Persephone

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Persephone

Postby Starfire on Tue 21 Jul 2009 11:57

Persephone

The cabin was well appointed, with deep rose-wood paneling, hand-woven carpets of great antiquity shot through with scarlet and purple patterns, and heavy solid furniture well padded with maroon velvet and embroidered with gold thread. Books filled floor to ceiling cases, each row of books carefully secured with a polished brass bar. The immediate impression was one of overpowering wealth and comfort.

Two men faced each other across a small table. The older man sat bolt upright, his fierce white mustache and eyebrows quivering with concentration as he peered at the cards in his hands. The younger lounged back and appeared disinterested. He held his cards lazily, slouched against the table's marble surface.

"We've been here incommunicado for three days, Uncle. Nothing of news of home, nothing of ship's news, nothing of the court. Nothing!" the younger man said.

"Two spades. It has been less than that. Keep your mind on what you are doing, boy." The old man glanced up at the chronometer. "I'll not take your money without at least some sport for my effort." The old man folded his cards down and adjusted his scarlet tunic with habitual grace. The buttons on his sleeves clacked against the table's surface. He stared at the young man for a few seconds, then resumed his concentration on the cards. "Your bid," he barked.

"Three clubs," the younger man spat. He bolted upright and threw his cards on the table. "How can you sit here like this when they treat us with such disrespect," he shouted.

The old man's expression did not change as his eyes tracked from his cards to the young man restlessly pacing the room. "The master of this ship is my friend, cousin. Stop pounding your boots on the carpets. I'll not have you speaking of him harshly. He will have his reasons, and we are excellently provided for here, and I will have you stop pacing, Alexi, you make my head fairly swim." This last was with raised voice.

Alexi stopped his pacing, turned, and lowered his head. "My apologies, Uncle. I will worry for poor reason, it is my greatest fault."

The old man laughed his short barking laugh. "Plenty of time left for you to acquire faults. Perhaps I can help you exceed this one when we do reach home, hah? You will need my arm beside you to beat away the young women, a returning hero such as you."
Alexi blushed. "I am no hero, such as you, Uncle. The most adversity I have faced is growing up pampered at court." Alexi looked at the toe of his boot, and carefully lined up its edge with a pattern on one of the carpets. Alexi raised his head, looked at his uncle and said, "Would I could bear scars like yours, and earn my laud, than be raised in exile and return a trophy of our submission."

"Boy", said the uncle. Silence stretched on for a pace, as Alexi's violet eyes rested gently and disapprovingly on his uncle's plain brown. "Young men like you should have more, and worse, faults."

The vacuum alarm sounded in the cabin. Its loud mechanical clang was terrifying, out of place wrapped in luxury. Neither man had time to move, as the lock to the corridor hissed. It sunk into the brass trimmed wall housing, turned a quarter, and slid aside.

Three human forms like great swollen hornets rushed into the cabin. Each was appointed in black and yellow striped body armor, and carried a bared saber. Their face-plates were raised.

The lead marine shouted, "Don't move" in her high pitched voice. Alexi did not listen. He stepped between her and his uncle.

"Wait, I..." he began, but his next words were stopped as the marine's sable pierced his belly and slid up his abdomen. Alexi shrieked his last breath and pitched back against his uncle. Blood and entrails arched over the carpets as the saber tore free. The two men both fell heavily, knocking over the table. Alexi looked up at his uncle, his eyes dulled, and he died.

The lead marine stepped up to where the two men lay and thrust the old man's chair aside. "Get up" she demanded. She kicked him in the head. "Get up and walk, the captain wants you."

Blood ran freely from the old man's forehead. He started to disentangle himself from his nephew's body. His hesitant movements were not fast enough for the marine. She grasped him harshly by the hair and dragged him free. She cursed him, lifted him against the wall, and held him there. "Do as I say and you may live a little longer. The captain wants you, but I don't think she gives a damn if you're missing a few pieces, so let's have a little cooperation here." The old man shook his head, weakly. She struck him across the face, her armored fist clutching the saber's hilt making an audible crack as it crushed his nose.

No second blow landed. The old man opened his good eye and blinked away the blood. The marine's grip weakened on his tunic, and slid away as she slumped to the floor.

He was confronted by a startling sight. One of the other marines was hunched in a corner, expelling a recently consumed meal onto the much abused carpets. The other stood erect, his saber embedded in the old man's erstwhile tormentor's armor.

The standing man spoke quickly. "Lysand Rajani, we must hasten, if any of us wish to live."

Rajani's hesitation vanished. He stepped over the bodies to the book-case, released a bar, and withdrew a large book. The marine on the floor unsteadily gained his feet. The three men then ducked out the lock. It quietly hissed shut behind them, locking in the carnage.

As the three men marched down the deserted cold grey corridor, Rajani in front clutching his book, the tall marine told his story.

"We have been party to mutiny. Do not whimper, Joni, it grows weary-some. I do not know what all has happened, but I fear that the King's own navy has no remaining presence here." They were quiet for a pace as a rating in his grey uniform passed them. He glanced at Rajani, and then moved with eyes downcast, as if afraid of what else he might see.

"I had understood that you were a personage of some importance at our destination, and the plan would have evolved in accordance with this. Rumor stalks these corridors, not all of it is pleasant. There have been raids on the planet below, so now we are thieves as well as mutineers."

Rajani stumbled. There were more people in the corridors. Still no one challenged them. Not one person seemed willing to confront two marines with blood on their armor and blades drawn pushing along a terrified and bleeding old man.

They arrived at another airlock. Quickly they were inside and confronted with smallish man with grey in his hair and a grey uniform. "Worry not" said the marine, "It is a co-conspirator. Are you prepared?"

The uniformed man nodded. "'Bout time. I've been waiting. An I'm done with it." He drew a knife. "Don't know how many guards are in there."

"Introductions at the very least, Mr. Kirton. This is Major Lysand Rajani. Mr. Rajani, I am Draeger, and this is Joni. Give us a moment to ready ourselves, if you please."

