The High Cruel Years

 

Part Two

 

By Brantley and Shadar

 

Chapter Nine

When President Bergstrom called an emergency session of the Reigellian cabinet, most of the ministers had no idea what the emergency could be.

After all, the planet had been in a state of emergency for two years now. The civil war hadn’t changed lately. There were attacks by the Aryans and counterattacks by the central government. There were feints and counterfeints, and sometimes it wasn’t clear whether they were feints or attacks – as witness those Smart Set missiles.

Bergstrom got right to the point.

“We have intelligence that an Aryan nuclear weapon has been planted in or near the capital,” he told the assembled ministers.

"What sort of intelligence?" asked Siemsen Vozeh. "Nothing of the sort has been reported to me."

As acting Minister of Justice – confirmation by Parliament was a problem just now, most of the Aryan MPs having departed – he was, at least theoretically, in charge of intelligence.

"We have other sources of information," Bergstrom responded, with a nod to Defense Minister Sayid Nazillah. Vozeh, although he was, like Nazillah, a Jellutong, seemed far from pleased. He was even further from pleased when Nazillah began harping on the menschenjager project again.

“If we’d unleashed them before, the war would have been over by now,” he complained. “The Aryans would be finished. Kaput.”

“A fine Aryan word, that,” remarked Basil Sims, the interior minister, who rarely had anything of substance to say – mainly because he was a secular Terran, without a power base among the Jellutong or any other religious movement.

“Actually, it goes back originally to the French capot, failure to make a trick at a card game called piquet,” interjected Minister of Education Axel Tofflan, who prided himself on his knowledge of obscure facts of no conceivable interest to anyone else.

“Idiot!” yelled Nazillah. “The fate of the world is at stake, and you make light of it? One has to wonder where your loyalties truly lie.”

“How dare you? Would I be here if my loyalty were not beyond question? If you wish to have a serious discussion, it should concern an obvious question that you have yet to answer: how will an assault on the Keeps with these untested weapons prevent the rebels from setting off a nuclear bomb here – assuming they indeed have one?”

“Can you doubt their capabilities?” Nazillah retorted. “If they have one bomb, they must surely have others. Our only hope is to destroy their Command and Control.”

“The specific location of which is known to you?” badgered Tofflan.

“We have reliable information,” Nazillah insisted.

“As reliable as to the location of the bomb?”

“More so. Command and Control, we have been given to understand, gave its agents considerable leeway in the placement of the device, greater leeway than they allow themselves.”

“Perhaps the honorable Defense Minister would like to share his source of intelligence with the rest of us,” Vozeh suggested.

“He has shared that with me,” Bergstrom broke in. “It is an Aryan defector, whose identity cannot be compromised, even here.”

The “defector” was in fact a plant, the creation of And’rea Cuppers, who was the actual source of the intelligence – obtained by her from Kommandant Null himself. Only Cuppers had given the plant, and the plant had given Nazillah, a doctored version of what she had heard in pillow talk. For one thing, she knew the exact location of the bomb. For another, she knew exactly where Command and Control was located – but that wasn’t what the plant had been told.

Nazillah, of course, had no idea that he had been duped. But And’rea had no idea how things worked in what was, ostensibly at least, still a democratic leadership. She had no idea that, even at this point, there could be so much resistance to her plans.

“What about the greenhouses?” asked Minister of Agriculture Charlene Ohrenschall.

“What about them?” snorted Nazillah. “They too will fall into our hands – those we do not control already.”

“Which happen to be very few, those closest to our shores. And even there, we have been able to suppress uprisings only at great cost, as well you know. If we do what you propose now, they may destroy the others, rather than let them fall into the hands of those they regard as infidels.”

“Need I remind you that it was your own initiative that brought about those uprisings? I had to clean up the mess you created, and you've never thanked me for that. In any case, I don't think these people are prepared to destroy their own food supply. Surely--"

“Indeed, surely. These people are fanatics. They always were, but more so now. They'll stop at nothing. And their entire mythology is based on death and destruction.”

“This is indeed the case,” agreed Tofflan. “Any reckless action on our part courts disaster.”

“But what about their bomb?” objected Nazillah. “Are we going to sit idly by until whatever fine day they choose to set it off?”

“By no means,” responded Vozeh. “Our first priority must be to find and disable the bomb. We have no idea whether it has a timing device, or whether it is to be triggered by remote control, is that not the case?”

Nazillah admitted reluctantly that it was.

“Any attack such as you propose might play into their hands,” Vozeh said. “It might cause the Aryan triggerman to act immediately, certainly sooner than intended. They may intend at this time only to blackmail us with the threat of a bomb. In that case, we can expect an ultimatum from them at a time of their choosing. We should not act precipitately.”

“You would have us not act at all.”

“To the contrary, we must make use of all our intelligence resources.”

“The RIS has not been notably successful of late.” Nazillah said it with a sneer.

“Still, we have a few good men left. We can also make use of police intelligence. We can make use of nuclear detection technology. And, of course, we must make use of the Velorians. They have capabilities we do not.”

For some reason, that struck a chord with Sandal Bergstrom. A man who imagined that he had been personally betrayed by the Velorians twice – first by Ambassador Kim’Vallara, who had ended their affair after he had done what had to be done; then by the Protector, who had failed to save his nephew from that madman. And yet he still felt in awe of them, felt that those of the Golden Planet might yet prove true to their creed and save this world.

“I move that we adopt Minister Vozeh’s proposal,” he said now. “But with a time limit: seven days. If we cannot locate the bomb within that time, I am afraid that we will have no choice but to proceed as Minister Nazillah advises.”

That was that, notwithstanding Nazillah’s objections, as far as the cabinet was concerned, as far as the government was concerned.

***

But that was not that, as far as And’rea Cuppers was concerned.

“Cowards!” she told Nazillah in bed that night.

She stroked his ego as she stroked his cock, whispered in his ear what a great man he was, how he had a chance to prove it – to prove that he was a man of action, a man who would take action as others temporized.

“But this would be totally illegal, totally unconstitutional,” he protested at first.

“Can you allow such niceties to prevent you from doing what you know is right?”

“They will strip me of my ministry in any case, and have the menschenjagers recalled.”

“You hold the codes. You can prevent that. And if they prove obstinate…”

“Turn the menschenjagers against them?”

“Let Bergstrom and the others tremble,” And’rea urged him. “Their day will be done when you end the war with one bold stroke. They will not dare oppose you then.”

And so it came to pass. Nazillah gave the order, put the monstrous creatures into action. They had already been deployed in Southy; all that remained was to send them into the Keeps, the entrances to which were known to him alone. Thanks to that defector. At And’rea’s insistence, he had changed the codes from his PersComp, Only he could recall them. He knew it and And’rea knew it.

As soon as he dozed off, however, she changed the codes again. He’d never suspect her. But if Bergstom ordered him to stop the attack, he wouldn’t be able to. And it wasn't just the menschenjagers; they were part of an even more deadly plan that would decimate Southy.

The die was cast.

Chapter Ten

They had him inspecting pallet trains coming into Node 72. General Voigt had explained that tachyon vision beat X-rays for detecting saboteurs or bombs hidden in containers that were supposed to hold nothing but frozen peas or whatever from the hydroponic tanks or frozen meat from the carniculture vats.

Yeah, sure.

It was time-consuming and boring for Colonel Ruy Cyam-Bellis. Worse, it was an insult, an obvious punishment for his intervention at Node 69. But he gritted his teeth, tried to grin and bear it. He'd start at the front of the train, with the pallets loaded from the furthest reach of the greenhouse, then keep an penetrating eagle eye on the others added down the line towards the node by robot loaders from the assembly points along the way.

There had been attempts at infiltration by pallet train just after the Node 69 massacre, but Voigt had caught on fast and the infiltrators hadn't lasted long. Scanning the pallet loads electronically should be a cinch, only there weren't enough scanners in the field, so....

There were more of those huge lumbering trucks, however, heading out in different directions from the node. Still no explanation from General Voigt, and Ruy wasn't even asking now; he was in enough trouble as it was. And he didn't have time, anyway: these pallet train runs were in addition to his duty as an instructor to Company F.

The greenhouse workers along the route looked sullen as the train passed by. Those manning the robot loaders also looked sullen. But there wasn't any hint of resistance. Events at Node 69 had made them wary if not loyal. By tacit agreement, the open warfare had been taking place along the high roads that cut across the ridges to link nodes that weren't directly connected by greenhouses. Whoever possessed the roads possessed the nodes and the greenhouses they served. That was a corollary to the tacit agreement.

Company F had been making good progress, even without his presence as a scout and sometimes a shield. They were working their way towards a pass that led to an isolated tableland. Across that and down the other side lay Node 88, which was part of a whole new network.

Capturing that network would double the government's holdings in Southy.

***

Sergeant Winston Smith was about to be in the thick of it as his column approached the truck stop and fuel depot just south of the pass. It had been easy -- too easy, if you asked him, but the captain hadn't.

