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Dark Lords: Book One, Shadows, Chapter 33

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Chapter Thirty-Three

War Hymns

Lakash Intelligence Centre, KomaKuuu, World Rietmus, Lakash Space

 

“Lord Kenaha, most exalted. The Grand Armada has formed and now splits itself in three. They are leaving. Three different directions.”

When those words had come Lord Kenaha merely smiled. The female intelligence officer with her claws out had dropped to her knees. She had trembled, head bowed before him then lifted her muzzle exposing her throat. Ready to die.

“Fear not, Child of the Lakash, your Mothers await you.”

The Officer had straightened then returned to her post. If she was to meet the Mothers, then she would go proudly. That had been ten days earlier. He had sent his reports. As he watched the latest surveillance footage, he smiled. It was time.

“Prepare my transport.” Kenaha strode from the reporting room. He was still changing into appropriate breast plate and cloak when the demand for his immediate presence came from the communications officer on the Slayer of Dragons. The Empress herself was aboard the flagship.

With a smile that had inferiors on their knees and exposing their throats, Lord of Understanding, Kenaha Bru’Ta (True Blood) boarded his ship. He stood proudly at the command bridge for the short jump to BeTehHar (Seat of Power). His ship docked with GuJehHar (Where Power Floats Hungry) station. Sitting, like an enemy ready to attack, Slayer of Dragons was docked to the top of the two hundred kilometres long and half as wide battle platform.

Kenaha Bru’Ta walked, unarmed, guarded by the will of his Empress to the Grand Hall. Stepping into the vast space, he looked down. The illusion was of looking at the planet below. BeTehHar floated, the scars of the Vampire ship, Excalibur, were still a wound upon his home world, one visible from space. The death of the Excalibur had cracked the planet, blown free a third of the atmosphere and irradiated the entire biosphere. Even as he looked, he could see red molten lines about the edges of the grave of Excalibur.

“Tell me, Kenaha Bru’ta,” the voice was low, gravelly, female, “what feelings beat in your chest at the sight of your womb’s desecration?”

“To have such enemies, Queen of Heaven, Mother of Warriors, Eater of true Flesh!” As he spoke, Kenaha stepped forward, fell to his knees and raised his hands and head, exposing his throat, he smiled. His voice was filled with rapture as he continued to speak, “We are honoured above all others. Even our enemies strike fear into those that would stand against us.”

“Do our enemies wish to honour our warriors by sending them to the Hall of the Mothers?”

Kenaha shook his head. “Such would be a great end. Glorious, but it is not our time. Another must learn the bite of the Vampires.”

The view above changed. Instead of the sky of BeTehHar, a section of the space belonging to the insectoid TickTick  and Kay-dars appeared.

“Rise, Lord of Understanding, Kenaha Bru’Ta, tell us the story. Explain to us this new chapter in the Saga of the Vampire.”

Kenaha rose. He looked at those gathered around the edges of the room. There were the Generals of War, the Hunters of Truth, and the Keepers of Lists. The Empress herself and he without name who would ascend the Throne upon the first day of his one-hundredth life cycle and be named for the glory of the People, all had their eyes upon him, Kenaha.

“An enemy has scorned the Vampire. An enemy has insulted the honour of the Vampire. An Enemy has laughed, seeing the past as glorious and the present as its shadow. An enemy does not understand the Truth that the Lakash taught the Vampire and the Vampire brought back to the Lakash. Now, this enemy will learn.” His audience was enraptured. Kenaha stepped to the centre of the room. He pulled a data link from his pocket, a Keeper nodded and the information was uploaded.

Immediately the images above them changed. Notifications appeared. The Lakash and TickTick space border. The aggressive insectoid species got its name from the sound it made before attacking. They saw all ‘soft bodies’ and ‘warm bodies’ as food or infection. They had eliminated the eleven species that could one day have lifted themselves to the stars in the systems between Shedu A Lakash and TickTick space. The border skirmishes had become an hourly affair. So far the Empress, in her wisdom had not called for the War Drums, but it must be, any time now. A wall of TickTick ships had appeared, amassing along the border. As was their tactic, they would attack in overwhelming numbers when they were ready.

It would be minutes until what Kenaha had recorded would be shown. With a smile he raised his hands. He filled his words with dramatic emotion.