"Bugger that," said Kirton. "I've done waiting for someone to see what've done and come for me." He grinned evilly up at Draeger. "We're for Ladybug, she's prepped and ready. They was plannin' to go down for some fun." Kirton stopped grinning. "Run for it now, you big daft bugger." He pushed in a glowing red panel.

Explosive bolts blew the lock door free. Kirton ran howling into the cold damp of the boat bay. There was a cluster of guards near Ladybug's ramp. Kirton ran straight at them waving his knife. The lead man stiff-armed Kirton in the neck and he went down without a sound.

But then Draeger and Joni were on them. Two guards went down immediately before they could get their weapons up, but then it was four on two. Shouts and the clash of steel echoed through the cavern of the boat bay. A scream shrilled out, and then shots.

Their thundering roar punctuated the clangor of the melee. Two in quick succession, a man's shout, the clatter of armored boots running on the deck. One more shot to deafen the ears and stop the heart. Then there was no more sound but slow even steps.

Rajani paced up to where Draeger was heaving for breath, saber dangling in a loose hand.

"For lack of you telling me good men may die needlessly," gasped Draeger.

Rajani's drooping eyelid was crusted with dried blood, and his ruin of a nose slumped sideways over his mustache. Rajani held his pistol at the ready, the book discarded.

"One of them made good his escape. I doubt I will finish this sentence before the alarm is given. Take this Mr. Kirton to the boat, as he is necessarily your pilot. I will look to your friend." Rajani twitched the pistol. "Go."

Draeger paused for a moment more, then flung his saber to the deck, bent down, grasped Kirton's jacket and dragged him up into the boat.

Rajani knelt down beside Joni. Rajani's eyes flickered between Joni's body and the dark spaces of the boat bay. His breath fogged in the cold air, and his body chilled. Rajani felt Joni's neck.

"Hard to tell with these cold fingers, boy, but I guess that you are dead or soon will be." He reached and took Draeger's saber, stood, and scanned the dark again. Machinery bulked in the shadows. "I suppose this was one of Mr. Draeger's good men", he muttered, as he backed up the boat ramp. He fumbled at the lock controls, then crouched low, and watched as the ramp lifted and shut out the dark.

"I'm fine. Quit fussin, and go help Joni, hey?" Mr. Kirton, gunner second class, was awake and in the pilot's chair. Draeger turned and started out, but met the old man on his way in. Rajani shook his head. Draeger started to protest, but Rajani gestured imperiously with the pistol.

"Your good man is dead, Mr. Draeger. You cannot help him now. One of the guards is hiding in the bay: I could not espy him. Continue with your preparations to leave, and mark your course for Amgiera district on the planet below." Rahani's voice came in its accustomed bark, softened somewhat by the whistling wreckage of his nose.

Draeger sat down. He motioned Rajani to a chair across the cockpit. He waited for Rajani to sit, then began to quietly speak.

"Mr. Kirton is preparing the boat for flight. He has secured the bay", Daeger said.

"Welded the hatches tight", called the pilot over his shoulder. "Take 'em at least as long to open as it took me to shut. An' I've set the course as he asked, Draeger, that's what you snatched him for, eh? S'all right here in the boat's brain."

"Well enough", said Rajani. "Let me be, and continue your preparations." Rajani slid the saber across the deck, and settled back to wait, pistol at the ready, not quite directed at Draeger who gathered up his blade and attached it to the armor.

His wait was short. The boat's controls lit up, and the deck shuddered with power. The pilot giggled, a disconcerting sound from a grown man. Draeger sat up and began engaging the chair straps, motioning Rajani to do the same.

"This is Ladybug to Persephone", said Kirton into the control panel's mike. "Come on, you dirt, the boat is live. Answer me or I'll blow the bay."

"Persephone to Ladybug, Captain's regards to you." The sound was clear and full of confidence. The masculine voice was strong and mellow. "The Captain expresses her wonder at your inventiveness, and has indicated that she is willing to consider clemency if you speedily surrender."

"Eh, bugger that." Kirton giggled into the mike again. "Open the bay now. I'll count to five, and if the bay isn't open by the end I'll cut my way out. Might, might not work. But you'll be down the two remaining boats and the bay. That'll leave no way for you dirt pigs to feed yer holes. And that's fer sure, Persephone. If you delay me any more, I might try burning a few as I go."

"Ladybug, the Captain..." Kirton clicked the mike and started shouting, drowning out the ship's voice.

"One, I've just begun. Two, my countdown's new. Three, we're goin' free..." One the count of four the bay warning lights flashed with their yellow rotating strobes. The alarms could not be heard. The surviving guard was briefly visible out the view-ports he raced across the deck toward the lock, faceplate down.

"Persephone, this is Ladybug. I am on my way, and you do not have the pilot's compliments."

The boat doors opened. Kirton paused. He twisted round to look at the other two men. He faced back and deadened the mike.

"Well, boys, the old birds in the seat again. I haven't flown one of these in four years. They've updated her a little. Here we go."

Kirton stopped his nervous chatter, touched a forefinger to a small stiff length of wire projecting from the console, and urged Ladybug forward.

***

The view from outside the ship is beautiful. The length of Persephone is lit up with floodlights. Her yellow hull is blemished in three places with scars of recent fighting, but otherwise she is perfect. Persphone is a jewel set in the glimmering beauty of a world nested in midnight velvet.

The boat bay's flashing warning lights sweep around the inside of the bay and glimmer off Ladybug's squat round shape as she shoots outside.

Persephone twists to bring her weapons to bear with a lightness that makes her resemble a toy. She topples end for end and startlingly stops as she achieves the aspect required to Ladybug's corkscrewing hull. She lunges forward with no warning, no surging of engines, no more modest majestic acceleration appropriate for her dignity.

Her immediate expression of displeasure is not entirely visible from outside. Flashes of light sparkle from superstructure and hull as smaller weapons toss nuclear shells at Ladybug. The heaviest beam weapons can not be discerned externally as they fire, as they leave no visible trace to be followed. The primary beam weapons, however, are spectacular. They put on a show all out of proportion to their contribution to Ladybug's interception. Their thin white threads ravel out, focus on Ladybug amid flashcube detonations, and diverge into distance.

