Zoe’s Assassin submarine zips through the water in a torrent of bubbles, narrowly avoiding fire from the Ghostcrawler behind it. “I think they’ve lost sight of us. We picked off the last spotter,” reports Bishop to Zoe from the periscope array. “That was too close. Why the commander of our forces feels the need to attend the mission aboard a vulnerable submarine instead of listening from the safety of our outpost is beyond me.”
Zoe internally appreciates the concern of her newly promoted head of security but answers with conviction. “We all do what needs to be done to assure mission success. I want every legionary to know that their leader is going to stand beside them in battle.” Bishop responds with a gruff snort, but other crew members respond with unmistakable admiration. “Besides, we got what we came for.” Zoe flashes a smile. “If the Scourge knew they had such advanced technology in their sacred ruins, they might rethink their policy of historical preservation. All in all, it’s been a good season for piracy. First,” she says, slapping the wall of the Assassin, “I manage to steal the schematics for this instrument of beauty right from under Harlock’s nose, and now, we have the blueprints to create a device to communicate with something called a ‘satellite’. Can you believe, there are still functional machines floating around above us in outer space? Can you imagine the tactical advantages we’ll have in tracking our enemies and locating resources? We’ll have the intel to control the time and place of every engagement.”
“I sure hope it’s worth it,” Bishop mutters. “We took heavy losses inciting the Scourge. It’s not prudent to poke a Krugas in the eye.”
“This is going to put the Legion on top. It will be worth it,” asserts Zoe, and hopes that she is right.
Isurus kneels in the Dome of Supplication waiting to descend the countless fathoms of the Well of Divine Will before him. A dancing web of moonlight shimmers through the glass of the underwater dome. He sits like a samurai of ages long lost, with both knees on the floor and a straight, upright back. It is an unmistakably military posture. To his irritation, the ascending lift is not empty. Makara, Delegate Priestess rises into view and steps fluidly off the platform. She wears a ceremonial breastplate and full-body vestments composed entirely of long black-rope tassels. Each tassel of her dress represents a fallen warrior, a solemn reminder of the responsibility she holds. Her alabaster hand and arm emerge from within the curtain of tassels like a pale shark from the shadowy tendrils of a kelp forest. She reaches out a palm and Isurus bows his colossal head to receive her blessing.
I could snap her spine like a crab leg, thinks Isurus with contempt.
“What business has the Primul here?” she interrogates in a whisper that somehow fills the room.
“I come to report- the Legion trespassers have been driven from our sacred lands. And I seek an audience with the Elders.” Isurus takes a raspy breath of his liquefied oxygen tank.
“Only I may descend. These are the enduring statutes of our Congress.”
“So you say,” says Isurus rising to full height. “Yet I have long doubted your assertions. Why should I abide the commands of a self-appointed emissary? Never have I heard any voices. Never have I seen evidence of your alleged Congress. Your authority will dissolve with the exposure of your fabrications. Stand aside.”
A tall man materializes from the shadows. The cold steel of his pneumatic rifle presses into the side of Isurus’ neck. “Ah, that must be Solon, your faithful pet.”
“Solon, hold.” Makara’s whispered command echoes hollowly throughout the chamber. She pauses, listening. “The Elders bid him come.” Solon delays a moment for effect, then retracts his gun and steps back into the shadows. Makara’s hand reaches out from the flowing tassels again to rest on Isurus’ forearm. She looks up into his face. “The ocean thirsts for the souls of the desecrators. Can you sieve them through clouded waters?” She breaks her gaze from the clearly unsettled Isurus, and releasing his forearm, glides past his hulking frame. Solon quietly follows her out of the room.
Isurus is alone before the Well. He steps up onto the platform, turns to face outward, and engages the control panel to initiate the descent. The platform falls slowly at first, but gains speed as it goes. The walls of the shaft are transparent like glass. The lights from the lift make the surrounding emerald waters glow. The fall is frictionless and silent, perhaps magnetically stabilized. Suddenly, the brakes disengage, and the lift plummets into a freefall. Isurus grips tightly to the rail as the Dome of Supplication above him dwindles to a mere pinprick of light. The g-force is staggering, and Isurus fights for shallow gasps. Then something catches, and the lift breaks violently with several loud cracking sounds before coming to rest. Shaken but unharmed, Isurus looks down a narrow passage of the same transparent material. A metal grate floor is illuminated every few steps by white rings that encircle the tunnel. From the light, Isurus can make out the shapes of a structure ahead. A bunker. Massive, but squat and without embellishment or marking. Isurus proceeds down the tunnel, through a small room resembling an airlock and into a dark chamber with smooth grey walls and a high-sloping ceiling that tapers into a peak above. Save for a small red carpet and a kneeling cushion under the harsh beam of a spotlight, the room is empty.
