Friday, September 19, 2008

The Destiny Mask by Martin Sketchley

Aboard the Lex Talionis, Atlantic Ocean

Alexander Delgado opened his eyes and remembered the day he died. Every time he woke he was transported back to that day twenty-two years before, back when the war—his war—was just beginning. Deep within the Lex Talionis, the memory of the all-consuming void opening before him was as real now as then. When he had opened his eyes the first thing he noticed was the layer of powder, covering the floor like grey velvet. His nostrils were clogged with bitter, metallic-smelling grit. Slowly, he had raised his head.

The chamber of General William Myson, Structure’s Commander Supreme, had been a scene of devastation, filled with rubble, debris, toppled marble pillars, chunks of stone. The appalled silence that follows all such catastrophes was particularly vivid. The chaos of the scene was a stark contrast to the elegance and serenity of Myson’s chamber on Delgado’s last, formal visit.

He, Bucky and Ashala—back when they had known her only as Girl—had fought their way in, trying to reach the Seriattic conosq Vourniass Lycern, before she gave birth to Delgado’s son. Lycern had been the assigned bearer to the Seriattic Royal Household, key to Myson’s plans to obtain an heir to the position of Monosiell on Seriatt to enable his arms deals with the Sinz to continue. They were just components in Myson’s political, greed-motivated machinations. He cared nothing for Lycern or the child; the child Myson believed was his own.

Desperate to rectify mistakes and save Lycern and the child from Myson’s perverse grip, Delgado, Bucky and Ash had faced insurmountable odds. Delgado, shot by cyborgs within Myson’s chamber, had managed to cling on to life until he heard his child’s cries, only then allowing himself to slip into unconsciousness and apparent death.

Yet later, he had heard the conversation between Bucky and Ashala quite clearly: his child was safe. Believing Delgado dead, they had escaped with the infant in Myson’s flier.

Despite his injuries, Delgado recovered quickly, and in the calm moments following the aircraft’s departure he gingerly placed his left palm on the gritty floor, grimacing as he pushed himself up onto all fours. Slowly, carefully, Delgado stood. Sweating and slightly breathless, he looked down at his chest where there was little evidence of the wounds he knew he had sustained. His tunic was torn and bloodstained and appeared to be glistening slightly, but that was all. He probed his chest gently with the fingertips of his right hand. It seemed normal. He felt slightly sick and light-headed, and there was an occasional lance of heat and pain in his chest, but between these momentary shards of discomfort there was only a mild tingling sensation.

Then he had seen the cyborg lying around twenty metres away, apparently crushed against one of the marble pillars by the flier as it had crashed into the building. Around its shattered body was a sheet of dark blood that seemed to glisten like frost. The sparkling substance trailed across the floor to where Delgado had lain, its sheen becoming more evident where the cyborg’s blood merged with his own. And then he had understood. Unable to repair the cyborg, in the face of their own death the very latest evolution had demonstrated the instinct of self-preservation, escaping their host and merging within Delgado’s own nobics. Then they had set about repairing his body before it decayed, creating a new environment for themselves. The faint sensation of pins and needles he felt indicated that the nobics were still working within him, repairing and reorganising cells, regenerating fluids and membranes, giving him strength.

Then Delgado remembered discovering Lycern’s body. Partially crushed by falling masonry, her face remained obscured by the marble column that had collapsed across one half of the bed on which she lay. But from the single wound to her abdomen it was clear that she had been killed before that, during the moments of his unconsciousness. The charred flesh around the wound still radiated heat. Overwhelmed by grief, frustration and anger, he had no one to blame but himself for what had happened. He had lost sight of or turned away from so much of importance. The corniss fur beneath her thighs was darkly stained following the birth of the child she had been carrying. His child.

There had been no sign of Myson, but whether this was because the general had left before the flier had crashed into the chamber, or because he was buried somewhere in the devastation, Delgado did not at that time know.

He turned, and through the window had seen the flier between the black shapes of the gigantic habitat towers, a speck climbing through turbulent layers of grey cloud on twin plumes of waste product. Bucky and Ashala were aboard it, he knew.

As was his newborn son.

His strength growing with every passing moment, Delgado had staggered to the huge, broken window, the wind coursing around him like warm breath. Looking down he had seen a flier platform on a lower level where a diplomatic vessel was being prepared for departure. As a hatch opened on the vessel’s side to allow an automatic laden with water cells to enter, Delgado had spotted his opportunity to escape, and chase Bucky, Ash and his son.

Now, so many years later he was in the heart of the Lex Talionis. He sat up on the bunk and swung his feet around. He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. He sighed and massaged his forehead and temples with his fingertips. This was another day, another raid, flying seat-of-the-pants escort to a small flock of lumbering bombers that would attempt to drop tiny bombs on insignificant Structure targets. Such gnatbite attacks were all they were capable of. They did little harm to Structure, but gave the group some focus. At least that was the idea. Given that they had to use whatever ageing technology they could get their hands on or adapt to their purposes, they didn’t do too badly.

Abruptly, the door to his left opened. Cascari entered the room and stood in the doorway. “We’ll be reaching the surface soon. You ready?”

Delgado nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Just give the old man a minute.” He looked at his son for a moment. Cascari seemed to have changed each time he saw him, becoming taller, stronger, his mourst characteristics increasingly pronounced, the ridges of ligament running along his jaw pulling the corners of his mouth down slightly. His skin seemed to be darkening, too, gaining the slightly scaly, reptilian-like qualities of a full-blooded mourst. This increased the intensity of his already striking blue eyes.

“You feeling OK?” Cascari asked.

Delgado nodded. “Yeah, fine. What’s the weather like up top?”

“Blue skies and sunshine. No cloud. Final briefing’s in ten minutes.”

“Sure. Let me wash my face, then I’ll be up.”

Cascari nodded once, then left the room.

Delgado sighed, and wished he could summon some enthusiasm. The remnants of the nobics lurking within him were a curse. Despite gradually failing due to their age, along with the odd useful attribute, they maintained the perfect memory of that time in Myson’s chamber, automatically stimulating physical responses as he relived the events.

Each time he experienced those final moments, his personal achievements seemed few, the regret and sadness overwhelming. They were feelings he found it increasingly difficult to shake off.

The Chamber of Visions,
Oracles’ Cloister, Seriattic Palace

Oracle Entuzo—the most senior of all Seriatt’s seers—entered the chamber, accompanied by her six, young vilume attendants, the hem of her heavy outer robe trailing on the floor. The attendants lit lamps that cast pools of cream light across the brick walls, polished wood and brass, and candles beneath small glass bowls filled with scented oil. As the liquids warmed the air became rich and intoxicating.

