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Odyssey The Lure
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Short Story

The Lure

By Dan Abnett

Ordinal Shieda Kayn slings out to the unremarkable edgeworld of Ionan, hot on the trail of a band of millitant Templars. These enemies of the state were clearly looking for something important...but what?

Lore

Keelo always cried “Surprise!” when he attacked.

Kayn supposed it was the equivalent of Keelo pulling his punches out of respect, or perhaps some artifact of his ancient, preset protocols.

The warning cry was never necessary, nor was it especially amusing after all this time. And a three-quarter ton fightmek shouting “Surprise!” as it swung a hook-handled titanium halberd with a fifty centimeter blade edge at your head was still a three-quarter ton fightmek swinging a hook-handled titanium halberd with a fifty centimeter blade edge at your head.

“Not now,” Kayn sighed.

“But I have surprised you,” said Keelo dolefully. He looked down at Kayn’s onyx desk, now split cleanly in two pieces and lying on the floor. Then he looked at Shieda Kayn himself, who was still in his seat, reading an official communique.

And not even remotely split into two pieces.

Keelo narrowed his optics in confusion, and waved a huge metal paw through Kayn’s form. The image rippled. “A holo-lure?”

“Yes,” said Kayn from the other side of the chamber. “A holo-lure.”

“This was a trick?”

“Uh huh.”

“You have tricked me.”

“I heard you coming four decks away,” Kayn replied. He occupied the chamber’s window seat. Beyond the thick, tinted port, the hard neon lines of slingspace rasped by. Kayn was reading the document intently. His pose and activity exactly matched the hologram figure in the chair.

Keelo looked from one to the other.

“A holo-lure is clever,” he said. “But how did you hear me coming? I was stealth-moded.”

Kayn did not look up from his work. “Figure of speech. I put a tracer on you last week. I’ve been mapping your movements,” he said, distractedly.

The fightmek paused, then twisted awkwardly to look at himself, trying to find the tracer, like a dog trying to examine its own tail.

“That is not very sporting,” he grumbled.

“You win a fight by any means at your disposal,” said Kayn, rising to his feet. He was a tall man, lean and lithe, clad in the black suit of an imperial officer. But he wore no pins or insignia—just plain black, indicating the highest status of all. His long mane of hair was shaved away from the side of his head in the style of the coreworld nobility, and a polished gold interface of ornate design covered his left eye and cheek. He looked at the fightmek. “You taught me that. First lesson.”

Keelo shrugged. “I suppose.”

“So, the lure was entirely fair.”

“But,” said Keelo, “how will you learn if you cheat? Humans learn through action-response. If you know I am coming, you—”

Kayn looked the fightmek in the eyes.

“Keelo,” he said, “my old and good friend Keelo… Do you really think I have anything left to learn?”

Keelo’s huge, scarred bulk, heavy with green and orange ballistic plate, sagged slightly. “I suppose not. I suppose you are now a high lord of the empire, and proven in battle. I suppose you are now one of the emperor’s own Ordinals. I suppose there’s nothing a rusty old fightmek can teach you now. I suppose it’s the scrap heap for me, or grot-work in the Bedlam Mines.”

“Keelo…”

“I suppose I might get my servos melted down for transuranics, or they could donate parts of me to younger fightmeks—”

“Keelo!” Kayn strode up to the big machine. “No supposing. And no feeling sorry for yourself, okay? I still need to maintain my edge. I need you to keep me on my toes. A surprise here, a surprise there, just like always.”

Keelo’s optics swivelled up hopefully. “Yes?”

“Yes. How can an Ordinal keep in prime form without his loyal fightmek to test him?”

“So… you won this bout?” Keelo asked.

“Well, you did cut my desk in half, so we’ll call it even.”

Keelo nodded. He shuffled around and emitted a sub-sonic pulse that opened the arsenal suite built into the wall of Kayn’s quarters. The lacquered black panels slid aside, revealing racks of blade and projectile weapons bathed in a red glow. Every design under the many suns, and some so exotic they had never seen sunlight at all.

“We will spar now,” said Keelo. “Select your weapon.”

“Not today.”

“But it is the scheduled time.”

“Something’s come up that requires my attention,” said Kayn, gesturing with the communique in his hand.

“A message? You were reading that when I came in.”

“Which is why I really didn’t want the interruption,” said Kayn. “We’ll need to re-route.”

“Sling-course is set for—”

“I know. I’m changing that.”

“The emperor awaits your return to the Armada,” the fightmek said, “to report on the Kloa policing action.”

“This is too important. Nakuri’s found something on an edgeworld, out past the Raen Cluster.”

“I am sure Commander Nakuri can deal with it,” Keelo objected. “He is a first class officer of the Demaxian Empire. A decorated—”

“Commander Nakuri is an old friend and comrade in arms,” said Kayn. “I respect his judgement, and if he says something requires the direct attention of an Ordinal, then I trust him. Inform Captain Vassur I need her to reset our course.”

Keelo hesitated.

“Go on,” said Kayn.

The fightmek nodded, and began to clomp towards the exit.

“Wait,” Kayn called after him. He walked over to the big machine, and plucked a tech-fleck off the fightmek’s broad back. “That’s the tracer gone. See? All gone. You can surprise me again later.”

“Okay,” said Keelo. Renewed enthusiasm glowed in his optics. “I’ve got this special mallet I’ve been waiting to—”

“Shh! Shh!” Kayn silenced him. “It’s a surprise, remember?”

Alone again, Kayn woke the astral portolan unit built into the corner of his quarters. The console rose from the deck, opening its steel petals to project a tri-dimensional local system chart into the air. He reached out and rotated the image, moving through stars, selecting and enlarging. A swipe of his fingers brought Ionan into view. His golden ocular interface engaged with the projection, and augmented it to a real-time display of exquisite detail.

Ionan was an edgeworld. A nothing place. Unpromising.

Nakuri’s team had been out that way for months, hunting for ora, or for renegade Templars trying to steal that vital and precious power source from under imperial noses.

The Demaxian Empire, operating out of the vast Locus Armada, was the supreme authority in known space. Its power, influence and technological prowess were such that no one could stand against it. There were no more wars. In the name of the emperor, forces under the Ordinals and the generals maintained absolute control.

Except that space, however well pacified, was very, very large. Moreover, it was annoyingly full of species and rogues who fought on anyway, resisting that control. No matter the size and military might of the empire, which quite eclipsed any other power, subversive behavior was persistent.

The emperor, Jarvan IV, was a good man; indeed, his great-grandfather had been the first human to wear the crown. He and Kayn were close, in both age and friendship. In private, Jarvan had confided to his friend that he disliked the way imperial policy had been forced to become less tolerant in recent years. The empire was seen as a monolithic force, unyielding and authoritarian. It was, to many—especially the outliers, the subjugated, the Templars, and the notorious criminal wretches of the Syndicate—a domineering and oppressive thing to kick against.

