A preview of the first chapter of the upcoming scifi short novel Mass Wasting, which centers on an itinerant salvager tasked with recovering a lost reconissance drone from a perilous lunar basin, is now available at Patreon (here). For those who aren’t members, all chapters of the book will be published here after the manuscript is sufficiently polished.
Track available at: https://kaiterenless.bandcamp.com/track/to-whom-the-sky-belongs
Carmine coils of smoke and pungent fumes choked the air of Aecer’s market district. Fearful citizens ran in reptilian haze. Some missing eyes, others, limbs. Consortium distress flares speckled the perimeter of the commercial nexus and in the middle of it a government transport had been overturned, smashed, surrounded by wild howling reavers hefting pipes and knives and other lethal oddments. The armed mass corralled a number of Consortium petty officers and heaped detritus upon a great bonfire that blazed beside the upset vehicle, upon which one man stood triumphant and led those surrounding in chant. His face was contorted with ferocity which taken with his prominent brow, flat nose and wide mouth lent a hideous simian aspect. The red light of the flares made the ghastly face appear all the more alien and dreadful. His voice, as that of his hollering comrades, was lost to the bedlam of the blaze, the hiss of the wind and the liquid rumble of government klaxons.
Two hundred feet off, in the middle of the eastern thoroughfare that ran from harbor to bazaar, Eidos Kryos watched the primal display through the shifting pall of the vain distress signals and lifted a hand, as if tossing away the wind, his gilded black scaled vestments fluttering like the fins of a great channel pike. His vast regiment arrayed behind him, awaiting orders. The riotous canting band within the far market square took no notice and continued fueling the crackling bonfire, taunting their captives, pushing them closer to the inferno.
Smoke cleared and a pile of corpses was rendered visible before Kryos’ host. Five men were sprawled upon the left side of the thoroughfare, their bodies mangled, the head of one so brutally crushed, brains painted pavement. In the center of the grisly ring lay a large man decked in vermeil plate. He was sprawled on his side as one who had dropped from sheer exhaustion. The deep colonists recognized the gear as distinguishing a colonel of their number. The front of the man’s helm and breastplate was scorched and fractured and blood pooled thick on the ground beneath him.
Straker’s hand flew to her mouth and tears formed in her eyes. “Syzr,” she gasped, the name flying like a phantom to the cacophonous gloom.
Sirin rested her hands on her belt and bowed her head. Stifled sobbing resonated from beneath her helm. Raimer cursed and turned away, unable to weather the sight. Ryard looked on in shock, Sonderon, in confusion. Kryos’ soldiers murmured among themselves, their vocalizations lost to the district’s mounting aural acidity.
Kryos alone retained his nerve and walked to the silent figure, knelt and placed a hand upon the man’s immobile chest. Kryos sighed and closed his eyes. When he opened them he stared for a long moment at the distant cavorting figures arrayed about the bonfire and recognized the man atop the vehicle. “Its him,” Ryard declared bitterly, eyes to the simian faced man. “Kleiner.” Kryos turned and spied a faint trail of bloody footprints leading south from just beyond the corpse pile to an alley strewn with unallocated scrap unsuitable for reprocessing. He returned his heliodoric gaze to the prone armored figure and softly spoke. A slight tremor to his words.
“Valor was your want. Valorous was your end. It shall not be forgotten.”
Kryos rose and followed the sanguine prints into the alley. The passage ended in a blind. The prints vanished in a heap of discarded machine parts. He drew a line through the red material with his right heel. Uncongealed. Fresh. Whoever passed did so recently. He stilled and listened. Labored breath sounded from behind the twisted pile of metal. He turned full toward the junk mound and spoke cordially.
“Danger wanes but you are not yet safe. I can make you so.”
Several seconds passed. Sibilation of metal on metal issued from the jumbled edifice. A large panel shifted, from behind it a woman emerged. Her leg was cut deep at the thigh and wrapped with a piece of cloth soaked ruby-brown. The source of the trail. She was dark haired, plain faced and sported a long jacket with the collar half-upturned. Kryos judged the woman’s wares expensive and unfashionable. Behind her crouched five children. The youngest of them, a blonde with a thick beige skirt, held her skinny left knee and rocked unsteadily, red faced, weeping, neck veins bulging. “Mama,” the girl cried. “Mama.” The dark haired woman limped cautiously to Kryos as if to shield the youth, unable to muster words.
“The children are not yours. You work for a near orphanage,” Kryos stated without diverting his gaze from the dark haired woman. The children looked on with wide, fearful eyes. The woman raised a brow, surprised by the man’s knowledge.
“I know of you, Ms. Kandor. And your works. Do you know me?”
“Yes.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper, for well she recalled the man’s airborne message that had blanketed the whole of the city.
Kryos walked to the woman, placed his hands upon her collar and folded down the upturned end.
“One of my best lies dead due your defense. I would like to know why.”
“Rehdon wanted me wormside. He sent one of his creatures, Kleiner, to put me thus, he’s the one who led the rabble. Syzr held them off, we ran. There were many. Too many.”
“Do the little ones know the cause of their distress? The nature of your trade?”
“Please don’t.” The woman’s lip quivered. “Please don’t tell them.”
“You will testify against Rehdon after I’ve dealt with this situation.”
Kandor wished to protest, but the terrible wrath which lurked behind the man’s forbearing visage stayed her tongue.
“Until then, you and the children will be kept safe.” He looked into her eyes. Through them.
“Mama,” the inconsolable girl continued to cry. Over and over.
“Is he going to hurt us?” One of the boys asked trepidatiously.
“No, honey,” Sia replied, her voice trembling. “No, he’s here to help.”
“Quite so. Observe.”
SIKARDs drifted down from the sky, and with their pointed composite limbs, widened the entrance to the children’s flotsam hostel. The youths gasped with excitement as the precarious roof of the slag heap was carried to the air like cream spooned from coffee. The spectacle tore even the tearful blonde from her reverie.
“What are those?” One of the boys asked with wonder as the SIKARDs began gingerly depositing the rubble only a few feet away.
“My friends,” Kryos responded, removing a band from his coat of similar color and texture to the machines which floated through the air.
The woman swallowed hard and turned back to Kryos. “Your offer is… acceptable.” She lowered her voice. “I only ask for one thing in return.”
“And that is?”
Kandor’s expression darkened. “Kleiner’s head.”
Kryos walked several paces away from the woman, his face dipped in consideration of the request. At length he replied.
“If as much remains when I’m finished with him.”
Kandor’s mouth parted as nearby SIKARDs swirled.
Kryos departed, leaving orphans and caretaker to one of his corps and returned to the thoroughfare. Syzr’s body had been removed to a transport. Faces were grim. Kryos explained the situation to Straker, then turned from all and raised his voice.
“I will return shortly.”
Kryos made for the bonfire prompting a query from Sonderon.
“What are you doing? There must be at least two hundred insurgents down there.”
Kryos tilted his head skyward. “Two hundred and thirty three, discounting the Consortium officers they’ve imprisoned.”
