Lightning raked caelum as billowing thunderheads dipped soilward like prodigious worms of galaxial dispensation. All motley seething rabble congealed before the KSRU bastion scattered in the spreading storm’s wake, pulling hoods and hats against fretful increase. Minutes later, an albumen host spilled from the barbican of the skyslick fort and forded vacated ground on armored transports. A regimented thrumming dampened by howling wind cascaded over rows of ravaged tenements, whose shattered windows exhuded a depthless blackness in smoke and shadow, overcast by flashes of blue radiance. Fearful eyes peered from the stygian reach and hateful hands plied vain fire to the machines. Ryard stood the back of the windowless mag-ray that led the mechanized company, decked in Syzr’s refitted plate panoply, and watched numerous optic feeds displaying the exterior on reticulated screens that ran small ceiling bound gantries with frictive skittering. A bottle stuffed with a lit rag collided with the top of his vehicle in a whirl of flame that quickly died to the wind and rain. Beside him, indifferent to the assault, steadying themselves on overhead handrails, were members of the ADC combine, Corporals Whalen, Kopf, Grieg, Sarker, Captain Raimer and, at front, Colonel Vorstahl.
None barred the mechanized regiment’s way and those that did not slink from the elements turned in gibbering terror from the sychitin clad cavalcade and scuttled to buildings ruined by sloth and want long before the riots began.
“It was sharp thinking,” Ryard commended to Vorstahl as the vehicle jittered across broken ground. “To use the cloud planters over the fort.”
“Only way I could figure of repelling the mob without bloodshed.”
Despite the deluge, the convoy made steady progress through the wasted district until they lolled on a pedestrian thoroughfare before the aerospace complex.
An inhuman growl tore across the sky. A sodden tiger padded from an alley, paused and surveyed the placid, imposing machines on the road before it exposed its fangs and slunk to the rubble of a collapsed and steaming factory.
“What’s a tiger doing here?” Raimer sputtered.
“Someone loosed the local zoo,” Vorstahl concluded, helm under his right arm, eyes to the nearest exterior monitor. “Be prepared for more than just human hostiles.” Raimer and Vancing nodded and the convoy continued along the ash swathed pavement until they reached the opened front gate of the high walled KASC. No light emanated from within the imposing structure and no motion played between the cold, knife edged buildings that peaked above it. The moment the legion passed the unsealed conduit, the portcullis fell, blocking all backward egress. The caravan stopped before two towers that straddled the road before them, then split off in three columns, the first moving east, the second breaking to the west, and the lead vehicle staying put.
All ears strained, apprehending rhythm among the din. Music, a waltz, featuring a single bassy drum and jagged strings, discordant and unnerving.
“I’ve heard that piece before, in Rehdon’s theater,” Ryard interjected, left hand white knuckling about the transport’s overhead handrail.
Kopf made for the door but Ryard threw his right arm out in warning. “Wait,” Vorstahl called sternly. Kopf looked to his superior with frustration. “Not yet,” Ryard replied. “Doesn’t matter which tower we head to first, they’ll have clean shots from the other. Don’t count on the rain. We need hail, which will start falling,” he looked to the clock on his suit’s affin module. Time distended. Then an enthused, “Now.” The retinue looked to the display screens and beheld a sudden shower of ice pellets pepper the entire facility, extinguishing the macabre tune.
The men begin psyching themselves up. Kopf shifted his weight like a boxer prepping for a match, rolling the tension out of his joints, Grieg beat his chestplate, Whalen smacked his helm, breathing heavy, Sarker stomped his left foot, as if to check the security of his boot. Raimer stood with his arms folded, unconcerned with ritual.
Vorstahl leaned toward his men. “Raimer, Sarker,” he shifted through the corridor that led to the driver’s cabin, “Stalls, you’re with me. Kopf, Grieg, Whalen, you’re with Vancing.” He gestured to the door. “Move out.” Vorstahl’s team departed the hold and leapt into the maelstrom.
Kopf rammed his fist to Ryard’s chestplate, “You ready?” No, he thought with sudden terror. I’m terrified. I don’t want to be here. I’m not cut out for this. I want to drink tea with Lind and hear her complain about her work. I want to help customers in crowded terminals, even when they exhasperate me. I want to tinker with discarded machines and watch the light play off the aerostats and mag-rays in the sky garden.
Images of burning buildings, maddened crowds, and the faces of Fawnell, Salis and Syzr flashed through his mind, the residue, a seething rage, directed as much at himself for his cowardice as the obscured architect of the city’s destruction.
“Sir?” Kopf prompted with a tinge of concern.
Ryard emerged from reverie and released the overhead railing. “As I’ll ever be.”
