Dekker's Dozen: The Last Watchmen

Catch Me If You Can



Dekker’s Dozen #003

“Just don’t screw this up, Guy.”

Guy shrugged, “Who, me?” He and Dekker walked into the waiting transport skiff.

Dekker shot him a look.

“I’m telling you, that wasn’t my fault.”

What wasn’t your fault?”

“Whichever thing you’re thinking about,” Guy defended weakly.

Dekker crawled past Vesuvius and into the pilot’s seat; Guy followed as far as the control cabin. Dekker wasn’t exactly in a jovial mood.

Guy glanced at Vesuvius. She’d brooded quietly, moodily, for the last couple days. All morning she’d thoughtfully fingered that metal cylinder the MEA constabulary forces had given them. Her dark mood scared Guy to sobriety; he didn’t want to get stabbed.

“I hear ya, Dekker. I’ll drop you and Vees down at the Miyajima temple and finish the transport.”

“Good. You should have just enough time to complete the job and get back to receive us. This one’s all on you. Nothing should blow up.”

Guy grimaced. “I dunno. Didn’t you read this guy’s file?”

“I read every file.”

“Yeah, but the guy doesn’t exist. No record, vanilla info—except that the powers that be want him ferried to a site that doesn’t technically exist. They’re sticking him in some deep dark hole; it’s some kind of black ops, under the table thing. What little is left in the MEA intelligence community wants this guy gone.”

“You’re paranoid.”

“Am I, Vees?”

“Not this time,” Dekker said flatly. “I read every file. Both the text and between the lines.”

“So you don’t think I’m crazy this time?”

“Just do the job properly. You bid this one. It’s your job; just don’t let it reflect poorly on the Dozen. And don’t blow up my skiff.

Catch Me If You Can

Dekker ran the preflight diagnostics on the transport vehicle. He looked up at the flashing alert and checked the data exchange before activating the door release.

A loud groan filled the inside of the loading bay. Two sections of wall tilted on their hydraulic axis, granting access to the team waiting outside.

Vesuvius, usually groomed meticulously, hadn’t straightened her hair in days. She brushed a curly lock from her face and peered out the window and watched.

Guy jogged over to the delivery officers. The men, dressed as MEA constables, wore real side-arms and body armor—not exactly common. Guy signed the documentation and directed his colleagues Corgan and Rock escorted their new “friend” to the holding bay of the Dozen’s skiff.

“Since when do these guys carry pistols? I’ve seen a few carry worthless ‘beamers,’ but those guys are packing real heat,” Vesuvius observed.

Dekker peered over the console and agreed. “I gather this prisoner is… of special interest.”

* * *

A plume of water shot skyward behind skiff as it raced above the ocean’s surface, speeding north from Reef City. Inside, Dekker shifted out of the pilot’s seat and let Corgan slide in to take the stick. Dekker took Vesuvius’ hand.

“Come here. I’ve got something you should look at.”

Viv looked up, quizzical. Curiosity replaced her gloom and she followed him to the passenger cabin.

Plugging a memory module into a vid device, Dekker explained, “I paid good money for this.” He nodded to the tube she held. Still unopened, she wound the silk cord through her fingers like a child doing a cat’s-cradle. “Are you too afraid to open it?”

She shot him a sharp, defensive look. Then, her face relaxed and she shrugged, not quite ready to admit that Dekker might be right.

Dekker queued the video and set it to run. “This is the feed from inside the MEA intelligence bureau. I don’t know what they discovered yet, but let’s find out.” He stood and closed the cabin doors for privacy. Nobody but Dekker had ever seen Viv rattled, and nothing got her riled up like her family issues.

Vesuvius’s grip tightened on the cylinder as the video played. A four-way feed from different data sources followed the forensics team as they examined the metal tube. One of the feeds interviewed the only surviving guard, but it was muted and the captions redacted. The researchers paid little attention to the sageo or the container as they focused on what it held: a single piece of paper. Heavy handed script had penned five simple words. “Catch me if you can.”

