Test of Time

Test of Time is something I wrote back in early 2001. In fact, I wrote the four stories in the series before 9/11, which is kind of odd in retrospect, since Islamic terrorism is one of the major topics involved. However, it is set in a very alternate history, so any comparisons to our world are ambiguous at best.

The premise of Test of Time is fairly straightforward. The Pale One–a quasi-immortal being of pure white complexion–has ruled over humanity for generations. He forcibly segregated the human race by skin color, separating them into different Gradations, and enclosing them in single-Gradation cities. No religion except an overly-secularized Judaism exists–a means of control exerted by the Pale One. But he has seen the stagnation his efforts have produced, and hatches a plan to revitalize human civilization.

There are some fanfic elements here, due to a tangential relationship to the Hell’s Fire universe. In other words, there are characters that are very similar to X-Men characters–sometimes even in name. A rewrite will remove those references but the overall story should remain intact.

When it was originally posted, it sparked a considerable amount of discussion. Some wondered if the Pale One was right to enforce the kind of segregation he did. It certainly created a world of peace, albeit peace through fear. State terror was the norm. The opening makes this very stark, as an entire school is massacred for daring to harbor a child of the wrong Gradation. This is one of the stories I’m actually fairly proud of, because there is a lot of ambiguity, no easy answers, and you can never be sure just who is right or wrong. I’m also quite pleased with the universe I built around this. The writing is not that great–it improves dramatically from one story to the next, so the technical level of this one is easily the worst of the four stories I wrote. Still, I think it’s a worthwhile tale.

Without further ado, since I’ve had enough of that already, here is Test of Time:

Test of Time

Chapter One

Twenty years.  Why didn’t it seem that long ago?

Brisk winter winds whipped the exposed faces of the students as they stood in line outside the school in Topeka, a little city in the middle of the North American continent.  From middle-school age up through high school seniors, they stood like cattle awaiting slaughter.  Snow drifted in and out.  A few centimeters already covered the ground.  The fusion plant stood off not too far away, providing the warmth inside the building–why weren’t the students in it?

The pale faces of the students turned pink and red over time.  Shivers spread among them intermittently.  Some of them, couples, held on to one another for warmth.  Fleeting encounters of youth.  Ah-h-h.

Worried chitchat overcame most of them.  Why were they out here?  Who’d arranged this?  Where was little Gabriel?  No answers.  Just soldiers brandishing weapons, keeping them in line.

Third period should’ve been starting about this time.  A few dropped their packs onto the ground, no longer willing to hold them in this bitter chill.  A commotion began when a shining white vee drove in.  Little white flags affixed to poles near the vis-lights flapped in the breeze.  Even the windows on the vee were pale and unreflective.  One-way visibility.  The door near the back opened and a man who was nearly as pale as his vehicle stepped out.  Colorless glasses shielded his eyes–from what?  Cold?  Snow?  Wind?  “Where’s Gabriel?” he breathed.

A young boy came to him, dragged by two of the gun-toting men, screaming for his parents.  But his parents were dead.  The pale man knelt before the child.  “What is the problem here, Gabriel?”

The boy sniffled.  His skin, so dark and …and… it made the pale man want to spit.  He had to resist the urge with every fiber of his being.  The boy kept crying.  Little transparent tears falling down that brown-but-nearly-black complexion, his sobs carried on the wind.  Now concerned voices swept through the lines of students.  What did they want with Gabriel?

The pale man spoke only so Gabriel could hear.  “These students are Gradation-Three, little one.  You are Gradation-Zero.  The bottom.  Do you understand?”

Gabriel sobbed and coughed, clearly too terrified to tender any response.  His tears began melting the snow beneath him.

The pale one again.  “You must understand your position in this society.  While you may question its fairness you may not question its existence.”  He moved up from his kneeling position, brushing snow from his similarly-colored suit.  He nodded to one of the soldiers nearby.

“Open fire.”

Twenty years since the Topeka Massacre.  A testament to the Pale One’s control of every aspect within human society.

Little Gabriel wasn’t so little anymore.  He supressed a shudder at the memory.

Over one thousand students were killed that day.  All because they dared let a G-0 attend class with them.  All schools were clearly marked.  G-0 and G-3 were most common on this continent.  Every now and then one might find a G-1 or G-2.  But rules were rules.  No associations between different Gradations.  Ever.  And he’d been forced to learn that the hard way.  He knew the Pale One spared him for a reason.  The reason, though–that part posed the enigma.

He put the written account away, back into the desk drawer where no one looked.  His desk.  He knew it was not now nor would it ever be.  Only his for a transitory period, until he moved on to the next Echelon.  His current status: Echelon 2, Skilled Worker.  Next he could advance into the “Echelon of Economics,” E-3.  Perhaps make a sum of money even marginally livable.  But he had to pass the aptitude tests first, and he got the impression from the Test Counselors that they harbored more than a bit of enmity for him.  He sighed as he traversed the hallways of the G-0 Complex in Boston.  Armed guards (Echelon 4) prevented him from ever leaving the city.  Just getting transferred from Topeka to here took three years of paperwork and broken promises.  The vees agitated his ears, buzzing overhead.  Usually only Echelon 5 (Administration) had the resources to buy a vee.  Maybe he’d be able to get one someday.

At least, that’s what he hoped.  Then I can blast through the door and get the hell out of this place.  Isn’t there freedom anywhere on this planet?

The answer, of course, he already knew.

We don’t have enough people, he thought.  A dozen men against armored vees coming across the river.  The jungle gave a slight advantage, but not as much as he preferred.  Two of his men–recon detail–came back with a report.  “What’s out there?” he asked.

“Six ablative vees.  They’re pulling infantry.”

“What kind?”

“Looks like seventy G-2’s.”

“G-2’s?  They don’t usually mix with G-3’s unless they’re desperate…”

“Khalid?”

“We’re on combat detail, you idiot!  It’s Shepherd during combat.  Can’t you remember that?”

“Yes, sir.”

The two recon men sprinted toward the back of the group, checking weapons.  Fresh fusion clips for all.  Khalid remembered the three men and two women lost to secure that ammunition convoy.  Here’s hoping it doesn’t go to waste.

The hum of approaching vees filled the air, causing the hair on Khalid’s nape to stand on end.  He hated that, double-checking his weapon.  Safety off, clip on full charge, wide dispersion, maximum range.  The autoscope calibrated itself.  He saw the camouflaged movement.  Taking aim…

Plasma fire shattered his concentration.  Someone behind him.  “Who fired that?  Did I tell you to fucking fire?”

Someone stepped out from behind a tree.  “Sir, they’re getting close!”

“Open fire!” Khalid shouted.

The jungle burst into flames.

He’d learned how to deal with this the hard way, nearly thirty years of suffering in the swelter of African wilderness, guerilla combat, holding positions that couldn’t be held.  When the flames obscured your vision you fired on instinct.  Some innate sense took over from there, guiding his weapon.  The screams of his own people were indistinguishable from the death-knell of Hallian infantry.  His feet moved without mental command.  After the combat ended, he’d hate how he conducted himself.  He despised giving over to instinct like that.  But impulse equaled survival here.

He felt the ground shudder.  The mines were going up.  Good.  How many limbs lost by his own people blundering into land mines?  The number was lost to him now.  Only the sound of his heart and the recoil of the plasma rifle mattered.  As long as both continued, he would survive.

He didn’t see the vees explode.  He didn’t see the bodies on the ground.  He only saw the flames.  Someone fell on him, burning.  He shoved them off, incinerating them immediately with his weapon.  He hadn’t spared a moment for identification.  Hesitation showed itself an unaffordable luxury in this nightmare.

So much burning.  So many dying.  This entire portion of the jungle would be gone by dusk.

He stepped over the crumpled heaps, formerly Hallian vees.  He scouted for survivors.  Pleading came from one of them.  He navigated the smoke in search of a source.  His hand met warm flesh.  Not yet dead.  Just dead a moment after.

The smoke eventually cleared.  Four of his people surrounded him atop the ruins of a vee.  “Tell me again,” Khalid said aloud.

“Sir?”

“Tell me this is worth it.”

“It is, sir.”

“Killing all these people, destroying all this jungle… it’s worth all that to preserve a little patch of freedom?”

“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think so.”

“Nice to know I’m in good company.  We’d better strip these people of all usable ammo before a scouting party shows up to see what happened.”

His name in combat was Shepherd.  Ironic, that name.  What good was a shepherd who sent all his sheep to die?

——————

Chapter Two

Hanging in a LaGrange orbit above the Earth lay Solpoint.  Positioned precisely between Terra and Luna, it provided the Pale One his perfect vantage.  In fact, the space station was about to celebrate its hundredth anniversary.  The Pale One himself cared nothing for the passage of time.  What could a century be to a man who’d endured the millennia and survived the rise and fall of a hundred civilizations?  He could only imagine the fall of his civilization… a descent he decided he would not be present to witness.

The rare visitor to Solpoint might remark at the Spartan accommodations.  The Pale One thought on that word in amusement, knowing he was the only man alive who could really remember Sparta.  His reply: “Believe me, the Spartans were less decadent than this.”  He would also make reference to the weapon emplacements–powerful enough to raze the surface of either the Earth or the Moon.  Those aware of such weaponry’s existence knew its obvious meaning–this man could annihilate his empire on a whim.

Presently he massaged his temples, a centuries-long migraine plaguing him.  The throbbing in his head caused much frustration, a constant reminder of his ultimate purpose.  But that purpose would not be spoken to anyone just yet, not even his General.

“Grover, do you have a status report for me?” he asked, motioning for the blue-skinned man in uniform to approach.  The gentle hum of atmos-gens lingered in the air.  Still, their mutual breathing medium had a mechanical twinge at all times.

General Grover gripped his metallic folder.  “The situation in the Old Sahara is mounting.”

“How many casualties this time?”

Grover had memorized the numbers already.  “Eighty troops, four vees, miscellaneous equipment.  A few men managed to report back only because they fled the battle.”

“Have them reassigned to Luna.  They’ve seen the region and I don’t care for them to get accustomed to it.”

“Sir?”

The Pale One looked up, ignoring his headache momentarily.  “Is there a problem, General?”

“I would just prefer an explanation for such bizarre–”

“I explain myself to no one, not even my General.  Reassign them.”

Grover scraped the tip of his pen along a paper in his folder, clearly agitated.  “Fine.”

“Do you have anything else?”  The Pale One stood, moving to a viewing port.  He pressed his forehead against the cold plastiglass, eyes shut.  Luna loomed in the vista.  He envisioned it without seeing it.

“Khalid’s village has been definitively located.”

“I’m listening.”

“We know its location which means we can eliminate the rebel contingent in Old Sahara.  The jungle can be appropriated for our use without any more problems if you give me permission to raid the village.”

“Grover, I could incinerate that village from orbit if I had a mind to.  Khalid has a purpose yet.  Therefore I will give you very specific orders: you may destroy the village but Khalid must be out of the zone of destruction.  I want him to survive.”

The General probed for no explanation.  Despite his nigh-invulnerability, the legendary Wrath of the Pale One was something he didn’t care to endure firsthand.  He merely took scant notes in his metal folder and clasped it shut.  “It will be done.”

Footsteps echoed through the hall as the General exited.  The Pale One sighed, his eyes concealed behind the white glasses as always.  No one had the privilege of seeing the Pale One’s eyes.  But none of them knew why.  His intentions fixated on maintaining that mystery.

Abby Gannon, Rogue.  “It’s been weeks since he had us do anything.”

Ben Ring, Havoc-One.  “I heard he’s cooking up something big.”

Jaimy Koppers, Slasher.  “Is anyone else warm in here?”

Zachary Davis, Acydic.  “I’m freezing!”

Justin Mills, DarkWolf.  “Anyone up for target practice?”

The five of them comprised the White Riders, the vaunted Elite of the Pale One’s elite.  The Pale One discovered many years back how easily young people could be coerced into fanaticism.  Virtually any excuse for disregard of consequences and dispensation of mass destruction would do, so long as he gave them a solid agenda to work with.  Kill this person, destroy that place, stop that shipment.  And they never failed.  The entire team would be sacrificed before failure entered consideration.

As Rogue had expressed, their last mission occurred many weeks in the past.  Since then they’d been left to their own devices, presumably to train and possibly recruit new members.  “Latitude” was the operative word with this unpredictable bunch.  Plenty of latitude.  Box them in and they could quickly turn against their master.  Place much slack on the leash, as the Pale One often did, and one would learn that the leash can guide while only marginally restricting.  Did they ever notice how they were being manipulated?  None gave any indication of this, and in fact tended to enjoy their relative freedom.

Rogue perked up, noticing a group of fresh messages awaiting her from the intelligence net.  “Maybe we’ve got a new assignment in this batch.”  Scanning the cluster of messages revealed nothing more interesting than another brawl in the Old Sahara region.

Acydic growled.  “I’d have preferred it as desert!  Why did it have to be turned to jungle?”

Havoc-One tendered the obvious response:  “The Pale One said, ‘let it be jungle,’ and it was.”  His boyish face portrayed a smile like an imp.

Acydic frowned.  “Parody doesn’t suit you, Ben.”

DarkWolf pulled Havoc-One away from the display by his blond hair.  “Good thing we don’t keep him around for his wit.”  After scrutinizing the screen: “Why don’t I ever get any damned mail?”

Slasher smirked.  “Perhaps because Houston’s a crater?”

“That’s not very damned funny, Dutch.”

“I have a name and more favor with the Pale One than you do!”

“Yeah, yeah, I wonder how many enzymes you downed to lighten up your skin,” DarkWolf spat.

Rogue grabbed DarkWolf by the arm and pinned him to the ground, chest flat to the floor, his arm bent behind him.  He felt Rogue’s knee driving into that tender spot just below his ribs.  “I suggest both of you can it.”

DarkWolf nodded with his cheek on the abrasive carpeting.  Rogue released him.  He stood, facing her angrily.  “Why do you have to do that?”

“Because I don’t feel like recruiting any more people just to replace the ones you kill!”

“Yeah, whatever,” DarkWolf snorted, falling intentionally onto a white divan.

Rogue sighed.  Like caged animals, they start to turn on each other when they don’t have enough to do.  Maybe I should talk to General Grover and see about getting a cush assignment for them.

——————

Chapter Three

Gabriel entered the adjutant’s office with a sense of dread.  The test that would advance him to Echelon 3 was simply too hard.  The questions–randomized as always–were too difficult to answer correctly.  All essay-based questions, he’d tried to make the answers sensible and easily interpretable by the AI which would score his test.  But the look on the adjutant’s face told him he’d failed.

“Have a seat, Gabriel,” the man said, not making eye contact.

He did so, more out of courtesy than anything.  He already knew he’d failed.

“Your test scores came back this morning.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that you did not meet the minimum requirements for Echelon 3.”

Gabriel sighed.  “So, another year of study.”

The man nodded, taking a sip of tea from a cup that had previously been buried under mounds of documents.  “You’re well-versed in the dynamics of economy and you’d clearly be excellent at customer service, but the AI has determined you lack the appropriate combination of traits to make you a good merchant slash entrepreneur.  However, I received word today from Solpoint.  Apparently, the Pale One requests your presence.”

Gabriel slid down in his chair slightly.  “What does he want with me?”

The adjutant shrugged.  “Who knows?  Perhaps he has a special assignment for you.”

The younger man stood.  “Thanks for your time, adjutant.”

“Hopefully I shall see you next year.”

Gabriel didn’t bother speculating as he shut the door on his way out.  Why would Pale want anything with me?  I haven’t seen him in twenty years.  Does our last encounter have something to do with it?

The stream cleansed Khalid’s face like nothing else.  Although it could never wash away the hundreds of Hallian soldiers he’d personally slain, the fact that the water remained clear left hope for him.  If the water could purge itself of bloodshed then couldn’t he?  But then water was just a thing, not a mind capable of reason–or murder.

The jungle made its sounds around him.  The calls of birds, the crunching of branches by larger animals, wind rippling through the foliage–a myriad of background noise within which anything could lurk.  He’d grown so accustomed to it he could hear the slightest variation.  As he doused his face with another splash of cold water, he detected such a variation.

Holding completely still, he focused himself on this disturbance.  Voices.  Panicked voices.  Then something else–he couldn’t believe he hadn’t sensed it before–entered his perception.  The screech of air being torn… rumble of a chemical furnace…  Air assault!

Dropping his weapon worthlessly into the river he sprinted for the village.  He could hear the aircraft and its bomb-spawn rushing to its target.  He knew it was far too late.  Taking hold of a vine, he walked up the side of a tree.  This all occurred in less than half a minute, yet Khalid felt himself age by years.  The aircraft flashed overhead, speeding away from him now.  He couldn’t see the bombs, only hear their screech-growl as their self-guided rockets urged them to impact.  The jungle shuddered for an instant just as a shockwave threw Khalid down from his vantage atop the tree.  He lost consciousness upon collision with soil.

