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Or just reply that men rarely get the job done so you took matters into your own hands.
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I was sick but now I am well, and there is work to be done.


Early 30's. I know just enough about everything to be dangerous.

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The morning dawned with shafts of sunlight streaking from the eastern sky. Camilla awoke blinking at the unexpected light. It seemed weeks since the sun had shone down from the perpetually overcast sky. Even today storm clouds were beginning to roil up in the east and unless Camila missed her guess the clouds would swallow the sun before too long. Still, it felt unexpectedly good to stand in the sun for a few moments.

The rest of her small band were also rising. Per Camilla’s instructions no fires had been set during the night, but now the remaining wood was being piled into small cook fires and Oderic, the self appointed quartermaster, was doling out lean portions of grain and meat to each man from the supply wagon. He seemed to take particular pleasure in serving Beaumont and his knights the same portions as the rest of the men. Initially the Knights had hired some of the runaway serfs to do their cooking but Camilla had flatly refused to allow them to draw rations for their would be employers. It had been a minor act of spite but one which had unexpectedly buoyed the morale of her little band. Beaumont and his men still glared, but they had to eat.

“A Good sign nien?” Matis commented as she stepped from the canvas tent she had strung against a crumbling corner of stonework. There was enough of an overhang that she could use the tent as a door for the small space at the intersection of two stone walls. The Witch Hunter was looking off towards the sunrise, looking as though he had stepped from an Altdorf tailor rather than having spent a restless night on the ruins of a castle. Camila settled her blue cape around her shoulders. She was wearing a divided riding skirt in the Brettonian fashion along with her thigh high riding boots of tilean leather and her tooled leather breastplate. The piece had been laboriously decorated with a pattern of ivy vin that wrapped around the left side. In Brettonia it was surprisingly difficult to find high quality equipment that wasn’t also artistically embellished.

“I hope so,” she answered without much enthusiasm. Matis tossed her a loaf of bread underhanded, which she caught out of reflex. She peered at it as though uncertain what she was expected to do with the coarse peasant bread.

“Eat it,” Matis ordered folding his arms across his chest. Camilla looked at the bread without enthusiasm.

“I’m really not hungry,” she objected but Matis shook his head.

“You weren’t hungry last night either and it's not as though you have any extra weight to lose,” he commented.

“If you don’t want me to spend the day singing devotional Hymn’s…” Camilla held up her free hand in surrender and took a bite of the bread and began to chew. It was hard, baked several days ago, but as Matis had said it had been a while since she had eaten.

“Myrmidia’s tits you are annoying,” she muttered around the mouthful of bread. Matis nodded his head in agreement and then produced a wineskin from his small bundle of possessions. He passed the skin to her and she unstoppered it and drank greedily. The wine was a sweet red typical of Brettonian, without the sour tang that Tilean vintners prefered, but even Brettonian peasant wine would have been welcome on any Imperial table.

“Service has its rewards,” Matis said piously, his tone making it clear he was quoting something. Camilla shrugged her shoulders and passed the wine skin back.

“I’m not sure I’m serving anybody,” she replied.

“Mademoiselle?” Leofric, a tanned and lean poacher who had taken the role of sergeant for her little band, more or less by virtue of being willing to do it, picked his way across the rock strewn ruins, followed by the three peasants that had asked to join her the previous night. All three looked nervous and a little uncomfortable. Camilla knew by now that even the small rations of her camp were a feast for men who spent their lives half starved in the Brettonian villages, hungry amid the plenty of Aquitaine so that their lords and masters could live in silks. All three immediately fell to their knees. Camilla felt a stab or irritation at such obsequiousness, The Empire had its problems but at least its citizens would look you in the eye.

“Oh get up,” she snapped and the peasants leaped to the their feet with such fear in their eyes that Camilla immediately felt worse. Leofric held back a snicker with evident effort. He had been a man at arms he claimed, though as far as martial distinctions went that wasn't much of a boast, but he had the right attitude for a soldier.

“We wish to serve you Mademoiselle Aqua,” one of the new comers declared nervously, the others nodded in enthusiastic agreement.

“You are all from Bienvine?” she asked, referring to the village a few miles from here whos destruction had bought her here in the first place. All three men nodded.

“Did you have trades?” she asked, experience had taught her that most peasants were agricultural laborers, and those that survived the raids tended to be shepards or hunters who were away from the village when the dead attacked.

“I was a fletchers apprentice,” the youngest of the men responded unexpectedly. The other two men looked unhappy not to be able to volunteer similar skills.

“You are all welcome to join us,” she said after a moment, holding up hand to forestall immediate agreement.

“I cannot promise much, other than food and fighting, until either the undead are destroyed or we are,” she cautioned.

“That is more than we ever had before,” the oldest of the three responded.

“Then you are welcome among us,” she said simply.

“We swear to serve you faithful,” one of them responded, perhaps nonplussed at the lack of formality.

“We swear,” the other two parroted. Camilla crossed to them and touched each man on the shoulder, trying to give them the dignity they were obviously seeking.

“Join us then,” she said, smiling at each man in turn. It was an actress’ smile, not quite reaching her eyes but convincing enough. Matis would take over training the men to use spears and swords, but the work was slow and there wouldn’t be enough time to make them truly competent. Likely they would all die the first time they met the undead, but with luck one or two of them would live long enough to learn something.