As expected. No sign of a divine governing body, thinks Isurus smugly. Then a chilling fear grips him- Did Makara lure me to this cell to imprison me once more?
Isurus lurches toward the exit, but the meters-thick doors to the airlock roll shut and lock. Isurus beats once on the door with the heel of his fist in futility. Then, from a source above him, a croaking mechanical voice cuts the dank air: “Collect yourself warrior and kneel for inspection.”
“I will do no such thing.” Isurus draws a weapon from his hip holster. It is a blunt acid-pellet shotgun typically wielded with both hands to handle the kick but resembling a small pistol in Isurus’ mighty palm.
The mechanical voice breaks into hoarse laughter and is joined by several others in various sinister pitches. One by one the panels in the sloped ceiling slide open to reveal tanks of bright green liquid that bathe the room in an eerie light. Each tank is filled with a life preserving machine tilted vertically to float like sarcophagi. “Is this how you address your Congress of Elders?”
“It is… not possible,” Isurus stammers.
“Possible and actual,” a female voice breathes. “We serve life terms. When one dies, he or she is replaced by the delegate priest, and a new delegate is selected from among a cohort of acolytes with inner-ear receivers implanted at birth. Your trespass here is sacrilege deserving termination; however, you may be provisionally pardoned as long as you serve our purpose. Humanity has long been lost to corruption, having brought about the destruction of this planet and countless species with it. Even we have long abandoned our humanity to become implements of retribution. We will bring terror to the wayward surface clans like never before, starting with the Draconian Empire and Greta who betrayed us. Will you commit your mortal existence to the service of this purification?”
Isurus ponders silently, his thoughts a mystery to all but himself. Then he holsters his shotgun, moves to the cushion beneath the spotlight and kneels. “I will do as you command. Greta will feel my grip on her throat, and the Draconian machine will be dismantled.”
“Then we release you with the full weight of the Congress and its resources at your disposal. Scatter the heretics. For the planet! For Vengeance!”
The airlock doors roll open again.
“Incoming transmission,” reports a technician.
“I’ll take it in my office,” states Greta as she seals the door behind her. She poses in her high-backed chair to appear uncharacteristically relaxed and accepts the incoming video call. “Vassago.” She says, addressing him without title. He analyzes her with a cold gaze from his human eye.
“You’ve lost the whole of the northern sector and additional territory every day. Indeed, the Scourge are on your very doorstep. Submit to my authority and I will deploy my forces to engage this menace from the deep. My armada has grown strong. My factories are almost fully automated, and my loyalists are the most elite soldiers in the Draconian Empire. There will be no penalty for your treason. You may resume your duties as my general, albeit with some additional oversight given your history.”
“Generous, Commander,” Greta says spitefully, “but I decline. You taught me the importance of self-reliance, and then proceeded to become dependent on me. I have no need of your aid.”
Vassago’s eye widens in surprise. “The data is clear; you have no chance of victory. Are you so blind as to reject my mercy out of petty jealousy? Your emotions have come to rule you. They will be your undoing.” The usually stoic Vassago shows a mild break in composure.
“Let me be clear,” follows Greta, “If your forces enter Draconian territory, we will open fire. I would sooner see the Empire crumble than hand it back over to you.”
“You are willing to see all that you have worked for reduced to rubble and ash?” Vassago squints incredulously.
“You mean all that you have worked for? The campaigns you have waged, the facilities you have built, the lifetimes of technology you have invested in. The heights you have achieved. As your precious Draconian Empire falls, so will any hope of your ambitions or your legacy. The question is, my dear Vassago, are you ready to see it all sink into the brine?”
Vassago visibly trembles with rage. The video feed cuts. The gambit has been played.
Mere minutes later, there’s a knock on Greta’s door. She checks a security camera and admits the awaiting officer.
“News from the battlefront Ma’am. Vassago’s forces have engaged the Scourge from the rear.” Greta dismisses the officer and lets out a deep sigh of relief. She pours herself a glass of vodka and raises her glass to the dark video screen. “Checkmate.”