Oracle Entuzo shed her robe and handed it to Coulieq, her senior attendant. Like all Oracles, Entuzo was taller than other vilume, and without her robe she looked brittle and fragile, her limbs and neck appearing a little too long, and slightly out of proportion.

She lay on the smooth black couch in the centre of the room, her movements slow and precise. Its sleek leather skin undulated gently as it changed shape to accommodate her.

“Are you certain you wish to do this?” asked Coulieq. “The lack of a focal consciousness concerns me.”

“Calm yourself, faithful Coulieq,” said Entuzo, her voice soft and warm. “There is no specific individual or event on which to focus, that is true, but perhaps this will make the visions easier to interpret, more accurate than the usual possibilities.”

“Or perhaps it is not possible at all and your individuality will be in danger. Can you afford to take such a risk? We should inform the Administrators.”

“Did the mask not predict the Great Plague? The Denessil Catastrophe?” Entuzo challenged, her tone gentle but firm. “It is true that sometimes it cannot be relied upon, but given the current crisis we need some indication of what the future may give us. As for the Administrators, they need know only if I see anything of importance. If I see anything at all. Leave me now, Coulieq. I must open my mind to what may come.”

Coulieq nodded. From experience, the vilume knew that entering into an argument with Entuzo was futile. Prompted by a slight movement of Coulieq’s right hand, the other attendants stepped back to take up designated positions near the circular room’s wall.

As she lay, Entuzo glanced at the circle of plush seating overlooking the Chamber, where the Administrators and other Oracles would normally sit during important projections. She felt some uncertainty at using the mask without their approval, but knew her reasons were valid.

Entuzo relaxed, her pure black eyes reflecting the intricately carved wooden ceiling above her as she stared. Her breathing began to slow as she relaxed completely, but her eyes remained open. A few moments later, when Coulieq recognised that Oracle Entuzo had entered the dormant state of transcendence, on the cusp of departing the physical world and entering the spiritual environment beyond, accessible only to the Oracles, the senior attendant slowly turned to face the wall behind her. She touched a small square button and a panel slid to one side. It revealed Seriatt’s most precious artefact—The Destiny Mask.

Ancient and of unknown origin, the mask had been discovered by archaeologists in one of Seriatt’s most barren regions, but was believed by many to be non-Seriattic. Bearing the appearance of polished golden glass with a slightly metallic quality, it was delicately fashioned from a substance scientists had been unable to identify. Covering the front of the upper head when worn, the mask’s features possessed androgynous characteristics similar to those of Seriattic vilume, yet there was something nonetheless different about it, a subtle otherness to the facial expression and distribution of the features, as if modelled on an ancestor of modern vilume. The wide, oval eyes conveyed innocence, wisdom, pity, and also great sorrow, as if continually dismayed by the ineptitude of those who wore it.

Coulieq picked up the soft black leather gloves that lay in front of the mask and put them on, then reached out and lifted the artefact carefully from its cradle. She turned, carried the mask towards the couch and carefully placed it on Oracle Entuzo’s face.

Despite its apparently solid construction, as Coulieq backed away, the mask briefly emitted a very faint, high-pitched whine, then became slightly luminescent. Entuzo’s lips parted, her fingers began to twitch slightly and her back arched a little as if she were anxious or aroused, the couch moving with her body. Oracle Entuzo licked her lips and swallowed. Her fingers gripped the sides of the couch. She seemed tense, disturbed, mumbling softly. The mask seemed to glow more brightly, and then its edges began to soften, losing definition and extending down the sides of Entuzo’s face, until the strange substance started to merge with the Oracle’s skin. As it hardened across her ears, eyes and the top of her nose the bond with her pale flesh was seamless.

Then, a few moments later, Oracle Entuzo began to see the future.

Some time later Entuzo seemed to relax. The mask darkened, and separated from the vilume’s skin, returning to its original, solid form. Coulieq stepped forward and gently removed it from the Oracle’s face. It felt warm to the touch even through the leather gloves, and Entuzo’s skin was slightly pink where it had made contact with her.

Coulieq placed the mask back in its cradle and closed the panel. When she turned she saw that Entuzo was already awake, and had gratefully accepted a drink of iced water offered to her by one of the junior attendants.

As Coulieq walked towards her, Entuzo sat up on the couch. “What did you see?” asked the senior attendant, recognizing the elated expression on the Oracle’s face. “The projections in the chamber were unclear.”

Entuzo reached out and touched Coulieq’s wrist. Her fingertips were icy cold. “I have some wonderful news, faithful Coulieq,” she said softly but with clear elation. “I have seen something marvellous. I have seen the coming of Seriatt’s Saviour.”

Aboard the Lex Talionis, Atlantic Ocean

The briefing was as relaxed—but as serious—as any other. Delgado stood in front of the other, seated pilots, a ragtag band, largely criminals and smugglers who had acquired their flying skills avoiding capture by various law enforcement agencies. They were making notes as he spoke.

“The weather is fine and clear today,” he said, “so we’ll stay fairly low. The escorts will fly in two loose formations of eight pairs, five hundred metres above the bombers. One group will be led by Bucky, the other by myself. Due to the weather conditions the bombers will fly in a tight formation to provide defensive cross-fire. The Mars Militia is to launch an angel sweep to disable the Structure Firedrakes before we take off, so we should have a clear run.” One of the pilots muttered something Delgado did not hear clearly, but which was apparently disparaging. A few others seemed to agree, but Delgado let it go. “If we do run into trouble then you”ll need to remember that your guns have been reharmonised to one hundred metres, so make sure you get in close and hit “em hard. It’s difficult to bring a Firedrake down but a good burst in one of the turbines from that range should do it.

“The main targets are the research and comms facilities.” He indicated rectangular structures on the map, which shimmered slightly as the display zoomed in on the two buildings. “There’s no point going for the Firedrake bunker.” He ran a fingertip through one of the tabs and a larger building was also displayed. “We simply don’t have ordnance capable of penetrating it. However, if you find yourself trapped in a crippled aircraft over the target area and you can crash your machine into the bunker, then you”ll be remembered for doing so. OK?” There was an uneasy silence, but a couple of the pilots nodded gently and quickly scribbled diagrams.

“Good. Are there any questions?” A hand appeared towards the back of the room. “Yes, Blake.”

“I was just wondering if there’s been any progress on the plans to attack Planetary Guidance Headquarters. There are rumours flying around that if we can get hold of a few more machines it’s a go.”

“We have intelligence information on this,” said Delgado. “Can you fill us in, please, Ash?”