"Looks like we've got them on the run, boys," he told Company F. And, truth be told, there was reason for his optimism. The Aryans didn't have any armored vehicles, whereas his troops had at least some. Those who couldn't ride could march behind them, sheltered from enemy fire for the most part -- only there hadn't been any on the way up to the pass. That was passing strange.

The truck stop, like the pass, appeared to be deserted. Just the squat building that housed the canteen and the convenience and the rest rooms. Out front, the ethanol pumps. To the sides, large rest and marshalling area for the truckers, of whom none were in evidence. Well, should they expect any? This was no man's land, until they made it some man's land -- theirs.

The tableland was bleak, bare of even the moss you found in the valleys. Nothing worth looking at. So Smith just looked at the squad ahead of his, which had just reached the pumps. Captain Welles was with them.

Suddenly that forward squad, captain and all, vanished in an eruption of flame and smoke. Their armored car was blown into the air, tumbling several times before landing upside down.

The underground tanks, Smith realized.

"Take cover!" Smith ordered his squad. Just in time, for there were Aryan soldiers charging in from -- where were they charging in from? There didn't seem to be any cover across Highway 101 from the truck stop, and that was where they were now.

There was another thing: these didn't look like ragtag irregulars. They looked like pros.

Smith organized his men on the far side of the troop carrier, and got on the com.

***

Sending out a relief party would have taken too much time, so General Voigt pulled Colonel Cyam-Bellis and Lieutenant B'Te off pallet train duty and told them to get to the scene ASAP. They got there ASAP and didn't waste any time on the niceties of the rules of engagement: the surviving squads of Company F were pinned down and taking casualties -- with the Aryans working around their flanks, they wouldn't last much longer.

They didn't even bother to land before raking the attackers with heat vision. The Aryans hadn't been looking to the skies, but now they did. For some it was the last thing they ever did, for others who screamed in pain, the Vels were the last thing they ever saw before being blinded.

The survivors were quick to surrender.

Voigt had ordered that any prisoners be held for interrogation by Military Intelligence, a couple of whose agents had brought up the rear of Company F and, by all accounts, had been nowhere to be seen during the firefight. Ruy and Or'than had no choice but to comply, although they didn't like the sounds that soon began to come from the instant MI field HQ in the abandoned truck stop.

There were wounded among the ranks of Company F, and the medic had died with the captain. Ruy got on the com with HQ, which told him a medical chopper was on the way, but not appeared, and all he could get out of Voigt's office was excuses.

Impatient with the situation, Ruy ordered Or'than back to HQ to expedite matters. Meanwhile, he tended to the casualties himself as best he could, cauterizing wounds with his heat vision.

Shortly after Or'than took off, there was the sound of a motor back towards the north. Not the medical chopper, obviously; it was on the road. Not a ground ambulance, either. It was one of those monster trucks.

***

They were on the far side of the tableland, looking down at Node 88. It was nearly midnight, and they could see the soft lights of the greenhouses stretching out into the distance eastwards to the left, westwards to the right, and almost due south as well. No point to a blackout in this kind of war; the heat signatures of the greenhouses would give them away even if they were totally dark.

There hadn't been any further ambushes, but Voigt had told Ruy and Or'than to stay with the company just in case. The medical chopper had finally come, escorted by the lieutenant, and the wounded were evacked. The MI guys had stuck around, but seemed to have less interest in the troops than in that mysterious truck. They brought the driver into the truck stop -- for some sort of briefing, Ruy supposed, perhaps related to whatever they'd gotten out of the Aryan prisoners. The prisoners hadn't been seen again. Maybe they wouldn't be. Ruy didn't want to think about that.

As Company 5 had been cleared to leave, there came a surprise. For the first time, Ruy and Or'than saw what was on the truck as it was unloaded: a huge multi-legged robot. One of the MI guys with some sort of perscomp plugged a cable in to a port on the side of the device, apparently to upload final instructions.

The MI guy saw the advisors gawking.

"Guess you must be the first Velorians to see one of these," he remarked. "Our secret weapon to penetrate the Keeps. We just got a line on a secret entrance over there. The Aryans will never know what hit 'em."

Ruy and Or'than tried to look impressed, but after they hit the road with Company F....

"Yeah, kill a lot of Aryans with that thing," Ruy snorted.

"They'll probably die laughing when they see it coming," Or'than opined.

Now here they were, waiting for dawn, waiting to march into Node 88 and make the takeover official. There were more troops on the way, they knew: a whole division to begin the occupation of the node and its network. But Company F would get the credit.

But what was this? The sound of planes? What could be the point of reconnaissance at this date?

Suddenly the valley before them erupted in flame, a series of bursts at the node itself and up and down the greenhouses.

Incendiary bombing! It had to be. But why?

Ruy got on the com, seeking Major Raul'lan. It took a while to get through; no doubt she was busy with some younger man. Terri had that reputation. And when he finally reached her and told his tale....

"I don't know anything about it," she said. "Something of Bergstrom's. I guess he'll tell me in the morning."

"But there must be thousands of people getting burned alive here," Ruy protested. "Many times that, if this is going on in other sectors. Can't you do anything?"

"Can't and won't. Not without higher authority."

"There might still be some people here I could save."

"Not without higher authority. Do I make myself clear?"

"Abundantly, ma'am."

There was nothing more to say. He averted his eyes from the holocaust below, but he could not avert his mind. He could imagine the screams of terror, the burning bodies. He'd read about things like this in military history -- Dresden and Hiroshima on Old Earth, Tanzrobia and Binkley's World. But he'd never expected to see it. And Velor was being implicated in it, he was being implicated.

Higher authority....

Higher than his own conscience?

He was a soldier. It was his duty to obey. He'd learned that at Node 69.

Hadn't he?

The Aryans were fanatics. They deserved what they got.

Didn't they?

Like the Germans in Dresden and the Japanese in Hiroshima. People who were only names to him, but had died just as cruelly as the Aryans were dying here.

Could he live with that? Could he still be a soldier?

Chapter Eleven

The first indication Molly and Anya had of anything going wrong was the panic on the face of the high priest as he received a message on his comlink. That panic spread to his acolytes as the priest exchanged whispers with them.

The two Velorians had lived in dread, for they knew what the priest expected of them: to slay the enemies of the Aryans. Harry McLendon had warned them, and yet they had hoped somehow to avoid a reckoning. And there had been a reprieve of sorts. One day had stretched into another; the Aryan high command was apparently having trouble deciding on the most appropriate targets.

“You’d think it would be a no-brainer,” Anya had whispered to Molly this morning -- it was morning only by the clock in the Keep. “Bergstrom and his whole cabinet.”

“Maybe they have something more fundamental in mind,” Molly had whispered back. “Or maybe they think it wouldn’t be that much of a test. Even in Senegal, most of the people must hate Bergstrom by now.”

“Whoever replaced him would probably settle,” Anya opined. “We’d have peace.”

“I don’t think peace is what these people have in mind.”

Then they had been summoned before the priest. The assignment they had dreaded must be at hand.

Only something else was happening. The priest looked to his acolytes, then to Molly and Anya. He began to shout something at them, but his voice was lost in the deafening roar of a new voice – a voice so powerful that it shook the Keep.

“Ich bin Fafnir!" it thundered. "Ich bin der Tod aller Aufrührer und Götzenanbeter. Die letzten Augenblicke eures jämmerlichen Daseins sind angebrochen!"

[I am Fafnir! I am death to all rebels and idol worshippers. These are the last moments of your miserable lives!]

From down the tunnel came an eerie red glow, and then a blast of heat and flame. Aryans fled before it, but could not flee fast enough. And only the Velorians with their tachyon vision could see what lay behind the inferno -- a fire-breathing dragon?

From deepteach, they recalled Fafnir of Norse legend: a dragon who had once been a man – a young giant. In his youth he had killed his father to gain his treasures. Then, through magic, he had transformed himself into a dragon to better guard his ill-gotten gains. As Fafnir grew older he became more vicious and began terrorizing vast areas of Scandinavia – until the hero Siegfried destroyed him.

But this was no dragon. This was a machine – some diabolical new weapon in the war. It didn’t even look like a dragon except for, in a very abstract fashion, the head. More like a centipede it was -- except for having a huge set of clawed arms and a smaller pair of mandibles at the front. It was at least two meters across and thirty meters or more in length, with seemingly countless pairs of mechanical legs and countless ports that sprayed jets of viscous flaming liquid in all directions. Whatever the substance was, it clung to everything it touched, melting or dissolving even the obdurate rock of the Keep.

As it advanced towards Molly and Anya, the thing continued to roar curses and imprecations in Doych, at such terrible volume that it would surely have ruptured the eardrums of its intended prey. But those prey were beyond hearing, or any other sensation. Some had been caught by the claws, their bodies pinched in half. Other Aryans overtaken by the infernal device had become human torches, the stench of burning flesh combined with the acrid chemical smell of the fiery liquid.

