Dekker's Dozen: The Last Watchmen

DNIET Disaster

Dekker’s Dozen #009

The comm crackled. Static broke into Dekker’s solitude.

Salvation hung in complete blackness within the shadow of Earth’s moon. Beyond, a steady influx of MEA ships had brought a decent force to muster near the planet—all defensible ships had been called home, it seemed. The lunar umbra provided a good vantage point for whatever might happen next.

Inside the command room, Dekker brooded in deep thought. He’d sat still long enough that the automatically lighting had switched off due to inactivity. The comm crackled again.

“This is Captain Johns of the Gallant. I’m trying to contact Dekker; I hope you’re still in this system, somewhere. Please contact me.” A long pause followed; this hadn’t been Johns’ first appeal. “I have disturbing information—something you will want to hear. I believe the three rebel ships that destroyed District Three were… under coercion.”

Dekker turned his head and looked at the communication console; the lights shimmered on. He squinted as the illumination bit his eyes.

So many factors had interwoven through this mystery that the mental fatigue had begun eating away at his fortitude. He needed more minds working on it, and Nibbs had suddenly vanished: possibly an indication of yet another problem linked to the Red Tree.

DNIET Disaster

Nibbs’ vision cleared to a mild haze. The fever ravaging his body would not relent; but more menacing was a foreign voice that whispered inside his mind. It contended with his will for control of their body.

The investigator’s dry, cracked lips threatened to split again as he croaked a guttural scream. His blurred vision gazed downward and Nibbs saw his chest. A network of veins like root tendrils bulged darkly; they wormed their pattern just beneath his skin. The wound on his abdomen looked vicious. Its ragged edges had blackened and Nibbs wondered how long he’d been unconscious.

The persistent, usurping voice was more than some hallucination caused by the infection in his body. Nibbs struggled to stand, but something anchored his feet and arms. He glanced back; the elder zombies who had captured him stood as statues, moored to the center of the Verdant Seven’s circle.

Relaxing, Nibbs nearly collapsed. His vision split, doubled, and then reformed momentarily, fixed on the horrible item before him. Lying before the trunk of the red-leaved arbolean leader was the DNIET weapon the investigators had encountered at the research facility.

In the dawning terror of that, Nibbs found enough strength to stave off the next mental barrage. He had to stay strong; he had to escape and warn the Dozen!

Through the symbiont’s connection, Nibbs could understand the Arbolean communication. As a maddening migraine gripped his head, he saw one of the elder apothecium drones retrieve the DNIET unit. Nibbs could hear the resonant voice in his mind, like a menacing breath. Install this within the Child of Destruction and call down Ragnarock; summon the Valkyries, they will rip through our enemies’ ships like submerged reef on choppy sea.

* * *

“An informant sent us this wealth of information,” Rita told her supervisor. As a broadcast personality, she had very little power in the stories that ran. Truthfully, she’d had very little interest in them up until now. The job had been a paycheck; her pretty face and charisma had been the doorway to a comfortable life. Life had just gotten much more interesting, however, and the entire galaxy seemed to erupt in chaos overnight. Curiosity had suddenly gotten the better of her, that is, as long as she could report the chaos from the security of their New Babylon broadcast center.

Russ flipped through the photos and information. “You’re sure it’s not from those same hacktivists responsible for the recent piratical takeover? There could be legal problems if we use this stuff and it turns out they’re the source.”

“Come on, Russ. They went offline when those orbital ships burned through the entire continent. Those hackers were obviously based out of District Three when it all went down. They’ve got to be all dead.”

Russ tapped his fingers against the file. “Alright. If the other networks are all at the edge, we might as well step over the line first. It’s been a long time since anyone’s done any actual real reporting. Run with it, but hang back on anything that makes The Pheema look bad. Jerusalem may or may not be involved in the things like your snitch claims, but everyone needs a scapegoat, so let’s leave that door open.”

* * *

The Pheema, head Krenzin religious leader and Chief Magnate of the MEA, stood in a meeting of the only persons on the planet who wielded more power than he. For nearly an hour, now, this inquiry had raged and he had every intention of stripping his enemy of all power—even ripping out the arbolean seed that empowered him, and the alien felt certain the Verdant Seven would support him.

Holding a fistful of data from the destruction of District Three, he pointed a talon at Prognon Austicon. “This was all your doing! I know it, and this time I have proof!” he accused the Left Hand.

Austicon stood opposed to his counterpart and shrugged placidly. He feigned ignorance. “I don’t know what he’s talking about, do you?” He turned to his silent psy-nar general, Leviathan, and sent him a mental command that only the psychic would receive.

The black-clad Leviathan stood statuesque, scanning the faces and minds of The Pheema’s aides. They included a handful of security guards and a collection of elderly women—avatars of the Arbolean council and descendants of the ancient Dodona cultists. Leviathan shook his head.

“I thought not.” Austicon’s ruse fell apart when he grinned wickedly. “Then again, maybe I do know what you mean.” The Left Hand stepped in and grasped the Right by his wrist.