“The Pendock hear the Drums. We the Lakash, batter their ships. Their warriors die screaming, gutted on our claws! They die hungry, for we eat their meat! They die with honour, honouring us with their blood!”

Somewhere a soft drum beat had started. Kenaha let the music build a moment before continuing. “The Thisska, with their songs of peace, hear the Drums.”

He walked around the room, doing the ancient movements of the Dance of Life, his claws exposed, then hidden. He stopped turning suddenly and pointed to a small section of the stars above. “The Dreckets, scattered, like a nest of scosa fallen from a tree. They strike out! And we, in respect and honour break their necks. The Dreckets. Are they fit? Could the many packs be unified even for their own survival? Such would be a gift that their children for generations would sing praises to the Lakash. Or perhaps, there is a place in the Hall of Mothers for their great warriors.”

Kenaha stopped in what he hoped was the right place. He turned, raising his hands slowly. Then he exposed all fourteen claws fully and tore the sky. As he did so, what he was calling the White Running Pack, appeared along the border between the TickTick and the Lakash. With drama, Kenaha kept his hands spread, all seven claw tips on each hand still exposed and moved the angle to the FenDetHar Platform’s point of view.

His talk had raised the tension to the point he could smell the musk of the younger warriors. Now, even shrunk down, everyone in the great room sucked in their breath at the size of the Pack of Ships that were moving along the corridor truly made itself known.

“Fifty thousand Great Stars. Nine thousand Swords. Five thousand,” he let them watch the ships pass, slowing his voice as he continued, “forward Hunters. Twenty-three Star Killers.”

Somewhere a singer had started the Hymn of the Honoured Dead to Come to Hall of the Mothers. The musky smell had risen, glancing about, Kenaha could see the gleam of claw tips from almost every hand. The drum beat in rhythm as the mournful song continued.

“Eighty-thousand Hammers. Twenty-five thousand Serpents. Among them, eighty-one thousand Hounds.”

Those watching, could no longer sit still, they were spreading about the great hall. Walking under the expanse of ships that just kept coming. Every eye upon the Great Strength of the Vampire. The singer sang the last line then another started the Coming Battle Will Be Great.

“One hundred thousand Claws.” Kenaha moved, raising his hand so that his claw tip ever so slightly disrupted the image as the first of the five main battle platforms appeared. There had been a theory that they were actually ships, but none could believe it, now none could doubt it. “Five, Peace Bringers.”

Kenaha brought his hands down and roared a challenge. Everyone immediately lowered their own heads, ready to fend off the challenge or to join it. The Empress hissed defiance. Stepping forward, her colour raised, she stopped as the wall of TickTick ships appeared.

Compared to the Running Pack, the wall now seemed insignificant. Then the wall began to flow forward. The TickTick began to make their move. Sudden static startled everyone, but the Empress.

“We are Ships of the Dragon Fleet. Stand aside, for we pass in peace. Hinder us and we shall remember and our memories are long.” A female Vampire spoke the words in Lakash. Her grey robe, meant she was one of the Council of Nine. That meant War. Her words had caused every head to rise in submission at the strength of her power, of the ships at her command, even if the message was old and sent only to the defence stations and ships along the vector.

One did not raise her head. The Empress stood as if the image had spoken to her directly. The Empress even gave a motion of permission that one only gave to an equal. Every eye, Kenaha knew, saw their Empress as the Vampire’s equal.

The Empress moved now, her strength and beauty displayed for all as she circled. Her face flushed, her colour flared, red and yellow. She stopped on the Lakash side, as the TickTick ships began attacking.

The Running Pack came on. Not that they could simply stop. Yet they could have chosen to not fire, to ignore the TickTick, but the TickTick made the choice for them.

The sudden lines of golden light from the ships on the TickTick side was beautiful. The wall flowed forward and like a wave broke itself against the Running Pack. The Vampire fleet opened fire even as it spread itself out.

Now, all the Vampire Running Pack ships engaged the TickTick. They cut through the TickTick like claws through human belly flesh. The Running Pack was still entering the area, still not to it’s next leap point. Still moving at speed. Yet it turned to claimings for the recyclers the Wall of the TickTick.

“The Mothers honour us,” The Empress said. “Why have they done this?”

