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The triumph of humanity has come at last...
It is the year 2235, and humanity stands together as the United Terran Commonwealth, and has spread from Terra to the outer reaches of our galaxy. Through the discovery of the slipstream, a river of particles intersecting all parts of known space, the mighty ships of the UTC slip through the gateways to establish new colonies, discover new and lucrative resources, and police their rapidly-expanding empire. To this end, each sector of space laid out by the UTC is watched over by men and women called Sector Marshals, whose mandate it is to protect the interests of Terra, transcending all other concerns... for there are many dangers in the galaxy...
The Corporates, rapacious rascals whose lack of ethical and moral standards allows them the full measure of ancient earth capitalism. In the old days, they were called gangsters...
The Scions of Mars, an ancient cult reinventing history, shrouded in mysticism, to reach out to the children of the red planet and topple the rule of Terra. Not far from home, treason lurks...
The Infinitum, a faction living on in rumors, obsessed by the perfection of artificial intelligence, and seeking communion with a power that they believe will fulfill the potential of humanity...
The Unknown... the undiscovered!
It is through this turbulent galaxy that the tale of humanity's survival is told, woven into the backdrop of stars and darkness that is known as The Tapestry of Night!
SIX MONTHS AGO
The Whisper broke the cloud cover of Caliban at nearly thirty thousand feet above the horizon, diving through the powder-puff pillows like a rock hitting the water. The hull started rocking as soon as we'd passed through, the turbulence bleeding through the stabilizers as we made our run on the planet below. Inside, I stood beside my crew at the aft ramp as we descended. My master of arms, Morgan Reach, armed with his duel heavy pistols and combat blades, stood hulking over me by about a foot, his heavy frame bulked out by years working an asteroid mining concern before turning his skills to gold in the local planetary defense force. He leaned against the bulkhead wall, thumbs twitching back and forth as they played over the safeties. My own pistol was still in the holster. I had other plans for our quarry today.
Khef Kenet, my Bound Marshal and budding pupil, was in full-plated combat armour, complete with the insignia of the Marshals, newly minted and shined up over his left pectoral. He was a little more seasoned than when he came to me seven weeks before. He was not a big man, but he was strong, disciplined, and had one hell of a tactical mind. Two tours on Earth and Mars, and an immaculate record at the academy had made him a prime candidate for training on the Frontier. He raised the visor of his helmet as he noticed my scrutiny, and nodded. I returned his nod as the gunship shook. I thumbed the stud on my collar.
"Sheera... any chance you can smooth us out a bit?"
I heard a short grunt of frustration on her end. Nevei Sheera was an old friend, a multiple felon who got the bad end of a bum deal, and a pilot who made the Naval Regiments running pickets around Destroyers look like rank amateurs. We had known each other for a long time indeed...
*Gideon. With all due respect and love, fak off. The crosswinds are shitting all over the stabs, and the atmo on Cali' is thick like a brick. I told you this was a shit plan!*
"Mm. Language!" Morgan chided.
*I heard that, big man.*
I put my hand over one ear. The shuddering was getting pretty loud...
"Felix! Any read on the surface yet?"
*If there was anything to worry about, I'd let you know, oh exalted Sector Marshal Blackhall of Chimera Sector. Hallowed be his name...*
Felix Gosha was a Breaker, an expert in electronic countermeasures who invaded enemy systems and shut them down before they became a problem. He was also an arrogant prick that I considered chucking out Whisper while in flight on every mission. Still, he was great at his job, which was my only hesitation. He was the only one in my crew that I had any concerns about...
A long sigh...
*There were. I locked them out of the control systems, and relayed their locations to the Hounds. Can't promise that some crazy fakker with a hand-held isn't going to try and blow us up, but I figure Pyramid Power can put one through the bugger's eye in that case.*
Khef rolled his eyes, and looked thoughtfully down the corridor to Felix' rig room where he was strapped in to the main relay shipside. I let go of the stud.
"No shooting the crew, Khef."
"Yeah, go figure," I replied, "Can't blame him though."
Khef shook his head.
Felix was one of a very few select humans that had been born into an artificial intelligence-worshipping sect called the Infinitum that believed in the supremacy of humans who were raised and maintained entirely by a modular chip in the brain which they called a 'Mentor'. The whole of the United Terran Confederacy had promptly freaked out after they were discovered, and hunted them relentlessly, fearing that the sect would cause some kind of uprising; paranoia ran rampant in the early days of the UTC's history. It was rumored that the Infinitum had gone to ground and formed a think tank somewhere on the Frontier, but no one knew for sure. I found Felix starving in an alley on Mars two years ago, and took him into custody. He earns his keep well enough, that was for sure...