With her curiosity piqued by the video, Vesuvius unscrewed the lid and slid the paper out. Unrolling it, she held it against the screen and compared. The MEA had cut the bottom off the sheet. The video showed the original; a hand drawn tree at the footer with nine red leaves. Austicon had improvised his artwork using fresh, bloody thumbprints for the leaves.

Vesuvius sighed and regained her composure.

“Hey, we’ll get him,” Dekker said, and tapped the interview screen, blowing it up.

The guard lay in a hospital gurney, hooked up to tubes and machines as he gave his interview—this part didn’t receive the same censoring. “They came out of nowhere,” he rasped. A coughing fit seized him and a Krenzin doctor bent over the patient and adjusted an IV feed. “They were fast. Black and fast—fast like they could read our minds, they were that fast. They looked humanoid, but there was something about them. They seemed more like—” The video scrambled for a second and resumed. “—then I saw him, Austicon. He scribbled the note. I think. I don’t know; I could have imagined it. I just remember holding my guts and breathing smoke.” He coughed again and the video stopped and offered a timestamp and a warning against dissemination.

Dekker backed up the video. When the Krenzin leaned over the gurney, he noted the doctor’s badge information and scribbled it on the back of his hand.

“That’s it?” Vesuvius asked. “I thought this was good intel?”

Dekker placed a call from his handset and paused to answer her. “It is. The MEA is hiding information from its own internal services. We’ll see if the doctor can fill in the blanks for us.” He held up a finger for silence as the call connected. “Hello,” Dekker greeted the hospital receptionist and offered a fake name with false Intelligence credentials. “Is Doctor Botnik available?” He frowned as the answer came, and then he severed the line.

“Well?”

“They told me they have no record of him ever working there.”

Vesuvius scowled, about to launch into an expletive laced rant about the Mother Earth Aggregate. A chime emitted from the door and Guy entered.

“Hope I’m not interrupting,” Guy said. He rummaged through the storage bins and pulled out a med kit.

“Expecting to get stabbed?” Dekker asked.

“No,” Guy sighed. “I don’t have that much luck with the ladies.”

“You’re about to,” Vesuvius growled.

“I just need a grade-three stimulant for the prisoner,” Guy stated, loading a medical jet injector gun. “The MEA doped him so he’d sleep straight through the transfer. Guess they don’t want him talking.”

“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” Dekker asked. It was more of a statement than a question.

“You said it. This one is my job,” Guy said.

“Some things are better left unknown,” Dekker cautioned.

“Yeah, but knowing details might help me prepare in the event of any foul play like we ran into with Austicon. This prisoner’s got almost as much redacted material in his file as Austicon did, except that we know nothing about him. At least you had enough info on Austicon that we were prepared.”

Dekker replied with a skeptical look.

“I just don’t want to get caught with my pants down,” Guy explained.

“As long as you’re not trying to expose some vast criminal conspiracy, which you can’t do anything about anyway. Some information is too dangerous to steal from MEA Intelligence.”

Guy pointed at the video monitor. It displayed the emblem denoting the high classification level. “I’ll take that under advisement,” he quipped as he made for the door.

Dekker sighed. “Touché.”

* * *

Corgan aimed the VTOL jets on the skiff’s underbelly and set the vehicle down for a gentle landing on the reserved skid outside the Miyajima temple. The loading ramp descended and Dekker and Vesuvius departed. Robe fluttering in the engine’s wake, Master Muramasa waited for them at the skid’s edge.

Amid the boots clomping down the steel grid-work of the ramp, Guy could hear Dekker call back. “Remember! No explosions!”

Guy grinned and slapped the button to retract the entry ramp. He fingered the intercom. “We’re making good time, boys. How’s our cargo?”

“Chatty,” Rock replied through the speaker.