She awakened herself with much difficulty, shaking off curious threads of mental detritus.  She felt the weight of a journey on her body, but her mind was a scrambled mess.  Darkness enveloped the air around her.  She forced back a choking sensation, telling herself there was plenty of air left to breathe.  She smelled various foul chemicals in this place.  Only a point of light could be seen, and it was above her, appearing as some kind of hole.  Had she any depth perception to work with in the almost total darkness, she might have realized the hole was approximately the size of a person.  All such contemplations were pushed aside as a swarm of lights bathed her.  Holding a hand over her eyes, a strange universal sign, she tried to speak.

“Nnnng innnnn ponnnnn,” she rattled.

An unknown language battered back and forth among those holding the lights.  “What is it?”

“It’s blue.”

“Of course it’s blue!  But what the hell is it?”

“Maybe it’s the General’s sister?”

“We’d better pack it up and find out.  Shit, look at that hole!  Good thing we’ve got force fields in this dump.  I can’t believe ol’ Pale sprung for ’em.”

“Stop babbling and put it out.”

Something struck her head.

“General!” Rogue called, running to match pace with General Grover.  “General!”

The blue-skinned man didn’t privilege her with a look as he walked.  “Is something amiss, Commander?”

Rogue waved her hands as she spoke, perhaps to accentuate the point.  “The other Riders are becoming restless and it’s only a matter of time before they blow a hole in the side of Solpoint and kill us all.”

Grover smirked.  “Commander, they’re your troupe.  You know what keeps them occupied more than I do.  Do you have something in mind?”

She smiled, glad to finally be given some authority by the General.  “There’s that whole mess in Old Sahara, that guy and his village.”

“That village was destroyed this morning.”

“Oh.”  Her disappointment wasn’t hidden, either.

“Hmm, but their leader is still at large.  Khalid Hunter.  He goes by the moniker ‘Shepherd,’ or so I’ve heard.  The Pale One wants him.  If you and your comrades can bring him back–intact, mind you–that should gratify them for a time.”

“Actually, I think they were more interested in destroying something.”

“Then tell them they are not afforded generous accommodations aboard Solpoint because they like to ‘blow shit up,’ as it were.  Their duty is to the Pale One and his Hallian Empire.  I’m certain they’ll understand.”

Rogue pursed her lips.  “I hope so, too.  When do you want us to go after that Shepherd guy?”

“Our track-sat can keep an eye on him for as long as we require.  I suggest you depart in the morning.  Your job is to bring him in, but remember that this man has singlehandedly murdered hundreds of Hallian troops.  Don’t trifle with him.”

“And we’re supposed to bring him in alive?”

“Is there a problem with that?”

“Well, no, it’s just that we aren’t used to prisoners.”

Grover stopped and looked down at Rogue.  “Get used to it.  Now.”  Without sparing her another word or glance, he marched off.

Great, Rogue thought.  They want a strike mission and I get them kidnapping.  Look at the bright side, Abby, this might be your prime opportunity to get rid of Mills…

——————

Chapter Four

The White Riders shuffled into their landing craft, a relatively small piece of Hallian innovation built for reusable orbital/atmospheric flight.  Black streaks covered large portions of the hull as testament to the many reentries it endured.  Rogue sat down at the pilot’s console, initializing the preflight algorithms.  “We’re undocking in ten minutes,” she announced.

The rest of them took their seats, Slasher occupying the copilot seat next to Rogue while Acydic, Havoc-One, and DarkWolf went toward the back of the vessel to acquire their pseudoarmor suits.  After suiting up they strapped in.  Preflight was almost over by this point so Rogue turned around to make certain they’d properly prepared.  “Mills, get your helmet on,” she scolded.

With a momentary shudder the landing craft disengaged from Solpoint.  Rogue allowed its orbit to decay, mentally calculating the appropriate trajectory to their destination.  Years of mental training had enabled this particularly powerful ability, so accurate that it usually differed from the nav computer by less than one percent.

She inputted the necessary trajectory data and compared the results to her mental computation.  She smiled at the result.  “Landfall in fifteen minutes.”

Sound baffles engaged around the ship so as to not deafen the occupants.  Acydic leaned over toward Havoc-One.  “I was wondering something.”

Ben Ring shrugged.  “What?”

“Would you take a fall for me?”

The blond boy looked up momentarily.  “Well, uh… what kind of fall?”

“How about a shot?  You know, someone shoots at me.  Would you jump in the way?”

“Bullet or plasbolt?”

“You tell me.”

“I guess I could take a bullet in the leg or something.  It could be removed and just leave a little scar.  I don’t see myself taking a plasbolt for you, though.  I mean, we’d be talking Rotisserie Rider.  Not to mention the brain and cardiac damage that would result from the energy release…”

Acydic held up his hands.  “Okay, okay.  Fine.  Whatever happened to camaraderie?”

“Does camaraderie mean I have to be willing to eat through a tube just to save your ass?”

“That’s what I thought.”

DarkWolf popped his head between the two.  “Camaraderie means I don’t toss grenades in your quarters while you sleep.  And right now, I feel camaraderie slipping…”

Havoc-One yelled, “Abby, wolfboy is threatening us back here!  I think you’d better get out the tranq!”

“I’ll put him down if he gets to be a problem, just don’t aggravate him,” their Commander said, monitoring the ship’s autopilot procedures.

Slasher was busy going over their field manual.  “Why isn’t there a Dutch version?” he asked, looking at Rogue.

“Because any halfway intelligent person speaks Hallian, that’s why.  We may be multinational but we aren’t supposed to look or act like it in the field.”

“That’s still no reason to omit a Dutch version.”

“Take it up with the Pale One if you have a problem.”  She turned around again.  “Dammit, Mills, your helmet!  I’m not telling you again.”

“I sure hope not,” he replied, sticking out his tongue.

“So much for Elite,” Rogue breathed.

Chitchat went back and forth between the Riders as the craft descended.  The jungle approached presently, a large crater plus a section of scorched land near the river were evident.  Rogue brought the ship down into the ashen “clearing,” letting the landing supports extend.  The ship sunk slightly, informing Rogue of mud beneath it.  “Be careful,” she warned.  “We’re in a mud patch.”

DarkWolf unstrapped his restraints and came up behind Acydic and Havoc-One.  “What would you boys say to a little wager?”

Havoc-One shrugged.  Acydic smirked.  “I’m listening,” he said.

“Whichever of us brings down this Shepherd guy, the others have to do what he says for a week.”

“You mean temporary slavery?” Havoc-One snorted.

“Yeah.  Abby doesn’t count, though, she can make us do whatever she wants to begin with.”

Acydic chuckled.  “We should also count you out, Justin.  After all, the day you bring in a live prisoner …well, let’s just say that’d be something!”

“I can show restraint!” he claimed.

“Then now’s a good time to demonstrate it,” Rogue said.  “I’d appreciate it if all of you would shut up now.”

They did so, and she went on.  “Keep your pseudoshields off until ordered to activate.  They’re only good for 30 minutes in this EM-waste.”

“What?!” Havoc-One shouted.  “You didn’t tell us we’d be going shieldless!”

Rogue glared.  “Shut up!  EM pulse bombs were dropped here so all plasma weapons would be ineffective.  Your shields will take an extra drain because of the lingering EM field.  Just keep them off until I tell you to turn them on, got it?  Nod, don’t talk.”

They all nodded, except for DarkWolf, who scratched his shoulder.  Damn, this suit is itchy.  You’d think Pale’s personal strike force would at least get decent fabric.

Their gloved hands brushed through the remains of the jungle, feet trudging through slowly-hardening mud.  Weapons holstered in belts clanked against their bearers.  Rogue flashed them all glances, her expression telling them to silence the weapons.  Each of them put a hand on their gun.  Havoc-One unholstered his, examining it.  Come to think, it didn’t look like standard issue.  He wondered if it was chemically-based.  Putting it back, he followed along with the rest of his group.

Insects buzzed around their heads.  Rogue kept on alert, being the only virtually invulnerable member of the team.  She recalled a lesson the Pale One had taught her once.

“A team with an invulnerable leader can typically be expected to fail for the simple fact that the invulnerable is insensitive to the weaknesses of flesh and bone.  I wish for you to forget your impervious formidability.  Instead, think of yourself as just another Numan with energy-projection abilities.  Dodge blasts as if a single graze could kill you.  Remember that just because you’re invulnerable now doesn’t mean you always will be.  There is no excuse for laziness or hesitation.”

She came upon the crater then.  Heat still rose from it, residual thermal radiation from the initial bombs.  Debris could be spotted in all directions among flattened trees.  Where could he be? she inquired of herself.  She tried to put her mind in his body.  One man, alone against an unknown force with unknown capabilities.  How would she deal with it?  No energy-based weapons.  She didn’t know if he was a Numan or not.  Did he have any abilities or was this Shepherd just a typical human?

If I were him, I’d be using the trees as cover… and pick off the enemy one by one.  Looking back toward the others, she stretched out her hand, palm down, and slowly lowered it.  They understood, following her motion down onto hands and knees.  Uncomfortable, yes, but anything to increase their chances of survival.

She crawled around the perimeter of the crater, trying to keep herself below the nearly-flattened vegetation.  Finding a strategically-defensible spot among a cluster of trees, she waved the rest of the White Riders onward.  Slithering quietly through the debris, they gathered around her.  DarkWolf stood up and whistled.  “Now, why don’t I get to bomb things around here?”

“Get down!” Rogue barked in as much of a whisper as she could manage.

The following instant proceeded in Rogue’s mind as if it were an entire minute, when barely five seconds passed.

A warm, sticky drop of crimson smacked her cheek.  Followed by another.  And another, and another after, until a stream of blood flowed onto her.  She saw the wound in Justin’s neck.  Hearing only a gasp from him, she leaped up quickly, pulling him down onto his back.  Bullet wound.  Where the hell did this guy get a silencer?  Calm down, Abby… be glad it wasn’t a sniper round.  Otherwise there wouldn’t even be a head left.

“Calm down, Justin,” she said, reaching into her pocket for some gauze.  “There’s a reason they keep this stuff in our uniforms,” she said, pressing it to his cheek.  “Zack,” she nodded to Acydic, “hold this.  I think I can get a mark on Khalid now.  Ben, stir things up a bit.  Jaimy, some of your luck would be good right about now.”

Rogue stood, scanning the area.  Southwest.  The shot hit him from southwest.  Debris lifted into the air, spinning and twirling end-over-end, Havoc-One’s telekinesis at work.  Slasher’s eye glimmered.  Think, Abby.  He blends with the jungle.  Time for a new vantage point.

She jumped with much effort, forcing herself up into the air, a stunt which she hadn’t attempted for a few years.  Hallian command training tried to break her of flying habits, informing her that such an unpredictable ability could prove itself an enormous liability.  She agreed, not particularly fond of heights anyway.  But now necessity called upon her talents, so she hovered above the trees, looking for movement not caused by wind.  She spotted a little wave moving through the trees, too erratic to be air movement.  She dove down, squinting her eyes.  Don’t freak out now, she told herself.  You’re only a few meters up.  Only a few meters.  She hit something.  A deep male voice groaned.  So did she as she picked herself up.  A large man–clearly a G-0–writhed on the ground.  I hope I didn’t hurt him too badly.

She quickly latched onto his arm.  He gasped, crying out as his waking energies were ripped from his body.  Rogue sighed at the infusion of power, second in usefulness only to her invulnerability.  She sensed him losing consciousness.  I didn’t want to have to do that.  I hope you’ll understand.

Memories began to surface, bloodshed the likes of which she’d never seen.  Oh, no… this is always the worst part.  She closed her eyes, holding onto her quarry as a lifetime of conflict replayed itself for her mind’s eye.  Overwhelmed, she cried out.  Her screams were heard by the jungle and her companions.  Only the jungle understood.

——————

Chapter Five

Awash in shadows stood the two men, similar in complexion–and perhaps the Pale One’s interest in them.  The stations atmosgens filled the air with their buzzing noise, apparently no one having taken the time to install acoustic dampers.  Before them stood a man, a white wardrobe upon his person, pure white glasses obscuring his eyes, bright, straight hair atop his head.  Gabriel thought the man looked as if someone spraypainted him white all over.  But, he had to admit, the man was a nice dresser.  He heard doors shut on all sides, indicating that the three of them were alone.

The Pale One approached Gabriel first.  “Twenty years.  Do you still remember that winter morning?  I’ve not forgotten.  It may have been my most personal–and deadly–use of force against my own citizens.  But I trust it made the point.”

Gabriel didn’t speak.  His dark eyes tried to burrow into the Pale One’s psyche through the opaque lenses–to no reaction.  Why did he bother to have me come here?

The man dressed in white strolled to Khalid.  The two G-0’s made a stark contrast in their attire.  Gabriel’s gray suit–the best he could afford–projected a degree of affluence that was partially true and partially fabrication.  That he had enough funds for such an outfit said enough.  Khalid, on the other hand, displayed a military-style uniform, camouflage greens and browns in color, stained with dirt and blood.  Shackles bound his wrists and ankles.  He had clearly refused to be cleaned up for his appearance before the leader of the Hallian Empire.  He spat on the floor as the Pale One approached.

The Pale One sighed.  “Khalid, that’s uncalled for.  I would not have you shackled if I thought I could trust you.”

“Well, now you have the biggest threat to your empire in custody.  When do you plan on killing me?” Khalid asked.

“I have no intention of killing either of you.  You were both brought here for a very special purpose, one which I have not disclosed to anyone else.”

Gabriel stiffened his posture, uncertain what to expect.  Khalid glared at the Pale One.

“I’ve led this empire for several centuries now.  Mankind in general, both human and Numan, has prospered.  I’ve kept the Earth relatively peaceful during my leadership.  Many have been sacrificed to this end, not just of your race, but people from all backgrounds have died for my nation.  Some willingly, some not.”

“If you just brought me here to shove propaganda down my throat, how about getting the execution over with?” Khalid sneered.

“As I’ve already said, your death is not in my interest.  For different reasons, the two of you bespeak a new age of human development.  Khalid, in you there is an untapped reservoir of abilities beyond most humans.  You are a Numan, like each of the White Riders, and like many such individuals you have kept those abilities under wraps for the simple reason that others would show suspicion and fear.  Each passing year, more and more of this new breed of human are born.  They will need leaders.  Humanity will splinter in two, an us-against-them conflict that may well be the ruin of this planet.  There are more destructive weapons today than ever before.  A tiny fraction of them would be enough to make Earth a worthless dustbin.  I believe you are capable of surviving such an apocalyptic struggle.”

Khalid rolled his eyes, unimpressed.

“Skepticism can be a virtue,” the Pale One smiled.  “It may be one of your finer qualities.  Hygiene and manners certainly aren’t among them…”

“So why am I here?” Gabriel interrupted, growing impatient.  He’d expected someone a lot louder and angrier than the Pale One he was witnessing.  This soft-spoken and calm individual demonstrated to Gabriel a cool-headedness unexpected in a leader.  He no longer felt afraid–actually, he began to feel a bit daring!

“Ah, Gabriel.  I apologize for ignoring you.  Are you aware of any intelligent life existing beyond Earth and Luna?”

“Well, no.  I’ve heard rumors like everyone else, but I never saw any proof.”

“‘Proof’ is always such a subjective thing, isn’t it?  I show you an alien corpse and you show me a few gallons of plastex and polypaint molds.  Nevertheless, there are alien creatures among us.  Of those creatures, you are one.”

Gabriel’s eyebrow went up.  “Say again?”

The Pale One laughed.  “Of course, I didn’t expect you to believe me.  I have extensive charts detailing your inhuman composition.  Whoever sent you here did a superb job emulating external human functions and appearances, I must say.  Clearly your race is highly adaptive.”

“I think I’d like to see these ‘charts,'” Gabriel said.

The Pale One went up to his desk, pulling out a metal folder.  He handed it to Gabriel.  “Blood samples, gene sequencing, and so on.  Although you don’t have any genetics in the traditional sense, the scientists did what they could.”

Gabriel looked over the documents in the folder.  Interspersed with chemical analyses were pages of surveillance data–his entire life, documented as a science project!  He slapped the folder shut.  “Can I keep this?”

“Of course; it’s only a copy.”

“Now, what do I have to do with Khalid over there?”

The Pale One clasped his white hands together.  “As you’ve noticed, you both fall under Gradation Zero classification.  The bottom of the proverbial barrel.  Therefore… you will prove to me that you are not inferior.”

“How can we do that if you have all the weapons and armies?” Khalid grumbled.

“Because soon–very soon–the playing field will be leveled.  The odds will be even.  Humans will struggle just to survive–they will not have a care about skin color or anything so superficial.”

“I have a question,” Gabriel sighed.

“Go ahead.”

“Why did you do all this?”

The Hallian leader shrugged.  “Why not?  I’ve been alive longer than anyone suspects–as I’m sure you might have guessed.  People are more effectively controlled when you convince them they have an enemy.  What better dividing criteria than skin color?  So many tones, so many interpretations–so many conflicts.  Believe it or not, your ‘kind’ once ruled Earth.  Well, not Gabriel’s kind… but you get my meaning.”

The two men nodded.  “Are you just going to be cryptic all day or will you explain this to us?” Khalid growled.