Ladybug is too fast. Persephone's response is too slow. Ladybug dips around the shoulder of the planet, lurches down into atmosphere, and is gone.

Ladybug does not get away without a mark. One of those beautiful needles of white light gently touches part of Ladybug. A small portion of Ladybug's engines and hull cease to exist. Externally it appeared to be an insignificant change.

Inside Ladybug the drone of the engines become a hammering shake, mixed with shrieks of yielding metal. Smoke boils out from behind a panel. The lights go out. Kirton shouts something the others can not hear, and fumbles with the controls, hoping that he has initiated the emergency landing sequence. There is no time for anything else. A mere twenty seconds has elapsed from the launch from the boat bay to this. The shaking rattles their senses. Then an impact, an impression of flames, and a smothering darkness.

On the surface of the planet, in the mountainous portion of the southern continent, a region known as Amgiera to the locals, is a park. The park encompasses the entire mountain range, as there is necessarily a great deal of space on a sparsely populated planet, which must be filled with something.

The park is regularly patrolled by rangers. These rangers are comprised of decommissioned regulars from the Amgiera resistance, which was opposed the right and good rule of the King. The reasons are unimportant, the effects are germane. These effects can be simplistically listed as being the suppression of local autonomy, the taking of hostages from the nobility, and the imposition of taxes to pay for the uprising's suppression.

Since the King does not care for local matters as long as the rules are followed, the ex-resistance is treated well, if somewhat pityingly, by the younger generation. They are ensured employment, and carefully watched. Since the local nobility has no desire to lose their aethlings to the headsman, a loss tantamount to the decapitation of a religion.

One of these rangers, named Gyx, looks up and sees a dot in the clear blue sky. The dot swiftly fills her vision to become a metallic oblate sphere, looms over her head trailing black smoke, tilts ominously while emitting an arrhythmic booming clang. A rush of air mixed with dust and twigs knocks her down. The ovoid settles, not gently, to the end of the valley, crushing trees and blocking a small stream.

Gyx stands and looks at the ovoid at the end of the valley. It seems familiar to her, and with a resigned heft of her pack, she starts off the path, parting the thick yellow-green branches of trees, limping as she goes.

It is two hours later, as dusk is climbing up the side of the mountain, before she approaches the wreckage. The ovoid has cracked in two pieces. The stream makes a small steaming pool before it finds release around the side. Smoking broken trees cradle the wreck. She examines it across a small meadow, perhaps a hundred meters, with the sun at her back. An expression of distaste crosses her features, and she draws a small projector from her pack.

At this very moment, a cold and heavy weight is placed on her bare shoulder. She startles, and a sharp pain stabs her neck. A voice rings out from behind her.

"Do not move again, I warn you. This blade is exceedingly sharp, and can have your head off in a trice. Kirton, the device she holds, quickly", said Draeger.

Kirton stepped forward and snatched the device from her hand. He quickly stumbled some distance off.

"A weapon of some sort, no question. This'll do the trick." He pointed the weapon at the ground and squeezed the trigger. A quick succession of bolts pounded into the ground, flinging dirt and portions of root into the air. The shower of detritus made Kirton squint as it spattered his head. Twenty shots in five seconds, and the projector stopped twitching in Kirton's hands. "Nasty piece of work that", he said, eyebrows raised, examining the projector.

"You there", said Draeger, "who are you and what do you do here. Answer me swift and true, as the consequences for dissembling are dire."

"I am a park ranger" said Gyx. "I have come to help the survivors of that crash."

"Weapon in hand in case they resist your attentions?", asked Draeger.

"No."

"Whatever. You are skilled in medical aid? Your pack contains supplies?"

"Yes."

"Follow Kirton here then, one of your country men requires your help. You will have need of no weapon. Your startling skill at conversation while held a sword-point may do you some good. We have some time before we will reach him, we are remote from the wreck, tell me the latest news."

The time required to reach Rajani's location was enough for Gyx to inform Draeger over her shoulder of raids on the populace by troops in the King's livery arriving in shuttles like the wreck. Escalating demands were being made hourly from the king's ships in orbit. The local garrison had been attacked in response by a nuclear bomb planted by rebels, and the ship was promising reprisals if those guilty were not surrendered.

"The council has demanded to see the aethling hostages aboard ship that were to be returned", said Gyx. "If they have not been killed the council will submit as before. If there is no word, then there is no respect for the law, and they will resist to the last."

"Here is your patient", said Draeger, as they negotiated around a large rock. "Kirton, return her pack, she will need it."

"Oh", said Gyx gently. She rushed to Rajani's side with the pack and immediately began to work in the deepening gloom, oblivious to the two men, hair hanging down.

"Help me with this livery", said Draeger to Kirton. "From her weapon, I would say this armor's protection is pointless against whatever might be turned my way if I remain wearing it."

"That's truth, indeed. And a bit of food might do well now too."

The two men were done far before her. They watched in the darkness as she drew out some mysterious source of light to continue her ministrations. Kirton shushed Draerer's concerns before they started.

"Don't bother with that, you. If a boat wants to spot us it'll do it with eyes that don't need that light. Better she can see to help."

Soon she was done. She sat down in the dirt and proceeded to place a dressing on her own wounded neck.

"You will both be heros beyond reckoning here. But why would you do this? What is happening?" Her voice was plainly confused and exhausted behind a cloud of dark hair.

Draeger handed her a portion of food.

"We are the last of the true King's men here. Your people should not have attacked the garrison, we came to warn them", began Draeger.

"You giant lummox!", shouted Kirton. Gyx glared at him, and he continued softer, "Persephone nuked them soldiers, like she scrubbed the pickets and the orbital platform. She's going to blame it all on these people. An' I doubt if there is any garrison left to warn, she wouldn't have just attacked them. They are gone."

Gyx sat quietly in the dark, and Draeger looked lost. Both watched Kirton as he stood and paced a bit, his small form under-lit from Gyx's trail lamp.

