Dekker stripped off his shirt as he entered his personnal sanctuary. He desperately needed sleep, but too much weighed on his mind: psychic mechnar assassins, Vesuvius, the stolen DNIET super-weapon, the deaths of a teammate and an intelligence asset.
Sighing wearily, he sat on his bunk and took an inventory of his stress. Prognon Austicon’s game remained constant; each time Dekker uncovered clues to the mysterious red tree, the enigma only expanded, like a jigsaw puzzle that continued gaining new pieces.
He’d just begun to speculate that their newest data they’d was planted misinformation. If Satyr hadn’t been murdered to cover up what he’d learned, his entire trove of information would have been more suspect. At least they could reasonably confident in its authenticity.
Dekker squeezed the stress off of his face with rugged hands. Too much to think about; he needed to clear his mind. His head hit his pillow, but instead of soft cloth, his scalp crinkled against a sheet of paper. Someone had laid it very intentionally for only him to find. Only one person besides the psy-nar assassin had proven the ability to access his personal quarters.
He scanned the paper with weary eyes. Sorry for your loss. Look to your friends in Jerusalem when you round out your dozen. –Ezekiel.
If he hadn’t proven himself as an ally, Dekker might have throttled the old time-traveler for the intrusion on their next encounter. He crumpled the note and discarded it, not sure about its exact meaning; one more enigma didn’t helping Dekker empty his mind.
The Verdant Seven
Nibbs sat in the ready room, a conference hall directly adjacent to the Salvation’s command bridge. Deep in thought, he exhaled measuredly and winced against the pain that radiated from his torso. Nibbs scowled at the bandage covering the wound he’d incurred when the psy-nar assassins attacked them.
Of all the injuries they’d incurred several days ago, Nibbs was the worst, one fatality aside. Shaking off the self-pity, he locked his eyes upon his target again. If eyes were lasers he’d have burned through the framed patch of Prognon Austicon’s skin hours ago. In his injured state, Nibbs felt particularly useless. But his deep-rooted problem-solving nature drew him to the red tree riddle during all of his down time.
He tapped his toe impatiently: a nervous habit. Nibbs got fidgety whenever worked. Licking his index finger, he stuck it into the sugar container he’d swiped from the drink console and then sucked the sweet granules off while his mind wandered.
“Dodona’s Oak,” Nibbs muttered aloud like a mantra. This was the last message Satyr had relayed, and it had cost him his life. It also proved indecipherable. The coordinates Dekker had recorded appeared to be an azimuth heading, Phi was a standard symbol for azimuth readings, but they didn’t lead anywhere. Ironically, heading pointed back to the Osix moon if the azimuth angle was read at the site of the ancient tree-worshipping cult’s historic divining rod. That clue reinforced what they believed Dodona’s Oak meant. But something still obfuscated the plain meaning of it all.
An analytical computer expert, Nibbs felt he’d crept on the verge of deciphering all the clues. Pages and pages of information, photos, and notes lay strewn across the table at his right and a video console displayed a planet-side feed. All were tightly wound loops of string in one massive knot—soon, a single tug would unravel the whole mystery… if he could only find the right perspective.
As was typical, The Pheema dominated the MEA newscasts. He explained away the decapitation murder of his human liaison. “While we have our suspects, there is too little proof for us to pursue justice. Residents of Earth do have my pledge to further crackdown against lax weapons restrictions and investigator licensures.” The implications were pretty obvious.
Nibbs frowned; Satyr, the dead person from The Pheema’s interview, had been the source of the best clues on Nibbs’ desk. Although, the more evidence they pieced together, the broader the web of conspiracy seemed to span and the more powerful this enemy appeared. His eyes fell to a photo and a list of names, some of which were circled. Red pen marks linked them to a circled question Satyr had asked, Bankers? Historical ties to Illuminati?
In another margin, Satyr’s chaotic scrawl asked, Who are the Verdant Seven? Nibbs was determined to answer that question.
* * *
Prognon Austicon’s ship orbited a distant planet at the furthest reaches of human occupation. With the great advances in technology and the relatively peaceful coexistence of most sentient races Homo sapiens had flung themselves far and abroad these last many decades.
He gripped the armrests of his pilot seat and shivered. The demon within raged with resentment at its feigned submission to the red tree. This trip had taken several days to complete and he hated being so far removed from the plans he’d meticulous laid. He did not trust The Pheema. For years the two plotted an underground war against humanity; now they plotted against each other, constantly searching for leverage or weakness.
This trip momentarily removed him from his surreptitious struggle against the Right Hand, but Austicon wasn’t yet prepared to defy their masters on the Arbolean Council. The pieces were in play, but for now he waited for the opportune moment, and that meant accomplishing these tasks before him and performing the least of his duties.
The assassin stood and scanned the readouts of the human colony below. This would be the first of many stops along a tour of the occupied territories in the outer rim planets. It would take the long while for anyone to notice the dire fate of populations in these sectors.
Austicon secured the stone vessel under an arm and slid into an atmospheric shuttle. He would operate quickly, slipping in and out, infecting the scheduled colonies. He didn’t want to risk his pans by giving that Krenzin snake any extra time to plot against him.
Shutting the door, the ageless killer grinned wickedly. There would be plenty of plotting, but Prognon Austicon would not be the one who died. An otherworldly laughter welled up from within. As the living avatar of what dwelled within, Austicon now doubted that even the power of death held any sway over him.
Austicon transmitted a falsified customs manifest to the MEA constabulary forces below and waited for his clearance to drop planetside. It would not be long, now—and for the next couple days, at least, he could play by the rules.
He smiled again. All in due time.
* * *
Dekker stretched out in the booth at the earth-side pub. Under the table, his leg brushed against Vesuvius’s. It had been a tough week following Jamba’s funeral. Plus, there remained plenty of work for all of the Dozen, not least of it including the administrative aspects of operating the Salvation. Many of those duties had been voluntarily assumed by MacAllistair. It was an oddly good fit..
“So,” the fearless Vesuvius Briggs ventured as she broke the silence, “what are we, Dekker?”
