The Bones of Knight Harris 4: Rival

By Grant Anderson

Knight Harris was at least eight stories tall, from the top of his beautiful wavy hair down to his square-toed boots.  He was handsome too.  His nose was compact, his forehead tall and smooth.  A chiseled, square jaw framed slightly parted lips that seemed about to utter a deep, piercing truth.  His eyes were sad, almost pleading.

“They look like windows,” Tarhea said suddenly, too softly to be heard over the murmur of the crowd.  Emile was much taller than her even when seated.  He leaned his blonde head down to her level.

“Say that again?”

“His eyes look like windows.  I think they’re made out of glass.”  Tarhea’s voice was unusually deep for such a petite young woman.  It always sounded to Emile like it should belong to someone more substantial.

“The sculptor put searchlights behind his eyes,” said Emile.  “They scare little children at night.”

Lieutenant Tarhea Sigel and Lieutenant Commander Emile Dachiross sat front and center in a double row of cobalt blue uniforms, surrounded by a sea of faces. Thousands of civilians had turned out for Domnus Themond’s speech.  The flags and regalia of all the great houses of Earth lined the cobble stone causeway that led to the stone statue.  Memorial Park spread for miles in every direction, carpeted with verdant grass and dotted with monuments to the legions of lives lost in the war against Mars.

The right hand of Knight Harris gripped the hilt of his cleaver, a thick bladed sword hanging from his belt.  It was four stories tall on its own, and its tip disappeared into the soil.  A flowing cape was fastened to his muscle bound shoulders, the sort that is only practical for statues to wear.  His left hand was outstretched, palm up as if in a gesture of friendship.  Rumors claimed that the sculptor had used a casting of Themond’s own hand as the model.

“I’d like to see them try to haul this statue off with a towing rig!” Tarhea said.

“Keep your voice down,” cautioned Emile. “What happened to the old memorial was an accident, according to the official story.”

“Sorry, sir.  It just really burns me up.  Who would desecrate the grave of such a great man?”

“A great and terrible man, Tarhea.  Policy is to forget about the terrible part.  You’re too young to remember, but when the original statue was raised, many Terrans were outraged.”

Tarhea smiled smugly.  “I don’t see any of those people around today.”

“Oh, they’ve come around, most of them.  The rest have learned to keep their opinions to themselves.”

“Public protest,” Tarhea quoted, “is a ledge upon which cowards pause before taking the plunge into blood soaked anarchy.”

Emile consulted his pocket watch.  “Speaking of Themond, the speech should begin any minute.”

Tarhea leaned around the bright headscarf of the woman seated in front of her, peering at the raised platform resting at the foot of the statue.  Leaning against the left leg of the statue was the famous “weeping mask.”  Knight Harris had never revealed his face to anyone but his closest companions, showing instead a mask with tear lines.  No photographs of him existed and witness accounts varied greatly as to what the mask looked like.  The sculptor had guessed at the design, and fashioned it into a fountain with sheets of water sliding silently from the empty eyeholes down the marble cheeks into the pool below.

“Thank you for bringing us, by the way,” Tarhea said. “All the Squad Leaders wanted me to tell you that.  We know that sitting still isn’t your favorite activity.”

“Tell them they’ve earned it.  Six Unit is as ready for this operation as it’s ever going to be.  Themond might even mention us in his speech.”

“Mention us?”  Tarhea dropped her voice to a whisper.  “This operation is so secret that we didn’t even tell the Space Navy about it.”

Dachiross smiled.  He leaned back against his chair and folded his arms.

“You just have to know what to listen for.”

The myriad of conversations taking place in the crowd slowed to a hush as the object of their affection appeared from beneath the shadow of the statue’s titanic blade.  Domnus Themond was only average in height and build, carrying himself lightly on his polished black shoes.  Everything else about him was extraordinary.  His eyes shone like newly minted copper coins, sending a jolt of excitement through the crowd.  He wore a simple grey field uniform with the emblem of the Anthrosocialist movement on his breast: an open hand enameled in bright crimson.  Centered inside its palm was a stylized heart plated in gold and surrounded by a white circle.

Themond had a well-known disdain for podiums.  Microphones craned forward to carry his tremendous voice to the rest of Earth.  His lips parted to reveal perfect teeth framed by a handsome mahogany face.  The crowd waited in silence, the only sound coming from the vimas hovering above to provide security.  Wherever the Domnus went, Terran Security was always nearby.

