering angels. "It's a symbol that humans must help one another. The gap in between is supposed to be where God comes in."
Fei stared down at the figures, and wondered if the gap was something else, the unbridgeable gap between one human and another perhaps, the gap of mind to mind that could never be crossed.
"An interesting theological moral, Humans need God and each other in order to accomplish anything. No lone person is complete without the influence of God and others."
"But what God?" Bart asked as if stating a truth.
"I don't know" Citan replied.
They stood in silence overawed by the huge figures of angels that hung below them and then Margie stirred. "Come on. I'll show you the most beautiful thing in the cathedral. It's the shrine to Sophia the holy mother of Nisan who lived 500 years ago --- at the same time as Roni Fatima."
"Don't you need some kind of special ceremony to go in there. Agnes caught me peaking in once and I was on double kitchen duty for a week with a huge dose of the "Respect everything" lecture thrown in for good measure!!!"
"I think it'll be alright, come on." Margie lead the way along the clearstory and the rest followed her, Citan's eyes recording twists of stone and beautiful waterfalls of carven rock as if he might be tested on it later.
The room behind the plain wooden door was tiny and almost plain. At one end of the room was a cross shaped window which cast light onto the floor, illuminating a red ruby colored spot with cross bars of glittering silver radiating out from it. On a carpet on the other end of the room was a similar symbol, red and silver, a cross with an inner eye of life blood red.
Fei raised his eyes to the other end of the room and stared. A portrait; presumably of Mother Sophia, hung on the far wall surrounded by candles that cast a nimbus of light around it.
Then Fei stopped still, the blood in his veins seemingly stopping it's ceaseless boiling. The woman in the portrait had a pale lovely face, which though strong and plainly brave was some how vulnerable, it's violet eyes staring out at the world from the oil prison with a peaceful calm assurance that spoke of medativel love. The painter had swirled his brush to give her a fountain of hair, which was more brown than red, but still with that hint of chestnut in it's curls. Beneath that smooth beautiful face she seemed to be wearing a dress of dark material, simple and plane but dignified. Upon her white throat was a pendent, a cross of silver set with a single great red stone in it's center, which burned with ruby fire. Yet the painting was unfinished, a section of her war brown dress was missing showing only damp fawn canvas beneath.
"That technique looks like yours Fei. And she seems to be a likeness of that girl in Blackmoon Forest."
"Huh?" Fei was staring at the picture, thinking of how if the hair was lighter and the face younger it would exactly resemble his strange soldier girl.
"I said…" Citan repeated. "That brush stroke looks like yours." Fei remembered the hours spent with an easel in Lahan, Alice standing primly in a blue gown while he painted her --- a present for Timothy, but that was all gone now, the pain spilt, the canvas tattered, the people dead.
"I'm not that good." He said slowly, as his liquid brown eyes like deep woodland pools met the painted violet depths of the ancient painting's eyes. As he watched, a change came over the face, painted lines and planes relaxed, and the eyes seemed to become animate, to his astonishment she raised one hand a brushed it through her brown red hair.
"Lacan." She said slowly, and her voice was the same musical delight he remembered. Fei shook himself, and the painting was just a painting again, and he was himself, all communication with that dark region of his mind once more cut off.
"It was painted by a man called Lacan but he never finished it for some reason." Margie's voice was subdued as if the peace of the room and the calm warmth in the violet eyes unsettled her. "Come on." They filed out, Fei still unable to get his half dream half memory out of his head. It was somehow bound up with that strange picture he had seen when he met Grahf, that confused image like a feather fragment of a half remembered dream. The image of a man much like himself in looks and dress, a man who had lived centuries before.
Fei wondered almost aimlessly for the rest of the day. He passed in and out of numerous shops without even seeing them, who was he? Who was this Lacan and what did it all have to do with this power inside him? But either the sun, or the constant worry caused him a head ache, an ache like a lake of bitter tears stiring behind his eyes. Partly to get out of the sun but mostly for somewhere to walk, he walked into a shop lined with canvases, brushes and frames. He was just about to leave, when a tiny old man skipped down stairs, his overalls spotted with paint.
"You interested in painting young man?"
"No! --- I mean I used --- to be --- back home." Fei answered almost stuttering.
"Well you should keep it up, nothing better than sitting down to paint. Come here." The old man beckoned Fei into the back of his shop, through a dim door into a wide well lit artist's studio. A half finished water color hung on an easel, and Fei noted with detached professional interested the way that the old man had caught the light in his painting. "What's your subject?"
"Nothing I --- don't paint --- anymore." The old man sighed at Fei's cautious denial, his wrinkled face dropping.
"That's a shame, Nisan used to be the art capital of the continent. No one seems to bother nowadays." Fei felt a twinge of irrational guilt. He stared down at his boots on the wooden floor, his dark hair falling down his neck like the dark mane of a melancholy lion.
"It's not that I don't like painting it's just --- something happened --- back in my village." He fought to hold down tears. Citan would probably say that this wan normal after a great loss to feel sudden irrational grief brought on by such a simple stimulus as the painting of Sophia, but somehow psychological explanations of grief always fall short of the real thing.
"Brings back bad memories eh? I understand. But if you ever feel the urge to start painting again come back and see me and I'll get you started." Fei nodded miserably and left the shop, walking like a slave bound in chains of grief.
The sun was going down in a blaze of glory, like some great gear set on fire, falling over the horizon to it's obliteration in the west. The shadow's of the neat little hedgerows were long and dark, and the sky overhead was a washed out blue fading to black like wet denim darkening over the world.
"Hey Fei!" Fei spun round, all dejection gone, it was Bart's voice, Bart his friend. The prince was sprinting along the road towards him, and only now did Fei realize how far from the center of Nisan he'd walked. "We all wondered where you'd gone, we were just about to send out search parties in gears. We've been given a house by the Nisan Order. Maison's been making it ship shape and he's cooking supper. He'll be ballistic if we're late." At the mention of the word supper Fei's stomach, which had been on abstinence since breakfast woke up and growled. "What's up Fei? Why'd you walk off like that?"
"I'm just thinking about Lahan." Fei said, falling into step beside his friend, their long hair deep brown and bright gold waving behind them as they strode back towards the center of the city of peace.
"Don't start doing a guilt trip on me. We need you Fei!"
"I know --- I'm not guilty." He lied. "It's just that seeing that painting in the cathedral reminded me of the paintings I used to do in Lahan."
"You paint? Wow, you are here by appointed royal artist your first duty will be to paint this king's handsome kisser on a nine meter high canvas!" Fei grinned in spite of himself, Bart's easy jocular manner had won out of his paranoid grief.
"Great idea Bart, then all your subjects could get a good view of the inside of the royal nostrils."
"Hey!" Bart's face was outraged as Fei grinned up into his single eye mischievously. "Have you been taking lessons from Margie?"
"Lessons in what?" Fei asked raising his eyebrows.
"No." Fei replied, his face innocently blank. The sound Bart made then can only be described as a growl. Then with a sudden roar he dashed at Fei, his eye gleaming amusedly. Fei scuttled off along the road in front of him, glancing back over his shoulder to make sure that he always stayed ahead of the lanky red clad golden headed demon behind him. Eventually he let Bart catch him and playfully mock punch him in the chest. Fei fell over drunk on happiness, his mood changed as easily as if Bart had flicked a switch.
"Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhh, it hurts!!!" He screamed clutching at his chest dramatically. "I surrender! I surrender!" Bart mock punched him again.
"I'll stop if you promise not to be sarcastic ever again in your life."
"Well sorry you'll have to kill me, I can't make promises I can't keep." Fei stood up and faced Bart, seeing that the prince's masculine face was sobering.
"Say Fei --- I can understand the way you feel I think, and it's bad. But your always going to have a place with us." Fei clasped Bart's hand in a grip that made the pirate wince.
"Don't mention it. --- You could thank me by not breaking all my fingers."
"Oh sorry." Fei released Bart's hand and Bart flexed his fingers feelingly.
"We gotta get you in combat training"
The house that they had been allocated was a comfortable building set off from the main square. Fei and Bart walked into the Brown carpeted airy living room to find a fold up table set with another of Maison's marvelous meals.
After everyone had liberally stuffed themselves, they sat around in the red evening light in the plush armchairs that littered the carpet. Fei's grief had almost totally dissipated and he felt warm and befriended.
"Excellent wouldn't you agree Hyu?" Sigurd asked Citan expansively, hooking one leg over the arm of his chair and raising the inevitable glass of liquor to his lips.
"A veritable feast Sig."
"Mmmmmmmm. Remember the meals in barracks?" Citan nodded grimacing behind his spectacles, polishing the fingers of one hand on his green shirt.
"I wish you'd stop doin' that!" Sigurd looked across at Bart amused. Bart spread his tanned hands in a gesture of helplessness. "What the hell went on between you two, and who is this Hyuga guy. I trust him no kiddin' but the way you two keep reminiscing really gets me let's have it out"
"I would like to know Doc." Fei said quietly. "What is your connection with Gebler? If you don't mind me asking."
Citan sighed, and in the blood colored evening light his lined angular face with it's dark eyes looked uncertain.
"Listening at key holes is hardly becoming Fei --- but you’re right we ought to have it out here and now." Sigurd nodded taking the lead from his friend. Only now did Fei recognize the fact that Sigurd looked up to Citan in some strange way.
"Well --- I was borne in the city of Solaris, the city from which Gebler originate" Citan began. Somehow a cold chill seemed to settle on the room like an icy blanket at the mention of the name Solaris. Fei's mind was instantly taken back to the sunny courtyard where Elly had touched his hand with kindness and named the breach between them: her allegiance to the city of her birth, the city of Solaris.
"That name --- So --- well that name it makes me feel afraid." Margie's voice shook slightly, and for the first time since her rescue Fei caught a glimpse of Bart's feelings for her as he slipped one arm protectively around her.
"It would, mental and physical limiters are placed in the genetic code of every individual on the planet, the mental limiter is fear of Solaris and of Solaris rulers the Gazel ministry headed by Emperor Cain, and the physical limiter is the inability of any untreated lamb to enter the city."
"Lamb?" Bart asked, his arm still around Margie.
"The Solarians see themselves as a superior race, calling themselves the Abel, the shepherds." Sigurd explained grimly, his single eye dark and distant as if looking into a deep well. "Because of their belief in their own superiority they see Lambs as subhuman. In Solaris itself the pure bred Solarians use lambs as servants manual workers and experimental guinea pigs." Citan's voice was flat and his eyes as dead as stones, Fei couldn't imagine what kind of pain imparting these truths caused to his old friends but it was clear that the pain was deep. "Economically Solaris is almost fudal, for the population of the city is only a fraction of the population of Bledavik, but there would never be a revolt from the lower classes of citizens because Solaris has many ways to control people. I myself was a third class citizen living in the lowest social sector of the city. Perhaps six years ago I joined the Solaris training school Jugend. Jugend entrants either require extremely high fighting talents or a eugenically perfect history with no infection. My fighting skills were sufficient."
"That's where we met up wasn't it Hyu? Jugend used a lot of combat enhancing drugs to improve the performance of it's trainees. The most common is a compound called Drive." Sigurd shuddered an expression of dread crossing his amber face. "That's what they wanted me for, to test Drive on me"
Bart looked up brushing golden hair back from his forehead in a peculiarly feminine gesture. "That girl who helped us get out of Bledavik --- your girlfriend Fei, she had some Drive in her room."
"No! I don't think Elly would touch anything like that." Fei stood angry for some reason he couldn't explain, the thought of Elly mixed up in something like the wheel of death and destruction that was Solaris seemed ludicrous.
"I'm sorry Fei, if she was in Gebler as I surmise she was she must have used Drive. Sigurd and I were in a training group together with Commander Ramsus. We talked revolutionary sentiments but eventually we saw what he was saying was just the same as what the Gazel were saying so we vowed to get away from Jugend as soon as possible."
"I stowed away on a transport leaving Solaris to the surface." Sigurd explained.
Bart raised his eyebrows. "The surface, is this place under the sea or something?"
Citan shook his head, his mood not lightened by Bart's tone. "No, it floats above the world behind a dimensional shield, the capital --- Etrenank, has it's own gravitational field behind the generators of it's dimensional shield."
"The thing I don't get is why these Gebler people are helping Shakhan."
Sigurd shook his head and sent white hair falling in a snowy cascade, he raised one hand to his face and adjusted the patch over his missing eye. "I don't think it is Shakhan they're helping. If I remember Commander Ramsus he probably hates Shakhan's guts. For some reason it is in Gebler's best interests to help Aveh against Kislev's superior resources. I think if Shakhan was gone then Gebler would help you your highness."
Bart stood stretching. "Well I'm not going to worry tonight, I'm going to get some air." He left and Fei and Citan trailed out after him.
The young prince strode down the starlit road, the sun had set to a slight line of lighter blue on the western horizon outlining the mountains in stark light. The stars came out and winked like watchful animal eyes. Fei looked up into the night sky and wondered if there was a city up there, an evil city but a city able to give birth to someone as wonderful as Elly --- but that was stupid, she probably felt nothing for him and he should probably forget her, they were after all on different sides.
Bart moved out of the town towards the river Nisan, standing on the middle of the wooden bridge that crossed it, looking out across the night lit road of water that stretched away into the desert like a highway for nymphs. Fei stood beside him, listening to the constant cherp of the night birds and smelling the clean pungent scent of the river.
"I once sailed a boat here, I put rockets on it's deck which went off in the night like --- well rockets. I pretended I was a sea captain storming a ship. Funny that being a real captain's such a drag."
"I don't have any memories, you know Bart. I was brought into Lahan village three years ago and I don't remember a thing before that."
"Wow, that's tough." They stood looking out over the river in silence not speaking even when Sigurd and Citan joined them.
"We'll begin you training tomorrow, I've talked to the man in the shop about borrowing a few things --- like that old table."
"I borrowed something once and was he mad!"
"Don't you mean steal?" Fei asked delicately, bending to pick up a stone that had fallen on the wooden boards of the bridge and flicking into the dark water with a flick of his wrist. The sound it made was a soft plock, sending up bubbles as white as Sigurd's hair.
"Yeah well I suppose I do --- I wasn't the best behaved kid in the world." They stood looking at the stars and the water, and wondering what lay ahead in the storm of war that would engulf their lives. Then they turned and went back to the house.
Fei was on his way to the room he'd been allocated when he heard a quiet sound of sobbing from behind a door, he opened it gently to find Citan sitting on the bed, tears running silently down his lined face.
"Fei! I didn't want you to see me like this ---" Citan wiped his streaming eyes and sat up. Fei came over and laid a hand awkwardly on Citan's shoulder.
"What's wrong Doc?"
"Nothing! It's just I left someone in Solaris --- a mistake that can not be righted. Oh well." He crossed to the basin, took off his steamed spectacles and ran them under a cooling stream of water. "Don't worry Fei I'm fine" Fei knew a dismissal of a subject when he heard one and did not have the shear bull headed tactlessness to pursue it. "There's something I have to give you Fei. You were wearing it when you came to Lahan. I found it only a few days before --- before the attack. I took it to keep it safe when I was treating you of your wounds three years ago but it got lost and I only came across it the other day."
Fei smiled, just like Doc to go loosing things that way.
From his black medical bag that stood on a sideboard, Citan took a small wooden box, opening it he held out something flat on his palm to Fei. Fei looked down in astonishment at the gleaming thing that sat on his friend's hard tanned palm. It was a pendent, a cross of silver with one single red ruby set in it's heart like a watchful eye, it was the same symbol he saw in his dreams, the same symbol that had been emblazoned all over Mother Sophia's shrine in the Cathedral. He took it gently and hung it around his neck, clipping the fine silver chain on which it hung fast with a click that sounded somehow final.
"Don't mention it Fei. I can't imagine what kind of thing it is but it must have had some kind of significance for you to be wearing it like that. Now we better both get some sleep, your training begins tomorrow and if my memory serves me correct Sigurd is not a kindly drill Sergeant."
His hand clasped around the pendent, Fei returned to his room, to dream of a silver cross swinging back and forth like a metronome, and a girl in a Gebler uniform with chestnut hair who bore a striking resemblance to the great mother of Nisan.
Arts of Combat
The attacker's arm wrapped around Fei's waist in a brutal grip hard as stone, Fei felt one of his assailant's feet slide behind his knee and then he was flung in a flurry of sunlight and stone, landing in an awkward heap on the soft surface of the carpet that had been laid across the pavement.
"Not bad, but you won't need to know much close range combat --- though it's Iusefull to know some throws."
Fei stood groggily and looked up at Sigurd with a woebegone expression. "What was that grip again, you threw me so fast I didn't get chance to feel what you were doing."
"First you put an arm round their waist, then you reach for the shoulder, hook a foot round their ankle and push." Fei obeyed and was pleased to see his teacher sprawling on the floor. The sun felt warm on his hair, and he had once more donned his favorite trousers and shirt with the addition of thickly padded gloves and padded boots. The white haired combat instructor, similarly decked out in gloves and boots that went oddly from his dazzling uniform and pristine snowy hair stood up a little straighter, putting his hands on his hips as if addressing a lecture hall. His single blue eye seemed to glow with concentration and Fei found himself wondering whether Sigurd was really only in his mid 20's for there was enough experience in that amber face to last a lifetime.
"Now Ramsus beat you with his sword, and so I'm going to teach you how to dis- arm somebody." Sigurd picked up one of the short padded sticks that are the essential tools of any martial arts training and for the next half hour Fei was run through a complex system of hand grips, arm breakers, hand pressure points and wrist chops. "I don't know where Bart is, he should have been here an hour ago." Sigurd complained as Fei took a rest. Fei shrugged, he hadn't seen his friend since the previous night on the bridge where they had talked of things past and childhood memories.
The sun streamed down around Fei, lighting the quiet countryside with soft radiance. In the dim distance Fei could hear music --- probably a tape, strings a barrel organ, a piano oboe and guitar playing some kind of folk melody which seemed to catch the spirit of this little oasis of peace in a desert of war. It was a lot like Lahan Fei thought with sadness, but a shimmering glittering sadness like a man gazing at the photograph of his lost love, but remember her beauty rather than her loss. And after all now Fei had his reason to live --- maybe more than one. Ever since he had left Lahan he'd been looking for a place like a drowning man might catch at anything that floated by, Elly had been one refuge but that refuge was closed to him now --- or so he thought, Bart and Citan had been others. His hand went to the strange pendent at his throat, the small cross with the red ruby center. What it was or where it came from he didn't know. Fei had never been a believer in fate, but the destruction of Lahan the appearance of Grahf and the finding of the pendent seemed to be somehow linked.
His train of thought was broken by a shout from up the street that shattered the sunlit green silence like crystal, but which had about it all the brilliant ebullience of chuckling summer water. "Hey Fei."
"Where've you been? We were supposed to meet at ten immediately after breakfast."
"Around." Bart replied evasively, his long golden hair bobbing a sweaty mass behind his grinning rakish face. "So Fei what's the old drill sergeant been doing to you?"
"I've been teaching him throws" Sigurd replied calmly, and then with a glint of mischief in his sapphire eye. "And how to disarm people --- like this." With a sudden grab he snatched Bart's whip out of the leather holster that hung at the belt of his favorite white trousers.
Bart threw up his hands in sudden alarm and the sun glinted of his brass buttons --- the ones he had cut off in Shakahn's castle now restored to burn like stars against a frilly red sky. Standing in the sun with his arms raised and an expression of outrage on his young face, Bart resembled some rakish officer of an antiquated army, throwing up his hands in surrender.
"That wasn't fair I wasn't ready!" Bart objected, grabbing his weapon out of Sigurd's hands.
"In love war and drunken stupor's anything's fair!" Bart smiled and the sun seemed to have a rival in the depths of his sapphire eye, the patch he wore seeming to spoil the symmetry of that smile not at all.
"I've experienced all of those and while two aren't much fun, the other's worth any amount of unfairness."
"I didn't think you liked being drunk that much Bart." Fei said, enjoying the light easy way the sarcasm ran off his lips into the sweet and sunny air. Bart sighed melodramatically and clutched his hands to his temples. "God save me from idiots, I was talking about love."
"Oh really?" Said Fei raising his eyebrows, Bart groaned and Sigurd grinned.
"We better get down to business, Bart, Fei, get ready."
The two of them stood, moving to opposite ends of the carpet, Bart laying down his whip and pulled on gloves and boots similar to the ones Fei and Sigurd were wearing. The white haired man in the white dazzling uniform flecked with red raised one amber hand, then let it fall as the two young men started their mock fight.
Fei blocked the Prince's first slightly wild punch easily and countered with a sideways chop to Bart's ribs. The Pirate blocked as Fei had expected, and Fei seized the wrist, and grasped the shoulder and spun the prince round to fall heavily onto the carpet.
"No fair!!!" Bart whined, brushing his golden hair back into as neat a ponytail as he could.
"Perfectly fair, you've been relying on that whip far too long, this'll give you a chance to get to grips with some throws." Bart rolled his eye heavenward, that reminded Fei of Margie.
"Great pun Sigurd --- not!"
Sigurd seemed startled. "Pun? what pun?"
"Get to grips! With some throws very funny!"
"I'm glad you find my irrepressible humor so entertaining." Sigurd said, his strong face totally deadpan, this was too much for Fei and Bart they both burst out laughing, and after a moment Sigurd joined in, his eye the mirror image of Bart in it's mirth, as if Bart had lent his friend a spare eye when Sigurd had been blinded.
The rest of that day they spent in training. Fei was fit and strong, but he had never been through a protracted combat session that long and as they returned to the house which they had rented he thought every muscle in his young body had turned to water.
"Finally finished trying to kill each other?" Margie asked Bart, who was in no better state than Fei.
He looked at her with a slightly lofty expression. "We are not killing each other we are learning the arts of combat."
"What's made you so sour all of a sudden?" Bart asked.
Margie tilted her blue eyes up to the ceiling of the hall where they stood in the wash of dying sunshine from the tall windows. "You wouldn't understand it's a woman thing."
"Oh --- Sister Agnes has been saying Marriage again?"
"How did you know?" Margie flamed.
Bart shrugged and Fei saw a mischievous smile that closely resembled Sigurd's. "I personally can't see your problem --- a guy as handsome as I am…"
Margie gave an inarticulate squeak and dashed away, her red skirt flapping behind her like the tale of an irate peacock.
