I was not alone in the alcove long.
It wasn’t Elisabeth who returned. Sivar came back in with someone in tow and she gestured towards me. “As I said, a form of justice has been served. I hope this assuages your suspicions, Inspector General Michael?”
Legion Inspector General Michael was clad in a burnished electrum Legion breastplate, flowing black robe/skirt cloaking his lower body, and leather-like material sheathing his arms and hands. He seemed Indian: matte brown skin and rounded features, with expressive black eyes.
“I thank you for your cooperation, Prelate.” He was perfunctory, even irritated. “But this is not justice. There is no question that Lord Vycta is the victim in this breakdown of Legion discipline.”
“They are young Michael, only a year or so dead at best.” She did not touch him but her voice was still intercessory rather than conversational. “At that age, they are so happy to be alive and are still filled with zeal at the opportunity to serve.”
I broke in with acid tones. “Paulos isn’t even dead. She snatched him away at the last moment. No one truly died here today.”
Sivar was not put off rhythm by my surly interruption. She picked up my conversational line as if she expected it. “I sincerely hope that death is not required for lessons to be learned about what battles to pick.”
Michael’s jaw dropped momentarily and Sivar smiled with cool self-congratulation. “Vycta, if you wish, you can retire to your old chambers here in the palace. However, I understand if you wish to get a breath of fresh air or, rather, fresh vacuum.”
Shadow clothed me, shredding the rest of my ruined tux and I stalked out of the alcove. The shimmer let me through and I reentered the ball with no gown and no glass slipper.
A familiar coifed, rough-and-ready, leonine brunette in a tan brushed silk pants suit surged out of one of the small knots of people loitering about the massive antechamber near the entrance of the alcove. She held a thin, shiny rectangle maybe twice the size of a credit card in her left hand.
“Myrna Moy, with CNAP Today. Care to answer some questions?”
“No comment.” I said not breaking a step.
She fell into step next to me, and half whispered, “Come on, you owe me!”
“For putting me and my fellow journalists in the path of the Crown Princess Qin,” she replied.
I shrugged. “I told you where she was. No one made you go.”
“Where have you been for the last year,” she redirected.
“In suspended animation, by order of Primate Pepin, under watch of the Inquisition,” I replied.
“Are you really a demon,” she continued.
“I’m not a fallen celestial!” I seethed. “So I can’t be a demon! It’s so stupid. Our so-called authorities know what demons are, but they can’t be assed to use an actual definition.”
Claxons blared through the chamber, followed by a clipped stern female voice. “An enemy battle group is threatening the command sphere of the Central North American Principality. CNAP Legion Command believes this to be a sign of eminent attack. Legionnaires, citizen defenders, and militia, report to battle stations; everyone else to the shelters.”
I pivoted on my heel and ran back to Sivar.
“They are here for him, you know,” Michael was saying as I arrived. “Thiessen will not care if Paulos is dead or alive.”
“Michael, you are relatively young so I can excuse your focus on the obvious.” Sivar was briefly surrounded nimbus of power, as her own Legion armor wove itself into reality on a loom of light. “Thiessen knows better. Thiessen knows the rules of formal Challenge. So he is borrowing authority through the fear of others to try to unseat me through the Panacea project.”
“They just think…” Michael started, before she cut them off.
“They think I am a silly woman under the spell of a mutated demon penis.” Sivar’s voice flitted from light banter to steely disdain. “All they have revealed is their own lack of actual intelligence gathering.”
He frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“I have been Vycta’s patron, sponsor, and guardian, but I have not had sex with him. Our relationship is as chaste as those who partook in Courtly Love in the neo-dark ages wished their interaction could be.” Sivar smiled and I felt chilled. “It’s a trap. And this attack, I guarantee you, is not what it seems to be.”
Michael’s head whipped back in my direction and I shrugged. “She is my morning star, the most beautiful woman I know, for I do not see only her flesh. I feel her presence. I see her core and the corona of her pattern, and all others pale beside her. When I thought I had been blinded, I was most stricken that I could not gaze upon her true form.”
She beamed. “And that’s why I keep him around.” She turned to me. “What did you need?”
“I want to help,” I replied. “Where do I need to be?”
Michael reacted, sharp disapproval haloing his words. “Have you been in space combat before?”
“A couple of times,” I replied. “I sliced off the wing of a mercenary transport making off with Primate Dion.”
Sivar took up the string. “When Pepin had Dion kidnapped by mercenaries to be brought back to the Northern Observatory, Vycta demonstrated that he learned Legionnaire Paulos’ lessons very well indeed. And Michael, if you leave now, you can intercept Dion and convince him to let Paulos fight. It’s the only way he’ll overcome his trauma in any reasonable period of time. Make certain he is in a battle group with Herakles. His husband will provide him with motivation not to descend into melancholy.”
