Jaguar's Hunt

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JAGUAR’S HUNT is official fiction that was written by Blake Hutchins for Starsiege.

Chapter One

January 2829, Imperial Standard Reckoning

Imperial Palace, Nova Alexandria, EARTH

Elena was dead.

The fact struck him again like a whip as they reached the ballroom. Eun Alba stopped to collect himself. His reflection wavered ghostlike in the silver-veined marble pillar next to him. It showed neither anguish nor fury. It was a mask.

Elena died believing she was disgraced. Eun Alba watched his reflection twist into an expression of rage. Elena was dead, damn it! The marble felt cool and unyielding beneath his fingertips. She would be avenged, he vowed to himself.

"You all right, Jaguar?" Jaguar. His callsign.

Eun Alba’s friend loomed protectively over him. Oliphant Praldar Singh, callsign Rajah, was an imposing figure, scarred and muscled like a huge tiger, the tattoo of his Sikh faith gleaming bright on the dusky skin of his forehead.

Eun Alba nodded curtly and willed his face back to the mask. He and Singh proceeded the last few meters and handed their cards to the herald. An archaic custom, but tradition often demanded a more low-tech touch. The man glanced at the cards and placed them on a crystal tray before ushering the Knights past him with a flourish.

They checked each other’s comportment quickly.

"Button your collar," Eun Alba told Singh as he straightened his own jacket. Both wore the platinum and sable of the Terran Defense Force elite Imperial Knights, resplendent with dress swords and emerald jewelthread sashes. Large brass shoulderpieces echoed the look of ancient samurai.

"Oh, Gods, Col, no one’ll see it under the beard."

"They will, and you know it. Button it until after you’ve presented yourself to the Emperor, at least."

Singh made a great show of struggling to button the high green collar while the herald waited with a pained expression on his thin face. Singh finished and made his eyes bulge comically. Eun Alba smiled in spite of himself.

The herald posed them quickly and cleared his throat before calling out, "Colossa Eun Alba and Oliphant Praldar Singh, Knights-Captain of His Imperial Majesty’s Order of the Knights of the Rising Earth!"

The herald’s voice keyed hidden amplifiers and echoed over the Jubilee gathering, accompanied by a large holovid of the two Knights standing at the head of the stair for the traditional five second count. Some of the glittering crowd paused to taste the names and examine the holo, to decide, Eun Alba observed cynically, whether anyone important had arrived. Most of the faces turned away, though a curious few did continue to watch, curious as to whether he and the Hangman would clash, as they had occasionally during the nearly thirty years of their feud. There would be more than enough witnesses.

Eun Alba hoped the Hangman was watching, too. His hand knotted on his sword hilt. The Hangman would pay for shaming Elena.

Had it only been an hour since she died? Ah, God, it was a wonder the world went on! A raw hole yawned in Eun Alba’s existence, a hollowness that ached to be filled. And all he had now was fury. White-hot, like plasma in his chest.

"Jaguar," Singh murmured. "Time to go down."

"Of course. Thank you."

Singh raised an eyebrow, clearly wondering if Eun Alba was up to this. Eun Alba had insisted. Family honor had to be protected decisively, before the rumors could begin to spread. He would be strong enough, for Elena’s sake.

Eun Alba strode down the stairs with the arrogant confidence expected of an Imperial Knight, one hand at his side, the other resting comfortably on the hilt of his saber. Beside him, Singh mumbled complaints at the tight collars of their uniforms. The floor of the Grand Ballroom was a black mirror stretching away on all sides beneath huge columns of white marble. The Emperor’s guests sparkled on that mirror, mingling lazily beneath emerald banners adorned with the Imperial Angel of Earth. Lamps seemed to float above the throng. Eun Alba descended into a murmur of conversation laced with gentle music. At the bottom of the stair, he accepted a flute of champagne from a servant’s tray. Singh, he noted automatically, took a brandy.

Singh leaned against a pillar and pointed. "By God, Col, did you ever see anything so damned silly?"

A pair of ornate, gold plated Gorgon-class Hercs towered over the multitude. The one on the left carried the Aztec solar calendar etched on its upper torso; the one on the right bore the leering face of some ancient god. The titanic machines gleamed under the glowlamps, a gilded display of Imperial power. Despite the Imperial streamers cascading over the barrels, the twin Techau-Sauvage plasma cannons each Herc carried were no fripperies; they could blow away anything short of an Apocalypse in a single blast.

Eun Alba grunted noncommittally. He didn’t like Gorgons, despite their awesome firepower; they handled too sluggishly for his taste.

"Bloody ridiculous," Singh added. He tossed his brandy down with a gulp and called a servant over for fresh drinks. Eun Alba didn’t even remember tasting his, much less finishing it. He reminded himself to be careful.

Once they both held full glasses again, Singh took Eun Alba’s arm in his own and led the way deeper into the Jubilee celebrants. A woman in a dress of liquid silver laughed gaily and extended a shapely arm toward them as they passed a flock of courtiers sharing a horseshoe-shaped couch. Eun Alba smiled and nodded automatically, but didn’t stop. Flirting among the court normally offered a pleasant distraction, but not tonight. Not with the rage and ache inside him. He sipped from his glass. The brandy burned his tongue pleasantly, and his mind drifted back to happier times, horseback rides through the orchards of the estate in Italy, laughter shared with Elena.

Yet Elena’s dead, the ache reminded him. Dead and gone.

Eun Alba scanned the crowd, anger and hurt sharpening his senses. Some Knights were easily visible: Hellhound, Throwback, Mako, Pirouette, Deathwish, Flayboy — he knew them all, but the Hangman was nowhere in sight.

He almost slopped brandy on his boots as Singh elbowed his arm. "For God’s sake, Raj —"

"Hsst! The Emperor!"

Eun Alba forgot the brandy and composed himself. The Emperor approached at the head of an entourage, all resplendent in dress finery. His Imperial Majesty appeared as a hologram clad in the golden robes of a Chinese Mandarin. The garb shimmered and flowed with the motion of coiling dragons. The Emperor glanced over from his conversation with a SpaceFleet Admiral and nodded. His image and movement were high resolution, very lifelike, Eun Alba noted, and as always, somewhat disconcerting. One never knew where the Emperor’s viewpoint was located. The entire ballroom contained sensor links to relay information back to its Master. He certainly wasn’t looking at his guests through those penetrating, light-woven eyes.

On the other hand, His Majesty’s hologram face looked less ravaged than his real one, a small vanity Eun Alba was glad of. Just seeing the Emperor’s ancient husk with its army of life support machinery was painful. When Eun Alba had attended the Emperor in person a few months ago, His Imperial Majesty had been confined to a wombcouch with an army of tubes and medical devices sprouting from his body. The Emperor was immortal, as everyone knew, but his body wasn’t immune to the weight of age. No one knew how long he would last, even with the finest medical technology.

The Knights clicked their heels and bowed deeply. The Emperor acknowledged them with a brief smile and a nod before returning his attention to the Admiral. Eun Alba saw no sign of the Imperial Escort, but the Emperor’s elite bodyguards undoubtedly waited nearby. As a matter of face, even His Imperial Majesty’s hologram would not be left unattended.

A hush greeted the Emperor as he passed into the crowd like a ship sailing through suddenly calm waters. People on all sides bowed and curtsied, hushed by the Imperial presence. Eun Alba felt dwarfed by the frail old man and all he stood for: The Great Human Empire, the pinnacle of human achievement. The guardian of Mother Earth, His Imperial Majesty was the Empire. And against Prometheus and the Cybrid menace, he was the only hope.

Prometheus. The name held a death-taint for Eun Alba as it did for all sane humans, a bitter fear worse than Hitler, Pol Pot, or Zenchenko. The Cybrids were like a plague of scorpions waiting to fall out of the night, stinging and clacking. Eun Alba’s grandfather had fought in The Fire under Sainted Gierling, whose memoirs were required reading in the Eun Alba family. There would be no peace while Cybrids still existed. And no quarter would be given when they came again.