Sonderon grimaced in puzzlement. “My men alone could subdue them.”
“I do not doubt it. But your men have risked much.” He turned to the transport where Syzr’s body had been laid. “I’ve no desire to put them in harms way without cause.”
Ryard broke from consolation of Sirin and made to join Kryos, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. He turned to see Straker shake her head and watched as Kryos vanished into the ruddy pall.
Within the stinging veil, Kryos raised the slender half diadem device he carried and affixed it to his brow. Left and right seam of his collar began to glow and carried the light down his shoulders, thereafter the dull lines of light splintered and ran across arms to the thin indentations on the back of his gauntlets and down his chest, back and legs to the soles of his boots. A subtle hum reverberated, signaling synchronicity between anatomical signs and the temple bound telesoma interface. A SIKARD dipped from a nearby rooftop clutching a black sphere, and released it. The orb struck the ground like an oil spill and recongealed to the form of a man. Soon it walked toward the site of commotion, to the red palled plaza, the high bonfire and the chaotic throng.
Kryos was now close enough that Kleiner’s voice was audible. “Chests aren’t so puffed when you’re on the receiving end of a raid. Are they?” Some of the crowd laughed, others nodded, all looked to the Consortium officers huddled near the high central fire with scorn and fell anticipation.
“Mercy,” a female Consortium officer whimpered as the mob pressed closer. “I beg you.”
“Please, I have children,” another woman wailed.
“These tyrants want mercy. Have we any to spare?”
“No,” some of the crowd replied discordantly.
“That’s right. No more than they had to lavish on us.”
Kleiner’s simian face twisted with mirth as he overturned a bottle of spirits into the bonfire, causing the flames to leap and spurt near the woman. She screamed and fell to the ground. The woman’s tormentor guzzled down the remains of the vessel and shattered it at the officer’s feet. Then he looked up from the spectacle around the fire, for something was moving in the smoke. In the air. A burble went through the crowd. All stilled.
“I don’t see anything.”
“You hear that?”
A magnified voice rang from all directions. “Danzig Kleiner. You’ve learned well your master’s art.”
Kleiner looked around, but could not discern the source of the voice, for it echoed from sky and earth alike and enveloped the whole of the smoldering plaza. “Master? I have no master.”
“Vices would remain without Rehdon. So too would thralldom.”
“I know that voice. This about the colonel?”
“The act was not your sole construction. All gathered are guilty of Syzr’s blood. So all gathered shall indemnify their own.” The congregants spun, vainly searching for the sequestered elocutionist.
“Is that so?” Kleiner bent defensively and withdrew a sychitin blade, holding it in a tight reverse grip. “Was foolish to come alone.”
Eidos Kryos’ voice resounded in Kleiner’s ear, no longer magnified. “I am never alone.” Kleiner whirled and spied the speaker standing three feet before him, backlit by the blaze. Expunged cinders danced around the man’s streamlined form and glinted in his helidoric irises.
“There, the invader,” one among the mob shouted, pointing to the smoke wreathed entrant upon the auto.
The crowd surged. Kryos did not move. Challenging in his stillness. His pyre bright eyes fixed on Kleiner.
Kleiner held out his free hand to the assembly. “Here stands the killer of the Consortium. The man who murdered our Chancellor. Who seeks to shackle us, as they once did.”
“We both know that is not true,” Kryos replied, a crease forming at his brow.
“I’ll deal with him myself.” He resecured his grip on the knife, bent to the ember clad intruder and lowered his voice. “Just as I dealt with Syzr.”
Kleiner’s blade arced through the air and bite into Kryos’ right eye. The industrialist’s head pivoted with the force of the blow. Despite the savagery of the assault, Kryos did not fall, but tilted his head slowly back toward his waylayer as ashes danced in the wind. Kleiner looked on with unapprehending alarm, cursed and took another swing, this wilder than the last, and cleaved through Kryos’ body, which dissipated as the vapor surrounding, and as it did Kleiner’s momentum brought him free of the vehicle, to the flames he had raised. Before he made contact with the inferno, one of the drifting chilopodic machines secured the folds of his ratty coat and bore him above the blaze. There, limply, he hung.
“Oh god,” Kleiner shrieked as the flames lapped at his legs. “God. Somebody help me!”
“Flap if you must. Fancy affords no flight.”
Kleiner screamed and flailed precariously beneath the drone. His coat tore against the SIKARD’s limbs, his lower body falling into the tip of the bonfire. Boots treading flame. He howled louder. Half the crowd broke from their stupor and fled, the rest continued to watch in awestruck horror.
“You can no more escape me than your sin. For you fumble amidst gelid clockwork, whose sequestered gears wend lucid and warm beneath the ministrations of an unintended host. Those who’ve not the lay of the mechanism are incapable of its navigation, and so are ground between its teeth.”
Tears streamed from Kleiner’s eyes.
“Move me up! Please!”
From the effervescing haze, the voice came again. Harsher than before.
“I killed them. Alright? I did it.” His eyes bulged and his tenor ran to a quivering mewl as sweat beaded on his forehead and his soles began to melt. “I jumped Fawnell. With those worthless southers. I blamed it on Syzr. I killed the board. I put a bomb in the aero complex and lit them up. It was Rehdon’s idea.” He looked with panic left and right into the shifting curtains of smoke. “Its him you should blame. Him, not me!” Steadily the drone retracted the man from the serpentine effulgence. Soles scorched, craggy skin thick with perspiration. Chattering arose among the mob the moment Kleiner stopped speaking. He looked around expectantly.
“You’ll let me go now, right?”
For the last time, Kryos’ voice roiled from the putrid smog. “One need sow no vituperation in the barbarous heart’s estate. For its harvest is as enduring as its field is fallow. What castigation to levy on those who’d scorch a seeded plain? One need raise no hostile hand, to treat with worms, their own shall suffice.”
The drone bore Kleiner to the ground, released him and flew off, vanishing within the dense sooted curtain that obstructed the sky. The Consortium officers the mob had detained stood beside the bleeding man. The woman whose face had been burnt by Kleiner’s previous antics held a jagged fragment of glass from the bottle of spirits and drew it across his cheek. Kleiner sucked air in pain and staggered backward. With a grunt of rage he kicked the woman in the gut and brought her low. He retreated from the circling Consortium officers and turned to the crowd, seething. “Get that bitch!” The crowd met his command with diffidence. “Kill her! Kill them all!” Whispers of dissension and disdain went up throughout the multitude. He spun from the mob to the officers and back. “What are you doing?” There came a shout. A metal bar was swung and connected with the side of Kleiner’s skull. As he fell, the crowd descended upon him and hewed his head from his body and held it up toward the callous vault of heaven.
Longform fiction literature is often analogized to cinema, but a more apt point of functional correspondence would be residential architecture. In a domicile, there are no cues, no score, the eye is the camera, and the time one spends within such spaces before egress is greater than feature length, even of sprawling works like Shichinin no Samurai (discounting pieces like Empire that aren’t stories).
