This month we are giving a preview of the next book in the continuing saga of the Ripper’s Raider’s Saga: The Traitor’s Gambit (copyright 2016). This is the prologue of the book, opening after the end of Strings on a Shadow Puppet.
The tires of the airvan gave a tiny screech as it touched down on the street. A faint cloud of road dust and dried leaves billowed briefly and dissipated as its lift-fans wound down. Stub-wings folded into the stout passenger vehicle as it taxied into the car park. The side doors slid open before it had slipped into a parking space, and eight people in heavy black boots and oversized cloths filed out. Behind it, a skysedan circled once, its blowers whining as it landed in the adjacent lot.
Car doors slammed and in a moment a group of ten men and four women stood on the pavement in front of a glowing sign: Swanzie Imperial Care Facility: A Home for Retired Naturals. Around the placard flowed holographic text, “…because the worth of a society is measured not in its strength of arms or economy, but in the way it cares for those who cannot care for themselves. – Emperor Octavius Pleiades, IC 00.” Behind it was a complex of low single story buildings, set with white picket fences that formed small garden courtyards. In one a fountain stood, in another a flowering tree.
The group of men and women split their furtive glances. Some looked towards the buildings, others scanned the area around them; a few caught one another’s eyes. A tall thin woman with a light brown pony tail and a rough scar down the left side of her face pulled out a PAD and typed a code into its touch screen. Both the airvan and skysedan’s chirruped in response. Next to her a tall, striking black man with a neatly shaved head gave a quick glance to a nearby window. His eyes narrowed, his jaw clenched.
“See something Alec?” the scarred woman asked, brushing a loose strand of hair from her eyes. Some of the others put their hands inside their oversized coats.
The bald man gave a curt shake of his head. The others relaxed. While the scarred woman pecked commands into her PAD, the rest of the group continued to scan the area around them. Occasionally the woman closed her eyes, clearly observing something through her implants.
“We sure we want to do this?” a redheaded man asked. His gaze was locked on the bald man named Alec.
“No one’s going to get hurt, Wyatt,” the scarred woman replied.
“If it goes to plan.”
“If it doesn’t we’re fucked anyways.”
“These are old folks, Rachel,” Wyatt said, pushing a loose strand of auburn hair from his eyes.
“Old naturals,” a broad shouldered woman added. She was pretty, with skin a shade darker than the bald man and a muscular build. She looked to the red head as if for support, but didn’t find any. “Terms like aged, infirm, and grandma come to mind.”
“Alright look,” the scarred woman, Rachel, said as she lowered the PAD and caught the eye of each member of the group one by one, “The Delang was fake and Rubo was a twat, but they got one thing right: people who are vulnerable get attention. Kids, and yes, grandparents.”
“But naturals?” the woman asked, hands wide as she shrugged. The bald man, Alec, looked at the Rachel with narrowed eyes and a clenched jaw.
“Yes, Annie. Naturals,” Rachel spoke with a firm voice, though her eyes hinted at less certainty, “Especially naturals. Anyone who chooses to turn down technological treatments looks old, infirm, and pathetic. It will get attention. It will get us what we need, and don’t kid yourself, we need it.
“We’re the last, get it? Every other cell in Wayang Network has been taken out. The regulars are gone. The terror cells are gone. The fucking Stalkers are gone, the Federalist Democratic Army has written us off. The Federalist Liberation Army has too, and it’s not just any set of Imperials who are after us, it’s Ripper’s Raiders, get it? It’s only a matter of time before they get us – and you know what will happen if we are caught.”
Annie looked away.
“These ain’t all people,” a small woman in an oversized black trench coat said, her eyes fixed on Annie, “They got slimmies and bugeyes in their mix. Those don’t count.”
“Look, Annie,” the scarred woman said, sparing the speaker a distasteful sidelong glance, “I feel the same way, and I know you and Alec are new to us…”
“Don’t throw me in with her doubts,” the bald man said.
“…but most of the group here?” Rachel continued, “We’ve been on the run over a year. Half of us have been declared Outlaw. That means no civil rights – none. They could torture us, kill us, cut us up for body parts, whatever the fuck they want. Oh, sure they say if we turn ourselves in we could get a trial, but do you really believe them?”
“Yeah, a trial,” Alec said with a snort. He ran a hand over his bald scalp.
“I get it,” Annie said, “we do what it takes.”
Rachel’s gaze narrowed as it moved between her and the other newcomer, Alec. The small woman in black looked around more frequently. She was growing jumpy.
“If we don’t get a ship and clear out of Imperial space, we’re fucked.” Rachel’s eyes lingered for a moment on Alec. “If we can make it to Atrucan space maybe we can make lives for ourselves in one of the camp. Those who want to keep up the fight might be able meet up with one of the Feddie Regular units, or who knows. Maybe Hectoro, or the Raksash, or the Voice, or fuck knows maybe even the Great Mother herself, but if we don’t, we’re dead. Or worse.”