“Riders!” shouted a look out perched atop one of the nearby walls. Camilla’s head snapped around to the sound of the voice, the scout was pointing to the southern road. All around the camp men were babling in fear and confusion.

“Arm yourselves and make a circle!” Leofric’s voice bellowed, cutting through the babble of voices like a sharp knife through canvas. The confusion subsided as men grabbed for pikes and bows. Their progress was disorderly but within a few minutes the had managed to make a passable defensive line around the crest of the hill.

“Looks to be knights, from Acue by their banners,” Beaumont called. The knight was already in the saddle and the rest of his companions were either mounted or in the process of doing so. Camilla sprang into the saddle of her bay and guided the horse forward to where two large piles of stone made an improvised gate in the waist high tumbledown. A score of mounted men, all bedecked in gorgeous tabards trotted along the road. The remains of the pyres smouldered by the road side in grim contrast. The leader of the men, a young knight in quartered white and purple, held up a mailed fist to his companions commanding a halt. The great warhorses obeyed though they stamped and pawed at the ground. He came forward alone.

“Villains!” he shouted, “Come down and explain yourselves!”

Beaumont and Camilla emerged from the ruins, side by side. Beaumont’s battered armor and fresh cut lance made a marked contrast to the glittering finery of the new comer.

“Good morning Sir Knight,” Camilla said, her courteousness a slap in the face to his bellicose shout. The knight stiffened in his saddle and then reached up to remove his helmet. He was dark haired and might have been handsome if there wasn’t a slight pinch of cruelty to his features and his brown eyes were agate hard.

“Ah you must be the Contessa I have heard so much about,” he replied in an oily voice, eyes flicking dismissively to Beaumont.

“Well if I must be then I suppose I am,” Camilla responded, stopping her horse ten feet from the knight.

“I am Guy D’acue, my father is lord of these lands and holds the lordship of Bienvein,” the knight responded haughtily.

“A pleasure to meet you Sir Guy,” Camilla responded without warmth.

“Why are you trespassing on my father’s land?” Guy demanded, making a broad gesture to indicate the surrounding countryside.

“This is the King’s Highway Sir,” Beaumont responded stiffly. Guys eyes cut to the other Knight, glittering with anger.

“If there is nothing else Sir Guy we will return to our…” Camilla began but the Knight rounded on her.

“You are harboring fled serfs from Bienvein! I will have these men returned,” he snapped. Camilla arched an eyebrow.

“As you must already know Bienvein has been destroyed by the undead,” she explained with artificial patience.

“Or destroyed by bandits?” Guy rejoined with a look towards the armed peasants ringing the shallow hilltop.

“These men are my entourage Sir Knight,” Camilla responded with icy formallity, “You have called them villains and bandits already, do the Knights of Acue treat all travellers in their land with such disrespect?” Guy drew his sword from his saddle with a rasp of steel on leather. Beaumont gripped his own hilt but didn’t pull it free, perhaps vacillating on whether there was enough distance between them to properly set his lance.

“You are harboring runaway serfs, these men are our property. The Knights of Acue won't be robbed by foreign chits with fancy titles,” he snarled. Camilla who had been snarled at by Chaos warriors in the past, sat impassively, unimpressed.

“You go too far Sir Knight, I demand satis…” Beaumont began, but Guy was already wheeling his horse around to face his men.

“My friends, It seems the Noble Contessa has been kidnapped by Brigands and false knights! It us our duty to rescue her and string everyone of these men up for their crimes. He finished his rotation and faced them again, grinning impudently. The Knights behind him drew their swords and shouted challenges.

“Your move, Contessa,” he said mockingly. Camilla drew her pistol and fired in a single smooth action. The bullet punched through the skull of Guy’s horse, spraying the fine white fabric of his tabard with gore. The horse spasmed as it died pitching the knight to the dirt with a clatter like a bull in a cutlers shop. Without wasting further words she wheeled her horse and galloped back up the hill with Beaumont at her heels, Guy screaming invective at her as she passed through the narrow gate to the ruined keep.


The mud squelched underfoot as Tychon and Rene hauled the fueling pipes across the uncertain footing. The muddy surface of the caldea sucked and pulled at their boots. It was tough work, particularly because the hose kept sticking against the crack in the rock and one of them would have to hike back an unsnare it, but the hose was to heavy for one man to move alone so they couldn’t spare one of them to watch it. Finally, sweating and half coated in mud and volcanic ash, Rene lifted the hose to the fueling nipple and clamped it shut. With some difficulty he pried open the manual fuel controls and removed the safety pin from the emergency fuel dump control, a large lever of faded red plastic.

“Stand clear!” he called, even though Tychon was already well clear of the discharge ports, it paid to be careful afterall, and then threw the lever. Liquid helium three sprayed from the three discharge ports on the starboard side in a cloud of gaseous vapor, flash freezing the water and cascading rainbow iridescence across the water. The sound was loud enough that Rene had to cover his ears with his hands, but it was short lived. The tanks were already low and the high pressure drove the fluid out in a few seconds, sublimating it to gas as it passed through the one way valves in into the atmosphere. A green led light up in the control box, indicating that the tanks had been evacuated.

“How are you doin out there in the gardens?” Solae’s voice rang in Rene’s ear. He grinned although couldn’t see the expression.