"Someone on Persephone, that's the ship in orbit, mutunied and took control. Ship's comm claimed it was the captain, but it don't matter. Some officers have gone bad somehow. They're must be going to take Persephone out into the dark, where the Navy won't follow, and set themselves up as kings somewhere. But they is obviously supplin' themselves here, and stirrin' you folks up, and then when they leave, the Navy will come and find this mess, and have more to worry about than Persephone. They might even think she got opened up in the fighting and not bother to look. 'Specially if they manage some convincing sign of a fight on the ground."

"Warning the local authority will not do much", said Draeger. "It would seem there is nothing to warn. And we have no means to reach the Navy. This place has no shipping, it is against the law for them to even talk about ship's propulsion. All we can do is tell our tale and hope against hope that it disseminates so that some may live to tell it to the Navy. Perhaps a seed of doubt can be planted."

Gyx reached down and turned the lamp on her face as she brushed her hair back. Both men stared in shock at their first good look at her face. The burns had scarred over her entire head to a glossy white, but a patch of skin around the eyes and nose were left.

"Yes indeed, boys. And the leg too." She grinned without any sign at all of humor. "Now that you've got that out of your system, Let me tell you what I think." Her laugh was pretty, and cold.

***

The air-car hummed away smoothly carrying Rajani and Gyx off to the capital. Draeger and Kirton looked up at it as it faded into the night. They turned back to the utterly non-descript metal shed cached away against the side of the mountain, surrounded by a wild and neglected garden climbing over a trellis.

"Well", said Kirton, "Now's time to set too. Come on you, I'll have need of them big arms."

They both proceeded into the shed.

The work took hours. By the time they rolled the old courier drone out onto the small pad, dawn was graying the sky. Flowers in the garden and on the vines climbing the trellis around them were opening. Small birds were gently beginning to complain about the dew.

"That's that then", said Kirton. He reached out as Draeger started to protest, and pressed the activation. "Come on, you", he said, as he dragged at Draeger's bulk. "You can't stop it, get going."

Draeger allowed himself to be pulled a few feet away. They watched as the drone warmed itself up.

"What's the point in waiting?", asked Kirton. "It was ready so I sent it. Those resistance people was lucky to keep these around so long."

"I do not know", said Draeger. "Your action seemed so hasty, as always. You hasten for no reason I can discern. I was not prepared."

"Well it was, and you aren't going to rush off to warn the Navy with all of our stories, and those pictures, and all. Certainly not that fast. Besides, just launching the drone ought to scare 'em off. Yer lookin' like you want to ask me a question."

The drone chose that moment, via some machine's reason, to leave. It was just gone, between eye-blinks, and a heavy rush of air rustled the trellis and disturbed the birds.

Sunlight struck a mountain peak. The birds were off. Color started to come to the flowers in the garden. The chill was still there, but the light creeping down the mountainside promised warmth. Draeger walked a few paces into the garden, and turned.

"What was that rhyme you were counting with when you were bluffing our way out of the boat bay."

"I weren't bluffing. And I was just blurting out any old thing. Its a kid's rhyme, from ancient Earth. My oldest's favorite. I've got four, ya know."

"I have no family."

"Yer young yet. 'Suppose Persephone got that drone?" Kirton sat down on a rusty old tin drum and laughed softly.

"What inspires your mirth, you revered old rusticate?", asked Draeger. "You seem to have regrets."

"I was thinkin' about how I would have ended it, the rhyme, you were askin' about."

"What would our skilled linguist poet have chosen?"

"Five, we're still alive."

***

Persphone fires a saturation pattern of nuclear strikes at the launch site of the courier drone, hoping to dissuade further launches. She attempts to the utmost limit of her ability to shoot down the drone. She fails. She returns to the planet with that abrupt darting movement, like a fish, like a insect. She hangs there long enough to recover her boats, and flees for a warp point. She must put as many jumps between her and the vengeance of the Navy as quickly as possible. It will be difficult, but possible. She can delay no further. The very good chance that the drone will get through demands absolute haste.

Some weeks later there is a parade in a city on the southern continent. A celebration of the return of the aetheling and autonomy. A mood of thankfulness also pervades the gathering.

A old man with bright white hair and a scarlet tunic and several new scars to complement the old ones steps up to a railing near the center of the city. A gesture activates a device and reveals a monument. It is an obelisk. Its tall granite form carries a plaque that has writing in a language that is very difficult to read if you are not from the locality. A new royal governor, who duties are all but symbolic this time, watches approvingly. He cannot read the plaque, but it all makes very good press.

=====================================================

Persephone

The cabin was well-appointed, with deep rosewood paneling, hand-woven carpets of great antiquity shot through with scarlet and purple patterns, and heavy, solid furniture, well-padded with maroon velvet and embroidered with gold thread. Books filled floor-to-ceiling cases, each row of books carefully secured with a polished brass bar. The immediate impression was one of overpowering wealth and comfort.

Two men faced each other across a small table. The older man sat bolt upright, his fierce white mustache and eyebrows quivering with concentration as he peered at the cards in his hands. The younger lounged back and appeared disinterested. He held his cards lazily, slouched against the table's marble surface.

"We've been here incommunicado for three days, Uncle. Nothing of news of home, nothing of ship's news, nothing of the court. Nothing!" the younger man said.

"Two spades. It has been less than that. Keep your mind on what you are doing, boy." The old man glanced up at the chronometer. "I'll not take your money without at least some sport for my effort." The old man folded his cards down and adjusted his scarlet tunic with habitual grace. The buttons on his sleeves clacked against the table's surface. He stared at the young man for a few seconds, then resumed his concentration on the cards. "Your bid," he barked.

"Three clubs," the younger man spat. He bolted upright and threw his cards on the table. "How can you sit here like this when they treat us with such disrespect!" he shouted.

The old man's expression did not change as his eyes tracked from his cards to the young man restlessly pacing the room. "The master of this ship is my friend, cousin. Stop pounding your boots on the carpets. I'll not have you speaking of him harshly. He will have his reasons, and we are excellently provided for here, and I will have you stop pacing. Alexi, you make my head fairly swim." This last was with raised voice.

