Dekker's Dozen: The Last Watchmen

Return to Osix

Dekker’s Dozen #010

Prognon Austicon watched with a mixed feeling of satisfaction as the full force of the warship Salvation‘s weaponry rained down upon the Jerusalem fortress. The planet shuddered and the blast-wave rippled outward, annihilating everything within miles of ground zero, including the krenzin protestors. Austicon knew the pain this choice must have caused Dekker.

He whirled and walked away from the view-screen and tapped a large, stone cask. Just one of two, the sealed vessels had been fit with electronic, remote locks. Austicon gave an order, “Leviathan, load this onto my ship. The arboleans and humanity may have purchased a little more time, but their end has still been assured,” he grinned.

“These containers hold the arboleans’ only natural predators, the arbophage scarab. Capable of surviving extreme conditions, even complete vacuum, they live to eat: but only eat one thing. These little beauties slip into torpor without sensing suitable food-sources.”

Leviathan mentally contacted two Mechnar units to complete the loading task while his god monologued.

“Everything is subject to the food chain.” Austicon smiled wide and wicked. “Do you know what my natural predator is?”

The psychic assassin knew the answer. None existed.

Austicon stared at the second, sealed and repurposed sarcophagus. “Dump that one into the atmosphere above the planet Rico.”

Return to Osix

Dekker stumbled down the smoking, hot blast crater. The craggy depression was all that remained of the once stalwart Jerusalem. Frustrated, he kicked a charred femur which lay half buried within the dust. Dekker screamed at the top of his lungs: raspy and painful—the groan of a desperate man.

Small pyres of burning refuse flickered randomly. The flames offered the only color in an otherwise deathly gray landscape.

Dekker staggered through the destruction he’d unleashed and toed through the debris, hoping against hope that Krav had survived. His orders to annihilate the great city, the only community to successfully maintain autonomy from the MEA, weighed heavily on him. Survivors were not expected, but Dekker prayed for at least the one.

He desperately needed Krav to be right. Krav had walked into a deadly situation sustained only by his faith in an ancient myth. Ezekiel had chastised his fellow Jew for such misguided beliefs—but if Krav was right, if he’d survived, then Ezekiel could be wrong. Maybe he could be wrong about Dekker’s morbid destiny, too. If Krav is dead, then perhaps so are the Watchmen, faith, and everything Jude Knight stood for.

Dekker arrived at the lowest depths of the crater and sank to his knees. With bare hands he dug through the ash and slag. He overturned cinders and cracked bone; all flesh had been vaporized—flash boiled by the orbital bombardment.

A blackened skull disintegrated as Dekker uncovered it. The next handful of soot contained a hard lump of metal. He held it up and examined it, noticed the markings and ornate metal work. Having owned the stolen artifact for almost all of his adult life, he recognized Nehushtan despite the twisted, mangled form. This was Krav’s grave.

Vesuvius stepped behind him. “I know you wanted to restart your life here, to resume the Watchmen and honor your father, to hit reset on your life.”

Her words hung heavy in the air. Dekker set his jaw. His face resolute and grim, he’d put off emotion: become a man of action and dedicated resolve.

He stood and faced her. “Krav is dead.” He sighed as one whose fate had also been sealed here.

She put her hand on his chest. “Your eyes tell me you’re giving up on everything, Dekker Knight. Is there still an us? Do I get a say? Or will you end that, too? Because everything has felt new so recently with you and I. I know you wanted a fresh start, so why must this kill our dreams and why must they wait until you bury Prognon Austicon? You will bury him; I know it beyond a shadow of a doubt. So why can’t you wait to restart your life until after his death?”

Dekker looked into her eyes and then embraced her. He couldn’t hold onto his bitterness anymore—not with the current state of things. “I know you’re right. So much death, but everything can still be new.” He leaned in and kissed her, holding her tightly against his body at the bottom of the hellish pit.

An urgent chime beeped from his communicator. Dekker broke the embrace and answered.

“Dekker, you’ve got to get over to Darkside Station as soon as you can,” said Doc Johnson. “I’ve been rummaging through some old files, looking for something I saw decades ago in cold storage. I found it, and it just may save your life.”

He’d ever second guessed Doc, and he wasn’t about to begin now. “I’m on my way,” Dekker replied.

* * *

“So I read this file years ago,” Doc said, pry-bar in hand. Fryberger was conspicuously absent. “Now, you didn’t get this information from me. The clearance level on it is so high that it carries a kill notice for leaking the info. Not that it makes a difference, the MEA of recent years doesn’t have the stones for that kind of thing and it looks like the government’s gonna collapse sooner rather than later. I don’t expect I’ll be around, anyhow. I’m doing like most of those done from other sections of the moon—heading back to Earth, trying to find my loved ones. We’re gonna die up here without supplies from Earth and those don’t look likely—I might die planet-side, but at least I got a choice of where that might happen.”

The huge, wooden box in the center of the warehouse floor was identifiable only by a set of numbers and various cautionary warnings. He rammed the tool into the seams of the crate and split it open; the sides fell off and collapsed to the floor.