"Razorfire! O’ jewel of the Knights, your presence moves me to song!" Singh had already finished his second brandy and replaced it with another drink that smelled of peaches.

"For Hunter’s sake, slow down." Eun Alba told him quietly.

"Jaguar, you worry too much! It’d be a sin to let all this brandy go to waste, eh? Ruby, you’re as beautiful as ever! It’s a wonder the sun doesn’t set and let you shine in its place!"

"Thank you, Singh — but spare us the songs tonight, please." She smiled and clasped Singh’s arm. "What kept you?"

Ruby Hokanson-Li had received the nom de guerre "Razorfire" for her deadly accuracy with Herc weaponry. She was also strikingly beautiful, which never hurt in building a reputation. Hokanson-Li wore the same uniform as Eun Alba and Singh, and her family crest was a lotus flanked by two red dragons.

Eun Alba clasped her arm in greeting and forced a smile. His face felt wooden. "An emergency, you might say."

Hokanson-Li cocked her head slightly, inviting further elaboration. Eun Alba ignored it. "I’m looking for the Hangman. Is he here?"

"Of course," she said, eyes narrowing. The feud with the Thau-Yuros was well-known. "Is there trouble?"

"Yes," Singh rumbled. "Much." He set his glass carefully on the edge of a nearby fountain and moved to Eun Alba’s side.

"Jaguar, Rajah, you must’ve found a rebel nest or something, to be so untidily late!" Titus Thau-Yuros was lean and elegant, with a high forehead and gaunt features. A silk patch covered his missing left eye, an old injury from Eun Alba from their first duel years ago. His callsign came from his preferred method of dealing with enemies of the Empire. Yet now he strolled up full of bonhomie.

"I had untidy business." Eun Alba handed his glass to Singh. "There are those who don’t care about honor, who repeat slanderous rumors. Lies, even. I’m sure you’re familiar with that kind of thing, Titus."

The Hangman’s eye glittered. "No more than anyone in the court, Colossa."

Singh swore softly and emptied Eun Alba’s drink at a swallow.

"This is Jubilee, Jaguar...," Hokanson-Li warned.

"Even Titus understands slander," Eun Alba replied blandly. The smile froze on Thau-Yuros’s face.

Hokanson-Li blinked. "Gentlemen, there are better things to discuss!"

"Certainly," Thau-Yuros agreed. "Such as your charming sister. How is she, Colossa?"

Eun Alba stiffened. The desire to kill was very strong now, a metallic taste in the mouth. He itched to take Thau-Yuros by the throat and tear the life out of him.

"Dead." His hand knotted into a fist. "Murdered by lies."

"You aren’t calling me a liar, are you, Colossa?" Thau-Yuros asked coolly.

"You accused Elena of being a traitor to His Imperial Majesty. She couldn’t live with that. Thus, you caused her death and blackened my family name. I demand satisfaction."

Thau-Yuros sniffed. "Elena was with Harabec Weathers — our rebel traitor — for a long time, old boy. They were lovers, she and the Phoenix."

Singh sighed and placed Eun Alba’s glass on the fountain by his own. "That’s not proof!" he rumbled. "Harabec’s been gone for nine years!"

Eun Alba nodded. "Singh’s right. That’s no proof."

"Ah, but what about the secret meetings with Harabec last year?"

Hokanson-Li looked shocked. Singh eyed his boots morosely.

"That’s still not proof, Titus," Eun Alba said slowly. "The meetings weren’t secret, just discreet. They’d been seeing each other occasionally over the years. Our family knew, and so did the Weathers. Your sources didn’t have to work hard. Elena wasn’t much for secrets. And no one knew about Harabec — including Imperial Intelligence."

Thau-Yuros returned a thin smile. "Excellent, Colossa, but flawed. After all, why kill herself, old boy? Unless she couldn’t live with the shame of being a traitor."

"Perhaps you’re right," Eun Alba replied coldly. "The mere accusation killed her. The lies."

Hokanson-Li put her hand on his arm. "Col, this isn’t the place for this. It’s Jubilee."

Eun Alba remembered Elena’s broken body, her blood splattered on the garden path, his mother’s stunned tears. "It’s as good a place as any." He looked at the courtiers gathered around them. "You heard him. This liar’s baseless accusation killed my sister!" He directed his gaze back to Thau-Yuros, anger worming into his words. "Well, Titus? What’s your pleasure? Blade or pistol?"

"Here. Now. Swords. I shan’t wait a moment longer, Jaguar. Your sister whored for the rebellion —!"

His control evaporated then, and Eun Alba lunged forward, but Singh grabbed him and held him in a grip of stone. Passion choked him. Honor was everything. Losing it was tantamount to losing one’s soul.

"The Code, Jaguar! Stick to the bloody Code!" Singh hissed in his ear. The Imperial Code Duello set forth the etiquette and rules for settling matters of honor with fist, blade, or pistol. Properly followed, the Code made violence and the occasional killing an acceptable part of aristocratic society.

Eun Alba stopped struggling. "Yeah, OK! Here. Now. By the book." Singh released him and he drew a deep, shuddering breath. The crowd pulled back, forming a clear space beneath one of the marble ribs.

"Titus Thau-Yuros slandered my sister and my name. I formally challenge him to defend his honor," Eun Alba managed at last.

"We’ll keep our jackets on," he told Singh. "I don’t want to wait." He drew his blade and made a few relaxed cuts to limber up. It was a heavy cavalry saber of duracore parasteel, and could score ceracrete without losing its edge. The Hangman carried a longer, straighter sword with a basket hilt. He had an advantage in reach, but Eun Alba normally kept the edge in speed.

Everything narrowed to himself, Thau-Yuros, and the electric fury that raced through him. Singh was trying to tell him something, but Eun Alba waved him off. Thau-Yuros saluted. Eun Alba returned a cursory salute, impatient to begin.

A slash at the Hangman’s wrist started the battle.

The Hangman parried and counterattacked. Eun Alba twisted away and snapped out a hard cut that grazed the Hangman’s shoulderpiece before the other got his sword up in time to avoid being split to the breastbone.

Thau-Yuros stepped back with a bland expression and feinted before stabbing low. Eun Alba parried and riposted with a fierce blow to the head. The Hangman’s blade blocked his attack, and for a moment, the two men strained against one another.

"HOLD!" The command exploded around them. The Emperor’s image blazed up before them as Knights and Terran Defense Force officers pushed through the circle. Among them was a stunning woman in form-fitting ceremonial armor, holding a plasma glaive with cool, graceful competence. Imperial Escort, Eun Alba realized. One of the Knights strode past her: Caanon Weathers, Grand Master of the Imperial Knights.

Eun Alba glanced at Thau-Yuros, who offered him a mock salute. Eun Alba cursed silently. Another time. He sheathed his blade, and the Hangman did likewise.

"What is the meaning of this?" Weathers demanded icily. Hokanson-Li and Singh knelt before the Emperor. Eun Alba couldn’t read any expression on the hologram.

"Your Majesty. Milord Grand Master." Eun Alba bowed deeply. "A thousand pardons. We are resolving a matter of honor."

"Indeed," Weathers responded. "A matter important enough to warrant a brawl in the heart of the Jubilee? There are proper places and times. You ignored protocol — as did your companions." He shot a cold glance at Hokanson-Li and Singh.

"Grand Master," the Emperor cut in gently. "Discipline them as you think best, but leave them fit for battle. Remember, we stand on the eve of war."

"War, Your Majesty?" Eun Alba straightened. Hokanson-Li rose, her fists clenched at her side. Singh left off admiring the Escort and stood to listen. Thau-Yuros simply smiled.

A trace of bitterness bled into the dry voice. "Yes. The colonies are in rebellion. Grand Master Weathers asked to hunt down his brother Harabec, the traitor general. It’s time to crush this serpent and bring the colonies to heel. Your request is granted, Grand Master." A ghostly smile flitted across His Imperial Majesty’s face. "And take these firebrands with you!"

