A short story by Alex John Carpel
The midnight orchard was quiet. The alien and wild looking trees set out in regimented rows made for a strange sight in the moonlight. Kelt grimaced at the sight of the sprawling self indulgent hobby farm. Another from one of the countless noble houses that made up the ‘civilised’ part of Bilayle. The presumably super rare and expensive blossoms, swayed in the night air and spread a sickly cloying smell that stuck in the snipers throat. She wouldn’t have chosen here but then again she didn’t have a choice in the matter. This place gave her best vantage to the valley below.
Kelt lay prone at the base of one of the twisted trees. About twenty paces to her left, her assigned warjack “Slyfox” had taken a knee also behind a copse of trees.
Even though it was just a learned behavior the warjack had picked up after so many years of being in the 5-7, Kelt liked to think the machine was now just a sniper at heart.
The hunter peered down her scope through the dense copse of trees and focused in on a smooth domed structure far below. Some sort of mock shrine built at the whim of some spoiled technocrat no doubt.
She’d had plenty of time to contemplate the nature of this place. They’d been here since dusk waiting for their quarry to arrive. But she could be patient. Especially to catch a “nobleman”.
There was motion in the gloom below but too much intervening to make out what.
“Slyfox, clear it up.” Kelt communicated to the warjack. Seconds later the telemetry from its scout cortex started to feed into her visor. Slowly the rest of the world started to melt away. The veils between her and the valley were peeled back a piece at a time by his advanced sensors. Soon the far shrine building was her only view and the group of four men who now stood in its shadow, her only targets.
It wasn’t hard for her to tell who Augustin was. Like all the Bilayel hierarchy he was dressed in all his finery, even for a clandestine meeting in the middle of the night. The other three were much less ostentatious. Stationed at edges. Backs to the center. Hooded cloaks concealing their weapons. A standard boring formation, kept tight enough so that their personal energy fields would overlap. Kelt tapped the side of her visor and her colour view shifted slightly into thermal, allowing her to see the coronas of the energy fields as thin red lines. Their intersections laid bare, her gaze began hunting for the weaknesses.
Under her crosshair she studied Augustin. Body language said he was tense. Understandably so. The Rangers in the 5-7 Surveillant had been putting an immense amount of pressure on him lately. To unearth him as the mole with Bilayel’s sprawling infrastructure had taken many months. He’d been so trusted. The fall from grace was hard for many to believe or accept. But the damage he’d done to the Coalition’s standings here was more than just criminal. Rangers had died. Kelts crosshair found an area in the energy fields that she theorized gave her probably 70% of a killshot on Augustin. Sadly the resolution to his betrayal was far from that simple.
Bilayle was a powder keg. Its many noble technological houses had become totally polarised, split between loyalties to the Coalition and the ISA. The power sharing government groundwork had come apart in mere weeks. Open war was being talked about now in terms of when, not if. Neither controlling side wanted it to happen. Bilayle was too important to raise to the ground in a vain attempt to control it by force. Both powers attempting to win via subterfuge was what had led to this unstable situation. The balance of power between all the major players was proving the only thing that was holding it all together.
Augustin was a special advisor to many noble tech and mining concerns and a close personal friend to a dozen other important institutions. His sway was or rather had been, everything. Blowing his brains out for his transgressions, while satisfying, may trigger a shift not in the Coalition’s favour.
But there were other ways to skin a rat, even a noble one. Lean on the traitor hard. Squeeze his wallet. Apply pressure so crushing and fast that he has nothing to do but run to his ISA contact for relief. And when he does shoot the contact instead. Sevre the leak at the ISA end and deliver a rather stark warning. The ambassador had humorously dubbed this ISA callsign ‘Roadblock’ and according to all the Intel, he was due to meet Augustin here, tonight. All Kelt had to do was wait. A small tap of her wrist pad sent through her encoded signal that Augustin was in place. Just a burst of static to anyone listening in.
Slyfox’s telemetry started to feed in new data. Someone else was coming through the orchard. The sniper quieted herself with a few deeps breaths and then started to charge her rail rifle. Even though she’d made a career of putting them in the ground, Kelt felt unease in the pit of her stomach as a Paladin entered the clearing. The sight of them still made her feel sick. Could this be “Roadblock”? She asked herself. For someone in high station like Augustin she’d expected the silver platter…
Her crosshair found the soldier’s armoured weak point. Her finger moved from rest and slid in a well practiced manner into the trigger guard. She tapped her second encoded signal to let the Ambassador know ‘Roadblock’ was about to make contact. When it was confirmed, she could take him out.
