Here’s something that has been going through my mind as part of the [url=https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/team-omegasnippet/]Team Omega[/url] idea.
If you have a world with superhumans (in the comic book sense) you’re going to have a few bad apples in the bunch. You might end up with a team of superhumans who think they know better than anyone else (The Authority) and set out to change the world. The simple counter is other superhumans, but can they all be trusted?
Assuming that you were a team composed of normal humans (if very well trained; SEALs, SAS, etc) how would you kill Superman and his peers?
I tried a few experiments with this one, the flashbacks mainly. How well do they work?
“At ease, Marine.”
Chester Harrison looked up at the young man in front of him and raised his eyebrows. “Is that as relaxed as you get, young man?”
“Yes, sir,” PFC Jackson McDonald said.
He was young and fit, with her hair shaved close to his scalp. Chester knew that the USMC had considered him one of their most promising enlisted men, with a promotion to Lance Corporal delayed only by his habit of picking fights and insubordination when not on active duty. Looking at him, Chester felt unfit, almost overweight. The life of an man flying a desk, even a desk in the Pentagon, wasn’t the same as a person on active service.
“I need to know what happened at Camp Pendleton,” Chester said. He’d read the reports, including the one McDonald had written himself, but he needed to hear it from the man’s own lips. “What happened on that day?”
“It’s in my report, sir,” McDonald said, stiffly. He hadn’t enjoyed writing the report, any more than his superiors had enjoyed reading it. Nineteen Marines dead and five more on the critical list…and no one even knew why. “You can read it all there.”
“I need to hear it from you,” Chester said, softly. “What happened that day?”
“What happened?” For the first time, McDonald showed a trace of emotion. Horror…and remembered fear. “What happened was a goddamned nightmare.”
Sergeant Bass considered himself to be the very model of a Marine Corps Sergeant – and that included disciplining the young men in his platoon. Jackson had been rowdy, as rowdy as he always was when not on active service, and Bass had taking it as a personal challenge. After an argument in the barracks that had become a fight, Bass had sent Jackson to run around the edge of Camp Pendleton twice in the hopes that it would teach him a lesson. Jackson had been fuming as he completed the run, wondering why he couldn’t just be sent out to a Marine unit on actual operations. Being in the field was what he lived for.
He heard the explosion just as he came off the track and headed back to the barracks. It looked as if someone had smuggled a bomb into the Camp, perhaps one of the Mexican terrorist groups that threatened the integrity of the United States. He ran towards the sound of the blast, forgetting his anger at the Sergeant in the fear that one of his comrades might be injured. Alarms were going off everywhere as he ran into one of the PT compounds used for raw recruits – and saw a man tearing through Marines as if they were made of paper.
Two Marines, armed with M16s, were trying to gun the intruder down, but the bullets were merely bouncing off his skin. Jackson realised, with a thrill of horror, that he was looking at his first superhuman. He’d heard about them, of course, yet he’d never seen one before now. Any fascination was washed away by the grim awareness that the intruder had already killed a dozen Marines and seemed intent on murdering dozens more.
The superhuman roared as bullets hit his eye – it was clear that he could feel pain, even if the bullets couldn’t penetrate his skin – and lunged at the two guards. He caught one of them, picked him up and threw him through the air towards a helicopter that was flying over the camp. The hapless Marine missed the helicopter and fell somewhere towards LA. His buddy backed off hastily, only to be caught and physically ripped apart. Jackson saw blood splashing on the ground and realised, in horror, that he would be the next victim…
“I put it all together without realising it,” he admitted. Chester listened carefully as he outlined the story. “Maybe he was strong enough to pick up a tank and maybe he was tough enough to survive a bullet striking his body, but he still needed to breathe.”
Jackson stuck out his tongue at the superhuman and ran, trusting that the superhuman wouldn’t hesitate to give chase. The man didn’t seem to have any form of super-speed, thankfully; he just lunged after Jackson with a loping stride that suggested that he knew that he was invincible. No one would be able to stop him even if they caught him. Jackson led him right into one of the lesser-used complexes and gambled that the superhuman wouldn’t try to bring it down around his ears.
During his basic training, he’d been exposed to gas as part of the NBC course. Young Marines had discovered what happened when they left their gas masks behind through exposure to CS gas, which left many of them choking on the ground. The Drill Sergeants had wanted them to recite name, rank and serial number; many of the recruits hadn’t been able to complete it before the gas overwhelmed them. Jackson hadn’t done any better than most of his peers. He ran through the chamber, slamming the door closed behind him, as if he were trying to hide. The superhuman burst into the chamber and looked around, puzzled, until the gas began to flow. It had been tinted to make it easier to see. Jackson watched as the superhuman breathed in the gas and started to stagger around, throwing up inside the chamber. He’d been so convinced that he was invulnerable that he seemed to find it hard to comprehend that someone had found a weapon that actually worked.
Jackson donned a gas mask of his own, picked up a fire extinguisher and stepped into the chamber. Marine recruits had to go through a sequence of taking off their masks and then re-donning them, even though their eyes were streaming from contact with the gas. The superhuman had collapsed on the ground, twitching and coughing as if he were still trying to throw up everything in his stomach. His hands were tearing at the floor, ripping great shreds out of an airtight material. There was no way he could be secured safely, let alone be transported to the nation’s sole prison for superhuman offenders. Quite calmly, Jackson pressed the extinguisher against the superhuman’s mouth and activated it, spraying powder down his throat.