“At the dawn of Human history there was nothing but noise.  Millions of Human voices crying out as the empires of the ancients rose and fell.  They can still be heard on the outer edges of our solar system as static-shrouded whispers on the radio of a spacecraft.  The Broken Ages soon followed; a time of disaster and despair as all the transmissions ceased.  Despite these trials, the voices of Man continued to grow, coalescing as the greater conquered the lesser.  So it went as we took our first steps across the cosmos.  Discord haunted our melody, sundering the voices of Earth and Mars.  Their argument was punctuated with the roar of the cannon and the clashing of blades.  Orbital dreadnoughts circled each world ending countless lives with every cruel shell.  Mankind soon became deafened.  When the voice of reason first spoke into the din, few could hear it.  It was the voice of only one man, a common soldier unknown to all but a few.  The voice of the first Anthrosocialist belonged to Knight Harris.  He spoke of a Brotherhood of Man, sharing equally in labor and reward.  He rode across the war-cratered surface of Mars, telling anyone who would listen that Man must stand united if he is to survive the threats that lurk in the depths of space.  His followers became the foundation of the Anthrosocialist Party.  But from the capitals of the war-torn planets the voices of madness raged against Knight Harris.  For the Inhuman peoples of space desired that the fighting should continue; that they might profit from our destruction.”

Emile Dachiross felt as if the voice of Themond surrounded him on all sides.  It pummeled the grand rhetoric into his ear canals like water at a crushing depth.  He also felt a pang of nostalgia for a time long gone.  Idealism had been a euphoric drug for him before the banal deprivations of postwar Earth sobered him.  Next to him Tarhea was transfixed with joy, hanging on Themond’s every word.  She had been a small child during the consolidating years, unaware of the trail of bodies the Anthrosocialists had left on their path to dominion.  Corpses that Emile had personally helped create.  To think that she doesn’t even know how the Blood Red Hand became our emblem, he mused.

“It is well known today that the Aldren people sold metals and fuels to both factions, placing into the hands of Man the tools of race suicide.  They also benefited from the self-destruction of Human colonies.  Even today, Aldren feet tread the soil of habitable worlds near our system which should be ours.”

“Many traps were laid for Knight Harris, many innocents butchered by Martian and Terran forces trying to silence his message.  Yet he would not be silenced, and his followers grew in number until they could not be ignored.  When the Terran Army gained the advantage, it appeared that his dream would become reality.”

“The dream of Human Unity was shattered through the treachery of Clarion.  I know that there are many different stories about how Knight Harris died.  I was present when the treaty of Townsend was signed, and I stand before you as a witness that Knight Harris died that day.  He died of a broken heart.”

Themond placed a hand over the emblem on his chest, where a jagged black line separated the halves of the golden heart.

“The broken heart of Knight Harris is an image I will bear until the curse is lifted, and the two worlds stand as one.  He knew then, as we know today, that a race weakened by division will surely fall prey to the vicious and warlike races that prowl the Great Emptiness.  Twenty years ago this day, our doom was written on that hateful treaty.  To think that on Mars they celebrate the Second of May!  But the children of Earth will mourn the loss of Knight Harris, whose bones lie beneath this sacred soil.  We mourn also our soldiers, spacecrews, and civilians who sacrificed all they had in the name of Human Unity.”

“Despite all that we have lost, we can look upon our future with pride and confidence.  In the years since the Anthrosocialist movement has guided our nation, the industries of Earth have made a miraculous recovery.  This year, production exceeded the prewar level for the first time.  Our trade fleets are faster and better protected than ever before.  The standard of living for the common Terran family has not been this high since before the Broken Ages.”

“Ancient Man once looked to the stars for guidance.  Today, the peoples of every star look to Man.  And we shall guide them to a universe ruled by peace, guarded by strength, and blessed with prosperity.  To our Human brothers and sisters scattered across the worlds, I give this warning:  Many of you have sought treaties with the Inhuman peoples.  Serene in the assurance of protection that the Galactic Union provides, you have mixed your economies and armies with these races.  Slowly but surely, they draw their plans against you.”

Dachiross nudged Tarhea’s elbow.  “I told you he would mention us.”  She favored him with a mischievous grin, amber colored eyes flashing in anticipation.  Their mission would turn Themond’s warning into a frightening reality for the Martians.