Forewarned by scant moments, the high priest and his acolytes had fled down a side passage too small to admit the creature. But most of the rest of the Aryans, including women and children, were doubtless still in their quarters further down the main tunnel. They would have no chance, none at all, Molly and Anya realized.

Perhaps they should have taken deepteach on fighting, but Harry hadn’t thought of that and it wasn’t the sort of thing that would have occurred to B-class Vels, either. As they hesitated, Anya hovering in front of the creature, Molly below, each trying to gauge how to join the battle, it was joined for them.

The monster's clawed arms moved with blinding speed, grabbing Anya in mid-air, claws closing around her narrow waist. She tried to free herself, but couldn't seem to get the necessary leverage. How could this be?

Vendorian steel, Molly realized. Highest grade. Anya could manage to free herself in time -- but they didn't have time; the creature was still continuing its advance. Molly leaped from the floor with all her strength, smashing shoulder-first into the center of the left arm, then wrapping her legs around it with crushing force as she jammed her outstretched fingers into the joints that formed the monster’s elbow.

Molly tore the joint loose far enough to jam her hand in, and began to tear at the wires and cable harnesses she found within. At last, she severed the last cable she could reach, and the clawed arm suddenly crashed limply to the floor, the jaws springing open to drop Anya to her knees. She seemed confused and disoriented; it was up to Molly again.

Knowing she had to shut down the creature's ‘brain,’ she flew towards the head, opening her arms wide in an attempt to encircle it. It was too large and smooth to get a purchase. She tried to punch handholds in it, but her fists rebounded with the sharp ring of Vendorian steel. She lost her grip against the creature and slid downward, only to be snatched by the mandibles.

“I’m on it,” a recovered Anya cried as she flew straight into one of the beast’s eyes, arms extended with fingers outstretched. Her eyes flared with coherent light as she crashed into the eye puncturing it far enough to bury herself to the waist.

The beast roared even louder and jerked backward, its head crashing into the ceiling to dislodge a ton of rock that crashed down on Molly’s body. For a moment, the mandibles’ grip weakened; she wrenched herself free, then grabbed at the mandibles and tried to worry them loose. The creature responded by bathing her in liquid fire, which spread over her entire body, working its way into every crevice after consuming her clothes. She was blinded when the infernal stuff got into her eyes, and had to resort to tachyon vision – but that made it harder to concentrate on the killing machine’s outward shape.

Molly felt for Fafnir’s mandibles, tore at them furiously, only to have them jam her into the beast’s maw, a rough, snakelike tongue wrapping around her leg as it crawled its way upward between her legs, spitting the acid fire from a hole in the end. Horrified by the realization of where that tongue was headed, she kicked her legs and spun her body around, yet the mandibles held her tight.

“Anya… I need…”

Her sister crashed straight into the dragon’s mouth at incredible speed, spinning her body around, arms outstretched, blasting past the mandibles, to grab the tongue a split second before it impaled Molly with its spurting fire. She pulled it outward as she flew from the mouth, the tongue extending for ten feet before it finally tore free and a blinding flash of acid fire exploded inside the dragon’s mouth.  Molly beat her fists against the monster’s head blindly, but such was her rage at nearly being violated that the blows began to tell. Cracks and then gaps began to appear on the metallic carapace, and at last she broke through into what she assumed was the equivalent of the brain cavity.

It was and it wasn’t.

The awful din of the menschenjager’s message abruptly ceased, and the cavern seemed almost silent for a moment. But the machine was far from dead. It twisted and writhed – still advancing down the tunnel, albeit more slowly than before. Its flaming ichor had finally burned itself out against her body, and she could see Anya clearly now, tearing at the legs further down the body.

But the creature seemed to have spares, like the hydra’s heads, popping out to replace those ripped from their sockets. And Anya was being inundated again and again with flaming gel from the side ports. There must be a limit to the thing’s regenerative capacity, Molly thought; it was only a machine. But would they run out of time before it ran out of limbs?

Suddenly an image popped into her mind: a turtle on its back.

“We can roll it over,” she shouted.

Anya could hear her clearly now, even through the burning gel that covered her from head to toe. She spat out a mass of the fiery stuff before responding.

“You push from a third of the way down, me two thirds,” she said. “Best leverage.”

“Gotcha!”

She let go what was left of the head. The creature could no longer see, at least not through what had seemed its eyes, but it remained true to its course – the “eyes” had probably been just for decoration. A short flight brought her to her new position; the same for Anya. They pressed themselves against one side of the monster, using all their lifting power.

The creature struggled against them, almost as if sensing something were wrong. It tried to shake them loose, drenched them with still more burning gel, but they ignored that – ignored even the pleasure that the flames were bringing to their bodies.

The menschenjager twisted like a snake as it gradually lost its traction on one side, its legs beating against the air; then, with Molly and Anya were applying the full force of their flight power, it began flipping over. The creature was flexible, but not flexible enough; soon, the whole of it was lying on its back. But it was still writhing, trying to right itself,

“Over here,” Molly called. “I’ll hold it down while you rip the legs off.”

They had a strategy, and it worked – but it worked slowly. There were so many legs. Twice the thing managed to right the further end of its body and they had to start over. It was Anya who finally realized there was a better way.

“Let’s punch holes in the thing and eviscerate it,” she yelled.

Of course, Molly realized. Why didn’t I think of that?

Once they had smashed openings large enough to accommodate them through the Vendorian steel plates, the rest was easy. The innards, except for the spare legs and their housings, were a mass of soft tissue – wiring and transistors, fuel bladders and the like. Molly and Anya ripped through them like tissue. In its death spasms, the menschenjager went up in an inferno of spilled ichor that left the Keep itself scorched for dozens of meters in every direction but left the Velorians unscathed.

Anya took a few moments to relax, the glow of her body mirroring the glow of her victory. Their victory.

It’s over, she thought.

It was not.

When the Keep had finally cooled, when the high priest and his acolytes finally came out of hiding, Molly and Anya were praised with great praise. But only for a few moments. There were planes outside, attacking nodes and greenhouses like a plague of locusts -- bombing and bombing. And underground...

“There are others like this,” the priest wailed. “A dozen Keeps are under attack. You must…”

The central government must be pursuing a war of extermination. There was no other explanation. Molly and Anya knew nothing of war, still less of dirty war. They had a layman’s sense of just war; was that not what the Enlightenment was fighting against the Aurean Empire? But that war seemed far away, of no account here.

The Velorian sisters could hardly believe what they were hearing, and yet they sensed it must be true. The Aryan priest, proud unto arrogance when they had first encountered him, looked ashen now – and not from the ashes Fafnir had left behind. His voice was shaking as he recounted what was happening in the other Keeps as the monsters of fire and steel swept through the tunnels unchecked. One had been stopped only by a nuclear bomb – but that bomb, intended for use against the enemy, had destroyed the Keep, and fewer than half of its inhabitants had been able to evacuate before it was set off. 

“You must,” the priest kept telling them.

But to do that, the Velorians must have knowledge of the other Deep Keeps – all the locations, all the access points. It was an intelligence windfall, greater than Harry could have ever imagined. But having won the trust of the Aryans, they dared not risk losing it. They must; oh yes, they must…

It took days. In most cases they were too late, and countless lives had been lost. In others, they were in time to save countless other lives – most of them civilian, but also including soldiers and combat engineers: those behind the missiles. In all cases, they eliminated the menschenjagers; as they gained experience, they were able to do so more swiftly. That saved additional lives.

It was filthy, grueling labor. It was sickening, too, when they came upon only the aftermath of the killing machines’ grisly work – the burned and melted remains of what had once been humans, none recognizable except that the smaller ones must have been children. It was easier to deal with the menschenjagers in such cases, for they had run out of fire gel and sometimes out of fuel. It remained only to smash them, which Molly and Anya did with grim satisfaction.

They came through it all unharmed.

Except for their minds. Except for what was etched in their memories.

But they couldn’t betray that. They were heroines to one and all. They were trusted by one and all. And it came to pass that they heard talk among the combat engineers – talk of a bomb, and Parliament. The engineers didn’t know they were being heard. They had forgotten about the Velorians’ super hearing. Perhaps they had never known. In any case, they wouldn’t have been concerned.

In the end, their stealth proved unnecessary. They were called before the rebel leader, Kommandant Null himself. Kommandant Null had a problem. The Aryans needed to strike back, in Senegal itself, to prove that they were not truly defeated. There was a nuclear bomb hidden in a train station near the Parliament building. It had been planted only as a contingency, but….

“Their killing machine destroyed the control room at Baldur Keep Command Center,” he explained. “The device will now have to be set off manually with a short timer. You will, of course, be able to escape, as none of our other agents could. You have seen the true face of our Enemy, and you have proven yourselves in the defense of our sacred homeland and our sacred cause. But one of you must remain here, for we cannot know what other evil plans the Enemy may have prepared against us.”