Augustin stepped forward and the pair clearly started some sort of discourse but it was very standoffish. Hardly cordial.
“Slyfox, give me audio.”
“… Waiting. Doesn’t he know what time it is?” Augustin said in a mocking tone.
“He apologizes but these are… trying times,” the paladin replied then made a hand signal.
Three more Paladins appeared at his back their weapons raised as they moved in. Kelts finger wavered. Something was wrong.
The paladin fire team moved out into the open, their weapons trained and ready. Wordlessly they flanked Augustin and his guards from both sides. The noble comically put up his hands, clearly not intimidated in the least. Then slowly one of ISA troops pulled a familiar metal disk out and threw it onto the ground. The blinding light of a void gate opened up instantly between the two groups.
This was more what Kelt had expected. Whomever was meeting Augustin clearly had enough clout to have a Warcaster in tow. The hole in space time pulsed and from it’s glowing mass a huge shape emerged. Triple the size of any standing in the clearing, the Morningstar warjack emerged. Slyfox pinged a warning that they were too close inside the Morningstars sensor range. Kelt quickly shifted to shut down her Rifle while her Warjack shut off all non-essential systems. Any miniscule idling charge could give them away. The Morningstar was specifically designed for counter-assassination. With only micro-seconds of warning It could intercept any killshot.
Now Augustin was rattled. In the face of a Heavy Warjack few wouldn’t be. He barked demanding questions at the Paladins who replied with only stoic silence.
The warjack took a few heavy foot falls towards Augustin’s group and appraised them. A few tense seconds passed and then clearly satisfied the huge construct stepped aside.
The portal pulsed again and a humanoid figure slowly materialized. The smartly dressed man walked calmly forward and with a wave of his hand the assorted soldiery stood at ease.
He looked like nobility, well groomed, well dressed. Between that and the dueling sword at his hip Kelt reckoned his blood smelt blue even from all the way out here.
Her crosshair slowly found him and she could tell Slyfox’s was doing the same. Oddly his face was… familiar. Maybe she’d seen a data burst on him? Bulletin? Bounty? No that wasn’t it. Something recent though.
Kelt’s memory finally placed the man and her mouth fell agape. Against orders she opened her comm line
“Aurum Actual this is Outcast emergency dispatch.”
“Warning this action will compromise our location…” Slyfox chided in his monotone.
“Optics to Outcast, Go for dispatch,” came the terse reply.
“Missions scrubbed, I repeat mission scrubbed. I need immediate recall.”
“Status of Roadblock?”
“Roadblock is Uriel Shah,” Kelt grimaced as she watched the Lithe features of the Iron Star Alliance Commodore himself.
“Uhhh… Stand by.” was the nervous reply and the line went dead. Kelt watched Shah and Augustin talking through her scope. With Slyfox running silent she no longer had the chance to ease drop.
“Outcast this is Aurum Actual,” Kelt’s heart skipped a beat as she heard the ambassador’s voice. “You listen hear girly, you 100% sure it’s Shah?” said her hard steely voice.
The sniper looked down her scope again not wanting to let her hero down. “He’s just like his billboards ma’am.” She replied without any doubt.
“Give me your feed.” the ambassador demanded, a clear tone of disbelief in her voice. Kelt transmitted a snapshot. Moments later, there was a large body of swearing across the comms.
“Hold your fire Outcast, do not engage Roadblock. I repeat do not engage Roadblock.”
Kelt acknowledged what she already knew. Shooting Augustin might have lost the Coalition some friends, shooting Commodore Uriel Shah, Hero of the Alliance and commander of ISA forces on Bilayel, would be nothing short of an open act of war.
“Good spot Outcast. Any Alliance sniffer worth his salt will probably’ve picked your signal up already. Just hold position for now and observe but be ready to pull out in a moments notice. We’ll monitor and advise. Got my hand on your shoulder girly.”
Kelt let a smile creep across her face. The ambassador basically just told her good job.
“I believe a situation is developing.” Slyfox said cryptically across their dedicated channel.
The hunter turned her attention back to the clearing. Slyfox turned back on his scout cortex sub systems and audio started to feed back in from the meeting far below.