"Gideon, ten thousand feet!" shouted Sheera through the overhead speakers. "Hounds are inbound on my heels, estimate three minutes to midnight."
The Hounds were a tactical support unit made available to the Marshals during raids and other large-scale operations. They were hand-picked by me from the most promising officers across the sector, and equipped with the best gear I could supply them with. They were my foot soldiers...
I checked the straps on the webbing cinched across my vest, and unbuckled the handle of the smooth wood and reinforced steel weapon at my side. In the words of my people on Earth, it was called a shillelagh. It had a long, shapely handle wrapped in leather straps and reinforced with steel rings, and it ended in a thick knot that formed a broad, flat head coated in steel with the sword and chevron emblem of the Marshals engraved there. It had numerous scratches and nicks in the metal, and some burrs in the wood that I had yet the time to sand out and varnish over. I called her Maggie. I lifted her from my side, and felt the reassurance of her heft in my hand.
"When we hit the ground, I want both of you to move out and take cover. Scans show a handful of shacks surrounding a single warehouse. That is our quarry. Advance on it, and take down anyone who gets in the way."
"Not a problem," Morgan muttered.
"Avoid unnecessary casualties gents," I said, looking specifically at Morgan, "I know that these traffickers are less than scum, but the Hounds are moving in behind us to take them into custody so they'll roll on their bosses once we put the pressure on."
"Kneecaps are good, though, right?"
"Right as rain. Check your fire as well. These guys are no doubt willing to burn for their swag, right down the line, but they may try to use their hostages as human shields. Khef — in that case, take them down."
"Southward of hostile ground in twenty seconds! Ramp is opening!"
We dropped into a crouch as the pistons of the hatchway squealed while dropping the ramp. I squinted as the howling wind and the bright light of the white gloom exploded up the ramp. I felt the cold on my skin, and I adjusted the breather mask I had hung at my neck, pulling it up to my mouth. I began tapping Maggie against the hull, counting down as we approached. Morgan pulled his up, and drew an ablative hood over his head. He flipped up his safeties, pointing his guns down at the deck.
The open ramp hatch showed the planet of Caliban below as we approached. Cali' was the bane of my sector, a planetoid with an atmosphere, on the fringe of a debris cluster. It had short grey peaks and deep valleys from being gouged out by meteor strikes throughout its long, battle-scarred history. The pervasive low cloud cover was ideal for hiding training camps, installations, and black markets in the valleys and under the outcropping rocks of the landscape. I had been here numerous times since I became Sector Marshal. If I had the ordinance, I'd blow it to floating chunks.
The grey, rocky ground of the landing site loomed up at us as Whisper moved in under Sheera's talented stewardship. I could make out the buildings. They were little shacks made of recycled carbon fiber and aluminum... plastic sheeting blew in the breeze from the doorways. The main building was a large factory or warehouse with reinforced walls and a corrugated iron roof. There were large storage tanks by the side...
I pointed at my own eyes with two fingers, and then pointed at the tanks. Morgan and Khef nodded in agreement. We'd have to watch our fire down there. My team and I had been following these guys for three months through the sector. They were trafficking in people, which was illegal in Terran space. This was the first of their major operations we'd been able to track down. I now considered it a matter of honour to break up their party.
Sheera guided Whisper over the site. The traffickers were scrambling on the ground as we moved in. They were dressed in a myriad of semi-professional matte-black gear, probably second-hand black market shit they bought from over the hill! The patter of small arms fire rattled off the hull as we set down.
I was down the ramp and out onto the gritty earth. The backwash from Whisper's thrusters blew up a big cloud of dust to cover us. I kept moving towards the shacks, looking for more cover close at hand. I could hear Khef moving up behind me, and I could make out Morgan's shadow as he trudged through the dust cloud. I hadn't even closed half the distance to my shack when I heard the report of Morgan's guns.
Morgan's squawk came in just as I saw the first of the traffickers loom up in the distance. He had an assault rifle, and was drawing a bead on me as he saw me coming. I hefted Maggie on the run, and threw her at his chest. She hit him dead center, knocking his rifle aside. I moved in, laying the back of my fist across his face, and driving my knee into his gut. A couple of teeth flew, and he doubled over. I finished him off with the butt of his rifle, and picked Maggie up on the way to the shack.
"One down, coordinate for pickup Felix."