“They will meet their enemy on three fronts. It is good strategy.” Kenaha smiled. “Their enemy will not expect such. They will not escape with ease. They will find the Vampire teeth at their throats. Should they manage to run they will be badly wounded.”

The Empress nodded. Finally the end of the Running Pack appeared.

“Is it insult?” The voice of he who is not named asked.

“No insult is intended.” Kenaha spoke carefully. “They chose the path to show our enemies the strength of the Vampire. To show the strength of the Shedu A Lakash. They skirt our border, but do not enter our space. They fly with their guns hot. Their claws ready.”

“Who guards their dens?” He who is not named asked. “If they have sent all their ships to their enemy’s hunting ground. If their warriors now hunt afar, who guards their eggs?”

* * *

Excalibur Shipyards, Albion System, Realm

 

Jason reread the communication. Right, a new mission already. Before he was taking on this assignment there were a few comms he had to make. He just hoped he wasn’t too late for the most important one.

Coming to the mess, Jason noticed an older woman sitting at the Captain’s table. He checked his wrist com. Right on time, the ship’s doctor. Her grey hair was cut short, her dark skin was lined. He didn’t believe she had passed the minimum fitness requirements without a little help.

“Dr. Carver.” Jason slid his tray of rare beef, boiled potatoes and chopped spinach onto the table.

“Captain.” She raised an eye at his tray. “I will need to talk to the kitchen staff about the food.”

“We got a new head cook, Leo Barlow.”

“Tall fellow, built like a footballer?”

Jason nodded.

“He seems very emotional. He was crying over the spoiled lettuce.” Carver shifted in her seat. “How is your mouth feeling?”

Jason cut a small mouthful of beef, chewed it slowly. He shrugged. “Actually, Doc, I’ve been too sore to notice. I think it’s doing okay.”

“You have not fed since the operation? Pushing it a bit, are you not?”

Jason had taken another small bite of beef. Before he could answer, a tall, strongly built older man, white hair and a snap to his step approached the table.

“Sir! Master-Sergeant, Gage Davies, reporting for duty.” The man’s salute could kill and his creases could cut bread. Jason swallowed his beef and motioned for the man to take the seat next to him. He introduced the Doctor and Yeoman Jones across the table.

“You have your work cut out, Sarge. We have new orders. We ship out in two hours for Solaris Station.” Jason took a sip of his protein drink. “We are going to be boots dirty, hands bloody before this week is out. Sixteen of your marines were cadets last week. All four of your Ranger team have yet to get dirt under their nails and your Commander still hasn’t graduated. This is her first bird.”

Gage could have muttered, black side, chondra, fracking, Fex sex lovers, but such language was frowned upon in the Mess and definitely at the Captain’s table. Jason decided he had misheard.

“There also seems to be a problem with regs. We appear to be the only persons on a military bird during wartime.” Jason had yet to see a side arm or personal shield belt on any one but the Sergeant, Doc, Jones and himself.

“Indeed, Captain,” Gage looked around the room. “How many boots do I have?”

“Two twenty-five’s, two three’s on artillery and four snipers, all green or younger.” Jason motioned to Winnie. “Doc here has evac training and is our only confirmed pilot.”

Gage’s eyebrows rose. “No air support?”

“Ivy’s landside capable, but her guns are a little … missing.”

“Missing?” Winnie asked. “What do you mean our ship’s guns are missing?”

“She was supposed to have two fully functioning rail-guns. Unfortunately, they were removed, her main gun was deactivated and pulled before she was dry docked. Her mass driver is still intact but not hooked up to any power sources.”

“No guns? No birds?” Gage asked. He was looking pissed off.

“Oh, no, Sarge, don’t want to mislead you. Good news, we got fifty 311 Peace Keepers, bad news, one pilot, maybe. And we launch them from the aft storage bay. The one with a door cut in it.”

Gage looked at the Doctor. Winnie shrugged. “Dagmar asked.”

If he had been Dagmar, Jason thought, he would have told Alexandria to go screw herself.

* * *

 

The UHSS Registered Ship: Barru; Type: Jax Industries Hauler, Along the axis between HFSS and Free Space

 

 

Alex headed to the general mess. He was berthed in the upper steerage section. He’d never been in such a big cabin, usually he bunked it. The cabin was smaller than his bathroom had been at Castle Cor. A lot smaller.