Alexi stopped his pacing, turned, and lowered his head. "My apologies, Uncle. I am given to worry for little reason; it is my greatest fault."

The old man laughed his short barking laugh. "Plenty of time left for you to acquire faults. Perhaps I can help you overcome this one when we do reach home, hah? You will need my arm beside you to beat away the young women, a returning hero such as you."

Alexi blushed. "I am no hero, not like you, Uncle. The most adversity I have faced is growing up pampered at court." Alexi looked at the toe of his boot, and carefully lined up its edge with a pattern on one of the carpets. Alexi raised his head, looked at his uncle and said, "Would I could bear scars like yours, and earn my lauds, than be raised in exile and return, a trophy of our submission."

"Boy..." said the uncle. Silence stretched on for a pace, as Alexi's violet eyes rested gently and disapprovingly on his uncle's plain brown ones. "...young men like you should have more, and worse, faults."

The vacuum alarm sounded in the cabin. Its loud mechanical clang was terrifying, out of place in sanctum of luxury. Neither man had time to move as the lock to the corridor hissed. It sunk into the brass trimmed wall housing, turned a quarter, and slid aside.

Three human forms like great swollen hornets rushed into the cabin. Each was girded in black-and-yellow striped body armor, and each carried a bared saber. Their face-plates were raised.

The lead marine shouted "Don't move" in her high-pitched voice. Alexi did not listen. He stepped between her and his uncle.

"Wait, I..." he began, but his next words were stopped as the marine's sable pierced his belly and slid up his abdomen. Alexi shrieked his last breath and pitched back against his uncle. Blood and entrails arched over the carpets as the saber tore free. The two men both fell heavily, knocking over the table. Alexi looked up at his uncle, his eyes dulled, and he died.

The lead marine stepped up to where the two men lay and thrust the old man's chair aside. "Get up" she demanded. She kicked him in the head. "Get up and walk, the captain wants you."

Blood ran freely from the old man's forehead. He started to disentangle himself from his nephew's body. His hesitant movements were not fast enough for the marine. She grasped him harshly by the hair and dragged him free. She cursed him, lifted him against the wall, and held him there. "Do as I say and you may live a little longer. The captain wants you, but I don't think she gives a damn if you're missing a few pieces, so let's have a little cooperation here." The old man shook his head, weakly. She struck him across the face, her armored fist--clutching the saber's hilt-- making an audible crack as it crushed his nose.

No second blow landed. The old man opened his good eye and blinked away the blood. The marine's grip weakened on his tunic, and slid away as she slumped to the floor.

He was confronted by a startling sight. One of the other marines was hunched in a corner, expelling a recently consumed meal onto the much- abused carpets. The other stood erect, his saber embedded in the armor of the old man's erstwhile tormentor's.

The standing man spoke quickly. "Lysand Rajani, we must hasten, if any of us wish to live."

Rajani's hesitation vanished. He stepped over the bodies to the bookcase, released a bar, and withdrew a large book. The marine on the floor unsteadily gained his feet. The three men then ducked out the lock. It quietly hissed shut behind them, locking in the carnage.

As the three of them marched down the deserted, cold grey corridor, Rajani in front clutching his book, the tall marine told his story.

"We have been party to mutiny. Do not whimper, Joni, it grows wearisome. I do not know all that has happened, but I fear that the King's own navy has no remaining presence here." They were quiet for a pace as a rating in his grey uniform passed them. He glanced at Rajani, and then moved with eyes downcast, as if afraid of what else he might see.

"I had understood that you were a personage of some importance at our destination, and the plan would have evolved in accordance with this. Rumor stalks these corridors; not all of it is pleasant. There have been raids on the planet below, so now we are bandits as well as mutineers."

Rajani stumbled. There were more people in the corridors. Still no one challenged them. Not one person seemed willing to confront two marines with blood on their armor and blades drawn, pushing along a terrified and bleeding old man.

They arrived at another airlock. Quickly they were inside and confronted with a smallish man with greying hair and a grey uniform. "Worry not" said the marine, "it is a co-conspirator. Are you prepared?"

The uniformed man nodded. "'bout time. I've been waiting. And I'm done with it." He drew a knife. "Don't know how many guards are in there."

"Introductions at the very least, Mr.$Kirton. This is Major Lysand Rajani. Mr. Rajani, I am Draeger, and this is Joni. Give us a moment to ready ourselves, if you please."

"Bugger that," said Kirton. "I'm done waiting for someone to see what I've done and come for me." He grinned evilly up at Draeger. "We're for Ladybug, she's prepped and ready. They was plannin' to go down for some fun." Kirton stopped grinning. "Run for it now, you big daft bugger." He depressed a glowing red panel.

**[I'm not sure what dialect you're trying to have Kirton talk in, but I'm not even sure I udnerstand what it means.]**

Explosive bolts blew the airlock door free. Kirton ran howling into the cold damp of the boat bay. There was a cluster of guards near Ladybug's ramp. Kirton ran straight at them waving his knife. The lead man stiff-armed Kirton in the neck and he went down without a sound.

But then Draeger and Joni were on them. Two guards went down immediately, before they could get their weapons up; then it was four on two. Shouts and the clash of steel echoed through the cavern of the boat bay. A shrill scream rang out, and then shots.

The sharp reports penetrated the clangor of the melee and echoed around the enclo--two in quick succession, then a man's shout and the clatter of armored boots running on the deck. One more shot to deafen the ears and stop the heart, then no sound but slow, even steps.

Rajani paced up to where Draeger was heaving for breath, saber dangling loosely in one hand.

"For lack of you telling me good men may die needlessly," gasped Draeger.

**[I have no idea what the above sentence is talking about. For lack of WHO telling Draeger WHAT?]**

Rajani's drooping eyelid was crusted with dried blood, and his ruin of a nose slumped sideways over his mustache. He held his pistol at the ready, the book discarded.