“… done is for you! Years! I’ve spurned so many for you and this is how you treat me!” Augustin screamed from behind his trio of bodyguards.
Shah yawned “Enough of this Augustin. It’s over. You didn’t think we’d notice you’ve been playing us for fools? Playing us and the Marchers against each other? Destabilising the peace? Who do you work for really? The Khazars? The Continuum?”
“YOU! I work for everyone, deal with everyone but… but it’s all for you!” Augustin babbled a little, his silver tongue clearly failing in the face of the looming warjack.
Shah clearly wasn’t impressed “No matter, Section 6 are most eager and adept at finding out.”
Shah looked at the Morningstar and pointed at Augustin “take him alive, if possible,” the Morningstar lazily turned its gaze on the small looking group of men before it. The group of encircling Paladins started coming forward, guns raised. Shah, clearly done here, turned to leave back through the gate that still glowed and swirled behind him.
“Uhh Outcast to Aurum Actual, I think Augustins about to get pinched.”
There was a flurry of commotion on the end of the comms “Outcast you listen. Augustins a rat but he knows too much. The Alliance can’t have him. I’m seeking permission for you to plan B that son of a bitch. You wait for my go and then you remove everything North of his teeth, you copy?”
“uhh… Outcast standing by,” Kelt replied. This was escalating fast. Her crosshair found the weak point she’d uncovered earlier but the Morningstar was almost there. She only had a tiny window.
As it all unfolded though an odd thought occurred to Kelt. Through all of this Augustin’s bodyguards hadn’t moved a muscle. Even now in the face of the heavy warjack as it bared down on them, they didn’t move. Didn’t draw their weapons. Didn’t surrender. Didn’t react. They just stood.
The Morningstar had closed the distance between Shah and Augustin and outstretched it’s enormous armored arm to sweep away the puny bodyguards.
“Slyfox analyze the men around Augustin for…” Kelt began.
Then it happened. From the shrine building behind Augustin a blinding light erupted. A shock wave like nothing Kelt had ever experienced blew out in all directions. The Morningstar arched up in jerking motions before toppling backwards it’s metal body smoldering. The paladins in all directions collapsed and writhed. The gate before Shah was snuffed out like a candle.
As the wave of energy crashed over Kelt her visor shutdown and plunged her into darkness. Her hands recoiled from the suddenly hot rail rifle in her hands as its battery burned out. The sniper cursed and threw off her helmet and gear. Without her optics the artificial forest was impenetrably dark. She rolled onto her back and fumbled around her thigh for her shielded pouch. With only the sound of her own breathing in her ears she pulled the spare battery and went through the practiced motions of changing it. Kelt grimaced through the pain as she pulled the burning battery from her rfiles compartment. It popped and fizzed before she threw it into the grass. As she rammed the new one in place in the night air rang out distant gunfire and… screaming.
Kelt threw her helmet back on and said a silent prayer to the Twins. Much to her relief the visor slowly came to life. As it started it’s bootup diagnostics she threw the helmet off and and left it on the ground.
In the dark she could hear the glitching voice of Slyfox repeating “Re… ReRe.. Reboo… Re… boo… Boo… ReRe..” she tumbled her way past the trees to reach her warjack who was slumped against a trunk.
She could see the shockwave had forced ita coolant banks out its back in an attempt to vent the heat and preserve his internals. They protruded out in two glowing red racks of heat sinks, visible even in the dark. There was a another burst of gunfire from the valley. Kelt needed Slyfox now.
“On your feet Sly,” Kelt said as she booted the racks back into the Duskwolf with several heavy kicks.
“reboo.. Rerere…boooooooooting… temperature critical. Analysis complete. Warning unknown signatures. Targets do not display human traits.” Slyfox said sitting up and turning to look at her not missing a beat.
“Re-aquire targets!” she said before running back to her kit. By the time she shoved her helmet back on Slyfox had refamed the view below.
The field had changed dramatically. The paladins were clearly down. They each lay motionless in widening pools of their own blood. The Morningstars steaming carcass was lying prone. Minus it’s cortex Kelt realised, which had been ripped from it’s torso and lay on the ground a few paces away.
One of Augustins ‘bodyguards’ was down too. Hooded cloak open, the clearly robotic humanoid form within was now exposed. The other two still functioning androids had Shah restrained by his arms. The commadore was wounded and dark red stains ran down his face from a wound in his hairline. From this distance the sniper couldn’t tell whether he was merely being restrained, or propped up. Despite this, the commanders face was defiant before a clearly gloating Augustin who paced up and down in front of him somewhere mid rant.