Two minutes later, it was all over.
“Your report stated that you made the decision to kill him without consulting anyone,” Chester said, when McDonald reached the end of his story. “Do you think that that was a wise decision?”
“I think that there was no way he could be secured and taken away before he recovered from the gas,” McDonald said, flatly. “And he had killed a number of Marines. The only thing I could do was kill him before he recovered and ripped my head off, sir.”
Chester could almost read the Marine’s mind. He had been the person on the spot, the sole person to figure out a way to end the crisis before it claimed more innocent lives…and yet he was being second-guessed by some Washington deskbound bureaucrat who wouldn’t know an M16 from a broomstick.
But there would be repercussions from this incident, even though no one had – as yet – figured out who the superhuman had been, or why he had a grudge against the United States Marine Corps. The CIA, FBI, SDI and Interpol had all drawn a blank. It was quite possible that the superhuman had been nothing more than an unregistered superhuman, but it was equally possible that the attack on Camp Pendleton could be the first shot in the long-feared superhuman war. Superhumans had upset the balance of power between the world’s nations ever since they had first appeared.
“You’re not in trouble, Marine,” he said, as reassuringly as he could. But he wasn’t really there to be reassuring. “You kept your head when others panicked and you took down a superhuman opponent. Not everyone can make the same claim.”
He smiled at McDonald’s reaction. Superhumans weren’t invincible, but they did tend to intimidate the hell out of people. The police preferred to back off and call for the military if there was even a hint that a superhuman was involved, while calls for mass registrations of superhumans had failed because there were fears that superhumans would turn on the government. Some of them could live normal lives, passing for mundane humans. Others were physical freaks, marked as superhuman whatever they did. Far too many of them had been driven into the underworld by suspicion and bigotry. Chester regretted that, as much as he regretted anything, but it didn’t keep him from having to deal with the consequences.
“Your platoon has been scattered by the attack,” he continued. “I would like to offer you a transfer to my unit…”
McDonald gaped at him. “Your unit, sir?”
“My unit,” Chester confirmed. He looked like a Washington paper-pusher; hell, in truth he was a Washington paper-pusher. But he served as the director of a unit that was probably more important than any other in the era of the superhuman. “Your superiors have consented to your immediate transfer, assuming you want to take up the position.”
“I see,” McDonald said. He was too young to hide his scepticism. “And what exactly does this unit do?”
Chester smiled. “We kill superhumans,” he said. “Interested?”
He explained, as best as he could. “Superhumans show an alarming series of personality traits – almost disorders – after they become superhuman. These tend to fall into several different categories; some believe that they are heroes and have a right to save people, some become instant assholes and decide that they have the right to take what they want, some just want to hide from their powers…and some want revenge on people who tormented them before they became superhuman. It is comparatively rare to find a superhuman who can be considered suitable for the military – and most of those who are tend to be among the lesser powers.
“This gives us a major problem. We have had superhumans turn divorce courts into murder chambers, superhuman heroes who injure or kill criminals they catch while on patrol and plenty of villains whose only concern is getting all the money and women they want in the world. And then there’s the superhumans serving in foreign countries as part of their defence forces. I assume you’ve heard some of the rumours about Iraq.”
McDonald nodded. The Protector of Iraq, himself a superhuman, had created a superhuman force to defend the country’s borders. They were allowed to indulge themselves in almost any way they wanted, provided they served the Protector’s country. Some of the rumours flooding out of Iraq were downright terrifying.
And Iraq wasn’t even the worst problem in the world.
“Fighting a superhuman opponent doesn’t have to be a death sentence – but you know that already,” Chester concluded. “Team Omega’s task is to monitor the world’s superhumans and, should it be necessary, take them down one by one. Should you agree to join, you’ll serve as part of a small force of elite soldiers and intelligence operatives, working from the shadows to keep the world safe for humanity. You won’t get credit for your work, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re doing something that no one else can do.”
He smiled at McDonald’s expression. “Your superiors have already approved a week’s leave for you,” he added. “You have that long to decide what you want to do.”
“I have questions,” McDonald said, slowly.
“I can’t answer them,” Chester said. “Team Omega does not – officially – exist. The government fears what will happen when the superhuman community becomes aware of its existence. It is possible that they will react against the government as a whole.”
He shrugged and stood up, holding out a hand. “Thank you for coming to see me,” he said, as if McDonald hadn’t been ordered to attend. “Should you decide to join us, your superiors will give you your final set of marching orders.”
One week after that first fateful meeting, Jackson found himself reporting to a small military base twenty kilometres from Washington DC. It looked rather more like one of the makeshift FOBs the Marines had used rather than a proper military base, complete with a set of Stealth Helicopters and armed guards surrounding the complex. Security was tight, he noted with some approval; the guards checked his ID at two separate checkpoints before they allowed him to drive into the parking lot. The interior of the base was fenced too, making it difficult for someone to move from section to section without the right ID. Someone was being very careful, or paranoid. But even paranoids had enemies.
He pushed through the door to the admin building and stepped inside. A dark-skinned man was waiting for him, wearing a pair of plain black overalls that could be swiftly replaced by BDUs if necessary. Jackson sized him up and deduced that he was Special Forces, probably originally from the Rangers or the Navy SEALs.
“I’m Lane,” the man said, holding out a hand. “Any jokes about my daughter marrying Clark Kent will not be appreciated.”