“Let’s get this over with,” Wyatt said, eyeing Annie like one might watch a poisonous snake.
The woman called Rachel nodded and most of the group started towards a path that ran between a tall hedge and the back of one of the numerous buildings. As the others moved forward, she the redhead’s arm. Two others hung back with them.
“Keep an eye on those two newbies,” Rachel whispered, indicating the black woman and the broad shouldered man who spoke, “Alec seems a little gung-ho, and Annie is a bit too reluctant. I don’t care who they worked for in the Lai-Jung cell. Everyone but us and them who were tied to the Wayang is dead or captured. Let’s not get lazy and join them now.”
“I could off them now,” Wyatt said, “You know I never liked adding untested people to the team so late in the game.”
“I know,” she said, “But we need them. Besides, we’re not Rubio. We don’t just off people without reason.”
“Except old naturals?”
“Just keep an eye on them, okay?”
Wyatt shrugged, running his hand through his read hair as he broke eye contact. The other two took up posts on the outside of the building.
In a moment, the rest of the group stood beside an emergency exit and Rachel took her place right by the door. She looked up at a security camera by the door, then nodded. A mix of weapons were drawn from under their jackets, some submachine guns, some shotguns and one laser rifle. Rachel pushed one last button on her PAD before pulling a hand gun and ripping open the door.
In the center of the room a group of old men and women gathered around a table. Others sat in high backed seats and wheelchairs set about in scientifically predetermined “conversation” groups. To one side a collection of men, women and sentient aliens held half-made arts and crafts in their hands. Some walls were hung with water colors and landscapes, while others projected a bucolic holographic countryside in 3-D. Some of the residents stared as if unaware the projections were not real, most others turned watery eyes to the armed terrorists rushing into the room.
“Everyone listen and no one will get hurt!” Rachel shouted.
For a moment the room was still as a tableaux. At the central table a beautiful blond woman bent down as she laid a candle covered cake onto its surface, a smile frozen on her face. In front of her an old man seemed oblivious to the intrusion and the cake, his eyes looking down the woman’s sweater blouse. In the corner, a large ententicled alien loomed unmoving over the craft makers, its skin flushed in patterned beige.
One of the terrorists moved towards it and fell head over heels as he tripped over an oxygen tank. Bullets sprayed the wall and ceiling. That is when the screaming started.
“Fuck.” Wyatt said between clenched teeth. Alec smiled.
“Quiet!” Rachel shouted. The screams grew louder. Others just looked around with confused and watery eyes.
One of the caregivers, the woman with honey colored hair, tried to calm the mix of old humans and aliens. The radially symmetrical quasi-vertebrate sentient alien, wrapped its long, tentacle-like limbs that ended flower-like ends around four others. The creature’s skin took on a shade of bright and angry green with leopard like spots flowing across its surface. The screaming and sobs continued.
Annie grabbed an old man in a wheelchair and put the barrel of her submachine gun to his head. The man screeched, the wheelchair clattered to the floor.
“Shut it! Now!” Annie shouted. That seemed to have some effect. Silence fell and the redhead stopped watching Annie.
“Patients against the windows, facing out,” Rachel ordered, “Nurses, keep them calm and no one will be hurt.”
“I’m not a…” the blonde started.
“Shut up!” Alec said, gesturing at with her gun.
There was the shuffling of feet and the squeaking of wheels as sobbing frightened naturals moved towards the windows. A withered old sophant had difficulty undulating its way into position, Alec kicked it. It let out a squeak and a terrible smell. The blonde lifted it and carried it over. Rachel noted the muscles beneath her clothes and wondered how an aged care nurse could spend so much time in the gym. In the distance, sirens could be heard.
“That was fast,” Wyatt said.
“Imperial Facilities have constant security monitoring,” Alec said.
“Everybody take up your posts,” Rachel said as she pulled out her PAD and awkwardly pecked commands into it with the hand that held a pistol.
For a moment everything was quiet. The terrorists kept out of view of the windows, the old aged pensioners were kept up against them. The redhead started to eye the striking blonde teacher in a less than professional manner, the old man had never stopped. Annie continued to hold the old woman. Alec kept a gun on the alien caregiver, sneering with disgust. Its spots shifted into stripes.
“Citizens of Sophya!” Rachel spoke into the PAD as if it were a camera. “We are the Federalists Liberation Army and we are fighting to free you from the totalitarian grip of the Imperialists who claim to protect your rights! We have taken the Swanzie Imperial Care Facility and are holding the residents in protective custody until our demands are met. We need a ground transport, a long range, jump capable ship, and clear roads and airspace. When we reach a lagrange point, we will release the captives…”
The front door opened and the two remaining terrorists ran in. “The first wave of Imperial Guardians are pulling into the lot.”