Dekker remained tight lipped. He shrugged, but not indifferently. He treaded unfamiliar waters.
Vesuvius took another swig of her drink. “Well, yeah. That’s why I ask. I mean, what does it take to get a guy’s attention around here? I don’t know if you haven’t gotten the signals, or if you’re rejecting them? Every time I think we start gaining a little momentum it feels like you purposefully put the brakes on. That feels like rejection to me.” She took another drink, searching for some additional courage in the liquid.
Dekker looked around, wishing a waiter would interrupt them by taking their order. He hoped for some kind of rescue from this conversation, but there was none in sight.
“Is it because of our past? I know it’s a constant joke, but are you really so insecure that you need me to apologize for all that? It was a heat of the moment thing, forgive me of my passion, but I thought saving your life a few times would make up for any of my past hotheadedness, but if not—”
“No. That’s not it, Vivian,” Dekker sighed. “And I’m not nearly so petty. I just… I move pretty slowly here. I’m not really sure how I feel and I’m unsure when it comes to love, especially when we lead the kind of lives that we do.”
Vesuvius nodded and peered into her nearly empty glass. “I’ve been thinking a lot since my uncle died. First Shin, then Muramasa. I am the last of that line, just like you and yours. I know that we disagreed on families before.” She locked eyes with Dekker. The silence in that moment was heavy, tangible. “I’m no longer opposed to having children. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
Dekker had to look away. “I just…” He couldn’t even finish the sentence. An awkward moment followed.
“Then at least tell me about your mystery woman. We’re close enough that you owe me an explanation, at least. Tell me about Aleel.”
Dekker looked at Vesuvius. He’d never told any of the Dozen about her; his past was so far buried from the rest of the Dozen that he never thought he’d hear her name. Suspicion momentarily curled around in his mind. “Did Ezekiel tell you about her?”
She returned a quizzical look. “Who? The old nutjob you talked to before the psy-nar attack?” Finally, she shrugged and conceded the point.
He let it drop, truthfully somewhat relieved that Ezekiel hadn’t been just a fabrication of his tortured subconscious. “Aleel… was my wife,” he admitted. “She was murdered by Prognon Austicon late in her term while she carried our unborn child.” His eyes remained rooted to a dirty spot on the table. “She was killed because of who I am, who my father was, what we believe, and what we stood in the way of. Austicon needed to end that, sever my line.”
Vesuvius took his hands in hers, understanding what he meant: the ageless terrorist would hunt down any children he ever had. “You know that he wins, this way? If your line ends with you, for whatever that reason—even if you never see him again and die of old age, surrounded by friends.”
He looked up at her and nodded.
She’d never seen pain, genuine pain, in his eyes before.
“You’re not the kind of man that lets his enemies live in victory, are you? That’s not the Dekker I know.”
“And you know the whole me?”
“Almost. But I do plan on resolving that.”
Dekker managed to give her a smile, glad that the waiter hadn’t shown up after all.
* * *
MacAllistair peered over the reports and peeked at the video feed which alerted him to the blaster fire; a warning icon lit on the command console. One deck below Rock conducted firearm training with the live-aboard volunteers. A requirement for any person accepted aboard was that they be made combat-capable in case called upon in an emergency. The recent psy-nar attack validated that mandate.
For the most part, they had a perfect response to The Pheema’s “citizen soldier” dictate. Anyone with a thimbleful of skepticism saw through the political smokescreen that it was; if anything, all the “citizen soldier” talk only galvanized those asking to live aboard the Salvation. They currently housed approximately five thousand people with more requests coming each day, impressive numbers considering that none of them were paid and most, in fact, brought some degree of their own private financial support.
MacAllistair returned to the reports and frowned. He’d agreed to handle much of the logistics and paperwork in exchange for him not needing to endure firearms training; fighting really wasn’t his thing. He was, however, impressed by the welling numbers of live-aboards, but was a little disheartened that the numbers didn’t demand a long Earth-side waiting list. The additional capital crew was a godsend, but there still remained too few humans with any rational sense. True, there were pockets of long-time religious and traditional holdouts, but most of them had so cloistered themselves, such as those in the walled Jerusalem fortress, that they had no relevance to the MEA’s economy or politics.
Of course, MacAllistair realized that they had ironically done exactly what the Jerusalemites did many years ago: become self-sufficient and seceded from the rest of the planet. MacAllistair glanced at the readouts as he wandered outside and down a hall. He passed by the next bay where their militia trained to use laser cannons and capital ship systems on simulation machines.
The scientist returned a mock salute to Matty who taught the basic operations to a group of newbies. MacAllistair hit the mess to grab a couple bottles of water and then returned to the command bridge. He walked past Nibbs and left him the second bottle. Nibbs seemed like a man obsessed, lately. MacAllistair dropped his progress reports off in an assessment file, and then returned to his private quarters to indulge in his guilty pleasure: saturating himself in the MEA propaganda machine—some earthlings watched sports and screamed at referees, he preferred to view the news and scream at reporters.
Scanning through the propaganda, the voices were oddly hushed. The talking heads had been rendered speechless by the footage that aired. The streets of the furthest colonies were silent, homes had been emptied. They had no data to explain the mass disappearances.
Finally, the televised personalities attempted to speculate on alien abduction. They hadn’t found any plausible suggestions before their superiors interjected a new story about potential deep space attacks.
The new video feed, silent as the previous, showed a class E MEA constabulary cruiser under attack from some alien force. The stream came from a remote drone with only a fixed angle, but the action was visible enough. A ghost ship, similar to the one that attacked them during MacAllistair’s rescue, fired insistently upon the MEA cruiser.
Trying to provide some sort of commentary, the stunned celebrities stumbled through a description of the carnage. The MEA ship took the pounding as it vainly tried outrunning its pursuer on crippled engines. As the pirate frigate closed the gap, some sort of grappling cables lashed out and seized the military vessel. It pulled the two together; the demon-ship’s lasers repeatedly fired point blank as the warring crafts drifted to the edge of the video’s angle. Just before the enemy ship exited the screen, a series of eruptions ripped through the MEA craft, jettisoning atmosphere and bodies.
