Storming AmargosaChapter 1

Davra Andraste wanted out of the village. The locals did not arrest her, as she feared, but living in the primitive remains of Edoras came as a step down from life in the mine or camping on the march with Suicide and her team. Where were they, anyway? Did they ever find that ship?

Rumors spread from returning patrols. Something exploded off the western coast, something big. It might have been the Ban Ki-moon. It might have been a Gelt weapon. Or even a human one. Even more rumors suggested humans had set off the fusion blasts in Lansdorp and Arcanum when the Gelt invaded. Why wouldn’t they set off another if it weakened their conquerors?

“Andraste?” The man standing in the doorway to her metal hut leaned on a cane, the result of a bad lifepod reentry. In the time she had been here, his limp had gotten worse, not better. Broken hips did not mend well without modern medicine. Beyond the Gelt colony ships, none could be had on Amargosa.

“Lieutenant Tarak,” she asked. “What can I do for you?”

“We have word from the Founders’ Mine,” said Tarak. “They want you to return.”

Davra rose to her feet and looked around for her boots. “Am I under arrest?”

“As far as I’m concerned, you got that ape to help you off the colony ship when it blew.” He gave her a crooked grin. “Then you got her to surrender to us. She almost seems happy to be here.”

“Our late overlord was as benevolent a husband as he was a ruler.” She found the boots beneath her makeshift cot. “Actually, I had it better. I was merely a domesticated pet.”

“Surprised they didn’t try to lobotomize you.”

“Oh, I’m sure someone would have thought of it eventually.” She worked the left boot on, a leather thing lined with fur. So much for nano-fiber boots. Those would have shrunk to her feet and formed to support her arches as needed. “What about Peteesh?”

Tarak made a sour face. “They want her, too. Interrogation, scientific study. We haven’t been in the habit of taking Gelt prisoners. They’ve been returning the favor since their Sovereign died.”

The other boot did not want to go on, a drawback to having clothing with no intelligence. “Vivisection? We’ve been less kind to Gelt prisoners than they were to us. At least I had food and shelter.”

“And your own little bed. I’m sure that thing was happy to let you… What did you say she called it? ‘Make stinkies’ whenever you needed?”

“Yeah,” said Davra. “I think I broke her of that habit when we escaped the transport.” Finally, the boot went onto her foot. “I also saw them strangle a woman with that collar device they gave us, so I’m not telling you they’re benevolent by any stretch.”

“We can kill her,” said Tarak. “Say it was an escape attempt. Surely, Colonel Jovann won’t hold that against you.”

Davra looked down at the dirt floor of her hut. “I’m a deserter, Lieutenant. I disobeyed orders to take part in a mission I was not assigned to. Bringing back a prisoner as valuable as Lady Laral Peteesh will go a long way toward making up for that.” She looked up again. “Besides, she saved my life. I saved hers. That counts for something.”

Tarak nodded. “Your call. I’ll assign two of the more experienced troops to escort you. As far as I’m concerned, you’re an escaped resistance fighter still on active duty. I’m assigning you to transport the prisoner to the Founders’ Mine. Once you’re there, I can’t help you.”

Davra smiled. “That’s more than enough. And she’s not a bother. She’s very curious about us, like a tourist.”

Tarak looked around him both outside and inside the hut. “Helluva vacation spot. I’d prefer Tian myself.”

At one point, Davra realized, so did she.

 

*****

 

“What a boring little planet,” said Laral Farad, standing in the observation deck of the liner. Below him, the planet the Gelt referred to as Cyal spun, white clouds over blue water and brown and red land. Like a hundred other worlds in the Realm, this one offered nothing new. It was sea-covered with a third to half its land mass exposed, no different from the Throneworld or the various primary worlds of the Realm. As an astronomical body, Cyal bored him.

“Lord Laral,” someone said in accented Mother Tongue.

Farad turned to see a pale human with hair that looked, at least to his Gelt eyes, orange. Maybe it looked orange to humans. “Who are you?”

The man held up his palm, its tattoo displaying some garish rune. “I am with Juno.”

The rune meant nothing to Farad. Neither did the name Juno. “You should be in captivity. Didn’t my cousin try to use you people for domestic pets?”

“Your family’s abuse of the settlers on Amargosa does not concern me,” said the human. “I am here as a representative of an entity to which your family owes obligations.”

Farad closed his eyes and tried to remember all the connections his cousin and his uncle had made in seizing Cyal and Hanar. “I know nothing about this Juno or you. My uncle committed suicide rather than lose a challenge, and my cousin managed to get himself killed.”

“Along with your Sovereign, if I’m not mistaken.”