This perception made Jarvan sad. He’d come to the crown with a heart full of progressive ideas and hopes. Instead, he’d been forced to implement tighter restrictions.

“I always thought,” Kayn had told him, “that holding on to this society would be harder than winning it. War is simple. Peace is harder.”

“It pains me, Shieda,” Jarvan had replied. “No one seems to respect the great work we are doing, the future we represent. There’s always someone squirming to evade us. To disobey.”

“Like herding cats.”

“Cats?”

Kayn smiled at the memory. “Cats, my emperor. A feline species. Infamously willful.”

Of course, the problem was ora. The substance, like liquid gold, was a source of vast, almost mythical power. Whoever wielded it successfully could have great influence, which meant it was essential that the empire controlled its sources, distribution and use. Especially illegal were the bio-hacking purposes it could be put to, techniques practiced by the damnable Templars. Such behavior was dangerous, as well as subversive. It was an ongoing struggle to contain their fringe activities and maintain order. It was an unending battle to keep ora in the hands of the empire, where it belonged.

Kayn had solutions for this problem, and—like all the Ordinals, the most singular beings in the emperor’s service—he had laid these out to Jarvan.

Jarvan had recoiled. Kayn’s proposals were ruthless and pragmatic. Hardline suppression, heavier penalties, military annexation of resistant worlds. Kayn knew that an empire organized under his philosophies would be much more aggressive and unforgiving than the society Jarvan supported. Still, it was his duty to suggest these things, his duty to offer the emperor alternatives. He was an Ordinal, Kayn reminded him. That was what Ordinals did.

He was not surprised when the emperor backpedaled, and almost chided Kayn for his brutal proposal. That’s why Jarvan was emperor and Kayn an Ordinal. Kayn was the attack dog that Jarvan kept on a leash. He only let him hunt when there were no other alternatives.

And Jarvan liked to keep testing his attack dog, to measure his loyalty and his aggression.

Ionan… edgeworld…

Kayn wondered just what it was his old comrade Nakuri had found there.

He felt a tremor run through the deck. Their warship, the mighty Fractal Shear, had altered course. Captain Vassur would have ordered its slingspace engines to re-shape the singularity sphere surrounding it, so that they could turn out to Ionan.

The streaks of light flashing past the window ports changed hue. Ora powered the ship’s sling-engines, creating the sphere that warped space-time around the hull, allowing it to skate through the upper layers of subspace at transluminal velocities, like a stone skipping across a lake, unencumbered by current or surface tension. The portolan display told him there was a six hour journey time.

Kayn heard a laugh behind him. A low chuckle.

He looked around, half-expecting to see Keelo bearing down on him. But there was no shout of “Surprise!”

There was no one there at all.

“What armament do you require?” asked Keelo. He had returned to find his master staring at the open arsenal suite.

Kayn shrugged. He’d trained with every one of the weapons a hundred times. They bored him. Only a few felt right in his hands... and even they had their limits.

“Discretion,” he replied.

“What?”

“Commander Nakuri recommended discretion,” said Kayn.

“Is that why we have coasted out of slingspeed short of the target world?”

“Yes. I’ll go down alone. Tell the captain to prep my ship, and hold station.”

“But a deployment squad has been assembled,” said Keelo. “Fifty seasoned slingtroopers. And I have cleaned my favorite axe.”

“I’m going alone,” said Kayn. “I’ll call you if I need you.”

He selected a chrome photann pistol and a sleekly decorated fighting lance—two weapons he knew well. Then he paused, and looked back to Keelo.

“Did you say something?”

“Me?” the fightmek replied. “No.”

“I thought I heard you laughing earlier, too.”

“No. Not me.”

With a brief flare of thruster light, Kayn’s craft left the carrier bay on the upper hull of the Fractal Shear. His craft was a DEMAX-3 Superiority, a small interceptor used for interdiction flights and border work. An Ordinal was supposed to use a more regal fleet transport, something that would impress the locals, something with ceremonial heft and a payload space that could carry trooper squads and combat vehicles.

But Kayn liked the speed and firepower of the little DEMAX-3. He had liked them since his rookie tours as a sub-commander in the Edge Squadrons.

He veered off from the stationary baseship with an unnecessary burst of acceleration. The arrowhead craft rotated its engine nacelles, tight-rolled through a threaded veil of asteroids, and planed down through a void of pink fog.

Distant stars shone like lamps and scattered fireflies. Tracking showed Ionan ahead.

Kayn rejected auto-helm, and took her down on manual, skimming the cold, thin vapor of the atmospheric edge as he followed Nakuri’s beacon. The beacon’s signal, along with all flight data, was channelled directly through his interface—a steady stream of information playing against his retina. Nakuri’s ship was the Gentle Reminder, a suppression cruiser half the size of the Fractal Shear. It held a high orbit on the far side of the edgeworld, like a ghost on Kayn’s range detector.

Down through the cloud level, he tore across the open flats of ochre deserts and salt plains that reflected the daylight with blinding radiance. He gunned so low, his craft kicked up a powder wake, sending small, malformed dust devils dancing haphazardly across the dry terrain.

Ahead, mountains. A long, low range. Pink and russet rock wind-carved into sharp crags and angular shapes, like a coral reef raised from the water.

The beacon signal was pinging wildly. He eased the nacelles around to braking attitude, brought the nose up, and swung in for landing.

Below him lay a high plateau beneath a block of pink cliff. An encampment. Two imperial transport shuttles, parked and anchored.

He extended the landing gear and descended vertically.

“Welcome to the buttcrack of nowhere,” said Nakuri.

Kayn jumped down from his open cockpit into the hard glare of the sun. He smiled. To Nakuri, the old dog, everywhere was the buttcrack of nowhere. They’d served together on many worlds, many tours, and that had been Nakuri’s estimation of every single outer planet and edgeworld.

“I don’t think that’s the proper form of address, commander,” Kayn growled.

Nakuri hesitated, his smile dropping. He hadn’t seen Kayn in a long time, and Kayn was now a high-and-mighty Ordinal. “I’m sorry…” he began.

“It’s ‘Welcome to the buttcrack of nowhere, sir!’”

They grinned, and embraced.

“It’s been too long,” said Kayn.

“Not long enough, Shie,” Nakuri laughed. The circular silver interface over his right eye caught the sun like a wink.

“So what sort of klagging mess have you gotten into this time?” Kayn asked him.

Nakuri turned. His squad—ten slingtroopers who, like him, were wearing full fightkit and weapon rigs—were standing rigidly to attention. Each one of them towered over Kayn in his simple black, form-fitting suit. They were hardy veterans all, and he knew most of them. Korla, Speeks, Rigo, the squad leader Vechid. He interfaced the names of the others quickly from the bio-tags on their breastplates.

