Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chapter Eleven

"Sit down Collin."
"Thank you sir."

It had probably been a coach's office. A few bits of shiny plastic scattered around pieces of heavier plastic shaped like small people doing things were scattered around the room. The desk was full of musty socks, half used tubes of some sort of athletic cream, and a dozen whistles.
There had also been a few used syringes under a secret panel under the musty socks; but they'd been taken to a lab for testing. Since the room had been cleared, and since the barricades had been set up the area was considered secure. There were other offices, but this one had come with a chair.

"I assume Jor explained things?"
"Yes sir."
"Did you learn anything you hadn't already known."
"No sir."
"I didn't think so. Collin, Do you know why I recruited you?"
"No sir."
"You reminded me of her. Strong willed, able, and willing to do what you thought was right even if it went against a direct order. They aren't bad traits by any means, in many ways I count on them in order to see things done properly. But the empire is only as strong as those who fight for it. If good soldiers like yourself, or Jeanine, refuse to fight for it, then it will break and you will realize just how much good the empire really does."

He looked back down. Paperwork, bane of soldiers everywhere, covered the desk. He was writing letters to the families of the soldiers they'd lost yesterday, securing the computer core.
"The empire is to compacted. I've talked to Peter, and some of the researchers. We all agree that the empire doesn't work on this scale. The system was designed to place much of the authority in the hands of the nobility, men made able to complete their tasks by challenging lives and adventures in their youth. A thousand years ago when the system was built it worked. But as time has gone by their have been more nobles and no more land. The monsters of nightmare, shadowy cults, and assassins have all been exterminated."
"But what about"
"I said the assassins have been exterminated."
Collin bowed her head submissively.
"Anyways, there are too few adventures left to be had. What rare nobles actually do manage to have them turn out well enough, perhaps you will one day be counted amongst them. For the rest, the wealth of taxes and harsh business have made them fat and lazy. These are the ones that have been bothering you, as they have us all. There is nothing we can do about them. Perhaps things will begin changing now, perhaps you will be one of those who helps it change."
"And your daughter?"
"If we do not first try to fix the system from within itself, then we are no better than criminals. What she did was illegal, and she knew it. What's more, it was stupid and vainglorious of her to do it as she did. I do not regret my actions, and I do not think she regrets hers. Until one of us changes our mind we will gain nothing by speaking."
"Sir I'm.."
"There is nothing else to be said of the matter. The question now is; what will you do?"
"Well sir, I thought about it. Polly didn't deserve that, she's a well meaning girl who honestly doesn't know any better."
He nodded, setting one of the letters aside to dry while he began on the next one.
"I think the fact that she chose to come out and explore, of her own volition, speaks very well of her character. Maybe one day she will have cultivated the skills needed to be a good ruler. Instead of thinking of her as a silly, dramatic princess, I will endeavor to treat her as a future ally and my equal in social standing."
"Your father didn't abandon you you know."
"Lord Crasengan sent me a letter of recommendation, while he was dying after the trial. He said that you were a good child, with good intentions and very capable. I thought little of it at the time, he had referred several other convicted criminals to me; most outrank me now. But now that I know who you really are I've been reading over the letter again."
He reached into the drawer with the whistles, and pulled a small envelope out. The paper was wrinkled a it, and had weathered badly, but the broken seal was clearly that of Collin's father.
"Its the little things that I should have seen. 'watched this one carefully for years', 'a better daughter than her slovenly father deserved', 'be sure to care for her as though she were my own blood'; He'd been planning for years, sending me the best so that I'd take you without second thought. But it was this one, from my older son."
Collin blushed slightly at the mention of Hamren, the Captain's son. He knew full well of their..history.
"Jeanine asked about you by name. Hamren never talked about you, not even to his sister. He told me that I should keep you nearby to keep you safe. But Crasengan was too fair and just a ruler to have garnered their contracts, and his mercy likely has left a certain level of protection on you. The only reason that she would know is if they were watching you. I didn't know his Lordship personally, although he was certainly one of the friendlier nobles; but I would wager my knife that he was a branded member; and had been doing everything in his power to help you. Even if he couldn't help you himself."
He heard her sobbing lightly. She was still trying to keep it down. But after a lifetime of plotting to force her father to acknowledge her, to realize that he had been watching out for her the whole time must be fairly monumental.
"I'll leave you alone. I've put all the information I've managed to gather over the last couple days in a folder in the top drawer. Go ahead and look at it when you have the chance. Just promise me one thing."
She nodded, moist eyes intent through puffy cheeks.
"When you become a noble, take care of Jeanine for me."