"The vagaries of the female mind are extremely complex wouldn't you agree Fei?" Citan asked from where had been standing quietly in a shadow like some polite servant just waiting for his master's call. Fei looked at his old friend with a smile in his bemused brown eyes.
"Very complex Doc, I'll never understand girls."
Citan's face broke into an almost paternal smile, and he leaned more heavily on the wall with an arm clad in his favorite olive green, the fingers of his other hand hooked into his pinkish sash. "You better learn fast Fei."
Before Fei could ask the doctor what he meant Maison arrived with supper and all conversation died.
Over the next week Fei grew fit and healthy. Everyday he Bart and Sigurd would work on physical attacks, or gear control or just plain exercise. He didn't use his etheric ability for he had no idea how to call on it, one evening while they sat in the small lounge area in comfortable armchairs each with a glass of something cool (and in Fei's case not alcoholic), Fei asked his friend about Ether.
"I'm not brilliant myself, I can pull off a good whirlwind when I need to and I'm not bad at barriers but apart from that ---" Bart sighed.
"What kind of attack was that thing I did on Ramsus?" Fei asked.
"Don't know. See there are four elements, fire, earrh, wind and water. But some ether attacks --- like gear ether guns are just ether, yours was like that. But I don't know the technique of how to use it maybe it's locked in your mind somewhere and comes out to destroy everything when you're in trouble."
"I hope not, back at Lahan ---"
Bart's face went into an interesting shade of red and his eyes were embarrassed. "Ah nuts, I'm sorry I didn't mean ---"
"That's alright." Said Fei quietly. "It doesn't matter."
The city hall was an ancient building, with an archaic frontage not unlike that of the cathedral. Light came in through long narrow windows in strong shafts of gold, and the moss that grew around the arch gave it the look of a natural cave rather than a man made structure.
But maybe things became natural Fei thought, after they'd been on earth for years. He decided to talk to Citan about it and then decided not to --- not wanting a long discussion about what "Natural" really meant.
In the center of the cool stone building Sigurd had set up a rough trestle table on which he spread a massive picture map of Aveh and Kislev. Fei climbed the stairs to the table, passing the tall windows and feeling like a general. He took his seat between Bart and Citan with Sigurd, Maison and a brown haired man in Yggdrasl green called Jerico sitting opposite.
"Right then." Bart began, a note of command in his voice. Fei noticed that though he wasn't actually wearing his uniform --- just a simple pair of blue overalls which Sigurd Citan and Fei also wore. But Bart's stance showed clearly that he was the Prince of Aveh, head erect, eye blazing like a blue comet, hair shimmering like spun gold he began to make his plan. "Gebler won't be a problem, It's Shakhan and his goons we have to knock out. Right where are the goons?"
Sigurd popped a cigarette into his mouth and puffed thoughtfully, the smoke wafted over to Fei and made his throat constrict. The white haired man stood his glowing cigarette pointing down at the map like some burning star about to crash into the desert. "There are three main fleets of gunships, the surveillance fleet up near the Kislev boarder ---" He pulled the paper from an unrolled cigarette from out of his pocket and laid it near the Kislevian mountains where it sat on the map like a huge crumpled bird. “That fleet's small and not heavily armed, it's just really there to alert Bledavik if Kislev attacks. Then there's the royal fleet commanded by general Vanderkaum and that's here." He pulled a second paper out of his pocket and laid it some distance along the border to the west of Nisan. Then there's the main fleet near here." He stubbed out his cigarette in a handy ash tray and laid another paper on the map, quickly rolling another with tobacco and paper he took from his jacket.
Bart frowned over the map. "So we don't need to worry about the surveillance fleet that leaves Vanderkaum and the main bunch."
The light winked off Citan's spectacles and Fei saw that he was wearing his "I'm going to tinker" look. "Perhaps a small strike force could deal with this General Vanderkaum quickly to prevent him interrupting the cue."
"That's a good thought Hyu, Vanderukaum doesn't believe in the use of gears ---"
Bart snorted derisively. "That caveman doesn't believe in fire let alone gears."
Sigurd ignored the prince and continued. "He hasn't well adjusted to gear combat and still insists on using conventional fire arms. That's probably the reason why Aveh was loosing so badly before Gebler stepped in."
"And that's probably a cause of contention between Shakhan and Gebler. Ramsus was never one to use tact and diplomacy and I can't visualize him and Vanderkaum being close friends." Sigurd nodded wisely at his old friend. "Jerico, how big a squad of Gears could take care of that fleet?"
"On average three gears can usually destroy an ordinary gun ship --- assuming that it his no special weapons and that the gear pilots are fairly mediocre. The fleet has seven ships so 20 gears could probably take it out with out too much bother. A gear moves very quickly in flight so I doubt if the gunners could even hit them." The brown haired weapons expert sat down having stood to say his piece and Fei was reminded of a jack in the box, popping up then bobbing back down.
"So 20 gears. That still leaves the problem of the main fleet"
Fei raised one hand worriedly, over the past week he had become more and more able to speak freely with Bart and Sigurd, but this council of war had a repressive formal air about it that made Fei nervous and tongue-tied.
"Spit it out Fei" Bart said impatiently. "You don't have to sit their and wait to be noticed just chip in."
"Well --- I just thought that you didn't have enough gears to attack Bledavik, I know you really want to get rid of Shakhan but ---"
Bart grinned. "This isn't just an instant decision Fei, we've been planning this for the past three months, but we couldn't sort out where our gears were going to attack until we knew where Shakhan had put his toy fleets. I've got something close to 55 gears here, that's mine and the ones belonging to the Nisan militia who're helping us."
"So you have thirty gears to take care of the main fleet? You'll need five gears with you when you go to the castle." Citan asked that pondering look still on his lined experienced face.
"Yep." Bart's voice was assertive as he too lapsed into thought. "If we can get the main fleet away from Bledavik then you can take the citadel and get rid of Shakhan before they know what's happening. Then you can probably stop worrying about the fleet, I doubt that they'd stay loyal to Shakhan after he'd been deposed."
"Won't there be a national alarm if the main fleet's suddenly attacked out of the blue by strange gears --- and won't Shakhan know who's doing it and come to Nisan and ---" Fei paused unable to think of what he ruthless dictator would do if he came to Nisan but preferring to leave others to imagine the atrocities that would surely follow.
"A cogent point Fei, but how does one attack with out being obvious?"
"Kislev!" Fei's voice was exited and his brown eyes seemed to glow, he felt a sense of worth well up inside him as he realized he had the answer, like a religious fanatic he almost leapt from his chair in his excitement. "You could paint the Kislevian flag on the backs of the gears and pretend to attack Nisan --- the fleet would go to help and you could ambush them."
"You're getting good at this Fei" Sigurd complement him. "The boy's a genius, no one would raise an eyebrow if Kislev attack. There are even some Kislev units quite close to the border, so an attack wouldn't be unexpected. We could get the fleet to chase a smaller force of Kislevian gears --- of which we have about 20, to Nisan. Ambush the fleet at Nisan and ---" Rather than finish his sentence the white haired lieutenant simply dropped his lit cigarette accurately onto a spot just outside the small green dot of Nisan where it burned a neat round hole before scorching itself out on the table.
"Great! I'll be crowned by midnight in three days time --- let's attack day after tomorrow." There was a chorus of nods and a mix of bobbing hair, white black brown as all agreed.
Bart stood looking stern and proud, his single eye solemn as a holy azure jewel. "Long live king --- erm --- me that is --- Bart." The table exploded into laughter, and Bart looked about confused and at bay like an angry lion. "Ah nuts"
"Long live king Him!!!" Fei shouted exuberantly to fresh burst of laughter, but Sigurd held up one white clad hand for silence and Fei felt a little twinge of embarrassment.
"This is serious stuff, we are retaking a kingdom here. Long Live King Bartholomew Fatima!" Maison scurried away and came back with a loaded tray of glasses containing wine as red as Bart's jacket, red martial blood.
'Long! Live King Bart!" They raised their glasses and drank.
When they returned to the house, eager to replenish their tired bodies with sleep for the great day ahead, Bart ushered Fei into the darkened lounge, switched on the lights and gestured for him to sit. The prince took a chair opposite and leaned forward his golden hair falling over one shoulder. Fei raised one tanned hand to smooth back his own long brown hair nervously.
"Fei, I'd like you to do something for me --- command the fleet that's going to take out Vanderkaum."
"Well I ---" Bart's face took on a pleading expression and Fei sensed more to this request than mere military tactics, his impulsive friend was asking Fei to commit himself to Bart and in a strange way, offering him the best reward he could give. "I don't know anything about fighting."
Bart shrugged. "Neither do I."
"But Doc and Sigurd seem to know much more wouldn't one of them be better in charge?" Fe's voice was almost pleading, he didn't want 20 gears and a mission crucial to his friendship, he wanted only peace but if he couldn't get peace a soldier's life in the ranks seemed more preferable to that of a general where the slightest wrong move could cause death and pain.
"I want Sig here --- and Citan's the perfect person to Lieaze with Gebler for me --- There shouldn't be much strategy involved, my men know what their doing, you just have to check their all okay and hold the rope's end when you lynch Vanderkaum."
Fei smiled faintly at his friend's brutality. "I don't know if I'll do very well, but ---"
"You'll be fine Fei, and when you get to Bledavik you'll be a hero."
As if stirred by the word Hero Fei felt the sudden desire to do this thing well up inside him, he wanted to fight for good, to dispose the evil that had locked Aveh, to help his friend and most of all to atone for his own dreadful power. "Okay I'll try my best"
The night was dark in the desert as Fei and his 19 soldiers readied themselves for the off. Bart had come out along with Citan and Sigurd and they stood wrapped in warm coats against the chill of the desert night air, watching with approval as Fei's gear stood and prepared to launch. Fei crossed the sand to Bart, his boots crunching, he shivered slightly in his T shirt, and the cold wind seemed to blow fingers of chill down from the hard stars that wheeled above, casting their dim light across the silent plane of sand rock, impassive and uncaring. The moon had set a few moments before and now the world was in that dim sleeping state of darkness and silence when the night is over and the day has not yet come, a dim limbo of dark and light, a no time when anything is possible and nothing is beyond the imagination's reach.
"I'll try my ---"
"Try your best to stop saying that!!! You're driving me crazy." Bart growled.
"Don't worry over much Fei, I will be in radio contact with you every step of the way and a relief force can be sent if necessary. If for some reason you find the enemy too strong run, discretion is the better part of valor so don't get yourself killed, try to stay out of the fighting as much as you can yourself as well, Weltall is a powerful machine but even the most powerful gear can not withstand sustained damage."
"I'll try ---"
"Would you stop saying that please!" Bart's voice was plaintive, Fei grinned ferociously.
"I'll try my ---" Bart gave a horrified snarl and dived at Fei, Fei sidestepped and the prince skidded to a halt like a shaggy bear in his coat.
"Say Fei --- if anything happens to me --- take care of Margie for me --- I --- well ---" Bart dried up, unable to speak his feelings out here in the cold desert night.
"I will, but don't start saying things like that, I know a lot of things can go wrong but Doc always says that if you focus the mind on failure, failure is the more likely outcome."
"And I still hold to that state of thought, have some confidence both of you. Goodbye Fei and I hope you have a successful victory."
"How could I have an unsuccessful one?" Fei asked, enjoying the familiarity of his friend's eccentric speech.
"A victory for the other side would be fairly unsuccessful." Citan replied his angular eyes bland.
"Normal people usually call those defeats." Bart pointed out, Citan blinked.
"Defeat is such an unpleasant word I prefer to concentrate on victories, as should you Fei."
"I'll do what I can Doc." Fei said, and with one last look back over his shoulder he ran to Weltall's ladder, climbed up into the cockpit and powered up. He didn't look down at his friends who stood on the desert floor below him, he looked up and ahead, blinking back a stray tear from his resolute brown eyes as he rocketed upwards into the stars, his eyes fixed on orian, his mind fixed on victory and atonement.
"Good doctor?" Citan looked up quickly from the delicate radio link he was rigging in the Yggdrasil's bridge area to find the self effacing form of Maison hovering near. The old retainer pushed his steel rimmed spectacles up nervously on his nose, and ran a hand through his graying hair, Citan could tell something was wrong --- with his psychological training he could tell by so many subtle signs, old fingers playing with the cumber band, the slightly off balance way the butler stood, the unnatural way his eyes were fixed on a point a foot to the right of Citan's head --- that the old retainer was seriously bothered about something.
"Is there some dilemma Mister Maison?" Citan hoped that the unaccustomed use of the honorific would help the butler to relax.
"Well good doctor --- Mister Harcout said that you are a physician of the mind." Citan smiled, his angular black eyes twinkling ruefully behind the spectacles he had remembered to wear for a change.
"--- well I have had some degree of instruction in psychopathology --- neurology and general psychological theory but I'm hardly proficient."
"But you would be able to see --- if somebody were experiencing severe --- pressure?" The old servant's voice was even more hesitant than usual and Citan wondered what could have caused this sudden extreme worry.
"I suppose I could if it was a clinically phobic or obsessive disorder, though I am fairly sure those symptoms would be obvious to any intelligent observer"
"I am worried about the young master. His is under such a great deal of pressure for one so young and I fear that the burden is too much for him"
Citan leaned back, crossing his legs in their white trousers, his troubled expression clearing. Light flickered on his long sleek black hair in shimmers of health, the constant aura of calm confidence that surrounded the doctor seemed to strengthen, and even before he spoke in his abstracted researcher's voice, he saw that the butler had relaxed. "Bartholomew has a choice --- as does Fei, Bart has accepted to choose to take up the governance of Aveh when he becomes it's monarch. The prince could quite easily have forgotten his birth and lived out the remainder of his life as a simple pirate. He has taken the initiative in this matter and so he clearly feels that he wishes to assume the throne" "But the burden seem so much." Citan smiled, strange dark eyes gentled behind their slim spectacles. "He would not accept the burden if he did not want it --- he is an extremely free spirited youth, and would not allow himself to be forced into any decision he did not concur with."
Maison laughed, an indulgent grandfather's deep warm chuckle. "Too true good doctor, too true"
* * * * *
They had forgotten about the lunar eclipse that night, though it was past midnight and the moon appeared to have set, the young prince watched it rise again, darkening and thickening to a sickly red as the planet's shadow loomed close. Around it stars wheeled like small foot soldiers surrounding a massive chariot draped in gore --- or torches surrounding a great funeral pyre.
The light of the red moon fell in glittering ruby showers down on the metal surface of the Yggdrasil where Bart stood atop the gigantic craft, looking into the clear depths where he had vanished to meet his enemy. Wind plucked at the young prince's pony tale, lashing it about his head like the brush of a fox. He wondered what waited for him --- out there, and if he would ever see his new found friend ever again.
"Galray for you thoughts" Came a deep pleasant voice. Bart looked up, the red light highlighting his eye patch and making his handsome face seem wounded. He stared into another one eyed piratical face, a face surrounded by the white of uniform and colorless hair tarnished crimson by the hellish eclipse light.
"Sig." Bart acknowledged his guardian's presence.
"Worried about the battle?"
The Prince shrugged, the thick cloth of his jacket's shoulders making the movement grotesque. "I've been in battles before" He said carelessly. Sigurd set his strong amber face in a stern line and Bart lowered his head shamefacedly. "Well a little I guess --- But that's normal right?" Sigurd nodded. They stood in silence for some time, the light desert wind playing gently with their long hair, the stars and warrior's moon inscrutable as eternity. "To tell the truth Sig --- I don't know if I want to be king." Bart straightened his words coming out in a rush as if he expected his guardian to immediately launch a diatribe on the virtues of monarchy. "I know I'm part of the Fatima dynasty and all that junk, but what's the point? I don't know the first thing about politics and I'd rather run a ship than a country. Suppose I raise taxes too much --- or execute criminals too harshly?"
Sigurd smiled and laid one hand on his young portage's shoulder. "That is precisely why you will make a good king. You worry about your actions and you take concern for others, these are the essentials of a good man, and being a good king is no different. A good king is a symbol of hope for others --- politics don't matter." Sigurd snorted abruptly. "Being a king doesn't matter come to that. Just keep in mind that you are representing your people --- not commanding them."
Bart nodded but his single azure eye was stil doubtfull. "But me? I'm not a king anyway, I'm a pirate --- and the Yggdrasil's captain, but I'm no king"
"Listen Bart." Sigurd's voice was slow, reflective and intense like the surface of a dusty old mirror that still held an image in a darkened room. "When I was captive in Solaris I was brainwashed --- my mind was completely wiped dry." Bart stared at the older man in surprise. His guardian had never even mentioned his experiences in Solaris before the appearance of Hyuga, and Bart suddenly realized that there were more secrets behind the smooth amber face with it's single sky blue eye than he had ever thought. "Yes" Sigurd said, noticing Bart's reaction. "I was brainwashed --- totally, I could only think and feel what I was told to and nothing else."
"How?" Bart breathed, temporarily forgetting his moral dilemma in a flush of morbid curiosity. Sigurd sighed, mimicking the moaning desert wind, and when he spoke his voice was as dead and gritty as the Aveh sand itself.
"They put you in front of a screen with four lights on it, your wired up to a torture device that gives you constant pain --- and they can make it lesser or greater by the turn of a switch. They ask you how many lights you see, you say "Four" and then they tell you: 'No their's five' and increase the pain." Sigurd's words seemed to flow, and he seemed to have forgotten the original reason for speaking this hidden horror in the shear and simple gladness to let it all out. "They do it again, and again and again until you think you'll go mad."
Bart wasn't impressed. At the word "Brainwashed" he had visualized a scientist's nightmare of electrodes and wires plugging into the living brain with bolts of electricity flashing along thin cables like frozen lightning. "That's all?"
Sigurd nodded, grunting his ascent, his single eye a dim shadow of that long remembered torture.
"Can't you fake an answer?"
"No, they ask you to point to the light and if you can't, they up the pain. It took me months but by the end I could really see that light, and if they told me a beaker of sulfuric acid was clean water, I'd have gulped it down without a question. The light torture stops you believing your senses, you only believe what they tell you, they told me that I'd always been in Solaris --- that --- I had no name ---" His words had slowed to a trickle, a painful exhalation forcing itself from the dark crevice of his mind where he had pushed it for the past years. "That --- I was nothing --- only fit to serve them." With a sudden shake of shoulders and pristine hair, Sigurd roused himself from his memory of past torment, and a gentle bright smile touched his lips, he looked old in that moment, far older than his 25 years, a wise cleric who'd wandered down every road in the world, seen every creature and possessed the secret of all knowledge, a wise sage ancient and beautiful. "You know the one thing that brought my mind and memory back?" He paused, and the red light played upon the metal and down on the desert, and Bart could feel his ship beneath him like a living steed. The young prince shook his head. "You and Margie --- Not as the Prince and Princess of Aveh, but as children."
"It's true Bartholomew." It was Citan's voice, and Bart turned slightly to see the doctor leaning with a calm solemnity on the railing that ran around the top of the Yggdrasil, his black eyes unreadable in the dim light.
"Less than 2% of all who undergo that kind of mental conditioning are able to recall their former selves --- and of those only 20% are able to regain their previous personalities --- the other 80% quite often suffer severe mental breakdown caused by the conflict in subconscious conditioned suggestions and previously held ingrained beliefs."
Bart shifted his feet uncomfortably. "Well --- I'm glad you didn't wind up nuts Sigurd."
"So am I Bart --- so am I. But you are the king, and Bledavik is your home."
"I haven't been there in 12 years --- not since Shakahn took over."
"It is interesting Bartholomew." Citan's voice held that detached clinical note he used when discussing intricate designs of machinery. "I was always taught in Solaris that social hierarchy and nobility amongst Lambs was simply a collection of decadent and greedy fools who were kept in power only by the stupidity of those beneath them and their own overrated sense of superiority. But In your case I believe all the old ideals about "Divine right of kings" and "Gentlemen by birth" have been proved correct. If the throne was awarded to the most capable individual you would still be king."
Bart shifted uneasily, one hand --- like a miniature scuttling crab in the dimness, playing with the toggle fastenings of his over coat. "So tomorrow, I take down Shakhan and become king."
"And in the mean time you go and bathe. It is important of a king to maintain a regal and cleanly appearance." Sigurd's voice was almost amused.
"Bathe, Huh? --- But I though you said that being a king didn't matter?"
"This is this and that is that"
"What?" The exasperated prince glowered at his white clad guardian with an expression that was almost comical.
"Being a king doesn't matter in terms of moral obligations or attitudes, but there are certain standards that a king must maintain and cleanliness is one of them"
"Okay" Bart turned to leave, strutting across the metal deck of his ship like the captain he was, turning at the ladder's top to yell a hasty good night to the two older men. "See you tomorrow guys." And he was gone.
"He is ready." Citan commented, shielding his eyes from a particularly playful gust of wind that sent his long black pony tale flower out like a raven banner in the starry night. "He really is destined to be a king"
"You think so Hyuga?" Citan nodded thoughtfully, his angular tanned face even more abstracted than usual. Sigurd frowned thoughtfully back at his friend, his two white eyebrows, stained with fire by the lunar eclipse drawing together above the flashing blue orb and the thick black patch. "Fei has a destiny too doesn't he --- and one far more important that Bart's"
"Your talent for perception is evidently unabated." Sigurd laughed. "It that supposed to mean: 'your still a nosy bastard'?"
"Well not precisely --- I mean your parents were in wedlock when you were born?" Sigurd shook his head, a smile on his lips.
"I don't think so"
"Oh --- Well in that case maybe your assessment of my meaning was correct"
"You don't change do you Hyu?"
Citan shrugged, and all the lines on his angular face seemed to map the journeys of his life. "Probably not --- but no one really does, not unless they grow stronger"
"Fei isn't ready for what he has to do is he?" Sigurd asked shrewdly, the doctor shook his head, wiping one hand across his brow wearily.
"Not yet --- but he will be. That is partly why I concur with Bart's request for him to lead the strike force. Since the destruction of his home Fei has suffered from an abnormal lack of confidence, accomplishing a task, which he believes is worthwhile, and which has such an important meaning as the elimination of Vanderkaum's fleet would clearly be of great help to him. And I don't think he's in any real danger"
"No, not unless Vanderkaum has got it into his thick skull that lead won't stop a gear"
"I doubt it, persons with high-density craniums rarely change"
Sigurd laughed again and Citan joined in, humor beneath the warrior's bloody moon and cold wheeling stars, humor in the middle of a dark desert on the eve of battle.