Anticipation rushed through Eun Alba, tangling with the grief and fury, filling him with renewed purpose. The other matter of honor lay on Mars, with the traitor. Harabec must also answer for Elena’s death. And the Hangman would be there too. Very well. One way or the other, Mars would be the crucible of redemption.

On your name, I swear it, Elena. You will be avenged.

Chapter Two

Stormalong 184 F.S. Martian Reckoning

April 2828 Terran Standard

Verity grabbed for a better handhold as the dustcrawler lurched sharply with a shrill whine of servos. The restraint web went taut for a second, holding her tightly against the shockfoam of her seat. Then the web relaxed as the ‘crawler regained its equilibrium. The man in front of her grinned, showing yellowed teeth as he leaned easily into his own web.

"Gets a bit rough in the spring, don’t it?" he shouted over the din. The dustcrawler lurched again and Verity felt her stomach drop for a moment. There came a sudden jolt and then the whine and rumble of the servos ceased. All sense of motion stopped. Outside, rocks banged against the armored hull of the dustcrawler with a machinegun-like speed. It was like being inside a giant rattle, Verity decided. It made her head hurt. She could feel the vibrations with her feet.

Her companion spat. "‘Crawler’s waiting out a bad gust. Lowers itself and fires anchorbarbs into the ground. Like as not it’ll only be a few shakes ‘til we get moving again." He wiped grit from his eye and spat a second time.

Verity looked about. Their surroundings were grimy and confining, a narrow corridor deep in the guts of the dustcrawler. Her knees nearly touched the shockfoam seat in front of her. Even though only she and her companion occupied the space, Verity still felt a twinge of claustrophobia. She couldn’t imagine how crowded it would be if it were full. The air was stale and cold and tasted faintly metallic. The only light came from dim amber cubes set into the ceiling every few meters. She sat directly under one such light, and it flickered unhappily. Most of the metal had a reddish cast to it. She reached out and ran a gloved hand over a support rib on her left. It felt rough and left traces of red Martian dust on her fingertips. The dust seemed to be everywhere on Mars, even after centuries of terraforming. Dust was relentless as time, the Martian saying went.

"One of the old mining transports," the man said, watching her. "Pretty much an antique, but still used to check the pipelines in the scornstorms. Like now."

Saxon. She’d spaced it when they first hit the scornstorm, but she remembered it now. His name was Saxon.

"Makes its way by buried radio beacons and an inertial navigation system," Saxon said. He hunched back and she could see his breath frost the air when he spoke. Mars was still a cold planet, compared to Mother Earth or Venus.

"It’s computer-controlled, then?" she asked.

"Yup. Simple system, not a lot of thinking room. Easy to override if you have to. Good for reacting to the signals from the beacons’ wind sensors. It knows to hunker down when the wind gets up to over seven hundred klicks. When the gust passes, it’ll start up again. Used to be, the wind got up to over a thousand klicks, they say. Back in the first days. Even a crawler en’t much use then."

Verity started and gasped as the ‘crawler shuddered under a tremendous bang. Saxon swore. The rattling grew louder for awhile, then began to decline.

When the noise finally stopped, Verity’s ears were ringing. She huddled in her dustcloak and dialed the on-board heating up another notch. Vapor puffed out of Saxon’s hood, slow and regular. Verity wondered if he were asleep. The servos took up their complaints as the dustcrawler stood up and continued its progress. Verity tried to imagine it as she jounced along, a pockmarked, dustscored centipede, like a train with legs like Hercs. Only not exactly like Hercs. More like a crab’s legs, all splayed out to the side.

"We ought to be there soon," Saxon told her.

Verity tried to smile. She didn’t really know exactly what they were doing. She just knew Terran Defense Force enforcers had killed her father in the Tharsis City riot last week. She had put out feelers about joining the rebel movement soon after, and to her surprise, Saxon had made contact almost immediately. I’m a librarian, she thought. What can I do against the Earthers?

Her father had tried, though. Verity knew she had to try too. Tears welled, but she resisted the impulse to wipe her eyes. She’d get dust all over her face. She stared at her hands and thought about nothing.

The dustcrawler jolted to a halt and lowered itself again. Everything was still. The only sound was the distant rustle of the dust sluicing over the external carapace of the ‘crawler.

Saxon ripped free of his safety web.

"We’re there. Grab your kit." He reached over and hauled up his backpack and began to make his way down the narrow space between the seats. "Move it!" Verity grabbed her pack and followed, trying not to get entangled in the pulse flares strapped to the pack’s sides. Saxon stepped through a rust encrusted airlock and set his pack down by a large iris valve on the floor. He punched some buttons on a dust-filmed control panel. Lights clicked on and off on the panel, and Verity heard a grinding sound beneath her.

"Are we going out?" she asked. Surely not! Even in dustcloaks, the scornstorm would rip them to tatters in seconds, if it didn’t .smash them into a cliff first.

Saxon just stared at her. Then he said, "Nah. We’re over one of the conduits to the Weber-Meridian mining tunnels. We’re going down." Verity flushed in embarassment. What a stupid question! The lights on the panel flashed green and the iris valve shuddered open, dislodging traces of dust into the widening blackness.

"Come on." Saxon disappeared into the hole. Verity took a deep breath and lowered herself after him. There were solid rungs, layered with some kind of rubbery material. She couldn’t see anything, but the descent was easy enough. She found herself standing with Saxon in a small round room, very much like the inside of a pipe. A standard hatchway offered the only exit. Above her, the iris valve closed, a shrinking pinwheel of light.

"The ‘crawler’s on its way. It’ll be back in a few days. We should be done by then."

Saxon rapped on the hatch door. Someone on the other side opened it and exchanged muttered words with Saxon. Verity could hear the sounds of people moving, people at work. Through the open hatchway spilled harsh light. The mining cavern inside was full of people and machinery. A grimy Herc strode slowly past. Crudely painted block letters spelled out ALLEY CAT on its side, right by a colorful depiction of a rangy cat with an eyepatch hissing and clawing at something.

"C’mon, lady, we’re clear." Saxon waved Verity through the opening. She followed him into the chamber. They threaded their way between stacks of crates, rows of pressure tents, marching people garbed pretty much like her, various light labor Hercs, and small groups huddled around heatpods sharing hot food and coffee. The faces she saw showed lines of fatigue, but also held a strangely moving excitement. Verity felt that excitement infecting her, too. Like she was ready. Like this whole place was ready. Everyone seemed to have a weapon, either on them or close at hand. Some of the gear Verity thought she recognized from adventure virtuvids. Other things didn’t even look like guns to her, but people seemed to act like that’s what they were.

Saxon shot a glance at her. "New tech. You’ll find out about it soon enough. It’s gonna win the war for us. The other stuff’s pretty standard, mostly hypervelocity rifles and candleguns, a few assault lasers when we can get dust-resistant models." She nodded quickly.

They approached a knot of people sorting themselves through plasteen benches set up in rows. A heavy Herc squatted in front of them, and a short man in a parka stood on the ledge afforded by the hip assembly. He had his hood back, and Verity caught a glimpse of blond hair before Saxon hustled her to a place in the front row.

"Saxon!" the blond man called down. "You dustdog! It’s about time you got here!" He tossed something toward them. Before Verity could think, her hand flashed out and plucked the object out of the air before Saxon could grab it.

Saxon wheeled on her, surprised. Verity cringed back. "Sorry," she said.

"You’ve damned fast hands, lady! You snapped that up faster ‘n a sandflicker snagging a brigbug."

"Sorry," she said, and offered the object to Saxon who took it with a scowl. It was a small package. Chocolate from Earth, a rare luxury on Mars. Saxon opened it and took out couple of pieces, passing one to Verity. She put it into a pouch for later, grateful for the wrapper that kept the dust out.

"‘S’okay," he said.

The blond man was laughing. Verity could see he wasn’t native. He was slightly shorter than the average Martian, and more heavily built. When he vaulted the three meters down to the ground with the kind of easy effort of someone used to a higher gravity environment, Verity knew he had to be Terran.