“All is well M’lady,” he replied with a warm feeling spreading through his chest.

“Can you light starboard 3? We need to run out the lines,” he asked. There was a moment's hesitation as Solae either found the control or relayed the instruction to Mia, and then the rearmost starboard thruster, the one furthest from Rene, roared to life. With its petals irised fully open the thrust was dispersed enough that it only rocked the vessel slightly. For a moment it poured fire down towards the ground and raised a hissing cloud of sizzling steam, then it stuttered and went out, all the fuel expended. Because starship reaction mass needed to be ionically pure they had to empty out both the tank and the lines before they refueled. WHile Helium 3 wouldn’t react with fluorine, a sudden drop in purity would cause the reaction to fluctuate unsteadily, not something you wanted to worry about when the word ‘fusion’ was in anyway involved. Rene was once again glad for all the shit jobs that had been heaped upon him during his training. If he had known that pulling extra duty on landing craft would save his life, he might have gone to it a bit more gladly.

“Alright Tychon, Start the pumps,” Rene called through cupped hands. The hoses thrashed for a moment as the powerful pumps on the boat came online and Rene felt them thrum beneath his hands as fluorine began to pulse through the lines beneath his hands. A minute later Tychon appeared from the gap in the caldera wall, a sack cloth bag thrown over his shoulder and a small wooden handed shovel in his hands. Rene sighed eloquently. Join the Marines they said, see the galaxy they said.

It took Rene and Tychon almost a half and hour to place one of the poppers under each landing skid. It was a dirty job, digging down through the ashy mud to set the small explosives before covering them back up and packing the dirt down on top of them so that the blast propagated properly. Rene was a little uncertain about the whole idea but Tychon was certain that it would work and the Marine could only defer to his greater experience. They made a sorry pair when they both clambered up the access way, covered in mud and soaked to their skins, but the job was done and Rene was eager to be away. The pumps had transferred over 80 percent of the fuel, and would complete the job within another ten minutes.

“Sir Rene,” an arch yet slightly disapproving voice, greeted him as he stepped through the open airlock.

“You are hardly in a fit state to entertain your paramour!”

Tychon blinked taken aback both by the disembodied voice and by its sensuous tone. AIs were common enough in the upper echelons of Imperial society, but it was unlikely that there were more than one or two on the entire planet of Panopontus.

“That is Mia, she is our…” Rene trailed off as he realised that he had no idea how to end the sentence.

“I am Lady Solae’s Major Doma,” Mia purred. Tychon blinked clearly having no more idea of who or what Mia was than he had a moment ago.

“Uh, I am Tychon, pleased to meet you,” he replied uncertainty.

“Welcome Sir,” Mia replied, “If you would proceed to the bath house…”

Rene surrendered and ten minutes later he and Tychon, freshly showered stepped onto the bridge where Solae sat at a holographic terminal. The had dressed in the cast offs they had salvaged from the previous crew, which if not perfectly clean were at least comfortable. Rene smiled, well they didn’t have much time for shopping on this planet fall.

“I uh..,” Tychon began glancing around the bridge in wonder. It was a fair bet he had never been on a starship before. The Bonaventure was hardly the bright light of anyone's fleet, but the level of technology casually on display was certainly greater than anything Tychon had ever seen.

“I just wanted to say thank you,” Tychon burst out, “for saving my daughter and all that you have done!”
Mave dipped her spoon into the broth and tasted it carefully. It was gamey but surpsingly spicy, not at all unpleasant. During her childhood she had eaten very well and the bland diet afforded by the life of a Novice had been a trial. Having grown used to the simple fare of the Tower, and having gone hungry as often as not since fleeing she found this oddly pleasing. Perhaps it was that Ari had cooked it specifically for her.

"Well...," she hedged, reluctant to scare Ari but conscious that he had a right to know. She took another spoon of stew and chewed for a moment. What was chasing Ari was a good question, but one that was difficult to answer given the information she had.

"Fades and Trollocs are bad enough, but they cant move openly through the country side except in wild places," she made a broad gesture to encompass the forest that surrounded them on all sides.

"In villages and towns there are darkfriends," she said, a trace of bitterness in her voice. In the Tower as well there were darkfriends, though it curdled her soul to think on it.

"The Dark one has other servants I have read about, darkhounds which hunt in the night and grey men who your eyes slide off. I think I would sense their presence but if you find yourself ignoring someone despite how much you think you shouldn't ..." She trailed off and cleared her throat.

"While we are within my wards we are safe," she explained, "and once we get moving again, well, even a fade cannot fly."
“Contessa! Please, I would be dishonored forever if anything happened to you,” Beaumont called from the edge of the roadway. The half decayed corpses lay where they had fallen, shattered by lances, or crushed beneath horses hooves. More than a few had been blasted by pistol fire. The zombies and skeletons would have been almost immune to such weapons under normal circumstances, but the pistol balls that had been used were of struck silver, each impressed with the hammer of Sigmar and blessed by one of his priests.

Camilla lowered her twin pistols and allowed her horse, a rangy Arabyian rather than the massive destriers the Brettonians favored, to carry her back towards Sir Beaumont. Squires were already heaping the dead into piles and bringing forth faggots of dried timber for fires. The sky to the west was already darkening and it would be hard riding to reach any safe place by nightfall.

