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Old 09-25-2019, 03:44 AM
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He got deployed, had to have been.

Just my sumrise.
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He got deployed, had to have been.

Just my sumrise.
Nope, he sent me a PM saying your online bullying was to much for him so he was going to punish us all for your actions...thanks.
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Old 09-28-2019, 03:53 AM
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Old 10-04-2019, 04:07 PM
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Default Chapter 24 A

Chapter 24

Claw

Claw and the rest of Winston Indigo's lieutenants and courtiers assembled within an enormous red and yellow striped tent. The tent smelled of mildew and heat and animals. The faces around the canvas looked like animals. Claw cast his eyes of features that were feline, canine, reptilian, avian. All about were feathers, scales, tusks, fur. One figure, it could have been man or woman, had the hard, black, shell-like casings of a giant beetle. Only mods occupied the tent. Claw saw not a single trad. Claw did not underestimate the significance of this.

Winston, the mutant demigod of Gomorrah's ruin, sat upon a raised wooden dais, in a vast wingback chair upholstered in red leather. The king on his throne, Claw thought, seated before his court. Arrayed around the throne were heads of the Spartan Capital Guardsmen killed only days before. Each skull had been boiled clean of any flesh. The platoon's worth of gleaming, grinning white orbs leered out at the court. But Claw noticed the blue-feathered swordsman who took the skulls was not in the tent. The swordsman, whose name was Kobi, had scored the biggest, most one-sided victory Gomorrah ever won against New Sparta. Yet, this hero was not to be found. His absence, like the absence of the trads, was also not lost on Claw.

Piled in the center of the tent for all to see was a mountain of gear. These were some of the spoils of the airdrops: ammunition, fuel, foodstuffs, medicine, and most importantly, the bundles of communications equipment. The New Spartans had been generous with their gifts, but the implied quid-pro-quo was obvious. In return for the supplies, the survivors of Gomorrah were expected to get on the radio and contact the Emerald City. But should they? That was the heart of the matter. And so, Winston Indigo assembled his court to hear their council.

And at the front of the crowd stood the Oracle. The Oracle wavered on unsteady legs. The naked and cannibalistic Raux stood at his side, supporting him. Murmurs fluttered across the crowd. The Oracle gently broke free of Raux's support and presented himself before Winston on his throne. He'd dressed the part. He wore a silky black robe that looked brand new, with cuffs and collar trimmed in what may have been fur. In this post-apocalyptic world, where all of Gomorrah lived off the pre-Protest leftovers, the garment truly was impressive. One twisted hand clasped a hardwood walking stick, stained and polished to gleaming. His implanted gadget had also been polished, and its metal body sparkled. Claw felt self-conscious at his own appearance. He looked like an unemployed laborer. His only article of any note was the fine, pre-Protest, tanto bladed knife at his belt. Claw watched as the Oracle took a small, shaky bow. Then the twisted man began to speak.

Here we go, Claw thought. And they did.

"All these things," the Oracle began, waving the end of his polished walking stick over the pile of supplies. "All of these things fell from the sky. The same sky where Doctor Chosen, our Great Father, now resides with the Earth Mother. Even now we build a monument to him, and his sacrifice, and his gift to us." The Oracle used his stick again, pointing in the direction where workers build a wooden statue in Doctor Chosen's likeness. Murmurs of agreement flitted through the crowd. Claw watched hands stoke at scale skins and fluff up tufts of feathers.

"These supplies came from the sky, delivered by New Sparta. New Sparta was once our enemy. They were a terror on our lands. But now after the Great Father's ascension, they bestow us with gifts of food and medicine. The supplies we needed most desperately were delivered to us. Even more, they have given us the means to communicate with them." This time, the Oracle's stick pointed at the communications bundle. The radio and computers and cameras, and the attached instructions on how to use them.

Up to this point, the Oracle had focused his address on the assembled courtiers. Now he turned to Winston Indigo, huge and blue on his throne.

"All things happen by the grace of the Great Father. The ending of the old world, our gift, these supplies, and this extension of support by New Sparta. These all happened in accordance with the Great Father's will. It is now his will that we use that radio to talk to New Sparta."

"Why should we talk to them?" A voice yelled out from the crowd. Claw did not think the Oracle planted that question, but he wouldn't put it past the twisted man. The old man had an agenda.

"The implication is clear," the Oracle said. "If we want more of these supplies, the food, the bullets, the fuel, the spare parts, then we must call out to New Sparta and ask for more assistance. And why shouldn't we? It is a small price to pay for so much stuff. In the weeks after the explosion, we stood on the shores of the bay, naked and starving. Now, those who were once our enemies have delivered unto us the solution to all our problems."

"It will be the start of all our problems," a voice called out. Claw was surprised to find it was his own. He felt like bending over at the waist and vomiting. He felt like running. He didn't want to do this, but duty demanded it. If left to his own devices, the Oracle would start a race war amongst the survivors of The Bay. If left to his own devices, The Oracle would murder all the trads and leave them in a weaker state than they were already in. Claw pushed his way through the crowd and before Winston.

"Why did New Sparta drop all this stuff on us? What do they want? Those are the questions we need to ask. We should not fall under the allure of all these material…" Claw choked to find the word. Finally, he spat out, "Things. We know they want us to get on the radios and contact them. But why? What else do they want? It won't stop at a single call."

"All they've asked for is a radio call. That's a small price to pay for everything they've given us so far. And what does it matter what price they want for this stuff or more? Surely the price can't be too high, not when you consider that these things they've given us will solve all our domestic problems. No more starving. No more sickness. No more idle vehicles for lack of tools or parts."

Claw faced away from the crowds and right at Winston. "No nation should be so quick to resolve its internal issues, that it subordinates itself to an outside power. This won't solve our internal problems. It will only exacerbate our external ones and put us in debt to New Sparta." Claw spun from Winston to the assembly of monsters. "Let us not forget who New Sparta is. They are our sworn enemy. Our lifelong enemy, and one consumed by greed and hate. For generations, they have plagued us, killing our people, and destroying our cities. Generations ago, the one they called the Hammer destroyed the City of Angels. They just blew up the Bay and the High Council. They left us in ruins and even still." Claw drew his knife and pointed the wicked tanto point at the skulls arrayed around Winston's thrown. "Even now, Spartan spies prowl amongst us. Why, after all this hate and violence, would they just give us gifts out of kindness?"

"My colleague is a skeptic," the Oracle said with a tremulous laugh. "He thinks the worst of all people, even the New Spartans. Likely he thinks the worst of himself." Some in the audience giggled at the jab, but not all. The Oracle went on.

"It is true the New Spartans are both hateful and haters. They showed us no love, only racism and misogyny, and greed, all part of their right-wing militarism. But people can change. People do change. Love trumps hate, forever and always. Maybe now, after all the hate and violence, the New Spartans have changed their ways. Maybe now they seek to embrace love, and now they only need open and progressive hearts. All they ask is that we pick up that radio and call. Are we so blinded by our own fear that we won't reply to New Sparta's act of charity?"

"People may commit acts of charity, but nations do not," Claw said sharply. "Nations act out of their own self-interests. They act to put themselves at an advantage over their competitors." Claw pointed at the pile of gear with his knife. "Our desires for more of this stuff will put us at a disadvantage to our enemy."

The Oracle made a gloating little laugh. "Claw, you are Winston Indigo's chief logistician. Weren't you the one always pouting and crying we never had the food or fuel or supplies to sustain ourselves these many or months? Did you forget that?"

"Did you forget that New Sparta nuked our city and killed the entire High Council," Claw shot back. He looked to Winston Indigo, who all this time sat as impassive as stone upon his throne, betraying not a single thought. If Winston had leaned to a particular side during the debate, he showed no sign. Claw made his plea directly to the mutant king.

"The New Spartans nuked our city, killed our leaders, left us starving in the wild. Even after, Spartans roamed our lands. Some we killed. Some still prowl about the countryside, killing our people. The New Spartans are our enemies. They always have been. They always will be. Our Great Father lived his life fighting against their corporate greed, their right-wing fascism, their hate. He died fighting that.

"Now the New Spartans give us gifts and hint at more? The Oracle says this is charity, but it is not. Why does any antagonist do anything for its opponent? They do it to achieve a position of advantage for themselves, and to put their opponent in a position of weakness. These supplies you see before you aren't gifts. They are part of a trap. They are meant to indebt us to New Sparta in some way."

The Oracle coughed loudly. When he did, Claw paused from talking, and at that moment, the Oracle made a verbal thrust. "Claw, you say this is all a trap. What is the trap then? What are the particulars of it?"

"I have no idea."

"Then how can you say it’s a trap?" The Oracle asked, playing to the crowds. Some laughed. Some did not. The sides were equally split.

"I don't need to know the details of the trap to know the trap exists. I don't need to know the specific mechanisms to know that the Spartan's do not have our interests in heart, but instead their own. I know that, and that's all I need to know."

Claw turned back to the dais, and the throne, and Winston Indigo. He made his final plea.

"If we accept these supplies and the further supplies promised, if we get on the radio and speak to whoever is on the other end in the Emerald City, it will be our undoing. This stuff is not charity. These supplies are not a gift. This is the latest Spartan trap. If we take this stuff, we become ensnared in whatever their next terrible ruse is, only this time there will be none of us left. We've lost too many already; from the war, from the bomb, from the starvation after, for these pitiful infights between trads and mods. Our High Council is gone. Our Empire is gone. We don't have enough left to sustain another catastrophe," Claw stabbed at the pile of supplies, this time not with his knife, but with his talon.

"If we accept this stuff, it will be our undoing. The Spartans will bend us to our will, and when all is said and done, it will be the end of us."

Raux hissed like a lynx. The Oracle swept his robes out in a flourish and made to speak, but Winston Indigo rose from his thrown, blue and massive, and the site of him moving brought a stillness over the assembly. Winston stretched and flexed his massive, blue-skinned muscles, and then, this mutant-king of the apocalypse delivered his verdict to his court.

"Enough talk." Winston's voice was little more than a whisper, but it filled the tent as if it were a lion's roar. "I have heard enough. We will take these supplies, and whatever supplies come after. We will use them not for the Spartans' purposes, but for our own."

Winston then looked directly at Claw and spoke. "Claw. You will get on that radio. You will contact these Spartan agents, and you will find out exactly what they want."







Colt

In his dream, Colt trudged up the hill. Each step was drudgery, agony. At the top of the hill, Colt saw his father, The Colonel, and his great grandfather, The Hammer. The two men stood in a patch of waist-high grass, green and yellow and swaying in the breeze. The Colonel wore his pistol and bowie knife over his hips, his carbine held easily in one hand. The Hammer carried only his black carbine, sleek and minimalist, with no accessories.

Colt pushed harder, hiking up the hill. His legs pumped, and his chest heaved. As in all such dreams, he never seemed to get anywhere. The top of the hill seemed just as far away now as it had been a hundred steps before; a thousand steps before. One step forward, two steps forward, but the top of the hill didn't get any closer. The father figures atop the hill spoke not a word. The offered no encouragement. They only looked down at Colt from atop their hill, judging him against their impossible standard. And he felt he would never get closer.


"Wake up," Christian said softly, giving Colt the gentlest shake. Waking up someone trained to deliver violence instinctively was a tricky business. Lucky for Christian, Colt didn't reach for any of his weapons. He only blinked a few times, then brought himself to fully alert, just as he had done hundreds of times in training.

"How long was I asleep?" Colt asked.

"About an hour," Christian answered. Then he said, "C'mon, check this out."

Colt surveyed the hole they'd taken refuge in. Their hide was atop a small rise that gave a view of the surrounding country. High scrub around them provided concealment. Robins sat brewing something into a pathetic substitute for coffee. Lefranc stood sentinel with his sniper rifle. The others stared intently towards the south. They were actually smiling.

"Bears," Christian said enthusiastically. "Look."

Colt looked. A few miles distant, seven bears plowed through the scrub grass below like ships cutting through water — big beasts with thick, shaggy brown coats.

"Brown bears," Nicky-Lee said.

"Brown bears your ass," Lefranc said. "Those are grizzly bears. Look at those humps above their shoulders."

"Those are grizzly bears," Colt agreed. There was something amazing and powerful about them, lumbering through the scrub. They looked unstoppable, indomitable.

"Grizzly bears don't move in packs," Nicky-Lee replied. "They're solitary creatures."

"Well these ones ain't," Ajax said.

"Since when did grizzly bears start traveling in packs?" Nicky-Lee asked.

"They've adapted," Colt answered. "Maybe before the Protest they were solitary, now they move in packs. They've adapted to their realities. They're just trying to survive out here. Same as everybody else."

Colt watched the bears lumber across the scrub in a wedge formation as perfect as even the most practiced infantry unit could assume. They moved proud and sure, slow but fearless, like a pride of lions. Colt imagined what it might be like to be attacked by a pack of grizzly bears. He was sure he'd never want to find out firsthand.

Lefranc shifted his old, keen eyes from the bears to Robins and back again. When Robins finished making his coffee, he lifted the steel cup to his lips. Lefranc interrupted.

"In the field, the first hit of coffee goes to the senior man. That ain't you."

Robins looked into the watery brown liquid as if some answer might be inside. "But I made it."

"You did. And tradition says you offer some to the senior man first."

"It's alright," Colt said, with more vigor than he felt. He didn't want to get in on this ongoing coffee tradition feud between Lefranc and Robins, and he did not have the emotional energy for it. Keeping his friends alive in this jackpot he'd unwillingly brought them into, the conspiracies and intrigues within his homeland, the heavy shadow of his father that he lived under, all these things drowned out trivial issues such as the field traditions of who got the first coffee. Down below, the bear leading the formation stopped and cocked his head to one side. The other bears stopped instantly and instinctively. No words, no commands, no signals. They all just halted. They were a well-honed machine.

Lefranc called out, "Contact. West. On the hill. Just like we thought."

The lead bear turned, and just like that, it and the other bears disappeared in the brush. Colt watched them vanish and caught the faint sound of engines. To the west stood another, taller, rise. A thick copse of trees topped this one along with an old house. It gave a commanding view of the surrounding valley. At its base, figures scrambled out of trucks. The distance reduced them to tiny black dots. Ajax peered at them through a small pair of binoculars.

"These ones are black sashes. They've got some trucks. Too far out to see much else."

"Any red sashes," Colt asked. A pause, and then Ajax answered.

"Nope. Just black sashes." Ajax lowered the binoculars, turned to face the others, and grinned devilishly.

"Is it the same group that's followed us for the last two days?" Colt asked next.

"Different group," Lefranc answered. He had his rifle up. One eye peered through the scope. "And we haven't seen these boys before. This lot's bigger, but not better organized. Lot's of arguing. It is going to take them a while to get up the hill and search the house."

"I should have planted a few surprises inside," Christian said.

"Save your surprises," Lefranc said.

"I can always make more," Christian said.

"We know you can. But we don't have time to stop and let you whip up some ANFO or purify uric acid. We need to keep moving. There are at least four other groups looking for us."

"I wonder if Gomorrah put a price on our head," Doc said sourly.

"That would be ****ing awesome," Christian said. He commenced to gyrate and do a few Elvis inspired karate moves. Doc shook his head with disdain.

Lefranc ignored the young warriors at their games. He spoke to Colt, "This little trick will buy us some time to give these ones the slip."

"Major K was right, again," Colt replied.

"Major K's always right," Doc mumbled.

"Who is this Major K and what is he right about," Nicky-Lee asked. The other team members began packing up what little gear they had out and got ready to move. Colt answered.

"Major K trains all the Spartan Knights. He's been doing it for…" Colt looked to Lefranc for help, but the old sniper only gave a shrug for an answer.

"He's been doing it for forever. Part of the training is how to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance. One of the tricks he taught us is never set up an observation post on the obvious location but set up so you can observe the obvious location. That way, when the enemy goes searching the obvious spot, you can spot them first and stay one step ahead of them."

"It'll take them an hour to get up that hill, maybe another hour searching the top," Lefranc added. "We can put some distance between us in two hours."

And indeed they could. They'd been moving on foot since the loss of their truck, but moving quickly. Their packs were also getting considerably lighter as they consumed rations and water. But they were also looking more and more haggard. The miles took their toll.

"This Major K sounds like a smart guy," Nicky-Lee said.

"He's not really a guy, not anymore," Doc said. "He's a cyborg. He lost half his body in combat. The scientists and witch-doctors back in New Sparta replaced those parts with machines. And he was a ball-buster. He probably knew everything a man could know about infantry operations, but he didn't teach the lessons so much as beat them into you."

"He's as hardcore as they come," Ajax agreed. "Belt-fed and as hard as woodpecker lips. 'The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war,' all that Starship Troopers stuff, he believes every bit of it."

Christian nodded. "A full year of non-stop training. Every day out in the field. Every day a new torture test. And when you aren't getting crushed with tactical problems, you have to endure all his other hazing."

Now even Lefranc smiled and reminisced about his time training at the Knights Course. "Does he still keep the guidon cased?"

"The flag furled? Yeah, he still does that," Ajax said with half of a grin. Nicky-Lee raised his hands in an 'I don't understand,' gesture. Colt explained.

"Like most Spartan units, the Knights Course has its own guidon: a flag that represents the unit. This guidon is black and white; crossed swords beneath a lit lamp. You can figure out what the swords are for. The lamp represents study and knowledge."

"Or so they say," Ajax interrupted.

"Or so they say," Colt agreed. "Because nobody has actually seen the guidon. Its kept cased and furled; rolled up and stored inside a canvas sleeve."

"So basically, it’s a big stick with some canvas wrapped around it, that you have to haul around with you wherever you go," Christian said.

Nicky-Lee stared and said, "I still don't understand."

"To have your unit's guidon cased and furled is typically a sign of shame and dishonor," Colt explained. "It dates back awhile. If a military unit showed cowardice, or if its members committed some crime, they would order their colors cased."

"So, what crime did you guys commit?"

"That's the thing, we didn't commit any crime," Colt said. "It was one of Major K's teaching methods.

"He said before the Protest, when this was all the United States, the military members of the United States took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Not the political parties or the politicians, but the Constitution. Do you know what the Constitution was?"

Nicky-Lee nodded. Colt continued.

"Only, the Protest came along, and the rioting and the anarchy and all that, and the military members back in the day didn't stand up and defend the Constitution. They just stood by while everything went to ****. Many of them participated in the Protest and helped speed it along. At the time, that military was the most powerful in the world and respected by the people in the once-was United States. Had they intervened early on, they could have put a stop to things and saved the United States, but they didn't. When a few members of the military finally did take action, it was too late. Things were too far gone. The United States was gone, and the best they could do was carve out New Sparta.

"Major K's lesson was that the best military training in the world was nothing without the moral courage to use it for what was right. He could train us to fight and to kill, but that training was worthless without the will to act when it comes time to do what's right. So he had us carry around our unit flag, all furled and cased up, to remind us of that."

Nicky-Lee stared blankly before answering. "You Spartans don't make any sense to me."

Colt said, "We don't need to make sense to you. Just like the coffee. This is about us. It is not about you."

"We need to get going," Lefranc said. "West and south are off the table. Let's try north by northeast and then maybe we can button hook around them while they're busy on the hill."

"We should go east," Nicky-Lee said, and not for the first time. But they ignored him.

They filed off into the scrub, staying low and out of sight, hunting and fleeing at the same time. Christian took the lead. He carried his shotgun in his hands and slung his carbine with its grenade launcher over a shoulder. After they'd marched for a while, Ajax asked, "Hey Doc, what do you suppose Major K is doing now."

Doc traveled several paces before answering.

"My guess? He's probably kicking the **** out of somebody."
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Default Chapter 24 B

Major K

Major K walked through his home; the Commandant's House on the grounds of the Knights Course. He walked past the glass case that once displayed a slick, black carbine. He went out the front door and onto his porch. From there, he surveyed his command, the Knights Course, the institution he'd dedicated his life too.

It was now a ghost town, and he, its commandant.