Ashala was leaning against the wall at the back of the room, chewing gum. She had become more attractive as she aged, her slightly weathered appearance giving her an air of greater confidence and maturity. Occasionally she was disturbed by strange dreams that she believed to be fragments of memories of her past returning to her—it was one such dream that had led to her declaring that her name was Ashala, and that she should be called this rather than Girl—but the dreams’ lack of clarity made them difficult to analyse satisfactorily, often casting her into depression. Whatever personal issues affected her, however, her skill as an intelligence analyst was unquestioned, and she commanded great respect within the group. As she stood upright and took a pace forward, the pilots turned in their seats to face her. “Apart from the scarcity of fabric and wood with which to construct more Hornets,” she said, “we have information indicating that due to the number of successful attacks we’ve made recently Structure has increased xip fighter patrols around PGHQ. Furthermore, some of the less essential landing platforms have been decommissioned and gun placements built on them. Given the increased risk this poses we’re not going to be able to attack Structure at its heart in the short term.”

There was a general expression of frustration and much chatter as the pilots turned to face the front of the room again.

Delgado held up a hand to quieten the pilots. “I know it’s a bitch,” he said, “and that you’re all keen to hit them where it hurts, but it’s a measure of our success that Structure has been forced to take such steps. We have to congratulate ourselves on that. We are somewhat constrained by the primitive aircraft we are forced to fly, but rest assured if we can get our hands on better equipment, and if the right opportunity comes along, then we’ll make the move. OK? Good. Anyone else?” Cascari raised a hand. “Yes.”

“Have there been any developments between Seriatt and Earth? Last we heard there were rumours that Myson was preparing an invasion fleet.”

Delgado looked to his left. “Bucky?”

“We think that was just speculation,” said Bucky. He seemed slightly embarrassed by this admission. “Myson continues to challenge the Seriatts, but he also seems reluctant to engage in all-out war. He still believes he can somehow get Michael into position as Monosiell, so he’s keen to keep his options open. There was recently a dust up in the vicinity of the M-4 wormhole, with the Seriatts preventing one of Myson’s deals taking place, but although there was an exchange of fire no ships were lost. Reports are that a Sinz ship was damaged, then high-tailed it back to wherever it is they come from through the wormhole, without an exchange being made. It’s unclear how much longer Myson’s going to be prepared to put up with the standoff. I think if he was fitter then there’d be more action. As it is he seems prepared to continue playing wait and see.”

“We should go in there and scorch his ass for him,” called Blake. “Then there’d be some action all right.” There were whoops of agreement from many of the other young pilots.

“You’re the one needs his ass scorched, Blake,” called Fitzgerald, a blonde female pilot.

“Yeah?” Blake turned to face her. “You wanna try it, Fitz?” Blake challenged. “Bring it on, baby!” Fitzgerald’s gesture indicated a reluctance to take him up on this offer.

“Well, maybe we’ll eventually get a chance to deal with Myson at some point,” Delgado called above the hubbub. “But for the moment we need to concentrate on the job in hand.” He looked at his watch. “OK, everyone,” he said. “The Talionis will be in position in twenty minutes. As ever, we’ll need to be out of here ASAP, so let’s get our ass in gear. OK? Good luck.”

The world blurred as Delgado thumbed the trigger, his Hornet shuddering violently as a stream of orange flame spewed from the guns packed into its wings. He muttered darkly to himself as he tried to keep the trembling, angular silhouette of the Structure Firedrake in his gun sight, sensing his aircraft’s wooden frame flexing as he tightened the turn in pursuit of his technologically superior opponent. As the G-load increased, Delgado’s peripheral vision began to fade, and he was forced to ease off slightly in order to remain conscious. Unlike their Structure adversaries, Delgado and his pilots did not have the benefit of G-suppression engines. He stopped firing a few seconds after he had first depressed the trigger, and clarity returned to his world.

Another Hornet suddenly attacked the Firedrake and the Structure pilot reversed his turn to avoid a collision. It was a clumsy move that reflected the Firedrake pilots’ lack of close air-combat skills, and their inability to focus their weapons accurately at such close range. The aircraft’s dark shape moved back across Delgado’s gun sight, a glittering, grey triangle. When its nose reached the centre circle and the sight glowed soft orange, he fired again.

A rash of tiny explosions skittered along the Firedrake’s nose, the upper surface of the fuselage and along one of the bulbous turbine housings. The turbine emitted a thick ball of dark smoke and flame and small pieces of the cowling fluttered gracefully away. The Firedrake’s nose angled downwards a little, and then quite abruptly the Structure machine slipped sideways through the air, suddenly robbed of all lift. A moment later one of its short wings caressed the treetops, and the machine became a rolling ball of flame.

Delgado levelled out and scoured the sky, but there was no sign of the other Hornet that had attacked the Firedrake. Sudden isolation seemed to be an odd characteristic of dogfights.

The rest of the Hornet swarm was a long way off to his left, tangled up with the other Firedrakes. He wasn”t sure how the Structure aircraft had managed to jump them so effectively. One moment the Hornet fighters and the Typhoons—the inadequately armoured twinengined bombers that were to deliver the ordnance to the target—were all alone in the sky, the next they”d been ambushed by the Structure craft. He was sure the Firedrakes hadn”t come out of the sun, but Structure did seem to be particularly good at predicting their targets these days. Almost suspiciously so. The ongoing fight ebbed and flowed, both sides suffering setbacks and making gains.

Delgado turned his aircraft and looked towards the rest of the swarm. They were in disarray, struggling to survive. Outnumbered at least two to one, the Typhoons and the rest of the Hornet fighter swarm had already suffered great losses. Black smoke rose from numerous sites where machines had crashed, their crews either mutilated by cannon shells or burned in the wreckage of their aircraft. None had hit the Firedrake bunker. All of this might have been acceptable had the mission been a success, but while they had definitely managed to destroy a few ground vehicles and some stores, the main targets were virtually untouched. Yet despite this, they were fighting hard, their zeal overcoming what they lacked in equipment.

Delgado pulled back on the stick and looked down behind the left wing as the aircraft climbed. The river shone like a trail of mercury drizzled through the forest. As Delgado turned his head again, light caught his eye, glinting off the silver hull of an orbiting dreadnought preparing to depart for the war zone; it was like a blade suspended overhead.

His eye was drawn from the ghostly shape of the huge vessel as one of the Hornets chased a Firedrake towards the ground, partly shrouded in the smoke pouring from the Structure craft’s turbines. The Hornet stopped firing for a moment, then resumed and Delgado saw pieces fly off the Firedrake’s fuselage. The Hornet stopped firing again and pulled out of the dive, but the Firedrake continued to descend, hitting part of the Structure installation. A few seconds later part of the facility exploded, a gout of flame and billowing smoke rising into the sky as if exhaled from the mouth of a sideshow firebreather. Delgado exclaimed with satisfaction. Glittering embers cascaded to earth.