Beaumont was a shadow of his former self. Gone was the neatly pressed tabard and painted lance. His armor was scratched and dented despite his squires constant efforts to buff it and his lance was of plain oak, green and cut from whichever glade had been handy. The other half dozen knights with him were similarly drab, weeks of hard fighting haven worn off the peace time polish, if not the chivalric core of the men. The squires were a mix of hard faced veterans, and bright eyed boys, the later replacements for the fallen.

It had been nearly three moons since Cydric’s death, though part of Camilla’s mind refused to accept that he was gone. Without a body there was no sense of finality no closure, just a gaping wound where her lover had once been. After the lifting of the curse they had scoured the inner keep for days, searching every passage and crevice for signs of Cydric, but not a thing had been found. After ten days, even Camilla had been forced to give up the search as hopeless.

“Ze Frauline ist not concerned with your honor sir,” A voice replied in Riekspiel sharp enough to make every word a whip crack. The words came from tall lean man replied from his seat on a fallen log that lay beside the road. Pipe smoke wreathed his head, curling around the distinctive hat of a Sigmarite Templar, or a Witch Hunter in the common parlance. Matis Von Koneinswald lifted the pipe to his lips and drew back, the smouldering flame in the bowl illuminated his craggy features for a moment before fading. A heavy wave bladed zwieldhier was propped against the moss covered stump. The massive sword seemed to large for someone as skinny as Von Koeinswald to wield, but he fought with a fury that would have impressed Norscan berserkers.

“I thank monsieur for his opinion,” Beaumont sniped, though his heart wasn’t truly in the jibe. They were all tired, and all wary of the coming darkness. Camilla had written to Matis a few days after Cydric’s death, describing the dark form which had fled the apparitions womb when Camilla had withdrawn the blade that transfixed her. It had been on her mind merely to report the problem to the Sigmarites and then depart, but without Cydric she had found herself listless and without direction and thus had still been lingering under the counts guest right when Matis arrived a week and a half later.

Matis was a scholar of sorts and had access to the records of the Temple of Sigmar and he believed that the spirit was the soul of an ancient necromancer from Araby who had been killed during the Crusades of Beaumont’s ancestors. By using his dark arts he had implanted his soul into his slayers wife’s womb, hoping to be reborn into the world. They ploy had been forestalled by the thrust of a faithful retainer who recognised the fell working of magic upon his legie lord’s wife. The husband, driven mad with grief had become the beast Cydric had slain. Removing the sword had lifted the curse, but freed the ancient lich to travel the world once more. Rumor said that strange lights had been seen in The Forest of Chalons and that dead men had been heard chanting an ancient and accursed name. Even before Matis arrived to impart this information, reports of the undead moving had been received from all over Aquitaine. At first isolated travellers had been taken in the night, but the creatures had grown bolder, attacking isolated villages and swelling their numbers with the dead.

The Lords of Aquitaine had at first dismissed the problem, blaming, at first bandits, and then the unscrupulous ambitions of their fellow Lords. Even know, when the problem could no longer be denied, most of them remained in their castles, attempting to defend their own domains without stirring themselves to aid their neighbours, so strong was the hatred and distrust of their fellow magnates. Years of peace had given honor obsessed men too long to sharpen their own grudges, and do the cancer grew.

Despite Beaumont’s objections that it was no place for a lady, Camilla and Matis had begun ranging the countryside, tracking and destroying bands of the undead and trying to learn what they could. The count had been generous in rewarding her for lifting the curse on his castle and had provided her with gold and the offer of noble title. The gold she had accepted, but the title, which she suspected was little more than a trap intended to allow him to marry her off, she had spurned, much to the horror of the assembled knights and ladies. The wealth she had used to buy horse and new pistols as well as to keep the tiny Sigmarite chapel in Bordeleaux blessing bullets night and day.

“Mademoiselle Aqua!” A voice called from the light woods that bordered the road. Behind the trees rose a modest hill that was crowned with ruins of age tumbled stone. It had been a castle once but long abandoned for its lack of water. The undead had made their lair in the place, at least until Camilla had ridden past alone, drawing the creatures out and precipitating her current not-quite-argument with Beaumont.

Mademoiselle Aqua. Mistress Blue. In the early days when it had just been her and Matis she had worn a blue cloak, merely because it had been handy but the name had caught on. Camilla didn’t personally care for the name, but it had been hard, was still hard, to care about much of anything with Cydric gone.

“If you object to my actions Sir Knight, you and your kind escort are more than welcome to depart,” she said with a slightly waspish undertone. Beaumont colored but she wheeled her horse to the source of the call before he could reply. A pair of woodsmen in leathers and green cloth were emerging from the trees. Both had long bows slung across their backs and swords at their hips, weapons of far better quality than a Brettonian villan ought to wear, but horses were not the only thing money could buy. Both wore a band of blue silk tied around their right arm. Three other men, dirty unwashed and wretched were with them, all clutching farm implements as improvised weapons.

“Mademoiselle, we found these hiding in a cave, they are from the village that was destroyed, shepherds they say,” the older of the two woodsmen said. All three men climbed over the fence and promptly fell to their knees on the dusty road.