Walking up to the mess entrance the steward held out his hand.

“Sorry, sir, upstairs is first class.”

“I know. This is steerage mess.” And crew, Alex waited. The man nodded, uncertain, then blinked, downloading Alex’s position on the manifest and his history.

“Hey! Lieutenant!”

Alex smiled at Furuta. She motioned him over. “You dress up all shiny, Hunter.”

He returned her hug. “Heard you were on this boat. Couldn’t miss a chance to see an old friend.”

“What have you been doing with your retirement?” She asked, looking him up and down. “Working hard?

“Mind out of the gutter, Dai.” Alex sat where Furuta indicated. Several men and women were giving him looks. Got to get new clothes.

“What?” Furuta said. “You dogs think everyone I know is a greaser? He’s the geer I was telling you about. This is Alex Hunter, Lieutenant Retired.”

He shook hands about the table. A couple of the women and one of the men were giving him more than a cursory glance.

“Shit, you really upgraded. Tweaks?” Furuta asked.

“No, just studied up. I was afraid to get re-cert in case I dropped a level. Guess that goes to prove you don’t know what you know.”

“I got the bottle you sent.” Furuta smiled. “Saving that for a very special day.”

“You deserve it. Guess I need to get some new rigs. Your room steward didn’t want to let me in.”

“You’re so shiny it hurt his eyes.” The table burst out laughing. The meal was awful, the drink sour and the talk all shop. Alex was at home in minutes.

Hours later he headed back to his room via the observation hall. Outside space was black. There were no stars visible in hyperdrive. A lot of people went crazy looking into that darkness, no sense of movement. That’s why it was called the Black. Upstairs, the rich got to see fake stars streaking past.

He noticed the woman, more because of how others avoided her then her clothing. She looked young, but looks were usually deceiving. Like him, she was dressed out of place, her hair perfect, her breasts a little too gravity defying. As Alex walked by she turned.

“Excuse me?” Her voice was smooth, deep and sultry.

Alex stopped. She looked so out of place on this level. So do you, Alex reminded himself.

“Care for a nightcap?” Her smile was tentative.

“I’m good, thank you. Are you sure you should be down here?”

“Are you?” She sighed. “Just needed a breather. I’m in contract, you?”

“No. Not in the business.”

“Oh, just thought.” She shook her head. She turned back to face the black. Alex waited but she just stared into the nothing. Mariners were warned never to look too long into the black, because just before you lose it, the black stares back.

“Actually, I could use a drink. My treat, no ob,” Alex said.

She smiled, a little sadly, shrugged, then took his offered arm. They sat in the forward lounge. She stared at him.

“You’re not uplinked, at all?”

“No.” Alex watched her digest that. “So you don’t know anything about me?”

“I’ll know what ever you want to tell me.” Alex ordered fried thet, the salty carb and protein came in short battered sticks.

She laughed, and he knew it had been a long time since she had laughed for real.

“My name’s Lisa.”

“Hello, Lisa, I’m Alex. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He stood and took her hand, kissed it as he would any woman from the Realm.

“Are you travelling for pleasure or business, Alex?”

“Both. I’m to be a member of the Jules Verne, exploratory ship.”

That caught her off guard. Lisa blinked, then with a faint smile said, “Seems a shame.”

“You?”

She flinched. “I’m boring. My story’s been told a million million times, Alex.”

“I haven’t heard it.”

“I was young once, for real. Thought I wanted to travel, see the stars. Couldn’t afford it so I sold myself into contract for the chance to see the verse. Saw too many vids where an Elite would sweep a poor little pretty off their feet.” Lisa sighed. She took a bite of the thet. “I used to eat this in school. Uni. I was going to get my degree in sociology and med tech, level twelve was my goal.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“A recruiter. There were these young women, thought they were young. Came around. They offered me a job, said I could go to school later. Made the life sound so glamourous.” Lisa picked up another piece of thet. “I sound bitter.”

“You sound tired.”

“They promised us a big party. No one said it would be for life. It wears you out.” Lisa took another bite.

“Why don’t you buy yourself out?”

“This doesn’t come cheap.” Lisa motioned to her face. “I’ve been modded so many times …”

She shook her head. Curled up her legs and sat back. “What about you, Alex? Why are you slumming?”