* * * * *
The moon shown down it's ominous light with no discretion, and as it's beams fell on the Yggdrasil waiting at anchor, the yellow 'Y' reduced to a pallid wrath on it's massive side, the beams shown down well across the desert, into the narrow shady streets of Bledavik, still and silent at this late hour. Into the slums it shone refueling the sleepers and blessing them for tomorrow's dawn of toil and starvation, and into the houses of the rich, dying their silken sheets and pillows with the color of vital fire.
Red beams stole into the servant's quarters, where a bevy of maids, pages, mechanics, soldiers and cooks slept on straw mattresses beneath thin blankets, obedient to the rigid social order of Aveh society and not dreaming that that order might change.
Impartial as the moon was, it's beams reached into a glazed window in Fatima castle, to where a woman with pale skin was made into a sleeping statue of red marble, her pale lids closed over her ice cold eyes, and her indigo hair spread in a liquid mass of silk on the silken pillow. Beside her was a far less peaceful sleeper, a man with a powerful body and skin like polished brass. Where she was still, he fretted, and where she was silent, he cried out in his sleep, disjointed words and syllables and words of fear as he dreamed. In the blushing light of the warrior's moon, Ramsus was dreaming.
The figure was twisted and evil, it's face a mask of pale hatred, it's blazing golden eyes mocking as flame. Ramsus could hear it's chain-saw laughter as it jumped and twisted, black feet and pale hands slamming into gear after gear, bearing them down in sprits of fire.
Then it jumped backwards, stretching out both pallid claws in the light of those argent stars as if to catch a ball. Incandescent power flashed from it's hands, and Ramsus watched as more gears slammed into the ruins of smoking houses and broken columns, their Solarians pilots screaming in the pain of their burning.
The figure turned to Ramsus then, and the commander could not move, could do nothing but watch. The twisted creature ran one pale hand through it's shock of violently red hair, and as if summoned by that movement a blazing shape materialized behind it. Had Ramsus's dreaming ego not been rooted to the spot he would surely have run from the destruction he knew with certainty this gear could wreak upon the world. The twisted pilot gathered himself, and with a sudden leap he was sitting in the cockpit seat, jumping up from the black earth like a flee.
The red gear seemed to emanate an aura of hellish fear, it's form indistinct and pulsing. Behind it six gauzy wings composed of energy fluttered and flickered. Ramsus saw troops run forward in formation, guns firing, and behind them more gears. The red gear stamped forward, it's massive feet crushing man after man, ignoring the bullets that whizzed around it like angry flies.
It slamed one raging fist into the cockpit of one gear and pulled the struggling pilot free of his machine. With a demonic laugh, it hurled the man into the flaming inferno that had once been a pleasant provincial city, and reveled in his screaming agony.
With quick and hideous strokes, the red gear with it's demonic pilot crushed and burnt it's way through a score of opponents, blackening them with ether attacks, crushing them into powder, killing and destroying.
When all were dead the gear turned to Ramsus, and Ramsus could hear the wining buzz of the destroyer's voice. "Time to Die! Hahahahahaha!"
And the gear was moving forward, blocking out stars and fire and ruined city, on and on closer and closer, until it filled the whole world and the commander was staring straight into it's painted golden eyes, on and on etched in lines of fire on the back plate of his dreaming self.
Then with a little cry he woke.
The commander came awake instantly, the first sound he heard was his own voice giving vent to a terrified whimper like an animal in pain. He clamped down on his fear, seizing his insubstantial opponent and choking it with the cold hand of reason. He was here, a commander of the Gebler forces in Aveh, he was strong and confident, if he ever did meet that twisted demon again --- he promised himself that next time he would be the one who walked away victorious. And then of course there was Miang, he stretched out one hand under the bed clothes to check she was still there. She turned over restlessly, her blue hair rippling in the bleeding light.
"Dreaming again, Kahr?" Her voice was fogged with sleep.
"Mmmm" Ramsus said forcefully, he swung his legs out of the bed and onto the floor with a quick violent motion. He stood his feet bare on the soft pile carpet, the red light unable to pick out the slight scars from the attack after the tournament which had healed to mere slashes on his golden skin.
"You seem to have frequent nightmares regarding Elru --- perhaps some psychological help is necessary?"
"I don't think so. I don't want any one poking around in my unconscious, thank you!" His voice was bitter, he hated people to see him like this, fearful weak and cowardly, that was the main reason he so desired to meet that demon of chaos again, and overcome him, as if by destroying his own fear he could increase his value in the eyes of normal humans. He wrapped a robe around his naked shoulders, patted down his tousled golden hair and walked abruptly from the room, his back ram rod straight, his movements those of a warrior.
The door closed behind him with a soft but final click, and the room was left to red moonlight, faint starlight, and the cold presence of Miang.
"Peeping Lacan --- that is very unworthy of you."
There was a deep maniacal chuckle from the darkness, and a voice like black spider silk. "So thou art still receptive to my presence Miang."
The form hovered outside the window for a moment, then for one single instant it seemed all the red light was blotted out, then Grahf was in the room. He stood in the red light like a bastion of cloud against the moon, his cloak falling to the floor in folds of deepest nightshade. The light played across his steel mask and into the deep black holes of his eyes, and though the mask was stained with it, the eyes remained like coals of dark fire, no light escaping their murky depths.
"The boy you seek was at the tournament" Miang lay back languidly on the pillow, seeming to ignore the fact that the blanket had slipped down her naked body to show an expanse of smooth pale skin. Grahf ignored it as well, his eyes locked on Miangs. She returned the steady black soul sucking gaze with cool detachment, her own indigo eyes as cold and unreadable as destiny.
"And thou saw his power Miang. Indeed he is most apt for both of our purposes, as the sword forged for a single hand shall he be to me."
"You can have him, I do not need him. In fact if you had him it would make my task all the easier"
"Thou perceivest well mine intent. But at the last thou and I must needs take up our enmity once again"
"I do not think so. Once my God awakens my task is done, the Miang will no longer be needed --- except perhaps as a sacrificial virgin." For the first time Grahf's dark eyes measured the length of Miang's naked body their black gaze running swiftly from the indigo fan of hair on the pillow, down the length of silken skin stained red by the bloody light, but there was nothing amorous in his glance, it was rather as a man assessing the strength of a weapon that he looked at her. "Thou hast used Ramsus to gain thy position with the ministry. He is a fool and doth well deserve the bond that ties him to thee"
As if noticing her display of herself for the first time, Miang pulled the sheets up, hiding her body though her finely sculpted face and distant eyes didn't change. "He is not necessary if that is what you mean, but he has other uses than as political pawn" Grahf shrugged his midnight shoulders, his manner dismissive. His dark velvet voice seemed to hold a note of petulance. "That is thine affair Miang. But I warn thee ---" He paused, his eyes seeming to exceed the realms of darkness with their intensity, his voice growing powerful and urgent like the lashing of the tale of Opophis, the ancient serpent of legend which consumes the souls of the evil dead. "Plot against me, and thou shalt surely die. I wouldst destroy thee Miang as a man swats and crushes the tinniest of flies. Thy power is nothing when set against my strength"
"I do not intend to plot against you, we both after all have the same goal Grahf. This eclipse is an omen of munch doom to come I think, and perhaps a harbinger of triumph"
Grahf laughed softly, and an expression almost of contempt briefly flashed across the confines of Miang's cool blue gaze.
Grahf didn't notice, he was too much caught up in his own single-minded gloating. "A moon of blood to preface an epoch of war, the time of last things is upon us and soon all the world will burn, then shall I stand before God and conquer." As if this had been the final words of a catechism Grahf turned preparing to leave. "Farewell Miang, until we meet again"
There was a quick flow, a darkening of the moon, and the spirit of entropy was gone, away in the red and black of the night, like a vulture flapping across a carrion strewn field of battle.
Miang looked after him with that same glimmer of contempt. How dare he threaten her lord, but it did not matter, Grahf would be useful to her for a little while longer, and at the last she felt sure, when her task was done the sword of God would wreak it's revenge.
Drive to Violence
Elly strode manfully forward her pale face set and stern beneath its shroud of foxy hair. Fei would have recognized that poise and easy economy of movement as that she had shown the first time he saw her, back in Blackmoon forest when she pointed a gun at him like some trigger happy sentry. It was a soldier's walk, going precisely with her uniform jacket, broad martial belt and brown flying trousers. At her waste the defuse light of that huge cavernous shipping bay beneath the ancient citadel; large enough to hold three Solarian gun ships, glowed militaristically from the blades of her rods.
The Solarian troops standing in four or five hard bleak battalions didn't react to her presence, but they weren't supposed to, the rank and file of the Solarian forces were little more than robots, fierce enough in combat but almost catatonic in the presence of superior rank.
But the small knot of her own Geblar unit was far from robotic. As she strode towards them, her full lips set in a commanding line idle comments drifted to her ears like scraps of waste paper blown on the wind.
"I'm not sure about this business of having a woman as our lieutenant Stratski."
"I suppose she's a nice person and all that --- and damn it she's pretty but well --- she's just a girl."
"He may have a point I mean, all that mix up over Lahan --- suppose she's a real novice" It was Broyer's thick voice, as fat and podgy as his obese body, his squareish face bulging into an expression of concern.
'I am your commanding officer whether you like it or not, such comments I consider rank insubordination." Elly's voice was clipped and short as a colonel's moustache, and the short ugly Solarian word for insubordination (Who's literal meaning meant rebellion against the Solarian state), slashing out like a slim bright sword of anger.
Helmholz shrugged, the strange purplish mass of his hair catching odd little highlights as he moved his head in a selection of nervous gestures that with his pale skin and slight build gave him a ferret like appearance. "We don't really like Rank, We've been together for a good while and we can't do with some little girlie clogging our wheels. Maybe it'd be better if you stayed here whilst we take this mission, you don't want to be shot down again, soldiering's a man's job"
Elly squared her shoulders, she knew that taking command of this new Gebler unit would be tough, and their first sight of her, carried like a child in Renk's arms was not the best first impression, they had seemed friendly but she now wondered if they were worried about accepting her as their leader." I can fight well enough, I was shot down because of a defective Aveh Gear Corporal!" She spoke the purple haired man's rank with a distinct scorn.
"Just because you're beautiful doesn't mean you should be so damn cocksure." Helmholz muttered sourly.
"Hold on a minuite Helm, having a good looking commanding officer could have it's benefits" It was Vanse who spoke, Elly whirled on him in a single movement her eyes blazing like the muzzles of a firing squad's guns. She saw the challenging look that had first crossed the soldier's face evaporate under the fury of her gaze. His hand played nervously with the belt of his black overalls.
"Keep that pervert away from me." Stratski said lightly, trying to defuse the tension that had built up as he added: "Besides you shouldn't be jealous Vance, she's much prettier."
"No way I'm beautiful." Vance's hard face showed a totally deadpan look, his large water blue eyes ironically empty and Elly knew that she had won the confrontation. She looked from face to face of her command unit, Broyer's square brown eyes with their peculiar sharpness, Stratski's angular blue eyes that seemed strangely sly, Helmholz's heavy spectacles that gave him a myopic look, and lastly at her oldest friend, the only member of her original command assigned to this unit, Renk with his bushy rust colourer mane and his rough red features.
"I wouldn't start putting her down as a bad job yet guys." Renk's face was sober, Elly knew that the big sergeant for all his forthright honesty would not take part in an argument, so she had expected no support from him during the attack of the other soldiers.
"You do know that our lieutenant Van Hutan came back from the Kislev reconnaissance single handed --- the one where two companies were ambushed and completely destroyed ---"
"Well --- maybe it'll work, but keep out of our way." It was Helmholz who spoke and Elly knew that it would take a while to earn his trust.
She had met people like him before, bound to their group or ideal, but soon he would gain faith in her and then she would be an accepted member of the team and age or gender would not matter. It was odd Elly thought as they walked over to where their gears were stationed, how easily she could read people, she seamed to know just what would set them at ease, and what their strengths and weaknesses were almost without thinking, it was uncanny sometimes, but it was a gift she valued, a gift that had allowed her to get far in the military and gain the confidence of others.
At the end of the huge cavern like hanger were the Geblar gears, light white almost wispy constructs which had a significant amount of power despite their deceptive slimness each with the red Geblar G splashed on it's back like a dab of fresh blood. At the end of the line of gears was Elly's own model, a slim elegant machine in white and lilac, it's weapons two destructive rods, it's jets tastefully hidden. Though gears are only machines Lieutenant Van Hutan's had a strangely feminine air about it, a distinct femaleness that in no way detracted with the cold aura of efficient deadliness it emanated. Light glimmer on the cockpit window as on a woman's jewellery, but all the soldiers knew that this slim seemingly fragile gear was more dangerous than any five of theirs.
"New Model --- Special for Jugend graduates, --- first one I've ever seen, name Vierge." But the other Geblar soldiers didn't need Renk's whisper, they could tell a killer machine when they saw one.
"Lets hope the little girl can handle it." Vance muttered to Helmholz, a dark smile playing across his arrogant lips.
Elly heard his mutter but said nothing, she had gained their grudging, and compromising obedience and that would be enough. He would learn better. She smiled wickedly, her normally pretty face becoming heart-stoppingly beautiful as her violet eyes mischievously, he would learn.
* * * * *
The desert sluiced by beneath Weltall's jets like the sands of time pouring eternally backwards in some immense egg timer. Fei sat relaxed and watchful in his customary battle clothes, hands loose on the controls as only a professional's hands can be. About him he felt his gear thrum and howl, splashes of dirty sand flinging up occasionally to splatter his cockpit glass. The fear was all gone now, and his liquid eyes glowed with a wild trembling exultation, the expression of a conservative believer walking with calm and measured tread to his altar, to his purpose.
As if to mirror the sudden flaming gold of the rising sun, an unexpected revelation struck him, he had found what the man in blue had told him to find --- the man who had so completely evaded him at the tournament. He had found his purpose for fighting and that purpose was friendship. Almost subconsciously he understand that he had begun the walk of the long twisting road to fulfilment, and the expunging of his dreadful bloody sin. The sun rose slowly, creeping up the sky with inexorable timing, large and fat and bleeding gold. The desert around them was a harsh rocky tangle of sand and flat boulders winging their way past the flying gears beneath the hard blue arch of the cloudless sky.
"Alpha one to leader --- alpha one to leader"
Fei started as the tinny little voice crackled over his intercom then realized that it was coming from one of the gray solid pirate gears which flew in fan formation behind him, making Weltall the spearhead of a metallic arrow piercing across the glittering waste.
"Leader here." Fei's voice was hesitant as he spoke into the microphone, feeling a little unsteady about identifying himself as "Leader"
"Just informing you that we're coming up to a cave system, there may be a few rogue machines inside."
"--- Fine." Fei thought back to the Stalicite cave, and the mechanical gears that had mindlessly attacked them. "Keep together, we don't want anyone to get picked off in there"
"We know what we're doing Leader' the voice was respectfully short, but Fei half imagined he caught a note of sourness.
"Identify yourself alpha one."
"Sergeant Maitreya here."
"Look Maitreya ---" Fei paused, he had no idea of how to be an officious leader or how to make snap decisions but he felt as he had at the battle arena, that he had a job to do. "I know what I'm doing too." He said a little unsteadily as the outline of a huge jagged cliff topped the horizon like an immense broken tooth biting its way into the air.
"Bart mentioned that you were a little worried and that's not surprising, you're only a kid after all. Just stay back if you like and we can handle anything we come up against" Fei ground his teeth.
"I can fight well enough if I have to." But then he shut up, they were coming up to the mouth of the cavern and the last thing he wanted was mutiny in the ranks.
"OK Leader, I guess you'll be fine, sorry about being snooty I'm just a little on edge" As the cliff started to block out half the sky like some solid pawl of rising smoke Fei felt relief fill him. Glancing back he thought he caught sight of Maitreya, a slightly older man who's brown hair was tipped with gray, sitting professionally in the cockpit of the leading gear.
"That's ok Maitreya ---" Fei's voice trailed off, as he manoeuvred around a set of rock pillars that stuck out of the floor like teeth in the mouth of a savage desert kraken. They continued on the light fading, soon they were obliged to switch on the powerful ark lights mounted on their gears. They also slowed their speed and walked rather than flew, fearful of hitting something.
Fei thought how differently he felt from the last experience of riding a gear through a cave the first time he had met the strange piratical prince. But now he had a purpose, a task and a squad of gears at his back. He remembered the hermit like old archaeologist they had encountered who had told them of the powerful omnigears, and hinted at something else. He imagined the God Gear, able to sweep away all of Shakhan's army in a sweep of it's arm, unbidden a memory hit him, hard and dark as a bullet.
Dark Grahf with his thoughts of inner power, his dark eyes scanned the cracks and crannies in the hard rock walls around him, not looking for mechanical enemies, just looking. Suddenly he felt the weight of the cliff above him, pressing down, crushing down, --- suddenly he felt afraid. With a strange kind of mental scent he knew that something was coming, something darker than the blackness outside the radius of their electric light, it would not come now --- perhaps not even until after the recapture of Bart's kingdom, but it was coming and there was nothing he could do to stop it. And the worst thing was that it was coming for him --- and for him alone.
A flood of relief swept through Fei a second after a harsh flood of opalescent desert light flooded his cockpit. His fear in the cave had been irrational --- even childish but even whilst he dismissed it he was still glad to be out in the sun. Light dazzled his eyes in a glimmer of sun on metal, he blinked then briefly raised one hand to lower the sun blind a little so that he could make out what lay ahead.
They were on top of the cliff, standing on a shear plateaux of rock that lay in the full glare of the sun and wind like the battlements of a natural fortress, it stretched out forwards and to both sides for miles like a giant's dining table hard and brown and more ancient than oak. Ahead of him Fei could see the back of Maitreya's gear with the Yggdrasil Y blazing in the sun. But it was what was ahead of Maitreya that concerned him most, a squad of gears standing like a dazzling white flock of angels. They were thin even almost weak seeming, but Fei knew that was an elusion, he knew because he could see the bloody symbol that adorned their backs like some barbaric totem of a primitive tribe, the dark read G of Geblar.
"Those are the guys that attacked the hideout" Maitreya's voice crackled across the transmitter. Fei squared his shoulders and brushed a stray lock of hair from his forehead. His hands trembled slightly on the controls with the imminences of battle, and he squared his shoulders, muscles bulging beneath his white shirt --- the shirt he had worn at the obliteration of Lahan. All fear was gone, left behind in the darkness of the caves, as nightmares must remain in the fog of sleep and rarely intrude into the daytime world of light and reason.
"You go on ahead --- I'll ---" Fei's swallowed, then continued more strongly. "--- I'll hold them"
"You can't take them all on."
Fei smiled. "I don't plan to --- I'll hit and run, but if they see all of us they'll know where we're going and Vanderkaum's fleet will return to Bledavik, if they just see one or two of us then they'll pass us off as scouts"
"Okay, that's good thinking but we'll wait undercover and if things look hairy ---"
"If you think that's best? "
"I do" Maitreya's voice crackled back firm and decisive and all the things that Fei's voice wasn't.
"Look, if you do come to help me only send out two or three others, then they'll think we're scouts.
"Understood, Maitreya out"
Fei was amazed at the ease with which he had commanded this old soldier, he was still unsure, still uncertain, but he knew that if the entire force were to attack the Geblar gears Bart's plan would go to ruin. He was not afraid, after all he could always jet himself away if necessary, but he felt a worry about his decision rise in him like a tide of bile, was he doing the right thing, should he order his men to completely destroy the force of the enemy gears. Then suddenly with a decidedness that would have astonished even Elly, he crushed his indecision, he was in charge, this is what he would do.
The speaker signed off with a final click, and as Fei moved Weltall --- slowly now, forward into the full sight of the pilots of the ghoulish white gears. As he moved forward Fei felt a supreme sense of deja vu, seeing this gear --- or a gear like this, moving forward to engage an enemy waiting beneath a desert sun, it had all happened before perhaps in another lifetime. But with a shrug Fei banished the strange feeling and concentrated fully on the battle ahead, he had an obligation to fulfil and he would fulfil it.
Vanse looked at the purple shape which rushed down the plateau towards them. He blinked his blue eyes and smiled wolfishly. "Hey guys, it's that one that beat us before --- in the pirate base"
In his own slim white Geblar gear Helmholz pushed his glasses further up on his nose as the light glanced of his purple costume and oddly colored hair." No Lamb's going to get the best of us right? "
There was a plume of fire growing from his jets, and seconds later it was mimicked in the jets of Stratski and Vans." --- It's rematch! Time!!!!!!"
From the cockpit of her own pink and white vierge, Elly watched with trouble drifting across the depths of her eyes. She knew who that pilot was --- even though she hadn't been at the Pirate Base because of her wounds, she knew that purple gear with it's obvious jets, slim build and cannon. There was no doubt in her mind, and so it was with no surprise that she caught a glimpse of white clothing and flowing dark hair from the purple-black gear's cockpit. It was the boy from the forest, the boy who she ---. It was Fei.
Fei saw the three gears rushing at him and he reacted instantly his hands racing, his body mimicking the gear's movements with a temple dancer's precision. One of the enemy gears; Unbeknown to Fei piloted by Helmholz, was slightly ahead of the others. Fei sent a beam of Ether energy siething out in a crackling white stream. It struck the Geblar gear on one shoulder, but apart from minor scorching of armour-plating it had little effect. Grimly Fei rushed forward and upwards, accelerating his own powerful jets to meet the adversary in mid air. The ground fell away and then he faced the white gear, close enough to see a glimmer of purple hair and pale skin from the Plexiglas of the cockpit.
He slammed one fist forward in a roundhouse perfect as any boxer, the synchronized circuits of the gear responding, bringing Weltall's massive metal fist into stunning contact with the Solarian gear's head. Helmholz's gear reeled backwards, staggering in mid air, but then he countered, turning the stagger into a jet propelled kick that slammed into Weltall's chest.