"One of them made good his escape. I doubt I will finish this sentence before the alarm is given. Take this Mr. Kirton to the boat, as he is necessarily your pilot. I will look to your friend." Rajani twitched the pistol. "Go."

Draeger paused a moment more, then flung his saber to the deck, bent down, grasped Kirton's jacket, and dragged him up into the boat.

Rajani knelt down beside Joni. His eyes flickered between Joni's body and the dark spaces of the boat bay. His breath fogged in the cold air, and his body chilled. Rajani felt Joni's neck.

"Hard to tell with these cold fingers, boy, but I guess that you are dead or soon will be." He reached and took Draeger's saber, stood, and scanned the dark again. Machinery bulked in the shadows. "I suppose this was one of Mr. Draeger's good men," he muttered as he backed up the boat ramp. He fumbled at the lock controls, then crouched low, and watched as the ramp lifted and shut out the dark.

***

"I'm fine. Quit fussin', and go help Joni, hey?" Mr. Kirton, Gunner Second Class, was awake and in the pilot's chair. Draeger turned and started out, but met the old man on his way in. Rajani shook his head. Draeger started to protest, but Rajani gestured imperiously with the pistol.

**[The protocol in this navy may be different, but I don't know of any navies that refer to an enlisted man as "Mr."--and why, btw, would a pilot be called a "Gunner", or is that USMC slang for warrant officer?]**

"Your good man is dead, Mr. Draeger. You cannot help him now. One of the guards is hiding in the bay: I could not espy him. Continue with your preparations to leave, and mark your course for Amgiera district on the planet below." Rajani's voice came in its accustomed bark, softened somewhat by the whistling wreckage of his nose.

Draeger sat down. He motioned Rajani to a chair across the cockpit. He waited for Rajani to sit, then began to quietly speak.

"Mr. Kirton is preparing the boat for flight. He has secured the bay," Draeger said.

"Welded the hatches tight," called the pilot over his shoulder. "Take 'em at least as long to open as it took me to shut. An' I've set the course as he asked, Draeger, that's what you snatched him for, eh? S'all right here in the boat's brain."

"Good enough," said Rajani. "Let me be, and continue your preparations." Rajani slid the saber across the deck, and settled back to wait, pistol at the ready, not quite directed at Draeger, who gathered up his blade and attached it to the armor.

His wait was short. The boat's controls lit up, and the deck shuddered with power. The pilot giggled, a disconcerting sound from a grown man. Draeger sat up and began engaging the chair straps, motioning Rajani to do the same.

"This is Ladybug to Persephone," said Kirton into the control panel's mike. "Come on, you dirt, the boat is live. Answer me or I'll blow the bay."

"Persephone to Ladybug, Captain's regards to you." The sound was clear and full of confidence. The masculine voice was strong and mellow. "The Captain expresses her wonder at your inventiveness, and has indicated that she is willing to consider clemency if you speedily surrender."

"Eh, bugger that." Kirton giggled into the mike again. "Open the bay now. I'll count to five, and if the bay isn't open by the end I'll cut my way out. Might, might not work. But you'll be down the two remaining boats and the bay. That'll leave no way for you dirt pigs to feed yer holes. And that's fer sure, Persephone. If you delay me any more, I might try burning a few as I go."

"Ladybug, the Captain..." Kirton clicked the mike and started shouting, drowning out the ship's voice.

"One, I've just begun. Two, my countdown's new. Three, we're goin' free...." On the count of four the bay warning lights flashed with their yellow rotating strobes. The alarms could not be heard. The surviving guard was briefly visible out the view-ports as he raced across the deck toward the lock, face-plate down.

"Persephone, this is Ladybug. I am on my way, and you do not have the pilot's compliments."

The boat bay doors opened. Kirton paused. He twisted round to look at the other two men. He faced back and deadened the mike.

"Well, boys, the old bird's in the seat again. I haven't flown one of these in four years. They've updated her a little. Here we go."

Kirton stopped his nervous chatter, touched a forefinger to a small stiff length of wire projecting from the console, and urged Ladybug forward.

The view from outside the ship is beautiful. The length of Persephone is lit up with floodlights. Her yellow hull is blemished in three places with the scars of recent fighting, but otherwise she is perfect. Persphone is a jewel set in the glimmering beauty of a world nested in midnight velvet.

The boat bay's flashing warning lights sweep around the inside of the bay and glimmer off Ladybug's squat round shape as she shoots outside.

Persephone twists to bring her weapons to bear with a lightness that makes her resemble a toy. She topples end over end and startlingly stops as she achieves the required aspect relative to Ladybug's corkscrewing hull. She lunges forward with no warning, no surging of engines, no more modest majestic acceleration appropriate for her dignity.

Her immediate expression of displeasure is not entirely visible from outside. Flashes of light sparkle from superstructure and hull as smaller weapons toss nuclear shells at Ladybug. The heaviest beam weapons cannot be discerned externally as they fire, as they leave no visible trace to be followed. The primary beam weapons, however, are spectacular. They put on a show all out of proportion to their contribution to the interception of Ladybug's. Their thin white threads stretch out, focus on Ladybug amid flashcube detonations, and diverge into the distance.

Ladybug is too fast. Persephone's response is too slow. Ladybug dips around the shoulder of the planet, lurches down into atmosphere, and is gone.

Ladybug does not get away without a mark. One of those beautiful needles of white light gently touches part of Ladybug. A small portion of Ladybug's engines and hull cease to exist. Externally, it appears to be an insignificant change.

Inside Ladybug the drone of the engines becomes a hammering shake, mixed with shrieks of yielding metal. Smoke boils out from behind a panel. The lights go out. Kirton shouts something the others cannot hear, and fumbles with the controls, hoping that he has initiated the emergency landing sequence. There is no time for anything else. A mere twenty seconds has elapsed from the launch from the boat bay to now. The shaking rattles their senses. Then an impact, an impression of flames, and a smothering darkness.

***

On the surface of the planet, in the mountainous portion of the southern continent, a region known as Amgiera to the locals, is a park. The park encompasses the entire mountain range, as there is necessarily a great deal of space on a sparsely populated planet, which must be filled with something.