It paid to know names. Soldiers responded better to Ordinals who treated them as equals.

“Let’s show him, people,” said Nakuri.

He brought Kayn up to speed as they crunched over the plateau. “It was Templars what brought us here. Two of them, and a whole pack of their believers. Chased them out of Kybol, and they fled here. We thought they might be looking for a get-out, but this is clearly where they wanted to be.”

“Why?” asked Kayn.

“Not clear. So, we got down here and rounded them all up. Well, most of them. A few wouldn’t go without a fight, so… shots fired, and all that.”

“How many?”

“Ten dead, all theirs, both Templars included. It was quite a fight.”

“And how many of their followers were taken?”

“Sixteen. Klag-sack hippy subversives. We’ve got them penned in the caves up ahead. Interrogations in progress.”

Kayn raised an eyebrow. “To find out…?”

“Anything. Templar strongholds. Ora dumps. Contacts. And of course, why they came here, hell-for-leather.”

“We know why,” said a voice behind them.

Kayn and Nakuri stopped and turned. The slingtroopers came to a halt.

“Something to say, Vechid?” asked Nakuri.

“No, commander,” replied the squad leader.

“Not so fast,” said Kayn. “I want to hear what Vechid has on her mind.”

The woman shrugged uncomfortably. “Sorry, sir. I mean, sorry, Ordinal. I spoke out of turn. Just, this heat.”

“You’re in cooled fightgear, Vechid,” replied Kayn. “Speak up.”

“Well… The thing we found. That’s what brought them. That’s what they were after.”

They ascended the gritty slope toward the caves that honeycombed the lower section of the cliffs. The glare of the sunlight was hard and intense, so it was more than a relief to step into the mauve shadows at the base of the cliff—it felt like stepping into a refrigerated cellar.

Nakuri’s interface beeped with an incoming message, and he excused himself by stepping aside. Kayn and the slingtroopers waited in the shade. The Ordinal looked up at the mouths of the caves, eroded out by millions of years of desert wind.

And, again, he heard something.

A voice. Not words, just a murmur. He edged away from the waiting troopers, toward the caves. Their darknesses yawned at him, silent.

Nothing.

Then he heard the murmur again. Half murmur, half chuckle. Something just inside the nearest opening, perhaps? Something watching him, amused, snickering in the dark.

He frowned, and took another step.

His own interface sounded. He opened the link. “This is Kayn,” he murmured.

A fuzzy image of Captain Vassur on the bridge of the Fractal Shear projected into his left eye. “Ordinal? Just an advisory. We detected a soft return moving into Ionan airspace at sub-sling.”

“Soft return, captain?”

“No solid data, and we can’t fix it. A ghost.”

“Show me.”

Vassur obliged. The retinal image switched to a live feed from ship’s main detection systems. Just a phantom track. No defined mass or density. In fact, the sort of data aberration that detection officers would usually dismiss as background distortion. But of course, Vassur was being very careful with an Ordinal on the ground.

“Various rogue agents use masking fields,” Kayn commented.

“My thoughts exactly,” said Vassur. “The Syndicate especially. We’ve seen a lot during anti-trafficking campaigns. If this is a masking field, it’s a good one.”

“Agreed. Very good.”

“Do you want me to intercept, Ordinal?”

“Negative.”

“Then should I bring us in closer? Get Ionan in battery range, in case—”

“Negative, captain. We appear to have a situation down here, subversive elements who might have come to retrieve something, maybe prior to an exchange. If this is the receiver come to collect, let’s not scare them off. Let’s have them unmask.”

“If you’re sure, Ordinal?”

“I am, captain. Let’s see who we meet. This could open deep veins of information.”

Kayn disengaged the link, and turned to see Nakuri walking over.

“Let me guess,” Kayn said. “A soft return?”

Nakuri nodded. “The Shear has it too?” he asked. “Between your ship and mine, we’ve got most of the inner system covered. And it’s probably nothing.”

“I trust you told the Gentle Reminder to hold position?”

“And take no action,” Nakuri replied with a laugh. “I remember the way you work, old friend. Bring the scoundrels in. You like to see their klagging faces.”

Nakuri turned and led him up the last stretch of slope to the largest cave mouth. The troopers followed them. Kayn felt relaxed and content. It felt good to be operating alongside someone as trustworthy and smart as Nakuri. They made a good team, and they always had.

He paid no attention to the odd sense of unease lurking at the back of his mind. That was simple, healthy trepidation, the tension of handling a potentially volatile situation.

He had no time for an encumbrance like that.

They were penned in the outer caves of the cliff system. Nakuri’s troopers had clapped the prisoners in force shackles, while a second squad under the command of an officer called Solipas was guarding them.

The prisoners were a maverick lot, with creatures of different species, their garments dirty and worn. Some had already been beaten in the hope of extracting answers, and Kayn could see that they had all been stripped of ora-derived bio-enhancements—a process that had left some ugly wounds.

As far as he was concerned, the Templars were a sect, and nothing more. A quasi-mystical affiliation of subversives who believed they were the true “guardians” of ora, that they understood the material better than anyone else, and were protecting it from the abuse of other parties. Kayn had interrogated many Templars in his long career. He found them generally ridiculous. Their manner was obnoxious and condescending, exhibiting the sort of tolerant sympathy one got from any religious order. They believed they were privy to some great existential truth locked within the ora, something too good and refined for the likes of the Demaxians, who actually got on with the business of keeping society running. They had naively mistaken a singular natural resource of undoubted value for something more spiritual, as if ora was somehow a manifestation of the gods, or of creation, or a universal soul.

Kayn had seen that kind of lunacy before. Primitives on edgeworlds worshipping trees or nature or ecosystems, or a cargo-cult so astounded by a standard fightmek that they hailed it as a god.

It was childish and ill-informed.

The Templars, however, were unusual in that they were well organized, often militant, and had somehow established a network of support across the galaxy. Their beliefs were deranged and laughable, yet their lowly followers pursued them with vigor, depriving the empire of valuable ora supplies, or actually striking at commercial holdings. They were subversives of the worst kind.

Kayn walked into the caves where they were being held, and saw the same old fierce, determined, devoted faces. People who had faith in what they fought for.

He also noticed, with some satisfaction, how the wretched prisoners looked aghast at the sight of an Ordinal. They knew this was the end of the line, and their pathetic beliefs could no longer protect them.

“I am Ordinal Shieda Kayn,” he told them. “You understand the authority I represent. I understand you have refused to answer the questions set to you.”

They cowered. He noted at least six alien species represented in their numbers. Who to pick? The skoldoi, perhaps? They were fragile creatures.