With no thought whatsoever Fei moved his body in a fighter's crouch, dragging the massive gear into a block position even as the kick slammed forward. Then the other metal fist was sent crashing into the opposite side of Helmholz's gear's head and the Solarian was falling to crash onto the ground in flaming ruins.
Fei brought Weltall down to the rock below, but even as the gear's feet touched the ground Stratski and Vanse leapt onto Weltall like hunting hounds on a stag, diving down like birds of prey. Fei had no chance to block that simultaneous attack and was sent crashing to the ground, slamming back painfully into the straps, his head cracking against the cockpit wall with a dull thud. He shook his head to clear it, his eyes glazing for a second. Then he saw the two gears diving down at him, as Weltall lay prone and helpless. Frantically Fei twisted his body into a rolling dive, and the gear reciprocated, rolling from under the descending fury and coming to it's feet in a marvel of baletic motion.
Feeling the blood pound in his ears Fei saw the low fuel light flashing on his controls and cursed, he hadn't thought to reuptake fuel after the long desert journey. As Stratski and Vanse started their rush Fei activated his main ether weapon, even as he pressed the uptake switch. The ball of high-energy ether slammed straight into the two gears, hurling them backwards in a flurry of limbs and sparking circuits.
In Vierge's cockpit Elly was troubled, she stood stock still with her chestnut hair flowing, her strangely vulnerable face made more vulnerable by the expression of concentration and worry she wore. She looked slowly from where the wreckage of her unit sparked and glittered to the menacing monolithic figure of the dark gear that stood on the horizon like a votive statue to some capricious and powerful god.
"Lieutenant"It was Renk's voice, harsh across the speakers, distorted and rough as the desert rocks of the plateau. "Lieutenant, we're not gonna beat this guy, he's good. In the pirate base he trashed a good few of us and the Schpariel unit. But if you take some Drive you could take him on"
"Drive" Elly's voice was hesitant, even regretful, her eyes shadowed.
"Yeah it's the only way. You know how it increases your fighting potential" Elly's face clouded, her violet eyes darkening until they were the colour of a midnight sky.
She had some of course, several syringes of the drug stashed away in a locker at the side of Vierge's cockpit, but did she dare?
"Come on Girlie, let's see how good you are" It was Broyer's fat and contempt filled voice, bitter with the defeat of his comrades. "Let's see if you can take it, if you think you're so tough"
"Broyer! That's rank insubordination" It was Renk's voice over the air waves, unusually stepping in. "Lieutenant Van Hutan's a helluva fighter, and with Drive she's a demon."
Elly's foxy hair glinted in the river of sunlight, her white uniform jacket that she took so much pride in seeming to loose it's lustre. She cast back in her mind, to the last time she had injected her system, the steel corridor, walking and then the explosion of etheric energy, burning crushing destroying. But Fei ---, the pilot of the purple gear was good, extremely good, possibly too good for her and the remaining members of her unit to handle, and wasn't it her duty, duty to home and race and the Solarian Ideal, and most of all duty to these men whom she commanded.
"And the drive will give you balance and poise, smoothing your mind and making your ready to fight" The voice came unbidden, the sibilant snake-like voice of her old combat trainer, who had come to their class with his sharp little glass needles and intoxicants. It had been he who had served with that lethal dose before her first skirmish --- the skirmish that had gone so disastrously wrong." Here you go, it'll stop you being afraid." But it would turn her into a monster, destroy every atom of decency or judgement she had. "--- But it will sto ---" It would dismember the sweet human essence that was so much part of her nature. "--- Afraid" It would turn her into a robot make her --- "--- powerfull enough to do anything!"
Abruptly she undid the straps that held her hands and feet in the gear control grips. She stood slowly reaching out with one tentative hand, afraid but resolute, it was the only way to defend her comrades.
Her fingers touched the catch of the locker as if it were hot, touched and pressed, then a small glass cylinder was in her hand, one end sheared to a delicate shape like some tiny rapier, the other holding a bulbous air cylinder. With trembling yet sure fingers she rolled up her jacket's sleeve and pressed the stiletto tip of the syringe into her arm. As she pressed the plunger she moved her pale lips in a silent oath, that she would fight to the death like a mother fox protecting it's young. Then suddenly all feeling was lost, catatonia and illation sweeping her body in waves. She shook and her lips drew back from her even teeth. Her face that Fei had thought so fine and vulnerable hardened, became feral and wolfish. Now she truly resembled a fox, with sharp slavering fangs, a fox rabid and hostile, which would kill and kill and kill with no compunction or check. A fox who's aim was destruction.
Fei relaxed in the straps, heat from the sun baking his face, the tiny metallic box of the cockpit with it's padded grips and controls seemed small and cramped despite the wide Perspex window that showed the desert panorama before him. He was watching the remaining Geblar gears as they stood on the harsh rock like giant predatory white scorpions. He waited, still and calm, filled with coldness of battle and the tense relaxation of the fighter. Then suddenly he heard a tinny urgent tone sound and his dark eyes swirled to the bleep monitor. Something was coming at him, fast, very fast.
Then before he had time to react the white gear with the pink facings slammed a destructive rod into Weltall's chest. Fei felt his gear falling, hitting the desert floor in a cloud of dust. Through the dust he saw the strangely feminine shape of Vierge standing over him with Rods raised.
His eyes travelled up the slim elegant metal body, the pink facings, the slim waste, the two short rods with their diamond tipped blades, up to where the cockpit window pierced out of the gear's sleak head. The young man gasped and for a second his body was rigid with emotion, all thought blanked out for that single instant of realization. For the pilot he saw was a girl, slight in her flying jacket, reddish hair flowing around her shoulders, pale face intent. But what had shocked Fei was not the realization that his opponent was the girl who had saved his sanity in Blackmoon forest, it was the expression in her violet eyes. The pupils were dileted and showing the whites giving her a dead look, and in the center of each eyes shone a mad fanatical spark like the tiniest of ether blasts. As he watched her teeth appeared from behind thinly drawn lips, a feral look taking over her vulnerable beautiful face --- bleaching away the pale loveliness with bestial ugliness.
She raised one of Vierge's arms and pointed down at Fei. Snapping out of his paralysis the young pilot hit the jet button, using their impetus to flash his gear into the air, righting it from it's prone position in a sickening lurch.
It was lucky for Fei that he had moved, for a second later a disk of white metal with a corona or orange light whistled through the air where Weltall had been. It spun swift and deadly, slamming into the rock in an explosion of dust and ether. Fei looked down in surprise, but then twisted back frantically as Elly sithed up at him like a rearing horse, blades extended.
"Wow!" Broyer's voice was reverent as his bright eyes followed the swift fluid movements of his commander. He shrugged his podgy shoulders worriedly, thinking of how he had dared to call this impressive fighter girly.
"See that" Renk's voice crackled over the radio, Broyer blinked as the white disk of metal sliced through the air, trailing white and yellow energy like a comet. "Those are Aerods; Animum ether response offensive drones. Only the best pilots can use 'em"
"She's the real deal alright" Agreed Broyer, his pudgy hands sliding from the grips as he watched Vierge lancing up at the dark gear with it's rods jabbing forward.
Fei swung aside, adrenaline filling his system with fire, Weltall seemed to stagger in mid air, and then the purple gear was moving forward, and Fei was bringing up one hand in a glancing blow at Vierge's unprotected side.
Then suddenly he caught a sight of Elly's face again, as Vierge hurtled past him to roll on the rock and come to it's feet, dust fountaining around it The strange fanatical hatred in her face took his breath away, and he could do nothing but shriek her name into the loud hailor." Elly! What're you doing?!"
The voice that responded was cold and metallic, seeming to be dragged from the girl's vocal cords like a finger running across slate. There was a strange deadness in the screaming words that made Fei's hair stand on end." I am Elhaym Van Hutan! Solarian officer and Geblar commander!! You are a Lamb all Lambs must die, you are inferior and the Solarian race must triumph!" A bolt of ether energy crackled across the space between them and seared into Weltall's chest, Fei just had time to skip sideways to the bolt only flayed a little armour plating from Weltall's right arm. With a strange intuition he knew that he could not kill this girl, and as his gear hung in mid air, facing Vierge which floated on it's jets a few metres away, his wide brown eyes shimmered as he remembered sitting beneath a tree in a moonlit wood, and a girl with chestnut hair who had offered to watch while he slept, offered him piece in the dark and silver of his pain.
"Elly! Snap out of it, this isn't you!" His voice was choked, stilted like a child with a cut knee who cannot find its mother. "Elly!" He couldn't understand the emotion that welled in him, it was need older than his life, set in his genes, the same need that had led her to violate her principles and help him escape Bledavik citadel, an empathy beyond simple human thought, an animal magnetism that united them in destiny. What it was he didn't know, but he knew that if either of them died, the other would not survive.
"I am Solarian, you are a Lamb you must bow to the might of our power, we the Abel are destined to inherit this world whilst you are an inferior creature!" Vierge hurtled at Fei one rod slashing a cut in the armour of the arm that Fei raised to protect Weltall's cockpit.
"Elly!!!"The veil of destruction covered her eyes like a white mist of fury, all were her enemies, she fought for Solaris, she was invincible! Then suddenly something cut through, a voice she knew not from where, hammering in. Even as she attack the dark and sinister gear with it's strong looking pilot she heard the voice --- was it his.
It called her name, told her that she was not herself. But she was! She was Elhayme, Solarian killer! Wasn't she? Suddenly she thought she could name that young man with the weak face and scary dark eyes --- not scary, beautifull liquid and animal full of welling emotion. Fei! That was his name.
"Fei, I --- I uhu" Pain wracked her mind and body as the drug fought with her memory, this boy was enemy, "I hate you! You lamb Pig!" But then she saw him clearly, his face. And with it she remembered other things, life justice freedom --- love of humanity." F --- F --- Fei" Then suddenly the veil lifted, and she was left exhausted, slumped against the straps of her gear, sweat bathing her body and running in her hair. But she was herself! Elly!
Fei saw the change of expression almost instantly, Saw as the face softened, the eyes loosing their terrible glare and that loveliness he remembered returning to the pale face. He waited until she had powered Vierge down, lowering it to the ground, and then he let Weltall fall beside her, like a tired man lowering himself into an easy chair.
With hands that still shook he undid the straps and walked to the hatch, climbing down the ladder. He didn't know what he planned to do --- apologise maybe, but he wanted to speak to Elly, and see her face as it was.
Elly climbed out of Vierge and sat down in its shade, her flying boots crossed. Her head leaned against a sun-warmed rock, which felt at that moment like the softest of silken pillows.
"Elly?" She opened her eyes and saw Fei standing before her; the huge shapes of Weltall and Vierge towering over them both like benevolent giant grandparents watching the antics of tiny children.
"I warned you Fei" Her voice was quiet sad and tired. "I said next time we meet we would be enemies"
"What --- was it" He asked, his eyes so full of concern that Elly gave a sad wan smile.
“A combat enhancing drug." She replied in her softly accented speech.
"A Drug? What kind of drug could make you so ---" He wave one strong hand vaguely. Elly leaned back, staring into the quiet blue of the desert sky.
"Drive, a special neurological compound with some of the effects of testosterone --the aggression I mean, it's specially manufactured to avoid all the other side effects"
Fei shook his head, his long hair showing it's true deep brown in the harsh revealing light." It made you --- insane"
Elly sighed. "When I take it I feel that I'm full of a power that I can't control. I feel that I don't exist anymore, there is only this --- anger and this huge power and desire to destroy"
Fei's eyes suddenly lit with warm fire, suddenly the strange empathy they shared became clear like a crystal glass held up to the sun. "We're the same --- that's probably why we understood each other so well"
"Your saying we lick each other's wounds" Asked Elly quietly.
"Well --- yes, but more than that. We understand each other"
"I know" Her voice was a light wisp of sound that fell on the still heated air like a scrap of tattered silk blown by the wind --- pale and thin.
"Look you don't have to take this drug, what good does it do you, if I could rid myself of the power that destroyed Lahan ---"
"It's not that simple. I need it to fight" She straightened pride coming back into her exhausted violet eyes.
"All that just to fight?" Fei asked the question gently, but inside he felt horror, to think that a person would voluntarily go through that destructive agony just for the purpose of combat! But his eyes remained warm.
"Yes, the Army is my life, my home my comrades. I need to fight to protect them, I am Solarian and I must fight for that too ---" She sighed again her eyes filling with regret. "Come With me Elly." Fei said suddenly. "Then you won't have to fight." She shook her head, feeling sorry that she had to crush the almost earnest spark that shone in Fei's eyes. Fei sat down slowly, he had half expected it but still --- somehow he felt that Elly and he had more to share than a mutual awareness of pain, but of course, she had her life and he his --- they could never touch again.
"I would come with you if I could, but the Army is my life, Solaris is my life. Sometimes I feel that fighting is the only way I can prove my identity --- I'm sorry"
"I know, don't be sorry it's not your fault ---" Fei paused, thinking that he must offer something, try and give this girl a gift of sympathy, a small spark of his caring to carry away with her into her life. The sun beat down on his head like the halo of some neutral angel, and the sand beneath his feet felt gritty as he shuffled nervously. "--- I want you to know that I'll be here for you."
Elly looked calmly at him with those deep violet eyes, and gratitude glimmered in their depths. Hastily worrying that he had given offence Fei said: "It isn't much --- and it doesn't really matter if you don't see me again but if you ever leave the military ---"
"Thank you Fei." Elly said simply, touching his hand lightly with pale feather-weighted fingers. Fei felt a strange mixture of exultation and regret well up in him, and he moved uncomfortably.
"I --- I've got to get back my friends are waiting"
"As are mine --- Goodbye Fei" She reached forward and took his hand firmly this time, and Fei could feel the strength in her grip. He gripped back, a last touch of humanity --- as if their mutual sympathy could be transmitted through human contact like some macabre electricity.
Then he released her hand and turned, dark hair flowing across his white clad shoulder, muscles standing out beneath his white shirt, his boot caked with desert dust. Elly watched as the young fighter turned and walked back to his gear, climbed the ladder and entered the cockpit. Then suddenly there was a lick of heat and Weltall was jetting away in a cloud of sand, it's dark shape flying towards the horizon like some purple-black bird of prey. Elly watched until it was lost behind an outcrop of rock, then stood brushing sand and light dust from her uniform. With quick practiced movements, she climbed Vierge's ladder and slammed the hatch down, a moment later and the desert was empty, left full of hard rock, hard light and hard emotion.
Sunlight fell out of the sky as if like golden liquid strained through a blue sieve, it was early morning in the desert, and the heat was not yet intense. The Yggdrasil glittered, it's Y symbol blazing like a banner as it tore through the diamond floored wastes, it's shadow speeding along beside it like some phantom escort. It was running quickly though not at top speed, and the wind scowered along its metallic sides, cleaning them with handfuls of harsh warm sand.
On the bridge Bart was in full command, his splendid martial jacket and white trousers newly brushed by Maison and his golden hair gleaming like a crown. His rugged handsome face rakish with an almost boyish grin of excitement that gleamed like sun on water, but if you looked underneath the surface you would see the worry, lurking like some malevolent shark just beneath the sunny confident exterior. Yet beneath that, was the iron resolve and will, like massive undersea mountains driving the prince along like a pile of fuel for a throbbing engine.
"Bledavik defense perimeter in five minutes and closing" the report was clipped and short, abrupt and military as the stamp of jackboots. The creature who gave it was the Yggdrasil's helmsman, a strange penguin like demi-human called Franz. The creature was scarcely over five and a half feet tall and was covered head to foot in feathers of white and glossy black. It's harsh voice came through a green articulated beak above it's beady black eyes scanned the scanners and readouts that littered the Yggdrasil's control panel. The helmsman wore a jacket of Yggdrasil green over his wing like arms, which seemed almost grotesque on such a performing animal like pilot.
But Bart knew with confidence that Franz was the best helmsman in Aveh, and he also knew that Franz like all his men would follow their pirate-prince into the gates of hell if he led them.
"I'm detecting some kind of movement under the sand via sonar scanning."
"Any idea what it is?"
The demi-human shook his beaked and feathery head. "No --- it could be a sand whale but it's reflection almost looks like a sand cruiser" The young prince spun on Sigurd who sat cool and demure off to the right with Maison and Citan. Bart didn't actually need them there, indeed they may have been more use in other parts of the ship but still he kept them on the bridge. Perhaps he didn't want to face this challenge with out his guardians, but it was far more likely that Bart wanted his teachers to see his final victory. A victory for which they had all worked and suffered for the past twelve years.
"Sig! Any reports of Shakhan's boys having a sand cruiser in this area?"
"Not anything like the Yggdrasil, you sank most of their normal cruisers in raids" As if reminded of his past victories Bart gave a quick thumbs up with two firm strong hands.
"Sir?" The voice was that of a young ensign in Yggdrasil green who sat at the communications board, the boy had sleek brown hair and dim gray eyes, sitting stiff and upright in his chair.
"What is it?" Bart asked, instantly banishing the problem of the strange sonar reading to the back of his mind. The boy shifted uncomfortably, his sixteen year old fingers playing amongst the switches of his panel like rabbits scuttling amongst stones, looking at them Citan wondered at the difference, in age there was only three years --- not much, but it was clear that whilst this nervous young crewman was still an adolescent, the charismatic pirate leader was clearly and irrevocably a man.
"Increased activity on the S band sir." The Ensign's voice was tentative but firm.
"The frequency used by Aveh naval vessels." Citan identified.
"Can you pick up any messages?" Bart asked eagerly his sapphire eye burning with enough intensity to more than compensate for its missing counterpart.
The Ensign picked up a pair of headphones from his control board and fitted them over his ears. After a second he turned back to his captain his gray eyes glowing. "The board fleet has requested back up"
"Yes!" Bart exulted. "We've got 'em on the ropes!"
"Wait a minute." It was Franz again, his voice wary. "I'm detecting something else on sonar, it sounds like anchors powering up and engines starting"
"Probably just a small guard on the castle, get the gears ready we'll go and meet it head on"
Beside Sigurd, Maison shook his gray locks, the dusty old eyes behind their specials worried. "I have a bad feeling about this young master"
But leaving the bridge, his gold hair flying like the mane of a restive young stallion, Bart didn't hear.
The five gears blasted out of the Yggdrasil's hatch and streamed across the sand like meteors, in the distance Bart could see the crenulated gray-brown walls of Bledavik rising like some natural mountain out of the desert's dusty face. Leaning forward in Brigandier's grips, his face lit up as he saw the squadron of ten green-gray Aveh gears waiting motionlessly on the horizon. "Fire at will, let's equalize the odds before we go in close."
"A sound strategy" Came Citan's slightly husky voice in a crackle of static. Bart's eyes scanned the controls as his fingers activated ether guns, then suddenly a large blip on his scanner caused his corn colored eyebrows to jump like golden flees up to his forehead. But then he slowly relaxed as he saw the blips were heading away from him and not towards him --- probably merchants or traders.
Returning to the business in hand he saw that three of the enemy gears were already downed smoking wrecks, blasted by the shots of his crewman. Not to be outdone Bart fired his own ether gun, seething the lethal energy into the cockpit of another enemy, sending flames ripping across the Aveh army gear's face like blood gouting from a wound. An ether bolt crackled over Brigandier's left shoulder as the enemies returned fire, Annoyed at the near miss Bart slammed on full power to his jets, bringing his wire-whip up to strike. Citan did not participate in the exchange of shots but blurred Heimdal up into the sky then stopped down on one of the enemy gears like a bird of prey, one of the Doctor's gear's heavy armored fists slammed down in a diving punch that burst into the enemy's fuel tank, sending flaming liquid sizzling into the sand.
As Heimdal struck like an olive green bolt of holy retribution, one of the Aveh gears dashed straight at the pirate leader in a mad suicidal charge, fist's raised. Bringing one arm up and feeling the gear amplify his movements, the young prince slashed his armor cutting lash across the rash attacker's fuel lead, sending sparks flying, the he jetted forward in a crushing kick that blasted the disabled enemy backwards, killing the pilot and crushing the head into a mass of splintered metal.
Behind Bart saw how his four crewmen were each disposing of one enemy, chopping them down with expert skill, But then Bart saw the last enemy raising one arm towards Heimdal's unprotected back.
"Citan look out!" He yelled into the radio.
Reacting on impulse the doctor slapped one hand onto the jet control and flew up, allowing the rush of lethal energy fired by the enemy gear to pass harmlessly beneath him. Then he flashed down in a crushing drop kick, which crumpled the enemy gear's jets even as Brigadier's whip slashed out the cockpit.
"I believe I owe you my thanks" Came Citan's voice over Bart's radio.
The young prince grinned wolfishly as he jetted towards the Yggdrasil, his group flying behind him in wedge formation, like a flock of victorious hawks winging their way back to the nest after a successful hunt." Don't mention it. We'll get back to the ship then press on to the castle --- okay" But as they entered the blackness of the Yggdrasil hanger and felt the ship engine power up around them, Citan wondered even as he powered down Heimdal and clambered out of the hatch --- had it been too easy?
In the gunroom the old butler stood uncertain and agitated, his shrewd eyes narrowing even as he felt the familiar throb of the ship's engines resume and heard the dainty tinkle of cups and pots on the sideboard, which gave the elegant little room a companionable kind of life. Something was wrong --- not the tiny gear patrol that the young master had just vanquished, something more was wrong. Slowly, his feet in their formal shoes moving across the softness of the carpet in a servant's quiet measured steps, the old man walked to the sideboard and took the patterned cozy off the china teapot with a decorous flourish. Like many old people, Maison was a firm believer that any ailment either physical, psychological or spiritual could be dosed successfully with a nice cup of tea.
But as he reached for saucer and cup, his old hands shook in their blue formal suite, and his elbow brushed a cup onto the floor where it shattered with a soft wending tinkle like the death of icicles.
"The young master's cup" Maison's voice quavered, and his old face seemed even older, the skin graying and warn and the hair so well groomed seeming to loose it's iron luster. "--- I just know something bad is going to happen to him."
The Bledavik citadel had an unreal quality. In rampart upon rampart of hot desert stone shrouded in the misty miasma of heat haze, it stretched high into the cloudless blue pool of the sky as if transplanted there from some other plane. The city that squatted before the citadel like a huddle of dun colored stone supplicants, seemed lax and sleepy, despite the sound of noise bustle and human commerce that rose from it's streets as if to rival the heat haze or the clean arid smell of sun-baked rock and sand.