One acclimates to the engrossing novella or novel as to a new abode. None acclimate in any comparable fashion to films (especially in theaters) due compression of the entered world to the box of the screen; i.e. the spatially flat and broadly non-participatory nature of the moving picture experience. The film acts upon the passive viewer, the reader acts upon the book, the resident acts upon the house. Therein lies the symmetry between architect and novelist, resident and reader.
So one may regard each chapter as a chamber within the structure (the narrative text), and each chapter end line as a point of transit from one room (scene) to the next, a doorway, a staircase, a lift, a ramp, et cetera. The question then to ask (and the utility of the analogization) is: Should the reader be eased to the next chamber, as by an escalator, or thrust to it, as one falling through a trapdoor?
Ryard’s company crossed the mechanized gangplank that extended from the seawall, past the jibless flotilla of black monohulls whose sharp prows loomed over the harbor like daggers of volcanic glass, to the hydraulic lime shore thick with regimented soldiers of the deep colonies. A storm gathered in the smoldering distance. A tight black spiral, unnaturally uniform, preceded cold rain and a rustling gale. Upon alighting the seashorn pier, Ryard’s group was spied by the nearest of the troops and after a short exchange were brought to a wide automated packing plant between the docks and shipping yard. The building was a high spire composed of polymer composites with a hard white resin surface that bore scorch marks courtesy of the easterner’s revolt and was surrounded by a circular expanse of anti-icing silicone stretching from the base of the building to the cargo loading yard fifty feet hence. Large metal intermodal containers stood outside. Kryos’ men sifted through the contents of each metallic cube before resealing and moving them onto the backs of heavy transport mag-rays that thrummed into the distance.
Ryard’s troupe was led through the ground floor lobby to the central chamber which was filled with rows of cans and other parcel sized oddments fitted to movable alcoves pressed together in a scale-like pattern. Each scale, a basket set into a conveyor which could be moved seamlessly up or down any floor. Long reticulated mechanical arms like queer bony growths ran the length of the room and cast elongated shadows across the dusty, spacious interior. Though unpowered, the dactyl devices creaked due a weak but steady airflow.
Sonderon and Raimer took in the contours of the peaked chamber as Straker, who refused to allow aid, leaned against the doorway in a bid to relieve her wounded leg and regain a medication faded balance.
Ryard walked to a neatly arranged stack of glass jars secured with thin metal seals and removed one of the containers. Fermented fish. He tilted the vessel in the hazy light. The seal held but the lid bulged upwards and the contents were thick and stringy.
The lights flickered. From above, the calm voice of Eidos Kryos echoed. “Do you know why the lid protrudes?”
The travelers cast their eyes to the undulating shaft which ascended from the ground floor to the seventh story. A dark commanding figure stood above on the third story at a gap in the railing, backlit by steady white light. On the factory rigging about the spectre crawled countless machines, some drifting idly in the air, others investigating the wiring and ventilation systems with a ginger curiosity that belied their fearsome frames. SIKARDs.
Ryard returned his attention to the can. “Interior chemical reactions. Gas production. Bacteria?”
“Very good, Ryard. Clostridium botulinum. An anaerobe partial to marine sediment and the viscera of fish. The bacteria produces a potent neurotoxin. A few micrograms of the substance is sufficient to precipitate severe illness in our species. Without respiratory support and antitoxin, death is swift. Oxygen is fatal to the microbes, as it is to the quality of the food in which it grows. Once infested, one must discard the vessel, or boil its contents.”
Two soldiers, armed and armored, entered from a side door, dragging between them the scarlet clad form of a Bright Horizon operative. He was a thin man, with bags under narrow almond eyes. The eastener’s hands were bound in scandium and a tracing collar had been affixed around his long throat. Frantic, he searched his surroundings, discerning, with mounting dread, the faces of Ryard’s party. Behind the trio walked former Oversecretary Ermin Gild, whose Consortium garb had been exchanged for the albescent armor of the deep colonies, his attention focused on unwrapping a chocolate truffle in his hand.
“Good to see you well, Director, Mr. Sonderon,” said Gild as he took in the faces of the visitors, stopping at Vancing, Raimer and Sirin. “Others.” Sonderon gave a curt dip of his head. Ryard tilted his head up in recognition. Raimer crossed his arms and issued a grunt of displeasure.
The silvery machines loosed themselves from the wire coated wall and floated in declining formation to fashion a makeshift stair. Kryos strode down from the third story upon the backs of his aerial attendants, his hands held before him, nearly to his chest, left against the right, fingers moving with enigmatic rhythm, his eyes locked upon the prisoner who had been moved to the center of the packed storage chamber. The easterner ceased struggling against the two guardsmen that held him and shock came into his expression as his eyes took in the man descending from the overhead hollow.
“This one’s name is Fang, yes?” Kryos inquired, the rightward guard nodded.
“This is a violation of the Markov agreement. I have rights.” When this elicited no response he raised his voice. “God given rights.”
Gild rolled his eyes, popped a truffle into his mouth and delicately folded the wrapper into the form of a little man. Kryos stopped nine feet before the easterner. The lilting cyclic movements of his hands ceased and a hardness came into his expression.
“Such fanciful notions did nothing to gird the dock workers your people slaughtered, or my director, whom you shot.” Kryos dismissed the guards and walked clockwise about the detainee, every footstep ringing throughout the cavernous recess. “The future is an island in an ocean of blood. Bone white with harmonic ideals. You shall find no harborage in empty shells. Tell me why your kin seized the harbor and ivory shores you may yet see.”
Fang straightened defiantly. “I’ve nothing to say to you.”
“Silence affords no seclusion from the thrumming of a guilty heart. Fifteen others of your kind await in the adjoining room.” Kryos paused, now but five feet from Fang. “Of that number, a woman, Aadila Shen, was greatly disturbed by your departure. So great was her distress that tears filled her eyes. Shall I question her next?”
The defiance that had previously characterized Fang’s visage evaporated to regret and apprehension.
“No. That won’t be necessary.” Fang looked about, expectant of intercession, but the eyes of the onlookers were cold. “We received an order. Secure the seawall. Obstruct the deep colonists. Obstruct you. But we couldn’t breach it. So we tried to hold the docks until we figured a way to do so.”
“Who gave this order?”
“They contacted you directly?”
“No. Affin com-lines are unsecure, as you probably know. We received word from one of Zhu’s associates. Here, in the city.”
“A man named Illander Rehdon. He’s-“
“I know who he is. Did your people contact the Bureau thereafter?”
“No. That would have risked discovery of our plan.”
“Riskier still to trust a man like Rehdon. The plan was his, not yours.”
The prisoner assumed a baffled expression.
“What do you mean?”
“Rehdon lied. The Bureau would not intercede here, now, when I and the new Consortium yet stand, they would wait until one of us fell. To do otherwise would be foolhardy.”