The Knights Course trained generations of Spartan's Knights, the elite of New Sparta's forces. Now the place was empty. Its training areas and firing ranges stood silent. No students occupied its grounds. The Chief Marshal canceled its classes. Major K's staff and instructors were also gone. All had been transferred to other posts. Military personnel management systems can move quickly and with a vengeance when they want to. So it was with New Sparta. When the Chief Marshal ordered the school closed, the personnel officers and adjutants wasted no time issuing transfer orders to Major K's cadre of instructors. The Major's orders were quite different. He'd been ordered to remain at his post, his empty, hollow post. Stripped of students, staff, and purpose, he was left to wither and die inside this ghost command.

From the porch of the trim white house, with the sun slipping below the Pacific and casting long shadows, Major K surveyed what remained of his kingdom. A mechanical arm, the prosthetic that replaced the flesh and bone Gomorrah took, lifted a steel coffee cup to the Major's mouth. He sipped, then his other, real arm wiped his mouth with a folded olive drab cravat he used as a handkerchief. He always kept the cravat for when he ate or drank, a necessity given his condition. Half his lips were gone, and half his teeth were gleaming stainless-steel replacements. Above the shining teeth, a camera lens occupied the socket that once held an eye. It made the faintest whirring sounds as it focused on the empty grounds. Major K took another sip. Another wipe of the mouth. Then he walked down the porch steps.

From the commandant's house, he strolled slowly across the parade ground. The lush green grass had grown long and untidy now that there was nobody to mow it. Major's K's prosthetic leg made the faintest of mechanical whines as it moved, the fluttering of a hummingbird's wings, nothing more than a soft background noise unless you were trained to hear it. On the other side of the parade grounds and further down, a door creaked noisily somewhere in the gloom, pushed by the breeze. These were small humiliations, part of the larger humiliation the Chief Marshal forced upon him. When he ran this school, the grass was cut, no hinge went unoiled, and no door went unsecured. The instructors led and taught, and the students trained in a crucible designed to make men into the greatest warriors they could possibly be. And this crucible Major K designed himself. He dedicated his life to it, the second life he'd been gifted by the miracles of robotics and medical science, the second life the Chief Marshal took away when he took away his students.

Major K knew his crimes in the eyes of the Chief Marshal were twofold. The first crime was what he did and what he was suspected of doing. He had not helped The Colonel in his Last March. The Colonel was a capable man. He needed no ring of coconspirators to execute his final plan, nor would he have accepted any. He'd undertaken his suicide mission alone; the way it had to be. Major K had been as surprised as everyone else to learn the father had walked into San Francisco with a nuke on his back and detonated it. The son was a different story. Major K had been a willing participant there. The death of Doctor Chosen and the High Council meant the death of the Chief Marshal's dreams of reconciliation and his legacy of a peacemaker. Major K always believed warriors had moral obligations, and he would not let the son be punished for the crimes of the father. Helping smuggle the son out of New Sparta was an act of defiance Major had participated in. It was an act he would do again.

From the parade grounds, Major K went out to the ocean. He could hear the waves and their rhythmic roaring. When he got to the beach, he went to the old fortifications hidden in the grassy slopes. Here, concrete and steel casements once held quick-firing artillery. These had been home to shore batteries emplaced to defend the Puget Sound from enemy fleets. But these fortifications had been abandoned long ago and their guns removed. The course of history proved them irrelevant, unnecessary. And so they sat empty, forgotten and abandoned, never tested by fire. The empty casements represented the second element of Major K's crimes against the Chief Marshal. Not what he did, but who he was.

Steel stairs ran up the side of the fort to the empty gun platforms. Major K climbed them, sipping coffee and wiping his half-lipless mouth along the way. At the top of the fortress, he climbed up until he could see the ocean as the last golden rays of the sunset slipped across it. This was how the Chief Marshal wanted to kill him. The Chief Marshal, the technologist who never appreciated or trusted the Spartan Knights, was leaving him here alone and abandoned to die in solitude. This wasn't just hiding something away where they could be conveniently forgotten. This was vengeful. The Chief Marshal wanted him to feel alone. Wanted him to feel unnecessary. Wanted him to feel like an anachronism in this age of railguns and robots and space-based weapons. It would have been far better to go on a Last March of his own that to remain here, rotting and aging away. Men like Major K weren't meant to go gently into the night. They were made to rage, rage against the dying of the light. The Chief Marshal knew that just as certainly as he knew how to arrange ones and zeros, and thus all Last Marches had been suspended, and Major K ordered to remain at his post.

Another sip of coffee. Another wipe of the gruesome mouth. Major K cocked both his ears, the one he'd been born with and the electro-mechanical replacement. To the south, firing ranges ran along the beaches. Not long ago they rang with gunfire. Now they roared in their silence. Major K went back to the stairs and descended. His one mechanical leg pumped, matching the pace of the other. He went back across the overgrown parade ground, where countless classes of Spartan Knights formed and marched and eventually graduated. He dedicated his life to that, to New Sparta, to training young men in the warrior's ethos. Now that life was over, dashed by the maniacal ego perched in the Chief Marshal's high tower. What was he to do, now that his country considered him a criminal, and a has-been, and something better off lost and forgotten? What was he to do now that the instructions his life centered upon, hunted the son of a hero, hunted its own children, and extended olive branches to his sworn enemies?

Major K climbed back up the steps of his porch, stopped, and turned to face the night. He looked long into that night, and in the cool, dark of the evening, he whispered to himself, "So this is how they felt when they took that first, final, step."

He took one last sip of the coffee then tossed the dregs out into the grass. He wiped his disfigured mouth again. Then he went back into his house, striding past the empty display case. Not long after, the lights inside the house went out, and the grounds of the Knights Course went completely dark.


Not long after the lights went out in the commandant's house, Colonel Hendrick Needles picked up his phone and made a call. Lions answered.

"He's in the house and just went to bed. We're going to take him."

Lions didn't speak immediately. He let the pause linger on the line before responding.

"Be careful."

"I've got a full squad of guardsmen in the new powered armor, and another company in support. He doesn't stand a chance."

Lions thought about that for several moments. The dead air hung across the connection between the two colonels, stale and ominous.

"Be careful," Lions repeated.

Needles ended the call. He pocketed his phone and keyed his radio handset. "Take him down," he said. And with that, a swarm of Capital Guardsmen began their descent upon Major K's house.

Colonel Hendrick Needles was not a Spartan Knight. If he had been, he might have noticed that the Knight Course guidon was posted on the front porch. And for the first time ever, it was uncased and unfurled.

The Capital Guardsmen descended upon the commandant's house from all points of the compass. They came in massive armored trucks, six-wheeled things raised high off the ground to protect against mines. Their doors and hatches and hoods were made of inch thick steel painted in drab nonskid. The windshields and windows made of thick bulletproof glass. A machinegun or railgun bristled from each vehicle's turret. Colonel Needles rode in a command model. Its long troop compartment contained a quartet of clerks, each one pouring of their radios and computer displays. Roof-mounted antenna see-sawed back and forth on the roof, swaying with every bump. A squad of guardsmen in powered armor made up the vanguard of this assault. They rode on a specially converted seven-ton truck, clinging to its sides with hydraulically augmented gauntlets, painted in the Capital Guard's black and red scheme. Their armor was wirelessly connected to the command vehicle, and Needle's clerks could monitor the assaulters' stats on their computer displays.
Engines rumbled and belched. Big tires rolled and churned up the parade ground grass. Not a light came on in the house. The sergeant major at Needle's side spoke.
"You'd think all the noise would have woken him up."
"Maybe he's a sound sleeper," Needles replied. "Maybe he needs to shut down his mechanical ear at night. Maybe he must reboot his system every night, like a computer."
The truth was, while everybody knew Major K was half machine, nobody knew for sure how the man/machine combination functioned. Did he have to periodically shut down and let his computer parts reboot and update? Which made the more significant part of the major, the flesh and blood, or the soulless steel and circuits? Which of New Sparta's scientists made the cyborg? Why was Major K chosen to be the guinea pig in this experiment? The rumors circulated, as rumors always do amongst the ranks. But nobody knew for sure. None save Major K.
"Deploying," a voice announced over the radio. The seven-ton truck skidded to a stop just shy of the front porch. Before it did, each of the armored guardsmen hopped off and bounded to the house, mechanical arms and legs pumping with augmented power.
The house remained black. Black windows offered a view into a blacker interior.
Here we go, Needles thought. The squad leader made another announcement over the radio.
"Making entry."
With the other trucks positioned to provide overwatch and covering fire with their railguns and machineguns, the armored guardsmen made entry. In the past, they would have used tools, or a shotgun, or even explosives to breach the house. The powered armor made such tactics unnecessary. One guard just kicked in the door. A second guard grabbed the shattered wreck of it and using the artificial strength of his suit, ripped the door out of its frame and hurled it onto the parade ground.
"Inside," the radio announced.
The Sergeant Major, who stood stooped next to Needles in the cramped interior of the command vehicle, shifted his feet uneasily. Needles kept his gazed fixed on the target house on the other side of the thick bulletproof glass- black house, black windows, black interior, each a deeper shade of obsidian. The radio speakers clicked and chirped.
"Entry clear." Then, "Kitchen clear." Then, "Team One heading upstairs." And then…
It started as a faint orange glow inside the house, a warm dot within the cold black. The soft glow of the warm orange dot grew. It snowballed into a sunburst. The radio clicked again; only this time, instead of terse military vernacular came a screeching, "aaaaiiiiieeeee." Then every window on the ground floor went from black to the rolling orange of flame and fire. Screams filled the radio circuit, but Needles heard one word over the din.
"Flamethrower."
A guardsman in power armor smashed his way out of the house. Flames danced all over him, blue and yellow and orange tongues licking out from the jellied fuel stuck to his body. Another guardsman smashed out of the house, and then another. One crashed out the front door with his entire head aflame. He fell to his knees, beating furiously at his face with his armored fists and screaming. A jet of flame pursued him out the door. Blobs of burning fuel dripped off the orange spray, leaving pools of fire on the front porch, the lawn, the street before the house. A wave of fire washed over the back of a burning guardsman and he tumbled over. Corresponding vital signs displayed inside the command vehicle went flat.
Nobody gave the order to open fire, the other guardsman just did it. First came one burst from a machinegun. Then they were all firing, firing machineguns and railguns and their lighter carbines and rifles. Glass in the house shattered. Wood splintered. Pieces of white painted siding spun off. A guardsman fired his rail gun. The first two rounds plowed into the ground and sent up billowing clouds of dirt and grass. The third shot obliterated one side of the wrap-around porch.
"Get in there. Help them," somebody shouted. Needles thought it might have been the Sergeant Major, but he was not sure. His mind screamed that this was not supposed to be happening. The armored suits were state of the art, bulletproof, augmented with sensors. They were supposed to go in there, grab the major, and haul him out. Needles imagine presenting the cyborg major to the Chief Marshal, personally, and revel in the glory. Major K was not supposed to have a flamethrower. And how did he know to have that particular weapon? Had the major known they were there the whole time? Had that leisurely stroll across the grounds been only a farce?
A gun truck drove up to the front of the house. Its machinegun sputtered in its ring mount, and troops poured out of the back. Some ran to their wounded and burning comrades only to stop short when they came upon the burning metal suits with no idea of what to do next. An ingenious one came with a fire extinguisher and sprayed down a writhing suit. Others Capital Guardsmen came out with carbines and fired into the house. Their rifles cracked and snapped while other trucks got closer. Needles checked a display — the entire squad of armored suits showed as being off-line.
"Not supposed to happen," Needles mumbled. "Not supposed to happen."
Guardsmen swarmed about the front of the commandant's house. Some fired. Some tried to aid their fallen comrades. A gun truck rumbled forward until its front tires nearly touched the wrap-around porch. The gunner, high in his turret poured a burst of machinegun fire into the house at point-blank range. His weapon was depressed as low as it could go.
The sergeant major screamed into the radio. "Check your fire," he said. And, "Watch your angles. You're going to shoot each other."
Not supposed to happen this way, Needles thought.
"Too close," The sergeant major yelled next. "Some of you pull back."
They did not hear the clacker depress, but they heard, and saw, and felt its effects. Eight anti-personnel mines, hidden in the front of the house and daisy-chained together, detonated. The entire front porch of the house exploded. A sheet of ball bearings and splintered wood shot across the front yard and mowed down everything in its path. Guardsmen who'd just been firing into the house or aiding their compatriots dropped like tall grass before the scythe. A machinegun turret spun around crazily, a bloodstain marking where is gunner had just stood.
Needles keyed the radio. "Everybody get in there. Drop the house. Drop it to the ground."
Engines sputtered and roared. The remaining trucks surged forward, their guns blazing. Needles reached out frantically and steadied himself as his command truck advanced with a lurch. To the left and right, machineguns and rail guns fired. Wall splintered. The chimney crumbled and caved in on itself. A section of the roof came off.
In answer, a machinegun nestled deep in the commandant's house opened fire. It made the deep, rhythmic, "chug-chug-chug" sound of a .50 caliber. Red tracer rounds buzzed out of the ruin and came straight on into the front of the command vehicle- Colonel Needle's command vehicle. Needles stood flat-footed, and mouth agape as the windshield before him cracked apart. The sergeant major grabbed Needles by the arm. He yanked Needles bodily to the back of the vehicle and down to the floor. Needles bounced off the floorboard just as the windshield imploded. The cab of the truck filled with bits of glass, and bullets, and flesh and blood as the driver and assistant driver were shredded still buckled in their seats. The bullets kept coming. The truck sped up and swayed violently. In the back, bullets impacted and tore clerks and radios and computers to bits. The sergeant major threw Needles out the back of the truck bodily, and the next thing he knew, Needles was looking up from the grass at a scene of chaos and carnage.
The lawn was full of dead guardsmen. Some were armored. Some were not. The command vehicle sped forward out of control. It struck something, turned too sharply, and then the tall, top-heavy armored vehicle spilled over onto its side. Another gun truck sat idle, the one that drove right up on the house. Its hood and cab were a rolling red inferno. Major K's house was a fiery, shattered ruin. Flames climbed up one side and reached into the night sky. Smoke and cinders filled the air. Inside, the fifty caliber machinegun chugged on. Red tracers buzzed out, the impacts of each round evenly and perfectly spaced. Needles watched as a guardsman stood and fired blindly into the ruin. A second later, one of his legs disappeared in a cloud of red mist, and his body flew up and spun around, his carbine swung wild on its sling.
Near Needles, the sergeant major crawled and shouted into his radio. Another gun truck rumbled forward. This one carried a railgun. It fired once, making a flat, "splat" sound. The air filled with the smell of ozone. The kitchen and one side of the wrap-around porch came apart. The railgun fired again. That brought another splat sound and more ozone stink. Another section of the roof collapsed in, and out of the hole rolled smoke and flame.
The fifty-caliber fire stopped. There was an ominous pause, and next came a cracking boom. A missile shot out of the house and immediately climbed skyward. It shot up, up, up, as if destined for the moon.
The sergeant major grabbed Needles by the collar and screamed.
"Air support. Get us air support now."
In the sky, the missile stopped its flight upwards. It jackknifed like an Olympic Diver, pointing back down at the earth. The missile's seeker head found the truck with the railgun. It locked onto the top of the truck where the armor was then thinnest, and it thundered downward.
"We have to pull back," The sergeant major continued. "Pull back and bring in air."
The missile struck the armored truck, punched through the roof, and then blew it apart from the inside out. Hatches and doors blew off. Thick blocks of bulletproof glass flew from their brackets. The engine tumbled forward and out, spinning over and around and shedding pieces in all directions. The batteries for the railgun alighted and burned supernova bright. A guardsman nearby bent over double, dropping his carbine and shielding his face with both hands.
"We're too close, we have to pull back," the sergeant major said one last time before a flying armored steel door cut him in half. Needles gaped, open-mouthed and horror-struck, at the severed arm that still clung to his collar. He frantically batted it away.
The fifty-caliber opened up again. Its fire cut diagonals across the ground, searching and traversing and looking for targets. A trio of Needle's guardsman surged forward only to fall like bowling pins. Needles rolled over and scrambled behind a wreck of burning metal that offered some cover. He heard another missile launch from inside the inferno that once was the commandant's house. Its motor made a spluttering, burning sound. A second later, a gun truck went up in the air and then slammed back down to earth, a blazing wreck.
Pandemonium and terror filled the radio circuit, but Needles cut across it. He ordered his men, "Pull back. Pull back! Pull back!" Then he found an outside station. With a voice that matched his shattered and burning command, he screamed, "Air support! Air support! We need air support now! Now! Now! Now!"

The next day, after the sun had risen, and the last of the planes had dropped their bombs, and the coals and ashes that were once the commandant's house had burned out and cooled, platoons of Capital Guardsmen searched through the rubble. They never found the black and white guidon of the Knights Course.

And of course, they never found the body of Major K.
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Default Chapter 25 A

Chapter 25
Lions

A full moon shone down from a clear and cloudless sky. On his way to the Chief Marshal's tower, Lions paused to gaze up at it. To the north, a trail of white fire climbed up and up to where the sky stopped being sky and became space. The burning trail was the drive plume of a spacecraft, launched from the spaceport known as the Lazy B Ranch and going up to resupply the Morning Star constellation and bring it back online. We can put men into space, but we can't arrest them, Lions thought. We rely too much on technology. It can take us far, but it can't take us all the way. Without thinking about it, he patted the metal object in his tunic pocket.

The hour was late, but hatchet men like Lions kept odd hours. This night had been full of work with more to come. Hours earlier, he met with General Greylick, New Sparta's Director of Science and Technology. The Director looked much rougher than when Lions saw him last. He'd let the hair grow on his balding his usually closely shaved head. White wispy patches poked out, and dark and meaty bags hung under the general's eyes. His usual pink complexion was now pale and sweaty.

"I haven't been getting much sleep lately. This strange computer code, the resupply of the Morning Stars, and now this soup-sandwich out on the Peninsula. We lost half our powered armor inventory in one night."

Lions nodded sympathetically. The powered armor suits used for the assault on Major K amounted to a large fortune and decades of research and development. Now they were nothing more than scrap metal and maybe a few salvageable spare parts. The failed attempt to arrest Major K brought about whispers and rumors, none of which boded well for the Chief Marshal and his agenda.

"The good news is we had a breakthrough on that strange code, another small piece of the larger puzzle. Take a look at this," General Greylick handed two collections of papers to Lions, one in each of his meaty hands. He added, "They're an 85% match."

Lions looked the two handfuls of paper over. "Of course, they are," he said, briefly feigning comprehension before asking, "What the hell am I looking at?"

Greylick smiled and gave a small snort of a laugh. "In your left hand is pieces of the code that hacked the Morning Star network the day of the incident. In your right hand is a sample of code intercepted two years ago."

"Intercepted from where," Lions asked.

"Data transmission sent by HF radio. A directional shot. One of our eavesdropper drones picked it up.

"We weren't getting anywhere with the snatch of code intercepted from the hacking incident. So, I had my tech comb through all the signals intercepts we had on record. Their orders were to look for anything, non-standard, unusual, unexplained."

"And they found this?"

"Indeed," Greylick said, taking the stacks of printed code from Lions. He put them away and next produced a map. The map depicted the once-was state of California. Greylick drew a circle in the map's northwest corner.

"As near as we can reconstruct, based on the data we have, the transmission originated here."

Lions looked at the circle. It was large. It contained places with names like Rockland, Idlewild, Peak Eight, Gasquet, Happy Camp, Cottage Grove.

Greylick drew a diagonal line across the map, then another circle. He gave his artwork a tap.

"And it was likely sent here."

Lions took a look at the second circle. It sat midway down the state, this time on the old Nevada border. This circle contained towns with the names Strawberry, Colfax, Bumblebee, Cottage Springs. Both locations were mountainous. Both were remote. Lions mused.

"The message's origin and destination are useful. It would be even more useful if we knew what the message said."

Greylick frowned. His bald forehead wrinkled into meaty folds. He wiped away sweat with a cloth that Lions thought looked plenty damp already.

"I can match this piece of code with the other piece of code. That proved easy enough. But after months of analysis and using all the computing power at my disposal, which is considerable, I'm no closer to deciphering this computer code than I ever was."