Leviathan sprang into action, his blade danced through the air. Shots from the security team flew wide as the psy-nar assassin ducked, rolled, severed, and stabbed. Within two seconds only the wide eyed Krenzin official still stood, towering over the bodies of guards, aides, and elderly women.

The Pheema grimaced as Prognon Austicon’s tight grip manacled the Chief Magnate’s wrists behind his lithe frame. He winced against from the assassin’s hot breath. “What do you plan to accomplish here? You can’t go against the entire Arbolean council!”

“Oh, but I can!” Austicon drew a wicked, twisted knife in his free hand. “You see, it is my time now. Forget the Verdant Seven, they are a joke, a council of impotence—cultists communing with six ambitious pieces of kindling. Upon those trees I will build the funeral pyre of all mankind!”

“You’re mad, Austicon! This plan has been in the works for millennia!”

“And you’re too shortsighted! As are the arboleans and all other mortal things! You cannot see how I transcend these all. I am a god incarnate, a vengeful deity of death and destruction, imprisoned for centuries and released so those ambitious fools could attach themselves to me! I am the god of wrath! And now, thanks to the barren dissenter, I will impose my will! I become Baal Dione, the true architect of this whole ruse!”

“But the plan! It’s perfect!” The Pheema stammered. “We will enslave the humans and bend them to our own will! The arboleans will transcend!”

Austicon glared at him. “And your drones will become the next step to evolve the arbolean race? You’ll give them the freedom to uproot—to provide every arbolean beyond the council with sentience and tethered mobility? And what about that percentage of immune humanity? There will always be a resistance!”

The Pheema bartered as if his life depended on it. It did. “Those are the ones reserved for mechnar units!”

“A pool which will never be large enough! You know that mechnar hybrid implants don’t work on the apothecium infected population.” Austicon plunged the blade between the two bones of his enemy’s collar.

Shrieking, The Pheema shuddered with pain. “There isn’t enough room for two predators in this food chain!”

“Indeed,” Austicon spat. He yanked down hard on the knife handle, breaking The Pheema’s collarbone. “That is why I’m going to kill the Verdant Seven! You think this war is over the bodies of men, who gets to use them for husks or shells for implantation. You misunderstand. You always have. This is not a war over the bodies of humanity, but for their souls!”

The Pheema whimpered with pain. “You’re insane. You’ve lost it!”

“No!” Austicon’s eyes challenged, more maniacal than ever before. “I’ve lived since before the dawn of time! The hearts of men are capable of anything; they are imprinted with the blueprints of the great divine machine within their very genetic material! You could never cage such a thing; they would throw you off and usurp you—adapt into some new form! And always there is the other threat from within their midst!”

“What other threat?” tears of pain crawled down the Pheema’s furry face. “Let us face it together!” He assumed the desperate posture of a person making promises he could never keep. “The arboleans can help you! Ragnarock is a powerful weapon unlike any other!”

“I already have my super-weapon, I also have a DNIET!”

The Pheema’s face went even paler.

Austicon laughed as he recognized the surprise. “You did not know that there were two, did you? Only this weapon can deal a heavy enough blow to humanity to wound my enemy, the other threat.”

What threat!

“I am the god of vengeance—I seek to kill the God of mercy, the very one who spawned creation, the one whose machinations power the universe itself and whose fate is tied these humans! One can destroy the bodies of men, but their souls will endure unless I wipe out the entire population—kill them all and silence the ones who carry knowledge of the ineffable names!”

“And your mechnar units?” he gambled desperately. “With no humanity, you will limit your army.”

“You should worry about you.” Austicon ripped the blade out, and then stabbed him again. Again. Again. Over and again. The Pheema’s shrieks soon died as the Chief Magnate collapsed in a pool of his thin, Krenzin blood.

Austicon stood over the dead and cackled with a low, guttural and otherworldly laugh. Leviathan stepped over the bodies and silently lorded over the kill.

“My friend,” Austicon stated, speaking to the spirit deep within the psy-nar unit, “You have been with me since the fall of our ethereal race, taking new forms through the years, but now, we finally reach the end of days! Let us activate the DNIET weapon and destroy this system before we savagely deflower the red tree.

Smiling, Prognon Austicon took The Pheema’s limp hand in his own. Dipping a forefinger in blood, he drew an archaic Star of David symbol upon the stone floor. He laid the dead hand next to the mark.

As the two assassins departed, an elderly woman dragged herself across the chamber floor, leaving a trail of her own blood in her wake. Her breaths came in ragged gasps as her wounds spurted.

She pulled herself up to the window. Trembling, grasping a thin, yew wand she divined for the proper wind. Dropping a handful of beech leaves into the current, she poured all her thoughts, emotions, and energy into the act. Her masters, the arboleans, had to know of Austicon’s plans.

She collapsed, quite sure that her message had been sent. With a shudder and a final groan, her eyes rolled back in her skull and she bled her last.

* * *

Dekker respectfully stood as Captain Johns entered the conference room they’d borrowed on Darkside Station. Doc Johnson and Fryberger stood at the edge of the room, observing the parley and fidgeting nervously.