“Explanations are for the unintelligent.  I’ll be more impressed if you can figure out my intentions yourself.”

“So what happens now?” Gabriel inquired.

“Right now, the two of you will be known as the Dark Riders.  The yin to the White Riders’ yang.  Or perhaps that’s the other way around.  Chinese culture was annihilated so long ago, I seem to have forgotten…”

Khalid balked.  “I’m supposed to work for you?”

“Either that or show yourself out an airlock.  Your choice.”

Khalid turned toward one of the doors and shuffled with his shackled legs.

“I suggest you think about it.  As I said before, a new era will begin soon.  You may wish to live long enough to see it.”

Khalid stopped, sighing.  What have I got to lose?  He’s already taken everything else from me.  Maybe I can get close enough to kill him sometime…  “Fine, have it your way.”

The Hallian leader beamed.  “It pleases me to know you’re willing to cooperate.”

Gabriel scrutinized the documents in his hand again.  An alien.  How could I not have realized it?

Khalid grinned ear-to-ear.  Pale must’ve heard that old saying about keeping your enemies closer… this is one enemy he’s going to let get too close!

The tiny town of Derry sat on one of the British Isles like an insignificant speck.  Oh, many years ago this place was a point of contention.  When the Muslim invasion swept across Eurasia, millions died on the basis of faith.  But that was before the Hallians caught up with Islam, shoving it back to its African home.  Tracy Keenan played with the six-pointed star on her shirt, a threefold symbol: the Hebrew faith, institutionalized by the Hallians; the six Gradations based on skin tone; the six Echelons of society within each Gradation.  We’ve waited thousands of years for our Promised Land… the Pale One used to claim he’d take us there.  But we’re not any closer, she thought grimly.

She stood, basking in the sunlight pouring in via a window.  Stretching, she looked around her cottage.  An old brick-and-mortar assemblage, the kind of thing that stood a good chance of surviving a nuclear assault, what with its pipelined infrastructure and solid foundation.  Not like the ultralight polymer-based construction materials favored by the Hallian Empire proper.  But many old remnants of old ways were left around the world.  This little town was merely one of them.  She stared out the sunlit window, seeing the row of houses across the street–all of them similar to her own.  The Hallian Empire could fall and this place would never know it.  No roads went from Derry to anywhere else.  A self-contained society, G-3’s entirely, most of them even rejecting the Echelon hierarchy.  After all, if no E-4 militia or E-5 administrators were present to enforce it, how could it be cemented?

Tracy felt ancient, despite being only 23 years of age.  Perhaps ten years as a White Rider stripped her of more than literal years.  She exhaled slowly, moving to her small kitchen.  She poured herself a cup of coffee.  The beans used to make it came from the South American part of the Hallian Empire.  She wondered how they were imported.  Then she remembered the monthly trade caravans that came by.  She thought further, remembering that most of the British Isles rejected Hallian technology in favor of more manual lifestyles.  It was a slower pace of life.  Maybe, just maybe, she could reclaim those years the Riders had sucked from her soul.

Her hands began to shake as she cradled the cup.  She closed her eyes, repeating the breathing exercises she’d been taught as a Rider.  That’s all over now.  I never have to see them again.  I will never have to train them, or watch them die, or order them to kill…

DING!  The doorbell.

She put down the cup, strolling to her front door.  She peeked out the window in the door, seeing a young woman–middle teens?–wearing an all-white uniform.  On the left breast was a six-pointed star of blue with gold trim.  Just like the one Tracy wore.  Reluctantly, the door opened.  “Do you need something?” Tracy asked tersely.

“My name is Abigail Gannon.  My codename is Rogue.  Yours is Scrib, correct?”

“I don’t answer that name anymore.”

The younger woman brushed a hand through her hair, clearly distressed.  “Look, we need your help.”

“Who’s ‘we?'”

“The White Riders.  One of my teammates is out of commission and we need a temporary replacement.  I was looking through the Reserve file and found your name.  I thought–”

“Whatever you thought, I’m not interested.”  Tracy slammed the door.  Why my file?  Why did she have to find mine, of all the people that were in it?

DING! DING! DING!

The door flew open this time.  “What the hell do you want from me?!” Tracy shouted.

“I have a really bad feeling.  I don’t know what it is, but I feel like something really bad is going to happen.  I haven’t been leading for that long, just a year, and I would really appreciate some help, okay?”

Tracy saw the desperation in the girl’s face.  She bit her lip.  What if I were her?  How would I feel to be rejected like that?  God knows how much pressure that job brings.  “Alright.  What do you need?”

“I need you to come to Solpoint with me.”

Tracy moved away from the door, waving the girl inside.  “Come in first.  I need to see if my uniform still fits.”

Rogue smiled, glad it wasn’t any harder to convince the old Rider.

——————

Chapter Six

Justin Mills sipped the broth slowly, trying not to burn himself.  He was lucky to be alive, the doctors had said.  The speed at which the White Riders returned him to Solpoint proved the deciding factor in his survival.  With his trachea punctured on two sides, it astounded them that he hadn’t choked to death on his own blood.  Attributing it to his quicker rate of healing (and perhaps some of Slasher’s legendary aura of luck), the doctors placed him in Solpoint’s (small) recovery ward.  Rogue stood by his side now, looking at this perfect example–one that exemplified the phrase “shackles of command.”  No one else had an obligation to be here.  To be honest, no one else liked him.  But it was her responsibility to know his mind, her responsibility to know his motivations, her responsibility to save his ass when his ass needed saving.  All because she commanded.

“Justin, you’re going to burn yourself,” she warned him as he tried to take some of the broth again.

“Stop mothering me, dammit.”  A few drops went onto his tongue.  “Fuck!” he shouted, quickly putting the bowl down.

“What did I just tell you?  But you didn’t listen to me during the mission, either.”

“Did you just come down here to berate me?  There are fucking holes in my neck!”

“They are there because you were stupid and didn’t have your helmet on.  You’re not invulnerable but you keep acting as though you are.  You keep competing with me.  I’m here to tell you it’s worthless.  I am invulnerable and you’re not.  Live with it.  Bullets don’t kill me.  They kill you.  That’s not going to change.”  She sighed, looking at the medical bed that regulated his bodily functions just for safety’s sake.  “Look at yourself, Justin.  You almost died because you didn’t follow my orders.  That’s why I am in command.  I know how to keep you alive.  If you don’t listen to me, your chances of dying skyrocket.  This is the closest you’ve come yet.  Next time, not even Jaimy’s luck might be enough to save you.”

He didn’t speak.  He saw her eyes and the genuine concern expressed by them.  That was something he’d never seen before.  So many years living as a vagrant on the fringe of the Hallian Empire, using his gentically-granted talents for less-than-ethical causes… then he ended up on the other side of the proverbial fence, watchdog over a populace that wasn’t supposed to know he existed.  But Rogue knew he existed.  The only question that remained:  Would that be enough?

“I’m going to have another sortie lined up in a couple weeks.  I expect you to be up for it,” she said.  “If you’re not, it’ll be a week of scrubbing down the landing ship.  Got it?”

He nodded and smiled.  “I’ll be ready, don’t worry about it.”

“Worrying about you happens to be my job.  I don’t intend to lose that job, either.”

He moved his head up and down again, acknowledging.  She waved to him and stepped out of the ward.

Justin, I hope you realize how much hell being Commander puts me through.

“Tracy?”  She sounded the chime.

Response: “Don’t call me Tracy unless you want me to call you Abigail.”  The door opened.

Rogue went in.  “Okay… Scrib.”

“Well, come in, Rogue.”

Her eyes scanned the room.  Just-above-typical military quarters.  Comfortable (but not too much so) bed, food dispenser, small kitchen, closet bathroom, wall-embedded wardrobe.  Scrib sat at her computer terminal.  Everything in Hallian white with gold trim.  Scrib straightened her uniform.  “Is it just me or is it easy to go snowblind in this place?”

“I’m sure the General won’t mind altering the color scheme if you don’t like it,” Rogue said.

“The obsession with white is a little much.  But I will say that it’s gotten slightly better since I retired.”

“Has it?”

“Oh, yeah.  The paint on the corridor walls used to be pure white.  I think he’s opted for the military metal look lately.”

Rogue nodded.  “I’m glad you came back with me.”

Scrib paused and looked up from the chair by her terminal.  “You seemed like a nice kid.”

“I’m not a child.”

“Of course not… I was younger than you when I was recruited.  Did he ever tell you why he uses female commanders?”

Rogue shook her head.

“It’s actually quite simple.  While males are apt to lose control in a combat situation, females–when trained properly–can act more cool-headedly and decisively.  Not just any woman will do, obviously.  But he told me his research indicated male commanders had a bad habit of overestimating their chances and taking unnecessary risks.  He uses Grover to plan widespread strategy… but women command his infantry.  There are probably a few dissertations on his military structure floating around the data ‘nets, if you’re interested.”

“I’m really just interested in doing my job, and that’s following his orders,” Rogue said simply.  “I don’t have a lot of time to read.”

“No, you’re right.  He kept me pretty busy, as I recall.  But I was always fascinated by history.”

Rogue came closer, leaning against the wall by the terminal.  “He asked us to bring a man here to Solpoint.  That’s how we took a casualty.  I’m just glad we accomplished the mission without anyone being killed.”

“What man did you have to capture?”

“Khalid Hunter.  His codename is Shepherd, I’ve been told.”

Scrib bit her lip.  “He finally went after the Shepherd, eh?”

“You mean he’s been trying to get him for a while?”

“Well, Khalid was a major nuisance that developed during my early years as a Rider.  Basically, a population transport lost its grip on the supcon-rail and crashed.  Some errant bands still claiming to be part of the Islamic Revolution were captured and on that transport.  When it wrecked, they escaped… including a young man named Khalid.  He was about fifteen at the time, I believe.  They raided the transport for equipment and technology, then set up a camp in the nearby Old Sahara region.  I remember making a few strikes against his bunch.  Damn guerillas.”

“I didn’t realize he’d been around for so long.”

“I’ve kept an eye on his movements the past few years.  He’d been pretty quiet up until a few weeks ago when that detachment tried to cross the N-67 river.  I’m sure you heard about that.”

Rogue nodded.  “A disaster.”

“How did you catch him?”

“After he shot Justin, I was able to get a fix on his direction.  I’m… I can drain a person’s energy.  It’s painful, but it works.  Puts ’em out like nothing else.”

Scrib stood, moving toward the sliding metal door.  She pressed in a sequence on the adjacent keypad.  A series of “clicks” sounded.  The door would not be opened by unwanted parties.  “Rogue, have a seat.”

She obediently sat on the chair Scrib previously occupied.

Scrib’s eyes moved up as she thought, one hand rested on her hip with the other hanging loosely–next to her sidearm, Rogue noted.  “The Pale One is acting on something.”

Rogue tilted her head slightly.  “On what?”

“There are a lot of things he never told me, or anyone else.  For him to suddenly have you capture Khalid after nearly ten years of letting him run free… it smacks of plotting.  Hell, I retired so I wouldn’t have to guess about his plans anymore!”

“What do you think he’s planning?”

“Who knows?  I just think you should be extra careful.  When you’re in his presence, he will be nothing but kind to you.  He will treat you as an equal, a friend.  He will make you think he’s no threat whatsoever.  You have to avoid falling for that trap.”

Rogue nodded.  Scrib went on.

“He has no qualms about sacrificing his forces.  I have the feeling he’d let his entire army die just to prove a point.  The Topeka Massacre comes to mind, actually.”

“What was that?”  Rogue had heard the term offhand before, but it didn’t seem to be anything substantial.

“A G-3 school attempted to let a G-0 attend classes.  The Pale One came down personally–he ordered every student and faculty member to die.  Never, and I do mean never, did he exercise his power that way before.  He did it to prove a point, and the proof is there that his point is still sharp.  No one else has dared defy his regulations since.”

Rogue blinked.  “He killed… all those people?”

“Just for letting a little dark kid into class.”

“What happened to the kid?”

“He was allowed to survive, for whatever reason.  But that’s the thing you need to watch out for.  He can kill a hundred people and spare one.  He keeps his thoughts to himself, and that’s why he’s so dangerous.  He’s not the man who stands on the podium and declares his ultimate ambition.  People have tried for years to decipher his motives and they’re no closer now than they were when I was a 13-year-old Rider.”

Rogue noticed a tremble in Scrib’s hands.  “Scrib, you’re shaking.”

“Am I?”  She stared down at her loose hand and straightened it out.  “Sorry about that.  I just get… I don’t know.  It happens when I think about my life as a Rider.”

“…Do you have nightmares?”

Scrib nodded slowly.  “Yes.  Still.”

“I’ve… started having them.  I mean, I’ve ordered people to die before… I try to avoid it, but we’ve done strikes before where we couldn’t get everyone out before blowing the installation.  Honestly, the other Riders seem elated to watch people burn and scream.”

Scrib sighed.  “They’re trained to, dear.”

Rogue frowned.

“You were trained to be a compassionate but calculating commander.  They are trained to be dispassionate and calculating killers.  You were never told that, were you?”

“I never attended the same classes as them, but I didn’t think…”  Her words drifted off in a haze rife with realizations.  “Why does he do this to us, Tracy?”

“Because that’s what he wants.”  She held her own wrist to quell the shaking.  “He wants killers to do his bidding.  He picks them because they can kill without the burdens of conscience.  And if they dare show a shred of morality, it’s trained out of them.”

“Then why do you and I get trained to care?”

“It’s easier because females are instinctively protective of life.  It’s a trait of the gender.  It’s easier to enhance that.  Plus, you have to have someone to rein in the killers.  Are you starting to see why I got out of this business?”

Rogue’s head moved up and down… slowly.

“I felt like I was becoming one of them.  You have to understand, your Riders are bonded to you.  It’s part of their training.  They latch onto their Commander for guidance and survival.  Do you know what happened to the Riders I commanded?”

Rogue shook her head, but dreaded the answer.

“They’re dead.  They were taken to a remote warzone in Australia and turned loose.  They literally killed each other.  Without me to control them, they lost all direction and turned on each other.  You must have noticed by now how tense your Riders are around one another.”

“Yeah, I have… I figured they just had attitude problems.”

“Believe me, they are designed to act that way.  Maximize aggression, minimize inhibition.  There’s a reason teenage girls aren’t generally kept on Solpoint, you know.  I recall a serious gang rape problem.  It was in the files.  A few hundred years ago, it said.  From that point on, the only girl around that age allowed on Solpoint was the Commander of whatever Riders were in place at the time.  …I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be going on like this.”

“It’s okay,” Rogue said softly.  “You just know so much…”

“I wish I didn’t know half of it.  I at least know where this world came from.  I know how it all came to pass.  And where things might be heading… the past twenty years show a trend that’s plagued me since I discovered it.”

“What trend is that?”

“More aggression.  More violence.  More erratic behavior from the Pale One.  Something happened, Rogue.  Something snapped.  Maybe it was the Topeka Massacre and maybe that was just one piece of the puzzle.  Either way, I want you to be careful.”

“You’re not leaving, are you?”

She shook her head.  “No.  I see a lot of myself in you, and I want to make sure you don’t do the stupid things I did.”

“Like what?”

“For one, expecting General Grover to bow at your feet.  I will say that that man is the most thankless git I’ve ever met.”

“Git?”

“Sorry, it’s a regional thing…  Does ‘bastard’ work better?”

Rogue nodded.

“Well then, thankless bastard.”

Rogue yawned.

“Tired?”

“A little.  Mind if I come back in the morning?”

“Go for it.  I need to reacquaint myself with the software protocols anyway.”

Rogue gave a brief wave to Scrib, then slipped out of the quarters.

Scrib yawned, too, perhaps catching it from Rogue.  “Poor kid.  She wants so badly to do something good.  But there’s no good in this Empire.  I don’t think there ever was.”

——————

Chapter Seven

The Pale One caressed his temples.  The damned headache was getting worse all the time.  A damned twenty-year headache.  You can’t go back in time, he told himself.  What’s done is done.  Who’s dead is dead.  My mistakes are my mistakes.  But atonement… ah-h-h, atonement.  Damn me, falling for my own mawkish religion!  I am the religion!  No, no, I stole it.   Just as I’ve stolen everything else.  I’ve stolen an empire!  And so many lives…  He groaned, holding his head in his hands.

“Sir?”

His neck gave an audible “pop” as he straighted his posture.  “General.”  He sensed tension in General Grover.  What can he suspect?  He’s not trained to suspect things from me…

Grover stiffened.  “I received a report from Luna.  Apparently an unknown life form crashed into the installation.  It was captured and is being studied.”

“Any data yet?”

“Only on its appearance.  It resembles a female humanoid, except with blue skin.”

The Pale One smiled.  “A cousin, General?”

“Doubtful.  I’m human, this is not.”

“You’re a Numan, General.”

Grover pursed his lips.  “Of course.”

“There’s a distinction.  A large part of your job involves making distinctions, does it not?”

“Yes.”

“Then try to keep that one straight.”