A Dirtborn? Here?

The blond man came over. Tall for a Dirtboy, Verity guessed, only a little shorter than her. She looked into cheerful blue eyes and a face weathered with smile lines. An expressive face.

Saxon offered back the chocolates. "Keep it, Sax. I’ve got more we liberated from Earth," the blond man said.

"Sure, Bek. Thanks." The chocolate vanished into Saxon’s dustcloak.

Bek regarded Verity with an oddly penetrating look, his smile lingering at the corners of his mouth. Verity felt her pulse pick up. It flustered her, this unexpected charisma from a Dirtboy.

"Verity Vargas," Bek said at last. "First runner-up of the Scuttlebot Biathlon at Nix Olympica in ‘22, right?"

Verity nodded, caught by Bek’s eyes, which almost seemed to catch fire as he looked at her, the cheer hardening to intensity.

"You nearly set a record on that obstacle course. You would have, if the winner hadn’t set his own record."

"Yes," she managed. How did he know all this?

"You’ve still got the reflexes. Why did you give it up?"

Verity looked from Bek to Saxon and back. She couldn’t think. "I... I couldn’t go back," she found herself saying at last. "I put everything I had into that race, and I got beat." She looked down. "I never got over losing, I guess.

Then she remembered her father and anger stirred in her. "But this is different! I’m not just in a race now!" Her passion shocked her.

Bek nodded. "You’ll get your chance to prove it." He turned to go back to the Herc, then paused for a moment. "Are you here for you, or because you think your Dad wants you to be here?"

The question threw her. Then she got angry. "I’m here for me, dust it! Dad, he ... Dad —" She choked back tears.

"I have to ask," he said. The intensity was gone now, replaced by sadness. Bek returned to the Herc, clambered back up onto the hip with the easy grace of that Terran physique. Then he turned to address the group.

Saxon’s hand pressed Verity’s shoulder. She swallowed in embarassment and sat down.

"People," Bek began, "Friends." He raised his arms. "We’re here tonight for a reason. The day when the TDF arrives isn’t far off. And when Teddy comes, he’ll come with the cream of the crop, the Imperial Knights." He emphasized the last two words and paused.

"Mars needs something to counter the Knights, who are, at the moment, the finest and best equipped warriors in the System. When the Knights come, they won’t be astride the old Mohicans and Starblades the Imperial garrisons have run out here. No, they’ll be in Basilisks and Minotaurs, Apocalypses and Gorgons. State of the art Hercs, make no mistake about it. And the Knights know how to use ‘em.

"Mars needs people to stand up to the Knights! Martian warriors to pilot Martian Hercs! Well, that’s you! And you!" He jabbed a finger out into the crowd. "And you." He pointed at Verity, who sat in shock. Her? A Herc pilot? Against Imperial Knights? Verity couldn’t wrap her brain around the concept. A Herc was a lot bigger than a scuttlebot, with real military weapons instead of the pennypot targeting laser a scuttlebot pilot used in competition.

Bek continued to talk awhile, but Verity didn’t pay close attention. She was in shock at the implications. She was going to be piloting a Herc in the rebellion? They had to be kidding! Verity tried to focus again on Bek. He was saying something about new weapons, stuff the Terrans didn’t even know about.

"... so we need to start training our warriors now. That’s why you’ve been brought out here. We’re going to put you through a rough time here. But all of you can do it. You’ve all been picked because you have natural aptitude for the kind of work you’re going to do. You’re going to be the seed of the Martian army, our heavy talent. Together, we’re going to burn the Empire and free Mars!" Bek’s arms shot up.

To her surprise, Verity was on her feet, the fear and excitement blazing up in her. "Free Mars!" she burst out. Saxon stood beside her, taking up the cry. "Free Mars!" Behind her, other voices joined in, louder and louder. "Free Mars!" The rest of the encampment picked it up, then, and the cavernous tunnel thundered around her. "Free Mars!" Verity felt tears on her cheeks, but not of grief.

"Free Mars!"

"Free Mars!"


Chapter Three

November 2799, Imperial Standard Reckoning

The Herc shuddered and stumbled in a blast of flame-tortured metal. Col spit off a curse and leaned hard to the left, trying instinctively to use his own body’s weight to regain balance. The thirty-five ton Herc didn’t respond to such a meaningless gesture, though, and continued to follow the laws of physics. Col managed to fire his lasers one more time before his whole world toppled over with a crash. The holoscreens flared and winked out, leaving him alone in a dead cockpit.

"Christ and Hunter," he mumbled, frantically flipping switches. Auxiliary power from backup cells cut in and the control panels flared to life once again. "Aww…no!" The status readout showed his Herc’s image colored completely scarlet, with the right side armament and leg completely gone. Power wavered at fifteen percent, shields were blown stone dead, and his left side weapons pod was only at thirty-percent capacity. A flash and a shudder illuminated his cockpit then, and the weapons pod vanished from the holo. Another flash and his view flicked to an impossible vantage. From about 100 meters overhead, Col watched helplessly as his Starblade exploded, taking him with it.

"Exercise terminated at thirty-seven point three seconds." The computer’s voice, a soft feminine contralto, sounded almost regretful. "Falcon Two, you have been destroyed."

"Tell me about it." The cockpit began to right itself quietly as the lights came on, revealing the smooth gray interior of a virtusim-training pit. Blastblastblast! What the hell went wrong? I had him, damn it! Didn’t I?

"- suffered eighty-three centimeter penetration at central thorax, directly into the power plant. Surface temperature reached 1500 degrees Celsius, enough to vap-"

"Belay that." Col didn’t want to hear the grisly details. Damn computers, always too literal. Besides, he would hear enough about this encounter, all right. Enough to make him sick. He punched the arm of his wombchair in frustration. Hunter’s bones!

The cockpit side popped open, and Col’s shockharness retracted into the wombchair with a chorus of snicks. As he levered himself out of the pit, Col was pleased to note his knees held up. The adrenaline rush of combat usually left him shivering for minutes afterwards. The pit closed softly behind him, a gray egg embedded in a metaplas housing containing datafeeds and kinetic replicator pods. His own personal domain, usually, but not today.

"You call that piloting, boy?" His Grace the Duke Leonidas Eun Alba stood in front of him, his face splotched with fury. A tall man with a regal sweep of graying hair and a finely trimmed beard, he wore a dark blue battleskin with the Imperial Angel blazing gold from the left shoulder, the family ship and stars gleaming silver on the right. His callsign was Lionback, sprung from his displays of terrible strength and ferocity.

Leonidas shook his helmet at Col. "That wasn’t piloting! That was stumbling! Like a drunken farmer pawing at his maggoty wife! And that last shot into the hillside? I wasn’t anywhere near there, by good sweet Christ and holy Hunter! Nowhere! Aside from killing trees, you’re worthless! Worthless, damn your -"

"Father, I –"

"You dare to interrupt me? Drop and give me a hundred!"

"But -"

"Now! Are your ears filled with pig scat? I said drop!" Leonidas hurled the helmet aside and struck Col hard across the face with his other hand. The helmet clattered against the wall and rolled to a stop by a statue of Gaea near the door. One of the techs stooped to pick it up, but Leonidas waved him off. "Leave it, damn you! Begone!" The tech and his assistant fled.

Face stinging, Col quickly got down and began the push-ups. The blow had been a warning only. His father meant business. Col wondered how far it would go. A hundred push-ups he could do easily. But there’d be more ass chewing, more push-ups. Then a hard twenty-kilometer run. At least. He gritted his teeth and tried to direct his resentment into his arms.

His father’s voice thundered over him. "Thirty-seven seconds! Fah! If this were real, you’d be dead now, boy. Dead and honorless." A boot thudded into Col’s ribs, startling him. The voice snapped out like a whip. "Keep up the pace! If you stop, I swear by Hunter I’ll kill you now. I’ll not tolerate the loss of honor, d’you hear? I’d sooner you die today rather than risk you disgracing the family." Another kick, harder this time. Col grunted with pain, forced himself to continue pushing. It required serious effort not to jump up and strike back.