It fell to Molly to remain.

It fell to Anya to depart for the capital.

 

Chapter Twelve

It was a stroke of luck that they had found the bomb. It was an even greater stroke of luck that it had not been detonated during the attacks on the greenhouses and the Deep Keeps.

James Kim’Vallara was furious about the operation, of which the embassy had been told nothing in advance. So was Cher’ee, and even Ambassador Vern’danan. There’d been mixed signals from President Bergstrom. At first, he seemed to have been taken by surprise himself. But later, he had appeared at a press conference with Defense Minister Nazillah by his side. Only there wasn’t any mention of the menschenjagers. Bergstrom and Nazillah put it out that Velorian troops, faithful to the call from their Reigellian allies, had stormed the Keeps and broken the back of the rebellion.

Cher’ee had urged Vern’danan to issue a public denial and denunciation, but the ambassador had temporized.

“We aren’t here to make policy, only to follow policy,” he had told her. “Unless and until we hear otherwise, that is to lend all assistance to the Reigellian government.”

Then Bergstrom had had the impudence to call on them on the Velorians to locate the bomb, without giving any clues as to its possible location, nor any hint as to the source of the government’s intelligence. Vern’danan had agreed to query Velor for further instructions, but in the meantime….

“Velor has pledged its cooperation,” he said. “We have no choice in the matter.”

It was Cher’ee, with her tachyon vision, who had spotted the bomb, hidden behind a supply of paint in a storeroom at the station. Repainting the interior walls and signs at the station wasn’t exactly a priority just now, and the rump Parliament hadn’t spent any time in session for the better part of a year. Nobody would have checked here for months, but the Protector had spotted the radiation signature after having fruitlessly flown over the Parliament itself and all the other government and commercial buildings.

Bomb squad experts had disabled the device, and removed the plutonium core. But James had advised against making any public announcement. Instead, surveillance cameras had been set up.

James was shocked at what they picked up.

***

Anya was shocked at what she had discovered in the storage room of the train station.

She had been worried sick all the way to Senegal, worried about how she could possibly explain her failure. She’d never intended to set the timing device, of course, but she’d memorized the instructions and been tested more than once. She could have done it blindfolded, as she had demonstrated on a dummy bomb at Kommandant Null’s Keep. How could she fail now?

When she examined the bomb, she knew how: the device had been disabled, the plutonium removed.

But with the how, there was a why. There could be only one why.

Anya fled the station, as quickly as she could without attracting attention. She was tempted to take to the air, but that would have been a dead giveaway.

Instead, the first chance she got, in a deserted side street, she took to the sewer. She knew nothing of the sewer save that it gave cover – not from tachyon vision, of course, but it was her hope and prayer that no Velorian would turn his eyes in that direction. She made random turns as she flew through the mains, lost track of where she was in the city. She slowed now and then to scan the world above with her tachyon vision, to listen for surface noise. Eventually, she found a deserted alley in a decrepit industrial district and came up through a manhole.

She hadn’t seen a camera back at the train station. But she had to assume there’d been one. She had to assume that she’d been seen. She thought of Harry. He’d know what to do. She had to find Harry, without being seen again.

***

“Her name is Anya Russert. At least, that’s what it says on her work permit, but she seems to be currently unemployed. Lists next of kin as sister Molly, a cabaret singer, reported missing and presumed dead on that ship the Aryans sank.”

James Kim’Vallara betrayed no reaction to the police intelligence report; he simply gave his thanks to the file clerk who had delivered the message -- in person; nobody had any trust in the security of electronic communications.

Cher’ee didn’t comment at first. She was content to listen to James, and let him call the shots.

“The name’s a fake, of course,” James told her now. “I knew from the start that it had to be a Velorian. Nobody else could have disappeared so quickly, and our analysis of the scans confirmed it. But we can’t let this get out.”

“Agreed,” said Cher’ee. “A Velorian collaborating with the rebels? It wouldn’t simply demoralize the loyal forces here, it could undermine confidence in Velor itself. We have a decision to make right now: is Vern’danan in the loop or out of it?”

“Out,” said James. “And not just because of what’s gone down between you two. It’s because he’d feel obligated to tell Bergstrom, and we can’t trust Bergstrom. But….

“But what?”

“Terri has to be in on this. And not just because she’s my boss.”

“Yes, she has to be. I don’t like it, though.”

“At least you’re clear that there’s nothing personal involved. I’d be derelict in my duty if—“

“Right.”

“We’ve got to check the address ourselves, find some excuse to be there. Security forces here can’t handle it, and we can’t even tell them why they can’t.”

Cher'ee looked thoughtful for a moment.

"Agreed. But they'll have put out an APB already."

"Which may keep her pinned down, if she hasn't left the city already.

"Could be headed back for the Keeps."

"Not much left of the Aryans there, I'd think."

"Bergstrom hasn't sent any troops in to investigate. I don’t think he’s going to, the way he’s laid it all on us. Word I hear is that Nazillah jumped the gun with his killing machines. Funny thing is, none of them came back. Maybe that’s why he made up that cover story. He’s really going out on a limb here. You’d think he'd want hard evidence of what they'd accomplished, and since we can't see into the Keeps…."

"More of Anya's mischief?"

"Or another secret weapon we don't know about. Or both."

"We've got to find out who Anya really is," James observed, "Since we can't go through the ambassador, we'll have to get Terri to send a query through military channels."

"We might want her involved in tracking down whoever it is," Cher’ee added. “Safety in numbers.”

“No way,” James countered. “It’s going to be hard enough to explain why we’re out there, if anybody makes us. But the military attaché?”

Cher’ee nodded.

“Anyway, we should be able to handle it. This can’t be a P-1. We’d know if another P-1 had gone AWOL.”

Cher’ee remembered his sister Alisa. She was surprised that James could be so casual about the matter. He must still hurt inside. But he had a job to do, and so did she.

***

Harry was in a panic when Anya told her story.

“You can’t be found here. I can’t be found here.”

“But where can we go?”

“I don’t know.”

“Couldn’t you come out of hiding?”

“I’m dead. This whole operation depends on my being dead. I haven’t told anyone but Vance. Only, I can’t go there. Too many questions.”

“Isn’t there anyone you can trust? Friends? Family?”

“My friends were all in RIS. They’re all dead.”

“Family too?”

Alice, he was thinking. I don’t want to talk about Alice. But I have to. Now.

Anya sensed his hesitation, sensed some hidden pain.

“My daughter,” he said now. “We had a falling out. About Tamra.”

“Your wife? What happened to her?”

I happened to her. I’d helped her get a clerical job at the Ministry of Justice. Before the siege. She was killed. Alice blamed me for it.”

“That’s stupid.”

“She doesn’t think so. Tamra didn’t really need the job, but I wanted her to be part of it. Not for the extra income, just for her to be making a contribution – Alice was on her own by then, and Tamra didn’t have much to do at home. So it happened. Even though I retired afterwards, Alice thought I had blood on my hands. Maybe I did. Maybe I still do.”

"You need some comfort," Anya said tentatively, with a look that promised the world.

"I don't want any comfort,” Harry said, not looking at her, not seeing the promise. “Anyway, we don't have time. We've got to go to Alice's place. It's our only chance. See if you can find something to wear that looks Jellutong. Head scarf and all. They're looking for you by now, depend on it."

***

James and Cher’ee wasted a trip to the shabby walkup where Anya lived. Had lived, anyway.

“Off looking for work with her Uncle Larry, most likely,” said the next door tenant.

“How long has she lived here?”

“Years. Before my time. Her and her sister Molly. Sang on some cruise ship, I heard. Larry came later. I’m not sure he’s really her uncle. Might be some stray Molly picked up.”

A search of the apartment, by tachyon vision, turned up nothing of interest. Mostly women’s clothing and effects. A few changes of shirts and underwear for the man. Food in the pantry, a homebox in the living room. Pay stubs for the women and other business records stored in a laundry basket. No sign of family pictures, a diary, anything like that.

A search by comlink of rental records had revealed that Molly and Anya Russert had leased the apartment six years earlier. There wasn’t any mention of Larry, whoever he was. James was able to hack into the personal records file of the homebox, but that hardly revealed any more than the laundry basket.

They’d come here dreading a fight with a rogue Velorian. They hadn’t found that, but they dreaded what they had found almost as much. Was Molly another rogue? And who was Larry? An Aurean? An Aryan? They weren’t sure which was worse.

Neither was Terri, when they got back to the embassy.

“And they could be anywhere,” the major added. “Back in Southy or hiding somewhere here.’

“We have their pictures now, except for Larry,” James said. “Should we share them with the police?”

“Only with police intelligence,” Terri advised. “If we have them put on the wanted list, without revealing what they are, it would endanger any cops who tried to bring them in. Endanger any civilians who got in the way. And if we do reveal what they are….”

Mass panic, she didn’t need to spell it out.