“Mademoiselle Aqua! We wish to swear our fealty to you,” one of them blurted out, the others were nodding so vigorously Camilla was afraid they might do themselves an injury. The regional accent was thick but after three months she found she could understand it nearly as well as anything that was spoken in the capital. She grimaced, if these men were from the village it was possible that their loved ones might be among the corpses being piled for the pyres, she hoped not.

“Contessa,” Beaumont began stiffly, “You cannot keep enrolling serfs they belong to their lords if…” Camilla held up a gloved hand to silence Beaumont. Matis snorted in amusement and blew out another cloud of smoke. The Knight was happy to provide his ‘escort’, Camilla though he was even pleased to have the chance to fight the undead that his Lords turned their blind eyes to, but he was still a noble at heart. It rankled his soul to see peasants abandoning what he saw as their proper place.

“For now you are welcome to travel with us,” she told the kneeling serfs.

“We have food and ale. In the morning you can decide if you want to join us,” she told the men in what she hoped was a compassionate tone. They would swear then, whatever she said. There were nearly a score of them now. Former peasants and foresters who had lost everything and decided that following her and fighting the undead was preferable to a life of penury. The ate well and she armed them with real steel, which was better than most Brettonians ever got. Beaumonts assertion that she was harboring runaway serfs might be true, but it was hard to care too much about what the future might hold. If the Lords came out of their castles to claim their serfs, maybe they would kill a few undead in the process. Not that Camilla would surrender men who had sworn fealty to her without a fight of course.

The squires had finished piling the bodies and were setting torch to timber. Thunder crackled overhead, though it was doubtful it would bring any rain. It had been a dry spring and the early summer had been beset by nearly continual cloud cover with afternoon storms that bought ferocious lightning without rain. Matis thought it was some spell being worked to allow the undead to move without fear of sunlight. Camilla privately suspected it was the melancholia in her heart writ large.

“We had best camp in the ruins,” she called turning to one of the gruff former pesants who was dressed in leathers and a mail coat.

“There is no where close enough to reach before we lose the light and I dont want to be on the road if the lightning strikes,” she explained.

“M’lady,” the peasant said, knuckling his forehead and turning to bellow orders to his fellow voulnteers. It was laced with profanity and invictive so vile that it made even Camilla wince, but the men were moving, leaving the road and picking their way up the hill, leading their few draft animals and the single cart that held most of their supplies.

“Would you care to join us Beaumont?” Camilla asked as she turned her horse of the road and started up the hill.
Sayeeda hit the ground hard enough that the breath exploded from her chest. The ceramic armor saved her ribs, though she would still have bruises to show for it tomorrow. Something blond and flailing hit her across the chest with a squawk, driving her into the ground. Instinctively, Junebug rolled over, covering the girl with her armored body as rock splinters and shell fragments rained down around them. The static charge on the helmet kept the dust of her visor but the air in front of her was essentially a sandstorm. THe radio crackled useless in an unintelligible hash of static. The air above still screamed with artillery and gun fire.

They were in a narrow metal lined cavern with stalac… no… Sayeeda’s shell stunned brain caught up with what was going on. The were in a massive shattered airlock. Piping, brown with a rind of ancient rust reached up towards the remaining fragments of the mesa. Not a mesa, a camouflage construction. Someone had camouflaged the starship. The Treasure ship was an orbital vessel, never meant to land in an atmosphere, but her pilot had brought her down using the thrusters against the pull of gravity. The star hot fusion drives must have melted the sand to lava as it landed, sinking the ship into a cocoon of crude glass that had been quickly covered by the blowing desert winds. All that had remained above the ground was this airlock. Somone, probably the original Terran crew had covered it with a crude concrete of sand, close enough to the sandstone mesas to fool even local wildlife into making a home of it. The crew must have left their hidden ship with the goal of returning to salvage her, but the desert or the RIP had swallowed them and their secret.

Taya struggled under Sayeeda’s armored weight and as the last shells burst above she picked herself up releasing the girl. The submachine gun Junebug was carrying felt light and she glanced down to see that the barrel had been amputated two thirds the way along its length by a shell fragment that would have killed her instantly if it had been a meter to the right. Junebug tossed the weapon to the ground and drew the pistol from her belt. Above them the sound of gunfire was slacking as Canek and his surviving two vehicles retreated, gaining enough clearance from the shell struck mesa that their air defense systems could pot the incoming shells.

“Who are these people,” Taya asked shakily, she still had her pistol in her hand, though Junebug noticed the red led that indicated the weapon was empty was light.

“Another group of mercs,” Sayeeda explained, moving to the side of the airlock where a maintenance grating lay partially ajar. Her eyes scanned the rim of the artifical crater above them, though she could at least hope anyone that had been on top of the mesa had been blown to ragged meat.

“They must have found the ship but haven’t got the transport yet to loot it properly,” she conjectured.

“Probably set up a defensive perimeter while they wait for ships. Thats why they dropped the hammer on us when we showed up, they were already here to defend their prize,” Junebug explained.

“Well what do we do now,” she demanded. A figure appeared on the lip above them pointing a machine gun down over the lip. Sayeeda whipped her pistol up but before she could fire the man screamed as Saxon grabbed him from behind, lifted the man over his head and hurled him into the pit. The mercenary hit the ground with a sound like a cracking egg, the machine gun flying from his dead fingers with a clatter. Saxon jumped into the hole a moment before a burst of tracer fire ripped through his previous position, his long talons acting as a break as he dragged them through the sandstone to slow his decent. He landed heavily, adsorbing the shock by flexing his knees before straightening. He looked from the dead mercenary to Sayeeda, the pouches under his neck swelling. She had the peculiar impression of a cat laying a mouse at the feet of its mate.