Once exposed, they found a self-contained cryogenic unit, running on a nuclear cell with a two-thousand-year battery cycle. Doc wiped the frost from the glass and exposed the life form within. Frozen inside was an elder drone, one of the arbolean apothecium zombies, recognizable by the elongated, gnarled and split horns protruding from the skull.

“So they knew,” Dekker stated. “Don’t tell Guy. He’s always been a conspiracy nut. How long has it been here?”

“Oh, it only gets worse.” Doc opened a door to a smaller cryo-unit and withdrew a tray of twelve stoppered vials. “This unit has been in cold-storage… heh, cold storage.” He laughed at the unintended pun. “Records date it to over three hundred years old. It’s been here for as long as Darkside station as existed. Someone’s been keeping this thing a secret for three centuries.”

“Did they forgot about it?” Vesuvius asked.

“Not a chance. Every five years the crate gets a review, as with many other special tech projects, not by me, by people way above my paygrade. Something about keeping it current for R and D potential. And here’s the kicker,” Doc held up a vial. “A vaccination that prevents the attachment of the apothecium spores.” He flipped open a bound report and pointed to a medical passage. “Symbiotic spores attach to the victim in a similar method to a virus. This ain’t a cure, but it prevents an initial infection. There are just these doses. I figure that’s what you got left after losing Nibbs, and adding your Doctor.”



“We lost Krav in Jerusalem. You take a dose for yourself.”

Doc shook his head. “Nah. If everything falls apart, and I think it will, I’d hate to be one of those few survivors. I ain’t nothing but a glorified warehouse manager and pencil pusher. I’ll share whatever fate Earth gets. I got family down there, estranged as they may be. I just don’t think I could take the knowledge that they didn’t get a dose while a bum like me did.” He pushed the ampoule back. “Save it, freeze it. You never know, maybe it can be replicated and used to save other lives, should we all outlive the next few days.”

“You think it’s that bad?” Vesuvius asked.

“Oh yeah. Every hour, more of those ships arrive, ships from both sides: old mechnar cruisers and ghost ships. The MEA fleet has held back thus far, but the way the battle is going for the Mechnar ships and whatever that other enemy is, it’s a wonder neither side has run out of units, yet.”

“Let’s just be glad they didn’t have the sense enough to join forces until after they’d taken down Earth.” An awkward silence followed with all parties nodding agreement that, as imminent as their destruction looked, it could’ve been bleaker. Dekker firmly shook his comrade’s hand. “Doc, it’s been an honor.”

“Likewise, my friend.” Doc Johnson winked at him. “And if we both survive this, I’ll be wanting those cupcakes.” He pressed a data disc into Dekker’s palm.

* * *

Dekker sat on his bed. From within his inner sanctum he activated his communications device and contacted the other ten members of his team, plus Doctor MacAllistair, and summoned them to his location.

They all arrived promptly but each hung back at the threshold. No person had ever been past that point that they knew of. None was eager to rush past what had always been a boundary in the past.

“Come on, you bunch of babies,” Vesuvius chastised. She stepped through and entered his world.

Dekker waved them all in. Laid out upon his bed were the prized artifacts and historical items that he’d kept hidden all these years in a kind of shrine-like private museum. An old tome lay next to the reliquary, a faded but framed photo of an Arabic woman in her youth, the top portion of the ancient scroll of Benaiah—the bottom of the text had been burned off by early Romans, a beautiful, primeval sword with a jeweled grip, Ezekiel’s mysterious package, and the mostly melted bronze serpent amongst other odd items.

“Seeing as how the next couple days might just be the last ones left for the human race I feel I ought to level with you all. You’re all family as far as I’m concerned, and you’ve kept your curiosity for my past in check all these years. You know bits and pieces: that I am the last of the Watchmen, an ancient order with roots dating to Solomon’s knights which faltered and became the Templars, and eventually evolved into the Watchmen after the dark years.

“After the systematic eradication of organized religion and the burning of human holy books and relics through the generations, we’ve collected them, preserved them, and passed them on while sharing them. This was the reason for the assassination of my wife, child, and my father near the end of the Secret Wars. This is the reason Prognon Austicon has tracked me all my life, and I him. He believes that killing me and destroying this book will kill God himself: would seize the very engines of reality and annihilate being. He thinks all existence will cease.”

An uncomfortable pause. “Is that true? I mean if Austicon wins,” MacAllistair asked. “I remember out first meeting, Dekker—I know what I’ve seen. I’m a man of science and what I’ve experienced convinces me of some kind of divine mechanism. Can Austicon really break reality? Can anyone kill a god?”

“I don’t know,” Dekker replied. “I only know that the Watchmen stand for something beyond any mere investigators. We had an old saying, a mantra: ‘protect the book; share the words.’ Right now, we eleven stand in the gap between an unmasked evil and the continued existence of humanity.” He glanced at each face in turn, noting the absence of Nibbs. “Watchmen stand against evil and stand for life. I know you don’t know our ways, our secrets, or history, but will you stand with me? I must face this evil, will you join the Watchmen and live for more than this?”