An older man, Johns’ hair was shot through with gray and his years of service had cragged his face with jagged lines. After a few brief formalities, Johns leveled with him. “There’s not much left of the MEA military after these last few decades of vulture-picking by the politicians. We’re bringing most everything back home for the time being. And this comes directly in contradiction to our orders. As far as the actual navy goes, I’m the one giving commands, now.”

“And what about the outposts, settlements, and trade routes the navy is supposed to protect?”

“Protect from what? The only real threats are here at Earth. The only thing we do out there is delegate; even if some kind of military threat did surface, most warships are equipped at only forty percent of their weapons capacity or less after the legislators started meddling. Most of the colonies have already been stripped clean and search efforts prove futile. The populations have either disappeared or lay dead in the streets. I ordered the same thing you did: our men picked up whatever survivors we could find and guarantee were safe, and cut our losses.”

“The MEA will cut you off for that,” Dekker replied coldly. “Even with the fleet’s reduced numbers you can’t feed and supply your numbers without those apron strings; luckily for us, the Salvation is supplied by a number of private benefactors; a few patrons in Mesopotamia City at least keep my ship fueled and fed. But I don’t disagree with you—you’re desperately needed here in the system. Things are imploding all around; something big is in the works—bigger than the mechnar and the ISW, this is not a series of coincidence.”

“Exactly,” Johns agreed. “Something larger is at work here. I know there are risks, but the dangers only increase if we redeploy back to our ordered posts. Can you feel it in your bones, Dekker? There’s a war brewing on the edge of deep space. Those three defectors, yesterday, were compelled. I’m not even saying it was necessarily the wrong choice, given the details, but we found irregularities in their transmission and I didn’t have time to explain on an open comm. I knew each captain personally so it made me look for reasons to justify their actions which were out of character for them—or at least their silence while doing it was.”

Johns looked Dekker in the eye, “Here are the facts. I am in favor of rearmament—I always have been and that’s one of the reasons that my assigned post has been so remote. It’s also a reason why I’m not a friend of the Krenzin. We are overrun with policy and regulation; we can’t operate like this. I also recognize that you have the most powerful ship known to our books.”

“And just what is it that you want with the Salvation? A Shakespearean coup? ‘First thing we do is kill all the lawyers?'”

“Something is happening, something big. All I ask is that you keep her around nearby. I think the human race might just depend on it.”

Doc and Fryberger whispered intensely. Something had piqued their interest.

Dekker grimaced for a second. He suppressed the irony of his time-traveling friend’s insistent prophecy that Dekker would be responsible for humanity’s destruction. “We can do that. We’re just starting to sort through yesterday’s debacle and integrate those we rescued from District Three.”

Doc interrupted. “I don’t know exactly what kind of salvage I’ve got for compatible weaponry systems in my warehouses, but I’ve got a whole graveyard of old warheads, torpedoes, and projectile weaponry buried under all that gray dust. That might help some of your armament issues.”

Johns’s face softened with but gratitude. He gave the administrator a half bow.

“I’m a big fan of preserving the human race,” Doc added. Fryberger nodded in agreement. “And we’re taking a huge risk here; this could sever our funding too. Fry says we’ve got no loophole to get us out of this one. I guess we’re casting our lot here: putting all our stock in your claims of intergalactic Armageddon and what not.”

A short emergency tone emitted from the tiny device clipped to Johns’s hip. He held up a finger to ask forgiveness while he answered the page. “This is Captain Johns. What’s the emergency, Gallant?”

“Captain,” the voice chirped. “We just received a priority message. The Pheema has been assassinated in New Babylon!”

A sharp moment of silence punctuated the air—one could almost hear the gears churning out details of a new plan in Johns’s mind. He looked at his accomplices, “Please excuse me. I assume I have the support of you both, but I have to leave immediately. I’m making a play for the seat of Chief Magnate.”

As Johns departed, he called over his shoulder, “Get those warheads prepped, Doc. I’ll send over some crews—I hope you’ve got room for more funding as soon as my military assumes control over the MEA. And we will assume control—one way or another.”

* * *

Vesuvius and Guy slouched in their seats. The rest of their team had been assigned to other tasks—for some of those, that task was physical rest. They’d assigned mandatory shifts to ensure they stayed healthy. She looked over at Dekker. “When’s the last time you slept?” she asked. “You look terrible.”

Dekker turned slowly to face her. “It’s been awhile. We’re up next though; two more hours and we’ll get some sleep, too.”

“Yeah. Lay off, Vees,” Guy joked. “He has always looked terrible. You’re just finally noticing.”

Dekker grinned and rubbed his chin, yawning. His hand chaffed against the bristly stubble that had formed. When was the last time he shaved? Time could be an elusive concept in deep space. “I’ll go grab a pot of black caff. I think we’ve got a hot one in the command room.”

In his sleep deprived stagger, Dekker found his way to the heated carafe. A video feed flickered nearby where Doctor MacAllistair sat. The Doctor had set up a mattress nearby; he appeared to be camping out.