“Trust in the power of Man to unite and defend!  This statue stands here to remind you.  He reaches out in friendship with one hand, gripping the sword of military might with the other.  His eyes plead with you.  ‘Join us,’ he says. ‘And let us put an end to division!’  Any who would answer his call, let them stand now, and let their voices be heard!”

A forest of bodies rose up around Emile Dachiross, suddenly casting shadows over his sun-warmed brow.  The H.U.N.s were the first on their feet, pumping their fists into the air and screaming at the top of their lungs.  The roar of the crowd shook Emile’s skeleton and made the stones beneath his boots quiver.  He stood and added his soft applause to the din.  To his left, Sergeant Corliss howled like a wolf, with his neck arched back and eyes clamped shut.  Tarhea’s hands were lifted in worship, religious ecstasy shining on her face.  Her thick lips trembled and her eyes glistened.  Emile found their displays excessive, but useful nonetheless.  Fanaticism had many practical applications, nearly all of which were beneficial to warfare.  The Human Universe Nationalists had been selected for their enthusiasm, and Emile Dachiross was just the man to put that spirit to good use.

The Domnus raised a hand for silence, and received it immediately.

“The Hour of Remembrance will begin now.  I will spend it below, with the bones of my mentor.”  Some of them, perhaps, Emile thought wryly.  If you collected all the bones, teeth and locks of hair from every shrine, temple and museum – you could fill this courtyard with the bones of Knight Harris.   Domnus Themond received a jar candle from an aide.  “May the powers and deities of Mankind bless you and keep you safe.”  In the relative hush that followed, Tarhea watched him disappear behind the fountain mask.

“I wonder what exactly he does while he’s down there.”

“That depends on regional beliefs,” Dachiross answered, perhaps louder than was respectful.  “To educated people like you, he pays his respects in solemn silence.  The Ramanis would say that the Domnus transcends life and death to commune with Knight Harris on a higher plane of being.  The wild Murikans believe he does the Mourning Dance, wailing and shedding his blood onto the—”

“Sir?  I was asking what you think.”

“Oh.  I suppose the Domnus catches a quick nap.”  Tarhea’s expression suggested that she found his answer scandalous.  Dachiross shrugged. “He only gets three hours of sleep a night.  I’d say he’s entitled.”

The crowd began to mill about as families headed to the different memorials and cemeteries that lined the causeway.  There were no vehicles in sight.  TerSec had set up a security perimeter for thousands of yards in every direction.

“Six Unit!  Eyes front!”  Dachiross abandoned the conversational tone he had been using and assumed his command voice.  “This off-duty time may be used to pay your respects wherever you wish.  Sergeant Corliss has brought flowers and votive candles.  I know that TerSec offended the honor of our unit by requesting we leave our weapons in the carrier, but do not insult or abuse any servicemen you meet from TerSec.  They were not selected to serve with the Human Universe Nationalists, and that is punishment enough!”  A collective grin appeared on the faces of Six Unit.  “We will meet back at the troop carrier in two hours.  You are dismissed.”

Dachiross had agreed to accompany Tarhea, Corliss, and several other squad leaders to the Buried Cities Memorial.  He would much rather have waited at the carrier.

As they crossed the causeway, the sound of a distant vima reached their ears.  It grew into a steady hum as it came closer.  A civilian shouted as it swept low overhead at an unsafe speed.  It was shaped like a torpedo with three wings unfolding like flower petals.  The airbrakes slowed the craft to a stop above the great statue. It descended so quickly that Emile thought it had blown a lift gas tank.  The insignia of TerSec caught the sunlight as the vima touched ground, knocking over one of the microphone stands on the platform.  The civilians grumbled at the rudeness of the pilot barging in on the Hour of Remembrance.

“That courier had better be the genuine article,” said Corliss.

“If it wasn’t, it would be spread all over the landscape,” muttered Tarhea. “I won’t say much to defend TerSec, but they do take air security very seriously.”   A man in a grey uniform stepped down from the vima as nimbly as a cat.  He was carrying a shiny metal briefcase.

“He brought a report,” said Corliss. “Must be urgent.”  The man walked behind the fountain mask.

“Three hours of sleep a night,” said Emile, “if he’s lucky.  Let’s keep moving.”

The cobblestones gave way to grass flattened by a thousand feet as they neared the Buried Cities Memorial.  There was no sign of litter.  This ground was sacred, after all.  Dachiross walked in front as usual, but for some reason Six Unit was trailing a few paces behind.