Grover nodded, then clasped his hands together perpendicular to his chest, the traditional salute.

“Keep me updated on this intruder’s characteristics as they become available.  Dismissed.”

Grover’s footsteps echoed in the great hall, aggravating the Pale One’s headache.  I need a distraction.  A large distraction.  He pressed down on his transmission keypad.  “Prepare my shuttle.  I feel like a spaceride.”

Rogue and Scrib stood at the entrance to the shuttle which was docked at the particular port used only by the Pale One.  They exchanged cautious glances, arms folded identically.  Neither of them were comfortable with this situation, but what choice did they have?

They snapped to attention as the Pale One appeared.  “Ladies, you might well break in half holding yourselves so firmly.”

Scrib didn’t make eye contact.  “Rogue, would you inform the Pale One that I am a retired Commander and not a ‘lady.'”

“Sir,” Rogue began, “Scrib is a–”

“I heard her,” he breathed.  Looking at Scrib: “I can tell your attitude hasn’t adjusted itself.  A full year out of my service and you still conduct yourself as abrasively as ever.  But I can always forgive minor character faults for the sake of a good Commander.”

“Was that a compliment?” Scrib goaded.

The Pale One shrugged.  “Who can say?”  He gestured to the door.  “After you.”

The two Commanders went aboard the shuttle.  He continued to speak as he followed.  “I thought some company might be nice on this little sojourn.”

Scrib:  “Far be it for me to–”

The Pale One:  “Tracy, if you would extricate yourself from that cold exterior for a few moments you might learn something.”

She looked callously at him.  “I only came to Solpoint because the young Commander needed a hand, what with having a wounded Rider in her squad.  I’m not here for your gratification.”

Rogue paid close attention to the exchange.  She’d never heard anyone speak in such a manner to the leader of the Hallian Empire.  Never even considered doing it herself.  She kept quiet, just listening.

The Pale One observed Scrib taking over the ship’s controls and undocking the shuttle from Solpoint.  “I trust you don’t require a refresher?” he said.

“I’m fine,” Scrib replied tersely.

Rogue stood from her copilot seat.  “How about some music?”

“No,” came Scrib’s reply.

The Pale One nodded.  “Pick something subtle from the databanks.”

Rogue browsed the choices, opting for the Ambience category.  She picked a routine with a lot of white noise and soft square waves.  It filled the hidden speakers, washing the inside of the cabin with its soothing tones.  The Pale One visibly relaxed.  Rogue reseated at her station.  She turned to Scrib.  She spoke in a low whisper.  “I’m sorry, I just wanted to cut the tension a little.”

“It’s alright.”  Easing the ship forward produced a small shudder.  Scrib corrected to ease the vibration.  “I don’t know why he requested our presence in the first place, there are plenty of more qualified pilots on Solpoint than the two of us.”

The Pale One rested his head with his hands sandwiched between cranium and cervical support, clearly enjoying his chauffers.  “I brought the both of you along to see how one generation of Riders compares to another.”

“It’s hardly a fair comparison,” Scrib said.

“And why is that?” the Pale One baited.

“I have a lot more experience than she does.  No amount of training will ever have the same impact pure experience does.  Put her in Central Europe for five years with a handful of young men eager for slaughter and you’ll have yourself Scrib-Two.  But you’d have to change my designation to Scrib-One first, if I remember my regulations correctly.”

“I do admire your spirit,” the Pale One said gleefully.  “You were always willing to stand up to me honestly.  I am thankful you never resorted to insulting me.”

“I’d only insult you if I had a death wish,” Scrib replied.

The ship suddenly lurched to one side, slamming all the occupants around.  Each tried to grip something.  The Pale One held fast to his chair while Rogue and Scrib reset their controls.  “Negligence can be an insult, as well,” the Pale One threatened.

Scrib furrowed her brow.  “I didn’t do anything, something struck us.”

“Debris?” Rogue asked.

“No.  There’s nothing on sensors.  Whatever it was… we can’t see it.”

“I’m checking the ship’s systems,” Rogue said, fingers dancing on her panel.  “Everything’s in working order, except for some engine damage from the collision.”

“I think we should return to Solpoint,” Scrib suggested.

The Pale One stood, approaching the front of the vessel.  “Why do you think that, Tracy?  Am I under threat?”  His tone was one of mockery.  “Does someone wish to expose the great Hallian leader to vacuum?”

“I’m not here to speculate, I’m here to fly your damn ship,” Scrib spat.  “We’re returning to Solpoint.”

The Pale One returned to his seat.  “Always trying to insure my safety, eh?”

“I don’t care to die of explosive decompression, sir.”

“Nor would I,” the Pale One said, folding his hands on his lap.  “Dock with Solpoint at your leisure.”

The ship brushed up toward the docking port, shaking wearily from the mysterious collision.  Scrib had the ship docked in record time with a repair crew standing by in space suits to fully undo the damage.  The Pale One strolled out of the ship casually, disappearing without a farewell of any kind to his pilots.

Scrib faced Rogue.  “Do you see what I mean?”

Rogue nodded.  “He seems to respect you.”

“He doesn’t respect anything.  He’s just an excellent pretender.  I would say that he can tolerate me better than he can most people.  Others grovel at his feet.  I don’t.”

“I never have, either…” Rogue said meekly.

“But you probably never got in his face and told him a mission was bullshit, did you?”

Rogue’s head shook.

“I didn’t think so.  He won’t kill you for disagreeing with an order.  He’ll kill you for not following it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Scrib gave a curt nod, then moved off.  Rogue held her chin.  I wonder if that’s what I’ll be like in ten years or so.  She seems so bitter… I don’t want that to be me.  Face it, Abby, you’re getting more bitter all the time.  And that’s who I’ll be if I don’t do something to stop it.

——————

Chapter Eight

Khalid Hunter almost literally tore his quarters apart in search of any paraphernalia that could serve as weaponry.  Whoever prepared the room clearly knew what a dangerous man would be occupying it.  He straightened out his camouflage uniform, summarily refusing to don the ridiculous all-black uniform the Pale One had assigned him.  Dark Rider.  What a joke.  If ol’ Whitey thinks I’m ever going to serve him, his years of domination must’ve driven him insane.

Every drawer pulled out, ever closet opened wide and emptied–not a single weapon to be found.  Don’t Dark Riders get a fucking armory?  I’ll have to look into that.

Convinced there were no weapons to be had, Khalid stretched out on his surprisingly comfortable bed.  The sun’s glowing rays poured in through the external windows, casting his quarters in a yellowish pallor.  You must think we’re pretty stupid.  You think invoking “Adoshem” a few times a day will beget compliance.  Or even think recruiting a few of us Zeroes to do your dirty work will help.  I don’t even need weapons for this…

Khalid stood, looking over the small kitchen provided him.  He’d definitely have to get the cuisine changed.  He noticed the separation of meat and dairy on the menu list.  He wondered if the lack of variety was deliberate on the Pale One’s part.  It wouldn’t surprise me.  Trying to make me kosher, eh?

Uncertain what to order, he punched in a few seemingly harmless foods.  Poppy-seed bagel, matzah ball soup, and a piece of apple cake.  Sounds harmless enough.  The food dispenser popped open a few minutes later revealing his meal.  I don’t know the last time I even had matzah ball soup…  He dipped the spoon in, taking a taste.  Well, at least I can tolerate it.

He stared out the windows as he ate.  Solpoint spun at its leisurely pace, giving him a view of Earth, Luna, or the sun depending on the stations orientation.  Wouldn’t it be nice to take all that away from the Pale One?

Gabriel pored over the documents verifying his inhuman origins for several hours.  All the signs existed throughout his life, a sensation of being somewhat different from others–even among his own Gradation.  He could recollect no memories prior to the Topeka Massacre–might that have been related?

He sat in one of the available chairs in his assigned quarters, wearing the black uniform designated as his own.  It was relatively comfortable, and probably quite expensive considering it was a military uniform.  He figured it must have been an all-weather number, adjusting to body temperature.  He didn’t recall feeling at all hot or cold in the clothes, whether sitting, standing, or walking.  It was the sort of technology G-0’s never had the opportunity to witness.  Resources were distributed “equally” throughout the Hallian Empire, as he’d been taught as a child.  “Equally” meant every Gradation received their “fair share.”  He made no mistake about the euphemisms.  The Pale One constructed a classist society based on nothing more substantial than skin color.  But he realized the importance.  It was a clear and obvious indicator, something that could be measured without bias or debate.  No different than classification by height or weight, really.

Unable to tolerate any more scientific analyses, he put down the metal folder.  It described at great length his “inhuman potentials.”  A powerful electromagnetic field emanated from him, their reports said.  According to their theories he might have access to other planes of existence if he could only direct the field.  No wonder the Pale One wants me here.  Why conquer just one planet when you could invade other realms entirely?  But if there’s one alien on Earth doesn’t it stand to reason there would be more?  I wonder how many of the people I’ve seen in my daily life aren’t human either…

His thoughts were interrupted by the opening of his door.  A blue-skinned man in full military regalia stepped in.  Gabriel gave the traditional salute.  The blue man reciprocated.  “Your training is scheduled to begin at once, Mr. Day.  I’m under the impression that you have no combat experience whatsoever.”

Gabriel nodded.  “I’m a desk jockey.  I don’t do combat.”

“You do now.  And Khalid, for all his attitude dysfunctions, is one of the best soldiers in the Hallian Empire.  Therefore, he is going to teach you everything he knows about warfare.”

“Does he know he’s going to teach me?”

The General’s head shook.  “I’m sure he’ll be quite surprised.”

“When does this training start?”

“Tomorrow morning.”  Grover handed Gabriel a sheet of paper.  “Report to this location at 0600.  Khalid and I will both be present.  You’ll be instructed in proper weapon maintenance and handling.  I might decide to cover elementary tactics, as well.”

Gabriel sighed, pocketing the information.  “Sure.  Is that all?”

“I expect you to be fully rested.  You’ll be getting quite a workout in the morning.”  Grover left the room with that thought, door closing at his rear.

Gabriel dropped down onto his bed.  I never would have expected anyone to mold me into a soldier.  Seems like a waste of time.

Khalid Hunter.  Tall, built, dangerous.  Plasma cannons fit into his hands as if they were molded just for him (the grips had been, but that’s beside the point).

Gabriel Day.  Not quite as tall.  Slim, maneuverable–but awkward.  He had some difficulty locating the safety switch on his railshot.

“I’m supposed to teach this dope?” Khalid balked, glaring at General Grover.

The blue General nodded vindictively.  “You’ve annihilated a good number of my troops.  I think a small amount of payback is in order.  Seeing that you have no more followers for me to kill, you’ll just have to replace my people yourself.”

“Am I invisible or what?” Gabriel snapped.  “I never made it to E-4, so why should I know anything about weaponry?”

“The way you people do things is insane,” Khalid remarked.  “Military, second-highest social position.  Doesn’t that strike you as strange?”  Directed at Grover.

The General shrugged.  “An educated military is a successful one.  It’s more about tactics than sheer numbers of force.  Besides, you were the only major threat I’ve faced during my tenure.”

“You’re not going to get any lessons from me,” Khalid said directly to Gabriel.  “I don’t teach idiots.”

“I’m not an idiot.  At least I’m capable of dressing myself.”  Gabriel referred to Khalid’s unkempt camouflage uniform.

By this point Grover’d heard more than enough.  He drew out his own railshot, leveling it at Khalid’s shoulder.  A highly-focused beam of electromagnetic energy erupted from the tip of the weapon.  Nanoseconds later, Khalid Hunter slammed into the metallic training room wall, shoulder virtually shredded from the blast.  Blood poured from the wounds, muscles torn and obliterated.  He couldn’t move his arm.  “Fucking hell!” he screamed.

Grover brought his wristcom to his lips.  “Medical squad to trainsim chamber.”

Gabriel backed off, having no desire to be the next victim.

Khalid stared in shock at Grover.  “What the hell was that for?!”

Grover holstered his railshot.  “Our physicians will save and rebuild your shoulder.  You’ll be fine in a few days.  This was only a demonstration.  I will tolerate no shit from you, Mr. Hunter.  Teach Gabriel the ins and outs of armed and unarmed combat, build a successful team of Dark Riders, and you might live into a calm and rewarding retirement.  Be a constant nuisance and your head will be the next thing to be railshot.”

“Then you’d better kill me now because I’m not helping you!”

Grover reached for his railshot again.  Gabriel stepped in, putting his hand over the General’s.  “Wait!”

“Mr. Day, most people stupid enough to lay hands on me don’t live long enough to realize their mistake.”

“But..?”

“You’re not expendable.  Do you have something to say?”

I knew it! Khalid thought.  Whitey can’t afford to lose his precious alien.  I’ve got the advantage now…

“I just don’t think you should kill him yet.  He’s obviously very stubborn,” he said as he looked in Khalid’s direction.  “But he also seems to be a military asset.  So why not keep him around for a while?”

Grover sighed.  “I have little time for games, gentlemen.  Khalid teaches, Gabriel learns.  That’s what I want to happen here.”  The medical team arrived just then, swarming over Khalid.  Grover continued.  “I will return in two hours.  Khalid, you will be permitted to go to the infirmary at that time.  Until then, I want you to provide Gabriel some elementary combat instruction.  The trainsim chamber will be locked.  You’ll have no way to escape, so don’t waste my time by trying.  Two hours.”  With that, he strolled out with his hands clasped behind him.  The door closed loudly, only to open again ten minutes later for the medics to exit.  Khalid stood, now displaying a heavily bandaged shoulder with all manner of electronic devices attached–healing his muscles and regulating his rotator and arm movement until the muscles could be completely repaired.  “Let’s get this over with,” he spat.

Gabriel grinned, flipping his railshot from one hand to the other.  “Ready when you are, K.”

“Don’t call me that.  Just stand there, shut up, and let me talk.”

Gabriel nodded, paying close attention.

With any luck, Khalid plotted, I’ll have a soldier under my control that the Pale One will never dare destroy.

——————

Chapter Nine

The Pale One’s moods were known to be erratic.  He often requested to take journeys on a moment’s notice, much to the frustration of General Grover and his other protectors.  Still, the Pale One ruled–his commands could not be denied.  On this day in particular he had an interest in the strange blue-skinned woman on Luna.  He immediately summoned his General.

“Grover, I wish to take an excursion to Luna.”

“For what purpose, may I ask?”

The Pale One shrugged.  “I would like to have a look at our strange captive firsthand.  Perhaps she has some extraterrestrial connection to our friend Gabriel.”

“Could she be one of his race?”

“What better way to find out than ask her personally?  Has she given any sign that she understands our language?”

“Not yet, according to the reports.  She can make some noises but nothing intelligible yet.  The scientists think she’s learning.”

“Ah, if she’s able to learn our language quickly her biological traits might prove useful to our genetic program.  Imagine, learning ten times faster than normal.  So many possibilities…”

Grover straightened his posture.  “When do you plan on making this trip to Luna?”

“As soon as possible.  Next week, perhaps?”

“Security arrangements will have to be made.  Someone will need to look after things here.”

“Can you?”

“I’d rather accompany you to Luna.  Security there isn’t as tight as it is here.  I’d feel a lot better being by your side.  Hawkeye can keep an …eye on Solpoint.”

The Pale One scratched his chin.  “So be it.  The White Riders should also remain here.  I don’t want Gabriel or Khalid having the run of the station, obviously.”

Grover shook his head.  “Of course not.  Rogue will be disappointed not to be going on a mission next week, though.”

“Then express my apologies to her.  Hmm… provide a small pay increase to her and her team during my absence.  That should appease her.”

“There’s one more little problem,” Grover said, scrawling notes in his metal folder.

“And..?”

“Khalid’s been under constant observation and he clearly refuses to abide by your religious doctrine.  The entire problem with that is what happens on Shabbos.  Everyone else will stay in their quarters virtually all day.  Khalid, on the other hand, might take to wandering about.  Should I have him locked down in his quarters?”

“No, I don’t want his movements restricted.  Just make certain that all critical systems are adequately protected.  He shouldn’t pose much of a problem as long as security is up to par, now should he?”

“True,” Grover said.  “I’ll triple-check all the security protocols before we leave.  Anything special you want the White Riders to do in your absence?”

“No, nothing beyond security.  I must say, it’s comforting to have Tracy back among the fold.  I’m sure she’ll do an exemplary job keeping things running.”

Grover finished scribbling notes in his folder, then closed it up.  “I’ll make the appropriate arrangements.  Is morning of the second day acceptable?”

The Pale One nodded.  “Yes, that’s fine.”

Grover couldn’t help noticing a strange tone in the Pale One’s voice.  Despite all assurances that things would proceed smoothly on Solpoint during their excursion, Grover felt a certain foreboding.  What does he know that he’s not telling me?  Why would he hide information from his General?  He sighed.  The Pale One ignored it.  What’s the use?  I can’t pull information out of him that he won’t give me.  Just go with it… it’s his empire…

“Grover, I said you’re dismissed.”

The General shook his head apologetically.  “I’m sorry, sir.  Just a little preoccupied.”