“There are many more vermin approaching,” he hissed in his serpentine voice.

“I saw armored carriers coming across the sand, Canek flees like a coward,” he sneered. Sayeeda, an experienced tanker, knew that Canek’s only choice was to move out into open space where he could use his vehicles effectively. She doubted he was willing to give up on the treasure ship that easily.

“What do we do?” Taya asked, her voice quivering with fear. Neil, who had been working on the maintaince hatch with his multi-tool pulled the hatch cover off and let it fall to the floor with a clang.

“I guess we take a look inside.”

Tychon nodded, though by now Rene knew the man well enough to understand that it was a place holder rather and an agreement. He was in unfamiliar territory and was doubtless afraid of making the wrong decision. Of course at sea, as in life, the worst decision was a failure to make one.

“Yes, um, I mean, if you think it is safe La… Solae,” he replied. They glided over the submerged reefs with ease and Rene began to see the versatility of the hydrofoils on a world like Panopontus. The barge that had ferried the three of them too shore had been too deep a draught for this kind of work. Behind them a trail of slightly phosphorescent algae marked their trail across the dark water. Doubtless they were of a type with the algae that had set the Caldera aglow when then energy of the landing had woke them.

Solae took a communicator out and spoke into it before nodding her head. Rene was slightly disappointed that no light was immediately visible, but if Tychon was he showed no sign, instead he curved his course northward circling the caldera. It was only a minute before they caught sight of a dull glow a cleft in the side of the caldera. Massive waves must have battered it over the millenia and eventually would shatter it completely turning the caldera into a lagoon, but that was the work of centuries or millennia.

The trim little craft arrowed in towards the beach at a broad angle, Tychon was taking any chances of wrecking them though that was caution rather than need. The caldera had once been the crown of an volcano and hence the water, following the slope of the mountain, deepend quickly here on the leeward side. The waves drove them towards the edge of the caldera but here again the deep water was a boon, converting what would have been white caps on a shallower stretch of coast into an insistent slapping.

The hum of electricity cut and the hull sloshed into the water as Tychon turned the hydrofoil off and picked up a large anchor of sharply angled metal, he tossed it over the side with a splash. The sudden silence was disconcerting after the constant high frequency hum of the hydrofoils and Rene found himself feeling jumpy. After a moment Tychon touched another control and an electric winch began to retrieve anchor cable around a small spool after a moment the line went slack and the boat jerked violently. Rene nearly lost his feet by Tychon merely looked embarrassed.

“Sorry,” the fisherman said, though the smile on his face was that of an expert watching amatuers in his domain. With careful manipulation he paid out cable from the winch allowing the boat to drift closer and closer to the wall of the caldera until the steep rocky shore stood only a few meters away.

“Someone will need to secure a line to the rocks,” Tychon called, easiy audible now that the wind and the engine noise were gone. Rene stepped to the rear, the section of the boat, closest to the land and took a length of coiled rope from Tychon.

“Should I tie it to a landing skid or…” but Tychon was already shaking his head.

“The rocking of the boat will chafe it against the rock if you do that,” he explained and drew a small device from a compartment. The thing resembled a large stapler.

“This will put a tie int the rock, it will hold us long enough,” Tychon explained. The fisherman clearly would have prefered to be handling this part, but as Rene had only the barest notion of how to operate the boat, he was the obvious choice. Taking the stapler he clipped it to his belt and leaped the two meters to the caldera, catching at the tough viney growth which covered the steep rise to stop himself sliding back into the water. Carefully, he pressed the stapper to the bare rock and pulled the small trigger in the butt of the thing. There was a sharp pop of compressed gas and the stapler kicked against Rene’s hand. When he withdrew it, a two inch eye bolt had been driven into the stone, similar to those climbers used to ascend rock faces. Rene fed the rope through the eye and looked back at Tychon, uncertain how to tie it off. The fisherman shook his head and made a ‘throw it here’ motion. Rene put his food on the bolt and tossed the coil of remaining line to Tychon who secured it to the boat, which steaded now that it had two points of contact. Evidently the winch had enough play in it that the rocking of the waves wasn't a problem. Rene turned back to the rock and placed two more studs as hand holes and then climbed into the lowest point of the tumbledown.

In the caldera beyond, the Bonaventure stood much as they had left it, save that the water from the hurricane had drained away. As Solae had surmised the landing skids were sunk several inches deep into the volcanic ash that formed the lumpy grey floor. Emergency lighting by the main hatches and at the nose and stern of the vessel burned a cheerful green. The nose light blinked off for a moment and then lit again, leaving Rene with strange notion that Mia had just winked at him. A grin spread across his face. He turned to see Tychon speaking with Solae, he had an inflatable raft in his hands but she shook her head, put one foot on the line and jumped over the remaining distance to catch onto the vegetation as Rene had. He grinned wider at his fiance and reached down to help her up into the cleft.

“Welcome home,” he said with a smile as she looked over the edge of the caldera to where the bonaventure stood cheerfully illuminated.