Kelt called for Slyfox’s audio but the warjack replied it’s transceiver was still booting.
“Outcast to Aurum actual. Augustin triggered some sort of distortion device. I think he intends to kill Shah, please advise over.” only static followed. Her comms to her frigate the False Ingot were dead. She was alone.
Augustin became less animated, clearly coming to the end of his victory speech. Kelt guessed she was a few moments away from a front row seat to Shah having his head taken off. And she wasn’t too broken up about it. While arguably one of the more refined iron star commanders, Shah was no less of a stone cold killer. Indiscriminate bombardment was his calling card. Kelt had known people in some of the places he’d raised to the ground. No one in the marchers would shed any tears at his passing.
Then Augustin reached into his jacket and produced his pièce de rèsistance. They way it glinted in the night as he unsheathed it made Kelt’s blood run cold. The traitor waved it in front of Uriel’s face as a taunt. Letting his captive know the weapon would be his undoing. The sniper had one currently clipped to her hip. It was a Ranger combat blade. No matter where he got that weapon, she couldn’t let Augustin kill Shah with it. The ramifications would tear Bilayel apart.
“Slyfox acquire hostiles!” she barked as she charged her rifle.
“Weapons currently offline… 15 seconds.” the Duskwolf replied but his firing solutions appeared in her visor.
Augustin took a step forward. His face was quite resolute. The stolen blade was tight in his grip.
“Twins guide me,” Kelt whispered as her railgun reached max charge. The rail-gun barked and the shot rang out across the valley.
The blade clattered to the ground. Hand still clasped around it. Augustin flinched as he heard the shot go off, but by then it had already taken his forearm off at the elbow. He let out an ear piercing scream and grabbed his bloody stump with his one good arm before falling to his knees.
The androids wheeled and began burst firing up into the hillside. Kelt hunkered down as the forest around her erupted with the sounds of bullet ricochets and splintering bark.
“Sly!” she yelled.
“I am engaging,” the warjack said almost as if he was apologising for his tardiness. The noise of his rail-gun thundered, piercing the din of the small calibre machine gun fire. One of the ‘bodyguards’ was simply obliterated as the large armour penetrating round found it’s mark.
As the broken pieces of machinery rained down the last remaining combatant clearly realised it was outmatched. It wheeled on Shah to finish the job. Kelt put a round in its back and the android fell. Shah dropped himself free from it’s grip and darted away. With the Commodore clear the Duskwolf rained down fire from both it’s pulse rifles on the machine soldier until the hail of bullets took it apart.
The sounds of battle subsided, echoing away into the night. All that was left was the intermittent moans of Augustin as he tried to stem the catastrophic blood loss. As Kelt and Slyfox broke the treeline and emerged into the clearing before the shrine they saw Uriel Shah standing over the wounded traitor, the Ranger blade now in his hands being put to good use.
“Uriel please… ” the aristocrat cried in agony.
“Hold your tongue. We’re passed pleasantries, I’m finding mercy very trying.” Shah said, voice full of malice as he caused Augustin to scream again. Spitefully he poked his bloody stump with the tip of the Ranger blade.
The Commodore took notice of marchers approach and gave a curt nod between enemies. He grabbed Augustin and pulled him up by his hair, turning his head to face the newcomers.
“Tell me… old friend, for everyone to hear this time… who was it you were working for?”
“… and now at Sol -1, This is Perentyne Action News.
In interplanetary headlines Bilayel’s power sharing government was restored yesterday after emergency talks managed to find settlement between Technocratic House delegates. The talks finally broke the deadlock that has plagued the ruling parties for months with assistance from Coalition and ISA ambassadors. On the steps of the Iridium Summit Offices Coalition Ambassador Agna Calthrace made this statement.
“Bilayel is a unique and vital world that holds a special place in the hearts and minds of both the Coalition and the Alliance. I believe any party who doubted that special status or sought to undermine it in any way, have been proven just how wrong they are by what we have achieved here today. Thank you.”
In other news tributes have been pouring in, in honour of noted entrepreneur and philanthropist Augustin Crimarlenco who’s body was discovered early this morning at his country retreat. A statement from local officials say they are not treating the death as suspicious at this time.
Now to the local weather…”