From Childbirth to Third Earth
"Red Eye? I remember the first time I met him. Cresca had died trying to give birth to a second child only seven months before and Luna and her husband, decided that something was needed to distract the people from the tragedy," Tug Mug said. Black Tiger had tried to find somewhere in his bedroom that wasn't covered in filth and settled for a spot that was less dirty than the rest. She didn't want to know why he had a stool in his room when he couldn't technically sit on it.
She did, however, know all about Piscaar. Her teachers had told her about him as a warning of what happens when power goes to ones head. When Queen Luna and the others disappeared on Third Earth they were presumed dead. Piscaar assumed control and immediately began by slaughtering the senior staff of the ship that had transported her. Murders, riots and assassinations were touched off. Piscaar himself would eventually be killed, only for a steady stream of successors to take control and subsequently meet their demise. The most recent king, Tycho, had managed to maintain control for almost a year before surrendering the throne back to Luna.
"Orias died shortly after under suspicious circumstances, most people think it was Piscaar, but no one was ever able to prove it. Luna, unlike her mother, had trouble uniting the moons, and one of her visions was a competition between the moons. Their best and brightest would compete in feats of strength, skill and intelligence. It coincided with the opening of a new arena in her mother's honour and it was a grand occasion. It's funny, of the six of us that went to Third Earth all of us were invited. Alluro declined, saying he already knew he was the brightest one and didn't need some competition to prove it." Tug Mug's impression of the hypnotist was horrid, but elicited a laugh from the young woman anyway.
100 years ago
Red Eye breathed happily, taking in the sights of the Royal city. It had been ten years since he and Twyla had been here last. Perhaps, he thought, it would rekindle their romance. That had been part of the rationale that he'd brought her and their boisterous five year old daughter with them. It was a different hotel, one not catering to any given race. A balcony over looked a bustling street below, separated from the bedroom by only a thin purple curtain. Still, he couldn't help but feel good about himself.
Ten years ago he'd been a trainee in squad 12 and now he was one of the higher ranked members. Dawn had taken a position in central command and Ponacht had been killed in the line of duty by a member of the Interplanetary Control Force who had been trying to find a particular Darkling. Gweyth had retired and Blacksun had had his leg amputated after a horrific accident. Narda and Starim were still around, with the former taking command of the squad. Both had pushed for the married man to represent them at the competition, especially since Twyla had been chosen to represent the culinary side of the Dark Moon.
The city was alive, and there was a certain excitement in the air. Through the window he could see people of all races milling below him, but even with that the races were keeping separate with only rare exceptions. To his surprise he even saw a Thunderian Lion, kept on a tight leash by his Icewalker owner. It was so unusual that he watched both until they walked around the corner.
He turned around and saw Twyla trying to corral Shade as she jumped from the double bed to the armchair. Both had wide smiles on their faces, so he knew he wouldn't have to intervene yet. Finally he rescued his bag from their romping and dug out his ceremonial uniform that all the Darklings were wearing for the competitions. Black sleeves and leggings with a white torso, emblazoned with a dark red '12' to mark his squad. There was going to be a formal dinner at the open aired arena for all participants before the public ceremony the next day. A chance to get to meet the other competitors before the battles began.
"Daddy, watch!" Shade cried, ducking between Twyla's legs and scooping up his sidewinder in a relatively graceful motion. It was, blessedly, unloaded anyway but he plucked it from her grip nonetheless.
"That's not a toy," he chastised lightly, putting it back in its case and setting it aside. "But when you're older, you'll be the best marksman the Dark Moon has ever seen."
She beamed up at him, her yellow eyes sparkling with admiration despite the admonishment. With the sidewinder safely away he picked her up and kissed her forehead until she started to squirm and wriggled free. Once free she took off into the second bedroom where her bag of toys had been deposited, and soon sounds of play could be heard.
"You need to keep your weapons locked up better," Twyla scolded, wiping some of the mirth from his mood. She'd been a little grouchy with him of late and it bothered him, especially since she was right more often than he'd care to admit to her.
"I know and I'm sorry. I'm just a little distracted. This is a big week for me, for both of us. Just think, the two of us once again representing our people on this moon. The whole system will be watching us." Her expression softened a bit and she set about unpacking her clothes into the dressers provided.
He locked the case the sidewinder belonged in and put it up high in the closet for safe keeping and then joined her in unpacking. "Remember the last time we were here? This moon is where it all started for us."
"It started before then, back in the bar after you caught those Mutants. You couldn't keep your eyes off me all night," Twyla replied. Those had been simpler times, the future was vast and full of possibilities. It still was, really, they were only in their late twenties, and yet they both seemed content in their career choices. Twyla's restaurant was doing well, making a tidy profit every month, and squad 12 was still known as one of the finer squads. And if the years had started to affect them, they tried not to notice.
"Some things haven't changed. Maybe once Shade settles down for the night we can reenact that first night?" He'd seen her pack a very similar black dress in her bag and smiled knowingly. She'd never really gotten rid of her pregnancy weight, but she was still beautiful to him.
"We'll see," she replied and finally pulled out her own ceremonial uniform and laid it out on the bed. "I should drop Shade off with Darmin." Twyla vanished into the other bedroom to get Shade ready, no doubt, leaving Red Eye alone to change.
It wasn't the answer he'd hoped for, but it was becoming a more common one of late. He knew some of it was jealousy that Shade seemed to love him more than her, but children did that kind of thing. Opportunities for intimacy had decreased with the birth of their daughter, even considering their limited time together with his career getting in the way, and he'd noticed that Twyla's sex drive had dropped off. And yet he couldn't be angry with her for it. The change between them had occurred so slowly that he felt almost powerless to reverse it.
The stress of working the restaurant didn't help. They'd done well, largely, but it was the dishes Red Eye had invented that seemed to attract the most attention. He just hoped that the serving staff could handle things while they were away and that Twyla would be able to relax away from it all.
Red Eye and Twyla met Nuitache, a member of squad 47 and the husband of Darmin, in the lobby of the hotel. Like them he was in his ceremonial uniform and he smiled broadly at their approach. "Shade and our Phanta are having a great time. Amazing how children seem to get along," he said.
"Jealous?" Red Eye asked.
"Nah. There are perks to being an adult. Have you checked the schedule yet? I've got some Icewalker in the opening round."
"Lucky you. I've got a Graviton." He'd done as much research as he could on possible weapons and strategies to use against all four of the other races. The biggest advantage of fighting an Icewalker was that the risk of an accidental fatality was low. The whole concept behind this competition was sportsmanship and to prove who the superior race was, but it was anticipated that more than one competitor would be killed by friendly fire. All of them had been briefed, and medical personnel would be on hand, but accidents happened.
Nuitache laughed and patted Red Eye on the shoulder. "You'd better remember your nose plugs then. Come on then, we're going to be late."
Their identifications got them through the first set of doors to the arena, where weapons searches were conducted. Psions and Icewalkers, of course, had natural abilities that couldn't easily be taken away, but there were plenty of Guardians wandering around to stop the former and the Icewalkers were generally trustworthy enough not to start anything. This was a big event and no one wanted to disgrace their moon.
In the morning the arena floor would be converted into smaller zones, depending on the disciplines being tested, but for today there were simply rows of tables containing food. A band was playing soft music, but no one was dancing to it.
The three stuck together and made an attempt at mingling. It wasn't easy. The Psions were perceived as being snobbish, the Gravitons as crude and foul smelling, the Icewalkers were arrogant, and the Royals were inferior. They finally settled on an Icewalker who was busy examining an ice sculpture centrepiece on one of the tables. "Was that made by your moon?" Twyla asked.
"Oh, I see. It's an *ice* sculpture, so it must have been made by an Icewalker. For your information, no. My people would never produce such an inferior creation as that," he replied, barely turning his head before wandering off.
"Don't worry about him. He's House Whitestar, they don't like anyone," a Graviton said from a little further along the table as if that answered everything. He was carefully balancing two plates on one arm while adding food with the other. "The name's Tug Mug, I'm here for the hand to hand combat. Well, that and the food and the women. There are a lot of hot women around. You aren't single or open minded, are you?"
Red Eye felt Twyla back up a step and immediately felt a mote of anger bubble up. "Certainly not. I'm Red Eye and this is my wife Twyla."
The Graviton didn't seem to notice the anger, or wasn't bothered by it. "Red Eye, that name sounds familiar. I think you're fighting my brother in the opening round. I'd wish you luck but, well, you know how it is. I've got to hand it to you Darklings, outside our moon you guys make some of the best food. I tried to get on the judging panel for the cooking competition, but they turned me down. Maybe next time."
"Assuming there is a next time. Do you think Luna will host one of these again?" Nuitache asked.
"Depends on if she needs the support. It certainly appears as though it's a popular event. And you can bet there'll be four moons demanding rematches next year," a Psion said, overhearing and wandering over to join them.
He hadn't thought of that. Red Eye knew for one that he would want a second chance if he were to lose here, especially if it was to a non-Darkling. Would Luna convert it into a frequent event or would this serve to fuel the animosity between the moons? "Support for what? The Mutants are being quiet for once and I don't see the Thunderians posing any threats," he replied.
"Not today, but the Thunderians keep holding off the Mutants. You never know," the Psion shrugged. He selected a thin wedge of cheese from the table and chewed it thoughtfully. "There's Control too, if they ever wanted to get serious about our supposed crimes."
"Bah, Control. Bunch of sissies, if you ask me," Tug Mug said. "I'd love to see the day Control tries to arrest me."
The music stopped abruptly and a loud horn blared, marking the entrance of Luna and Piscaar, the former astride Amok as usual. "Ladies and gentlemen. I'm glad you all came. Before I let you carry on with eating all my food, I wanted to remind you that if I suspect anyone of acting improperly during the tournament, intentionally killing, losing on purpose to win a bet, and so on, there will be dire consequences." Amok pounded the ground and scowled around to let people know he would carry out the penalties himself if Luna asked.
"She wouldn't be so tough without Amok," Tug Mug grumbled. "I'd give my left leg to show her what happens to loud mouths on my moon."
"What does happen to them?" Twyla asked before she could stop herself.
"They back up their words with fists. I didn't get to this competition because of my rugged good looks, cutie," he said, before waddling down the table to get even more food.
"Wait, what? Tug Mug had legs back then?" Black Tiger asked.
Chilla thought carefully for a moment, as though trying to remember specific details. "It was one of the stories of the tournament. A Royal Moon competitor used an illegal explosive device that left him with only stumps. There were four fatalities that day and numerous minor injuries, but his was the most gruesome. It's amazing that they patched him up as well as they did. All things considered, it's not a pretty sight. He flashed every one of us at some point to shock us. I had nightmares for a week after seeing it." Black Tiger winced. There were just some things that she never wanted to see, and that was one of them.
100 years ago
The following day Red Eye stepped on to the arena floor and took a moment to see the crowd. Lunataks of all sorts, largely kept separate by race, filled the stands. He was not the focal point, however, not yet. If the pattern held true then the hand to hand combat would occupy the most attention, but there was a marksmanship competition taking place in the far section of the arena, and a display of art works being judged at the other. He had confidence that there would be enough people watching to make him nervous. Still, he was a seasoned squad member, and he could count on his personal experience helping him through the early jitters.