Bright sparks suddenly flashed past the nose of Delgado’s aircraft and there was a guttural crackling sound interspersed by deafening pops and bangs. Delgado glanced to his left as he flicked the aircraft on to its side and pulled a gut-wrenching turn. His bladder emptied as he saw the aggressive silhouette of a Firedrake bearing down on him, its chunky muzzle spouting flame. Blood filled his head as he shoved his plane into a steep dive, yelling profanities.

After a few seconds, Delgado levelled off, then climbed briefly, his plane’s wooden frame groaning and creaking around him as he flicked it on to one wingtip, searching the sky for his attacker. He ducked instinctively at a series of thuds just behind his head and screamed as intense pain filled his left hand. He heard the wail of his attacker’s engine as the Structure machine passed behind him and he flipped the Hornet on to its back, then pulled the stick to his belly so that he was dropping vertically at full power. He raced towards the ground for perhaps six seconds before pulling out of the dive. He looked around quickly and found the other aircraft flying straight and level about five hundred metres above him, the enemy pilot having apparently lost sight of Delgado’s machine against the chaos of the ground.

Delgado looked down at his hand, and for a moment stared blankly at the torn gauntlet and flap of skin. A brilliant white shard of bone was visible through the leather. A cannon shell seemed to have passed through the flesh between the thumb and index finger. It was painful and messy but probably looked worse than it actually was. He noticed that the side of the cockpit was spattered with a thin brown paste around the hole left by the unexploded shell as it had exited the aircraft.

Above, the Firedrake was turning gently, heading back towards the burning installation. With the fight continuing only a couple of miles away Delgado could only assume that the Structure aircraft was damaged, out of ammunition, or its pilot wounded. He deftly nudged the throttle, crying out as a sheet of white pain raged through his injured hand. The engine ahead of him growled sullenly and he felt a firm shove in the back.

He began to climb, calculating his trajectory and turning his aircraft so that he would stay in the other’s machine’s scanner blind spot—below and slightly to its left. Continually searching the sky for other Firedrakes that might jump him as he focused on his target, Delgado waited patiently as he gradually gained altitude. The Structure machine began to descend slowly and he caught a glimpse of turbine blades spinning as sunlight penetrated the port housing. Delgado adjusted his grip on the joystick and waited. At a distance of around two hundred metres the Structure pilot was still oblivious to his presence. Still slightly lower than the other machine Delgado allowed his Hornet to drift to the right until he was directly behind the Firedrake. He raised the nose of his own aircraft a little, aimed just ahead of the Firedrake’s pointed nose, then fired.

It was a perfect shot. Tiny orange plumes smothered the underside of the fuselage, and ran the length of the port turbine housing. There was a surprisingly brief and contained explosion from the engine, and a comical puff of smoke sputtered from the exhaust vents before the machine began to trail a soiled streamer. Delgado allowed his Hornet to drift to the right and closed in slightly. At around fifty metres, with the starboard turbine outlet gaping like an erotic mouth in front of him, his Hornet bucking in the disturbed air behind the Structure craft, Delgado fired again until his ammunition was spent. The machine did not drop out of the sky or explode, but simply continued to descend towards the forest, as if this was the Structure pilot’s intention. Then it brushed against the forest canopy, and was gradually absorbed by the trees. A few seconds later a dense fireball rose from the forest like a huge over-ripe fruit.

The moments immediately after an attack were notoriously dangerous, many pilots being jumped by the enemy as their concentration lapsed in the euphoria of a kill, so Delgado immediately dropped his aircraft’s left wing and pulled back on the stick: it was time to go home before his own luck ran out.

Around an hour later, Delgado’s head throbbed dully. He felt slightly queasy, his muscles ached and his body was clammy with sweat. He glanced at the fuel gauge, checked the position of the sun and looked down past the right wing. He saw familiar landmarks: the shell of the building next to the dirt track; the widening river; the still-smouldering wreck of the Structure scout flyer they had shot down the previous day. To the left the desert stretched away into the distance, a vast, bleached void. Ahead, the sea was like a beaten metal sheet.

He weaved the plane slightly and craned his neck to check behind him: Firedrake pilots were unlikely to chase them out this far, but he knew better than to make assumptions. Instead of Structure aircraft he saw the surviving Typhoons and Hornets, a ragged formation of damaged aircraft returning to the Talionis. Most were damaged, some trailing smoke.

Blake’s Hornet was closest to his own, about two hundred metres away but at a slightly lower altitude. The machine was badly damaged, large chunks missing from the rudder and ailerons, the ground visible through a gash in the fuselage behind the cockpit that was easily five metres long. The aircraft was trailing a thin white stream of coolant and half the main undercarriage assembly was hanging limply beneath it; the single wheel turning slowly.

Within the cockpit Blake was just a silhouette, but he seemed to be sitting upright. Delgado tried to make contact but found his comms unit dead. He manoeuvred his aircraft closer to Blake’s machine, but was unable to see through the canopy, many panes of which were starred or streaked with engine oil. Delgado waved his good hand vigorously, but Blake made no visible response.

Realising that he needed to lose some speed, Delgado swore softly as he looked at his left hand. Caked in congealed blood, the wrist throbbed with a dull, irregular rhythm that matched the droning of the engine in front of him. The hand was aching and stiff, his fingers reluctant to move. Carefully, he reached over with his right hand to try and pull back the throttle enough to slow the aircraft down without reducing the power so much that it stalled. With a deft movement he reduced the power to forty per cent, but the speed bled away more quickly than he had expected; instead of using the throttle again he lowered flaps to increase lift.

Delgado’s aircraft was the first to cross the coast, the grey sea glistering below. He looked behind him again. One of the Typhoons was dropping towards the water, one prop windmilling. He checked the sky for Structure craft but saw only a couple of vapour trails high above. When he looked ahead again he saw a broad area of sea in the middle distance beginning to spiral, a shallow vortex rapidly increasing in speed to create foam-crested peaks and deep, smooth troughs. Four narrower but much deeper, faster vortices appeared around the spiralling central mass.

A gleaming silver dome began to emerge from the gunmetal water, the grey sea roiling and spitting as the shining surface emerged from the depths, the vortices deepening still further and increasing in speed. The circular lower half of the craft then began to emerge, numerous bulky protuberances rising from its substructure, long, jointed arms extending from various points around its circumference. Eventually the Lex Talionis was fully exposed, the highest point of the huge domed section standing some 30 metres above the water. With the Talionis on the surface the vortices disappeared, and the sea lapped ineffectively around it.