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Chapter Ten

Three days passed, the already unreliable lights in the ship went out. A few other things began working in their place, a few computers with unreadable text and few easily identifiable images. Peter had set himself to trying to translate the writing, and a team of linguists, programmers, magical theorists, and archaeologists had joined them in what the men had come to refer to as 'the Gym'. Most had done nothing but stare in fear and awe at the advanced technology, but a few had been more friendly.

Sharrai had made herself useful in further attempts to explore the ship. Even without magic she had proved to be the best at killing the locals. She'd learned to read the enviroment, spotting every sign of their presence. And she'd even managed to teach the men the most effective ways of engaging an enemy with cover and powerful ranged weapons.
However, she'd been antagonizing every magic user that had come through. Many of the men shared her lingering hatred of the magic-using elites, and her views had gained steam. She never did anything in the base, other than her open beligerance and inflamatory speech. But he'd been hearing rumors that magic users who went out exploring with her weren't dying by the hands of the frail locals.

It was because of this that he'd decided to lead today's expedition. Not on his own of course, Jor and Collin would be accompanying him as always. But it was the three of them, a linguist, a theorist, and a pair of elderly programmers. They'd also be accompanied by the chief archaeologist's young assistant, a perky girl about Jor's age. He wouldn't have even given it a second thought, but Collin had been teasing him about it and the normally calm giant had actually been rather testy over it.

"So where do you have in mind for us today Captain?"
"Collin mentioned that she'd spotted a large computer core and some stairs down this way. It seemed like the sort of thing you sorts would be interested in."
"A fully intact computer core? Were the access points intact?"
"Looked like it, nice big screen too. Door was thick as some of the hull plates, I'd say this was something important."
Hamaf knew that Collin had more than one reason to make that judgement, she'd lost four men securing the room. Jor lost another two holding it against a counter attack, and both of their squads as well as his own were still patrolling the area in case they tried again. No where else on the ship had merited a counter attack, the locals considered it important, and that alone made it important.
"I wonder what sort of secrets they have hidden on it? Maybe the secrets to immortality, or a cosmic dimmer switch, or..."
Collin stifled a laugh. As he glanced back to see who the..excitable lass was he realized just why Collin had been teasing Jor about her. She was bouncy, bubbly, eccentric; if he had only known Collin was a noble, he would have assumed she was like this girl. Her reaction to the loud grinding as Jor opened the door to the computer core made her noble's nature all the more apparent. Not only did she focus in on it, she tensed right up, becoming mercifully silent, and her hands lit up with an azure flame. He'd have to ask about that.

"You can use magic?"
Apparently he wouldn't.
"Your hands are on fire."
"Oh, yes it's pretty easy and it looks better than just standing there."
"Hmn, why would you want your adversary to know that you were going to be hurling fire and magic at them?"
"I don't understand the question."
"I said.."
"Collin, I told you about this."
"Sorry sir."
"You'll be dealing with these sort of people for the rest of your life, just get used to it and don't question the theatric absurdity of the nobility."
"But sir, it's just ridiculous. Are we all just supposed to sit around and watch this sort of absurd crap go on with the people who are supposed to be ruling us?"
"That's as far as this conversation goes kiddo. I've said my piece and if you have an issue with it then you'll need to talk to someone else about it."
"Like your daughter?"
Jor interrupted just in time, "Sir, can you save this for a latter moment, I can't watch all these civies on my own."
"Yes Jor. We'll be right in. Collin, go check out the stairs and think things over. You're on double shifts until you can figure out what you've done."
"Yes sir." Even through her dismay at the strong punishment rendered her ingrained obedience sent her along her way to attend to her new post. Hamaf took a deep breath before turning to the exit.
"Jor, you're in command. I'm returning to base. If Collin asks, explain exactly what she's done. And thank you for stepping in when you did."
"Of course sir, and if I may say so sir, I'm sure she'll come around one of these days."
"I admire your hopefullness."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Chapter Nine

"So all this time you were really?"
Collin nodded. Hamaf had secrets of his own, and this wasn't the first unique character that had joined his command. He'd gotten several future guardsmen, a dozen notorious criminals, disgruntled politicians; admittedly he'd never had someone as high profile as Collin before, but the responses were less than dissimilar.
"Were you afraid I'd treat you differently? That I'd think of you as something you aren't? Collin, you are one of my officers. Not a single one of them was promoted because of something their father or grandfather did or is; I made you an officer because you can handle the responsibilities and have earned the privileges. Never question that, because I expect you to keep your platoon operating to the same standard as you did before."
"Yes sir."