“More than that. The Bureau tried to contact me for several hours prior to my arrival. Message after message. Urging peace. They suppose that Sodabrucke will be easier to negotiate with. Clearly, Rehdon’s desires differ. You were a tool to realize them. A traitor, betrayed.” Kryos folded his hands behind his back and took two steps away from the man, staring up at the immobile conveyor system. “How many families will not have food on their plates because of you and your kin?” The drones began to hum and circle tighter around the prisoner. Fang shrieked, “Keep those things away from me!” Yet closer still they came. The captive turned to the onlookers. “Help me!”
Kryos observed Fang’s vain flailing with faint disgust. “Your guilt is obscene. Your body ought be likewise.” The humming grew louder and one of the drones raked the prisoner’s face with a metal limb. Fang screamed as another of the intelligent machines severed his left leg just above the knee. He fell, clutching a bloody stump. Mouth wide. Eyes owlish in disbelief. A hideous wail repeated from his maw and painted the production plant in raw notes of anguish.
Kryos spoke to his men without turning to them or the wounded man. “See that he lives and replace the limb with a new unit. A brand of his betrayal.” The soldiers dragged the barely conscious man through the portal to the adjacent room as Kryos advanced toward his visitors. “Director. This is a pleasing sight.” Kryos raised his black gloved hand and gently caressed the pale contours of the woman’s face. Straker smiled and bowed her head. For a moment, silence, then Kryos spoke, amusement clear in his curt, measured tones. “Tatter told me you came with ill intent, Mr. Vancing. She was concerned.”
“She told you of my conversation with Rehdon?”
“I see.” Ryard cast his eyes to the floor and sighed. “I’m sorry about it, I had to put on a good performance. If I could convince her, I knew I could convince him.”
“You have done well. Our wolf thinks a jackal shall claim the lion. But when he comes for the carrion, he shall find us both waiting.”
The occupants of Wall Town’s nineth story balcony watched in silence as an enormous form rose from the turbulent waters of the bay like a prodigious coelacanth. Frothing foam spilled from the emergent shape’s contours as gannet and albatross fled over the seawall in shrill terror. The breach disgorged a wave to the marine fortification of a height to shroud the lofty onlookers in brackish mist. When the saliferous haze cleared, the observers discerned the character of the thing from the depths. A seacraft, over a mile in diameter, composed of layered metal the color of bituminous coal, with long spine-like protrusions draped flush on its smooth surface about all visible length. The metal barbs unfurled to forty-five-degree angles and jettisoned thick shafts of steam. Thereafter, hundreds of nimble argent forms debarked the spines and flew cloudward until they were swallowed in albescent radiance.
On the seawall, one of Sonderon’s men rushed through the door of Alder’s quarters, huffing and pointing excitedly behind him as if to some trailing spectre.
“They’re here. The Consortium.”
Scarcely had the words left the man’s mouth than a voice boomed through the panel display upon Alder’s desk. A man’s voice, business-like but roughened by agitation.
“Port Authority, this is Commissioner Vogel. Do you copy?” A pause. Alder remained still. Vogel resumed, anger bruising his tone. “Hostiles inbound. Do not open the sea gate. I repeat. Hostiles inbound. Do not open the sea gate.”
Eidos Kryos’ voice emanated from Alder’s desk-bound panel display.
“Open the gate.”
Alder hung in a pendulum of indecision.
“Go on,” Straker encouraged.
He bent to the control panel. A rumbling sounded.
The enormous iron gate that secured the harbour parted and as it did the front of the vast vessel before it opened and expelled a smaller seacraft that cut across the azure expanse like an obsidian arrowhead. Swiftly it forded the watery reach and passed the vaulted arch of the gateway and moved to the barren quay where stood an armed Consortium detachment with Vogel at its head. The uniformed men raised their weapons and prepared to fire, but Vogel threw his hand out. “Hold. Let them disembark.” The men obeyed and the huge obsidian freighter grew still in the waters before the uncluttered concrete landing. The front of the vessel opened and loosed a heavy, pitch colored gangway, fifty three yards wide and one hundred yards long. Despite its considerable bulk, it touched down with the lightness of a feather.
Footfalls resounded from the opened dark.
Vogel’s men tensed.
From the shadow of the ship, Eidos Kryos emerged, garbed in lamellar sable vestments trimmed with gold. His gait unhurried. His black-gloved hands gingerly held before him, one against the other above his waist, fingers moving rhythmically, as if weaving invisible thread, his auric eyes fixed upon Devik’s skyborne fortress above the distant towers of the city-proper. To the army assembled before him, he spared no attention.
Vogel trudged to meet the man before the base of the mechanized plank.
“Turn around. You have no authority here.”
Kryos scanned the decimated shipping yard and the flames consuming the distance. Only then did he bring his gaze to Vogel.
“Neither, it seems, do you.”
Vogel stepped forward, hands primed to draw the cutter at his waist. “I’ve authority enough to have you and all your men arrested, here and now.”
As if to mirror his opponent, Kryos walked forward until he stood only four feet before the new Commissioner.
“And this would profit you?”
“I have my orders.”
“But not your reason.”
Vogel frowned. “I’ve no desire to do you an injury.”
“Nor do I.” Kryos spread his hands. “So have your men step aside.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Disappointing. I was under the impression our aims aligned.”
“A false impression.”
“Much like that which I have given you.”
There sounded an inorganic humming from above. Silvery forms descended from the glaring sky with meteoric speed and brought low the Consortium troupe. Vogel drew his cutter and leveled it at Kryos. The small panel above the grip of the weapon read “Invalid target.”
“You wax forgetful of the manufacturer of your weapons.”
Vogel cursed and swung wildly at Kryos’ impassive face with a hard right hook. The black-garbed man back-stepped and the blow went wide.
“Come on!” Vogel bellowed and threw a left hook, but before the blow connected one of the silvery aerial machines swept upon the assailant and affixed itself to his arm with its centipedal legs, then went still. The momentum and weight of the mechanical addition brought Vogel’s blow short and straight to the ground, before his right knee. He groaned and attempted to rise but the machine proved too heavy. His armor made him tetter unsteadily and he struggled to keep from toppling to the concrete quay.
Kryos strode forth, gently placed a palm upon the Commissioner’s armored shoulder and, with minimal application of pressure, pushed the fettered man face-first to the ground. Before Vogel could rebound, three more argent ersatz insects descended from the sky and secured his free arm and both legs.
“You approached us head on so the sun would be in our eyes. So we wouldn’t see them above us.”
Progenitor soldiers emerged by the hundreds from the yawning cavity of the obsidian freighter as Kryos’ shadow fell over the Commissioner.
“Due your valor, I shall grant you the honor of observing the reconfiguration of this ugly chimera you and your masters failed to secure.” He turned toward a soldier in vermeil plate. “Colonel Vorstahl.”
Kryos looked to the massive ship floating above the city. “Release the cloud planters.”
“All of them.”
Vorstahl bowed his head in acquiescence. Kryos’ dactyl gesticulations grew more rapid.
“You can’t,” Vogel pleaded. “The Chancellor and the Convention are in Devik’s ship. If you start a storm it’ll be torn from the sky.”