Behind the citadel the waste of sand sprawled beneath the sun, for it stood at the very edge of the tiny island of oasis that contained the city, behind it the desert waste rolled in waves like a yellow sea, hard and uncompromising and seeming to go on forever, uncaring and inimitable as the very stars who's number the grains of sand tried to emulate. But at that moment Bart was totally disinterested in such abstractions, his single gleaming eye was set on a far more pragmatic object. He surveyed the 20 men in front of him, some young --- like the ensign at the Yggdrasil's controls, some old grizzled soldiers who's hands hovered always near the pistols and short swords that hung at their belts. All wore the green overalls of the Yggdrasil crew with Bart's Y symbol blazing on epaulettes and cuffs, all sweated in the heat, and all had personally volunteered to undertake this mission.
"Jerico, Bingo Alexander and Fenris." The four men stepped forward to join Bart and Citan. "You'll come with us, Bingo Jerico, you'll come with me to the top floor of the castle keep and we'll corner that rat Shakahn, Alexander, Fenris, you go with the Doc here and open the main gates, the rest of you wait outside the main gate with Sig and when they open you come in and take control ---right"
"A sound stratagem, we may have to hold off some attacks in the courtyard until you have the Aveh leader in custody, then we can start making deals with Geblar"
"Okay, But what if we get cut off at the gates whilst your still trapped inside?" Sigurd, his white uniform gleaming like polished silver looked somehow hard and brutal, his deeply tanned face set and ready. Out of some bizarre affectation he had removed his black silk eye patch and it's lack made his face peculiarly grim.
"I doubt that, those gate are extremely wide, at worst you'll have to charge through a single line --- you may take some casualties but that shouldn't be too hard, and once your through their line you can shoot the bastards in the back." Bart's voice was hard and blasted as a desert rock, but the expressions on the faces of the crewmen were no less determined.
"Hopefully the fight shouldn't be too protracted. If all goes as planned we should be able to have deposed Shakhan in an amazingly short time." Citan's voice was abstracted and analytical as if he were taking an interesting scientific curiosity.
"If things do go wrong I want you to take the men back to the Yggdrasil and return to Nisan ---" But Bart was interrupted as one of the older grizzled crewmen stepped forward, his hand snapping up in a salute.
"With respect sir, if things goes wrong we'll chew through those gates with our teeth if we have to"
"Thanks Rannek, I appreciate that."
The soldier --- Ranek grinned and stepped back to join the group of crewmen gathered around Sigurd.
"I'll contact you via short wave radio if any unforeseen contingencies occur." Citan tapped a pocket in his olive colored jacket and glanced at Sigurd, his black angular eyes gleaming with suppressed excitement. For below his scholarly demeanor, Bart could tell that the strange abstracted doctor was a soldier, and the young prince guessed as Fei never had; or at least never had until the fateful attack on Lahan, that when it was necessary, Citan could explode into competence as easily as he shed his spectacles. And as if to mark this strange transition from healer to crusader, Citan had left his glasses aboard the Yggdrasil, his black angular eyes hard and dangerous without them, the many lines of etched experience on his tanned skin taking on an engraved look, like a treasure map to victory.
"Well I guess that's it --- let's go" Trailing their accompanying men, Citan and Bart slipped like guilty children down one long granite side of the castle, passing it's massive outer walls with their rough eroded faces. Then they turned left through a tiny wooden door that lead through the massive outer wall. Citan reached down to his belt and produced a slim pointed peace of metal; it's dun surface gleaming with oil. With a quick deft flick that denoted long practice, he inserted its business end into the door's lock and gave one sharp violent twist. There was a sharp wending click and Citan's black birdlike eyes gleamed with satisfaction at the job well done.
"Didn't know you were a burglar Doc." "The skill of picking locks is a useful bonus in many professions" As Always Citan seemed to be on some other planet, but Bart caught a glimpse of something else in the older man's angular face, a hint of something eroding that competent coolness that the young prince found so admirable.
Citan frowned. "It just seems odd that there should be a lightly padlocked door into the heart of the stronghold, with no guards or even bolts on the door. We've encountered no sentries or even major patrols so far --- and then we come on this convenient little door ---" His voice trailed off.
Bart shrugged his shoulders, slim muscles rippling beneath his gaudy jacket." This door's always been here --- that's how Sig and Maison got me and Margie out when Shakhan first took over. And anyway Shakhan's hardly a mental giant."
"But Geblar Are --- intellectual prowess is one of the criteria for element status, I could not imagine them making such an obviously simplistic mistake as to leave this door unguarded and unbolted."
Bart made a throwaway gesture with one hand. "Well Shakhan could be calling the shots"
"True" Citan sighed, then abruptly brightened, flicking his dark pony tail onto one shoulder like an army major adjusting his hat. "Well --- once a course of action is initiated it is wiser to continue that course to its final outcome than to waste time and energy developing paranoiac anxieties about it's completion"
Bart frowned, lowering his blonde head to puzzle out Citan's convoluted sentence. "Your saying we've started so we'll finnish?"
"Well then let's bust on in" Putting his shoulder to the unlocked door, the pirate leader gave a quick heave, jumping through the barrier, whip haft held in one hand and the steel ball of it's head held in the other, the chain dangling between the two slack and deadly. Citan followed, diving after the prince's disappearing white trousers through the door with the four men on his heels.
The courtyard into which they charged was silent, sun rising from old stone, the main body of castle lowering down upon it like some cracked old giant staring down at a stony chess board. But on the chessboard of the court were only eight figures, Bart Citan, the four crewmen, stood in a tense knot at the center of the courtyard facing the impressive arched doorway of the main castle, the door through which Bart had slipped on his rescue of the princess the week before. Then the courtyard had been full of cheer crowds and the people of the tournament, now it was eerily silent and empty --- except for the two figures that stood barring entrance to the castle.
One was a fat pouting man, whose bald pink skull bobbed above the color of his red state robes. His paunchy body was thrust a little forward as if he wished to emphasize his own superiority, a clear arrogance that shown in his small piggy wash out blue eyes. The second figure was smaller, slighter, seeming insignificant. A woman in a uniform of deep blue flashed with white red and purple. But despite her slimness, and the comparative plainness of her garb, it was clear from the complete needle coldness of her stance that she was the leader. Her eyes like her companions were blue, but there was nothing washed out about them, they were hard and enduring like chips of sapphire, echoing the fountain of hair that fell to her shoulders. She was beautiful Bart thought distantly, but with a cold artistic beauty, a perfect fine boned face of classic lines, yet hard and unyielding as marble.
"Shakhan" Bart fixed his single blue eye on the fat man in the red guilt trimmed robes. He brought his whip up, holding the handle with his right hand close to his body, and extending his left hand ready to hurl the heavy steel ball into killing motion. "You saved me the trouble of smoking you out you rat" The fat man stepped backwards, his pouchy face hardening. "You have found me pirate --- and found your death"
There was a brief scrape on stone, from high on the castle walls. Instinctively the little group looked up and their face froze with shock. Gun muzzles protruded from windows and arrow slits like the snouts of strange stone living creatures, and every dark maw of black metal as pointed downwards, ready to rain a killing hale of lead down on the rebels. Behind the guns were Aveh troops in olive green, and Solarians with their plain white uniforms, but all had their fingers on triggers, and all held a dark expectant look, waiting for the order to fire.
"You were stupid sand worm, stupid and gullible. You did not think the boarder fleet was so far out for strategic purposes did you? We knew your phony Kislev gears the minute we saw them, you fools ---" The slender woman made a quick gesture with one white hand and Shakhan stopped in mid insult. Miang raised her head, her calm inevitable blue eyes sliding levelly across first Bart then Citan.
"He speaks the truth, the boarder fleet was bait. I would not have expected such a blunder from you Hyuga --- perhaps living among these Lamb cattle is warping your mental faculties."
"Why are you aiding Shakhan like this, surely Gebler should care nothing for Aveh's internal politics."
"On the contrary Hyuga we care a great deal for your internal politics" Her voice was smooth, chiding, clear as a bell yet by no means loud. "It is most gratifying that you would stage your pointless little revolution for the express purpose of becoming our puppet --- control of Aveh is necessary, and such control is more easily maintained when stupidity and vanity are two of the puppets major personality traits. Unfortunately the Fatima dynasty's psychological make up identifies them as extremely intractable, therefore it is in the interests of Solaris to maintain Shakhan's rule."
The fat ruler of Aveh seemed not to have heard her, but remained staring at Bart with greed in his watery eyes.
Citan stood, one hand brushing through his thick dark mane of hair, dislodging the pony tail from his shoulder and cascading midnight hair down his back. His other tanned hand curled under his pink sash and his angular eyes were full of desperate worry. "But you were anti-establishment, why are you and Kahr doing this? ---" Abruptly his eyes gleamed and he stood a little straighter, his black gaze flicking around the courtyard. "Where is Kahr?"
"With the boarder fleet obliterating your puny forces. Your plan was obvious from the outset, we gave you a few victories, like the unlocked door and the patrol of inexperienced gear pilots outside Bledavik"
"You followed our trail, and now your here, and it all ends pirate. You have no nobility, and now you'll be shot like the common muck you are." As the dictator spoke he rubbed meaty hands together in anticipation of the killing. "I'll leave you to your amusement Shakhan" Miang said icily, then with a sweep of indigo hair and a graceful turn that wouldn't have been out of place on a dance floor, she walked back into the castle.
Bart and Citan stood, stunned, a tableaux of shock and horror, Shakhan gave a thick gurgling laugh, then pointed one fat finger, sticking it out into the sun like a greasy old sausage.
"Ready --- aim" He smiled fatuously, the finger drawing back like a striking snake.
Then there was a sudden whir and something large dark and pointed crashed over the wall and hovered down to the courtyard to rest in front of the dispirited prince and his friends. As it whined to a halt, slapping metal legs down onto the sun warmed stone of the courtyard, Bart could see that it was the ten-person land crab Citan had repaired, it's roof open and it's leather seats empty all save for the driving seat. Bart looked in consternation at the gray haired figure that sat cool and collected, steel rimmed spectacles fixed levelly on Shakhan, his old hands firm on the controls, the sun picking out his formal blue suite and cumber bund with ludicrous glory.
"Maison!" Bart gasped. The old butler grinned but his eyes didn't leave those of the Aveh dictator. "I didn't think you could drive Maison!" Bart yelled, his voice full of joy, with out turning the butler replied.
"I picked up the skill a while ago" Only then did Bart notice the long black shape of the gattling gun that rose above the seats and pointed forward, it's heavy dark muzzle pointing straight at the flabby form of Aveh's ruler.
"Prepare to Fire!!" Shakhan yelled desperately, sweat dribbling down his face and shining on his pate.
"If you fire, this gattling gun will splatter your prime minister all over the frontage of the castle"
"Come on!" Yelled Citan, and in a second the six men were sitting in the padded leather seats behind the butler.
"All aboard? Good now we must fly" Maison's hand reached for the switch that control the small turbine and jets that allowed the Land crab to leave the ground.
Shakhan looked physically ill, his skin going pasty and his mouth working.
"Hey, Get your head waxed!" The young prince yelled down, waving cheekily at the red robed Prime minister as the turbine began to rotate. Then suddenly there was a sharp crack, and the turbine's whine that a moment before had been rising to a crescendo stuttered and died.
"Electrical overload in the main ignition cable to the turbine, it'll need to be overhauled before it'll fly" Citan's voice was full of resignation and Bart felt something cold inside him tighten.
Shakhan had recovered himself and his piggy eyes glinted with triumph. "What a joke! Now the fun's over, prepare to fire"
But Maison seemed unworried, his hands moved competently over the controls, metal legs slapped on stone, circuits responded and the land crab started to run in circles like a trapped animal, each circle wider than the last. Bart's and Citan's hair whipped and flowed in the wind like raven and golden streamers.
"What're you doing Maison? You're just running in circles!"
"Trust me young master" Shakahn looked on bemused and triumphant as the circles got wider and wider and the land crab's sped faster, legs moving faster than the human eye could follow, round and round until it was nothing but a black blur of motion, the engine's note rising to a howl.
Bart head began to spin as castle walls, stone and gun muzzles blurred around him. Then suddenly, with a sickening lurch the Land crab jumped, rising off the ground a huge leap that carried it 20 feet up the castle wall. The occupants were all thrown against their seatbelts as the land crab tipped almost horizontally, pushed off the wall whirled through the air and hit the opposite wall 10 feet further up. Round and round a sequence of quick wall of death jumps until the world spun and Bart could not be sure where ground ended and sky began. Then suddenly there was one last leap out into emptiness, as the Land crab's momentum of circular jumps carried it up and over the surrounding walls and plunged down through blue and gold air to clang firmly onto the road outside the castle, and made off at top speed for safety.
"What a stunt!" Bart's face glowed with admiration as he reordered his golden ponytail and straightened his crumpled formal jacket.
"It was nothing young master. Now" Maison suddenly became business like, his gray eyes behind their protective glasses gleaming with a leadership that Bart never had suspected from his introverted quiet servant. "I saw the soldiers with their guns as I was coming in to land, and I radioed Mr. Sigurd, he has returned to the ship and has been making preparations to leave"
Bart smiled at the old man with the iron gray hair who had saved all their lives. "Great job Maison, Then let's get out of here!"
* * * * *
The sand bike slashed across the desert at a speed that, had the pilot been otherwise, would have been dangerous. The little dun colored machine skidded round pillars of rock, skidding to a point where it was almost horizontal, dust forming a wake around and behind it, like the physical manifestation of the violet revving of it's engine's roar. It careened up dunes like a skiff in a storm riding the waves. Then it crested them, sliding down the incline, slaloming through rocks and past small desert cacti, spinning on it's back wheel to avoid the obstacles in a daring stunt that seemed full of a sun bright bravado that even the extravagant young prince would not have disdained. But strangely it's precipitous flight held no bravado, no daring. The pilot sat on the back of little vehicle, cold white hands flicker over the controls with mechanical speed, body perfectly --- almost inhumanly still it seemed. Her uniform was close about her, blue as an arrow from the sky like a flash of land based lightning. Her indigo hair streamed out behind her blowing and fluttering in the wind like the banner of some unseen army. Yet as she ducked her machine at break-neck speed in and through a maze of rearing stone, her white perfect face was expressionless, composed and cool --- though not with the coolness of danger overcome, more with the innate of calm of a person who knows just how far she can push her skill before becoming dangerous --- and in many things Miang was most skilled.
As if a switch had been suddenly thrown the bike skidded to a halt, dust and blown sand settling around it like disturbed sea, Miang brushed with absent accuracy at the dust that landed on her blue uniform, and ran one hand coolly through her hair, resetting it's straightness --- though the gesture had no vanity in it.
Leaving the bike she walked past the wall of rock and raised her head, scanning the horizon as if patrolling a boarder. Distantly her unearthly indigo eyes court a flash of metal --- perhaps three quarters of a mile off, the Yggdrasil. Satisfied she walked back through the wall of rock and down a narrow cleft between two towering walls of hot stone. The sun was high in the sky, past noon, but Miang cared little for it. It would not burn her pale skin she knew, for the strange pigment hat gave her her blue eyes and odd sapphire hair would protect her skin better than mere melamine --- and she would not burn even in the hottest of southern suns.
Ahead of her the sand was flattened into a natural amphitheater, walled all around with rock. All was dun brown and glittering soft gold --- sand rock and dust dry and dead. And in the center of the natural arena sat a dun colored cruiser, slightly large than the Yggdrasil, with torpedo tubes protruding for and aft and windows glowing like eyes in the sun. On it's side where the pirate vessel bore the cheerful Y symbol was a red G, the same G that Fei had a few hours before seen on the backs of the spectral white gears. Doors opened to receive her and without pausing the slender blue woman entered, arrogant grace implicit in all her movements. Ignoring the guards and the massed gears, she made her way along the hollow coolness of the metal corridor to the bridge area. Like the Yggdrasil bridge it was metal, ringed with viewing ports and scanning devices, but unlike the Yggdrasil control area it had many soft chairs scattered about the floor, and in one thrown-like immensity of leather sat Kahran Ramsus, one bronze hand tapping impatiently at the metal housing of the control board in front of him, tawny colored eyes glaring at the screen with the sullen animosity of a wolf waiting to spring.
"Miang ---" He rose to his feet, his voice even and warm. "--- What a pleasant surprise, come to see the final destruction of the pitiful rebellion"
"No --- I have come to warn you, Prince Bartholomew escaped alive, The renegade Hyuga Ricadeu was with him" the commander's statuesque face register first shock, then a glowering kind of happiness.
"We're all renegades aren't we?" Looking into his tawny eyes Miang could almost see the memory blooming in his mind, that dim gray bridge beneath the lights of Solaris, where the white clad Sigurd had called him a traitor and said sorry. He had stood with a cold hardness then to as now, completely realizing that he was forever apart from the rest of the world, a needle of hard bronze set on a mountain. Then abruptly the mood seemed to change and he was all business once more." How did they escape, did that bald idiot mess things up?"
Miang shook her head, hair swirling like the fibers of some extra-terrestrial plant. "No, a servant appeared with a land crab and they all left. They will not have reached the Yggdrasil yet --- I came by sand bike"
Ramsus' hard face was split by a smile that gleamed in his owl-like hunter's eyes. For a moment he seemed to unbend, become almost human, then abruptly the smile froze and he stood beneath the flow of sunlight that wash in and bathed him, like a bronze statue in desert sand." What does it matter if they have reached the Yggdrasil --- they're surrounded, we'll advance and then blow them out of the sand. Really Miang there was no need to come all this way just to tell me that"
Miang's eyes flickered, like two twisting daggers of ice. "I thought it prudent, after all they can intercept radio messages and though they are outnumbered could still do considerable damage to our forces. I told them that you were at the boarder just to make sure"
"Well --- we'll wait until they reach their ship and then we'll advance and blow them away"
Miang shook her head. "The prince is still alive and out here we do not have to pander to Shakhan's blood lust. I believe it would be more politic to seek a surrender --- after all if the girl did not know the location of the remaining half of the medallion --- the other might"
"Hmmm!" Ramsus stood up a little straighter and began to stride across the floor, his Solarian issued boots coming down with measured ringing treads. There was a controlled violence in his movements, his arms swinging by his sides, the sun catching the white uniform with its red purple and blue flashes and making it flicker iridescence. One hand abruptly gripped the hilt of the sword that hung at his waist --- no slim and dressy rapier but a true killing blade, A straight saber four feet of gleaming steel with razor slashing edges and a needling point plain and smooth but well balanced. A deadly but delicate weapon." We'll put a warning shot into them and then we'll sue for surrender. We have them surrounded after all" Miang nodded silent and almost demure; as Ramsus stood with abrupt motions and began roaring orders in a clipped yet exited voice. "Arm torpedoes --- advance to pre-arranged possession then prepare to fire"
* * * * *
The land crab scuttled up to the massive gear bay doors of the Yggdrasil like a black frightened insect, but unlike the insect the little machine with Citan, Bart, Maison and the four Yggdrasil crewmen perched on it's back, ran directly in the jaws of the huge gray wale rather than away from them.
Even before the machine stopped moving Bart was leaping from his seat and dashing through the lamp lit steel darkness of the bay to the lighted metal corridor leading to the bridge. Citan followed on his heels, his long black pony tail flying behind him. Behind them Maison tottered, his moment of glory done, reduced to the vague old servitor that Bart knew so well.
"Fire up the engines and get ready to move, they'll be all over us if we don't get ---" Bart paused as he felt the ship rock, the peaceful pools of sunlight streaming through the windows shimmering and discolored by the red of the warning lights. "--- What the hell!"
"A torpedo strike --- nothing we can't deal with" Replied Sigurd who sat with cool confidence at the controls, his amber face intent, and his single blue eye as stoical as that of Bart.
"Well get a repair crew on it right away. Like I said they'll be all over us in a minute"
"That's exactly where we are my Lord prince" As Bart had been finishing his sentence a face had flickered to life on the communications screen, a hard bitten bronze face with strange tawny eyes that caught the light like coins of brass. The hair that piled around the color of the white Solarian uniform glinted and gleamed like spun gold. Ramsus smiled nastily, showing white marble teeth in his rigid face.
"What do you want Kahr?" Citan pushed forward, staring intently into the Solarian Commander's eyes with his own black angular ones, his tanned face creasing into familiar lines of worry.
"Captain Ricadeu what a pleasant surprise --- I'm so glad Shakhan didn't kill you --- I want to do that myself, you traitorous bastard"
"Your skills are atrophying Kahr if flattery is the most damaging ---"
"--- Shut up! I want to talk to the prince not you." Obediently Citan moved away from the view screen and gave the Grim Solarian a clear view of the pirate leader who stood proud and erect, hands thrust into his pockets in a gesture of casual defiance. In keeping with the mood Citan saw Sigurd draw a gunmetal cigarette case from his pocket and puff vigorously until the tip of the tiny paper tube in his mouth glowed cherry red." Listen Prince, if you check your scanners you'll find you're surrounded, you'll loose nothing by surrendering and I as a Solarian officer promise good treatment for you and your people" Ramsus spoke the lie glibly, his face as straight and stern as ever. But as before when he tried to lie to Margarita in the tower above the citadel he totally failed to convince the golden haired pirate of the truth of his words.
"Give us some time to think about it' Bart said, almost pitifully playing for time. Yet to everybody's surprise Ramsus agreed.
"You get five hours to disarm your weapons and come out of your ship with your hands raised, if you don't comply we'll blow you away" Then his face flicked off.
"Sig how long to repair the damage?"
The white haired pirate grimaced as he seamed to work something out, puffing acrid cigarette smoke around the bridge like a benign volcano. "A day or so to finish it properly, but we can give you 75% efficiency in about four hours."
"Fine do it" Bart's handsome face suddenly took on a saintly cast, despite his sweat soaked hair and the slightly crumpled and dusty jacket he wore, despite his missing eye and his slightly ruff accent he seemed for that moment a true king." Look I'm not asking anyone to die. Any of you --- all the crew can go out there and surrender and I'd think no less of you. But me --- I want to go down fighting. When the Yggdrasil goes I'll fight them in my Brigadier, and when they blow that up I'll brain them with my whip, when they disarm me I'll fight them with my fists, and when they kill me I'll die knowing that I never gave up"
"I'll follow you into the pits of hell young master" Said Maison who had puffed his way to the bridge just in time to hear Bart's dramatic speech.