“I don’t know if you had heard,” Tarhea lectured, “but our Lieutenant Commander Dachiross served with the Three Hundred Seventy Sixth Powered Infantry Division during the war.”  The H.U.N.s murmured things to indicate that no, they did not know that.  I think I can see where this is leading, thought Emile.

One of the younger H.U.N.s spoke up.

“Wasn’t that the division that liberated the Buried City of Cumberlowe?”

“That’s the one.  It was a pocket of Terran Loyalist resistance on Martian soil that was under siege until LieutCom Dachiross and his unit rescued it.”  Tarhea’s history lesson was followed by an expectant silence.  But Emile pretended not to hear.

“What sort of squad was he in?” asked Sergeant Corliss.  Now that’s a leading question, thought Emile.  I just told him that a week ago.

“A Breaching Squad,” replied Tarhea, beginning to sound just a bit rehearsed.  “In fact, some say that our LieutCom was the first Terran soldier to enter Cumberlowe.”

It was the last thing that Emile wanted to talk about today.  They walked in silence for a moment.

“Maybe someday,” Corliss suggested loudly, “the LieutCom will tell us about it.”

Emile stopped in his tracks.  The H.U.N.s froze.  He turned around theatrically with deliberate slowness.

“Would it mean something to you, if I did?”  Silent nods.  “No casualties on our operation.  That would mean something to me.  I want each of you to do your jobs perfectly and to bring Six Unit home alive and intact.  Do this, and I will answer any question you ask about Cumberlowe.”

“We will,” said Tarhea.

“Come on, then.  We’re nearly there.”

The Buried Cities Memorial was built like an inverted castle with only the circular foundation visible above ground.  Narrow spires reached for the sky from within the wall, representing the exhaust tubes the cities had used to vent the fumes of their metoline-fueled generators.  Even from a distance, Tarhea could see that something was wrong.  Civilians were coming back from the memorial with candles and photographs still in their hands.  A man with silver whiskers against his ebony face approached them clutching a bouquet of white blooms.

“The Memorial is never closed,” he said to the H.U.N.s, “but it’s closed today.”

A chorus of humming vimas approached from the south.  Two men wearing crisp grey TerSec uniforms appeared on the paved entranceway to the memorial and made a beeline for the H.U.N.s.

“Excuse us, sir!” one of them shouted.  Emile held up a hand, causing his entourage to form up into two lines behind him.  The TerSec officers were even younger than most of the H.U.N.s.

“Are you Lieutenant Commander Daky – Rose?”  The officer who asked was sweating, and his hand fumbled with something on his belt.

“It’s LieutCom Da-Chee-Ross.  Emile.  With me here is Six Unit of the Human Universal Nationalists.”

“We need you to come with us, please.”  Dachiross could see that the holster that held his service pistol had been unbuttoned.  Six Unit had seen it too, and they instantly tensed for action.

“You’re not placing me under arrest are you?”  A subtle warning was evident in Emile’s tone.  A handful of highly trained H.U.N.s were more than a match for two TerSec officers, handguns notwithstanding.  The second officer was quick to assess the situation and placed a cautioning hand on his comrade’s arm.

“Commander Ibero has requested you.  He is waiting for you inside the Buried Cities Memorial.”  Dachiross smiled thinly at the second officer.

“Very good.  Lead the way then.”  He fell in step behind the two officers, and his squad leaders followed suit.  They had only walked a few paces when Tarhea broke the uneasy silence.

“LieutCom Dachiross, sir!  Will you please advise Six Unit of the first rule of equipment retention?”

“The first rule of weapon retention is to check every buckle and clasp to make sure it is secure.”  The first TerSec officer managed to bite his tongue, but a hint of redness on the tips of his ears betrayed him anyway.

As soon as they entered the arched gateway to the Buried Cities Memorial, they were met with a flurry of activity on the ground and in the air.  Squads of TerSec men ran among the stone markers carrying large radios.  Vimas maneuvered slowly around the spires while a larger air carrier bristling with antennas floated high above.  The H.U.N.s recognized the signs of a hastily organized command post.  One of the TerSec officers abandoned Six Unit to hurry down a marble staircase into the halls below.  A moment later, two guards in full battle armor emerged from the staircase escorting a blue-uniformed youth.  A black fabric bag covered his head and a grey longcoat had been draped over his shoulders.  His arms were restrained behind his back and the TerSec men muscled him forward with a firm grip on his elbows.  Tarhea recognized him even before the bag was removed.