James was dispatched to touch base with Police Intelligence, while Cher’ree remained at the embassy in case of any further word about the rogue Velorian. It would take Cher’ee to deal with that.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Alice Maclendon slammed the door in her father’s face. Twice.

The first time was in shock.

“You bastard!” she screamed. “They made me go to your funeral.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Harry started to explain.

SLAM!

The second time was in anger, after she saw Anya.

“Oh, you’re back from the dead with some bimbo. Was that your special mission?”

“She’s not—“

SLAM!

“Alice, I’ve got to talk to you. It’s not about us, it’s about this fucking war.“

“Your war, not mine,” he could hear her respond faintly.

“Everybody’s. I know how to stop it. Anya knows how to stop it.”

“I’m calling the police.”

“Don’t.

Without asking, Anya spotted the phone with her tachyon vision, then fried it with her heat vision, leaving a smoldering hole in the door.

Alice screamed, then fell to the floor in an apparent faint. Anya and Harry forced their way in.

When she came to a few minutes later, she saw that Harry was holding her and that Anya was getting some coffee.

She looked bewildered.

“You’re keeping me alive? After that thing with the death ray.”

“It wasn’t a death ray. It was Anya. She’s working with me. But nobody can know.”

Understanding showed on Alice’s face. But not acceptance.

“Everybody knows. Everybody.”

Harry was shocked. Had something gotten onto the newsnets about Anya and Molly? But Alice’s next words brought a measure of relief.

“All the Velorians are working with the government,” she protested. “They’ve got them out there killing the Aryans. Burning them alive. Nobody deserves that. They should all go to Hell.”

Bergstrom's story, he realized. Alice was buying it.

“It’s not us,” Anya said. “It was these machines Bergstrom sent. I was there. I fought them. I know.” 

“Why should I believe that? Harry works for Bergstrom. That means you work for Bergstrom.”

“Not any more.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Bergstrom’s going to think we’re working for the Aryans. That Anya’s working for them, anyway.”

“The government’s saying we attacked the Keeps?”

It was only now that Anya come to understand what Alice had meant.

“The worst of it is, the Velorian Embassy hasn’t denied it,” Harry complained. “I can’t understand what their game is.”

“Would Vance?”

“I can’t believe he’d be in on this.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“This is insane,” Alice broke in “You’re insane, Father. She’s insane. You’re all insane.”

“You think I’m insane?” Anya shouted, losing her patience, no longer caring what Harry thought, let alone what Alice thought. “They wanted us to kill people like you. We might have done it, too, if Bergstrom hadn’t sent those machines to kill the Aryans. Now we’re heroines. They think we’re on their side. Fucking bastards! I thought they were bad, but Bergstrom’s even worse – he must have sent the machines.”

“What machines?” Alice moaned. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Huge fire-breathing centipedes,” Harry explained.

“Now I know you’re crazy.”

“Don’t you understand? She was there, with Molly.”

“Molly?”

“Her older sister. She’s still there, in case Bergstrom sends more of those things.”

Alice stared at them, in acceptance or resignation, he knew not which.

***

Vance Calloway was still busy hunting moles when James Kim’Vallara came calling.

Hundreds of leads, and no smoking guns. Everyone who’d had any contact with the RIS had been checked. RIS officers had all been checked out two years earlier by a Diaboli physician, Dr. Alex La’Reu. That was what Harry had told him. They had all been clean, and there hadn’t been any new officers hired since then.

The leak had to be elsewhere. Some clerk? A worker of the cleaning crew? A seeming friend, even a family member, that some RIS man had trusted too much? So far, there’d been no irregularities in ID records or work permits.

The police intelligence officer had been working nearly around the clock, pursuing fainter and fainter leads. Harry had spelled him from time to time, but he was back home now – sleeping it off, he assumed. Harry was twice his age; you couldn’t expect him to have as much stamina. Still, Vance had been expecting his return before this – in fact, he had thought it was Harry at the door.

“About time,” he shouted when he heard the knock.

But when he opened the door, it was to a stranger.

“Lt. James Kim’Vallara. Velorian Security Service.”

The intelligence division of the Velorian Armed Services. He knew that much. He was vaguely aware of the name, too. Must be related to the former ambassador.

“Credentials?” Vance asked.

The Velorian presented a chip. Vance read it with his PersComp. It was legit.

“We’re looking for somebody. We have to find her. And we can’t go through normal channels.”

“Normal channels being….”

“Bergstrom. The RIS. We don’t trust them.”

“And you trust me?”

“Your Uncle Harry Maclendon was killed, evidently because he was doing his job, because he could be trusted. It’s a no brainer that there must have been a person or persons in the RIS who couldn’t be. He or they are undoubtedly still there. The woman we are looking for may well be involved. She might even have set the bombs on that ship, for reasons that will become clear if you agree to work with us. We’re hoping that blood runs thicker than water, and that you will want to cooperate.”

Vance hesitated a moment, but then—

“Agreed,” he said.

“This doesn’t go to RIS or any other agency.”

“Agreed again. What can you tell me about this woman?”

“That she was attempting to trigger a nuclear device downtown, at the central train station.”

“What else can you tell me about her?”

“That she is a Velorian. You can understand why we don’t want that fact to get out.”

“Indeed.”

“Here is her picture.”

James handed him a printout.

Vance stared at it. He recognized the woman, and tried not to betray that. But his very hesitation….

“This is her sister,” James said, handing him another printout.

There was panic on his face now.

“You’ve seen them before, haven’t you?”

“You asked for my trust. Now I must ask for yours.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

"You doubted me before," said And’rea Cuppers. "Do you doubt me now?"

"Never," said Sayid Nazillah. "Never again."

She had greeted him outside dressed in a low cut sweater and light jeans, her skin a tropical tan despite the blue-cold sunlight. She crossed her arms and shivered slightly as if the bitter sub-zero wind was merely a cool breeze.

Sayid shook the snow from the hood of his heavy parka and opened it to stare into her brilliantly blue eyes, losing himself as always in their liquid depths, his passion for her so great that he didn’t question how she’d gotten from the nearest road to his cabin in the minus 20°C weather.

“My god, you’re going to freeze out here,” he blurted out, quickly reaching out to guide her toward the door of his warm cabin. Smiling, she paused just inside the doorway to wrap her arms around him, her body warm and sensual as they kissed passionately.

Her tip about the bomb -- which she had been careful to channel through Nazillah in the form of an untraceable anonymous e-mail -- was still keeping everybody in Senegal busy. It was doubtless keeping Bergstrom especially busy. But not too busy to do what had to be done, in the wake of Nazillah’s pre-emptive strike. She knew what was coming, and she had urged her lover to take the evening off to make it easier.

The lodge was only lightly guarded. Sayid liked it that way. So did And’rea.

He tore at her clothes, hungry for the touch of her tight body, her silky skin, stretched sensuously over steel that contrasted so wonderfully with the erotic soft warmth inside. Her sex was so tight and so wet and so willing as he took her, and she held him so tightly inside as her passion appeared to rise in even greater measure than his.

They made love just inside the half closed door, And’rea coming quickly, then again, her screams of pleasure feeding his manly ego, convincing him that he was the greatest lover ever. He lay over her, releasing the primitive passion inside him, the animal nature that all men possessed but few dared to release.

The wisps of snow and gusts of bitter cold that blew through the doorway melted against her back as she eventually rolled him over to straddle him, taking him more slowly now, knowing he was uniquely capable of a second coming, seemingly losing herself in passion again and again as she carefully built his passion higher and higher until he knew no bounds.

She was a consummate actress, and she assumed the assassins would be equally good at their job. She was not disappointed.

Chances were Sayid wouldn’t have heard them in any case. But her screams of passion ensured it. He'd never have guessed that knowing what was to come, anticipating it with relish, was what had fueled that passion.

When the assassins opened up through the doorway, the impacts slamming her forward just as Sayid cried out in passion a second time. She rolled over to expose his body to the lethal bullets.  Sayid died almost instantly, even as And’rea made a good show of doing the same; a hundred bullets slammed into their bodies.

The grenade that landed beside them was designed to confuse the forensics, but And’rea used it for another purpose. She rolled Sayid over on top of the grenade, using its explosive power to slam his body against hers strongly enough to finally bring herself to the apex of her passion. She bit her lip and screamed silently as she came hard, smoke and flame enveloping her as she cared little what damage she did to the remnants of his body now. The shooters had disappeared back into the snow.

Bergstrom’s agents were pros; they knew their job, knew they didn’t have to stick around to check the results. They'd already killed Nazillah's own security at the lodge with silenced pistols. The whole thing could, and would, be blamed on Aryan agents.

When Vozeh's team reported on its investigation, it might have taken note of the discrepancy of a missing body. But Vozeh's team had never known that Nazillah had had company at the lodge, and neither had Bergstrom. Only the assassins knew, and they weren't privileged to read the official report. If they had been, they'd have known enough to keep their mouths shut. Professional killers, after all, must have an instinct for self-preservation.