Everyone remained firmly rooted. Guy stated the obvious, “We’ve just been looking for an official definition, brother. We’ve always been with you; it’s been a long time since any of us have been mere investigators. None here would live for anything less than opposing this evil.”

Dekker nodded, smiling for the first time in what felt like forever. He reached for his book. “Let me tell you more about the Watchmen and these artifacts.” He paused. “First, let me give you each this.” He passed out the vials he’d received from Doc Johnson, “And then we’ll bring this fight to Osix.”

* * *

“Contact them again!” Captain Johns said, exasperated. Aides bustled back and forth, delivering reports and relaying messages. He’d been trying to raise the Salvation for the last four hours.

He frowned at the next two incoming aides and waved them off; he knew they bore more dire news about the planet-side conditions below. Earth would have to hold her own until the orbital turmoil could be dealt with. Surface conditions were a mess; humanity had descended into chaos and mass panic. Until the two sparring enemy forces nearby could be terminated or routed, the rioting would continue, and that’s why he needed Dekker’s help.

A much refreshed image of Dekker filled the communications console. “You called?” he asked.

Trying not to sound irked, Johns replied. “Yes. Our forces have prepared for a full assault against the interlopers. We’ve been tracking the data and both sides’ reinforcements tapered off hours ago. Both fleets have also sustained significant damage, though the Mechnar forces have certainly asserted battlefield dominance over the mysterious invaders.”

“That’s the advantage that shields give,” Dekker replied.

“The time to strike is soon! I’m sending you our tactical plans now. Your cloaking field will certainly be pivotal to the plan.”

“Hate to cut you short, Captain. I’ll send the information on, and we’re definitely with you, but I’m going to be personally… elsewhere.”

Dekker could read Johns’ confused look. “I’m leaving the Salvation under the command of Mister Corgan, one of my men, and Doctor MacAllistair. Corgan probably knows the ship better than I do, anyway. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a moon to go blow up.” Dekker stepped off camera.

A bewildered Captain Johns stared at the screen for a moment. Another of Dekker’s crew poked his head into the feed.

“He doesn’t mean our moon. It’s a different moon, different system. I hope,” Guy teased. “Oh wait, here comes Corgan. Allow me to introduce you.”

* * *

From the Salvation‘s command center Corgan watched the Rickshaw Crusader blast into FTL as it headed for the planet Rico and its moon, Osix. He turned to MacAllistair, “Are you ready to go to war?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Captain Johns, this is Corgan, we’re ready to move into position.” He switched on the ship-wide communicator and warned the live-aboard residents to double check the integrity of their escape pods and man whatever systems they’d been trained to operate. Any with piloting skills had already been assigned a place in John’s fleet.

“Copy that, Corgan. Keep my babies safe.”

“Indeed. Salvation out.” He activated the cloaking device and the ship disappeared with a shimmer. The field extended to cover the host of A-class and B-class fighters that had attached themselves to the Salvation‘s hull with magnetic docking clamps.

Pushing the engines as best as he could without disrupting their light-bending invisibility field, they laid in a course to skirt the edge of the nearby conflict and flank their enemies. They intended to surprise them at their exposed rear line after they turned to defend against the MEA assault. In full black-out mode the massive Class-G crawled towards effective weapons range. They held course; it would take time before they arrived at their intended position.

“SHIP,” Corgan commanded, “Activate mechanical loader drones for ‘Plan B’ contingency.”

“Confirmed.” SHIP replied.

MacAllistair fidgeted anxiously. “And now?”

Corgan observed the MEA ships moving into position, grouping for their initial assault. “Now we can only wait.”

* * *

The FTL jump was faster than it seemed. It only took a couple hours and they used every second of it preparing and rehashing everything they had learned about the arboleans. The FTL drives cut out and dumped the Rickshaw Crusader into real space near the krenzin outpost. The system’s two bright red suns shone like rubies; a third, dimmer star glowed with an ominous, ruddy gloom.

Shuddering under unexpected fire, Matty whirled the Crusader around and adjusted shield control. The outpost’s gunnery turrets fired poorly placed shots.

“What’s going on?” Dekker demanded, bursting into the cockpit.

Matty pointed at the station. “I highly doubt that’s one of the Valkyries Nibbs told us about.” The comm unit crackled.

“Human interlopers,” the outpost accused, “You won’t get anywhere near that moon!”

Another poorly aimed barrage burst towards them. A few of the more accurate shots glanced harmlessly off their deflector shields.

Dekker glowered at the krenzin observation station. “So the krenzin have betrayed mankind, wholesale. Idiots. But I’m thankful for the information they offered—the target is definitely the moon. What damage do you think we’d sustain in a close flyby?”


Dekker nodded. “Then take us in. Let’s rip her open.”

The Crusader pivoted sharply in the void and streaked towards the observation center. Unshielded, the krenzin light armor didn’t stand a chance against the ship’s guns.

Matty tipped the Crusader into a tight roll as they dipped under the station’s underside. Guns blazed, the heavy cannons tore through the underbelly of the outpost and caused catastrophic damage. Atmosphere vented while critical, mechanical sections collapsed.