"That's disappointing."

"Any code man can make, man can break," Greylick said. "But doing so takes time and resources. I've invested plenty so far, without result. I'm certain this code can be broke. I'm equally certain it can't be broken soon enough to fit our commander's timeline, whatever that may be."

Lions tapped the map this time. He asked, "and what's out here in either of these places."

"Nothing," Greylick admitted. "Which might be precisely the point." The meaty general wiped away another surge of sweat and asked, "Are you familiar with the Vantasner Theorem?"

Lions sank back in his chair and let the rigidity sweep out of his body. He usually would not have taken such liberties before a general officer, but he and Greylick had a proper understanding of their relationship. Greylick may have had the general's stars, but Lions held the actual position of authority working personally for the Chief Marshal as he did.

"Yes, the military theorist Vantasner. He postulated that New Sparta and Gomorrah might not have been the only powerful societies to emerge after The Protest. That there might be other nations or states or societies existing in secret."

"Yes. While the Protest's destruction of the once-was United States was complete, its onset wasn't swift. The leadup to the Protest took years, decades, generations some say. The collapse brought about by the Protest was telegraphed like a rookie boxer's roundhouse. Despite the turmoil, in those final years, technology and information were flattening. The technology and resources needed to survive and thrive after a world-changing event were available to anybody with the will to acquire them.

"Vantasner believed that well-organized groups might have predicted the breakdown of society, gathered the means to weather it, and then rode out that bloody period in some remote location.

"Having survived the initial phase of destruction, such groups would be loath to reveal themselves in the ensuing war between Gomorrah and New Sparta. Sealed off from the greater world, existing in a vacuum of their own making, there is no telling how such societies might have evolved."

Lions looked at the map. Each location was remote, mountainous, forested, wild. Great country for people who wanted to not be found. Still, the idea of a lost society wasn't something he could take back to the Chief Marshal.

"Vantasner's theory is interesting enough for classroom work, but in practicality, it seems to amount to nothing more than chasing ghosts. I need something more to bring to the Chief Marshal." General Greylick nodded.

"We can keep Vantasner and his thesis between ourselves. What we can do is redirect our Eavesdropper drones and other signals intelligence assets over these two areas and see if they pick anything else up. We might get lucky."

"It sounds thin," Lions said. "That last intercept was from two years ago?"

"It is thin. But right now it is all we have, and sadly, in a world of setbacks, a small victory is better than no victory at all. I've heard that Major K is… unaccounted for."

Lion's stomach turned at that. Major K's escape would be the subject of much conversation this night, he knew.

"Colonel Needles says he must have burned up in the fire."

General Greylick chortled. "Major K was half metal. If he burned up in a house fire, surely there would be something left."

Lions frowned. He didn't like making excuses and apologizing for his fellow colonels. The great egos and greater failures of Colonel Hendrick Needles and his twin brother Brown were a professional embarrassment. Colonel Lions would save his opinions on that for his next meeting. Instead of commenting on the Major K escape, he asked, "What do I need to do to redirect our signals intelligence assets?"

"Nothing," General Greylick answered with a smile. "Now that we know who is left alive down around the Bay, and now that you've opened a diplomatic channel with them, I can redirect them."

Yes, Lions thought. The opening of diplomatic relations with Gomorrah's survivors. No doubt I will be discussing that further before the evening is over. Lions thought on redirecting all the signal intelligence drones, and he thought better of it. He pointed at the map. "Send one Eavesdropper platform here along the coast, and another up into the Sierras."

Greylick raised a questioning eyebrow. Lions gave an answer.

"We keep the rest in the Central Valley and around the Bay. The Colonel's son is still out there. The Chief Marshal wants him."

Lions watched the drive plume climb and diminish. When it was just another white light in a sky full of them, he continued to the Chief Marshal's tower. At the entrance, Capital Guardsmen waved him through the security checkpoint. The guard had doubled, and one guardsman wore powered armor. After the debacle, it was likely one of the last sets. The official story was Major K died during the arrest, and Colonel Hendrick Needles maintained that was the case. But no prudent man assumed Major K was dead when he might not be.

At the top of the tower, Lions found the Chief Marshal in his full-dress uniform, as always. Gorman's black leather Sam Brown belt gleamed, and from it hung an antique Mauser Pistol, butt forward. Engraved in the wood grip was the number "9" in blood-red. A matching pistol rested on a desk nearby. All around the chamber, Gorman's stewards and retainers buzzed. Some polished bits and pieces of uniforms, others dusted the trove of military artifacts which decorated the room. With a gesture of his hand, the Chief Marshal dismissed his servants. They disappeared from the room without a word. Gorman made another gesture, inviting Lions to sit at a conference table whose smooth wood surface gleamed just as brightly as the medals and buttons and polished leather belt and everything else in this perfect but cold room. Before sitting, Lions removed the metal object from his tunic pocket and slid it across the table.

"Sir, the key you requested."

Gorman nodded, took the small key, and tucked it away into his own tunic. As he did, Lions asked, "Sir, I'm not sure what you intend to do with that, but perhaps I can get somebody to do it for you. I should hate for someone in your position to take unnecessary risks."

"This is a risk I must take myself," Gorman said. Then signaling he wanted no further discussion about that, Gorman said, "The business with Major K; it was a botched job."

"Colonel Needles believes he died in the fire after the airstrikes," Lions replied with all the enthusiasm he could muster for that theory, which was little enough. Gorman looked Lions over with cold but inquisitive eyes.

"What do you think?" The Chief Marshal asked.

"Major K was half robot. If he burned up in the fire, we would have found some of his parts in the ashes. Needles is a fool if he really believes Major K is dead." He's a fool regardless, Lions did not say aloud.

"He botched the Major K mission just as he botched the reconnaissance of the drone strike and got that platoon wiped out, and our new Gomorrah friends upset," Gorman began. "Just as his brother botched the evacuation of confluence. Hendrick Needles and his brother Brown Needles, are of a certain sort. Neither is terribly competent or capable, but they are loyal. And they are… reliably unambitious in their own way. They expect to be rewarded for their loyalty, to be sure. But neither are ambitious enough to try to outmaneuver me. They won't try to climb and claw their way to positions of greater power, the way an industrious and capable man might. I might have to worry about them doing their jobs competently, but I will never have to worry about them going behind my back, going rogue like so many others have. And besides his loyalty, Colonel Needles is valuable because he is expendable."

Lions felt the Chief Marshal just put forward a lesson, but he could not figure out what exactly that lesson was. The Chief Marshal continued.

"With Major K, caution is the best policy. We must assume he's alive until we have absolute proof to the contrary." Gorman grimaced and shook his head thoughtfully.

"Needles did a bad job of the assault, but the real problem is we telegraphed the move. Applegate. The Crown Prince. The senators and other legislators. Word leaked out. The gears we meant to grind Major K down turned too slowly. Far too slowly for this game."

Gorman shook his head again, reproachfully this time. And Lions knew the Chief Marshal was reproaching himself.

"We moved too slowly on Major K. We moved too slowly on The Colonel's son. It's a mistake we keep repeating, and every time it costs me dearly. The slow, cautious, cooperative, and collaborative way is how I got here, Colonel Lions. But it won't get me to the next level. I must untrain myself in the habits that made me successful up to this point.

"The Colonel did not move slowly. He dashed in headlong, with a nuclear bomb tied to his back. He did not cooperate or collaborate or linger to build a team or a team of teams. He just did it. He just did what he had to do. That is the lesson The Colonel left for me. Attack without hesitation. Attack with speed, shock, and violence of action. When next we go after enemies of the state, we will attack without warning."

Lions said nothing. Gorman steepled his fingers and looked at Lions with dark eyes. Those eyes were dark, ambitious, and ruthlessly cold. The Chief Marshal's mouth moved into a smile that was professionally pleasant, but also severe. Gorman said, "Your conversation with this Gomorrah ambassador, Claw, it went well.

Opening diplomatic relations with the refugees of Gomorrah was the Chief Marshal's top priority. When word came that Gomorrah was attempting to contact them by radio, Lions dropped everything to answer the call.

"What's your take on this, Claw, and what he said?" Gorman asked.

"He's an amateur," Lions answered. "Not a trained diplomat in the classical or any other sense. But he is determined. And it seems he has little love or trust for us."

The New Spartan's tried to open a video connection with Gomorrah but had only gotten audio. The man on the other end, who sometimes referred to himself as Claw but other times called himself Cassandra, said they disabled their camera.

"You don't get to see us, not yet," Claw said early on in their conversation. Lions did not know what to make of that statement. What he did know was that Claw was not happy about Sparta/Gomorrah relations.

"Normally when opening diplomatic relations, you don't go directly to demands and grievances," Lions said. "This Claw did just that."

"Yes," Gorman agreed. While Lions did the actual one-on-one negotiation with Claw, Gorman listened in on the conversation. Doubtless, other parties were listening in on the Gomorrah side. Regardless, Gorman heard the entire exchange between Lions and Claw. "I can't fault them for being too upset. Too insolent. Their capital did get nuked after all. But this Claw only made two overt demands. An assumed third would be the continued delivery of aide and equipment. He didn't expressly ask for that, but we are prepared to continue the airdrops, and we will continue with that."

Lions said, "His first overt demand was an end to the raiding parties operating in Gomorrah now. The only parties operating there is this motley crew traveling with The Colonel's son and our man Rodrigo Vlain. The son is its own problem. I can order Vlain to hold off on his mission."

The Chief Marshal shook his head no. "Captain Vlain and his partisans continue their operation. The secrets they uncover from raiding Doctor Chosen's labs will prove invaluable. I must have that info. As for The Colonel's son, nothing would make me happier than to deliver him to those Gomorrah screamers as a peace offering. I could kill two birds with one stone, so to speak."

"General Greylick still has his drones scouring the Central Valley for them. Something will turn up, eventually," Lions said.

Gorman nodded. His temples wrinkled. Distinguished patches of grey hair at the temples highlighted Gorman's otherwise raven black mane. His cold eyes flashed about the room, with its museum trove of artifacts. When those cold dark eyes locked back on Lions, Gorman asked, "What do you think of this Claw's second demand?"

"Chief Marshal, I can't say I like the idea of sending our people down there to integrate with theirs. I understand the need for envoys. I understand they want advisors to show them how to use all the stuff we've delivered to them, but I don't trust them. And normally staffing such a team of envoys would be done with Spartan Knights, which I don't think we are willing to do right now."

"No," Gorman agreed. "No Spartan Knights. They have received the training in diplomacy and military advising, but I would not trust a team of them operating on their own and so far from my reach. Everything hinges on reconciliation with Gomorrah, merging our two nations into one, ending this war once and for all. Too many Spartan Knights remember The Colonel too fondly. And now this matter with Major K. Misplaced loyalties. Politically unreliable. I would not be able to trust any team of Spartan Knights."

"But we have to send someone down," Lions said. "Like it or not. If you are to realize the dream of reconciliation between our enemies and us, we have to take strong diplomatic steps, especially now while we have momentum. We have to gather up a team of advisors and envoys and get them down south now."

Gorman smiled. It was a small, professional smile, but it was as cold as his dark eyes.

"We will send a team down there, yes. This team will act as advisors to this Claw and his king, Winston Indigo, yes. They will also serve as envoys, yes," Gorman began. "But they will also be hostages. Gomorrah hostages. Alone and unafraid, deep in the camp of those refugee screamers, anyone we send would be at the mercy of our former enemies. If another bomb got loose and blew up whatever pigsties are left down there, or some new band of Spartan Knights went rogue, this Claw and his king he calls Winston Indigo could slit all our peoples' throats. There would be little we could do to stop them. So yes, whoever we send down will advise our potential allies on how to use the stuff we gave them. And yes, they will also advise us on what more we need to send to Gomorrah. But they will also be there to solidify this alliance I am trying to build, with their lives if necessary."

It hit Lions right then, the Chief Marshal's lesson. "You intend to send Colonel Hendrick Needles into Gomorrah," Lions said.

"He's loyal, and he's expendable. He's of a high enough rank that our new friends should not feel slighted. Hendrick will go south, and his brother Brown will assume command of the Capital Guard."

Lions felt more than a little shocked at the proposal. "Sir, you aren't worried Colonel Hendrick Brown might botch the job with Gomorrah like he botched these other jobs?"

"He's not overly capable, but he's not overly imaginative either. I don't think he's creative enough to truly mess things up. Besides, I intend to give our Gomorrah partners a gift as an act of good faith."

"What's that, sir," Lions asked.

"This Claw complained that Spartans were ranging in his area and killing his people. Obviously, one group is Rodrigo Vlain. So long as he is doing my bidding, Captain Vlain is sacrosanct. The Colonel's son and his companions are a thorn in my side, however. They are a thorn in this Claw's side as well. In the son lies an opportunity for us to work together to achieve a shared goal."

"You are going to give the son to Gomorrah?"

"As best we can, Colonel Lions, as best we can. I can't hand him over to this Claw directly, but we can give them information on the son and his group: their names, photographs, how they are armed, other information. Information that might help them in their pursuit. And once Colonel Needles gets down there and gets himself established, he can coordinate our drones in the air with Gomorrah's forces on the ground. If I am lucky, Claw and these Gomorrah refugees might just kill The Colonel's son for me."

Gorman's smile widened, and this time Lions saw the smile was genuine. It was still cold, calculating and ruthlessly ambitious, but it conveyed the pure pleasure Gorman felt at the idea. Gorman finished.

"The father tried to destroy Gomorrah. That was his legacy, a legacy he failed to establish. But I will bring peace between Gomorrah and New Sparta. There will be peace and reconciliation, followed by the absorption of Gomorrah into my nation. That done, my borders will expand across the rest of North America. That done, I can extend my reach even further. That will be my legacy. And it will all begin when together with our former enemies, I destroy The Colonel's son."

The Pale
A world away, but beneath the same full moon that shone upon Lions and Gorman in their tower, the Pale convened in the center of their compound. The father, John Pale, stood atop his raised platform and preached to his clan. George, John's first and true-born son, stood at his side. He was beautiful in the way of the Pale. George stood tall, muscular, albino pale, and hairless. Jimmy Pale, the bastard son, took his place in the back of the loose ranks, sullen and brooding. Jimmy's wiry black hair matched his father's, but his skin was a ruddy brown, not the pasty pale of his father and brother-in-law. The wood and plaster golem overlooked all of them. The father sustained his rantings. George stood by, quiet, and loyal. Jimmy plotted.
The Pale took many slaves since the last full moon. The roads leading east out of the Central Valley into the mountains were well-traveled of late. First came the nuclear destruction of The Bay. Next came the raiding. The survivors of The Bay's destruction preyed upon those living in the valley, raiding, and looting, raping and killing. The latest news spoke of mutants; half-man half-animal monsters that dined on human flesh. Jimmy Pale did not believe in tales of mutants and monsters and other such ghost stories. Nor did he believe spells and blood sacrifices could make his father's golem come to life… and yet. There was always something about these full-moon rituals that put Jimmy Pale ill at ease. Most of him believed this was all a farce, a cruel trick played on his fathers' people by the dearly departed Doctor Chosen. But a small part of Jimmy, a little nagging part in the back of his mind, believed. It wanted to believe. And every full moon Jimmy found himself imagining the great golem blinking its eyes and flexing its fingers and coming to life in a magical and terrible fury.
Regardless of the prospects of the golem's animation, Jimmy's harvest of slaves had been bountiful. Two dozen children alone, each now tied to post and drugged into a state of semiconscious. They'd taken more than that in women, but the tunnels under the compound could only hold so many, and they could only make so much Hush to keep them drugged up. The harem had to be thinned out. Thus, just as one would do with livestock, the oldest and the weakest went beneath Jimmy's hammer. They did it just outside the walls of the palisade and let the corpses slid down into the nearby cesspit. The women who remained were drugged and taken underground to serve as tunnel wives for the men of the Pale. The drugs and the rapes, the birthing of bastards for the Pale and life in the tunnels would take their toll, and eventually, these too would be thinned out and take their turn beneath Jimmy's hammer.
The one woman who would never take her turn beneath Jimmy's hammer was chained up in his father's office. That red-headed girl was the daughter or nieces, or cousin, or some-such relation to the fire-bitch up in the mountains. She was his dad's special tunnel wife, so special she didn't even go into the tunnels. As long as the Pale kept her hostage, the fire-witch and her people would stay away from the Pale. At least that was what his father promised. But John Pale also pledged that their golem would one day come alive.
Upon the dais, John Pale preached. His voice an undulating, quavering sing-song. He held his bible, a gift Doctor Chosen gave him, in one hand. The other was a pale, angry ball that shook at the tribe. George Pale, his privileged brother, stood beside his father with an unlit torch. His father screamed something of burning bushes and fathers and sons and children. His rantings would slow, never stop, but slow, and he would furiously turn pages in his bible to find the correct passage. That done, the tempo of the preaching gained steam again, and the balled fist shook in time with the quavering voice's cadence. Jimmy looked about the crowd. All the members of the tribe were present, except the two guards up in the watchtowers. Throughout the group, heads bobbed in time with the sermon. Some eyes looked glazed and vacant, reflecting a dose of Hush. Other eyes burned with Shake induced intensity. Jimmy snorted up a dose of Shake before the ceremony. Only a small dose, though. He only took enough to get himself through the evening. He promised himself at the last ceremony that he would get off the stuff. After all, he was a warrior. He had the hammer to prove it. Not just any hammer, a warhammer, and one forged pre-Protest. He was the one who captured the slaves on the road, and he was the one who did the killing when it was time to put somebody under the hammer. But if he was to be the warrior he was meant to be, then he needed to get into shape. He had to lose his gut. He had to get off the drugs. He had to begin making the moves he needed to make to attain his rightful place, not in the back of the ranks, but before the tribe.
It should be me up there, not George, Jimmy thought. It should be me running the Pale, not my father.
The moon cast its pale brilliance upon them. The sermon and the ceremony picked up speed. The rolling of the cadence. The fever pitch of the rantings. His father spoke of burning lakes and cleansing fires and furnaces. A clansman named Wex moved through the crowd. He held a plastic bottle full of shake in each hand, and as he passed through the crowd, men and women tilted their heads back and took an eyeful of the stuff.
A woman near the front shouted, "the golem shall rise." Others repeated the words, and soon it became a chant.
"The golem shall rise. The golem shall rise."
Wex passed by. Jimmy remembered his promise to stay off the drugs, but he tilted his head back and took a dose in each eye just the same. Not big. Just enough.
"The golem shall rise! The golem shall rise!"
Some gyrated in time to the chant. Then everyone swayed with the mantra. Jimmy didn't believe the golem would rise. But he also did believe it. Soon he was shouting and twisting and thrusting his hips along with everybody else. The artificial power of the Shake entered through his eyes and surged through his body. Counterfeit confidence. False invulnerability. On the stage, his father chanted too. John shook his book with both hands. His thick glasses rattled on his head.
"The golem will rise! The golem will rise!"
George Pale lit a torch and made his way down into the garden of bound children. Everywhere Pale tribesmen chanted.
"The golem will rise! The golem will rise!"
A woman near Jimmy screeched the words. Her timing was off, but what she lacked in rhythm she made up for in volume.
George's smile was a toothy gleam on an oval egg of a head. Cords of muscle in his neck flexed. George took the lit torch, and with the other members of the Pale shouting and chanting in fever pitch around him, he touched the flame to the first pyre.
The children were drugged into near comas. Even so, a human being can't burn alive without making noise. The shrieks of the burnt sacrifices joined the din. George moved from captive child to captive child, making a burnt offering of each. The Pale went crazy around him. John Pale hopped up and down, quoting from his book. A Pale woman took the man next to her, threw him on the ground, and mounted him. She wasn't a tunnel wife. This woman was true-born Pale, and her skin had the color and consistency of pre-school paste. Others followed suit, and soon a real orgy accompanied the orgy of death. It was all thrusting pale skin and flopping black, bristle-brush hair. And all the while, they chanted.
"The golem will rise! The golem will rise!"
Jimmy felt the power of it all surge within him, the Shake, Doctor Chosen's book, the spells and chants, the sex and the death. With each chant, he expected to see the golem to flex its fingers. To wiggle its toes. To raise an eyebrow.
"The golem will rise! The golem will rise!"
He expected an eye to blink. A fist to raise. A mouth to open and bellow a vengeful war cry. Jimmy expected all of this and more. He didn't believe, but in that moment he did believe. Jimmy was as true a believer in Doctor Chosen's magic as any. And he shouted too.
"The golem will rise! The golem will rise! The golem will rise! The golem will rise!"
The golem did not rise.
The satanic cavalcade burned itself out of energy, just as the child sacrifices burned themselves out. The chant slowed, went ragged, lost intensity, and quickly died. One by one, the members of the Pale collapsed into disappointment and exhaustion. The golem looked over them with eyes as lifeless as they ever were. John Pale left his podium, book in hand, and head hung low. Other members of the tribe drifted off. Jimmy watched some go down into the tunnels to take their vengeance on the tunnel wives. Others went off to be alone.
Jimmy lingered in the central square. A charred body toppled over. When it did, it made a light crashing sound. A cloud of ashes wafted up from the body and out into the night sky. The power of the shake subsided, leaving Jimmy felling hollow and tired. He surveyed his surroundings carefully. There stood the palisade and the two watchtowers. There the houses kept alive beyond their years. There the buckets, pools, and drying racks to produce Shake and Hush. In one corner the military truck, with its four-barreled machinegun on the bed. And all throughout the yard lay the detritus of the sacrificed.
My father has failed again, Jimmy thought, and George too. There is no golem. Doctor Chosen duped all of us. He's laughing at us now from beyond the grave. He's made us all the butt of a joke, a joke only he's in on.
Jimmy pulled the warhammer out of his belt and took a few practice swings. The hammer felt good in his hands. It had a reassuring heft to it. The weight suggested the quality of something made pre-Protest. Jimmy swung into the body of a burnt girl. Meat and grease sluffed off the tiny, charred remains.
I should be the one in charge, Jimmy thought. No more golem. No more of Doctor Chosen's nonsense. Instead of all that, I'd march up the mountain and go after that red bitch. Make her a tunnel wife. And why not? We have the hostage here. I'm a warrior. It is what I was born to do. To lead. To rule.
Jimmy took another swing with his hammer. It smacked the top of the burnt girl, and what remained of her body came apart.
That's it, I'm taking over, Jimmy promised himself. I'll take over from my dad and brother, and I'll run the Pale.
He took another swing with his hammer and whispered, "Soon. Not tomorrow, I've got to sleep off this Shake. Maybe the next day, or the day after, but soon.
"I'll start soon."
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Default Chapter 25 B