Jackson had to smile. “Jackson McDonald, Marine Corps.”
“Not any longer,” Lane said. “You’re Team Omega now and don’t you forget it. We’re a little bit more relaxed than most military organisations, but if I catch you giving me less than your all you’ll regret it. I’m Field Team Leader for Team One. Any questions?”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson said, carefully. “How many teams are there?”
“Four,” Lane said. He turned and headed towards a door, leading Jackson into a long corridor decorated with photographs of famous superhumans. “Four teams, plus the researchers who dig up most of the shit we use against the capes, the intelligence group who spy on the capes and the admin workers who do the paperwork. All four teams are expected to be combat ready at all times; Team One and Two are based here, Team Three and Four over on the west coast somewhere. Right now, Two is on QRA and One is standing down.”
He snorted. “In the event of Two being scrambled, One will come to full alert and you – until you are cleared to work with us – will go to your room and stay there until we let you out. Once you’ve been checked out on the equipment, you will be training with us until we decide that you’re fit to join officially. We’ll probably still be a little leery of you until you actually see action, but don’t take it personally.”
“I’ve been a Fucking New Guy before,” Jackson said. It happened in all military units; the new guy was regarded with some suspicion until he proved himself. Smart commanders kept it firmly under control. Less capable commanders sometimes let it get out of hand. “I know the score.”
“Glad to hear it,” Lane said. He pushed through a swing door and into a briefing room. “As Chester probably explained to you, our mission is to identify, monitor and eliminate dangerous superhumans. Principally, we deal with the psychopaths, the rogues and the dangerous criminals. Some of the bastards are pretty much celebrities and we have to be careful about how we deal with them. If you have any belief in the value of a fair fight, I suggest that you get it out of your system right now.”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson said.
“That’s Lane to you,” Lane said, firmly. “We don’t stand on ceremony here – besides, I work for a living. Luckily, I only have to use PowerPoint when a new guy comes along.”
He picked up a remote control and waved Jackson to a chair. “Team One; nine active members, three support staff. You’ll be pleased to know that we insist that our field support staff are riflemen first, a concept we shamelessly stole off the Marines. There’s no such thing as a standard weapons load for us, so you’ll be trained and checked out on everything. We’ll also expect you to spend some of your spare time studying for additional MOS certificates, as we want as many disciplines as possible on the field teams.
“You’ll get a proper briefing on the Rules of Engagement later, but suffice it to say that we exist somewhere in the grey area between police SWAT teams and the Delta Force guys who would back them up if they ran into trouble they couldn’t handle. Those who know a little about us think we’re a federal SWAT team linked to the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, so we attempt to abide by the same rules as they do. However, when dealing with a superhuman opponent, it is generally wiser to apply maximum force and worry about the legalities later. We would prefer to avoid an incident that would cause embarrassing questions to be raised.
“However, I expect total professionalism from my people at all times,” he added. “Use the vague ROE as an excuse to fuck up and you’ll wish the superhuman had killed you by the time I’m through with you. Understand?”
“Yes, Lane,” Jackson said. It felt strange referring to a superior officer by his first name. “Don’t fuck up.”
Lane snorted. “Team Omega’s overall director is Chester Harrison, the man who first interviewed you,” he said. “We have an agreement; I run Team One to suit myself in exchange for making sure that we win all of our encounters with capes, while he covers our political ass and reports directly to the President. It was I who approved your provisional transfer to Team Omega. Do you have a problem with that?”
“No,” Jackson said. It seemed to make sense – and it was more rational than some of the other arrangements for military-civil relationships. “We report directly to the President?”
“You report to me, I report to Chester, Chester reports to the President,” Lane said. He looked down at the floor and then back up at Jackson. “I won’t lie to you, son. There’s a good chance that you will end up dead or crippled within five years. And you will be held to a very high standard. We fuck up – hundreds of lives can be lost. If you want to back out…”
“Fuck that,” Jackson said. “It sounds like a challenge.”
“You have no idea,” Lane said. “If you’ll come along…it’s time to start putting you through your paces.”
Comments would be very welcome.
Mariko looked up as one of the prison guards came bursting into the underground complex where they’d been held ever since they’d been arrested. She’d lost track of time as the days wore on, leaving her unsure if they’d been held for a week or much longer. The other prisoners hadn’t been much help; they’d either been shipped out to start their sentences or bribed the guards enough to secure their release before they’d been willing to chat openly with the girls.
The guard leered down at her as he stopped outside her cage. It was a neat prison, she had to admit, a network of wired cages that allowed the guards to move freely without giving the prisoners a chance to plan an escape together. And even if they had managed to break out, where would they go? Mariko and Mai, her sister, both had the Japanese features that had been engineered into their line by their distant ancestors. They’d stick out like sore thumbs on Dorado and their freighter, according to the guards had been confiscated and sold for a small profit. The guards had claimed that the profits had barely been enough to pay for their stay in prison.
“The bidding war has been completed,” the guard informed her. He smiled as he heard Mai gasp from behind him. Mariko winced. Her sister was only sixteen, barely old enough to be allowed out on her own…and now she was looking at lifetime involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime she hadn’t committed. “Your new owner should be along to take custody of you within the hour.”
Mariko blanched. Despite herself, she’d hoped – prayed – that there would be a way out of the trap, but nothing had ever materialised. Their father was rich enough to pay a ransom, yet there wasn’t enough money in the universe to soothe the man they’d offended. And yet what else could they have done?