“You seem to have no fear of slingtroopers, who nevertheless outgun you, round you up, and put you in chains,” he continued. “I think that’s sad, because the experience should have demonstrated that you have no option but to comply. You will answer my questions.”

“We will tell you nothing,” snarled a large korobak.

“No?” asked Kayn. “And why is that?”

“Because what we know is not fit for the likes of you.”

Several others murmured in agreement. The korobak then, perhaps, Kayn mused. He was the biggest, the ringleader. Make an example of him, and the rest would fall into line.

No. Too easy.

Kayn smiled. “You just answered a question, korobak.”

“I…”

“I asked a question, and you answered it,” Kayn went on. “It wasn’t too difficult, was it? So it’s not questions generally you have an issue with? Just specific ones.”

“I won’t play your games, you klag,” snapped the korobak.

“Yet you expect me to play yours. I think something has to give here, sir, and I believe you’re in no position to dictate terms. So let’s begin. I want names. A list of your contacts and associates in the edgeworlds. The two Templars who led you here. The people they had dealings with before you all came to Ionan.”

The prisoner looked away.

“Let’s start with the first name,” Kayn said.

“We were not led here,” the korobak muttered. “I’ll give you nothing.”

“The first name, please.”

The creature would only glare at the cave floor. Kayn unclasped his holster and drew his photann pistol. Its long, chrome form glinted in the ruddy, twilight gloom. He thumbed the activator, and there was a whine as the cell rose to a discharge level.

“The first name,” Kayn said more forcefully.

The prisoner shook his head.

Kayn slowly raised the pistol and aimed it at the kneeling korobak’s forehead. Several of the others murmured in fear. “The first name,” he repeated.

“Shoot me if you want,” said the korobak, still glaring at the floor. “That’s the imperialist mentality. Threaten us. Brutalize us. So shoot me. Then you’ll definitely get nothing. I will pass through the Ora Gate with the blessing of all Templars, and the satisfaction of knowing you have been defied.”

“Yes,” said Kayn, “I’m sure you would. But that’s not exactly how the game works.”

He switched aim. Now the photann gun was pointing at the girl beside the korobak. She was an odd one, wide-eyed and solemn. Unlike the others, she chose to look directly at Kayn and his gun.

“Give me the first name, korobak, or it won’t be you passing through the gate to the hereafter. You’ll still be here, very alive, not blessed or satisfied at all, with her brains on your clothes.”

The korobak looked sharply at the girl, his eyes bulging in concern. “You wouldn’t,” he hissed.

“Oh, I would,” said Kayn. “I will. One by one, as many of you as it takes, until I have my list of names, and answers to all the other questions I have. It’s a very simple game. It really depends on how many dead bodies it takes for you to understand that answers are less important than lives. One? Three? Fifteen? A hundred?”

“How could you be so cruel to—”

“This is my job. I don’t like it. You think I enjoy killing people over something as simple as a question? You, and you alone, are making this necessary. You’re leaving me no choice. In fact, I don’t know how you could be that cruel. This poor girl doesn’t deserve to get her head vaporized, just because you’re slow to answer.”

The korobak swallowed hard. “I… I will not… betray…”

“Well, I suppose I admire a person with principles,” Kayn sighed. “Principles are magnificent, especially when you’re not the one dying for them.”

He looked at the girl. Her eyes were so huge, but there was oddly no fear in them. He’d never seen anyone quite so calm. It was unnerving. He felt he wanted to question her—her in particular—and learn all she knew.

But his intent was set now. He’d chosen her as the example. Backing down would be weakness, and that would simply bolster the resolve of the rest.

Still…

“You know, you can make up for your friend’s lack of cooperation,” he said directly to the girl. “I’ll give you that much. You speak. The first name. Show this fool how bloodshed can be avoided, and I’ll be lenient.”

She stared back at him, silently.

“Quickly,” Kayn said. “The first name. I don’t give such chances very often.”

“Sona can tell you nothing!” the korobak snapped, almost sobbing.

“Oh, I’m sure she can,” replied Kayn, staring into the girl’s eyes. “I’m sure she’s dying to. Sona? That’s your name? Sona, it’s very easy. One word. One name. That’s where we start. The first name.”

The girl made no response. Kayn felt his annoyance growing into outright anger, but he didn’t let it show. He’d been restrained, and given her a chance, and now she was making him look like an idiot. No one did that.

“Sona, you disappoint me,” Kayn said, and pulled the trigger.

The blastwave tore through the cave.

It took Kayn a moment to clamber back to his feet. Dust was fuming down the tunnel from outside, debris skittering from the ceiling. The concussion had lifted him off his feet, and his shot had gone wide, missing the girl’s head.

Two more loud blasts echoed from outside.

“Move it! Move!” Nakuri yelled. The slingtroopers, some of whom had been thrown aside too, scrambled toward the exit. The prisoners cowered in terror.

All except the girl.

“Keep watch on them!” Kayn yelled to Solipas. He ran for the exit, reaching the light in time to see the small fightship making its third pass. One of Nakuri’s carrier transports was already a burning mass of buckled metal. The fightship, a matt green dart, blinked in low over the plateau, and discharged its heavy cannons. Blades of light slashed down from the photann-annihilator pods, and the second carrier blew up, its bulk lifting on a column of fire that shredded it, flipped it and brought it down hard, crushing Kayn’s little DEMAX-3.

Nakuri was shouting commands, and his slingtroopers were forming a line around the cave mouth, weapons rigs engaged to fill the sky with a hail of fire.

“Wait!” Kayn shouted.

“What?” asked Nakuri.

“Hold fire. If they wanted us dead, they would’ve leveled the mountain. They want our attention.”

“Hold fire!” Nakuri ordered.

“Contact our ships,” Kayn told him. “Tell them to remain in standoff. No stupid attempts at rescue or relief.”

“You’re playing with fire, old friend.”

“Always. Now do it!”

Kayn heard Nakuri activate his interface. He walked forward. Black smoke was blowing horizontally off the mass of burning ship wreckage. Heat haze at ground level made the smoke ripple and twist. He could feel the warmth on his face.

“Come on,” he murmured. “Get on with it. Come on…”

The green fightship reappeared. It came up over the edge of the plateau at a stall-speed hover, its nacelles down-blasting to give it lift. Sunlight flashed off the tinted canopy. It edged through the churning smoke towards them. A second one appeared, gray, coming in from the left.

Then a third. This one was red, and came into view moving down the plateau’s centerline, directly towards them.

The three ships stopped at a low hover twenty meters away. “Ah, klag,” said Nakuri. “Syndicate.”