Awestruck, MacAllistair watched the ghost-ship plow through the deep-space flotsam before jumping to FTL travel. As the newscasters tried to recover their composure, an MEA seal broke through the video feed switching the channel to full media blackout.
MacAllistair shook off the initial shock and contacted Guy. With Dekker and Vesuvius still planet-side for an appointment he felt someone should be aware of what he’d just seen before the MEA buried the story under loads of celebrity yellow-rag stories. If the ghost ship forces were behind this kind of attack in the border worlds, the Dozen were sure to encounter them again.
* * *
Dekker and Vesuvius paced in the small waiting room containing them just beyond the heavily fortified Jerusalem complex. The second leg of their post-funeral trip delved into even deeper mysteries than the status of their odd romantic entanglement.
More than an hour ago they’d been granted access through the exterior force-field and into the outlying strip of land. Now, locked securely in the holding area, they sat completely susceptible to attack as the guards researched their profiles and made inquiries within. It wasn’t often that Jerusalem allowed anyone entry into the city.
Jerusalem remained independent and sovereign, one of few such places remaining on Earth. It transcended the MEA and endured perfectly content in her unattachment. Several years previous The Pheema had tried to gain access, hoping to begin talks and mediate a union between the MEA and Jerusalem; prior to that, Chief Magnate Janus had attempted the same. Both had been laughed off and left to wait for days on end in rooms much like this until they abandoned their efforts.
“Well, at least we still have our weapons,” Vesuvius remarked, leaning against Dekker.
“I’m not sure what that means,” Dekker remarked. “Either they are so confident they can handle any threat we’d pose, they don’t plan to let us beyond this room, or they simply have enough respect for anyone with such a bold request as entry.” Jerusalem was widely renowned for its defenses. Nothing short of a capital-warship’s orbital bombardment would be able to harm her.
“None of those are mutually exclusive prospects, you know?”
“Yeah,” Dekker said. The long wait had finally begun to make him nervous. He rapped on the door to the room where they’d already waited for several hours. Only silence replied.
An hour passed, and then two. Finally, a small door opened and two food trays slid through a small aperture and into the room as if they were prisoners—although the food was excellent and they could always exit the holding room and give up their quest.
Dekker shouted through the opening. “Hey! How much longer before we know anything?” Through the slot he could see a small, olive skinned man.
The man returned to the slot and shrugged. “I have no information for you, friend. But, it is good that you brought a companion. Perhaps it may still be many hours.”
Hours stretched out, conversation dwindled and ceased. Vesuvius and Dekker ran out of small talk; he’d only cared to share a glimpse of what he knew of Ezekiel, the one who’d told him to journey to the Jerusalem fortress. Eventually they drifted into sleep—slumping against the far wall; the room lacked comfortable furniture, perhaps another effort to discourage guests.
If they’d had any windows, they might have noticed the sun’s dwindling light as night crept up. They might have noticed the sunrise the next morning. As it was, they slept in a seemingly time-locked environment under the harsh fluorescent lighting.
Dekker finally awoke in the early morning; he found his fingers intertwined within Vesuvius’s. He peeled himself out of her grasp and gently propped her against the wall before using the tiny restroom adjacent their resting place.
As Dekker returned, Vesuvius shuddered awake. The locked door opened and a medium-sized, but very muscular man entered and extended a hand.
“Dekker? Sorry about the extended wait; My name is Krav. Jerusalem has a great many protocols in order to admit outsiders into our walls, and I’m impressed. There were a number of men willing to speak for you.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “I didn’t realize I had any contacts inside Jerusalem. I didn’t think anybody did.”
The man laughed. “You speak truly. There are very few that have been allowed to pass our walls these last several years. But your father and his Watchmen had friends here among the Jerusalemites.”
Dekker nodded, understanding the connection that had gained him access to such a stronghold. Vesuvius game him a quizzical look; she would not understand, few could—not much was known about the fabled Watchmen. “Did that ever change, perhaps shortly before his death?”
Krav returned a tight-lipped smile. “You are trying to discern if his relationship was strained by the fact that his son married a former Jihadist.” He paused for a second and the moment passed. “It might have stressed it, but Jude Knight was a man of such character that it could not damage him. His family always did put feet, words, and fists to their convictions.” Krav waved Dekker inside and pointed at Vesuvius.
“Vivian is with me,” he stated.
Krav shrugged and waved her in as well. “From what we’ve seen, you have put more fists than anything else into those convictions these last two decades. We do share that, I think, my friend. But tell me,” he asked as they walked through the winding halls, “Do you still share your father’s deep convictions?”
“I am the last of his Watchmen. I alone protect the book and know his way. I feel them deeper than any other.”
“And yet, you do not proselytize as he did. Knowing the way of the Watchmen, I don’t understand why not.”
Vesuvius remained silent and hung half a pace behind. This was all foreign to her, a part of Dekker that she did not know about.
Dekker grimaced, trying to find words to describe his feelings to Krav. “Since the years prior to the Intergalactic Singularity War the Watchmen have lived their faith. We preach very little, and perhaps my fists have always been my strongest attribute.”
Krav was still curious. “Does that make it hard to grow your number?”
Dekker sighed. “We’ve not grown. I am the last of us, and I can do little to fulfill my oaths except protect the ancient tome. It is the only task I am qualified for anymore.”
“You can still live that life, make your converts.”
“Not without the primary attribute. Love.”
Krav understood. “You’ve only shrunk since her death?”
Dekker nodded. “The wounds haven’t healed; they might never.”
“It’s been so many years, though. And there are several in our city who yearn to see the Watchmen restored; some even share in basics of their faith. How many years must pass before your heart is restored?”
Dekker swallowed and they entered a vast library. He admitted, “It’s been longer than it should have been, but I am recovering.” Their footsteps echoed, announcing their presence in the massive facility. This repository of historical tomes had outlasted the cyber-warfare of the previous generations which had destroyed so much rich history. He glanced at Vesuvius and they took seats as a trio of elderly men approached.