With just the one strafing run, the Rickshaw Crusader left the krenzin traitors to a dire fate. Abandoning further, unnecessary attacks they vectored for the Osix moon, ignoring the random shots flung wide by a solitary gun turret that clung to the misguided belief that it remained a relevant threat.

“Take us down,” Dekker directed with his eyes fixed on the target.

* * *

Corgan and MacAllistair watched the passive scanners as they pushed past the rear of the arbolean forces. Data streams downloaded to the man banks, but the most interesting information came from the visual scopes. The cloaked ship passed close enough to study the vessels that had fallen back to recoup after battle at the front line.

Through the damage and gaps between hull and rib supports they could pick out the movements of the individual infected sentients within the ghost ships. They watched the apothecium spore zombies operate within a zero-atmosphere environment. Passive scans showed that none of their ships maintained full hull integrity. Instead, each possessed large, internal air bladders with veins supplying the ships extremities much like a heart pumping blood to a human body; the air mixture possessed high levels of carbon dioxide, likely to enable photosynthesis. They already knew from previous encounters that the infected breathed very little and had more in common with flora than fauna.

They watched their enemy working within their vessels. Occasionally, the drones attached to fibrous tethers on the vine-work which supplied a dose of necessary gas.

On a nearby screen, a synchronized countdown ticked to under ten minutes, indicating when the Salvation should uncloak. Even now, Johns’s force began their full frontal attack and arbolean forces had begun to pivot in order to react to the human threat.

Johns drove a staggered formation right into the heart of the warring factions and splintered the two groups. Capital ships belched their all-too thin complements of fighters.

The unpredictability of the human operated fighters gave them the edge in the dogfights that developed around the larger units. Johns’ Gallant spearheaded the primary group, mirrored by the Stalwart and the Valiant.

A cacophony of radio chatter erupted as the scene became a frenzied anthill of activity. Laser fire scorched and burned the skins of the larger ships as they traded blows and the smaller fighters scored vital blows on each other as they whirled and arced, trying to line each other up between crosshairs.

Laser fire tore through the unshielded keels of the Arbolean ghost ships. Hulls splintered and fragmented as the humans’ fierce attack ripped through their lines. The Mechnar forces pounced on the suddenly susceptible enemy and chewed through the damaged combatants like hungry wolves on vulnerable prey.

Suddenly the radio waves lit up with the surprised cries of the weaker ships hanging near the rear of Johns’ forces. Britton checked the scanners and the time clock. Less than two minutes than agreed, but they were desperately needed. A mass of new Arbolean ships had burst out of nowhere and pinched the MEA forces between the main battle group and this new onslaught—they’d had a similar idea.

The new ships resembled massive, animated corpses, as if they were grown out of coral or perhaps hollowed out from gigantic animal bones. Whip-like tendrils shot out of their flagship and seized the Pugilist, an unarmed freighter at the rear of the pack— Pugilist had come along under Johns’ request in order to retrieve human escape pods. The unrelenting coils turned and twisted, pulling the ship apart; she crumpled and twisted, dead in space. It vented her atmospherics and jettisoned the lifeless bodies of crew members.

Britton cursed. “These must be the Valkyries we were warned about! MacAllistair, drop the cloaking fields and let’s push through this mess!”

Salvation shimmered and seemingly materialized out of nowhere, suddenly looming over the weaker side of the Arbolean forces. Glowing brightly at the rear, the massive battleship pushed forward at full speed. Her guns blazed, tearing apart the already weakened vessels at the rear battle groups.

Ugly Arbolean ships splintered into pieces; some took evasive maneuvers as the Salvation plowed a heavy furrow of destruction through enemy territory. Her starboard guns caught a number of the presumptuous Mechnar ships off guard as well; intense energy blasts wore down the enemy shields until they burned through, into the ships’ skin.

Salvation caught up to the MEA forces as they struggled against the Valkyrie attackers. A small number of Mechnar ships ventured too close and were promptly snagged by the deadly grappling vines.

MacAllistair noted, “The Mechnar forces are hanging back, now.” They kept just enough distance to funnel their human enemies into the maw of the hungry enemy. “I think they are just observing, for now.”

“They’re looking for our weaknesses,” Britton pointed out. “Look.” He pointed to the visual feeds streaming in from different ships and their own streams.

To emphasize his point, Captain Burton from the Valiant called a warning over the communicator. “Lasers aren’t affecting this new breed! Same with EMPs! We’ve got to get closer and use ballistics.” The three lead capital ships were the same ones Johns had sent to Darkside station to purloin warheads from the moon’s hidden stockpile.

Britton broadcast his own plan, “All ships, use hard ammo when targeting Arbolean Valkyries. Salvation has a full complement of pre Singularity-War era torpedoes and we are en route!”

“Make it so!” Captain Johns chimed in, glad for the assist.

“Make it faster!” Captain Smith pleaded from the Stalwart, the closest to the Valkyrie threat. They switched from their useless energy weapons to projectiles. Smith’s torpedoes caved in the port side of a nearby threat while his chain guns whittled away at the structure that closed the gap. Living cables suddenly snapped outward and attached to the Stalwart, pulling her closer with amazing speed.