His name was called out over the public address system, as was that of his opponent, the Graviton named Rum Tum and he turned to meet the brother of Tug Mug. Like all Gravitons he was built short and round, but beneath all the layers of fat was the muscle to move it all. Many a combatant, he'd been told by Ponacht once, underestimated a Graviton and suffered for it.
When the horn blew again the two locked up, their hands interlocking and each trying to overpower the other. Despite his height and leverage advantage Red Eye was startled at how solid Rum Tum was. "Not what you expected, eh?" the rotund one sneered. He suddenly reversed the hold and used Red Eye's own momentum to propel him over his shoulder. Red Eye crashed into the ground hard and only his training allowed him to roll to the side before Rum Tum could land on him.
"I won't make that mistake twice," he replied grimly. With strength on the Graviton's side, and possibly speed, Red Eye knew that he would need to use his superior reach and hope that he possessed greater intellect. He would never hear the end of it from the squad if he were taken out in the first round. Placing in a thirty-two way tie for last would be embarrassing, especially since there were only five Darklings in the tournament to begin with and one had already won her match.
Red Eye swung his fist at the Graviton's head, anticipating, and being proven right, that he would duck, and sharply brought his elbow back, cracking the man on the skull. It wasn't a clean shot and it brought him closer than he'd like, but it allowed him to gauge Rum Tum's reaction time. He was quick, jabbing his own fist into Red Eye's mid-section, nearly blasting all the air out of his lungs. It was a little worrisome to be so far behind his opponent. Rum Tum was showing no ill effects from his head shot, while he was trying to make ground between them and catch his breath at the same time.
The crowd was jeering him, and a vulgar chant began echoing off the walls. Red Eye scowled and decided to change his tactics, he saw Rum Tum showboating to the audience and then begin to charge. Red Eye feigned confusion and stepped to the side at the last moment, kicking his leg at the back of Rum Tum's knees. When the Graviton stumbled Red Eye jumped on his back, ignoring the greasy feel against his skin, and struck repeatedly with his forearms to the back of Rum Tum's head.
This lasted until he whipped his head back, long horns catching Red Eye across his chest. Blood began pouring from the open wound and he was forced to step back to avoid being gored a second time. There was nothing technically illegal about using ones horns in combat, but since Darklings tended to have shorter horns he didn't often think of using them. They were, in reflection, some kind of throwback to another day.
"Do you yield?" Rum Tum asked, pausing to shake his head clear of cobwebs.
"No," he replied. The wound was shallow and looked nastier than it really was. He'd need stitches but that could wait. He was also grateful that he'd been assigned multiple uniforms if this was an indication of how messy they could get. Thus far his focus had been on Rum Tum's head. The repeated strikes were having an effect, but not nearly enough of one as he would have liked.
"Good, I was hoping you'd say that." Rum Tum backed up again and started to sprint at him again. It was too easy, Red Eye thought, the Graviton must have come up with a counter or he was stupid, and Red Eye figured it was the former. Rum Tum was hoping that he would step aside again and, in a moment of sudden clarity, he thought he knew why.
Red Eye obliged and was pleased when the Graviton stopped short, and swung his metal gauntlet in a downward arc that would surely have shattered his leg if he'd tried the same stunt. Rum Tum seemed stunned that his move hadn't worked, and was doubly so when Red Eye's fist crunched into his sternum, splitting both his metal chest plate and bruising Red Eye's knuckles.
The match ended immediately as the Graviton toppled and paramedics poured out. Royal security forces rushed between them to ensure no further violence, though Red Eye bore no ill will towards his fallen foe. He'd put up a good fight, in the end. With the match over, Red Eye turned his gaze to the audience, trying to find where his wife and daughter would be sitting, but with the number of Darklings present it was impossible. It didn't matter, he would see them later after he'd changed so that he could watch Shade during Twyla's cooking competition.
"Daddy! You beat him good," Shade cried, running up to him and jumping into his arms. He held her carefully away from his chest, which the doctors had hastily stitched up and was still sore to the touch.
"I nearly lost the fight, darling," he said, setting her back down on the ground.
"You nearly lost more than that," Twyla said darkly. She was dressed and ready for her competition, but he could read the concern in her voice. Would she be able to watch the rest of his bouts, knowing that there could be fatalities? Already a Psion had been sent to the hospital with a concussion that might have caused permanent brain damage.
"I wasn't worried, you're the best fighter," Shade piped up, grinning proudly. It was hard to reflect on his mortality with such youthful optimism, and even Twyla had to smile at the strength of her confidence in him.
"And your mother is the best cook, and she'll prove that in a few hours. You ready to go?" Twyla nodded and took her leave. Taking Shade's hand, Red Eye led her to get something to eat before finding their seats.
To make things fair between competitors, each moon sent three teams to compete. The first round had the three teams cooking local dishes with the best team entering a round robin style tournament against the other moons. The menus for the second round featured ingredients native to neither moon. The two best teams would then prepare dinner for the royal family, allowing Luna to personally select the winner.
Judges were an equal mix from all the moons, but there was heavy suspicion that Luna would ensure that the Royal Moon picked up a victory in the finals if their team made it that far. In fact, there was a suspicion that most of the contests had Royal Lunataks in favourable pairings. Red Eye, actually, suspected otherwise. There was too great a chance for bias, and he felt that any time a Royal won any of the competitions the accusations would be there. If Luna was going to skew the results, he thought, there would be a five way tie to show that all the moons were equally important or some nonsense.
They found their seats, though Shade preferred his lap to the metal chair that was hers, and settled in to watch the show. A trio of Icewalker cooks were finishing up as they sat, remains of some hapless Thunderians lay on various preparation surfaces. He couldn't wrap his head around eating an intelligent creature, but food was so scarce on the Ice Moon that just about anything that could be eaten was.
"Dad?" Shade asked, and for a moment he hoped she wouldn't ask why the Icewalkers were eating dead people. "Why can't mommy be a brave warrior like you?"
He swallowed hard, almost wishing now that she had asked about the Thunderians. Twyla had intimated that Shade idolized him, and he'd passed it off as a childish fantasy, but he didn't realize the flip side of the problem. There was no easy answer, she wouldn't understand that her mother had indeed been a very brave warrior, that in some ways she had his dream job. "Your mother is a very important woman," he said, trying to pick out the right words. He made a note to contact his own parents and apologize to them if he'd asked such a difficult question. "A warrior can't survive without food. If everyone plays their part then the empire runs smoothly."
"Yeah, but anyone can cook, but not everyone can kick butt," she said, eyes gleaming. If it were coming from an older person he would suspect they were doing so intentionally to provoke a reaction.
"You obviously forget about that stew I made last month," he chided. She wrinkled her nose, the disastrous meal coming back to her. He'd tried mixing some towzer weeds in with a rabbit hoping that the latter would neutralize some of the bitterness in the former, but it had ended up leaving such a wicked aftertaste that he'd been sucking on mints for days just to rid himself of it. "Trust me. What your mother does is more important than what I do, and you should tell her that."
Shade looked sceptical, but finally turned back to the drama in the kitchen area below. "Okay, but when I grow up I'm not going to do any boring cooking. I'm going to be a warrior just like you."
Twyla and her team performed admirably as he knew they would, but she wasn't nearly as proficient in the culinary arts as the other two teams, and it was Red Eye who had come up with the restaurant's signature dishes. While the food certainly seemed to please the judges, it didn't compare with the brilliance of the others.
Though upset, Twyla took the loss graciously. Red Eye knew the look on her face, though; she would be in a foul mood when they met up and would doubtless take her frustrations out on him. She had, after all, begged him to withdraw from the combat competition, one he wasn't likely to win anyway, and help her in the kitchen. The only way he'd be able to avoid an 'I told you so' was to win himself.
Setting Shade on the ground, he ushered her to run on ahead and give her mother the same treatment he'd gotten after his gruelling match. Eager to please her parents more than out of a true desire, Shade scampered over and kissed Twyla on the cheek. "You did great, mommy!" she said, just as they'd rehearsed.
His wife smiled faintly for her sake and set her back on the ground. She was filthy, covered in sweat and cooking ingredients, clearly looking forward to getting back to the hotel and having a long soak in the bathtub. "I thought you deserved to win," Red Eye added.
"No you don't," she sighed, trying to keep her voice level. "But it's good of you to say so. Let's just get home, you can watch Shade for an hour, can't you?"
"And have dinner ready when you're done."
Dinner was an unmitigated disaster. Ordering Darkling fare from room service brought a fresh round of grief from Twyla as she saw dishes that she perceived as better than her own. To add to the problems, Shade confirmed that the fried vegetables were indeed better than the ones 'mom' had served the week before. Wisely, and perhaps a little selfishly, Red Eye took Shade out after dinner to wander the streets and give Twyla some alone time.
The streets were busy, people talking about the things they'd seen both live and on their televisions. The focus seemed to be on the day's first casualty. A Royal had died on the combat field after Tug Mug had struck him a little too hard in the chest. The scuttlebutt was that he'd been suffering from a previously unmentioned illness, but many blamed the Graviton and accused him of murder.
When the following day's incident with the explosive device that obliterated Tug Mug's legs occurred there would be great debate as to whether or not it had been deserved. Red Eye saw the man being harassed by a pair of Icewalkers who clearly felt it had been intentional. The rotund one was at a bar trying to enjoy the several mugs of beer in front of him He seemed to be getting agitated, and rightly so Red Eye supposed. Sensing that things might get out of hand, and given the stiff penalty for brawling at the moment, Red Eye walked over. "Tug Mug, how's your brother doing?" he asked. The Icewalkers sneered at him, but he ignored it. "Shade, I fought this man's brother earlier today." He hoped that having a child present might lessen the odds of violence. Icewalkers weren't known for being the gentlest Lunataks, but they had standards.
Tug Mug looked a little surprised that he would intervene, but also a little relieved. If he were caught brawling he might be ejected from the tournament. "He's doing well. The doctors say he'll be back to himself in another two weeks or so."
"That's good. I'd hate to injure someone permanently. He fought well." The Icewalkers seemed to catch on that they were being ignored and grumpily walked away.
"Let me buy you a drink. Least I can do. Barmaid! A beer for my friend here and his little angel."
"Milk will do for her," Red Eye chuckled, seeing Shade's eyes widen at the prospect of alcohol. She probably thought of it as a warrior's drink now. That was a lesson for another day.
"Whatever you say. Gravitons are born with beer bottles in their mouths. Who do you have tomorrow?" Tug Mug selected one of the many half empty mugs on his table and took a long swig of the brownish contents. "I've got some Royal called Areg, shouldn't take more than a few minutes."
That was overconfidence if ever he'd heard it. And Red Eye had to admit feeling a certain amount of apprehension at Tug Mug facing a second Royal after killing another. "I've got an Icewalker named Chilla. I hear Icewalkers are tricky."
"They are, especially when they look like Chilla. I'd like to invite her over to my place and..." Shade's eyes looked on in anticipation while Red Eye's narrowed. "Show her my bacon collection?"
"May I see your bacon collection?" Shade asked.
Red Eye suspected that she somehow knew it was something she shouldn't have and was responding to be obnoxious. "Not until you're older," he replied, ruffling her hair. They stayed drinking with Tug Mug for another hour before he decided that Twyla had had enough time, and that Shade should be in bed. He wished Tug Mug luck and returned to his room.
Getting ready the following morning Red Eye watched the events unfold. Tug Mug and Areg sparred for a little while and it became painfully obvious that Tug Mug was indeed going to win. Red Eye wondered who Areg had beaten to get to this stage and how, based purely on the performance.