Cora
Beneath the same full moon, Cora ventured deeper into Pale territory than she ever dared before. She approached through the steep and narrow ravine that led into the cesspit. The two Pale watch towers were well placed, but not so well that they could look down into this steep and narrow draw. Cora studied the cesspit previously, from her hide higher in the mountains. It sat at the bottom of a steep slope that reached up to the Pale Compound's earth and wood palisade. Several times Cora watched Jimmy Pale and his companions herd out captured men or unwanted slaves to the edge of the slope. They would put the prisoners on their knees, and Jimmy would dispatch them with his hammer. All the while, the pasty-skinned slavers would joke and make bets as to how far down the slope each corpse would slide before finally stopping.
You won't laugh forever, Cora thought. She picked her way up the ravine, creeping along, moving slow and stealthy. In preparation for this adventure, Cora had pulled her hair back into a ponytail. But strands had come loose, and sweat pasted them to her cheeks and forehead. She'd also painted her face with charcoal. Sweat ran into those tiger-stripe lines of black, blurring them. Along the ravine, thin rivulets of dark water spilled along a bed of gravel. Close at hand, her rifle smelled of metal and gun oil. It swayed on its sling, but it made no noise. There were no squeaks, no clacking of metal against metal to give her away. Beyond, and growing more potent with each step, was the smell of death and decay.
Cora stepped lightly over a deadfall. She bounded over a pile of loose rocks, and she made not a sound. She took another step and avoid a small heap of pre-Protest trash: cans and bottles, plastic wrappers, and paper labels that would turn to dust at the slightest touch. Ahead and beyond, she heard John Pale's electronically amplified ranting. She saw the blinding buzz of lights. And she smelled more death.
She stepped lightly over another deadfall and gently brushed aside some brush blocking her path. Her leather boots made only faint whispers. She took a few more steps, and then the ravine leveled out. It widened into a collection pond. She pushed her way through a stand of shoulder-high yellow grass and entered into the pit.
Before she could take the sight in she heard the sound of frantic scampering. She pivoted and brought up her rifle just in time to see a rodent dart out of the pit into the wilderness. It left behind its evening meal, a dead body hanging partway out of the dirty stinking water. Silvery moonlight washed over a face half-eaten by rodents. Cora grimaced, but she did not balk. She saw other bodies there too. Some lay in the water. Some had caught on the steep slope. Most had been picked over by animals. All had been brained. Beneath these corpses lay others in greater states of decay. Beneath the murky water, she had no doubt what she might find.
Slaving animals, Cora thought. And we sit high up on the mountain and let it all happen. That thought sickened her more than the decomposing bodies. We could come down, hostage or no, and clean this place out. It would not be easy, but we could do it.
She knew Eldra would never agree to that. An assault on the Pale might work, but it would be too costly. The palisade and watchtower were strong and well-positioned. The Pale well-armed, in the fashion of this wasteland. Eldra's people were too few, and, at the end of the day, they were not warriors. Not really. Not like the old warriors, the Rangers, and Marines she'd read about in her scavenged manuals, those knights of the once-was United States. They might massacre the Pale, but they'd suffer their own massacre in return, and first among their losses would be Eldra's younger sister, held hostage under John Pale's chains and drugs.
Which is what brought her here tonight.
On the other side of the pit, moonlight glinted off metal. Vertical and horizontal lines ran through the gloom, too straight to be anything natural. Cora looked at the putrid water of the pit, mentally shrugged off her disgust, and waded in. Warm, wet filth soaked into her leather pants. A grey glob of rotting meat that sluffed off a corpse floated past. She ignored it and went to the other side, to the metal grate and the large metal pipe that jutted out of the hill and ran back horizontally into the earth. When she was only three paces away, Cora stopped. She looked into the pipe. Inside was nothing but ominous darkness. She looked up the slope and could see the edge of the palisade. Cora's mind computed the angles. The gated sewer pipe ran back into the hillside and directly under the Pale's compound.
That sewer pipe runs right under your feet, but there is more under your compound than just pipes and sewers, isn't there? All that dirt you used to make your palisade came from somewhere, didn't it? Cora waded the last steps across the watery pit. Up above, the Pale chanted their drug-fueled nonsense. A flash of moonlight illuminated a corpse floating just beneath the surface of the water. A hundred tiny silver fishes swirled around its empty eye sockets. Cora gave it no mind. Somebody's got to be strong, she thought. That somebody is me, for if not me then who?
The sewer pipe was metal and big enough for a person to crawl into with room to spare. A heavy metal grate barred the pipe's open end, and a chain fastened it closed. Cora inspected it and found two metal tags, each faded from time and the elements. One read that tampering with California State property was a crime. The second tag read, "For Service Call Dial," followed by a series of numbers. Cora gently lowered the chain so that it made the softest metal clunk. She checked the chain's padlock next. It was thick and made out of some metal that tarnished but did not rust. Cora pondered it. Bolt cutters might get her through the chain, but not the lock. That lock was pre-protest and too strong. Cora looked into the tunnel again, but all she saw was blackness; oily, evil blackness. It might go 20 feet, or 200 feet, or 200 miles. The tunnel looked like the maw of some terrible demon, just waiting to snap shut on any poor fool dumb enough to enter. The wind shifted, and Cora caught a taste of the tunnel's air. It tasted of rape and torture, and murder. It tasted of man's inhumanity.
This is an evil place, Cora thought. This might go under the Pale's walls, but this is an evil place. Something seemed to call Cora from deep inside the tunnel, to beckon her into the darkness. She had better sense though. She might be brave, in her way, but she was not stupid.
She moved to the opposite side of the grate and examined the hinges. These were neither thick nor made of the same non-ferrous metal as the lock. The hinge pins were slim, and like the hinges themselves, rusted through. Cora reached up with a small but strong hand and felt one. The rusted metal was rough against her fingers. It flaked off at her touch.
The lock and chain might be secure, but the hinges are rotted. Cora grabbed the top hinge and twisted, hard. When she did, the hinge pin exploded into a flurry of rust-colored dust, and the metal grate swung in with an ear-splitting, earth-shattering metallic screech. The weight of it snapped the second pin, and then the grate was tumbling out. Cora tried to support the weight of it, but it was too heavy. The metal slipped from her hands. The grate swung out and down again until the chain caught the weight of it all, and then it let loose another resounding crash.
Bang!
Then the gate swung again, rebounding on its chain tether. This time it went inward, and it slammed against the edge of the metal sewer pipe.
Slam!
Damnit! Cora cursed. Daminit! Damnit! Damnit! She dropped to a crouch and brought her rifle up, up so she could see the rim of the pit and the palisade beyond. At any moment she expected to see leering pale faces with black, bristle brush hair peering down at her, peering down with their beady black eyes. But none did. She saw no Pale. She only heard their chanting, the cries for their golem.
They're so caught up in the thrall of their stupid ceremony they didn't even hear all this banging around, Cora thought. I could march an army into here, and they'd never notice. But I don't have an army. And where does "here" really go?
Cora took another look into the black tunnel. It went under the Pale's compound, that much was obvious. But there was no guarantee that it went up into the compound. And if it did, where might it come out? Into the middle of some Pale guardsmen's barrack? The center of the central plaza for all to see? John Pale's office?
And if it did provide access into the compound, who did she have to go in there with her? The short answer was nobody. Eldra had fighters to be sure. Men like Smoke-belly, Rapping Tom and Cuthbert were handy with guns and brave to be sure, but they weren't the kind of men for this kind of…
Kind of what? Mission? Cora glanced up to the edge of the palisade, then into the tunnel, then back again. The start of a plan formed in her head. Go in through the tunnels, grab Eldra's sister, and sneak back out again. Maybe even slit John Pale's throat in the bargain. Then another plan formed in her head. No rescue. Go in through the tunnels, come out, and kill them all. Kill John Pale. Kill George Pale. Kill Jimmy Pale with his hammer. Kill them all. Kill them all and burn down their stupid golem.
She surveyed the ground again and chewed on the inside of her lip. She decided she liked the second plan more, but she also knew that it was likely nothing more than fantasy. Who would do it all? Just her all alone. Cora was brave, but she wasn't stupid. Going into that tunnel alone was suicide. And Eldra, despite all her boasts and posturing, just didn't have the people to pull something like this off. Eldra was bold, but not this bold. She was a fighter, Cora had to admit. But this wasn't Eldra's kind of fight.
But it could be done. With the right people, it could be done, maybe.
The chanting inside the compound reached its fever pitch. Prudence was the better part of valor, Cora remembered reading in one of her books. Slung her rifle over her back and took a long look at the grate. It was heavy, but not so heavy. She drew her knife and moved around the edge of the pit, looking for sticks. She found two, whittled them a bit, then sheathed her knife and put the sticks in her mouth.
She waded back, and after a good long look at the metal grate, she squatted down and grabbed it with both hands. The metal was heavy, but not so heavy. She pushed up with her legs, bringing the weight of it up onto her chest and into her shoulders. She heaved up again, pushed forward, swung the grate over and in. When she had it where she wanted it, she pulled the sticks out of her mouth and transferred them to the hinges.
When her work was done, she stepped back and took stock. It isn't pretty, but it will serve. The grate was back on its hinges, held there by the whittled sticks. If they don't come down here regularly and inspect, they'll never know. She knew they never came down here. After months of spying and watching, she'd never seen the Pale come down and patrol their cesspit. An inspection would reveal the grate had been tampered with. But no inspection meant that the Pale would be none the wise.

A step closer, maybe, Cora thought. She unslung her rifle and slowly backed out of the pit.
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Default Chapter 26