The hulls of the two ships butted up against each other while the coils constricted. MEA fighters buzzed around the conflict like angry bees of opposing hives; their weapons did too little damage to have any effect. Stalwart‘s shields provided no help against the enemy contact; their protection rapidly depleted beneath the crushing force of the arms.

The Valkyrie’s gun ports fired a sort of resin projectile which splattered against their MEA opponent’s hull. Like caustic acid, it seemed to burn through the shields, first, and then smolder against the armored hull, weakening the integrity and eating through wherever possible.

“Fire!” Britton yelled as the Salvation pushed past a modified freighter undergoing an identical fate. The Stalwart was a more valuable piece in this game. Salvation‘s missiles streaked toward her target, but it was too far out to make an immediate impact and the Valkyrie had already begun pivoting so that its point of contact with the Stalwart couldn’t be broken up.

“All ships, keep your distance,” Smith stated. Then an explosion erupted between the Class E battleship and her Valkyrie assailant. Stalwart had fire her torpedoes pointblank where the two ships touched.

The blast pushed the two massive ships apart slightly. Each belched smoke and debris. A significant portion of the Valkyrie broke away as the ship drifted like a drunken sailor in his dingy. Stalwart‘s aft suffered a massive hemorrhage; lights flickered on the ship but her engines remained lit and she limped away.

Salvation descended upon the Valkyrie; her amateur gun crews shredded what was left of the wounded arbolean vessel while Captain Smith broadcast a status report on the Stalwart. The channel opened with a raspy cough—likely smoke inhalation. “We’re badly damaged, but it ain’t over yet. Long range missiles still fully functional, but we can’t take another hit with any teeth.”

Britton angled his ship towards the main battle group, positioning the Salvation between Stalwart and a smaller Valkyrie as it vectored in towards Smith’s ship, trying to pick off the wounded vessel as it listed into Earth’s gravity well. Salvation’s heavy guns lit up as soon as the Valkyrie came within range and pulverized the predator; broken, white chunks of chiton floated away in the vacuum as the guns blasted away at the enemy.

More requests for aid poured in as Valkyries systematically took apart the weaker ships. The largest of the arbolean grappler vessels, nearly a Class F in size, and obviously the Valkyrie flagship, broke away from their typical tactic and headed straight for the Salvation.

* * *

“Let’s assume that the initial conflict at Osix is somehow related to this all. We destroyed Beta Station when we left,” Dekker recounted. “That leaves Alpha station as an entry point; it’s a mirror image of Beta. Like Beta, Alpha connects to the main underground mining facilities by a magnetic rail system linking it to Gamma Station.”

As the Rickshaw Crusader swooped down through the atmosphere, the active scanners received new data. The landscape had transformed radically since their last visit. No longer a dusty ball of rock, a mossy kind of lichen had enveloped most of the terrain and given it a tinted hue; patches of scrubby brush sprang up from the ground. Sensors showed that the planetary body now possessed a thin atmosphere, just barely capable of sustaining humanoids, a probable byproduct of the new, burgeoning ecosystem.

The Crusader‘s landing pads crushed the undergrowth as it settled down and released the boarding ramp. “Alright, guys,” Dekker stated. “It’s time to put our faith in Doc’s vaccination to the test. Keep the engines hot, Matty.”

They fanned out and approached the geodesic sphere of Alpha Station from the exterior. Broken glassine shards littered the ground; a huge section of triangular paneling was absent, broken apart by some large, unknown force.

Dekker looked at Guy as they entered through the gaping hole. Guy winked at him, excited by the prospect of imminent danger.

As Dekker took point, weapon hot and ready, Vesuvius chuckled, slipping back into the playful banter they’d gotten accustomed to. “After you, sweetie. I’ll just hang a step back and stare at your backside.”

Dekker rolled his eyes but smiled. The fate of the universe hung in the balance and the gang seemed dapper as ever. “Everyone sticks together this time,” he stated. “MacAllistair’s sensor settings show that the DNIET unit is in the Gamma complex. My money is on something very nasty awaiting us there. You all know the way.”

“Doesn’t that mean that the DNIET is on… I mean if we can detect it with the sensors?” Shaw asked.

“Yes,” Dekker stated flatly. It didn’t change the mission or its urgency. He stood and prepped to disembark.

Working as a team, they systematically worked down the corridors, covering each other. The silence of the planet almost overwhelmed their senses, like a calm before the storm. Trodding through the eerie stillness they soon arrived at the entry point to the main residential sector.

The place was a ghost town, just as Beta Station had been prior to awakening the mechnar force. Dekker patted the leather satchel at his hip, reassuring himself with the full complement of remaining shells for the reliquary. They jangled slightly against the wooden box at the bottom of the purse: the mystery item the enigmatic Ezekiel had given him.

They entered the area on high alert. Tension seemed to mount the further each footstep brought them. A barely discernible growl seemed to buzz in the air; they walked down a road lined with structures, the symmetrical equivalent to where they’d found the hidden Krenzin, Dachan, on their last visit.

An unsettling stillness rose up and the buzzing sensation seemed to cease. The Watchmen instinctively reacted, intuitively sensing the attack.