“Perfect. I’m on my way. Corgan, take your sweet time getting us to the rendezvous point.”

“Affirmative.”

Guy sauntered to the holding area while Corgan went to the cockpit and lifted off. Guy found the prisoner strapped down. “Morning, sunshine.” He pulled up a chair. “Let’s talk about you.”

The dark skinned prisoner laughed. The combination of drugs in his system made him giddy, almost drunk. “Gladly, Mister Guy.”

“How did you know my name?” Guy asked, surprised. He looked to Rock.

Rock shook his head negative. He hadn’t shared any information with the prisoner.

“I’ve read the dossiers on all of the Dozen. I had to make sure I knew and trusted who might be transporting me to my secure location. I’m Lynch.”

“Wait, what? Location, you mean prison?”

“No.” He chuckled. “I’m an intelligence asset. I’ve been undercover with the Druze for over a decade. I can barely even remember a time before my insertion.”

“Druze? The Babylonian underground?”

“Yes. They might seem like a group of religious holdouts, like the Jerusalemites, but there is much more to the Druze than that. They control a criminal organization with its hands in a lot of different cookie jars.

“The Druze are both more, and less than, simple religious holdouts. Centuries ago, they reorganized under some new leader; they called him the Anagoge. They’ve been waging a secret war on their enemies for generations, which is ironic since they’ve all but forgotten their roots.”

“Wow, this interrogation stuff is easier than I thought,” Guy quipped. “For a trained operative, you seem awfully free with sensitive information.”

“After what I stumbled into, I’d hoped for a qualified team to do transport. I’ve had little opportunity to communicate with my superiors. The only signal I could send was for my extraction; I can’t trust even my MEA contacts until I get to a safe-house.”

Guy grinned. “I knew there was more to this than just a prisoner transport.”

“I’m just glad to have the protection of thirteen trained mercenaries and a vessel packing some serious firepower. Once the Druze realized I’d intercepted their intel, found the link between the Dodonic Cult, Druze, and the Verdant Seven, I had to get out, and fast. Every lowlife in the system is going to be gunning for me, looking for a bounty. I’m naked with a big target on me.”

Guy and Rock traded worried glances.

“What?”

“You know the government. Always jumping at the lowest bidder.”

Lynch obviously didn’t understand.

“They bid the transport out publicly as a prisoner transport. We happened to be the lowest bid—just us three. The rest of the Dozen are on leave. There’re just three of us, jobbing on the side for some extra cash.”

Lynch’s worried look didn’t go unnoticed.

“Oh, don’t worry. It gets worse. We’re in a class 4 skiff; there’re no weapons systems on this vessel. Had to cut corners somewhere,” Guy laughed nervously.

Rock shifted nervously towards the door. “Maybe I’ll go tell Corgan to take us by the fastest route?”

Guy nodded, and then turned to Lynch. “So maybe you should tell me more about these groups. The Dodonic Cult and the Verdant Seven?” His look of confusion was authentic—he’d never heard of them, even from conspiracy theorists.

Lynch no more than opened his mouth when the warning sirens began blaring. The floor bucked and shook and the entire cabin shuddered with impact.

* * *

The gathering at the wake was large; crowds, clustered into smaller social groups, congregated all over the area. Everyone who ever met Shin loved him. The funeral, scheduled for the following day, would be much smaller; work colleagues and his broad circle of acquaintances made up most of the big crowd that came this night to celebrate his life. Muramasa invited only a handful of people to intimate funeral, tomorrow. The family line had shrunk these past few generations, ending now with Shin’s untimely death.

Muramasa, Dekker, and Vesuvius milled outside the temple. Shin’s body remained inside, available for viewing until the next day when his body would be burned after the funeral.

None of the three seemed ready to go inside. The elder Muramasa asked, “Should I see you to your room? Perhaps you’d like to put your luggage away first?”