“Moving in?” Dekker asked.

“Something like that,” MacAllistair replied. “Ever since we picked up those refugees I’ve felt a little… less comfortable in my quarters.”

“I understand,” Dekker nodded. MacAllistair’s deeply seated paranoia was certainly justifiable. Especially since they hadn’t had the ability to screen the newest refugees, yet; his uneasiness was only natural.

“I just feel more secure the closer I am to the command bridge. Only a minority has clearance to get up here.” He paused a moment. “But it is nice to have a fully crewed ship in case everything in the galaxy continues falling apart.”

“Yeah, well, I feel that might just be the case.” Dekker leaned into the mediaphile’s space to catch the news broadcast.

Riots raged in the streets of major world cities. A video loop showed a Krenzin religious adherent assaulting an elderly man; even following the destruction of their home-world and assassination of their parliament the Krenzin had remained passive. Suddenly, all over the planet, the “peace loving aliens” had lost control following The Pheema’s demise. A scrolling banner listed related news, broadcasting gory facts about the assassination of the MEA’s Chief Magnate.

A young, male Krenzin stood at a podium giving a major announcement. The accompanying text information labeled him as The Pheema, a new prophet to replace their fallen leader. In the power vacuum resulting from his predecessor’s death, this Krenzin prodigy had stepped in, just as Captain Johns lobbied for the Chief Magnate position.

“The holy books demand it!” he screamed. “This crime demands repayment in blood and Jerusalem must pay!”

Dekker blinked his eyes in surprise, wondering exactly how those two items were connected. He gave up immediately—crazy was too difficult to follow.

Another video window displayed reports of the previous Chief Magnate’s disputes with Jerusalem throughout his career in politics and before. The screen filled with a graphic photo of The Pheema’s dismembered body lying atop an ancient Jewish symbol drawn in the krenzin leader’s blood.

“My predecessor wanted to unify the peoples! In the interest of ultimate peace and a spirit of cooperation he lived—and for that he was murdered. For this injustice, our resolve can only be to claim retaliatory justice and our faith demands they pay a thousand fold!”

The camera panned to a frenzied throng of Krenzin adherents. This was not a religious gathering: it was the mustering of an army.

“Until we receive a full admission of guilt and the execution of the ranking Jerusalem leadership, we will riot and take our revenge upon any with suspected Semitic heritage.”

Dekker stepped back and poured a hot cup. “Good luck, Captain Johns. The next Magnate’s gonna have a tough go of it.”

“You’re not concerned about rioting Krenzin?” MacAllistair asked.

“Not really. Not concerned for Jerusalem, anyways. That place is practically impenetrable. The Krenzin aren’t going to hurt any of them, not since the entire people cloistered there two generations ago during the Secret Wars.”

“Secret Wars?”

Dekker paused in deep thought. It was what conflict which eventually claimed his father’s life: underground religious factions waging wholesale war on each other—many sects had tried exterminating any of those they believed were threats… and there was Jude Knight and his Watchmen in the middle of it all, trying to broker peace. “Never mind,” Dekker said flatly.

He examined the contents of his mug: hot, black, and thick like sludge. Dekker put the hot cup to his lips. “This crud is terrible. Ugh! How long has it been simmering on that hot pan?”

“It’s just how I like it,” MacAllistair smiled. “I saw some sugar over there in the back, where Nibbs did his research.”

Dekker scanned the room. It hadn’t been used for much else lately. They hadn’t even had time to properly investigate their friend’s disappearance; the team had been far too busy simply reacting to the threats rearing up around them.

Scratching his head, Dekker realized he hadn’t even found enough time to properly introduce Krav to the rest of the team. He shrugged the notion off—the fire and fray Krav had endured with the team in District Three bound him to the group in a far better way than any words Dekker could muster.

Dekker spotted the sugar dish and went to retrieve it. The table it rested upon had all but disappeared under the collection of papers, photos, notes, and other clues. Dekker dumped a healthy dose of sweetener into his vile drink and he shuffled through Nibbs’ last bit of research.

Picking up the framed patch of Austicon’s skin, the red tree tattoo, Dekker tapped a computer screen and woke it from sleep mode. He leaned the frame back against the computer monitor it rested against and compared the modified star chart against the tattoo.

The pieces suddenly came together in Dekker’s mind, jump-starting it to full-awake mode. He set his drink aside and rummaged through the clues frantically, comparing them to each other and against the star chart. “Rico.”

“What’s that?” MacAllistair asked.

“I know where Nibbs went.”

* * *

For years, silence and peace had reigned supreme. They’d kept hidden all these years deep within a cave snuggled below the dark-leaved trees of Rico. Abject blackness filled the air and a cloy odor drowned out the light. Only one mechanical mind remained active since they’d laid to rest, probing, constantly searching for a single signal, the sign that would finally give this unit a purpose for enduring wakeful and watchful.

The unit blinked rapidly as his processer received the signal like an answer to robotic prayer. The first of many, it stood on legs that hadn’t been exercised in a hundred years.