Colt


"Quiet. This is an ambush. You don't talk in an ambush," Colt hissed at the mysterious Nicky-Lee laying prone at his side, the tall grass and scrub brush wavering over their heads.
True enough they were set up in an ambush, all of them. The others were on the slope below Colt and Nicky-Lee. Lefranc, Doc, Christian, and Robins lay hidden along a narrow trail. Ajax waited at a bend in the path, positioned to fire his machine gun down the length of the trail and forming the base of their "L" shaped ambush. Colt and Nicky-Lee waited behind the mainline at Lefranc's insistence. The old sniper didn't want the unknown and half-tested Nicky-Lee manning the line, and he wanted Colt as far from the dangers of the engagement area as possible.
Ambush or not, Nicky-Lee wasn't deterred from speaking.
"We should go east," the man repeated. "It’s the only way open to us."
"You said that already," Colt grumbled. His eyes never left the ambush site.
"And I've got friends to the east," Nicky-Lee added.
"You've got a lot of friends for a guy we found locked in a refrigerator," Colt said. "First you had friends up by the old, Once-Was Oregon and California border. Next, you have friends to the east. Strange that none of these mysterious friends came looking for you."
Like Lefranc, Colt had lingering doubts about many of Nicky-Lee's claims, but there could be no doubt that east was the only way open to them. Since abandoning their vehicle after the running gunfight on the road, Gomorrah pursuers had chased them north for days. Other pursuers flanked them to the west, posses formed out of the refugees of The Bay. Whenever Colt and the others thought they'd gotten ahead of their pursuers, they'd find their path north blocked by another party that had gotten ahead of them. Lefranc's initial plan was to head northwest to the coastal ranges. Instead, their enemies forced them northeast towards the Sierra Nevada. Those grey-brown peaks loomed closer with each sunrise.
The cat and mouse game became a closer thing with each passing day as well. Their pursuers seemed to be getting better organized and equipped, while their own supplies were flagging badly. Ajax's pack once bulged with supplies. Now it hung flaccid on his back, like a paratrooper's deflated parachute. Their rations were almost gone now. They ate maybe one meal a day, and that made up mostly of the wild plants and insects they foraged as they evaded. They slept little too, never more than a couple hours at a turn. Water was the real concern, though. The sun burned hot, and men on the move need water, but the Central Valley had gone back mostly to the desert since the Protest. Lefranc had a map, but the rivers had altered their courses since its printing. The old irrigation ditches and canals had not been maintained in generations. When they found water, they never had time to treat it properly. They came with purification tablets, but as with the rations, those supplies only lasted so long. Doc worried about sickness, as did Colt. One bad bout of diarrhea could kill them all, one way or another.
If that weren't enough, the enemies pursuing them increased as well. Some were fish-men in black sashes. Others were regular Gomorrah screamers in red sashes. Some traveled by foot, others came in vehicles, but they all were looking for this small Spartan war party. To keep all the pursuers straight in their minds, they'd gone to naming the various enemy units. Robins had done that, assigning each enemy team a name based on which colors they wore. He gave the red-sash groups names like Kevan, Lancel, Jaime, Tywin and Tyrion. The units sporting black sashes, the fish-men as the called them since the shootout at the roadhouse, Robins assigned names like Brandon, Robb, and Eddard. One evening they found a force of black-sashes waiting for them in a skirmish line along an east-west running road. The enemies were mounted in enormous trucks and led by a swordsman whose arm appeared to be covered in delicate blue feathers. Scratching on a map with a pencil, Robins remarked, "We'll name this group Arya."
"I see what you're doing, and you're wrong," Nicky-Lee piped up. "The Stark colors weren't black. The Stark colors were white and gray. Black was for the ones on the wall."
"****ing nerd," Christian said with a bold laugh. Ajax's reply was meaner. Robins had once been an outsider to Ajax. But the one-armed man had since proven himself and was now officially part of the tribe. Now Ajax considered Nicky-Lee, the outsider.
"You don't like his naming convention you can go ****-off somewhere. You got some advice for him? Well, I've got some advice for you: Shut your cock holster."
"What's a cock holster?" Nicky-Lee asked, mocking the big man with his feigned innocence.
"Don't push him," Colt said next. "Ajax gets irritable whenever he gets less than 10,000 calories a meal. And this ain't the best country to lose a bunch of teeth in."
In the days that followed, they picked their way through the country. They'd stayed off the roads and swung wide of anything that resembled a town. Most had been abandoned long ago. The ones that weren't abandoned got sacked.
Two days before they nearly stumbled right into a town that was little more than hovels carved out of a few Pre-Protest buildings that were still standing. The few people who were their survived by growing whatever they could out of the dirt, and salvaging whatever they could out of the Pre-Protest/Once-Was detritus. Colt and his companions hunkered down in the bushes, waiting until nightfall when they could slip away under cover of darkness.
At twilight though, a party of black sashes descended upon the town. They were led by a flamboyantly feathered mutant Robins instantly dubbed, "The Peacock." The Peacock's fighters rounded up every man, woman, and child in the town. They interrogated them for a few minutes and then slaughtered them all with axes, machetes, and hammers. After torching the town, they drove off, not even bothering to loot the place.
That they would massacre their own people set Colt into a quiet but deep rage. Outwardly, he maintained his stoic bearing. Inside, he boiled. What kind of people murdered unarmed civilians? Helpless people? Children? What kind of people murdered their own people for no reason at all? Weren't they all of Gomorrah? What kind of cruel world was this? Why were they all forced to endure this brutality and suffering at the hands of men like those in the sashes? Why must they tolerate such evil? The evil of ambitious and egotistical men like Doctor Chosen? Like the Chief Marshal? Is that what his father was trying to do, to stop just one small part of this great machine of cruelty? Or was his father more base than that, and just trying to exact vengeance upon his hated enemies? Colt knew he'd never know the answer to that question. His father was gone now, vaporized by the weapon he carried into Gomorrah on his back, the final act of his Last March.
"East is the only way left open for us," Nicky-Lee said again. "And it won't stay open for long. We've got pursuers behind us to the south. More posses come at us from the west every day. The mounted groups keep cutting off our routes to the north. They get closer and closer every time. That's why you decided to ambush this lot, right? Knock this smaller piece off the board and buy yourself some time and space to maneuver. That's a good enough plan for today, but what about tomorrow? We can't count of them being stupid forever. At some point, somebody is going to figure out they need to cut us off from the east and box us in."
"And you just happen to have some friends to the east that we can run to? You know some people that will just take us in, is that it?"
Nicky-Lee turned sullen. "I'm not going to answer that if it just results in another, 'locked inside a refrigerator' comment."
"Refrigerators are the least of our problems right now," Colt said, eyes fixed on the ambush site. The young Spartan tensed. Nicky-Lee noticed and instantly went silent.
The first of the enemy stepped into view. He wore two black sashes, one over each shoulder, so they crisscrossed at his chest. Like all the fish-men, he bore animalistic mutations. His nose and mouth had elongated outward forming the nose and muzzle of a dog. He stopped and seemed to sniff the air.
"Are these mutations just cosmetic, or are they functional?" Colt asked his companion with a whisper. "Can he smell like a dog, or is it all for looks?"
Nicky-Lee shrugged an, 'I don't know.'
The dog-man wielded an SKS rifle. He took one hand off it and waved his companions forward. More fish-men in black sashes filed down the trail.
Robins dubbed this group 'Team Sansa.' They spied them this morning. They were a squad to the south, traveling by foot, but hot on their heels. Lefranc guessed that these ones had been dropped off by vehicle the night before, and they might be trying to flush them towards another group lying in wait on the next east-west running road.
Whatever the enemy plans were, this group was too close for comfort. Colt and his companions decided it best to ambush them and wipe them out. Colt knew it was the right decision, tactically. Morally, ethically, he had a hard time putting the lives of his companions in danger. They keep paying the price, Colt thought. One of these days, one of my friends is going to end up paying with their life. The Chief Marshal wanted to kill him, but his companions got dragged into this mess, and their lives were on the line. They were victims of circumstance, just like the poor dirt farmers they ran across the other day. They cared nothing about Gomorrah and New Sparta, about the mysterious rivalry between the red-sashes and black-sashes, but they'd been massacred outside their hovels all the same. There are people on high, insulated from every decision they make, however cruel. And the weak and the innocent must suffer it all.
Colt felt a boiling deep inside himself just thinking about it. On the trail below, the column of enemies moved closer to the ambush site. Their point man with the dog snout was almost through the kill zone. If he did have a dog's sense of smell, it wasn't going to save him or his companions. Not today. The others kept coming. They looked to their left and right but saw none of the ambushers hidden in the brush. Colt couldn't even see them, and he knew where to look. That's how well camouflaged they were.
A few more steps, Colt thought. A few more…
He never finished the thought.
The anti-personnel mines detonated with a boom so loud and so powerful they seemed to end everything. The entire ambush zone filled with thick clouds of dust and smoke, and an instant after the explosions, tracer rounds crisscrossed through the haze, snapping and buzzing. Carbine and submachine gun ripped across the trail at overlapping diagonals, while Ajax's machine gun raked the length of it. The Gomorrah fighters caught in the ambush never had a chance, and it was all over in an instant. There was a mad minute of fire and then a yell to "ceasefire." The smoke and dust cleared, and Colt heard the scraping sounds of magazines being changed. When the trail came back into view, a squad's worth of mangled bodies littered the path. None escaped.
"Go," Lefranc yelled.
At the far end of the ambush line, in the direction the enemy came from, Christian popped up out of the brush. He wielded his shotgun and moved to the trail.
"What's he doing?" Nicky-Lee asked with a whisper.
"A quick search of the bodies, then we're gone," Colt replied.
On the trail below, Christian started at the rear of the enemy column and worked his way forward. He moved from body to body, searching each quickly and efficiently. He took a bandolier off one. He took an SKS rifle off another. He plucked an aluminum water bottle off a third and stuffed it in a pocket.
When he was midway through the bodies, Christian stopped. He looked from the body at his feet to one further up the trail, then back again. Up, down, back, up down back, his head and eyes moved. The pause was agonizing to watch.
What the hell is he doing, Colt thought. A second later, Nicky-Lee asked the same question.
Christian bent over and plucked something off the body at his feet. Then he raced ahead, skipping past two bodies to pilfer something off a third.
He's found something, Colt thought. Christian must have spied something important. He laid down his shotgun and tugged at something with both hands. Colt and the others were so engrossed with whatever Christian was doing they never noticed the body further up the trail.
This Gomorrah screamer's skin was rough, gray, and scaly. On his head he wore a steel helmet cut in the old Soviet fashion. He carried a bolt action rifle, and as Christian worked at the body, this one slowly rolled over and brought up his gun. The muzzle rose, one inch, two inches, three inches. The barrel swung over until it lined up with Christian and then…
Crack-Clang!
Colt jumped when he heard the rifle shot. Half a heartbeat later came the sound of a bullet striking steel. Colt caught a glimpse of the steel helmet spinning crazily on the rifleman's head just before he collapsed back onto the trail, this time dead for sure. Lefranc worked the bolt of his own rifle and bellowed, "You're done! Now!"
With one final heave, Christian pulled free whatever it was he was after. Then the world became nothing but an overwhelming sense of urgency. Training and discipline kicked in, the same training and discipline that Major K beat into them for the year. Everybody was moving, rushing, grabbing, scooping. Now that the ambush was over, it was a race to get off "the X." It was a frantic race. It was an organized and rehearsed race. It was a race they'd all been trained to run.
Christian rejoined the line with his loot, scooped up his gear and weapons, and dashed first in toward Lefranc, then back towards Colt and Nicky-Lee. Ajax did the same, wrapping his remaining machine gun belts around his neck the hefting up his massive weapon. The others followed suit, leaving nothing in their positions that might be of any use. Each team member dashed past Lefranc, who not only counted each one, but physically touched each one before they left just to be sure. All the while Lefranc reeled in the blasting wires from the anti-personnel mines. One he had their frayed ends in his hands, he tucked them away in his pack along with the detonators and followed the others, the last to leave the ambush site.
After the ambush, they moved at a pace that was near a run. Packs and weapons and gear flopped on their bodies as they rushed. They crossed a dry irrigation ditch. They passed a collapsed farmhouse. They went north, then cut east unexpectedly. They circled around south so they could spy on their own path and catch any pursuers unaware. When they were sure there were none, they let their guard down enough to appraise Christian's loot from the ambush.
Christian looked serious; Colt saw. A marked change from the young grenadier's usual foolish demeanor. First, Christian dropped the aluminum water bottle. Ajax snatched it up, took a long drink, then passed it to his left. Next Christian set down a pistol, a good folding knife, and a bandolier of rifle ammunition. He unslung the captured SKS rifle and added it to the pile.
"Russian," Christian said. The word came out flat. He was not his typical light-hearted, devil may care. Colt braced himself for whatever was coming next.
Finally, Christian set down his pack. He dug inside, pulled out two brown pouches, and dumped them in the middle of this motley crew fighting its way across the Gomorrah badlands. The Spartans stared at the pouches, long, and quietly. Nicky-Lee broke the silence.
"What are they?"
Colt reached down, picked one up, considered it, then flipped it up and caught it again with his off-hand.
"They are first aid kits," Colt said. "Spartan first aid kits." He opened the snap closure, looked inside, then tossed the kit to Nicky-Lee who caught it with a fumbling, two-handed grasp.
"A new, unissued first aid kit," Colt finished.
Nicky-Lee looked inside. The contents were sealed in clear plastic. When Nicky-Lee looked up again, he saw Colt tapping an identical first aid kit on his gear.
"Where? How?" Nicky-Lee asked. Nobody answered. Nicky-Lee looked from Spartan face to Spartan face. Each was as still and gray as granite.
"Looted," Nicky-Lee suggested. "These might have been looted off dead Spartans. Just as you just looted them from the ambush."
"No," Colt said. He picked up the second first aid kit and tossed it to Doc. Doc tucked it away in his aid bag. "Spartan's break the plastic seals when they get issued these. That way its easier to get to the contents. These were never issued. At least not until they were issued to these, black-sashes."
"They all had them. Every one of them fish-men we just sent across the river," Christian said gloomily.
Nicky-Lee's face contorted into a giant question mark. "Why? How?"
"How? The Chief Marshal of New Sparta. Why? Why would he outfit what's left of Gomorrah's fighters? So they might better hunt me down and kill me," Colt said. "Me, and you all in the bargain."
Colt pointed at the first aid kit Nicky-Lee held in his hands. "You keep that one. Doc will show you how to set it up."
Colt did not speak the rest of the day, and none of the others approached him. There was a kind of heat that radiated off him, an angry, violent heat. None could be happy at the idea of New Sparta and Gomorrah working together to hunt them all down. Nothing about Colt suggested discouragement though. He was the physical embodiment of rage. Rage that New Sparta and Gomorrah were working together. Rage that his friends' lives had been put in danger to save his own. Rage that his father had given his life for his country only to be disgraced. Rage that his great grandfather the Hammer faced the same fate decades before. Rage at the murdered farmers, slaughtered for no discernible reason. Rage at the entire cruel, cold, miserable, and evil world.
When they said out again, Colt remained silent and brooding. Things might not have gotten worse, but they did.
When the sun melted red on the western horizon, they heard the loudspeakers. They made a tinny, warbling, haunting sound. The truck they were mounted on prowled the roads all night, calling out to them.
"Charles Lefranc. Master Gunnery Charles Lefranc. Where are you, Lefranc? Stop hiding Lefranc. Come out and fight, Spartan."
After that, the speakers called out the other names. Ajax, Doc, Christian, and Colt. Robins' name was conspicuously absent, and there was no way any either New Sparta or what remained of Gomorrah could have known about Nicky-Lee, but that was small comfort.
"They gave us up," Doc said. The statement was so obvious that none gave it a response.
Each name came after the other, called out in mocking tones. Even after the truck drove away to stalk another part of the valley, they could still hear its warble.
Through it all, Christian watched Colt. Of all the young Spartan's, he was closest to the warrior prince. He considered trying to lighten the mood with his usual jokes and antics, but he thought better of it. Best to let the man rage silently for now.
Despite his disgusting habits, his filthy nature, and his lunatic clowning, Christian was a sensitive man, and a religious one in his own way. When they settled down for a bit, Christian prayed that Colt might find some solace somewhere, and that his rage might found an outlet that wouldn't end up getting them all killed.
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Default Chapter 27 A

Dishonored

Clang!

The single rifle bullet smacked against the steel gun shield on one of the Unforgiven's trucks. In response came a wild chattering of machine gunfire, and the deep bellows of sniper rifles. The Unforgiven had two sniper rifles, gifted to them by their New Spartan agent. None of the Unforgiven knew how to perform the necessary math, and then translate that data to manipulation of the rifle scopes to get the weapons on target. None save their leader. He was uninterested in the ongoing sniper dual. Instead, he sat engrossed in the captured journals of Doctor Chosen, each one bound in human skin.
The Dishonored's firing lulled. Then came another incoming sniper shot. This one snapped over their heads and ricocheted off a rock with an echoing whiz. In response, the Dishonored released another fusillade into the slopes of the Los Padres National Forest. The volley roared mightily and struck nothing but earth, rock, trees, and brush. The beaten zone lay two kilometers away. Sure enough, the sniper hidden in the hills fired again.
Snap!
Another shot over their heads. Another miss. Another barrage fired in return.
We'll both run out of ammo before we hit anything, Chamo thought. The Dishonored sacked the laboratory at Ojai California. Then they sacked a few more around Santa Barbara, each one hidden in the scrubby coastal hills. After their rendezvous with the New Spartan aircraft which hauled away most of Doctor Chosen's artifacts, the man called Dishonored by his own men and Rodrigo Vlain by the Spartans, ordered his band east, inland, where more of Doctor Chosen's secret labs lay.
They wove their way through the Once-Was Los Padres National Forest, picking their way slowly over roads and across bridges that had not been maintained in decades. Somewhere along the way, they picked up the sniper and his men. He was some disgruntled Gomorrah fighter with a grudge and a sniper rifle, and he dogged them the last half of their trip through the forest. At the outside edge of the forest, they stopped to refuel. That's when the pursuing sniper and his team caught up with them. Fortunately for them, while this sniper was gifted in determination, his accuracy was wanting.
Crack!
Another round came in, but this one wasn't even over their heads.
High up on the hills, Chamo could see Gomorrah fighters scramble from one piece of cover to another. They were high up though. Far beyond our range, Chamo thought.
The machine guns opened up again, rattling away, but the big enforcer couldn't even spot their impacts.
Chamo sighed. The distressing part of all this was their commander, who sat reading in his truck, oblivious to it all. Chamo was a massive brute of a man. If anybody else had been so negligent in their duties, he'd use his size and anger to cow them back into line. Dishonored\Vlain would not be cowed though, and Chamo couldn't feign outrage at his boss even if he tried. If anything, the brute felt disappointment.
Chamo walked up the parked column of trucks. Rifles and machine guns sputtered around him, kicking up dust clouds on the distant hills. He found his boss in the cab of the lead truck. He held one of the skin bound journals, engrossed in it as always.
"Boss," Chamo called out. Then again, louder. "Boss." It was not until the third time that Dishonored looked up from the journal with his ritualistically scarred face and milky white eyes.
"Boss, what do you want us to do here?"
"This **** is fascinating. ****ing crazy. Doctor Chosen was insane, but even so, the things he discovered…" Another rifle bullet whizzed in but Dishonored did not notice. He kept praising the doctor.
"Boss, what are we gonna do about these snipers behind us?"
Dishonored looked surprised. "They're still around? You haven't killed them yet."
"Nobody has killed anybody. All anybody is doing is making noise."
"We have sniper rifles, don't we?" Vlain asked, eyes darting back to the journal. "Just shoot these ****ers and be done with it."
"We got the rifles," Chamo replied. "Gear Splitter Joe has been behind one all day. Only he don't know how to work it. None of us do. We ain't killed 'em, and we ain't gonna kill 'em. We'll run out of bullets before we hit anything. All he's hitting is dirt and sky."
Dishonored sighed deeply, as if this was all a tremendous burden that was beneath him. He carefully marked his page in the journal. Then he ever so delicately set the book down. Chamo watched uneasily as Dishonored left the realm of fantasy to deal with the tedium of reality. He climbed out of the truck in time to watch another ineffective exchange of bullets. Vlain was dressed the same as before. He wore his Spartan coveralls with the sleeves cut off, and a machine pistol slung over each shoulder. Dreadlocks swung in tune with his movements. Once the echoes of gunfire trailed off, the disgraced Spartan Knight stated this obvious.
"This is getting us nowhere, and by us, I mean us and the ******* shooting at us. Where's the map?"
Another crack-snap of incoming rifle fire. Another crackle of outgoing fire. Vlain rolled his milky white eyes.
They unrolled the map on the hood of the truck, in broad view of the enemies on the hill. If Dishonored felt worried about catching a sniper's bullet, he did not show it. Instead, he poured over the map of Once-Was California. Red stars annotated the location of the suspected laboratories. Many such stars dotted the lower half of the former Golden State. One grabbed Vlain's attention. The star and the site it represented called to him so loudly, he couldn't believe he had not seen it before.
"Here. We go east next, to here. Here! Here is where we need to go! This is where we should have gone first!"
Dishonored/Rodrigo Vlain stabbed at a red star on the map with his pointer finger, the nail a jaundiced yellow color. Chamo could not read. If he could, he would see next to the star the word, Amboy.
"East. We go east. Here! Here! Let's go," Dishonored shouted. He rolled up the map. Chamo yelled orders, and the members of the Unforgiven disengaged from their ineffectual gun battle and mounted their trucks. In mere minutes they were back on the road, and Dishonored was back in the fantasy world of the journals. As the trucks drove east, and as Vlain read, he hummed to himself. Occasionally, when truly lost within Doctor Chosen's mind, he sang softly.
"Helter Skelter, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah nah. Helter Skelter."
Chamo found the singing particularly disturbing.
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Default Chapter 27 B

The Crown Prince

"Where the hell did it go?" The Crown Prince asked himself with a mutter. Elizabeth, The Colonel's widow, sat watching him as he searched through the cluttered mess of his desktop. The Crown Prince shuffled through papers and books, his face twisted by anxiety.

"Where is it?" The Crown Prince asked himself again, as if he was the only one in the room.

"I'm surprised you can find anything in this… office of yours," Elizabeth said. Her voice came sharp, and it snapped the Crown Prince back from wherever his mind had wandered to. "You should try cleaning your work area from time to time." Elizabeth scanned the room with her dark, appraising eyes. Dust covered bookshelves filled to bursting. More books rose from the floor in vertical stacks, also blanketed with dust, many sprouting tattered bookmarks like autumn leaves. From every wall hung maps, whiteboards with jumbled sketches, bits of gear. Mounted near the door was a pair of captured rippers, crossed on a blue shield. On another wall, a fire lance captured off some Gomorrah screamer. A thick layer of dust covered each of the crude weapons. In the spaces in between lay printed reports, manila file folders, printed photographs marked decisively with highlighters and then forgotten. In the corner behind the desk, a well-worn black pump-action shotgun stood sentinel, the only weapon the Crown Prince felt comfortable with after a head injury affected his ability to sight a rifle or pistol. One item in the room contrasted with the clutter and chaos. A large sheaf of parchment was mounted behind the Crown Prince's desk under museum quality glass. It hung perfectly straight and perfectly clean. Not a mote of dust defiled it. Loops and swirls of calligraphy in black ink covered the parchment's golden-brown surface.

Elizabeth wore black. Still. Unbeknownst to the Crown Prince, she had purged her wardrobe of all other colors, determined to wear the black of mourning for the rest of her days. Her purse rested upon her lap. She shifted her gaze from the office's jumble back to the bald and scared head of the Crown Prince. Her eyes were dark and mature and appraising. They missed nothing.

"Maybe you could bring someone in to clean. You are a prince, after all."

"That title is only ceremonial. I have no actual princely powers or duties," The Crown Prince answered.

"You do have one princely duty. Your duty is to check the Chief Marshal's power, and you are making a muck of that job," she said. The sting of her words stopped his search. He set down the untidy stack of he was looking under and turned his full attention to The Colonel's wife. "What are you looking for anyway?"

"An old photograph. I always kept it on my desk, I must have moved it somewhere. About Chief Marshal Gorman, what would you have me do, exactly?"

"Something," she said. "I would have you do something. They tried to arrest Major K and burned down half his training camp in the process. The rumors speak of convoys cleaning out the emergency war stocks from the Ham delivering it to the enemy. Rumor has it that Gorman is airdropping all of that to those savages that escaped my husband's wrath, and that the Chief Marshal has actually opened a diplomatic channel with them."

The Crown Prince scowled. "Major K was called before Senator Applegate and the full congress. He should have trusted the system and gone peacefully. Then he could have addressed the congress, and we could have cleared his name."
"A fantasy. He would never have been able to clear his name. He never had the words for it. He was a warrior, not a courtier. If he ever stood before the congress, Senator Applegate and his silver-tongued chatterers would have torn him apart with all their questions and soliloquies, their schemes and phony examinations."

"And I could have cross-examined him, before they entire congress and on record, if he'd gone peacefully."

"He never could have gone peacefully because they never intended to take him peacefully. They wanted him to resist so they could kill him." Elizabeth took a deep breath and sighed. "At least he went down fighting. He took a platoon of capital guardsmen across the river with him."

"Don't believe it. Major K didn't go across the river," The Crown Prince said.

"They say he burned up in the fire."

"He didn't burn up in no fire, and he didn't skip across the river neither," The Crown Prince replied. "I don't know where he is, but he ain't dead. You can take that to the bank."

"Might he have gone…" Elizabeth did not finish the question. She did not need to. The Crown Prince knew what she was asking. He shook his head no.

"He didn't know either. Nobody did. Not even me. The best way to keep a secret is to keep everybody ignorant."

"If that were the case, no secret would ever slip in this city. It is full of nobody but the ignorant," Elizabeth said. Before the Crown Prince could make a reply, she changed the subject. "Last time we spoke, I advised you to build your coalition. With Major K gone, have you given thought as to who might ally with you."

The Crown Prince's face sagged with weariness. "Colonel Butler offered the most promise, as you said. But he left the capital this morning."

"Where?" Elizabeth asked with alarm.

"Confluence. He left with a company of Spartan Knights. We still have two personnel missing from that disaster. One was the acting garrison commander. He was running the show while Needles was focused on his paramours at the expense of his troops. The other was a Staff Sergeant Kimball, another Spartan Knight."

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "Confluence is an odd place for a Spartan Knight to be."

"I thought so too," the Prince agreed. "Regardless, your best candidate for this cabal is now running a search and rescue mission on the other side of the continent."

"But they called off the search?" she asked.

"They did because it suited them at the time to call it off. Now it suits the Chief Marshall to call it back on, so that's just what he did," The Crown Prince grumbled. "That was a savvy bit of political maneuvering. Two Spartans missing in action, one a fellow Spartan Knight. When offered the mission of searching for them and bringing them home, Colonel Butler couldn't say no. Now that he's gone, I would expect the Chief Marshal to make personnel changes across the numbered groups and their headquarters."

"Is Group 4 still out of contact?" Elizabeth asked. The Crown Prince nodded.

"Out of contact. They have been out of contact for so long it is only reasonable to assume the worst."

"Who else?" Elizabeth asked.

"Brigadier Fowler holds the Eastern Wall. He might be trustworthy. He's never had much love for the Emerald City, and he's never been a Chief Marshal's man. Major General Neller is the warden of Grants Pass and the Southern Approaches. He's not a Chief Marshal man, but he's old, and tired, and docile. Major General Helmand commands the 1st Division. He was formerly of the Capital Guard and was never expected to make it past colonel until Gorman gave him his stars. His loyalty lies with the Chief Marshal, to be sure.