“So, I fail to see how any deal either of them made falls to me. It’s bad enough this is a Warrior Caste operation. I’m of the Banking Caste.”

“And your cousin and uncle lost two of the planets we helped them procure.” The human looked out at Cyal. “Magnificent, this one you’ve managed to hold onto. I can see why Mr. Klament selected it for our plans.”

Farad stared at the human. “Your plans? In case you haven’t noticed, Cyal is now a Gelt possession.”

The human smiled. “That’s part of the plan. But be advised. The Laral family, not merely your uncle and cousin, are bound by the obligations to Juno. We handed you Farii Kah, and you were outsmarted by one survivor in a rover. We handed you the world you now call Hanar, and you lost it to one of your stupid cultural quirks. That’s two worlds. Juno needs five to achieve its goals.”

“I’m not interested in your goals. I am now head of House Laral. My only obligation is to hold this planet and develop it for the House.”

The human’s smile became something more unsettling. “Perhaps I did not make myself clear. Amargosa, as the humans call it, is critical to Juno’s plans. Whether you hold it or the Compact is irrelevant. You simply were a tool to remove Mars as an obstacle to our agenda.”

Farad looked the human up and down, his hand going to the hilt of his sword. He had no idea if this human knew how to fight. “What’s to stop me from simply having you shoved out the airlock.”

The human pressed his lips flat. “Nothing.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Except that I’d make the suicide capsule embedded in your lower jaw explode and reduce you to a steaming mass of protoplasm before you could summon your guards.” He turned and walked away.

Farad watched the human. He moved with the same bearing as the late Sovereign. “I have a planet to subdue, Mr. Russell. I’ll thank you to leave me to it.”

Russell gave him a smile that looked weird even for a human. “Of course, Lord Laral. Be advised, though, Colonel Kray is also still in play. And we may decide he is more useful than you for our project. Remember that before you think to betray us.”

 

******

 

The Gelt Warrior swung his sword toward JT Austin’s calf, a move that had proven his Achilles heel for weeks now. JT found himself cartwheeling awkwardly while switching his sword from hand to hand. He still did not have the move down to do it smoothly, but at least he executed it. Returning to his feet, he found himself behind the Warrior and swung at his back. The Warrior froze with contact as the blade did not penetrate his armor.

JT swung again at his knee, and the Warrior toppled backward. Finally, JT’s sword rested with its point on the Warrior’s chest. The Warrior pulled off his helmet, revealing a gray face with a flattened nose and yellow eyes. Tattoos covered his bare scalp. His grin revealed a mouthful of canines that reminded JT of the lycanths back on Amargosa.

“You fight dirty, human,” he said in a rough voice, his Humanic deliberately unpracticed as though the Warrior were trying to keep his accent on purpose. “I like that.” He offered his hand for help getting up. “I yield.”

JT took the Warrior’s hand and pulled him to his feet. “I accept. Tell me, Bornag, why do you keep sparring with me?”

That heavily fanged grin on Bornag’s face widened. “The First Citizen is… How do you humans say it? She’s sweet on you. But our Mr. Colt is sweet on the First Citizen. And since I am Colt’s second…”

“What? You’re trying to kill me?”

Bornag laughed as he sheathed his practice sword. “You misunderstand. Colt and I know the First Citizen is fond of you. So, honing you into a weapon pleases her.” The grin became crooked. “And happy Gelt women taste better. Even to humans such as Mr. Colt.”

“You do know we do not use our tongues for that,” said JT, sheathing his own practice sword. He fell in step with Bornag as they strode across the practice grounds. “We use our…”

“Save it,” said Bornag. “I don’t need a lesson in human anatomy. I know the Gelt method of kneeling is odd, but really, young Austin, you humans… Most primate aliens, in fact, have disgusting reproductive systems.”

Now JT grinned. “Of course. If it didn’t feel good, do you think three-fourths of the sapient species we know of could reproduce? Sex is gross. If it didn’t feel so good, no one would do it, survival of the species be damned.”

Bornag through back his head and laughed. “The gods certainly have a warped sense of humor.”

A Tianese human clad in black stepped into their path. Aged more by experience than actual biology, she put a hand out and flattened it against JT’s chest, forcing him to stop. “Did he take you down this time?”

“No,” said Bornag. “The boy won. Been feeding him raw meat, Suicide?”

“Been making him do laps at the new stadium next to the First Citizen’s residence. And when is Tishla going to have the street there paved? It’s not like she doesn’t have the nano-plascrete to do it.”

Bornag bellowed with laughter. “She thinks keeping a dirt road in front of her residence will keep her council humble. Though I don’t know, Commander. Methinks our beloved First Citizen could do with some well-earned arrogance. Look at what she’s accomplished in one revolution.”