In the vessel’s dark base a slit suddenly appeared as doors opened like some gigantic mechanical mouth. As a torrent of water immediately poured between the widening jaws, fountains of spray jetted into the air on either side of the craft as it was immediately pumped out again. When the jaws were at their gaping limit, a thick river of metaplas flowed like an iron tongue from a gland in the centre of the lower jaw to form a landing strip.

They were almost home.

Floodlights came on that illuminated the interior of the bay and revealed the extent of the Talionis’s capacity. A former marine salvage vessel once used for the retrieval and processing of marine wrecks, the group had purchased it from a salvage merchant on the fringes of the Dead Zone with Mars Militia funding. Its submarine capabilities and huge internal space, coupled with the fact that it offered accommodation sufficient for twice the group’s number and a sizeable inventory of everything from communications equipment to sticking plasters and analgesics, meant that it represented the perfect base from which to conduct their incursions.

Delgado looked over his shoulder; Blake’s aircraft was very low now, and was obviously going too quickly. There was still around half a kilometre to go, but the shadow of Blake’s plane was clearly defined on the sea below, expanding and contracting on the swell. Every couple of seconds either Blake or the autopilot—it was impossible for Delgado to know which—fed power into the engine and raised the aircraft’s nose; but it was clear the plane was floundering. It was possible the autopilot had been damaged in some way.

More pieces of Blake’s plane became detached, fluttering away from the machine like autumn leaves. The left wing dipped abruptly and the stray wheel smashed through the crest of a wave with an explosion of creamy foam. Then the aircraft lurched upward once more, as if some dormant system had been stirred into action by the brief contact and realised the danger.

The right wing dropped this time, levelled, then the left wing dropped again. With the plane nose-high the undercarriage assembly hanging beneath it came into contact with the surf once more, and for a moment the aircraft looked like a bizarre, one-legged creature striding across the surface of the water. Then, just beyond the edge of the Talionis’s metaplas tongue, a surge of swell enveloped the wheel, the nose tipped forward and the radiator intake plunged into the chop with sickening suddenness. The prop thrashed briefly, then the aircraft sank quickly into the gloomy depths.

With the smell of fuel and hot oil thick in the air, Delgado strode across the cavernous bay within the Lex Talionis towards Cascari, who was clambering from his own aircraft. One or two of the fitters running past him to rearm and refuel the returned aircraft called out congratulations, but Delgado ignored them.

Cascari turned to face him, slinging his harness over his left forearm. “You OK?” Delgado asked.

“Fine. Got a little ventilation in the cockpit, but no injuries. You?”

Delgado held up his hand. It was caked in a dark brown crust of dried blood. Cascari winced. “It’s nothing,” said Delgado. “Medic’l soon fix it. Guess your old man’s getting sloppy.” His tone was casual, but he did not smile.

“Where’d they come from?”

Delgado shook his head. “Don’t ask me. They shouldn”t have been there at all.” He glanced over his shoulder towards the bright slit. Aircraft were still making their approach and landing, others taxiing from the landing strip, their engines revving. “Our friendly Mars Militia representative is going to have to come up with some answers, that’s for sure.” Delgado called over the noise as they walked towards the locker room. “Maybe Rodriuez isn’t being exactly straight with us.”

“You think they didn”t send the angels in at all? I never did trust him. You think he’s trying to pull one over on us? Why would he want to do that?”

Delgado shook his head, pulling a stick of gum from his pocket and placing it into his mouth. “I don’t know, Cascari. But what I do know is that Blake’s dead, and so are several other, equally good pilots. We have a high rate of loss as it is, but the angels were supposed to deal with the Structure systems and give us a fighting chance. I want to know what went wrong.”

“Hey, wait up.” It was Bucky, running to catch up with them. His expression was grim and he looked exhausted. “Tough job, huh?” he said, slightly breathlessly. “They jumped us good. Lost four from my flight. How ‘bout you, Delgado?”

“Six,” Delgado replied sombrely.

“Shit.” Bucky shook his head. “How many bombers did we lose?”

“Not sure. Haven”t seen Marcus to ask him. But my guess is they were slaughtered. I only saw a handful following us in.”

An alarm suddenly began to sound, a piercing rasp accompanied by flashing red lights: the bay doors were about to close as the Lex Talionis prepared to submerge once again.

Almost immediately the metaplas landing strip softened, and slipped back into the bulbous gland in the middle of the bay entrance with a succulent sound. The light in the hangar faded as the massive, rigid lips of the bay doors began to close, and within two minutes the Talionis was sinking beneath the waves once again, seeking refuge in the deep.

As the Talionis vibrated, Delgado steadied himself on the door-frame as he, Bucky and Cascari walked into the locker room. Bucky and Cascari dumped their harnesses on a bench and unzipped their flying suits, but Delgado kept walking. “Not changing?” Cascari called after him.

“No. I’ve got to talk to Rodriguez,” he called without turning. “Then I’ll go to the medic and get my hand patched up.”

“Ask him about those angels, man,” called Bucky. ‘reckon they must’ve had their wings cut off.”

“I intend to, don’t worry.”

Just as Delgado was leaving the locker room Ashala appeared in the doorway. “Hi,” she said. “How”d it go?” The expression on her face indicated that she already had an idea.

“You don’t want to know, Ash.”

“Not good, then.”

“Not particularly. We lost a lot of aircraft. Blake crashed right outside the Talionis.”

Ash’s mouth twisted slightly, but she obviously did not know what to say. She saw his injured hand. “You got hit. Let me see.” She touched Delgado’s sleeve but he moved his hand behind his back.

“It’s nothing,” he said, looking past her into the dark corridor beyond. “Medic can treat it later for me. Right now I’ve got to go to Comms.”

Ashala turned sideways in the doorway to let Delgado past. As he walked away she called after him: “You should go to the medic before you go to Comms. You don’t want that hand getting infected.”

Delgado made no response.

A musty smell hit Delgado the moment he entered Comms—a dark, circular room at the heart of the Lex Talionis—and he suddenly remembered why he did his best to avoid the place as much as possible.

Although stuffed from floor to ceiling with all manner of communications machinery, most of the equipment was either massively out of date or inoperative due to lack of spares or incompatibility between systems. The pulse engines, energisers and signal boosters were antiquated and, despite being well maintained, their performance was declining. Although there was constant talk of a further injection of funding from the Mars Militia, nothing ever seemed to be forthcoming. Throughout the room, plastic buckets were strategically positioned to collect the water that dripped constantly from the pipes suspended just below the ceiling; shining black patches on the floor indicated potential locations for more buckets.