It had been less than six months since they’d left their homeworld and headed out to the Rim, the very outskirts of the Imperium itself. As independent freighter owners, they could hope to make a reasonable profit and perhaps even found a proper shipping line of their own, but first they had to make contacts and build a reputation. Dorado was one of the worlds which lay off most of the shipping lanes, so she’d decided that they should go and see if the world had anything to offer the rest of the sector. In hindsight, it was clear that most of the bigger shipping corporations had good reasons not to visit Dorado.
The first two days had gone well, well enough that she’d agreed to visit a nightclub near the spaceport with her sister. There, Mai had caught the attention of a half-drunk local who had tried to ply her with drink, and then, when she proved resistant, had tried to have his way with her by force. Mariko had stepped in and kicked her sister’s assailant in the groin, only to discover – too late – that the bastard had had friends. The beating they’d received had been savage, and when the local police had finally arrived they’d arrested the two sisters instead of the local youths. And then Mariko had discovered that the man she’d kicked in the groin was actually the son of one of the local aristocrats, the big men who ran the planet.
She’d tried to argue, but the local courts were as corrupt as they came. Their trial had been brief, formal and edgy; the judge had dismissed their pleas and sentenced them to involuntary servitude. Carlos – the man she’d assaulted – had watched them from the audience as sentence was passed, his eyes silently promising bloody revenge for what had happened to him. Mariko had no doubt that Carlos would win the bidding for a pair of slaves, even though slavery was technically outlawed within the Imperium, and when they fell into his hands…
It would be horrible. Of that, she had absolutely no doubts at all.
“Perhaps you should have considered entertaining us a little,” the guard said, his eyes leaving a trail of slime all over her breasts. There was no official prison uniform and so they’d been forced to wear what remained of the clothing they’d worn when they’d been arrested. It had been falling apart even then. “Some of us even considered bidding on you when the reserve price was announced.”
Mariko doubted that it would have made any difference. From what the other prisoners had said, life was cheap on Dorado. The police, who existed more to enforce the rules laid down by the wealthiest men on the planet, wouldn’t have been able to do more than drive the price up a little for a matched set of exotic slave girls. They’d probably console themselves with a visit to the nearest brothel while Mariko and Mai found themselves entertaining Carlos. The guards had been quite happy to tell them all about Carlos and his tastes…and if half of them were true, Mariko knew that Mai would not survive the first night. Her sister was younger and vulnerable; she’d never even had a boyfriend before leaving their homeworld. All Mariko could do was pray that Carlos fell asleep next to her, giving her an opportunity to slit the bastard’s throat. His father would have her killed for it, but it would be worth it if she took him down first.
The guard stepped back and turned to look at Mai. Mariko’s sister had retreated into herself ever since they’d been arrested, almost as if she was in a permanent state of shock. Mariko wanted to hold her, to promise her that everything would be all right, but the guards hadn’t even allowed them to share a cell. It was yet another form of torment for two prisoners who they hadn’t been allowed to touch physically. Whatever they had said, their actions suggested that they would have raped both girls if Carlos hadn’t been interested in them. They’d certainly raped another female prisoner, in full view of all of the other prisoners, before taking her out of the prison to an unknown fate. But maybe even that would have been preferable to spending the rest of her life as Carlos’s slave.
She covered her eyes, allowing her long black hair to fall over her face. Coming to Dorado had been the biggest mistake of her life, she knew that now. Her ambitions had led her to overlook the signs of trouble on the planet; her determination to enjoy her life had caused her to agree to go away from the spaceport and find a place to relax. And she’d led her sister to her doom. The planet didn’t even have a wormhole station that was connected to the interstellar communications network. She couldn’t send a message home begging for help.
A whimper from Mai caught her attention and she looked up. The guard was reaching through the bars, his hand clutching Mai’s breast. Mariko felt a flash of dull helpless anger even as she stumbled to her feet, trying to reach out to the guard and pull him away from her sister. The guard glanced back, smirked at her, and then moved just out of her reach. Mariko watched helplessly as he groped Mai, who seemed unable to even crawl away from him. Her sister’s spirit had been broken and it was all her fault. And there was nothing she could do to save Mai from facing a lifetime of servitude behind her.
She gritted her teeth and called out to the guard. “Let her go,” she said, trying to sound inviting. “Let her go and I’ll…I’ll suck you off.”
The guard let go of Mai at once, his hands reaching down to his pants. Mariko winced inwardly as his manhood, already hard, sprang out of confinement. He stroked it twice and then stepped towards her, inviting her to take it into his mouth. Mariko braced herself, trying not to breath, and then grabbed his testicles in both hands, hard. The guard let out a bellow of pain as she squeezed, trying her hardest to crush them before someone arrived to save her victim from his well-deserved punishment. Mariko heard the sound of footsteps just before someone struck her with a shock-rod. The guard screamed louder as Mariko let go of him and flopped to the floor, her entire body twitching with the residue of the electric shock. He had to have taken some of the shock himself. They’d certainly been in bodily contact when his comrade had zapped her.
She would have laughed as the other guards had started to work on her cell door, if it hadn’t been so hard to even stutter. The guards looked merciless, even the female bitches who were often worse than the men. Their comrade had been hurt and they wanted to punish her. Even the thought of what Carlos would say, or do, in response to any visible damage wouldn’t deter them. At least they were focusing on her, rather than Mai. Her sister would have a chance to recover before they turned their attention back to her. And perhaps they’d cut her throat after they’d used her, spiting Carlos at the final moment.