“I am sending a full list of demands now,” Rachel said as thumbed a send message, “Long live the Federalist Revolution!”
“I think there were Marines with them,” the man said.
Rachel looked up, her brow deeply furrowed. Outside they could hear feet tramping on the ground and aircars circling overhead. The redhead and the dirty blond shared a quick, nervous glance. So did Alec and Annie. Annie nodded.
“That’s all of them,” Alec said out of nowhere.
Wyatt gave the good looking bald man a quizzical look, Rachel opened her mouth.
“And then there were none,” the tall striking blonde said.
The old men and women turned in silent unison to face the inside of the room. Wyatt stepped away, Annie let go of her hostage, but Rachel grabbed another. The man who had been staring at the blonde’s chest.
“Tell them to face outside!” She pulled the old man tight to her body and put a gun to its head.
The frail framed residents snapped open their mouths, but instead of screams there was only a soft hissing noise.
“I am Lieutenant Samantha Smith of Imperial Naval Intelligence,” the honey blonde caregiver said as she stood straight and impressively tall, “You are under arrest for…”
Wyatt raised his gun. Before he could shoot the weapon was out of his hands and the ground, the butt of Alec’s rifle smashing into the redhead’s face.
Annie’s submachine gun came down on the skull of one of the terrorists, before she delivered a back-kick into the face of another. The first dropped like a stone. The second flew backwards onto an easel. He didn’t move.
Rachel pulled the trigger and winced. The head of her wrinkled captive blew open. Coolant and circuits sprayed across the floor.
Across the room, the multi-colored alien burst into action. It enwrapped the woman in the black trench coat with two tentacle-like limbs and ripped her gun away with another. By the windows, the old men and women raised their hands as they continued their hissing scream. Flicking their fingers, needles sprang out.
“What the fuh…” one of the terrorists started, before collapsing to the ground. As the others began to follow suit, the senior citizens leapt from their spots, landing on their captors and sticking their needle claws deep into the necks of their victims.
Head spinning, Rachel raised her gun to aim at tall black bald man who had betrayed her. Annie took a step towards her, but the blonde Lieutenant was faster. She flicked her wrist and a pistol snapped into her hand from beneath the sleeve of her sweater. Samantha Smith took the shot, and the last leader of the Wayang Network died with a bullet to the brain.
There was silence for a moment. Only four people remained standing: Alec, Annie, the alien and Lt. Smith. The old people remained hunched over the others, needles in their victim’s throats, but their hissing mouths finally closed.
“You know Samantha,” the bald man spoke, his voice suddenly heavy with the plummy educated tones of the social elite, “It would be nice if once in a while you could avoid shooting people in the head. That would leave questioning as an option you know?”
“Sorry Alex,” Samantha replied, brushing a strand of her honey colored hair from her eyes.
“Hell yeah, I’m not sorry,” Gunnery Sergeant Andrea ‘Annie’ Chrom, said, “That bitch was gonna shoot your ass.”
The doors to the room burst open and a mixture of Imperial Marines and Army Guardians entered the room. They filled the room quickly and efficiently, combat rifles smooth and steady as they secured the space.
“Commander?” the lead Sergeant asked, looking at Alex with narrowed eyes and a cocked eyebrow.
“Yes, Sergeant Bowman,” Alex said as he ran his hand over his bald head, “The room is secured.”
“Sorry, skipper, I didn’t recognize you-”
“No need to apologize,” Alex said with a smile, “That was the idea. Amazing what some sun and a razor can accomplish. Now, secure the prisoners.”
“Aye, aye, Skipper,” Bowman said, then gave a smiling nod to Gunnery Sergeant Chrom. In less than a minute the limbs of the terrorists were cuffed regardless of whether or not they were conscious, or even alive.
“Good work people,” Alex said when the last of them was bound, “I’d particularly like to thank Colonel DuZhod and Lieutenant Popolopolis, for your assistance.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it!” the radial sophant said through its translator as a spectrum of colors flushed over its hide. One of its flower like heads bobbed in a gesture intended to mimic a human nod.
“My pleazhure, heh, Lieutenant Commander,” one of the women in a wheelchairs said with the heavily accented voice of an adult man.
“Now Colonel, if you could be so kind as to shut down your seniorbots, I think we can proceed from here.”
The ancient looking androids slumped to the visible relief of all the marines. They, and the Imperial Army Guardians began to haul off their unconscious forms.
“Congratulations, Lord Fotheringday,” the alien Lieutenant Popolopolis said as it turned the flower-like head of one of its tentacles to Alex, “If I am not mistaken, that puts an end to the very last remnant of Wayang terror network.”
Somewhere, someone started to clap. Soon the room was filled with cheers.