“Lieutenant Petrow?”

The handsome youth blinked in the sudden sunlight.  Now it was Emile’s ears that turned red, along with the rest of his face.  His voice remained calm, however.

“The jurisdiction of TerSec does not include H.U.N. transports.  Lieutenant Petrow was left in charge of our carrier at my orders.  By what authority did you arrest him?”  The guard on the left jerked his helmeted head in the direction of the staircase.

“You’ll have to take that up with Commander Ibero.  Our orders came from him.”  Addressing Petrow, the other guard asked, “Can you identify that man for us?”

“He’s LieutCom Dachiross of H.U.N. Unit Six.”

“That’s all we need,” said the first guard, removing the coat from Petrow’s shoulders.  The other began removing the restraints from his wrists.

“You could have just asked to see my papers,” Emile growled.

“The Commander is waiting for you below, Lieutenant Commander.”  Emile noted the TerSec man’s emphasis with disgust.  Tarhea seemed determined to burn holes in the backs of the retreating guards with her eyes.

“Lieutenant Sigel, take them back to the carrier.”  The use of her surname snapped Tarhea out of her trance and brought her to attention.

“Yes, sir!  Six Unit move out.”

And don’t start a battle on your way there, he thought.

Dachiross had visited the Buried Cities Memorial only twice before, and only when social factors had forced him to.  It was cool and dry below the surface with the sun reaching down through the hollow spires to give faint light.  Candles lined the marble walls, proof that mourners had been here before TerSec set up shop.  Relief carvings on the walls told the sad story of the Buried Cities, beginning here with images of determined Terran Loyalists gathering up their families and livestock, weapons and supplies of all kinds carried on their backs.  They marched underground in long lines led by the colossal burrowing machines and bracing crews.  Once his eyes had adjusted to the dimness, Emile realized that he was not the only guest.  He recognized a short man in a white coat with golden brown skin and a well-trimmed beard adorning his chin.

“You must be LieutCom Dachiross.”  His voice was as light and thin as his body.

“Yes, General Naka.  I haven’t seen you since the neuroscience demonstration.”  As he came closer, Dachiross noticed that the supervisor of the Human Improvement Division looked much more sickly than he remembered.

“You look surprised.  Expecting Commander Ibero, I presume?”

“Yes.  I was informed that he would be waiting here for me.”

“TerSec is very disorganized just now.  Crimson is offworld at the moment, and Ibero was left in charge.”

“Were they…curt with you?”  Asked Emile.

“No.  I believe they recognized me.  But it is bad, whatever is going on.  It reminds me of the consolidation years…” Naka trailed off, hearing the sound of approaching footsteps.  Commander Ibero rounded the corner to meet them, flanked by the armored guards Emile had met earlier.  He was a thick, swarthy man who had served as bodyguard for Domnus Themond since the birth of Anthrosocialism.  Even at this distance, Emile could see that Ibero’s left ear was a poorly matched prosthetic.  He had lost the original many years ago shielding Themond from one of the seemingly endless assassination attempts.

“General Diedalus Naka and Lieutenant Commander Emily Daky-Rose,” he grated. “Follow me please.”  Emile didn’t bother to correct him.

The gallery curved ever to the left and downward in a spiral.  The carvings showed the Terran Loyalists bravely defending their tunnels against Martian breaching crews armed with flamethrowers and blast cleavers.  The Terrans fought with their handsome, passionate faces exposed as the gas-masked Martians advanced in stunted, bestial swarms.  Even down here I can’t escape the propaganda, Emile mused.  Just look at those noble fools, thinking the Terran army had nothing better to do than rush to their rescue.

“I am at liberty to tell you three things,” Ibero said. “First thing: we received a piece of intelligence this morning.  Second thing: it came from the Terran Embassy on Mars.  Third thing: it was wired here on a triple-redundant, counter-rolling cipher.”  Naka and Dachiross shot inquisitive glances at each other.  Ibero seemed to be waiting for them to ask him a question.

As they descended, the relief carvings began to separate themselves from the wall, turning into statues that strayed out into the corridor.  This particular section was devoted to starvation.  The Terran loyalists had brought bioreactor tanks to recycle the air and water, but not enough food to last until the Terran forces arrived to liberate them.  Naka and Dachiross found themselves stepping around statues of emaciated children gnawing on the bones of cattle.