*Position relayed, Hounds inbound.*
I came in through the plastic sheeting door of the shack, checking my corners as I'd been taught. There were plastic bottles from spirits on the wood floor, a couple bedrolls, and empty food containers. There was a door across the open room in front of me, a plastic job with a flimsy handle. I moved up quietly, and crouched down in front of it. I took Maggie in both hands, and jumped forward, smashing her against the door. It collapsed forward, onto the toilet. I heard a muffled cry, and saw a hand sticking out from underneath the door holding a pistol. I put my knee on the door, and smashed the gun out of the hand with Maggie. I drew my sidearm, and flipped over the door with my foot.
"Marshals! Stand down!"
The mercenary underneath the door was holding his broken hand. He was dark-haired and wearing only grey fatigues and black boots. His eyes were very red, and his cheeks were sunken. Was it some disease?
"Down on your knees, hands out back, asshole."
He looked at his gun on the floor, at his hand, and at me.
"You really don't want to give me a reason."
He nodded, and bent over from the toilet. He swept out with his hand! I put two in his back.
"Felix. Capture Whisper's nosecam footage and give me your best guess on the tanks surrounding the main building."
*I live to serve.*
I searched the mercenary, checking for any identification or clues to where he came from. There was nothing but a pack of battered hand-rolled cigars and an extra clip for his pistol. The tags were even torn from the fatigues. Their employer wasn't stupid; when we gene-filed these guys, we'd probably come up dry too. My hopes were locked up in the main building. Morgan's voice came in over the comm.
*Marshal. Eleven down. Three behind cover near the doors of the main building. Hounds are surrounding. Orders?*
"Hold fire, I'm on my way. If they make a move to shoot it up, you are to take them down, Morgan."
I moved out from the shack, hanging Maggie at my hip as I checked for stragglers. The dust had cleared, and four of the mercs were sprawled out dead between the shacks. I stepped over them, moving through the little alleys on my way. They were lightly armed, but some of them had pretty heavy armour. Morgan was always packing armour-piercing flechette rounds in his guns, so they were out of luck there. I marked three by Morgan, and one by Khef's auto-firing combat gun. This close-up fighting was not where he excelled; Khef was a sharpshooter, born and bred to take down dangerous people at a distance. Morgan was a dangerous man that moved fast through a battlefield, and left people that thought they were dangerous lying in a pool of their own blood.
As I moved towards the main building, there was the sound of rapid fire from a single, high-velocity source. There followed screaming...
*Hidden support weapon! Two Hounds down!* screamed Morgan.
The building was surrounded by storage crates to create a small maze of blind corners and easily defensible positions. The crates were thick, recycled plastic, the packaging from the prefab shacks they set up to house themselves. The tanks we noticed earlier were a hundred feet away behind the storage crates. There was a large set of sliding iron doors at the front of the building, barely visible behind a pyramid-like structure of crates. A single, narrow space was the only way to get to the door on foot. Twenty feet away from the stack, two Hounds were lying on the ground. I couldn't tell if they were alive or not...damn it all!
Khef and Morgan were hunkered down another thirty feet back or so behind one of the shacks. A half dozen lightly-armoured Hounds had taken cover with them. The mercs were laying down fire to keep us from getting to them, and helping our guys!
"Five seconds incoming! Cover me!"
*Confirmed! Opening fire!*
Morgan came around the front of the shack, flanked by the Hounds. They had their shields out, and knelt down with their shields to create a low wall. Morgan took cover, firing over the wall at the mercs' position. I raced over to the downed Hounds. A couple of stray shots hit the dirt at my feet as I got closer, but they couldn't afford to be accurate with my boys taking the fight to them.
I realized that both of my guys were dead. They'd taken the onslaught of the merc's support weapon point blank! Officers Ardent and Newton were fakking dead! I had no time to mourn... but I would avenge my fallen men...
I snapped up a pair of concussion grenades from my fallen officers, and took off towards the pile of crates. I pulled the pin of the first grenade, and threw it directly into the narrow corridor. I leapt on top of the nearest crate as the grenade went off. The stack shook, and one of the crates came toppling down, leaving a hole in the stack. A cloud of dust rose from beneath the stack. I used it as cover to get closer, moving to the hole. I threw the second grenade down the hole, and flattened myself.
*Gideon; Felix. Thermograph on the building shows deep cold inside, and those tanks are filled with coolant. Heat spike on the exchanger, but nothing explosive.*
The grenade went off, rocking the crates and ending more dust into the air. I heard a lot of cursing from down below, but these guys were supposed to be professionals, so I didn't really expect them to lose total control. I pushed myself off the top of the crate I was on, and dropped down the hole. As I landed, I pulled Maggie and went into a crouch beside the stuck-out corner of a crate. One of the mercs was lying senseless at my feet on top of a support tripod. He was bleeding from the head. His rifle was on the ground beside him, but the support weapon was still in the hands of the mercs!