Despite the conditions, the young lad with acne who had been given responsibility for the equipment was clearly immensely keen. His clothes were smartly pressed, his hair combed across his forehead in a shiny sweep. Numerous dark scabs and a certain redness of neck were evidence of inexperience in shaving. Although his appearance was somewhat at odds with the rest of the group, the young man’s trim figure and exuberant demeanour were probably the main reasons behind his appointment.

The youth stood erect and pulled his tunic straight as Delgado entered the grim room. “Ah, sir. How are you, sir?” he asked.

“Never mind that,” Delgado replied with a brusqueness that surprised even himself, “let’s just get on with things, shall we?”

“Yes of course, sir. Sorry, sir. If you”d like to walk this way then, sir.”

The young man strode into the depths of the room, escorting Delgado between the banks of dark equipment in his charge. One or two coloured lights flickered like signs of recognition as they passed, but overall the machinery seemed depressingly dormant.

At the far end of the room a tiny black screen was mounted on top of a slender black metal pedestal. A single black chair was positioned in front of it. Water dripped into a black bucket placed on the floor just in front of the black pedestal; the water it contained looked black. An almost imperceptible vibration produced thin concentric circles in the liquid.

“Please, sit down, sir,” said the young man, motioning towards the chair.

Delgado sat; the chair was hard and the back too upright. He frowned and glanced quickly around in search of alternative seating; none was available.

The youth went and stood behind a control panel to Delgado’s right and appeared to make minute adjustments to something. Occasionally, he would glance anxiously at the small, seemingly inactive screen, then make further adjustments. “Sorry about this, sir,” he said. “The antennae array has reached the surface but something of a storm has developed since we descended again and it’s distorting the signal. I’ll have to give it a bit more juice.”

The young man frowned as he made more changes, then looked at the screen and smiled, apparently able to see something beyond Delgado’s level of perception. “There you go then, sir,” he said. “I’ll be outside if you need me.”

The youth left Delgado looking at an apparently inactive screen. Delgado waited. The lack of activity continued. He looked behind him towards the door wondering if he should fetch the keen young man, but when he turned to face the monitor again he saw faint lines of text fading in from the darkness.


The words were replaced by a man’s face that phased in and out of focus before being engulfed by snow. After a few moments the blizzard eased, but the face skewed and split diagonally before joining again.

It was Rodriguez, their friendly Mars Militia representative.

Structure’s occupation of Olympus Mons was at the root of the Mars Militia’s cause. The Militia’s founder—an archaeologist named Louis Combelles—had been so awestruck, almost religiously overcome, by the apparent scale of the Martians’ achievements when first experiencing the Olympus Mons remains, that he had immediately called for Mars to be declared a site of historical interest and demanded the cessation of all development, with the aim of preserving the planet’s history more effectively than Earth’s indigenous cultures had been. But although Combelles and his cohorts had barricaded themselves into the Olympus Mons base in protest, they were quickly—and brutally—evicted by Structure’s PPD operatives. Combelles had been lucky to escape, and thereafter, the Martian cause dominated his life.

As time passed, his group gained power, attracting the support of wealthy businessmen who saw potential political value in his agenda. As a result, and despite the questionable motives of some of his new sympathisers, the Mars Militia was formed, subsequently becoming one of the most powerful political groups in history.

For a while, following Combelles’ death in a flying accident, his small aircraft having mysteriously disintegrated over Tharsis, the Militia had concentrated on peaceful means of protest, occasionally striking purely military targets on Mars. With Combelles gone, however, the Militia’s power fell into the hands of the proud, fourteenth-generation Latinos who provided much of its illicit funding and more extreme tactics were adopted. Many on the fringes claimed that the Mars issue was merely a smokescreen to obscure the group’s real focus on increasing wealth. Fed by the spoils of piracy, illegal counter-production and graft within Earth’s habitat towers, as time passed the Militia’s wealth grew, and the group began to attack anything with even the remotest link to Structure. None of this had prevented Structure plundering Olympus Mars, or mercilessly converting the Martian installation to serve human requirements.

Rodriguez was a typical militiaman with tanned, unblemished skin over delicate high cheekbones and a pencil moustache on his thin upper lip. His shining black hair was smoothed across his skull in the customary militia style, and perfectly complemented the expensive suit he wore—a traditional black three-piece in heavy fabric. It might have had a faint pinstripe, but the reception wasn”t good enough for Delgado to be certain.

One of the Latino’s eyes was deep brown, a pool of intense emotion, the other a cybernetic replacement that looked soulless despite the engineers’ best efforts. The red, sore lid blinked slowly and drooped, giving Rodriguez a slightly dozy appearance.

Externally a picture of clean-cut opulence, and perceived by many as little more than successful businessmen with contacts, the Militia’s Latino core were activists without conscience, executing deadly operations from a safe distance, their main goal to achieve Mars’ independence from Earth. Despite sympathising with some of the Militia’s aims, Delgado disagreed with their methods: planting bombs on star-liners or sending waves of angels to corrupt leisurestation life-support systems made no sense to him, and as far as he could see did little to attract more moderate supporters.

Yet Delgado knew that without Militia funding they would not have the Talionis, or the currency necessary to buy supplies and munitions on Earth. In return for this, the group attacked Structure on Earth, while the Militia concentrated on Structure’s Martian facilities. And while it had crossed Delgado’s mind several times that severing links with the Militia might be no bad thing, he well knew that without the Militia codes that prevented Structure from identifying the location of the Talionis, which were constantly updated and fed into the Structure system by the Militia’s finest systems engineers, they would be finished.

On Mars the great prize the Militia sought was the extensive and ancient Martian facility within the gigantic dormant Olympus Mons volcano, which Structure had occupied since its discovery. Despite numerous attacks by the Militia, Olympus Mons had as yet proved an impenetrable fortress, protected by numerous gun turrets around its broad and ragged-edged crater, its internal expanse accessible only by a single shaft at the crater’s centre.

It was Rodriguez—who seemed to have an ever-increasing influence on the course of the group’s campaign against Structure—who had suggested bombing the facility they had so ineffectively attacked. A relatively easy target, he said he believed it would counter the group’s low ebb in morale. Thus the bombers had lumbered into the sky like a flock of ungainly wading birds, while the fighter escort circled impatiently above.

So much for morale boosting.

So much for Rodriguez and his assurances.

So much for the Mars Militia.

On the screen, Rodriguez placed a closed fist to his lips and cleared his throat. Apparently unable to see Delgado, he appeared to look beyond the monitor in front of him as if seeking clearance to continue from someone out of shot. Delgado pictured a counterpart to the keen young man currently waiting in the corridor outside the Comms room, busily making adjustments to equipment somewhere on Mars.