Michael saluted. “I am yours to command. I swear this on my Name and life. I should never have doubted you.” He jogged out of the room.
Sivar watched him leave and gestured for me to be quiet. We were both quiet for about a minute when a breathless and slightly wild-eyed and fully armored Horace bolted into the room. “Your Excellency, Ondi is preparing his suit and installing the programs.”
“Good,” she smiled. “Go.”
Horace nodded and turned to me. “Come on, stumpy!”
We did not run; we flew as we did in Sin City. Doors opened preemptively, allowing us to pass. Horace navigated us through a maze of relatively empty back halls. He paused to land before proceeding through the last door, motioning for me to join him. It was an empty locker room.
He carefully looked around the room before barking an order. “It’s clear, Ondi; come on in.”
A petite but muscular, bald, dark skinned woman strode into the room with a roughly folded bundle under her arm.
“We need to dress him,” Horace said, moving towards her. “We need to get spaced as soon as possible.”
“He shouldn’t be coming with us at all,” She commented. “We can’t be distracted babysitting him!”
“He is tougher than he looks,” Horace said as he took the package from her. “Trust me; the Inquisition and Sivar have been examining him for the last year.”
My eyebrows shot up. Examining?
“Examining?” She retorted an audible echo of my thought. “I thought they were de-spooling him to see what grew back after everything was torn away?”
Horace froze and gave her a dark look.
Which she, in turn, relayed to me, “You didn’t know? Wow, you are smitten and stupid.”
I did not respond, and it did not look like an intentional evasion because Horace shoved a suit into my hands. “Get dressed.” He retained a slim helmet and a bulkier wrist computer that seemed more like a forearm vambrace. So much for getting help to dress.
The suit reminded me of a heavy scuba suit, except white with plate reinforcements in the torso, legs, arms, and neck.
“Have you ever flown in space before,” Ondi asked
“Yes,” I said neutrally and then firmly. “A lot actually.”
She scowled. “But not in a Chakram-class assault craft?”
“What?” Now she had my attention. “I’ve been in space craft before, but Paulos said military space craft are just for convenience and to hold bigger guns. I thought you wore that armor so you could fight in space unimpeded.”
By the time I finished, she was on the verge of an outright oration and Horace interrupted. “Get out, Ondi! Now is not the time!”
Irritation boiled off of him, and seeped into me as he fastened the computer onto my right arm. “I want you to know that I think this is a terrible idea. You will be putting me and my people at extraordinary risk.” He put the helmet on my head. “But I will obey my Prelate.”
I wanted to say something brusque and full of bravado, but he was right. For all my flight time, I had done relatively little formation flying and no “dogfighting.”
I wanted to dwell on this “de-spooling,” but Horace commanded my immediate attention.
“There are only telepathic interfaces in this gear.” Horace said thickly. “Your password is ‘burden.’ Change it as soon as possible.”
The transparent front of the helmet became a heads-up display. “Legion Integrated Navigation Application” scrolled briefly across the front and I was immediately allowed the option to change my password. The acknowledgement message displayed, “Callsign: Herokiller, verified and acknowledged.”
I stiffened violently. “Herokiller? Is this some kind of joke?”
“It is what you wanted to be.” Sivar’s voice drifted over the radio. “Horace, are you ready to depart?”
“Excellent. Go quickly.”
“Come on,” Horace beckoned irritably. I followed.
We raced into yet another set of halls. Sivar’s voice returned. “Horace, hold your launch until my command. I am sending Paulos and his wing out first.”
Horace stopped dead in his tracks. “What? He’s dead!”
She did not elaborate. “I intervened. Proceed to your craft and wait on my order.”
He whispered, “Gods of my ancestors.”
“Oh, come now, Horace, don’t go plebeian and blubbery on me. I have done things like this before. Who put this shell into orbit,” she chided gently.
“That… that’s just brute strength,” he said. “This is Primate level delicacy.”
She laughed, and then said, more seriously, “Rally your people.”
Even with the immediate impetus removed, we still ran, the sounds around us changing. The claxons had faded to dimness, and only intermittently flashing yellow and red ceiling lights indicated a state of alert. I heard ntermittent bursts of wall-muted chatter followed by a loud whine that cut off abruptly after a few seconds.
“We are near the launch ports,” Horace supplied.
I kept walking, nerves singing with anxiety, feeling claustrophobic in my new suit, feeling like a tagalong. I just wanted to go out into space and gut things.
We stopped at a hangar, where six strange circular craft bigger than busses sat. Each ship had a thick outer ring. The pilot’s seat sat inside a hexagonal sphere that bloomed out of the thick wing-like cross-shaped inner assembly, connecting to the outer ring. The outer ring-really, it was a circular wing-was studded with thruster ports. Some sort of engine directly behind the cockpit was integrated into the rear arc of the outer wing, with additional anchoring attached to the cockpit’s cross spar.