The first guard came into the cell, picked up Mariko’s twitching body and pushed it against the bars. She grunted in pain as he locked her hands to the metal and then started tearing at her clothes. Oddly, she felt herself growing distant from the scene in front of her, feeling more contempt than fear for the men who intended to torture and rape her. Dorado might never be a paradise, but if men like Carlos’s father and these thugs who passed for police officers and guards were removed, perhaps the ordinary human and alien citizens would have a chance at a better life. Instead, they tolerated them out of fear, or the cold knowledge that without them the aliens who worked in the plantations would turn on the humans. How could anyone consider it worth the price?
A hand touched her bared breast and she shuddered, trying not to show any sign of pain. It started to grip tightly as she closed her eyes, and then stopped. It took her a moment to realise that the other guards had fallen silent too. And then the hand fell away from her and she opened her eyes.
There was a newcomer in the underground prison. He wore the black top hat and dinner jacket of a person of true importance, a Class One Citizen from Homeworld itself. His face was handsome, almost too handsome to be real; his dark eyes seemed to flicker over her position for a moment before they narrowed in disapproval. He carried a black cane, topped with a silver bird’s head, in one hand, leaning on it in a languid pose that suggested that he’d seen it all before and he hadn’t been impressed the first time. The guards stared at him, as well they might. No one on Dorado, as far as Mariko knew, would have worn such an outfit unless they were trying to pass as a Grand Senator from Homeworld. Even Carlos, for all of his local power and influence, couldn’t match a Grand Senator, or even the least of their relatives. Such men had enough money to buy entire star systems.
“Good morning,” the stranger said. His voice had the aristocratic tones of Homeworld too, a slow drawl that suggested that the speaker knew himself to be the most powerful person in the room. “I came to pick up my property. I trust that I have not come too early?”
He stepped forward, the cane rapping out his footsteps on the stone floor. “What do you think you are doing to her?”
The guards looked at their chief, a man who seemed to enjoy the perks of his career as a jail supervisor. “We…we were teaching the bitch some manners,” he said, finally. Mariko had never heard someone sound so terrified before, even her mother when she’d pleaded with their father not to allow the girls to set out on their own. “She injured one of my men.”
“I did not pay fifty thousand credits for damaged goods,” the stranger said. There was something about his voice that suggested that there would be unpleasant consequences in the future. Fifty thousand credits! Mariko knew that the value of the Imperium’s Credit had been declining for centuries, but one could still buy a bulk freighter for fifty thousand credits and have spare change to hire a crew. “I am The Honourable Lord Fitzgerald d’Anconia Narragansett Grytpype-Thynne. We do not pay anything for damaged goods.”
Mariko felt her eyes widen in shock. The Grytpype-Thynne Family was a legend, one of the oldest of the families that made up the Grand Senate. There was no way to know how Lord Fitzgerald was related to the Grand Senator who headed the family, but there was no doubt that they would respond to an insult to their name. The next visitors to Dorado might be a squadron from the Imperial Navy, intent on teaching the locals some manners. It had happened before and would probably happen again.
Lord Fitzgerald glanced at her again and shook his head. Unlike the guards, he didn’t seem to linger on her body. “Release her,” he ordered, “and then open her sister’s cage.”
The guard stared at him. “But they’re dangerous criminals…”
“…Who happen to be my property,” Lord Fitzgerald said, firmly. Mariko felt herself blanch inside. She was a slave now. The only good thing about it was that Lord Fitzgerald didn’t seem to be Carlos. Maybe he’d decided to buy them on a lark and he’d give them their freedom sooner or later. “Release them, and then go find their property. I paid for that to be included in the auction.”
“Yes, Milord,” the guard said, and started barking orders at his subordinates. The guard Mariko had hurt was helped to his feet and dragged off to the medical bay, where he would probably be given some painkiller and told to get back to work. Dorado was not known for having a good healthcare system, unless one happened to be rich and powerful. “I’m afraid that some of their property was taken before we managed to secure their ship.”
“I’m sure it was,” Lord Fitzgerald said, dryly. The police would have gone through their property, taken anything interesting or valuable, and then shipped the rest to the prison, where the guards would see if they found anything interesting or valuable. Mariko had no idea how much of their property had survived long enough to be sold with them, but right now she found it hard to care. They wouldn’t have been able to take the funds from their Imperial Credit Bank account. There would be enough there to get transport back home, if necessary. “Now, leave us.”
Mariko slumped to the floor as the handcuffs were removed, her body still tingling after she’d been shocked. Lord Fitzgerald walked over and offered her a hand, helping her to her feet, before stepping aside to allow her to hug Mai tightly. Her sister was crying openly, as if she thought that they’d been reprieved – and in a sense, they had been. Surely Lord Fitzgerald couldn’t be as bad as Carlos.
“I was given to understand that you were both qualified space pilots,” Lord Fitzgerald said, after a moment. He’d been kind enough to let them hug each other before interrupting. “Is that true?”
“Yes, sir,” Mariko said. The qualifications had been why they’d been allowed to purchase a freighter and set off on their own, although on Dorado she suspected that it was easier to bribe the local Imperial Shipping Officer than actually sit for the exams. Maybe Lord Fitzgerald had had reason to distrust the local claims when he’d entered the auction. “We were both tested on Edo two years ago – our files should be accessible if you use the codes on our ID cards.”