In their torpor state, the residents required only one shallow breath each year to keep their systems supplied. Their bodies shuddered as lungs suddenly inhaled deeply and rapidly. Within the deep darkness, hundreds of mechanical humanoids sat erect, activated for one reason only. As they stood in the darkness, the tension pulled catheters from bodies and veins as they ripped free from their medical tethers.

The wave of bodies corporately stepped over their peers which had failed to activate due to a century of corrosion and failed implants. Pushing against a loose, earthen wall from the inside of the mossy knoll, the army broke free of its secret tomb: a sleeper cell made up of pre-mechnar cyborg prototypes. Their master had tucked away for just this purpose—mutiny.

Crunching soft vegetation underfoot, the mechnar sleepers did not blink against the light of the red suns. They knew no pain, only service to their owner, Prognon Austicon. They stealthily pressed towards their mark: the ring of arbolean leaders.

* * *

Nibbs shuddered and groaned. Beads of sweat dripped down his nose. His resolve had begun to waver under the torture that the arbolean implant inflicted upon his psyche. He dared not rest lest he lose control; sleep deprivation had taken a tremendous toll.

The iron grip of the apothecium fiends who restrained his arms and legs had also weakened him. He’d lost feeling in his extremities long ago. But the voice, the soothing voice of the implant was ever-present—reassuring him that surrender would be painless.

Nibbs clung to the pain, reveled in it, used it to sustain his consciousness. Sweat stung his eyes, though it barely kept his mind stimulated enough to resist the invading consciousness. He knew it would eventually consume him, and yet he refused to surrender without a fight.

A faint wisp of wind blew through the tree ring. Information poured through the psychic link the implant provided. The Pheema was dead, the doing of the Left Hand. Austicon plotted to overthrow the Arbolean council and annihilate all of humanity! The DNIET! Austicon has his own—another units exists!

Searing pain flooded Nibbs brain. It nearly blinded him during the information exchange. The arbolean implant both gave and took information from him. The aliens knew that the Dozen rescued Doctor MacAllistair and that he lived among the investigators.

Nibbs croaked a dehydrated gasp and hung limp against his arbolean fetters. And then he was suddenly free! Crumpling to the ground, he twisted and watched his captors’ withered, antlered heads fly from their bodies, decapitated by ancient, rusty blades.

Bleeding through the trees, an ancient mechnar army poured down the hillside and descended towards the green circle. They flowed from the blackish flora which concealed their advance. A guttural shriek resounded through the wood—Nibbs understood it. A call to defense by the arbolean council!

Camouflaged at the bases of trees, half buried in peat, root, and vegetation, elder apothecium zombies shook off detritus and gnarled entanglements. All around him sentries came to life, joining their voices to the defiant shriek; Nibbs’s implant translated the call, tried to steer the captured investigator to the defense of its arbolean sires.

The cacophony and gave Nibbs an adrenaline burst—just enough of a push to momentarily break the mental suppression his implant wielded. Nibbs scrambled away from the mechnar units and dashed for cover. The voice complained, but the investigator’s unrelenting struggle had left it too weak to override the Nibbs’s self-preservation instincts.

Looking back, he saw the mechnar detachment. Hundreds strong, they fired weapons into the crowd of defending drones. Fires broke out, and a flame thrower exploded; so many weapons, ancient and aged, misfired or failed. Their wielders used them as clubs or drew secondary hand-weapons as the arbolean sentries flung themselves at their attackers.

Nibbs scrambled past an incoming wave of arbolean sentries. They didn’t even notice the escapee, so single-minded were they. Nibbs broke into a full sprint; the defenders numbers were so large that they would eventually overwhelm the mechnar usurpers, which meant that they would eventually come for him. His small escape window would close as rapidly as it had opened.

Minutes later, out of breath, he collapsed to his knees in the area he’d stashed his cloaked ship. Locating the entrance, Nibbs crawled inside and immediately hit the call button to activate a link with the Salvation. Two seconds passed and the video link connected.

Nibbs’ screen filled with a tired, haggard Dekker. He and the crew had scrambled, gearing up for a preoperational briefing. “Dekker! I’m on Rico!” Nibbs coughed, a black fluid leaked from the corner of his mouth. “Wow, you look terrible.”

Dekker, drawn and haggard, gave the camera his full attention. “Have you seen yourself? We just figured out where you are!” he stated. “We’re on our way to rescue you.”

“Don’t” Nibbs said. He panned the camera down to the infectious implant, indicating that he was already a lost cause. He quickly explained what he knew about the arbolean’s plans to infiltrate and overthrow the MEA. “Earth is about to be destroyed. Austicon’s got a DNIET unit and he’s set it to destroy our planet’s sun. It’s got to be somewhere on Earth; the Verdant Seven are frantic to stop it because it means an end to their body snatching, implantation plans. They’re also sending their Valkyries; the symbiont exchange didn’t tell me much about them: all I saw were bones.”

“Let us send someone to retrieve you, at least.”