Areg was bleeding profusely from his nose and his chest was heavily bruised, but then he stumbled on all fours and started messing with his boot. Tug Mug humoured him by giving him the space, as though a properly adjusted boot would make all the difference, but it did. Video replay showed him pulling something out of the side of the boot and hurling it at Tug Mug's feet. The device exploded, sending chunks of flesh in all directions, accompanied by a pained scream.
Red Eye was grateful that Shade wasn't in the room, she was playing some game with her dolls in her bedroom, but Twyla was and her gasp spoke volumes. They'd both seen horrific sights in their time in the squads, but this was so much worse. It was deliberate torture, and with it came the possibility that such an event could happen in Red Eye's matches. Icewalkers weren't known for such brutality, but anything was possible.
Instantly his mind began going over what was likely to happen as a result. Security would be doubled, for certain, and searches were bound to be more common. Any future matches between Royals and Gravitons, no matter the contest, would become more heavily scrutinized. There was also the question of how it would effect the tournament brackets. Someone was bound to get a free pass since there was no way Tug Mug would be able to compete.
He had another hour before he needed to be at the arena, so he watched the story unfold while getting himself ready. "You're not competing still, are you?" Twyla asked, careful not to raise her voice too loud. Shade would find out all about the accident sooner or later, but let her be ignorant a little longer.
"I haven't heard otherwise. I'll be fine, they won't let it happen twice; war would break out. And there's Piscaar to tell us himself," Red Eye said, pointing.
Indeed, the television showed that some intrepid reporter had managed to locate the king and was asking for a statement. "We know who did it, there are plenty of witnesses to this horrible crime, therefore Areg will be tortured to make sure there were no accomplices and then executed before the tournament finale, and if he had any help, then they will join him. We will not have our competition ruined by cowards and traitors."
"You see? Everyone will be on their toes now."
Twyla hugged him tight, a gesture far more intimate than any he'd seen from her in a long time. How disappointing that it had to be over such an issue. "I don't know what I'd do if you didn't come home. I know things haven't been easy lately but... and Shade. My god I don't know how I would explain that to her."
He drew her lips to his and kissed her. "I promise you, I'll never leave you."
"Ew! You're kissing again?" Shade said, peeking out from the doorway. Red Eye marvelled that she seemed to instinctively know when they were and managed to always be around to offer commentary.
"And I've got some for you too," he chuckled. She squealed and sprinted back in the bedroom. He tackled her to the bed and planted kisses all over her face, hoping that he was right. The prospect of never seeing his daughter again terrified him.
The atmosphere in the arena was much different now. Each match that followed the fateful Tug Mug/Areg one served only to ratchet the tension levels. Up in the crowd, as Red Eye took to the field, he could feel the stony gaze of Icewalkers on him, wondering whether or not he would pull a similar stunt on their champion. He'd done his homework for several hours when he got home, after he'd spent some time comforting Twyla, and he knew that Chilla was indeed a rising star.
She wasn't the best the Icewalkers had, a youngster from House Neijin who'd been forced to pull out of his opening round contest when he'd torn a hamstring was considered to be better. Even her bond mate and trainer was better, but he had other commitments to attend to. But he could see the potential in her. Chilla was observant and a quick study. Given a few years she would surpass both of them.
Grudgingly he had to concede that Tug Mug's assessment was also right. His preferences, as was common among most Lunataks, was for women of his own race, but there was a certain beauty in her. She was strong and confident, just the kind of woman who was happiest in the thick of combat. She'd bloodied her previous opponent, a Psion, and done so with ease. He'd seen the pleasure in those eyes, she'd relished the taste of the man's blood. He admired it.
Guilt settled in. He was married to Twyla, had promised to never leave her, and sexual thoughts about his opponent, the deceptively muscular woman standing across from him, would only distract him. She had weaknesses, he'd seen a tendency to act hastily in the video footage. It wasn't much, but he could see traces of it, and might be able to exploit it.
"That doesn't surprise me at all," Tug Mug said in response to Black Tiger's questioning look. "If there's one thing I understand about Chilla it's that she respects fighters. She fell for Ren because he was so much better than she was and was a respectful winner. Instead of gloating he helped her to her feet, showed her what she did wrong and then found a new way to beat her."
"Icewalkers are weird. I know they say you hurt the ones you love, but that's ridiculous."
He shrugged. "Some people don't understand why Gravitons use so much food in our sex lives. It's just a different culture. Though I wouldn't mind wrestling with Chilla in buttered popcorn ring."
Tug Mug's eyes glazed over for a moment and he missed the slightly hurt look on Black Tiger's face. For reasons she couldn't explain, she'd always found Gravitons attractive. She wasn't sure if she wanted a sex life that involved butter or popcorn, but she'd often wondered about it. She wondered suddenly how Tug Mug was able to have a sex life at all with his legs having been torn off. Perhaps his sexual organs hadn't been affected? She wouldn't ask. Some things were best left to the imagination.
"It was a good fight, I saw the replays later, it lasted a good twenty minutes with both of them bloody, sweaty and tired by the end. Neither one of them wanted to give up, but there had to be a winner, look up the footage if you ever get the chance. Finally Red Eye managed to sneak a punch in through her defences and knocked her out cold, if you'll excuse the expression."
"I thought only Icewalkers did ice puns."
"And I thought I told you to excuse the expression."
The third round was next and Red Eye stared at the brackets. Of the fifteen combatants able to compete there were only two Darklings, one Graviton, two Psions and ten Icewalkers. The betting lines had an all Icewalker final and he wasn't nearly confident enough to put money on himself winning it all. The competition was good, and they were all showing the signs of two fights. Chilla had scored some wicked hits to his chest, right where Rum Tum's horns had slashed, opening the wound up again. His legs and shoulders ached and there were supposed to be five more fights? Slowly he eased into the bathtub and let the water cover his muscles.
Luna would need to make changes to the format if she ever hosted games like these again. Either reduce the competitors or space them out longer. His moon wasn't doing well overall, he thought. The culinary team had lost to the Psions, their best marksman had finished fourth and their science team wasn't looking promising.
If either he or Nuitache were eliminated from the running it would look bleaker. Of course, if they both won their matches the next day then they would face one another in the following round with a trip to the semi-finals on the line. That was pressure and he didn't know if he would feel right fighting a friend like that. But they both had opponents to deal with first. Nuitache had a Psion, but Red Eye had drawn another Icewalker.
A shudder rippled through the water, remembering the circumstances around Tug Mug's injury. The Icewalkers wouldn't dare, would they? Which reminded him in a roundabout way that he needed to visit Tug Mug in the hospital and see how he was doing. He actually found himself liking the man, even if he was from the wrong moon.
After his soak Twyla gave his back a good rubdown, massaging some of the kinks out. She didn't know how bad he needed it, she was worried enough for his health as it was. More than once already she'd asked him to withdraw, and he couldn't do it. There were too many people counting on him, and so he became more quiet about his pain.
He woke up in a hospital bed. The room was empty at the moment, though he could hear people moving around in the hall outside. How had he ended up in here, he wondered to himself. He'd been fighting the scrawny looking Icewalker, the one who looked like he should still be wearing diapers, and was trying not to underestimate him. Lightning quick arms and legs pounded on him from every angle, and his lean frame and speed made it almost impossible to hit him back.
Red Eye remembered a sizzling kick to the shoulder, rendering the arm numb, and a devastating shot to the left knee. He'd looked for only a second to make sure there was no bone jutting through the material and then... And then? Here. He turned his head to the side, and found the nurse call button. "You're awake," the nurse, a Royal Lunatak woman said matter-of-factly.
"Awake, but sore."
"That doesn't surprise me. You suffered a concussion along with fractured ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and more bruises than you probably want to know. Your wife left an hour ago, but I'm sure she'll be back."
Red Eye experimentally moved his arms and looked down at the bandaged chest wound. Everything felt stiff and tender and his head still rang. He could well imagine the words Twyla had used before she left too and groaned inwardly. He was not going to hear the end of this.
"To make matters more insulting, three of the final four were Icewalkers. Brennen from House Blyzzard won and we never heard the end of it," Red Eye sighed.
"I've heard of him," Black Tiger said, trying to scrounge the tidbit of information from the back of her mind. There had been something unceremonious about his death, something embarrassing. It didn't matter, she supposed.
"The Dark Moon did poorly in most of the competitions, but Bace Darkstar did win the piloting competition."
"Now let's move on to the event you're best known for. The 'Secret Invasion.'"
Red Eye settled back in his chair. He had to have expected this topic to come up. "It was about two years before I was promoted to central command. Shade had taken a spot in squad 12 with me and I made her a permanent member. Those were an incredible three years that we ran together. Twyla wasn't happy, and in hindsight I think she was looking for a way out of the marriage when I left for Third Earth. I made so many mistakes with her, but not with Shade, and not that day. A number of squads were reporting strange occurrences around Nasalgiv, including us. We begged central command for help, and they agreed to send someone. It wasn't what we expected."
85 years ago
The first bad sign was seeing a ship that was not of Darkling design. Red Eye and Starim, who never seemed to have what it took to be promoted higher than he was, stood and watched what was very definitely a Psion ship land at the city's space port. It didn't bode well. Of the four other moons, Darklings and Psions seemed to get along well, but there was always an undercurrent of doubt, wondering what they were getting out of the bargain.
The door swung open and a Psion with stooped shoulders emerged. He was tall, as most of his race tended to be, with a thinning head of hair. He wore it long and seemed to be equally displeased at being here as Red Eye was to have him. "I'm Alluro. The high priests say that you need my superior skills?"
His hackles were raised. The Psions were ruled by their clerics and this screamed of pawning off a troublemaker. "We do. We think someone is using technology to hide from our patrols."
"And you want me to do telepathic scans? It's not really my forte, but it should be simple enough. Let's get this over with."
Red Eye agreed with the sentiment and gestured for him to follow. They entered an elevator and descended to the jungle floor. There were buildings here and there, including a small hotel for the rare guests to the city. The main streets, such as they were, had dim lighting but there was almost none the further out. Red Eye knew that one of their first objectives would be to get some sort of night vision equipment, otherwise Alluro would be walking around blind and would need a handler to prevent him from walking into too many trees.
Lights were on in the compound, however, and Alluro could deal with seeing nothing as Starim drove through the jungle roads. "It started about a month ago when we detected strange energy readings after a Mutant cruiser flew past. The Plundarrians claim they were heading to Thundera and swear they didn't teleport any Mutants down, but we have no way to verify that. Soon reports came in from one of our compounds that they'd had a break in. Food and other things started disappearing from the city next, but we never caught the culprits," Red Eye explained as they went.
It had to be the Mutants. That incident from when he'd started, when the Vultureman had escaped, was a part of it. They must have learned something useful from their recording devices after all. He told the story to Alluro, just in case it was pertinent information, and any other scrap that might be useful to him.. Very little of what he said was what he would consider 'sensitive information' and central command certainly hadn't left instructions, trusting in his judgement.
Alluro sat in silence, absorbing it all. Red Eye wondered, as Starim began telling him about their own disappearances, what his angle in all of it was. Why had the Psions deemed him to be the one to send? Was he a spy of some sort, was he secretly reading their minds? He would have to scrounge up whatever information there was on this man when he got the chance.