“Of course.  Dismissed.”  The Pale One turned his back to Grover, seemingly in deep thought.

The General walked out of the great hall, folder in hand.  The Pale One never saw the words scrawled within.  If he had, his opinion of the General might have changed.

Justin Mills stretched in preparation for his morning exercises.  The wound in his neck healed up nicely, leaving minimal scarring in part because of his healing abilities.  Rogue watched him, judging his performance and recovery.  She didn’t want someone under her command who might pass out under pressure due to an injury.  She needed to make certain his recovery had been complete.  He didn’t mind having an audience.  He did mind being criticized, however.

“Justin, your motions are too abrupt.  You need to be fluid or you’re going to wear yourself out.  You’ve been in bed for a week, I know, so you’ve got to retrain yourself a little.”

He grumbled for a moment, practicing his close combat moves with her advice under consideration.  His swings and kicks became more fluid as the minutes went on, his muscles loosening up.  With a shout, his leg moved through the air and smashed into a medical instrument column.  Bits of debris scattered to the floor.  Rogue applauded.  “Congratulations, you killed it.”

He shot her a mean glance but couldn’t really be angry.  After several moments of trying to keep a straight face, he started to laugh.  “I guess I did, didn’t I?”

“You’d better hope it doesn’t come out of your account!”

“This never happened,” he grinned.

Rogue leaped up from her chair and made for the exit.  “If you say so.”

He chased after her, pushing her out the door.  “I didn’t tell you to leave!”

She spun around, grabbing his arms, squeezing.  He cried out, dropping to the floor.  She smiled down at him.  “I didn’t tell you you could touch me.”

“Damn, my wrists!” he complained.

“Next time you’ll think twice before starting something with me,” she said playfully.

He nodded, climbing back up to his feet.  “Well, what’s on the agenda for the rest of the day?”

“I think Scrib is going to give us some lessons on guerilla tactics.  She says they’re important if you’re going to take on rebels.  Come to think, all we know about guerilla warfare is what’s in the databanks.  So maybe this will be helpful.”

“I can only hope it’s graphic and detailed.”

“You’d be the one to say that.”

Khalid wandered the corridors of Solpoint with Gabriel in tow, both of them on this unauthorized journey for different reasons.  Khalid, simply for the purpose of espionage.  Gabriel came along only because he wanted a way out.  Gabriel quickly picked up on Khalid’s seemingly innate stealth, shuffling silently through the hallways.  Wherever possible, the duo went through areas with loud atmosgens and other such machinery to mask their movements.

Khalid made note of many landmarks.  Atmosgens placed about every hundred meters along the outer perimeter of Solpoint kept the air relatively clean.  Solar energy plants were kept nestled between the atmosgens, providing all the energy used by the station–save what the fusion plant in the center of Solpoint produced.  Khalid, via some observation and conduit-tracing, learned the fusion plant powered the vital systems.  In the event of a solar catastrophe, the fusion generator could keep the computer systems and life support functions active for several months.

He took special notice when passing armories.  By his calculations there could be enough weaponry in the lockers to conquer Solpoint a hundred times over.  Of course, the munitions were for the Pale One’s troops, and one could never have enough guns–perhaps the only axiom Khalid and the Pale One shared.

Gabriel only paid attention to insecure-looking hatches.  Once they reached the outer perimeter of the station he searched all around (while following Khalid, of course) for exits.  The spacecraft bay seemed to be the only major exit route.  Considering he knew nothing of spacecraft navigation, operation, or piloting, he discounted that particular option.  Khalid gave no notice to Gabriel’s actions, content just keeping him along–so he’d have an excuse in the event of being caught.  Yeah, Gabriel here was trying to escape… But I didn’t kill him!  Aren’t you pleased?  Gabriel, though, wasn’t an idiot.  He knew precisely what Khalid’s excuse would be if they were caught.  He didn’t intend to let it succeed if it came to pass.  Khalid’s a loose cannon.  I’m just an alien without any clue as to what’s going on around here.  If we get caught, I’ll be sure to express how badly he behaves.  Maybe the Pale One will find someone more socially adept to “train” me.

The two men made it back to their quarters without incident, both of them significantly more knowledgeable regarding Solpoint’s layout and schematics.  Two-dimensional drawings and even three-dimensional holo-images were no substitutes for the human eye and personal experience.  Khalid left Gabriel with a warning at the latter individual’s quarters.  “Just remember, I’m your trainer.  If you keep this kind of thing quiet we’ll get along perfectly.  If you stir up trouble, I promise you’ll regret Pale’s decision to keep me around.”

Gabriel scowled.  “You just keep in mind that I’m not expendable as far as he’s concerned.  If anything happens to me, you can bet you’re a dead man.”

“Who cares about death?  Let me tell you something.  Everyone I ever knew was incinerated a week ago.  I couldn’t care less if you took a railshot to my head and shot my skull from here to Saturn.  Haven’t you heard that people who don’t fear death are the most dangerous people of all?  They weren’t kidding.”

Gabriel didn’t back down from the threat.  “The Pale One undoubtedly knows that.  He might not kill you… he might just keep you alive in perpetual torture.  Who knows what he’s capable of?  I can promise he won’t kill you if that’s what you expect him to do…”

“I don’t need to stand here and speculate.  I’m going back to my quarters.  Just remember, you cover my ass and I cover yours.  That’s quid pro quo.  Have a nice night, Gabriel.”  Khalid practically spat the man’s name as he left.  Gabriel let his door slide shut.

He’s out of his mind.  Why does the Pale One even bother with him?  I’m afraid to go anywhere near him.  At least he’s not allowed to be armed outside the trainsim chamber… but since when do you need a gun to kill someone?

——————

Chapter Ten

“The Pale One and I will be going to Luna next week.  I don’t know how long we’ll be gone, but my aide-de-camp, Hawkeye, will keep an eye on you.  Continue your training of Gabriel.  I expect him to be ready for field missions by the time I return.”

The words fell upon Khalid’s ears like a melody.  Now he no longer needed a way to get rid of the General and the Pale One.  They’d be leaving him here!  Instantly, he stepped up his planning process–he vowed to himself that no more than a day after their departure, Solpoint would be under his control.  He immediately researched the White Riders, pulling up their entire history to appear less suspicious.  After all, nothing at all wrong with brushing up on the history of the Hallian Empire, was there?  He also looked up Hawkeye’s file, amused to find only a few vague records and scant biographical data.  Birthdate, current occupation, psychological profile–that’s about all he could produce.  The psych profile established Hawkeye as a calm, unaffected individual.  None of their tests, not even unannounced attempts to catch him off guard seemed to affect his reactions.  Khalid decided this person would need to be eliminated–quickly.  It wouldn’t be much of a problem, provided he planned carefully enough.  Over the following days, he concocted a strategy he thought would work:  Hawkeye would be present for a few minutes during each of Gabriel’s training sessions.  All he needed was an instant of distraction to take a railshot to Hawkeye’s head.  He’d spare Gabriel as leverage against the Pale One and the White Riders, imprisoning the latter group in one of Solpoint’s detention cells.  He also promised himself to allow variations.  A solid plan was good, but a fluid and adaptable plan was best.

The day of the Pale One’s departure arrived with much anticipation, not just by Khalid but by the White Riders.  They’d be able to do as they pleased for the most part, since their only responsibility was to keep Solpoint in working order.  Because the technicians did a good enough job of that, they wouldn’t have to intervene much–if at all.  Rogue, however, didn’t enjoy the prospect of spending a few weeks with her “team.”  The more they were around one another, the worse their behavior became.  She knew Justin usually displayed himself as culprit and inciter, which meant she needed to keep him away from the others.  Well, I can always talk Tracy into taking care of the team so I can keep an eye on Justin.  She concluded that this worked perfectly.  Perhaps she could tame the young man into being less resistant to authority.  Although his Rider training should’ve done that, she knew impersonal classes taught by impersonal instructors didn’t change personalities.  By the day of departure, she found herself sympathizing with his situation.  No family left after the Moslem Directorate sent an agent on a suicide mission–into the fusion power plant.  The city itself?  Just a large hole in the ground, radiation to last a few more years yet, and a ramshackle community hovering about the fringe.  She couldn’t help pitying him.  Of all the Riders under her command, his history proved the most unsavory.  Fortunate enough to be outside the city at the time of destruction, he survived by hiring himself out for bankrolled espionage, sabotage, and murder.  Even now, she couldn’t get him to talk about those years.  Maybe he’d never open to her on that.

Presently, she stood next to Justin in Solpoint’s spacecraft bay.  The military personnel, all G-3 E-4’s, stood in perfect parallel lines to create a corridor to the Pale One’s ship.  Acydic was on her opposite side, Havoc-One directly across from them with Slasher to his left.  Further down the line she could see Khalid Hunter and Gabriel Day–the “Dark Riders,” as she’d been told.  Rumor had it Gabriel wasn’t human, and Khalid had a lust for killing that merely made him seem inhuman (or inNuman, she realized).  She watched the Pale One proceed through the human corridor, General Grover directly behind.  A processional played during all this, some ancient, traditional hymn obscure enough that only the Pale One would be old enough to appreciate the significance.  She stiffened as the man revered by some to be God-on-Earth strolled by.  Nothing particularly eventful transpired during the procession–just another ceremony used to keep things orderly.  The thought entered her head that Scrib wasn’t present.  I wonder why Tracy wouldn’t be here.  Is she trying to insult him?  I hope he doesn’t notice…

The ship lifted off at last, rising up to the top of the bay, through the opening.  The atmosgens created a gradually thinning atmosphere which kept leakage to a minimum while employing relatively low-powered forcefields.  The air shimmered briefly when the ship passed through said field, quickly reorienting itself and firing off toward Luna.  Everyone then relaxed.

“Now it’s time to party,” Havoc-One said matter-of-factly, pulling the star insignia from his uniform.

“Put that back on,” Rogue scolded.  “Or would you prefer to be replaced by Havoc-Two?”

“I would prefer to have a few weeks of relaxation, thank you.”

Rogue raised her hands in defeat.  “Fine, do whatever you want.”

“Do you have any plans to unwind?” Acydic probed, nudging Rogue’s shoulder.

“I plan to keep this place running, which is what my orders were.  Hawkeye might be in charge, but I still have responsibilities.  The rest of you can do as you please.”

DarkWolf looked at her, disappointed.  “You’re not going to take some time off?”

She shook her head.  “Not now.  I need to review our combat strategies, compile performance reports, and on and on.  I have enough paperwork and brainwork to last a few years.”

Hawkeye approached them in his full aide-de-camp regalia.  That is, a one-piece white uniform with insignia on his chest and rank bars on both shoulders.  Rogue never could figure out Hawkeye’s “official” rank.  He did most of Grover’s paperwork and served as counsel, but his rank bars contained three stripes of varying color.  Nothing she’d read explained that particular combination.  She decided the position must have been improvised at some point and dismissed the subject.  “Is there a problem, sir?”

“No.  Have your plans for the next few weeks turned in to me by morning.  That is all.”  He spun and walked off.  Rogue always noticed how abrupt and uncongenial that man was.  DarkWolf’s restraining of Havoc-One into a headlock, however, diverted her attention.

Hawkeye stood, arms crossed.  Khalid and Gabriel were there with him in the trainsim chamber.  “Today’s session will be two hours.  After that, one hour for lunch.  After that, three hours of  reviewing tactical manuals.  That is all.”

“Anything else?” Khalid asked, not masking his annoyance one bit.

“No.”  Hawkeye opened his metal folder, retrieving a pen.  He began to write in it.  Writing what? Khalid wondered.  He decided not to waste any more time.

The railshot was drawn.  A brief shriek split the air.  Gabriel dove for the floor.  Bone, blood, and brain matter splattered the room.  The hiss of a degaussing railshot was now the only sound violating the silence.  The headless body of Hawkeye lay atop the metal folder.  Khalid pulled it out from under the corpse.  He quoted from it.  “‘Lunch with Gertrude.  1300.’  What a boring little man.”

Gabriel stared up from the floor, catching his breath.  His heart’s profuse thundering almost kept him from hearing Khalid’s comment.  Slowly, he rose to his feet.  He positioned his hands in the traditional gesture of surrender.  Khalid turned to him.  “I’m not going to kill you, you’re leverage.  As I told you before–work with me, you won’t regret it.  Work against me, and I’ll kill you as soon as you’re no longer an asset.”

Gabriel nodded.  “Okay, just don’t do anything rash…”

Khalid motioned to Hawkeye’s body.  “You think this was rash?  I’ve been planning this since I got here.  Now, help me open the doors to this chamber.  He should have a card on him.”

A few minutes of pocket digging resulted in an access card.  Khalid and Gabriel stepped out of the chamber.  Khalid stopped, turned to the console next to him.  “Begin simulation K-1.  Permit entry only, no exit.”

“That command is not permitted,” the computer replied.  “Specify again.”

“Fine.  Obscure the doors after entry.”

“Accepted.  Program is running.”  A series of lights on the console blinked to affirm the simulation’s activity.

Khalid smiled.  “Anyone stupid enough to go in there looking for us will be stuck for a while.”

“Exactly how far did you plan this?” Gabriel inquired, wide-eyed.

“Down to the last detail.  But flexibility is the key.  We might have to improvise.  First order of business is to get access to the arsenal.  Naturally, neither of us have authorization.  But I know who does.”

“The girl.  The one with the White Riders, right?”

Khalid nodded, grinning ear to ear.  “She’ll open it whether she wants to or not.”

DarkWolf rubbed his neck, still feeling a bit of residual pain from his old wound.  It’s just phantom pain, ignore it, he told himself.  Of course, it never worked.  He sighed, staring across the table at Abby.  She’s so pretty when she’s concentrating, he thought.  Look at her add up all those columns.  How does she do that?  It’d take me at least thirty seconds to do.

“Why are you staring at me?” she breathed, not bothering to let her eyes stray from the papers.

“I thought I’d try to be helpful but you don’t seem to need any.”

“Unless you can multiply six-dimensional arrays faster than I can, I doubt there’s anything for you to do here.”

“Six-dimensional?  Damn.”

“I’m practicing my societal regression algorithms.  The computer could do them, but that wouldn’t teach me anything.  I want to be able to predict when a crisis will happen, where, how, why, and because of whom.  I want to stop it before it happens.”

“And six-dimensional arrays can do that?”

“That’s how the theory goes.”

“How can you even deal with that?”

“You can’t visualize it, obviously.  It’s just a knack.”

He shrugged.  “It must be.”

Other personnel chatted amongst themselves in the mess hall.  But as far as Justin concerned himself, he could’ve been alone with her.  No one else in this pit has been nice to me.  That thought constantly repeated itself to him.  It grew more powerful with each recurrence.

Rogue threw down her pen.  “I can’t take any more of this.  Even by excluding all but G-0, I still end up with too many variables to come up with anything workable.  The best prediction I can make is that a Zero will blow something up within the next year.  How useful is that?”

He had no idea.  He said so.

She slipped everything into a folder, clipping the pen inside.  “I’ve had enough.  Have you eaten?”

“No, I’m not really hungry.”  Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw Khalid and Gabriel.  What’re they doing in here?  He didn’t move–no need to act as if he noticed them.

“Me neither.”  She leaned back, brushing her hair with her hands.  I could really use a nap.

They’re getting closer, DarkWolf observed.  What the hell are they doing?

“What’re you doing for the rest of the day?”

“Nothing that I know of.”  Damn!  They’ll be right behind Abby any second…  He started to rise.

“That’s a bad idea,” Khalid said, moving quickly.  He forced the nozzle of his railshot into Rogue’s neck.  “A very bad idea, if you ask me.”

Rogue tensed.  “Khalid?!  What are you doing here, armed?!”

“Hawkeye didn’t pay enough attention to me so I decided to find some new playmates.  Get up, wolfboy.  Just do it slowly.”

Because of the skin tones of Gabriel and Khalid, the two were virtually ignored by all the military personnel lunching at the time.  That was customary–ignore those of other Gradations unless absolutely necessary.  Khalid did well to hide his railshot’s presence.  As far as anyone else could tell, he just had a hand on her shoulder.  A dangerous thing for a G-0 to do to a G-3, but not entirely worthy of action.  He kept close behind her, lowering the railshot to her back as she stood.  Under his guidance, she and DarkWolf walked through the mess hall, knowing full well that they should shout and draw attention to themselves.  With but a glance, however, Rogue stopped DarkWolf from doing anything.  She didn’t want the mess hall to become a bloodbath.  One random streak from Khalid’s railshot would be enough to slice half the people–in half.  Moving out of the hall, they came into a corridor.  Still following Khalid’s instruction, they came to the White Riders’ arsenal.  Rogue turned around, staring defiantly into Khalid’s face.  “I’m not opening that.”

“Really?”  Khalid flicked his wrist, a single shot flashing into DarkWolf’s thigh.  He shrieked, crumpling onto the floor.  Khalid looked directly into Rogue’s eyes.  “Try again.”