Crashing through the buildings, a massive lizard pounced on them. The thirty foot monstrosity snapped its jaws with lightning speed, closing only on air as Dekker dove for cover.

The beast roared—his woody, vacant eyes searched for the easiest prey. Its behemoth head brandished a crown of jagged apothecium spikes.

Opening fire, Dekker’s team took defensive positions as the monster reeled from the painful shots needling it. Enraged, the reptile swung its colossal tail and wiped out the building where Juice, Rock, and Ahmed had fired from, flinging them across an alley and burying them under debris.

“Zombie dinosaurs?” Guy joked, “There’s nothing I can’t blow up.” He flashed a grin to Dekker. “Cover me!” he sprinted towards the immense carnivore while the others opened fire to distract the creature.

The beast shrieked in annoyance as Guy dashed just underneath it. He fired a number of successive splatter shots from his modified sticky. The goo stuck to the dinosaur’s belly like a heavy tar and alerted the creature to Guy’s presence.

It snapped at him with reptilian, predatory reflexs. Guy leapt through a glass window as the fiend pursued, jamming its head through a wall, pulverizing the side of the building, reaching for its meal.

Its underside erupted in flame as Guy detonated the explosives in his phlogiston rounds. With a shriek, the beast’s carapace split open, spilling charred innards through the smoke as it collapsed in a heap of stinking reptilian death.

A few seconds later, Guy emerged through the smoke, sticky gun propped over his shoulder and with only a few minor cuts on his face. “If that’s all the tougher they’re defenses are, this is gonna be cake.”

Another shriek echoed over the rooftops as additional beasts called out nearby. “These things too big to fit into the railway system, right?” Guy asked.

Dekker nodded.

“Then let’s get down to the tunnels.”

The Watchmen left in a full sprint.

* * *

Sloughing off the shots from other ships, the Valkyrie flagship continued pressing towards the Salvation with singular purpose. Their intent was clear: the annihilation of the biggest human threat in this skirmish. Without the gigantic Class-G and her full armament, the MEA’s forces stood virtually no chance. Even with it, they appeared to only delay the inevitable.

Most of the Arbolean ghost ships had earlier fallen away from the conflict, as had the Mechnar observers. Several of the ghost ships came into position to run interference for the flagship; they mindlessly absorbed the enemy fire while the flagship continued pursuit of its quarry.

With engines in full reverse, Britton angled away from the primary threat, directing main weapons banks to continue pounding away at the imposing Valkyrie while adjusting their vector so that the remaining gunneries could target the other grappler ships which attempted to shield their flagship. Even so, the remaining MEA forces were falling fast as the vines tore capital ships asunder and their acidic projectiles decimated the smaller class fighter ships.

Britton’s maneuvering drew the flagship out of the fray as much as possible. But the other Valkyries proved too great a threat and they’d razed most of the MEA’s most powerful ships. From their distant post, Mechnar vessels took pot shots at the enemy; the Stalwart provided cover fire for whatever smaller vessels as it could, but it suddenly erupted as a Mechnar gunboat launched a missile salvo into her decimated backside.

“No!” Screamed Captain John’s as Stalwart burst apart. Only half a dozen ships remained in their pool. “Captain Burton! Get your ship out of there!”

The Valiant provided cover fire for a smaller D-class frigate caught in a grappler vine. Trading blows with the Valkyrie, the arbolena ship it released the MEA frigate as it unleashed a scorching rain of acid fire into its prey; it punched the wounded vessel with its tendril arm and the blow crumpled the damaged ship and pushed her adrift.

Unable to correct, the collapsing frigate rammed into the Valiant which had tried to protect it. The collision shook both vessels violently. Fuel cells exploded, atomizing the frigate and blowing a chunk out of her protector. The Valiant shuddered momentarily, began to roll like a dead whale, and then likewise erupted.

Britton poured more energy into the guns, knocking out the shielding vessels as the Valkyrie pursued, switching between lasers and ballistic weapons as situations demanded. The Salvation quaked as a smaller Arbolean grappler took hold, then another. The rear gunnery turrets took care of them, but not before the Valkyrie flagship closed the gap. Four lethal tendrils seized the ship like whips and coiled into a deadly, constricting hold.

The Salvation poured the full force of all offensive batteries into the monstrosity as the Valkyrie pulled itself against the battle-class galleon, spewing corrosive venom all across the vessel. Acid globules scarred the side while the shields flickered; the Salvation‘s guns warped slightly as the caustic resin burned and eroded the offensive batteries.

Warnings and reports poured into all screens on the command bridge as the vessel shook violently. MacAllistair screamed into the comm units, trying to direct repair crews to the failing systems.

“Critical condition,” SHIP stated in its blithe, electronic voice. “Hull integrity compromised.”

MacAllistair shot a worried look to Britton. Britton clicked on his comm. “Johns! Can you intercept?”

Britton looked at the visual scopes. Escape pods jettisoned away from the Gallant as two Valkyries pulled it in opposite directions. Johns was either dead, or watching helplessly from an escape pod with nowhere to go.