“Yes,” replied Kayn. He had recognized at once the hybrid, custom-fitted style of the aggressor craft: black market weapon systems, some illegal, some alien, disproportionately large compared to the small hulls they had been grafted to. The ships themselves were ex-imperial tech, old models undoubtedly salvaged from junkworlds, retrofitted by the Syndicate’s ingenious weaponeers.

The red ship, the largest, carried a pod on its belly. A masking field generator. More contraband. The soft return hadn’t been from one ship. It had been a vague sensor ghost generated by these three, moving in tight formation inside the mask field. No wonder there had been no hard data on mass or density—they’d made themselves fluid, probably in a tumble trajectory, and no doubt had split and separated as soon as they hit the atmosphere.

Clever, Kayn thought. Typical criminal activity, the kind that regularly got past smuggling blockades and interdiction fleets.

The red ship moved forward a little. Its tinted canopy popped and opened.

“I can take this klagger’s head off,” advised Nakuri.

“Let me talk,” Kayn replied. “But get all your troopers to lock now. When we take them down, it’s got to be instant, or they’ll cremate this whole area.”

Nakuri nodded. Kayn left the shadows, slithered down the slope and walked into the hard sunlight of the plateau top. Head high, he strode across the dust towards the lead machine.

“You have business here?” he called out.

The red fightship’s cockpit was a two-seat. A visored pilot occupied the front, staring down at Kayn through the gunsights. A figure stood up in the back seat and took off his respirator mask. “I do,” he said. “Didn’t think I’d be doing it with an Ordinal, but every day is new and exciting, right?”

It was Zago. Corun Zago. One of the chief players in Syndicate activities on the galactic edge.

Kayn’s interface identified him instantly by face and voice recognition, but Kayn knew him anyway. All Demaxian officers knew Zago’s face from a hundred thousand bounty postings. He’d remained alive and at liberty for a long time, because he so seldom showed up in person.

So what was so important about today?

“I’m honored, Zago,” said Kayn. “Seeing you face-to-face.”

Zago grinned. “Oh, the honor’s mine, Shieda Kayn. Heard so much about you.”

“Lot of damage to imperial equipment there,” said Kayn, gesturing to the burning wrecks.

“Just wanted to be emphatic.”

“You were successful. What’s the business, here? I take it you wanted the Templars and their followers? Some prearranged deal?”

Zago looked genuinely surprised. “Templars? What the klag do I want with Templars?”

“You hadn’t agreed to meet them here?”

“No, sir. Nothing to do with me.”

“What, then?”

“Same reason as you, I guess,” said Zago. “I mean, it’s not every day an Ordinal slings out to an edgeworld either. I take it it’s here?”

“It is,” said Kayn, calmly lying to cover his lack of knowledge. “How did you hear about it?”

Zago looked thoughtful. “The same way you did. I guess.”

Kayn was getting an odd read from the man. Corun Zago was infamously confident and full of swagger, but he seemed troubled. Uneasy.

“Well, I just…” Kayn shrugged, mirroring the man’s awkwardness. “You know.”

“I do,” Zago nodded, earnest. “Strangest thing, eh? It calling out like that. Like a voice in the stars. I just knew… I knew I had to come get it. Knew it had to be mine. With respect, Ordinal, you won’t stop me having it. Hand it over or stand aside, whatever. I’m taking it. Resist and… Well, we’ll cook the lot of you, snatch it, and be masked and gone before your capital ships can get within sniffing distance.”

“I have no doubt.”

This didn’t make any sense. Zago was dangerous, but not insane. His three fightships had Kayn’s small ground forces outclassed, but the Gentle Reminder and the Fractal Shear were the sort of Locus Armada vessels that Syndicate forces would go out of their way to avoid.

And Corun Zago had come in person. This wasn’t the typical bravura Kayn had read about. This was something else. A compulsion. Obsessive.

That made him vulnerable.

Kayn took a long, slow breath. Time to clear his mind. Time to do the sort of work that had made him an Ordinal.

“Well, you’ve got us tight, my good man,” he said, opening his arms in an elegant coreworld flourish—a ritual gesture that anyone would recognize as a formal submission. Then he turned that into the full bow of surrender, dropping to one knee, shoulders forward, his arms by his sides. His right hand braced the ornate lance at his side at a forty-five degree angle, base in the dirt, blade upwards, the angle of military honor. “We must give way to you, in these circumstances.”

Kayn could feel the prickle of the heat, smell the billowing smoke. He could feel Corun Zago’s gaze on him, perhaps surprised at the ease of his triumph.

Kayn was a strong man. His basic biology had been finessed by acute training disciplines, and further enhanced by science. Like all Ordinals, he was a significantly amplified being.

He waited until Zago began to speak. Just the first syllable of the reply.

“You—”

Still kneeling, Kayn cast the lance. An underarm throw with his right arm. No wind-up, just a straight pitch, hurling the lance along the angle it was already pointing in. He didn’t even look up. He was still kneeling, and bowing.

Propelled by the strength of his arm, the lance struck the underside of the hovering red fightship just in front of the mask array pod. The broad blade-head punctured the ship’s skin, and the lance kept going, through the condensers and attitude management systems contained in the belly. Through them, through the floor of the cockpit, through the base of the pilot’s flightseat, and on through Corun Zago.

When it came to rest, it was impaling the hovering ship like a meat skewer, the end of the haft poking from the underside, the head transfixing Zago, and emerging through his back.

He was pinned, upright, against his high-backed seat. There was a look of surprise on his very dead face.

Abruptly, everything was in motion. The red fightship began to wallow violently, its internal systems torn and ruptured. Its engines howled with uncorrected pressure. The Syndicate pilots took a moment to react—just a second while they processed what had happened.

And then it was too late. Nakuri had been waiting. The instant he saw Kayn hurl the lance, he had given the signal, his slingtroopers opening fire in perfect unison. Gunrigs kicked off, screaming streams of photann fire at the gray and green fightships. The first simply came apart where it was hovering, utterly disintegrated by the sustained, heavy fusillade. Its drive core exploded, and the fireball threw fragments of pockmarked, distorted hull in all directions.

Turning his kneeling crouch into an upward spring, Kayn leapt. The wildly wallowing red ship had almost lurched low enough to clip his head off, and his leap cleared the starboard wing. The craft was almost spinning as the pilot fought to regain control. The port wingtip bounced off the ground and scattered a spray of pebbles. The hover thrust was kicking up dust like a desert storm.

Kayn landed on the lurching hull, and clawed his way toward the open cockpit. Zago was still pinned in place, staring into the distance, each jolt of the ship shaking him against the flightseat. The pilot was too busy fighting with the controls to do anything else.

Nakuri’s troopers were still hosing fire, but the green fightship was proving harder to kill. It had some kind of custom shield that soaked up the photann energy. Flecks of light stippled off the greasy haze around its prow. It screamed forward, seeking retribution. Its weapon pods opened up, stitching detonations across the dust toward the slingtrooper formation.