The park is regularly patrolled by rangers. These rangers are comprised of decommissioned regulars from the Amgiera resistance, which was opposed to the right and good rule of the King. The reasons are unimportant, the effects are germane. These effects can be simplistically listed as being the suppression of local autonomy, the taking of hostages from the nobility, and the imposition of taxes to pay for the uprising's suppression.

Since the King does not care for local matters as long as the rules are followed, the ex-resistance fighters are treated well, if somewhat pityingly, by the younger generation. They are ensured employment, and carefully watched, since the local nobility have no desire to lose their aethlings to the headsman, a loss tantamount to the decapitation of a religion.

**[I've corrected the above paragraph for noun-verb disagreement, but I haven't the foggiest what that last sentence means--you'd better rephrase it.]**

One of these rangers, named Gyx, looks up and sees a dot in the clear blue sky. The dot swiftly fills her vision to become a metallic oblate sphere, looms over her head trailing black smoke, tilts ominously while emitting an arrhythmic booming clang. A rush of air mixed with dust and twigs knocks her down. The ovoid settles, not gently, to the end of the valley, crushing trees and blocking a small stream.

Gyx stands and looks at the ovoid at the end of the valley. It seems familiar to her, and with a resigned heft of her pack, she starts off down the path, parting the thick yellow-green branches of trees, limping as she goes.

***

It is two hours later, as dusk is climbing up the side of the mountain, before she approaches the wreckage. The ovoid has cracked into two pieces. The stream makes a small, steaming pool before it finds release around the side. Smoking, broken trees cradle the wreck. She examines it across a small meadow, perhaps a hundred meters, with the sun at her back. An expression of distaste crosses her features, and she draws a small projector from her pack.

At this very moment, a cold and heavy weight is placed on her bare shoulder. She startles, and a sharp pain stabs her neck. A voice rings out from behind her.

***

"Do not move again, I warn you. This blade is exceedingly sharp, and can take your head off in a trice. Kirton, the device she holds, quickly", said Draeger.

Kirton stepped forward and snatched the device from her hand. He quickly stumbled some distance off.

"A weapon of some sort, no question. This'll do the trick." He pointed the weapon at the ground and squeezed the trigger. A quick succession of bolts pounded into the ground, flinging dirt and portions of root into the air. The shower of detritus made Kirton squint as it spattered his head. Twenty shots in five seconds, and the projector stopped twitching in Kirton's hands. "Nasty piece of work that," he said, eyebrows raised, examining the projector.

"You there," said Draeger, "who are you and what do you do here. Answer me swift and true, as the consequences for dissembling are dire."

"I am a park ranger," said Gyx. "I have come to help the survivors of that crash."

"Weapon in hand in case they resist your attentions?" asked Draeger.

"No."

"Whatever. You are skilled in medical aid? Your pack contains supplies?"

"Yes."

"Follow Kirton here, then: one of your countrymen requires your help. You will have need of no weapon. Your startling skill at conversation while held a sword-point may do you some good. We have some time before we will reach him, we are remote from the wreck; tell me the latest news."

**["We are" what? They're 100 meters from the wreck--that's not "remote".]**

The time required to reach Rajani's location was enough for Gyx to inform Draeger over her shoulder of raids on the populace by troops in the King's livery arriving in shuttles like the wreck. Escalating demands were being made hourly from the king's ships in orbit. The local garrison had been attacked in response by a nuclear bomb planted by rebels, and the ship was promising reprisals if those guilty were not surrendered.

**[I know this is Starfire, but you don't "attack" someone with a nuclear bomb, at least not on the ground--you could "obliterate" them, or the rebels might "explode" a nuclear bomb, but attack isn't quite the right word, unless the rebels launched the thing toward the garrison somehow, rather than merely planting it.]**

"The council has demanded to see the aethling hostages aboard ship who were to be returned," said Gyx. "If they have not been killed, the council will submit as before. If there is no word, then there is no respect for the law, and they will resist to the last."

"Here is your patient," said Draeger, as they negotiated around a large rock. "Kirton, return her pack, she will need it."

"Oh," said Gyx gently. She rushed to Rajani's side with the pack and immediately began to work in the deepening gloom, oblivious to the two men, hair hanging down.

"Help me with this armor," said Draeger to Kirton. "From her weapon, I would say its protection is worthless against whatever might be turned my way while I am on this planet."

**["Livery" refers to the colors painted on the armor, not to the armor itself, unless it's a situation where the colors are important.]**

"That's truth, indeed. And a bit of food might do well now, too."

The two men were done long before she was. They watched in the darkness as she drew out some mysterious source of light to continue her ministrations. Kirton shushed Draerer's concerns before they started.

"Don't bother with that, you. If a boat wants to spot us it'll do it with eyes that don't need that light. Better she can see to help."

Soon she was done. She sat down in the dirt and proceeded to place a dressing on her own wounded neck.

"You will both be heros beyond reckoning here. But why would you do this? What is happening?" Her voice was plainly confused and exhausted behind a cloud of dark hair.

Draeger handed her a portion of food.

"We are the last of the King's true men here. Your people should not have attacked the garrison--we came to warn them," began Draeger.

"You giant lummox!" shouted Kirton. Gyx glared at him, and he continued, softer, "Persephone nuked them soldiers, like she scrubbed the pickets and the orbital platform. She's going to blame it all on these people. An' I doubt if there is any garrison left to warn; she wouldn't have just attacked them and then let them be. They're gone."

**[Who's the lummox? I don't see who "You" is directed at.]**

Gyx sat quietly in the dark, and Draeger looked lost. Both watched Kirton as he stood and paced a bit, his small form underlit by Gyx's trail lamp.

"Someone on Persephone-that's the ship in orbit--mutunieed and took control. Ship's comm claimed it was the captain, but it don't matter. Some officers have gone bad somehow. They must be going to take Persephone out into the dark, where the Navy won't follow, and set themselves up as kings somewhere. But they is obviously supplyin' themselves here, and stirrin' you folks up, and then when they leave, the Navy will come and find this mess, and have more to worry about than Persephone. They might even think she got opened up in the fighting and not bother to look. 'specially if they manage some convincing sign of a fight on the ground."