The eldest of the trio bowed to Dekker. “I am Yitzchak ben Khan,” he introduced himself. “I am one of the elders of the Great Synagogue.” Yitzchak spoke slowly and deliberately. He leveled his gaze squarely at Dekker. “Your father was well respected by many of my peers. I did not know him, but I know that he once possessed this sacred artifact and I thank you for returning it in his memory.”
Yitzchak procured the bronze serpent talisman and showed it off. The surprise ran up his spine, but he didn’t let it show. Dekker knew Ezekiel must have swiped it earlier, when he’d left the note, and delivered it to Jerusalem on his behalf; the time traveler set this whole encounter in motion. Yitzchak continued, “My family has desired this piece for many years, and your giving of it so freely is a marvel. The least I can do is grant you access to our city and help you procure whatever you might need.” Yitzchak winked, “I think our beliefs do closely align in so many areas. Tell me, Dekker son of Jude, is there some special errand that brings you to Jerusalem?”
Dekker mulled it over. He felt grateful to be here; admittance inside the wall was an experience to brag about. On the other hand, something inside him rose up—resentment for being played by Ezekiel; he felt like he’d been given no choice, but he knew exactly what Ezekiel would say to that. Dekker’s rebellious spirit wanted him to make a scene, but he knew that the time-traveler’s insight and recommendations would be sound. Plus, he felt it best not to meddle with fate.
“I thank you for your hospitality, Yitzchak ben Khan. You know some about me, for sure. You may or may not know that I lost one of my men several days ago and I came hoping that I could find an ally among your people. The one who delivered the bronze serpent recommended this to me.”
Yitzchak nodded solemnly. “You shall take my son,” he said. “He is our most talented security officer.” Turning to his son he stated, “Krav, prepare to leave with the Watchman as his schedule demands.”
“Yes, father,” Krav bowed to him. “I can be ready at your convenience,” he told the investigator.
“And Dekker,” Yitzchak said quite sincerely, “If you ever choose to resume the work of your father, you have a standing invitation to do so here in Jerusalem and with our support.”
Dekker nodded seriously; he hadn’t known what to expect with his request—but it hadn’t been this. An uncanny peace washed over him when he considered Yitzchak’s offer: he and Vesuvius continuing Jude Knight’s mission inside the Great City. “Yes. I think I would like that very much.”
Besides taking down Prognon Austicon, there was nothing else he wanted more. He intuitively knew that this city might hold the key to his future. If Austicon’s reign of terror ever ended, Dekker knew his life would continue to have purpose.
* * *
Guy stood over MacAllistair’s shoulder and watched the video feed. The footage suffered from scratchy pixilation, an attribute of hacked feeds. A watermark prominently covered a portion of the lower right hand corner of the screen and declared the hacking exploit belonged to an underground, anti-krenzin tech group.
A partitioned screen enabled viewers to see the frustrated newsroom as the MEA controllers tried regaining ownership of the pirated media-stream. The rolling footage and details displayed on largest media tile; text data scrolled over the recurring ghost ship footage, listing the fallout of this unknown menace which the MEA had tried to downplay. Amateur reports and footage of vacant colonies popped up on the portioned feeds. Even the MEA controllers could be seen to stop and watch when one tile showed an outbreak icon over the graphic representation of Earth.
The video played. Against the unmistakable backdrop of District Three landmarks, the former United American Emirates, a human population fell under attack from savage humanoids with elongated horns protruding from their foreheads.
“No,” MacAllistair spoke in hushed tones. “It’s somehow spread to Earth.”
“It’s worse,” Guy added. “It seems like most of the nearest space colonies have been wiped out, too.”
A stream from an automatic traffic monitor in District Three showed an old man trying to protect a small group of people with an old rifle—an illegal act with a restricted weapon. He waved the firearm at the attackers, but they rushed him undeterred. One assailant fell before they overwhelmed and ripped him apart before falling upon the defenseless family.
“This is outrageous,” Guy vented. “If these people had any kind of protection… I don’t think the words of politicians give them any comfort right now!”
MacAllistair flipped networks. Only one MEA network still operated; the dedicated propaganda station was a direct information route from the global politicians to the populace. The Pheema railing against the hacker’s subversion in a brief announcement; he condemned their actions and accused them of falsifying information and inciting hysteria with staged and doctored footage.
“Here’s the truth,” The Pheema claimed, “MEA scientists have confirmed that there is an outbreak of a mysterious disease. We don’t have all the details, but it is confined within District Three and we’ve quarantined that entire district.”
Guy toggled a command and set The Pheema’s broadcast directly parallel to the hacked feeds. The Pheema explained how a sat-based continental force-field would be established just as soon as the motion was fully approved by the council.
“We are working on a cure just as fast as we can,” the charismatic leader stated. Here are the facts: this infection is transmitted at close-range; it is airborne. The incubation period is short: a couple days at most. About twenty percent of the population is naturally immune, but a state of psychosis induced by the sickness compels the infected to attack and kill the immune group. We are taking this situation very seriously. District Three may be the poorest, and arguably, the most backwater of the nine districts, but the planet cannot turn her back on their own. As soon as the approval is ratified, that force-field will be erected; with airborne threats, we cannot risk transmission of the infection into other districts, whether it is transmitted from spores, pathogens, contaminants, or whatever else. But we must first discuss all the potential ramifications of our actions in committee.”
“Did you see that?” Guy exclaimed.
MacAllistair looked at him curiously.
“The Pheema is behind it all. He knows! When he said ‘spores,’ his nose twitched! I’ve been studying him—he has a tell: a nostril flare right there!” Guy pointed at the image.
A communication crackled over the intercom. “Why is there an army assembling in my cargo bay?” Dekker asked.
Guy’s eyes brightened and he grabbed the communicator. “Why do you always assume it’s me behind these things?”
“Have I ever been wrong?”
“No, but have you been watching the news feeds?”