By the time the report came out, in any case, And’rea had made her way back to the devastated Keeps, there only claiming credit for having avenged the Aryans against their nemesis. Things seemed to be going well -- until she learned that the Aryans now had other allies. How could this be?

***

“You’re going to let them,” Anya protested. “Let them make me the scapegoat?”

“If we do anything else, it will compromise Molly,” James said. “Can’t you see that?”

Vance Calloway had taken a chance with Lt. Kim’Vallara, and now he was taking a bigger one, having led him to Alice’s. But he was beginning to wonder if he’d made a mistake.

Harry Maclendon wasn’t wondering. He was livid.

“I took it on myself to send those girls into the Keeps,” he said. “I had to take it on myself because I couldn’t trust the RIS any more, couldn’t trust Vozeh, couldn’t trust Bergstrom. But I thought I’d be able to trust you. I thought you’d take care of your own. But you’re no better than Bergstrom and Nazillah, are you?”

“Haven’t you heard? Sayid suffered a severe case of lead poisoning. Fatal, in fact. Bergstrom’s blaming it on the Aryans.”

That brought Harry up short. It was only after a pause that he spoke, and then more calmly.

“We haven’t kept up with the news. But it doesn’t surprise me. Payback for jumping the gun with those killing machines. Only he still gets the credit for cleaning out the Keeps, and shares that credit with Velor.”

“Isn’t the ambassador going to say anything?”

“Vern’danan’s an idiot,” James said. “But I can’t let on. Neither can Terri or Cher’ee. We’re waiting for further word through diplomatic and military channels. Until then our hands are tied. We can only try to make the best of a bad situation. That’s why Anya has to return to the Keeps. Now.”

“But why?” Anya protested.

“They’re going to be wondering why you didn’t set off that bomb,” James explained. “Fortunately, you can tell them the plain truth: that the plutonium had been removed. I’ll see to it that the same story gets on the nets here. I can do that much.”

“I say she should go there only long enough to fetch Molly,” Harry interjected. “Haven’t they done enough already?”

“Enough for the Aryans, against these menschenjagers. Good thing we’re the only people here who--”

“That’s not fair, and you know it,” Harry shouted. “What were they supposed to do, stand there? As it was, they didn’t save most of the Aryans. Would you rather have had them kill innocent people here to prove themselves?”

“I’d rather they hadn’t been there in the first place,” James said. “They had no business getting involved in this, just because some retired secret agent wanted to find out who it was who tried to do him in.”

“It wasn’t just me. And the rest were done in. But it wasn’t just about that, anyway. It was about the war. Finding out what they were planning. Stopping them.”

“And did you stop them?”

“Anya found out about the bomb.”

“Which we’d found anyway, as you well know.”

“Molly may have found out more.”

“Then she’ll need to be brought back. Debriefed. And Anya’s the only one for the job.”

“You talk about me as if I weren’t even here,” she complained.

“I don’t,” Harry said.

She shot him a look of disbelief.

“I don’t mean to, anyway. Whereas the lieutenant here….”

“It’s all right,” said Anya. “But it’s Molly I’m going for. Nothing else. Understood?”

“It had better be,” said Harry.

“It will be,” James promised.

Vance looked grim. He could see nothing good coming of this. But it wasn’t his call. It never had been. There was some relief in that for him, if not for Anya.

Or for Harry.

 

Chapter Fifteen

Her name was Zar'ya Rhea'ling. She wasn't assigned to Reigel Five. She was only supposed to be stopping off here on the way to her posting. She was fresh from the Academy, and flush with dreams of fighting evil.

The words of the Protectors’ anthem, “Ye Who Are the Warriors of Skietra,” echoed in her mind. She had known that her mandate was to protect the innocent, and she had been eager to begin that task on her assigned world.

Before taking the Rites, she’d been vaguely aware of the conflict on Reigel Five, but hadn’t paid much attention to it. It was an internal affair, everyone agreed – not the business of the Enlightenment. Only then, it suddenly had become the business of the Enlightenment. Velor had officially aligned itself with the central government.

Zar’ya had followed the news during her training on Erin’dor and Atlantea. She’d entered the Academy soon after the Klas’ten campaign, and had felt cheated that she could not have taken part in it. She did not question the wisdom of the campaign. She did not question the necessity of the casualties it had entailed. She had seen only the glory of facing the Enemy in mortal combat. The news from Reigel Five was far less inspiring.

Yet she would have considered Reigel Five no business of her own, had she not heard from the Messengers of the menschenjagers and the slaughter of millions who called themselves Aryans but had nothing to do with Velor’s hereditary enemies. They even claimed to worship Velorians, and somehow be kin to them. She doubted that – at least she doubted they were closer kin than any other Terrans. But if they had no special claim to Velor’s sympathy, they surely had none to Velor’s enmity. And yet….

The issue gnawed at her. Not that she gave any outward sign of it. She was a Protector, strong and proud and invulnerable, even if she was only 17. She loved to flaunt her body, especially when her breasts were engorged with orgone, as they were now, from grazing Reigel itself on the way to its fifth planet.

Zar’ya knew how to do that. She knew how to fly a wormhole. Any Protector did. She was supposed to check in with the Embassy if she chose to visit this world, rather than immediately continue on the next leg of her journey. Any Protector would.

Except her.

She wanted to see for herself what was happening here. And she saw. Thought she saw, at least, in her youthful arrogance.

The newsnets were full of accounts that Velorian forces were involved in what she could only call atrocities. The Embassy made no attempt to deny this, beyond mealy-mouthed excuses that the campaign was by no means actually a war of extermination, that the Deep Keeps were strictly military targets, that the greenhouses were essential to the entire planet and must be secured at all costs.

Secured? She had seen the destruction with her own eyes -- they might keep it off the newsnets, but she had seen it with her own eyes -- eyes that, on her way in, had caught flashes of light on the surface: flashes that, on close examination, had turned out to be nodes and greenhouses exploding into flame. The innocent were not being protected on Reigel Five, they were being massacred. The Aryans were being cast as the Enemy here, for no better reason than the coincidental sound of their name.

Zar’ya had been lying low for several days when word about the bomb plot reached the newsnets. She was surprised, but not dismayed. The Aryans had good reason to retaliate after all they had been through. Only, she had a better way. She’d have to find them, have to tell them.

She wasn’t sure how to reach their headquarters, but she had an idea how to find out.

***

When And’rea Cuppers was told that Velorians had come to the aid of the rebellion, she couldn’t believe it for a minute. But she couldn’t tell that to Kommandant Null, who confided that his real name was Heinz Horst Ritter VomAcht. She couldn’t believe that, either.

VomAcht or Null or whoever he was had shown her the paths of destruction in the Keeps. Only weapons more terrible than she had ever seen could have accomplished it.

VomAcht had shown her the wreckage of the menschenjagers; only Velorians or Aurean Primes could have accomplished that.

“Are they Protectors?”

“They said that they were not. They said that they were members of the lower classes. They said that they had left Velor years ago, unable to bear the lot they faced there. They said that they had been outraged by the treatment of our countrymen at the hands of their supposed betters.”

They said, they said, they said. VomAcht’s words were like the drone of some noxious insect.

He must have sensed her discomfort, if not the reason for it.

“They have proven themselves,” he assured her. “Yea, they have proven themselves times beyond counting.”

And, after a pause, “Would you like to meet Molly?”

She didn’t, but she couldn’t admit that. “What about Anya?”

“She is in the capital, on behalf of our sacred cause, on behalf of the gods themselves, whom her fellows on Velor have forgotten.”

“Perhaps when she returns,” And’rea said. “It would be an honor to meet them together.”

She deflected any further conversation or questions by taking VomAcht to bed.

He was no better than usual.

Afterwards, while he slept, she sought privacy to pleasure herself.

But that pleasure could not take the edge off her worry.

***

The greenhouses that lived, that fed the North, were heavily secured, just as the newsnets proclaimed.

Aryan agritech workers continued their labors under the watchful eyes of heavily-armed occupiers. They had to eat, too. Anyway, most of them weren’t quite as radical as those who had taken to the Keeps. They had no delusions of grandeur. They didn’t want to rule the world. They just wanted Southy’s independence. Most of all, they wanted to survive.

They weren’t really paying attention to the occupiers. They were just tending to the tanks, monitoring the water and the light and the nutrients, sending the automatic harvesting cranes to reap crops that were ready, conveying them to the freezers, then by pallet train to the nodes, from which trucks would take them to the docks for loading on barges and shipment across the sea to Senegal.

When Antonio Presto – greenhouse workers didn’t bother with Doych names – heard the gunfire, he thought it must be a guerrilla attack. He sprang from his control cab and dove for cover, hoping to avoid any stray shots, and also hoping that the attack wouldn’t bring swift retaliation – against him, against the greenhouse, against the whole community. The firing didn’t last very long; government troops must have made short work of the guerrillas.