“Let me give you some perspective,” Ibero continued, “TerSec has never used that cipher before.  Its use implies that there may be a problem with our normal interplanetary radio protocols.  Could be a bad breach… in our secure communications.”

“Oh good,” Emile replied cheerfully, “I was worried there was a coup.”  Ibero chuckled darkly.

“Any relief you may feel is premature.  There may still be a purge in the works.  Or another round of loyalty tests.”

“I hope not,” said Dachiross. “My wife didn’t like the last round of loyalty tests.  Especially the part involving the children.”

Naka sighed.  “I am sorry about that last round.  But they did prove over ninety five percent accurate in our test group.”

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t run loyalty tests,” Emile amended. “I’m just saying that she didn’t like them.”

The next set of statues showed the Terran Loyalists collapsing their tunnels as they fled from the advancing Martian forces, leaving only charred corpses in their wake.  The burrowing machines were being used in desperate attempts to create escape paths.  The fighting men were wearing gas masks for protection from the metoline exhaust fumes.

“Is that why you’ve brought us down here?” asked Emile.  “Tests of some kind?”  He only asked because a worse question had already formed in the back of his mind.

“No,” growled Ibero, “I’ve brought you here because the Domnus wishes to speak with each of you.”  Emile’s head swam.  Themond was most certainly not in the bowels of the Buried Cities Memorial.  Ibero had led them down here because there were no witnesses, and the sound of two pistol shots would never find their way back to the surface.  Naka appeared unconcerned, and he ignored Emile’s intense stare.  Either he’s playing it calm… or he doesn’t know…

“Wouldn’t we get better radio reception above ground?” Dachiross asked pointedly, hoping that Naka would catch on.  Aren’t you supposed to be a brilliant scientist?

“We don’t need reception.  You’ll be meeting the Domnus in person.”  At that, Dachiross froze.  Naka walked past him with a raised eyebrow.  Ibero seemed not to notice.  Instead he walked to one of the statues and slowly crouched down at its base.  Naka studied him for a moment and then knelt beside him.  The statue was a woman seated on a thick pedestal, holding a young boy in her arms.  She was pressing a gas mask onto the face of the boy while she leaned back against the wall, choking to death on the metoline fumes from the digging equipment.  The boy was reaching out to caress her face, any words of comfort he might have said muffled by the filter.  Ibero and Naka were removing decorative pins from the base of the stone pedestal.

“Now we have to push it back into the wall,” grunted Ibero, “Give us a hand will you?”  Emile cursed himself for his paranoia.  There was a tunnel behind the statue; a tunnel that surely led to some underground fortress where the Domnus waited.  Naka must have known.  That was why he was so relaxed.  The statue moved silently with surprising ease on a set of rails.  The apparatus reminded Dachiross of a well oiled desk drawer.  The statue came to rest and the three found themselves in an antechamber.  Ibero groped along the wall blindly.  With the click of a switch, the chamber was lit and Dachiross could see a row of lights leading down a sloping passageway.

“They’re on battery power,” said Ibero, “so shut them off when you get to the other end.  Themond is expecting you.  Don’t keep him waiting.  Now push on this thing and I’ll pull it back into place.”

Once they were alone, Emile took a deep breath.  “That was a tremendous relief.”

“Indeed,” said Naka. “If I remember correctly, the statues about cannibalism were next.”

The tunnel was straight and featureless.  A light coat of dust covered the floor, but it was otherwise clean and dry.  Light fixtures spaced evenly on the ceiling made the passageway comparatively brighter than the somber tunnels of the Buried Cities Monument. Dachiross broke the silence.

“Ibero is the acting head of TerSec right now.  Yet he didn’t get to read the report from the embassy, did he?”

“I don’t believe he did.”

“Themond has summoned us instead…” Dachiross trailed off, gazing blankly down the passageway as he contemplated.  Naka regarded him with sharp, curious eyes.

“You wonder why you were called?”

“Summoning you makes sense.  You served Knight Harris together.  You probably even saw his face.”

Naka seemed to wince at the suggestion and smiled to hide his discomfort.

“Well—” he began.  He did not finish.  Instead he appeared to trip over his own feet.  Emile lurched forward to catch him, but only managed to break his fall.  Naka landed on his side.  Emile bent over him, still holding one of the General’s wrists.  Naka’s left leg thrashed, kicking at nothing but air.  He gripped his pant leg tightly and bared his teeth in a stone-faced grimace.  With a few final jerks, the spasms subsided.