They continued down the hall. Small glowing orbs hovered every five meters, suspended mid-air where Peter had conjured them. Weak as they were, the illumination they provided allayed the fears of the men.
Hamaf grinned as he pondered the glowing orbs.
"However, I expect now that you're nobility and not just another urchin pickpocket my wife will be considerably more interested in having you over for dinner."
She laughed, The captain's wife was notorious for her weekly dinners for the more respectable officers. It was no secret she hoped to one day move up in the world.

A familiar sound came from the door ahead of them, the weapon that had wounded Collin earlier. Peter had been forwarned, and his enchantments prevented further casualties. Sharai and the rest of the company had brought the crossbows with them, and in the Fae illumination of the accompanying orbs the troopers easily dispatched the unarmored adversaries.
"I see why you had so much trouble with that last one." Peter leaned angainst the wall, clearly wearied by his magic. "Whatever they're using it's much more powerful than a crossbow."
"Hurts worse too."
"They die easily enough though. If you can keep up that barrier we'll deal with them quickly enough."
"I can't do this all day. If we encounter much more resistance I'll need a nap."
"Magic, bah." Sharrai came up from the rear. "No wonder the old kingdoms fell, The empire is held on the backs of honest men, not snivelling mages in their towers and temples. Your kind just create problems for the rest of us. A dozen lanterns and a pair of sturdy shields would replace you easily enough, now.."
"Liuetenant that's enough. Peter here is a member of his Majesty's imperial guard and to be treated with respect. I obey his orders and through me he commands you; if he says we stop, we stop, if he says we fight, we fight. And if you insist on doing otherwise I will be forced to personally inform your family that you angered a mage and died a fool's death."
She pulled back, no matter her predjudice against magic and its practitioners she respected his authority. She owed him that much, especially considering the lengths he had gne to to keep her out of trouble in the past.

"Rest may not be such a bad idea sir. We've been walking for hours now and the men are getting hungry. Perhaps we should wait here and radio back to forward command that we've found a suitable location for company HQ."
"We have?"
"Yes, this room is quite large, a sort of gymnasium I'd say. There are locker rooms on either side, complete with functioning plumbing."
"Really, you don't say? I could go for a good shower. Sharrai, for your insubordinate behavior towards the good guardsman, you will take the first watch. Wake Sergent Krenian to take over in five hours then get some rest yourself. Collin, you and your men are the best rested I assume."
She nodded quickly.
"Good, set up the radio equipment in the center of the room. We'll contact Command and report our progress. Perhaps they can give us some idea of where we are, get some sort of map of this place going. Ask them to send supplies, if we can get a basic mess kit set up then this place will be a fully functional base camp. Esteval, you and Thak gather some of the debris in the nearby halls and set up some sort of barricade outside of the lockers. Maybe a fall back point in here when you finish. Mr. Guardsman; get some rest, you'll need it if we plan on making as much progress tomorrow."

A veritable chorus of affirmation, the work would be well worth it for the chance to rest after three days of exploration. By now he imagined they'd be nearing the outside of the ship. It was only a matter of time before they found something worth looking for.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Chapter Eight

"Maintenance? You expect me to believe that the Imperial Guard, the personal bodyguard of the Emperor, the top mages of the Empire, have a maintenance department."
"Yes, we do the plumbing, the heating, the lighting, the killing, the gardening, and we make the beds. If you're good they let you do the laundry."
He stared blankly at the clearly insane man before him. The rest of the men exchanged incredulous glances as a wary silence settled over the room.