Rodriguez looked directly at the screen and, as Delgado apparently appeared to him, the militiaman adopted a smile as artificial as his set of perfect white teeth. As he began to speak, the distinctive rolling lilt of his South American accent—an affectation adopted by all high-ranking militiamen in recognition of their Latino ancestry—was immediately grating.

“Ah, Alexander Delgado. How are you? How are all within your group?” His voice was slightly out of sync with the movement of his lips, giving the impression that the voice Delgado could hear was actually that of a translator. The Latino’s cybernetic eye blinked lazily and wandered, as if already bored with the conversation.

“What happened, Rodriguez?” snapped Delgado. “You and your cronies were supposed to take care of the Firedrakes.”

Rodriguez pursed his lips and nodded slowly. “Ah, I thought I sensed anger in you, Alex. Now I understand why. Your mission was, um, unsuccessful, yes? And you are wounded, too, I see.” He pointed. “Your hand. It is not too painful, I hope?”

Delgado let his injured hand drop to his side. “Um, somewhat unsuccessful, yes. You could say that. We were slaughtered. Only a handful of us made it back and hardly any of the ordnance was delivered to the target. Some of my best pilots were killed. You said you’d make sure we had a clear run, Rodriguez. What went wrong?”

The militiaman raised his eyebrows and shook his head sadly. ‘really, Alex, I made no such assurance. I said we would endeavour—“ he paused, frowned, looked upward for a moment somewhat theatrically. “Yes, I believe that was the exact word I used—endeavour—to take care of the Firedrakes. And we did try. However, for some reason as yet unclear to us I am afraid the angels failed to do their job effectively. Your losses are unfortunate, but not our fault.” He smiled broadly as if this was some kind of achievement.

“You let us down again, Rodriguez.”

Rodriguez shook his head. “I think that in truth, Alex, you feel as though you let yourself down. It was not I who led that mission.” The militiaman adopted a sincere expression. “Men died under your command, Alex. That is a terrible, terrible thing.” He paused for effect, looking down as if seeking inspiration, or reading from a script. He looked up again and clasped his hands in front of his face as if praying, his head cocked slightly to one side. His wayward eye seemed to be searching for something in the corner of the room. “But it is the nature of war. Acceptable losses, Alex. It is the reality. What you are experiencing now is called survivor guilt. As leader, you are wondering why you should have survived the mission when those under your command did not.”

Delgado held his breath, barely containing his temper. He briefly wondered what effects the assassination of a key militiaman might have. It would be expensive and risky, but it could be done.

“It is of no matter now, Alex,” Rodriguez was saying. “We must move on.” Delgado wasn”t sure he was prepared to move on just yet. But what choice did he have? Rodriguez was right. “We have intercepted some interesting messages,” the militiaman was saying. “The Seriatts have announced that the Monosiell has died suddenly. Apparently the victim of disease.”

Delgado blinked. “What kind of disease?”

“We do not know. In truth it is not important. What is important is that Myson will see this as an opportunity, and seek to get his son into a position of power on Seriatt.” Delgado’s mind raced as numerous possibilities opened up before him. “That would not be a great problem in itself,” said Rodriguez. “I believe that Myson fails to appreciate the problems he would face entering into such a close union with Seriatt. Their society is thick with bureaucracy and hierarchy. However, there is an additional factor about which we are gravely concerned. We understand that the Seriatts are on the verge of making a breakthrough in time travel.”

Delgado sat more upright. “Myson getting Michael into a position of power on Seriatt would be bad enough, but time travel . . . Do you know any details?”

“Few, Alex. The messages we have intercepted are somewhat ambiguous and occasionally difficult to translate, but from what we can gather the Seriatts have extrapolated the properties of their Destiny Mask to produce some kind of time portal. More than that we do not know. Whatever it is, the Seriatts appear confident of its successful application. And Myson wants it.”

“We have to stop him,” said Delgado flatly. “If Myson gets into power on Seriatt through Michael and gets his hands on this time machine or whatever it is God alone knows what he”ll do.”

Rodriguez looked grave. “Indeed, Alex, indeed. From what we have been able to establish, Myson is to send Michael to Seriatt with a trusted operative to stake his claim within the Royal Household. A Commander Osephius, we believe.”

Delgado’s eyes narrowed. He felt his heart rate quicken slightly. “That name rings a bell,” he said quietly. “I take it Myson isn’t going himself for health reasons.”

Rodriguez nodded. “His health is failing. He is simply unable to make the journey. The members of the Planetary Council are apparently already squabbling over who will succeed him.”

“He’s close to death?”

“He is gravely unwell, of that there is no doubt.”

Delgado looked thoughtful. “Perhaps that’s why he’s so interested in time travel.”

Rodriguez chuckled insincerely. “Indeed, my friend, indeed.”

Delgado looked directly at Rodriguez again. “We have to make sure Michael doesn”t get to Seriatt, and stop Myson getting his hands on that time-travel device. Whatever the cost.”

Rodriguez nodded slowly. “I agree, Alex. There is one possibility. Michael is currently taking part in a Structure exercise in Brazil, and is due to leave for Seriatt when it finishes in two days’ time. Some time ago we acquired an old Structure snubship. It is one of the first examples of such a vessel, and although we have only a small amount of the necessary fuel, as these vessels are currently taking part in the exercise, it would perhaps be possible to get to Michael this way, before he even leaves Earth. This could make things much simpler. What do you think?”

“The snubship would have to be re-coded so Structure controllers think it’s something commonplace. A Class Four transport would do it. There”ll be plenty of those around.” Delgado spoke quietly as he thought the plan through. “These exercises take place over such a wide area visual identification’s not likely to be a problem. If we’re quick enough they might not even realise what’s really happened.”

Rodriguez smiled broadly. “Sneak in, kill him, sneak out again. I like your style, Alex. Who knows, if we’re careful we may be able to send our own representative to Seriatt and acquire their time-travel device for ourselves, no?”

Delgado said nothing: there were too many things for him to consider. One of them was that very possibility.

“I’m not sure this is such a good idea, man,” said Bucky, pulling meat from a roasted chicken leg. “I can understand where you’re coming from, but going after Michael’s a big risk.”

Ashala sat on the tattered sofa to Delgado’s left, arms folded. Images on the muted TV screen next to the sofa flickered brightly on the side of her face. Cascari was sitting cross-legged on the floor. So far neither of them had said anything. Delgado wasn”t sure what Cascari was thinking, but he could almost see Ashala’s mind working. “What do you think, Ash?” he asked her. “What would you do?”