“The whole way back from Jerusalem.”
“Did they actually let you in?”
“Yes. Now get down to that bay and find out how many pilots we have. I’ll have Nibbs coordinate with Darkside Station and our other resources to find out how many freighters and cargo ships we’ve got access to. Move on this right now—as soon as that force-field goes up all those people in District Three are all doomed.”
The hacked network crackled and shifted to a feed labeled live. A class E MEA military cruiser fell under attack by three smaller MEA frigates for some unknown reason. The bow of the military ship ripped open. As the vessel began tilting starboard, their shields flashed under heavy laser fire, flickered, and failed. A barrage of capital missile fire tore into the cruiser’s side until she erupted in a ball of fire. The inferno quickly winked out as vacuum silenced the momentary flames.
“I’m on it.” Guy jumped into action. “Something very bad is going to happen,” he predicted.
* * *
“This is an evacuation mission,” Dekker spoke through a headset to the other ten ships he’d been able to scrape together at a moment’s notice. “You were all riled up enough by the MEA’s phony propaganda to volunteer in the Salvation’s cargo hold, so I trust you all want to do something to rescue as many from this plague as possible.” A large percentage of his live-aboards were former residents of District Three.
“So here’s the deal, my team has actually encountered this plague before. It’s an airborne spore that kills its host. Do not feel remorse if you need to pull the trigger on an infected victim. The ill aren’t contagious until the horn breaks through the skull. If their cranial protrusion is short, they are only recently converted—almost a mindless zombie; the longer and more deformed the horn is the older and more devious they become. The antler is velveted with spores, so keep them at a distance and keep your airmask on under all circumstances and don’t remove it until you’ve been cleared after we’ve returned to the Salvation. If you become infected, you will be eliminated as humanely as possible. Don’t take any chances with personal safety.
“Start your descents now and hold at your position until your entire group is ready for liftoff. There’s strength in numbers. Be careful. Save as many as you can, but be smart. Do Not allow anyone you fear as infected to board!”
* * *
Nibbs watched the screens from the command deck. He was sure he could be of help, but his recent injuries still hadn’t fully healed, forcing Dekker to leave him in charge of logistics. He grimaced slightly and transmitted the updated coordinates to each ship as they descended through the atmosphere. He grimaced; Nibbs didn’t like Dekker’s decision. MacAllistair was more than capable of this job; Nibbs felt he was more useful on the ground. Besides, SHIP was capable of automatically overseeing anything that Nibbs might be asked to do.
A barrage of incoming messages from various MEA administrative offices blasted his screens, demanding clearance codes for orbital entry, condemning the investigator’s actions, or both. Salvation had completely broken with standard protocols. Nibbs replied to all with the canned answers they’d prepared depending on each office or complaint. After all, the quarantine hadn’t yet been made official.
Spinning in his chair, Nibbs set SHIP to analyze and automate the responses. His perspective shifted as he turned the seat back to the framed skin and Prognon Austicon’s tattoo. The red tree caught his eye as he moved. Everything suddenly fell into place in Nibbs’ mind like some mental key had turned. It’s all about perspective and point of view!
Dashing to the table and his collection of information, Nibbs frantically shuffled papers, toppling the sugar dispenser he’d raided earlier. He found the star chart he was looking for and brushed the sugar onto the floor where a maintenance drone would eventually sweep it up.
Grabbing the tattoo from the wall, he pulled up another, interactive chart on the Salvation’s navigation console and dialed in a set of coordinates. Nibbs spun the angle on its reverse axis, around Osix instead of on Earth—flipping the default for star-charts. He angled it, then a little more, and began marking waypoints on the screen—each point marked a red star in the general vicinity of the area. He toggled the options and painted each marker with an extra-bright red beacon.
Holding up Austicon’s skin next to the screen, Nibb’s jaw dropped. Each red mark matched perfectly. There on the screen was the Red Tree. It was a constellation after all, just not one that could be viewed from Earth.
He glanced over at the status monitors. Everything operated according to plan; Dekker could handle anything that came up—Nibbs filled a useless and redundant role, here. He could afford to slip away and verify his suspicion, he told himself.
Nibbs wanted to be certain before he went out on a limb and wasted resources or vital manpower… he knew that rationalized his decision at a nearly subconscious level, but he didn’t care. Besides, the Alpha Centauri system was close enough that he might even get back before anyone even knew he’d left. Nibbs gave into the impulse, jotted down his coordinates, and stood to depart.
He’d already committed himself and he pushed any second thoughts from his mind as he entered the hangar bay. The only ship left was the psy-nar scout ship that Doc Johnson had fixed up. It had been too small for the mission on Earth and so it had been left behind.
Tossing his supply pack into the cockpit, Nibbs strapped in and piloted the craft away from the Salvation. “I just want to verify my hunch, first,” he said aloud, hoping that vocalizing the thought might absolve his conscience. “I’m just going to take a quick peek. What can go wrong?”
* * *
Dekker’s three ships descended towards an area that scanners indicated as particularly hostile. Inbound scans indicated that most of the continent was heavily overrun by the infected. Survivors created ramshackle walled cities and pooled their defenses. The plagued continued to hammer against the walls, trying to beat their way through. The Dozen’s target proved a perfect landing site—it maintained a surviving population and a heavy amount of camera coverage from the hacked source feeds. An enormous army of the infected had just toppled barriers and moved towards the main population camp.
Ships under Dekker’s command swooped in and landed upon the crumbling, decrepit market streets of Old New Yarwk. The city long ago relented to the decay of time and abuse subjected upon any metropolis that fell under political disfavor.
A perimeter of derelict vehicles created walls that barred roads. Inside the cloisters, the survivors—men, women, and children—fled towards the ships. Their faces were shielded by helmets, masks, wetted cloth strips, and anything else that might help prevent infection. As the hacked news channels broadcast their arrival, the dozen exited the Rickshaw Crusader with weapons brandished; Matty stayed in the cockpit with the doors locked. They came to rescue as many as they could, but had to stay smart about it.