"Did you say you do the killing?"
"And the laundry, it's less fun with the new emperor; he's really picky about his clothes."
"Let's talk about his Imperial Undies later, you said you do the killing?"
"It's more complicated than that. We aren't assassins, we're maintenance, we maintain things."
"So, political assassins?"
"No, we contract that out for increased government intrigue. We just do the important ones, ex-guards, cults, corrupt nobles; the ones that actually matter."
Hamaf stared at him. If he wasn't crazy he'd have to be a guard, no one else would be so blunt about how little any of the politicians or news figures mattered.
"Fine," Collin stepped forward, "If you work in maintenence then you have files on those people right?"
"Somewhere, probably; they don't just go telling us everything."
"Then who am I?"
Peter sighed, "You're lucky the captain thought of this before hand. Collin Harmensky, first sergent, A company 'the stone wolves', third batallion, tenth regiment of the Imperial regular Army Corp. You were born in Crasen, in the Ilkhen province, to Mary and Pafun Harmensky. Your mother died from complications and your dad was hopped up on stimulants, so your brother Denis was responsible for most of your upbringing. He was the one who taught you to be a pickpocket, which in turn lead to your arrest and your sentence to twenty years minimum in the service. The captain here seleected you to join his team after seeing your skills as a pathfinder. Under the Merit system he runs you attained the rank of sergent, a rank you still hold. But we both know that's not true, don't we?"
"I'm sorry captain, I couldn't.."
"LADY Collin Harmensky, illegitamite heir to the late Phillip Crasengan. Your mother did indeed die in childbirth, but it was not your brother who taught you to pickpocket. It was nessecity, because your father refused to acknowledge you publicly and you were left unsuported. When you reached the age of sixteen you chose to slip up and get caught in order to force him to recognize you. The shock of seeing you turned criminal killed him, and you were left trapped with your sentence."
He brushed a bit of dirt off his fingernails, making no noticeable difference to his cleanliness.
"Just as well really, we're sitting on Crasen now. If it hadn't been for your boneheadedness you'd be a bloodied pulp somewhere under this ship. By all rights this ship and whatever can be made of it are yours. But not until you finish your sentence and get properly lorded. Which is why I'm we're next year, before you can lay claim to it."

"So all the rush is because Collin technically owns the place?"
"Yes, that and the Disaster recovery efforts. Publicly we're here trying to rescue survivors, giving us the right to close down all roads and transit through the area. This keep people from realizing what's actually going on here. Which is why I'm here, we're going to keep pressing on and find the ship's command center. One of my coworkers will be assisting a second company in finding the propulsion, and a third will be exploring the rest. Everyone else is trying to remove as much of the hull as possible in order to air the place out a bit and..well we'll just get to that later."

Chapter Seven

The men were quiet. But that was hardly unexpected, Imperial Guards had that effect on people. Hamaf would have shared their silence but as the commanding officer he was expected to be in control of the situation, or at least appear so.
"So, what unit are you from?"
"Transportation, I just make sure people get from point A to Point B without dying."
He bent over in the middle of the room. After glancing around for a moment he pulled a pouch off of his belt and started sprinkling powder in a circle around himself. After the pouch had been emptied he shuffled out of the ring and began to brush the powder into elaborate patterns.

He'd seen street performers do something similar to accompany some of their more impressive effects. It had a name, but he couldn't remember it. But those few experiences in the past had shown him that it was better to stand a safe distance away from any sort of magic.

Collin was locked in place a little closer to the circle. She was wringing her hands quietly and muttering to herself. He knew her well enough to know it wasn't terror, and anything thought about magic that wasn't a form of fear was a dangerous way to think about magic.
Collin ignored him. Never a good sign.
"Sergent, get over here."
The guard was bending over to activate the circle. Collin stepped forward towards it, as if to enter it.
"Sergent Collin Harmensky, I order you to get over here now!"
She snapped back instantly and fell backwards in shock. He reached down and pulled her away from the circle as a the circle dissolved into the floor and began to glow purple. The men readied their weapons; magic was bad enough, but purple never meant anything good. Somewhere in the Captain's thoughts a tiger roared defensively, he knew that whatever was coming through it would be more than they could dream of handling.
"Sorry to interrupt your little doomsday ceremony, but it's time for you to butt out."
To complete the pun, the back end of a blood-red stave connected with the top of the guard's helmet. With a quick yelp he fell into the circle and...just kept falling; like it were a hole in the universe itself.
A short man in a robe appeared holding the staff. He quickly bent over touched the circle, incinerating all traces of it. The floor returned to it's previous, finite state.
"Sorry about that, these conjurer sorts tend to take advantage of people's assumptions about us. You can't be held responsible for that." He turned and gingerly took Collin's hand. "Are you alright milady?"
She blinked rapidly, still shaken by the experience. "I, I guess so."
"Have a bit to drink, it'll help you shake off the effects. Mind Control is nasty business."
Collin took the flask and took a sip. Hamaf studied the man carefully before approaching him. He was, well, short. He was probably a good six inches smaller than Hamaf was, barely taller than Collin. Brown hair, dirty, he smelled a bit like a sewer. And his clothes were little more than tightly bound rags, and they weren't even the same color rags.
But he was kinder than the guard had been. If he'd been a guard after all, being kicked into your own bottomless pit seemed like a stupid mistake for anybody. And he seemed genuinely concerned for Collin's well-being. The girl had been like a daughter to him since she'd signed on, anyone who treated her well got at least a few minutes of his time.
"Who are you?"
"My apologies," He switched his staff to his left hand. "Lieutenant Peter, you'll forgive me if I don't tell you my last name. I've seen what you can do with a proper name and I'd prefer to not be so easily commanded."
"Where do you work?"
A wide grin grew across his stubble covered face. "Maintenance"