“Only if they choose not to land,” Kryos replied diffidently.
Far from the chaotic quay, a new set of the Progenitor’s previously unraised spines disgorged thousands of machines the color and texture of smokeless ovoids, that whirred westward to the burning heart of the city and the airship that crowned it.
Hungry gulls squawked over the bloody port. Dark clouds parted and a blazing sun peeked through the parting pall with ceaseless increase. The grim, sooty remnants of distant, burnt buildings littered the shambolic nautical freightway and mingled with the nascent twilight to cast the whole vista in a sickly amber hue. Two groups of soldiers, white-plated, and gray-and-black, picked through the scarlet bodies of the dead like hyena’s in the wake of a lion’s kill.
Amidst that scene, Ryard knelt beside Straker as one of her medics administered a potent sedative and tended to the harpoon-borne leg-wound. The Director’s armor had been set aside, the left leg of her suit bunched to a pallid, gashed thigh. Her normally pristine and frigid countenance was drawn, haggard and wracked with emotion. “A single feather,” she muttered and reached out unsteadily and took the man’s hand in a feeble grip.
“If not for you we’d be dead.”
He squeezed her hand gently and returned her warm gaze. “You once did a similar favor for me. It is only right I repaid it.”
The woman inclined her head solemnly. “Debts ought to be repaid. Whether one is held to them or not.” Straker groaned, retracted her hand in a paroxysm of pain, closed her eyes and leaned wearily against the cargo crate where she had sustained her injuries. The medic grasped her comfortingly, but she shook her head. “I’m alright. Go. Tend to the others.” When she had recovered and the medic had departed, she looked toward Ryard with a curious sentimentalism. “That business with Haldeck and Vangr seems a lifetime ago.”
Ryard took a seat beside the woman as she fished out a pack of cigarettes from her jacket. She put the aromatic cylinder between her lips, closed the pack and made to return it, then paused and proffered it toward the CAV-keep. He took one with a smile and for several minutes they sat smoking in silence and watched the colors play across the bay, visible beneath the vast shadow of the seawall. For that brief moment it seemed as if all trouble had been abstracted from the world. Ryard’s eyes wandered from the distant, sun-lit water and the ships and cranes which obscured it, to the face of the woman into whose employ he had rendered himself, thick coils of smoke visible behind her fragile visage to the north. His senses revolted at the discordant scene and his mouth parted to expel the dark matter that weighted upon his mind.
“Meris was at the scene when Sonderon was shot. He saw the man who did it. When he described the shooter, I didn’t believe it, so I had Lanning run a search of aerial drones in the region. There aren’t many left, but he found one that was over the area when the shot was fired.” Ryard tilted the panel display of his wrist-bound transceiver to the woman, on it was a picture of a unfinished skyscraper on which perched a large, muscular man in antiquated military garb with eyes the color of rusted-blood. A ghastly smile was visible on his incongruous slab-like face. “Its him, Vera.”
The woman’s mouth quivered. “Vangr. But why would he resurface now?”
“I have a theory, but I couldn’t say conclusively. The only thing that’s definitive is the make of his weapon. Was an aircraft tethering rod-dispenser.”
“I’m not familiar.”
“They’re used by sky-technicians on the larger HOCL platforms. To keep them from drifting apart.”
“Why do you always know such arcane things?”
“Lind keeps me current.”
“So what’s the significance of the tether?”
“There has been a large influx of southers into that line of work.”
“So he was trying to frame the southers?”
“You told me his name before, Mr. Vancing, but nothing of the man himself,” Sonderon said as he strode before the pair. His stern countenance relaxed momentarily. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear. Your man here was convincing, but scant on details. I feel owed some further explanation.”
Straker surveyed the politician studiously before she answered. “Vangr was the former head of security for Kryos’ flagship, Progenitor. Hot-headed, sarcastic, but came highly recommended. Proved competent. So, to my discredit, I vouched for him. Five years ago, with the aid of one of our researchers, a woman named Haldeck, he absconded with a item of considerable value and vanished to the east, lying low somewhere in the Federation. We learned, only later, that his daughter was a prisoner of The Bureau at the time and lay under the shadow of execution. She had apparently violated one of their esoteric state mandates, and was accused of upsetting the social order. Whatever deal Vangr made with the easterners, likely a trade, our material for his daughter, fell through.” She paused to take a puff off her cigarette.
“His daughter was executed. Since that time we’ve heard nothing of him.” She gestured to the man’s bandaged arm. “Until this recent incident.”
“Why should he come after me instead of the Federation?”
“Don’t take it personally. Its not your life he wants.” Ryard replied. “But the chaos your death would bring. Same with Kryos. Same with The Board, only in that instance, they were successful.”
Before Ryard could answer, Sirin and Kopf walked up with an old man bearing a sun-beaten face, who threw his thick, calloused hands out and exclaimed, “Bless you, by the gods, bless you. We thought we were food for the fishes.” A few yards behind the trio, a group of common folk massed. Warehouse laborers and fishermen. Some bore injuries and looks of fear, but all eased by varying degrees to contours of relief.
Sirin saluted and spoke with her usual clipped incision. “We found him and the others hiding in a shipping container, Director. He wanted to see you. Says he knows you.”
“He does,” She replied weakly, a little smile breaking out. “That’s Mr. Alder, the local portmaster.”
“Oh, what have those savages done to you, Ms. Straker?”
“Made me a hobble, it seems. But unless I’m party to some sudden illness over it, I’ll recover.”
“Fortune smiles on you twice. Well, you must come with us to Wall Town.” He pointed to the far, towering aquatic barrier.
“That’s precisely where we were headed.”
Alder bobbed his patchy, crinkled head. “Good. Good. One of the only safe places left in this cursed city.”
“Why’s that?” One of Sonderon’s men inquired.
“Because there’s only one way in or out by land. If those Bureau partisans, or some others, come after it, there’s a straight shot to sea. And from there, to the colonies.”
Ryard cast his eyes out to the dead bodies that littered the shipping yard. “Before we leave, we ought to move them.”
Raimer shook his head. “Won’t do to linger. There’s no telling when they might be back.”
“I agree with Major Vancing.” Sirin stated pensively. “We can’t leave them to the birds.”
“Best not to chance it.”
“It strikes me as unlikely the federants would return without reinforcements, Captain. Even if they do, they stand no chance now that Sonderon is with us.”
“Your lass is right,” Sonderon replied with a hint of pride. “Those animals won’t be back anytime soon.”
Raimer glanced to the Director, who nodded. “Very well,” he said with discontent. “But be quick about it.”
Sirin saluted. “Yes, Sir.”