She stole a glance at DarkWolf, who was writhing in an agony unknown to her.  A railshot didn’t just shred skin and muscle tissue–it deliberately caused the rapid firing of nerve endings to increase pain.  She shivered, turning back toward the door.  Slowly, she submitted her left eye for a retinal scan.  After a few moments of her not blinking, the light hovering above the door went from red to green.  It slid up and out of the way.

Quickly, Khalid reached for Rogue’s collar.  But she moved faster, diving into the arsenal.  A railshot barely missed her head as she rolled on her side, grabbing a plasma blaster she’d spotted.  A well-placed shot sped out of the arsenal, one that would’ve incinerated Khalid’s head were he not just as formidable as she.  “Kill that bitch!” he screamed.

Gabriel hesitated, looking down at DarkWolf, who stared back.  DarkWolf didn’t hesitate, slamming himself into Gabriel’s legs, knocking the man to the hard floor.  The two men of clashing skin hues clashed also for Gabriel’s weapon, hands gripping and clutching and choking for its possession.  Khalid tried to aim so he could hit DarkWolf, but the two strugglers moved too much for him to get a clean shot–and he didn’t want to lose his only bargaining chip this early in the game.  Instead, he rushed into the arsenal and tackled Rogue, savagely crushing her to the ground.  He bludgeoned her across the face with the butt of his railshot.  She leaned forward, biting his nose painfully.  He pulled back.  She released his nose, reaching her hands for his throat.  She squeezed harder than he’d have ever thought she could.  His world slowly faded as he watched the blood run down her face from her nostrils, options quickly chasing through his mind.  Despite her invulnerability, just the sheer force of impact was enough to cause some injury.  Taking advantage of this fact, he slugged her in the stomach, but that only made her grip more tightly.  He moved his hands to hers, digging what short fingernails he had into them.  She groaned, having no intention of letting go.  He then went for the obvious–choking her back while struggling to free his own neck.

Meanwhile, DarkWolf took the upper hand in the corridor, taming Gabriel with the railshot he’d acquired from him.  “Abby, are you okay in there?” he called.  Moving slowly to the door, he could see Khalid on top of her.  He didn’t want to fire, risking the shot passing through Khalid’s body and shredding Rogue’s.  Instead, he leapt into the fray, tugging Khalid off of her.  Seeing this, Rogue released her grip, moving to her feet.  She stumbled, dizzy and on the verge of unconsciousness.  “Put him… down… now…” she muttered, trying to be louder but not having the air to do so.

Khalid reacted with renewed vigor, lurching back toward DarkWolf, trying to throw him down.  DarkWolf shoved Khalid into the floor, holding him down with his own body.  He incessantly pounded against Khalid’s defenses, trying to hit his face as the latter’s hands provided protection.  He didn’t see Gabriel slowly approaching.  A fist struck his head several times in quick succession–enough to drive him into unconsciousness.  He could only think of Rogue during his descent into slumber…

——————

Chapter Eleven

Khalid Hunter tested the Pale One’s throne for comfort and found it lacking.  You’d think someone as powerful as ol’ Whitey would like a chair that’s a bit more tolerable.  Looks like I’ll have to check into getting a new one.  Putting the thought aside for the moment, however, he chose to deal with his prisoners.  DarkWolf, bound quite effectively by both wrists and ankles, lay on the floor in helplessness.  He kept Rogue trapped in a suspension field, a useful gadget found in the arsenal.  After she’d passed out at the end of their struggle, he immediately gathered up as much technological wizardry as he could carry, everything from railcannons to personal defense shields.  In fact, he presently wore such a shield, designed entirely to protect him from any form of assault.  The instant anyone dared attack, he’d have ample opportunity to dispatch them.  His only concern was that the rest of the Pale One’s troops could be equipped with personal shields as well.  He and Gabriel came to the agreement that as many traps as possible would be littered around the Pale One’s great hall.  To complete his takeover, all communications from Luna would be directed to him–and he could reject them or simply not respond as he saw fit.  Already, he’d ignored multiple transmissions from General Grover.  Let them get suspicious.  I’ll have this place under complete control any time now.

Presently, Khalid had a mind to invade General Grover’s quarters, to see what secret tactical mother lode might be hidden within.  “Gabriel, do you think you can keep an eye on them?”

Gabriel nodded nervously, keeping his own railshot at the ready.  “I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere.”

“Remember, if anyone besides me comes through the door, you can activate the energy shield.”  He pointed up toward the ceiling.  “Just shoot the activator and they won’t be coming any closer.  It should hold them until I return… assuming they even come here at all.”

“Got it.”

Khalid turned and hid his weapon so as to make himself less conspicuous.  It was known that the Pale One granted him free access to the corridors of Solpoint, but everyone knew he wasn’t allowed to walk around with energy weapons.  He kept his railshot hidden in a uniform pocket, obscuring it further with a black jacket.  Strolling out into the hall, he set about his task.

As expected, security measures proliferated all about the General’s door.  Retinal scanners, palmprint pads, skin hue detectors, mutagenic analyzers devices–all these and more presented significant barriers to entry.  But those were hardly enough to deter the man who’d slain hundreds of Hallian soldiers singlehandedly.  He traced his fingertips along the door frame, trying to detect the routes of electrical current.  If he disrupted the correct circuit, the door’s alarms would be disabled.  If, however, the wrong circuits were shorted, he’d have a few dozen Hallian troops to contend with–not a prospect he wished to play out.

Occasionally, someone would happen by.  Khalid began to walk in such instances, doing his best to look as if he were headed elsewhere.  The passerby never looked him in the eye, but he knew they saw him–he could see the disdain in their faces.  He forced back the urge to take a railshot to each and every one of them, redirecting his energies to breaking the General’s door.  He felt the flow of current proceeding in its fine paths.  He followed each trail of vibration to its source, locating each of the security measures again in this manner.  Finally, he found one circuit path whose vibrations emanated all the way up the door frame, then into the ceiling.  No local terminal.  Good.  That’s the one I want.

He focused his railshot’s beam to its tightest resolution, pressing the nozzle firmly to the location where the alarm’s tiny conduit lay.  It would’ve been easier were the conduits visible rather than hidden under a polymer-based ground material, but he had no alternatives.  He concentrated, nudging the weapon up, to the left, in tiny increments.  He became aware of his own enhanced senses, forcing them to detect the subtlest vibrations in the frame.  He squeezed the trigger ever so slightly.  A SNAP broke the air for an instant.  But no alarm sounded.  He waved his hands through the invisible infrared beams that monitored the door for unauthorized entry.  The computer display next to the door indicated that his entry was rejected–but again, no alarm was raised.  He grinned, raising his railshot to the door itself.  In short bursts, he hit each of the electronic attachments which kept the door sealed.  After he was finished, he lifted the door up by the bottom, groaning under its weight.  Sweat beaded on his forehead as he finally got it all the way up.  He entered the General’s quarters, expecting a tribute to Hallian cleanliness and just overall whiteness.

What he did not anticipate finding were stacks upon stacks of metal folders, notes scattered on floors, tables, and chairs, holographs of military operations, and virtually anything else one could use to create an accurate history.  After letting the door slide down into its closed position, he took a closer inspection of the materials.  Scrawled notes were on each page.  Maps hung pinned to the walls.  The holographs detailed instances of slaughter, forced relocation, military-operated prison camps–and on and on.  He reached down, picked up one of the metal folders, opened it, and started to read to himself.

The Pale One “celebrated” Yom Kippur this year as he has every year since I arrived.  He stayed in his chambers for the entire day, weeping the whole time.  I know because I stood there all day long, making certain he was undisturbed.  I remember asking him once why he endured the Day of Atonement in that way.  What he said to me didn’t clarify anything, it just gave me more questions.  “Every human being, no matter how revered or powerful or perfect he or she might seem in the eyes of others, that human being is capable of making the most terrible of mistakes.  Those mistakes must be acknowledged and quantified.  My way of passing Yom Kippur is the only way I have of atoning for a mistake I made years ago.”

Why does he have this need to “atone?”  Compared to the rest of history, we’re living in a virtual Golden Age.  I recognize that people must sometimes be sacrificed to serve the wholeness of the Hallian Empire.  But those are necessary losses, and are far smaller in comparison to the wars which transpired but a few centuries back.  While he is far from perfect, I can’t help but wonder what kind of torment drives him to seemingly despise the world he’s created.  With each passing year, he draws himself further inward.  How many years will it be before he forgets I and the rest of his people exist?

Khalid blinked, skimming the passage again to make certain he’d read correctly.  What could Whitey possible feel remorseful about?  Just one mistake?  Must’ve been a hell of a gaffe for him to cry about it every year.  He put down the folder, retrieving another.  This one looked much older, some amount of dirt stuck to the metal, yellow papers now crinkling loudly as he touched them.  The handwriting appeared less refined.  He checked the date on the entry–it was ten years old.

When he purchased me I thought he was just going to make me work the fields like my last owner did.  No one ever asked me what I wanted to do, if I had any ambition or anything like that.  I asked him what he wants with me and he just said it was important that I didn’t fit into any of his Gradations.  I don’t know what that has to do with anything but he seems nice enough.  I guess all those rumors I heard about the Pale One not even being human anymore were lies.  He looks perfectly human to me.  Well, except for his strange skin.  But I have strange skin too.  He said that was our link, our uncommon skin.  He’s always finding “links” between us and I don’t know why.  Maybe he wants something from me?  I don’t think he’s been invading my privacy.  I can’t find any trace that anyone besides me has been in here.  He told me I get strategic training next week.  It sounds interesting.  I hope he has some good history texts so I can learn about the great military leaders of the past.  He told me I’m going to be one of the most important men in history.  I can’t wait.

He smirked, placing the folder back on its pile.  He went over the maps, finding all manner of strategic data.  Bunkers, scattered throughout Old Sahara!  I should’ve guessed they had fortifications I didn’t know about.  On another nearby wall he found a schematic of Solpoint far more detailed than anything he could glean off the internal data network.  He decided he’d have to get a copy of that one.  Turning his attention to some of the holographs, he saw rotating images of mass graves, Hallian soldiers annihilating dissenting villagers, and one image that truly made him shiver: a shot taken from outside the Last Masjid, as Hallian forces overran and obliterated most of the Moslem Directorate within.  The Crater of Houston was their retaliation, a move that he could recall from his teenaged years–how the Directorate was hunted down and virtually annihilated.  The Pale One’s religion then became the only faith in practice.  It occurred to him that a young Grover must’ve overseen that eradication directive’s fulfillment.  Moving away from the images, he picked up a few of the folders and a couple maps, moving toward the door.  He set the items down momentarily, lifting the door just a bit to make sure no one was around.  Seeing no direct threat, he pushed it up all the way, slid his items into the hall, let the door down, picked up the folders and maps, and headed back toward the Pale One’s great hall.

“I can’t get a line to Hawkeye,” General Grover said, a pained expression creasing his face.

The Pale One shrugged.  “Perhaps he’s busy keeping Khalid from causing trouble.”

The two men stood around the medtable, examining the blue-skinned woman before them.  Every now and then, she uttered a recognizable word or two from her strapped-in position.  Doctors and scientists worked quickly to analyze her composition and how she was learning their language so quickly.  She had no name as yet, just the general classification tag of “US-313,” with the “US” part standing for “Unidentified Specimen.”  The Pale One found himself fascinated by the creature, appearing mostly human save unusual eye and skin coloration.  If only there were time for me to harvest what passes for her genetics, he yearned.  But he knew it would not be.  He turned to the General.

“General Grover, continue your attempts to contact Solpoint.  Let me know if you manage to get through to Hawkeye.”

The General agreed, remaining a few minutes more to further satisfy his curiosity about the strange interloper.

The Pale One moved off on his own, into the depths of the Lunar installation.

Scrib checked her watch.  After noticing both Rogue and DarkWolf being late for dinner, she became worried.  Splitting up the rest of the White Riders, they took to the corridors of Solpoint in search of their leader and teammate.

Scrib herself had to calm her shaking hands more than once, especially when turning corners.  Memories came back to her of times when she had to hide from enemies, or seek them out.  Every time, she ran the risk of being killed without warning.  Even now, the risk felt just as paralyzing as it had always been.  She tried to negate the fear, rationalize it away.  But that never worked.  She just occupied herself with thoughts of finding the young leader, guiding her onto a course that wouldn’t leave Rogue as bitter as she.

The first sign of something seriously amiss came when she arrived at the Pale One’s great hall.  On the outer door she spotted a cluster incinerator.  Since when does the Pale One booby-trap his own doors?  She clutched her wrist again, slowly drawing her weapon.  She nudged the door with her foot…

——————

Chapter Twelve

The door flew open.  Scrib made certain her wrist communicator was active so she could be overheard.  Weapons fire instantly came her way.  She dodged, rolling into the great hall.  She smelled ozone, looked up.  A dropshield!  Diving out of the way, she still couldn’t avoid it.  The shield came down around her, establishing a firm energy wall between herself and those elsewhere in the room.  She opened her eyes.  She saw Rogue, dangling in the air–suspension field?  DarkWolf lay on the floor, wrists and ankles bound together.  Between the two of them: Gabriel, the alien-man the Pale One valued so tremendously.  “What the hell is going on here?” she shouted.

“Believe it or not, I had nothing to do with the shield.  That was Khalid’s idea.”

“Khalid,” she whispered, almost spitting.  “Of course.”

“He’ll probably be back soon.  I don’t know what he’ll do with you.”

“Well,” she said, this time talking for the benefit of those on the other end of her communicator, “It’s nice to see he went to all the trouble of trapping the great hall.  I see you’ve got force fields poised to trap anyone coming through a main door.  Guns mounted on the walls–nice touch.  Maybe I should’ve come in through an air duct.”

“He said he put poison charges in all those.  You would’ve been killed.”

She thought briefly, then spoke again, this time rising to her feet.  “Then I guess there’s no other way in.  I see you haven’t moved the Pale One’s desk yet.”

“It doesn’t seem to be mobile.”

“You’re right, it’s not.  Ever think it’d make a good hiding place?”

“Is there a point to this?” Gabriel inquired, his shoulders drooping.  He tired of this discussion.

“Just making smalltalk.”

DarkWolf opened his mouth.  “How about making some deathtalk?  I’m sick of listening to this.”  He tugged at his restraints, which delivered a shock to his spine.  “Aggh!”

“I see Khalid takes no chances,” Scrib noted.

“That’s just how he is, I guess,” Gabriel shrugged.  “If I had my way, I’d have gotten the hell off this station.  But he’s not letting me go yet, so…”

“I can get you out of here,” she promised.

Gabriel fell silent, as if in thought.  A moment later: “Nice try.  You’d have me recaptured inside of a week.  Khalid intends to make sure that will never be possible.”

Just then, Khalid arrived.  Shields fell down around him, but his own personal shield deflected them.  Gabriel’s eyes widened at this.  Khalid grinned.  “I got what I wanted.”  Then he noticed Scrib’s presence.  “Well, I hadn’t expected to see you again so soon.  I would’ve thought you would be harder to capture than this.”

“Don’t worry, Khalid.  There are a few challenges still left for you.”

“Sure.  Gabriel, lock her in the supply closet over there.”  Khalid pointed to a door which opened up into a small compartment filled with reams of paper, writing utensils, and other office materials–no doubt meant for the Pale One’s desk.  Khalid kept his railshot trained on Scrib as Gabriel turned off the shield.  “Just move slowly, girl.”

“Don’t call me a girl.”

“I don’t like your attitude.  Gabriel, move along already!”

Gabriel complied, pulling her by the arms toward the closet.  She struggled, but not too much.  She had no desire to lose her head just yet.  Gabriel opened the door, stuffed her in.  He slammed the door in her face, made sure it was locked, and turned around.  “Anything else?”

“Actually, I’d just like you to listen to some of the interesting information I found.  It was… enlightening.”

Gabriel shrugged.

Khalid cleared his throat, opening one of the metal folders he carried.  “‘The Pale One said today that he is no longer letting me speak to Jen.  He wouldn’t explain, he just said ties to my old life weren’t permitted.  I last saw her the week before he bought me.  What was that, six months ago?  I tried to contact her anyway.  The computer said her frequency had been deactivated.  Maybe he forced her family to change the number.’  Now, a few months later: ‘I saw Jen’s death report today.  The Pale One thought he could hide it from me, but he trained me too well for that.  She’s dead, and there’s nothing I can do.  He’ll do that to anyone else I get close to–I’m certain of it.  He seemed so nice when he bought me.  I don’t know what’s happening…’  What a pathetic story, isn’t it?”

Another shrug.  “General Grover?”

“Yeah.  But this was even more interesting: ‘I did some research into the Pale One’s religion, the Judaism he enforces on the world.  Some old (extremely old) documents indicate the original practitioners of this religion were rather small in number.  Moreover, it was meant for their people only.  So, why has he taken to pushing it on everyone else?  Clearly, the version of the texts which everyone else has isn’t the authentic.  The original Jewish population was annihilated over a thousand years ago.  There might be a few left, but I have yet to find them.  Every year, I become more certain the Pale One is directing us toward something.  I just don’t know what it is.  Even if this religion wasn’t meant for us, he’s not telling anyone that.  The only logical answer is that he’s using it as a control device.  Every leader needs one of those… but I’m still disturbed by it.  As of today, I will no longer enact the required rituals.  He can complain all he wants.  But I’m his best advisor.  He wouldn’t dare rid himself of me.  I have a sick feeling in my stomach now, realizing that I truly am without any God to pardon my soul.  Maybe I’ll have to pardon myself.’  Such melodrama, that General.  He’d be so much more interesting if he acted like that normally.”