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Chapter Six

"How's the shoulder missy?"
Collin perked up as she saw Hamaf and his men returning from their exploration.
"Forgive me for not saluting sir, it's still a bit stiff."
"At ease Sergent, anything interesting happen?"
"Word from the surface a few minutes ago, those reinforcements finally arrived. You won't believe what they sent."
"Do I want to?"
"Imperial Guards. They're sending a team down now, as well as several companies. And I hadn't even mentioned the casualty."
Hamaf stared off into the darkness. He didn't look forward to meeting that poor lad's mother. It had been years since the Army had lost a soldier to anything but training accidents. To be the officer obligated to report the first actual casualty in the last decade was one of the worst things imaginable.
Not for him, if he lived he'd be receiving commendations for finding a way in. But he could only imagine what his wife would feel if it had been him who'd died.

"Clean things up so we can get them all in. Jor, take a team out to the third beacon, the one in that large open room with all the tables. Secure it and await further orders. Collin, contact them and tell them to bring a generator or something down so we can get some decent light. The rest of you, I want the halls as debris free as possible."
"Collin was it? Don't worry about the light. Leave that to me."
Hamaf turned around just as a bright light filled the room. He blinked rapidly in an attempt to shake off the resulting and as his vision returned he saw the perpetrator.
Armored from head to toe, the flattened kraj of his breastplate shining in the residual glow of his magic, an Imperial Guard stood in their midst. His staff was tall, and its red hue matched the stains on Collin's right pauldron.

His reaction was quick, a straightened hand to his brow. It wasn't wise to be disrespectful towards the emperor's elite. And it would have be no wiser had it been merely an ordinary, if such a thing could even be said, magic user.
"Captain Hamaf, what is the status of you operation?"
"Sir, we have made good headway into the ship. It's in bad shape but passable."
"This thing sir, we thought about it and the men and I decided that it is a very, very large ship."
One eager soldier quietly muttered that he still thought it was more of a fortress, but the warrior-magi seemed not to notice.

He looked around the room, everyone had dropped what they were doing to salute the guardsman, save Collin who was trying to remain as respectful as she could without causing further damage to her shoulder. But the guard noticed the unsaluting figure and rounded on her quickly.
"What happened to your shoulder?"
"Well sir, we encountered..certain..difficulties."
"And you're missing a soldier. Thirty men came down and ten of them are just up the hall, why are there only nineteen of you?"
"A pipe blew out sir, he was killed by.."
"No need Sergent, it wouldn't take a mage like him to see through that story." Hamaf stepped between the two. The guardsman stepped back, clearly uncomfortable in the confined spaces of the ship.
"Fact of the matter is that this ship has occupants, and they're dangerous. They're hurt, and they're frail, but their technology is clearly superior. One of them was crippled by fallen debris and still managed to kill one of my troopers and wound Collin here before Jor, my other Sergent, and I managed to eliminate him."
"Good thing we've brought more than technology then. Your honesty is appreciated captain, the Emperor will hear of your strong character." He raised his head slightly, linked metal rings covered his neck preventing even an underhanded blow from finding him unprotected. He seemed to be conversing with some distant figure, likely by means of magic.
"Is there a large room we can use?"
"Yes, Jor and his men are clearing one just a little further into the ship."
"Good, it would appear that this operation has been taken over by a higher authority. He is on His way."