Before Nakuri could order an immediate scatter, two of his men were incinerated where they stood. The ship leveled up, and began to pick off the others as they fled. Ground fire, even from stalwart slingtroopers, only worked against aircraft when the aircraft were unprepared.

They had lost the advantage of surprise.

Kayn grabbed the fightship’s pilot with one hand, and threw him from the cockpit. The man cried in surprise as he bounced off the dipping wing, and plunged to the ground below.

Gripping the canopy frame, Kayn dropped into the pilot position. His interface told him the stabilizer controls were utterly ruined—the lance had speared the guts of several principal systems. He made lightning-fast adjustments, compensating for overthrust and one nacelle port that had flamed out altogether. He slammed the red ship around with the cockpit still open, and limped it forward, accelerating at extremely low level, just kissing the ground.

The green fightship was strafing the slopes. Kayn could see it extending its main weapon pods to level the whole mountainside. Hauling on the stick, he activated the red ship’s fire control, armed the main battery, and locked the green fightship ahead of him.

He opened up with the primary photann array. The force of the unleashed fire rocked the destabilized craft so hard, it swung drunkenly out of true, and the last blaze of shots went wide, snaking off like lumo-tracers into the sky beyond the mountains.

But the first part of the barrage had been dead-on. The green fightship lost its rear end, and then one nacelle. Its pilot tried to steady it, but the whole thing was coming to pieces in the air, shredding from the tail forward. It began to lift, trailing a huge plume of fire and debris. Then, abruptly, as if the effort was too great, it plunged like a rock, and impacted nose first.

The detonation raised a shockwave across the sands, throwing out a large crater of heat-fused dirt.

Kayn struggled to keep his commandeered fightship airborne. Multiple fail warnings screamed from the control board. He cut power incrementally, nursing it down. The red ship hit the dust, bounced, and then slid, digging in with one lolling wing.

He killed all power. Grit was still pattering off the front screen and hull. He lifted himself out of the seat, took one last glance at Zago’s dismayed expression, and jumped back down to the ground.

As he walked away, something caught inside the hull, and fire began to flare out. By the time he reached Nakuri, the red fightship had become a blazing funeral pyre for the man skewered in its heart.

Nakuri was gathering his troops. He looked at Kayn with a mix of shock and admiration. “You’re a crazy fool,” he said flatly.

“I disagree,” Kayn replied. “But I think it’s long past time I saw what this whole mess was about.”

Beyond the caves where the prisoners were being held, there was a hole in the world. It was a rough shaft, thirty meters across, which cut straight down vertically for hundreds more.

Kayn stood at the lip, and looked down. The rock had been cut by… something, excised on a huge scale. Even the main batteries of an Armada sling-ship couldn’t have removed a slice of the planet so cleanly.

And just where was the removed mass? Had it been annihilated?

“Down there,” said Nakuri.

Kayn had begun to clamber down anyway, following the ragged contours of the shaft’s inner wall. Up close, it looked like heat had done this work. The exposed rock was glossy pink, and gleamed like a polished gemstone. But there was also a thick layer of dust on all the upper surfaces. This excision had been made a while ago, perhaps even thousands of years. Quite without warning, Kayn had the sudden impression of a red-hot metal ingot being dropped onto a glacier, melting its way swiftly downward, leaving a borehole with gleaming walls of refrozen ice…

But what could do that to rock?

He scanned for forensic traces via his interface as he made his descent. Coming down behind him, Nakuri clearly heard Kayn’s gasp of surprise.

“I know, right?” he said.

“Are these readings correct?” Kayn murmured.

“They seem to be.”

“This isn’t… here,” said Kayn, making his interface re-work the scan.

“No, it’s not.”

“It’s as if…” There was no easy way for Kayn to describe it. The quantum traces were bizarre. It was as though a piece of another reality, another spatial dimension altogether, had intersected briefly with this mountain on Ionan, negated it utterly, and left this void behind like an empty wound.

A wound that crackled with a residue of the otherness that had made it.

“You see now why I wanted an Ordinal on this?” asked Nakuri.

Kayn didn’t reply. He was speculating. Was this the result of an interspatial collision? Some quantum anomaly? Deliberate or accidental? Those phenomena were only theoretical, or the rare and catastrophic results of sling-drive failures. This could be evidentiary proof of the Multiversal Proposition…

Nakuri had done the right thing. This was Ordinal business, and Kayn’s already high standing would be greatly boosted by it. A ground-breaking discovery. It would make him the most famous man in the Demaxian Empire. Indeed, it was the sort of thing that could propel a man to the very top.

Kayn paused. He was shocked that he was thinking that way. There was work to be done here, an Ordinal’s duty. Assess, analyze, reflect, gather up everything for the good of the empire. Secure this discovery in the name of…

A new thought entered his mind, a burning thought that also disturbed him. He knew he should be consulting with Nakuri, planning the process of investigation.

But he didn’t want to. He wanted to keep it for himself. He didn’t want anyone in here, not even Nakuri. No one else was worthy—

Kayn caught himself again. It was no wonder that others had come here. The Syndicate, the Templars. This was an astonishing prize. Except…

“…how did they know?” Kayn asked.

“What?”

“I came here because you called me. You came because you were chasing the Templars. What brought the Templars here?”

“They’d heard about it too…?” Nakuri ventured.

“From who?”

“They deal in secrets, forbidden lore, all that nonsense. Maybe some legend or myth or… I don’t know, a treasure map?”

That rang false to Kayn. If anyone, anyone, at any point in time had found this, they would have used it. Used the data, the information it presented. It would have become a holy site, a shrine, or it would have gathered a culture around it, or made a man into an emperor… or been the cornerstone of a new empire altogether.

No. No one knew about this. The Templars had come here… instinctively.

“And the Syndicate?” he asked Nakuri.

“What about them?”

Zago knew, Kayn thought. That filthy opportunist hadn’t even been aware of the Templars’ presence. This was what he’d come for, and he’d come obsessively, risking everything—even a confrontation with superior imperial forces.

And he’d come because something had called him. Called out to him, across the gulf of space.

Kayn’s skin felt clammy. He skidded down the last few meters, his unease growing. There was something at the bottom of the pit. Something that looked as if it was fused into the bedrock.

“What the…”

“We think that’s what did it,” said Nakuri. “Like it fell here, and made the hole.”

His voice trailed off.

“Have you touched it?” Kayn asked.

“No, sir. None of us. None of us dared.”