"That's good news," I whispered, "They fell back — everyone move in. Check your fire... I'm inside."
I slipped around the corner, taking advantage of the fact that it was very hard to see too far inside. A few feet away from me, two mercs were dragging a Holt-McCain heavy support gun across the ground with its belts of ammo. The Holt was used for dispersing civilian during policing actions by PDFs, or for the military holding off invasions against a foe with superior numbers. There was absolutely nothing that could be done with it if you got this close! The mercs saw me, and tried to lift the Holt up to fire.
I sped forward, and swung Maggie in low, batting the barrel of the Holt out of their hands. I grabbed a hold of Maggie's head, and drove her into the stomach of the closest merc, sending him onto his ass. The other pulled a knife and slashed at me. I moved fast, but the blade dragged along the armor of my vest and cut my shoulder. Blood seeped from the wound, and I staggered back as the merc came at me, obviously a practiced hand with the blade. I deflected most of his strikes with Maggie's handle, drawing only some small cuts on my hands. I managed to come back with a shot on his chin with Maggie's head. His lips were smashed against his teeth. I dropped Maggie, and grabbed hold of the wrist of his knife hand. I twisted around him, keeping hold of his wrist while I dropped low. I pushed his arm deep into the small of his back. He tried to kick at me, but years of my training weren't for nothing; I knew what he could and couldn't do here.
I jumped over his back-stretched foot, and came down hard on his ankle. I heard a sharp crack. He fell forward. I grabbed the blade from his hand, and tossed it over my shoulder and far from his reach. As he tried to rise on his broken ankle, I pulled my pistol, and pointed it at his head. I thought better of it, and brought the butt down on his skull with as much force as I dared. His buddy hadn't been very forthcoming... I had no reason to believe that they'd give anything up when there was still a chance to fight their way out. He staggered around for a moment, then seemed to give in to oblivion. I checked him cautiously. He was out. I picked up Maggie.
"Clear. Get in here and start dragging out these crates. I want that door clear in two minutes!"
I got out of everyone's way while they did as I instructed. Morgan shook his head as he walked past the mercs I took down in the stack. He would have waited them out... my main concern was the people they were keeping. The mercs had no reason to keep those people alive. I only hoped we weren't too late. Khef took control of the Hounds, directing them to tear apart the stack.
After less than two minutes, the crate pile was toppled and moved out of the way. The sliding iron doors turned out to be a little more complicated than I thought. Morgan looked them over, and found they were sealed magnetically by a sophisticated encrypted lock.
"Can you get into it?"
"Not safely," Morgan said, looking up from the control panel, "I have no doubt that this thing has fail-safes hidden throughout its circuits...one short, and we blow ourselves and everybody inside straight to hell."
"Felix... are you listening to this?"
*Yes. I agree with Morgan; anything less than an immaculate disabling of the lock will probably set off explosives.*
"Can you do it?"
He came up walking up like a pale ghost through the assembled Hounds. Felix wore an old ragged coat which no force in the universe could make him part with, a simple dark cotton shirt with an armoured vest strapped over it, a pair of fatigue trousers, and large boots that came up to his knees. His skin was very pale, as most of the Infinitum were, but Felix had a large purple mohawk that he combed over, and dark lips. He also had a ring of optic studs near his temple. They flashed red and green, intermittently, as his Mentor went searching for available sources of data extraction. He smiled at the mixed reactions of the Hounds as he approached; some thought of people like Felix as dangerous outcasts, while some thought of them as harmless, insular pariahs.
Morgan put a hand over the collar of his coat.
I cast Morgan a warning glance as Felix sauntered up to us.
"Well... look at all these well-trained gentlemen with the big guns and shoulder pads...halted in their steps by a simple piece of technology... tragic, really."
I took Felix by the elbow.
"Can you get me in there or not?"
There was a barely audible clicking and whirring inside the control panel. Felix grinned, and tilted his head. The clicking stopped.
"I've actually been working on it since I stepped off the ramp. Sheera dropped me off when you called the 'all clear'."
"I thought it was supposed to be pretty sophisticated..."
Felix looked from me to Morgan, and then back at me.
"How adorable. After you, Sector Marshal."
"Okay. Let's move in..."
I clapped Felix on the shoulder as the Hounds surrounded the door. Khef helped cover me while Morgan used the manual release to unlock the magnetic seal. He gritted his teeth, one eye closed in anticipation of an explosion...
"Good work... but call me adorable again, and I'm going to put Maggie in a very uncomfortable place that will require multiple surgeries to remove. Okay?"