Salvation was on her own: the last human vessel in orbit. She groaned as the tension twisted her frame and bent both carling and bulkhead. In a matter of seconds she would break.

The comm chirped. “I’ve got one last trick up my sleeve,” a familiar voice broke in.

“Nibbs!” Britton yelled, leaping to his feet. “You’re alive! Where are you?”

“Not for long,” Nibbs replied. “I’m dying; my legs are paralyzed. Infected bad, too. I think I’ve got blood poisoning. I can still hear the implant, like a whisper in my mind. A part of the root must have broken off inside; it’s still in there, dying just like me.”

Britton didn’t understand; he didn’t need to. “You can’t help here. Unless you’ve got some kind of invisible battle cruiser, your guns won’t make any difference,” Britton yelled as the Salvation shook again. “Get to Earth; we’re done for up here!”

“I’m cloaked in the psy-nar vessel. The arbolean implant told me where to hit a Valkyrie where it’ll hurt and it’ll never see me coming. You take care, my friend.” The comm channel went silent as the Salvation groaned under the stressful torque.

Britton and MacAllistair watched the video scopes. They couldn’t see the invisible ship, only the explosion it made as it streaked forward like a guided missile, puncturing the Valkyrie’s hidden brain module.

The grappler tendrils went limp and released. Spinning away from the deadly grasp, Salvation unleashed a deadly salvo in response; the charges vaporized the Valkyrie which had threatened to strangle the Watchmen’s craft. The Salvation‘s engines struggled and sputtered, but held up under the damage.

Watching the monitors, the entire remaining Valkyrie group turned to give chase and avenge their leader. The Mechnar forces angled to intercept the arboleans as they pursued. “SHIP!” Britton directed, “Lay in the following course at half speed.” He rattled off a quick heading, sending them on a route back the direction from where they’d entered the fray. “MacAllistair, you keep whatever guns we’ve got left going. Just keep them off our nose and by me some time!”

MacAllistair nodded. Britton sprinted from the command center even as the last of their offensive array’s failed, melting under the corrosive fire of Valkyrie spittle.

* * *

The Watchmen sprinted down the long, dark corridor. “It’s too bad the rail lift isn’t working!” Guy complained breathlessly.

“It’s also too bad the tunnel’s not as narrow as we thought,” Vesuvius stated.

A deafening, echoing roar responded to her quip. Dekker turned and unfurled his ancient weapon. He leveled the reliquary down the stretch of darkened corridor and fired.

Azure lightning crackled all around like a tesla coil and the front end erupted with a ferocious, emerald beam wider than Dekker was tall. The sonic boom of its report seemed to suck the air out of the underpass. It illuminated and atomized everything in the passageway, annihilating anything caught in the beam while momentarily blinding the Watchmen with its intense, destructive light.

“Did you see them?” Guy asked, fumbling in the dark. “There were three more of em hot on our trail!”

As their eyes readjusted, they continued the trek, making one more stop to fire the reliquary yet again to vaporize their continued pursuit. The carnivores came back again, each time with greater numbers.

“Up ahead,” Dekker yelled. A pale light grew larger as they neared the end of the rails. “Sensors say DNIET’s there!”

The group spilled out of the darkness and into a massive cavern. The warren was lit by a blanket of bioluminescent mushrooms that glowed with a teal aura. They covered the old mining equipment, the walls of the orb-like cavern, and anything man-made within the mining facility of Gamma Station.

“One more for good measure,” Dekker said, aiming the powerful artifact at their noisy pursuit. The beam revealed a pack of ravenous beasts giving chase even as the crackling green fire disintegrated them. The echo of the blast rang down the corridor. “That should buy us several minutes.” Dekker pulled out the empty cartridge and examined the marking on it: Rho. Seven shells remained, each marked with a progressively climbing Greek alphabetical character.

As their eyes adjusted again and the darkness deepened, the chemical light from the fungi seemed to grow brighter. Vesuvius wiped the velveteen walls. “Apothecium spores?” She looked upward; the entirety of Gamma Station had been turned into a grow-house for arbolean fungus and seeds. “These ones are a different variety… I sure hope Doc’s vaccine is okay against these ones too.”

The entire cavern rumbled. Stones and dust fell from the ceiling as the entire moon vibrated.

“The DNIET,” Dekker yelled. The whole group made a mad dash towards their waypoint, weapons ready to destroy the device. A brief flash washed over the Watchmen, like the shockwave of a nuclear blast; their bodies seemed to separate from their spirits, pulling their astral selves away as the vibration crescendoed and then died, returning them and reunifying blur and body. Only Dekker had experienced anything similar: when he and Ezekiel had traveled through the great machine.

“What was that?” Guy howled in bewilderment.

Just twenty steps away they found the DNIET unit sitting dormant. “We’re too late.” Dekker pointed his blaster at it and fired repeatedly, melting the casing and slagging the device. The cavern shook again, rumbling as if the moon itself had awoken with anger for the intruders.

“I don’t think this will end well,” Vesuvius lamented.