"Do you hear?" A boot stepped hard on his outstretched fingers. Pain.

Col stifled a yelp. "Yes, Father!"

"Yes what?" Col’s fingers felt as though they were being ground into the duracrete floor.

"Yes, Honored Father!"

The boot remained. It was all Col could do to keep doing the push-ups. "Are you mocking me, boy?" Leonidas sounded quiet now, deadly. Col could feel the tension reach near the breaking point. His father had never blown this far before. Another kick nearly cracked a rib. Col resisted the almost overwhelming urge to cry out and leap to his feet. Rage was building in him now, and he struggled to contain it. His hand -!

"How many push-ups is that, boy?"

"Twenty-nine…Honored…Father -!" Col had learned years ago never to lose count. A superior ability to divide one’s attention was among the most important components of Herc piloting, and all potential Knights practiced from an early age. Col could crack out push-ups or beta-drills forever while thinking through classwork, Herc weapons arrays, or girls. Right now he was trying to figure out his father’s temper. Why this beating, far harsher than any Col had received before?

"Agh…" Col couldn’t help it. His fingers felt like they were ready to crack. He squeezed out the next push-up. You won’t scream, he told himself. Won’t.

"So it hurts. Good! I mean it to, boy! Disgrace our name again, I’ll kill you with my own blade. You’ve had hundreds of hours of training. You’ve had the best instruction we can afford, the finest simulations Sung Industries makes. Another performance like today’s and I’ll not waste another Imperial credit!" Another kick, this time in the stomach. Col’s taut abdominal muscles absorbed it harmlessly, but it still hurt. The boot moved off his hand, finally. Relief sliced through the anger. Col wanted to curl up around his injured fingers.

"Get up, boy."

Anger reasserted itself. Col executed another push-up. "Thirty-two," he gritted.



A brutal grip closed on his shoulder and hauled him to his feet. His father slammed him up against the curved surface of the pit. Cold metal pricked his throat. Leonidas held the combat knife easily but firmly, the point just over the carotid artery. Col knew the edge was sharp enough to cut silk in the air. The point would slide into his flesh like butter.

"Don’t mock me, boy." His father’s voice was flat now, almost calm. Col had seen that look almost a year ago, just before Leonidas had challenged another Knight to a duel and killed her. He swallowed. His fingers throbbed.

"Papa!" A child’s voice chimed into the room. "What are you doing?"

Leonidas stepped back, his eyes still locked with Col, the knife still touching Col’s throat firmly. "I’m teaching your brother a lesson, Elena. A lesson about honor."

Elena Constanza Eun Alba walked up to them. She was young, about six years old, but she carried herself like a queen despite the rough pantaloons and linen blouse she wore this afternoon. With her curly black hair and delicate features, she promised to grow into a real beauty. Now she looked up at her father bravely. "Honor’s very important, Papa. I’m sure Col understands now."

Leonidas nodded slowly, the fury in his face diminishing. "Yes. I agree, little one." He sheathed the blade fluidly and quietly, his attention remaining on Col.

"I agree that Colossa has learned his lesson today." Leonidas stepped back, still regarding Col with a trace of anger. Col stood straight and tried to ignore his hand.

His father continued. "The Emperor has decreed a Century Tourney this coming winter. The Knight-candidates of all the great houses will be competing there. Including you, Colossa. Including the Sicano, the Hassan-Holzer, the Thau-Yuros, and many others. Your abilities will be measured against others of your age. Today’s performance was doubtless a small…deviation from the norm." Leonidas smiled thinly. "You will not repeat it."

"No, Honored Father." Col’s chest felt tight and cold. So that was it! A Century Tourney…The emperor would be in attendance.

Elena piped up. "Mama wants you, Papa! She says she needs you to look at some horses!"

Leonidas grunted. "Very well." He ruffled Elena’s head absently as he withdrew. At the door he turned as if to say something, then changed his mind and simply left. Col and his sister listened to the footsteps dwindle away before either spoke.

"Does your hand hurt lots?"


"Your hand, silly. You’re holding it."

Col looked down. He was indeed cradling his injured hand against his stomach. When had he done that? "It’s alright, ‘Lena. I’ll take a Mederipil later."

Small, cool hands took his hand gently. She peered down at his fingers, then carefully turned the hand around. "You’ve lost a fingernail," she said matter-of-factly. "It might be broken. Why was Papa so angry?"

Col sighed and sank down to the floor with his back to the ‘pit. Elena looked down at him solemnly. "How much did you see, little star?" he asked.

She bit her lip. "A little." Her voice hid a hint of tears.

He gathered her in his arms. "Ah, hells. Don’t cry, ‘Lena. Don’t." He felt her holding it in and pride swelled in him at her strength. "Shh. It’s all right, little star. Big brother just had a bad day in the pit."

She looked up at him, wet-eyed. "When I saw him tromp on your hand, I thought you were going to get up and hit him, Colly. I did."

Col laughed at her use of her pet name for him. It always reminded him of a sheepdog. "I almost did," he admitted, hugging her.

"I’m glad you didn’t." Her voice was muffled now, her hair soft on his neck.

"Me too." Leonidas would have killed him, could have accomplished it easily. Col was sure of that much. If the Thau-Yuros were going to be there – well, that explained a lot of it. Count Delos Thau-Yuros and Col’s father hated each other beyond measure, and that hatred was well on its way to being passed on to the next generation. Col had met the Thau-Yuros brat Titus exactly twice. Titus was a few years older and acted like he was a Knight already. They’d disliked each other independently of their fathers’ feud, so it wouldn’t take much to start one of their own. Col looked forward to such a development. It would give him someone else to hate besides his father.

"Papa shouldn’t have gotten so mad, Colly."

"It’s honor, ‘Lena. He’s afraid I’ll screw up and hurt the family name."

She got off his lap and sat down next to him, holding his hand – the uninjured one, thank Hunter. "You won’t," she said simply.

"I know." Suddenly he felt really tired. And he still had an evening run to do. The push-ups would wait. The question came back to haunt him now that things had calmed down. Where had he gone so wrong in the V-sim?

"Honor’s important, isn’t it?" Elena’s question broke into his thoughts.

"Yeah, little star, it is. It’s the most important thing in the world. Without honor, there’s no life." Hunter’s knobs, he sounded just like his father!

"I think there’s something more important."

Col snorted. "Yeah? Like what, o’ queen of wisdom?"

"Love," she said importantly. "Love’s bigger than honor."

A smile stretched over Col’s face. "Honor is love, little star," Col said gently. "Love of family, love of self. Honor’s everything. Everything. Love is nothing without it."

"Really, Colly?"

"For true."

"I love you, big brother. Does that mean I honor you, too?"

Col laughed. He didn’t feel as tired now. "It does, squirt! And I love you too!" Col stood and lifted Elena up onto his shoulder with his good hand. "Now why don’t we walk down to the orchard. I bet Fra Girofino will let us steal a couple of peaches before I go for my run."

He looked back at the silent shell of the pit as they left the room. I’ll be back for you later, he promised silently.

* * *

The Starblade was an obsolete class of Herc, a middleweight carrying paired laser cannon pods, a light autocannon, and a six-rack of missiles. It was damn sluggish compared to newer models like the Talon, but it made a good all-around trainer, which was why his pit sessions concentrated on using it. You had to learn about energy budgets and ammo conservation, as well as deal with the Herc’s limited mobility and defensive vulnerabilities.

Col ran through the recording of the day’s pit run for what felt like the hundredth time. Step out of the startpoint and around the stand of forest. Hill sloping up on the left, river on the right. Radar showing nothing, no heat signs – then the motion sensor picking up a trace in the rock formation. The valley had been downloaded from scans of Val’Carzano, about sixty kilometers from the Eun Alba manor. The family had a villa there, and Col remembered hunting in the woods there as a child. Now, however, the familiar scene had an entirely different feel.