“Rooms,” Dekker corrected with a gentle smile. Muramasa had been trying to steer them together over the years after the early tragedies in Dekker’s life which threw him into Muramasa’s care for a period. He continued to do so, even after they split. “I think our bags will be fine here until after.”

Muramasa nodded. “In that case, let me take my niece for a walk.”

Dekker nodded. He spun on his heel and slipped into the crowd of mourners, giving them their privacy.

Vesuvius took Muramasa’s arm as they meandered through the ornate gardens of the temple grounds. She proudly wore Shin’s blades on her hip.

“You are all that remains of us now,” Muramasa stated; a slight tremble warbled his voice. “You know that you have always been like a daughter to me?”

Vesuvius nodded, continuing in silence. Her family line was a complicated one; Muramasa raised her through her teen years, playing the part of a second father, really.

“Family can mean more than just blood, sometimes. I am afraid, though, that it might all end with you.” He keyed in on exactly what primal fears afflicted her—even when they spent so much time apart, Muramasa knew her. “Don’t let your fears about family dictate your future.”

She turned as if to scold him for assuming she’d let fear control her. She immediately thought better of it.

“Since the General’s death, you may be the last Briggs, but with your mother, my sister, gone, and now with Shin’s murder, you are the last Muramasa, too.”

“I know,” she sighed. Vesuvius wished she could somehow encourage him, tell him there was another way, but he was well past his prime; it wasn’t a viable option. “What would you have me do?”

“It’s not too late,” Muramasa smiled brightly and nodded his head towards the temple. “He still waits for you.”

“Dekker? No. That ship sailed long ago.”

“Don’t be so quick. I’ve known him longer than you have. Has he told you yet about his father, about his own heritage? Do you know about Aleel?”

“Aleel?”

Muramasa looked discouraged. “Don’t mention her name. You must let him tell you in his own time,” he sighed. “Dekker is a complicated man. Above all, he wants to continue his own line—his convictions and commitments demand it.”

“So I’m the last of my line. He’s the last of his, what? You want me to join the two?”

He grinned. “Is it so obvious?”

“It has been for years.”

Muramasa smiled and chuckled. “I’ve made that no secret, I suppose. Just think about it; he has been waiting for you for years now. He has been, although he might not even realize it. At many times, he could have chosen another.”

“I just don’t think I could ever be a mother. I don’t think I can settle down, either; my life is far too dangerous.”

“You will make a fine mother, like my sister before you. You know that you were her everything; she went to such great extremes to gift the world with you, Vivian.” Muramasa flipped her curly, red hair. She should have been half Asian; Muramasa and Shin both teased her for her red locks. Her mother vainly underwent many painful medical procedures in order to conceive; finally she’d opting for donor eggs. “I like your hair like this. Curly.” He smiled warmly.

“Besides,” Muramasa continued, “With Prognon Austicon’s escape, there’s no more dangerous a place than at Dekker’s side—but there is also no place safer. Like all of his linege, Austicon will hound him until one has fallen. The two are intertwined.”

“And you want me to weave our lineage into that mess? That sounds like every girl’s dream,” she said exasperatedly.

Muramasa grinned. “Perhaps not. But Dekker, is he your dream?”

Vesuvius smiled despite herself. Her uncle, the old sensei, had a way of reading her. “I’ll think about it on one condition.” She steered them back towards the temple. “If you can get Dekker to open up about this mysterious past of his, maybe I’ll seriously consider it.”

“After the funeral,” Muramasa promised. “I will talk with the boy then.” He paused lengthily and composed his thought. “Too many funerals,” he muttered. “Never enough weddings.”

* * *

Guy stumbled into the cockpit only to find Corgan struggling with the stick. The horizon lurched sickeningly. He asked nonchalantly, “Problems?”

“Nope. Couldn’t be better,” Corgan grimaced.

“Oh good. Here I was thinking we might be crashing while Druze crimelords used us for target practice.”