JT looked around and noticed the skyline was dotted with new buildings still growing from their nano-cultures. From a rooftop, he knew he would see ten-story buildings stretching for at least two kilometers in any direction. And the finished ones were all occupied. A year ago, this had been wilderness. “Amazing.” To Suicide, he said, “So, when do I get to fly again?”

“Do you think you can do it without crashing?”

“I thought any landing you walked away from was a good landing.”

Suicide scowled. “Young one, we can fuse bone, regenerate a hip, seal cuts, and put ice on your bruises, but shuttlecraft are expensive to replace and even more expensive to repair. You’ve managed to cause both.”

He spread his hands. “What can I say? Go large or go home.”

“Tol Germanicus is coming here. I’m sure he can arrange for you to go home.”

JT stopped, cold settling in the pit of his stomach. “Tol is coming here? Does mother know I’m on Hanar?”

“If he hasn’t told your mother,” said Suicide, “your father probably has. Relax. Legally, you’re a resident of Amargosa, which makes you a Citizen of Mars.”

“Which makes me legally an adult. I get it. But you know both my parents can pull strings whenever they want.”

She stopped and gently grabbed JT’s arm. “Look, your father’s an admiral. I know him well. But I also know he won’t force you into anything you don’t want to do.”

JT’s eye went toward the First Citizen’s Residence.

“But if you swear fealty to her,” said Suicide, forcing his attention back to her, “I will never forgive you. She likes you. She’s grateful to you. But she knows you’re still Lizzy’s pet Earth Man.”

A pang of sadness swept over JT as his hand automatically went to the bullet locket around his neck. “I think they would have liked each other.”

Suicide took a finger and lifted the locket from JT’s hand. “Make me a promise, Earth Man.”

“For you? Anything.”

“You’re certain to become a pilot, so ashes are probably out of the question. Give me something of yours to burn if I outlive you in the coming invasion.”

He felt a tear forming in his eye and looked away. Clearing his throat, he said, “Absolutely.”

 

*****

 

Marcus Leitman looked out from his forty-ninth story office and admired the rain-soaked skyline of Quantonesia. So many skyscrapers crammed into a few square kilometers in the middle of Victoria Harbor. He sipped his coffee, Earth-grown, of course, and closed his eyes. The aroma swept through his nose and took him back to the days with one could get Arabica bean coffee on every other corner, and the sky was not so crowded with space stations. When one looked up at the moon, no speckles of city lights shown back. It had been a purer time, a simpler time. If only that man had never…

“Hanging out with all your friends, I see.”

Leitman nearly jumped out of his skin to see a silver-haired man, thin, who looked both very young and very old at the same time. And like Leitman, he showed no signs of rejuvenation treatment. He just appeared… ageless. “How do you keep getting in here, Tol?”

Tol Germanicus grinned. “A subsidiary of Dasarius Interstellar built this tower. You didn’t think I’d resist giving myself a backdoor to the seat of human authority, did you?”

“You’re not human.”

“Actually, our friend claims you’re not human. That you haven’t been for a long, long time.”

Leitman put down his coffee and crossed the room to a small bar. There, he poured himself three fingers of Irish whiskey. “Drink? Oh, that’s right. You don’t drink, Tol.  What a shame. Bet you miss it.”

Germanicus shoved his hands in his pockets. “No more than I miss that arrogant attitude of yours. But you see, Marcus… Or do I call you Gene? Let’s go with Gene. You see, Gene, I grew out of that same attitude you have when I was much, much younger, before you and I even met.”

Leitman took a swallow of his whiskey and let it burn. The same processes that kept him ageless never allowed his esophagus to adapt to the whiskey’s bite, but he didn’t care. “What do you want, Tol?”

Germanicus took a seat in the visitor’s chair and spun it, a move that sent a chill down Leitman’s spine. The older man laced his fingers behind his head. “Comfy. I have one like this at Dasarius Interstellar. Mine is an original, of course. So hard to find Ikea furniture that isn’t faked these days.”

“Tol…”

Germanicus sighed. “Fine. I’m here to give you an out.”

“An out?”

“Amargosa is about to fall.”

“Does it matter? Look at this office.”

Germanicus looked at the office. “Yes, yes. You’re Deputy Secretary-General. And when your scheme finally pushes your friend ibn-Aziz into this ill-defined role of president, you’ll be Secretary-General. But you’ll still have lost.”

It was Leitman’s turn to smile. “So, you admit it’s a competition.”

“I’m humoring you. For me, and for a lot of other people along the way, it’s a mission, a mission to push humanity to its next level.” He stood. As he did, he seemed to grow in size and stature. “With as little bloodshed as possible.”