"Those three hold the majority of the combat power. Colonel Tuffler commands the training regiments. I would wager that the attack on Major K stifled any resistance Tuffler might have been inclined towards. There is Amphibious Task Force Chromite up north near the Ham; that's a reinforced Regimental Combat Team kept in reserve for a counterattack or amphibious landing. Their commander would have to know about the war stocks being removed, but he hasn't spoken out against it that I have heard. Other regiments and independent battalions exist, but they are scattered, and I can't say I know their commanders well enough."

Elizabeth frowned. "Surely you have some political allies? Some supporters in the Spartan congress?"

"None that I would trust in this," The Crown Prince answered. "And it isn't just a matter of who is loyal to whom, and who commands what combat power. I can't say I was ever comfortable with the idea of building some cabal to challenge the Chief Marshall's authority."

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow again, begging the question, "Why whatever do you mean?" The Crown Prince Continued.

"Such an act might be the first step down a path that inevitably leads to civil war, or a revolution, or some such other violent turmoil. Once we go down that path, we cannot turn back, and it is always the common man who suffers in such times. The Chief Marshal might be checked in such a contest. Or, he might rise up and seize greater power. Either outcome is possible, but one thing is certain; in a violent revolution, a lot of innocent people will suffer and die. Women and children. The old and the helpless. People who don't give a fig about the Chief Marshal's ambitions. Ordinary people who just want to live their lives. I won't take actions that needlessly put them at risk of death."

"My son is at risk of death," Elizabeth snapped. The Crown Prince snapped right back.

"Your husband died so that no more of New Sparta's sons and daughters would be at risk of death, of dying in an endless war. Not just his own kid, but all the sons and all the daughters. His last march, however grisly it was, was a mission of mercy. I won't betray what he died for by pushing New Sparta down the path of revolution. Not while there is still time and opportunity for the system to work."

Elizabeth scoffed. "Faith in the system?"

"Faith in the system," The Crown Prince agreed. "Better than needless blood on our own soil. Whether by design or by blunder, I won't be the one who takes the first step in sending this country into civil war. Not while the system has a chance of preventing that."

"My dear prince, in this game, if you don't take the first step, you might not live long enough to take the second one."

"I would not take any step that would put the people of New Sparta at risk, not when the system might still work."

Elizabeth scoffed again. "If my husband had any faith in the system, he would not have strapped a bomb on his back and marched into the heart of his enemies. If you truly had faith in the system, my Crown Prince, then why did you send my son away into hiding? It is not faith in the system you have. What you have is hope. Blind hope that the system will work, but a thin and weak hope. Thin and weak because you know it won't."

"I don't want to be the one who condemns my country to blood and death, not while there is still a chance it can be avoided. If anything, New Sparta's system of government is designed to be complicated, with intricate checks and balances. This country was founded by warriors, not politicians. Their understanding of political processes was rather pedestrian, but they knew how to make a system that could check the power of its chief executive. I would rather follow the process, the legitimate and peaceful process than knowingly take actions that would tear this nation and its people apart."

"And what if Gorman chooses not to follow these same processes?"

"My hope is that the Spartan Congress and other officials force him too. If these rumors are true, then the Chief Marshal has, at the very least, overstepped his bounds. If the congress is forced to listen to all the rumors and schemes, if they are forced to go on the record as listening to these grievances, I believe they will be compelled to act." The Crown Prince reached into the clutter on his desk, pulled out a paper, and handed it across the desk to her.

"What is this?"

"I filed that this morning with Senator Applegate's office. As the Crown Prince, I have the right to order congress to convene so I might address it. Thirty days from now, Senator Applegate has no choice but to convene the congress in its entirety. Before such a body, I can question the Chief Marshal's actions. I can put before the congress these secret deliveries of aid to Gomorrah, the secret lines of communication. I can also bring up the disasters he's presided over: The pilferage of a nuclear bomb. The catastrophe at Confluence. The loss of a numbered group somewhere in Asia. So many failings won't help his image or his case. I can demand congress look into this egotistical quest for reconciliation with our enemies. I could even go on the record that I spirited away your son for fear of his life. Once that information comes to light, Gorman will think twice before trying to hurt your son, and congress will be forced to act if only to save face.

Elizabeth looked at the Crown Prince for a long time with her cold, hard, appraising eyes. When she finally spoke, she said simply, "You are a bright and hopeful, young fool."

"I have to try," The Crown Prince said. "I would pursue every peaceful option available before I doomed New Sparta to war again. If a revolution were to happen, if that die were cast, it would take on a moment all of its own. There would be no way to stop it until it ran its course." The Crown Prince shook his head. "So many would get caught up in it and needlessly killed. Mothers, children, babes, the old, and the invalid. I would not have it, not if there were another way."

"And what if congress does not act? Or what if they do act and the Chief Marshal just chooses to ignore their censures. He still commands all the hard power. The Capital Guard is under his thumb. He controls the Morning Star fleet. At least a portion of the senior commanders are loyal to him. He could go on with his plans, and congress would not have the hard power to stop him. And what if there is more to his ambitions than just a peaceful reconciliation with Gomorrah and the erasure of my husband's legacy and my son's life. What if those don't satiate his desires and ambitions because they won't. His ego is not inclined to sit idle. It's inclined to action. It's ravenous for power. It will seek to devour more, to consume more power. There are only so many places he can go before he turns back upon New Sparta."

"I'm not completely naïve. I'm aware of the Chief Marshal's ambitious nature. I have no doubt he might attempt to abandon law and reason completely and don the crown of a dictator. Should he pursue a policy of despotism, I have taken out an insurance policy for such a contingency."

"What policy might that be?" she asked.

The Crown Prince answered with an enigmatic smile. When he smiled, the ugly mass of scar tissue on his bald seemed to smooth away and disappear. He responded by changing the subject.

"Do you still visit the family your husband rescued?"

"I do," she answered. "Even under house arrest, they are still well cared for. Truth be told, a life confined in a tower apartment is the safest, most secure life they've ever known." Her face brightened, but all at once went sad. "I fear for them as well, just as I fear for my son. The Chief Marshal and my husband were contemporaries once upon a time. There was never any love lost between them. I fear all those close to my husband might become the target of his vain wrath."

The Crown Prince looked Elizabeth over. "If you would like, I can arrange for you to leave the city as well."

"And join my son?" she asked, hoping against all hope that this time, the answer might be different. The Crown Prince shook his head.

"Then, I will stay. I am a widow and a lady of a certain age. Fleeing into the wilderness would be undignified. Besides, if my soul came to rest somewhere other than my home, how would my husband's spirit ever find me." With that, The Colonel's widow smiled the saddest smile the Crown Prince would ever see.

A calendar hung at a slant near the Crown Prince's desk. He had already highlighted both this day and the day he would address New Sparta's congress with bright yellow circles. Each of the 30 days in between was annotated as well. The calendar came printed with the moon's cycles. Roughly two-thirds of the way between the two dates was another full moon. Elizabeth's eyes ran over the calendar. Deep in the back of her mind, something screamed that the full moon was important, though she could not say why.

"Thirty days?" She asked.

"Thirty days," the Crown Prince agreed with a nod. Then he asked, "If things are as you say, it will be dangerous for you to remain in the Emerald City. Are you sure you will not leave?" The Crown Prince asked one more time. Elizabeth smiled.

"My husband is gone. My only child has been whisked away, lest he might be murdered. I will never have another child, and I will never know another husband. Aside from revenge, a good death is all I have left."

The Crown Prince's eyes flicked from Elizabeth to the purse in her lap.

"Don't lose hope," the Crown Prince said. " I believe that given time, honor, and reason will prevail. I believe our processes will work. Ultimately, believe in the goodness of men."

"I do not," Elizabeth replied. And she patted the purse in her lap.
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Default Chapter 27 C

Lions

For the first time in a long time, Lions felt good about the way things were progressing. The aid missions to the Gomorrah refugees were well underway, and there had been no official discussion about that effort anywhere in the capital. A diplomatic channel now existed between the Emerald City and the survivors of The Colonel's attack. Lions spoke with the Gomorrah representative regularly, the man who went by the name of 'Claw.' Armed with information on The Colonel's son and his companions, Claw reported companies of Gomorrah screamers were searching the Central Valley for those renegade Spartans. Even so, Lions felt confident that this Claw and the rest of the Gomorrah leadership had not tied Rodrigo Vlain back to the Emerald City and the Chief Marshal. Instead, Claw and his kin believed them to be just another lawless band of raiders in the Once-Was California badlands. Although an outcast, Vlain and his men had been productive. General Greylick's scientists now poured over several cargo loads of research looted out of Doctor Chosen's hidden laboratories.

The removal of Colonel Butler had been the latest coup for the Chief Marshal's hatchet man. Lions took pride in that little maneuver. By relaunching the search mission for the missing Spartans out of Confluence and giving the command to Butler, Lion's had removed the man from New Sparta and taken him out of communications with the remaining Groups of Spartan Knights. Since it was unlikely either of the two missing Spartans would ever be found, they could keep Butler searching around Confluence indefinitely. That meant that one of the few officers who could muster enough combat power to challenge the Chief Marshal was no longer a threat. If they were lucky, Colonel Butler and a few of his loyal Spartan Knights just might get killed during their search. North America was a dangerous place, even more so now that Gomorrah collapsed. Lions considered that quite the maneuver. On top of all that, the Morning Star fleet was getting resupplied and coming back online. For Chief Marshal Gorman, and thus for Lions, things were going swimmingly.

The one major setback they suffered recently was the failure to arrest Major K. The Major had not been seen since the battle on the training grounds of the Knights Course. Colonel Needles still asserted the major was incinerated when his house burned down. Lions believed the cyborg major escaped. That major was far too dangerous to assume otherwise. Lions always harbored doubts about Colonel Needles' abilities. Hw was not surprised when he heard that Needles not only failed to capture the major but also lost a platoon of capital guardsmen in the bargain.

"I'll be done with that mistake soon enough," Lions muttered to himself.

Lions drove down the nearly empty streets of New Sparta's capital, heading for the airfield in the south end of the city. A solid blanket of slate-gray clouds stretched across the sky above. Lions drove alone. He rated a driver, if he wanted one, but eschewed such a luxury for security reasons. He was the Chief Marshal's bag man, his fixer. He held all the Chief Marshal's secrets, and he wanted those secrets kept secret. The more people who were in the know, the less likely a secret would remain secret. If word got out that they supplied Gomorrah with information for the purpose of hunting down and killing a bunch of Spartan kids, one the son of the dearly departed Colonel, Chief Marshal Gorman would face some uncomfortable questions. More uncomfortable questions would come if it were found out that the Chief Marshal was employing the exiled and dishonored Spartan Knight, Rodrigo Vlain. Lions considered it his duty to make sure those secrets never saw the light of day. Right now, he was the only one who held all of the Chief Marshal's secrets, but the operations were growing in such a scale that the circle of people who knew 'something' was ever-expanding. And it only took one pair of loose lips.

So far, they'd been lucky. The aid mission to Gomorrah was huge, but as of yet, there had been no official questions about that. Nor had there been any official inquiries into the disappearance of The Colonel's son and his newly minted Spartan Knight companions, or the botched arrest attempt on Major K. Senator Applegate was doing his job, suppressing questions, providing political cover, and ensuring his fellow congressmen remained reliable to the Chief Marshal's agenda. So far, so good on that end, and just as Lions had removed Colonel Butler from the game board, he had a plan to remove a few other 'unreliables' from the game. That was what today's second meeting was about. The first was with General Greylick of Science and Technology. Fortunately for Lions, both meetings would take place at the same airfield.

Lions approached the airfield's gate. Capital Guardsmen stood sentinel there, dressed in black and red and carrying submachine guns. They waved Lions through with stiff salutes and stiffer waves. Out on the tarmac, more Capital Guardsmen loaded equipment into a half-dozen Griffin Aircraft. A small army of them worked, loading rucksacks and weapons into the cargo bays and packing supplies into tight parachute bundles. Lions saw ration boxes, ammunition cans, and radios. Lots of radios. At the edge of the runway, General Greylick waited in his own car, a dark sedan with tinted windows. Lions parked nearby and joined Greylick in the backseat.

"Take a look at this," the bald and portly General said. He handed Lions a small stack of photographs. "These were taken near the Once-Was California Oregon border."

Lions glanced through the photographs. They showed vehicles driving along some forested backroads, mostly pickup trucks configured as technicals. Pedestals mounted in their beds sported what looked like old WWI Lewis guns. Some photos showed a red and black sports car, low and rounded, an aerodynamic, mechanical bullet that hugged the roadway. In some pictures, the sports car and the technical vehicles traveled together. In those photos, the sports car contrasted sharply with the accompanying trucks. One was sleek and clean, and Pre-Protest perfect. The pickup trucks looked cobbled together, crude and dirty. Those were violent, post-Apocalyptic machines kept alive with scrap parts and force of will. In other photos, the sportscar traveled the forested roads alone.

"How old are these photos?" Lions asked without looking up.

"Do you remember the Fifth Battle of New Plataea?"

"Everybody remembers the Fifth Battle of New Plataea," Lions answered.

"That's when these were taken," Greylick answered. That answer made Lions stop and look into the General's round, pale moon face.

"What?"

"We went through all the old archived reconnaissance photos of your particular area of interest in Northern California. These were taken just before and after The Colonel made his massacre at the Fifth Battle of New Plataea."

Lions' eyes worked over the photos. "This road: it isn't the old Interstate 5."

"No, Colonel. It is further west. The old Highways 3 and 96. Here they are going north. Here they are again, the following day, going south."

Lions' eyes flicked over the photos. "They're doing parallels." He looked up at Greylick. "They were running parallels, running a reconnaissance, or screening off The Colonel's flank." General Greylick nodded agreement.

"That what it looks like. I imagine that when these were taken, the analysts assumed this was a Gomorrah patrol. After the massacre, there wasn't any reason to keep an eye on this patrol. The Colonel had been recalled and the Gomorrah army wiped out. "

"And you think it wasn't?" Lions asked.

Greylick tapped the red sports car on the photo. "You know what kind of car that is? That's a Tesla Roadster. Pre-Protest, all-electric. Zero to sixty in under two seconds. Back in its day, one of these cost about a quarter-million Pre-Protest dollars, if you could even get one. And if you weren't somebody, you weren't getting one."

Lions knitted his brows. "Okay, General. So what does that mean exactly? And how does this help or hurt our commander?"

Greylick took the photos back. "The significance is it is an electric car. Pre-Protest. Battery-powered. Only, by the time The Colonel killed a million Gomorrah screamers at the Fifth Battle of New Plataea, the battery on this car would have been long dead."

Lions face hung slack. Greylick saw the colonel did not get it, so he pressed on.

"The battery on these cars had a limited lifespan, like our railgun batteries, only without the benefits of the new elements we harvest from space. By the time this photo was taken, that car's original battery would have been long dead."

"So, somebody just replaced it. Crafted a new one. People in the Gomorrah Badlands are famous for cobbling together stuff out the Pre-Protest junk."

"You can't just cobble together a battery for these cars any more than you could cobble together a railgun battery. Manufacturing something like this requires a level of sophistication that Gomorrah's industrial base never had. Remember, Gomorrah screamers went into battle with big, crude revolvers, or automatic pistols made out of scrapped mufflers. Something this technical was orders of magnitude above anything we saw them make. The research you delivered me notwithstanding."

"Then who made it?" Lions asked.

"It isn't just the battery," Greylick went on. "These cars were basically one big computer on wheels. If you were going to make a new battery, you'd have to ensure the car's software was compatible with it. And if it was a totally new type of battery than the original equipment…"

"Then you'd need to write new code to go with the battery," Lions answered. Greylick smiled now that Lions understood, and he finished Lion's thought for him.

"And if somebody could write code for this, maybe they could write that code that hacked into our Morning Stars."

"But how do we know for sure this patrol wasn't part of the Gomorrah army?"

"Timing of the photos. The location of the convoys. These patrols never joined with the Gomorrah main body. They stayed out in the Klamath Forest the whole time. After The Colonel headed back to New Sparta, these guys seemed to melt away to the west."

"Okay, General. But if they are not from Gomorrah, then who are they? They've got a Pre-Protest hot rod that they've kept alive for generations, and they've got technicals sporting Great War machineguns. An odd match of high and low technology. They were keeping an eye on the Spartan Army, or maybe the Spartan and Gomorrah armies, but they didn't participate in the battle." Lions took one of the photos back and looked it over. Frozen in time, the vehicles sped down a cracked and littered asphalt road. The white and yellow painted lines on the road had faded to phantom images. Green trees hemmed in the roadway from either side. Lions conjured up a map of Northern California in his mind and placed this convoy in it. "It looks like they were screening, like they were trying to stay between The Colonel's host and something out here further to the west. Maybe they were protecting something, something towards the coast. Then, once the battle ended and The Colonel left the field and was no longer a threat, they went back out here towards the coast. They went back to wherever they came from."

"That," Greylick began. "That would fit our theory that there is something out here in the northwest corner of the Once-Was California."

"It would," Lions agreed. "But the Fifth Battle of New Plataea happened a long time ago."

"Indeed it did, Colonel. But even so…" Greylick reached into his uniform tunic, produced one last photo, and handed that to Lions too. "This was taken two days ago by the Morning Star we just got back online."

Lions held the photo with both hands. On its glossy surface, the red sports car raced down a forested road."

"Technical vehicles are a dime a dozen. The badlands are full of old pickups, even old pickups with crap-tastic guns in their beds. But that car, Colonel Lions, that is the only running Tesla Roadster left in the entire world. I'd wager my stars on it."

Lions nodded. "Your right, General. It supports our theory about Northern California."

"There's more to it, Colonel Lions," Greylick said, and his smile grew full and bright. He tapped at the photo again with a pale, thick finger. "Fortunately for us, we managed to preserve a great deal of Pre-Protest records. Even information that seemed mundane or less than trivial we stored in our archives. The assumption was that that information might someday be useful. It has. It is equally fortunate that whoever is operating this car kept the original plates on it." Greylick tapped the photo again, hitting the car's front bumper and the white California license plate affixed to it. "Thanks to this, we can trace this back to its original owner."

"I'm guessing it was somebody important?" Lions asked.

"Ever heard of Ken Solum?" Greylick asked. Lions shook his head. Greylick explained.

"Ken Solum was a Pre-Protest industrialist. He was what they called a tech giant. He amassed a tremendous fortune through a wide variety of technology companies. He was a true genius. Off the charts IQ. A business sense that allowed him to make billions of old dollars. He was a mastermind in the fields of computer science and engineering."

"Let me guess," Lions said. "A guy like this could have developed his own computer coding languages? This Ken Solum was the kind of guy who could have maybe hacked our Morning Stars?"

Greylick made a gesture with his hand. The motion said, 'Well, isn't that obvious.'

"Right before the Protest, with everything falling apart, this Ken Solum disappeared. He went completely off the grid. The rumor was that he bought a bunch of land out in the wilderness, and then he built an off-grid community for himself and his closest friends. When the Protest went into full swing and civilization tore itself apart, Ken Solum pulled a vanishing act. And it wasn't just him. A lot of people disappeared with him. His family. His friends. His staff and closest employees. His fellow technologists. They all disappeared at once. Doctor Chosen was out washing the streets in blood, crushing people and cutting off feet, and Ken Solum and his little gang of computer nerds were riding out the end times in their own hidden fortress."

"Let me guess," Lions said. "The land he bought was all in Northern California?"

Greylick made that 'Well isn't that obvious' gesture with his hand again.

"But this Ken Solum couldn't still be alive. The Protest occurred generations ago."

"Maybe, maybe not," Greylick answered. "Doctor Chosen was alive during the Protest, and he was still going strong until The Colonel sent him across the river with the rest of San Francisco. If Doctor Chosen could defeat old age, maybe Ken Solum could too. But even if he did pass away, maybe his descendants and the descendants of his friends are still out there. Maybe they are operating out of their secret lair."

Lions took a deep breath and then frowned. "The descendants of some technology genius, who are themselves assumed to be technology geniuses, are operating out a hidden fortress in Northern California, and they hacked into our Morning Star Constellation just moments before The Colonel nuked San Francisco as the final act of his Last March. And they are still out there, racing up and down the lost highways in some James Bond super-car. This isn't something I can take to the Chief Marshal."