“Which isn’t actually possible on Dorado,” Lord Fitzgerald said, dryly. Mariko flushed. She should have realised that that wouldn’t be immediately possible. Lord Fitzgerald might have had enough money to buy the planet and everyone on it, but he couldn’t alter simple geographical realities. The nearest system with a wormhole station was twenty-three light years away. “But rest assured I will inspect them once they are back in your hands.”
He turned and led them out of the prison complex, up a long flight of stairs and into a large open room that had clearly been designated as the clearing house. Most of the guards had vanished, but two had remained to sort out the boxes containing everything they’d taken from the Happy Wanderer. Seeing the small pile of clothing and a handful of datachips made her wince. Their property had been pawed by strangers and most of the good stuff was gone.
“Here, Milord,” she said, as she recovered the wallets containing their ID cards. They, at least, were difficult to fake without causing major problems for anyone who actually tried to use them. “You should be able to check the certificates easily.”
Lord Fitzgerald nodded and pulled a reader out of his suit’s pocket. Mariko left him to it and concentrated on digging through the boxes. The searchers had had odd priorities. Some fashionable clothes from Edo had been ignored, but they’d taken all of her sexy underwear and a handful of short skirts. The strictly boring underwear she wore while in deep space had been left behind, as had her shipsuit. But Mai’s shipsuit – which was more fashionable – was gone.
“Dress quickly,” Lord Fitzgerald said. Mariko remembered their position and scrambled to put on some clothes, urging Mai to do the same. They were his slaves – and would remain that way until he let them go. No one would protect them against a Grand Senator’s family. “We have a great deal of work to do.”
But it could be worse, Mariko told herself firmly. It could be a great deal worse.
Just had this going through my head.
“And just who is he meant to be?”
Charlene Benson sighed as her stepmother scowled at the latest picture on her wall. “It’s an elf, Addie,” she said, in a tone calculated to annoy the elder woman. “One of the Lords of Other World…”
“It looks like a goddamned indecent picture of Mr. Spock,” Addie snapped. She glanced around Charlene’s room. “And why exactly do you keep wasting my money on such crap?”
Charlene ran her hand through her long black hair, silently thanking the powers-that-be that she’d donned her paleface makeup along with her dark contact lenses. She might not have been a full Goth, but there was enough in her appearance to drive the straight-laced Addie into fits of rage. The woman was only taking care of her out of an obligation to Addie’s dead father, the man she’d probably driven into an early grave. Evil stepmothers didn’t just exist in fairy tales, after all.
“Because it is a distraction from the pointlessness of my existence,” Charlene said, finally. Her father had been proud of her for expanding her imagination and developing stories of her own worlds, where magic was real and unicorns danced in the moonlight; Addie preferred not to think about anything that wasn’t mundane and boring. “And I believe that it is my money.”
They stared at each other for a long moment. Charlene’s father had written a careful will when he’d known that he was dying, leaving most of his estate to his daughter. But until Charlene turned sixteen – perhaps eighteen, depending on how the state chose to interpret the will – she was only allowed a stipend from her father’s accounts. Addie had been given a lump sum, most of which she’d already spent taking care of her two little brats and hiring lawyers to contrast the terms of the will. Charlene’s fear was that she might succeed in convincing some judge to give her more of the money before Charlene had a chance to make good her escape from Addie’s care.
Not that she was that bad, she admitted in the privacy of her own head, but the woman was a sallow-faced bitch with very definite ideas on how to bring up children. There was no television in the house; the only reason Charlene had a laptop and an internet connection was that her father had bought them for her just prior to his death. That hadn’t stopped the bitch insisting on installing monitoring software, although she hadn’t picked a very good brand and Charlene had not had much difficulty evading it. She wasn’t even a very competent evil stepmother.
“I am supposed to ensure that you don’t waste it,” Addie said, finally. “And I can tell that you’re not keeping accounts.”
“Whatever,” Charlene drawled. Addie’s reason for insisting that she should keep accounts was obvious. She’d be able to use the accounts to see exactly what Charlene did with her money. “I used my money and my money alone.”
Addie’s lips thinned, but she refused to rise to the bait. “You’ll be attending the social tonight at the church,” she said, finally. “I expect you to be properly dressed; I don’t want you wearing anything that makes you look like an ill-bred street urchin.”
Charlene snickered. Addie was constantly dragging her to social events, hoping that Charlene would marry the son of one of her friends. The first time she’d gone, it had been boring beyond belief; the second time she’d dressed up as Death of the Endless. People had been taking about Addie for months afterwards and not in a good way.
Addie cast one final disapproving look around Charlene’s room and stalked out, closing the door firmly behind her. Charlene smiled as she looked up at her vast collection of books and DVDs, all based around fantasy worlds. Old classics such as The Lord of the Rings shared her bookshelves with the entire Harry Potter series and most of the Twilight books. Her father had been a moderately successful writer, breaking into the big time when he’d had a heart attack that had killed him two years ago. Charlene had grown up surrounded by his life and ended up taking it to heart.