“That’s a problem?”

The airship shook again as it took direct fire. It rapidly lost altitude and belched smoke from the aft engine.

“Okay,” Corgan admitted. “I think we might have problems.”

The tree-line suddenly enveloped the screens and the skiff smashed through the canopy and dug into the ground. The impact dug up earth and razed greenery; the vessel skidded to a stop, toppled, and finally rested upside down. Gun fire impacting on the vehicle’s shell and echoed through its interior.

Guy slapped Corgan until he emerged from the shell-shock that deafened his ears. “Come on! We’ve got to get out of here!”

Crawling through the capsized vessel, they bumped into Rock. He’d already loaded his favorite weapon and slung the heavy chain gun over his shoulder.

“Prisoner’s gone already! He took off like a jackrabbit as soon as we hit the dirt.” Rock smirked. “If he figured his chances were better on his own than with us, he must really be scared of whoever is shooting at us.”

The three mercenaries leapt through a huge breach in the skiff’s side, ducking gunfire from the heavy transport hovering nearby. They used the side of the vehicle for cover and returned fire.

Guy scanned the grounds and spotted the prisoner. “Lynch!” he shouted.

Lynch stopped just long enough to look back. The momentary delay proved just long enough for a sniper to find his mark. Lynch’s body fell like a ragdoll as the bullet ripped through the side of his head, leaving only a surprised look on Lynch’s face as whatever intel he possessed disappeared permanently.

Using their wrecked ship as a shield, Rock swung his chain gun at the enemy cruiser and squeezed off a couple hundred rounds. The enemy spun for position as the bullets chiseled away its armor.

The fore missile launcher swiveled as it targeted Dekker’s damaged craft; Guy grabbed his men and yanked them away from their cover. A rocket streaked into the guts of the grounded skiff, erupting with billowing flames and flinging the three survivors behind the dirt embankment furrowed up by their crash-landing. Wreckage and debris lay everywhere.

Behind the dirt berm, Guy and company crawled beneath a large hunk of hull and waited. After several long, uncomfortable minutes, the Druze airship departed. Guy scrambled from the rubble and ran for Lynch’s lifeless body. “Ah, crap.” He looked back at the burning wreckage. “Double crap.”

Lynch’s hand relaxed and he dropped a wadded up piece of paper.

Guy unfolded it. Lynch wrote a message as they crashed; pen marks scribbled a barely legible note. The Verdant Seven exist! He’d jotted coordinates below that in a hurried scrawl.

Corgan and Rock flanked Guy. “I thought Dekker told us not to blow anything up?”

“Yeah. I’m sure we’re gonna hafta buy him a new skiff, now.” Guy checked his GPS against the coordinates and started walking through the forest.

“Where are we goin?” Corgan called.

“To get some answers.”

* * *

Inside the temple, Dekker waved to Vesuvius as she waded through the crowd. He conversed with an oddly dressed older gentleman. The stranger wore an odd, metal contraption on his back; his ragged clothing and grizzled beard had never been in style, as far as Vesuvius could tell.

Dekker had initially been drawn to the old man because of the heavy, Jerusalemite talisman he wore around his neck. Dekker owned the same one, though he’d never shown it to anyone before, and Dekker knew that the one in his possession dated to many thousand years ago as the genuine artifact.

The old man’s piece shone a brighter bronze than Dekker’s and didn’t have the dented edges, but was otherwise unmistakably the same. Unverifiable myths shrouded the jewelry’s origins; for Dekker, it was his connection to his late father. He had planned to ask the old man about it, but the conversation took a surreal turn.

“Here, Vees,” Dekker called, sounding mildly amused. “You have to meet this guy. Ezekiel you said your name was, right?”

“Yes. I am Ezekiel,” the old man bowed in a way neither had ever seen before. Neither could place his odd accent.

“Ezekiel is a time traveler,” Dekker said matter-of-factly.