“No. You’ve got to stop that DNIET, and then get over here and exterminate these things. They’ve got something they called Ragnarock; I only know it’s a plan that’s been in the works for millennia—and they’ve put the other DNIET unit into it. I only know it’s close; I think its got something to do with Osix.”

Dekker nodded solemnly. “It’s been a pleasure knowing you.”

Nibbs swallowed hard. He nodded back, and then severed the transmission. He coughed up a gob of thick black fluid and felt the consciousness push back as his adrenaline ebbed.

Grabbing the implant, Nibbs growled and tried to pull it from his body. Pain wracked his nervous system and he howled. The mental voice screamed that it would kill him, that it would tear out his spinal cord if he severed the union. Nibbs only yanked harder, could feel the stress on his spinal column. He heard—more so, he felt—a loud cracking noise. His vision flashed, blinded, and everything stopped.

* * *

“Brainstorm people! Earth is a big planet, and we’ve got to find the DNIET before Austicon destroys our solar system!” Dekker ran his fingers through his hair. “We’ve got to assume that since he hasn’t sent us a taunt and tipped his hand, he’s serious about this one. It’s not a game anymore, and if he’s going to do it, it’s likely to be right away. Where is this thing most likely to be? Did anyone grab the Doctor? He’s the expert on this thing.”

“I got him,” Guy said, stepping in the door with MacAllistair in tow.

After a few frantic suggestions on locating it, all of them futile, MacAllistair offered a suggestion. “We could scan for a few key energy signatures that the DNIET transmits. It would create a kind of homing beacon.”

“You mean we can track this thing?”

“As long as it’s activated, and if I knew what frequency I’m looking for, then yes.”

“Wait, activated? What’s the warm up cycle before the solar depletion activates—before it extinguishes the sun?”

“Approximately six hours from initialization to lights-out,” MacAllistair stated.

“Then let’s get on it immediately,” Dekker said.

“I still need one of the unique frequencies from the DNIET unit. All my work on it was destroyed when we fled my research station or shortly after. Without it, I can only narrow it down to a few thousand possibilities—that’s the best case scenario.”

Vesuvius cursed and Dekker blinked back his frustration. “At least it’s a starting point?”

“Perhaps if he had a sample of the technology he based his original design off of, he could more accurately trace the signal,” a voice called from the rear of the room.

Everybody turned to look for the source of the unfamiliar voice. Ezekiel pushed his way through the crowd.

“You,” Krav said. “The wanderer. This is the man who gave us your amulet—he said that you wanted to return it to its original people.” Krav and the old man shared many several genetic traits common to their shared ancestry, more noticeable when they stood side by side. Krav looked like he might have been a younger version of the wanderer.

“Ah yes, the brazen serpent.” Ezekiel winked at Dekker and tapped the medallion he wore around his own neck. “You know, in this era, it has developed a myth in its own right.”

“Wait, that’s the real serpent?” Krav asked Dekker as they looked at the old wanderer’s charm.

Dekker shrugged.

“They are both real,” Ezekiel said. “In fact, they are one and the same; the one your father now possesses is around my neck now, but I come to you out of time and from several thousand years in the past.”

“And the myth? Will it truly make anyone who possesses it invulnerable?” Krav sounded as excited as a child at story time.

“Before I was born, my father was shot and nearly killed while he wore it,” Dekker inserted. “The amulet deflected the bullet—which Austicon fired, or it would have hit his heart. It’s not magic.”

“Yes! He was not killed,” Krav stated enthusiastically. “Perhaps not invulnerable to damage, but he was immune to death!”

“That’s a silly myth. Don’t put your faith in things that don’t make any sense,” Ezekiel chided. “Forget any Kabbalistic hooey that doesn’t line up with the truth you already know.”

Krav closed his mouth. He kept quiet for respect, but resentment painted his face a sober hue. He’d already chosen what he believed and that much was evident by his face.

“Doctor,” Ezekiel continued, “Perhaps a quick scan of my apparatus will give you the key you need?”

MacAllistair shook his head vigorously. He keyed in a few commands, aimed a sensor at the old man’s device and let the data roll through the system. A few more keystrokes and a sensor map of the planet began reducing, darkening out areas where the signal was not found.

“Got it,” MacAllistair exclaimed, pointing to the map. A beacon shone on the map.

“No gratitude necessary,” Ezekiel said. He bowed to Dekker. “Watchman, the time has almost come. I hope you’re ready to do your part and fulfill your destiny. When you are ready, at the very end, you will need this. Do not open it until then.” He handed Dekker an ornate, sealed box. Slender, it measured the length of two hands. The old man turned a dial on his contraption; with a quick belch of smoke and ozone he disappeared.

The entire group stared at Dekker incredulously. “Long story; it has to wait,” he replied. “We’ve got a galaxy to save and the clock is ticking.”

“And it won’t be easy,” Krav stated, addressing the map. “Somehow, the underground tunnels have been compromised.” He pointed. “This signal emanates from below the heart of Jerusalem—in the buried catacombs.”