It didn't take them long to reach their compound. Red Eye recognized the area perfectly. The thorn bushes, the little patio Ponacht claimed to have installed in his first year, the greasy smell that accompanied their motor pool. Twenty years of working the same region, and he could almost identify every rock and tree. He understood now why the veterans were so valuable. If something was out of place, their odds of seeing it were greater.
Starim came to a stop in the garage, and Alluro's body temperature indicated that he was a little more relaxed now that there was some light around him. Red Eye led their new helper out in to their foyer to meet the rest of the team. Shade was there, of course, cup of tea in her hands, Sochem was giving Pirellis' rash a once over to make sure it hadn't spread, and their newest member, Othest, was casually listening in to the general radio frequency as was her wont.
They were short staffed too, having lost a man a week before possibly due to whatever threat was out there, which infuriated him, but the number of people staying in the squad program had dropped a little. All the squads were feeling the pinch, and the government was considering upping the mandatory period to two years.
He turned his attention to Alluro. "I'm a hypnotist first and foremost, the best the Psion moon has to offer. I can do a little telepathy if I need to, but telekinesis is out," the man explained. Red Eye knew a little about the race. Each Psion had some ability in each of the major disciplines, but often found themselves better at one than another. "The Psion government has sent me to assist with your invader problems."
"So what's the first step?" Shade asked, pushing herself away from the counter.
"Well, if you take me to the most recent incident I might be able to pick up a psychic residue. I don't promise anything, and if it's Mutants then it's even less likely."
Red Eye considered that. It was difficult to separate Darkling thieves from the mysterious thieves. Too much, lately, the media was blurring the line between the two, attributing the acts of the latter to the former. There had been one incident two days before that was probably them, though. "Sochem, see if we have a body suit that will fit Alluro and get a spare headset." The young woman nodded and took off down the hall to the utility closet. The Psion looked about to protest, so Red Eye continued. "You'll be a sitting duck and a liability to us if you aren't wearing one. The enemy probably has infrared. Using you as a decoy to draw them out might work too, but let's try this first."
They set out immediately. As luck would have it there was a spare that would accommodate Alluro's lanky frame. It was a little loose width wise, but it seemed to work fine. Starim drove them out to a mining camp that had reported the loss of a portable generator during the night. The local squad had already come and gone, as well as the police force, but both had turned up nothing. The one surveillance camera had been smashed to pieces.
The mining camp was merely an opening in the side of a slight hill, with a number of hastily erected buildings around it. There was a truck driving away with the latest shipment for processing leaving as they approached, but the majority of the people were below ground. One person who wasn't was the boss of the operation, a dumpy woman named Myrk. She had probably been signing off the load the truck driver was delivering and walked over as they exited the hovercraft. "Another squad? I already told the... what's that doing here?"
"Red Eye, field commander of squad 12. Central command asked us to bring in a specialist from another moon to help. I take full responsibility for him." He watched her reaction. She wasn't thrilled with foreign Lunataks being around, and he couldn't blame her. They were collecting dasildium, a key component to the camouflage suit's circuitry. If a spy were to learn how it was processed then there could be issues.
"Step into my office and we'll talk further," she grumped.
"He means it, you know," Shade whispered to Alluro. "He's fully responsible for anything you do. Which means if you try anything..." How she'd gotten so close without him noticing was amazing, though he supposed it had something to do with the ridiculous helmet he was wearing. There was no chatter coming in from the compound, where Starim was dutifully keeping watch with Othest, and the other two members of the team seemed content to stick close to the hovercraft. Shade, he suspected, was being creepy on purpose. She might try and pass it off as concern for her father's reputation or something, but his instincts were rarely wrong.
"My assignment doesn't include being threatened by children," he replied evenly. The body suit, ironically enough, would cover up the nervousness he felt. Alluro was a long way from home with no friends at all. He didn't even know if his government would back him up, he'd ruffled too many feathers with his superior attitude. It wasn't his fault that he had the talent to support his boasts.
"It's not a threat. It's a fact," Shade replied, walking back over to Pirellis and Sochem. He scowled and debated whether or not it was worth his time to get revenge. Probably not right now, but if an opportunity presented itself he would reconsider.
Red Eye and Myrk weren't gone long. Red Eye had turned his headset off for the conversation, but it seemed that Myrk had finally conceded the point. She'd probably done a background check to make sure that they were indeed a licenced squad. "Alluro, you're with me. The rest of you take a look around, see if there's anything squad 19 missed."
The hypnotist nodded and followed the squad leader and Myrk to a supply shack, hastily constructed and barely large enough for the equipment within. This, Myrk explained, was where they kept the generators when they weren't in use. A long cable ran up to the top of a nearby tree to collect sunlight to charge their batteries. Two days ago she'd done inventory and there was one missing and none of her crew knew anything about it.
It wasn't much to go on, and there had been far too many people around to make his job easy, but then if it was an easy job then the high priests wouldn't have sent him. Alluro drew his psyche club from his hip and let its light bathe the immediate area. The strength of the club helped focus his mental powers. "If you'll back up a little it will help," he said softly, his mind already clearing of extraneous information.
He was right. His first impression was strongly of Darklings. About forty in all who had been within twenty metres of this exact spot, their wayward thoughts tainting the air. People didn't realize how much they transmitted their thoughts, one reason why infant Psions had their powers neutralized was to prevent them being overwhelmed by them. Fear transmitted well, as did hatred, grief and passion. The stronger the emotion the louder the psychic imprint. He could taste the disdain coming from Myrk for him, the concern from some Darkling that he would be losing his job, another lusted after a colleague. There was so much background noise that he found it difficult to concentrate.
Sifting through the voices he caught a faint impression of fear. Someone worried about being caught. He tried to concentrate harder on it, but it was old and blotted by other thoughts. Finally he pulled back to the real world and saw Red Eye and Myrk still watching him intently. "There was definitely someone here. I'm guessing one person. They were worried about being caught and what might happen to them if they were. It didn't feel like an employee, for what it's worth," he said, replacing the psyche club on his hip. "There's been too much activity in the area to tell you any more than that."
"It's a promising start, anyway. We'll find the thief next time they make a move," Red Eye said.
They'd barely been back on the road for more than a few minutes when a new call came in. Sochem turned on to a different road at the first opportunity and soon they arrived at the outskirts of Nasalgiv. A body stood face first against a tree, pool of blood at their feet. The local authorities were busily examining the scene. Red Eye gestured the rest of his team to stay put until he spoke with the police, and exited the vehicle.
The body was that of a middle-aged man, and he was held against the tree by a wicked looking knife through the neck. Red Eye watched as a trio of officers carefully removed it and lowered him to the ground. "Somrak? They sent you?" The use of a name he hadn't used in almost twenty-five years startled him, and then he saw one of the veterans approaching.
He recognized that lopsided grin even after all these years. "Joren," he said. He'd often wondered what had happened to his former competitor.
"Man, central command said they were sending one of their best, I never imagined it would be you. How're you doing?" Joren asked.
"Better than him," Red Eye said, indicating the dead body.
"Yeah, well. Poor sap was found by some woman coming home from visiting in-laws in another city. We've taken her back to the station, but we'll get you her statement. You're more than welcome to come take a look. What?" Joren paused, seeing Red Eye was distracted. Something on his headset from the looks of it.
"Are you sure? Fine." A decision having been reached, Red Eye turned his attention back to Joren. "We've been assigned a Psion to help us, he thinks he can speed up the investigation."
"A Psion? What's the moon coming to when we count on them to do our job. Fine, bring in your man."
Red Eye's description was an exaggeration, Alluro thought as he emerged. Pirellis had asked about his ability to read a dead person's mind and then, when Alluro hesitated, suggested that the job was too difficult to perform. Alluro had, foolishly perhaps, taken the bait. The truth was that a dead person's mind could be read if it were gotten to in time. One could witness the deceased's last moments, but there was tremendous risk especially to one who didn't consider himself a telepath of great skill. More than one telepath had suffered a kind of sympathetic psychic shock and died from the experience. Doubtless Pirellis knew the risks as well, and wouldn't shed a tear if something were to happen to him.
He wouldn't let on to them that he was nervous. Instead he strode purposefully over to the fallen Darkling. There was a surprising amount of blood on the ground and his lunch threatened to eject itself from his stomach. Alluro forced the thought aside. This wasn't that complicated a process, he could do it. Touching his psyche club to help focus his power he knelt down and concentrated on the man in front of him.
He was walking through the jungle, grateful to get away from his nagging wife for a few minutes. When he'd married her she'd been hot and more than willing in bed. Then she'd gotten older and looked as though someone had beat her with the ugly stick. Then the nagging had grown louder, or else it had always been there and he'd just never noticed. Either way, he was stuck with her for now. Sooner or later he would have to come home and deal with it, but not yet.
He heard a noise up ahead and turned, fearing for a moment that his wife had decided to follow him this time. No, it sounded like multiple voices. Curiosity getting the best of him he crept closer. He saw a box on the ground, but no sign of whomever had been speaking. Carefully looking about, his infrared glasses showing no one around at all, he walked over to the crate and started to open it. A pair of computers were inside, he thought, even with the infrared on..
Fear began to mount, he instinctively knew that he'd just walked in on thieves. But where were they? Hands roughly forced him against a tree. "Your unlucky day, idiot," someone rasped.
Alluro tried to withdraw as quickly as he could. The man, whoever he was, wouldn't have lived long after the knife strike anyway. Two sets of eyes were watching him and he knew he looked pale. "Your victim interrupted some computer thieves, I couldn't tell what kind or where they got it from. They must have had some kind of camouflage, because he couldn't see anyone around," he said, telling them as much as he could remember about the encounter. It didn't feel like a Mutant attack, probably just some local Darklings.
"Computer thieves? There haven't been any break ins reported yet, but it's early yet. I'll keep you posted if you want," Joren shrugged.
Red Eye nodded. "And before you ask, I don't sense any other psychic residue right now. The fear and pain off this one is too intense." It was like trying to hear a whisper over a jet engine. People didn't understand the Psionic disciplines very well and usually expected far too much out of them. It was an image the high priests liked to maintain to instill fear in the other races. He never saw the point. Their real powers were just as impressive.
"Thank you for your help, Joren. I'll let central command know," Red Eye said, turning back for the hovercraft and their compound.
The ride back to the compound was uneventful, Red Eye mulled over the information they had thus far and couldn't make any solid conclusions. There were too many unknowns going on and very little concrete. While Shade prepared dinner he had Starim pull all the data they had. Perhaps if they could see it all at once he might be able to find something. Certainly the fresh set of eyes would be of use.
He wasn't sure what to make of Alluro yet. While he was cocky and arrogant, he also knew his stuff. The reading of the dead man's mind had helped a little. They knew what was stolen and Alluro had now heard a voice. There was the remotest of possibilities that he would recognize the voice if he should hear it again. "The problem is," he said, as Shade brought plates of stew out, "is that we don't know which events are connected to the Mutants attack."
"I don't think it is the Mutants. It's not in character for them. If they were behind all this then there would be more violent murders, more obvious signs of their presence. Mutants aren't very subtle. It's even entirely possible that there isn't one group behind all this," Alluro said. "Certainly that Darkling against the tree wasn't. It was too stealthy for Mutant."