She shrugged. “You know me, Delgado. I kinda like to play safe these days. Especially when the intelligence is from a source we’re not entirely sure about. Like Bucky says, I can see where you’re coming from. But . . .” She hesitated.


“I just don’t know if you’re doing this for the right reasons.” Delgado looked slightly taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“Well, are you sure this isn’t more about you, rather than Cascari.”

Delgado leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs, hands together in front of his face. “Look, this is Cascari’s opportunity. The one we’ve waited so long for. Besides, even without him we still couldn”t let Myson get hold of whatever time-travel technology the Seriatts might have developed. There’s no arguing with that, right?”

“No, there isn’t,” confirmed Bucky, tearing off more chicken.

“No,” said Ash.

“So whatever happens we have to stop Myson getting into a position of leverage on Seriatt through Michael. Now the Monosiell’s dead he’s going to get Michael to Seriatt as quickly as possible, not waste time approaching the Andamour Council to try and challenge the legality of the Seriatts’ objections again. I think what he”ll do is get Michael to Seriatt and bank on them being so grateful for an apparent heir that they”ll give him a hearing. I know how Myson’s mind works. There’s been no new Monosiell born in the last twenty years. The one they stuck in place just after Cascari was born was a stop-gap.” He spoke more quietly. “But if we can kill Michael before he leaves, all we have to do then is get Cascari to Seriatt in one piece, and he’s in with a real chance. He’s the real heir after all.”

“That’s all, huh?” said Bucky.

“But if Michael’s human anyway,” said Ash, “The Seriatts aren”t going to let him become Monosiell are they? No matter how desperate they are, and no matter what Myson says. If he’s not a Seriatt, he’s not a Seriatt, period.”

Delgado’s mouth twisted and he shook his head. “I don’t think we can count on something like that. Myson’s biotechs are the best. Always have been. I reckon they”ll have found a way of altering Michael’s physiology so he appears at least half Seriatt, which is what he’s supposed to be: gene manipulation, a batch of highly advanced nobics. Something to conceal his real origins. Apart from Myson, only we know Michael’s really human. When you two got Cascari out of that chamber that day, Myson had no choice but to use a human infant to claim his link to Seriatt and save face. Michael even looks completely human for pity’s sake. Any idiot can see Cascari’s a mourst. He’s even got a Seriattic name. Not that that would count for much, I guess.”

“OK. Say we deal with Michael,” said Ashala. “What if the Seriatts dispute Cascari’s claim, too?”

“I don’t see how they can,” said Delgado. “If there’s a dispute then maybe they can use this Destiny Mask of theirs. I don’t know how it works, but perhaps it could be used to establish the truth of his identity. Somehow, I don’t think that”ll be a problem, though.”

Bucky looked at Cascari. “What do you think, man? You want to kill the charlatan and high-tail it to Seriatt to stake your claim?”

Cascari toyed with the food in his bowl. “It’s important for me to go to Seriatt,” he said.

“You see?” said Delgado. “He recognises the opportunity here.”

Cascari looked at Delgado. “But I’m not so sure you should come with me.”

Delgado looked slightly shocked. “Why not? You’re not going to be able to do this on your own, you know.”

“Your presence might just lead to more problems. The Seriatts might resent it.”

“But you know how they value family units. I’m your father. How can they resent that?”

Cascari looked down at his food. “I don’t know.”

Delgado paused for a moment. “Perhaps it’s you who resents me, huh.”

Cascari looked up and shook his head. “That’s not true and you know it.”

“Come on guys,” said Ashala. “Delgado’s right, Cascari: you couldn”t do this on your own. Even if Michael was out of the equation you”d still need some backup approaching the Seriatts.”

Cascari looked frustrated. Although he seemed to want to argue with them, either he felt he couldn”t or he was unable to express his feelings well enough.

“Right, that’s it then,” said Delgado. “We’ll head for Brazil in Rodriguez’s snubship, remove Michael from the equation and then make a dash for Seriatt before they can inaugurate another puppet Monosiell.”

“It’s an admirable plan, but rubbing Michael out might not be that easy, man,” said Bucky, picking meat from between his teeth. “Myson’s bound to have his son well protected, you know? Xip fighter escorts, all kinds of shit. He’s kept him well wrapped until now, after all.”

“It’s worth a shot, though, Bucky. If we can kill Michael before he leaves for Seriatt then the battle’s half won.”

There were a few moments of silence as they contemplated the situation.

“Maybe we should send someone else with Cascari,” Ashala ventured quietly. She looked at Delgado in a way that made him feel uncomfortable; the way she did when situations were potentially dangerous. Bucky remained ignorant of the brief affair they had had some years ago and there was an unspoken agreement between them that Bucky must never find out. But sometimes Delgado wondered whether she would tell Bucky just to see what happened, or as a way of getting back at him for ending it.

“Yeah,” said Cascari, “you should let someone else take this one. You’re too emotionally involved. It might not be the best thing for you to go for it yourself, given the circumstances.”

Delgado shook his head. “No way,” he said emphatically. “If someone’s going with you it’s going to be me. Besides, who else would we send? No one’s got the necessary experience for one thing.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Ash suddenly.

The others all looked at her.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” said Bucky.

“Why not?”

“Well . . . we need you here. You’re our intelligence expert. Our collator of information.”

“Shit, Bucky,” she said angrily, “get someone else to collate the frigging information for Christ’s sake. I’m sick to death of collating information.”

Bucky looked at Delgado. “You don’t want her along, though, do you, Delgado?”

Delgado looked Ash in the eye. “I have no objections,” he said. “Who knows, maybe we’ll need some information collated along the way.” Ash half-smiled.

Bucky looked from one to the other of them as if he felt he was missing something. “You’re sure?” he asked. “What about you, Cascari?”

“Look, Bucky, you know what Ash is like. If I can’t talk him out of going,” he pointed to Delgado, “I’m sure not going to be able to talk her out of going.”

“So we’re going to go to Brazil first?” asked Ash.

Delgado nodded. “Yeah. We can head straight for Seriatt after the job’s done. We’ll need some backup, though. Some ground troops in case it comes to a fist fight. Some weapons, grenades, personnel armour. Maybe a few liftpacs. That OK with you, Bucky? We’ve got all that stuff in the inventory, right?”

Bucky snorted and shook his head. “You’re really going to go through with this, aren”t you, Delgado?”

“You bet.”

“Whatever the consequences?”

“Whatever the consequences.”

“Do you really think you can succeed?”

“Positive,” he said.

“Then I guess you better have all the personnel and gear you need,” said Bucky.

“Great. Let’s arrange to get hold of this snubship from Rodriguez. Then we’ll really be in the game.”

The Destiny Mask © Martin Sketchley


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