* * *

With the Salvation still cloaked in orbit near Earth, the Rickshaw Crusader screamed towards its destination, maxing out her shields to offset the intense heat caused by such a steep atmospheric descent. Dekker momentarily wished for a couple Shivan Interceptor dropships.

The heat caused the glassine view-screen to temper and fog, but the landscape remained visible through it. Matty pulled the ship into a tight arc, circling Jerusalem’s border. A massive army had assembled and surrounded the walled fortress.

Called to arms by The Pheema, nearly the entire Krenzin population turned out to wage war against Jerusalem. Many of the more intense human adherents of the aliens’ philosophical religion had swelled the felinoid ranks. At several junctures, heavy beam weapons had been erected; the constant energy barrage blasted against the shielded bastions near ground level.

Millions of vengeful Krenzin surrounded the massive fortress. Jerusalem was not a part of the MEA, and had historically refused any participation with it. The MEA constabulary forces had no authority to intervene and no desire to stop it..

Jerusalem made no visible attempt to swat off the flies, they had no need. Their defenses stood firm and at the current rate, their attackers would be forced to whittle away for months before they posed any actual threats.

Circling the massive city, Dekker attempted to contact Jerusalem. He got the same runaround as on his last visit. He stressed the urgency of the situation, but could not share the specific nature of the concern on open channels—he also couldn’t be certain that the device hadn’t been planted by an internal mole.

“Dekker Knight, your contact has been received and queued for review. We will get back to you as soon as protocol permits.”

Several tense minutes passed. “Krav!” Dekker called to the native. “They aren’t going to let us in, are they?”

Krav bit his lip and then shook his head. “Not in time, no. But I have an idea, send me. I can disable it. I know the way.”

Dekker nodded. Only Krav had the clearance needed to access the city. “Go. We’ll cover you.”

The Crusader arced around and landed near an entry point to the great city. The ship’s underbelly opened, dropping the heavily armed team to the turf. They didn’t have any time to think things through, and the Krenzin invaders were armed, albeit ironically, and very aggressive. The investigators linked their shields together to create a wall of defense.

“Finally!” Guy exclaimed. “You don’t know how long I’ve been wanting for the go-ahead to blast me some of these furries!” He poked the barrel of his weapon over his riot shield and loosed an explosive round. It impacted, detonating within the advancing line. Yelping bodies flew through the air. “I love the smell of burning kittens in the morning!”

Dekker’s team laid down heavy cover fire, creating an obvious threat. But they were just a distraction for their real purpose. Krav sprinted for the entry point and slipped inside. His credentials would get him inside the city.

The religious zealotry of the freshly bellicose Krenzin knew no bounds. They flung themselves at the tiny group of defenders. The sheer numbers commanded by The Pheema would soon overwhelm the better-armed Dekker and his teammates.

Dekker’s earpiece beeped and he tapped it mid-trigger pull. “Krav? Are you in?”

“Krav?” Captain Johns queried. “This is Johns. Listen, you’re all over the media networks. I’ve got The Pheema screaming in the other ear even as we speak. You’re creating a P.R. nightmare. I almost had this thing cleared up and here you’re exacerbating the situation.”

“I don’t think you understand what’s going on here,” Dekker said, popping off a few shots. He had to yell over the noise of his vibrating shield as it took a series of hard hits from an old propellant rifle.

“Then enlighten me! A conflict like this is going to make it harder for me to get into office—I thought we shared mutual interests and wanted the same thing for our planet.”

“You’re going to have to take my word for it. I can’t share my intel with you except in person,” Dekker stated. “It’s that sensitive. Besides, Johns, I thought you were a man of action and not a politician. I took you for someone more like the great General Harry Briggs who said, ‘Only barter only when you’re low on ammo.'”

A moment passed and Dekker thought the connection had dropped. Johns’ replied, “Give em hell, investigator. I hope your ammo lasts out.”

“We’ll square up when I’m done,” Dekker stated. “Something big is happening down here.”

“Not as big as what’s happening up here. As soon as you can manage, you may want to prep the Salvation. Let Jerusalem fight her own battle.”

Dekker looked skyward even as the Krenzin zealots pressed uncomfortably close to their perimeter. The sky flashed with multicolored lightning high above the clouds: laser fire. The galactic conflict had gone from bad to worse. Dekker shouted an order to fall back to the ship; they couldn’t do much more without sustaining casualties.

As they ducked inside the Crusader and closed the hold, Krav connected through his wireless headset. “I’m inside and on my way to the old courtyard.” They could hear his feet pounding as Krav sprinted through the town. There came a bunch of complaints and the sounds like a door being kicked open. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, but I need it—you’ll get it back promptly!” Then, sounds of a brief scuffle and another apology.

“What was that?” Dekker demanded.

“I stole the bronze medallion from my father’s researchers. It only took a couple extra minutes, and I may need it.”

“It’s just a hunk of ornamental brass!” Dekker yelled into his comm unit. He braced himself as the Rickshaw Crusader climbed on its VTOL engines. “It won’t make you invulnerable. Didn’t you hear what Ezekiel said?”