**[BTW, in the opening section I believe that Rajani refers to the captain as a "he", but you've got her called a "she" later on. And BTW, how can the captain "mutiny"--you have to mutiny against someone. If the captain had stopped following orders from higher up, how would the crew know?]**

"Warning the local authority will not do much," said Draeger. "It would seem there is no one to warn. And we have no means to reach the Navy. This place has no shipping: it is against the law for them to even talk about ship's propulsion. All we can do is tell our tale and hope against hope that it disseminates so that some may live to tell it to the Navy. Perhaps a seed of doubt can be planted."

Gyx reached down and turned the lamp on her face as she brushed her hair back. Both men stared in shock at their first good look at her face. Burns had scarred her entire head a glossy white, but a patch of skin around the eyes and nose was left intact.

"Yes indeed, boys. And the leg too." She grinned without any sign at all of humor. "Now that you've got that out of your system, let me tell you what I think." Her laugh was pretty, and cold.

***

The air-car hummed away smoothly, carrying Rajani and Gyx off to the capital. Draeger and Kirton looked up at it as it faded into the night. They turned back to the utterly nondescript metal shed stashed against the side of the mountain, surrounded by a wild and neglected garden, parts of which climbed over a trellis.

"Well," said Kirton, "now's time to set to. Come on you, I'll have need of them big arms."

They both proceeded into the shed.

The work took hours. By the time they rolled the old courier drone out onto the small pad, dawn was graying the sky. Flowers in the garden and on the vines climbing the trellis around them were opening. Small birds were gently beginning to complain about the dew.

"That's that then," said Kirton. He reached out as Draeger started to protest, and pressed the activation. "Come on, you," he said, as he tugged at Draeger's bulk. "You can't stop it, get going."

Draeger allowed himself to be pulled a few feet away. They watched as the drone warmed itself up.

"What's the point in waiting?" asked Kirton. "It was ready so I sent it. Those resistance people was lucky to keep these around so long."

"I do not know," said Draeger. "Your action seemed so hasty, as always. You hasten for no reason I can discern. I was not prepared."

"Well it was, and you aren't going to rush off to warn the Navy with all of our stories, and those pictures, and all. Certainly not that fast. Besides, just launching the drone ought to scare 'em off. Yer lookin' like you want to ask me a question."

** [I've don't understand this part--what is the drone not carrying, that Draeger wants it to carry? What is it carrying? Why will its mere launch scare anyone off. Why wouldn't they shoot it down if they saw it? Given this, why not wait till the ship is on hte other side of the planet before launching?]**

The drone chose that moment, via some machine logic, to leave. It was just gone, between eye-blinks, and a heavy rush of air shook the trellis and disturbed the birds.

Sunlight struck a mountain peak. The birds were off. Color started to come to the flowers in the garden. The chill was still there, but the light creeping down the mountainside promised warmth. Draeger walked a few paces into the garden, and turned.

"What was that rhyme you were counting with when you were bluffing our way out of the boat bay?"

"I weren't bluffing. And I was just blurting out any old thing. It's a kid's rhyme, from ancient Earth. My oldest's favorite. I've got four, ya know."

"I have no family."

"Yer young yet. 'spose Persephone got that drone?" Kirton sat down on a rusty old tin drum and laughed softly.

"What inspires your mirth, you revered old rusticate?" asked Draeger. "You seem to have regrets."

"I was thinkin' about how I would have ended it, the rhyme, you were askin' about."

"What would our skilled linguist poet have chosen?"

"Five, we're still alive."

***

Persphone fires a saturation pattern of nuclear strikes at the launch site of the courier drone, hoping to dissuade further launches. She attempts to the utmost limit of her ability to shoot down the drone. She fails. She returns to the planet with that abrupt darting movement, like a fish, like a insect. She hangs there long enough to recover her boats, and flees for a warp point. She must put as many jumps between her and the vengeance of the Navy as quickly as possible. It will be difficult, but possible. She can delay no further. The very good chance that the drone will get through demands absolute haste.

Some weeks later there is a parade in a city on the southern continent. A celebration of the return of the aetheling and autonomy. A mood of thankfulness also pervades the gathering.

An old man with bright white hair and a scarlet tunic and several new scars to complement the old ones steps up to a railing near the center of the city. A gesture activates a device and reveals a monument. It is an obelisk. Its tall granite form carries a plaque that has writing in a language that is very difficult to read if you are not from the locality. A new royal governor, who duties are all but symbolic this time, watches approvingly. He cannot read the plaque, but it all makes very good press.

** [Marvin, this is just a comment, not on this story in particular, but on the general tenor of Starfire stories, going back to Communique (at least, I never read any of the stuff in Nexus): I'm sick and tired of stories about suicidal heroism. It's an interesting plot device, one in a while, but that's ALL any of the stories are about. It gets boring after awhile, not to mention depressing, and if you stick to that sort of plot, rather than try something else, all you can do in the next story, to keep things interesting, is to make the suicide more spectacular--which is the fundemental reason, I think, that we ended up with huge fleets in ISW-4.

In this particular case, there's no reason whatsoever for the two characters to die. For one thing, they could have launched the drone while the ship was on the other side of the planet; even if it had posted a boat on the other side to watch for that sort of thing, the characters have brains enough to figure out what the ship is going to do, if they take five mintues to think about it, and they would have set the thing to launch itself after clearing out of the area. It's not like there was a need for split-second timing or any huge emergency, after all, and they DID have the air-car (and it's not like Rajani had to be anywhere, since there was no one he could really warn--or they could have radioed for another car, or whatever.

Like I said, suicidal heroism is inspiring once in a while, and when it's truly necessary. But after a certain point it's just boring. Scott]**

{{Also prevents the characters from continuing in future stories.}}
Nerf rock, paper is fine. signed:Scissors.
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Marvin Lamb
Marvin Lamb
 
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