Kayn crouched down. The object lay like a dark fossil embedded in the pale matrix of rock suspending it—like the bones of something impossibly ancient, now exposed to the light. He could make out a long, beautifully fashioned handle, slightly curved. A huge blade head. Handle and blade were both forged from some dark metal his interface couldn’t identify, and apparently proportioned for humanoid hands.

A scythe. A war weapon. A masterpiece that matched no known cultural template.

Kayn wondered how something could be so beautiful and yet so ugly at the same time.

He heard a low chuckle. “What?” he asked, looking at Nakuri.

“I didn’t say anything,” Nakuri replied.

Kayn tried his interface, but the signal was dead.

“We’re too deep,” said Nakuri. “Something down here is blocking communications.”

“Go back up,” said Kayn. “Signal the Fractal Shear. I want a science team assembled, with full monitor instruments. Get them down here in two hours. We’re going to take this place apart, piece by piece, and extract every last scrap of information.”

Nakuri nodded, but didn’t leave. “You’ve changed,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Now you’re an Ordinal. The tone of your—”

Kayn scoffed. “I don’t have time for this,” he said.

“That grandstanding against the Syndicate, what was that? I lost four men. Four men who didn’t need to die. Just so you could show off.”

“It was a delicate situation.”

“We could have called in the main ships. Just wiped them out. But, you had to play your show-off games. Sir.”

“We got the result I needed,” said Kayn.

“Four men dead.”

“Commander. Go and signal the ship. I will not ask you again.”

Nakuri faltered. “I brought you here because… Gods, I brought you here because I knew this wasn’t for me. Above my pay grade. I thought of you. That you’d know what to do. That you’d be worthy of it.”

“Worthy of it?”

“Of this prize! I mean, who am I? I’m not. Not worthy of…” He looked at Kayn. “But I thought you were. I thought I was doing my duty to the empire, and my friend. But I see you now. What you’re like. What you’ve become.”

Kill him for that.

Kayn looked around. Someone had spoken.

“Are we alone?” he whispered.

“What?” asked Nakuri, exasperated.

“Commander, did you post any guards down here?”

“No.”

“Then who just spoke?”

“No one spoke!” Nakuri snapped. “What’s wrong with you? I don’t know who you are any more!”

“Go and signal the ship. Now. Then come back and tell me you’ve done it.”

Nakuri glared at him, then turned and clambered away. Kayn remained crouched over the embedded weapon.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” he asked.

You know it was. I call. Some hear. Some come. I’m only interested in the worthy ones.

“People keep using that word. Who’s worthy? And of what?”

Of me. I’ll know who’s worthy when they prove themselves. Maybe it’s you.

“I don’t know what you are.”

You don’t have to. I just need to know you. I’ll keep calling until I’ve found the one. Then I’ll stop, because I won’t need to call anymore.

“I’m an Ordinal of—”

I care little what you are. What interests me is who you are. Your ambitions. Your dreams. What you’re capable of. How you think about the cosmos. How you think the cosmos should work.

“I told you I’m an Ordinal, because that’s what matters,” said Kayn sharply. “I have a job to do. A duty.”

A duty you resent. A duty you find increasingly frustrating. Following a man you think is growing weak. Pledging to a cause you think is overcautious. Frustrated, day after day, that no one shares your clarity of thought. That no one dares to act the way you want to act. That no one has the strength.

“My duty is to secure this site for the Demaxian Empire. I don’t believe I’m actually having a conversation with some antique weapon. I believe I am being exposed to quantum variance. This is my mind, playing tricks.”

So I’m a hallucination now, am I?

“This site is an anomaly of great scientific value. You’re the principal artifact within it. I am… I am imagining voices because of the exotic trace energies in this location, and—”

Nakuri’s been gone a long time, wouldn’t you say?

Kayn rose. He checked his interface’s chronometer. Nakuri had been gone for nearly an hour. An hour? How had so much time passed…?

Time is another illusion you can soon dispense with.

“If I’m worthy?” Kayn spat. He turned, and began the climb back to the surface.

He ignored the chuckle that came after him.

There was no sign of anyone.

“Nakuri?”

The communication link was empty. Something must have happened. More Syndicate? More of Zago’s men? Surely Kayn would have heard shooting.

He drew his pistol, and stalked forward.

The prisoners were still in their cave, silent and terrified. They blinked at him as he entered. “Where are your guards?” he asked. No one answered.

He crossed to the girl, Sona, and lifted her to her feet.

“I’ve seen what drew you here. I’ve seen it. Tell me about it.”

She didn’t answer.

“Sona,” he said, “you need to speak. Now.”

She stared at him. He tightened his grip on the pistol.

Don’t waste her. She’s far too valuable. Haven’t you figured that out yet? You’ll need her.

Kayn pushed the girl back down. He walked to the mouth of the cave.

The slingtrooper’s blade nearly took his head off. Kayn ducked and let the sword strike rock. Two shots from his pistol took the trooper down, his body sliding down the wall and onto the ground.

Rigo. One of Nakuri’s. A good man.

None of them are good enough, though. Are you?

They came at him from all sides. Photann blasts lit the rocky hallway. He returned fire, dropped two more, then had to spin-kick to drive off another. The trooper staggered away, clutching his splintered visor. Kayn tore the glaive out of his hand, then cut him in half with it.

He wheeled. An up-strike with the glaive’s haft knocked another trooper onto his back. Reverse. The butt-end driving into the belly of man lunging from behind him. Spin. The blade slicing home.

Someone shot at him. Photann shots. Block, block, block. The glaive was whirling in his hands, its coated titanium absorbing the power and deflecting the shots away.

“What the klag is this?” he bellowed.

“You don’t deserve it!” a voice yelled back. “It shouldn’t be for you!”

It was Nakuri.

Kayn plunged forward. He kicked the legs out from under a charging slingtrooper, then pinned him to the ground.

Vechid slammed into them both from the side. The squad leader was all armored bulk and augmented strength. She swung a fist. Kayn tried to block, but her charged gauntlet snapped the glaive’s haft. Kayn snarled, spun back to evade the next swing, then plunged the broken ends of the weapon into Vechid’s chest.

Speeks came at him. Kayn killed him with a beak-fist to the nasal bone.

“Stand your men down, Nakuri!” he yelled, moving towards the light of the tunnel mouth. “This is lunacy!”

This is the test.

“Nakuri! We’re being toyed with! This isn’t you!”

“Oh, but it is!” A voice echoed back. “This is me, the real me! Me for the first time! I see it all now! How it should be!”

“Nakuri!”

Armored fists closed around his throat from behind, and Kayn started to choke as they throttled him.

“Nakuri’s right,” he heard Solipas say. “You’re just some jumped-up fool, Kayn! So pleased with your klagging self! It shouldn’t belong to you! You don’t deserve it!”

Kayn flexed, and threw Solipas right over him. The man landed hard.

“Who then?” he asked. “You?”