Her mother had died in childbirth, leaving her father bringing up a single daughter alone. Charlene knew that her father had done his best, but she’d turned to fantasy to fill the gaping holes in her life. Her mother, she had told herself, was an unimaginably powerful entity from before the Dawn of Time, just waiting for the right moment to re-enter her daughter’s life. Later, she’d constructed worlds inside her head where Prince Charming had come for her and taken her away from her humdrum existence and brought her to a palace where she could help in rule the world. Real life just didn’t seem to match up to an inner world where dwarves and elves went on quests to recover long gold or throw ancient rings into volcanoes; it had been no surprise that she’d never paid much attention at school. Addie blamed it on a lack of discipline. Charlene blamed it on a simple lack of attraction in the mundane world.
She shook her head slowly as she stood up and studied herself in the mirror. The heavy makeup she’d smeared on her face earlier left her looking inhumanly pale, contrasting oddly with the dark hair that was her only legacy from her mother. A pair of boyfriends had told her that her body was great, although boys could never be trusted to tell the truth. One thing that she found herself in reluctant agreement with Addie was that boys only wanted one thing and would say whatever it took to get to third base with a girl.
Sitting back down, she picked up a book at random and began to read. If nothing else, she could pretend not to hear Addie when she called her down to eat, or even when they were going out to the social. She could really do without her stepmother’s attempts at matchmaking. Perhaps if she dressed up as Hermione Granger from Harry Potter…
She was still considering the possibilities when the world seemed to spin around her.
Shadye’s body ached with the effort, but he drew the four containment wards himself, just as the best grimoires ordered. The small army of skeletal servants who met his few needs and guarded his tower weren’t human any longer and using them to work on the preparations for his spell might annoy the entities he intended to summon. Magic involving imps, sprites or demons had to be done precisely, or not at all. His tutors had hammered it into his head, time and time again; no magical entity could ever be taken lightly. Even an imp, the least capable and intelligent of the Darkness, could cause a great deal of damage if angered.
He stepped back and surveyed his efforts while holding himself upright. The rejuvenation spells he had used over the years were finally decaying, leaving him with no more than ten years of life before his body finally expired. He was aware of his enemies watching the wards surrounding his tower, waiting for them to fall in the wake of his death; their spying spells were barely kept out by his defences these days. It grew harder and harder to care about their presence, even though no sorcerer liked the idea of someone watching him from afar. They no longer feared his wrath.
The first containment ward was designed to attract the sprites; the second and third to hold them while he proclaimed their mission. He stepped forward, careful not to break any of the chalk lines, and positioned himself in the centre of the fourth ward. It was a shame that he couldn’t bring his staff into the wards with him, but it was dangerous to risk altering the ritual too much. Generations of sorcerers had experimented with the rules to find out what could be altered and what was necessary – and some of their stories were still told as cautionary tales in the White Order. He would have to remain standing upright on his own and hope that his strength held out long enough to complete the ritual. The art of magic took physical strength as well as intelligence, courage and talent.
He closed his eyes and centred himself, picturing his appearance in his mind’s eye. As a young man, he had been handsome before the ravages of magic began to take their toll on his frame. Now he was old and withered, the only remaining sign of hair on his body being the short white beard dangling from his chin. It was often dangerous to have long hair when summoning entities from the Darkness, but Shadye had never managed to bring himself to cut off his beard. What little remained of his vanity wouldn’t allow it. His eyes, burning with the signs of magic, would frighten the mundane people who lived near his tower if they ever saw them without the protective glamour. That was good; those who were scared were unlikely to bother him. Shadye had no intention of helping them any further than he had by allowing them to settle on his lands. The idealist he’d once been had given way to an old man who knew that he was dying. His time was running out.
Opening his eyes, he shaped the first Word of Power in his mind and then pronounced it into the air. The candles illuminating the chamber winked out instantly, leaving the room illuminated only by a faint glow from the chalk wards on the floor. Shadye had never been bothered by the darkness, not when he’d known that there were few things in the mundane world’s darkness worse than him. The real darkness lay in the human body and soul, and in the other realities above and below…
The second Word of Power echoed through the air, followed quickly by a titter as the sprites started to gather around him. Shadye could sense their quicksilver thoughts flitting through the ether as they heeded his call, although they weren’t yet ready to actually answer him. No one in the White Order really understood the sprites, even though they were the only entities the White Order permitted its sorcerers to summon and use. Demons were creatures of malicious chaos, too powerful to be tamed and too twisted to be trusted. Imps just didn’t have the power to do what he needed done.
He braced himself and spoke the third Word of Power. The air seemed to vibrate suddenly as the first of the sprites began to materialise, a strange creature that was only visible out of the corner of Shadye’s eye. Legend had it that the few who’d looked directly at a sprite had turned to stone. Shadye privately doubted it, even though the sprites could very definitely have turned an unhappy victim into a statue. They were just so different that human eyes couldn’t really comprehend their true nature.
One by one, the sprites materialised, shimmering into existence until Shadye had to close his eyes to save them from the strange vision. He felt sweat running down his back as he held himself together by force of will, knowing that one mistake now would kill him as surely as a death spell from one of the assassins who had been sent after him when he left the White Order. Sprites weren’t demonic, but they disliked being bound to the service of puny mortals.
“I need an apprentice,” Shadye said, into the air. The humming of the sprites grew louder as they digested his words, almost as though they were communicating with each other at a rate beyond human comprehension. Hundreds of learned treatises had been written about how the sprites might communicate with their own kind, all of which could be expressed in three words. We don’t know. “I am dying and my work will soon be lost. I must pass on what I know to a successor or the Grey Order will be truly lost.”