There! His father’s Armiger came out of the rocks, darting for the cover of a sharp ridge about 300 meters away. Col linked, locked and fired the lasers while urging the Starblade into a lumbering run. The Armiger was smaller but swifter, armed with a twin four-racks and a single laser cannon. Col’s laser bursts lanced in and vaped the dorsal missile pod, and Col remembered feeling triumph at seeing the Armiger’s right leg trail a flare of sparks as well. Now he just shook his head. A missile volley, fired too eagerly, exploded harmlessly on the rocks as his father dodged the limping Armiger behind them.

Col froze the sim. This was the crucial time. What had happened, exactly? His father was piloting a smaller Herc with impaired mobility and reduced weapon capability. Col, on the other hand, was undamaged, with plenty of weaponry and armor. How had his father done it so quickly? Radar still showed no other hostiles, no snipers came up on the heartbeat scan, no unusual heat signs. He sighed and unfroze the scene reluctantly.

His father’s Herc popped up on the other side of the ridge, firing a single missile and a couple of zaps from the laser cannon, and suddenly Col was losing control, his Herc status blazing red everywhere, then his shameful fall into the hillside. He had flamed a tree with that last laser shot, true. Chalk one kill up, at least. After that, Father had simply finished him with the laser.

How had Father done it? Theoretically, the laser and the missile could breach some weak point in the Herc’s defenses to cause a near-instant kill, but that would suggest a cockpit hit – which didn’t happen here. Plus the damage radiated up from the legs, which would account for the massive loss of control. The missiles shouldn’t have penetrated the shields, but the shields went before the missiles hit -

Waitaminute! The legs… The answer had been there all the time! Landmines. His father had added a different twist to the program, picked out familiar ground, set a trap. And Col had run straight into it, guard down. He hadn’t even run a magscan. Father must have dropped the mines and set them for cascade detonation triggered by concussion. The Armiger’s missile would have set off the entire cluster right under the Starblade’s feet, where the shields offered no protection.

Col felt his face heat. Father had been right. He’d been a real idiot. It’d have been better to move to higher ground and wait for the Armiger to offer another target opportunity for the Starblade’s missiles or lascannons. Then, once he’d been hit, Col had continued to charge ahead blindly for a couple of seconds, offering a perfect target. He hadn’t even attempted a new target lock!

He exited the pit and leaned dejectedly by the doorway. Hunter’s knobs, how could he have been so careless?

"Young Lord," came a mild voice from the shadows.

Col snapped into a defensive crouch, slipping a knife from his sleeve. He could call out to the manor security system, if he had time. Guards would be here quickly. Automated systems were, of course, never used. No one would ever trust his or her security completely to a computer.

A chuckle. "You can put the sticker away, young Eun Alba. It wouldn’t help, anyway."

"Name," Col switched the knife to his other hand. "Come out and name yourself."

A lean man wearing a Knight’s uniform sauntered around the nearest row of V-sim units and walked up to Col breezily. "Danzig. Riet Danzig, Knight-Prime. Callsign Bedlam." He had thinning hair and a scarred face that spoke of years of hard living. He smiled. "Your father sent me."

Col straightened and relaxed. The manor security system didn’t react, so this fellow must be on the persona grata list. "Father sent you? What for?"

Danzig’s foot snapped out suddenly, sending Col’s knife clattering along the floor. Before Col could react, Danzig took him down in a blur of motion, pressing his face hard against the duracrete.

"Because, lad, you’re in need of some bloody serious training changes. Lionback’s afraid he’ll lose his temper again and kill you before you learn." Danzig coughed. "Y’needn’t worry about that on my account, though. Not bloody likely. I’ll never lose his temper."

Col smelled Danzig’s breath, a spice of smoke and beer. Danzig breathed his next words in Col’s ear, articulating carefully."But mistake me not. You’ll learn, by Jesusand the Hunter. You’ll just wish I’d kill you before we’re done."

Chapter Four

September 2819, Imperial Standard Reckoning

Red rain was falling on Tharsis. It wasn’t much, not quite even a drizzle, this trickle from the sky, but it was rain to the Martians. A recent thing, only having started some thirty years ago, it still evoked wonder as the water beads gathered like jewels on wall and rover and traced clean paths down to the pressbrick streets of Tharsis City. The miracle drops were red, of course, or almost so, tainted with the fine dust that still lingered suspended in the young atmosphere. Nevertheless, it was rain, a soft rain for a hard people. Martians loved it. Many just stood out in the open with their faces turned up to the sky, relishing each faint touch of moisture.

Verity loved it, too. She was happy and excited. Scuttlebot practice had gone well, and she was sure she’d take first place in the All-Mars Junior Championships next month. She tilted her face up to feel the ghost-prickle of the rain, licked the moisture from her lips and thought how Mars only became a "real" planet when it managed this magic at last.

Others were out on this thin summer evening, looking up at the fragile clouds with smiles creasing their faces. The city was quiet at these times, and people almost forgot the pressures of the day. Even a pair of Imp Lice -- Imperial Police, Verity corrected herself -- stood outside their rover smiling. One of them had her helmet off, revealing cropped blond hair and an elfin face. A tattoo of flowers ran across her forehead. The Police were Terrans, of course, short and heavily muscled compared to the average duster. The girl saw Verity watching her, and the smile vanished, the helmet went back on. Verity looked away quickly, feeling like she’d spoiled the magic somehow.

The cops wore standard gear, light armor and helmet over a belt bristling with the ominous tools of their trade: stunstave, restraint tape, chemdialer, pistol, minicomp, hardcuffs. Each also carried an HV assault rifle slung over the shoulder. They stood out among the dustcloak-clad citizenry. Cop and duster both shared that ever-present film of dust, though, which you mostly forgot until you touched a shoulder and left a handprint behind. Execs and folks with indoor jobs had light, clean dustcloaks in a variety of colors, whereas miners wore the heavier styles that looked like they were caked in a hundred years’ worth of the red stuff. Verity had seen miners who moved in their own little haze, the only clean spots around their mouths where a miner’s dustmask clung during working hours.

Verity paused by a store window, caught by a glimpse of a bright sapphire dress. Martians loved bright colors, particularly the blues and greens. Party colors on dusty Mars, where they stirred dreams of life and water. Terrans laughed at a duster’s reaction to vivid blue, and they didn’t treat these colors with the respect of a people who yearned for green vistas. Some of the Terrans who’d been here a long time recognized the specialness of something like rain, but Verity hadn’t met any Dirtborn who really knew what the colors of life meant to a people raised among the gray and rust and scarred orange of this world.

Verity lingered a long while over that dress, dreaming. Then she realized how late it was and pulled her hand away from the glass, hurriedly wiping the smears of her touch with the edges of her sleeves. It didn’t do much good, but Mother had always been tidy, and Verity had inherited the same habits.

A shift change was happening now, and the streets filled as miner crews in their battered crummies entered the traffic with the other people in their rovers. Streets and sidewalks were roomy -- Martians built large -- so there was no real congestion. A miner stuck his grimy face out of a passing crummy and whooped appreciation at Verity. She smiled, blushed, and moved on. Verity was fifteen years standard today, and the attention she’d been getting lately both disturbed and excited her. She knew she was supposed to be pretty, but couldn’t quite believe it. Her reflection in the window showed long black hair, high cheekbones, and a maybe too serious expression. Someday there’d be a boy for her. Not today, but someday. She tried to put that yearning away as she walked, but the miner’s wide grin stayed with her all the way home.

Angular buildings rose around her, painted with the colors of the corporations that occupied them. Those logos and windows were the only bright spots. Everything else was either gray ceracrete or the dark rust of pressbrick fashioned from the Martian duracrust. The sky was darkening to the amber color that reminded Verity – unfortunately -- of whiskey. The rain had stopped. It was actually warm enough that Verity didn’t need her cloak, and she pushed it back off the shoulders to enjoy better freedom of movement. She got several more complements on the way home, one not so nice.