Felix' smile faded. He nodded, and gave me a thumbs-up.
There was a huge roaring sound across the sky, and the huge shadowy form of a military dropship appeared in the mists!
*UTC just dropped into orbit Gideon! They're pushing some cease and desist on us!*
*They're taking over! They just deployed skimmers... incoming!*
I looked up into the sky... several small shapes had broken off of the dropship, and were rapidly descending.
"Open this damn door, Morgan! Before they drop the hammer!"
The door began to slide open... tendrils of freezing vapor started forming... Khef gathered the Hounds up behind me. Morgan put his back against the door, his guns drawn and ready. The mist began to clear...
I forgot how good Khef's eyes were... better than mine. He saw the bodies first.
"Are... are you getting all of this, Felix?"
Felix moved up to stand beside me. If I didn't know what a raging egomaniac he was, I'd almost say that he was shocked by the look of disbelief on his face.
As the vapor cleared, and the temperature equalized, the inside of the warehouse was revealed. Row upon row of frozen people hung naked in sealed plastic shrouds above the stone floor, suspended by steel hooks that were part of a slider system built into the ceiling. The rows went on all the way to the back, and both sides of the room beyond the door. There was no point counting... too many is too many...
I cast my eyes about the warehouse, my eyes scanning for...
Something else...? No...
"Felix... protected storage! All of it! Before the Breakers get close enough to shut us out!"
Felix' studs raced like mad, interfacing with Whisper's systems and transferring everything we had on Caliban. Otherwise, the naval countermeasure operatives of the UTC would sniff it out and lock us out of our own systems until they were sufficiently scoured. Let them try that now...
I turned around from the horror in the warehouse, hearing the urgency in Morgan's voice. The UTC skiffs had touched down, and a platoon of marines in khaki fatigues and armoured exoskeletal plating, armed with some damned heavy hardware were making their way through the shacks towards us. These guys were better armed than us, and they outnumbered us on the ground. They were far too clean for an experienced fighting unit though, most of them young men fresh from the Naval Academy on Mars. This far out... why send a green unit?
All the same, there was no fighting them... I hated inter-agency conflict anyway. They were going to take custody of Caliban, whether we liked it or not. The dropship in the atmo' could hold over fifty-thousand troops.
A marine sergeant with a pair of combat blades slung across his chest and a red skull tattooed across the back of his right hand pushed his way past his fellow marines, moving towards us. They all had black helmets with built-in comm units and advanced optics. The sergeant stood a few paces away, cycling through his systems. 'F.Krull' was printed on his armour. He locked onto Felix, and put his hand on his sidearm, holstered at his hip.
"Cease your data stream, Breaker," he said, evenly. "That's an order!"
I turned to Felix, and nodded.
"Let's be good little soldiers, boys..."
"Such nice, clean uniforms!" Morgan growled.
"Take it easy, Morgan."
Morgan holstered his guns, and folded his arms across his chest, glowering at the sergeant.
*I've been ordered to land Gideon...*
"Do it, Sheera; we're not here to start a fight."
The marines surrounded us. They were at ease though, their weapons held easily in their grips. All they were doing here was telling us we weren't going anywhere. Sergeant Krull stepped forward, and stood in front of me. He was older than most of the others I could see, and bore the scars of a ritual fighter from the pits of the outworlds on his face. The blades across his chest now made a lot of sense...
"What's all this about, Sergeant?"
"Stand still for identification."
He pulled out an optical scanner from his belt, and passed it over my retinas. The data streamed to his visor for display. He put away the scanner, and ordered his men forward.
"Gideon Blackhall, Sector Marshal of Chimera, you are hereby ordered to surrender all material pertaining to your operation on Caliban to us immediately. You and your operatives will also be subject to be detained and interviewed."
"Technically, I don't answer to you, sergeant."
"You answer to the United Terran Commonwealth. Wherever we go, we are its will."
"My, my... that is an interesting interpretation of the charter," Felix mused.
We were a long way from both Terra and a higher authority to mediate this generous stepping of the UTC on my dick... this was a waste of our time now, anyway.
"We surrender to your authority," I said, "But I assure you, sergeant, that if any of my people are treated with less than professional courtesy, or one bolt is missing from my gunship, that I will put my boot firmly to the ass of every square-jawed jarhead mouth-breather in the UTC Galactic Command until restitution is made. You read me, sergeant?"
The sergeant lifted up his visor, revealing a pair of deep scars that ran from the top corners of his scalp, criss-crossed above his nose, and down his cheeks.
"I read you," he said. "Take them."