When he emerged from hiding, Antonio put his hands in the air and headed for the command post, praying that the troopers would hold their fire, praying that they would believe he had nothing to do with the attack. He could see that comrades from up and down the line had had the same idea, and were approaching the command post cautiously – hands also raised. But the sight outside the post shocked and sickened him.

Dead bodies. Not guerrillas, but government troops. No sign of bullet wounds; rather, they had been crushed – even torn limb from limb. Their weapons were scattered about as they themselves were, haphazard.

There’d been news of a Velorian assault on the Keeps, which seemed likely; everybody knew Velor had taken the other side in the civil war. Yet there’d also been rumors of Velorians defending the Keeps, which seemed absurd – wishful thinking on the part of the radicals who’d congregated there.

“Take me to your leaders.”

The feminine voice came from the entrance to the command post. There hadn’t been anybody there before, but now there was. A naked woman.

A naked Velorian woman.

Antonio didn’t know what to say. He just stared at her.

She misinterpreted his thoughts.

“Just cleaning up a bit inside,” she explained. “Getting rid of the blood and the bullet smudges.”

Other greenhouse workers were now reaching the scene. They looked at the naked goddess, looked at the dead troops, and back at the naked goddess. They didn’t know what to say, either.

“My name is Zar’ya,” she announced proudly. “I am a Protector. Your Protector. I need to meet with your leaders.”

That was pretty hard to believe. But the carnage spoke for itself. And there were those rumors. Only….

Antonio didn’t know any leaders, let alone where to find them. But one of the other workers said he knew somebody who knew somebody. That was the way of it, in any conquered territory like this one.

Zar’ya went off with the informant. Antonio went off, period, as did most of the rest of the section crew. A few were stupid enough to hang around until a patrol from the next command post arrived to investigate. They were lined up and shot. The troops hadn’t believed their story. Not that it mattered; they would have been shot anyway.

Within hours, greenhouses in still Aryan-controlled territory were being bombed.

***

Relax,” Sandal Bergstrom told his chief of staff, Chandler Wilson. “Everything’s under control. We’re rid of the fanatics on both sides, and we have the unconditional support of Velor.”

Wilson said nothing. He was used to the president addressing him as if he were making the sort of speech he would have made if he’d leveled with the people about what he’d done. As if he’d dare! And Wilson dared not contradict him, even about the bombing of the greenhouses, which he thought was a stupid idea.

His diaboli genes must be recessive, Wilson thought. There wasn’t any evidence that he could read minds, or even feelings. His only gift seemed to be an inordinate sense of his own charisma. Perhaps it had once been real; perhaps that was what had taken in Naomi Kim’Vallara. Until he had overplayed his hand, as he was still doing.

The President had called him in to discuss possible replacements for Sayid Nazillah, with seeming unconcern for the impact of Nazillah’s death. The Jellutong did not believe that the Aryans had killed one of their leaders, any more than the rest of the world had believed the late C.G.B. Spender had been plotting a coup when Bergstrom had ordered the attack on the Ministry of Justice two years ago. Bergstrom had always had a credibility problem, but the worst of it was that he actually believed that his lies were credible.

“I’ll hand you Defense for the time being,” the President finally told him, after discussion of more likely candidates had gone nowhere. Wilson couldn’t see the point; Bergstrom would be calling the shots anyway.

“We have to maintain a faćade of legality,” he explained now.

He was actually admitting it was a faćade? Well, he’d be the face of that faćade. If Bergstrom self-destructed, he might even become more than a face.

It was necessary to patient, to endure him for now.

***

Molly was staying at Baldur Keep. That was Aryan GHQ, what remained of it. Communications of a sort had been restored, and she was on call to respond to further attacks while waiting for Anya.

When Anya did return, it was with bad news.

“Bergstrom’s people had already disarmed the bomb,” she told Matthias Mauck, an Aryan officer in charge of the section where Molly was now living. Mauck quickly reported to VomAcht on his comlink.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Anya whispered to Molly after signaling her to take a walk with her while Mauck was otherwise occupied. “They’re saying we led the attack here. Nothing about the menschenjagers. They were Nazillah’s idea, but he didn’t wait for Bergstrom’s OK and Bergstrom had him killed. And the embassy isn’t saying any different.”

“Kommandant Null said he’d want to see us when you got back. He might be suspicious if we don’t show up.”

“Let him. What can he do to us? They don’t have any of the Quads left, do they?”

Anya meant the missiles the government called Smart Sets.

“Not that I know of. I think the menschenjagers got them all.”

“Then let’s go.”

There was a sudden commotion – shouts and screams of terror.

Molly and Anya turned to see what was happening.

A naked Velorian was flying towards them. She had an Aryan man in her arms.

Confused officers were reaching for their arms, but hesitated when they realized that was futile.

“Fear not,” Zar’ya said as she set down the Aryan man on the cavern floor. “I am with you. I am a Protector, sworn to defend the Innocent. That oath means more to me than any loyalty to those who oppress you in the name of Velor. Your deliverance is at hand.”

 

Chapter Sixteen

They were keeping him in a box. It was damp. It was dark. He could see no one. He could hear no one. He could only read their thoughts, and that but erratically. They had him drugged him enough that he could no longer control minds. Not that he had ever wanted to. It was against his ethics.

Except now. He would have reveled in taking over his Aryan tormentors, made them beat their heads against the cavern walls. For what they had done to him. For what they had done to Alma. For what he had done to save Alma. But it was no use. He had outlived his usefulness. He knew that when he realized that he could no longer sense his wife. Surely, even drugged as he was, he would have been aware of her, somewhere deep in his consciousness, if she still lived.

It had been so simple a thing. He was a doctor. He knew how to heal minds as well as bodies, in the ancient manner of Diaboli. He had done it for Jim and Heather, after what they’d been through with that Prime, Ulexa. Perhaps that was what had brought him to the attention of the Aryans. He would never know. He knew only that one day Alma La’Reu had vanished. Diaboli didn’t vanish – not unless they died, or took themselves or were taken far, far away. A hiking accident, the Arcady Constabulary had suggested. Alex had bared his mind to the investigators, bared the knowledge that Alma wasn’t into hiking, the knowledge that he could still sense her; sense that she was still out there – somewhere.

Weeks had passed. And then he had been to the capital on business – a medical conference. They still had medical conferences in Senegal, then. One of the other physicians had approached him at the hotel. He was not an Aryan. Not that he knew of.

“They have her,” the other doctor had told him, and offered photographic proof. “Don’t bother reading me,” he’d added. “I don’t know where she is, or who is holding her. But they’ll know if you brainwash me.”

What they wanted of him was such a simple thing. There was an RIS agent, attending a session on forensics. He was loyal to the government, and the Aryans wanted him to stay that way -- to stay that way in his own mind. The agent was to be imprinted with the image of a woman. Alex didn’t know who she was; only that if the agent were to meet her in a certain bar, and was not accompanied by fellow agents, he was to open up to her. He would remember talking with her, but not what he had said. He would go home to his wife, report to his office the next day, as if nothing had happened.

Dr. Alex La’Reu knew the agent; he had cleared the man at the start of the war, when paranoia raged, when nobody knew whom to trust. Bergstrom himself had ordered it, and Vozeh had gone along, being Bergstrom’s creature – at the time. So simple a thing, and knowing the man had made it simpler still.

The mole had gone down with the ship, never having known he had betrayed his fellows. Alex was surprised, but he realized now that he shouldn’t have been. The Aryans must have other sources of intelligence – perhaps that woman. What they’d wanted from him to begin with was to eliminate the RIS -- once it had been bled dry of its secrets, once it had outlived its usefulness. As he in turn had now outlived his usefulness.

He shouldn’t have been surprised at having ended up here, either, wherever here was.

***

Vivi Bergstrom hadn’t even talked to her father since his affair with the former Velorian ambassador. She had nothing to do with him or his government.

A pre-med major at the University of Reigel in the capital, she had put herself as far from politics as she could, although the seat of government was only a short drive away. Not only that, she was a Christla convert. She dressed conservatively, and was never seen at parties. She was hardly seen at all, outside of class and church – neither of them places her father frequented.

Yet because she was the daughter of the President, she was entitled to security – and not entitled to refuse it. It was only through the guards assigned to her that he kept up on her doings, in which he took a renewed interest after the shocking death of his favorite nephew at the hands of that maniac.

Vivi took it for granted that her guardians were spies, that her father received full reports. She could only endeavor to make sure that there was rarely anything of interest in them. She had earned high marks in basic biochemistry, zoology, anatomy and introductory physiology and was now tackling microbiology, immunology, genetics, and cell physiology. She played intramural football for her quad. She was doing relief work for war victims at the church.

All quite admirable. All quite boring, to him that read the reports.

The newsnets had stayed away from her, at least. Her father had put her off limits under the State of Emergency. Should she feel grateful for that? Or was it just that he feared she might involve him in some scandal? Because of the surveillance, there was scant chance of that, even if she had been so inclined. She had put her private life on hold, for the sake of her work. Her only dates were study dates.