“Is it safe to help you stand, General?”  Dachiross noticed that Naka appeared more angry than surprised.  This happens to him often, he thought.  A side effect of his lab experiments, perhaps.

“I’m fine now,” Naka wheezed, “nerve damage from the war.  It hasn’t acted up in quite some time.”  He stood up on his own and brushed the dust from his long white coat.

“I won’t tell anyone,” Emile promised, watching him in silence for the rest of their subterranean hike.

Votive candles lit the tomb, pulsating slowly in their jars.  Naka paused at the entrance and shut his eyes.  He took a deep breath.  Dachiross peered into the dimness, willing his eyes to adjust faster.  The monolithic sarcophagus loomed before them, dominating the small chamber.  Eight normal caskets would have easily fit inside.  Dachiross was not short by anybody’s standards, but he couldn’t see over the top of the polished black sides that reflected the light of the candles.  Carvings depicting the famous exploits of Knight Harris decorated the arched ceiling.  Tarhea would no doubt have fallen to her knees in a fit of hero worship, but Emile walked to the monolith and placed his hand upon the cool stone.  Legends of Knight Harris held that those he touched were transformed in some way or another.  Some gained powers and some were struck with disabilities, each according to their character.  Emile didn’t believe any such thing, but he nearly jumped when someone touched his shoulder.  He spun about to find a figure standing behind him, robed from head to toe in a garment that may well have been stitched with thread drawn from the heart of a black hole.  Dachiross recoiled from the touch, sidestepping with his back to the stone.  Backlit by the soft glow from the tunnel, the figure took the shape of a woman.  The midnight cloth covered even her face.  A white square hovered between them, and Emile realized that she was holding papers of some sort.  She bowed slowly and offered them to him.  No sooner had he touched them than the figure faded silently back into the shadows.  Emile’s breathing returned to normal, but electricity was still racing up and down his spine.

“She didn’t startle you, did she?” asked General Naka.  He had been given a report as well, which he illuminated with a candle gripped in his skeletal fingers.

“Of course not,” Emile replied evenly.  “What would ever be frightening about a walking shadow grasping you in a darkened tomb?”

Naka chuckled dryly, a sound like a motor trying to start after years of disuse.

“She’s one of Themond’s assistants.  Now you know as much as I do.  I wouldn’t mention her again.”  He went back to his papers.  Dachiross lifted a candle from the floor and followed suit.

The hastily-applied ink of the censor was still damp.  It blotted out more than half of the sentences, transforming the detailed report into a crude synopsis.  Dachiross didn’t mind.  He recognized the name of Lady Lince Voorhaven, the Terran Ambassador to Mars.  He could even put a face with the name.  They had been introduced once at a formal dinner the diplomats had hosted for Terran military officers.  Despite the missing details, her report was easy to follow.  A strange man walked into the embassy and made some vague threats.  His demands had been censored.  The stranger’s leverage consisted of a “List of Illegal Activities” that he would give to the Martian government if he was not appeased.  Dachiross was astounded that the man was allowed to leave the embassy alive, especially after menacing Lady Voorhaven with a blast cleaver.

He skipped to the heavily expurgated conspiracy theory the man had brought to the embassy.  His blood turned to icy slush when he read the first page.

“…Emile Dachiross of the Human Universal Nationalists will be leading a mission on Martian soil sometime this month.  The objective of his unit is to destroy the battle cruiser Ares’ Wrath…”

Not anymore, thought Dachiross. Now my objective will be finding whoever betrayed us.

“Very good,” said a familiar voice, echoing softly from the other side of the coffin built to hold a giant.  “I’ll be right back.”  By the time Dachiross recognized the comforting baritone, Domnus Themond had made his way around the sarcophagus and stood before them.

“Let us skip the formalities.  The two of you are up to speed, I hope?”  The vitality of his voice was reassuring in person, undiluted by microphones and speakers.

“Yes, sir.” Dachiross felt that his own voice was somehow hollow in comparison.  Themond seemed perfectly calm, although the sheen of perspiration on his skin betrayed an underlying tension.  He greeted Naka with a simple nod.

“I know what both of you must be thinking: How could this happen?”  Dachiross sighed heavily and bowed his head. “TerSec is doing all they can to investigate the matter,” Themond continued, “but remember one thing.  It hasn’t really happened.  Not yet.  If the Martian or Aldren spies had been given a copy of this list, they would have acted to confirm the intelligence.  Our sources assure us that they have not.  We have three days until the meeting.”  Naka seemed to consider this carefully.  Dachiross was confused.