"I'm not asking you to," Greylick said with the soft smile of a kind uncle.

"It requires too many leaps of faith."

Greylick shrugged. "It does require some leaps of faith, but no more faith that it would take to assume that Doctor Chosen had somehow discovered the secret to eternal youth and hidden it away in his own secret underground labs."

Lions frowned at that. Greylick laughed. "We're going through the data your man Rodrigo Vlain recovered for us. We're running our own tests, but if what we're seeing is true, then Doctor Chosen did find a way to cheat old age and death. He made discoveries in the fields of anti-aging, genetics, biotech… he was lightyears beyond where we ever got, where anybody ever got. If Doctor Mengele had total and absolute authority over all the Third Reich's resources, that would approximate Doctor Chose."

"Chosen might have cheated old age, but he didn't cheat death," Lions said. "The Colonel saw to that."

"Your source in Gomorrah confirmed that?" Greylick asked.

"This Claw fellow? Yes. That was one of the first questions I asked him. Chosen and the whole High Council were in San Francisco that day. They were in the Trans-America building: ground zero. None have been seen since. These survivors are now worshiping Doctor Chosen as their new deity. Apparently, the whole show down there is being run by some guy who was Doctor Chosen's son… and his lover."

Greylick recoiled in disgust. "Great. And that's what we're dealing with? A bunch of sexually degenerate, radical communists."

"The path to peace and reconciliation is the path to peace and reconciliation," Lions said dutifully. "And those sexual degenerates will prove easier to deal with than some shadow organization who can hack into our satellites."

The general cast his pale grey eyes across the tarmac and over the soldiers loading equipment into the aircraft. "Maybe," Greylick said cautiously. "I'm not entirely convinced we have the right guy to take the lead on that particular job."

"The Chief Marshal had his reasons for picking him," Lions answered, again dutifully defending his boss and his boss's agenda.

"He got one platoon massacred doing the battle damage assessment on the drone strike. He got a second platoon massacred trying to take down Major K."

"Well, General Greylick, if a third platoon gets massacred, he'll likely get massacred along with them. If that happens, New Sparta will be better off for it." Lions took in a deep breath and let it out. "General, any possible connection between this shadow group and The Colonel? Anything to suggest the two could be linked?"

"Facts? No. I know what you are getting at. If it could be suggested that The Colonel and this shadow group were working together, well, that would make for a powerful and advantageous narrative. But don't worry about facts. My suggestion: let the Chief Marshal craft the narrative. Once that's done, Senator Applegate and all his good little politicians will fabricate the necessary facts and talking points to string it all together and sell it like snake oil."

Lions nodded agreement with that advice. Out on the tarmac, soldiers heaved parachute bundles up the cargo ramps and into the bellies of the aircraft. Those were the last of the supplies. The dark gray sky looked as if it might open up with rain at any moment. Lions opened the car door and got out. Before he got far, Greylick called out to him.

"Colonel, one last bit of advice. I have some of the Chief Marshal's secrets. Some, but not all. Senator Applegate also has some of the secrets. Some. Only you keep all his secrets. That's your job. There is a lot of power in that, being the Chief Marshal's aide and personal fixer. There is also a lot of danger in that." Greylick didn't wait for a reply. He swung the car door shut.

General Greylick sped away as Colonel Lions walked to the waiting aircraft. His target stood there in his parachute harness. His face sagged with the weight of anxiety.

Good riddance, Lions thought. But saying that aloud would not do. Propriety demanded he go over and offer a sendoff to his fellow colonel. Colonel Hendrick, with a team of his capital guardsmen, was about to parachute into Gomorrah and join forces with this mysterious Claw, and his boss, the unknown Winston Indigo. A slave to service etiquette, Colonel Lions walked over to offer some final advice.
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Default 27 Last Part

Lions approached Hendrick Needles and offered his hand. "Good luck down there. Are you ready?"

Hendrick answered with a mumble. The other colonel looked anything but ready. He didn't look defeated, but he did look like he was in over his head. He and his capital guardsmen were military policemen, whose duties were almost mostly ceremonial. They weren't trained to go deep into enemy territory. That type of work typically went to the Numbered Groups of Spartan Knights. Their year-long training prepared them for the complexities of working with indigenous forces and the rigors of living in the badlands. The capital guardsmen were untrained and ill-suited for this type of mission. Even so, Chief Marshal Gorman had his reasons for assigning this mission to Hendrick Needles. Lions felt pity for his fellow officer. That was until Hendrick opened his mouth.

"I killed Major K. He's dead. I swear it," Hendrick said to Lions, almost pleading. "There is no way he survived. No way. Tell the Chief Marshal that."

Lions clenched his teeth before speaking. "Listen Colonel Needles, that doesn't matter now…"

"But you've got to tell him. Major K is dead, I swear it." Needles sounded more like a whimpering, prepubescent boy than a Spartan colonel. Lions could barely stand it. One of the two Needles brothers was almost gone, and yet he had to endure these final moments with the weak fool. Lions pulled the other officer aside, so they weren't quite in such a full view of the enlisted guardsmen loading the last pieces of equipment into the aircraft.

"You've got to get past that, Hendrick. Maybe Major K is dead, and maybe he isn't. Either way, you are about to parachute into Gomorrah. You know, Gomorrah… The country we've been at war with for generations... The place that just got nuked... You and your team are going there, and there is no telling what you are going to be faced with when you land.

"The Chief Marshal trusts you. That's why he picked you for this mission. You are going to be the Chief Marshal's envoy. You are going to represent him before whatever is left of the High Council. His plans for peace, his plans to reconcile with Gomorrah and end the war, those plans all rest of you, Hendrick." Lions gave the man a poke in the chest to emphasis the point.

"You are going to be the first New Spartan ambassador to Gomorrah, ever. Everything the Chief Marshal is trying to accomplish is going to fall on your shoulders. So knock off the self-pity and the self-doubt. The Chief Marshal is counting on you. Now stop blubbering and man the ****-up," Lions hissed the words into Hendrick Needles's face. The last thing Lions wanted to do was give the Brown brother a pep talk. If Lions had his way, he'd sack Needles right there on the tarmac and take his place as the commander of this mission. But the Chief Marshal had his reasons for selecting Needles, and it was Lions' duty to support that decision.

Hendrick nodded once, then again and again, with more vigor. "Your right."

"Of course I am," Lions replied. "Besides, if you pull this off, then nobody is even going to remember who Major K was."

Hendrick nodded again. The engines of the Griffins spun up with a mechanical whine. The crew chief waved to the guardsmen, who then shuffled into the aircraft in neat, orderly, single-file lines. Lions leaned in close to Needles so he could be heard over the noise.

"Now listen. I haven't seen this Claw character, or any of the other leaders down there. They never activated the cameras we sent them. But over the radio, he said they've been changed. He said they were physically changed after the nuke blast, and that they don't look… Well, they don't look normal anymore."

"What does that mean? What does that mean they don't look normal?" Hendrick asked.

Lions wanted to say, it means they don't look normal, so figure it the **** out, Colonel. You're a commissioned officer of New Sparta. Instead, he said, "It means they don't look normal, that's all I know. Maybe it was the radiation. Maybe something else. Regardless, you are the Chief Marshal's man, so be ready for anything. If they all have one eye, be ready for it. If they all have green skin and pink hair and snakes for arms, be ready for it because the Chief Marshal is counting on you."

Hendrick nodded again. Lions watched the teams of guardsmen climb aboard. They wore their field uniforms and had their field gear: rucksacks and radios, body armor and submachine guns, bowie knives and suppressed pistols. They had the gear, Lions saw. But Lions new the gear didn't make the man. Even so, the die had been cast.

"Are you ready," Lions asked one last time.

Hendrick Needles replied, "We won't be overnighting at Grants Pass, just a quick stop for a refuel. The forecast says there will be high winds coming in from the Pacific all up and down the coast. We want to jump before the winds kick up. The meteorological boys say those high coastal winds will be rolling in for the next few months. They say those winds are going to roll in off the Pacific for the rest of the season."

As is so often the case, an awkward pause followed that non-sequitur. As is also so often the case, a seemingly innocuous detail, like an off-hand remark about the weather, would later prove to me of mortal significance.

Lions and Needles remained standing at the cargo ramp, the awkward moment lingered between them. The noise of the engines did nothing to alleviate the clumsiness of the moment. Finally, Lions was rescued when the pilot ushered Needles inside. The pilot wore his flight helmet, with the dark visor down. Red calligraphy on the white helmet advertised the pilot's callsign: Sleazy.

Lions sat inside his car and watched the flight of Griffins lift off. When the last aircraft disappeared into the haze gray sky, Lions started his car and drove away.
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Default Chapter 28

Claw
Claw sketched with charcoal and paper. His young helper, Tomas, sat at his side, watching with his big, brown, eager eyes. Claw's drawings were blocky: dark geometric shapes arranged into a simple design. Triangles suggested wings and feathers. Diamonds and rhombi represented flames. One hand, his only hand, worked the charcoal. The curved black talon that replaced his other hand kept the paper still.

Claw drew because for now, there was nothing else to do. He welcomed the respite, however brief it might be. For once, things seemed to be moving in the right direction. The airdrops from New Sparta solved their immediate logistical problems. Winston Indigo's kingdom of survivors now possessed adequate supplies of food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. The New Spartans also delivered fuel, tools, and spare parts. Claw's mechanic Diego got their small fleet of armored personnel carriers running, and those vehicles were augmented by others parachuted in by the massive Spartan transports.

With the fuel and tools and parts, Diego also got several pieces of locally salvaged heavy equipment running. Dump trucks brought back enough wood to build the necessary funeral piers. For three days, great bonfires roared and cremated the dead, and in some cases, the dying. Claw guessed they were ahead of that now, the disposing of the dead. For once, they possessed more firewood than dead bodies.

With the supplies came information. They now knew the identities of the New Spartan raiders to their east. Colonel Lions, their Spartan liaison, claimed they were a rogue element and enthusiastically invited the Gomorrah screamers to kill them off. Claw did not trust this Lions. He did not trust New Sparta at all. Gomorrah and New Sparta had been at war since their inception, and it was a Spartan who nuked their capital. That New Sparta would now come to Gomorrah's aid seemed just too cute by half to Claw. It was just too convenient that the Spartan who nuked The Bay and the other Spartans running amok in the Central Valley were only "rogue elements," proverbial bad apples. Claw continued to caution Winston against getting too cozy with New Sparta, but the Oracle had Winston's ear on this matter. The Oracle seemed to have Winston's ear on every subject.

With the increase in resources, Gomorrah companies were coming into their own. Winston offered a reward to whoever brought in the Spartan raiders. Kobi, the swordsman with the blue feathers, was on his way back into camp after looking for the invaders. Another Gomorrah captain, a Mod blessed with a brilliant plumage of multi-colored feathers, had also risen to some prominence. This Mod gave himself the ostentatious and ridiculous title of the Rainbow Ninja. While Kobi, the Rainbow Ninja, and other bands ranged to the east in the Central Valley, another Gomorrah company ranged to the south. The leader of this one called himself the Red Sniper. The Red Sniper claimed to be harrying a team of truck-mounted Spartans down near the old City of Angels, which the Spartan villain known as The Hammer ruined so long ago. Colonel Lions claimed he knew nothing of any Spartan group down south and insisted they weren't his people, rogue or otherwise. Claw suspected the Spartan colonel was lying. Those were Lions Spartans down south, up to some dark plot. He told Winston as much, but the Oracle continued to advocate closer relations with New Sparta. Winston heeded the Oracle's counsel.

What also gave Claw pause was how quickly this Lions agreed to provide Spartan advisors to his former enemies. This Spartan liaison barely mentioned the platoon of Spartans Kobi massacred. And he was more than quick to provide information on the Spartan raiders to the east. It seems like lives and loyalties are just as cheap in New Sparta as they are in Gomorrah, Claw thought. Claw had to assume any advisors the Spartans did send would be expendable, but he was glad they agreed to send them, nonetheless. New Sparta might be more careful in their dealings, knowing some of their people were in Winston's camp and at Winston's mercy.

Claw did not trust the Spartans, but Winston put him in charge of managing their relations, just as he seemed to put him in charge of everything. Claw couldn't help but notice he got all the work, but the Oracle called all the shots. Managing Spartan\Gomorrah relations meant receiving their Spartan advisors when they parachuted in. Claw was no ambassador, but he knew certain protocols and pageantries were required. He had made the needed arrangements; an honor guard, receptions, introductions at court, a presentation before Winston. He felt satisfied that he had a good plan to receive their Spartan guests.

That wasn't until tomorrow, though. Today, Claw could work on his sketching. That, and wait for Kobi to get back into camp. He wanted to talk to the swordsman. In the past, he'd seemed close to the Oracle. Now the Gomorrah captain remained aloof. That was why Claw wanted to talk to him.

Claw worked the charcoal. A diamond-shaped tongue of flame liked upward.

"What is this?" Tomas asked over his shoulder.

"A type of bird," Claw answered. "It is called a Phoenix. It's a mythical bird, not real, pretend. They are supposed to be magic. They are born out of fire."

Tomas twisted up his face. "Born out of fire? For real?"

"No, not real. Magical. Pretend. The story goes that when one Phoenix dies, it bursts into flames. Out of those flames and ashes, another Phoenix comes to life."

Claw looked at the orphan boy's face and thought he didn't comprehend. But then Tomas brightened and said, "Like us. The city burst into fire, but now we're here. New. A new Gomorrah from the old one."

Claw smiled. "That's exactly what I was getting at."

Before he could return to his sketching, there came a knock against the trailer door. Diego, the mechanic, entered.

"He's back," Diego said. "Him and his whole company." Diego held a heavy hammer across his chest and wore a sawed-off shotgun in his belt. No trad walked around the camp unarmed these days. The Oracle's anti-trad rhetoric grew more venomous daily. Claw had played his own part in the anti-trad violence, fulfilling his master's request for meat. Just thinking about it made him uneasy, and he fingered the knife at his belt with one remaining hand.

"Did they bring in any more Spartan heads?" Claw asked.

"Nope, just a cloud of dust."

"Too bad. Where did he go? Not to see the Oracle, I hope."

"Nope," Diego replied. He set down his hammer and wiped his sweaty hands on the filthy leather apron he wore. "He and his crew went straight back to their camp."

Within the sprawling refugee settlement that was now Gomorrah, all the prominent groups established their own encampments. The blue swordsman, Kobi, was one of the few fighters in Gomorrah's history who could claim a victory against the Spartans. He could have claimed a place of honor next to Winston's tents. Instead, he occupied a patch of ground on the far edge of the settlement, away from everybody.

Claw ran his hand over the weapons on his belt, a compact polymer pistol, and a razor-sharp tanto knife. Both were black, pre-Protest, quality weapons. It gave Claw some reassurance.

"I'll give him some time to settle in. Then I'll go see him."

"You want me to round up some Red-Sashes to go with you," Diego asked.

"No," claw replied. "On this, I need to go alone."


When Claw arrived at Kobi's camp, he found the swordsman standing under an awning, cleaning his weapons. A swarm of dust motes hung in the air beneath the canopy, twisting and floating in the wash of sunlight. Kobi oiled his sword with a rag. A disassembled Uzi carbine lay spread out on a table made of an old door and two steel drums. A suppressor fabricated out of an aluminum flashlight capped the Uzi's barrel.

"What do you want," Kobi asked without looking up from his sword. The man showed signs of middle age. Creases and a few deep scars lined his face. His black, oily hair and beard were thick with gray. He wore his hair long and tied back. His one arm was thickly coated in beautiful, soft, fleecy blue feathers.

"Came by to see if you have any more Spartan h-h-heads." Claw rehearsed that line in his mind a hundred times before even coming into Kobi's camp. When he stammered out the last part, he cursed himself.

"I already brought in one bunch of Spartan heads." Kobi set down the sword and looked into Claw's eyes. The bearded swordsman had a grim, gritty, confident look about him. He looked like a guy who spent a lifetime handling himself. He also looked like a guy who didn’t suffer fools.


"One set of Spartan heads is enough, I think. Those Spartans that are out there now aren't going to go down easy like the last bunch."

"There's only five of them," Claw said hopefully. Kobi's mouth tightened.

"They say there's only five. Even if it is only five, those five wiped out a whole patrol a few days ago. Before that, they wiped out a whole company on the highway. Shot the **** out of it. Left bodies and burnt up vehicles everywhere. Before that, they shot up a bar out on the river. Wiped out everybody in the place. Seems a common trend, these five guys killing everybody they come across."

"You don't seem like the kinda guy that can sc-scare easy," Claw stammered out.

"I ain't the kinda guy that takes living for granted. And I ain't stupid. I took down one crew of Spartans. One is enough. I didn't live this long by pressing my luck."

"But you did take out a lot of Spartans," Claw said. "Winston decorated his throne with their skulls. A one-sided victory, and.."

"Just get to it. Why the **** are you out here?" Kobi asked impatiently.

"Why are you out here?" Claw asked back. "You should be with Winston, standing with him in a place of honor. You massacred a bunch of Spartans and made a gift of their heads. You've…" With his single hand, Claw made a waving gesture at Kobi's feathered arm. "You're a Mod. Why aren't you in the court, running things with the rest of us?"

Kobi looked at Claw for a long time without answering. Claw couldn't tell if the man was looking at him with impatience or pity. Finally, Kobi picked up the Uzi's receiver and an oily rag. While he talked, he cleaned.

"First off, I've got the feathers, the Mod as you call it, because before the bomb went I off, I had a gadget implanted. I had a gadget implanted because I thought it was a good way to get girls. To get laid. Simple as that. I'm not part of any chosen people. I'm not destined to rule the world. I'm just a guy who survived, and I want to stay that way.

"Second off, there is no 'us,' up there running things. There is no 'you' running things either, not in a unified, plural sense. There is Winston, who shows his face from time to time but never says anything. And then there is the Oracle, who's gonna start a race war in the camp if he has his way, which he'll either lose cause he's outnumbered nine-to-one. Or he'll lose because he'll kill off all the Trads and then there won't be enough people left to keep Gomorrah going. Either way, he's either too crazy or too stupid to know better. I don't care if he gets himself killed, but me and mine want nothing to do with it, and the last thing I want is to get dragged into his race war just cause once upon a time I had a stupid metal box put in my arm as a means of chasing down tail. And then there is you…"

For a brief moment, Claw thought he might receive some praise. Kobi didn't give him any.

"You're just an errand boy. You do all the **** work that Winston and the Oracle throw at you. And then while you are doing that, the Oracle ****s all over you."

"I, I make this camp r-r-run," Claw stammered out.

"You do. Everybody sees it. Everybody also sees Winston always takes the Oracle's side over yours. He takes the Oracle's advice over yours. He listens to the Oracle. He don't listen to you." Kobi set down the receiver and picked up a stick magazine. He blew out some dust and then worked at the follower with a rag.

"I got things running," Claw protested. "The vehicles. The contact with New Sparta. I did that."

Kobi set the magazine down.

"Yeah man, you did. And all the Oracle's done is build that stupid statue thing to Doctor Chosen, and start his new bull**** religion. But the Oracle is the one in Winston's likes. That's why every Trad in the camp is afraid they're gonna wake up with their throat cut. That why this other dip****, this Rainbow Ninja is hanging out with the Oracle, making all these promises he's gonna kill those rogue Spartans. Him, and a bunch of other Mod companies. He may not have the numbers, but this Oracle has plenty of followers. Devoted followers."

"You aren't following him," Claw said.

"I ain't following anybody but me. Me and my people, we're out for ourselves. This ****-circus could fall apart at any minute. When it does, I ain't gonna be caught under the tent."

"I've kept it going this long," Claw said. "You know that. You've seen it."

"You have. But I don't know how much longer you can keep it going. You called it right. Those Spartans are going to screw us over someday. I don't know how the Oracle and Winston can't see that. They just nuked The Bay."

"I tried to tell them," Claw said feebly.