“If the mistress cares to inspect the house,” he said with a courtly bow made slightly ridiculous by the fact that he was reaching down with his free hand to catch another length of rope Tychon was tossing him. The other end of it was secured to a length of flexible hosing, though it would take both men to muscle that up over the caldera wall.

“I’ll make sure that the gardens are in order.”

Calliope finished her wine and refilled the glass, pouring over chart on the table. Her finger traced the line up through the Sundered Sea. It was a good plan, the area was rich in coastal trade and a good place to make a name for oneself. They would need allies, both to capture the fleet and to attack Calaverde and no man would sail with someone who he didn't know, no man worth his salt in any case.

“Well I suppose we can burn that ship when we get to it,” she said, considering all the work that lay ahead of them She mistrusted the Arad’s and their schemes but there seemed no point in turning away gold while it was to be had. They knew the Bloodaxes were weakened from the loss of their mages, even if they had more in their lair. In the back of her mind Calliope was revisiting her old schemes to bring Arad privateers under her banner, certainly being part of the raid that destroyed a notorious pirate band would be good for her reputation.

Above them the deck creaked and rang with footsteps as the crew bought supplies and powder aboard. There were spirits too though Sketti had complained that rum couldn’t be found here. The booze of choice was a type of palm wine that smelled sharp enough to tickle the sinuses. Calliope didn’t supposed the crew would mind, booze was booze afterall

“What tide will be best to set sail on?” she asked eagerly.

Tychon cast off the lines off with the ease of long practice and returned to the controls. The smooth whir of a flywheel proceed the deep thrum of the engines as the pumps began to pressurise and then they were moving away from the dock out into the harbor. Though the boat must have had emergency lights, Tychon had deactivated them somehow so they were all but invisible save for the soft purr of the pumps driving the ship out onto the black water. The stars shone down from above but the moonlight was too slight to provide much illumination. Although it was still an hour or two before dawn the eastern sky was lighter with the promise of the coming dawn.

If the darkness bothered Tychon it didn’t show he maneuvered them easily out of the harbor and onto the open sea. The water was choppy and slapped against the hull as a wind rose to cap the greenish sea with white caps. Once they were well clear of the land Tychon touched another control and the outriggers began to extend on their hydraulic struts. An electrical tingle ran through the craft as the outriggers shimmered with induced current and the ship rose on the induced current to ride on its hydrofoils, the choppiness faded to be replaced by a greasy smoothness and they began to pick up speed as the drag of the hull through the water decreased.

“We couldn’t run on hydrofoil earlier, the waves would have swamped us!” Tychon called, raising his voice to be heard over the rush of the wind. Rene hadn’t been going to ask, he didn’t know enough about seafaring to have an opinion, but he nodded as though he understood. The boat was very cramped, it hadn’t been intended to carry a load nearly as large as this, but the problem was of volume rather than weight. San Roayo shrank behind them until it became an indistinct grey blob on the horizon.

Rene allowed himself to relax at last, the tension in his body easing as the threat posed by exposure to civilians lessened. The citizens of San Roayo were no worse than any in the Empire, better perhaps given the way they banded together to pull survivors from the rubble, but few people would resist the kind of reward the Duke was offering for Solae’s capture. The common people had no way to know that the Duke was, infact, a traitor to the Empire, so far as they were concerned turning Solae in was an act of patriotism, not betrayal.

Rene sat in the rear corner with Solae on his lap to give Tychon room to operate the controls. He was trying to plan out what their next move should be but Solae’s question back in Vitger’s shop had wormed its way into his mind. What did he want when this was over? Assuming they survived and got out of the Eastern Cross of course. Much depended on how things went in the coming days. If they warned the Empire and foiled the rebellion the Empress would certainly shower Solae with glory. Whether and how much that largesse would extend to Rene was an open question. Amelia’s murder, the murder of one of the Empress’ handmaidens, was tantamount to raising arms against the Empress herself. WIthout evidence to exonerate him, evidence that might not even exist, he couldn’t be certain that he would be pardoned. Worse yet, making the request might be considered to be violating the custom of taking a new name when enlisting in the Marines. Simply asking the question might make him Renard du Quentain again, subject to all penalties proscribed by the law. It was possible that he might asked to be raised to the nobility under his new name but that meant forever turning his back on his family title and estate. Two weeks ago that wouldn’t have been a problem but being with Solae had reminded him of who he was and what he was. It wasn’t fair to her to approach her as an upjumped commoner, she was a noble daughter of an ancient house and as such deserved more than that. Rene’s mouth twisted into a grin. Solae looked up at him questioningly.

“I was just thinking,” he said, squeezing her gently in his arms for a moment before gesturing back over the frothing wake of the vessel to the pale smudge of land that was San Roayo. By now the land was indistinguishable from a bank of fog or distant rain. Over the bow the island on which they had landed was visible as the peak of the half collapsed caldera. It was remarkable how much faster the trip went when you had a real boat and not a retrofitted wreck to make the journey.

“That our world, must seem needlessly complicated to people on the outside,” he confided. Rene knew that the sentiment was at least somewhat illusory. There were many things in Tychon or Julia’s world which were alien to his way of thinking as well. He squeezed Solae to him.