Leitman swallowed the rest of his drink. “You have to break a few eggs to make omelets. Or did you forget Ulan Ulde?”

The smile on Germanicus’s face looked demonic. “And how many died by my hand since that mistake? Let’s look at your schemes. All those people on Farigha, Gilead, Amargosa… I’ve done my best to move beyond violence, Gene…”

“Don’t call me that!”

“At the same time, I’ve spent the better part of four centuries cleaning up after you.” Germanicus moved over to the bar and poured himself a drink from a bottle of Cabo Wabo, then looked at the bottle thoughtfully. “I remember when Sammy Hagar sold this brand. Made himself a fortune only a few could dream of. Too bad the agave’s grown on Bonaparte now. He’d be mortified.”

Leitman watched as Germanicus drank the tequila straight. He almost dropped the glass when the older man tossed it to him. “How…?”

“Here’s the deal,” said Germanicus. “Amargosa will soon be in the hands of humans again. Or maybe humans and Gelt. That young Gelt lady on Gilead makes a persuasive case that the Compact is irrelevant.”

“I’m sleeping with your daughter.” Leitman waited for the shock to register on Germanicus’s face.

“I know.”

“You’re not angry?”

“Of course, I’m angry. But Gene, Gene, Gene…”

“Marcus!”

“Whatever. We are both over five hundred years old. Surely, you’ve learned to become very Zen about things you can’t control. Besides, who am I to complain? Tessa’s a grown woman. If she wants to use you as her plaything, what is it to me?”

“She’s not your real daughter, you know.”

Germanicus shrugged. “She knows that, and I know that. But her real father’s an idiot. There’s even a Wikipedia Britannica article on the subject. Anyway, what will you do when she learns you’re the one who trapped her son on Amargosa when the Gelt invaded? You’d better pray that boy is still alive.” A knowing smile crossed his lips. “Or not on Hanar. I’d hate to see what happens when she finds out what you’ve done.”

“You know the consequences of revealing who I am. I expose you, too.”

Germanicus spread his hands. “You’re too young to remember Mutually Assured Destruction.”

“So are you. Look around you, Steven.” The name did not have the effect Leitman hoped as Germanicus did not react. “You built the Compact, and I am now a heartbeat away from controlling it.”

“Are you?”

“You built Dasarius Interstellar, and I am now sleeping with its CEO. Perhaps I’ll marry her. Maybe I’ll conceive her eventual heir since her children seem to have no interest in the company.”

“I believe Tessa turned off fertility after her daughter was born.”

“My point is everything you’ve built I now control.”

Germanicus rolled his eyes, making Leitman wonder if the response was a reflex or a programmed reaction. “Marcus, you are doing exactly as I did in Ulan Ulde. Granted, you have followers, but you get to walk around in the flesh and build your little cult. I did everything myself back then with machines. The difference is I’m no longer willing to sacrifice lives for my goal. Haven’t been for centuries. Besides, my goal is salvation. Yours is my destruction.”

Leitman leaned against his desk and watched the lightning flash outside. “I’ll make you a wager, Tol.”

“Another? How many have you lost so far?”

“This is for all the marbles.”

“Go ahead. I’m listening.”

“If Amargosa falls, I’ll dissolve Juno. No questions asked. I simply end it. My followers will do as I say.”

Germanicus closed his eyes and shook his head. “I’ve heard that before. And if you somehow manage to hold onto Amargosa? Either it remains in Gelt hands or your little friend becomes its official warlord? What’s in it for you?”

“You delete yourself from every Compact and Dasarius Interstellar system. Disappear from humanity and, hopefully, history. You cease to exist.”

Germanicus laughed. “Oh, I don’t think I’d completely disappear, but I might be persuaded to… Retire?”

“Then retire.” Leitman balled his fists at his sides. “As long as you’re gone.”

“Be careful what you wish for, Marcus. You might get it.”

“Do we have a bet?”

Germanicus held out his hand. “Deal.”

Leitman took the offered hand. It was surprisingly warm and dry with a strong grip. The feel unsettled him. “Like the God and Devil playing with Job’s life?”

Again, Germanicus rolled his eyes. “Gene, you always had an overinflated sense of your own importance. I’m no more a god than you are. We’re just very well placed to do what we do. But in this analogy, we are kind of like God and the Devil. Only…” He vanished, but his voice remained. “You’re the Devil. You always have been.”

Letiman stared down at the carpet where Germanicus had stood only a moment before. The puddle that remained smelled of tequila.

“Stay frosty,” said Germanicus, “in a universe without end, my friend.”

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