In the distance, a defensive wall crashed over as the zombies broke through. The Investigators ran down into the chaos; the people formed two groups as if they’d been waiting for an evacuation such as this from a government which had abandoned them.
Dekker pointed towards the noise. Vesuvius nodded and adjusted the fit of her airmask; she led the army of investigators and volunteer militiamen towards the invaders. Seconds later, gunshots erupted; they repeatedly and constantly punctuating the silence.
Surveying the scene, Dekker found a group wearing red bandannas. Another group had uncovered heads. Both groups began shearing their hair and disrobed. The whole population trembled with fear, but they maintained their general composure as if they’d drilled for this.
A naturally bald, middle aged man waved to Dekker as he waved. “I’m Jeffries,” he called out, finally catching up to Dekker. He obviously led the camp. “We hoped someone would come.”
“What’ve you got, here?” Dekker asked, slightly raising his voice over the sounds of the battle.
“We’d prepared just in case a rescue ship came in. We can’t decontaminate,” Jeffries said, stripping off his clothes, “but we can try to limit carrying any spores on our persons. We know that space will be limited, so we’ve pre-triaged. Those with red scarves have tested as immune to the plague; the infected can somehow sense it and they’ll kill them first and try to infect the rest.”
“Get as many on board as you can,” Dekker instructed. “I don’t care how you choose. Draw lots, or whatever—it’s not on me. Just make sure there is enough space for all of my men to get back aboard. Cram in close, however you can fit em; we should be able to get over a thousand out between my three ships.”
Jeffries nodded. Against all hope, they’d prepared for this and all of their prayers had come to fruition.
“In case we can’t get you all out, we can buy you all more time; however you plan to split those people will depend on your faith in the MEA’s ability to handle your situation. Send over a few guys who can operate those loaders to repair that wall section. We can at least cover you while you make those repairs.” Dekker took off in the direction of the skirmish.
Arriving on the battlefront, he found it exactly as he’d predicted. Bodies of the dead were strewn about, broken and discarded at odd angles. The mindless and diseased took heavy loses against the organized forces from the Salvation. Dekker kicked over a body; the forehead protrusion was sharp and short—a recently infected young man. The mounting horde of the dead seemed to have been newly turned.
His militia took points atop the wall; they mowed down a sudden onslaught of infected. The sea of blank-eyed zombies stretched out several thousand strong. Dekker took a position next to his red-haired comrade; his ears picked up the low rumble of heavy machinery.
“We’re going to run out of ammunition before we run out of targets,” Vesuvius commented. Taking aim, she snapped off a round.
“I’m working on that,” Dekker mentioned. “We’re just buying them time at the moment.”
“Yeah,” Vesuvius blew the hair from her vision, aimed and fired again, “but we might not have much of that ourselves if they clamp down that containment field. We can’t risk blowing up the sat-network to get ourselves out if it’s the only thing keeping the spores contained.”
Dekker sighed. “I know, I know.”
* * *
The jump engines cut out and dumped the class A scout into real-space within the Alpha Centauri system. It had been a short trip; the system, the closest to Earth’s sun, didn’t have much to offer. It was easily overlooked and the Red Tree had been hiding in plain sight all along.
Nibbs activated the cloaking device and scanned his instruments. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He spotted the Osix moon and the vacant Krenzin research station; the red dwarf Proxima sputtered and flared, washing the nearby planets and moons in a crimson hue.
He keyed in on the dim, flaring star. Glancing again at the coordinates, he piloted the craft towards a planet nearest Proxima, very near Osix. With silent scanners active, he orbited the planet Rico.
This is odd, he thought, comparing scanner data to his navigation screens. The nav was blocked by a number of failsafe messages; they popped up and required overrides to clear. Each gave a different warning against entering Rico’s space: electromagnetic flux, unknown and poisonous atmosphere, private ownership, and several others, each time-stamped over the last two centuries. That’s just too many warnings to be realistic; someone’s been scaring people away from Rico for decades.
Scanners detected four crafts on the surface below as they analyzed the atmosphere. The air was composed of nitromeones, a stable substance that most humanoids could breathe as if it was air, albeit with mild discomfort. Nibbs vectored through the atmosphere gently enough that he shouldn’t be noticed; the conspiracy centered on Rico, he felt it in his bones, and his curiosity demanded that Nibbs solve this puzzle.
Just a little more data. Once I get a little hard proof—then I’ll head back.
* * *
“Shoot them!” Vesuvius screamed, taking careful aim. The militia complemented the large numbers that the Dozen lacked, but they were not great marksmen.
Amid the multitude of infected that pressed towards the wall, a group of more mature, reasoning assailants had broken from the pack. They grabbed some younger zombies and held their struggling peers overhead, using them as shields to block the blaster fire that rained down upon them. Disruptor bolts and laser beams blasted chunks of flesh from the buffers; their holders took minor wounds, but kept pushing forward.
“Get underneath them,” Dekker shouted, picking them off with calculated precision. At the rate they were able to find shots, the matured, diseased ones would break their line in a matter of seconds. As they focused on the inbound threat, the wave crushed forward again, en masse.
Dekker glanced back at the camp they defended. The people hadn’t finished boarding yet. They needed a few more minutes. The magnetic loader would arrive in seconds to repair the wall, but they didn’t have even that. He took a couple more shots and then shifted his shoulders so he could unsling the Reliquary. Mentally, he calculated the number of shells he had remaining versus the necessity of its immediate use.
Sparing one more glance to the other section of the wall, Dekker spotted Guy and Krav assembling a device atop a recreational vehicle at the wall’s base. They talked excitedly and Guy grinned ear to ear. They quickly wrapped the throttle control with tape and kicked it into gear.
The machine crashed forward, plowing through the surging ranks of mindless and infected berserkers before it finally exploded in an oily, black blast. The detonation flung shrapnel and flames; it hurled burning bodies skyward. On the ground, Guy and Krav shot down those who managed to evade the blast and then stepped back inside the wall as the heavy loader arrived and restacked old, steel debris and replace the broken wall section.