He was right, and it was a possibility that both Red Eye and central command had discussed at great length. The only reason they suspected the Mutants at all was the fly by they'd made. Perhaps they had been telling the truth, but they wouldn't be getting an apology for the harassment. Mutants knew better than to travel too close to the moons. Of course, if they weren't involved, then who was? He looked at the map again, trying to see a pattern in the numbered dots on its surface. "We suspect there is something going on. The number of unsolved mysteries doubled in a month. That's not co-incidence."
"If the Mutants aren't behind it, then who? Lunataks? Control officers? Thunderians?" Othest asked.
"I don't know much about these Thunderians, but they would have a hard time getting to the Dark Moon. Control might have slipped in. A prolonged stakeout might be the kind of thing they'd engage in," Red Eye conceded.
"Or it could be a rogue squad," Alluro said.
Shade slammed a fist on the table, nearly sending her bowl flying. "That's impossible, no self respecting Darkling would do that."
"Is it so unlikely? They would have access to the technology, they would know their way around the cities. They'd also be the least likely suspects." Alluro barely hesitated in his response. Red Eye caught Shade's eye to let the Psion finish. At this point any theory was worth considering.
"So we eliminate the Mutants and suspect just about everyone else. Wonderful," Starim sighed. "What's the next step? We can't just wander to every crime scene in the area, can we?"
"That might be our best bet, short term. All the previous crime scenes have gone cold, and all the squads are out searching their areas. If any of them spot anything we'll know. Let's keep one person on the general frequency at all times then. Shade, show Alluro to his room," Red Eye said. He walked to the radio and took the first shift.
Alluro wasn't sure what to make of his escort. Red Eye seemed decent and relatively competent, a man didn't get to his rank without being the latter at least, but his daughter was weird. All through dinner she'd been watching him. It was as though she expected him to betray them all at a moment's notice, as if she would catch him if he really was trying anything.
The truth was, the high priests hadn't given him any real instructions. He was to spend a few days on this inhospitable moon, longer if need be, and help them if he could. They had said nothing about spying or sabotage. No instructions on what not to say. They either trusted him to know better or didn't really care. "Here we are," Shade said, coming to an abrupt halt. The compound really wasn't that big, a collection of small bedrooms, a garage, the central hub which included a kitchen area, a bathroom and some storage. She lowered her voice suddenly. "My bedroom is right next door and I'm a very light sleeper."
Which was a relief. For one horrifying moment there he had thought she was hitting on him. He could understand why she might be, but he wasn't sure how to gently let down someone he might have to rely on later. "That's good to know. I snore." He slipped in to his room and began unpacking his meagre belongings. The perpetual dark of the moon was throwing him off. Even though the clock indicated it was still early, he felt like it was night. The small window showed only the faintest outlines of trees encroaching on the building. He settled himself on the lower bunk and dreaded when he went to sleep. He was a good foot taller than the bed accommodated, it would mean a night of contorting his body to fit. In the meantime he picked up the book he was working his way through and began to read.
Morning came, and with it came the daily duties. Red Eye had handed off the radio duties to Sochem who had passed them on to Othest and so on. Currently Pirellis was listening in. He shook his head in response to his squad leader's silent question. Minor things were happening, but nothing that sounded like it was connected to their work.
Red Eye sent a two person patrol, freeing the rest of the team to continue working on the bigger picture. Central command had volunteered to dispatch other teams to fill in, but his people knew the area better than anyone else did. He wanted people like that, who would notice more quickly if something was off. For the time being he had assigned himself to monitor the duo's radio traffic.
Their guest slept in past nine, stumbling out only when Shade went in to make sure he hadn't snuck away. Alluro rubbed at his eyes. "What's for breakfast?" he asked..
Shade gestured to the cupboards. "Help yourself. We've been meaning to stock up, but I guess we're supposed to feed you." There was, however, the constant companion of the squad; the coffee maker. Pirellis was the official maker of the coffee, mostly because he consumed so much of it. It was strong and most of the squad found it sharpened their senses first thing in the morning.
"Incoming message from Joren for you, sir," Othest said from her general frequency station.
He switched places with Shade, walking briskly to his room. There was a communication device in there and he activated it. Immediately Joren's face appeared. He looked as though he'd just wakened, his clothes were dishevelled and there was fatigue in his eyes. "Red, I got some bad news for you. Someone hacked our computers. We caught it happening and stopped it, but we're still trying to figure out how it happened. Looks like they were digging through Coallus' file, probably seeing if we'd learned anything."
"Damn. I'll be there shortly." He walked into the hall. Taking Alluro was probably a security risk, he needed his four person team in operation, and Shade would insist that the Psion needed a chaperone. "Othest, you're in charge until Starim gets back. Joren needs me at the precinct. Whoever killed Coallus last night managed to hack into the police records. I'll be back when I can."
From the bushes a pair of unfriendly eyes watched Red Eye leave. That left four inside the compound including the threat, and two of them were distracted with the radios. Slowly she moved to the closed window to Alluro's room and slipped inside. A few minutes later the trap was set and the threat Alluro posed would be no more.
When Red Eye was gone there wasn't much for Alluro to do, so he settled at the table, aware that Shade was always keeping a vague eye on him. The only way he was going to get away from this moon, and the hostility, was to solve the case. If he could narrow down the options, find some pattern that they couldn't, then it might bring them closer to an answer. The trouble with the Dark Moon was that there was so little natural light that one needed to rely almost exclusively on infrared. Inside the cities it was another matter, but Darklings preferred dimmed lighting for their streets so even then there wasn't much.
There was the possibility of setting up motion detectors. But they would have to be tied to an infrared scanner, so that they would know if it was simply a wild animal or a leaf or something. Perhaps if they were remotely tied in to a central location then flood lamps could be added, to illuminate the suspects. That particular trick would only be useful once before they figured it out. Ideas for such a system were already percolating, so he got up. He would jot them down before he forgot them.
"It started about four hours ago. One of our computers detected an intruder. My team moved quickly and started countermeasures. As I said over the radio, we were able to determine what they were looking at, and it's the file on Coallus. I guess they wanted to know what we'd found out and whether we had any suspects," Joren said evenly when Red Eye arrived. They were standing in front of a bank of computers with Darklings in front of most of them. Each Darkling logged in under their own password and then could access the network.
"You didn't trace it back to its source?" Red Eye asked.
"We tried, but once they realized we knew they were there they ended the connection abruptly. This was the only file they were after, too."
"Maybe they've been more careful in the past, or it's isolated." Red Eye rubbed his temples. He wasn't sure whether he should hope for the latter or the former. Probably the latter; the former implied they were dealing a very crafty and computer savvy individual who had gotten sloppy once. Both options made it more likely that a Mutant was not involved. He'd heard that the Vulturemen were fairly intelligent, but even they were as subtle as a brick.
"Either way. My team called me at home and I figured I should pass it on to you. I spoke to central command too, just to keep them up to date." Joren sat at one of the stations and called up Coallus' file. There wasn't much there, a mention of the woman who'd found the body and her testimony, a description of the lack of evidence apart from the knife, and Alluro's psychic reading. "We got a call from an electronics store saying they had a break in last night. Two high end computers disappeared, so it looks like your man is right. Damn, I still can't believe central command would bring in a Psion. What did Ponacht use to call them? Worthless desert worms?"
"Because you can never trust one, yeah. Poor old Ponacht. Just a second." Red Eye heard his radio go off. "Go ahead? Dammit, is everyone okay? Understood. Joren, you'll want to bring your people. We had an explosion at the compound."
For once Alluro was grateful for his shadow. His hand had just keyed open the lock to his door when Shade tackled him to the ground. This was followed immediately by a horrific explosion that rocked the building. Debris tumbled around them and he heard the startled screams of those who had been working the radios.
The compound was sturdily built, even if it didn't look terribly impressive. The same structure had been in place, according to the stories, for forty years. Alluro stared around him blearily. There was incredible weight on his chest and something dripping. There were voices now, people trying to find him or Shade. He could still move his arm somewhat and found the handle of his psyche club. With any luck the crystal hadn't shattered when he'd fallen.
It hadn't. The light allowed him to see that it was both Shade and a large steel slab on top of him. The dripping was from a wicked gash in Shade's head, dark purple blood that was making its way through her hair and down her ear to his chest. She was completely out of it, which he suspected was for the best. How had she known?
The infrared goggles! She wore them around him intentionally to bother him, to tell when he was lying she claimed. She must have seen the explosive device attached to the door. It was a shame she hadn't seen it a little sooner, but it still probably saved his life. It disgusted him that, of all people, he owed his life to her, but at the moment he was just grateful to be alive.
"Look, light!" he faintly heard a voice say. The search team had seen the glow of his psyche club, yet another blessing, even though they were likely to have looked under the debris. If nothing else it confirmed that they were alive. At least he hoped Shade was alive. She was breathing, now that he thought about it, he could feel her warm breath on his body.
Something above him shifted, momentarily pressing both metal and Shade harder against him before letting up again. Soon there was more light as more and more pieces of twisted metal were eased off of him. "They're both in here," Othest said, appearing in Alluro's line of sight momentarily before turning her head to Sochem. "Do either of you need a doctor?"
"Shade does. I'm not sure about me," he replied.
"You probably do then," Sochem replied as the two women finished moving the largest piece off of them. "But Shade'll be our priority. Proper medical teams are on the way, and Red Eye's going to want to know what happened."
So would I, Alluro thought to himself. Very carefully, so as not to disturb her more than they had to, the two women lifted Shade off of him and transported her down the hall. Now that he could see better, Alluro could see that as powerful a blast as it had been, only the four bedrooms at the rear of the building and the bathroom had been damaged.
He sat up slowly and began the tentative process of checking himself for injuries. He'd whacked his head and back against the floor, but it didn't feel severe. His chest was sore from the difficulty in breathing and there were several minor cuts and abrasions. Nothing seemed broken, which was a blessing at least. Othest came back. "I'm supposed to help you to one of the bedrooms," she said, offering her hand.
Wrapping her arm around his chest and helping to brace him as he took a few unsteady steps they slowly made their way down the hall. "Sochem'd know better than I, but I'm guessing it's mostly a lack of circulation and shock. You're lucky. We found what looks like the bottom half of a door, probably mine. Don't know what happened to the top half." She took him in to an empty bedroom across from Red Eye's and settled him on the lower bunk. "What was Shade doing on top of you? You weren't..."
Her voice trailed off. She didn't really think that they would be intimate in the middle of a hallway, surely. He could see the thought process dismiss that as a possibility. "You'd have to ask her. I'd barely unlocked my door when she tackled me. I heard the explosion and everything tumbled around me. She must have seen the bomb at the last minute. I assume the police are on the way too?"
"That's right. You going to be all right for a few minutes? I'm going to check to see if Sochem needs my help." He waved her away and leaned back. It had all been so sudden, the impact of Shade's body, the noise level, and debris. He was lucky that his head hadn't been squashed like a grape by some piece of metal. In fact, the heavy piece of metal, whatever it had been, probably saved him too. It had doubtless gotten caught on something. He wasn't a terribly religious man, much to his uncle Auralias' dismay, but he figured he would make an offering at the temple to Cyris when he got home.
He would also have to take a shower the next chance he got, wearing Shade's blood was not much of a fashion statement, but that would probably have to wait until at least the police spoke to him. Or longer, depending on how much damage the bathroom had taken. There was probably a water supply in the garage, or the kitchen sink at worst.