At first she thought Dekker misspoke. Ezekiel bowed. “Yes, that’s quite true. And I’m trying to remember exactly what I’m here for just now, or if I’m in the right place or time at all. I’m quite near the end, I think. Time traveling can get very confusing, you see.”

“The end? The end of what?” Vesuvius asked, obviously taking Ezekiel much more seriously than Dekker did.

“Of everything, of course,” Ezekiel responded. “Cessation. When function ends. And then what use is the Grand Machine? If a single cog grinds to a halt, the whole engine could seize.”

“So,” Dekker asked, “The machine is what, time?”

Vesuvius arced a quizzical eyebrow at him.

“Reality itself,” Ezekiel said. “Reality could cease; time would be rendered inert.”

Muramasa joined them. He looked at Ezekiel skeptically. “Who is your friend? How did you know my son?” he asked, looking at the old man with a shimmer of dawning recognition. “You do look rather familiar.”

Ezekiel wordlessly worked his mouth, as if trying to find a justifiable excuse for crashing a funeral.

“Wait! I do know you. You look exactly the same! Many years ago—” A gunshot rang out and interrupted Muramasa. The old sensei collapsed atop the old time traveler, streaking his odd robes with Muramasa’s blood.

Dekker and Vesuvius snapped into defensive stances. Their eyes searched out the danger, though their hearts were with their dying mentor.

Screams filled the air. The crowd erupted in pandemonium trying to flee as a single unit. Snake-like coils of rope dropped from the high ceiling and black-clad footmen rappelled swiftly to the floor, indiscriminately firing weapons into the chaotic crowd.

High on the balcony Prognon Austicon stood holding a pre-war military rifle. He looked exactly as he did before his escape, except for a seeping bandage taped to his neck, and the lack of restraints. He waved at the Investigators playfully.

Ezekiel lowered the old sensei onto the ground as gently as possible. He muttered a string of fretting, confused sounds.

An explosion erupted near the exit, flinging bodies to the ground. A fire ignited the temple walls; the floor became a killing field as black-clad soldiers chewed through the panicked guests.

Dekker and Vesuvius jumped into the fray; Vesuvius with flashing swords and Dekker with guns blazing, each screamed and delivered lethal retribution. Muramasa’s training guided their movements, but even their precise aim and expertise couldn’t protect all the targets. Planning for a funeral and not a mission, Dekker’s ammunition depleted after the first few moments; he launched himself into the nearest enemy and broke the soldiers elbow with a quick maneuver, disarmed him, and assailed another.

From the balcony, Prognon Austicon opened fire, picking off prey one at a time until his magazine emptied. The murderer threw his gun into the crowd below and leapt over the railing. He plummeted to the ground like a dark angel and unsheathed a jagged piece of metal that looked more like destroyed starship wreckage than sword; he hacked through the nearest three people and locked eyes on Dekker.

Staring at the investigator as he went, Austicon walked purposefully towards Ezekiel and Muramasa.

“Wrong. It’s all wrong,” Ezekiel muttered. “I shouldn’t be here. I’m too early.” The old man stood, straightened his clothes, and dusted his pants off. Just before Austicon could reach him, he turned the heavy dial mounted to his rugged belt. The cylindrical contraption on his back belched a quick burst of muddy air and Ezekiel disappeared.

Muramasa groaned, reaching upward feebly as Austicon thrust the wicked blade into him. He stabbed him over and over, laughing and splattering red rain.

An invisible force spun Austicon to the side, twirling him violently and knocking him flat. On the ground, he fingered the hole in his chest and eyed his own blood as if he disbelieved what he saw.

On the other side of the temple, Dekker held a smoking gun he’d stripped from one of Austicon’s soldiers. From behind the barrel, Dekker glared daggers at the wounded enemy.