“I don’t know Ezekiel,” Krav replied. “I have faith, and you should too, Watchman. It might seem a wild notion, but I grew up with a rich tradition, and Nehushtan—the amulet—is a part of that! It’s going to work. It has to work! Sometimes you’ve just got to have faith.”

As the Crusader broke free of the atmosphere they could see a firefight raging above the north meridian plane. Although he couldn’t recognize the ships, his gut sank with dismay.

“I’m here,” Krav stated, “At the old aqueducts where my ancient ancestors once stormed the fortress.” His voice crackled slightly due to the extending distance. “It will take me fifteen minutes to get into the catacombs; the signal is coming from just below me.”

“Confirmed,” Dekker stated. “We’ll monitor you from the Salvation.”

“Not the Crusader?”

“No. We have a bit of a situation. We’ll extract as soon as able—just get down there and save our planet.”

“Copy that.”

* * *

Krav squeezed through a crack in the brickwork and into a hidden antechamber. The signal pointed the way to its source.

Inside, he spotted the DNIET device exactly as described by Dekker and his scientist friend. A series of blinking lights alternated in a shifting sequence.

“I’ve got it,” Krav reported in.

“Perfect.” Dekker’s voice was scratchy, barely discernible now, this far below ground.

Krav tossed in a number of chemical glow-sticks and stalked through the room; he described what he saw to his support team and searched for traps. Even though the room looked clear, Austicon had a reputation. He tossed another glowstick about a foot from the device.

A red radiation field sprang up in response to the intrusion. The glow-stick landed in the gravel where hard radiation pounded against it; almost instantly, it erupted in flames and melted into a puddle of liquid. Krav drew his flak gun and checked the load: titanium shrapnel charges. He fired both barrels into the superweapon. The bullets liquefied instantly and rained molten metal upon the DNIET’s housing, negating any damage.

Exhaling and steeling himself, Krav placed the serpentine amulet around his neck. “I’ve got this. I’m immune to death. Nehushtan will save me,” he spoke aloud in order to convince himself. The device would have to be manually terminated. He closed his eyes, said a prayer, and confidently stepped forward.

* * *

“I can’t make out any of that,” Dekker told Corgan who sat at the communications console. “Can’t you clean that up at all?” They couldn’t make out Krav’s transmission.

“I’m sorry, no.”

MacAllistair clarified, “He’s under a lot of stone, and that’s a lot of distance.”

“Then let’s get closer!” Dekker was tense, pacing. Vesuvius walked beside him and put her hand on his back, trying to calm him.

“I’m on it,” Britton said at the helm, closing the gap.

Shifting attention momentarily, “What’s the word on those scans, Doctor?”

“More ships keep appearing on different trajectories. They appear to be the arbolean ghost ships we encountered previously. They’re fighting ships which are definitely of mechnar origin. So far, the MEA forces have hung back. Probably letting our enemies slug out their differences.”

“Well, hopefully there’s some humanity left for them to fight over.”

The comm filled with a sudden blood-curdling shriek, as if Krav had been lit on fire and been left to burn, and then it was suddenly silent. Nobody dared say anything.

“Krav? Krav!” Dekker tried to raise him. Only quiet replied.

MacAllistair made a worried face. He seemed to anxiously dance in his seat. “Oh no,” was all he could manage, his voice tainted by terror.

“What is it?” Dekker demanded.

“Scanners show that DNIET has gone active. It’s locked onto the sun—it’s the beginning of the end!”

“How much time?”

“Once the signal lock is established with the solar source, it signals for the complete energy drain in about as much time as the solar rays take to travel from the source to the device. Approximately eight minutes until the sun disintegrates.”

“Start a counter for seven and a half minutes,” Dekker stated and then he stepped out. He knew his crew would comply.

A few seconds later, Dekker arrived inside his own quarters. He picked up a photo he kept of his father and flipped through the sacred book which the Watchmen had guarded for centuries. He leafed through it briefly, vainly praying for any answer besides the only alternative left to him.

“Come on, God! This was the plan! I’d kill Austicon and reform the Watchmen in Jerusalem! You’re asking me to kill the new life I’ve been working for!” He flipped through the tome again; the pages fell open to the story of Ibrahaim and his child Isaac: a story of the faith and sacrifice.

Krav’s words rang in Dekker’s ears. “You’ve got to have faith.”

“Alright! Fine!” he screamed at God. “But you’re running out of followers, and fast.”

Dekker returned to the bridge with a minute and a half remaining. They’d crawled closer to the planet with Brit at the controls. They held an exact zenith above Jerusalem.

“Drop cloaking field. All power to the weapon banks, target Jerusalem; lock onto the DNIET signal. Fire on my command.” Dekker stood there, silent, watching the clock count down.

Vesuvius stepped forward and took his hand in hers.

“Here goes my second chance, you know,” He whispered to her.

“I know.” She had been there—she’d seen it.

The clock dropped under a minute now.

You’ve got to have faith.

Thirty seconds remained. Dekker tensed as the clock ran dangerously low. Ten seconds. Five seconds. Four. Three. Two.

“Fire. All weapons.”

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