They were getting close to something. Whoever had done this had targeted him specifically. The bomb had been on his door and would have blown the top half of his body off if Othest was right about the state of her door, which meant that someone feared him in particular. He had a high opinion of himself, but hadn't thought he'd reached 'fear' levels with people yet. It was almost flattering to be the target of an assassination attempt, strangely enough.
He heard the sounds of Starim and Pirellis arriving back at the compound, their motorcycles coming to a screeching halt. Footsteps pounded through the hall and Pirellis took a quick peek in at him. "Red Eye should be here shortly. How's Shade?" he could hear Starim ask. The responses were muffled by the distance and the walls, but it certainly didn't sound like Starim was thrilled.
Alluro was curious what the general reaction from the others in the squad would be concerning all of this. By and large they resented his presence, a veiled suggestion that they were incapable of doing their jobs mixed in with the natural prejudices between the moons. Shade's had been the most openly hostile, but Starim and Sochem had been guilty of it too. Red Eye seemed to accept his help, while Othest and Pirellis were friendlier about it. All in all it would bear watching, if for curiosity than nothing else. Deciding that he could learn more if he was in the opposite bedroom, he stood. His limbs seemed more willing to co-operate now, hinting that Othest's assessment was probably right.
Shade was awake, though her head hurt like crazy. She tried to explain what had happened, and was getting tired of repeating the story first for Sochem, then for Starim, and then for Red Eye and Joren. She'd seen Alluro reaching the door, had noticed the strangely shaped object on the doorjamb, had known instinctively that it was patently 'not a good thing.' There hadn't been any logical thought process involved, it had been strictly impulsive.
Deep down, if she had had to decide, she would have saved Alluro's life anyway. He was under her squad's protection and it would look very bad on both the squad and her father if something happened to him. She didn't trust the Psion, given a choice he would be sent back to his moon on the next available shuttle, preferably strapped to the wing, but he was a temporary member of the team and she would deal with it.
A paramedic was examining her head wound, giving her a brief respite from all the questions. They would insist on taking her to the hospital but she planned on refusing unless ordered otherwise. She needed to be involved, she wanted to catch the bastards who'd nearly killed her. Besides, when they found out they'd missed their target they might try again. "That's it!" the doctor scowled as her head whipped up. "Dad, I know how we can nail the bastards."
"How?" Red Eye wandered over. They'd fought for a little on what title to use. She couldn't call him by name, and he didn't like being called by rank. 'Dad' seemed to be the best option, though even that felt awkward at times.
The doctor resumed his inspection of the wound. "Take Alluro to the hospital. Whoever did this obviously wants him dead. If they figure they didn't then they might try and finish the job." The hospital was a controlled location, too. They could position hidden cameras to get a good clean image of their attackers, and station people nearby. Heck, if she was going to be forced into being at the hospital anyway.
Her father seemed to be thinking in the same direction. No one had been outside, Alluro wouldn't have been visible if anyone was watching. She could see him weighing the options. "I say go for it. We'll go outside and talk a little loudly that we have to get him there quickly, that he's in critical condition."
"I thought you said I wouldn't be a decoy. But now that you mention it, I might have suffered some internal injuries," Alluro said snidely. Carefully he lay down on a stretcher that the paramedics brought in.
"Just missing one thing and you're ready to go," Shade said, smearing blood on his face. It was an act that she knew would annoy him but also nauseated her. She'd lost a lot of blood as it was, and only the fact that Sochem was at her side prevented her from completely collapsing.
"You're next in the ambulance, young lady," Red Eye said. She knew the look, he wouldn't accept any arguments on the issue. "Joren, we'll need to get equipment in position in his room. Can you arrange that?"
"I can. I'll use code in case we've got anyone listening in," the detective nodded.
And there was another point. Anyone with a hacker capable of getting in to a police database might have the equipment necessary to listen to emergency channels. Red Eye would accompany them, as it wouldn't be unusual for a father to stay by his daughter's side, leaving Starim in charge of helping the other detectives inspect the area.
Of all the sights that a father dreaded, his daughter's face covered in blood ranked up there. Seeing her still antagonising Alluro meant that she was still doing relatively fine, but he would feel a lot better after she'd been looked at properly in a medical facility. They would make sure that her room and Alluro's were as close as possible, and there would be all kinds of undercover people both inside and outside.
Starim would make sure the right information got to the press as well, just in case the suspect or suspects weren't on hand. Shade's plan was sound. Using Alluro was probably not entirely what he'd been assigned to them for, but it was their best option at the moment.
They arrived at the hospital in no time, after swearing the staff to silence on the truth. Alluro was hooked up to all kinds of machines, replicating the image that he was in dire straights. He had his psyche club under the blanket with him, and there was a Darkling in hiding in another bed behind a screen. There were a myriad of tiny cameras and a powerful lamp by Alluro's bed that had its own power supply on the off chance that they cut the power to the building.
Everything was in place, now all they needed to do was wait, and waiting was the one thing he didn't want to do. Shade was being closely examined, by the doctors for possible trauma. A host of worst-case scenarios were running through his head, including the lecture Twyla would give him when she found out about this.
Twyla. A second groan rumbled through him. He would need to call Twyla soon or the lecture would be twice as long. Deciding there was no point in delaying the inevitable, especially since there was nothing he could do for either of his squad members, and because the news would be reporting the incident soon enough, he walked a short distance away from the examination room and made the call
Alluro felt the same way he had when the high priests had brought him in to see how strong his powers were. When a Psion was born, a priest would block their powers, but also record the potential. When they reached puberty they were inspected again. Children whose abilities looked promising tended to get the better education. Alluro could remember vividly standing in the middle of a room, looking at a dozen elderly gentlemen. His powers were significant and all the high priests wanted to confirm the prospects.
His mind had been laid bare before twelve probing Psions, his every experience viewed, and the centre of his brain that governed his hypnosis was poked and prodded. It was like being in a crowded room while naked, it was uncomfortable and ranked among his more embarrassing moments. That probably marked the beginning of his dislike for the hierarchy. He resisted their orders as much as he dared and turned down a position in their illustrious company. How they thought any of their bullying was useful was beyond him.
But in the hospital he was a target, laying in a hospital gown out in the open, waiting for some knife wielding maniac to come in to slit his throat. How long would it take, it had been at least two hours already, and could he use the club in time? Would the sensors catch them or would the officer in the next bed just be there to say hey "Yeah, he's dead. Oops, sorry." It wasn't reassuring to put ones faith in either technology or others, especially when said 'others' weren't fond of him to begin with.
The high priests would be wanting a report soon too. How would he bring this incident up? The answer was he wouldn't if he didn't live through it. A world without reports. He snorted silently, remembering that he was supposed to be in critical condition, there was a benefit to being dead after all.
The door opened and his heart jumped for a second. Was this it? Was this the bomber? No, it was only the doctor he'd been speaking with at the compound. He pretended to be looking at the chart and then made a show of replacing the bandage on his head. "In case you wondered, Shade's probably going to be fine. A few cracked ribs, nasty bump all stitched up," he whispered and then wandered away again.
So, Shade had survived too. On the Psion Moon such a sloppy assassin would be punished severely. He'd heard the horror stories, and they helped inspire other assassins. Perhaps it had even been a Psion who'd tried to kill him at the compound. He wouldn't put it past the high priests to stage an assassination as an excuse to go to war. Psions and Darklings generally got along, but politics was everything. If the high priests thought they'd be better off with a war, they would do it. And that would be a kick in the teeth. A co-incidental assassination attempt. With nothing else to do but wait, boredom overtook him and Alluro gradually drifted in to an uneasy sleep.
There was trouble in the hospital and it had nothing to do with their mystery assailants. Red Eye could see Twyla approaching from a mile away, could see the anger radiating off of her as she stomped up to the door he stood outside of. The doctors were conducting one more test on Shade and he was just getting in the way. "I warned you this might happen," Twyla kept her voice low, which meant that she was really angry, not just anger masking fear. "I told you to encourage her to take up a different career, but you wouldn't listen to me."
"I let her decide for herself," he said. People were pretending not to be watching, and he really had other things that needed his attention. "She's a grown woman. We can't make all her decisions anymore. She's safer with me than in another squad."
"She is, is she? Our baby nearly gets blown up and you call that safe? In another squad she would be, what, shredded to pieces?"
"Like you nearly were? I saved your life that day." The faint scar could only be seen in the right lighting, but he knew it was there. He always made sure to kiss it when they made love, a reminder of how fleeting life could be. It had been awhile. It was also getting rarer that he found time to even go home, excuses kept cropping up. Too much work, especially when they were shorthanded. Sometimes he felt guilty for that.
"Funny how the women around you suffer, isn't it," Twyla opened the door to see Shade. She was laying on her bed, while a nurse took a blood sample. The doctor was performing a test to see if there had been any effect on Shade's short term memory. "My poor baby. I came as soon as I could." Twyla hugged Shade close to her.
"I'm going to be fine, mom. Don't worry," Shade said, flushing a little.
An alarm went off, causing both Shade and Red Eye to jump. "They're attacking," Red Eye said, pushing past Twyla and sprinting down the hall, Shade in hot pursuit.
Alluro was having a pleasant dream. He was back on the Psion Moon in his lab, working on a new invention that would revolutionize his morning routines. A simple machine that would make his bed for him, the stumbling block being to get it to fluff his pillows just right. It was, too often, ripping them in two. If he could only clear that hurdle...
Even if one was wearing a camouflage suit, one still needed to be conscious that there were other senses. Alluro was aware that someone else was entering the room. There was a subtle scrape of his room's window being opened, a sudden gust of wind that carried with it the smell of perspiration. He gave it a few seconds longer, letting the assassin enter the room, before reacting. The psyche club was in motion even as Alluro threw back the sheet, its crystal soaring over the startled intruder, casting pale blue light on them. "You will stay put, I am your superior in every way imaginable. You haven't a chance of resisting me."
The Darkling in the other bed moved next, coming around and pointing his sidewinder at the attacker. He walked closer, relieved the man of a knife and manhandled him in to a chair. Red Eye and Shade burst in along with a trio of police. With the suspect subdued, Alluro relinquished his control. When the man's head gear was removed he noticed the colour of the man's skin. "An Icewalker?" he said, confused.
The uniform he wore was similar to the one he'd been given by Red Eye. It obviously had some sort of camouflage capabilities in the infrared spectrum. An Icewalker was an aggravating outcome. The fact that it was one of them meant that they would need to tread very carefully to avoid a war. Icewalkers were big on honour and pride too, so getting information out of him would be like pulling teeth. Of course, seeing the man explained why Coallus had heard such a raspy voice. The harsh air of the Ice Moon did terrible things to their vocal chords.
"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Red Eye asked.
Whoever he was, he didn't care to answer the question. He stared in defiance at Red Eye. He might break eventually, but it would be a long and tiring process. By that point it might be too late. Now that the Darklings had one of their own, assuming there was more than just one person involved in this mess, they would probably speed up their operations. Which meant it was up to Alluro to speed up the process on their end. "Open your mind to me, Icewalker. I'm Alluro, master hypnotist and the man you tried to kill. As you can imagine, I'm not happy about that. You are going to answer every question we ask or I will rip the information from your brain. Believe me, it will be very unpleasant if I have to do that." The defiant look remained, though Alluro thought he could see a mote of fear in those eyes.