The men decanted the transport and bolted in tight formation to the leftward tower door. No shots rang from above. Ryard gave the signal whereafter Kopf and Whalen laid a series of charges on the door as Grieg brought up the rear. Another hand signal from the Major sent the team against facade, faceplates turned from the portal. “Now,” Ryard commanded before bending beside Grieg and bracing for impact. Kopf tensed with anticipation as Whalen placed an arm over his head and hit the touch screen of his affin module, activating the charges. A sunderous boom and the door was blasted inward, clear off its hinges. The men stormed in, cutters ready, Kopf and Whalen first, clearing corners, then Ryard and Grieg at the back.
The ground floor chamber was conical, gray and featured, near the party and to the left, a recently vacated work station composed of a wide, heavy box desk with display panels, and a deactivated labor drone, to the right, storage crates, mounted to the wall, above which yawned the interstice of a lift, and a spiral stairwell opposite the door.
Ryard went stiff as he spied a shape upon the furthest crate. A human shape, with panic in its eyes and death in its hands.
“Get down,” Ryard shouted.
Kopf and Whalen leapt behind the workstation just as a crackling sounded, followed by an intense surge of heat and the scent of ozone. The source of the disturbance, a blinding blue bolt from a military cutter, that seared the front of the heavy desk and left the material hissing. Ryard grabbed the drone and flung himself behind the nearest crate, pried open the machine’s back paneling as another shot resounded, aimed at Grieg, who retreated to the entrance and obscured himself from the line of fire just as the leftward middle portion of the doorway exploded. Kopf and Whalen angled their cutters upward and returned fire, scorching the exposed surfaces of the crate, but found their target elusive. The container borne assailent bent low, scuttling back as men garbed in Security Commission uniforms emerged on the base of the stairwell, firing madly.
“We’re pinned down, Major,” Whalen declared into his helm lain comlink.
“We’re gonna get fried.”
“Hold position,” Ryard repeated more emphatically as he finished activating the mastiff-sized service drone, which unfurled four multi-jointed legs and rattled out, “CASTLE MODE INITIATED.” The machine skittered from behind the crate with eye blurring speed and fired a volley of darts at the nearest stairwell nested SecCom officer. The man jerked as the needles impacted his exposed neck, then spasmed and slumped to the ground. Guard aloft the crate aimed for the machine, exposing himself to Kopf, who loosed a blast from his cutter and sent the pugilist tumbling from his perch in a shower of sparks. Before he could resume cover, Kopf was hurtled off his feet in sapphire coruscation, left shoulder candent. The last stairwell waylayer aimed at the drone but flew backward with a horrid yell before pulling the trigger, chest scored away by Grieg’s armament.
The pungent stench of scorched polymer and flesh drifted heavy in the air, the only audible sound the tinking of the service drone inspecting bodies and making its way up the stairs. Ryard bolted to Kopf in panic. “You alright?” Kopf rose on one knee and flexed his left arm and rolled the limb in its socket, then nodded. The white matte outer layering of the man’s pauldron was burnt away, revealing a spongier inner lining. “This isn’t chintzy SecCom scrap,” Kopf replied, gesturing to the body of the man he shot from the crate. Ryard turned and studied the corpse. The man wore a standard issue SecCom cuirass, through which a small, charred cavity where a heart once beat had been bored. The dead man’s youthful face was frozen in an expression of supreme horror. With veiled sorrow, Ryard bent to the fallen soldier and retrieved the weapon from a lifeless grasp and a small black controller from the belt. Kopf and Grieg helped themselves to the weapons of the other men as Whalen bound the unconscious survivor with scandium restraints and thereafter turned for the serpentine stairwell.
“No,” Ryard called. “We’ll be disadvantaged taking the stair.”
“What else can we take?” Grieg asked, incredulous.
Ryard shook the newly retrieved controller. “The lift.”
Three apprehended the fourth’s design and thereafter swarmed up the container. Ryard toggled the controller and the floor issued a faint sibilation, thereafter mechanical arms of the interstice bore the load through the cool darkness of the shaft above, which fell unevenly and bisected the containers into swathes of blue and black. Ryard gestured to the shadowed portion of their makeshift elevator and the men concealed themselves within the tenebrous haze. Every passenger bent nervously due the momentum of the upthrust crate as floors blurred by in steady succession. The second, third, fourth and fifth, clear, the sixth, occupied by four men, two of whom crouched tight to the walls by the stairwell, the others stood close by the slideway up which the crates moved, using consoles as cover, and whirled upon the disturbance in the aperture. All were armed and armored and members of the Consortium guard.
“They’re trying to distract us,” a gray haired man furthest from the chute warned, casting a glance frantically over his shoulder. “Keep your eyes on the stairs. I’ve lost contact with low team. The intruders will be here soon.”