"You tried a lot of things. The Oracle beats you every time though. He beats you, and you take it."

"If I had the right people," Claw began, but his voice trailed off as he felt his confidence slipping away. He felt small, humiliated again. The way he had before the nuke went off. The way he'd felt all his life.

"I know what you're trying to say," Kobi began. "The Oracle has his loyalists, the who's who of the Mods. You got people, but your people are all Trads, which puts you on the outside. You think if you had some Mods behind you, then you could stand against the Oracle. Maybe Winston would start listening to you then."

"Yes," Claw/Cassandra said with enthusiasm. "Would you…" he began. Kobi cut him off.

"Man, ain't nobody going to follow you until your eggs drop."

Claw's face twisted up with puzzlement. "My eggs…?"

"Your nuts, man. Your balls. Your balls gotta drop. You gotta find your nutsack. You gotta stand up for yourself. Aint' nobody gonna follow you until that happens. Not against the Oracle, man."

"But you said I run the camp. You said everybody knows I run the camp."

"They do, but this is Gomorrah, man. People around ain't thinking long term. In Gomorrah, people live for today. People here are just trying to survive. You might be able to keep this place running long term, but the Oracle could kill them tonight. If the Oracle does get his race war, what Mod wants to be on the wrong side of that,?Caught between the Oracle and the Trads? The Spartans could nuke us tomorrow. That, or shoot us with their ****ing space lasers. In the here and now, nobody is going to stand with you against the Oracle, not when they see him ****ting on you all the time and you just taking it."

"That's the way of it?" Claw asked.

"That's the way of it," Kobi agreed. "Me and my people, we're here to survive. I ain't sticking out my neck, especially not when it looks like the Oracle has all the cards."

Kobi looked like he was about to say something more, but he stood with alarm. Tomas and Diego came running under the awning, half chased by one of Kobi's fighters with lupine features. Diego stopped and bend double, panting. Tomas looked at Claw with his big, brown, orphan eyes. And gestured up at the sky with a flailing hand.

"What is it?" Claw asked.

Kobi snatched up his Uzi and began slapping it back together.

Tomas gasped once then spoke. "Planes. Parachutes and planes. Planes and parachutes."

"Planes?"

"The Spartans. The Spartans are parachuting in. Now."

"No," Claw said with alarm. "No. They aren't supposed to arrive until tomorrow. Our plans… our plans are for tomorrow."

"Now," Diego said. "They out there now, parachuting in." Kobi looked at his lupine fighter. The bucktoothed, big-eared Mod nodded agreement.

"They're parachuting in now," Tomas said. "And some of the Oracle's black sashes are going out to meet them."
well,
"****," Claw cursed. "If the Oracle gets to them first… Well, I don't know what he's gonna do, but it ain't gonna be good." Claw looked at his mechanic. "Diego, we got any red-sashes we can round up?" Diego frowned.

"We got some, but…"

"But what?"

"Aint many red-sashes are gonna want to confront the Oracle's people."

Claw looked at Kobi. The swordsman raised both his hands. "This ain't my circus, and I ain't your monkey."

"Great," Claw said. "Diego, get everybody you can and get them out there. ****. A day early. Why?"

Claw burst out from under the awning to find the entire came abuzz. To the north, the last of the Spartan parachutists floated to the earth. The Spartan Griffin aircraft banked above, turning back for their home. Claw reached for his knife again, seeking reassurance in the rubberized grip of the Cold Steel. He set out for the drop zone.
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Default Chapter 28 Part 2 of 2

Chapter 28 part II

The drop zone sat about half a mile north of the encampment, in rolling fields of high brown grass. Claw/Cassandra waded in through the grass, alone. A few looks over his shoulder revealed human forms massing on the edge of the camp. Some black-sashed Mods. Fewer red-sashed Trads. Most were looky-loos, come to see the show. What did the Oracle have planned now, Claw wondered? Does everybody know his plot except for me? Is this another cruel joke, a joke where I'm the punchline? He gritted his teeth and pressed on. Chaff from the grass stuck to the sweat on his neck. The sun beat down. Soon he was itching. The parachutes were all on the ground now. He could make out the nametag on the nearest Spartan paratrooper when he realized the recklessness of coming alone. Too late for that now, Claw thought.

The nearest Spartan trooper looked to be no older than seventeen. Wide-eyed, the guardsman in his black and red fatigues raised a carbine to the ready, lowered it to the alert, and then let it fall limply to his side. The young man's eyes were as big as full moons, his mouth agape. Claw\Cassandra realized what he was staring at.

It was the black claw.

Claw kept the full extent of their mutations, their gifts as the Oracle called them, secret from Lions and the other Spartans on the opposite end of the radio. He intended to reveal that detail slowly, to make it part of the diplomatic pageantry of two foreign delegations meeting for the first time. Those well-laid plans were for naught now that the Spartans had arrived a day early.

"Colonel Needles," Claw called out. "I'm looking for Colonel Needles."

The young Spartan guardsman stood mouth open. The deflated parachute still hung off his back, as limp and ugly as a used condom.

"Colonel Needles," Claw called again, looking about the landing zone. Bundles and containers and collapsed parachutes littered the ground. More guardsmen walked toward him. Some approached with weapons raised, others came with looks of curiosity, mistrust, or outright disgust, their eyes fixed on the talon at the end of his arm.

This is mild, Claw thought. When they get into the camp and see the Mods with the real mutations, they are going to lose it.

"Colonel Needles," Claw called again. "Needles!"

None of the Spartans answered. They stood uneasy, untrusting, unanswering. Finally, one of them did answer.

"I'm Colonel Needles."

A Spartan came forward, cautiously. He was an older man, balding, with a long neck and a triangular face that suggested a lizard. He wore a pair of subdued eagle insignia on his collar and carried a submachine gun in his hand. The lizard-man's eyes focused on the claw.

"I'm Colonel Needles," he repeated. Then he asked, "What happened to your hand."

How do I answer that, Claw thought. All the Spartans were either staring at him or staring beyond him. Claw turned. The mob at the edge of the camp kept growing. A smaller group, some red-sashed Trads led by Diego waded toward him through the grass. The group of red-sashes looked tiny against the mob. Claw turned back to Needles and offered his one hand.

"I'm Cassandra… I mean, I'm Claw." He stammered out the last part, rolled his eyes at his folly, then added, "After the nuke went off, some of us were changed. Some of us were changed more than others. You'll find this claw of mine is rather tame compared to what some of us went through."

Claw glanced over his shoulder again. Diego came up, puffing. The crowd at the edge of the camp didn't move. They held their ground, watching.

"Where is Winston, your king?" Needles asked.

Claw's face contorted at the question. "Winston? Winston isn't our king. He's…" What was he exactly, Claw wondered. Then he realized he should have had an answer to that question ready to go. As he reproached himself Diego arrived. Tomas came with him. Spartan carbines and submachine guns raised up again. Claw had to wave their muzzles down. Diego spoke without being prompted.

"There's a bunch of them. Black-sashes. At least a hundred. They aren't armed. Well, no guns. Some have clubs and bats."

"What do they want?" Claw asked.

"No can say. I'm sure it ain't good. I didn't see the Oracle, or his boo, that Raux broad."

"They can't be far. Did you see Winston?"

Needle's face lit up at that. "Winston? Where is Winston? I must be taken to him at once."

Claw looked the Spartan Colonel up and down. No doubt, this Spartan envoy had been ordered to get an audience with Winston as soon as possible. Claw looked back at the mob.

"No guns?"

"No guns," Diego replied. "They had a mean look about them all the same."

"Where is Winston?" Colonel Needle's voice suggested this was a demand. Claw turned to him.

"Are any more of our people coming?" Claw asked Diego. The mechanic shrugged.

"Where is Winston," Needles asked again. "I must see him. Now."

"You weren't supposed to be here until tomorrow," Claw\Cassandra said to Needles.

"The weather forecast was bad. High winds. Now you must take me to Winston Indigo. I have orders from the Chief Marshal of New Sparta."

"You should have let us know you were coming early," Claw\Cassandra said. Half a mile away, Claw could see the mob growing. "Colonel Needles, I think it best if you and your men wait here. Wait here, and I'll bring Winston Indigo to you."

"I won't be made to wait," the Spartan said airily. Claw looked from the colonel, to the mob, to his small squad of red-sashed loyalists, then back again. The man clearly didn't sense Claw or Diego's unease. Claw looked back and forth again. He couldn't very well tell this Spartan ambassador, "I'm sorry, you can't see Winston right now. You see, we're about to start a civil war, or at the very least a race riot, and you parachuting in a day early an unannounced probably gave one side the opportunity to kick it off." Claw looked this Needles character up and down. Then he looked over all the Spartans. The Spartan delegation came with quite a few men. Armed men. Well-armed men. The Gomorrah fighters were much better armed after the airdrops, but they were nothing compared to the Spartan fighters. Claw\Cassandra's eyes took in carbines, submachine guns, light machineguns, pistols, grenades, body armor, helmets, disposable rockets. Man for man, they were more than a match for any black-sashes. He looked back at the mob. Diego said they weren't armed, at least not with guns. Maybe this well-armed group of Spartans would cow them. Or maybe the Oracle's black-sashes would attack the Spartans anyway and get massacred. Claw wouldn't mind that. Or maybe the Spartans would get massacred, overwhelmed by the Oracle's numbers. Claw didn't like the idea of aligning with the Spartans, so that outcome might not be so bad either. Although, Claw had to admit in that scenario he would probably be killed along with the ambassadors. And then maybe the Spartans would retaliate by nuking the encampment or frying them all with their space lasers.

He could keep the Spartans out here in the drop zone, but the mob could just as easily march out here to meet them. Kobi's words echoed in Claw's ears. If the mob sensed the Spartans were afraid, then they would be emboldened. The Oracle would be emboldened to great mischief and misdeeds. He had to introduce Needles to Winston sooner or later. Claw resigned himself to it.

"Okay. I'll take you to Winston," Claw said. He ran his eyes over the scattered gear. "Maybe some of my people and some of your people stay here to guard your equipment. The rest of us head in, together." Out of the corner of his eye, Claw watched Diego adjust the grip on his hammer. Needles smiled just a bit too proud of himself.. If he sensed any danger, he didn't show it.

They set off back through the grassy fields. Claw in the lead with Needles at his side. Red-sashes moved along the flanks to offer whatever protection they could. As they closed in on the encampment, Claw heard the remarks behind him.

"What are those?"

"What's wrong with her?"

"Is that… that looks like a dog."

"Scales. Snake scales."

"No, fish scales."

They remarks grew in volume and intensity.

"****ing monsters."

"****ing mutants."

"What the hell is this? What did they get us into?"

"Hurry up. Get them to Winston's tents," Claw urged. Mods closed in. Some wore red-sashes, and some didn't. Each one was more beastly than the last. Claw felt his one mutation superficial in comparison. A Mod pressed in against the procession from the side. At first, Claw thought they wore a grass skirt. Then he realized it was tentacles, dozens of green-skinned tentacles hanging from their waist.

A Spartan trooper gasped in hysteria but was urged on by his comrades. Another vomited. A Mod reached out a hand towards Needles, trying to lay it upon the Spartan he were a lepar and the Spartan had some divine healer powers.

"Back," Claw warned. No stuttering now. He had no luxury to think outside the moment. No time for self-pity or self-doubt. "Get back," he said again. He opened the catch on his sheath and half-drew his knife.

They rounded a section of tents and hovels to the main thoroughfare that would lead them to Winston and stopped. Blocking the street were at least a hundred Mods. Behind them stood the Oracle with Raux at his side.

"****," Claw muttered.

The Oracle had grown more twisted. He clung to a wooden staff to support his weight. One side had the drooping, frozen look of a stroke victim. A corner of his mouth hung slack. Claw remembered Kobi's words just before this farce got started.

"These are the Spartan envoys, come to see Winston. Let us pass," Claw called out as loud as he could. He thought his voice might have cracked. Half the Oracle's face curled into a smile.

"They belong to us. They belong to the Mods, Doctor Chosen's Mods. Not you, Trad lover. Not you and your red-sashed trash."

"Knock this crap off," Claw yelled. "They're here to see Winston. Now get out of our way."

More Mods pressed in on the flanks. None were armed, at least not with any guns Claw could see. A Spartan raised a submachine gun. Claw motioned for him to lower his weapon.

"What's going on here?" Needles demanded.

"I want them," the Oracle called out, ignoring the Spartan. "I want all the Spartans. They are mine now. They are Doctor Chosen's now."

"I'm in charge of this. Now move aside," Claw yelled to the Oracle. Raux scowled. The Oracle shook violently. The tremors of his sickness shook him from head to toe. Claw kept on.

"I didn't even want them here in the first place. You did. Now let us pass."

Colonel Needles turned to face Claw. The Spartan's face was a mask of incredulity. Half the Oracle's countenance hung limp, but the other half twisted into a sneer. Then it happened.

A Mod on one flank reached in and grabbed a Spartan's carbine. Whether she meant to take the rifle or pull the guardsman out of the formation, who could say. One of the red-sashes tried to push her away. The Spartan was more direct. He brought the butt of his weapon up and around and smashed her in the face. Her nose exploded like a balloon full of blood. And the brawl began.

Claw and Needles turned to face the rear. Hands reached in a grabbed Needles by the back, seized the antenna on the radio he wore. Claw spun back around a pushed at the hands, broke a grip, slapped another hand away. More hands reached in. Waves of hands, Mod hands.

"They're trying to seize them. They're trying to pull the Spartan out of the formation," Diego yelled. He swung his hammer at a Mod with patches of gray, mouse-fur skin. He didn't swing hard. He didn't swing to maim or kill, not yet.

"What the hell is going on?" Needles yelled, his lizard face only inches from Claw's. Claw ignored the ambassador.

"Oracle," Claw yelled.

Hands seized a Spartan by his backpack and nearly pulled him into the boiling crowd of Mods. The Spartans companions swung into the crowd with rifle butts. One dropped. Another Mod screamed and stepped back, one hand wrapped around a forearm that was obviously broken.

"Sir," one of the Spartan advisors yelled. It was the Spartan sergeant major. He waded to his colonel. A Mod with whiskers and the slit eyes of a goat leaned in and hissed. A teenage Spartan raised a carbine to shoot. Claw swatted it down as quick as it came up. If shooting started, he knew it might not stop.

One of his red-sashes got knocked off his feet. He disappeared beneath the riotous waves of humanity. Hands clutched a nearby Spartan, trying to pull him out of his backpack or pull his backpack off of him. Claw drew his tanto and slashed at the hands. The blade caught flesh, and a cloud of pink mist hung briefly in the air.

"Back," Claw shouted.

"Sir," The sergeant major called again. Mods pressed in from all sides, reaching and clutching and grabbing. Rat faces and cat faces, feathers and scales, pointed ears and pointed fangs, all leering in screaming, cackling. They were nightmare-hideous.

"What the hell does he think he's going to do," Claw shouted but only to himself. He made another swipe with his knife and sent a Mod scrambling back. The attack was more a warning than a true assault. Over his shoulder, Claw caught sight of Kobi, blue feathers and all. The swordsman stood far back on the sidelines, outside the fray. Arm folded and his eyelids at half-mast, Kobi shook his head with a look the defined disgust.

"Sir," the Spartan sergeant major called again. Claw turned back to the melee'. The sergeant major reached out and caught the colonel's shoulder. That's when Claw saw the empty bottle.

The bottle came in on an arc, whistling from its empty throat. It struck the sergeant major in the forehead, and the man dropped. Then everyone went crazy. The Spartan lost early all restraint. What was a riot erupted into a brawl, a mad, furious, primal brawl. Fists flew. Boots kicked. Men and women spat and hissed. A Spartan swung a rifle around and cracked a Mod over his horned head, dropping him. Another Mod went down and an angry Spartan stomped his head into the mud over, and over and over again. A dozen hands ripped a red-sash out of the formation and hauled him away, like a concert goer crowd surfing, but never to be seen again, ever. Blood, snot, and sputum all sprayed.

Claw saw Needles being drug away again, this time by two women, each with the matching faces of brown and gray furred bats. He swiped at them with his knife. One dropped Needles and tumbled away. The other shrieked a war cry but then was swept beneath a tidal wave of bodies. Bodies swirled, surged, cascaded. Red-sashes, black-sashes, Spartans and Mods and Trads drawn in from the sidelines. The rippling violence crashed into a row of nearby hovels, and they collapsed. Lean-tos and shacks imploded. Tents deflated. A cloud of flotsam and dust rose. Bystanders fled, shrieking.

When the swirling mass of fighting paused, the bat-faced girl was back with three new Mods, all choking and pulling at Needles who screamed and tried to bring up the submachine gun that was tangled around his chest on its sling. A red-sash with a bloody face crashed into Claw. Skull knocked against skull with a solid bone-jarring thud. When he regained his wits, his hand clasped down on empty air, his knife gone. He looked up and saw Diego. The big man swung his hammer, low but forceful, and a Mod's knees buckled out. In Diego's belt was the sawed-off shotgun. Claw grabbed it, yanked it out, and swung around. He stuffed it right in the face of the Mods pulling off the colonel.

"Let go," Claw shouted, the gaping maw of the shotgun held right before the bat-girl's face. Before they could comply, the explosions came.

Six deafening whumps came out in quick succession. Whump-whump-whump. Claw felt overpressure on his chest, on his ears, on his head. He fell down, and others fell with him. Everybody seemed to fall. He tried to breathe, but his lungs took in nothing. He choked. He coughed. His lungs drew in smoke. Thick gray smoke, full of cordite. He coughed it out. Tried for air, failed again, and coughed again. Then he got air, and when he did, he heard the screams. The bloody screams of the mortally wounded. Then he saw.

A score of Mods lay tangled down in a bloody heap. Many thrashed and screamed. Some did not. From the fleshy mass, Claw saw arms and legs kick and grasp, and other appendages less human. They'd been blown up. Claw's first thought was that the Spartans had done it, but then he saw Winston Indigo through the cloud of smoke. The blue giant stood with an M32 grenade launcher in hand. A tendril of smoke curled up out of its squat barrel. All over the ground, the wounded moaned and wailed and screamed. No one else made a sound, the brawl silenced by six 40mm High Explosive Dual Purpose grenades. Winston's heavy-lidded pewter eyes revealed no sympathy, no remorse. The gold plated RPK hung over one shoulder and Claw feared their master might draw it and spray the crowd.

Claw stood, wiped the blood from his face, and helped Needles to his feet. He looked around. None of the Spartans had been injured. Maybe that was good shooting on Winston's part. Maybe that was just the dumb luck of it all. Claw's eyes flittered over the crowd. He didn't see Kobi. More importantly, he didn't see Raux or the Oracle. They'd fled, fled from the mischief and mayhem they created.

Claw stumbled up to his feet. Others followed suit. Claw saw Needles and yanked him to his feet. Claw opened his mouth to introduce Winston to his Spartan advisor. However, ignominious their arrival, the Spartans were here. Winston's advisors, the ones he and the Oracle had wanted were here. The ones behind the airdrops. The riot was done. The Oracle's latest scheme was over, vaporized in a cloud of high explosives and blood. It was time to get things going. It was time to end the nonsense and the infighting. It was time to get things done.

"Winston," Claw said, his Spartan colonel in hand. "Winston. This is…"

Claw's voice trailed off. Wordlessly, his enormous blue leader turner away and walked back into his tent. Not a word, not a sound, not an order, not a command. Nothing. The leader of Gomorrah's remnants just turned and left.

"What just happened?" the lizard-faced Spartan colonel asked. Claw surveyed the aftermath of the riot; the broken shelters and broken people, the bloody wounded, the screaming dying, the shredded bodies of the dead, wide-eyed Spartan advisors, terrified trads, and Mods with dilated pupils, some with blood on their hands, and some with blood on their faces.

"He didn't even say a word," Claw said aloud to nobody.

Two Spartans helped their dazed sergeant major to his feet. Red and black sashes staggered about dazed. Claw turned to Needles.

"This wasn't how I imagined it," Claw said. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming early?"
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