"Do it," Red Eye said when Alluro looked to him for permission. This wasn't his moon, he was out of anything that might be considered to be his jurisdiction.
Alluro aimed the psyche club at the Icewalker, letting its light once again bask over him. "Who are you?" he repeated Red Eye's question. There was resistence, but it was insignificant to him. "His name is Holin, from House Myntaello. His brain is trying to give me a lame cover story involving visiting his girlfriend and falling out her hospital window. I really hope he doesn't expect me to believe it."
He pulled his attention back a little. There was such pain obvious on his face and yet he was being surprisingly quiet about the ordeal. Most of the people he'd seen in this position were screaming in agony by now. "Last chance before I find out your real purpose."
"Go to hell," Holin spat.
"Not very creative. Have it your way." Alluro poured his full focus back on the man, mentally sifting through his mind, not being overly gentle with it either. "He's on the bottom of the totem pole of a group of six Icewalkers and two Thunderian slaves. They're testing some new technology on your moon. He's the one who planted the bomb in my room, and his superiors sent him to finish the job. Their base is about thirty miles north of Nasalgiv."
"Near the forbidden place," Shade whispered.
Alluro had never heard of such, and he could see that none of the Darklings seemed about to elaborate so he filed it away and turned his attention back on the Icewalker. "He has a vehicle nearby and thinks that if he doesn't come back they might scrub the mission. It's not an invasion, it's more of a prelude to an invasion, make sure the technology works before committing to anything full scale." He paused, catching a reference that Holin was trying to keep away from him. "His suit has a feature he's not using. It allows him to blend in with his surroundings. It uses a lot of power so they try not to use it. That's why they had to steal that generator."
"Can you get the outfit off him?" Red Eye asked.
"No problem at all. I just hope he wears something underneath it."
"The outfit really was impressive," Red Eye explained. "We think now that the Mutants who escaped my first week on the job ran in to an Icewalker patrol. The Icewalkers must have accessed the data off the recording device and managed to come up with the technology we found on Holin."
"And the Mutants weren't lying when they said that they hadn't transported any Mutants to the Dark Moon," Black Tiger said. "They just omitted that they *had* transported Icewalkers. Okay, then what happened?"
"We had a rough location, but 'thirty miles that way' isn't very specific. Luckily of all the Psions they could have sent, they sent Alluro."
85 years ago
"That's amazing. I can barely see you and you're standing in front of me," Pirellis exclaimed, when they gathered back at what was left of their compound. Starim and Red Eye were busily co-ordinating the positioning of the other squads, but if they couldn't pierce the suit's camouflaging they would be vulnerable. Shade, reluctantly cleared for duty, was content to show off the new toy.
"Now put the mask on," Shade's disembodied voice said. Pirellis took the helmet from where Alluro was examining it and put it on. There was a startled gasp and she knew what the man was seeing. She and her father had tried it on and had been equally amazed. The mask transmitted data to the brain, allowing the wearer to see the same in total darkness as they could in broad daylight. There were controls on the headband that allowed one to modulate it, allowing one to see infrared and a half dozen other spectrums. The mask couldn't penetrate the suit she wore, but it did just about everything else, including their regular camouflage gear.
"It shouldn't be hard to counteract, actually. The mask generates a particular impulse when it's in use. Given time I could jury rig something that would detect them.," Alluro said. "Red Eye's mechanical eyes probably could do it with a little touching up. They're designed to pick up many impulses as it is."
"Really? You could do that?" Alluro chuckled. It was a blessing to Shade that she was effectively invisible at the moment, the shocked look on her face would have been priceless. She fiddled with the controls and became visible again. "What about our headsets? They've got infrared too."
As if he hadn't thought of that. They were similar and would take a lot more work. Red Eye's were custom designed to help him see. His brain was used to receiving impulses of varying sorts, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to add a new signal, but what about the average Darkling? They used the goggles often, but it was a slightly different circumstance. And what about Shade? Would there be any carryover from her father? One thing was certain, if he could design something, then he wouldn't want to wear them for longer than he had to. The use of infrared glasses was starting to give him a mild headache. "I'll let you know. May I see the mask again?"
Dutifully Pirellis removed it and handed it back to the hypnotist while Shade went to report the progress to Red Eye and Starim. Now he had to hope he could live up to his promises.
Red Eye was troubled as deeper night fell on his moon. The Icewalkers were operating at or near the forbidden area. Was that intentional or purely co-incidental? His gut suggested the former rather than the latter which meant that they had a good spy network in place.
The forbidden area was an especially dense region of trees that formed a protective dome over a similarly shaped structure. If one went past the door one could see a set of stairs leading down. After that no one knew what lay beyond. Whatever power lay within also drove those who came near it mad. Red Eye had never seen it for himself, though he of course had heard all the stories, but he had seen video footage of a gibbering fool that had been found nearby. It was required viewing for the commanders of the assorted squads, a lesson in the dangers of the region.
The man, or what was left of him, was thin as a sapling and had smeared his body with faeces. When he wasn't muttering incoherently, he screamed loudly about ancient spirits and pools of still water. He said once that he could see the future, a future of gods fighting gods and Lunataks eating their own flesh.
Four days later he made his first suicide attempt, ripping at his intestines with his hands. After the sixth day he screamed something about a mist that he wanted to be rid of and bashed his skull against the wall. He died from the injuries.
But the power, whatever was down there, was too tempting. Every year people were chased away. The one who could harness it might be able to conquer the moons. The price wasn't worth it. Scientists had declared it too dangerous and the government made it illegal for anyone to try, though even that didn't seem to prevent people from trying.
Were the Icewalkers foolish enough to try or were they counting on the nature of the place to keep unwanted visitors away? If the Icewalkers found a way to get the power source... He shook his head. If it was co-incidence then they might have stumbled across it anyway. He needed to make sure they never left the moon alive, but it wouldn't be easy. A structure concealed by their camouflage technology would be impossible to find. They could be in the middle of an enemy encampment and not know it until they were caught in a crossfire. The only hope was Alluro's intellect.
Red Eye had loaned the scientist his spare set of eyes, one never knew when they would need to be repaired, while Othest watched. She was the most technologically inclined of his group and she actually got along with Alluro reasonably well. If he needed a second opinion she'd be best suited, and was the most likely to catch a double-cross. All they had to go on was Alluro's word that those were Holin's thoughts.
"Are you accusing us?" Chilla hissed, her blue eyes narrowing dangerously. "Because if you are we might take it very badly." The call from Joren, chief detective for the city of Nasalgiv, had come in moments ago and she did not appreciate the tone of his voice.
"I'm not accusing you of anything," he said, though she heard the 'yet' hanging in the sentence. "All I'm doing is letting you know that one of your people was found on our moon and claiming to be testing secret equipment with other Icewalkers."
The truth was, as powerful as her family currently was, she really didn't know much about the actions of all the Houses. The Ice Moon was governed by its most powerful families and, though House Myntaello wasn't particularly powerful, there were any number of Houses that Holin might have been working with. This man from the Dark Moon didn't need to know that, however. "Release him in to our custody and I will make sure that we get to the bottom of his betrayal," she said crisply.
"I can't do so that at this time," he said and she scowled. She hadn't really expected him to do so. The Ice Moon wouldn't have were the roles reversed. Were they reversed Holin would doubtless be dead once they felt they'd gotten all the information they could out of him. "He's a suspect in our investigation at the moment. If you want him back sooner you'll have to get a royal edict."
"I will, count on it." She terminated the connection and then began making other calls.
The news the following morning was impatience from central command. They wanted the Icewalkers captured quickly along with any technology they might possess. Shade woke to hear her father using words that he would have spanked her for using. The gist seemed to be that if they went out looking for Icewalkers before they had the technology to find them, they would be slaughtered.
She agreed wholeheartedly. Central command was getting desperate and were throwing them under the bus. And for what? The off chance that they might be able to hit them with lucky shots? Shade wanted the Icewalkers as much as they did, knowing that if they scrubbed the mission and got away that they would have little to show for their accomplishments, but there was a fine line between determination and stupidity.
There was a slam and Red Eye stomped out in to the kitchen area. "We have our orders. Three squads will move in on the rumoured location in five hours," he snarled. "Alluro, how's the progress?"
The hypnotist rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. "Your new eyes are ready, I think. They haven't been tested yet, obviously. I've barely even started working on the headsets. I'll do the best I can." He'd worked most of the night, catching only a few hours of sleep in the early morning. Othest had crashed at some point, her head slumped on the table, soft snoring creating a strange background noise.
"Keep working, please," Red Eye scooped up the mechanical eyes and Shade went to change in to the Icewalker suit. They would be in a battle scenario where potentially only two people would have an advantage. The suit was baggy on her lithe frame, but it was better than nothing.
A few minutes later Red Eye emerged from his room. He didn't look much different, but the new eyes were clearly unpleasant. He covered them momentarily, trying to clear away the signals. "I don't want to be wearing these long," he said. He gestured for her to activate the suit and she faded from sight. "And it doesn't work. Five hours from now we meet the enemy and these don't work. Alluro!"
"Tell Shade to turn on the mask. Your eyes are designed to pick up the impulses from the mask," the hypnotist said in exasperation.
It was an amazing difference. Beforehand he'd seen nothing but what was left of the corridor behind where Shade had been standing. He could see the debris, and even a tiny blotch of blood leftover. Now there was a blotchy outline of a person. The mask generated a field of some strange impulses that showed the outline of everything around it. It was astounding, like a bat using echoes to determine where objects were in relation to it.
If the impulses weren't causing him a wicked headache he would be a lot happier. And yet... His head turned to the north. "I see them."
"What do you mean? They're here?" Shade asked. He heard her sidewinder slide out of its sheath.
"The Icewalkers. I can see them. One of them is going to the bathroom, another is walking around a large building. This is impossible, isn't it Alluro?" he asked.
He heard the scrape of Alluro's chair being pushed back. "I haven't had a chance to study these impulses, but maybe if they're strong enough. I didn't expect this kind of result. I hesitate to find out how they'll react to the headsets."
Red Eye switched back to regular vision and watched the Psion make himself another mug of coffee. He was right. If the strange impulses were hurting him this much, and he was used to such things, then how would any of his people adapt to them? The other alternative was a suicide solo mission, and he didn't think even his skills were up to the task. Eight on one were not good odds even if he had surprise on his side.
Obviously he wasn't the only one thinking in that direction. "If the rest of us can't see the Icewalkers, we'll have to count on you to tag them. But how? The suit camouflages weapons carried by the wearer," Pirellis said. "And if none of us can see them we might as well cut our throats now and save them the bother."
"That's not going to get these headsets done any faster," Alluro replied, settling back down at the table and taking a long pull of his coffee.
"He's right. I'm going to go outside and get used to this mask if anyone needs me, shout." Shade vanished outside before Red Eye could stop her. He hadn't yet decided who would wear the Icewalker suit or if, indeed, it would be used. It would be useful to have it, if Alluro couldn't come up with something, but if it got retaken by the Icewalkers then the Darkling science team wouldn't have a chance to duplicate it.
If Alluro couldn't do it, then the mission would become a two person operation. Shade would follow him regardless, he knew. Perhaps leaving her in the suit was for the best. She would be safer in it, and she wasn't a bad fighter. Starim might object, might even file an official complaint with central command that Red Eye was playing favourites, but he didn't think that would matter much if he ended up dead.