For the next half hour the soldiers worked tirelessly, dragging the corpses of their comrades and those of the federant enemy into an empty industrial transportation freezer to secure the bodies from the prying beaks of gulls and the deformations of the heat. After the icy internment was complete, the combine debarked the shipping yard and traveled by foot, with a persistent wariness, to a habitation-zone within the forty kilometer-long fortification known as Wall Town. Over two hundred feet the modular seawall rose, bisecting the docks and fisheries and the artificial outer quay. The place had previously served as a resort for those traveling to and from the city and the deep colonies, and now took on the character of a council of war. Sonderon’s men alongside some braver members of Alder’s workforce and a few of the uninjured KSRU elite, took positions along the spindled, inner-wall balconies, all of which afforded clear views of the route through the expansive shipping yard to the massive, plated doors of the structure.
Alder led Ryard, Sonderon, Raimer and a crutch-bound Straker to his private study on the ninth story. The chamber was small, with a low-ceiling, bamboo-paneled floor garnished in coconut matting, padded stucco walls, two cream-colored divans, to either side of the thin entrance, and a couch in the center, beyond which was a hardwood desk and a scuffed and well-worn armchair. On the desk, an affin module displayed a picture of Alder with a buoyant woman and two bright-eyed girls with seashells beside a fishing boat. Above the desk, an array of nautical paraphernalia. As Ryard helped Straker settle into the left backless sofa, the desk-set module glimmered and blared. Overtop the maritime family picture, the words ‘Call incoming’ appeared.
“I’ve got to take this. Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll be right back. There’s coffee in the cupboard.” With that, Mr. Alder removed the module from its reticulated stalk and retired to a side room. Ryard sauntered to the small cupboard which folded out from the wall above the portmaster’s desk and there removed a tray containing four thick white sealed self-warming cups. He twisted the tops of the vessels which hissed, warmed and went silent and handed them to his companions.
“Feeling better, ma’am?” Sonderon inquired.
Straker nodded. Her eyelids were heavy, movements slow, all trace of agony, gone. “Much better. I’ve yet to thank you for your assistance.”
“Ports are cornerstones of prosperity. Leverage in negotiations with whatever government will eventually be formed.”
“That’s why you decided to aid us?” Raimer prompted with a hint of disgust.
“It was a factor. But there were many factors. I’ve long supported the efforts of the KSRU. I respect your work as much as I resent your founder.”
Straker blew on her steaming coffee to mask a rising vexation. “What do you hold against Mr. Kryos?”
Sonderon, hands clasped together on the cup in his lap, tilted his head to one side, looking to the woman as a principal who sought to upbraid a precocious pupil. “He cut his roots. If he ever had any.”
“He’s not a plant.”
“Neither is he aecerite, though our blood runs through his veins.”
“You object to his residence in the colonies?”
“I should think every man would object to living under the sea. Crazy a thing as ever I heard. What can a technologist removed from us know of the city or his own stock who built it? He’s a gadget churner who has no appreciation for the spiritual.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You take harpoon and offense on his account. What compelled you to give yourself so completely to this man?”
For a moment Straker said nothing, then she set her coffee aside and reached for the zipper at the collar of her bodysuit.
“I shall show you.”
Straker unzipped the suit to her navel.
“What are you doing?” The words froze upon his lips, for the pale sliver of skin beneath the vestments bore jagged scars that spiderwebbed between her small bosom and stretched from clavicle down below her stomach. Sonderon straightened in his seat, his visage assuming the proportions of shock. Ryard’s eyes went wide. Raimer looked to his boots, discomfort in every gesture.
“I started my work for Kryos Industries in a three month tutelage to their director of research and development. A man named Callahan. I was to make memos, give my thoughts on his team’s designs and fetch packages of model parts and schematics which were often brought in for him. One day, a packet came, heavy, wrapped in brown paper and twine. I thought it odd. No one I’d ever met used twine, or such coarse paper. But scans showed nothing unusual, so I brought it to Mr. Callahan. He gave me a smile, took the package and said he’d made up his mind to keep me on permanently, if that was still what I wanted. Naturally, I said yes. The next moment someone called for me from the adjoining room, I jogged to the door and as I turned the corner there was an explosion. I remember a hot blast of air and being flung to a wall. Then nothing. Darkness, that seemed to last for days. The next thing I remember was Kryos’ face staring down at me in a strange room. The packet had contained a bomb, he told me. Sent by the anarchists of Aestival. My insides were torn up. Many organs had to be replaced. Skin, grafted. Childbearing, no longer a possibility.” She ran a finger down neck to sternum. “He saved me. Rebuilt me. Entrusted me with Callahan’s mantle. And who was I to him? I was nothing. No one. A mangled, barren clerk.” With a touch of anger she retracted the zipper and re-sealed her suit. “You asked why my loyalty lies thus, Mr. Sonderon. That is why.”
Quiet filled the room. Sonderon fiddled with his coffee cup and inclined his head. “That I understand. I’m sorry to have offended you. It wasn’t my intention.”
The door flew wide and a young man walked in and bowed curtly.
“Hope I’m not intruding.”
“What is it, Closton?” Sonderon barked impatiently.
“Just wanted to let you know every level has been secured.”
“Good. Here, have some coffee.” Closton took the cup and walked behind the desk and pressed a panel. The wall slid apart to reveal a balcony overlooking the bay.
“Didn’t notice that,” Ryard stated.
“Keeps out the water during high tides.”
At that moment Alder returned from the adjacent room.
“Security Commission is coming. Want a detatchment stationed here until the situation is resolved with the Association and the East.”
“What did you tell them?” Straker demanded.
“That I’d close the water-gate and turn back all inbound vessels.”
“Once Kryos arrives, we needn’t worry about the Security Commission.”
“And if the Security Commission arrives before him?” Sonderon prompted.
“We prepare for a siege.”
Ryard and Closton retired to the balcony as Sonderon and Straker’s discussion proceeded.
“Why, that’s incredible!” Closton declared, leaning over the railing and gesturing to the vast, dark shape in the water of the bay, with a breadth beyond the ambit of their gaze. “How’s it possible for an artificial island’s foundation to be laid so quickly? Must have come unmoored, looks like its… moving.”
“That’s not an island,” Ryard corrected with a glance to the designated depths.
The man turned to Ryard, his visage disclosing nervous perplexity. “What then?”
“Its a ship.”
Following the tonally inconsistent, motivationally uniform “Spectre” (2015), is the (mostly) tonally consonant, inspirationally wayward “No Time To Die,” a title which should be commended for being better than “Quantum of Solace.” And much like “Quantum of Solace,” as a title, the more you think about some of the character decisions in “No Time To Die” the less sense it makes.
In one of the most egregious scenes in the film, Bond scrambles to crack the defenses of Lyutsifer Safin’s fortress as the aforementioned antagonist exits his besieged island base with a detachment of bodyguards and appears to escape. However, Safin later returns, without his men, and opens fire on Bond. Which prompted me to ponder why he would return at all, given that he knows his base is compromised and maintains no personal animus against Bond? If there was some unstated reason for his sudden and overwhelming compulsion to kill Bond, why would an obviously cautious man like Safin attack a dangerous assassin without his men? You might think the answer to the query is, “He wouldn’t, that would be profoundly reckless,” but the correct answer is, “So the plot can conclude by nanite-inspired missile-seppuku.” This is but one of many such scenes.