A faint titter ran through the air. Shadye flushed at the thought that they considered his position – and his desperation – humorous, but he managed to keep himself upright. They might have wanted to bait him into stepping out of the containment ward…and then he would have been theirs.
He reached into his robes and produced a scroll. “My apprentice must be clever, wise in the ways of myths and legends, willing to serve the cause of the Grey…”
The humming seemed to fade as he read out the requirements, one by one. Sprites weren’t demons, but they were notoriously mischievous. If they were given imprecise instructions, they might bring someone who fitted the letter of the instructions, but was completely unsuitable for the role. It was a shame that he couldn’t recruit openly outside his lands, yet perhaps it would work in his favour. His new apprentice would be someone completely unknown to the White Order and the Chaotic cults. It had taken weeks to write out the list of requirements and he hadn’t been able to escape the sense that he had overlooked something important. If he’d been able to have someone check his work…
…But there was no one else in the tower, apart from his skeleton servants. And they were hardly capable of learning magic.
“And so I bind you to bring me someone who fits all of my requirements,” he concluded. Old enough to learn, young enough not to have too many preconceived notions to unlearn; smart enough to learn the art, thoughtful enough not to be seduced into chaos. So few had the innate talent and discipline that allowed them to reach the highest levels of wizardry; even the White Order had problems finding recruits. “Go.”
The presence of the sprites winked out as they headed away on their mission. Shadye sagged, but held himself within the wards. It wasn’t unknown for one of the sprites to remain behind and wait to see if he would uncover himself once his comrades had vanished. He would have to remain in the circle until the sprites returned, victorious. And that could take hours, or even days. He had no illusions about how long his strength would hold out if the sprites managed to delay their return, even though he had bound them to search with all the speed of their non-corporal kind.
Time seemed to tick by slowly until he felt the sprites heading back towards him. A brilliant blue blaze of light seemed to envelop the other protective circle, rapidly becoming too bright for him to look at directly. The light seemed almost physical in its intensity and then it faded away into a darkness that enveloped the person inside. There was another titter from the assembled sprites, followed by a sense of pressure against his wards as they reminded him that he had to keep his side of the bargain. Carefully, feeling his body aching with pain, he reached into his robes again and produced a small vial of blood. No one knew why the sprites wanted to be paid in human blood, but it was never wise to disappoint them. They might not come when they were called the second time.
He tossed the vial into the air, only to see it vanish the moment it crossed the protective ward, followed rapidly by the sprites. The darkness they had summoned faded away and he found himself looking at the person they had brought to him…and found his mouth dropping open with disbelief. Whatever he’d been looking for in an apprentice, and he had been very specific, it wasn’t that.
Charlene had somehow managed to avoid panic as the world twisted and vanished in front of her. The utter darkness that replaced it had to be something, perhaps a product of the drug she’d tried last night, the one that Addie would have killed her if she’d known she’d even considered taking. But it hadn’t done much apart from make her feel sick. Perhaps it would make her sick enough so she wouldn’t be able to go to the social…
Light seemed to spin in from nowhere and she found herself staring in absolute disbelief. Her room, her small and comfortable room, was gone. Instead, she was standing inside a massive chamber, staring at someone who had to be the oldest man in the world. He had to be at least ninety years old with a build like that, even though he could still stand and walk under his own power. His wizened head seemed to glow under the candlelight, as were his eyes… It was hard to tell, because his skin was so ancient, but he looked vaguely Japanese.
She took a step forward and found herself walking right into an invisible barrier. There was nothing that she could see barring her way, but try as she might she couldn’t move more than a few inches from her landing point. She looked down and saw glowing lines on the floor that matched the invisible barrier in the air. Could it be…magic? Charlene was more inclined to accept a supernatural explanation than many of her fellows, yet there was no real magic in her world. How could there be?
But what else could explain her presence?
She cleared her throat, which was suddenly dry, and addressed the old man. “Who are you and why did you bring me here?”
The old man ignored her. Charlene couldn’t tell if he was being rude or if he genuinely didn’t understand what she was saying. Instead, he was muttering to himself in a language she didn’t recognise and glaring down at a scroll of paper in his hand. Absently, he waved a hand through the air and a glowing light appeared beside him, making it easier to see. Charlene felt her heartbeat start to race as all doubts finally vanished from her mind.
Something that has been buzzing through my head.
There are five cycles of life in the known universe.
First, a race develops intelligence and crawls out of the mud. They are the primitive, explaining what they see through mythology and imagining the existence of gods.
Second, a race develops technology and replaces superstition with rationality. They are the learners, struggling to understand the processes that drove their forbearers towards intelligence.
Third, a race develops space travel and reaches out beyond the horizon. They explore the universe, meet new friends and enemies, and take their place among the stars.
Fourth, a race evolves to the point where they become beings of energy, with powers that seem godlike to the lesser races. They withdraw from contact with the galaxy and start to develop their own mentalities. The petty struggles between Third Cycle races no longer concern them.
Fifth, a race opens a gateway into the Vale, a higher dimension, and leaves the mortal plane forever….
…And what happens after that, nobody knows.
Some races never develop technology, or are destroyed by their own success. Others in the First and Second Cycle meet Third Cycle races and are overwhelmed by them, their development short-circuited and terminated. Some survive and eventually evolve past the cultural shock caused by meeting more advanced races, others decay and become little more than scavengers, feeding on the leavings of more advanced races.
But what happens when one race tries to jump ahead of itself?