“Me? This is high up for the likes of me.” Alex shrugged. “I’m in an upper steerage cabin and not the bunks. First time.”

She raised one perfect eyebrow.

“That jacket isn’t synth, neither is your shirt. You’ve never been modded. The way the crew nods to you, who are you really? Part owner?”

“A retired Lieutenant. A geer, through and through. The clothing, gifts.”

“I thought you said you weren’t in the business?”

“I’m not. My life just got … complicated for a while. And part of that was losing all my old clothes.”

Lisa laughed. “Really?”

Alex nodded. “It was the strangest thing. All my military issued standards, even my briefs, gone. Not at once, it took a dirtside week. Gone.”

She smiled and leaned forward. She was looking at him closely. “The thing is, Alex Hunter, I think you are telling me the truth.”

“I am. It wasn’t my fault.”

“Hmm. I think you say that a lot, too.”

“Another glass of wine?”

“Actually, do you want to go back to your cabin.”

“Are you sure you want too?”

Lisa gave him an odd look. “They won’t notice me missing. Stars, are you with someone? Of course you are.”

“No.” Alex pushed aside Dani’s image. “No, no one.”

“That Alex, is the first lie you’ve told me. Was she part of the complication?”

“She didn’t, couldn’t notice me.”

“Ah. Complicated.”

“Very.”

Lisa leaned forward and kissed Alex. She suddenly smelled sexy and sweet.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Just, habit.” Lisa smiled. They walked back to his cabin. She laughed when they entered the little room.

“You weren’t kidding.”

“No.” He opened a bottle of sweet red wine. “So why the Burru? Seems low end for you.”

She lay on his bed and he sat in the very comfortably broken in chair.

“My current employer and his family are moving, well, running.”

“Trouble? The ToGartta again?” Alex kicked off his shoes and crossed his legs in the chair.

The ToGartta, have they ever stopped? I heard that they’ve been hitting liners, the big ones.” Lisa lay back on the bed stretched then she sat up and downed the glass.  “I don’t know if that’s true. ToGartta hitting the big ones. I mean, I doubt it. But now, anything’s possible.”

She held out her glass. Alex split the last of the bottle with her.

“The whole verse is in trouble. My boss says the umbrella has collapsed. Anyone near the edges had better run and find a deep hole.” Lisa dimmed the lights and let him refill her glass again, this time from a bottle of white wine.

He kept hearing about the umbrella closing … but it was hard to believe. What in the verse could cause that to happen?  “Are the Vampyre closing ranks?”

“Something like that. Their ships all went off somewhere. People are scared. Every ship from Farrago to Benft is filled with refugees. I was hoping to see the Realm. Not all of it, just one world. Troth, or Hallstat. Perhaps Allemagne. They say they’re all beautiful. Do you know anything about the Realm?” Lisa picked up the shot glass he had bought at New Oxford.

Was it because of Dani? How many ships would they send for her? Was the old Enemy attacking again? It would never be all the ships. Maybe it was the Lakash?

“I was there, for the symposium and trade summit.”

“Oh, and here I’m going on.”

“No. You really should go if you can. It’s beautiful. Like a history vid come to life. Like old Earth, and Eden and Terra all rolled into one.”

“Tell me?” Lisa curled up, her head on his pillow and Alex talked about Albion. About apple blossoms and geese, about horses and carriages. Half an hour later, Lisa had fallen asleep. Alex covered her with one of the spare blankets, then threw the other over himself. He pushed the chair back. It was just like one of the bunks, only more comfortable.

A loud buzzing woke him. Alex sat up. The bed was empty. He had set his alarm for seven hundred hours ship time, but the clock indicated it was oh-five twenty.

The buzzing was coming from the comm. Alex answered the hail.

“We have an incoming personal message. Will you accept?”

Alex felt his heart start beating. The message code was immediate family, medical emergency.

“Yes, I’ll take the comm.”

As he waited for the long distance communications to integrate. He noticed the wash station mirror. Written on it in something red, most likely lipstick was:

Had a great time, thank you, 

The Realm sounds wonderful,

Who ever she was, it was her loss,

Your friend Lisa 

She had kissed the mirror.

There was a beep. The image decoded. Alex blinked. Not who he had expected.  And by the look on their face, the news wasn’t good.

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