The apartment was empty when she finally arrived at home, and her high spirits plummeted. She put her daypack neatly by the door and pulled off her boots and cloak. They went in the closet, and Verity ran a hand through her hair and looked around. Empty beer bottles lined one wall neatly, changing at the corner to a shorter row of equally empty whiskey bottles. A half-full whiskey bottle sat with an empty glass on the sturdy metaplas table in the dining alcove.

Verity looked miserably at the bottles, knowing Dad was pulling a Rio tonight, since he wasn’t here like he’d promised. He’d stagger in later, maybe very late, smelling of whiskey or gin and or most likely that cheap Bulge Horse stuff. If he made it back. Verity throttled that traitor thought immediately. When he got back. It should always be when.

Moving listlessly through the room, Verity made her way to the kitchen and transferred the lone glass to the sink. She had homework to do, but emotions collided and chopped at each other; she was too restless to settle down with problems in tectonic engineering matrices just now. The apartment seemed confining. It was a standard slot, tight and blocky, with a sunpipe in the living room to bring in the daylight, radiator arrays in the walls to provide heat. There was enough room for a small couch, a couple of chairs, and a tidy holocenter. Most of Verity’s books were in her room. Dad had his own room, but mostly slept on the couch. Verity couldn’t remember whether he’d ever slept in a bed since Mom died.

Mom. A holostat of Verity’s mother glowed on a small wooden table in the corner opposite the bottles. The holo and table would be safer in Verity’s room, but she stubbornly refused to relinquish Mom’s presence in the common room. They made a little shrine for Verity, a source of strength. Wood was expensive on Mars, and this table was the costliest possession they owned. Verity’d had to hide it a few times over the years, but lately Dad seemed to accept that it was the one thing they wouldn’t sell. She walked over to it, knelt, and ran her fingertips over the wood. She usually marveled at the grain and the rich color, amazed that it actually came from a living organism, all the way from Mother Earth. But tonight, the table’s magic didn’t work. She felt dully angry at Dad, at smiling miners, at everything. For a moment, she even wished Mom’s image would vanish. She looked at the holo, at the strong, smiling woman in it, and tears began to flow.

She sent a silent apology to Mom and to the Madonna. It wasn’t that she didn’t love Mom anymore; it was just that Dad didn’t love anything but, even eight standard years later.

Not even himself. Verity felt her guilt shift inside, coalesce into a coil of anger. Why today? Of all days? Even as the questions blazed up in her mind, she knew they were stupid. Pointless. After all, this was how it was almost every day. She’d have been surprised if Dad had come home, if he had fixed a birthday dinner like he’d promised. She’d have been doubly surprised if he’d been sober.

But why, she thought as she got up, why couldn’t today be different?

She plopped onto the couch. "It isn’t fair! Nobody cares!"

Well, that wasn’t quite true. Roused by the noise, DT came out of her hideyhole, stretched and yawned, then crawled purring into Verity’s lap. Few people on Mars had large pets. Dogs were costly, and the desert conditions were harsh outside the major cities. Since The Fire, Martians had taken to cats, ferrets, and fish.

Dejah Thoris was certainly one of the more spoiled specimens of felinity on Mars, at least by Verity. When Dad was home, DT usually stayed out of sight. Verity let the cat’s warmth and softness comfort her. She’d just gotten to a peaceful state of mind with the phone chimed.

"Audio," she said, not moving from the couch. Dad always maintained audio was enough, that video was only for friends or family. A circular mote of light – a holo-icon – flashed into the air near her head.

"Miz Vargas?" an unfamiliar male voice asked.

"This is."

"Sergeant Balentine, Imperial Police." A pause. "OK, your voice print is jake. Miz Vargas, it’s your father."

"What about Dad?" Verity asked in a small voice.

"Well, kid," the officer managed to sound sympathetic but bored at the same time. "I have to tell you, we picked him up on an Intox-B, enhanced by Public Disruption."

"What does that mean?"

"Flat staggering drunk down the middle of Thoboss Street, Miz Vargas. He almost walked into a crummy. Nearly caused an accident."

Verity hugged DT tightly. "Is he OK?"

"Oh, yeah. Reasonably. Listen, his records show this is his fourth time, right? You know we can’t let it go."

"What are you going to do?"

"Can you come down to the station?"

Verity shivered. The police weren’t known for their patience. Besides, it was no secret that Dad was sympathetic to miners who suffered under the Imperial Proclamation. If he’d been spouting another one of his pro-labor, anti-Empire tirades, the Police would show even less mercy. Still, what would they do? According to NewsNet, the detention centers were full of dissidents and labor criminals already. Dad hadn’t done anything but talk, and the Empire wasn’t spending money on building new prisons. What could they do to a public drunk? He’d probably spend a few days in detox, and Verity would take off school to cover for him so he kept his job. Then he’d come home early because the Imperials didn’t have room to keep him very long.

"Kid? You there? Can you come down to the station?"

"Oh! Uh, yeah, sure. I’ll be right down, if that’s jake."

"Sure, Miz Vargas. Make it quick, huh?" She heard what sounded like some kind of disturbance in the background before the cop cut the call off. Silence swallowed the apartment.

* * *

The police station was a heavy, stand-alone building. The winged star of the Imperial Police branded the ceracrete exterior and seemed to broadcast anxiety out into the boulevard. Citizens avoided looking at it. Many crossed the street so as not to walk directly past the building. A few Police rovers were parked out front, swivel-mounted chainguns perched on top like ominous black metal birds. Some Police sentries stood by the entrance, stunstaves out and at full extension. It was dark now, and streetlamps were ignited. The low hum of their dustfilters added a faint but distinctive voice to the night. Verity got out of the rovercab and asked the driver to wait, since she was sure Dad was in no condition to walk home.

It took a few minutes to get through the checkpoints. First one of the sentries ran a scanner over her. She was a head taller than he was, but felt a spasm of fear when he had her open her dustcloak so he could pat her down after the scan. His hands lingered a little where they shouldn’t, but she gritted her teeth and said nothing.

"You’re jake, bunny. Follow the flashing green line," he told her.

She entered a long, bunker-like hallway, passed through another scanner, this one set into the wall around her, and then followed the line to a room where a vacuum tentacled out and sucked the dust off her. Finally, the flashing line guided her to a waiting room that reeked of disinfectant and quiet despair. There was a metal bench against one wall, across from a huge pic of some forest on Earth, all blue water and enormous green trees. Probably some Dirtborn’s idea of a joke to enthrall the Martians waiting here. Verity ignored it and went to the mirrored window beside what looked like a reinforced door. It was designed so the Police could observe the waiting room, but not vice versa. Verity held her ID card to the ident plate and said her name. A tinny voice responded, telling her to be patient, that someone would be there soon. She smiled a little at the slight hiss and distortion in the speaker. It meant the dust had sifted its ghostly fingers into the Police electronics despite the Imperial precautions. All the scans and sucking tentacles seemed silly to her, all of a sudden, and she felt a bit better, in a way almost vindicated.

Verity didn’t end up waiting long before a stocky man with a scratch of beard and watery eyes came through the door. His uniform showed a sergeant’s slashes on the shoulder.

"Miz Vargas? I’m Balentine." He wasn’t surprised at all when she stood up and was considerably taller than he was. Instead, he smiled a little and ushered her into the back.

It was warm, and there was a lot of conversation. He took her past neat rows of desks sheltered by transparent plexiplas barriers. Scattered police and bureaucrats shared coffee and laughed. Almost everyone was Terran, and she felt a little gawky among these muscled frames. They all had to work out heavily to avoid losing too much muscle tone in Mars’s lower gravity, and it showed in the sleek snap of their motions, the taut muscle under their uniforms. Verity followed Balentine down a short rack of stairs into the detention area. And that’s where she spotted Dad slouched on a bench in a plexiplas holding cell with a dozen or so other dusters, most of them miners.

"Can I see him?" she asked Balentine.