“You can’t defeat me!” Prognon Austicon screamed at Dekker, holding his steady gaze; he licked the blood from his fingers. “You are the last of your kind—the last keeper of the secret book which binds us. I am the first of my kind!” He stood and challenged him, gripping his jagged blade with a tight fist. Blood oozed down Austicon’s shirt and his limbs looked heavy. “I am the Left Hand of the Red Tree! I wield invincible forces far beyond your ken,” he spat.

The spreading fire flared again, taking on a life of its own. It licked the old walls and devoured anything it could. By now, most everyone who could flee had already escaped. Only a few foot soldiers remained, engaged with Vesuvius, a furious opponent who clearly outmatched all of them combined.

Dekker walked casually to Austicon who teetered precariously above the murdered sensei. “Why did you come here,” he demanded. “Why must you kill all that I hold dear!”

“I’m just tying up some loose ends,” Austicon mumbled drunkenly.

Dekker clenched his lips, and then hooked the psychopath with a right hand haymaker that would have shattered any normal person’s jaw.

Austicon laughed, reeling; suddenly revitalized he stepped up and head-butted Dekker, dropping him to his knees. The murderer towered over him, taunting the Investigator, toying with him like a plaything.

“Perhaps you consider using it? You think that uttering the sacred words might save you? I have news for you. That name has no power over us; there are none fit to wield the secret powers. No person can unleash those forces.” He raised his machete for a killing blow.

At the apex of the arc, both hand and blade clattered to the floor anti-climactically. Austicon stared at his severed wrist as it spurted blood; this time the surprise was genuine. He looked left and spotted Vesuvius who’d thrown her wakizashi with razor precision.

She brandished Shin’s katana. “Not today!”

Dekker seized the moment and pulled his gun to bear and fired seven shots into Austicon’s midsection, not stopping until the chamber clicked empty. Austicon recoiled, howling. Then, he turned and fled, leaping through the flames; the entire building groaned, about to come down.

Vesuvius retrieved her blade as Dekker futilely searched the enemy bodies for bullets. They took one final glance at the bodies of Master Muramasa and at Shin, and then scrambled outside as the temple collapsed in a firestorm.

* * *

The machine’s chassis rattled below as they tried to coax more speed out of the vehicle than it could muster. “We’re still too slow to catch him,” Vesuvius cursed.

Dekker simply growled in response. Of course Austicon had stolen the fastest vehicle in the temple’s parking kiosk, leaving them to select the second fastest. They’d followed his vapor trail a considerable distance, but it began to fade. They were losing ground.

Neither voiced the nagging thought on both their minds. Exactly what was Prognon Austicon—who or what could have lived through the damaged they’d just inflicted on him?

Abruptly, the trail ended altogether. Dekker scanned the area frantically.

Vesuvius punched up a triangulation plotter and vectored the vapor trail on a three dimensional grid. “It looks like he was descending. Maybe he landed?”

“There,” Dekker spat and whirled the vehicle around. Far below, an old factory belched smoke. He activated the VTOL engines and began a rapid descent. The air rumbled beneath them and a section of the building burst, exploding outward.

Dekker landed adjacent to two other vehicles—one hey recognized from the funeral. Austicon’s stolen speeder still radiated heat from around the engine compartment. The other transport looked as if it had crash landed here, earlier.

Another quake rumbled for several moments before a section of the building’s roof collapsed. Dekker paused by the crashed speeder and yanked a piece of paper off the window.

Vesuvius pointed to the unstable structure. “You think it’s set to self-destruct?”

Dekker handed her the paper. “No.”

She read. I O U. One J.Hawk Class 3 Air Cruiser. Bill to Dekker’s Dozen — Reef City. She handed it back. “I assume he might be safer with Austicon than you, right now?” She offered a melancholy smile before they charged headlong into building.

They covered each other and went room by room, clearing the facility. Resistance proved minimal as they navigated the corridors. Most of the hostiles they encountered had already been wounded; most were more interested in escape than fighting.