In another, Bond, in an attempt to infiltrate a terrorist gathering, is put into contact with an alcoholic female CIA agent named Paloma, who sheepishly confesses she’s only a couple weeks into the job, and proceeds to handily dispatch numerous trained killers with spin-kicks and double-fisted uzi-fire while wearing nothing but a party dress and high heels. I hardly need remark that its more than somewhat unconvincing, particularly given that the actress in the scene looks as if she weights scarcely more than ninety pounds and the absurdity marshals stridently against the film’s prevailing somber tone. If the filmmakers really wanted Paloma to be a convincing CIA agent, they should have had her prod Bond into an agency-organized lockdown protest, then have him arrested for domestic “extremism.”
Some of this insensibility is rendered lucid by a little knowledge of the production, which was delayed by the egress of its initial director-writer duo of Danny Boyle and John Hodge, then came the Wuhan pandemic, an onset injury of its lead and consequent, consistent rewrites. The director C.J. Fukunaga, in a interview with Esquire, elaborated upon the writing process for the project, noting that “with Bond , we were still writing when we’d wrapped. I was even writing in post.” He also noted that “there are pieces that Ralph Fiennes says in the trailer that neither Ralph nor I knew exactly what he was saying it for.” Obviously not ideal. Some of these problems (such as lines like “people want things to happen to them”) are doubtless a result of the rushed timetable, others, however, (such as the Paloma scene) are clearly the result of judicious planning.
I haven’t touched yet upon the political propaganda in the film, which isn’t as obnoxious as the trailer made it out to be, and probably all the more potent for that. In addition to being subtle, it is also brief and so easily removed for distribution in profitable foreign markets.
Though much was made of her in promotional material, the new and insufferably smug 007, Nomi, isn’t in the film much and was so extraneous to the plot she could have been cut from the script entirely. If that had been the case audiences would have been spared the worst line in the film, delivered as Nomi holds Safin-acolyte Obruchev at gun point over a deadly pit of nanites and askes if he knows what time it is, to which she replies, “Time to die!” A retread of The Last Jedi pit-drop scene. Trend developing.
I don’t wish to wax wholly negative. The opening is tense. Obruchev is a fascinating character and his misadventures are amusing; the initial revenge arc is interesting (though it is ultimately supplanted by a world-imperiled-via-superweapon plotline, which proves far less compelling); the acting is solid; the score, by Hans Zimmer, is keen (particularly Safin’s ethereal, understated flute motif), and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is often quite striking.
Despite all these merits it left little overall impression. Even Bond’s death felt tepid. And its easy to understand why. If Bond were a real person and a statue was erected in his honor, many of the same people who made this film would advocate for its removal.
At the eastern docks, Straker and the hundred man detachment she had pulled from base, found themselves surrounded by a band of Bright Horizon constituents, at least double in number, and armed with whatever had been near to hand during their revolt. The waylayers’ affiliation was clear from their distinctive scarlet uniforms; from this, Straker surmised a recent, unplanned defection. A untrained detachment of ill-equipped attaches would normally have proven of little consequence to the vanguard of the KSRU, had their armaments not been depleted in the day’s preceding broil. The dire hosts twined amidst shipping containers as the smoke and flame surrounding; white and red; then yet redder still. The ground went thick with fish and ice and the blood of men and women and the air was choked with the screams of the injured and dying. If the matter proceeded without interruption, Vera was certain they would be overwhelmed. Neither Vancing nor the second detachment she had called up from headquarters, would arrive in time. Such thoughts coiled like venomous snakes as Straker retreated from the press of her red-clad foes and found her back to a massive, weather-worn cargo crate, which disclosed the possibility of rearward assault. The wroth contestations to either side of the woman prevented further egress. Thus positioned, her bodyguards fended off a disorderly wave of Bureau partisans.
After the first break in the onslaught, Vera looked some yards to the left, where Sirin, bereft of munitions, vainly struck out with her dead cutter at three wild eyed federants. Savagely, the men bore her down, one lashing out with a battered ice hook, the metallic beak finding little purchase against the woman’s stolid armor. The set-upon woman would have been slain the next instant, but her comrades rallied and overtook the assailants.
To the right of the crate, Raimer drove his sychitin blade into the gut of a howling federant and thereafter fell to his knees with grit teeth, clutching at a horrid gash to his thigh that painted his knee with his own colors.
A hideous cry and the sound of scraping metal broke over the field of carnage, sounding from within an off-white shipping container set far before Vera’s own. A body flew from the house-sized cargo-vessel and skidded to a stop mere paces from the Director’s plated boots.
Corporal Raffin. Dead. The face guard of his helm grotesquely fractured by some inhuman force.
Something large moved within the eggshell-colored shipping container.
“Heavy Frame. They have a Heavy Frame!” Vera shouted into her headset to any who could hear as the aforementioned assembly unit emerged from the shipping container with a sheering of steel. The machine stood nine feet tall and moved on two reticulated legs that shook the earth with every step and its four aluminiferous arms pealed like the pincers of a gigantic crab. The unconcealed device came bounding over the bloodstained field, seized a fleeing KSRU recruit and squeezed the man with force enough to collapse his breastplate. Within seconds, the soldier’s ribcage was utterly crushed and blood spooled from beneath his helm.
The revelation’s immediate effect was demoralization. KSRU troops scattered from the engine of death; all tactical formations abandoned. The federants rallied, sensing victory close at hand.
Sirin’s voice sounded in Straker’s headset. “Director, there’s a keel panel suspended above the Heavy Frame.”
Straker cast her eyes up and spied a multi-ton length of bilge keel side-plating hanging from one of the now-lifeless automated cranes arrayed about the dock yard. The crane tower from which the uninstalled component hung rose directly beside the shipping crate Vera had taken shelter behind.
“So I see. I’ll make for it. Raimer, have your division form a cordon and give me a hand.”
“Sirin, Whalen, Kopf, Grieg, Sarker, distract the target.”
“Understood,” the five entrusted corporals replied in unison and dashed into the fray.
Immediately, the Captain’s men formed a barricade around Vera’s shipping crate, shielding the Director from the bloody vicissitudes of the skirmish.
“I’m the better climber, I can go.” Raimer declared breathlessly as he limped up to the director and surveyed the looming construction crane.
She looked at the wound on her subordinate’s thigh and shook her head. “Not with that wound. Besides, I’m lighter. We need to get on top of the crate to climb the crane, bottom’s too sheer. The ladder auto-retracts to keep vandals off. Lift me up, if your leg is good enough.”
“Its good enough,” he responded briskly. With that, he hefted the slender woman to the top of the shipping crate, for among all the KSRU, none save Syzr exceeded Raimer in strength. Without delay, Vera dashed across the metal surface of the cargo container toward the retracted ladder of the crane. She judged that with a sprinting jump, she could just close the distance. Before she could leap from the edge of the container, a horrible pain gripped her and dropped her to a knee. She looked down and discovered a harpoon protruding from her leg. As she cast her gaze over her shoulder to spy the shooter, the bolt was retracted and carried her back across the full ambit of the container roof and from there to the ground. As she lay winded and wracked with pain, she could now discern the harpoon operator, a reedy federant with the look of an office gopher who had erected the makeshift weapon on the adjacent container from which the rampaging Heavy Frame had been released. The harpoonist gave a cry of adulation, but his satisfaction, as that of his fellows, quickly subsided as a glinting form cleaved through the air.