“Meeting?”

“Hmm,” said Themond. “Your copy was over censored.  The ‘White Haired Man’ made only one demand.  He said he wanted a prisoner released into his custody.  He wishes to meet with General Naka on Friday to discuss terms.  I presume he will give us a name at that time.  Naka, how soon can you have an accurate inventory of your specimens?”  Dachiross was not surprised to hear prisoners of the Terran state referred to as specimens.  The Human Improvement Division that Naka commanded often used political prisoners for experiments.

“Two days, at the most.” Naka replied, folding his hands together.  “But only a third of the specimens we have received are still alive.  What if the White Haired Man asks for one that we have used up?”  Themond considered for a moment.

“Then we will agree to deliver that person regardless.  We must give him the illusion of complete cooperation.  He claims that he is acting on behalf of a group that will expose the list if we harm him.  Until we know otherwise, the White Haired Man should be considered untouchable.”  Naka nodded slowly.

“It is possible that the problem originated in one of our facilities.  I will have them quarantined and investigated.”

“That would be wise.  Well, LieutCom Dachiross, have you figured out your role in all of this?”

“Yes.  I am to escort General Naka to his meeting and ensure his safety.”

“Correct.  I don’t need to tell you how delicate this situation is.  Do you know why you were chosen?”  Emile pondered that.

“Because you know something that I do not?”

“Until this security leak is plugged, the list of people I can trust has become… embarrassingly short.  But your own name appears on the White Haired Man’s leverage papers.  You wouldn’t betray yourself and your unit to the Martians.”

“No, I suppose I wouldn’t.”

“Our adversary gave us no conditions as to what sort of escort Naka brings.  The meeting point is the Sea of Glass in Merca.  Start drawing up plans.  My aides will give you the rest of the details.  Your carrier should arrive overhead any minute.”  Emile’s head swam with questions, but he understood that he had been dismissed.

“Thank you for this opportunity.”  He saluted formally.  “We will not disappoint you.”

As the footsteps of Emile Dachiross faded, General Naka edged closer to the king of the Earth.

“Why did you choose him?”

“I have not come into this world to make men better.  I have come to make good use of their weaknesses.  Dachiross is a Human Universe Nationalist, but he showed no reverence for me.”  Themond placed a hand on the monolith.  “Or for him.”

“I perceived that.  What is the reason that you value his cynicism for our mission?”  Themond removed his hand, leaving a grease print behind.  He turned away from the coffin with a low growl.

“Voorhaven included reports from all the TerSec guards who saw the White Haired Man.  Three of them were veterans who fought on Martian soil.  They all mention his voice.  A voice very familiar to anyone who was near a radio during the war.”  Naka’s eyes went wide.

“That’s… not impossible.  But very unlikely…”

“So you understand why we need someone like Dachiross.  He understands, as we do, a very simple thing.  The truth is irrelevant.  The only thing that matters… is what people believe.”

The TerSec officers who met Dachiross as he left the tomb gave him crisp salutes.  They gestured to his armored troop carrier and lead the way like a pair of busboys trying to earn a good tip.  Perhaps his new orders had preceded him.  His officers were waiting for him in the passenger cabin.  They didn’t dare say a word, but their inquiring expressions spoke volumes.  Tarhea, in particular, looked ready to explode.  Dachiross gripped a pole for support as the carrier lurched into the air.

“Our operation is being postponed.  We have a mission in Merca to perform first.  Details when we arrive at base.”  He took his seat next to Tarhea and buckled himself in.

“Merca?”  She said it softly, as if it were a dirty word.

“Yes.  I was wrong about the Domnus.  He wasn’t napping.  And we won’t be getting much sleep for the next few days either.”

E N D   O F   C H A P T E R

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Born in 1980, Grant Anderson came home from the hospital in a 1975 AMC Pacer. His parents tried to give him a normal life. However, when Grant began to drive this car on a daily basis upon his 16th birthday, all chances of normalcy were forsaken. Grant was raised in Norfolk, NE. After a brief respite in Lincoln, he now resides in Louisville with his wife, Sarah, their beautiful daughter, Rose, and their Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Lucas. In his spare time, Grant is an avid reader and a military history enthusiast.  More than anything else, he is a loving husband and adoring father. At least, that’s what his family says.


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