"Wow --- yeah" Bart's face suddenly flushed and he stared at the metal floor as if ashamed of such blatant melodrama.
Citan shook his head very slowly, taking his spectacles from a compartment at the side of the bridge and polishing them distractedly on the cloth of his jacket. "You have made the right decision, I doubt very much if any of us would live for very long after we surrendered ---" His face suddenly grew cold and hard as stone, and in his gleaming black eyes a terrible sadness showed as if he were looking into some distant and bloody future. "--- and if they did let us live --- how long would we want to go on living once they had captured us"
"Hyu is right. Besides Aveh and Nisan are depending on us and I for one am not going to let Ramsus have his way with my country with out a fight" Sigurd slapped one fist into the palm of his other hand. Then abruptly turned and started pressing buttons, summoning damage reports and repair crews. Four meagre hours to release the Yggdrasil's power, four meager hours to prepare for the last stand, four meager hours to prepare for their deaths.
The Keifenzel chief ship of the border fleet, was an ugly vessel. Like a great sandy colored tank with out tracks or gun it wallowed it's way through the desert half covered in sand like some fat hippopotamus. Around it the six smaller ships of the border fleet clustered protectively, similar to the Keifenzel in design but smaller and less well armed. Running here and there at random through the lumbering ships were a number of gray-green Aveh gears which scuttled in and out and around the fleet like so many gray-green sheep dogs, herding the mighty vessels as if by the order of some giant shepherd.
Vanderkaum scowled out of one of the ports, scratching at his beard. He was a bulky taciturn looking man, with his gray eyes seeming always to be cold and steely, matching the partial covering of his bluish steel mask, which ran across his nose and cheeks, leaving his lower face bare. His lips twisted into a bitter line as he watched the gears milling about, no discipline that was the problem with gears.
Each pilot was too individual, too responsible for themselves, nothing like a well-trained artillery battalion. He turned, looking across the neat and functional Keifenzel bridge, at the soldiers in muddy brown uniforms sitting at controls, staring rigid out of the windows or at their control panels. Good, he would show the rebels --- when they came. He ran one hand down his own brown jacket, with it's purple patches on shoulders and elbows that denoted his rank, alog with the red star on purple at his waist. His trousers too were muddy brown, made of stiff heavy fabric and accompanied with the regulation boots polished till they glowed.
Unbeknown to him, his men thought him a pompous windbag who was more concerned with neatly held ranks of marching men on parade than how well they fought. But had he known, it is doubtful that Vanderkaum would have cared, he was a soldier, a Commander --- and like many such before him he made the prime mistake of despising his men.
Vanderkaum turned slowly, the sun --- now approaching it's midmorning heat, striking from his bluish mask. "Captain."
"We're detecting something on sonar sir, it's coming towards us very fast, I think it's the enemy gears"
"It is not required of you to think Captain, it is required of me to think and you to obey."
"Yes sir" Vanderkaum stared at the man, a young dark haired professional soldier who's green eyes hardly hid the contempt that the Captain held for his general.
"You will have all weapons loaded, then fire when you see the whites of their eyes"
"--- shouldn't we ---" The captain's voice was nervous, making suggestions might be counted as criticism. "--- sir, shouldn't we release the gear petrol first --- and keep the guns as a last resort?"
"Certainly not Captain. My guns will take care of them, and we'll only use those infernal machines to form a screen if we need to retreat, order the Gears to remain behind the fleet and arrange the ships in a single rank"
"Yes sir" Resignation on his face the captain turned to carry out his general's insane battle plan.
* * * * *
Fei stared down on the fleet which beneath the midmorning sun with horror written on his face. There were so many ships, and the gears seemed to be swarming around them. How could he and his small force ever hope to defeat them. Then he looked through the corners of the screen that covered Weltall's cockpit to see Maitreya and the others, a solid force of 20 pirate gears. Almost as if he were standing beside him, Fei could sense Maitreya's presence like a solid buffer against despair. "That's them --- how many gears would you say are there?"
"About 30, but don't worry, one of us is worth three of them"
"We didn't expect this kind of escort" Came the voice of one of the other pirates, crackling into Fei's ears --- conversationally with out a trace of fear.
"Who cares?" Maitreya's voice was noncommittal and in his imagination Fei could almost see the grizzled soldier shrugging his shoulders. "Look --- the gears are behind the sand ships"
From over the radio link Fei heard a young piratical voice snigger. "Idiot! But good for us, we can get rid of at least three of those ships before the gears join the fun."
"How many of us will it take to destroy one ship?" Fei asked, trying to keep his voice steady, his brown eyes attempting to take on that cold objectivity that's vital to any strategist, but not quite managing it. Releasing one hand from the gear's grips he rubbed at his slightly sweaty hair, wishing that he had never volunteered for this mission. People would be dying --- Bart's pirates entrusted to him, and how could he make a decision that might kill them? Yet still he kept his voice calm and waited for Maitreya's reply.
"--- About two for the smaller ships and three for the big one, if we all attack together then we should be able to get a good number of those ships and retreat to make a stand for the gears"
"Well --- if we could ---" Fei paused hesitating about making the order. "--- If two of us take each ship and three the big one and the other five provide supporting fire."
"Good plan, if we all fire together they won't know what's hit them" Maitreya advised.
Fei nodded thoughtfully, feeling his throat constricting slightly. "Look --- I can't ask any of you to do this, and I know Bart wouldn't either"
"With respect, sir" Came back Maitreya's voice, and Fei for the first time heard a hard and brutal edge to it." With respect, we all volunteered for this, some of us might get killed --- I might get killed, but that won't stop us from trying our best. If that's everything then we'll get going, Fei you and me take the big ship along with Johnar."
Fei felt an obscure twinge of gladness that Maitreya had taken control, he didn't want the responsibility, he was already the cause of so much death. His throat dry and his hands moving of their own accord, he jetted forward with his force around him. The wave of gears struck the rebel ships like a red metallic tide, with Weltall in their midst, jetting forward at such a speed that Fei --- despite the fact that he was trying to stay in the other's company, reached the Keifenzel before his companions.
A canon ball whistled towards him, and with the lightning reflexes he had learnt in his week of combat he swerved aside and the projectile slammed harmlessly into the sand. Other canon balls and torpedoes skimmed towards the attackers, but as far as Fei knew not one was hit. Then he was at the side of the immense Keifenzel and smashing gun emplacements to obliteration with his fists.
"Stand back Fei!" The voice was Maitreya's, and Fei swerved Weltall's length out of the way just in time, as a wash of brilliant ether crackled from Maitreya's chest cannon. Fei turned towards the ship and added his own giant bolt of power. The ship bucked backwards as the inferno of ether power struck it, something blasting free. Then it slammed back into the sand, crushing five of the Enemy gears underneath it in it's fall.
Looking around Fei was able to see that the others had each discharged into the sand ships of the fleet, which now lay on the desert, steadily sinking with crewmen pouring from them almost as if to reciprocate the tides of in-flowing sand.
"We did it!" Screamed Fei, hardly aware that he was screaming. Yet even as his mouth framed the words he was plunging Weltall forward, slamming a foot in the chest of an unprepared Aveh gear, then leaping over it and cutting down another with a cracking blow of one purple fist. Exultation filled him as he blocked parried and cut at the green-gray bodies before him, each with it's three stripes of blue and white adorning it's back. He was invincible, this was himself fully real. The battle lust was smooth and sweet as honey in his veins as he fought and killed with mind numbing accuracy, a living blur of dark metal, ether beams flash out to lick down an enemy in a glow of blue white.
Around him Fei could see his unit fighting like demons, cutting and slashing down gears with the calm skill that he remembered from the attack on the pirate base. Yet not all was going the attacker's way, though no pirates had been destroyed by the cannon shots some had been scarred and after the initial shock, the remaining 18 Aveh gears crowded backwards to form a defensive line. Fei didn't look round as he heard a crackle and fizz, and he knew that one of his force had been destroyed. He fought on, curving Weltall up in a mighty leap to avoid a wash of ether, hearing machine gun bullets crack off the purple metal of Weltall's chest, slamming one hand down to smash the cockpit of an enemy gear then blocking a sudden chop from another, using his jets to swing away from the swing of an enemy gear wielding a massive metal bar then coming at the gear and upper-cutting. Backing out of the fight to save fuel, Fei was able to see how 15 enemy gears were holding off the attackers with blasts of ether and mighty clubbing blows. He waited impatiently for his fuel to return, his body bathed in sweat, his breath rasping. His liquid brown eyes clearing of battle lust and filling with sadness as he saw Johnar who had helped him destroy the Keifenzel blasted back in a mass of sparks, an Aveh gear's green-gray hand smashing his chest even as a cannon ball slammed into his back.
Fei turned to see the half sunken Keifenzel discharging missing lead projectiles at the backs of the attackers, he watched as missiles whistled through the heated desert air like birds of heavy destruction, whining with their own battle cry, and the crump! Of their firing bringing back unpleasant memories like a tide of salty nausea.
Leaving the fight where the remaining attackers --- about 13 of them, still struggled to break the ring of defenders who stood jet to jet, planted like a gray-green rock on the desert sand. Pushing his jet button Fei drove Weltall forward at the dying yet deadly Keifenzel, bringing up his fist in readiness for the perfect killing blow.
"I will not abandon ship!" Vanderkaum's voice rang through the bridge, like a brazen bell.
The Captain looked at his general straight with his green eyes gleaming like flecks of bright emerald. "We have no choice General --- we're sinking, sand is filling the engines and corridors, there is nothing we can do"
"I refuse to admit defeat!" Vanderkaum's fleshy face beneath the steel of it's mask went hard and cold, until it appeared that he wore no mask and his face was one cold uncompromising cliff, in which two gray pools of eyes burned with an almost religious zeal. "I! Will not admit defeat! I! Am Vanderkaum! Fight you cowards! Fight!"
"Leave him sir --- there's nothing you can do" The Ensign who had formally been at the controls spoke quietly to the dark haired captain, his voice carrying even over the sound of grinding metal and tones upon tones of desert defusing into the tiny space of the ship.
Vanderkaum glowered out of one of the ports and saw an immense purple gear coming at him, arms raised. He sited the main gun control and fired, but the attacking machine simply steeped aside from the hurtling clumsy shot and kept coming like the spirit of despair.
"You can't hit them --- they're too fast. Come on General"
"No!" The general turned, and reached into one pocket. His fleshy hand emerged, seeming to have sprouted another finger, as the tiny gleaming snout of the guilded derringer protruded from the flabby mass of his hands. With two neat coughs of the little pistol he had put a slug in the backs of the heads of both captain and ensign, they died instantly hardly knowing what hit them. Their bodies clattering to the metal decking, a little blood oozing from beneath their upturned faces. That would show them, lead could kill and would kill.
There was a sudden slamming explosion, and Vanderkaum was hurled half way across the bridge to crash into a bank of controls, his steel mask saving his face from the splinters of flying glass which leapt from the shattered computer screen. He felt the Keifenzel buckle, and then start to settle even more heavily in the sand. But it was not over! He would not die like this! His steps clattering on metal stairs half full of sand he raced from the bridge, but not to the hatches, the light of day, not to sun and air and a coward's life. He ran down, his aging unhealthy body rasping with breath, his fat hand thrust before him. He dashed into the darkness where sand was ankle deep and every step was like walking through the thick and terrible soup of nightmare. The lights had failed down here, so all was black with the continual grinding and wrenching of the ship. Then as he rounded the corner of a flight of stairs ad came out into the massive space of the sand laden hold he saw it --- the machine, the Dora --- the secret weapon --- the equalizer. Fire streamed and crackled from it's vents as he activated it, burning away the enemy imposed darkness. He would show them his power!
After delivering his smashing punch --- regimented with an ether blast to the wreck of the Keifenzel, Fei rushed back to the ring of Aveh gears. Several had been destroyed in his absense --- but in addition he saw several red and gray pirate gears lying on the sand, circuits still sparking like the pumping of dying arteries. With a wordless battle cry of rage he charged forward, ignoring the occasional ether blast, crashing into the enemy like a bolt of lighting.
Maitreya gave a yell and then the 10 remaining pirate gears were all charging, some in the air some on the ground. The little knot of defenders --- perhaps six or seven were swept away beneath that fearsome onslaught. "Nice work Fei."
" --- thanks" Fei powered down his gear and sat in the straps, letting tiredness and elation in waves wash his body. He had done it, fulfilled Bart's mission. Now he understood why Elly and he could never be anything but strangers, for she had her unit just as he had his, and just as his unit crowded around his gear, and message of congratulations came thrilling though Weltall's speaker system Fei realized an even more profound truth, and it's realization made his eyes fill with tears. He had enjoyed it --- the fighting, the comrade ship, lying about him were the spoils of victory and enemies overcome and yet --- he had enjoyed it. Suddenly water spilled from the liquid brown pools of Fei's eyes in a stream of delicate brightness and he couldn't speak, he hated everything the world himself, --- everything. How could he?
"We did a great job Fei, Bart's going to be king by sunset!" It was a hot malignant voice Fei thought, a voice filled with the overstuffed joy of victory.
Then suddenly there was a crackling roar and from the wreck of the keifenzel something burst like an infernal butterfly breaking from a chrysalis. And Fei knew that it wasn't over, and with a sigh he buckled on the straps, hating his hands as they closed the loops about well muscled arms and feet. --- but what else could he do, blinking back his tears and with his heart heavy he returned to battle.
The creature that moved across the sand towards them had the distinct and rotting aura of something organic and insectile, yet it was a skeleton of gleaming metal which moved across the sand not on multi-jointed spindly legs, but on huge silent tank tracks. It bore some superficial resemblance to Citan's favorite land crab, but it's arms were far longer, and at their extremities held huge articulated claws like predatory barbaric crane jibs. It's body was covered in jointed armor plating that Fei could see would resist most ether attacks, from it's sides the muzzles of what looked like canons protruded into the air like the odd tracheal tubes of some giant beetle.
But Fei's brown eyes fastened not on the war-machine horror that was rumbling towards him, but on the Plexiglas fronted cockpit that nestled in an armored space in the machine's vast shell, and on the brown clad figure who sat with in the cockpit, his face partially covered by bluish steel, his black beard bristling above his uniform jacket. The controls Fei could see were not the complex gear grips that amplified movement, but a board set in front of the pilot's seat covered with levers and buttons.
"What the hell? ---" A young pirate's voice crackled into Fei's ears through their radio link, then abruptly stooped as what looked like a black flying cannon ball crashed through his cockpit --- killing him instantly. Anger filled Fei, and the realization that this victory was costing more lives. He charged forward, firing off his main ether weapon at the cockpit, but inside the little box of glass and controls Vanderkaum laughed hollowly as the titanic blast of iridescent power failed against the armored shell. Then suddenly a hooked claw snaked out, seizing hold of Weltall and hoisting Fei into the air. His head spun, Fei could not be sure what happened, but a second later he was lying on desert sand with warning lights flashing and a large purple bruise coming up where his forehead had struck the side of the cockpit, the straps cutting into his flesh as his body sagged against them. But there was nothing he could do about that now, he had to fight, to die, better him than some one else. He stood Weltall shakily, distantly noticing that the gear's responses were sluggish and un-reactive. Suddenly another cannon ball whistled past him to thump into the sand. Fei jetted upwards, with some vague notion of drop-kicking the cockpit. Then suddenly he noted that the two huge claws had seized hold of another two pirate gears which hung high above the ground, their red paintwork winking in the sun as if they had been covered with gore --- or mortally wounded.
As Fei watched in horror the arms drew back, and he knew that if no one acted the two gears would be slammed together. With no clear plan he hammered down on Weltall's jet button and crashed forward, the dark gear's foot striking a joint in one of the metal arms more by chance than by design. As if he had touched a pressure point the claw convulsively released the pirate gear to crash to the ground in a heap of limbs and metal. Then Fei was standing on the shell hammering blow after blow at the armor.
"Fei! Move!" It was Maitreya's voice, coming from the radio link. Fei dodged left, keeping his footing on the smooth metallic shell, then Maitreya in his red and gray pirate gear slammed downwards to crash into the armor plate that Fei had dented. There was a crack and fizzle as the armor stove inwards, and with a sudden flare of Jets, Maitreya jumped free, only to be replaced by one of the other six remaining pirate gears, which crashed down like a bomb onto the dented armor.
This time there was a bright electrical flash and the clawed limb released the other pirate gear with a grind of metal. Then the four pirate gears jetted in from behind firing ether weapons at the weak spot in the armor, the massive crab like machine seemed to convulse, arms thrashing tracks carving great rents in the sand, then abruptly it lay still.
"Quick hit it" Fei yelled, seeing a cannon ball spit from one of the cannon mouths on the war machine's sides. The ball struck sparks from the armor of one of the gears that the crab machine had flung away in it's convulsions.
"Let's move out of range, we can always shoot at from a distance now we've dented the armor" It was Maitreya, loud and confident giving decisive orders that Fei was glad for him to give.
Like a flock of great metallic swallows, beginning their flight the gears flared their jets and flew out of range of the war machine's cannons, settling to sand in a huddle like hibernating birds.
"What --- did you do?" Fei asked almost hesitantly, as around him he saw the huge pirate gears thumping to the sand and throwing up clouds of gritty yellow dust motes which danced in the air.
"It's what we call the death drop maneuver. We use it to punch holes in surfaces that our guns can't manage" Maitreya replied almost smugly. "We fly up to a high of about 200 feet, and drop feet first, it sometimes causes shock to internal systems but it can generally punch through anything"
"I'm sorry --- I didn't know where you were and I ---" Fei's voice was quiet over the link and his tanned handsome face creased into penitent lines --- he could not explain this obscure need to apologize that welled up in him, but for some reason he felt that the fact he had not participated in Maitreya's battle plan some how made him no longer part of their force.
"--- No need to be sorry, you distracted that creature and stopped it from dropping Savlin and me." A young pirate spoke, his voice sounding rash and ready, in spite of the fact that his gear was scratched and warn from the war machine's claw grip.
"And you kept it's attention while we sneaked up behind it and Maitreya and Simm stoned it." Put in another pirate, his voice no less bright than his companions. Fei looked around and could see the man who had just spoken, a young man no older than himself, his skin lightly tanned from the desert sun, brown hair straggling in unruly tangles around the collar of his Yggdrasil green overalls, his hazel eyes glowing with suppressed mirth. Tanned hands gripping the gear controls with the ammeter's excited exuberance, whilst at the same time showing the skilled adroitness of the professional.
Fei looked down at himself, his white shirt no longer white but stained from seat, his pony tail coming undone and hair --- so dark brown as to appear almost black in the shadow's, falling and strangling round his face. His finger still locked in the gear controls, but he felt nothing of either exuberance or calmness, he just felt scarred and sick and weary of fighting yet unable to stop.
"I've got something coming in on the F band --- it's a message"
Fei jerked out of his revelry, his face suddenly focusing and his brown eyes glinting like coins, --- Bart? Had he succeeded? And what about Citan? The radio links between the 11 gears fell suddenly silent as if a pawl had been cast over them, and into that pawl, like heavy stones dropping through smoke blackened air, Maitreya's voice came back like an echo from far away, slow dull and dead as the grave. "--- It's a distress message, an automatic distress signal from the Yggdrasil"
"We've got to help them, the Prince might be in trouble" The young pirate's voice rang out like a brazen gong in dead air, and Fei sat up a little straighter, preparing to jet off and rescue Bart --- if he must fight, he may as well fight for good --- for a reason as Wiseman had told him, and he would fight --- whatever death he might cause.
"Okay, I can pinpoint the Yggdrasil's position ---" Maitreya's voice was interrupted by a sudden crump as a cannon ball shot slammed into one of the pirate gear's cockpits, splashing the pilot to the four winds.
"That thing! It's still alive!"
"Four of you --- keep it busy, the rest of us'll go help the Yggdrasil --- Fei come with me" Maitreya's voice was once more decisive and cool as the slap of cold water to a hysteric. Fei's hands began to move towards Weltall's jet controls, his strong tanned fingers unerring on their target like tanned missiles precise abrupt and quick, when suddenly he remembered the grip of that huge claw on Weltall, and the force with which his gear had struck the ground, he raised one hand to the bruise on his forehead and touched it gingerly, remembering the devastating attack and the desperate maneuver they had been forced to adopt.
"Four of us couldn't handle that thing --- they'll be killed --- I'm staying" Fei's voice was firm as he spoke into the microphone and resolution crossed his face. Citan had once propounded an ethical principle to him --- the idea that known as utilitarianism which stated the a person should try and promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number --- it was probably true that he could do more good at the Yggdrasil, but how could he leave four of the unit --- his unit behind to die.
Suddenly he felt truly a commander and the feeling was hard and cold like an iron weight around his neck. "--- I'm staying."
"Look Fei, you're the young master's guest --- You can't stay here, that thing will kill you and I promised the young master to try and keep you alive --- you're his friend he needs you more than me."
"I can't leave anybody behind to die, either we all go or I stay." But Maitreya didn't hear, for already he was punching his own gear into the blue sky, jets flaring from it's back, five of the other gears following him. With a heavy heart Fei turned back to the great metallic insect and to the battle he could not win.
Yet he felt strangely calm as he looked at his death, he would die in combat, trying to save lives and keeping this great titan of destruction from obliterating any hope Maitreya had of reaching and helping Bart.
Fei sat up in the grips, head erect eyes glowing face calm. A strange kind of fatalistic euphoria seemed to grip him, every sense heightening so that he could smell the sweat and metal of the cockpit combined with the hot cleanliness of desert. He could see the slight cracks on the shell of the massive monster that would kill him, see each individual spar and girder in the creature's massive claws had Elly been able to see his face at that moment she would have thought it more handsome than the sun, a weary gritty kind of handsomeness it was true, but a quality masculinity that had nothing to do with gender, solid and enduring as a monument of stone.
One hand reached forward to activate his jets, and initiate this last attack, for there could be no stratagem that would work now, his tanned finger reaching forward --- then suddenly he paused, his body stiffening, the aura of calm dropping away as suddenly as he might have shed a warm brilliant coat.