A cloud-racer. Flying machines that were the exclusive domain of the city’s sky-technicians.
A familiar voice joined the open channel in Vera’s helm. “Sirin, get everyone clear of the Heavy Frame.”
“Copy, Major.” Sirin replied with an unconcealed tinge of delight.
“Ryard!” Vera exclaimed with shock.
“Good to hear your voice, Director.”
Ryard steered the racer directly at the great chain which ran from the crane-tower arm and clipped it with one of the vehicle’s wings, severing the suspension and dropping the keel siding down upon the Heavy Frame as Sirin and her confederates dove for cover. There resounded an uproarious clatter and where once the multi-armed machine had reeled there was nothing but one third of the hind of a container ship, a faint cloud of particulates and a single motionless mechanical limb that had been severed by the dreadful impact.
Before the easterly partisans could absorb the upset, a hail of cutter fire sent them into retreat. The survivors fled toward an abandoned processing plant north of the shipping yard. In the midst of the egress, Vera turned to the direction of the fire and beheld an encroaching band of Sonderon’s aecerites in matching gray and black.
The crowd assembled before Sonderon’s tumble-down Southern Block meeting hall rained fists upon the shuttered doors and windows of the dun-colored estate and filled the air with adumbrations of greater violence. A gaggle of onlookers stood upon the street, gawking as might children at exotic animals in a zoo.
Ryard, Tatter and Meris stood the periphery of the gathering on the edge of a SecCom cordoned pedestrian thoroughfare, which ran before the eastern face of the besieged edifice. The former member of the trio spoke into his affin module at a rapid clip.
“Don’t worry. I’ll have it ready.”
“I owe you, Lind.”
“As usual.” Ryard rolled his eyes. “But its not as if anyone is going to be keeping track now.”
“Likely so. Though little would delight me more than to continue listening to your dulcet condescensions, I have to go.”
“Stay safe, Ry.”
“I’m afraid I can’t, so promise to take caution enough for the both of us.”
He switched off the device and turned to his companions. Meris’ usual melancholia had waxed to apoplexy. Tatter, in contrast, seemed largely unperturbed, so unperturbed that she did not even look to the wrathful crowd, but instead crouched in the observance of a melon-sized isopod that had emerged from the roadside drainage duct. Despite this blase posture, Ryard observed a faint trace of annoyance which could scarcely have been produced by the lilac-hued sea-creature. Whatever the source of her vexation, it vanished the moment he, once more, opened his mouth.
“We have to get through the crowd. I’m going to try and talk to them.”
“That’s barmy. Look at the savages.” Meris exclaimed in a brusque hush as the crowd’s chant assumed greater fervor and the pounding upon the doors intensified. “They’ll tear us apart.”
“Isn’t there another way in?” Tatter queried with only the faintest flicker of interest as the adventurous crustacean climbed upon her outstretched left hand.
Ryard shook his head. “I used to play here when I was a kid. Its completely isolated, unlike the newer tenements. That’s probably why Sonderon chose it as his base.” He gestured to the rooftops. “See, there’s no way in from the top without a cloud racer. And even then, he’s probably got men on the roof. And-” He trailed off abruptly as he noticed a familiar face in the crowd.
“What is it?”
“I’ll be right back. If things go sideways, run.”
“Wait. Ryard.” Meris croaked vainly.
Vancing slipped through the mob until the press made transit impossible and called to the small man before him.
The swarthy little man turned around, at first surprised, then apprehensive.
“Mr. Vancing. What on earth are you doing here?”
“No time to explain. What is this all about?”
“Sonderon’s cronies have been at us. Says southers tried to kill him. Says we’re to be routed. If he thinks he can force us out, we’ll do as much to him.”
“You consider this the best use of time as the city is about to be invaded?”
“You mean that crazy message? The Consortium’ll stop it.”
“The Consortium might not be able to. They didn’t stop this.”
As the two men spoke, heads turned with critical eyes and increasing fixity toward the intruder and the standard issue jacket that marked him a CAV-keep.
“Why’d you come here?”
“I need to speak to Sonderon.”
“I’ll explain everything latter. Its important I speak to him.”
“Who is that?” One of the souther agitators asked.
“He’s one of Sonderon’s!” Another member of the mob declared.
Ryard raised his voice suddenly. “I am nothing of the kind. I am Major Vancing, of the KSRU. I was hoping to speak with Sonderon, as well as yourselves. You’ve all been had.”
“Had? What do you mean, had?” An incensed, scar-faced youth demanded.
“I mean that the person who shot Sonderon was not a souther, but wanted his target to think he was.”
A long moment of uncomprehending silence descended. “Why?” Wasil wondered aloud.
“To prompt Sonderon to avenge himself upon you, and you upon him.”
“What a load of rubbish, and from a member of the KSRU, we know well enough what they do to us,” the scar-faced man exclaimed hotly.
“If he says it, I believe him.” Wasil broke in stolidly.
“Why? What’s he to you?”
“A friend, Basim. If not for him, my wife would not be with us today.”
“Its his colonel who kills us. Its their master who comes to claim us all.”
“I knew nothing of Kryos’ plan. As for what happened with Colonel Syzr-“
“Murderer!” Someone shouted.
“He killed. But he is no murderer. Listen.” But the scar-faced man, with a snarl of rage, threw himself at Ryard. Before violence could erupt, Wasil broke the two men apart and restrained the youth.
“Let him speak, Basim!”
“If Wasil will listen, I will listen,” an elderly souther declared, taking a step forward. Murmuration passed through the crowd and at length the sentiment was agreed upon.
Vancing adjusted his collar and continued. “Syzr was set upon by those who he is claimed to have murdered. The two he slew and their leader, Kleiner, had attacked a woman named Fawnell. That’s why he intervened. This, Syzr relayed to me personally. I spoke with Fawnell before her untimely death and she confirmed to me the truth of the Colonel’s words. The KSRU is not your enemy. But someone would certainly like you to think otherwise.”
Another wave of murmurs rippled through the crowd. This less furious in character than the last.
“Can anyone corroborate this?” The elderly souther queried.
“They can.” Ryard pointed to Meris and Tatter, who stood uncertainly amid the onlookers in the street.
Before the crowd could question further, the second-story balcony doors were thrown wide and a man, well on in years, with short mottled hair, a weathered face, and a fierce expression, emerged. He wore a gray-black uniform and his arm was confined to a well-plied sling. Ryard instantly recognized the high-perched figure as Kreizer Sonderon, who clutched the railing with his good arm and scanned the crowd until his eyes alighted upon Ryard.
“If we’re to talk, it were better we do so inside.”