“Obviously!” Solipas was springing up, ripping out a blade. “It’s chosen me! It says I’m the one! I heard it say so!”

There was a photann flash, and Solipas’s head was vaporized. His body crumpled.

“That’s a lie!” stammered Korla, edging forward. His eyes were wide. His pistol was still aimed at Solipas. “Me! It called my name!”

“We’re all being played with,” said Kayn.

Korla snapped around, aiming his gun at the Ordinal.

“All of us, Korla. All of us. It’s in our heads. It’s making us do this.”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t lie,” said Korla. “Not to me!”

“We don’t know what it does. Put the gun down.”

Korla growled. “I know what it does. It makes you what you should be. I see that, clear as day. It claims you. Makes you… perfect. Makes you see sense. Makes you know who you can trust. Who needs to live or die.”

“That’s not right,” Kayn said.

“It is! It told me! It told me I was the one!”

He fired, but Kayn was already moving. The blast scorched his hip, just as he came in under Korla’s extended arm, and broke it.

Korla dropped to his knees, clutching his elbow. Kayn snatched the pistol away.

“It told me,” the trooper whimpered.

Kayn went to walk past him, but he grabbed at Kayn’s leg. Kayn put him out of his misery with a single shot.

He reached the cave mouth. “Nakuri?”

Nakuri was waiting for him, lance in hand.

“I admit,” the commander said, “I made a terrible mistake. Calling you. You? That was an error. I just wasn’t confident enough. Didn’t think I could handle it. That I could… That I could do it.”

“Do what?”

“Be what it needed. But I can. I see that now. It doesn’t need the likes of you. You won’t do it justice. But a veteran like me? Well, that’s a different story—I’ll be everything it ever wanted.”

“Nakuri,” said Kayn. “Toss the lance. Back off. You’re out of your mind.”

“It told me you’d say that.”

“We are all being influenced by interspatial—”

“No! No, we’re not! This only started when you arrived. I’ve been here for days!”

“That’s because I’m the one it wants,” said Kayn. “It was waiting for me. Now it’s testing me.”

“Testing you?”

“To see if I’m ruthless enough for its needs. And you… Nakuri, you’re my friend. It’s using you. Toss the lance. We can secure this entire—”

“No! It’s testing me. You’re not what it wants. You’re nothing. We’re not friends. Gods, you think we were ever friends? And you think you’re the special one? The chosen one? The worthy one? That’s just like you. So klagging arrogant! So full of your own importance!”

Nakuri took a step forward. Kayn fired, again and again, but the spinning staff spat the shots away, deflecting them into the cave walls. Two more steps, and the whirling blade cleaved the barrel off the photann pistol.

Kayn back-flipped away. The blade kissed the ground where he had been standing. He threw himself into Nakuri, delivering a gut-punch, then a blow to the neck. Nakuri staggered backwards, before Kayn’s spin-kick broke his jaw, and dropped him.

“If… not me…” Nakuri bubbled, broken, “…not you either. Others… are coming…”

“Others? Just hold still. I need to get you a medivac.”

Kill him.

“Shut up.”

Prove what you are. Kill him.

“Shut. Up.”

Kayn walked clear of the cave, and into the sunlight.

You’re running out of time. Make your choice.

He could see the Gentle Reminder. Nakuri had called it in after all. It was on low approach from the west, six kilometers distant, filling the sky, skimming the mountains.

Immense. Gun ports opening for surface decimation. A whole warship full of men and women, all of them answering the call. Men and women who thought they were worthy. Men and women who had each been told that, by the same voice.

Kayn opened his communication link.

Fractal Shear, give me Captain Vassur.”

“Speaking, sir.”

“We have a situation, captain. Priority one. A mutiny. Lock the Gentle Reminder immediately.”

“Sir?”

“You heard me. Lock and fire. Full batteries.”

“Sir, she’s one of ours—”

“Do as I tell you immediately, or you’ll be letting an Ordinal die. Lock and fire. Priority one. Mutiny situation.”

“Yes, sir. We’re on approach. Engines engaged. We’ll be in firing range in eight minutes.”

Too slow. Nakuri’s ship will obliterate you long before that.

“And you,” Kayn muttered.

I’ll survive. I’ll wait. I’ll call again and see who comes next time. Unless you are worthy…

“Once you’re claimed, the call stops?”

That’s what I told you.

Kayn turned and ran back into the cave system. The Gentle Reminder was so close. How long did he have? Three minutes?

He reached the shaft and hurried down between the gleaming pink ledges. Twice, he almost fell. Stones skittered out under his feet. He jumped the last of the way.

The scythe was where he had left it.

Change of heart? Time to reflect?

“Shut up,” Kayn said, and grabbed it.

It took him a second to pull it free. As it came into his grasp, he saw it blink. An eye opened at the base of the blade, a pink fire that burned his retinas and gazed into his heart, like—

He saw silence. He saw the vast well of time. He saw a moment stretched into an eternity. He saw lingering stillness and glacial quiet. He saw dark stars and black suns frozen in a void of endless shadow. He saw monstrous, silent deities lurking in a corrupted cosmos.

He heard a name, breathed like a sigh.

Rhaast.

And he knew it was his name now, too.

“The emperor will demand a report,” said Captain Vassur, nervously. “A detailed report. I… I’m not sure what to say…”

Kayn looked up from his window seat. The rasping light of slingspace beyond the window ports cast strange shadows in the chamber around them.

“I’m compiling it now, captain. It will be full and frank. But confidential. The mutiny on Ionan, and the subsequent destruction of the Gentle Reminder, must be kept quiet. For reasons of morale. I am sure you understand.”

“Yes, sir,” said Vassur.

“Anything else?”

Vassur shook her head. “We are en route back to the Locus Armada as ordered. Maximum slingspeed.”

“And the prisoners?”

“Secure. Ready for transport to detention and interrogation as soon as we arrive. I’m sure we can get a lot out of them. Useful information on covert Templar activity across the sector.”

“Take particular care of the girl,” Kayn replied. “The one named Sona. I will deal with her personally. She is, I believe, especially valuable.”

“Yes, sir,” said Vassur. The captain saluted and left Kayn’s quarters.

What will you tell them?

“What I want to tell them.”

Good.

“What will you tell me?”

Everything.

“Good. What do you want?”

Well, perhaps I won’t tell you that… No, I will. Trust is the essential foundation of any relationship, Kayn, and I want—

Kayn flung himself to the side. Even by the standards of his agility, he was a blur. No longer anything that might be described as human.

Keelo’s axe splintered through the empty window seat.

The scythe flashed. The severed halves of the old, battered fightmek crashed to the deck and lay there, sparking and twitching, as the light in his optics died.

“Surprise…” said Kayn.

References

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