Fei's eyes widened in surprise and horror, his tanned face loosing it's calmness and growing slowly afraid as he gazed forward to what had appeared --- almost without warning between them and the war machine. It was a gear --- not much bigger than his own Weltall, but a dark and malevolent presence seemed to surround this gear accenuating it's high until it might have been a giant of dark despair. It's coloring was black --- a dark midnight anachronism on the desert's glittering field that mocked the sunlight with sable arrogance. Here and there on the black body, facings on sooty red blazed out like old stars in the last sky of the universe, old and wearying of life, ready to burn out and leave only chaos. As if to symbolize it's demonic cast, two great metallic wings jutted from it's shoulders so that it's great shadow was that of an angel of corrupted light. On the outspread face of each wing the sun's rays glanced from splashes of pure gold that flickered and sparked with the barbaric greedy splendor of a thousand cruel kings in their thrones of silk --- kings who sat and sipped wines while before them traitors were burned at the stake.
Fei could not remember that gear --- but the very spirit of malevolence that emanated from it like a subtle disturbing hum told him the identity of the pilot as if he had seen the black steel mask with those swallowing light-eating eyes. He knew the evil that had come to this field of broken gears --- and that evil's name was Grahf.
In the cockpit of the Dora Vanderkaum's gray eyes winked with curiosity, his thin lips surrounded by their bushy black forest of beard twisting into a nervous line. Who was that dark gear that seemed to be so powerful --- not one of the rebels surely, neither was it one of the combined Aveh or Solarian forces he knew so well.
His knotted middle-aged hands gripped the steel shafts of the Dora's controls more firmly to stop them trembling. The General straightened his shoulders half-heartedly, his body moving beneath the dun and purple patched cloth.
Then with sudden decision he reached out and flicked the switch that activated the Dora's loud halor, leaning forward unnecessarily so that when he spoke his voice came out in a hum of distortion. "Who are you?"
The voice that answered was deep and calm, and though it could be heard by all there present it bore none of the distortion that would have identified the gear's loud hailor, it was almost as if it spoke not into the ears but into the dark depths of the soul.
"Who --- am --- I." It spoke slowly deeply with power, caressing the words with obscene gentleness in it's black sound. "Who --- am --- I" then it chuckled, a rich and sinister swelling of soft tones --- the chuckle of a torturer who enjoys his work.
Then slowly at first it began to chant, rising to a black crescendo scream, holding Vanderkaum, Fei and the four pirates under a spell of silence as it spoke, seeming almost to hold the sun by it's ardent declaration. "I am the walker in the secret places, thought shadow, nightmare weaving. I am the silver axe that cleaves the necks of innocence, the laughter in the flame, the silence in the scream of agony. I am the dark priest of chaos, existing before all things, and behold I shall be when all order dies. I am the antithesis of all things, I! Am Darkness!! I!! Am!! Entropy!!!!"
The silence that followed that last ringing scream seemed almost total, as if by shear force of volume the dark gear's pilot had killed all sound dead.
At length Vanderkaum pressed his loud halor switch again, his voice more respectful than it had ever been to Shakhan, Ramss or any other person in authority. "Who are you --- Lord?"
The voice chuckled again, indulgently, as if by Vanderkaum's use of the word Lord he had confirmed something that the dark speaker had long known. "I am Grahf, seeker of power. Doth thou desire the power?"
Fei heard the dark voices long declaration, and a strange latitude filled him, pinning down every corner of his mind and body as he knew it pinned the minds of bodies of his companions, yet he had to speak, to fight it. The pilot of that war machine was their enemy --- but he was at least human, and what sat in the cockpit of that demonic gear was not. Yet he couldn't move, every strong tanned limb seeming charged with static electricity and weighted with lead as the pilot's voice replied in a blare of microphone distortion. "I have power! See this machine, it can destroy any gear --- even yours my lord, I need no more power"
Grahf laughed then, a long and evil sound that was like millians of tiny black poisonous knives jabbing at the skin of the listener. "Power!, thy power is but a sham, a pathetic elusion of strength, as a child's wooden sword and wooden spear are to real weapons, that is what thy power is, thou couldst not even prevent the escape of thy fleeing foes, nor couldst thou destroy those that remain. Thou art weak and feeble, and with out my gift thou shalt be dust ere the sun sinks to her sandy bed."
Fei rocked forward in his straps, his finger jabbing desperately at the communications button, he had to warn this man. Who ever and what ever Grahf was, and what ever his origin in the confusion and chaos that was Fei's lost past, Fei knew one thing --- that Grahf was evil, and that his power was nothing but the power to destroy. "Listen --- stop! He's evil he'll kill you! For all that's human you have to believe me! Grahf's evil!" Though it seemed not to change it's position Fei felt the gaze of the dark gear's even darker pilot rest upon him.
"Silence my disciple --- I shall impart unto thee a lessen of the gravest import."
Fei felt leadenness grip him again, the air around his cockpit seeming to grow stale and thick like stagnant water.
"You offer me power Lord Grahf --- I accept, will to power and fear are the only two affirmed drives in the human soul, and I have no fear in me."
"Then receive thou the power" Grahf started to chant again, his voice once more rising to a shattering peak of dark triumph. "By ancient rite and lore, by that which is scribed on the soul of all humanity I call forth the hidden strength. By The darkness and the light, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end I summon thy potential, By God and demon, man and beast, by Chaos itself, I call thee! Blossme oh fallen seed! I grant unto thee the glorious power of the mother of destruction!!"
As he spoke one of the dark gear's arms raised forward to point at the war machine like a black sign post on the road to hell. As his chant grew louder, tiny sparks and shivers of lightning started to filter from the air, coalescing into a tiny iridescent spark at the gear's hand, a spark that grew steadily brighter and brighter until Fei had to turn his face away from the glow of what seemed to be a new sun, cold and white and devoid of warmth and life.
Then Grahf cried six words and vanished like smoke borne on an east wind, away into the dark from where he had come. "My fist is the divine breath!!"
The pain that wracked Vanderkaum's body slowly evved, as did the light before his eyes, he had screamed out in pain, but now it was all gone and he felt strength flooding him like the nectar of the gods, etheric sparks crackled from his fingers as he reached for the Dora's controls, light streaking down every sinew and into his machine, bonding them as one, now they would die.
Fei saw the war machine, outlined in white light as if blessed by some divine purity, but that light held no purity, only anger and blinding incandescent rage. It surged forward, faster than before, claws seizing two of the remaining pirate gears and slamming them together with such violence that they each burst into blazing flames. Fei was released from the spell of latitude, slammed on his jets with one hand while he scrabbled at the radio link to the remaining two gears with the other. "Get back!" He screamed, but he didn't know if they had heard him, for even as he shouted and peddled Weltall away from the light flecked horror, they were seized and clashed together like their companions, fuel and parts spraying out in an unnatural deluge to scatter the sand around like strange snow.
Fei looked down, tears pricking his eyes as he gazed upon a gory stain of blood and flesh that had once been the young pilot of one of the gears. It was all his fault, all his fault, just like at Lahan, he could bring only death. "Stop it! Stopit it! Stop!" He sobbed through his teeth, even as he felt his pain and resentment building up behind his eyes until they stood like a massive tower of iron and fire. "Stop it!" He seemed to hear his own heart beat, swelling and thumping in his ears like some macabre music, bubum bubum bubum! Bubum! Bubum! The lights seemed to quiver around him, red and white and roaring, and he felt the stones of amnesia that lay at the heart of his mind shiver and tremble as if in some mighty earthquake, but it didn't matter, nothing mattered anymore --- it was all his fault! All his deliberate fault!
"How's the old Yggdrasil Jerico?" Bart asked with a cheer he did not feel. He had been prowling the bridge like a predatory cat now for the past three hours, whilst down in the engine room Jerico and his crew did their magic with hammer, welder and soldering iron to try and get the ship at least partly operational for the climatic battle to come. The young prince looked remarkably untroubled as he strode back and forth, his hair bobbing behind his shoulder, and his boots making hard metranomic percussion on the dead metal floor of the bridge. Yet for all this nervous pacing his face was calm, his sapphire eye gleaming, and there was a peculiar grace in his movements, almost as if he were readying every fiber for the battle.
"We can give you 75% efficiency --- maneuvering 75%, guidance 60%, engines 100%, sensors ---"
"Never mind the details --- we're not going anywhere after all, how about the weapons systems" Bart cut over the green clad Yggdrasil officers calm report with quick impatience.
Jerico squared his shoulders, his black eyes looking triumphant despite the haggard mask of tired lines that covered his tanned face. "Weapons systems at maximum efficiency"
"Good! Then we can put up a fight!" Though personally Bart would prefer to activate his Brigandier, and lure out to meet the hoards of enimy head on, striking here and there with his deadly whip until one of them got in a lucky blow.
At the controls --- many useless now, Sigurd leaned forward and pressed his face against the sun warmed glass of the port. His single eye glowing out and sweeping the dune sea before him as if it could replace the electronic eye that was blinded by damage.
The bridge was silent apart from Bart's pacing, Citan sat with the crewmen, his face intent as he peered down at the damaged Yggdrasil sensory link which he cradled on his lap almost tenderly, his deft gentle fingers busy amung the disfigured wiring. Sitting in one of the comfortable leather chairs that were bolted to the gray metal walls of the bridge, he looked somehow older, elderly almost, a paternal grandfather, sitting in a warm ray of sunlight fixing a toy for a favorite grandchild. But no one could see the strain in his tired eyes, as he gazed frequently over his spectacles to a random spot far out in the mat gray of the bridge's lake of floor, as if seeking some inner enlightenment from the metal. The silence seemed to stretch out over first a single moment, then another and another, each minute crawling by like slow insects in the sun.
Then suddenly Sigurd stood up, the white clad ex Jugend officer's snowy hair so neat and trim brushed suddenly into wild disarray by the violence of his gesture. This disordered hair combined with his mainly alabaster jacket lent the pirate Lieutenant the bizarre caste of the mad scientist, suddenl struck by the spark of a fiendish idea as he bent over the port of his work bench.
"Look out there!" His voice was gruff and low, falling dead on dead air. As if restless Bart strode quickly to the port, leaning slim hands on the metalwork he leaned forward, the sun for a moment catching his corn gold hair before he stood with even more violence than had shown in his movements when he was bending.
"Get Brigandier ready, who ever it is out there is making mince meat of the boarder fleet and I want to be in on the feast"
Citan walked to the port, discarding the broken computer bank carefully on the empty chair beside him. In contrast to the first two who looked through the port, the Solarian doctor straightened slowly, his dark angular eyes in their map of lines more quizzical than afraid. "I can say with a reasonable amount certainty that it is not an Aveh or Geblar gear. If I didn't know better I'd say it was some independent partisan coming to help us --- but the amount of devastation it is causing out there ---" The doctor shook his head slowly. "I would advise caution"
"No way, the more damage he does those creeps the better --- my enemy's enimy is my friend right? Get Brigandier ready and I'll go out and help him." Bart looked from grave face to grave face an uncertain youthful smile on his lips.
"I wouldn't advise it young master. This person might not be friendly ---" Even to himself Sigurd's voice sounded weekly skeptical.
"But look Sig, It's me they want not you and if I go out to fight this thing --- if it is an enemy they might leave you alone."
"You know that is incorrect Bart." Citan's voice was gentle, and Sigurd was almost visibly shaken by the cool almost brotherly way the psychologist in his olive green military coat pronounced the pirate leader's first name.
"Well --- we can't just wait here and do nothing. If that thing is going to kill me I'd rather sooner than later. If I have to stay in here with Ramsus and his goons out there for one more second I'm going to break something"
"As --- you --- wish." Citan's voice was heavy. He knew he could not stop the youth, knew it too well.
"Be careful young master" Maison's quavering voice was full of concern, and he fiddled with the lapels of his blue formal suit, then polished his steeled rimmed spectacles on his shirt front to try and stop his nervousness.
"I will old Maisen --- they’re not going to get me so easily." And with that Bart turned, almost running from the bridge a golden mane of hair flying behind his long willowy strides as the back of his ornate jacket disappeared through the doors leading to the elevator and gear bay.
"Adolescence! I hope he comes back" Muttered Sigurd sourly, returning to his post by the port window.
"So do I Sig --- so do I. '
Explosion rippled across the fleet of ships like a plague, red, white and black, the fires and etheric sparks raged, contagious in their fury, obscuring the sky with clouds of fragments. Ramsus watched on the bridge of his Ship, looking on the devastation from the small sunlit window of the main port with a grim smile on his face. He turned away from the viewer, his eyes like two golden coins in his bronze face. With fingers that visibly trembled he straightened his flood of metallic hair and smoothed out the creases in his uniform jacket --- a battle uniform devoid of frills and frippery. The sword that hung at his waist too was no slim fancy dress accessory, but a dull gray killer of a blade, one edge sharp as a razor, perfectly balanced and made of an alloy harder than steel.
After he'd finished grooming himself, one strong hand like a metal vice gripped the hilt of his sword so hard that the tanned healthy skin of his knuckles tightened to leprous whiteness.
"It's him" His voice came out as a hissing whisper like a jet of steam escaping from the nose of a slumbering dragon.
"Please clarify what you mean by 'him' Kahr" Miang gazed at the screen, hardly seeming to lean forward, her hair perfect in it's sapphire folds and the blue of her uniform complimenting it's brightness. She didn't look ready for a battle --- a dress ball maybe but not a battle.
"Who do you think I mean Miang?"
"What I think is not the issue, what do you think Kahr?" His face went stern and he almost snarled, suddenly taking a threatening predatory cast.
"It was a serious question." If it hadn't been delivered with such icy poise Miang's answer might have been taken as a mollifying apology. Ramsus glowered round the bridge at the white clad Solarian crewmen, then sank into a command chair, putting his feet up on the steel wall and leaning back gracefully. "The Demon of Elru --- the guy who owes me his life." Playing along with his quib Miang leaned on the back of the chair gazing down -- odd that the commander of Geblar could be so child like at times --- but after all a man who had no childhood had a right to a little mischief once in a while, Miang indulged him in her own cool distant way.
"Why does he owe you his life --- you never saved his?" Ramsus smiled almost happily.
"He owes me his life." He said slowly, savoring each word. "Because I didn't kill him before. He's been living on borrowed time and now I'm taking back the loan." He surged to his feet, once more full of vibrant anger." Get my gear ready immediately ---" As Ramsus turned to leave the bridge Miang reached out and in a gesture of affection, so rare as to be unheard of touched his big golden hand with her slim white fingers. He turned to stare into the icy glow of her eyes and saw the appeal there. There was still the distance, the cold self-possession, but combined with it was something warmer and deeper. Ramsus shook the hand off and turned away, his tawny eyes narrowing to predatory slits. He had no time for sentiment.
"Prepare my gear for combat." Said Miang coolly, following Ramsus from the bridge, a last ray of sunlight catching the shoulder length unearthly hair, then slipping from it as she walked away into the shadow's. Solarian crewmen in their robotics white moving to obey their commanding officer's commands like spectral automatons.
The young Prince stood shocked and drained of confidence --- though the destruction being dealt out on the vast table of desert sand was to the enemy, the shear amount of devastation left Bart cold. Like Brigandier, the destroying gear was red, but compared to the color of the attacker, Brigandier appeared drab and rusty. The monstrous gear seemed to glow and pulsate, it's form almost indistinct, towering like a giant of fire and blood high over the broken ships and defeated gears of the fleet. Behind the pulsating lines of energy, it seemed a normal gear, though with a dark and bloody presence that made into a titan of fear. Behind it where it's jets should have been, trailed six diaphanous wings that glowed and flashed, rippling around the huge red body as the gear moved in and out with amazing speed, massive fists smashing and pulverizing. On the giant glowing red head of the monster, two eyes of brilliant gold seemed to blaze with more than painted fury, as if this were not a gear but some elemental creature or unchained demon, released from hell upon the world to herald the apocalypse. Yet Bart could tell, that this creature was a gear, and though it appeared an almost living creature, so expressive was it in it's anger, yet there would be a pilot inside that glowing body, and judging by the way the gear's glowing red feet trampled on the survivors fleeing from wrecked ships, a pilot who cared nothing for human life.
"Hay punk! Get out of the way if you know what's good for you."
Bart spun, the massive red pirate gear with it's singled painted eye and eye patch turning with him.
The voice had not come from the glowing monster, but from the loud hailer of a bright golden gear that stood some meters away. This one Bart could say was a powerful machine, with joints and ligaments of steel articulated to precise human specifications. Furthermore, in it's blazing golden hands it held a massive sword of glittering metal that court the sun and reflected it back in waves of light. If it hadn't been for the voice, which was rough and brutal, Bart would have automatically said that this was the angel to combat the red devil.
Beside the golden gear was a more standard looking model in white and dark red. This gear could not have been mistaken for any heavenly or infernal creature, despite the metallic wings that stretched to either side. It was a light white Geblar model, with it's steely wings painted a dull burgundy. Because of its slimness, and it's white coloring as well as a certain poise in the way it stood, it projected a slightly feminine air, distant and unattainable. It seemed powerful enough, and the golden gear seemed to be one of the finest Bart had ever seen, but beside the red devil, they both seemed rotten sticks to attack and armored knight.
"I said! Get out of the way you idiot!"
Then Bart recognized the voice from the golden gear, it was the voice of the blonde haired man with the sword who they had fought in the tower of the citadel.
"Commander Ramsus?" Bart spoke into his own loud hailor.
"Yeah Kahran Ramsus, but right now I'm too busy to deal with you so get your royal ass out of my way!"
Almost instinctively Bart swerved aside as the golden gear hurtled forward, bringing the glittering golden blade up into an attack posture as it's jets flared.
The winged devil gear swung round and met Ramsus's attack head on. Bart saw the glittering blade stab forward towards the glowing enemy's chest but it never connected. There was the blur of Ether and the red gear spun round the gold like a comet circling a sun. Then an arm that seemed to pulse with arterial light shot out and seized the golden gear's wrist. Ramsus jabbed forward with the sword but though this time it chopped at the glowing arm that held him it did no damage that Bart could see. Then the golden gear was sent spinning away in one direction, whilst the arm with the sword still attached flashed off in another.
"Withdraw Commander." It was a woman's voice coming from the feminine red and white gear with the steel wings. Bart wondered if it was the woman with the strange taste in hair dye and the pale skin who had been with Ramsus in the tower.
"But Miang! I still have one arm left! I'm not beaten yet!"
"Withdraw commander" The voice was still cool and quiet, but with a sharper edge behind its seeming softness.
"Grrrrr!"Jets flared from the golden gear's back and together with the red and white gear it beat a hasty retreat.
Bart watched as the massive demonic figure with it's glowing white wings of gauzy ether began to stride slowly and purposefully towards the Yggdrasil. Though he knew that he stood no chance against this monster Bart jetted forward to stand in the creature's path. He raised his head and smiled the cool heroic dead smile of the berserker --- but if he had to die he might as well die in combat, at lest he would prove that he was braver than Geblar.
The creature of fire and energy stopped in front of Brigandier, from here Bart could look straight into those golden eyes that seemed to glow like real eyes with a diabolical lust.
"Are you strong?"The voice was soft and clear, seeming not to come through a loud hailer but speak directly into Bart's mind. It brought a shiver to the young prince's spine as he heard it, because he knew --- despite the voice's seeming gentleness that it was the voice of someone who would obliterate him with no more thought than a man would step on a beetle, and what's more would enjoy causing his death.
"Strong --- er --- me, well Yeah I ---"
"Really." The voice cut across Bart's gabled explanation was sudden sharpness, growing to a gleeful chainsaw whine. "Well if you are so strong then you won't object to a little fight."
"Suits me." Knowing that it was probably futile Bart reached forward with his wire cutting whip, bringing Brigandier's arm up and cutting the weapon across the glowing gear's chest. The demon didn't move, it's armor remained whole and uncut.
Bart leapt forward, bringing up one foot and pushing Brigandier's jets up to maximum so that he crashed into the devil with a force that would have broken rocks. But the creature didn't even shiver and Bart was thrown backwards to spin and then right himself, bringing the hurtling gear under control and powering down the jets so that he stood once more facing his demonic assailant.
"Oh the pain! The pain! --- Well now my motor coil's warmed up, lets start the battle for real!"
Bart hunched forward, luckily the violent spin as he brought his jets under control hadn't damaged his gear, but he still silently prayed. He hoped that Yggdrasil had used the time to escape, and wondered how long he could hold off this titan of blood --- not long. Oh well here goes, and he readied himself for the creature's attack, his slim hands firm on the grips, his young earnest face taking on the intense concentration of a chess player with one minute left on the clock and a vital check mate to find. His single eye burned like a blue star intense hard and icy bright.
When the attack came, Bart reacted instantly, every nerve in his body trained to hair trigger sharpness by Sigurd's tutoring. But even so, even as he slammed his finger down on the jet activation button and hurled his body right, even as he raised Brigandier's red metallic hands to protect the vulnerable front of the cockpit, he knew he was too slow. The flood of ether energy that emanated from the glowing gear's outstretched arm was faster than any weapon Bart ha d ever seen. As it streaked through the space between them Bart could see that it's color was not the normal brilliant blazing white or blue, but black, a wash of darkness intense and sickening, with glints and sparks of light dancing around the main black mass that were the color of chlorine gas.
The dark tide, like an exploding black whole struck Brigandier even as he dodged with astonishing force. It pealed away the armor from the left side of Brigandier, not just blowing it off but vaporizing it, circuits crackled and fizzed like pulsing wounds all across the pirate gear's left side, until his left arm and upper body were a mass of bare wiring, silver under the red.
In the cockpit Bart saw a mass of red flashing warming lights, even as he was flung backwards to crash onto desert sand. His body was hurled by the whiplash, the straps bruising his body and blood starting to flow from a cut on his cheek as his face smashed into the side of the cockpit. He felt dazed and confused, hardly able to move the mass of pain that was his body, the wailing klaxon that signified intense damage stabbing into his ears with ringing regularity.
Slowly his vision focused and he saw that the huge glowing giant was standing over him, and though it might have been the fevered imagination of the blow on the head, he thought that the golden eyes painted above the cockpit glowed with triumph.
"Young Master!" Maison's shout of despair was feeble yet all the more valiant for that. “We've got to help him. Mr. Sigurd, Good Doctor what can we do? --- sound out the gears, fire the torpedoes!"