A loud crash shook the walls, but it didn’t feel like an explosion—it’s reverberations emanated far too long, never peaking and tapering off. They peered through a blown-out window and watched a nearby wing of the facility crumble as a space cruiser burst through the roof, climbing skyward.

“There goes Austicon,” Dekker observed as a soldier stumbled in upon them. Already bleeding from the ragged stump where his left arm used to be, Vesuvius’s blade relieved him of the other arm and then his head before he could even blink in surprise.

Dekker glanced at her; she winked at him. He shook his head incredulously and they meandered through the halls, coming to a T-junction. Listening for the right path, they found it: the loudest one. That’s where they knew they’d find Guy, Corgan and Rock.

They heard the firefight raging. Dekker quickly checked the ammunition on the weapons he’d scavenged and set a charge on the partition wall.

The blast disintegrated the wall and Dekker stepped through the veil of smoke, firing a weapon from each arm. He mowed down the warriors that flanked Guy’s crew where they hid behind a makeshift barrier of metal desks they’d built for cover.

As the last enemy fell dead, Dekker turned to Guy who shrugged sheepishly. “Out of ammo?” Dekker asked.

Guy nodded and tossed his empty mags up in the air. “Glad to see you guys. We thought we’d throw you a party. Um… surprise!”

Dekker rolled his eyes.

* * *

Guy quickly recapped how they’d arrived at the facility.

“Well, near as I can tell, we’re in the main operations facility of the Druze headquarters,” he said, shuffling some papers around as they tried to piece the connections together. “It looks like Austicon used the Druze as his personal strike force, a criminal network fueling him with enough resources to keep him in business.”

“If you can call ‘crazy’ a business,” Guy interjected.

Vesuvius put down the papers she’d skimmed. “But they’re more than just criminals. These people were fanatics. They revered him like some kind of messiah ever since he took over two centuries ago. Even though, Austicon kinda ran the whole organization into the ground over that span. I mean where are the rest of the people? Adherent numbers show sharp declines in their population. He must’ve been doing something with all these people; even fanatic zealots don’t just up and disappear like this.”

The walls groaned as the damaged factory shifted uneasily upon a damaged foundation.

Dekker nodded, acknowledging the mystery. He called over at Corgan, “You almost done with that safe?”

“I’m just about in.” Corgan bit his lower lip as he tinkered with the safe’s lock mechanism. An electric spark sizzled across the steel door and then the internals clicked. “Got it.”

The five Investigators gathered around the heavy door. “Here’s the moment we’ve all waited for,” Guy said, grabbing the handle. “What’s behind door number one?”

Opening with a shrill squeak, the door yawned open to a closet-sized space; the safe was nearly empty. Only a small framed picture waited for them. It had been perched up on a stand so it would be immediately visible: something like stretched parchment

Vesuvius grabbed the thing and muttered a few colorful profanities before handing it to Dekker.

Under the glass, a fresh section of human skin stretched across the backing, pinned in place. The bloodstain seeped around the edges which just began to curl as the skin dried in place. The red and black ink of Prognon Austicon’s tattoo remained clearly visible: the red tree.

Still, Austicon toyed with them. Just above the frame he’d scratched a taunt on the parchment, “Catch me if you can.”

Dekker clenched his jaw, his ire stirred up.

“What now, boss?” Guy asked.

The walls groaned again and the hall echoed with the sounds of a ceiling collapsing nearby. Dekker stashed the frame underneath one arm and readied his weapon. “Now we leave, before the whole place comes down on our heads. And by the way,” he accused, “I thought I said ‘No explosions!'”

Guy shrugged. “They started it.”

“Oh yeah. I got you this.” Dekker took a piece of paper and a pen from his pocket. He scribbled on it briefly and crumpled the paper up and threw it at Guy. The IOU from the crashed, stolen speeder now read: Bill to Guy Falon — Reef City.


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