“I’d say so,” Gabriel agreed.

Khalid started spreading some tactical maps over the Pale One’s desk.  “I think it’s time we–”  The blipping of the communications system interrupted him.  He checked the source.  “Luna.  The Pale One’s authorization code.  Good.”  He accepted the comm request.  A face of pure white appeared to him on the wall-embedded screen.

The Pale One spoke first.  “Ah, Khalid.  As I anticipated.”

“Don’t treat me like a fool, Pale.  Even if you thought this was coming, you had no idea I’d do it so quickly.”

“Perhaps.  I must admit to being impressed.  How much have you actually taken control of?”

“Once I tapped into the security systems, people began getting locked in their own quarters.  There are still crew members walking the halls, unfortunately.  I’ll take care of them when I see them.  I’ve disabled the alert system, as well.”

“And communications?”

“Internal communications are still active, I’m sorry to say.”

The Pale One smirked.  “I expected more from you.”

“Shut up, dammit.  I have control of your whole fucking arsenal.  There’s enough weaponry on Solpoint to destroy Earth a hundred times over.  How far do you want to test my patience?”

The Pale One folded his arms.  “As far as I think I should.”

Just then, something grabbed Khalid’s leg.  He fell forward, face hitting the carpeted floor.  He spun himself onto his back, kicking at whatever grabbed him.  “You!” he shouted, seeing Havoc-One, hidden under the desk, coming up from–some kind of tunnel?  That wasn’t in the schematics!  Dammit!  He reached down and yanked the boy out of the duct under the desk.  Objects flew toward his own head.  He dodged the telekinetic attempts at decapitation, throwing the relatively light young man into the nearest wall.  Havoc-One crumpled to the floor, groaning.  Khalid immediately went back to the duct, yanking several grenades from his uniform, rolling them down inside.  “If you’re in there, I suggest you get the fuck out!” he warned.  Throwing the cluster of explosives down the hole, he crushed the floor plate back into place.  The room shook for a moment, the explosion’s sound barely reaching their ears.  He glared at the Pale One via the communications screen.  “As you can see, I have everything under control.”

“And you still have your sense of humor.”

“This isn’t a laughing matter.”  Khalid left the Pale One’s view momentarily, returning with a nearly-unconscious Havoc-One held by the arm.  “Since you doubt my earnestness, I’m going to have to prove it to you.”  Leaning Havoc-One back over the desk, Khalid pushed the tip of his railshot against the boy’s forehead.  “Now, I don’t know this young man.  Maybe he didn’t choose to be one of your White Riders.  Then again, maybe he’s a mass murderer.  I couldn’t care less.  He works for you, and that is justification enough.”

The Pale One tensed.  “Bloodshed is not necessary, Khalid.  I’ll come to Solpoint if I’m the one you wish to revenge.”

“Don’t patronize me.”  He pressed the weapon harder.  Havoc-One didn’t move, now in and out of consciousness–Khalid had flung him into the wall harder than he’d originally thought.  “You’ve reduced me to killing the defenseless.  Do you see what your perfectly structured society has done?”

“Are you attempting to intimidate me?”

Khalid focused the railshot’s beam.  He squeezed the activator.  Only a moment, it lasted.  Havoc-One’s muscles contracted simultaneously.  A few drops of blood came out from under the railshot’s tip.  He stared at the Pale One’s visage.  “That’s not intimidation, Pale.  That’s just me opening the floodgates of my vengeance.  How long does it take you to get from Luna to Solpoint?”

“Three hours.”

“If you aren’t standing in front of me in three hours and ten minutes, I’ll kill someone else.  Or, I might kill other people in the meantime.  You have an incentive to hurry.”

The Pale One grimaced.  “You’re… doing precisely as I’d predicted.”

“I’d hate to be a disappointment.  See you soon.”

The Pale One watched Khalid’s face fade.  He turned around to see the General hovering over the strange alien.  “She’s speaking,” Grover whispered.  The Pale One approached.

“Listen to me,” she coughed.  “Please, listen.”

The Pale One nodded.  “Go ahead.”

“I came here… I came from a place far off.  The Unity.  They have seen your world and consider it an affront.  They are coming to repair it.”

“Repair?  How?”  Grover.

“Their ships are hidden.  But they could already be here.  They might be in orbit, I don’t know.  Your language is difficult to speak.  They have sent… sent…”  She searched for words.

“Did they send someone ahead?  A scout?” Grover guessed.

“Yes!  A scout!  Some time ago.”

“How long ago?”  The Pale One asked this, fearing the response.

“What spans of time would you understand?” she asked.

“Revolutions of our planet around our star,” Grover explained.

She took a moment to calculate.  Then she stared grimly at the space between the General and the Pale One.  “Two sets of ten revolutions.”

The Pale One stepped back.  Twenty years… it can’t be that…  “General, I must go.  Keep things in order here.”

As the Pale One exited, the alien woman screamed.  “They called him Daemon!  They made him look like you!  They made him the lowest of your kind!”  The door shut behind him, cutting off anything she said beyond that.  Only three hours to get to Solpoint.

——————

Chapter Thirteen

The Pale One completed his preflight checklist.  How long ago had he last flown a ship himself?  He couldn’t recall.  Space travel dawned over a hundred years past.  He used to enjoy practicing maneuvers.  But now, he no longer enjoyed anything.  Even the brief flight with Scrib and Rogue only provided a temporary solace–no real pleasure.  He sighed, hearing perfectly-timed footsteps coming up behind.  “What can I do for you, General?”

“If Khalid’s taken Solpoint, you are certainly not going by yourself.”

The Pale One swiveled his chair to face the General.  “This is my problem to deal with.  I need you to remain here and learn more from our visitor.  Establish a rapport.  If this ‘Unity’ is intent on taking Earth, then it falls to you to prevent it.”

“Are you going to bring Gabriel back?”

“If he’s their scout, it’s imperative we deal with him accordingly.  I will make the determination.”

“Khalid’s controlling enough nuclear weapons to make Earth uninhabitable.  I don’t feel comfortable letting you deal with him.”

“Grover, I’m already behind schedule.  I’ll have to hurry as it is.  Suffice it to say, I’ve been alive far longer than you.  If there’s anything I know how to do, it’s escape death.  Now, please see to our visitor.”

“Do you have any further orders?”

“Such as?”

“…In case you don’t return?”

“You’ll know what to do.”  The Pale One turned again, looking out his cockpit window.  They could both see Earth, and a noticeable speck rotating above it.  Grover exhaled, and the Pale One heard him moving away.  The airlock hatch hissed shut.  He released the moorings, the ship now slowly drifting from its docking point.  He powered the engines, easing the throttle gradually.  She was right.  Unity is already here.  When Scrib and Rogue took me out for a ride… the thing that hit us… it had to be.  We couldn’t see it.  How long have they been here?  They’ve had Gabriel–Daemon, she called him–among us for twenty years.  My plans may not come to fulfillment before they strike.  She didn’t say how long they might wait.  I can only assume it will be abrupt.

The series of ducts weaving throughout Solpoint weren’t actually in the schematics.  Wrapped around air ducts, sometimes passing through fields of intense magnetic interference, only a select few were allowed knowledge of them.  Even drawing a map of them was considered forbidden.  They had to be learned by personal experience.  Acydic and Slasher had learned the ducts this way, which was how they came up toward the Pale One’s hall.  Unfortunately, Havoc-One gave them away too soon.  Presently, the two of them lay scrunched up rather uncomfortably at a junction compartment.  “At least we weren’t incinerated,” Acydic said, looking at the bright side.

“He warped the floor plate.  We won’t be able to get back in that way,” Slasher reminded.

“But that’s the only secret duct in there!”

“I know.  Do you have any suggestions?”

“Can we blast a hole in the wall?”

“Not one for subtlety, are you?”

Acydic shrugged as best he could in the cramped, dark, damp tunnel.  “Khalid wouldn’t be expecting something so direct, I think.”

“All we have to do is request those soldiers not trapped in quarters to blow up the Pale One’s great hall.”

“But what if Rogue and DarkWolf are in there?”

“Do you really think they’re worth risking the rest of humanity?”

“I said we should blow our way in, not blow the whole thing up!”

“How?  The entire room is reinforced with half-meter thick ablative plating.  According to Solpoint’s design specs, you could shatter the entire station and that room could survive.”

“Then we need to do it with more finesse.  What about a railcutter?”

Slasher smiled.  “Now that is a good idea!”

“But we still need a railcutter.”

Slasher now gave a sigh.  “Don’t tell me they’re in the parts of the station he shielded.”

“Well, we couldn’t get into any armories could we?”

“Then we have to start over.  Any more ideas?”

“Gabriel said there was poison gas in all the regular air ducts.  What if we could turn that against them, force it into the great hall?”

“We don’t want to kill any of our allies…”

“It’s not instantly fatal, Slash.  You know that.  It will cloud things up enough so we can get in and take charge of the situation.”

“Then let’s do it.”

Rogue rotated her neck left and right, trying to relieve the tension.  Being held in a suspension field for several hours couldn’t exactly be considered comfortable, she realized.  Muscles frozen in place, they became stiff and slow to move.  A perfect advantage for an adversary.  Khalid stared at her.  “It’s a shame ol’ Whitey had to ruin your life by turning you into a killing machine.”

She felt cornered.  Pressed up against the wall with Khalid uncomfortably close to her, the smell of him filled her nostrils.  He smelled faintly of the jungle, perhaps a scent that would constantly remain with him.  But she also smelled sweat and ozone–and blood.  Just the smallest hint of blood.  Havoc-One lay dead on the other side of the room.  A thankful breath came upon her when she saw Justin alive.  It was offset, however, by seeing him bound and defenseless.  She observed Gabriel as best she could with Khalid’s proximity, noticing how reluctant he looked.  Has he even fired a shot? she wondered.

“Don’t look at him,” Khalid scolded sharply.  “I’m the one speaking to you.  How old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

“Then you just had your bat mitzvah last year, didn’t you?”

She nodded, swallowing.

“And your family was there?  Your friends?”

Nodded again.

“And the day after, what happened?”

“People from the Hallian Army came to recruit me.”

“You were brought to Solpoint and made Commander of the White Riders, weren’t you?”

For the third time, a nod.

“That’s how he does it with everyone.  Everything is a routine.  For the past millennium he’s been shaping humanity into this creature of routine.  He’s enforced stagnation.  Don’t you find anything wrong with that?”

“It’s not my responsibility to know what he’s doing.”

He slapped her cheek.  “Never tell me something isn’t your ‘responsibility.’  Everyone is responsible for what happens around them.  Take me, for instance.  I didn’t lie down and beg the Hallian soldiers to take me back into my pathetic Zero city.  I ran and escaped and made myself what I am today.”

“What’s that, a serial killer?”

Khalid gritted his teeth.  “You did see Havoc-One’s body, didn’t you?”

“You can’t kill me, Khalid.  Try.”

“I won’t bother wasting the ammunition.  I’ve seen your records.  But there are other ways to kill you besides weaponry.”

She didn’t speak.

“Have you ever been completely deprived of oxygen?” he asked pointedly, moving toward the Pale One’s desk.

She shook her head.

“That would be fatal, don’t you think?”

“Is that what you intend to do?”

He shrugged.  “Only if you give me cause.  I don’t see any reason to be cruel or callous.  I want only freedom.  Freedom for myself, and freedom for the rest of the G-0’s.  I’m sick of seeing them all condemned to living on the crumbs passed down by the other Gradations.  So, we’re going to take it all away from them.”

“How will that make you any better?”

DarkWolf followed the conversation, not liking Rogue’s confrontational manner.  He’s going to kill you, Abby!  Why are you provoking him?

“We’ll be better because it will be justified!  We did nothing to deserve this bondage the Pale One shackled us with.  After I get my revenge on him, I’ll exact it on the rest of the other Gradations.”

“Even if you kill the Pale One, the Albino Associates will still be in place.  You don’t really think you can find them, do you?”

“Rogue, I can find anyone I put my mind to.”  He tossed his railshot into the air just a bit, clutching it tightly on the downfall.  “After all, I figured out how to take over this station, didn’t I?”

She had to give him credit for that.  “But why do you have to kill so many people?  Why can’t you try to get along with them?”

“Maybe it has something to do with the fact that everyone’s trained to hate the Gradations below them!  ‘Fear above, hatred below.’  Isn’t that what they say?  I’m here to tell you I do not fear the ones above.  I fear nothing.  Nothing you can do will make me give up.  Only killing me is the real way to stop me.”

“Is that a challenge?”

Khalid laughed.  “You want to duel with me?  How about turning off your invincibility?”

“I can’t do that.”

“Then it’s an unfair battle.  God forbid anything be unfair!”

Gabriel spoke up, noticing an indicator on the wall next to him.  “The Pale One’s docking his ship, Khalid.”

“Good.  Activate the force field path I programmed.  He will be able to meet me partway.  Keep Rogue and DarkWolf under wraps.  And do something with the body, it’s beginning to smell.”

Gabriel nodded.  Khalid walked past him, out the door.  His personal shield crackled to advertise its presence.  The door slid into its closing position aft of him, then green bolts tore the air.  He stopped, turning to the source of the fire.  “More White Riders?”

Acydic’s eyes widened.  “Personal shield!”  Both he and Slasher dove in opposite directions to avoid Khalid’s shots.  They had no shields themselves, what with the armories being sealed by Khalid’s designs.  They moved quickly, Slasher concentrating on his probability-alterations.  Reduce his hit chances, reduce, reduce…

Acydic spouted clear acid from his hands, creating a pool around Khalid’s feet.  The liquid quickly corroded the floor.  It buckled.  Khalid tried to jump out of the way, but Slasher coordinated with Acydic–increased the probability that the hole would widen!  Khalid shouted, falling through to the deck below.  Acydic breathed a sigh of relief.  “I’ve had enough of that.”  Then railshots sprouted up through the floor.  “Shit!”

Both of them sprinted into the great hall where they would be (relatively) safe.  Rogue shouted them out of the range of the dropshields.  Gabriel opened fire at them, not even coming close to striking his mark.  Then he heard footsteps behind him, spinning to see Scrib–leaping at him with a pen in hand.  He feinted sideways, out of her way.  She collapsed on top of him, trying to wrestle his weapon away.  He guessed that she managed to break through the closet’s locks with the pen.  He couldn’t conceive of any other method.  He tried to roll to put her under him, with no success.  She’d firmly cemented her position atop him as she pulled at his weapon.  She squeezed his hand much harder than he could have thought possible.  He cried out, feeling fingers breaking under the pressure.  She screamed at him and hit the side of his head with the weapon.  Rogue quickly freed DarkWolf from his restraints, wrapping her arms tightly around him.  Acydic and Slasher looked at one another, puzzled.  Everyone grabbed a weapon from Khalid’s substantial stockpile beside the Pale One’s desk.  But they couldn’t find personal shields.  “Looks like he isn’t taking chances with having shielded enemies,” Rogue surmised.  “We’d better be careful in case he comes back.”

“We need to get to the Pale One!” DarkWolf shouted.  “If he’s aboard the station, Khalid will definitely be on his way to kill…”

Scrib grabbed DarkWolf’s arm.  “Then don’t stand there!”

Rogue took one more glance at Gabriel to make certain he wasn’t conscious.  She didn’t have a mind to kill him just then, instead deciding to leave him for later–he wouldn’t be too threatening if Khalid could be thwarted.  They all skipped over the hole through which Khalid had fallen, following the force field path recently erected.

Unfortunately, Khalid remained one step ahead of them.  He came down the corridor with the Pale One.  The latter man’s hands were secured behind his back.  So he didn’t kill the others yet, the Pale One thought, a small relief.  Khalid, of course, kept his weapon ready to kill the Pale One at any moment.  “All of you, get back in the great hall,” Khalid ordered.  They didn’t move.

The Pale One nodded to them.

What the hell is he doing? Scrib asked herself.  Doesn’t he know Khalid is going to kill him?  Then she realized that might be exactly the point of this maneuver.

They moved back into the great hall.  Khalid put a shield up around them, using a small generator he had in his pocket.  Shutting the doors once again, he tossed the Pale One aside, leveling his weapon at the Hallian leader.  “You and I are going to have words now.”

——————

Chapter Fourteen

Khalid stared at the Pale One’s opaque glasses, glasses that shielded his eyes in all directions.  What could be hidden behind the pure white plasticast?  He urged the Pale One to stand.  He moved his eyes around the room, seeing Gabriel slowly rising.  Gabriel took a weapon to replace the one Scrib had stolen.  A pile of weapons lay right outside the force field surrounding the White Riders.  Disarmed and trapped, they could only watch the events unfold.