"No time, that thing's just gloating, the minute we attack it'd finish off Bart and then go for us." Sigurd's voice was hard and cold as the featureless mat gray wall of the Yggdrasil bridge. The white clad Jugend graduate slumped into one of the chairs, his single eye half closed in despair, his snowy hair --- usually so neat, becoming disarrayed as he slumped his head against the wall.
"I fear that you are right Sigurd --- we have no attack speedy enough. As you say that demon's just biding it's time like a spider with a fl ---"
"Fly!" Sigurd's voice was almost a shout as he clicked his fingers and jumped to his feet.
Citan looked totally confused, sunlight winking from his spectacles and spilling over his lined face. "Yes Fly, small winged saprophytic invertebrate."
"No not fly, --- Fly! Jerico how are our auxiliary fuel tanks?"The brown haired Yggdrasil officer looked equally confused as Sigurd leapt from his chair and stalked across the bridge like a white spectral predator in his red flashed uniform, the Yggdrasil Y on the jacket seeming to be brought to new life as he ran through a patch of sunlight.
"The auxiliary tanks --- undamaged but ---"
"Good, couple their leads to the main thrusters and rear rudder jets."
"Do it Jerico, Now!!"
With mystified expression Jerico turned to the control panel and began punching out instructions whilst in the engine room several crewmen in Yggdrasil green rapidly unlocked cables and pipes and reconnected them.
"What are you doing Sigurd?" Asked Citan, angular eyes narrowing even more as he looked into the amber face of his friend.
"I'm going to make the Yggdrasl Fly."
"But --- you can't, crash and with that much fuel in the thrusters we'll explode!"
"Look Mr. Sigurd, I've seen some insane stunts in my time, but that's mad!" It was the Yggdrasil's helmsman who spoke, the normally silent Demi-human Franz with his strange feathered penguin like body. Jerico broke off from his punching in of instructions, and Sigurd ran forward and swept the officer out of the way with one white clad arm, continuing to punch buttons and press levers at a feverish rate.
"We might --- but life is nothing with out a little danger."
"But that is insane Sig, as well as the risk of explosion the structural damage will be enormous."
"I know" Sigurd replied, still hammering away. "But we can always get a new warship, we can't get a new Bart." There was a chorus of nods all round, and then Sigurd's finger slammed down onto a single button. The ship leapt forward as if stung by a wasp, clawing into the air like a bird learning it's way around the sky. Everyone fell to the floor as the acceleration kicked in and there was a staccato crash from the gun room.
"My china!" Wailed Maison, but even as the flight levelled out the nose of the ship dipped downward towards the desert --- about 90 feet below. Then the ship dropped like a falling stone, falling with astonishing accuracy and clouds of golden dust. Citan felt his stomach trying to escape through his mouth as the massive warship hurtled downwards, wrapped in the sound of howling wind and the continuing grinding of it's engines. The sound as it landed was a hard metal clonk! That seemed to echo and grind as if some one had punched the face of the earth with a solid metal fist. And the ground seemed to shake and as the bridge crew got to their feet it seemed that the ground was still shaking, the engines howl had faded to a dull grumbling that sounded as if millions of metal gear wheels were grinding their teeth in rage.
Citan looked out of the port and could see Brigandier, with its armour stripped away to bear circuitry lying some feet away. But of the red glowing giant there was no sign. Then the doctor looked down and his strong face broke into a broad smile, all it's lines, etched by so e terrible tragedy ironed out by the gleam of his mirth.
"Well, it seems that your mad cap plan has worked Sigurd. Our adversary is currently beneath our feet and quite possibly in a two dimensional condition."
"You mean we flattened the bastard --- well that's great" Sigurd stood and waved to the crumpled shape of Brigandier but received no response.
Citan clapped a tanned hand on his friend's white covered back in a gesture of affection as old as time. "You are mentally unstable Sigurd, but you deserve a medal all the same."
"Thanks Hyu, I thought it was about time you started to appreciate my genius, how's our ship Franz?"
The Helmsman waddled drunkenly over the floor, his black eyes looking so startled that he appeared almost comical. "We're holding together ---just, Jerico get a sensory diagnostic going." The brown haired officer moved to another console and began punching in numbers, but before he could finish there was a grinding from beneath their feet and the floor began to shake. Once more Citan, Sigurd, Franz and Jerico were flung to the decking, as the grinding grew louder and Yggdrasil began to rise steadily and majestically into the blue sky.
Citan scrambled across the heaving floor to pear out of the port, and his face grew dark and tragic as the grave of a king. For though the massive grey side of the Yggdrasil was between him and the ground, the Solarian could just make out the column of ether power --- black and green like the father of all snakes, on who's top the warship rose like the cap stone on some bizarre monument 150 feet high.
Bart shook his head to clear it, the random flicker of klaxons making his blond hair which had come loose from it's pony tale glow in alternative waves of pulsing rust. How good it would be to close his eye and slip into the arms of oblivion that wanted to claim him. But he couldn't, he had to get up to fight. He saw the glowing form rearing above him like a magic tower; though it was some feet away, it's six diaphanous wings made the air around it glow and crackle as they whipped about it like a veil of glory about a bitter god. Then suddenly something huge slammed down, something gray and massive crushing down on top of the evil monster and settling to the sand in a cloud of dust. For a moment Bart wondered what it was, as it's great bulk blocked out the noon sunlight. Then he saw the Y with in the circle, blazing in brightest yellow on its side and he knew. The Yggdrasil! Summoning his strength he tried to rise but nausea clouded his brain and he gave up, lying within the leather embrace of his gear's straps, blood dripping down his face onto his immaculate jacket. It didn't matter; he could rest now he was safe.
Then as he watched the Yggdrasil shivered, beginning to shake. At first the young prince thought that it was going to fly once more, but then he saw it shudder and lift into the air, not rising like a phoenix from the ashes, but being lifted high as if on a scaffold. Energy sparked from the devil gear's arms; a thick flood of black with its snake like green sparks hissing and blazing. The gear seemed untouched though the sand around its pulsing feet was scarred and trenched by the impact of the Yggdrasil. Then the pilot of the devil gear spoke again, and this time the voice was cold as steel even as it cut. In it was all the hatred remarks that can end a friendship, and the anger of lies and betrayal. The golden eyes blazed with renewed fury and the body and wings seemed to glow ever brighter, dulling the sunlight by their hellish magnificence.
"Well whipping boy, I'd taken you for a weakling and then --- throwing a warship at me, quite impressive"
Then black energy roared up from the gears arm, and the fountain of dark ether that held the Yggdrasil aloft thickened into a punching fist. Bart felt his heart wrench as he saw the mighty ship buckle; it's two halves stoving inwards by the terrific force of the devil gear's power. As metal ground and huge rents appeared in the sides and underbelly of the warship, Bart tried to suppress tears, for he loved that ship and everything it symbolized. He wondered if Maison and the others had survived and had to suppress a sob, the bitterness of it making his head throb.
He looked round at Brigandier's cockpit, it's warning lights flashing their message of pain and death. Then slowly agonizing, he forced the injured gear to its feet, dragging his only slightly less injured body and forcing Brigandier to follow. Circuits sparked and crackled anew and inside the arm gears and rods made intricate interplay, it was like being able to see a bone joint in a human body flayed of skin. But the gear rose, obedient all machines to its controller's command.
As Brigandier rose slowly painfully but with infinite valour, a horrible laughter came from the red devil gear. A chill laughter in that strangely light voice, hard as daggers and full of murderous intention." Is this yours?" Bubbled the voice, like acid bubbling in an overheated test tube, ready to burst and burn and destroy. Then suddenly the red arms which held the sand ship aloft straightened, the black ether coalescing into an almost solid mass of darkness and the ship was flung over Brigandier's head to crash into the sand, immediately starting to sink as the overheated engines burrowed it deep and sand filtered into the broken bulkheads like hoards of germs invading an open wound, making it gangrenous, starting death.
Bart felt the sand shift under Brigadier's feet, and before he could activate his jets he fell face first and was instantly caught in the rushing swirling sand as the Yggdrasil began to sink. When he and Fei had been court beneath the hurricane he had sustained no damage from the rapid drop through the swirling yellow, but he had been fresh then, and Fei had been there to help.
This time Brigadier's controls were sluggish and unresponsive due to the massive amount of damage he had taken, Bart felt his head spin as he was whirled downwards the sand blotting out all light like the last dusk, leaving only the urgent flashing of the warning lights. He tried to bring up Brigandier's arms to cover the cockpit, but the grips wouldn't move, then suddenly the tow grips holding his legs were wrenched upwards and he screamed with pain as tonnes of sand constricted Brigandier's metal legs and with them his. He tried once more to activate the jets, but a sudden surge smashed his hand against the control unit and more pain cracked through his body, there was a sharp snapping sound as his hand was bent forward under the impact and the pain intensified. Bart knew his wrist had broken and that if he did nothing he would be slowly battered to death. Gritting his teeth against the pain, the young Prince forced his broken wrist to bend, and slowly, his slim fingers slipping, he undid the straps that bound him to the gear, then his other hand. Then he bent and undid his feet, surges of sand threatening always to slam his head into the cockpit wall. When his feet were free he stepped out of the straps and stood up --- a mistake, a wave of sand slammed Brigandier against something hard and unyielding with a ringing clang of metal and Bart was catapulted forward to smash his already injured head into the control panel.
In the few seconds before he lost consciousness the pirate realized that it had been the side of the Yggdrasil, which his gear had slammed against. He lay curled on the floor, huddled into a foetal ball as sand smashed and eddied around him, then his head slumped forward, blood matting in his blonde hair, which hung about his face like a golden shroud. He lay on the metal floor of Brigandier's cockpit, a slow peace overtaking him, and a darkness more profound than that which had enveloped his gear covered him. It was over now --- his life, but that didn't matter, nothing mattered --- he --- just --- wanted --- to --- sleep. In a last effort of pointless melodrama he forced his vocal cords to say one name --- "Maa---jj---eee" And then all was dark sweet and uncaring oblivion, rocking him in gentle waves of senselessness like a mother's embrace.
On the Yggdrasil lights began flashing and the wale of klaxons resounded through the steel corridors, crewmen began to undertake standard safety procedure, but due to the hellish gear's buckling of the ship many corridors were blocked and some crewmen were trapped in sleeping quarters or medical rooms as the ship began to fill with sand. They scrabbled against the blockage, screaming for help but sand inexorably filled mouth and nostrils, and slowly they slipped into an uncaring unconsciousness like that, which had overtaken their young captain in Brigandier's cockpit. At the rear of the ship a chance spark from a broken circuit set fire to the engine room and a huge fireball flew into the sky, followed a second later by another as the fire reached the gear docks. Some crewmen escaped through emergency hatches or other methods, but most of those who weren't caught in the fire could do nothing but go down with the ship that they had served.
On the bridge there was no way of assessing the damage as all sensors were out and the corridor to the engine room was filled with twisted and jagged metal spears, the only light was from the flashing klaxons as the viewing ports were berried in a wash of sand. In the aerie gloom things appeared and vanished with the odd startling regularity of flashes of lightning, but not in stark blue whiteness but in a light the color of blood.
"I suppose that there is no action we can take?" Asked Maison timidly, from where he had fallen onto a chair, his ribs bruised from the impact when the Yggdrasil had crashed into the sand.
"Not that I can think of Maison --- but there is the escape capsule, that'll take one of us." Jerico looked at Maison as he spoke, but the old butler shook his head, the gray of his hair black in the flashes of red light, his old face seeming years younger as it was set in an expression of stern confidence.
"Not me, I'm old, Mr. Jerico, Mr. Franz." Both shook their heads.
"We're Yggdrasil crewmen this is our ship and even when it's going down we can't abandon it." Franz concurred with Jerico's statement with a clack of his beak.
"I think Hyuga should go." Put in Sigurd, helping Citan to his feet from where he had crumpled against a control board.
"Not me Sig ---"
"Yes you Hyuga, you didn't ask to be involved in all of this and frankly --- it's not right that you should die for something that's not your problem."
"But it is my problem ---"
"No it is not good Doctor, Master Fei is your problem --- if he is still alive you must find him and help him."
Maison's voice once more that day held a firm note of command, and though his formal suit was crumpled, and his jacket torn by a jagged piece of glass, he seemed lordly with his stern old face and his eyes like marble behind the twisted remains of his spectacles.
Citan took off his own glasses and began to twist them back into shape --- luckily neither of the lenses had broken. "I can't accept ---" there was a sudden grinding roar as the ship started to settle.
"Go! Hyuga or no one will!" Sigurd ran across the bridge, seeming almost to teleport from one place to another as he appeared in one flash of klaxon light and reappeared in another, his jacket and hair stained red by the light and making him appear like some strange alien being from a red planet. "Through that hatch you'll find it, it's got supplies in the back now go!" The muscular amber skinned grabbed Citan and thrust him towards a small panel which he flipped open. "Go!" Sigurd boosted Citan into the panel and helped him on his way with a push.
Citan found himself in a small box hardly bigger than a broom cupboard with a set of controls before him. There was a padded seat that was scarcely more than a box stool, and he leaned his back against the door, which Sigurd slammed shut on him. It was totally dark in the box; only the few flashing displays on the control panel showing that the little capsule was operative.
Shaking his head and straightening his dark pony tale the doctor pressed one of the buttons and was instantly shooting forward through a veil of sand and up to the light. Day flooded through the glass in front of him, and blinking his angular eyes behind their spectacles Citan could see that the inside of the capsule was gray metal like the walls of the Yggdrasl. You could get claustrophobia if you were in here too long, he thought, the psychologist in him noting the lack of aesthetics within the capsule. But squaring his shoulders he reached forward two practiced hands to the controls. Firing the small jets set at the rear of the capsule, he turned the little white box about to see what could be done of the Yggdrasil. Despair filled him --- the ship so beautiful and brave only a short time before was a wreck. One end --- where the bridge was rapidly burying itself in sand like some massive burrowing animal, an the other was burning, an inferno of flames made metal hiss and drip like arteriole blood, doors gaped from the gear bay, their shapes warped and strange from the heat. Men staggered, some --- those that had wives, helping women spilling from warped doors and rents in the hull, their faces blackened with smoke, choking and stumbling across the sand, the green of their Yggdrasil uniforms stained gray or burnt brown. Smoke had risen from the flames and now the desert sky was a mass of swirling gray tendrils that grappled out the sun like some multi-legged undersea monster.
Citan powered down the escape pod and ran for the gear bay, his feet crunching on the sand his pinkish sash coming undone and forcing him to remove it and stuff it into one of his olive green coat's capacious pockets.
The gear bay! He didn't have his medical supplies but still he might be able to help. He dashed into the inferno the heat blistering his tanned skin and his dark hair blown back by a wind like the breath of hell. Smoke stung his throat, and he pulled the sash out of his coat pocket and knotted it about his nose and mouth even as he dashed into the yawning maw of the gear bay, running between fires across a metal floor who's heat he could feel through his shoes the Solarian saw several gears already burning and some --- blackened but intact --- among them the Heimdal gear he had used. Then above the roar of flames and hiss of molten metal he heard a shout for help. Looking round he saw sever people trapped under fallen metal slabs their arms waving like the legs of trapped insects --- what could he do? The slabs were far too large for him to move alone. The doctor looked around with a kind of desperate calm as the sand started to filter across the floor, the air was acrid and full of fumes that made him cough and splutter, his eyes watered behind their battered glasses.
Then suddenly Citan saw Heimdal and running to it he climbed the ladder into the cockpit. Powering up and slipping his body into the grips he swung one huge fist and the slabs were burst into fragments, but sand was filtering into the gear bay in a flood yellow that was already five feet deep, and the slope of the floor meant that the sand around Heimdal's legs was perhaps six feet deep. Citan didn't hesitate, jet power and flames flashed from the turtle shell on the back of the green gear and it slammed forward through the open doors and on to safety and daylight, the people he had rescued floundering their way out after him like tiny ducks following an immense mother.
He banked the gear round in the pulsing smoke to look and Yggdrasil to see if he could help, but it was hopeless. The ship was by now almost completely covered with yellowing sand, smoke rising from beneath like phantoms from beyond the grave. At the rear the gaping gear bay doors yawned drinking the desert, full of fire and smoke like the mouth of hell. Then as Citan watched the ship dipped down out of site and sand swirled over, covering all like a blanket in loving gritty folds.
He looked round for Brigandier, but couldn't see it. The desert was empty, the Geblar ships --- those that survived had fled away into the blue distance where a strip of bright sapphire sky shone out from under the smoke with the promise of freedom.
But here under the leaden pawl all was dull sand, broken ships broken gears and broken humanity. Citan looked across the screen with a sigh, the lines on his face seeming to deepen, aging him perhaps 10 years. Looking slowly over the scene he wondered why --- why did people have to die like this? Then he turned his back on such speculations, slipping a pragmatic mask over his emotions, as all healers must. Checking Heimdal's internal compass and looking at the fuel read out, he slammed his finger down on the jet button and flew off towards the north to try and find his pupil.
As he flew, he came out from under the smoke and his gear with it's blackened grimy armour was brought back to life by the flood of brilliant light reflecting from the sand, which washed over Heimdal like a revitalizing tonic. As he flew Citan wondered if any of the Yggdrasil crew would survive, certainly about 5 or 6 had escaped from the burning gear dock but what about the rest, and what about Sigurd his old friend. He briefly ran through his memories of the white haired man, of his honesty his competence, his dry humour. It would be a blow to the world if Sigurd and old faithful Maison, as well as the others of Bart's crew perished under the desert. What about Bart himself, Brigandier had been brutally damaged, and from it's sudden disappearance Citan guessed that the currents of swirling sand as the Yggdrasil had plunged downwards had dragged the young prince under.
He sighed, Fei's psychological make up would be in no way improved by his friend's death, but what could he do? To conceal the fact from his young protégé would be even more detrimental to the boy's self esteem.
His mind full of thoughts of tact and mercy --- rather convoluted thoughts it was true, but good-natured all the same, Citan was among the wrecks of the boarder fleet before he knew it. He looked across the mass of shattered gears --- some pirate and many Aveh, Fei had been victorious it would seem, for there were far more Aveh gears than pirate ones, and the ground around them was furrowed and banked as if something had burrowed into the even mass of sand dunes --- so some of the ships had been sunk, but where was Fei? With a sinking heart Citan looked through the mass of metal carrion that had once been gears, a viscera of circuits spilled obscenely in the afternoon sun, but nowhere could he see what he feared most --- a huge purple corpse with blood in it's cockpit.
Turning Heimdal in a circle, he caught sight of a huge metallic monster with massive metal claws drooping --- one wrenched right off, its once hard armour shell scarred and cracked like a wounded snail. Bending Heimdal down so that he could look more closely, Citan could see that where the internal circuitry of the machine showed it was blackened and seared as if exposed to a huge charge of etheric energy.
He straightened a pondering look on his dusty face, he had heard of this kind of machine an experimental modification on the normal land crab design --- Dora that's what it was called. But what was it doing here? Citan shrugged, though a diligent seeker of knowledge he knew when a mystery baffled even his considerable reasoning power. He stood his squat olive green and gray gear and pressed the jet button, the jets roared out once more and the massive war machine with it's heavy stained armour flashed across the dusty face of the glittering wasteland, Flying off in search of the living Fei leaving the dead and broken ruins behind.
Scene of Pain
The scream cut through the air like a sharp knife, fragments of sound ricocheting off the dead white walls like sonic shrapnel. It was a hard wending sound, clear cold and deadly like a claw of ice --- but any listener would have been more horrified by its source than by its sound, for it was a child's scream. Somewhere in a dead white tiled place where machines grew like a petrified forest of glass Perspex and metal, somewhere a child was being hurt, horribly and indescribably hurt.
And yet any who looked at the child's body would not see wound or blood, only the plethora of monitors that ringed it like misshapen vultures, all reading that its heartbeat, blood pressure, and rate of breathing were normal. The only possible cause of the child's agony was the thin steel probe that extended down from a gantry like device, stabbing into the bare arm. The body was held down by steel cuffs at the wrists and ankles, pegged out on its back easy prey for the pain machine. But any observer cold enough, inhuman enough, able to resist the totally human temptation to run to the table, wrench away the pain machine and cuffs and bare the child out of that white tomb like place of lost hopes, any observer with cold calculating eyes and a dead logical mind, such an observer might have noticed that readings from the gantry like device were being projected on a computer screen and guessed that this was an experiment, a sacrifice to that most rigid cruel and uncompromising of all god's, science.
The two who stood close to that screen, and noted it's reading with calm delicacy were just such cold observers.
The one bent over the screen was a man, tall and angular in a pristine white coat that went well with the room's alabaster tiling. The other was a woman clad in a light blue skirt and blouse, her face seemed kindly, deep smile wrinkles etched either side of her full-lipped mouth, but that was merely a natural elusion, a trick of bone and flesh, for her expression was as cold zealous and featureless as that of her companion. Yet if you looked carefully, you might see her unfathomable indigo eyes pass over the screaming child, and gleam for one single instant with a kind of regret underlayed with fanatical fervor. Yet for all the difference it made, that brief moment of softening might have not existed, she remained still and cold like a snow statue, as the child she had birthed cried out for her, and his neurological readings filled the screen like a spreading stain of blood.
The man, the scientist lacked all softness. His grey eyes shone with dull brilliance like diamonds carved from solid steel, these eyes could never be considered a mirror of the soul, they were merely tools, scanners of photon echoes given off by images and relayed to the perfect computer of the scientist's brain in waves of rippling impulses. His face too never changed, it was a smooth and scholarly face, pleasant enough but for its statuesque lack of expression. From his head a shock of indefinitely colored hair spread down the back of his white coat and every so often he would mechanically run a hand through this pale mass, but the gesture was forced, rather for the purpose of exercising his hand muscles than as a sign of emotion.
Time passed and nothing changed, save the steady parade of readings that marched inexorably across the screen, and the child's thin brutal cries. It seemed almost that the arctic white floor was a stage and upon it the same play of agony and death went on and on, a constant repeat performance. But time was moving like a great breaker sluicing across the surface of an infinite sea, time rolled on, and eventually, in only a short while now the wave would reach the cliff. It was that cliff that concerned the woman and the scientist, it was that cliff that loomed high in the child's future like an oncoming wall of night at the last end of the world --- as in fact it might prove to be.