The sergeant nodded a little impatiently. "We’re bringing him out in a minute, ma’am. I need to have you sign for him first." He handed her a clipboard made of scratched white metaplas with the Police star embossed over the screen. Verity looked over the display.

"It’s a release," Balentine said. "It shows you took custody of him."

"He gets to go home now?"

"Yeah." Balentine grunted. "For what that’s worth."

Verity didn’t know what to make of this, but she kept her mouth shut and signed on the blinking field, then returned the clipboard and attached stylus back to Balentine.

They brought Dad out. He was stumbling, and Verity smelled the liquor on him before he said anything.

"Verity," he said, wincing. "Sorry, hon." His eyes were bloodshot, and he seemed hungover. There were a couple of watchful Terran cops on either side of him, their dark green uniforms crisp next to Dad’s battered outfit. They directed him into a red circle set into the floor. A holo-icon in the shape of the Imperial Angel winked into the air on one side with some numbers under it. Balentine stepped in front of Dad and Verity started to get a a really bad feeling about this.

Balentine checked his clipboard. "Ernesto Soledad Vargas, this proceeding is being recorded according to Imperial law. This is the sentencing hearing following a summary trial in case ZCV400-14. You were arrested and charged with Public Intoxication. We provided a rapid detox via standard acuzyme catalysis and then found you guilty of the matter as charged. The maximum penalty is one year detention and a fine up to 30,000 crowns. You have the right to speak on your own behalf before I impose sentence. Do you understand the nature of these proceedings?"

Verity tugged at Balentine’s sleeve. "What’s going on?"

"Please be quiet, ma’am. This is a summary hearing, and I am the magistrate-"

"By what authority?" Dad interrupted, clearly experiencing some pain.

"Do you understand th-"

"By what dusting authority?" Dad shouted. "Under what law do you have the right to do this -- this insanity?" He swayed now, very pale.

Balentine sounded bored as he rattled off his answer. "Imperial Edict 2810 Chapter Four, section thirty-two, citizen. ‘All Imperial Peace Officers in colonial jurisdictions shall have the power to conduct trial of suspects following arrest. Such Officers are considered Imperial Magistrates during the course of said trial and are empowered to sentence convicted criminals as though the trial and sentencing occurred in a court of law.’"

"Doesn’t he get an attorney?" Verity asked, definitely frightened now.

"No, ma’am. No right to legal counsel under 2810."

"Goddamn Imp Lice!" Dad lunged forward, but the two police officers grabbed him with Terran strength and then Dad wasn’t going anywhere. He continued to shout until one of the officers slapped a strip of tapecuff over his mouth. The police had to keep holding him, though, and Verity could tell they were getting mad.

"Dad, stop!" Verity was sick with fear for Dad. "What’s going on?" She turned to Balentine and began to cry. "He’s just a drunk, that’s all! A useless, dusting drunk! Can’t he just be sent home?" That quieted Dad down fast, and Verity felt like crawling into a dark hole.

Balentine looked at her with those watery eyes. She couldn’t see any sympathy in them. "That’s not the law, ma’am. Now, please have a seat so we can proceed." She could hear the warning in his tone.

Verity backed up and lowered herself carefully into a chair. It was designed for a Terran, so it was short for her. Balentine nodded at her before continuing.

"Mr. Vargas, you are hereby also accused of contempt of court and of resisting Imperial custody just now. I find you guilty on both charges. You’re damn lucky I don’t find a treason charge to add to ’em." Balentine tapped his clipboard. "I’ve referenced the new convictions under the same case number. You have anything to say for yourself?"

Dad slumped in the arms of the police, but glared at Balentine. The tape still covered his mouth. Verity opened her mouth to protest, but something in Dad’s expression stopped her.

"For the record, the defendant has nothing to say." Balentine put the clipboard on a desk and plucked a compact silver pistol from his belt.

"Don’t shoot him!" Verity jumped up and moved in between Dad and Balentine.

Balentine looked surprised for a second, then his eyes narrowed. "It’s not a gun, girl. It’s a chemdialer. Now I know you’re upset, but don’t interfere any more. Or I’ll charge you with obstructing justice. You jake with that?"

Verity got it, yeah. Balentine wasn’t kidding. She moved aside feeling totally helpless, tears streaking her cheeks. "This is unfair," she managed in a blurbly voice.

"This is justice, baby," one of the other cops muttered. "Get on with it, Sarge. She’s just a kid."

The other cop took a moment and ran his eyes up and down Verity. Then he licked his lips. "Yeah, but she’s a sweet catch anyway." Dad tensed again, but the Terrans barely noticed.

"Cut it, dustbrains!" Balentine barked. "We’re still recording!" The cops straightened up, looking a little embarrassed, and took tighter hold of Dad.

Balentine moved up and pressed the muzzle of the chemdialer against Dad’s neck. Then he went back to where he’d been and continued in that dead-bored voice. "Let the record show that the sentence was administered at, uh, 1925 hours Martian. Defendant received a ten milligram dose of Debilven-Beta. Said dosage is intended to cause 66% percent paralysis for six standard days, onset to be within sixty minutes from time of administration. Cease record." The holo-icon vanished.

Dad slumped in disbelief. Verity wasn’t sure exactly what Balentine meant.

"You mean he’s going to be paralyzed?"

"Yes, ma’am. Mostly. He will have some gross motor capacity, although not enough to get his hand to his mouth." He chuckled. "That’s kind of the point."

"How’s he going to work?"

Balentine shrugged, put the chemdialer away. "Not my problem."

"But how’s he going to eat?"

"Miz Vargas, he can eat like a dog. Just put his food and water on the floor. I promise you he will be able to navigate by crawling."


He cut her off. "No, ma’am. That’s all. Make sure you have him sleep on his side. Thank you for coming down. The boys here will escort your father out. You’d better get him home before Debbie kicks in."

Debbie? She must have looked completely blank, because Balentine said, "The drug."

As Verity followed the cops and Dad back the way she’d come in, she heard Balentine add, "Have a nice evening, ma’am." She bit her tongue hard so she wouldn’t blister his ears with her answer. Imp Lice. They were all Lice, the Terrans! Dad was right…even if he was a drunk. Verity felt terrible about having said it like that right in front of him, but it had been sort of a relief to say it, too.

The cab wasn’t waiting anymore. The driver must have figured she wasn’t coming out or something. Verity and Dad had to slog home on foot. They didn’t talk much, each lost in thought, neither knowing quite what to say, neither knowing how to heal the hurt between them. By the time they got back to their apartment, the Lice’s drug was starting to take effect, and Dad was stumbling. Verity helped him inside and onto the couch. DT meowed and rubbed up against her leg.

"Verity," Dad said thickly. Talking was becoming difficult for him. "Sorry about …all…this. You…know?"

Verity nodded and knelt to take Dad’s boots off. She felt his hand pat her head clumsily.

"I…mean…it. Y-you…deserve…better."

She hunched over his boot, the snapstraps limp in her hand. A tear splashed onto the dust of the synthleather. She couldn’t catch breath to answer back.

"I’ll…make…you…p-proud…some…day." Each word was clearly an effort for him now.

I love you, Dad! she wanted to say. I love you so much! I just want you to get better! If she was just good enough, maybe he wouldn’t miss Mom so much…! She choked on a sob she couldn’t quite swallow. Dad tried to stroke her head, but his arm relaxed and went limp instead. She felt his hand slide off and thump onto the cushion.

"Sor’, Ve’ty." The drug was working fast now.

I’m sorry, too, Dad, she thought. She looked up and saw his features going slack. His eyes were alert, though, and filled with misery. His mouth worked and he said something she didn’t understand.

"What, Dad? I didn’t get that."

"Aaa’eey oooo’aay," Dad produced after a struggle. He repeated it and began coughing. Verity moved him over onto his side, let the drool run out of his mouth onto the couch arm. He looked at her desperately, tears in his eyes, too, and suddenly she understood. Control slid away and she collapsed onto him, hugging him hard as she cried.

Happy Birthday, he’d said. Happy Birthday.


Starsiege Writers' Guide