Resuming fire, the militia beat the wave back again. Dekker checked his weapon’s charge as the loader set the final pieces back atop the wall. They wouldn’t have survived much longer, otherwise. He checked his timepiece; they’d spent more much more time on the ground than he’d wanted. Dekker signaled a retreat to the ships, praying that they could still escape.
* * *
Nibbs skulked through the forest on Rico nearest the grove where he’d landed the cloaked scout ship; the flora was unlike anything he’d seen before: tall trees of thick, striated bark and heavy, velvety leaves. The leaves, colored eggplant black, appeared symmetrical, identical from tree to tree. Within minutes he’d come to the enormous clearing he’d spotted on his approach.
Very near the glade’s edge, several ships had been landed. Three of the ships were only small class-A escorts but the larger, fourth ship mostly resembled a diplomatic craft, the sort used to shuttle dignitaries; the docking ramp remained open, although Nibbs couldn’t see anything within.
Setting up his surveillance equipment, Nibbs scanned the area. At the center of the glade towered a circle of five vibrantly green trees and one dead tree one, pocked by age and mossy patches. Nearest the withered one was another tree, slightly taller than the others and crowned with bloodshot, ruddy leaves.
He put an earpiece in and activated the audio. A familiar voice filled the audio transmission. “I personally condemn the action of these interlopers and want to remind all civilized people hearing my words that this company of brigands is transporting medically dangerous cargo. The group, led by the investigator crew known as Dekker’s Dozen, have broken quarantine. Although the containment field has not yet been erected, MEA citizens are urged to disavow their actions and refuse any contact, for their own safety.”
The speech seemed to shift in tone. It became less formal, more personal, as if the broadcast must have stopped recording. His voice spewed a string of expletives as it vented. “It doesn’t matter anyway. There’s no stopping it now. Maybe those mercenaries will save us all the trouble and inhale the apothecium spores.”
Footsteps echoed on the ramp. The Pheema descended the incline, continuing to vent his frustration to the elderly women at each side. He spoke as he walked towards the circle, carrying an axe. “Sure, a force-field will stymie the spread of the apothecium, but the cure will never become a reality. We may have lost District Three, but Earth still has enough susceptible persons to free the arbolen race, despite Austicon’s treachery. The arbolean consciousness will expand to new levels; soon the rest of the arboleans, not just the Council, will walk just as free as Austicon—untethered by soil.”
Nibbs didn’t know the women’s names. He did recognize them, though, from photos in Satyr’s files. The informant had suggested they might be members of the Verdant Seven.
The Pheema and his accomplices entered the circle. The two women each went to a tree and laid a hand on its trunk. “My apologies for that interruption. An unexpected situation arose on Earth and I had to make an address; it is not necessarily related to the reasons for my visit. I had to come to you directly with my concern because I cannot trust the normal channels. I fear corruption from the Left Hand.”
One of the women nodded with eyes closed as if she communed with her tree. “Proceed.”
“Long have I suspected that the Left Hand has worked against you, Council of Seven. All your plans are coming to fruition after these millennia, but I have many reasons to believe that Austicon plots an eventual betrayal. Particularly, his Mechnar forces have mobilized and we don’t know the exact reason. He hasn’t been forthcoming. The timing is suspect as is the release of apothecium spores on Earth: a direct violation of your orders. The damage done to the nervous system of the infected hosts renders them incompatible with Mechnar attachments, thus, I suspect he wants to collect these humans for his own ends.”
“We, too, share these concerns,” an elderly, female avatar stated. “He’s taken excessive liberties recently, and the continued rebellion of our brother makes us wary.” She narrowed her eyes at the barren tree.
Nodding at the skeletal member of the circle, The Pheema asked, “Will she communicate with Austicon and force him to fall in line?”
Both women sent chastising glares to the desiccated tree. “The obstinate rebel has remained silent these thousands of years.” They gave a nod to the krenzin diplomat.
The Pheema hefted his axe and swung it. The sharpened head lodged into the base of the barren tree; its branches shuddered with the impact. “You had better communicate with your avatar,” the krenzin spat. “If he doesn’t fall in line, so help me, I’ll chop you down myself!”
Spitting upon the tree he continued, “Luckily, the Left Hand is not aware that the spores growing within the Child of Destruction can supplant the standard apothecium drones. My scientists have proven the mutation as a viable process. Austicon only helps the cause—though his actions prove him too much of a threat to remain loose! With the acquisition of DNIET, Ragnarock cannot be stopped—not even if Austicon overtly rebels.”
Nibbs heard enough. He readied himself to leave when a heavy hand clamped upon his shoulders like a vice and startled him. Nibbs whirled around, but could not break free as a trio of emaciated humanoids seized him. Their eyes were blank and lifeless, but their muscles were corded like steel cables. Split, dual prongs like wooden ram horns curled upwards from their owners’ foreheads; they appeared several hundreds of years old, perhaps kept alive by same Arbolean forces that controlled them.
Silently, Nibbs struggled vainly against the trio until it proved no use. They dragged him down to the Verdant Seven’s circle where The Pheema tapped his foot impatiently.
“It seems we have a spy,” The Pheema stated. “I don’t think I want you taking this information back to your friends. Tell me, investigator, how would you feel about becoming a living incubator for the new race that shall arise from of the destruction of humanity?”
Nibbs spat in his tufted face.
“As I thought.” He wiped the spittle from his cheek. “But your insolence cannot stop Ragnarok’s Earth-fall; the germination is almost complete.” He brandished a sharp, talon-like seed in front of Nibbs. The Pheema grinned and turned the half-meter wooden hook over in his hands and then plunged it into his victim’s midsection. Nibbs screamed until his lungs emptied, and then fell limp and silent.
* * *
Dekker burst into the empty command center. “SHIP, where is Nibbs?”
“Is Nibbs on this vessel?” he rephrased.