Not that she was a prude. She knew what sex was, and looked forward to sharing pleasure with the right man, when the time came, when she and he were ready for the sacrament of marriage.

A fellow pre-med student had told her about the strange case of a Velorian ambassador's wife on some distant world who was said to have converted to the Christla faith and then refused sex on the grounds that she and her husband couldn't have children.

"More papist than the pope," Vivi had remarked, and then found herself having to explain who the pope was, and why the Christla did not consider him the head of their church even though they had originated as an exiled branch of Catholicism and still practiced its sacraments, such as confession and absolution.

For one thing, the Church on Earth still had problems with evolution, which was one of the foundations of Christla belief, long before Darwin had rediscovered it. They believed that evolution was part of God’s design for the universe, but that the design was infinite in its variety. They believed that God had incarnated himself as Christ for mankind, but that other species -- perhaps even genetically engineered races like the Velorians (This was still a matter of theological debate.) had other dispensations, which humans were not privileged to know.

"So if that story about the ambassador's wife is true, I think she must have been selling her husband a bill of goods, or else she got sucked in by one of those Terran fanatics masquerading as a Christla," she said. "Speaking of Velorians, some of our founding fathers had irregular relationships with one of the Companions, and were never condemned for it. Quite the contrary, and one of the reasons for that theological debate."

She'd had to explain about Companions, and about how Velor had gone to the other extreme with Protectors, who were officially forbidden to have relationships with the natives, especially those on closed worlds.

"A commandment often broken," her fellow pre-med remarked -- and wondered why Vivi looked pained. She had never told him of her father's relationship, which hadn't been with a Protector and had thus not been officially proscribed, but still….

It was time to get back to genetics in any case.

***

And’rea Cuppers hid her fear. So did Molly and Anya.

They were all here, at the Shrine in Baldur Keep. So was the highest of the high priests, Martin Spengler. And Kommandant Null (a.k.a. VomAcht). And Officer Mauck.

And there was Zar’ya, whom the Betan and the other Velorians feared more than any of the Aryans, for obvious reasons.

Spengler had insisted on putting Zar’ya through the fire bath ritual. Not that Zar’ya objected. With Molly and Anya, it had been all show, a calculated performance, even if they had enjoyed it at the end. For Zar’ya, it was spontaneous. There was nothing staged in her screams of ecstasy as she let the white-hot flames caress her breasts, as she took them into her pussy. She was out of control, oblivious to everything but her own pleasure. Perhaps that was why she remained oblivious to what was happening in the chamber after the inferno was allowed to die down, after she finally began to come down. She stood there silently, looking dreamy as the high priest prepared the next ritual. 

Spengler had declared a blots. It had once been the most common ritual of the Asatru on Earth, a sacrifice to the gods. Animals had been sacrificed of old -- not as bribes to the gods or to capture their power, but simply as a sign that the worshippers were willing to share their bounty with those they worshipped.

Only, here and now it was to be a human sacrifice. Spengler’s acolytes had dragged a man, bound, blindfolded and gagged, to the foot of altar.

 

Chapter Seventeen

Alex couldn’t see them, but he could sense them. He could sense their hatred. These were Aryans, after all. They hated Diaboli, as they hated all who were not like themselves.

Yet it was nigh impossible to hear their individual thoughts. The roar of their minds was like that of a crowd at a sports arena. What did come through was their excitement at the coming ritual; the images he caught from them left no doubt as to what that was: a blood sacrifice.

His.

He knew that the Aryans had revived the ancient Asatru ritual of animal sacrifice to the gods. But human sacrifice, by all accounts, had never been part of the ancient religion.

Yet here the high priest was raising his arms above his head in a Y shape, in imitation of the rune elhaz, and then drawing the rune for Odin in the air with his staff. His assistants were preparing the goblets, which were to be filled with -- not mead, as prescribed in the ancient ritual, but blood. The favored would drink his blood, and the priest would sprinkle it on the altar.

Alex could take it no more. He shut them out, shut out all the obscene thoughts of the Aryans. That should have brought silence, if not peace of mind. But now that the roar of his tormentors was still, he sensed the distinctive signatures of…

Velorians? Here?

He focused on those signatures now, opened his mind to them while still tuning out the din of his captors. He was a doctor; he was trained to do that. And thus he caught their thoughts. Yes, there were three of them. One of them was a Protector.

A Protector? Here?

Her thoughts were fragmentary, confused. She had apparently just come through ples’tathy, and was barely aware of her surroundings. But the warm glow that enveloped her also had something to do with a feeling that she had come to do good, that the Aryans were her people, the people she should and would protect. She must be blinder than him….

The other two Velorians were…. frightened

Frightened? It didn’t make any sense. And then it did.

But they were frightened not only for themselves, but for him. They were sickened by what was about to happen, yet they felt helpless.

His heart went out to them. But what could he do?

There was another frightened mind at the edge of the crowd. But this was not Velorian. It was – Aurean? The other kind of Aurean?

And’rea – that was her name. She was a Betan. More than a match for any of the Aryans here, but never for the Velorians. And a moment later, he knew it all – knew her double game with VomAcht and Nazillah, knew that she was behind the attack on the Keeps.

Alex might be doomed, but he could take her with him, maybe even create a diversion for the frightened Velorians to escape – he now read who and what they were. All he had to do was act as a relay, feeding And’rea’s own thoughts to the Aryans…..

***

Vivi Bergstrom was heading for to the microbiology lab for work on a class project, an experimental treatment for tissue damage from freezing – a common risk on this frigid world.

There was an antiwar protest outside. There usually was. Such things were tolerated on campus, although they were banned in the rest of the capital. But it was only a small demonstration, an exercise in futility.

Her work, she hoped would be less futile.

But a strange thing happened as she approached the entrance. Reinforcements for the demonstration began to arrive from several directions. They carried the same banners and the same signs, but the protestors already out front didn’t seem to recognize them.

One of her security men approached.

"I don't like the looks of things," he said. "Perhaps--"

"My father never likes the looks of things," Vivi retorted sharply. "He doesn't like the looks of me being here at all."

She brushed past him and continued into the building, followed by the security detail, which always imagined it was discreet but in fact stood out like a bunch of sore thumbs. But as she set out down the hall, she heard a commotion behind her and saw that some of the demonstrators had followed her.

Demonstrators had never come inside before; there was a tacit understanding about that. These had left their signs and banners behind, she saw. They were looking at her. Only at her….

One of the security men grabbed her roughly and shoved her through the door of a nearby classroom. She had a fleeting glimpse of the demonstrators reaching into their greatcoats for -- weapons. Then she was suddenly on the floor of the classroom, covered by the security man, as gunfire erupted in the hall.

***

Anya and Molly had looked at each other helplessly as the high priest and his acolytes prepared the blood sacrifice. They might not be Diaboli, but they could read each other's thoughts at this terrible moment. They might have been taught that Diaboli were tricksters, never to be trusted, but this….

But there was a Protector here now. On the side of the Aryans. On the side of this disgusting spectacle. Should they intervene now, Anya wondered -- stop this madness, even if it brought down the wrath of Zar'ya? Perhaps there was a chance; Zar'ya still seemed pretty much out of it. They could at least grant the Diaboli a cleaner and more merciful death, take out some of the Aryans before the rogue Protector took them out….

But how to tell her sister, how to….

Molly was the first to notice something odd. Heads were turning from the high priest, from the preparations for the human sacrifice, towards a woman they hadn’t noticed before at the fringe of the crowd.

She was dark-haired, but then so were many of the Aryans. Only, the Aryans were shouting at her:

“Lügner! Verräter! Mörder!”

That got Anya’s attention.

Angry Aryans converged on the woman, but she flung aside the first to reach her as if they were rag dolls and began to flee down the tunnel, other Aryans in hot pursuit. Only the Betan – she must be a Betan – was outdistancing them.

“Get her!” Spengler suddenly shouted at the Velorians. “She’s the one who unleashed those monsters against the chosen race.”

But as Molly and Anya heard the high priest’s voice in their ears, they heard another voice in their minds.

“Flee!” it said. “Flee now! Leave me.”

They realized that it must be the prisoner, that he must indeed be a Diaboli.

“Why do you hesitate?” Spengler yelled at them.

The high priest was also yelling at Zar’ya, they realized. She was only now emerging from the afterglow of her multiple orgasms.

Molly could stand it no longer.

"Save him," she whispered to Anya. "I'll cover you."

So saying, she took to the air, pursuing the fleeing And'rea, as if that were her purpose, her only purpose. The rest of the Aryans chased after her, eager to see the traitor and murderer meet her just fate.

Anya, too, took flight -- swooping down to grab Alex La'Reu and then reversing course to bear him to the distant exit of the Keep, to carry him to the safety that lay beyond…. if only she could.

 

CONCLUSION