The craft were all white, with a black knight’s shield insignia at the cardinal points of the wing. Names were etched into the hull beside each cockpit. Each ship was occupied, except for an empty one labeled, “Green Knight.”
Horace gave me a channel number, and said tersely, “Be quiet and listen in. When we launch, you will be last.” He gestured to an area where people in blue helmeted jumpsuits were working next to consoles and other unfamiliar tools. “Until then, stand over there and stay out of trouble.”
Horace sealed his helmet and the channel he gave me crackled to life.
“We have a brief reprieve people,” he announced. Somehow, L.I.N.A, had my settings from my wrist computer back at my room. I heard the audio, but it was also instantly transcribed in a small window in my heads-up display.
“How is the sleeping bower-boy doing?” L.I.N.A. identified him as “Antov Yaragov, callsign: Hammer.”
“He’s inconsequential,” Horace replied.
“He’s going to get us killed, Green Knight.” Ondi’s voice replied. L.I.N.A. registered her callsign as “Oya.”
“Sivar is sending out another group to help clear a path,” Horace replied. “We are going to be part of the main assault on the Atlas.”
Atlas? I thought.
In response, L.I.N.A. brought up a brief paragraph and picture of a lozenge-shaped craft. According to the data, it was roughly a mile long.
“Fucking awesome,” Kent Clarkson aka Farmboy, exclaimed. “I don’t care if the whore is with us; we get ground action!”
“That is going to be quite a hustle,” Kova (Sextant), mused. “I will have acceleration profiles ready by the time we launch.”
“Hrm, I guess we’ll see how well-trained Thessien’s so-called ‘elite guard’ really are,” Marius Octavius, or Gladius, chimed in.
“Who named him ‘Herokiller’?” The last voice, deep male, was Quahotoc, callsign: Gilgamesh.
Horace’s voice was clear. “Sivar.”
“Hmm. Oh well,” Gilgamesh replied. “If he had chosen it for himself, I would have suggested he change it if he survives the battle. It sounds… anti-social. Since the name is effectively a gift, he is stuck with it.”
“How in the hell is he supposed to live up to it,” Farmboy piped in.
“He already has,” Horace seemed edgy. “Sextant, what is the current status of the battle?”
A new window opened in my display. An opaque shape in the silhouetted briefly dominated before pulling back, and a basic scene etched into view. Dots appeared with small descriptive flags and then triangles, and far off to the side was a larger sausage-shaped opaque shape labeled “Atlas.” Then it all animated.
Sextant narrated. “The Atlas has committed its standard complement of assault craft to the initial attack. However that is not nearly enough to take a fully powered modern Principality, particularly if it detaches from its umbilical.”
“What about sabotage,” Horace asked. “It has been considered in light of the happenings at the Prelate’s party and the kidnapping of Legionnaire Herakles to blackmail Paulos into fighting Herokiller,” he added. “The Legionnaire has been retrieved. It seemed that the routing of the assassination squad put the conspiracy into confusion.”
“I guess that eliminates the Inquisition as a direct conspirator,” Oya replied. “They supervised the de-spooling. They would know the most about what he could do, especially if they did it to him.”
“They did not do anything except pull him apart and let himself put himself together a few hundred times,” Horace replied.
“I’ve heard things,” Oya replied. “Like they used him to make more Panacea until he was all used up… then they let him loose. It was just a coincidence it happened when the Atlantean Corps returned.”
“How do you know this, Oya,” Farmboy asked.
“The rumor mill said he was too damned powerful,” she replied. “The demon essence was metastasizing within him. They had to force him to develop a resistance or he would have been a danger. Most of the other donors are in hiding, exiled, or dead. So, he thinks that he’s going to go out there and make a big show and be a big hero, but he isn’t what he used to be.”
“The rumor mill seems to run rampant here,” I snarked. Unspoken, I thought that the rumor mill also doesn’t know anything about the Green Blessing.
“Shut up!” Horace replied.
Octo intervened telepathically. “This is one of the reasons I forced you into a new… expression of existence, Herokiller. The Legion and Sivar had been using you until nothing was left. You exist now because of your training and your faith. They expected you to die from their secret experiments. They expected you to die in that fight at the party. You proved them wrong. You are stronger for it all. There is nothing left for you to prove. Now, all you have to do is honor our agreement and fight.”
I was scowling, grateful for the helmet to hide my face. Octo continued. “Horace only said something because Ondi brought it up. They would not have told you otherwise. I am telling you to make you angry. I am telling you these facts in order to remind you: none of these people are your friends.
“The only thing you are obligated to do is fight for this space station. Then you will be free of me; however, you have to be alive to enjoy that freedom. So win and do not die. It is simple.”