The hours were ticking by painfully fast. Alluro had yet to be able to rig the headsets with anything that might detect the impulses from the Icewalker masks. Shade had returned, satisfied with her abilities, and was currently taking a nap. The other two squads, 'marked for death' as Pirellis had cheerfully called them, had arrived and Red Eye was talking strategy with their commanders.
It was frustrating, the solution was in front of him but he just couldn't see it. The headsets were picking up the signals but weren't translating them in any way for the Lunatak mind to decipher. Perhaps it would be possible if he could surgically remove other people's eyes and replace them with the same mechanical eyes that Red Eye had.
"We leave in an hour," Starim said evenly.
"It's a fool's errand and I recommend against it. I certainly have no intention of going. The best I might be able to do is program one of your motorcycle computers to detect the impulses. After that the rest of you are blind," Alluro set the headset he was working on down. Perhaps if they were all carrying monitors around he could figure something out, but co-ordinating what they saw on the screens with their actions would take much more practice than less than an hour would allow.
"Do it. I'd say it's been a pleasure working with you, but it wouldn't be honest." The feeling was mutual. Once this was over he would go back to the Psion Moon. If the Icewalkers were conducting this kind of test on the Dark Moon then there was nothing saying they weren't doing similar on the Psion. He could turn his attentions to protecting his home moon and let the Icewalkers and Darklings kill each other off. He might even walk out of this building with some added goodies to show the high priests. It was a shame that some half-decent Lunataks would be killed. If all Darklings were more like Othest and Pirellis he might have worked a little harder.
"As you wish," he replied at length, gathering his equipment and moving to the hovercraft.
An hour later Alluro watched the speeding hovercraft and motocycles disappear in to the thick of the jungle, leaving him alone in the compound. Slowly he walked around, gathering up anything he thought might prove useful back on the Psion Moon. There was a motorcycle in the garage, which he planned to borrow to take him in to Nasalgiv. Obtaining a ship back to his home moon from there would be tricky, he'd stay at the hotel if need be. He wondered how things would go down for Red Eye and Shade, whether he would see them again. The former especially, he would like to work with the Darkling again some day, perhaps even explore strange new worlds with him. Fight alongside him against a common foe. Maybe someday.
"You did not think anything like that," Black Tiger squinted her eyes.
"Some Psions are blessed with something like precognition," Alluro replied innocently. "I happened to have a moment of it, what can I say?"
"Sure you did."
85 years ago
Squad 12 took the rear of the journey, keeping Red Eye in the middle of the pack as much as was possible. He would be their greatest asset and the only realistic hope of getting anyone out alive. Shade kept to the rear of the line, wearing the Icewalker suit which rendered her and her motorcycle effectively invisible. She wouldn't be able to see any of the Icewalkers herself, but her onboard computer would tell her where the Icewalker building was. With luck they would catch some of the Icewalkers inside before they could don their masks.
It was a very basic plan. Get close to them and the other Darklings would follow Red Eye's lead in targeting. The hardest thing, once Shade began her part of the plan, would be avoiding riddling his own daughter with laser fire. It was a fear that had presented itself in the discussion phase, and one he was ashamed that he hadn't come up with.
He was trying to avoid thinking about that possibility, a fate worse than his own death, by trying to get his body used to the powerful impulses. There were three people actively using their gear, and two of them seemed to be hurriedly working on something near the structure. The third was probably on patrol, based on his movements. His head jerked up and he ran over to the other two. "We've been detected," he warned the others over their headsets. It was probably their engines. One of the reasons the Darklings preferred travelling on foot was that motorized vehicles made far too much noise.
It was a lesson he'd seen played out on at least two occasions with ships that had crashed on his moon. Fools who thought they were safer in the proximity of their vehicles were actually drawing attention to themselves. But they needed their motorcycles to get them closer to the Icewalkers, foolish or not.
They were only a mile away now and he was feeling more and more vulnerable. If the enemy was aware of them it would only be a matter of time before they mobilized for them. Indeed, as he watched, trying to keep his eyes both on the makeshift road and on enemy movements, two more people activated their masks and emerged from the structure. They would have weapons drawn, for certain.
He glanced back, saw Shade veering off to take a different route, hopefully to the rear of the building, and wished her luck. If she didn't come back alive, Twyla would never forgive him. They were coming up to the first of the Icewalkers. "Evasive manoeuvres," he called out as a predictable dark purple image registered on the infrared. A thick patch of ice appeared in front of the motorcycles, sending several in to trees and one another's bikes.
Shade marked the location of the structure on the motorcycle's computer and dismounted. The rest of the journey would have to be done on foot if she hoped to have the element of surprise. She ran as fast as she could, years of training giving her stamina and an athletic physique. It was easier than she'd anticipated to stay on course. The modified scanner had shown a particular cluster of trees on one side, growing very close to whatever the structure was. She felt sure that if she kept herself pointed at those trees she would reach the structure in no time at all, and hopefully be able to find it from there.
Branches whipped past and she had to be careful to avoid logs, rocks and other debris. It did occur to her, mid-stride, that there could be an Icewalker in similar gear and she wouldn't know it until she crashed in to him.
She pulled up short as she got closer to the designated trees and started feeling in front of her blindly. "How do they find their base," she asked herself. "They must have some way of finding their way back inside. It doesn't make sense otherwise." Her fingers brushed against something solid. There it was, she grinned. It felt like a canvas material, probably made of the same stuff as the masks. Now if she could find a door she would be set. Keeping her eyes peeled for any change in the feel of it, and keeping her touch light so as not to alert anyone inside, she walked along the outside and nearly stumbled inside.
Red Eye felt helpless. He watched as man after man was taken out. His sidewinder and his missiles were on target, but the Icewalkers clearly recognized the situation, that there was only one Darkling who could see them. They obviously only had two energy weapons as the three remaining Icewalkers were using ice breath to give their snipers easier targets. The ice, at least, showed up on infrared and could theoretically be avoided. They, like the Darklings, were avoiding using fire out of fear of starting a jungle fire.
Othest cried out, impaled through the chest by an Icewalker blade, causing him to wheel around, surprised to see that one had gotten close enough to engage in hand to hand combat. He'd forgotten that there were supposed to be six Icewalkers. The woman was headed straight for him, her blade still dripping blood.
Crouching low he drew his pacifier. It wasn't really designed for a bladed weapon, but it was all he had at the moment. The Icewalker slashed at his chest, which he blocked easily. It was only a feint, a move designed to keep his hands away from his face. He fancied for a second that he could make out a devilish grin before she breathed a long stream of ice the covered him head to toe.
"You're connected to him? I knew you were old, but wow," Black Tiger said. When she'd started the project her father had suggested that she talk to the Thundercats as well, get their stories too, create a balanced version of things. She'd expected they would only have stories post-arrival on Third Earth, but now she found herself staring at the blind old Lynx-O.
"Oh no, not me. My grandfather. When I was just a cub he told me how he was kidnapped from his home by fearsome raiders. Now that I've met the Lunataks I am reasonably certain that they were the Icewalkers. He said that he owed his life to a blonde haired woman. They managed to remember the specifications of those suits and I would later adapt the technology for my braille board."
85 years ago
Shade admitted to a certain amount of disappointment. Inside the room were only two Lynx, chained at the throat to a work table. There were a half dozen blankets laid out on the floor and assorted pieces of equipment that she couldn't even begin to guess at the use of. She had really been hoping for an Icewalker or something, not the easy kill that these two would be. The fight wasn't going well out there, she could hear the updates on her headset. She deactivated her suit and walked over to the pair. "Is there some way to turn off those suits?" she asked.
They looked scared, and had every reason to be, Thunderians were not well treated by Lunataks. Ever. They also weren't answering, which she found irritating. Didn't they know what their circumstances were... Actually, they probably didn't. "Do you know what we do with prisoners?" she asked slowly. "It's a lot cleaner than what the Icewalkers do. When they're done with you, they'll cook you for dinner." That struck a chord. They'd obviously heard such rumours already, maybe even seen it too. They were wavering, she could see that. They just needed a bit more of a push.
His people were being shot down at will now, Red Eye cursed, and all he could do was watch helplessly from his icy prison. They'd killed two of the Icewalkers, but that still left four of them out there. He knew why they were keeping him alive. They wanted to know how their shielding had been pierced, and it was the only thing that made sense.
He wasn't sure if being made to watch was any better. Starim's throat was slashed open, another Darkling found her entrails spilling out. Things were looking more and more grim as every second passed by. He couldn't see Shade any more, which lowered his spirits even more. Suddenly something collided with him and he was falling. As the ice around him cracked he saw Pirellis grinning at him. "Time for you to rejoin the fight, boss."
A quick look around and Red Eye found his first target, the Icewalker who had frozen him earlier. She was, temporarily, unaware that he was freed and he used that to his advantage, firing off his sidewinder, not caring for the moment if the fire hit the trees. The fight was practically lost anyway, and he couldn't let the Icewalkers get away with it. She screamed in pain, her naturally cold body reacting poorly to the fire.
"Those are my people out there, dying, my friends, my father. Help me." Shade had always heard that Thunderians were loyal to a fault, it was her only hope without resorting to her last card.
"You'll kill us if we do," one of the Lynx said.
Which meant that she had no choice. Red Eye might be furious with her for doing it, but... "And the Icewalkers will kill you if you don't, but fine. I can't promise you much, but I will do everything I can to get you off this moon. I don't have a lot of sway, but my father is high ranking enough and I do have some control of him. Help me save him and I'll try and save you."
Red Eye wasn't sure what was happening. The two Icewalkers with laser rifles were doing a good job of keeping himself and Pirellis pinned down. The third was trying to get to the woman who was hovering in mid-air on fire. A fourth suit activated, near where the structure was. For a moment he dared let himself believe that it was Shade. Her headset had been quiet ever since she'd abandoned her motorcycle, which he could only hope was intentional.
The fourth suited person approached the laser wielding Icewalkers and struck them with some blunt object. He stopped himself just short of screaming Shade's name in relief. There was still one Icewalker left standing and he was only just noticing that his cover fire had stopped. "Stay here," Red Eye instructed Pirellis.
"After that, it was a simple matter of mopping up the mess," Red Eye said, Shade was there too, looking rather pleased with how the story had turned out. And why not? She'd been just as instrumental as her father, though most people gave Red Eye credit. Of the eighteen Darklings who'd left that day only four returned, and one of those had been badly injured. Pirellis would transfer to take command of one of the now vacant squads and all three squads would be filled with trainees. It wasn't easy, but Red Eye had been a good teacher.
"What we didn't realize immediately, was that of course the Icewalkers would have to have some way of knowing where each other were, and where their base was. We actually suspect, in hindsight, that Holin must have lost his because it certainly wasn't on him. The Lynx gave me one of theirs, though, a wristband that detected the same impulses we tuned dad's eyes to pick up. If we'd had one of those to begin with, I wonder whether Alluro could have duplicated it or not," Shade said.
"Either way. The government wasn't thrilled with Shade's promise, but we seemed to satisfy them with the capture of three of the six Icewalkers plus Holin, and all the technology they had in the canvas structure. We sent the Lynx with our next raid on Thundera and left it at that."
"Two years later dad was promoted to central command, which put him in the right place for Queen Luna's voyage to Third Earth. What a disaster that turned out to be," Shade said, shaking her head, and with good reason. That trip had ended in an eighty year entombment in molten lava.
On to Seeing Red - part three
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