“We should have left when we had the chance,” the largest of them declared, his voice quaking with dread.
“Just do it,” the gray hair shouted.
The Consortium guardsmen hesitantly obeyed and reassumed their positions in tense silence.
“What’s our play, Major?” Whalen prompted softly.
“Wait until the drone makes it up. When they engage it, we move in.”
Kopf sighed in frustration and meticulously checked his weapon.
“Patience,” Grieg urged quietly.
“I have a perfect shot.”
“Not until I say,” Ryard ordered as he placed his hand upon the distant end of Kopf’s custom thermal scoped cutter.
The gendarmes at the stair perked to attention as the shadow of the drone slide into view. “Take it out,” shouted the gray haired guard. As the machine finished rounding the bend in the stairwell it was greeted by a volley of cutter fire. Kopf reraised his weapon. Grieg followed suit as Ryard and Whalen prepared to exit the chute. Consortium cutter blasts resounded in the ocular ambit and swiftly the man beside the gray hair keeled over, tranquilizer darts jutting from his neck. The chief watchman cursed, retailiated and blew the front leg off the assailing machine. Yet still the drone advanced, like an injured harvestman. The large officer in the middle of the room, exchanged a glance with his slender counterpart, who nodded, and made for the landing. “Now,” Ryard commanded. Kopf loosed his shot and downed the big man as he broke from cover, in the same instant, as his comrade looked about with confusion, Ryard leapt from the container, flying free of the chute borne crate, and fell seven meters upon the slender Consortium militant, driving the butt of his cutter to the hapless man’s skull. The thin man went slack and crumpled. Ryard bounded up, looking to the gray haired shooter, who loosed a shot which struck true. The CAV-keep staggered and inhaled sharply, shaken by the impact and the sight of his near obliterated front breastplate. Yet he felt no heat and knew the blast had not breached his suit. Then the voice of the gray haired sentry reverberated from behind a shelf of assorted hardware, “How does it feel, to be party to an insurrection? To betray your own kind?”
“We aren’t responsible for what happened to the council. Your new master is,” Ryard replied firmly, moving out into the open, hand-signaling for his men to flank the target.
“You think I’m stupid?”
Kopf advanced to the right of the shelf as Grieg took the left.
“I think you’re surrounded.”
“You have no conception of what he will do to me should I surrender.”
“You’re right, but I’d prefer it all the same. There’s no point running. Or fighting. Throw your weapon over the shelf, come out with your hands up and you’ve my word you won’t be harmed.”
A lengthy quiet, then a cutter cleared the top of the server stack and clattered across the floor. Ryard retrieved the weapon, and as he did, the gray haired guardsman emerged from the right side of the stack, palms level with his head. As the man drew closer, Ryard surveyed him. He was well on in age, yet well kept and vigerous in expression and movement and bore a jagged scar across the right side of his face that appeared to have been forged of flame. Despite the imposing facets of his general appearance, the man’s countenance was wracked with terror.
“You can put your hands down. What is your name, soldier?”
The gray haired officer looked numbly at the silver-gilt inquisitor as he slowly lowered his limbs. “Oh, you’re one of the sick ones, like to keep names from a slaughter?”
“I told you before, you won’t be harmed. You are under grave misapprehensions as to the nature of the situation.”
“Connor. Connor Saltheath. And that was Adams,” the man gestured to the big man, who lay two meters distant, a hideous cavity torn in the center of his back, deep enough to render visible a charred spinal column. “What was it all for?”
“You said something about what he will do to you. You meant Rehdon, didn’t you?”
The man leaned against the server stack, all fight gone out of him, and inclined his head twice. “There’s something… wrong with him. I didn’t want to admit it. Even to myself. I thought, I just,” the man was babbling now, his eyes fixed upon the corpse of his friend. “I thought we were doing our duty, honoring Sodabrucke by serving her successor. But the way he’s changed them… gods.” The man slide down to a sitting position and stared at the ceiling as tears streamed from his eyes.
“Where is he?”
“He spoke to Gale, and half an hour later, Gale threw Tolbit from the spire observation deck. I don’t know why he did it. Its like Rehdon’s hypnotized them. Except for the outsider and the other.”
“I don’t know their names. They’re not Consortium, whoever they are. Rehdon’s never without them. One had a revolver. Large. Always jeering. The other, the one with the hat, rarely speaks, but he… he laughed when Tolbit fell. Laughed. But what could I do? What could I do!”
“Is that where he is,” Ryard knelt before the man and softened his tone. “The spire?”
Saltheath looked to Vancing and trembled. “Last I knew. But pray you never find him.”