SHIP had been stalling the hails and requests from the ships which had arrived in Earth’s orbit over the last hour. They’d been hailing the Salvation while the Dozen had still been returning from the planet-side evacuation. SHIP put them in a holding pattern, but with no direct orders, he’d placed them in queue until Dekker returned.
“This is Dekker Knight,” he broadcast on open frequencies and to all parties. Vesuvius and the rest of the Dozen began trickling into the command deck. As essential crew, they were the first be screened and let through the quarantine zone. Dekker waved them over to different command stations.
Ship captains from MEA constabulary forces argued openly on the open channel. They debated the next course of action and none had consulted their political superiors: circumstances had transcended any situation where diplomats’ opinions made any difference—the navy verged on revolt and the chain of command had been put into question. The other ships demanded answers of the Salvation. “Where do you stand, Captain Dekker? Do you support these murders?”
Dekker could barely unravel the conversation he’d walked into. “In what course of action? Support who to do what?” he asked for clarification.
“If we had any weapons systems aboard our vessel we’d have already done it!” the captain of the converted war-galleon, Pugilist, interrupted. Dekker checked the transponder logs, Pugilist had recently arrived from one of the destroyed settlements at the Outer Rim. “You haven’t seen what this disease does! Our entire planet was decimated!”
“And this is exactly why there are so few ships with heavy weapons capacity,” the captain of the Gallant stated. “They are demanding the destruction of District Three,” he told Dekker.
“How can we justify the deaths of all those people?” Dekker defended, hoping a different plan would present itself. Planetary bombardment would certainly do the job—but so many people were still alive below.
“Justify them like you did at Osix?” Dekker couldn’t identify the source of the comment over the argument that wouldn’t show signs of easing.
“What is the status of the containment field?” Dekker queried.
“Unlikley,” the captain of the Stalwart said flatly. “The MEA is impotent. Something must be done to protect the other districts.”
“The MEA promised a cure!” a squelchy reply reminded. Nobody gave the claim enough credibility.
“And can you live with ordering all those deaths?” the Gallant asked the Stalwart.
“Something must be done to protect the rest of life, even it means making the hard decisions. But I’m not ready yet, no, the captain admitted.”
“What options remain?” Dekker asked.
“There are none!” the Pugilist’s captain bellowed. “Who’s with me?”
“I’ll do it,” replied the Hammer as the class D moved into position, exposing a gunnery flank to the run parallel with the planetary surface.
“I’m with you,” replied the captains of the Maccabee and the Bastion.
Gallant’s captain screamed a warning into his communicator, “If you fire you’ll be declaring war upon the citizens of Earth. Screw the Mother Earth Aggregate—Earth is my home! I’m past requesting weapons permissions or clearances. If you fire, I’ll pull the trigger on you myself.”
The three rogue ships continued moving into position. They didn’t break silence while the Gallant moved to intercept; Gallant would never get close enough to block the capital ships’ fire.
“Their weapons systems are charged to max potential,” Shaw informed Dekker from his station. Dekker bit his lip tightly. The tension demanded action, but either choice was damnable.
Gallant’s captain issued one final warning. “Captains, do not do this!” A moment of silence, then the ultimatum. “All weaponized ships, if these rebels open fire, you are directed to fire upon them immediately or I will consider you as complicit in their treason! I assure you of your destruction as well!”
Five seconds stretched out, each more tense than the previous. The radio silence added to the anxiety—the rebels refused communication. The tension suddenly broke as the Hammer, Maccabee, and Bastion began raining destruction down upon the surface.
The entire scene erupted in chaos as the MEA ships began firing upon each other. Shields flashed and an electric crackle buzzed through the void. Supporters of the three rebels moved into position to shield them from the heavy guns of the MEA capital ships while returning fire with their smaller defensive guns. The primary rebels focused entirely upon the surface, directing all energy there, even as their hulls shook and buckled. Chunks of metal skin boiled and tore free as atmosphere violently vented.
Panicked voices flooded the communications waves. The Gallant’s captain screamed threats over the comm and led the charge, gaining enough angle to flank the rebels. Bringing the full force under his command to bear, his guns tore through hull and carling, eviscerating each vessel in turn as they refused to give their shields more energy—instead focusing on their task, bombarding the planet with supercharged death and martyring themselves in the process.
The last ship broke apart and stopped firing. It’s halves fell to the forces of gravity and each twisted as they fell, flickering and burning as the oxygen spewed into the nothingness. “Stand down! Stand down!” the Gallant’s captain yelled as his peers fired on the rebels’ supporters. “There is no need for more destruction!”
Dekker stood on his command deck and merely observed. His voice eluded him; he could only watch. Scanners pushed through the blackened atmosphere below. The entire continent was gone, completely slagged. Oceanic waters rushed in to fill the broken hole in the planet; seawater evaporated into cloud as they splashed against the superheated rock and billowed into the burned sky.
The growing silence became increasingly uncomfortable; the navy sent Salvation query after query. “Orders?” Shaw asked.
Dekker sighed. “No orders.” He keyed in a sequence on his console and activated the Doc Johnson’s cloaking device.
The Salvation shimmered slightly and the lights flickered once. Then, the massive warship disappeared.
* * *
“What!” The Pheema flew into a rage as he reviewed the report just hours after returning to his office in New Babylon. “They destroyed an entire continent!” His security team swept the room quickly before his top security aid gave him the details of the report.
The sallow, skinny man spoke with a slight lisp. “While scanning for those frequencies that you gave us, we discovered a hidden communication to the three rebel ships. Origin is unknown, but it was definitely of Mechnar design; one needed to be specifically looking for it in order to detect it.”
“So those ships weren’t really ours,” The Pheema hissed. “Perhaps the withered sister speaks to her child after all?” he asked the two elderly women who accompanied him.
The Pheema paced the length of his office. “Analyze our data,” he barked. “I want definitive proof before I act. I believe this is the last piece of evidence that the Right hand no longer knows what the Left Hand is doing. The Council will be satisfied with this, I assume? Will I finally be allowed to put him down?”
The two ladies nodded their heads silently. The Pheema grinned—at his order. It came none too soon; Austicon would finally die.