The Pale One glared at Khalid.  “Well, you’ve brought me here.  The object of your revenge has arrived.  What do you have to say to me?”

Khalid dropped his railshot purposefully to the floor.  “I have some questions for you.”

“Ask.”

Khalid shrugged, scanning the whole room.  “Why all this?  Why this empire?  Why the separation, hatred, and confusion?”

“Humans tend to congregate in groups of similar characteristics.  Skin color is obviously one such similarity.  I merely tapped into that predisposition.  After splitting you by complexion, I divided further with the Echelon system.  People could be classified both by skin and occupation and education.  And it has worked ever since I instituted it.”

“Has it really?  If it worked, would you be standing here in front of me?  Would you have someone poised to kill you?”

“Malcontents are a given.  You were also not raised in the environment I crafted–that was your own doing, when you fled the Hallian troops after the derailment.”

“Maybe there’s a reason I fled.  Did you consider that?  Fifteen years of boredom and separation from anything interesting.  You intellectually starve everyone, and leave those of us at the bottom to live in squallor while those at the top–especially your ever-mysterious Albino Associates–to live decadently and without a care.  I, for one, am sick of it.”

“I have insured your safety.  Under my empire, you were fed and clothed.  You did not have to live in fear of your life.  Are you now going to tell me this isn’t true?”

“I can’t argue with that.  But I will take issue with your insistence that we remain lower than everyone else.  Did you have some grand purpose behind that?  Tell me, great leader.  Why did you, the whitest of all, decide to make your opposites objects of scorn and jokes?”

“Polarization happens at all levels of reality.  If my form of polarization were not institutionalized, who can say what may have happened?  Fact: when Europe crossed into Africa, they largely slaughtered ‘your kind’ without a second thought.  Perhaps people of your color began the conflict, and perhaps they didn’t.  That isn’t the point.  The point is that I made my best effort to spare such bloodshed.  And you would destroy everything I’ve created.  Why do you wish to condemn everyone for things I did?”

“Because they were compliant!  They followed your orders!  They had a choice!  They could have said it was wrong and they didn’t!  They’re just as guilty as you are!  And I don’t want to hear you say anything about ‘my people!’  You don’t know the first thing about them.  They’re dead.  They’re all dead, thanks to you.”

“You’re being melodramatic, Khalid.”  The Pale One crossed his arms.  “Large numbers of them still live in–”

“I didn’t mean dead in body!  You killed their minds.  You make people think they have no choice.  You force them to do as you say, under threat of death.  And you’ve enslaved all of humanity with this attitude.  The attitude that you’re somehow better than them because your skin is a perfect white.  But I know the truth.”

“What truth is that?”  The Pale One looked at Khalid with his head tilted, deliberately being dismissive.

“You’re a freak!  There’s nothing ‘better’ about you!”

“No.  I turned my disadvantage into an advantage.  Can you imagine my life at the dawn of civilization, surrounded by those of medium-dark tones?  I was cast out for it!  Don’t you understand what I’m doing?  I’m doing to mankind what was done to me, so that all humans and Numans can gain from it!  As I gained advantage, so will everyone else–at my expense!  Can you understand that?”

Khalid gritted his teeth.  “You’re spouting more of your rhetoric!  I’m sick of it, and I’m sick of you!  I’ve waited twelve years to kill you, and I don’t feel like waiting any longer.”  He stepped closer to the Pale One, ready to strike.  His fist flew up, battered the side of the Pale One’s head.  The white glasses shattered, bits spraying Khalid’s face as they tumbled to the floor.  The Pale One’s eyes were squeezed shut.  “Open them, damn you!  Show me what the fuck you’re hiding!”

The Pale One moved back, not obeying Khalid’s command.  “What do you think you’ll see, Khalid?  Tell me what horrors you anticipate.”

“If you’re true to form, then I’ll just see emptiness and contempt.  You spout nothing but lies and arrogant dogma.  I’m sick of it.”

“So you’ve made clear.”  The Pale One opened his eyes.  Two perfectly-black orbs presented themselves.

Khalid’s own eyes widened.  “…Black?”

“As was often said in the past, you are often more like the things you hate than you would think.  My strange affliction brought me solid, black eyes along with my pure white skin.  Don’t they look frightening?”

“To children, maybe.  But now it’s even more obvious that you’re not human.  And you’re not fit to lead anyone.”

“Then kill me.  Destroy the empire I have built, and congratulate yourself when the world falls into chaos.  Without their religious and political figurehead, the people will panic and cry out for the blood of the God-killers.  You will be the one they seek.  The man who brought them stability of mind and soul and world will have fallen, and they will need to avenge.  Are you willing to take on that curse?”

“I’m willing to get rid of you.  I can’t stand being in your presence.  You make me feel so hateful, I could …I could rip your throat out and squeeze it until there’s nothing left in me!”

“You’ve festered for a dozen years, Khalid.  You’ve misdirected your fear and hate for so long, you see no alternative but to destroy the perceived cause of your ills.  I’m not the cause.  My world is not the cause.”

“Then what is?!” Khalid blurted, rage drawing ever closer to the surface.

“You are.  You drove yourself to this.  It was no one’s fault the transit train blasted off its rails.  It was no one’s fault your family died in the wreck.  It was no one’s fault you were thrown from the train into the jungle.  It is your fault, however, that you ran.  It is your fault that those people who joined you died.  It is your fault that you, as a ‘Shepherd,’ failed.  And it will be entirely your fault when this world falls to ruin–if you kill me.  Tell me, is an entire planet and its population worth satisfying your revenge?  Are you that selfish?”

Khalid slid closer to the Pale One.  He spoke in a whisper, nearly a growl.  “You don’t know anything about me.  You’d like to justify what you’ve done, but you can’t.  You’ll never make me blame myself for this.  People will survive just fine without you.  You put too much importance on yourself, just like any despot.  History has a long list of despots.  I think you know what happened to all of them.”

“You prove your ignorance by calling me a despot.”

“You prove your ignorance by thinking I wouldn’t kill you.”

“I never said I thought that.  I fully expect you to kill me, Khalid.  You would deny yourself and everything you believe in by relenting.”

Khalid turned around, quickly walking away.

The Pale One grinned.  “Having trouble doing it?  Twelve years of waiting, and now you realize you can’t do it?”

“Shut up!” Khalid shouted, deactivating the force field around the White Riders.  “All of you, get in a fucking line.  Single file.”  He turned to the Pale One.  “It wouldn’t hurt you enough just to kill you.  So I’m going to make you watch me destroy your world first.”

He’s far more insane than I realized, the Pale One thought.  That wasn’t my intention!  He can’t get this far!  I can’t allow it…

Gabriel sighed, turning away.  His stomach clenched, a sick sensation filling him.  He’d listened to the Pale One justify the existence of his separatist empire.  He heard Khalid’s acid-tongued responses.  Now he was about to see a group of people slaughtered for nothing more than being unfortunate enough to have been picked as White Riders.

Khalid grabbed his railshot.  The Pale One tugged at his arm.  “They aren’t the ones you came to kill, are they?  Would you destroy any shred of dignity you have remaining by reducing yourself to an animal?  Animals cannot discriminate.  Humans can.”

“Interesting choice of words,” Khalid said, throwing the Pale One down.  “Gabriel, hold him.”

Gabriel did so, pulling the Pale One’s hands behind, holding them together.  “Just don’t move,” he whispered.

Khalid looked at each of the people standing in front of him.  “You know, I don’t think I want to kill them just yet.”  He went to the control panel on a nearby wall, punching in a series of commands.  “No reason they shouldn’t watch what I’m about to do, since they helped maintain your empire.”

The Pale One suspected he knew Khalid’s intentions.  “You can’t do that, Khalid.  The systems involved are–”

“All bypassed.  Do you think I’m an idiot?  Now, watch.”  He pointed to a screen which now hovered above the Pale One’s desk.  A computerized representation of Earth rotated on it slowly.  A glowing red crosshair appeared over the Atlantic Ocean.  “What do you think, Pale?  What should I destroy first?  Europe?  I can remember all the invasions staged from there.  How about the Middle Eastern region?  The Moslem Directorate won’t have anything to fight over, will they?  Or maybe I should annihilate the Asians.  After all, they’re almost as white as G-3’s.  Must be some reason you let them keep most of their land, wouldn’t you say?  How many of my kind did they give you in exchange for that?  I feel bad for all the G-1’s in Old India.  They have it almost as bad as the Zero’s.  But they’ll have nothing to worry about if they’re dead, I suppose.  Why not burn the Americas?  They’re fairly overrun with G-3’s razing the land of natural resources.  And you can’t tell me they aren’t stealing from the G-0 towns.  Even Gabriel was able to confirm that for me.  What do you say?  Who gets it?  What cities get renamed to ‘Khalid’s Crater?'”

The Pale One stared angrily at Khalid through his obsidian eyes.  “None of them.”

“Wrong.”  Khalid pressed a button on the wall.  The crosshair spun in a straight line toward the middle of Europe.  “The former Austria.  Why not?”  The crosshair went green.  A series of throbbing blue dots appeared at the edges of the map, moving with terrifying speed toward the crosshair.

The Pale One screamed, “Stop them!  Destroy them en route, I’ll do whatever you wish!  The people did not bring this revenge, I did!”

“I’m sorry, Pale.  But I can’t punish you without punishing them.”  The crosshair disappeared in a furious maelstrom of fire and debris–which displayed itself quite devastatingly, even on the computerized map.  Khalid turned to face the Pale One, seeing tears fall down those disgustingly white cheeks.  “Now you might have some inkling how I have felt my entire life.  I mourn for a destroyed people, too.  But I never got to rule them or even know them–you and your armies denied me that.  Now you’re feeling the price of that denial.”

“You’re insane, Khalid!  You’ve massacred millions now!”

Gabriel had to restrain the Pale One, becoming light-headed himself.  He heard screams from a time long past, people who’d done nothing wrong themselves.  They died in defense of him.  Did the people below now die in defense of the Pale One?  Think.  I can’t do this.  I can’t.  I’ve never harmed anyone in my life.  Training is one thing… but… how can I do this?  How can I fight back without being like him or any of the others?  Is there a way?  God… he killed all those people… he’s no better… no better than the Pale One.  He could see the children on that winter morning once again.  They stood, protecting a little boy.  Him.  And they were shredded without mercy for that.  The scene replayed over and over, more and more grotesque, violent, loud, soul-shattering than the time before.  It amplified repeatedly every time Khalid picked a new city.  He merely taunted now, playing a kind of game with the Pale One.  Which one would he obliterate?  Gabriel shut his eyes.

“Let go of me!” the Pale One screamed.  “Khalid, order him to release me!  I’ll kill you myself!”

“That wouldn’t even be a fair fight.  You’re too weak to be a physical threat.  And I’m not done hurting you.”

Scrib turned to Rogue.  Rogue grabbed Scrib’s hand, feeling it shake.  They stood next to one another in the execution line, not quite knowing when it might actually come.  Scrib tried to calm the trembling, but this time nothing could abate it.

DarkWolf held Rogue’s other hand.  That needed no explanation.

Acydic whispered in Slasher’s ear.  “Shouldn’t my chemical timer be about disintegrated by now?”

Slasher nodded.  “Let’s hope it does before Khalid destroys any more cities…”

“Did I say any of you could speak?!” Khalid screeched.  “Shut up, all of you!”  He viciously tore down Slasher with his railshot, watching the now-shredded body collapse to the floor.  Even luck had its limits.  “Did you see that?  The rest of you will go that way if you don’t keep quiet!”

The Pale One protested again.  “Why do you insist on being a soulless murderer, Khalid?  You know they aren’t your targets!”

“You’re right, I apologize.  Berlin is my target.”  His finger moved to the button that would initiate the fatal nuclear launch.

Something stung his hand.  Blood spurted from it.  He stumbled backward, seeing Gabriel holding a railshot trained on him.  “Gabriel!”

——————

Chapter Fifteen

“You idiot!” Khalid yelled, bringing up his railshot.

“I’m not an idiot, Khalid.  Just a coward.  I’m going to take care of that right now.”  He shot Khalid’s weapon out of hand, and Khalid ducked, somersaulting toward him.  He rammed into Gabriel’s legs, and the two men tumbled backward.

Just then, Acydic looked up, seeing yellow gas pour in through an air duct.  “Gas!” he breathed, turning to Rogue.  “That was the plan Slasher and I had.  We’d better run.”

Rogue pulled DarkWolf behind her, making for the exit.  Scrib went toward the Pale One.  “Look, we have to go.”

The Pale One shook his head.  “One of these two will survive.  I need to be certain which.”

“Why not kill them both?”

“That isn’t how it works, Tracy.  You and I never agreed on anything.  The gas is going to fill this room soon.  You need to go.”

“It’ll kill you!”

“And them, I can hope.”

She sighed.  “Do you really think it will happen?”

“What?”

“The collapse of your empire…”

“Probably.  But there is hope with you around.  Go.”

Scrib nodded, moving off.  She admitted to understanding him a bit better now, following right behind Acydic as they went into the corridors of Solpoint.  As the entrance to the great hall shut behind her, the computer announced: “Solpoint has been infiltrated.  Technology cannot be allowed to fall into improper hands.  Autodestruct has been initiated.”  He didn’t!  But she knew he had.

She stopped Rogue.  “Look, we have to free as many troops as possible.  Do whatever it takes, but we have to break down those shields and get people out.”

Rogue nodded.  “I agree, but breaking into them isn’t going to be easy!”

“Autodestruct is a 15-minute countdown.  That’s how long we have to free people and get out.”

“We need a ship.”

Scrib took in a sharp breath.  “Take the other Riders and get to a ship.  I’ll join you after getting people out.”

Rogue nodded again, taking off with DarkWolf and Acydic.

Scrib said to herself, Having a wee death wish, am I?

She rushed from room to room, taking only a moment to bash at the controls by each door.  A few opened after some coaxing, but most refused to.  She managed to smash a few open by concentrating pockets of air pressure around her fist.  The force of the air could be enough to pummel some doors into submission–but she found it quickly tiring.  And I’m only on one deck, she reminded herself.  She decided this couldn’t go on much longer, resolving to try five more doors–half what she’d done so far.  The three people she’d managed to release so far helped her as well, shooting and kicking other doors, trying to rig control panels to unlock and lower shields.  The more people were released, the more were available to assist in the effort.  When the computer reported only five minutes to destruction, however, most of them took off.  She followed suit, deciding she couldn’t wait any longer.

Force fields changed position at random as she came across them.  Does that mean Khalid survived?  Is he manipulating the shields to stop us?  She had no time to speculate, so she railed against each one, waiting for it to drop.  She knew many paths to the ship bays–she only needed to use one.  A shield popped up in front of her presently, knocking her onto her back.  She groaned, reaching behind herself to check for any bleeding or jutting bones.  Satisfied to not find any, she moved on.  People were beginning to panic now.  She saw some trapped at junctions between several shield walls.  She had no time to try to free them, despite their begging that she assist.  How selfish is that? she wondered.  Solpoint shuddered now, the destruction systems beginning to initialize and prepare to release their fury.  All the fusion cores would detonate at once, along with the nuclear warheads.  Enough destructive force to split Luna in half, she knew.  Everyone on Earth (and Luna, for that matter) would see it.  She ran faster, hearing the warning that only one minute remained.

She arrived at one spacecraft bay with thirty seconds to spare.  Fifteen seconds wasted by trying to find a readily accessible ship.  Finally getting into one, she slammed the airlock shut and skipped the preflight.  No one else made it to this one–precisely why she picked it.  It’d be easier to get out of.  She sent the override command to the bay doors, which opened much too slowly for her tastes.  The computer counted down as the doors parted.

“Five…”

She throttled the engines to maximum, deciding to take her chances.  The ship lurched quickly forward, racing toward the opening.  Four, three, two.  An oxygen pod externally attached to the ship clipped one of the bay doors, sending her ship careening into the void.  She held on to the console, trying to remain oriented.  The time elapsed then, and a storm of flame and metal engulfed her ship…

The vessel tumbled Earthward, scorched and battered, with an unconscious Scrib inside.  Automatic systems would keep it from breaking up and crashing.  Communications systems had been destroyed in the explosion.  Warning lights flickered, not that the knocked-out Scrib could notice them.

She did awaken some time later, floating atop a body of water.  Her eyes opened slowly, a sick feeling rolling around in her stomach–she knew she was on water.  She stood, staring out the cockpit window, which was now heavily obscured by scratches, dents, and warped material.

She coughed, sitting wearily in her chair.  Dreams of her native Ireland shrugged themselves from her conscious mind, slowly now.  Some debris floated around her ship, she could see.  Pieces of Solpoint, or perhaps her own ship.

Navigation systems are offline, she noticed.  Great.  With no way to know her location and no communications working, she could only wait.  She leaned back in the chair, seeing she had several days of oxygen left in the life support system.  The crashing of waves on the sides and underbelly of the ship soothed her.  She slowly drifted off to sleep again, her hands calmer than they’d been in years.

THE END

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