“I don’t know what is going to happen,” he confessed as the caldera grew larger on the horizon. The sky was beginning to lighten and the first rays of sunlight could only be a few minutes away. There was so much uncertainty. The odds were that they would be dead in the very near future, if she was lucky in Solae’s case, it was hard to imagine for a future much beyond that.

“Whatever happens, I want to be with you,” he told her, his voice caught with emotion and he forced himself to smile.

“Even if that means I have to be your gardener,” he joked, though it stuck a little in his throat. Solae deserved someone who could be her real partner, a true equal. Rene Quentain of the Imperial Marines could never be that to one of the great Nobles of the Empire.

Sayeeda slapped a spare magazine into the stock of her submachine gun and then hung the weapon around her neck by the sling. The storm of sand kicked up by the howling lift fans of the tank would have scoured her skin had she not been wearing the protective rad suit. The plasma weapon was a poor choice as the grit would adsorb a bolt as effectively as an armor plate would. The tank began to accelerate away from the mesa, Canek wasn’t running, but he wanted to open the distance between the base of the rock spire and the tank. That would allow him to engage at something closer to the tanks optimal range and give its close in defences more time to react to threats. The torrent of fire from the LAV slacked as one of the guns jammed, its chamber fouled with dust and melted matrix from the feed line. A moment later a second gun fell silent as it too succumbed to the abuse.

“We have to get up the mesa,” she called, her voice clear over the comms even though it would be all but inaudible in the din. Enemy heavy weapons would be able to fire on the group out to the end of line of sight, which would be several miles. Even if they were able to pull back, they couldn’t finish their sensor grid, and they couldn’t simply relocate without going back and calibrating the sensors. Taya had manage to shake off her shock and was pressing herself tight against the rock, her pistol gripped tightly in her hands. Sayeeda picked up a rifle that had fallen beside her, a bayonet affixed to the end of the barrel. Mechanically she stripped the clip and reloaded it before firing two rounds into the sky to make sure it was clear.

“Canek, cease heavy weapons fire on the mesa, break,” she commanded.

“Infantry elements hold your position and provide a base of fire, break.”

“Taya I know you are scared but you have to come with us, there is too much crap flying around down here. Neil popped up and fired two quick rounds at a target she hadn’t seen.

“How are we going to make it that far over open ground?” Neil asked.

“AID, lift the LAV and fire all smoke launchers, proceed north west at best speed,” she commanded. The fans of the nearby vehicles howled to life as its last gun went silent. The barrel shimmered brilliant white even through the haze of sand, overheated from continual firing. Bullets began to sparkle off its armor a moment before it seemed to erupt in bright white smoke as its launchers lit their charges. It slid off to the northwest, drawing the storm of enemy fire with it.

“Go!” Sayeeda shouted and leaped to her feet. A pair of men carrying machine pistols were only twenty feet away, looking in shock at the departing LAV. She dropped both men with two round bursts to the center of mass and then raced across the open field to a narrow envagination in the foot of the mesa. A crumbled ledge ran upwards and she ran along it as fast as she could. Neil and Taya were behind her, she could hear the crack of Taya’s pistol, though if Niel wasn’t firing she doubted the girl had any target outside her own head. Junebug hoped she wouldn’t wind up taking a slug in the back from the panicky girl. A man in desert rags carrying a wide mouthed mob gun stepped out from behind a rock. He had just enough time to register shock before Sayeeda drove the point of the bayonet into his sternum. Blood gouted from the man's lips and ran down over his bearded chin. Sayeeda followed him down, placed a boot on his stomach and twisted the bayonet free. Neil was firing now, back down towards the ground where their elevation had revealed hidden enemies. The mesa shook as though from a hammer blow as another of the tanks shells crashed into the side of it. Canek must have spotted a heavy weapon and been unable to risk holding his fire. That was fine with Junebug, given that she had survived learning about it.

The ledge ended abruptly in a shear climb of perhaps twenty meters. Fortunately there was a narrow crevice, tight enough that she could brace herself into it. With a running leap she bounced up the ascent in a series of left to right hops, a feat she couldn’t have performed if she wasn’t shot full of adrenaline, and whatever else the Terran’s had put in her system. Bullets whizzed past her from below. Someone, above her, one of the enemy screamed and toppled forward in a lazy summersault, his body bouncing of the ledge below with a wet crunch. Junebug looked down to see Taya with her smoking pistol in hand. The age of miracles apparently had a while yet to run. She crested the mesa a moment later, rolling onto her stomach and slinging her submachine gun. The summit was a broad flat plateau a hundred feet across and covered with boulders and scrubby desert trees. A dozen men stood along the rim firing down at Canek’s infantry. Resisting the urge to open fire she instead pulled a spool of rope from her belt, secured it to a nearby boulder and dropped it back down the crevice for Neil.

“AID, carrot targets and import to infantry elements,” she commanded. On the field below the hidden snipers lit up on the infantry huds, Sayeeda imagery overlaying the swirl of dust and smoke on the flats below. One of the men, a loader serving a large belt fed weapon turned to grab a fresh drum and saw her. He opened his mouth to shout but before he could she swung her weapon up to her shoulder and hurled him and his gunner to the floor in a spray of blood and burning flesh. A half dozen guns opened fire on her and she ducked behind a rock, pulling a grenade from her belt and lobbing it one handed in the general direction of the enemy.

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