* * *

Mechnar ships opened fire on both the distant Salvation and their Valkyrie enemies. Grappler tendrils shot out and attached to their robotic attackers; acid fire chewed through hull and armor as both groups collided while continuing the chase.

Britton dashed through the cruiser’s service passages and into the main engine rooms with a screwdriver clamped between his jaws and pry-bar in hands. He slid to his knees and wiped sweat from his brow as he twisted his tool against the attachment screws. Jamming the bar into the seam, Britton yanked open the access panel between the dual giant-turbine-shaped flow units.

The steady hum of the machines which drove Salvation’s powerful engines obscured his ragged breathing. Under a grounding panel-shield, which Britton hurriedly tossed off, he exposed two giant banks of wired plugs.

“SHIP! Is the enemy still in pursuit?”

“Affirmative,” the AI responded.

“Perfect. SHIP, have we cleared the area-affect field for the Plan-B contingency?”

SHIP responded, “Vessel will clear affective zone in fifteen seconds.”

Britton grabbed the wired pigtail bundles, one in each hand. He rocked back and forth on each leg a few times. As the wires loosened their connections, the Salvation bucked and swayed as her two primary propulsion engines cut in and out alternatingly. Then Britton propped his feet against the panel mounting and pulled with all his might. The plugs popped loose of their socket ports and the engines died in a simulated engine failure.

Salvation coasted with an odd fishtailing move as the propulsion died, perfectly mimicking the situation. Enemy forces continued pressing towards the disabled derelict, with even more vigor at the prospect of a abusing the vulnerable craft.

“C’mon…c’mon!” Britton activated a HUD to track the aggressors’ movements as they descended upon his position—both groups of enemies merged together just beyond their location. “SHIP! Activate Plan B!”

They’d seeded a field with remote mines when they earlier passed silently and cloaked around the enemy army erupted with volcanic fury. A significant portion of both opposing armies were caught in the trap. The rhythmic blasts swelled and rocked the Salvation as she drifted just outside the blast zone. The eruptions culminated in a fevered pitch that nearly knocked Britton off his feet.

“MacAllistair,” he called through the comm, “Keep any enemies off us. I oughtta have the engines back online in a few minutes.”

He checked the HUD while he frantically matched plugs up to their outlets and saw that none of the remaining units continued pursuing. In fact, the Mechnar ships retreated while the Arboleans held their cautious position.

“All guns are down. But I don’t think that’s our biggest concern,” MacAllistair replied. “An entire moon just appeared out of nowhere! Only DNIET could have done something like that!”

Britton enthusiastically jammed wire onto matching receptacles. In the engine room he was blind, but if he went to the bridge they’d be immobile.

“Good Lord,” MacAllistair came back. “I think it’s Osix—Osix is orbiting Earth!”

* * *

One final mechnar ship left the folded-space tunnel opened by his interstellar drive. The small ship, a psy-nar interceptor didn’t bother to cloak. It didn’t open any channels that enemy forces might pick overhear.

Leviathan grinned with his twisted, destroyed face beneath the jet-black helmet as his systems showed the current battle situation surrounding Earth. All had gone according to his god’s plan.

A perverted variant of joy welled up inside Austicon’s general and he reached out to make mental contact. I have returned, master. Rico has been infested with the scarabs. The power of the Verdant Seven is broken,

* * *

The cavern continued to quake as the tremors intensified. A white light shone down from high above, piercing the dark haze. It intensified as the light expanded.

High above, the ground had split open and pulled away from a fault line, opening the cavern of Gamma Station up to the open air. The Watchmen came out of the shelter they’d taken under an overturned magnetic rail car. High above them they could see the distinct, blue curve of Earth’s atmosphere.

“Matty! Fly directly above our signal and retrieve us,” Dekker ordered into his comm. “I don’t know exactly what this thing is, but it’s more than a moon. I think the whole thing could be alive.”

Deep in the passageway, the shrieks of the reptilian zombies restarted. Their screams were drowned out by the whine of the Rickshaw Crusader‘s VTOL engines as it descended into the crevasse, its ramp open to extract the team.

The Watchmen scrambled aboard as the ship ascended from the growing crater. As they climbed further, the flat landscape made it easy to see other, identical holes opening in the distance.

Hovering at a high height, they watched as the entire moon shuddered, like a planetary sneeze. When it calmed, the moon sat silent in the radiant beams of sunlight. The Watchmen could see a rising powder, like dust in a sunbeam, emanating from the face of Osix. Arbolean spores ascended and continued rising away from the alien atmosphere where they would be pulled down to Earth.

Dekker watched from the edge of the open ramp. Vesuvius stood behind him. “What can be done now?”

He grimaced. “Only things we’ve never considered. Acts of desperation.” The words of Jude Knight, Dekker’s father, rang in his ears. Double loading the reliquary is like calling down the finger of God. A triple load could destroy everything, like a bucket of divine wrath.

Dekker unslung the reliquary and jammed open the empty chamber. He rammed two canisters into the compartment and leaned over the edge. The gusting updraft blew through his hair wildly.

“Just in case this isit,” he yelled and sent a wink to Vesuvius, “It’s been a pleasure, Watchmen.”

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.